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Authors: Joan Smith

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BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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“And did you?” he asked, pondering her suggestion.

“Well, I write her little notes occasionally, and she answers with nice, long letters full of news. Old Mr. Harper, who lived at Lily Bay and grew all those lovely lilies, died last month. His nephew inherited the place, but Sissie says he is an old, confirmed bachelor, which is a pity, for of course she hoped he would be young and handsome and marry her. Perhaps he would do for Anne.”

Monty stirred restively.

“I have been meaning to write again,” she continued. “In any case, she will love to do it for me. Sissie, you must know, is the very soul of discretion. And there is another bonus in using her. She will be familiar with
Chaos,
for she lives with her nose in a book. It was Sissie who introduced me to novels, back at the abbey. If Murray wants to discuss plots and characters and all those horrid technical things, she will know exactly what he is talking about, for Sissie spoke of writing a novel herself, when she wrote to me.”

“She’s rather young,” Montaigne said uncertainly.

“Young? Why, she is my age—twenty years, and not a sign of a beau, poor girl.”

“Twenty, eh? I had thought she was younger. Yes, Sissie would do very well. There is just one little detail. I cannot invite a young lady to stay with me.”

“She will stay with me, of course. We are best friends, though I am not sure she’ll approve of my new friends. It will not be a long visit, eh? And you will take her off my hands for most of the time. You mentioned Murray’s wanting to meet her.”

“Yes, he plans a dinner party in her honor.”

“Will Byron be there?” Lady Fairly asked eagerly. “No, of course not. He has retired to the country, and besides, one hears shocking stories about him. Shall I send Sissie an invitation?”

“It will be better if I call on her at Elmdale and explain the situation. I’ll drive down tomorrow. Do you think she will agree to do it?”

“How can she refuse, when the money is to go to charity? Her papa is very churchy, you recall. You gave his cousin the living of St. Albans at home. He owes you a favor. Will you tell her who the real author is?”

“Good God, no!”

“You must give some excuse why the real author cannot come forward.”

“A mere detail. I shall say she is ill, or too old to make the trip.”

“Say it is our Aunt Ethel who wrote it.”

“We don’t number an Aunt Ethel among our dozen or so aunts—do we?”

“Of course not, goose. It is best to keep our real aunts out of it. Then it is all settled. You will leave for Elmdale tomorrow. Tell Sissie I’m looking forward to seeing her. I shall try to find her a
parti
while she is here, for there are no interesting gentlemen at home. Pity about Harper’s nephew.”

Monty felt a spasm of alarm. “Sissie is only staying a few days! It is crucial that she leave London very soon after meeting Murray.”

“Two or three days may be long enough. You have heard of love at first sight, I suppose?”

“I have heard of it. I have also heard of the bogeyman and leprechauns and faithful women, but I take leave to doubt these chimera exist.”

Lady Fairly shook her curls. “Spoken like a cynic. It is very difficult to believe you wrote such a shockingly romantic novel as
Chaos Is Come Again.
Will you do another book? You mentioned Murray suggested it.”

“Perhaps, if I happen to break another ankle, simultaneously fall in love and get jilted, and the Tories stay in power. We can count on the last item at least. My work in the House is limited while they hold the reins. The orphanage could well use the blunt.”

Montaigne rose and took his leave, for he feared Lord Fairly would be returning soon for dinner, and he always avoided that handsome mannequin when he could.

 

Chapter Two

 

Lord Montaigne arrived at Elmdale the next afternoon to find Miss Cicely and Miss Caldwell in their comfortable saloon, sewing cravats for their papa. The cozy fire crackling in the grate was welcome to ward off November’s chilly blast. Although the sisters were surprised to receive a visit from Montaigne, they did not scramble to hide the linen and sewing box behind the sofa. Mr. Caldwell was well to grass, but he had not reared his daughters to indolence or frivolity or any worldly dissipation.

Miss Caldwell had donned a cap the year before, to tell the world she no longer considered herself eligible for matrimony. As Montaigne was more interested in Miss Cicely, he took particular notice of her appearance. The word
provincial
was indelibly stamped on her unfashionable body.

She was modestly attired in a green and black striped flannel gown that did its best to conceal a rather buxom figure. Her chestnut curls were bound in a bun, from which a few wayward curls escaped to bounce over her ears. She might have been a vicar’s daughter—or an anonymous lady who secretly penned wildly romantic tales to enliven her quiet days. Yes, she would do very well. He remembered her as a romping lass, but he hadn’t seen much of her during the two years since Meg’s marriage and removal from the abbey. She was now suitably ladylike, with her prim lips and downcast eyes.

But when he put his plan to her, those modest eyes turned to dark and stormy cauldrons of wrath. “The authoress of
Chaos Is Come Again!”
she exclaimed. “I would not claim to have written such drivel for all the money in the mint. It is a horrid, silly story. I despised Eugenie.”

He was abashed at her forthright condemnation. His pride felt a sting as well. It was one thing for the author to condemn it, but for a chit who lived with her nose in a marble-covered novel to show her contempt was doing it too brown. Surely
Chaos
was not that bad! Even as his resentment sizzled, his sharp mind took note that she had read it.

“I didn’t realize you had set up as a critic, Sissie,” he said through thin lips.

“I quit reading chapbooks some years ago, milord,” she retorted.

“Who did write the book, and how does it come that you are seeking a lady to masquerade as its author, Montaigne?” Miss Caldwell asked, peering up from her stitchery.

“It was written by my aunt,” he said, omitting any Christian name.

“Lady DeVigne!” Cicely exclaimed. “I don’t believe it. She is much too sensible.”

“No, not Lady DeVigne. Another aunt. Mama’s spinster sister. From Cornwall,” he added, to put a few hundred miles in the way of the young ladies’ discovering that this aunt did not exist.

“Your mama is from Surrey,” Cicely said at once. “How does it come her unmarried sister has removed to Cornwall?”

Her question signaled him he must be a little more careful what lies he told. The Caldwells had been neighbors to the Montaignes for aeons. Sissie might be a young provincial, but she was sharp. “She was sent there as companion to an elderly relative several decades ago,” he replied.

It was Miss Caldwell who first saw the advantage to the scheme of Cicely’s going to London. “You would like to see Meg again, Cicely,” Anne said. “And while it would be
acting
a lie, there is no real harm in it. It is the motive, you know, that constitutes the harm. The proceeds are to go to charity. You would meet Mr. Murray,” she added with a meaningful glance at her sister.

Montaigne saw the flash of interest in Sissie’s stormy eyes. Meg was right, then. Sissie was writing something herself. What on earth could she find to write about, living so cribbed and confined as she did? He began to outline the temptations inherent to a struggling writer in the visit.

“Mr. Murray has invited some of his writers to this dinner he has planned. A few of the literary reviews wish to interview the author as well.”

Cicely considered the matter for about sixty seconds, then spoke. “I shall do it on one condition, Montaigne. You must allow me to show Mr. Murray my own book. He will pay some attention to it when he thinks I wrote
Chaos Is Come Again.
Not that the books are anything alike,” she added indignantly.

Montaigne felt a spurt of interest to discover Sissie had finished a whole novel. He disliked the idea of her showing it to Murray under his auspices. She would have written some dreadful, juvenile thing, but then Murray didn’t know Montaigne had written
Chaos.
He looked at her firm chin and said, “I have no objection to it.”

“What would I have to do, exactly?”

“Just go to Mr. Murray’s dinner party at the Pulteney.”

“Alone?” she asked, her eyes staring in horror.

“No, no. I would accompany you. Murray might wish to discuss your writing another book along the lines of
Chaos.
My aunt, of course, would write it. You have only to listen to him and agree. The critics will discuss literature a little, but then that will be no difficulty for an ardent reader like you.”

She didn’t catch the hint of sarcasm in his tone. “And it is for a good cause,” she said, nodding.

He spoke on persuasively about the poor orphans, mentioning the sum the book had earned thus far.

“That much!” Cicely cried, her eyes opening wide. “Did you hear that, Anne? And to think that horrid Mr. Egerton wanted me to pay him two hundred pounds to print my book. Well, I shall ask Papa’s permission,” she said, but her sparkling eyes told Montaigne she was keen for the adventure.

Miss Caldwell cleared her throat. “I don’t think that is such a good idea, Sissie. Papa might balk at the notion of your deceiving the public. It would be better to tell him only that Meg has invited you for a short visit. He will not mind that.” She turned to Montaigne. “Mr. Murray does not plan to actually put Sissie’s name on the next book?”

“No, no. He just wishes to meet her. The literary set in London will learn her identity, but there is a freemasonry among writers. When they discover she does not wish her identity known, they’ll keep it to themselves.”

“Papa has no dealings with them,” Miss Caldwell said. “He’ll never hear a whisper of it. I think you should do it, Sissie. How else are you going to meet the sort of people who could do your writing career some good? And your
Georgiana
is really a very good book.” Anne looked hopefully at Montaigne.

If they asked him to read the book, he would have to say something nice about it. Perhaps Meg would read it for him.

“But if Papa does find out ... ,” Sissie said, and sat, worrying.

Miss Caldwell looked commandingly at Montaigne. “Then Lord Montaigne will do your explaining and apologizing for you.”

Montaigne foresaw the difficulties in this scheme. He was the perpetrator of the idea; he was older, a gentleman. If anything went amiss, he could end up with a fine mess in his dish. Not that anything was likely to go amiss, but why take chances?

“No, I don’t care for this underhanded business,” he said firmly. “I shall speak to your papa and get his permission before you go. Where would I find him?”

“At the oast houses,” Miss Caldwell said.

Montaigne left, and the two young ladies immediately began discussing the adventure.

“Papa will never let me go,” Cicely said.

“Montaigne will turn him up sweet. The orphans, you know. Now, what we must decide is what you are to wear to this dinner party. How fortunate we put new ribbons on your blue ball gown last week for the winter assembly. You must take Mama’s diamond necklace and my new fringed shawl. Meg will have a coiffeur in to do something stylish to your hair. Oh, I am so happy for you, Sissie. I know you will sell your book. You will be the next Frances Burney, mark my words.”

“Hardly that famous!” Sissie demurred. “But it will be a wonderful opportunity for me to see how London Society goes on. I feel my writing is hampered by my lack of experience.”

“Meg can help you there. Why, there is no saying who you will meet at her house. She is top of the trees. You might even meet an eligible parti,” Miss Caldwell added with a teasing smile.

Cicely threw her head back and sighed luxuriously. “I don’t care if I never marry, if only I can get my novel published. We will grow old together, Anne, you keeping house and me writing. I can’t think of anything I should like better.”

Anne looked at her askance. “I can! We have a pretty dull time here. I do think you might put just a little more romance in your next novel, Sissie. I’m not speaking of anything like that foolish Eugenie and her crystal tears and swoons, but perhaps a handsome hero and a slightly younger heroine.”

“You know you were my heroine, Anne. I just added a decade to her age to fool the neighbors. I read in an article of advice to writers that we ought to write about what we know. What do I know about handsome heroes?”

“I know it was my story, my dear, and I am flattered that you see me in such a glow of admiration, but one book about me is enough. I should not mind in the least if you had given me a husband at the end, instead of consigning me to watching my nieces and nephews.”

“It’s not supposed to be a romance, Anne. It’s about real life.”

“There’s such a thing as too much reality—in books, I mean. Romance is a part of life, too.”

Cicely scowled. “I knew you liked Eugenie better than Georgiana.”

“No, not better. Georgiana could have used just a touch of Eugenie’s emotion, and Eugenie could have used a good deal of Georgiana’s sound common sense. It might be interesting, in another book, to try a more varied cast of characters and a different background. That is why I think this trip to London will be such a help. London has everything from lords and heiresses to beggars and villains. You will see palaces as well as the worst slums there. I wonder how Georgiana would have behaved if she had been confronted with knaves and beggars, as Eugenie was, instead of safe, rural neighbors.”

“At least she would not have bawled.”

They were still discussing heroines and the visit to London when Lord Montaigne returned half an hour later. Before he could speak, Cicely jumped up. His dashing smile told her that her papa had agreed to the visit. It struck Sissie, who was always on the lookout for new characters, that Montaigne would make an interesting one. What a life he must lead! Tip of the ton, probably with mistresses and all sorts of ladies on the catch for him. And she would soon have a glimpse of his life, with all its glamour.

BOOK: A Christmas Gambol
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