Powered by DitDat

From the illustrated edition

The Spinster's Christmas

Now available in both the original version and a new illustrated edition!

A Regency romantic mystery
Prequel to the Lady Wynwood's Spies series

Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.

Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.

However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …
Ebook:
Kindle
iBooks
Koboicon

Print book:
Amazon

Illustrated edition: (links coming soon)
Ebook:

Kindle
iBooks
Koboicon

Print book:
Amazon
He looked down the hallway outside the ballroom, but at first he saw no one. Then he peered into the shadows at the end of the hallway, and saw a figure leaning against the wall. He headed toward her.

It was only when he drew near that he realized something was wrong. Her hand over her stomach trembled. Her face was whiter than the painted walls.

“Miranda.”

She saw him, and something in her eyes made him think of the faces of men who were drowning.

He strode forward, his cane dropping to the ground, and he folded her in his arms.

--Excerpt from The Spinster's Christmas by Camille Elliot

Extras

Click here for blog post extras about The Spinster's Christmas

Click here for blog post extras about the Lady Wynwood's Spies series

Excerpt

And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?

Genesis 16:13 (KJV)

And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7 (KJV)

To my readers: My prayer for you is that you will know that God sees you and that you fully understand how much He loves you.



PROLOGUE


Dorsetshire, England, December 23rd, 1810


“I am heartily sick of your complaining and moaning, you old woman,” Lady Wynwood told her companion, who was lounging on the seat across from her in her travelling coach.

The “old woman” was in actuality a fit man in his fourth decade, with a rugged face and an easy smile hovering on the edges of his mouth. His jaw might not be as firm as it had been twenty years ago, but he was still the handsome buck Laura had first met during her debut in London, and he knew it, too.

“Reduced to name-calling, Laura?” Solomon Drydale drawled.

“Would you rather I simply opened this coach door and booted you out of it?”

He grinned impudently at her in reply.

“You made the decision to ride inside the coach rather than alongside it on your horse,” she continued. “Therefore, I do not wish to hear another groan about the springs of my axles or whatever it is that you call them. It is my coach, not yours.”

Sol held up his hands in surrender. “You are quite right. Forgive me.” He gave her that charming half-smile that never failed to soften the ire of the most peevish of dowagers.

Laura rolled her eyes.

The coach jolted again in the badly potted road. Laura set her teeth.

Sol groaned at the jolt. “How much farther to Wintrell Hall?” In response to her black look, he quickly added, “I am not complaining. It is a sincere question.”

“You have been to Wintrell Hall before.”

“It has been a year or two since I accompanied you to Sir Cecil’s home for Christmastide,” Sol said. “I am hardly required to remember the length of each stage of the journey.”

“We are nearly on Cecil’s lands,” Laura said.

“Good.” Sol settled deeper into the plush velvet seat. “Sir Cecil Belmoore may be an insufferable prig, but at least he is responsible enough to see to the upkeep of his roads.”

“Solomon Drydale,” Laura said in shocked accents. “Remember you are speaking of my cousin’s son.”

“Oh, for goodness’ sake, you like the man as little as I do.”

She gave a disgusted sound. “You are incorrigible.”

“Since when have you been too reticent to speak your mind with me?” he demanded. “It is only the two of us in this rattling—er, splendidly sprung coach.”

“I knew you were not overly fond of Sir Cecil, but I had no idea you disliked him so much. If such is the case, you could have chosen to spend the season with your own family,” she said pointedly.

Sol didn’t answer, but his face took on a grim cast.

Laura eyed him. “What unpleasantness are you avoiding in so cowardly a fashion?”

Her goad hit its mark. “It is hardly cowardly to wish to avoid the machinations of a desperate woman.”

She raised her eyebrows at him.

Sol sighed. “You are not the only one to have relations who wish to marry you off to their person of choice. In my case, my sister-in-law has hopes for her niece or cousin or some sort.”

Laura’s laugh hopefully hid the pang that squeezed her heart at his words. She oughtn’t to be surprised. Solomon Drydale was an eligible widower with a vast estate, and great-grandson to a viscount. “I would think you would be up to the tricks of a young girl.”

“She’s not young, she’s nearly thirty.”

“A veritable babe,” Laura said with narrowed eyes. She herself was now on the disagreeable side of forty.

Sol simply smiled at her. “Have no fear. You, my dear, are still as youthful as the day I met you in Green Park.”

He delivered his compliments with that quirk to his lips that made the dimple peek out from his left cheek. But she refused to count herself among the scores of other widows in London who were half in love with him. “Are you now a merchant trading in Spanish coin? You are not usually so flattering to me, Sol.”

“Not flattering, merely answering your question. Avoiding Miss Whatever-her-name is the reason I chose to spend Christmastide with you and your Belmoore relations. Our reasons are not so dissimilar.”

He was right. On Laura’s father’s side of the family, her cousin’s wife, Matilda, had a profligate brother with a penchant for gambling. Matilda had already attempted some rather devious plots to bring Laura into company with him, perhaps even to orchestrate a scandalous situation that would force Laura to marry the gambler. So Laura was avoiding her father’s relations this year in favour of the Belmoores, her mother’s side of the family.

“I do hope there are no Matildas among the family party,” Sol said. “Your late cousin was not clever enough to be so devious, so I am assuming his son, Sir Cecil, is the same.”

“Sol, you imp,” Laura admonished him. “You are trying to make me confess my family members’ faults, but the truth is that I like them a great deal.”

“I seem to recall your complaining to me about some rather priggish letters Sir Cecil sent to you regarding how you administered your fortune,” Sol said.

In other words, Sir Cecil had disliked the fact that Laura had control of her own money. Laura had ignored the letters. Sol had laughed at them, but he had no great regard for Sir Cecil, the present head of the Belmoore family.

“You like my cousin Edward,” she reminded him. “And I assure you that his sisters have much more countenance now than when you met them during their come-outs.” They now had children and even grandchildren. The thought of their families made her smile. She adored all the children who gathered for Christmas at Wintrell Hall and looked forward to the games and charades.

“Now what has brought that brightness to your lovely face?” Sol asked.

She hesitated, because she knew her answer would pain him. “I was thinking about the Christmas games. With the children.”

He smiled in response, although it did not reach his eyes. “That is because you are so competitive.”

“Now I know you are back to your normal self, because you are dishing up rude remarks once more,” she said.

“I must take heed of my tongue, lest I offend some matron and turn Christmastide into a theatrical tragedy.”

“I am not concerned about your tongue.”

“Are you not? And they being your family?”

“However much you play the churl with me, you would never forget yourself in company.”

“Now who’s dealing in Spanish coin?”

“However, you will be looking for any opportunity to goad me into saying something offensive,” Laura continued.

Sol grinned. “Because it is so much fun when you do.”

Laura glared. It had only been the once when she’d been indiscreet enough to say out loud that she thought Lady Adderly’s hat looked like a molting chicken. She said in a firm tone, “I wish for a happy, uneventful Christmastide this year.” Unspoken was her admonition, Behave, Sol.

“Yes, yes.” Sol grinned at her. “Completely uneventful, I assure you.”



CHAPTER ONE



December 23rd


Captain Gerard Foremont, lately of His Majesty’s Royal Navy, wasn’t certain what caused him to notice the woman walking on the road toward Wintrell Hall. When he spotted the slim figure in a dark green wool cloak, something about the tilt of her head, the cadence of her measured stride, triggered a memory.

He had been fourteen years old, about to leave home as midshipman on his uncle’s frigate and spending a last Christmas with the Belmoores, old family friends, here at Wintrell Hall. They’d been hauling mistletoe and greenery when twelve-year-old Miranda had come up to him, raising her head. As always, he was momentarily startled by her crystal-green eyes framed by dark lashes. He rarely saw her eyes because she usually kept her head lowered.

“Will you miss us, when you are at sea?” she asked.

“Of course I will,” he said as they walked toward the house.

“Christmas won’t be the same without you. You make us all laugh. Even Cecil.”

Gerard laughed at that. “Then you must learn what will make our stodgy Cecil laugh more. Come, Miranda. I want some hot punch, don’t you?”

The memory faded as his family’s coach came up on the woman in the green cloak. She raised her head to look at him, and he caught the flash of crystal green.

“Stop the coach!” he ordered. The coachman heard him and began reining in the horses.

“Whatever for?” his mother asked.

“It’s Miranda. We should offer her a lift to the house.”

Gerard’s mother and father exchanged a strange look. Then his mother said, “Have we room for her?” She didn’t quite gesture toward the stout cane propped between the seats and leaning against the corner of the coach.

Gerard’s forehead tightened, not solely from the reminder of the cane, but also in shock at his mother’s want of hospitality. “What?”

His father said to his mother, “Dear, the coach has already stopped. It would appear odd if we did not offer her a ride.”

“Oh. Yes, of course,” his mother said.

Gerard automatically reached for the door handle … then remembered in time that he’d have too much difficulty climbing out.

His father pretended he hadn’t seen the gesture, and said heartily, “I’ll go out and fetch the girl, shall I?” He tossed aside the blankets warming his legs, opened the door and stepped outside, raising his hand to hail her. “Miranda! My dear, walking in this weather? Come inside the coach with us.”

“Thank you, Mr. Foremont,” said a low voice. However, it did not sound like the Miranda he knew. He’d only seen her a few times in the sixteen years since he’d gone to sea, and the last time had been almost three years ago, before her parents had died and she’d gone to live with her cousin, Sir Cecil Belmoore. Miranda had always been quiet, but this voice sounded … defeated.

Her figure appeared in the doorway, but he couldn’t see her face, obscured by her bonnet. His father handed her into the coach, and she looked up at Gerard.

Crystal green pierced him, and elation rushed through him, pulsing with his heartbeat. He couldn’t breathe. He wanted to reach out to touch her, to have some point of connection, and so he did, taking her hand. He squeezed her fingers. He didn’t want to release her.

She dropped into the seat across from him, her eyes lowered once again. He was forced to relinquish her hand.

He tried to speak, but found he had to clear his throat twice before he could say, “It’s good to see you again, Miranda.”

“You look well, Gerard,” she said.

“Not quite at death’s door,” he said in a light tone.

“I do wish you would stop exaggerating your injury, Gerard,” his mother said tartly.

Miranda sent her a surprised look, but Gerard had become used to his mother’s frayed temper in the past few months. She was not gifted in the sickroom, and being forced to care for her son had become wearisome for her. She loved him, he knew that, but she loved him more when he was whole and not in need of constant care.

“Miranda, my dear, why were you out today?” Gerard’s father asked. “It’s quite cold to be walking.”

“I had an errand to run for Felicity in the village,” Miranda said.

“That was kind of you,” Gerard said. However, the words she used made it sound as though the errand had been expected of her rather than as a favour to her cousin’s wife.

Sitting next to Gerard, his mother cleared her throat. His father said to Miranda, “Are you warm enough? Here, take this brick for your feet. It is still warm.”

“No, I am perfectly well.” Miranda’s voice had that same serenity that he remembered, which soothed over awkward moments and calmed crying children.

His father insisted, moving his warmed brick from beneath his feet to Miranda’s. It was then that Gerard noticed her clothes. He was not one to notice women’s clothing very often, but because of his mother’s fastidious taste, he understood the standards of dress worn by the women of his class.

However, the leather of Miranda’s half-boots was old and cracked, in worse shape than the boots in which he used to walk the fields with his father. He then noticed the frayed edge of her gown, and the faded blue of the thin wool fabric. Her cloak, too, was worn at the bottom edge and where it fastened at her throat. And compared to his mother’s bonnet, crisp straw lined with velvet, Miranda’s bonnet was limp and crushed, with her dark hair escaping in smooth strands. The ribbons tied under her chin were wrinkled and old, more suited for summer than winter.

Miranda looked like …

“Ellie will be happy to see you, ma’am,” Miranda said to his mother. “She was asking after you all this week, wondering when you would arrive.”

The mention of the six-year-old made his mother smile. “We so enjoyed her visit in the summer. It quite lifted my spirits.”

Her joyful tone contrasted with her peevishness with her own son, and Gerard looked away. But he could not fault her. An orphaned grand-niece was surely better company than an invalid sailor.

This past summer, Ellie had been sent to visit her mother’s relations at Foremont Court. Because Gerard’s mother loved children, she’d begged Ellie’s grandfather to extend the visit to a full eight weeks. At the time, Gerard had still been in the hospital in London, recovering from the cannonball that had exploded the deck beneath his feet, driving splintered wood into his knee.

Only when Gerard had been about to return home was his mother forced to give up Ellie and let her go back to the household of Sir Cecil, her father’s cousin. Ellie’s paternal grandfather had not felt adequate to raise a young girl after her father had been killed on the Peninsula and her mother had died in childbirth only a few months later, so Ellie had been living with Cecil’s family above eight months now.

“How is Ellie?” Gerard’s mother asked Miranda.

Miranda hesitated before answering. “She was in high spirits in the weeks after she returned from your home, but since then, she has become quieter. It is difficult for her, since Cecil’s two younger boys are away at school most of the year, and only his two older daughters are at home. They are more likely to want to talk about gowns and fripperies than romp about with Ellie.”

“She has no playmates in the neighborhood?” Gerard asked.

Miranda said carefully, “Cecil is fastidious about the company his family keeps.”

Gerard frowned. Cecil apparently hadn’t changed in the years since they’d all played together. He was likely too proud to want to associate with any families of insufficiently high birth.

“Ellie enjoyed playing with our neighbors’ children. There was a veritable herd of children that galloped into our drawing room for tea and biscuits every morning,” his mother said with a laugh.

Because unlike Cecil, Gerard’s family had good relationships with all their neighbors, who had many young children below the age of ten.

“I worry that she is lonely,” Miranda said.

“You mustn’t worry,” Gerard said. “After Twelfth Night, we plan to take Ellie home with us to stay.”

He caught a flash of green as she raised her head, and her mouth fell open. “You do?”

“We should enjoy having Ellie with us ever so much,” his mother said. “The idea would never have come into our heads if we had not met Lady Wynwood in London a month ago. It was she who suggested it. She had recently spoken to her cousin Edward—Ellie’s grandfather—and he had mentioned that Ellie was feeling low.”

“Laura thought Ellie would enjoy a change of scenery,” his father said, “with the added benefit of having a girl around the house to cheer Mary up.” He patted his wife’s hand.

“It will not occupy too much of your time with Gerard to have Ellie at home?” Miranda had always been rather blunt, but the artless way she said it made it obvious that she was concerned about him.

Gerard had had enough of pity from his family and neighbors in the past few months, but somehow Miranda’s concern did not upset him. “I am well on the mend. In fact, I insisted we convince Uncle Edward to allow us to take Ellie.”

“Uncle Edward agreed to it?” Miranda asked. “Cecil’s house is but ten miles from his own.”

“And Foremont Court is merely twelve in the other direction,” his father said. “Ellie will be able to see her grandfather as often as she wishes.”

“Does Cecil know of this plan?” Miranda asked. Gerard wondered if anyone besides himself could hear the wary edge to her voice.

“Not yet,” his father said.

“I can’t imagine why he should make a fuss at having a dependent taken off his hands,” his mother said. “Cecil may be the tenth Baronet Belmoore, but Edward is Cecil’s uncle and Ellie’s grandfather.”

“And both of Ellie’s grandfathers agree,” Gerard’s father said, “for not only Edward, but also my brother have written their consent.”

“It would be better by far for Ellie to remove to your home,” Miranda agreed.

At this point, the coach turned onto the stretch of drive that led up to the front of Wintrell Hall. The trees lining the drive were bare, but snow had not yet fallen, and the lawn in front of the house was a pale ash-green color. In contrast, on the east side of the house, the bushes peeking over the top of the stone garden wall were a startling orange-brown, waving in the wind that swept down the valley and swirled around the house.

They weren’t the first to arrive, for as they passed the red brick stables, a coachman was directing the grooms and stablehands in maneuvering a massive travelling coach inside the building.

They pulled up in front of the north entrance, and the butler and a footman promptly came out to meet them. In the winter sunlight, the red brick of the house was a warm russet color, which belied the blast of cold wind that rushed into the coach when the servant opened the door. “Welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Foremont, Captain Foremont,” said the butler. His grey eyebrows rose slightly at the sight of Miranda in the coach, but that was the extent of how he showed his surprise.

“Thank you, Lewis,” Mrs. Foremont said as the butler helped her alight. “Have Cecil’s sisters arrived with their families?”

“Yes, ma’am. And their husbands’ families, as well.”

Gerard’s mother gave a happy sigh. “The nursery must be full to bursting.”

“And eagerly awaiting your arrival, if I may say so, ma’am,” Lewis unbent enough to say.

Gerard gestured for Miranda to precede him out of the coach, but she shook her head violently.

“Miranda, what is going on?” he whispered to her.

Her only answer was to say in a neutral tone, “I shall pass you your cane, Captain Foremont.”

Gerard gritted his teeth at the necessity of being assisted from the coach by his father and the footman. A year ago, he would have …

Best not to think of it.

He had just taken his cane from Miranda when Felicity, Lady Belmoore, came out to greet them. “Mr. and Mrs. Foremont, you are come at last. And Gerard, you are looking well.” Her smile froze before it reached her blue eyes. “How good of you to give Miranda a lift to the house, but quite unnecessary of you.”

“Whyever not?” Gerard said with a touch of belligerence. “Miranda is hardly a scullery maid.”

“It is my fault entirely,” his father interjected. “Miranda demurred, but I insisted when I heard she was returning from an errand. We have brought her home sooner in case she should be needed.”

“So kind of you,” Felicity said. “Come inside, out of this wind. There’s tea in the drawing room.”

Miranda followed everyone into the house, but Gerard caught the disapproving look that Felicity shot toward her.

He was careful in climbing the stairs, his good leg beginning to shake with the strain from the two flights of the grand staircase. By the time he’d finally reached the drawing room with his parents and Felicity, Miranda had disappeared.

He lowered himself into a gold and white striped chair, but his leg gave out and he fell heavily into the seat, making it wobble on its delicately carved legs. He winced. Yes, Gerard, the quickest way to cultivate Cecil’s good graces is to break his furniture.

Felicity’s eyes widened slightly, but when the chair held, she relaxed.

“Gerard, I would not have thought the stairs to be so cumbersome for you,” his mother said critically.

He had been used to his commanders shouting in his face, but his mother’s impatience with his slow rate of recovery had worn through his temper like a taut length of rope being slowly shredded by friction. He was tempted to reply with some caustic remark, but held his tongue in front of Felicity.

Ever the peacemaker, his father said, “I wonder, Felicity, if we could beg your indulgence. Perhaps it would be best to give Gerard a room on this floor?”

“Oh, it would be no trouble at all,” she said.

Gerard pressed his lips together briefly before answering politely, “Thank you, I would be most appreciative.”

“If you will excuse me a moment to speak to my staff.” Felicity rose and left the drawing room.

Gerard took advantage of the moment of privacy to lean closer to his parents. “What is going on with respect to Miranda?” he demanded in a low voice.

His parents looked at each other, that uncanny way they could communicate without speaking.

“Would you rather discuss this with Felicity here?” Gerard asked.

His mother sighed. “So awkward.”

“What is?”

“Miranda’s position in this household,” she said.

“I don’t understand. She’s Cecil’s cousin.”

“Her parents died in great debt,” his father said. “Their tenant farms had been in decline for years and the house was mortgaged to the hilt. Cecil was forced to settle their obligations with the bank, and then to take Miranda into his household.”

Gerard could imagine how Cecil had felt about that. He was scrupulous with his money, to the point that he was a bit of a nip-farthing even though his wealth was substantial. It would have been painful for him to part with so much of his blunt to pay his uncle’s debts.

“Felicity was not best pleased,” his mother said. “She and Miranda have never gotten along.”

“But I don’t understand why—”

“I apologize,” Felicity said as she sailed back into the room. “It is so difficult to find good servants these days. They never seem to understand what you wish them to do. Could I pour you more tea, Mrs. Foremont?”

At that moment, the door opened again and Cecil’s aunt, Mrs. Augusta Hathaway, burst into the room. “John and Mary, I have only just heard you were arrived. How lovely to see you. And little Gerard!” She did not wait for him to struggle to his feet, but bent to kiss his cheek, enveloping him in her expensive French perfume. “You are looking so well.”

“Hardly little any longer, Mrs. Hathaway,” Gerard said.

“You will always be little to me, no matter how you grow.” Mrs. Hathaway plopped herself down upon the sofa. “You must tell me how you all have been doing. Felicity, be a dear and pour me a cup of tea. I am parched after settling the children in the nursery.”

“Oh, you must tell me how your granddaughters are,” his mother said. “I have not seen them since last Christmas.”

Gerard said little as the others talked. He was not skilled at waiting, but it seemed he must wait for an explanation of what had happened to Miranda for her to be treated so differently by her own family. It upset him. His own extended Foremont relations would not have treated a poor relation so shabbily.

His father had been good friends with Edward Belmoore, Sir Cecil’s uncle and Ellie’s grandfather, since they were schoolboys together, which was why the Foremonts were always invited to Wintrell Hall for the elaborate Christmas celebrations. He was friendly with the Belmoores, but he had sometimes disagreed with the way the family conducted themselves in their relationships with others.

He disliked the little that he understood about the goings-on here. He thought of the men who had died under his command, and the injuries he had suffered. What had they all fought for when there was still such injustice at home?