Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Goose

Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Goose

An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Series 1 in Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Chronicles
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-35-4
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-06-4
Release Date: October 19, 2017

A lighthearted tale of Christmas long ago with a grandmother and three of her grandchildren, one lost soul, a lady driven to distraction, a recalcitrant donkey, and a flock of determined geese.

Three years after being widowed, Therese, Lady Osbaldestone finally settles into her dower property of Hartington Manor in the village of Little Moseley in Hampshire. She is in two minds as to whether life in the small village will generate sufficient interest to keep her amused over the months when she is not in London or visiting friends around the country. But she will see.

It’s December, 1810, and Therese is looking forward to her usual Christmas with her family at Winslow Abbey, her youngest daughter, Celia’s home. But then a carriage rolls up and disgorges Celia’s three oldest children. Their father has contracted mumps, and their mother has sent the three—Jamie, George, and Lottie—to spend this Christmas with their grandmama in Little Moseley.

Therese has never had to manage small children, not even her own. She assumes the children will keep themselves amused, but quickly learns that what amuses three inquisitive, curious, and confident youngsters isn’t compatible with village peace. Just when it seems she will have to set her mind to inventing something, she and the children learn that with only twelve days to go before Christmas, the village flock of geese has vanished.

Every household in the village is now missing the centerpiece of their Christmas feast. But how could an entire flock go missing without the slightest trace? The children are as mystified and as curious as Therese—and she seizes on the mystery as the perfect distraction for the three children as well as herself.

But while searching for the geese, she and her three helpers stumble on two locals who, it is clear, are in dire need of assistance in sorting out their lives. Never one to shy from a little matchmaking, Therese undertakes to guide Miss Eugenia Fitzgibbon into the arms of the determinedly reclusive Lord Longfellow. To her considerable surprise, she discovers that her grandchildren have inherited skills and talents from both her late husband as well as herself. And with all the customary village events held in the lead up to Christmas, she and her three helpers have opportunities galore in which to subtly nudge and steer.

Yet while their matchmaking appears to be succeeding, neither they nor anyone else have found so much as a feather from the village’s geese. Larceny is ruled out; a flock of that size could not have been taken from the area without someone noticing. So where could the birds be? And with the days passing and Christmas inexorably approaching, will they find the blasted birds in time?

“Written with a light touch, deep knowledge of the period, and bracing good humor, this book recalls the best ghosts of Christmas past.” Kim H., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

“Readers will fall in love with Lady Osbaldestone and her adorable grandchildren as they make village life lively in this tale of mystery and romance.” Irene S., Proofreader, Red Adept Editing

“Laurens has created an utterly charming holiday tale sure to be viewed as a most welcome gift by her readers!” Angela M., Copy Editor, Red Adept Editing

Hartington Manor, Little Moseley, Hampshire
December 13, 1810

“You did what?” Standing in her drawing room, Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, looked upon the three slightly rumpled children, lined up quite literally on the carpet before her, with something akin to fascination. Three of her brood of sixteen grandchildren, they were proving to be remarkably inventive. Presumably, they took after their mother—Therese’s youngest daughter, Celia—rather than their father, the rather stiff-rumped Earl of Winslow.

At eight years old—or nearly nine, as he was wont to insist—Jamie, Lord James, Viscount Skelton, was the eldest. With slender build and long limbs, even features, sky-blue eyes, and a mop of straight, dark-brown hair, he bade fair to grow into a good-looking young gentleman; he would be a great catch one day. He stood tall and uncowed in the middle of the small group, but as with the other two, his eyes held a hint of not exactly wariness but uncertainty; neither he nor his brother and sister knew how Therese would react. In common with her other grandchildren, they didn’t know her that well.

On Jamie’s right stood George, all of seven years old, a half head shorter and a trifle more solid in build. He, too, possessed the Skelton blue eyes, currently large in a face in which the features were still forming. From under a thatch of slightly curly, mid-brown hair, George, too, eyed Therese warily, yet stoically. His stance suggested he would stick by his brother come what may.

Standing on Jamie’s other side and holding on to his hand was Lottie—more properly Lady Charlotte Skelton. Her blond hair fell in large, loose ringlets about an angelic face; at five years old still possessing an air of innocence her brothers could no longer so believably project, Lottie looked at Therese with open curiosity. There was an element of confidence in Lottie’s blue gaze that reminded Therese that she was responsible for the three, that they relied on her to keep them safe—that she was, in effect, in loco parentis, and they had every right to expect her protection and support.

Her question still hung between them.

Rather than attempt to answer what they instinctively understood was a rhetorical question, their blue gazes unwavering, the three miscreants stared back at her as if willing her to appreciate the irrefutable logic of their actions.

The other occupant of the drawing room shifted impatiently and repeated, “They climbed to the belfry and used old curtain cords to link the bell ropes.” Reverend Colebatch, who had marched the three up the manor’s front path and ushered them into the drawing room, pursed his lips in disapproval and eyed the three with scant charity. “You must have heard the resulting cacophony, my lady. It was the most hideous summons to prayer I’ve ever heard.”

Therese compressed her lips—to stop any hint of a smile slipping past her guard. She had heard the noise; all the village must have. “I see.” Spurred by curiosity, she asked the trio, “Was there some purpose behind your actions?”

Jamie readily—eagerly—replied, “We wondered, if the ropes were linked so that two of the eight bells rang together whenever the rope for either was pulled, whether the music would still sound as it should—”

“But just louder,” George put in.

“Or whether the peal would be all mixed up and sound awful,” Jamie concluded. He glanced sidelong at Reverend Colebatch. “We just wanted to see, so we did it today for the bell-ringers’ practice. We wouldn’t have done it on a Sunday.”

Therese knew all three normally had music lessons. In light of that, their curiosity was understandable; she was even a touch impressed by their enthusiasm in pursuing such an intellectual question. While I might admire your ingenuity… No, that wouldn’t do. Keeping her expression stony and unrevealing, she stated, “I believe you’ve had your answer and now owe Reverend Colebatch an apology.”

All three immediately turned to the minister and murmured their “humblest apologies.”

Reverend Colebatch humphed. “Yes, well, it’s not just me you scamps have inconvenienced. Poor Deacon Filbert was deeply shocked and rattled by the noise. It was he who climbed up and untangled your handiwork, but by then it was too late for the bell-ringers to practice.”

“I suppose it’s just as well,” Therese calmly put in, “that the bell-ringers aren’t preparing for any competition at the moment.”

“Indeed.” Reverend Colebatch frowned at the children. “But that noise was a horrendous assault on the hearing of all those about the church.”

Therese eyed the three culprits. “And where were you three when the bells started?”

The trio returned her gaze as if she should have known. “In the graveyard,” Jamie said. “We had to be near enough to hear the result clearly.”

Once again compressing her lips against a smile, Therese nodded, then looked at the minister. “Reverend Colebatch, please accept my apologies as well. I have clearly been remiss in not keeping these three in better line. If you have any recommendations as to punishments, I will willingly entertain them.”

She knew very well that with no children of his own, the reverend was a soft touch for any youngster, but having arrived in the village only four days before, her three scallywags didn’t know that; they looked with faint trepidation at the minister.

Reverend Colebatch hmmed and frowned at the three. Eventually, he offered, “As there was no lasting damage done, and as it appears you were motivated by academic interest, I daresay if you will come to service on Sunday and apologize humbly to Deacon Filbert, we might say no more about it.”

Jamie and George assured him they would, indeed, apologize most humbly; Lottie contented herself with a huge-eyed nod.

Therese judged it time to reassert control. “I believe,” she stated in her most uncontestable tones, “that I can assure you and Deacon Filbert—and the poor bell-ringers, who must have sustained quite a shock as well—that nothing of a similar nature will ever happen again.” She fixed her gaze on her grandchildren. “Will it?”

“We definitely won’t do that again,” Jamie vowed.

Lottie solemnly nodded.

George nodded, too, but in a mumble, added, “Now we know what happens, there’s no need for us to do it again.”

The irrefutable logic of children.

Therese swept forward. “Wait there,” she murmured to the children as she passed them. With one graceful arm, she gathered Reverend Colebatch and turned him to the drawing room door. “Thank you for bringing them home, Reverend. Rest assured I will discipline them appropriately.”

She saw the minister to the front door with assurances that she, along with the three children, would certainly attend Sunday service, that indeed, she was quite looking forward to it, which was true. Reverend Colebatch’s sermons were short and succinct, and Therese now had the added incentive of seeing how her grandchildren met the challenge of placating Deacon Filbert, who was a fussy little man rather overfond of drama.

Crimmins, her butler, had been hovering in the hall. Allowing him to close the front door on the minister, Therese exchanged a look with the longtime head of her staff. “They tied the bell ropes together.”

“Ah.” Crimmins looked enlightened. “That horrible noise. We thought maybe some animal had got among the bells.”

“If bells could caterwaul?” Therese headed back to the drawing room. “Indeed.”

She walked into the room, closed the door, considered the three faces turned her way, then, stifling a sigh, walked past the trio to the chaise. She sat, leant back, and surveyed the three. “Now, what am I to do with you?”

The children had wheeled their line and stood facing her. They looked at her, exchanged swift, sidelong glances with each other, then looked almost questioningly at her again.

As if expecting her to have an answer where they did not.

She studied them as they studied her.

The linking of the bell ropes was not their first infraction since they’d arrived unheralded on her doorstep in one of their father’s carriages four days before. A letter had accompanied them—a plea from Celia. Apparently, Celia’s husband, Lord Rupert Skelton, the Earl of Winslow, had succumbed to the mumps and was proving a predictably grumpy and irascible patient. Normally, had all been well, Therese would have spent Christmas and the preceding week with Celia, Rupert, and their family at Winslow Abbey in Northamptonshire, but Celia had written, putting Therese off—essentially canceling Christmas for the Winslow Abbey household—and begging her mother to house her three elder children far from any risk of contagion. Of necessity, Celia had kept the youngest of her brood, the infant Emma, with her at Winslow, but had sent the three older children to safety in Little Moseley.

The children had been dispatched in the charge of Lottie’s new governess, a Miss Philby, as well as the family’s dour coachman and a younger groom. Celia’s intention had been that Miss Philby would take on the responsibility of overseeing the children, keeping them amused and out of Therese’s hair.

From her own childhood, Celia knew that Therese had had precious little experience caring for children herself. As the wife of a very senior diplomat, Therese had been a major hostess all her adult life; her five children had been nurtured by a procession of nurses, governesses, and tutors prior to the three boys being sent to boarding school.

Beyond bringing them into the world, Therese’s major personal contribution to her children’s lives had been in steering four of the five into comfortably settled married life.

Sadly, Miss Philby had not arrived in Little Moseley with her erstwhile charges. John Coachman had informed Therese that the young woman had stuck it out as far as Southampton, but had refused to come any farther. “Too meek by half to manage the likes of three Skeltons” had been John’s reply to Therese’s question as to why the silly woman had done a bunk.

Faced with three of her direct descendants, Therese accepted, however reluctantly and with whatever degree of trepidation, that managing the trio and “keeping them amused” now fell to her.

While Monday had seen an attempt to label, apparently with a view to cataloguing, the ducks on the village pond with predictably noisy results and many ruffled feathers, not all of which had belonged to the ducks, Tuesday had seen the three tramping through the fields toward nearby Romsey, getting lost, and being brought home in a helpful farmer’s cart. Yesterday, they’d tried to help deliverymen roll barrels down the ramp into the cellar of the village’s public house—and nearly squashed the publican.

Today, they’d disrupted the bell-ringers and assaulted the sensibilities of the entire village.

Therese had only recently returned to Little Moseley. She hadn’t as yet definitively made up her mind if she wanted to make Hartington Manor her permanent home, but she might. She didn’t need the villagers to take against her and her household.

She’d been fourteen when she’d inherited Hartington Manor from an old but much-loved eccentric aunt. Therese had often spent the summer months with her aunt Gloriana in Hampshire and had retained warm, fond memories of the place. Consequently on her marriage, she’d asked for the manor to be made her dower property. After the death of her husband, Gerald, three years before, it had passed into her hands outright.

In the years immediately following Gerald’s death, she’d traveled, visiting again all the places he and she had lived in over the years of his extensive and distinguished career with the Foreign Office. She hadn’t known why she’d wanted to revisit those places, but she had, meeting again many of the people they’d entertained and been entertained by while ambassadors to this court or that.

In retrospect, she rather thought she’d been bidding that old life goodbye.

She’d returned to London for the Season earlier in the year and had spent the summer on her usual peregrination, visiting her longtime English friends. She’d spent August in Cambridgeshire with Helena, Dowager Duchess of St. Ives, delighting in catching up with the large and boisterous Cynster family, with whom she was almost as intimately acquainted as her own and as accustomed to meddling in their private lives alongside Helena. Steering and guiding the following generations was an occupation she still enjoyed.

Of course, those she was accustomed to steering and guiding were usually in their twenties or older. In her admittedly limited experience, those under ten years of age were rather harder to manipulate.

She’d finally returned to Hartington Manor in late November, with the fogs wreathing the forests and the chill of winter sinking into the bones of the land. She’d informed her small household that she was considering spending more time in Little Moseley, making the manor into her true home. But she hadn’t yet decided absolutely definitely; there was the not insignificant question of whether village society could provide sufficient interest to keep her absorbed and entertained. They would see.

Meanwhile, however, she had three innately curious and inventive children to… She wasn’t even sure what tack she should take with them.

How was she to keep them amused? Would what entertained her work for them, too?

A tap on the door interrupted their mutual weighing up.

Therese raised her gaze. “Come.”

The door swung inward, and Mrs. Haggerty, Therese’s cook for the last decade and more, stood framed in the doorway. “I thought you should know, my lady, that Farmer Tooks was just by to tell us that there’ll be no goose for Christmas dinner.”

“No goose?” Therese raised her brows incredulously. It was one of the traditions she insisted on for Christmas, and the village kept its own flock of geese especially for the event.

Mrs. Haggerty was well aware of those facts. Clasping her large hands, she nodded portentously. “No goose. Tooks was in a right taking—it seems the entire flock’s gone missing.”

“So it’s not just us or a few missing out but the whole village?”

Again, Mrs. Haggerty nodded. “No one’s going to be happy. As far as I’ve heard, every family in this village expects to have goose on the table on Christmas Day.”

Therese stared at Mrs. Haggerty while, in her mind, she heard Gerald’s voice as, very early in their marriage, he’d shared one of the maxims that had helped make him the diplomatic force he had already been.

When faced with adversity, look for the opportunity buried within it and seize hold of that.

Over the years, she’d frequently had recourse to that advice, and it had never failed her.

Refocusing on Haggerty’s face, Therese nodded crisply. “Leave it with me. I’ll look into the situation and see what can be done.”

“Thank you, my lady. But late as it is, I truly don’t know what else we’re to serve. Perhaps I should get Bilson to put us up a nice haunch of beef, just in case.”

Therese inclined her head. “Do—as a fallback. But”—she swung her gaze to her grandchildren, who had been listening with captivated interest—“I’m determined we’ll have goose for Christmas as we always do.”

The children had been looking at Haggerty, but as she bobbed a curtsy and reached to draw the door closed again, they turned back to Therese.

She met their gazes levelly. “I wonder… Perhaps as a way of making amends for the abused sensibilities of the village, you should assist me in finding out what has happened to the village’s flock of geese.”

Three pairs of eyes lit; three faces glowed with eagerness.

“You mean to track them down?” George asked.

“At the very least, we should find out where they’ve gone.” Therese reached for the cane she’d taken to using. Not so much because she needed the physical support—not yet, even though she’d turned fifty earlier in the year—but because the cane had been Gerald’s and the support she derived from feeling the ornate silver head under her palm was of a different nature.

Planting the cane’s tip on the carpet, she rose, then with the cane, waved to the door. “Let’s get our coats and have Simms bring the gig around, then we’ll take ourselves off to Tooks Farm and see what this is all about.”

* * *

Edward Tooks was a heavy man. He had a naturally dour disposition, but now glumness was piled atop his usual morose demeanor. He looked positively hangdog as, having spotted Therese driving up in her gig, he clumped across his barnyard to meet her at the gate.

Her and the three children, who had crammed into the gig on either side of her, and who scrambled down the instant she halted the gig in the lane, several yards back from the gate.

Tooks reached the gate, leant on it, and eyed the approaching children without any leavening of his expression.

The three halted before the gate. They looked up at Tooks, then wisely shuffled to the side as Therese, having hitched the piebald mare to a fence post, came walking up.

“Good afternoon, Tooks.” Therese gave him a crisp nod. “I understand you have a problem with your geese.”

Tooks bobbed his large head. “Aye, my lady. You have that right, though it’s not so much a problem with them as that they’re gone. Vanished without a trace, the lot of ’em—all twenty-three birds just gone.”

“Dear me. And when did this happen?”

“Tuesday sometime, it was. Can’t say as to the exact hour, but the flock was all here, right as rain and roosting in the barn, when I left for market a while before dawn. Then when I got back—long after dark, that was—Johnny said when he went to feed them late in the afternoon, they was nowhere to be found. Well.” Tooks rubbed his temple with one thick fingertip. “I thought maybe they’d just got out of the yard and gone around to one of the outbuildings. It’s so cold now they wouldn’t want to be out in the weather, and we’re fattening them up, so they get right peckish morning and night—that’s why you can be sure they’ll turn up for their next feed. They won’t wander off. So I thought that if we looked the next morning, we’d find them tucked away in the hayshed or some such place, but Johnny and I searched everywhere, and we found not hide nor hair of them.”

From beside Therese, Jamie murmured, “What about feathers?”

Tooks heard and transferred his weighty gaze to Jamie. “No feathers, either, young sir. No sign at all. They’re gone, and that’s all I can tell you.”

Therese frowned. “Surely no one would steal them—not the whole flock.”

“Aye,” Tooks said. “It’s hard to imagine. A vagrant or even a band of travelers—they might take one or two. I did wonder if that was a possibility, so I asked around the Arms yesterday evening, but no one’s seen any outsider wandering through. And no one heard anything, either, and the whole flock makes a helluva racket—pardon me, your ladyship.”

“That’s quite all right, Tooks.” Therese was still frowning. “But I take your point—transporting a whole flock in secret over any distance at all…it’s hard to see how it might have been done, not in silence. Not without someone noticing.”

“Aye, well…” Tooks shifted and straightened, turning to look southwestward. “I did wonder…”

When he said nothing more, Therese prompted rather sharply, “What did you wonder, Tooks?”

Edward Tooks grimaced. “Seems like stealing away the village flock might be the sort of lark that mob of young gentlemen visiting at Fulsom Hall might think to get up to.”

“What mob of young gentlemen?”

“Mr. Henry’s university friends down for the holidays. They seem the sort, if you know what I mean.”

Therese could, indeed, imagine; with three sons of her own, she’d dealt with many such groups in her time. And Fulsom Hall was the neighboring property, with no great distance between.

Tooks went on, “From what I heard from Billings and Hillgate—they’re the groom and stableman up at the Hall—Miss Fitzgibbon has her hands full trying to manage that lot.” Tooks shook his shaggy head. “I didn’t like to go and ask at the Hall, not as it’s Miss Fitzgibbon I’d surely have to speak to. She’s got enough on her plate and doesn’t need me adding to it—and it’s only suspicions I have and all.”

“Hmm. Yes.” Therese could appreciate that given the relative social positions, Tooks would feel reluctant to approach Miss Fitzgibbon about guests at the Hall. However, this was a situation that put the Christmas feasts of everyone in the village—those at the Hall included—in doubt. And there was nothing to prevent Therese from paying Miss Fitzgibbon and her brother, Henry, a social call. “Leave it with me, Tooks.” She met Tooks’s gaze. “I’ll call at the Hall and see what I”—her gaze fell to the three children, who had listened avidly throughout, and she amended—“what we can learn about any sightings of geese.”

“Thank ye, my lady.” Tooks bobbed his head. “If you’ll let me know…?”

“If we learn anything that points to the whereabouts of the flock, I will send word immediately.” With a crisp nod, Therese turned to the gig.

She didn’t even have to collect the children; they were already running back to the carriage to eagerly pile in.

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