Lady Osbaldestone And The Missing Christmas Carols
An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Series 2 in Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Chronicles
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-36-1
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-14-9
Release Date: October 28, 2018
#1 NYT-bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you a heartwarming tale of a long-ago country-village Christmas, a grandmother, three eager grandchildren, one moody teenage granddaughter, an earnest young lady, a gentleman in hiding, and an elusive book of Christmas carols.
Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, and her household are quietly delighted when her younger daughter’s three children, Jamie, George, and Lottie, insist on returning to Therese’s house, Hartington Manor in the village Little Moseley, to spend the three weeks leading up to Christmas participating in the village’s traditional events.
Then out of the blue, one of Therese’s older granddaughters, Melissa, arrives on the doorstep. Her mother, Therese’s older daughter, begs Therese to take Melissa in until the family gathering at Christmas—otherwise, Melissa has nowhere else to go.
Despite having no experience dealing with moody, reticent teenagers like Melissa, Therese welcomes Melissa warmly. The younger children are happy to include their cousin in their plans—and despite her initial aloofness, Melissa discovers she’s not too old to enjoy the simple delights of a village Christmas.
The previous year, Therese learned the trick to keeping her unexpected guests out of mischief. She casts around and discovers that the new organist, who plays superbly, has a strange failing. He requires the written music in front of him before he can play a piece, and the church’s book of Christmas carols has gone missing.
Therese immediately volunteers the services of her grandchildren, who are only too happy to fling themselves into the search to find the missing book of carols. Its disappearance threatens one of the village’s most-valued Christmas traditions—the Carol Service—yet as the book has always been freely loaned within the village, no one imagines that it won’t be found with a little application.
But as Therese’s intrepid four follow the trail of the book from house to house, the mystery of where the book has vanished to only deepens. Then the organist hears the children singing and invites them to form a special guest choir. The children love singing, and provided they find the book in time, they’ll be able to put on an extra-special service for the village.
While the urgency and their desire to find the missing book escalates, the children—being Therese’s grandchildren—get distracted by the potential for romance that buds, burgeons, and blooms before them.
Yet as Christmas nears, the questions remain: Will the four unravel the twisted trail of the missing book in time to save the village’s Carol Service? And will they succeed in nudging the organist and the harpist they’ve found to play alongside him into seizing the happy-ever-after that hovers before the pair’s noses?
December 9, 1811
Hartington Manor, Little Moseley, Hampshire
I truly am happy to have them with me again.
Smiling fondly upon the three children playing before the hearth in her private parlor, Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, admitted to being a touch relieved. Although she and her household had thoroughly enjoyed the weeks the three had spent with them the previous Christmas, children grew up so rapidly that she hadn’t counted on Fate being kind a second time. Indeed, it hadn’t been she or even the children’s parents who had suggested a repeat visit but the children themselves.
This year, with the entire clan in good health and no illness threatening, Therese had assumed she would next see Jamie, George, and Lottie when she traveled to join all her children and their families for their customary joint Christmas celebration at Winslow Abbey, the trio’s home. Instead, the previous evening, the three had turned up on her doorstep, their faces alight with innocent confidence in their welcome. Jamie had proffered a letter from their mother—Therese’s younger daughter, Celia, Countess of Winslow—explaining that the three had insisted that they needed to spend the two weeks preceding Christmas with their grandmother in Little Moseley and that they’d assured Celia that Therese wouldn’t mind. Celia’s missive had concluded with a recommendation that if the children’s expectation of welcome was unfounded, Therese should pack them back into the carriage and send them home, thus teaching them a lesson in making unwise assumptions as to other people’s wishes.
The three had rushed into her quiet household on a wave of laughter, shrill voices, and bubbling joy, leaving all her staff smiling—and her, too. The effect of young children and their antics and pronouncements was nothing short of remarkable; in their presence, her lips were constantly curved upward.
That morning, she’d sent the Winslow Abbey coach on its way home, empty. When it came time to travel to the abbey later in the month, the children would accompany Therese in her traveling coach.
Over breakfast, she’d endeavored to learn how they’d been faring—how they’d spent the months since last they’d been there, what new accomplishments they’d mastered, all else about their lives that had changed, and their expectations for the coming year. Somewhat to her surprise, the three had been happy to volunteer answers to all her questions, while their counter-inquisition centered on the village.
George’s first question had been whether Farmer Tooks’s geese had wandered off again. The easiest way to answer—and to keep them amused—had been to show them; once their breakfasts had been consumed and their faces washed again, they’d donned coats, scarves, gloves, and mufflers and scrambled into her gig, and she’d driven down the drive, into the lane, and up the track that led past the Dutton Grange stables to the small holding at the rear of the property.
A corner of the dilapidated cottage had been made habitable again, and Johnny Tooks had come out to greet them. Therese had watched the reunion between Johnny, Jamie, George, and even Lottie with an indulgently approving smile.
After securing her permission, Johnny had taken the three Skeltons around the cottage and into the ancient orchard, where the once-wayward flock were now contentedly fattening themselves on the fallen fruit.
“It’s my job to watch over them, you see,” Johnny had proudly proclaimed. “Da and Lord Longfellow decided that if, come December, this is where the flock wants to be, then it’d be a waste of time trying to stop them, and they clean up the orchard, too.”
Therese had stood to one side and listened as the youngsters had shared their news. Johnny’s information that the word in the village was that the ice on the lake wouldn’t be thick enough for the village skating party to be held before Christmas—that, in fact, Dick Mountjoy, who was the authority on the matter, had given it as his opinion that, this year, it would be well into January before the lake was safe to skate—resulted in glum faces and cast a temporary pall, but then Lottie asked, and Johnny assured them that the other village Christmas events—the carol service in the church and the pageant including the re-enactment of the Nativity—were definitely on the calendar.
“Wouldn’t be Christmas without them,” Johnny said.
Although they’d spent only one Christmas in Little Moseley, Therese and her three grandchildren had agreed wholeheartedly with that sentiment. Indeed, listening to the three chatter as, after parting from Johnny, they’d clambered back into the gig, Therese had deduced that a large part of the attraction of spending the weeks prior to Christmas at Hartington Manor was the chance to immerse themselves in the communal spirit that surrounded such village events.
She’d flicked the reins, and they’d headed down the track, only to find Christian Longfellow—Lord Longfellow of Dutton Grange—loitering in his stable yard, waiting to waylay them with an invitation to join him and his wife and their new baby for morning tea.
Therese and the children had accepted with alacrity. As Jamie, George, and Lottie had ably assisted Therese in nudging the prickly Eugenia Fitzgibbon, as she’d then been, and the deeply reluctant ex-guardsman Christian, with his scarred face and stiff leg, into each other’s arms, it was a happy reunion; Therese and the children felt a certain sense of accomplishment at seeing Eugenia so transparently happy and Christian so very proud of his two-month-old heir.
Therese had noted with approval that the children had played gently with young Cedric, named for Christian’s deceased older brother; as she’d assured Eugenia, “They’re accustomed to babies—their younger sister is just two years old.”
The four of them had spent an enjoyable hour at Dutton Grange, then returned to the manor for luncheon, after which the children had asked for and been granted permission to join the village youngsters on the green. Given they were each a year older—with Lottie, the youngest, a sturdy six years old, George, at eight, apparently growing ever more serious, and Jamie a staunchly responsible nine—Therese had felt comfortable allowing them to roam while she dealt with her holiday correspondence.
They’d proven her assessment correct and had returned in good time to wash and change for dinner.
Now, looking like nothing so much as tousled angels, the three sat before the cheery fire, sipping from mugs of the rich cocoa Mrs. Haggerty, the cook, had prepared especially for them and idly poking through the box of games they’d brought.
All in all, Therese’s first day with them had passed very pleasantly, and there was no doubt whatever that the presence of the children injected an expectant energy into the household, which otherwise had been rolling into the festive season in rather boring style.
From the expressions on their faces, Therese seriously doubted the box of games was going to provide sufficient distraction for a twelve-day stay. They would commence the two-day journey to Winslow Abbey on the twenty-first; between then and now…she knew the children were hoping for an engrossing and exciting time similar to their sojourn last year, when they’d embarked on the hunt for Tooks’s missing geese.
The three might look like angels, but they were her grandchildren; occupation—intellectual and physical—was as essential as air to breathe.
Indeed, if Therese was any judge, it was the trio’s innate quest for such occupation that had prompted their return to Little Moseley.
She wondered if there was any mystery lurking about the village, waiting to be solved.
Their ponderings—hers on possible mysteries and theirs on which game to play—were interrupted by the rumbling crunch of carriage wheels rolling slowly up the drive.
The children sat up and looked toward the curtained window. Then they looked at her.
Therese arched her brows. “I’m not expecting anyone.”
“I’ll look.” Jamie set aside his mug of cocoa and scrambled to his feet. He rushed to the window, closely followed by his siblings. Jamie hauled back the heavy curtains, and all three crowded before the sill, peering out at the forecourt.
The weather had been unseasonably mild—hence the lack of ice on the lake—but a cold east wind had gusted in late that afternoon and sent the children scurrying home. As Therese looked over the children’s heads into the night, the light from the porch lamps glinted on snowflakes and sleet, swirling and dancing on the wind.
“The ground’s white,” Lottie reported.
“It’s a traveling carriage,” George said. “A large, heavy one.”
The carriage wheels halted, and the thudding stamps of horses’ heavy hooves on the gravel reached them, then Jamie, heightened interest coloring his tone, said, “That’s Uncle North’s coachman on the box.”
“It is?” Therese blinked and sat up. “Good heavens.” What on earth…?
The doorbell rang.
The three swung to the door, poised to race out into the front hall.
“No.” Therese held up an imperious hand. “You are not heathens.”
The trio flashed identical grins her way, but obediently fell in with her subsequent directives to close the curtains and return to the sofa opposite her chair.
Crimmins’s footsteps crossed the hall. A second later, the rumble of male voices could be heard. There was a pause as if someone else had spoken, but not even straining six-year-old ears could make out who spoke or what was said.
Then Crimmins opened the parlor door and solicitously ushered in a tall, willowy figure bundled up in a thick winter coat of dull deep red. A black woolen scarf was wound over and about her head, largely concealing her face, and her gloved hands were buried in a small black muff.
Therese couldn’t have said why, but the figure struck her as forlorn.
Crimmins half bowed to Therese and informed her, “Miss Melissa, my lady.”
The figure stared across the room at Therese, then, as if only just remembering, dutifully bobbed a curtsy. She raised a gloved hand and pushed aside the folds of the scarf veiling her face. The dark blue eyes of Melissa, Therese’s elder daughter Henrietta’s second daughter, peered out from under a fall of dark hair. “Hello, Grandmama.”
Registering how husky—how adult—Melissa’s voice sounded and the uncertainty in the faintly wavering words, Therese, her imagination running wild, pushed to her feet.
She was about to ask Melissa why she was there when the girl drew a folded note from her muff and held it out.
“Mama said to give you this.”
That brought some relief; presumably, Henrietta was alive. As far as Therese could tell, Melissa hadn’t even noticed her cousins, and for their part, they were wisely keeping mum and as still as statues. The child—well, girl; Melissa was fourteen, after all—was holding herself rigidly, every muscle tensed and taut.
Therese had no idea what was going on, but instinct prodded sharply, and she surrendered to it. She walked forward and, ignoring the note, embraced Melissa, enfolding her granddaughter in a gentle yet definite and warm embrace. “Welcome to Hartington Manor, my dear.”
For an instant, Melissa remained frozen and stiff, but then her unnatural rigidity melted; she softened and, for several seconds, leaned into Therese.
As Therese eased her hold, Melissa sighed softly and drew back.
Therese took the note from Melissa’s slack grasp, but instead of immediately opening the missive, she patted Melissa’s shoulder—the girl looked set to be as tall as Therese—and bracingly said, “Give your wraps to Crimmins, my dear, then…” Therese looked at Celia’s three, who had picked up their mugs and were sipping, interested eyes peering over the rims. “Perhaps Crimmins might bring you a mug of cocoa to chase away the chill.”
Melissa finally saw her cousins. She took in the mugs in their hands and hesitated; in the evening, cocoa was a drink for children, and she was fourteen…
Jamie grinned at her and raised his mug. “It’s really good.”
Melissa glanced at Therese, who arched her brows, then Melissa looked at Crimmins. “Thank you. A mug of cocoa would be welcome.”
“Good.” Therese directed Melissa to the sofa. The other three shuffled up, leaving the end closer to the fire free.
Therese returned to her armchair, sank down, and watched as Melissa, her expression still serious and closed, quietly greeted her cousins, and they grinned and cheerfully welcomed her. Therese glanced at Henrietta’s note, then broke the seal and unfolded it.
“Have you come to stay, too?” Lottie asked.
Melissa flicked a glance at Therese, who pretended not to notice it. Melissa looked back at Lottie. “That’s up to Grandmama.”
Indeed? Therese fumbled for her pince-nez. They had to be in her pockets somewhere; these days, she rarely went anywhere without them.
“When did you three arrive?” Melissa asked Lottie, Jamie, and George.
While hunting through her numerous pockets, Therese inwardly narrowed her eyes as, by dint of a series of never-ending questions, Melissa encouraged the other three to tell her about themselves, the manor, and the village, simultaneously avoiding the questions Jamie and George tried to ask her.
Therese finally located her pince-nez tucked into her cleavage. She drew the spectacles out, settled them on the bridge of her nose, and focused on Henrietta’s perfect copperplate.
Crimmins arrived with a mug of cocoa for Melissa and a jug to top up Jamie’s, George’s, and Lottie’s mugs; courtesy of Mrs. Haggerty’s wonderful cocoa, by the time Crimmins withdrew, a comfortable silence had descended.
Therese grasped the moment to first scan, then more thoroughly peruse Henrietta’s letter, in which Henrietta figuratively threw herself—and Melissa—on Therese’s mercy.
The letter read:
I hope you are well. I am appealing to you for help in a most unexpected situation. Although she is only fifteen, Amanda has been invited to attend a pre-Christmas house party at the Trevallayans’ estate, and despite it being early days yet, we all know how critical youthful friendships can be in paving the way in one’s first Season. Naturally, I would have taken Melissa, too—she and Amanda are only a year apart, after all—but she has grown so moody of late, her responses so uncertain, that I simply cannot risk her in such company. I pray you will take pity on her, me, and Amanda, too, and allow Melissa to join you at Hartington Manor for these next few weeks. If that is impossible, then Celia has said she will take her, but of course, with Celia’s older three with you at this time, then Melissa would be rattling around the abbey on her own—and that might be the worst thing possible.
I do not know what it is that afflicts Melissa. I know she is a clever girl—arguably cleverer than me or Amanda—but it seems more a case of lack of direction. Or do I mean motivation? Regardless, I vow she hasn’t smiled in months and has taken to insisting on wearing black whenever she can—black, for heaven’s sake! Quite aside from the inappropriateness, the color makes her look horridly sallow.
I am hoping that you might have some insights that I have not, or that your quiet village might provide the sort of distraction that will draw Melissa past this bothersome stage.
With my love, however distracted, Henrietta.
Although Therese kept her gaze on the letter, she was conscious of Melissa surreptitiously watching her, waiting to gauge her reaction. The seal on the note had been unbroken, and Therese felt certain her elder daughter would not have told Melissa what she’d written; Henrietta might not think of herself as clever, but she was innately shrewd.
Therese would be the first to admit that she knew very little about schoolgirls going through their tiresome phase. She did recall that girls went through such stages, but for herself, she’d simply handed her daughters into the care of their excellently well-qualified governesses, and when next she’d seen Henrietta and Celia, they’d been well-behaved and perfectly groomed for their debuts into society.
Being a highly regarded diplomat’s wife who had spent most of her children’s formative years posted out of the country had, for Therese, meant that she’d avoided many of the parental ruts in life’s road.
So she’d never faced the challenge of guiding a young girl past the difficult stage—when, as far as she’d seen, they jibbed like unbroken fillies at every constraint society imposed upon them. That much, she understood; she could even sympathize. Indeed, her own solution, now she thought back over the years, had been to find ways around the constraints—or at least around the constraints that had mattered to her. The others, she’d accepted without a qualm, which was how, in her view, one successfully carved one’s own path through life.
Sadly, she doubted lecturing Melissa on her own long-ago approach would help; the young were so resistant to believing their elders had ever suffered through the same experiences. Nevertheless, not for a moment did Therese consider sending Melissa on to Celia; the poor girl would be bored witless, and her unfortunate ways of dealing with her present challenges might only grow more entrenched.
Perhaps the same sort of distraction Therese was hoping to find for Jamie, George, and Lottie might also serve to give Melissa a purpose—one beyond worrying about how others saw her. Therese knew of no current issue in Little Moseley that required sleuthing or manipulation, but surely something would turn up; minor village incidents were, after all, the norm rather than rarities.
After an instant’s further debate, she glanced at Jamie. “Ring for Crimmins, if you would, dear boy.”
Jamie leapt to his feet and tugged the bellpull hanging by the mantelpiece while Therese returned her gaze to Henrietta’s letter.
Crimmins walked in a minute later. “Yes, my lady?”
Therese finally looked up, met Melissa’s uncertain gaze, and smiled. “Please ask Mrs. Crimmins to make up the room next to mine and tell her and the rest of the staff that Miss Melissa will be spending the next few weeks at the manor—she’ll travel on to Winslow Abbey with the rest of us.”
The announcement was greeted with cheers from Celia’s three and insufficiently disguised relief from Melissa. Had the poor girl really thought Therese would deny her and send her on? Therese felt her heart constrict a little at the thought.
“Indeed, ma’am.” Crimmins smiled. “At once.” He bowed and withdrew.
Directing her words at Melissa, Therese went on, “That room is one of the smaller bedchambers, but as Jamie, George, and Lottie have laid claim to the nursery, I thought you might prefer a more private space.”
Melissa nodded; Therese could almost see her tension easing—like a tightly furled flower oh-so-tentatively opening.
Therese smiled. “Once again, my dear, welcome to Hartington Manor and Little Moseley.”
Melissa hadn’t yet relaxed enough to smile, but she inclined her head and gravely said, “Thank you, Grandmama.”
Therese tipped her head in gracious acknowledgment and inwardly vowed that before she and her tribe of four left the manor for Winslow Abbey, Melissa would be smiling again.
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