Lady Osbaldestone's Plum Puddings

Lady Osbaldestone's Plum Puddings

An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Volume 3 in Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Chronicles
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-37-8
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-20-0
Release Date: October 17, 2019

#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens brings you the delights of a long-ago country-village Christmas, featuring a grandmother, her grandchildren, an artifact hunter, the lady who catches his eye, and three ancient coins that draw them all together in a Christmas treasure hunt.

Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, and her household again welcome her younger daughter’s children, Jamie, George, and Lottie, plus their cousins Melissa and Mandy, all of whom have insisted on spending the three weeks prior to Christmas at Therese’s house, Hartington Manor, in the village of Little Moseley.

The children are looking forward to the village’s traditional events, and this year, Therese has arranged a new distraction—the plum puddings she and her staff are making for the entire village. But while cleaning the coins donated as the puddings’ good-luck tokens, the children discover that three aren’t coins of the realm. When consulted, Reverend Colebatch summons a friend, an archeological scholar from Oxford, who confirms the coins are Roman, raising the possibility of a Roman treasure buried somewhere near. Unfortunately, Professor Webster is facing a deadline and cannot assist in the search, but along with his niece Honor, he will stay in the village, writing, remaining available for consultation should the children and their helpers uncover more treasure.

It soon becomes clear that discovering the source of the coins—or even which villager donated them—isn’t a straightforward matter. Then the children come across a personable gentleman who knows a great deal about Roman antiquities. He introduces himself as Callum Harris, and they agree to allow him to help, and he gets their search back on track.

But while the manor five, assisted by the gentlemen from Fulsom Hall, scour the village for who had the coins and search the countryside for signs of excavation and Harris combs through the village’s country-house libraries, amassing evidence of a Roman compound somewhere near, the site from which the coins actually came remains a frustrating mystery.

Then Therese recognizes Harris, who is more than he’s pretending to be. She also notes the romance burgeoning between Harris and Honor Webster, and given the girl doesn’t know Harris’s full name, let alone his fraught relationship with her uncle, Therese steps in. But while she can engineer a successful resolution to one romance-of-the-season, as well as a reconciliation long overdue, another romance that strikes much closer to home is beyond her ability to manipulate.

Meanwhile, the search for the source of the coins goes on, but time is running out. Will Therese’s grandchildren and their Fulsom Hall helpers locate the Roman merchant’s villa Harris is sure lies near before they all must leave the village for Christmas with their families?

December 1, 1812

Hartington Manor, Little Moseley, Hampshire

“I have a job for you, children. And for Mandy and Melissa as well.” Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, halted in the middle of her private parlor and waved forward her butler, Crimmins, who had followed her into the room.

Crimmins was carrying two large glass jars filled with coins; he walked to the low table between the chaise and the armchairs before the fireplace and carefully set down both jars.

Therese’s grandchildren, Jamie, George, and Lottie—the three older children of Therese’s younger daughter, Celia—had delighted Therese and the manor staff by insisting on returning for the third year in a row to spend the weeks leading up to Christmas with their grandmama, the manor household, and the villagers of Little Moseley. Now ten, nine, and seven years old respectively, behind the restrained social façades all three were slowly perfecting as befitted their station in life, the trio remained the same scamps who had first burst on the village consciousness by tying together the ropes of the church bells and attempting to play a peal.

This year, the three stalwarts had been accompanied by the daughters of Therese’s older daughter, Henrietta. The younger, Melissa, had joined the festivities in Little Moseley the previous year, and this time, Melissa’s older sister, Amanda, known to all as Mandy, had insisted on coming as well.

Therese suspected Mandy had been intrigued by Melissa’s reports of Little Moseley—and by the positive change in Melissa after her previous visit—and had come to see what was so special about a tiny village in Hampshire. As a significant factor in Melissa’s improvement last year had been the impact of Viscount Dagenham, another visitor to the village, Therese had to wonder whether this year’s events would live up to Mandy’s—and Melissa’s—expectations.

The five had arrived yesterday, all together in the Winslow carriage, which had traveled from Winslow Abbey in Northamptonshire—seat of the Earls of Winslow and Jamie, George, and Lottie’s home—via London and North House, Lord North’s residence in Mount Street, collecting sixteen-year-old Mandy and fifteen-year-old Melissa before rolling on to rural Hampshire.

Therese had been thrilled to welcome all five children and had been particularly pleased to see the smile on Melissa’s face and the light of anticipation in her eyes.

Having learned from experience, Therese had organized a task to keep the children occupied, and with breakfast done and louring skies and an icy wind making venturing out unappealing, this morning seemed an opportune time to introduce her distraction.

As Crimmins stepped back, Jamie, George, and Lottie dropped to their knees around the table and, eyes wide, examined the jars. Lottie poked one. “What are these?”

George squinted through the glass. “They’re pennies, I think.”

Therese nodded. “Indeed. They’re coins donated by the villagers to be used as good-luck tokens in the plum puddings the manor is making for the village.”

That year’s harvest had resulted in a bumper crop of damson plums—so many luscious plums that no one had known what to do with all the fruit, until Mrs. Haggerty, the manor’s cook, had suggested using her special recipe for Christmas plum pudding, and given the quantity of fruit available, Therese had hit on the notion of making plum puddings for the entire village as the manor’s contribution to the Christmas festivities.

The manor staff had embraced the idea, and when Therese had mentioned it to others, the villagers—many of whom were aware of Mrs. Haggerty’s culinary skills—had leapt on the notion. The Whitesheafs, who owned and operated the Cockspur Arms Public House, just along the village lane, had insisted that, as the manor was providing the puddings, then the rest of the village should throw in their silver pennies to be used as the traditional good-luck tokens buried within each pudding.

Although Therese had been prepared to donate the pennies herself, faced with the insistence of the villagers and cognizant of the issue of pride, she’d acquiesced to the Whitesheafs’ suggestion, and two large jars had duly been set out, one on the bar at the Arms and the other on the counter of Mountjoy’s Store, farther up the lane.

“One jar is from the Arms, and the other, from Mountjoy’s.” Therese watched Jamie examine one jar, then carefully ease off the lid.

Jamie and Lottie peered inside.

Lottie dipped in her small hand, lifted out a handful of coins, and let the silvery discs slip through her fingers; they tinkled as they struck the others in the jar.

“What do you want us to do with these, Grandmama?” Jamie looked up at Therese.

Unable to hold back any longer, Mandy and Melissa—who’d been doing an excellent imitation of superior young ladies—dropped from the chaise to their knees on the other side of the low table. They, too, looked questioningly Therese’s way.

She smiled, glanced around, and stepped back to allow Mrs. Crimmins, the manor’s housekeeper, to ferry in a tray of cloths and assorted stiff-bristled brushes. The maids, Tilly and Dulcie, followed, each carefully carrying a basin of water—one sporting soapy suds, the other, clean, clear water.

Jamie and George slid the jars to the far end of the table, and Mrs. Crimmins and the maids arranged their supplies before the children, then, smiling, stepped back and retreated, leaving Therese to explain, “Before we can put any coins into puddings, the coins must be washed until they’re clean, then dried and polished.”

“Until they gleam!” Lottie grinned at Therese.

Therese graciously inclined her head. “If at all possible. It’s always more uplifting to discover gleaming silver in one’s pudding, rather than a tarnished coin.”

Mandy had ducked her head to peer into one of the jars. “Do we clean them all?”

“As far as you’re able,” Therese replied. “With five pairs of hands, it shouldn’t take too long. I would think you’ll be done by the time the gong for luncheon sounds.”

“Let’s tip out the jars, then work through the coins.” Carefully, with the others putting their hands on the table to contain rolling coins, Jamie upended one of the jars.

They mounded the coins into a stable pile. George drew several coins toward him, studied them, then looked at Therese. “They aren’t all pennies.” He glanced at the pile. “There are threepennies and sixpences as well.”

Therese arched her brows. “It seems some in the village have been generous.” She thought for a second, then said, “I suspect we’d better separate the denominations. Make stacks of each—pennies, threepennies, and sixpences. And keep any non-silver coins aside—they can’t go into puddings.”

“Yes, Grandmama,” the five chorused.

Therese lingered long enough to see the five settle, remarkably amicably, to their task. Somewhat to her surprise, Mandy didn’t attempt to translate her status as eldest into being the leader; that mantle clearly rested on Jamie’s shoulders, as if by unstated acclaim. Under his direction, he, George, and Lottie washed and scrubbed the coins, while Mandy and Melissa dried and polished them.

“Once you’ve finished polishing the coins, stack them as pennies, threepennies, and sixpences,” Jamie instructed his older cousins.

Sorting the drying and polishing cloths, Mandy and Melissa merely nodded.

Therese hid a smile and left them to it. She retreated to her writing desk beneath the windows overlooking the forecourt and settled to deal with her correspondence.

The clink of coins and the murmur of children’s voices formed a pleasant backdrop as Therese scribed letters to her far-flung acquaintance. At one point, Crimmins entered with mugs of cocoa and biscuits for the workers and a small pot of tea for Therese. Pausing in her industry, she remained at the desk, sipping and observing.

The children barely paused to gulp down their cocoa and munch the shortbread biscuits before returning to their task; they’d made it a game to see how well they could clean each coin—how silvery they could make it—not in competition with each other but rather as a united force determined to eradicate the bane of tarnished coins.

Smiling to herself, Therese set aside her empty cup and returned to her letters.

She finally signed and sealed her fifth and last missive and placed it with the others for Crimmins to take to the post office, which was part of Mountjoy’s Store.

Therese rose and looked down the room at the handsome onyx clock on the mantelpiece, then lowered her gaze to the activity on and around the low table before the fire. “My dears, it’s nearly time for luncheon. How are you progressing?”

“We’re almost done!” Jamie glanced up and grinned, then returned to roughly sorting the coins. “The stacks got mixed up. George and Lottie have the keenest eyes, so they’re checking each coin and putting it in the right pile.”

Therese noted that George and Lottie were peering closely at each coin before placing it in one of the three clusters of stacked coins before them.

“And these”—Mandy swished her hand in the rinsing bowl and fished out four silver pennies—“are the last of the scrubbed coins.”

“We just need to dry and polish them”—Melissa reached for two of the coins—“and give them to George and Lottie, and we’ll be finished.”

“Excellent! As soon as you are, tidy up here, then come through to the dining room.” Therese turned toward her writing desk. “I’m going to give my letters to Crimmins. I’ll see you at the table.”

She left behind her a flurry of activity as George and Lottie, frowning in concentration, verified the washed and polished coins as fast as they could, with Jamie passing the coins he’d sorted to them for a final verdict.

On the other side of the table, Melissa and Mandy grinned at each other as they dried and rubbed the remaining coins, pausing to hold each up to check its cleanliness and its gleam, then rubbing and polishing some more.

Finally, they pushed the last coins across the table to Jamie. “That’s it!” Mandy declared.

“Now to tidy up.” Melissa collected the used rags and cloths and placed them on the tray with the brushes.

Mandy peered into the basins, noted the lowered levels in both, then carefully tipped the water from one basin into the other.

Jamie nudged the final coins toward George. “Here,” he said to Mandy, “I’ll help.” He gripped the almost-full bowl and raised it, allowing Mandy to slide the empty bowl beneath.

“That,” Mandy said, as Jamie lowered the full bowl into the empty one, “will make it easier for Crimmins.”

“What’s this?”

They all looked at George, who was squinting at a coin—one of those Jamie had just passed him.

“It isn’t a penny.” George shook his head. “Not like any silver penny I’ve ever seen.”

Lottie leaned closer, then reached out and took the coin from George’s fingers. She turned it in hers, scrutinizing one face, then the other. “It’s not a sixpence or a threepenny, either. And it doesn’t have any of the usual people on the back.”

“Let me see.” Jamie held out a hand, and Lottie surrendered the coin.

She returned to the six coins she had yet to sort into their appropriate pile. She quickly worked through them, then paused with one coin in her fingers. “Here’s another one.”

“Really?” George leaned over to look, then nodded. “It’s the same or as near as makes no odds.” Immediately, he bent over the last four coins on the table before him. “Penny, penny, sixpence, and…” He hesitated, then held up the last coin. “Another odd one, but not the same.”

Jamie frowned. “So we have three silver coins that aren’t pennies, threepennies, or sixpences.”

“Coins of the realm,” Mandy put in.

Jamie nodded. “Yes—three silver coins that aren’t coins of the realm. Two are alike, and the third is different again.”

The five exchanged glances.

The resonant bongof the gong summoning them to luncheon reverberated through the house.

The children’s gazes met again, then they scrambled to their feet.

“Let’s go and wash and tidy ourselves,” Mandy said, “then show the coins to Grandmama.”

* * *

Six minutes later, the five filed into the dining room.

Already seated at the table’s head, Therese took in their expressions—ones of puzzled curiosity—and arched her brows in mute query.

In reply, while the others slipped into their seats about the table, Jamie approached and laid three coins on the snowy-white cloth beside Therese’s plate. “Among the last coins, we found these.”

“Did you, indeed?” She peered at the coins. After a second, she groped for her lorgnettes, found and deployed them, and examined the coins more closely.

Jamie slipped onto the chair to her left.

“Of all the coins we cleaned,” Melissa said from her place on Therese’s right, “those three are the most worn away.”

“We couldn’t make out the writing.” George tipped his head. “Well, other than to know it isn’t like what’s on any of our normal coins.”

“We wondered,” Jamie said, “if these coins might be old.”

“Hmm—I rather think you’re right.” Therese straightened. Her gaze still on the coins, she snapped her lorgnettes shut, then released them to hang on their ribbon about her neck. “I suspect these might be Roman coins. They’re certainly foreign. As for how old they might be…I fear I can’t even hazard a guess.”

The door opened, and Crimmins came in, bearing a steaming tureen from which a tantalizing aroma issued forth.

Noting the sudden focusing of the children’s attention on the tureen and the platter of freshly baked rolls Mrs. Crimmins brought in, Therese hid a smile. “Let’s eat first—after all your hard work this morning, you must be quite ravenous. After the meal, we can decide what to do with your discovery.”

With murmurs of agreement, the children applied themselves to the soup, the rolls, and the pies that followed.

By the time the empty platters and plates had been cleared and the five turned expectant gazes once more on Therese, she had their way forward worked out. “I don’t know enough about the field of numismatics.” She looked at Jamie and George. “Do you know what that is?”

The boys exchanged a glance, then George guessed, “The study of coins?”

Therese smiled. “Indeed. And I know even less about ancient coins, so I suggest we seek some scholarly advice.”

“From whom?” Jamie asked.

“Is there someone in the village who knows about old coins?” Mandy’s tone signaled both surprise and hope.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Therese replied. “But in seeking such a person, there is someone we can ask. Someone who, most likely, will be able to steer us in the right direction.” She let her gaze circle the table, touching each eager face. “However, before we set out with these odd coins in hand, we should deliver the fruits of your morning’s labors—the cleaned and polished coins for the puddings—to Mrs. Haggerty or at least into Crimmins’s keeping.”

The children nodded and pushed back their chairs. “We washed and dried the jars,” Melissa said. “We can put the coins back for safekeeping.”

Therese held up a hand, staying the exodus. “Before you return the coins to the jars, might I suggest you make one last careful check, to make sure there are no more strange and alien coins in the collection?”

Already on their feet, Jamie and George exchanged a glance. “We’ll check,” George said.

“I’ll hold these.” Therese swept the three coins into her palm. “Go and deal with the other coins, then come and find me, and we’ll take these odd ones to the vicarage and see what counsel Reverend Colebatch has to offer.”

The five hurried out of the dining room, leaving Therese smiling. Her holiday distraction was bidding fair to being more diverting than she’d anticipated.

* * *

Lottie’s and George’s keen eyes hadn’t played them false; the children unearthed no additional odd coins lurking among the pennies, threepennies, and sixpences.

With the rest of the collection delivered into Crimmins’s care, the five donned their coats, scarves, boots, and mittens and joined Therese in the front hall. She surveyed them critically—it was threatening to sleet outside—but reassured all five were well rugged up, she held out the three coins they’d left with her. “One of you should carry your find.”

She’d expected Jamie to step up, but together with George, Lottie, and Melissa, he looked at Mandy—who was looking expectantly at Jamie.

He shook his head. “Not me—you’re the eldest, and you’re part of our group. You should carry our discovery.”

Mandy blinked, and a touch of color tinted her cheeks. She hesitated, then said, “If you’re sure?”

“We’re sure you’re the eldest,” George said, “so yes, we’re sure.”

Mandy pinked a touch more, then stepped forward and drew out her handkerchief. She laid the lawn square over her gloved palm, and after Therese set the three old coins on the fine fabric, Mandy carefully knotted the ends to form a small bundle. “There.” She tucked the bundle into her pocket. “Now they’ll be safe.”

With everyone satisfied—and Therese quietly proud of Jamie and the others for making Mandy’s acceptance as one of them so plain—they set out to negotiate the drive and the short walk to the vicarage.

Given the threatening weather, they kept to the lane rather than taking their usual route up the church drive and through the graveyard. Being devoid of distractions—such as gravestones—the way via the lane was quicker, and in no time at all, Therese was nodding at Jamie to tug the vicarage’s bell chain, which he did with enthusiastic vigor.

Henrietta Colebatch opened the door. Her face lit when she saw Therese and her brood.

Therese returned her smile. “Good afternoon, Henrietta.”

“Good afternoon, my lady—and to all your young ones, too!”

The children immediately chorused “Good afternoon, Mrs. Colebatch” and bobbed and bowed.

Henrietta beckoned them inside. “Do come in out of the cold—such a nasty wind today.”

They quickly filed over the threshold and were soon ensconced in the shabby yet comfortable vicarage sitting room. The fire had been built up and threw out welcome heat.

Henrietta waved at the lighted lamps. “I’ve had to close the curtains—when the wind rushes in from the northeast, it worms its way past the window frames, and the drafts are horrendous.”

Therese introduced Mandy, who rose and bobbed a curtsy. Therese continued, “And you will remember the others, although I daresay the boys, at least, have grown several inches over the past year.”

“Indeed, they have,” Henrietta replied. “And little Lottie has grown, too.” She smiled on all three and exchanged nods with Melissa. “It’s lovely to see you all back again, my dears. The rest of the village will be delighted as well—indeed, our new choirmaster, Mr. Moody, is hoping to put together a special choir for the carol service in the same way that Mr. Mortimer did last year. Mr. Moody was hoping more of our regular visitors would arrive to swell his numbers.”

Therese looked at her grandchildren and noted that the four who had formed part of Mortimer’s memorable choir looked keen, while Mandy looked curious and hopeful. “I believe you can inform Mr. Moody that the manor can supply five reasonably well-trained voices.” Her grandchildren threw her encouraging looks, and she smiled, then turned to Henrietta. “But the choir and general village events are not what has brought us to your door. By any chance, is Reverend Colebatch available?”

“Jeremy’s in his study.” Henrietta pushed to her feet. “Let me see if I can winkle him out.”

“Tell him we’re here to pick his brains regarding old coins,” Therese said.

Henrietta’s brows rose. “I suspect that will bring him running.”

Her words were prophetic; while Reverend Jeremy Colebatch didn’t quite run, he certainly strode into the room with a spring in his step.

“Well, then.” He clapped his hands together and beamed. “What have we here?” After exchanging nods with Therese, he greeted Jamie, George, and Lottie with genuine pleasure, acknowledged Melissa and Mandy, then sank into the worn armchair beside Therese. “I have to admit I’ve been wrestling with my Sunday sermon for hours and would welcome any distraction. So!” He widened his eyes at Therese, then glanced at the children. “How may I be of assistance?”

Therese gestured to Mandy, who had pulled out her handkerchief and was loosening the knot. “As you know,” Therese said, “the village has been collecting coins—silver pennies, with the occasional threepenny and sixpence thrown in—for use in the plum puddings. While cleaning the collected coins this morning, the children discovered these.”

With the handkerchief spread on her palm, the coins shining against the white, Mandy leaned forward and held out her hand so the reverend could examine their find.

He looked, then reached into his pocket and drew out a pair of pince-nez. After balancing them on his nose, he peered again, then picked up one of the coins and studied it—first one side, then the reverse.

Reverend Colebatch blinked. “Good heavens!” He squinted again, then returned the coin and picked up another.

The children exchanged excited glances and waited, their gazes following the reverend’s every move, every twitch of expression crossing his face.

Finally, Reverend Colebatch returned the third coin to Mandy’s palm, glanced briefly at Therese, then looked at the children. “Am I to take it you found these coins mixed in with all the rest?”

Jamie nodded. “Do you know what they are?”

“Yes and, sadly, no. I strongly suspect all three are Roman, but while I’ve heard of the like, I’ve never actually seen Roman coins myself. I can’t tell you anything of what type of coin they are or what period or reign they’re from.” The reverend held up a finger. “However, I know of an antiquities scholar who, I believe, will be able to tell you all you wish to know about these coins.”

“Who?” George asked.

“An old friend from my university days—Professor Hildebrand Webster of Brentmore College in Oxford. He has a sound reputation, established over many years, in the field of ancient artifacts, and these coins, I believe, fall firmly within his area of expertise.” The reverend glanced at Therese, then looked at the children. “If you wish it, I would be happy to write to the professor and tell him of your discovery and ask his advice as to how best to proceed.”

Therese looked at the children and arched her brows.

The five exchanged glances, then Jamie—who, when it came to Reverend Colebatch, appeared to be the elected spokesman—nodded. “That sounds like an excellent idea. Until we know what the coins are, we don’t even know if there’s anything to be excited about.”

“Exactly so!” Reverend Colebatch clapped his palms on the chair’s arms and pushed to his feet. “I’ll write straightaway—although I warn you, even if my letter goes out in tomorrow morning’s mail, it’ll be the better part of a week before we can hope to hear back…” He paused, head cocking in thought, then went on, “Of course, knowing Hildebrand, it’s most likely he’ll come himself.” Reverend Colebatch refocused on the children and grinned. “I can’t imagine he won’t want to examine these coins in person.”

To Therese’s eyes, the children looked a trifle less enthused at the notion of an erudite professor descending on them and their find, but all five managed a grateful smile.

“Perhaps,” she said, “while we’re waiting for the professor to write back, the children might attempt to learn how the coins found their way into our collection. Once we know who put the coins in the jar, presumably, we’ll be able to learn where that person found them.”

“Indeed!” Reverend Colebatch clapped his hands together and gripped, as if to restrain his building excitement. “If Hildebrand comes to examine the coins, that, undoubtedly, will be the very first thing he’ll want to know.” He looked at the children. “This could lead to a very important discovery for the entire village.” With a last nod to them all, he swung on his heel. “I’ll take myself off and write that letter forthwith.”

Mrs. Colebatch insisted on serving them afternoon tea, and as the scones of her cook, Mrs. Hatchett, were a legend in the village, everyone readily acquiesced.

Once the scones were devoured and the teacups drained, Therese and her tribe took their leave of Mrs. Colebatch, who, given the reverend hadn’t reappeared, promised to ensure that the vital letter was completed, properly addressed, and sent out for the post first thing in the morning. “Never fear,” Mrs. Colebatch said and waved them on their way.

The sky was darkening ominously, and the wind had risen, howling through the treetops as they made their way along the lane and up the manor’s drive.

Therese walked with the children around her, Jamie and George solicitously flanking her, instinctively behaving as their very correct father would.

“Where should we start our search?” Lottie asked.

“How should we search?” Mandy looked at the others.

George glanced back along the lane. “Perhaps we should pop along to the Arms and Mountjoy’s Store before the store closes for the day and ask if anyone there knows about our odd coins.”

It was already after four o’clock, and the light was swiftly fading. “I suggest,” Therese said, “that in this case, a logical approach will serve you best. I would advise spending the evening planning, then you may commence your hunt in the most effective manner in the morning.”

Her pronouncement met with ready agreement; none of them truly wished to forsake the warmth of her private parlor for the increasingly frigid darkness.

“We’ll draw up a plan,” Jamie declared. “A campaign to discover the source of our coins.”

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