Under the Mistletoe

A Family Christmas

A year before the start of the story Elizabeth, daughter of the extravagant and impoverished Viscount Templar, made an arranged marriage with Edwin Chambers, the son of a wealthy businessman. But she has been living almost ever since at Wyldwood Hall, Edwin's country home, with her parents while Edwin has lived in London. Now, soon after her mother has invited all their large family to Wyldwood for Christmas, Elizabeth has learned that Edwin is coming too. Read about his arrival and his first meeting with his wife in a long while.

He swung down from the saddle outside the great double front doors and handed the reins to a groom, who had materialized from the stables without having to be summoned. He wondered if his approach had been noted from the house too, if it had been watched for with as much reluctance as he felt. Even as he wondered, the front doors swung open from within, and the butler was bowing regally to him and welcoming him home.

Edwin nodded affably and bade the butler a good afternoon.

"Is Mrs. Chambers at home?" he asked.

But she was coming through the stairway arch even as he spoke, and he was struck again, as he had been thirteen months or so ago, when he had set eyes on her for the first time, by her breath-taking beauty. She was on the tall side, slender and yet shapely. She bore herself with an aristocratic grace that was bred into her very bones. She had dark golden hair, large blue eyes, and perfect features.

She was like an icicle, he had thought from the start--and nothing had happened since to cause him to change that initial impression--ethereally lovely, but icy cold, frigid to the heart. Everything about her bearing and manner proclaimed her contempt for the man who had allowed his father to purchase her as a trophy for his son.

She curtsied. "Mr. Chambers," she said. "I trust you had a pleasant journey?"

He inclined his head to her as he handed a footman his hat and greatcoat and gloves. She had never called him by his given name, though he had invited her to do so when he had called upon her to go through the farce of proposing marriage to her. He had deliberately called her by hers after their nuptials though she had never invited him to do so. Her greeting chilled and irritated him. The married couples from his world did not address each another with such impersonal formality.

"Yes, thank you, Elizabeth," he said. "You are well? You have recovered your health?"

"Yes, thank you," she said.

"And my son?"

The tightening of her lips was almost imperceptible, but it suggested unexpressed annoyance. He wished he could recall his words and speak them again to refer to Jeremy as their son. But he was accustomed to boasting to his friends about his golden-haired boy--my son--whom he had last seen when the child was ten days old.

"He is well, thank you," she said.

If, he thought ruefully, he had married a woman from his own world, she would perhaps have greeted him each evening of the past year on his return home from work with a smile and a kiss and warm, open arms and an eagerness to share her day with him and to hear about his. He would naturally have thought of their child as ours. He would have seen their son every day of the child's life.

But he had only himself to blame that things were not so. His father had not forced him into this marriage. Indeed, he would have been horrified if he had realized that Edwin did not really want it.

"Would you like to go to your room to freshen up?" she asked, her eyes moving over him and making him intensely aware of the less than pristine state of the clothes in which he had been riding for the better part of the day. "I have guests in the drawing room."

"Lord and Lady Templar?" he said. "I trust they are well?"

"Yes, thank you," she said. Her chin rose a notch, and she suddenly looked arrogant as well as cold. "We decided to have a family Christmas here. All the members of my family arrived yesterday."

What? Good Lord! Without any consultation with him? Was he to have been even informed? How disastrous his own decision to come home at such short notice must have seemed to his wife and her family. How disastrous it seemed to him! If he could, he would have turned and left the house without further ado and ridden away back to London. All her family? He had never even met most of them. Their wedding had been a fair-sized affair, but apart from Lord and Lady Templar and their son and daughter-in-law, all the guests had been his family and his friends and his father's. He could not leave now, though.

He would not leave. This was, after all, his home.

"I will meet and welcome them to Wyldwood later," he said. "But first I would like to go to the nursery. Will you come there with me?"

"Of course." She turned to accompany him through the arch to the staircase. She clasped her hands gracefully in front of her, discouraging him from offering his arm.

"How many guests?" he asked as they ascended the stairs. He could hear the chill in his own voice. He had never been able to inject warmth into it when speaking with his wife. How could one hold a warm conversation with an icicle?

"Thirty-two adults altogether," she said. "Thirty-three now."

He winced inwardly. Under different circumstances he might have felt some amusement over the realization that he had made the numbers odd. Doubtless his wife and his mother-in-law had planned meticulously in order to ensure even numbers. He would even be willing to wager that of the other thirty-two adults sixteen were gentlemen and sixteen ladies even though normally one would not expect a family to fall into such a neat pattern.

He was surprised when he opened the nursery door and stood to one side to allow his wife to precede him inside. He had expected a hush appropriate for a sleeping baby. Instead there was a noisy, cheerful hubbub. But of course--there must be children as well as adults in her family. There was a vast number of the former, it seemed, all rushing about at play, all talking--or, rather, yelling--at once. A few nurses were supervising, but by no means subduing, them.

© Mary Balogh