What Happens at Christmas



December 18, 1886

“And you believe this is a good idea.” Beryl, Lady Dunwell, said to her sister. Her expression failed to reveal whether her words were in the guise of a question or a comment which was, as always most annoying. More so as her sister’s face was the mirror image of her own and one should never be in doubt as to what one’s own twin was thinking.

“No, in truth I don’t believe it’s a good idea. Wearing the appropriate cloak for the weather is a good idea. Insisting on references before hiring a new servant is a good idea. Having an equal number of ladies and gentlemen at a dinner party is a good idea. This. . .” Camille, Lady Lydingham, leaned forward slightly and met her sister’s gaze with a firmness which belied any niggling doubts in the back of her mind. “Is a brilliant idea.”

“I suspect the brilliance of it is dependent upon whether or not it goes awry.” Beryl studied her sister over the rim of her teacup.

In recent months, the twins had made it a habit to meet at least every other week at the Ladies Tearoom at Fenwick and Sons, Booksellers. It had become quite the place for ladies of society to gather. Even now, there was scarcely an empty table to be had. Camille wasn’t sure why it had become so popular, the room itself was not unlike the other rooms in the bookseller’s establishment, lined with shelves and filled with books in what appeared to be a random order. The tea and cakes were excellent but excellent did not always go hand in hand with fashionable in society. Regardless, the sisters were nothing if not fashionable and if this was the place to be, this was indeed where they would be.

“And it does seem to me there are any number of things that could go awry,” Beryl continued. “Horribly, horribly awry.”

“Nonsense.” Camille waved off her sister’s warning. “I have given this a great deal of thought and it is a practically perfect plan.”

“It’s the practically that should give you pause,” Beryl said in a wry tone.

“No plan can be completely perfect although. . .” Camille thought for a moment. “I daresay this is as close to perfect as possible. Mother and Delilah are spending Christmas in Paris with her friend, Countess Something-or-other, and will not return to England until well after the new year. Uncle Basil is on safari in Africa and, as you well know, when he goes off like this, he will not be back for months. Which serves me quite well as I need a proper English family, having a proper English Christmas in a proper English country house.” Camille heaved a long-suffering sigh. “And while we might well appear proper from a safe distance, close at hand there is very little truly proper about our family.”

“Millworth Manor is rather proper,” Beryl murmured.

“Thank goodness for that.” Camille nodded. “And this year, that proper country house will be filled with a proper family for Christmas.” She narrowed her eyes. “There shall be no dallying between mother and whatever potential lover has thought the spirit of the season would ease his way into her bed. There shall be no lecherous uncle pursuing any unsuspecting females who have caught his eye. There shall be none of mother’s usual stray foreign exiles bemoaning the olden days in whatever country they’re from. Nor will there be aspiring poets, flamboyant artists and absolutely no creative sorts of any type hoping to curry favor and patronage from mother or any of us.”

Beryl raised a brow. “You make it sound like a circus.”

“There’s very little difference between Mother’s house and a circus, especially at Christmas although a circus is probably less chaotic.” Camille heaved a heartfelt sigh. “If Father were still with us—”

“Well, he isn’t,” Beryl said sharply. “He’s been gone for twenty years now and even at Christmas, there is nothing to be gained by wishing for what one can’t possibly have.” She drew a deep breath. “However, I suppose, as you are going to a great deal of trouble and expense no doubt—”

“Good Lord, yes.” Camille shook her head. “I had no idea the price of hiring a troupe of actors would be so dear.”

“Well, you are replacing an entire household. Let’s see.” Beryl thought for a moment. “There’s one to play the role of the well-meaning, ambitious, somewhat flighty mother, another for the aging rogue who doesn’t quite understand he is neither as charming or as dashing as he once was, one for the role of the always indignant, somewhat superior, younger sister—” Beryl fixed her sister with a firm look. “Delilah would never go along with this you know.”

“Then it is fortunate she is in Paris with Mother.” It never failed to amaze either Camille or Beryl that their younger sister had a distinct lack of imagination and an overdeveloped sense of propriety. Where did she get it? “And don’t forget, aside from the primary players, there’s the supporting cast.” Camille ticked the roles off on her fingers. “I needed a butler, of course, as well as a housekeeper, a cook and an assortment of maids and footmen. I am bringing my lady’s maid however.”

“What did you do with Mother’s servants?” Beryl stared. “What have you done with Clement?”

“You needn’t look at me as if I’ve done away with him and buried him in the garden.” Camille rolled her gaze toward the ceiling. “As even Mother is rarely at the manor for Christmas, in recent years, Clement has spent Christmas with his niece in Wales, I believe. It’s silly to have a butler on the premises if there is no one there. I sent the rest off on holiday, paid of course.”

“Of course,” Beryl murmured.

“Yet another expense. However, I have been assured most of the troupe is better at keeping a house than they are on stage which is fortunate as I do expect them to do so.” Camille lowered her voice in a confidential manner. “From what I understand, most of the players have been in service fairly recently. So that part of it should work out nicely.”

“Oh, well, as long as they can tend to the house . . .”

“They are not the least bit famous, as actors that is, which, on one hand is convenient and on the other, something of a concern.” Camille drummed her fingers absently on the table. “I do need them to be believable but I should hate to have any of them recognized so their lack of theatrical success is a benefit.”

Beryl stared as if she couldn’t quite believe her ears. “It is so hard to get good help.”

“Indeed it is. However, as they are not in particular demand, they are more than willing to take on this . . . production as it were. And as costly as they are, they would have charged so much more if they were well known.” Camille smiled smugly.

“It’s fortunate you can afford them.”

“Thank goodness Harold left me with a tidy fortune.”

Harold, Viscount Lydingham, had been substantially older than Camille when they had wed. But then, older men with wealth and position were precisely the type of gentlemen their mother had trained her three daughters to wed. And Beryl, Camille and Delilah had obediently done so. Their reward was to be widowed and financially independent at an age young enough to enjoy life and pursue love should they be so inclined.

Still, Harold had been a very nice man. Camille considered herself fortunate to have found him and they had been, for the most part, happy or at least content. His demands on her had been minimal through the eight years of their marriage. She had proven herself an excellent wife and, indeed, she had been quite fond of him. Why, she hadn’t even considered dallying with another man for a full two years after his death out of respect. Even now, four years after his passing, she still rather missed Harold.

“And you’re doing it all to impress a man—”

“Not merely a man. A prince,” Camille said in a lofty manner. Yes, both of her sisters had married well and Beryl’s second husband might well be prime minister someday but neither of her sisters had ever come close to genuine royalty. “Prince Nikolai Pruzinsky of the ruling family of the Kingdom of. . .of. . . Oh, I can’t remember where but it’s one of those tiny countries that litter central Europe.”

“But you barely know this man.”

“Marriage will solve that.”

“Still, this scheme of yours seems rather excessive.”

“Perhaps it is but it’s well worth the trouble and the expense. He has an immense fortune and his own castle, besides which he is quite handsome and dashing and, well, he’s a prince. Which means I shall be a princess. He is everything I have ever wanted and he is this close—” Camille held up her hand and pinched her forefinger and thumb to within an inch of each other—”to proposing. He hasn’t actually said the words yet but he has dropped more than a few hints. I’m confident all he needs now is to be assured that our family is worthy of being elevated to royalty.”

“Which you shall prove by presenting him with a proper English family and a proper English Christmas?”

“Exactly.” Camille nodded.

Beryl refilled her cup from the pot on their table and Camille knew, the way one twin nearly always knew what the other was thinking, her sister was choosing her words with care. “It seems to me that, should you indeed marry him, at some point in time he shall have to meet Mother and Delilah and Uncle Basil. The real ones that is. Perhaps at the wedding. Have you considered that?”

“Admittedly, I have not worked it all out but I will.” She waved off her sister’s comment. “First and foremost is Christmas which involves a great deal of planning. You may not have noticed, but Christmas is bearing down upon us with the inevitability of a . . . a . . .”

“A boulder rolling downhill ready to obliterate all in its path?” Beryl asked with an overly sweet smile.

“I wouldn’t put it quite that way but yes.”

“And after Christmas? What then?”

“Admittedly, I don’t really know. Yet, but I will. The rest will fall into place,” Camille said with a confidence she didn’t entirely feel. “I shall cross those awkward roads when they present themselves. I can’t be expected to know every minor detail as of yet but I am certain I shall come up with something brilliant.”

“As brilliant as hiring actors to play the part of your family for Christmas?”

Camille clenched her teeth. Beryl had an annoying habit of being entirely too sensible on occasion. “Even more brilliant I should think.”

“You’ll need it. Your current brilliant idea is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. It can’t possibly succeed.”

“Goodness, Beryl, at this time of year in particular one should have a little faith.”

Beryl stared in obvious disbelief. “Faith?”

“Yes, faith,” Camille said firmly. “Before the wedding, I suspect, I will confess all. He is already smitten with me and by then, I have every confidence he will forgive this tiny farce on my part—”

Beryl choked on her tea. “Tiny?”

“Relatively tiny.” Camille nodded. “He will probably find it most amusing. He is easily amused. And it’s not as if I am misrepresenting who I am or who we are. Not really. Our family lineage is exactly as I have said it’s just the individual personalities that can be a bit . . . unorthodox. Mother and Uncle Basil that is. In truth, I am simply trying to protect the poor man and give him the traditional English Christmas that he expects and deserves. In many ways it is my Christmas gift to him. And I am confident we shall have a good laugh about all this. Eventually.”

“You do realize you’re quite mad.”

“Or quite clever.” Camille tapped her temple with her forefinger. “Like a fox.”

“An insane fox perhaps. You haven’t thought this through, Camille. This is another one of your impulsive adventures.”

“Nonsense. I gave up impulsive adventures at least a year ago.”

“After the Brighton incident?”

“Yes, well, probably. It’s of no significance now.”

She did so hate to be reminded of what her family referred to as The Brighton Incident. It had not been her finest hour and embodied all the errors in judgment she’d ever made rolled into one even if it had seemed so delightful when she had thought of it. The incident had skated on the sharp edge of full-fledged scandal involving an ill conceived wager prompted by entirely too much champagne, two of her close friends who were even more inebriated than she, a masked out-of-doors ball and costumes that came perilously close to no clothing at all. They had only been saved from complete and utter ruin because their faces were hidden, they had relatively spotless reputations (who would have suspected them of all people?), and it was the off-season. Few knew the names of the ladies behind the masks.

“I have given this a great deal of thought.” Indeed, she’d had so much to accomplish she hadn’t thought of anything else.

“I can’t believe you are going to all this trouble.” Beryl narrowed her eyes and considered her sister. “It’s not for his money. Harold left you with more than you can possibly spend in a lifetime, certainly more than enough to buy your own castle should you wish to do so. Is it for his title?”
“I have always thought Princess Camille has a lovely sound to it.”

“Even so, I can’t . . .” Beryl’s eyes widened. “Are you in love with him?”

“There is nothing about the man not to love,” Camille said in a cautious manner. Still, she’d only been in love once and that was when she was very young and quite foolish and hadn’t quite realized she’d been in love until it was too late. She’d been extraordinarily fond of Harold and had loved him after a fashion but she’d never been in love with him. She wasn’t at all sure there was much use for true love in a practical world although admittedly, it would be nice. “I suspect he may well be in love with me.”

“That wasn’t my question.”

“We’ve never married for love in this family,” Camille said staunchly. It wasn’t entirely true. She had long suspected Mother had married for love which was no doubt why she had raised her daughters to marry for other reasons. In this respect alone, Mother was a very practical woman.

“But do you—”

“Not at the moment. But I fully expect to,” she added quickly. “Indeed, I am quite confident in no time at all I shall love him with my whole heart and soul. There is nothing about him not to love.”

“You said that.”

“It bears repeating.”

“Yes, well, an immense fortune and a royal title does make it easier to love.” Beryl cast her sister a pleasant smile.

Camille wasn’t fooled for a moment. The smile might well be pleasant but the sarcasm was unmistakable.

“You’re scarcely one to talk. You married your first husband, Charles, for precisely the same reasons I married Harold.”

“I was quite fond of Charles,” Beryl said firmly.

“Yes, but you weren’t in love with him. Nor were you in love with Lionel when you married him.”

“No.” Beryl drew the word out slowly. “But . . .”

Camille stared. “Good Lord, Beryl, don’t tell me you’re in love with your husband.”

“I might be.”

“Nonsense, no one is in love with their own husband.” Camille scoffed. “It simply isn’t done. You certainly didn’t marry him for love.”

“No, I married him because his ambitions matched my own. Now however. . .” Beryl paused then drew a deep breath. “In recent months, since very nearly the start of the year, Lionel and I agreed to forgo our various amorous pursuits and restrict our attentions to one another.”

Camille stared. Her sister and brother-in-law’s extramarital escapades were very nearly legendary. “And?”

“And it’s turning out far better than I would have imagined.” She shrugged. “As it happens I might indeed be in love with my husband.” A bemused smile curved her sister’s lips, as if she couldn’t quite believe her own words. She looked, well, content, even happy. Camille wasn’t sure she had seen a look like that on her sister’s face before. But then she was fairly certain Beryl had never been in love before. The oddest twinge of jealousy stabbed Camille. She ignored it. If her twin was happy, she was happy for her.

“That’s. . .wonderful.”

Beryl’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Do you mean that?”

“Of course I do. You know I wouldn’t say it otherwise.” Camille nodded. “Lord and Lady Dunwell have always had a certain reputation for dalliances and lovers and that sort of thing. It’s simply unexpected, that’s all.”

“No one expected it less than I,” Beryl said under her breath.

“What will the gossips do without you?”

Beryl laughed. “They shall have to make do.”

“I am happy for you.”

“Then you should consider following in my footsteps.”

“What? Marrying a man who might run the country one day?”

“No.” Beryl’s blue eyed gaze met her sister’s. It was, as always, like looking in a mirror. “Fall in love.”

Camille drew her brows together. “It’s not at all like you to go on and on about love. I always thought you considered it rather silly.”

“That’s before I was in love,” Beryl said simply then paused. “You were in love once, if I recall.”

“That was a very long time ago,” Camille said quickly. It was not something she wished to be reminded of. She had turned her back on love then although she’d really had no choice. And if, through the years, there had been a moment or two of regret, a chance thought as to what might have been, it was pointless. She had put him completely out of her head and her heart. She had never asked after him and her sister was wise enough never to bring up his name. Such was the way of life, after all. One did hate to be reminded of mistakes one might have made. There was nothing to be done about it and it was best left in the past where it belonged.

“Don’t you want to know that again?”

“I scarcely knew it at all but I shall,” Camille said firmly. “I fully intend to fall in love.” She picked up the teapot and refilled her cup, taking the time to sort her words.

Why she wished to marry Nikolai wasn’t at all easy to explain without sounding quite mercenary and extremely shallow. And while she certainly had a few mercenary moments and was, on occasion, a bit shallow, she did not think herself to be mercenary and shallow all in all. It wasn’t the prince’s fortune, she had more than enough money. It wasn’t even his title although Princess Camille did have a lovely ring to it. It was, perhaps, the adventure of it. Of being swept away by a handsome prince to a foreign land and there to live happily the rest of her days. Adventure that she scarcely knew existed. Adventure that appealed to something deep inside her. Beryl was entirely too levelheaded to understand but then she had always been the more sensible of the twins. It was the stuff fairy stories were made of and what woman wouldn’t want that? And want it Camille did.

“It isn’t as if I set out to catch a prince. I didn’t even know he was a prince when we first met. He is traveling incognito which he much prefers to do when he is in a foreign country. He says it’s much easier to get to know the people of a country when he is not beleaguered by all the trappings of his royal position. When he is not treated as royalty but rather as an ordinary person.”

“What an. . . enlightened philosophy for a prince.”

“He is most enlightened and very modern. He takes his responsibilities quite seriously and says he wishes to be a prince for the people. It’s quite admirable even if I don’t understand it entirely but then he is foreign and therefore his minor eccentricities can be forgiven. Why, he even prefers that I don’t address him by title, your highness and that sort of thing. He says, until he ascends to the throne, he prefers, when traveling abroad, simply to be known by one of his lesser titles, Count Pruzinsky. In most respects though, he is extremely proper. Why, he hasn’t even kissed me. Although he has requested, begged really, that I call him by his given name. Not proper of course but so wonderfully intimate.”

“Not what one would expect in a prince.”

“I find it most charming. There is nothing at all like being in the confidence of royalty, you know.”

“I don’t but I shall take your word for it.” Beryl considered her curiously. “And how did you meet this unusual prince?”

“We crossed paths quite by accident. I was leaving a ball and he was just arriving. I stumbled on a pebble and he caught me.” She smiled at the memory. “It was quite romantic and, well, fate.”

“I see.”

“I like him a great deal.”

Beryl nodded. “You wouldn’t marry him otherwise.”

“He might well be my last opportunity to marry and fall in love.”

“You might consider falling in love first and then marrying the man in question.”

“Odd advice coming from you. And how long shall I wait for that to happen, sister dear?” Camille wrinkled her nose. “We have, after all, passed our thirtieth year and who knows how many more opportunities for. . .”

“Happiness?” Beryl offered.

“Exactly.” Camille nodded firmly. “This may be my last chance. I have no doubt he will make me very happy and I intend to be an excellent wife.”

“And princess.”

“I shall make a very good princess.” Camille grinned. “We shall have little princes and princesses and grow old together. And we shall be very, very happy.”

Beryl smiled. “Then you should let nothing stand in your way.”

“I don’t intend to.” She drew a deep breath. “But I will need your assistance.”

Beryl raised a brow. “Oh?”

“I intend to go to Mother’s house the day after tomorrow and it certainly wouldn’t be Christmas without my sister, my twin sister—”

Beryl’s eyes narrowed.

“So. . . ” The words came out in a rush. “I do hope you and Lionel will join us for Christmas in the country.”


Camille nodded.

“As in you, the prince and a troupe of actors pretending to be family?”

Camille sighed. “It sounds rather absurd when you say it that way.”

“There’s no way to say it that it doesn’t sound absurd.”

“You must understand, it’s not simply that we are not especially traditional but Nikolai seems to have some sort of odd passion for an English Christmas. Yet another eccentricity but then foreigners can be so very . . .”

“Foreign?” Beryl offered.

“Exactly.” Camille nodded. “He has read all of Mr. Dickens Christmas works. Oh, the Cricket on the Hearth and The Chimes and, of course, A Christmas Carol. And I want to give him a traditional English Christmas with a proper sort of English family. It what he longs for.” She forced a wistful note to her voice. “It seems so very little really.”

“As well as convince him he would not be marrying into a family of questionable propriety.”

“Oh well yes that too.” Camille waved off the comment.

Beryl thought for a moment. “This is not the sort of thing Lionel would favor.”

“But surely for a man who wishes to be prime minister it cannot but be helpful to know a foreign head of state.”

“You do have a point there,” Beryl said under her breath.

Camille stifled a satisfied smile. “And you can make him see how important it is to me. Besides, it’s been years since either of us spent Christmas at the country house. It will be like it was when we were children. We shall decorate and have a Yule log and sing carols and it shall be quite, quite wonderful.” A pleading note sounded in her voice. “Oh please, Beryl, do this for me. I promise never to ask you to do anything involving actors for Christmas ever again.”

“Oh well, as long as you promise, how could I possibly say no? Besides, darling sister. . . ” Beryl’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I wouldn’t miss this Christmas for anything in the world.”

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