Authors: Anne Perry
A Christmas Homecoming
is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or
are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales,
or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Anne Perry
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Ballantine Books,
an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
and colophon are registered trademarks
of Random House, Inc.
Jacket design: Belina Huey
Jacket illustration: Aleta Rafton
IELDING SAW THE HUGE MANSION RISING
from the steep incline ahead of them as the carriage turned the corner, and felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief. It was the end of a very long journey and she was aching with tiredness and from the biting cold. First there had been the early morning ride to the station in London. The platforms had been crowded and it had been difficult to push their way to the train with all the luggage in tow, trying not to bump into people. She had been glad to find their seats for the journey to York.
In York they had disembarked. One piece of luggage had been mislaid and, as time was short, they were desperate to find it. She had been asking the same porter the same questions over and over, until at last it was found, safely stowed in the guards’ car on the train to Whitby. Then she and Joshua had almost run along the platform as the carriage doors began to clang shut, the engine belching steam and smuts, and they scrambled on just as the train began to move.
Now in the dark, surrounded by the newly fallen snow, they rode in a two-horse carriage from Whitby up to the cliff edge and this house where they would spend the whole Christmas holiday, if you could call it a holiday.
Caroline turned to look at Joshua beside her. Aware of her movement, he touched her gloved hand lightly.
“A bit brooding, isn’t it?” he said ruefully. “But I expect it’ll be warm inside, and we’ll be very welcome.”
The coach lamps did not give enough light to see his face, but she could imagine it: gentle, mercurial, full of humor. She heard the half apology in his voice.
“It’ll be excellent,” she said without hesitation. She would never be as good an actor as he was, because she could not help but always be herself, and it was his profession to imagine himself inside another man’s skin, even his heart. But she had long ago learned to mask her feelings for the sake of those she loved, and she did love him. However, there were fears that crowded her every so often because she was so much older than he, and she did not belong to the world of the theater as he did. She feared she would always be an outsider, too old for him in the eyes of his fellows, too ordinary, undramatic,
and painfully respectable. Yet she would have been miserable had she not married him, if she had given in to conventionality and remained a widow after her first husband’s death. And she loved Joshua so much. She felt no inner doubt or shadow about her second marriage although outwardly it had not been at all the right thing to do.
For a moment Joshua’s hand tightened over hers.
They climbed the last hundred yards of the road, horses straining against the weight of the vehicle, and finally pulled to a stop in front of the magnificent entrance of the mansion. The doors were thrown open, flooding the portico and the gravel driveway with light.
“You are right,” Caroline said with a smile. “We are welcome.”
A footman opened the carriage door and Joshua climbed out quickly, turning to assist Caroline. She had been glad of the cloak and her huge skirts while on the journey—they provided the only warmth available—but now they were an encumbrance as she tried to step down elegantly. She grasped Joshua’s hand rather more firmly than she had intended, and stood up straight to her full height just as their host, Charles
Netheridge, came out of his ostentatiously large front door. He descended the wide steps, holding out his hand.
Introductions were made and orders given. Footmen materialized to unpack the boxes and trunks and see to the horses.
Charles Netheridge was a stocky man, thick-chested, heavy-shouldered. His gray hair was still strong, but receding a little at the front as he moved into his sixties. In the flare of the outside lights, his features were blunt and vigorous, as was his manner. He had made a fortune in coal, and later also in jet. It was his pleasure to donate generously to the theater in London and to know that some of the best performances would never have found an audience without his intervention.
Now he had Joshua, one of England’s most dynamic actors, in his own home, and he was brimming over with satisfaction. He led them inside, calling out orders for their comfort, refreshment, for luggage to be taken to their rooms, and anything they wanted taken care of immediately.
Caroline barely glanced around the hall, with its gray-and-white marble floor and high ceiling from
which hung a splendid chandelier. The warmth now enveloped her and just at that minute, it was all she cared about.
“Mr. Singer is already here,” Netheridge said cheerfully. “He told me he is to play the hero, Van Helsing.” He looked a little self-conscious as he said this last, watching Joshua earnestly, as if trying to read his thoughts.
Joshua composed his expression in a manner Caroline had come to understand. He was concealing a very considerable amount of irritation.
“I think he will be,” he agreed. “But we will make no final decisions until we have read through Miss Netheridge’s dramatization.”
“Of course, of course,” Netheridge agreed. “All in good time. I hope Mr. Hobbs and Miss Carstairs, and Miss Rye will get here before too long. It’s a nasty night, and set to get worse, I think. No doubt we’ll have a good deal of snow by Christmas. Nine days to go before the performance.” He looked at Joshua narrowly, with a steady, curiously unblinking stare. “Long enough for you to get it right, do you think? No idea if it’s any good. Alice has no experience, you know.”
Joshua made himself smile. “You’ll be surprised how quickly a production can come together.”
“Damn silly story, if you ask me,” Netheridge murmured, half to himself. “Vampires, indeed! But it seems to be all the rage in London, or so they say. Who is this fellow, Bram Stoker? What kind of a name is ‘Bram’?”
“Short for Abraham,” Joshua replied.
Netheridge looked at him wide-eyed. “A Jew?”
“I’m told he’s Irish,” Joshua said with a slight smile, but Caroline saw the slight stiffening of his body and the tension in his shoulders. She had learned not to leap to his defense: To do so was patronizing, as if there were something about being a Jew that needed explaining. But it was difficult for her. It is instinct to protect those whom we love; and the more open to hurt they are, the fiercer our retaliation.
Netheridge did not even appear to be aware that he had been clumsy, and this was not the time to let him know. They needed him in the coming year of 1898. Without his support, their next play would not open. It was the promise of that support that had prompted Joshua and the lead actors in his company to agree to spend ten days over Christmas as Netheridge’s guest,
and perform his daughter’s amateur dramatization of Stoker’s new novel,
. It was fitting; in the book, a storm had washed the coffin containing the vampire ashore at Whitby. The play would be performed on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, for an audience of Netheridge’s friends and neighbors.
Eliza Netheridge came hurrying out of the passage at the back of the hall. She was a small woman with a gentle face, her fair hair just beginning to turn gray. She looked concerned as her husband made the introductions; he spoke with a touch of impatience, as if he was annoyed that she hadn’t been there already, waiting for them.
“You must be tired,” Eliza said warmly, looking first at Caroline, then at Joshua. “And cold. I’m sure you would like to go to your room and rest a little before dinner.”
“Thank you,” Caroline accepted quickly. “That is most kind. It has been rather a long journey, and we very much wish to be at our best tomorrow.”
“Of course.” Eliza smiled. “Will dinner at eight be suitable to you? We can always serve you something in the breakfast room at a different time, if you wish?”
“Eight will be excellent,” Caroline assured her, turning toward the stairs.
he bedroom they were shown to was large and richly curtained in dark wine red. There were chairs near the fire, and the fire itself spread such light and warmth that it was unnecessary to use the candles provided, except on the bedside table.
“I told you,” Joshua said gently, as soon as the door was closed behind the footman who had brought their cases. “We are very welcome.” He was smiling, although his face, which concealed emotion so easily now, could not hide either his weariness or a degree of anxiety.
Caroline walked over to stand close to him, then reached forward and touched his cheek softly with her fingertips. “Don’t worry about it tonight, my dear. You’ll all work on the play tomorrow, and it may not be nearly as difficult when you rehearse it together as it seems now on the page. How often have you told me that about other plays?”
He leaned forward and kissed her. “But it’s actually
awful,” he said ruefully. “It’s a very difficult thing to adapt a book for the stage, and Alice Netheridge really hasn’t much idea how to do it. I wouldn’t even attempt this if we weren’t at our wits’ end to find a backer for next year. But without Netheridge’s support we would all be facing a pretty bleak spring.”
“That’s not true, Joshua,” she corrected him. “The company might, but
could always find a part somewhere. I know of at least three other managers who would leap at the chance to have you.”
He winced very slightly; it was just a tightening of the skin across the bones of his cheeks. “Walk away and leave the rest of the company with nothing?” he asked. “The theater is too small a world to do that, even if I were willing to. It’s not only Mercy and James, or Lydia—not to mention Vincent, although he would probably find something else. It’s all the others as well; the bit players who take on a dozen other tasks: moving scenery, fetching and carrying, building props, looking after the costumes.”
She had known he would say something like that, but when he did, it still gave her a rush of warmth, stronger than any heat the fire could offer.
He was frowning a little. “Are you afraid?” he asked. She had been used to being provided for, more than adequately, all her life. First by her father, then by her first husband, Edward Ellison. This was the first time she had ever realized, more than in theory, that it was possible that she could become cold or hungry, or truly at the mercy of debt, to the point of being afraid when a knock sounded on the door. Should she lie and deny that she had thought about these things? Or was honesty between them worth more than the kindness of the lie, than taking heart and having courage?
“Not yet,” she said with a tiny grimace, choosing the middle ground. “As for Alice, just don’t expect too much. Can you steer some sort of path between her work as it stands and what you would consider good enough professionally?”
“Between the rocks and the whirlpool?” He said it with a twisted smile, but there was no laughter in his eyes. “I can try. And keep Vincent from taking over and hogging the stage, Lydia from giving up altogether, and Mercy and James from endlessly defending each other from attacks that no one has made, while at the same time teaching Alice Netheridge how to do all the extra
parts, and playing a credible Count Dracula myself?” He shrugged. “Of course. My wife overrates me perhaps, but she believes I can.” His voice lowered a little. “At least she says so.”