Authors: Amanda McCabe
A Partridge in a Pear Tree
was first released, back in 2002, I was a brand new baby-author! I had just published my first two books with Signet Regencies, and felt like I was just learning to walk in a new, scary, exciting world. Mostly exciting, though—I had loved the Regency period ever since I came across an old copy of
at my grandmother's house, and getting to write stories set in that world, and share them with people who loved it as much as I do, was wonderful. It was even more exciting when I was asked to take part in Signet's annual Christmas anthology, which I eagerly devoured every holiday season! To have my story appear with those of some of my writing idols, like Carla Kelly, Barbara Metzger, and Edith Layton was a dream come true.
I still re-read these stories every Christmas. There's nothing like a holiday Regency romance, with a cozy blanket and some hot cocoa by the tree! I hope you like taking another look at my
. It was like revisiting some old friends to see what was happening with Allison and William and their families! Even though I have since branched out to write Tudor, Victorian, and Italian Renaissance stories, Regency is my first love...
For more info, visit me at
Vultures! They are all vultures.” Harriet, Lady Kirkwood, flung the letter she was reading to the floor. Her lace cap quivered on her white curls, while her wrinkled face creased even further in a fierce frown.
Rose, Lady Kirkwood's faithful maid, looked up from her dusting in alarm. “My lady! Please do not upset yourself. You will have a spell.” She quickly poured out a glass of wine and pressed it into Lady Kirkwood's shaking hand.
“A spell is just what my husband's
nephew is counting on,” Lady Kirkwood said bitterly, but she took the wine and sipped at it. Slowly, color came back to her cheeks. “Sir Reginald Kirkwood writes to tell me that his son Edward is getting married soon, to a Miss Bates from Bath, and that they would make me...” Lady Kirkwood paused to pick up the letter from the floor and look at it. “Most suitable heirs. And they wish me to visit for Christmas, so I may meet this Miss Bates. They say they will happily 'condole with me in the waning light of my life'.”
Rose laughed. “Waning light of your life, my lady?”
“Exactly. Well, I am not dead, nor dying, just yet.”
A betrothal is good news, though. Is it not, my lady?” Rose asked cautiously.
Of course. Except when it is dim-witted young Eddie's. He is just as snobbish and grasping as his parents. My husband could never abide them, that is why he left all his money to me.” Lady Kirkwood balled the letter up and tossed it into the fireplace. “They are vultures, just waiting to pounce on this place once I am gone.” She tapped her cane thoughtfully on the floor. “We shall just see about that.”
They will get the house, of course. That is in the entail, and there is nothing I can do about that. But they will not get my own money. Do you remember the house party we had a few years ago, Rose, right before my husband died?”
Rose blinked at this abrupt change of topic. But years with Lady Kirkwood had taught her to follow wherever her ladyship led. “Of course, my lady. It was ever so merry.”
“My own nephew's widow was here, with her three little daughters. I am sure they are not so little any more. The eldest will be of an age to marry. And my husband's sister's son, young William, was also here. How handsome he was! They have all written to me often, of course, but I somehow time got away from me and I never invited them back after that.”
Are you thinking to make one of them your heir, my lady?” Rose asked, getting caught up in the intrigue.
Oh, Rose, you have been with me for many years. You should know me better than that! I cannot make things so easy. I must set up a challenge.”
Yes. A scavenger hunt, perhaps, like the one I remember from my youth. Do you recall the song about the Twelve Days of Christmas?”
The one with all the birds, and the dancing ladies and golden rings?”
The very one. It was my husband's favorite Christmas carol. I will have everyone here for the holiday, and whoever can bring me each of those twelve objects will be heir to my fortune.” Lady Kirkwood laughed with delight at the prospect, a sound Rose hadn't heard in too long. “It will be vastly amusing.”
Rose frowned doubtfully. “Are there not a great many objects in that song, my lady? Won't it be hard to find them all?”
“Hm. You may be correct, Rose. And we would not want lords a-leaping and ladies dancing all over the place. Perhaps we will only go up to, oh, seven swans a swimming. Yes, that should do it.”
But, my lady, what if Sir Reginald and his family wins?”
I am absolutely sure they will not. Besides, the object is not
to win. It is to have an amusing holiday. So bring me my lap desk, Rose. I have invitations to write.”
This is a godsend, Allison dear! An absolute godsend.” Mrs. Josephine Gordon clutched Lady Kirkwood's newly arrived letter in her thin hands. A rare smile lit her pale, careworn face.
Allison also smiled to see her mother smile, and went back to stirring the pot of soup. “It is most agreeable to be invited to Kirkwood Manor for Christmas. We have not left the cottage for an age. But a godsend, Mama?” She pushed some stray red curls back under her cap. They were always unruly. “I don't really see that.”
“Of course it is! This is obviously not just an invitation for Christmas, my dearest. Lady Kirkwood is getting on in years. Everyone knows her husband left her his fortune. She will be looking for an heir.” Josephine quickly scanned the letter again. “She wants to see us once more to be sure
are worthy to be her heirs.”
I thought her husband's nephew Sir Reginald Kirkwood was heir.” Allison shuddered to remember Sir Reginald and his horrid son.
Only to the Manor. But Lady Kirkwood brought her own money to the marriage, and inherited her husband's besides. Who better to benefit from that than her own nephew's children? I am not well enough to travel there, of course, but you and the twins must go. As soon as she meets you again, she will see how wonderful my girls are. And all our troubles will be at an end.”
Allison studied her mother thoughtfully. There was no way to know if Lady Kirkwood was indeed looking for an heir, or if she would even consider the Gordon girls as such. But a Christmas in the comfort of Kirkwood Manor would indeed be a treat, especially for the twins, who had scarcely traveled anywhere in all their twelve years.
Yet how could she leave her mother alone for the holiday? Josephine had only just recovered from a winter ague, which was harder to shake away than her usual illnesses. She added some chopped onions to the soup, and said, “I could not leave you, Mama.”
Of course you can! You must.” Josephine looked around the shabby kitchen, the only room of their drafty old cottage that was ever truly warm. “This is our only chance, Allison. Your father, though certainly charming, was no manager of money. You know that when he lost our funds in that silly shipping scheme, your dowry and those of the twins went, too.”
Allison nodded wearily. She knew that very well indeed.
“So you must go to see Lady Kirkwood,” Josephine continued. “She is the only one who could help us. And it will be such a treat for the twins.”
As if summoned by the mention of them, Kitty and Jane came bursting through the back door, cloaks flying, wild red hair escaping from their ribbons. Snow flurries and the Gordons' two old spaniels came with them, leaving a mess in their wake.
“Are we to have a treat?” Kitty cried.
A treat? Oh, what is it?” Jane threw her arms around Allison in an exuberant hug.
Allison hugged her back, breathing in the fresh scent of cold air and the rose soap they all used, which their mother made herself in her small stillroom. She loved her sisters more than anything in the world, and if it meant securing their futures, she would definitely go to Kirkwood Manor for Christmas.
Even if she was sure to see William Bradford there.
The last time, the only time, she had seen Lady Kirkwood's husband's sister's son was four years ago, at another house party at Kirkwood Manor. He had been seven years older than her own fifteen then, and had obviously regarded her as a child to be teased. But she had thought him so handsome and dashing. The most handsome young man she had ever seen.
Four years of isolation in their country cottage had not dimmed her memory of him. But he surely never thought of her at all.
What would she do if she
see him again? Surely he would never remember her...
William Bradford tapped Lady Kirkwood's letter against his palm as he watched his thirteen-year-old sister Gertrude out the window. She wandered about the garden like a little ghost, her blue cloak a dark spot against the snow. She looked quiet and withdrawn, as she had been ever since their father lost all their money and then shot himself in the library over a year ago.
Was Lady Kirkwood's letter the answer to his problems?
He looked back down at the neatly penned words, inviting him and Gertrude to Kirkwood Manor for a Christmas house party. He had not been invited there since the last party four years ago. Indeed, he had heard that Lady Kirkwood ceased entertaining at all when her husband died.
This new sociability seemed to signal only one thing. Lady Kirkwood was feeling her age, and perhaps looking about for a suitable heir.
William studied the drawing room around him. There was very little furniture in it, and no paintings or ornaments at all. Only a very small fire burned in the vast marble grate, hardly warming the space at all.
It was not a place where a quiet, shy young girl could learn to laugh again.
William had thought to go to London in the spring, to find an heiress who could restore their home, a nice lady who could help Gertrude. But to be the heirs to the Kirkwood money would be ever better in the long run.
He felt a sharp stab of guilt at the idea of taking advantage of a lonely, elderly lady. But for his sister, he would do it. For his sister he would do anything.
As he refolded the letter, he wondered idly if he would see that pretty girl Allison Gordon again.
“Oh, Allie, it's
!” Kitty pressed her nose against the window of the luxurious carriage Lady Kirkwood had sent for them, gawking unashamedly as they rolled up the muddy drive to Kirkwood Manor.
It is a castle,” Jane added, crowding in next to her sister. “Just like in a book.”
Kitty giggled. “That would make Lady Kirkwood queen!”
Allison peered out at the looming-closer house with more trepidation than the twins were obviously feeling. It was indeed very grand, a concoction of weathered gray stone crowned with leering gargoyles in an old, unfashionable style. There was no softening shrubbery or greenery in the depths of winter, so the house seemed even more austere and majestic. She did not remember it being so intimidating four years ago.
Allison bit her lip. Her green pelisse, with its black velvet collar and cuffs and matching black hat, had seemed so nice before she left home. Her mother had scrimped and saved the egg money to buy the fabric. Here it felt shabby and unfashionable.
felt shabby, like the poor country cousin she was.
Well, there was nothing for it now. The pelisse was the best she owned, and Lady Kirkwood knew they lived quietly in the country. Surely she was not expecting London fashion.
And your family is as good as any
, she reminded herself sternly.
Never forget that
Allison sat up straighter, and smoothed her hair back underneath her hat. The wild red curls, the bane of her life, were always escaping no matter now many pins she used.
“Girls, sit down, please,” she said, tugging Kitty and Jane back into their seats. “What if someone saw you there, pressing your faces to the glass like two little monkeys?”
There's nobody to see us, Allie,” Kitty protested. “The place looks almost deserted.”
Yes,” Jane said. “Are you sure they're expecting us?”
Lady Kirkwood sent this carriage, didn't she?” Allison said briskly, retying the girls' hair ribbons and straightening their matching red cloaks.
She just finished wiping a smudge from Kitty's nose when the carriage lurched to a stop, and the front doors opened to reveal a stern-looking man.
“The Misses Gordon, I presume?” he said.
Yes,” Allison answered slowly, allowing the man to take her arm and help her alight from the carriage.
I am Matthews, butler here at Kirkwood Manor.”
Kitty ignored his outstretched hand and jumped down herself, closely followed by Jane. “How do you do, Matthews,” she said cheerfully. “I am Miss Katherine Gordon, and this is Miss Jane Gordon.”
Matthews blinked at her. “Er—yes. Indeed.” His lips pursed.
Allison thought, hurrying her sisters up the stone front steps into the house. Only at Kirkwood Manor five minutes, and already they committed a
But she was glad to see that the interior of the house was not as forbidding as the exterior. Lamps were lit against the encroaching winter twilight, casting a warm golden glow over the marble foyer. Fresh greenery, pine boughs, and holly tied together with red velvet bows twined up the length of the carved staircase banister, a cheerful nod to the holiday season.
“Lady Kirkwood and the others are in the drawing room, Miss Gordon,” Matthews said as footmen fetched the twins' cloaks. “I know her ladyship is eager to greet you.”
Allison glanced at the girls, who were gazing about wide-eyed, silent for once in their lives. Then she nodded, and said, “Yes. As we are eager to greet her.”
The drawing room, a vast expanse of cream-colored satin and gilt-painted trim, was also decorated for the season. Green wreaths festooned the two marble fireplace mantels and curved around every picture frame. A pile of gaily wrapped parcels was stacked in one corner.
And gathered around the largest of the fireplaces was—everyone.
Lady Kirkwood, white-haired but tall and erect, and very elegant in a gray satin gown and lace cap, sat on a thronelike red velvet chair. A gold-headed cane rested in her hand like a scepter. The others gathered about her, a cluster of humble subjects.
As they moved closer, Allison recognized their sort-of cousin, Sir Reginald Kirkwood, as silly as she remembered in a bright purple coat and yellow waistcoat, his shirt points so high he could hardly turn his head. He watched their approach through an emerald-rimmed quizzing glass, one brow raised.
Next to him stood his wife Letitia, clad in an elaborate gown of gold-and-black striped velvet and a matching feathered turban. She was studying an alabaster figurine on the mantel, obviously pretending no one else was in the room.
On a settee sat their son Edward, with a plump, pink-cheeked young lady with blonde curls and a pale blue muslin gown, quite unsuitable for the cold weather. They shared a large plate of pastries, giggling and whispering together. Allison remembered how Edward had tried to kiss her four years ago, catching her behind the library door and pressing his clammy hands on her. She shuddered at the memory, and resolved to stay far away from him this time.
The she turned her attention to the other settee, the one pulled up next to Lady Kirkwood's throne. There sat—William Bradford.
Allison's steps faltered, and for one long second she forgot to breathe.
She had told herself that her memories of him, the schoolgirl crush she had on him four years ago, had become distorted and elaborated. But now she saw that he was every bit as handsome as he was then. More so, for then he had been a pretty boy. Now he was a devastatingly handsome man.
The firelight cast his lean face into dancing shadows, lining his sharp, straight nose, strong jaw, and narrow mouth into an artist's chiaroscuro. His waving, dark gold hair was cropped short and brushed straight back. Unlike the other men, he still wore his traveling clothes, buckskin breeches, a dark blue wool coat, and a simply tied cravat, as if he had been rather late, like the Gordons.
He made the others look a bit like yapping spaniels next to a sleek panther.
Then he leaned over to speak to the girl sitting beside him. She could only be his younger sister, who hadn't been at the last house party. She had the same golden hair, the same chiseled features. She looked to be about the age of the twins, but where their eyes always flashed and danced with mischief, hers were dark and solemn. She was very thin in her dark blue dress and fur-trimmed spencer, and she nodded at her brother's words, but didn't smile.
Is that the Gordon girls?” Lady Kirkwood called, banging her cane on the floor loud enough to make Allison jump. “Come closer!”
Allison was snapped out of her daydreams about the Bradfords, and quickened her steps, pulling the twins with her. She held tight to their hands, but for once they needed no urging to stay close. They crowded against her sides of their own volition, their eyes big.
Allison stopped in front of Lady Kirkwood's throne and dropped a small curtsy, trying not to look at William. She couldn't afford to be a silly, missish girl just then. “How do you do, Lady Kirkwood. It's very good to see you again. I am Allison Gordon, of course, and this is Jane and Kitty.”
Lady Kirkwood studied them carefully through still-bright green eyes. “How much you have all grown since last I saw you! I am very glad you could come to my little Christmas party.”
Allison relaxed just a little. So Lady Kirkwood was
going to eat them, after all! In fact, she seemed most genial.
It was very kind of you to invite us, Lady Kirkwood,” she answered.
You must be tired after your journey,” Lady Kirkwood answered, still studying Allison carefully. “Have some tea, and a pastry, too, if Edward will share them. Then I will tell about all the fun I have planned for our holiday.”
Lady Kirkwood gave a sly smile when she said the word “fun,” but Allison was too relieved at their welcome to worry about it. The royal introduction was over. She sat down on the last remaining settee, the cream and gold brocade slippery under her skirts, and drew the twins down beside her.
Only then did she allow herself to look at William Bradford. He was watching her, his handsome golden head tilted to one side.
Then he gave her a wide smile. And she promptly choked.
William's grin widened. So
was his little cousin Allison. He remembered her, of course. Remembered how much fun she had been to tease, how she had blushed whenever he talked to her. What a good rider she had been, afraid of nothing, and that she had the most fetching pale golden freckles across her nose. But he hadn't remembered she was
Curls the color of a sunset sprang from beneath her hat, surrounding her heart-shaped face in a fiery halo. She still had freckles, but they were much lighter, sprinkled across a little, upturned nose and creamy cheeks. She coughed when he first caught her eye and smiled at her, and thereafter threw him little, surreptitious glances from her wide hazel eyes.
How interesting this Christmas was turning out to be!
He watched as she situated the fidgeting, redheaded twins, giving them tea and sweets that had been practically wrestled away from Edward and Miss Bates. “Those girls look like they are about your age,” he whispered to Gertrude.
She gave the twins a wary glance. “I don't think they would like me,” she whispered back.
Why ever not, sparrow? You are a most charming girl.”
Gertrude just shook her head.
Lady Kirkwood banged her cane on the floor again, obviously the signal for everyone to look at her. Gertrude slid her trembling little hand into his, and he gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Now that we are all here,” Lady Kirkwood announced, “I can tell you of the holiday games I have planned.”
Games?” Reginald said sharply. “Whatever do you mean, Aunt Harriet?”
Isn't Christmas a time for games?” Lady Kirkwood said blithely. “This is one of my very own devising. A scavenger hunt.”
A murmur arose from Reginald and Edward. Even Letitia looked vaguely discomposed, as if this was not what she was expecting.
“What is a scavenger hunt?” Jane murmured to Allison.
It is a search, where you must find certain items on a list,” Allison answered her. “The person who finds the most objects wins. At least I think that is what it is.”
Allison tried to keep her voice low, but Lady Kirkwood heard her. “You are exactly right, Miss Gordon. It is a search for certain items.”
“What would these items be, Aunt Harriet?” Reginald asked.
Lady Kirkwood waved her cane, and a maid came forward to hand each of them a sheet of paper, written in elaborate, scrolling calligraphy. Allison looked down to see it was a copy of the song
The Twelve Days of Christmas
You must find some of these twelve items by Christmas Day. Up to seven swans a-swimming, I think,” Lady Kirkwood said.
A partridge in a pear tree?” Letitia said sharply. “However are we supposed to find
Letitia,” Lady Kirkwood replied impatiently. “You may bring me whatever you think a partridge in a pear tree would be. Use your imagination, my dear.”
Letitia shot her husband a bitter, reproachful glance. He shrugged helplessly. Edward and his fiancee just looked at each other blankly.
“How exciting!” Kitty whispered. “I love games.”
Yes, Miss Kitty, it
exciting,” Lady Kirkwood said, giving the girl a little smile. “You will all be divided into two teams. You, Reginald, will be with your dear wife and son, and with Miss Bates, of course, who I am sure will be quite an asset. Miss Gordon, you will be with Mr. Bradford. Your sisters may all help you.”
Allison choked again, on the sip of tea she had just taken.
William grinned at her, as the twins giggled in delight.
And Lady Kirkwood, obviously pleased by the reaction to her challenge, rose to her feet and said, “Well, then. Shall we all go change for supper?”