My True Love Gave to Me, Book 1 in The Marvelous Munroes Series
Originally published as The Twelve Days of Christmas, December 1998 (ISBN 0-8217-6073-4, Zebra Regency Romance)
Published electronically in December 2008 as My True Love Gave to Me
Revised and reissued December 2016 by Edwards and Williams
Genevieve Munroe is determined to give her newly impoverished family one last happy Christmas, including making peace with their long-time rivals, the Pentercasts. But she is shocked when the handsome oldest son Alan proposes a wager: if he can give her all the gifts from the Twelve Days of Christmas song, without spending a penny, she must marry him.
Alan's wild gambit is his last-ditch effort to win Gen's heart. After all, no Munroe would ever consider marrying a Pentercast. But perhaps the joy of Christmas can open her eyes to the man behind the wager, a man determined to turn the twelve days of Christmas into a lifetime of love.
Book 1 in The Marvelous Munroes series. What's more marvelous than falling in love?
Milford Carstairs, senior partner of the firm Trent, Macy, and Carstairs, Solicitors, London, eased his craggy frame back against the beige-striped Sheraton chair in the satin-draped drawing room of Wenwood Abbey and regarded the Munroe family assembled about the wrought-iron tea cart. The Widow Munroe rested on the matching Sheraton chair nearer the white-marble fireplace, slender back straight, iron-gray head erect. His friend Rutherford Munroe had always said he married her because she carried herself better than most of the titled ladies in Society. He rather thought her well-known reserve had been a challenge to the outgoing Rutherford. Lord knows, the only time Carstairs had ever seen her smile was in her husband's company. There had been precious little to amuse her since the man died; it would only get worse when she knew the whole of it.
She inclined her head toward him as she passed him his tea in the gilt-edged bone china cup, and he accepted it with a nod of thanks. Condescending to the lesser mortals again, he noted as he took a sip, wrinkling his long nose at the steam. Thank goodness the daughters had only inherited her aristocratic good looks.
He glanced at the youngest, Allison, trying to sit on the nearby gold-threaded sofa with as much dignity as her mother but only succeeding in looking uncomfortable. She caught his glance and arrested her fidgeting. Too much energy in that seventeen year old. A shame she had been too young to come out before Rutherford's untimely death. Even with her flaxen blond ringlets, vibrant blue eyes, classic features, and slender form, they'd be hard-pressed to find a husband willing to take her in their current situation, especially here in Somerset.
His gaze was drawn to the oldest, Genevieve, seated next to her sister on the sofa, and he had to suppress a smile. Now, there was a lady. She'd inherited her father's sense of humor and lively intelligence, along with her mother's considerable physical assets. Smaller than her mother, her curves were all the more noticeable. Where her mother's hair had turned to iron, Genevieve's was the color of pure gold. Where her mother's aristocratic features were frozen in propriety, Genevieve's always reflected her thoughts,which were generally enthusiastic ones from what he had seen. It was little wonder she had been the toast of London the two years before her father died. She could have whistled up a fortune had she wished it. But she didn't wish it; she had made that point abundantly clear to him.
She also caught his eye on her and gave him a wink as she accepted her cup of tea from her mother's hand. He felt himself relax. At last, the girl was going to do it. He'd made the offer to do it himself several times, but it showed her courage that she had chosen to inform her family of their financial difficulties herself. A pity the girl had to take on such an onerous task when she hadn't yet reached her twenty-first birthday. But the mother had refused to even discuss the matter with him. He remembered her quiet disdain.
"Women should not interfere in financial matters, Mr. Carstairs," she had informed him, gazing serenely out the window of their London town house as if she were contemplating a formal garden instead of a busy London street. "It isn't proper. My husband retained you to see to these affairs. I'm sure you will continue to serve us with your usual thoroughness."
He had been at his wit's end as to how to get her to make the decisions necessary to pay their mounting debts when Genevieve had taken him aside to ask him about their finances. In her, he had found a quick mind and an inventive conspirator. He wondered if the Widow Munroe even realized that she had already signed away the London house, all its furnishings, all but the four horses that had carried them to Wenwood and the two in residence here, and all but a single carriage. If Genevieve hadn't taken the initiative, he shuddered to think what would have happened to the family. The Widow Munroe would have been hard pressed to maintain her reserve when faced with Debtors Prison.
Gen cleared her throat, and he focused on the current situation. They had been ensconced in Wenwood Abbey, their small country estate, for several days now. Although Rutherford had mentioned the place several times, Carstairs had never seen it. He was surprised to find it a rambling, single-story structure set in a small clearing in a stretch of woods. True to its name, it even had a chapel at one end. With the trees towering on all sides, the dark wood of the house, and the small, infrequent windows, it had seemed to be brooding over dark thoughts. The inside made one feel a little less oppressed, thank goodness, with most of the small rooms having white-plastered or satin-hung walls and flagstone floors. He had to own the place possessed a quiet dignity, not unlike the Widow Munroe.
He and Gen had concocted a story about spending the first holiday since her father's death in more quiet surroundings than London, and he had to agree that the Abbey fit the bill. Despite an initial reluctance to the idea, both Allison and the Widow seemed to have settled in well. It didn't hurt, he supposed, that the villagers seemed so glad to see them, stopping by for little visits and showering them with gifts of cakes and jams. The country air had already put the bloom back into the girls' cheeks. They had obviously begun to feel the Christmas spirit, as they had decorated the small drawing room with evergreen boughs over the mantle and kissing bough with the holly, ivy, and mistletoe in the doorway, as for any proper Christmas celebration. Just yesterday, the widow had announced she was ready to allow them to put off the black they had been wearing since Rutherford's death six months ago. Accordingly, Allison was wearing a sky blue kerseymere gown with a white tucker and cuffs, and Genevieve wore a darker blue wool crepe with embroidery along the hem. Even the widow wore a fitted gown of gray silk which showed that age had not detracted from her willowy figure. He was sure they found his long coat and breeches outmoded in the extreme, but he was comfortable in them.
He shifted in his chair, waiting for Genevieve to speak. They were contented here. All but her mother's tea were poured; the widow even now was reaching for the pot. There would be no better time. He held his breath as the girl opened her mouth.
"I've invited the Pentercasts for Christmas Eve dinner and festivities," she announced.
He frowned, puzzled, and let out his breath. Then he jumped as the widow dropped the silver pot onto the table with a clatter. Allison gasped, paling, and fell against the back of her chair as if she were going to swoon. He stared at them in surprise.
"Genevieve," her mother murmured, allowing a frown to crease her brow, "that is a poor joke to play on your family."
"That was cruel in the extreme," Allison agreed more heatedly. "Sometimes I think you have quite changed since Father's death. How could you be so unfeeling!"
"I don't think it's unfeeling," Genevieve shrugged with a smile. "And I don't think Father would mind. I think he also found it ridiculous to keep up an enmity that began over a trifle a hundred years ago."
"A trifle?" The widow's frown deepened, and her blue-gray eyes were like slate. He wondered what could possibly be so awful that she would show this much emotion. Heaven knows she hadn't frowned like this when he had come to tell her that Rutherford had been killed in a carriage accident on the way home from his club. He wracked his brain to think of where he had heard the name Pentercast before. Hadn't that been the name of the local fellow Rutherford had had watch the property while they had been living in London these last six years?
"I do not believe," the widow was continuing, "that you can call evicting us from our home and usurping our rightful place in the community a trifle."
He glanced at Genevieve, who was sipping her tea with composure. Eviction? Usurping? What was this? Had he inadvertently sent the family into some kind of danger?
"Not to mention all the infamous things they've done since," Allison put in with a shudder.
"Those are stories," Genevieve maintained, reminding him of her mother in her cool reaction to their obvious concern. "By all accounts, Alan Pentercast and his family are well respected in the area. You heard the villagers when they came to visit the last few days--they all call him Squire. They've never done that with any of the other Pentercasts that I know of."
"What the villagers choose to call him is hardly our concern," her mother said with a sniff, succeeding in pouring her own cup of tea at last. He noted that her hand shook slightly on the handle of the ornate pot. "Pentercasts are Pentercasts. And we do not associate with Pentercasts."
Genevieve set her cup down on the carved mahogany table beside the sofa and leaned toward her mother. "But surely Father would have wished us to make amends. Didn't he have Alan keep an eye on Wenwood Abbey while we were away?"
"Mr. and Mrs. Chimes have been our caretakers," her mother insisted, refusing to meet her defiant gaze. "I doubt Mr. Pentercast could have provided much assistance."
"Nevertheless, if we are going to live here at the Abbey, surely we must learn to get along with the Squire and his family."
He allowed himself a private smile. There was method in the girl's madness after all. She was going to get them all excited over this Pentercast fellow so that when she made her announcement about them living here in near-penury, it wouldn't be such a blow in comparison. Smart chit, hadn't he always said so?
"Genevieve," the widow chided, with a glare at him that surprised him with its heat. "I do not know where you get these ideas. I agreed with you and Mr. Carstairs that a change of scene for the Christmas holidays might be refreshing. In truth, I've missed some of our country traditions since moving to London. However, I hope you do not think I plan to take up residence here. We have Allison's come out to plan for next Season, after all."
Genevieve leaned back casually. "Actually, I was going to suggest that we have her come out here."
Oh, the girl was a master. Had she been man, he would have hired her immediately.
"What!" Allison cried, leaping to her feet. Her cup of tea thumped to the floor, and he was forced to swing his long legs to one side as the brown stain spread across the oriental carpet. He caught Genevieve's frown and knew that like him, she was calculating how much it would cost to repair the damage.
"Moderate your tone, Allison," her mother said with a sigh. "See what comes of immoderate temper? Sit down. And as for you, Genevieve, I think we've had quite enough of your announcements at this tea table. Mr. Carstairs, I blame you for this outburst. I told you how I felt about young ladies and financial matters. It quite fills their heads with nonsense."
He opened his mouth to protest, but Genevieve beat him to it. "I think Father would be proud of what Mr. Carstairs and I have been able to accomplish. Someone had to manage the estate."
And better than Rutherford had, Carstairs amended silently. The man had been the most congenial of fellows, but he had had absolutely no sense for finances. Every bit of his inheritance, frittered away on fripperies to amuse the children, the refurbishment of the Abbey with such unlikely things as a functioning bell tower and a flock of black swans, and the entertainment of his many friends. The man ought to be thanking God daily in his place in heaven for an intelligent daughter who knew the cost of a good meal and a warm roof over her head.
"Your father was always proud of both his daughters," her mother replied. "I simply make the point that you have gone too far, Genevieve. For you to even think about extending an invitation without consulting me..."
"You would never have done it," she protested.
"Precisely, and with good reason."
"You talk as if this is a reality," Allison interjected, clearly annoyed. "Gen, did you really invite those Pentercasts to dinner tonight?"
Genevieve put out her small chin. "Yes, I did. And furthermore, they have accepted. They will be here tonight at seven, along with Vicar York and young Mr. Wellfordhouse."
The widow set her cup of tea on the cart, rose, and shook out the skirts of her gray silk gown. "Well, then, it seems that we will have to make the best of this situation. Allison, come with me. We must find you an appropriate dress and consult Bryce on hairstyles. Genevieve, since you have taken it upon yourself to act as mistress of this house in my stead, I shall leave the entire event in your hands. Whatever happens tonight is on your head. Mr. Carstairs, I wish you well on your trip back to London. I hope you understand when I say that Genevieve will not be spending time with you there when we return. Come, Allison."
Grimacing, the girl followed her mother from the room.
"Well," Genevieve said, rising, "that went remarkably badly."
"I thought you had them there before your mother stormed out, in her own quiet way, of course," Carstairs admitted, rising to join her. "That business about the Pentercast fellow was an excellent diversion. I take it he isn't the blackguard they made him out to be."
"Hardly," she replied, gazing toward the fire. A smile played on her lips, and he wondered what she was seeing. "His family has a somewhat unsavory reputation, but he was something of a hero when I was a child. My father once said there wasn't a man in London who could match him."
Carstairs raised an eyebrow. "Your father always did see the best in people. Still, that does seem unaccountably high praise, even from him."
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen Alan Pentercast save the Mattison twins from drowning. I'm afraid I must agree with my father's assessment. Certainly none of the gentlemen who courted me were anywhere near as impressive."
He knew at another time he'd find that remark intriguing. Now he felt it incumbent upon him to return to the point. "Be that as it may, my dear, you realize you must tell them the truth."
She wandered closer to the fireplace, holding out her long-fingered hands to the fire even though he doubted she could be cold in that fetching confection of wool crepe she was wearing.
"I've been trying, Mr. Carstairs, truly I have. It's just so much harder than I expected. How can I tell mother she must give up her town house? How can I tell Allison she'll never have a come out? The future we offer is too bleak, I fear."
"But it is a future nonetheless," he insisted. "My dear, we've done everything we can. You know as well as I do that the only way for your family to stay together is to attempt to live quietly here at the Abbey. We had agreed it was the best course."
She sighed. "I know. Are you absolutely sure we didn't overlook anything? There truly is no other course?"
"None less daunting. Unless of course you've reconsidered..." He hesitated to bring up the subject for her reaction had been so strong the first time he had mentioned it.
"No," she snapped. Then she shook herself. "I know I should consider all the alternatives, Mr. Carstairs, and I know I'm being selfish. But I cannot trade my own happiness for their ability to maintain a more opulent lifestyle. We can all make sacrifices here in the country, and I believe we can all find some measure of happiness." She sighed. "I can explain it so logically to you. Why do I find it so hard to tell them?"
He offered her his most supportive smile. "You will find a way, my dear. I have complete faith in your diplomacy. You're Rutherford Munroe's daughter."
She started to smile, then sobered. "Yes, I am."
He patted her on the shoulder and turned toward the door. "I'm sorry to have to miss the entertainment this evening, but I promised to return to London within the se'nnight, and I don't want to miss Christmas with my own family. Write to me when the deed is done, will you?"
"Yes, of course," she nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Carstairs, for all your help. And happy Christmas."
He turned back to her, standing with the fire a golden glow behind her, outlining the curves of her silhouette and turning her hair to flame. If he had been thirty years younger and unmarried, he'd have offered for her himself. "Happy Christmas, my dear." As he moved out into the corridor, he thought he heard her answer.
"I will do everything in my power to make it so."
For more about Christmas in the Regency, try my article on the subject.