‘Harry has a sister?’ Nicholas asked, surprised.

‘A half-sister, in Shropshire. A vicar’s daughter. Far too proper to give herself over to merriment and run off to Anneslea Manor for a house party.’

Nicholas frowned. ‘You would be surprised what vicar’s daughters can get up to when allowed to roam free. Especially at Christmas.’

Elise shook her head. ‘I doubt it is her. More likely my husband is trying to make me jealous by sending the hint that he has replaced me.’ And it annoyed her to find that he was succeeding.

‘It matters not to me, in any case,’ Nicholas replied. ‘A tiresome sister is but one more reason for me to avoid Anneslea-the Manor and the man.’

If Nick refused the invitation then she would never know the truth. A lack of response, an unwillingness to play his silly game, would be proper punishment for Harry, and might dissuade him from tormenting her, but it would do nothing to settle her mind about her husband’s reason for the jest.

And then a thought occurred to her. ‘If we are doing nothing wrong, Nicholas, then there can be no harm in a visit, surely?’ Perhaps if she could persuade him to go she would discover what Harry really intended by extending the offer.

Nick was looking at her as though she were no more trustworthy than her husband. ‘I see no good in it, either. Harry is all “Hail fellow, well met,” when we meet in the club, darling. He is being excessively reasonable about the whole thing. Which is proof that he is not the least bit reasonable on the subject. He wants you to come home, and is trying to throw me out of countenance with his good humour. And he is succeeding. I would rather walk into a lion’s den than take myself off to his home for the holiday. God knows what will happen to me once he has me alone.’

‘Do not be ridiculous, darling. It is all decided between Harry and me. There was nothing for us to do but face the facts: we do not suit.’ She put on her bravest smile. ‘We are living separately now, and he is quite content with it. I suspect we will end as better friends apart than we were together. And, while I do not doubt that he has an ulterior motive, I am sure he means you no real harm by this offer.’

‘Ha!’ Tremaine’s laugh was of triumph, and he pointed to her. ‘You do it as well. No truly content couple would work so hard to show happiness over their separation. It is a façade, Elise. Nothing more. If I go to Harry’s little party in Lincolnshire, I suspect we will be at each other’s throats before the week is out. The situation is fraught with danger. One too many cups of wassail, and he will be marching me up a snowy hillside for pistols at dawn.’

‘Harry challenge you over me?’ She laughed at the idea. ‘That is utter nonsense, Nicholas, and you know it.’

‘I know no such thing.’

‘If Harry were the sort to issue challenges, then it is far more likely that I would be there still, celebrating at his side. But he has given no evidence of caring at all, Nicholas, over what I say or do.’ She tried to keep the pain from her voice, for she had promised herself to stop hurting over that subject long ago. ‘It is possible that his invitation was nothing more than it sounded. I know the man better than anyone alive, and I can find many defects in him, but I do not fault his generous spirit.’

He had certainly been generous enough to her. After a two-month separation he was still paying all her bills, no matter the size. If he truly cared he would be storming into her apartments, throwing her extravagances back in her face, and demanding that she remove from London and return home immediately. She gritted her teeth.

‘But his sense of humour leaves much to be desired. Inviting you for the holiday could be nothing more serious than one of his little pranks. It is a foolish attempt to be diverting at Christmas.’

Tremaine nodded. ‘As you will. I will thank him for the generosity of his offer, which has no ulterior motive. And if what you say is true he will be equally polite when I decline it.’

‘You will do no such thing. Accept him at once.’

He stared at her without speaking, until she began to fear that she had overstepped the bounds of even such a warm friendship as theirs.

‘I only meant,’ she added sweetly, ‘that you will never know what his true intentions are until you test them. And if we are to continue together, the issue will come up, again and again. If he is mistaking where I mean to make my future, the sooner Harry learns to see you as a part of my life, the better for all concerned. And you need to see that he can do you no harm once he has accepted the truth.’

‘But Christmas is not the best time to establish this,’ Tremaine warned. ‘In my experience, it is the season most likely to make fools of rational men and maniacs of fools. There is a reason I have avoided celebrations such as this before now. Too many situations begin with one party announcing that “we are all civilised adults” and end with two adults rolling on the rug, trading either blows or kisses.’

‘I had no idea you were so frightened of my husband.’ She hoped her sarcasm would coax him to her side.

‘I am not afraid, darling. But neither do I wish to tempt fate.’

She smiled. ‘If it helps to calm your nerves, I will accompany you.’

He started at the idea. ‘I doubt he meant to invite you, Elise.’

‘Nonsense again, Nicholas. It does not matter what he meant to do. I do not need an invitation to visit my own home.’ And it would serve Harry right if she chose to put in an appearance without warning him. ‘It is not as if we need to go for the duration of the party, after all. A day or two…’

‘All three of us? Under the same roof?’ Tremaine shuddered. ‘Thank you, no. Your idea is even worse than his. But if you wish to visit Harry, you are free to go without me.’

‘If I visit Harry alone, then people will have the wrong impression,’ she insisted.

‘That you have seen the error of your ways and are returning to your husband?’

‘Exactly. But if we visit as a couple then it will be understood. And we will not go for the holiday. We need stay only a few hours at most.’

He covered his brow with his hand. ‘You would have me traipsing halfway across England for a visit of a few hours? We would spend days on the road, Elise. It simply is not practical.’

‘All right, then. We will stay long enough to win Harry’s silly bet and gain his promise that he will seek a divorce.’ She tapped the letter with her hand. ‘Although he probably meant the offer in jest, he has put it in writing. And he would never be so base as to go back on his word if you win.’

If Harry was willing to lose without a fight, then she had been right all along: their marriage was of no value to him, and he wanted release as much as she wished to set him free. But she would never know the truth if she could not persuade Nicholas to play along.

Then a thought struck her, and she gathered her courage along with her momentum. ‘And afterwards we will return to London, and I will give you your Christmas present.’

‘I have given you my opinion of the holidays, Elise. It will not be necessary to exchange gifts, for I do not mean to get you anything in any case.’

‘I was thinking,’ she said, ‘of a more physical token of gratitude.’ She hoped that the breathiness in her tone would be taken for seduction, and not absolute terror at making the final move that would separate her permanently from the man she loved. But if her love was not returned, and there were no children to care for, then there was no reason to turn back. She ignored her rioting feelings and gave Nicholas a slow smile.

Nicholas stared at her, beginning to comprehend. ‘If we visit your husband for Christmas? You cannot mean…’

‘Oh, yes, darling. I do.’ She swallowed and gave an emphatic nod. ‘I think it is time to prove that my marriage is every bit as dead as I claim. If you are convinced that Harry carries a torch for me, or that I still long for his attention, then see us together. I will prove to you that your ideas are false. And if it is true that he wants me back, your presence will prove to him that it is hopeless. We will come away from Lincolnshire with everything sorted. And afterwards we will go somewhere we can celebrate in private. I will be most enthusiastically grateful to have the matter settled.’ And she leaned forward and kissed him.

There was none of the careful planning in this kiss that had been in the others, for she had taken him unawares. She took advantage of his lack of preparation to see to it that, when their lips parted from each other, his defences were destroyed and he was quite willing to see her side of the argument.

When he reached for her again, she pulled out of his grasp. ‘After,’ she said firmly. ‘We cannot continue as we are with this hanging over our heads. After we have settled with Harry, we will come back to town and make a fresh start. You may not enjoy Christmas, but I shall make sure that the New Year will hold pleasant memories.’

Chapter Three

Harry crossed the threshold of Anneslea Manor with his usual bonhomie. It had always been his way to treat everyone, from prince to stablehand, as though he were happy to be in their presence and wished them to be happy as well. If Rosalind Morley had not been in such a temper with him, she could not have helped but greet him warmly. She could feel her anger slipping away, for it was hard not to be cheerful in his presence.

Although his wife had managed it well enough.

‘Dear sister!’ He held out open arms to her, smiling.

She crossed hers in front of her chest and stood blocking his entrance, in no mood to be charmed. ‘Half-sister, Harry.’

‘But no less dear for it.’ He was not the least bit dissuaded, and hugged her despite her closed arms, leaning down to plant a kiss on the top of her head. ‘Did you receive my letter?’

‘I most certainly did. And a very brief missive it was. It arrived three days ago, missing all of the important details, and strangely late in the season. I wish to know what you are about, sending such a thing at such a time.’

He tipped his head to the side. ‘Sending plans for Christmas? I should think this would be the most logical time to send them. It is nearing the day, after all.’

‘Aha!’ She poked him in the chest with a finger. ‘You know it, then? You have not forgotten the date?’

‘December twentieth,’ he answered, unperturbed.

‘Then you do not deny that in the next forty-eight hours a horde will descend upon us?’

‘Hardly a horde, Rosalind. I invited a few people for Christmas, that is all.’

‘It will seem like a horde,’ she snapped, ‘once they are treated to what is in the larder. You said to expect guests. But you cannot tell me who, or when, or even exactly how many.’

‘It was a spur-of-the-moment invitation, to the gentlemen at the club,’ he said, and his gaze seemed to dart from hers. ‘I am not sure how many will respond to it.’

‘And what am I to give them when they arrive? Napoleon had more food in Russia than we have here.’

‘No food?’ He seemed genuinely surprised by the idea that planning might be necessary before throwing a two-week party. If this was his normal behaviour, then Rosalind began to understand why his wife had been cross enough to leave him.

‘With Elise gone, Harry, the house has been all but shut up. The servants are airing the guest rooms, and I have set the cook to scrambling for what is left in the village, but you cannot expect me to demand some poor villager to give us his goose from the ovens at the baker. We must manage with whatever is left. It will be thin fare.’

‘I am sure the guests will be content with what they have. We have a fine cellar.’

‘Good drink and no food is a recipe for disaster,’ she warned, trying not to think of how she had learned that particular lesson.

‘Do not worry so, little one. I’m sure it will be fine. Once they see the tree they will forget all about dinner.’

‘What tree?’ She glanced out of the window.

‘The Christmas tree, of course.’

‘This is some custom of Elise’s, is it?’

‘Well, of course.’ He smiled as though lost in memory. ‘She decorates a pine with paper stars, candles and gingerbread. That sort of thing. I have grown quite used to it.’

‘Very well for you, Harry. But this is not anything that I am accustomed to. Father allows only the most minimal celebration. I attend church, of course. And he writes a new sermon every Advent. But he does not hold with such wild abandon when celebrating the Lord’s birth.’

Harry rolled his eyes at her, obviously amused by her lack of spirit. ‘It is rather pagan, I suppose. Not in your father’s line at all. But perfectly harmless. And very much fun-as is the Yule Log. You will see.’