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“Mother, you simply can’t!”
“It’s no good being difficult, Daisy.” The Dowager Viscountess’s smugness insinuated itself between the crackles on the wire. “Perhaps you didn’t catch what I said—this is a shockingly bad line. I wrote to Lord Westmoor as soon as Violet mentioned that you were going to Brockdene just before Christmas. And I must say I do think I shouldn’t have to wait to hear your news from your sister.”
“Sorry, Mother, I’ve been frightfully busy since Alec and I got home from America. But…”
“Westmoor was most obliging. It’s arranged already. We shall all join you on the twenty-third.”
“I warned Westmoor that you had married a policeman. You ought to have invited the earl to the wedding, Daisy. The Norvilles are relatives, after all.”
“Only just,” Daisy muttered rebelliously. “Second cousins by marriage twice removed, or something.” Still, that slight connection had emboldened her to ask his lordship’s permission to write about Brockdene, so she couldn’t very well complain—
—As Lady Dalrymple continued to do. Daisy had missed some of what she said, but she gathered Alec had not been banished from the family gathering because of his infra dig profession.
“And I suppose one can’t very well separate him from his little girl at Christmas.”
“I should hope not, Mother! Besides, Belinda is my daughter now, too.”
The telephone wafted a resigned sigh to her ear. “Yes, dear. And Violet tells me she and Derek are thick as thieves, so perhaps they will keep each other out of mischief.”
Or egg each other on, Daisy didn’t say. “What about Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Darling, do you think your mother-in-law would be quite comfortable in such company? A bank manager’s widow, I gather, and merely a bank branch…”
“Mother, Bel’s her only grandchild, and it’s Christmas we’re talking about!” An unconvinced silence forced Daisy to play her trump. “And she plays bridge. She’s out right now at her weekly bridge evening.”
“Hmmm.” There was a thoughtful pause, then the dowager snapped, “Oh, very well, since you’ve never bothered to learn the game. I did mention to Westmoor that she might come, and he raised no objection. Now really, Daisy, I can’t afford to go on chatting endlessly with the cost of trunk calls what it is. I’ll see you on Sunday. Good-bye.”
Daisy hung the ear-piece on its hook and hurried from the entrance hall back to the sitting room. It was a pleasant room, for which Daisy gave the credit to Alec’s first wife. The heavy mahogany furniture had been reupholstered with cheerful prints; the walls, no doubt once been covered with the sombre wallpaper beloved by the Victorians, were now painted white; while over the mantelpiece where—Daisy suspected—a Stag had stood endlessly At Bay, hung a colourful view of Montmartre.
Alec’s mother could not blame Daisy for that transformation. She did, quite rightly, hold her responsible for the lapse from rigid formality represented by books and magazines left open on tables, a half-completed jigsaw puzzle, a silk scarf flung over the back of a chair, and such depredations.
The worst of these sprawled on the hearthrug before the cheerful fire: Nana, Belinda’s multicoloured mongrel puppy, who sprang up when Daisy entered the room and pranced to greet her as if she had been gone for five months, not five minutes.
“Down, Nana!” said Bel, tossing back a ginger pigtail as she looked round from the game of chess she was playing with her father. “Sorry, Mummy.”
“It’s all right, darling, she didn’t jump up. She’s getting much better.”
So was Belinda. She no longer stammered when she addressed Daisy as “Mummy,” as she had at first, though she could barely remember her own mother. She was quite comfortable now with frequent hugs and other signs of affection, which her grandmother had withheld for fear of spoiling the child. She smiled and laughed much more often than when Daisy had first entered her life.
Daisy recognized her self-satisfied musing as an attempt to postpone revealing the Dowager Viscountess’s latest machinations. At least Mrs. Fletcher’s absence meant Daisy could let Alec break the news to her gently, later.
“Darling,” she began guiltily, just as Alec moved a bishop, looked up, and asked, “What did your mother have to say, Daisy?”
“You don’t want to know.” Daisy dropped into a chair. “You remember Mother was complaining that her house is too small to have the whole family visit for Christmas? But she wouldn’t accept Cousin Edgar’s invitation for all of us to Fairacres. I wish she’d be reconciled to Edgar and Geraldine. It’s nearly five years since Father died and the poor man inherited.”
“She might find it easier if the Dower House weren’t so close to Fairacres.”
“If it wasn’t that, it would be something else. When she’s in her coffin, she’ll complain if she’s buried five feet eleven and a half inches down instead of six feet.”
“Little pitchers,” Alec warned.
“Oh dear, forget I said that, Bel!”
“Said what?” Belinda asked, raising her eyes from the chessboard. “Daddy, I rather think you’ve cornered my queen.”
“Beast,” said Daisy, who hadn’t the patience for chess.
Copyright © 2002 by Carola Dunn