This is another anthology of five Christmas stories with selected Regency authors.
THE CHRISTMAS GHOST
Sandra Heath's "The Christmas Ghost" was a pleasant enough read with a touch of the supernatural as Rebecca Winterbourne tries to recover from the death of her husband Edward and her father. Edward died two years ago but Rebecca still hadn't recovered; however she knows she must contract a marriage so that she no longer has to depend on her brother Clifford and his wife Margaret, and she has received an offer from Sir Oliver Willoughby, a friend of her father's. Sir Oliver wants her to attend an event but she is concerned that Piers Winterbourne will be there - Piers inherited the title after the death of her husband. She used to have a friendship with Piers but after her marriage that died and she dislikes him.
However Rebecca starts to see some strange things, papers get moved about that she is working on and she sees a man who looks very like her father. Eventually she is thrown together with Piers Winterbourne and he thinks she must be hallucinating. But is there more to Rebecca's strange behaviour? They find themselves having to talk to each other about past events and uncovering misunderstandings.
This was a pleasant enough story although some might not like the supernatural element. In some ways there were few surprises in the story but Rebecca and Piers were reasonable characters, if both a little blind to their own behaviour and feelings.
THE RAKE'S CHRISTMAS
I enjoyed Edith Layton's story "The Rake's Christmas" where new Viscount Ian Hunt finds himself attending a house party with Lord Shelton, a well-known rake. Ian himself is beginning to get a name as a rake and is unsure whether he wants that reputation. Lord Shelton tells him about a particular young women he is planning to seduce at the house party but on the way there is waylaid and Ian goes on alone.
Eve Thomkins is a poor relation, a woman who is overlooked by others at the house party. However Viscount Hunt soon realises she is the woman that Lord Shelton has described and he tries to get to know her so that he can warn her what to avoid in the rake. However as time passes and they get to know each other Hunt finds himself feeling more for her than he should. The resolution at the end, when Shelton arrives at the party, was hardly unexpected but it was an enjoyable story and hero and heroine were both good characters in their own way.
Laura Matthews' story features Drucilla Carruthers who has been looking after the estate of her father, who has dementia, for many years. She's been trying to put off her father's solicitor who might declare her father incompetent so that Drucilla and her companion, Miss Script, lose their home to her father's heir, Lord Meacham. When Lord Meacham arrives following a letter from the solicitor Drucilla is careful to show him all the work that she has been doing and to convince him of its importance. However Meacham begins to discover that Drucilla may be more important to him than he had previously thought and that she is under a false impression of his style of landownership.
There isn't actually very much plot in this story, it is more a description of how Drucilla shows Meacham the work she has been doing and tries to cover up her father's unfortunate behaviour. Meacham is an amiable man and a good landlord and the reader is in no doubt that he will do the right thing. Still it's pleasant enough and a light read.
A MUMMER'S PLAY
Jo Beverley, a well-known name in this genre, writes about Miss Justina Travers whose husband died three years before. She blames Lucky Jack Beaufort, the Duke of Cranmoore and formerly her husband Simon's commanding officer, for his death - Jack Beaufort was the only survivor of an ambush when fighting Napoleon in Spain. She decides to go to Jack Beaufort's house and find evidence that he was spying for the French all along, surely the reason he survived, and so enters the duke's house with a band of mummers as her disguise.
She starts looking for evidence in his library and is soon discovered. They end up talking and, although Jack doesn't know who she is, he doesn't believe her cover story. Still they get talking and he tells her a little about the events in the war and eventually she seduces him in order to get the truth out of him. However the truth isn't necessarily what she was expecting and Jack's guilt might be for reasons other than she thought.
This is well written although Justina's behaviour seems very odd, particularly her seduction of Jack. It's a decent read and has some interesting insights into the fighting on the Peninsular and the ways in which officers and men related to each other.
THE SURPRISE PARTY
Mary Balogh continues to write with unrivalled mastery. I've become acquainted with a lot of her short stories and I have been very pleasantly surprised at how good they are. Often authors of full length novels can't write good short stories, or vice versa, by Mary Balogh, with one or two exceptions, seems to be able to excel at both. Her trick with her short stories is not to bite off too much plot but instead to focus on a small event and the way in which it shapes characters. As with many of her other short stories, the hero and heroine here have known each other a long time and are estranged. This story, similar in theme to many of her others, has the Christmas season and the traditional activities functioning as a turning point in various people's lives and bringing healing and rapprochement between them.
This story, entitled "The Surprise Party", begins through the eyes of three young children, orphans living with a nurse and mourning their parents. Christmas is approaching but Nurse has told them they can't celebrate it as they're in mourning. However when their aunt and uncle arrive things start to change. The aunt and uncle aren't blood relatives - Aunt Ursula, the widow Lady Carlyle was sister to the children's father and Uncle Timothy, otherwise known as Lord Morsey, was brother to the children's mother. The children's parents' marriage actually cause the breaking of the betrothal between Ursula and Timothy nine years before and Ursula promptly married someone else as an escape - one that didn't lead her to marital happiness. The two have avoided each other for years and yet they are brought together as they have responded to letters about the children's welfare and have come to each offer them a home.
The Christmas magic that Mary Balogh weaves with such mastery catches both children and adults and as they all spend time together they begin to understand anew what is important in life.
In conclusion, this is a better-than-average collection of stories and is pleasant reading at Christmas time but none of them are brilliant and I'm not sure this book will stay on my Keeper shelf. However it's one that many will enjoy and the variety of the stories adds to its charm.