An Acton and Doyle Christmas

(An excerpt from Murder in All Honour, book #5)

     Reynolds had put up an elaborate artificial Christmas tree, framed in all its glory against one of the huge picture windows that lined the wall of their London flat.  The servant had covered it with elegant, gold-colored ornaments, many of them bearing the coat of arms for the House of Acton. Doyle hated it.

     She was gloomily contemplating the stupid tree whilst the servant cleared away the dinner plates.  Acton had retreated to his desk, no doubt trying to catch up with his neglected workload.  She’d seen on the news that a Scotland Yard superintendent had been arrested, and she’d noted that her husband’s gaze rested on the telly for a bit longer than his usual. 

     “How many will we have for Christmas Eve, madam?”

     With no small disquiet, she lifted her gaze to regard Reynolds.  “What’s afoot, my friend? You’d best come clean.”   Timothy and Nanda were coming over for dinner before Midnight Mass, but Reynolds was vexed about something, and Doyle didn’t have the wherewithal to handle any more vexations, just now.

     The servant paused to wipe a nonexistent spill with the tail end of his tea towel.  “I had the felicity of accepting a telephone call from the dowager Lady Acton, madam. She inquired about the household Christmas plans.”

     Doyle stared at him with undisguised horror.

     Smoothly, the servant continued, “I informed her ladyship that I would pass along her inquiry.”

     Acton’s mother, the dowager Lady Acton, hated her daughter-in-law with the heat of a thousand suns, and indeed, it was as yet unclear whether she’d been involved in any of the various plots that had gone forward to do away with the fair Doyle—this being a touchy subject to bring up with one’s husband.  With this in mind, the last needful thing was for the fair Doyle to spend Christmas with the crackin’ antichrist. “Whist, Reynolds; can’t she just go over to your house, instead?”

     “I will be here, madam,” he reminded her.

     Struck with the unfairness of this, Doyle was instantly contrite. “Oh—oh, I hadn’t thought about how we must be interferin’ with your own plans, Reynolds, and I beg your pardon.  If you leave me somethin’ to heat up in the oven, I can manage—you should take the evenin’ off.”

     “No matter, madam—I’ve been given Christmas day off, and Boxing Day besides.”  He condescended to nod in a precise gesture of appreciation. “Lord Acton has been most generous.”

     Acton must have shoveled him a mighty Christmas bonus, which reminded Doyle that she’d best shake her stumps and find out whether one gave a Christmas gift to one’s butler.  Christmas had never been quite so complicated, pre-Acton. 

     “If I might suggest. . . .” the servant trailed off delicately. “Since a grandchild is expected, perhaps the dowager Lady Acton is attempting. . . .”

     “Trust me on this, Reynolds,” Doyle interrupted with ruthless certainty. “Although Iappreciate your push to promote family peace—it bein’ the holidays, and all—she’d no more offer an olive branch than she’d fly to the moon.”  She then played her trump. “And Acton wouldn’t allow it, not for a second.”

     “Then I shall say no more on the subject.”  The servant made ready to retreat back into the kitchen. “May I offer you anything, madam?” 

     Doyle glanced over at Acton, who was deep in thought, staring at his laptop screen. “No, I’ve got to start workin’ on my reports—unless I can think of somethin’ to put it off. I’m miles behind on my work.”

     “Would it help if I ran your Christmas errands, madam?  Have you ordered a gift for Lord Acton?”

     Doyle was not fooled; Reynolds was worried that she wasn’t organized enough to remember this basic wifely obligation.  She couldn’t take offense, of course, because this basic wifely obligation had not yet crossed her mind.

     She regarded him in mock-surprise. “I’m givin’ him a baby, aren’t I? I can tie one of those coat-of-arms ornaments around its neck, and call it a day.”

     The servant did not deign to make a reply, being as the succession to the House of Acton was not a matter to be made light of.  Instead, he moved on to the next topic.  “Shall we discuss the Christmas Eve menu, madam?”

     “Find out what Kensington Palace is servin’,” she teased, “—and copy them. Hard to go wrong, there.”

     This sally was greeted with a polite but determined smile. “I believe the Cornish hens were a success on the last occasion, but we would not want to be predictable. Perhaps coq au vin, instead?”

     “That would be just as good,” said Doyle, who hadn’t a clue.

     Eyeing her reaction, the servant was seen to mentally gird his loins. “Perhaps there is a traditional dish that you’d prefer, madam? One from your homeland?”

      “Oh, no; we’d have ham for Christmas, Reynolds—we were on the church’s list for a free ham.”  For a moment, Doyle’s absent gaze rested on the view overlooking the city. “We’d make it last for a week, between my mother and me. It felt like Kensington Palace, to us.”

     “A glazed ham, then,” the servant offered without batting an eye. “An excellent choice, madam.”

     Touched, she offered, “We can always have the cocovans for dessert.”

     He bowed. “As you say.”

      After Reynolds had tidied up and left for the evening,   Doyle looked over to her husband, and contemplated potential diversions so as to avoid having to start in on her wretched reports.  Hitting upon a likely plan, she called out, “Should we try a spot of role-playin’, d’you think?”

     As could be anticipated, this question attracted his immediate attention, and he lifted his head to stare at her in surprise. “If you wish. What sort of roles where you contemplating?”

     She stood, and stretched her arms over her head in a leisurely fashion.  “I thought you’d be the neighbor, and I’d be the neglected wife who’s been forced to go door-to-door to find some kind man to service her.”

     He smiled, and shut his laptop with a click.  “I’ve been neglecting you, have I?”

     “You have.  I’m beginnin’ to wonder if you’re not truly meetin’ with the Department of Professional Standards all this time, but that instead you’ve got a girlfriend, on the side.”

     Loosening his tie, he rose to approach her. “How do you know the girlfriend is not with the DPS?  It would be two birds with one stone.”

     But she scorned such an absurd idea, as she wriggled her jumper over her head. “Because they are all miserable, bitter people, and wouldn’t have the first idea how to flirt, that’s why.”

     “I’d fit right in, then.”

     With a smile, she wrapped his discarded tie around her own neck, and helped him unbutton his buttons.  “Well, I suppose that’s true—you’re not what anyone would call a flirter. Are you miserable and bitter, too?”

     He bent to place a lingering kiss on her neck. “Becoming less and less so.”

     “Is that so?” With a giggle, she pushed him down on the sofa, and climbed atop.

     A very satisfying space of time later, they sat together on the now-disheveled sofa, Doyle forced to share her bowl of ice cream with her husband, which is what always happened when he said that he didn’t want any.       “Speakin’ of the DPS, I saw on the telly that they’re lowerin’ the boom.”

     He paused whilst she fed him another bite. “Yes. It will be a while before it all sorts itself out.”  He didn’t like this, she could tell; he’d much rather lower the boom on his own terms, so that justice was rough, swift, and more to his liking. 

     So as to take his mind off it, she asked, “Do we give each other Christmas presents? Reynolds is worried I’m goin’ to miss the boat.”

     “Not at all necessary.”  

     The words were said matter-of-factly, but she had a fine-tuned radar when it came to him, and fondly, she leaned her head against his arm.  “Knocker. Confess; what did you get me?”

     “Nothing of consequence—a family item.”

     She gazed into the fireplace flames, and sighed. “Then I suppose I can’t just get you a tin of toffee.”

     “It would make no difference to me, Kathleen.”

     Laughing, she shook her tousled head. “Liar. You keep that stupid Trendelberg book on your desk, front and center.”  It was the only gift she’d ever given to him, back when she was his junior officer.

     He bent to kiss the top of her head.  “I’ll take the toffee, then, and put it in pride of place, next to the book.”

     But she held up her forefingers so as to frame the Christmas tree.  “Oh, no, my friend; now I’m thoroughly on my mettle.  I’ve got to go search out a worthy gift.”

     There was a small pause. “Shall we dismantle the tree, and pitch it out the window?”

     Trust Acton to have noticed that she didn’t like the fancy tree—which was silly; she was such a baby, sometimes. In a light tone, she teased, “If we do, Reynolds is like to pitch me out, right after it.”

     But this, apparently, was not a matter to be taken lightly, and her husband bent his head to meet her eyes in all seriousness. “If he is a problem, Kathleen, you mustn’t hesitate to tell me.  He has no business making you feel uncomfortable.”

     “Oh, no—it’s not like that, Michael,” she protested, and then tried to search for the right words to explain.  “I don’t mind him at all. I feel that we can trust him.”

     He looked at her for a long moment, aware that the words meant more than they seemed. “That is good to know.”  He took another bite of her ice cream.

     She relinquished the bowl to him so that she could nestle into the crook of his arm. “But he’s goin’ to blow a gasket when I tell him I’m I’ve already met the baby’s nanny.”

     Surprised, he raised his head slightly. “Have you indeed?”

     “Yes. She’s a witness that Williams and I met over at the projects—a young woman with a stepdaughter.  She may seem a bit unsuitable, but we can trust her, too.”

     He bowed his head for a moment, and then said almost apologetically, “I’ll have to run a thorough background check.”

     “Have at it.”

     “Are you certain she’s available?”

     “She doesn’t know she’s goin’ to be a nanny, yet,” Doyle replied absently. “Do you suppose we have any toffee, somewhere?” 

     “Let’s have a look.”