"It must gladden your heart to have the twins home for Christmas, then, sir?" Uncomfortable with his father-in-law's unusual display of emotion, Robert attempted to redirect the conversation into a more positive vein. "They are growing into fine young men."
"Yes, they are." The rector glanced at the stack of papers again. "But, goodness me, their school fees are enormous."
"Perhaps you could find a school closer to home so they don't have to board?" Robert suggested.
"Oh, no, that wouldn't do at all," the rector said firmly. "The Harrington family has always gone to Harrow and Eton."
Even though Robert had attended a lesser public school and suffered no harm from it, he declined to get into an argument. His father-in-law was the second son of an earl and held himself and his family to very high standards. Robert doubted the twins would care where they went to school, but it was not his place to interfere. He would leave that to his wife.
Robert bowed. "Well, I am glad that you have found a suitable pony for Ned, and I offer you my thanks. Tell Albert Lawrence to send the bill directly to Mr. Fletcher up at the hall."
"It was a pleasure." The rector stood and gestured to the door. "Shall we go and join the ladies? I'm sure Lucy will want to discuss the final details for the christening. Like most women, she does tend to fuss somewhat."
Robert made no reply to that and instead followed his father-in-law through to the back parlor, where his aunt and wife were ensconced. The twins were nowhere to be seen, as they had gone out to visit their old village friends and would probably not return until dinnertime.
Rose looked up and smiled as they entered the charming parlor.
"Ambrose! Robert! How lovely of you to join us. Would you care for some tea?"
"That would be most welcome." Robert came to sit beside his wife. "And, although I am quite certain Lucy has already offered her thanks for your offer to accommodate some of our guests for the christening, I'd like to add mine."
"Oh, it's no bother." Rose waved away his concerns. "You know I love having guests—the more the merrier."
The rector cleared his throat and directed such a searching gaze at his wife that even Robert noticed. "Are you quite certain, my dear?"
"I am." Rose smiled up at her husband. "And I promise that you won't be put out at all, Ambrose. I have everything in hand."
Robert studied his aunt carefully. She did look a little tired, but with everything that was going on in the rectory—with the twins returning, the preparations for the christening, and the yuletide celebrations—he wasn't surprised. If Lucy had any concerns for his aunt's welfare, he was fairly certain she would share them with him later.
A tap at the door announced the arrival of the kitchen maid with a fresh pot of tea. Robert couldn't help but notice that the rector helped himself to a brandy from the decanter on the sideboard instead. It was unusual for his father-in-law to start drinking so early in the day, and he wondered if his sharp-eyed wife would comment on it.
As the maid left the room, there was a small commotion in the hallway, and a man raised his voice.
"If you please, Maddy, I just want to speak to the rector. I won't take but a moment of his time."
Robert instinctively rose to his feet as the man entered the room and then relaxed as he recognized a familiar face.
"Good morning, Mr. Harper."
The owner of the local mill took off his hat and stared down at his boots.
"Morning, Sir Robert. I don't want to intrude, but I need to have a word with the rector, here."
"What about?" Robert glanced from Mr. Harper to the rector, whose color was rising alarmingly and who appeared to have been struck dumb.
"It's his bills, Sir Robert," Mr. Harper blurted out. "He owes me almost a year's worth. I wouldn't normally ask, but my wife has just given birth to a new baby, and I need the money something rotten." Robert put a hand on the younger man's shoulder and drew him back toward the door.
"Come with me, Sid, and let's see if we can straighten this out." After sending Sid Harper up to the hall with a note for Dermot Fletcher, Robert returned to the parlor to find his father-in-law pacing the rug in front of the fire, his hands joined behind his back.