When Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale after the discovery of his father's bigamy, he shipped off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was near-fatally wounded. After a harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists he enjoys the solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She doesn't want to shackle herself to another man in marriage, but sometimes, she wonders if she is lonely.
Both are unwilling to face the truth until they find themselves alone together one night, and Lydia surprises even herself with a simple question: "Are you ever lonely?" Harry's answer leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined...
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When he was twenty years old, Harry Westcott succeeded to the title Earl of Riverdale upon the sudden death of his father. With the title he inherited several properties, including Brambledean Court in Wiltshire, and a vast fortune his father had accumulated through a combination of prudent and reckless investments. Harry became head of the Westcott family, though he also acquired a guardian to manage his affairs until he reached his twenty-first birthday-Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby.
None of these new acquisitions remained his for long, however. A private investigation launched by his mother to find and pay off the bastard daughter her husband had supported all their married life, supposedly without her knowledge, resulted in what she and Harry and her two daughters came to think of ever after as the Great Disaster-they always spoke of it as though those two words would be capitalized if written down. For Anna Snow, the secret daughter, then twenty-five years old and teaching at the orphanage in Bath where she had grown up, knowing nothing of her true identity, was not, as it turned out, illegitimate. The late Earl of Riverdale had been married to her mother before he wed Harry's, the present countess-and he had still been married to his first wife when he wed the second. The abandoned first wife had died of consumption shortly afterward, but the damage had been done for all time.
The late earl's marriage to his supposed countess of twenty-three years had been bigamous, and the offspring of that marriage had no legal legitimacy. Harry was stripped of title, properties, and fortune, his headship of the family, and his very identity. So were his sisters, the former Lady Camille and Lady Abigail Westcott. His mother resumed her maiden name of Kingsley and fled to Dorsetshire to live with her brother, who was a clergyman there. Camille and Abigail went to live with their maternal grandmother in Bath.
Harry, after getting very drunk the day he learned the news, took the king's shilling from a recruiting sergeant and prepared to join the ranks of a foot regiment about to be shipped off to the Peninsula to face the vast armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was rescued from such a fate, much against his will, by his guardian and sent to the same regiment-and the same destination-as a commissioned officer.
It was a tumultuous time, to say the least.
All that turmoil was so much water under the bridge by now, however, for it had happened almost ten years ago. Somehow everyone who had been caught up in those events had moved onward with their life. Most of them had prospered. Some had settled down happily to lives that were very different from anything they could have expected. But how could one reasonably expect anything of the future when even at the best and most tranquil of times it was a vast unknown? It was nothing short of amazing, in fact, how the human spirit could be rocked to its core by the most catastrophic events life could throw its way and yet steady itself and recover-and then thrive.
The title had passed to Alexander Westcott, Harry's second cousin, though he had been very unhappy about it. He had worked conscientiously in the intervening years to bring Brambledean Court back to prosperity after decades of neglect. Several years ago he and Wren, his wife and countess, had begun a new tradition of welcoming the whole family there for Christmas. Everyone loved it. This year, however, the family was not complete, for the illegitimate branch of it-which the legitimate branch vociferously refused to acknowledge as any less a part of the family than it had ever been-was absent. Viola, the former countess, with the Marquess of Dorchester, her present husband, went instead to spend the holiday in Bath with her daughter Camille and her husband, Joel Cunningham, and their nine children. Yes, the number had increased from seven during the past summer with the adoption of twin girls. Viola's second daughter, Abigail, and her husband, Gil Bennington, and their three children went there too.
So did Harry.
It was perfectly understandable, the rest of the family agreed, swallowing their disappointment. It would not have been easy, after all, for Camille and Joel to pack up nine children and an entourage of accompanying nurses and baggage for the journey to Wiltshire, especially in winter, when one could not be sure of either the weather or the roads. The Westcotts enjoyed their Christmas at Brambledean anyway, though they frequently talked about the absentees and wished they were there too.
In particular, they talked about Harry.
They were worried about him.
Major Harry Westcott had survived the Napoleonic Wars-barely. He had been severely wounded a number of times, but at the Battle of Waterloo he had come as close to death as it was possible to get without actually crossing over to the other side. His life had teetered on the brink for two whole years after that brutal, bloody day before finally Alexander and Avery had taken matters into their own hands. They had brought him back from the convalescent home for British officers in Paris, where he had been languishing, and settled him at Hinsford Manor, his childhood home in Hampshire. He had lived there ever since and had gradually recovered his health and strength. All had ended well, one might say.
His Westcott relatives would not say any such thing, however.
For Harry, the always cheerful, sunny-natured, lighthearted, beloved boy they remembered, had become a recluse. He almost never left Hinsford. It was amazing he had even gone as far as Bath this year for Christmas. He did not always come to Brambledean, and when he did, he was usually the last to arrive and the first to leave. He showed no interest in reclaiming whatever could be reclaimed of his position in society. He showed no interest in marrying and setting up his nursery and living happily ever after. It was all nothing short of heartbreaking. It was as though in ten years he had done nothing more than survive.
Most alarming of all to the family was the fact that Harry was approaching thirty. That was still young, of course, as the senior members of the family were swift to point out, but it was nevertheless a significant barrier. Thirty was a precarious age for a man who was still single and living alone and uninterested in changing either condition.
The family was worried. While Harry, blissfully unaware of clouds looming upon the horizon, celebrated Christmas with his mother and sisters in Bath, he became the focus of a number of lengthy conversations at Brambledean. Inevitably, an unofficial sort of family committee formed to do something about it. Equally inevitably, that committee was composed entirely of females and headed, as usual, by Matilda, Viscountess Dirkson, the late earl's eldest sister.
The men stayed above the fray. Or perhaps they merely held their peace and hoped their wives and sisters would not notice them. Avery, Duke of Netherby, maintained an almost total silence, as he usually did during family conferences, and looked bored. Lord Molenor looked amused. Viscount Dirkson patted his wife's hand whenever she looked to him as though for an opinion and smiled fondly at her. The Earl of Lyndale raised his eyebrows whenever he caught his wife's eye, but refrained from offering any opinion, at least in public. Adrian Sawyer, Dirkson's son, but not by birth or marriage a Westcott, was rash enough to comment upon one occasion that whenever he saw Harry Westcott, which was not often, admittedly, Harry always looked perfectly cheerful and contented. He said no more after intercepting grins from both Colin, Lord Hodges, and Alexander and receiving no encouragement from the ladies to enlarge upon his opinion.
The basic questions to be decided upon, the ladies soon unanimously agreed, were two. First, what were they going to do to celebrate Harry's birthday, which occurred in April, after Easter, when the Season would be just swinging into action in London? Second, what were they going to do about his single state and the sad lethargy into which his life had sunk?
But what they needed to discover first, Mildred, Lady Molenor, Matilda's youngest sister, pointed out, was whether Harry could be lured to London for the Season or even a small part of it. If he could be, they would be able to plan a grand party there for him. It would be relatively easy to accomplish once they had decided upon a time and place, for they would have no trouble whatsoever persuading guests to come. Harry, though illegitimate, had after all been brought up in the earl's household as his son and educated accordingly. Besides, almost all his relatives on the Westcott side were both titled and influential. And, besides again, he was a handsome young man and personable when he chose to be.
"But he always is, Aunt Mildred," Jessica, Countess of Lyndale, protested. She was the daughter of Louise, Dowager Duchess of Netherby, Mildred's elder sister. "Harry may be a near recluse, but he is never morose or bad-tempered. He is always quite jolly, in fact."
"Such a party would, of course, be held at our house," Anna, Avery's wife and the Duchess of Netherby, said. "Harry is my brother-my half brother, anyway-and Avery was once his guardian."
No one was about to argue.
"There could be no better setting than Archer House to make a firm statement to the ton," Louise, Avery's stepmother and Dowager Duchess of Netherby, agreed. "Everyone will come. And among us all we can surely compile a list of eligible young ladies for Harry to consider. He will, in fact, be spoiled for choices. Perhaps we ought to pick out three or four to bring particularly to his attention."
"But for this option to work, Louise, Harry must come up to town," Elizabeth, Lady Hodges, Alexander's sister, pointed out. "That is by no means assured."
"Far from it," Jessica agreed. "He will never consent to come, especially if he gets a whiff of a birthday party."
"We will have to see to it that he does not suspect, then," Althea Westcott, Alexander and Elizabeth's mother, said. "But what can we say to lure him?"
"I fear there is nothing," Anna said with a sigh, breaking a short silence. "I believe my dream of hosting a party for him at Archer House will be dashed after all. If anyone knows any other man as stubborn as Harry, I would be surprised." For ten years Anna had been trying to persuade her half brother to accept his share of the vast fortune she, as the lone legitimate child of the late Earl of Riverdale, had inherited from their father. For the past four of those years she had also been trying to persuade him to take ownership of Hinsford Manor, which was legally hers, though he had lived there most of his life and lived there now. It was his home, for goodness' sake.
"I agree with you, Anna, much as I wish I did not," said the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, her grandmother and matriarch of the family. "Harry is very like his grandfather in that way. It is pride more than stubbornness in his case, however."
"I do know that, Grandmama," Anna said. "Unfortunately, pride and stubbornness have the same symptoms. Sometimes I could cheerfully shake him."
"What we need, then," Matilda said briskly as the committee showed signs of sinking into despondency, "is a plan B to fall back upon if plan A cannot be made to work. What are we going to do if Harry cannot be persuaded to come to London? The answer is obvious in one sense, of course. We will have to go to him. But it would all need very careful organizing. We are going to have to make two complete sets of plans, in fact, since we will not have the luxury of sitting together like this after we all return home next week."
"Viola will surely wish to be involved," Wren, Alexander's wife and the Countess of Riverdale, said. "She is worried about Harry too. She is his mother, after all. So are Camille and Abigail, I expect. And Viola is more familiar with Mrs. Sullivan than we are."
"The housekeeper at Hinsford Manor?" Mildred said. "Yes, she will certainly need to know our plan B. We do not want to give the poor woman an apoplexy by turning up on Harry's doorstep en masse and unannounced."
"But Harry must not know," Jessica said. "If he even suspects what may be in store for him, we will arrive to find that he has already left on a six-month walking tour of the Scottish highlands."
"Poor Harry," Elizabeth said, laughing.
"Right," Matilda said, drawing paper and ink toward her and testing the nib of a quill pen. "Plan A first. London. Grand party. Archer House." She wrote the words down and looked up, pen poised, for details to add.
Harry Westcott, all unbeknownst to him, was about to fall victim to the loving determination of his female relatives to see to it that he enjoyed his thirtieth birthday as he had never enjoyed any birthday before it, and that during those happy celebrations he met enough eligible females that he could not help but fall in love with one of them and proceed to make his offer and set his wedding date. He was going to find his happily-ever-after whether he knew he wanted it or not.
The only faint ray of hope for him, Colin, Elizabeth's husband, observed to a group of men who had retreated to the billiard room one afternoon, was that the Westcott women did not actually have a stellar record as matchmakers.
"Most of us have ended up in marriages of our own choosing via weddings of our own fashioning despite rather than because of their efforts," he said fondly.
"Quite so," Avery agreed as he chalked the end of his cue and surveyed the mess of balls on the table with a keen eye. "But our women can be formidable when they grab hold of a cause. On the whole it is wiser-and ultimately quite harmless-to hold one's peace while they scheme and plan and think they have the world and its turning under their control."
Harry meanwhile spent Christmas at the big house in the hills above Bath where his elder sister, Camille, lived with Joel Cunningham, her husband, and their large family. He enjoyed their company and that of all the rest of his family on his mother's side-it included Mrs. Kingsley, his maternal grandmother, and the Reverend Michael Kingsley, his mother's brother, with his wife, Mary.
Truth to tell, Harry was glad of an excuse not to spend any part of Christmas at Brambledean with the Westcott side of the family. It was not that he was not fond of them all. He was. It was more that their obvious concern for him always made him decidedly uncomfortable. The guilt of what his father had done was something they had taken upon their own shoulders, especially his grandmother and the aunts, his father's sisters-Matilda, Louise, and Mildred. They felt somehow responsible for seeing to it that all turned out well for Harry, their brother's only son. They worried about him. He always felt compelled to be openly jolly in their company. But he could not live happily ever after just to please them. Contentedly ever after was not good enough for them, it seemed.