After her husband's passing, Elizabeth Overfield decides that she must enter into another suitable marriage. That, however, is the last thing on her mind when she meets Colin Handrich, Lord Hodges, at the Westcott Christmas house party. She simply enjoys his company as they listen to carolers on Christmas Eve, walk home from church together on Christmas morning, and engage in a spirited snowball fight in the afternoon. Both are surprised when their sled topples them into a snowbank and they end up sharing an unexpected kiss. They know there is no question of any relationship between them, for she is nine years older than he.
They return to London the following Season, both committed to finding other, more suitable matches. Still they agree to share one waltz at each ball they attend. This innocuous agreement proves to be one that will topple their worlds, as each dance steadily ensnares them in a romance that forces the two to question what they are willing to sacrifice for love. . . .
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Mary Balogh
There was nothing like a family Christmas to make a person feel warm about the heart—oh, and a little wistful too. And perhaps just a bit melancholy.
Brambledean Court in Wiltshire was the scene of just such a gathering for the first time in many years. All the Westcotts were gathered there, from Eugenia, the seventy-one-year-old Dowager Countess of Riverdale, on down to her newest great-grandson, Jacob Cunningham, the three-month-old child of the former Camille Westcott and her husband, Joel. They had all been invited by Alexander Westcott, the present Earl of Riverdale and head of the family, and Wren, his wife of six months.
The house had been unlived in for more than twenty years before Alexander inherited the title, and had been shabby even back then. By the time he arrived it had grown shabbier, and the park surrounding it had acquired a sad air of general neglect. It had been a formidable challenge for Alexander, who took his responsibilities seriously but did not have the fortune with which to carry them out. That problem had been solved with his marriage, since Wren was vastly wealthy. The fortune she had brought to their union enabled them to repair the damage of years and restore the house and park on the one hand and the farms on the other to their former prosperity and glory. But Rome was not built in a day, as the dowager countess was not hesitant to remark after her arrival. There was still a great deal to be done. A very great deal. But at least the house now had a lived-in air.
There were a few other guests besides the Westcotts and their spouses and children. There were Mrs. Kingsley from Bath and her son and daughter-in-law, the Reverend Michael and Mary Kingsley from Dorsetshire. They were the mother, brother, and sister-in-law of Viola, a former Countess of Riverdale, whose marriage of upward of twenty years to the late earl had been exposed spectacularly after his death as bigamous. There had been many complications surrounding that whole ugly episode. But all had ended happily for Viola. For on this very day, Christmas Eve, she had married Marcel Lamarr, Marquess of Dorchester, in the village church. The newlyweds were at the house now, as well as Dorchester’s eighteen-year-old twin son and daughter.
And Colin Handrich, Baron Hodges, Wren’s brother, was here too. For the first time in his twenty-six years he was experiencing a real family Christmas, and after some feeling of awkwardness yesterday despite a warm welcome from everyone, he was now enjoying it greatly.
The house was abuzz with activity. There had been the wedding this morning—a totally unexpected event, it must be added. The marquess had burst in upon them without any prior warning last evening, armed with a special license and an urgent proposal of marriage for Viola a mere couple of months after he had broken off their engagement in spectacularly scandalous fashion during their betrothal party at his own home. But that was another story, and Colin had not been there to experience it firsthand. The wedding had been followed by a wedding breakfast hastily and impressively thrown together by Riverdale’s already overworked staff under Wren’s supervision.
This afternoon had been one of laughter-filled attempts to add to yesterday’s decorations. Fragrant pine boughs and holly and ivy and mistletoe, not to mention ribbons and bells and bows and all the other paraphernalia associated with the season, were everywhere, it seemed—in the drawing room, on the stairs, in the hall, in the dining room. A kissing bough, fashioned under the guidance of Lady Matilda Westcott, unmarried eldest daughter of the dowager countess, hung in the place of honor from the center of the drawing room ceiling and had been causing laughter and whistles and blushes ever since yesterday as it was put to use. There had been the Yule log to haul in today and position in the large hearth in the great hall, ready to be lit in the evening.
And all the while as they moved about and climbed and perched, pinned and balanced, pricked fingers and kissed and blushed, tantalizing smells had been wafting up from the kitchens below of Christmas puddings and gingerbread and mince pies and the Christmas ham, among other mouthwatering delights.
And there had been the snow as a constant wonder and distraction, drawing them to every available window far more often than was necessary to assure themselves that it had not stopped falling and was not melting as fast as it came down. It had been threatening for days and had finally begun during the wedding this morning. It had continued in earnest all day since then, until by now it must be knee deep.
Snow, and such copious amounts of it, was a rarity in England, especially for Christmas. They did not stop telling one another so all afternoon.
And now, this evening, the village carolers had waded up the driveway to sing for them. The Yule log had been lit and the family had gathered and the carolers had come against all expectation, exclaiming and stamping boots and shaking mufflers and slapping mittens and rubbing at red noses to make them redder—and then quieting down and growing self-conscious as they looked around at the family and friends gathered in the great hall to listen to them.
They sang for half an hour, and their audience listened and occasionally joined in. The dowager countess and Mrs. Kingsley were seated in ornately carved and padded wooden chairs close to the great fireplace to benefit from the logs that flamed and crackled around the Yule log in the hearth. It gave more the effect of cheerfulness than actual warmth to the rest of the hall, but everyone else was happy to stand until the carolers came to the end of their repertoire and everyone applauded. Alexander gave a short speech wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year. Then they all moved about, mingling and chatting and laughing merrily as glasses of spiced wassail and trays of warm mince pies were brought up from belowstairs and offered first to the carolers and then to the house guests.
After a while Colin found himself standing in the midst of it all, alone for the moment, consciously enjoying the warm, festive atmosphere of the scene around him. From what he could observe, there appeared to be not one discordant note among the happy crowd—if one ignored the impatience with which the dowager was batting away the heavy shawl Lady Matilda was attempting to wrap about her shoulders.
This was what family should be like.
This was what Christmas should always be like.
It was an ideal of perfection, of course, and ideals were not often attained and were not sustainable for long even when they were. Life could never be unalloyed happiness, even for a close-knit family such as this one. But sometimes there were moments when it was, and this was surely one of them. It deserved to be recognized and enjoyed and savored.
He smiled at the three young ladies across the hall who had their heads together, chattering and laughing and stealing glances his way. It was not altogether surprising. He was not unduly conceited, but he was a young, single gentleman in possession of a title and fortune. Single gentlemen above the age of twenty were in short supply here at Brambledean. Indeed, he was the only one, with the exception of Captain Harry Westcott, Viola’s son, who had arrived back from the wars in the Peninsula two days ago—also unexpectedly—on recruitment business for his regiment. Unfortunately for the three ladies, however, the captain was the brother of one of them and the first cousin of another. Only Lady Estelle Lamarr, the Marquess of Dorchester’s daughter, was unrelated to him by blood, though she had become his stepsister this morning.
When they saw Colin smile, they all ducked their heads, while above the general hubbub he could hear one of them giggling. But why would he not look and be pleased with what he saw—and flattered by their attention? They were all remarkably pretty in differing ways, younger than he and unattached, as far as he knew. They were all eligible, even Abigail Westcott, Viola and the late Earl of Riverdale’s daughter, whose birth had been declared illegitimate almost three years ago after the disastrous revelation concerning her father’s bigamy. Colin did not care a fig for that supposed stain upon her name. Lady Jessica Archer was half sister of the Duke of Netherby and daughter of the former duke and his second wife, the youngest of the Westcott sisters.
It had not been easy during the six months since Wren had married Alexander to sort out the complex relationships within this family, but Colin believed he had finally mastered them, even the step and half connections.
He was about to stroll across the hall to ask the three young ladies how they had enjoyed the carol singing when his sister appeared at his side and handed him a glass of wassail.
“You are going to have to stay here tonight after all, thanks to the snow, Colin,” she said, sounding smug.
“But you already have a houseful, Roe,” he protested, though in truth he knew it would be impossible to go home tonight and even more impossible to return tomorrow. Home was Withington House, nine miles away, where he had been living since the summer. It belonged to Wren, but he had gladly moved in there when she had offered it, rather than stay in London, where he had lived throughout the year for the past five years.
“Roe,” she said softly and fondly. She had been christened Rowena as a baby. Roe had been Colin’s childhood name for her, and he still called her that when in conversation with her, even though her name had been legally changed to Wren. “One more guest will cause no upheaval, and it will make us all a lot happier. Me in particular. Was not the carol singing wonderful?”
“Wonderful,” he agreed, though the singers had been more hearty than musical.
“And the wedding this morning was perfect,” she said with a happy sigh. “And the wedding breakfast after it. And the snow and putting up more decorations and . . . oh, and everything. Have you ever lived through a happier day?”
He pretended to think about it, his eyes raised to the high ceiling of the great hall, his forefinger tapping his chin. He raised the finger. “Yes, I have, actually,” he said. “The day Alexander came to call at my rooms in London and I discovered that you were still alive, and I went with him to meet you for the first time in almost twenty years.”
“Ah. Yes.” She beamed at him, her eyes luminous with memory. “Oh yes, indeed, Colin, you are right. When I looked at you, and you spoke my name, and I realized you were that little mop-haired boy I remembered . . . It was indeed an unforgettable day.”
He had been told when he was six years old that ten-year-old Rowena had died shortly after their aunt took her away from Roxingley, supposedly to consult a physician about the great strawberry birthmark that swelled over one side of her face, disfiguring her quite horribly. In reality there had been no physician and no death. Aunt Megan had taken Rowena from a home in which she had been isolated and frequently locked in her room so that no one would have to look at her. Aunt Megan had married Reginald Heyden, a wealthy gentleman of her acquaintance, soon after, and the two of them had adopted Rowena Handrich, changed her name to Wren Heyden, and raised her as their own. Colin, meanwhile, had grieved deeply for his beloved sister and playmate. He had discovered the truth only this year, when Alexander had sought him out soon after marrying her.
Wren was lovely despite the purple marks down the left side of her face where the strawberry swelling had been when she was a child. And she was looking more beautiful than ever these days. Alexander had lost no time in getting her with child.
“Was Christmas a happy time for you when you were a boy, Colin?” Her face turned a little wistful as she gazed into his.
He had grown up as part of a family—there were his mother and father, an elder brother, and three older sisters. Roxingley Park was a grand property where there had always been an abundance of the good things in life. The material things, that was. His father had been a wealthy man, just as Colin was now. Christmases had come and gone, even after the supposed death of Rowena, the youngest of his sisters, and the real death of his brother Justin nine years later. But he did not remember them as warm family occasions. Not like this one. Not even close.
“I am sorry,” she said. “You are looking suddenly melancholy. Aunt Megan and Uncle Reggie always made Christmas very special for me and for each other. Not like this, of course. There were just the three of us. But very lovely nevertheless and abounding with love. Life will get better for you, Colin. I promise. And you will be staying tonight. You will be here all day tomorrow and probably all of Boxing Day too. Definitely, in fact, for we will press ahead with the plans for our Boxing Day evening party even if some of our invited guests find it impossible to get here. This is going to be the best Christmas ever. I have decided, and I will not take no for an answer. It already is the best, in fact, though I do wish Aunt Megan and Uncle Reggie were still alive to be a part of it. You would have loved them, and they would have loved you.”
He opened his mouth to reply, but Alexander had caught her eye from his position behind the refreshments and she excused herself to weave her way back toward him in order to distribute more of the wassail to the carolers before they left.
Colin looked about the hall again, still feeling warm and happy—and a bit melancholy at having been reminded of the brokenness that was and always had been his own family. And perhaps too at the admission that, though he was now Baron Hodges himself and therefore head of his family, and though he was twenty-six years old and no longer had the excuse of being a mere boy, he had done nothing to draw its remaining members together—his mother and his three sisters and their spouses and children. He had not been to Roxingley since he was eighteen, when he had gone for his father’s funeral. He had done nothing to perpetuate his line, to create his own family, something more like this one. The Westcotts had suffered troubles enough in the last few years and no doubt before that too. Life was like that. But their troubles had seemed to strengthen rather than loosen the bonds that held them.
Not so with the Handrich family.
Could it be done? Was it possible? Was he ready at least to try? To do something positive with his life instead of just drifting from day to day and more or less hiding from the enormity of what doing something would entail? His eyes alit again upon the group across the hall. The young ladies had been joined by the three schoolboy sons of Lord and Lady Molenor. Winifred Cunningham, Abigail’s young niece, was with them too, as were a couple of the younger carolers. They were all merrily chatting and laughing and behaving as though this Christmas Eve was the very happiest of days—as indeed it was.
Colin felt suddenly as though he were a hundred years older than the oldest of them.
“A penny for them,” a voice said from close by, and he turned toward the speaker.
Ah. Lady Overfield.
Just the sight of her lifted his mood and brought a smile to his face. He liked and admired her more than any other woman of his acquaintance, perhaps more than any other person of either gender. For him she lived on a sort of pedestal, above the level of other mortals. He might have been quite in love with her if she had been of an age with him or younger. Though even then it would have seemed somehow disrespectful. She was his ideal of womanhood.
She was Alexander’s elder sister, Wren’s sister-in-law, and beautiful through and through. He was well aware that other people might not agree. She was fair haired and trim of figure and had a face that was amiable more than it was obviously lovely. But his life experiences had taught him to look deeper than surface appearances to discover beauty or its lack. Lady Overfield was perhaps the most beautiful woman he had ever met. There was something about her manner that exuded a seemingly unshakable tranquility combined with a twinkling eye. But she did not hoard it. Rather, she turned it outward to touch other people. She did not draw attention to herself but bestowed it upon others. She was everyone’s best friend in the family, the one with whom all felt appreciated and comfortable, the one who would always listen and never judge. She had been Wren’s first friend ever—Wren had been close to thirty at the time—and had remained steadfast. Colin would have loved her for that alone.
He had liked her since his rediscovery of his sister, but he had felt particularly warm toward her since yesterday. He had felt a bit awkward being among the members of a close family, though everyone had made him welcome. Lady Overfield had singled him out, though, for special attention. She had talked with him all evening from her perch on the window seat in the room where they were all gathered, drawing him out on topics he would not normally have raised with a woman, talking just enough herself to make it a conversation. He had soon relaxed. He had also felt honored, for to her he must appear little more than a gauche boy. He guessed she must be somewhere in her mid-thirties to his twenty-six. He did not know how long she had been a widow, but she must have been quite young when she lost her husband, poor lady. She had no children. She lived with Mrs. Westcott, her mother, at Alexander’s former home in Kent.
She had asked him a question.
“I was trying to decide,” he said, nodding in the direction of the group of young people, “which of the three ladies I should marry.”
She looked startled for a moment and then laughed with him as she glanced across the room.
“Oh, indeed?” she said. “But have you not heard, Lord Hodges, that when one gazes across a crowded room at the one and only person destined to be the love of one’s life, one feels no doubt whatsoever? If you look and see three possible candidates for the position, then it is highly probable that none of them is the right choice.”
“Alas,” he said. “Are you quite sure?”
“Well, not quite,” she admitted. “They are all remarkably pretty, are they not? I must applaud your taste. I have observed too that they are not indifferent to your charms. They have been stealing glances at you and exchanging nudges and giggles since yesterday—at least Abby and Jessica have. Estelle came only today after the wedding, but she seems equally struck by you. But Lord Hodges, are you in search of a wife?”
“No,” he said after a slight hesitation. “Not really. I am not, but I am beginning to feel that perhaps I ought to be. Sometime. Maybe soon. Maybe not for a few years yet. And how is that for a firm, decisive answer?”
“Admirable,” she said, and laughed again. “I expect the young female world and that of its mamas will go into raptures when you do begin the search in earnest. You must know that you are one of England’s most eligible bachelors and not at all hard on the eyes either. Wren is over the moon with delight that you will be staying here tonight, by the way. She was disappointed last evening when you insisted upon returning home.”
“I believe the snow is still coming down out there, Lady Overfield,” he said. “If I tried to get home, there might be nothing more than my eyebrows showing above the snow when someone came in search of me. It would appear that I am stuck here for at least a couple of days.”
“Better here than there even if you could get safely home,” she said. “You would be stuck there and all alone for Christmas. The very thought makes me want to weep. But will you call me Elizabeth? Or even Lizzie? My brother is, after all, married to your sister, which fact makes us virtually brother and sister, does it not? May I call you Colin?”
“Please do, Elizabeth,” he said, feeling a bit awkward at saying her name. It seemed an imposition. But she had requested it, a particular mark of acceptance. What a very happy Christmas this was turning out to be—and it was not even Christmas Day yet. How could he even consider feeling melancholy?
“You ought to be very thankful for the snow,” she said. “Now you will not have to waste part of the morning in travel. Christmas morning is always one of my favorites of the year, if not my very favorite. Is it not a rare treat indeed to have a white Christmas? And has that been remarked upon a time or two already today? But I cannot remember the last time it happened. And it is not even a light dusting to tease the hopes of children everywhere, but a massive fall. I would wager upon the sudden appearance of an army of snowmen and perhaps snowladies tomorrow, as well as a heavenly host of snow angels. And snowball fights and sleigh rides—there is an ancient sleigh in the carriage house, apparently. And sledding down the hill. There are sleds too, which really ought to be in a museum somewhere, according to Alex, but which will doubtless work just as well as new ones would. There is even a hill, though not a very mountainous one, alas. It will do, however. You will not be sorry you stayed.”
“Perhaps,” he said, “I will choose to spend a more traditional Christmas in a comfortable chair by the fire, eating rich foods and imbibing spiced wine and napping.”
She looked at him, startled again. “Oh, you could not possibly be so poor spirited,” she said, noticing the twinkle in his eye. “You would be the laughingstock. A pariah. Expelled from Brambledean in deep disgrace, never to be admitted within its portals again even if you are Wren’s brother.”
“Does that also mean none of your young cousins would be willing to marry me?” he asked.
“It absolutely means just that,” she assured him. “Even I would not.”
“Ah,” he said, slapping a hand to the left side of his chest. “My heart would be broken.”
“I would have no pity on you,” she said, “even if you came to me with the pieces in your hand.”
“Cruel.” He sighed. “Then I had better be prepared to go out tomorrow and make a few snow angels and hurl a few snowballs, preferably at you. I warn you, though, that I was the star bowler on my cricket team at school.”
“What modesty,” she said. “Not to mention gallantry. But I see that two of the footmen are lighting the carolers’ lanterns. They are about to leave. Shall we go and see them on their way?”
She took the arm he offered and they joined the throng about the great doors. The noise level escalated as everyone thanked the carolers again and the carolers thanked everyone in return and everyone wished everyone else a happy Christmas.
He was happy, Colin decided. He was a part of all this. He was an accepted member of the Westcott family, even if merely an extended member. Lady Overfield—Elizabeth—had remarked that they were virtually brother and sister. She had joked and laughed with him. Her hand was still tucked through his arm. There was surely no greater happiness.
There were a snowball fight and sledding to look forward to tomorrow.
And gifts to exchange.
And goose and stuffing and Christmas pudding.
Yes, it felt very good to belong.
To a family that was not really his own.
Elizabeth Overfield had been fighting melancholy for the past few days and was taking herself severely to task over it. This was surely going to be the happiest of Christmases. She was spending it with her mother and brother and sister-in-law and the whole of the Westcott clan. The Radleys, her mother’s side of the family, would have been here too if they had not had a prior commitment, but they had already agreed to come next year.
It was nothing short of a miracle that all the Westcotts were assembled here at Brambledean. The great upset of two and a half years ago could so easily have driven them apart into angry, bitter factions. But that had not happened. Rather, the family had pulled together and held together. Viola, the dispossessed Countess of Riverdale, had married here this morning. Her three children, officially illegitimate, were all here too. So was Anna, Duchess of Netherby, the late earl’s only legitimate child. None of them seemed to resent in the least Elizabeth’s brother, Alex, who had inherited the Riverdale title.
It was illogical, then, to be wrestling with depression.
After the carolers had finished singing, Elizabeth looked about the hall and tried to feel the mood of unalloyed happiness everyone else seemed to be feeling. Then her eyes had alit upon Lord Hodges, standing temporarily alone in the midst of the throng, a wistful, almost bleak expression on his face. And her heart had reached out to him as it had yesterday, when she had sensed his discomfort at being here among a family of virtual strangers. She had taken him under her wing then and found herself unexpectedly enchanted by his quiet charm and smiling blue eyes and by his tall, slim, youthful figure and blond good looks. Spending a couple of hours of the evening talking with him had been a great pleasure, but had done nothing to lift her general mood of depression. For she had found herself wanting to be young again as he was young now and filled with the youthful vitality that had once been hers until the passing of time and a disastrous marriage had sapped it out of her.
It would perhaps have been wise to stay away from him this evening. She did not want to go developing any sort of tendresse for him, did she? That would be mildly pathetic. She had approached him anyway and been rewarded by his smile and his warm sense of humor. But she had sensed a certain loneliness in him, as she had last evening. This was not his family, after all. Only Wren belonged to him.
Loneliness could feel a bit more acute in circumstances like these, when one was surrounded by friends—and family in her case—but none of them was that particular someone, that love of one’s life she had spoken of a few minutes ago. She had thought once upon a time she had found him. She had even married him. But it had turned out that despite his protestations to the contrary, Desmond Overfield had preferred alcohol to her, and her love for him had died an aching death even before he literally passed from this life. Or perhaps it never had quite died. Could love die if it was real?
Her lone state had felt even more acute today with the marriage this morning of Viola and the Marquess of Dorchester, a match she believed was going to be a happy one, though nothing in this life was ever certain.
Lord Hodges’s situation—Colin’s—was quite different from her own, of course. He was still very young, only in his middle twenties, she would guess. She watched him as he shook hands with some of the carolers and commended them on their singing and wished them a safe return home through the snow. Some young lady was going to be fortunate indeed when he really did set his mind upon marriage. She felt suddenly very middle-aged, if not elderly. Had she ever been young like the three girls he had been joking about marrying a few minutes ago, eyeing the young gentlemen with self-conscious awareness, all of life and hope and happiness ahead of her? But of course she had.
“What a wonderful day this has been,” Anna said from beside her. “Do you think tomorrow will be an anticlimax, Elizabeth?”
“When there are the gifts to give and receive and the goose to be consumed and the Christmas service at church to look forward to?” Elizabeth said. “And the snow beckoning us to come outside? I think not.”
Avery, Duke of Netherby, Anna’s husband, sighed and shuddered. “You are not by any chance going to try forcing us to go out there to frolic, are you, Elizabeth?” he asked.
“Ah, but she is,” Colin assured him. “She has threatened to have me permanently banished from Brambledean if I try insisting upon napping by the fire as any civilized gentleman ought on Christmas Day. And she has power, Netherby. She is Riverdale’s sister.”
Elizabeth smiled at the teasing.
Avery raised his quizzing glass to his eye and surveyed her through it, his expression pained. She twinkled merrily back at him, and they all turned their attention back to the departure of the carolers, who were stepping out onto newly swept steps but descending into deep white snow, their mufflers up about their ears, their hats and bonnets pulled low, their lanterns held high. A blast of cold air and even some swirling snow invaded the great hall while farewells and thanks and Christmas wishes were called back and forth yet again.
“Since there is plenty of wassail left in the bowl,” Alex said, raising his voice above the slightly diminished hubbub after the doors had closed behind the departing villagers, “and since it must be six or seven hours since we last toasted the health and happiness of the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorchester, I suggest we do so again before we all retire for the night. Wren, where are you? You may pass around the glasses as I fill them, if you will.”
Viola, once the Countess of Riverdale, now Viola Lamarr, Marchioness of Dorchester, was looking remarkably happy. Indeed, she glowed like the new bride she was. And the marquess was looking down at her with a gleam in his dark eyes that left Elizabeth feeling slightly breathless and . . . jealous?
But no, not that. She would never begrudge Viola her happiness. Envy, then. She was envious. And lonely again.
There had been a number of marriages in the family during the past couple of years or so, beginning with Anna’s to Avery. Anna had lived with Elizabeth for a short while after she came to London from the orphanage where she had grown up, unaware that she was the daughter of the Earl of Riverdale—the legitimate daughter. Elizabeth had lived with her to help her adjust to her new life and feel less bewildered and alone. She and Avery’s secretary had been the lone witnesses at their wedding. Then Camille, Viola’s elder daughter, had married Joel Cunningham in Bath, and Alex had married Wren in London. Now Viola, who was in her forties, had married the marquess here at Brambledean. And the four family marriages appeared to have one thing in common, as far as Elizabeth could judge from the outside. All four were love matches. All four stood a good chance of remaining happy on into the future.
“Ladies?” Colin said. He had gone over to the wassail bowl with Wren and had returned with a glass in each hand, one for Elizabeth and one for Anna. “But no drinking before everyone has been served and the toast has been proposed.”
“Tyrant,” Elizabeth said. “Not even one tiny sip?”
“Not even,” he said, but his eyes twinkled at her. “Alexander’s orders. Lord of the manor and all that.”
“I wonder what the penalty would be for disobedience,” Anna said.
“You would not want to know,” he told her, and winked before moving back to the bowl to help distribute the glasses.
“How very glad I am that Lord Hodges and Wren found each other again,” Anna said. “Families really ought not to be kept apart for long years.”
Elizabeth smiled sympathetically at her and noticed that Avery had slipped an arm about her waist. And envy assailed her again. And loneliness. It was something she really must do something about. She was thirty-five years old. Not young, but certainly not old. And she had prospects. During the past two Seasons, which she had spent in London with her mother, she had met a few gentlemen, both new acquaintances and old, who had shown signs of interest. It was possible she could marry again. She had been adamantly against remarriage after Desmond’s death. Marriage to him had given her a healthy respect for freedom and independence. But not all men were like him. Not all marriages were unhappy or worse. And there were attractions to marriage.
One of those gentlemen, indeed, had expressed a very definite interest. Sir Geoffrey Codaire had first proposed marriage to her many years ago, just after she met Desmond. He had renewed his acquaintance with her during the past two years. He was as solid of build and of character as he had always been, neither particularly handsome nor especially vibrant of personality, but—well, solid and worthy. He was someone with whom she could expect a quiet and comfortable companionship. He was someone upon whom she could depend. More and more lately she had considered accepting the offer he had made again back in the spring. She had said no, but when he had asked if he might renew his addresses sometime in the future, she had hesitated, and he had insisted upon taking that as a hopeful sign and urged her not to answer his question. She had not done so, and they had left it at that. Perhaps this coming spring, if he asked again, she would say yes.
Maybe next Christmas she would no longer be here alone. Perhaps that core of melancholy she could not quite shake off would be banished by a new marriage, her own this time. She might even be with child, as Wren was this year. Sometimes she ached for the experience of motherhood.
The Reverend Michael Kingsley, Viola’s brother, had been called upon to propose the toast, and silence descended upon the great hall as Alex tapped the ladle against the side of the wassail bowl.
Colin had joined the young people, Elizabeth could see, and stood with Jessica on one side and young Bertrand Lamarr, the Marquess of Dorchester’s son, on the other. His free hand, the one that was not holding his glass, was resting upon ten-year-old Winifred’s shoulder—the youngsters had been allowed to stay up late tonight. He was looking happy. He was where he belonged.
The Reverend Kingsley cleared his throat, and Elizabeth turned her attention to the toast he was about to propose.
Christmas Day began early with breakfast and gift giving, most of the latter done in small, individual family groups. Colin was invited to join his sister and brother-in-law and Mrs. Westcott and Elizabeth in Wren’s private sitting room, where he received an exquisite multicolored glass mug engraved with his name from Wren’s glassworks, a new fob for his watch from Mrs. Westcott, and a muffler of soft, bright red wool from Elizabeth. He had bought matching leather-backed blotters and pen holders for Wren and Alexander, a paisley shawl for Mrs. Westcott, and a leather-bound notebook with small attached pencil for Elizabeth. Exchanging gifts really was a delight, he discovered, accompanied as it was with exclamations of delight and effusive thanks and even hugs. It was something new to him. He had brought gifts for the children too.
Most of the family ended up on the nursery floor, where the children opened their presents and displayed them for adult admiration and played with them, though young Jacob, it was true, was more interested in flapping his hands at his mama and papa’s smiles than in appreciating the new stuffed animals they waggled before his face and the rattle about which they curled his fingers. One-year-old Sarah Cunningham, on the other hand, dashed about the nursery, shrieking with joy as she placed her new doll on her mama’s knee before snatching it off in order to hug it and pet it before placing it upon someone else’s knee. Winifred Cunningham thanked everyone solemnly for hair ribbons and muff and bracelets and rings and then dived into one of her three new books and was lost to the world. Josephine Archer bounced on the Duke of Netherby’s knee and tried to bite one paw off a stuffed dog.
Lord Molenor’s three sons, who were all in their teen years and therefore ought not to qualify for gifts from everyone, according to their father, exclaimed over cricket bats and balls and boots and mufflers and telescopes and books—which last items did not tempt any of them to dive in immediately. Boris obligingly rocked Sarah’s doll and was rewarded by a hug and a kiss before she snatched it away, hugged it herself, and thrust it upon her grandmama.
Everyone convened in the drawing room after that for the distribution of gifts to the servants, the first such ceremony for many years. And, amazingly when one considered the apparent chaos of the morning and the depth of the snow, which was still falling intermittently, they all trekked to church in the village in time for the eleven o’clock service.
The ancient sleigh, spruced up to look almost respectable and decked with bells, which jingled when it was in motion, made two journeys to take the older folk. Everyone else walked—or waded. Any horseplay—Lord Molenor’s term—was strictly forbidden on the way there. He bellowed with terrible ferocity when one of his sons slid a handful of snow down the back of his brother’s collar and the victim spun about with a roar to retaliate. There was no further incident beyond an inelegant skid that sent Lady Estelle Lamarr sprawling in the snow. When her twin hauled her to her feet she looked like a living snowlady. Captain Westcott helped brush her down while she giggled in embarrassment and her cold-flushed cheeks turned surely a brighter shade of scarlet.
Colin walked with Camille and Joel Cunningham and carried young Sarah and her doll most of the way, Cunningham’s arms being occupied with his infant son while Winifred clung to Camille’s hand. He sat with them at church, which he was surprised to find full of parishioners. He could not recall any Christmas when his own family had attended church. They had thereby missed perhaps the most heartwarming service of the year with its emphasis upon birth and hope and love and joy and peace. On Christmas Day one could believe in them all, or at least in the possibility of them. Camille held Sarah, who was soon snuggled against her, doll and all, asleep, while Winifred leaned against her mother’s arm with utter trust in the power of her family to love and protect her. Joel jiggled young Jacob gently on his knee when the baby began to fuss and was rewarded with a toothless smile and gradually closing eyelids.
It was surely time, Colin thought, to trust the idea of family. Or, rather, to trust his own ability to create one and perhaps even draw into it the members of the family with whom he had grown up. Wren was already a part of it. So were his sister Ruby and her husband, Sean, and their four children, even though they lived in Ireland and he did not see a great deal of them and Ruby was not the world’s most prolific letter writer. But there were still his mother and his eldest sister, Blanche, and her husband. He would not think of them today, however. He did not want his heart to grow heavy.
He walked between Lady Overfield and Mrs. Althea Westcott, her mother, on the way home, the latter leaning rather heavily on his arm lest she slip and fall and make a cake of herself—her words. But she was taken up by the sleigh on its second journey from the church to the house, and Elizabeth took his arm when he offered it, first drawing her gloved hand free of her muff. She looked very fetching in her red cloak and red-brimmed bonnet, a vivid contrast with the whiteness of the snow and the hoarfrost on the branches of the trees.
“Fashionable half boots are woefully inadequate in all this snow, I am discovering,” she said ruefully. “One can only hope they will dry out by this afternoon.”
“You are still dreaming of snowball fights and sled races and other outdoor horrors, then, are you?” he asked. “Even though we are about to have our Christmas dinner and are almost bound to overindulge?”
“For that precise reason,” she said. “I suppose you are still dreaming of a quiet fireside and a comfortable chair.”
He laughed. Her eyes were sparkling with pleasure at the anticipated delight of freezing herself with snow frolics. “Have you ever considered marrying again, Elizabeth?” he asked.
She turned her face sharply toward him, her eyebrows raised.
“I do beg your pardon,” he said. “That was probably a hideously unmannerly question, not to mention abrupt. But Christmas puts one in mind of family and children and togetherness, and—well, forget I asked, if you please. I have embarrassed myself. And doubtless you too.”
But she laughed again. “I am not embarrassed,” she said. “And, yes, I have considered remarrying. For a long time I did not. I thought I would be content to live out my life as a dutiful daughter to my mother in her old age. Alas, she will have none of it. And I must confess to feeling a mite relieved. I have started to look about me.”
Two of Molenor’s boys had made a chair of their interlaced hands, Colin could see, and Winifred was riding on them, her arms about their shoulders. She was laughing—something that was surely rare with her. She was a serious, studious, somewhat pious young girl, who had grown up in an orphanage in Bath before Camille and Joel adopted her along with Sarah last year when they married. Colin wondered if she realized she was bound to be dropped into the snow accidentally on purpose before they reached the house.
“With any success?” he asked Elizabeth.
“Yes, I believe so,” she said after hesitating. “A gentleman I have known a long time made me an offer earlier this year. I said no at the time, but he asked if he might renew his addresses at some future date, and I did not say no.”
“It sounds like a grand love story,” he said, turning his head to grin at her. But really, why would she marry for any other reason than love? She was surely made for love with a man who would adore her and count his blessings for the rest of his life
“Well, it is not, of course,” she said. “Perhaps I am a little too old for romantic love. Or perhaps I do not trust it as much as I once did.”
“Now, that sounds purely sad,” he said. And he meant it. I do not trust . . . ? Had love let her down? Perhaps because it had let her husband die? “And too old for romance? Tell that to those two.”
He nodded ahead to the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorchester. Abigail Westcott was at Dorchester’s other side, Lady Estelle Lamarr on his wife’s. The four of them walked with their arms linked. There had been a look about the newlyweds this morning that had made Colin feel a little hot under the collar, though there had been nothing remotely improper in their behavior, just a glow about her person and an intensity about his eyes that could not be put into adequate words but spoke volumes.
“They do look happy,” Elizabeth agreed, “after all of twenty-five hours of marriage. And yes, they are both over forty.”
“I have always thought that I need not consider anything so drastic as marriage for years yet,” he said. “I have only recently turned twenty-six, after all.”
“Drastic?” She chuckled. “Leg shackles and tenants for life and all the other clichés you gentlemen like to use?”
“And establishing a family,” he said, “and setting the tone I would want it to have. Taking up residence somewhere and making a home of it. Deciding where that would be. Making a choice of bride, knowing that I must live with my choice for the rest of my life—and that she would have to live with hers for the rest of her life. Being head of my family. Taking on the responsibility for it. Becoming a man.”
He stopped in sudden embarrassment, especially at those final words. And she had not missed them.
“Do you see yourself as less than a man now, then?” she asked.
“I do not know quite what I meant,” he said. “Becoming decisive, perhaps. Setting down my feet and taking a firm stand, perhaps. Knowing who I am and where I am going. Where I want to go. Where I ought to go. You will be thinking me an utter idiot. And you will probably be right.”
“I think no such thing,” she protested. “Many young men, and young women to a lesser degree, believe they know it all and blunder onward through life reinforcing their opinion of themselves with every ignorant action and never achieving their full potential as men and women and human beings. I think there are definite advantages to knowing early that really one knows very little and must be ever open to learning and changing and adjusting. Oh goodness, listen to me. Or, rather, ignore me, please. Do you have anyone in mind now that you are perhaps maybe beginning to turn your thoughts toward matrimony? Or is it to be a case of tossing a coin to choose among the three you were considering last evening?”
“I have never yet seen a three-sided coin, alas,” he said. “There was someone last Season, the sister of a friend of mine. She was shy and did not take well with the ton. I offered her my company on a few occasions and found I liked her. I believe she liked me. But I had a letter from her brother just a week or so ago in which he informed me that her betrothal to a gentleman farmer she has known all her life and apparently loved for years is to be announced over Christmas. So mine was no grand love story, either.”
“Oh dear,” she said. “Were you hurt?’’
“I am almost ashamed to admit I was not,” he said. “I was pleased for her and relieved for myself, to be perfectly honest, since I had never intended my attentions to be misconstrued as courtship. Obviously they were not, however. We are a sad, pathetic pair, Elizabeth. Perhaps we should put ourselves out of our misery and marry each other.”
He said it as a joke. Even so, he felt instantly embarrassed at his own presumption. He and Elizabeth?
“Now there is an idea worth considering,” she said, all good humor. “You said you are twenty-six? I am thirty-five. Only a nine-year difference. No one would even remark upon it if it were the other way around—if you were nine years older than I, that is. But I fear it would very certainly be remarked upon this way around. I had better not take you up on your kind offer immediately. I will, however, put you on a list with a few other remote possibilities. I may even use my new leather-bound notebook and pencil for the purpose.”
“Remote?” he said. “Ouch.”
They looked at each other sidelong and both laughed. And oh, he liked her.
“Of course, I was fully aware of the age difference,” he said. “I offered you my arm only because you are old and doddering. All of nine years older than I am. Oh, and I offered my arm because I enjoy your company too. There are certain people with whom one feels an instant affinity, a total comfort, an easy ability to talk upon any subject, even absurdities, without having to resort to the weather and the health of all one’s acquaintances.”
“And I am one of those people?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “In all sincerity, Elizabeth.”
“I am touched,” she said. “In all sincerity, Colin.”
They laughed again, but the wonder was that both of them did mean it. He had never had a female friend before. Friendly acquaintances, yes, but not . . . Well, there had been no one like Elizabeth.
He wondered if she had always been as she was now. Serenity seemed to hover about her. Even when she was joking and laughing it was there. Perhaps she had been born this way, able to weather the storms of life without succumbing to disillusionment or despair. Even as he thought it, however, he remembered her saying just a few minutes ago that perhaps she did not trust romantic love as much as she once had. And he thought of what she had just said about living and learning and changing and adjusting. Perhaps she had had to earn that inner peace she seemed to have achieved. But how? What disturbing experiences were in her past, apart from the loss of her husband, that was? How had she learned to cope with them?
He had never learned to cope with his own. He had learned only how to bury them deep inside himself. How to run and hide.
“It is heartening to see a mingled family begin to form, is it not?” she said of the four people walking abreast ahead of them. “Note that it is Abby walking at Marcel’s side, while Estelle is on Viola’s.”
“Do you think Dorchester will do something for Abigail Westcott now that she is his stepdaughter?” Colin asked. “Draw her into society, perhaps, and force the ton to overlook her illegitimacy? Help her find a husband worthy of her upbringing?”
“I am sure he would,” she said. “If she wishes it, that is.”
“You think she may not?” he asked.
“I think it very possible,” she said. “We have all tried, you know, and most of us have considerable influence, Alex and Avery most of all. There is really no reason for her to be ostracized, even though the highest sticklers will doubtless always consider her birth tainted. But I am not sure Abby is willing to allow others to help her slip and sidle into a life that would be very nearly like her old one but never identical. She is Viola’s daughter. She is sweet and quiet and dignified. But I do believe she has a spine made of steel.”
“Ah,” he said. And she was also a lovely girl.
“Oh, oh,” Elizabeth said suddenly. “That was thoroughly predictable.”
A shriek and shouts of laughter came from up ahead and the bellow of Molenor’s wrathful voice, and Bertrand Lamarr was hauling Winifred out of the snow while Molenor’s boys quelled their laughter and made excuses to their father for dropping her. Molenor was obviously not convinced. He grabbed each boy by his coat collar and marched them at a brisk trot toward the house. Winifred meanwhile was gazing rather worshipfully at Lamarr.
Colin laughed. “I love this family,” he said. “I really do, Elizabeth. And I love this place, shabby as it still is at present. And I am loving this Christmas. It is the only real Christmas I have ever experienced, you know.”
“Is it?” she asked. Then her eyes grew mischievous. “Since it is also a white Christmas, I must see to it that you come to love it even more. But later. I want to get inside and take these boots off before my feet turn to blocks of ice.”
“Later meaning games in the outdoors, I suppose,” he said. “Hmm. We will see about that, Lady Overfield. I can fight quite fiercely when I am provoked, you know.”
“Empty bravado,” she said, laughing as they climbed the steps to the house and stamped their feet and shook off the hems of their outer garments.
“I can also fight dirty,” he said.
“With snow?” She preceded him into the house, smiling an acknowledgment to the footman who held the door open. “Impossible, Lord Hodges. It is a contradiction in terms.”