One Wicked Winter – Emma V. Leech

“What do you mean you’ve never heard of it?” Violette demanded of her husband. She looked away from the view for a moment as the carriage finally turned onto the long, winding path that led to Longwold, the vast and imposing home of her brother, the Marquess of Winterbourne. “Surely you stirred the Christmas pudding as a child?” she added, as Aubrey regarded his indignant wife with amusement. “No,” he said, shaking his head with the air of a man who’d been much neglected. “Never had such frivolity in the Russell household, I can assure you.” That was true enough. Aubrey’s father was a strict and joyless man, and Christmas a dull affair. That they were going to be spending that period with her equally bad-tempered brother did not fill him with glad tidings, seasonal or otherwise. However, it was Violette’s dearest wish to return to Longwold and celebrate both their recent marriage and the festive season, and Aubrey wasn’t about to disappoint her. He only hoped she wouldn’t be disappointed either. “Well then, this will be your first experience,” Violette said, bringing his thoughts back to plum pudding. Apparently ‘Stir it up Sunday’ was a not-to-be missed occasion in the Greyston household. Aubrey tried to imagine Edward Greyston doing something as frivolous as stirring a pudding and failed. He might perhaps throw it at someone, though. Probably Aubrey.

“I wonder if Seymour is here yet?” she continued as Aubrey’s own anxiety began to increase. His grandmother, Lady Seymour Russell, didn’t seem to have the least problem with dealing with the marquess, and treated him with exactly the same bullying tactics she used on Aubrey – to great success. Aubrey couldn’t help but feel such tactics might not fare so well under the man’s own roof. “It seems an age since we saw them last.” “Oh?” Aubrey replied, his expression mild as his eyebrows shot up. “Have you missed everyone dreadfully? Just this morning I thought you said you never wanted to leave that snug little bedroom.” Violette snorted and gave him a devilish grin. “Fool,” she muttered, shaking her head so that her blonde ringlets danced. “The past weeks have been …” She hugged her arms around herself, her smile spreading wider still as she searched for the appropriate word. “Perfection,” she said at last, making Aubrey’s own smile echo hers.

“But,” she added, growing serious, “I want to tell them everything you’ve achieved.” She moved suddenly and snuggled up to him, clinging to his arm. “Have I told you how very proud of you I am?” “Yes,” Aubrey said, feeling his own heart swell with pride and love for his beautiful wife. “Though possibly only once today.” Violette chuckled and gave a sigh and then exclaimed, pointing as the carriage made its way up the steadily rising road that led to the house. “Look, Aubrey, there it is. There’s Longwold! Isn’t it splendid?” Aubrey took a breath and realised that her family home was every bit as huge and intimidating as her terrifying brother. But he plastered a smile to his face nonetheless and prayed that the following weeks wouldn’t be as bloody awful as he feared. *** “Oh, good God, Charlie, why ever did I agree to this?” Edward – Eddie – Greyston, seventh marquess of Winterbourne, demanded of his valet and former bat man. “It’s going to be bloody awful!” “Oh, give over, my lord,” Charlie scolded as he passed his short tempered master yet another cravat, as he’d just thrown the last attempt to the floor in disgust.

“You know you’ve missed Lady Violette as well as I do, an’ besides that, as I understand it, you didn’t agree neither.” “No, blast it, I didn’t,” Eddie muttered as his big fingers fumbled yet another effort. “The devil!” he swore, flinging another mauled cravat to the ground in fury. He took a deep breath and watched as his patient valet pretended he hadn’t noticed his little tantrum. Not for the first time, he wondered why the old soldier stuck with him with such dogged loyalty. Fighting side by side for your lives had a strange effect on people, though. They were bound now, each to the other, like it or not. But still, Edward couldn’t help but feel there were easier positions than the one Charlie had found for himself. He was an odd sort of valet, it was true. He would as readily swear at Edward as bow to him, and lacked many of the necessary skills for the position.

There were other skills Eddie prized far more highly than he would any amount of primping from some starched up fellow, though, like a nose for trouble and a swift right hook. But surely there were more even-tempered masters to be found than he? “She blackmailed me,” Edward continued, his tone dark as he took another pristine white cravat from Charlie’s hands. “Oh, give it here, for the love of God … if you would, my lord?” Edward turned to see a distressed look in Charlie’s eyes as he stared at the cravat, which somehow looked rather mangled already, and he’d only hung it around his neck so far. “Oh, suit yourself,” Edward replied with an ungracious gesture for him to carry on. With a sigh of relief, the small, wiry man stepped forward and reached up to tie Edward’s cravat. “And what’s all this my lord business, anyway?” he demanded in irritation, narrowing his eyes at the short fellow before him. “Eddie was always perfectly adequate before now. What’s with all the airs and graces?” Charlie gave a nonchalant shrug, which only made Eddie narrow his eyes at him more. Charlie tutted and stood back to regard the cravat with a critical air before moving back to tweak it a bit. “Well, all these bleedin’ nobs you got comin’,” Charlie admitted, looking a little wary.

“We both know I ain’t any kinda valet. Not really. Not like all the ones these posh blighters will bring along, I reckon. Jus’ don’t want t’ show you up, I s’pose.” Edward snorted and stepped back to the mirror to inspect Charlie’s handiwork. “As if I give a damn.” He turned this way and that and had to admit Charlie had a fair hand with a cravat, at least. It wasn’t half bad. Not as dashing as his sister’s handsome new husband’s style, perhaps, he thought with a surge of irritation, but he’d pass muster, at least. “Oh, I know you don’t give a monkey’s,” Charlie continued as he began to gather the trail of dirty clothes Eddie had left around the room.

“But some of us ‘as some professional pride, see,” he said with a little dignified sniff. He crumpled the gathered items into a ball and stood tall, as tall as he could, and favoured Edward with his snootiest expression. “If that will be all, my lord?” Edward felt his lips twitch but swallowed his laughter. No point in offending one of the few people whose company he could stand. “It will. Thank you, Charles,” he added, amused by the warm look of approval that entered the fellow’s eyes. Sighing, he walked to the window just in time to see the carriage as it came into view. Violette, no doubt, with her new husband. Oh God, how he was going to get through the next weeks without planting the fellow a facer, he really didn’t know. If it wasn’t for the fact he was really rather fond of Violette, he wouldn’t even contemplate it.

Twenty-two guests, most of whom he’d happily run a mile from in normal circumstances. He was fond of her, however, and she’d had the devil’s own time of it over the past couple of years. Leaning against the window frame, Eddie tried to remember those years. Years where he had lived like all the other rats scrambling for survival in the filth of the Seven Dials, the most notorious slum in the whole of Britain, possibly in Europe. The only thing he remembered with any real clarity was the fights. Bare knuckles and an opponent who needed the prize money to keep a meagre roof over his head and food in his belly, just as much as Eddie did. Because back then, he’d forgotten all of this, forgotten the marquisate, Longwold, the grand houses and the family name and the pride and all of it. Back then it had been him and his fists against the world, and damn if he didn’t miss it. Charlie thought his memory had gone, less because of the severe blow to his head he’d suffered at the battle of Waterloo, and more because his mind had been broken. Edward reached up and rubbed the thick scar hidden beneath his hair, the result of standing too close to an exploding mortar shell.

The stench of gunpowder and burning flesh filled his nostrils, and he was back in the midst of battle, forcing back the desire to retch as his guts clenched in revulsion. Images flooded back to him, blood, mostly, and men broken like so many toys, pieces of them scattered for acres and impossible acres. It was like the world had ended and hell had risen up to claim the earth as he waded through blood and the obscene waste of life that had graced those final days of the war. He thought that if he could forget it again, now that Violette was safe – or safe enough, at least – then he would do so in a heartbeat. He would walk away from the grand house and the money and the title, and go back to the Dials and the filth and a little peace of mind. If only he could leave those images here. He watched the carriage draw nearer and knew that wasn’t entirely true. There was one other reason that kept him here. One other reason to stay and face the nightmares of the past, and bleakness of the future. For if he was believed dead and gone, his despised cousin would once again be the Marquess of Winterbourne.

The position he had enjoyed in the years while Edward had been believed dead. Gabriel Greyston, Viscount Demorte. Gabriel had wanted to destroy him for as long as Edward could remember. He’d even tried to marry poor Violette, and kept the truth of Edward’s reappearance from her, from everyone. Because of course the eighth marquess had been just a little put out at the seventh marquess’ reappearance. He’d tried very hard to make sure that Edward didn’t return at all. Ever. And that could not be forgotten. As the carriage finally came to a halt Edward noticed another appear in the distance and groaned. Damnation.

That would be the old battle axe Lady Russell. Good God, a more terrifying old woman, Edward had yet to encounter. And he had to be polite to her until this bloody farce was over! He’d never make it. With the mien of a condemned man, Edward straightened himself and took one last look in the mirror. He didn’t really recognise the haughty looking figure who stared back at him with eyes as dark green as those of his sister. He didn’t know who this man was anymore, or who exactly he was supposed to be. But after everything she’d been through, everything Edward had put her through, Violette deserved the party she had demanded of him. So he would suffer through it as best he could, and hope that at least was good enough. *** Aubrey did his best to swallow his misgivings and return Violette’s eager smile as she led him into Longwold. He wasn’t sure whether to be amused or appalled at her previous offhand references to her home, which seemed to bear little relation to what he was seeing.

The lovely stone house which was referred to by the family simply as Longwold, was actually a vast Tudor castle that sprawled over what appeared to be acres of ground in a dizzying profligacy. Aubrey was perfectly certain the place could swallow a legion of soldiers, never to be seen again. He was undoubtedly going to get lost. According to Violette, the Winterbournes were relative newcomers to the place, having bought it back in the fourteenth century, as the origins of the place could be traced back to Roman times. Aubrey stepped over the threshold and withheld a shudder as he pondered the likelihood that there would be at least one, and possibly many, ghosts in residence. An icy-looking butler stepped forward, flanked by more footmen than Aubrey thought strictly necessary. As the man looked upon Violette, however, his face broke into a rather jaunty smile. “Lady Violette,” he said, beaming at her. “Oh, Garrett, you’re back!” Violette gave the man a kiss on the cheek and Aubrey bit back a smile as the rather daunting fellow actually blushed. “The whole of the staff have been reinstated just as before,” he replied, his voice actually trembling a little.

Violette beamed at him and dashed away a happy tear. Her brother had promised her that all of the staff that Viscount Demorte had so cruelly dismissed during his time here would be found and returned to their posts immediately. Apparently, he’d kept his word. “Puddy?” Violette demanded, grasping Garrett’s hand and looking rather anxious. Garrett nodded. “The queen is back and ruling her kitchen with a rod of iron, just as you would expect, Lady Violette.” Violette gave a little crow of delight, and then turned as footsteps were heard behind them. “Eddie!” Violette cried and ran to her brother who had just descended an impressive stone staircase with the air of a king greeting the plebs. To Aubrey’s surprise, however, as soon as his gaze settled on his sister, that rather austere countenance softened. The marquess swept her up, spinning her in a circle until she shrieked like a hoyden and demanded he put her down.

It was something that Aubrey would never have expected from his own interactions with the man, and he allowed himself a glimmer of hope that the fellow wasn’t determined to be as intimidating as he’d found him to date. That glimmer snuffed out abruptly as the marquess turned his attention to Aubrey. His greeting was stiff and formal, icily polite and Aubrey knew his misgivings had been well-founded. Violette gave her brother an impatient look before demanding that they go immediately to the kitchens. “Whatever for?” Edward demanded, his face one of bewilderment. Violette gaped at him in horror. “Eddie!” she exclaimed, his name spoken with such reproach that the towering fellow actually looked a little guilty. “It’s stir-up Sunday!” she said, as though this made everything perfectly clear, which apparently it did. “Oh,” Edward replied, nodding. “I’d forgotten.

Do we still do that?” he asked, looking rather doubtful. “Yes, Edward,” Violette said, her voice firm as she tugged at her brother’s arm. “We do.” She gave a sad shake of her head as she regarded her brother, clearly wondering what else he had forgotten. “Puddy will be so disappointed if we don’t turn up. You know how she loves these traditions. And so do I,” she added, glaring at him in a way that defied any possibility that he could escape her plans. The marquess seemed to swallow whatever objections he might have given, though he didn’t exactly look thrilled, and Aubrey could only admire his wife’s determination. She turned to beam at Aubrey and gestured for him to follow as they made their way down an incomprehensible twist of corridors and stairs until they reached the kitchens. “Mrs Puddleton is our cook, Aubrey,” Violette called over her shoulder.

“But we have always called her Puddy. She’s an absolute marvel, just you wait and see.” From the wonderfully decadent smells emitting from the kitchens ahead of them, Aubrey could only anticipate great things as his stomach woke and reminded him that their last meal had been some hours ago. “Oh,” Edward said, hesitating a moment before they reached the kitchen doors. “I forgot. I think Lady Russell was just arriving …” “No, Eddie,” Violette replied, keeping a tight grip on his sleeve. “Garrett will deal admirably with Lady Russell, who will be anxious to rest before dinner. Come along now.” Aubrey bit back a smile as the unwilling marquess submitted to his diminutive sister and was dragged into the kitchens to stir the Christmas pudding.

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