Someone to Trust – 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-oneyear-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 sisterin-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.

And envied. 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.

.

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