SOMEONE TO CHERISH
WESTCOTT NOVEL #9
After Harry Westcott lost the title Earl of Riverdale following the discovery of his father’s bigamy, he went off to fight in the Napoleonic Wars, where he was gravely wounded. After a long and harrowing recovery, the once cheery, light-hearted boy has become a reclusive, somber man. Though Harry insists that he enjoys his life of quiet near-solitude, he does wonder sometimes if he is lonely.
Lydia Tavernor, recently widowed, dreams of taking a lover. Her marriage to the Reverend Isaiah Tavernor was one of service and obedience, and she has secretly enjoyed her freedom since his death. She does not 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 reply leads them down a path neither could ever have imagined…
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 since his marriage twenty-three years before. Harry also became head of the Westcott family.
None of these new acquirements 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 legitimacy in law. 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, Avery, Duke of Netherby, 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 lives. 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.
Alexander Westcott, Harry’s second cousin, had succeeded, very unwillingly, to the vacant title and 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 Camille and Joel Cunningham and their nine children. Yes, the number had increased from seven during the past summer with the adoption of twin girls. Abigail and 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 and 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 showing no interest 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 comprised 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 were soon unanimously agreed, were twofold. 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, 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. “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, 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, 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 choice. 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 and 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, 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,” the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, her grandmother and matriarch of the family, said. “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, Countess of Riverdale, said. “She is worried about Harry too. 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 unbeknown 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 other 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 large 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—Aunts 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.
It was quite good enough for him.
He had lived alone at Hinsford Manor for four years now, at first recovering his health and strength—a frustratingly slow process—and then settling in to a life of quiet contentment as a country gentleman with a large home and farms to oversee and neighbors with whom to socialize. He really was quite contented there even though there were people, most notably his family, who could not believe it of a man who was still only in his twenties. If restlessness crept in under his guard now and then, he simply ignored it until it went away, for he could think of no other way of life that would suit him better or even as well.
He enjoyed Christmas even more than he had expected to, considering the fact that it was busy and noisy with so many children. Abby and Gil had a new baby since last year, and Camille and Joel’s family had expanded during the past summer to include the twin baby girls, whom they had adopted because no one else would take them together.
Only three of their children were their own. The other six were adopted. It was a distinction that blurred into insignificance within the family, however. They were all equally Camille and Joel’s children.
It ought to have been an impossibly chaotic Christmas. And in a sense it was since Camille and Joel ran a rather informal household in which the children were rarely confined to the nursery with their nurse unless they were eating or sleeping or at their lessons—which they were not over the holiday. It did not help that both twin babies were teething and being a bit cross about it or that Abby and Gil’s Ben had recently learned to crawl and used his new mobility to disappear from everyone’s sight and cause mass panic while he embarked upon unceasing explorations of his world, especially dark corners and narrow gaps between furniture. And the two dogs of the family were irrepressibly excited by the arrival of a third, Beauty, Gil’s great lump of a canine, and chased and followed her wherever she went—when various children were not hanging all over her instead, that was, or sleeping with their heads pillowed on her back.
But it was also an unexpectedly good time for all of them, Harry included. An unencumbered uncle was communal property, he soon discovered, to be climbed upon without a by-your-leave and talked at and quarreled over and slept upon and, once, vomited over. He enjoyed himself so much, in fact, that he stayed to see in the New Year and then, in the middle of January, went to Gloucestershire with Abby and Gil and stayed with them another month.
He had not been away from Hinsford for so long at a stretch since his return there from Paris. He would not have thought it possible. He would have expected to feel some panic. But he stayed away from choice and enjoyed every moment. Well, perhaps not the vomit moment.
When he set about analyzing what it was about this Christmas that had so warmed his heart, he realized that it was mainly the evidence all about him that life had worked out well for his mother and sisters. One could not know, of course, how it would have turned out for them if the Great Disaster had not happened. But Harry found it difficult to imagine that they would all be as happy as they actually were.
It was a strange realization. Did disasters sometimes happen to turn one away from a wrong course into the right one, the one that would bring most happiness and the greatest fulfillment? Were some catastrophes not really catastrophic at all when one could look back and see the whole picture?
His mother had married Marcel a few years ago and seemed younger now than Harry could ever recall her being. He remembered her as a quiet lady of unshakable dignity and marble demeanor. Life with his father, he had realized even at the time, could not have been easy though she had certainly been unaware that it was not a legal marriage. Now she was warm, vibrant, ready with smiles for everyone and open arms for her many grandchildren—and she was never far away from Marcel, who did nothing much to hide the fact that he adored her.
Camille had been the biggest surprise. She had been a stern, rather sour young woman—or so she had appeared to her younger brother—always very moral and upright and judgmental, and she had been betrothed to a viscount who was very much like her. Happiness and Camille could never realistically be mentioned in the same breath back in those days. Now she was vigorous and cheerful, always slightly disheveled though never downright untidy, almost always with a small child balanced on one hip or a baby, sometimes two, cradled in her arms while other children hung about her, tugging at her skirt for attention or simply enjoying being close to her. Joel, though he led a busy life as a portrait artist of growing renown and as a teacher in the orphanage school where he had met Camille, usually had a child on his lap too or perched on an arm of his chair or hovering about his easel when he painted, as like as not washing out brushes for him that did not need washing. Yet they enjoyed an unusually close personal relationship too, those two. Not that Harry was ever able to observe them in their private apartments, of course. Heaven forbid! The happiness they shared was obvious anyway. And when had Camille become beautiful, even to a brother’s eyes?
And then there was Abby, who had been about to make her debut into Society when the ghastly discovery was made. She had been looking forward to a Season in London with its dizzying number of balls and other entertainments and the prospect of meeting an array of eligible gentlemen and making a brilliant marriage. She had fled to Bath instead to live with their grandmother and had been sweet and quiet and placid and apparently resigned to her lot in life for several years after. But then, after Gil had helped bring Harry home to England and stayed with him at Hinsford for a while, the two of them had met and married. Not for love, it might be added. Gil had needed a wife so that he could persuade a judge to return his young daughter to him from his late wife’s parents, who considered him an unfit father. It had not taken long for the marriage to turn into a love match, however. They lived now in a modest manor within a big idyllic garden close to an equally idyllic village. Gil farmed and Abby tended her garden and visited her friends and involved herself in village affairs and looked after the three children. Their happiness with each other was a palpable thing.
Harry was head of his immediate family, for what that was worth now that he was no longer head of the whole Westcott family. He had suffered after the Great Disaster as much on behalf of his mother and sisters as on his own account. He had felt so very helpless to shield them from the pain and the ruin and the bleak prospects the future had seemed to offer. He had been a mere twenty years old, for the love of God.
He need worry about them no longer. Life had been very good to all three of them.
They worried about him, though.
His mother took him aside a couple of days after Christmas, having invited him to take coffee with her in the small sitting room attached to her bedchamber. Marcel was downstairs somewhere, probably putting into practice some of the ingenious hand signals seventeen-year-old Winifred, Camille and Joel’s eldest daughter, had devised to communicate with Andrew, who was deaf and mute and liked to follow his grandpapa everywhere.
Harry knew he had become the despair of his whole family because they no longer understood him. They worried because they feared he was turning into a hermit, though in fact he was not, and because they were still not convinced he had fully recovered from his war wounds. He had, though he still grappled with nightmares and no doubt always would. They worried because he was approaching his thirtieth birthday yet showed no apparent interest in settling down. Good Lord, how much farther down could he settle?
“I love my grandchildren so much my heart sometimes seems fit to burst,” his mother said as she set down his cup before him. “But occasionally, for sheer sanity’s sake, I need to withdraw to a quiet room and shut the door behind me. I do not know how Camille and Joel do it. Or Abigail and Gil for that matter. I daresay that is why parenting is done by young people.”
“If I had been asked ten years ago what would be the perfect life for Cam,” he said, “I would never, given a million tries, have described this one. It suits her to perfection, though, does it not?”
“It does,” she agreed. “And Abigail. I was so very worried when she married Gil without a word to any of us except you. It seemed impossible to me that she could ever be happy with him. Sometimes I simply love being proved wrong.”
“Gil is a good man,” he said. He had grown up in the gutter, to quote Gil’s own words, the bastard son of a village washerwoman and Viscount Dirkson, who was allowed no part in his upbringing and who was now connected to the Westcott family through his marriage to Harry’s Aunt Matilda Westcott a few years ago—but that was another story. Gil had risen through the ranks in the army until he jumped the almost insurmountable barrier to officer status, courtesy of his father after his mother’s death. He had ended up as a lieutenant-colonel, one rank superior to Harry’s. “I knew he and Abby loved each other, Mama, when I encouraged them to marry, though they did not know it themselves.”
She took a sip of her coffee, set down her cup and sighed audibly. “And then there is you, Harry.”
He answered her merely with an interrogative lifting of his eyebrows. Here we go, he thought.
“It hurts my heart to see you forever placid and cheerful,” she continued. “Will I never get my boy back? I begin to despair of it. When will I see you eager and vibrant and exuberant again and enjoying life to the full?”
He thought he had been eager and vibrant and all the rest of it, besieged by nephews and nieces and dogs as he had been for the past week, and actually enjoying himself without having to be deliberately jolly.
“If you are referring to the time before the Great Disaster, Mama,” he said “then I would remind you that I really was just a boy at the time. I was twenty. Do you truly want to see me conducting myself with bouncing high spirits, spouting superlatives and hyperbole with every utterance? I hope I have grown up a bit since those days. I am contented with my life as it is.”
She shook her head, obviously unconvinced, and regarded him for a while with a disconcertingly steady gaze. “But I want to see you happy, Harry,” she protested.
He grinned despite himself as a shriek of childish laughter and an excited woofing wafted in from somewhere beyond the shut door. “With a wife and six children, I suppose,” he said.
“I am not sure about six,” she protested, grimacing and then chuckling. “But yes, I would love to see you with a woman who can make you happy. With a woman whom you can make happy. With someone or something to make your life… oh, vivid. Do not shake your head like that, Harry, and don that amused, knowing expression. Love, happiness, vividness of life do exist, and I am proof of it. I am living all my dearest dreams with Marcel.”
His smile softened as he looked back at her. “Yes, I know, Mama,” he said. “And I could not be happier about it.”
“Harry.” She leaned forward and took one of his hands in both her own. “I want to see you happy with someone you… Oh, with someone you can cherish.”
He cringed inwardly though he did not stop smiling. “Time to change the subject,” he said, turning his hand to squeeze one of hers before taking up his cup again, draining his coffee, and getting to his feet. “Better yet, it is time to take myself off. I seem to remember challenging Robbie to a game of billiards this morning. He will accuse me of cowardice if I fail to show up.” Robbie was Camille and Joel’s eleven-year-old.
“Forgive me, Harry.” His mother got to her feet too and hugged him warmly. “Your life is yours to live your way, as Marcel is forever reminding me when I worry about you. Let us go and enjoy the rest of Christmas.”
Which they did.