SOMEONE TO HONOR
Lady Matilda Westcott is fifty-six years old and a spinster. The eldest daughter of the late Earl of Riverdale, she is the one who stayed at home with her parents to care for them in their old age. Only her mother is left, but Matilda fusses over her constantly, protecting her from drafts and any other real or imagined threats to her health—despite her mother’s impatient protests. Matilda is a fond sister and aunt to the other members of the Westcott family, but she seems as far from being a romantic heroine as it is possible to be. She has a past, however. As a young woman she fell passionately in love with a man of questionable reputation but renounced him at the urging of her parents. No one remembers their budding romance or the heartbreak she suffered, except Matilda—and her mother. But now that former love of hers is back in her life.
Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, is a widower with adult children as well as grandchildren, all of whom he loves dearly, though his marriage was a loveless one. For years he had a reputation as a rake and a hellion and was shunned by the highest sticklers of society. But as a young man, Charles suffered a heartbreaking rejection by the woman he passionately loved, and he reacted in the worst way possible—by becoming the very type of man her parents had accused him of being. Now, respectable once more as a man in his mid-fifties, Charles encounters once more the woman he had once loved—Lady Matilda Westcott.
Is it too late for these long-ago lovers to love again? Can there be a future for them after a thirty-six year separation? But of course it is not, and of course there can. This is, after all, a love story.
Lady Matilda Westcott’s day had just taken a turn for the worse. She had not thought it possible, but she had been wrong.
She was sitting behind the tea tray in the drawing room, pouring for her mother and their visitors, whose unexpected arrival had cheered her at first. Alexander, Earl of Riverdale and head of the Westcott family, and Wren, his wife, were always welcome. They were an amiable, attractive young couple, and Matilda was extremely fond of them. Their conversation had followed predictable lines for several minutes—inquiries after the health of Matilda and her mother, news of their young children and those of Elizabeth, Alexander’s sister, and Colin, Lord Hodges, her husband, with all of whom they had enjoyed a picnic in Richmond Park the day before. But now they had changed the subject.
“Wren and I have decided that we really ought to invite Viscount Dirkson to dine with us,” Alexander said.
“Ought?” Matilda’s mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, asked sharply. Matilda meanwhile had gone still, the teapot poised over the third cup.
“As a sort of thank you, Cousin Eugenia,” Wren explained. “Not that any of us need to thank him exactly. Gil is his son, after all. But Viscount Dirkson has had no dealings with Gil all his life and might easily have ignored that custody hearing a couple of weeks ago. His absence might have made no difference to the judge’s decision, of course. On the other hand, perhaps it did make a difference. And we want him to know that we appreciate what he did. For Abigail’s sake. And for Gil’s and Katy’s. We have invited him for tomorrow, and he has accepted.”
“But we would like it to be a family dinner,” Alexander said. “Not all the Westcotts are in town, of course, but we hope those who are will join us.” He smiled his very charming smile, first at Matilda’s mother and then at Matilda herself.
Matilda scarcely noticed as she proceeded to pour the third cup of tea with a hand she held steady.
She was invited too.
She should have been delighted. While the last earl, Humphrey, her brother, was alive, the Westcotts had not been nearly as close a family as they were now. He had had little use for any of them, even his wife and son and daughters. And he had done terrible things during his life, the very worst of which was to marry twice. That was not a crime in itself, but in his case it was. His first, secret marriage to Alice Snow had produced one equally secret daughter, Anna. His second marriage to Viola, his countess for twenty-three years, had produced three children—Camille, Harry, and Abigail. The criminal aspect of those marriages was that they had overlapped by a month or two before Alice died of consumption. As a result Viola and her offspring had ended up dispossessed while Anna, who had grown up in an orphanage, not knowing even who she was, had inherited a vast fortune, and the whole family had been thrown into turmoil. For the bigamous nature of Humphrey’s second marriage had been unearthed only after his death.
May he NOT rest in peace, Matilda was often very tempted to think, even to say aloud. A very unsisterly sentiment, no doubt, not to mention unladylike. She often gave in to the temptation to think it nevertheless—as she did now.
She should have been delighted by the invitation, for Alexander was a far different sort of earl than Humphrey had been and had worked hard to draw the family together. However, the dinner was in honor of someone outside the family. Viscount Dirkson. Charles. A man Matilda would be very happy never to set eyes upon again for at least the rest of her life.
It had all started when Abigail Westcott, Humphrey’s younger daughter, had arrived unexpectedly in London a few weeks ago with an equally unexpected husband, whom she had married the day before. Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington had seemed a perfectly respectable young gentleman—he was a military friend of Harry, Abigail’s brother. However, he had proceeded to reveal to Abigail’s family that in reality he grew up as a gutter rat—his words—with his unmarried mother, who had scraped together a living as a village washerwoman. The family had been duly shocked. It really, trulywas shocking, after all. Matilda had liked the young man anyway. He was tall and dark and handsome even if his face wasmarred by the scar of an old battle wound and even if he did tend to look upon the world with a dour expression. She had thought the sudden marriage wondrously romantic. She had fallen into shock only when Lieutenant Colonel Bennington had admitted, when pressed, that his father, with whom he had had no dealings all his life, was Viscount Dirkson.
He had been Charles Sawyer when Matilda had had an acquaintance with him, ages ago, eons ago. A lifetime. The title had come later, upon the death of his father.
But she had had a dealing with him since Gil’s revelation—a secret, horribly scandalous dealing that would shock her family to the roots if they knew about it. The memory of it could still turn her cold enough to faint quite away—if she were the vaporish sort, which she was not. Well, it was not a secret from all of them. Young Bertrand Lamarr knew. He was Abigail’s stepbrother, not a Westcott by birth but accepted by all of them as an honorary member.
What had happened was that she, a single lady, had called upon Viscount Dirkson, a widowed gentleman, at his London home, with only young Bertrand as a companion to lend a semblance of respectability to what was in reality quite beyond the pale of unrespectability. She had screwed her courage to the sticking point, to quote someone in a Shakespeare play—Lady Macbeth?—though it might not be a strictly accurate quote. Anyway, she had gone to persuade Charles to do something at last for his natural son, who was about to appear before a judge to plead for the return of his young daughter, who had been taken to the home of her maternal grandparents while he was away fighting at the Battle of Waterloo and never returned. It was the first time she had come face to face with Charles or exchanged a word with him in thirty-six years. After she had said her piece she had left with Bertrand, and she had comforted herself—tried to, at least—with the thought that that was the end of that. Finished. The end.
Now Alexander and Wren had invited him to a family dinner.
And she was a member of the family.
Charles Sawyer also happened to be the only man Matilda had ever loved. All of thirty-six years ago. More than half a Biblical lifetime ago. She was fifty-six now.
All the cups had been filled, Matilda saw, and must be distributed before the tea in them turned cold. Her mother was talking.
“Viscount Dirkson is to be rewarded, then for fathering a son out of wedlock and doing nothing for him in the more than thirty years since until he spoke up on his behalf before a judge a few weeks ago?” she asked as Matilda set a cup of tea on the table beside her and made sure it was close enough for her to reach but not close enough to be knocked over by a careless elbow.
Wren came to take her cup and Alexander’s from the tray and smiled her thanks at Matilda. “He did purchase his son’s first commission some years ago if you will recall, Cousin Eugenia,” she said.
The dowager made a sound of derision and batted away her daughter’s hand when Matilda would have rearranged her shawl, which had slipped off one shoulder. “Don’t fuss, Matilda.”
“And that son is now married to Abigail and is therefore a member of our family,” Alexander added, taking his cup and saucer from Wren’s hand. “But even aside from purchasing the commission, what Dirkson did a couple of weeks ago was significant. Without his recommendation at the court hearing Gil might very well not have regained custody of his daughter and both he and Abigail would have been distraught. Dirkson would surely have attended the hearing for his own sake, of course, since Gil is his son. However, Wren and I feel an obligation to thank him on behalf of Abigail’s family. Do say you will come too.”
“It is nothing short of a miracle that Viscount Dirkson even found out about the custody hearing,” Wren said.
But it had not happened by a miracle, Matilda thought as she picked up her own cup and sipped her tea. There was nothing miraculous about her.
“You are very quiet this afternoon, Matilda,” Alexander said, smiling kindly at her. “What do you think? Will you come to our dinner? Will you persuade Cousin Eugenia to come too?”
Her opinion was rarely solicited. She was merely an appendage of her mother as she fussed over her, making sure she did not sit in a draught or over-exert herself or get over-excited, though her mother resented her every attention. Sometimes, especially lately, Matilda wondered if her mother needed her at all—or even loved her. It was a thought that depressed her horribly, for if the love and care she gave her mother were pointless, then what had been the purpose of her life? And was she already thinking of it in the past tense?
“I think it is an admirable idea,” she said. “You are a worthy Earl of Riverdale, Alexander. You take your responsibility as head of the family seriously. Inviting Viscount Dirkson to dine with as many of the family as are in London is a good way of showing him that we appreciate his speaking up for Gil. It will show him that we consider Gil one of us, that we value his happiness and Abigail’s. And Katy’s.”
Katy was Gil’s daughter—and Charles’s granddaughter. That realization stabbed a little painfully at Matilda’s heart every time her mind touched upon it. He had other grandchildren. Both his daughters were married and both were mothers. His son, the youngest of his offspring, was as yet unwed. His wife of twenty years or so had died five years ago.
Alexander looked pleased at her praise. “You will come, then,” he said. “Thank you.”
Yes, she would go, though the very thought made her feel bilious. He was still so very handsome. Charles, that was. Whereas she—well, she was an aging spinster, perhaps even an aged one, and… Well.
“And will you invite Viscount Dirkson’s family too?” her mother was asking. “His son and his daughters?”
“It is hardly likely they know of Gil’s existence,” Alexander said, frowning. “I doubt he would want them to know.”
“Perhaps,” Wren said, “we ought to inform Viscount Dirkson that he is welcome to bring his children if he wishes, Alexander. Let the decision be his.”
“I will do that, my love,” he said, nodding to Matilda, who was offering to pour him a second cup of tea. “Yes, thank you. You will come, Cousin Eugenia?”
“I will,” she said. “Dirkson ran wild with Humphrey as a young man, you know, though he did not have the title in those days. His reputation became increasingly unsavory as time went on. He was not welcomed by the highest sticklers and perhaps still is not. “
“I think we will not hold the past against him,” Alexander said, a twinkle in his eye. “If he had not fathered an illegitimate child when he must have been a very young man, we would not even be planning this dinner, would we?”
“And Abigail would not have found the love of her life,” Matilda said.
“Oh, I think you are right about that, Cousin Matilda,” Wren said, beaming warmly at her. “I believe she and Gil are perfect for each other and perfect parents for Katy. No, no more tea for me, thank you. We must be on our way soon. We have taken enough of your time.”
“But we have not told you our own very happy news,” the dowager said.
“Oh,” Wren said. “we must certainly hear that.”
And Matilda was instantly reminded of why she had been feeling severely out of sorts even before Alexander and Wren arrived with their invitation.
“Edith is coming to live with us,” her mother announced.
“Your sister, do you mean, Cousin Eugenia?” Alexander asked.
“Edith Monteith, yes,” the dowager said. “I have been trying to persuade her to come ever since Douglas died a couple of years ago. She has neither chick nor child to keep her living in that drafty heap of a mansion all the way up as near to the Scottish border as makes no difference. It will be far better for her to come to me. She was always my favorite sister even though she is almost ten years younger than I.”
“And she is coming to live permanently with you?” Wren asked. “That does indeed sound like good news.” But she looked with a concerned frown at Matilda.
Her mother must have seen the look. “It is going to be wonderful for Matilda too,” she said. “She will not be tied to the apron strings of an old woman any longer. She will have someone closer to her own age for companionship. Adelaide Boniface will be coming with Edith. She is a distant cousin of Douglas’s and quite indigent, poor thing. She has been Edith’s companion for years.”
Aunt Edith had suffered from low spirits for as far back as Matilda could remember, and Adelaide Boniface made good and certain they remained low. If the sun was shining, it was surely the harbinger of clouds and rain to come. If there was half a cake left on the plate for tea, then the fact that half of it was gone was cause for lamentation, for there would be none tomorrow. And she spoke habitually in a nasal whine while the offending nose was constantly being dabbed at and pushed from side to side with a balled up handkerchief, the whole operation followed each time by a dry sniff. Matilda found the prospect of having her constant companionship, not to mention Aunt Edith’s, quite intolerable. She really did not know how she was going to endure such an invasion of her home and her very life.
“I am very happy for you both, then” Alexander said, setting aside his cup and getting to his feet. “Are they coming soon?”
“After we go home to the country at the end of the Season,” the dowager told him. “We are certainly happy about it, are we not, Matilda?”
“It will be something new to look forward to,” Matilda said, smiling determinedly as Wren hugged her and Alexander kissed her cheek and bent over her mother’s chair after assuring her that she did not need to get to her feet.
“We will see you both tomorrow evening, then,” he said.
Oh, Matilda thought after they had left, how was she going to bear it all? Coming face to face with Charles again tomorrow and spending a whole evening in his company. Going back to the country in one month’s time to a home that would be home no longer. Could life possibly get any bleaker?
But how could spending an evening in Charles’s company possibly matter after thirty-six years? One could not nurse a broken heart and blighted hopes that long. Or, if one did, one was a pathetic creature indeed.
Oh, but he had loved him…
* * * * *
“He is thirty-four years old,” Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, was telling Adrian, at twenty-two the youngest of his offspring. “It happened long before I married your mother. Before I even knew her, in fact.”
“Who was she?” Adrian asked after a pause, a frown creasing his brow, a leather-bound book he had taken at random from one of the bookshelves upon which he leaned clasped in one hand. “Or perhaps I ought to have asked who isshe?”
“Was,” Charles said. “She died many years ago. She was the daughter of a prosperous blacksmith. I met her while staying with a friend at a house nearby. It was a brief liaison, but it had consequences.”
“So all the time you were married to Mother,” Adrian said, “you were seeing that woman and him. Your other family.”
“Nothing like that,” Charles assured him. “She would have nothing to do with me when she understood that I would not marry her even though her family had turned her off without a penny. She refused all support for herself and the child. She raised him on the money she made from taking in other people’s washing until he went off with a recruiting sergeant at the age of fourteen to join the army. After she died I purchased a commission for him. But he stopped me and cut all ties with me later, after I had purchased a promotion for him. His mother raised a proud son.”
“But he managed to rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel after you gave him a leg up into the officer ranks,” Adrian said, opening the book briefly before snapping it shut again without even looking at it. “And now he has married into the Westcott family. Bertrand Lamarr, that friend of mine from Oxford who came to call a few weeks ago, has a connection to them too. His father married one of them a few years ago. And the lady who came here with him was a Westcott. You took her to look at the garden while he and I were becoming reacquainted. Was it through her that you discovered your…sonhad married a Westcott and was in a court battle to regain custody of his daughter? Your granddaughter?” He laughed rather shakily and set the book flat on the shelf rather than slotting it into its appointed place.
“Yes,” Charles said. “I went to the hearing and said a few words to the judge. Riverdale, head of the Westcott family, seems to believe that what I said made a difference and helped…Gil to win his case.”
“Gil,” his son said softly.
“Gilbert,” Charles said. “She named him. His mother.”
He had pondered telling his son after a second note had come from Riverdale following upon the initial invitation. Viscount Dirkson was quite welcome to bring his children and their spouses to the dinner too if he wished, the note had said. Charles most certainly did not wish any such thing. He did not even want to attend himself. Perish the thought. He could not see why the Westcott family felt somehow indebted to him. Gil was his son, after all. Katy, as Adrian had just pointed out, was his granddaughter. He had not attended that custody hearing for the sake of the Westcotts. He had done it for his son, whom he had never seen before that day but whom he had loved for thirty-four years. Yes. True.
Ah, but he had done it also at least partly for one of the Westcotts, had he not?
He had rarely been more surprised—no, shocked—than he had been a few weeks ago when his butler had come to his dressing room to inform him that Lady Matilda Westcott was downstairs in the visitors’ parlor with young Lamarr, Viscount Watley, who claimed to be a university friend of his lordship’s son.
Matilda. Here in his own house. Wanting to speak with him. After…how long? Thirty years? Thirty five? It must be the latter or even a bit longer. Gil was thirty-four, and all the drama with Matilda had been over before he was conceived. In fact there had been a connection. Charles would almost certainly not have engaged in that ill-considered affair with Gil’s mother if he had not been raw with pain over Matilda’s rejection when she had adamantly refused to stand up to her parents’ disapproval of his suit. Within months or even weeks he had gone dashing into the arms of the first pretty woman to take his eye and respond to his flirtations. And he had taken none of the usual precautions when he lay with her. She had taken none either. Perhaps she had not even known such a thing was possible. Or perhaps she really believed he had promised to marry her, though he knew beyond all doubt that he had not.
He had got over Matilda years and years ago, though he had spotted her occasionally when they were both in London, growing ever older and more staid, wasting herself upon a mother who had denied her daughter’s happiness and now did not seem to appreciate that daughter’s attentions. He had felt irritated every time he set eyes upon Matilda Westcott—the only feeling he had had left for her.
Until, that was, he had stepped a few weeks ago into the visitors’ parlor here in his own home and she had called him by his given name instead of his title, a woman of fifty-six who was a stranger and yet was not. He had found himself then remembering the pretty, vital, warm-hearted young woman she had once been and had felt an irritation far more intense than usual—against her and perhaps against time itself for robbing her of youth and beauty. And maybe against himself for remembering not just facts but feelings too, most notably the depths of his youthful passion for her and the contrasting pain of his despair at losing her, not because she did not love him but because her parents did not think him worthy of her. And anger. That she had turned him off and there had been no way of getting her to see reason. And present anger that she had come to his home like this without a by-your-leave and with only young Lamarr’s connection to Adrian as an excuse.
He had been angry that he could still remember those feelings. For it had all been a lifetime ago. And why should he remember? He had known scores of women both before and after her and even after his marriage.
Why should it annoy him that Matilda had grown old? No, not old. That was both inaccurate and unkind. Besides, she was almost the exact same age as he. She had grown middle-aged—to the shady side of middle age, to be more precise. She had never married. Why not, for God’s sake? Had no one measured up to the expectations of dear Mama and Papa? Yet their two younger daughters had married well. Had Matilda been too valuable to them, then, as the family drudge? Had it pleased them to sap all the life and youth and passion out of her until she became as she was now?
But why should it annoy him, what had happened to Lady Matilda Westcott? A bruised heart did not remain bruised for very long. He had soon learned that. He had forgotten her before that summer was even over. Gil’s mother had had successors. His reputation as a rake had been well earned.
“So,” Adrian said. “Is he going to be in your life now? As a semi-respectable member of the Westcott family? Is that what this dinner is all about?”
“The dinner,” Charles explained, “is Riverdale’s way of thanking me for appearing at the custody hearing and perhaps having some small part in enabling my…son to get his daughter back from her grandparents. He does not need to thank me. None of them do. I do not really want to go to the dinner, but it would seem the civil thing to do.”
“And you want me to go with you,” Adrian said.
Charles shrugged, picked up the quill pen from the desk before him to trim the nib, changed his mind, and set it back down. “I thought I ought to tell you at last,” he said, “before word somehow leaks out, as it well might, and you learn the truth from someone else. The existence of my natural son makes no difference to my feelings for you and your sisters.”
“I have a half brother twelve years my senior,” Adrian said as though he were only now understanding what Charles had told him several minutes ago. “Does he look like me?”
“No,” Charles said.
“No.” Adrian laughed. “How could he? I look like Mama. Does he look like you?”
“Yes,” Charles said. “But he has a facial scar.” With one finger he traced a line across one cheek and down over his chin.
“The crusading hero,” Adrian said. “I suppose it makes him irresistible to women. And he is tall and dark like you, is he? I suppose you are going to grow close to him now.”
“I very much doubt it,” Charles said. “He does not have a high opinion of me, and I cannot blame him.”
“Do you have a high opinion of him?” his son asked.
Charles hesitated. “Yes,” he said. He pushed back his chair with the backs of his knees and got to his feet. “You may come to the dinner with me if you wish, Adrian. I will be pleased if you do. I will understand if you do not.”
“Do you intend telling my sisters?” Adrian asked.
Neither of them was in London at present. Barbara, the elder of the two, was in the country with her husband and children to celebrate the fortieth wedding anniversary of her parents-in-law. Jane had discovered herself to be with child just before the start of the Season and had remained in the country until she had recovered from the bilious phase that had plagued her also with her first child.
“I do,” Charles said. “In person when the opportunity arises.” And for the same reason that had persuaded him to tell Adrian. The truth was bound to come out now that Gil had surfaced in his life, even though his son planned to live year round in Gloucestershire. It was better that the news come from their father.
Adrian nodded and pushed away from the bookshelves. “I’ll come,” he said. “Bertrand will be there, you said?”
“Lamarr?” Charles said. “Viscount Watley? Very probably since his father is married to the former Countess of Riverdale.”
“Then I’ll come,” Adrian said again. “Just as long as your other son will not be there too.”
“No,” Charles said. “He has already taken his wife and daughter home to Gloucestershire.”
“At your expense?” Adrian asked.
“No,” Charles told him. “He is apparently independently wealthy. So is his wife.”
“I have to go out,” his son said abruptly, making his way toward the door. “I was supposed to be somewhere half an hour ago.”
“Adrian.” His son stopped, his hand on the doorknob, and looked back at him. “I adored you from the moment I first saw you all swaddled up in your mother’s arms, your cheeks red and fat. I have not changed my affections since.”
His son nodded again and was gone.
He was not good with words of affection, Charles thought. He had not been a good husband. They had not married for love, he and his wife, and they had lived very separate lives. They had always been polite to each other, but there had been no real warmth of affection between them. It had been otherwise with his children. He had always loved them totally and unconditionally and still did. He had spent time with them when they were young. He had taught them to ride and had taken Barbara hunting with him on several occasions. He had taken Jane and Adrian fishing. He had taken them all swimming and tree climbing—that latter when his wife was well out of sight. He had read to them before they could do it for themselves. Perhaps, he thought now, he had lavished upon his legitimate children all the time and affection Gil’s mother had refused to allow him to lavish upon his firstborn.
He picked up the quill pen again though he did not resume his seat, and turned it in his hand, brushing the feather across his palm.
He loved his firstborn son with a dull ache of longing. But he wished all this had not happened to churn up pointless emotions—Gil’s sudden appearance in London with a wife, terrified that he might lose his daughter forever if the judge ruled against him; Charles seeing his son for the first time across that small courtroom where the hearing had been held, the Westcott family in their rows of chairs between them; the stiff, awkward breakfast meeting the following morning at Gil’s hotel, arranged by Gil’s wife; the almost certain knowledge that they would never see each other again.
He wished he did not feel angry with her, irritated with her for aging and making him want to lash out at someone or something for a reason he could not even fathom.
Passion was for young men. He resented the strong emotions that had been coming at him from all directions during the past few weeks. His life, at least for the past ten years or so, had been on the placid side as he surrendered to middle age, prepared to enjoy his grandchildren and rejoice in how well his children were settling into meaningful lives. His relative contentment with life had included his firstborn, who had survived the unimaginable brutality of the Napoleonic wars.
He did not want strong emotions to erupt now at his age.
He did not want to have to look again into the wounded eyes of his youngest, who had just discovered the existence of an older half-brother. He did not want to have to tell Barbara and Jane, and that was an understatement.
He did not want to go to this infernal dinner at Riverdale’s house on South Audley Street. He did not want to have to talk about Gil with the Westcotts. He did not want to spend an evening in company with Matilda.
Especially that. In fact, without that, the dinner would be merely an inconvenience.
He had loved her…
But it was all foolishness.