SOMEONE TO TRUST
Elizabeth has been a widow for several years and is finally ready to marry again—if she can find a man of steady character whom she can trust always to treat her with affection and respect. She believes she had found such a man in Sir Geoffrey Codaire, who proposed to her several months ago when she was not yet ready to accept and promised to ask again when she was ready. She looks forward to seeing him again during the upcoming Season in London. Meanwhile she is spending Christmas in the country with her brother and his wife, the Earl and Countess of Riverdale, and the whole Westcott family. Also there is Colin Handrich, Lord Hodges, the countess’s brother. Elizabeth and Colin strike up a warm friendship, which culminates in an unexpected kiss when they are upended in the snow during a sled run. They are both horribly embarrassed afterward, for Elizabeth is nine years older than he.
Colin is twenty-six years old and only just making up his mind to take on the responsibilities of the title and estates he inherited at the age of eighteen. His decision is complicated by the fact that he is estranged from his mother who lives at his home and wields considerable influence over certain elements of society. He can best assert his position, he believes, by marrying and moving home with his wife. He looks forward to spending the Season in London, choosing a bride from among the young ladies who will be there making their come-out. He is powerfully drawn to Elizabeth, whom he sees as the perfect woman—perfectly poised and beautiful, perfectly mature and at peace with herself. He cultivates her friendship by arranging to waltz with her at every ball they both attend during the Season, but he denies to himself that he is attracted to her. How can he be? He is so much younger than she.
But those waltzes eventually lead them to a catastrophe that will upset both their plans—as well as their preconceived ideas about their relationship.
Someone to Trust
It is Christmas Day and there has been an unusual fall of snow. The whole of the Westcott family is outdoors during the afternoon and has just indulged in a vigorous snowball fight. No one is yet ready to go back indoors, though.
It was the turn of the hill and the sleds then, and they trekked out there to find that Alexander, together with the Marquess of Dorchester and the Reverend Kingsley, had smoothed out a wide run. There were five sleds, all looking a bit ancient but still serviceable with their newly honed runners and brand new ropes. Soon there were sledders zooming down the hill in ones or twos or—in one case—three. But Molenor’s boys came to grief during that particular run, the sled shedding the middle boy during its descent and then the other two while their father closed his eyes, shook his head, and refrained from bellowing.
Colin was having the best time he had had for a long while—well, perhaps ever. If he had been half serious about spending the afternoon quietly in the drawing room, toasting himself before the fire, nibbling upon more rich Christmas baked goods, and even nodding off, he was no longer even thinking about it. Snow of this depth and consistency was too rare a phenomenon in England to be wasted. And by tomorrow it would probably be turning to slush.
He took Lady Jessica Archer down the slope and then Lady Estelle Lamarr after trying it once himself to be sure he could control the sled without making a thorough ass of himself. He relinquished the sled to someone else for a while and then offered to take Lady Molenor down, though she protested that she was far too elderly for such frolics.
“And there is definite danger,” she said with all the air of resignation one might expect of the mother of three rambunctious boys. “Just look at that, Lord Hodges.”
That was Camille Cunningham riding down with Winifred while her husband zoomed down behind them with a screaming Sarah and avoided crashing into them only after some fancy maneuvering and much laughter and shrieking from both sleds.
But Lady Molenor climbed on the sled anyway and laughed all the way down.
“I hope,” Colin said later when he was standing at the bottom of the run watching the action and Elizabeth had just come down with the Reverend Kingsley, “I did not offend you with the snowball in the face?”
“Oh, let me see,” she said. “Was that the first one or the fourth?”
“Numbers two, three, and four were part of a fair fight,” he said. “The first one was not. I hope I did not offend you. Actually I meant to hit you on the shoulder.”
“What?” she said. “You are not such a star bowler after all, then?”
“As for numbers two, three, and four,” he said, ignoring the jibe, “you really need to learn how to duck, Elizabeth.”
“The third time I did duck,” she said, “and got it in the face anyway.”
Her cheeks were bright red and glowing. So was her nose. Her hair beneath the red-brimmed bonnet was wet and pulling free of its pins. Her eyes were sparkling, her lips curved into a smile. She looked really quite beautiful with animation to add to the usual smiling serenity. She looked young and vibrant. But she ought to be offended. He had concentrated most of his attack during the fight upon her, perhaps because she was concentrating most of hers upon him and had been so very obviously enjoying herself. She had missed by a mile with every snowball but one, and that had shattered harmlessly against his elbow.
“Yes. Thank you,” he said when Dorchester offered him the sled he had just ridden down with his wife. The two of them wandered off together, hand in hand. Colin turned to Elizabeth. “Shall we?”
“But can I trust you?” she asked.
“Always.” He clapped one gloved hand over his heart and they trudged up the hill side by side.
They did two runs together. The first was flawless. Colin’s only regret was that the slope was not longer, but this was the highest hill in the park and it really was not bad. The second run was not so successful. Bertrand Lamarr, on his way down with Abigail, swerved to avoid colliding with his twin and Boris, Molenor’s eldest boy, and Colin had to swerve to miss them both. He was on the outer edge of the run and hit soft snow before reaching the bottom. He tried to correct their course, but the sled had other ideas and went plowing farther in, veering wildly from side to side before upending its occupants into deep snow close to the bottom.
There were shouts from outside their cocoon of snow, though none sounded deeply concerned. Elizabeth was laughing and sputtering—from beneath Colin. He was laughing too as he raised his head and brushed foolishly and ineffectually at the snow covering her bonnet and shoulders.
“I will never live that one down,” he said.
“I forgot to ask in what ways I might trust you,” she said. “Foolish of me.”
“With your life, ma’am,” he said, grinning at her. “Behold yourself unharmed and only snow-caked. At least, I hope you are unharmed.” It occurred to him that his weight might be squashing her.
And then the most ghastly thing happened.
He thought about it afterward—he could not stop thinking, in fact—and squirmed with intense discomfort every time. What the devil had possessed him? And what the devil must she think even though she had assured him that she would not think about it at all.
He kissed her.
Which would not—perhaps—have been quite so bad if it had been a brief, brotherly smack on the lips—or, preferably, the cheek—to apologize for spilling her into the snow. Though even then… Even then it would have been disrespectful to the point of…. He could not think of a suitable word with which to complete the thought.
But this was not a brief kiss, or at least not very brief. And there was nothing brotherly about it. It was indeed on the lips, or, rather, it was all heat and moisture and mouths more than just lips, and for a fraction of a moment—or forever, he was not sure which—he felt as though someone had wrapped him in a large blanket that had been heated before a roaring fire. Except that the heat was inside him as well as all about him. And for that fraction of a moment—or that eternity, he was not sure which—he wanted her.
Elizabeth. The widowed Lady Overfield. A woman in her mid-thirties. Poised and mature and serene and inhabiting a universe so far beyond his own inferior world of uncertainty and immaturity that….
What the devil would she think?
When he raised his head, it did not look as if she was thinking much of anything at all. Her eyes were closed and she seemed a bit dazed.
“Oh, the devil,” he said. Which was a marvelous way of groveling and apologizing. The snow seemed to have frozen his brain. Disrespectfuldid not even begin to cover what his behavior had been.
“Do we have a few broken legs and heads in here?” Alexander’s voice called, cheerful enough when one considered his words.
“That was a spectacular landing,” Harry said, offering his hand to Elizabeth as Colin scrambled to his feet.
“If we were giving prizes,” Wren said, knee deep in snow as she brushed at Colin’s greatcoat, “you two would win the trophy for the most spectacular disaster.”
“But alas,” Harry said, “you get only the glory.”
“You look dazed, Lizzie,” her mother was saying. “You did not hurt yourself, did you?”
“Oh, not at all,” Elizabeth assured her, laughing. “Not even my pride is dented. I was not the one steering.”
“I might have known I would be blamed,” Colin said. “Well, heap it on. My shoulders are broad.”
“I say,” one of Molenor’s boys called from a short distance away, “I have never seen anything so funny in my life.”
The boy was obviously given to hyperbole—as was Wren.
“Ah,” Alexander said. “Perfect timing. The sleigh is coming with something to warm us.”
It was indeed, and it was a very welcome distraction indeed. A couple of servants, bundled up and smiling cheerfully, had arrived with two large containers of steaming chocolate and one of hot punch as well as a jar of sweet biscuits and a covered dish of warmed mince pies. They all tucked into the repast as though they had been fasting all day and warmed their gloved hands about their steaming mugs, ignoring the handles.
“We must have feathers for brains,” the dowager duchess said, “spending the afternoon shivering out here when we could be warm and comfortable indoors. And dry.”
“I would not have missed this for all the comfort in the world, Mama,” Lady Jessica cried, though she was breathing in the steam from her chocolate as she spoke. “This is the best Christmas ever. Is it not, Abby? And there is still the party to look forward to tomorrow evening and some fresh faces.”
“It is the best,” her dearest friend agreed. “Gentlemen as well as ladies, I hope. Tomorrow, that is.”
“Oh, to be young again,” the dowager duchess said. “I am returning to the house. Althea, will you come too?”
“I will indeed, Louise,” Mrs. Westcott said. “Though I do agree with Jessica. A family Christmas is always a lovely thing, but a family Christmas with snow—and a Boxing Day party to look forward to—is unsurpassable.”
She left Elizabeth’s side and Colin took her place before he could lose his nerve completely. In which case he would have found himself in the impossible situation of having to avoid both her person and her eye for the rest of his life.
“Elizabeth,” he said, “will you forgive me?”
She did not pretend not to know what he was talking about. “For the kiss?” she said, smiling at him. “There is nothing to forgive.”
“I do not know what came over me,” he said. “I did not… Well, I did not mean any disrespect. Whatever will you think of me?”
“I will think nothing,” she assured him, “except that you were quick enough to know that a dumping in the deep snow was preferable to a collision with another sled. And that you comforted me afterward with a kiss. It was both appreciated and flattering. And it will be forgotten from this moment on.”
“Well,” he said. “I have rarely embarrassed myself more.”
She laughed and removed one hand from about her mug to set on his sleeve. “I hope I have not spoiled your day,” she said, patting his arm. “My mother was quite right about a family Christmas—with snow. I hope you feel we are in some way your family too.”
“Thank you,” he said. “I do. Have you seen Withington House? It is a lovely place.”
“I saw it last year when Wren still lived there,” she said, “before she married Alex. I went there the day after I first met her in the hope of making a friend of her, and we have been friends ever since.”
“I hope you will come there again before you return home,” he said. “Maybe with Alexander and Wren and your mother. I believe you intend to stay on for a while after everyone else returns home.”
“We do,” she said. “Do you intend making Withington your permanent home?”
The house belonged to Wren, but she had offered it to Colin back in the spring when she discovered that he lived year round in London, even during the summer when most of the ton deserted it for their country homes. He had wanted to purchase it from her, but she had insisted that he be her guest there for a year, at which time he would be able to make a more informed decision.
“I am inclined to say yes,” he said. “But I am not sure it would be the right thing to do.”
“Oh?” She raised her eyebrows.
“No,” he said, taking the empty cup from her hands. “I am going to have to think about it.”
It would be easy to hide there forever, in a house that was just the right size for him, with Wren and Alexander close by and friendly neighbors all about. But hide was the key word. He was Baron Hodges. He was head of his family. He had duties and responsibilities. If Justin, his elder brother, had not died, he would be free to hide to his heart’s content. Indeed, there would be nothing to hide from. But Justin had died, and three years later so had their father. Colin had been left with a mother and three sisters—and the title and all that came with it.
“I will be delighted to visit with Alex and Wren,” Elizabeth said. “So will my mother, I know.”
There did not seem to be anything else to say. Had she really forgiven him? Not been disgusted? Was she really willing to step inside his own home? Had he really kissed her? Colin looked down into his cup and swirled the thick residue of chocolate at the bottom of it. He was not sure he could forgive himself. Not for wanting her anyway. Good God!
Fortunately Alexander suggested at that moment that they return to the house to warm up properly, and Elizabeth moved away to walk with Abigail and Anna. Colin hung back a few moments to return with Camille and Harry, who was carrying Sarah.
She was so terribly beautiful. Elizabeth, that was.
© Mary Balogh