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Tension churned Alice's stomach as the carriage rolled through Blatchford's familiar gates. Spending Christmas here was a mistake. Why hadn't she feigned sickness? More importantly, why had she accepted a position with the Westlakes, knowing that they always attended this house party?
But in the cold days of January, desperation had kept her from thinking this far ahead. Lady Westlake had offered her shelter, security, and the dignity of earning both. Even considering the consequences would have left her no choice. Returning to England had backed her into a corner with no other exit--hardly the first time that impulsive behavior had caused trouble. She had a long history of mistakes and poor judgment.
The worst consequence this time was Christmas at Blatchford. It had been ten years since her last seasonal visit. Ten years of anger, pain, grief, guilt, and loneliness. Returning brought her full circle, back to the scene of her first mistake--innocuous compared to later ones, but she dreaded meeting even these earliest ghosts. They could rip open deeper wounds.
"Don't wake William yet," she murmured, staying seven-year-old Michael's hand as he reached for his young brother. "He'll just fuss."
"But--" Michael's voice died at the look in her eye.
"We will not reach the house for at least a quarter hour."
"There goes a fox!" Ten-year-old Elizabeth distracted Michael's attention.
"By that wall."
Already it was gone. Michael opened his mouth to complain, but his eye lit on another prize. "Look! There's snow in the ruins." His bouncing jarred William. "Do you think we'll get more?"
"Perhaps." William whimpered in protest, but Alicedid not notice. She was trying to steady her breathing.
Snow in the ruins. The snow had been unusually heavy ten years ago, especially around the ruins. Few had ventured so far from the house, so the crypt had offered privacy impossible to find elsewhere.
"I love visiting Grandfather at Christmas." Elizabeth's voice cut across the memory.
"It is a wonderful house party," Alice agreed. "My family always spent Christmas here when I was a girl."
"I forgot." Elizabeth sounded uncertain for once, perhaps sensing her governess's distress. But she didn't remain subdued for long. "Do you think Uncle Frank is here yet?"
"And Uncle George? Maybe he'll let me ride his horse again."
Alice let them prattle. Anything was better than answering their questions. She hated Christmas. The pain was always worse then. Time had not eased it, for every time she began to heal, some new trauma would revive all the old ones. This year promised to be no different.
He would be here.
Masons and Caristokes had married often. Thus the two family heads, the Earls of Blatchford and Pembroke, held combined Christmas house parties so no one had to choose which tie to honor. It was a tradition that dated back more than fifty years. This year Blatchford was the host, just as he had been ten years ago.
She shivered, then cursed herself. Allowing her discomfort to show would draw the very attention she wanted to avoid. Few had known about that holiday flirtation, so there should be no questions. And surely she had learned how to fade into the background. Since leaving England, she had traveled thousands of miles, seen much, done much, endured far too much...
She stifled the newer memories, though the embarrassment of her last visit remained. Even at seventeen, she should have known better. Her mother may have been Blatchford's third cousin and her father the younger son of a baronet, but that placed them firmly in the gentry. So why had she taken the attentions of Pembroke's son seriously? He had merely been amusing himself with a harmless holiday flirtation--harmless in his eyes.
No one will remember, she reminded herself sharply. Even he will have forgotten. He won't even know you are here. Do your job and put the past behind you.
The coach wheeled across the stone bridge that offered a spectacular view of the manor. They had met here more than once to talk, to admire the view, and to watch the water--it tumbled too quickly to freeze, its motion one of the few signs of life when snow draped the landscape. The willow that had sheltered their first kiss still stood sentinel on the far bank.
She raised her eyes to the house that sprawled across acres of hilltop. A thousand years old at its core, it loomed like something out of a nightmare. But that perception arose from her own distress. Despite its piecemeal construction, the facade unified the whole into an image many found welcoming.
"Can I explore the tower this year?" demanded Elizabeth. The oldest courtyard was off limits to the younger children.
"Ask your grandfather."
Michael was again bouncing with excitement. She absently calmed him, but her thoughts remained mired in relentless memory. The carriage rolled past the ice skating cove where he had plied her with chocolate as they warmed themselves by the fire. Farther along was the grove that supplied Christmas greenery, including the mistletoe that hung throughout the house. That ancient oak had sheltered them from prying eyes. The lakeside folly, the sledding hill...
Shrieks of ancient laughter echoed in her ears. She could almost feel the cold wind in her face and his warm legs wrapped around her hips. They had overturned into a drift, where he had landed on top, his mouth a scant inch from hers...
She tucked the rug tighter around William's legs. Reliving the past was pointless--and painful. She should have accepted his attentions in the spirit in which he had offered them. And if she had not been so stupidly naïve, she would have. It was time to put the past behind her. He was now nine-and-twenty, more than old enough to have set up his nursery. Thus her fears were groundless.
She ignored a wave of shudders, attributing them to the cold that had long since invaded the coach. His marital status was irrelevant. For her own peace of mind, she would avoid him, but that would be easy. Blatchford housed hundreds of guests during the Christmas season. Even when she brought the children downstairs, she could stay out of sight.
Unwillingly, her eyes returned to the window. The setting sun lit the house with a rosy glow, but it still offered her no welcome. A lap robe warmed her thinly gloved hands, but nothing could warm her heart. As always, the chill came from her soul.
William awoke as the carriage lurched onto the steepest portion of the drive, but even his fussing could no longer distract her. They were nearly there.
Please don't let him be in the hall.
Michael and Elizabeth jumped out the moment the carriage rocked to a halt. She barely prevented William from falling as he tumbled after them.
"Uncle George!" Michael shouted as Blatchford's oldest son, Lord Rufton, appeared at the top of the stairs.
The children's voices rang out as Rufton's brother and parents appeared. Aristocratic reserve collapsed under excited greetings. But not until Rufton's eyes passed over her without pausing, did Alice finally relax. Rufton was his closest friend. If he saw only a governess, then she was safe. Thank God that the aristocracy rarely looked at servants.
Yet pain tempered her relief. For the first time, she admitted that seeing him again was not her greatest fear. It was seeing his eyes slide past her with no sign of recognition.
Jeremy Caristoke pulled his muffler tighter and swore at the snow swirling outside the carriage. Only a fool would press on in these conditions, but even a short halt would strand him. Christmas was in two days. It would be unbearably rude to miss the annual house party, especially since one of the guests was there by his invitation. He could only hope that continuing on would not prove fatal.
Where were they?
This predicament was his own fault. He should have started home a week earlier, but he had been enjoying his stay with Thomas's family. At three, his godson was curious as a cat--which often led to trouble--but Jeremy loved the boy like a son and could rarely stay angry at him.
He sighed. Would he ever have children of his own?
It seemed an odd question for a man many considered a prime catch, but while Lady Luck had often smiled on him, providing health, wealth, and a host of good friends, his most cherished dream--a loving wife and family--remained beyond reach.
He had first fallen in love while still at Oxford, but the girl had played him for a fool, disappearing without a word. It had been a portent for his life.
Another sigh escaped as later interests paraded through his mind. Elizabeth had turned him down, wedding Wrexham barely a week after his own proposal. His next tendre had been for Thomas's wife, though he had hidden his attraction and, in the four years since their marriage, had transformed it into friendship. Thomas's sister Eleanor had accepted Captain Hanson before he'd decided whether to offer for her. At least he was in good company over Millicent Avery, who had turned everyone down, preferring to remain scandalously single.
Which left Miss Victoria Havershoal. He had courted her during the Season and had added her name to the Blatchford guest list. But he could not make up his mind whether to make an offer--which was another reason he had dawdled. Did he care for her beyond casual friendship? Could he share a bed with her for the rest of his life?
Even more than marriage, he wanted a family. He had a score of nieces, nephews, and godchildren--and loved every one of them--but they could never compare to children of his own. Every year the ache grew stronger, but never quite enough to push him into a marriage of convenience.
So he was back to Victoria. She was intelligent, possessed a good sense of humor, and also wanted a family. Her breeding was equal to his, her training impeccable, her looks far above average, her interests compatible. She would make a perfect wife, so why had he not already proposed? Was cowardice holding him back, or was there a deeper problem?
Caroline and Thomas hovered before his eyes. They were so very much in love, often reading each other's minds and exchanging looks that were downright embarrassing to witness. He envied them, which contributed to his current dilemma, for he wanted that same connection with his wife.
Why had Lady Luck favored his siblings, yet ignored him? Even Harold, the oldest, who had entered a marriage of convenience to secure the succession, had found love with his wife.
He sighed. Five happily married siblings with eighteen well-loved offspring made family gatherings increasingly painful. No matter how much he enjoyed seeing them, he felt odd man out.
At least George was still single--the only person close to him who was. But that would not last long. As heir to Blatchford, George was under mounting pressure to secure the succession--which would give Victoria plenty of company. Lady Blatchford made sure that every gathering included candidates for George.
As the carriage skidded, he again berated himself for waiting so long. Blatchford might be more accessible in poor weather than Pembroke Park, but it was risky to remain on the road. Vicious gusts of wind were slamming into the door.
Tightening his muffler, he returned his thoughts to Victoria. Finding someone better could take years. Could he learn to love her? He must decide before he arrived. If he singled her out, he would have to propose. If he ignored her, everyone would assume she was another of Lady Blatchford's protégées. At least his family was not pressing him. Poor George.
The carriage again lurched, its lanterns briefly illuminating a folly. He let out a sigh of relief. They were nearly there. He would not die by the wayside after all. Pulling out a pocket watch, he was shocked to find that it was midnight.
"You made it!" exclaimed George when Jeremy staggered into the hall.
"Barely. I should have left Thomas's sooner. Rouse help for my coachman. He's been through hell since this snow started."
"Already done. How is our godson?"
Jeremy relaxed. "More mischievous than ever. He upset a vat of milk in the dairy last week trying to dip out some cream for one of the barn cats."
Laughing, George led him to his room. "Miss Havershoal has been here for two days. Are you still interested in her, or is she one of Mother's maidens?"
"I don't know," he admitted, sobering. "I've not seen her since July and can't make up my mind. Perhaps meeting her again will help."
"Or perhaps not. Have you eaten?"
He shook his head. "I dared not stop. As it was, we barely made it."
"Then I'll have something sent up. Most people have retired, though billiards and cards are still going."
"Tomorrow. A light meal is all I need tonight."
George left him spreading numbed fingers above the fire. Now that he was safe, he was shivering harder than before.
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