‘Ah, there you are.’
Lord Lavenham sidled into his wife’s boudoir and closed the door behind him with a resounding thud.
Lady Lavenham winced. ‘Really, Lavenham. Must you be so very…perturbing?’ She raised one fragile-boned hand to her brow, her expression one of pained endurance.
‘My apologies, my dear. I did not mean…that is, the door…it was louder than I expected.’
The Viscount clutched a letter before him in both hands as he hovered by the door with every appearance of a man about to undertake a dangerous assignment, leaving his escape route clear.
Diana—the Lavenhams’ only child since the death of her brother eight years before—lay down the book she had been reading aloud to her mother and folded her hands in her lap to await Papa’s explanation for this rare intrusion into his wife’s domain. Diana’s patience wore thin as the silence stretched. If Papa did not speak up soon, Mother would launch into one of her rants and they might never discover the purpose of his visit.
At length, with one eye on her increasingly fretful mother, Diana said, ‘Is that a letter, Papa?’
The Viscount’s bushy brows shot up. ‘What? Oh, this?’ He wafted the letter, describing an arc through the air. ‘Oh, yes, indeed.’
He sucked in a deep breath and Diana felt the first stirrings of unease. What could be so important that Papa not only braved Mother in her boudoir, but that he did not follow his usual custom and delegate the task of relaying bad news to Diana?
‘Lavenham—’ Mother’s voice grew peevish ‘—really, this is too tiresome. I have the headache. Do please get to the point.’
‘It is from Cousin Sally.’ The Viscount again brandished the letter. ‘She is coming to stay.’
‘Cousin Sally? You did not inform me you had issued such an invitation to her, my lord.’
Diana’s heart sank. This would provide Mother with fuel for complaint for weeks to come and it would fall upon Diana to listen and to soothe and to deflect whilst her father buried himself in his library with his books and forgot the very existence of his womenfolk for hour after hour and day after day.
A slash of dull red coloured Papa’s pale cheeks and Diana’s disquiet grew.
What is he up to?
‘But… I did not, precisely… No!’ He brightened. ‘No. It was not I who invited them, do you see. It was Cousin Sally’s suggestion.’
‘Them? Not…’ Mother’s voice grew faint ‘…not the entire family?’
Cousin Sally was the widowed mother of seven children ranging from twenty-five-year-old Aaron to eleven-year-old Joseph.
‘Well. Yes. They arrive the day after tomorrow and they will stay for the whole of Christmastide…’ Papa pulled the door ajar ‘…until Twelfth Night.’ He shot through the opening and snapped the door shut behind him.
Aaron Fleming studied Lavenham Hall with a critical eye as he tooled his curricle up the long, straight approach that cut through the parkland surrounding the beautiful half-timbered house.
‘I fail to understand why you did not put Lavenham off until after Christmas, Mama.’
He glanced sideways at his mother, who he had taken up—at her request—as soon as they turned in through the wrought-iron entrance gates to the Hall. The coach carrying his three brothers and three sisters, plus the family’s luggage, lumbered in their rear.
His mother, swathed in fur against the winter chill—only her mouth, the pink tip of her nose and her eyes visible—replied, ‘But I told you this, my dear, before we left home.’
Yes, she had told him, but he was still irritated and, in two days of travel, this was his first opportunity to quiz his mother out of earshot of any of his brothers and sisters.
Aaron had arrived at their family home, Shepcott Place, in Somersetshire full of the joyful anticipation of spending Christmastide, as usual, with his family, only to be presented with this visit to Lavenham Hall as a fait accompli. The servants and some luggage had already been dispatched and the very next morning the entire family had set forth on the journey north into Herefordshire. There had been no choice but to fall in with his mother’s plans.
‘I could not refuse Cousin Arthur’s invitation; he was most insistent we visit this Christmas. Aaron… I have begged you these past two years to visit Lavenham, but you have paid me no heed,’ his mother continued. ‘Arthur is getting no younger and this will all be yours one day. If you had paid greater attention to your duty and less to your life of indulgence, there would be no need for this hurry and scurry now his health has worsened. You have no one but yourself and your own stubbornness to blame.’
Aaron bit back his sharp riposte. Duty. He’d had enough of duty in the cavalry and he’d spent the past two years trying to push the horrific sights and sounds of war from his head. But there was nothing to gain in more complaint—they were here now and it was not Mama’s fault Lavenham had insisted they spend Christmastide here. He must make the best of it, no matter how much he resented this change to their normal celebrations. He did not even have any acquaintances in south Herefordshire other than Gordon Caxton, a fellow Guards officer whose estate bordered Lavenham. And Aaron had no intention of wasting any more time on his erstwhile friend after Caxton’s recent attempt to manipulate Aaron into offering for his avaricious sister, Caroline.
He wrenched his attention away from the Caxtons as his mother continued her reproach.
‘Try not to be selfish, Aaron. After all, you may see your brothers and sisters at any time—your brothers are home from school at times of the year other than Christmas. It is your choice to spend so much time in London and visiting your friends’ estates in the summer months. If you spent more of your time at home, you would not be so resentful of this change to our Christmas festivities.’
His mother might be right, but that didn’t mean Aaron appreciated her scold. He thrust aside the faint guilt that nagged at him. Perhaps he could have spent more time at Shepcott Place over the past couple of years but, after the discipline of the cavalry and the horror of war—he had sold his commission following the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo two and a half years ago—a period of purposeless leisure had been tempting and Aaron had embraced the life of a carefree bachelor about town, enjoying the attractions London and society offered. His constant attendance wasn’t essential at Shepcott: the estate had been capably managed by his bailiff since his father’s death ten years before. Aaron’s father—great-great-grandson of the Second Viscount Lavenham—had built a successful career as a banker and had left his entire family in comfortable financial circumstances.
So, for Aaron—absent from Shepcott for much of the year—Christmas had become the time he spent with his family and it was, or it should have been, sacrosanct.
‘I trust you to make the best of this visit. If it eases poor Arthur’s mind to have his heir stay for a few weeks so he can be sure you are familiar with the estate and its people, then surely sharing Christmas with him and his family is a small price to pay?’
Aaron bit back his caustic opinion of absent-minded Arthur, with his obsession with Ancient Greece; Venetia, his demanding wife, twenty years the Viscount’s junior; and Diana, their little brown mouse of a daughter.
They had reached the end of the carriageway and he steered his horses around the turning circle before halting them in front of the house. The carriage pulled up behind.
The front door already stood open and a figure now emerged into the daylight. Shock seized Aaron at first sight of the Viscount. He had aged considerably in the years since they had last met. Still tall, despite his stoop, and even slighter in stature than Aaron remembered, grey tufts now sprouted in an unkempt crescent around his bald pate. Lord Lavenham raised one hand in greeting, but remained by the door as footmen hurried past him ready to unload the luggage.
Aaron’s two youngest brothers, Harry and Joseph, scrambled down from the bench seat, where they had been permitted to ride next to John Coachman for the last leg of the journey. Sixteen-year-old George emerged from inside the carriage, followed by Harry’s twin sister, Isabel—still pouting after Mama’s refusal to allow her to sit outside with her brothers—and the two oldest girls, Eliza and Frances.
Aaron handed his mother from his curricle and escorted her to Lord Lavenham, still waiting by the open front door. Only as they reached the Viscount did Aaron notice a tall, willowy figure standing in the shadows beyond. He shot a questioning glance at his mother: Who is she?
His mother returned his look with an enigmatic lift of her brow.
‘My dear Arthur.’ Mama approached Lavenham with outstretched arms and kissed him on the cheek. ‘How good it is to see you again after so many years. Correspondence can never replace the joy of an actual meeting.’
Lavenham returned her embrace. ‘I am delighted to welcome you to Lavenham, Sally. You are well, I hope? And the journey was not overly taxing? Now, let me see… I remember Aaron, of course…’ he shook Aaron’s hand ‘…a fine young man, indeed. You must be…what?…five-and-twenty? Time you thought about settling down, m’boy. I hear your sister is to be wed soon.’
Aaron set his jaw as Lavenham chuckled. It was bad enough Mama constantly quizzing him about getting shackled without Lavenham joining the chorus.
I’ll wed when I’m ready and not before.
He was only five-and-twenty—plenty of time yet to think about setting up his nursery. And when he did decide to enter parson’s mousetrap, it would his decision and his alone. If there was one thing he could not abide it was being nagged or—worse still, after his experience with the Caxtons—manoeuvred. Fortunately he had realised their plan in time to thwart their attempt to entrap him, but he still regretted not confronting the pair of them. Instead, he had merely avoided them as much as possible and discreetly declined any further invitations.
‘She is indeed, Arthur,’ Aaron’s mother said. ‘Cousin Arthur, meet Eliza.’ The eldest of Aaron’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eliza, curtsied.
‘Eliza…a pretty name for a pretty young lady.’
Lavenham’s forced bonhomie grated on Aaron, seeming out of character for such a scholarly type.
‘You will need to remind me of the other children’s names, I am afraid, Sally.’
Mama beckoned the rest of the family forward. As she did so, Aaron’s gaze met that of the young woman who stood silently erect behind the Viscount. She could only be his daughter, Diana. The little brown mouse. Well, she might still legitimately be described as brown, with hair and eyes of that hue, but she could by no stretch of the imagination be described as either little or mouse-like. Rather, she had a feline air, with her slanting eyes, her stillness and a peculiar watchfulness in her stance, as though she might at any moment spring into action.
He suppressed the guilt coiling in his gut that he, and not she, would eventually inherit her home. It was the way of their world. Titles and estates passed down the male line. Besides…his gaze swept over her and he felt his pulse kick: she really was most striking…he had no need to feel guilty. An attractive young woman like her would have little trouble finding a husband to provide for her.
Mama continued to introduce Aaron’s brothers and sisters. ‘This is Frances and Isabel—who is twin to Harry here—and the other boys are George and Joseph.’
‘And this is my daughter Diana,’ Lavenham said, half-turning and taking Diana’s arm, urging her forward.
She did not crack so much as a smile when Mama greeted her with a warm kiss to the cheek. Aaron made his bow and Diana responded with only a grave nod of her head.
Would it hurt her to be a little more welcoming? Her dislike of his family invading her precious home could not be more obvious and Aaron hoped his sisters, in particular, were not hurt by her unfriendliness. Both Eliza and Frances had been looking forward to meeting their distant cousin for the first time. They would be so disappointed to find this starched-up miss.
Aaron’s resentment over this visit resurfaced. How much fun could they expect this Christmastide if they must rely upon these people to organise the festivities? He could not imagine a drearier time ahead if he tried.
‘Ah, there you are.’