Matilda Westcott has spent her life tending to the needs of her mother, the Dowager Countess of Riverdale, never questioning the web of solitude she has spun herself. To Matilda, who considers herself an aging spinster daughter, marriage is laughable—love is a game for the young, after all. But her quiet, ordered life unravels when a dashing gentleman from her past reappears, threatening to charm his way into her heart yet again.
Charles Sawyer, Viscount Dirkson, does not expect to face Matilda Westcott thirty-six years after their failed romance. Moreover, he does not expect decades-old feelings to emerge at the very sight of her. When encountering Matilda at a dinner hosted by the Earl of Riverdale, he finds himself as fascinated by her as he was the first day they met, and wonders whether, after all these years, they have a chance at happiness together. Charles is determined to crack the hard exterior Matilda has built up for more than three decades, or he will risk losing her once again....
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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, and 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 in 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 sakes. 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 the second marriage was that it had overlapped by with the first 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, as 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, truly was shocking, after all. Matilda had liked the young man anyway. He was tall and dark and handsome even if his face was marred 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, aeons 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 family 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 it. 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 quotation. 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 Gil was away fighting at the Battle of Waterloo, and was never returned. It was the first time in thirty-six years she had come face-to-face with Charles or exchanged a word with him. 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 it. 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 son's 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 so close as to be knocked over by a careless elbow.
Wren came to take Alexander's and her cups from the tray and smiled her thanks to 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 tried to rearrange 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 draft or overexert herself or get overexcited, though her mother resented her every attention. Sometimes, especially lately, Matilda wondered whether 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 why 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 of 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, Cousin Eugenia, do you mean?" 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 since 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?"