December 23, 1817
Andrew James Storme, the eighth Earl of Hadleigh, clasped his hands behind his back as he watched gentle snow fall from his view at the windows of the drawing room. He and his wife Sarah had been in residence since the beginning of the month in preparation for gathering the whole Storme family together to mark the holiday season, and it had snowed perhaps a handful of times during their occupation.
It wasn’t a good omen the weather had decided to present said precipitation today, for it would hinder travel… if his bloody family would even show.
December had also brought a swath of anxiety back to him. He hadn’t felt that in a long time, at least since his youngest brother Brand’s wedding that autumn. Damnation, but the year had flown by, and it still boggled his mind that he and his two brothers were married. How had it happened? This time last year they’d been scattered over England, all simmering pots of anger and regret, nearly at each other’s throats.
But that changed with marriage, in finding love, in the discovery of exactly who each of them was and accepting those facts.
He shook his head and allowed a small smile as he continued to watch the snow. Perhaps women held more power than the world knew. If they could make strong inroads into repairing the rift between the Storme brothers, what other marvels could they perform if given half the chance?
Some of his anxiety faded as he practiced breathing exercises Sarah had taught him during those seemingly long-ago summer days when they’d first met and then wed in a marriage of convenience. Through perseverance and a deep understanding of himself, those early days that had been fraught with animosity and fighting had turned into an abiding love he still wasn’t certain wouldn’t vanish like mist before the sun.
Damnation, but I’m a lucky man.
“Where the hell are they?” Though he’d spoken the words to himself, a soft sigh from one of the sofas betrayed the presence of his mother. When the devil had she arrived, and how the deuce had he not noticed? Woolgathering was becoming his lot, apparently.
“Patience, Andrew. I’m sure they’ll come.”
He swung around at the sound of her voice. “I’m not. Sure, that is.” At the first of the month, he’d sent letters not only to his brothers and their wives, but he’d also extended the invitation to his cousins: William, Caroline, and Isobel. Merely thinking of them had his pulse accelerating and his chest swelling with worry, which strained the buttons of his waistcoat. “They care not one whit about me or my ideas.”
Yes, the Christmastide gathering in the countryside had been his scheme, for the year had shown him that blood was stronger than anything else. It was time to mend the rift in the family, for it wasn’t right not to have everyone about during this time. Thus, he’d written the letters and had them posted the same day from London.
“Your brothers will be here.” His mother was still a striking woman with silver threads in her brown hair, her bearing as proud as a queen. She’d taken to life as the dowager countess with aplomb, especially since his marriage. For a widow of a certain age, she maintained an active social calendar, so much so that he hadn’t been entirely sure she’d come to Derbyshire for Christmas since her schedule remained full.
“Even Brand?” His youngest brother had been on a wedding trip on his damned sloop since the autumn. What he found interesting on a boat, Drew would never understand.
She chuckled but didn’t look up from the embroidery work she had in her lap. The tiny stitches on the equally tiny white gown for a baby—his first child. Drew’s heart squeezed. “Finn assured me that he’d told Brand you wished for everyone to gather at Hadleigh Hall for Christmas. He’ll come.”
“What if he doesn’t?” It wasn’t outside the realm of possibility his brothers would decide to ignore the summons, which would defeat the purpose of asking his family to come to Derbyshire in the first place.
“Then he doesn’t, and it will be his loss. We will have a lovely time regardless.” A faint smile curved her lips upward, as if she knew a secret no one else did. He’d never seen her act so mysterious before, and that only added to the anxiety circling through his gut. “Remember, Andrew, you are not at the helm of anyone else’s life but your own. Stop trying to orchestrate your family into the boxes you’ve set out for them. If you’ve learned nothing else these past several months, surely that’s gotten through your thick head.”
“You’re right,” he finally conceded, and once more turned his attention to the softly falling snow beyond the windows. “I’ve just built this time up so much in my head, for it’s important, not only to me, but to the others.”
His relationship with his younger brothers had always been tumultuous and infused with anger, especially since his father had died and left them all reeling with how to behave as men who had emotions. However, with his marriage and a new understanding of himself, he was making inroads into extending kindness with the hopes he’d find forgiveness and common ground with his siblings. Over the course of months, he’d taken those first steps—and so had they—but further healing was needed, and he wanted to recapture the camaraderie, the love and laughter he’d known with his brothers during Christmastides in childhood, especially now that he’d reached out to his estranged cousins.
“Do you think William will come?” he asked in a small voice. He couldn’t bear to look away from the window glass for fear he’d see pity in his mother’s expression.
“I can honestly say I don’t know.” Fabric rustled indicating his mother had shifted position. “However, I had a letter from your Aunt Patricia the other day, and she assured me that she’d encouraged her children to accept your invitation. She’ll come, in any event, and please be kind to her. I fear she’s not long for this world.”
Drew scowled at the window. Damned snow. “I’m always respectful, at least these days.” But that hadn’t set his mind at ease.
Around the time of Finn’s marriage, unsavory secrets had come to light that had added new facets to his existence. They’d brought both joy and additional worries, for it seemed his uncle—his father’s brother—in his infinite wisdom had sent Drew’s cousin Caroline to an asylum without telling anyone, and least of all informing his father, who’d been the Earl of Hadleigh at the time.
Once Drew had discovered the damning secret, his anger had exploded to the point that Sarah had feared for his health. He’d vowed then and there to free his cousin from the asylum and have her come live in his London townhouse. He’d spent the past two months sending and replying to a bevy of letters, not only to the people in charge at the Asylum for the Insane in Warwick, but also to William informing him of the decision. Finally, everyone had agreed that something must be done for Caroline, since she’d lived her life shunned and locked away from her family, and only this week had her release been approved. Once the Christmastide holiday concluded, Drew would bring her home to London.
“Why have they not bloody arrived yet?” He curled one hand into a fist and laid it against the cold windowpane. One couldn’t have a family gathering if one’s family was absent. “They’re ignoring me. Of course.” As if he didn’t matter, as if the bond they’d had as children had disappeared due to an argument between their fathers that no one had talked about or seldom remembered now.
“I refuse to entertain you when you’re in this state.” Exasperation rode his mother’s voice. When fabric rustled once more, he turned from the window in time to see her rise from the low sofa. She left her handiwork on the cushion, for she’d no doubt return. At the same time, his wife entered the room, looking stunning in a cheerful red gown with a black wool shawl wrapped about her. “Sarah, please work to calm your husband. He’s ready to fly into the boughs and refuses to listen to me.”
“Oh, Andrew, it’s Christmastide.” She met his gaze from across the room after nodding to his mother as she quit the room. The silver rims of her spectacles winked in the light from the fireplace, for the snow clouds had rendered the day gloomy. “Can you not behave?”