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Thomas Derrik is about to have the worst Christmas of his life. Three days before the holiday, he finds out the father he doesn’t get along with is arriving on Christmas Eve, his ex-lover and new brother-in-law will be staying at his estate until the New Year, and his beloved brother, Edmund, has died.
Luckily, Edmund’s last holiday scheme may well save Thomas’s Christmas: Henry Appleby, a young lord fresh from the Continent, has arranged to court Thomas. But the family tragedy and jealous exes may put an end to the romance before it begins.
“LORD Thomas Percival Coleridge Derrik, heir to the Marquess of Camden, does not cry,” Thomas reminded himself as he clutched the letter in his hand tight enough that his knuckles turned white. It should’ve been him. It should’ve been his name on the slip of paper that was delivered to his estate no more than an hour previously. It should’ve been his body on its way back to London in a pine box.
The fine sweat forming on his body seemed out of place next to the shivers that wracked him in the bitterly cold afternoon. The stone bench he sat on over an hour ago, overlooking the chilly pond, seemed only to leech more warmth from his body. He’d thought his worries were over with the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte earlier in the summer. His younger brother’s commission had ended days after the Waterloo campaign concluded, and he had been promising for months to be home for the holidays. However, Ed would not be home for the holiday. He wouldn’t be home ever again. Three days until Christmas was no time to receive such news.
“Lord Camden, forgive my intrusion, but you told me to inform you the second Lord and Lady Darrow arrived.”
He looked up into the knowing face of his valet. The man had been with him five years now, and he’d never really seen him. He’d looked over him so often that he was no more noticeable than a favorite book or a chair in his library. His brown hair was cut short, fashionable. Jonah’s surprisingly soft eyes were hidden beneath eyelashes better suited for ladies than manservants. When they stood next to one another, Jonah was almost half a head taller than Camden’s respectable five-ten frame. How odd that he realized it just then.
He took a deep, shuddering breath, trying to suck in the emotion threatening to swamp him. It was unseemly for a man to cry when faced with adverse news, especially in front of his servant. “So I did, Jonah. Thank you.” He swallowed. However would he make it through another insipid visit from his darling little sister and the man whom he detested more than any other? Were it not for the threat of his father’s wrath at his discourteousness, he would promptly throw them out.
“Shall I send them away, my lord? Or perhaps get them started on some tea so that you may have a few more moments?” Jonah asked. Leave it up to Jonah to try to accommodate a proper length of time for Thomas to get himself in order. His valet was nothing if not efficient.
He waved his hand in dismissal. “No. That won’t be necessary. I will be there momentarily. My father, no doubt, has not informed Lady Darrow of our brother’s passing. She will need that information for mourning. It wouldn’t do to have her dressing in that red gown she bought for Christmas.” It would cause a scandal that would add to the headache forming behind his eyes. She would no doubt fall into vapors at the news. The twittering thing that she was would probably relish the attention Ed’s passing would cause. She would cry and simper and all the proper things, but she wouldn’t really care like Thomas did. At eighteen and newly wed, Caroline was having the time of her life, and thoughts about much more than her next dinner party were foreign ideas. It wasn’t a kind thought, but in that moment, Thomas didn’t care.
Jonah gave a half bow in his direction. “Very well, my lord. I’ll have the servants ready the tea. Cucumber sandwiches?”
He nodded. “Some biscuits for her ladyship as well.”
“Very good, sir.” With that, he turned and walked back toward the house on the gravel path by which he’d come. Normally, he would’ve waited on Thomas and they would’ve walked back together, but he seemed to sense Thomas’s need to be alone. His acute anticipation of Thomas’s needs was one of the many reasons he’d been his constant companion in the years since school. Of course the fact that Jonah’s father was his father’s valet may have had something to do with his employment.
“Oh, Ed, what am I going to do without you?” he whispered to the empty air, his breath clouding and rising around him like steam. The sweat he’d developed as he fought his emotions was cooling now, and his chills got worse. Ed had been his sanity. They were only two years apart and had been nearly inseparable since childhood. The weight of his title and his responsibilities had always been easier to bear with Ed around. “Why did you have to leave me here? I don’t have anyone left to talk to.” His throat threatened to close up again as he realized exactly what he’d lost. No. I cannot do this now. He forced himself to his feet and choked back the sob threatening to escape. He could almost hear his brother’s voice in the back of his head, telling him to hold strong, especially in front of Darrow.
“You can’t let that bastard win, Cole,” Ed had said that horrible night last January after Thomas confessed everything. He was the only one who called him Cole, shortening his last name from Coleridge. “He’s a right git, and you know it. Don’t let that molly get to you.” Thomas winced at the phrasing. “Sorry, Cole. I didn’t mean that to insult present company.” He’d been the only one to know Thomas’s secret. His father suspected, of course, but the peerage and his friends could never know. “Anytime you want to talk, I will lend an ear, brother. You know that.”
The time for talks had passed, though. There was no longer an ear to listen. Resigning himself to the inevitable, he pushed himself from the bench and made his way slowly back toward the towering house he called home.
ENTERING the sitting room twenty minutes later was a testament to how devoted he was to his station and to his brother’s wishes. Darrow sat in Thomas’s favorite chair, his legs crossed and his hands resting casually on the arms of the chair, tapping out a rhythm only he could discern. The bloody git knew it was his favorite chair.
His sister’s voice interrupted the barely civil greeting he was mustering. “Oh, Coleridge, you certainly know how to arrive fashionably late!” He half turned as she came away from the large bay window that looked out over the front garden. It made sense that she would be there. It was nearest the piano, and Caroline was nothing if not a lark.
Her ebony curls were the same shade as his own hair, a reflection of their mother’s coloring. Though Caroline’s eyes were their father’s dull brown instead of their mother’s rich green. Thomas was the only one of the siblings to get that feature. Today, her muslin gown was accented in deep navy blue, which just seemed to further pale her milk-white skin. Living only an hour’s ride west of Devron Estate allowed Thomas to see much of her wardrobe in great detail, as she insisted on visiting at least once or twice a week.
“Forgive me, Caro. I received some rather unfortunate news that delayed my arrival. Do sit down.” Maids and footmen came in as he spoke, moving about with the same efficiency Jonah displayed. Thomas’s house ran very smoothly, thanks in large part to his valet.
“Unfortunate news?” Caroline asked. She crossed over to the long couch and perched casually on its edge. It left only the other sitting chair for him to take up. He managed not to shoot a glare in Darrow’s direction as he sat. “I do hope that it is not more ill news from the continent. Honestly, Thomas, I’ve had it up to my ears hearing about how this and that village was ravaged in France. It’s all very distressing.”
Thomas resisted the urge to grind his teeth. He had little tolerance for busy talk and even less tolerance for busy talk that was uneducated opinion. It was one of the reasons he spent majority of his time at balls in the back rooms playing cards and drinking with his male companions.
“This news is far more distressing than foreign conflicts, I’m afraid. Caro, It’s about Edmund.” He swallowed, his emotions threatening to run away with him again.
She paled to a sickly shade of white. “What of Edmund? He’s supposed to be home within the week. His last letter said so.”
Thomas shook his head. “I’m afraid not. He won’t be coming home, Caro. He passed of fever some weeks ago. His body was delayed on account of the conflict and the lateness of season. Father received news a few days ago and sent it to me this morning. We’ll be having a funeral before the New Year.”
Caroline burst into tears by the time he reached the word funeral. “But E–Edmund p–promised! We’re supposed to have Christmas here this year!”
He pushed himself out of the chair and knelt on the floor in front of Caroline. With one hand he took hers and with the other he withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket. “I know, Caro. I don’t think he would miss this for the world otherwise.” And he wouldn’t have. He would’ve come to keep Thomas company at the very least. Of course, his brother had a penchant for their father’s very opulent wine choices, which contributed to his willingness to spend any length of time at the country estate that Thomas had always favored over his father’s London townhouse. By all rights, his father should’ve been the one to stay at Camden while the House of Lords wasn’t in session, but the elder Lord Camden did not care for country life and hadn’t been back much since their mother had died some eight years previously.
“Perhaps it would be best if we returned to the house, my sweet,” Darrow said from his seat. Thomas whipped his head in Darrow’s direction and pinned him with a glare fueled by pure, unadulterated anger. This is a family matter. How dare he—but he was family now, wasn’t he? The thought made him positively ill.
Caroline’s grip on Thomas’s hands tightened. “If I may, I would like to lie down for a moment before we depart. I’m feeling a bit faint.”
“Of course, sweet. Take your time.” There may have been genuine affection in Darrow’s voice, but Thomas didn’t allow it to sway his opinion that his sister’s husband was a right arse.
“I’ll summon a maid,” Thomas said, walking over to ring the servant’s bell. “If you’d like, I’ll have her set you up in the Lily Room. Would you like that?” It was their mother’s old set of rooms, and Caro had always loved it. The cream and yellow décor was feminine and still smelled of lilies when Thomas could arrange for it to.
“I would like that,” Caroline said, her voice trembling slightly. The maid arrived then and curtseyed to her ladyship. “Is Papa coming soon?”
“The letter said to expect him within the next day or so. He should arrive on Christmas Eve.” That was just like him to send such news by post instead of telling everyone in person when he arrived. He probably wanted them to finish what he would consider hysterics out of his sight. Edmund and Father had never really gotten along, and their rows were mostly about Thomas. However, Caroline had a soft spot for the elder Lord Camden. She was his favorite. It would comfort her to know of his impending arrival.
Caroline was escorted from the room by the maid, leaving Darrow and Thomas alone. A tense moment of silence seemed to stretch on for longer than was necessary. Thomas couldn’t help but notice how handsome Darrow looked lounging in the sitting room chair. His strong, midthirties frame, dark hair, and dark eyes presented quite the picture of ton elegance. He’d charmed more than one person with his dashing good looks, Thomas included. Never again.
“How are you holding together, Thomas?” Darrow asked, his voice much softer than Thomas could recall hearing in recent memory.
A muscle in Thomas’s jaw ticked. “Do not call me by my given name, Darrow. You no longer have the right.” He pushed himself to his feet and dusted off his knees before taking up the seat on the couch his sister had vacated. He looked at his brother-in-law with all the cool civility he could muster. If necessary, he could freeze Darrow out.
“Oh come on, Thomas. You know I had no choice. I wanted to stay close to you.” They’d had this argument before, more than once as matter of fact. “Marriage is necessary to men of our station—”
“Marriage to my sister was not. Darrow, you destroyed any possibility of a continuance when you married Caroline and acted as her husband.” He’d been willing to yield on many things that broke his heart about his relationship with Darrow, but that had not been one of them. “She will bear your heir, rear your child. My sister, Darrow. How could I even entertain the possibility of a future with you when I would know that my nieces and nephews were your children?”
“So that is your objection? That my children would be of your blood? Christ, man, don’t you see that I wanted to have children that were, even by further relation, pieces of you? Caroline knows about us, Thomas. She at least suspects it. She knows my preferences. I didn’t lie to her about it.”
Thomas pushed himself to his feet, unable and unwilling to continue the discussion. “I cannot deal with you right now. I have a brother to mourn.”
It wasn’t just the fact that Darrow had married his sister. It wasn’t even the fact that he would one day have children with his sister. It was that Darrow was a rag-mannered rake who had proven his disloyalty with a frequency and dedication that boggled the mind. The fact that Darrow had married his sister in an attempt to win back Thomas’s affections was just further proof of their incompatibility.
Darrow surged to his feet, anger painted across his expression. He gripped Thomas’s arm to stop his forward movement. “Do not walk away from me, Thomas. We’re not done.”
Thomas arched an eyebrow and tried not to wince at the pain Darrow’s grip was causing. “Do you know why we are done, George?” he asked. It was the first time he’d spoken Darrow’s given name since the night before his wedding. Darrow hesitated for a moment but then shook his head. Thomas continued. “I always anticipated you marrying a woman. Even I have to do that one day. However, I was under the impression that we would be loyal to one another in one way. We are done because I know about the other men in your life, George. I know about your footman and your former valet, about your dalliances with Lord Townsend, and your visits to the molly houses in London during the season. I know about all of them. My feelings aside, how could you do that to my sister?”
Darrow looked like he had been struck on the face. He paled, and Thomas jerked his arm from Darrow’s grip. “A man has needs, Thomas,” his former lover whispered. “We could not be together all the time, especially in London with eyes all around.”
“Yet somehow I survived the separation without sinking into the heat of some dockside tart. We’re finished, George. Be happy with my sister, and I pray to God that you find happiness elsewhere with a man who understands as well.” It was the most difficult sentence he’d spoken in his life. Walking away from the relationship he’d had since school caused the ache in his chest to grow to a sharp throb. I thought I was past this emotion. Apparently his brother’s death was bringing up all sorts of old scars. Even ones like this that were over a year old.
“I can change, Thomas.” Darrow sounded as broken as Thomas felt.
“You cannot, Darrow. You know you cannot. At best, let us hope to one day be friends. We’re finished in all other ways.” He took one step toward the door, then another, then another. With each step, the movement felt a bit easier. He could still feel Darrow’s eyes on his back as he walked to the door and pulled it open. But as he shut the door behind him and walked at a clipped pace down the hallway toward the staircase, he felt that weight lifting away as well. A year had passed with no closure. At last, they were free to move forward with their lives….
Thoughts of his brother bubbled to the surface of his mind, obliterating the relief. Some of them were free to move forward. Not Edmund, though. Edmund, who had encouraged him time and time again to confront Darrow over his infidelities while Thomas continued to tell himself that it was all right, that they would somehow make it work despite Thomas’s strong sense of betrayal. You’d be proud of me, Ed. I finally told him how I felt. He hoped the words reached his brother, wherever he was.
Christmas this year was going to be a cold affair. He sighed and took a sharp right to ascend the staircase. There was work to be done in his study, accounts to go over. He needed something else to think about, anything other than his brother. Father would probably want the accounts in order when he arrived in Camden. Thomas might as well finish up the work Father would want to look at. There would be plenty of time to mourn his brother in the near future, as soon as his family had gone their separate ways. For the first time in his life he was relishing the prospect of the holiday being finished.
He shut himself in his study and stoked up the fires so the chill in the air would abate somewhat. The study was probably his favorite room in the house. The deep masculine wood tones, plush furniture, and ornate hand-carved fireplace seemed a cocoon of shelter from the busyness of the outside world. The books that lined the shelves were a mix of old and new. Most of the new additions were added by Thomas in the time his father had been away. Unlike most of his peers, Thomas didn’t often stay in London for the entire season. Instead, he took shelter at Camden and would continue to do so until his father got fed up with his lack of participation in the affairs of his peers and ordered him into the marriage mart.
Momentarily he glanced at the accounts, but it all seemed like pointless drivel to him. He gathered the papers up and stuck them into his desk drawer, unwilling to entertain the numbers. Instead of working, he picked up his copy of Waverley and began to thumb through the familiar text. The desk chair seemed at once too uncomfortable for him, so he went to the armchair nearest the fireplace. It wasn’t long before the words made his eyes grow heavy, and before he knew it, he was sound asleep.