When he was twenty years old, Harry Westcott succeeded to the title Earl of Riverdale upon the sudden death of his father. With the title he inherited several properties, including Brambledean Court in Wiltshire, and a vast fortune his father had accumulated through a combination of prudent and reckless investments. Harry became head of the Westcott family, though he also acquired a guardian to manage his affairs until he reached his twenty-first birthday—Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby.
None of these new acquisitions remained his for long, however. A private investigation launched by his mother to find and pay off the bastard daughter her husband had supported all their married life, supposedly without her knowledge, resulted in what she and Harry and her two daughters came to think of ever after as the Great Disaster—they always spoke of it as though those two words would be capitalized if written down. For Anna Snow, the secret daughter, then twenty-five years old and teaching at the orphanage in Bath where she had grown up, knowing nothing of her true identity, was not, as it turned out, illegitimate. The late Earl of Riverdale had been married to her mother before he wed Harry's, the present countess—and he had still been married to his first wife when he wed the second. The abandoned first wife had died of consumption shortly afterward, but the damage had been done for all time.
The late earl's marriage to his supposed countess of twenty-three years had been bigamous, and the offspring of that marriage had no legal legitimacy. Harry was stripped of title, properties, and fortune, his headship of the family, and his very identity. So were his sisters, the former Lady Camille and Lady Abigail Westcott. His mother resumed her maiden name of Kingsley and fled to Dorsetshire to live with her brother, who was a clergyman there. Camille and Abigail went to live with their maternal grandmother in Bath.
Harry, after getting very drunk the day he learned the news, took the king's shilling from a recruiting sergeant and prepared to join the ranks of a foot regiment about to be shipped off to the Peninsula to face the vast armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was rescued from such a fate, much against his will, by his guardian and sent to the same regiment—and the same destination—as a commissioned officer.
It was a tumultuous time, to say the least.
All that turmoil was so much water under the bridge by now, however, for it had happened almost ten years ago. Somehow everyone who had been caught up in those events had moved onward with their life. Most of them had prospered. Some had settled down happily to lives that were very different from anything they could have expected. But how could one reasonably expect anything of the future when even at the best and most tranquil of times it was a vast unknown? It was nothing short of amazing, in fact, how the human spirit could be rocked to its core by the most catastrophic events life could throw its way and yet steady itself and recover—and then thrive.
The title had passed to Alexander Westcott, Harry's second cousin, though he had been very unhappy about it. He had worked conscientiously in the intervening years to bring Brambledean Court back to prosperity after decades of neglect. Several years ago he and Wren, his wife and countess, had begun a new tradition of welcoming the whole family there for Christmas. Everyone loved it. This year, however, the family was not complete, for the illegitimate branch of it—which the legitimate branch vociferously refused to acknowledge as any less a part of the family than it had ever been—was absent. Viola, the former countess, with the Marquess of Dorchester, her present husband, went instead to spend the holiday in Bath with her daughter Camille and her husband, Joel Cunningham, and their nine children. Yes, the number had increased from seven during the past summer with the adoption of twin girls. Viola's second daughter, Abigail, and her husband, Gil Bennington, and their three children went there too.
So did Harry.
It was perfectly understandable, the rest of the family agreed, swallowing their disappointment. It would not have been easy, after all, for Camille and Joel to pack up nine children and an entourage of accompanying nurses and baggage for the journey to Wiltshire, especially in winter, when one could not be sure of either the weather or the roads. The Westcotts enjoyed their Christmas at Brambledean anyway, though they frequently talked about the absentees and wished they were there too.
In particular, they talked about Harry. They were worried about him.