Major Harry Westcott had survived the Napoleonic Wars—barely. He had been severely wounded a number of times, but at the Battle of Waterloo he had come as close to death as it was possible to get without actually crossing over to the other side. His life had teetered on the brink for two whole years after that brutal, bloody day before finally Alexander and Avery had taken matters into their own hands. They had brought him back from the convalescent home for British officers in Paris, where he had been languishing, and settled him at Hinsford Manor, his childhood home in Hampshire. He had lived there ever since and had gradually recovered his health and strength. All had ended well, one might say.
His Westcott relatives would not say any such thing, however.
For Harry, the always cheerful, sunny-natured, lighthearted, beloved boy they remembered, had become a recluse. He almost never left Hinsford. It was amazing he had even gone as far as Bath this year for Christmas. He did not always come to Brambledean, and when he did, he was usually the last to arrive and the first to leave. He showed no interest in reclaiming whatever could be reclaimed of his position in society. He showed no interest in marrying and setting up his nursery and living happily ever after. It was all nothing short of heartbreaking. It was as though in ten years he had done nothing more than survive.
Most alarming of all to the family was the fact that Harry was approaching thirty. That was still young, of course, as the senior members of the family were swift to point out, but it was nevertheless a significant barrier. Thirty was a precarious age for a man who was still single and living alone and uninterested in changing either condition.
The family was worried. While Harry, blissfully unaware of clouds looming upon the horizon, celebrated Christmas with his mother and sisters in Bath, he became the focus of a number of lengthy conversations at Brambledean. Inevitably, an unofficial sort of family committee formed to do something about it. Equally inevitably, that committee was composed entirely of females and headed, as usual, by Matilda, Viscountess Dirkson, the late earl's eldest sister.
The men stayed above the fray. Or perhaps they merely held their peace and hoped their wives and sisters would not notice them. Avery, Duke of Netherby, maintained an almost total silence, as he usually did during family conferences, and looked bored. Lord Molenor looked amused. Viscount Dirkson patted his wife's hand whenever she looked to him as though for an opinion and smiled fondly at her. The Earl of Lyndale raised his eyebrows whenever he caught his wife's eye, but refrained from offering any opinion, at least in public. Adrian Sawyer, Dirkson's son, but not by birth or marriage a Westcott, was rash enough to comment upon one occasion that whenever he saw Harry Westcott, which was not often, admittedly, Harry always looked perfectly cheerful and contented. He said no more after intercepting grins from both Colin, Lord Hodges, and Alexander and receiving no encouragement from the ladies to enlarge upon his opinion.
The basic questions to be decided upon, the ladies soon unanimously agreed, were two. First, what were they going to do to celebrate Harry's birthday, which occurred in April, after Easter, when the Season would be just swinging into action in London? Second, what were they going to do about his single state and the sad lethargy into which his life had sunk?
But what they needed to discover first, Mildred, Lady Molenor, Matilda's youngest sister, pointed out, was whether Harry could be lured to London for the Season or even a small part of it. If he could be, they would be able to plan a grand party there for him. It would be relatively easy to accomplish once they had decided upon a time and place, for they would have no trouble whatsoever persuading guests to come. Harry, though illegitimate, had after all been brought up in the earl's household as his son and educated accordingly. Besides, almost all his relatives on the Westcott side were both titled and influential. And, besides again, he was a handsome young man and personable when he chose to be.
"But he always is, Aunt Mildred," Jessica, Countess of Lyndale, protested. She was the daughter of Louise, Dowager Duchess of Netherby, Mildred's elder sister. "Harry may be a near recluse, but he is never morose or bad-tempered. He is always quite jolly, in fact."
"Such a party would, of course, be held at our house," Anna, Avery's wife and the Duchess of Netherby, said. "Harry is my brother—my half brother, anyway—and Avery was once his guardian."
No one was about to argue.