Finding Forever at Christmas

By: Bronwyn Scott

Chapter One

December 21st, 1838

She was home! Catherine Emerson knew it the moment she stepped into the foyer of Deverill Hall as assuredly as she knew her own name. The hall was just as she remembered it: the long oak staircase draped with winter pine, boughs laden with red-satin bows and ropes of gold beads; she breathed deeply, taking in the sharp tang of the outdoors brought inside. It might possibly be her favourite scent. Five years had been a long time to be away.

Of course this wasn’t really her home in the truest sense. Her home was two miles away, where she lived with her mother and father—quietly. The ‘un-quiet’ of the Deverill household was one of the things she loved the most about it. It had been a marvel of her childhood to know a family with not one, but four children in it. Nothing had ever been quiet about Deverill Hall.

To prove it, a loud scream of delight echoed from the top of the stairs, ‘Catherine!’ Rapid footsteps tapped down the steps in a flurry of brightly coloured skirts, announcing the arrival of the Deverill girls. Catherine smiled. Some things never changed.

‘Alyson, Meredith!’ Catherine was caught up in their embraces, all three of them laughing and talking at once. They’d been inseparable in their youth. In the summers she’d practically lived here, running the fields, riding the grass tracks. She’d been such a regular companion, she’d had her own room, even her own pony, then a mare when she’d outgrown good-natured Henry.

‘Look at you! How sophisticated you’ve become!’ Meredith exclaimed, stepping back to take in her ensemble, a deep forest-green carriage dress, cut tight and form fitting in the latest fashion. ‘A white fur muff, too! It’s just exquisite, Catherine. Paris agrees with you.’

‘And engagement agrees with you.’ Meredith’s pale cheeks were aglow with colour, her blue eyes lit like candles. She looked positively beautiful. ‘I am so happy for you and for Marcus.’ Meredith engaged! It was almost too much to take in. She was glad Meredith had written and given her time to adjust to the news.

‘Alyson has news too.’ Meredith elbowed her younger sister and gave her a sly look. ‘You should tell Catherine.’

Alyson, the shyer of the two, blushed. ‘Nothing is for certain, but Jameson Ellis has been calling on me since the summer. I believe he will speak to Father while he’s here for the Christmas festivities.’

‘Oh, how wonderful.’ Catherine smiled, but inside she felt a little piece of her hopes crumble. Both girls to marry! Where would that leave her? She’d been gone and the world she’d left behind had changed. Catherine looked up at the staircase, her sense of homecoming diminished. She’d come here wanting to catch up. But instead everyone had moved on.

She’d known where she belonged in the old world—here at Deverill Hall with her friends, her second family. She wasn’t sure where she belonged in the new. Would there even be room in that new world where she had to share her friends with husbands and babies and whole new families? It wasn’t that she was jealous or that she begrudged the girls any of their happiness, it was just that she’d rather wrongly and unrealistically thought everything would have frozen in time, waiting for her to return.

Alyson tugged at her hand, excitedly. ‘Finn and Channing are both home.’ She dropped her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. ‘Finn’s latest mistress threw a diamond necklace at him. Apparently, she didn’t like her parting gift.’

‘We aren’t supposed to know...’ Meredith laughed ‘...but it’s hard not to. Finn’s got a cut, just there.’ Meredith tapped a finger along the lower part of her cheek. ‘Come on, Catherine. The boys will die when they see you!’

Or she would when she saw them, Catherine thought, very aware her pulse had speeded up at the prospect. More specifically at the prospect of seeing him, Channing Deverill, the younger brother and bane of her childhood—the secret subject of her adolescent longings. She wasn’t certain exactly when her feelings for him had changed. But one summer day he’d smiled at her from across the picnic blanket and she’d been lost. Then the fantasy had taken hold. She was going to marry him and for ever be a part of the Deverill household in the most legal and permanent way possible. She had it all planned, right down to the dress—she’d wear her grandmother’s wedding gown and he’d wear a blue morning coat that showed off his eyes. There would be flowers, lots of flowers.

As for Finn, she supposed he was still his dark, dour self. It was no surprise his mistress had thrown a necklace at him. She’d probably done it to get his attention. From what Catherine remembered, Finn was more interested in his botany than anything else. Whenever the five of them had gone on summer picnics, it had been Channing who entertained them with wild stories. Finn would wander off and come back with pockets full of samples, spouting Latin phrases as he laid his treasures out on the blanket. Then again, Finn had been five years older than she at a time when a few years’ difference in age had seemed to be a chasm.

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