Edmund could not recall a time when his dormmates were so unbelievably quiet. Even Ashborn, who normally threw around his opinions like they were facts, had been silent for most of the carriage ride. Father was riding outside the carriage, leaving the boys to have more room in the well sprung Bridgerton family conveyance as they made their way to Aubrey Hall for the winter holidays, but still they did not really speak. Each attempt Edmund made to start a conversation fell flat and after his fifth try he gave up and read the book his Aunt Edwina had sent him.
But as they rode through the village Edmund tucked his book away and eagerly looked out the window for his first sight of Aubrey Hall.
Father rode up to the carriage and announced, “Look alive lads, we’re almost there.”
The other boys sat up as the Lord of the Hall rode ahead and Edmund couldn’t help but laugh as Father reached the front steps well ahead of them and embraced Mother.
“They are in public,” Ashborn all but whispered in shock as he saw the embracing couple. "They are kissing in front of the servants."
“They are at home,” Edmund replied, slightly confused. That was the way his parents always greeted each other when they had been away from each other for more than a day. But the other boys looked equally taken aback.
When the carriage pulled to the front of Aubrey Hall, Edmund hopped out before it had fully come to a halt. He barely made it a few steps up the drive before his brother and sister, crowing his name like a battle-cry, barreled into him and tackled him to the ground. He could not stop laughing as he embraced Miles and Charlotte.
“I take it you missed me then?” Edmund asked, unable to stop smiling as he stood up.
“Of course not,” Miles grinned, but his words were facetious.
“Never go away again,” Charlotte declared, clinging to her eldest brother’s leg.
“There’s my boy,” Mother said, having extracted herself from Father. Edmund let himself sink into his Mother’s embrace, so warm and comforting, the faint scent of lilies and soap washing over him, and he clung a little tighter. “I missed you so much, dearest. And look how handsome you are. Just like your Father.”
“Mother,” Edmund whined, blushing as he pulled back. A cough from behind him reminded him of his duties as host. “Mama, let me introduce you to my classmates.”
“This is Ashborn,” Edmund said, and the blond boy gave a very proper bow.
“Welcome to Aubrey Hall, Lord Ashborn,” his mother said, warm as ever, and Ashborn went red.
His father came over and slung a giggling Charlotte over his shoulder and placed his hand on Edmund’s shoulder. The familiar weight felt good, felt right, as he continued with the introductions.
“This is Bucknell,” and the stocky boy looked starstruck as his mother greeted him.
“And this is Truberry,” Edmund concluded as the redhead stepped forward, took his mother’s hand, and kissed it.
“Lady Bridgerton, thank you so much for the warm welcome. Might I say, reports of your beauty have failed to do you justice.”
Edmund resisted the urge to gag as Mother laughed.
“How gallant you are, Mr. Truberry,” Kate said, taking her hand back. “Your things will be brought to your rooms and I hope you find everything to your satisfaction.”
“Where’s Granny?” Edmund suddenly asked, looking around for his Grandmother Violet. Normally she was the first one to greet any family that appeared.
“Your Grandmother declared it was far too cold to be outside today but she is waiting for you, and your friends, in the Rose Parlor. I understand that she has some hot chocolate and a selection of Cook’s biscuits for you boys,” Anthony said, noting that Edmund’s schoolmates already looked half in-love with Kate.
“Come on,” Edmund gestured to his three companions, “Let’s go. Miles, lead the way!”
The younger boy eagerly took off with his brother and his companions following close behind.
And yes, there was indeed enough hot chocolate to go around.
“We are eating dinner with your parents?” Bucknell asked, utterly taken aback as Miles led the boys down to dinner.
“We always eat as a family unless Mama is hosting a formal party,” Edmund replied.
“Everyone? Even the children?” Truberry asked, also looking shocked.
“Well, not the babies,” Edmund told them, “But once a person can sit at a table properly they are permitted to eat out of the nursery. We will be in the small dining room tonight, of course, as most of my Aunts and Uncles and cousins have not yet arrived. Once we are all here then we will dine in the long dining room.”
“Just how many Bridgertons are there?” Truberry asked, taking in the various portraits on the walls of the hallways before they joined the Viscount and Viscountess.
“Oh, dozens of us,” Edmund began, only to be distracted by a familiar form. “Uncle Gregory!”
Edmund rushed forward to hug his youngest Uncle.
“When did you arrive?” Edmund demanded.
“Just in time for dinner,” Uncle Gregory laughed, “And look at you, back from your first foray to Eton. You must have grown at least an inch! And you’ve brought back friends.”
Edmund made the introductions right as the dinner gong was rung.
“Edmund, would you like to do the honors?” Father asked him gesturing to the dining room.
With pride, Edmund escorted his Granny Violet into the dinner followed by his mother and father.
“Mr. Truberry, I understand you are an avid rider,” Mother said, slipping into her Lady Bridgerton role as she tried to ease her rather nervous guests. The poor boys looked rather like startled deer in light of the Bridgerton family chaos.
“I do enjoy a good ride, Lady Bridgerton,” Truberry replied, far too stiff and formal.
“I do hope you will take the time to avail yourself of our stables. Lord Bridgerton maintains several fine mounts and I am sure he could recommend one for you to ride,” Mother said, looking at Father in that speaking way of hers.
“Charger would be just the horse,” Father replied, nodding at Mother.
Charlotte slid from her chair and made her way over to her elder brother, holding her arms up. “Eddy, up.”
For a moment Edmund wanted to deny her. He felt a flash of embarrassment as his schoolmates watched him but he looked at his little sister’s face and knew it was impossible. He lifted her onto his lap and Charlotte snuggled into his chest, sucking on her fingers as her eyes drooped. Normally she would do this to Father but apparently absence had caused Edmund to usurp his Father’s place, at least temporarily, in Charlotte’s affections.
Father gave him a nod and Edmund felt a little well of pride. Family Before All. Edmund had done just that. Perhaps it was only in a small way but small actions often led to larger ones.
“Lord Bridgerton, what do you think of the new Coal Tax before Parliament?” Ashborn asked and Edmund resisted the urge to snort at how serious the boy was. He probably did genuinely wish to know about Father’s opinion on taxation.
“Have you a mind to go into politics?” Father asked, not discounting the boy’s question but wishing to know more about him. “You shall not be in the House of Lords for a long while, God willing, but are you thinking you should like to stand for the Commons?”
“After Oxford of course,” Ashborn replied, the tips of his ears slightly red.
The dinner continued with Father and Mother and Uncle Gregory and Granny Violet all doing their best to coax answers and information out of his dormmates. Truth be told, the boys seemed almost overwhelmed by the amount of adult attention they were receiving.
Once the last course was swept away Mother declared there would be no separation of the sexes tonight and that tea would be taken in the Blue Parlor. Father came over to Edmund and picked up a sleeping Charlotte, freeing the young boy from her weight.
“I shall join you shortly,” Father told Mother, his intention to take Charlotte up to the nursery clear. Mother gave him a short but soft kiss before he left the room and ushered them all into the Blue Parlor.
After the tea was served and Mother took her place on one of the couches Miles quickly asserted his right as the second son and snuggled into her side.
“I know you all must be tired from your journey so I will not keep you long,” Mother told the young boys who all seemed to clump together as if there was strength in numbers. “I hope you will enjoy your stay here and if there is anything we can do for you please do not hesitate to ask.”
Edmund came to sit on the other side of his Mother, suddenly feeling the exhaustion of the day settle on him.
“Will Aunt Fran be coming for Christmas this year?” Edmund asked. From Mother’s last letter there appeared to be some debate as to who would be joining in the celebrations at Aubrey Hall this year.
“I am afraid not, darling,” Mother told him, breaking the news as gently as possible, “Scarlett fever broke out in the village and she refuses to risk even the possibility of bringing illness here. But your Aunt Edwina and Uncle Matthew and the girls will be joining us.”
“Hopefully the weather holds,” Edmund sighed, settling into his Mother’s side.
“Lady Bridgerton,” Bucknell spoke up for nearly the first time that night of his own volition, “Forgive us, but we are feeling rather tired. I think we shall go to bed.”
“Of course, Mr. Bucknell,” Mother smiled and gestured towards one of the footmen, “John will escort you back to your rooms. Have a good night, gentlemen.”
“Goodnight, Lady Bridgerton,” the Eton boys made their farewells and left.
Once they were gone Edmund fully snuggled into his mother’s side, just as Miles did.
“Oh but it is so good to have my boys back again,” Mother said, holding them both close. “I have missed this.”
“I leave for fifteen minutes and my place is usurped,” Father said as he entered the room and took in the sight of his wife and sons. “And I see the boys have gone up already.”
“I think we were a little overwhelming,” Granny Violet chimed in, “But I think I shall follow their lead. Gregory, shall you escort me?”
“Of course, Mother,” Uncle Gregory replied, offering his arm to the dowager.
“Are your friends always so formal, Edmund?” Father asked, taking Uncle Gregory’s vacant seat.
Mother rolled her eyes. “Ignore your Father, dear. He forgets how overwhelming the Bridgertons can be.”
“You fit in just fine,” Father reminded her.
“As your sister would remind you, I am an aberration,” Mother smiled.
“You are perfect,” Father loyally defended and Edmund let out a little sigh of happiness. This is what he had missed at Eton. The warmth and overwhelming knowledge that all was well and that all were loved.
The Christmas holiday had been delightful and the atmosphere at Aubrey Hall had quickly loosened up his schoolmates. Bucknell, much to the surprise of them both, had become a fast favorite of Miles. His quiet gentle little brother had taken to the more boisterous lad like treacle to nuts. They could be found roughhousing in the library or exploring the grounds or examining the barn cats in the stables.
Turberry, who usually had so much spite and vinegar in him, could most often be found in the presence of the ladies who seemed to regard him as something of a pet. The boy had become a fast favorite of Granny Violet’s and he could often be found tucked in her sitting room, entertaining her with stories and harmless flirtatious quips.
And Ashborn, well, he played with the boys and took part in the festivities but he was still so serious and somber. He would ask Father very lofty questions about how the estate was run or Parliamentary procedure, and would listen as if receiving knowledge for the ages as Father answered the boy’s questions with care. He was always polite and respectful to Mother but he seemed almost wary of her casual affection.
“Ash, there you are,” Edmund said as he came into the near empty library. Ashborn sat in a chair overlooking the gardens, an opened letter on the table before him. “News from home? Nothing bad I hope.”
Ashborn took a steadying breath before turning to look at him. “A letter from my father reminding me of my duties as heir. You may read it if you like.”
Wary, but curious nonetheless, Edmund did just that. With each cold and distant line his face fell further and further. The Earl had not even wished his son a Happy Christmas. He had managed to inquire as to the state of Charlotte's dowry much to Edmund’s disgust.
“You see,” Ashborn spoke up as Edmund finished reading, “you have no idea what the real world is like outside of this place. I do not know how you ever leave it.”
“Because I can come back,” Edmund replied as if it was obvious. “Why is your father asking about my sister’s dowry?”
“Because he’s in debt,” Ashborn shrugged as it were obvious, “My father, for all his spendthrift ways, does know that one of the best bets we have of salvaging the estate is for me to marry money. But don’t worry Bridgerton, I would never subject your sister to a life at Granville Castle.”
“You are too young to be thinking of marriage. And Charlotte has close to a decade and a half before she even makes her debut. Besides, my parents would never allow Charlotte to marry someone who only wished for her dowry, no matter how old and lofty the title. The man must be good and kind and able to care for her but, most of all, he must love her.”
“As your father loves your mother?” Ashborn asked.
“Yes, of course,” Edmund replied.
“What an idyllic world you live in,” Ashborn signed, far more weary than any prepubescent boy had the right to be. “People in our circles do not marry for love. Or, if they do, it is a fringe benefit to the wealth and power that might be exchanged. But you believe in love, don’t you? Real, true love. I suppose it must be easy for you to believe in such a thing given the state of your parent’s marriage.”
“Have I offended you in some way?” Edmund asked.
“No,” Ashborn replied, shaking his head, “It is not offense. But merely a wonder to observe someone who has grown up in such a place and in such a way that is wholly alien to me and our companions. Do you know why Truberry has attached himself to your Grandmother? Or why Bucknell indulges your little brother?”
“I am sure you are about to enlighten me,” Edmund replied.
“Because Truberry has no close female relations. I do not believe he has seen his own mother in two years,” Ashborn continued as if Edmund had not spoken. “And Bucknell has always been the unwanted younger brother. The necessary heir from the lawful wife. His father does not even attempt to hide his bastards. Yet here, in this place, they are allowed to indulge in their whims and wants.”
“And what about you?” Edmund asked, “Are your inquiries to my Father a want as well?”
“A man of financial prudence who runs a prosperous estate and listens earnestly to an Eton classmate of his beloved son?” Ashborn gave a small smile. “Yes, I do admit to wanting the type of father you have. You do not know how lucky you are. I don’t think you’ll ever really know. But I thank you for taking pity on us and letting us come here.”
“It’s not pity,” Edmund objected. “You are my friends.”
“I think you actually believe that,” Ashborn said.
“I always believe the truth,” Edmund replied, firm and upright.
Ashborn gave the younger boy a soft smile and shook his head. They came from far too different households to truly understand how the other person lived, but they could come to a sort of middle ground through their schooling and shared interests.
“Think no more of it. Why were you looking for me?”
“We are going sledding. I thought you might like to join us.”
“Yes, yes I rather think I would.”
When the holiday came to an end and the boys were bundled up into the Bridgerton family carriage to return to Eton, Edmund was not the only boy trying to hide a tear or two. Truberry had all but needed to be dragged away from Granny Violet although the woman had promised to write to the boy in addition to all of her grandchildren, and children, and friends and family. Bucknell had solemnly accepted the small box full of unique rocks that Miles had presented to the boy. Even Ashborn had allowed Mother and Charlotte to give him a hug, and he accepted a firm handshake from Father.
Still, it was a rather somber carriage ride on the way back to school.
“Bridgerton,” Bucknell spoke up, “I do not mean to be presumptuous but I must tell you, I shall always accept any invitation that you choose to extend.”
“Agreed,” Truberry chimed in.
“Of course,” Edmund said, full of childhood loyalty, “You will always be welcome to my home.”
“It is a home, isn’t it?” Ashborn mused, “Not just an estate, but a warm home.”
“Was that a compliment?” Edmund asked, bemused.
The other boy smiled and replied, “Simply the truth.”