Wilhemina was a keen observer of people. It was a family trait that she'd picked up when she was a child. It meant she was always the first to know any gossip among her friends, although she didn't always pass it on. Although she found men harder to understand, nevertheless she had her methods. It was how she guessed that Lord Alfred and Mr Drummond had more going on than than they made it appear. And how she found out what that secret was.
Becoming engaged should have made it easier to know of Alfred's business, but he didn't divulge much. She'd often see him speaking to Mr Taylor, Personal Secretary to Lord John Russell, the new Prime Minister. And it made her wonder. They could just be friends, of course, and Alfred's feelings for Drummond had been for the person, not the position. But other women might only have to worry what their fiancés were doing with other men. She couldn't be sure of Alfred with either sex.
It didn't help that she knew he didn't love her in the way that husbands and wives should. He had told her so, after all. In itself that was not a problem: she'd known that when she'd accepted his proposal. She was in love with him, but acknowledged she fell in and out of love easily. She didn't have the experience to know whether this would last, but she cared for him and he was a friend. Much as she wished the stories in romance novels came true, she was no longer sure that was the case.
She'd had plenty of time to think, having spent the past fortnight at her friend Mary's. Mary had asked for her company in recovering from an illness, but Wilhemina had her suspicions that Mary had wanted to share her secret with someone who understood. Wilhemina turned out to be more understanding than Mary could ever have expected.
On her return, Wilhemina sought out Alfred and found him blessedly alone, in one of the sitting rooms. When she entered he stood, smiling. She returned his smile with a small one of her own, feeling apprehensive about what she needed to discuss with him.
"How is your friend?" he asked, waving her to the chair beside his. "Better?"
"Much better, thank you." She sat and watched while he poured her a drink and topped up his own. "She has been married for five years and they still have no children."
He raised his eyebrows as he handed her a glass. "Is she very disappointed?" he asked as he re-took his seat.
"A little. My family more so." She sipped at her drink. "I learned why they are childless while I was there." She glanced around her, confirming there was no one to overhear. Before continuing she leaned forward and Alfred did the same. As she explained, she lowered her voice. "She sleeps in her bedroom with her two dogs. Her husband sleeps in his bedroom. With his..." she paused, searching for the right word, but found there wasn't one and had to make do with, "his friend."
Alfred ducked his head, studying the contents of his glass and she couldn't see his expression. After a moment he said softly, "I will do my duty when we're married, if that's what you're asking."
When he glanced up, she nodded. Afterwards he gazed at a painting across the sitting room. From what she'd heard from her married friends, though the act was a often duty for them, it was a pleasure for their husbands. But perhaps they were wrong and men thought of it much the same way as women. She was going to have to stop reading when novels when they were so misleading.
However, although she was pleased to hear it, it wasn't precisely what she was asking. She placed her glass on the table in front of them and folded her hands in her lap. "I also want fidelity. From us both."
His eyes widened and he faced her at last. "I wouldn't. I..."
She took a deep breath, taking that as a yes and hoping he was more certain of that than he sounded. "What about Mr Taylor?"
Though he smiled, it was a wistful one. "Taylor is not Drummond."
She unconsciously played with her engagement ring. Despite knowing Alfred well, sometimes it was hard to tell if he was being truthful or she wished he was.
"Wilhemina," he said softly, "if you wish to break this engagement, then say so and it will be done."
"I just want to be sure we will both be happy when we marry." It was as well that they had not set a date, for it would give her time to believe this would be true.
"That's what I want too." He reached out to take her right hand. "I will do anything to make you happy, because it will also make me happy."
Since their engagement he had been very attentive to her needs, so she could easily believe that. Perhaps some of that was him trying to convince himself, but at least some part of it was genuine.
"Does Mary know?" he asked, frowning a little. "About her husband and his... friend?"
She nodded. "They have come to an arrangement. He is discreet and she is allowed any pet she wants."
"And will that make her happy?" He sounded hesitant, worrying the answer might be no.
"I think so." It seemed that way for now anyway, but it hadn't been long ago that Mary learned the truth. "I don't think the pressure from their families will help."
He gaze shifted to the door for a moment. "Then perhaps it's not so bad that the Duchess knows the truth."
She thought he didn't know her aunt very well, but said, "She believed you would make a good husband."
"I will endeavour not to prove her wrong." He smiled and kissed her hand.
But she sorely hoped they were doing the right thing.