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A Close Call

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‘Doesn’t Sir Robert have a charming, slender young daughter by any chance?’ she asked in the carriage nearing Drayton Manor. ‘I don’t care if she’s dull, only it’s been a while since I’ve had something pretty to look at. Not that Lord Alfred isn’t the perfect image of an angel but he is not quite the same for my sore eyes.’

Edward let out a sound of indignation. ‘Charlotte!’ He tried to compose himself. ‘I was under the impression that you were in love with someone?’

‘I was under the impression we wouldn’t judge each other.’

‘I wouldn’t judge if you reassured me that there is nothing to judge.’

‘I could use a little distraction. That is all.’

‘Why, Charlotte, I do not understand how you can see it that way. Since I’ve fallen in love with Alfred, I could not look at anyone else.’

‘I presume Mr Peel will consider that rather disappointing news.’

‘You presume right,’ Edward said, frustration flaring up in him. ‘And he will remain disappointed, I’m not sorry to say. Alfred says one is advised to avoid him altogether.’

‘Then why are we pulling up at their manor’s entrance as we speak?’

‘Because there’s something I need to find out.’

‘Pray tell me.’

‘I would rather not.’

‘Oh, please, I am dying for something to take my mind off things!’

‘It’s best if you’re left out of this, believe me.’

Charlotte sighed. ‘And I thought I was the mysterious one in the family.’

Edward allowed himself a laugh before putting on his most formal, most distant face when stepping out of the carriage. He swore to himself that he would not give away anything, no matter what he was thinking or feeling, throughout the visit. His only objective here was to find out what Alfred wasn’t saying about William Peel.

 

The ball at the Peel estate was a lovely event. Autumn arrived with the end of the season but the air was still warm and summery in the early evening, before shawls were donned and coats offered to ladies who took a turn in the garden between dances.

Of course Edward could hardly enjoy any of it for being constantly on edge because of William Peel. He kept to Sir Robert’s side whenever he could, as he knew the former PM well, and because for some reason William and his father were like oil and water – they just did not mingle. In fact, whenever Drummond mentioned William in order to find out more about his character, everyone was keen on praising the prodigious soldier who advanced to remarkable acclaims so young…

…everyone except Sir Robert, who seemed rather embarrassed by his son, fearing his successes were misinterpreted as a result of his pulling strings but he was very quick to assure (almost bitterly, Drummond noticed) that he and William never had much in common, or the same goals, and that his merits were entirely respective of his father, and had nothing, nothing to do with him.

Drummond often felt uncomfortable when Sir Robert allowed his true and rather cold feelings about his son to peek through his otherwise usual respectful manners. But it was either dancing with dewy-eyed daughters (which Charlotte dreaded as she would be asked to dance by an eligible bachelor when Edward was gone for too long) or having to keep to Sir Robert's side to avoid William, as he promised Alfred he would. Besides, it gave him a good excuse not to drink more than one complimentary glass of champagne, claiming that his newfound Christian devotion made him realise he needed to avoid being so easily dazzled by earthly temptations, however splendid they seemed, and Sir Robert gravely approved.

However, Sir Robert, being the host, could not spend all his time chatting to Drummond about morals or the current political situation.

‘Where are you going?’ Edward asked nervously as she seemed to step away from him, as he was very aware of William circling him like a jackal around prey. And now that Sir Robert was not in the vicinity, William was approaching about as subtly as he had been glaring hungrily at Drummond from a distance all evening.

‘I want cake, I’ll be back in a second,’ she said.

‘I’ll come with you—’ Edward tried.

‘I don’t need to be supervised to fetch dessert! Honestly, Edward…’

‘I know you don’t, but…’ Edward couldn’t think of a good excuse.

‘I can get you some too,’ Charlotte offered, not exactly oblivious to Edward’s discomfort, but between that and cake she had made her decision.

As soon as she was gone, William appeared by Edward’s side.

‘Thrilled to see you have come, Mr Drummond,’ William chatted in his usual haughty tone, that ever-present confident smile dancing on his lips as always. ‘I wasn’t sure you would.’

‘I felt it only right,’ Edward replied with an attempt to fake nonchalance. He mustn’t give his anxiety away. But Alfred had really warned him about this man and he didn’t know what to expect. Besides, he was going to have to get over it, as he planned to find out more about what had really happened between Alfred and William that left such a bitter mark and he wasn’t getting it from anyone but the man himself. ‘Sir Robert was my mentor for years. Besides, my sister has been looking for an excuse to take a trip somewhere. The estate is truly most attractive.’

William’s eyes twinkled.

‘I mean, the hedges,’ Edward tries to save face, scrambling for something without any possible double meaning. ‘And the style of the building. The rock. It seems stable.’

‘How kind you are, Mr Drummond. As kind as you are smart. And dashingly handsome. Tell me, do you curl your hair with an instrument or does it naturally grow as if it aimed to mimic the most godlike of Greek statues?’

‘It… it grows that way,’ Edward muttered, glancing fearfully around but none of the nearby guests seemed to care about their conversation.

‘Fascinating,’ William replied, gaze lingering on Edward’s features. ‘And Alfred? He seemed keen on keeping you on a short leash the last time we met. Has he joined you on your trip?’

‘No, alas, his duties for Her Majesty are keeping him rather busy at Windsor at the moment.’

William pulled a face, then smiled even more widely. ‘Without your bodyguard then? Does he not fear you might stray when walking in the woods without your hand held?’

Edward went red. ‘I shall pretend I did not understand your meaning, Mr Peel.’

‘Why, you must know how mouth-watering a bite you look for a hungry beast,’ William whispered barely audibly but clearly enough.

‘Mr Peel,’ Edward said through gritted teeth, fearing being overheard. ‘I do not approve of a word you are saying but if you must I beg you to respect the need for discretion.’

‘Why it’s no secret you are a catch, Mr Drummond,’ William continued without keeping his voice low. ‘All the unmarried ladies must be keeping a place for you on their dance cards tonight. And if what I’ve heard is true, you have got entangled in someone’s net before. That of the Lady Florence, daughter of the Marquess of Lothian.’

Edward could not argue with that. That was a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation.

‘Indeed. But we found that Lady Florence and I were ill-suited.’

‘Ah, what was the problem, I wonder?’

Edward’s jaws clenched. William knew perfectly well why it could not be. ‘Fear not, Mr Peel. I am glad to say the date will be kept, only between her and my brother Arthur. They seemed to have found genuine love where I could not offer any.’

‘So everyone is happy,’ William quipped. ‘Absolutely everyone.’

‘Hello, Mr Peel,’ Charlotte said upon returning. The cakes were delicious but she could see from afar that her brother was having the most discomfiting conversation with William Peel and she thought she’d come to the rescue. ‘I must congratulate you on the splendid evening.’

‘Thank you Miss Drummond,’ William said, shaking her gloved hand gallantly.

‘May I know what you were discussing?’ she asked in the pleasantest tone she could muster.

‘I was lamenting the absence of Lord Alfred,’ William said, sending frost through Edward’s veins.

‘Do you know Lord Alfred?’ Charlotte asked and Edward wanted to scream. Why hadn’t he told her more before?

‘Do you know him? Oh, but of course, wherever Mr Drummond goes, Lord Alfred follows. They are just such good friends, are they not? Seems a shame he’s missing the oysters. They are his favourite.’

‘Indeed,’ Edward offered, hating this.

‘Have you tried them yet, Miss Drummond?’ William asked Charlotte.

‘No, but the lemon cakes are delicious,’ she said cautiously. ‘I’ll go get more and leave you to it,’ she said, despite strong protests that Edward was trying to communicate to her with only his eyes, and stepped away, though not very far…

‘Indeed. Mr Drummond, you must indulge yourself, too, in Alfred’s absence,’ William said to him once they were alone again. ‘In fact I am determined not to let you leave without having shown you all the delights this house could offer.’

‘Thank you but I have not come to indulge myself,’ Edward replied.

‘Not prepared to be led into temptation? Why have you come, then?’

‘For the conversation.’

‘About…?’

‘I admit your invitation surprised me. It seems odd, almost foolhardy, given the less than amicable encounter I witnessed between yourself and Lord Alfred on our ride in the park. It does make one wonder what could have transpired between you in the past.’

‘And you surprise me, too. I thought Lord Alfred would have shared it all with you by now,’ William said, looking Edward up and down for good measure before adding: ‘As he does everything else.’

‘We are in company, sir,’ Edward hissed nervously.

‘Forgive me, only I find I am rather shocked. Alfred has always been so generous with an audience, particularly when they are so willing to kneel at his feet listening with their mouth open.’

Edward almost audibly gasped. He tried to calm himself and seem as if a lion wasn’t roused and raging in his chest. ‘I see conversing with you is futile. Have a good evening, Mr Peel,’ he said, moving to escape this reckless reprobate.

‘Well, then, you shall never know the story,’ William said, stopping him in his tracks. He knew he held Drummond’s attention in the palm of his hand as that self-satisfied smile still etched on his face indicated, and blue eyes on fire with the excitement of playing with Edward’s curiosity. ‘I’m afraid the true story of my acquaintance with Lord Alfred is such that it cannot be recounted by the side of a Polka in a ballroom. How about we sought a more private setting for this… conversation?’

Edward grappled between his maddening curiosity and the obvious trap he could not have possibly walked into. This was the opposite of what he had set out to do. And how would he face Alfred?

‘Naturally, I must decline this offer, sir. I trust Lord Alfred’s lack of retelling your past relations is an indication of their insignificance and unimportance. Perhaps he is no longer able to sufficiently recall such an unmemorable episode and is sparing me the boredom.’

Edward hoped to shake William’s confidence but, quite on the contrary, he broke out in a smug grin.

‘Oh, I think he remembers it very well, rest assured, Mr Drummond. Well, you might never know, unless… the offer still stands. Enjoy yourself. The lemon cakes really are a delight,’ William said and stepped away, through the crowd, immensely self-satisfied.

‘Edward…’ Charlotte said in the softest whisper to Edward as soon as she returned to his side. ‘Peel… with Alfred…?’

‘I can only assume.’

‘Well you could find out…’ Edward shot her something like a death glare. ‘I’m not encouraging anything. Just an idea.’

 

 

Later that night, Edward was shown to the room that he would be staying in. Changing into his nightshirt and dressing gown, he was still cursing his foolishness. The whole visit was pointless! He was not going to seek out William privately, that was absolutely certain, as that would be tantamount to taking up an offer of… well.

He would ask Alfred again, and that was that.

He wound his pocket watch as he always did before going to bed, dreaming of the hour in the morning at which he could finally leave this damned manor and return to London.

Of course he wished he could go to Windsor instead but there was no conceivable excuse with which to explain his visit. His appearances at the palace were swiftly becoming more and more scarce with the change of government and he missed Alfred during the day so much that he was considering turning over to the Whig side of the House just for him!

But then he remembered their policies and whispered a soft “Sorry, Alfred, I just can’t” to himself.

The watch wound, he went to remove his dressing gown, when…

Was that…?

Edward’s mind must have been playing tricks on him. Besides, some guests must be retiring to their own bedrooms just now. A bit of creaking and some such noise outside his door was nothing.

All the same, he remembered Alfred’s advice to lock his door with a key.

He stared at the latch across the room, debating it.

This is mad. He shook his head, not wanting to give in to the humiliation of actually believing it was necessary.

But he went there and turned the bloody key in the lock all the same, feeling like a child that kept a candle burning on the bedside table to ward off monsters under his bed.

Trying not to feel stupid, he turned away from the door and started to take off his dressing gown.

The next second the door opened and shut behind him.

And there he was, William Peel, in the flesh.

‘Sir!’ Edward exclaimed indignantly, albeit instinctively keeping his voice low so as not to be heard screaming blue murder and being found with William in his room at night.

‘Oh, do continue what you were doing, Mr Drummond, that’s exactly the direction I hoped our night would be going.’

‘But--- but--- ’ Edward stuttered, appalled, gesturing towards the door after pulling the gown back on his shoulders and fastening the belt on his gown much too tightly.

‘Oh, this?’ William asked nonchalantly, taking the key out of the latch. Its head was broken off. ‘This has been like this forever. Old house. We spend most of our time in London, or, in my case, abroad, we forget to renovate things. How silly of us,’ he explained away, throwing the useless key up in the air playfully. ‘Do not worry, lodging a chair under the knob should do the trick. We will not be disturbed.’

Edward was appalled at this most lewd manner of talk – Alfred was never that vulgar and straightforward. And he loved him!

He remembered he had been the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, praised for his brilliance by none other than THE Duke of Wellington, he was a rational, respected man, who has held responsibilities as great as the future of the country’s laws. He crossed his arms and pulled himself together.

‘Sir, I must ask you to leave at once,’ Edward said firmly and clearly.

William sighed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I will if that’s what you wish.’

‘Will you?’ Drummond asked, surprised that it was as easy as that.

‘You don’t seem very fun. Alfred did. He was. I’m surprised he chose you… Oh, Mr Drummond, why the frown? I wouldn’t force myself on you. In fact…’ he said, stepping closer, and, before Edward could register what was happening, he felt Edward’s biceps. ‘… even if I were such a cad, I wouldn’t dream of it with a strong, well-built man such as yourself. And so handsome I could weep,’ he purred, much too close for Edward’s liking. ‘Hm. Perhaps I do see why you caught Alfred’s eyes. And make no mistake, I have been with some absolutely stunning looking men but you are just…’

William licked his lips and looked as if he could gobble him up whole.

Though Drummond could step away, he wanted to get William to understand he needed to back off of his own accord. He drew himself up to his full height, which he was glad to see made him just an inch taller than William.

‘Mr Peel, unhand me, please, and walk out of this room, and we shall say no more of it.’

William took his hands off Drummond’s arms but hardly stepped away.

‘I thought you wanted to know more about those men. Or one, in particular. Your… your beau, Alfred.’

‘That’s Lord Alfred to you, Mr Peel.’

‘That’s Lieutenant Peel to you, Drummond,’ William replied with a slight edge in his voice, which he quickly noticed and sought to remedy by resuming his sugary flirtation. ‘But I would prefer it if we were such friends that you called me by my first name.’

‘I shall not, it is not appropriate.’

‘Did Lord Alfred tell you to beware of me so?’

‘As a matter of fact, he doesn’t say anything about you.’

William tried not to look hurt. ‘And you presumed you might have the advantage over his reluctance to confide in you by paying us a visit. And here I thought I could entice you to simply enjoy a fine party.’

‘If you had hurt him…’ Edward growled.

‘No, rest assured, he seemed to be enjoying what we did very much. It was all I could do to keep him from rousing the cadets next door with his sounds of resounding enthusiasm. He can be very vocal, though I suspect you have become quite acquainted with that by now.’

‘What happened that he feels he cannot tell me?’ Edward cut to the chase, deciding if he wasn’t getting a straight answer immediately, then he would throw in the towel and throw this cad out of his room.

‘I have reason to believe Alfred was more devoted to me than I to him. Far more devoted. Alas, I had to set sail. He has not quite forgiven me for that. Nor forgotten, as it is apparent from his passionate behaviour now that I have returned to England again.’

Edward tried to tell himself that William was just manipulating him but it was hard to stomach the thought and he would be lying if there wasn’t a possibility that there was a nugget of truth in all this.

‘How long did you know him for?’ he asked.

Know him? Oh, only once. Incredible that that one time is all it took. Imagine if I could have stayed here for months, or years--’

‘I have been Alfred’s closest friend for years,’ Edward interrupted. ‘We have felt strongly for each other for the majority of those years. Since we met, really, even if we didn’t realise or reveal it. We have been together as closely as any two persons can possibly be in every way for some time now – he has seen me down to my soul and he has opened his for me entirely in return. Seems to me you did not appreciate him for the incredible man he is while you could have, only for some of his charms and merits that turn the head of any hot-blooded man and they certainly are the cause for much whispering behind fans whenever he is in the presence of ladies. I have known those merits but beyond them I have also known Alfred in sublime, ethereal ways you cannot imagine. Forgive me if I trust him over you without a question.’

William was eyeing Drummond with a hint of cynicism. But, a few long seconds later, he changed his tune, upon seeing the conviction in Drummond’s eyes. He really was standing his ground.

‘Hm… you truly care about him, do you not?’

‘I love him.’

William didn’t laugh or mock this. On the contrary, he seemed as if there was a bitter taste in his mouth.

‘Then Lord Alfred is a lucky chap. I hope he knows it,’ he said.

‘He does. I tell him and show him every day that I worship him with all my heart.’

William considered him for a moment, then nodded and stepped away. But just when Drummond could be fully relieved, he stopped:

‘Forgive me,’ William said, holding up a hand to indicate he wasn’t playing at anything – no, he reached out for the pendant Drummond was wearing. It was a locket. He opened it, and found a carefully woven lock of hair inside that was a familiar shade of blond.

And though Edward could burst from resentment against this intruder, he could swear there was a fair amount of wistfulness in the way William was observing the contents of the locket.

As suddenly as he had come, as swiftly did he close the pendant, let go of it, and swept out of the room.

 

Edward left Sir Robert’s estate with more questions rather than fewer. If he hadn’t disliked William before, now he definitely did, despite the sickly sweet talk and the lewd flirtation, and considering the legendary track record of successful quests, Edward unwillingly concluded that if he didn’t like William it was because William didn’t want him to. In fact, he had the strange nagging feeling that Alfred had been mistaken for fearing William might be after him and not after Alfred…