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A Close Call

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Charlotte kissed Agnes’s skin just below her ribs, traveling downwards, licking and biting harder with every encouraging whimper and unsuccessfully stifled moan from her lover until she reached her hip and teased her with her tongue on the soft skin on Agnes’s hip, not yet giving her the satisfaction of reaching the destination she knew Agnes was begging her to, no, not just yet, she smiled against the porcelain skin, hands roaming her lover’s naked body, she felt Agnes shaking in her arms from desire and want, so she kissed and kissed and—

‘Pfffttthhttsss—’ she spat, as a big strand of her loose curly hair gave into gravity and landed right in her mouth.

She sat up and tried to get it out of the way blindly but it was the gentle hand that was not hers that lovingly brushed her hair away from her face and before she could apologise and die from embarrassment Agnes sat up and she was kissing her on the lips warmly.

She melted into it, hands reaching up to caress the long auburn hair cascading down Agnes’s dainty shoulders and the silky soft skin on her back covered in hundreds of the lightest freckles Charlotte had set out to kiss one by one the first time she saw them.

She couldn’t get enough of her and soon they fell back on the pillows, Charlotte on top of Agnes, situating themselves just right, legs entangled. Agnes pushed her leg between Charlotte’s thighs until Charlotte could not help gasping against Agnes’s lips once she felt her skin and the welcome pressure she craved and they moved and moved---

‘ALFRED, CATCH IT!’

Charlotte woke with a start at the distant sound of her brother’s voice.

A bout of laughter followed from the garden.

She slumped back on her pillow, burying her face and her disappointed groans into it, and hugged her heavy sheets closer, as if to fill the gap of a body that wasn’t there in her arms, until her breathing evened.

It was just a dream, of course.

‘STOP IT, PLAY NICELY!’

Charlotte frowned. What was this ruckus outside?! At this hour??? … oh, it was almost eleven, as she saw, checking the clock on her bedside table by an ashtray full of the remains of cheroots such as the ones Edward smoked.

She had nothing planned for the day but she supposed she ought to get up, which she did, walking over to the window to see what exactly disturbed her most pleasant dreams.

Tennis.

They were playing tennis.

She opened the window and leaned ever so slightly out of it to see the full scene: apparently Edward was having more than just Alfred over as guests and if her eyes were not betraying her, there were hot tea and delicious libations on garden tables.

Pop - WOOOSSHH – a ball went flying past her, right through her window, making her heart skip a beat.

‘SORRY, CHARLOTTE!’ Edward shouted.

Seeing as her wild bed-hair and sternest of frowns were not enough to make Edward’s wide boyish grin fade even slightly, she closed the window, hid the ashtray, and rang the bell for the maid to come and make her presentable. If that was the price of being allowed to walk downstairs and grab some of those cakes, she was willing to squeeze herself into that bloody corset.

‘Good morning, everyone,’ she said to the little youthful gathering as she stepped outside not much later.

‘Charlotte!’ Edward came over at once, wearing something like his cricket clothes. In fact, like her, everyone seemed to be wearing cream or white, as was suitable, all except for the Duchess who was still in her mourning clothes. ‘We didn’t mean to disturb you, I’m sorry.’

Charlotte should have said they didn’t but they did, crudely interrupting her dreams of Agnes, so instead she turned expectantly to the guests she didn’t know.

‘Miss Drummond,’ Alfred said, as he arrived just then, ‘Allow me the pleasure of introducing Harriet the Duchess of Sutherland, the Honourable Miss Wilhelmina Coke, and of course Emma, Baroness Portman. All good friends of mine, I’m glad to say.’

‘How do you do?’ Charlotte said and the usual appropriate gestures were made and she sat in the sun with the ladies. Tea and sandwiches were served and she found her morning did not have to be so bad after all. Particularly as the ladies seemed acceptable company – pleasant, even, after she also had a piece of strawberry cake. Miss Coke may have been a little plain but kind, Lady Portman was intelligent, insightful, and radiated calm grace, and the Duchess lived up to tales of her beauty every bit.

‘Are you not going to let us play?’ Harriet asked when Edward and Alfred came to join them for a little break from the game.

‘Well, I believe Drummond wouldn’t mind handing over his racket as he is clearly losing,’ Alfred quipped and Charlotte noted how odd it was to hear Lord Alfred use her brother’s last name. But of course he had to. And she also thought she noticed the slightest trace of a bruise on his neck, now that he was wearing something with a lower collar than was the fashion of the day and could have sworn it looked as if it was the work of her brother…

‘Steady on, I’m not completely hopeless, Lord Alfred!’ Edward replied, still grinning, his cheeks a lively colour from either the game or from the cheeky way Alfred was looking back at him. Charlotte wondered what the ladies thought, if anything, but to her the men were so obvious she felt she had to come to the rescue before they bloody well started rolling around on the lawn.

‘Tell that to my window that wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been open!’ she said, presenting the lost tennis ball, causing the guests to burst out laughing – well, as much as it was socially appropriate.

‘Well, the doctor said any exercise is good. He did not say I had to be good at it,’ Edward replied, taking a sandwich. ‘You should see me rowing.’

Alfred made a mental note to make that happen. ‘Is that a challenge?’ he asked.

Edward was invigorated by this exciting, competitive side of Alfred. ‘If you wish, Lord Alfred.’

‘Ah, but I would have to retaliate by inviting you to race me on horseback. Properly. Alas, none of London’s parks are vast enough for my idea of such a ride.’

‘Well, where would we find suitable terrain for it?’

‘Ah, nothing matches the Welsh lands.’

‘Do you miss Wales, Lord Alfred?’ Wilhelmina piped up, and Charlotte could tell she was more than a little eager to address him.

‘Terribly,’ Alfred replied, ‘but of course the charms of the court more than make up for my homesickness.’

It was simple gallantry but Charlotte could have sworn Wilhelmina was nearly bursting from happiness.

Charlotte reached for a scone at the same time as Lady Portman brushing hands accidentally. She gasped not at the contact but at the sight of the ring on her finger which was most like that worn by Agnes – silver with a sapphire stone the colour of open seas embedded. And Charlotte’s gaze lingered, the conversation fading into the background as memories of her dream and of real scenes of this past wondrous and painful season flooded her mind.

‘What do you think, Charlotte?’

Charlotte heard Edward’s voice but his words didn’t seem to get through to her.

‘I’m sorry – what was…?’ she stuttered.

‘Would you like to join us, Miss Drummond?’ Alfred asked, warmly all the more for the melancholic daze with which she had been briefly overcome and which did not escape him.

‘Where?’ she asked.

‘Wales!’ Miss Coke said, on the edge of her seat already.

 

Alfred was fast asleep on Edward’s shoulder in the carriage as they entered Anglesey. When she could tear her eyes off the beautiful scenery, Charlotte saw with amazement that he still managed to look quite angelic when unconscious – no off-putting snores or saliva dripping from a gaping mouth, no, he was perfect and she could see why Edward had no eyes for the hills but only for his lover in his arms.

Edward saw her looking and felt shy suddenly.

‘Should I wake him?’ he asked very quietly. ‘He’s missing the view.’

‘No, let him rest,’ she replied.

‘Thank you for arranging this.’

‘Why, Lord Alfred arranged the trip.’

‘I mean the seating. At least we can catch some privacy en route. It’s a relief,’ Edward admitted, not loving the fact that the accommodations they stayed at on the way thus far offered little opportunity to spend time with Alfred. It was always risky to meet alone but things like the closeness of their bedrooms or the schedules of household servants made all the difference and they decided to be safe rather than sorry.

‘Well, Miss Coke and I could hardly travel on our own in the other carriage as we are both unmarried and it wouldn’t be right for her to travel with two eligible bachelors either. Lady Portman can chaperone her and you can chaperone me, brother dear. Not that there’s much point.’

‘No, I daresay you are not so dazzled by Alfred as other ladies are.’

‘Ladies such as Miss Coke, you mean? She certainly seemed very keen on sharing the carriage with him. Very, very keen…’

Edward closed his eyes and smiled knowingly. ‘I’m afraid she is not immune to Alfred’s charms but I cannot fault her at that.’

‘No indeed,’ Charlotte said, hiding a smile behind her fan. She didn’t like to seem soft but it was difficult at the sight of them. ‘I could have travelled with Lady Portman and Miss Coke, too.’

‘I know but Alfred insisted you sit with us.’

‘Why?’

‘Why? Because he likes your company. And he would like you to be happy. Do not presume we cannot see it. You are troubled by something,’ Edward pressed on, despite her obvious discomfort and continued secrecy. ‘You are, Charlotte. And I won’t pry if you do not wish me to but at least we can help some way or other. Alfred could have proposed the idea of this trip in private and it would only have been us out here but he did not, out of consideration for you. I know you like to travel and I hope it proves a welcome break from… whatever is ailing you so.’

Charlotte considered him for a moment. ‘Thank you,’ she finally said and managed a smile.

A bump in the road rattled the carriage, waking Lord Alfred.

Blinking against the sunshine, he sat up and slid his hand off Edward’s waist where it had been resting beforehand, feeling self-conscious in front of Charlotte.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, eyes falling from Edward’s adoring face to the countryside outside the windows. ‘Oh but we must be almost there! How splendid!’

And before long, they were rolling towards Plas Newydd, the magnificent manor across the strait, surrounded by beautiful gardens (which were several and varied all over the estate as Alfred explained), and sporting a pretty display of ivy on its façade that was losing its greens for lively hues of reds and yellows this mid-autumn.

Alfred, who had been talking for quite some time about the illustrious history and all the brilliant little nooks and features of the estate.

‘And for rowing, there are tunnels that go down to the… what is it?’ he asked when he became aware of Edward’s eyes on him and one of those looks of his, feeling himself going red. ‘Have I talked too much?’

‘No, it’s just… I love you,’ Edward said, marvelling at the enthusiasm sparkling in his lover’s eyes. He leaned closer for a kiss.

But bashfulness overcome Alfred and he could not. He couldn’t even meet Charlotte’s eyes.

‘Oh don’t mind me,’ she said, busy staring at the truly stunning view as they neared the house along the impressive mile long drive that took them to the main entrance.

But Alfred still didn’t dare.

‘Charlotte, I wonder if I could borrow your fan,’ Edward finally said, knowing that this was their last chance at a kiss for many, many hours, perhaps days. He took her fan, opened it rather clumsily with two hands as he had no practice at handling one, and used it to shield their faces as he kissed Alfred’s lips at last.

Alfred laughed into the kiss and shook his head affectionately. They disentangled their arms, the carriages stopped, and they were stepping outside.

‘Mama!’ Alfred exclaimed, spotting his parents in the entrance. He darted up the stairs and hugged her mother, and his father, not caring a fig about what was customary or polite. He hadn’t seen his beloved parents in well over a year. ‘Papa, how are you?’

‘We are quite well, my son,’ Lord Anglesey said, patting Alfred’s shoulders heartily. ‘All the better for seeing you! It’s been ages!’

‘We thought we would only get to see you in London,’ Lady Anglesey said.

‘Indeed! Papa, congratulations on your seat!’ Alfred said to his father.

‘Thank you, Alfred,’ Lord Anglesey said just as the other guests approached.

‘Mama, Papa, you know Lady Portman, I daresay,’ Alfred began, and waited for Emma and his parents to greet one another, ‘And this is the Honourable Miss Wilhelmina Coke, also a lady of the bedchamber and a connoisseur of Chopin,’ he continued, waiting for them to greet one another too, before Edward stepped closer, ‘And this is Edward Drummond, the—’

‘Drummond!’ Lord Anglesey said in recognition. ‘Why, yes, when Alfred wrote that you would be visiting I had to mention it in a letter to the Duke at once!’

‘The Duke of Wellington, Sir?’ Drummond asked.

‘Who else?’ Lord Anglesey nodded. ‘Your fame precedes you, Mr Drummond. We are glad you are now fully recovered and you are very, very welcome here indeed.’

‘Thank you very much, Lord Anglesey,’ Edward said, reaching out a hand to shake, only just realising he was still holding onto Charlotte’s fan. Mortified, he fumbled to hand it back to her and shook Lord Anglesey’s hand and kissed that of Lady Anglesey. ‘May I introduce my sister Charlotte?’ he asked and ushered her forward for the same greetings as was appropriate.

‘Ah, my namesake! Thank you for coming, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly.

‘Thank you for having us, Lady Anglesey,’ Charlotte replied. ‘Your house offers a most stunning view. Truly breathtaking.’

‘You are so kind, Miss Drummond. We shall be sad to leave it for London, I can say that. But the office calls again.’

‘Indeed,’ Alfred piped up, ready to play a little: ‘What was it you said, Drummond, about times when men like my father would rule the country? Oh, I forget. Well, now it has happened at any rate.’

Edward smiled stiffly at Alfred, communicating without words something along the lines of “I LOVE YOU BUT SHUT UP.” It wouldn’t do to get off on the wrong foot with Alfred’s parents after all!

‘Now, how about you settle in, refresh yourselves, Gwen and Morgan will show you to your rooms,’ Lady Anglesey said. ‘And then, we shall make use of the sun and have tea in the Italian garden!’

 

‘Are you ready to come down, Miss Drummond?’ Lady Portman asked, stepping into Charlotte’s room a little time and a lot of unpacking later.

‘I am,’ she answered from the window as the last housemaid left.

Lady Portman approached.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ she remarked. They could see Snowdon from there, clear in the bright air that day. ‘Shame that Harriet could not join us to see it on this occasion.’

‘It is. But I suppose she’s not yet in quite the condition.’

‘Perhaps we might make a suggestion to have a hike up there on one of the days.’

Charlotte looked at her sharply, not daring to get her hopes up. ‘Do you think we could do that?’

‘I don’t see why not. I’m sure Lord Alfred will hardly object. Nor Henry. You can do whatever you want here, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte turned back towards to the mountain, especially as she felt the briefest touch of a hand on her forearm and knew she was being closely watched, so as to disguise the thought that flashed through her mind at once: that to suggest such a thing to Charlotte Drummond was much more dangerous than Lady Portman could have known. But then again, she felt a loaded sort of energy coming from the Baroness that she didn’t think she was imagining…

‘Ready?’ Miss Coke’s voice coming from the door broke the moment, sending a slight relief though Charlotte that she couldn’t account for sensibly.

In the garden, Lady Anglesey graciously continued what Alfred had begun in the carriage and told the party a lot more about the centuries-old estate’s history. Alfred and Drummond never seemed to leave each other’s side as they strolled around, teacups in hand, and Charlotte noticed that Miss Coke was always following a step behind, looking for a chance to jump into the conversation. But it was hardly happening as long as the men were once again talking about their plans for sporting activities.

‘Did I hear talk of rowing?’ Lord Anglesey interjected, joining them by one of the fountains.

‘Yes, you did, Papa,’ Alfred replied jovially. ‘We were thinking about making a race out of it.’

‘It’s not going to be much of a race, though, is it?’ Drummond quipped cheekily. ‘It’s not a fair fight, you against me, therefore it’s hardly a competition, more just a simple pummelling. Of course you can always call it off, just to save yourself the embarrassment, Al- Lord Alfred,’ Edward caught himself just at the last second. It was difficult to control himself, though. He had not had nearly enough of his Alfred for days and days and though he enjoyed the garden party thoroughly, he could not wait for the night to fall.

In fact, all he could think about was the fact that his and Alfred’s bedrooms were not only next to each other but adjoined by a door that was usually covered with a large but empty cabinet that could be moved easily. Surely Alfred’s doing, even though he feigned innocence about it.

Alfred huffed, enjoying this game. ‘Oh, Drummond, rowing is only the beginning. I shall show you what real riding looks like soon enough, fear not.’

‘Me? Fear? Oh, Lord Alfred, you underestimate me so.’

‘On the contrary. You know I admire you so,’ Alfred said without thinking, all the fun and joy of the party making him forget himself. Edward’s eyes widened ever so slightly so he quickly continued to save it: ‘As does everyone else, I daresay. The Westminster Hero, the papers called you. And The Duke of Wellington has the highest praises of you, is that not right, Papa?’

‘It is,’ Lord Anglesey said – if he had picked up on anything strange, he wasn’t giving it away.

‘But it remains a known discovery that tennis is not Drummond’s forte,’ Alfred quipped on. ‘I’m sure your neighbours’ dogs were delighted for all the free balls to chase.’

Henry laughed at what he deemed boyish competitiveness and not searing tension of a wholly different sort between Edward and Alfred, and left to sit with Lady Anglesey as his false leg was starting to be a real discomfort.

‘You’re so confident, Alfred,’ Edward whispered very quietly into Alfred’s ears when they were alone for a second. ‘We’ll see just how much strength you’ll have to steer your canoe – I have a feeling you might find yourself exhausted from lack of sleep by then…’

Alfred almost shushed him but Edward’s dark, desirous eyes took his breath away. The man had plans for their nights…

‘Would you care for a turn around the rhododendrons, Lord Alfred?’ Miss Coke startled them and they flew apart to stand at a respectable distance. ‘Lady Anglesey says they are still in bloom.’

‘Of course, Miss Coke, though, I think we ought to have company – Drummond?’ Alfred asked, begging with his eyes for Edward not to let Miss Coke have him alone. She really has been incredibly unsubtle lately. Even more so than before, desperate to make a Whig match as probably instructed by her aunt. Alfred liked the sweet girl but even he was starting to feel a tad uncomfortable sometimes.

‘Show the way, Lord Alfred,’ Edward thankfully said.

‘I should join them,’ Lady Portman said, standing from the garden table and excusing himself.

This left Charlotte alone with Lord and Lady Anglesey.

‘You must try some of the Welsh cakes, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey said before any awkward silence could set in that would make Charlotte want to run to the hills. ‘The currants were picked just this morning. And you look so peaky, does she not, Henry? I worry the winter winds will blow her away!’

‘Forgive my wife, Miss Drummond,’ Lord Anglesey said to that endearingly. ‘She finds it hard to stop being a mother to every young guest we have here, now that all our children have left the nest.’

‘It’s quite alright, the cakes are delicious,’ Charlotte said, taking one. ‘Excuse me but… what did the Duke of Wellington say about my brother?’

‘All good things, I assure you,’ he laughed.

‘But what? Forgive me, only, he has such a humble and modest disposition usually - I know it does not seem that way today but that’s only because of—’ Charlotte stopped herself there, ‘Well, he never tells me these things. He’s not boastful.’

‘I gathered his character very well from the Duke, rest assured, Miss Drummond. Well, if you must know…’ and Henry was speaking for a full uninterrupted quarter of an hour about all of Edward’s praises that he had heard second hand, from Wellington, from other MPs Tory and Whig alike, from newspapers since the assassination attempt, and of course from Alfred’s letters.

‘I had no idea. He never says… I mean I knew he was successful but…’ Charlotte stuttered, processing this.

‘He is more than successful. I daresay he may be prime minister one day.’

‘Shame he didn’t marry after all,’ Lady Anglesey lamented.

‘Shame…’ Charlotte said half-heartedly, to humour them, thinking the opposite.

‘Ah but we must let them be young first, must we not?’ Henry mused. ‘Alfred has not mentioned any plans for marriage yet but he seems jolly. Albeit, perhaps this may change…’ he said, shooting a conspiratorial glance very subtly towards his wife, who tensed ever so slightly. He turned back to Charlotte before continuing: ‘We noticed Lady Portman was quick to jump in to chaperone Miss Coke… I wonder if… Is there any reason for us to believe that she and Alfred…?’

Charlotte almost choked on the mouthful of cake she was chewing. ‘N—not that I know of.’

Lady Anglesey laughed. A mother always knew best…

Charlotte swallowed, feeling interrogated. ‘She may be hopeful, especially as she is likely to leave court soon now that there has been a change of government, but I can assure you Lord Alfred does not intend to indulge these hopes of hers.’

Lord and Lady Anglesey shared a look again, unnerving Charlotte.

‘Why, do you happen to know of someone else in Alfred’s designs, perhaps?’ Lady Anglesey asked, badly masking her curiosity.

‘I… I… don’t…’ Charlotte stuttered, put on the spot. Were they asking about Edward? He and Alfred have been so obvious ever since they got out of the carriage! What if they knew? Did they know? Did they think she would tell them because she was Edward’s sister? She felt short of breath from anxiety in a flash.

‘Because,’ Lady Anglesey continued carefully, ‘Alfred has very good prospects and you seem to be good friends and…’

Charlotte’s wild calculations changed course in an instant. She knew this kind of talk – she was glad the season was over so that she wouldn’t have to sit at some parents’ table talking about one of their sons but apparently there was no escape from this outside of London.

‘Oh! Oh no. No, Lady Anglesey, no. That’s not… no.’

She mentally cursed herself into the next century. Really well done, really, excellent, you idiot, she told herself.

‘Oh, well,’ Lady Anglesey sat back, returning to her chirpy tone. ‘Just thought I’d ask. More tea?’

 

When Edward, Miss Coke, Lady Portman, and Lord Alfred returned, Charlotte pointedly ignored Lord Alfred at any step to ward off any suspicions of a match that his parents would try to bring about. Of course it would never happen but the potential for dangerously awkward conversations budding from this idea was great and worrying and Charlotte wanted to dissipate them before they could take off.

She hoped that one question over tea was it but no: every time she walked across the drawing room to change seats, every time they went to inspect some of the many gardens and the path was only wide enough for two people to walk next to each other, every time Edward would stupidly talk about all the times they three spent their spare time together, Charlotte could catch the watchful eyes of Lord and Lady Anglesey. Surely, they’d known the size of her expectable dowry even before she’d set foot on the island better than she herself did.

So she was as cold as ever to Lord Alfred throughout the visit, she snapped at him unwarranted, she shut down his friendly suggestions, she ignored his presence, and all this without any means to explain it as their days were tightly scheduled and she was being constantly chaperoned and there was not a moment to talk to Edward alone (and of course all he wanted to do was spend every waking moment with Alfred, thus barring her from going near them) and there was definitely no way she would seek to talk to Alfred alone to apologise for this because that would be oil on the fire.

If she feared she offended Lord Alfred, she was right.

‘I can’t think what I could have done!? I don’t understand,’ Alfred lamented crestfallen one night once he and Edward were finally in the privacy of his bedchamber. He was sat on the edge of the bed with shoulders sagging, distressed because Charlotte really seemed to dislike him. And he was not used to the feeling, not used to it at all!

‘She’s like that with everyone, my love,’ Edward tried to comfort him. He knelt in front of him, taking his hands in his own. ‘She’s an enigma but you know she likes to keep to herself and she doesn’t take easily to others…’

‘But she does, she gets on perfectly well with Emma or Mama or… It’s just me she has something against… I cannot think what I could have done to deserve it…’

When Edward looked up he saw tears in his love sad blue eyes. ‘No, do not cry, my love, oh, my dear Alfred…’ He rose to reach Alfred’s lips and kissed him with all the love and passion he had. ‘You are perfect… Alfred… you are… perfect…’ he uttered between deeper and deeper kisses.

Soon, their stifling garments were discarded on the floor and they fell back onto the bed.

Edward was devouring the soft skin on Alfred’s shoulder, relishing in the feeling of Alfred’s nails digging into his hair and back and bottom… And he had to laugh.

‘What is it?!’ Alfred asked, himself also chuckling.

Edward pushed himself up on his elbows, stroking the lines and curves of Alfred’s features with his fingertips – his eyebrows, his jawline, his chest, his hips, a hand resting on his thigh finally. He sighed and had to laugh to himself again. ‘I just cannot believe I’m here with you.’

Alfred grinned brightly. ‘Well, you are quite a lucky chap, aren’t you?’ he teased.

But his phrasing rang a bell in Edward’s mind… a rather uncomfortable one…

‘I am lucky,’ he said, trying to keep smiling. ‘Was this your old bedroom when you were young?’

‘Yes, it was. It’s exactly as I left it.’

‘So… this is where you would invite your friends?’ Edward dared pry. A brief little frown clouded Alfred’s beautiful, open face. ‘…boys.’

Alfred cracked up. ‘No, you are the first man here,’ he said, leaning up to chase Edward’s lips and kiss him.

Here. Only here. But elsewhere… Edward thought and tried to push jealousy-inciting images of Alfred with others out of his mind, even as he was kissing him; William’s voice gloating about his acquaintance of Alfred, William and Alfred together, William—

‘Edward?’ Alfred said, breaking their kiss. ‘What’s wrong?’

Edward felt the weight again, one that he had been carrying since he went to that damned ball at Dreyton Manor. He hadn’t said a word to Alfred about what transpired between him and William Peel that night. But it wouldn’t let him rest.

‘Alfred…’ Edward began, thinking it was lucky he had Alfred in such an agreeable situation, bare and in his arms – really there could not be a more comfortable or pleasant state in which he could have got Alfred if he was going to try to have this conversation again. ‘Um… I was just wondering… not that it matters, of course… It’s simply that I should like to know everything there is to know about you, because I love you, with every fibre of my being, material and immaterial… So… When you were with Lieutenant Peel…’

Alfred pulled away, instantly tense, shaking his head.

‘I know you were, Alfred,’ Edward said, in the gentlest voice he could manage even though he still regretted not having punched Peel in the face when he had had the chance. ‘It’s only natural that I should wonder why you are so reluctant to tell me more.’

‘There is nothing to say about it,’ Alfred sighed, annoyed. ‘It was a mistake. I should like to forget the whole thing altogether.’

‘Did he hurt you?’ Edward asked.

‘No… Offended me, rather,’ Alfred admitted.

‘How?’

Alfred huffed indignantly and Edward understood that’s where that line ended. ‘At the ball he suggested there was a time when you did find him most agreeable.’

‘That’s quite an elegant way to put it, I’m sure he did not phrase it like so,’ Alfred rattled rapidly at once.

Edward avoided Alfred’s eyes. ‘No.’

‘Well, then you know all there is to know about it,’ Alfred said with finality, resuming his kissing of the sensitive skin on Edward’s neck.

But Edward, though it required immense self-control, wasn’t finished.

‘Alfred, I…’ he said, prying Alfred gently off him despite himself, ‘I love you and I want you to be happy, you know that, do you not?’

‘I do.’ Alfred could see Edward was struggling with something that embittered his joy. ‘What else did that bastard say to you? I will kill him.’

‘Alfred!’ Edward exclaimed, shocked. ‘See, this is exactly what confounds me. He was right to point out the passion with which you feel about him still.’

‘Passionate anger and hatred if he meddles with our love,’ Alfred said, voice shaking. ‘Edward, he has never been unsuccessful in his numerous quests. Never. Not once. He may have had to wait it out, he may have had to pull some more strings to bring it about, he may have only got round to it after another trip abroad upon his return, but eventually, one way or another, he has always, always managed to have his way once he aimed his gun at someone. That’s what he does, this is a sport to him. He travels the world and leaves ruin in his wake because he knows he can sail away from one day to the next and not have to worry about the consequences. All is fair in love and war to him. And if he’s got his eye on you, that means he will work until you give in,’ Alfred almost gave in to crying now, the mere thought was maddening. ‘If you don’t that’ll be unprecedented.’

‘I would never and that’s not true, Alfred, he’s not interested in me he’s—’

‘I know you are blind to it because you are wholesome, exactly the opposite of what he is, but I can tell, and I know him better than you do. Everything he has said and will say if he is a fool enough to approach you in the future will be for the purpose of tearing us apart, to manipulate us into arguing until you find comfort in his arms, and if that happens I shall kill him, I swear to God—’

‘Is that what he did to you? Manipulate you?’

Alfred hesitated. He knew he was being seen right through.

‘He didn’t have to, did he?’ Edward said. ‘Not you, you were game. Alfred, that’s fine--- that’s---- it’s alright,’ Edward hurried to say as Alfred pushed himself up and sat further away, against the headboard, covering himself with the sheets, arms crossed. ‘I didn’t mean it like that, Alfred.’

‘It sounded like you did.’

‘But I did not,’ Edward insisted because it was true. He placed a warm hand on Alfred’s knee, thinking. ‘Alfred you know the idea of leaving you, especially for that big-headed scoundrel Peel is hideous to me. But you have to admit the intensity of your feelings matches what he suggested. He says you get like this every time he is back in Britain. Clearly you still feel strongly about him. I mean, we’ve come all this way all of a sudden – are you sure you are not simply running from him?’

Alfred ceased his seething about all other accusations in the face of this. Edward wasn’t accusatory at all, really, he was… he was so sad. And Alfred understood now what the problem was.

‘Edward,’ he said, scooting over to his love again, gently and with an open and honest love that he had only for him. He cupped his face in his hands, compelling Edward to look up at him, before he spoke. ‘He is nothing to me.’

Edward watched Alfred – his blue eyes were looking right into his own with utmost sincerity. He felt naïve. And inexperienced. And gullible. But he felt that Alfred was the one person he could trust. His fear of losing him and his endless love flooding him all over again he kissed him and kissed him and kissed him and they made love until the sun rose above the peak of Snowdon.