A pair of goldcrests flew out of a leafless tree in fright.
‘YOU!’ Charlotte shouted enraged at Alfred after he let them out of the carriage.
It wasn’t her that shoved him flat into the snow but Edward, who could not help but lunge at Alfred as soon as the door was open, tackling him right on the ground, holding him so tight Alfred could hardly breathe, and showering him in teary kisses.
This outburst of love was broken by a large amount of snow being thrown into Alfred’s face by her. Alfred had barely brushed it out of his eyes before another handful of snow blinded him. And another.
‘YOU!’ she shouted, shoving another handful on him, despite Edward’s attempts at protecting Alfred from it, ‘HOW,’ another batch splashed, ‘COULD’ another batch, ‘YOU… PUT US THROUGH… ALL THIS NONSENSE… EDWARD WAS OUT OF HIS WITS… YOU ABSOLUTE…’
Lady Portman came to the rescue and restrained her with her bare hands before she could curse or throw yet another snowball at Alfred, not that Edward hadn’t got a generous helping of it in the process, too. Well, perhaps it would do him good too, Charlotte thought briefly, after the whole day’s pathetic display!
‘Perhaps we could wait in the carriage, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Portman said, and she didn’t know why but Charlotte found her voice somehow seemed to calm her indeed.
‘I’m not done with you, Paget,’ Charlotte grumbled and followed Emma into the carriage.
Safe from the threat of snowballs, Edward helped Alfred up, brushing all the snow off his and Alfred’s coats, never letting go of his arm, his waist, his hair, his face, him, him, him.
‘Are you alright, my beloved?’ Edward asked, sniffing profusely still and eyes wide with worry.
‘I am. My love… I’m sorry for…’
‘YOU SHOULD BE,’ Charlotte shouted from the carriage.
‘Yes… I… I really am…’ Alfred stuttered, shaky from the cold or rather from the recent trying events.
Edward couldn’t help but kiss him again, he wanted to feel him, feel that he was there, and alive, and unscathed. He cupped his face in his warm, soothing hands.
‘What happened?’ he asked. ‘Why didn’t you…?’
‘Perhaps we ought to return home for this,’ Lady Portman warned, leaning out from the door, though her tone was calm and kind as usual.
But she had a point. They were in the middle of a park in the heart of London, albeit in the middle of the night, but it wouldn’t do to continue such a display out in the open, and Alfred agreed indeed, his mind still reeling from what happened to William, being found out and driven into fleeing the country. He did not want to follow him.
He drove them home, glad to be reining the horses to steady his hands. Unlike the route here, Edward insisted on sitting with him in the front while the ladies were inside the carriage this time.
Alfred was visibly apprehensive when opening the door for the ladies, flinching at every sudden movement of Charlotte’s. But she no longer seemed to want to rip him apart for the stupid duel.
‘What did you say to her?’ Alfred whispered to Lady Portman discreetly as they filed in through the door.
‘Nothing at all. I simply sat with her until she calmed.’
Alfred looked sceptical but let it go for now.
Once back in the Drummond house, they settled in one of the smaller, cosier rooms that warmed up quickly once the fire was going. They began calling this the Kittenry, in lieu of a nursery, simply because they had to take in the cat that had taken to coming to their garden, and its new kittens, lest they froze in the harsh weather, and found this room was suitable to proclaim as theirs. They were all currently snuggled up in a cat basket by the fireplace with their mum, initially surprised to have visitors but going fast back to sleep with not a care for anything in the world.
‘And please have rooms made up for—’
‘Already done, Mr Drummond.’
‘Thank you, that’ll be all. And good night, Freddie,’ Edward told the footman (still in his nightcap) who brought them tea and brandy. Thankfully, no questions were asked – he supposed his servants were starting to get used to something outrageous happening in the house every day. Just as long as they didn’t talk...
He forgot it was supposed to be Charlotte’s job (though he supposed she would disobey this rule just so) and lifted the teapot. ‘May I, Lady Portman?’
‘Thank you, Mr Drummond,’ Lady Portman said once they were alone and behind closed doors. It felt odd to sit down for a quiet chat over tea after the day they had had, something they all realised.
‘No, I thank you, Lady Portman,’ Edward replied after pouring everyone tea, embarrassment filling him as heartfelt as it was. ‘I apologise for dragging you into our affairs--’
‘That was my fault,’ Charlotte admitted. ‘It was all my fault.’
‘Not a fault. You did right,’ Edward said to his sister gratefully. ‘I shouldn’t have talked to you like that and I really feel ashamed to the core that you had to see me so agitated too, Lady Portman, I apologise for the uncivilized way I…’
‘No, your reaction was understandable, given the…’ she glanced at Alfred, ‘…circumstances. I would even commend you on the strength with which you seemed to bear it in the end.’
They sipped their tea in eerie silence. Every tick and tock of the clock driving it in more and more.
‘Lady Portman…’ Alfred began but she held up a hand.
‘I know what you’re going to say, Lord Alfred, and please let us not betray our friendship by even treating my discretion as a question. I assure you of my complete confidentiality. How could I do otherwise?’ she said calmly. Charlotte noticed she was again absent-mindedly touching her ring. And stopped when she realised Charlotte saw. ‘I am just glad you are not hurt. Really, Alfred… you are your father’s son through and through.’
‘I am not. We did not fire.’
‘No, you didn’t,’ Charlotte remembered, confused. ‘You…’ hugged, she wanted to say but it seemed incredible after all the hostility and fights.
Alfred blushed slightly and shot an almost guilty look at Edward, who, if he had any jealousy in him masked it well. He was still rather troubled instead, and just as confused.
‘What happened, Alfred?’ he asked again.
‘He… he forfeited,’ he replied, still not quite believing it himself.
‘What?!’ Edward rightly asked, almost spilling his tea. ‘William? Forfeiting?’
‘I know. Imagine my shock! But of course he did…’
Alfred set down his cup of tea, took a deep breath, and told them in full about why William forfeited and why he was leaving. Well, he had spared the details of what Emma would refer to as his amorous complications with William the first time they met, for Edward’s sake more than for the ladies’. But after the ordeal he had put them all through that day, really, he owed them as full a disclosure as he could manage, however impolite were the facts. And however painful it was to admit to feelings he once nursed for another man.
After he was done, all of them were aghast and shocked but especially Edward.
‘By God…’ he said, crestfallen. ‘I fought so hard to keep him from you… if I’d known… And to think I used to admire Sir Robert… I mean, for heaven’s sake, I…’
‘You are a hero for what you did, and this does not change that,’ Alfred said at once, quenching Edward’s self-deprecation just as he had when he blamed himself for losing the Queen in Scotland. ‘Shame Sir Robert will never know he can thank his life to you, whose life he and his policies have threatened, endangered, or harmed in return, along with those of many others, including his own son!’ he ranted almost uncharacteristically. It wasn’t everyday he expressed himself like this but anger had fired up in him suddenly, before he noticed himself and apologised and sat back in his armchair.
Charlotte poured him a sip of brandy, walked over to sit on his armrest and handed it to him.
‘I don’t believe Sir Robert would have reported him, truly,’ Edward said timidly.
But no backlash was unleashed. Alfred looked at him quite sadly, rather:
‘But it’s not up to him, is it? He can’t seem as if he was supportive, not even that, as if he so much as wanted to protect his son from repercussions, since his valet would know, that is if he wouldn’t blackmail him in the first place. Sir Robert wouldn’t really have a choice but to obey the law, even if it went against his feelings, about which I am doubtful in the first place.’
Edward looked down at the tea cup on his lap. He couldn’t argue with that.
‘Perhaps he’ll be happier this way,’ Charlotte mused. ‘…I’m sorry,’ she added, as Alfred eyed him strangely.
But he smiled in the end.
‘Probably. The only way William would ever sit still is if the Earth below him caught up with the speed at which he runs.’
Charlotte gave him a wistful sort of smile. Alfred watched her for a while. She was deep in thought, eyes on the fire. His instinct to lighten the mood surfaced naturally:
‘You could still make it to the docks, you know. I am quite jealous that you would choose William over me…’
‘Oh, God, Edward told you…’ she hid her face, sitting back in her own seat by Lady Portman’s side.
‘…but I must respect your decision like a gentleman. But I believe Edward would miss you dearly. As would we. Unless your parents are good sailors also, marrying him would be superfluous perhaps, but I would advise you to bring light clothes fit for the desert at any rate.’
‘Stop it, don’t tempt me, you,’ Charlotte joked. But her smile never reached her eyes. She may have pulled herself together for Edward’s sake but the big matter was still in the air and New Year’s Eve was ever approaching. Indeed, it was not a full week until Christmas arrived now.
‘Where is the wedding taking place?’ Lady Portman asked as if reading her mind.
‘Monteviot House, the Lothian seat,’ Edward replied instead of Charlotte, who was visibly tense at the very thought. ‘They thought about Ferniehirst Castle at first as it was renovated quite recently but the space would simply not allow for the guest count.’
‘No, Monteviot is quite the site for nuptials, even in the winter.’
‘Have you been there before?’
‘Once, the Baron and I visited briefly while in Edinburgh. A long time ago, I’m afraid.’
‘Lady Portman likes to pretend she is a lot older than she actually is,’ Alfred said chivalrously.
She gave him a look both flattered and scolding. ‘Well, I wish your brother and Lady Florence all the happiness.’
‘And a merry Christmas to—’
‘Oh!’ Alfred suddenly exclaimed. ‘I completely forgot! You do not have to say your well wishes now. You can do that at on Christmas Eve. That’s what I came to tell you in the morning – if only things hadn’t gone so off track…’
‘That’s elegantly put…’ Charlotte jabbed at him.
‘Once again, I profusely apologise. Anyway, Her Majesty has invited you both to Windsor for Christmas.’
‘Really, Alfred?’ Edward asked at the unexpected prospect of spending Christmas with Alfred after all!
‘Yes, apparently she did not like to think you would be spending it alone here in London. Unless you wanted to travel up to Scotland right away to your family, of course…’
‘No. We don’t,’ Charlotte stated at once.
‘Well then, can I relay your acceptance of the invitation to the Queen?’
‘Oh, do come,’ Emma said when they hesitated, turning especially to Charlotte, placing a hand on her arm for good measure, something so simple yet which seemed to distract her so. ‘The castle can be a gloomy place and we should be dearly delighted to have you there.’
It took no more convincing for them to give in.
The clock struck two and they decided to retire for the night.
‘I hope I did not twist your arm earlier, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Portman said in her gentle, soothing voice once Charlotte led her to her bedroom. ‘About Windsor.’
‘Not at all,’ she admitted, glad the darkness of the hallway hid her face. ‘It is rather a relief, really.’
Lady Portman raised their single candle slightly and searched her eyes… somehow she felt seen through and searched for something to say.
‘I hope your room will be to your taste. After the Palace, I imagine our humble abode seems but a farm shack.’
‘Not in the least, rest assured. It is a fine house. One can tell it is lived in by people who have care and love for things around them and for each other. If the kittens could speak, I’m sure they would agree.’
‘I fear I’m not a very nurturing person by nature, except with certain animals. I really prefer them to people sometimes.’
‘Don’t we all? Much less complicated than us,’ Lady Portman quipped, earning a giggle from Charlotte. ‘Especially cats, if they are as tranquil as yours.’
‘Are you very fond of cats, Lady Portman?’
‘I am indeed. In fact, I heard through the grapevine that the Duke of Wellington called me a cat once. Though I doubt he meant it as a compliment.’
‘I’m afraid he did!’
‘But the Duke of Wellington is always so highly praised!’
‘His usual disposition is most honourable and gallant, I have to say, before you think any less of him. He and I hold no grudges at all, I assure you. He did not take kindly to Her Majesty’s intention to keep me on at court despite Lord Melbourne’s resignation upon the Jamaica bill but I am glad to say we are friends now, through Henry. He and your brother are not mistaken to respect and even admire him. And he admires them back – Henry, perhaps less admittedly, but Mr Drummond, definitely.’
‘Yes, Lord Anglesey told me so in Wales.’
‘Did you enjoy your time there?’
‘I did, perhaps too much…’ Charlotte groaned, embarrassed at her getting lost so foolishly.
‘No, never regret an adventure. I wish I had more when I was your age.’
‘You sound so wistful, Lady Portman,’ Charlotte almost challenged.
‘I am wistful of that time – I have rather missed you.’
You, not your company, Charlotte’s mind screamed, she didn’t know why.
‘And…’ Lady Portman continued confidentially, ‘Before we part, might I just say, I commend not only your brother on his strength today but you on yours as well, and on the support you showed him. He is lucky to have you as a sister.’
‘I’m afraid I have behaved rather ungratefully towards him lately.’
‘Since… your parents were here?’ Lady Portman alluded to the great problem euphemistically.
Charlotte felt any words stuck in her throat at the very thought, that bitter reminder. Her anxiety was getting worse and worse by the day.
Despite it all, she had the strange sense that Lady Portman was able to offer some advice, or support, even if a moral one, something that called for Charlotte like a faint song of Sirens.
Or was that merely Lady Portman’s sweet perfume, which could be enjoyed from that close distance between them?
She didn’t remember standing so close.
Or did Emma step closer without her noticing?
But whatever it was the baroness wanted to say, she never got to as a door opened and closed on the far end of the long hallway, which was definitely Alfred sneaking into Edward’s bedroom.
The ladies had a bit of an embarrassed giggle about it, and, the moment broken (if there was any moment to be broken at all), bid each other good night.
For once, Charlotte felt she could sleep well through this most quiet night in the house.
Alfred’s back was slamming up against Edward’s headboard with every thrust.
They did not stand a chance at self-control that night.
Though Alfred was never truly near death, he and Edward had felt as such throughout the long, arduous day, and the ghastly night hours leading up to the duel, which turned out to be rather anticlimactic, which meant that the blood in Edward’s veins was now rushing with intoxicating relief, and Alfred was still yet to release hours and hours of built up tension in him, the sense of danger, the heady feeling of sharpening one’s gun and preparing to shoot or be shot…
‘Am I hurting you?’ Edward asked hoarsely as Alfred’s moans were becoming rather heated and strange and wild.
‘No, God, don’t you dare stop now, Edward,’ Alfred managed to say between thrusts, knowing his nails were going to leave scratch marks along Edward’s shoulder blades but he needed him, he needed him right there, just like that.
Edward didn’t need to be told twice and he gave Alfred exactly what he was asking for, pushing harder and faster into him until their bodies were glistening with sweat and they slid up and up against the headboard, slamming against its hardwood, Alfred clinging onto Edward with arms and legs around him, body tensing from the core of his abdomen to the tips of his fingers…
He bit down hard on the muscle of Edward’s shoulder as felt his pleasure suddenly after more of Edward’s particularly well aimed thrusts and came without warning.
‘A-Alfred?’ Edward asked, realising what had happened, looking down on their sweaty and now sticky stomachs.
‘I… I… I couldn’t help it… it was…’
‘But I didn’t even… touch you…’ Edward said in astonishment, though laughing, not about to complain at all.
‘I… I don’t know how…’ Alfred panted, almost apologetically. ‘I’ve never…’
But Edward just laughed as if in triumph and the pleasantest surprise, proud really, that he was making Alfred so happy. He held him tight, kissing him deeply.
‘I don’t believe we are quite done yet, sir,’ Alfred broke away to say, pushing Edward back down on the bed but staying seated more upright, steadying himself on Edward’s muscular shoulders, until he could start moving his hips up and down to pleasure Edward, too.
Edward was completely mesmerised by the sight above him: Alfred’s heated body moving in that fascinating way as when he was riding a horse, at his happiest, his porcelain skin glistening from the trails of wet kisses Edward had left on it, and the hair on his chest too from sweat and himself, and his hair all damp and falling over his eyes shut tight in concentration and joy, long eyelashes resting against his flushed, red cheeks, and God, the way his hips moved, his strong, shapely thighs… Needing to touch him, Edward ran his hands up them, and up Alfred’s toned stomach and chest, smearing things everywhere but hardly caring, until his hands found Alfred’s neck, and pulled him down now, needing yet more.
He guided Alfred to lean down so that Edward could taste his lips and feel his body against him, and it wasn’t long before he couldn’t hold it in any longer and finished, too, deep inside his lover.
‘God, Alfred,’ Edward panted against his lover’s neck, still in their embrace after minutes. ‘I didn’t think…’
‘What?’ Alfred managed to say, finding it difficult to converse.
‘Nothing… doesn’t matter…’ evidently from the uncharacteristically slurred was Edward was speaking, so was he.
‘What…?’ Alfred insisted.
‘Only I would have believed you might want to refrain from… from… this. Coming to my room. Given everything that just happened with William.’
Alfred’s body no longer tensed at the sound of his name. Nevertheless, he groaned and shushed Edward. Why bring it up now?
‘I’m sorry, my love, my own Alfred…’ Edward kissed him between every endearment he could think of, until they lay properly in the bed, ready to rest.
‘Stop, you silly man,’ Alfred giggled, not at all cross now, as some of those endearments were quite ridiculous, especially “my cream éclair” and “my Alfredest Alfred” whatever that meant. ‘I simply did not wish to remember…’
‘No, not him. It. I know we had our differences but I wouldn’t wish discovery on my worst enemy. Not like this…’
‘You are still very fond of him.’ This wasn’t a question.
Alfred looked up at Edward’s knowing face, not being able to read it, or fearing he could not.
‘I know you don’t love him, I am not jealous as you might think, at least I do not believe so,’ Edward was quick to add, though somewhat sombre in the dark. ‘Nonetheless, you need not erase it if you did feel for him. Even if that was love or a sentiment akin to love or one that might have become love or--’
Alfred silenced Edward with a long, loving kiss, pressing his naked body against his between the sheets.
‘Edward, I have only ever loved you. Truly,’ he said earnestly against Edward’s full, wet lips.
Edward smiled, warmth filling him. ‘And I you. Forgive me, but you know me, my job is to think about all possibilities at all times. Thus, it could hardly escape me, the idea that it was only a matter of a single slight detail years in the past, a single conversation, which, if it had gone another way, would have meant that I might never have met you or we might never have found each other like we have.’
‘No… we were fated to belong to each other,’ Alfred said with utmost conviction. ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’
‘Do you believe so?’
‘I know so,’ Alfred said at once. ‘I may have… God, Edward, I was young and foolish and I admit I was more than seduced or infatuated with William at the time. But in hindsight, it did not come close to what I have felt for you, not for a second,’ Alfred had to say, ‘I love you, Edward, I can’t say how much. I love you, I love you,’ he sighed against Edward’s skin, diving in for more kisses and more, as Edward felt under the covers…
‘Alfred!’ he exclaimed, giggly but not objecting. ‘I just had you…’
‘Oh, really? I forget! Did I enjoy it?’
‘You most certainly did – oh!’ Edward replied, even as Alfred began touching him expertly.
‘Remind me?’ Alfred asked, and they abandoned sleep for the night without further ado.
‘The letters from France, Mr Drummond,’ the page boy said, dropping a box on Drummond’s table at the House later that day.
‘Thank you, Dooley,’ he said, stifling a yawn.
‘Will there be anything else, Mr Drummond?’
‘No. No, wait! Coffee. I definitely need coffee.’
The page boy grinned knowingly (he was a fan of coffee, too, in his line of work!) and left to prepare some in a study off the hallway the gentlemen at the house used for smoking and recreation between tasks.
Edward followed the scent of tobacco, and freshly brewed coffee, dreaming of its taste, but when he stepped in, he found someone already in line for a cup.
Sir Robert Peel himself.
‘Ah, Drummond! Long time no see!’ he said. Though Edward was caught off guard, and he had felt sufficiently guilty for supporting Sir Robert even if he hardly benefitted from certain policies against men like him, he could not help but feel at ease with his former mentor, and even that deeply ingrained instinct to please him, and so as always he found he was standing taller without thinking.
‘Indeed, Sir Robert. What brings you to the House? Not the coffee?’ Drummond joked, pouring himself a cup, hiding the fact he added three sugars and milk while Sir Robert took his black.
‘A review of the situation in Russia. I feel only Palmerston is the best source of information, particularly nearing Christmas, as the news slows down and Parliament is in recess. I suppose you are looking forward to a bit of a break yourself.’
‘I am! That is, we are. My sister and I have been invited to spend Christmas at Windsor, as a matter of fact.’ God, Edward wondered why he said so – was he trying to show off? To this man who drove William out of the country not a day ago?
‘Oh? I thought Her Majesty was at odds with the current government.’
‘She has not taken kindly to the change, as she had not to the change when you began your premiership, sir.’
‘That, I do remember.’
‘But it was not a formal invitation. As you know I am good friends with Lord Alfred, and it was his doing.’
‘Ah, that man. I must admit I was apprehensive of his presence as a courtier during what should have been our private audiences with the Queen, but I never had a problem with him. His father, however, well, he can be a troublemaker, but never with malicious intent. Even if he is a Whig.’
‘I have come to know Lord Anglesey as well. Unparalleled, is the right word, I daresay.’
‘You should dare, and so do I! Oh, Lord Alfred must be missing his grand family, having to stay at court come rain come shine.’
‘Indeed. Your family must be missing you, too,’ Edward heard himself say, immediately kicking himself for bringing up family topics potentially too hard hitting.
And indeed, Sir Robert seemed to grow sadder by the second. He was not at all the judgemental, stern, and pious patriarch Drummond expected him to be. He seemed older and tired and most of all awfully regretful.
‘I do hope to spend it with my family, yes, sir,’ Sir Robert said, putting on a brave face. ‘That is every father’s wish, is it not? We may have our grumbles but at the end of the day, one must protect one’s family.’
Edward could not help but frown a tad.
‘Do you disagree, Drummond?’
‘No, not at all. Only, I have always known you as a man of principle, Sir Robert.’
Drummond wondered if he had been too transparent but Peel did not seem to find this strange whatsoever. But it did prompt him to wonder.
‘One must choose the path one feels is right, Drummond. Even at one’s personal sacrifice. I trust you learned that from me very well.’
‘I did, Sir Robert. I shall wear its reminder for the rest of my days,’ Edward glanced at his arm.
‘Good man,’ Sir Robert said, tearing up and noticing himself straight away. ‘Ah, forgive me. Only, Drummond… Now that we are no longer colleagues in the sense we were before, I feel no shame in admitting, even if it makes me sound old and soft and a fool, that I have always looked at you like a son I never had. I am quite proud of you.’
Drummond was both quite touched and apprehensive about the association. He could not help but wonder why Sir Robert was equating him with his son now. But he was being paranoid, surely.
‘I heard you took up teaching at a college, too?’ Sir Robert continued, amused. ‘Bravo, sir, bravo.’
Drummond was really having a hard time feeling hostile against Sir Robert now.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he said. ‘I feel proud and grateful in return, I cannot deny it. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. If that’s not too sentimental to say so.’
‘Oh, no. It’s Christmas. One must allow oneself some sentimentality at this time of the year, is that not so, Drummond?’
‘I suppose so, Sir Robert.’
‘My only regret is that you gave up Lady Florence. I understand she is marrying your brother. I hope it hadn’t anything to do with the incident…’
‘You understand correctly, sir, but no, it wasn’t the incident that brought it about. In fact, I had an inclination to give way to their obvious and mutual fondness of each other some time before it. Hence why I did not want her to see me immediately after the injury. I needed to arrange it all so that there was no awkwardness left. I see my only true marriage is one between me and the state, whereas I daresay Arthur and Lady Florence shall find much happiness together, much happiness indeed.’
‘Good. That is all we can hope for our children.’
‘Sir Robert?’ Palmerston’s private secretary called from the door. ‘We are ready for you.’
Sir Robert put down his coffee cup, smiled regretfully at Drummond, and left to discuss that review.
He debated it in himself, hating himself for both action and inaction, but in the end, his feet took him to the hallway.
‘Sir Robert!’ Drummond called after him. Peel turned, listening. ‘Merry Christmas, sir.’
Peel seemed to find this both amusing and endearing, even heart-warming.
‘A Blessed Christmas, Drummond,’ he replied gallantly.
And with a polite nod each, they parted.
Edward may not yet have known where to place his ambivalent feelings about Sir Robert, and William for that matter, but if there was anything he took away from it all, it was that there was always more than met the eye and no one was either saint or villain.
And regardless of that, and perhaps because to do otherwise as the snow started falling in cheerful, fat flakes outside the House’s windows, Edward truly wished the best for both of them.