Professor Drummond’s robe was billowing behind his tall, fine frame as he walked swiftly down the sunlit hallway after the last lesson of the term.
He nodded to this student, said hello to that, happy with a job done well, or so he hoped the examination results will show in just a few weeks’ time.
But that was for his students to worry about. As for himself, as soon as he made it back to the teachers’ lounge, which he shared with a history professor who smoked like a factory all day but could talk about the War of Roses as if he had lived through them and a secretary who decided for and against wearing a moustache about four times since Drummond had been giving his guest lectures, he got rid of his stifling robe, gathered his folder, and called it a day.
At the college only. He nearly gasped aloud when he saw the time! He really wished he would get a cab as soon as possible as he was due back at the House and he mustn’t be late again!
Luckily, the cabbie he got didn’t lie when he said he understood he must hurry – if he had had any time to eat anything that day, Drummond’s stomach would have turned from the way the coach twisted through traffic, nearly clashing with other carriages or hitting pedestrians absent-minded from the heat in the process. As it was, he only needed to check in the window of the coach that his hair was not as wild as his heart’s pounding, pay the cabbie, and run into the House at last, preferably before the debate was opened.
‘There you are, Drummond!’ Lord George Bentinck remarked somewhat testily. The heat did not favour anyone’s patience that day.
Drummond, however, hardly felt any reprimanding was justified from the leading opposition member, as Bentinck was wearing a pink hunting coat to Parliament!
‘S-Sir,’ Drummond forced out through gritted teeth, giving a little nod in humble greeting, and swallowing his outrage.
He wanted the earth to swallow him up, though, when he thought about the fact that he was about to sit through hours and hours of a debate at the house next to a man dressed for an afternoon hunt or as a fancy jockey, and who up until taking a firm stance against Sir Robert on the corn laws had only used his membership in the house to warm the seat under his buttocks and never spoken a word! In the past two years, however, he seemed to have turned from gambler dandy and famed sportsman to an all-important politician who led the Protectionists in their vicious attack against Sir Robert on the tariffs, and now he seemed to be one of the leading Tory voices, that is when he wasn’t plotting with Disraeli or swearing at someone who displeased him until he got himself into another duel, which he was so prone to!
‘Well, what are you waiting for, Drummond?’ Bentinck called to him among the crowd filing in to take their seats in the House, fixing his newest silk tie. He seemed to have a new one each day! ‘Let’s go in!’
And so it began, a lengthy and arduous parliamentary debate on the railway building initiative that was meant to alleviate the famine still tormenting Ireland. It was cause for much outrage and personal attacks, loudly expressed, a perfect recipe for headache for Drummond, who had to bite his tongue many times: the government was in need of a loan but these politicians knew nothing about how credit worked, with respect Sir Robert’s 1844 sanctions were not helping after all and what was to be called the panic of 1847 was well underway in this headlessness, and worst of all no one would have listened to the humble private secretary called Drummond despite his name and natural expertise brought form his family when even Sir Robert was putting the blame on the banks!
Despite his passion for politics, Drummond could not wait to get home in the evening.
‘Thank you Clarke,’ he sighed as he handed his hat and coat to his valet as soon as he had stepped inside his house. He considered himself remarkably fit but the heat and the layers he had to wear meant that he was out of breath after simply walking up the steps to his own front door!
Clarke took his garments and hung them up above the umbrella basket.
‘Will there be anything else, sir?’ Clarke asked.
‘No,’ Drummond said out of habit but stopped once he had crossed the hall. ‘Wait, yes, a bath, please – warm, not hot – and a change of clothes. The burg-‘
‘The burgundy silk waistcoat and matching summer suit.’
‘I know I can always rely on you, Clarke,’ Drummond said gratefully. He stopped at the stairs, just for one more question: ‘Any letters in the evening post?’
‘None, sir,’ Clarke said apologetically, knowing why Mr Drummond was asking. Every single day.
Edward couldn’t help disappointment washing over him, as always. ‘I’ll wait upstairs,’ he said, starting up the stairs.
‘Very good, sir,’ Clarke replied and set off to make the bath the sir requested.
Edward faltered at the top of the stairs, meaning to turn left to his room but something compelled him to turn right this time and look in. Just for a minute.
Into Charlotte’s room. Or what was still kept as her room, just as she left it. It had been empty since December, of course. The hair brushes had not been lifted off the vanity once, the book on her bedside table still marked at the page she left it.
‘Mr Drummond! Your bath is ready, sir,’ Clarke’s voice sounded from down the hallway.
Drummond entered his study an hour later a lot fresher and dolled up in silk. He checked himself in the glass of his cabinet for the hundredth time. His hair was surely going to fall loose as soon as the heat and humidity touched it again but one could make an effort regardless. He really felt like a hypocrite thinking about his embarrassment at sitting next to Bentinck in the House but fussing with his hair forever but he really did want to look his best tonight.
Edward had enjoyed the luxury of seeing Alfred both publicly and privately with fair frequency but that did not prevent him from missing his sweetheart every second of every day. Before he found Alfred, though he ignored and suppressed his desires for the sake of his career and a sensible match, he thought love would be a splendid state. And it was, but it was also agony! No matter what he did, no matter how important a task he was doing at any given time, Edward’s every fibre yearned for his own Alfred, his skin, his scent, his voice! He was really just a child running around in the world blindly until he finally reunited with the man he loved and his hectic world was at peace again, as long as he was with Alfred.
His hectic and pressuring world indeed, he thought grimly, spotting something in the reflection of his room in the cabinet glass. Turning around, he looked at his desk with a heavy heart. The letter from his parents that arrived not one, not two, but nearly three weeks ago still lay mockingly on his desk top, yet he still hadn’t composed a reply to it. What else could he find to say? It was the same letter every time. He had no answers, and if he had any, he wouldn’t tell them anyway.
Edward thought he heard the sounds of a carriage stopping on the gravel in front of his house.
He checked his pocket watch and smiled to himself.
Aha! Nine sharp.
He dashed to the drawing room to peek through the street-front windows: and indeed, Alfred arrived just on time!
‘Don’t wait up, Clarke,’ Drummond said in passing to his valet as he was already skipping down the steps towards the carriage waiting.
The car’s door opened to reveal Lord Alfred Paget, an actual angel among men, dressed in light blues that suited his brilliant blue eyes and golden hair, and as gorgeous as ever.
‘Good evening, Drummond!’ he called out to his love, who hopped in the carriage, beaming.
‘Lord Alfred! Your timing was remarkably precise,’ Edward replied as the driver shut the door.
‘I try,’ Alfred quipped, checking that no one was standing next to the carriage anymore, and giving a chaste kiss on his darling Edward’s lips.
It ended all too soon and Edward leaned forward for more but Alfred stopped him with a gentle hand on Edward’s chest.
‘Patience, my beloved. We mustn’t be reckless. Well, not too reckless,’ Alfred added, tickling Edward’s knee out of anyone’s sight, and his inner thigh…
‘Must we dine out? I should like to forgo dinner altogether and go back into the house this second,’ Edward said, making himself blush, but as soon as he saw Alfred he could help himself even less than when he had merely been daydreaming about him in his absence! ‘I am not hungry for anything other than your lips,’ Edward sighed, his gaze lingering on said lips longingly.
Alfred was quite flustered and flattered.
‘But we’re not going out to dine tonight. Well, not in one of the elegant restaurants the City has to offer,’ Alfred said, tapping the roof of the cab with an intriguing glint of mischief in his eyes.
‘Where are we going?’ Edward asked curiously.
‘That’s a mystery... Trust me,’ Alfred winked, and the carriage rattled on towards their surprise destination.
Edward could not take his eyes off Alfred, not that he ever could, but tonight he was particularly enchanted. He moved his leg so that it touched Alfred’s in the darkness.
‘What?’ Alfred asked, equally smitten but careful of keeping up appearances above waist level for the sake of those who might see them through the windows.
‘Nothing. You are simply beauty incarnate, that’s all,’ Edward replied.
‘Oh, you…’ Alfred turned away, biting back a bashful grin.
‘But it’s true,’ Edward insisted, enthralled by Alfred’s presence. ‘Whenever I see you I wonder how I survive a minute spent without you.’
Alfred bit his lip, counting the seconds until he could finally ravish Edward as he so longed to.
‘Tell me about your day instead. We’ve some time before we arrive yet.’
Edward sighed and began to describe his day.
‘…then I went to the teacher’s lounge, without you, and then I got a cab, without you, and then I went to the house, witho—’
‘Exactly!’ Edward replied feigning indignation for the joke. ‘Imagine that! No Alfred anywhere! A tragedy indeed!’
‘You’re ridiculous,’ Alfred giggled, much to Edward’s pleasure. ‘How did the debate go?’
‘It didn’t. It wasn’t so much going anywhere as it was running against a wall repeatedly in vain.’
‘And Lord George?’
‘Oh, him…’ Edward sighed with a shake of his head.
‘Was he that insufferable again?’
‘He was wearing a hunting coat! Pink! To the House! Throughout the debate!’
‘What?!’ Alfred laughed.
‘I swear to God, Alfred, he was!’
‘Oh, that man… Baffles even Papa sometimes!’
‘Really, you may laugh,’ Edward said, finding it rather funny now than embarrassing because of Alfred’s reaction that lightened his heart greatly. ‘But he was! I had to sit next to him for hours, a laughing stock! I know Sir Robert is quite a stern, pious man whose strict principles may be wanting in some respects as we know…’ Edward alluded to the policies that drove William Peel out of the country, too. ‘But at least he is a respectable statesman through and through, and has been for all his career. He didn’t become the leader of his party the day after he sold his race horses! He never gambled with his money, or his life like Lord George – you wouldn’t find Sir Robert’s hat shot through by a bullet in a duel! The embarrassment I suffered sitting next to Lord George when he nearly called Sir Robert a… a…’
‘A…. bloody poltroon,’ Edward finally said, going red in the face from even quoting such insolence.
Alfred had to hide his fits of giggles behind his top hat.
‘Do not hide yourself, my angel,’ Edward asked of him, snapping the top hat away. ‘I love to see you so happy. Even at my own expense!’
And happy Alfred was indeed at the idea: his honourable, diligent, and decorous Edward working as the outrageous sportsman-turned-politician Lord George Bentinck’s private secretary never ceased to amuse him, even if it was cause for much tutting and spluttering on his beloved’s part.
Edward allowed himself a laugh despite himself and leaned back in his seat.
‘And one of our kittens died last night!’ he lamented.
Alfred stopped laughing. ‘Oh, no! Which one!?’
‘One of the ginger ones.’
‘Yes… it was most strange, last night she was quite lively but one of the housemaids found her dead in one of the rooms all of a sudden.’
‘I know… you don’t keep an eye on them for one second and off they go, to do whatever on their own, and there you go. Gone…’ he swallowed, getting overemotional. Not wanting to spoil the night, he changed the subject: ‘How much longer, Alfred? Are you sure we are going to the right place?’
Alfred glanced out the window.
‘Quite sure!’ he said, cheering up.
‘But this is the docks,’ Edward remarked unsurely.
A minute later, the cab pulled to a stop. Alfred paid the driver well and told him he could leave.
‘Come on, then,’ Alfred called to a still baffled Edward, walking backwards towards the Thames.
‘Alfred, where are we going?’ Edward asked, trying to keep up with his love.
‘You’ll see…’ Alfred said cryptically, hopping over a bollard to which a brand new ship of sorts was tied. It was hard to make it out exactly in the darkness but Edward could tell it was one of the newer ones around, narrow with large masts.
And Alfred did not stop on the dock. He climbed up a narrow wooden ledge and turned to Edward from the height of the deck, arms wide.
‘Voilà!’ Alfred said proudly.
Edward was less sure about all this. ‘Alfred, uh…’ he glanced around for anyone seeing them. ‘You brought me here to break entry on someone’s ship in the dead of night?’
‘But we are not breaking entry!’ Alfred laughed. ‘It’s mine! And it’s not a ship, it’s a yacht.’
‘What! Do you truly own this thing?’
‘Well if I don’t, I’ll have a few questions to the bank about a considerable sum of my money missing!’ Alfred joked. ‘Now, come on, let me show you around!’
‘Yes, now! While we’re alone! Come, come!’ Alfred asked, waving to Edward to come join him on the yacht at last.
Edward, though shaking his head, climbed aboard too, lit his tinderbox to see better, and followed Alfred.
They went around the deck of the yacht, then rounded back to the cockpit where the steering wheel was, and a little door to the inner parts.
‘After you,’ Alfred said in his silky voice that sent shivers down Edward’s spine despite the heat, reminding him just how much he was itching to get out of his clothes, and get Alfred to do the same. But he played along, his feet gladly taking him wherever Alfred told him to—
‘Ouch!’ Edward promptly hit his head in the low ceiling of the entrance below.
Alfred giggled. ‘I’m sorry… Mind your head… in there…’ Alfred instructed until they reached the captain’s cabin.
Alfred lit a few candles quickly. But it was not at all what Edward expected. It was the size of a proper room, apart from the low ceiling Edward’s curls nearly brushed, and could contain two elegant cushioned chairs, and a table laid for two with a basket of fruit, cake, cheese, and wine.
And a double bed.
‘Well?’ Alfred asked, hopeful. ‘Do you like it?’
Edward turned to him in wonder. ‘Did you do all this for me?’
‘Yes,’ Alfred admitted. ‘For us.’
‘In case we need to escape?’
‘No… well… the idea came about from that, if you remember, at Christmas. But I hardly think this should be something we keep for bad days. We could actually use it. To travel, as a pastime… as a… a getaway spot…’ he added suggestively, and Edward could not help but fill with heat.
It occurred to him that they were in a private room in the bowels of a yacht in the middle of the night with not a soul around on the docks, with a bed more than fit for two.
He blew out his tinderbox and crossed the room in two strides to kiss Alfred, take him into his arms, and finally show him just how much he had missed him. He couldn’t wait to shed his clothes and his public façade, indeed, he found himself so desirous he guided Alfred’s hands below his own waist, on his backside…
‘No, wait!’ Alfred mumbled against Edward’s lips, much to his surprise.
‘What? Why?’ Edward asked, frowning.
‘I want to drink to the yacht first. As a good omen.’
‘Can’t we do that later?’ Edward breathed against Alfred’s neck, damp with sweat too, and delicious, while his hands were touching as much as they could.
Alfred nearly gave in but he pried Edward’s roaming hands off his own body and stepped to the basket.
‘No, really, just a quick salute, for good luck!’ he said, and made quick work of opening the bottle and pouring for two. ‘To the Queen’s health – long may she reign.’
‘Long may she reign,’ Edward rattled quickly, wanting to get over this.
‘To you, my beloved Edward.’
‘And to you, my love.’
‘And to the yacht – may it bring us happiness and joy.’
‘To the yacht.’
Well, Edward drank with good health, but Alfred’s lips barely touched the wine when Edward was already taking the glass out of his hand and resumed his touching and tasting and undressing of Alfred.
They slumped on the bed still in their tight embrace. Edward listened to Alfred’s kisses on his skin fade into silence and his breathing even as he drifted off to sleep. He was still snuggled closely against Edward’s back, his breath gently tickling the sweaty skin between Edward’s shoulder blades.
Edward had to smile to himself at the contrast this was to Alfred not long ago when, realising their privacy was greater here than in any room in a great house no matter how well secured the doors were, he could finally abandon the need to keep his voice down as he was giving Edward every inch of what he wanted. Indeed, as Edward had been gripping the edge of the headboard, he had wondered whether they would not rock the yacht itself until it careened flat into the river!
But the night was quiet again now. Eerily so.
He envied Alfred for his easy rest. As for him, sleep would not find him and the usual anxieties crept up on him until he carefully extracted himself from Alfred’s arms and went to get his tobacco. He sat in one of the chairs, not bothering to cover himself up at all and lit up a cheroot to soothe his nerves.
Ah, Edward should have known better. Alfred had stirred soon, feeling around for Edward in the bed but only finding sheets in his grip. Because Edward wasn’t in bed… where…? Alfred felt the scent of aromatic smoke and opened his eyes. He squinted in the dark and saw that his love, who was so happy and lively before, was sitting in one of the armchairs, smoking and deep in thought.
So Alfred called out his name quietly, pushing himself up on his elbows to see him better.
Edward wasn’t frightening him exactly, but he was wearing such a strange, distant, pondering and defeated expression on his handsome face that Alfred didn’t think reasonable after their evening and he wondered what had brought this on.
‘Come back to bed, my love,’ he said sweetly.
Edward was still thoughtful, and apologetic when he returned Alfred’s gaze. He took a calming drag of his cheroot before he spoke.
‘I want to find her,’ he said quietly in the dark.
Alfred did not need to ask who or what or why. He sat up a little more.
‘It’s not safe,’ he told him for the hundredth time but still with sympathy and gentleness.
‘It’s been six months. I worry.’
Alfred’s heart broke as he watched his beloved, wholesome, loving Edward, once again mull over the sudden turn that the events of New Year’s Eve took.
The world seemed to go dark and dull at the sound of that simple word.
No, Charlotte could not marry Alfred, she could not escape marrying a brute, and could not escape marriage at all.
‘Well? What are you waiting for?’ Mrs Drummond called from the doorway of the ballroom where the reception was still well underway. ‘We mustn’t make the men impatient.’
Charlotte would have rather slashed her own throat with a knife than follow her mother in there. And she was tired of being handed over from one person to another all day. So she stepped out of Alfred’s arms and ran the other way, getting swallowed in the pitch black darkness of the gardens within seconds.
Mrs Drummond tutted and returned to the celebrating crowd, trusting that there was nowhere her insolent daughter could go for long.
‘Well,’ Alfred broke the silence. ‘This isn’t exactly how I hoped this would go but…’ He noticed Emma just around the tree. ‘Ah, Lady Portman! You are a godsend. Did you hear…?’
‘Good. Edward,’ Alfred turned to Edward. He was fighting back tears, aghast and appalled at what just happened and how helpless he was in stopping it.
‘Alfred, what are we to do?’ Edward asked.
‘Glad you asked,’ Alfred said, fighting off his own nerves just as he does when he must focus in the moment for the sake of shielding the Queen form a madman’s gun on an outing. ‘First of all, you must pull yourself together. Can you do that for me, my love?’
Edward wiped his face on the sleeve of his coat and nodded, encouraged by Alfred’s strength.
‘Good. Now, do not return to the party, either of you.’
‘I think I should waste no seconds to find her,’ Edward realised, starting in the direction of the gardens, Alfred stopping him.
‘Yes, go, but give her this,’ Alfred explained, hastily presenting a letter from his breast pocket. ‘I was hoping we wouldn’t need to resort to this but one never knows. And now we must do it this way.’
‘What is in it?’
‘That is for Charlotte to know,’ he said raising suspicion in Edward. ‘Look, just give it to her, please, and both of you come to the rotund as soon as you can, without fail. Do not, under any circumstances, allow her to return to the house or to your parents, much less the Duke.’
‘That, I can certainly ensure.’
‘Good. Thank you.’
‘Where are you going? Not in there?’
‘No. Me? I shall talk to the grooms…’ Alfred patted his pocket in which fat coins gave a merry sound. ‘In an hour. At the folly.’
Alfred was seized by the urge not to let Edward go without a kiss. Glancing around first, he pulled him behind the cover of the tree, kissed him briefly but passionately.
‘Go,’ he instructed and let him go, to run off after his sister.
‘And me, Lord Alfred?’ Emma asked at once.
‘Lady Portman, do you know where Miss Drummond’s room is?’
Emma’s face said it all.
‘Of course you do,’ Alfred said not without a smirk.
‘It’s not as you think.’
‘Right. Fine. This is not the time to discuss that… Anyway, Lady Portman, do not return to the reception but go round the back, up the servants’ staircase if you must. Gather essentials into one bag not too large to fix on a horse. I trust you know what a woman needs, prioritize the practicalities, please. I wonder if she has the trousers my mother gave her. Pack those, and a shirt, boots, the warmer the better. Leather gloves, very important. I shall come meet you at the Roman folly too in an hour, the one nearest the chapel,’ when Emma wanted to ask something so he cut in knowingly, ‘I’ll allow one, ONE, sentimental item. No more.’
‘Thank you. Off you go, then, Baroness.’
Lady Portman hurried off around the house as told.
And as for him, he sped off in the direction of the stables.
Edward squinted in the dark. It was going to be impossible to spot Charlotte, given she was still in the vicinity at all. He wouldn’t have put it past her to run until she keeled over in the snow between the house and a village, left to freeze to death by the morning.
He lit his tinderbox.
Footsteps… footsteps…. Yes, there they were! He started following them, hoping they were not a false lead.
‘Charlotte!’ Edward called, rounding a hedge of trees. ‘It’s only me, Edward.’
He thought he heard footsteps around a hedge of rosebushes.
And sure enough, his sister was hiding there, catching her breath after all that difficult running through snow.
‘I’m not going back there if that’s what you mean to ask of me,’ she said immediately, keeping her distance even from her brother.
‘No such thought on my mind,’ Edward was quick to say, taking off his frock coat to give to Charlotte, as her dress did little to keep her warm. It made her look so small, despite the acuteness of her emotions that were fuelling her every bone.
‘She cannot do this, I will not, I will not--!’ she seethed.
‘I know, and you won’t do what Mama and Papa want, fear not. I will not let them. But there are things we must do to that effect at present. Alfred means for you to read this,’ Edward explained, handing her the letter.
‘What’s this?’ she asked not trusting it.
‘Instructions, I believe, as to what’s next to avoid that which you dread so deeply. I’m afraid he insisted I made you read it and then meet with him and Lady Portman at the rotund within the hour if we can. So…’
Charlotte was shaken up and nearly tore the letter with trembling hands.
Her suspicions were dissipated with each line of the letter. But they were replaced by such overwhelming anxiety and weighty decisions that she passed beyond the worst levels of nervousness and felt a calming sort of coolness wash over her.
Edward watched her read by the tinderbox light. When he moved over to read it too, she held the paper against her chest protectively.
‘What does it say?’ he asked.
She shook her head, whatever that meant.
‘He means to elope with you, does he not?’ Edward guessed.
Charlotte could not say anything. If only she could put him out of his misbelief now but he agreed with Alfred’s advice in the letter, it was best Edward does not learn what she was about to do, for his sake, and for her safety.
‘We must go to the folly. Do you know where it is?’ she asked.
Edward nodded and led the way.
When they arrived Alfred was already there, with a saddled horse tied to one of the columns of the rotund.
Edward noted he didn’t look at Charlotte as if he was about to elope with her and as for Charlotte, she barely nodded at Alfred, kicking the snow with soaked through dancing shoes instead of any sort of greeting.
‘Have you read it?’ Alfred asked her grimly.
Charlotte nodded, swallowing.
Before she could reply, footsteps in the snow distracted them. Lady Portman finally made it there, too, a packed bag in one hand and Charlotte’s coat draped over the other arm.
‘At last, what kept you so long?’ Alfred asked her, taking the bag from her at once gallantly.
‘I wanted to be safe than sorry,’ Lady Portman replied with dignity. She was a good liar… What actually kept her was a letter she hastily scribbled for Charlotte while packing her things, a curl of her hair attached as a promise. She did not know what was to happen but in the event they would have to postpone their talk about what they hoped from each other, she wanted to leave a few words for her. Foresight, perhaps.
Lady Portman went ahead and helped her warm coat on Charlotte – Edward reclaiming his own coat – while Alfred took it upon himself to fasten the handbag to the horse’s saddle, before turning to Charlotte:
‘So? What do you think?’
‘Do you really believe it can be done?’ she asked.
‘Of course it can. But you must gather all your strength and courage. Be brave. Have a little faith.’
After long seconds, Charlotte nodded. As soon as she did, though, she was overcome with devastation at her own decisions. It was the way forward but it wasn’t going to fill her with joy.
‘Are you sure?’ Alfred asked her.
Charlotte sniffed tears away and stood up straight. ‘Yes. I am determined.’
Alfred smiled sadly. ‘Good.’
Overcome with the significance of this moment, Charlotte hugged Alfred, much to his surprise.
‘By God, I thought I’d earned a slap earlier!’ he joked.
She laughed wetly. ‘Now you can say you have kissed a woman. And I a man,’ she returned it but her cheer was short-lived once she pulled away. ‘Goodbye, Alfred.’
Edward frowned. He must have heard it wrong…
‘”Goodbye?”’ he asked, stepping closer. ‘But… Alfred… but… aren’t you going to elope?’
Lady Portman had evidently picked up on this, too, as she was looking at Charlotte with that fragile hopefulness that Charlotte knew she would have to squash against her wishes.
‘Well, I suppose we could still head to Gretna Green this instant, if Miss Drummond so pleased,’ Alfred said with some humour. ‘It is still an option, Charlotte.’
But that wasn’t her. She walked over to Edward, having to be the wiser one for him now, to hug him.
‘Thank you for everything that you did, Edward. You cannot imagine… Thank you. I wish you well. So well,’ she said.
‘Charlotte?’ he replied, pulling away. ‘What are you saying? You sound as if… You’re scaring me.’
‘Charlotte?’ she heard Lady Portman’s voice and it took all her strength to turn to her.
‘I’m sorry…’ Charlotte nearly sobbed. She didn’t want to fall apart in front of Emma but it was killing her to be choosing this. ‘Don’t forget,’ she told her, cupping her beautiful face sweetly.
Don’t forget me, she meant, hoping against hope feebly.
‘Please don’t do this, Charlotte,’ Emma pleaded. ‘Stay. Stay for me.’
‘It is not you that I am leaving.’
‘But it is,’ Emma reminded her, tears welling in her eyes, too. ‘Her Majesty would protect—’
‘She wouldn’t, not like this. It would be futile to count on that. And then what? My family would be able to get at me still. Alfred and I would be the subject of a scandal, surely there would be no place for us at court. No. I must leave. But… T-take this…’ Charlotte stuttered fighting back sobs. She went to take the sapphire ring off her finger but Emma immediately stopped her once she realised what she was doing.
‘No, that’s yours,’ she said. ‘So you don’t forget. I wanted to tell you, I wanted to… to say… I lo—’
Charlotte stopped her from saying it with a quick finger on Emma’s lips. It broke her own heart to walk away from something she craved all her life, just when she found it. But it wouldn’t do to say such vows now, so she had to toughen up at least for others’ sake.
‘But we still have to talk,’ Emma pleaded. ‘You promised.’
‘We shall talk yet,’ Charlotte said kindly, but not really believing it herself.
Emma sensed the fragility of this promise, too. She took off her own scarf to drape it over Charlotte’s shoulders as if that was going to keep her safe on her journey, wherever it took her.
Charlotte, touched, could not leave without kissing Emma for one last time.
Lord Alfred saw Edward’s reactions to all this – of course he had been oblivious to all of it.
He would have liked to joke and dwell on it, to lighten the mood, but there was nothing else to it now but duty.
‘I’m sorry but, alas, there is not much time left…’ Alfred said, breaking the women apart.
Charlotte tore herself away from Emma, committing to memory the last chances of touching her waist, her arms, her hands, and followed Alfred to the horse.
‘Remember, go west,’ he told her. ‘They won’t expect you to board a ship there and not on these shores. I believe you should be there in two days. Go as fast as the horse can, but never faster, as once its lungs are overworked, there is nothing you can do. Stop, but do not stop for long anywhere. Once you get to a port, you can discard of the horse by selling it, if you so wish, as leaving it for a Lothian groom to collect would leave a trace. Although, if I were you, I would keep it. I did pay for it in full. It’s a fine steed and the sea journey shouldn’t be too long and tasking for it. Sorry, I just… horses…’
‘I know you,’ she said kindly, knowing Alfred was rambling about horses because it was easier to hide his own nerves behind that. ‘I’ll take care of it.’
‘Yes. And take this,’ Alfred added, handing Charlotte a bag of money against her protests he wouldn’t have any of. ‘And this,’ he also added presenting from the cover of his coat a pistol, holster and all.
‘No! Alfred, no,’ she immediately objected, horrified.
She shook her head. ‘I wouldn’t dare use it.’
‘Nevertheless. Do you have a safe pocket?’
‘I… I’m not sure…’ she muttered, not knowing anything about guns, in the end allowing Alfred to secure the holster around her corseted waist. Of course it hang too loosely but there it was.
‘Have you made up your mind where to go?’
‘Yes. I’m going to—’
‘Shh, best if we don’t know. Otherwise someone,’ he glanced at Edward who still looked as if he would have liked to stop all this. ‘will write to you and expose you. We wouldn’t want that, would we?’
As she mounted the horse she could not believe only an hour before she was merrily dancing a reel at her brother’s wedding.
Christ, she wished she had drunk less for a clearer head. Or more, really, to keep warm!
But it didn’t matter anymore. What she left behind now – or who, said a painful voice in her head, compelling her to take one last look at her sweet Emma – would stay behind.
Now, she was off to ride into the night.
That was six months ago, and yet Edward still thought about it even on this stifling hot summer night in the yacht.
How could he not? His sister was missing. Truly missing.
‘She has not sent word. Still not one,’ Edward pointed out desperately.
Alfred stretched his cramped shoulders and got up to step over to Edward, going for his unruly curls with soft caresses and kisses to soothe him.
‘She knows you miss her,’ Alfred said gently. ‘She would have written if she thought it safe.’
‘Exactly,’ Edward jumped on it at once, taking another drag from his cheroot with nervous hands. ‘Clearly then, the lack of any letters must be a pronounced indication that she is not safe. Goodness knows, she probably did not even reach the western shores, she probably rode too fast even that night – you know how she rides so recklessly! – she must have fallen off the horse into the snow, broken her neck and frozen to death in the middle of nowhere!’
‘Stop, stop, Edward, really…’ Alfred tried, holding Edward against his chest. ‘Have a little more faith in her. She’s a lot stronger than you think.’
‘I can’t help it! She’s my little sister!’
‘So she is and I have no doubts about her abilities to fend for herself. I’m sure she’s—’
‘But you cannot be sure. That’s just it. Alfred, the uncertainty… it is most tormenting! I should have stopped it all! And I could not! With every passing day I grow more convinced that she is lost or worse… that I shan’t see her again. Where did you tell her to go? It’s been too long to keep up the mystery. Tell me, please, tell me!’
‘I didn’t tell her to go anywhere, I merely advised her.’
‘Where?’ Edward pleaded with such puppy eyes Alfred could not be strict. ‘Oh God, is she abroad? Is she in America?’ Edward asked wildly, reading Alfred’s face and jumping to conclusions.
‘What- no!’ Alfred said. ‘At least I do not believe so…’ he added, pondering, which did nothing to soothe Edward’s nerves. ‘I might have thought she went to Wales, if you must know.’
‘Wales? To your parents?’ Edward asked smartly.
‘Yes, that was one idea.’
‘But then… surely, haven’t your parents said anything about it?’
Alfred could not lie, knowing it was very unhelpful. ‘No.’
Edward’s fragile spark of hope was snubbed out before it even had the chance to light up properly. He was on the verge of tears again.
‘By God, Alfred, then she could be anywhere! Maybe she did set sail to Wales but she was held up, attacked, a little girl like her all alone out there…’
‘A grown up woman like her would find her way on her own feet, yes, Edward. I believe so. Truly.’
‘I might inquire about her. I see Lord Anglesey every day at the House, Alfred…’
‘You must do no such thing!’ Alfred was quick to object, already calculating the consequences.
‘Because… do you want to draw attention to her? You mustn’t let your parents think you are any wiser about her whereabouts than them! Gosh, even if you gave a description, or got Papa or Mama to turn to any Tom, Dick, or Harry…! Listen, Edward,’ Alfred situated himself at Edward’s feet, leaning on his knees confidentially, warm hands holding Edward’s own firmly. ‘If she took any of my advice, she would have taken on a new name, a new identity, she would have disguised herself so as not to leave the slightest traces. Wherever she is, whatever she is doing, you would not be able to find her by her real name, and if she is as smart as I hope she is, she would have changed her appearance in some way, so as to avoid detection. The priority must be that she be not found by your parents, or by the Duke, or anyone whose help they may enlist, including the authorities. I’m sorry that it means suspending contact with you. Or me. Or… or the Lady Portman,’ Alfred added, blushing somewhat.
‘You still haven’t told me what sort of a relationship they grew to have without me noticing anything,’ Edward took his chance to point out again.
‘I cannot say anything more than I have already told you. Regrettably, Lady Portman is most secretive. Nevertheless… You must see, even if you tried to contact her, if you succeeded at all, you would plant traces that lead to her, which we would like to avoid. Do we not?’
Edward had to nod, however begrudgingly.
‘Yes. So… You must be patient, my love. She knows to contact you as soon as she can without raising suspicion. She knows. I’m sure she misses you desperately, also. But we must wait.’
At last, Edward understood this, and though it pained him he accepted its logic.
But all the same, he was so worried, to his shame he could not help his tears.
‘Oh, no, my love… my own Edward…’ Alfred cooed, cupping Edward’s face and kissing away his tears.
‘Forgive me,’ Edward muttered, stifling the urge to sob like a child.
‘There is no need to apologise to me, my beloved,’ Alfred said before placing a loving kiss on Edward’s forehead. ‘You do look exhausted, won’t you come back to bed?’
‘No, I can’t sleep, I don’t know…’
‘Have you eaten anything today?’ Alfred asked, and he could read Edward like a book and nearly tutted. ‘Here, have some of this,’ he said, handing Edward a glass of wine. ‘And this,’ he added, picking a grape off a bunch in the basket and feeding it to Edward, who obediently did as told.
Alfred fed him another grape, playing with Edward’s soft, sweet lips, too.
Alfred sat on Edward’s thighs and made sure he wasn’t starving and that he wasn’t crying anymore.
‘Come back to bed,’ he asked once he was convinced that Edward was a bit better.
He took Edward’s hand and leading him back to the bed to rest.
Edward was calmer now, though his worries have not been solved in the slightest. However, to Alfred’s surprise and delight, he laughed a little to himself, despite his earlier tears.
Alfred quirked an eyebrow.
Edward shrugged. ‘Nothing, only… I remember when we went to Sir Robert’s ball and I wouldn’t tell her about the vexation with William at the time, she told me she thought she was the mysterious one in the family.’
‘And so she is…’ Alfred agreed with some bittersweet humour, never ceasing to soothe Edward with his touches. Then, an idea struck him. ‘Ha! I think I found a name for the yacht. Mystery. After Charlotte.’
‘Mystery. I like that,’ he said, laying his head on Alfred’s chest as they got comfortable and went back to rest a bit more before sunrise found them on the river and they had to return to the throng of the city.