‘Say it again one more time…’
‘Edward…’ Alfred sighed.
‘Please,’ Edward pleaded. ‘You’re much better at this than I am.’
Alfred would have rolled his eyes if it weren’t for the irresistible look on his love’s face.
‘Fine,’ he gave in. ‘It’s Île…’
‘No, not “ill”, you’re not even trying!’
‘I am trying!’
‘Then do it properly! Listen, it’s Île…’
‘Île…’ Edward repeated to the best of his abilities.
‘Exactly. Île de Ré.’
‘Ill de rey!’
Alfred pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Nearly.’
Edward laughed at his own failure and instead of straining himself even more after another trying day at the House he took off his stifling coat and tie, unbuttoned his collar, and hopped over ropes to get closer to Alfred on the yacht.
They were sailing slowly down the Thames, towards the wider estuary, far from the docks and from all other ships on this peaceful night. The sun was setting over the city behind them, its reds and oranges mirrored on the playful ripples of the river. Edward loved to watch Alfred at times like these especially, his hair glowing golden and his eyes as clear as the purest soul. He smiled back at his love, also remembering their truly enchanting midsummer evening that had happened not a full year before and yet everything had changed so much since then.
‘When we get to France you must do all the talking, my darling,’ Edward said, accepting from Alfred another glass of champagne. ‘Not only because I seem to be hopeless but because the sound drives me mad with desire for you.’
Alfred smirked and glanced around. Though they were far from the banks, they were quite exposed, so he controlled the urge to start ravishing Edward, especially when he was biting his lips like that. Whatever happened to his innocent Drummond, who went red in the face just from hugging Lord Alfred in his moment of relief when the royal couple was found in Scotland?
Oh, well, Alfred happened.
‘You mustn’t say things like that when I can’t take you in my arms in an instant,’ Alfred warned him, feeling hot, even though he was wearing his new garments that were perfectly suited for sailing: a striped pullover and thin white shirt and trousers.
‘Why, you are asking me to cease teasing you? I’m afraid that goes against my desires, indeed it may exceed my abilities.’
‘You’re saying you can’t stop flirting with me?’
‘I suppose I am, Lord Alfred.’
Alfred laughed sweetly, really, really wishing he could just lean in and kiss Edward.
‘I hope your tactics of distraction shan’t sway me. I must practice how to ignore it for the sake of steering this thing. I had a splendid instructor in Birdie, my dearest pal from the academy – gosh, he is now father of four boys! Imagine that! It’s only yesterday he was scrubbing the floor because he had set one of the stables on fire… Well, he did teach me everything he knew about yachts but we don’t want to meet our Maker out in the open sea on the way to the island because you, sir, cannot control yourself around me.’
‘No, we don’t!’ Edward agreed heartily, hoping the yacht was made of the finest and steadiest stuff as they were about to take a trip far further than Gravesend. ‘Tell me again how we ought to get there exactly?’
‘We’re leaving at sunrise for Calais, where we’ll stay for two nights and stock up on necessities, then we’re sailing south to Le Havre, stock up on even more things because from there we are going around Brittany straight to La Rochelle without stops. We’ll stay there for two nights to enjoy city comforts before moving over to the island of Île de Ré, into our very own little chateau awaiting for us full of wine from Bordeaux, freshly caught oysters, and endless sandy beaches.’
‘That sounds delightful but what about servants? The yacht could fit only a couple of more people aside from us.’
‘I thought it was clear we shall be completely alone! I want you all to myself.’
‘Why, yes. Obviously we shall have staff at the hotels and we’ll hire men and women to prepare the chateau, but you cannot imagine I would like to have my valet sleeping in the next cabin when we’re sharing ours!’
‘No, that was never my plan either, my love. But… are you sure?’
‘Are you afraid of having to fend for yourself, my darling? It’s not the end of the world to make one’s bed after oneself once in a while.’
‘What do you know about making beds?’
‘I’ve been a soldier. And you, my beloved?’
Edward bit his lip guiltily. Alfred was right, he may seemed like a fragile courtier but he was much more ready for life’s practicalities than Drummond. But that’s just what he found so terrifying.
‘I’m not afraid of fending for myself. But, Alfred… a month is a long time. We haven’t had the chance to spend more than a day together. Are you sure you won’t grow tired of me before we even touch French soil?’
Alfred’s hands slipped from the steering wheel and he turned to Edward with his full attention.
‘Are you afraid you’ll grow tired of me?’ Alfred asked, panic sparking in his chest.
‘No! That day will never come, my darling,’ Edward said at once, helping Alfred relax a little. ‘But I feel quite unequipped for all this. I’m scared I might prove a disappointment to you.’
Alfred now found he was smiling. ‘If you think I could be disappointed in you, after all this time, that means I haven’t done my job well. All the more reason for us to travel! I will do my best to show you my love every single day, and night,’ Alfred added with a wink, ‘so you will never doubt yourself again.’
Alfred allowed himself to lay a comforting palm on Edward’s face, his heart melting when Edward leaned into his touch.
‘I am counting the seconds until we sail.’
‘So am I,’ Edward replied, kissing Alfred’s hand before they resumed their unassuming positions. ‘Oh, but, we can’t before the 26th. Lord Anglesey invited me to lunch today and he said means to give you a birthday dinner.’
‘Papa wants to give me a dinner?’
‘Yes, a proper one, with loads of friends, anyone you wish to invite.’
‘Yes, me,’ Edward admitted bashfully. ’And I believe he said Lady Anglesey wouldn’t be opposed to hosting the Queen herself.’
‘Papa said that?’
‘Ha! Only because he knows I wouldn’t do that to their poor staff, or to Mama – she would set out to plant double the number of begonias in the garden just for the visit! No, I shan’t invite Her Majesty, but I have a few guests in mind.’
‘So you like the idea?’
‘Yes, I think it’s a splendid one! You must make sure to tell Papa.’
‘Oh, I think you should tell him directly, I can’t really…’
‘Nonsense, you see him every day, do you not? Lunch with him again tomorrow, why not?’
‘I couldn’t. I would feel I as if I were overwhelming him.’
‘Returning the favour of a lunch is only polite, not overwhelming, certainly not in Papa’s books. As a matter of fact I am glad you get along well, despite your differing politics.’
‘There was next to no talk of politics during lunch, really. Lord Anglesey seemed very interested in finding out about more informal things.’
‘About… about me. Mostly.’
‘Why is that?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
Alfred frowned. ‘I don’t remember him particularly intrigued by you in Wales beyond the connection with Wellington and the other usual idle chit-chat.’
‘Nor do I but he was ever so friendly today. Asked a bit about Charlotte, which I thought was awfully considerate of him.’
Alfred searched Edward’s face for more. ‘What did he say?’
‘Only that he is sorry the situation has left me so worried and that he hopes she will be found soon.’
‘He didn’t say anything about… about me?’
‘What? Of course we talked about you! I really found myself talking about you again at every step – it’s understandable. I could talk about you all day! Though I tried to rein it back before I sounded like a complete lunatic.’
Alfred tried to laugh along with Edward.
‘It was easier to reassure him of my sound wits in the face of my sister’s missing now that we know where she is. Of course I didn’t tell him about that.’
‘You do seem more relieved.’
‘I am,’ Edward smiled widely. ‘I only wish we could take this yacht and visit her instead of France but…’
‘But it’s not safe to…’
‘I know, I know,’ Edward cut in before Alfred gave him another one of his lectures.
‘You may shake your head, my dearest, but my fears are usually rooted in reality. Only last night at the opera, I felt someone watching me from the box opposite and indeed I was horrified to meet the Duke of Fife’s eyes. Whenever I glanced back at him in the ensuing longest three hours imaginable to mankind, he was already glaring at me…’
‘Yes, glaring! Upon my word, I nearly up and left in the intermission – I would have if it weren’t for Her Majesty’s presence.’
‘Fine, I understand,’ Edward gave in at last, resting his eyes on the ever progressing sunset over the city. ‘I just don’t want to think she is lonely.’
‘Oh, she won’t be for long…’ Alfred commented, grinning to himself.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘We may not be visiting her, as that would draw unwanted attention on her, but Lady Portman doesn’t have to have the same concerns,’ Alfred said suggestively over the brim of his champagne glass.
‘Lady Portman is traveling to Wales?’
‘Well, not officially. She’s already left, to call on the Baron in Dorset. Apparently she felt it her duty to visit him suddenly.’
‘Dorset? That’s only two days' ride away from Charlotte.’
‘Her thoughts exactly, I presume.’
Edward was aghast, amused, and somewhat still embarrassed by the whole concept. His sister loved women, that had been absolutely fine with him for a long time. But he was yet to get used to the idea of her actually having lady suitors. What did the etiquette demand of him as her brother in such a situation? There was no rulebook for this!
He was woken from his spiralling thoughts by Alfred softly tugging on his trousers to get him to sit on the edge of the yacht with him. Together, they watched the sun set slowly, holding hands covertly as the world got darker.
They arrived back at Alfred’s designated dock space just before it was pitch black.
‘Are you sure we can’t stay there tonight?’ Alfred asked, glancing back at his yacht (and its private cabin he and Edward could use at their leisure) regretfully with dark and desirous eyes.
Edward gave him a boyish grin, showing his dimples, even as he was waving down a cab.
‘I’m afraid not tonight. I’ve a mountain of paperwork to finish, and my valet wanted a word with me – something about the wallpaper. Don’t be so sad, Alfred, it’s not long until we travel. After you,’ Edward opened the carriage door for Alfred and followed him inside, feeling like the luckiest man in the world.