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A Close Call

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Edward shook his curls free in the bright, warm sun, allowing the gentle sea breeze to comb through his dark hair and caress his skin.

‘Look at that!’ he said to Alfred, who was lounging in the shade behind him. ‘What a splendid view!’

‘Yes,’ Alfred replied, ignoring the sight of the open sea for the sake of feasting his eyes on Edward at the steering wheel, in nothing but his thin linen trousers that showed off his shapely backside and a shirt half unbuttoned and rolled up at the sleeves. ‘Heavenly.’

Edward turned around at the seductive tone that did not escape him, meeting Alfred’s smirk over his glass of champagne. He had to bite back his own grin and an eye roll his love would have deserved, if it weren’t for his absolutely mouth-watering appearance, his equally unbuttoned white shirt, golden locks dancing in the light wind, and the sparkling blue of his eyes putting both sea and sky to shame.

‘I thought I was supposed to distract you from steering the yacht with my flirting, not vice versa,’ Edward remarked.

‘I navigated us out of London, and in the direction of Calais, it’s only fair that you should have offered to take over while I have a well-deserved rest,’ Alfred replied, raising his champagne elegantly.

Alfred was talking absolute nonsense, of course – the wheel was quite steady so once the yacht was set on the correct course according to the compass, there was little to do. Edward did enjoy seeing Alfred’s arms work as he pulled this lever and rolled that bunch of ropes for whatever purpose, his strength surprising Edward anew every time, and the sweat on his forehead reminding him of their most intimate moments. Alfred explained that he was adjusting the rigging to allow the masts to catch the wind more advantageously. He tried his best to pay attention but he began to understand what Alfred had meant about Drummond’s being a professor once: a distractingly beautiful teacher was not ideal for learning.

Other than the occasional tinkering with the ship, therefore, it was them, the sun, and blissful privacy.

‘Besides,’ Alfred added, ‘you are doing a marvellous job of it.’

‘And what if it should rain? What if we are caught in a terrible storm? I am not equipped to handle that.’

‘There is not a single cloud overhead!’

‘But what if,’ Edward insisted. ‘Are you really sure this is safe? I won’t know what to do without you.’

Alfred put down his glass and walked up to Edward, laying a soothing hand on his waist casually, something that came so naturally to him but always had to stop himself from doing in public.

‘My beloved,’ he said sweetly to Edward, ‘you are still fretting. You said you’ve left your nerves in London.’

‘I did. I have.’

‘Then why are you so worried? Just enjoy this.’

‘I know, and I am,’ Edward replied, kissing Alfred warmly. ‘I suppose I still haven’t quite got over what transpired between me and my valet.’

‘You said he wasn’t dangerous.’

‘He is not. I think I was simply so prepared to ruin everything when I went home that I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around having got out of this scot-free.’

 

The night before, Drummond braced himself for whatever he had to face in his house before stepping in through the front door.

The hall was deserted – the servants were probably dining or sleeping already. Drummond’s trip was going to be as much a kind of vacation for his staff as for the master of the house.

But it wasn’t the cook or the housemaids he had his mind on at that moment but on his only manservant, his valet. He tentatively searched each of his rooms. It was all eerily quiet. He found his traveling clothes were already prepared neatly for him in the dressing room that opened from his bedroom, everything in order and to fit for his highest standards.

It seemed as if his valet had left altogether, he thought, panic rising in his stomach.

No, he could not give up that easily.

He lit a candle and went where he hadn’t been since purchasing the house in fashionable Lower Grosvenor Street: the servants’ quarters. Drummond felt as if he was intruding when he walked to the end of the corridor and opened the door on the servants’ staircase, which he used to reach the attic level on the men’s side. Here, the walls were not lined with his expensive, exquisite, and apparently poisonous wallpaper but a simple whitewash, lit dimly by the candle in his hand. He didn’t have to peek into the unused rooms, as Clarke’s name was written on a piece of paper on his door.

He knocked gently.

‘Clarke?’ he said, unsure whether he was going to be more afraid of a reply or the absence thereof.

He didn’t have to wait for long to hear a couple of footsteps and the door opened to reveal his valet, dressed down to his shirt and waistcoat.

‘Mr Drummond, sir?’ he asked, utterly confused and frowning. ‘What are you doing up here?’

Drummond took his hat off as a show of respect and humbleness.

‘May I come in?’

It wasn’t as if he could say no so the valet stepped aside to let Drummond into his small but cosy living quarters. A simple single bed stood in the corner, shelves for his books lined the walls, and there were two chairs at a table laid with some letters and a candles nearly burnt all the way.

‘Please sit, sir,’ Clarke offered.

‘No, I shan’t take up much of your time, I see you are busy. But you, do sit.’

‘I can’t unless you sit, sir.’

Drummond considered this. ‘Right,’ he muttered and sat.

‘Have you come to threaten me, then, sir,’ Clarke cut to the chase.

‘Pardon?’

‘Because of… well, I know what I know.’

‘I confess I rather thought you were going to threaten me.’

Clarke frowned and finally sat at the table as well. ‘So you’ve come to bribe me not to.’

‘No, I have come to apologise, of course,’ Edward said, not without desperation in his voice, though he tried to suppress it.

Clarke kept him in agony with his silence.

‘Do the others know?’ Drummond asked, eyes closed as if that would help hide from the truth.

‘No,’ Clarke replied, lifting a bit of weight off Edward’s shoulders. ‘They suggested there’s poison in the wallpaper but they don’t see Lord Alfred face to face, only I do. I put it all together before any of them. When I did, I reassured them he seems quite healthy to me, which alleviated their foolish worries about his lordship’s wellbeing but they only have me to rely on for any further news. Don’t worry, Mr Drummond, I saw to it that they should not entertain any unseemly assumptions that could lead to… gossip.’

‘Thank you,’ Drummond said carefully.

However, Clarke seemed uncomfortable in his chair, which did not give Edward the firmest idea that he was safe.

‘And yourself? What are you going to do?’ he asked his valet.

Clarke sighed in annoyance. ‘Must you ask, sir?’

‘I must, of course I must. Do you intend to…’

‘Report you?’ Clarke gave a mirthless laugh. ‘Yes, that’s a grand way to ensure I never get another job in my natural life!’

Edward looked as confused as he felt. Clarke nearly told him not to be ridiculous but he bit his tongue.

‘Sir, I couldn’t report you even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I don’t give a fig about what you and his lordship get up to… No, that is not entirely true...’

Edward feared a lecture on conscience and religion but that wasn’t what came next:

‘It is in my best interest to avoid your being arrested. If anyone found out, what would that make me? I’d be left here without a reference, every house in London would turn me away after working here!’

‘I don’t think it would reflect badly on you, it’s my…’ Edward nearly said shame but he could not call his deepest love with Alfred that. ‘…affair. Mine alone.’

‘It is not. So do not be foolish – it’s probably better that I know now. I can act to avoid that.’

‘Instead of reporting me, you are willing to protect me? Protect us?’

‘Sir, no court of law would believe me when I said I didn’t know about it but my word would count even less if I were to march into a policeman’s office all of a sudden, claiming that the great Mr Edward Drummond, private secretary to the highest ranking statesmen, engaged in… illicit activities of an unspeakable sort. I thought you were clever, sir.’

Drummond thought he was inching towards good news about whether he was going to be reported or not but his valet’s clear distaste for the whole idea did not escape him so he refrained from jumping up and down from joy.

‘So you are not going to expose us?’ he asked, to make sure he was getting it right.

‘Oh, no, I should like to stay well out of all this!’ Clarke replied begrudgingly. ‘And anyway, what would be the use of that? Your sort can do whatever you wish to do. It doesn’t matter what I think or do, God help me.’

‘It matters a great deal, Clarke,’ Drummond insisted. ‘You cannot imagine how grateful I am for your confidentiality. I do not take it for granted.’

‘And I’ll be grateful if you could tell me I need not pack my belongings and find other employment.’

For half the salary and many more upstairs folk to wait on all day every day, thought Clarke to himself, something he did not wish to swap his current job for if he could help it, even if his master was the kind of man he was.

‘But why would I do that?!’

‘True, I suppose you want me to stay on. If I stay in this house, so does your secret.’

‘I would like both of those, yes, but irrespective of each other. You are my most valued member of staff. I try to show it, though I failed horribly today. I shouldn’t have behaved like that. I was awfully disrespectful.’

‘You were,’ Clarke affirmed with haughty dignity. He softened ever so slightly, seeing how much smaller Mr Drummond seemed now that his valet could hold something so dangerous over him. ‘But I am afraid I got big headed, too, or so Mrs Butterworth would call me, which was partly what compelled me to speak out of turn. The fact that you were more demanding than usual, and perhaps wanting in manners, mattered little.’

‘You spoke out of turn but so eloquently,’ Edward allowed himself to remark with some humour, now that he felt safe his valet wasn’t going to ruin him and Lord Alfred. This was not the end. He would try to win back his valet’s good graces, though. Whatever Alfred said about servants, he felt he could be friends with Clarke in a way. ‘A prince’s son wouldn’t have scolded me in such a well-spoken manner.’

‘I am not a prince’s son, sir… but an earl’s.’

Drummond laughed heartily at that. But he was the only one.

‘I’m afraid not joking, sir,’ Clarke muttered with embarrassment.

Edward’s laughter faded. ‘What?’ he asked.

‘My father was an earl.’

Edward was completely bewildered. ‘What?! Who?’

‘I would rather not reveal that. But he was.’

‘But... but then why are you in service, Clarke?’

‘Well, my father may have been an earl… but my mother was an actress.’

It took a moment for the penny to drop but Drummond thought he understood.

‘Apparently they were in love. But he was already married. That’s what my mother told me at least,’ Clarke continued, surprising himself. But he supposed he needed to clear the air, too. ‘And he did pay for my education until his death. I was fifteen. After that his family didn’t want to continue any support he had given me. I was a nobody, a dirty secret, naturally they were ashamed. My mother could not keep me in school and when others in the town found out what she was doing to subsidise her actress’s salary, we had to move. We moved around quite a lot as a matter of fact. And then she got sick so I had to work, and there were plenty of jobs in service so… here I am.’

Drummond listened to his valet’s story with astonishment and guilt.

‘How is it that I trust you to iron my undergarments and to draw my bath every day and yet I did not know anything about this?’

‘One doesn’t like to announce it to the world that they’re the illegitimate child of a… Well…’

‘Your mother deserves our respect for raising you to be such a decent fellow.’

‘Deserved, maybe,’ Clarke corrected him. ‘I apologise for my short temper earlier, Mr Drummond, but I had received news of her passing this week. It doesn’t excuse my ill manners but I hope it explains them.’

‘By God, my man, but you should have said! My condolences. Goodness, I am the world’s most horrid cad! I can’t apologise profusely enough for all of this. Is there anything I can do to help? Shall I delay my trip?’

‘No, please don’t. To be honest, Mr Drummond, it will be a relief for the staff if you spent some time away. And if I may, I will take this opportunity to travel home, to take care of things.’

‘Of course, you must do whatever you need to do. Let me help, I’ll leave a check in the library to cover your expenses.’

‘I don’t wish to take advantage of your sympathy, sir, but… I could use the help, if that’s not a problem.’

‘It’s not,’ Drummond said at once.

‘Then… thank you. And…’

‘Yes?’

‘I would certainly like to stay in you service, sir. However, I think it would be best if I weren’t your valet in the future.’

Drummond’s heart sank. ‘Because you are repulsed by me?’ he asked with a bitter taste in his mouth and shame, so much shame!

‘No, I will continue to perform my duties as a valet to yourself, sir. Everything will stay the same. But it would help to run the house smoothly if I had proper authority. You see, Mrs Butterworth and Mrs Quibell seem to think they have the final say on certain matters. It would be easier to manage them if I were the… the… uh… butler, sir.’

Once Drummond registered what he heard, he nearly laughed out loud with relief.

 

‘But we have got away with it, and it seems to me your footm-valet, sorry, your butler is a trustworthy fellow indeed,’ Alfred soothed Edward reasonably aboard the yacht. ‘He’s always impeccably polite, though I suppose that’s his education rubbing off on him. What an incredible story, and how sad! Did he really not say who his father was?’

‘No, and it wasn’t the moment to pry. And it matters not. He was born out of wedlock, there is no way to claim anything such as inheritance or anything.’

‘Well, poor Clarke…’ Alfred mused but he quickly overcame it. They were miles and miles away from London, and they did not need to worry anymore. ‘You should put on a straw hat.’

Edward cracked up. ‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘No, you are already catching the sun! If you could see your cheeks, they’re getting quite red. It looks dashing on you, of course,’ Alfred remarked, reaching out to trail a finger down Edward’s half exposed chest. ‘But I wouldn’t want you to get burnt and spend the rest of our journey in pain. Go on, put the hat on.’

‘But I’ll look like a peasant!’

‘Better than a sunburn on this gorgeous skin!’ Alfred insisted, unbuttoning Edward’s shirt fully before he noticed at all.

But he definitely noticed when Alfred began sinfully kissing and licking a line down his chiselled chest and stomach, dropping to his knees keenly as soon as he felt for Edward’s quick hardness.

‘Alfred, what are you doing? I’m meant to be steering the wheel…’ Edward asked shakily, as Alfred made quick work of unbuttoning Edward’s trousers, still kissing at his skin hungrily.

‘The wheel is staying where it’s supposed to be,’ Alfred muttered nonchalantly, freeing Edward’s erection.

‘Alfred…’ Edward groaned in weak protest as he felt Alfred’s tongue and lips. ‘But… we’re out in the open…’

Alfred no longer cared to reply as he was busy pleasuring Edward with his usual enthusiasm and Edward knew full well that they were hours and hours from the next soul.

‘Alfred… Alfred…’ Edward moaned, encouraging Alfred to get more intense. ‘Oh, Alfred…!’ Edward called out his name again, driving Alfred wild with desire – Edward was usually good at keeping quiet but now that they were sailing freely, he didn’t need to be concerned about that! ‘Alfred!’ Edward called again, and Alfred actually moaned from the sheer thought that Edward was so loving this— ‘No, Alfred, stop—!’

What?! Alfred actually felt Edward pry him off… himself.

‘Are you not enjoying it?!’ Alfred heard himself ask, for the first time with Edward – no, the first time in his life!

‘No, I… it’s more than heavenly but look, Alfred! Land!’

Alfred turned on his, not heels, but knees, and saw indeed the ports of Calais in the distance. They made it, they were going to pull in before long now!

Yes… The shores were getting closer and closer… They would be among people very soon…

‘Yes, that’s excellent, Edward, now where were we…?’

And Edward couldn’t care less about the approaching port when Alfred was distracting him like that.

 

 

Gloucester was swimming in rain and mud.

Emma had been at his sister Louisa’s home for two nights. She really needed to get on but no cart would move ten feet in this weather, let alone all the way to North Wales.

How was it going to be possible to sleep when the storm pounded so loudly against the windows, she thought? She touched her finger out of habit, the one on which she used to wear his sapphire ring. It was, of course, with Charlotte now. If she kept it… surely she did. Did she?

Even if Emma found her, what if she didn’t want her anymore? If she really had cared for Emma, she wouldn’t have left in the first place, wouldn’t she? Emma tried to remind herself of the loving letter and the fact that Charlotte felt herself in such danger that she saw no better way out. The fact that Lord Alfred supported it was validation enough, as well. After all, he had known more about the situation.

Lord Alfred. She wondered what he must be doing in France. Certainly having more fun than she was at the moment.

And then there was Teddy… she could be a cat, Wellington wasn’t entirely mistaken, but that didn’t mean she didn’t feel guilty for using people’s affection to further her own plans.

But she was frustrated at the same time: she wasn’t going to have much time with Charlotte. Teddy would wonder where she was… and Louisa was less susceptible to Emma’s strange excuses to explain her desire to travel on instead of returning to Dorset.

Every raindrop meant one more wasted second with Charlotte!

That is if Charlotte had still cared for her at all. That nagging feeling in Emma wouldn’t cease. She promised herself she wouldn’t but even after all this time, and despite their brief acquaintance, Emma found she was thinking of the girl every single day. She was longing for her, even. Maybe she didn’t know her well but what little she knew was enough to make her cross half the country, and a little rain wasn’t going to stop her!

She went to bed with a prayer for the rain to stop at last.

And, to her amazement, her prayers have been listened to! She broached the subject of visiting a friend at breakfast again, and after a bit of bickering with her less travelled sister, Emma was on her way at last to her true destination.

 

 

Edward crossed his legs under the table at dinner because by the time Alfred finished ordering dinner for them at the hotel restaurant in Calais, he had developed a situation that he feared his napkin would not be able to hide.

‘…Et nous voulons du champagne froid, s'il vous plaît, sûr la glace.’

‘Oui, bien sûr – Arnaud, champagne pour les messieurs!’ the waiter instructed another waiter and soon they were sipping the ice cold champagne while their dinner was on its way.

The restaurant was crowded with lively patrons of all sorts, not only English and French but travellers from the furthest corners of the world! The waiters seemed relieved when Alfred spoke fluently with them – they had to resort to their little Russian, Italian or makeshift sign-language to gather what some other guests meant to order from the menu.

And as always, the sounds of the waves and seagulls was the backdrop to their evening.

‘Looks like we are going to get the best of both worlds on this journey,’ Edward remarked excitedly. ‘We are left to our own devices on the yacht, which is challenging but a real blessing…’ he said, thinking he was glad there was at least the most modern piping in the vehicle so they wouldn’t have to empty chamber pots, but also about the very satisfying way they spent their last couple of hours before pulling in at the port.

‘… and here we can enjoy all the comforts we are used to, even if it means a bit of distance. Or maybe not?’ Alfred added, finding Edward’s leg with his own under their table.

Edward had a hard time keeping a straight face. To seem normal in the eyes of all the people around them, he cleared his throat and raised his glass.

‘To you, my dearest.’

‘And to you,’ Alfred replied, raising his own glass. ‘To us.’

‘To us.’

Alfred could have melted under Edward’s gaze, so full of love it was. But he couldn’t stop himself… his leg may have slipped upwards, making Edward gulp and blush and scold him into behaving just before their entrées arrived.

This trip was going to be even better than he dreamed of, Alfred thought, grinning to himself…

 

 

‘Hey, you there!’ the groom driving Lady Portman’s carriage called to some children carrying water by the side of the road. ‘How long until Llangollen?’

‘This is Llangollen,’ a girl replied and carried on.

Little did the girl know what effect this information had on one of the passengers inside.

‘You hear that, your ladyship? We’re here,’ Abigail said.

‘Yes… that’s… good,’ Lady Portman said awkwardly, trying not to seem too eager. She wanted to jump out of the carriage and run around shouting for Charlotte.

The groom carried on, in the direction of the house he was instructed to locate.

Lady Portman’s heart raced ever quicker with every house passed but it was positively bursting through her corset when they stopped.

‘It says Plas Newydd, your ladyship!’ the groom called from outside, opening the door and the stairs for the women to climb out.

Indeed, the timbered house, its gardens, and its name post matched Charlotte’s description, which she told Emma and Miss Coke after her return from her getting lost in the hills.

The gate was hanging open and there was smoke coming out of the chimneys.

‘You stay here,’ Lady Portman instructed Abigail and the groom, and ventured into the garden.

She knocked. Three times, before the door was finally opened by a woman with a bloody apron.

‘Yes?’ the cook asked, quite unused to any such interaction with visitors.

‘Good evening, I am Baroness Portman, and I believe I have an old friend who might be living here.’

‘An old friend?’

‘Yes. Am I right in assuming this is Miss Ponsonby and Miss Butler’s residence?’

‘Aye, it is, but… they don’t take visitors.’

‘Well, I have crossed much of Wales today to get here in the hopes of talking to them, you see. I only mean to ask them a question about my friend.’

‘What friend?’

Emma could not give any specifics about Charlotte in case she was in the wrong place.

‘May I?’ Lady Portman said more forcefully now, and walked past the stunned woman without permission.

She made it so far, she wasn’t going to be thwarted by a cook!

‘Hello? Hello?’ Emma called, following the light of the fireplace and the sounds of chatter from what she found to be the drawing room.

And indeed, the two elderly ladies of Llangollen were sitting cosily by the fire, knitting and reading.

They fell silent at the sight of the stranger but unlike the cook they were not surprised.

‘Good evening,’ Lady Portman said somewhat breathlessly from her nerves.

The ladies did not rise or speak. They just observed her frustratingly calmly.

‘I’m sorry to barge in unannounced but I am looking for a friend of mine. I was hoping you might be able to tell me where she is.’

Miss Butler blinked slowly at Lady Portman. Then at Sarah.

‘Well sit down and have a cup of tea, then,’ Miss Ponsonby said suddenly.

 

 

‘You have outdone yourself!’ Edward said, walking around the hotel apartment’s luxurious rooms. Alfred somehow managed to select the most splendid place to stay their nights in Calais, which meant they had two equally elegant bedrooms, a bathroom with an enormous bathtub that they already had plans for, and best of all a spacious drawing room that connected them all, meaning they wouldn’t have to sneak across a public corridor at night to get to each other.

Edward found Alfred on the drawing room’s wide balcony, watching the sunset over the port and the sea, just in time to light his cigar.

‘Remember when…?’ Alfred asked.

‘Of course, I do,’ Edward blushed. ‘I believe that was the first time we were alone.’

‘It was.’

‘You were wearing your uniform.’

‘I was… it had been a trying day.’

‘So you said.’

‘But you managed to turn it into a splendid one.’

‘Really?’

‘Of course… the way you smiled at me… my knees could have buckled in that instant… and a fear struck me…’

‘Fear?’

‘Yes… not the bad kind. The very best. A warm kind of fear, as if my heart had foreseen just what you would mean to me and it was already terrified of how much I could love you.’

‘You thought that? Even then?’

‘I think so.’

‘Because of me?’

‘Yes.’

‘God… Whereas me, I cursed myself the second I left.’

‘Why?’ Alfred frowned.

‘Because I thought I had embarrassed myself with my unimpressive small talk and awkward behaviour.’

‘Unimpressive? On the contrary! I thought if you flirted with me like that again I would die… At least I hoped you flirted.’

‘I did, even if I wasn’t exactly doing it on purpose, not knowingly.’

‘I did wonder. That night I lay awake in bed for hours, hoping I hadn’t made a mistake by saying that to you…’

‘About how well-equipped I am?’ Edward winked.

Alfred giggled sweetly. ‘Yes, I said that. And how true it was!’ Now it was Alfred’s turn to wink.

Edward grinned just as he did that night, the light of the tinderbox illuminating his handsome smile in the dusk.

They went inside hand in hand after putting out their cheroots.

‘Oh…’ Alfred stopped when they reached one of the bedrooms.

‘What is it?’ Edward asked.

‘There’s…. there’s a…’ Alfred uttered breathlessly, pointing in the corner of the room, where an enormous mirror stood on portable wheels, large enough to reflect the whole bed if one adjusted it right.

Edward read Alfred’s thoughts in a flash, grabbed his wrist and took him to the bed.

 

 

It had been half an hour.

Lady Portman tried to bring about a nice and friendly chat with the elderly ladies but all her attempts had failed thus far. They did not seem to want to reply more than a few words or a simple yes or no, which was very unhelpful. She was not sure how long she would last, the awkwardness in the room might just overpower her determination in the end!

She opened her mouth to say something again but having learned by now, she gave up.

In fact, she did give up altogether, this was ridiculous.

She put her untouched cup of tea on the table and stood.

‘Right, well, I see I am not wanted here as a friend, and I regret that it had to be like this. I thought we could get on well… I am sorry if I disturbed you. Well, now… I should… probably…’

To Lady Portman’s annoyance, these most unfriendly ladies sniggered and shared a secret sort of look.

‘I… I never... Right, I am leaving, yes, I am---’ Emma stuttered, not hearing the sounds of a horse stopping and being tied to the fence outside for being entirely distracted by the frustrating rudeness of…

‘Miss Butler? Miss Ponsonby?’ sounded a most familiar voice from the entrance hall suddenly and approaching quickly. ‘Are you there? What’s going on, who else is here? That carriage outside, that’s exactly like that of--- Lady Portman!

And indeed, Emma’s breath hitched as she saw, after all that time apart, there she was.

‘Charlotte!’