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A Close Call

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‘Beautiful!’ Alfred exclaimed for the hundredth time as they passed the cathedral in La Rochelle.

‘Yes, you are,’ Edward whispered to him, out of earshot of their guide.

Alfred’s blush was quick, but he swatted Edward’s arm with his French brochure to tell him to behave.

He was being an absolute hypocrite, of course.

They had spent the past week making their way south, from port to port, as planned, on Alfred’s yacht, never steering too far to see the shores, but far enough so that they could lounge on the yacht in various states of comfortable undress, kiss whenever they wanted, and say whatever they wanted. In fact, they grew so used to calling each other pet names that they found they really had to bite their tongue once they were checking into hotels, even if few could understand English around them.

He never thought he would ever say this but Edward’s gunshot wound had the potential to come in handy, too: whenever a nasty storm was in the making, he would complain about a mild pain in his bone. As they were still inexperienced at sea, at times like these they would pull in by the shores at the next port, however small, and wait out the end of the rain in their now very cosily furbished bedroom cabin below decks, often forgetting to resurface for hours even once the sky was clear again.

It was the happiest time of their lives, there was no doubt about that.

And, though it was a rare occasion, when they managed to keep their hands off each other, they did go sightseeing sometimes. This time, in La Rochelle, on their last day before they were heading to their destination, Île de Ré, the island off the seaside town.

‘Oh, look! They are selling sorbet in there!’ Alfred pointed to a little cake shop across the street, already dragging Edward over there.

‘But Alfred, we just had some before the cathedral!’

‘So? Look at you, you’re fanning yourself with your straw hat! I might actually buy a parasol for myself if we don’t get out of this heat soon! Come on, my— Drummond, we are in dire need of a cold treat!’

‘But…’

Ten minutes later, they were sitting in the shade of the coffee shop and cooling down with sorbets after their walk in the parks, museums, and medieval towers the town had to offer.

 

 

Meanwhile, on that afternoon in Wales, Lady Portman was less than in total bliss by her surroundings. She had spent a few days at Charlotte’s cottage but she still had a hard time biting her tongue when it came to certain necessities.

For one, she did not understand why they had to walk down to the big house she could not very well pronounce the name of for breakfast every morning. Although the elderly Irish ladies, Miss Ponsonby and Miss Butler, were much friendlier than when first meeting Lady Portman, she never quite forgave them for that initial prank they had played on her in her time of need. Then there were the locals – they could not take a walk without drawing considerable attention to themselves from the baker, the butcher, the milkman, children, everyone, as it was such a small village one new face was enough of a subject matter for chit-chat for the next decade.

But most of all, it was the new Miss Drummond that shocked and astonished Lady Portman.

She would get up as early as seven, warm her own water and bring it up in a jug and wash before getting dressed in her most peculiar and masculine clothes fit for a man who was about to go out riding or stalking rather than for a woman of her standing for sitting indoors and drinking tea.

… for which she washed up the ceramic cups and pots herself, boiled her own water on a stove, which she served, and she washed it all up after they were done, leaving Lady Portman alone for minutes at a time – something unimaginable when one had footmen to bring the tea, like normal!

And not only that but she cooked. When Lady Portman had got fed up of people staring at her at the pub during lunch or dinner (“They’re just trying to be friendly”, Charlotte said in her fake Irish accent she had to use at all times when in the locals’ earshot), the young woman’s answer was to stay at home and leave Emma alone for at least an hour or two to make dinner composed of potatoes and vegetables found in the old ladies’ garden, bread and cheese bought from the village, and a bit of well-cooked beef only on Charlotte’s plate as Emma had made the mistake of peeking into the kitchen and seeing it in its raw form on the cutting board, promptly losing her appetite for it.

Despite all this, she was glad she came, even if Charlotte remained relatively chaste compared to her expectations. She was a bit distant, even. Words sometimes had to be pulled out of her with a pincer. It was almost as if she was afraid of asking about news in London, though when they did talk about some of it all, she was obviously desperate but dared not to pry too much. Emma supposed it made her too wistful.

And on this afternoon, Emma was beginning to feel quite pleasant at last. The sun was out and they decided to go out on the little wooden porch behind the cottage, take off their stockings and sit on the edge so that they could dip their feet into the little stream, which was cool not cold.

She did not even mind that Charlotte wasn’t full of words now, as the cacophony of bird chirping all around them was a delightful music to one’s ears. She began to see why Charlotte could be so fond of this shabby little place as she said so.

Charlotte was sitting behind her, braiding her hair and fashioning it up as well as she could. The downside of not having one’s maid at hand. But as shockingly rough she could be when she had to cut up wood or mend or lift something around the house, as delicately did she handle Emma’s beautiful dark locks. She adorned her work with a few flowers they had picked up on their way back from their morning walk. It was all quite lovely and peaceful.

Something moved in the underbrush of the forest.

‘OH!!!’ Emma shrieked suddenly as a great, grey beast jumped out of the shrubbery.

It trudged swiftly through the little stream and jumped atop the wooden patio, lunging right at Charlotte!

‘Ohh, there you are Sir Fluff!’ she said, patting and hugging the shabby, wet dog whose rapidly wiggling tail was spraying water everywhere. ‘Haven’t seen you in a week, have I? I was beginning to worry where you were!’

‘Y-you know this dog?’ Lady Portman asked, keeping her distance from the animal.

‘Of course! I was so damn lonely but he kept me from the deepest throes sadness! We are the best of friends! Aren’t we, Sir Fluff? Aren’t we?’ she cooed, rubbing the dog’s belly as it had thrown itself on the ground, ready to be spoiled. ‘Ohhh, yes, we are… ugh, you love this, don’t you, you great big beast…’

Emma cleared her throat, feeling abandoned.

‘Ah, yes, Lady Portman, may I introduce you to Sir Fluff, knight of the Welsh woodlands, protector of the realm, and king of cuteness? Sir Fluff, it is my highest honour to introduce Baroness Portman. No need to kiss her hand, as she is being rather grumpy at the moment.’

‘I am not… grumpy!’

Charlotte gave Emma a sceptical look. She would have laughed but she felt like she was about to be scolded for being unladylike.

‘Sir Fluff? Blanket. Sit. Good boy.’

The dog obediently went into the shade on his blanket and got comfy instead of getting between the women demanding more belly rubs and playtime.

Charlotte, however, turned to Emma. ‘Right. What is the matter?’

‘Nothing is the matter,’ Lady Portman replied, turning away, back towards the scenery.

‘I told you I could not give you all the comforts you are used to, not here.’

‘I know… I just did not quite expect that to mean waking up to a spider above our bed every morning.’

‘This is an old cottage in the woods. They’re just spiders. Harmless. In fact I’ve grown to like them, often they were the only ones keeping me company in my solitude on the road.

‘They are spiders, they have no business being above one’s bed! And it’s not just them. It’s the stares of the villagers, the strange language they speak that makes me feel they are talking about me, the almost inedible breakfasts at the most strange Ladies of Llangollen, and our peaceful moments being disturbed by the arrival of a vulgar villager or a wet dog!’

Charlotte scooted closer to Emma.

‘If you’d like to leave, you can.’

Emma shrugged, not quite making up her mind.

‘Emma… My darling…’ Charlotte tried, to no response. ‘Oh, really? Do you really find me that ghastly?’

‘Not ghastly. But changed,’ Emma admitted.

‘Changed how?’

‘Goodness, where to begin?’

‘Careful, because I might find I have changed in my feelings towards you.’

Emma turned around at Charlotte now, fear striking her at the serious tone.

‘Emma, I know it’s not ideal But I’m quite proud of having persevered,’ Charlotte insisted.

‘But, darling,’ Emma softened her tone, placing a hand on Charlotte’s, though it was still wet from the dog. ‘There are ways in which you wouldn’t have to persevere like this on your own.’

‘Such as?’

‘If you’re so clever, how is it you have not figured out an alternative?’

Charlotte huffed indignantly.

‘I’m sorry, that came out wrong,’ Emma was quick to say. ‘But you could come back to London. I don’t see why not!’

‘I cannot.’

‘I think you could.’

‘Yes, right into the hands of my parents, surely they are in London for the season, too. You said Edward was away on the Continent? Well, Mama and Papa would be waiting for me at his address, I’d be someone’s wife by the time he returned from his little holiday!’

‘Not if you were at the Palace. Not only under my protection but Her Majesty’s.’

‘I am not going to the Palace, Emma.’

‘Why not?’

‘I am simply not suited to such a life! I never was but certainly not after this! I would rather stay here and cut up my own firewood than sit in the Queen’s dressing room for hours while she’s trying on her new hats! What a pointless existence!’

Charlotte knew at once she effectively insulted Emma.

‘I’m sorry, look, I just… I am just not cut out to serve at court as well as you do it,’ she remedied it. That sounded better.

‘Don’t you miss any of it? Your past life?’

Charlotte considered this.

‘I do miss Edward, of course. And my books,’ she admitted sadly. ‘He has probably reorganised them in entirely the wrong way…’ she tutted. ‘There are times when I even miss Lord Alfred, though I’m sure he doesn’t miss me.’

‘You are very wrong about that, Charlotte. They both miss you terribly. And I’m sure your parents have learnt a lesson by now. And the rest of your family, my dear, if you returned now you would be back in London by the time your niece or nephew is born!’

‘What? Not… Arthur and Florence?’

Yes, they are expecting their first child next month! Any day now, as a matter of fact!’

‘Oh! But that’s…’ Charlotte was speechless from happiness for them. But again, her joy was pointless if she had to miss it. Because she had to miss it. ‘Alas, I cannot. I have to know Tommy won’t bother me anymore before I returned, if I ever did. And I will not go back to frilly dresses and sitting at home all day to appease London Society, I cannot waste a second of my life like that anymore.’

Lady Portman huffed in frustration and turned away from the younger woman again.

‘Really, Charlotte, I came all the way here, for what?’

Charlotte frowned, hurt.

‘Don’t you enjoy my company at all, Emma?’

‘I would, but all we do is argue and fight and walk in the village among those odd people, or else live like hermits in the woods and…’

Lady Portman fell silent at once as Charlotte started kissing her neck from behind, ever so softly.

Charlotte had felt it unreasonable that Emma was so displeased with her time here. She was right, though: the girl was changed. Previously, she might have given into brief pleasures and selfish demands of women that cared very little for her or were so ashamed of what they had done that they would deny anything had happened, came the morning after. She understood Alfred’s pain when he told her how easily Captain Peel had discarded of him – she had experienced that too many times to count. Alfred was duped once but knew where he stood usually, what he could and could not expect from a man. Women were always lovely, whether by nature or nurture, and thus were like a journey with no map.

She wasn’t exactly testing Emma whether she had come “all this way” for her company, her whole self, the walks, the conversations, the day-to-day activities couples did, proper ones, or for something unfinished, but… nagging doubts and fears about yet another such betrayal had made her keep her distance.

Until now. If Lady Portman was not going to be easily appeased, Charlotte knew how she could achieve it anyway.

She brushed her lips against the elegant lines and curves of Emma’s shoulder, dropping the sleeve of her dress to free more skin, and breathing in the sweet scent of her perfume.

When she opened her eyes, she was satisfied to see that goose bumps appeared in the wake of her kisses.

Lady Portman may have been used to comforts out of most people’s reach, but she was not used to being given this kind of pleasure.

Charlotte needed only to reach up to Emma’s chin with the lightest touch of a finger to compel her to turn towards her and she was kissing her without any more hesitation.

No wonder Lady Portman was so tense, Charlotte thought, remembering their little private conversation at Christmas.

She slipped her tongue into Emma’s mouth, shamelessly and gladly showing her what she had been missing out on. And this was just the beginning.

Desire flaring up in Charlotte, she took charge, pulled Emma away from the water, her stockingless legs dripping from the knees down, and she laid her down. Emma, far from stopping her fumbling under her skirts and petticoat, pulled Charlotte closer so as to deepen their kiss.

Charlotte’s hand was sliding up Emma’s thigh, so close to its destination, when…

‘No, wait, stop,’ Emma suddenly said, breaking away.

‘What? Why? What’s wrong?’ Charlotte asked, confused. Emma had clearly wanted this for possibly longer than Charlotte. Why would she refuse her now?

‘Nothing,’ Emma replied, trying to compose herself but hardly able to catch her breath. ‘We can’t do this here.’

‘What?’

‘Not here. Upstairs. Clean hands. In private. Now.’

Charlotte hardly realised what was happening when they were already halfway up the rickety wooden stairs.

‘Satisfied, Lady Portman?’ Charlotte asked once she had washed the dirt of the dog off her hands.

‘Not quite,’ Emma replied, daringly flicking open a button on Charlotte’s dress.

That was enough of a spark to light an unstoppable fire in Charlotte indeed and they were jumping into bed, properly, in no time.

 

 

The hotel in La Rochelle was even more splendid than the others and it was their favourite kind of arrangement here, too: two bedrooms joined with a sitting room. No having to sneak across public corridors at night. They also had a luxurious bathroom with the largest tub that had running hot water, therefore there was no need for servants to bring warm water.

Alfred emerged from the steaming bubbly water, the steamy air a perfume from all sorts of flower scented oils and soaps, hoping to see Edward there, about to join him at last.

But he was nowhere.

Alfred didn’t want to stay soaking in the water until it went cold so he cleaned himself, stepped out of the bathtub, and wrapped a towel around his waist. He opened the bathroom door still dripping wet from his bath, prepared to dazzle Edward…

…but he was not at all in the position to look at Alfred at all, as he was doing push-ups rigorously on the sitting room carpet in their hotel suite. Alfred had waited and waited, and they had limited time in this luxury hotel in privacy they could not get in London… and Edward was spending it on push-ups.

‘W-what are you doing, Edward?’ Alfred asked.

Edward stopped to reply just for a second: ‘Catching up on my physical exercising, of course!’ he said with what little breath he could waste on talking, and continued bending his arms and pushing up, repeatedly.

The breathy groans and sounds he was making, and his body in nothing but underpants, glistening from sweat… Alfred was almost completely distracted by it. Almost.

‘But… darling, Edward, why?’

‘What do you mean why?’ Edward asked now that he stopped and stood, stretching his muscles this way and that. ‘We spend all day nearly every day in bed, Alfred!’

‘And that is a bad thing how, remind me?’

‘It is not, it is heavenly.’

‘Besides, we walked our legs off yesterday around town! The hundreds of steps in the towers! And we have sailed our own yacht here!’

‘That’s hardly a sport.’

‘It most definitely is!’

‘Not one that is designed to develop one’s physique.’

‘I’ll have you know there is a yachting club in London. I’m thinking about becoming a member.’

‘And so you should, my love, but you cannot play croquet on your yacht while competing, you know.’

‘What’s wrong with croquet on the yacht?! That’s playing two sports at once!’

‘Neither count if you can drink champagne meanwhile, Alfred! And bringing croquet of all things…’

‘What’s wrong with bringing my croquet set?! I like to travel with it, it passes the time!’

‘We agreed we would only pack the essentials!’

Alfred had no comeback to that and nor did Edward.

They were too astonished to notice they may have been actually… fighting?

After a few tense seconds of silence…

…they both burst out laughing.

‘I’m sorry… I’m…’

‘No, I’m sorry…’

‘No, I am. You can play as much croquet on your yacht as you want, my love,’ Edward said very diplomatically, once they caught their breath.

Our yacht,’ Alfred replied.

Edward beamed at him, touched. They really were kind of like a married couple, were they not?

Except that Alfred was standing there clad in nothing but a towel, looking absolutely gorgeous, as ever, reminding Edward of what possessed him not to sleep in or bathe with Alfred in favour of working on his muscles before he lost them from laziness.

‘I love you, Alfred,’ he said, ‘I love that we spend most of our time in bed indeed… But I fear you won’t want me in your bed at all by the end of the month, not if the reason I am not wearing my trousers is not because you took them off me but because I cannot button them up!’

Alfred bit back a grin and shook his head.

‘Edward, my dearest, you are hardly in danger of developing a politician’s belly anytime soon. And even if you should, even if you decided one morning that you want to eat yourself full every day, buttered croissants after croissants, and dine out every night, and never rise from your desk, and even if you went grey and bald and lost all your bodily charms that I admit…’ he swallowed as his mouth watered at once just from looking at Edward’s body, ‘… I admit, truly genuinely, are not to be ignored… Even then, if you lost a limb or grew two heads, I would still be fated to be as devoted to you as I have thus far been, with my whole heart, my body, my soul, my future, and my love until the day I die...’

Edward’s heart was so full he didn’t know what to say.

‘... by which time, I believe, I shall be old and grey and wrinkly and you might not want me,’ Alfred added.

‘Never shall such a day come,’ Edward replied now without hesitation, kissing Alfred sweetly. When they broke away, he smirked rather mischievously. ‘So… if I cut my hair…’

‘Don’t you dare, Drummond.’

‘Oh, Drummond, am I?’

‘Shut up and kiss me.’

Edward gladly obliged.

‘You’re scratchy again…’ Alfred giggled, nuzzling against Edward’s chin, loving it really.

‘Well if you’d allow me to use the bathroom at last…’

‘What did I just say?’ Alfred said, going in for a kiss again, to silence Edward, who forgot he was all sweaty, only realising so when Alfred jumped away from him.

‘Wha- why?’

‘Well, I just bathed!’ Alfred explained, not at all cross as he indicated his still dripping wet body clad only in the towel around his waist. ‘I am clean. You are not. You’ll get me all sweaty and then I’d have to go back to bathe again!’

Edward went from frowning indignantly to smirking in such a way that Alfred trailed off… strange… what was Edward thinking?

‘Oh, you’re afraid I’ll get you all sweaty?’ Edward said in a deep, raspy voice. As he stepped closer, Alfred stepped back towards the bathroom door.

‘W-well, yes…’

‘Oh, what a shame that would be, would it not?’ Edward asked even as he grabbed Alfred’s bare waist and pulled him against himself, contradicting his words entirely. ‘Oops, I’m so sorry!’

But Alfred caught on.

‘See, now I’m all sweaty, too. I’ll have to bathe again, Drummond,’ he said in his deep, velvety voice that sent sensations down Edward’s body in a flash.

‘Oh? Well, what a coincidence: so do I.’

‘Perhaps we should do it together?’

‘I believe, Lord Alfred, that is an excellent idea.’

Alfred was already unbuttoning Edward’s trousers but stopped in the doorway.

‘Only… Perhaps, you don’t have to shave today.’

Though he rolled his eyes, Edward grinned and walked Alfred back into the bathroom, and off flew their towels and clothes…

 

 

Well, Lady Portman definitely didn’t care a fig about spiders in the cottage anymore.

Charlotte did her best to make sure of that.

Strange, she didn’t know what to expect but she found she was surprised. She might have assumed the great baroness’s lack of hands-on experience made her less assertive. But in reality, Emma was quite particular about what she wanted.

She did like things properly done.

Charlotte was used to taking charge, and she began as such, ready to guide Emma into a world in which she gets to be laid in bed and taken care of. She knew Emma was beautiful but she really was just otherworldly, whatever her age.

Alas, Lady Portman did not wish for them to be completely undressed. Charlotte, though biting back a bit of disappointment, attributed this to modesty being a hard habit to break for a woman of the baroness’ standing. And it wasn’t like it got in the way…

Charlotte went in slowly, taking her time to kiss Emma everywhere she could, and push her to the edge of desire before she gave her what she wanted… or meant to. Emma may have enjoyed it all but she was rather impatient. Almost controlling, not something Charlotte was used to.

She knew exactly what to, though, as Emma lay under her and let her touch her, rubbing her where she was most sensitive in small circles, picking up pace and slowing down, watching for every sign on Emma’s body for what she needed and when.

She knew Emma was close to reaching that bliss she had never done at another’s hands before, judging by her tensing muscles and the way she was grabbing at Charlotte’s hair, her rapid little gasps and everything else.

Charlotte kissed hungrily at the skin on her neck as her hand was working away under that thin nightgown, knowing it was right. But still, Emma couldn’t seem to let herself relax.

‘Is something wrong?’ Charlotte asked, stopping reluctantly.

‘N..no…’

‘Hm?’

‘I can’t… nobody has ever seen me…’

Charlotte bit back a giggle lest Emma thought she was laughing at her.

‘Then I shall close my eyes,’ she said sweetly. She would have said anything to be allowed to continue. And shut her eyes, too, as promised. ‘See?’

Apparently, Emma was satisfied because she kissed Charlotte and objected no further.

Charlotte resumed her movements, picking up pace just perfectly, until her body tensed ever more and her gasps became moans…

Charlotte peeked.

Emma was unmistakably feeling it.

Charlotte kept going until she actually felt Emma’s hand on her wrist, stopping her. As soon as she caught her breath, she buried her face in Charlotte’s shirt in shame, foolishly, really, as there was nothing shameful at all about what happened as far as Charlotte was concerned…

They forgot to go down to the village for dinner that night.

 

 

Though they had a bit of a late start, having a hard time leaving the hotel, or getting dressed to do so, Alfred and Edward’s yacht pulled in at the port on Île de Ré well before nightfall. How lucky, there was a perfect space by the pier right next to a larger ship.

‘Et voilà! At last we are here!’ Alfred said once the yacht was fixed to the pier and kissed Edward.

It was the lightest kiss but Edward was struck with fear and glanced around.

‘Alfred… anyone could see…’ he whispered, though not a soul was in sight on the docks.

‘Nonsense, my love, we are quite alone here. This is a remote coastal island where very few people, certainly not people like us us show up. Nobody knows us here.’

‘LORD ALFRED PAGET?!’ came a familiar voice the next second.

Alfred’s eyes went wide as the moon.

He turned around to the source of it, as it came not from land but from the larger ship next to which they had parked their yacht.

Aboard the ship, leaning over the railings casually, and wearing a fully unbuttoned shirt and a wide grin, was just the man he thought he heard.

‘WILLIAM!?’ Alfred exclaimed in disbelief, just as Edward did, though his shock was mixed with exasperation in large quantities.

William Peel did indeed happen to be there, just as surprised as them, but thoroughly amused. He jumped over the railings and slid down a rope to land on the pier and hop on the yacht before the men could say anything, though that was hard enough as they were still lost for words from astonishment anyway.

‘Alfred! Come here!’ William said in an incredibly friendly way and went ahead to greet Alfred in the Continental way, by a kiss on each cheek and a warm hug for good measure. Alfred half-heartedly hugged back automatically, still utterly confused.

Edward came out of some of his shock as he indignantly watched a nearly shirtless William push his body against that of Alfred’s without any shame at all, protectiveness sparking in Edward and a strange sense of inferiority for his nearly hairless chest compared to William’s.

William opened his dark blue eyes on his frown over Alfred’s shoulder.

‘Ah!’ he said, letting go of Alfred in favour of turning to Edward with a friendly pat on his shoulder. ‘Drummond! Of course. I thought I’d seen Alfred kissing a peasant boy and thought I lost my wits at sea at last!’ he laughed heartily.

Edward nearly tore the straw hat off his head. Rather the crazy curls in the humidity than that!

‘Has Alfred been supplying you with enough kisses of life, Drummond?’ William teased him as he let go.

‘W-W-William?’ Alfred finally found his voice. ‘But what are you doing here?!’

‘Same as you, I suppose. I needed a stop. Is this yacht yours, Alfred?’

‘Yes, i-it is.’

‘Oh, well, I say! It must be very new! Good rigging, the newest kind. And I assume the inside must be very comfortable indeed…’ William talked, winking at the other men. ‘So, England wasn’t good enough for you? Goodness, you have not also been discovered, have you?’

‘No, we have not. We are on a holiday.’

‘A holiday! How gay!’

Alfred caught Edward’s eye and saw he was less than pleased with the situation.

‘But, W-William… aren’t you supposed to be in Africa?’

‘I was! Ohh, the heat! I thought was used to it but I had NOT expected all that sand! Yes, we went, as I said. Alas, the man that taught me Arabic came with me to Cairo but chickened out when I said I wanted to take a trip up the Nile. That was when I met Aharon,’ he said, pointing in the direction of his own ship, on which a beautiful man was enjoying the last rays of the sun, his long jet black hair falling on his shoulders, his dark skin exposed except for a pair of loose white linen trousers – or was it just a skirt or towel of some sort?

He realised he was being watched and seemed to enjoy it. He nodded once towards the men on the yacht and turned back to enjoying the sun.

William was besotted as his gaze lingered on his beautiful companion.

‘Hmm… he doesn’t speak a word of English…’ he mused, still feasting his eyes on him. He heard someone clear his throat. ‘Oh, well, I do have a fair enough command of Arabic. What do you take me for?’

Alfred and Edward couldn’t help but share a sceptical look.

‘Right, fair enough… But I’ll have you know that our relationship began as entirely intellectual. We took a boat up the Nile, him reciting all the ancient legends… We almost reached the source, but then we got the fever, one after another,’ he explained, prompting Alfred to gasp. ‘Not to worry, as you can see, we both got through it in one piece. And, well… nothing makes two men bond as strongly as near death, does it? Well, you know all about that!’ William joked rather insensitively but that wasn’t unusual.

What was, is that he should have had a companion.

‘Hang on… are you and A-aron… together?’ Alfred asked, not believing he was actually asking this.

William beamed at him. ‘Why, yes! I thought he would stay but just as I was pulling out of the port he showed up with nothing, no bags, not a single coin in his pocket, fleeing from his family, too. We thought we needed a bit of a break from the wilderness. And I was desperately craving wine from Bordeaux. So how long are you staying?’

‘About two weeks, we were hoping…’ Edward supplied tentatively.

‘Found your tongue, eh, Drummond? Alfred will be pleased!’ he winked at him, and laughed as Edward was immediately clutching his pearls! ‘And where are you staying at all?’

‘In the one of the buildings of Chateaux de Queille.’

‘No way, which one? The Ivy Cottage or the Rose one?’

‘The Ivy.’

‘Oh, what a jolly coincidence! I have just dealt with an agent this morning to reserve the Vine Cottage! That’s right next to it!’ William said, already grabbing a bag and hopping off the yacht. ‘We should find your staff then, they must be waiting for you there in the port! Ha! Look at that, we shall be neighbours for the next couple of weeks! Isn’t that marvellous?’

‘Yes… Just marvellous,’ Edward muttered only to Alfred’s ears, cursing their rotten luck.