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A Close Call

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“Alfred,

It seems I am unable to go to Ciro’s tonight, even though I have been planning to ever since I got your note. Please come to my address and I shall explain everything.

Your affectionate friend,

Edward”

 

‘Bad news, Sir?’ the waiter who had handed Lord Alfred the note asked at his frown.

‘I do not know yet,’ Alfred replied, downed his glass of champagne for Dutch courage, and left the restaurant for 10 Downing Street as instructed.

It was in a short walking distance, and Alfred’s confusion had no chance to ease on the way to Drummond’s. He recognized the handwriting but it was so hastily scribbled – it was most unlike Dru— Edward.

Alfred was let in by the butler – hat, Sir, coat, Sir – where’s Drummond? In his bedchamber, Sir.

‘Oh, well, I shall just wait in the library if you would inform him of my arrival, please?’

‘Ah, Mr Drummond is not able to come downstairs at the moment, my lord. Let me lead the way.’

What on Earth?

Well, the butler was already a flight of stairs ahead of him so Alfred had no choice but to follow hastily.

He was led straight into what was Drummond’s private bedroom. The scene he found in there only elevated his bepuzzlement:

Sir Robert Peel was standing by the window, wiping sweat off his forehead with his handkerchief.

Sir George Wilson, the fashionable doctor Alfred knew from high Society, his crisp dinner frock coat otherwise spotless, was washing two very bloody hands at a wash stand.

A nurse was rinsing a cloth in a basin of ice water and applying it to Drummond’s forehead periodically.

And Drummond, well, he was resting on his bed, naked from the waist up, his left upper arm bandaged. His unusually pale skin was covered in a thin sheet of sweat. He was fidgety and squeamish every time the nurse’s cold cloth touched his forehead, only to find relief in the sensation after all. He took a swig of his finest single-malt whisky, of which he had a bottle in his right hand. When the nurse tried to yank it away, it was to no avail.

‘Good evening, gentlemen,’ Alfred said on autopilot, advancing into the room timidly.

Before anyone else could react, Drummond shot up suddenly.

‘Alfred!’ he said far too loudly for the distance there was between them. ‘Oh—wait, shh, sorry… Lord Alfred,’ he corrected himself in a solemn but transparent stage whisper, and then promptly burst into a bout of giggles.

‘What’s going on?’ Alfred rightfully asked.

‘Drummond’s been shot,’ Sir Robert volunteered.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Alfred blurted out in shock, almost forgetting to add: 'Sir?'

‘We came out of the House after the vote. There was a protesting crowd outside, which was to be expected. Someone, a madman named M’Naghten as the constable informed us, pulled a gun on my person. However, Drummond here jumped in front of it and the bullet hit his arm.’

‘Drummond jumped in front of the bullet?’

‘That’s right, Lord Alfred. I believe he saved my life tonight. The man is nothing short of a hero.’

At that point Drummond badly masked a burp and a hiccup.

‘And I trust you have got the bullet out, Sir George?’ Alfred turned to the doctor, putting two and two together. His father had shared the story of how he had lost his leg and the copious amounts of alcohol it took to numb the pain while the army surgeon worked.

‘I have, Lord Alfred.’

‘So everyone’s happy. Especially Drummond…’ Alfred remarked, as Drummond started laughing to himself at something or other again.

‘Right. Perhaps we should let Mr Drummond rest,’ the doctor suggested, moving to usher the men out, when Drummond suddenly ceased in his amusement.

‘No!’ he half said half grunted. ‘No, Alfred, don’t leave me…’ now he was nearly crying within seconds. ‘Why are you doing this?’

‘I’m… we’re just going downstairs, Drummond, to let you sleep,’ Alfred attempted but his communication did not get through.

‘I don’t want to be alone…’

‘Nurse Potter shall stay to attend your needs, Mr Dru—’ Sir George tried.

‘No!’ Drummond borderline wept now. ‘I want Alfred, I want Lord Alfred!!!’

‘I’m afraid the bullet hit a bone,’ the doctor explained to Alfred. ‘There was much, uh, assistance necessary.’

Drummond threw himself back on the bed and cried into his pillow like a child throwing a fit. ‘I want Alfred, I just want…’ he repeated.

Alfred’s throat went dry. This would not end well. Apparently Edward was a blurter when he was drunk. ‘Drummond, what are you saying, I’m right here, now stop this and try to have a rest—’

‘I just want Alfred!!!’ sobbed. ‘But he doesn’t want to be with me… Why doesn’t he want to be with me… After all that time— and in Scotland---’

‘I BELIEVE,’ Alfred cut in, immensely panicking now, ‘that Drummond is indeed in dire need of a rest. Gentlemen, I think you should leave, I’ll be downstairs in a minute.’

‘Yes, Alfred, tell them to leave us alone…’ Drummond’s muffled voice came from where his face was now buried in his pillow. ‘That’s what Her Majesty wanted too, you know, remember when we lost them?’

‘Lost them?’ Sir Robert asked, putting Alfred on the spot.

‘I do apologise for my friend’s behaviour, Sir Robert,’ Alfred tried to diffuse the situation. ‘Pardon me but, frankly, he’s talking rubbish.’

'But he said the Queen-'

'All nonsense, trust me,' Alfred insisted, putting on his most winning court manners. It seemed to have done the trick... he hoped. 'Though I suspect Drummond's headache shall be rather more apparent, come tomorrow, than the damage to his arm, not to mention to his pride.'

‘Oh, do not worry about it, Lord Alfred. Drummond won’t remember a thing tomorrow,’ Sir Robert said, his frown ever-present, but not without some amusement. ‘I trust all of you gentleman, and Nurse Potter, not to remind him of it.’

There was a general consensus about this, and Alfred could finally relax when Sir Robert and Sir George left, wondering whether there was another glass of that whisky downstairs because they would have liked a swig or two themselves after that most eventful evening.

‘Alfred?’ Drummond muttered tragically again. ‘Alfred? Where are you?’

‘I’m… I’m right here, Drummond…’ Alfred said awkwardly. The nurse was still in there, stocking the surgical items away at a glacial pace.

‘Hm?’ Drummond turned around, seeking the source of Alfred’s voice blindly. ‘Alfred?’

‘Yes, still here, Drummond… just rest easy, please,’ Alfred said, attempting to snatch the bottle of whisky away from Drummond. He kept waving his hands and fidgeting so inconsequentially, however, that it was a near impossible task to complete with dignity.

‘Alfred… Alfred… Oh Alfred!!!! Guess what!!!’ Drummond went from despair to reinvigoration in a flash. ‘I got shot!’ he laughed. ‘Shot, Alfred! Isn’t that mad?’

Alfred feigned laughter for his sake. ‘Quite… mad…’

Drummond stopped laughing abruptly, sitting up and scooting over to where Alfred was standing by the bed. ‘Oh, Alfred… I’m so sorry… I was so childish and… I just stormed away yesterday…. When you were so… beautiful!’

‘Umm, Nurse Potter, wasn’t it?’ Alfred cut in, desperately trying to think of something.

‘Yes, my lord.’

‘Are you quite done here?’

‘Only the gauze to roll up, now…’

Alfred grabbed the bloody things, rolled them up faster than a spinning machine worked, stuffed them in the medical box, and finally stuffed the box into the Nurse’s hands.

‘I thank you ever so gratefully for your kind assistance, Nurse Potter,’ Alfred said in a well-practiced saccharine tone, nearly pushing the nurse out of the room. ‘I shall join you all downstairs in a short while,’ he continued to mask whatever Drummond was going to blab next and shut the door in her face. ‘I hope,’ he added to himself.

When he turned back towards the bed, Drummond was fast asleep.

‘Of course…’ Alfred sighed, cursing his luck that Edward would only shut up once there was no one around to overhear him nearly reveal the true nature of their relationship.

It was only now that Alfred appreciated the events of the night. Edward, his brave, dramatic, wholesome Edward, actually jumped in front of a bullet meant for the Prime Minister, and lived to tell the tale. Once he sobered up, that is, Alfred thought with a chuckle. Well, if there ever was an excuse to stand him up at the restaurant, this was it.

As uncontrollable Edward had been minutes before, as peaceful he was now. Alfred watched him for a minute, before walking over to the bed, placing the bottle of whisky on the bedside table and (though hiding his gorgeous body was truly such a shame) making sure Edward was comfortable and well tucked in for a long, deep night of sleep.

When everything was done, Alfred turned to leave, as promised, already thinking about what excuses he could find for all the stuff Edward had said.

But before he left, Alfred hesitated. In the end, he gave into his heart and returned to Edward’s side to place the gentlest of kisses on his forehead.

‘I’m here,’ he whispered. ‘I will always be here.’

And with that, he composed himself and left to do some expert damage control, so that the papers would only write about Drummond’s heroism, came morning.

Chapter Text

Alfred was fast asleep in Drummond’s velvet chaise longue by the fire. It was in the early hours of the morning, or so the lively orchestra of birds outside the windows indicated.

A snore woke him. But it didn’t come from the bed, in which Drummond lay still knocked well out, but from another corner of the room.

Nurse Potter was also keeping vigil, then. She had also given into sleep in the armchair she was occupying, apparently. Alfred liked the elderly nurse, she was small but clever and knew exactly what people needed before they knew it themselves. Take the blanket that Alfred didn’t remember having had when he had seated himself on the chaise. She must have spared him a motherly thought amid all the things she had to do to make sure Drummond was going to be fine.

She could snore all she liked, for all Alfred cared. She was a godsend.

Alfred felt a shiver run down his spine, his tired muscles stretching, and stifled a big yawn into his shoulder. Eyes peeking above the hem of the blanket, he saw Drummond was resting, peaceful and beautiful as an angel.

Quite the reverse of the night before, when he just would not keep that kissable mouth of his shut, having drunk all that whisky.

However, Alfred had grown up on his father’s stories about Waterloo, including the one in which he had his leg blown off and then amputated in the army camp without the administration of any anaesthetic substance, so he knew it was for the best that Drummond had drained half a bottle of his finest Scotch to bear the pain of the bullet and its regrettable removal.

Of course, that meant that Drummond’s tongue had got rather loose in front of Sir Robert, of all people, and the doctor…

‘So you really have no suggestion on what Drummond could have meant by “losing” Her Majesty?’ Sir Robert asked the night before, once Alfred had joined him and Sir George downstairs in Drummond’s smoking room.

‘I assure you, Sir Robert, I was with Her Majesty, His Grace Prince Albert, as well as Drummond all throughout the journey, every day from breakfast till Bridge. I believe his overworked mind must have played a trick on him in his state, you know how easily his disposition to strive for perfection can result in fretting about impossible dangers.’

‘That, I do know – that’s why I employ him, he is prepared for all outcomes at all times, always twelve steps ahead of everyone. A man of perfectionism indeed.’

A man of perfection, rather, Alfred thought…

‘Ah, worry not, Sir,’ the doctor Sir George said, ‘Drummond was hardly the worst case I have seen. The strongest men can talk all sorts of nonsense from pain and certain medication. It’s not at all unusual to see the soberest of men become wholly irrational,’ he laughed.

Sir Robert was still frowning, though, and turned to Alfred. ‘Yes, that reminds me: Drummond was most insistent on writing a note to you, even in the worst throes of pain. You didn’t… have… an argument, did you?

‘Nothing that cannot be resolved, I assure you,’ Alfred said, hoping that was indeed true.

‘I certainly hope so. Your friendship is universally famed and Drummond is a remarkable gentleman.’

‘He is, Sir. Most remarkable,’ Alfred agreed, very much indeed.

‘No good letting an argument get in the way of a good friendship – nothing is as important as one’s friends.’

‘Do not let your wife hear you say that, Sir Robert,’ Sir George remarked with humour.

‘Ah, you may be right, Sir George. Love surpasses even that – oh but, Lord Alfred, you were not arguing about a woman, were you?’

Alfred was caught off guard and hesitated. It wasn’t technically untrue…

‘You never!’ Sir Robert exclaimed.

‘We weren’t arguing,’ Alfred heard himself say, trying to save face here as earlier upstairs. ‘Really, Drummond wouldn’t like his private affairs to be disc—’

‘You must tell me now if it is anything concerning Lady Florence, Lord Alfred. I ought to see her next – it is only right. I wouldn’t want any awkwardness, should we return with her later.’

‘No, please, don’t—’ Alfred began but Sir George interrupted, thankfully:

‘I believe Drummond has made an express request not to bring Lady Florence, remember? Besides, he will be quite useless for a day or two, I daresay. No good bringing his fiancée over – he needs rest, not feminine fussing and frivolity.’

Alfred bit back his disapproval of the doctor’s view on women and nodded. ‘Precisely. He needs to rest. You should call on Lady Florence, Sir Robert, but I suggest you tell her to wait with any visitations until Drummond is well enough to summon her.’

Alfred silently begged for Peel to understand this. He sensed that the next time Drummond would see Florence would be rather a decisive meeting, either way it went. He wanted to win his dear friend some time to think it over again, properly.

Thankfully, Peel was nodding. ‘You’re right… Right, well, off I go, then. I am also to talk more to the police. May I give you a ride in my cab, gentlemen?’

Sir George opted to take him up on that offer but Alfred excused himself by offering to stay a little longer to make sure Drummond would really be alright.

He ended up staying the night, not being able to will himself to leave him if he didn’t have to.

So, after a long night of falling in and out of sleep in Drummond’s elegant bedroom, Alfred heard a soft groan and cursing from the bed just as he was dozing off again.

Drummond was stirring! Yes, he was definitely awake! He blinked his eyes open and, regretting it instantly, closed them and started to massage his eyelids with the one good hand he could lift.

Alfred crossed the room in two steps.

‘Drummond?’

A groan of rising intonation sounded in response from the invalid.

‘By God, Drummond… How do you feel?’

‘Rotten,’ came Drummond’s raspy reply.

‘Does it hurt? Are you in much pain?’

‘Yes. Damnably.’

‘God – Nurse Potter! Nurse Potter!’

Alfred didn’t rest until the nurse had woken and examined Drummond’s state as well.

‘He says he is in a lot of pain – he doesn’t have a fever, does he?’

‘Not that I can see, Lord Alfred, and there is no sign of infection,’ she replied, taking Drummond’s temperature. ‘Please describe the pain, Mr Drummond?’

‘Just ghastly, it’s positively splitting!’

‘What?’ Alfred demanded, confused.

Nurse Potter chuckled. ‘His head, my lord. He means his head.’

‘But… your arm,’ Alfred stuttered at Drummond.

‘My arm? Oh, that’s nothing in comparison!’ Drummond moaned dramatically.

The nurse laughed again, before politely feigning being ashamed. ‘Well, I do have laudanum at hand, Mr Drummond. It is a distinct option.’

Alfred almost laughed too when the wild thought of seeing Drummond under that influence crossed his imagination. He knew he would never be able to get Drummond to take any if it weren’t for something drastic such as his being actually shot… it was so tempting to try to convince him but…

‘No, thank you, nurse,’ Drummond said, massaging his temples. ‘I should like to keep a clear head now. Just as soon as the world stops spinning.’

Nurse Potter stifled another laugh. ‘Very well, Mr Drummond. But let me get you some fresh water.’

‘God yes, please!’

Once the nurse left, Alfred kneeled on the bed and held Drummond’s hand.

‘Oh, you… you stupid, brave, wonderful man… What were you thinking?’

Drummond willed his eyes to get used to the light and looked at Alfred’s worrisome face. He had discarded of his tie and coat and his hair seemed as if nervous hands had run through it in anxiety many times. And he looked every bit as gorgeous as ever.

‘I wasn’t. I just did what honour demanded, I suppose,’ Drummond replied simply, still taking in his surroundings. ‘You were here last night, weren’t you?’

‘I’m afraid I was. Or glad. You were in quite a state.’

‘Oh, Alfred, was I horribly embarrassing?’

‘You were a handful, I must say. You practically told Sir Robert that we lost the Queen in Scotland.’

‘Goodness, did I really?’

‘Do not worry. Everything is outshone by the fact that you are the hero of the day. I’m sure Sir Robert’s saying so shall be in the morning papers. I think I succeeded in convincing him that anything let slip by you was all drunken nonsense. Though, you gave me quite a heart attack as you almost divulged more untellable tales about our Caledonian adventure...’

‘… what—oh Alfred, I didn’t— did I?’

‘No, but… Really, that’s the least of my worries. Drummond…’ Alfred was shaking his head, still in disbelief at their luck, in disbelief he really was touching Drummond’s hand – though it was cold from the loss of blood, he could feel his heartbeat in his veins, which seemed a miracle now. ‘By God, you’re so pale… You could have—’

‘But I didn’t.’

Alfred let out a frustrated sigh. Or relieved?

‘Alfred, are you angry with me?’

‘I would hit you if you weren’t shot and bandaged up!’ Alfred said and with that same breath leaned forward to place a kiss on Drummond’s lips.

When he straightened back up, he saw a smile dance on Drummond’s lips.

‘I should get shot more often if this is my reward.’

Alfred mirrored his bashful grin. But his worries were hard to overcome.

‘The question is not whether I am angry with you – are you angry at me?’ he asked tentatively.

Drummond fought against his headache to consider the events of the past day or two. He had been put through such intense curves of fate, with the debates and the vote and the incident and, most of all, Alfred.

‘Do you really regard what we had… what we did… an indiscretion?’

Alfred felt a fresh wave of terrible shame again. ‘No. Of course not.’

‘Then why did you say so?’

‘Because…’

‘Because I wasn’t thinking clearly?’

‘Oh, Drummond, I am so unbearably sorry—’

‘Call me Edward. Really, please.’

Alfred swallowed. ‘Edward,’ he obliged and his reward was a delighted smile from the man, Edward. It was such a simple thing yet it spoke volumes of their familiarity and intimacy, and having the privilege to call Edward by his given name made Alfred’s heart fuller than ever. But things were not at all settled presently.

‘Nevertheless…’

‘You are right,’ Drummond surprised Alfred. ‘A successful politician needs a wife.’

Drummond waited for the effect of his words. And indeed, as much as Alfred tried to hide his unhappiness, it was apparent regardless. Alfred nodded, as words seemed to fail him.

‘In fact,’ Drummond continued, against his better instincts not to torment his love. But perhaps a taste of his own medicine might not hurt… ‘I agree with you wholeheartedly, Florence will make a perfectly admirable wife for a man with prospects, such as myself.’

Alfred went as pale as Drummond. ‘I suppose… if that’s what you…’

‘And breaking off the engagement would be difficult at this advanced stage – it has been announced, after all, Florence’s family might even sue me. I could pay my way out of it but the scandal, oh, it would be terrible. Surely it would ruin me.’

‘Edward…’

‘And even if I can avoid that, what am I hoping to do with you? What is this? Really, it’s most unseemly. Of all the sins of the world that could have tempted me… Maybe it was nothing more than a little youthful madness. I agree with the Duchess – France is a godless country, I really wasn’t myself there. And in Scotland, well, once again we were far from London, we drank so much whisky… I really don’t know what I thought. I can only apologise for having offended you.’

‘You didn’t…’ Alfred found the lump in his throat silenced him. It was all he could do not to run from the room and start bawling. After all, his heart was breaking.

‘If I didn’t, then I advise you to consider the benefits of marriage, too.’

Now, that, Alfred couldn’t face listening to, coming from Drummond of all people, but when he tried to move away, his hand was held tight and he had to stay and hear it all, cutting into his soul, every word a sharper cut than the previous one:

‘I worry for you, Alfred. If you continue to entertain such fancies, to engage in such dalliances, you may jeopardise your own career as well. Wouldn’t it be better to settle down, marry an accomplished woman who can support you and give you children? She would make sure to host the most influential people in the country at your house, helping you advance. You could build a life…’

 And here Drummond changed his tone:

‘…and master the art of lying to everyone and to yourself, regretting not having done anything to pursue the true love of your life when you still could, he whom you can only hope to see at functions and balls from afar while you take your wife across the room, hating yourself and resenting your wife and society for it, wondering whether another, far luckier man loves him now instead of you, someone who is braver than you, someone who can hold him and kiss him and so he is his and he has forgotten you, until you forget whether it was all worth it after all. And maybe if you’re lucky you won’t shoot yourself in the head before you’re thirty.’

Alfred, who had been being crushed by each and every word now looked up at Drummond perplexed at the obvious turn. ‘What…?’

‘Alfred,’ Drummond said, not realising he was still squeezing Alfred’s hand in his far too strongly. ‘I won’t do it. Because this is what would await me. You must see that I cannot do it. Would you be able to?’

Alfred understood that Drummond had been speaking about his own future. He didn’t hesitate to reply: ‘No. I wouldn’t.’

‘Come here, Alfred,’ Drummond said warmly now.

‘Nurse Potter will be back with your water any second.’

‘Please.’

Alfred glanced cautiously at the door and climbed closer to Drummond on the large bed, but careful not to hurt him.

Edward rejoiced in having Alfred by his side, his beautiful face and sparkling blue eyes that still looked at him with such worry. So he turned to Alfred with touching honesty. Despite his rapid heartbeats, he felt a calmness like never before.

‘Do you believe I haven’t thought it through thoroughly?’

‘I do wonder whether you know what you’re getting yourself into. Have you even ever…’

‘I have not been completely oblivious, you know. Perhaps I had been, when it came to you, because I had been trying to repress it all so. Besides, I thought I couldn’t possibly be so lucky that you would return my feelings.’

‘I gave you signs.’

‘Still, it seemed too good to be true. Besides, Florence, and the Marquess, have been positively breathing down my neck. But it matters not. Truly,’ Drummond added off Alfred’s visible anxiety. ‘Alfred, I have had you in my life for, what, three years?’

‘Just about.’

‘And what wonderful three years they have been! When I look back – and make no mistake, my life really did flash through my mind in an instant when I was shot,’ Drummond swallowed, hardly believing he lived to tell the tale. ‘My memories from the time I have known you, Alfred, they somehow seem more vivid and sharp and clearer than anything beforehand. It’s as if life has really only started to matter since… since you have been here to grace my days.’

‘Edward…’ Alfred couldn’t believe what he heard. His heart felt as if it was about to burst out of his chest, just as Drummond’s, apparently, as he felt when he placed their still joined hands on his chest. ‘I just can’t let you get hurt. Certainly not more than you already are…’

‘Well, I won’t marry.’

‘There will be a scandal.’

‘I’m a hero, remember?’

‘Will that be enough to save your reputation?’

‘Still. Better a scandal than a life wasted. Besides, I believe I have found an infallible reason to get out of it.’

‘What is it?’

‘I’ll have to talk to my brother first.’

‘Edward. Are you sure?’

‘I have never been surer of anything! Alfred, I am yours. A successful politician might need a wife and I’m sure Florence would be an admirable one. But I’d rather stay a private secretary and be free than live in shackles without you.’

‘I understand…but at the same time, I don’t want you to change your mind and resent me, I mean, you have been engaged – what is it, am I causing you pain?’ Alfred asked as Drummond seemed in great discomfort and held Alfred’s hand ever tighter.

‘It’s not the injury. I have been quite aware of my feelings for some time, Alfred. I am only human, too,’ Drummond admitted bashfully. ‘In the past, I had been able to ignore them…’

Alfred could relate to that very well. He wondered who caught Edward’s eyes in his youth, and wishing he had known him when they were younger, to spare him and himself years of melancholia and unhappiness.

‘But you…’ Edward continued, his smile returning. ‘With you, Alfred, that’s impossible to do. They are just too strong. I suppose if I hadn’t met you or really if I hadn’t got engaged, I might have lived my life in complete chastity, wed only to my work. It would have been a rich enough life but not nearly quite as rich as the one I could have if you… loved me.’

‘I do love you, Edward.’

‘Do you? Do you really, Alfred?’

‘I do. I think you know I have, for a long time.’

‘How?’

‘How?’ Alfred asked, confused.

‘Alfred, I love you. I have loved you as a true friend. But I also love you with the passion I ought to feel for my fiancée. Do you understand that?’

‘Do I? Edward…’ and Alfred had to kiss him, damn the wound or the bandages or the unlocked door, Alfred kissed Edward with the truest passion he felt for him. If his hand slid down Edward’s bare chest and perhaps further below under the hem of the covers, his only excuse was that he could hardly stop himself anymore, not when Edward had spoken like that to him.

Alfred seemed to have evaporated all of Drummond’s doubts indeed.

Alas, they became aware of a noise outside in the corridor. Alfred fled off the bed just in time for Nurse Potter to step into the room with ice and water on a tray.

‘Well, there seems to be more colour in your cheeks, if I may say so, Mr Drummond,’ she said obliviously. ‘Surely, you are looking to have a speedy recovery.’

And if she noticed Alfred’s badly hidden giddy grin, she put it down to happiness about this promising news.

He hoped.

Chapter Text

‘…the violent rogue was almost instantly captured, his gun taken from his hands, and the police were acting at once. Mr Edward Drummond, the Westminster Hero, is reported to be recovering well in his home in Lower Grosvenor Street. Though Mr Drummond’s actions were extremely commendable, as his former mentor the Duke of Wellington has also stated, and a knighthood is rumoured, PM Sir Robert Peel asserts that Mr Drummond needs quiet rest, thus his peace and privacy is not to be disturbed at this time of convalescence.’

‘Says the article after they published my home address,’ Edward remarked disapprovingly and Alfred let the sizable newspaper that he had been reading aloud from fold in half to show his face.

‘Ah, the Westminster Hero is displeased?’ he asked with much amusement.

‘My butler had to ward off visitors about six times. And that’s only this morning! People simply have no respect.’

‘They admire you, even more than before.’

‘I care about no one but you. Do you? Admire me?’

‘You know that I do.’

Edward blushed under that sinfully flirtatious look that Alfred gave him, his hand automatically reaching up to loosen his collar. He wasn’t wearing a stifling tie, though, and his shirt and trousers were covered not by a stiff frock coat but his soft dressing gown, which really was easier to move around in, with his arm still heavily bandaged under his garments, but Alfred could make him feel oddly hot at any moment. He was also wearing a strap around his neck that he was supposed to be perusing to keep his arm in place but he hardly saw the point as his upper arm was hurt.

Besides, it was all very annoying.

He wasn’t used to being cooped up in his house day and night with his movements limited.

More than anything, he wished he would get better soon because his stolen moments with Alfred also had to be limited to far more chaste activities than he longed for.

Especially when Alfred was looking at him like that.

Alfred seemed to have the same idea. ‘How long until it’s safe for you to get back to normal?’ he asked.

‘The doctor said two more weeks.’

‘Two weeks?’ Alfred sighed.

'As I said, I'm sure it would be beneficial for me to be in a horizontal position. It's your fault I cannot tempt you to accompany me.'

Alfred scrambled his jaw back off the floor to reply. 'I would not jeopardize your blood pressure. Besides, we have more pressing matters of another nature to take care of in the meantime. I was going to ask… you said you had a plan. About Florence.’

‘I do indeed. And that is why I invited Arthur here today.’

‘Arthur?’

‘My brother. As far as my parents are concerned, he cannot do anything wrong. Not that he doesn’t want to…’

‘What do you mean?’

And Edward stood as it was at that point that a wide-eyed, tall, young man and a serious-looking young woman with sharp cheekbones appeared in the doorway, both with Edward’s exact complexion, brown eyes, and elegant curls.

‘Brother!’ the man exclaimed and strode over to Edward swiftly. ‘Brother!’

‘Oh, steady, Arthur—’ Edward said quickly stepping back to avoid a hearty hug from his youngest brother. ‘I’m afraid the wound is quite fresh.’

‘Of course, brother dear, how could I have been so foolish?’ he laughed. ‘I wouldn’t want to add to your pain, now would I! How ghastly it must be already! Well tell us all about it! The news say you defended Sir Robert Peel, shielded him from that evil man’s bullet with your own body! My whole church has talked of nothing but your heroic actions, Edward! Praised more than ever before! We have prayed for your recovery night and day!’

‘Aaaah,’ Alfred heard himself say in revelation: he understood with much amusement now that Edward was not, in fact, the Drummond sibling with the most apparent flair for the dramatic. The woman on the other hand seemed to be the opposite when it came to displays of emotion. The most she had done was to smile and nod politely.

Edward realised there were introductions due.

‘Arthur, Charlotte, may I have the pleasure of introducing my very good friend from Her Majesty’s court, Lord Alfred?’

‘At your service,’ Alfred said, saluting them in what he thought was amusing – Arthur seemed to enjoy it but not so much Charlotte.

‘Lord Alfred,’ Edward continued, ‘Meet my brother Arthur and our dear sister Charlotte.’

‘Pleased to meet you both,’ Alfred said in his most charming tone. ‘And what a lovely coincidence – my mother’s name, too, is Charlotte.’

Charlotte nodded his way once and forced what might have been a smile on her face. That was the most Alfred could get out of her. He glanced at Edward apologetically – he hadn’t meant to be on his sister’s bad side after all.

But Arthur seemed to have noticed none of this and took it upon himself to carry on an enthusiastic conversation indeed: ‘Likewise, Lord Alfred! I believe we’ve met before, have we not?’

‘I do not believe so…’

‘Well, we did not meet so much as I must have seen you at Her Majesty and His Grace Prince Albert’s wedding.’

‘Ah, well, if you were there, I believe we must have seen each other – I’m sorry to say we weren’t introduced back then.’

‘I was very young, I had barely arrived in London to take up my duties.’

‘Arthur is a priest,’ Edward explained.

‘Rector now,’ Arthur corrected him proudly.

‘How thrilling!’ Alfred replied, thinking the opposite but Arthur seemed pleased by the comment, pleased and enthusiastic as a new born puppy in a young man’s fully grown body, contrasting Edward and Charlotte’s much calmer manners.

While Arthur took this as a sign of Alfred’s genuine interest and began to divulge his life as an Anglican priest, having just received his own congregation and the renovations needed on the parish church and his plans and challenges and---

Charlotte stepped closer to Edward meanwhile.

‘How are you feeling, Edward?’ she asked him privately, after giving him a sisterly kiss on the cheek.

‘I am well now, thank you,’ Edward replied kindly. He had always been fond of his sister even if she tended to be withdrawn and remote as a rule. ‘And you?’

‘Well enough.’

‘That’s not an answer. Is Mama nagging you, still?’

‘As if she would ever stop.’

‘Pay her no heed.’

‘Easy for you to say. You’re free. You’re a man. You’re engaged.’

‘Ah, about that…’

‘Did I hear you discuss your engagement?’ Arthur interrupted, turning back to them at last, letting Alfred catch his breath. In fact, he took this opportunity to slip further away from the Drummond siblings and save himself.

‘You did,’ Edward began, in a less than enthusiastic tone as expected.

‘What is it, Edward?’ Charlotte asked.

‘I’ve decided to break off the engagement,’ Edward replied and a loud shriek sounded from the doorway that did not come from Charlotte, Arthur or Alfred.

The little blood that was there drained from Edward’s cheeks as he saw her.

‘Florence…’

But she was already running away, seeking escape from the house she had just entered, Edward running in her wake, and Alfred running in his wake scared he might hurt himself.

‘Edward, you mustn’t run about, you lost so much blood…’ he argued but thankfully, Edward had caught up with his fiancée in the doorway between the entrance hall and the sitting room.

‘Florence—’

‘I came to see how you were doing! No word, no note, nothing, ever since you’ve been—you’ve been---’ and she burst into sobs, whether for Edward’s wellbeing or for herself, it wasn’t certain.

‘Please, no need to be so emotional…’ Edward pleaded. He knew she had every right to be emotional but he also knew he had never quite learned how to handle someone crying in his presence. That’s why he entered politics – emotions may have often been running high at the House but no one started to weep awkwardly in the middle of a debate! His other brothers would have understood: Charles followed their father into the bank, and Berkeley was a soldier.

If only someone came to his aid in diffusing the tension – Charlotte must know how to ease feminine sensibilities, Alfred was always such an expert socialite among the ladies in waiting…

But it was Arthur, the man of emotions in the family, that spoke up:

‘Why, brother, do not be so ungallant!’ he said and strode over not to Edward but to Florence, offering her a handkerchief and a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘My apologies, Lady Florence, I believe my brother has lost his tact momentarily. As Lord Alfred says, he lost so much blood—’

‘Precisely,’ Alfred chimed in, ‘Drummond really shouldn’t be standing for too long yet. I fear he might faint any second. Drummond, please sit…’ Alfred attempted to lure Edward away from Florence as he saw she was in good hands with Arthur. Besides, Edward did indeed get dizzy and the sofa Alfred was indicating seemed a smart choice actually.

But he hesitated, caught between a sobbing Florence in his brother’s arms, and Alfred who was trying to communicate something with his eyes but Edward couldn’t tell what.

‘Oh, for God’s sake, Edward, sit. And Florence, please stop this at once,’ Charlotte suddenly spoke, not at all a quiet mouse now. ‘I’m sure Edward has a perfectly reasonable explanation.’

‘I’d love to hear that!’ Arthur said and Alfred wholeheartedly agreed. So would he!

Edward had no choice but to sit, which felt terribly awkward as everyone else remained standing. He swallowed, hoping his plan would do the trick.

‘Lady Florence, I must tell you that you are an utterly charming, beautiful, kind, and admirable woman and any man should be the luckiest chap on the planet to call you his wife. However, you must understand that I had a revelation.’

‘A revelation?’ she asked, moving over to face him, though, as Edward and Alfred both noticed, Arthur never really released his comforting hold on her shoulder...

‘Precisely,’ Edward replied, maintaining a face he hoped suggested both enlightenment and reverence.

‘What sort of revelation?’

‘A godly one.’

‘Godly.’

‘Yes. God.’

‘What has God to do with our marriage, Edward?’

‘Well, when I was shot, I believe I faced Him.’

‘God?’ Arthur asked, intrigued.

God, Alfred sighed to himself silently as he realised what Edward was attempting to pull off here.

‘God!’ Edward repeated, nodding feverishly to his brother, a clergyman, and to his fiancée, who was too surprised to carry on crying. ‘The madman – McNorton, I believe his name was…’

‘M’Naghten,’ Alfred corrected.

‘Yes, M’Naghten. He pointed his gun at the Prime Minister shouting at him “Prepare to meet your maker!” and in those moments I was seized by a force far larger than myself. Something compelled me to step in and protect Sir Robert with my own body without reasonable, conscious thought. You all know I am a man of reason, I believe in debates and I admit I have turned to the spiritual world with scepticism hitherto. But I cannot explain why I was willing to sacrifice my own life with so much conviction, only by naming God as the motivator of my actions. And indeed, as I was lying on the pavement outside the House, bleeding out…’

Edward stopped here for effect so that Florence could properly get her shrieks and sobs out of the way before moving on, putting that horrid Scottish poet Beattie to shame with his performance (and hoping that Alfred was able to hold his laughter this time, but by the amused glint in his eyes, this was more and more doubtful by the minute).

‘… the world went black but I wasn’t unconscious,’ Edward continued. ‘At least I do not believe so. I heard a heavenly voice calling me to Him. And I followed… I could not have stopped even if I had tried. I thought this was what it felt like to die. But then, a question greeted me: “Edward Drummond, what is your earthly purpose?” he asked. What is my purpose? And I saw with utmost clarity, clarity that I cannot compare to anything else, that my job was to serve and protect the country, and that job was not done yet.”

He looked up at his audience and saw them frozen to the spot.

‘But… do you not… love me?’ Florence asked timidly, and Charlotte rolled her eyes so hard that she had to turn away from the party. Alfred caught every second of it, though, and they shared a look of exasperation – she wasn’t completely devoid of a sense of humour or sympathy with Alfred after all.

‘Florence, you must be aware that the idea or our union was founded in logic rather than emotions. I care deeply for you, of course, but… I believe mine could not surpass the feelings of a man I suspect does entertain feelings of romance for you. An abundance of them, as a matter of fact.’

‘Who?’ Florence, Arthur, and Alfred asked all at the same time.

‘Arthur, why don’t you take Florence to the garden? There is tea laid out there, for two, and I believe your gallantry and talents of comfort are much needed by the Lady Florence? You were always so fond of her.’ Edward said and when Arthur tried to protest unnecessarily, he added. ‘Now.’

Edward let out a sigh of relief once they were out of sight.

Charlotte broke the silence with an amused little snort.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, barely hiding her grin. ‘What a performance! I can’t believe you finally did it, Edward.’

‘It was about time, wasn’t it? And now, I finally had a failsafe pretext.’

‘You’re not about to tell me you wanted to get shot, are you?’

‘No, the shot was a natural sign from God,’ Edward said mock-seriously.

‘I’m sorry,’ Alfred interrupted them. ‘Am I missing something? What have you just done?’

‘I believe I broke off my engagement at last,’ Edward replied.

‘But… are you sure your plan will work?’ Alfred asked, still doubtful.

‘Work? It has already outdone itself! I hit two birds with one stone.’

‘He was so obvious,’ Charlotte remarked, sitting by Edward’s side. ‘I am most certain he will have proposed to her before their tea goes cold.’

‘Arthur?’ Alfred asked, sitting in an armchair too. ‘Arthur and Florence? Did you know about it all this time?’

‘Well, I only suspected it,’ Edward explained. ‘By the time they were introduced to each other, I’m afraid we had already been engaged so he, ever the gallant gentleman, and a rector at that, could not have possibly said a word. He’s a terrible actor, though.’

‘Says you,’ Charlotte mocked him. ‘”I was seized by a force larger than myself!” Seriously, Edward…’

‘Shut up…’ Edward retorted, throwing a cushion at her, which she threw back at once. ‘It worked, did it not?’

Alfred still dared not join in on the celebrations: ‘But, Edward, all the stuff about your little chat with God? I remember you once confided in me,’ and here Alfred avoided Charlotte’s eyes as he was alluding to their days in Scotland, ‘that even if you disliked Florence, your parents wouldn’t consider that an obstacle. Won’t they find this even more feeble an excuse?’

‘Not likely!’ Charlotte replied for Edward.

‘As I said, Arthur can do no wrong,’ Edward agreed with the loving frustration of a brother both fond of Arthur and annoyed by the favouritism. ‘Ever since he joined the church, our parents have become somewhat fanatic. I’m sorry to be such an offensive cad as to use my own near-death experience as a tool to get out of the engagement – sorry,’ Edward added as he saw Alfred had flinched at the very thought, ‘but once Mama and Papa hear that I had an angelic apparition, they will be convinced it is the right thing to do. Particularly if Arthur supports it. And even more so if this means he can marry Florence, as we suspect he desires so desperately.’

‘But what about your career?’

‘Goodness, Lord Alfred sounds as if he wants you to get married,’ Charlotte remarked.

‘No—’

‘No!’ Alfred said a tad too enthusiastically over Edward, earning a suspicious frown and a satisfied smile from Charlotte.

‘What about my career?’ Edward asked, to distract from the awkward moment, spotting a newspaper on the table and tossing it to Alfred playfully. ‘I saved the Prime Minister’s life. I have received about two dozen invitations to all sorts of occasions at a herd of different clubs, societies, and the most influential people’s homes. I shall begin the round at Sir Robert’s, of course. Just as soon as I regain my strength.’

‘So it is a good plan?’ Alfred asked.

‘It’s brilliant,’ Charlotte reassured him. ‘Forgive me but I wouldn’t have wanted to see my favourite brother tied to that weepy little mouse.’

‘She has many virtues,’ Edward said fairly.

‘Not, I suspect, as many as Lord Alfred here,’ the men went pale in an instant but before they could react, she stood and announced she was going to check on Arthur and Florence.

In their shock, they even forgot to stand for her as would have been polite.

‘How—’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Edward, no—’ Alfred immediately protested as Edward stood and started after Charlotte. He had no choice but to follow him lest he fainted from the lack of blood – he was still so pale! He was a dreadfully disobedient patient!

He caught up with Edward and Charlotte sniggering behind a column, spying on Arthur and Florence.

‘What is—’

‘Shhhhhh!’

Alfred chanced a peek over their shoulders and saw immediately what the big fuss was about: Florence and Arthur were kissing over their tea cups.

They had the decency to leave them alone and walked back into the foyer.

‘If you are in a hurry, I can give you a ride in my carriage, Miss Drummond,’ Alfred offered.

‘That’s very kind of you,’ Charlotte said but her face gave her away. Something was worrying her.

‘What is it, Charlotte?’ Edward asked.

‘I don’t much fancy going home is all,’ she admitted sadly.

Alfred, despite insistence to the contrary, returned to the sitting room to give them some privacy.

‘Charlotte?’ Edward asked gently. ‘What happened?’

She sighed dully. ‘Tommy proposed to me.’

‘What?! What Tommy? Hang on… Tommy? Tommy Duff, Duke of Fife Tommy, Tommy who caught a mouse once to give to you on your tenth birthday as a present? That Tommy?’

‘Yes, I’m afraid so. But he has actually grown up to be a decent person, believe it or not. In fact, I’m told he’s considered a real catch. Now that he’s lost all the baby fat and learned how to tame his hair. He’s not after our money or anything, the Duffs are quite well off on their own – they came down to London for the season too and we kept seeing each other at balls this year and he really simply has taken a liking to me. He’s still quite funny, actually. And quite handsome, too, if you can disregard his nose – it’s ever so slightly tilted to the left, a riding accident apparently…’ she rambled on, unnecessarily adjusting every finger on her already wrinkle-free gloves.

‘Wait… are you saying you’re going to accept?’

Charlotte grappled with her answer for a second. ‘No.’

‘Has he said anything to Mama and Papa?’

‘No, thank Heavens, and I told him not to until I give him an answer. If he had, you would know about it, wouldn’t you? A Duke? And a perfectly acceptable young man at that? They wouldn’t let me say no. Look at how they’ve been about you and Florence.’

‘Well… Charlotte… I would be the last person on earth who would suggest that you enter an engagement without your heart being in it but… if you so want to escape home, might it not be something to consider after all?’

Charlotte stopped fussing with her gloves and looked up at Edward, tears dancing in her eyes, and shook her head.

‘Why not?’ Edward asked.

‘Because I’ve fallen in love with his sister.’

Edward was glad she could control her tears but, damn her aloofness and sternness, he had to hug her. He had always sensed that he and Charlotte had understood each other more than the rest of their siblings (in fact, he spent his holidays between terms teaching her all the things she was missing out on by not being allowed to go to school with her brothers, and she soaked up every word of every textbook like a sponge) but the thought of her having experienced the same sort of stress about whom she loved was too awful. He didn’t wish it upon her.

‘I didn’t mean to startle you and Lord Alfred earlier,’ she said quietly.

‘Startled? If the bullet had hit my heart your words would have single-handedly revived it.’

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, laughing a little.

Edward pulled away to look at his little sister in his arms in confused awe. ‘How did you know? Is it so apparent?’

‘No, I suppose not, only if one knows what to look for. Besides, he must be biting his nails in there, fretting about you standing for too long or not having enough blankets or something.’

Edward smiled bashfully and fondly – that sounded like Alfred indeed.

‘Edward, I do not mean to be a burden, but…’ Charlotte continued uncomfortably.

‘You’re not a burden, Charlotte.’

‘…if you’re not going to marry, there will be a vacancy for the role of chatelaine in your house, will there not?’

‘Ye-es,’ Edward replied, not sure where Charlotte was going with this.

‘I suppose I can hardly have my own house without a husband but would it be a terrible idea if I…’

‘Move in with me.’

‘Could I?’

‘Of course. It’s the perfect solution! I have far too big a house and our parents are far too frustrating. I detest the thought that they are treating you like a prize donkey at a fair. I’ve had my fair share of that and that’s only a fraction of what you’re having to endure. We’ll say it’s so that you can stay in London even after the season ends, they’ll like that idea, thinking I am surrounded by eligible gentleman friends. Come here, I will support you and you will be left alone – I spend most days at the House, and sometimes nights when a debate drags on forever. I won’t tell anyone about…’

‘And nor will I.’ Then Charlotte added: ‘Maybe… you… you may tell Lord Alfred,’ she managed, grappling with something akin to affection.

Edward’s face lit up. ‘Good. It’s decided, then.’

‘What’s decided?’ came Arthur’s voice from the garden side entrance. He and Florence were standing there barely able to hide their blushing faces and excitement in their eyes.

‘That we ought to celebrate!’ Edward replied happily. ‘It is with utmost conviction that I say there could not be a more well-suited couple in the world than you two. Charlotte agrees, too, don’t you?’

‘I do!’ Charlotte chimed in, uncharacteristically enthusiastically. ‘Most well-suited!’

‘Indeed, in personality, in temperament, and in—’

‘In taste of champagne, I hope?’ Alfred chimed in from the doorway of the sitting room, popping a bottle open.

As they celebrated the new happy couple (and for once, everyone seemed to genuinely think they were going to be happy), it seemed that all their affairs may just be put right…

Chapter Text

Tap-tap-tap – and the carriage started.

Edward waved Sir Robert and his wife goodbye once more from the window. Once they had rounded the corner, Charlotte let out a long sigh and sat back against the cushioned seat.

‘Was is really so tedious?’ he asked her.

‘Not at all, it was just a bit long.’

‘You were never one for going out.’

‘No, I’m still not. But I admit, they were tolerable company.’

Edward laughed to himself. Only Charlotte would stay of sound mind and of a neutral opinion when it came to having a private dinner with someone as illustrious as the dividing Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel and his family. Particularly that these were tempestuous times in his political career.

‘Are you disappointed to see him resign?’ she asked, searching Edward’s face.

‘I must say I am. I admire Sir Robert greatly.’

‘Even if he was nagging you about the broken engagement?’

‘It is simply his way of caring. He would frequently mention it even at the House and I never knew quite what to respond. I am glad that the assassination attempt proved a sufficient distraction.’

‘Mama and Papa would love him. Quoting the Bible by heart? He would win their hearts in an instant.’

‘I did use that, too, when explaining it all to them.’

‘Were they horrible?’

‘On the contrary.’

Charlotte was surprised at first, then, realising the easy cause for the lack of their parents’ objections, they said “Arthur…” at the same time, and that seemed to answer all the remaining questions.

‘Well, at least Sir Robert’s wife and son weren’t such bores.’

‘Don’t let our parents hear you say that. They might get ideas and remember that William is still eligible.’

‘Oh, I’m not worried about him.’

‘Why not? He seems very like you – quiet, secretive, cynical, inscrutable – and I believe he would also say you are “tolerable company” if asked.’

She bit back a grin. ‘I should think he would more than tolerate you rather than me.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh, Edward…’ Charlotte shook her head slightly patronizingly, confounding Edward more. ‘You must be in love with Alfred more than I thought.’

‘I am,’ Edward admitted bashfully.

‘He certainly seems keen to escape his royal commitments in order to visit your house every day.’

Our house now. And that may be true but I haven’t seen him for days now – the Prince has ordered constant close guarding of Her Majesty, what with madmen running about with guns again.’

‘Do you miss him when he’s not there?’ she asked, with a strange sadness apparent in her voice.

‘There are no words to express how much,’ Edward lamented. ‘And how about you and…’

‘Agnes.’

‘Agnes.’ Edward was looking at his sister questioningly.

Charlotte shrugged, avoided Edward’s eyes, and stayed silent. Edward knew his sister more than to press for more.

They arrived at the house. Charlotte was still wordless at the top of the stairs, clearly keen to return to her own room, so Edward handed her his single candle, wished her goodnight and left for his bedroom, thoughts still full of Alfred, wondering if he might be able to see him the following day as he really was missing him unbearably.

When he entered his room, he was in for the happiest surprise, therefore.

‘Alfred!’ Edward exclaimed, as he laid eyes not on his empty bedroom but the man of his dreams, the thief of his heart, the most beautiful person to have ever walked the Earth as far as Edward was concerned.

They were in each other’s arms in a second, making up for all the kisses they could not have for long, long days.

‘Alfred, my love,’ Edward whispered against the skin of Alfred’s neck. ‘How-- when—’

‘I sneaked in through the garden not long ago,’ Alfred replied, giggling like a naughty schoolboy. ‘I was told by your butler that you were dining at Sir Robert’s tonight so I thought I would surprise you.’

‘And you did!’ Edward laughed, taking in the sight of Alfred again. He was still wearing his bright crimson uniform.

‘Ah,’ Alfred said, noticing himself. ‘I’m sorry, I was not exactly released until Her Majesty went to bed.’

‘No need to apologise. No need at all,’ Edward replied, barely able to contain his feelings as he beheld the gorgeous man in his arms.

‘I know it hasn’t exactly been two weeks…’ Alfred said coyly, sensing what was going on in Edward’s mind.

‘Alfred…’ Edward almost groaned in a voice so deep and velvety he didn’t recognize it as his own. ‘I love you and need you so much I feel as if I could burst.’

‘Should we… perhaps… lock the door?’ Alfred suggested.

And with the door locked, they did not hesitate to resume their most passionate kisses until they fell into bed.

***

Edward let out a sigh of exhilaration as if he had just run a marathon, for about the sixth time, making Alfred laugh again.

‘Still?’

‘I’m sorry, it was just…’ Edward buried his irrepressible grin into the nook of Alfred’s neck. Though the last of the candles in the room had long burnt out, their flushed, sweaty bodies were still entangled closer than ever. He never wanted to get out of Alfred’s arms (or between his thighs…) and that bed. ‘Well, Lord Alfred Paget, my eyes have been opened.’

‘Have they?’ Alfred giggled fondly again, as he thought back at the events of the past few hours. Its numerous events… He remembered the involuntary, high-pitched, throaty sounds that Edward let out when he had kissed down his chest, the muscles of his stomach and further down, and he had to laugh and tighten his embrace around Edward even more.

‘Are you sure it was what you wanted?’ Edward asked, suddenly worried. ‘Have I… have I made you happy?’

‘Edward…’ Alfred replied, cupping Edward’s face and looking up at him, his heart alit. ‘I do not think it is humanly possible to love someone more than I love you.’

Edward had to kiss him and keep kissing him until his arms gave in--- which was sooner than he supposed would have been normally. Distracted by more intense sensations beforehand, it was only now that he only noticed the dull but definitely unpleasant ache in his injured arm.

Though he bit back a wince, Alfred could tell he was in pain. He flipped them over and they got comfortable under the sheets.

‘Is it still so awful?’ Alfred asked, caressing Edward’s arm over the bandage that was still covering his wound. He was half aghast at the fact that Edward’s body seemed to put the most stunning statues by Michelangelo to shame, and half still worried out of his wits that he might sustain some horrible lasting injury, constant pain, or worse.

‘Not at all. It is mostly healed, it’s just going to take a bit more to be as good as new. It really doesn’t matter.’

‘It matters a great deal to me. I still think about what could have happened, had that horrid man pointed his gun slightly to the left.’

‘But he did not,’ Edward replied, once again, trying to keep Alfred’s resurfacing worries at bay. ‘We shouldn’t be worried about dangers that do not exist. We have enough that do.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘For example, what will you say when someone at the Palace notices that you were gone all night?’

‘I am allowed to do as I please, as long as I am back in time to do my duties.’

‘Won’t anyone suspect anything?’

‘Well, there was a cat in your garden that did spot me steal into your house. I’m sure Sir Robert’s police are deciphering its meows as we speak.’

Edward seemed forlorn rather than amused.

‘How was dinner at his house?’ Alfred tried to cheer him up again.

‘It was rather fine, as a matter of fact,’ Edward said, a small smile returning to his handsome face.

‘Who else were invited?’

‘Oh, it was a very intimate affair – only Sir Robert’s wife and his son were there.’

‘William?’ Alfred’s ears pricked up but Edward noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

‘Yes, and I took Charlotte. She’s very bright and somewhat political, I thought she would like it.’

‘And did she?’

‘I think so. You know what she’s like, she never lets on too much.’

‘Especially not her approval. When it comes to me, if she has any at all, she’s hiding it expertly.’

‘She’s like that with everyone. Though I believe she’s warming to you.’

‘And would she turn icy, I wonder, if she knew I have spent the night in your bed?’

Edward had to bite his lip as the vivid and delightful memories flashed through his mind and body again. Under the covers he grabbed Alfred’s bare hip and pulled him closer against himself, brushing his lips teasingly against Alfred’s, making him want more.

‘She’s not exactly in the place to judge,’ Edward said, surprising Alfred. ‘She’s just turned down the Duke of Fife because apparently her heart belongs to the Duke’s sister, Agnes Duff.’

Alfred’s mouth stopped chasing Edward’s and opened in astonishment. ‘Really?’

‘She allowed me to tell you. That’s saying something. Hence why she moved into my house, too. She shouldn’t have to fear that Mama and Papa will push her into the arms of some decorated gentleman invited to tea. I’m not going to let them marry her off to someone she doesn’t love.’

Alfred’s arms tightened around Edward, not wanting to think about the fact that he would still be preparing for his impending wedding, had things turned out differently.

‘So… will you be inviting this Lady Agnes here?’

‘I am not sure,’ Edward sighed.

‘Why not?’

‘Charlotte hasn’t exactly said anything more. I haven’t the faintest clue whether it is only her having developed feelings or whether they have been… uh… talking for years and years. It could be either, I could not read it in Charlotte’s behaviour even if I tried my best. And I cannot ask. In fact, she seemed rather downcast when I last dared to pry.’

‘There might be more to the story than we think.’

‘Indeed. And I know she will not reveal anything else unless she wishes to. So, I shall wait. But at least we know she is a trustworthy confidant, as we are for her, and I will not even offend you by asking that you keep her secret.’

‘Naturally.’

‘Thank you.’

Alfred laughed to himself a little.

‘What is it?’ Edward asked, brushing a golden strand of hair out of Alfred’s eyes.

‘I was just amused at the thought that you, Charlotte, and William Peel were politely spooning soup at the same table as Sir Robert and Lady Peel.’

‘Why is that funny?’

Alfred looked up at Edward and saw that he didn’t know...

‘Nothing,’ Alfred said lamely.

‘What is it, Alfred?’

‘Perhaps it’s not my place to say so…’

‘What about William Peel, Alfred?’ Edward asked again. ‘Really, Charlotte also said something odd about him in the carriage.’

‘What did she say?’ Alfred asked, something telling him he wasn’t going to like it.

‘Only that he tolerated me more than her.’

‘Tolerated? Was he rude?’

‘No, it’s just something we said— she meant he liked me more than her.’

‘What made her say that?’ Alfred asked, slightly frowning now, still much to Edward’s confusion.

‘I haven’t any idea! He was rather quiet all throughout dinner.’

‘Didn’t he… look at you?’

Edward snorted. ‘Well, of course he looked at me. One must look at the people one is dining with at some points during the evening!’

‘No, I mean, did he… did he… look at you?’ Edward frowned, utterly lost, so Alfred pressed on. ‘Did he offer you a cigar?’

‘He… he did,’ Edward replied in more of a rising intonation, not sure where Alfred was going with this.

‘By God, did you accept?’ Alfred said, not at all amused now.

‘I did--- why? What? Alfred?’

Alfred sat up now, heaving from anger and frustration.

‘Where were you when he gave you the cigar?’

‘What—’

‘Where we you, Edward? In the dining room or elsewhere?’

‘We were on the balcony.’

‘By God, Edward!’ Alfred exclaimed, hands shooting up to his face, falling back on the pillow in frustration.

‘What’s wrong with smoking with William Peel?’ Edward begged to know, prying Alfred’s hands off his face.

‘Nothing, as long as you’re not so well-equipped,’ Alfred replied with emphasis.

‘Well—what?’ Edward stopped. ‘I seem to remember you saying that on our balcony.’

‘I may have stolen that line from someone,’ Alfred admitted guiltily.

‘Alfred?’

‘It worked, did it not?’

‘Alfred.’

‘William liked you. William liked you! Of course he would, you’re gorgeous… And Charlotte spotted it too, did she not?’

Alfred?’

‘Well, she has a sharp eye for it, apparently. That remark of hers, about us, when I first met her…’

‘ALFRED,’ Edward finally said, pushing himself up on his elbows and towering over Alfred to catch his attention.

Alfred’s attention was caught indeed. ‘Edward, he is… he prefers men, too. Especially men such as yourself, tall, young, painfully handsome…’

‘Am I to take it that he once asked to borrow your tinderbox as well?’

Alfred kept a poker face. ‘I saw him do that.’

Edward’s doubts were not entirely dissipated but Alfred decided this was not the time to discuss this.

‘Would it be terribly possessive of me to ask you not to see William Peel in the future if at all avoidable?’ he asked.

Now it was Edward’s turn to think. ‘I do not believe I can manage that.’

‘Why not?’ Alfred asked, his blue eyes wide and jealousy springing up in his chest again.

‘Because I promised to go riding with him tomorrow.’

‘Did you?’

‘Alfred,’ Edward smiled as he understood what was bothering Alfred. ‘You cannot imagine you have anything to worry about. He is nothing to me. I love you. How could I even think about anyone else but you?’

‘It is not you I don’t trust, it’s him.’

‘Well I have to go, now. Nothing will happen. We’ll simply go for a ride, talk about politics, and part ways, as I would do with anyone else. That is all that will happen.’

‘Yes, that is, indeed. And I shall make sure of it.’

‘Alfred?’

‘I shall join you and William in the park tomorrow.’

Chapter Text

By the end of the month, Edward and Charlotte Drummond had settled into a mutually acceptable routine.

Charlotte moved into rooms on the opposite end of a long corridor upstairs, which were every bit as spacious and elegantly furnished as Edward’s own quarters.

Edward would breakfast with Charlotte, spend the day at the House, scribbling away at his desk, sitting by the now shadow PM’s side on the benches, flying to the Palace when there was so much as a corner of a napkin with some note or other that the Queen would be interested to read so that he could catch a glimpse of his heartbreakingly gorgeous Alfred, who would signal to him about whether he would be able to go to Edward’s house by waving his handkerchief in a certain way. At the end of the day, he would catch up with Charlotte at dinner, and on lucky days he would wait for Alfred to come after the servants retired.

Charlotte would breakfast with Edward, still not reveal anything more about her liaisons or the lack thereof (Edward still could not be sure) with Agnes, spend the day reading Edward’s many books, go for a ride in the park (accompanied by her maid), shop for more books or hats or a less frilly parasol than the one her Mama had picked for her (accompanied by her maid), and take an inventory of her letters from Agnes Duff and think about her and cry about her in her room (certainly not accompanied by her maid).

Of course, that was not to say there were never any irregularities in this well-practiced routine of theirs.

Particularly when Lord Alfred was in the picture.

‘Did you sleep well last night, Edward?’ Charlotte asked as she saw him absent-mindedly ladle about four spoons of sugar into his tea at breakfast.

Charlotte winced internally as he took a sip from his cup, apparently not noticing the sickening sweetness of his Earl Grey for trying to hide his blushing face and grin.

‘Very well! Very well indeed!’ Edward said, as giddy as if he had drunk a love potion.

She knew exactly he did not sleep a wink as she had a bit of an awkward night time surprise because of him. She only meant to pop out to the water closet in the middle of the night when she heard a creak from the far end of the hallway dividing her side of the house and Edward’s. Fearing burglars, axe-murderers, ghosts, or worse, snooping servants, she moved closer to the source of the sound, floorboards creaking far too loudly under her own feet.

Waiting, she heard another few creaks from the other end of the corridor.

Creak creak creak – she moved ever closer.

Creak creak creak – the intruder responded.

Creak creak creak………. Crea---

A GASP.

‘OH GOODNESS—’ she jumped and bit back a hearty swear as she clutched her chest and bit her hand because Lord Alfred appeared behind her, equally shocked and clutching his own chest, though in his case it was bare, as he was only wearing Edward’s dressing gown and clearly nothing underneath.

‘I’m sorry, Miss Drummond, I thought a servant was—’

She held up a hand to silence any apologies he meant to utter and walked swiftly and rather grumpily back to her room.

‘Good to hear,’ Charlotte responded neutrally to Edward over breakfast, stifling a yawn and a sharp remark or two.

But Edward’s ridiculous grin was soon replaced by a frown as the morning letters were handed to them by a footman.

‘Bad news?’ Charlotte asked.

‘Not exactly… but I’d really rather not even know,’ Edward replied, eyeing one envelope warily as if it could fire like a rifle any second. ‘This is from William Peel.’

‘Oh? Have you become friends?’

‘No!’ Edward replied far too fast.

But then again, the memory of that most awkward of rides still lived very vividly in his mind.

It was after his and Alfred’s first night together and, though he thought what they had done until the small hours of the morning (and even a bit more after that, as another wave of possessiveness flared up in Alfred at the mention of Peel, and Edward did NOT object) should have been enough to convince Alfred that he had nothing to fear when it came to William, when they met not three hours later in Hyde Park, Alfred was scouting the surroundings for the first sign of the man as if he was guarding Edward from an impending attack by a pack of wolves about to jump out of any shrubbery in the vicinity.

‘I should have worn my uniform,’ he grumbled.

‘Why? This is an informal ride,’ Edward asked, despite himself. He really did love Alfred in a uniform.

‘It never hurts for one to appear intimidating when meeting a soldier. Particularly if that soldier is William Peel. Alas, I had to hand it to the valet for cleaning…’

Edward caught Alfred’s eye and tried to look guilty though he did not at all feel it. The night before was indeed worth every yawn he would have to stifle throughout the day.

Alfred’s mirth was gone in a second as a galloping figure appeared in sight, approaching them. The man impressively steered his horse and came to a sudden halt, staying in the saddle even as the horse faltered and stood only on its hind legs before landing on four hooves again gracefully.

‘Good morning, Mr Drummond!’ he said haughtily, shaking his black locks out of his eyes handsomely and shooting him a winning smile. But when he turned to Alfred at last, it rather turned into more of a knowing grin and Drummond didn’t like it one bit. ‘Ah, Lord Alfred. I thought I saw you.’

‘You know, when you do that to the horse you risk its tendons and ligaments tearing. It may be good fun for you but it is terrible pain for the poor creature.’

William kept smiling. ‘Forgive my friend’s lack of humour, Mr Drummond. He always liked to play with his animals.’

‘Better than playing with people,’ Alfred cut back without missing a beat.

William caught a look Drummond gave Alfred’s way.

‘Do you two… know each other?’ he asked Drummond.

‘I know Lord Alfred very well, I’m glad to say,’ Edward replied carefully.

‘Really, Alfred?’ William asked with mild surprise.

‘Yes, Drummond told me about your dinner last night and when I heard how very friendly you were, inviting him to come riding, I knew I had to come along. For all our sakes.’

‘Alas,’ William shook his head, his smile never fading. ‘I hoped I saw him first.’

Drummond was lost for words and glanced at Alfred, who was smiling back at William but without any trace of affection.

‘Yes, well,’ Alfred said through gritted teeth, ‘not that I wish to be impolite but seeing as you rarely enjoy riding purely for the sake of riding, only if it gets you somewhere…’

‘Hm, you’d know all about the joys of riding. If you haven’t changed, you are probably not particularly comfortable in that saddle even now, Alfred.’

‘… then we will be leaving you alone now. Good day, William.’

‘By all means, go back to playing with your horses.’

‘And you go back to polishing your own musket.’

‘You seemed to be enjoying yourself when I gave you the chance. You were quite an expert at it.’

‘Someone has to be, seeing as you are such a disappointment at handling any weapon.’

‘Such a sharp tongue in that angelic face… What you about you, Mr Drummond? Has Lord Alfred shown you his longsword?’

‘Sir—’ Drummond uttered, appalled at the shocking turns this conversation has taken.

‘Shall we see how our weapons win out?’ Alfred interrupted before thinking. ‘Shall we say, in a duel?’

The atmosphere changed at once. Though hostile and thorny William’s and Alfred’s remarks were, the stakes were raised to a rather more serious pane than a few ill-advised jabs at the each other’s manhood.

‘Tread carefully, Alfred,’ William warned.

‘Alfred…’ Drummond tried to reason, and his voice brought Alfred back down to reality somewhat.

‘Oh I daresay it is you, William, who is advised to tread carefully. I, unlike you, am a man of my words. Do not leave me without a choice. I will not let you play a trick on Drummond. Over my dead body. Have I made myself quite clear?’

William wanted to retort to that but seemed to think better of it. One never knew with a Paget.

‘I take my leave for now,’ he said, steering his horse away from the two men. ‘Though I do hope to see more of you. Not you, Alfred. Of Mr Drummond. When you get bored of him.’

Alfred was still seething when William had become no more than a speck of dust on the horizon.

‘Care to tell me what that was about?’ Edward asked, rightly so, as soon as he had overcome his shock.

Alfred seemed embarrassed and guilty about the whole thing. The conversation and the implications about his history with the damn scoundrel the former PM’s son really was.

‘It matters not,’ Alfred said simply. ‘I regret that you had to see me like that but it was necessary. I have said it and I will say it again: I know I have no right to determine your future, or tell you what to do or what not to do. But a word of advice, if you value yourself, and me, and our love, stay far away from William Peel.’

 

Not wanting to spoil their wonderful night with a horrible morning, after that, Edward cheered Alfred up by dropping the subject and suggesting forgetting entirely about William Peel in favour of a race through the park. He always did love to see Alfred flushed and panting… Sadly, all too soon, Alfred he had to return to the Palace to guard the Queen in the peace of the music room as well as on her outings.

And the last thing on Edward’s mind during the past month was William when on half of his nights he was the most fortunate of men to spend hours and hours making up for all the things on which he had missed out with Alfred because they had not dared to confess their love to each other. Well, now there was no doubt left about that, nor one square inch of skin they had not discovered on each other’s bodies.

Edward could sing and skip all the way to the Parliament every morning he was so happy.

This was very useful, too, as his commitment to his profession was supposed to be the reason for breaking up his engagement. The happier he seemed in the offices, the more convincing he was on that front.

But now, the past came biting back, in the form of an invitation to a ball on Sir Robert’s country estate by William Peel.

 

‘He what?’ Alfred asked, tearing the letter out of Edward’s hands that night in his room. ‘The nerve…’ he seethed, pacing, the blanket he was haphazardly wrapped in hanging loosely on his unclad body.

‘Alfred,’ Edward asked again from his comfortable place in the bed, very gently, both trying to remain tactful but feeling like he was owed an explanation by now. ‘What happened between you and Mr Peel?’

Alfred was positively bursting from repressed anger and annoyance. He really wished he could tell Edward all about it but he was still so embarrassed. He felt like a prize idiot, and he didn’t want Edward to know how ridiculous he had once been.

‘Alfred, if you’re not telling me, you leave me no choice. I will attend. And I will find out.’

Alfred stopped pacing and turned to Edward with big pleading eyes. ‘Please don’t.’

‘Then tell me what happened. Please, Alfred, don’t I have a right to know what about him makes you so agitated? I want to know what he did.’

‘You’ll think I’m such a fool.’

‘I doubt that,’ Edward said, reaching out a hand to get Alfred to go back to him.

Once they were comfortably under the sheets again, and Alfred was still not willing to divulge anything about William, Edward had to declare, then, that he was going to accept the invitation and Alfred had to make his peace with it.

‘Come with me,’ Edward pleaded in the dark. ‘It’s too far from London, I will have to spend the night. I shall miss you terribly.’

‘I cannot. Her Majesty will be staying in Windsor that week. I have a private notion William found out and that’s why this ball just happens to be the same time.’

Edward hugged him close. ‘I might ask Charlotte whether she wishes to join.’

‘As a sister or as a chaperone?’ Alfred asked and earned a tut from Edward. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry… I know I can trust you… But Edward…’

‘Ye-es?’

Alfred wanted to warn him about more but he realised there was no point and Edward was quite determined to go anyway. Thus, changing his mind, he just smiled at Edward in the dark instead of fretting more.

‘Enjoy yourself,’ he simply said, nuzzling against Edward’s shoulder. ‘But perhaps lock your door with a key before going to bed, just in case,’ he added just so.

Well, Edward honestly wouldn’t have minded putting his mind at ease now, as he was entertaining the wildest stories about Alfred and William, and it was hard to keep from being driven mad!

He was going to that dance and find out what had happened.

Chapter Text

‘Doesn’t Sir Robert have a charming, slender young daughter by any chance?’ she asked in the carriage nearing Drayton Manor. ‘I don’t care if she’s dull, only it’s been a while since I’ve had something pretty to look at. Not that Lord Alfred isn’t the perfect image of an angel but he is not quite the same for my sore eyes.’

Edward let out a sound of indignation. ‘Charlotte!’ He tried to compose himself. ‘I was under the impression that you were in love with someone?’

‘I was under the impression we wouldn’t judge each other.’

‘I wouldn’t judge if you reassured me that there is nothing to judge.’

‘I could use a little distraction. That is all.’

‘Why, Charlotte, I do not understand how you can see it that way. Since I’ve fallen in love with Alfred, I could not look at anyone else.’

‘I presume Mr Peel will consider that rather disappointing news.’

‘You presume right,’ Edward said, frustration flaring up in him. ‘And he will remain disappointed, I’m not sorry to say. Alfred says one is advised to avoid him altogether.’

‘Then why are we pulling up at their manor’s entrance as we speak?’

‘Because there’s something I need to find out.’

‘Pray tell me.’

‘I would rather not.’

‘Oh, please, I am dying for something to take my mind off things!’

‘It’s best if you’re left out of this, believe me.’

Charlotte sighed. ‘And I thought I was the mysterious one in the family.’

Edward allowed himself a laugh before putting on his most formal, most distant face when stepping out of the carriage. He swore to himself that he would not give away anything, no matter what he was thinking or feeling, throughout the visit. His only objective here was to find out what Alfred wasn’t saying about William Peel.

 

The ball at the Peel estate was a lovely event. Autumn arrived with the end of the season but the air was still warm and summery in the early evening, before shawls were donned and coats offered to ladies who took a turn in the garden between dances.

Of course Edward could hardly enjoy any of it for being constantly on edge because of William Peel. He kept to Sir Robert’s side whenever he could, as he knew the former PM well, and because for some reason William and his father were like oil and water – they just did not mingle. In fact, whenever Drummond mentioned William in order to find out more about his character, everyone was keen on praising the prodigious soldier who advanced to remarkable acclaims so young…

…everyone except Sir Robert, who seemed rather embarrassed by his son, fearing his successes were misinterpreted as a result of his pulling strings but he was very quick to assure (almost bitterly, Drummond noticed) that he and William never had much in common, or the same goals, and that his merits were entirely respective of his father, and had nothing, nothing to do with him.

Drummond often felt uncomfortable when Sir Robert allowed his true and rather cold feelings about his son to peek through his otherwise usual respectful manners. But it was either dancing with dewy-eyed daughters (which Charlotte dreaded as she would be asked to dance by an eligible bachelor when Edward was gone for too long) or having to keep to Sir Robert's side to avoid William, as he promised Alfred he would. Besides, it gave him a good excuse not to drink more than one complimentary glass of champagne, claiming that his newfound Christian devotion made him realise he needed to avoid being so easily dazzled by earthly temptations, however splendid they seemed, and Sir Robert gravely approved.

However, Sir Robert, being the host, could not spend all his time chatting to Drummond about morals or the current political situation.

‘Where are you going?’ Edward asked nervously as she seemed to step away from him, as he was very aware of William circling him like a jackal around prey. And now that Sir Robert was not in the vicinity, William was approaching about as subtly as he had been glaring hungrily at Drummond from a distance all evening.

‘I want cake, I’ll be back in a second,’ she said.

‘I’ll come with you—’ Edward tried.

‘I don’t need to be supervised to fetch dessert! Honestly, Edward…’

‘I know you don’t, but…’ Edward couldn’t think of a good excuse.

‘I can get you some too,’ Charlotte offered, not exactly oblivious to Edward’s discomfort, but between that and cake she had made her decision.

As soon as she was gone, William appeared by Edward’s side.

‘Thrilled to see you have come, Mr Drummond,’ William chatted in his usual haughty tone, that ever-present confident smile dancing on his lips as always. ‘I wasn’t sure you would.’

‘I felt it only right,’ Edward replied with an attempt to fake nonchalance. He mustn’t give his anxiety away. But Alfred had really warned him about this man and he didn’t know what to expect. Besides, he was going to have to get over it, as he planned to find out more about what had really happened between Alfred and William that left such a bitter mark and he wasn’t getting it from anyone but the man himself. ‘Sir Robert was my mentor for years. Besides, my sister has been looking for an excuse to take a trip somewhere. The estate is truly most attractive.’

William’s eyes twinkled.

‘I mean, the hedges,’ Edward tries to save face, scrambling for something without any possible double meaning. ‘And the style of the building. The rock. It seems stable.’

‘How kind you are, Mr Drummond. As kind as you are smart. And dashingly handsome. Tell me, do you curl your hair with an instrument or does it naturally grow as if it aimed to mimic the most godlike of Greek statues?’

‘It… it grows that way,’ Edward muttered, glancing fearfully around but none of the nearby guests seemed to care about their conversation.

‘Fascinating,’ William replied, gaze lingering on Edward’s features. ‘And Alfred? He seemed keen on keeping you on a short leash the last time we met. Has he joined you on your trip?’

‘No, alas, his duties for Her Majesty are keeping him rather busy at Windsor at the moment.’

William pulled a face, then smiled even more widely. ‘Without your bodyguard then? Does he not fear you might stray when walking in the woods without your hand held?’

Edward went red. ‘I shall pretend I did not understand your meaning, Mr Peel.’

‘Why, you must know how mouth-watering a bite you look for a hungry beast,’ William whispered barely audibly but clearly enough.

‘Mr Peel,’ Edward said through gritted teeth, fearing being overheard. ‘I do not approve of a word you are saying but if you must I beg you to respect the need for discretion.’

‘Why it’s no secret you are a catch, Mr Drummond,’ William continued without keeping his voice low. ‘All the unmarried ladies must be keeping a place for you on their dance cards tonight. And if what I’ve heard is true, you have got entangled in someone’s net before. That of the Lady Florence, daughter of the Marquess of Lothian.’

Edward could not argue with that. That was a perfectly acceptable topic of conversation.

‘Indeed. But we found that Lady Florence and I were ill-suited.’

‘Ah, what was the problem, I wonder?’

Edward’s jaws clenched. William knew perfectly well why it could not be. ‘Fear not, Mr Peel. I am glad to say the date will be kept, only between her and my brother Arthur. They seemed to have found genuine love where I could not offer any.’

‘So everyone is happy,’ William quipped. ‘Absolutely everyone.’

‘Hello, Mr Peel,’ Charlotte said upon returning. The cakes were delicious but she could see from afar that her brother was having the most discomfiting conversation with William Peel and she thought she’d come to the rescue. ‘I must congratulate you on the splendid evening.’

‘Thank you Miss Drummond,’ William said, shaking her gloved hand gallantly.

‘May I know what you were discussing?’ she asked in the pleasantest tone she could muster.

‘I was lamenting the absence of Lord Alfred,’ William said, sending frost through Edward’s veins.

‘Do you know Lord Alfred?’ Charlotte asked and Edward wanted to scream. Why hadn’t he told her more before?

‘Do you know him? Oh, but of course, wherever Mr Drummond goes, Lord Alfred follows. They are just such good friends, are they not? Seems a shame he’s missing the oysters. They are his favourite.’

‘Indeed,’ Edward offered, hating this.

‘Have you tried them yet, Miss Drummond?’ William asked Charlotte.

‘No, but the lemon cakes are delicious,’ she said cautiously. ‘I’ll go get more and leave you to it,’ she said, despite strong protests that Edward was trying to communicate to her with only his eyes, and stepped away, though not very far…

‘Indeed. Mr Drummond, you must indulge yourself, too, in Alfred’s absence,’ William said to him once they were alone again. ‘In fact I am determined not to let you leave without having shown you all the delights this house could offer.’

‘Thank you but I have not come to indulge myself,’ Edward replied.

‘Not prepared to be led into temptation? Why have you come, then?’

‘For the conversation.’

‘About…?’

‘I admit your invitation surprised me. It seems odd, almost foolhardy, given the less than amicable encounter I witnessed between yourself and Lord Alfred on our ride in the park. It does make one wonder what could have transpired between you in the past.’

‘And you surprise me, too. I thought Lord Alfred would have shared it all with you by now,’ William said, looking Edward up and down for good measure before adding: ‘As he does everything else.’

‘We are in company, sir,’ Edward hissed nervously.

‘Forgive me, only I find I am rather shocked. Alfred has always been so generous with an audience, particularly when they are so willing to kneel at his feet listening with their mouth open.’

Edward almost audibly gasped. He tried to calm himself and seem as if a lion wasn’t roused and raging in his chest. ‘I see conversing with you is futile. Have a good evening, Mr Peel,’ he said, moving to escape this reckless reprobate.

‘Well, then, you shall never know the story,’ William said, stopping him in his tracks. He knew he held Drummond’s attention in the palm of his hand as that self-satisfied smile still etched on his face indicated, and blue eyes on fire with the excitement of playing with Edward’s curiosity. ‘I’m afraid the true story of my acquaintance with Lord Alfred is such that it cannot be recounted by the side of a Polka in a ballroom. How about we sought a more private setting for this… conversation?’

Edward grappled between his maddening curiosity and the obvious trap he could not have possibly walked into. This was the opposite of what he had set out to do. And how would he face Alfred?

‘Naturally, I must decline this offer, sir. I trust Lord Alfred’s lack of retelling your past relations is an indication of their insignificance and unimportance. Perhaps he is no longer able to sufficiently recall such an unmemorable episode and is sparing me the boredom.’

Edward hoped to shake William’s confidence but, quite on the contrary, he broke out in a smug grin.

‘Oh, I think he remembers it very well, rest assured, Mr Drummond. Well, you might never know, unless… the offer still stands. Enjoy yourself. The lemon cakes really are a delight,’ William said and stepped away, through the crowd, immensely self-satisfied.

‘Edward…’ Charlotte said in the softest whisper to Edward as soon as she returned to his side. ‘Peel… with Alfred…?’

‘I can only assume.’

‘Well you could find out…’ Edward shot her something like a death glare. ‘I’m not encouraging anything. Just an idea.’

 

 

Later that night, Edward was shown to the room that he would be staying in. Changing into his nightshirt and dressing gown, he was still cursing his foolishness. The whole visit was pointless! He was not going to seek out William privately, that was absolutely certain, as that would be tantamount to taking up an offer of… well.

He would ask Alfred again, and that was that.

He wound his pocket watch as he always did before going to bed, dreaming of the hour in the morning at which he could finally leave this damned manor and return to London.

Of course he wished he could go to Windsor instead but there was no conceivable excuse with which to explain his visit. His appearances at the palace were swiftly becoming more and more scarce with the change of government and he missed Alfred during the day so much that he was considering turning over to the Whig side of the House just for him!

But then he remembered their policies and whispered a soft “Sorry, Alfred, I just can’t” to himself.

The watch wound, he went to remove his dressing gown, when…

Was that…?

Edward’s mind must have been playing tricks on him. Besides, some guests must be retiring to their own bedrooms just now. A bit of creaking and some such noise outside his door was nothing.

All the same, he remembered Alfred’s advice to lock his door with a key.

He stared at the latch across the room, debating it.

This is mad. He shook his head, not wanting to give in to the humiliation of actually believing it was necessary.

But he went there and turned the bloody key in the lock all the same, feeling like a child that kept a candle burning on the bedside table to ward off monsters under his bed.

Trying not to feel stupid, he turned away from the door and started to take off his dressing gown.

The next second the door opened and shut behind him.

And there he was, William Peel, in the flesh.

‘Sir!’ Edward exclaimed indignantly, albeit instinctively keeping his voice low so as not to be heard screaming blue murder and being found with William in his room at night.

‘Oh, do continue what you were doing, Mr Drummond, that’s exactly the direction I hoped our night would be going.’

‘But--- but--- ’ Edward stuttered, appalled, gesturing towards the door after pulling the gown back on his shoulders and fastening the belt on his gown much too tightly.

‘Oh, this?’ William asked nonchalantly, taking the key out of the latch. Its head was broken off. ‘This has been like this forever. Old house. We spend most of our time in London, or, in my case, abroad, we forget to renovate things. How silly of us,’ he explained away, throwing the useless key up in the air playfully. ‘Do not worry, lodging a chair under the knob should do the trick. We will not be disturbed.’

Edward was appalled at this most lewd manner of talk – Alfred was never that vulgar and straightforward. And he loved him!

He remembered he had been the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, praised for his brilliance by none other than THE Duke of Wellington, he was a rational, respected man, who has held responsibilities as great as the future of the country’s laws. He crossed his arms and pulled himself together.

‘Sir, I must ask you to leave at once,’ Edward said firmly and clearly.

William sighed and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I will if that’s what you wish.’

‘Will you?’ Drummond asked, surprised that it was as easy as that.

‘You don’t seem very fun. Alfred did. He was. I’m surprised he chose you… Oh, Mr Drummond, why the frown? I wouldn’t force myself on you. In fact…’ he said, stepping closer, and, before Edward could register what was happening, he felt Edward’s biceps. ‘… even if I were such a cad, I wouldn’t dream of it with a strong, well-built man such as yourself. And so handsome I could weep,’ he purred, much too close for Edward’s liking. ‘Hm. Perhaps I do see why you caught Alfred’s eyes. And make no mistake, I have been with some absolutely stunning looking men but you are just…’

William licked his lips and looked as if he could gobble him up whole.

Though Drummond could step away, he wanted to get William to understand he needed to back off of his own accord. He drew himself up to his full height, which he was glad to see made him just an inch taller than William.

‘Mr Peel, unhand me, please, and walk out of this room, and we shall say no more of it.’

William took his hands off Drummond’s arms but hardly stepped away.

‘I thought you wanted to know more about those men. Or one, in particular. Your… your beau, Alfred.’

‘That’s Lord Alfred to you, Mr Peel.’

‘That’s Lieutenant Peel to you, Drummond,’ William replied with a slight edge in his voice, which he quickly noticed and sought to remedy by resuming his sugary flirtation. ‘But I would prefer it if we were such friends that you called me by my first name.’

‘I shall not, it is not appropriate.’

‘Did Lord Alfred tell you to beware of me so?’

‘As a matter of fact, he doesn’t say anything about you.’

William tried not to look hurt. ‘And you presumed you might have the advantage over his reluctance to confide in you by paying us a visit. And here I thought I could entice you to simply enjoy a fine party.’

‘If you had hurt him…’ Edward growled.

‘No, rest assured, he seemed to be enjoying what we did very much. It was all I could do to keep him from rousing the cadets next door with his sounds of resounding enthusiasm. He can be very vocal, though I suspect you have become quite acquainted with that by now.’

‘What happened that he feels he cannot tell me?’ Edward cut to the chase, deciding if he wasn’t getting a straight answer immediately, then he would throw in the towel and throw this cad out of his room.

‘I have reason to believe Alfred was more devoted to me than I to him. Far more devoted. Alas, I had to set sail. He has not quite forgiven me for that. Nor forgotten, as it is apparent from his passionate behaviour now that I have returned to England again.’

Edward tried to tell himself that William was just manipulating him but it was hard to stomach the thought and he would be lying if there wasn’t a possibility that there was a nugget of truth in all this.

‘How long did you know him for?’ he asked.

Know him? Oh, only once. Incredible that that one time is all it took. Imagine if I could have stayed here for months, or years--’

‘I have been Alfred’s closest friend for years,’ Edward interrupted. ‘We have felt strongly for each other for the majority of those years. Since we met, really, even if we didn’t realise or reveal it. We have been together as closely as any two persons can possibly be in every way for some time now – he has seen me down to my soul and he has opened his for me entirely in return. Seems to me you did not appreciate him for the incredible man he is while you could have, only for some of his charms and merits that turn the head of any hot-blooded man and they certainly are the cause for much whispering behind fans whenever he is in the presence of ladies. I have known those merits but beyond them I have also known Alfred in sublime, ethereal ways you cannot imagine. Forgive me if I trust him over you without a question.’

William was eyeing Drummond with a hint of cynicism. But, a few long seconds later, he changed his tune, upon seeing the conviction in Drummond’s eyes. He really was standing his ground.

‘Hm… you truly care about him, do you not?’

‘I love him.’

William didn’t laugh or mock this. On the contrary, he seemed as if there was a bitter taste in his mouth.

‘Then Lord Alfred is a lucky chap. I hope he knows it,’ he said.

‘He does. I tell him and show him every day that I worship him with all my heart.’

William considered him for a moment, then nodded and stepped away. But just when Drummond could be fully relieved, he stopped:

‘Forgive me,’ William said, holding up a hand to indicate he wasn’t playing at anything – no, he reached out for the pendant Drummond was wearing. It was a locket. He opened it, and found a carefully woven lock of hair inside that was a familiar shade of blond.

And though Edward could burst from resentment against this intruder, he could swear there was a fair amount of wistfulness in the way William was observing the contents of the locket.

As suddenly as he had come, as swiftly did he close the pendant, let go of it, and swept out of the room.

 

Edward left Sir Robert’s estate with more questions rather than fewer. If he hadn’t disliked William before, now he definitely did, despite the sickly sweet talk and the lewd flirtation, and considering the legendary track record of successful quests, Edward unwillingly concluded that if he didn’t like William it was because William didn’t want him to. In fact, he had the strange nagging feeling that Alfred had been mistaken for fearing William might be after him and not after Alfred…

Chapter Text

Charlotte kissed Agnes’s skin just below her ribs, traveling downwards, licking and biting harder with every encouraging whimper and unsuccessfully stifled moan from her lover until she reached her hip and teased her with her tongue on the soft skin on Agnes’s hip, not yet giving her the satisfaction of reaching the destination she knew Agnes was begging her to, no, not just yet, she smiled against the porcelain skin, hands roaming her lover’s naked body, she felt Agnes shaking in her arms from desire and want, so she kissed and kissed and—

‘Pfffttthhttsss—’ she spat, as a big strand of her loose curly hair gave into gravity and landed right in her mouth.

She sat up and tried to get it out of the way blindly but it was the gentle hand that was not hers that lovingly brushed her hair away from her face and before she could apologise and die from embarrassment Agnes sat up and she was kissing her on the lips warmly.

She melted into it, hands reaching up to caress the long auburn hair cascading down Agnes’s dainty shoulders and the silky soft skin on her back covered in hundreds of the lightest freckles Charlotte had set out to kiss one by one the first time she saw them.

She couldn’t get enough of her and soon they fell back on the pillows, Charlotte on top of Agnes, situating themselves just right, legs entangled. Agnes pushed her leg between Charlotte’s thighs until Charlotte could not help gasping against Agnes’s lips once she felt her skin and the welcome pressure she craved and they moved and moved---

‘ALFRED, CATCH IT!’

Charlotte woke with a start at the distant sound of her brother’s voice.

A bout of laughter followed from the garden.

She slumped back on her pillow, burying her face and her disappointed groans into it, and hugged her heavy sheets closer, as if to fill the gap of a body that wasn’t there in her arms, until her breathing evened.

It was just a dream, of course.

‘STOP IT, PLAY NICELY!’

Charlotte frowned. What was this ruckus outside?! At this hour??? … oh, it was almost eleven, as she saw, checking the clock on her bedside table by an ashtray full of the remains of cheroots such as the ones Edward smoked.

She had nothing planned for the day but she supposed she ought to get up, which she did, walking over to the window to see what exactly disturbed her most pleasant dreams.

Tennis.

They were playing tennis.

She opened the window and leaned ever so slightly out of it to see the full scene: apparently Edward was having more than just Alfred over as guests and if her eyes were not betraying her, there were hot tea and delicious libations on garden tables.

Pop - WOOOSSHH – a ball went flying past her, right through her window, making her heart skip a beat.

‘SORRY, CHARLOTTE!’ Edward shouted.

Seeing as her wild bed-hair and sternest of frowns were not enough to make Edward’s wide boyish grin fade even slightly, she closed the window, hid the ashtray, and rang the bell for the maid to come and make her presentable. If that was the price of being allowed to walk downstairs and grab some of those cakes, she was willing to squeeze herself into that bloody corset.

‘Good morning, everyone,’ she said to the little youthful gathering as she stepped outside not much later.

‘Charlotte!’ Edward came over at once, wearing something like his cricket clothes. In fact, like her, everyone seemed to be wearing cream or white, as was suitable, all except for the Duchess who was still in her mourning clothes. ‘We didn’t mean to disturb you, I’m sorry.’

Charlotte should have said they didn’t but they did, crudely interrupting her dreams of Agnes, so instead she turned expectantly to the guests she didn’t know.

‘Miss Drummond,’ Alfred said, as he arrived just then, ‘Allow me the pleasure of introducing Harriet the Duchess of Sutherland, the Honourable Miss Wilhelmina Coke, and of course Emma, Baroness Portman. All good friends of mine, I’m glad to say.’

‘How do you do?’ Charlotte said and the usual appropriate gestures were made and she sat in the sun with the ladies. Tea and sandwiches were served and she found her morning did not have to be so bad after all. Particularly as the ladies seemed acceptable company – pleasant, even, after she also had a piece of strawberry cake. Miss Coke may have been a little plain but kind, Lady Portman was intelligent, insightful, and radiated calm grace, and the Duchess lived up to tales of her beauty every bit.

‘Are you not going to let us play?’ Harriet asked when Edward and Alfred came to join them for a little break from the game.

‘Well, I believe Drummond wouldn’t mind handing over his racket as he is clearly losing,’ Alfred quipped and Charlotte noted how odd it was to hear Lord Alfred use her brother’s last name. But of course he had to. And she also thought she noticed the slightest trace of a bruise on his neck, now that he was wearing something with a lower collar than was the fashion of the day and could have sworn it looked as if it was the work of her brother…

‘Steady on, I’m not completely hopeless, Lord Alfred!’ Edward replied, still grinning, his cheeks a lively colour from either the game or from the cheeky way Alfred was looking back at him. Charlotte wondered what the ladies thought, if anything, but to her the men were so obvious she felt she had to come to the rescue before they bloody well started rolling around on the lawn.

‘Tell that to my window that wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been open!’ she said, presenting the lost tennis ball, causing the guests to burst out laughing – well, as much as it was socially appropriate.

‘Well, the doctor said any exercise is good. He did not say I had to be good at it,’ Edward replied, taking a sandwich. ‘You should see me rowing.’

Alfred made a mental note to make that happen. ‘Is that a challenge?’ he asked.

Edward was invigorated by this exciting, competitive side of Alfred. ‘If you wish, Lord Alfred.’

‘Ah, but I would have to retaliate by inviting you to race me on horseback. Properly. Alas, none of London’s parks are vast enough for my idea of such a ride.’

‘Well, where would we find suitable terrain for it?’

‘Ah, nothing matches the Welsh lands.’

‘Do you miss Wales, Lord Alfred?’ Wilhelmina piped up, and Charlotte could tell she was more than a little eager to address him.

‘Terribly,’ Alfred replied, ‘but of course the charms of the court more than make up for my homesickness.’

It was simple gallantry but Charlotte could have sworn Wilhelmina was nearly bursting from happiness.

Charlotte reached for a scone at the same time as Lady Portman brushing hands accidentally. She gasped not at the contact but at the sight of the ring on her finger which was most like that worn by Agnes – silver with a sapphire stone the colour of open seas embedded. And Charlotte’s gaze lingered, the conversation fading into the background as memories of her dream and of real scenes of this past wondrous and painful season flooded her mind.

‘What do you think, Charlotte?’

Charlotte heard Edward’s voice but his words didn’t seem to get through to her.

‘I’m sorry – what was…?’ she stuttered.

‘Would you like to join us, Miss Drummond?’ Alfred asked, warmly all the more for the melancholic daze with which she had been briefly overcome and which did not escape him.

‘Where?’ she asked.

‘Wales!’ Miss Coke said, on the edge of her seat already.

 

Alfred was fast asleep on Edward’s shoulder in the carriage as they entered Anglesey. When she could tear her eyes off the beautiful scenery, Charlotte saw with amazement that he still managed to look quite angelic when unconscious – no off-putting snores or saliva dripping from a gaping mouth, no, he was perfect and she could see why Edward had no eyes for the hills but only for his lover in his arms.

Edward saw her looking and felt shy suddenly.

‘Should I wake him?’ he asked very quietly. ‘He’s missing the view.’

‘No, let him rest,’ she replied.

‘Thank you for arranging this.’

‘Why, Lord Alfred arranged the trip.’

‘I mean the seating. At least we can catch some privacy en route. It’s a relief,’ Edward admitted, not loving the fact that the accommodations they stayed at on the way thus far offered little opportunity to spend time with Alfred. It was always risky to meet alone but things like the closeness of their bedrooms or the schedules of household servants made all the difference and they decided to be safe rather than sorry.

‘Well, Miss Coke and I could hardly travel on our own in the other carriage as we are both unmarried and it wouldn’t be right for her to travel with two eligible bachelors either. Lady Portman can chaperone her and you can chaperone me, brother dear. Not that there’s much point.’

‘No, I daresay you are not so dazzled by Alfred as other ladies are.’

‘Ladies such as Miss Coke, you mean? She certainly seemed very keen on sharing the carriage with him. Very, very keen…’

Edward closed his eyes and smiled knowingly. ‘I’m afraid she is not immune to Alfred’s charms but I cannot fault her at that.’

‘No indeed,’ Charlotte said, hiding a smile behind her fan. She didn’t like to seem soft but it was difficult at the sight of them. ‘I could have travelled with Lady Portman and Miss Coke, too.’

‘I know but Alfred insisted you sit with us.’

‘Why?’

‘Why? Because he likes your company. And he would like you to be happy. Do not presume we cannot see it. You are troubled by something,’ Edward pressed on, despite her obvious discomfort and continued secrecy. ‘You are, Charlotte. And I won’t pry if you do not wish me to but at least we can help some way or other. Alfred could have proposed the idea of this trip in private and it would only have been us out here but he did not, out of consideration for you. I know you like to travel and I hope it proves a welcome break from… whatever is ailing you so.’

Charlotte considered him for a moment. ‘Thank you,’ she finally said and managed a smile.

A bump in the road rattled the carriage, waking Lord Alfred.

Blinking against the sunshine, he sat up and slid his hand off Edward’s waist where it had been resting beforehand, feeling self-conscious in front of Charlotte.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, eyes falling from Edward’s adoring face to the countryside outside the windows. ‘Oh but we must be almost there! How splendid!’

And before long, they were rolling towards Plas Newydd, the magnificent manor across the strait, surrounded by beautiful gardens (which were several and varied all over the estate as Alfred explained), and sporting a pretty display of ivy on its façade that was losing its greens for lively hues of reds and yellows this mid-autumn.

Alfred, who had been talking for quite some time about the illustrious history and all the brilliant little nooks and features of the estate.

‘And for rowing, there are tunnels that go down to the… what is it?’ he asked when he became aware of Edward’s eyes on him and one of those looks of his, feeling himself going red. ‘Have I talked too much?’

‘No, it’s just… I love you,’ Edward said, marvelling at the enthusiasm sparkling in his lover’s eyes. He leaned closer for a kiss.

But bashfulness overcome Alfred and he could not. He couldn’t even meet Charlotte’s eyes.

‘Oh don’t mind me,’ she said, busy staring at the truly stunning view as they neared the house along the impressive mile long drive that took them to the main entrance.

But Alfred still didn’t dare.

‘Charlotte, I wonder if I could borrow your fan,’ Edward finally said, knowing that this was their last chance at a kiss for many, many hours, perhaps days. He took her fan, opened it rather clumsily with two hands as he had no practice at handling one, and used it to shield their faces as he kissed Alfred’s lips at last.

Alfred laughed into the kiss and shook his head affectionately. They disentangled their arms, the carriages stopped, and they were stepping outside.

‘Mama!’ Alfred exclaimed, spotting his parents in the entrance. He darted up the stairs and hugged her mother, and his father, not caring a fig about what was customary or polite. He hadn’t seen his beloved parents in well over a year. ‘Papa, how are you?’

‘We are quite well, my son,’ Lord Anglesey said, patting Alfred’s shoulders heartily. ‘All the better for seeing you! It’s been ages!’

‘We thought we would only get to see you in London,’ Lady Anglesey said.

‘Indeed! Papa, congratulations on your seat!’ Alfred said to his father.

‘Thank you, Alfred,’ Lord Anglesey said just as the other guests approached.

‘Mama, Papa, you know Lady Portman, I daresay,’ Alfred began, and waited for Emma and his parents to greet one another, ‘And this is the Honourable Miss Wilhelmina Coke, also a lady of the bedchamber and a connoisseur of Chopin,’ he continued, waiting for them to greet one another too, before Edward stepped closer, ‘And this is Edward Drummond, the—’

‘Drummond!’ Lord Anglesey said in recognition. ‘Why, yes, when Alfred wrote that you would be visiting I had to mention it in a letter to the Duke at once!’

‘The Duke of Wellington, Sir?’ Drummond asked.

‘Who else?’ Lord Anglesey nodded. ‘Your fame precedes you, Mr Drummond. We are glad you are now fully recovered and you are very, very welcome here indeed.’

‘Thank you very much, Lord Anglesey,’ Edward said, reaching out a hand to shake, only just realising he was still holding onto Charlotte’s fan. Mortified, he fumbled to hand it back to her and shook Lord Anglesey’s hand and kissed that of Lady Anglesey. ‘May I introduce my sister Charlotte?’ he asked and ushered her forward for the same greetings as was appropriate.

‘Ah, my namesake! Thank you for coming, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly.

‘Thank you for having us, Lady Anglesey,’ Charlotte replied. ‘Your house offers a most stunning view. Truly breathtaking.’

‘You are so kind, Miss Drummond. We shall be sad to leave it for London, I can say that. But the office calls again.’

‘Indeed,’ Alfred piped up, ready to play a little: ‘What was it you said, Drummond, about times when men like my father would rule the country? Oh, I forget. Well, now it has happened at any rate.’

Edward smiled stiffly at Alfred, communicating without words something along the lines of “I LOVE YOU BUT SHUT UP.” It wouldn’t do to get off on the wrong foot with Alfred’s parents after all!

‘Now, how about you settle in, refresh yourselves, Gwen and Morgan will show you to your rooms,’ Lady Anglesey said. ‘And then, we shall make use of the sun and have tea in the Italian garden!’

 

‘Are you ready to come down, Miss Drummond?’ Lady Portman asked, stepping into Charlotte’s room a little time and a lot of unpacking later.

‘I am,’ she answered from the window as the last housemaid left.

Lady Portman approached.

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ she remarked. They could see Snowdon from there, clear in the bright air that day. ‘Shame that Harriet could not join us to see it on this occasion.’

‘It is. But I suppose she’s not yet in quite the condition.’

‘Perhaps we might make a suggestion to have a hike up there on one of the days.’

Charlotte looked at her sharply, not daring to get her hopes up. ‘Do you think we could do that?’

‘I don’t see why not. I’m sure Lord Alfred will hardly object. Nor Henry. You can do whatever you want here, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte turned back towards to the mountain, especially as she felt the briefest touch of a hand on her forearm and knew she was being closely watched, so as to disguise the thought that flashed through her mind at once: that to suggest such a thing to Charlotte Drummond was much more dangerous than Lady Portman could have known. But then again, she felt a loaded sort of energy coming from the Baroness that she didn’t think she was imagining…

‘Ready?’ Miss Coke’s voice coming from the door broke the moment, sending a slight relief though Charlotte that she couldn’t account for sensibly.

In the garden, Lady Anglesey graciously continued what Alfred had begun in the carriage and told the party a lot more about the centuries-old estate’s history. Alfred and Drummond never seemed to leave each other’s side as they strolled around, teacups in hand, and Charlotte noticed that Miss Coke was always following a step behind, looking for a chance to jump into the conversation. But it was hardly happening as long as the men were once again talking about their plans for sporting activities.

‘Did I hear talk of rowing?’ Lord Anglesey interjected, joining them by one of the fountains.

‘Yes, you did, Papa,’ Alfred replied jovially. ‘We were thinking about making a race out of it.’

‘It’s not going to be much of a race, though, is it?’ Drummond quipped cheekily. ‘It’s not a fair fight, you against me, therefore it’s hardly a competition, more just a simple pummelling. Of course you can always call it off, just to save yourself the embarrassment, Al- Lord Alfred,’ Edward caught himself just at the last second. It was difficult to control himself, though. He had not had nearly enough of his Alfred for days and days and though he enjoyed the garden party thoroughly, he could not wait for the night to fall.

In fact, all he could think about was the fact that his and Alfred’s bedrooms were not only next to each other but adjoined by a door that was usually covered with a large but empty cabinet that could be moved easily. Surely Alfred’s doing, even though he feigned innocence about it.

Alfred huffed, enjoying this game. ‘Oh, Drummond, rowing is only the beginning. I shall show you what real riding looks like soon enough, fear not.’

‘Me? Fear? Oh, Lord Alfred, you underestimate me so.’

‘On the contrary. You know I admire you so,’ Alfred said without thinking, all the fun and joy of the party making him forget himself. Edward’s eyes widened ever so slightly so he quickly continued to save it: ‘As does everyone else, I daresay. The Westminster Hero, the papers called you. And The Duke of Wellington has the highest praises of you, is that not right, Papa?’

‘It is,’ Lord Anglesey said – if he had picked up on anything strange, he wasn’t giving it away.

‘But it remains a known discovery that tennis is not Drummond’s forte,’ Alfred quipped on. ‘I’m sure your neighbours’ dogs were delighted for all the free balls to chase.’

Henry laughed at what he deemed boyish competitiveness and not searing tension of a wholly different sort between Edward and Alfred, and left to sit with Lady Anglesey as his false leg was starting to be a real discomfort.

‘You’re so confident, Alfred,’ Edward whispered very quietly into Alfred’s ears when they were alone for a second. ‘We’ll see just how much strength you’ll have to steer your canoe – I have a feeling you might find yourself exhausted from lack of sleep by then…’

Alfred almost shushed him but Edward’s dark, desirous eyes took his breath away. The man had plans for their nights…

‘Would you care for a turn around the rhododendrons, Lord Alfred?’ Miss Coke startled them and they flew apart to stand at a respectable distance. ‘Lady Anglesey says they are still in bloom.’

‘Of course, Miss Coke, though, I think we ought to have company – Drummond?’ Alfred asked, begging with his eyes for Edward not to let Miss Coke have him alone. She really has been incredibly unsubtle lately. Even more so than before, desperate to make a Whig match as probably instructed by her aunt. Alfred liked the sweet girl but even he was starting to feel a tad uncomfortable sometimes.

‘Show the way, Lord Alfred,’ Edward thankfully said.

‘I should join them,’ Lady Portman said, standing from the garden table and excusing himself.

This left Charlotte alone with Lord and Lady Anglesey.

‘You must try some of the Welsh cakes, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey said before any awkward silence could set in that would make Charlotte want to run to the hills. ‘The currants were picked just this morning. And you look so peaky, does she not, Henry? I worry the winter winds will blow her away!’

‘Forgive my wife, Miss Drummond,’ Lord Anglesey said to that endearingly. ‘She finds it hard to stop being a mother to every young guest we have here, now that all our children have left the nest.’

‘It’s quite alright, the cakes are delicious,’ Charlotte said, taking one. ‘Excuse me but… what did the Duke of Wellington say about my brother?’

‘All good things, I assure you,’ he laughed.

‘But what? Forgive me, only, he has such a humble and modest disposition usually - I know it does not seem that way today but that’s only because of—’ Charlotte stopped herself there, ‘Well, he never tells me these things. He’s not boastful.’

‘I gathered his character very well from the Duke, rest assured, Miss Drummond. Well, if you must know…’ and Henry was speaking for a full uninterrupted quarter of an hour about all of Edward’s praises that he had heard second hand, from Wellington, from other MPs Tory and Whig alike, from newspapers since the assassination attempt, and of course from Alfred’s letters.

‘I had no idea. He never says… I mean I knew he was successful but…’ Charlotte stuttered, processing this.

‘He is more than successful. I daresay he may be prime minister one day.’

‘Shame he didn’t marry after all,’ Lady Anglesey lamented.

‘Shame…’ Charlotte said half-heartedly, to humour them, thinking the opposite.

‘Ah but we must let them be young first, must we not?’ Henry mused. ‘Alfred has not mentioned any plans for marriage yet but he seems jolly. Albeit, perhaps this may change…’ he said, shooting a conspiratorial glance very subtly towards his wife, who tensed ever so slightly. He turned back to Charlotte before continuing: ‘We noticed Lady Portman was quick to jump in to chaperone Miss Coke… I wonder if… Is there any reason for us to believe that she and Alfred…?’

Charlotte almost choked on the mouthful of cake she was chewing. ‘N—not that I know of.’

Lady Anglesey laughed. A mother always knew best…

Charlotte swallowed, feeling interrogated. ‘She may be hopeful, especially as she is likely to leave court soon now that there has been a change of government, but I can assure you Lord Alfred does not intend to indulge these hopes of hers.’

Lord and Lady Anglesey shared a look again, unnerving Charlotte.

‘Why, do you happen to know of someone else in Alfred’s designs, perhaps?’ Lady Anglesey asked, badly masking her curiosity.

‘I… I… don’t…’ Charlotte stuttered, put on the spot. Were they asking about Edward? He and Alfred have been so obvious ever since they got out of the carriage! What if they knew? Did they know? Did they think she would tell them because she was Edward’s sister? She felt short of breath from anxiety in a flash.

‘Because,’ Lady Anglesey continued carefully, ‘Alfred has very good prospects and you seem to be good friends and…’

Charlotte’s wild calculations changed course in an instant. She knew this kind of talk – she was glad the season was over so that she wouldn’t have to sit at some parents’ table talking about one of their sons but apparently there was no escape from this outside of London.

‘Oh! Oh no. No, Lady Anglesey, no. That’s not… no.’

She mentally cursed herself into the next century. Really well done, really, excellent, you idiot, she told herself.

‘Oh, well,’ Lady Anglesey sat back, returning to her chirpy tone. ‘Just thought I’d ask. More tea?’

 

When Edward, Miss Coke, Lady Portman, and Lord Alfred returned, Charlotte pointedly ignored Lord Alfred at any step to ward off any suspicions of a match that his parents would try to bring about. Of course it would never happen but the potential for dangerously awkward conversations budding from this idea was great and worrying and Charlotte wanted to dissipate them before they could take off.

She hoped that one question over tea was it but no: every time she walked across the drawing room to change seats, every time they went to inspect some of the many gardens and the path was only wide enough for two people to walk next to each other, every time Edward would stupidly talk about all the times they three spent their spare time together, Charlotte could catch the watchful eyes of Lord and Lady Anglesey. Surely, they’d known the size of her expectable dowry even before she’d set foot on the island better than she herself did.

So she was as cold as ever to Lord Alfred throughout the visit, she snapped at him unwarranted, she shut down his friendly suggestions, she ignored his presence, and all this without any means to explain it as their days were tightly scheduled and she was being constantly chaperoned and there was not a moment to talk to Edward alone (and of course all he wanted to do was spend every waking moment with Alfred, thus barring her from going near them) and there was definitely no way she would seek to talk to Alfred alone to apologise for this because that would be oil on the fire.

If she feared she offended Lord Alfred, she was right.

‘I can’t think what I could have done!? I don’t understand,’ Alfred lamented crestfallen one night once he and Edward were finally in the privacy of his bedchamber. He was sat on the edge of the bed with shoulders sagging, distressed because Charlotte really seemed to dislike him. And he was not used to the feeling, not used to it at all!

‘She’s like that with everyone, my love,’ Edward tried to comfort him. He knelt in front of him, taking his hands in his own. ‘She’s an enigma but you know she likes to keep to herself and she doesn’t take easily to others…’

‘But she does, she gets on perfectly well with Emma or Mama or… It’s just me she has something against… I cannot think what I could have done to deserve it…’

When Edward looked up he saw tears in his love sad blue eyes. ‘No, do not cry, my love, oh, my dear Alfred…’ He rose to reach Alfred’s lips and kissed him with all the love and passion he had. ‘You are perfect… Alfred… you are… perfect…’ he uttered between deeper and deeper kisses.

Soon, their stifling garments were discarded on the floor and they fell back onto the bed.

Edward was devouring the soft skin on Alfred’s shoulder, relishing in the feeling of Alfred’s nails digging into his hair and back and bottom… And he had to laugh.

‘What is it?!’ Alfred asked, himself also chuckling.

Edward pushed himself up on his elbows, stroking the lines and curves of Alfred’s features with his fingertips – his eyebrows, his jawline, his chest, his hips, a hand resting on his thigh finally. He sighed and had to laugh to himself again. ‘I just cannot believe I’m here with you.’

Alfred grinned brightly. ‘Well, you are quite a lucky chap, aren’t you?’ he teased.

But his phrasing rang a bell in Edward’s mind… a rather uncomfortable one…

‘I am lucky,’ he said, trying to keep smiling. ‘Was this your old bedroom when you were young?’

‘Yes, it was. It’s exactly as I left it.’

‘So… this is where you would invite your friends?’ Edward dared pry. A brief little frown clouded Alfred’s beautiful, open face. ‘…boys.’

Alfred cracked up. ‘No, you are the first man here,’ he said, leaning up to chase Edward’s lips and kiss him.

Here. Only here. But elsewhere… Edward thought and tried to push jealousy-inciting images of Alfred with others out of his mind, even as he was kissing him; William’s voice gloating about his acquaintance of Alfred, William and Alfred together, William—

‘Edward?’ Alfred said, breaking their kiss. ‘What’s wrong?’

Edward felt the weight again, one that he had been carrying since he went to that damned ball at Dreyton Manor. He hadn’t said a word to Alfred about what transpired between him and William Peel that night. But it wouldn’t let him rest.

‘Alfred…’ Edward began, thinking it was lucky he had Alfred in such an agreeable situation, bare and in his arms – really there could not be a more comfortable or pleasant state in which he could have got Alfred if he was going to try to have this conversation again. ‘Um… I was just wondering… not that it matters, of course… It’s simply that I should like to know everything there is to know about you, because I love you, with every fibre of my being, material and immaterial… So… When you were with Lieutenant Peel…’

Alfred pulled away, instantly tense, shaking his head.

‘I know you were, Alfred,’ Edward said, in the gentlest voice he could manage even though he still regretted not having punched Peel in the face when he had had the chance. ‘It’s only natural that I should wonder why you are so reluctant to tell me more.’

‘There is nothing to say about it,’ Alfred sighed, annoyed. ‘It was a mistake. I should like to forget the whole thing altogether.’

‘Did he hurt you?’ Edward asked.

‘No… Offended me, rather,’ Alfred admitted.

‘How?’

Alfred huffed indignantly and Edward understood that’s where that line ended. ‘At the ball he suggested there was a time when you did find him most agreeable.’

‘That’s quite an elegant way to put it, I’m sure he did not phrase it like so,’ Alfred rattled rapidly at once.

Edward avoided Alfred’s eyes. ‘No.’

‘Well, then you know all there is to know about it,’ Alfred said with finality, resuming his kissing of the sensitive skin on Edward’s neck.

But Edward, though it required immense self-control, wasn’t finished.

‘Alfred, I…’ he said, prying Alfred gently off him despite himself, ‘I love you and I want you to be happy, you know that, do you not?’

‘I do.’ Alfred could see Edward was struggling with something that embittered his joy. ‘What else did that bastard say to you? I will kill him.’

‘Alfred!’ Edward exclaimed, shocked. ‘See, this is exactly what confounds me. He was right to point out the passion with which you feel about him still.’

‘Passionate anger and hatred if he meddles with our love,’ Alfred said, voice shaking. ‘Edward, he has never been unsuccessful in his numerous quests. Never. Not once. He may have had to wait it out, he may have had to pull some more strings to bring it about, he may have only got round to it after another trip abroad upon his return, but eventually, one way or another, he has always, always managed to have his way once he aimed his gun at someone. That’s what he does, this is a sport to him. He travels the world and leaves ruin in his wake because he knows he can sail away from one day to the next and not have to worry about the consequences. All is fair in love and war to him. And if he’s got his eye on you, that means he will work until you give in,’ Alfred almost gave in to crying now, the mere thought was maddening. ‘If you don’t that’ll be unprecedented.’

‘I would never and that’s not true, Alfred, he’s not interested in me he’s—’

‘I know you are blind to it because you are wholesome, exactly the opposite of what he is, but I can tell, and I know him better than you do. Everything he has said and will say if he is a fool enough to approach you in the future will be for the purpose of tearing us apart, to manipulate us into arguing until you find comfort in his arms, and if that happens I shall kill him, I swear to God—’

‘Is that what he did to you? Manipulate you?’

Alfred hesitated. He knew he was being seen right through.

‘He didn’t have to, did he?’ Edward said. ‘Not you, you were game. Alfred, that’s fine--- that’s---- it’s alright,’ Edward hurried to say as Alfred pushed himself up and sat further away, against the headboard, covering himself with the sheets, arms crossed. ‘I didn’t mean it like that, Alfred.’

‘It sounded like you did.’

‘But I did not,’ Edward insisted because it was true. He placed a warm hand on Alfred’s knee, thinking. ‘Alfred you know the idea of leaving you, especially for that big-headed scoundrel Peel is hideous to me. But you have to admit the intensity of your feelings matches what he suggested. He says you get like this every time he is back in Britain. Clearly you still feel strongly about him. I mean, we’ve come all this way all of a sudden – are you sure you are not simply running from him?’

Alfred ceased his seething about all other accusations in the face of this. Edward wasn’t accusatory at all, really, he was… he was so sad. And Alfred understood now what the problem was.

‘Edward,’ he said, scooting over to his love again, gently and with an open and honest love that he had only for him. He cupped his face in his hands, compelling Edward to look up at him, before he spoke. ‘He is nothing to me.’

Edward watched Alfred – his blue eyes were looking right into his own with utmost sincerity. He felt naïve. And inexperienced. And gullible. But he felt that Alfred was the one person he could trust. His fear of losing him and his endless love flooding him all over again he kissed him and kissed him and kissed him and they made love until the sun rose above the peak of Snowdon.

Chapter Text

‘Ready?’ Miss Coke called, holding her pretty embroidered handkerchief high up in the air.

‘We are quite ready, Miss Coke!’ Alfred called, finishing his cheroot and flicking it on the bank before grabbing his oars just at the last minute.

‘Three…’

Miss Coke called excitedly from the edge of the grass. Behind her, not far away, the rest of the party was watching in the sun as Drummond and Lord Alfred were bracing themselves for the boat race.

‘Two…’

Alfred glanced to the side, satisfied to see he could distract a very determined and focused Edward who instinctively turned his way, just in time to catch a wink.

‘One…’

Drummond tore his eyes off Alfred’s scandalous vision – really, this was no time for any other, nether parts of his body to awaken, no, he needed to concentrate with all his might on winning this race otherwise he would prove to be all talk, and what would Alfred think! He wanted to impress him!

‘G---’

BAM! A gunshot interrupted Miss Coke’s final word – she even dropped her handkerchief in the mud of the river bank! Behind her, Lady Anglesey was tutting and swatting Henry’s arm for having startled the poor little girl by firing his rifle in the air as a signal for the race to start. By the time Miss Coke fished her handkerchief out of the weeds and looked up, Drummond and Lord Alfred were well on their way towards the willow tree where they had set the finish line.

The onlookers, including their close group of friends and the serving staff, the gardeners and gamekeepers, and some folk from the village who had nothing better to do, were cheering either or both of them on loudly.

Alfred knew Drummond would be far better at this than himself, even with his arm that had only been recently pronounced fully healed, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t trying his hardest to catch up with him. He was going for the pride of winning, of course, but his biggest drive was the fact that they had agreed on a little private deal about certain things they were going to try in the privacy of their bedrooms, depending on which way the race went today… And he really, really wanted to win.

Not that he wasn’t curious about what Edward had in mind if he won but…

Alfred was pulling and pulling but Drummond was always just half a boat’s length ahead and eventually they passed the tree, stopped rowing like mad, and slowed down. Gosh they were breathless!

Breathless but the rush of it brought them to laughter. They steered their boats towards each other’s.

‘Lord Alfred,’ Drummond said, still panting heavily but wearing a huge bright smile. ‘Well done. Valiant effort!’

Alfred took Drummond’s hand that was offered as a show of good sportsmanship.

‘Why, thank you, Drummond,’ he said, panting just as heavily. ‘Congratulations… looks like you win this time.’

‘This time?’

‘Don’t make me tug on your hand until you fall flat into the water,’ Alfred said in a lower voice.

‘No you won’t, because you love me.’

‘I do, and…’ Alfred continued in a lower voice still, ‘… I can’t wait to properly congratulate you.’

A flustered Drummond was saved by the crowd that rushed towards the bank where the tree was, urging them to get back on land and celebrate. Alfred was proud of Edward and happier than he could say for his recovery but throughout the outdoor celebrations, and dinner that seemed to drag on forever and of which he could hardly eat any for his prolonged excitement, all he could think about was how much he was dying to find out just what Edward was going to want to claim as his rightful reward.

 

As every night, shortly after he retreated to his bedroom, Alfred listened for the hallways to quieten before moving the cabinet from the door that connected him to Edward. He dragged it aside on the carpet as soundlessly as he could and knocked thrice gently on the door.

A second later, Edward stepped through it, already in his nightshirt and dressing gown. Alfred also noticed he had freshly combed his hair – no doubt with the aim of smoothening his curls but achieving the opposite effect. His locks were loose, his warm brown eyes full of love and lust, his pent-up desire for Alfred obvious but not clear of his usual bashfulness that made him all the more attractive and irresistible.

‘So… what have you planned for me, Edward? After all, you won the race.’

Edward squinted conspiratorially. ‘Hm… I was thinking…’

‘Yes?’ Alfred breathed with titillating anticipation. What could be in store for him?

‘… if it’s not too much to ask…’

‘Yes…?’

‘…that you could let me read aloud from Politics Weekly.’

Alfred frowned and froze. ‘What?’

‘I know you find it such a bore so we always just read your poetry volumes and then I always have to cram it in stolen moments, no chance to properly concentrate, but I should so like to read it from the first to the last page in full for a change, the way I used to!’

‘Edward… I… When I said you can ask for anything…’

Edward was snorting and shaking with laughter at once, trying to keep it down lest they were heard from another room.

‘Alfred… Alfred I was only joking,’ he managed to say, much to Alfred’s relief. ‘Your face…!’

Alfred hit Drummond lightly on the shoulder but he was joining in on the fun, too.

‘One never knows with you,’ he said. ‘You do love your political papers.’

‘I do,’ Edward said, getting over the success of his trick and turning to Alfred again, close, closer, running his hands slowly up and down his arms, eyes darkening again once his laughter faded. ‘But I care not a fig about anything else but you tonight.’

Alfred shivered hot and cold with Edward’s torturously feather-light touches. He could feel the heat of his body but they were barely even touching yet. It always felt like this, even more and more so every single time they were together: he longed to touch Edward but once he was in his reach he nearly dared not for fear it would be too good, too intense a pleasure that would burn him, turn him into ashes, destroy him as if he was Icarus flying too close to the Sun.

‘What, then, did you have in mind?’ he asked, his imagination running wild.

Edward licked his lips absent-mindedly, gazing intensely into Alfred’s eyes.

But he found he could not speak.

‘Say it,’ Alfred encouraged sweetly, reaching out to run his burning palms up the muscles on Edward’s stomach, his chest, coming to rest on his neck. His pulse was twice its normal pace! ‘I shan’t judge.’

‘I…’ Edward began shyly. ‘I would… I’m sorry, I’m not used to this kind of talk…’

‘It’s alright, my love. Tell me,’ Alfred pleaded, lips brushing against Edward’s lips, almost, almost touching but not quite, driving Edward insane with want. ‘What would you like to do with me?’ Alfred whispered.

‘I was hoping we could… in front of the mirror,’ Edward managed to say, eyes glancing over to the large cabinet Alfred had moved so it wouldn’t block the door that joined their two bedrooms. Its carved wooden doors were embedded with mirrors large enough for a grown man to see himself fully in a tall top hat. Alfred’s gaze followed that of Edward’s and he understood.

‘You want me whilst…’

‘Looking at your reflection in the mirror. I thought… because… I cannot get enough of you, Alfred, and… You are more beautiful than words can express and I find I don’t want to miss a thing. And I wish you could see just what a sight you are… when…’

Alfred had never felt quite like this, as he did upon hearing these words. He had never been vain but he had never had an unreasonably low self-esteem. He had been called handsome and a catch and whatnot by people that didn’t matter. But the way Edward was talking about him… it took his breath away.

‘Alfred?’ Edward asked, worried he overstepped. ‘Do you find it ridiculous? We don’t have to do it—oh God, forget it—’

‘Let’s do it,’ Alfred interrupted him, with a kiss for good measure. His whole body was on fire, longing to be touched, he could feel through his breeches that Edward’s was, too. He wondered how his buttons were faring up! He could not take any more hesitation. ‘Have me. Like you said.’

 

 

‘Would you care for more coffee, Mr Drummond?’ Miss Coke asked at breakfast. She was sitting next to him and has taken to being ever so helpful and friendly with him. Not that she had ever been unfriendly but apparently she figured the way to Lord Alfred’s heart may be through his closest friend, whom he really held in such high esteem and spent all his time with.

All his time.

‘Excuse me,’ Drummond said absent-mindedly. ‘I’m sorry uh…’

‘Coffee?’ she repeated accommodatingly.

‘N-no, thank you, Miss Coke, I still have a full cup.’

Wilhelmina put down the pot and checked whether Lord Alfred on the opposite side of the table saw her most helpful behaviour.

But Alfred was busy buttering a crumpet and casting furtive glances at Drummond, who in turn dropped a spoonful of marmalade on the crisp white tablecloth missing his toast. Upon Drummond’s lingering gaze, Alfred’s mouth twitched ever so slightly into a smile he was trying to supress and when he couldn’t he took a long sip of his tea, while Drummond didn’t seem to notice he was peppering his jam and toast.

But after the night before, they wondered how they had been able to get dressed and come down for breakfast, giving the impression of nothing having happened.

 

Edward had made quick work of undressing Alfred and backed him against the mirror of the cabinet, dropping to his knees and pleasuring him with his mouth eagerly while he prepared Alfred, now well-practiced compared to his initial clumsiness when they were first together like this. Alfred relished in the sensations that were already too much, accompanied by the tickling coldness of the surface of the looking glass on his back.

When he began squirming and fidgeting too much, Edward knew he could stand.

Alfred nearly tore his damned garments off his body, desperate to get at his unclad skin, throwing himself into his arms.

‘Turn around,’ Edward whispered in the raspiest, deepest voice.

Alfred obliged, trusting him.

‘Oh.’

Alfred’s eyes fell on the sight of the two of them in the mirror, naked, flushed, and ready. Edward’s lips were red and swollen, as were his own, his eyes were dark with wild desire as they were feasting on Alfred’s body in his arms. He kept watching as he kissed and bit at the nape of Alfred’s neck, moving to the sweet spot behind his ear, which he knew drove him mad. Alfred’s eyes fell shut as his head tilted backwards in pleasure.

‘No, look…’ Edward whispered. ‘Don’t close your eyes. Look at yourself…’

Alfred forced himself to do as asked, turning straight towards their joint reflection, watching. He felt Edward against himself and had to place a hand on the surface of the mirror to support himself as his knees might have buckled any second. His other hand rested on the arm Edward had around his waist, on top of his hand, entwining their fingers.

Edward’s gaze never left Alfred, even as he was kissing the flushed skin on his shoulder, compelling him to make eye contact through the mirror. Once that happened, Alfred could not tear his eyes away, and he knew that was what Edward wanted.

They never broke it while Edward slowly slid inside him.

 

‘Edward. Edward!’ Charlotte’s voice woke him from his daydreaming at breakfast.

‘Hm?’ he uttered, eyes wide, feeling like she could read his thoughts. And no one, no one, should read the thoughts he had just had about last night.

‘That was about seven spoons…’ Charlotte whispered to him on his other side covertly, glaring horrified at Edward’s coffee cup that he must have been stirring for five full minutes.

‘I…’ Edward muttered, setting the coffee spoon on the saucer and lifting the cup to his lips. ‘I have grown to prefer it this way. See?’

‘… of salt,’ Charlotte added only after Edward took a sip and fought to keep his face from contorting in a grimace of disgust.

He cleared his throat discreetly.

‘Could you pass me the cream, Lord Alfred?’ Lady Portman asked on Alfred’s right and he seemed to be having the same sort of visions flooding his mind as Edward had because in his fumbling for the small cream jug, he spilled some of it on his soft-boiled egg.

Mortified, he made the mistake of glancing up, right into Edward’s eyes and he was reminded of the night before again.

 

They moved as one, slowly at first, then picking up speed. It was all Alfred could do to steady himself leaning against the cabinet, his shaky breaths leaving condensation on its glass. He so wanted to give into shutting his eyes as he often inadvertently did when in the throes of pleasure but this time Edward made him watch their joint bodies, moaning against his skin, telling him how beautiful he was, holding him in his strong arms as he pushed repeatedly into him.

It was both carnal, animalistic, and lascivious almost to the point of debauched, but at the same time impressive on a whole other level, Alfred remembered. Because they were connected not only through their bodies, as closely as humanly possible, but staring deeply into each other’s souls throughout, they were united on a spiritual pane in ecstasy, their hearts beating rapidly as one. He really felt now more than ever that finding Edward wasn’t like stumbling upon something new but as if he had lost him once and finally found him again, after years and years of sailing aimlessly at sea. He was his truest, most essential self when he was with Edward.

Thankfully, the cabinet wasn’t rattling too loudly but Alfred could barely control the sounds Edward got him to make, the angle was just maddeningly perfect and it was far too intense, far too much – for all the shushing he simply could not help it, tried as he did, to the point of Edward having to resort to placing a hand on his mouth before someone heard them and found them in a most scandalous position. But this only seemed to drive Alfred wilder and he took Edward’s thumb in his mouth. He heard Edward gasp right behind his ear.

Edward’s hand slick with saliva slid down on Alfred’s body, covered in a sheen of sweat, until he touched him and Alfred was grasping, clawing at Edward’s skin and the wood of the cabinet as he came with Edward, Edward who was a sinfully beautiful sight as he extracted every last ounce of pleasure from the sensations coursing through him, holding Alfred tight against him.

Once he calmed enough to come back down to Earth and take in his surroundings, Alfred saw that the scratch marks on the furniture were not the only sign of his intense rapture. Across the looking glass was a long pearly white streak of his---

 

‘Can we get some more cream over here?’ Lady Portman instructed the nearest footman after Alfred’s spilling accident was cleaned up.

He cooled himself with a long breath, pulled his new egg closer and tapped the shell gently in a circle to open it, hoping his face was not giving him away.

‘What would everyone like to do today?’ Lady Anglesey asked from one end of the table. She ought to have breakfasted in her room but that would have always left Henry to eat alone and she could not have that. ‘We have not planned anything in particular.’

Charlotte saw her opportunity and by the looks of it Lady Portman also remembered. It was she, who spoke up:

‘We were wondering if we could have a hike up the mountain.’

‘A hike?’ Henry asked, mildly surprised. ‘I did not think you were an enthusiast of nature, Lady Portman.’

‘Well, Miss Drummond and I thought it would be fun. And so good for our health – the London air can be quite polluted, I regret to say. We could all put our walking boots on and take a trip, have lunch in the open, that sort of thing.’

‘A picnic?’ Alfred asked, liking the idea.

‘Exactly,’ Charlotte replied, forgetting to be outwardly cross with Alfred.

‘Well, that sounds like a wonderful plan,’ Lady Anglesey said brightly. ‘But I must warn you, Snowdon is not as near as it seems. It is a full day’s journey with horses there and a full day back. You would have to spend the night in a cottage. And you will need more than just walking boots. Have you brought anything suitable for hiking?’

‘I’m not sure… I think the last time I was allowed to do anything of the like was when I was ten and I was chasing our dog Millie uphill in the Highlands when she got loose.’

‘Was that when you got mud on your brand new bonnet?’ Edward asked.

‘It was.’

‘Mama was so cross,’ he laughed.

‘Do not worry, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey said. ‘I shall lend you proper clothes for this outing.

‘And we might get round to that cross country ride, Drummond,’ Alfred suggested, hardly able to contain his grin.

‘A return match?’ Edward asked, voice shaking from the implications of another one of their little competitions and the potential rewards they could set as incentives to win.

‘If you’re not worn out from yesterday’s rowing,’ Alfred teased in an even voice but he knew inside Edward could have screamed.

‘Challenge accepted, Lord Alfred.’

‘Good, it’s decided, then!’ Charlotte said before anyone changed their minds.

 

Charlotte had been longing to get out into nature after that ghastly season spent in dusty, dirty, stuffy London drawing rooms – the artificiality and thus artifice of Society that she had had to mingle with in ballrooms. Oh, to be out here riding on the hills and mountainsides on horseback! Free at last!

‘Charlotte, do not tire your horse!’ Edward called after her. She shot him a glare and sped off even more ahead. ‘Forgive me, there is no taming Charlotte, nor would I ever attempt it if I were wise man.’

‘Is she quite comfortable in those…’ Miss Coke questioned, not even daring to name the garments Charlotte was wearing for riding properly.

Because the unconventional Miss Drummond elected to wear Lady Anglesey’s bloomers instead of a skirt.

‘I’m told they are quite practical and comfortable indeed, rest assured, Miss Coke,’ Lady Portman replied, watching Charlotte ride freely ahead of them.

‘Well… maybe practicality is Miss Drummond’s concern but I do think the elegance of a pretty skirt spread on a horse’s side when a lady is riding side-saddle is unmatched. Do you not agree, gentlemen?’

Lord Alfred and Drummond shared a look, thinking the last thing they had any concern for was the elegance of ladies’ skirts no matter which way they rode a horse.

‘I think with that fervour, Miss Drummond ought to join us for the race tomorrow! She rides very well,’ Lord Alfred replied, not aware that behind him Miss Coke was hit with such disappointment at this comment that by the time they reached the cottages the five of them would be spending the night in she had convinced herself that Lord Alfred had not only taken a liking to Miss Drummond but may have already proposed to her.

It would make sense, she supposed… after all, he did seem quite intimate with Mr Drummond that evening in Scotland. Miss Coke thought she might have seen them actually…

No… that can’t be.

But if that was something Lord Alfred preferred, she supposed it made sense for him to fancy Miss Drummond, who was slightly more masculine in her behaviour and now her attire than it was acceptable for a lady of her standing.

Perhaps she had been going around it the wrong way all this time! Maybe the way to Lord Alfred’s heart was to act more… manly.

That night at dinner, Miss Coke was on the lookout for opportunities to voice her opinions on politics, sports, even asking about the Drummond banks. Lord Alfred and Mr Drummond answered her unusual questions accommodatingly. But she was still getting nowhere nearer to getting Lord Alfred to show any interest in her. When they stood to let the men smoke, she saw Miss Drummond eyeing the cigars enviously – and she had an idea.

‘Gentlemen, I wonder if I might stay here.’

Edward and Alfred were rather confused at this proposal.

‘Why, Miss Coke, would you like us to join you in the drawing room right away?’

‘No, I was wondering if I could have one of those,’ Miss Coke asked bravely and brightly, indicating the box of cheroots sticking out of Lord Alfred’s engraved silver case.

‘Miss Coke!’ Lord Alfred was amused but a tad scandalized. ‘You’re saying you would like to smoke with us?’

‘Why not?’

‘Have you ever tried anything of the sort before?’

‘No, but I would like to see just what the fuss is about,’ she said determinedly.

Lady Portman was about to intervene but Miss Drummond placed a hand on her arm to stop her. She really wanted to see how this would play out.

‘Very well,’ Lord Alfred said, not about to patronize her. He offered her the box of cheroots.

Thinking her plan was working, she took one.

‘Drummond, may I borrow your tinderbox?’ he asked, and soon he stood, walked over to Miss Coke, lit her cheroot and nodded as if in encouragement for her to try it.

She tentatively raised it to her lips, already frowning at the smell coming from it.

But she was determined to show just how manly and brave she could be, too, if that’s what appealed to Lord Alfred.

Face screwed up in intense concentration, she inhaled the tiniest bit and immediately began to cough wildly.

‘Take this, Miss Coke,’ Lord Alfred kindly handed her a glass of sauvignon blanc that should clear her throat and took the offending cheroot from her small, gloved hand.

Before a humiliating silence could set in, Drummond raised his glass.

‘To Miss Coke!’ he saluted. ‘And her bravery!’

They all drank to Miss Coke. She laughed it off, grateful that she was not going to be the subject of jokes because of this foolish idea, the women left to the drawing room, and after a few card games the men and women separated into their respective cottages for the night.

 

‘Can you tell me the time, my love?’ Edward asked, fumbling with his pocket watch in the morning. ‘I forgot to wind this last night.’

Alfred yawned and got out of bed, lazily throwing on a dressing gown before he grabbed his waistcoat off the floor (where it had landed the night before) to fish out his own watch.

‘Seven thirty-two, my dearest,’ he replied, walking over to Edward, placing a sweet kiss on the tip of his nose. Edward smiled and forgot about his watch for the sake of kissing Alfred good morning.

Lady Portman gasped and shut the curtains at once.

It appeared her window looked exactly upon the window a bedroom of the other cottage, where the men had stayed for the night, though whether that room was supposed to be that of Mr Drummond or Lord Alfred was impossible to tell, as clearly they had both occupied it together.

She would have been lying if she said she was surprised at Lord Alfred. But Mr Drummond… oh but that meant… all this time… all those years…

Well, this was hardly the most shocking discovery she had made about her court acquaintances in her career so she wasn’t really all that bothered.

A housemaid knocked on the door. Out of a protective instinct, Lady Portman made sure the curtains were shut tight before letting her in. It was lucky she had seen them and not the maid, or worse, Miss Coke, she thought...

 

‘What took you so long?’ Charlotte asked once they all gathered outside, already on her horse.

‘Forgot to wind my watch,’ Edward replied with his feeble excuse. ‘Are you going to ride today?’

‘No, I just like sitting in the saddle,’ she said sarcastically. ‘Of course I’m going riding.’

‘I thought you were going to hike with Lady Portman and Miss Coke.’

‘They want to rest just now. I’ll be back soon so we can go in the afternoon. But until then, may I join you, gentlemen?’

‘I don’t see why not,’ Lord Alfred replied, mounting his horse with ease.

And off they went, Charlotte, Edward, and Alfred over the valleys and hills of Snowdonia, often racing one another when the terrain was safe enough for the horses. Alfred was still tentative around her, walking on eggshells, really, but she seemed to be perfectly amicable that morning.

Soon, they came to a crossroads.

‘These all lead to a sheep farm as far as I remember,’ Lord Alfred explained.

‘Race until then?’ Charlotte suggested. ‘Each of us taking one fork.’

And off they went, the three of them going down the three separate pathways. Occasionally, woods separated them from view, re-resurfacing.

Charlotte urged her horse to go as fast as it could downhill.

She was still riding when the surface evened to a horizontal one and though the woods disappeared she still could not spot either Alfred and Edward or the sheep farm that she was supposed to have reached.

She slowed down to gather her surroundings. All the hills seemed the same. She didn’t feel lost, she could swear she had seen that whitewashed thatched cottage before… but then again, she looked at the hill on the other side of the valley and saw that there were identical trees and cottages over there, too.

Not allowing herself to panic, she steered her horse towards one of them.

‘Hello?’ she called in search of people. ‘Hello, is there anybody here?’

A toothless but kind-faced old man emerged from a shed.

‘Good day, Sir,’ she said, not getting off the saddle. ‘Could you tell me the way to Plas Newydd? Or its cottages at least?’

‘Plas Newydd?’

‘Yes, that’s what I said,’ she said, thinking that’s not quite what it sounded like in her non-native accent.

‘That way, m’lady,’ the old man said, pointing in a direction confidently. ‘Over the woods.’

Thinking his advice sounded legitimate, given the fact she had gone through some forest when separating from her brother and Lord Alfred, she thanked him and set off in that direction.

Except, even after what must have been three hours, she could not see any sign of the cottages, nor of the strait, or the manor!

Surely it must have been past tea time and she was starting to fear she had got properly lost.

She was determined to ride on until she found a trustworthy place before night caught her out in the middle of nowhere.

‘Excuse me, Plas Newydd?’ she asked someone again as she came across a village.

‘Only down the road, Miss,’ a child carrying a big bucket of water informed her. She trotted down an earthy path, hoping she wasn’t going to be tricked again.

She came across a large cottage of sorts – surely its inhabitants had to be at least from a middle-class background.

She got off her horse and approached the fence. “Plas Newydd” could be read on a neatly painted wooden sign in the garden. She wondered just how many houses were actually named thus. Seeing candlelight within, she went around the house in search of a post to tie the horse against. She found a suitable tree. But she never got round to fixing the harness around it because a tiny old lady carrying a bunch of freshly picked flowers popped out from behind it, making Charlotte jump.

‘Hello!’ the old lady said.

‘Um… good evening, Ma’am,’ Charlotte uttered.

‘You’re not from around here, are you, Miss?’

‘Nor are you, by the sound of it.’

‘Banished from Ireland,’ she said somewhat proudly. ‘Are you one of the railway agents?’

‘N-no. I’m afraid lost is what I am.’

‘Lost?’

‘Yes, I was given rather the wrong directions. I am in Wales as a guest of Lord and Lady Anglesey. I was trying to find my way back to the cottages they own on Snowdon but I seem to have gone completely elsewhere.’

‘Oh dear, oh dear…’ the woman with the flowers lamented while behind her another elderly lady came out of the house.

‘My beloved, where are you? Your tea is getting cold!’ she said in the same Irish accent but stumbled upon seeing they had company. ‘Oh. And you are you?’

Charlotte didn’t appreciate the less than polite phrasing but seeing as she was a beggar at the moment, she swallowed her pride and didn’t retort.

‘She’s lost, she says,’ the lady with the flowers explained to her friend.

‘Lost? That’s what she’s called?’

‘That’s what she—’

‘What an odd sort of name—’

‘Well she’s an odd sort of girl, isn’t she? Look, she’s wearing trousers!’

‘But I do not know anyone by the name of Lost—’

‘N-no,’ Charlotte interrupted, cursing her luck at finding such silly people to have to ask for help. ‘My name is Miss Charlotte Drummond. And I was hoping you could point me in the right direction towards Plas Newydd, the manor. Over the strait.’

‘Oh dear, you cannot set off all the way there just now. Night is about to fall!’ the lady with the flowers said.

‘But Sarah…’ the other woman spoke.

‘Oh shush,’ Sarah said at once and turned back to Charlotte. ‘Forgive Eleanor, Miss Drummond, we don’t much like visitors as a rule but we cannot let you ride off into the night. Come in, have a cup of tea, and you can return to the big house in the morning.’

 

‘Alfred?’ Edward called, scanning the countryside once he and Alfred met at the farm at the end of the road as planned. ‘When did you last see Charlotte?’

‘About halfway down the hill,’ Alfred replied, sensing something was wrong already. ‘Why don’t we wait for her for a bit more?’

Drummond frowned with unease, knowing just how recklessly Charlotte tended to ride. He didn’t like this. Didn’t like this at all…

 

‘Would you give me a hand, dear?’ Sarah asked by the table laid with her flowers and a large porcelain vase.

Charlotte found flower arranging a dull occupation but given that she had been given hot tea and a lovely supper, she could hardly refuse to help.

‘You still haven’t told me your names,’ she said, starting to cut the thorns of the many yellow roses on the table.

‘I am Miss Sarah Ponsonby. And that is my better half, Miss Eleanor Butler.’

Eleanor nodded from her comfy armchair by the fire. She wasn’t so grumpy after all.

‘”Miss?” You’re not widows?’ Nor sisters, Charlotte understood.

‘No, thank heavens, not just yet.’

‘And Miss Butler is… your better half?’

‘That’s right,’ Miss Ponsonby replied unfazed. ‘We have known each other since we were barely of age. Thick as thieves.’

‘Earlier, she called you her beloved,’ Charlotte pried tentatively.

‘She did.’

‘She is,’ Miss Butler affirmed from the armchair. ‘Something tells me you are hardly prone to disapprove, Miss Drummond.’

‘I don’t. I am merely surprised. Don’t the villagers disapprove?’

‘Not really. We are harmless, are we not?’

‘They don’t bother you or… try to remove you…?’

‘No, not at all. We live a quiet life. And they do like our gooseberries. We’ve plenty of them.’

‘I did not know it was possible… you really have lived together since you were young?’

‘We have. Oh, there were difficulties, especially at first. We tried to elope and unlike Lord and Lady Anglesey we were unsuccessful. But once you are pronounced a spinster, they forget to shove marriageable young men in your way. Of course we had to flee our home but my brother was kind enough to support us and here we are. Forgive my earlier inhospitality, Miss Drummond, but you must see why we are wary of visitors.’

‘Unless it’s your favourite poets, Eleanor,’ Miss Ponsonby teased. ‘Or the Duke of Wellington.’

‘You know the Duke?’ Charlotte asked. Really, she felt like the last person on earth who had not!

‘We do, he stopped for tea here once, oh, such a nice man… What do you think?’ Miss Ponsonby asked Charlotte, observing the half-filled vase. ‘I never know what to pair with roses. They are so splendid in their own right.’

‘How about the nettles?’

‘Ah! Nettles… Yellow roses for contentment, nettles for defiance. I like that, Miss Charlotte.’

 

‘Edward, calm down,’ Alfred tried but there was hardly any slowing down of Drummond when he was so agitated.

‘Calm down? Alfred, Charlotte has been lost for hours! She probably went and jumped over a river in her stupid recklessness and got her neck broken!’

‘Do not underestimate her, she can take care of herself,’ Alfred tried but it was completely in vain.

‘I cannot sit here, I must go, I must keep searching—’ Edward said, and it was all Alfred could do to stop him from rushing out of the house, grabbing a horse, and riding off into the pitch black night.

‘You can’t, Edward, you’ll get lost and hurt too, that’s the last thing we need!’ Alfred said, grabbing Edward by the shoulders. ‘Please, Edward, see reason…’

Edward could have torn his beautiful curls out he was so scared for Charlotte. It was Scotland all over again! But under Alfred’s touch he was compelled to calm himself.

He was just about to kiss him when…

‘Lord Alfred?’ Miss Coke spoke as she entered their cottage, carrying a lamp, and the men fled apart at the last second.

‘Is Charlotte back?’ Edward asked at once.

‘No, Mr Drummond.’

‘Then what is it, Miss Coke?’ Alfred asked, reaching the end of his patience.

‘I was only wondering if you need any company.’

‘We don’t, thank you, Miss Coke,’ Alfred said with finality.

‘Wilhelmina!’ Lady Portman’s voice sounded from outdoors. ‘Wilhelmina, come back.’

Wilhelmina, clearly crestfallen, left the men’s cottage. But if he was honest, Alfred could hardly care about that for the moment, not when Edward was out of his mind with worry for his sister.

 

Charlotte lay awake at night. The room she was given was perfectly comfortable but her thoughts were racing. These ladies, Miss Butler and Miss Ponsonby, they were living here together as wives. They had for decades. And they were completely accepted by their village. And they seemed just as much in love as any new debutant in a ballroom waltzing with the man she hoped to marry.

If only Agnes had ever loved her like that… instead of just playing games with her…

What an ungrateful guest she was to soak the Ladies of Llangollen’s pillow in tears.

Chapter Text

‘WHERE ON EARTH HAVE YOU BEEN?’ Edward shouted in tears, hugging the life out of Charlotte with his big arms, much to her annoyance.

They had arrived back to the cottages just a few minutes ago, after another full day of fruitlessly searching the Welsh hills. Edward wanted nothing more than to get into the cottage and break down and cry. Alfred said he would take care of the horses and pay a visit to the ladies’ cottage to tell them of the sad news. But just then, Lady Portman ran out with a smile on her face.

‘She’s here! She’s back!’

When they stepped into the cottage (or rather Edward running in, Alfred in his wake), they saw Charlotte was sipping tea calmly by the fire as if nothing had happened.

Edward swept her up in his arms, crying from the relief that she was safe, not caring a fig about whether he scandalized Lady Portman and Miss Coke. She wasn’t dead with her neck broken lying in a ditch somewhere, she was perfectly fine!

‘Mhh-dwrd…E… Edward!’ she said fearing she was being suffocated. ‘Honestly—Edward---’

‘Sorry,’ he finally released her, allowing her to settle back into the armchair and actually breathe. ‘Charlotte we’ve been searching everywhere—where the ruddy hell have you been?!’

‘Do not worry. The fork in the road I took did not lead me to the farm I expected – I think there was another crossing somewhere but I was dashing downhill, I didn’t stop to choose. When I came out of the woods, I was given the wrong directions to another Plas Newydd eastward, in quite the opposite way, and met the lovely Ladies of Llangollen, who gave me a room for the night and helped me find my way back here this morning. Tea? You look like you need one. And you, Lord Alfred.’

It was no lie – they had got drenched to the bone more times than they could count while looking for Charlotte.

 

The tea was warm and they had a comforting night. Lord Alfred took this opportunity to apologise to Miss Coke for having been uncharacteristically harsh before, but mostly Edward was talking about growing grey hairs while Charlotte was missing, and she was apologising a lot but asserting it was all fine.

It was all fine.

It was fine.

She was fine.

She was fine.

She was fine.

 

She retired early. When they were back at the big house for the last dinner of their stay, she was relieved that her little excursion was considered a fun adventure and not cause for much crossness. But she found it hard to join in on the laughter, not when they were about to return to London. She elected to travel home in the women’s carriage this time, leaving some privacy for Edward and Lord Alfred before they had to resort to rationing their time strictly between the court and the Parliament again.

Besides, as happy as she was for her brother, she couldn’t face days of travel in a carriage with such a happy couple (even if they both kept sneezing, having caught a cold from riding in the rain). It wouldn’t do to spoil their trip with her own dark clouds. Besides, Miss Coke was also somewhat crestfallen and did not speak as much as usual. When she fell asleep, Lady Portman said something strange:

‘Miss Drummond, without meaning to overstep, I should like you to know that you have friends,’ she said, and Charlotte noticed she kept touching the sapphire ring on her finger as she was speaking. ‘And I should love to invite you for tea some day. When it’s all over and you feel better.’

When it’s over and she feels better. What did she know?

 

It had been three whole weeks since they had got back to London and Alfred hadn’t been able to see Edward at all.

At all.

His duties as the Chief Equerry were so demanding with the approaching inspection of the troops that he could not hope to set foot outside the Palace. All he dared was send notes to Edward’s home but he dared not put anything too obvious down in writing. But it was worth it, because he would oft wake to a return note from Edward that was equally inscrutable but just the sight of his handwriting filled Alfred’s heart with warmth.

It was getting cold and Alfred lamented the fact that his uniform, though becoming, was wasted if Edward wasn’t there at the splendid parade. Opposition members were hardly invited to such an event, no, it was Russell and Palmerston there… Alfred kept hoping Edward might turn up somewhere behind Wellington as he did when he first clapped eyes on him from afar some three years prior, cursing the crowd who stepped between him and that dashing young man he didn’t know standing beside Sir Robert Peel…

So much time had passed since then, and Alfred had to fight off his smile and keep standing straight and stern and fine as he was expected to at this occasion while Her Majesty watched the military display.

When all was done, they gathered in the throne room, members of the court and some of the more prominent army leaders. To mark recent colonial advances, Her Majesty took part in a ceremony to greet officers whose ranks have been recently raised.

Including William Peel. Captain William Peel.

Alfred’s hands were tied, he had to stand behind Her Majesty all throughout the event, which meant that during her welcome speech he was standing on a pedestal in his bright red uniform, nowhere to hide, avoiding William’s piercing blue eyes that seemed dead set on him. Alfred was determined to stare at the corner of a painting straight ahead of him on the opposite wall unless he had to help the Queen.

Unfortunately, after her speech, the officers lined up so she could do a round of small talk and Lord Alfred’s duty was to stand a step behind her, whispering the next guest’s name in her ears as subtly as he could.

‘Captain William Peel, commander of HMS Daring,’ he said in an even voice even though he wanted nothing more than to strangle the scoundrel right then and there and tell him to forget Edward and whatever designs he may entertain about him once and for all.

Of course he could have hardly explained that to the Queen.

‘Ah, Captain Peel!’ Victoria said. ‘How splendid to have you here!’

‘Thank you, your majesty,’ William said smoothly, bowing. His smile turned even more smug if that was possible after a side glance at Alfred, knowing he had a hard time keeping his cool just from the tenseness in his lips.

‘I must say we rather miss your father’s sound advice.’

Now it was Alfred’s turn to smirk with satisfaction behind the Queen. William hated when people spoke to him about his father.

‘I am sure he would say the same, Your Majesty, he did enjoy his terms as Prime Minister,’ William forced himself to say without too much resentment in his voice. Even on his day, his day, it was always his father people asked about, his father who had never been near a battle.

Before anything else could be said, Lord Alfred stepped along, Her Majesty following by routine, whispering the next person’s name for her to greet briefly.

Despite the bitter taste in his mouth, William’s heart was racing a mile a minute because of Lord Alfred. He had seen the world but the tall blond man in his splendid uniform was quite a sight for his sore eyes. They had parted less than amicably, and he knew Alfred resented him, for that and for seemingly going after the perfect Head Boy Edward Drummond that everyone so praised for taking one bullet for his father. One. For his father. If Drummond had only stayed where he was, his father would have met his maker and stopped being such a difficult presence in William’s life.

He wasn’t sure he went as far as wishing Drummond would have taken the bullet in the heart – he wasn’t malicious against people that didn’t deserve it (oh, and his father did deserve it). Besides, Drummond was so handsome, it would have been such a waste.

All the same, Alfred being committed to him was a waste also, in William’s opinion. Look at him, so dashing, and so bright and kind and… all those things William hadn’t cared for before for the sake of…

If only Alfred had forgiven him. He was the only thing tying him to Britain. Without him, he might as well never come back.

He downed a glass of champagne and stepped over to where Alfred was chatting with the Duke of Wellington.

‘Ah, Captain Peel! Congratulations are due today,’ Wellington said, wiping the smile off Alfred’s face. If looks could kill… ‘We were just discussing the navy.’

‘Well, we were discussing Waterloo, Duke,’ Alfred interrupted before William’s head got even more inflated. ‘My father has told me many times of your stories.’

‘Indeed, how is Lord Anglesey?’

‘Very well, Your Grace, we have just been to Wales for a little trip.’

‘We?’ William asked.

‘Yes,’ Alfred said clearly and proudly. ‘Myself, Lady Portman, Miss Coke, and Mr Edward Drummond and his sister Charlotte.’

‘Drummond?’ the Duke asked, intrigued.

‘Yes, Your Grace,’ Alfred replied quickly before William could say anything. ‘I am glad to call Drummond my very good friend and I know for a fact that you hold him in high esteem, also.’

‘I do, I most certainly do! Never had a better private secretary than Drummond! I told the whole of the Lords once, I remember, because his work had really accounted for half of my successes, I do not deny it for a second. And he wasn’t even a hero then!’

Oh, here we go again, William thought, taking a full glass of champagne off a passing servant’s silver plate.

‘He is a real hero, is he not?’ Alfred asked, not only the Duke but William, too. Pointedly.

‘He is,’ William admitted, his smug smirk never fading. ‘Remarkable. Charms us all. He’ll go far.’

‘What is it that he is doing now?’ the Duke asked.

‘Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition,’ Alfred replied.

‘Oh but he is wasted in that position! Perhaps I should make rounds and call on him to discuss other options more suitable to his enormous talent.’

‘Enormous talent indeed,’ Alfred said, nearly causing William’s champagne to come out through his nose. ‘And he has fierce friends, as you can see, Captain,’ Alfred continued addressing William. ‘If anyone were to lay a finger on him, they would have to pay gravely. I would personally see to that.’

‘Why would anyone harm Drummond?’ the Duke asked.

‘Not necessarily harm. As you know, Drummond’s heart is in the right place – so much so that people with ulterior motives may use that to their advantage. People who make fools out of those with good intentions. All I meant to say is that I would not stand for it if anyone dared do that to Drummond.’

‘Oh no, Lord Alfred,’ William quipped. ‘Drummond is just perfect, is he not? Just perfect.’

‘Quite right you are, sirs,’ the Duke said ignorant about the real meanings of this conversation. ‘If you’ll excuse me now, gentlemen, I must say a word to His Grace.’

As soon as he left, Alfred said: ‘And I must go… wherever you are not there. Good day, Captain.’

‘Hm, shame,’ William said after Alfred. Adding just at the last second: ‘I shall miss you.’

Alfred faltered ever so slightly, and turned back to him seething.

‘What, are you really going to challenge me to a duel, Alfred?’ William said in a low voice.

‘Do not tempt me.’

‘Ah but that’s just what I want. You know me too well to deny it.’

Alfred stepped back to him, close so as not to be overheard. ‘As a matter of fact, I do not know you at all. And I will not challenge you to a duel unless you don’t back off. Edward loves me and I love him. If you so much as think you can…’

Alfred couldn’t even finish the sentence but he grabbed the neatly decorated but absolutely deadly sword on his belt.

‘Has it ever occurred to you that I do not care for Drummond?’ William asked.

Alfred laughed and stormed away. What a stupid thing to say! William was better at manipulation than that. To say he didn’t care for Drummond was the equivalent of him pretending he wanted nothing more than to move back home to Dreyton Manor and become a politician as Sir Robert had always wanted.

In the evening, Alfred ordered others to wrap up the remains of the day’s events instead of him, bathed and changed out of his uniform and snuck out of the Palace as soon as it was safe. He could not bear it anymore, he had to see Edward.

 

Alfred couldn’t sleep.

It was partly that every second spent with his eyes closed seemed woefully wasted when he could be doing what he was doing, which was watching Edward’s chiselled chest rise and fall with an even rhythm in his sleep, mouth ever so slightly open, dark eyelashes fluttering every once in a while as he was presumably dreaming.

Fine, if Alfred was honest, the reason for his own sleeplessness was mostly this. Edward was just too beautiful and it was all Alfred could do not to be selfish and greedy and start touching him. Again. He really couldn’t keep his hands off him, which was difficult enough when Edward was sleeping but it was downright torture in public!

But it wouldn’t have been fair – Edward needed his well-deserved rest or else he would be stifling yawns all day at the House.

And then of course there was William, who was still in town and he was clearly just as tactless as ever. All Alfred could think about all day was the fact that William was determined to get into bed with Edward. Well, who wouldn’t be? Edward really was just perfect. He almost felt sorry for Lady Florence but apparently she was happier to be engaged to Arthur Drummond. How odd, Alfred thought.

But, back to William. He feared he might actually end up having to sink to William’s level and take action in undignified ways. He wondered if he would ever really resort to calling a duel. His Paget blood will out…

But besides all that, there was something else on his mind.

‘How is Charlotte?’ Alfred had asked earlier that night. That was their routine when they could find the opportunity to rendezvous: they would wait for long days, ravish each other first thing once they could successfully connive to meet in the privacy of Edward’s bedchamber, and once they exhausted themselves they would discuss their days. ‘It’s been a while since she frowned at me. I’m starting to miss it.’

‘She’s being odd. Odder than usual,’ Edward replied not devoid of worry.

‘How so?’

‘She’s been even more quiet than usual. She only ever comes down when she has to. And then all she does is push her food around. She’s prone to being reserved but I’ve never seen her this melancholy. In fact, she spent all day today in her room. I can’t think what’s brought this on. As far as I know, she hasn’t received any visitors, nor any letters that might have upset her. Though… to be fair, one can never tell – she would manage to keep an expression of perfect neutrality even if she opened a letter informing her of the world’s end! I tried to coax her out of her room but she wouldn’t open the door, or she would tell me to leave her alone, and I didn’t want to push in.’

‘Why would she do this?’

‘I am not sure. Getting Lord Palmerston to be less of an arrogant cad would be easier than getting Charlotte to tell anyone what is troubling her.’

‘Yes, Papa has also complained about him, and that’s saying something.’

‘Your father is not a cad.’

‘Aren’t all Whigs cads in your humble view?’

‘Not all. You’re alright.’

‘Why thank you,’ Alfred replied with a laugh and placed a sweet kiss on Edward’s lips. But as he pondered about it all, he became serious again. ‘Would you like me to try?’

‘Try what?’

‘Talking to her.’

Edward sighed, playing with Alfred’s blond locks considering this. ‘I don’t see that happening anytime soon. If she’s not willing to come down for supper with me, her brother, how likely is it that she would be willing to discuss her private affairs with you?’

‘It is worth a try is all I’m saying,’ Alfred said, cuddling closer to Edward’s naked body under the warm sheets.

‘Oh, please don’t. I do not believe she would take kindly to being disturbed.’

 

But Alfred could not rest for this.

There were many times in his past when he would shut himself in his room, not showing himself for days, and he really could have used a friend to listen and to sympathise.

Very carefully, he extracted himself from Edward’s arms. He dressed soundlessly and, heart pounding in his chest, made his way over to Charlotte’s quarters across the hallway with a single candle.

He was glad the hallway was at least straight albeit dark because the single flickering candle wouldn’t have taken him through a labyrinth of draughty corridors. Talking himself out of the existence of ghosts, he walked on and on, silently. When he reached her door, he expected to hear nothing, change his mind, and try in the daytime.

But he heard a distinct sob.

She was awake. And not well.

Already cursing himself for the likely mistake he was making, he knocked on the door and waited with bated breath.

‘Go away, Edward, please,’ she called weakly.

‘Forgive me, Miss Drummond,’ Alfred spoke through the door. ‘Edward said you were unwell and I thought you might need a friend.’

Nothing. Neither encouragement, not objection came in response.

‘Miss Drummond?’ Alfred called, not too loudly, lest the servants heard him. God knew some of them could have the sharpest ears when it came to one’s moments most difficult to explain. After all, as it occurred to him too, the fact that Alfred had come for Edward and that Charlotte’s heart belonged to a woman, while true, was hardly a usable alibi for an eligible bachelor knocking on an unmarried young woman’s bedroom door in the middle of the night. He couldn’t say he had ever done such a thing. ‘Please, may I…?’

He expected the door to be locked but it wasn’t.

‘But it is freezing in here…’ Alfred said to himself as soon as he entered. He left the door slightly open behind himself, to have objective proof of his lack of improper motives that did not included revealing his and Edward’s relationship, and then made quick work of livening up a fire and closing the window that he had no idea why was wide open in November.

Charlotte was lying on her side on top of the bed in her night clothes, with her back to the door and facing the windows. Alfred moved closer to the bed, wishing he had a blanket to cover Charlotte’s shaking body with it. He did the next best thing, took off his own frock coat and laid it upon her. Though tall and elegant when she was in public, now she seemed so small in her curled up position hugging her arms to her chest, and her curls were as untamed as Edward’s had the potential to be.

On her bedside table was an ashtray full of cheroot stubs and she looked as if she had been lying there crying all day.

Alfred assumed she didn’t want to be patronized. To avoid even a hint of that he didn’t sit but lay on the bed facing her, level with her.

She didn’t shy away from looking at him. His presence, Alfred assumed, was the least of her worries at that moment.

‘Edward told me you don’t like to be asked.’

She didn’t move or respond.

‘Nevertheless, if you wish to talk to someone…’

She must have been crying for so long she didn’t even particularly notice when fresh tears escaped her eyes. She wasn’t sobbing, they were just flowing like a tap left slightly open, not fazing her anymore. Alfred on the other hand was looking at her strangely, fearing all sorts of tragedies.

‘What happened?’ he asked, barely above a whisper.

Charlotte didn’t think she could bear the pain. It was all so unfair! She wished now more than ever that she was as impassionate and removed from emotions as she had the talent to appear in front of others. But she could hardly manage to speak when she admitted what she completely and utterly destroyed by:

‘Today was her wedding day.’

Alfred assumed she was talking about that Miss Agnes Duff that Edward mentioned once. He felt winded in empathy. He was desperately sorry for her – he had experienced some of her pain on his own skin before. And she had kept a perfectly brave face all throughout it. Daringly, he reached out a hand towards her on the bed. And, to his surprise, she uncrossed her arms, reached out and took it.

‘Oh dear… cold as ice,’ Alfred lamented.

For a while they were just lying there, accepting the weight of the problem.

‘I suppose you think me rather hysterical now,’ she said, breaking the silence.

‘Not at all. I’ve been a lot worse for a lot less.’

Charlotte was looking at him expectantly. ‘Such as?’ she asked, challenged really, and Alfred knew he would have to share far more before she let on even a little more about her own affairs.

And he thought of the bitter encounter at the Palace earlier that day.

‘When I was at the academy, I believed myself in love for the first time. Oh, there had been opportunities for brief dalliances at school – all those boys locked in one place, and I was what they called a pretty boy, it wasn’t difficult to come by. I hope I’m not shocking you – though I do not believe I am.’

She shook her head too tired to pretend. That was one of the things she envied about men – school, for the lessons and the community equally. With four brothers she only saw between terms, and a good-for-nothing governess that taught her only French, the piano, and curtseying, she felt quite isolated in her youth.

‘Perhaps it is a weakness but I have always been one for love,’ Alfred continued. ‘I knew it was probably never going to happen. How could it? With all this threat and hostility in the world?’

Now it was Alfred’s turn to envy Charlotte. At least her disposition was largely forgotten about in the eyes of the public as well as the law. Oh, there would be severe consequences if she were found out, but at least no legal action. Her prison would be the drawing room of a house owned by a husband she could not love, marital duties she found distasteful, and children that would remind her of it every day.

‘But I still could not help hoping for it,’ Alfred went on, forcing himself to revisit memories he wished he could forget. ‘And so… when a dashing young lieutenant who had just returned from China took an obvious interest in me, I now regret to say that I opened my heart far too quickly for him. He was in the navy, but I have always loved ships, and when the opportunity for a little seaside outing presented itself, I joined my friends on the trip and there he was. He wasn’t simply one of the crew, he was wearing the ship as if he owned the seas. He was brilliant, already experienced in battle, and full of stories. He was so charming and he tried everything to appeal to me – though he didn’t have to try very hard. We spent a wonderful night together below deck before the noisy party above had even slightly waned. Nobody noticed we were missing. We didn’t just… he was different, he seemed rather caring. Dare I say, loving. And when I woke up…’ Charlotte watched as Alfred’s big blue eyes full of hope turned cold and dull at the memory. ‘… he was nowhere to be found. I thought he had simply left my cabin for safety, to avoid being spotted by someone… But when I next caught up with him when they paid a visit to our academy in return, after weeks of nothing, no note, no letter, nothing at all, he was not at all the charming, lovely, caring man I had believed him to be that night.’

Alfred closed his eyes in shame and embarrassment. He shivered at a bit of draught that accounted for the creaking of the door he had left ajar.

‘He did not much care for me really. Apparently, as he so freely revealed to me, almost gloating at my foolishness, I was nothing more than a prize in a game. He had made a bet, you see. With one of his friends. They would see who could bed someone of a higher title from our little delegation. He won. And I lost – a lot of my dignity, and almost all hope that I would ever be loved properly.’

Charlotte didn’t want to give herself away but she was quite shocked if she were honest with himself. And yet...

‘Almost all?’ she asked.

Alfred smiled, thinking about Edward. ‘Oh, that was nothing compared to how much Edward hurt me.’

Now Charlotte did give herself away. And, after another creak that had nothing to do with any draught at all, sensing that Edward may be listening to all this from the cover of the door, Alfred quickly went on.

‘Not on purpose. Not by doing anything against me in order to hurt me. In fact, he was hurting from it all himself. You see, after Wil—after being played for a laugh, I had rather closed myself off. I did not want to be hurt again, so I decided I would be more wary of opening my heart to anyone. Alas… forgive me but… your brother was just too unbelievably beautiful and I forgot myself. Not from one day to the next – though I would have wanted to. There was just something about him. If he said he loved me the day I met him I would have been gladly his. However… I had convinced myself that there was something about a man plenty of times before. So I was more careful this time. I controlled myself. I held back. I was cautious. After all, I did not know him at all. But… with time, and with a few conversations here and there, I felt more and more certain that he could possibly be feeling rather the same as I did for him. In fact, I believe he pulled some strings on some days to be able to come to the Palace more often than any Private Secretary was sensibly required to… And he even showed up at my club one day, which is a Whig establishment and cannot possibly have anything to do with Her Majesty so I felt sure the only reason he would be found there… was me.’

Alfred smiled, his heart as full as ever. But pain had found its way into this memory, too.

‘But he told me he was engaged then.’ Alfred swallowed back tears at the ghost of the absolute heartbreak he felt that moment. He didn’t know if he squeezed Charlotte’s hand or she his. ‘He had only visited the club to discuss things with Lothian. And I felt such a fool again. Not only to have believed that he cared about me as much as I was starting to believe but also because apparently he didn’t even consider me important enough a friend to care to mention the insignificant fact that he was engaged to be married.’

Alfred felt bad – he knew he shouldn’t have talked about this and Charlotte did indeed feel a new bout of pain at her own troubles. She looked into his eyes through fresh tears.

‘What happened then?’ she asked, hoping for some answers she could use.

‘Well… I avoided him. And when it was impossible to do so, I hardly looked at him, I didn’t say anything, only nodded politely when necessary. Both to protect myself and to send him a message in equal measures.’ And Alfred here stopped to think how that difficult time was resolved and could not think of anything clever. ‘And then all that went out the window when we swam au naturel in a French lake in broad daylight.’

Charlotte’s eyes went wide. ‘My brother did what?’

‘It was the Prince’s idea…’ Alfred supplied, not at all easing Charlotte’s confusion. ‘And I believe Edward must have told you the rest.’

‘He has,’ she admitted.

‘So you know it hasn’t been an easy road.’

‘But he never loved Florence and he didn’t end up marrying after all,’ she pointed out in despair.

‘No, he dodged that bullet, as he likes to joke, leaving me horrified at the levity with which he mentions the fact that he almost—’ Alfred didn’t expect it but he still choked on his own words and stifled a sob. ‘But today is not about us. It is about you, Miss Drummond… Charlotte. But I am afraid I cannot help you if you are not telling me anything.’

‘I am beyond help.’

‘If you are, we’ll know for sure.’

Charlotte considered this for a long minute and finally nodded.

Alfred smiled kindly and winked conspiratorially. ‘This calls for brandy.’

Chapter Text

Two minutes later, they were down in Edward’s study, with a glass of brandy each, and Alfred searching the desk and the shelves for some sustenance as Charlotte hadn’t eaten all day.

‘I could have sworn he had some… Ah!’ Alfred chuckled in satisfaction as he found a glass jar of shortbread biscuits in a cupboard above the mantelpiece. He joined her in the armchairs by the fire and insisted she eat one. And another.

‘Care for one?’ he asked, holding out a silver case of cheroots, evidently another lucky discovery after rummaging in Edward’s desk.

She knew she shouldn’t have but she took one. He lit hers up and then his own. She was glad that Lord Alfred was not one to judge her for being a woman who smoked. But then he seemed an old hand at knowing the habits of people who were not playing by the usual rules.

‘This is the part where you tell me about her. Tell me… tell me how you met,’ he said, with a little smile for encouragement.

She took a hearty sip from her drink for Dutch courage – she couldn’t believe she was going to tell this to Lord Alfred of all people and if she was going to do this, she would need it. She hesitated still, remembering that night, warmth filling her heart at once, despite the pain.

‘I saw her dancing,’ she began, encouraged by Alfred’s cautiously delighted expression. ‘It was at the beginning of this past season. I remember Mama insisted that I wear a hideous brooch on my collar showing the image of a swan. Since then I’ve accidentally lost it.’

‘Accidentally.’

‘She insisted it would draw attention to my neck,’ she said rather cynically, taking another biscuit. ‘I had been perfectly happy in Scotland… but of course I am nothing more than goods to sell, preferably to the highest bidder, regardless of whether I disliked them or not, as far as my parents are concerned but I need not tell you about that.’

‘No, in fact, you sound exactly like Edward.’

‘Hm,’ she took another generous gulp of her brandy, enjoying the burning sensation down her throat. ‘I dreaded the endless show of balls and dinners and walks and concerts and all of it. Every night as Mama would list the eligible bachelors I was advised to dance with I was wishing for an awful pimple in the middle of my nose that would ward them off. I detested the idea that by the end of the summer I might be engaged to some horrid oaf with a hideous moustache and big hairy hands and the dullest personality and that I would have to eventually be a wife…’

She took a long drag of the cheroot, soothing her nerves.

‘But I completely forgot about that when I entered the ballroom and I spotted her. It was as if a draft connived to bend the light of the chandeliers and she seemed to sparkle more brilliantly than anyone else in the room. Her grace and elegance as she moved and the joy she clearly derived from the dance… I could gladly stand there watching her for the rest of my life. But I crumbled as soon as she looked at me, desperate for an escape.’

She drank more brandy and smoked more of Edward’s cheroot. He would notice some were missing in the morning but she did not care a fig about that at the moment. Now that she started, all she could think about was Agnes.

‘I did not clap eyes on her for some weeks after that. I didn’t even know her name! It was as if I felt that she would be significant and therefore potentially dangerous to me. But as luck should have it, even though I was as aloof and quiet as I could be at any event, I scored an invitation to the Duke of Fife’s birthday party and there she was again. Tommy’s sister. This time, we talked. It was strange, I felt as if she saw right through me, right down to my soul, even though I hardly said anything and even that little was about the weather or some such inconsequential nonsense.’

She let out a long sigh before continuing.

‘Tommy, the Duke, he was not short on stories from our youth – Edward would tell you, too, we used to play together as children. I thought it strange that I could remember him but not his sister, who was so enchanting and perfect. Apparently she was often sick as a child. Nothing serious, but she would miss out on those trips because she was deemed too fragile to travel. Except once. She did come to our house, or so I was told. When I wasn’t there because I was at our grandmama Winifred’s house for dancing lessons. By that time we were about fifteen… and… as she later revealed to me, she was so excited to be somewhere else than her home, after so much confinement, that she liked to explore. This game of hide-and-seek became such a habit of hers that to this day it raises not one eyebrow if she goes missing for an hour or two. After all, she was desperate to see something else than her own home once in a while and no one could blame her. They let her play. So on that visit, she went exploring in our house, too. She explored my room in my absence, and found some sketches of mine in a hidden drawer of my desk.’

‘Let me guess,’ Alfred said, a smile dancing on his lips. ‘They were not exactly miniatures of the Virgin Mary.’

‘Not exactly, no…’ Charlotte admitted. She couldn’t believe she was telling someone about this.

‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.’

‘Why, and miss out on a chance to shock you? I cannot possibly pass up on that!’ she joked and stopped to smoke. ‘I had seen some villagers bathe in the river while walking our dog one day. I had accidentally let go of the leash and had to chase after it and… Well, there they were. Women from the village, bathing, washing their clothes, playing in the water…’

Alfred seemed to read Charlotte’s mind and poured her a drop more brandy.

‘Thank you… Agnes remembered it. Finding my drawings. She hadn’t met me but she knew my deepest, darkest secret. That night of the birthday party, when no one was looking, she pulled me aside and took me through secret passages to the rooftop.’

‘By God, but how romantic!’ Alfred couldn’t help saying.

‘It… it was,’ Charlotte admitted.

She put out her cheroot and played with the rim of her brandy glass.

‘She took me to the rooftop. I thought she was absolutely mad! She beckoned to me to follow her, climbing over ledges – I was terrified we would slip on the tiles and fall to out deaths. My heart was racing so. But I followed her anyway. She stopped on top of a turret and pointed to the moon – I suppose it was lovely but I was too busy being glad to find flat surface under my feet. Before I could really find my footing, she came up to me, to fix my collar – the lace had caught in something and it was torn. But when she saw it was beyond saving, she did not step away. She… she touched my skin, and my hair, and…’ she said, absent-mindedly resting her hand on her own collar-bone. ‘She confessed it all. How she stole into my room years before and found my drawings and that she had often thought about me and when she heard from Tommy that I was in acquaintance with him, she encouraged him to invite me to the party. How she had hoped to meet me one day. And that I was…’ Charlotte shook her head bashfully, so like when Edward did so, ‘… that I was prettier than she had imagined in the wildest dreams. I… I felt as if I would have died if I hadn’t kissed her.’

Alfred knew exactly what she meant, as images of a midsummer evening crept into his mind’s eye.

Charlotte lingered on the memory for a few seconds, soaking it up all over again, letting it travel through his veins before she had to let it go.

‘There were so many guests for the party that no one batted an eyelash when Agnes suggested to her Mama that I share her bedroom,’ she said and Alfred had to hide his knowing grin behind his glass. ‘Throughout the season we connived to repeat that night. You’d be amazed how easy it is for women friends to be allowed to share a bedroom.’

‘I can only imagine with immense envy,’ Alfred sighed.

‘Sometimes Mama would even encourage it – no doubt she thought Agnes would be a good influence on me, that she would inspire me to want to marry. Because at the same time,’ Charlotte said, melancholia overcoming her again, ‘I knew quite early on that she was going to be married soon. She never made a secret out of it. In fact I was introduced to her fiancé, a distant relative of ours, a second cousin or something, in the same breath as I was to her at Tommy’s birthday party. He’s been a constant presence.’

Charlotte drowned her misery in the brandy lest she started crying again.

‘She may think she has chosen the easier path but I have a terrible feeling she will soon realise it isn’t so easy after all,’ Alfred said.

‘No, it’ll be easy for her. This is what she wanted.’

‘Or so she said?’ Alfred asked, remembering with shame the time he called his and Edward’s magical first kiss an indiscretion.

‘No, it is,’ Charlotte said matter-of-factly. ‘She likes him. Loves him, even. Or she will, with time. She’s not pretending any of it.’

Alfred didn’t have a good response to that. He had been with men who ended up perfectly happily with women. He never felt the inclination to frown at someone’s happiness. But he once feared Edward was one of those men, too. That even if he truly loved Alfred, he would be compelled to choose a life that was easier because it wasn’t so daunting for him as it was for Alfred. If he was honest, he imagined he himself might have decided to marry too, if he had ever felt capable of desire for women but the simple truth was that he did not.

‘So she ended things because of the marriage,’ he presumed.

‘No. I did,’ Charlotte surprised him again.

‘Y-you did?’

‘Yes. It was I who ended it. I told her I loved her. And then she said that’s impossible because... what we did doesn’t matter. She didn’t even consider it being unfaithful. She had no qualms about continuing it after she was married. Because it doesn’t matter. My heart was ripped into pieces but it “doesn’t matter.” So I ended it.’

Alfred could barely mask his shock.

‘Do you think I made a mistake?’

Alfred didn’t reply immediately. ‘No, I think that was remarkably brave of you.’

‘Or stupid. I might never find anything close to even this again. Don’t, Lord Alfred,’ she said before he started to object. ‘You don’t know the future any more than I do.’

Alfred had to give it to her. She was playing with the rim of her glass again so as to avoid what she presumed might be pity in Lord Alfred’s eyes.

‘She wasn’t my first,’ she admitted, barely above a whisper. ‘And she might not be my last… but… I wish one of them loved me back.’

She felt it – that sharp slash of pain through her chest, and lead in her lungs, put there by the prospect of life long loneliness.

‘Just once,’ she nearly pleaded, pulling Alfred’s frock coat that she was still wearing tighter around herself. ‘Just one of them. Just someone. For a minute. Properly.’

She couldn’t help fresh tears escaping his eyes and she drowned them in her drink but it wouldn’t help.

‘You said you met the Ladies of Llangollen. It’s possible.’

‘Oh it is. And meeting them has made me ache all the more. It’s not even because of Agnes particularly that I am distraught,’ she continued. ‘She may have been the reason for it in a more immediate way, and I am desperately mourning the end of what were some of my happiest moments courtesy of dear Agnes, but it’s not exactly the fact that I lost her that terrifies me so. Because I am terrified, Lord Alfred. I can feel it – I am constantly gripped by this overwhelming sense, no, not sense, realisation, that I shall never be loved.’

‘No, Charlotte—’

‘I have loved but no one ever returned it. It particularly hurts now because Agnes so seemed as if she would. But no. And I don’t think anyone ever will. Not because there isn’t anyone in the world who could love me like I could love them. On the contrary, I fear that there is someone out there that I haven’t met, and she’s just as lonely on this sleepless night and longing for someone who understands her, who accepts her, listens to her, and loves her, but with whom I shall never cross paths because it is such an infinitesimal possibility. Or maybe I have met her but the situation wasn’t such that we should have talked or not meaningfully and now the chance is gone… I can almost see her, I can almost hear her, somehow I know that she exists but I also know how unlikely it is that I will ever find her, let alone… let her know… or…’

Alfred leaned forward, taking the brandy out of her hands so that he could hold them.

‘If it is meant to be, you will find her. I truly believe so,’ he said.

Charlotte smiled despite herself. There was a fair amount of patronizing in there, that was true, but she was also glad that Lord Alfred will not know the pain she was feeling and would be feeling for the rest of her days if she was right.

‘You are kind, Lord Alfred,’ she said calmly. ‘But I do not believe so. I think I’m one of those people who are fated to miss out on it. And… I do not wish to sound resentful but I can’t even enjoy real distractions that would take my mind off it. I envy Edward endlessly – he has such responsibility in his hands. He is never without hugely important tasks, his mind can be occupied to its fullest.’

‘He is the first to say you are just as learned and brilliant—’

‘Maybe. But he can do something with it, whereas whatever I could get my hands on, it’s never going to be enough. I could find many an occupation but there are only so many books to read or write, there are only so many paintings to paint, songs to play, or charities to support…’

‘There must be something in which you could find solace.’

‘I would love to travel but I cannot do that alone – I cannot even walk to the end of this street without the supervision of a dull, stuck-up maid to chaperone me needlessly. I can’t, what would that look like? I wouldn’t really care but I can’t, I couldn’t embarrass Edward like that. He’s got enough on his shoulders as it is that could wreck his career, he doesn’t need me to add to it. So, alone, I am stuck here, with nothing of real significance to do. Left alone with my own anxious thoughts day and night. Perhaps I am going mad.’

‘It’s not over until it’s over.’

‘What if I want it to be over, then?’ she said savagely without thinking. Her hand shot up to her mouth as soon as she realised what she said. Perhaps she went too far.

Alfred moved to kneel on the carpet at her feet, squeezing her hand strongly. It was hard to stare such deep despair in the face. Indeed, the most heart breaking part wasn’t what she said so much as how she said it: she had accepted it all as the likely truth.

‘Edward loves you,’ Alfred said to her. ‘Your friends love you. Your family may have misguided methods to show it but I’m sure they—’

‘No, they do not,’ she cut in, not to fight but it was a simple fact she didn’t much dwell on anymore. ‘But I know what you mean to say. They say that a man’s job is to provide and protect and all of those wonderful actions full of agency, and a woman’s job is to love. I am not allowed to do a man’s job. But what if I am not even allowed to love? What then? What meaning is left?’ Charlotte asked, feeling thankful for Lord Alfred but also full of regret. ‘Please don’t tell Edward any of—’

Just as she said that, she felt warm hands on her shoulders and she was engulfed in the tightest brotherly hug. Edward was shaking with sobs, evidently having entered the room from the entrance behind her armchair and listened to it all. And to her surprise, once she returned the hug, she felt the weight of the world release her from its suffocating hold.

Edward knew now.

Alfred stood and knew it was time for him to leave. Before he did so, he caught Edward’s tear-filled eyes and saw he mouthed “Thank you” to him, over Charlotte’s shoulder. Hoping that he hadn’t made things worse, he left them alone.

 

It was a long while before their sobs ceased.

‘We ate up all your biscuits,’ she said, she didn’t know why. But it made Edward laugh through his tears.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, releasing his sister. ‘We never eat them but they bake new ones every day.’

‘How much did you…?’

‘All of it. I was listening even upstairs.’

‘Then you heard what Lord Alfred—’

‘Yes, that too. I’ll talk to him later. But now, Charlotte… Oh my dear Charlotte, why haven’t you talked to me before? Don’t you know I am here for you?’

‘You can’t help,’ she reasoned, though somewhat apologetically. ‘And I didn’t want to burden you. You have enough on your plate as it is. It’s more than enough that you’ve taken me in, I can’t expect you to solve my problems for me.’

‘I… well… First of all, we’re hardly Oliver Twist and Mr Brownlow. You are not a burden, you’re my sister. And I may not be able to solve your problems but I can make it better. There must be some things I could do to make it a little more bearable.’

Charlotte considered this, now that she was a little more relieved.

‘Well, to be honest I wouldn’t mind a new maid, if I must have one. This one is just odious. She’s like a nun. I feel judged every second of every day.’

‘Done. I’ll find a new one. Or, you will, or Alfred might ask some lady at court for a recommendation or… it’s done.’

‘Thank you. And please apologise to Lord Alfred on my behalf. I have been… tense around him and he didn’t deserve it. His parents suggested a match between us in Wales, I had to…’

‘Oh God, did they really? I’m sorry. I will. But I’m afraid he already knows you don’t really dislike him, despite your best efforts to give such an impression.’

‘Then I am happy to hear I have failed,’ she said, allowing herself a smile and meaning it. ‘It would also help if he wrote a letter to Lord and Lady Anglesey about how ugly and dull I am.’

‘I shall be sure to suggest it.’

She nearly laughed. ‘You should go back to bed. I don’t think I could sleep, I should like to stay.’

‘No, I will join you, then. If you’d like. I’ll get you proper food and we can talk. Or not talk. Whatever you like.’

She nodded gratefully.

‘Only…’ Edward added, ‘I just need to do something. I shall be back in no time.’

 

Edward found Alfred in his room sitting on the window ledge, deep in thought. Alfred heard him come in, turned towards him, and their eyes locked. Edward’s legs carried him to the window, swiftly closed the curtains to shut the bloody world out, and kissed Alfred with all the love he had.

‘I should have told you,’ Alfred whispered against Edward’s lips. Oh, to be held by the man he loves! It was a better remedy for any ache and ail.

‘Yes you should have,’ Edward replied in turn, resting his forehead against Alfred’s just like when they first kissed by that lake.

‘What must you think of me now…’

‘I think nothing different of you, of course. Why would I?’

‘Oh, Edward, you dear man… because of what happened, because of how different my past was compared you yours, I feel as if I am not good enough for you,’ Alfred admitted after struggling to find the words.

Edward was completely bewildered. ‘Not good enough?! Alfred… you cannot think… what makes you think…?!’

‘Well, you hadn’t been with anyone before. Whereas I… I can’t imagine what you must think of me now.’

‘But that’s… that’s ridiculous,’ Edward said, hearing himself laugh. ‘I don’t think either good or bad about how many men you had been with before we met. I envy them, the lucky fools to have known you at all, and I pity them for not having seen you as I do, but I do not care a fig about them. I do care that they hurt you, particularly that absolute loathsome cad Peel!’ Edward seethed. ‘I swear the next time he dares to cross my path I shall not be responsible for what I might do. I might strangle the scoundrel!’

Alfred chuckled. ‘How gallant you are, my darling. I feel a knighting is due.’

‘I will not let him near you ever again.’

‘Near me? He doesn’t want anything from me, never did. It’s you on whom he has his eyes.’

Edward wanted to agree but he thought back to that night at Peel’s estate and the way William stepped away so easily. And the strange way he stared at Alfred’s lock of hair in his locket…

‘Alfred… I think… Perhaps…’

‘What is it?’

‘Alfred, I owe you a confession, too.’

And Edward, though reluctantly, recounted to Alfred that unseemly night time encounter with William in full.

After he was done, Alfred found he wasn’t angry. He was flabbergasted and in disbelief.

‘He was acting,’ he said once he had heard the whole story. ‘Trust not a word of his. He must have been playing with you, as he always does.’

‘I can’t think why he would do so. He didn’t get anything out of it.’

‘Maybe he thought he might still do, if he gained your sympathy. You’re a good man with a kind heart. People like William prey on that, they use it to their advantage. He just wants to make trouble, he thrives on that, especially if he can get a fetching young man or two in his bed in the process. Before he gets on his ship and flees any consequences.’

‘I have seen many a malicious person such as the ones you are describing, my love. But I do not think Mr Peel is quite as bad as that. Truly. I would definitely strangle him for what he did to you, make no mistake about that,’ Edward added, prompting Alfred to both smile and pinch the bridge of his nose, ‘but perhaps he does or did feel more about you than he lets on.’

Alfred remembered what William said earlier at the Palace. Has it ever occurred to you that I do not care for Drummond? If he wasn’t after Edward, he was…

‘It is a surprise to me that he is capable of feeling at all. Now,’ Alfred said, wanting to put a closure on the whole topic, ‘you mustn’t keep Charlotte waiting.’

We must not.’

‘Don’t you want to be alone with her? Sibling time…’

‘Seeing as it is your single-handed success that she has revealed what she has been going though, I believe we cannot get through this night without you. Let’s make a party out of it. Just us, no servants, we’ll play cards, make our fun, anything we want. What do you say?’

‘Who are you and what have you done to Edward Drummond?’

‘Are you coming or not?’

Alfred smiled widely and followed Edward downstairs.

Chapter Text

Alfred was still mildly drunk in the carriage on the way back from church.

As any good soldier, he was hiding it superbly and the coffee at breakfast helped. If anything, perhaps he seemed a tad more cheery on this merry morn… especially as urges to grin still kept hitting him as he remembered the intimate little night party he, Edward, and Charlotte had thrown themselves, and he stared intently at park outside the windows to give the impression of perfect ordinariness.

But to be fair, he had never thought he would say this, but Charlotte could be a laugh.

 

POP!

‘Shhhhhhhh!’ Edward hushed as Alfred had managed to completely botch his attempt at opening the bottle of champagne quietly or without having the foam drip all over the carpet.

‘I’m sorry!’ he whispered between giggles.

Though Edward had promised Charlotte to get her real food, that plan had failed once he realised the pantry door was closed at all times and the sole key that opened it was hanging on a nail in the housekeeper’s room. Not wanting to wake any servants, they had to make do with the only food left available: a bowl of apples and grapes.

There was no lock and key on his liquor cabinet, though.

So, they gathered in Edward’s cosy library lit quite well by the full moon and opted for fermented sustenance instead, and given the fact that Charlotte was having less than the time of her life, they thought it was justified if a little naughty of them.

‘What are we drinking for?’ Charlotte asked.

‘Can’t one drink champagne for no particular reason?’ Alfred asked feigning innocence.

‘No, one must celebrate something.’

‘Well then,’ Edward raised his glass, ‘To the Queen’s health. Long may she reign. And to you Charlotte, my only sister and favourite sibling and the most brilliant woman I know, and to your happiness moving on. And to you Alfred, my only love and the most brilliant man I know and the most handsome and wickedly beautiful and accomplished and splendid— sorry Charlotte.’

‘Let us just drink, shall we?’ she said rolling her eyes, and they did.

‘To Edward, also,’ Alfred piped up before they could take a second sip, still in the mood to salute. ‘The best of men, the man of my dreams, my love… and to his most shapely bottom,’ he quickly added mischievously just before they could drink so it would be valid.

‘Ngg-- Alfred!’ Edward exclaimed, nearly getting the champagne dripping down his chin. Alfred was doubling over from laughing.

And so was Charlotte! Laughing at last, after such a long time she had lost track.

More champagne was poured quickly.

‘To the smooth repeal of the Corn Laws!’ Edward saluted sarcastically, accepting congratulations as they drank.

And the night went on with drinking to a wide assortment of things: to Lord Anglesey’s seat, to the Duke of Wellington, to Dickens, to Rochester going blind because they decided he deserved it, to the new kittens of the cat that had taken to sunbathing in the Drummonds’ garden – it had apparently given birth to three adorable little ones, to the Ladies of Llangollen, to the Mexican War ending soon now that the fighting ceased according to Palmerston’s latest correspondences, to the exceptionally good year it was for port (crates of which had been freshly delivered from Portugal to the Palace)…

‘To… Mendelssohn’s Elijah being loud enough,’ Charlotte added.

‘Why?’ Alfred asked, noticing it might be almost dawning outside…

‘I was enjoying myself most immensely throughout the piece with Agnes in the little room between the box and the corridor at the Birmingham Festival last month.’

‘Charlotte!’ Edward exclaimed utterly scandalised, wishing he didn’t know that but it was too late now and they drank to it.

‘To the new prince or princess!’ Alfred said once he got over Edward’s face at his sister’s escapade. He let surprise wash over the other two before throwing a grape up in the air and catching it in his mouth and adding: ‘Only joking.’

‘To Arthur and Florence!’ Edward saluted without cynicism now.

‘To Arthur and Florence,’ she seconded. ‘May they have many happy years and many loud, loquacious children.’

And they drank.

‘To Eagle’s placing fifth at the Grand National race!’ Alfred said from the window – it was definitely about to dawn.

‘But didn’t Peel ride it--?’ Edward questioned.

‘He did. Only fifth, as in the last to finish? Beaten by a horse racing for the first time ridden by an unknown jockey? He’d have been livid! Let’s drink to that!’

And they drank.

‘To the Lady Agnes Drummond, Viscountess Strathallan.’ Charlotte said, towards the end of the bottle. ‘What, it was their wedding day after all.’

Wedding night now, she thought to herself bitterly.

‘To love,’ Edward said.

‘To love,’ Alfred seconded, his heart melting.

‘To love,’ Charlotte said, giving in, remembering it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

Even if it was going to be a while before she truly understood that.

 

‘Mr Drummond,’ a page boy stepped into the office at the House. ‘The Duke of Wellington is here to see you.’

‘T-The Duke of Wellington?’ Edward stuttered from his heap of paperwork. ‘T-thank you. Do send him in.’

He scrambled to put his cluttered desk in order within the few short seconds he had before the Duke arrived – it wouldn’t do to give such a messy impression!

‘Drummond!’ the Duke greeted him, walking confidently into the office.

Edward stepped to him for a handshake. ‘Your Grace. To what do I owe the pleasure of this surprise visit?’

‘Ah, just an informal discussion, really.’

‘Please, sit.’

‘Thank you.’

‘May I offer you anything?’

‘No, thank you, I am just on my way to lunch with Russell and Palmerston, no doubt they’ll want to drag it out with more courses than needed on a Wednesday.’

‘They do take their time when it comes to food, particularly when it’s relief for the Irish, I must say. But, if you’re not here to talk politics, what is this mysterious informal topic you have come to discuss with me, Your Grace?’

‘I take it you are good friends with Lord Alfred Paget, Anglesey’s son?’

Edward tried to seek signs of disapproval or something that was cause for suspicion and worry in the Duke’s expression but found none.

‘Yes, we are, very good friends.’

‘Good! A fine man, he is. A few days ago, he mentioned you stayed on as Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition.’

‘I have, Your Grace,’ Edward confirmed, glancing around the relatively small, cluttered office, which had one large window but that was mostly shaded by an old oak tree blocking much needed light.

‘Well, that’s a fine decision, Drummond, and I would not dare to criticize it if that is your heart’s desire. However… am I wrong in thinking the new position is not entirely suited to all your talents?’

‘It is an excellent position, though one prefers one’s party to be the governing one. But I have to agree, Your Grace… If I am honest, I am beginning to feel that my daily efforts are rather going to waste rather than into use.’

‘Yes, I assumed so. What would you say if I had a proposition?’

‘What sort of proposition, Your Grace?’

‘I am not suggesting you give up your current position but you might be able to spare some of your energy to another occasional task… Have you ever thought about teaching?’

‘Teaching, sir?’ Edward had to ask, somewhat taken aback.

‘Not schoolboys, do not worry, I have not gone senile,’ the Duke replied, amused at the very thought. ‘Have you heard of London University?’

‘I certainly have.’

‘It is a fine institution, albeit new.’

‘It is, but is it not only one that grants degrees?’

‘It is, but there are vacancies for experienced and learned scholars of law at the University College. I believe you could be an excellent asset, even as a guest lecturer.’

‘A guest lecturer.’

‘Indeed. You do not need to give an answer presently, but should you find you have the affinity for it, do send word to me and I shall arrange a place that is convenient for you.’

‘But Your Grace…’ Edward blurted out, not quite believing it. ‘Thank you. I feel honoured that you should have such confidence in me as to suggest this in the first place.’

‘Oh, you should have more confidence, Drummond. You are remarkably brilliant, you mustn’t waste years here while the Whigs are in power.’

Drummond smiled, no, beamed at the Duke, grateful as ever.

‘Well, I should get going if I don’t want to be late from my lunch. Would you care to join us?’

‘I am sorry, Your Grace, I have a previously arranged engagement.’

‘Not to worry. But I will take my leave now,’ the Duke said, standing, and Edward following him out. ‘So will you consider the position at the college?’

‘I will, definitely!’

‘Good. And send my regards to Lord Alfred when you see him.’

‘I will. Thank you, Your Grace.’

Ah, Lord Alfred – just the man Edward was about to see.

 

‘Teaching?’ Alfred asked once they were riding in the park an hour later. ‘At a college?’

‘What’s with the tone of disbelief? I do know my law,’ Edward replied from his own horse trotting next to him.

‘It’s not at your brilliance that I am surprised, my beloved,’ Alfred said without thinking, both of them glancing around in fear of anyone overhearing them. ‘It is at the offer itself. I don’t think it would have occurred to me but, now that I think about it, I think you ought to take it!’

‘You think so?’ Edward replied with a grin.

‘I think you already want to.’

‘Oh, Alfred… I think I do. I really do.’

‘Well, then you shoul—’ Alfred began but he fell silent at a distinct scream and shouting for help nearby.

Alfred steered his horse and sped off at once to the source of the commotion, Edward trying to keep up with him. Once there, Alfred assessed the scene at once – a lady was fallen over, a constable helping her up, passers-by crowding around it.

‘He robbed me! He took my purse!’ the woman was shouting to the constable that seemed to be struggling to stand himself.

‘Where has he gone?’ Alfred asked urgently.

‘There, that way!’ the woman cried. ‘A tall man with a brown hat! There!’

Alfred’s gaze followed the direction in which she was pointing and caught glimpse of a man running in the distance from his vantage point in the saddle. With not a moment’s hesitation more, he rode after the thief as fast as he could.

Edward had to gather all his courage to follow suit – he could never ride like Alfred could!

Once Alfred seemed to catch up with the burglar – still no able constables around in the middle of the vast St James Park, he called after him:

‘Hey, stop! In the name of Her Majesty, I order you to stop!’

The thief did not obey but instead climbed over a hedge, park benches, and a little pond with large rocks, across which Alfred’s horse would not have taken him.

So he jumped off his horse with the skill of an acrobat, and chased the thief on foot, making Edward’s heart stop because he was being immensely reckless! What if the thief had a knife??? He seemed a lot larger than Alfred!

But Edward had hardly managed to get off his horse by the time Alfred had disarmed the thief and overpowered him by knocking him down face first on the ground, locking his hands behind his back and kneeling on him until some constables arrived.

Edward watched it all with a gaping mouth, the way Alfred took charge of the situation, fought down this huge man with his bare hands with no concern for his own safety, and handed him over to the police. Once he was rid of the thief, Alfred merely dusted his clothes off, fussed with his hair a bit, and readjusted his top hat. Some pedestrians were applauding but he only nodded their way humbly before walking back to Edward and the horses.

‘Sorry,’ he said brightly to Edward. ‘Where were we?’

‘Alfred,’ Edward breathed, still floored. ‘That was…’

Alfred smirked – he knew that face. This really wasn’t the time for Edward to get ideas or put ideas into Alfred’s head, not when a dozen strangers were watching them. He got back on his horse.

‘Come on… Professor Drummond,’ he said cheekily and trotted away, knowing the effect he had on Edward.

Well, Edward had to hold that thought until they could meet in private again…

 

Finding an opportunity was not as easy, of course. As Edward was still working late all week, a few days later dinnertime found Alfred at his club as he had received no note that would suggest Edward would be home sooner than expected. He had been neglecting his friends outside the Palace and it was only right he should visit. Alas, he had barely opened a volume of Keats poems and ordered his entrée that he heard an all too familiar voice call his name.

‘Lord Alfred,’ William said, approaching his table. ‘I was hoping to see you here one day. You wouldn’t have your friend tagging along, not here with the Whigs.’

Alfred did not look up from his book. ‘What was the matter with Tory clubs? Or have you run out of prey there already?’

‘Never hurts to seek new hunting ground, that’s true. May I?’ William threw it back unfazed and sat at Alfred’s table without waiting for an answer.

Alfred sighed in frustration and put down his Keats volume. ‘Or are you just scared of you Papa?’

‘It takes more than him to scare me, Alfred.’

‘Such as?’

‘A thousand French and Indian soldiers marching against me with loaded guns?’

‘Ah, yes, India, I forgot you were there. How was the food?’

‘Exotic. Spicy. Hot. But you know I prefer British cuisine. Particularly, shapely, fair Welsh biscuits.’

‘Biscuits.’

William winked at Alfred. Biscuit. Alfred was a biscuit.

‘Well, all this talk of food and I have rather lost my appetite,’ Alfred said, standing.

‘Oh, come on, Alfred, stay for a bit. I’ll behave. Just let us talk. Just for a little while.’

‘No, thank you,’ Alfred said without looking back. ‘Enjoy tonight’s biscuit.’

William enjoyed watching Alfred go for the sake of the game, but once Alfred was out of sight and he realised he was quite alone in a largely deserted dining area, his loneliness crept up on him within seconds.

‘Alfred!’ he called outside the club, chasing after him, still hastily pulling on his coat and gloves. ‘Alfred, wait!’

‘What?’ Alfred rolled his eyes, wishing his carriage would hurry up.

‘Seriously, can we not talk? I know I have behaved questionably…’

‘That’s an understatement. I know what you did, intruded on Edward in his room. You should be thankful I haven’t wiped that grin off your face with my fist, William.’

‘I did not do anything. Nor did I plan to.’

Alfred laughed. ‘And you expect me to believe that?’

‘Don’t get me wrong, he’s pretty enough, you’ve done well—’

‘Careful,’ Alfred warned, eyes shooting lightning at William in anger. How dare he talk about the love of his life like that?

‘Sorry. But I don’t really care much for your Mr Drummond.’

‘You don’t care for anyone and anything, I am perfectly aware of that, thanks,’ Alfred said, walking away as his carriage had finally arrived.

‘No, I… no… wait, Alfred,’ William stuttered, following in his wake. ‘I do care.’

‘Sure, William,’ Alfred said nonchalantly, getting into the car.

‘No, wait!’ William stopped the door from closing with one quick, strong hand, reminding Alfred he was a good soldier at least if not a decent person otherwise. ‘Please, all I am asking for is one conversation. I have something I’ve been meaning to say to you. I would like to just talk.’

‘Just talk? When have you ever wanted to just talk with anyone?’

‘Now. I want to now. With you.’ Alfred began to consider this but then… ‘I mean I wouldn’t say no to more but— No wait—’ Alfred reached for the door to slam it with all his strength but William stopped it, stifling a wince. ‘Damn, I’m sorry…’

Alfred was seething but what scared him more is that he saw what looked like genuine eagerness in William’s eyes. He feared that Edward was actually right in his suspicions that William might actually feel something for Alfred and he thought it best to not even get involved any further.

‘Please,’ William pleaded. ‘What do I need to do? You don’t know what it’s like. I’ve been in too many battles to count. I may be returning to the east within months, weeks! Just five minutes. That’s all.’

Alfred hesitated.

‘Please. Just one conversation. May I get in, perhaps?’

Alfred debated this but he remembered how hurt he was that time. And the immensity with which his confidence was shattered because of William. If he hadn’t played him like that, he wouldn’t have wasted so much time with Edward either!

‘I don’t think so,’ Alfred said coldly but his heart was pounding – he felt cruel. But William had been crueller to him and so he tapped the roof of the carriage and avoided William’s eyes. ‘Goodbye, Captain.’

The door of the carriage closed and Alfred was gone, leaving William standing alone in the dark street in front of the club.

Well, William tried the nice way.

He was left with no choice but to try in others…

 

Alfred checked his pocket watch and told the chauffeur to take a detour to Lower Grosvenor Street. His night was spoiled, but perhaps not fatally. His heart swelled when he saw that the candles were lit in Edward’s room and smiled to himself. He paid the chauffeur and sent him back to the palace without him.

It was still not late enough so he chose the front door this time. Taking tentative steps into the foyer, he saw through a doorway that Charlotte was reading in an armchair by the fire in the sitting room.

She looked up.

Alfred looked back, no excuse coming to his lips.

She needed none.

She pointed upwards.

Alfred nodded.

And took the stairs two at a time before the butler spotted him.

‘How much time do you have?’ Edward asked between fervent kisses seconds later in his bedroom.

‘All night,’ Alfred replied nearly tearing Edward’s buttons off in his haste to remove his shirt. ‘All night.’

Desire flared up in Edward even more at the sound of this.

He seized Alfred ever tighter, lifting his legs ever so slightly off the ground, and after twirling him twice around in his arms from sheer unadulterated happiness, he nearly threw their entwined, heated bodies on the bed.

How Alfred laughed! He was bursting from desire as well but he just could not help it, Edward was the most adorable man. And so keen to ravish him – really, Alfred didn’t understand just how he had got so lucky… he was so happy when he was with Edward, really he feared they were too happy, that some retribution might be lurking round the corner that would smash them apart.

‘Are you… are you sad?’ Edward asked, a frown forming on his handsome face.

‘No, not sad… Only, I must remind myself I am not dreaming every time I get to see you.’

Edward smiled knowingly. ‘I know what you mean,’ he said, moving to place the sweetest kisses down Alfred’s neck. ‘But I can assure you, my darling. It is quite, quite real.’

‘You’ll have to pinch me to make me truly believe so.’

‘Oh I shall do better things than that…’

And Edward set out to do just that, finally, finally getting to taste the soft fair skin he had been dreaming about for days and days in Alfred’s absence.

‘Do we really have all night?’ Edward asked hungrily after having got well rid of all of Alfred’s clothes, and his own. He was nose to nose with Alfred, who was so sinfully beautiful under him, lips swollen and red, face flushed, eyes sparkling and alit with desire.

‘Yes, yes, my love, we do,’ Alfred panted, going to nibble on Edward’s ear, hands roaming his body, greedy and eager to feel the firm muscles on his back and the soft, luscious curls that were escaping the fashionable coif Edward had carefully crafted.

Alfred knew why Edward was so pleased to hear they had the whole night to spend together – aside from the fact that more time together in general was better. This meant they didn’t have to rush and they didn’t have to limit their activities. They could go all the way, which they often could not when all they had was a brief little window between after-dinner drinks and the appropriate curfew determined by when Her Majesty felt like retiring for the night. And Alfred had to find a discreet way to find a horse and go to Edward, and back! Oh, how Edward wished he lived closer to the Palace!

But tonight was one of those rare nights when Alfred didn’t have to be Cinderella and return home by midnight. His expensive silk and brocade clothes wouldn’t be turning back to rags when the magic wore off as his clothes were already lying scattered on Edward’s bedroom carpet, and the magic, the magic never wore off at all.

Alfred relaxed and placed his legs around Edward, leaving no choice for him not to be flush against Alfred’s body, feeling his arousal against his own.

‘Where’s the…?’ Alfred fumbled to reach Edward’s bedside table between kisses but seeing as his bed was enormous he could hardly do so.

Edward tore himself away from Alfred for the briefest few seconds he could manage to find the helpful little tin and returned into Alfred’s arms as soon as he did.

Alfred tightened his hold around Edward so as to urge him to do something, anything now – they didn’t have to hurry but he was impatient with desire anyway.

But Edward seemed a little lost in thought somehow.

‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ Alfred asked, breaking their kisses.

‘Nothing. Nothing is wrong,’ Edward replied, panting already too. He was observing Alfred with such devotion and hunger but he was also thinking about something, Alfred could tell.

‘Edward?’

‘Nothing…’

‘Really, Edward, what is it?’

‘I was just…’ Edward began, as bashful as in Wales when given the chance to ask anything of Alfred. ‘I was wondering if… Could I try?’

Alfred looked up at him puzzled.

‘I mean…’ Edward stuttered, fighting the urge to be utterly polite even as he was naked in bed with the person with whom he was conversing. But old habits die hard. He was starting to accept he just didn’t have it in him to come out with things bluntly. ‘I was just curious… Could I, perhaps, only if you want to of course, I wouldn’t wish to make you—’

‘Edward, just tell me what you want, my love!’ Alfred demanded. If Edward didn’t start touching him soon he would combust on the spot!

‘Could I try to… could I try it?’ he asked just as obliquely but Alfred understood when he felt the little tin placed into his hand to use instead. ‘Uh, please.’

You want me to—’

‘Only if that’s something you’d like to…’

‘I would,’ Alfred confirmed enthusiastically. ‘But, Edward, would you? Are you sure? You don’t have to, you know.’

‘But I want to,’ Edward admitted, burning from the simple sensations he was already feeling from Alfred’s body so close, and from the vision he had dreamt about quite a few times since Alfred had shown him the ways of the world…

‘What’s brought this on?’ Alfred asked, enjoying the sight of Edward struggling between being innocent and wholesome and a desirous hot-blooded man with ideas and plans and wants and needs…

‘You seem enjoy it rather.’

‘Oh, I do – in fact, have you thought about installing a mirror on the canopy of your bed, just up there?’ Alfred nodded to the ceiling of the grand four poster bed he could see over Edward’s shoulder.

‘I’m not quite sure how I would explain that to my staff.’

‘You’ll think of something,’ Alfred said and winked, making Edward both laugh and get all flustered. Just the memory of that day when it swam into his mind’s eye was enough to make him want to loosen his collar when it snuck up on him often in inopportune moments at the House…

‘I don’t know, Alfred… Whenever I have clapped eyes on you in your uniform? When you stand up for me against Captain Peel… And when you fought down that thief the other day… the way you took charge… Alfred…’

Edward was weak in the face of Alfred’s charms, he dived down to kiss him deeply.

‘The way I took charge?’ Alfred teased breathlessly.

‘Yes… It was… inspiring…’

‘Inspiring…’

‘Yes… Alfred…’

The heat radiating from Edward’s body, and the low, raspy voice of his that let Alfred know he was aching to be pleasured at last, these were enough for Alfred to take charge as apparently Edward so liked him to. He pushed himself up until he flipped Edward over on his back, holding his wrists down against the bed. Now they were lying the wrong way on the deep green velvet cover of the spacious bed, the firelight casting rich shadows on their bodies, dancing on their skin as they moved.

Edward didn’t know why but he enjoyed the fact that he was held down by Alfred. After his lengthy days in the office, all that responsibility and pressure, he really didn’t mind being taken care of for a change. So he let him.

Without a pillow supporting his head, Edward’s head tilted back more, revealing his neck, Alfred’s for the taking, and he took his time kissing Edward’s beautiful skin, leaving goose bumps in his wake as he travelled downwards.

Edward didn’t know how Alfred’s gorgeous blue eyes could look like that, both fiery and innocent, even as his tongue worked in sinful ways on him, his lips bringing Edward to the edge of spending… Ah but just before it was too much, he ceased what he was doing abruptly and began peppering slow wet kisses on Edward’s thigh instead.

‘Alfred…!?’ Edward couldn’t help moaning, frustrated yet loving it.

Alfred laughed devilishly against the ticklish skin on Edward’s shapely knee, worshipping every inch of skin – if he was going to do this, he was going to do it slowly. Maddeningly slowly.

‘All in good time, my love, all in good time…’

And Alfred was true to his word. As much as he wanted to just jump in and devour Edward, he was the gentlest of lovers that night, putting Edward’s comfort first always, showing him his tricks but always asking him if he felt alright with every move, telling him to say as soon as something felt wrong, and that he could change his mind anytime, to the point where Edward found himself almost begging Alfred to stop mollycoddling him and just take him, just do it, just take charge and take him already.

But it was worth it because, as unused to it all Edward was, he understood what the fuss about it was perfectly and completely. He wanted to be as close to Alfred as possible. It was all worth every second.

Afterwards, Edward was lying leant against a bedpost at the end of the bed, Alfred resting on his chest, and that’s how they shared a cheroot.

‘Professor Drummond,’ Alfred said again, just to amuse himself more than anything.

Edward snorted a little. ‘You really like that, don’t you?’

‘Oh, immensely.’

‘Though it would be easier to face teaching law if I weren't a criminal myself.’

‘Don’t think about that now. Besides, that’s not the issue with the idea of you as a teacher. I don’t think I could have concentrated at school if I had such a ridiculously handsome professor.’

Edward laughed and that turned into a yawn to which Alfred suggested they put out the cheroot and sleep a little.

The trouble was, a little turned into a lot.

In fact, they woke to the sound of much knocking on the bedroom door.

Alfred jolted awake, heart pounding. The sunlight streaming into the room was so bright he didn’t understand how he could have slept through it! It was mid-morning easily! And someone was knocking right on their door!

‘Mr Drummond?’ came the voice of the valet from the hallway. ‘Mr Drummond?’

Drummond blinked himself awake, too, his initial daze turning into panic as soon as he saw Alfred was still there in his bed.

‘Edward…’ Alfred whispered, scared numb.

Drummond raised a finger to his lips. ‘It’s locked,’ he whispered, then loudly at the door he said. ‘What is it, Clarke?’

‘Apologies, sir, but Mr Drummond senior and Mrs Drummond are downstairs waiting for you.’

Drummond’s eyes went wide. ‘M-my parents are here?’ he asked.

‘Yes, sir.’

Alfred truly panicked now, at a loss as to what he could do. The servants staircases were out of the question, he couldn’t waltz down through the main staircase and out the front door without being seen by Edward’s parents, and he couldn’t jump from the window as even if he didn’t break his limbs in the process he would still be landing in front of the sitting room where they would surely still see him fly into the begonias.

‘I’m afraid they are quite impatient, Mr Drummond,’ Clarke said uncharacteristically. He was usually the most patient of valets, the only reason why he would dare to mention this was because Drummond’s parents were probably livid with being kept waiting and expressed this to the servants.

‘Dress. Get dressed,’ Edward uttered quietly, fear striking his every fibre.

They hurried to get dressed, throwing items of clothing to each other in a mad haste, while Edward spoke to his valet.

‘Thank you, Clarke,’ Edward said loudly to the door. ‘Please inform my parents that I shall be down within five minutes.’

‘Shall I draw a bath, sir?’

‘No, no, thank you, I mustn’t keep them waiting.’

‘May the maids come to make the bed?’

Alfred froze as he was buttoning up his waistcoat.

The maids.

They hadn’t thought of them!

‘Uh, yes,’ Edward said, causing Alfred to shout soundlessly at him in outrage. Edward mouthed an apology to him. ‘Just not right now, uh, I am still not fully decent.’

‘Very good sir. I shall send in the maids in five minutes sharp.’

‘Thank you Clarke.’

‘Sir.’

And the valet left.

‘Now what?’ Alfred whispered in panic.

‘Well, hide… it’s only a minute, while they make the bed, you can… you can go… uh…’

There was no directly adjoining room to Edward’s bedchamber, no cabinet the maids wouldn’t want to use, no gap under the bed, and no balcony.

Edward’s gaze was finally caught by the top of the sturdy four poster.

Alfred followed, realising what he was about to ask of him.

‘No.’

Edward looked back at him with pleading eyes.

‘Please, Alfred, my parents are waiting downstairs and the maids will be here in a second.’

‘Absolutely not.’

‘Please. I’ll make it up to you.’

‘God, Edward…’ Alfred rubbed his eyes in frustration. ‘Help me.’

Edward linked his hands so that Alfred could step on them and helped him on top of the four-poster bed. It was so large and tall Alfred could not be seen from there.

‘It’s really quite filthy up here, you know,’ Alfred complained.

‘Shush, my love,’ Edward said, splashing his face with some water and considering himself presentable just in time for the maids to have arrived. He unlocked the door and let them in, making his way downstairs.

Alfred flattened himself against the dusty wood, trying not to move to avoid any creaking. He really hoped the structure would hold him up. There was no way he could explain this away, were he discovered.

‘Not like Mr Drummond to sleep in, is it?’ one of the maids chattered below.

‘No, not really. But I guess he deserves it, working all day.’

‘Well, we work all day, too, but we don’t get to sleep late!’

‘Oh shush, you. My aunt and sister are slaving away day and night for half of my wages! They have to take in extra washing and mending. Compared to them, we have it good.’

‘Not as good as Mr Clarke, we don’t!’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I wouldn’t mind swapping the washing and cleaning to drawing Mr Drummond’s bath!’

‘Oh, Millie!’

And the maids giggled, all overheard by Alfred. Well, he couldn’t exactly argue with their sentiments but he had to bite his lips to prevent actually laughing out loud. But in his distraction, he breathed in a copious amount of dust and had to stifle a sneeze or two, which he just about managed, givign only an awkward gulp.

‘What was that?’ Millie asked.

‘What was what?’

‘Nothing… Old house, probably full of ghosts!'

'Is this new, then?'

'What?'

'This cravat? Don't remember this one.'

Oh damn, Alfred thought up on the bed top. He forgot his cravat on the floor.

'Who knows? You'll have to ask Mr Clarke. Now, come on, we have to make Miss Drummond’s bed too.’

‘Not that she’ll need it, I bet her parents are about to take her away to a convent.’

‘A convent? On the contrary, they’ll be pushing her to marry some gentleman any day now…’

And the maids left.

Oh, so both Edward and Charlotte were downstairs with their parents and by the sound of it they were going to have a difficult time. Well, difficult or not, Alfred wondered just how long it would take as he had to stay there on top of Edward’s dusty bed until Edward returned!

Chapter Text

‘Good morning, Mama!’

Edward just about managed to appear perfectly ordinary by the time he reached the bottom of the main staircase and entered the drawing room where his mother, father, and Charlotte were already sitting with tea.

‘Papa, it’s been a while, how are you?’

‘You kept us waiting,’ Mr Drummond simply remarked, more occupied with testing the temperature of his tea.

‘I apologise, of course,’ Edward said like a good boy. ‘But you did not send us any notice of your visit in advance.’

‘That is no excuse. We should not have to announce our visit in order to be received here.’

‘No,’ Edward said patiently. ‘But I am normally at the House at this time of day.’

‘But you are not there now. You’ve not become one of those Godless, idle, southern aristocrats who play until late in their clubs, sleep until noon, and then do it all over again the next day, have you boy?’

‘Edward was working late last night, Papa,’ Charlotte was quick to cover for him.

‘Nonsense. The debate let off early last night, I read it in the news this morning. When will you learn not to meddle in men’s business?’

‘Charlotte is right, I was working on something late here at home, Papa,’ Edward replied tensely. ‘The Irish are still starving, the cabinet won’t—’

‘It is not politics that we have come to discuss,’ Mrs Drummond interrupted.

‘What, then?’ Edward asked, hoping that their mother would be less unpleasant.

‘As you know, Florence and Arthur’s big day is next month,’ Mrs Drummond spoke with an air of satisfaction. She was talking about the wedding of course – the engagement was announced as early as September, and the knot was going to be tied on New Year’s Eve. This way, everyone would have time to celebrate Christmas with their respective families before the huge gathering that this wedding was promising to be, the perfect send-off for the happy couple and the year 1846. ‘We are traveling home within a couple of hours and will not be returning to London before the wedding. Therefore, we must discuss arrangements now.’

‘Arrangements?’ Charlotte asked, feeling like she was about to hear something she wouldn’t like.

‘You cannot show up without partners…’

‘But Charlotte and I will go together, of course,’ Edward said but to no avail.

‘… and we must know who your guests are now so that we could discuss seating with Florence and Arthur at home.’

Edward and Charlotte shared a tense glance.

‘Surely,’ Charlotte nearly stuttered, ‘like Edward said, we’ll just—’

‘You will not come alone as each other’s chaperones,’ Mrs Drummond stated sternly at once.

‘But Mama,’ Edward tried, ‘as you know, I have given up on the fairer sex for the sake of following the path God has entrusted upon me – Arthur reassured me I was doing the right thing.’

‘I must say your choice of breaking off the engagement still seems rather peculiar to me, Edward,’ Mrs Drummond said humourlessly. ‘But we respect the Lord’s choices. You may come alone if you wish, but there is enough space for another guest that you can bring to the happy occasion. It cannot, however, be Charlotte. She must come with a partner.’

‘But Mama, that’s not fair!’ Charlotte immediately protested.

‘Shush. We have allowed you to live with Edward in the hopes that you can meet eligible bachelors and come to an agreement with one regardless of the end of the season. It is nearing December, Charlotte. How long must you drag it out?’

‘Drag it out?’ Charlotte asked, aghast. ‘As long as it takes, it has only been a couple of months since the last season, it takes a few years for most women and---’

‘You will not make us wait years more.’

‘—why, I might never find the right man at all!’

‘Don’t be ridiculous. It has been years. You have had plenty of chances to pick your own husband. We will not be embarrassed by your insolence. It is time you grew up and realised you have duties.’

‘Duties?’

‘It is well-known, girl, that a woman’s purpose is to marry and give her husband children,’ Mr Drummond spoke up, his voice always sending chills down his children’s spines.

‘I am not a brood-mare.’

‘Shush, girl. Listen to your mother.’

‘Yes, Charlotte,’ Mrs Drummond continued icily. ‘We have allowed you enough time and freedom. You will be twenty-three next year. We have reached the end of our patience. You will find someone to marry by the wedding or we will pick whomever we deem suitable.’

Charlotte’s hands seemed to go numb with fear striking her truly now.

‘Don’t do this, Mama,’ she pleaded.

‘I will if I must,’ Mrs Drummond replied sternly. ‘It is most unseemly for a woman of your age to still be unmarried.’

‘That’s not true,’ Edward tried to speak up. ‘I know women who have done well who have never married—’

‘Edward, we have allowed you to follow your own path, be thankful for that, but you as an unmarried man do not have a say in this business,’ Mrs Drummond rattled, not even looking at Edward properly. So this was how it showed, not during an election, or a debate, but in his own home – this is how Edward’s voice was limited because he was a bachelor. She turned back to Charlotte determinedly: ‘New Year’s Eve. That’s it. Find someone we approve of and we shall begin planning the wedding after this one is done. I should think your engagement can be announced as soon as dear Arthur and Florence have returned from their honeymoon, you mustn’t steal their thunder. Now…’

Mr and Mrs Drummond stood, as intimidating as ever. Edward followed, but not Charlotte. She was frozen and numb from this audience.

‘Charlotte,’ Mrs Drummond scolded her. ‘Say goodbye to your father and I.’

Charlotte, scared she would make things worse, forced herself to stand, give a half-hearted kiss to a father she was terrified of, and a mother she would never forgive for this.

Edward saw their parents out the door. When he returned, Charlotte was still there, thinking, digesting this.

Well, the instructions could not have been clearer.

Find a husband or one would be found for her.

Edward caught her eye, offering help and apologising but it was not his fault and they both knew he was powerless against this, so his voice trailed away and so did hers…

The silence in the drawing room was oppressive.

Her legs took her to the liquor cabinet. She poured herself a glass of Scotch.

‘Are you sure?’ Edward asked, worrying about her. ‘It’s only nine in the mor-’

She shot him a death glare and grabbed a whole bottle of whisky at that.

And trudged upstairs instead.

Edward tentatively followed her.

‘Charlotte,’ he tried gently on the top of the stairs before she left for her quarters. ‘We can find a way out, I will not let them do this. They won’t win this.’

‘They already have.’

Edward wouldn’t believe that. He just wouldn’t. She saw that, and smiled at him sadly. She placed a hand on his shoulder – odd, that: she was comforting him rather than he was her.

Her eyes were drawn to his cravat, slightly askew, and something occurred to her.

‘Is… Is Alfred still here?’

Edward looked as guilty as any child caught with his hands – no, not just hands, but legs, head, everything in the cookie jar!

She walked past Edward without a word, getting an idea.

Edward’s room seemed empty, though.

‘Lord Alfred?’ she called. A creak sounded from… she didn’t really know where. ‘Lord Alfred?’

Alfred peeked over the edge of the bed top.

‘Is the coast clear?’

‘Quite clear,’ Charlotte said, not even asking why he was where he was. She was just happy he was dressed to be fair. ‘Would you come down, please? I have a question to ask you.’

‘Gladly,’ Alfred replied. ‘But I don’t know how.’

‘Alfred,’ Edward said, as he entered the room behind Charlotte. He helped Alfred down, apologising profusely.

‘You did say you would make it up to me,’ Alfred teased but his cheer soon waned as he picked up on the low mood. ‘What have I missed?’

‘Wouldyouwedddme?’ Charlotte stuttered at him.

‘Excuse me?’ Alfred asked politely, hoping to avoid making her even more agitated than she seemed.

‘S-sorry…’ she said, looking for a way to calm down. Realising she was holding an entire bottle of whisky in her hands, she took a swig straight from the bottle and tried again. ‘W-would you, please, come to Arthur and Florence’s wedding with me?’

Edward’s mind was reeling ten steps ahead already.

‘Charlotte, you don’t mean to—’ he asked.

‘No,’ Charlotte stated before this idea could even be properly borne. ‘Just this wedding.’

‘Why, of course I will,’ Alfred replied, still not quite understanding what the fuss was about. ‘Her Majesty shall be in Windsor for Christmas but I’m sure she could spare me after. Why? What? What happened?’

Charlotte couldn’t even begin to explain. She really just needed to be alone. She excused herself and left.

 

Edward was still thinking about Charlotte and their parents and Florence and marriage and all this awful mess when he arrived at the London University College to meet with the Duke of Wellington the next day.

The initial shock of the ultimatum was beginning to wear off. But it was what Alfred said that Edward was still mulling over and over and over.

When Charlotte had left, Edward filled him in on the ghastly meeting with their parents.

Alfred was shattered on her behalf. He wouldn’t listen when Edward reminded him he was still in his evening clothes from the night before, and his cravat was missing, and he should sneak out before the valet returned because he would surely have drawn Edward’s bath and it would still be all awkward to explain away. He wanted to stay until a solution was found.

But how could there have been a solution?

‘Unless…’ Alfred thought aloud, heart pounding in his ears.

‘Unless what?’ Edward asked desperately.

‘Well… Would it be a terribly absurd idea?’ Alfred asked. ‘If we… if Charlotte and I were…’

Edward feared the end of the sentence. But he supplied it all the same:

‘If you married?’

Alfred nodded.

Edward was not so sure about that.

‘Why not?’ Alfred asked. ‘You and I would be family, the closest we could be, legally. We could even live in the same house, all together, or in houses next to each other, and it would be regarded as splendid, everyone would admire the fraternity between us and the good relations between you and your sister, and she could be introduced to circles that she could so benefit from! Remember the first soirée you were invited to, at the Palace? The scientists, the artists, the statesmen – she could be there for these, as my wife! It would be a sensible exchange. A marriage of friendship. Edward, you have found a way out. But what you don’t realise is how my disposition to stay a bachelor is much more apparent to people – if they spend enough time with me, they seem to know. If I married Charlotte, it would get everyone off our backs.’

‘Your parents have never pressured you to marry.’

‘No, not exactly. But all my relatives are married with fourteen children. My parents were married twice! To different people, but…’

‘Alfred,’ Edward stepped closer to his love. ‘You don’t have to do this.’

‘I know,’ Alfred replied, reaching up to cup Edward’s face in his hands, feeling the day-old stubble on his handsome chin, and eyes lingering on his perfect lips, remembering their passionate night before, remembering that there was scarcely anything in this world that he wouldn’t do for the man he loved, and for those important to him. ‘But may I? Would you support it?’

‘If she said yes.’

‘But of course.’

‘Shall I ask her?’

‘No, let her think about it. God knows I must, too. After all, it’s just an idea. But should she find herself in need of help… I will be here.’

 

‘Drummond!’ the Duke of Wellington exclaimed, walking swiftly into the foyer of the college. ‘Have I kept you waiting?’

‘Not at all, Your Grace.’

‘Shall we go in?’

The Duke of Wellington showed Drummond around the college, and they met with the faculty heads for lunch. His role was to be a lecturer on certain areas of politics and law, as someone with impartial experience in the field. He had the freedom to tailor his lessons in a way that would most benefit the students and his skills – after all, the institution was still very young, and they were only in the stages of finding their footing just yet.

On his way out of the restaurant, Edward was once again so lost in his internal debate about what was to happen with Charlotte that he bumped against a man, knocking his hat out of his hand.

He fumbled to pick it up off the carpeted floor and hand it back to him.

‘I do apologise—‘ Edward nearly gulped when he saw him. ‘Captain.’

William was just as surprised. He accepted his top hat slowly, as if he was slightly offended that Drummond had touched it. But he put on his trademark winning grin.

‘What a lovely coincidence,’ he said to Edward smoothly. ‘It’s been ages since I’ve clapped eyes on your most pleasant sight, Mr Drummond.’

‘There’s no need for this,’ Edward said quietly but firmly. ‘I know what you did to Alfred. It was vile. He was terribly offended. I should like to call you out on a duel if I weren’t opposed to sinking to your level of disrespect, Sir.’

‘Then you must also know I mean to apologise to him.’

‘You will do nothing that involves him, ever again. I shall not let you near him.’

‘Oh? You’ve changed your tune. It’s you guarding him like a dog now, not the other way round? I hope you are just as versatile in your private life – keeps things interesting, doesn’t it?’

‘You can talk, it has no effect on me whatsoever,’ Edward said and for once he was honest. He had bigger problems than an insolent cad.

But, God, was he atrociously annoying!

‘It is not you with whom I wish to speak. It is with Alfred. Alas, he hasn’t been willing to allow me the slightest chance.’

‘When are you sailing away again?’

‘I’m not certain. Perhaps I shall stay until he lets me speak to him.’

‘Then you might as well gather your crew now, Captain, as that will never happen.’

‘Then I shall never leave.’

Edward was seething. He was most shocked at his own behaviour – Peel could just get under his skin like no other! Maybe he had insecurities, but he did not think so – he knew Alfred loved him and that he did not love William. But the fact that there was someone orbiting Alfred like a fly you just can’t swat away for good – he had to put an end to it, as Alfred’s… well, common-law husband, really, if he could find any just word for it in his many law books. It was only right.

‘What do you want?’

William smiled ever wider.

‘I want to talk to Alfred. Two hours. Privately.’

‘Five minutes. Supervised.’

‘One hour. Privately. On my ship.’

‘Ten minutes, in a private room at a restaurant.’

‘One hour. Privately. In my rooms.’

‘Five minutes, right now, my fist against your complexion, sir,’ Edward spat, most appalled at himself.

‘Those are my final terms, Mr Drummond.’

‘No.’

‘Well then, I shall not ask your permission at all,’ William replied, acting nonchalant but he could have broken something in his desperation, starting with Drummond’s nose. ‘Unless… I am a fair man, Mr Drummond. And I like to have fun. How about a competition?’

‘A competition?’

‘Precisely. If you win, I shall leave you and Alfred alone for good. You will never hear from me, not by my doing, unless you contact me one day to ask where the best restaurants are to be found in Bombay. If I win, I get to spend an hour with Alfred alone, in the privacy of my quarters, on my ship, unsupervised, for the purposes of talking. Of course, if Alfred has the fancy for some other activities, I shall not be accountable.’

‘How shall we do it?’

‘I heard you were good at rowing?’

‘I am.’

‘Splendid. So am I.’

‘Where did you learn?’

‘At sea. You?’

‘At university.’

William smiled in the cockiest fashion yet.

‘So, Mr Drummond,’ he said offering his hand, ‘Do we have a deal?’

Chapter Text

Edward was pushing his food around the plate at lunch.

Alfred had meant to brighten up his day, he hoped he would be delighted to be surprised. He was also quite tired of the Palace. The weather was unkind, grey, windy, always raining, and it made its mark on the mood of the courtiers and ladies of the bedchamber, and most especially the Queen, who seemed to be in a particularly argumentative spirit.

Besides, Alfred could not bear the shaming looks he got from the Duchess of Buccleuch, who was already packed and about to leave the court, and the gloomy Miss Coke he could not console, he didn’t know why. When he thought about Charlotte’s situation, Alfred found it difficult to have sympathy for Wilhelmina, and much less for the endless funeral songs she played on the grand piano.

So he backed right out of the room when he found Victoria in the midst of a marital quarrel with the Prince, and had come to Edward’s college to steal him away to dine after his lectures. He stole into the College and wandered the wood-panelled halls until he found a doorway to spy a little on the charismatic Professor Drummond in his element, talking about precedence law.

‘Sir,’ one student raised his hand. ‘Could you tell us an example of this?’

‘Why, of course, um…’ Drummond scanned his notes. ‘How about 1597, the—’

‘But isn’t your case a perfect example, Professor Drummond?’ another student piped up.

‘But it isn’t pertaining to completed manslaughter or murder,’ the other student objected as if he wasn’t talking about his teacher’s death by bullet right in front of him.

‘No, but it is to do with insanity. And it’s more recent.’

The dozen or so boys, about 18 or 19 years old as Alfred observed, were all looking up at Drummond expectantly.

‘Right you are, Mr Howard,’ he gave in, feeling slightly like a famed actor in a gossip column of a paper.

And, though uncomfortable at the memories of Drummond’s near death experience in the summer, Alfred had the chance to watch him explain with masterful expertise the procedure behind his case, or rather that against the shooter M’Naghten.

He had to go to court only once, while still recovering. It infuriated Alfred far more than anyone that Drummond’s famously good character was not an argument in favour of a heavier sentence but the key to let off the assassin, basically, on grounds of insanity, for the first time in history. The defence had come prepared, as if they had been waiting for a case to use to push their agenda. Not even the testimony of the outgoing PM Sir Robert Peel, whose popularity had suffered in the aftermath of the Corn Laws, could alter the verdict.

‘Don’t you want to appeal, Professor?’ asked a student when he was done explaining.

‘No, Mr Spencer. In fact, I am rather relieved about the outcome.’

The students broke out in general outrage and confusion.

‘Please, gentlemen, order, order…’ he called until the students quietened.

‘But sir, why would you say that?’

‘I am not revengeful,’ Drummond replied simply and honestly. ‘Besides, I wasn’t badly hurt in the end. If the court and the experts say the man is a lunatic, I shall respect their decision. As must we all – the law is the law.’

‘The law is not sacred, Sir,’ Spencer threw in.

‘Bold statement. Please elaborate,’ Drummond said encouragingly, a teaching moment presenting itself.

‘I merely mean to say that the laws of the land are in constant evolution. We laugh at laws in place 500 years ago that were absolutely serious at the time. Surely we must have laws in place today that shall be laughed at in the next century. And so they should be.’

‘I take it you are a progressive, Mr Spencer?’

‘Perhaps I am,’ the student replied with defiance but not a hostile kind. In fact, Alfred seemed to notice a glint in his eyes as he kept his gaze upon the handsome professor that reminded him of himself as a youth…

 

‘Professor Drummond,’ Alfred said once the lecture hall cleared out and he could step in.

‘A—Lord Alfred!’ Edward exclaimed, looking up from his books, which he was placing in one pile on the desk. ‘How come…?’

‘I thought I’d lunch with you after a long and tiring day… That is if you permit, Sir.’

Edward blushed crimson red at once at the way Alfred purred.

‘Sorry,’ a voice came from the doorway. It was that Spencer kid, strutting back into the classroom with the haughty confidence of boys his class and age. ‘I seem to have left my notebook here.’

Alfred and Edward waited for Spencer to leave, which he did slowly, not without his eyes lingering wistfully at his new dashing professor, as Alfred saw doubtlessly this time.

‘Well, you seem well-received here. Very well indeed…’ he commented, amused by the situation.

‘What do you mean?’ Drummond asked, everything about this going right over his head.

Alfred laughed. ‘Nothing. Come on, I’m starving.’

 

But by the time they’d sat down to lunch, it became obvious that Edward was preoccupied with something.

And Alfred guessed at what was troubling him so.

‘How is she?’ he asked and Edward’s heart sank ever deeper as he remembered his morning.

 

‘Charlotte, you need to eat something.’

The bundle of blankets did not move.

Yet another morning making Edward feel like a father babying a child… no, that wasn’t right, he scolded himself. Charlotte wasn’t throwing an unreasonable fit. Her behaviour was absolutely justified. In fact, Edward had never felt such resentment against their parents, perhaps only when his own engagement was hanging ever lower in the air.

But all the same, Edward felt helpless. She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t getting dressed, she wasn’t reading, and she certainly wasn’t socializing. By the looks of it, she had taken to picking drinking and smoking as her sole sustenance, not even hiding it from the housemaids anymore. Housemaids, yes, as she fired her third lady’s maid by throwing a slipper at her and shouting at her when he wouldn’t leave Charlotte alone to mope in bed. Edward compensated the poor girl with two month’s wages for the day and a half she lasted.

Well, Charlotte wasn’t exactly going to find a husband at such short notice this way. But Edward supposed she did not mean to. That was understandable, and he was still thinking about ways to escape this, not accepting that this was a real prospect that was about to happen, but the clock was ticking and if she didn’t find one in time their parents would pick a man and something told Edward that was going to be worse for her.

And it wasn’t as if he could afford to sit in Charlotte’s room trying to coax her out of bed while her porridge and tea on the bedside table went cold.

‘Charlotte, I must leave now. I cannot be late from the college.’

He reached for what he assumed was his sister’s shoulder under the thick covers but decided against it, and left for work.

 

Alfred set down his fork and knife as he listened to this over lunch.

‘Edward, have you told her about… the idea that…’

‘That you would marry her?’ Edward asked, anxious again. ‘No.’

‘Perhaps it would help to know that if all else fails she would not end up with someone like…’ Alfred could not help his eyes wander over to a nearby table where a big bellied man well into his 50s was sitting with who was evidently his wife, who could have been 20 years his junior and as silent and humourless as a piece of wood. ‘With someone who wouldn’t be sympathetic,’ Alfred phrased elegantly in the end.

‘Perhaps. But you try talking to her.’

‘Perhaps you should be more…’

‘Forceful? That’s the last thing she needs.’

‘Just talk to her.’

‘Maybe you should.’

‘Maybe I will, actually.’

‘You’re welcome to try. I cannot seem to find a way…’ Edward was saying when a messenger appeared at his side.

‘Apologies, sir,’ the boy said, handing a folded note to Drummond. ‘Captain Peel would like you to pick the time and date. There are three choices listed here, he’s awaiting your choice with return message with immediate effect.’

Alfred hardly comprehended this at first.

He looked, no, glared up at Edward, absolutely flabbergasted.

‘Captain Peel wants what from you?’ he couldn’t help blurting out, almost choking on his mouthful of roast potato.

Edward hoped he would not have to tell Alfred like this (or at all, in the event he won) but there was no saving face now.

He quickly circled one of the dates on the note and sent the messenger boy back with the answer.

‘What did you do?’ Alfred whispered dangerously through gritted teeth. ‘What are you up to, Edward?’

‘Don’t… don’t be cross but… I had the misfortune to run into Peel the other day and… he was being his usual irritating self and… I had to defend your honour and… I saw an opportunity to get rid of his antics and…’

‘Edward?’

Edward explained rapidly about the deal.

Alfred’s mouth was agape and the champagne glass in his hand seemed ready to break in his bare hand any second if he had grasped it any tighter.

‘You saw fit to gamble with my time without telling me, with… with… Oh!’ Alfred could not take this and stood.

‘No, Alfred, please, I’m sorry, no, stay…’

‘I find that I am not hungry,’ Alfred threw this back at Edward and stormed out of the restaurant.

He knew exactly where he was headed, too. If Edward thought Alfred needed saving, he would have to see that Alfred can do saving quite well on his own.

 

‘Miss Drummond,’ one of the housemaids said timidly. ‘Your tea, Miss.’

Charlotte was buried in her bedsheets but she could hear the sounds of yet another plate of untouched food being taken away and a tray of tea replacing it.

‘Would you like a bath drawn, Miss?’

Charlotte wanted to answer but she could not physically manage it. The maid left politely.

A bath, Miss.

Miss.

Miss, a bath.

A bath.

As if her thoughts weren’t already driving her mad day and night, now she was reminded of yet more bittersweet memories.

It was true, she had been isolated in her youth, with not many opportunities to be around other girls. Nevertheless, as a precautious child, and after that most enlightening afternoon seeing women at the stream, she had developed a fascination with the female form. She would collect albums with miniatures of Botticelli’s works, and those of Titian, Velázquez, Ingres… and she would copy them. She would burn most of these sketches, of course. Though not all of them. She didn’t have the heart to. Her weakness was beauty and it felt wrong to destroy it.

She would learn about the great masters painting self-portraits and wished she could do that when the light allowed for it. Her Mama would often reprimand her for reading after dark as the fire would strain her eyes, she said. But upon reading about Rembrandt she began to appreciate working by candle light under cover of the night. When she felt particularly daring she would sit at her mirror and slide her nightgown off her shoulders and draw her own form.

She explained it to herself by saying she was simply doing what the greatest artists, men, had been doing for centuries. Then, she thought it was simply a natural fascination with herself, and didn’t everybody feel that way? But eventually, as she discovered what her body is really capable of, she could not deny that it wasn’t art, it wasn’t herself that moved her so. It was women.

Her first lover was a housemaid in London.

It was her first season, she had just debuted at the age of 16, she remembered. After quiet, remote Scotland, London was exhilarating, and she felt most comfortable when her brothers, particularly Edward, could come down after their terms at school or university to join her. Their parents’ attention was largely used up by her brothers, allowing her some peace.

Her heart was pounding not when she was among mixed company in ballrooms or at dinner but before dances when her lady friends sweetly made sure her bows were standing straight, and after dinners when the women could withdraw on their own while the men smoked their cigars. Those fine young women made male company endlessly dull in comparison. How could she listen to her Mama when she pointed out eligible gentlemen often ten or more years older than her when all she could think about was that her fellow debutant Elizabeth’s pearl necklace was off-centre and the thrill of whispering in her ear to tell her and helping her most discreetly to fix it, hand brushing against her porcelain skin, close enough to feel her perfume…

Before Elizabeth was asked to dance with someone.

It wasn’t just the ladies in drawing rooms either. Even when they were alone in their London house, she would catch herself staring at a particular housemaid, who looked like no one Charlotte had ever seen before. Her skin was golden brown, her eyes a vivid green, with yellow specs as the light hit them, her lips fuller than any woman’s in her treasured paintings that she had finally seen in galleries in the flesh. She was scolded by her Mama for losing track of many a conversation or dropping a thread when sewing or knitting or whatever she was supposed to be doing because she was too busy wondering what it felt like to kiss those lips.

She emerged from the hot water for air. She had been out riding with Edward (winning every race of course – she hoped he wasn’t letting her win but he knew she would get so cross if she found out she doubted it) and her Papa sent them upstairs immediately to get clean and mud-free before they were due at some dinner at a family with no doubt yet more unremarkable but marriageable boys.

Her hair was just a wild mess always, no matter how she tried to tame it, and there was no other way to wash it than by submerging into the tub fully.

But when she sat up and wiped the water out of her eyes, she saw she wasn’t alone.

She hated this. Housemaids in London were going in and out of rooms without knocking. They would flatten themselves against walls, turn towards corners, but she could never learn to pretend they weren’t there or that they weren’t people to notice. She covered herself, waiting for the girl to leave.

But she wouldn’t. In fact, when she turned around, Charlotte saw she was that housemaid she had grown to absolutely admire in secret.

‘More hot water, Miss?’ the housemaid asked with a slight accent.

‘N-no, thank you,’ Charlotte stuttered. ‘Only, um… could you perhaps pass me the brush? Just over there.’

‘This one?’ the maid asked, holding up a hairbrush.

‘Yes, please.’

Charlotte accepted the brush, feeling stupid for covering herself in the water but she couldn’t help it. She was somehow uncomfortable but not in a bad way. She started brushing her hair while the maid was folding towels.

‘Ouch…’ Charlotte hissed, as her curls were just not cooperating. How she wished it grew straight like normal people’s or that she could cut it short like Edward’s! He didn’t have to struggle quite so hard!

‘Let me help, Miss,’ the maid said kindly and came over to help. She combed Charlotte’s curls gently and patiently while she was still sitting in the steaming bath.

‘Are you well, Miss Drummond? Only, you are shaking like a leaf.’

‘I’m fine, thank you.’

‘Perhaps it’s the strain of the corset what’s making you...’ she couldn’t find the right word.

‘I do not particularly believe…’

But the maid began massaging Charlotte’s shoulders and back. She would be lying if she said it occurred to her to tell her to stop. She was taking it gladly, trying not to show just how excited she felt to be touched like so.

‘You should not hide,’ the maid said, far too close to Charlotte’s ear, making her gasp. ‘You are very beautiful.’

‘I… I feel I must.’

‘No. Not with me.’

Charlotte made the mistake of glancing at her, eyes drawn to those lips, giving away exactly what she was thinking…

Her first kiss. It went straight to her chest like a lightning bolt.

Then, as she felt her tongue against hers, other sensations went right down to where she most ached to be touched. The maid – Alicia, as she later learned, from Spain – obliged expertly. She taught her everything, not only about pleasures she never thought she could feel with another but that she wasn’t alone.

And also that the world was going to be cruel to her. Charlotte pleaded so but at the end of the season, Alicia wouldn’t go to Scotland with the family. So they bid farewell. Not even that. She had nothing to show for it, not even a lock of hair, nothing. In fact, she was fairly sure Alicia had taken her hairbrush.

As she was lying there years later in Edward’s house, in her self-exile from the outside world, she wildly thought she would get up, steal a housemaid’s garments and try to find Alicia if she was still in London and they would run away together, somewhere abroad, to Spain, wherever. Escape this gloomy, grey city, where the cold seemed to bite into one’s bones even indoors.

But what a foolish thought! She didn’t actually have anyone’s heart, no one would do such a thing for her.

Then, inexplicably, she thought of Tommy. From Fife. The end of the bloody world and then some miles farther.

She wanted to be loved. Well, he did love her. Or so he said. What a ridiculous notion – he hardly knew her. Her real self not at all.

She had tried to put the whole thing out of her mind, hoping he would forget her. But now she forced herself to reconsider him. She had to admit he wasn’t a terribly awful person at all. In fact, he was all in all a very lovely chap, polite, funny… But he loved her. Surely he would expect her to be a real wife. And he was Agnes’s brother. Marrying her would be subscribing to a lifetime of seeing Agnes at family gatherings and she wasn’t sure she could handle that.

She imagined what that would be like. Really. Whether she had the constitution to perform such an act. She tried to imagine walking down the aisle, saying her vows, kissing him in front of all their relatives, in front of Agnes, all without giving into the urge to run the other way.

She imagined the castle she would live in, the grounds she could explore, she knew that they would often see plays when in London as they shared a love of Shakespeare even though most of their acquaintances disapproved.

She thought about whether Tommy would ever prohibit her from any of her beloved pastimes or withhold her allowance if she disobeyed or displeased him in any way. She didn’t think so, Tommy seemed like a kind man but… There was no telling if a man’s character in public matched that behind closed doors. If only he didn’t love her… She knew love could turn the best of souls into the most monstrous fools at the best of times.

And she couldn’t help it, she thought about whether she had the nerve to go through with it all, properly. The more delicate aspects. What if it wasn’t so bad? Maybe he was caring. Maybe he wouldn’t be demanding. Maybe it would get easier with time. But… still… She tried to ignore the immense discomfort at the idea of him in her bed… until she conceived…

Charlotte had to get out of bed, splash her face with cold water, and shake those thoughts away.

It all had seemed such a distant prospect, as if that day could never come. But now she was forced to think about it, she didn’t know whether she was more terrified of the idea of something as dangerous as childbirth or the act required to bring it about. She felt as if she hadn’t done anything with her life, she hadn’t seen nearly enough of the world as she wanted to – to think it might end soon, figuratively with her marriage and literally if something about childbearing went wrong…

She did not even understand why all this had come as such a surprise. It wasn’t one. Only, she had been able to put it off thus far. Alas, just because she could ignore a problem that did not mean it was not there.

She vaguely registered noises downstairs. It must have been Edward, though it was unusually early for him to be home. He usually did not return midday.

But soon, she heard a knock on the door and a housemaid informed her Lord Alfred had come to call on her.

‘On me?’ Charlotte asked. ‘Not Mr Drummond?’

‘No, Miss Drummond, Lord Alfred means to see you,’ the maid answered. ‘Shall I tell him to call another time?’

Charlotte looked at her reflection in the looking glass. She looked like she felt.

‘N…no… but could he wait? Could you…’

‘A bath? Right away, Miss.’

 

‘Sorry to have kept you waiting, Lord Alfred,‘ she began when she entered the drawing room a quarter of an hour later, clean, her hair not tamed but giving the illusion of being sedated at least, but Alfred stood and held up a hand.

‘No need. Drummond’s told me about the ghastly situation. Please…’ he said, and they sat.

They both glanced at the footman serving tea and staying standing in the doorway. Of course, they could not be allowed to talk unchaperoned when it was just the two of them. Edward wasn’t really a chaperone – in fact, unbeknownst to others, she was chaperoning them in that setup – and they could talk freely and informally when they were all together, but not now.

‘Edward is probably at the House if you’re looking for him.’

‘No, I am just coming from lunch with him,’ Alfred said, obviously melancholy.

‘Did he not see you here?’ Charlotte asked, sensing this was strange at once.

‘No, I… I am afraid I left abruptly.’

‘Why?’

Alfred didn’t think it wise to add to her troubles by worrying about Edward doing stupid, stupid things, such as falling into William’s clever traps, the naïve, beautiful, stupid, brave, gallant, reckless man Edward was!

‘It is of no matter, really,’ was what Alfred said instead of his raging feelings. ‘Just a simple case of miscommunication. But it is not that that I have come to discuss. I worry about you, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte shot him a look. ‘It is not your responsibility to do so.’

‘No, it’s not. But what if it were?’

Charlotte frowned at him questioningly.

‘You have met my parents, Miss Drummond,’ Alfred began to explain carefully. ‘Did you find them happy?’

‘Theirs appears to be the happiest of marriages, Lord Alfred.’

‘And so it is,’ he smiled fondly. ‘I am lucky. I had not known them before.’

‘Before…?’

‘Their divorces. Papa has many stories from his youth, some set in gilded ballrooms, some in haystacks… Mama, no so. She was married to a man she did not love like she loves Lord Anglesey. She tried to brush it off, a problem on which she thought she could turn a blind eye. She was a mother of many by that time already. And he wasn’t cruel, Baron Cowley is the Duke of Wellington’s brother. But in the end, her feelings alone moved mountains.’

Alfred stopped to drink some tea here. He had precisely one conversation about this, with his maternal half-sister the Hon. Charlotte Arbuthnot Wellesley at his oldest full sister Lady Emily Paget’s wedding, and that was enough to swear he would never be like his mother, he would never marry for convenience, and if he could help it he wouldn’t allow his sisters or friends to fall into that often tortuous trap. He had saved one Drummond from an unhappy marriage… perhaps he could another.

‘She is happy now, and she was as soon as she could be with Papa, despite the scandal and the hiding and all that followed, as I’m sure you can imagine. But she still wears the scars from that former time. So she will forever. She has known what it’s like to do one’s duty while her heart wasn’t in it. Let me not speak more bluntly, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte had to look away. Why was he telling her this now?! She could not even face listening to this – how would she face the real thing?

‘She does not regret it for she loves her children – all of them. She did not give up on her future after all, against the odds. I am sure she would advise you to think carefully about your choices in the present if she were here.’

‘Choices, Lord Alfred? What choices? I don’t have any!’

‘Then let me present you with one,’ Alfred said seriously. He glanced at the servants in the room, trying to convey without words to her that he was going to be speaking in riddles and smiled to himself. ‘If you married me, we would be as true as Captain Peel’s words of honour. I would love you as a friend but I would love you with romance as much as I know you love that swan brooch your Mama gave you. And I would give you as many children as I could give the love of my life. Does that sound at all agreeable to you?’

Charlotte understood exactly what he meant. But the offer itself – she was rather touched by it as a friendly gesture the magnitude of which no one had ever shown her. But, like Edward, she had her doubts.

‘Lord Alfred…’ she said, thinking about it. ‘But… it is such a commitment.’

‘It is. And you do not have to give me an answer presently. But I had to come and let you know: it is an answer. Should you be out of cards… use me.’

Charlotte understood and they could not say more in front of the servants. She nodded and Alfred stood to leave. She saw him out in silence.

‘Alfred,’ she stopped him outside the front door – the chilling icy rain was heavier and heavier but at least it drowned out her voice even from the short distance where the footman stood in the foyer inside. ‘Thank you.’

‘Not at all.’

‘But… Alfred, as much as that would be a solution to my woes…’

‘Not only to yours. I could benefit from a wife, too. I’m afraid I can’t help giving myself away.’

‘It’s not so apparent.’

‘Apparent enough… You noticed when we had barely met.’

‘That was only because you wouldn’t stop fussing about Edward even though he was perfectly healthy.’

Alfred laughed fondly, thinking back to that time. How he loved Edward, and how that love had only grown stronger and stronger since then!

‘What were you arguing about?’ Charlotte asked.

‘We weren’t arguing…’ he replied, earning a justly sceptical look from her. ‘He does get me so emotional, that’s true.’

‘You love him.’

‘I do, Charlotte. I do,’ Alfred said from the bottom of his heart, ashamed now at his behaviour at the restaurant.

‘Alfred, I have watched the two of you with envy. As you know, you have something I have not been lucky enough to come near. And I can’t imagine that anything would ever happen that could seriously damage what you have but… if… if you and Edward no longer wished to see each other, you would still be stuck married to me.’

Alfred admitted to himself that not even the beginnings of this train of thought had occurred to him in the slightest.

He understood that this step would be a commitment to Edward far more than one to Charlotte on paper. And he found he wanted it. He wanted it with every fibre of his being, damn their inconsequential little quarrel over lunch. He wanted to tie his life to Edward, even if that was impossible. It wasn’t against the law to feel it, though.

‘Then I must do all I can do in my power not to let anything of the sort happen,’ he replied kindly. ‘You should get inside before you get drenched to the bone. Could you perhaps just tell Edward to send me the time and place?’

‘Time and place? Of what?’

‘He’ll know.’

 

It would have been an understatement to say that the rain had not quite let up by the time the rowing race had arrived. In fact, it was looking far worse. Anyone would have been mad to be outdoors in this hellish storm…

‘You’re not thinking clearly, Edward!’ Alfred still pleaded on the way to the location.

Drummond and Peel were going to race in canoes on the Hampstead Ponds.

In the pouring December rain and storm. Provided the water wasn’t frozen over.

Though by the looks of it, as they saw stumbling across the muddy grass, it wasn’t.

‘I cannot and shall not forfeit, Alfred,’ Edward said for the hundredth time as they marched towards the agreed upon meeting place on foot, wondering why he was bothering with his umbrella as it was no use in this wind anyway.

‘I wouldn’t care, I wouldn’t think any less of you.’

‘But it’s a deal now! If I forfeit, he can claim your time. I won’t allow that.’

‘He can claim it, I won’t give it!’

‘You would make a dishonest man out of me?’

‘No, that’s not what I… God, Edward! I’m not some damsel in distress!’

‘I know you’re not a…’

‘Then let me fight my own battles!’

Drummond stopped abruptly and looked up at Alfred with eyes resembling a hurt puppy.

‘Can’t I be your gallant knight-at-arms without you being a damsel in distress?’

Alfred’s heart felt funny. It was alive with warm pain, or painful warmth, or something akin to that.

‘It is very gallant of you… I just have a bad feeling about this,’ Alfred tried again to stop this nonsense.

Drummond started walking with determination again, Alfred trying to keep up.

‘I’m sorry, Alfred, I know it was unthinking of me to agree to the race at all but, I admit I would like an opportunity to put him in his place, and I could not stand there not doing anything to defend you.’

‘As you couldn’t when you jumped in front of the bullet aimed at Sir Robert?!’

‘Something like that…’

‘Have you learnt nothing?!’

‘On the contrary, Alfred. This proposition made me realise just how much you mean to me all the more. I would be expected to do this for my lawful spouse, would I not? Well.’

‘But… Edward…’ Alfred tried to ignore how absolutely sweet that sentiment was. ‘Why rowing?’

‘You don’t believe I could win?!’

‘He’s a sailor, Edward!’

‘Thank you for the vote of confidence, my love!’

‘No, I… I think you COULD win, but Edward, never mind the race, you’ll catch your death out here in this doomsday weather!’

A deafening thunder sounded, distracting the pair of them.

‘Ah, Mr Drummond!’ William called merrily.

When Drummond and Alfred turned and squinted through the blinding rainfall, they could see he was waiting for them on bank of the pond, having discarded of his own umbrella if he had one at all. Probably not, by the looks of it: he rather seemed to enjoy this ghastly rain and storm, as if he had come home.

‘Captain,’ Drummond greeted stiffly.

‘Alfred, glad to see you’ve come to see me win,’ William said, shaking his dark hair in the rain like a dog enjoying a summer shower.

‘You could call it off,’ Alfred shouted through the rain. ‘Or do it on another day if you must!’

‘Why?’ William asked, faking coyness. ‘Oh! The rain? Why, this is nothing! I’ve seen a lot worse, particularly near Ceylon. Oh, you’re asking because of Mr Drummond, aren’t you? How silly of me! I presume his university would have rescheduled but you can’t do that at sea. Well, Mr Drummond, would you like to postpone our match?’

Obviously, Edward could not. It would have been incredibly cowardly and weak.

‘No, the sooner I have secured Alfred’s peace from you, sir, the better.’

Edward handed Alfred their shared umbrella.

‘I procured these canoes for us if that’s alright. I have not tempered with them,’ William added when Alfred opened his mouth to argue. ‘You’re free to pick either of them, Mr Drummond.’

‘Must you really do this?’ Alfred asked Edward before he went down to the bank, grabbing his shoulder, desperation coming over him.

‘You could agree to humour me for a conversation now, darling,’ William offered, shaking his wet curls out of his eyes again and flashing a winning smile at Alfred.

‘In your dreams, William.’

‘Oh, yes, you in my dreams, that’s a frequent occurrence. Though we hardly waste time on talking.’

‘I want to do this, Alfred,’ Edward said just to Alfred’s ears. ‘For you.’

Alfred realised he had lost. Checking that no one else was around (not that anyone could have seen through the rainfall from a distance), and that William was watching them, he grabbed Edward by the collar and kissed him with such passion it would bring colour to anyone’s cheeks.

William rolled his eyes, if not for the sake of expressing his natural sentiments, in order to look anywhere else but there. He could not deny it, it hurt to see it.

Edward swayed from the impact of the kiss, then, marched past William almost smugly, and got into one of the canoes.

And as soon as Alfred reached the designated finish point on foot, Edward, driven by his love for Alfred, and William, powered by his jealousy lit anew, began the race across the pond.

Alfred could not believe he had let this idiocy actually happen. Shivering and wishing for it to be over soon, he watched from his vantage point as Edward and William seemed to race neck and neck. He knew Edward was an exceptional rower but William had been practically living at sea since he was as young as thirteen! Surely anything like this would have been in the bag for him…

Yet Alfred could not help rooting for his beloved Edward. It wasn’t that he was fearing William – perhaps he was even regretting not having allowed him the curtesy of a simple conversation in a carriage ride home not that long ago… The worst that could happen was that he would be stuck arguing with William about that humiliating joke he played on him for a full hour. But it was about honour for Edward, and though Alfred would never have admitted to liking anything about this stupid idea, he was quite touched by this truly gallant, knightly behaviour of Edward’s.

He couldn’t see through the rain very clearly but he could have sworn Edward was just a foot ahead of William, when---

A lighting struck into an ancient willow tree on the lake's bank right next to the men, knifing it into two, and causing it to land in the lake, right on Edward’s canoe.

Alfred saw how within a flash, Edward was hit and turned upside down, the mighty weight of the tree submerging him under the tempestuous water.

Alfred ran over there as fast as he could. By the time he reached the scene, William had noticed everything amiss, and dived under water at once.

By the time he dragged Drummond to the bank his body was unmoving and seemingly lifeless.

‘Edward!’ Alfred appeared there in a flash, dragging and shaking Edward. He could see a bloody gush on his forehead. ‘Edward!?’

‘Alfr—ALFRED, STOP,’ William commanded, heaving and panting himself, shoving Alfred aside so that he could turn Drummond on the side to let out water he swallowed before laying him on his back again, tilting his head back, pinching his nose, and breathing strongly into his mouth four times. He stopped to listen to signs of breathing.

Alfred was outraged at everything about this but William fought him off with one strong arm again when he tried to interfere. This was not a moment to fuss and fight! Every second counted.

Thankfully, Alfred seemed to understand that as William knew what he was doing, having been in the navy since he was basically a child.

He blew into Drummond’s mouth four more times and listened. Alfred watched, terrified, waiting.

‘God…’ William muttered, and positioned himself right to press rhythmically on Drummond’s chest thirty times.

Four more breaths through his mouth.

Listen.

Four more.

Nothing…

Just as William went to try again, Drummond came to, coughing up a generous amount of water, clambering on his side and heaving until he could finally breathe again.

‘Edward, my love,’ Alfred sobbed, crawling closer in the mud, patting his back to get it all out, kissing his bloody, dripping wet forehead, thanking the heavens. ‘My love…’

William, though he was still keeping Drummond in place so as to help him catch his breath, was watching Alfred. The fear, the devotion, the love in his eyes were unmissable. He didn’t know what hurt so much about it exactly: Alfred looking at Drummond with those feelings, or the fact that no one ever looked at him like that.

‘Careful, Alfred, people can see—’ William said in an uncharacteristically gentle voice, fearing someone (probably only policemen in this weather) might be wondering around there and see this even through the thick rainfall, but Alfred shot him a death glare.

‘Oh, shut up, William.’

‘That’s an odd way to say thank you.’

‘Thank you?!’

‘Oh, sorry, next time I’ll just let Drummond drown!’

‘If you just hadn’t insisted on this stupid race—’

‘If you had just agreed to hear me out—’

‘Oh, just go away, William. Just go. Leave us in peace.’

William felt as if he had been slapped in the face. He stood and left as told by an utterly thankless Alfred who had no eyes for anyone but Drummond, who would be dead if it weren’t for him, William.

Understanding he had no place here, he set out to do just that: leave.

Chapter Text

‘How is Mr Drummond?’ the housekeeper asked downstairs at Drummond’s house.

‘Physically, he’s alright,’ said the housemaid who had just returned from the drawing room as if she had left a battlefield. ‘But I believe he may find his sister will put him in the time out corner!’

 

‘What were you thinking?!’ Charlotte asked for the dozenth time upstairs.

They were back in the Drummond house, gathered around the fire. The journey home was not the fastest but they paid the cab driver well for chauffeuring them across London in this apocalyptic weather. Alfred insisted on the servants taking care of Edward, disregarding the fact that he was still wearing his own soaked clothes, mud up to his knees, up to his elbows, but that was nothing compared to his nerves!

Alfred had thanked the maid and told her she could leave them now.

Shamefaced in his armchair by the fire, Edward sniffed and drank more of his blissfully hot tea.

‘I mean… what WERE you thinking?!’ she asked. Her anger was such that she slightly sounded like the common Scottish folk. And she rounded on Alfred, too, who was fussing with the blanket around Edward. ‘And you! How could you let this happen? And without telling me?’

‘Believe me, I tried to stop this nonsense,’ Alfred said, still awfully shaken up.

‘Well, you should have tried harder!’

‘Stop, please, it’s not Alfred’s fault,’ Edward said after a hearty sneeze.

‘Right you are, it is not!’ she said, scolding him some more. ‘Honestly, why, Edward, WHY?’

‘I had to defend Alfred—’

‘I daresay Lord Alfred can defend himself perfectly fine.’

‘I could not forfeit! You didn’t see how he was taunting us… and the way he looked at Alfred…’

‘Oh, really, Edward, it’s not like you to— you know what, I can’t… I’ll just…’

And she put up her hands as if in defeat, tutted, and stormed upstairs to go back to bed and be away from this most foolish company.

Alfred joined Edward by the fire, sitting on the armrest and fussing with the blanket again.

‘I’m sorry…’ Edward began.

‘No… no need… you just rest now.’

Edward caught Alfred’s hand to stop him from fumbling with the blanket unnecessarily. He held it warmly, hoping to calm Alfred seeing as he was still in such a state. The scar on Edward’s forehead was smaller than it seemed when it was fresh, though. It was but a small cut near his hairline. But it was enough to knock him out, causing him to almost drown…

Alfred ran his free hand through Edward’s loose and unstyled curls that were still drying. Edward was just beautiful, inside and out and so gallant and brave and he didn’t know what he would do without him.

He couldn’t hold back a sob.

‘Alfred?’ Edward asked, looking up at him.

‘That’s the second time I’ve almost lost you. Edward…’ Alfred uttered in staccato from the tears and kissed him.

‘I’ve got nine lives, fear not,’ Edward whispered sweetly but he knew Alfred wouldn’t like it if he made light of the situation.

‘Are you a cat now? Or an actual angel? Could you at least wait a full year before the next time you nearly meet your maker?’ Alfred tried to pick up the joke but his tears wouldn’t let him succeed. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t… Oh Edward… Don’t leave me alone in this world.’

Edward’s heart ached at this. He held Alfred close.

‘I’m really sorry, Alfred. It will not happen again.’

‘I should hope not.’

They stayed by the fire, kissing, keeping warm, until Alfred calmed down.

‘I don’t want to go back to the Palace,’ he lamented.

‘Then don’t.’

‘But I can’t see what excuse…’

‘It’s still raining cats and dogs. You’re still in your wet clothes, you mustn’t catch a cold.’

‘Fine, I shall just tell your housemaid that I wish to take off my clothes and spend the night with you.’

Edward blushed and smiled. ‘We shall phrase it differently.’

‘You’ve always been good with words.’

‘Ah, that reminds me… could you please hand me a pen and paper? I need to write a letter.’

‘Now? To whom?’

‘To William, of course.’

‘What?’ Alfred frowned. ‘Whatever for?’

‘He did save my life, Alfred.’

‘But he had also put it in danger. This makes nothing right.’

‘Nevertheless, I would like to overcome this and thank him. I feel it’s only right after what happened.’

Alfred was staring at Edward aghast. He wished he had half his chivalry and gallantry and just pure goodness. He brought him the things he asked for and rang the bell for the maid.

 

Alfred hugged Edward’s nightshirt to him, smelling it, before he put it on. A separate bedroom had to be prepared, of course, to keep up appearances. Not that he had any intention of sleeping across the hallway from Edward. As soon as he knew the household had retired, he snuck into Edward’s bedroom swiftly.

Edward was already asleep, bless him. Alfred didn’t have a candle but the firelight was enough to illuminate his love’s strikingly handsome features.

Alfred unbuttoned the oversized nightshirt enough to be able to slide it off his shoulders and let it fall to the floor around his feet before climbing in between the sheets, careful not to wake Edward. The sound of the rain outdoors, the cheerfully crackling warm fire, and the soft bedsheets were a delight, but cuddling up to Edward’s body was the most joyous feeling in the world, unbeatable by anything. Well, perhaps only by certain other things Alfred could do with Edward’s body, but now it was just enough to hold him.

As careful and quiet as Alfred tried to be, Edward stirred anyway.

‘Mmh… Alfred?’ he moaned half in his sleep.

‘Who else could it be?’ Alfred jested, nuzzling against Edward’s jawline.

‘Mhh Alfred… by God, but you are unclad…’ Edward assessed, opening his eyes after feeling Alfred’s naked body pressed against him under the covers. ‘I… Alfred… that’s… that’s lovely but I do not believe I am in a fit state to…’

‘Shush, you silly man,’ Alfred whispered, giggling. He placed a goodnight kiss on the freckle on Edward’s cheek. ‘I only came to sleep. You must rest. And so do I. Goodnight, my dearest.’

Edward smiled, embraced Alfred’s warm body, and they drifted off into sleep together.

 

Alfred had to leave for the Palace very early in the morning, lest anyone suspected something was amiss. He promised to a very sleepy Edward to come back as soon as he could, to see how he was doing.

In the morning, Edward was glad he had not caught a terrible cold from the ghastly events of the day before after all. But he obeyed Alfred’s request this time and opted to stay at home for once. He didn’t say anything about working at home, though. So Edward settled into his study for the day.

And his first order of business was making sure his letter was delivered.

 

William had packed everything he owned once again and thought he would visit one of his favourite cafés as these were to be his last days in London. He regretted coming back here at all. His father… He did not even want to think about the whole horrid visit because of which he was now running from England.

He also tried not to think too much about the way things turned out with Alfred but he could not help it. He wished he could be as insensitive now as he had always managed to be before but… perhaps he was getting old? He never thought he would ever get to be as old as this, though he was not yet 25. He found he had to deal with issues he thought would escape him (or rather he would be able to escape) after all.

His coffee was interrupted by the delivery of a letter, though. From… from Drummond? What on earth could he want? Was it not clear enough yesterday? Surely he can’t be asking for a rematch or some other nonsense for Drummond to show how much he despised him…

But as he read the letter, he found he was changing his mind.

 

Captain,

I hope this letter finds you well.

I truly do, as shocking it might sound to you.

I appreciate that you put up with as much danger and peril as I did yesterday. However, you outdid me by saving my life, sir. For this, I ought to thank you. I understand if you do not wish to take up the offer but should you find it in your heart to accept my feeble olive branch, you could call on me at my address at any time to-day, in which case I should like to thank you in person and apologise for my roguish behaviour against you.

Your Obedient Humble Servant,

Edward Drummond

 

William’s first instinct was that this was a trick. But he did not know Drummond as a cunning person. No, in fact he was almost annoyingly genuine. Well, William was about to set sail, he might as well see what Drummond had to say.

 

‘Ma’am,’ Alfred bowed, entering the music room after breakfast.

‘Lord Alfred!’ Victoria called from the piano. ‘Come join me for a duet!’

‘Well… why not?’ Alfred caved in, sitting on the bench on Victoria’s left and humouring her for a bit of practice.

‘Ah, I remember Albert and I used to play together often,’ she said with an air of melancholy.

‘You speak so gloomily, ma’am. Are you not fond of His Grace’s playing?’

Victoria almost laughed but she shot Alfred a look. ‘You know Albert is a splendid musician, Lord Alfred. Only, I find I long for those early days. Back when there was no one but us, and nothing but love.’

‘May I say so, ma’am, that you and the prince have done a marvellous job of a situation with no precedence. You are the queen we all need. And as for His Grace, he loves you very much.’

‘And I him. But why must he be so difficult? We had our arguments even before, but we could always overcome them. Now I’m not so sure. I have fond memories of that time. When we were wed.’

‘Ah, that reminds me,’ Alfred mentioned with an air of someone who had just had a thought occur to him instead of having come here to discuss this in the first place. ‘I know we are due in Windsor for Christmas, ma’am, and I should be delighted to join you as always. However, might I be excused afterwards this time?’

‘Oh, why?’

‘Drummond’s brother Arthur and the Lady Florence Kerr are marrying on the last day of the year. I am to attend as their sister Charlotte Drummond’s invited guest.’

‘Oh…’ Victoria thought about what this meant for the arrangements. Then, putting two and two together and making five: ‘Oh! But how splendid! Do I take it you and Miss Drummond have an understanding?’

‘I am only attending as a partner to dance with. As you know Mr Edward Drummond is a good friend of mine and so is his sister, and I should like to pay them the courtesy of my support and company.’

‘But of course, Lord Alfred… How lovely!’ she said, still firmly believing this meant Alfred and Charlotte were about to announce something…

‘Drummond can also take a partner himself, though he may attend alone after all. He shall decide only once they depart after Christmas, I believe. However, should anyone from the household wish to attend…’

‘They shall be excused also. I wish we could be there but you know how I value our quiet times away from the court at Christmas.’

‘Prince Albert and Christmas are indeed an unbreakable couple. Coming second only to you, of course.’

Victoria laughed. ‘Why, thank you for that assessment, Lord Alfred.’

Lord Alfred excused himself and stood, backing out of the room. Before he could leave, though, an idea occurred to her:

‘Lord Alfred, but this wedding, it is to take place in Scotland, is it not?’

‘It is, ma’am,’ Alfred said from the doorway. ‘At the Lothian estate.’

‘How marvellous! But that means Mr Drummond and Miss Drummond are spending Christmas without their family.’

‘It does, ma’am.’

‘Why, that won’t do. Could you extend an invitation to them to come join us at Windsor Castle?’

‘For Edward and—forgive me, for Drummond and Miss Drummond to come and celebrate Christmas with us?’

‘Why, yes. Or do you think they would object to the idea?’

‘Not at all, ma’am. On the contrary. It is most kind of you to have thought of them.’

‘Good. I should love to meet this Miss Charlotte Drummond of yours.’

Lord Alfred wanted to object to the “yours” but perhaps it would benefit everyone if he just… let it slide.

‘Perhaps you can relay the invitation to them?’ Victoria asked.

‘I will! Right away, in fact.’

‘Good.’

‘Ma’am.’

Alfred bowed and left to go right to Edward to tell him about this, and to check on him, hoping he had not caught a ghastly cold.

 

‘Captain William Peel, sir,’ Drummond’s footman announced from the doorway of the study that opened from the sitting room with vast double doors.

Edward looked up from his desk and stood.

Neither of them were really used to meeting under normal circumstances.

When they first met at dinner at Sir Robert’s London house, William was rather withdrawn because of his father, and this man who seemed to be so praised by him, and he offered a cigar to him just to spite him first but Drummond didn’t even seem like his father’s type. He seemed good. Almost naïve. But with a sizeable tinderbox, and shoulders, and a pretty face to go with it. And he thought it a marvellous idea to get his father’s protégé into bed.

That plan went awry when he realised Drummond was Lord Alfred Paget’s friend. And their meeting in the park relighted that fire in William that he felt every time he met Alfred. It was always of course briefly, and for snappy witticisms and bitter arguments in passing. But he knew the time had come for those to end.

And Drummond barely knew Peel, only through Alfred’s lens. Perhaps he saw what he wanted to see. Well, he had to force himself to set those feelings aside for the sake of this meeting at least, as it was only honourable. He could not possibly detest the man who revived him when he was about to drown not a day before.

‘Captain, please do sit,’ Drummond offered and they did so.

‘Are you feeling better, then, Mr Drummond?’ William asked awkwardly. He was on top of things in a storm at sea but not in the study of a private secretary.

‘Very much so, thank you for asking. And thank you. For… for saving my life.’

‘Hm.’

‘How did you know how to…? Oh, that’s futile of me to ask.’

‘It is,’ William agreed cheekily. He wondered whether he had to wait for Drummond to offer him a cigar or whether he was allowed to simply get one out? He was starting to crave one. ‘Forgive me… I know my manners raise the eyebrows of many a London aristocrat.’

‘You’ll be glad to know I’m Scottish, then.’

‘Does that make any difference?’

‘I believe so. I’m afraid my manners have also not been perfect when it came to you, Captain. For this I sincerely apologise.’

‘Well… I’m sorry too. For the caddish behaviour.’

‘Right.’

‘Right…’ William said awkwardly, wondering how long it was customary to sit there. ‘In my defence, I was having tremendous fun.’

Edward didn’t know whether to laugh or not. William seemed to be a fish out of water on land, now that he sat still in a study. So unlike his father. He was all over the place, fidgeting with disorderly passion and quickly bored once the slightest lull in the conversation set in.

Restless. That’s what he was above all.

‘About the wager…’ Edward began, to accommodate him.

‘No, Mr Drummond, I’ve quite got the message. I won’t be bothering Alfred anymore. Lord Alfred.’

‘I was going to suggest you came to call on me here later when he is here. So you could talk. As you so wanted to.’

William opened his mouth—

Talk.’

-- and closed it. He laughed. Fair enough.

‘Thank you, Mr Drummond, but I don’t see that going very well. Perhaps it was foolish of me to imagine I could…’ he trailed away.

‘You could what?’

William bit his lip. ‘I’m not sure. You see, I never expected to make it as far as this. I’ve been a soldier for so long, it seems a ridiculous impossibility that I should still be alive.’

Edward thought about that for a second. He had to admit, Peel had an advantage over him there.

‘Well, I took one bullet and that was enough, I can tell you. I can’t imagine the things you have gone through.’

‘No, you can’t,’ William agreed curtly.

He wanted to talk about it but he also did not. Edward searched his face but it was closed off. Hardened.

‘What made you leave so young?’ he asked the Captain.

‘My father.’

‘Did Sir Robert make you leave?’

‘On the contrary. He meant to send me to Eton, to follow in his footsteps. I had other ideas. So I left. I ran. All the way to China.’

‘At thirteen?’

‘Yes.’

‘By God, at thirteen I believe the most dangerous act of mine was learning to ride a horse.’

‘You hadn’t ridden a horse before you were—? Never mind,’ William caught himself. It wouldn’t do to upset this newfound, fragile peace, or rather ceasefire, between them. ‘How are you and Alfred together, again?’

Edward had to laugh to himself. ‘I try and keep up with him.’ Then, seeing as William avoided his eyes, he added: ‘Am I correct in thinking you resent me, sir?’

William debated this. ‘Less than you think.’

‘That’s a relief…’

‘I presume your resentment towards me is greater, Mr Drummond.’

‘I’ve had worse moments.’

William knew Drummond was thinking about that time he and Alfred slept together, or rather what followed.

‘In my defence, I was living life from one day to the next. Because of… well, the job. When you do what I do, you realise life must be lived as if every day was your last, because in my case, it may very well be. I can’t make plans because those are almost certainly dashed by the call to arms that can come at any second. I can’t say I had ever seen the point in committing to anything or anyone, as a matter of fact… after seeing one too many friend die on the battlefield, one learns not to even hope for that. So I took what I could get in the moment, not thinking beyond it. Or, not allowing myself to, rather. When Alfred presented me with the concept of something more than just… something more, I… I panicked and handled it in the absolute worst way, claiming I had only played with him. It wasn’t a game, but I could not allow myself to hope for more to begin with. It was not to be.’

Drummond frowned.

‘I’m sorry,’ William noticed himself. ‘You don’t want to hear about that, do you? Suffice it to say, I truly regret that now.’

‘But you…’ Drummond forced himself to say as frankly as he could allow himself, ‘You seduced him to win that bet in the first place, did you not?’

William cursed himself all over again.

‘I told him I’d made a bet, yes.’

‘Told him…?’ Drummond frowned ever deeper, sensing the implication. ‘But that makes it sound as if it wasn’t true. Was it?’

William could barely look at Drummond he felt so annoyed at himself. And shook his head.

‘But he thought… he was really hurt by it… Sir!?’ Drummond stuttered, trying to control himself. ‘Forgive me, only…’

‘No need. I suppose if Alfred’s not willing to hear me out, and since I’m sailing away soon, I can tell you and it won’t matter anymore. There was no bet. I made it up so that Alfred would be scared away, offended to the core at once. He wrote to me, he sought me out in person, and I knew it could not be. I was not in the position to entertain even a fraction of the notion. I was about to be shipped away to another war. It wouldn’t have done either of us any good if he dwelled on me and I died. It was better that he forgot me before he fell too deep into his sentiments.’

Edward eyed him strangely, frozen.

‘But you survived.’

‘But I survived.’

Drummond was touched by this, despite himself. And, selfishly, glad of that stupid lie, too. If Alfred had really fallen in love with William, the joy he would have felt upon his return, he might have still been committed to William ever since then, and he would not have been interested in the slightest in the engaged private secretary supporting his love’s despised father.

He supposed all this had also occurred to William, long ago. No wonder he acted the way he did against Drummond.

‘Sir…’ Edward said, only now understanding just how lucky he was.

‘If it’s any comfort, it’s not entirely because of Alfred that I am leaving. My father has—’

It was then that Charlotte stepped into the room, carrying a stack of books to return to their shelves.

‘Edward, don’t you have something more about the suffrage of—‘ she faltered in her step when she saw they weren’t alone. ‘Oh, Captain Peel. I didn’t know we had visitors.’

She was a bit of a mess. Her wild, curly hair was barely combed and tied so that it would stay out of her eyes, and she was wearing a shirt and trousers fit for sports or to lounge about in at home rather than to appear in public, her dressing gown thrown over it haphazardly.

‘No, I’m afraid that was the last of it,’ Edward told her, almost scared of her. ‘I could order more from the library if you’d like.’

‘No. I’m bored.’

She walked over to the liquor cabinet.

‘Do you think it wise?’ Edward had to ask even in front of Peel. She was not looking well, she was thinner than ever, and she was drinking so much these days. He knew she was merely seeking distraction but neither books nor drinks were enough to avert her attention from the great, pressing, awful matter.

‘Do you think this wise?’ she said thornily without hesitation, waving her glass of Scotch at the two men, risking spillage on the carpet.

‘Captain Peel has come on my invitation,’ Edward explained. ‘He travels soon and I wanted to thank him for—’

‘You know what,’ she interrupted. ‘I don’t really care, it can’t be anything good if it’s about Captain Peel, and I do not wish to get entangled in your affairs. I’ve mine to worry about.’

Charlotte grabbed a bottle of gin and meant to leave but she stopped when she locked eyes with William.

‘I envy you, Captain.’

‘Me?’

‘Yes. You have seen the world. I’ve been kept in a cage all my life.’

‘What makes you think I wasn’t ever in one myself, Miss Drummond?’

Charlotte blinked slowly, as if challenging him to disperse her scepticism.

‘No, truly,’ William continued. Edward braced himself to interfere, he feared Peel would say something disastrous, and maybe he wanted to, for the sake of causing chaos, but then he went on: ‘It was in China. I was barely fourteen years of age and it was my first war. I loved the journey over, even though it was difficult and tempestuous, but the sea is something else… the vast space, the blue of the water meeting the blue of the sky… and the freedom of it… the camaraderie, too. Of course those comrades I made on the sea voyage were all dead within months on land. But it was still better than being in England under the watchful eye of my father, constrained by our numerous rules.’

Charlotte was captivated despite herself.

‘We had been advancing for days and days without meeting any of the enemy forces. We should have known we were being encircled but the heat and the humidity and the fear made mad people out of the best of us. In the end we were captured and I spent a week in a bamboo cage attached to a cart, like a circus animal. Nobody knew what to do with me as I was still a child, really.’

‘How did you break free?’ she asked.

‘I didn’t. They let me out. There was a message to be delivered to the British and I was to carry it. I did not need telling twice, I ran as fast as I could from that place, make no mistake!’ he laughed, to Charlotte’s amazement.

‘You’re not so bad, are you?’ she stated rather than asked.

‘Others must be the judge of that,’ William said, stealing a glance at Drummond.

‘Are you learned?’ she asked William, sizing him up.

Neither of the men were sure what she was getting at but he humoured her.

‘I never got a former education as the illustrious Mr Drummond here but I have learned enough.’

‘Such as?’

‘How to stay alive. And I speak seven languages.’

‘Seven?’

‘Well, six, I’m learning the seventh now.’

‘Impressive.

‘Why thank you, Miss Drummond.’

‘And you have absolutely no interest in women, do you?’

William looked at Drummond unimpressed. ‘You are well-informed, Miss Drummond.’

Edward felt guilty – he wouldn’t appreciate it if Peel’s sister knew about his nature.

‘Well, I have absolutely no interest in men, either,’ she replied, with the tone of an offer.

‘Charlotte,’ Edward warned. He did not trust William fully, it wouldn’t do to get herself into trouble just because she’s in a bad mood.

But she just smiled, thinking.

‘Maybe I should marry you,’ she said to William, paying Edward no heed.

William gulped and blinked rapidly at this turn of the conversation.

‘Maybe you should what me now, Miss Drummond?’ he said, standing.

‘Charlotte!?’ Edward exclaimed at this insane proposition. ‘Are you—’

‘… out of my mind?’ Charlotte said. ‘On the contrary. Why not? Rather Peel than Alfred.’

‘Hang on... Alfred’s getting married?!’ William asked Edward, outraged and confused.

‘No, he’s not,’ Edward was quick to reply, standing, too. ‘Or maybe. It’s just--- Charlotte, calm down, Captain, I apologise—’

‘I am to find a husband before the year’s end,’ Charlotte told Peel honestly, with the air of someone having had nothing left to lose. ‘Lord Alfred offered to marry me out of charity so that I wouldn’t have to be given to some ghastly cad who would want me as a real wife. But I couldn’t do that to him. I mustn’t be such a burden—’

‘You’re not a burden, Charlotte,’ Edward tried but she ignored him.

‘No, I cannot do that to him, Edward, I know you see, too,’ she turned to her brother now. She could see he had the same reservations about this sham in the making. ‘I know you do. It could be ruinous if done badly. I can’t take his freedom, not like this, I couldn’t.’

He offered, Charlotte,’ Edward forced himself to say.

‘But I couldn’t.’

‘Wait, Alfred proposed to you?’ Peel asked Charlotte.

‘He’s a good person,’ she replied, turning back to him. ‘I know it’s news to you but some are, Alfred being one of them. Pity you couldn’t see it. I know what you did to him.’

‘I… I regret that now.’

‘Do you? Do you really? Perhaps you should take this burden off his shoulders, then.’

William eyed her and Drummond frowning and confused.

‘My parents would be delighted,’ she went on. ‘A Peel. Why not? Don’t think this means you’d have to stay in this godforsaken place. We could leave England together. Are Indian women really as pretty as they say?’

‘I… they’re…’ William stuttered.

‘My dowry could buy you a ship.’

‘I do have a ship.’

‘Even better. When do you sail?’

‘Tomorrow, I hoped.’

‘Ah, we should be wed today, then.’

‘Well, I am a captain,’ William tried to joke but she looked quite serious.

‘Perfect.’

‘Charlotte,’ Edward tried to stop her from furthering this madness.

‘Though I’m not sure I could officiate my own wedding…’ William pondered unhelpfully.

‘Details. Consider me packed.’

‘Alright, very amusing, Miss Charlotte.’ William said, laughing uncomfortably, getting his hat. ‘I think I ought to leave now…’

‘Forgive my sister, Captain…’

‘No need, I’ll just…’ William backed out of the room, hoping to escape as soon as possible.

‘Charlotte, enough!’ Edward now shouted sternly, commanding attention, when she looked like she meant to follow Peel out the door with more arguments for her insane cause.

Nobody noticed it was then that Alfred entered the house.

‘Really, now! Stop this nonsense at last,’ Edward went on, regretting he had to resort to this. He’d never in his life shouted at his sister like this. ‘I know what it’s like, but—’

‘No, you don’t know what it’s like, Edward!’ she shouted back at him, in tears. ‘You have no idea, no idea at all!’ and she stormed up the stairs.

Edward ran after her to the foyer but faltered at the foot of the stairs – there was no reasoning with her in this state.

Behind him, Alfred stepped into the sitting room rounded on William at once.

‘What did you do?’ he asked.

‘What?’ William asked, still shocked from the scene he had just witnessed. And now at Alfred’s finger pointed at him, too.

‘What did you do, William?’ Alfred repeated accusatorily.

‘Me? I didn’t do anything!’

‘Oh, quit this and explain yourself.’

‘But I didn’t! Mr Drummond, please—’ William turned to him for help now, as Alfred was livid and not seeing reason!

‘Alfred,’ Edward said gently. ‘He’s telling the truth, it’s not his—’

‘Oh, ever since you’ve stepped into our lives, it’s been nothing but disaster after disaster, William!’ Alfred shouted in anger.

‘How is this my fault now??’ William rightly asked. ‘It’s Drummond’s sister who’s…’

‘Don’t you dare insult her, too. Just get away with you, William, and never let me see you again. Out, just get out!’

‘But Alfred, I did not…’ William tried to stand up for himself, still rooted to the spot from shock.

‘Alfred, truly, leave him,’ Edward piped up, trying to step between the two of them but Alfred was quicker.

He grabbed William by the lapels of his coat and attempted to physically drag him out of the sitting room.

‘Alfred?!’ William asked, outraged.

‘Out!’ Alfred repeated, struggling to remove William from the house.

William was utterly hurt and shocked to the core – Alfred was being so unfair, and this was pathetic. He didn’t know what to do. In the end, answering passion with passion, he took advantage of their closeness and took Alfred by surprise, but not by hitting him.

By kissing him.

Alfred didn’t even realise what was happening for a second or two, before he let go of William’s collar with a shove, appalled, and his anger fuelled to the fullest. He raised his hand---

But he did not strike him.

Ah, no, that would not have been satisfying enough.

He’d been blinded by rage a minute ago, that was true. But it was with utmost clarity with which he spoke next, dangerously calmly, lowering his hand but staring William right in the eyes:

‘Primrose Hill. Today at midnight. Pistols.’

Edward barely even understood what had just happened, let alone the meaning of Alfred’s words. All he knew was that it sounded like a sentence.

William, on the other hand, far from cowering, stood his ground. Though disappointment, hurt, and regret seemed to flash across his face ever so subtly, he snorted and smiled defiantly, just so.

‘See you there,’ he replied simply.

There went the fragile peace, thought Edward, as William shot one last look of disdain at the pair of them, and swept out the door.

Alfred had to grab the back rest of a chair to steady himself, he was still shaking from head to toe with fury and frustration.

‘Alfred?’ Edward uttered, aghast. ‘What was that? What is to happen on Primrose Hill tonight?’

Alfred could barely turn to Edward to reply, overwhelmed by it all and shame was coming over him, but there was nothing else to it:

‘A duel.’

Chapter Text

Lady Portman was walking swiftly down the long corridor in the wake of the footman.

She could not say she had expected any visitors, particularly this one, but now that she was on her way to one of the Palace’s many rooms suitable for a one to one chat between ladies she found she was more than simply glad. Her excitement, though superbly concealed as always, was growing every second.

The footman stood aside in the doorway to let her enter.

And indeed, this meeting was already worth the urgent interruption of Lady’s Portman’s afternoon activities and the long walk through the hallways, as the elegant sight of Miss Charlotte Drummond greeted her.

She was facing the fire, with her back to the door where she had not yet realised the person she came to call on was already standing, watching her. Lady Portman allowed herself to take advantage of these few stolen moments to take in Miss Drummond’s slender frame, the fashionable colour of her dress, and her brown hair that always seemed to want to escape the styling that had been forced upon it.

But she sensed at once also that this was not going to be a simple taking up of that offer for tea. She was tense, her arms kept straight at her sides, her hands in fists, and she kept scratching at the skin at her nails nervously.

And when she turned to face Lady Portman, she looked as if she had seen a ghost.

‘L-Lady Portman,’ she uttered, so anxiously Emma’s heart skipped a beat.

She really was on the verge of crying.

‘Lord Alfred… He’s…’

 

It was the hottest night of the summer. Alfred had just turned 21 and though he had enjoyed his studies, and the popularity he had also enjoyed among the boys, he was living his best life yet at the academy. Particularly this evening, as he and a merry group of his most amusing pals were heading to the docks to inspect a naval ship that had just returned from China, by way of India, Cape Town, and Portugal.

‘Personally, I shall do a lot of inspecting,’ said Featherstonehaugh in the carriage, a dark burly lad who shared Alfred’s dorm room the year before with six others but unlike them never his bed. Probably the reason why they could remain such good friends, whereas Alfred was beginning to forget the rest of his former roommates’ names already. ‘Of the barrels of rum they are certain to have below decks.’

‘Now, now, Birdie,’ Alfred said to him once the carriage quietened after the remark – the nickname coming from that time they had a bit of a fight in the dorms and Featherstonehaugh grabbed a pillow to throw at another roommate but it had got caught on a nail sticking out of the wall, thus causing him to spread down feathers all over the room. They all got a week of cleaning duty but the argument was settled as no one could stand it without doubling over laughing at him. ‘They’re sailors not pirates. Besides, I believe we must first salute the brave cadets and the captain, so be nice and let us put our best foot forward.’

‘What’s the point if there are no women around?’

‘Ah, Birdy would like to put something else than his foot forward, were there ladies present,’ another one of the young men commented, gesturing lewdly, prompting another bout of laughter among the soldiers.

The banter continued until they reached the docks. They all put on their polite, public faces before getting out of the carriage. Greeted by a uniformed naval officer on land, they were led up the wooden steps, all aboard.

A number of cadets and officers were lined up neatly, in their own uniforms, on the deck. The cavaliers, including Lord Alfred, walked down the line, saluting them and thanking them for allowing them the opportunity to have a bit of a peek at the workings of Her Majesty’s royal navy. Until they reached the Captain of the ship, to whom they repeated all the same courtesies, hoping to return the favour while they’re in England.

Next, a tour of the ship followed, which was actually truly fascinating, Alfred thought. He always did love ships, indeed he dreamed of the day he would purchase his own, allowing him to travel to France whenever he wished, now that he had become so proficient at the language. And he, unlike his friends from the delegation, would certainly not have minded the sole presence of men for weeks and weeks at sea… He would have minded the lack of access to many a thing life on land offered, though, such as long hot baths and an endless supply of champagne and cigars. And he did love his horses. It was the cavalry for him. For now, he supposed… the more he heard from the Captain and the crew about the hardships they had just had to endure in Asia, and on the lengthy sea voyage, the more he saw his training as a sort of formality. He was a damn good equerry, a sharp shooter, and an excellent swordsman, but he felt his calling would be elsewhere in the end.

Still, tonight, he didn’t care much about the big questions. All he wanted was to join the party on deck and have a bit of a break.

The sun had set by the time they were allowed to freely mingle with the crew. Indeed, there was a bit of a party developing – the relief of being home after such a journey was great, and the excitement of having illustrious guests over in the form of the delegation made for a lovely excuse.

Alfred was particularly red cheeked all night because most of the men were as tight as ticks! Did he choose wrong after all, should he have elected to go into the navy instead? If the sailors were so handsome!

The only problem was, the ship seemed to have brought with them the heatwaves of exotic places as well. Alfred excused himself and walked over to a less crowded part of the forward deck for a bit of air.

From the lack of lights, he only realised he wasn’t alone when he was but a few feet away from the beak. Squinting in the dark, wishing for the moonlight to be stronger, he became aware that the silhouette of a man at the very peak of the ship was not merely the carved figurehead but one of the crew sitting on the railing, staring out at the Thames, at London, into the night.

When the man turned around, Alfred’s gaze was caught by wistful eyes the colour of open seas. His black hair was longer than the fashion of the time and his wavy locks were moving ever so slightly in the light, warm, summer breeze. The image of a hero in a novel.

Alfred had spent the evening in the company of handsome lads, but this man was just stunning. And it wasn’t his superficial good looks. There was a depth to him that was mesmerizing, though dangerous. Really, Alfred was reminded of the Sirens, only he did not need to hear him at all to know he should have loved to drown in those deep blue eyes of his.

He had no idea when he apologised for intruding that his fancy of the tall dark man was nothing compared to the instant fascination with Lord Alfred that he would have in return.

 

Where was he? Alfred thought impatiently, checking his pocket watch in the moonlight.

He was freezing. Primrose Hill was white and frosty, with a fresh layer of snow covering the grass and the leafless branches of the surrounding trees. He had given specific enough instructions – the time and place and the means of the duel were made perfectly clear. He checked his watch again.

Five minutes till midnight.

He glanced at the carriage a little way away, where he had left Edward. His heart was aching for doing this to him, the absolute terror in which he put his love, but he had to do this. Lucky the ladies were there to withhold him, and the key to the carriage door lying in his breast pocket. He wondered if it could stop a bullet, should the need arise… Then instantly perished the thought. Or tried to.

Hearing the sounds of hooves in the snow, he turned around.

William was riding towards their meeting place, a meadow surrounded by trees and shrubs in the middle of the park. He pulled to a stop, got off, tied his horse to a suitable tree, and walked over to Alfred, taking out a cheroot.

‘You wouldn’t happen to have a tinderbox on you, would you?’ he asked nonchalantly once he came to a halt.

He was standing tall, and seemed much calmer at the prospect of the duel than Alfred felt.

‘It’s three minutes until midnight.’

‘Exactly. Just enough time for one.’ William offered his cigar case to Alfred. ‘Come on, have one. For old time’s sake.’

Alfred shot him a glare. But he was full of nerves so he took one, glad he didn’t have to fumble with shaking hands for his own light as William sparked a fire, lighting his own cigar, then Alfred’s.

 

‘Thank you,’ Alfred said, exhaling smoke slowly, enjoying being watched closely by Lieutenant Peel, as he introduced himself, basking in the soft moonlight on the deck. He thought he had gone mad from being at sea for so long but the vision called Lord Alfred Paget turned out to be quite real. The bright red of his uniform, his sparkling blue eyes, his golden hair and flushed fair skin were luminous in the dark. And when he opened his mouth, the smooth velvety voice that William did not expect to hear felt to him like tasting molten chocolate or swallowing warm brandy.

He walked back to the thick of the party with him. Introductions were made left and right, drinks passed around, more and more lewd stories of the soldiers’ training days and escapades with women outside the walls of the academy or the ship, on land and sea. Alfred came alive anew every time he was brought to a fit of giggles by some well-aimed quip or incredible story, most of which were told by William, as he soon became addicted to the sight. He really found he had to laugh out loud Lord Alfred was so beautiful.

William also became aware that the notorious Marquess’s son was not so keen to share many stories of his own about adventures in seduction, which either meant he was as innocent as his naturally angelic features would suggest, or that his stories were not to be heard by the ears of all…

Even when he wasn’t by his close side, William was watching him, catching his eyes through the lively crowd of uniformed soldiers on the deck. And he was pleased to see, more than once, Lord Alfred seemed to have to look away from him, as if flustered by William’s gaze.

‘I wonder if you’ve been given a tour of the lower parts of the ship, Lord Alfred,’ William said only to his ears when a larger group of men broke up to get more drinks or talk to others.

‘We have, the Captain has graciously shown us some of the rooms below decks. She really is remarkable. As are your stories.’

‘I don’t believe you’ve been shown the cabin side, though? Where you shall be housed for the night?’

‘No, we have not.’

‘Would you permit me?’

‘Lead the way.’

 

Alfred’s cheroot was almost nearing its end.

‘Has the gallant Mr Drummond not accompanied you this time?’

‘He has,’ Alfred glanced at a carriage standing some way away in the dark.

His heart was breaking for how Edward had taken all this. Once he fully understood that Alfred and William were going to duel with guns at night, all the blood drained from him, he was paler than when he was shot back in the summer. He was shouting, crying, begging him to forfeit, nearly running out the door to chase after William to ask him to call it off, Alfred having to hold him down or drag him on his feet when he was about to actually kneel to plead for him not to go through with this – shouting at a footman in the process when one appeared to see what this noise was upstairs, prompting him to scarper right away, no doubt giving the servants something to chew on.

Eventually, he had to leave to prepare. He had to get his weapon and subdue his own emotions in order to be able to focus – this was no joke after all.

He briefly thought about writing a letter to his father. While he could, a nasty little voice in his head said. He didn’t think his Papa would have been proud exactly. But it would have felt right to. Alas, he couldn’t reveal the reasons for it in the first place.

By the time he got back to Edward’s house, Charlotte was with him, and Lady Portman, too. Apparently, after Alfred left, Edward went up to Charlotte’s room to apologise for everything and to tell her what was going to happen, all in floods of tears. She tried to calm him, even as he was crying, head on her knees, crumbled on the carpet. She was glad of his sternness before, as he was so broken now. She pulled herself together for his sake, called a housemaid to help dress her behind a folding screen, and left Edward in her bedroom in order to go to the palace, to find the person she thought could help: Lady Portman.

Charlotte feared she was making a mistake as there was no way she could tell her about the duel without also telling her about what prompted it. She was ever so glad the Baroness was not fazed to hear about the men at all. Her wisdom really surpassed all. She was, however, just as terrified at the prospect of Lord Alfred duelling Captain Peel.

Alfred was relentless. He could not allow himself to be emotional, he needed to stay focused. It wasn’t just for that kiss, it wasn’t just for the insults, or for the way he had been to Edward, it was for everything.

Duelling being an illicit activity, he cursed himself for having chosen such a central site but it was too late now. He wasn’t going to allow Edward to come with him but in the end had to compromise. He drove all three of them there in a carriage, on the condition that they would stay inside. Which, after hopping off the driver’s seat, he ensured by shoving Edward right back in the carriage after one last desperate kiss and actually locking the carriage door with a key swiftly.

Edward of course banged on the glass, calling for him to let him out, and still pleading for him not to go through with it.

But he had to.

‘And you?’ Alfred asked William in the silence of the park. ‘Have you come alone?’

‘You know me, Alfred. Always alone.’ He checked his watch. ‘Two minutes. Did I make you wait long?’

‘I was beginning to think you got lost. Or changed your mind.’

‘Never,’ William replied, as if this was amusement to him, not the last seconds until they were due to duel, with potentially tragic outcomes. Glaring straight into Alfred’s eyes for the reaction, he added: ‘You should know from the last time that I would never have turned down an invitation of yours.’

 

They set down their drinks on a barrel, and, grinning like naughty schoolchildren, Alfred followed William below decks, careful to mind their heads, as the ceilings and doorways could be quite low. A labyrinth of tight, wood panelled corridors was their path, allowing them to peek into cabins left and right, some empty, some containing their inhabitants changing shirts unashamed from the open door, packing their belongings, or playing cards with a few others.

‘I believe this is yours for the night,’ William stopped at a cabin door.

‘Will I have to share?’

William had to bite his lip, to keep from smirking too much and saying that’s up to you.

‘I hope the room has been prepared to your satisfaction,’ he said instead.

Alfred eyed him for a few seconds.

‘Why don’t you come in and see for yourself?’ he asked, barely above a whisper. He thought he was right but one could never be sure. He was either taking a step towards a good time in there or angering the Lieutenant to the point of reporting him to the Captain, and his ruin would roll from there.

William instinctively checked that the loud cadets in the corridor and cabins around remained unassuming.

‘Would you really like that, Lord Alfred?’

Alfred licked his lips. Pleased to see it drew William’s eyes as he hoped.

‘I would,’ he replied, glad the Lieutenant seemed far from offended. Far, far from it…

And he opened the cabin door, quirking an eyebrow, as if challenging William… who, of course followed.

 

 ‘I regret this invitation as much as the previous one,’ Alfred said, his breath visible in the icy air, flicking his finished cheroot in the snow.

‘We could call it off,’ William said, still smiling at Alfred.

‘I could not. My father would never speak to me again.’

‘What makes you think he’d have a chance to in the first place? I see your hands are less steady than mine.’

‘I have a lot to lose.’

‘And I don’t?’

‘I can’t tell, William. You deceived me well enough before.’

‘Drummond told you, then.’

‘You may have been lying again. Maybe you did make a bet. Maybe you didn’t. Who’s to tell? Besides, it matters not.’

‘One minute.’

‘What?’

‘One minute left,’ William repeated, not wishing to revisit the time he claimed he had only taken Alfred to bed on a bet. He had done some questionable things to get his way or get out of tight corners across continents, on battlefields and in bedrooms alike, but the mere memory of time he had to tell a young, devoted, dewy eyed Alfred that he had only played with him was enough to want to turn his gun on himself on this December night instead.

‘One minute,’ Alfred braced himself.

‘Until you get your revenge,’ William remarked, throwing his own cheroot away.

‘Not revenge. This is for honour.’

‘Well, whatever it is, I hope you’ll find this satisfactory.’

 

The space in the cabin was small, the ceiling low, the single round window unsuited to let in any light, even if the city hadn’t been clad in darkness outside. The temperatures were not much lower below decks, but the sweltering heat was not the only reason why Alfred was longing to take off his uniform. And William’s.

‘Well, Lieutenant? Do you find this satisfactory?’ Alfred asked, once the cabin door was closed.

William stepped closer, much too close. He reached up to cup Alfred’s chin, feasting his eyes on his lips leaning in but oh… not yet tasting them, as Alfred so anticipated, earning a sweet giggle from him.

William looked at him, really looked. Alfred was just perfect, and he stared up at William as if he imagined he could give him the world.

Setting his heart and body on fire, William finally kissed him.

He needed this, William thought, even as he was reining himself back from handling Alfred too roughly. He seemed so delicate. Besides, though kissing was only something one had to do to open gates to bigger pleasures, now William found he was actually enjoying it with Alfred for the sake of it.

Alfred, however, was kissing him with more and more fervour, biting his lips to communicate his desires without spelling them out but was getting nothing… Was William shyer than he seemed from the searing looks all night? Or was he under the impression Alfred was to be handled with care? Or was he just waiting for him to say which way he would prefer him?

‘Fuck me,’ Alfred breathed against his lips when his patience no longer held.

William had to try and mask his surprise – Lord Alfred wasn’t so innocent and delicate after all!

Uniforms fell on the floor before long and Alfred pulled William on the single narrow bed with him.

 

‘It’s time,’ Alfred said, pocketing his watch. ‘Get your gun out.’

William did so, pulling his pistol out of its holster the breast of his coat. So did Alfred, whose weapon was perhaps more elegantly decorated but just as deadly.

‘Want to compare sizes?’ William winked at him.

‘Just turn around.’

‘Why, you know I prefer to face you.’

 

William could have finished just from hearing Lord Alfred’s velvety voice moan his first name aloud sinfully, even if it meant he had to frequently interrupt his devouring of the sensitive skin on his neck. It was so soft and fair, so unlike the rough sunburnt skin of anyone who would do in any port when the urge came.

‘God,’ William giggled, not believing this, after even louder sounds of approval when his hands began wandering places on Alfred’s body. ‘Alfred, you must keep your voice down, else the cadets next door shall—’

William’s further warnings were drowned by heated, wet kisses. It was insane, just next door they could clearly hear a loud group of sailors playing bridge – surely, the noise was a good cover for their own ones but the walls were as thin their way as it was on this side!

At first William thought he offended Alfred somehow with the scolding but he only broke their kiss and embrace to roll over under him, with difficulty on the small bed. Once William understood what he was doing, he grabbed his shoulders and pinned them back on the bed, and dived in for more of those heavenly kisses he found he just could not get enough of.

Alfred was complying, feeding his tongue to William in a way he knew drove men crazy for him, but he was confused. Did he not want him after all…? And why did he take his time so? Alfred was used to things going far quicker – this was supposed to be using each other’s bodies, hands, mouths, other parts, in library nooks after hours or in dusty attics, for relief, and then going their own ways, never mentioning it again. But William wasn’t just using his body like all others.

And then, as William did things to him even as they never broke their kisses, Alfred had to pull away and check his face. Oh, William was far from reluctant. He realised he wanted him this way.

 

‘Just play by the rules for once, William,’ Alfred instructed, turning his back on him.

Judging by the sounds of footsteps in the snow, William did as told, turning his back to Alfred, too.

‘Fifteen steps, on the count of three. One shot.’

‘On three or after?’

‘William…’

‘What, I’m just asking.’

‘Yes, you wouldn’t want to fire too early.’

 

The headboard of the bed was knocking against the wood panelled wall of the cabin with every thrust. Alfred prayed the cadets next door would not be aware of this over their own loudness and the haze of the drinks they were surely consuming because it was too good to stop now.

But William faltered in his movements anyway.

‘It’s not that loud,’ Alfred panted, trying not to sound too impatient, opening his eyes.

Turned out, William couldn’t care less about the headboard, as a mix of emotions was apparent on his face. Brows furrowed, breath held, biting hard on his full red lips, he tried to focus to hold off his orgasm.

Alfred was almost touched. In his heart, that is.

He reached up to brush a loose strand of his jet black hair from William’s sweat-kissed forehead, calming him with the gentleness of the gesture.

‘Sorry, I…’ William whispered when Alfred gave one of his breathy giggles.

Some seconds later, his hot shivers subsiding, he exhaled slowly, his warm breath caressing Alfred’s flushed red cheeks.

‘Good?’ Alfred asked.

William was nodding.

‘Good,’ Alfred now not at all asked as he took William by surprise more than any time before by pushing himself up until they were sitting on the mattress in a close embrace, Alfred in William’s lap, legs tight around his hips, arms around his sculpted shoulders, beads of sweat on foreheads pressed together as they picked up pace again once Alfred began to move up and down, steadied by William’s hands on his hips.

William was younger but he had seen a lot more of the world, too much for anyone’s good. But he had never met anyone like Lord Alfred. Usually, the men he had been with like this were… not exactly enduring it, no, they were enjoying it, but they were taking it rather submissively.

Not Alfred. William felt foolish now that he thought he would have to treat him with care, fearing he would break if handled too roughly, as he was proving all his assumptions wrong. All except one: that he would be amazing to bed. But he had definitely not expected for Alfred to be so vocal about his desires and to take the lead like this, thirsty in the sweltering heat, all impatient.

 

‘Shall we begin at last?’ Alfred urged, heart pounding, perhaps its last beats before William’s bullet found it, if he wasn’t quicker.

‘Might as well,’ William replied in the dark. ‘Aim well, Alfred.’

‘I always do.’

 

Alfred was moving faster and faster, returning sloppy kisses and gasping, panting rapidly. William had no chance of keeping this up for long but there was no need. As soon as he touched Alfred with his hand, Alfred tilted his head back and opened his mouth in a silent scream, spending on William’s chest and stomach.

 

And they started to march in opposite directions through the virgin snow, counting the steps.

One, two, three, four…

 

Driven savage by the sight of Alfred’s intense rapture and the sensations in his heated body, William lunged forward, pinning Alfred to the bed, definitely cracking some of its structure, following suit and coming into him, riding out his pleasure to its fullest, stifling his moans into Alfred’s neck.

 

…five, six, seven, eight…

 

Alfred stayed on the bed with his eyes closed, catching his breath. Not that he could move under William’s weight.

All too soon, he thought, emptiness replaced the warm body in his arms as William got off the bed. Of course, Alfred supposed, eyed still shut to the world, the Lieutenant would be missed on the deck above. In fact, both their absences might be noticed, they mustn’t be gone for too long…

 

…nine, ten, eleven, twelve…

 

Something wet hit Alfred’s stomach. Opening his eyes, he saw a wet towel. And William still there.

William hadn’t stood to dress, only to go to the wash stand in the corner and now he sat back on the bed and clean the mess off Alfred’s skin surprisingly gently. Such a contrast to how he had been just minutes before. He wiped himself clean too and threw the spoiled towel on the back of a chair.

And lay back on the bed beside Alfred.

Did he already want to have him again? Alfred thought, confused. But he just lay down, though the narrow bed wouldn’t have allowed them enough space to lie side by side. Alfred had to rest his head on William’s arm. Or shoulder… Becoming aware of those deep blue eyes on him. William was exhausted, eyelids drooping, but he kept watching Alfred’s flushed, handsome face until he had to give in and dozed off.

Alfred hardly knew what to feel or think or do. Of all the things that night, this was what surprised and touched him the most. This had never happened before. No one just… stayed after getting what they wanted. But then, he thought back to how everything had gone, how William seemed to turn to him with care, his endless kisses, his gentle touches, and the look in his eyes when he fell asleep…

He made himself comfortable in William’s arms, turning towards him, leaning into his body, close.

And for the first time dared to dream. Of a little more. Of William.

 

…thirteen, fourteen… And stop.

‘One…’ they counted aloud in the oppressive silence.

William couldn’t wait to see Alfred’s face again for the last time.

‘Two…’ Alfred tried to steady his hand on his pistol.

Get ready to turn…

‘Three…’

‘I FORFEIT.’

 

But he… he… did he just….? Before he could fall properly asleep, William opened his eyes slowly, to see for himself that this was truly happening. Lord Alfred had cuddled, actually cuddled close to him in his sleep. He had shared a bed with men before but never like this. What did one do now? Should he pull away? Should he wake him? Or should he hold him closer, as his instinct was telling him…?

He chanced a touch on Alfred’s arm, which was resting across his chest. He didn’t want to wake him – no man liked to be roused from his sleep after all, as he had learned through many smacks as a kid. But something told him Alfred wouldn’t be angry at him.

He watched him in his sleep, wishing there was more light to let him see better. Lord Alfred’s beauty surpassed any painting hanging in the finest galleries from Boston to Shanghai.

The strange urge to take Alfred away with him on his next journey welled up in William. How his sight and his presence would ease the hardships of endless voyages. He imagined his wonderment at the exotic lands he would show him. And the nights they could have if they were half as passionate as this…

Ah, but that was an impossible idea, William thought sadly. He had not known him for long but anyone could tell the splendid Lord Alfred was not made for such a life. It wasn’t that he was fragile, as William learned not the hard but the most joyous of ways just now. But he Marquess’s son belonged not in the damp, crowded cabins of a 12-shooter or the dust, dirt, and grime of colonial battlefields that were William’s playgrounds. No, William knew Alfred was meant for spacious, gilded ballrooms and pleasant promenades in blooming English gardens.

And in the arms of a man who would love him.

I could love him, a cruel and unhelpful voice said in the back of his mind. And William froze, feeling like he had fallen twenty feet off the fighting top.

He took his hand off Alfred’s skin as if burned by it.

This wouldn’t do. No. He could not get attached. Could not. It didn’t matter that his heart was already screaming out for Alfred, set on fire, he could not do this. He was setting sail before the summer was over, to return to the Yellow Sea, as soon as Palmerston made up his mind and handed his letter to the Captain to deliver. Maybe he could see Alfred more until that day? But how could he hope to return to battle with a clear head when he was already getting ideas that ought not to be got?

He had seen men lose their closest friends on the battlefield and give up or get distracted by missing their loved ones, vulnerable to attack. He always thought he had survived thus far because he had nothing of the sort to split his focus. This was not the time to start.

Steeling himself, he tore himself away from Alfred, dressed, and ran out of the stifling cabin, out into the night, away, away from that damned ship altogether, to remove himself from even a trace of these ideas.

 

‘Oh, God, I can’t watch,’ Edward groaned in the carriage, burying his face in Charlotte’s scarf, expecting to hear the sounds of shots.

Which never came.

‘What…?’ Charlotte asked no one in particular, locking eyes with Emma over Edward’s shoulder.

‘What, what’s happening?’ Edward suddenly lunged at the window.

 

Though he had turned around, Alfred stood frozen, with his gun aimed at William 30 steps away, finger tight on the trigger but not shooting.

He didn’t think he heard it right.

But William hadn’t fired either.

In fact, he was holding his hands up in the air indeed.

‘I FORFEIT,’ William repeated.

 

‘You… you forfeit?’ Alfred had to ask again to believe it.

‘Yes. Yes, I do,’ William said loud and clear. For good measure, he dropped his own pistol in the snow some way away.

Letting his arms down slowly to rest by his sides, he started walking towards Alfred as if he wasn’t approaching a man holding him at gunpoint.

‘Come on, Alfred,’ he spoke when he was but a few feet away from him. ‘You didn’t seriously think I could shoot at you, did you?’

He came to a halt when his chest hit the barrel of Alfred’s still held out gun, right where his heart was.

‘Would you have at me?’ he asked, fearing the answer.

Alfred picked his jaw up the ground and lowered his pistol in shame.

‘No,’ he admitted, discarding of it, too.

William smiled, though there was nothing arrogant or calculating about it this time.

‘I’m glad to hear. Knowing your talents, wherever you would have aimed would not have been by accident.’

‘Why?’ Alfred asked about the obvious, still flabbergasted.

‘Alfred, I’m leaving.’

Alfred sighed, frustrated. ‘Fine, go, without a word, as always…’

‘No, Alfred,’ William stayed calm, knowing there was no point in furthering arguments anymore. ‘I’m leaving. For good.’

Alfred frowned. ‘Is this another one of your games?’

‘No, I’m afraid I’m not joking this time. The situation between my father and I has become such that I find we can no longer coexist on the same continent, let alone the same country.’

‘Continent…?’

‘Yes, I was thinking Africa this time. Then the Middle East. Perhaps back to India. Perhaps in this order.’

‘But… when?’

‘In the morning.’

‘What – now? This morning?’

‘Yes.’

‘God, William, are you sure? Can’t it be helped?’

‘No. This cannot,’ William replied, still calmly. And somewhat regretfully. ‘When I was thirteen, I joined the navy because it was a good way to escape being under the control of a father who made it clear that I was not to play with certain boys. So I joined a crew of men and left. I’m afraid what he only suspected then has now been proven to him. He was trying to reconnect with me after he was almost shot. I know, sentimental, isn’t it? But in reality, probably a political stunt. Anyway, I wouldn’t reply to his letters, of course. So he sent his valet on me, didn’t he? I was, shall we say, busy. But the damned valet took it upon himself to peek through the keyhole and saw me with a man. Reported it right back to his master like the obedient beast he is.’

‘By God, William… No…’ Alfred’s heart sank for him in a way it hadn’t before.

‘Yes, well, I’m not about to sit around until my father’s police takes me in and it all makes for another kind of political move.’

‘He wouldn’t, not his own son.’

‘Wouldn’t he, though?’ William challenged. ‘Anyway. This time I’m not going to a war, believe it or not. This is for… exploration. To enjoy.’

‘Africa,’ Alfred uttered.

‘I know. Shocking.’

‘Where…?’

‘Egypt. I’ve been learning Arabic – I’m going with the man who’s been teaching me.’

‘Won’t it be dangerous?’

‘Ah, what’s an adventure without a little danger, Alfred?’ William winked.

‘William,’ Alfred spoke, getting over all his surprise, or trying to. ‘Are you serious?’

‘Quite serious. That’s why I’ve been trying to catch a moment with you to talk. I was hoping I might clear up the mess I made before I leave on this final occasion. So… forfeiting not only the duel but my dignity and high horse, I would like to apologise for having acted the way I have now and all previous times we met briefly, and of course for that time. I curse myself every day for having hurt you so…’ William said sincerely, but not without a little grin dancing its way back on his lips. ‘You’ve got to admit, it was fun, wasn’t it?’

Alfred almost laughed out loud. ‘While it lasted,’ he admitted.

‘That’s fair. And I want to say… Drummond is a lucky chap.’

‘I’m the lucky one,’ Alfred said without missing a beat.

‘Then he is all the more lucky because you say that. I’m sorry I was such a cad to him, though he already has my apologies. I suppose the moment I realised you were his I knew I didn’t stand a chance, I mean he is ridiculously handsome…’

‘You’re not too bad, yourself.’

‘Why thank you…’

‘And Edward, he’s… he’s more than just handsome. He’s good.’

William smiled. ‘Good. So… have I made amends? I should hate to think we’ll part enemies.’

‘We were never that. I suppose I, too, should apologise for being so unrelenting before… I’m sorry.’

‘It’s forgotten. Nevertheless, humour me, Alfred and, seeing as this is the last we see of each other, please say we can part friends.’

‘Friends,’ Alfred repeated, eying William while he could. He didn’t feel anything for him anymore but he had been confidant to the strange way he had grown up and what it did to him, through their many brief quarrels over the years. Which would end now.

He nodded and smiled kindly.

‘Always friends.’

William was genuinely grateful and relieved to hear that.

‘I really hope you find some peace and happiness moving forward, William.’

‘Ah, moving forward. You know me, I’ll never stop.’

‘Do you… need anything? I mean, can I help? What can I do?’

William laughed and shrugged. This was odd but… well, if he couldn’t ask Alfred whether he wanted to travel with him, as the answer would be a definite no, he offered his hand.

Alfred took it. But it felt wrong. So, overcoming his past feelings, he hugged William like a true friend.

‘Goodbye, Alfred,’ William said when he released him, suddenly looking younger somehow.

‘We may meet again yet,’ Alfred quipped, staying on the spot even as William started walking away from him.

William just laughed at that, believing in his heart of hearts that that would never happen.

Alfred watched as he untied the rope and got on his horse.

Hit by the reality of it just now, he stepped forward, calling William’s name for the last time before the Captain left and set sail.

Alfred struggled to find the words. William watched him while he could, hoping he would never forget his face. And he was listening.

‘Good luck,’ Alfred said simply in the end.

William bowed from his saddle, and, swiftly before he changed his mind, galloped away from Alfred.

Chapter Text

‘YOU!’

A pair of goldcrests flew out of a leafless tree in fright.

‘YOU!’ Charlotte shouted enraged at Alfred after he let them out of the carriage.

It wasn’t her that shoved him flat into the snow but Edward, who could not help but lunge at Alfred as soon as the door was open, tackling him right on the ground, holding him so tight Alfred could hardly breathe, and showering him in teary kisses.

This outburst of love was broken by a large amount of snow being thrown into Alfred’s face by her. Alfred had barely brushed it out of his eyes before another handful of snow blinded him. And another.

‘YOU!’ she shouted, shoving another handful on him, despite Edward’s attempts at protecting Alfred from it, ‘HOW,’ another batch splashed, ‘COULD’ another batch, ‘YOU… PUT US THROUGH… ALL THIS NONSENSE… EDWARD WAS OUT OF HIS WITS… YOU ABSOLUTE…’

Lady Portman came to the rescue and restrained her with her bare hands before she could curse or throw yet another snowball at Alfred, not that Edward hadn’t got a generous helping of it in the process, too. Well, perhaps it would do him good too, Charlotte thought briefly, after the whole day’s pathetic display!

‘Perhaps we could wait in the carriage, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Portman said, and she didn’t know why but Charlotte found her voice somehow seemed to calm her indeed.

‘I’m not done with you, Paget,’ Charlotte grumbled and followed Emma into the carriage.

Safe from the threat of snowballs, Edward helped Alfred up, brushing all the snow off his and Alfred’s coats, never letting go of his arm, his waist, his hair, his face, him, him, him.

‘Are you alright, my beloved?’ Edward asked, sniffing profusely still and eyes wide with worry.

‘I am. My love… I’m sorry for…’

‘YOU SHOULD BE,’ Charlotte shouted from the carriage.

‘Yes… I… I really am…’ Alfred stuttered, shaky from the cold or rather from the recent trying events.

Edward couldn’t help but kiss him again, he wanted to feel him, feel that he was there, and alive, and unscathed. He cupped his face in his warm, soothing hands.

‘What happened?’ he asked. ‘Why didn’t you…?’

‘Perhaps we ought to return home for this,’ Lady Portman warned, leaning out from the door, though her tone was calm and kind as usual.

But she had a point. They were in the middle of a park in the heart of London, albeit in the middle of the night, but it wouldn’t do to continue such a display out in the open, and Alfred agreed indeed, his mind still reeling from what happened to William, being found out and driven into fleeing the country. He did not want to follow him.

He drove them home, glad to be reining the horses to steady his hands. Unlike the route here, Edward insisted on sitting with him in the front while the ladies were inside the carriage this time.

Alfred was visibly apprehensive when opening the door for the ladies, flinching at every sudden movement of Charlotte’s. But she no longer seemed to want to rip him apart for the stupid duel.

‘What did you say to her?’ Alfred whispered to Lady Portman discreetly as they filed in through the door.

‘Nothing at all. I simply sat with her until she calmed.’

Alfred looked sceptical but let it go for now.

Once back in the Drummond house, they settled in one of the smaller, cosier rooms that warmed up quickly once the fire was going. They began calling this the Kittenry, in lieu of a nursery, simply because they had to take in the cat that had taken to coming to their garden, and its new kittens, lest they froze in the harsh weather, and found this room was suitable to proclaim as theirs. They were all currently snuggled up in a cat basket by the fireplace with their mum, initially surprised to have visitors but going fast back to sleep with not a care for anything in the world.

‘And please have rooms made up for—’

‘Already done, Mr Drummond.’

‘Thank you, that’ll be all. And good night, Freddie,’ Edward told the footman (still in his nightcap) who brought them tea and brandy. Thankfully, no questions were asked – he supposed his servants were starting to get used to something outrageous happening in the house every day. Just as long as they didn’t talk...

He forgot it was supposed to be Charlotte’s job (though he supposed she would disobey this rule just so) and lifted the teapot. ‘May I, Lady Portman?’

‘Thank you, Mr Drummond,’ Lady Portman said once they were alone and behind closed doors. It felt odd to sit down for a quiet chat over tea after the day they had had, something they all realised.

‘No, I thank you, Lady Portman,’ Edward replied after pouring everyone tea, embarrassment filling him as heartfelt as it was. ‘I apologise for dragging you into our affairs--’

‘That was my fault,’ Charlotte admitted. ‘It was all my fault.’

‘Not a fault. You did right,’ Edward said to his sister gratefully. ‘I shouldn’t have talked to you like that and I really feel ashamed to the core that you had to see me so agitated too, Lady Portman, I apologise for the uncivilized way I…’

‘No, your reaction was understandable, given the…’ she glanced at Alfred, ‘…circumstances. I would even commend you on the strength with which you seemed to bear it in the end.’

They sipped their tea in eerie silence. Every tick and tock of the clock driving it in more and more.

‘Lady Portman…’ Alfred began but she held up a hand.

‘I know what you’re going to say, Lord Alfred, and please let us not betray our friendship by even treating my discretion as a question. I assure you of my complete confidentiality. How could I do otherwise?’ she said calmly. Charlotte noticed she was again absent-mindedly touching her ring. And stopped when she realised Charlotte saw. ‘I am just glad you are not hurt. Really, Alfred… you are your father’s son through and through.’

‘I am not. We did not fire.’

‘No, you didn’t,’ Charlotte remembered, confused. ‘You…’ hugged, she wanted to say but it seemed incredible after all the hostility and fights.

Alfred blushed slightly and shot an almost guilty look at Edward, who, if he had any jealousy in him masked it well. He was still rather troubled instead, and just as confused.

‘What happened, Alfred?’ he asked again.

‘He… he forfeited,’ he replied, still not quite believing it himself.

‘What?!’ Edward rightly asked, almost spilling his tea. ‘William? Forfeiting?’

‘I know. Imagine my shock! But of course he did…’

Alfred set down his cup of tea, took a deep breath, and told them in full about why William forfeited and why he was leaving. Well, he had spared the details of what Emma would refer to as his amorous complications with William the first time they met, for Edward’s sake more than for the ladies’. But after the ordeal he had put them all through that day, really, he owed them as full a disclosure as he could manage, however impolite were the facts. And however painful it was to admit to feelings he once nursed for another man.

After he was done, all of them were aghast and shocked but especially Edward.

‘By God…’ he said, crestfallen. ‘I fought so hard to keep him from you… if I’d known… And to think I used to admire Sir Robert… I mean, for heaven’s sake, I…’

‘You are a hero for what you did, and this does not change that,’ Alfred said at once, quenching Edward’s self-deprecation just as he had when he blamed himself for losing the Queen in Scotland. ‘Shame Sir Robert will never know he can thank his life to you, whose life he and his policies have threatened, endangered, or harmed in return, along with those of many others, including his own son!’ he ranted almost uncharacteristically. It wasn’t everyday he expressed himself like this but anger had fired up in him suddenly, before he noticed himself and apologised and sat back in his armchair.

Charlotte poured him a sip of brandy, walked over to sit on his armrest and handed it to him.

‘I don’t believe Sir Robert would have reported him, truly,’ Edward said timidly.

But no backlash was unleashed. Alfred looked at him quite sadly, rather:

‘But it’s not up to him, is it? He can’t seem as if he was supportive, not even that, as if he so much as wanted to protect his son from repercussions, since his valet would know, that is if he wouldn’t blackmail him in the first place. Sir Robert wouldn’t really have a choice but to obey the law, even if it went against his feelings, about which I am doubtful in the first place.’

Edward looked down at the tea cup on his lap. He couldn’t argue with that.

‘Perhaps he’ll be happier this way,’ Charlotte mused. ‘…I’m sorry,’ she added, as Alfred eyed him strangely.

But he smiled in the end.

‘Probably. The only way William would ever sit still is if the Earth below him caught up with the speed at which he runs.’

Charlotte gave him a wistful sort of smile. Alfred watched her for a while. She was deep in thought, eyes on the fire. His instinct to lighten the mood surfaced naturally:

‘You could still make it to the docks, you know. I am quite jealous that you would choose William over me…’

‘Oh, God, Edward told you…’ she hid her face, sitting back in her own seat by Lady Portman’s side.

‘…but I must respect your decision like a gentleman. But I believe Edward would miss you dearly. As would we. Unless your parents are good sailors also, marrying him would be superfluous perhaps, but I would advise you to bring light clothes fit for the desert at any rate.’

‘Stop it, don’t tempt me, you,’ Charlotte joked. But her smile never reached her eyes. She may have pulled herself together for Edward’s sake but the big matter was still in the air and New Year’s Eve was ever approaching. Indeed, it was not a full week until Christmas arrived now.

‘Where is the wedding taking place?’ Lady Portman asked as if reading her mind.

‘Monteviot House, the Lothian seat,’ Edward replied instead of Charlotte, who was visibly tense at the very thought. ‘They thought about Ferniehirst Castle at first as it was renovated quite recently but the space would simply not allow for the guest count.’

‘No, Monteviot is quite the site for nuptials, even in the winter.’

‘Have you been there before?’

‘Once, the Baron and I visited briefly while in Edinburgh. A long time ago, I’m afraid.’

‘Lady Portman likes to pretend she is a lot older than she actually is,’ Alfred said chivalrously.

She gave him a look both flattered and scolding. ‘Well, I wish your brother and Lady Florence all the happiness.’

‘Thank you.’

‘And a merry Christmas to—’

‘Oh!’ Alfred suddenly exclaimed. ‘I completely forgot! You do not have to say your well wishes now. You can do that at on Christmas Eve. That’s what I came to tell you in the morning – if only things hadn’t gone so off track…’

‘That’s elegantly put…’ Charlotte jabbed at him.

‘Once again, I profusely apologise. Anyway, Her Majesty has invited you both to Windsor for Christmas.’

‘What?’

‘Really, Alfred?’ Edward asked at the unexpected prospect of spending Christmas with Alfred after all!

‘Yes, apparently she did not like to think you would be spending it alone here in London. Unless you wanted to travel up to Scotland right away to your family, of course…’

‘No. We don’t,’ Charlotte stated at once.

‘Well then, can I relay your acceptance of the invitation to the Queen?’

‘Oh, do come,’ Emma said when they hesitated, turning especially to Charlotte, placing a hand on her arm for good measure, something so simple yet which seemed to distract her so. ‘The castle can be a gloomy place and we should be dearly delighted to have you there.’

It took no more convincing for them to give in.

The clock struck two and they decided to retire for the night.

‘I hope I did not twist your arm earlier, Miss Drummond,’ Lady Portman said in her gentle, soothing voice once Charlotte led her to her bedroom. ‘About Windsor.’

‘Not at all,’ she admitted, glad the darkness of the hallway hid her face. ‘It is rather a relief, really.’

Lady Portman raised their single candle slightly and searched her eyes… somehow she felt seen through and searched for something to say.

‘I hope your room will be to your taste. After the Palace, I imagine our humble abode seems but a farm shack.’

‘Not in the least, rest assured. It is a fine house. One can tell it is lived in by people who have care and love for things around them and for each other. If the kittens could speak, I’m sure they would agree.’

‘I fear I’m not a very nurturing person by nature, except with certain animals. I really prefer them to people sometimes.’

‘Don’t we all? Much less complicated than us,’ Lady Portman quipped, earning a giggle from Charlotte. ‘Especially cats, if they are as tranquil as yours.’

‘Are you very fond of cats, Lady Portman?’

‘I am indeed. In fact, I heard through the grapevine that the Duke of Wellington called me a cat once. Though I doubt he meant it as a compliment.’

‘He didn’t!’

‘I’m afraid he did!’

‘But the Duke of Wellington is always so highly praised!’

‘His usual disposition is most honourable and gallant, I have to say, before you think any less of him. He and I hold no grudges at all, I assure you. He did not take kindly to Her Majesty’s intention to keep me on at court despite Lord Melbourne’s resignation upon the Jamaica bill but I am glad to say we are friends now, through Henry. He and your brother are not mistaken to respect and even admire him. And he admires them back – Henry, perhaps less admittedly, but Mr Drummond, definitely.’

‘Yes, Lord Anglesey told me so in Wales.’

‘Did you enjoy your time there?’

‘I did, perhaps too much…’ Charlotte groaned, embarrassed at her getting lost so foolishly.

‘No, never regret an adventure. I wish I had more when I was your age.’

‘You sound so wistful, Lady Portman,’ Charlotte almost challenged.

‘I am wistful of that time – I have rather missed you.’

You, not your company, Charlotte’s mind screamed, she didn’t know why.

‘And…’ Lady Portman continued confidentially, ‘Before we part, might I just say, I commend not only your brother on his strength today but you on yours as well, and on the support you showed him. He is lucky to have you as a sister.’

‘I’m afraid I have behaved rather ungratefully towards him lately.’

‘Since… your parents were here?’ Lady Portman alluded to the great problem euphemistically.

Charlotte felt any words stuck in her throat at the very thought, that bitter reminder. Her anxiety was getting worse and worse by the day.

Despite it all, she had the strange sense that Lady Portman was able to offer some advice, or support, even if a moral one, something that called for Charlotte like a faint song of Sirens.

Or was that merely Lady Portman’s sweet perfume, which could be enjoyed from that close distance between them?

She didn’t remember standing so close.

Or did Emma step closer without her noticing?

‘Miss Drummond…’

But whatever it was the baroness wanted to say, she never got to as a door opened and closed on the far end of the long hallway, which was definitely Alfred sneaking into Edward’s bedroom.

The ladies had a bit of an embarrassed giggle about it, and, the moment broken (if there was any moment to be broken at all), bid each other good night.

For once, Charlotte felt she could sleep well through this most quiet night in the house.

 

Alfred’s back was slamming up against Edward’s headboard with every thrust.

They did not stand a chance at self-control that night.

Though Alfred was never truly near death, he and Edward had felt as such throughout the long, arduous day, and the ghastly night hours leading up to the duel, which turned out to be rather anticlimactic, which meant that the blood in Edward’s veins was now rushing with intoxicating relief, and Alfred was still yet to release hours and hours of built up tension in him, the sense of danger, the heady feeling of sharpening one’s gun and preparing to shoot or be shot…

‘Am I hurting you?’ Edward asked hoarsely as Alfred’s moans were becoming rather heated and strange and wild.

‘No, God, don’t you dare stop now, Edward,’ Alfred managed to say between thrusts, knowing his nails were going to leave scratch marks along Edward’s shoulder blades but he needed him, he needed him right there, just like that.

Edward didn’t need to be told twice and he gave Alfred exactly what he was asking for, pushing harder and faster into him until their bodies were glistening with sweat and they slid up and up against the headboard, slamming against its hardwood, Alfred clinging onto Edward with arms and legs around him, body tensing from the core of his abdomen to the tips of his fingers…

He bit down hard on the muscle of Edward’s shoulder as felt his pleasure suddenly after more of Edward’s particularly well aimed thrusts and came without warning.

‘A-Alfred?’ Edward asked, realising what had happened, looking down on their sweaty and now sticky stomachs.

‘I… I… I couldn’t help it… it was…’

‘But I didn’t even… touch you…’ Edward said in astonishment, though laughing, not about to complain at all.

‘I… I don’t know how…’ Alfred panted, almost apologetically. ‘I’ve never…’

But Edward just laughed as if in triumph and the pleasantest surprise, proud really, that he was making Alfred so happy. He held him tight, kissing him deeply.

‘I don’t believe we are quite done yet, sir,’ Alfred broke away to say, pushing Edward back down on the bed but staying seated more upright, steadying himself on Edward’s muscular shoulders, until he could start moving his hips up and down to pleasure Edward, too.

Edward was completely mesmerised by the sight above him: Alfred’s heated body moving in that fascinating way as when he was riding a horse, at his happiest, his porcelain skin glistening from the trails of wet kisses Edward had left on it, and the hair on his chest too from sweat and himself, and his hair all damp and falling over his eyes shut tight in concentration and joy, long eyelashes resting against his flushed, red cheeks, and God, the way his hips moved, his strong, shapely thighs… Needing to touch him, Edward ran his hands up them, and up Alfred’s toned stomach and chest, smearing things everywhere but hardly caring, until his hands found Alfred’s neck, and pulled him down now, needing yet more.

He guided Alfred to lean down so that Edward could taste his lips and feel his body against him, and it wasn’t long before he couldn’t hold it in any longer and finished, too, deep inside his lover.

‘God, Alfred,’ Edward panted against his lover’s neck, still in their embrace after minutes. ‘I didn’t think…’

‘What?’ Alfred managed to say, finding it difficult to converse.

‘Nothing… doesn’t matter…’ evidently from the uncharacteristically slurred was Edward was speaking, so was he.

‘What…?’ Alfred insisted.

‘Only I would have believed you might want to refrain from… from… this. Coming to my room. Given everything that just happened with William.’

Alfred’s body no longer tensed at the sound of his name. Nevertheless, he groaned and shushed Edward. Why bring it up now?

‘I’m sorry, my love, my own Alfred…’ Edward kissed him between every endearment he could think of, until they lay properly in the bed, ready to rest.

‘Stop, you silly man,’ Alfred giggled, not at all cross now, as some of those endearments were quite ridiculous, especially “my cream éclair” and “my Alfredest Alfred” whatever that meant. ‘I simply did not wish to remember…’

‘…him?’

‘No, not him. It. I know we had our differences but I wouldn’t wish discovery on my worst enemy. Not like this…’

‘You are still very fond of him.’ This wasn’t a question.

Alfred looked up at Edward’s knowing face, not being able to read it, or fearing he could not.

‘I know you don’t love him, I am not jealous as you might think, at least I do not believe so,’ Edward was quick to add, though somewhat sombre in the dark. ‘Nonetheless, you need not erase it if you did feel for him. Even if that was love or a sentiment akin to love or one that might have become love or--’

Alfred silenced Edward with a long, loving kiss, pressing his naked body against his between the sheets.

‘Edward, I have only ever loved you. Truly,’ he said earnestly against Edward’s full, wet lips.

Edward smiled, warmth filling him. ‘And I you. Forgive me, but you know me, my job is to think about all possibilities at all times. Thus, it could hardly escape me, the idea that it was only a matter of a single slight detail years in the past, a single conversation, which, if it had gone another way, would have meant that I might never have met you or we might never have found each other like we have.’

‘No… we were fated to belong to each other,’ Alfred said with utmost conviction. ‘If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’

‘Do you believe so?’

‘I know so,’ Alfred said at once. ‘I may have… God, Edward, I was young and foolish and I admit I was more than seduced or infatuated with William at the time. But in hindsight, it did not come close to what I have felt for you, not for a second,’ Alfred had to say, ‘I love you, Edward, I can’t say how much. I love you, I love you,’ he sighed against Edward’s skin, diving in for more kisses and more, as Edward felt under the covers…

‘Alfred!’ he exclaimed, giggly but not objecting. ‘I just had you…’

‘Oh, really? I forget! Did I enjoy it?’

‘You most certainly did – oh!’ Edward replied, even as Alfred began touching him expertly.

‘Remind me?’ Alfred asked, and they abandoned sleep for the night without further ado.

 

‘The letters from France, Mr Drummond,’ the page boy said, dropping a box on Drummond’s table at the House later that day.

‘Thank you, Dooley,’ he said, stifling a yawn.

‘Will there be anything else, Mr Drummond?’

‘No. No, wait! Coffee. I definitely need coffee.’

The page boy grinned knowingly (he was a fan of coffee, too, in his line of work!) and left to prepare some in a study off the hallway the gentlemen at the house used for smoking and recreation between tasks.

Edward followed the scent of tobacco, and freshly brewed coffee, dreaming of its taste, but when he stepped in, he found someone already in line for a cup.

Sir Robert Peel himself.

‘Ah, Drummond! Long time no see!’ he said. Though Edward was caught off guard, and he had felt sufficiently guilty for supporting Sir Robert even if he hardly benefitted from certain policies against men like him, he could not help but feel at ease with his former mentor, and even that deeply ingrained instinct to please him, and so as always he found he was standing taller without thinking.

‘Indeed, Sir Robert. What brings you to the House? Not the coffee?’ Drummond joked, pouring himself a cup, hiding the fact he added three sugars and milk while Sir Robert took his black.

‘A review of the situation in Russia. I feel only Palmerston is the best source of information, particularly nearing Christmas, as the news slows down and Parliament is in recess. I suppose you are looking forward to a bit of a break yourself.’

‘I am! That is, we are. My sister and I have been invited to spend Christmas at Windsor, as a matter of fact.’ God, Edward wondered why he said so – was he trying to show off? To this man who drove William out of the country not a day ago?

‘Oh? I thought Her Majesty was at odds with the current government.’

‘She has not taken kindly to the change, as she had not to the change when you began your premiership, sir.’

‘That, I do remember.’

‘But it was not a formal invitation. As you know I am good friends with Lord Alfred, and it was his doing.’

‘Ah, that man. I must admit I was apprehensive of his presence as a courtier during what should have been our private audiences with the Queen, but I never had a problem with him. His father, however, well, he can be a troublemaker, but never with malicious intent. Even if he is a Whig.’

‘I have come to know Lord Anglesey as well. Unparalleled, is the right word, I daresay.’

‘You should dare, and so do I! Oh, Lord Alfred must be missing his grand family, having to stay at court come rain come shine.’

‘Indeed. Your family must be missing you, too,’ Edward heard himself say, immediately kicking himself for bringing up family topics potentially too hard hitting.

And indeed, Sir Robert seemed to grow sadder by the second. He was not at all the judgemental, stern, and pious patriarch Drummond expected him to be. He seemed older and tired and most of all awfully regretful.

‘I do hope to spend it with my family, yes, sir,’ Sir Robert said, putting on a brave face. ‘That is every father’s wish, is it not? We may have our grumbles but at the end of the day, one must protect one’s family.’

Edward could not help but frown a tad.

‘Do you disagree, Drummond?’

‘No, not at all. Only, I have always known you as a man of principle, Sir Robert.’

Drummond wondered if he had been too transparent but Peel did not seem to find this strange whatsoever. But it did prompt him to wonder.

‘One must choose the path one feels is right, Drummond. Even at one’s personal sacrifice. I trust you learned that from me very well.’

‘I did, Sir Robert. I shall wear its reminder for the rest of my days,’ Edward glanced at his arm.

‘Good man,’ Sir Robert said, tearing up and noticing himself straight away. ‘Ah, forgive me. Only, Drummond… Now that we are no longer colleagues in the sense we were before, I feel no shame in admitting, even if it makes me sound old and soft and a fool, that I have always looked at you like a son I never had. I am quite proud of you.’

Drummond was both quite touched and apprehensive about the association. He could not help but wonder why Sir Robert was equating him with his son now. But he was being paranoid, surely.

‘I heard you took up teaching at a college, too?’ Sir Robert continued, amused. ‘Bravo, sir, bravo.’

Drummond was really having a hard time feeling hostile against Sir Robert now.

‘Thank you, sir,’ he said. ‘I feel proud and grateful in return, I cannot deny it. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. If that’s not too sentimental to say so.’

‘Oh, no. It’s Christmas. One must allow oneself some sentimentality at this time of the year, is that not so, Drummond?’

‘I suppose so, Sir Robert.’

‘My only regret is that you gave up Lady Florence. I understand she is marrying your brother. I hope it hadn’t anything to do with the incident…’

‘You understand correctly, sir, but no, it wasn’t the incident that brought it about. In fact, I had an inclination to give way to their obvious and mutual fondness of each other some time before it. Hence why I did not want her to see me immediately after the injury. I needed to arrange it all so that there was no awkwardness left. I see my only true marriage is one between me and the state, whereas I daresay Arthur and Lady Florence shall find much happiness together, much happiness indeed.’

‘Good. That is all we can hope for our children.’

‘Sir Robert?’ Palmerston’s private secretary called from the door. ‘We are ready for you.’

Sir Robert put down his coffee cup, smiled regretfully at Drummond, and left to discuss that review.

He debated it in himself, hating himself for both action and inaction, but in the end, his feet took him to the hallway.

‘Sir Robert!’ Drummond called after him. Peel turned, listening. ‘Merry Christmas, sir.’

Peel seemed to find this both amusing and endearing, even heart-warming.

‘A Blessed Christmas, Drummond,’ he replied gallantly.

And with a polite nod each, they parted.

Edward may not yet have known where to place his ambivalent feelings about Sir Robert, and William for that matter, but if there was anything he took away from it all, it was that there was always more than met the eye and no one was either saint or villain.

And regardless of that, and perhaps because to do otherwise as the snow started falling in cheerful, fat flakes outside the House’s windows, Edward truly wished the best for both of them.

Chapter Text

‘You next, Miss Drummond!’ Queen Victoria pointed at her.

Her Majesty was wearing a beaming smile from over the ear braid to over the ear braid. The joy of opening presents by the largest Christmas tree Windsor Castle could hold was overwhelming her. Prince Albert had really outdone himself by arranging every little detail meticulously, with strange but amusing new habits that he brought over from the Continent, but his Christmas Eve excitement was infectious on his wife, as well as on the rest of the guests.

Said guests were currently having a blast (save for some awkward moments between Ernst and  Harriet), surrounded by opened boxes and fragrant glasses of mulled wine.

And no children, now that it was quite past their bedtime. Not that they were horrible, it’s just the Queen seemed somewhat awkward around them, and Charlotte didn’t want to be in the role of being a nice new lady to play with because she didn’t know anything about how to handle children at all. It didn’t help her anxiety, which was already reaching new highs, what with the actual Queen being in the room and the date of the wedding around the corner.

But now it was time for presents.

Charlotte (or, as the Queen said not two seconds after they met “the famous Miss Drummond”, something which earned Alfred a discreet but scolding glare for its implications) accepted wonderful little gifts from everyone, including the royal couple who, not knowing her very much but meaning well, gave her a splendid little jewellery box engraved with her initials and the Drummond crest in gold (she was happy about this, actually, as this was also practical, not just pretty). The Duchess of Sutherland gave her a set of sketching pencils and inks, no doubt having consulted about her interests with Alfred. Edward gave her a thrillingly thick book on diplomacy, which was gladly received. Lady Portman got her an elegant brooch carved in the image of a cat, which a secret wink and a confidential touch of the nose accompanied, bringing Charlotte’s cheeks to a blush… she really had too much wine to drink, she was too giddy from such a simple little thing.

But it was Lord Alfred’s gift that took her breath away.

‘Alfred,’ she uttered as soon as she opened the little box. She looked up at him, completely touched.

‘Do you like it?’

‘I love it.’

‘Really? We chose it together with Edward, I was worried it would not be to your taste.’

‘No, it’s perfect!’

She ran her hand along the dark blue silk. In the box lay the most perfect and expensive looking cravat. A proper one, supposedly acquired from one of the finest gentleman’s boutiques from London, or even made especially by a royal tailor. But it wasn’t really the luxury of it, it was the thing itself.

‘I hope you have a suitable attire for it to complete,’ Alfred added.

‘I do. I shall try it on first thing later. I feel sure I shall feel very strong wearing it.’

Indeed, she seemed to stand taller even as she said that. Alfred smiled at her proudly but caught himself before there was really much too much half-covert whispering between Victoria and Albert, who were watching this interaction from across the room with keen eyes and a lot of giggling.

More presents were opened, and an informal, almost homely atmosphere descended upon the otherwise dark room in the night.

‘Could you help me with it?’ Charlotte asked Lady Portman at the first opportunity. She was holding the brooch in her hand, and to her delight, Emma smiled that wonderful smile of hers. Really, Charlotte was hit once again by how absolutely fine a lady she was. An impeccable courtier, as she had seen during their stay thus far, but also a genuine friend. Artifice was not her style. And really, if she was this beautiful inside and out, Charlotte wondered, she couldn’t imagine how stunning she must have looked in her youth.

‘I thought you’d never ask!’ Emma replied, taking the brooch.

Charlotte intended for this to be a polite, friendly gesture, but Lady Portman’s eyes fell on hers, from very close, and she gasped ever so softly when she realised Emma wasn’t simply pinning it on her dress and getting on with it.

She took her gloves off, as the women were in the cover of the giant Christmas tree, separated from the rest of the guests. She took her time, compelling Charlotte to keep catching her eyes, which were like a cat’s indeed, but not in the malicious way, no, like those of a magical princess in a fairy tale. And she seemed to have forgotten to keep her hands hovering, allowing for more than minimal contact between them while she fixed the brooch on the central spot on her collar, right over her breastbone.

Her finger brushed against the skin on Charlotte’s chest, leaving embarrassingly visible goose bumps in its wake.

Charlotte really felt dizzy.

It only occurred to her now how much she had isolated herself in these past few months since the season. Perhaps he could enjoy simple delights again?

‘Shall we join the others to show them?’ Lady Portman asked innocently once she was done.

Charlotte found herself speechless, her senses overwhelmed by that lightest of touches and the scent of mulled wine and pine tree and Emma’s perfume, and so she nodded and tried to be at her best behaviour.

They joined the royal couple and Harriet and Ernst by the fire.

‘Where’s my brother and…?’ she asked when she found her voice at last.

‘Mr Drummond was keen to see the Leonardos. Lord Alfred kindly offered to show him,’ Victoria explained. ‘I’m sure you won’t have to miss him for long.’

 

‘Alfred!’ Edward hissed between giggles, glancing fearfully at the door in the gallery. ‘Really, now, I would actually like to look at the paintings.’

Alfred sighed, getting his hands off Edward.

‘Fine, there, look,’ he pointed carelessly at an invaluable original Leonardo da Vinci. ‘Good? Seen it? Good. Now…’ and he stepped flush against Edward again, hands going straight for the front of his trousers.

‘Alfred, honestly!’ Edward exclaimed in a hushed voice, grabbing Alfred’s wrist decisively. He wasn’t cross, he was just more at his wits than Alfred, apparently! ‘We might be seen any second, or heard! Have you gone mad, my love?’

‘Mad for you, indeed,’ Alfred leaned in for a kiss.

Edward stepped out of his way swiftly.

‘You do realise you doing this only makes me long for you more?’ Alfred asked, hoping his puppy eyes would do the trick.

They kept stepping in a circle among pictures on stands, Alfred slowly chasing after Edward.

‘We cannot do this in Her Majesty’s gallery,’ Edward said because someone had to. ‘What is up with you lately? You aren’t usually so… reckless.’

‘Who’s reckless? We’re quite alone!’

‘Like we were alone in the carriage on the way back from the tie shop?’

‘Yes,’ Alfred said seeing no problem with this.

In that carriage, though Alfred had spent the third night in a row at Edward’s house, quite exhausting the both of them, or so Edward thought, he actually would not keep his hands to himself, and it fell on Edward to physically drag him off his knees and back on the seat before he managed to unbutton Edward’s trousers and use his mouth for other things than instructing the driver on where to stop, right in that moving carriage!

Edward stopped backing away from Alfred and crossed his arms.

‘Ohh, that frown… so cross with me… aren’t you, Professor Drummond?’ Alfred purred.

Edward tried with all his might to look stern but had to bite back a grin and blushed profusely.

‘Let us just go back to the room,’ Edward said, and walked determinedly out of the gallery (though, as he had to walk past Alfred, not without a pinch on his bum and much tutting).

They joined the others without raising any suspicion. After a bit of fireside chatting about choosing the next Lady of the Bedchamber, and about the newest inventions that could propel Britain to a prospering future, they filed out of the room to retire for the night.

‘Did you like your present, Alfred?’ Edward whispered softly to him once Prince Albert and Ernst had left them and they were walking down the carpeted dark corridor quite alone to their chambers.

‘Yes, a new binocular and opera tickets. You know how I love music. And you?’

‘Of course, it’s very chic for a cheroot case. I shall keep it in the pocket right next to my heart always.’

‘And… do you believe that was all I was going to give you for Christmas?’ Alfred asked, batting his eyelashes at Edward.

Edward grinned. ‘Not for a second.’

‘You guessed right.’

‘My room in half an hour?’ Edward whispered almost inaudibly but positively quivering with longing for Alfred.

Alfred winked at him and disappeared to his bedchamber, where a valet was waiting for him, as for Edward in his own chamber, as was the habit of things in the Castle.

But once the servants left, Alfred listened for their footsteps to fade and he was in Edward’s room in no time.

Edward was kissing him up against the door even while he was blindly fumbling for the key to lock it. His hands were trying to get at Alfred’s bare skin underneath the night shirt and roaming down his back, his hips, his…

‘What’s that?’ he asked, feeling something hard and square tucked into Alfred’s pocket.

‘Ah, that…’ Alfred pulled out a small wrapped object, ‘is yours.’

Edward frowned. ‘You do know when you said you have yet another present to give, I thought you meant…’

‘Well I have two more to give you, then. Just open it already, will you?’ Alfred ordered impatiently from desire that had been sparked too highly in him already.

Edward unwrapped the present and stared at it with the most peculiar expression.

It was a simple silhouette of a gentleman, such as you could pick up in any shop the middle-classes went to buy decorations for their homes.

‘Oh, wait, it opens there…’ Alfred added, reaching over to undo a little clutch on the side of the frame. The silhouette opened like a little window, revealing behind it quite a different picture.

Edward kept staring at it until Alfred was worried he had made a mistake.

‘I just thought, I miss you so dearly and painfully all day long, even when I am with you and I am holding you in my arms I already miss you for the times I no longer will. I thought I would love to have a likeness of you if I could, so… I thought why wouldn’t you like one of me, if you miss me even half as much as I do you? Was that wrong? Is this just terribly self-conceited of me?’

Edward found himself lost for words staring at what was a most perfect portrait of his beautiful Alfred.

‘My love… how could it have been wrong? You were… you were right… It is… In fact,’ Edward laughed now, moving to his desk, and pulling out of a drawer an object the same size as the picture he was holding. He walked back to Alfred to hand it to him. ‘We had the very same idea.’

Alfred unwrapped his own second present and found a similarly inconspicuous decorative frame with a portrait of Edward behind it. It was a perfect likeness indeed, one he should love to have in his bedroom to look at always, when he had to spend the night alone. The technique was similar to that of the portrait he gave of himself to Edward…

...in fact, it matched it.

‘Did you ask Charlotte too?’ Alfred asked.

‘Who else?’ Edward giggled at the coincidence.

‘Well, thank you,’ Alfred said, giving a peck on Edward’s lips. ‘But now…’

He took the framed pictures and put them on the desk for now, though. When he turned back to Edward, his eyes were already dark with lust, and he was falling into bed with him in no time.

 

Edward was sleeping soundly. His beautifully sculpted features were stunning in any light but they were cast in blue shades due to the frosty night outside, giving him an almost ghostly appearance. Alfred felt his slow even breaths on his face, tightly wrapped in his lover’s arms.

But far from soothed into sleep, he was wide awake.

For the longest time, he had not imagined that such happiness could find him. Though some months had passed since he could call Edward his, he still felt clumsy and unprepared, and definitely undeserving of him. With age, one learns that things that are too good to be true usually are. But this was too good, more than that, it was beyond sane imagination, being in love with Edward, so much so that instead of matching levels of bliss he began to fear.

Fear kept creeping into his heart to spoil his happiness, whispering nastily to him that something was lurking just around the corner that would break them apart.

Alfred’s eyes fell on the scar on Edward’s arm.

He hadn’t exactly felt secure in his relationship with Edward beforehand but he really blamed that incident for all this. The idea that Edward could be taken from him from one moment to the next still haunted him, ever since that bullet found him. It got worse when William had to revive him with a kiss of life. Edward was far from weak, but that did not mean he wasn’t vulnerable, and Alfred had past experiences to support this.

He lingered on the curves of Edward’s arm, his muscles, the veins on his neck pulsing with blood, his chest rising and falling with deep breaths, reminding Alfred that Edward was very much alive. Full of life, in fact.

How full?, Alfred thought not before long, shifting closer to Edward under the thick covers.

Oh, Edward was indeed full of life, hard in his sleep, and Alfred did not even think before sliding a hand down to touch him.

Edward stirred. Alfred kept watching him closely, for signs of recognition, for pleasure, for more, as his hand stroked his length below.

‘Al… Alfred...’ Edward groaned in disbelief half-awake.

Though he couldn’t help but smile, he gently pried Alfred’s hand off himself. Alfred tricked him and escaped from his soft grip to go back to stroking him. Edward groaned and giggled, and pried him off again, turning his back on him for good measure.

That was only oil to the fire as far as Alfred was concerned, as there were few things in life that drove him wild with desire than the curves of the muscles on Edward’s back. He spooned him tightly.

And reached around Edward’s hip to resume his touching.

Edward pried his hand off again gently and repositioned himself so that he was lying more on his stomach than his side.

But that only meant that Alfred could really snuggle up to him, fitting perfectly against Edward’s skin silky soft from sleep, his naked body flush against Edward’s back, including his own hardness, which he rubbed against the shapes of Edward’s bottom while placing the softest and sultriest kisses on the nape of his neck.

‘Alfred!’ Edward half-reprimanded him again after few seconds of this, dragged back from the brink of going back to his rest. ‘Don’t you ever sleep?’

‘How could I sleep when you are here?’ Alfred whispered against Edward’s ear hotly.

Edward groaned drowsily. ‘But we have barely taken to rest, my love… Let’s go back to sleep.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Can’t or won’t, Alfred—oh!’ Edward gasped as Alfred sneakily touched him with his hand again. He turned around and was definitely awake now, his hair in mad tangles. ‘Really, now, Alfred!’

‘Really, now, Edward, your body betrays your tone.’

‘That, I can’t help. But you… Seriously, Alfred, what has got into you lately?’

‘What do you mean?’ Alfred asked reluctantly. ‘Don’t you like this?’

‘Of course I do, I love it, I love you. But you cannot deny it, something has changed. You can’t keep your hands to yourself.’

‘Do you blame me when you are so beautiful?’ Alfred muttered and went in for kisses on Edward’s neck now.

‘Flattery won’t get you out of answering, Alfred, nor what you are doing with your tongue….’

Alfred pulled away reluctantly. ‘Why can’t I just enjoy you while I can? I shall have to return to my chamber before daybreak, and then I’m not allowed to touch you all day though you are standing in arm’s reach, right there. I just want to kiss you all day.’

‘There’s more,’ Edward said, searching Alfred’s face. It wasn’t simply lust, there was a sense of melancholy tainting it. ‘What you say has always been true. There’s something you’re not telling me. Or not telling yourself.’

Alfred avoided Edward’s eyes, not wanting to confront any of this.

‘And I can’t help noticing,’ Edward went on carefully, ‘this sudden elevation of the urgency of your needs has been so since William left. Just… just tell me, Alfred. Tell me if you… miss him.’

Alfred did meet Edward’s eyes at that, deadpanned.

‘Is that what you think?’ he asked.

‘Please contradict me if I am wrong. But is everything not pointing to this conclusion? I really fear there is something I am not giving you, that I am not enough. That you wish---’

‘Don’t you dare finish that sentence, Edward, don’t you dare. That’s not it. That is never it. Understand? Perish the thought, perish it to the last speck of ash.’

‘Then what is it?’ Edward asked, reaching up to cup Alfred’s face lovingly, desperate to untie whatever knot sat in Alfred's stomach.

‘It’s not William. It’s… Tomorrow night, you try sneaking into my room and you’ll know. I can’t go back to sleep, Edward, I can’t sleep in the first place, as my mind is agitated with the acute awareness that the only thing separating us from absolute ruin is that door there, that thin old carving of wood, with its rusty lock and the ancient rusty key in it. I’ve been reckless? We both of us have, always. It only takes one mistake, one thing to go wrong: what if the key doesn’t work? Or it breaks and we shall have to call someone and they’ll find me in your room in my night clothes? What if someone saw me come in anyway, what if the servants are worldly enough to spot signs, my hair on your pillows, yours on my shirt, the smell of the room, the sheets…!’

Edward silenced Alfred’s nervous rant with kisses and held him until he calmed somewhat.

‘But you are always the one to shush me whenever I voice my concerns,’ Edward said while Alfred clung to him.

‘Yes, because I can’t stop dwelling on this. I love you too much, Edward, so much that I find I go about my day with a stone in my stomach, sick with fear. I can’t let you get hurt, not because of me, you mustn’t…’

Edward hugged Alfred tightly and gave him more kisses, all the soothing kisses needed to recollect himself. It pained Edward to see Alfred like this. A side of him he had only ever glimpsed at Ciro’s maybe… but that was acting, that was pretence. This, this was genuine fear, his beautiful, perfect Alfred was riddled with anxiety.

‘Shhh… You’re here with me now,’ he told him.

Alfred dived in desperately for more kisses, thirsty for the taste, clawing for the sensations to help him forget his worries, to take his mind off it all.

Edward gave him what he needed, understanding Alfred had been reckless (or defiant, to phrase it better, Edward proudly thought) and particularly desirous precisely because of the threat. But he pulled away before things could escalate, much to Alfred’s chagrin…

‘You cannot drown your fears in kisses forever, my daring,’ he said wisely.

‘Can’t I?’ Alfred asked, laughing through his tears.

Edward smiled sadly and brushed his golden locks out of his eyes.

‘I find that confronting our fears is much more efficient a way to fight them.’

Alfred sniffed back his tears and nodded. Why did Edward always have to be so smart?

‘So…’ Edward continued. ‘As much as I know I will be kicking myself for this in the morning, perhaps we had better talk about this?’

Defeated, Alfred nodded again.

Edward felt like a good teacher, for some reason, proud of Alfred’s learning.

‘You mean, plans for if…’

‘Should we make a mistake and there are consequences,’ Edward phrased it for him.

But he couldn’t help but grin and add:

‘That said… May I still visit your room tomorrow night?’

 

It was snowing in large flakes outside, and Prince Albert was trying to engage the children in activities outdoors while they waited for tea.

Charlotte was the first to come down to the drawing room, not fussing much with jewellery as the other ladies surely were upstairs. In fact, she liked the fact that it took a lot less time for her to change as she was wearing daywear her way today: shirt, waistcoat, and the cravat Alfred gave her for Christmas. She walked over to the tall windows, watching the Prince with the children.

She did like Windsor, though it was a bit gloomy indeed. The only thing spoiling the experience was the preoccupation with thoughts of marriage. Tomorrow, they would be leaving to travel to Scotland, and it was anyone’s guess what would happen to her there.

‘You wear it well,’ Lady Portman’s voice woke her from her nervous thoughts.

‘Thank you,’ Charlotte said, accepting the compliment. She did feel more herself wearing the tie.

Lady Portman followed Charlotte’s earlier gaze.

‘They are happy here, are they not? The children.’

‘Are they not happy at the Palace?’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that. Only it’s good to see the Prince play with them. He has great hopes for them, he means to educate them rigorously, but I find children must be allowed to play also.’

‘Once again, you are so wise, Lady Portman.’

‘I should be. I have six of my own.’

‘Six?’ Charlotte asked, trying not to look too aghast.

‘Four boys and two girls. I love them all. Though they are all taller than me now.’

Charlotte turned away from Lady Portman.

‘Do I bore you, Miss Drummond?’ Emma asked jokingly.

‘Of course not… Only… You’re not going to do what I think you were going to, are you?’

‘What would that be?’

‘Talking about the bliss of marriage, and children, and all that,’ Charlotte said, not at all cross, but her nerves were getting the better of her tongue. ‘Do not misunderstand me, I congratulate you on your Baron and your children and your happiness but every time someone suggests I follow that path I recoil from it yet more. I have had enough encouragement to marry from Her Majesty in just a few days. No doubt I shall be sat next to Lord Alfred at tea. I am not in need of more.’

‘I wasn’t going to do any such thing, I assure you,’ Lady Portman replied kindly. ‘To each their own.’

‘Thank you,’ Charlotte said with a relieved smile.

‘Do you really have an aversion to marriage?’

‘Not the concept itself. Just not for myself.’

‘Don’t you want to find a partner? Someone to settle with?’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Charlotte replied quietly.

‘Ah, so, it’s not marriage to which you have an aversion…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘When you came to the Palace to tell me about the duel… you mentioned your parents’ plans for you… and… your interests in women. I thought you simply find the pressure distressing but you do not simply have a liking for women, but an aversion to men. Is that not so? I’m sorry to pry, only…’

‘No, it’s…’ Charlotte replied, not wanting to cause upset or awkwardness, despite her discomfort at being pried at so intimately. ‘You’re not wrong.’

‘So the engagement your parents so wish for…’

‘I do not want it,’ Charlotte admitted. ‘Whoever the man.’

‘Charlotte,’ Emma said, pushing through the fact that the younger woman’s breath hitched at the familiarity, but she wanted her to know she was speaking frankly. ‘In that case, I must ask, how serious are your parents about this engagement? How binding is this…’

‘Threat?’

‘Plan, I was going to say but it is obviously more than that if you call it a threat.’

Charlotte thought, scratching at her nailbeds from nerves.

‘Truth be told, I wouldn’t put it past them. Not at all.’

‘And then? What would you do?’

‘Well, what could I do?’

‘Marriage is not an easy thing. Engagements are not easy, you as a woman can break it off at any time without legal consequences, and no one can physically force you down the aisle and hold a gun against your head to say “I do” in the church, Charlotte,’ Emma said, reaching for Charlotte’s hands to stop her from hurting herself from nerves.

‘I can’t just run for the hills, they are my parents, there is no hiding from them. They are quite determined, if not now as Mama warned, I fear they will have their way in the end.’

‘You are stronger than that.’

‘Am I? I don’t always feel it.’

‘I wish I could do something to help you see you are.’

Charlotte looked down at their joined hands. She didn’t want anyone to join them. She wanted to stay there with Emma in the peace of the room forever. Her touch and her presence seemed to soothe her so.

Then, an idea came to her.

‘Come with us. To the wedding. I would feel much more confident with you there.’

Lady Portman considered this.

‘I would like to but it’s a little too late for the Baron and me to receive a formal invitation.’

‘No, come as Edward’s guest. He can still bring one, though I’m sure Mama was hoping for someone unmarried. Please.’

‘I don’t mean to be a problem.’

Charlotte hang her head, knowing she was in for a disappointment. It was a stupid idea anyway.

‘But…’ Lady Portman said, ‘If Mr Drummond agrees, I should love to go. To support you. Who knows, your worries might not come to fruition at all. Your parents might be too proud of their son to worry about bullying you.’

‘If only that were true!’

Charlotte was so glad! Lady Portman knew how to handle people. She knew so much.

Perhaps far too much.

And her calmness about Charlotte… and the intimacy of their friendship… and her show of support against an engagement rather than convincing her of the benefits… and then there was that ring…

‘Emma…’

‘… in the summer and Leopold might join me for---‘ Ernst’s voice sounded from just outside the room, and Lady Portman and Charlotte let go of each other’s hands as if burned, just before the others entered.

They settled for tea in armchairs and recamiers, Charlotte as always pretending well that she wasn’t as emotional as she actually was because of Lady Portman.

Edward and Alfred were delighted by the idea that she join them for the wedding, and her Majesty could spare her.

And so they drank tea and talked about forgettable things politely, unaware of the searing looks the women exchanged from across the room, their unfinished conversation hanging stiflingly in the air between them like a heavy, humid cloud.

Charlotte couldn’t handle it for long and excused herself when the Queen wasn’t paying attention during a sonata she and the Prince were playing at the piano.

Lady Portman waited for an opportunity and stepped to Lord Alfred.

‘Might I have a private word?’ she asked.

‘But of course,’ Alfred replied, sensing this was not for the ears of others. They retreated to a bookcase in the corner alone.

‘What do you know about Mr Drummond Sr. and Mrs Drummond?’

‘I have never met them.’ That wasn’t technically a lie as he was hiding in Edward’s bedroom when they called, that was their closest encounter thus far. ‘But what I have heard does not sound very encouraging.’

‘You are careful, are you not?’

‘Why, do I have reason to fear? What have you heard?’ Alfred immediately panicked. After their night with Edward, all that business was on his mind vividly.

‘Nothing at all. I am asking because of Miss Drummond. The fact that you offered to help if…’

‘Ah, yes…’ Alfred caught on. ‘But she seems reluctant about the offer. Understandably. To be honest, the whole idea of marriage seems a bit perverse to me, too, in a way it doesn’t for others. I can’t explain it very well. But this wouldn’t be a marriage, not really, so I would be glad to step in if necessary. In a heartbeat.’

‘Is there no other way?’

‘Of course, there are plenty of other ways, each more dangerous than the other.’

‘Still, it can’t hurt to lay plans…’

Alfred laughed. ‘What makes you think I haven’t already?’

Emma smiled, relieved. She could always count on Lord Alfred.

 

‘What’s that keeping you pondering so?’ Edward asked Alfred on their stroll outside later. It was still knowing, which made the castle grounds wondrously peaceful. ‘You seem to be lost in thought. I hope it’s nothing troubling.’

‘No. You’ll be smug about it but you were right.’

‘Of course, I’m always right. About what, this time?’

Alfred cracked up at Edward’s cheek. ‘I do feel better now we talked. Not necessarily calmer, but better.’

‘Glad to hear it.’

‘Are you kicking yourself now?’

‘Immensely,’ Edward replied with a theatrical sigh.

Alfred winked at him and turned around to take in the scenery.

‘I wish we never had to leave,’ he said.

He took off his top hat and turned his face up to the skies to let the snowflakes fall on it freely.

Edward watched him, his beautiful face in the brightness of the all white snowy grounds, looking more like an angel than ever.

‘What were you talking about back there? With Lady Portman,’ he inquired.

But Alfred never got to answer as the children, Vicky and Bertie came up to them with big snowballs and no governess or nanny nearby.

‘Hello!’ Lord Alfred said animatedly. ‘Did you lose your way in the snow Your Graces?’

‘No, we are building a fort,’ Vicky informed them.

‘A fort? Is the castle not big enough?’

‘It’s a fort for our snowmen. To keep them from the cold.’

‘From the cold? Are snowmen concerned about the cold?’

‘Of course they are!’ Vicky said cleverly.

‘Are you dead, Mr Drummond?’ Bertie asked out of the blue, putting Edward on the spot.

‘Uh, no, not to my knowledge, Your Grace,’ he humoured him, catching Alfred’s eye for help.

‘Of course he’s not dead, Bertie,’ Vicky retorted. ‘Can’t you see he’s standing, walking, and talking!’

‘But he was shot!’

‘So?’

‘Papa says you die if you get shot!’ Bertie insisted, imitating the firing of a gun.

Alfred, rather than breaking down and crying from the whole horrific thought, snorted.

‘I can assure you, Your Grace, Drummond is very much alive,’ he said politely. Just then, he spotted something in the distance: Lady Portman approached Charlotte, and their hesitating stance gave him the sense this was not meant for prying eyes. He turned to the children, ushering them away. ‘Now, shall we go back to your nannies? They, as we, should love to see the fort you are building!’

 

Charlotte turned as she became aware of the sound of steps in the snow.

‘May I join you? Or would you prefer to be alone?’ Lady Portman asked.

Once again, the Baroness sought her out, Charlotte couldn’t understand why. Surely she had better things to do.

She nodded, though, and together they embarked on a stroll across the grounds between frost covered bushes and trees that made for a lovely orchard in the summer.

They walked in peaceful silence for a long time, not fussed about where they were going, really, following the path of least resistance in the snow, sometimes helping each other up slippery looking stone steps of gates that separated gardens.

‘It’s so peaceful here,’ Lady Portman broke the silence after a while.

‘Yes, it’s beautiful,’ Charlotte said quietly. ‘I wish we could stay here forever. Every day like this.’

Emma smiled at her, even as she saw her gloom cloud her warm brown eyes.

‘What about Lord Alfred?’ she suggested, picking up from where they left off. ‘Her Majesty seems to be under the impression you are headed towards an understanding.’

Charlotte laughed to herself. ‘Oh, dear Alfred…’ she swallowed. ‘I confess there has been discussion about it as a possibility. It was his idea. But, ideally, it won’t come to that.’

‘I wouldn’t dismiss the idea, you know. Even if there was another option. You are free to find it selfish of me but that would mean you might join us at the court. You might join it right away, in fact, as a Whig lady. Her Majesty seems very fond of you. I’m sure I could put in a word to support your case. And then… every day would be like this.’

‘Changing six times a day and moulding our conversations around what mood Her Majesty finds herself in?’ Charlotte asked with cheek, earning a little laugh from Emma, who glanced around that no one heard them.

‘There are drawbacks, but there are many things we could enjoy.’

‘You mean each other’s company?’ Charlotte clarified, dipping a toe into dangerous territory.

‘Indeed. Or would you not like that?’ Lady Portman asked in a strange, quiet tone to her voice. So intimate, so confidential, so…

‘I would… I…’

Charlotte didn’t know where she stood. But she wasn’t imagining it. Lady Portman said certain things and in certain ways that made her wonder. She stopped walking.

‘Were you arranged to be married to the Baron?’ she asked.

Lady Portman stopped too.

‘No,’ she replied.

‘So you did want to marry him.’

‘Oh, yes.’

Charlotte was confused now. She wished she hadn’t asked.

‘My parents weren’t forceful,’ Emma explained more. ‘And Edward, my husband, he is a very nice man, and moderately handsome, when he was a little less red faced and grey back then. He has a gentle disposition, and he is a kind man, if a bit too soft for Society at times. I’m the daughter of an earl, it was quite an agreeable match, and there was no reason for me not to be fond of him.’

Charlotte listened and listened, searching Emma’s face for giveaways for things she couldn’t openly say.

‘Wasn’t it hard? To marry? Without love?’

‘No, not at all.’

‘So you do not deny it?’ Charlotte asked shyly. But she had to.

‘We do have love for each other, even if not the passionate kind one reads about in novels. To be honest, Miss Drummond, I had quite exhausted my limits for excitement and heartbreak with other men before I met the Baron, and had quite enough of that. We married, we did what was expected of us and I have my beautiful children. Don’t look at me like that…’

‘Like what?’

‘Like that. Like you don’t believe me. I wanted to settle and it was a good exchange. We got along very well, we still do when we see each other, which is infrequently and perhaps that's the trick of a good marriage, or so the more sarcastic of my friends say. I let him do his own things, and he lets me do mine, trusting each other not to do anything too scandalous. We are friends. We did exchange lovely Christmas cards this year.’

‘And what about passion?’ Charlotte asked, convinced she saw right through Emma. ‘Lord Alfred says…’

‘He shouldn’t listen to rumours. Perhaps I had considered other men before the Baron but I married him. I have not broken my vows. I have been faithful.’

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed and her lips curled into the slightest grin.

She stepped close to Emma.

‘And this?’ she demanded, grabbing Emma’s hand and holding it up. The sapphire ring that was Agnes’s once clearly sparkled in the brightness.

Lady Portman didn’t know how to answer at first, which was more confirmation to Charlotte than words would have been. That second’s hesitation was enough to send nerves through her at once.

‘It’s mine. I had it always,’ Lady Portman said, looking Charlotte straight in the eye determinedly.

‘But you did not. Not always.’

‘No,’ Lady Portman admitted under Charlotte’s powerful gaze. ‘I had it taken from me. But I stole it back, I’m glad to say.’

‘By whom?’ Charlotte demanded, still not letting go of Emma’s hand.

‘By someone underserving of it,’ Lady Portman replied, knowing Charlotte knew exactly who they were talking about too.

Charlotte was so upset so quickly, between the lingering hurt from Agnes and Lady Portman’s presence that had such an effect on her, the more she was with her.

She strained herself not to cry.

‘When?’ she asked quietly.

‘About two years ago. When she had just got engaged.’

‘How?’

‘Charlotte…’

‘How?’ she insisted. She wasn't mad that Emma had known her, but Agnes was an unresolved shadow on her life and she had to know, she had to know until it wasn't.

Emma glanced around to check they were not being spied on.

‘She was… as I said, she had just got engaged. She was apprehensive about what awaited her. She was so innocent and ignorant about things. She needed someone to guide her out of her ignorance.’

Charlotte heard herself laugh.

‘The hell did she,’ she said, letting go of Lady Portman’s hand at last.

She laughed somewhat madly pacing around in the snow. It was all so clear now.

‘She was all innocent, you say?’ she asked. Unbelievable.

‘Why, yes…’ Lady Portman said, confused. ‘What…’

‘Yes, I suppose that’s what she baited you with. A catch, a hook, with which to bend you as she pleases. God, how did I not realise this sooner? That’s what she does, doesn’t she? Oh, she’s good! She knew you would be willing to be seduced if she made belief she was an untouched flower in need of an experienced mentor…’ Charlotte was wildly amused at the preposterous image.

Unlike her, Lady Portman wasn’t laughing.

‘I take it you knew her otherwise,’ she said.

‘Quite otherwise. Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?’

‘Agnes.’

‘Yes. Her. She had been with others before you, I assure you she was quite skilled at everything at a young age, before she met you, certainly before she met me,’ Charlotte said, remembering that painful last argument, when Agnes dismissed her feelings so completely, telling her about all her previous escapades to drive in the fact, deep into Charlotte, that she was not at all as special as Agnes made her feel. ‘I never really figured out her character. I was confused, I thought she was just misunderstood but each and every person gives a conflicting account of her. I thought she was only herself for me, the Agnes I knew was… Oh, but then she had to find another weakness on me for me to bite…’

‘What was that?’ Lady Portman asked, stepping closer.

Charlotte stopped pacing.

‘Something else.’

‘What?’

Charlotte’s breath was shaky.

‘Something else,’ she repeated cryptically.

‘What?’ Lady Portman demanded but Charlotte didn’t want this, she was worked up, hating this and Agnes and everything it brought out of her. She regretted ever confiding in anyone, she wanted to take it all back.

How could things have become so bad? It was Agnes, her parents, the wedding, everything fought to tear her apart from the inside. Was she to find no solace, no peace, no matter where she went to escape it?

Excusing herself with the excuse of changing for dinner, she fled back to the castle.

 

Lady Portman could have stayed there and let this go, leave Charlotte to deal with it on her own. But as she watched her leave, after having got so upset at the mere mention of Agnes… Emma had been annoyed at a little selfish game Agnes had played on her but moved on quite quickly. She had had amorous complications haunt her for years but even those she could leave in the past sooner or later.

Charlotte’s behaviour was most strange, however. Why would she be like this after a little dalliance in a London season?

Oh. The catch.

Emma’s feet took her back to the castle in Charlotte’s wake, trudging through the snow with difficulty in her skirts, down stone walled hallways, up the stairs, and not to her own room but a few doors on.

She knocked twice but didn’t wait for an answer that was certain to be a rejection.

‘May I?’ she asked, inviting herself in.

Charlotte’s face was aghast in the mirror when she surfaced from a voluminous sea of dark blue silk. A maid was just helping her into her evening dress. The audacity! But then, Lady Portman did not get where she was without determination.

‘Might I have a private word with Miss Drummond? About our trip. You can leave, I can help her from here.’

The maid she was talking to could not object and was out the door in a flash.

Lady Portman stepped over to Charlotte, who was too surprised to move while the Baroness did a lady’s maid’s work, laying her dress over her underskirts smoothly, and standing to ease her arms into the short ruffled sleeves, touching the skin on her arms, her shoulders that were exposed in her state of half-undress. When the evening gown was in the right place, she started working on the buttons in the back, from the bottom up, standing close behind Charlotte.

The tension was palpable in the small space between them, and Charlotte shivered from every touch, frozen.

One button at a time… and one more… and one more… The clock in the corner seemed to hammer in the deafening silence with every passing second.

‘It was romance, wasn’t it?’ Emma said quietly.

‘P-pardon?’ Charlotte asked in a whisper, heart beating fast.

‘The bait she used to catch you. That’s why you’re so exceedingly upset. For you, she pretended to love you.’

Charlotte was hit by it all over again. The absolute hurt and feeling like she was sawn in two by Agnes’s words the last time she saw her, feeling like she was nothing. When she looked up in the mirror at her misty reflection, she saw someone utterly unlovable.

‘Could you send the maid back?’ she choked. Cursing herself didn’t help, she was already fighting back sobs.

Emma did not move.

‘Please. Just send the maid. At least she doesn’t feel sorry for me.’

Emma thought it better to walk to the door but before she could open it she turned back.

‘I don’t feel sorry for you, Charlotte. Perhaps only for her. Sorry that Agnes did not see what a treasure she stumbled upon in you. And sorry that she used you.’

Charlotte actually scoffed at that and rounded on Emma.

‘And you, Lady Portman? All those amorous complications you had – did they love you or did they just…’ and here she looked her up and down quite impolitely. ‘…use you?’

‘I know you are unhappy but there is no need for ungallantry,’ Lady Portman defended herself. ‘I have not got where I am today by tarnishing myself.’

‘You did not get so entangled with those handsome complications, then?’ Charlotte jabbed at her sarcastically. ‘All that excitement and heartbreak without any reward?’

‘I assure you, those feelings are possible to suffer acutely without impropriety like that. Look at the Duchess and Prince Ernst. Or Alfred, before…’

‘Right, I know quite enough about everyone’s tragic love stories, thank you. They seem to find it so easily and then squander it… Spare me more, please, and just leave me to finish dressing for this blasted dinner. Besides, forgive me but I find it hard to believe you anymore, Lady Portman.’

‘I have been chaste and faithful, if you must know,’ Lady Portman stood her ground. ‘Well, aside from…’

‘Yes, your “complications” with her sound rather one-sided.’

‘They were.’

Charlotte laughed humourlessly and turned back to the mirror to fix her dress herself.

‘Well, they were,’ Lady Portman admitted reluctantly. Perhaps it was Charlotte’s own impolite honesty that brought it out of her, she didn’t know or care.

‘But you knew how to… make her happy.’

‘I did.’

Charlotte stopped fumbling with her buttons for a second to turn back to Emma. Oh. The implication was clear but… She turned back to the mirror.

And to Emma. And back.

And to Emma…

‘Am I to take it…’ she said, not sure whether she was trying to catch Emma out or just untangle this because it didn’t add up. ‘…that you have not… that you haven’t… reached the height of pleasure at another’s hand since… since you were newly married to the baron?’

Emma was avoiding Charlotte’s eyes. So she stepped closer.

‘Since… men before…’ but no, if Emma hadn't...

She stepped yet closer.

‘… ever?’

Emma really wished she had left when told to as Charlotte was standing quite close to her now, Charlotte’s advantage in height affecting her so and she found she was rooted to the spot.

‘I should… leave…’ Emma uttered, reaching for the door handle but she felt a hand on hers instantly.

Compelled to look up, her breath hitched as she found Charlotte was but an inch from her.

They gave into their desires at the same time, diving in for kisses.

Charlotte couldn’t think about anything else but how much she had missed this. The heady pleasure of getting a taste of another’s lips, how easily she could will a woman to forget herself and let her taste and feel and touch. It seemed impossible that they were in the heat of an argument just seconds before – perhaps that was fuelling their passion all the more now.

She took Emma to the bed without struggle.

Charlotte deepened their kisses as she lay on top of Emma, heart soaring from the fact that it was her doing that the Baroness was not quite as proper as she was in public, not with the sounds she was making. She looked younger with her stiff posture undone, excitement flooding her cheeks as she kissed back eagerly. Charlotte moved to have a taste of those most sensitive spots on her neck, Lady Portman’s sweet perfume acting like a love potion and Charlotte had to smile against the soft skin when she felt Emma undoing the buttons she had just done up minutes ago.

Charlotte tugged on Emma’s collar to free her shoulders and cursed the fact that such voluminous skirts and petticoats were keeping their bodies apart, but after a bit of impatient fumbling she found the opening of Emma’s drawers and felt for the hem of her stockings that were held up by lacy garters. She never stopped kissing and licking lines along Emma’s chest as under the skirt her hand was moving up on the soft skin of her inner thigh, maddeningly slowly until Emma was squirming under her from need and desire, up and up, ready to see if Emma was ready to love her…

To love her.

Why did she have to think about that now? This wasn’t love, this was…

But would she? Was that so impossible? Or was Charlotte really just making the same mistake again? Of course she was, she was nothing, nothing but another name on Emma’s long list of complications…

Emma noticed she was somehow distracted, faltering.

‘Charlotte?’ she asked gently.

Charlotte so wanted to be able to will herself to ignore her feelings and continue but she couldn’t, in fact her earlier awful self-deprecation resurfaced with new vengeance and she found herself apologising and stifling sobs against Emma’s corseted dress soon.

‘Shh… no, don’t…’ Emma tried to comfort her, caressing her hair. ‘Shh… it’s alright, we were just…’

‘I know what we were just doing, I know we were just doing this…’ she wept.

‘My darling, Charlotte, stop, you’re breaking my heart.’

‘Breaking yours?’

‘Don’t you know how I feel for you?’

‘Stop… don’t do this, just don’t…’ Charlotte wept, burying her tear streaked face into Emma’s skirt, feeling completely pathetic.

‘But I do want to be with you…’

‘Be with me? You can’t be with me. You are married, you have the court! I can’t wait around until you can spare me time between the Baron and your six children and the Queen and…’

‘I can make you time. My family can manage without me as it is, and the Queen can spare me anytime.’

‘Oh, hurray for me!’

‘If you married Alfred…’

‘God, Emma…!’

‘Charlotte…’ Emma eased the younger woman up so she could look at her. She wore not the tears of a child but that of a person much older than she was, and Emma’s heart ached for her.

The gong sounded that called them for dinner.

‘Oh God…’ Charlotte muttered. She was going to have to go downstairs among people, pretending she wasn’t as shattered and distraught as she was.

‘Would you like me to stay?’ Lady Portman asked gently.

‘No, you must go. I’ll follow soon.’

‘I can say you’ve had a turn and preferred to rest.’

‘No. No. It’s only a dinner.’

‘Do you still want me to go to Scotland with you?’

‘Yes,’ Charlotte said without hesitation. ‘Yes, please do come. Please.’

‘I will,’ Emma soothed Charlotte, fixing her hair that had come undone. Charlotte fumbled for her handkerchief to pull herself together while Emma buttoned her up (really, this time) bringing fresh tears into her eyes with the gentleness of the caring gesture. ‘I should go now,’ Emma said, and after a last sweet touch of Charlotte’s cheek, she left for dinner.

Chapter Text

Christmas dinner was a long affair, but at least night had descended on the castle, and Charlotte could hide her red-rimmed eyes more easily in the dimness of candle light. Perhaps a few questions or comments about her pallid complexion were addressed to her but Lady Portman was kind enough to dissipate anyone’s suspicions masterfully, looking out for her, something for which Charlotte was thankful but couldn’t say. There was enough talk about the Servants’ Ball they would miss to last until dessert. Besides, the blazing Christmas pudding was a distracting spectacle.

‘Are you sure it’s just a cold from the afternoon walk?’ Edward asked her discreetly after dinner when he sat next to her in the drawing room. ‘Would you like a hot drink? Some coffee?’

‘Something stronger perhaps.’

Edward understood and once Her Majesty retired he connived to steal her away from the others to an antechamber.

‘Are you going to tell me?’ Lord Alfred asked Lady Portman when she was obviously disappointed to see Charlotte leave but not alone so she couldn’t really seek her out, not with Edward there.

‘Only if you tell me what you planned,’ she challenged Alfred in turn.

‘Well, then I guess we say good night, Lady Portman,’ Alfred said not without some cheek, knowing Emma could never be angry at him.

She sighed and put down her empty glass of port. ‘In that case, good night, Lord Alfred,’ she said, and left to go to bed.

‘Merry Christmas!’ he said after her, as to Ernst and Harriet, who left to retire to their (probably respective) bedrooms, too, leaving him alone.

Alfred wandered into the antechamber and found Edward in an armchair, and next to him Charlotte lying on a chaise longue by the fire at an angle, a tartan blanket covering her.

‘May I join you?’ he asked, and after permission, he sat on the end of the chaise longue. Edward pulled his armchair closer so Alfred could hold his hand and rest against his armrest.

They watched the fire in silence, the only source of light in the small chamber, sipping whisky. Their last night before they were off to Scotland.

‘We should play a game,’ Alfred said after a while.

‘I’m not going to get up to play cards,’ Charlotte said lazily from the cover of the blanket.

‘I wasn’t going to suggest cards.’

‘What, then?’ Edward asked.

‘Something more interesting,’ Alfred said, thinking. ‘There was a game we played at the academy sometimes. Of course that involved heavy losses of coins and several broken candelabras in the dorms but I think we could mould it to fit tonight.’

‘What are you thinking?’

‘Well, correct me if I’m wrong but I feel a heaviness in the air. We ride back to London tomorrow, to the docks, and then we shall be in Scotland within days. There are some things we must talk about but we don’t because we are too stubborn or embarrassed to say them. I say let’s make a game out of it, and see if it helps ease the awkwardness.’

‘How?’ Charlotte asked.

‘I’m getting to it. We shall go in turns. Or freely, if we please. Each of us can ask a question from either of the other two, and we vow to answer honestly. If we do not or cannot answer absolutely honestly, and I mean honestly, we must forfeit something. We must accept a challenge, a favour to be banked in later, or take a drink of whisky.’

‘A dram is not a punishment, we are already drinking, Alfred.’

‘Ah but if you choose to take a sip too many times, your tongue might get looser and looser, therefore you might be more inclined to answer the questions instead.’

‘Fair point.’

‘So? Are you game?’

Edward laughed and shrugged. ‘I am. Charlotte?’

She sighed from her place and sat up ever so slightly on the cushion behind her.

‘Fine. Who goes first?’

‘Me, because it’s my game!’ Alfred said. ‘Come on, I would like to hear an embarrassing childhood story about you each.’

General embarrassment and giggles followed and Alfred knew he was in for a treat.

‘I know one of Edward,’ Charlotte said.

‘Careful,’ her brother warned.

‘Well, it’s not that embarrassing. But you did end up in the muck face first.’

‘What is it?’ Alfred asked, ignoring Edward’s protests.

‘Well, Edward was learning to ride, I think I was about nine or ten so I can’t remember all that well, but we were out on the grounds, with Berkeley and Arthur…’

‘No, I think Arthur and Berkeley had that nasty flu, remember?’

‘Then who was—’

‘I think it was just Tommy, actually.’

‘Oh right! Of course. You tell it, then, you remember better.’

‘Fine!’ Edward said, not wanting to tell Alfred this silly story but he was saving his forfeits for later and his love was looking at him so expectantly he could not refuse even at his own expense. ‘So, we were out on the grounds, and before you laugh, I think it was my second time on a horse in my life. I preferred to take lessons alone but Charlotte insisted on coming with me, and so Tommy insisted on coming, too. We used to play together, except I didn’t really fancy going outside because Tommy would always want me to go skin frogs with him and I found I wanted no part in that! But today was riding day, so he found it a bit boring, I suppose – you know how children often do irrational things – and so he started hitting the ground with a stick. And then the horse. The horse on which I was sat. Which thought it had been kicked into motion, and before I knew it I was speeding off towards the highlands without holding the reins!’

Alfred was laughing so much at the image of Edward as a boy learning to ride the hard way!

‘Needless to say I was holding onto the horse’s neck for dear life, trying to grab onto the reins but I only managed to reach one side so the horse came to a sudden turn, throwing me off, right into the mud. I sustained no injuries, only to my pride perhaps. There. Happy?’

‘Oh, that was adorable!’ Alfred was still giggling. ‘Thank you.’

‘Wait, what happened next cannot be missed,’ Edward said and now it was Charlotte’s turn to hide her face behind her hands. ‘As soon as I got up and got the mud out of my eyes, I felt someone tugging on my coat. Charlotte was dragging me to my feet, saying “Get up, come on, get up!!!”’ Edward imitated her little girl voice. ‘”Sapphie bit Tommy, we have to run!!!” she said, and sure enough, I saw our newest puppy with a child-sized tweed hat in her mouth. Charlotte shoved the dog in my hand, climbed on the horse, I behind her, and we were off to the stables thinking we’ve escaped.’

‘But of course not, Mama was so cross, you got all that mud on me, head to toe…’

‘Was that when she was so cross about your bow?’

‘No, that was Millie’s doing, who was always running off everywhere. Sapphie had a peaceful disposition in comparison. Almost always. So, Lord Alfred? Will this do?’

‘Absolutely!’ Alfred replied, still coming down from his fit of giggles.

‘Who’s next?’

‘You, if you asked.’

‘Alright… Let’s see…’ she thought, and turned to Alfred. ‘Have you ever kissed a woman?’

Alfred’s eyebrows shot upwards. ‘Well, you’ve set the tone of the game, I say! The answer is no, of course not. Why?’

‘Is that your question?’

‘No, it’s a question!’

‘I just thought you would have. Edward has.’

‘Hey!’ Edward exclaimed. ‘Why are you turning this on me?’

‘Well, you have!’

‘Have you really?’ Alfred asked him.

‘Well… yes, I mean… Florence, obviously…’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Really?’ Alfred considered this. ‘Alright, then, my question is addressed to you: what was it like?’

Edward nearly spat out his sip of whisky. ‘What!?’

‘You heard me, my love: how was it to kiss Florence?’

‘She’s going to be my sister-in-law, you do know that, right?’

‘Yes, and how was it?’

Edward spluttered. ‘I…! I… I don’t know, it wasn’t like… it wasn’t like it is with you. It was…’ He pulled a face in the end and elected to drink to get out of elaborating more.

‘You next, coward,’ Charlotte reminded Edward.

‘Right… Hmm…’

Alfred snorted.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked.

‘Nothing. I just know what he should ask is all,’ Alfred replied.

‘You can’t, as I haven’t even thought about anything yet!’ Edward objected, thinking himself clever.

‘Oh, but I do,’ Alfred said, hiding his grin behind his whisky.

Edward frowned at him, then, eyes bulging wide, he began to protest. ‘No. No, Alfred, I couldn’t! No.’

‘Do it, come on,’ Alfred nudged him, giggling.

‘No! Absolutely not!’

‘What is it?’ Charlotte asked, frustrated to be left out of the loop.

‘Edward wants to know—’

‘Shut UP, Alfred, by God!’ Edward interrupted.

‘Forgive me, it’s your turn indeed. You ask it.’

Edward was shaking his head. ‘I thought this was supposed to be a fun game!’

‘Oh, out with it, Edward,’ Charlotte pleaded. ‘I’ve had a long day, you can’t really faze me with anything, trust me. Besides, it’s just a game. Isn’t it?’

‘Seriously, Charlotte, you don’t want to answer this.’

‘Then I shall drink or better yet promise to catalogue your upper shelf, where we never go because all the books are in Russian and there are spider webs.’

Edward hissed, considering the offer that really did sound enticing.

‘Fine…’ he said, taking a sip of his drink for Dutch courage and not meeting Alfred’s eyes. ‘I was just… I… I was not sure if… Sorry, uh, so, what I am trying to say is… and remember this was just something that I happened to ponder about out loud in private with Alfred, and it was not meant for anyone’s ears, certainly not yours, because it’s absolutely ridiculous to—’

‘What IS it, Edward?!’ she demanded, mind reeling with all the possibilities.

‘I was just unsure about what women… do.’

‘What?’ she frowned, confused.

‘I mean… what can they do?’

Charlotte took long seconds to really digest the meaning of these words and burst out laughing.

‘No way… surely, Alfred, you enlightened him?’

‘I told him to ask you, actually,’ Alfred said, giggling himself.

‘Wait, surely, don’t you know?’

‘I’ve heard things from married ladies, but I claim to be no expert. Horse’s mouth and all that, you know…’

‘You don’t have to answer,’ Edward was quick to say, wanting the earth to swallow him.

Charlotte considered whether she could find a way to get out of that cataloguing favour.

She sighed as she sat up, and walked over to Edward. ‘Forgive me,’ she said to Alfred before leaning down to whisper in Edward’s ear. Alfred bit back a stupid grin as he witnessed Edward’s facial expressions undergo a change from embarrassment, to confusion, to aghast enlightenment.

‘Better?’ Charlotte asked, standing and patting Edward on his shoulder.

Alfred poured him more whisky, gladly accepted.

‘Your… uh… your turn,’ Edward told Charlotte when he recovered, who returned to lie on the chaise with the blanket.

‘Same question to you, brother dear,’ she said, and waited for a reaction, before she added: ‘Only joking.’

‘Hang on, that’s not fair, you know,’ Alfred quipped. ‘I did not get to hear the answer!’

‘Then have a question, you too,’ she offered.

‘Alright! What have you been whispering about with Lady Portman ever since we got here?’

She elected to drink without hesitation. Of course that only intrigued Alfred more but…

‘Your turn,’ he begrudgingly agreed now.

She thought about what she wanted to ask now that she had the chance.

Something did occur to her but…

‘What?’ Edward asked, seeing her smile fade.

‘Nothing. I don’t want to spoil the mood.’

‘Go on, it’s fine. I’m intrigued now.’

‘Fine… This one is for you both. I just wondered if… Aren’t you scared? Of discovery, I mean.’

The men tensed from the subject at once, Alfred more than Edward, their night time conversation living vividly in his mind.

‘I wouldn’t say scared as one is scared of imminent, certain danger,’ he said. ‘It is rather an overhanging cloud…’

‘A cloud of illegality,’ Edward helped. ‘But we have discussed what we would do, should the need arise. You wouldn’t be left to your devices, if that’s your concern.’

‘No, my concern is for you. I’m sorry, truthfully, I’m not even sure what exactly could happen to you if someone were to find out,’ Charlotte admitted, feeling very ignorant.

She knew she touched upon something quite grim, judging by the reluctant silence and their faces.

‘Well, you’re the professor,’ Alfred said, leaving it to Edward to have to recite the laws and precedents of what actually happens, how it was different for civilians and soldiers, the distasteful procedure of examinations, the conviction rates and the added baggage of public embarrassment, violence at the pillory, or the option to be banished for life.

‘Why did you never tell me?’ she asked her brother.

Edward smiled apologetically. ‘Because now you’re an accomplice, too. I suppose you should know that in the event of an investigation, you would be answerable to a court of law, in which case I must ask you to say whatever you need to say to save yourself.’

‘No, Edward…’

‘I’m afraid I must insist.’

‘You know I would never…’

‘But let’s just not even talk of the devil, shall we?’ Alfred interrupted because he reached the end of his tolerance for the dreadful subject. ‘And anyway, I shall buy a ship myself. A yacht, I’m thinking.’

Charlotte had to laugh. ‘Of course, only you could plan your getaway in the most luxurious of ways!’

Alfred raised his glass unashamed, and they all drank to that.

‘I suppose you haven’t really considered any of this before, have you?’ Edward asked her.

‘What, prison?!’ she frowned.

‘Well, yes. As proven by my own earlier ignorance about women…’

‘Which is no longer the case!’ Alfred giggled to himself.

‘… uh, no… but that just shows those smart, educated men in the House and the Lords have quite forgotten to sanction women’s activities altogether. And I shan’t be the one to suggest we begin women’s equality there!’

‘Oh, well, thank you, but really, women’s lives are sanctioned in many other ways,’ she said, frustration rising in her. ‘We lose our very personhood with marriage, we are legally property, it’s inhumane in a modern society, really. How different is the legal status of a wife of any class here than that of those slaves in America? I don't mean to compare - I wouldn’t trade places with them, nor you men exactly but we are destined for imprisonment of a different sort anyway, without a crime committed at all!’

The men had to hand it to her and found no way to respond to that that would have helped.

‘Me again,’ she said suddenly, turning to Edward. ‘How did you get engaged? I mean, what did they say, Mama and Papa, what did they do? I’m sorry, only, I ought to know ahead of this trip.

‘I don’t believe it would help or that Alfred wants to hear this,’ Edward said timidly.

‘But I would,’ Alfred told him. ‘If it weren’t for Arthur or that bullet, we would be travelling north for your nuptials now.’

‘Precisely, Edward,’ Charlotte added. ‘If they could make you almost go through with all that, surely, I don’t stand a chance.’

Edward leaned back in his chair, trying to find a way to explain himself.

‘I know you think I am clear of any corruption like that, but… I admit it was the consideration that my career would not be likely to live up to my ambitions without a wife,’ Edward was ashamed to admit. ‘I wouldn’t say it ever really occurred to me to consider that the lack of love might be an issue, as few marriages are based on love, are they? I wouldn’t say I was ignorant about other obstacles, either… to do with me… but I followed my mind entirely. My greedy, ambitious, naïve mind. So when Papa suggested I marry, and Mama implied that Florence had taken a liking to me, I did not object, even though I knew I would never love her… Though it took a lot more for me to admit that,’ he finished, glancing at Alfred, who was also thinking about a stolen conversation they had back in the summer. ‘Are you awfully disappointed in me now?’

‘Not at all,’ Alfred replied seriously. ‘Thank you for your honesty.’                            

‘It’s not like you’re not successful as it is,’ Charlotte told him.

‘No, but it limits things. But it does not matter anymore. I can always find a fulfilling position. But I could never replace what I have with Alfred.’

He exchanged a look with Alfred, who squeezed his hand affectionately.

‘Me next,’ Edward said, looking at him. ‘Do you remember what I said when I was shot?’

‘You said many things, drunken nonsense in front of Sir Robert, mostly about losing the Queen and…’

‘No, not that. When we spoke privately later.’

‘Ye-es…?’

‘Do you remember what I said about a sham marriage?’

Alfred started to grasp where this was going.

‘I do.’

‘And do you remember what you said?’

Alfred nodded, avoiding each of the others’ eyes.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked. ‘Come on it’s not fair if you know and I don’t. What did you say?’

‘I said,’ Edward supplied, ‘that it would be too hard to pretend, to have to keep up the charade while longing for Alfred, it’s hard enough as it is, never mind having to add false affection for another. I think I said I’d probably shoot myself before long. And I asked Alfred if he could go through with it in my place.’

Charlotte caught on now. ‘Did you? And…?’ she turned to Alfred, who was reluctant to reply. ‘What did you say?’

Alfred raised his drink but Charlotte sat up to stop his hand before he could thwart the question.

‘You did not ask but I can tell you Edward once swore he would never let me marry someone I don’t love, so do not cower behind your game now, and look at me. What did you reply, Alfred?’ she demanded.

‘That no, I could not,’ he admitted apologetically. And as soon as he said it, he felt mistaken. ‘But, it was not the same. We were talking about Florence, we were discussing the pain of being imprisoned in a real sham marriage.’

‘A real sham?’ she highlighted the oxymoron.

‘You know what I mean. It would have been unimaginably painful to watch Edward marry someone that expects him to be a real husband. That is vastly different from my offer to you.’

‘Not vastly, Alfred, no.’

‘I understand that we should do our best to avoid it if we can but…’ He sighed, ‘Question: Why are you so reluctant?’

‘What?’

‘That’s my next question, and be honest. You asked me to go to this wedding as your partner so that you won’t have to take another. You won’t even have to dance with anyone else this way. Likewise, it’s just an engagement to…’

‘But it’s not just an engagement, Alfred, don’t you see?’ Charlotte wasn’t arguing, she had just had more time to think about it all. ‘It’s an engagement now, but it’s… it’s calling on each other’s parents, it’s the semblance of courtship, it’s promenades in the park, it’s the wedding to arrange, it’s a honeymoon to go on, the pretence of being married, the excuses for the lack of children, people prying in our most private matters, it’s birthdays and Christmases, it’s weddings and funerals, it’s a house to live in, it’s the colour of the walls in the drawing room and the pattern on the china we use for tea. For life! Are you sure you’ve really thought about this?’

Alfred perhaps hadn’t really thought about their jointly owned teacups, no.

‘If it helps, we prefer the same colour palette, I believe—’ he began.

‘Alfred…’ Charlotte sighed, lying back on the chaise. ‘Why the insistence? Have you been speaking to Lady Portman?’

‘Why would that make a difference?’

‘If you don’t know you haven’t. And you? So silent in your chair, Edward. What do you really think about this madness?’

Edward was quiet indeed.

‘It’s your choice,’ he said to them finally.

‘But it’s not,’ Charlotte said. ‘As I said to Alfred before, it’s not really an engagement to me. I don’t think you will, do not misunderstand, and I really, really hope I’m right, but should you ever find you no longer wish to see each other, you would still be brothers-in-law. For life. Do you understand that? I wouldn’t be reluctant if I were reassured you do.’

‘Well…’ Alfred sighed, having survived that load of cold, hard truths. ‘You might be pleased to learn, Charlotte, that I have considered that, yes. And you?’ he turned to Edward.

Edward was still quiet, playing with the amber liquid in his glass as he thought about this.

Alfred frowned. ‘If you don’t like the idea, say so, and say so now, and we shall say no more about it.’

Edward looked up at Alfred with shy melancholy. ‘It’s not that I am against the idea. I’d rather this than see Mama and Papa torment Charlotte. Only…’

‘What?’

‘Nothing…’

‘What?’ Alfred insisted.

‘Can I drink instead?’ Edward asked, trying to joke.

‘What, my love?’ Alfred reached for Edward’s hand for encouragement.

Edward sighed. ‘I may be less than enthusiastic about the proposal because I’d prefer it if you were my husband rather than brother-in-law,’ he admitted. ‘It just makes me sad. Simple as that.’

Alfred’s heart clenched with pain as he watched Edward, who went red from embarrassment, probably thinking it was a ridiculous thing to say. But Alfred did not think so. Not at all.

He put down his glass of whisky.

‘Well, then,’ he said, bracing himself for what he was about to do and moved to kneel at Edward’s feet.

On one knee.

He was still holding Edward’s hand, looking up at him with hope and love in his eyes, until Edward caught on.

‘Alfred…’

‘Edward Drummond,’ Alfred cut in before Edward had the chance to object, with reason, and logic and all those silly things that had no place here. ‘Would you marry me – if you could?’

The pedantic professor and statesman in Edward did want to point out the impossibility of that but he was endlessly touched. The sight of Alfred there, offering life-long commitment, even symbolically, was something he would never forget.

‘I would,’ he replied genuinely. Alfred’s face lit up. ‘And would you, Lord Alfred Paget, marry me – if you could?’ he asked in return, squeezing Alfred’s hand ever tighter.

‘I would,’ Alfred replied in a heartbeat. ‘I would! Of course I would!’ he said, rising to kiss Edward. ‘I wish I had a ring…’ he muttered, laughing.

‘Here, take this,’ Charlotte offered, who watched all this quietly until now. She threw a silver ring to Alfred. ‘It’s going to be too small but…’

‘No, it’s perfect,’ he said, observing the Celtic knot pattern on the silver, thinking it’d do, and turned to Edward to slide it on his ring finger as long as it would go, which was halfway. That would do, symbolic in itself.

Edward had to kiss Alfred again, heart overflowing with love.

By the time they resurfaced, they were alone.

 

Charlotte was half afraid she would not find her room empty. But it was. Instead of relief, though, she found she was disappointed.

However, she only needed to walk as far as the vanity to see something out of place that warmed her heart, after all that happened that day, after everything.

Lady Portman’s sapphire ring was waiting for her on the table top. Inconspicuous to maidservants with access to the room but a world of difference for Charlotte.

She kissed the blue stone and slid it on her finger.

Bedtime now. There was a long journey ahead.

Chapter Text

It was a most splendid ceremony, with lilies made of ice decorating the columns, and all the attendees standing on skates fixed on their boots on the iced over floor of the church.

‘Edward Drummond, I take thee as my lawfully wedded husband,’ sounded Alfred’s echoing voice in the tall space.

‘And do you, Edward, take Lord Alfred as your lawfully wedded husband?’

‘I take thee, Lord Alfred Paget, as my lawfully wedded husband, from this day forth until my last day.’

‘You may kiss the bride.’

No, that sounded wrong. There was no bride.

Suddenly, the scene shifted. Charlotte was no longer watching from the benches but standing by the priest’s side.

‘Say yes, Charlotte,’ called the priest. ‘Say yes, I do.’

‘I… yes… yes, I do…’ she said, thinking of Alfred reluctantly. If she was doing this, it means things had gone terribly wrong.

But OH! No! To her horror, when she looked up, she saw not Lord Alfred’s tall, blonde frame but a wretched monster! He was most animalistic, sprouting hair from every surface of his face, fresh scars running in odd angles across it, and oh, there were nails and cogs holding his clawlike fingers together!

‘You may kiss the bride, my Creature,’ Doctor Frankenstein ordered where the priest had just stood a moment ago!

The monstrous devil was leaning ever so closer to Charlotte, yet her feet seemed frozen to the icy ground! No! No! No!

‘No!’ she woke with a start.

‘Are you quite alright, Miss Drummond?’ Lady Portman asked from the seat next to her in the carriage.

Charlotte felt most embarrassed, most embarrassed indeed!

‘Yes… I do apologise to all…’

Alfred merely hid a giggle of sorts behind his white gloved hand but Edward seemed concerned:

‘Are you sure? I know we have been rushing to make it to the wedding in time but if you feel indisposed I’m sure you are under no obligation to attend.’

Edward wasn’t lying when he said they’d been rushing. The ship north waded through the icy sea slowly for safety, which meant they arrived on Scottish soil almost a full day late, late at night. They stopped for a few hours at a village to freshen up and change but they had to get into a carriage as early as three in the morning to make it in time to Monteviot House, where the wedding was held.

Not that Charlotte had slept very well on the journey. Their rooms were comfortable enough but the air was pregnant with tension, and though she stopped snapping at people, nobody dared to prod at her too much. If they were inside she would excuse herself to take a turn on the deck, if they were out, she would retreat to have a lie down in her cabin. It was best she didn’t know for pride that her companions discussed strategies to protect her while she wasn’t there to listen, most imperatively that they would not leave her alone for a second.

‘No,’ Charlotte shook her head, rubbing her nightmare out of her eyes. ‘We’ve come this far, I shall attend Arthur’s wedding if that’s the last thing I do. Besides, I am not sick. I just had an awfully silly dream, that’s all.’

And indeed, she was almost glad of her hot sweats in the carriage, as the church at the very end of December was freezing even once it had filled with people.

‘There you are!’ Mrs Drummond shrieked, rushing to meet Edward and Charlotte. ‘We were wondering whether you would be here at all!’ she scolded them.

‘We sent a letter ahead, Mama,’ Edward said after giving his mother a kiss in greeting.

‘Have you?’

‘I suppose the winter sea and the roads have not been kind to messengers either. We had to come all the way from Windsor.’

‘Windsor? Why?’

That was Edward’s cue to step aside for some introductions.

‘Mama, this is Lord Alfred, from her majesty’s court, who secured us an invitation to celebrate Christmas with the royal family, including Lady Portman, also the best of our friends. They came as our guests, as requested.’

‘How do you do?’ Lady Portman greeted the stern looking older woman.

‘How do you do, Mrs Drummond?’ Lord Alfred parroted, bowing. ‘Miss Drummond was kind enough to invite us to—’

But he was ignored in favour of a disgruntled scoff. ‘What are you wearing?!’ Mrs Drummond asked from Charlotte.

‘Clothes, mother. What else?’

‘Oh, but that!’ she pointed to her neck. ‘A man’s tie?’

‘It is my tie, I’ll thank you very much,’ Charlotte said defiantly. ‘Come, Mama, you can hardly make me change now. Besides, everyone is wearing coats. Leave me be.’

‘But a tie…’ Mrs Drummond still lamented. ‘And what is that on your broach? A cat? Oh, what happened to the one with the swan? It was so charming.’

‘My maid must have failed to pack it…’ Charlotte excused it with a conspiratorial glance to Emma.

‘Perhaps,’ Lady Portman cut in smartly before more of this awkwardness could continue, ‘We ought to walk up the isle and find our seats?’

‘An excellent suggestion. After you,’ Edward said, prompting their mother to return swiftly to her husband in the front row. Then, he offered his arm to Lady Portman while Alfred and Charlotte walked up to the front rows ahead of them.

Lord Alfred and Lady Portman nodded and waved politely to acquaintances among the Lothian guests, and at the front they met more Drummond siblings: Charles was every bit a suave banker like many of their side of the benches, while Berkeley, the soldier in the family, reminded Alfred very much his own brother George.

‘Brother!’ Arthur’s booming voice sounded as he came down to greet them. ‘And sister! And Lord Alfred! And more friends! Oh, how splendid you made it through this dreadful snow!’

‘Well, one would be hard pressed to hope for sun at a wedding with such a date,’ Alfred joked, to great success. Arthur was even more animated than normally! Just positively bursting from excitement that he was marrying the accomplished, beautiful, virtuous Lady Florence Kerr!

‘Do take your seats, Florence will be arriving any second now! Wish me luck! Oh! I am the happiest of men!’ Arthur rejoiced and returned to his place where he awaited the bride with so much anticipation he could have actually sprouted wings and flown around the church thrice from happiness.

‘I’m afraid this is where we part,’ Edward said to Lady Portman and to Alfred and Charlotte. Having been wished good luck too, he went to stand by Arthur’s side as the best man, pleased with himself that he was not late after all. Hurray! Oh, well, he quickly toned down his smile after catching his father’s stern look from the front row.

‘Please, Lady Portman, after you,’ Alfred held out a hand most gallantly to Emma, helping her in the third seat in the second row on the Drummonds’ side. ‘And you, Miss Drummond… Miss Drummond?’

Miss Drummond did not move into a seat but swore something rude and cowered behind Alfred.

‘Miss… Miss Drummond?!’ Alfred blurted out, not sure he heard it right. He wasn’t a viciously religious man but he could not fathom what could have prompted profanity in a church! And really, this behaviour was most peculiar. It was as if she was using Alfred’s body as a shield! ‘Really, now, what is the meaning of this…?’ he demanded.

‘It’s… it’s her… she’s here,’ she whispered, wishing she had a larger bonnet so that she could hide her face with it properly even over Alfred’s shoulder.

‘Who?!’ Alfred asked, locking anxious eyes with Emma. ‘Oh—her?’

He absolutely had to turn towards the church gates against Charlotte’s protests.

Oh.

Right.

Alfred had experienced love’s keen sting – or at least that of desire – on many an occasion before so he had not belittled Charlotte’s feelings when it came to Agnes. But now that he saw her with his own eyes, he thought he perhaps he had underestimated just how painful all those tales were…

So that was the famous Lady Strathallan.

Though he had never had the faintest inclination of attraction towards the fairer sex, he had to admit, Agnes was objectively unfairly beautiful. She was very fashionable. He had no idea one could pinch one’s waist that much with a corset. That wasn’t to say she was skin and bones: her warm winter garments could not hide elegant curves she was naturally blessed with that he assumed would be quite a draw for those who liked that sort of thing. Her skin seemed to glow in the halo of light pouring in from the snow-covered gardens outside the gates of the church, her auburn hair long and lively with its seductive reddish hues, complemented by her dress. As she walked closer, Alfred could see her lips were naturally so red that one would not be a fool to mistake it for rouge such as French ladies wore. Indeed, her husband had no eyes for anyone or anything, not even where he was going, just so that he could look at his wife on his arm more, as if under a witch’s spell.

And it wasn’t just her husband whose breath seemed to be taken away, nor was he the only one who bumped into benches for being distracted by her. Indeed, Alfred wondered whether it mightn’t have been prudent to move the ceremony to a Catholic site, as many men in the room needed to be drenched with a bucket load of holy water. Tutting and well-placed elbowings in the side by their wives or mothers did the trick just fine, though.

Alfred turned back to Emma first, who was watching Charlotte intently, who was still trying to make herself smaller behind Alfred and not looking.

‘Oh,’ Alfred said simply.

‘You see now?’ she whispered.

‘I absolutely do,’ Alfred heard tutting from Lady Portman and mouthed an apology to her.

‘Oh God!’ Charlotte quietly cursed her luck again, cowering still more after another peek over Alfred’s shoulder. ‘She brought that silly brother of hers!’

‘What…?’

‘The Duke of Fife! Tommy.’ she explained impatiently.

Alfred and Lady Portman turned around as one, confused.

He also had reddish hair and that freckly pale skin but he seemed quite plain. Boyish, in the way he seemed to smile ever so widely at everyone, youthful, in his step, but every bit an eligible young men in his twenties. He was craning his neck, as if seeking someone…

Oh! – he made direct eye contact with Alfred, causing him to turn back as if nothing had happened.

‘Might I suggest sitting down, Miss Drummond?’ he said, easing her into the seat next to Lady Portman, closing the row himself.

He caught Edward’s worried and questioning look and tried to return one that said nothing is the matter even though a great deal was the matter. Of course Edward didn’t buy it. So Alfred tried to indicate the newly arrived guests with a look and a nod of his head until Edward finally noticed them, probably the only man in the whole great building not to have been ogling Lady Agnes Strathallan all this time.

He resumed his impeccable posture as the organ sounded, practiced at self-control after years of standing still behind Sir Robert when Alfred was in the room during audiences with the Queen.

The guests settled and quietened. He meant to say something to console Charlotte but he saw from the corner of his eye that Lady Portman was already holding her hand covertly between their skirts. And now he had a myriad of other questions…!

‘Where’s Charlotte?’ Mrs Drummond spoke in the row right in front of them, turning around hastily. ‘Charlotte! Why aren’t you here? Come, sit with us at once.’

Though annoyed, Charlotte had no choice but to let go of Emma’s hand and make Alfred stand to let her out, and join her family in the front row.

‘I suppose this complicates a day already promising to be difficult…’ Alfred whispered discretely to Lady Portman, whose eyes never left Charlotte in front of them.

‘You have no idea…’ she replied.

And all rose as the bride arrived.

 

‘…and so I raise my glass to my beloved brother and to Mrs Florence Drummond. I wish them all the happiness in the world from the bottom of my heart! May God bless your union,’ Edward said at the end of his impeccable speech.

The wedding guests drank to the newlyweds’ health and happiness, who really could barely eat for being so radiant and excited to be husband and wife, and finished lunch in a pleasant mood now that they were in the warm dining room and not the frosty church.

Florence and Arthur decided not to travel immediately after the wedding because they were both so fond of dancing neither of them intended to miss out on the reception.

Thankfully, Charlotte thought pushing bits of her dessert around on her plate, the Strathallans were seated on quite the other end of the long table so it was only avoiding eye contact with her parents and letting them pay all their attention to their sons and the bride while Charlotte made herself invisible. Their Papa was mostly immersed with discussing business with Charles, and their Mama was over the moon about the happy couple anyway.

But now it was time for the ladies to filter out into the salons that could house the large guest count, while the men stayed to smoke in the dining rooms.

‘Hello, Eddy!’ someone said, coming over to sit nearer Edward and Alfred. ‘Good speech there!’

‘Tommy, hello,’ Edward greeted the jolly young man somewhat strained in return while lighting Alfred’s cheroot.

Alfred looked up at him with mild curiosity. Compared to the famous Agnes, her brother looked perfectly ordinary aside from his nose.

And he was looking expectantly at Lord Alfred, Edward realised.

‘Allow me to introduce Lord Alfred Paget to you, Her Majesty’s Chief Equerry and my good friend. Lord Alfred, this is the Duke of Fife, and confidant to many an embarrassing story from our childhood.’

‘Yes, so I’ve heard. Glad to meet you, Your Grace,’ Lord Alfred nodded.

‘Not as glad as I am to meet you. Say, Edward, did you and Charlotte come together? You’d have been without a partner, wouldn’t you?’

‘No, I brought the Lady Portman, as she so missed Scotland and we were just coming from Windsor.’

‘So it is you, Lord Alfred, who is Charlotte’s partner,’ Tommy addressed him, smiling widely. His eyes were very intense, Alfred noticed.

‘Yes, well, we all four of us came as friends together, really…’ Lord Alfred replied.

‘But you are her official partner. Ah, Edward, my chap, tell me, how is she?’

‘Very well,’ Edward replied with an air of forced nonchalance. He didn’t like to outright lie.

That was weird, Alfred thought. He behaved very differently with his friends from his youth. As if with his brothers. Albeit, Edward didn’t seem to be as carefree with his brothers as Alfred with his own either. But a childhood pal, that’s no reason to be tense, as Edward was.

‘That’s it?’ Tommy nudged. ‘”Very well?” Come on, Eddy, you can do better than that, the illustrious statesman you are, and after that bright little best man’s speech, too! Is she not living in your house anymore?’

‘Why, she is, as a matter of fact.’

‘Really,’ Tommy replied cryptically, but he recovered from a momentary lapse in his jolly manners quite quickly. ‘That’s strange. I haven’t heard word from her in a while. I assumed my letters were going to the wrong place! I would have thought she was missing Scotland.’

‘No, London agrees with her very much,’ Edward replied, honestly this time.

Tommy scrunched up his nose. ‘Ah, I don’t much like London, me. One cannot go hunting anywhere.’

‘Why, I believe London has plenty of other activities to offer, perhaps of different sorts,’ Lord Alfred offered kindly so as to save a lull in the conversation. ‘Music, theatre, libraries, riding…’

‘It’s not the same as a good shoot, is it?’

‘I take it you hunt a lot, Your Grace?’

‘Almost every day! You should come out with me while we’re here!’

 

While Edward and Alfred were listening to a frightfully detailed account of one particularly successful hunt of the Duke’s, Charlotte and Lady Portman were trying to find a place to sit in one of the drawing rooms far from his sister.

No room could hold all the guests together, therefore the ladies gathered in joint rooms opened up through their wide double doors, for tea, coffee, and a bit of a chat.

Charlotte was still stiff from constant anxiety, and now annoyed at her Mama who only spoke to her to beg her to go up to change.

‘I shall change when everyone else does, for the reception, not before,’ she stood her ground, until Mrs Drummond tutted disappointedly and left to do the rounds among the invited ladies.

It was one thing to avoid her. But Agnes seemed to be the life of the party, as always, which was harder to escape. Her tricks were working: if she sat with a parson’s wife, she highlighted the most pious side of hers, whereas if she was surrounded by young girls, she was a completely different person, laughing naughtily at covertly whispered jokes about the wedding night awaiting Florence with the handsome Arthur Drummond.

Charlotte became aware of Lady Portman watching her intensely.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, turning away from the hen party around the fashionable Lady Agnes Strathallan. Really, only the Duchess of Sutherland would have had an advantage over her as far as pulling focus at any occasion simply by walking into the room. ‘I’m just... surprised to see her. I did not think to expect it at all. Not with all the other worries on my mind.’

‘I understand… You are free to go talk to her, you know. You must not let me keep you,’ Lady Portman said with some sadness in her voice, and Charlotte forgot about Agnes altogether.

‘But I don’t want to. I want to be here. With you,’ she said as privately as she could to Emma.

‘Do you? You seemed quite keen on avoiding me on the ship.’

‘No, I… I wasn’t avoiding you. I think I was avoiding reality. To tell you the truth, I detested that voyage. I could feel my grave being walked over constantly. As if something terrible was about to happen. I still feel that way.’

‘But nothing has happened,’ Lady Portman tried to sooth her with a gentle touch on Charlotte’s arm.

‘It’s only ten past four. I’m dreading the rest.’

‘Your parents haven’t said anything to you yet. About the…’

‘Shh, don’t jinx it. Sorry, I feel like I’m about to be sick form nerves, like my corset’s too tight. But, see, that’s why I haven’t said anything since we...’ Charlotte implied, blushing.

It’s not like they did anything. Well, not much.

‘So you are not indifferent about me?’ Lady Portman asked, with such fragile hope in her beautiful green eyes that Charlotte felt a sense that she must be stronger for her, if not for her own sake. That was the best kind of push to keep her going.

‘Indifferent? No, Emma, I…’ Charlotte began, but as a group of ladies passed them she noticed herself. ‘Lady Portman, I have only tender feelings for you, I wouldn’t like you to think otherwise. Alas, let’s just get through this day. I am much too muddled to focus on anything but avoiding the pressing matter, with hardly any space left to care for anything else.’

‘Of course, if that’s what you want,’ Lady Portman said, somewhat relieved. ‘But you mustn’t drive yourself ill with worry.’

‘Easy to say… Will you stay by my side? Please. I can survive this with you here.’

‘Of course I will! That’s why I came all this way!’

Charlotte, though constantly breathless from anxiety, managed a bit of a relieved smile at Emma.

‘Thank you,’ she said barely above a whisper, wishing it all over so she could be with Emma alone. ‘Just let us get through this day, and after that, we can… talk. Is that agreeable?’

‘It is. After the wedding.’

‘After the wedding.’

 

‘Edward, you haven’t told me about your meeting Sir Robert the other day,’ Lord Alfred cut into Tommy’s telling of his hunting stories that were boring and gruesome in equal measures, in fact as he began complaining about the veal course not being rare enough for his taste, Alfred felt his lunch wanting to make a reappearance. He wanted to put an end to it at once.

‘Right, well, it wasn’t exactly a meeting so much as bumping into him by chance,’ Edward replied, thankful for the change of subject, too.

‘How is he? After…’ Alfred said no more but Edward knew what he meant.

‘I think he’s realised his priorities might not be what he thought they were, but you know him, a man of principle if there was ever one. Hard to say. It is most unlike him to be on the fence.’

‘Yes, Her Majesty and the Prince seem to have got off on the wrong footing with Sir John and particularly Palmerston, after being so used to relying on Sir Robert’s sound advice. It’s quite a change for them and…’

‘Do you spend all your days at Buckingham Palace, Lord Alfred?’ Tommy interrupted.

‘I do, most of them. Why, I didn’t know you were interested in the court, what with your apparent favouring of the countryside.’

‘No, I’m not, not really,’ Tommy quipped cheerfully. ‘Only, I’m surprised. I wouldn’t have thought Charlotte really found your type attractive.’

Lord Alfred nearly spat out his sip of sauvignon blanc. ‘Sir?’ he asked, trying to mask his offended sensibilities by this bluntness.

‘Or do you not have an understanding with her? Having come as her partner? And you and Edward being such kind friends, you would tell me if Lord Alfred’s acquaintance if not courtship of her was anything serious, would you not? Such news, eh? Say, Edward, does she still read so much?’

‘That’s her, yes, you wouldn’t find her without a book,’ Edward replied, appeasing Tommy’s last question instead of defending Alfred’s privacy, wanting to move on.

‘Golly! You bore her so much, Lord Alfred?’ Tommy jested.

Alfred pretended to laugh, sort of. ‘She’s a very bright young woman. I believe she might do well further educated formally, as a matter of fact.’

Tommy seemed to think this was a joke on his joke, or maybe he was just always so keen to have a laugh, Alfred was not sure. He felt like he was missing a trick.

‘Shall we join the ladies, gentlemen?’ Tommy stood, and the men, especially Arthur who couldn’t wait to see Florence again, agreed it was time.

 

‘Give me a glass of that, will you?’ Lord Alfred said having made a beeline to the champagne and turned to Lady Portman and Charlotte. Glancing back, he saw Edward could not quite escape Tommy so quickly as he was still stuck catching up on childhood stories, but Alfred, who was free, exhaled in relief.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked, noticing the slightest sheen of sweat on Alfred’s forehead. ‘Alfred, come on, did something happen? Did Papa say anything?’

‘No, gosh, no… I just sat through some vivid tales of highland hunts, that’s all.’

‘What?’

‘The Duke of Fife, he was very keen to talk with us, or rather at us, about his kills.’

‘Oh him,’ Charlotte said relaxing. ‘Don’t pay him any attention, he’s always been a bit odd.’

‘Odd, how? He didn’t seem odd, he seemed… I don’t know, as if I had offended him somehow. There you are!’ Alfred said, smiling up at Edward once he finally made it to their side of the rooms. ‘Champagne? It’s good.’

‘Edward,’ Charlotte turned to him. ‘Alfred says Tommy was being odd.’

‘Odd?’ Edward frowned.

‘So he wasn’t? As in, other than usual?’

‘No, he was the usual. And also very jealous!’ he said, rubbing his temples and taking a glass of champagne for himself.

When he emerged from a long sip of the blissfully cold drink, he noticed he was being glared at by three pairs of eyes.

Alfred laughed. ‘That was jealousy? Of whom?’

‘You.’

‘Me?! What did I do? I do not even know him!’

‘It’s who you know,’ Edward replied as if Alfred should know what he’s talking about.

He frowned at him in utter confusion. And at Charlotte. And at Lady Portman.

‘What?’ Alfred spluttered impatiently, feeling left out of the loop evidently!

‘Don’t you know?’ Charlotte asked, then turned to Edward. ‘Didn’t you tell him?’

‘I thought I did!’ Edward defended himself. ‘Did I not?’ he asked Alfred.

‘I don’t know whether you told me or not unless you tell me what it is! Do you know what this madness is about?’ Alfred turned to Lady Portman, the only one with a level head.

‘She mentioned it when she explained the situation about the duel. I thought you knew.’

‘Knew what!?’

‘The Duke proposed to me in the summer,’ Charlotte finally put him out of his misery.

‘Excuse me?’

‘God, Edward, I thought you told him.’

‘But I did… didn’t I?’ Edward asked himself. ‘Perhaps in passing, surely…’

‘If you have, it was in such vague passing I’m afraid I missed it completely!’ Alfred said, panic rising in his throat. ‘But… All this time, we’ve been talking about nothing but…’

‘Shhh!’ Charlotte was quick to hush him.

Alfred inclined his glass of champagne ever so subtly in Agnes’s direction. ‘…her. And yet, you failed to mention to me the utterly insignificant fact that you’ve been proposed to by her brother!’

‘And I turned him down and I stopped replying to his letters and so he stopped writing and that’s the end of that.’

‘Don’t shoot the messenger but he doesn’t seem to think so,’ Edward remarked, earning a tut from Alfred for the bad phrasing and from his sister for the actual bad news. ‘Sorry.’

‘Is that a serious concern?’ Lady Portman asked, thinking strategically.

Charlotte rolled her eyes. ‘Not really. He’s just a bit of a silly boy, that’s all. Just added annoyance, really.’

‘I see. Then I must ask, purely for the sake of avoiding further annoyance to an already trying day: would you like to go upstairs to change into our evening clothes now or shall we wait until the Duke reaches us for a chat in about ten seconds?’

Charlotte’s eyes bulged and she didn’t dare look behind herself to follow Lady Portman’s eyes that glanced at the slyly but surely approaching Duke over her shoulder.

‘On second thoughts, one cannot start changing early enough!’ Charlotte said and the ladies left the drawing room.

‘Can’t we also disappear?’ Lord Alfred asked Edward discreetly. ‘I’d much rather get you out of your clothes than listen to one more story about a bloody shoot.’

Edward bit back a grin, glancing around lest they were overheard. ‘Ah, that won’t be necessary. Funny, Tommy changed his mind about coming up to us.’

Alfred checked, the Duke was indeed walking away now that the ladies weren’t here, to congratulate Arthur and Florence perhaps.

‘Yes… Funny…’

 

‘I know what you’re doing,’ Charlotte said to Emma not ten minutes into the reception.

By the time they changed and the rooms were rearranged so as to allow for more space, and the ballroom opened, night had descended on the northern lands, and the evening dances could begin, led by Florence and Arthur, who were the first on the dance floor.

The guests were applauding their first steps politely as the Waltz began to play for the happy couple.

‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,’ Lady Portman replied innocently.

‘You’re taking turns nannying me.’

‘Nonsense…’

‘Guarding me, then.’

‘Yes, that sounds rather more dignified,’ Lady Portman quipped and Charlotte could not be cross with her.

‘Shouldn’t I be initiated into the plan? You wouldn’t have to pretend you want to show me another painting of the bare highlands or the remarkable trimming on a curtain. You could just tell me if you see danger approaching.’

Lady Portman smiled, found out. ‘Alright. Perhaps we might walk over there to the cakes as your mother is about to finish talking to the Marchioness of Lothian and she is looking very keen to step over here.’

‘In that case, Lady Portman, the cakes do seem very enticing.’

And on they moved, treating the ballroom as a battlefield: the objective was to keep removing any physical proximity from potential threats: bachelors strolling around alone looking for dance partners, either of Charlotte’s parents, and of course Agnes and just to be sure Tommy by proxy, by walking away to the other side of the room or by distracting them. Edward needed only to bring up yet another accolade of his career, earning the praise of Mr and Mrs Drummond’s friends every time, and Lord Alfred used his expert courtier tricks and connections on others. Lady Portman stayed by her side for the most part.

Though Mrs Drummond acknowledged the fact that Charlotte came with a partner, she didn’t seem to have any great interest in Lord Alfred for some reason. Not at all, in fact. As time passed relatively uneventfully on that front, having survived the wedding, the lunch, the tea, and some of the reception now, they were really beginning to think she was sufficiently appeased for now and forgot about the whole engagement and indeed about Charlotte altogether.

‘See, all that worrying for naught!’ Edward said once they were relaxed enough to have a glass of champagne and congregate all together. ‘I admit I was a bit apprehensive about Florence but they are so in love they don’t care about me! Looks like we’re quite forgettable, dear sister. You just need to lie low for an hour or so more and it’s over.’

Charlotte couldn’t help but allow herself a laugh despite her nagging anxiety that just wouldn’t leave, that sense that something might go wrong any second, but then she had been nursing that feeling for so long she was beginning to second-guess its validity. It felt very anticlimactic but… maybe it was actually going to be alright?

‘Well, to celebrate our insignificance, might we entice you ladies for the pleasure of a Quadrille?’ Lord Alfred asked.

Lady Portman inclined her head at Charlotte as if in question.

‘Oh, no, Lady Portman, no, please Lord Alfred…’

‘Oh, please, it’s one of my favourites,’ Lady Portman asked.

‘Please, Charlotte,’ Edward pleaded when she looked like she would object more. ‘It’s only a Quadrille and you would complete our quartet perfectly!’

‘That’s not why you are so keen, it’s because of that part of the dance where—‘

‘It is also for that part of the dance, yes,’ Alfred cut in, proudly admitting it. They were thinking about the part when the men broke away from the circle to meet and then swing about in a trio, two men with one woman, which gave Alfred and Edward a few seconds of actually dancing with each other. ‘And because if you don’t join us, we shall leave you standing here alone while we have all the fun.’

‘Oh, that’s quite different!’ Charlotte admitted, not feeling quite so safe as to risk being left alone yet.

She accepted Alfred’s arm and the four of them took their places, joining another quartet of Arthur and Florence, and a Miss Cecilia Wyndham who looked as if she would have preferred any of the other men in their circle over her partner for this dance, the Marquess of Queensberry.

The music began, the pairs bowed and curtseyed to each other, and began the dance.

Charlotte would have loved to roll her eyes at the ulterior motives of her brother and Alfred – the Quadrille indeed allowed for much contact between men – but she was too busy stealing glances at Lady Portman, who seemed to come alive from the joy of the dance. She was radiant, with every stupid step, and Charlotte found herself unable to stop smiling. As the dance progressed, she was no longer cross at her partner either – Alfred’s facial expressions helped a lot at shaking the feeling that this was all looking really ridiculous! Skipping and hopping and twirling here and there… It fell on the bride, of course, to be the one to link arms with Arthur first, then Edward, who stood opposite, before the men all linked hands to encircle her, before the last steps of the dance. It really did have a cheering effect! Even the stern looking Marquess seemed to lighten up by the end of it, joining in on the applause.

‘Another one?’ Lord Alfred was the first to ask.

It was easier to give in, if only for Lady Portman’s sake, who partnered up with Alfred for this next one, a good old Scotch Reel, though who was whose partner hardly mattered here, as the dancers would all switch many times. This allowed for Alfred and Edward to jump around hand in hand, though much more briefly than at the servant’s dance in the woods back in the summer.

‘You dance well!’ Lady Portman said happily to Charlotte when they happened to meet during the choreography.

‘Of course, Lady Portman! It’s a reel!’ she replied, catching Emma’s infectious cheer, before they had to move on away from each other.

A Polka followed, and a Schottische, and the sense that this night might just be survived without any troubles at all!

As the Galop ended with an applause, Emma forgot herself and reached up to Charlotte’s face briefly.

‘How lively your colour is, Charlotte!’ she said though, marvelling at her beauty unabashedly.

If Charlotte’s cheeks were rosy before, they must have turned bright red from the compliment. Emma was looking at her as if she was sure she could find the world’s greatest treasures in Charlotte’s warm brown eyes.

Just as Charlotte had that foolish thought, yet more dancers joined for another reel. Including Lord and Lady Strathallan, and her face fell.

‘I must dance this with you, Miss Drummond,’ Lord Alfred turned to her. ‘I saw you and Edward earlier, the step must have been in you both since you barely learned to walk!’

Agnes was not at all too shy to keep eyeing Charlotte, something which filled her with anxiety again, and suddenly she realised how overheated she became from the dances.

‘I… I’m not… not sure, Lord Alfred,’ she stuttered, out of breath. Damn her corset, damn it to hell!

‘Perhaps you should drink something,’ Lady Portman suggested, catching sight of Agnes too and, though she wasn’t thrilled at the idea, she knew this was what made Charlotte suddenly want to escape. ‘Let me take you.’

‘Oh, no, Lady Portman, never mind me. Do keep on dancing. But me, I will sit this one out.’

‘But let me come with you.’

‘Nonsense! Who’ll dance with Alfred, then? I will not spoil your fun,’ Charlotte said reassuringly, and though it was easy to smile when her eyes fell on Emma’s beautiful face, she backed off the dance floor. ‘Really, don’t mind me. Just this one dance. I’ll be back for the next!’

Charlotte thought Edward might have follow her but she saw across the crowd that as soon as he was without a partner his way was hindered by a young unmarried lady and he did not have it in himself to be rude by turning her down. She had to laugh at Edward’s foolishness: with this spirit, he’d be dancing non-stop until daybreak.

From the dances and Agnes, she really forgot that wandering around this reception alone was a perilous act but she really needed a drink indeed before she fainted. She wasn’t imagining it, she was actually out of breath. So she stumbled to the nearest table for a glass of champagne kept in an ice bucket.

Unfortunately, a group of chattering young women swarmed the tableside – why did everyone suddenly want champa---

‘Miss Drummond!’ one of them sporting tight blonde ringlets and a humongous pink bow said to her. ‘Oh, I did not mean to startle you! I’m Miss Gwendolyn Chatterton and—’

‘I am Miss Flora Scarbury,’ said her immediate friend who looked very like her, only brunette and sporting vivid green accessories.

‘… and, we should like to ask you…’ Miss Chatterton battled with a fit of giggles.

‘…ask you if…’ her friend Miss Scarbury tried to help but overcome by silly giggles just as quickly.

‘We… we’d like to ask, for our friend, Rosie, that is to say, Miss Hepplewhite, over there,’ Miss Chatterton or Scarbury or whichever of them Charlotte could not remember said, pointing to a third girl a little way away, hiding her own giggles behind her fan and resuming her ogling the dance floor, ‘Rosie, I mean, Miss Hepplewhite should love to know if… if…’

If?’ Charlotte asked much too testily.

‘If Mr Drummond has a scar!’ Miss Scarbury blurted out at last.

The silly women nearly collapsed on each other, their amusement was so big.

Charlotte wondered whether it would be far too painful to smash the ice statue of a swan on the table and stick a sharp piece of it in her own eye.

‘I believe he does,’ she said curtly.

‘Oooooohhh!’ the ladies said as one.

Just to seem busy and to ward off men who might have asked her to dance, Charlotte tried to keep up some level of small talk with them until the end of the reel.

Which, she noticed, did not include Agnes anymore…

Where had she gone?

‘Do you like to read, Miss Drummond?’ one of the ladies asked.

‘Of course I do,’ she replied offhandedly, still scanning the crowd for Agnes.

And she found her. She had somehow abandoned the crowd and was walking to the table for refreshments also. This was not a straight business for her: she was the darling of the reception, everyone adored her, wherever she went.

Yes, that was Agnes, Charlotte thought bitterly, a master of conversation, knowing exactly which side of her to present with whom, spreading everyone on toast with a few well-placed words.

But unnervingly, she kept stealing glances from Charlotte, ever approaching her across the crowd. And though Emma has helped her begin to get over what Agnes did to her, she was not ready to face her. What would she say? What was there to say?

‘What are you reading right now?’ Miss Scarbury asked, evidently trying to become friends with the sister of the most handsome and eligible man at the party.

‘An assessment of the diplomatic tactics used in the past two years of the India-China boundary problem.’

Agnes was terribly amused at something Mr Hardcastle said, her face lighting up with laughter.

Charlotte became aware of silence around her.

‘Oh,’ she noticed herself, glancing back at the ladies, who looked at her as if she had spoken in Cantonese. ‘And yourself?’

‘I confess I am reading Jane Eyre again,’ Miss Scarbury replied as if she had said something wild.

‘Oh so am I!’ Miss Chatterton shrieked.

‘It’s a marvellous novel, is it not? Do you know it, Miss Drummond?’

‘I do,’ she said absent-mindedly.

Agnes was eating cake and she could swear she looked right at Charlotte twice more now.

 

From the reel, Lady Portman relied on Lord Alfred to keep her from stepping on anyone’s toes as she could see the problem from her vantage point better: Charlotte was being approached by Agnes slowly but what she didn’t notice in her distraction, she thought not without searing jealousy, was that the Duke of Fife was circling her unawares, too, only stopping for a chat with Mr Drummond but Emma knew that look when she saw it and she felt very protective of Charlotte suddenly. Maybe it was a mistake to think the night would sail by smoothly.

 

Agnes wasn’t even being coy about it now, she was actually glaring at Charlotte from just a few feet away, licking custard off her ungloved finger, knowing Charlotte’s only ways out were through the dance floor or by running right into her father and Tommy.

‘I cried so much when Rochester went blind!’ Miss Scarbury chattered on next to Charlotte. ‘But at least they were all happy in the end!’

Right, even Charlotte’s attention was diverted upon hearing this. ‘Happy?’

‘Well, yes! I was so pleased he married Jane – I was so worried she would remain alone! A dreadful thought!’

‘But Rochester was an awful cad. And his wife, he locked her in the—’

‘Oh, what a horrid wife he had! And he could not divorce her! Lucky things turned out this way – I so wanted him to be with Jane instead!’

‘But that’s---’ Charlotte began but her breath hitched as she realised Agnes joined them.

‘Hello, ladies,’ Agnes said in her most charming, melodious voice. ‘I wonder if I might steal Miss Drummond away for a moment. She’s a dear, old friend.’

Agnes had a way about her, she seemed to ooze a sense of authority. No, not authority, Charlotte could never put her finger on what exactly, but she needed only to ask and before Charlotte knew it, the ladies stepped aside to allow them space to talk more privately.

‘Well… How beautiful you look, Charlotte,’ Agnes began in an almost genuine tone of awe, the formality of small talk injected with far more meaning in her mouth.

Charlotte did not know what to respond to that so she said nothing. She hardly dared to look at her former lover, for fear of tearing her wounds open anew. It was difficult, after all Agnes made such an effort to look her best that night, and Charlotte could not look at her without vivid memories surfacing, without remembering what her red lips tasted like, without catching a whiff of her perfume, without hearing her voice and knowing what it sounded like when she was writhing in her arms… Besides, she knew her Achilles heel, as she knew everyone’s.

Agnes still managed to fill Charlotte’s cheeks with blood: it was both the ghost of passion and a deluge of shame.

‘I must congratulate you on your brother’s happiness. He and Florence look a most becoming couple, do you not think so?’ Agnes continued in that confident, sing-song voice and glanced at the newlyweds danced around by a circle of reelers.

Charlotte nodded ever so slightly. There was hardly any difference between her and the ice statues, she was frozen stiff from tension. Agnes stepped closer.

‘I was hoping I would see you here. It’s been such a long time. Did you miss me?’

Charlotte pulled a face of disbelief and rolled her eyes.

Agnes’s enchanting smile faltered.

‘Are you still so angry at me, my dear?’

‘I’m not angry,’ Charlotte managed to say through gritted teeth. It was true, angry wasn’t what she was. She had been angry, she had been heartbroken. Now she had solved the puzzle that she had fallen victim to, she only felt resentment and a touch of embarrassment.

‘Well, that’s good to hear because I’m obliged to ask you if you should like to have a drink and a chat with me and my husband and…’

‘Your husband?’ Charlotte asked, totally unimpressed.

‘Unless you’d prefer to follow me to a parlour alone.’

Oh, Agnes knew and enjoyed the power she had over people. Charlotte fought it tooth and nail, turning away from her in favour of watching Emma dance. But she seemed to have left the throng, too. Where was she? Where was Emma? This is exactly why Charlotte asked her to come, so that she would be there when this situation arose!

‘Well?’ Agnes asked, biting her lip in anticipation, mistaking Charlotte’s hesitation for a promise.

Charlotte swallowed. ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea.’

‘To come alone or with my husband?’

‘Neither.’

‘Alas, that’s a shame… He always seemed fond of you, even when you were most aloof. Though not as much as Tommy. You should be careful with him, he seems to have great designs about you.’

Charlotte scoffed at this nonsense.

‘Come on, join us for a drink. You seemed rather tense just now with the ladies here… It would cheer you.’

‘You think it would cheer me to converse with you and your husband? I’m sorry, do we know each other?’

‘I’m just trying to make amends, Charlotte. Friends do such things, do they not?’

‘You think we can be friends? After what happened? After you just propositioned me to… to…’

‘Well, why not? I do miss you,’ she all but purred to Charlotte.

‘Miss me?’ she seethed in response. ‘You miss certain things, I assume, but not me.’

‘I do miss you,’ Agnes said, which would have been lovely if she hadn’t added: ‘Too.’

Charlotte laughed to herself in disbelief. ‘Why is that? Does your husband not satisfy all your needs?’

‘He has been the most perfect of husbands, I’ll have you know.’

Charlotte made a noncommittal hum. ‘That’s an answer, I suppose…’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Nothing. Doesn’t his beard annoy you?’

‘No, I believe it makes him very handsome,’ Agnes mused, seeking the Viscount in the crowd, pleased to find him, throwing him a little wave to his utmost delight.

‘Really? Only I seem to remember you complaining such coarse hair “gets in the way”…’

‘What?’ Agnes asked absent-mindedly, still distracted by the Viscount.

‘Nothing.’

‘But, really, Charlotte,’ Agnes finally turned back to her. ‘How have you been, my darling?’

‘I’d really rather prefer you ceased calling me that,’ Charlotte said, grabbing the nearest glass of champagne she could find and nearly swallowing it whole. ‘Excuse me, Lady Strathallan, I ought to greet an old friend over there…’ she said, pointing anywhere and attempting to leave.

‘Charlotte, wait,’ Agnes pleaded, making Charlotte stop and hate the fact that she stopped. ‘After the last time… That ghastly argument… I was thinking about it and… I know I might have hurt you…’

Might have?’ Charlotte asked, not believing she could ever love someone like this. But then Agnes had been acting the whole time, surely she would have forgotten her own falsities. But their last argument was objectively awful, even if she wasn’t affected by it as Charlotte was.

‘…I’m sorry. Truly sorry. I don’t know what to say, I simply did not expect you to be so…’

‘So what?’

‘Easily attached. You, who is always so remote, and reserved, and unfeeling on the surface. I didn’t imagine you would ever entertain such deep feelings.’

‘Rubbish,’ Charlotte said, dropping all pretence now. ‘I never pretended to be unfeeling with you. Not with you. Your blame is misplaced, Agnes. You know it is.’

‘Fine. I know. I still believe we are friends. And we are family now. I just wanted to apologise nonetheless.’

‘Will you also apologise to Lady Portman?’

For once, Agnes found herself speechless.

‘Or was that also her fault for being so easily attached?’ Charlotte pressed on. ‘How many others were to blame for being easily attached, when you gave them every sign that they were allowed to be so? People are not to play with, feelings are not a game.’

‘I… I’m sor-’

‘Oh, worry not, Agnes. It doesn’t matter.’

Charlotte finished her champagne, put the glass back down on the table with such force it nearly smashed, excused herself quickly and walked the other way, away from Agnes, away from Agnes, away from…

‘Miss Drummond!’

Damn. Charlotte wasn’t watching where she was actually going in her attempt to escape confrontation with Agnes, so much so that she found her way blocked by her lover’s silly brother.

‘D-Duke,’ she said quite incorrectly in her surprise at being ambushed.

‘Oh dear, whatever happened to calling me Tommy?’ he jested jovially, flashing her a radiant smile. He didn’t seem to want to blink so as to see her more. ‘May I have the pleasure of this dance, Charlotte?’

She really had no say in whether she wanted to dance or not, as they were quite in the middle of the ballroom and before she knew it Tommy had taken her hand and waist and swept her along with the line of couples.

‘Come on, put your hand on my shoulder properly, else I’ll drop you!’ he joked. She had no choice but to rest her previously hovering hand on his frock coat. She felt much more clumsy than with Alfred, as Tommy was so broad shouldered. ‘A splendid wedding, was it not?’ he asked.

‘Right,’ she replied curtly, wondering how long this dance was going to last. She only needed to get through it with minimal awkward small talk and she could be on her way.

‘And what a becoming dress you are wearing tonight, Charlotte! I must say your daywear was most peculiar. With the cravat.’

‘It was a gift. I enjoy it.’

‘But it looks so unfeminine. I prefer you as you are now, if you ask me. It is so much more graceful. Any man would agree with me.’

‘I must say what opinion men hold about my appearance is not of any particular concern to me.’

‘Not even the splendid Lord Alfred’s?’

‘Actually it was he who gave it to me.’

‘What a funny man!’ Tommy cracked up. ‘If you were my wife I would buy you all the prettiest dresses you should ever want!’

Oh here it was again… ‘Let’s not bring up—’

‘I should like my wedding also to be as glorious and beautiful as this. I would have statues build out of cake!’ he said with a slight manic glint in his cheerful eyes, cracking himself up. ‘Cake statues! Imagine! In the shape of dragons! And all sorts of animals. We shall cut right through them! It would be a wondrous sight! But of course nothing could surpass the beauty of my wife, if that was you.’

‘Your Grace, I…’

‘Tommy, please.’

‘No, Your Grace, I really feel that—’

‘Ah, I am not listening until you call me by my Christian name,’ Tommy beamed expectantly.

Charlotte sighed ever so discreetly, wishing he wouldn’t hold her quite as tightly. Why did this have to be a Waltz? Though he was ever so jolly, up close she seemed to notice all his flaws even if he seemed tolerable from a respectable distance. That nose was really quite crooked.

‘Fine, Tommy, I was hoping you would have understood by now that I do not wish to marry you. There’s no need to bring it up again.’

Far from discouraged, Tommy laughed.

‘We are friends, Charlotte. You do not have to play this game on me.’

‘Game?’

‘Oh, of course you must say no a few times before you say yes at last. Everyone knows that to do otherwise would seem wanting. But I know you, you are a modest, demure, uncorrupted, and virtuous woman who would never dare to break any of those rules.’

Charlotte frowned at the hideously misplaced description. ‘Tommy, I…’

‘We will live in the castle, on Fife. There are very few people there, sometimes we do not see a soul for weeks that’s not from our household. There are wolf skins and bear rugs everywhere! You would never have to lift a finger, everything would be done for you.’

‘That sounds maddeningly boring,’ she said, snorting at the ridiculous idea.

‘Why, you could revive the gardens – you know it is a challenge to keep them blooming in the harsh weather so far up North. I would install a winter garden for you, so you could fill it with flowers with which we would decorate the rooms.’

‘Flowers,’ she repeated, wholly unimpressed. One, two, three – she craned her neck: the garden doors were open, ah, an escape… perhaps after the next dizzying turn around the room…

‘You would do a splendid job of it, I’m sure.’

‘Is that what you think I want to spend my life on? Or any woman with intellect?’ she had to say, snapping, almost. But he was being truly annoying now. ‘Flowers and dresses?’

‘Well, yes, one must do something between hunting, shooting, and stalking. What else would you want to do?’

‘And you wonder why I am saying no.’

‘Oh, right! Children, of course! You women… I can assure you I should like to have a big family, like yours! Bigger!’

‘No, I do not want to—’

Infuriatingly, he laughed again. ‘I can assure you of my own enthusiasm, you need not object so.’

‘But I actually object, for God’s sake. Quit this and move on at last.’

Charlotte heard her own voice but its iciness was nothing compared to how she truly felt.

‘I’m sorry. But really. This surpasses your usual silliness, this is bordering on offensive. Please just accept it and let us just finish the bloody dance without more of this nonsense,’ she blurted out, exhaling shakily now that she had got that out.

Tommy faltered in his step ever so slightly. She thought she could escape his grip now but he strengthened it uncomfortably and moved on before the other dancers could run them over.

‘Your parents said you were looking forward to getting engaged soon,’ he said in a less cheerful tone now.

‘My parents wish I were. I’m sorry but I am not. As they very well know.’

‘But… the letters…’

‘Tommy, I wrote to you about three times that I did not wish to marry, yet you kept alluding to it so I got tired of replying at all. When you stopped writing I thought it was clear to you.’

‘Your parents said my letters must have missed you.’

‘No, why would they? Besides, I’m sorry, I was rather busy with more significant matters, I couldn’t seem to find a firm enough way without offending you but once again of course it’s a no, Your Grace, now please let us move on.’

‘I asked you to call me Tommy,’ he said squeezing her hand and waist more.

Something was off.

She felt uncomfortable all day, though she forgot her troubles while dancing before, but the night was reaching new lows. She felt her anxiety in her throat quite suddenly again.

‘I feel rather out of breath, would you excuse me now if—’ she said moving away once they rounded back at the garden gates but the more she tried to free herself the tighter he was gripping her.

Something akin to obsession flashed in his eyes that did not sit well with Charlotte. She couldn’t really look him straight in the eye at all.

Over his shoulder Charlotte spotted Emma at last – there she was! – standing on the side with Alfred. Edward, of course was still dancing with someone or other.

‘Alas, I imagined you would be more grateful, Charlotte.’

‘Grateful?’ she asked, clenching her jaw to mask the fact that he was actually causing her pain now with his tight grip. Probably didn’t realise his strength… did he?

‘People talk.’

‘Oh, really? What about, pray?’ she talked trying to catch Emma’s eyes when the crowd allowed for it – she was watching them anyway, thank God.

‘They say you are a peculiar woman.’

‘Peculiar?’

‘That your mind is unbalanced.’

‘They say I’m mad? Who?’

‘People. Now, you’ll be glad to know that my love for you is such that I can see past your insanity and I’m sure Fife will prove a most excellent cure for your eccentricities.’

‘Seriously, stop this, Your Grace—’ she demanded, trying to yank her arm free but at that he gripped her wrist yet harder so that she couldn’t help but hiss and stumble in her step.

It wasn’t that he didn’t know his strength, this was on purpose, she realised with dread washing over her hot and cold.

Off to the side, she saw Emma whispering something to Alfred, who had been immersed in watching Edward dance but now that he was distracted, he caught Charlotte’s eye and paled.

He sought Edward out among the dancers at once.

But Emma left! God, where was she going now? Was she angry at her for talking to Agnes earlier?

‘I have wanted to marry you since we were children, don’t you see?’ Tommy insisted as they came to a dizzying stop at the end of the music, his grip still unforgiving.

‘Let me go, Tommy. The dance is over.’

‘I have done things for you, and ever since we were little. Your dog, you used to play with it so much. The black one with the blue eyes…’

‘What? Sapphire?’ Why bring her up now?

‘Yes, that. Your time was taken up by that dog so completely, you would not care for anything else.’

‘Yes I loved her dearly, until she died on a shoot—’

‘Yes, it was fast, don’t worry. I aimed well.’

Charlotte’s eyes bulged with horror at him.

‘I knew you would cry. But you finally played with me now.’

What are you saying?’ She felt sick to the stomach with fear and disgust.

‘I did it for you. And many other things, the castle, the seasons: I’ve told men at balls you were not for the taking, why do you think they left you alone after just one dance! With you? I did it to save you from men undeserving of you. I did it all for you. You must say yes, Charlotte, don’t you understand? I won’t stop until you do. I have and I shall go to any lengths. I love you.’

‘Let me go,’ she tried again to no avail against his strength, wondering why no one noticed this and when it was appropriate to actually cry for help.

‘Say yes.’

‘No!’

Say yes, Charlotte--’

‘Excuse me, may I have the pleasure of this next dance?’ Alfred cut in, appearing at their side, forcing a pleasant tone on his voice but she had never seen Alfred look so coldly at anyone, not even William.

‘You may not,’ Tommy spat at Alfred at once, barely glancing at him.

‘You misunderstand me, sir, I was talking to the lady, not you. Miss Drummond?’

Taking advantage of the Duke’s surprise at the nonsense Alfred was saying, she tore her arm out of his grip, and before he knew it, Charlotte was twirling away from this corner of the ballroom with Alfred, the steps in her muscle memory from years of ghastly lessons, but her heart’s pounding dulled the music in her ears.

‘Are you quite alright?’ Alfred asked her seriously, his voice and her mood clashing completely with the Redowa they were barely dancing. Though her hand was shaking, he barely touched her at all, only so as to give off the semblance of nothing being amiss to the guests.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, still obviously tense.

Alfred observed her.

‘Want some fresh air?’ he said suddenly when they circled back to the garden doors, just in time before they had to start hopping around. Upon her nod, instead of moving on in the circle of dancers, he swept her out of the room with ease, right out on the lawn.

One outside and free from that infernal ballroom, she let out a big breath.

‘Better?’

‘Yes,’ she replied quietly. She was as pale as a ghost. ‘Thank you,’ she added begrudgingly.

‘What for?’ Alfred pretended for her sake, knowing she did not like to think of herself as needing to be rescued in any way. ‘Only he seemed like a bad dancer, that is all.’

She followed his gaze when he glanced back – Tommy was fast approaching. But Edward was there to step in and hold him up, much to the chagrin of the unmarried lady he had abandoned but he didn’t care. The plan was complete.

Well, not quite…

‘We should take a walk,’ Alfred said mischievously once she calmed down a tad.

Between that crowded, stifling house and the fresh air of the snow covered gardens, she did not need to think hard.

‘After you…’ he said gallantly, showing the way.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked a while later.

‘That’d be telling.’

‘I’m not in the mood for this, Alfred.’

‘A friend would like to talk to you. I promise that is all.’

‘Here?’ she asked sceptically.

‘Not quite…’ Alfred said, stepping behind a snowy hedge of well-kept bushes that was tall enough to hide a grown man. When she followed, she realised he was leading her into a labyrinth.

He counted directions and gates between hedges – left, right, left, left, right, on, and left…

‘Here,’ Alfred said, stopping at a nook of carefully cut shrubbery.

‘There’s no one here, Alfred.’

‘No, you must go in alone, through there,’ he said, smiling reassuringly. Behind him, she noticed squinting in the dim moonlight, was a little gate to another path or dead end or something in the labyrinth. ‘Trust me.’

She shot him a sceptical glance, not quite sure of this. But Alfred wouldn’t do anything bad, surely.

Curiosity winning out, she walked past Alfred and through the little gate.

‘Lady Portman,’ she uttered, heart skipping a beat. She wondered where she’d gone before. Her presence seemed to soothe her always, and now it was needed more than ever.

‘Come here,’ Emma said, holding out a hand.

Charlotte hesitated.

‘Aren’t you angry at me for speaking to Agnes? Isn’t that why you left?’

Emma just smiled. ‘Come here, please,’ she asked again.

Charlotte did, taking Emma’s hand apprehensively.

‘I could never be angry at you of course,’ Emma said gently, holding Charlotte’s arms to herself to warm her. ‘I understand what it means to lose someone like that,’ thinking about a Melbourne. ‘Perhaps it’s cruel on us but we never really stop if we ever loved someone once.’

‘But I don’t love her anymore. I don’t want to have anything to do with her, any of them. Did you see – did you send Alfred to--?’

‘Shh,’ Emma soothed, holding her even closer as her panic resurfaced. ‘You are here with me now. That’s all that matters.’

They stayed like that for a few minutes in comfortable silence.

‘How do you do it?’ Charlotte asked. ‘I was a mess only a few minutes ago, but now I feel so much better.’

Emma smiled up at her, glad.

Charlotte gathered her little confidence and leaned closer, resting her forehead against Emma’s. It was this that she wanted and never got, the small intimacies, to be allowed to take her time.

She rubbed the tip of her nose against Emma’s, and her cheek, moving in for a…

‘I know I’m too old for you,’ Emma whispered against Charlotte’s lips.

Charlotte smiled, pulling away just an inch. ‘You’re not.’

‘But I am.’

‘You are not and it matters not. You’re lovely. You are beautiful,’ she whispered sweetly, reaching up to play with Emma’s dark ringlets, enjoying that her words and actions clearly had an effect on her. ‘If you are, that would mean I am too young and foolish and brash and indecorous for you, as I feel compared to you, yet you have never called me any of those things. No, wait, you have accused me of ungallantry!’

‘Accused, not proven.’

Charlotte laughed a little, feeling safe again.

‘Can we talk now?’ Emma asked.

‘The night isn’t quite over,’ Charlotte replied, not wanting to jinx her luck. ‘And anyway, we can talk about the details but as a wise man once told me, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.’

‘Was that wise man perhaps Lord Alfred?’

‘Perhaps… We can talk all we want later…’ but now, she slowly reached up to twist her fingers in the hair at the nape of Emma’s neck and leaned in, silencing all their worries at last.

 

Alfred shivered in the cold. He had agreed to stand guard but he did not know for how long his services were needed. He had already smoked a cheroot – was there enough time for another?

Then there was the time they were all gone from the reception. The more passed, the more difficult it would be to explain themselves.

He really must check.

Glancing around to make sure no one was nearby, he stepped back a little and peeked through the little gate.

Oh.

He jumped back behind the cover of the hedge. Manners have been beaten into every inch of him indeed. Years and years of schooling and court life have made sure of that.

Still, his curiosity getting the better of him, he looked again.

The ladies were not talking anymore.

They were quite lost to the outside world, in fact.

Kissing.

Well… there’s a sight he’d never seen before!

He bit back a grin and stepped back to move away from the gate when---

He gasped!

… then, feeling foolish, he exhaled. ‘Edward… you scared me!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Edward said, coming over closer so that he wasn’t a mere towering black shadow in the dark but Alfred’s beautiful beloved. ‘Have you seen Charlotte?’ he asked with some urgency.

‘Yes, she’s here with Lady Portman,’ Alfred inclined his head. And then had to stop Edward. ‘No, no, no, leave them be. Trust me.’

‘I’m afraid I cannot. Tommy was livid, he was… really quite odd. Mama is looking for her everywhere.’

‘She can’t go back to dance with that cad, Edward.’

‘I know and thank you for what you did while I was occupied but she can’t be here either.’

‘Edward?’ Charlotte appeared with Lady Portman in the gate.

‘I’m sorry but…’ Edward bit his lip as he did when he was stressed. ‘He saw you two leaving alone. Don’t you see what this looks like? Mama is furious.’

‘Right, I didn’t think about that. We just wanted to get her out of there,’ Alfred said, feeling bad now.

‘I know, and thank you, my darling. But it’s time to go back.’

‘Perhaps,’ Lady Portman suggested, ‘Charlotte and I should go together, you can follow a few steps behind, gentlemen.’

‘Excellent idea,’ Edward said, stepping aside to allow the ladies to proceed ahead.

‘Or, you know, we could just stay here,’ Alfred whispered in Edward’s ear, indicating the hidden nooks and corners of the labyrinth. The darkness could not even hide Edward’s blush.

‘There you are!’ Mrs Drummond’s voice sounded shrilly ahead of them all.

Though Charlotte had walked back towards another entrance of the house to avoid the ballroom with her arm linked with Emma’s, her mother dragged her away quite swiftly.

‘But I-- I was talking to the Baroness there!’ she protested.

‘And now you no longer are,’ Mrs Drummond rattled, taking her away, stopping round the corner in the cover of the building and an ancient tree. She wanted to do this privately before they returned to the throng.

Seeing she was not in the position to successfully fight this alone, Emma ran back to get the men to hurry up.

‘Why did you not tell us?’ Mrs Drummond demanded furiously from her daughter.

‘Tell you what?’ Charlotte asked, freeing her arm from her mother’s grip. Really, she was fed up to the brink with this.

‘Do not feign ignorance with your mother, Charlotte. You know perfectly well what I am asking.’

‘Please, Mama, I truly do not.’

‘Tommy, of course!’

‘What about him?’ she asked, not liking this.

‘When were you going to tell us he proposed to you?’

‘He… what…?’ Charlotte spluttered. ‘H-how did you…?’

‘He just told us, as if we ought to have known! And we haven’t! You have embarrassed us enormously! He said you were not replying to his letters. So he thought you were back at our address and wrote to us.’

‘He wrote to you?’

‘He did.’

‘But… to you?’ she insisted, seeing though her mother.

‘To you, thinking you were living with us again. So, Charlotte—’

‘And you saw fit to open my letters?’ Charlotte cut in, her veins already on fire, hands shaking from anxiety, anger, and sheer annoyance.

‘Do not take that tone with me, Charlotte.’

‘You had no right.’

‘I had every right. To open your letters, and to know you have been proposed to by a duke! I hope you have written to him to come to an understanding, girl.’

‘I did not,’ Charlotte replied defiantly.

Her mother eyed her with frustration. ‘Yes, I thought not. It was apparent from his wording. And his fury now! And quite rightly! Well, when are you going to tell him then?’

‘Tell him what?’

‘That you accept, of course!’

‘I shall not tell him anything of the sort as I shall not accept.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Mrs Drummond nearly shouted. ‘You cannot refuse him. I do not permit it.’

‘I shan’t.’

‘Stop this, I won’t hear it.’

‘I shan’t, he’s vile, he’s deranged, Mama!’

‘Now, listen to me, you—’

‘Mother,’ Edward called as soon as he made it there. Alfred stayed behind the tree while Emma left to check on where the Duke was now. ‘I should remind you, you are talking to your daughter.’

‘I am well aware of that, Edward,’ Mrs Drummond spat back at her son bitterly. ‘Unfortunately, I am well aware.’

‘I should also remind you we are in public. Thus, you will address her with due respect, if not for her sake, for that of the guests, for Arthur and Florence.’

‘I would, if only the same respect was shown to me, Edward. You don’t know how hard it is to raise children. I thought you boys were going to be difficult. But Charlotte…’

‘It is not a sign of disrespect not to marry a man you chose for her. Particularly not one who is clearly forceful and not of sound mind.’

‘What on Earth are you talking about, Edward, Tommy is the loveliest boy!’

‘I’m sure he pretends so before you but he is not so when he shows his true face.’

‘Balderdash! I was nearly crying form happiness they looked so splendid during the Waltz!’

‘If you could ignore the fact he was hurting her!’ he raised his voice now.

‘Hurting you how?’ she asked Charlotte with a clear tone of disbelief.

‘Just… twisting my arm and… being forceful…’ she admitted shamefaced.

‘Oh, that’s not being forceful, that’s just being a man.’

‘Mama!’ Edward exclaimed in indignation. ‘That is not true!’

‘Real men, I meant, boy.’

Edward opened his mouth to argue more.

‘Shush, you,’ Mrs Drummond cut in. ‘Did the Lord also not tell you that you must also respect thy father and thy mother, Edward? You would do well to remember our generosity in allowing you to follow your peculiar choices. You cannot have a say in this matter, unless you would like to dance with Miss Wyndham over there.’

Miss Wyndham, they saw through the frosty windows, was waiting for a dance partner in the ballroom, all alone.

‘But I’ve already danced with her before, she’d think I—’ that I favour her in particular.

‘Precisely.’

Charlotte shot Edward a glance, and saw with horror that he was about to go over there and do as told just so he could argue her corner against their mother. Stay, you idiot, she screamed inside, hoping he would hear it. Thankfully, she caught his eye and with the slightest shake of her head, she got him to stay standing there.

Somewhere behind the tree, Alfred exhaled in relief and gratitude for her… In fact, she spotted an abandoned glass of champagne left on a nearby window ledge and nicked it. It wouldn’t have been Edward if he didn’t want to jump in to sacrifice himself! Honestly, Edward…

‘Thought so,’ Mrs Drummond remarked triumphantly before turning back to Charlotte. ‘Now, you listen to me, girl: you will straighten your dress, put on a lovely smile, and walk over to Tommy for the next three dances…’

‘Three?!’ Charlotte asked, not even sure why this was what she was taking issue with.

‘…and tomorrow morning we can discuss it all among family.’

‘But—’

‘Tonight, then.’

‘What?!’

‘Right after the dances, then – one more word and I will march you to him right away to fix the engagement right this second. He’s waiting in the green parlour with your father, discussing the details men need to discuss, I am sure. He has already been told he needs only to ask the question again and that he can expect you to accept, it’s really only a formality, so whether you wail or shout or make a scene or—’

‘Did I hear the sounds of a quarrel?’ Lord Alfred intervened at last, stepping over smoothly, champagne in hand and a winning smile put on his handsome face as if he hadn’t heard absolutely every word thus far.

‘Not at a—’

‘You did, Lord Alfred,’ Charlotte cut in defiantly before her mother could pretend otherwise. ‘I’m afraid we were indeed arguing. Bitterly.’

‘Tut, tut,’ he said, trying to ease the tension. He saw Charlotte was as tense as he imagined from the other side of the tree. ‘What about, may I ask?’

‘It is not your concern, Lo-’ Mrs Drummond began but Charlotte interrupted through gritted teeth again.

‘My mother intends me to marry the Duke of Fife, against my express wishes.’

‘Silence, Charlotte! Others need not be dragged into this row over your insolence.’

‘But they do. I shall not marry Tommy. I cannot.’

‘Enough, Charlotte,’ Mrs Drummond said but Alfred stepped over to speak, ever so smoothly:

‘But she cannot, Mrs Drummond.’

Mrs Drummond nearly broke her neck looking round to him. ‘And whyever can she not?’

‘Because…’ he said, looking at Charlotte, trying to communicate something with his eyes. ‘I was hoping I could marry Charlotte.’

Mrs Drummond now rounded back on her daughter, then back at Alfred, then back at her.

‘Is that so, Charlotte?’ she asked, not very pleased, Edward noted.

Charlotte squared her shoulders and looked up at Alfred, knowing the jig was up. It was still an insane idea in her opinion but damn it, damn it all.

In the end, the final push that convinced her was Emma appearing on the scene in the cover of the tree. Their eyes locked, and though it wasn’t ideal, she braced herself and spoke:

‘It is, Mama,’ she said, not fully believing she was saying this. ‘I wish to marry Lord Alfred. I was going to tell you tonight.’

Mrs Drummond said nothing for a few long seconds. The tension was palpable in the air.

Edward frowned, seeking her expression… Something was wrong.

You are Lord Alfred?’ Mrs Drummond asked Alfred.

‘I am, ma’am,’ Alfred replied, trying to keep up a perfectly pleasant manners even though his heart felt like it was about to escape through his throat. Perhaps it was the realisation that he might actually marry Charlotte now that they announced the idea to Mrs Drummond herself.

But it was something else. He felt it too, something was amiss.

‘I have come to know Charlotte through Drummond here,’ Alfred added. ‘We have found we have much in common.’

‘You are Lord Alfred. Lord Alfred… Paget?’ Mrs Drummond asked.

Alfred tried to ignore the tone she used for his last name. ‘Indeed, ma’am.’

‘Lord Alfred is Her Majesty’s Chief Equerry and Clerk Marshal, and close confidant of the crown, Mama,’ Edward added but was completely ignored.

‘You,’ Mrs Drummond turned back to her daughter. ‘Want to marry… a Paget?’

And she laughed mirthlessly.

A glint of fear appeared in Charlotte’s eyes as she glanced back at Alfred. He seemed less surprised by it.

‘Why, yes, Mama. I should like to marry Lord Alfred,’ Charlotte withstood. ‘Wouldn’t it be splendid? I would be part of Her Majesty’s court and I have met his parents, Lord and Lady A—’

‘Oh, I know his parents,’ Mrs Drummond stopped laughing but spoke with an air of disdain now. ‘Anglesey and his wife. I am well aware of who they are. I abhor the whole race of them. You will not marry a Paget, Charlotte.’

No.

Alfred’s heart sank. Could it be that their failsafe plan was not going to work after all? He truly had not expected that he would have to fight for it… Well he had to now! But how?

‘Mrs Drummond, I—’ Alfred began without a plan but Edward stepped in.

‘Mama, I can assure you, Lord Alfred is an honourable man, indeed the best of men I know.’

‘A product of divorce, Edward,’ Mrs Drummond spat, nearly not even daring to utter the word that she treated like a downright curse. ‘I’m sorry, I cannot allow it. Especially not when a Duke, and a family friend at that, is his rival.’

‘Mama, I truly vouch for Alfred. He is an incredible man,’ Edward insisted, trying to find a way to praise Alfred without giving himself away. ‘I have known him for nearly four years now, he has been nothing but the most gallant, remarkable, splendid gentleman you can imagine. Ask the Queen herself!’

‘Indeed,’ Charlotte forced herself to say though her voice was threatening to crack. ‘He is well loved and trusted by all.’

‘His accomplishments and virtues are endless,’ Edward went on, stealing a little smile on Alfred’s face despite his nerves. ‘And he is Her Majesty’s favoured dancing partner!’

‘Yes, he’s just a marvellous dancer,’ Charlotte was saying – Alfred’s was quite touched. If he hadn’t quivering from Mrs Drummond’s venom, he’d have laughed out loud.

Edward stepped closer to his mother. ‘It would be a blessed union, Mama. Charlotte would be lucky to take his name. Anyone would be lucky to marry Lord Alfred,’ he said with more conviction than she knew he had…

Alfred’s heart swelled. But it was pounding wildly.

Because Mrs Drummond seemed to consider this.

Charlotte had to dig her nails into her palms to stop from fainting or crying, hoping desperately her mother was coming around. How she cursed herself for all the times she expressed her doubts about this match, when she was standing there now and her heart’s utmost desire was to be allowed to be engaged to Lord Alfred! Else she would be engaged to a brute of a man within the hour.

Every passing second meant more build to this terrifying tension oozing from Mrs Drummond and the cogwheels turning in her head, debating whether she could overcome her disdain for the Pagets’ boy. Her icy sentiments alone seemed to drown out the sounds of a cheery Polka inside that seemed to so clash with the atmosphere out here.

She seemed ready to shake her head…

Alfred had to do something. He shot an apologetic look at Edward before downing his champagne, handing the empty glass to Edward, and taking it upon himself to step over to Charlotte.

‘Please, Mrs Drummond,’ he said, taking Charlotte’s hand. And waist. And stood far too close, making her eyes go wide. ‘I love your daughter with all my heart.’

And Alfred kissed Charlotte.

It was chaste but it was very much a kiss.

Edward’s eyes went about as wide as the moon too, and despite his own panic, he resisted the strange urge to snort.

Alfred released Charlotte at last and hoped he did not earn a slap to be banked in later. From either of the Drummond siblings present.

Blinded by nerves, Charlotte just hoped this clumsy (and unexpected!!!) display was convincing enough a sight for her mother.

‘Please, Mama,’ she pleaded, on the verge of tears. ‘Please.’

Please say yes, she heard herself downright beg in her heart, please say yes, say yes, say yes…

Mrs Drummond stood stoically, eyeing the pair of them, dragging it well out, thinking, thinking…

Eventually, she held her head high…

…and decisively said:

‘No.’

Chapter Text

June, 1847

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.

For Alfred.

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—’

‘Without me?’

‘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…’

‘What?’

‘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.’

‘Oh, nooo…!’

‘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.’

‘How sad!’

‘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.

‘Precisely!’

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!’

‘Now?’

‘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.’

They drank.

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.

‘Edward?’

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.”

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…?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.’

‘Yes.’

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.’

‘Alright.’

‘Good?’

‘Yes.’

‘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.

‘And?’

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.

‘Do.’

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?’

Charlotte nodded.

‘Good luck.’

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.

‘Why not?!’

‘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.’

Edward smiled.

‘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.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t often that Lord Alfred Paget had any reason to suppose he was being avoided.

Particularly not by a friend.

Not that he had any enemies. Not personally. Not to his knowledge, at least…

However, since that night in the yacht, he has been meaning to seek out Lady Portman for a bit of a chat.

Whenever he has tried to interrogate her about her secret liaison or whatever it was with Miss Drummond, the baroness would hide behind a witticism and retain her privacy.

But now that he wanted to talk to her again since that night, he noticed a change in her. It was nearly impossible to keep sitting still for a bit of a chat for five minutes. This was jarringly peculiar as Alfred had always enjoyed a particularly dear friendship with the baroness, and an uncommonly confidential one since he had foolishly called William out for a duel.

William, who Alfred hoped was enjoying much more peaceful a weather than the unforgiving summer showers in London, wherever he was.

But, every cloud has a silver lining, so they say, even those horribly dark ones gathered above the Buckingham Palace gardens, forcing those having ventured too far from the house to take refuge under the nearest shelters: finding a large tree, or flattening themselves against the greenhouse’s walls, as it was regrettably closed, or, in the case of little Vicky, Lord Alfred, and Lady Portman, under the tiniest of follies enough for just the three of them not to get wet.

‘Your Grace, please be careful,’ Lady Portman said kindly, keeping the little girl from running after the others and get drenched to the bone.

‘I have an umbrella, Lady Portman!’ Vicky said proudly.

‘I’m afraid, Your Grace, that is a parasol, not an umbrella, and as such, unfortunately it cannot protect one from the rain.’

‘A parsol?’

‘A pa-ra-sol,’ Lady Portman taught her patiently.

‘Pa-ra-sol. Parasol!’

‘Yes, indeed, very good. See, I have my own, would you like to see?’

‘It’s very pretty!’ Vicky said, observing Lady Portman’s parasol.

‘It is, but not as pretty as yours, Your Grace…’

Lord Alfred wanted to lean against one of the thin stone columns of the tiny folly to watch the scene but it would have been terrible manners. Besides, he was a bit tense. He knew this was an opportunity to talk to Lady Portman at last, presenting itself so luckily, but he also had a feeling the baroness was also aware of his plans to discuss delicate matters and therefore she was stalling.

Lucky for her, they could hardly speak frankly in front of the remarkably sharp child.

But this meant they did not speak at all. They exchanged awkward smiles, sighing and rolling eyes at the rain, a small talk without words, which made for even more awkwardness.

And these adults were deadly boring for a child.

‘I’m going to see Mama’s parasol!’ Vicky said suddenly, forgetting that she wasn’t meant to run out into the rain, and did just that. Across the grass, towards a horrified Queen Victoria.

‘Don’t,’ Lord Alfred said, touching Emma’s arm in the lightest way before she ran after the princess just as foolishly. ‘It wouldn’t do to ruin your dress, too, Lady Portman.’

The baroness nearly laughed at her own momentary silliness before she realised this left her stuck quite alone with Lord Alfred for an indeterminate amount of time. There went her little protector, frilly little dress and ringlets drenched by the summer shower, leaving her alone with the ever resourceful Lord Alfred.

But he was unsure about how to broach the subject.

She hid her feelings well, just as she did when Melbourne fell ill. Most of the time. Not infallibly. But just as back then, Alfred left her alone. Instead, to echo that time, he offered a dram of whisky in his flask.

Lady Portman glanced around. And took a sip discreetly before handing it back to Alfred.

‘It’s beautiful, isn’t it?’ he commented on the garden.

She smiled but it was short-lived.

‘I can offer you my coat as cover if you’d like to go inside.’

A shake of the head, a polite declining of the offer, and still nothing more.

‘I can, if you find my company disagreeable….’

‘Lord Alfred, how can you say that?’

‘You do seem reserved. Avoidant, even… lately. Have I done anything to offend you?’

‘Not at all,’ she said kindly, dispersing any of his fears. ‘But you are right. I find myself wanting to withdraw. To think.’

‘…About Miss Drummond?’

Lady Portman tensed, both excited at the sound of her name but also very troubled.

Alfred glanced around to check their privacy was quite undisturbed. ‘I don’t mean to pry, but… would it not be a relief to confide in a friend about… what went on with…’

‘Nothing “went on”, Lord Alfred,’ Lady Portman said with dignity.

‘Alright,’ Lord Alfred said diplomatically, trying to rephrase what he was getting at. ‘I do confess you surprised me, though. I would not have dreamt you had, um… With her. With women.’

Lady Portman tutted. ‘You are usually more eloquent than that,’ she commented elusively, wondering when the rain would let up at last.

Alfred sighed. They listened to the rain for a while, to enjoy its calming and refreshing effect.

But he did have such a knot in his throat. He had to speak.

‘Lady Portman,’ he said, trying to overcome the difficulty with which he must now break through a sort of unspoken glass wall in their friendship, and so as to leave no shards he had to go about it as delicately as he could. ‘I have spent my life hiding my capabilities of love from the world. The world, which includes so extent a number of people as to include my closest confidants and family. I am aware of my privileges, and I have enjoyed the love of my father, my mother, my sisters, brothers, and such excellent friends as yourself. But always keeping in mind that their love is conditional. The relief of finding out, on extremely rare occasions, that I really do have the unconditional support of a friend after they learn about my… intent to stay a bachelor… It only highlights just how distant even my closest friends are in comparison, those who do not know my true self because they would not take kindly to it. You cannot imagine— wait, you can imagine, you can understand how much I treasure your support.’

‘Of course. It is a given.’

‘No, I do not take it for granted at all. Previously, I thought you were an uncommonly kind friend. But you know some – or all? – of what I am going through because I love Edward. It has been difficult already thus far – I can only imagine with horror how lonely and frustrated I will feel when I catch up on your years, if you forgive my saying so. To think that it will be like this forever… one cannot go through it easily without friends. If you have other friends, perhaps ladies, who understand and give you the moral support one does need from time to time, I will not pry anymore. But if you don’t, Lady Portman… Emma… You can talk to me. Do talk to me. It is my business too, because of Edward. I want to help him, I should know.’

Alfred was terrified he had overstepped the mark, as most of his spontaneous though no less heartfelt speech was addressed to Lady Portman’s back.

‘And besides that, Miss Drummond may be your lady, but she is my friend too, though it seems to go forgotten, and I wonder if I was right to… Did I do the right thing? If she’s hurt in any way, it shall be my fault, and my fault alone. Edward is most distressed, he is in agony from not knowing where she is, what she is doing, and it’s my responsibility. I want him to be happy. And he is not.’

Alfred felt ashamed now that he said it. He felt he was failing Edward. He could take his mind off things for brief periods of time, briefer and briefer the more months passed. If he could only be more useful…

The rain was falling steadily, its white noise comforting even as Alfred was met with silence in the wake of his confession.

‘You are so lucky, Lord Alfred,’ Lady Portman spoke quietly after a while.

He followed the line of her vision – she wasn’t simply watching the rain and the gardens, she had been watching Her Majesty, and Prince Albert, quite enjoying the romantic moment the rain offered: they used their being trapped to have a laugh and steal a kiss from each other while the children and the nannies weren’t looking.

She turned away from the idyllic tableau, to walk around the edge of the small plinth, searching for something. She bent down to pluck a flower from the grass she could reach. Then she stood and turned to Alfred at last.

‘I have been lucky, too. I did want to marry. I have loved. I have been loved. My personal tragedy is that those never aligned.’

Alfred listened intently, heart racing so.

‘Now, I know that rumours have been cohorted about me in the past, claims that I had some entanglements with a number of men who for all their illustriousness and respectability are not unknown to have had illicit adventures. They whisper about my being well-connected,’ Lady Portman said, absent-mindedly plucking the petals off the flower one by one. ‘I admit to the agony of longing, I admit to directing my attentions elsewhere than where my vows say I should. But whatever you or others may assume therefore…’

She shook her head, plucking at the flower still.

‘I envy you. I may have your advantage in age but I still envy you. You have felt the kiss of passion on your own skin. I have only known it as a tormenting sting in my heart that I cannot get out. Forgive my secrecy or withdrawal. After one too many stings I find it hard to recover much less to hope.’

Alfred, for once, did not need to make up his words of comfort as he was confidant to Charlotte’s story, too. But he also had his own, and if women were anything like men, he had to tread carefully. It was his duty, as a friend. To both.

‘I’m sorry, I have to ask… What are your intentions?’

‘My intentions?’

‘What are you designs on Miss Drummond? Or were. Are. I don’t know…. Gosh, I feel like a father interrogating a young lad having come to propose to his daughter! Lady Portman, do answer honestly: did you feel a kind of passion for Charlotte or did you actually grow to love her?’

‘How can you ask that?!’

‘Forgive my indiscretion, but…’

‘It’s not the indiscretion, it’s that you can doubt me at all after I’ve told you. Of course I love her.’

‘Do you? Truly?’

‘I think I should be able to tell what love feels like,’ Lady Portman said, trying not to be too patronising.

Lord Alfred’s heart was warmed, relief passing through him.

‘Oh, if you knew how happy she would be to know that,’ he said.

Lady Portman was ever sadder for that, however.

‘But she cannot. She left.’

‘She had to.’

‘Nevertheless. We weren’t given enough time. It’s not fair.’

‘No, alas.’ He glanced at the last petal on the poor flower in her hand and smirked. ‘And does she love you or love you not?’

‘Now, that’s prying,’ she said elusively but Alfred was having none of it.

‘Of course she does. One could see…’

‘Oh, Goodness, Alfred, it’s not as you think, judging by that look on your face now, oh you…’

‘What look?’ Alfred asked blinking innocently.

‘That look such as the one you gave me that night she left when I told you I knew where her room was. Do not be vulgar.’

‘No such intention,’ Alfred claimed, though unable to hide his red cheeks.

Emma’s smile was feeble. ‘But she left. And now… I know you will have a few words of flattery up your sleeve, you really are your father’s son, but the fact is that I am not as young as to hope easily. My grey hairs starting to appear deny me any illusions to the contrary. Hey-ho… some miss out on it. I am one of them.’

‘No, I do not believe so.’

‘You are as kind as ever.’

‘Do not be so defeatist. I will not rest until she knows how you feel. She deserves to know. Which leads me to ask…’ Alfred remembered he wasn’t only here for the comforting chat. ‘Edward really is distraught, I can hardly put him out of his misery over the uncertainly at times. You see, he has received no word whatsoever. Of course she is hiding but it does make me worry also. We wondered whether you had any idea or whether she might have contacted you about her wellbeing or about her whereabouts in any form. Any lead would be appreciated.’

Lady Portman’s face said it all.

‘She has?’ Alfred asked with a flicker of hope in his chest.

But she was on the verge of crying suddenly. ‘Yes, she has. But she doesn’t say anything. Well, not much.’

‘But whatever has she said? Has she been writing to you all this time?’

‘No. It’s just the one note.’

‘When?’

‘Only just a fortnight ago.’

‘What does she say? I really can offer you my coat, if it’s in your room, let us go in at once—’ he suggested eagerly, already moving to take off his coat but she held up a hand and reached into the purse on her wrist.

Alfred had to smile – of course she would carry it around.

‘It’s not signed but it is definitely from her,’ she said, folding the small note open. ‘But I don’t know what she means! I have tried and tried to decipher it but I just can’t!’

Alfred frowned and stepped next to Lady Portman to read it:

 

Loveliest Lady Portman,

I took a wise man’s fair advice.

Longingly, in L---

P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea.

 

If he hoped his confusion would dissipate once he read the note, Alfred was sorely mistaken. His frown only deepened on his handsome face.

‘Lose a key? And… a wise man? Who could that be?’

‘Well,’ she said, less confused about that part. ‘She referred to you as such on the night she left, actually. In the garden.’

Alfred laughed. ‘Me? A wise man? That’s flattering from her. And I had no idea there was any talking going on in that gard--- Oh! But if she took my advice! Then…’

‘What, Alfred, do you know what she could mean?’

‘I did advise her to…’

‘What!?’ she asked, most intrigued and frustrated! ‘Just tell me, if you have any idea!’

‘I do have some idea but I must first… Look!’ Alfred glanced around. ‘The rain has ceased!’ he checked his pocket watch hastily and smiled in triumph. ‘I think I have a tea to which to invite myself!’

And without further ado, Alfred ran off, not in the direction of the Palace but towards the stables.

 

‘By God but who on Earth could that be!?’ Lord Anglesey asked his wife. ‘Did you invite someone?’

‘I think I would remember!’ Lady Anglesey said, dabbing a napkin on her dress as she, too, was startled by the sudden sound of the newly installed doorbell and enthusiastic knocking that followed, causing her to spill her tea.

‘My Lord and Lady, Lord Alfred’s here to see you,’ the announcement sounded, and sure enough their son was brushing past the footman swiftly, nearly knocking the wind out of him by handing him his top hat.

‘Alfred!’ Lady Anglesey exclaimed happily, and so did Lord Anglesey.

‘Do not get up! Papa, good to see you, and you Mama,’ Alfred greeted them familiarly, with a kiss on his mother’s cheek, too. ‘Might I sit?’

‘Well, of course, son, sit, eat – Andrew, do make sure Lord Alfred has a cup,’ Lord Anglesey told the footman, and soon they were alone again, with fresh tea in their cups and pretty cakes on their plates, in the sunny drawing room of the Angleseys’ fashionable London address.

‘Did Her Majesty run out of cakes, then?’ Henry joked.

‘That would be the end of civilisation, Papa. No, I just thought I’d pay you a visit. Can’t I call on my own dear Mama and Papa? How is the session today?’

‘Oh, ghastly.’

‘Yes, Drummond tells me the same every day.’

‘Oh, I do not understand how he tolerates carrying that fool Bentinck’s paperwork daily!’

‘Now, now, Henry,’ Lady Anglesey said. ‘You have come home for tea to escape the House for a while, have you not?’

‘That’s true, my dear Charlotte, that’s true.’

The sound of his mother’s Christian name reminded Alfred anew about why he was here really.

‘How are you finding London in the summer again?’ he asked, tucking into a strawberry tart.

‘Oh, lovely! The garden is blooming so beautifully! Would you like to see?’

‘Let him finish his cake, my dearest,’ Henry grumbled good-naturedly.

‘Did you not get drenched earlier?’ Lady Anglesey asked Alfred.

‘No, I was eager to ride here but only as soon as the rain stopped. So… you have not been home in Wales for some time, is that right?’

‘No, not since the autumn. Why, pumpkin?’

‘Mama! Don’t call me that!’

‘Oh, it’s only us!’

‘Fine… Nevertheless, you would have left some of the staff in Plas Newydd, would you not?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, not sure what her son was getting at.

‘Do you correspond with them often?’

‘Wh-- Alfred, what are these questions?’ she asked, most amused. ‘We do occasionally, when the need arises. When they send the books for the coal and wood burnt for heating, whether they should weed the gardens, the sort of thing with which you need not concern yourself.’

Alfred put his cup of tea back on its saucer. ‘I was wondering if you had any word about any visitors there. Any at all?’

Lord and Lady Anglesey exchanged a confounded look.

‘No, we have not,’ Henry replied. ‘Who would visit in our absence?’

‘Really, no one?’ Alfred asked, not wanting to give up hope yet.

‘Should we have?’

‘No, not really…’ Alfred thought hard. How to find out?

‘Alfred, please speak to us in a way we understand!’ Lady Anglesey pleaded. ‘You’re being very odd.’

‘I apologise, Mama, only… As you know, Edward—that is, Drummond, his sister is missing.’

‘Oh, yes, how sad. Still no news?’

‘None, alas. He is of course duly distressed, Ed-Drummond is. It simply occurred to me that she might have taken refuge in Anglesey, that’s all. But obviously, you know nothing about it,’ Alfred explained, having difficulty not letting his heart sink.

Lord and Lady Anglesey exchanged another look, but it was not that of confusion but something more grim and shady.

‘What is it?’ Alfred asked.

‘My son,’ Henry began carefully. ‘Why do you have reason to believe Miss Drummond would have travelled to our home?’

Alfred hesitated to reply, thinking about how to explain it all without exposing anyone, including himself.

‘She did quite enjoy herself there,’ Alfred replied feebly. ‘She expressed a longing to revisit. And it’s quite remote.’

Lord Anglesey was still confused by the whole thing. ‘Why did she go missing, Alfred?’

‘I told you.’

‘You said she ran away to escape a marriage. There must be more to it if she took such drastic steps.’

Alfred put down his tea, bracing to relive the sorry tale.

‘Mr Drummond and Mrs Drummond were, I regret to say, unwavering in their plan to marry Miss Drummond to the Duke of Fife.’

‘Fife?’ Henry asked with recognition in his voice.

‘You know him?’

‘I did his father. I thought the son was a jolly young lad.’

‘He may be able to give a good impression when he wants to but in reality he is a brute, and a rogue, and at any rate even if he wasn’t such a ghastly man, she has expressed her wishes against marriage altogether.’

‘Are you sure about that?’ Lady Anglesey asked sceptically.

‘She objects to marriage quite adamantly, particularly to this match. She has every right to. Alas, her parents, they wouldn’t have it, quite simply. So, she ran away. Nobody knows where. Edw- Drummond is out of his wits with worry. I just wondered if you knew anything.’

Lady Anglesey tutted sadly at the forlorn look on Alfred’s face. But with every word escaping his lips, he realised more how foolish it was to hope to find a clue.

‘Do not be alarmed, I have no doubt in her abilities and determination, she’s brilliant, I do not think she is in any danger but for Edward’s sake I should like to find out where she is. He is really most devastated, the uncertainty is agonizing. I feel so helpless watching him…’

Lord Anglesey cleared his throat, as if reminding Lady Anglesey not to dwell on Alfred’s visible melancholy in favour of asking more questions:

‘Alfred, darling, are you sure you have got it right?’ she asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Because… we had a letter from Mrs Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey revealed.

Alfred’s eyes bulged wide with surprise.

‘Mrs Drummond? Wrote? To you? I did not know you were acquainted. In fact she spoke rather ill-manneredly about you, about all of us, at the wedding!’

‘Well, we’re not exactly acquainted,’ Lady Anglesey was quick to say. ‘But she’s a mother, too – do not tut, pumpkin, I understand she was forceful but a mother’s love and worry surpass all other sentiments. She wrote to me, asking us whether she was staying with us, which I found a most peculiar suggestion. But then… darling, she seems to be under the impression that you… that you…’

‘Did you really propose to the Drummond girl?’ Henry asked straightforwardly.

Alfred wanted to sink twenty feet below the ground.

He could not deny it because it was true but telling his parents it was a pact between friends would have made so little sense to them as to raise suspicion. Perhaps it was better if they did think Alfred had wanted to marry her.

He could go along with that lie, right?

‘Why did you not just elope?’ Lord Anglesey asked.

‘Papa!’ Alfred forced a laugh, though he was unnerved. He stood to walk over to the bookshelf, browsing to seem more casual. Alfred knew about his parents’ story but he had never actually heard them encourage this sort of behaviour in their children! ‘Anyway, it is of no significance. She ran away.’

‘Well, we would be delighted if you settled, pumpkin,’ Lady Anglesey said.

‘Mama…’ Alfred tried to downplay the usual remark, going back to busy himself with the books, hoping this would not be a day where this went further than the odd nudge. It wouldn’t do to get too entangled in the idiotic lie.

But he had no such luck.

‘You seemed quite friendly in Wales,’ his Mama remarked between blowing the surface of her steaming hot tea.

‘Mama…’

‘Well, do you deny you are friends?’

‘We are friends. I’m friends with a number of ladies. And men. Edward- I mean, Drummond, he is my closest friend, a constant in my days, and so it was unavoidable that she should become a friend, too. Could I borrow this for Edward?’ Alfred asked, holding up a book of metaphysical poetry that would certainly have his love clutching his pearls.

‘I did like Miss Drummond. She’s a very bright girl,’ she continued. ‘And accomplished.’

‘And pretty,’ Henry added. ‘And if her brother is your best pal as you say, what could be better?’

‘Not to mention how much she must be worth---’ she added.

‘Good Lord!’ Alfred exclaimed, not at all liking where this conversation has gone. ‘Mama! Papa? Really, now…’

‘You have to admit, sweetheart, though they are in banking, it would be a splendidly suited match. We would support it.’

Alfred had to keep from rolling his eyes. He cursed himself now for having come up with the idea in the first place. Why was it biting him in the backside even after all this time?

He closed an encyclopaedia with annoyance and put it back on its shelf before turning back to his parents.

‘It’s not as if we’re paupers, really, now, enough.’

‘You were the one who proposed to her, it’s only natural we should be allowed to have a say.’

‘Have a say? More like prod and push.’

‘You proposed to her, Alfred,’ Henry insisted, as if not truly believing this day would ever have come.

‘Only because her parents were relentless about giving her to the Duke, a horrid prospect. It was a friendly gesture, a moment of foolishness.’

‘Oh, so you claim you only proposed to a pretty, clever girl of remarkable prospects to be gallant?’ Henry asked sarcastically.

‘Do not be like Mr and Mrs Drummond,’ Alfred said, flipping through The Iliad.

‘Like what?’

‘Forceful about marriage. No regard for what she wants. Or her safety. Unforgivingly so. No doubt they would try to force the match between her and the Duke the second they discovered her. Hence why she ran away in the first place, and hiding God knows where, driving poor Edward mad with fear. Therefore, I must insist you do not write them. If you come to know anything, you write to me, no one else. Please. Directly, not through servants. I mean it.’

‘Hold your horses, son: if they insist on making her marry, why did they object to you? Have you done anything to offend them?’

‘Never, I hardly met them! I’ll have you know Mrs Drummond expressed her disdain quite plainly and openly at the idea of Charlotte—’

‘Oh, “Charlotte”?’ Lady Anglesey remarked on the familiarity…

Miss Drummond,’ Alfred corrected himself, ‘marrying a Paget, as she so scornfully uttered our family name. It’s more than sanctimony, I’m afraid it’s piousness. They do not take kindly to their daughter’s reluctance to marry, nor to… to your divorces.’

Ah, at that neither Henry nor Lady Anglesey wanted to argue more. They were not at all ashamed, that was never something they were about the way they got married, after divorcing their respective spouses so scandalously. But they knew even more than Alfred how hostile people could be in higher society, even if the Drummonds were a banking family.

‘I’m sorry. Now, would you focus on the fact that she is missing? Edward is awfully worried. It’s…’ Alfred wanted to say it was breaking his heart but sensed that it would be going too far once again. How difficult it was to ask for the simplest help, from his own parents, when he kept bumping into brick walls beyond which he could not explain himself!

This whole visit had turned out to be a disaster! Not only were Alfred’s hopes of finding clues dashed quite plainly, but now he was having this futile conversation again, scared that the day would come when he ran out of excuses. He never felt unsafe with his family but one never knew.

Henry observed him pick at the spines of books thoughtfully.

‘Are the police looking for her?’ he asked.

‘Edward has not received any letters from them for months. We think they have given up on her. Besides, as I said, if the police found her, she would be turned back to Scotland, not to Edward, and we cannot allow that.’

‘You obviously care for her deeply, pumpkin.’

He simply nodded and hummed noncommittally, pretending to be immersed in a pocket book of Poe’s detective stories. He wished he had the deduction skills of Dupin indeed. It was a letter not purloined but undeciphered that troubled him.

‘Would it not be good to use this opportunity for me to build ties with the Drummonds to show them we aren’t what they think and—’

‘Mama, no!’ Alfred was quick to say, tears of frustration welling in his eyes. ‘I forbid it. Papa?’ he asked for support, and thankfully got it:

‘Alfred is right, my dearest, even if he is insolent,’ Henry said. ‘I do not believe it would do any good.’

She nodded and sighed. ‘That’s a relief, to be honest. Mrs Drummond is not someone I should love to have as an in-law by the sounds of her!’ she said, standing. I’m going to lie down, my spine is ailing me after all that gardening this morning. But you, pumpkin, try not to worry so.’

She stepped over to Alfred for a goodbye kiss on the cheek.

‘And tell your Edward…’ she added confidentially, which made Alfred’s heart skip a beat, ‘That… we are praying for him and his sister.’

Alfred was too practiced at hiding his true feelings, which were raging like a storm inside him. How he wished he could tell his mother about the joy he has found in being with Edward as they were! How he wanted to gush about how brilliant and gorgeous and talented his Edward was, and how happy he made him, and talk about their plans to travel when Parliament went into recess, and everything married couples were allowed to do!

But on the outside Alfred simply nodded, though he was touched, despite the difficulties of negotiating this conversation. And he had nthing to show for it. Lady Portman was going to be so disappointed!

‘I ought to return to the Palace, too,’ he said.

‘And I to the House,’ Henry said, standing with difficulty because of his false leg. ‘Need a ride in my carriage, son?’

‘No, I rode here, thank you.’

And back to the Palace he rode, making use of the fresh air after the rain. The sky was clear, the horse itching for a run, and his head needed clearing after the visit. Why did his lies have to deepen and deepen? How much more was his conscience able to take?

 

‘ORDER! ORDER!’ the Speaker bellowed again to no avail.

Lord Anglesey felt as if he had come to the zoo rather than the Parliament. And goodness, that buffoon Bentinck from the shadow cabinet stood to speak again.

Next to him, he noticed, Drummond was indeed looking less than his best.

The private secretary seemed to want the earth to swallow him whole whenever Bentinck spoke up, taking notes furiously so as to avoid the scorn of the House falling on him by proxy. Though Drummond had indeed worked for much brighter statesmen, this was a step down, Henry now knew that far greater problems troubled the chap.

Alfred seemed rather more devoted to his friend’s wellbeing than the sister he had proposed to. He must have mentioned Drummond’s name about a hundred times at tea.

Alfred did that, he had phases of dropping a friend’s name frequently, whoever he cared for the most at a given time, it was always “Charles thinks” and “Lucien told me” and “William says” but it was never this jarring and lasting as “Edward this” and “Edward that” and Edward, Edward, Edward...

Henry hadn’t really paid much attention to him before, not in Wales, not beyond Wellington’s praises and the scandal of the assassination attempt.

Perhaps he should get to know this man better.

 

‘Lord Alfred!’ Queen Victoria greeted him on his return at the Palace. ‘I was told you went out for a tea. Where?’

‘My parents, Your Majesty,’ Alfred replied, still catching his breath.

‘Did they serve tea in the garden?’ she joked, taking in Lord Alfred’s appearance, which was quite muddy.

‘No, I apologise, I was riding there and back, and on my shortcut through the park, as I was galloping past a row of shrubbery, the firing of a gun sounded with no trace of any culprit! It startled all in the vicinity! My horse nearly threw me off. Hence my appearance.’

‘Oh, how odd! Albert! Albert!’ she called, walking into her study from the hallway, Alfred following suit, regretting having opened his mouth at all. ‘Some ruffian fired a gun in the park!’

‘Really?’ the Prince asked, much more dramatically than the situation called for it.

‘No, it might not have been a gun, we don’t know for certain… It’s nothing…’

‘Noh, it is the opposite of nothing, Lord Alfred! See, Victoria, it is not safe in the parks of London!’

‘The parks are perfectly safe, Albert…’

Lord Alfred sensed this was not a fight he was eager to be here for and he barely had time to clean up and change before dinner so he backed out of the room invisibly.

 

‘Well?’ Lady Portman asked as soon as she got Alfred alone in the corner of the music room where they congregated after dinner, currently listening to Harriet play a less gloomy piece at the piano. She would of course be expected to be in half-mourning for a long time yet, but this was progress.

The royal couple were strangely quite happy again, very content even, making Alfred wonder what the trick was to their marriage that seemed to be so tempestuous one minute, then the exemplary definition of the very institution the next.

Not all were so devoted to their spouses, such as the baroness who had sat next to him on the recamier and was asking about someone definitely not her husband.

Lord Alfred sighed, which was enough to let Lady Portman know their hopes had been quite false.

She could not help the signs of disappointment.

‘I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have got all enthusiastic earlier,’ he said very quietly only to her ears, careful not to seem as if they were having an interesting conversation lest other might want to join them instead of listening to the music or playing another round of cards.

‘No, it’s not your fault. I feel like the foolish one. I feel as if I were as silly as a debutante at their first ball. So silly.’

‘Not silly. That’s love for you…’

They drank cognac in silence for a while. Thinking. Thinking…

‘May I see the note again?’ Alfred asked, without any sort of a plan. He just wanted to take one more look before dismissing it.

Lady Portman discreetly handed it to him.

‘“Loveliest Lady Portman… I took a wise man’s fair advice… Longingly, in L---“ see, that is not ambiguous at all. She sends her love,’ Alfred winked covertly at Emma.

‘It’s not spelled out.’

‘Maybe it reflects on the way she cut you off that night? She didn’t let you say it.’

‘How is it you remember so well?’

‘It’s not every day one sees a display like that…’ Alfred blushed, images of that night burnt into his retina for good. He vowed never to spy on anyone ever again. ‘Besides, she told me enough for me to know just how immensely much that means to her.’

Would have meant.’

Alfred sighed and turned back to the note. ‘”P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea”? That’s a funny thing to say. Is that a private joke?’

‘No,’ Lady Portman surprised Alfred.

‘No? Are you sure there is no significance to it that you can think of? A conversation you had, a place you visited…’

‘No, I remember everything quite vividly. It makes as little sense to me as it does to you. I’m sorry,’ she said, frustrated at herself.

‘Sorry? Why?’

‘Because I feel as if I’ve failed her.’

Alfred hang his head in sorrow. Lady Portman looked eager to leave so she could cry.

He was staring at the note absent-mindedly.

‘Just as a matter of interest, what did you believe the note suggested?’ she asked.

‘I thought she was in Wales,’ he said, thinking the whole idea foolish now. ‘I went to see my parents to inquire.’

Loveliest Lady Portman,

I took a wise man’s fair advice.

Longingly, in L---

P.S.: Lose a spare key and a tea.

She was certainly no poet, Charlotte. He thought her cleverer than this. The note hardly sounded like her, Alfred thought, but he didn’t have the heart to shatter that last illusion of Emma’s.

She sure liked to use a lot of L’s…

‘By God!’ Alfred exclaimed loudly all of a sudden.

Harriet stopped playing, the card gamers stopped dealing, and every head turned towards him!

‘I apologise, I… I thought I forgot to tell my valet to pick up my new cravats from my tailor. But I just remembered I did not. Do carry on.’

After a second’s hesitation, Harriet continued playing and the party returned to its previous noisy cheer, ignoring the Chief Equerry’s dandyish silliness.

‘What is it, Lord Alfred?’ Lady Portman asked covertly.

‘Maybe I am a wise man! I think it’s a riddle of sorts. I think I can make out words if…’ Alfred whispered and concentrated, reading and rereading the short note. ‘Ah, may I take this to Edward? He is much better at these things.’

‘Of course, let us go at once. In my carriage.’

‘No, you stay, I shall ride there with haste, it’ll be quicker,’ Alfred said, standing discreetly and inching towards a door without drawing attention to himself.

‘Come back to tell me what you found as soon as you do!’ Lady Portman whispered to him.

‘I will, I promise.’

 

‘WHAT?’ Edward nearly roused the whole of Lower Grosvenor Street once Alfred had told him about the note and his idea that it might be a sort of coded message.

Edward tore the small piece of paper out of Alfred’s hand and paced around his study.

Alfred always enjoyed this sight: he had to rouse Edward from his bed so he was already in his night clothes, an elegant dressing gown over his nightshirt, hiding a lot less of his perfectly sculpted body than his usual daywear.

Not to mention his hair...!

Alfred shook his head: they must focus on the note now.

‘Do you have any memory of any games in your childhood? Tricks, riddles, anything this could be?’

‘Do I? You credit my family to be a lot more interesting than we are. We were bored to death in Scotland! Of course we always made up riddles.’

Alfred’s heart skipped a beat. ‘So you do think this could be a secret message?’

‘I do not think so, I know so.’

‘What does it say?’

‘I need to…’

‘What do you need?’

‘A pen. And paper,’ Edward said, rushing to the desk. ‘And time!’

Alfred watched as Edward slashed a sheet of paper into half. And quarters. And a lot more smaller bits, scribbling a letter on each madly.

He took the bits of paper and laid them out on the carpet.

They knelt on the floor, not giving a fig about etiquette.

Edward began to shift the letters around, changing his mind often, muttering to himself incoherently, sighing, huffing and puffing in frustration, and rejoicing at times in triumph.

After a while, Alfred could see a different sort of letter forming on the carpet.

Edward still had bits of paper but he seemed reluctant to place them on the carpet.

‘What?’

‘I think… no… it can’t be…’ Edward blushed, eyeing the scraps in his hand.

‘What?’ Alfred asked, glancing over to the letters in Edward’s hand, and burst into laughter.

‘I must have been mistaken, they might go elsewhere, surely… Let me start again…’

‘No! Leave it, It’s perfect. Put these there.’

And so it was that a whole new message was in front of them:

 

My Pet Cat,

I am safe in Llangollen, in Wales.

Avoiding idiot, sorry.

Love

 

‘Key and tea,’ Alfred checked for the only spare letters in Edward’s hands. As the strange post scriptum instructed, a letter K and a T.

Surely that meant the solution was accurate.

Alfred hadn’t seen Edward this relaxed and joyous in months.

‘See? She is safe,’ he told him, and Edward fought off tears for the sake of lunging at Alfred with happy kisses.

Alfred fell back on the carpet, Edward on top of him, making him giggle with kisses and touches and pleas for him to stay for the night.

Alas, Alfred had promised to go back to tell Lady Portman the news at once. With a heavy heart, and only after many more kisses, he left, knowing Edward would not be so tormented by the emptiness of his house anymore.

 

 

‘Lord Alfred didn’t want to stay?’ the housekeeper Mrs Quibell asked Mr Clarke upon his return to the dinner table downstairs in the servants’ quarters. He sighed, almost all the bread was gone – why must he fight the rest of the staff for food every night? He was the butler, after all. Well, valet, officially, but he was the butler of the house in all but name. He sat at the head of the table, for heaven’s sake!

‘No, he left quite purposefully to the Palace. Thank you, Mrs Butterworth,’ Clarke said, grateful for the cook for ladling him more soup.

‘Why, still he’s visiting constantly, despite Miss Drummond’s absence – I thought he was knocking on the door so oft for her but he’s still practically living here! Surely a bed were needed to be made…’ the chattier of the house maids piped up without swallowing her mouthful of dinner.

‘Millie, I would thank you not to stick your nose in what upstairs gentlemen do, as they are responsible for grander things than you can imagine, certainly grander than whether a spare bed is required for the night,’ he chided her patiently.

‘No, I disagree!’ Millie replied, swallowing heartily at last. ‘I ought to know, Mr Clarke. I’m not going into the green bedroom on me own!’

‘Why not? Another one of your superstitions?’

‘Not still afraid of ghosts, Millie?’ the other housemaid Alice asked patronisingly.

‘No!’ Millie replied – she did believe in ghosts particularly in this grand old house without a family to fill the silence – but it wasn’t that this time. ‘Another cat died in that room just this morning, didn’t it? I’m not setting foot in there until we know why!’

‘You said the cat had chewed on the wallpaper, did you not, Millie?’ Clarke said sensibly. ‘Poor thing probably choked on a piece.’

‘No, something’s in that wallpaper, I’m telling you! We should tell Lord Alfred, put him up in another room from now on.’

‘He seems perfectly fine to me. Besides, I hardly think Lord Alfred has ever taken to eating the wallpaper whilst staying in for the night.’

‘No, Mr Clarke, that may be true,’ the Mrs Quibell weighed in wisely. ‘But if the newspapers are telling the truth, it’s not the size of the bits that the cat was chewing on but their content. Green wallpaper like that might have a fair bit of arsenic, they say. Not good for anyone.’

‘Arsenic? Oh lord!’ Millie shrieked at once.

‘Stop this, Millie, no need for scaremongering on a Wednesday,’ Mr Clarke tried to nip the usual panic in the bud. ‘And thank you Mrs Quibell, but no need to talk of the devil. Guests have often stayed in that room and have left in perfectly healthy conditions.’

‘I don’t know, did Lord Alfred not seem a bit pallid when you saw him?’

‘Wh— no, as I say, he was perfectly fine, his complexion quite lively, even, I assure you, as always, and---‘ Mr Clarke suddenly found himself trailing off…

It was true, the room was slept in often. But not by many guests. Only by Lord Alfred. If the walls really had contained any toxic arsenic all this time, he’d have been showing signs of ill-health by now, what with the frequency of his visits.

Unless he wasn’t ever spending the night in that room at all.

Good Lord, Mr Clarke thought, that would explain the cravat he didn’t remember Mr Drummond had made suddenly appearing in the cupboard.

‘What? Are you not getting sick too, Mr Clarke!?’ Millie asked, worried that the valet would drop dead on the floor that second.

‘N-no, I’m perfectly fine, Millie,’ Mr Clarke cleared his throat trying to recover. ‘I was just going to say… that… perhaps, for the sake of the cats, of which Miss Drummond was always so fond of so it wouldn’t do to lose them by the time she returns---‘

‘Ha! If she returns!’

‘Shush, you, honestly,’ Alice reprimanded her fellow housemaid.

‘…Thank you, Alice,’ Mr Clarke continued authoritatively. ‘So, as I was saying, for the sake of the cats, I might suggest to Mr Drummond to ask a specialist to examine the room. Would that make everyone happy?’

General agreement followed this decision but Mr Clarke was not looking forward to that conversation. If his assumptions were true, he sensed it would be useful to discuss other matters than the wallpaper with Mr Drummond while he was at it, indeed for the sake of his and Lord Alfred’s safety...

Chapter Text

‘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…’

‘Ill…’

‘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.

‘De…’

‘Duh…’

‘Ré.’

‘Rey?’

‘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.’

‘But… alone?’

‘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.’

‘…You?’

‘Yes, me,’ Edward admitted bashfully. ’And I believe he said Lady Anglesey wouldn’t be opposed to hosting the Queen herself.’

‘Papa said that?’

‘He did.’

‘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 what?’

‘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…’

‘”Glaring?”’

‘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.

Chapter Text

Where is he? Alfred thought to himself with natural fear in his stomach.

It was most unlike Edward to be late, let alone from Alfred’s birthday dinner that he helped his Papa and Mama organise!

Really, Edward saw Alfred’s own parents more in the past week than Alfred had in a whole month! Not that Alfred was displeased with this, on the contrary, but this meant that Lord and Lady Anglesey were just as receptive of Edward’s lateness as Alfred was.

Lady Anglesey came up to Alfred by the window, where he was staring intently at the street outside for signs of Edward’s carriage.

‘Everyone’s starving, pumpkin,’ she remarked, not unkindly, but Alfred could see for himself as well that their guests were starting to get impatient for this magnificent dinner promised indeed.

Just as Alfred was about to agree to begin without Edward, horses’ hooves sounded on the cobblestones and indeed it they could see it was Drummond arriving at last!

‘A thousand apologies, Lady Anglesey,’ Edward was the first to say, as soon as he was shown into the drawing room.

‘Drummond! At last, I would have gobbled up the flowers in this vase if we had to wait a minute more!’ Birdie, Alfred’s robust friend from their cavalry academy days, remarked, indeed eyeing the bouquet with hunger, until his wife elbowed him in the side to behave.

‘Just as long as I get the roses left!’ Lord Septimus added.

‘Oh, Sept, we all know you would rather starve and use those roses for a different purpose than your culinary needs,’ Adelaide commented cheekily, his and Alfred’s 17-year old sister who was currently playing with a poodle as fluffy and frilly as her dress and ringlets. ‘Particularly when that purpose is under an unmarried lady’s petticoats…’

‘Now, now, enough!’ Lord Anglesey intervened. Really, his daughters were worse than his sons sometimes!

‘I’m sorry, Papa,’ she said innocently. ‘… I was wrong to say unmarried, Sept isn’t that picky.’

‘Adelaide!’ Septimus scolded her, knowing full well she wasn’t wrong, but one of Alfred’s guests was the enchantingly beautiful and very easy to bring to a blush Duchess of Monmouth from the court. He wouldn’t want Adelaide to ruin his chances.

While the handful of other guests, including Birdie’s wife, were clutching their pearls at the Paget family’s ways, Lady Anglesey squeezed Edward’s hand as a kind of motherly reassurance.

‘Not to worry, Mr Drummond,’ she said. ‘You have come precisely on time! Let us go in, shall we?’

The guests stood and filed into the dining room in an orderly fashion following Lady Anglesey’s call. But Alfred got Edward to hang back a step.

‘What is the meaning of this?’ he whispered to Edward very discreetly. ‘You're wearing my tie...! But you look most dishevelled and… so very tense.’

‘That’s one word for it,’ Edward replied darkly. He really felt as if he had received an ice cold shower at home but he had to pretend everything was fine and dandy for the sake of the dinner. ‘We must talk,’ he added quietly before they reached the dining room, though.

‘But we must take our seats now.’

‘Of course. Not now. But later, we must.’

‘Edward, what is the matter? You are scaring me.’

‘Later,’ Edward insisted.

And there was no time left to talk for now, as everyone took their seats around the splendidly laid dining table. And though Alfred caught a bit of Edward’s tenseness after this highly unusual entrance and the worrying prospect of a talk about God knew what did not get him in the birthday spirit, the first course was being served and they had to persevere through dinner before he could get to the bottom of it.

 

 

Meanwhile in Bryanston, Dorset, Lady Portman’s carriage pulled to a stop on the gravel of her and her husband’s imposing country house. The groom opened the door and helped her out, and a footman from the house was quick with an umbrella to protect her from the light rain. The footman only had to assist the Baroness halfway to the front door, as Lord Portman appeared by her side, holding his own umbrella over her bonnet very gallantly.

‘Hello, dear!’ Lady Portman greeted him cheerily. It was indeed easy to seem glad of everything, despite the tiring journey, despite the rain, despite her need to connive this way, because the purpose of her visit was to be a joyous one indeed.

In a few days.

But first, she had to do her duties as Baroness Portman, a respectable country lady, wife, and mother.

‘Emma, my dearest!’ the Baron’s deep, warm voice sounded in reply and he gave her a polite kiss on the cheek, tickling her skin with his jolly sideburns that needed a trimming. He was always prone to be so lost in his own studies and whimsies that he forgot to take care of such small things as grooming, though he did seem to have made an effort to wear matching clothes for once for his wife. ‘I am so very glad you are here. How was the journey?’

‘Oh, as it always is, it shook me up a little but we’re here in one piece.’

‘I must say your letter was sudden and ever so cryptic. How come you have thought to visit now?’

‘It might shock you to say, Teddy, but I do miss you sometimes.’

‘Sometimes?’

‘You know what I mean, oh you…’ Emma added jokingly, feeling guilty about the honesty of her remark all the same. ‘I felt I ought to take the chance now. Her Majesty’s duties are not so numerous now it’s summer, but she is to travel to Scotland once Parliament goes into recess. So I’m afraid it’s either now or after Christmas, really.’

‘Well, I am very glad indeed.’

‘I hear Edwin was here last month?’

‘You heard well, he was ever so kind to keep me company while I was ordered to bedrest.’

‘Teddy, have you been ill?’

‘No, no, just a bit of a cold or some such thing, you know how Doctor Kenny seems to overreact everything.’

‘Yes, but you must look after yourself better.’

‘Now, now, nothing happened. I’m perfectly fine. Now, do come in, a warm cup of tea would do us both good, I believe. I wouldn’t want your journey to be wasted on standing in the rain.’

‘I’m sure it won’t.’

Emma smiled at the kindly but oblivious man her husband was. They instructed the groom and the maid Abigail that Emma brought from the Palace, and went inside to get dry and comfortable.

 

 

‘Leave room for dessert, everyone,’ Lord Anglesey told the dinner party after well wishes for Alfred, some talk about his and Edward’s plan to travel to France the very next day, and after a lot of wine, champagne, and splendid courses had been consumed. ‘We shall have ice cream in the garden afterwards!’

‘Ice cream, Mama?’ Adelaide asked in awe at the prospect!

‘Indeed, shall we go outside, then? While the sun is still out!’ Edward asked everyone with a winning smile. He was in a hurry to get the party to move into a more lax phase of the night so he could catch a moment alone with Alfred at last for a private word.

A few minutes later, they were all scattered around on benches and blankets in Lady Anglesey’s beautifully cultivated garden blooming with all sorts of flowers.

‘May I join you, gents?’ Septimus said, inserting himself between Alfred and Edward.

‘Of course,’ Alfred muttered, somewhat displeased. He wanted Edward to himself, to talk privately. ‘Drummond, this is Lord Septimus Paget, my brother, I don’t believe you’ve been introduced?’

‘No, we have not,’ Edward replied and offered his hand to Septimus but the Paget brother did not notice it, for he was currently craning his neck and looking at somewhere else entirely.

‘What are you doing?’ Alfred asked suspiciously.

‘I want to see if the Duchess still only has eyes for me even if I am standing next to the dashingly handsome Drummond here. She has been carrying her fan in her left hand all evening, if you know what I mean… ah and she opened it at last! Sorry, gents, my company is desired elsewhere,’ Septimus said and left to entertain the Duchess.

‘I do not know what to name him yet!’ Adelaide lamented, trying to keep her lively little poodle at bay. ‘Alfred! Alfred, what do you think I should name him?’

Alfred gave Edward an apologetic look and walked over to his little sister to humour her. It was going to be impossible to talk discreetly even for five minutes at this party, especially that it was thrown for him and therefore he was the guest most in demand. Besides, it was his birthday after all, so he might as well enjoy it.

Meanwhile, Henry took the opportunity to step over to Edward.

‘So, Mr Drummond, I hope the evening is everything you hoped it would be.’

Edward assumed an air of neutral politeness, hiding his ceaseless underlying nervousness.

‘Yes, Lord Anglesey, I believe the dinner is a success. Thank you for hosting it, especially on the eve of our journey. Lord Alfred is lucky to have a family such as yours.’

Henry followed Edward’s gaze to Alfred and Adelaide playing with the little poodle while trying to come up with names. That poor puppy was not going to come out of this with a respectable name, no chance.

Henry saw longing in Edward’s eyes.

‘Still no news about your sister, Drummond?’ he asked.

Edward’s nerves were not soothed by that thought on top of everything else weighing on his mind.

‘Well… it might be nothing,’ he said secretively. He had learned to feign his feelings somewhat, since having loved Alfred, but he still struggled to flat out lie. ‘But we remain hopeful of her wellbeing.’

Henry sought out his wife with his eyes, glad to see she was entertaining guests on the other side of the garden.

‘I shouldn’t tell you, Drummond, but we have come to know that Alfred proposed to your sister. Is that really true?’

Edward bit his lip. Alfred warned him this might come up sooner or later. Again, he could not lie. But it wasn’t exactly the truth he could say.

‘Yes, well… I believe they had a kind of agreement.’

‘Agreement? That makes it sound quite mutual.’

‘It was.’

‘But Alfred said Miss Drummond is reluctant to marry.’

‘She is.’

Henry didn’t even have to try to corner Drummond. It seemed the boy was doing a splendid job of it on his own.

‘I mean,’ Edward added, trying to save face. ‘She is reluctant about the idea for reasons such as her wish to study formally first,’ Edward made up on the spot, congratulating himself on his stroke of brilliance. ‘I am in full support of it. So is Alfred.’

‘And so am I. I do not know her well but she seemed a clever enough girl in Wales.’

‘She is. But that would mean waiting with marriage for a few more years, an idea to which my parents are not taking kindly.’

‘I thought Alfred was the one who urged the match.’

‘I… because… my parents… the Duke…’ Edward spluttered lamely. ‘Fife was insistent… Alfred tried to help… It’s all too early, that’s all… If Fife hadn’t… It’s… ’

‘You see,’ Henry cut in, ‘I’m asking because it surprised me that he would want to marry at all, let alone so suddenly, let alone a bride who seems reluctant. Indeed, if anyone was going to be reluctant about a marriage, I would have expected it to be Alfred.’

‘Wh-why is that, sir?’ Edward was afraid to ask.

‘I think you know why,’ Henry said quietly, dropping his pretence.

Edward felt his heart clench painfully.

He exhaled but inhaling seemed an impossibility.

Really, he felt as if all the blood had left his body.

First his valet, now Lord Anglesey?

Have they been completely foolish to think they were safe this whole time?

How many others knew about them already?!

‘Have some more ice cream, Drummond, the heat seems to have defeated you,’ Henry said, waving down a footman to serve them. ‘You seem quite faint.’

A glass of raspberry ice cream was thrust into Edward’s hand and but he seemed to have forgotten how to eat.

Henry feared he made a huge mistake with his comment that skirted on the fine line between ignorance and knowledge.

Watching Edward lose his composure, he half wanted to keep it up until he got his answers, but the poor lad seemed ready to crumble any second, something that wouldn’t do, not when they were standing in the middle of a garden party.

He changed course, therefore.

‘I think Alfred and Miss Drummond would be a perfect match, if you ask me,’ Henry continued, making sure to assume an air of nonchalance. ‘Do not worry, my son, it is not the allure of the money that many suitors would have on their minds no doubt. We’re not like that. It would benefit Alfred to be married, that I know for sure, and what could be better than a match that made brothers-in-law out of you? I’m afraid Lady Anglesey is even less thrilled to tie our families together than your own parents,’ Henry laughed to himself, ‘But all the same. What do you think, Drummond? You are clearly Alfred’s dearest friend.’

Edward could breathe again as he listened… Did Henry know? He seemed to be wondering about Alfred and his reluctance to marry, but did he know about Alfred and Edward?

What Edward didn’t know was that Henry was still trying to figure it out himself, both of them walking on thin ice.

‘I wouldn’t presume to either pressure or prevent them. But I will say,’ Edward could not miss to add, ‘Your son seems very content as he is. He is not unhappily unmarried, as far as I can tell. As indeed his dearest friend.’

‘You, too, were engaged once, were you not, Drummond?’ Henry pressed on, while they both watched Alfred, Adelaide, and the poodle playing on the grass.

‘I was, sir,’ Edward managed to reply, carefully.

‘But you broke it off in the end?’

‘Yes, everyone could see Mrs Florence Drummond was rather in love with my brother Arthur, and he with her. I had to step aside for all our sakes. Aside from you and Lady Anglesey, I have never seen a happier couple, their first child is due in September.’

‘Oh dear, but then you were left quite heartbroken, were you not?’

‘Sir… I hope we are friends but my own father would not ask me such a deeply private question,’ Edward finally found his voice and a leg to stand on, even if a shaky one.

‘Your father might not. But I am, as Alfred’s father.’

‘I saw my purpose in serving the country. God has destined me for that job, it is clear to me now.’

‘Oh? Are you a God-fearing man?’ Henry asked with surprise.

Edward grappled with his answer, as he sometimes grappled with it in his heart of hearts, too.

‘I think I must do what I believe is good.’

‘That’s more like it!’ Henry suddenly cracked up heartily. ‘Spoken like a true politician indeed!’

Edward allowed himself a laugh, too… It seemed Henry wasn’t going to vet him after all. Strange… he could have sworn earlier that Alfred’s father was about to call the police on him for seducing his son! But, he remembered now, that may have been because he was still agitated from the awkwardness with his valet earlier.

‘Thank you for bringing this about before your trip - we are off to Wales next week, also. I suppose you’ll enjoy your time in France immensely now that we’re going into recess.’

‘Oh, immensely, sir,’ Drummond agreed heartily, finally tucking into his ice cream.

‘Bentinck is…’

‘Yes, he’s quite…’

But whatever Drummond’s boss was, they never got to say, as the little poodle had got free and was now climbing up on Edward’s leg, making him drop his ice cream on the grass, getting half of it on the poodle as well as his own garments.

‘Oho, look!’ Adelaide shrieked with laughter.

Alfred couldn’t help but join in, doubling over, even as he ran over to try and pry the puppy off Edward.

‘I’m so sorry, Edward,’ he said with the giggly voice of someone definitely not sorry for any of this.

Edward didn’t want to be parted from the pet yet and so raised it to eye-level.

‘Now, is that how we behave, good sir?’ Drummond asked the little puppy, who licked a drop of ice cream off Drummond’s forehead in response.

Adelaide came over, still in a fit of giggles. ‘I think I know just what to name you!’ she told the unruly poodle as she took her from Drummond. ‘Mr Curly! Like Mr Drummond here!’

Though Edward laughed along, wanted the earth to swallow him up whole, he was redder in the face than the ice cream that stained his cravat.

But the next second, Alfred forgot himself and took out his handkerchief to help to clean up the mess everywhere, dabbing at Edward’s cheek as even a wife wouldn’t in public. This did not go over Henry’s head either, Edward saw clearly, and so his smile faded and, shamefully, he swatted away Alfred’s caring hand.

Never, never had he seen such deep hurt in Alfred’s eyes caused by Edward.

This wasn’t the shock of his unannounced engagement, this wasn’t the annoyance at people inquiring about the blushing bride Florence once was to Drummond, no, this was him, this was deliberate, uncalled for, and so very hurtful.

‘Forgive me, I… I think there is no point in ruining your handkerchief, Lord Alfred,’ Edward tried to save the moment and wipe away that heartbroken look in Alfred’s eyes, wishing he could make it right properly but he could not in front of Alfred’s family and friends. ‘I ought to go upstairs and tend to it.’

‘Of course you must, Drummond, find a bathroom and a footman,’ Henry seconded.

‘I don’t know where it is’ Edward said, looking pointedly at Alfred.

‘I’ll show you,’ Alfred thankfully got the message and led the way inside.

 

 

‘… and that’s why Edwin is absolutely right in investing more in agriculture, as I am always telling him. It is never too early to prepare for the next elections.’

‘Quite,’ Emma said politely after Lord Portman had droned on and on about farming, his field of expertise, something that could not particularly hold her attention but it was in her best interests to keep the Baron happy. They barely sat down to tea but she was already eager to propose the idea of traveling north.

‘We have acres and acres of new, excellent lands near Gloucester, and—’

‘Gloucester, you said?’

‘Yes,’ the baron replied, surprised to see Emma showed inquisitiveness about his favourite topic.

‘Why you never mentioned we have land there.’

‘Newly acquired, an inheritance from my late uncle Frederick.’

‘Why I should love to see it!’

The baron nearly choked on his tea. ‘You would like to see the farmlands?’

‘Well, not just the lands – I haven’t been to Gloucester in many years. Louisa has been asking me to visit so often and I never have the time!’

‘But you have just got here, my dear.’

‘I know, but now that you said it I find I have such a longing to see my dearest sister. We could inspect the farms, spend some time with Louisa, see the old cathedral…’

‘Well, I am not sure, Emma.’

‘Oh, please, humour me, Teddy. It is not often I get to decide where I am traveling, not when He Majesty is in such constant demand of her ladies in waiting.’

Emma knew that Teddy was never going to say no to her when she was being so sweet – he had never been one to stand up to himself anyway. This was a failing of his but Emma could use it to her advantage splendidly.

The servants were shortly instructed not to even unpack her bags.

 

 

‘Thank you, Andrew, we’ll manage from here,’ Alfred told the footman with his usual courteous charm after they managed to save Edward’s garments more or less in one of the upstairs bathrooms.

Once the footman left, he pulled Edward into an antechamber once used as a dressing room but now for storing towers of towels and shelves full of soap. They had less echo from here than in the tiled bathroom, lest anyone lingered in the corridor.

As soon as the door was safely closed on the crammed little room, Edward’s emotions burst to the surface.

‘Forgive me, Alfred, I am so sorry,’ he pleaded. ‘My darling,’ Edward could not help but take Alfred into his arms, overcome with his love, especially after the hell he lived through at home. ‘I didn’t mean to be so awful, I had to. Lord Anglesey… I was scared…’

Alfred, though cross with Edward and confused, hugged him back lovingly.

‘What is the matter, Edward?’ Alfred asked fearfully as he pulled away just enough to kiss Edward. ‘Tell me, my love. What happened? Why were you late?’

Edward took a deep breath and told Alfred everything word for word:

He was running late from the House – a terrible collision between two carts delayed him from arriving home as planned! As soon as he made it, he rushed to his dressing room to get clean and change.

He was in such a hurry he did not even realise he had done it all by himself until he couldn’t find his cufflinks.

The ones Alfred had given him just the month before – if he wasn’t wearing them to the birthday dinner, Alfred would surely think he had lost them!

But everything was already packed and on the ship. What if that included said cufflinks?

‘Clarke!’ Drummond shouted and pulled a lever by the door to signal downstairs. ‘Clarke!’ he called again, out to the corridor, until footsteps sounded and his valet showed up at last. ‘Clarke! Where were you?’

‘Apologies, sir. You said you did not need my assistance.’

‘What?’ Drummond asked, confused. ‘Nonsense, I certainly could have used you.’

‘When you rushed in through the door, I offered but…’

‘Never mind that, Clarke: where are the blue cufflinks?’

‘On the dresser, just over there, Mr Drummond,’ Clarke pointed to the polished mahogany top, where Drummond should have found them on his own.

‘Goodness, but I am a dastardly fool!’ Drummond cursed himself. ‘Thank you, Clarke.’

‘May I?’ the valet offered, already getting the cufflinks to help them on Mr Drummond.

‘While I am here, sir,’ Clarke began, for the dozenth time in the past few days. It seemed impossible to run the house without Mr Drummond sparing a second for his staff these days. He was always too tired, too busy, or rushing in and out with less and less concern for his household. But there was an especially pressing matter to discuss, which may be sensitive in certain ways. ‘About the wallpaper…’

‘Not now, Clarke, I am in an immense hurry,’ Drummond said, wincing as he glanced at the clock. There was no way he wasn’t going to be late from his Alfred’s birthday dinner, the one he had been working to bring about so tirelessly.

‘Sir, I’m afraid I must insist on a minute of your attention.’

‘"Insist?"’ Drummond frowned. He wasn’t terrible with his servants as Charlotte allowed herself to be but this was impertinence -  he wasn’t angry but he felt quite betrayed by his trusted valet’s tone.

‘Forgive me sir, but…’

‘Cravat, please,’ Drummond ordered coldly.

Clarke went to get the tie from the dresser with a to Drummond glacial pace, debating whether he shouldn’t just wait until later.

Now, Clarke.’

No, that was it. That did it.

Clarke stopped and stood up straight, holding the cravat hostage, and spoke quite out of turn but quite necessarily:

‘Sir, I will remind you that we are more than soulless cleaners, we guard your home and your most private life with utmost confidentiality, and as your valet I must insist, yes, insist, sir, that you listen to me for a second, for your own good, and for your guests’ safety,’ Clarke rattled, shocking Drummond to the core. ‘The green room has arsenic. The cats most certainly died from it. As you are so keen to have Lord Alfred staying over, I thought you should like to know, before signs of poisoning show on your friend. Though by the looks of it my warning is indeed superfluous, sir, as Lord Alfred seems to be in perfect health, thank the Lord, which I can only attribute to his preference of sleeping in another room without being told. God keep his good habit.’

Clarke could not handle any of this for a second more and went to storm out but had to step back in the last second.

‘Your tie, sir,’ he said awkwardly, shoving it in Drummond’s hand. ‘Or, his lordship's, isn't it... I have already arranged for the men, the wallpaper will have been changed by the time you return from the Continent.’

And with that, Clarke left, not daring to glance back at an utterly aghast and frozen with nerves Drummond.

‘And?!’ Alfred asked after listening to Edward’s account of all this in the Anglesey house’s bath storage room.

‘And?’

‘Well what did you do?!’

‘Well, the clock struck the half hour, I finished dressing and rushed here!’

Alfred’s eyes bulged even wider.

‘You just left?!’ Alfred asked in a strained whisper. He wanted to hit Edward like a stupid child who misbehaved. ‘You left that situation!?’

‘Well, I had to!’

‘By God, Edward...’ Alfred pressed the palms of his hand to his eyes in frustration.

‘What was there to do? I couldn’t run downstairs, begging for my valet’s forgiveness and discussing our sleeping arrangements with him!’

‘But he could be anywhere now, finding new employment, or worse, talking to the police!’

Edward paled. ‘No, my valet would never.’

‘Wouldn’t he? God, Edward, you are so naïve sometimes! We think our staff is loyal to us because it’s their job to make us believe so. Until they find someone who pays them more! Servants are people too, with their own bloody conscience – William learned that the hard way, remember? Think, Edward, think!’

‘I am, and I am telling you, Clarke would never do such a thing. I am not looking forward to returning home tonight, but I have no doubts I will be able to reason with him.’

‘Him, and not the constables? Edward, really, perhaps you shouldn’t return home at all.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Spend the night here. Or at the Palace. Or go straight to the yacht. I don’t want to see the sunrise there tomorrow waiting for you in vain because you have been taken in!’

‘Alfred, my own Alfred,’ Edward soothed his love, taking him into his big, warm arms. Though he had been worried out of his wits, Alfred’s downright panic seemed to compel him to be stronger, for him. ‘I am not going to be taken in by anything anytime soon other than your gorgeous blue eyes.’

Alfred would have laughed but he just clung to Edward’s body, burying his fear in the hug.

Edward held him strongly for a few minutes.

‘Perhaps it’s good that we are going to France anyway,’ Alfred muttered defeated against Edward’s raspberry stained waistcoat.

Edward stroked Alfred’s hair yet more, to soothe himself as much as Alfred.

‘I shan’t run,’ he said at last, quietly but determinedly. Alfred straightened up to look at him and listen. ‘Let Charlotte do all that. But that’s not me. I shall go back to my house and I shall talk to my valet. And in the morning, I shall see you at sunrise, when we shall set sail and spend a whole month alone, just the two of us, without prying eyes. God knows we deserve it.’

Alfred watched him from an inch away with awe. ‘Just make sure France remains the plan of a month.’

‘Fear not, my love, I fully intend to return here. I am hopeless at French, as you know.’

Despite himself, Alfred heard himself laugh. ‘I love you,’ he whispered against Edward’s lips before kissing him deeply, thirsty for relief amid their joint agitation.

‘I love you too,’ Edward moaned into their kisses, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you…’

Overcome with passion through panic, Alfred was tugging and clawing at Edward’s shirt out of his trousers without thinking, needing to touch, to feel him before he was taken from him ---

But a thumping sound outside scared them into fleeing apart even though they were quite alone.

‘What was that?’

‘Probably nothing,’ Alfred whispered, but he pushed Edward in the cover of the door while he peeked out.

The bathroom was still quite deserted. The windows, open wide, must have collided, swinging from a summer breeze.

Nevertheless, they thought it best to return to the garden before their absence became suspiciously lengthy.

They disguised their nerves behind chit-chat and croquet until it was polite for Drummond to leave and return to his own house, unsure about what would await him there.

 

 

Emma nearly skipped down the stairs in the morning, her favourite bonnet on her head, and glad to see the journey north was going to be a sunny one.

‘Edward? Teddy?’ she called, knowing just where to go to find her husband.

He was in the dining room, having breakfast. Or, Emma was pleased to see, snoring in his seat, breakfast barely touched.

She was a very perceptive woman, and a caring wife, after all. Therefore, when Lord Portman had complained of headaches due to overstressing about his agricultural research the night before, she had kindly recommended the root of valerian.

How silly of her to forget to mention that it was also a powerful sedative used to treat insomnia...

‘Shall we postpone the trip, Lady Portman?’ the maid Abigail asked from the doorway.

‘No,’ Lady Portman said at once, trying not to appear too gleeful. ‘We are already dressed, packed, and ready to go. The baron was never the keenest traveller, and he needs his well-deserved rest. But I have already written to my sister, it would be terribly rude of me not to show. Let us leave him, he won’t mind.’

‘But your ladyship, you mean to travel alone?’

‘But I will not be alone. I have you, Turner, and the groom. And this way you can sit with me inside the carriage,’ she added with a little wink as a further incentive to win the maid’s sympathy. ‘Come, I know many travel games. We shall get on just splendidly.’

Abigail did not need telling twice to grab this chance, now that she wasn’t going to have to sit on the bench next to the stern and rather grumpy groom after all.

They were in Gloucester by nightfall.

Chapter Text

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!’

Chapter Text

‘Lady Portman!’

‘Charlotte!’

And indeed, the long missing Miss Drummond was standing in front of Emma in the flesh, eyes wide in surprise, holding onto what seemed like a woven basket full of flowers and eggs, dirt on her hands and boots, and just as lost for words as the unexpected visitor.

‘H-how?’ Charlotte asked at last.

‘Your note,’ Emma explained, quite breathlessly.

‘Did you ask…’

‘… Mr Drummond? Yes. He knew exactly what to do.’

‘Is he here?’

‘No. He’s with…’

‘Lord Alfred.’

‘Yes. In France.’

‘France?!’

‘Yes.’

‘All good? They’re not---’

‘They’re fine.’

‘Right… Yes… good... Um…’ suddenly lost for words and for confidence, Charlotte faltered.

One second she was just getting flowers and things for the ladies, the next Lady Portman was standing there, with that mesmerizing gaze of hers, just as she remembered her.

‘You… you… changed your hair,’ she remarked stupidly, seeing Emma wore her ringlets in the back now.

‘So have you,’ Emma replied, taking in Charlotte’s most unusual appearance only now: she was wearing trousers, not the ladylike sort, but very manly ones, with muddy boots, a billowy sleeved shirt and a waistcoat and cravat. And her hair was cut much shorter, her natural curls barely reached her shoulders. She had tied it with a single ribbon and nothing else.

‘Do you hate it?’ Charlotte asked shyly, nearly dropping the basket as her hand shot up to her hair self-consciously.

‘N-no, not at all,’ Emma replied at once, unused to it but quite smitten all over again. ‘It suits you.’

Now Charlotte truly didn’t know what to say or do, except stand there awkwardly, holding onto her basket of goods, and staring at the vision that Emma was, as if she wasn’t sure she was dreaming again.

‘Was Doctor Evans home, then?’ Miss Butler broke the silence crudely.

‘Shush!’ Miss Ponsonby scolded her, but Charlotte was already roused from her ponderings.

‘Uh, y-yes, I… yes, he was, I got the… the uh… medicine for the…’ Charlotte tried to reply absent-mindedly.

‘I’ll take this, shall I?’ the cook appeared and slipped the basked out of Charlotte’s hand.

‘And we should go,’ Miss Ponsonby said to her partner. ‘Come on, my beloved Eleanor, let us leave them alone to talk.’

‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t dream of that,’ Lady Portman protested immediately. ‘Perhaps we could have the privacy of my carriage, or the gardens, or a room…’

‘I have my own lodging,’ Charlotte offered. ‘In the woods. It is but a short walk away.’

‘Oh?’ Emma’s ears perked up. ‘Yes, I think that would be agreeable.’

Their polite conversation did nothing to ease the tension, especially not that it was more apparent now that they were still rooted to the spot quite a few feet apart. Lady Portman smiled and nodded encouragingly.

‘Right,’ Charlotte muttered, straightening her muddy attire and beckoning to Emma to follow her out the door.

Charlotte walked past the groom and the maid again, as she did before she went into the house (or ran, more like, upon seeing the carriage that was exactly like Emma’s), and untied her horse.

‘We are going to follow Miss Dr-- Dawson, to her place of residence,’ Lady Portman informed her servants. ‘Follow behind us, please.’

Instead of getting in the saddle, therefore, Charlotte led the horse on the right path on foot, reins in hand, and Emma walking by her side, while the carriage with the groom, the maid, and her luggage, was following a little way behind them.

A simple walk side by side had seemed such an impossibility for over the past 6 months that neither of the women knew what to say.

After exchanging awkward smiles, Charlotte broke their silence.

‘I’m sorry about the ladies. They have never been the friendliest.’

‘They knew who I was, from Wellington of all men. As you know he has his opinions of me,’ Emma half-dared to laugh but nothing more.

She lost her confidence in these strange surroundings and in front of Miss Drummond, who had been such an enigma since her disappearance.

What she didn’t know was that all this was found utterly charming by Charlotte.

‘So, “Miss Dawson”, am I?’ she teased her.

‘I had no desire to give you away.’

‘Is my disguise not convincing enough?’ Charlotte gestured to her muddy, masculine attire.

‘It is quite different, I will say that.’

Charlotte bit back a smirk. ‘To tell you the truth, I feel less in a costume this way than otherwise.’

‘Really?’

Charlotte nodded.

‘So, are you… happy? Charlotte,’ Emma had to reach out and touch the girl’s arm as she always did. Her delicate laced gloves such a contrast against the dirtied up sleeves. ‘Have you been happy here?’

Goodness, how would she get onto that? Charlotte thought as words failed her but the horse stopped of its own accord and she saw the house she could call home for now.

‘We’re here,’ she said, swallowing dryly. Emma was still touching her arm.

‘That was indeed a short walk,’ Emma remarked sweetly, taking it in.

They were standing in front of a stone house that must have been fit for a small family of modest circumstances, on a clearing among tall trees. Behind the house, a jolly little stream ran. It was far from the luxury of the Palace but it was quite idyllic in a way, if one could disregard the chicken bones scattered in front of a shabby doghouse.

‘Graff,’ Lady Portman called to the groom. ‘Take my bags inside.’

‘Uhh,’ Charlotte immediately voiced her doubts. ‘Are you sure? It might be more comfortable at the big house, with the ladies.’

‘You can’t imagine I have any intention of returning there! They really were most unfriendly!’

‘That’s just the locals’ way here, do not take it personally. I’m sure they’d have a laugh about it if we dined at them.’

‘I will not return there for dinner.’

‘Then perhaps the hotel in the village, surely.’

‘Don’t you want me here?’ Emma asked more quietly, out of earshot of the carriage.

Her perfume hit Charlotte’s nose and she could have kissed the Baroness right then and there.

‘Emma,’ she said, weakening. ‘Of course I do, but… I can’t house your servants anywhere. There’s just not enough space.’

‘That shan’t be a problem.’

‘Are you sure? I can’t offer you the comforts you are used to.’

‘If it’s good enough for you, it will do just splendidly for me,’ Emma insisted, not quite believing it herself but her stubbornness was a force not even the Queen of England could contend with.

When she still saw doubts in the young woman’s eyes, she stepped yet closer.

‘Charlotte, I left all my engagements in London, in the middle of the season, to cross the country for you. I lied and cheated people I care for to get here. I have missed you. Can’t we at least… talk?’

Charlotte saw that Lady Portman was quite determined.

So she nodded her consent.

Emma, satisfied with her success, instructed the groom to take the bags inside, and told him and Abigail to return to the village to the inn where they would find a hospitable couple who could give them rooms for the night.

And so, at last, Emma and Charlotte were left alone.

 

 

‘Oi! Mr Graff!’ Abigail shouted out Lady Portman’s carriage window to the groom not long after they rolled away from the cottage in the woods. ‘What did they say?’

The groom had come out of the green building that was supposed to be the inn with the rooms they were to take, and instead of opening the door, he got back on the bench to steer the horses into motion.

Down the path. And out of the village.

‘Mr Graff!? Why aren’t we stopping? Did they have no rooms left?’

‘None,’ he barked testily.

‘Well, we must ask someone else, then! At the big house, Plas Newish, whatever it was!’

‘No, we’re off back to Dorset.’

‘What!? Why!?’

‘That’s my business to know,’ the groom said, lashed the reins on the horses again, and drove right past the public house with great speed, into the night without stopping.

 

 

‘After you,’ Charlotte charmingly said to Emma, and they went inside her cottage.

It was very neat indoors, Emma first thought, despite the oldness of the house. She had perhaps expected it to be clattered and dusty but it was neither. Charlotte did not seem to have many possessions here to begin with. There was a single room downstairs with a large and ancient fireplace, and a kitchen opening from it with a backdoor with a little window that looked on the stream. A faded sofa, wooden chairs with embroidered cushions and carpets made the space cosy. Uneven windowsills were adorned with many tiny plants in pots, and a few shelves of books signalled further that someone lived here. There was also a rickety looking staircase leading upstairs. And, as Emma saw looking out the backdoor windows, there was a little terrace built over the stream behind the house. The sound of the water was quite calming, in fact, and thankfully softened the silence.

Charlotte was still standing in the doorway. Emma quirked an eyebrow.

‘You should make yourself comfortable,’ Charlotte told her, indicating the cushioned sofa with hands dirty from gardening and such. ‘I’ll be back in a minute, I’ll just have to clean up a bit.’

Indeed, her there was not only mud on her hands but on her clothes up to the knees, dirt under her fingernails and bits of grass and leaves in her hair, all in dire need of sorting out if she was going to have the Lady Portman as a guest.

Emma did as told gladly and took a seat in the downstairs room while Charlotte went upstairs to splash some water on her face and clean herself as quickly as possible… and pinch herself or slap herself or something. This was madness! She did not expect this in her wildest dreams!

In a few minutes, she returned downstairs in a simple clean linen dress she had got used from a former housemaid now wife to the baker, rid of every speck of mud. Her hair remained untameable but to hell with it, it was much easier to handle nowadays than when she had it down to her waist as her mother had always made her.

Though she was clean, when she came downstairs, she felt like the shabbiest farm girl compared to the glamourous baroness, who stuck out like a sore thumb in the modest cottage in her expensive, fashionable garments complete with a large feathery bonnet.

‘Are you cold?’ Charlotte asked lamely as Emma was still wearing said bonnet and her traveling cloak. ‘I can make a fire. Let me just go and cut up some more wood---’

‘Cut up more wood? Make the fire yourself?’ Emma asked, laughing in disbelief and awe at the idea of rich Miss Drummond making her own fire, a scullery maid’s job! But Charlotte was serious, apparently, as she had already grabbed an axe and opened the door. Perhaps she was in need of an escape?

Emma took her coat and hat off quickly and sat on the sofa.

‘I’m not cold, I’m just silly, all that travel has exhausted me. Please do stay. And put that down.’

Charlotte put the axe back to its place by her muddy pair of boots and instead very gallantly took Emma’s clothes and hung them up on hooks by the front door, next to the coat she was wearing when she got on a horse in Scotland and fled into the night all alone.

As brave as she was on that night, now she had no clue what to do at all, except try to keep from fainting as her heart seemed to drum in her ears.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t really have anything to give you,’ she blurted out. ‘I’ve wine and tea, and fruit I think…’

‘I don’t want anything, thank you.’

‘You came all the way for nothing?’

Emma smiled at her, a thousand unsaid words in her eyes.

‘I didn’t say that. Au contraire…’ she said, holding our her hand for Charlotte. ‘Come. Sit with me.’

 

 

‘… please do not forget to see to the maids cleaning the silver at least once, Mrs Quibell…’

‘Of course, Mr Clarke,’ the housekeeper replied, refraining from rolling her eyes so hard they’d permanently stick on Mr Drummond’s Lower Grosvenor Street house’s kitchen ceiling.

‘…including the candlesticks in the library.’

‘Of course, Mr Clarke.’

‘… and…’

‘Yes, Mr Clarke?’

‘… thank you.’

The housekeeper dropped her attitude. It was true, she was annoyed at the new developments – now that Mr Drummond named Clarke the butler, his authority was unequivocal, despite her advantage in years and experience in running a household. Nevertheless, the poor lad had just lost his mother and he was about to catch an early train out of the city to return home and take care of the funeral.

Before she could get all emotional and motherly, the doorbell rang.

‘Who could it be at this hour?’ she asked. ‘Not even the knocker-up has come!’

‘I don’t know… I’ll get it.’

‘No, let me, you’ve got to catch your train.’

‘I can get the door yet.’

‘No, I’ll get it.’

‘No, I’ll get it.’

In the end, they both went upstairs. A stranger stood at the door, tall, broad shouldered, with reddish hair, and a very friendly, open smile.

Clarke didn’t like him: far too cheerful for this time of day.

‘Hello!’ the man said.

‘Good morning, who do we have the pleasure of meeting?’

‘I am a friend of Eddie’s. Mr Drummond, I mean. And her sister.’

‘May I take a name, sir?’ Clarke asked, suspicious.

‘I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprise. Could you just tell him I’ll be waiting downstairs? When he wakes?’

‘I’m afraid I cannot. Mr Drummond is not at home at present.’

‘Not to worry, I’ll wait for him here anyway.’

Mrs Quibell laughed. ‘You’ll be waiting a long time!’

Clarke shot her a dark look. Didn’t anybody have manners anymore?

‘What Mrs Quibell meant to say, sir, was that Mr Drummond is on the Continent and will not be returning until the end of the month.’

The visitor’s smile dropped.

‘What? Where is he?’

‘In France, sir. Would you like to leave a message to forward?’

‘No, I…’ he thought. ‘May I have his forwarding address, rather?’

‘I’m afraid we were instructed not to share that.’

‘Do you know who I am?’ the man flared up suddenly, towering over the servants with his large frame.

‘No, as a matter of fact, we do not, as you have not shared it with us, sir,’ Clarke stood his ground.

The man ate his own words. ‘Well… can you at least tell me with whom he is traveling?’

Clarke debated whether he could but it wasn’t a secret, the whole world, including Her Majesty knew.

‘He is exploring and studying the language with Lord Alfred Paget as his instructor, sir.’

The man’s face changed quite the opposite of the jovial, cheery expression he had started out with. Cold fire in his eyes flared up.

‘I see,’ he said curtly and turned on his heels.

‘Whatever was that about, then?’ Mrs Quibell wondered.

‘I don’t know, but… I suggest not providing him with any further details, should he return to pry. I trust you will keep to this, Mrs Quibell?’

The housekeeper most certainly was not planning to deal with this or any other troublemakers in Mr Clarke’s or Mr Drummond’s absence, not at all! A quiet month, that’s what she deserved at her age!

 

 

A warm morning breeze blew through open French windows, bringing with it the distant sounds of seagulls and port merchants.

They should have had difficulty sleeping in this never ceasing heat but their bodies were as tightly entangled as on the coldest winter nights, seeking each other’s warmth, though the sheets had long been kicked off and away.

Alfred’s nose was smooshed against Edward’s jawline while the gentlest of breaths coming through his ever so slightly gaping mouth tickled his lover’s Adam’s apple sweetly.

A noise that was too far away to care.

Edward’s sharpish intake of breath as he stirred… then a comfortable exhale.

A kiss on the forehead.

And the warmth was gone.

But not for long? Yes, the mattress dipped under his weight… he was back… and all was well again as Edward lay back on the bed, welcoming Alfred’s half-conscious reclaiming of his place on and around him. Who needed pillows when they had Edward’s chest to rest their head on?

God, their bodies were sweating where they touched – how could it be so hot and humid so early?

Edward seemed to read Alfred’s mind, because it was on him checking his pocket watch that Alfred opened his eyes.

‘Ne…n…nnn… nearly noon,’ Edward yawned.

Noon? Alfred giggled.

Well, they did exhaust themselves quite a lot the night before. They had sailed early, true, but then the late evening with all that champagne and oysters, followed by the longest, most heated night they had ever spent together… As far as he could remember, it was beginning to dawn by the time they thought it best to sleep at last.

Alfred nuzzled against Edward’s chest, kissing a slow trail up his neck, his jawline, and finally his lips. Lazy, loving kisses – no rush this time, no Palace to run back to, no Parliamentary session to attend.

Just them.

Really them.

‘You’re scratchy,’ Alfred remarked with another sweet giggle of his, rubbing his chin against Edward’s to feel the slightest stubble.

‘So are you,’ Edward teased back, his voice so raspy and deep just yet.

‘Hmm,’ Alfred moaned against Edward’s skin until Edward kissed him and flipped them over for good measure so that he could deepen their kisses yet more.

Alfred pulled him closer, enjoying Edward’s heavenly weight on his own body, and wriggled until—

‘What’s that?’ Alfred pulled away, realising something was clinking at the foot of the bed as he moved.

‘Ah, that’s our breakfast. They just brought it up,’ Edward explained, feeling foolish at forgetting he’d put the tray on the bed just minutes before. But Alfred, with his natural beauty, and golden hair sticking into every direction, could be such a distraction.

Oh, so that’s where Edward had gone. ‘Did you answer the door like this?’ Alfred teased, looking Edward up and down, in his entirely unclad state.

‘Yes, Alfred, I thought I’d give the concierge a fright.’

‘A delightful treat, rather.’

‘You’re biased but thank you. No, funnily enough it occurred to me to wear clothes, my dearest.’

‘And didn’t they…?’

‘No, nothing could have seemed amiss, I made sure of it. Relax, my love,’ Edward said and kissed Alfred sweetly. ‘Hungry?’

‘Famished.’

They sat up on the bed lazily, poured coffee and fed each other croissants with jam.

‘Oops,’ Alfred muttered when he dropped a bit of jam on his stomach. He reached for the napkin but Edward grabbed his wrist.

‘Let me,’ he said simply and cleaned Alfred’s skin off… with his own tongue.

‘Edward!’ Alfred giggled, fighting his ticklishness because Edward was behaving like he very, very rarely did and it was delightful!

Though Alfred was licked quite clean, Edward wouldn’t stop… so Alfred thought he’d be naughty and smeared some jam on Edward’s cheek.

‘Oho! Alfred?!’ Edward instinctively reached for his face, making it a lot worse.

Seeing as his hand was all covered in jam, he smeared it on Alfred’s face in retaliation.

Pretty soon they were covered in blotches of sweet raspberry, breakfast forgotten.

Alfred meant to reach for more jam but Edward was quicker and straddled him, pinning him down on the bed. Alfred of course felt excitement rush through him – being overpowered in this way did things to him and Edward was so beautiful and his eyes so dark with lust...

He stopped fighting and waited with anticipation for Edward’s lips to crash down on his but just before he felt them, Edward changed course, raised one of Alfred’s hands to his lips and started licking and sucking jam off his fingers slowly, sensually, and sinfully…

‘Edward, we’ll never finish breakfast at this rate,’ Alfred said but his warning was feeble and breathy.

‘What a shame that would be…’ Edward replied, already having decided his breakfast was going to be Alfred.

 

 

‘Victoria!’ Albert called as he walked into the study without looking up from his newspaper. ‘There is a most fascinating new discovery of—’

Victoria cleared her throat. ‘Albert, we have a guest.’

Albert looked up from his paper at last and saw that indeed, Victoria was not really his wife at the moment but the Queen of the land giving audience to a visitor.

‘My apologies, I shall return later.’

‘Ah, no, do not leave, Your Highness, please,’ the visitor said so very kindly, a friendly smile on his face drawing Albert in, as well as Victoria. ‘I was just wondering where I might find Lord Alfred.’

‘I’m afraid you just missed him, Duke,’ Victoria said very amused at his Chief Equerry’s adventurous ways. ‘He has sailed his yacht to France just yesterday!’

‘Yes, I was told he went with Mr Drummond. I called at Eddie’s house and I was so very sad not to find him there! Imagine my surprise!’

‘Are you good friends with Mr Drummond?’

‘Good? The best! We are childhood pals. Of course we lost touch for a while but I saw him at his brother’s wedding last year and now that I’m back in London for the season I thought I’d say hello. But goodness, France… Did he say where exactly?’

Tommy listened with rapt attention to the detailed account of Lord Alfred Paget’s travel plans from the royal couple, who were indeed so very, very helpful.

‘It is most inconvenient, I do miss Lord Alfred’s assistance!’ Albert remarked.

‘Yes, so do I,’ Victoria lamented, too. ‘But I must say I miss Lady Portman’s sound advice the most! The Duchesses Sutherland and Monmouth are very fashionable but Harriet is still in half-mourning and Sophie is still unsure of her place here. I have come to rely on the baroness the most lately.’

‘Sorry, who?’ the Duke asked, thinking he had caught a familiar name.

‘Baroness Emma Portman. She was at the wedding, too, was she not?’

‘Ah, of course…’

‘She said she was such good friends of Miss Charlotte Drummond I simply could not say no to her accompanying them all the was to Scotland in the icy sea and the snow! But, see, I esteem the baroness very highly, and so does Miss Drummond. They are almost as good friends, I am told by Lord Alfred, as he is with Mr Drummond!’

The Duke was soaking this all up eagerly. ‘Has she left the court?’

‘Only for a while. She fancied a trip, too.’

‘Whereabouts, may I ask?’ Tommy asked, pretending it was all the smallest of small talks.

He had arrived at the Palace determined to follow Lord Alfred’s footsteps, sure he and Eddie were traveling with or to Charlotte, absolutely certain. However, he might just change his plans after all, in light of his new findings. Perhaps he was foolish to follow the men, after all he would have to chase them to the Continent potentially for naught. Should he instead try to find a more pliable informant in Lady Portman after all?

 

 

‘We shouldn’t have…’ Alfred said absolutely unconvincingly between kisses after Edward was done with him. He could still taste himself and the jam on Edward’s lips.

‘You don’t mean that,’ Edward breathed against his lips.

‘No, I don’t,’ Alfred admitted gladly. ‘But… we’re sticky… God, we’re such a mess!’ he laughed. ‘We are meant to be sightseeing and yet look at us, still in bed, still... We should go and bathe.’

‘Just five minutes,’ Edward asked, flopping down on the bed, snuggled tightly against Alfred.

They lay there comfortably until they caught their breaths and calmed down.

‘I love you,’ Alfred said, nuzzling into Edward’s wildly curly hair.

‘I love you too,’ Edward replied slowly as if he was about to fall back asleep.

Alfred’s gaze fell on the bright light outside, the skies the clearest blue, and smiled.

‘Edward?’

‘Hm?’

‘Do you know what this feels like?’

‘What?’

‘A bit like… like a… a honeymoon,’ Alfred admitted shyly.

Edward pushed himself up so as to be able to look at Alfred properly, his smile just as bashful but feeling as strongly as ever about their love.

‘I think it’s exactly like a honeymoon, Alfred.’

Alfred beamed up at Edward and then held him tighter than ever. This is what happiness, true happiness felt like, then.

Sightseeing could wait.

 

 

Charlotte’s head was swimming with all the things she heard from Emma the night before as they, too, stayed in the bed they had to share until very late.

Emma was always stunning but this morning it felt like birds had come to sing in the little clearing in the Welsh woods just to praise her beauty in her sleep.

Charlotte didn’t dare lie closer to her… the only contact she allowed herself was an arm over Emma’s head on the pillow so that she could caress her loosened locks of hair ever so gently without rousing her.

She had said she was exhausted from her journey, and Charlotte didn’t blame her, as last night was taxing on her also.

Because the night before, she sat on the sofa next to Emma when she asked, and they had to talk at last.

There was so much left unsaid between them. They knew they had to talk but where to begin? She stood up first to light candles around the room. Then to put the kettle on for tea. Then---

She didn’t manage to pop up again for some trivial task again. As always, Lady Portman had more tact and experience in soothing people, especially fatalistic Miss Drummond, by reaching out to take her hand.

‘Emma…’ Charlotte shook her head at the sight of their touching fingers. ‘I can’t believe you came here.’

‘You thought I wouldn’t care enough?’

‘Not that you wouldn’t… But to travel all the way here? Alone?’

‘I wasn’t alone, I came with the groom and the maid.’

‘You must have been on the road for three days, four, at least!’

‘I have been traveling for nearly two weeks, as a matter of fact. I didn’t want to expose you accidentally and I had to find an excuse so I came by way of Dorset.’

‘Dorset? Why? That’s a big detour.’

‘I went home first, to be as inconspicuous as possible.’

‘To the baron?’

‘Yes. It would have been unseemly not to,’ Emma said and continued quickly before Charlotte fell too deep into that strange sort of despair that any mention of one’s husband brought out in her. ‘Only for a night. Then I left to Gloucester to visit my only younger sister Louisa. I had to wait for the rain to stop but as soon as it did, I told the groom to drive here by nightfall no matter what. I understand your fear of the shackles of court life only now, truthfully, the lies I had to tell everyone… I slipped my husband some valerian to be able to get back on the road… I fought with my sister about the weather endlessly…’

‘Good heavens, Emma, you did all that for me?’

‘Of course, I came as soon as I got your note. Well, as soon as I deciphered it. Not I, Lord Alfred, I hope you don’t mind that I showed him because he was the one who realised it was a riddle of sorts, and then Mr Drummond—’

‘Oh, how is Edward?’ Charlotte asked, scooting closer and squeezing Emma’s hand tighter. ‘Tell me everything, anything! I ache for news!’

‘He is well. Very well. As I said he is in France with Lord Alfred.’

Panic crossed Charlotte’s face. ‘They haven’t been discovered, have they?’

‘What? No! The purpose of their voyage is a recreational one. Mr Drummond wanted to join me but there could not be a sensible reason for it and wherever he goes is a trail in itself. So it’s really the best he could have done to go the other way entirely! Of course, officially Lord Alfred’s purpose is to gather experience at sailing his new yacht and Mr Drummond is accompanying him to study the language and whatnot…’

Charlotte laughed, for the first time in forever it felt like. ‘Did anybody believe them at all?’

‘Apparently so… He misses you desperately.’

Charlotte’s laugh faded quickly. ‘Oh, dear Edward… I miss him, too. Terribly.’

‘And… did you miss me?’ Emma asked daringly.

Charlotte held her head in shame, too overwhelmed by Emma’s piercing green eyes to answer right away. She felt Emma’s gentle hand on her face and leaned into the touch, breathing in that sweet perfume on Emma’s wrist that she had so missed.

‘What happened?’ Emma asked. ‘Have you been here all this time?’

Charlotte have a mirthless laugh. ‘Hardly. I only made it here two months ago.’

Emma leaned very close, utterly unnerving the young woman. ‘Charlotte…’

Ah, but she was saved by the whistle of the kettle.

She jumped up and scurried away to the kitchen, returning with a fresh pot of tea, cups, milk, very practised at all of it. She enjoyed having something to do, it was certainly easier than fighting Emma’s spell, which she couldn’t do for long anyway. She had nearly given up on seeing Emma again.

‘Talk to me,’ Emma asked. ‘You owe me an explanation. We were worried sick.’

Charlotte wasn’t even teary, just exhausted in her melancholy. There were times she appreciated this time that she could be alone, but loneliness crept into that bliss already. And with Emma there, it felt more acute than ever.

‘I’m sorry. I truly am.’

‘Where did you go? That night.’

‘It’s a long and tedious story.’

‘I have all night.’

Charlotte tried to ignore any implications in that, and took a deep breath and a calming sip of her tea.

‘At any rate it is definitely not one for the ear of a lady.’

‘I might surprise you.’

Charlotte sighed. ‘Very well… I rode to Glasgow without stopping. I did exactly what I said I wouldn’t do and rode with full speed. But I was scared and somehow the horse was still going strong after two days riding in the snow and the cold. I didn’t know where I would go next until I arrived there. There was an early morning ship to Belfast, where a ship would be leaving for Boston that day. I was determined to catch it.’

Emma gasped just listening to it.

‘But they would not allow the horse on board,’ Charlotte continued. ‘I wondered if I could sell it before the ship left. They offered a ridiculous price for such a fine steed, so instead I sold a necklace and a pair of earrings. Thank you for packing them… I stayed in a public house for a night.’

‘A… a real one?’

‘What else? We have family and acquaintances all over Scotland, I had to stay out of sight. But I absolutely had to stay somewhere, even if it meant being stationary for a while, I was nearly frozen to death by then. Again, thank you for packing my boots.’

Charlotte took a sip of her warm tea, shuddering at the mere memory. How lost and afraid she felt!

‘In the morning, ironically, I headed to Gretna Green. There, I could board a ship with the horse to Dublin, where I stayed for a month, living on the money I got for my jewels. But then the new landlord didn’t like that I was English, and when I argued that I was Scottish, he didn’t believe me. It dawned on me that I had to find work…’

‘Work!?’

‘…but couldn’t find anything without a reference. I had never worked in my life, of course… Needless to say the sobs of all the lady’s maids and housemaids I had ever complained about haunted me.’

Charlotte swallowed guiltily.

‘I went to Liverpool, got mistaken for a prostitute on the docks – forgive me – thus fled into the city in a fright, met a young woman…’

Emma’s face said all she thought.

‘…Not like that, she was a child, barely sixteen! She was having tea in town with her mother. I overheard their conversation and they ended up hiring me as a governess to teach the girl French. I went with them to Halifax, which was an odd little place – I met a woman at the book shop who pointed at me and said she saw a ghost! I didn’t know what to make of it but I didn’t care – I do miss my books. It seemed like I was going to be fine for a while at least but I was at the family’s house but for a week because my second cousin showed up to visit! Apparently he is courting the girl that happened to be my student! He would have certainly recognised me so again, I had to flee.’

‘Goodness…!?’

Charlotte poured Emma more tea. ‘There’s more.’

‘More?’

‘Well, yes. But I can stop here if you’d like.’

‘No, whatever did you do next!?’

‘Well, I packed my suitcase, left through the mews, jumped on my horse, and practically begged a fisherman to take me to Anglesey without hesitation, as Lord Alfred advised me in the first place. I knocked on the servants’ entrance. Thankfully, a kitchen maid answered the door, who didn’t recognise me. She told me Lord and Lady Anglesey were not there. Seeing as I was in quite a state by that time, they housed me for the night and they were kind enough to level the horse’s hooves without any charges, too. I was tempted to reveal who I was but… I was still too scared to trust them. I knew I couldn’t stay there because of the maids and footmen who knew my face, so I left. I tried to find shelter at the cottages but they were locked. And so I had to try at the ladies here in Llangollen. Truthfully, Emma, they saved my life, I think.’

Emma was horrified by virtually every aspect of this.

‘They gave me a room, like they did that night I got lost, and when I got my strength back I thanked them by helping around the house. Gardening, shopping, mending, anything that I could learn to do. I had nothing left, nothing but the money Alfred gave me, of which I refuse to spend any. I had sold my evening gown, I had sold all of my jewellery, except for the brooch and…’

And the sapphire ring that she was wearing even at this moment.

‘They took you in? The ladies?’

‘You forget. I had broken them in before.’

‘Still…’ Emma really did not take to the Ladies of Llangollen.

‘Well… at any rate, I didn’t mean to be a burden on the ladies, so I began teaching children to read and write in the village, for what it’s worth,’ Charlotte exhaled heavily. ‘Honestly, that of all things has been the most challenging task I had to do since leaving Society, I say! I truly understand and respect you now, I’ve no idea how you have managed to deal with your children, I find them intolerable! Well, perhaps a bit less so, the ones that actually pay attention and do as told! I was useless at teaching a classroom, I did not want to start smacking them, I knew the problem lay with me… but I am still tutoring the inn owners’ little girl at art in exchange for a hot meal whenever I want one. Most days I supper with the ladies at the big house anyway. And the school let me keep this teacher’s lodging. It was a pile of rubbish when I moved in, nobody wanted it anyway. But I think I cleaned it up nicely, have I not?’

Emma was frozen in her seat from shock.

‘It’s not so bad…’ Charlotte defended herself feebly. ‘I am not “Miss Dawson”, by the way. I am Miss Ponsonby’s great-niece. I have to speak in an Irish accent when I am among the locals,’ she explained, laughing at the ridiculous situation.

Emma put down her cup of tea.

‘You’ve gone awfully silent. Do you find me very monstrous now?’ Charlotte asked. ‘I can walk you to the inn or the house, you don’t have to stay with me---’

Charlotte fell silent as Emma lunged at her, hugging her so tightly Charlotte hadn’t expected she had the strength for.

Emma was the one crying, not Charlotte, who now had to soothe her in return for all those times before when she got that from Emma. But she didn’t know how else to do so than finding Emma’s lips and kissing her, gently at first but giving into easy passion until they kissed as if no time had passed at all.

So why was Charlotte in the morning afraid to hold Emma properly, to wake her with more kisses, to show her the passion she had missed out on thus far? Any other time, with anyone else, she would have long given her friend whatever they desired of her in the heat of the moment and would have taken what she could get. She was used to lapping up puddles between long stretches of deserts and sucking up her feelings. She managed it more easily with some than others but she had to do it eventually.

But for some reason, last night was different. Lady Portman had really been exhausted from traveling by carriage for so long, so Charlotte warmed some water for her and showed her upstairs where she could wash off the dust of the road and change into her night clothes before they went to bed to rest. Just to rest. And that was Charlotte’s decision, as Emma’s kisses even in the darkness of the bedroom were asking for more. But she was fine with it and didn’t insist as everyone else did.

Eventually, they fell asleep. And now Charlotte wondered when Emma wished to be woken up. Surely, her servants would be waiting for her, that is if they weren’t about to knock on the door any second.

‘Emma… Emma…’ Charlotte whispered sweetly, kissing the baroness’s hair.

Why did she have to smell so sweetly? Her heart was breaking and all Emma did was sleep in her bed. She was so fine, clad in nothing but a lace collared, silk nightgown, long dark lashes resting on her striking cheeks. Her dark hair was lusciously resting on her shoulders and the pillow. She even seemed younger in her peaceful rest. Certainly younger in her soul than Charlotte felt, with her tired, disillusioned outlook on her fate. She began to understand why she was more distant than desires would have dictated: she felt she would spoil Emma, who was so fine and glamorous and elegant even in this shabby cottage in her sleep. And now Charlotte was going to have to disturb her.

‘Emma, it’s very late. It wouldn’t do to let your maid find you here.’

Emma stirred, blinking her green eyes open on Charlotte’s face so young but so troubled.

‘Good morning.’

‘Good morning… When must you leave, Emma?’

‘Not just yet.’

‘You won’t make it far by nightfall if you leave too late…’

‘Who’s talking about nightfall?’ Emma asked, reaching out to touch Charlotte’s cheek, running her thumb along the curves of her lips. Always so harsh and fighting the world, Charlotte was as soft as the heavenly white sheets hugging them.

‘Your husband…’

‘My husband is not here.’

‘But he is expecting you to return to him at some point, is he not?’

Emma sighed. ‘Not yet.’

‘But eventually…’

‘Shhh,’ Emma silenced Charlotte, getting up to kiss her. She couldn’t get enough of the girl’s sweet kisses now that she had a taste again.

Charlotte pulled away with difficulty. ‘I don’t want to be raided by a search party. I would have to run again. I have only just got comfortable here. It’s not forever but I don’t have the resources to go on yet.’

‘Charlotte… you really want to make a life here?’

Charlotte did not miss the tone – it wasn’t unkind but it was not devoid of a sense of being underwhelmed and doubtful.

‘Why not?’

‘You could come back…’

‘I can’t.’

‘There are other ways. I mean… it’s not… horrible, but… what’s that sound?’

‘The neighbour has chickens, so what?’

Emma made a face.

Then… burst into laughter.

She was not entirely convinced but it really was so ridiculous and she was rather sweet all the same so Charlotte found she could laugh along, too… eventually. Once that subsided, Emma caught a glimpse of fear still lurking in Charlotte’s brown eyes, so like her brother so often anxious to please or just plain anxious.

‘I promise I won’t bring trouble on you,’ Emma said seriously.

‘I think you already have.’

Emma smiled. Charlotte was obviously smitten.

‘I shall send a note to my maid and groom to return to Gloucester until next Friday.’

‘Y-you’d like to stay here without a maid until next Friday?’

‘Yes. You have been doing perfectly well here. Why couldn’t I? You’ll have to do something about that spider web above the bathtub, though.’

Charlotte groaned. ‘But the ceiling is so high there… must I?’

‘Yes, you absolutely must! And yes, I will stay. Unless… unless you don’t want me.’

‘Emma…’ Charlotte didn’t know how to express it other than in kisses how happy she was. Emma was offering nearly two weeks together. She would have to go back eventually, of course, but this was an unimaginable luxury.

Though Charlotte had a mountain of reservations about all this, a few pebbles of that weight were lifted by the knowledge that she had Emma this time, and the heady awareness that such forbidden fruit was in arm’s reach, closer than that, in her arms between shared sheets.

Maybe she could say to hell with the past, to hell with the way things turned out, maybe just for now they could make the most of their time together while it lasted.

 

 

In London, the Duke of Fife pulled on his traveling gloves with no clear plan but all the determination he had. He was glad of this season, his sister wasn't there to keep him from doing anything he liked, too busy being married.

Well, he had his mind on marriage too, only the bride seemed to be rather elusive thus far.

Where to begin, to find her?

East or west... East or west... East or west...?

Chapter Text

‘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.

Chapter Text

‘Charlotte, where are you?’ Emma called from upstairs.

She had woken up, then. Good, it was going to have to happen anyway.

Charlotte tried to keep at bay those nagging thoughts that their time in the privacy of this Welsh cottage was not to last forever. Alas, however, once the last day came, it was just as difficult to accept as if it had come as a surprise.

The closer their departure came, the more they argued. It always started as innocent bickering about something minor such as when they ought to tea, quarter or a half past four, or perhaps at five, or perhaps why don’t you just go back to your husband right away, where tea is whenever you please!?

She could not help it, it was often something like “I bet your husband thinks…” and “If only your husband was here…” and “your husband” “your husband” “your husband”…

Not to say these quarrels poisoned their relationship. On the contrary, it seemed to be the primary motivator for Charlotte to appease Emma in their bedroom. It worked such a charm, she was beginning to think the baroness wasn’t even all that uncomfortable in the cottage and simply made things up to find dissatisfactory, as code for expressing her desire to go back to bed.

Most times they never stopped until they were both as dripping with perspiration as if they had just got out of a bath. Emma especially seemed so demanding, just as outside the bedroom so she was in there, as if she was making up for lost time.

But now her things were packed and ready to be loaded onto her fancy gilded carriage that was about to pick her up in not at all such a long time now. And Charlotte once again retreated to the kitchen to take a breath and wipe her tears away under the guise of making tea.

‘Charlotte, my dove?’ Emma called unusually timidly from the doorway. She usually detested when the younger woman was in there, working on something with her bare hands, like a common maid, scared that her fine, delicate hands would go to ruin from it soon.

But she wasn’t attempting to pick a fight at that moment.

‘I’m just warming some water for your bath,’ Charlotte pulled herself together, drying her eyes discreetly, and getting on with things to do.

Blasted tinderbox, she ought to get a new one that actually worked when one needed it! Did she have to pray to ancient fire gods to light damn oven?

Maybe she expected Emma to say something, she normally had the talent to comfort one so expertly but there was nothing that could be said or done now. Everything was packed. Her ride was on its way. She had to get ready and leave.

She chanced a step into the kitchen as a compromise if Charlotte wasn’t going to leave the stove.

‘When do you think I could see you ag…?’

‘Not soon.’

‘But…’

‘Please don’t let’s start this again, Emma,’ Charlotte nearly begged, wishing her voice didn’t give her pain away. ‘You ought to get washed and dressed. You’ve a long journey ahead.’

‘You could come with me.’

‘Emma…’ she sighed or wept nearly, leaning into Emma’s touch for comfort. She couldn’t not.

‘What will you do?’

‘Me? I shall stay right here. Where would I go?’

 

 

The staff was friendly, efficient, and knew to stay out of the way when Monsieur Drummond and Lord Alfred Paget, students of the language and historical sites of the area, were in.

The chateau was clean, cosy, and beautiful, bearing more signs of a Mediterranean cottage than a small French country house except for the ivy that covered nearly all its walls, reminding Alfred of his family home in Anglesey.

The food and wines were excellent, the weather heavenly, the sights fascinating, the beach beautiful, it was just perfection.

It was like a little island of Paradise…

Really, just brilliant.

Just. Brilliant.

‘How are you finding your little lovers’ getaway mansion, gentlemen?’

‘Most satisfactory, Captain.’

‘I bet…’ William smirked to himself as he tucked into his lamb. His companion asked him something in Arabic and he replied in turn, prompting him to laugh.

The four of them, Drummond with Lord Alfred, and William Peel with Aharon from Egypt were dining in the hotel restaurant and having a marvellous time.

Well, almost all of them.

‘What is so amusing?’ Edward asked, stabbing and cutting into his steak with such force one would think he wasn’t sure it was dead yet.

Thankfully, the waiters had no time to defend the porcelain plates from him as they had plenty of other patrons to tend to. The restaurant was in the main building of the chateau, which was surrounded by luscious gardens though which winding, wobbly stone steps led to a number of smaller summer chateaus on the grounds. It was humid but a light sea breeze helped, there were benches in the shade, ponds in which stray cats fished for goldfish, ripe fruit fresh off trees, and wine seemed to flow from fountains. One’s peace was hardly going to be disturbed here.

‘Oh, nothing, nothing at all,’ William pretended, trying and failing to behave, irking Drummond even more.

Alfred knew that was enough to ensure that he would have to listen to Edward’s rant about the insubordinate Captain late into the night once again, which would mean a loss of their precious time, time which they could spend on more pleasurable activities than arguing.

‘Really, now, Will,’ Alfred said to soften him up using his best court manners… and the smallest bit of a flirty tone simply to avoid disaster before pudding. ‘Don’t leave us out of the joke.’

‘I fear it might offend your beau’s ever wholesome sensibilities,’ Will said coyly.

‘Come on, it’s not fair, out with it.’

‘Ah, you were always so direct in your demands...’

William… Seriously, what did you say?’

William swallowed his mouthful of food and gave in.

‘I merely said to Aharon that you may find your accommodation most satisfactory except for its location. After all, its proximity to our chateau must have Drummond worried that I sit in my window at night with a telescope fixed in the direction of your bedchamber.’

Edward dropped his knife and fork at once.

He wasn’t worried about that, actually. Until now, that is.

The Captain had indeed been exasperatingly nosy.

Whenever Edward and Alfred wanted to take a walk down the beach, William would be there already, shirtless and proudly presenting a humongous fish he had just caught. When they decided to go explore the markets in the village like locals, William happened to bump into them and he and his friend showed them around the place as if they had lived there for years! Again, he didn’t seem to use buttons anymore! And forget a quiet dinner on their own – there was only this one restaurant on the island where they could go and there was no way to escape William, William, William.

‘I don’t,’ William added, just to make it clear he was joking – he really wasn’t sure whether Drummond was just easy to tease or actually took him seriously. It was quite amusing either way, apparently, as he fought not to giggle like a naughty schoolboy. ‘I’m sorry, only I am beyond thrilled to see you, both of you. After all, I thought goodbye was goodbye. As soon as I left London, I thought about all those things we missed out on, that if I hadn’t been forced to leave, we might have even been friends – really, just pals who pay calls to one another, have dinner and cigars, play pool, ride and rent boats together. I could have taught you how to use your yacht!’

‘But we are friends, Captain,’ Edward surprised Alfred. Only momentarily, as he added just as tensely: ‘But your safety is of utmost importance, therefore you must steer clear of the Thames estuary, for your own good.’

‘Yes… oh well, all the world’s pleasures are my compensation,’ William replied, stealing a glance from Aharon.

His companion was obviously smitten with him. Even when he could not understand the conversation, he was hanging on his every word.

Alfred cleared his throat and scrambled for his courtier skills to rescue the atmosphere.

‘So, um, Mr uh… what’s his last name again?’ Alfred asked.

‘That’s not how it works – he uses his third name, his grandfather’s. Just call him that.’

‘Right, um, well, he must be getting bored of us. William, would you ask him how he finds France?’

William did so and translated obediently.

‘He says it’s easy, you turn right at Spain,’ he relayed with a snort. ‘No, really, he says it’s strange but enjoyable thus far. He doesn’t see the point in dressing up like this when it’s so hot,’ he said, and indeed his beautiful was decked out in his new European style attire, though his hair fell freely on his shoulders as always. ‘But look at him, he looks gorgeous! I chose that neckerchief for him… of course he cannot wait to get out of them, for my sake as much as for comfort, I daresay! God, the nights we have…’ he rambled on without a care in the world for manners.

‘Is he not homesick?’ Alfred cut in before more of this lewd talk riled up Edward. If he rolled his eyes any further, he’d go blind.

‘No. He did not have an easy time in Egypt, because of his family, in the end.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, much like me, his family was not pleased to discover he had been visiting my bedchamber. He ran away just in time, I’m afraid his father’s threats were far more obvious and tangible than those of my own.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ Alfred replied sincerely. ‘Aren’t we, Edward?’

‘Of course,’ Edward replied, appropriately solemnly. He may have had his qualms about William’s… well, existence, but he could not bring himself not to show sympathy.

Aharon asked William something.

‘Hm, he’s asking what you do, um…’ William did his best to explain in his broken Arabic and they had a bit of a chat before he laughed to himself and turned back to Alfred and Drummond: ‘Uh, he says he’s never met a person whose hair was like gold.’

Alfred laughed, suddenly self-conscious. ‘Well, I’ve never dined with an Egyptian gentleman,’ he said, raising his glass to the occasion.

‘Oh, but he’s not a gentleman, darling Alfred,’ William said nonchalantly.

‘Pardon?’

‘He’s not, he’s a farmer’s son. Actually he was a boat maker’s apprentice when we met, that’s why he navigated me up the Nile so helpfully. I bought a boat from him. He offered to join me. And here we are!’

Alfred’s eyebrows shot up, though he tried to seem unfazed.

‘A boat maker?’ he repeated.

William rolled his eyes. ‘Come now, Alfred, I don’t know you as a snob. Besides, he just paid you a compliment!’

‘I am not a snob!’ Alfred protested at once. ‘I was just surprised.’

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know… he doesn’t look like a woodworker.’

‘I’m not lying. Honestly.’

‘There was no such thought crossing my mind, William. Edward, help me out.’

Edward was secretly still too grumpy. ‘I’m not sure what you mean,’ he said. ‘He looks perfectly ordinary to me.’

‘Well, he’s too good looking to be a boat maker, is he not? No, William, no, do not, I repeat, do NOT dare translate this to—’

‘He says he’s got his excellent good looks from the gods but food on the table is won with working hands. Or provided by a handsome sailor like me if one is as lucky as him,’ William proudly relayed. ‘See? I just did not imagine I would ever find someone like… what on Earth is that?’

William was right to lose his train of thought as there was rather a commotion at neighbouring table, distracting nearly all others in the restaurant, too. When they looked, they saw that three waiters were standing around a demanding dame, each more confused than the others.

They caught the words “dinner” “not” and “warm” in English, and a great sigh of frustration from the lady, evidently a widow by the way she dressed and without any command of French, much to the chagrin of the waiters and now other patrons.

‘Oh dear, perhaps I should help,’ Alfred said, wiped his mouth with his napkin, and stepped over to the older woman’s table. ‘Might I be of aid, Ma’am? I speak fluent French.’

‘Oh! Finally! Someone I understand!’ the lady said. Now that Alfred observed her from closer, he saw that she wasn’t at all like the Duchess of Buccleuch, huffing and puffing at everything and everyone, spilling holy water on everything French. Not at all, she was very handsomely dressed, very elegant, and though about 20 years older than him, she was still a young widow, and had definitely retained her charms.

She changed her tune after looking Lord Alfred up and down once, or twice.

‘I do apologise for this unseemly scene but I’m afraid my French-speaking maid has fallen ill and thus was unfit to escort me to the restaurant tonight. For the life of me I cannot remember anything my governess taught me in my youth – but then again, I was more interested in having my due fun than conjugation! Weren’t we all?’ she quipped freely in her melodious voice.

Alfred blushed at the dame’s directness.

‘How might I be of help, ma’am?’ he asked politely.

‘Ah, yes, would you please tell the waiters here that I would like my dinner warm, not cold and my champagne cold, not lukewarm?’

Alfred did as told and the waiters scarpered to remedy the situation.

‘Well, enjoy your evening, ma’am…’ Alfred said, moving to retreat but the great dame was quick to stop him:

‘Oh, but I did not catch your name – and judging by your appearance and gallantry, it is one I should love to remember.’

‘I am Lord Alfred Paget, at your service, ma’am.’

‘Oh! A Paget! Why, I knew you were a fun-loving one, anyone could tell! I have always told my lady friends that Lady Anglesey did the right thing! One must go after what one truly wants before one’s time is up, woefully soon. But you must be from Her Majesty’s court, then!’

‘I am.’

‘Well! What brings such a fine man to this little isle? Not on your honeymoon, I hope?’

‘No!’ Alfred protested decidedly. ‘Not at all. I am here on a holiday but with a number of my friends.’ He indicated the table, where Edward, Will, and Aharon were watching on with curiosity.

‘Oh! What a handsome crowd you seem! I must thank you for coming to my aid. Please dine with me, Lord Alfred. We’ll get those waiters to draw up more chairs, come, come, you too, at the table!’

‘N-no, we wouldn’t wish to intrude on--’

‘Intrude? I am inviting you! Come, Lord Alfred and do sit next to me…’

There was nothing to be done but to do as told by the dame, who they later learned was the widow of the Marquess of Dorchester and returned to the isle because this was where she and her late, beloved husband travelled after they were wed.

‘You remind me of him an awful lot, Lord Alfred,’ the dowager marchioness nearly purred to Alfred by her side. ‘My husband. I remember, we were so in love, on our first night here we stole away to the beach and swam in the sea completely unclad! After our wedding night, of course…’

Alfred hid his mouth with his hands before he actually spat out his dessert out of shock.

It did not escape him that the dowager was trying to insinuate they recreate that wedding night, not only the swimming, he presumed, but he tolerated it with mild amusement. Not so much Edward, whose eyes could kill and who had lost his appetite by this point.

But that could have had something to do with the fact that William and Aharon had so little shame in public and such little fear given they on the run perpetually and thus had nothing to lose, that more than once they fed each other oysters and cake.

The dowager did not seem to mind at all, as she was caught up in enjoying Lord Alfred’s company too much.

‘I have a likeness of my dear late Charles up in my suite. Perhaps you could call on me later to see it?’ she asked quite transparently.

Alfred caught Edward’s less than amused eyes.

‘I… I am sorry, Lady Dorchester, but I am rather spoken for.’

‘Nonsense, I see no ring on your finger. Is the bride reluctant?’

‘No, I can’t say that at all.’

‘Well then what is it standing in the way?’

‘It’s a long story.’

‘Ah, as intriguing as you are handsome!’ she laughed and ordered more champagne.

Edward put his hand over his glass.

‘I think I’ve had enough,’ he said, standing. ‘Excuse me, I shall retire. Do enjoy yourselves.’

And just as he did that night in Ciro’s, he stormed off.

Alfred considered staying for a brief second, for the sake of avoiding embarrassment or raising suspicion but he remembered how awful he felt that time nearly a year before, not to mention the horrid events that followed.

He excused himself and followed Drummond out of the restaurant, nearly running to catch up with him on the winding pathways through the gardens towards their house.

‘Edward!’ he called but not till they were inside, in their bedroom, that Edward finally stopped. ‘Edward? Why did you—’

‘You know why,’ Edward replied curtly, getting rid of his stifling garments one by one with such frustration he nearly tore the expensive fabrics.

‘My love, but…’

‘But what? Am I expected to just sit there and watch everyone flirt with you? And you flirt back?’

‘Flirt back?! When did I ever flirt back?!’

Edward ate his words but he didn’t feel like a complete liar. ‘Fine, you did not, not really. But you made no attempt to put out fires, even if you didn’t put oil on them!’

‘Fires? Come now, my love, a lonely old dowager speaking in undertones is hardly a spark worthy enough a reason to react to so forcefully.’

Edward laughed humourlessly. ‘I’m overreacting? If that’s how you want to be, so be it…’ he muttered and threw his shirt on the back of a chair before going over to the wash stand to splash his face.

‘What?’ Alfred uttered, lost… until… ‘Oh, no, is this about William again?’

‘Must you even ask?’ Edward spat back after drying his face with a towel.

‘I didn’t do anything! You were being difficult, leaving me to have to smoothen the conversation left and right! That’s all.’

‘I see, so you were talking like… like… like THAT to him for my sake? Really, Alfred, how dim-witted do you think I am?’

‘Edward…’

‘No, it’s fine, I shouldn’t complain, I’ve hardly any right to! After all, there is no ring on your finger. You are a free man, and so am I.’

‘Edward? What has got into you!? You’re frightening me…’

‘I am the one frightened. “Are you on a honeymoon?” No! Absolutely not, not at all, no way! “Rather spoken for”, yes, rather, not spoken for full stop, only rather.’

‘That was all nonsense, small talk…’

‘No, it wasn’t, it’s the plain truth. And therefore, every day, every hour, when I cannot see you, I am afraid of losing you, and I should be.’

‘You are not going to lose me, I am not going anywhere! Look at this,’ Alfred pleaded, stepping close to Edward and grabbing his chain, on which he wore his locket with Alfred’s hair inside, and the too-small ring from Charlotte that Alfred used at Christmas to symbolically propose. ‘Look at this. And this,’ he added, taking out his own locket that rested over his heart always as well. ‘When we exchanged these, I meant what I said. No William and certainly no lonely old dowager could ever take me from you, don’t you know that?’

Edward softened just from having Alfred in his arms, mind clearing from its irrational fog quickly.

‘It is not them that could take you, but Society.’

Alfred could not say anything to counter that. Though it was clear to them that they were as married as two people could be, he could not deny that they were far from that in the eyes of powers that be.

‘I do wonder sometimes if we are wrong to… without marriage. Doesn’t that make one a… fornicator, a common, rotten debauchee?’

‘No, Edward, my love…’

‘And my defence is that I am somehow closer to God this way? Unmarried? I will have no answer at the gates of Heaven for this ghastly way I have behaved.’

‘But my darling Edward, you can’t help it. If you could, you wouldn’t even think about being… dishonest. You can’t help it, not the way you are, and not how society is.’

‘Can’t I? I am supposed to be a man of law, surely it’s up to me. And yet I do nothing.’

‘You cannot change the world on your own,’ Alfred clung to Edward’s shoulders. ‘I beg you to understand, it is for our safety.’

‘Do you tell yourself that, too?’

‘I tell myself that because it is true. Do you… do you think otherwise?’ Alfred asked timidly, fearing from the answer.

Edward did not need to consider it for long to see reason, not when Alfred’s eyes were looking up at him like that, sincerity and love pouring from them.

‘No. I would put your safety above everything else. However, the fact remains… Our lockets, our vows, they mean the world to us. But they mean nothing to the world.’

Edward spoke with such eloquence even moments after the worst outbursts of stubbornness, winding Alfred. And with such deep melancholy it broke his heart. He gave Alfred a kiss but slipped out of his arms and went to bed.

Nothing else coming to him that could cheer him, Alfred undressed as well and joined him.

He scooted closer to spoon him sweetly anyway when Edward wouldn’t turn around, though he did link his fingers with his as they always did before drifting off to sleep.

Alfred listened to his love’s breathing even… He was definitely asleep. Good. Because he couldn’t rest, not after hours lying in the dark.

Because Edward was right. They were not bound by the laws of humankind. Not officially. Only by their words, to which they have both said they would keep.

But was that enough?

Mind reeling with that, convincing himself against it and for it a dozen times over, eventually he slipped out of bed, grabbed his clothes, snuck out into the night.

 

‘That will be yours,’ Charlotte noted, looking out the window as Emma’s carriage was approaching the cottage.

‘Already?’ Emma asked, genuinely disappointed.

‘You should be back in your husband’s comfortable manner soon.’

‘Don’t be like that, Charlotte,’ Emma pleaded and after a bit of push-and-pull, she managed to get one last kiss from Miss Drummond.

And then, she assumed her public face.

Determined knocking sounded from the front door. Charlotte opened it on the maid, Abigail, not the groom that could have come and busied himself with packing at once without being told.

‘Ah, Turner!’ Lady Portman greeted her from the other side of the sitting room, where she fixed her bonnet on her head in a small mirror. ‘I am fully packed, you can tell Graff to load them onto the carria—’

‘Your ladyship, I am sorry but,’ Abigail interrupted, violating her role’s rules so immensely, the Baroness nearly dropped the mirror. She glanced behind herself and quickly shut the front door.

‘But what is the meaning of—’

‘Your ladyship, pardon me for speaking out of turn but there is a matter of urgency at hand. Mr Graff, he…’

‘Well?’ Miss Portman demanded sternly.

Abigail turned to the other woman, hoping she wasn’t making a huge blunder but on the off-chance it was all true...

‘The groom recognised you, Miss Drummond, you have been betrayed, when we left here he drove right to Gloucester and back to Dorset, ma’am, he made no secret out of his business, he… he sent a letter, said he was going to collect a good payment for telling him where you are and… and…’

Abigail swallowed, because neither of the women were showing any signs of responding from being frozen from shock.

‘And… well, I don’t know why but… From where I come from, we tell it like it is, and I would swear to my own life that nothing good is on their minds, and his grace seemed—’

His Grace?’ Charlotte heard herself ask.

‘I’m afraid so, ma’am, Miss, um…’

‘Speak,’ Charlotte demanded in the coldest of tones, stepping closer, his height an advantage over the maid in commanding authority. ‘Speak clearly. What is happening?’

Turner needed no further telling.

‘The Duke is on his way here, to collect you,’ she admitted.

‘Not here?’ Charlotte asked, her remarkably steady tone betraying her nerves.

‘No, he took another carriage, to find you quite alone.’

‘How far?’

‘Less than an hour behind.’

Lady Portman shrieked in panic.

Charlotte remained eerily calm, however, aside from a shaking hand by her side.

‘Graff, you said his name was?’

‘Yes.’

‘Sit.’

‘Pardon?’

‘Sit. Or stand, just out of the way,’ Charlotte commanded.

But instead of going out to talk to the groom, she went upstairs.

Neither the Baroness nor the maid could have guessed what she was doing…

… until a minute later when she reappeared.

With Alfred’s gun in her hand.

‘Charlotte!’ Emma shrieked at once, but there was no stopping Miss Drummond when her blood had flooded to her ears and she had a loaded pistol in her barely steady hand.

She practically ripped open the front door, waking Sir Fluff in his dog house in the process, and strode over to the carriage with no care for the women following behind, pleading for her not to do anything mad, but she already had the pistol pointed at the groom.

‘You! Down,’ she barked at him.

Graff the groom had the shock of his life indeed. Clearly, he had had no intention of packing bags anytime soon – the longer they were here, the less suspicion was raised as far as he was concerned, and if the Duke caught up before they left, he might get the promised payment for his clever work within the hour!

But now, the woman he had seen in London often at the Fife’s house before and knew to be the lost daughter of a banker whose bank had been demanding his debts for years was pointing a pistol at him.

And he laughed.

‘Now, now, ma’am, I don’t fall for tricks like that easy—‘

Charlotte shot in the air without hesitation.

Emma and Abigail screamed, birds flew skywards from trees, the horses at the carriage got frightened. But most importantly, the groom knew it was a real gun and that rich little Miss Drummond wasn’t scared to use it.

‘I said DOWN. NOW,’ she repeated.

The groom raised his hands and got off the carriage bench carefully, always followed by the barrel of the gun.

‘Inside. Load the carriage. Turner, supervise him, I don’t want him stealing anything. Emma, please go upstairs and pack my things, you know what to do.’

They let the ladies in first, then Charlotte herded the groom in and out of the cottage at gunpoint until the carriage was loaded.

‘Turner, do you know how to handle a horse?’ she then asked the maid.

‘I… not really, I’m London born and raised, Miss.’

‘Emma?’

‘Somewhat…’

‘Please be a dear and fix my horse to the front of the carriage.’

‘Why can’t the groom do it?’

‘Because I do not trust him. Hurry please, we haven’t time.’

Charlotte was pointing her gun at the groom until her steed was tied to the carriage with as a third to the other two horses.

‘Thank you, now please get inside with Turner.’

They did not dare to object but they did not know what was to happen to the groom they were abandoning.

He seemed to realise that, too.

‘Are you going to kill me, then?’

Charlotte whistled.

Sir Fluff obediently appeared at her feet – she petted him with one hand while the other was still holding the gun against Graff.

‘In you go, boy,’ she said. ‘Ah, not you, Graff. The dog.’

Fluff jumped in, much to the chagrin of the baroness, but Charlotte could honestly not care about that right now, not anymore. Lady Portman would have to simply… suck it up, as they say.

She slammed the door shut.

‘Walk ten steps backwards.’

The groom did so.

‘Sit, hold out your arms.’

‘You’ll regret this. You and your kind won’t own us forever.’

‘Perhaps,’ Charlotte quipped as she tied the groom to the dog post by Fluff’s house without any regrets. ‘But today, I suggest you behave when your own owner shows up as I do not intend to be here for it.’

And with that, she got on the carriage bench, took the reins in her hands, and drove away as fast as she could.

 

 

A cool ocean breeze swept into the otherwise warm room.

Edward stirred.

It was still dark – this was not unknown to him as he could not sleep through the night from the heat in these parts of France. He had never been to the truly Mediterranean shores but he had never quite experienced such a summer.

At times like these, he needed only to snuggle closer to Alfred and he could rest soundly again.

But Alfred was nowhere to be found.

Edward sat up. That was strange. He listened, perhaps Alfred was simply in another room, the water closet, or on the balcony to smoke a cigar as he, too, had difficulty sleeping from the climate.

He got up and walked onto the balcony. He sensed a storm was in the making, humidity and pressure working to drive one to the edge of their temper, as he had been after dinner, already regretting it.

There was still no sign of Alfred.

He leaned against the stone balustrade, confused, watching the moonlit gardens below.

Something moved in the rich shrubbery lining the pathway underneath…

He leaned over the balustrade and squinted in the dark. He did not have to guess who it was as no one’s matched Alfred’s golden hair.

Instead of delight, however, Edward paled.

It was indeed Alfred, walking in the garden, walking away from the house…

…down the path towards William’s cottage.

Chapter Text

Hoping his night was interrupted for good reason, a most dishevelled William Peel yawned wide, remembered to tie his dressing gown for decency just in the last second, and opened the front door of the chateau on…

‘Alfred!?’

He immediately glanced behind his once lover’s shoulder expecting to see his ever faithful and ever serious beau. But he was nowhere to be found.

‘Where’s Drummond?’

‘He doesn’t know I’m here,’ Alfred admitted, biting his lip guiltily. ‘Could I… could I come in?’

‘Uhh…’

‘Please.’

‘But… Alfred… I mean…’

‘William, I know we’ve a lot of water under the bridge between the two of us. But… I need you.’

William’s mind went reeling with all sorts of possibilities that that could mean.

But evidently Alfred seemed keen. Very keen.

In the end, albeit hesitantly, William stepped aside to let him in.

 

 

It was pouring down like mad when the carriage pulled to an abrupt halt in a village positively swimming in mud.

Lady Portman and her maid had barely enough time in the pub they ran into for cover to freshen up and for a bit of hot soup when Miss Drummond was already nagging them to go back in the carriage soon.

‘Do have some food first.’

‘I can’t, there’s no time.’

Emma tutted. ‘Where are you even taking us?’

‘To safety.’

‘Where?’

Charlotte glared pointedly at the barman and villagers dining in their earshot.

‘We are nearly there now, I promise. If he doesn’t catch up with us, which could be any minute, so…’ she said, wanting to grab Emma’s arm and get back on the road at last.

‘Charlotte, it is infernal out there!’ Emma hissed at her trying to be discreet but not quite appreciating being dragged across the countryside with mad haste like this.

‘But he won’t be far behind,’ Charlotte said and heartily sneezed. Her soaked through hat sprayed water on the dusty floorboards of the pub.

‘Look at us! And look at you! You’ll catch your death if we go on! Even if we haven’t shaken him off, he won’t see better in this ghastly weather than we do, what we’re doing is futile, we should take rooms for the night—’

But Charlotte wasn’t listening as she spotted something in the distance of the hills through the pub’s dirty windows.

Damn it, she had almost given into staying here for the night. She was exhausted beyond words.

‘Turner!’

‘I’m here, your- ma’am.’

‘Go outside, get back in,’ she said in a hollow voice. ‘And you, Emma. We have to go.’

‘Charlotte, you’re not seeing reason—’

‘No, I’m seeing more than enough reason,’ she said, pointing to a carriage approaching the village downhill. Even through the thick rainfall, she could recognise it from its green panelled sides and pure white horses. How many times she passed it while sneaking into the Fife house to see Agnes! Not sparing one thought to her brother, not when she was there. ‘That’s him. The Duke.’

Charlotte was on the verge of tears and collapsing on the spot. Instead she grabbed the handle and opened the door of the pub. But not without faltering…

‘Lady Portman, you… can stay if you want. I’ll go on on horseback, I’m sure you can find a driver in my absence…’ she offered, shaking from the wet cold or emotions she could not give into, she didn’t know.

Emma had such a strange look in her vivid green eyes.

‘No, let’s go on,’ she said at last. ‘Turner?’

The maid jumped and followed the ladies outside. And on they went.

 

 

An hour ago, Edward had felt like he was a bit lost.

Now, he was sure he was.

And he hardly seemed to mind.

He hopped off the horse he hired, his feet touching soft sands.

He took his shoes off and loosened his shirt. He had been out riding in the sun for hours and hours. In fact, the it was quite low on the horizon, beginning to paint the skies over the ocean all sorts of colours.

He felt the urge to turn to Alfred to show him, tell him to look before he missed it.

But Alfred wasn’t there, of course. He had come out here quite alone.

Was Alfred missing him?

He clenched the harness harder as he considered the heartbreaking possibility that Alfred was not. That all this time he missed another man. Not when he was probably with Captain Peel, doing God knows what behind his back. Who knows, maybe it’s no coincidence that they should have met on the same random isle off the French coast. Maybe Alfred and Peel wrote to each other and planned this…

Because he knew for certain that Alfred had gone to see him last night.

Edward could not assume such awful things of his love, not for one second. But he did step outside into the garden to follow Alfred, saw him, saw him with his own eyes knock on William’s door and go in after a very brief conversation, in the middle of the night!

Edward tried and tried to explain it away, surely Alfred had his reasons but… it was plain and simple, wasn’t it? He had had immensely naïve moments in the past but even he who never assumed the worst would have berated himself if he had been naïve enough to think Alfred had merely sought William out at night for a bit of tea and a chat.

He wiped salty tears off with his billowing shirt sleeve.

How could he go on now? How? He had built so much on Alfred, he had shared too much with him… how could one go on after such closeness with someone? He really felt Alfred was his soulmate, his other half, the mirror of his soul and he Alfred’s.

But it seemed Alfred was no longer as devoted as that…

The horse fidgeted.

‘Bored of me too?’ Edward asked it wetly.

But the horse was not bored – it sensed the appearance of company sooner than Edward. Someone was riding towards them down the sandy beach.

Edward waited for him to arrive and get off his horse.

‘Remembered I exist?’ he heard himself ask him.

Alfred was so affronted but what was greater was his worry, his eyes wide and blue and earnest.

‘Edward, my love, where were you? I’ve been searching the island for you all day!’

‘I left a note.’

‘It only said you went out riding.’

‘Still more verbose than you.’

Alfred frowned. ‘Edward? I kept thinking you broke your neck somewhere out there, my dearest,’ he tried and stepped closer but Edward evaded his touch. ‘Edward?’

‘You could have just told me you were unhappy.’

‘Me? Unhappy? When… what?’

‘Surely, I have failed to make you as happy as I thought we were, which we are obviously not. Otherwise you wouldn’t have gone to… him.’

It started to dawn on Alfred what was going on in Edward’s head.

‘I didn’t—’

‘I saw you, Alfred. You sneaked out from our bed in the middle of the night and went to him. I saw you walk into his house, do not insult either of us by denying it.’

Alfred’s heart was pounding like mad. He knew whatever he said next would have to be strong enough to better the situation before his dear Edward spiralled into the worst imaginable thoughts.

‘I did go and see him, yes,’ he admitted clearly and honestly.

Edward laughed mirthlessly but he couldn’t stifle a sob.

‘Why… why would you do that, Alfred?’ he asked so desperately Alfred’s heart truly broke for it.

His vision clouded by tears, Edward couldn’t step away this time and Alfred touched him gently and soothingly, one hand over Edward’s heart and the other caressing the curls falling on the back of his neck just as he did when they first kissed.

‘I did it for you, my love. My only love,’ Alfred said calmly and rested his forehead against Edward’s. He fought a bit but craved Alfred’s touch and for everything to be like it had been until a day before too much, so he let him. ‘Shh, Edward, I merely asked him to do us a favour, my love…’

‘Your only love?’

‘Yes,’ Alfred said seriously. ‘Yes, Edward, of course, yes. How could you imagine otherwise?’

‘Well, you—’

‘I know what I did and I know how it might have seemed to you. I apologise for that. Profusely, my love – Good Lord, have you been out all day thinking I had… with William?’

Edward’s face said all.

Alfred had to shake him and kiss him, and kiss him some more.

‘Were you not listening to me at all last night?’ Alfred asked him, grabbing and holding their matching lockets together. ‘About these? And what they mean?’

Alfred stood up straight and looked right at Edward, into those warm brown eyes that felt more like home by now than any place else.

‘Edward, my love. You were right to say what you said last night. You’re right… perhaps it has all been a tad unorthodox. I do not know what we are meant to do or how or when any more than you. But I do not believe it is any less natural than the lives of those who marry. Marry for love. True, we might have done things backwards… we had our wedding night before our honeymoon, our honeymoon before our wedding…’

‘Wedding?’

Alfred gasped and bit his lip – had he given it away?

‘…but it would make me the happiest of men if you allowed me to do something. It might not be good enough, as it will not be binding legally, but… in our hearts and in the eyes of God, we can.’

‘We can what, Alfred?’

‘Be married.’

Edward’s heart skipped a beat despite his puzzlement.

‘H-How?’ he ventured to ask.

Alfred smiled, heart racing ever faster.

‘That’s why I sought out William,’ he explained. ‘Not at all for what you thought. Quite the opposite. No, I… Put your boots on and come with me…’

Alfred kissed Edward’s hand quickly before jumping on his horse and egging Edward on to follow him, laughing freely again as they rode, wind in their hair, racing each other playfully here and there, until they reached the boardwalk, where they left their horses and continued on foot in the moonlit evening darkness now.

‘Where are you taking me?’ Edward asked. ‘To the yacht?’

‘No, just here,’ Alfred replied and stopped on the pier. ‘I needed William for this because he is a captain, is he not? I asked him if he could wed us.’

Edward frowned. Surely that was impossible…

But… he followed Alfred’s glance up and saw only now that William was waiting for them aboard his own ship, a Bible in one hand and a cheroot in the other. Behind him, there were candles glistening everywhere, and an arch of ropes decorated with flowers.

‘Alfred?’

‘We don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. We cannot go to a priest, but there will be a midnight mass where we can take communion together if you’d like. And we can swear oaths on the Bible and that can be as enough as we want. It will be just as binding between us, and God. You need never to feel guilty or in the wrong on that front. We might not be lawful spouses on land but we will be honest-to-God married on the seas and we can have some form of blessing on our love this way. We can do it all, properly, too. We shall swear to love and to cherish each other, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, to remain forever faithful, and to do so till death do us part. We shall take it as seriously as if we were doing this in Westminster, or in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury himself.’

‘Alfred…’ Edward uttered, feeling tears pooling his eyes again, but happy ones this time. His heart was racing so, and singing with joy. ‘Alfred, my love…’

‘Shall we?’ Alfred asked leaning into Edward’s touch – because he was clinging to him for support, for strength just as much as Alfred was to Edward.

‘I should have worn something better,’ he said, not sure why but Alfred just giggled sweetly.

‘You are perfect the way you are. So? Would you… would you marry me now?’

Edward took in Alfred’s beautiful, sincere sight despite the darkness, and broke out in a bright smile despite his tears.

‘Yes. Yes, Alfred, let’s do this.’

Never had Alfred been so relieved – so relieved he teared up easily as well.

‘Yes?’

Yes.’

‘HEY!’ William interrupted from above, cigar in hand and hair actually combed for once. ‘NO KISSING UNTIL I SAY YOU MAY! That’s the BEST PART! And HURRY UP, I don’t have all night!’

Alfred and Edward allowed themselves a little giggle, wiped their eyes, and nearly ran up to the ship’s deck, hand in hand.

 

 

Charlotte was seeing stars from the endless journey, too tired to cry when she saw the bridge at last. Her hands were like stone, beyond shaking, beyond pain.

And as if by some miracle, candlelight could be seen from the sitting room and she thought she saw them through the window... try the front door, then…

‘By God! What on earth is this ghastly banging at this hour!? Wilcox, do see what’s all this about!’

The butler set down the tray of brandy and hurried to the entrance hall as instructed before the visitor punched a hole in the front door!

‘…Lord Anglesey?’ Wilcox called, hurrying back in a minute as white as if he had seen a ghost. ‘My lord, my lady, forgive me but you’d better come.’

Henry and Charlotte Paget were no strangers to surprises but it had been a long time ago since they were expected to be roused from their hard-earned, quiet, after-dinner brandy à deux in their country home because of an unexpected guest. Which child of theirs was making trouble this time--?

‘Henry! It’s Lady Portman and – oh!’ Lady Anglesey exclaimed, hurrying down the entrance hall once she saw who had come. ‘Is that…?’

‘Lady Anglesey, Lord Anglesey,’ Miss Drummond said at once, still fighting for breath. ‘Forgive us… Em—Lady Portman needs rest. And her maid, please. And my dog and the horses, and the bags must be taken into the house, uh, Wool-’

‘Wilcox, Miss,’ the butler said.

‘Yes. Please. Now. We’ve had rather a strenuous journey.’

‘I say you must have!’ Lord Anglesey remarked heartily.

He had seen some things in his time but he could not make any sense of the lost Miss Drummond showing up on his doorstep in Wales at midnight, nearly unrecognisable, wet and muddy from head to toe, not to mention that she should show up with Lady Portman on her own, looking not quite as dishevelled but obviously having seen better days!

As the baroness and her maid were ushered upstairs already, Lady Anglesey stepped over to support Miss Drummond.

‘Come, my dear.’

‘I can’t, I must go on.’

‘Whyever would you say such nonsense? You look as if you’re about to faint!’

‘I don’t faint, and I must go on, otherwise I’d bring such trouble on you.’

‘But what is it, what is the meaning of all this, Miss Drummond?’ Henry asked, perplexed to the core.

‘Lady Portman will fill you in. I’m afraid I must hurry.’

‘But Miss Drummond?!’

‘Henry, can’t you see she has not the strength? Let us talk later. Come.’

‘No!’ Miss Drummond insisted, even as Alfred’s mother was ushering her upstairs without objection tolerated.

It was the better part of an hour once they finally gathered in the bedroom allocated to a now bathed, warm, and resting Lady Portman.

Not that Charlotte wasn’t glad of her own hot bath and dry clothes, but time was not on her side, as she kept telling everyone to no avail. As she paced by Emma’s bedside, she cursed the rain and the mud for the trail the carriage left was probably quite clear on the path. But there was nothing they could do about that now.

‘You should go and rest, too, Turner,’ Charlotte told the maid who was tending to the baroness as if nothing had happened and they hadn’t been on the road without stopping for more than minutes at a time for three whole days.

‘I can manage, Miss. I was just a passenger, after all,’ Turner said, immediately wanting to slap herself under the baroness’s sharp glare. ‘I mean, it was a long journey, my lady, but I’ve been in worse situations. I’m made of sterner stuff is what my father says,’ she remedied her blabbing, handing Lady Portman her cup of tea.

‘May we come in now?’ Lady Anglesey asked from the doorway. She and her husband were most generous to want to check on the ladies despite the late hour and their shockingly worn out appearances… but they were fine when asked.

They were. Really.

Couldn’t complain.

Everything was satisfactory.

Yes…

‘What the ruddy hell is going on, then!?’ Henry burst out. ‘I mean… Lady Portman!? Care to explain just what I am supposed to make of your showing up like this? Not running from Palmerston or some such cad you cast aside again--?’

‘It’s not her doing, Lord Anglesey,’ Miss Drummond was quick to say. ‘It’s all because of me.’

‘Well, then you explain it, Miss Drummond!’

‘Henry!’ Lady Anglesey scolded him. She stepped over to Charlotte and fixed her hair and collar unnecessarily – she couldn’t help it as a mother of many.

‘I’m sorry, really, I am! But… this is most bizarre! What happened? I mean, for starters, where have you been, Miss Drummond? Your brother was most distraught about your disappearance, my son said so, of course they always—‘

‘He knew I was going away, he was there when I left.’

‘And Alfred—’

‘He told me to hide in the first place…’

‘But Alfred also says he had proposed to you and thus I confess I am still puzzled by every piece of this story! Seems to me I should be in the know about these things, about what my own son is getting himself into! And what’s this trouble you find yourself in? I cannot act to help you unless I am aware of the facts! Well?’

Miss Drummond was lost for words as everything in the past year flooded her head. Agnes, and her marriage, and moving to Edward’s house, and Lord Alfred, and then her mother pushing that engagement and Tommy with his obsession, and Emma, God, Emma was sipping hot tea in her bed not helping at all, exhausted because of her, and she could barely think she had been driving that carriage for so long, and for what? If she was stuck here in the marchioness’s night clothes stretching her legs by the fire as if there wasn’t a madman in her wake about to barge in and…

‘Where to begin?’ she asked herself rather than others as she slumped in an armchair, defeated.

‘Wherever you please, my dove,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly, bringing her a blanket.

She shushed Henry a few more times. But in the end, Miss Drummond gave in and told them everything.

Well, nearly everything. She left out small details such as the true nature of her affair with Agnes and her brother being Lord Alfred Paget’s lover or that Lady Portman hadn’t found her in Wales by chance while on an excursion at all.

She left out the parts that were key to everything else, without which a lot of their actions seemed mad.

The parts that made it worth it.

That they made love every day in that peaceful little cottage yet Emma could barely look at her at the moment she was so inconsolable.

Lord Anglesey’s bewilderment easily subsided, though. If to anything, he could relate to an adventurous tale.

Even with obvious gaps. But he wondered whether she knew…

‘Ye-es, Alfred did mention you had an understanding but that Mr and Mrs Drummond were not keen.’

‘Not keen? That’s one way to say it,’ Charlotte remarked bitterly.

‘And were you? Keen?’

The girl looked up at Lord Anglesey, put on the spot.

‘Because Alfred said you were rather reluctant.’

‘I don’t want to—’

‘Offend me? You won’t.’

‘No, I meant to say I don’t want to marry, as a matter of fact.’

‘Why not?’

‘Lord Anglesey…’

‘Because I would have thought my son would share your reluctance.’

‘I… I… I… It’s complicated,’ she said in the end very cryptically.

Henry saw right through her – she must have known everything about it all.

‘Turner,’ he spoke, ‘you have done enough. You must rest.’

Abigail gave a brief little curtsey and left the room as instructed.

Perhaps the absence of servants might allow for more of Miss Drummond’s honesty. He pulled up a chair for himself – his leg was killing him as much as his curiosity.

‘The question is not whether you were keen, but whether he was, if I am correct. And he wasn’t. He is not. And never will be.’

Charlotte cursed internally in every way she could.

‘It was his idea.’ Well, she wasn’t lying.

‘Your brother, was he against it?’

Caught out and too exhausted to find her wit, that’s what Charlotte was.

‘Edward didn’t say much about it, and it hardly matters as whether I am engaged or not, the Duke is on his way and---’

‘I will help you if you help me.’

Charlotte was struck with nerves. She knew where this was going. ‘It’s not my place to say,’ she said.

‘But you can. You know, don’t you?’

‘Henry…’ Lady Anglesey warned.

‘Emma?’ Charlotte pleaded for help. But those piercing green eyes were so cold for her.

‘It is your choice,’ Lady Portman said simply. Not spitefully, but not very helpfully either.

Perhaps she was wrong to imagine anything better in the first place? She wondered now. Their brief weeks were tempestuous, certainly, but she attributed that to passion. And there was more, only a few days ago, they were reading by the fire and was it not Emma who snuggled into Charlotte’s arms? Was it not Emma that demanded all her time? Was it not her that came all the way for Charlotte?

How much did she really know her after all?

‘Well?’ Lord Anglesey demanded – strange, though, the softer, more fatherly his voice was, the more Charlotte felt compelled to talk.

She sent a prayer for Alfred, wherever he was.

‘You stand here,’ he told Edward once they were aboard the ship and under the flowery arch. The stars were their canopy and the seas were their temple. So be it. This was the moment he really became Edward’s and Edward his, in a way he hadn’t been till now.

‘So, are we all ready?’ William asked, highly amused at the whole thing but determined to do this as asked. Aharon nodded from the side – he was to be the witness. And Will, if his father saw him now! He was being a proper priest here--

‘Ah, one moment,’ Edward said and reached over to William’s mouth to take out his cheroot and put it out. ‘Now we are. Go on, Captain.’

‘Well,’ William said with a flair, ‘Alright, Alfred, I do see what you see in him now!’

‘Shush, and do it at last,’ Alfred retorted, though he was all smiles, just like Edward.

‘Fine. Ahehehem. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here…’

Charlotte searched for the right words.

‘I don’t want a husband, just as Lord Alfred does not want to take a wife. Therefore we thought we would marry, to live as friends. Should the time come when we would need protection.’

Henry knew this but he didn’t know until now. Must be getting soft in his old age, he nearly had to sniff back tears.

‘Such as tonight?’

Charlotte nodded, already horrified at what she had done.

‘And Drummond? Your brother? Is he also…’

And another prayer went out for her brother, too. ‘H-he…’

‘With this ring, I thee wed,’ Edward said, slipping a golden ring on Alfred’s finger.

They had just about got through their vows – William only telling them off for weeping a couple of times, and that’s saying something! It was soon complete.

‘With this ring, I thee wed,’ Alfred repeated in turn, slipping a ring on Edward’s finger, too.

‘I now pronounce you husband and husband, gentlemen,’ William declared, pocketing the Bible. ‘And now for my favourite part: you may kiss each other, chaps. Make it a good one.’

Charlotte licked her lips, dry from nerves. ‘He… they… yes.’

Henry was unreadable as he sat there, listening.

‘Henry?’ Lady Anglesey asked him gently, a soothing hand on his shoulder.

He simply nodded at her as if in confirmation. They had evidently discussed it before. Well, if they had any doubt left, Charlotte gave them their answer.

‘Why?’ she asked. Should Edward ever ask why she blabbed about their most cherished secret to his lover’s own father, she should know what to answer him.

‘Do not worry, my dear girl, you did nothing wrong. I already overheard them talking in the bathroom at Alfred’s birthday party last month. They must… love each other very much.’

Charlotte’s heart was beating wildly. ‘Yes, they do,’ she said defiantly.

She waited for Lord Anglesey’s reaction – whether she would now be thrown out of the manor, preparing to defend her brother if---

‘Thank you. That’s all a father needs to hear,’ he said simply. With the ghost of a smile?

‘Well, it’s hardly a surprise,’ Lady Anglesey said confidentially to her husband, patting his shoulder familiarly. ‘And it’s not as if we are short on grandchildren.’

Lord Anglesey gave a laugh.

But it didn’t drown out Charlotte’s sobs.

She didn’t like to fall apart as such but she was relieved.

She didn’t destroy Edward’s and Alfred’s lives just now… She instinctively stole a glance from Emma, surely she would share her happiness… but Emma’s cold, green eyes bore into her so mercilessly over Henry’s shoulder, she wanted to kneel by her bed and plead for forgiveness right now, right now.

‘Emma…’

‘Don’t.’

That was all the baroness replied. And Charlotte knew she wouldn’t get the same relief as she had won for Alfred.

She could tell them about her brother’s romance but not her own. Because of course some people still had their husbands and reputations to keep up. So once again, she had to pretend there was nothing splitting her heart in two, that it was nothing, that it didn’t matter, that she felt nothing – and she could not do so anymore, so she wept.

‘Do not be afraid, little dove,’ Lady Anglesey said to her as she sat with her, so motherly and so kind. ‘We will not let His Grace in.’

‘Where’s my gun?’ Charlotte asked ridiculously through sobs.

Maybe she was going crazy, she would end up at the hospital just like that M’Naughten who nearly killed her brother! Well, if it came to shooting Tommy, she might do it and use the same law to avoid the noose. Though as the way things were going, she might have welcomed an end to it all.

‘There, there, Miss Drummond. You are overtired. You should go to bed, you are safe here.’

‘I’m not. Neither are you, if you’re hiding me.’

‘Housing not hiding.’

‘I have to go. Please, let me go now. I’ve told you everything.’

‘Everything?’ Henry asked.

Charlotte glanced at Emma who was pointedly ignoring her.

‘Everything,’ she lied.

‘See, Henry, we are satisfied, now let them sleep.’

But Henry didn’t stand.

‘No, alas, I think Miss Drummond is right, my dear,’ he said with a heavy heart. ‘I knew Fife, the older. He was… odd, too. Hot and cold. He could be scary when he wanted to. If what you say is true… I think you should find a place he doesn’t expect indeed, for the time being.’

‘You want to send her on the run, Henry?’ Lady Anglesey asked, bewildered. ‘In this state?!’

‘Well, if that’s what it takes…’

‘No, Henry, no.’

‘Charlotte, my dear—’

‘No,’ Lady Anglesey said firmly. ‘Miss Drummond, I think you should stay here, under our protection. Surely we can do more for you than a gun.’

‘I agree with Henry,’ Lady Portman cut in suddenly, from her throne in the gilded bed. ‘Do it, Miss Drummond. Run on.’

She was measured but her voice carried authority all the more for it.

‘What?’ Charlotte asked her, feeling disarmed by her completely.

‘Better yet, go to France. Marry Alfred. Be done with it. You need a husband. We all do. Isn’t that right, Lady Anglesey?’

The marchioness wouldn’t have said so, not by the looks of the girl. She thought these two were friends but evidently, she was missing something yet.

‘Well, it’s not such an unreasonable idea,’ Henry mused. ‘You make an odd couple, I say, but…’

‘We are NOT a couple.’

‘Not in that sense, of course, but…’

‘There’ll be no dowry if that’s what you’re thinking, not if it’s all done behind my father’s back, no contracts signed, nothing. And the Duke, he’ll target Alfred, he won’t be safe. Quite the opposite.’

‘Huh! He can defend himself, I daresay. He is a Paget after all! And so should you be, if I judge your character correctly. You’d fit right into the family.’

‘Well, he’s in France anyway, isn’t he, and Tommy’s on the doorstep here, so I think what we ought to consider rather is--’

‘Then don’t. But go to France anyway,’ Emma cut in.

Charlotte tried to read her but she had a hard enough time standing on her two feet without weeping like a child because of Emma. It was as if she was trying to hurt her.

‘Even if you think you can run forever, you should go there. If you leave now, you can avoid His Grace and we shall misdirect him.’

You shall?’ Charlotte asked, scratching at her nails so hard they were bleeding. ‘You mean you will not come?’

‘Miss Drummond—’

‘Do not “Miss Drummond” me, Emma – you do not intend to come with me, do you?’

‘How could I? You have quite exhausted me as it is!’

‘You mean with the journey or else?’

Emma’s glare was meant to warn her not to go further in front of Lord and Lady Anglesey, she knew. She scrambled for a rope to hang onto – the clock was turning the hour so very soon, the rain was still pounding against the windows, and the colder Emma was the more stifling the air in the room felt.

‘Fine, I’ll go to France. But come with me,’ she pleaded.

‘I cannot,’ Emma replied firmly.

‘Come with me,’ she pleaded again, losing sense.

‘No.’

‘Emma, if you do not come with me that means---’

‘See reason, for God’s sake, I do not have the strength!’

‘That wouldn’t matter, if you’d—’

‘Stop it, Charlotte.’

‘But—’

‘Stop. Now.’

‘Emma…’

‘No wonder Agnes—’

‘Miss Drummond,’ Lady Anglesey tried but she didn’t get that motherly words wouldn’t do here, no, what would is screaming, screaming like the madwoman she was – that was exactly what Charlotte did, ran out to the balcony in the rain and screamed into the night in anger, at the world, at everyone in it that had a hand in this, at her own stupidity, what a gullible fool she was, stupid, stupid---

Lady Anglesey came up to her once she had calmed down.

Her own mother never held her like that and let her cry as she was now, or soothed her as her namesake the marchioness was as if it was the most natural thing in the world, even through fresh sobs as they could hear a carriage pull in on the gravel somewhere below and the bell rung and Lord Anglesey’s uneven footsteps as he left to take care of it as best as he could.

‘Please don’t think badly of my brother,’ she had to say, sensing the end of her stay.

‘Nonsense. I shall invite him and Alfred for luncheon first thing when we are back in London,’ Lady Anglesey said kindly. ‘But you, my dear… Lady Portman is wrong, you know. We do not all need husbands. We just need to find the right person to whom to give ourselves. That’s the trick of it. As simple as that. Or should I say difficult?’

Lady Anglesey winked conspiratorially at Charlotte, easing her up the slightest bit.

‘I really need to go on.’

‘So you do, my dove. But not forever. You must stop one day. You might run now because of someone else but make sure you stop of your own accord, on your own terms. I do not say this lightly. You understand, don’t you?’

‘Y-yes. A-Alfred talked about you when he p-proposed it all. He knows I couldn’t do what you did, I can’t…’

‘Be with a man? Yes, dear, that much is obvious.’

They could hear shouting in the hall even from that far in the grand house.

Charlotte knew it was no good.

‘I should go now,’ she said, desperately trying to dry her face and pull herself together. ‘Is there a way out?’

‘Is there? If there’s one thing I learned since being with Henry is that there is always a secret passage somewhere. Come, I’ll show you the way.’

Chapter Text

Your friends have been gone for a while, my love,’ Aharon remarked in Arabic as the sky was paling towards dawn.

They were still sitting on the beak of William’s ship, legs entangled, clothes loosened, and sharing a glass of champagne straight from the bottle.

And William smiled knowingly.

After he had pronounced Alfred and Drummond husband and husband by his right as a captain, for once he didn’t mind witnessing them kiss (did not mind at all… in fact… was it normal to want to encourage the chaps to continue the display so pleasing to one’s eye?). He was the most surprised to realise he had no spark of jealousy this time – to think that he once behaved so ungallantly with Drummond because of Alfred! No, he happily played along as they wished and wed them to each other, however eccentric the request. If that made them happy, he was the captain of their ship indeed.

Shortly after this, champagne was drunk to celebrate their secret union, and the lovebirds ran off to a small chapel for a midnight prayer, which was not far from the sandy shores. Realising this in their heady excitement at feeling blessedly married, they ran to the sea, leaving a trail of dropped clothes in their wake in the sand, and jumped into the water to play, to kiss, to love each other as unabashedly as if they were the only people in the world, in Paradise, under the starry sky.

The rest of the night found them in their yacht, having their due wedding night. It was only right, was it not? They were married after all.

William glanced at Alfred’s yacht to see if it was swaying despite the lack of wind.

Oh, I worry for her state,’ William replied in Arabic somewhat slower but well enough. ‘So In love… they might break her and sink her before sunrise.

Aharon leaned closer to brush his fingers through Will’s black curls. ‘That’s given me an idea…’ he purred to him flirtily.

Oh? Why, we have a bigger ship to break.

Then we must make a bigger effort with which to break it.

Not sure the crew would find that pleasing news.’

What crew? It’s only us.’

But in order to sail on, I shall find more men.’

Men?’

Yes, men, to man the rigging, to steer the ship, to clean the chamber pots.’

But we are so happy here. You want to go away?

I don’t want to, but I want to make sure we are safe.

I am safe, we are a long way from my father. And you—

‘—would be horsewhipped by mine and put in the pillory, were I to set foot in London,’ William muttered snappishly in English.

‘What?’

‘Nothing, my love, nothing… What’s that?’ William squinted in the dark as he realised the silhouette of a ship appeared from the way of La Rochelle. ‘Fancy travelling in the dark? What do you reckon, smugglers? Pirates?

Your blue eyes are beautiful to look at but not very sharp – it’s just a fishing boat. Nothing of interest. Now…’ said Aharon, taking William’s hand and leading him back to their cottage. ‘Your friends cannot have all the fun tonight.

 

 

‘What about sideburns?’

Alfred rose on his elbow to better look at Edward. He took a drag of their shared cheroot, thinking.

‘…no.’

‘Why not?’

‘No.’

Edward sighed. ‘Fine. Just a thought. They suit you so.’

‘Why, thank you,’ Alfred replied, lying back and scooting closer into his husband’s arms on the bed.

What a night they had! They were married – not by any man’s law, of course, but that only mattered on land and in Society.

For now, here at sea, in the bedchamber of their yacht, and by as many rights they could gather, they were married. That was the first and last, the beginning and end of their truth, and nothing and no one would deny them that.

…Nor a most gratifying wedding night. They were so lost in love and passion they only just made an inventory of the casualties: two torn shirts, a lost shoe (somewhere in the sand?), a pillow case that needed refilling (and the floor a thorough sweeping to clear off the feathers), one cracked bedpost and one broken candelabra.

‘I love you,’ Alfred said in the dark prompted by nothing in particular.

‘I love you, too,’ Edward replied. 'You know...'

'Hm?'

'I believe it is almost exactly a year since we... since... in Scotland.'

'Since you kissed me?'

'Yes...' Edward confirmed bashfully - too bashfully for someone lying naked in bed with their lover. No, not lover, husband.

'So it is...'

'Midsummer evenings...'

'Midsummer morning, by the looks of it,' Alfred giggled after a glance out the window.

They smoked in comfortable silence for a while more.

So tranquil, so peaceful.

‘A moustache?’

‘Edward…!’

 

 

‘You look much better this morning, Lady Portman,’ Lady Anglesey remarked at breakfast.

The baroness hardly replied.

It had been a few days since she had been dragged across Wales to the Pagets – normally, she would have found them entertaining and useful in Society, but given the awkward circumstances, she actually hoped her husband would arrive soon enough to collect her at last.

Because every morning, like clockwork, Lady Anglesey would ask:

‘Would you like to take a walk with me alone in the gardens? Just us, no one else to—’

‘Please, Ch-Lady Anglesey, leave it,’ Lady Portman pleaded for the hundredth time.

She was not going to give them anything. Thankfully, they knew nothing about her true connection to Miss Drummond, and she would keep it that way. The girl left enough of a mess, no need for more.

Lady Anglesey for the life of her could not make sense of it either. Emma had always been unreadable.

‘Well, if it is any consolation, the Baron is arriving before tomorrow night. He should cheer you up, should he not?’ she said kindly.

Lady Portman gave just as curt a nod as before.

‘Hm,’ Henry grunted from behind his newspaper. ‘Let us hope Lord Portman is a more agreeable visitor than Fife was…’

What the marquess referred to was the horrible night when the Duke of Fife barged into Plas Newydd not long after the lost Miss Drummond and Lady Portman of all people showed up. It took three footmen to restrain him after Lord Anglesey gave him a good dressing down, but still, the young man was like a bull in a cage, no, not like that, like…

‘I want what is mine!’ the Duke demanded that rainy night with a strange sort of fire in his eyes that chilled the blood in Lord Anglesey’s veins.

‘Yours?’

‘Yes, I—Unhand me, you fools!’ the Duke tore himself out of the footmen’s grasp and collected himself like a gentleman, though still seething and pacing around the spacious hall of the manor house.

‘What is it exactly that is yours, Your Grace?’ Henry asked with a cynical emphasis on the title that bade him bound to respect the Duke for his title – nothing said about him as a person, of course.

‘That is no business of yours. Contracts have been drawn up. I will sue you, understand? If she is… your s… I will destroy you, Paget. I have my fortune and that of Charlotte’s once we marry – you will not stand a chance. No, I will not only destroy you but your son---’

‘My son?’

‘Yes, your son, isn’t he? That Lord Alfred, who seems to be under the delusion he can intrude where he ought not to intrude. Word on the street says he has been spending hours every single day and sometimes whole nights at Edward’s place since she has lived there! People are starting to talk.’

‘Talk?’ Henry asked, dreading what he would next hear. ‘What about, pray?’

‘Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?’

‘Your Grace… I assure you my son is simply a good friend to—’

‘He is more than a friend, you know so. You are complicit in this ghastly affair. Do not deny it. Lord Alfred is a… a….’

Henry’s heart was getting old and did not need this strain or jolt of pain at his age, not this panic—

‘... a frightful womanizer!’

‘He’s not— what?’

‘He is a Paget of the worst kind, like all your race, chasing after women he shouldn’t be allowed near, and it is my duty not to let Charlotte fall victim to his ill-repute, his shameless attempts on her, who is promised to me, has been since we were not even school age! I trusted Edward to protect her from such scoundrels but he is too soft! So it is up to me. It is destined that she should marry me. So you can tell your son---’

Henry laughed.

The Duke was completely thrown off track in his rant.

‘What, may I ask, is so funny, Lord Anglesey?’ he jeered.

‘Oh, nothing, nothing…’ Henry thought, composing himself and putting on a serious expression. He could really turn this moment to his advantage, he realised at once. ‘You are right, I never had any right to discipline my sons and daughters as I should have, not with my history. Alas, I am sorry if Alfred has given you the wrong impression, Duke. As it is, I was not aware that they were anything more than friends up until quite recently and even that was a passing thought as far as I am informed. But, what does it matter when the girl, Miss Drummond, is missing?’

‘She is not. She is here, I know you are hiding her.’

‘Why on earth would she hide here?’

‘Waiting for Lord Alfred, I imagine. To marry in secret. Maybe they already have—’

‘My son is in France at present, my dear chap.’

‘Is he? He might be anywhere for all I know! Left from London on his shiny yacht and turned westward anyway, after throwing off the scent.’

‘But Your Grace, you credit my family with more talent for conniving than is due. I have received letters from my son from France. Wild horses wouldn’t keep him away from that ghastly place, not in the summer. It annoys me so, he knows it, but what can I say, he likes their style.’

‘So he is not here?’

‘I think I should know if my own son was in my house.’

‘And Charlotte?’

‘Or her, my dear chap, how do you think we treat guests in this house?’

‘We certainly do not sneak them in through the servants’ door!’ Lady Anglesey joked, descending the main stairs just then. ‘Your Grace,’ she curtseyed, ‘You might as well search every room, you would not find either Miss Drummond or our dear Alfred anywhere. He is in France with his rather pious pal Mr Drummond, and as for Miss Drummond, we are regrettably as ignorant about her whereabouts as anyone.’

‘But… the carriage I followed here…’

‘What cart? Oh! Those were our leftover items from London! I shudder to think how soaked my hats got in this ghastly weather on the way!’

Lady Anglesey shot Henry the subtlest look. Henry understood at once that he should play along.

‘I assure you, Your Grace,’ Henry said, ‘Miss Drummond was not hiding in any of the boxes, and take that as you will – unless you should like to inspect my wife’s stocking drawers as well?’

The Duke got so embarrassed at all this that that was the end of that.

For him.

Once he left, Lady Portman was still the Angleseys’ guest, apparently having bumped into Charlotte while exploring the Welsh countryside and playing the part of the kidnapped damsel who simply got caught up in other people’s troubles.

Except both Henry and Charlotte Paget had got to know her far better than that over the years.

 

 

Lively exotic birds and seagulls were chirping and flying overhead the luscious flora of the island as Edward and Alfred were walking back to their chateau at dawn, ringed hand in hand as no one was around to see it and not easily through the rich flower bushes anyway.

‘... Alfred Drummond?’

‘Mr?’ Alfred asked with a displeased frown.

‘I’m afraid so – I could not be a lord,’ Edward mused. ‘I mean if we…’

‘Why not? Lord Edward Paget. Has a nice ring to it.’

‘We could hyphenate?’

‘Oh, as in Paget-Drummond?’

‘Drummond-Paget, I thought, but details…’

‘Paget-Drummond,’ Alfred insisted out of a joke.

‘Drummond-Paget.’

‘Paget-Drummond!’

Edward giggled loudly. ‘You realise this is an entirely hypothetical conversation…’

‘Paget-Drummond. Say it.’

‘Fine,’ Edward rolled his eyes. ‘Paget-CHARLOTTE?!’

‘What?’

Alfred wasn’t following – why did Edward suddenly stop in his tracks and he was staring ahead as if he had seen a ghost…

‘Oh!’ Alfred exclaimed as well once he saw what Edward saw!

Through the windows of the chateau, unless they had eaten of the same poisoned fruit that caused matching hallucinations, was Charlotte Drummond clearly visible.

Edward ran ahead, nearly tore the front door off its hinges and indeed, there she was, his dear sister standing in his and Alfred’s sitting room in the flesh, dishevelled, pale and thin, and slightly startled, and…

…eating cake?

‘Charlotte!’

‘Edward!’

Cake fell on the carpet as Edward swooped his little sister up in a bone-crushing hug, which, for once, she didn’t mind even if her brother was built as such that one felt like they were hugging a brick wall!

‘Charlotte,’ he wept with relief as he let her go at last. ‘What--- where have you---- what ARE you wearing?’ he asked, realising only now that she was in a shirt and trousers and her hair was shorter than a footman’s wig!

‘And you?!’ she countered at once, noting Edward’s clothes were covered in sand, stains, and torn at parts, especially the buttons.

‘It’s… I… we---’

‘Yes, I hear life has treated you well, you and Lord Alfred!’ she said, spotting him in the doorway as well, smiling bright like he was made of sunshine.

‘Miss Drummond! Still in one piece, then!’ he quipped and held her hands in both of his like a true friend. ‘How have you been?’

‘Oh, ghastly,’ she said with a wide smile.

‘And the horse?’

‘Healthy and fast like a lightning bolt.’

‘Used my pistol?’

‘Just a few times.’

‘Lady Portman?’

‘Don’t ask…’

‘Want some tea?’

‘Please.’

‘B… But… Charlotte…’ Edward stammered, still aghast. ‘What happened?’

‘It’s a long story.’

Chapter Text

‘There you go, Miss,’ Abigail said kindly as she put a tray of fresh tea on the table. ‘Anything else for now?’

‘No, thank you, Turner, you’ve been a godsend. Do take the day off, don’t mind me,’ Charlotte replied gratefully from her cushioned seat next to her brother. ‘I am in good hands now.’

The maid left and the Drummond siblings remained alone with Lord Alfred – all now cleaned up and (mostly) sand-free, and ready to tuck into breakfast in the garden in the shade of the ivy-covered chateau.

‘She really has been a godsend,’ Charlotte told the men confidentially. ‘Turns out, I am not a very good sailor. She held my hair for hours at a time when I found myself in an indelicate state at sea.’

‘But there is not much on your hair to hold anymore…’ Edward remarked.

‘Well, it was just more practical and, really, a fine disguise, I thought,’ she said with a shrug and picked the most delicious cakes from the selection on the table, cream, sugar, everything she had to go without while on the run. ‘Ooh, lemon tarts!’

Alfred stifled a laugh as he watched her tuck in as if she had been starving. Then, he caught Edward’s eyes and realised the idyll of the morning was a mere illusion.

He nodded to Edward in encouragement.

‘Say, Charlotte…’ Edward began.

‘Hm?’

‘What happened? Where have you been?’

Charlotte stopped in her tracks, swallowing a mouthful of cake as discreetly as she could. And postponing her reply yet more by washing it down with tea. And more tea.

‘Well…’

Half an hour later, Alfred had to pull up a chair closer to Edward to soothe him and his nerves as he digested just how much danger his sister had got herself into while he was happily scribbling away at the House and meeting up with Alfred and going on promenades like normal.

‘My dearest, do not fret,’ Alfred whispered sweetly into his ear while stroking his broad shoulders gently. ‘Your sister is here, safe and sound. Here, have some tea, it’ll make you feel brighter…’

Charlotte gasped as something glistened on Alfred’s ring finger as he reached for Edward’s cup.

‘What’s that?’ she asked, horrified.

‘What’s what?’ Alfred asked. ‘Oh! That!’

‘You’re not… married?!’ she whispered as if she had uttered a curse word.

‘Why, yes, I am!’ Alfred replied happily, confusing and horrifying her even more. ‘Well, that is, we are, Edward and I. Tied the knot! About time, really…’

‘What?! Wait, you can do that?’

‘No, we can’t but we did! Didn’t we, Edward?’

‘Yes, yes, we did!’ Edward replied, coming out of his shock. ‘Just last night, actually.’

‘But… how?’ she asked.

‘Well, with a little help from a friend…’

‘Good gracious, tie me up in seaweed and feed me to the sirens if that’s not Miss Drummond! Not you, too?’ came William Peel’s voice as he skipped up the stone steps to the breakfast table in the garden.

‘Put your chest away, Captain,’ Edward scolded him immediately.

But his sister needed no protection. She was not scandalised by William’s usual half-unclad appearance and cheroot hanging from his lips, but floored by his presence itself.

‘Peel? H-how? Did you know--?’

‘No, it was a horrible—I mean, fortunate coincidence that we should have moored on the same shores,’ Edward was quick to explain to Charlotte. ‘He has just… been around.’

‘Welcome to the island of misfits, Miss Drummond! I must admit I wasn’t sure if it was a man with your piercingly murderous eyes sitting here with Alfred and Drummond for a second but no, it is you! Here’s your shoe, Alfred,’ William added, placing Alfred’s lost-on-the-beach shoe wherever it landed by a shrub. ‘Now, confess, Miss Drummond, what is your crime?’

‘Leave her, she had a rough voyage,’ Alfred told him. ‘Tea?’

‘Thank you,’ Will said and invited himself to sit at the table as well.

‘But… but… but…’ Charlotte stuttered, utterly confused.

Alfred and Edward were married, somehow, God knew how, and William Peel just happened to be there, and he was currently tapping the top of an egg gently to crack it open while Lord Alfred was perfectly happy to pour him a cuppa, all without Edward lunging at Peel’s throat over all the muffins.

‘Care to catch me up as well?’ she demanded when she found her voice.

And by God they did, so much so she forgot about her lemon tart in favour of listening to the men’s news with her mouth open.

‘So… do I take it… that you, Captain… wed… my brother… and Lord Alfred… and it’s just… binding?’

‘Well, no, it’s not legally binding, but look at them,’ William said with a bit of an eye-roll. ‘Napoleon wouldn’t have torn these two bon-apart.’

William was the only one laughing.

‘What’s wrong, Miss Drummond?’ Alfred asked, picking up on something darkening her face. ‘You’re not about to tell me you disapprove, do you?’ he asked, half-afraid she might. She could be unpredictable.

‘No, I... I most certainly do not disapprove. I just… I wish I…’ she made the mistake of looking Alfred straight in the eye.

And he knew.

‘Did Lady Portman find y---’ he began but she stood from the table and stormed back inside in rage.

It was not directed at them, Edward and Alfred, she wouldn’t have wished them a second less of their obvious happiness, and how lucky they were to have help from the most unexpected people of all!

‘Shh, shh…’ Edward soothed her when he caught up with her and held her (or rather held her down) on the balcony overlooking the seaside, until she calmed down.

‘I’m sorry, Edward, I want you to be so happy… I just can’t… Why can’t I… it’s so unfair…’

‘I know, I know…’ he said kissing the top of her head.

‘Oh, you don’t, not really… you are so lucky…’

‘I am… but it is difficult.’

‘I know but… I envy your difficulties.’

Alfred joined them, and, to all their surprise, William, who was still buttering and eating a croissant.

Alfred shot him a murderous look to absolutely no avail before turning to Charlotte.

‘She wasn’t brave enough, was she?’ Alfred asked, slightly annoyed and feeling for the young woman.

One look said it all and he made a mental note to give Lady Portman a good talking to once he was back at the Palace.

‘I’m sorry, what’s all this about?’ William asked, oblivious to both the story and to the fact that he had a smudge of butter on his cheek.

‘I don’t believe Miss Drummond would like to reveal her private matters to—’

‘No, Miss Drummond is happy to,’ Charlotte said bitterly but not with the embarrassing vulgarity she resorted to the last time she met the captain. ‘Miss Drummond is utterly unlovable and is therefore cast aside like a used rag by everyone after they squeezed her dry. That’s all I’m good for, that or doing what everyone else does. Marry. They all do anyway, sooner or later. Women are never themselves – they are either married, like Emma, or about to be married, like Agnes was! And Violet, and Esther, and Miss W-- but enough about that. And so it happens again and again. A husband, with money, a house, a reputation, security, even a title perhaps? I cannot compete with that. Who would choose me? And who would choose this life? If they could have all the comforts of the highest society? Maybe this is truly the end of the road, maybe this is where I have to realise I have failed. Maybe I should… maybe I should marry Tommy after all. It would all be easier, wouldn’t it? Well, for everyone. Everyone but me. I’m the problem here, aren’t I? I am.’

Alfred paled at the ridiculous notion at once, wanting to shake some sense into her.

‘You are not the problem,’ he said seriously. ‘Few are as brave as you are…’

William swallowed a mouthful of his croissant somewhat guiltily at Alfred’s pointed glance.

‘…but some do come around sooner or later. You have to stay strong and you cannot give in. And you should certainly not marry Fife. You’d be miserable all your life!’

‘What then? I am tired. I am so tired.’ Charlotte leaned against the balustrade, exhausted just from accessing how many miles she had travelled for months and months.

This really was a real paradise but she had spent the last of her money on the journey here – the bag Alfred had given her for the road once – and aside from that, she did not see how she could go on.

‘Er… Miss Drummond…’ William, of all people, broke the silence. ‘So… Admittedly, we do not know each other very well… and correct me if I’m wrong but… you once told me you were not the marrying kind, much like myself… like these chaps, in a manner of speaking, but they’ve obviously gone insane so just ignore them…’

‘William!’ Alfred snapped at him.

‘ALL I’m trying to say is… you do not seem like London society agrees with you, if I may say so.’

‘You are not wrong there, Captain,’ she said, defeated.

‘Then why do you so wish to return there?’

‘Because I…’ she said but stopped to think. ‘I am not sure anymore. I don’t, as a matter of fact. Not anymore.’

‘But, Charlotte,’ Edward spoke up gently. ‘I miss you so.’

‘And so have I you, but…’

‘I have been worried sick – you can come back and we will make sure no harm—’

‘You cannot protect me from harm, Edward. But thank you. I know you mean it. I know you do.’

Edward wanted to argue, wanted to tell her how he would be able to prevent the Duke from eventually having his way – after all, their parents were all for it, and he was a powerful man. He feared he wouldn’t be able to guarantee her safety after all. He could not in the past, and look where that got her.

‘Miss Drummond, if you married me--’ Alfred said timidly.

‘Do not be ridiculous, Alfred. After all you are already married.’

‘I…’ Alfred asked for Edward’s help without words and he understood. ‘Well, not legally… we need only to sign a paper but if we do not go to a church or swear oaths on the Bible…’

‘You don’t mean that at all, Alfred,’ Charlotte shot him down at once. ‘You might be able to separate those things but in my eyes you and Edward are as married as two people can be. Thank you for still being relentlessly generous and selfless but I will not marry you.’

‘And what about me?’ William asked out of the blue.

For a second, Alfred, or the others, doubted they heard it right.

What – and I cannot stress this enough – the bloody hell did you just say, William?’ Alfred heard himself ask.

‘Why not? What’s wrong with me?’ William asked.

‘How much time do you have?’

‘Now, Alfred, no need to be rude.’

‘Not being rude, just honest!’

‘Alfred…’

‘No.’

‘Alfred?’

‘No!’ Edward repeated, completely bewildered by the very thought! He even stepped slightly between her and the captain without thinking.

‘But…’

‘No.’

‘But if—’

‘No!’

‘When—’

‘William, no!’

‘My father’s—’

‘N-‘

‘SHUT UP!’ Charlotte snapped to put an end to it all. ‘Let him speak! Well, Captain? Explain yourself.’ she demanded, not sure why.

‘Well,’ Will gathered his thoughts, finally buttoning up his shirt and wiping the butter off his face. ‘I know what it’s like to be on the run your whole life. It’s difficult, sometimes truly horrible, and of course wildly dangerous, you have to get used to a lot of close calls and quick getaways, and it is hard work and above all…’

And here William thought how best to phrase it…

‘… the most terrific fun.’

Charlotte’s eyes lit up with a spark that hadn’t been there for ages.

‘Go on,’ she instructed him cautiously.

‘I don’t want to return to London to settle down any more than you do. But I don’t feel like we are on the run - my companion and I, you’ll get to know him, he’s gorgeous and very good with—’

‘William!’ Alfred scolded him.

‘With string instruments, I wanted to say! By God, Alfred, just because you are a naughty little bugger… Ouch!’ William received a slap on his arm at that. ‘However,’ he continued, ‘in spite of myself, I wouldn’t mind making my peace with my father at last. I have seen… damn it, I have seen men die on the battlefield enough times to understand how short life is and how swiftly it can end. My biggest achievement thus far is being lucky enough to be out of the way of bullets – for the most part – sorry, Drummond – but that was hardly in my control. Perhaps belatedly but I find I have grown up at last. And I believe that sorting out the mess between father and I has to be a part of that. Now, I cannot return to London alone, as I would find myself in gaol before I set foot in my father’s club for a chat. Unless…’

‘…unless you returned married,’ Charlotte finished for him.

‘Quite right you are, Miss Drummond.’

Charlotte considered this, much to Edward’s horror.

‘You do know I have been promised to someone, do you not?’ she asked. ‘Someone powerful and determined.’

‘Right, who is that again?’

‘The Duke of Fife,’ Alfred supplied for Will. ‘Red hair, tall, robust-’

‘He shot my dog,’ Charlotte mused out loud.

‘Yes, that too,’ Alfred seconded awkwardly. ‘Not the nicest chap in the world, you see. And he does not refrain from violence.’

‘That shan’t be a problem – he might hunt for deer in his tweeds but forgive me if my knees aren’t shaking from fear at the sound of him.’

‘And if he sues?’

‘My father used to be the Prime Minister!’

‘Still, William, you will have to sort him out if you do this.’

‘Do what? Alfred, you don’t support this, do you?’ Edward asked, aghast.

‘Well, it’s not an entirely idiotic idea…’

‘My dearest---’

‘”My dearest”’, William mocked Edward between giggles, and Charlotte found herself snorting, too.

‘Edward, my love,’ Alfred replied, ignoring these children, ‘You must see that it is an incredibly favourable solution to all our woes. Two birds with one stone, really. I do want you, William, to try and smooth things out between you and Sir Robert. And you, Miss Drummond, as brave as I think you have been, perhaps it’s time to take a break and come back to London with us.’

‘But I won’t be going back to London,’ she replied. ‘Not for long, that is. Is that right, Captain?’

‘No, that’s exactly what I had in mind. We should of course make our due appearance, call on the tribes, present ourselves in society – a month, two at most, I should think. Then, I was thinking Tangiers…’

‘Boston.’

‘Why, in the winter? No.’

‘Then Sicily.’

‘Doable.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine.’

‘Fine!’

‘Just—one question…’ Alfred interrupted, particularly before Edward actually fainted. He eased him into a chair by the balustrade, massaging his chest before his heart suffered an attack. ‘The maid you were traveling with? I recognise her from court. Her Majesty has remarked on her outspokenness. How much does she know?’

‘Nothing at all,’ Charlotte replied. ‘It’s true, she was Emma’s lady’s maid for her journey but your mother insisted I bring her with me to France, as she was sneaking me out of the house – for which I am eternally grateful. But Emma arranged everything so that we were alone in Wales…’ Charlotte swallowed, still cut up about it. ‘Without Turner. In fact, the silly girl even told me it was romantic of me to come all this way for my true love. He must have meant you, Alfred, though at the time I thought she was just delirious from her own sea sickness.’

‘You’re predisposed to be sea sick?!’ William asked, horrified.

‘N-no, not as a rule,’ Charlotte defended herself before the deal was off. She could get used to the seas, right? She had no problem with the journey between Scotland and London… most of the time…

‘So the maid doesn’t know about… the truth,’ Alfred confirmed for sure.

‘No. Why?’ she asked.

‘Because there’s no point in any of this if she gives you away.’

‘I don’t think it matters what she thinks…’

‘No, Alfred has a point,’ William spoke up. ‘Never underestimate valets and maids…’

Edward and Alfred exchanged a heavy look – it was only because of Edward’s butler’s conscience that they didn’t have to be on the run as well.

‘... hm… I wonder…’

‘What is it, Captain?’ Edward asked him.

‘Ooh, seriously, Alfred, every time Drummond calls me Captain I get shivers down my---‘

‘FOCUS, William!’ Alfred scolded him again.

‘Sorry. Anyway, we all agree that we have to find a way to make sure the marriage is not only legally binding but believed as legitimate once we pull into the harbour in London.’

‘And how do you propose we do that?’ Charlotte asked.

‘I have an idea… but you won’t like it.’

 

 

The bell to Miss Drummond’s bedroom was rung at seven in the evening. Abigail sighed and hurried upstairs in the chateau before a local maid started to shout at her in French she couldn’t understand. The wedding was simple but it was hurried and she really wouldn’t have minded some rest! But alas, dinner had to wait and, yes, yes, she was going, she was going, no need to urge her…

‘AHH!’

She shut Miss Drummond’s – that is Mrs Peel’s – bedroom door as quickly as she had opened it and ran right away!

What a nasty prank to play to tell her it was her mistress that rang for her! Oh, these French and their jokes… But what a story she had to tell at home!

 

 

Five minutes earlier…

‘Stop it,’ Charlotte muttered strictly.

‘Stop what?’

‘Just… stay as you are, she’ll be here in a minute.’

William sighed tried to make himself comfortable in Charlotte’s bed.

They had dressed the room quite well, he thought: his shirt and trousers were thrown on the carpet, her dress hang from a chair clearly visible from the doorway, and after some convincing, her corset had also been put on display at the foot of the bed.

They got between the sheets and got into a position they assumed was every bit as convincing as it could be – neither of them having any real idea whether that was how men and women were really supposed to lie in their marital bed, but they gave it a shot.

Always making sure there were layers of sheets between them.

‘You should slide that off your shoulder, you know,’ he told her, nodding towards the visible strips of fabric there.

‘I will most certainly not!’

‘But it’s obvious you are still not unclad as you ought to be if we were actually…’

‘Shut it, Captain, I have already taken off my corset, what more could we do?’

‘At least I look as if I could be completely naked!’

‘Yes, and I am hoping you will keep yourself at a respectable distance from me after tonight, thank you… is that really how hairy your chest is?’

‘What’s wrong with my—’

‘AHH!’ Abigail screamed from the door. ‘I’M SO SORRY I---’

‘And scene!’ Will remarked happily after the door was shut tight, rolling away from his wife – he still cracked up at the thought that he now had a wife – and lit up a cheroot. ‘I hope it was as good for you as it was for me.’

Charlotte shot him a look but had to laugh.

Honestly, she was just relieved. She had a plan now. He lit up a cheroot for her as well, and she started to dress.

‘What are you doing?’ he asked.

‘What does it look like? And stop looking,’ she replied grumpily, trying to fix her corset back on herself while balancing the cigar in her mouth.

‘You can’t leave, though.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, we are supposed to be here all night, aren’t we? I’m afraid you are stuck with me for the whole night,’ he pointed out, patting the space in the bed next to him. ‘Don’t worry, I could find better ways to spend my time, too.’

‘Oh. Right,’ Charlotte realised with disappointment. She donned a dressing gown and went back to bed. William held an ashtray for her. ‘Thank you,’ she said and smoked some more, thinking.

Thinking.

‘Did you really love him?’ she asked. ‘Alfred.’

‘I’m glad we’re talking about this on our wedding night, my dearest.’

‘If you ever call me my dearest again, I’ll—’

‘What, marry me? That’s already the worst thing that could have happened to me!’

She wanted to slap him.

But she snorted. And so did he, and soon enough they were having to catch their breath from laughing, the whole thing was so ridiculous.

‘And to answer your question,’ he said once he calmed down. ‘Yes, I think so. It was a long time ago, though. And I knew he was not meant for me.’

‘You believe in all that? That someone is meant for everyone?’

‘I haven’t quite made up my mind yet,’ he said after some hesitation. ‘When I look at them, though, I believe in it a little more.’

‘I know… they’re just…’

‘Perfect.’

‘Made for each other.’

‘Frustratingly so!’

‘Yes…’ she agreed, falling into despair again at her own lot.

‘Tut-tut… such a long face for someone so young. Wait till we get to India. The women there are truly beautiful!’

‘India?’

‘Why not?’

‘Just not Egypt.’

‘No, not Egypt.’

‘And first, back to London.’

‘Back to London.’

Chapter Text

‘B-b-but—wh— Mr--- Mr D-Drummond, I don’t— quite--- What do you mean she’s back?!’

‘Yes, just in the carriage yet – I know it’s a lot to take in, Clarke. I shall explain everything in a minute,’ Edward told his groggy butler whom he had had to rouse from sleep since it was in the small hours of the morning that they had made it back to his London house in Lower Grosvenor Street.

Home, sweet home.

He just hoped they hadn’t roused the neighbours with their prying eyes. He wanted to keep Charlotte’s return a secret for as long as possible, IF that was possible at all. Rumours in central London spread faster than wildfires.

Clarke was still standing in the entrance hall with a nightcap on and a single candle in hand, trying to convince himself he wasn’t still dreaming and having silly imaginations about Miss Charlotte Drummond’s sudden return and not only that but the unannounced arrival of Captain Peel and a dark skinned, long-haired gentleman that spoke a strange language and made himself comfortable in the sitting room without invitation.

‘Forgive him, he is used to different customs,’ Edward apologised on Aharon’s behalf. ‘We had a long journey and we are awfully exhausted. I’ll tell you everything, Clarke, let us just get the bags in here first—’

‘No need,’ Charlotte said in passing as she skipped into the house, nearly unrecognisable in her trousers, shirt, and waistcoat, carrying her own suitcase.

‘Miss… Miss Drummond?’

‘That’s me, Clarke! Well, not quite anymore. I have denied my father and refused my name---’

‘Sworn thy love, too?’ William remarked with a snort.

‘Well, I am no longer Capulet at any rate.’

‘Hang on, does that make me Juliet!?’

‘Shush, Captain. Anyway, good to see you, Clarke. My room is as I left it I presume?’

‘Yes, but… no Miss Drummond, let me carry your—’

‘I can manage, Clarke,’ she said from halfway up the steps.

‘That’s my wife!’ William said proudly and loudly. He was carrying his own suitcase, too, but unlike his wife, he had nearly winded the butler by shoving it in his arms first thing after setting foot in the house.

Next to him, Edward winced. He still had to bite his tongue every single time he was reminded about this sorry development, which was a lot: in fact, Charlotte and William had positively taken to calling each other wife and husband and other various variables just so. To make light of the situation, Edward supposed. It was still hard to stomach. How will they explain all this to their parents when the time came?

‘Oh, and Edward, would you tell my husband to wait a while before coming upstairs, as I mean to take a bath?’ Charlotte called from the landing cheerily. ‘Clarke, you can prepare a dressing room for my wedded beloved husband, too, the one adjoining my own bedroom. As we are married!’

‘Uh- but – Miss Drummond— Mr Drummond???’ the butler rounded on him.

Edward was massaging his temples as he turned to his butler. ‘I’m sorry, Clarke, it is indeed no longer “Miss Drummond” but “Mrs Peel”—as I said, I shall explain everything.’

‘But—well --- then--- Miss Dru—Mrs Peel,’ the butler called upstairs, ‘Shall I wake a maid to draw your bath?’

Charlotte laughed from upstairs. ‘I think I can turn the tap without assistance!’

‘She can do a lot of things without assistance these days, Mr Clarke,’ a young woman muttered to herself as she walked in timidly and stood behind the butler. She had not forgotten how mortified she was when she walked in on the newlyweds just as they were in the middle of…well… she couldn’t wait for other maids in this house to wake up, ones who spoke English and understood her gossip—that is, stories.

‘Turner’s right. You’ll find Mrs Peel has learnt to fend for herself rather expertly, Clarke,’ Lord Alfred said kindly as he also entered Edward’s house at last, placing his own travelling suitcase by the umbrella basket.

‘Lord Alfred, sir,’ Clarke greeted yet another surprise guest.

‘Why don’t we go to the library, gentlemen, and have a bit of a sit down? And brandy! Brandy all around, I think. You included, Clarke.’

 

 

Half an hour later, they were all gathered around a jolly fire in Edward’s library. After the butler made sure Abigail was given all the comforts she deserved after the ordeal of a French trip and much seasickness, Alfred insisted on Clarke joining them for brandy, seeing as he needed one the most.

Charlotte wasn’t drinking for a change, as she was too busy reuniting with all the kittens she had last seen when they could fit in a person’s hand! Now they were all grown up and they missed her as much as she missed them, judging by the way they were vying for her attention and the chance to play with her on the carpet by the fireplace.

‘No, I couldn’t, your lordship—’ Clarke protested but Alfred had already poured him a generous helping of brandy he couldn’t refuse now. ‘Thank you…’

‘No, thank you,’ Alfred told him confidentially. ‘I never got a chance to say so before we left for France.’

The butler didn’t meet Lord Alfred’ eyes. Too embarrassed about the whole subject, probably.

‘Edw—Drummond also told me of your own predicament, you know,’ Alfred continued carefully. ‘In case we can be of any assistance, in any way at all, do not hesitate to let us know. Whether to do with your recent loss, or your… other family.’

‘They are not my family…’

‘At any rate. I should love to be of help. Now, drink. It’ll work wonders, I promise.’

Clarke did as told and he was indeed grateful for the hot, burning sensation down his throat shaking him up a bit. An hour ago he was peacefully sleeping in his bed, now the whole house was back in chaos, it seemed.

‘My lord, who is…?’ Clarke indicated Aharon, who had joined Charlotte on the floor to play with the many cats, or at least attempt to get some off Charlotte before she was buried in fluffy pets completely – not that she lamented that possibility.

‘He’s my chief mate,’ William stepped over to answer when he heard Alfred hesitate quite awkwardly. ‘I supposed you can call him Mr Naser. He is my second-in-command, Clarke, and whilst he is here, please see to him having the same comforts with which we are provided.’

‘Do as he says, please, Clarke,’ Drummond confirmed from his desk, where he was already busy scribbling away by feeble candle-light, though Alfred could not fathom what couldn’t wait till the morning. Was Edward really that addicted to his work?!

‘Of course, Captain,’ Clarke replied obediently. ‘I will prepare a room for him right away. And for yourself, Lord Alfred…’

Though why, he couldn’t understand – and he was absolutely certain Alfred saw that thought flash through his mind as plain as daylight.

‘Husband?’ Charlotte called to William, again pointedly emphasising their relationship.

And Edward promptly broke his pen.

‘Yes, my dovest dove of wives?’ William replied just as theatrically.

And there spilled Edward’s ink for good measure.

‘Could you please tell your mate to watch all the cats while I rearrange my books that Edward no doubt put in the wrong order while I was gone?’

‘I’m flying there, my dearestest,’ he replied and relieved her of all the cats so she could at last reunite with her beloved books at last.

She would have blamed the dust if anyone had seen but she welled up at the feel of the spines, at the scent of the pages. Finally, she knew she was at home again.

Not for long, though, a nagging voice whispered to her. She stole a glance at William and Aharon on the rug by the fire, keeping the kittens under control – or rather failing to do so.

She would be setting sail with them and the newly collected crew on William’s ship soon. Was that what filled her with such anxiety? She spent the journey back to London learning the art of sailing, while Edward and Alfred followed the ship on their yacht. As long as they didn’t run into a horrid storm, she was well-equipped for their journeys.

Or was it the impending meeting with her parents? That was inevitable. But they were unarmed now. The worst they could do was to disapprove and so what then? She did not depend on them in the slightest anymore.

And if Tommy found out… well, they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. And she had got away from him twice. Now that she was a Peel…

Perhaps she was also worried for William. He had to face his own parents, too. And she would be there to support him as his lawfully wedded wife. It was all very well to play the part with humour among friends and family but they would have to cut a believable picture for real once that moment came. Will she do? Will Sir Robert believe it all? He wasn’t an idiot, what if he saw through them all? And what if all this endangered Edward and Alfred also, by merely having partaken in the construction of the big lie?

At least they made sure the maid believed it all alright…

And indeed, they spent their “wedding night” stuck in that room together so that it seemed like they were properly married but in reality they just talked about this and that… She was quite surprised to learn just how similar they were in some respects. Of course she made no secret of being livid when William told her his perspective of what happened with Alfred and then attempted to regale her with stories of his other escapades because, while she had been on the side of the abandoned too many times for her liking, he had been the one who discarded of his lovers all too cruelly not once.

But the fact was that there was plenty of heartbreak in both their pasts, which was an oddly comforting thing to bond over.

Well, their past… his past… whereas there was heartbreak still in her present.

And maybe that was what she was so scared of despite the comforts of her and Edward’s home. She was back in London, which meant she was but a walk away from the Palace.

From Emma.

‘The ink, Mr Drummond,’ Clarke stepped over to Edward’s desk when he noticed what a mess he had made on the expensive mahogany.

‘Thank you, Clarke, I’m sorry, I…’ he just got annoyed all over again about the hideous fact that his own dear sister ended up marrying Captain William Peel of all people, under his watch, approved by him, supported by Alfred, and lawfully binding as long as they lived! Well, he could always strangle William if his patience runs out, as it so oft threatened to…

Edward shook his head and roused himself from these wishful fantasies.

The fact was that he had to go with it all now, whether he liked it or not. And he had to admit, he had about as much patriarchal power or right to control Charlotte as there was ink left in his pellet.

‘Oh, bother... Clarke—’

‘More ink, sir?’ the butler guessed as he had finished soaking up the ink with a towel. ‘Just in the cupboard behind the bookcase.’

‘Could you get me some?’

‘Yes of c— would you perhaps care to follow me to pick which you would prefer, Mr Drummond?’

‘Oh, any one of them will do, Clarke, you know it.’

‘Still, sir, I’m not certain…’ Clarke insisted.

‘But…’ Edward sensed there was something else. ‘Right,’ he muttered and followed the butler to a hidden cupboard away from the others. The cupboard contained one kind of ink, as always. ‘Well? What is it, Clarke?’

‘Sir… I think you ought to know… Captain Peel, well…’

‘Yes?’

‘I do not put stock in idle rumours but… this came from a man not at all prone to spreading such.’

What is it, Clarke? Just say so, I’ve a thick skin.’

‘Well, I was told… that is, it was implied to me that Captain Peel… I just thought, for your sister’s sake, you ought to know that he is rumoured to be… like… like yourself and Lord Alfred, sir.’

Edward’s frown cleared. ‘Oh.’

‘But… rumours…’

‘Right. Rumours…’ Edward repeated to himself, greatly troubled. He didn’t expect this to be this hard but if there as already such widespread gossip about William’s proclivities that his butler had heard…

Perhaps he was considering this for too long and too clearly… because his butler, smart as he was, guessed the next second:

‘You know it to be true, do you not, Mr Drummond?’ he asked once it dawned on him. Drummond saw no point in further lies and nodded.

‘Lord Alfred… told me.’

‘Ah… Mr Drummond… I don’t mean to be indiscreet but does Lord Alfred have any gentlemen enemies?’

‘Pardon?!’

‘Because… there was a man here.’

‘A man?’

‘Yes, he was looking for you. Claimed to be your friend, and Mrs Peel’s. Tall, well-built, expensive clothes – he was wearing a hat but as far as I could see his hair was—’

‘…Red.’

‘Yes,’ Clarke confirmed, astonished. ‘Who was he, Mr Drummond? Because as soon as I mentioned he accompanied you, he seemed to have his eye on Lord Alfred.’

‘Not on him, rest assured.’

‘On you, then?’

‘No.’

‘But… I was worried I’d make a mistake, in case he is dangerous.’

‘Oh, he is dangerous, Clarke, I’m afraid you are right about that. But not to me, or Alfred. Not ask long as he’s not my sister’s apparent suitor.’

‘Sorry, sir? I do not follow.’

‘The Duke wanted to marry Charlotte. Wants to. She does not, in fact she does not want to marry at all. Quite… quite like us, er… bachelors,’ Edward explained awkwardly, wishing he had better words.

‘But… she married Captain Peel.’

‘Yes.’

Clarke was lost. And he found he no longer even wanted to understand this mess. The only point he knew was this:

‘Mr Drummond. Lord Alfred proposed to Miss Drummond. I heard it with my own ears, I was in the room when it happened. Hence why His Grace targeted him, by my understanding. But… surely, what with the way things’ve turned out, it is Captain Peel that’s in danger? I mean, if the marriage is kept a secret, he will be known as a perpetual bachelor, fuelling those rumours, but if the marriage is announced, His Grace will redirect his attacks on him!’

Edward swallowed.

‘That’s why I need to get back to my desk, Clarke,’ he said, grabbing a pellet of ink from the shelves at last and returning to the library.

The library, where Charlotte was already building towers out of books on account of reorganising the shelves as she liked them.

‘For god’s sakes, Edward, what is so very urgent to write now?’ Alfred inquired as soon as Edward’s backside touched his chair. With William and Aharon having disappeared to another room of the house, it was apparently Alfred’s turn to be drowning in cats, but when he removed Macbeth off his face, he looked cheated. ‘I thought we were having fun in France! Or were you itching for your books and parchments all that time? Even as we were riding by the sea in the sun?!’

‘I promise I will be sociable just as soon as I finish these,’ Edward replied with a winning smile at his beloved Alfred and got back to scribbling fast and with purpose.

It was imperative that the right information got to the right people at the right time, and presented in such a way that he may just achieve the impossible and avoid a disaster released on them all.

Chapter Text

‘One, two, three, four, five,’ William repeated patiently to Aharon in the carriage. He had been attempting to teach him English in the past month since they had been in London.

Albeit, for the most part, they had to be practically hiding in Edward’s house to avoid the news of William’s return getting out too soon. Something Edward said about his plans and letters and it being “done right”, whatever he meant. But he seemed to know what he was doing and Alfred insisted they just trust him on this one. And so, to pass the time, William tried to keep his beautiful, sensual, and utterly smitten beau entertained by… well, lots of activities behind closed doors. But when they weren’t doing THAT, he was teaching him English.

Today was numbers day.

He held out his fingers again and pointed to them one by one.

‘One…’

‘Wan…’ Aharon repeated as best as he could.

‘Two…’

‘To.’

‘Three…’

‘Tree.’

‘Four…’

‘Forr.’

‘Five.’

‘Five.’

‘Good! See? One, two, three, four five. Easy.’

Aharon grabbed William’s hand and smirked.

‘Wan…’ he raised William’s hand to his lips and kissed the tip of his thumb. ‘To…’ he moved on to kissing the tip of his pointer finger. Slowly. Looking up at William with dark, piercing eyes. ‘Tree…’ Aharon finished, kissing—no, actually taking William’s middle finger into his mouth and sucking on it suggestively.

William shuddered. Without further ado he was already kissing his lover with all the passion he had, which was always a lot when it came to these two… He ran his fingers through Aharon’s long black hair, which only encouraged the man to deepen his kisses yet more, affecting William so, as he always did, until William moaned into their kiss… The carriage seemed much smaller and hotter than a minute before...

That was truer for the third passenger sitting opposite them in the carriage, Charlotte.

Albeit, she was claustrophobic out of discomfort, torn between hiding her eyes behind her fan and… looking.

Well, the display was such that one was compelled to stare! Though she suspected her frozen frown was not the expression of one amused but… well…

How was it possible to stick one’s tongue down someone else’s throat that much at all? Goodness.

She remembered briefly that Edward and Alfred barely dared to share the briefest peck when she was traveling in the same coach with them. Clearly, William and Aharon had not the same concern.

In fact, William moved onto his lover’s neck with more wet, sloppy kisses.

Alright, no, that was it. She cleared her throat behind her fan.

The lovebirds reluctantly parted.

‘Ever so sorry, my dear wife,’ William said. ‘I did not mean to offend your feminine sensibilities.’

‘I assure you, nothing feminine about me was affected in any way. I was merely concerned about your appearance and the dishevelment thereof. As in you mustn’t. We should be arriving any minute now.’

William’s face darkened as he peeked out the window.

Aharon asked him what was wrong in Arabic.

We are almost there,’ William replied, patting his pockets for a cheroot at once.

‘Here,’ she said, handing him one when he couldn’t find his case, and Aharon, and lit them up for them.

‘Are you not having one?’ William asked.

‘Wish I could,’ she replied, putting out the tinderbox and pocketing it. ‘Alas, Papa and Mama mustn’t smell it on me when we meet.’

Indeed she would have loved to smoke as she was just as tense as her husband. It all seemed well and good in theory, when Edward explained it in the safety of their house, but now that they were rolling up the gravelled driveway of the illustrious Dreyton Manor, it all seemed so feeble and fragile in a million ways.

What if it all fell apart on the doorstep? She was practiced at lying to her parents’ face – she had to learn to do so in order to be with Agnes and other girls without detection. But she wasn’t sure she could pull this off. This was just too hideous, too mad, too… At least she tried to look the part: she was wearing a proper ladylike dress, deep blue to match William’s attire as a show of unity, and her hair – well, she could not grow it back within one short month but she styled it so that its lacking in length seemed less apparent and put flowers (actual flowers…) in it to help the situation. Oh, well, it made her look all the more feminine, something she aimed at for the sake of appeasing her parents.

Because she would be meeting them again in just a few short minutes.

And what Edward told her about how they took the news according to their letter, she was not hopeful of a smooth reunion.

 

He was lucky enough not to have travelled from London to the Peels’ estate with their parents, at least. He was spared that torture. But he was already in character as he was in the carriage behind them with his brothers Charles and Arthur.

And Arthur’s wife and coincidentally Edward’s ex-fiancée, Florence.

And their baby. In a bundle in Florence’s arms, sleeping through her parents’ joint verbal deluge of--

‘…and you would not believe how adorable she is and how well she sleeps, oh, she is not at all like most children, she does not cry or wail, not at all, she is just the most well-behaved, the loveliest baby, in the whole world, we are just so happy, Edward, I am so glad you get to finally meet our little Delilah Rose, look, isn’t she just absolutely beautiful and oh, look, she moved her head oh, she knows we are talking about you! Oh I’m telling you she shall be the smartest young woman one day…’

Edward was nodding along politely, looking attentively at his brother and sister-in-law.

‘…and she is just a right little angel with her blonde little locks, oh, she takes after Florence, does she not? Just a perfect little angel – the nursemaid would not allow us to bring her along, said it was too soon and she would look after her but oh, no, we said, our little Delilah is just the best little girl in the world, she can most certainly attend her first ball and the nursemaid is in the other carriage anyway, and Mama and Papa have not seen her yet so what could be more perfect, is that not so, Edward? Edward?’

‘Wh- yes. Quite. I agree,’ Edward kicked himself internally as he was wondering off in his head, worrying about everything going according to plan.

He had written a dozen letters to arrange the reception tonight. He knew he had to present the odd news of Charlotte and William’s elopement to both sets of parents and the extended families at such an hour and in such a way that they should put up the least resistance. Whether his well-worded messages had done the trick, he would get to know once they were all gathered in Sir Robert’s ballroom.

‘So, Charles,’ Edward turned to his older brother before Arthur and Florence went on about Delilah again. ‘How is it going at the bank?’

‘Not bad. Not bad,’ Charles replied in his deep, calm voice. He was not a talkative man. ‘Daddy’s opening a new branch in Aberdeen.’

‘Oh, is he? He never said in his letters.’

‘No, well, I suspect he was distracted by other news! Huh, he put everything on hold because of this whole fiasco – I must say, Eddie, I would not be in your place tonight!’

Edward gulped. ‘Wh-what do you mean?’ he was sorry to ask.

‘Well, Charlotte was your responsibility, was she not?’ Charles continued, somewhat amused. ‘Lived with you not four months, had she not, and off she ran, only to come back having eloped with a famous rascal such as Captain Peel is! I mean, I wouldn’t expect anything less from her, but you…’

‘Surely, it’s not such a scandal…’

‘Oh, ‘mafraid it is – everyone’s been talking about little else!’ Charles laughed.

‘You’re pulling my leg—’

‘Oh, no, Charlie’s right!’ Arthur piped up unhelpfully. ‘We have been having to hold two tea times a day to accommodate all of Florence’s friends who saw the announcement in the papers last week!’

‘Indeed!’ Florence added cheerily. ‘We’re thinking about hiring a pastry chef specially!’

Edward adjusted his high collar that felt a bit tighter than usual…

Where was Alfred at these times? He could always anchor him when his nerves struck!

 

Alfred, however, was in yet another carriage that came not from the busy, bustling streets of London but from the Palace itself.

‘I still think it was a most foolish undertaking, Victoriah… to come hhere, the reception of an eloped couple! Noh.’

‘Oh, do stop, Albert, we cannot turn around now! It is Sir Robert’s son’s union to Mr Drummond’s sister! We must be here, it’s only right! Besides, I am dying for an excuse for a dance!’

‘But an elopement!’

‘It’s not really an elopement.’

‘What else would you call this? Lord Alfred, what say you?’

Lord Alfred wanted to say nothing but jump out of the royal carriage and preferably take Lady Portman with himself – rather the mud of the road than this. And this was the easy part – it would only get interesting once the Baroness was in the same room as Charlotte. Then what? Really, he and Edward had devised a whole battle plan for the night’s many potential pitfalls.

‘Well, I… I found the whole situation quite charming, Your Grace,’ Alfred replied kindly.

‘Charming!?’ Prince Albert exclaimed.

‘I assure you, Your Grace, I would not have allowed it to happen, nor would Drummond have, if there was anything unseemly about it. I see nothing but a most suitable match here.’

‘Ah, of course, you would say that – your parents eloped also, did they not?’

‘Well, yes, but…’

‘Oh, do not turn this on Lord Alfred, Albert!’ Victoria stepped in. ‘If anything, the unusual story of Lord Alfred’s parents shows that elopement does not equal ill-repute and ill morals! On the contrary, I have come to regard it as rather romantic.’

‘Thank you, Ma’am,’ Lord Alfred said, grateful indeed. ‘And I can wholeheartedly say that I am happy for both as their friend.’

‘Oh, I did not know you were friends with Captain Peel?’

‘I— uh,’ Alfred suddenly stumbled on his words, especially under Lady Portman’s knowing glance, and cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘I am indeed. Wil—Captain Peel and I have been great friends since our academy days.’

‘As great as with Mr Drummond?’

‘Uh… not quite but very good friends indeed.’ Alfred avoided Lady Portman’s eyes at all costs.

‘How?’ Albert piped up, intrigued. ‘You were in the cavalry and he in the navy, noh?’

‘That’s—that’s true, um, I—Well—’

‘Everyone knew Sir Robert’s famously gifted son!’ Lady Portman helped him out.

‘Exactly!’ Lord Alfred jumped on that, grateful for her wit. ‘Such a pioneer – hence why he named his horse as such…’

‘His racehorse, on which men gamble unreasonable sums each year?’ Albert challenged humourlessly and Alfred could not find a quick comeback.

‘I think that’s exciting,’ Victoria countered. ‘I hope he is not too wild, though, after his years on the battlefield. I only met him briefly but Albert and I hear he is a bit of a daredevil…’

‘Oh, no, not at all, Ma’am! Wars have… matured him,’ Alfred lied.

‘Well, he is a Peel after all, is he not? What could be more proper? If he is anything like his father, I think Mr Drummond might find him an excellent brother-in-law.’

Alfred bit the inside of his mouth to keep from snorting.

‘Well, at any rate, marriage might anchor him!’ Albert spoke up even more obliviously. ‘If she is anything like Drummond, I can think of no one the better than his sister to make an honest man out of the Captain!’

Lady Portman laughed out loud without thinking. ‘Oh – excuse me,’ she said. ‘Bump in the road.’

She exchanged a tense glance with Alfred covertly.

Yes, Charlotte Drummond was just the woman for Captain William Peel!

 

‘Seriously, do stop it, we’re here,’ Charlotte heard herself say so out loud once the carriage stopped and William and Aharon could still not keep their hands to themselves.

‘You’re just bitter because you haven’t a lady under whose skirt you might… fumble.’

Charlotte threw her fan at William.

And the carriage door was opened by a footman, leaving no more time to fight.

‘Here we are,’ William commented grimly, shooting one last confidential look at his lover before getting out of the carriage and (unnecessarily but for show) help Charlotte out as the gallant husband he was supposed to be.

Suddenly, the manor seemed to tower over them in the darkness of the evening, with the shadows on the pillars dancing menacingly, the silhouettes of the footmen and coachmen ominously dashing dizzyingly about them on the dim gravel, the only light coming from the large, open front doors, which seemed as inviting as the gates of Hell itself.

William stuck out his elbow and they linked arms like couples do. It still felt unnatural and absurd. But it was part of the big act.

‘Ready?’ she asked him.

‘I’d rather face a Cantonese army troop charging at me with loaded guns. You?’

‘Shouldn’t we wait for Edward and Alfred?’

‘Certainly, let’s wait for more of your brothers, the Queen and the Prince, and Lady Portman.’

‘You have a point.’

‘I always do.’

But still, Charlotte’s legs didn’t seem to want to move. ‘We will actually die in there.’

‘Yes, we will,’ he agreed without a beat. ‘Shall we?’

She swore under her breath.

‘I shall take that as a yes,’ he replied and they began walk up the steps of the manor.

 

‘The younger Mr Charles Drummond, Mr Edward Drummond, Mr Arthur Drummond and Mrs Arthur Drummond!’ announced the butler loudly for all to hear in the gilded ballroom, his booming voice echoing across the lush marble floor on which about fifty of the Peels’ and the Drummonds’ family and close friends had gathered.

And all those now looked right up at the sound of Edward’s name especially.

‘Edward Drummond!’ whispered the crowd with only a half-attempt at discretion, ‘Edward Drummond? The brother—’ said others, ‘It’s Edward…!’

‘Drummond!’ cut an authoritative voice through the whispers from near the decorated entrance.

‘Sir Robert,’ Edward greeted his former mentor and prime minister, heart pounding in his throat as he remembered their conversation.

Because Edward took it upon himself to inform Sir Robert about his sister’s unannounced marriage to the statesman’s own son.

That was one of the letters he sent almost immediately after his feet touched London soil. He did not delve into details in writing but he asked for a private audience with the as yet oblivious father-in-law. As Parliament was still in recess, the letter had to be delivered to the Peel estate rather than only a few streets away. This was one of Edward’s miscalculations that caused him to pace up and down his study every day, worrying Sir Robert wasn’t replying because he was offended or worse! What if he found out what Edward was doing!? Complicit in all this, worse: he was basically hiding William in his own house while he sorted things out for him…

…and endured the numerous hardships that came with living under the same roof as the randy Captain and his lover, something Charlotte lamented over breakfast as one who shared a wall with William.

She would have to get used to it if she wanted to travel with them. But Edward? No, no, no, he could not wait for this most frustrating month to be over!

One sunny morning, for example, he was lucky enough to be woken up by Alfred’s kisses. It was one of those rare times when he could stay the whole night and Edward could have jumped for joy – well, he did other things for joy with Alfred in the cover of the night until they fell comfortably asleep. And came morning, Alfred’s sweet kisses woke him, which turned into other kinds of kisses down his neck, driving Edward mad with desire once again…

‘Edward?’ Alfred breathed hotly against the sensitive skin.

‘Hm?’

Alfred asked something that didn’t quite get through to Edward as Alfred’s hand slipped beneath the bedsheets, and unlike when his hand stopped at the hem of the covers on the night after Edward got shot, now it did not and slipped lower and lower down his abs until they reached his—

‘Edward?’ Alfred repeated.

‘Hm?’

‘You know that thing you did on our wedding night?’

‘Huh?’

‘You know…’ Alfred purred to him in a deliciously deep, velvety voice that only came out when he was in a special mood, all the while working his hand up and down Edward’s length under the covers. ‘On our wedding night… in the yacht… when you…’

‘Oh!’ Edward caught on, going even redder than he was. ‘I, uh, yes, I got carried away… Did you not like it?’

‘No, it was heavenly—perhaps you’ll permit me to…?’

And Alfred was already kissing his way down Edward’s body, leaving a trail of wet kisses down his smaller back and his biteable—

KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK— and the door was being rattled before any answer, striking fear into Edward’s heart in an instant!

‘Psst! Hey—Drummond!’ came a muffled voice from the other side of his door.

Alfred resurfaced from what he was doing looking ready to shout but Edward was quicker:

‘What is it NOW, Captain!?’ he seethed in a stage whisper, though he wanted to shout as well.

‘Have you any spare toothbrushes? I seemed to have dropped mine and I rang for a servant but no one is coming. Where the ruddy hell are they all?’

Edward checked his pocket watch and rolled his eyes. ‘It’s Sunday morning! They’re at church!’

‘In Thirsk?!’

Church!’ Edward repeated more loudly.

‘Church? Oh. So the toothbr—’

‘IN THE CUPBOARD UNDER THE SINK, WILLIAM!’ Alfred broke before thinking.

‘Ohoho! Forgive me, I didn’t know you had company, Drummond!’ William laughed to himself and whether he left the vicinity of the door or not was impossible to tell so Alfred just got up and got dressed!

So Sir Robert’s reply could not come any sooner. But it did, eventually, accepting the offer of a chat, though it was obviously not going to be about politics, as that would have been most irregular at a one-to-one meeting during recess.

And so it happened that Edward was shown to a private room in their usual gentleman’s club one evening.

He paced, he sat, he stood up again, paced some more, sat again and promptly jumped up when the door finally opened to allow Sir Robert to enter.

‘Drummond!’ he greeted him warmly, shaking his hand. ‘Good to see you. Shall we sit?’

‘After you,’ Drummond nodded and they sat in high backed armchairs on opposite sides of a dinner table. ‘I hope I have not inconvenienced you, Sir Robert, by calling you here today. Surely, you deserve your own break from Whitehall.’

‘Not at all, I was itching to come back to London. Work is the true maker of a man. And you, you look different, Drummond, look at your complexion – oh, have you not just returned from France?’

‘Indeed, sir, I’m afraid I am defenceless against the sun.’

‘So it seems. My wife’s physician swears the sun has immensely healthful properties. I am sceptical about much of his advice but you do look well, Drummond. Though I do hope you found your trip not only entertaining but useful,’ Sir Robert added ever so piously.

‘I did, Lord Alfred helped me so much with my studies!’

‘Good lad.’

‘Yes, he… he is,’ Edward nodded politely, screaming inside because Alfred was so much more than a “good lad.”

‘Not at all like his father…’ Sir Robert mused.

‘…in what ways, Sir Robert?’

‘Well, he does not strike me as a scandalous rascal such as Anglesey was in his own youth, as the Duke of Wellington would attest. No, Lord Alfred, like yourself, impeccably respects the rules as a young man should.’

Edward cleared his throat awkwardly, trying not to think about the many rules he had broken with Alfred. And that was just last night.

‘Perhaps it is the court’s doing.’

‘Or that of the army… Although…’ Sir Robert trailed off, a regretful look lurking behind his intelligent but tired eyes. ‘That does not quite have the same effect on every boy, does it?’

Edward’s heart skipped a beat. There they were, on just the subject he came to discuss.

They ordered dinner and he indulged some talk of politics before a lull in the conversation provided the perfect opportunity. He just had to bite the bullet and do it. But how?

‘Sir Robert… when… when that assassin attacked you… and I intervened to protect you…’

Sir Robert was all ears. He still held Drummond in the highest regard for saving his life. Edward counted on this, hence why he opened with this. Anything Edward would say now would be in light of the fact that Sir Robert owes him the greatest debt of all and a special kind of respect not between statesmen but simply men.

And Sir Robert smiled to himself. ‘Is this about the fact that you lost the Queen in Scotland?’

Edward stopped dead. ‘Pardon?’

‘You did talk some nonsense when you were under the influence of the drink, when the doctor fished the bullet out of your arm. You alluded to something ever so strange and I wondered whether there was any truth to it for months to come – eventually, His Grace Prince Albert caught me up on his and her Majesty’s Caledonian adventure. So fear not, Drummond, I am aware of it and I do not place any blame on you for this foolish episode at all.’

Drummond stared at Sir Robert blankly.

‘Rrright. Um. Well. Good to know. But as it happens, sir, I wish to discuss something else tonight, if I may.’

‘Go on.’

‘As you know, I had rather an epiphany about my purpose in life. I know God intends for me to serve the state.’

‘And what an honourable man you are, Drummond, to sacrifice the bliss of marriage in order to do right by the Lord’s wishes. I know no other man who would be prepared for such an act.’

‘Right… thank you…’ Edward took a sip of his wine before continuing. ‘I wonder, sir… Do you remember that dinner? The one to which you kindly invited me, as soon as I recovered from the shot.’

‘Why, yes,’ Sir Robert said, not sure where this was going.

‘And do you remember… my sister?’

‘Your sister?’

‘Charlotte. I brought her to the dinner with your close family.’

‘Oh, but of course! I do remember her, such a bright, young lady.’

‘Yes, she is!’ Drummond jumped on the chance to praise her before getting to the point. ‘Don’t you think so?’

‘Oh, absolutely! Her views on politics were remarkably well-informed. I suspect my wife wished she would talk about flowers or dresses more but she seemed rather more keen to partake in the real discussions with us men.’

‘Indeed, she is just a remarkable young woman. Learned, too. The smartest person I know—aside from the MPs in the House, of course.’

‘Ha! I daresay she would do a better job than Canning! No wonder she is your sister.’

‘Oh, I do not flatter myself in claiming that her merits are my doing to any extent.’

‘Well at any rate, I agree she is an agreeable young lady, but my dear Drummond, I regret to ask, is she not… lost?’

Edward had to drink again, his mouth was so dry from nerves.

‘I… well… I have come to know about her whereabouts… in fact we have reconnected.’

‘Have you?’ Sir Robert put down his knife and fork and listened eagerly.

‘Indeed… And…’

Sir Robert could tell Drummond was more nervous than in the event of having to make a speech in Parliament without preparation.

‘What is it, Drummond?’ he asked kindly but seriously.

‘Sir Robert… that dinner… it was delightful to meet Lady Peel and I’m glad you were glad of my sister Charlotte… but I have to tell you…’

Just then the waiter interrupted by coming in and asking whether the gentlemen needed any more wine.

‘No, thank y—’ Sir Robert began.

‘Yes, please!’ Edward said at the same time – if this awkwardness was the price of more wine for his nerves, so be it. He drank and cleared his throat. ‘Sir Robert, I have to tell you… you were not the only one glad to meet my sister that night.’

Sir Robert frowned in confusion.

‘Your…  your…’

‘Speak up, Drummond, I cannot hear you.’

Edward cleared his throat and spoke more clearly: ‘Your son, Captain Peel…’ spent the evening flirting at me and offering me a suggestive cigar, not to mention the invitation to ride in the park that upset Alfred, your son’s ex-lover, so much that we embarked on months of fighting before making unexpected friends, Edward wanted to say but did not.

Instead, Edward watched for Sir Robert’s reaction at the mention of his son – why was the man so stern and stoic and unreadable? He thought he was the slightest flicker of emotion but it was hard to tell. And at any rate, it was easier if Edward just didn’t look.

‘Sir Robert, this might come as a bit of a shock to you but when I was in France, I met your son by complete chance.’

‘France?’

‘Yes.’

‘Of all places, he only went to France? Why, on second thoughts…’

‘No, please, Sir Robert, let me finish.’

‘I’m not sure I want you to. My son and I parted on bad terms. More than bad…’

‘I know,’ Edward cut in more determinedly now. ‘I know why he left as well. I know what you’ve been told, I know the rumours.’

‘Drummond?!’ Sir Robert exclaimed, a shock of embarrassment washing over him.

Edward mentally cursed himself – he heard Alfred’s voice in his head begging him not to do it this way but he had to.

‘Sir Robert, please listen, I implore you. I know you think… what you think. But let me inform you, and I must say I had little say in the matter: your son has, in fact, married my sister.’

Sir Robert’s eyes went wide. ‘He what!?’

‘They are indeed lawfully wedded husband and wife,’ Edward went on before he chickened out. ‘I was there when it happened last month. So was Lord Alfred, in fact he was the Captain’s witness and best man at the occasion, while Charlotte’s lady’s maid was her maid of honour and witness to more than she should have as my butler tells me – again, gossip among servants, just unbelievable how these things happen, is it? Now, I know this is quite sudden – God knows it was for me, and you might disapprove or reject the idea and I would not blame you if you did, but I can confirm, Sir Robert, the undeniable fact is that they are… they are married and…’

Married,’ Sir Robert repeated the word as if it would help it sink in.

‘Yes.’

‘My son? William? Married?’

‘Yes.’

‘To a woman?’

‘To my sister.’

‘Drummond!?’

‘Sir Robert…’

‘Can I bring you dessert, gentlem—’

‘No!’ ‘Not now!’ said both gentlemen to the startled waiter who seemed to pick the worst moments to interrupt!

The silence was palpable in the room once the door of the private room in that club closed again.

Sir Robert threw his napkin on the table and stood up to pace around, thinking.

‘Drummond, how can this be true?’

‘Sir Robert, do you know me as a senseless person or a liar?’

‘Of course not, but... This is a scandal! This is an outrage!’

‘That’s why I thought it best to reveal this to you myself in person before anyone else knew.’

‘Oh, well, I say! By God, I have not recovered from William’s current round of rumours, the worst kind possible at that, and yet here is another one! An elopement? You say you were there? This happened under your watch? I confess I have come to regard you as the son I wish I had! How could you have let this happen, Drummond, how?!’

Edward stood to face Sir Robert properly. ‘Sir Robert, I cannot apologise for your son’s actions. I can apologise on behalf of my sister for her utter recklessness but if you listen to me, I promise that by the end of this dinner you will agree with me that the fault lies not with her, nor with your son. Especially not with your son.’

‘Drummond, you know I regard you highly but you hardly know what has transpired between me and William. It was no idle rumour. Since he was a boy he’s been…’

‘He’s been missing his father’s support. He has done so since he was but a boy. He is far from perfect but if you knew what he’s been through on the battlefields and at sea… all both to spite you, yes, and also to make you proud. Sir Robert, I have known the effect of a single bullet, one which I took for you. Your son has taken countless more. The way I see it, he did the same for you as I did, only repeatedly for years and years. Imagine how affected he is. Does he not deserve infinitely more praise than I have received? And he is not an insolent boy anymore. He is a grown man who has just married someone that you should be happy to call your family.’

‘Your sister, I wonder if she is aware of… the unspeakable rumours.’

‘As it happens she is. And let me ask you, Sir Robert, what proof is there of their truth?’

‘I… well… my…’

‘Your valet told you something unseemly, yes, this I know. He has managed to spread his ghastly gossip among many of London’s other household servants – some valet he is, I say. But what proof has he?’ Edward challenged, waiting for Sir Robert’s reply.

And for once in his life he saw the unthinkable: Sir Robert Peel being lost for words.

‘There is none, is there?’ Edward continued, hope surging up in his heart. Maybe this would go as he planned after all! ‘So, legally speaking, it is hearsay and no grounds for persecution. Unless, of course, you should like to subject your son, and your wife, and your family, including not least of all my sister, to the humiliation of some ghastly examination on William for naught.’

‘Drummond, do stop with this most indelicate—’

‘I’m sorry I will not. Because you know fully well how destructive to one’s reputation this kind of thing is even if one turns out to be innocent – remember Lady Flora Hastings?’

Sir Robert was all ears now.

‘I will not allow you to bring such social shame on my sister. I’m sorry to be indelicate but, unlike at Christmas when I admit I had already heard some things through the grapevine about this but kept my silence out of respect for you, whatever has transpired between yourself and your son is very much my business, too, now. I do not know why your valet decided to cohort this rumour, perhaps to exert you for money or to sell it to the papers, let someone with better imagination guess. And I care not a fig about whether they are true or not.’

‘Drummond…’

‘No need to be shocked, we are men of law, are we not? We have to know about every aspect of life there is. No subject too distasteful to discuss,’ Edward cringed inside to say but he had to pretend to be distanced from it himself. For Alfred’s sake. ‘However, the conclusion I draw from all this is the following: after all those years proving himself a most capable soldier, Captain Peel has been thanked by his motherland with a nasty rumour of the worst kind in return. He cares not about his reputation, you and I both know that. I don’t even believe he cares much for his own neck. But I can honestly tell you: he does care about you. So tell me, Sir Robert, does he not deserve to make amends with his father now that he is an honest, married man?’

Sir Robert was rooted to the spot, facing Drummond without cowering but with such deep dread and regret in his eyes as he digested all this as gracefully as he could.

‘Believe me, Drummond, I am the last person in the world he would like to see,’ he uttered quietly.

Edward allowed himself a smile. ’What would you say if I told you he is already in London?’

A week later, the match was announced in the papers and the invitations sent out for a belated reception at Dreyton Manor.

‘Drummond, you have made it!’ Sir Robert greeted him in the brilliant ballroom. ‘You have met my wife--’

‘How do you do, Lady Peel?’

‘Oh, very well, Mr Drummond,’ Lady Peel replied and let Edward kiss her hand in greeting. ‘Though I must say when Robert relayed the news to me… I am not sure I have quite recovered from it but I am looking forward to a joyous occasion and to meeting Miss Dr- that is to say Charlotte again, this time to welcome her into our family.’

‘And she shall be so glad… Where is she?’ Edward asked, glancing around the ballroom and only finding Aharon standing among a crowd whose language he did not speak but who were gawking at his exotic looks less than subtly.

‘My butler tells me she and William have arrived safely,’ Sir Robert explained. ‘However, I have given instructions to my servants to lead them into an antechamber as Her Majesty has to arrive before they can be announced—and oh! There she is.’

‘Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Lady Emma Portman, and Lord Alfred Paget!’ boomed the butler’s voice from the entrance and all eyes turned to the most important guest of the evening, the Queen.

Edward caught Alfred’s eyes once the newly arrived guests were closer and engaging in all the usual greetings and small talk. He received a little reassuring nod in return. So nothing had gone awry as yet.

The ever perceptive Lady Portman nearly rolled her eyes at that: how many years had it been since Lord Alfred and Mr Drummond had been standing by the most important people with their gazes averted? Back at it again, as usual.

And just when Edward was about to be relieved, the butler sounded:

‘The elder Charles Drummond and Mrs Charles Drummond!’

Edward’s throat went dry at the sight of his parents – so obviously disdainful and beholding the room with the iciest looks in their eyes. He expected nothing better but it still hurt.

‘Mama! Papa!’ Arthur and Florence exclaimed happily at once.

‘Look, we are all here! And we have brought Delilah Rose, you can meet her tomorrow morning!’ Florence added just before the Mr Drummond Sr. and Mrs Drummond reached Her Majesty and the Prince.

Nods. Curtseys. Everything properly done. But not a smile in sight, not from the Drummonds.

‘How splendid it is to meet you at last,’ Victoria chatted kindly, ‘I must tell you, Prince Albert and I have praised Mr Edward Drummond endlessly. As Sir Robert can testify, he had the soundest advice for us always before the change of government.’

‘Indeed!’ Sir Robert affirmed by her side. ‘Lady Peel and I are most pleased to welcome your daughter into our family.’

Sir Robert looked affronted as hardly any reaction was shown at this from either of Edward’s parents.

‘I’m sorry, Sir Robert…’ Edward began at once.

‘You must be somewhat tired,’ Victoria spoke up to avoid any awkwardness. ‘Lord Alfred tells me you have travelled all the way from Scotland for this joyous occasion.’

Ah, Mrs Drummond did respond this time: only to shoot a disdainful look in Lord Alfred’s direction. It took all the patience Edward had not to jump in to defend Alfred’s honour and wipe that hurt and ashamed look off his beautiful face.

‘Where is he?’ Mr Drummond asked Sir Robert at last, not crudely but with the straightforward business-like manners of a banker. ‘The man…’

‘Captain William Peel and Mrs William Peel!’ the butler’s voice rang across the room.

The crowd parted and formed a circle, at the front of which were the Queen, the Prince, Sir Robert and Lady Peel, and Mr and Mrs Drummond.

Alfred felt his elbow pinched and had to stifle a laugh because Lady Portman’s astonishment was right: he could hardly recognise the newlywed couple standing in the entrance himself!

He had seen Charlotte at her worst, unkempt and depressed and drinking every day, hiding in her room and crying herself sick over Agnes; he had seen her take the reins in her hand, roll up manly shirt sleeves and tie her too-short hair back to fight freely and dirtily for a life that went against everything a woman of her standing was intended for.

And William? Well, Alfred had seen him in states a lot less polite to describe, even to oneself.

But now, they cut a most graceful, perfect image of a young, splendid couple, gazing proudly ahead of the crowd that came for them: William in his dinner uniform and Charlotte in a matching blue dress and flowers in her hair and Alfred had to laugh.

‘How she must hate them,’ he whispered to Lady Portman, though she was too distracted to reply as she spotted the sapphire ring still on her finger – after everything she had it still.

William led Charlotte by the arm to the guests of honour, Her Majesty and the Prince. William bowed and Charlotte curtseyed impeccably. Emma could not believe this was the same person who literally grabbed an axe in her bare hands to cut up wood for the fire in that dingy little Welsh cottage! She even felt a tinge of guilt at wishing this Charlotte back, the fine high society woman, even if it was just a charade. She knew this caused the girl unhappiness and discomfort but it was still a sight which, however false, Emma liked to see.

Everyone followed the impressive couple’s every move and they did everything as dictated by protocol.

Neither of them dared to look at their parents, though – as if the inevitable meeting wasn’t going to happen if they just didn’t look. This gave off an air of grace and strength that worked to their advantage, though.

‘Captain Peel, Mrs Peel – congratulations on your union,’ Victoria began as was the protocol. ‘Sudden as it was!’

‘Marriage is a blessed state, may you be happy for the years to come,’ Prince Albert added.

Thanks would have been in order but William made the mistake of making eye contact with his father and found himself disarmed.

Edward had told him how Sir Robert took the news. He told him what he should say and do when this moment came. And yet, high waves of that torrent of grievances and deep hurt battled to tip his poise over – too much bridge under the water. And even more than that, he was scared. After everything he had seen on battlefields across the world, he could still be scared of his father.

‘Sir Robert,’ Charlotte began for all of their sake, leading William rather than he her, just a step further to face his parents. ‘Lady Peel,’ she nodded in greeting to her as well, noting William was the spitting image of his mother with his jet black curls and deep blue eyes. ‘Thank you for the splendid evening. We know we have been rather insolent, given the circumstances… We did not hope for such a welcome.’

In truth, such a large event was suggested by Edward, very cleverly. This way their first meetings were dealt with in public, which left no room for outrageously bad temper, even if emotions were difficult to suppress anyway. Had they had any chance to reunite in private, William wouldn’t have been able to bite his tongue and Mr and Mrs Drummond would have had their fair say in front of Sir Robert, spoiling relationships among everyone.

Both William and Charlotte would have opted for a horrible private meeting, though, instead of such a public show, but Edward reasoned that it would be impossible for the Duke of Fife to cause too great a havoc, should he turn up, which he should not as the ball was extremely last minute and (as also cleverly suggested by Alfred, mostly to make sure a ball was indeed held) an incorrect date was announced in the papers just to throw him off the scent, should he come sniffing anyway.

But this way, what could one say? Father and son still had not found their words.

‘You are welcome,’ Lady Peel spoke up in that case. ‘And please, do call me Julia… Charlotte.’

Charlotte managed to force a smile she hoped looked natural but sensed there was tension dangerously palpable between William and Sir Robert, something that should be avoided first thing at t