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China Cups and Top Hats

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When Mrs Bertram glances down the breakfast table in the morning, she is rather surprised to find two footmen looking strangely exhausted. Jeff is his usual cheerful self, chatting with Jane and Harriet and stuffing his cheeks with porridge, like only a boy who is still growing can. Next to him, however, Nick is staring at his breakfast with bleary eyes, his elbow propped up on the table and his chin resting heavily on his palm. Close beside him, Kurt is yawing loudly, his eyelids threatening to close any second, and his head only inches away from resting on Nick’s shoulder.

“Whatever is the matter with you two?” she asks, causing the two tired boys to jump and look at her with startled expressions on their faces. “You look like you didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“I didn’t,” Nick admits, lifting a spoonful of porridge and staring at it for a second before letting it drop back into the bowl. “I was reading, and I forgot the time. When I finished the book, it was early in the morning.”

“I just couldn’t sleep,” Kurt says, too tired to come up with a witty explanation, “I don’t know why.”

“It wasn’t because of me, was it?” Jeff asks, his expression turning guilty within seconds, “Because I told you, you need to wake me if I’m snoring again.”

“You were,” Kurt admits, “But that wasn’t what kept me awake.”

“Well, whatever the reason for this insomnia is, I do hope that it isn’t becoming a new habit of yours,” Mr Moore says, his disapproving glance moving from Nick to Kurt. “We can’t have you two yawning while serving his lordship and his guests. I sincerely hope that you will pull yourself together, so that we don’t have a reason to be ashamed of our service.”

“Yes, Mr Moore,” Nick and Kurt mumble simultaneously, and, under the stern gaze of the butler, concentrate on their breakfast, even though both of them silently hope that they will be spared hard work for the rest of the day.

Unfortunately, the weather doesn’t improve during the rest of the week. It keeps raining, and the only noticeable change is when one of the heavy downpours becomes a light drizzle, only to change into a thunderstorm a few hours later. It’s not very cold during these early days of autumn, but spending time outside is unpleasant nonetheless, and therefore, the lords and ladies mostly remain indoors, which naturally requires the constant attention of Mr Moore and the footmen, and leaves very little time for Nick and Kurt to catch up on some sleep.

During these days, Lord Smythe takes up his old habit of using either the library or his study as a hideout, and Kurt can’t blame him for it. He has never seen Lady Isabella and Lord Huntington work hand in hand before, but they are doing it now rather successfully, and everything they say, everything they do seems focused on one goal: to unite Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine in holy matrimony.

Especially Lady Isabella is insufferable these days. Every second sentence that leaves her mouth concerns the topic of marriage, and her not-so-subtle hints in that direction make Lord Smythe squirm uncomfortably and Lady Claudine look hopeful – and Kurt can’t bring himself to decide which one is worse. Lord Huntington is just as bad: he encourages his wife in every way possible, and readily joins in whenever she changes the topic of the conversation to white dresses and church bells. From time to time, they leave Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine alone under the false pretence of having something private to discuss, “like married people do sometimes, my dear.” Kurt is relieved to see that Lord Smythe refuses to play along: he either leaves the room with a mumbled excuse, or pulls Sir Robert into their conversation immediately.

Kurt isn’t entirely sure whether he enjoys seeing Lord Smythe this uncomfortable, just a tiny little bit, or whether he pities him immensely. Most of the time the latter feeling prevails, however, his attention during these incidents isn’t always primarily focused on his employer.

After having been reprimanded by Jane, Kurt tries to see Lady Claudine with different eyes, to keep in mind what the housemaid has told him about the difficult position the lady finds herself in, and he is surprised at what he discovers. His first impression of Lady Claudine wasn’t that much different from the one he had of her sister: vain, arrogant, and quite delusional about her musical talents. But now that he tries to look closer, he realises that there is more to the lady than meets the eye.

As uncomfortable as the situation seems for Lord Smythe, it must be completely unbearable for Lady Claudine. Kurt notices how every remark by her sister, every hint by her brother-in-law causes her grip on her glass or fork to tighten and her shoulders to drop. He notices how she wrings her hands, or how often she checks her reflection in the mirror to make sure that no curl, no ruffle is out of place. He notices how she forces herself to talk to Lord Smythe, even when neither of them truly has anything to say to the other person.

Slowly, Kurt understands that Lady Claudine is trying very hard to achieve something she doesn’t really want, while being utterly afraid of not living up to the expectations of her relatives. In the light of this epiphany, he learns to view even her fashion choices differently: her elaborate dresses, her exquisite hairstyles, not at all suitable for the countryside, feel like a way of protecting herself, especially against the careless remarks of her sister. Kurt realises that she is nothing more than a toy for Lady Isabella, who seems to get a sick sense of satisfaction from the way her sisters smiles uneasily whenever Lady Isabella says things like, “I still remember, on our wedding day…”, or, “as if shopping for dresses isn’t troublesome enough, I still remember the nightmare of ordering my wedding gown…”, or, “my dear Claudine, once you find somebody...”

It takes him longer to understand why Lord Huntington encourages the relationship, and what he has to gain from trying to convince Lord Smythe to marry his sister-in-law. When he expresses his confusion to Nick, the other footman shakes his head, “You’re thinking too honestly for this sort of people.”

“But why would Lord Huntington do that?” Kurt presses. “I mean, he must know better than anybody why Sebastian doesn’t want to marry.”

“But Sebastian is an Earl,” Nick replies, “Which most likely means that he will have to marry one day, whether he wants to or not.”

“But...,” Kurt tries to object, startled to hear Nick of all people say this, but Nick interrupts him, “And if he has to marry, why would it be convenient for Lord Huntington if he gets married to his sister-in-law?”

Kurt stares at the other man for a moment in confusion, before he says, “You mean, he’s trying to tie Sebastian to himself by forcing him to marry a relative of his?”

“He knows that Sebastian isn’t going to endure his ‘friendship’ much longer,” Nick explains, “I’m sure he picked up the tell-tale signs over the summer. And this way, he doesn’t have to worry about them ever losing contact. Not to mention how convenient it will be when the family comes together, on Christmas or in London: the ladies sipping tea in the drawing room, discussing the latest fashion trends, while the men are upstairs, fucking each other into oblivion.”

Kurt stares at his friend, feeling shocked at the crude language which he has never heard from Nick before. At seeing Kurt’s expression, Nick shrugs, “I’m merely offering you a glimpse into how Lord Huntington’s mind works. It’ll never happen though. Sebastian isn’t stupid, and he has been tired of Lord Huntington for months now. I’m pretty sure he’ll have enough of this very soon.”

Nick is right, as usual. It takes two more days until Lord Smythe has reached his breaking point – and still, what happens isn’t quite what either Kurt or Nick had anticipated.

That evening, dinner has been more tedious than usual. Sir Robert, having caught a light cold, decided to remain in bed, and without his mediating presence between the parties, Kurt isn’t sure whether he will survive the night. Lady Isabella is chatting away as usual, and by the end of the third course, her hints have finally lost all air of subtlety. Lord Smythe’s jaw is clenched so tightly that Kurt wonders how he manages to eat his fish, and he is steadily avoiding eye contact with anybody.

When everyone has finished dinner, Mr Moore opens the door to the drawing room, and he and Jeff follow the Huntingtons inside, while Nick and Kurt remain in the dining room to collect the dirty dishes. Lady Claudine is just about to follow her sister into the adjoining room when Lord Smythe catches her elbow to stop her.

“Lady Claudine?” he asks, “May I have a word with you in private?”

Even across the room, Kurt can see the way her eyes light up, and he almost can’t bear the hopeful smile that appears on her lips. Because he is certain that the following conversation will not go the way she hopes.

Suddenly, he realises that he and Nick are still in the same room, and that it would probably be more appropriate for them to leave Lord Smythe and Lady Claudine to their conversation. But the door is on the far end of the room, and walking past them would mean to draw their attention to the fact that they actually not ‘in private’. Furthermore, it would indicate that they have been listening to the conversation – something which of course all footmen do, but never should admit to. Kurt catches Nick’s gaze, and Nick shrugs – as long as Lord Smythe doesn’t ask them to leave, there isn’t much they can do now. So they go for the only option left for servants in these situation – they try to melt into the background by pretending to be terribly busy with stacking plates and collecting glasses, while both of them furtively glance at the two people at the other end of the room.

Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his hair, a sign that Kurt by now has learned to interpret as a sign of great discomfort.

“Look, Claudine,” he begins, “I’m aware that this is going to hurt your feelings, and I realise what sort of idea the behaviour of Arthur and Isabella must have given you, but I’m sorry – I’m not going to propose to you.”

Kurt looks up from the tray he is carrying, and sees that Lady Claudine looks like somebody has just slapped her in the face.
“What?” she asks, her voice toneless.

“I’m sorry,” Lord Smythe repeats, “But I am not inclined to ask for your hand. Not now, and I am afraid, not ever.”

Lady Claudine is merely staring at the man in front of her. Her mouth is slightly open, and while she remains perfectly immobile, red spots start to appear on her perfectly white cheeks.

“You are a beautiful and accomplished young lady,” Lord Smythe continues, and it sounds rehearsed, even to Kurt’s ears, “And I am certain that you will make someone very happy one day. But I would like it to be understood that that someone won’t be me.”

A heavy silence ensues between them, and Kurt tilts his head to the side to be able to glance at Lady Claudine again. She has closed her mouth, but her lips are now trembling ever so slightly. Finally, she clasps her hands in front of her and says, very slowly, “So... I have made a fool of myself these last days.”

Lord Smythe seems unsure how to respond to that, “I wouldn’t say...”

“No,” Lady Claudine interrupts him, shaking her head and finally looking up to meet the gaze of the other man. “I have.” Her cheeks and throat are stained with red spots, but her voice sounds more firm than Kurt would have expected. “I think, in this case, we should depart the day after tomorrow,” she says, “I wouldn’t want to impose on your hospitality any longer.”

Lord Smythe looks like he wants to object, but after a moment of consideration, he nods, “That would probably be the best solution.”

Lady Claudine gives a short nod and backs against the door, obviously desperate to finally leave, “I will retire to my room now. Please give my excuses to my sister and Arthur. Tell them I’m not feeling well.” She turns on the spot and hurries outside, her dress rustling when she squeezes through the door.

For a moment, none of the three men left in the dining room moves. They all stare at the half-ajar door, pity and discomfort evident on their faces. Finally, Lord Smythe sighs and runs his fingers through his hair once more. “Now I genuinely feel like a really cruel bastard,” he says.

Before he even has time to think about it, Kurt has already retorted, “Well, that can’t be an entirely foreign sensation for you.”

Lord Smythe looks at him with a sour expression on his face, “Thank you Kurt. You’re being ever so helpful.”

“Stop it, both of you,” Nick says. “I think you did the right thing, Bas. Or rather – I don’t believe there is a right way to handle something like this. But at least now she knows the truth.”

“Yes, and I’m left to deal with Arthur and Isabella,” Lord Smythe says, glancing at the door to the drawing room with dread in his eyes. “Or I could just go to bed as well...”

“You won’t do anything of the sort,” Nick says, stepping up to his friend and smoothing down the edges of his collar. “You will go in there, tell them what you said to Lady Claudine, and that, sadly, they will have to depart the day after tomorrow.” He quirks up an eyebrow when he looks at the taller man, “Don’t tell me you’re not dying to finally kick them out.”

“I’ve wanted to do that for God knows how long,” Lord Smythe admits, “But you know...”

“I know,” Nick assures him. He gives Lord Smythe’s appearance once last look before he steps back. “Poor Lady Claudine, though. She really doesn’t deserve this.”

“Maybe she’ll handle it better than we think,” Kurt says, remembering the way she lifted her chin and looked Lord Smythe directly into his eyes.

“I hope so,” Lord Smythe says. His eyes linger on the door for a moment, but his expression changes from sympathetic to cocky when he turns his head and meets Kurt’s gaze, “Though of course, most women would be terribly disappointed at the prospect of not marrying me.”

Kurt returns Lord Smythe’s gaze, and very slowly, shakes his head in silent disapproval.

“Please go,” Nick says, shoving his friend lightly in the direction of the drawing room. “Leave the sane people to their work and join the madness next door.”

Lord Smythe grins, but before he turns around to leave, Kurt catches him looking at the spot where Lady Claudine disappeared, his expression turning guilty once more. But then he straightens his back and opens the door to the drawing room, and Kurt can hear Lady Isabella’s excited chatter until Lord Smythe closes the door behind him.

And as satisfied as Kurt feels at the thought of what his employer will tell Lady Isabella and Lord Huntington in a moment, he feels deeply sorry for Lady Claudine.

After all, he knows exactly what it feels like to become entangled in other people’s schemes.


 

The next day is even more quiet than usual. The maids and footmen spend the day packing the suitcases of the Huntingtons and Lady Claudine. When Kurt walks past the drawing room, he overhears snippets of a very heated fight between Lady Isabella and her husband, and the atmosphere between them during breakfast is icy.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert take their breakfast in Lord Smythe’s study and remain there for the rest of the day, and since Kurt, together with Jeff, is serving the Huntingtons, he doesn’t see either of the other two men until the evening.

Lady Claudine also stays in her room, and Jane, who has calls upon her several times to bring her some food and take care of her luggage, tells Kurt that she is sitting around in her night gown, staring into space, and barely acknowledges Jane’s questions concerning the open suitcases.

However, she does join the men and her sister for dinner, and Kurt is glad to see that she has managed to overcome the disappointing evening. Strangely enough though, she doesn’t appear downcast or embarrassed at all, on the contrary - she looks almost relieved, like some kind of weight has been lifted from her shoulders. The change in her appearance is remarkable too: her dress is plainer, her hairstyle more natural, and, most striking of all, her behaviour isn’t as forced as before. She’s quiet during most of the meal, but when she smiles at a remark of Lord Smythe or Sir Robert, it’s a genuine smile, one that really lights up her features and causes the corners of her eyes to crinkle, and Kurt thinks that he could really grow to like this Lady Claudine.

After dinner, they retreat to the drawing room as usual. It’s not long before Lady Claudine sits down behind the piano, but this time, she asks Lord Smythe to join her. Lord Smythe looks apprehensive at first, but when Lady Claudine smiles pleadingly, he nods, sets down his glass and walks over to stand behind Lady Claudine, turning the sheet music while she plays and, after she has sung the first verse on her own, joins in.
It’s the first time Kurt has heard his employer sing, and he is pleasantly surprised. The songs are not the usual operatic choices of Lady Claudine – they’re lighter ones, the ones Kurt wanted to hear from her all along, and his suspicion that her voice fits these pieces much better proves to be true. It’s obvious that Lord Smythe never had much training, but his voice can keep up with Lady Claudine’s, and the applause they receive after each song is far more genuine than during any other evening.

And while their voices work well together, there still seems to be some kind of barrier between them that prevents them from truly conveying the emotional depths of the songs. And while that is understandable after the recent events, Kurt feels curious to find out how Lord Smythe would sound with a partner whose voice truly complements his.

After four songs, Lord Smythe eventually excuses himself, claiming that his throat has become terribly dry, and, after grabbing his empty glass, he walks over to the corner where Kurt is standing alone next to the wine jug.

“You look like you are dying to comment on my performance,” he says, eyes twinkling with mischief when he comes to stand in front of his footman.

“Maybe I’m not dying to comment on your performance, but on Lady Claudine’s,” Kurt retorts, unwilling to say anything that would further increase Lord Smythe’s confidence. It’s large enough as it is, “Her voice sounds lovely this evening.”

“It does,” Lord Smythe agrees, holding his glass out for Kurt to take it, “But if I’m not very much mistaken, you weren’t staring at her most of the time.”

While this accusation is true, Kurt feels uncomfortable that Lord Smythe has noticed. To cover his embarrassment, he takes the glass and sets it down to refill it, reluctant to deliver the verdict his employer is asking for. Finally, he decides to shrug and reply, “I didn’t know you were a singer.”

Lord Smythe tilts his head to the side, and his eyes linger on Kurt’s face when he grins and retorts, “Well, I didn’t know you are fluent in French.”

When Kurt stares at him in surprise, Lord Smythe’s grin intensifies, and he adds, “Looks like we both still have to find out some things about each other.”

“Who told you?” Kurt asks, “About me speaking French, I mean.”

“Nick, of course,” Lord Smythe replies, glancing to the corner of the room where the brunette footman is offering some biscuits to Lady Isabella. “I bothered him about what kind of lessons you had over the summer.”

“You asked Nick about me?”

“Yes,” Lord Smythe replied. “Several questions, actually. This was one of the few he didn’t refuse to answer.”

“Well,” Kurt says, setting down the jug and picking up the glass to offer it to his employer, “You could just ask me next time.”

Lord Smythe looks at him for a moment, his eyes twinkling with some emotion Kurt can’t name. Finally and without taking his eyes off the younger man’s face, he reaches out to take his glass.

“I believe I will do that,” he says, “Next time.” His fingers brush against Kurt’s for a moment, trapping them between the cool glass and Lord Smythe’ warm skin, before he finally takes the glass and lifts it to his lips, his eyes never leaving Kurt’s.

“Sebastian?”

Kurt almost flinches at the sound of Lord Huntingtons voice. For a moment, he has forgotten that they are not alone in this room. Lord Smythe looks over his shoulder and replies, “I’m coming”, and casts one last look at Kurt before he returns to the group around the piano, where Lady Isabelle is trying her best to talk them into a game of charade.

Kurt makes sure to busy himself with the half-empty wine jugs, especially when he catches the distrustful look Mr Moore is sending in his direction. Once he is sure that the butler isn’t looking at him any longer, he flexes his fingers, and even briefly rubs them against the fabric of his jacket.
But as much as he tries, he can’t completely get rid of a strange and tingling sensation, right where Lord Smythe’s skin has touched his.


 

The Huntingtons and Lady Claudine depart early in the next morning. The sun has just barely risen over the trees, and nobody feels inclined to eat breakfast at such an early hour. Mrs Bertram prepares a few boxes filled with sandwiches and fruit for them to eat on their journey, while Kurt, Jeff and Nick bring the suitcases down to the carriage, glad that the almost constant rain has stopped long enough for them to accomplish their task without getting completely  soaked.

The lords and ladies arrive in the courtyard just when the three footmen are heaving the last of Lady Isabella’s suitcases onto the roof of the carriage (while fiercely discussing what Lady Isabella has in her suitcases: even together, Jeff and Nick hardly managed to carry them down the stairs). The sisters and Lord Huntington are clad in warm coats, and when the footmen hurry to take their positions next to the doors of the carriage, Lady Claudine turns to Lord Smythe, who takes her hand in his.

“I’m sorry your visit had such an unpleasant ending,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt hears a genuine apology in his voice.

Lady Claudine shakes her head. “Don’t be,” she says, “At least you were honest with me. Which is more I can say about most people I know.”

Lord Smythe follows her gaze to where Lady Isabella is saying her goodbyes to Sir Robert, with her miserable looking husband waiting for her. Lord Smythe smiles, and Kurt sees something akin to respect in his eyes when he lifts Lady Claudine’s hand to his lips. “You are more of a lady than I gave you credit for originally,” he says. “I sincerely wish you all the happiness in the world, Claudine.”

Kurt’s stomach twists at the honesty in his employer’s voice. He can’t believe that this is the same man who insulted him two seconds after they met for the first time, the same man that chose people like Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington as his companions. Something has changed, he realises, and not just between him and his employer, but about Lord Smythe himself.

It’s a strange thought, but maybe, just maybe, Kurt wasn’t the only one growing up over the past year.

In the meantime, Lord Smythe has kissed Lady Isabella’s hand, assured her that naturally he and Sir Robert will visit them for Christmas (a statement that, if Sir Robert’s amused expression is any indication, is a downright lie), and half-heartedly hugged Lord Huntington, who looks like he wants to say something, but his wife drags him to the carriage before he has the change to utter more than three words.

Lord Smythe and Sir Robert look after the carriage as it leaves the courtyard, and when it reaches the first trees of the alley, Lord Smythe lets out a huge sigh.

“Thank heaven they’re gone,” he says, and when Kurt catches Nick’s gaze, he returns the grin of the other footman.

“I was surprised you didn’t throw them out sooner,” Sir Robert remarks, “Or was that because you didn’t want to spoil our chances to get invited to their Christmas celebrations?”

“I’ll rather eat dirt than spend Christmas at Longleat again,” Lord Smythe replies matter-of-factly. “I’m staying at home this year, and you are very welcome to join me.”

Sir Robert smiles and places his hand on top of Lord Smythe’s shoulder, squeezing it gently, “Of course I will.” The two men look to the end of the alley, where the carriage finally pulls out of sight. A comfortable silence settles between them for a few seconds, before Lord Smythe sighs once more and says, “Let’s go in, shall we?”

Nick and Kurt take this as their call to hurry down to the kitchen, where Mrs Bertram and the maids have been busy for hours, and quickly bring the plates loaded with fruit, toast and porridge up to the breakfast room, where Jeff and Mr Moore take them. The table is ready in no time, and when Sir Robert and Lord Smythe enter, Kurt has just finished preparing the first cup of tea.

Next to their plates are the letters that arrived early in the morning. Lord Smythe sits down and starts to sort through his correspondence while Kurt sets down his employer’s usual cup. It’s something Lord Smythe does every morning, Kurt noticed – looking at all the letters first and then opening them in a specific order, starting with the ones that make him smile the most.

This morning, however, when he spots his address in a particularly curly handwriting, he frowns, puts down his spoon and opens the letter immediately. Kurt sees his frown intensifying, and then, suddenly, Lord Smythe utters the most obscene curse Kurt has ever heard in his entire life.

The room falls silent immediately – Jeff, who has dropped the slice of toast he was holding, is staring at his employer with his eyes wide open. Nick and Sir Robert are looking at their friend with mixed expressions, like they can’t decide between shock and disapproval. Mr Moore, however, has no such difficulties. Kurt could have sworn that he has seen every displeased expression the butler is capable of, directed either at him or – more often – at Jeff, over the last year. But he has never seen the other man looking at somebody like he just murdered someone in front of him, or, even worse, used the salad fork during the fish course.

“Sebastian,” Sir Robert says, sounding equally shocked and alarmed, “What on earth…”

Lord Smythe stares at the piece of paper on his plate, sounding absolutely miserable when he says, “My grandmother is coming to visit.”

“Oh,” Sir Robert says, a smile appearing on his lips, which he tries to hide behind this napkin. “In that case, I can hardly understand your reaction.”

Lord Smythe looks up from the letter to glare at his friend across the table, while Sir Robert continues, “It’s been a long time since she visited Bailey Hall, hasn’t it? More than a year?”

“A year and a half,” Lord Smythe replies, his tone still miserable, “She was here in spring.”

“Well, in that case it’s time she returned to Bailey,” Sir Robert says. Kurt isn’t entirely sure what is going on – he understands neither Lord Smythe’s horrified reaction to the visit of a relative nor Sir Robert’s amused expression.

“When will she arrive?” Sir Robert asks, buttering a piece of toast.

“Monday morning,” Lord Smythe replies, looking horrified when a new thought enters his mind, “Oh god. We have to clean the house.”

“I wanted to leave on Saturday,” Sir Robert remarks casually, taking a bite from the toast before reaching for his tea cup.

“Robert, you have to stay,” Lord Smythe says, and his voice and expression are positively pleading. It’s a look Kurt has never seen on him before, and he would lie if he said that he didn’t enjoy seeing it. “You can’t leave now.”

“Really, Sebastian, you behave like the Dowager Countess is some sort of monster,” Sir Robert says, and looks at Nick, who has placed a glass of orange juice in front of him. “I’m sure you will be able to handle her on your own. Wouldn’t you agree, Nicholas?”

“Certainly, Sir,” Nick replies without a moment’s hesitation, ignoring his best friend at the other side of the table, who stares at him like Nick has just betrayed him. “We will take good care of her ladyship.”

“Do shut up, Nick,” Lord Smythe says, and Kurt sees Mr Moore frowning at his employer once more, though less openly. “Robert, please. Why don’t you stay for one more week? It’s not like any urgent matters await you back home.”

“Alright,” Sir Robert agrees, “I can stay a couple days more, but I need to leave on Friday the latest. If your grandmother wants to stay longer, you’ll have to entertain her on your own.”

Lord Smythe looks defeated when he nods, “Thank you, Rob.” He glances at his toast like he expects some help from it, and Kurt can’t help it – he feels amused and sympathetic at the same time.

While he rearranges the fruit plate, he makes a mental note to ask Nick about Lord Smythe’s grandmother as soon as they’re alone. But judging from the matching grin on both Nick’s and Sir Robert’s faces, he already has the distinct feeling that the next days are going to be very interesting.