October – November 1850
Kurt doesn’t quite remember how he originally imagined to spend this autumn. A few weeks ago, he probably would have expected a rather quiet time, with a few guests during the hunting season, Sir Robert’s constant presence, and himself trying to hide from his employer most of the time. But not only has the relationship to said employer changed significantly – with Lady Smythe staying at Bailey Hall, the autumn is suddenly developing into an entirely unforeseen direction.
Immediately after her fight with Sebastian, his grandmother truly sets to work, and if Kurt had previously believed that her age could be any kind of obstacle in the ruthless pursuit of her plan to get Sebastian married, he has been sadly mistaken.
She sets up her work space in a small salon in the west wing, and Kurt is relieved to see that she didn’t try to invade Sebastian’s study – Lady Smythe would undoubtedly have noticed that, in a wave of last-minute-panic, Sebastian had merely crammed most of his papers into the drawers, leaving the surface of his desk shiny, and the insides messier than ever before.
Lady Smythe spends her mornings writing letters and replying to an insane amount of correspondence. She accepts invitations, suggests visits and fills paper after paper with inquiries about daughters, nieces and cousins. In the afternoons, she summons Sebastian to the drawing room to instruct him about her plans. Most of the time, Sebastian drags Sir Robert with him, and they listen to who Lady Smythe plans to visit, who she is going to invite, and, most importantly, how Sebastian is to behave. Kurt is surprised to see that Sebastian endures most of it with rolling his eyes and muttering protests under his breath.
“He knows that, ultimately, she is right,” Nick explains to Kurt when they’re bringing the tea trays back down to the kitchen. “In a circle as small as theirs, it is important to maintain relationships with people and to cultivate contacts. Naturally, Sebastian hates it, because it forces him to actually behave like a decent human being.”
Kurt clicks his tongue in mocking disapproval at Nick insulting his friend, but Nick just grins, “But believe me, he will listen to her. Because Lady Smythe didn’t spend the majority of her life in the highest circles for nothing. And because he knows it’s for the best.”
The only issue that continues to cause serious tension between Lady Smythe and her grandson is the question of Sebastian’s marriage. If it was up to the dowager countess, she would undoubtedly like to see the young earl married before the end of the year. Sebastian endures her nagging silently for two days until he reaches his breaking point.
It’s late in the evening on Wednesday, and Lady Smythe has been going on and on about the daughters of Lady Milford for what feels like hours. Kurt has stopped actively listening a while ago (one of the daughters plays the harp, another one draws, and one has hips that are very well-suited for childbirth, that’s all he remembers), and he almost drops the tray he is holding when Sebastian sets down his glass with so much force that it cracks, and, with forced composure, asks the servants and Sir Robert through clenched teeth to leave him alone with his grandmother for a moment.
This is nothing but a civil gesture towards his grandmother, Kurt realises a few moments later, because he is fairly certain even the servants down in the kitchen can still hear Sebastian shouting. Lady Smythe stands her ground (though her voice never becomes as loud as the one of her grandson), but so does Sebastian, and when Lady Smythe exits the drawing room a few minutes later, her cheeks an angry red and her voice sounding higher than usual, Kurt knows that this time, Sebastian was the one victorious. When Lady Smythe starts to order the servants, who are waiting outside the room, around in what seems like an attempt to assure herself that even though she just lost some power over her grandson, she still has authority over the employees at Bailey, Kurt quietly slips back into the drawing room.
He can see Sebastian leaning against the frame of one of the high windows, his cheeks flushed, his eyes brighter and his chest rising and falling a little quicker than usual. Kurt hesitates for a short moment before he walks over to the table with the drinks, ignoring the usual wine for a bottle with golden liquor and pouring some of it in one of the glasses. He walks over to where his employer is standing and tugs on his sleeve, and, when Sebastian turns around, he offers him the glass.
“You look like you deserved it,” he says with a one-sided smile, and Sebastian, who looks a little bit startled, needs a second before he returns the grin and takes the glass from Kurt’s hand.
“I suspect you heard everything?” he asks, turning the glass around in small circles and watching the amber liquid move inside the crystal.
“I’m almost certain our colonies in India heard everything,” Kurt retorts, and adds, “Are you alright though?”
“I am,” Sebastian replies, raising the glass to his lips and draining it at once. He winces slightly at the strong taste. “Don’t worry.”
“So, do you think she’ll stop bothering you about marriage now?” Kurt asks. From what he has seen of Lady Smythe so far, he is almost convinced that she doesn’t admit defeat this easily.
“She’ll wait,” Sebastian replies. He sighs and hands Kurt back the glass, “She’ll say nothing more of it for the time being, but just wait until we’re in the company of what she calls ‘respectful, sensible young ladies’.” He shudders, “And she’ll make sure I’ll be in the company of these ladies soon.”
Sebastian is proven right over the next days. Lady Smythe no longer addresses the issue of marriage directly, but when Kurt sees her sitting at the desk they brought into the salon for her, scribbling furiously with a determined expression on her face, he knows that she is far away from having given up.
On Friday, Sir Robert departs for his home in Cumbria, leaving a sulking Sebastian and a satisfied Lady Smythe behind. Kurt needs Nick to explain the reason for Lady Smythe’s satisfaction – with Sir Robert staying at Bailey Hall, it would have been impossible for her to sweep her grandson away for visits – she would either have been forced to stay with their guest, or would have had to bring Sir Robert along. But with him being gone, she can now force the young earl to visit every family that can easily be reached in a few hours. Sebastian is not enthusiastic about these visits, especially not since his grandmother insists on accompanying him, but he gives in, and Kurt catches enough of the gossip in the kitchen to understand that due to Lady Smythe’s hints, they leave the daughters of every family behind with the clear notion that Sebastian is very willing to marry.
In the meantime, letters from Jane arrive almost every second day. Fortunately, her father is slowly but steadily recovering, and Jane writes that he will be able to work again in a couple of weeks. Her younger sisters have started to help her mother with her sewing, and with the additional work and the money Jane has given them they can easily get by until her father is restored to full health. Kurt is relieved to read this – for a while, Jane’s departure had seemed like a dark omen for an even darker season. But the letters are written in Jane’s usual cheerful tone, and Kurt doesn’t worry too much: if her family resembles Jane in any way, they’ll muddle through.
With Jane gone, Harriet is the only housemaid left at Bailey Hall, and the girl seems lonely without her female companion. This is most likely the reason why she starts to spend more time with the boys, and Kurt doesn’t mind her company. He has always liked Harriet, and while she will never be as close a friend as Jane is, she is nice, always honest and just cheeky enough to keep up with them. No, he really doesn’t mind her company at all.
What does irk him, however, is the fact that Jeff and Harriet seem to be a lot closer than they were before the summer. He’s not sure whether he imagines it at first, but when his suspicions are growing, he starts to pay more attention – not to Jeff or Harriet, but to Nick. And even though the other footman is undoubtedly the best actor Kurt has ever met, he finally does notice the way Nick’s expression hardens when he thinks nobody is watching him, and how the corners of his mouth drop slightly when he sees Jeff and Harriet laughing together.
“Well, they spent a lot of time together in London,” he shrugs when Kurt finally confronts him about this, “Jane and I were out very often, so I guess it was only natural.” He’s doing his best to appear nonchalant, and a few months ago, perhaps he would have even been able to fool Kurt. But not anymore.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asks, his voice still sounding concerned.
“Kurt, you need to stop trying to make me the hero of some weird and twisted tragic love-story,” Nick says, shaking his head. “First of all, we have no reason to believe that this is anything more than a harmless flirtation.” Kurt needs a moment to understand that Nick is voicing what he keeps telling himself, what he is trying to convince himself of, in order to cope with the situation. “Jeff never gave you any indication that he thinks of her as more than a friend, did he?” Kurt shakes his head, and Nick continues after a moment of hesitation, “And even if he did… it’s not like I could change anything about it.”
Kurt is glad that they are having this conversation in the privacy of Nick’s room, because here, he is allowed to sit down next to the other footman, to bring his arm up around Nick’s shoulder and pull him close. Nick doesn’t struggle against the embrace – he rests his forehead against Kurt’s shoulder and just lets the younger boy hold him for a while.
A couple of days after the departure of Sir Robert (when every important and respectable family within the county has been paid a visit), Lady Smythe announces that they will be spending a few days in Bath – much to the dismay of her grandson.
“Bath is where everyone is spending the first weeks of autumn,” she explains matter-of-factly when Sebastian starts to protest, “And since you missed out on paying your respect to the people whose opinion you should care about while you were in London, we will have to make up for that in Bath.”
Instead of staying to listen to Sebastian’s protest, she sweeps out of the room immediately, to give Mrs Seymour and Mr Moore detailed and completely unnecessary instructions about the luggage. And even though Sebastian doesn’t stop complaining, he does give in to the idea of spending some days in the city – not without sulking though.
“You act like a spoiled child who has been told it can’t have another biscuit,” Nick says, while sorting through Sebastian’s vests and occasionally selecting one and handing it to Kurt, who folds it carefully and puts it in the open suitcase sitting on the bed. “Most people, including me and Kurt, would be happy to spend a few days in the city.”
“But unfortunately, not all of us have the means to take lodgings at the Royal Crescent,” Kurt adds, feeling a slight pang of jealousy at the thought that Sebastian gets to spend time in one of the country’s cultural centres, when Kurt is still stuck in the countryside.
“I hate Bath,” Sebastian groans, flopping down on the bed, right next to the suitcase. “Nothing ever happens there. People spend all day taking walks in the city or strolling through the Pump Rooms. It’s nothing but walking and gossiping.”
“I heard Bath has very good concerts,” Kurt speaks up, “And galleries.”
“Yes, and at those concerts and galleries and balls and dinners are more people who do more walking and gossiping,” Sebastian moans, letting himself fall back on the bed and sinking in into the white blankets.
“There’s no use talking to him when he’s in this particular mood,” Nick says, looking at Kurt and shaking his head. “He’s going to go to Bath, sulk for a few days, and drink too much at two or three parties. And then, shortly before he departs, he will realise that he could have spent all this time enjoying himself, if it wasn’t for the fact that he is a stubborn idiot.”
Kurt is very sure that Nick and Sebastian have had similar discussions like this before – at least that would explain the effortlessness with which Nick catches the pillow aimed at his face a second later.
Contrary to Sebastian’s initial reluctance, the stay at Bath turns out to be not that much of a torture – he and his grandmother remain in the city for more than two weeks, and from what Kurt reads in the small notes Sebastian sends to Nick, he seems to be enjoying himself more than he wants to admit.
During the absence of the family, Jane finally returns to Bailey Hall. Her father has started working again in a different factory, and her older brother has come to stay with the family as long as their father’s health isn’t fully restored. The weeks at home have changed Jane – her face is paler, and Kurt is sure that she has lost some weight when she didn’t have any to lose in the first place. But her face lights up when she enters the kitchen, almost toppling over under the weight of three footmen and three maids trying to hug her simultaneously, and her laugh is as carefree as it has always been.
When Sebastian returns to Bailey Hall, he brings Sir Robert with him – and, to Kurt’s displeasure, his grandmother. Most of the servants have silently hoped that she would go home after the stay in Bath, but since, unsurprisingly, her plans to set Sebastian up with some daughter of her acquaintances have failed so far, she seems determined to not leave Bailey Hall without having tried everything she can think of.
It is strange, but during these busy weeks, with very few opportunities to actually spend some time in Sebastian’s company without anybody else being present, and with Sebastian being away that often, Kurt nevertheless feels that the friendship between them is intensifying. He is still a little reluctant to call whatever exists between them ‘friendship’, but he does so in lack of another, more fitting word. It’s not the kind of easy, comfortable friendship he shares with Nick, Jane or Jeff – in a strange way, his relationship with Sebastian seems to be less, and at the same time, much more.
Kurt can’t even explain it to himself, and he fails miserably when he tries to voice his thoughts to Nick. Nick does nod in understanding and explains that it probably has to do with the class difference, and that this is a feeling he knows all too well – after all, it is rather hard to be the friend of the person you also work for.
And yet, Kurt is rather sure that this is not what is confusing him. It’s not about the different social statuses; it’s not even about his memories of the early time at Bailey Hall – all those certainly matter, but not to the question Kurt is trying so desperately to find an answer to.
It’s the way Sebastian looks at him sometimes from across the room, or flashes him a brief smile when he enters the breakfast room in the morning – like he is incredibly happy to see Kurt, and then, a moment later, when his face almost reflexively changes into a carefully composed expression, like he deeply regrets showing the previous sign of affection.
And then there are the touches. It’s not that Kurt minds physical contact, not at all – he seeks it out whenever he can, and there is little he enjoys more than Nick’s hand on his shoulder, Jeff’s chin resting on his head or Jane linking her arm with his. Those are gestures of love, of family, of home – they feel comforting, and they feel safe.
Sebastian’s touches don’t have the same effect on him. Granted, they also don’t happen as frequently – sometimes it’s a brush of fingertips when Kurt hands him his glass or a cup of tea, a gentle squeeze of Kurt’s shoulder or arm, a coincidental brush of their hands when they’re standing next to each other. And yet, Kurt starts to question whether all of these touches are truly accidental, or whether Sebastian is seeking them out on purpose.
Granted, it’s not very plausible that he is, because that would imply some kind of interest that goes beyond the tentative friendship between them, wouldn’t it? And Kurt has difficulties believing that after Sir Reginald and Lord Huntington, he fits within the categories that apply for Sebastian’s lovers.
But this isn’t even primarily about Sebastian’s intentions – it is about what all of this is doing to Kurt. Because the touches, the looks, the easy banter and the teasing that come so naturally when the two are alone – they all leave Kurt’s skin tingling with a foreign sensation. He feels strangely intrigued and cautious at the same time, like he wants more of this (and once or twice, he actually catches himself seeking the company of Sebastian when he knows he’ll find the other man alone in the library or his study), but like he is at the same time afraid what will happen if this continues. And as confusing as the thought of Sebastian becoming not only someone important, but someone special is, Kurt slowly begins to realise that not everything about this is as unfamiliar to him as it might have been before the summer. And this thought is what scares him more than anything else.
Therefore, when Lady Smythe announces that she wants to host a big ball at Bailey Hall before she leaves, Kurt feels genuinely excited for two reasons – because he has always wished to attend an evening in one of the big ballrooms in London or Paris (and even though Bailey naturally pales in comparison, it’ll do for a start), and because the preparations will keep him busy enough to not spend any more time wondering about Sebastian.
Lady Smythe plans her autumn ball for the first day of November, and there are an awful lot of things that need to be organised: food is stored in great quantities in the store cupboard and the kitchen, flowers and decorations need to be carefully placed in the salons, drawing and dining rooms. Additional servants need to be hired, invitations must be written and sent, and the house needs a proper going-over. Kurt never would have believed that he’d see the day when they would actually have to prepare all of the guest rooms (because when he counted, the final number of bedrooms was forty-seven), but apparently, that day has arrived.
It seems that, after weeks of restless activity, Lady Smythe’s efforts are finally reaching their climax.
There are some days on which everything you do, everything you try, is bound to end in a small (or big) catastrophe. The smartest way to cope with days like this would be to stay in bed, pull the covers over one’s head and ignore the world outside until the next morning dawns.
Unfortunately, that is no option for the servants at Bailey Hall, especially when Lady Smythe has invited all of her closest friends to the estate.
The footmen rise two hours earlier than usual, and the first indicator that this day is not going to go smoothly is Kurt stabbing his toe on the wardrobe, hopping on his foot and hissing in pain for two minutes. Jeff is laughing at him at first, until he realises that his last clean pair of socks has a hole large enough to reveal three of Jeff’s toes. When Kurt, still pissed at Jeff for making fun of him, refuses to lend him a pair, he has to walk over the cold corridor barefoot to knock against Nick’s door.
At breakfast, one of the new maids manages to spill too much salt into the porridge, leaving it inedible, so that there is only toast and bread for everyone to eat. Mrs Seymour discovers that the gardeners have brought clematis instead of roses, to which Lady Smythe claims to be allergic, and Mr Moore finds a tear in his best waistcoat, which results in him accusing the laundry ladies first of recklessness and then of sabotage, until Jane assures him that she can repair the coat in no time.
Kurt has never seen Bailey Hall in such a frenzy before, and even though he is surprised to see that nobody seems to be quite able to deal with the chaos, personally, he kind of enjoys it. Over the course of the day, carriage after carriage arrives, spilling out ladies in beautifully elaborate dresses and men wearing elegant top hats and fashionable waistcoats, and the house is soon buzzing with laughter, chatter and the constant hum of voices.
The kitchen is bustling with energy and people bumping into each other, Mrs Bertram’s shrill voice giving instructions and berating the maids when they do something wrong. Mr Moore and Nick are most of the time busy instructing the new maids and footmen that they have hired for the evening – after all, it’s downright impossible to serve more than fifty guests with a staff of merely four people.
In the afternoon, the already messed-up day finally reaches its climax. Kurt and Nick are in the kitchen to ask Mrs Seymour about the spare uniforms they need to provide for the other footmen, when Maud and Beth lift the large plate with the to-be-roasted pig (the main course for the evening) from the table, to bring it over to the oven. Kurt sees the moment when both of them loose balance, and the heavy plate slips out of their small hands, but he is too far away to do anything. Helpless, he closes his eyes, and a split second later, a cacophonous clash sounds when the plate hits the stones of the kitchen floor.
When he opens his eyes again, everyone is staring in shock at the spot on the floor, where the pig, now looking terribly distorted, is lying in small pools of gravy and the broken remains of the plate. Beth and Maud are staring at the mess in utter horror – Beth’s face is mask of sheer fear, and Maud has both hands pressed to her mouth, as if to muffle a scream.
For a moment, nobody moves. Then, Mrs Bertram lets out a piercing scream of utter agony, and rushes towards the girls, who shrink away against the wall. Just as quickly, Mrs Seymour and Nick step between them, and Mrs Seymour catches Mrs Bertram just when she raises her hand to slap Maud.
“They didn’t do it on purpose, Mrs Bertram,” she says, holding the arms of the cook while the maids hide behind Nick, “It was an accident.”
“What are we supposed to do now?” Mrs Bertram asks, her wrath leaving her quickly when she stares at the ugly mess, giving way to a shrill despair, “We won’t have any pork tonight. And we can’t use this set of porcelain anymore, this was the only large plate, and, ooh…”
She clutches the arms of the housekeeper when a sudden wave of weakness overcomes her. Together with Nick, Mrs Seymour steers her to a nearby bench and forces her to sit down and drink some water that Beth brings in a cup. The housekeeper straightens, gives the people in kitchen (all staring at her in silent anticipation) a quick look over, and takes deep breath, “Nick, run down to the village. Go to Mr Brown and Mr Alden, and see what you can get for the main course. And stop by the Crawleys and fetch their daughters, we need some additional help if we want to be ready on time.”
“I’m afraid Mr Moore needs me,” Nick objects, looking over his shoulder, “Kurt, maybe you could…?”
“Of course,” Kurt nods, already backing out of the room, “I’ll just get my coat.”
“And hurry,” he hears Mrs Seymour shout after him. He doesn’t need this reminder – he knows how incredibly tight their schedule is, and how much of a catastrophe the mess in the kitchen is.
And yet, when he reaches the courtyard, buttons his coat and hurries outside into the chilly autumn air, he feels relieved to get away from the hustle just for a moment. He takes a deep breath and lets the last rays of the late autumn sun warm his skin when he hurries over the bridge and down the alley. He decides to take the short-cut through the forest, because as much as he enjoys the short break, his thoughts are still with the people at the kitchen. He knows that if they cannot manage to organise another main course in time, it will be a terrible embarrassment – not only for them, but for Sebastian and Lady Smythe as well. And Kurt really doesn’t want to imagine what Lady Smythe would have to say to Mr Moore and Mrs Seymour if this evening turns out to be anything less than perfect. He is so deep in thought that he doesn’t hear the crack of twigs or the rustling of feet meeting leaves in the distance, and he flinches violently when a voice behind him suddenly calls, “Kurt?”
Kurt spins around, and he needs a second to recognise the figure heading towards him. He is surprised to see Sebastian outside, clad in a cerulean-coloured coat with matching scarf and grey riding boots. Even though he would never tell his employer, Kurt can’t help but think that he looks unfairly divine, clad in fashionable clothes and moving through a brightly coloured autumn forest. He has just stopped with his silent admiration when Sebastian comes to stand in front of him, and he is proud that his voice sounds perfectly nonchalant when he greets his employer, “Sir.”
“What are you doing here?” Sebastian asks, his cheeks lightly flushed from the cold air and his brows knit in confusion, “I thought everyone was busy getting everything ready for tonight.”
“We are,” Kurt replies, “But we had a minor accident down at the kitchen.”
“Did somebody get hurt?” Sebastian asks, his voice sounding alarmed.
“No, no,” Kurt says quickly, but adds as an afterthought, “Well, the main course didn’t survive.”
“Oh,” Sebastian replies, eyes widening in understanding, “Oh. Bollocks. Is Mrs Bertram going crazy?”
“She is,” Kurt confirms, “I’m off to the village to get a few missing supplies and some help.”
“That’s probably for the best,” Sebastian nods, “I told Mrs Seymour to get enough help for this, but I know that a ball this large is a lot to handle. Especially when my grandmother is meddling with everything.”
“Don’t ever tell that to Mr Moore,” Kurt says, “He’ll go to great lengths to prove that the service of Bailey Hall can manage each and every task you throw at us easily.”
Sebastian grins, and Kurt feels his own lips pull into a smile. “But what are you doing here?” Kurt asks, “I thought you were busy taking care of your many guests.”
“I left that task to my grandmother for the moment,” Sebastian replies, shrugging, “She’s better at dealing with them anyway.”
That much is true – Kurt was shocked to see the sweet and sugary personality she adopted when greeting the people who arrived this morning. It’s something that he knows Sebastian will never truly be able to pull off – and for some reason, that makes him so much more likeable.
“I just needed to get out for some time,” Sebastian continues, “I snuck out of the back door and went for a walk.”
That is something Kurt can relate to, even though he is sure that Lady Smythe will throw a fit when she finds out that her grandson has gone missing. He has just opened his mouth to make a remark about that when Sebastian cuts him off by asking, “Aren’t you cold?”
His gaze lingers on the edge of Kurt’s collar, right where the dark material stops covering Kurt’s bare skin. It’s only in this moment that Kurt himself realises that he has left his scarf at the estate, and that the cold November air is drifting uncomfortably over the sensitive skin of his neck.
“Not much,” Kurt says, shrugging and tugging at his collar until it covers his neck. It’s partly true – until a second ago, he was too distracted to even notice the missing piece of fabric. “I’ll just borrow a scarf at the village. Besides, it’s not that cold.”
Sebastian looks at him for another second, before he sighs and lifts his hands to his neck. For a moment, Kurt doesn’t understand what he is doing, and before he has time to react, Sebastian has already stepped in front of him and started wrapping his scarf around Kurt’s neck.
“Sir…” Kurt starts to protest, but when he feels Sebastian’s fingertips grazing his jaw, and the soft material of the scarf, still warm from having been pressed against the other man’s skin, covering his neck, he stills. He looks at the man in front of him, trying to catch his eyes, but Sebastian’s gaze is fixed on his task of tying the fabric around Kurt’s neck. He hooks a finger under the lapels of Kurt’s coat to pull the fabric away from his body, enough to tug the ends of the scarf into the coat. When it is secure around Kurt’s neck, Sebastian finally looks up, his fingers still lingering under the lapels of Kurt’s coat.
“There,” he says, smiling down at the boy in front of him, who is no longer that much shorter than his employer. Kurt realises how close their faces are – he can count the freckles on Sebastian’s face, which still haven’t vanished even though the summer is long over, and sunshine has become rare during these last weeks. He notices the way his eyes are a striking cool green on the outside, but fade into a warm kind of olive around the irises. He notices the length of his eyelashes, the single strand of hair falling into his forehead.
“We can’t have you catching a cold, can we?” Sebastian asks, and Kurt’s gaze drops down to his lips, catching their every movement when he forms the words. “Mr Moore would never let you hear the end of it.”
Suddenly, Kurt has a very vivid image in his mind, an image of Sebastian using the fingers under Kurt’s lapels to tug him forward, close against the body of his employer. There is a sudden flash of warm arms enfolding around his body, and rough fabric against Kurt’s cheek, but before Kurt’s mind can dwell on the image (and Kurt is shocked when he realises how much his body seemingly wants to react to the image), Sebastian has already dropped his hands from Kurt’s coat and stepped back. He frowns, and, for a moment, seems lost as to what to do with his hands now that they aren’t holding onto Kurt’s lapels, before he stuffs them deep into the pockets of his coat. He is avoiding Kurt’s gaze, and a part of Kurt is glad for it, because it gives him time to come back into reality.
“Well,” Sebastian says finally, clearing his throat, “You should probably hurry. I’m sure they’re waiting for your return in the kitchen.”
Kurt shakes his head, as if to clear it from whatever this just was about, and then nods hastily, not noticing how undecided this must look, “No, I’m sure they are, you’re right. And you should hurry back inside. You can’t catch a cold either, you’re needed tonight.”
At this, Sebastian finally looks up, grinning at Kurt and opening his mouth to retort something, but once more, he stops himself at the last moment. Closing his mouth, he merely nods, and takes one step back, then another, but doesn’t turn around yet, and his gaze lingers on Kurt. “I guess I’ll see you later then,” he says, and Kurt nods, and blurts out, “I’ll put the scarf back into your wardrobe as soon as I’m back.”
Sebastian smiles, a genuine smile this time, and impulsively shakes his head, “Keep it.” When Kurt’s lips part to protest, he says, “No really, keep it. It looks good on you.”
And, without another word or a glance back at Kurt, he turns around, taking long and swift steps towards the Palladium Bridge looming in the distance.
For a moment, Kurt remains where he is, staring after his employer and wondering what the hell just happened. He brings a hand up to feel the soft material of the scarf (softer than anything he owns), and his fingers twist in the fabric when he remembers the warmth of an embrace he didn’t actually feel, a warmth that still lingers somewhere between his own skin and the scarf wrapped around it. Kurt takes a deep breath, forcing as much of the cold air into his lungs as he can muster, then lets it out and turns around to finally hurry towards the village. The realisation of what this means is dawning somewhere at the back of his mind, but he just doesn’t have the time to think about it now. Sebastian was right – they are waiting for him, and he can’t let them down, not now, not when so much is at stake tonight. So, Kurt forces himself to run, and it is only partly out of hurry – because as long as he has to concentrate on where he is going, he doesn’t need to think about anything else.
In spite of what the beginning of the day promised, the ball is a tremendous success. Everyone has compliments for the delicious food (which, with the help of the three village girls and the meat supplies of Mr Alden, could be completed just in time), the musicians play song after song while tireless dancers twirl around on the dance floor, and even Lady Smythe seems to be in a splendid mood, tapping her foot along with the music.
“Is it just me, or is Lady Josephine quite taken with our Sir Robert?” Nick asks Kurt when they meet in a corner of the room at the table with the drinks, and start to refill the glasses on their trays. It is late, and some of the guests have already retreated to their rooms, but there are still enough people on the dance floor, and even more standing around and chatting in small groups.
“She is,” Kurt agrees, “But I’m glad he’s holding her arm, because I think that she also had a little bit too much to drink.”
Nick opens his mouth to reply something, when something catches his eye and he grins, nudging Kurt’s shoulder, “Something wicked this way comes.”
Kurt looks up to spot Sebastian stepping up next to him, placing his empty glass in front of Kurt and frowning at the brunette footman. “Please, Nick,” he says, “It’s much too late for your grotesque remarks.”
Nick’s grin merely intensifies in reply, and he lifts up his tray in one experienced motion. “I overheard Lady Julianne complain that you stepped on her toes during the waltz,” he says, “Perhaps you should consider this to be your last glass of wine.”
Without giving Sebastian a chance to come up with a witty reply he walks away, leaving his best friend muttering a fond insult under his breath.
It’s amazing that even in this room filled with chatting and laughing people, Kurt is extremely aware of Sebastian’s presence next to him, and how his arm is just inches away from Kurt’s. It’s like all the other people fade into the background, their conversation becoming a low drum, while Kurt desperately tries to think of something to say.
“I see you haven’t caught a cold,” he finally remarks, using the concentration on refilling glasses as an excuse to not look up at his employer.
“I see neither have you,” Sebastian retorts, standing with his back to the table and watching his guests mingle. “Sweet merciful… whatever is Robert doing with Lady Josephine?”
Kurt casts a quick glance over his shoulder to check, before he replies, “I think it’s the other way round, actually. She definitely had a few glasses to much.”
He more feels than sees Sebastian shrug beside him, “Oh well. As long as everyone’s enjoying themselves…”
Finally, they are no more glasses to refill. Kurt straightens himself and hands Sebastian his glass back before he arranges the rest on his tray – at least in appearance, nothing but a very dutiful footman.
“My grandmother just told me she will leave next week,” Sebastian says, “She made me promise to dance with the Milford girls first, but that was a small sacrifice given the result.”
“I like the Milford girls,” Kurt informs him, “They all have superior taste in fashion and music.”
“They do,” Sebastian agrees, “Unfortunately, they’re also much better at dancing than I am.”
Kurt grins, but quickly suppresses the emotion – it would be conspicuous if one of the guests should look in their direction.
“So, Lady Smythe will be leaving next week,” Kurt says, when both his face and his voice are indifferent again. “What about you?”
Sebastian’s brow furrows in confusion, “What about me?”
“Will you stay here, or are you going to leave too?” Kurt asks, “Visit more families, now that you’re on good terms with so many of them, travel with Sir Robert… maybe spend Christmas with the Huntingtons?”
Sebastian suppresses a shudder. His grandmother had insisted on inviting the Huntingtons, but Kurt and Nick caught Sebastian going through the finished stack of invitations and dropping a few of them into the fireplace – including the one destined to Longleat.
“I’ll think I’ll rather stay here,” he replies. “See whether I can get Robert to enjoy a little hunting, and read. You know, a few quiet weeks after all this ruckus.”
Kurt nods, and takes his tray. “I’m sure that’ll be nice,” he says, cursing himself for not having anything more clever or more interesting to say.
Sebastian is looking at him again now, and the expression on his face is the same Kurt saw in the woods earlier, just before he wrapped his scarf around Kurt’s neck.
“I thought you and the others might have enjoyed a little quiet time while we were in Bath,” he says. “I know that something like this evening brings Mrs Bertram to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”
“It does,” Kurt says, “But personally, I like when things are busy around here. And I did have a rather quiet summer.” He notices the way Sebastian’s expression changes, and because he doesn’t want him to think that Kurt is trying to bring up unpleasant memories, not now, he quickly adds, “And it’s certainly never boring with you around.”
Sebastian grins, and raises his glass to his lips. Kurt hates that he notices the way Sebastian’s throat moves when he swallows, the way he slowly licks his bottom lip.
“Well, in that case,” Sebastian retorts, “I’ll be happy to stay and make your life a little more interesting.”
He winks at Kurt and saunters off, leaving the footman with a tray in his hands and a quickened heartbeat pulsing through his body. And when Kurt looks after his employer as he makes his way across the room, smiling at people and exchanging a few sentences with one or the other, he realises that he is beginning to recognise the feeling deep down inside his stomach, the warmth spreading through his chest, and the tingling sensation in his fingertips.
He knows that his feelings for Sebastian are starting to change into something he feels quite unprepared for. And worst of all – he is afraid that if he isn’t very careful, Sebastian will soon become aware of that too.