The southern facing parlor was by far my favorite room in the house. It was painted a butter yellow that always managed to cheer me up, even on the gloomiest of rainy days. Sometime during the wee hours, a breeze had gusted in from the west, blowing away the film of clouds and smog that had plagued the city these past few weeks. The sky was left a brilliant blue expanse as a result, the sun filtering in through the large windows, warming and brightening the room still more.
I sat at the round table in front of the center window, having my afternoon tea. Dappled sunlight fell around me in shafts, dust motes dancing and rollicking within their beams. The breeze shifted outside the window, and I turned my gaze to the small garden beyond the glass. Buds were beginning to appear on the trees. Bright green clusters of daffodil stalks burst forth from the melting earth, a clear sign that full spring was just around the corner. The smile I’d worn most of the day widened to see it.
This morning, I’d woken in a tangle of limbs, muscular arms draped over me, long legs twined between my own. My chemise had bunched up around my thighs while I’d been sleeping, and I’d opened my sleep-heavy eyes to feel John stroking a hand casually up and over my knee. Our gazes had met in the dim morning light, and he’d given me a lazy smile before he turned and spoke to Henry, who lay sprawled along my other side.
Both of the men had been stripped down to their linen drawers, allowing me my first glimpse of them unclothed. I’d turned onto my back and drank in the sight of Henry hungrily, reveling in the feel of his heavy bicep draped over my waist. His wide chest was covered in a smattering of hair, his skin several shades darker than my own, hinting at his Portuguese ancestry.
John, on my other side, was the true surprise. With Henry, you were always aware of his size and stature. It was impossible not to notice the breadth of his shoulders, the width of his chest. I’d known that there was muscle beneath John’s fine clothing; I’d felt it beneath my fingers when we danced. I just hadn’t known that he’d be a rival for his lover, if only on a smaller scale. His pale skin held hints of golden warmth, his chest nearly hairless. Abdominal muscles stood out in definition, toned from his years of swordplay and horse riding. Unable to help myself, I had reached out and ran my fingers over them, causing him to shudder in response.
Nothing further had happened between us; we’d simply laid in bed and spoken for a full hour, careful to keep our voices low. If it hadn’t been for our continued casual, exploratory touches and our near nakedness, it would have been like any other conversation we’d had about politics, Henry and I listening attentively as John told us about a labor bill he planned to back in the House of Commons. It would be unpopular amongst his peers, as it granted more rights to peasant workers and would likely lead to an increase of costs, but it was needed.
John owned a large swath of land in the southern part of the country, in Hampshire, where the name of his title originated from. The ancestral seat of the duchy had been located there since the fourteenth century. We still retired to it at the end of each London season, though the home we resided in was much larger and more modern than the original castle on the property, which had been ruined during the turbulent reign of Charles I.
John held the belief that in order to profit, you had to look after the people that worked your land. That they needed to be well cared for and watched over closely. As a result, our area produced enough wool, timber, and produce to turn a very healthy revenue, giving us the capital needed to reinvest in the fields, build sturdy homes for our tenants, and keep the growing market town of Hampshire flourishing.
John’s devotion to his people was one of the many reasons I was so happy to be his wife. My pride only swelled to hear of his hope to bring the same quality of life to all English workers. It had taken a monumental amount of willpower not to grab ahold of his face and show him just how happy his words had made me.
Movement brought me back to the here and now. Two sparrows flirted amongst the branches of the pear tree just outside the window. I brushed my fingers over my lips and smiled at the memory of the morning as I watched them, feeling deeply at peace for the first time in years.
“Damn you, man, you do not need to announce me!” a roar came from the hallway, shattering my bliss.
I nearly dropped my tea in my lap.
My lips crept up in a smile as I recovered, setting my cup down before I stood to face the parlor door. I would recognize that belligerent tone anywhere; my self-obsessed brother had remembered it was Thursday.
“Of course, my lord. But if you would only allow me to go first and see that she is notified of your arrival,” came a lower, placating voice.
It was that of our butler Sherman, a gnarled old man with a fondness for protocol. He also had a penchant for antagonizing my temperamental twin.
“Absolutely not! I have a standing appointment with her, which you bloody well know. We do not need to go through this every damn time, Sherman!” Marcus shouted, his voice much closer than before.
“Yes, my lord, how right you are. But as you’ve forgotten about said appointment these past two weeks, your sister may not be expecting you,” he admonished. “Please allow me to make the proper introduc-”
“Like hell I will!”
The parlor door burst open, the tall frame of my brother bounding through it with the elderly butler fast on his heels. The younger man had too much forward momentum, and when he stumbled and tried to right himself, the toe of his gleaming Hessian boot caught on the edge of the Persian carpet, sending him sprawling toward me.
“A Lord Rycroft to see you, Your Grace,” Sherman said with a bow. His lips twitched as he straightened, betraying his amusement.
Unfortunately, Marcus noticed. “Why, you pompous old-”
“There’s no reason to prostrate yourself, Marcus. I forgive you for being late,” I said, cutting off his insult.
He glared up at me, clearly unimpressed by my attempt at humor in such a serious moment. His look only darkened when I leaned down and patted his disheveled red hair.
“Thank you, Sherman, that will be all,” I said, dismissing the butler before my brother could get another look at his wrinkled face and realize that the man was struggling not to laugh.
“When are you going to fire that decrepit windbag?” Marcus asked once the door had closed, brushing himself off as he got to his feet.
I knew he didn’t mean the words, but was only embarrassed by his entrance and the fact that he’d been bested once again by an elderly servant.
“Never. Sherman is a saint, and if we released him, you’d only hire him yourself,” I returned, plucking a piece of fuzz from his dark jacket.
“I would do no such thing,” he protested, narrowing his eyes at the door.
I didn’t bother to hide the fact that I was laughing at him when he turned to me.
His face softened as he saw my expression, and he leaned down to give me a swift kiss on the cheek. “How are you, Kit?” he asked. “You look well.”
“I am well, how are you?” I asked, happy that he’d remembered to come. It had been too long since we’d last seen each other.
“In love,” he said, his lips turning up in a whimsical smile.
“Come have some tea and tell me about him,” I responded, tugging him over to the table.
I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of character I’d hear about this time. My brother was always in love. A passionate man, he’d been ruled by his emotions his entire life. He didn’t like anything, he loved it; he didn’t dislike anything, he loathed it. If a thought came into his mind, he spoke it, if an emotion welled up inside him, it was written on his face. Unlike our father, there was no dishonesty within him, no duplicity; you always knew where you stood with Marcus. He lived his life out loud. I loved him for it, even though I was jealous of it.
“He’s an actor,” he told me.
“Is he?” I asked as I settled myself back into my chair. “And what’s his name?”
“Antoine,” he returned before launching into a long speech about his many qualities – his fine face, his flawless form, his superior acting skills.
I poured more tea as I listened to him, a small smile on my lips as he went on.
“He’s playing at Drury Lane,” he said. “The last show is next Friday. Will you come with me? I want you to meet him, Kit.”
Now this was a surprise. I’d only met one of my brother’s lovers before: his very first. That he was asking me to meet Antoine made me think that this could be more than his usual infatuation, which burned bright before petering out within a few months.
“Of course I’ll come with you. I don’t believe that John has given anyone the box for the evening, so we should be alone,” I answered.
Like most of the upper nobility, we had private boxes at both the Covenant Garden and Drury Lane theatres to keep us separated from the chaos of the lower seats. We rarely attended, as you’d expect from such a sober public couple. It would be a nice to watch a play with Marcus, who always leaned as far forward in his seat as he could get, his attention wrapped up in the drama being acted out in front of him.
“I think you’ll like him,” he told me.
“I expect I will if he’s half as impressive as you’ve made him out to be,” I teased.
He glanced up from his tea to give me a shy smile, and I knew in that moment that he was serious about this man.
“And you, sister? How have you been?” he asked.
“I’ve been well, thank you. And preoccupied, now that the season is starting. It took me an hour to get through all the invitations I received this morning,” I told him, trying to keep my expression light, trying to keep myself from thinking about everything that had happened in the past day.
Marcus set down his tea, frowning. Clearly, something of what I was feeling had snuck past my defenses.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s nothing,” I lied, waving him off.
“Kit,” he said, slowly.
I was silent as I searched for something plausible to explain my slip up. Anything to distract him away from the danger of the greater truth. As much as I loved my brother, I could recognize his faults. Because of the way he lived his life, he sometimes forgot that others might not be as vociferous about their own. Secret keeping wasn’t his forte, to say the least, which was why I’d never told him that John preferred men.
“Father is in town,” I said.
His expression turned murderous. “For the season?”
“He has to be here to visit his solicitors and representatives. Would you rather he stayed in the country and left your inheritance to be siphoned away by corrupt employees?”
“Yes,” Marcus said. “Because on top of having to visit his solicitors, he also revels in tormenting the two of us,” Marcus added, his face a thundercloud of fury.
“You don’t have to see him,” I said, just as John had to me last night.
Marcus laughed, the sound bitter. “Oh, but I do if I don’t want to be sued out of my birthright.”
“He’ll be at the Coal Baron’s tonight.”
“Did your boring husband tell you that?” Marcus asked.
Oh, but if you only knew the truth.
“Yes,” I said.
“At least he’s good for something,” he added in a dismissive tone.
“I have no idea where this dislike of yours came from. John has been nothing but good to me. You should be overjoyed that I married him considering what the alternative was.”
Marcus’s face crumpled. “I’m sorry, Kit. You’re right. I’m an ass. Please forgive me. I’m just angry about father. And taking it out on him. And…sometimes I forget about Aberdine. About what almost was.”
I stared across the table at him. “That makes one of us.”
He leaned forward to take my hands. “I’m sorry, Kit. Truly.”
Was there really a time when we had felt like two parts of the same person? My God, we’d changed so much since then.
“Forgiven,” I said.
“How has the venerable duke been?” Marcus asked. It sounded as though he had forced himself to.
“Busier than ever since the king withdrew,” I told him.
I was more than a little annoyed, so I embraced the change of topic and launched into a prolonged speech about the House of Commons, the House of Lords, the Tories, the Whigs, and all the back table deals that John had to strike to get bills passed that he supported and block those he didn’t.
Marcus abhorred politics, and I played it to my advantage as I lulled him into a dazed state. I still knew him well enough to predict that such talk would make him desperate to flee my presence and seek out something more exciting. As I droned on, his expression fell. Not much later his eyes glazed over as he turned from me to stare out the window.
“Good God, Kit. Enough,” he finally said, running a hand through his unruly mane. “I have no idea how you can stand being married to such an upstanding gentleman. I would have thought you’d have died from boredom by now. He’s a far cry from the man I pictured you with when we were younger.”
“He’s kind to me, Marcus. He respects me. That’s the best that anyone can do in marriage,” I countered.
“But what about love?” he demanded, turning toward me with a look of near desperation.
Yes, what about love?
I forced down the melancholy that threatened and answered, “We are different people, brother. Do not think that because I don’t have love in my union, that you are destined for the same fate.”
He sat back in his chair, expression dark. “You know I won’t find love in marriage.”
“I didn’t mean marriage, I meant whomever you choose to spend your life with,” I said.
“Right. Speaking of which, I think I’d better go, I promised Antoine that we’d take a ride through Hyde Park,” he said, standing.
I rose and walked him to the door.
“Next Friday, don’t forget,” he reminded me.
“I won’t,” I assured him, standing on my toes to place a kiss on his cheek.
“And leave the politician at home, will you?” he begged.
I rolled my eyes and shooed him from the room. I was as happy to see him go as I had been to see him arrive. He could be exhausting sometimes. The changeability of his emotions, how much harder I had to work at keeping things from him, how hard I had to work to keep my own emotions in check when around him, these things added up.
I yawned as I shut the door behind him and turned my thoughts to the long evening ahead. The Baron of Rochester, recently titled and commonly referred to as the Coal Baron because that’s where his money had come from, was throwing a masquerade. He was a patron of Henry’s art, having a fondness for the mythological themes he painted, and so Henry would be joining my husband and I tonight. Along with the rest of the ton, including my father and brother.
I would need all my wits about me to face such a scene, and so I retreated to my room for a late afternoon nap, instructing Harriet to wake me only when it was time to prepare for the ball.
Copyright © 2018 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.