The southern facing parlor was my favorite room in the house. The walls were a pale, buttery 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 plagued the city these past few weeks. The sky was left a brilliant blue expanse, uninterrupted sunlight shining through the large windows, warming the room.
I sat at the round table in front of the center window, having my afternoon tea. The breeze shifted outside, and I turned my gaze to the small garden beyond the glass. Buds stood out on the flowering 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 brightened to see it.
I’d woken this morning 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 slept, and I’d opened my sleep-heavy eyes to feel John stroking a hand casually over my knee. Our gazes had met in the dim morning light, and he’d given me a lazy smile before he spoke to Henry, who lay sprawled along my other side.
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 mixed 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 shiver 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, me and Henry listening as John told us more about the labor bill that he and Glover planned to push through the Commons. It would be unpopular amongst our peers, as it granted more rights to common workers and would likely lead to an increase in 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, one must first look after the people that worked the 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 desire 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 as I watched them, feeling deeply at peace for the first time in memory.
“Damn you, man, you do not need to announce me!” a roar came from the hallway, shattering my bliss.
I nearly dropped my tea.
My lips crept up in a grin as I recovered. I set my cup down and 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, 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 in front of me, Marcus,” I said, cutting off the insult. “I forgive you for being late.”
He glared up at me, unimpressed by my attempt at humor in such a serious moment. His expression turned thunderous 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.
With a final bow, he left us.
Marcus brushed himself off and got to his feet. “When are you going to fire that decrepit windbag?”
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 would do no such thing!”
I grinned in response. He was so easy to tease.
His face softened when he saw my expression, and he leaned down to give me a swift kiss on the cheek. “You look well, Kit.”
“I am well. How are you?” I asked, happy that he’d remembered to come. It had been far too long since we’d last seen each other.
“In love,” he said, lips turning up in a whimsical smile.
I tugged him toward the table. “Come, have some tea and tell me about him.”
What sort of character would I 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.
I settled back into my chair. “And what’s his name?”
He took the seat beside me. “Antoine.” And then he launched into a long speech about his lover’s many fine qualities: his handsome face, his flawless form, his superior acting skills.
I poured more tea as I listened to him, a small smile on my lips.
“He’s playing at Drury Lane,” he said. “The last show is this Saturday. 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 meant this was more than his usual infatuation, which burned bright before flaming out within a few months.
“Of course I’ll come with you,” I said. “I don’t believe John has given the box away for the evening, so we should be alone.”
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 levels. We rarely attended, as you’d expect from such a sober public couple. It would be 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.”
He glanced up from his tea and sent me a shy smile, and I knew in that moment that he was serious about this man. “And you, sister? How have you been?”
“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 said, 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 felt had snuck past my defenses. “What is it?”
“It’s nothing,” I lied, waving him off.
I kept 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 knew 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 intormenting the two of us.”
“You don’t have to see him,” I said, echoing John from 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?”
Oh, but if you only knew the truth.
“At least he’s good for something,” he said, his tone dismissive.
“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 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 or blocked.
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 long after, his eyes glazed over, and he turned from me to stare out the window.
“Good God, Kit. Enough,” he 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 said, turning toward me with a look of near desperation.
Yes, what about love?
I forced down the melancholy that threatened. “We are different people, brother. Do not think that because I don’t have love in my union, you’re 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.”
He pushed his chair back and stood. “Right. Speaking of which, I think I’d better go, I promised Antoine that we’d take a ride through Hyde Park.”
I rose and walked him to the door.
“Next Friday, don’t forget,” he reminded me.
“I won’t,” I said, standing on my toes to place a kiss on his cheek.
“And leave the politician at home, will you?”
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 hard 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.
My thoughts turned to the long evening ahead after he left. 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 sometimes painted, so Henry would be joining my husband and me 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 I was still tired after the events of last night. Hoping to recover, 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 © 2020 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 book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.