Mr. Sykes and the Noble Muse
By Ginn Hale
Raindrops twisted and swung like glass baubles flung from a jewelry box as the wind tossed them through the darkening sky. The air tasted wet and smelled of apples turning slowly to cider amid decaying golden leaves. There were worse evenings to be out on a roof and considering the condition of the tiles there wasn’t really all that much of a difference between inside and out in a number of places.
“How bad is it?” Harper called up to me. He peered through the rain and twilight gloaming. He balanced on the every top rung of a ladder, gripping the snout of the gargoyle downspout.
I considered my response for a moment, because instinctively I wanted to lie and assure him that all was well. After three months of sweating and laboring to repair the west wing before winter the last thing Harper–or I—needed was a gaping hole in the roof of the east wing. But here it was and I already knew Harper would be too bloody-minded to just raise the money for the repair by increasing his tenants’ rents. He’d bankrupt himself first.
And then what would become of this towering fortress, which Harper so quaintly called our house? (That in itself bordering on absurdity. A little like referring to the vast, seething Tehom Ocean as the puddle between us and the colonies.) Still, the old castle was Harper’s home and had been my sanctuary for nearly five years now. I’d grown accustomed to the ramparts, secret corridors, stained-glass windows and whispering drafts. I’d even developed a rather perverse fondness for the glowering portraits of Harper’s austere, disapproving ancestors. Here I’d shed my sordid past and despite being a Prodigal I’d earned the bored tolerance of most the country folk. My insistence upon failing to seduce any maidens, burn down the local church or steal even a single baby had soon proven such a disappointment that many of the local tenant-farmers had come to regard me as nearly harmless.
I’d even made a friend in the person of Harper’s groundskeeper, Hugh Browning, who on the whole was much less harmless than myself. He possessed the sort of dark, good looks that seemed to render many a local maiden prone to seduction, and he produced a scrumpy well-worth the next day’s hangover. (On a recent scrumpy bender, he and I had conceived the mad idea of concocting an illicit flying potion from a few drops of my blood and a bruise tonic. It hadn’t proved too long-acting or pleasant tasting.)
But more than anything else this place had allowed me to see so much more of Harper’s character and to grow infuriatingly, deeply attached to him. I could no longer imagine falling asleep or waking without the sensation of his warm body pressed close to mine. His company and conversation lent amusement, joy, annoyance, and ecstasy to the slow days of countryside life.
All of it, thanks to the shelter offered by this crumbling, majestic relic of a fortress with its weathered granite walls, worn oak interiors, ironwork bars and crumbling slate roofs. What would we do without this place, I wondered? And at the same time considered just how much Harper had already sacrificed for the sake of our moldering haven. How much more could he possible labor before he simply collapsed himself?
Lightning flickered in the distance, throwing long shadows across the pastures, fields, orchards and cottages that Harper had updated and restored over the last few years. I glanced back to him and saw lines of concern etching his brow. He’d eked out a living from the income of this old ruin while paying off the mortgages his father had taken out. All the while he’d improved the leases and the livelihoods of a small army of servants and cottagers. And when he’d run short of personal funds he’d done whatever needed doing himself. He’d laid stones and plastered walls, planted seedlings and driven wandering flocks of sheep back from his wheat fields to their pastures.
I’d done my share of lifting, carrying and generally toiling, but only because even as lazy a creature as myself couldn’t help but be shamed into effort while keeping Harper’s industrious company.
The merciless manner in which Harper worked himself showed in the fine lines beneath his eyes as well as his tanned, weathered skin and grayed temples. Always lean, he’d grown recently spare and ropey as an underfed boxer. Still the sight of him warmed me. Even with rain dripping off the end of his nose, I found him strikingly handsome.
I extended one finger and scraped a slate shingle. It cracked and clattered down into the shadows of the exposed roof timbers.
“Belimai?” Harper’s voice rose up from the gloom. The wind tossed his light hair and light rain pelted his tanned face. He couldn’t possibly see me through the darkness and yet, as always his dark eyes rested upon me.
“I’m fine. But one of your ancient shingles has shuffled off the mortal coil. ”
“Just the one?” Harper sounded skeptical.
“No, that was simply the latest of many.” No point in dragging it out. I was just getting soaked floating up over the roof and Harper wasn’t doing much better from his spot beside the gurgling downspout.
“How bad is it?” Harper muscled himself up a hand higher and my heart jerked at the sight. He was 200 feet off the ground and balancing on the tips of one boot between a frail rung ladder and a crumbling gargoyle. And unlike my devilish self, he couldn’t fly if anything gave way.
“Damn it, Will! Both feet on the bloody ladder. You swore!”
He offered me an amused look but lowered himself back down a foot or so to the stability of the ladder.
“I stand, literally, corrected,” He called to me. “So, how bad is the roof?”
“Well, the hole is not so large that the carriage could fall clean through but I might just about block it if I jammed in my entire body.”
“Oh well, that solves that, then,” Harper replied drily.
“It would offer me a lovely vantage point for my latest landscape, however.”
“Nothing captures the charm of country life like rotting roofing overlooking the pastures,” Harper returned without enthusiasm.
“I did actually sell one very like that,” I replied though I wasn’t thinking too much about the sad little commissions I’d made from the sales of my paintings back in the capital of Crowncross. Landscapes and architectural studies of the Foster estate garnered me a small income. The few nudes, displayed to only certain customers sold for far more but too sporadically to be relied upon. It would require much more coin than I had stashed away to replace the massive oak supports and slate tiles of this roof.
I turned in the wind, drifting around the perimeter of the newly opened up hole. A nightjar swooped past me, circled once curiously, and then winged back to the comfort of its nest. It wasn’t a fit night to be in the air. I too wheeled back and lit off to the edge of the drains where Harper waited.
“The actual cavity is about five feet square, but I think the underlying decay might be much more extensive.”
Harper sighed heavily but nodded. I wished, not for the first time that this could have happened after Harper departed to attend Squire Marcy’s Harvest Ball. At least then he might have enjoyed a few carefree hours of capering and kicking at the dance. Maybe Hugh Browning and I could have covered the whole thing over and let it be until after Harper collected the autumn rents.
“We’ll have to hire men in the morning. Only thing we can do tonight is to keep any more rain from getting down into the walls and plaster below,” Harper said.
The steak and ale pie already laid out on our super table was going to go cold, but it would keep.
I didn’t mention the Harvest Ball. If Harper decided not to attend I would go and make an excuse for him. Just the sight of my glossy black nails and bright yellow eyes tended to put snotty Squire Marcy in a panic. He’d likely feel so desperate to remove me from his garish, sprawling country house that he’d pay no mind at all to what I said. The fact that Squire Marcy craved Harper’s approval—Harper possessing the title of Lord Foster and being the last descendant of an ancient and holy lineage—precluded Marcy from simply having his footmen beat me out the door with fire irons.
No doubt, Squire Marcy viewed me in much the same way as he viewed the menagerie of crested vultures and condors that the Duke of Gwenhill maintained. Only the duke’s reeking raptors rarely attended social occasions and never escorted ladies—not even country ladies—to the table or dance floor. Still, it wouldn’t do to abuse the Prodigal artist that Lord Foster kept like a strange kind of pet.
Knowing as much, I often took a certain pleasure in observing the squire’s face turn greenish and sickly with horror when I complimented his dim, young sister or called his fiancé a beauty. Imagining the squire’s alarm at my company buoyed my spirit through the drizzle and difficulty of the next hour.
Between us, Harper and I hauled a good twenty yards of oiled canvas up to the roof. The broad expanses of stiff, yellowed cloth whipped and filled with wind, billowing like sails. At one point, a gust lifted me up toward the icy heights of growing storm clouds. Harper barely managed to catch my boot in time.
“Let go of the damn canvas, Belimai!” he shouted.
I refused. I’d been there when Harper had bought the stuff and seen what it cost.
Swearing, Harper hauled me and my sail back down. He continued swearing for a good while, holding me tightly in his arms and informing me that I could have been killed if I’d been slammed into one of the parapets or had been impaled on any of the spiked lightning rods. His body felt warm and he smelled pleasantly of sweat and rain.
“You put me through hell, you know that?” he muttered against the side of my head. The oiled canvas slithered and slapped at the roof tiles behind us. More rain pattered down. I felt Harper’s heart beating as if it were in my own chest. We clung together, braced between gaping gargoyles and the cold churning wind.
“Didn’t I save you fifty silver, though?” I whispered to Harper.
He simply shook his head. Then he released me and I scampered across the slick wet tiles, dragging two ends of the oiled canvass behind me while he secured the other two corners to downspouts.
Once we had plugged up the roof and gotten ourselves thoroughly drenched, we retired with our cold meal to the library hearth and ate. The firelight turned the gray in Harper’s hair gold and cast a feeling a warm comfort over me. Having dispatched our suppers, we played cards. Harper indulged me in allowing me to wager and promptly lose such treasures as my virtue and innocence to him. The longcase clock rang out seven lethargic notes that made me suspect it needed winding. That or Mrs. Kately had stuffed a rag in the thing again to dampen it’s often pounding chimes. Harper’s head footman, Giles, sidled in and inquired if the master still planned to attend Squire Marcy’s Dance.
To my surprise Harper said he would and added that I would be going as well.
Giles withdrew to lay out Harper’s formal clothes and I frowned at Harper.
“I thought you’d had your fill of Squire Marcy attempting to foist his hollow-headed sister off on you already,” I commented. The previous autumn, a scarcity of titled bachelors had found Harper the target of several matchmaking endeavors. Only his insistence that though he no longer wore the collar, he still remained a priest at heart had kept the hounds of matrimony at bay.
Harper looked a little harrowed at the reminder but then shrugged.
“I promised Miss Venet that I’d attend,” Harper said and he had the grace to at least look apologetic. We did not exactly see eye-to eye on the subject of Miss Venet—she of the silky, black locks, skin like cream and the bountiful dowry.
Miss Sophia Venet, Squire Marcy’s fiancé and the only child of the indulgent old Baronet of Lindmead, possessed the dark-haired and doe-eyed beauty that made her strongly resembled Harper’s sister Joan –at least in body, though certainly not in fiery temperament. I found Miss Venet pretty enough and quick witted, if in the naïve manner of a girl who’d never known any form of hardship or hunger. But after making conversation with her on the subject of the city fashion of lace conversation fans and then listening to her ponder deeply upon the plight of the poor Prodigals of Hells Below–who hadn’t the means to purchase such crucial fans—I felt that I’d rather spend a few hours batting myself about the head and face with a wine bottle than have to endure anymore of her deeply sincere and utterly ignorant opinions of how “my people” might be improved.
To her credit she had not been afraid to dance with me and she played a mean hand of loo. And Harper liked Miss Venet; he enjoyed the company of women in general and obviously missed light-hearted female conversation since he’d lost his sister. If he’d been another man I had no doubt that he might have married a woman much like Miss Venet.
The idea did nothing to endear her to me, of course.
“That doesn’t explain why I’m attending,” I pointed out.
Harper offered me one of his charming smiles.
“Because you are a delight even in the company of dullards,” Harper said. “And I will most certainly be in your debt afterward.”
“You will be.” I grinned thinking of our hours together after the ball up in Harper’s bed. “I’d best get changed into my best for the ball, then.”
Squire Marcy’s huge white country house sprawled across the rain-dark hills like a treasury of imported marble palaces dropped in a heap from the heavens.
Perhaps living so long in an austere fortress had skewed my senses but everything about the place struck me as so ostentatious as to border upon parody. From the rows upon rows of decorative columns nearly filling up the entry, to the imposing line of marble busts in the ballroom and the tangles of crystal chandeliers jostling for every inch of space on the ceiling, the grand displays of wealth left scant room for the crowds of guests meant to admire them all.
And the number of servants hired on for the evening seemed to nearly outnumber the guests. Half a dozen footmen jostled to take Harper’s greatcoat. I handed mine over to a fellow who looked miserable in his fancy dress of yellow stockings and satin breeches and yellow livery adorned with white embroidered M’s—for lack of any heraldry. The sight of my glossy black fingernails seemed to startle him out of his funk.
I hoped he wouldn’t burn my coat before I could retrieve it.
Harper and I were announced by another footman, Harper as William Harper, Lord Foster and me as Mr. Belimai Sykes. Harper marched like a proper soldier to greet our hostess and I followed him like a sullen youth, shoving my hands into my pockets to belatedly fish out my gloves. Even I knew better than to offer a lady my bare hand.
It was then that I noticed the small glass vial in the pocket of my waistcoat. I nearly drew it out, but then I took in the sidelong glances and stares of the formally dressed guests already gathered under the wax-dripping chandeliers. They were all much too interested in me, in a manner that seemed to harken back to the very first days that Harper had presented me—a Prodigal descended from devils—as his guest, favored artist, and friend.
But now these people had known me nearly five years. Generally my presence among them passed without response beyond a few sour looks. If anything, the gentry of the county tried their best to largely ignore my existence all together.
So, having several plump well dressed gentlemen and their silk gowned wives watch me pass them as if I were an exotic fruit did not put me at ease. Certainly I wasn’t about to draw out the vial—as I had just recollected what it was and why it was in my pocket.
Hugh Browning had given me a dram of our floating potion in case the occasion should arise for me to spike the squire’s punch. Hugh had felt that having the big blond squire float up into the fiery mass of his chandeliers would be a great laugh. And I agreed but once I’d sobered up I’d quickly realized that the potion would obviously be traced back to me.
So I’d pocketed it and forgotten about it.
Now all at once a dread gripped me that somehow word had gotten out about Hugh Browning’s and my drunken and highly illegal little dabble at brewing up devil potions. A conviction could get Hugh deported and me hanged. I wanted to hurl the vial from me but wasn’t such a fool as to think that would go unnoticed. Nothing for it but to put on a bored expression and trail Harper’s straight, broad back deeper into this den of blazing candlelight and judgmental gawkers.
The crowd parted before Harper, revealing Squire Marcy, encircled by his relations and most prestigious guests. I recognized Marcy’s mother, Eugenie, as the sallow face engulfed in a hurricane of black lace, ebony silk, polished jet, and black pearls. Her water-pale eyes wandered the room searching for a dose of poppy-tonic or patent medicine. What sympathy I had initially felt for her intense mourning had dissipated when Hugh Browning informed me that her husband hadn’t died in a tragic dairy accident twelve years ago but had simply run off to the colonies with happy, fat milk-maid.
While Harper accepted the would-be widow’s extended hand and thanked her for the courtesy of her lovely home, I took in the rest of Squire Marcy’s party. There was Charles Marcy himself—young, blond, soft around the middle and corseted so tightly into his brocade casings that he looked like a costly sausage on the verge of bursting. On his left, his wan, willowy sister Camilla chatted with the blithe abandon of a child, unused to being heard or understood. Though she so often struck a subject of subtle cruelty in her seemingly guileless babble that I had grown to suspect her of making a determined study of her stupidity. Even honing it to a weapon.
At the moment, the victim of her chirpy observations was none other than the lovely Miss Sophia Venet. She managed a pained smile as Camilla recounted her embarrassing childhood pre-occupation with Hugh Browning to the amusement of several very well dressed city gentlemen. Miss Venet colored to nearly the shade of her pink satin gown as Camilla described how she’d ruined her best Sunday dress and accidently bared her naked bottom while attempting to aid young Hugh in driving a flock of sheep out of a wheat field.
“She was ever so darling, really.” Miss Marcy giggled. “Dashing through the mud with no idea that she’d torn open the entire back of her dress! Oh the way she trailed the Foster groundskeeper was just like one of his puppies! I daresay, Sophia. You didn’t think you were a puppy did you?”
“Yes indeed, Miss Marcy.” Miss Venet smiled but I thought that if she could have gotten away with it she might have stuck a hatpin through Camilla Marcy’s throat. “If fate had been so capricious as to grant my childish aspirations I assure you, I would now be far away baying after game.”
Two of the gentlemen standing beside the women made noises assuring Miss Venet that she was far better suited to the life of a lady than a bitch—thought not in those words—while Miss Venet herself maintained her smile and stared hard at Harper’s handsome, tan profile. Camilla Marcy too seemed to notice the direction of Miss Venet’s attention. Being more practiced in deception, I maintained my studied expression of tedium while observing how both the young women’s feelings illuminated their faces.
Miss Venet gazed at Harper with a joy that I understood all too well and had grown used to seeing Harper inspire in others—both men and women. Miss Marcy regarded Miss Venet like a rat she wished to crush beneath her heel.
Then suddenly my observations were interrupted as a tall man darted forward and caught my gloved hand in his own.
“You must be Mr. Belimai Sykes!” He shook my hand and held it between his own for several moments too long while beaming down at me with all the delight of a fox taking possession of a chicken coop.
In the glow of so many candles, his red hair shone like polished copper and his green eyes seemed almost to sparkle in his angular face. He could have passed for a youth of twenty if it hadn’t been for the faint smile lines etched into the corners of his full mouth. The garnet shade of his clothes and their perfect fit flattered both his coloring and his graceful, slim form. A distinctly pleasant scent of calendula and leather drifted from him.
Even so, I didn’t like the strength of his warm grip on my hand at all.
“I am Belimai Sykes,” I admitted and I stuffed my hands back in my pockets. “But I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, Mr…?”
As I spoke a strange quiet seemed to come over the people surrounding us. I felt suddenly very aware of how many of them were again watching me, from behind fans and from the corners of their eyes. Camilla Marcy stared like a gleeful child waiting to witness her hounds dispatch some vermin. Only Miss Venet appeared utterly indifferent, as she edged her way nearer to Harper. For his part Harper shot me an alarmed glance from Eugenie Marcy’s side.
Camilla Marcy flicked her gardenia scented fan open and then whispered jut a little too loudly. “The gentleman certainly isn’t any mere mister. He’s none other than His Grace, Julian Grenfell, the Duke of Gwenhill, Mr Sykes, you silly devil.”
The Duke of Gwenhill—our young Queen’s famous bachelor uncle.
I could have fallen all over myself, making excuses for my gaffe and generally playing the beaten dog pissing himself, but it wasn’t much in my nature, not even knowing that a man as powerful the duke could have me fed to his pet vultures if the fancy struck him.
“I knew I shouldn’t have skipped school the day they taught us how to address a duke.” I smiled gamely though the way the duke’s gaze roved over me made it a little difficult. Last time I’d been eyed like that the other fellow had wanted to turn me inside out and make magic pudding from my organs.
“One addresses a duke as ‘your grace’,” the duke informed me. “But you, Mr. Sykes, must call me Grenfell. All my friends do. And I feel certain that we will be fast friends.”
Fast indeed, I thought.
“That’s quite kind of you… Grenfell.”
The duke favored me with another dashing and far too familiar smile. He stepped a little nearer to me and I uneasily noted that his height lent an illusion of slender delicacy to a body that in truth was quite broad. The crowd of guests, servants and musicians hampered any quick retreat—should matters come to that—and the maze of blazing chandeliers overhead blocked my other route of escape. My pulse began to kick with anxiety.
“Your paintings, my dear Mr. Sykes, they have captured me utterly.” The duke spoke softly but I felt certain that his voice carried to Camilla Marcy. “The moment I laid eyes upon them I was seized by a frisson and so rapt that I stood in place staring for nearly a quarter of an hour.”
“You’ve seen my paintings?” I knew the moment I spoke that I sounded like a dullard. Hadn’t he just said he’d seen them? But I’d been so occupied by wondering what crimes in my ugly past had set a duke against me that I wasn’t thinking at all of art. And it seemed inconceivable that a duke should have encountered any of my works, much less been so moved by them as this. I felt stunned and then suspicious of his flattery. Both Harper and Mr. Weller, who acquired art for the Sommer Gallery, were complimentary of my artistic endeavors but certainly not this enthusiastic.
“I’ve not merely seen them,” the duke replied—something about the way he stared so intently into my face made me think he was about to pounce and I edged back from him just a little. “I’ve been completely ravished by them.”
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Camilla Marcy’s pale brows rise. The two country gentlemen beside her gawked at the duke and me. I thought I even glimpsed Eugenie Marcy’s black shadow edging towards us. But the person whose help I could have used was Harper—he knew all about titles and who in which noble families might be rotters. But where had he gone?
The strains of music filling the huge room assured me that he’d escorted Miss Venet onto the dance floor. Which left me on my own in less than easy company.
“I had no idea that Mr. Sykes possessed so much talent. I declare, Mr. Sykes, you have been keeping your light hidden under a bushel!” Miss Marcy slapped my shoulder with her fan as if we were on such good terms that I wouldn’t object to being struck. I considered gouging her with one of my hard black nails to see how committed she was to the charade. But she sashayed just out of easy reach to the duke’s left.
“I do so love art,” she proclaimed.
“How charming,” the duke responded off handedly, but then his attention snapped back to me and his expression turned somehow softer, almost gentle. “You are not an easy man to locate Mr. Sykes. I’ve spent the last three weeks riding across the countryside following those small clues included in your paintings only to be frustrated when I discovered that Lord Foster had hidden you away on his dour estate. I had no choice but to foist my company upon the squire and his simple family purely in hopes of at last making your acquaintance.”
“We’ve been honored by your company, your Grace,” Camilla said. “In fact, brother was just commenting on how much he hoped you would stay for the hunt.”
“You and your family have been entirely too kind in enduring the burden of my company, Miss Marcy.” The duke’s gaze flickered over the squire and his mother without a hint of warmth. Then he turned to Camilla Marcy. “Miss Marcy, you must be a splendid dancer. As I recall your dance card is nearly full already?”
“Yes, but not entirely. If your grace wishes—”
“Indeed, my dear Miss Marcy,” the duke cut her off. “You mustn’t tarry a moment longer on my account. I’ve already kept you from your partners too long. Please don’t feel that you must linger here when you’ve already been far, far too generous in sharing your company with me.”
Miss Marcy’s face tightened but she didn’t let her awareness of the slight show for more than that instant. She bared the line of her pretty white teeth to the duke in a hard smile.
“Thank you, your grace! You are so kind, considering the feelings of the gentlemen on my dance card.” With that she turned and strode away with her head held painfully high.
“Come, before another swoops down upon us,” the duke whispered to me and then caught my arm in his very strong grip and began to draw me back towards the closed doors of the veranda.
I almost resisted out of reflex but then thought better of it. Here, half-blinded by the glare of so many candles and trapped beneath a blazing ceiling I was at every disadvantage. But out in the dark with access to the stormy sky, I would be in my element. If I wanted free of the duke I would need only throw myself into the wind and soar up where he could not hope to follow.
“Lead on, Grenfell.”
We slipped out into the blustery night air, though only a light spray of rain reached us. The duke pulled the doors closed behind us and sighed as if relieved of some immense weight.
“Hard night?” I asked.
“It is already much improved, I assure you.” The duke shook his head. “Please don’t think me cruel in dismissing Miss Marcy so abruptly but the girl and her mother have been absolute harpies to that Miss Venet this entire week.”
So, another handsome admirer of Miss Venet. I leaned against the ornate railing of the veranda, overlooking the Marcy’s garden grounds. A cherub fountain pissed into the rain and sprays of night blooming jasmine clung to white trellises as the storm pelted them.
“They taunt her abominably over some childhood affection for Lord Foster’s groundskeeper and never seem to tire of pointing out how very poor the fellow’s entire family must be.”
I’d witnessed Hugh Browning endure the same needling and worse, likely because he was so much more charming than the squire that the Marcy women secretly feared he’d manage to outshine Charles, despite his poverty.
“So you’ve dragged me out here to discuss Miss Venet? Are you hoping I can provide you with a portrait of the lovely girl posed as some flower-clad nymph, perhaps?” I asked.
The duke laughed a little self-consciously, then moved to my side at the railing. His cologne curled over me as he placed his gloved hand next to mine.
“No, Mr. Sykes. Pretty as she is, young Miss Venet has nothing at all to do with my actions of late. Certainly not any bearing upon my desire to speak in person and privately with you.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Then why have you secured my complete attention out in the rain—Grenfell?”
He bowed his head so close to mine that I thought he might actually bite my ear, but instead he whispered.
“I want you Mr. Sykes. I am half out of my mind from wanting you.”
I stepped back quickly. “You don’t even know me.”
“I’ve seen your paintings.” The duke’s voice remained soft and friendly. “I know that you and I share a passion that others do not understand and cannot appreciate.”
“Perhaps we do, but that doesn’t mean—”
“I know that as a Prodigal and an artist you are largely without resources.” The duke cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Whereas I possess wealth and influence in obscene abundance. And while I am sadly devoid of any artistic merit myself, I have made it my mission in life to shelter those creative souls whom I know to share my… tastes, if you will. It is my dream to create a place where our kind can share art, music, and literature that speaks of the glory and beauty of our desire.”
I felt certain that when the duke spoke of our kind, he didn’t mean Prodigals. But the rest of it confused me some. Certainly, I wasn’t understanding him correctly. He couldn’t be offering me a place in some kind of sodomite refuge that he’d established, could he? He was famously eccentric. I guessed there was really only one way of knowing.
“Are you proposing to whisk me away and be my artistic patron or are you just chatting me up for a bit of ass?”
Again the duke laughed.
“My intention is to offer you the former but I certainly wouldn’t say no to the latter. Just so long as it wouldn’t hamper your… relationship with your muse.”
“Your sketches of him appeared so intimate,” the duke spoke into my silence. “I admit I assumed that you and he were…”
All at once I knew who the duke was talking about and also exactly what art of mine had so fired his blood. Not my landscape paintings, but the nude studies that Mr. Weller offered to only a very select clientele. Most were rough, intimate drawings that I’d made of Harper in private moments. The studies weren’t so detailed as to render Harper perfectly recognizable but they captured a sensual essence of him in rare, languid repose.
“My… muse wouldn’t likely take too kindly to a one-off,” I admitted. Harper did have a bit of a jealous streak in him though there’d hardly been an occasion for him to feel it. Certainly, not while he paraded Miss Venet around the ballroom.
“The two of you are quite committed?” The duke’s expression turned almost wistful.
I didn’t intend to share any confidence that might endanger Harper, but I nodded.
“Then he must come with you. I’ll find work for him on my estate.” The duke patted my hand in an almost paternal manner though he couldn’t have been even a decade my senior. “It can’t have been easy for the two of you here.”
“It’s not easy most places,” I admitted. How strange it felt to come this close to discussing Harper and myself. And at the same time, oddly relieving to feel that in all the world there might be one other soul who could listen with sympathy. “But I’ve been happy.”
“Yes, love can make a paradise of a wasteland, so they say,” the duke whispered. “Still, I understand from the local gossip that Lord Foster is possessed of a religious zeal for work. And from your depictions, I can only assume that your muse must be under Lord Foster’s thumb.”
I didn’t laugh at that. In truth, Harper was often worked to exhaustion by himself in the role of Lord Foster.
“His home is here. I don’t know that he could be happy elsewhere.” I shrugged and beside me the duke nodded somberly.
“He wouldn’t be the much-discussed Hugh Browning, I don’t suppose?” the duke asked.
“I couldn’t possibly give up his name,” I responded.
“Yes, quite right.” The duke leaned on the railing and gazed out at the dark maze of the grounds below us. “It’s only that you looked very slightly pained during the discussion of Miss Venet’s flirtations with Mr. Browning.”
He had me there, but over the wrong man. And it wasn’t even jealousy that pained me. Not really. But something more akin to a dreadful sensibility that seemed to lurk in my dark little heart. Harper needed money while Miss Venet possessed an immense dowry and she was obviously taken with Harper. Who wouldn’t be? Marriage could also offer him an heir to his beloved estate and banish the sort of suspicions that arose when a man remained too long a bachelor. It was all so pragmatically perfect that it felt horribly inevitable.
“You must not let fear of the future spoil your present happiness,” the duke told me.
I wondered just what he must have read in my expression.
“You aren’t half observant, are you, Grenfell?”
“Hardly,” he gave a short laugh. “I was simply watching you very intently. And I know how easy it is to feel uncertain when all the world seems set against you. But you are not alone.”
“No, I’m not.” That was part of the problem. I hadn’t been alone for nearly five years. In that time I’d grown so attached to Harper and to even the countryside that now it troubled me that I might not be able to bear losing him or leaving here. But would I stay—could I endure it if he took Miss Venet as his wife and brought her into our home? Into our bed?
I stared at the rain-battered jasmine. How tenaciously it held to its trellis. No doubt stronger storms than tonight’s had come and gone before without displacing it. I tried to let that idea soothe my anxiety.
If Harper asked me to, I decided, I would try as best as I could to accept Miss Venet as a necessity of our life together. If Harper wanted her…
Then it occurred to me, how truly unlike Harper such a proposal would be. He’d abandoned Crowncross to escape deceit, to live just as he pleased—with me alone. He was stubborn and upstanding and perversely unmoved by the lure of convenience.
If I hadn’t let the sting of jealously distract me so badly, likely I would have realized all this much sooner. I knew William Harper both at his best and worst. Five years by his side, in bed, out in fields and up on roofs had taught me that I could trust him.
All at once I found myself grinning like an idiot at the Marcys’ garden.
“We will have been together five years come midnight,” I said.
The duke looked a little startled and then offered me a genuinely delighted smile.
“My congratulations to you both,” he said and I felt embarrassed. Had I become such a country bumpkin that I now went around announcing things to strangers as if I were a four-year-old who believed that all the world needed to know when my birthday came?
“Thank you,” I said.
“No. It is I who should thank you. You and your muse give my heart hope, you know,” the duke told me, though he too gazed out into the rain. “Joy is all around us if we just have the courage to embrace it, and each other.”
“I suppose you’re right. Such trust does require courage.”
For a few moments we were both quiet. Music and light filtered from the ballroom but didn’t intrude upon on our calm. I hardly knew the duke—and given time I might come to loathe him—but just now he made the best company I could have hoped for at Squire Marcy’s ball. There was something about speaking to him that reminded me of the relief that I felt during my childhood when it had still been possible to unburden myself in confession.
I realized that as odd as he was, I didn’t want to lose track of the duke. I rather liked him.
“Are you serious about buying my art?” I asked.
“Absolutely. I’ve already snatched up everything I could lay my hands on. You are a very talented man.”
“Even if I don’t leave with you?”
“Even so,” the duke assured me.
I considered that. There was an undeniable danger in providing art to the duke. After all, I knew nothing of the other men to whom he would show my paintings or mention my name. Then I thought of the gaping hole in Harper’s roof.
“I think we can work out an understanding,” I decided.
“Wonderful!” the duke threw his arm over my shoulder and offered me a hug. I drew in a breath of him and tasted his honesty and happiness like the sweetness of honey. We discussed my pay and how often he could expect a painting. He made reasonable requests and spoke quite knowledgeably about pigment composition and the long drying times of oil paints.
Behind us the door to the veranda squealed as it was shoved open. The duke drew back with a relaxed expression as Harper glowered at him. Despite the gloom I easily discerned Harper’s clenched jaw and the butt of the pistol, hidden beneath his dark evening jacket. Candlelight from the ballroom played over the angular lines of his face and cast the corded muscle of his extended forearm into sharp relief.
“Belimai, I very much need a private word with you,” Harper ground out. Next to me, the duke bristled at Harper’s terse tone. He even stepped forward as if to shield me. Then he stilled, taking in Harper’s lean figure in the sharp light, and his face lit with recognition.
“Lord Foster…oh, I see,” the duke said as if Harper were the solution to a tricky puzzle. He glanced back at me and smiled wryly. “I leave you to your muse.”
Harper scowled all the harder and I resisted the urge to laugh as the duke departed the veranda, looking profoundly smug. After a moment Harper drew to my side.
“What was that all about?” Harper asked.
“Oh, I was just passing time alone with a handsome nobleman.” I couldn’t help but tease Harper a little. “You seemed so busy dancing with Miss Venet that I thought you wouldn’t even notice.”
“Of course I noticed,” Harper snapped then his expression changed a little. “Belimai, You know there’s nothing romantic between Miss Venet and me, don’t you?”
“Well not on your part at least,” I responded. “She was all but knocking me and Miss Marcy aside to claim you earlier this evening.”
“I don’t blame her.” I assured Harper. “Obviously the girl has good taste but it’s a little unkind of you to lead her along.”
“Me? Lead her along?” Harper laughed but I had no idea why. “Miss Venet is nearly as wily as you. Though not half as handsome.”
“Wily? How so?” I demanded.
“Her or you?” Harper asked. He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and managed to light it despite the spatter of rain bouncing off the overhanging roof.
“Much as I love to hear you expound upon my qualities, why don’t you tell me what mischief Miss Venet has managed to involve you in.”
“I didn’t say she involved me.” Harper exhaled a thin plume of smoke with a sigh.
“Of course she did.” I considered Harper. “She told you a sad story didn’t she?”
Harper laughed then nodded.
“You know me too well,” he said.
“I ought to after so long.”
“Five years, come the stroke of midnight,” Harper said.
I don’t know why I hadn’t expected him to have kept track, but somehow I hadn’t.
Harper continued, “I’d hoped to just get all this mess with Miss Venet over with and be back home early tonight. But it doesn’t seem likely.”
“You still haven’t said what she’s gotten you involved in,” I reminded him. The fact that he’d brought his pistol made me worry that Miss Venet had, indeed, managed to concoct some terrible trouble. Gambling debts? Ophorium addiction?
“She wants to elope,” Harper said grimly.
“With you?” I asked and Harper rolled his eyes at me as if I were an idiot.
“With Hugh Browning.” Harper drew in another long drag of his cigarette then exhaled with an annoyed expression. “It all would have gone off without a hitch tonight except this duke turned up and the Marcys’ moved Miss Venet, her chaperone, and her father to different rooms on the third floor of the east wing, where there’s no bloody trellis to climb down and too much staff to easily slip out through the doors.”
I considered the situation for a moment while Harper smoked.
“She can’t be all that heavy. I could probably lift her—”
“No,” Harper said flatly. “I already told her and Hugh that you are not to be involved in this. If I’m discovered aiding Miss Venet to elope, there’s little the Marcys can do to me aside from snub me, which has some appeal. But as a Prodigal you could catch real trouble. I like Miss Venet, but she’s not worth risking your freedom for.”
Harper contemplated the red glow of his cigarette, then said, “A fire would clear the house but it’s too risky with so many people inside.”
I thought of Hugh Browning’s sudden interest in flying potions and guessed that he’d ignored Harper’s ultimatum. I couldn’t hold it against Hugh for trying. I understood the frustration of being forbidden from the one I wanted far too well. And Hugh had been truly drunk when he’d brought it up. Likely the next morning he hadn’t even remember testing the potion we’d brewed.
I smiled thinking that must’ve made certain bruises quite the mystery for poor hung-over Hugh.
“Why are you smiling like that?” Harper asked.
“Because I have a gift for Miss Venet.” I drew the vial from my pocket. “It tastes wretched and will only last her fifteen minutes, but if she downs it she ought to be able to float from the third story to the stables with a bag or two.”
Harper scowled at the brown apothecary vial in my hand.
“Should I ask where you got it?”
“Made it myself when I was a little tipsy,” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie though I felt certain that Harper recognized the vial.
“Hugh’s lucky he’s leaving on his honeymoon or I’d be having some words with him.” Harper ground out his cigarette on the underside of the marble railing and then took the vial from me. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let some duke carry you away while I’m gone, will you?”
“I’ll resist as best I can but he has made me quite the compelling offer,” I replied lightly.
Harper stilled and stared at me as if I’d struck him.
“Belimai,” he said quietly. “I know it’s been hard here with me but—”
“But you needn’t fear,” I cut him off, unable to stand him looking so raw with worry. “Go rescue the young lovers. I’ll be here when you come back, I swear.”
Harper nodded and went quickly.
I waited, feeling the wind play through my fingers, and strolling the length of the veranda. Voices and laughter drifted to me on swells of dance music. Perhaps I should have felt alone or abandoned, but I didn’t. Instead a sense of contentedness filled me. I took a few playful steps and danced a few feet into the air.
I didn’t hear Harper return, but I knew his touch the moment his hand closed around mine and he drew me down to his side.
“I’m so damn lucky to have you…” Harper whispered.
“So you’ve saved the day after all?” I asked.
“No, you did.” He didn’t release my hand, but slid his fingers up to caress my wrist. He gazed at me in that way that seemed so open and made even his silence feel eloquent. I leaned into him for just a moment. Then I drew a step back to the veranda railing and Harper joined me leaning half into the rain and gazing at the jolly stone cherub as it blithely pissed up at the brooding black sky above.
“It won’t be long before midnight,” Harper commented.
“An hour or so, I’d guess,” I agreed.
“I had really hoped that we could have been away from here and home by now,” Harper said.
“There’s always next year,” I said and again Harper gave me that flatteringly affectionate glance. An instant later some uncertainty creased his brow and he scowled down at his arms.
“What I was saying earlier,” Harper began. “I meant it about knowing that it’s not been easy living with me out here. If I didn’t have you, Belimai, I don’t know that I could stand it myself. You deserve so much more than I have to offer but I hope you’ll accept this—” Harper straightened and jammed his hand into the pocket of his evening coat. He drew out a small band of gold and held it out to me. “I only wish I could give you more.”
I silenced him with a kiss and then I snatched the ring up.
It was heavy and simple but it fit me perfectly.
Harper’s countenance lit up as I held up my hand to show him his ring on my finger.
“I won’t give you up to a duke without a fight, you know.” Harper’s tone sounded light and confident now.
“In truth I’m not exactly the one he was after,” I replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Grenfell is an admirer of my artwork, but he’s been particularly taken with your figure.”
“My figure? When would he ever have…” Harper trailed off with a look of mortified realization. “Tell me that you didn’t put those drawings on sale.”
“I refuse to incriminate myself,” I replied. “But I will tell you that I will be able to buy you a new roof, Lord Foster. And I hope to keep you comfortably unclothed beneath it.”
I squeezed Harper’s hand in mine.
“You should make your excuses and take me home to your bed, Lord Foster,” I whispered.
Even through the dark I could see the blush coloring Harper’s tanned cheeks. I expected that the duke would be delighted with the painting I was already envisioning.