In previous years, Andrew had always waited until April to move to London for the Season, but this year there was a lot more to do so he and Jesse and Hallie packed up and relocated before January was even over.
The London townhouse felt strange and small after so many months in the country, but Andrew had always liked it here and it had the added bonus of not reminding him too much of Ben or his father, who had both always preferred the Priory.
“Oh, I love it,” Hallie said, running down the stairs again after her second tour of the house. Jesse was overseeing something to do with… something in the pantry; Andrew wasn’t sure what, but he hoped it would lead to food, and Andrew was engaged in the very important task of sending out his calling card to every friend he had in London.
He just hoped that a few of them remembered him – it had been a while and none of them had come to the wedding.
“You’ve been here before,” Andrew told her, signing his name at the bottom of a note to Robert Sheehan. Robert, at least, could always be relied on to be in Town, since he claimed that the countryside gave him rashes. (Andrew privately suspected that that was more to do with who he liked to screw in the cornfields than with the cornfields themselves.)
“But not for a million years.” She flopped down onto the settee next to Andrew and put her head close to his. “Jesse’s panicking,” she whispered.
“What?” Andrew asked, putting down his letters to frown at her. “Why?”
“Because of the Queen,” she told him, like that should have been obvious. “Being presented at Court is rather a big deal, Andrew.”
“Oh.” Andrew had known that Jesse was a little nervous about that but then Andrew was a little nervous about that; he hadn’t realised he was really worried. “Aren’t you?”
“No, of course not,” Hallie scoffed, carefully concentrating on smoothing down her skirts in a way that told Andrew that she definitely was.
He bumped their shoulders together. “Well, that’s good, you and I will just have to keep an eye on Jesse, then.”
“Keep an eye on me where?” Jesse’s voice asked from behind the settee and Andrew dropped his head back against the cushions to smile at him from upside-down.
“In London, of course,” he said. “No one here will ever have seen curls as lovely as yours – and Hallie Kate’s of course – and they may try to steal you away from me.”
Jesse didn’t quite blush, which was a shame since Andrew loved making him blush, but he did roll his eyes in something that looked like embarrassed annoyance.
“Stop that,” he muttered, which was what he always said, so Andrew didn’t think he meant it, and he flicked the top of Andrew’s head. “Come on, I need to borrow you.”
“Ooh,” Hallie said but they both ignored her.
Andrew hopped up and walked around to Jesse. “Here I am,” he said, subtly puffing out his chest a little. “Borrow me.”
Jesse’s mouth twitched like he was trying not to smile. “Come on then,” he said and led the way up the stairs. Andrew followed him eagerly. He didn’t really think that Jesse was whisking him away for an afternoon of sex, but a boy could hope.
They’d decided to use the main bedrooms on the second floor of the house, which was a little strange for Andrew as those had always been his parents’ rooms, but there was nothing but a dressing room between them, which they’d decided to share, so it did have some benefits.
When Jesse led him into the bedroom that they’d chosen to be Andrew’s, Andrew started to get really hopeful. Then he took in the man standing by the bed, carefully folding Andrew’s clothes, and blinked.
“Oh,” Andrew said. “Hello.”
The man flashed Andrew a grin and deftly shook out Andrew’s favourite tailcoat. He had a wide smile and the most amazingly red hair Andrew had ever seen but that didn’t really explain why he was in Andrew’s bedroom, touching Andrew’s clothes.
“This is Mr Joseph Mazzello,” Jesse said, nudging Andrew gently in a way that said behave. Andrew was fully willing to behave; he’d just like an explanation. And maybe the room to themselves. “He’s your new valet.”
“My new valet?” Andrew echoed. Then he worried that that had been sort of rude and hurried forward, holding out a hand. “Pleasure and all that, Mr Mazzello,” he said hurriedly.
Mazzello tipped his head slightly like he was surprised by the offer of a handshake – which he probably was, Andrew realised; Andrew never got these things right. Then he grinned at Andrew again and shook hands enthusiastically.
“It’s Joe, your Lordship,” he said, “and I hope you don’t mind all this.” He waved a hand at Andrew’s molested wardrobe. “Mr Eisenberg said you were interested in fashion but I wanted to check for myself that there was nothing here likely to make me go blind.”
Andrew laughed and heard Jesse try to stop himself doing the same. “That seems perfectly reasonable,” he agreed, because it did. “Have I actually hired you then?”
“I’m afraid so, sir,” Joe said and went back to considering Andrew’s coat.
“I like that one,” Jesse said quietly when it looked like Joe might not be going to approve it. Andrew immediately made meaningful eyes at Joe who nodded in acknowledgement and put the coat back.
“All right, we’ll leave you to it,” Jesse said and tugged on Andrew’s sleeve.
Still sort of confused, Andrew followed him. When Jesse looked like he might be heading back into the corridor though, Andrew steered him toward the dressing room instead and then into Jesse’s bedroom.
“Sorry,” Jesse said quickly, before Andrew could speak. “I know you probably wanted to have some involvement in the process, but I’ve been asking you for months if you wanted a new valet and you’ve been dodging the question so. I, um. Well, I thought coming to Town would be a good time to unexpectedly spring one on you?”
Andrew reached out and smoothed down Jesse’s lapels. “Why are you apologising like you think I’m cross with you?” he asked. “You bought me a valet who actually looks like he might talk to me. You’re fantastic.”
“Oh,” Jesse said, letting out a slow breath. “Oh, that’s good. But I didn’t actually buy him for you; he’s a person not a gift.”
Andrew laughed, sliding his hands down Jesse’s arms and linking their fingers together because he was allowed to do things like that without Jesse shaking him off. Most of the time, anyway. “I know,” he promised. “I only said that to see if I could make you put on your cross voice.” He squeezed Jesse’s fingers. “I really like your cross voice.”
Jesse squirmed a little, fingers loosening. “You really don’t… I mean, it’s. It’s been three months, Andrew.”
“Yes?” Andrew agreed, confused. They definitely had been married for three months and Andrew was enjoying it much more than he’d expected to. “Why, are you growing bored of me?”
He tried to sound like he was teasing, but that suddenly seemed quite possible; Andrew was the one to lavish all possible compliments on Jesse and Jesse never initiated any of the contact between them.
Jesse rolled his eyes, which was reassuring. “Never mind,” he sighed. His thumb was pressing against the centre of Andrew’s palm, which was probably only arousing because everything was more arousing if Jesse did it. “What do you want to do now we’re in London?”
Andrew leant in, nudging his nose against Jesse’s cheek. “Well,” he said slowly.
Jesse shivered, but stepped back. “I was thinking more you might want to go outside the house?” he said a little breathlessly.
Andrew opened his mouth to make a suggestive comment then thought better of it. They’d had a lot of sex over the past three months, but talking about it was still enough to get one or both of them flustered.
“I don’t mind staying in,” he offered. “You and Hallie don’t really know the area.”
Jesse waved him off, having to pull one of his hands free to do so which Andrew reluctantly allowed. “Don’t be stupid. I know you have friends in Town and I’ve kept you in Surrey for months, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to have a day away from me.”
“Jesse,” Andrew said, putting his hand over Jesse’s mouth. “If you say things like that, I’m going to follow you around forever and refuse to move more than a handspan away from you.”
Jesse finally gave in and laughed, pushing Andrew away gently. “Go away,” he said. “Go visit your club or something and leave me to hire lots more staff who you’ll charm and completely fail to treat like staff.”
“Probably,” Andrew agreed cheerfully, moving in for a kiss which Jesse tipped his chin up to meet despite all his attempts to make Andrew leave. Andrew broke away after a moment – or two – because kissing Jesse tended to lead to other things and Hallie was downstairs and Joe was next door. “I’ll see you later. Have a good day.”
“You too,” Jesse said and Andrew thought for a second that he sounded sad but, when he checked, Jesse was busying himself looking for something on the bookshelf so he decided he must have imagined it.
Andrew didn’t bother sending his card ahead to the Smiths’ townhouse because the chances of Matt reading it before next Christmas were very low. Unfortunately, that meant that he spent ten awkward minutes receiving marriage congratulations from Matt’s mother before she got around to telling him that Matt wasn’t home.
“That’s a shame,” Andrew said, shifting in his seat and hoping he wasn’t telegraphing too loudly how desperately he wanted to get out of there. “Is he at the club?”
Lady Lynne shrugged delicately. “I wouldn’t be surprised wherever Matthew turns out to be,” she said, which surprised Andrew since Matt’s mother was normally his biggest supporter.
“Is something wrong?” Andrew asked, worried. Maybe he should have written to Matt as soon as he got back to England, but he had had a few other things on his mind. “Is Matt all right?”
Lady Lynne took a deep breath, eyes straying to the door like someone might be listening. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she murmured, “but you’ve always been Matt’s closest friend; perhaps you can talk some sense into him.” She pulled a sheaf of paper close and quickly scribbled something across it. “Here, this is the address where Matthew is staying.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said, taking the paper automatically and slipping it into his pocket. “Should I…” He didn’t know how to ask if Matt was most likely to need a doctor, a chequebook or a priest.
Lady Lynne shook her head. “Apparently he has all he needs. Tell him… Tell him I miss him, please?”
“Of course,” Andrew promised, mind reeling with possibilities. He felt awful, worrying about what sort of misery could have befallen Matt while Andrew was off pretending to be the Earl of Epsom.
The address that Lady Lynne had given him was around Haymarket, touching the theatre district, which could mean anything, and the house which Andrew’s carriage pulled up outside looked perfectly pleasant, if a little scuffed around the paintwork.
Andrew checked the address with his driver but they were definitely in the right place so he bounded up the steps with a little bit less trepidation – it certainly didn’t look like a den of iniquity. Still, he made sure that he was gripping his cane handle in just the right way to swing before he knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a tall girl wearing a pretty blue dress with a shawl flung clumsily around her shoulders and Andrew let go of his cane feeling foolish.
“Oh,” he said, blinking. “Hello.”
The girl regarded him levelly. “Hello,” she agreed. She had an accent; Scottish, Andrew thought. She didn’t sound surprised to see him, and Andrew wondered briefly if she was used to having gentlemen callers. Then he felt horrible about thinking such a thing and mentally took it back.
“I’m looking for the Honourable Matthew Smith,” Andrew asked, pulling off his hat and bowing to her a little since he was interrupting her in her home and all.
The girl shook her long, red hair back over her shoulders and straighten up. She was very tall, almost as tall as Andrew, probably Matt’s height and Andrew spent a second wondering if she could be Matt before deciding that the stress of the last few months had made him hysterical.
“Why?” she asked, folding her arms. “Does he owe you money?”
“No,” Andrew said immediately then, “Well, yes. But I’m not here to claim it back or anything. I just hoped to see him. I’m Lord – ” He still hated to say it. “My name’s Andrew Garfield; Matt will hopefully be pleased to see me.”
Unexpectedly, a smile flashed across the girl’s face. “Really?” she asked. “I thought you were off fighting the French somewhere.”
Andrew stared at her. “Not anymore,” he said, managing not to say who are you? or anything else rude or incredulous.
“Obviously,” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “I’m Karen.”
She stuck out her hand – sideways like she expected him to shake it as he would a man’s. Andrew took it awkwardly; she wasn’t wearing gloves like all the women Andrew knew, and her palms were rough against his. Rougher than his, embarrassingly.
“Come in,” she said, half-dragging him over the threshold. “Matt will be so happy to see you.”
Matt, Andrew noted, not Lord Matthew. So she definitely didn’t work for him.
“Matt!” Karen yelled up the stairs, making Andrew jump. There was a thump then a bump then a rustle.
“Oh, ow,” Matt’s voice floated down to them. “You made me drop my ink pot on my toe, wretched woman.”
Andrew grinned helpfully. “Don’t speak to a lady like that, Matthew,” he called, since apparently shouting was permissible in this house.
This time the crash was much louder, followed a moment later by Matt’s head – uncombed and upside-down and wonderfully familiar – appearing over the banister.
“Holy fuck,” he said and then disappeared again.
Andrew looked at Karen, intending to apologise for Matt’s language but she was laughing, shaking her head fondly. “You’d better go up,” she advised. “That was almost an invitation.”
Well, Andrew still had no idea why Matt was here, but at least ‘here’ seemed like a nice, hospitable place.
“Thank you,” he said, “Miss - ?”
“Mrs Darvill. But like I said, it’s Karen,” she told him firmly. She patted his arm with an easy familiarity. “Off you go, before he gets engrossed in another chapter and you and I have to make awkward small talk for the next hour.”
Andrew didn’t need telling twice; he’d seen Matt on a writing binge before. The stairs creaked a little under Andrew’s weight but they seemed sturdy enough. The wallpaper was a little faded, but neatly hung, and the rugs at the top of the stairs were plush when Andrew sank his shoes into them.
It was a nice house, Andrew thought, comfortable.
Matt was in the room at the end, standing up in front of a desk and frantically scribbling words into a notebook. He’d turned the page sideways, filling the margins as if getting the words onto the pages was too important to waste time turning to a fresh page.
“Two minutes,” he said before Andrew could even say anything. He held his spare hand up behind his back as though to ward off any inclination Andrew might have to interrupt him.
Smiling, Andrew took a seat on the edge of the double bed that was pressed into one corner. A pile of Matt’s clothes was folded on a chair at the end of the bed and Matt’s pocket watch and snuffbox sat on the corner of the writing desk, as familiar to Andrew as his own.
It looked as though Matt really was living here, Andrew thought, eyeing the bed curiously, and wondering if Karen slept here too; wondering what Mr Darvill thought about that if it were the case.
Andrew didn’t get any time to ponder on it further – not that it was really any of his business to ponder in the first place – because Matt dropped his quill with a loud and satisfied, “Aha!” sound and turned around.
“Andrew Garfield,” he said, smile wild and wide enough to fill his face. “Stand up right now and give me a hug.”
Laughing, Andrew hopped to his feet, dragging Matt into a tight embrace before Matt could do the same to him. Matt smelt like ink and paper and long nights – and also a lot like lavender, for reasons Andrew couldn’t place. He was running his hands over Andrew’s back, down to his hips and then up his sides. Andrew squirmed, gusting out another laugh into Matt’s neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Checking you aren’t shot anywhere,” Matt told him simply. He stepped back, fingers warm and accusing over Andrew’s hip. “And you are.”
“Well, yes,” Andrew said, shrugging helplessly. “But I told you that. It was almost a year ago; I’m fine now.”
Matt blinked. “Was it really?” he asked, distracted. He was pulling Andrew’s shirttails out of his britches, which would be awkward from anyone else but, from Matt, was really just expected behaviour. “Fascinating.”
He’d uncovered Andrew’s ugly mess of a bullet scar and was tracing his fingers around the edge, murmuring words like warm and pale and smooth. Andrew blushed uncomfortably; Matt had been like this the one time Andrew had come back from Christmas break with a broken wrist and foolishly let Matt investigate it.
“Ouch,” Andrew said mildly even though it barely hurt anymore. It felt strange to have anyone touch his scar; Jesse usually avoided it.
“Oh hush,” Matt scolded. “This is research. I’ll credit you in my novel, if you’d like.”
“Please don’t,” Andrew begged, imagining how it would look to see with thanks to Captain Garfield for being stupid enough to get shot at Albuera forever in print.
Before Matt could reply – or stop poking at Andrew, and why had Andrew missed him, again? – Andrew heard the quiet chinking noise of china rattling together, and then Karen hip-checked the door open, a loaded tea tray in her hands.
She stopped, taking in their relative positions – Andrew half dressed and Matt crouched in front of him – and raised both eyebrows. “Would you prefer to be alone?” she asked dryly.
Andrew flushed hot, hurriedly retucking his shirt. “One day you will be the death of me,” he told Matt crossly.
Matt just smiled, rolling lazily to his feet. “You adore me,” he said confidently. “Why else would you have tracked me down to this hovel?”
“Excuse me?” Karen asked archly and Matt almost poked his own eye out, waving his hand like he was trying to waft the words away.
“Figure of speech,” he said. “You know how I get: all word-ish and inconsiderate.”
Karen sighed. “Sit down and drink your tea,” she told him, taking a seat on the bed herself and patting it until Andrew sat beside her. “Don’t mind Matt,” she said as though Matt couldn’t hear her. “He’s found someone who’s prepared to publish his novel.” She winked. “Now he just needs to finish it.”
“Really?” Andrew asked. “That’s fantastic, Matt, congratulations.”
Matt bobbed his head. “Had to happen eventually, considering how many of the blasted things I keep churning out,” he said into his tea but the side of the teacup couldn’t hide his smile.
Andrew smiled, knocking their knees together. He wasn’t quite sure why Lady Lynne was so worried; Matt seemed to be doing fine. Which reminded him. “Your mother asked me say hello,” he said, cautiously because he’d never known the Smiths to be on the outs before and wasn’t sure how to approach it. “And to say that she misses you.”
Karen stiffened beside him. Matt didn’t move at all. “Does she really?” he asked eventually then stirred some sugar into his tea. “This is lovely, Karen. Almondy.”
Karen rolled her eyes, relaxing. “No, there’s no arsenic in your tea,” she said, sounding as though she’d said that many times before. “He’s writing a murder mystery,” she told Andrew. “It makes him paranoid.”
“Of course,” Andrew agreed and didn’t press for details. He cast around for a change of topic. One presented itself rather readily. “Um.” It was hard to say this casually; maybe this wasn’t the best change in topic possible. “We missed you at the wedding.”
There was a clatter as Matt dropped his spoon into his teacup. Weak tea splashed his hand but he didn’t seem to notice.
“What wedding?” he demanded. “Andrew, what on earth have you done?”
“I sent you an invitation!” Andrew protested, slightly crosser than he meant to sound because he was still rather hurt that Matt hadn’t come.
Matt shook his head. “My parents aren’t exactly forwarding my post to me these days,” he said apologetically.
“Huh,” Andrew said, thinking. “Well, that would explain why you weren’t there.” He laughed, suddenly, because of course Matt hadn’t got his invitation; Andrew wasn’t sure why he’d expected any different.
Matt was still staring at him. “But who?” he asked. “Not Carey, surely? She would have scoured every house in London to make sure I didn’t let you down. Which, by the way, terribly sorry about that, old chap.”
Andrew waved him off, even though it would have been easier to get through the service with Matt at his side. “No, um. No, not Carey.” Surprisingly, it hardly hurt to admit that anymore. “Jesse, actually. Jesse Eisenberg.” He curled his fingers nervously into fists. Every time he told someone new, there was always the chance that they might be appalled that he’d married a man, and even though Andrew knew Matt didn’t care about things like that, he still felt anxious.
“What?” Matt laughed, “The orphan in the library?” When Andrew flinched, he sobered immediately. “Wait, I’m sorry, you’re serious?”
“Congratulations?” Karen asked, looking between them curiously. “You should bring your wife for dinner soon.”
“Husband,” Matt murmured.
Karen didn’t pause. “Oh, definitely bring him. My husband would love to meet you, Matt talks about you all the time and – ” She stopped, cutting herself off when the shrill sound of a baby crying filled the air. “Damn. I think someone’s feeling neglected.” She smiled at Andrew. “Come and say goodbye before you leave.”
“I will,” Andrew promised, managing to hold his answering smile until she left before rounding on Matt. “A baby?”
Matt frowned inquisitively like he couldn’t work out what Andrew was implying. “She is a married woman. Sometimes they produce tiny humans.”
“And this husband is… where exactly?” Andrew didn’t care if Matt and Karen were carrying on, but he did care if Matt was likely to be challenged to a duel; he’d more than likely get distracted by a daisy at a crucial moment, even with Andrew there to load his pistols for him.
“Work, I should imagine.” Matt glanced at the clock on the windowsill. “Yes, work. He’ll be home in five hours. I don’t suppose you can stay that long? He really is a delightful chap.”
“Um.” Andrew really wanted to; he was incredibly curious about all this. “I can’t. I shouldn’t leave Jesse alone all day.”
“Yes,” Matt said, snapping his fingers. “That. Why on earth have you married Jesse? Was there an understanding? It was my understanding that there was no understanding other than the understanding of an understanding between you and Carey.”
“Stop saying understanding,” Andrew pleaded.
“But I like the way it rolls off my tongue.” Matt smirked. “It’s very under… stated.”
Andrew made a face at him at him because sometimes that was necessary, even when one was three-and-twenty and the Lord of a (terrifyingly) large estate.
He glanced at the doorway to check that they weren’t going to be overheard then leant in close to Matt. “The estate was on the brink of ruin,” he confessed. “Jesse offered me a way out.”
Matt’s eyebrows rose slowly. “If you needed money, dearest, you should have written. My parents might be cross with me, but they’d always have been willing to lend a little – ”
Andrew laughed. “It would have taken much more than that,” he confessed. “But thank you.” He shrugged. “And, anyway, it’s not… it’s really not bad at all.”
Matt leant forward, reaching up and poking Andrew’s cheeks until Andrew batted him away. “You’re blushing,” Matt decreed incredulously. “Andrew. Andrew, Andrew, Andrew.”
“What?” Andrew focused on pouring them both some more tea rather than looking at Matt.
Matt threw a sugar cube at him. “Might there be a little sparkle in your eye for the mysterious Mr Eisenberg?”
Andrew felt unexpectedly hot all over then shook his head quickly. “We’ve become friends,” he said, putting down his teacup with a little clatter. “It’s nice. That’s all.”
“Hmm,” Matt said, but he was kind enough not to pursue the topic further.
Andrew got home later than he’d intended because apparently Karen had been serious about stopping in to say goodbye before he left – which had led to half an hour or so of being instructed on how to hold a baby.
He hadn’t been terribly good at it, so he was more than a little relieved that he and Jesse weren’t going to adding to their family any time soon.
(Although that did raise the question of an heir, a question that Andrew decided they would worry about far into the future.)
It was obvious as soon as he got home that they had a visitor. There was an unfamiliar cloak hanging in the hall and he could hear laughter trailing all the way down the stairs.
“A Mrs Emma Timberlake,” Joe whispered while he was taking Andrew’s coat from him. “Young, American, very pretty.”
Hmm, Andrew thought. He didn’t recognise the name but, if Jesse was anything to go by, he did like Americans. “Very good,” he said because Jesse and Hallie were allowed to have their own visitors, of course they were. “Can you arrange for some tea to be brought up?”
“Already done,” Joe promised him easily and Andrew managed to keep the smile off his face until after he’d turned away, following the sounds of raucous conversation up to what used to be his mother’s parlour.
The first thing that caught his eye when he opened the door was how widely Jesse was smiling, laughter brightening his eyes and staining his cheeks pink. It was… diverting; Jesse hardly ever looked that way. At least not where Andrew could see.
“Andrew,” Hallie said, waving him into the room. She was sitting next to an incredibly pretty, blonde young woman who was clutching her hand and beaming at her like Hallie was the best thing on earth. Which she was, of course. One of them, anyway.
The girl got to her feet. “My Lord,” she said, holding out a hand.
“Mrs Timberlake,” Andrew surmised, taking her hand and bowing because that was the right thing to do and because it made it her smile brightly.
“Emma.” She curtsied deeply, not the casual little bob that he was used to, smiling up at him the whole time. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “I’ve been hearing all about you.”
Jesse coughed, settling back into his seat while Emma led Andrew around to sit with them. “We knew Emma back in New York,” he told Andrew. “Our parents were friends.”
Emma clapped her hands together happily. “I was so excited when I realised that the Eisenbergs who everyone’s talking about were my Eisenbergs.” She reached out and squeezed Hallie’s hand again. “Hallie was so tiny the last time I saw her and now look at her; she’s such a grown-up lady.”
Hallie blushed and laughed, curling her hand around Emma’s. “I do remember you though,” she said shyly, which was a first since Andrew had never seen Hallie be shy a day in her life before.
“Wait. Everyone’s talking about us? Who’s everyone? What are they saying?” Jesse sound horrified. Andrew wanted to reach over and take his hand but Emma got there first.
“Everyone is dying to meet you,” she told him. “Your husband was apparently a very eligible bachelor until you ensnared him.” She turned and winked at Andrew.
Jesse blushed and, annoyingly, so did Andrew.
Emma laughed at them then gave Andrew an appraising look. “Yes,” she said, “I can see what they mean now.”
“Um,” Andrew said intelligently, then tried hard to think of something else to say. “What brings you to London?”
“I’ve always wanted to see England,” Emma told him, leaning forward like everything she had to say was a secret just for their little circle. “My late husband left me quite enough to set up over here, so I jumped at the chance.”
“I see,” Andrew agreed. He heard his voice go stiff and hated it but he still couldn’t easily talk about money matters, especially not in front of strangers.
Emma laughed. “Oh I’m sorry,” she said, patting his hand. “I forgot that the horribly rich don’t talk about how rich they are.”
Andrew smiled awkwardly, willing to let her assume that that was the problem rather than explain how all his riches came from her friends the Eisenbergs. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he managed belatedly.
Emma blinked at him. “Oh, my husband,” she said as though she’d forgotten. “Thank you.” She smiled slightly down at her lap. “We knew he was dying when I married him, you see, so it wasn’t such a shock.” She lent closer. “He was hoping for an heir but it turned out that the spirit might have been willing but his flesh was, well…” She trailed off with a saucy little smirtk.
Andrew blinked at her, scandalised for a whole fifteen seconds before he started to laugh helplessly.
“Emma!” Jesse scolded, with a pointed look at Hallie who was staring at her in unabashed adoration.
“I really don’t know what to say to that,” Andrew admitted, managing to swallow down his laughter.
“Oh dear,” Emma said brightly. “This is why society is still holding me at arm’s length, isn’t it?” She didn’t sound sad about that at all.
“You’re lucky,” Jesse muttered, wringing his hands together. “We’re being presented at court tomorrow and I think I’m probably going to die.”
“Oh please don’t die,” Andrew said automatically even though inside he was frowning – Jesse hadn’t admitted to him that he was nervous, yet he immediately told Emma.
“You’ll be fine,” Emma said bracingly. “The Queen didn’t go into vapours over me so I doubt you’ll do anything to traumatise her.”
“I might,” Jesse said. “I might accidentally insult her or forget how to bow or, hell, I might go into vapours.”
Emma slapped Jesse’s knee like they were old friends. Which they were, obviously, but it wasn’t as though they’d seen each other in the last ten years. “Well, you have to survive,” she told him. “I want you all to come to my ball next week.”
“All of us?” Hallie asked quickly, making Emma laugh.
“Yes,” she said, “all of you, assuming Jesse and Andrew say you may.”
“Jesse?” Hallie asked quickly, turning huge, pleading eyes on him.
“What about asking me?” Andrew protested, since he was, technically, her guardian.
Hallie flapped a hand at him. “Oh, all I have to do is look like I’m going to cry to make you say yes. Jesse? Please?”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “I suppose so,” he said, adding under Hallie’s whoop of delight, “but do I have to go?”
Andrew seized his chance to be the one to comfortingly squeeze Jesse’s hand this time. “We’ll all go together,” he promised, feeling ridiculously pleased when Jesse shot him a tiny, pleased smile.
Emma and Hallie were chatting happily about ball dresses – apparently they were planning to go shopping – and paying no attention to Jesse and Andrew.
“I’ve had the strangest day,” Andrew told Jesse quietly.
“Was your friend not at home?” Jesse asked.
“Oh he was,” Andrew said. “Just not his home.” At Jesse’s puzzled frown, Andrew shook his head. “I’ll explain later. But I think I agreed that we’d go for dinner in Haymarket some time.”
He expected Jesse to look horrified since he was quickly learning just how much Jesse hated socialising. Instead, Jesse lit up. “Can we go to the theatre?” he asked quickly then ducked his head. “I mean, um. I mean, if you don’t mind. Which you probably do.”
“I love the theatre,” Andrew told him eagerly, “The Blue Stocking is playing at the Lyceum, if you’re interested?”
“Definitely.” Jesse was smiling at him like Andrew was offering him an amazing treat. Andrew wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to him before that Jesse would enjoy the theatre, since he read all the time. If only Andrew had paid a bit more attention, he could have organised a surprise.
They were still smiling at each other when something soft hit Andrew on the side of the head. “Ow,” he said, picking up the fallen cushion and glaring at Hallie.
“Have you finished planning your date yet?” she asked, blinking innocently when Andrew spluttered. “I’ve asked Emma to stay for dinner.”
“That’s a very sweet interpretation of events,” Emma faux-whispered. “I basically insisted on staying.”
“You’re very welcome,” Andrew assured her because anyone who made Hallie so cheerful and Jesse laugh so easily was always welcome in their house.
Jesse was visibly shaking when they arrived at Court the next day. Even Hallie was quiet, although she was so draped in pale pink silks and pearls that Andrew couldn’t tell if it was nerves or if it was the weight of her clothes that was making her tremble.
“It’ll be fine,” Andrew promised them, squeezing both their hands once they’d got out of the coach. “It won’t take more than two minutes and then we’ll go somewhere nice to eat.”
“Don’t talk about food,” Jesse complained. “The minute the butterflies in my stomach stop dancing, I’m going to be starving hungry.”
“Just as long as your stomach doesn’t rumble during the presentation,” said a fresh voice behind them and Andrew turned to see Carey’s mother standing on the pavement beside her own carriage.
“Lady Nano,” Hallie said happily, skittering over in her awkward heels to catch her hands. “Thank you so much for doing this.”
Lady Nano smiled down at her. “It’s a pleasure,” she said warmly. She looked up and caught Andrew watching her, nodding stiffly before turning her attention back to Hallie.
Jesse tucked his hand into the crook of Andrew’s arm, pulling him back a little. “She’ll come around soon,” he murmured. “She’s presenting Hallie, isn’t she?”
“Only because she promised before I scorned her daughter,” Andrew said sadly, then felt guilty. Lady Nano was doing them a very big favour presenting Hallie since Andrew’s mother was still in deep mourning and couldn’t do it. Andrew just wished that he had someone better than himself to offer Jesse.
“Come on,” Jesse said, leading Andrew forward. “And please feel free to keep pouting. It might distract me from my own terror.”
“I’m not pouting,” Andrew protested even though he probably was. He put his free hand over Jesse’s and squeezed it. “All right. Let’s go and meet the Queen.”
“Oh my god,” Jesse moaned but let Andrew escort him inside.
“Wasn’t that fun?” Hallie beamed, bouncing in her chair. “That was so much fun. Can we do it again?”
“No,” Jesse said firmly. “Never again.” He had finally stopped shaking but Andrew thought that was probably more because of the slug of whiskey he’d accepted from Lady Nano once it was all over than because he’d enjoyed himself at all.
“It wasn’t all that bad, was it?” Andrew asked, stirring sugar into his tea. They’d stopped off at a teahouse on the way home, and were currently trying to avoid getting cake crumbs on their fine clothes.
Lady Nano had declined to join them, which had put a tiny dent in Hallie’s bright smile and made Andrew feel like a heel.
“It was wonderful,” Hallie assured him then kicked Jesse under the table. “Wasn’t it, Jesse?”
“As wonderful as tooth decay,” Jesse agreed. “Slightly better than syphilis and about equal to a bout of scarlet fever.”
Hallie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “You’re no fun at all.” She looked up when the door opened and brightened. “Oh, look, it’s Abigail!”
She raised her hand in a wave then frowned when Abigail Breslin and her parents swept straight past, heading for a table toward the back.
“Maybe she didn’t see me?” Hallie said uncertainly. She started to rise. “I’ll go – ”
“I wouldn’t,” Jesse said quickly. He shot a look at Andrew who made a face right back. The Breslins were old family friends and they definitely had seen the three of them sitting here – a cut like that had to have been deliberate.
He chanced a quick glance over his shoulder and saw that Abigail seemed to be arguing with her parents. Or trying to, since they were ignoring her, talking loudly about sandwiches and carefully not looking in Andrew’s direction.
“I don’t understand,” Hallie said, sounding upset. “What did I do?”
“Nothing!” Andrew promised at the same time that Jesse said, “It’s not you.”
Hallie looked between them. “But.” She looked over at the Breslins again. Mr Breslin was a Member of Parliament and Andrew didn’t remember him having supported any of the petitions to reverse the new marriage laws but apparently his private opinions were different. “Just because you’re both men?”
Andrew felt cold, the sticky cake he’d eaten settling sluggishly in his stomach. “We knew some people wouldn’t be happy about it,” he said, like he didn’t feel absolutely horrible about it.
“Maybe it’s not that,” Hallie said. She reached over and laced her fingers with Andrew’s. “Maybe they’re just having a bad day or – ”
“Hallie,” Jesse said quietly, nodding his head.
Abigail was approaching their table hesitantly. “Hello, Hallie,” she said, trying to keep her eyes down although they kept jumping up to Andrew. “Would you like to join us?” It was clear the invitation was just for Hallie.
Abigail looked awkward and miserable. Andrew remembered playing with her when she was a baby and he lost some of his own hurt to anger that her parents were putting her through this.
“Abi,” he said quietly. “It’s all right.”
She cut her eyes toward him without turning her head. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Andrew shook his head. “Hallie, would you like to take tea with Abigail? We don’t mind.”
Hallie looked torn, biting her lip. “No, thank you,” she said, giving Abigail a disappointed look that Andrew didn’t think she really deserved.
“Thank you, Abigail,” Jesse said and she went away.
They sat in silence for a moment. Andrew felt like there was a knot in his chest. Abigail was probably Hallie’s best friend and he desperately wanted to apologise for putting her in a position where she had to choose.
“Well, that was traumatic,” Jesse said at last. “Who wants to go home?”
“Me, please,” Hallie said quickly. She sounded like she was trying not to cry and Andrew hated that her exciting day had been ruined.
They paid the bill quickly and Andrew couldn’t resist following the waiter when he went to get their cloaks, torturing himself by passing close to the Breslins’ table.
“Good afternoon,” he said brightly. They flinched. Andrew wasn’t normally a mean person but he couldn’t help feeling just a little bit satisfied at that.
Abigail shot him a tiny smile and he grinned back reassuring before collecting the cloaks and sweeping back to Jesse and Hallie.
Jesse was biting his lip around a smirk. “Feel better?” he asked, taking Hallie’s cloak from Andrew and helping her into it.
“I feel like I want to smack someone,” Andrew confided in a whisper. “It’s terrible.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Jesse muttered, “People who act like that – ” But Hallie was twitching impatiently toward the door, so he cut himself off with a shake of his head.
The ride home was quiet. Andrew did his best to get Hallie talking about Court again, but the most she would do was concede that Princess Sophia was very pretty indeed and that the Queen had scared her a little.
As soon as they got home, she disappeared upstairs, leaving Andrew and Jesse looking helplessly at each other.
“Should we talk to her?” Andrew asked uncertainly.
Jesse shook his head, sinking down into the nearest armchair. “And say what?” he asked, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. He looked tired. “That sometimes even the nicest people are secretly judgemental bastards?”
“No! Maybe. I don’t know.” Andrew sat down on the arm of Jesse’s chair. “Mr Breslin and my father used to play cards,” he said. “I always thought he liked me.” It sounded childish when he said it like that but Jesse didn’t laugh at him.
“Mr Breslin and I discussed politics over dinner just last spring,” Jesse countered. He leant his head against Andrew’s arm, asking for affection in a way that he usually didn’t. Andrew willingly wrapped his arm around Jesse’s shoulders, pressing his face into the top of Jesse’s head.
“You make me feel better just by existing,” Andrew murmured.
For once, Jesse didn’t tell him not to be silly, just turned his head toward Andrew, his breath warm on Andrew’s throat.
“Shall we go to the theatre tonight?” Andrew asked quietly. “We should do something nice together to make ourselves feel better.”
“Oh.” Jesse sat up, twisting to look up at Andrew. Andrew missed the weight of him against his side. “I can’t tonight. I told Emma I’d go to the opera with her. I’m really sorry, I just thought you’d be bored with me since we’d be spending most of the day together.”
“You didn’t really think that, did you?” Andrew asked, appalled. “I couldn’t ever be bored with you.”
Jesse shrugged and didn’t answer the question. “Would you like me to cancel? I can if you want.”
“No,” Andrew said quickly, because that would be selfish and it was stupid to be disappointed that Jesse already had plans when Andrew had only thought to ask him out two minutes ago. “No, of course not. Which opera are you seeing?”
“Um, Così fan tutte,” Jesse said, almost questioningly like he was checking to see if Andrew thought that was a good enough excuse not to come to the theatre instead.
Andrew made himself smile widely. “Have a wonderful time,” he said sincerely, maybe a bit too sincerely since he did mean it and really wanted Jesse to believe that he meant it.
“Thank you,” Jesse said. He wrinkled his nose and tugged on Andrew’s arm. “We’re not done consoling each other yet,” he said pointedly.
“Oops, sorry,” Andrew said and slid down into the chair beside Jesse, squashed against his side. He put his arms around Jesse’s shoulders, smiling when Jesse leant their heads together. “Better?”
“Getting there,” Jesse agreed and they didn’t say anything else for a while.
It was strangely unsettling being at home by himself. Jesse was out with Emma, of course, and Hallie was having dinner with Carey’s mother before Lady Nano headed back to Surrey.
Andrew took a simple supper. Then he gave the staff the rest of the night off, since there was no point them all being home to dance attendance just on him.
It turned out that that was fine in principle but the house was eerily quiet now he was the only one in it.
He tried taking a turn about the room the way his mother and her friends did at home, but felt like an idiot with no one but scowling pictures of long-dead relatives to watch him.
He picked up Jesse’s favourite novel from the table and dropped down onto the settee, intending to lose himself in a few hours of reading the way that Jesse could at the drop of a hat. He managed one chapter then had to bounce up and pace all the way around the room again. He couldn’t concentrate.
“Andrew Garfield,” he told himself sternly. “You’re being ridiculous.” He was sure that he used to be able to entertain himself quite adequately before Hallie and Jesse became such regular fixtures in his life.
Well, possibly that wasn’t true, but at least Andrew had always had his parents or Ben or Carey to go and bother when he got too bored of his own company.
Feeling sorry for himself and then cross with himself for that, he filled a glass with brandy and wound his way upstairs for an (embarrassingly) early night’s sleep.
There was singing coming from his bedroom. Alarmed, Andrew clutched his glass and his candle tighter and wondered if it were a ghost. Then the singing got louder and warblier and he decided that no, it probably wasn’t; no ghost would possibly sing that badly or that far out of tune.
Curious, Andrew pushed on the door and quietly stuck his head in. Joe was standing in front of the open doors of Andrew’s wardrobe, holding one of Andrew’s tailcoats in his arms and waltzing it back and forth to the almost-tune he was humming.
With nothing better to do, Andrew leant against the doorjamb, watching until Joe noticed him, stumbling to a stop and laughing blushingly.
“Sorry,” Joe said, making an exaggeratedly horrified face. “I…” He blinked. “No, there’s really no good explanation for this.”
Andrew waved him off, coming further into the room. “Does my coat make a satisfactory dance partner?” he asked.
“Not really,” Joe said slowly like he wasn’t sure if Andrew was just biding his time before dismissing him for being the sort of valet who danced with coats. Not that Andrew thought that sort of valet existed anywhere else.
“Yes, sorry,” Andrew agreed, “I tend to wear that one for cotillions rather than waltzing so it hasn’t had much practice.”
Joe laughed loudly. “Oh thank god, you’re really not angry?”
“Why would I be?” Andrew asked, honestly confused. “You looked like you were having fun. Although I am a little confused to find you here at all since I gave everyone the night off.”
“Oh, right, yes.” Joe turned away, carefully putting the coat back into Andrew’s wardrobe.
“Didn’t you want to visit friends? Or family?” Andrew pressed, even though it was none of his business. He was really just hoping that Joe might talk to him and he was fairly shameless in his attempts to acquire some company.
Joe turned back toward him, making a face. “I just moved to London; I don’t know anyone yet.”
Encouraged, Andrew sat down on the bed. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“New York,” Joe told him brightly. “Like Mr Jesse.”
“Oh,” Andrew said, surprised. Everyone Andrew met lately seemed to come from America. It was a shame that the Treaty of Paris had been signed so many years before he joined the army. If they’d still been at war, he might have been sent over there and made all sorts of friends. “Did you know him then?” Everyone else seemed to have done so why not Joe, he thought a little bitterly.
“Nah.” Joe stood by the edge of the bed, swinging his arms a little like he wasn’t sure where to put himself. “I just heard everyone talking about this scandalous American who’d stolen away the Earl of Epsom with his fortune and I thought, hey, sounds like the kind of family for me.”
Andrew laughed. “I’m glad,” he said. “Wait until you come back to Surrey with us; our footman’s been acting as my valet and he terrifies me. Also come and sit down on the bed with me, I can’t bear being loomed over like this.”
Joe hesitated for a second more then hopped up onto the bed, sitting cross-legged on the eiderdown. “You’re not much like an Earl,” he said thoughtfully, pulling his bare feet up onto the bed and resting his chin on his knees.
“No,” Andrew agreed sadly. “I’m terrible at it.” He took a sip of his brandy then held out the glass to Joe, who shook his head.
“No, no, I meant that in a good way,” Joe promised quickly. “I mean, I don’t know a lot of Earls, but I don’t think many of them spend their evenings communing with the valet.” He blushed suddenly, making a face. “Well, not talking anyway, and if you’re after something else then... then, no, I like Mr Jesse too much for that.”
“Oh god no,” Andrew said, sitting up. “I’m definitely not making any kind of proposition.” He groaned. “I’m just... inviting you to make yourself comfortable on my bed and offering you alcohol.” He covered his face with his free hand. “I’m so sorry, this must look terrible to you.”
Joe smiled, looking relieved. “I didn’t actually think you were desperate to give me a roll in the hay,” he said, laughing. “I just thought I should check, you know.”
“Definitely,” Andrew agreed. He offered the brandy to Joe who took it this time. Andrew let himself flop back onto the bed, sighing up at the canopy. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m a bit of a mess this evening.”
“Yeah.” There was a click as Joe put the glass down and then he rolled over, lying beside Andrew. “Want to talk about it?”
It was such a relief to have someone to talk to that Andrew found himself answering even though even he knew that he shouldn’t.
“I’m in a bit of a funk, that’s all,” he said. He made a face at himself. “I’m not very good at entertaining myself, I’m afraid.”
Joe snorted then covered his face, looking guilty. “I noticed,” he said quietly, like Andrew couldn’t get offended if he didn’t say it too loudly. “Can I ask, why is Mr Jesse out without you?”
“I don’t know,” Andrew said then realised that he sounded embarrassingly anguished about it. “By which I mean I do know, of course. He’s out spending time with an old friend which I completely support and respect.”
“Sure you do,” Joe agreed. He reached over, picked up Andrew’s glass and handed it back to him. “Come on. You probably can’t get drunk on one glass of brandy but I think it would be symbolically fitting to try.”
Andrew took the glass and then a healthy swig from it. “I like your way of thinking, Mr Mazzello,” he said sincerely.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven