I been here for a month and it's the strangest house. I woulda never a thought such a place could be. Blair—Master Blair—but everyone here just calls him Blair, is the oddest gentry. Take the master part. No one ever forgets to call Master James, Master James. But even though this is Blair's house, we just calls him Blair.
Sometimes I look at Master James and wonder where Alfie went. He don't sound nothing like Alfie, but even more strange, he don't look nothing like Alfie either. Alfie was shorter and older and his eyes kinda crossed and his mouth was always open-like. Alice and Danyon are just the same, thank goodness, or I'd be wondering if I'd been knocked on the head and woked up in some fairy place.
Mrs. Duncan's been real good to me, not even smacking me when I ask my questions or do something the wrong way. But by far the most amazing thing happens at night. After supper's been served and everything cleaned up, Blair comes to the kitchen and we all gather round. He reads the newspaper to us, cause he says it's important we know how the world works. And sometimes he reads a bit of Mister Dicken's latest. Then he takes out the learning books and teaches Alice, Danyon and me the letters and how they goes together. I'm learning to read! Me, Daisy with no last name, is gonna know how to read.
Sometimes Master James comes in and watches. He likes to sit in Mrs. Duncan's comfy chair and listen to the lessons. Once in a while he joins in, but mostly he keeps his eyes on Blair. He has this little curvy smile that twitches as he sits there, like he knows a grand joke, but he ain't—isn't— about to share. He's always the one who declares when the lesson is over. Then he shoos Blair out of the kitchen and makes him go to bed.
It's good someone is watching over Blair. I get up first to start the kitchen fire and no matter how early I wake, Blair is always in the kitchen afore me, drinking tea and reading one of his journals. I don't think he sleeps much.
All the marks on him have faded and you would hardly know what happened 'cept for his eyes. They look all cloudy and sad and he don't—doesn't— hold anyone's gaze for too long. Each of us tries to make the clouds go away.
Mrs. Duncan has that French chef whipping up something new everyday and Danyon got it in his head that Blair might like to learn some card tricks so he's been teaching him. And a course, Master James is always right by his side. Almost fussing I say, but Alice says men don't ever fuss. Especially gentry men. So it can't be that. The only time the clouds go away is at night in the cozy kitchen when one of us gets it right. So we all tries really hard to get it right
Master Rafe comes by every once in a while, looking all dangerous in his dark clothes. He's a handsome one, with his fine manners and funny little accent. No one knows where he comes from. Seems like he does things for Master James, but he don't act like someone who's been hired. More like a friend or brother. Even keeps extra clothes here and comes and goes by the back door.
Sometimes he stops to talk to me. To me! And I try to talk the way Mrs. Duncan is teaching me, all good, but it's hard to remember and it's especially hard to remember anything when Master Rafe is looking at me with those pretty eyes. Men shouldn't have pretty eyes like that.
Sometimes I fall asleep remembering the ride here on Master Rafe's horse. Never had been on a horse before, but he held onto me and so I wasn't scared at all.
Today the house is all havey-cavey. A messenger came from what Master James calls the Field Office with orders for him. They made him a Lieutenant and want him to do something and he is angry. I've never seen him angry, though he seems like the kind of man what would have a temper. He's stomping around saying they can't make him go. Blair hasn't said much, but we all know he doesn't want Master James to go. It has me worried, we're all worried, polishing everything to the point of wearing it out.
"They can't make me do this. I am no longer under their command." James paced the library, his long strides making it difficult to get many steps in before he had to turn around and pace the other way.
"James, they wouldn't be asking you if they didn't need you." Blair sat in the chair by the fireplace, watching his friend try to burn off the anxiety he was feeling.
"Why me? There are plenty of good men they could call upon."
"You must have some skill or knowledge they need for this task."
"I'm not going. I'm not leaving you again. That bloody Ebury's still a threat to you."
James stopped his journey and looked at his friend. He'd changed since Ebury had taken him. He'd pulled back. The bloody nightmares weren't helping any either. No amount of cajoling had made Blair reveal the contents of the dreams that woke him screaming in the night, and James could only guess what part of his time in Ebury's captivity had most damaged him. Was it the beating? His mother's attachment to Ebury? Ebury trying to rape him?
"Of course you aren't leaving me. I'm coming with you." Blair said it calmly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"You're what?" James sputtered, both delighted and alarmed at the prospect.
"I'll be your man. That way you can keep an eye on me and I can keep an eye on you."
"My man? I won't have you serving me."
"Why not? It's what I am, Jamie."
James scowled; Blair using his nickname was taking unfair advantage. "It is not what you *are*! It is what you've done. Past tense."
Blair flinched a little at the anger coming his way, but didn't back down.
"No, " he said, almost gently, "we are each born to a station in this life and I accept mine. This house," he gestured vaguely at the room, "and me in it, is a sham. I know it, but I'm too much of a coward to let it go. To let you go. Accept me as your valet. Let me do this."
"You think this is a sham?" James mouth was open in stunned surprise. "Why would you think that?"
"I stole the money that allowed me to make my investments. I'm a gambler. I bear a false name."
"Do not tell me that you think the aristocracy came by all they have legitimately? You cannot be that naïve. There are more thieves and gamblers and bastards and whores among the ton than you could possibly imagine. My own mother comes from the bourgeois. My grandfather built a fortune out of his ability to build a ship that could survive storms that took down the best of sailing vessels before it. Rumor is that my great-great grandfather was a pirate."
"A pirate?" Blair laughed. "Somehow that fits. I can see you commanding a pirate crew. Patch over one eye, sword in hand, damsels swooning at the sight of you. Nevertheless, that's hardly the same thing."
"Swooning?" James cocked his head and smiled. "Hmm, you paint a pretty picture. Perhaps I should consider the Navy."
Ignoring the teasing tone, Blair declared, "wherever you go, I go. Let me take service with you." Blair shoved aside the flash of fear at the thought of the tiny cabins he’d be forced to live and work in.
"I’m not going anywhere. I’m where I want to be and I consider you my brother. And my brother will not serve me. End of story."
Blair felt the heat in his cheeks and turned away, hoping James would miss him blushing like a maid. Such simple words and yet they were the most powerful Blair had ever heard.
Finally Blair found his voice again. "Well then, let me play the *part* of your valet. The way you played the part of Alfie."
James considered that. To have Blair helping him undress, to have Blair's hands upon his body…he stopped himself from that line of thought. He’d just declared Blair his brother.
Certainly Blair would be a good man to have next to him in any kind of fight. He was quick on his feet and a good fighter, but his primary asset was his mind. James had always admired the way Blair was able to put two and two together and end up with four squared. Still, it could be dangerous and Blair was not military. He was about to deny Blair once again, when he looked at Blair and saw what this meant to him. He couldn’t leave Blair behind again..
He was about to deny Blair once again, when he looked at Blair and saw what this meant to him. He couldn’t leave Blair behind again, it just wasn’t possible for either of them.
"I imagine I could assert my rank and privilege. Bringing a man would not be unexpected. And I could keep an eye on you."
"Aye, and I could keep an eye on you as well."
James harrumphed at that and secretly acknowledged that he did do much better with his renegade senses whenever Blair was near.
"Just because I am willing to let you play the part, don’t be thinking that it’s for real. This is a game we play. A dangerous, clever game that can easily end in disaster. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Folding his arms across his chest, Blair nodded. "I’m sure. You'll let the Office know?"
Scowling, James stared hard at the determined man in front of him. Finally he shrugged and said, "I'll have word sent."
Calling for Danyon, James scribbled an answer and sent it off, wondering just what he had set in motion.
It's official. They're going. Danyon has them both packed. Blair had some clothes made that he's wearing now, making him look like a serving man. I mean, he looks nice, he's dressed as Master James' valet, but it still makes me want to cry to see him done up like one of us. Just don't seem right, though he's right cheery about it and it's scary how well he plays the part. He's tied his hair back and he stays behind Master James, always sort of hidden.
Alice and Mrs. Duncan have been crying. No one knows how long they might be gone.
Before they get up on the fine horses that will carry them away from us, Blair comes and kneels by me.
"Daisy? Mrs. Duncan will keep a good eye on you until I get back. I want you to keep studying and practicing, all right?"
I nod my head. If I try and say anything I might cry and I don't want Blair to think I'm a baby. The sight of them on their horses, rounding the corner makes me want to break down and cry. I'm not the only one. Alice is sobbing and she don't look at all ashamed of it and Mrs. Duncan's got some tears in her eyes as well.
We all wave until they are out of sight, even though they don't look back. That night after supper, we get the books out. Mrs. Duncan takes Blair's chair and has a go at it, but it's not the same. Blair always made everything so interesting with his stories about far-away lands and the funny things people do in them. Like eat bugs. Ugh. Did make me look at those pesky things differently though.
Still, fun or not, I work hard. I want to surprise Blair and Master James when they get back. I want to be able to read out loud when Blair comes back. And they will come back. I just hope it's soon.
The Field Operation Office was close to Green Park and was the first stop. There James was to be briefed by Brigadier General Hacker who seemed surprised that James had decided to bring his "man" with him.
"I need to speak with you privately." The Brigadier was a large man who had not let age soften his muscles or his outlook on life.
James gave Blair a curt nod and Blair answered with his own small bow, leaving the room.
"Ever since the debacle in India, we’ve been trying to ascertain who is responsible for the ambush that killed your regiment. There is no doubt that the ambush was made possible by someone passing along information from inside the Home Office."
The Brigadier looked down at his papers. When he looked up, his eyes were hard and bitter. "We know who passed the information on. And we know who received it. What we don't know is why those men had to die."
"The name of the traitor?" James wanted that name. He wanted to make sure the man's life was a misery before he was court-martialed and executed. Many of the men in his Regiment had been good friends. All had been good soldiers.
"It was Trevor Finch—" Hacker held up his hand as James surged forward. Finch had been exceedingly well liked, a part of every meeting, helpful with all the many details that went into launching an overseas campaign.
"Yes, Lieutenant, I know that's hard to believe and I know what you want to do. Every man here wanted to do the same thing. Unfortunately, Finch is dead."
"Regrettably, no. He was found hanging in his cell. Suicide."
James ran his hand over his face, closing his mind's eye to the image of the charming Trevor hanging by the neck. "Who was the recipient of the information?"
The Brigadier started to speak, but then paused. "You aren't going to like hearing this either."
"Who?" He spit the one word out. He wanted the information.
The Brigadier pursed his lips together and slowly let out his breath. "Your brother, Stephen."
Eyes widening, James stepped back, shaking his head no. "There must be a mistake." Turning away, James ran his hands through his hair, then swung back and said more forcefully, "Tell me you are mistaken, sir."
"I wish I were, Lieutenant, believe me. We have been most thorough, confirming this information through several different avenues. I would never have told you if I thought there were a shred of doubt."
It felt as if a giant fist had just punched him in the stomach. "Is he under arrest?" James looked away as he asked. He was stunned, ashamed and afraid. His brother, a traitor. His brother responsible for the deaths of so many good men.
"No. We're quite sure he passed the information to someone else and it's that person who actually made the arrangements for the ambush. We have yet to learn why they wanted you all dead, and we have yet to learn who is behind all this. That's why you have been summoned."
"You want me to ask Stephen, force him to tell what he knows?" The idea of confronting his older brother made his stomach twist. He wanted answers, but he didn't relish going up against Stephen. From the time he could remember, he'd adored Stephen, followed him, tried to be just like him.
Stephen had kept his distance, teasing him often to the point of tears. As James got older, he'd learned to take the teasing without showing any reaction. Stephen still found ways to make James feel like some ill-bred clod, lacking in all refinement the few times a year family brought them together.
"No. We want you to go home and shadow him. We need to know who he sees, what circles he frequents. That's where you come in. You're the best hope of getting the information that will enable us to unravel this plot."
"You want me to spy on my brother?" The order shocked him, but he didn’t indulge in that reaction for long. In war one did not have the luxury of ethics. Getting information by deception was understood as right and fair and he had been trained well in the art.. He had long ago put aside any feelings about the dishonor of using trickery to get information.
And yet, the idea that he would project a false front to his brother in order to expose him…he shoved those feelings to the side. There was no place for the remnants of affection he still held for Stephen despite everything. No place for that kind of misplaced loyalty in war. And his brother had declared by his actions which side he was on.
"Yes, we want you to spy on your brother. I know it's a lot to ask but—"
James interrupted. "I'll do it. I don't know what made my brother betray his country, but believe me, I will learn who he betrayed us to, and to what purpose. On that you have my word."
"I knew we could count on you, Ellison. You know best how to infiltrate your brother's life. I'll leave the details to you. We'll need a go-between, someone who can keep us informed here. Your man?"
"No. I have someone just right for that job. Thank you, Brigadier, for bringing me in on this."
Salutes were given and James left the office, walking past Blair as if he didn't see him. Hurrying to catch up, Blair refrained from asking any questions. He had a part to play, one he knew well, and it meant he had to relearn to hold his tongue, though he was dying to ask what had been said. Whatever it was had left James white and shaken and barely able to contain a fury that Blair could read as well as any words on a page.
James didn't speak until they had ridden for over an hour. Finally he turned in the saddle and said, "It was my own brother. My own bloody brother is the one who sold out my unit and caused 89 good men to die pointless deaths."
"Lord Stephen?" Blair was dumbfounded. "Your brother betrayed the very Regiment you were in? It's only by a miracle that you survived."
Oddly, this was something that had not occurred to James yet. His brother must have expected his death to come about by his actions. It hurt, but he was surprised that it hurt less than knowing Stephen had betrayed his country.
"A miracle Stephen didn't expect, I can assure you. I can remember his face when I came home. I had thought he was upset that I had been missing for so long. Now I realize it was his disappointment at my apparent good health. Of course it must have pleased him when I showed all the signs of being insane. It simply confirmed his opinion of me."
"That is the mystery we will aim to uncover. That and to whom he passed along his information."
"So we ride back to Saybrooke?"
"Yes. Back home."
They rode on in silence, each lost in thoughts of "home" and what it meant. For Blair, the emotions were mixed. It was the only home he'd ever known. But it had been a place of great loneliness and pain and he found himself breaking out in a sweat as he thought about confronting his past life.
As each mile brought him closer to Saybrooke and his brother, James’ anger grew. Knowing he needed to keep a firm grip on it if he was going to able to play the part of the slightly addled younger brother, he tried to push it back down. With each step he forced himself to retreat into the part he must play.
That evening as they finally arrived and dismounted, the man who turned to Blair was nearly as unrecognizable to Blair as Alfie had been.
"I will need to let them believe I still hallucinate. Don't be alarmed. You know how to play your part well, and I expect you to stick to it. No breaking out of it because you are worried about me. I will be acting."
The tone of voice brooked no argument. It was a Master's voice, commanding, ripe with expectations and Blair unaccountably found himself blushing. It was one thing for him to declare he was naught but a servant, quite another to have his friend speak to him in a way that told him of his place with every staccatoed syllable.
"Yes, I understand. Sir."
James didn't even lift an eyebrow at those softly spoken words that acknowledged the chasm that existed between Master and servant. He was deep into his role and allowing his training and discipline to carry him onto this field of battle. It was an elegant field, with deep plush carpets and book-lined walls, but James had no illusions. He was entering into war and his once beloved home was now the battlefield.
James had sent a message back to Baines who had made the arrangements. Rafe arrived at Saybrooke shortly after they did, with clothes appropriate for a stay in the country.
"Lord Ellison! What a pleasure to have you visit our quiet part of the world." Holding out her hand, his father's wife looked up with expectation.
"Lady Saybrooke, you’re looking lovely as always." James bent over her dainty hand, kissing it.
"Now that we have those formalities out of the way, James, tell what brings you here. Last time I saw you, it was Warbeck you were after. Tell me, did you find him?" As she asked her question, she led the way down the wide hallway to the sitting room.
James entered, while Blair held back. James saw the hesitation.
"I take it I will have my old room?"
"Oh, yes, it may be a bit musty. We had no idea you were coming, you naughty thing, else Mrs. Martin would have had it aired and readied."
"O’Malley, take my things upstairs." James didn't wait to see if Blair complied, there was no question but that he would do as he was told.
Turning his attention back to the woman in front of him, he answered her last question. "Yes, I found Warbeck. He is employed by Lord Ebury. Do you know him?"
Lady Saybrooke's eyes widened. "Know him? Well, of course I know him. He is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in England. And dashedly handsome as well."
James could see the faintest of blushes on her cheeks. His stepmother had had an affair with him, James was sure. He filed that information away; perhaps it would be of some use later.
"Yes, well, Warbeck is now in his employ. And he was able to answer my question, so my mission was accomplished."
If the lady had not been of so delicate a frame and delicate of nature, James would have thought he heard a snort issuing from her mouth.
"You certainly were in a snit that day, James. I am so glad you've come back in a more relaxed frame of mind."
She moved in closer and pressed her small body close to his. The top of her head didn't even reach his chin. James hurriedly strived to pull his sense of smell back in. While she was not the unwashed nightmare of Cordelia, the scent of jasmine was overwhelming, threatening to send him into coughing spasms..
Putting his hands firmly on her shoulders, he moved her away a pace. He almost felt sorry for her, married as she was to his father. She couldn't be much older than he was, certainly younger than Stephen, and married to his father now for ten years. His father had doted on her at first and spoiled her with her every wish granted. But as the years passed he'd lost interest in his plaything.
James doubted she’d ever loved his father; it seemed inconceivable and, in any case, rarely was that the cause or nature of a marriage. Still, it had to have an affect, being ignored day in and day out. He knew how it had affected him until he'd learned to push those feelings aside. And then there had come a time when he actively avoided his father's attention as it always meant censure and occasionally beatings delivered by Manning.
He remembered the first time it had happened. He'd been all of eight years old and late for his lesson. Running in from the outside, he'd encountered his father waiting in the schoolroom. Manning stood with his arms crossed and Stephen was sitting at the desk, looking studious.
"Where have you been?" The vein in his father's forehead pulsed and his voice shook with barely suppressed rage.
James had looked around wildly, wondering how he could be in so much trouble for being 20 minutes late.
"I-I was out riding, sir, and the horse lost a shoe. I had to walk her in, sir." The faces didn't soften and he hastened to add. "I apologize, sir."
"Manning tells me this happens quite a lot." His father's anger had grown at his attempts to apologize.
"No, sir, not a lot."
"Are you calling Mr. Manning a liar?" His voice had not gotten louder, only colder.
"No, sir, I-I'm—"
Before James could try and make it better, his father signaled to Manning, who produced a cane. He swished it through the air, the thin, supple bamboo making a whining noise.
"Drop your pants."
"You heard him, James. Be a man and take your punishment." Crossing his arms, his father waited for him to comply. Slowly James did as he was told, wishing Stephen wasn't there to witness what was about to happen.
Standing in his underwear, he waited. Manning circled him, then put his hand on the back of his head and bent him over the desk. Hands yanked his cotton briefs down so that he was naked and exposed. The sound that came next filled his head and then branded his buttocks with searing pain. Five times he heard the sound and felt the cane slice his skin. He managed to keep quiet on the first strike, but by the fifth, all his determination could not keep the sobs from escaping.
The entire time he could see Stephen, who never took his eyes away, but watched without emotion as James was beaten bloody by their tutor. Finally it had stopped and his father's voice had floated to him through the haze of pain and nausea.
"For God's sake, cover yourself up. You'll have no supper tonight and I expect you to be on time from here on."
James had slowly straightened, appalled at how sick he felt, as if he might vomit right then and embarrass himself further. With shaking hands, he fumbled for his pants and pulled them up, crying out as the cloth touched his bloody backside. He'd stopped sobbing, though tears still dripped down his chin and more than anything he hated that Stephen was seeing him cry, seeing him exposed and naked, with snot running down his face. Finally covered, he'd shuffled out of the schoolroom, his head down and made his way to his room. Contrary to his father's expectations, he wasn't able to return to his studies for more than a week.
After that, Manning had beaten him regularly, sometimes with fists and sometimes with the bloody cane. After the first beating, it always took two to make it happen, for James never again submitted passively. Then one day, he swung his fist accurately instead of flailing about in panic. It hit Manning square in the jaw and it had been the beginning of the end.
Manning and the footman were able to hold him down and deliver a beating that exceeded all previous ones, requiring a surgeon's visit and a week in bed. It hardly mattered to James. He'd landed a blow and seen the look in Manning's face. One made up of equal parts shock, pain, and fear.
When Manning left for his yearly trip abroad, James used the time to his advantage. Searching out the head lad, he'd found a man who could teach him to box. He practiced long and hard, changing from a tall, gangly boy into someone with sinewy strength, speed and cunning. He secretly spent time in the smithy, learning to shoe horses and the art of the blacksmith. The servants did not know what to make of a second born son of a lord toiling like a common man, but they kept mum and took not a little pride in his accomplishments.
Manning came back in James' thirteenth year and was confronted with an entirely different creature than the one he'd left behind. Powerful shoulders bespoke of a summer filled with hard labor. James sat slouched in his chair, his long legs encased in breeches that revealed hard muscle. Even the hand that held the quill looked different. Tan, roughened and strong, Manning swallowed quickly as he imagined it formed into a fist.
The next time he'd raised his hand, he'd ended up on the floor. The footman's nose bled all over his uniform and they never tried to discipline him with corporal punishment again.
James mentally shook himself, forcing himself back to the present. His father was a hard man in some ways, disgustingly soft in others and James did not begrudge Lady Saybrooke her dalliances. Still, the idea that she had formed any kind of bond with Ebury sickened him.
"Is my brother here?"
Stephen had his own house in London, but generally spent his time in the country at Saybrooke.
"Yes, your charming brother is here, along with some of his cronies." Georgianna wrinkled her nose indicating what she thought of Stephen's friends. James nodded in sympathy. For one who prided himself on his breeding and refinement, Stephen seemed to gravitate to a certain kind of aristocrat. Usually a second or third born with little prospects for a good marriage. Heavily into drinking and gaming, they were universally dull of wit and sensibility. James had always been baffled by Stephen's choice in associates, for to call them friends was to exaggerate the ties. Rarely was one seen a second time.
"The whole family together again. I'm sure my father will be delighted."
His sarcasm did not escape Georgianna and she smiled. She was well aware of how little love was lost between James and her husband.
"Yes, all in all, dinner should be quite entertaining. I think I shall go dress."
Georgianna had no sooner left to begin that task, than his father entered the room.
His first words upon seeing his son were, "What brings you here?"
James smiled, gave his father a small bow and stifled the urge to fiddle with his cravat. "Town had simply become too tedious. I hope you have room for a refugee from the season?"
Lord Saybrooke sighed. "Been looking for a wife, James? With your prospects I'm sure it is hard going."
James fought to keep his smile in place. "I only wish my lack of prospects kept them at bay!"
His father ignored that information. "Stephen is here with some of his friends. I do hope you won't embarrass him."
At those words, James’ smile wavered, the memories of the state he had been in after returning from India all too vivid. He couldn't even fault his father, as it had indeed been mortifying when he had fallen to the ground, clutching at his head, screaming about unbearable noise. Being found staring straight ahead, oblivious to his father and then his brother calling to him. Realizing that the madness was growing worse and all the while frantic for Blair's well being. Blair…the thought of Blair brought the smile back to his face.
"I'll try and keep myself from their scrutiny as much as possible, Father."
Lord Saybrooke walked over to the windows and gazed out on the garden. James was just about to assume he'd been dismissed, when his father said, "Will you be coming to dinner?"
James was well aware that before he had fled to his house in town, he'd gotten to the point where he had all his meals brought up to him. In truth, he rarely left the confines of his room, for it was the only place that offered a measure of peace. But he'd come here not for peace, but with a purpose and he'd learn nothing eating alone.
"Yes, I believe I will make an appearance."
His father turned in surprise and made no attempt to hide the grimace at that news. "Fine, don't be late. I won't have my meal delayed."
His father turned his back to him and James knew he'd now been dismissed. Still, he couldn't stop himself from responding.
"Yes sir, I quite remember how much you value punctuality." Making a bow to his father's back, he left the room, then dashed up the stairs looking for Blair, to find him laying out evening clothes.
"Will you be wanting the gray or white cravat?" Blair looked up from his study of the choices. James walked over and whacked him across the back of his head.
"Don't do that to me, cub. This is difficult enough as it is without losing my best friend to the role."
Blair broke into a smile, relieved to have James back for a bit. It was unnerving to be here, in this room, doing what he had ached to do for so long, look after James. It took him back to when he had been fourteen and James had let him stay and do the tasks of a manservant, though everyone knew that was ridiculous. Later, when he'd hoped that he might assume the position for real, his hopes had been dashed by James' decision to buy his colors. Now he stood in this room, the position at last his, at least as long as they stayed here.
He'd forgotten the peace that came with manual work. Or was the peace there because he had a function in James' life? James always put such stock in their friendship, but Blair knew how little one could count on relationships. Function and being of use, doing needed tasks, these were things you could count on, things that didn't change because something or someone — better came along. As long as one was competent, one’s place was safe. And Blair was competent.
Someday James would marry and Blair knew he would no longer fit into James' life. Oh, James would say he'd keep in touch, but Blair knew how that went. Once married he would be in the country, concerned with an estate, surrounded by his peers. He'd have no need for one such as Blair James.
But Blair O'Malley might still be able to stay close. And Blair wanted that more than anything. Certainly more than his house on Belgrave Square, and oddly enough, more than going to Cambridge.
So perhaps if he did this job convincingly well, James would be persuaded to let him take it on permanently.
Dinner started out quietly enough. Stephen had greeted James with a cool nod and a comment, "Feeling any better these days, James?"
His tone was one of kind solicitousness, but his eyes showed his contempt.
Even with the knowledge that his brother was the reason 89 good men had died, James still had a hard time not flinching under his brother's cold regard. There had been times when Stephen had been the only good thing in his life, when Stephen had looked out for him, even going so far as to bring him supper when their father had forbidden it.
That only happened once, but James would always remember how it felt to be hurting after one of Manning's beatings, hungry and alone in his room when Stephen had snuck in, bringing a meat pie. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious. It was hard not to admire Stephen. There were few things he didn't excel at. Fluent in three languages, quick-witted, possessing an easy charm that made him welcome wherever he went, he was considered one of England's finest, a shining example of all that was good in Britain. James did his best to appear oblivious to Stephen's opinion of him and carefully laid the snowy white napkin on his lap.
Stephen's friend Hemming was already half-foxed, barely able to maneuver food onto his fork, looked around the table with unfocused eyes. The other two friends had the good manners to be sober enough to eat without mishap, but showed their inebriation in the laughter that came without provocation.
Lord Saybrook sat at the head of the table, ignoring the antics of his son's comrades. Georgianna sat at the other end of the long table and openly showed her displeasure. James, seated to her right, ate and made no comment. Occasionally he would catch his brother looking at him, and James realized that he was being assessed.
Before the new information he had been given about Stephen, he would have thought it was merely his brother’s concern about his health. Now he had to consider that Stephen looked upon him as a foe and sought to ascertain the level of threat he represented.
Georgianna leaned over and said in a mock whisper, meant to be heard, "James, you must feel right at home here. Does this remind you of the men in your barracks?"
She smiled sweetly as she hurled the insult at her stepson's friends. One did not compare lords with enlisted men.
"She's jest upset that we know how to have a good time and she don't." Hemming's slurred words were accompanied by a broad gesture that overturned his wineglass, creating a red puddle the servants hurried to mop up.
The third friend had not said a word all evening. He was thin to the point of looking ill and watched the proceedings closely, while never faltering in keeping up with his wine consumption. He'd been introduced as Jonathan Banning, and he was a very odd member of the house party, as he seemed to make a point of keeping his distance from everyone.
Georgianna looked to her husband for defense, but he continued eating, saying nothing. Next her big brown eyes lit on James.
Sighing, James took up her challenge.
"Some of us don't need to be so foxed that we can't manage to get soup into our mouths in order to enjoy ourselves."
"And would that be you, James?" His brother drawled. "For I seem to remember a scene just a few months ago, at this very table, when you spewed your food out, cursing Cook and her miserable spices. Were you enjoying dinner then, dear brother?"
Now his father looked up. "James, don't be criticizing your brother's friends for their table manners, when on more than one occasion, you've embarrassed this family with yours."
Unable to stop his face from flushing, James could only nod and say, "Point taken."
Stephen's lips thinned a little as he repressed a smile and took the conversation in a different direction.
"So James, have you decided what to do with yourself now that your military career has come to a sudden and inglorious end?"
To his right, Georgianna gave a little gasp at the rudeness of the question.
James took his time responding, mulling over the possible answers and knowing that he needed to play it as if he still thought himself mad.
"Great Aunt Agatha has invited me to her Norfolk estate after the holidays and I thought I would go. It's quite peaceful there."
"Norfolk? Egad, man, you might as well bury yourself alive. The place is full of the old retired Admirals and pensioners. 'Tis deadly dull. Unless your great aunt is really great." Hemmings guffawed at his wit.
"Well, you see, Hemmings, James came back from India with a curious affliction. He needs the quiet." Stephen's tone was a cross between compassion and contempt.
"Affliction, you say? What kind of affliction? Don't see anything wrong with him."
Birdy, who had been quiet up until now, joined in. "Don't tell me you're one of those who find they aren't cut out for the Military and cries injury to get out?" He glared at James, as if personally affronted.
Before James could defend himself, his brother answered. "Oh, James' afflictions are quite real, I assure you. You would not care to be around to witness one of his…episodes."
Birdy maintained his skeptical face and James realized he would have to experience one of his 'episodes' at some point in the weekend. Dreading the moment, but knowing the need for it, he found he'd lost all appetite. Picking up his wine, he was caught by the candlelight glowing through the ruby liquid.
The next thing he knew, Blair was talking to him, pleading.
"James," Blair's voice was barely a whisper. "Come on, James, wake up. Please, James, please, wake up."
They were alone in the dining room, which was fortunate as James’ hand had instinctively sought Blair's face as he resurfaced. Eyes huge and worried, Blair was crouched next to his chair.
"Damn! I did it, didn't I, lost it in front of everyone?" James released Blair's cheek and put his head in his hands.
"I think, perhaps close to an hour. Your brother had me fetched when nothing they did brought you around."
James rubbed his cheek. "Is that why I'm all wet and my face aches?"
"I'm afraid they were not gentle in their efforts."
Imagining what had been done and said as he sat, slack-jawed, James groaned and put his head back in his hands.
Standing, Blair tugged on James' sleeve. "Come on, let's go upstairs."
"Are they near?"
"No, they've retired to the smoking room."
Slowly James got to his feet, wincing as he felt odd aches and sharp pains. They had obviously been quite creative in their attempts to bring him around. Had he been faking, he wasn't at all sure he could have maintained the utter blankness required to convince his brother he was still a looby and harmless. One small silver lining.
His room was a haven, softly lit, the bed turned down. He sat on the edge and allowed Blair to remove his boots. Closing his eyes, he said nothing as Blair began to undress him. The unsleeping had left him shaken and drained.
As usual after one of these 'spells', he felt chilled, as if being stripped of animation had made his blood stop flowing. Blair's touch as he tugged at the sleeve, unbuttoned his shirt, loosened his breeches, left trails of warmth and James longed to lean in and lose himself in the scent and heat of his friend. Floating in a world that was cold and painful, intersected by warmth, he only opened his eyes when Blair gasped.
"Dear God, James, what did they do to you?"
Looking down, James saw that his left nipple was swollen and turning purple. There were other bruises starting to form along his ribs and he knew, when his breeches were removed, he would see that his genitals had not been spared abuse.
"I hope they had the good manners to wait until Georgianna had left the room." James said dryly, trying to make light at what horrified him.
Mumbling something, Blair brought the bowl of water to the bedside. Then stepping between James' legs, he gently applied a bit of wet cloth to James' nipple, causing James to hiss in pain.
James had not looked at Blair since he came to and kept his face turned away as Blair fussed. Whatever they had done to his cock, it was not stopping the response to having Blair so close. His body pulsed with pain, and he realized that he ached all over. Like a map, each point of pain revealed the direction of the night’s entertainment. As he had sat like a statue, hands had taken pleasure in violating him, and they had made sure to leave marks so he would know of the violation.
Blair's hand was on his naked shoulder as he leaned in, dabbing at the ill-treated torso, his fingers gently kneading the muscles, his fingers trying to stroke away the tension. James breathed in, trying to inhale all the things that made up Blair's scent. There was earthiness, the richness of a body that has worked and sweated and yet there was a smell something like rain on the wind that also enveloped Blair.
Groaning, both in pain from what had been done to him and pleasure at what Blair was doing to him, he tried to stifle his body's reaction to Blair.
"Am I hurting you more?" Blair stopped his ministrations and stood holding the cloth, biting his lip, looking worried.
"No—yes—no….I'm fine, really. Stop."
Blair dropped the cloth in the basin and resumed undressing James.
"I said, stop!" The harsh command froze Blair and he removed his hands from James' britches.
"I can undress myself, Blair. Go, and do whatever you need to do before we turn in."
Backing away, Blair mumbled something, but the blood pounding in his ears obliterated the sense of the words to James.
If Blair knew…if Blair ever knew the way he felt, what infiltrated his dreams and made him sweat in the middle of the night, how the dreams of Blair under him moaning, asking for—asking James to—to—James couldn't even complete the thought. Sometimes the things that Blair asked for in some of James' dreams made him arch off the bed and come before he was fully awake—
No, Blair must never know. Blair was safely on the other side of the room, fussing with the clothes he'd removed from James. Quickly, James finished undressing, refusing to look down as he put his nightclothes on. Climbing into bed, he lay stiffly, his body still cold, feeling the aches deepening. He could imagine what they had done and said as he had sat immobilized by his 'affliction.'
His cover now firmly established, his brother would not doubt his harmlessness, nor watch him too closely. He had known a scene something like that would need to take place, but he had hoped to have the solace of knowing it was staged.
Blair was getting ready for bed in the dressing room that had always served as his room when he had attended James as a boy. Watching through the doorway, James watched as he pulled his shirt over his head, the shadows on the wall making his movements into a sort of dance. Blair was utterly unself-conscious once he was naked, and James drank in the sight of Blair's lithe body. The dimness of the room did not hide the darkness that marked the places on Blair's body where hair grew abundantly. Moonlight from the high window bathed Blair in its soft rays. James’ eyes feasted on the darkness and light that translated into Blair.
"Goodnight, Blair." His voice sounded husky and he hoped Blair would take no notice.
"Goodnight, James." Blair's voice sounded far away, so very far away. James longed to pull him into this room, into this bed. Instead, he rolled on his side and tried to force sleep to come.
What had he done wrong? What had made James shout and demand he be left alone? The marks on James' body were shocking, the expression of a kind of viciousness that one never expected to find in a formal dining room. That James' own brother had been a part of the proceedings sickened Blair.
It reaffirmed his newfound belief that one could not depend on family, which meant in truth, one could depend on no one. For if one's own family had no place for you, found no value in you, it was unlikely anyone else would.
His friendship with James seemed to contradict that truth. It had been the one thing he could depend on, far beyond making sense.
James, his friend, lie battered in the other room and for all the times he had been by Blair's side when Blair had been in pain he had made it clear that Blair's attentions were unwelcome. Why?
Coming here, searching out who Stephen worked for, what had motivated his traitorous acts, was going to be far more difficult than he'd realized. The amount of time that James was away from him was already wearing on him and it had only been one day. And now each time he was gone Blair would live in fear of another one of those peculiar states that left James so vulnerable.
The rest of the night Blair spent thinking through the fugue that sometimes gripped James and how to prevent them.
The smell of chocolate brought him awake. Opening his eyes, he scanned the room, finding it empty. He let his hearing open up and could hear footsteps on the stairs. A few minutes later Blair came in the room, bearing a tray laden with scones and the cup of chocolate he'd already identified.
James kept his eyes half-closed, watching as Blair carefully placed the tray on the lacquered table at the foot of his bed. The look on Blair's face was one of deep concentration, as if all depended on him getting this simple act of serving breakfast right. James thought he looked tired, fine lines were evident around his eyes and his skin had the pallor of the sleep-deprived.
They'd only been in this god-forsaken house a day and already it was taking a toll. The sooner they learned who Stephen had sold out to and finished, the better.
Blair's head snapped up, making his curls fly about his face. "Morning, sir."
Blair missed the glare directed at his use of the word sir, as he was busy stirring the chocolate.
James swung his legs out of the bed and held out a shaky hand for the cup. Smiling, Blair passed it to him.
"Ahhh, now that's a reason to wake up."
"How are you feeling?" James could hear the implied sir in Blair's tone and winced. Having Blair serve him was his dream and nightmare all rolled into one. Knowing that this was the only way he'd ever feel Blair's hands on him left James feeling hopeless. It was one thing for Blair to serve his country by serving him, but Blair would never again be put in this position. James would make sure of that.
"I'm fine." In truth, he hurt, but hurting was nothing new. It was where he hurt that disturbed him. They had made sure he would know just how vulnerable he had been, inflicting blows and leaving marks in the most private places.
The madness -- his enhanced senses as Blair called them -- came at a high price. It gave him advantages as well as stripped him of defense. Blair seemed to think the exercises they had been doing would give him control and there was no doubt he could control them in ways unimaginable before. At this rate they might actually become useful.
And then something like last night happened and he'd trade every advantage if only he might never be so humiliated again. With that in mind, he moved to get dressed.
Blair gave a small smile and nodded, arranging the used dishes on the tray and removing it. "What would you like to wear today?"
James was about to tell Blair that he didn't need any help in choosing his clothes and Blair was taking his role a tad too seriously, when he heard his brother approaching. Stephen was talking to one of the housemaids, asking whether his brother was awake yet.
"I'll wear the green." James informed Blair and pointed to the door to warn Blair that a visitor was eminent.
"Yes, sir, excellent choice." Blair's voice was a model of unctuous solicitude and it made James' skin crawl, but before he could tell Blair to stop, Stephen was knocking on the door.
"James? Are you awake?" Stephen sounded warmly concerned and James silently noted that the talent to dissemble must run in the family.
"I'm awake, Stephen. Come in."
Blair moved to open the door. Stephen stepped in looking awake and alert and James realized he must do very little real drinking with his chums.
"I wanted to see how you were doing this morning after suffering one of your episodes." Straightening his cravat, Stephen looked around the room, spotting Blair by the wardrobe.
"So, I see you found your little friend and are making good use of him." Stephen smirked at Blair and then swung his attention back to James.
James fought back his anger at that remark and instead, tried to respond casually and in a manner befitting the situation.
"Yes, I ran into O’Malley in London and was pleased when he agreed to become my valet."
"Yes, I imagine it would be difficult finding someone, er, suitable, willing to take you on." Stephen didn’t bother to look at Blair, his contempt for the former chimney sweep evident in his tone of voice.
Digging his fingernails into his palms to keep from saying something he would regret, James didn't trust himself to speak, simply nodded his head as if in agreement.
"Well, I just wanted to see how you were getting on. I'll see you below in a little while."
Stephen moved to leave, pausing to look Blair up and down, the look in his eyes sending alarm signals to James' brain.
Laying the clothes out, Blair turned his back on Stephen and once he was gone, began to silently hand James the undergarments, fussing with the coat jacket. By tacit agreement, neither one commented on Stephen.
Blair buttoned and straightened and then turned his attention to the piece in every gentleman's wardrobe that caused the most consternation, the cravat.
As Blair tied the cravat with the concentration he usually gave only to his journal articles, James noticed that Blair's hand was red and small blisters were starting to form.
"What happened to your hand?"
Glancing down, Blair immediately transferred his attention back to the cravat.
"Spilled some tea this morning."
"That must have been some piping hot tea." James looked down on the head full of brown curls that was in front of him.
"Aye, 'twas uncommonly hot."
James frowned. Blair must have been seriously distracted for that to happen. That would never do. When one went under cover, so to speak, it was all too easy to slip and small slips could spell the end. He hoped he hadn’t misjudged Blair’s ability to do the job.
"Be sure to watch that, burns tend to infection."
"I'll keep a close eye on it, mother." Blair seemed to realize just what he'd said and who he'd said it to. His gasp and James' bark of laugher mingled and Blair relaxed a fraction, patting the cravat and stepping back.
James looked especially splendid in the bottle green jacket that molded to his broad shoulders. The pale cream and white stripes of his waistcoat drew the eye up to the cravat, Blair’s masterpiece.
"There. I tied the cravat in the tone d’amour, it’s the latest style."
"How do you know these things, Blair? I’ve never known you to be much taken with fashion." James eyed himself critically in the mirror, admitting to himself that Blair was an excellent valet.
Blair grinned, pleased. "I’ve been paying attention. It would never do to have a valet who wasn’t au currant with what the ton finds acceptable."
The idea that Blair would remain his man once this charade was done was ludicrous and it bothered James greatly to think that Blair was acquiring skills for the position. But every detail gave verisimilitude to their act and lulled the enemy into complacency. James couldn’t fault Blair for doing what needed to be done.
"You always were a quick study, just never thought to see that considerable brain put to pleasing the eye of society. Brummell couldn't have tied it better."
Blair steepled his hands together in a gesture James recognized from the tutoring sessions he gave each night to Daisy, Danyon and Alice.
"Ah, well, the heart of Anthropology is studying the culture, the way people live, eat, dress, the way they survive. In India, survival might depend on how well one is able to ride an elephant. Here in England, one does well to know the intricacies of tying a cravat."
James endeavored to hide his laughter. "Just so. The ton can be as ferocious as any beast in the wild and pick a man cleaner than a hyena. Thank you for providing the safety of my neckwear."
Ducking his head, Blair sought to hide the blush he could feel heating his face. It was absurd to be so pleased about the success of tying a cravat and yet he was. It was important that James look good, even if James dismissed the need most of the time. Taking care of James, dressing and undressing him, caring for his clothes, was a way to stay close, as James did the difficult assignment of discovering all he could about his brother’s treason.
They’d fallen easily back into the routine that they had as boys, but Blair had found it wasn't the same. He felt James’ heat every time his hand worked at undoing a button. Felt his breath on his neck as he removed a jacket, a shirt, his breeches. The way it felt was odd, like falling and being snug at home and Blair knew there was danger in courting the sensation.
James interrupted his thoughts, asking, "Mrs. Martin is due today?"
"Yes, she should be here by two." Blair started to pick at imaginary lint on James’ coat, but James grabbed his hands, stopping him and doing his own cursory sweep of the immaculate jacket.
Turning away from Blair he said, "Hopefully she'll be able to tell you something. We have to get information and get out before Stephen tumbles to our visit. Hacker needs to know just who is behind all this before more men are needlessly killed."
" James, it’s not—" Blair began, but was stopped by James.
"I know you'll be able to find something out among the servants. Just use that O'Malley charm."
The look of doubt on Blair's face angered James. His own men, dead on a mountainside, continents away, flashed across his mind.
"James…they don't—" Blair stopped his explanation as James swung away from him. Instead he said, "I'll do my best."
"Good. I really don't want to spend much more time in the bosom of my family." Shooting his cuffs out, James drew in a deep breath and headed to the door, every step proclaiming his reluctance as well as his determination. He didn’t look back.
Blair busied himself straightening the room, then gathering up the tray, he headed for the kitchen, hoping that someone would at least acknowledge his presence. Perhaps would give him an opening to start a conversation.
So far, the staff had collectively decided to give him the cut him direct, neither looking at him nor responding to his inquiries. He wasn't sure if it was because he was a valet to a visiting lord or because they knew about him from when he had been employed here before. He felt himself flush with shame at the thought of the kinds of things that they had been told and that this might be their reaction to him.
When he’d been employed at Saybrooke he'd tried to protect the younger ones from Warbeck, but many had thought he brought Warbeck's ire down on them. The staff had certainly learned soon enough that the quickest way to win his favor was to join in tormenting Blair.
Mrs. Martin had stood by him, doing what she could to defend him to the rest of the staff, but it had been of no use. They had seen that it was Blair who made Warbeck's blood boil and they hadn't liked getting caught in the crossfire. As a result, Blair had soon been given a reputation for being lazy and whining. This had allowed the other servants to turn away from the sight of him beaten and bloody without a moment's hesitation or discomfort, reassuring themselves that Blair had only himself to blame.
But this staff was almost entirely new and their hostility was both unnerving and baffling. He was pretty sure the cook had deliberately poured hot tea on his hand this morning.
Squaring his shoulders, he pushed into the warm enclave, determined to find some answers for James. The scullery maid was watching him from the corner of her eye, as she worked with desultory inefficiency at the breakfast pots. Cook made a point of turning her back as soon as he entered and attacked the bread dough with aggression, the loud smacks and thuds filling the room. Two footmen who had been lounging about rose to their feet and left the room, noses high in the air.
Blair carefully set the tray down, pondering ways to get someone to talk to him. Sitting at the recently vacated table, he dreamt up various plots. He was saved from instigating one of his convoluted schemes when the cook finished abusing the supper bread, covering it with a cloth and shoved it to the back of the stove.
She removed her flour-dusted apron and hung it carefully on a peg. Without a glance at Blair, she swept out of the room; a grand imitation of the Queen herself, if one ignored the white dust that swirled about her as she left.
"She don't like you." The maid's voice was soft, but Blair had no trouble hearing the amusement in it.
"Yes, I noticed. Can't imagine why she has taken such a dislike to me."
"It's not you so much as the lord you attend. Everyone knows he's titched in the 'ead and got 'is men killed over there in India."
"That's not true!" Blair rose and stalked over to the sink. "Who told you he was responsible for his men's deaths?"
"Ain't nobody told me nothin', I jus' heard the cook talking with Andrews. He was telling Cook to steer clear of you two, that the master had told 'im all about his looby brother and 'ow 'e 'ad no business leading men to a tavern, let alone a foreign country. How 'e didn't have the good sense to get a real valet, but used you instead. And 'e has fits sometimes and foams at the mouth and jus' stares ahead like his brain done left 'is body."
Blair winced at the terrible portrait being painted by James' brother.
"Those are all lies; lies Lord Ellison uses to cover up—" Blair clamped his mouth shut, appalled at what he had let slip.
"Cover up 'is own doings?" The maid asked, and Blair could swear she winked at him.
"What is your name?" The diminutive size of her had fooled him into thinking she was barely beyond childhood, but there was no mistaking the sharp intelligence that shone out of her cornflower blue eyes.
She seemed taken aback by the question. "Why, I be known as Maggie."
Something in the way she said that made Blair ask, "And your real name would be?"
Maggie hesitated. "Can I trust you?"
"To not reveal your real and true name? Yes, I understand all about aliases."
"Alias? Heck, no, my name is Mary Margaret. Folks in this great 'ouse don't take to Catholics, so me mum fibbed a little about it."
"I won't let on. I do know how to keep a secret."
"I know you do, Blair O'Malley." The way she said his name conveyed its own secret meaning and Blair took a better look at the little maid of the scullery.
"You were here when I was here." Blair said in wonderment.
"Aye. You used to call me Lollipop."
"Lollipop…. oh my, what a difference two years has made."
"Not much if you ask me, I 'aven't growed but an inch and I'm still up to me armpits in pots."
"It won't be long now before you move up."
"That's what Mrs. Martin says, bless her, but sometimes I think I am meant to live and die at this station." Maggie pushed her damp hair away from her face with her wrist.
"I know the feeling." Blair smiled ruefully.
"Oh, aye, but look at you now, all done up like a real gent and a valet! You're lucky Master James is a little off and always 'ad a soft spot for you—God knows you we're never going to get a recommendation from Warbeck."
"He is not 'a little off'!'" It bothered Blair a great deal that James was thought to be mad, but he knew he could hardly announce what was really at work. In fact, if he was better at this spying business, he would play it up. But that was impossible.
Maggie laughed and shook her head in comment at the folly of that belief. "Well, you're his man, you would 'ave to say that, but you don't 'ave to pretend with me. I always liked Master James, titched or not."
"He's a good man, don't believe all the nonsense you hear." Blair saw the stack of pots that still remained to be scrubbed and was tempted to help, but knew that was an idea that would be met with disbelief and contempt. There was a strict hierarchy and it was impossible to challenge it. Maggie wouldn't appreciate it and might, in fact, decide that whatever James had was catching and that Blair was now infected with the madness as well.
"So have there been many visitors here lately?" Blair leaned against the sideboard, trying to appear nonchalant.
"Besides them friends of Lord Ellison's that are 'ere now?" Maggie resumed scrubbing, intent on finishing.
"Yes, aside from them."
"Well, let's see, in the last month there was Lady Snow, Lady Ellison's friend. She was here for two weeks—just left a little while ago. And Norman Tow. He comes and goes real regular. Oh, and Ian Potters. 'E's a pincher, that one is. And those foreigners, but they ain't been 'ere for awhile."
"I suppose Master Stephen will be going to town for the Season soon."
"Naw, Master Stephen don't ever leave the estate. He says town is a bore."
"What? What possible reason could keep such an eligible bachelor moldering in this place?"
"Ah, well, wot I 'eard was 'e got good and foxed and done lost a mighty piece to someone that 'as said 'e'll take out 'is winnings in Master Stephen's 'ide. So 'ide he does." Maggie giggled, clearly pleased with the image of the high and mighty Lord Ellison being too afraid to step foot outside of his father's home.
"Do you know who he lost to?"
"No—ain't never 'eard a name. Andrews would know, or Gilbert, them two know everything."
Blair knew neither man would talk to him, but perhaps James would be able to pry the information out of one of them. It was time to check on James and convey some of this new knowledge.
"I hear Mrs. Martin is due back this afternoon."
"Yes, finally! Cook's a witch when she's away." Maggie finished the last pot and set it to dry, climbing down from the stool that had elevated her high enough to work in the deep sinks. Wiping her hands on her apron, she looked up at Blair.
"So what does a fine gentleman's valet do once the buttoning's all been done?" Maggie had her hands on her hips and looked sincerely interested.
"I wait to unbutton, of course." The aptness of that phrase made Blair smile.
"And you like doing that? Ew. I 'ope I never 'ave to 'elp no lady off with 'er unmentionables. Though I must admit I 'ouldn't mind 'elping Master James off with 'is." Maggie giggled and poked Blair in the stomach.
"Close your mouth, Blair, you’re likely to swallow a fly if you leave it open like that for long."
Closing it with a snap, Blair stared at her.
She glared back at him. "I’m fourteen, Blair, old enough to be married and have me own man."
"Yes, well, I suppose…" Blair’s flustered response seemed to embolden Maggie and she sashayed in closer.
"I’ll make someone a fine wife, I will. I work ‘ard and I ‘ave a body just made for ‘aving babies, see?" She grabbed one of Blair’s hands and placed it on her hip, holding it there.
"Maggie!" Blair’s protest didn’t stop Maggie from taking his other hand and placing it on her other hip.
For a moment Blair stood there, trying to comprehend a slip of a girl thrusting herself at him. The dampness around her carried her scent, one of soap and sweat, not unpleasant. Through her thin work dress, he could feel the fine bones of her pelvis nudging his penis and it also was not unpleasant.
Just then James walked in and his exclamation of, "Blair!" held exactly the same note of shock and outrage as Blair’s shout of "Maggie!" had.
"Ja—Lord Ellison, er, forgive me, er---did you need me for something?" Blair quickly stepped away from Maggie, while she grinned, winking at him, then left the room and Blair to James’ glowering countenance.
"Would you care to explain how I came to find you engaged with a kitchen maid?" James arms were folded and Blair’s heart pounded. The combination of James’ stance and tone sent shivers of dread down his spine as he relived the many times Warbeck had confronted him in the same way, if not for the same reason.
"Ja—sir, I—she’s not, we weren’t—I wouldn’t—but even so—" By the time Blair had stuttered out the sentence he had backed up clear across the kitchen and was in danger of connecting with the hot stove. James crossed the room in a flash, reaching out to stop Blair from burning himself.
"No!" Blair’s arm came up in a protective gesture and he closed his eyes, waiting for the blow.
It never came and he lowered his arm slowly, opening his eyes to see James staring at him as if he’d grown a second head.
"You thought I would strike you?" James voice had an odd hollow sound, but his face was a blank mask.
Blair turned away, unable to explain his reaction.
"I only meant to keep you from burning yourself. I wouldn't—I can't believe you'd think that of me—that you think me capable—" his voice trailed off and one hand reached out to Blair, dropping when Blair turned back to him.
"No, James, no, I don't think—I wasn't thinking—I…I—" Blair faltered, unwilling to admit the memories, unwilling to insult James further by explaining his temporary confusion. "It's just that you thought I was—groping a child—and of course you were angry—I understand that—it would be depraved—and you are so honorable—you would—"
Shutting his mouth with an audible snap, Blair stood with his head down and waited.
"Blair," James began again, more gently this time, "you are an honorable man also and I should not have jumped to conclusions. I apologize. Let that be the end of it."
James moved away and Blair finally looked up. He wanted to argue, wanted to point out that he had been a thief and therefore hardly entitled to be called honorable, but James had declared that it was done, so he kept mum. James was staring out the kitchen door, his stance stiff and contained, looking very much like the soldier he was. The kitchen had been built to accommodate a staff of kitchen help and yet right now, it seemed small and claustrophobic as James seemed to fill the space.
Blair tried to take a deep breath. It was harder than it should have been, the air in the kitchen was stifling. "Sir, I did learn something that may have some bearing."
James flinched at the sir, but didn't turn around.
"Yes, tell me what you learned."
"Master Stephen never leaves the estate these days. They say he lost a great deal of money to someone and fears for his well-being."
Turning away from the window, James nodded. "Hmm, that hardly sounds like the Stephen I know, but then I believe it's been pretty well established that I don't know my brother very well at all."
Blair remained silent, unable to offer an argument to the bitter truth.
James seemed to shake himself and gave Blair a small, tight smile. "I'm riding to Hargrove, this afternoon. Lord and Lady Bellingham have invited me for a visit."
"You're visiting Lady Bellingham?" Blair knew there had been a time when James had had his heart set on marrying Sally Danton. It must have been a brutal blow to come home to find her wed to Lord Bellingham.
"Yes, she was always delightful company and full of the latest gossip. I'm hoping she will have something to tell me that will aid me in my search."
Blair didn't know which piece of information made his stomach twist—that James was leaving him alone for the afternoon or that he was going to spend it in Lady Bellingham 's delightful company.
"Yes, sir, I quite understand."
"You'll be able to keep yourself busy while I'm away?" James tone was brisk and Blair automatically matched it.
"Yes, I have quite a bit of work to do on your wardrobe and Mrs. Martin will be arriving shortly"
"Good. I'll see you sometime this evening then."
Blair watched James leave the kitchen. The room expanded, air flowed freely once again. The smoke from the stove made Blair's eyes sting and water, and he pressed his palms to them in an attempt to push the tears back. Sighing, he left the kitchen and went back to work.
James walked slowly to the stable. Seeing Blair engaged with a kitchen maid, for James had known immediately that she was no child, had been a shock. The image of the two of them in an embrace lingered in his mind.
Over and over, Blair had insisted his rightful place was that of a servant and James had fought that assertion body and soul. He’d fought because it was not the relationship he wanted with Blair. But seeing Blair in the kitchen, a look of both surprise and pleasure on his face, was making him rethink that. Perhaps Blair would be happier as a servant. He would be able to find someone like the lusty chit who had been making her case. Oh, yes. James had heard it all and had interrupted before he was forced to hear Blair’s answer to her proposition. He didn’t want to study too closely his reluctance to learn of Blair’s response.
It was late when James finally returned to Saybrooke. The evening had been pleasant, with Sarah (for he couldn’t reconcile the childish nickname with the elegant woman before him) recounting tales of managing the huge estate and fussing over him with an attentiveness he couldn't remember having ever experienced from her before. He'd allowed himself to relax, soaking in the atmosphere of a well-run home and the sight of a beautiful woman who once meant something to him.
Sarah was older now and like things that were truly fine, had grown even more lovely. James watched her and wondered at the life he might have had with her as his wife. A small shudder ran through him and Sarah called to have more logs thrown on the fire.
Marriage was often referred to as being leg-shackled and men joked and moaned about the necessity of the deed, of the duty to beget heirs. Perhaps because Sarah was his first love and he couldn't imagine moving beyond it, James had looked upon marriage quite differently. The idea of his own household, the woman he loved beside him in the garden, at social functions, naked in bed, had seemed nothing like being shackled.
Shuddering again, he made excuses about coming down with something. Sarah had insisted he stay the night while her husband, Lord Bellingham, glared. He was nearly as old as James’ father and still looked upon his wife with keen affection. James took the hint and made his good-byes. As soon as he reached the woods, he whooped with the joy of reprieve.
Thank God she had been more greedy than in love. Thank God he'd felt the need to define his life outside of Saybrooke. Thank God he'd found Blair.
And he wouldn’t lose him to the role of servant or to a piece of baggage that saw a husband in Blair.
Putting his heels into Ares’ flanks, he hurried back to the only home he really understood. Blair.
Gilbert met him at the door. It was late enough that the rest of the household was asleep. The lock snicked into place as Gilbert bid James good night.
In town, parties would be at their height and the streets in the fashionable parts of town would have been nearly as busy as in the light of day. Here in the country, there weren't nearly as many ways to stay amused or debauched. James didn't miss being either of those things, but he did miss late nights with Blair and the long conversations that sometimes lasted until dawn.
Blair was most certainly asleep. It would be natural to have him woken so that he could help James undress. It's what valets did. It was their function after all. James began to call the footman back and have Blair summoned when he stopped himself.
The morning would come soon enough and Blair with it, he'd just have to wait. Climbing the long stairway to the upper floor, James tentatively let his hearing expand. At first all he heard was the muffled sounds of snoring, clocks ticking, beds creaking, low moans. Then the tiny scratching of claws on floorboards, the wings of bats flapping rhythmically as they finished up their nightly hunt, the thud of bread being kneaded and readied for the morning.
And finally heartbeats, first the ones from above, slow in sleep. Then hundreds from below, abnormally fast, indicating small creatures. The sound was deafening as it swelled in his head. Falling forward, he knelt on a step and breathed as Blair had taught him, fighting to contain the noise that was assaulting him in the silent house and edging him into that frozen oblivion.
Severally minutes passed before he was able to take his hands away from his ears and he stayed kneeling on the cold marble, his breathing ragged. Slowly he stood up and finished the trek to his room. His shoulders were hunched, his gait halting. He'd done this very thing a dozen times successfully. With Blair by his side, he'd been able to go through the layers of noise, isolate and study the auditory information. Left on his own, he was like a babe running headlong into a bog, the danger of being swallowed up all too real.
Morning came but a few hours later, though none but the servants knew it. Hours and hours after the sun had come up, the masters and mistresses stirred, called out and were attended to. Drapes were flung open, some maliciously, allowing the sharp sunlight to assault hung-over eyes and the lords, ladies and visiting gentleman were coaxed from slumber. Baths for some were drawn, others ate lavishly in bed.
Blair entered James' room quietly, not wanting to disturb him, but fearing that James would never call for him if he waited. James had apologized and told him to forget the incident, but Blair feared that yesterday would never be forgotten, that he had forever damaged his friendship and perhaps his position.
After James had left, the afternoon had dragged by even with Mrs. Martin's arrival and consequent non-stop chatter. Blair had done his best to be attentive and responsive, but the only time he was able to put his misery aside was when Mrs. Martin began to speak about Stephen and the foreigners he regularly invited to the estate.
"There's this Frenchy guy, a marquees he is, and nothing but criticisms ever come out of that pretty mouth. Flirted with Lady Saybrooke, right in front of his lordship. He just about swallowed her hand while he was kissing it, and I believe he's gotten at least two of the girls from town with child. Comes and goes without so much as a by your leave. Never know when he's going to show up and every time he does, Master Stephen goes crazy, checking out all the rooms, ordering the maids to redo every chore twice, pacing until the place is polished to a high shine."
"Sounds like an odd fellow for Stephen to invite." Blair wrapped his hands around his cup of tea. The warmth was welcome, though the tea was weak.
"Odd, aye, and not the only odd house guest that's come here."
"Oh, what have the others been like?"
"That Russian, Count Veransky, is a lovely man, but his accent's so thick, you can't hardly understand a word he says." Mrs. Martin pushed her hair back in a gesture that Blair recognized from growing up. She liked the count.
"Was master Stephen as—umm, concerned when the count came?"
"Oh, no. The count always seemed happy with everything so I don't think master Stephen ever worried about his visits."
"How often do they come?" Blair set the delicate cup on the table. Mrs. Martin picked it up and swirled it, then set it back down and hunching over it, studied the contents. Blair watched her with some trepidation. Mrs. Martin's tea leave readings were rare and unfailingly accurate.
She looked up at Blair, her soft, round face filled with an equal measure of awe and fear.
"Blair, boyo, you're in deep. Too deep. You realize that, don't you?"
Ducking his head, Blair pondered his answer, but finally couldn't bring himself to pretend to not understand.
She put her hand on his arm and squeezed it reassuringly. "Oh, Blair, what have you gotten yourself into?"
That was the question. Living in a household filled with refugees like himself, living with a name not his own, on money duped from his betters…and the only thing that really mattered was a misbegotten friendship that made no sense at all.
Placing his hand over Mrs. Martin, Blair answered, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you. I hardly believe it myself."
Blair picked up the cup, looking at the leaves intently. "What is it you see, Mrs. Martin?"
Looking away, the elderly housekeeper blinked a few times, and Blair saw that she had tears in her eyes.
"I see a lot of pain. You're not who you say you are, Blair O'Malley. You're something else entirely from the boy that left here in the middle of the night. And something has a hold of you and it's not going to let go."
Fear seized Blair. She could tell, she could see the lies he'd told, the ways he'd thieved, the duplicity of his life. "Is it, the thing that has a hold of me, is it, bad?"
Mrs. Martin took the cup out of his hands and glanced at the leaves plastered against the porcelain. "There's no telling that, Blair."
Could he ask? How could he not ask? "Can you tell if I will remain as James' valet?" The real questions, at his side? In his life? he left unsaid.
"I don't see the life of a servant in your cards, boyo. I don't think this position is something you should count on."
A lump of unshed tears formed in Blair's throat and stayed there the rest of the day and into the night.
"Tell me about these friends of Stephen's." And Mrs. Martin did, spilling details that had no meaning to her, but started to paint a picture for Blair.
James' room was nearly as dark as night, the heavy, brocade curtains effectively blocking any light from penetrating. Blair carefully maneuvered his way with the heavy tray into the dark depths, finding the table to set it upon by feel. Then he waited, surprised that his actions hadn't awakened James, who was the lightest of sleepers.
Shrugging at the oddity of that, he decided to wake James and approached the bed. Placing his hand on James' shoulder, he shook it lightly.
The sleeping man exploded into action, his hand shooting out and grasping Blair's throat which he squeezed. Blair batted at the steel grip ineffectually, trying to get words out, but all that passed his lips were inarticulate sounds of pain and fear as he struggled to pull air into his lungs. It didn't take long for those sounds to fade as Blair lost consciousness and hung limply in James' hand.
James became aware of a weight dragging on his arm and released it.
What in damnation? He'd been plagued by his sight and hearing most of the night. Both had been abnormally sensitive and he had lain in bed, stiff with tension as he sought to find a way to damper them. Nothing was working until he breathed in and out in the rhythm that Blair had taught him and imagined himself deaf and blind. Thankfully peace had descended then in the form of a complete blackout of sight and sound and he'd fallen asleep, only to awaken with his senses still blanked out, a hand threatening him.
For a moment he feared he was stuck in the silent, dark place he'd retreated to, but then he pushed and found he could hear harsh breathing from his attacker, though the darkness still prevailed. He swung out of bed and padded over to the windows, flinging the drapes aside, then turned to see just who had invaded into his room.
It was Blair. He lay sprawled on the floor, small movements and groans signifying that he was slowly regaining consciousness.
James stayed by the window, paralyzed by the realization of what he'd done and what he'd almost done. Watched as Blair slowly struggled to his knees, his hand at his throat. When Blair finally raised his eyes to James, he froze and to James' horror, there was fear in them.
"Blair—I—I was asleep. I'd pushed my senses way down and I didn't realize it was you—I didn't mean —I would never —you know I would never—" Still, he stayed rooted to the spot, afraid to approach Blair, afraid to see him flinch away.
Slowly Blair got to his feet, using the bed to leverage himself up. Shaking his head, he said, "I know." He clearly wanted to say more, but those two words had come out as a croak and he grimaced in pain.
Moving over to the tray, James poured a glass of water and handed it to Blair, who took it with hands that shook.
After he'd taken a sip, he said, his voice a raspy whisper, "I should know better than to shake a soldier in a dark room. Stupid of me. I mean—" Bair paused, the discomfort of talking even in a whisper difficult, "you are on a mission."
Blair's face brightened as he seemed to realize something. "James, your senses, how low were you able to take them?"
"Sit down, Blair, before you fall down." James pulled the chair up and gently guided Blair into it. He couldn't believe Blair was interested in this now, after what he'd done.
"How far?" Blair's eyes gleamed in the bright, late morning light.
Sighing, James knew Blair wouldn't let it drop until he had answers.
"All the way," he admitted, frightened at the admission.
"All? As in blind and deaf?"
"Yes, I—the places that—" James' voice trailed off, unable to reference what had been done to him the night before last and the residual pain he was still in.
"Could you do it again?"
"I don't know, cub, I had no idea I could do this much and look what happened? This sensitivity is a curse. Perhaps it is insanity. It's simply not natural for a man to be able to hear and see the things I do, nor natural to be able to turn it off." James sat down heavily on the bed, putting his head in his hands.
"No, I think you're wrong." Blair's voice was quieter than a whisper and it took James' "curse" to hear him.
"Once upon a time this was probably normal. There were no towns, just small enclaves of people. But once populations became denser and there was noise, smoke, dirt, horrible smells…well, then, slowly people would have willfully dampened their senses until they lived a life less than half of what it had once been. But you—you have the capacity to be a truly natural man."
"And nearly kill my friend in the process."
James couldn't know what that statement, said as self-condemnation, meant to Blair.
His greatest fear was not that James might hurt him. He had endured pain for far less reasons. The knowledge that James still called him friend made the bruises around his throat fade in significance.
They stood looking at each other and something in that exchange seemed to give them each the reassurance they sought.
James ventured closer to Blair and allowed himself the luxury of putting his hand on Blair's face, feeling the strong bones that gave his friend such undeniable beauty. His hand moved lower to Blair's throat, where bruises were already surfacing. Blair remained entirely still as James laid his hand over them.
"Ah —you won't believe this, but I can feel the heat of the bruises and the blood pooling at the surface." James winced as the knowledge of the damage he had done was translated through his fingers.
"James—" Blair croaked—"I do believe it. I believe we are at the very beginning of exploring the things you are capable of." Blair put his hand over James', holding it there, soaking up the warmth.
"No more talk for you today. I'll tell Mrs. Martin you've come down with laryngitis."
"No argument. You're to rest. I know how hard it is for you to be quiet, but believe me, you'll feel better much quicker if you rest your voice."
Nodding, Blair leaned back in the chair, the effects of being throttled making him feel shaky and worn out. Closing his eyes, he drifted off, only to wake some time later in James' bed, a blanket covering him and a glass of water at hand. The room was empty and felt cold, though Blair couldn't tell if it was the fire being nearly out, the shivery way he felt, or James' absence that made him feel so chilled.
Slowly he stood, and wondered what he should do. He couldn't just hide in this room all day and do nothing. And James needed to hear the things he'd learned. Rubbing his throat, he knew he'd never be able to convey it all. He went to James' desk, pulling out the drawers until he found paper and quill. Then he sat down and began to write everything he knew, everything he had conjectured. So intent was he on the task at hand, that he missed the shadow that paused at the door and then passed. When he was done, he placed the sheaves of paper in the desk, locking it. Then he rose and went in search of James.
There was only one place in Saybrooke that James truly felt comfortable in and that was the stable. He retreated there after Blair fell asleep. Right now all he really wanted to do was saddle----gather Blair and leave this place. Finding out why his brother had betrayed his country and to whom he had sold it out to was a task and duty he couldn't turn away from, no matter what the personal cost. The sooner he learned what he needed, the sooner he'd be able to right the grave injustice done to his men and remove the threat to England.
Hiding in the stables wasn't going to get the deed done and James reluctantly left, searching out his brother and companions. They were found lounging in the gaming room, deep into cards and their cups. James sat down across from them.
Stephen looked up. "Why James, you've decided to join our party? How very unlike you." He turned to Birdy. "James has always been quite serious, much too serious for his own good, I'd say, for all the good it did him."
Birdy snorted, briefly looking up and then back down at his cards. "He maybe serious, but I found him most amusing the other night."
James steeled himself against responding and allowing them to see his discomfort. It wasn't too hard to look mystified by the comments as he found Stephen's friends incomprehensible.
Let them think him a lackwit as well as insane, every way in which they underestimated him would serve his purpose. He admitted to himself that was all well and good—but the awareness that Stephen saw him that way rankled.
"Who's winning? You, Stephen?"
Stephen didn't even look up, his whole attention on the cards in front of him.
Hemmings answered. "Stephen, win? For a serious fellow, you make quite the joke."
Stephen scowled at Hemmings, but didn't bother to look up at James, who had a moment's insight of what it might be like to be a servant like Blair and essentially invisible. He quickly pushed that awareness aside and concentrated on what was going on.
Birdy added, "One of the reasons we come to this moldering stone heap stuck away in the country, aside from the fine wine cellar your father provides, is your brother's ever optimistic nature. Despite every indication to the contrary, he still thinks he knows how to play cards and will start to win any hand now."
"Do shut up Birdy and play. James isn't interested in my dealings with that bitch, Lady Luck."
Hemmings made sound suspiciously like a snort, but quickly turned it into a cough when Stephen glared at him.
Banning threw his cards down, announcing, "I'm quite finished."
His statement went unanswered and he drifted over to the window, which overlooked one of the formal gardens. After a few more rounds of bets, the game came to an end with Birdy raking in the winnings.
Banning came back to the table and James was surprised at the way the hair on his arms stood up as the man came near.
"I need some fresh air. Perhaps your brother would sit in my place." Banning actually smiled in his direction, if you could call the barring of teeth a smile and it was all James could do to return it and not look away.
Stephen had thrown his cards down in disgust and now slouched in his chair, one booted foot upon Banning's chair, which he nudged in James' direction.
"What do you say, dear brother? Care to play a hand or two? I wouldn't mind relieving you of some of Grandmother's inheritance."
James stood up and appropriated the chair from Stephen's foot. "It always galled you that she had such a soft spot for the second son, didn't it? She was quite the toast even in her fifties. Who would have thought she would outlive two dukes, a marquis and an earl?"
The men left at the table grinned at that information, thinking their prospects for coming away with heavier pockets just got considerably better.
Banning had left the room by the French doors and Birdy got up to shut them, muttering about the inconsideration of some people, giving the impression that there was little love lost between them.
Hemmings dealt and the four men settled in.
After writing out everything that seemed pertinent to the identity of the traitor, Blair left the bedroom. First he stopped in his room and selected another cravat. The one he was wearing was rumpled. Carefully trying to tie it to hide the marks, Blair had to retie it several times before he was satisfied that the dark marks encircling his neck were hidden.
There wasn't much for him to do until James returned and he didn't like the idea of explaining why he was whispering. The library would be as good a place as any to pass the afternoon away, and Mrs. Martin was unlikely to wander into it.
As always, the sight of the floor to ceiling shelves filled with leather-bound volumes, made his heart quicken. His feet moved him to the section that he knew almost by heart, and he studied the books, his fingers tracing the gold-embossed titles. Just as he was about to pull one down the library door opened and Blair quickly snatched his hand away, belatedly reminding himself, that he was a servant, not a guest.
Turning, the apology lodged in his throat, he saw that one of Stephen’s guests stood in the doorway. It was the inordinately tall fellow, who looked as if he'd recently been ill. Blair bowed and croaked, "My apologies, sir. I was just fetching a book for my master." Grabbing the book that had caught his attention, he murmured, "I’ll leave you to the room's delights."
The man said nothing, simply stared at him, and Blair tucked the tome closer to his side.
"You're Ellison's man, aren't you?" The voice was surprising rich, rumbling with unexpected power.
"Yes, sir." Blair waited. Having been addressed, he couldn't simply bolt, though every instinct told him to put distance between himself and this man.
The man stepped closer, and Blair forced himself to stand his ground. "My name is Jonathan Banning. Have you heard of me?"
Blair shook his head no, and tried to swallow. There was something about the tall, cadaverous man that alarmed him, but he didn't know why.
Banning reached out and Blair did step back, but all the man did was lift the book so he could read the title.
"The Voyage of The Beagle. What an odd book for Ellison to request. I would never have pegged the man as any kind of scholar. While you…well, let's just say, I've heard about you."
There was a smile on Banning's face as he said that, but there was no crinkle of skin around his eyes, no indication that the smile was anything but placed upon the angular face.
"We know someone in common, Mister O'Malley."
Blair instinctively backed away as Banning came closer.
"Mr. Warbeck has been most informative about your—your particular vulnerabilities."
The bookcases at his back prevented Blair from ducking the hand that reached out, but he jerked his head to the side before Banning could connect with his face. Instead, Banning's hand latched onto Blair's hair and tightened, swinging Blair's head back and pulling it toward him.
Fighting to keep his eyes open and not reveal his fear, Blair stared into the deadest eyes he'd ever seen. He had thought Warbeck was cold and vicious, and Ebury evil, but he knew they were angels compared to the man he was dealing with right now.
"Yes, I can see you know me. Good. Makes this much simpler. I’ve watched you for some time and I can see your devotion to Lord Ellison. It’s most—touching, if ill advised. But it tells me you’re capable of dedication, not an attribute I come across often and one I happen to value. Ellison isn’t fooling me with his visit. I know what he seeks. For his sake, I want you to convince him to give up is quest. Do you understand me?"
The stark, cold eyes bore into Blair’s, cruel intent evident. Blair considered saying no, that he didn’t have that kind of influence, but before that thought could turn into resolution, he heard himself saying, "Yes." It was little more than a rasp.
Blair forced the words past his swollen throat. "Yes—s-sir." A little louder, no less raw.
"Well, good. I like you, boy." Banning released Blair's hair and swept it back from Blair's face. The hand on his skin sickened Blair, the cold trail of Banning's fingers etched into his skin.
"I don’t care how you discourage Ellison, just see that he leaves here in the morning. He’s weak-minded; you shouldn’t have any trouble re-directing his inquiries. And if that task is too much for you, well, then I'll deal with him. I must warn you, however, that my way of dispatching bothersome gnats like Lord Ellison is generally rather messy."
Shaking his head no, Blair tried to verbalize his protest. No sound managed to get past his lips and Banning’s tugged the cravat down, revealing the bruises.
"Ach, lad, I see you’ve had a bit of trouble. With Ellison?"
Blair said nothing, but Banning went on as if his suspicions had been confirmed.
"So it’s like this, is it?" Banning’s cold hands touched each mark as Blair forced himself to stay still. His breath was oddly cold, as he leaned in to study Blair’s neck. Taking his eyes away from the bruises, he looked at Blair.
"And still you stay?"
Blair shook his head, denying what Banning was implying.
"No," he tried to clear his throat in order to make himself understood, "this was an accident."
"This was an accident?" Banning was incredulous. "Blair, you’re young and I see I have much to teach you. First lesson: there are no coincidences, no happenstance, no accidents. Ellison can excuse this anyway he likes, but I hope you are intelligent enough to understand that it is what it is."
Banning’s kept his hand on Blair’s throat, lightly rubbing the bruises, his gaze one of fascination. Blair tried to swallow, but his throat muscles were paralyzed by the hand that encircled his throat. Instead of warming, the hand seemed to be getting colder, though that made no sense.
"Perhaps you’d like to come with me. I could protect you from Ellison, and if you pleased me, I’d make sure neither Warbeck, nor Ebury ever held power over you again. I am a influential man, and I take care of those who pledge themselves to me."
Banning took his hand away, but not his eyes.
"You have a lot of your mother in you, even if your looks do favor your father." When Blair’s head shot up, Banning nodded and continued, "Yes, I knew your father. Knew him well."
"Oh, no, my boy, that information will have to be earned. Come with me, I’ve many ways to reward you and information about your father is just one."
Blair considered the offer. If he went with Banning it would be a way to get to the bottom of this intrigue, and perhaps keep James safe as well. Shamefully, he admitted to himself that he didn’t have the courage to find out what pleasing Banning would mean, even if it did bring to an end the plot against England and finding out more about his father.
"So what will it be? Ellison or me?"
Taking in the first deep breath he’d managed since Banning had entered the library, Blair looked into Banning’s soulless eyes and said, "I’ve already pledged myself to Lord Ellison and I don’t break my word."
The dead eyes flashed fire, and then the smile was back, the one that had no impact on the eyes. "Who would want a man who broke his ties so easily? I admire you for your loyalty to someone who has so clearly found fault with you."
The dark shape that was Banning moved away, heading for the door. He stopped with his hand on the knob.
"I have eyes and ears everywhere, watching and listening. If I hear that you have failed me, I will take you, and punish you, slowly, carefully, and with infinite attention. You will either bend to my service or it will take a long, long time for you to die. Perhaps even years. Never doubt my commitment to you."
Blair stayed frozen in place until he heard the door close and then sank to his knees, unable to hold himself upright a moment longer. He shook with fear and reaction to having Banning’s hands on his body. One had only to hear that voice to know it didn't exaggerate nor did it belong to a man who contained even an once of mercy. As an adversary, he was a nightmare come to life. Blair swayed on his knees and tried to think, tried to pull himself away from the abyss of terror that had opened up before him.
Think. He might seem like a devil, but he was a man. He had revealed himself and by doing so, had made himself vulnerable as well. It was infinitely harder to battle the unknown and unseen than an enemy made of flesh and blood, and defined by a name. And he considered James a bothersome gnat. Blair had no doubt that the day would come when Banning would look at James and realize the enormity of that miscalculation.
Slowly Blair got to his knees. Moving as if he'd aged twenty years in twenty minutes, he replaced the book he'd come for and left the sweet womb of the library. The climb to his room took a long time and Blair was sweating by the time he reached the top.
There was much to be done, but the hardest part was going to be getting James to leave now, no questions asked. For to answer any questions was to risk Banning's many ears hearing and reporting.
In his room, he hurriedly packed his small bag, picked it up and walked back down the stairs to James' room. He didn't allow himself to think beyond getting James out of this place and away from Banning.
The room was empty and cold, the fire having died out. The servants seemed to take some perverse joy in neglecting it, but instead of stopping to remake it, Blair began the task of packing James' things.
Time for supper came and went before Blair had everything packed, but anxiety kept Blair from feeling hunger. Getting away wouldn’t be hard if he could convince James of the necessity of leaving. Convincing him, however, might be impossible.
Sitting down in the chair, Blair waited and hoped that James would make an early night of it. The room got colder, and then colder still, and Blair waited. Finally as the clock chimed midnight, James stumbled into the room.
Blair had fallen asleep and jerked awake at the sound of James’ clumsy entrance. The smell of alcohol and tobacco was strong and grew stronger as James stumbled to where Blair sat.
"Blair! There you are! You should be asleep." Falling to his knees, James looked up at Blair with bleary eyes.
"I hurt you." His hands came up and slowly untied the rumpled cravat, gently pulling it off. Then he carefully placed his fingers on the bruises, feeling heat at the surface. Blair didn’t move, didn’t so much as blink and belatedly James realized Blair was afraid. Retracting his hands quickly, he unbalanced himself and fell backwards, hitting the floor with a heavy thud.
"James!" Blair’s cry was a harsh croak and it pained James to hear it. Covering his ears, he lay on the floor and tried to block out the sound of Blair saying his name in that horrible voice. His hands were pulled from his ears and Blair’s lips took their place.
"James," he breathed, his voice considerably quieter than a whisper. The touch of Blair’s mouth on his ear, warm, moist air tickling him, sent James spiraling into a dark whirlpool of desire. With a groan, he tried to push Blair away, tried to push the sweet agony away, but Blair held fast.
At first, Blair’s words buzzed in James’ befuddled brain, but as Blair repeated them over and over, the meaning started to penetrate.
He started to say, "What about Banning?" but Blair put his hand over his mouth as soon as he breathed the first syllable.
"Shh," Blair’s velvet mouth was still on his ear, and the sound of shh accompanied by the moisture from Blair’s mouth and his scent made James’ cock press against his tight breeches. Flinging his hand out, he latched onto Blair’s shirt and tried to concentrate on what Blair was telling him.
"James, we have to leave here. We have to leave tonight. Do you understand me?"
"Leave? Because of Banning?" James tried to force his brain to understand what Blair was telling him.
"He has spies everywhere. He can’t know that I’ve told you. Please, James, please, shh. We just have to go. Can we go?"
Clutching Blair, James realized the only thing he understood was that Blair wanted to leave, now, tonight, and that he was afraid of Banning. James wanted to sit up and scoff at that, the idea of that sack of bones being a threat seemed ludicrous. Looking at Blair, whose eyes were huge and nearly black in the low light of the one candle, he knew he couldn’t dismiss Blair’s fears that easily.
"Help me up." Blair put his hands under James’ arms and slowly heaved the bigger man to his feet.
The alcohol was rapidly losing its hold as James saw how very serious Blair was about Banning and leaving. Damn. The man must have really been convincing to make Blair want to bolt like this.
"I’ve got you all packed." Blair gestured at the portmanteaus lined up.
"I’m not leaving, Blair." Even knowing that Blair was upset, he was unprepared for his reaction. The breath left his friend's body, the blood drained from his face and James could make out the beads of sweat that popped out on his upper lip. What the hell could that silent man have said to Blair to make him so terrified?
Blair’s look of dismay turned to one of determination. "Be reasonable, they know why you're here. We aren’t going to get any more information than we have."
"That may be, but I don’t run simply because someone says "Boo!" I think you know me better than that."
Blair’s face got whiter and he flinched at the implication. "I do know you, you have to understand—"
"Get a good night’s sleep, Blair, and we’ll talk in the morning. You’ll see, you’ll feel better then."
Blair’s shoulders slumped as he picked up his bag. "All right, I’ll wait until the morning. But then we leave, James."
James shut his eyes and listened as Blair made his way up the stairs. He was listening so hard to Blair that he didn’t hear someone come in and only realized he wasn’t alone when a voice asked, "Going somewhere?"
Opening his eyes, James saw Banning standing in his doorway, one shoulder propped against the door jam, arms crossed.
James looked closer at the man he’d barely spared a glance at before. Banning was dressed with impeccable taste and yet it didn’t seem to have any effect. He was an unremarkable man, except for his extreme thinness. The sharpness of his nose gave him a hawk-like appearance and his height seemed greater simply because he took up so little space on the way up. The look on his face was bland, but James had no trouble recognizing the signs tension that betrayed his nonchalant pose.
The bags were lined up by the door so James decided to play out the hand.
"Yes. Time to get back to the pleasures of town."
"What? In the middle of the night?" Banning shook his head at the folly, but there was a sly smile on his face.
"No." James watched with some satisfaction as the smile faltered.
"We’ll be leaving in the morning. First thing."
Banning straightened, folding his arms across his chest. "How very uncivilized, not to mention unfashionable. You’ll be missed, old top, you’ve added quite a bit of amusement to my visit here."
James schooled his features to remain slack. Better the man thought him still drunk enough to take that comment as a compliment.
At that moment, Blair reappeared. James watched as the sight of Banning him flinch.. Watched in fascination as tiny drops of sweat appeared. The next thing he was aware of was Blair at his side, squeezing his shoulder and Banning saying, "I don’t imagine I will be awake to make farewells, so I’ll say it now. Have a good journey back to London."
Blair looked down at James, who refocused his eyes on Banning.
Pulling himself together he said, "Thanks, old boy. I hope to run into you again some time." Carefully he slurred the words and added a wink to the effect.
"That would give me a great deal of pleasure as well, Ellison." Banning bowed from the waist in an oddly formal way.
Banning's eyes lingered on Blair and he seemed to come to a decision. "And I'll give my regards to your mother when I see her next."
James felt Blair stiffen next to him, and knew what your words would mean to his friend. He didn't allow his body to signal his understanding of the by-play, staying slouched in his drunken pose.
Banning waited a beat, but when he got no reaction, he turned on his heel and left.
As soon as he was gone Blair turned to James. "What did you tell him?" It came out a cacophonic whisper.
"That we’re leaving in the morning." James whispered in reply. Banning’s brief and seemingly benign visit had convinced James that Blair’s terror was well founded. When Banning’s eyes had latched on to Blair, the raw rapacity had been all too evident. It had made the skin on his neck prickle and that was a sign he had learned never to ignore. And that last remark about Blair's mother…there was much more going on here.
Blair knelt down by his chair. "James," said so softly that even James had to concentrate to hear, "somehow he knows that you are seeking answers to the ambush. He thinks you’re addled enough to not be a threat, so he’s let us go, but I don’t think we’re in the clear. And he has his people everywhere, we must act as if we take him seriously."
James bent over and placed his mouth by Blair’s ear. He whispered, "Oh, I take him seriously. And I will act the part of the addled bumbler who allows his servant to convince him to abandon his commission."
Pulling back, haunted eyes met his, "I would understand if you chose to stay."
Cupping the back of Blair’s head, James pulled him close to resume his whispering. "There is no point in staying, you were right about that. I have what I came for." He let his thumb rub the spot behind Blair’s ear, then sat back.
Blair rose to his feet, the look on his face one of uncertainty. "Do you want my help undressing?"
Shaking his head, James waved him away. "I’m fine. I’ll see you in the morning."
"Good night, then."
Once again James listened as Blair made his slow way up the stairs to his room. This time, he didn’t return.
In the morning Blair came downstairs looking as if he hadn’t taken his clothes off, let alone slept. James was alert and ready. He knew now that Banning was at the center of the web. His brother’s role and motive was yet to be exposed, but James had no doubt that he had found the information he had come for.
He’d written a letter to his father and Georgianna, thanking them for their hospitality and feigning a need to retreat to his own house in town. His father would absorb the news with a scowl at his son’s weakness, but be pleased to have him gone.
Blair looked rumpled and exhausted, but he emanated a wild energy. He was slinging the bags around and bolting down the stairs to the stable before James even was even able to say good morning. The lad was running on fear and survival instinct. James had seen it in long-running battles, when men were braced for the worst, with very little left to give physically. He would collapse soon, and James just hoped he’d be able to get him home before he did.
When he finally caught up with Blair in the stable, he was saddling James’ horse as one of the lads saddled Nightingale.
"Are you going to say good-bye to Mrs. Martin at least?"
Blair looked up from under Ares belly where he was pulling the cinch tight. "Already have."
"And have you bid farewell to that saucy pot maid?" James teased, and was surprised when Blair frowned at him and said curtly, "No."
"Well, if you’re ready to leave, let's be off."
Blair did just that, handing James his reins and collecting his from the lad, then leading the horses out into the open yard. Swinging up onto his, James looked back at Blair, who was settling into his saddle. James noted the hands that shook as they pulled on the reins to turn Nightingale around and head the horse toward town and home.
James dug his heels in and guided his horse next to Blair’s. "Were you able to sleep last night?"
Blair didn’t look at James, but said, "Yes."
Blair may have been able to lie about his identity and where he came from, but had no talent for lying to James. "Like hell you did."
"That would accurately describe my night."
"Banning really affected you." James watched Blair out of the corner of his eye, trying to understand where Blair’s reaction was coming from.
"The man is dangerous, James. Appearances can be deceiving. You of all people should know that." Blair sounded uncharacteristically sarcastic and James looked closer. There was more than a sleepless night wearing at him, but getting to the bottom of it would have to wait until they got back home.
"Yes, I understand the nature of appearances and deceit." As James said that thought of his time as Alfie and how easy it was to make people believe you were harmless. Blair gave him a sharp look, then hunched over in the saddle and fell silent.
Blair shifted in the saddle again, and tried to refocus his eyes, which desperately wanted to close. His hand ached where the tea had burned him and his throat felt as if he’d swallowed a glass of sand. Twice he’d some close to tumbling off the horse as he fell asleep, but was saved from that ignominy by James’ quick actions. Thoughts of Banning flitted in and out of his befogged brain. How to convince James to take every precaution, when he knew James’ need to get to the truth was driving him relentlessly?
And then there was the threat of forced servitude to Banning. The shivers started then and soon developed to outright tremors. James reached over and took the reins out of Blair's shaking hands and stopped both horses.
"I'm fine. We'll be home soon. Give back the reins, James." The fierce words sounded ludicrous whispered and the next thing Blair knew, James was behind him, settling into the saddle. Blair considered protesting, but didn't have the energy. Besides, it was a relief to be able to lean back, knowing James would keep him safe as he slept.
A few hours later, the sound of the horses' hoofs on cobblestone alerted him to the fact that they were on the outskirts of London. They received quite a few looks from people surprised to see two men sharing a horse, one so obviously an aristocrat, the other so clearly a servant. Blair considered the propriety of the arrangement, but the short sleep he'd gotten had actually made him feel worse rather than better and he doubted he'd be able to stay seated on Nightingale if James abandoned him now. So he said nothing and James appeared oblivious of the stares, making no move to go back to his own beast.
Finally the house on Belgrave Square came into sight. Maybe he had acquired it dishonestly, maybe he was a fool to call it his, but Blair’s heart swelled with happiness at the sight anyway. To be back among people who knew him for just exactly what he was and still looked him in the eye was a great comfort as he tried to make sense of all that had passed in the last week. James' remark about the nature of appearances and deceit reverberated in his head.
He feared it meant that the time among his family and peers had made James recognize that his friend was indeed a fraud. A fraud, a liar, a thief…not the attributes of a gentleman. No, he certainly couldn’t call himself that and perhaps James was finally realizing that.
When they stopped at the back of the house, James dismounted while Blair tried to remember how one got off a horse. He needn't had tried because James took care of that problem, gently pulling him down and setting him on his feet.
By the time they entered the house, Blair was stumbling in his fatigue. Alice and Daisy hurried down the steps, exclaiming their welcome and Danyon and George came running at the commotion. Blair looked at James and was surprised at the look of tenderness he had on his face. Looking around at the beaming faces surrounding them, Blair noted the contrast between this welcome and the one that had met James at his "home".
Just then, as if she had read his mind, Mrs. Duncan came bustling out from the kitchen, exclaiming, "You’re home!"
And indeed they were.
They came back today, lookin’ mighty pitiful.
Everyone was excited, but we could see they were in no shape for any kind of ruckus. Mrs. Duncan put them to bed right off and we’ve been tiptoeing around ever since, hoping that when they wake up we will all be back to the way it was.
I can say the alphabet and write me name and Alice can read from the newspaper a little. We can’t wait to show Master Blair that we’ve kept studying. I hope it brings one of them beautiful smiles to his face. If I a ha’penny, I’d give him one, just to see it.
Mrs. Duncan is the only one of us who actually understands the way things work in the kind of fine home that master James grew up in, and she says they can be worse than the streets. Seeing how Lord Ebury done treated Master Blair, I guess I know what she means.
The chair by Blair's bed was blissfully comfortable. James had had it built to his specifications. The extra padding had been a brilliant idea. He sat in it now, watching Blair sleep. The fire cast a warm glow in the room and on Blair. In this light, he almost looked at peace, the haunted shadows that been evident since their sojourn to Saybrooke seemed to have retreated.
James no longer fought the need to be here, simply accepted that there was no other place for him at times like this.
The sound of Blair’s breathing filled his ears, each breath relaxing another set of muscles and sending James into deeper into a light trance. It was a different kind of fugue; he wasn’t lost in it as was the usual case. He knew where he was, he knew who he was with, he knew… he knew…he fell asleep
Opening his eyes, Blair saw familiar long legs stretched out by is bed. Lifting his head higher, he saw James sprawled in the chair he was so proud of, chin resting on his fist. How often had he awakened to this sight? He didn’t really understand why James chose to sleep in a chair in his room, but every time he woke to see James there, the walls expanded, the sun came out, there were birds in the sky and he felt a rush of emotion so deep he feared he might drown in it someday.
There was much to do yet. There would be no real peace until the men who had betrayed England and James' regiment were brought to justice. But they had a name and that gave them a starting place. It wouldn't be long. And in the meantime, they were home. Blair closed his eyes and allowed himself to fall back asleep.