Author: Ginn Hale
Characters: Belimai Sykes & William Harper
“You must be Mr. Belimai Sykes!” He shook my hand and held it between his own for several moments too long while beaming down at me with all the delight of a fox taking possession of a chicken coop.
In the glow of so many candles, his red hair shone like polished copper and his green eyes seemed almost to sparkle in his angular face. He could have passed for a youth of twenty if it hadn’t been for the faint smile lines etched into the corners of his full mouth. The garnet shade of his clothes and their perfect fit flattered both his coloring and his graceful, slim form. A distinctly pleasant scent of calendula and leather drifted from him.
Even so, I didn’t like the strength of his warm grip on my hand at all.
“I am Belimai Sykes,” I admitted and I stuffed my hands back in my pockets. “But I’m afraid you have the advantage of me, Mr…?”
As I spoke a strange quiet seemed to come over the people surrounding us. I felt suddenly very aware of how many of them were again watching me, from behind fans and from the corners of their eyes. Camilla Marcy stared like a gleeful child waiting to witness her hounds dispatch some vermin. Only Miss Venet appeared utterly indifferent, as she edged her way nearer to Harper. For his part Harper shot me an alarmed glance from Eugenie Marcy’s side.
Camilla Marcy flicked her gardenia scented fan open and then whispered jut a little too loudly. “The gentleman certainly isn’t any mere mister. He’s none other than His Grace, Julian Grenfell, the Duke of Gwenhill, Mr Sykes, you silly devil.”
The Duke of Gwenhill—our young Queen’s famous bachelor uncle.
I could have fallen all over myself, making excuses for my gaffe and generally playing the beaten dog pissing himself, but it wasn’t much in my nature, not even knowing that a man as powerful the duke could have me fed to his pet vultures if the fancy struck him.
“I knew I shouldn’t have skipped school the day they taught us how to address a duke.” I smiled gamely though the way the duke’s gaze roved over me made it a little difficult. Last time I’d been eyed like that the other fellow had wanted to turn me inside out and make magic pudding from my organs.
“One addresses a duke as ‘your grace’,” the duke informed me. “But you, Mr. Sykes, must call me Grenfell. All my friends do. And I feel certain that we will be fast friends.”
Fast indeed, I thought.
“That’s quite kind of you… Grenfell.”
The duke favored me with another dashing and far too familiar smile. He stepped a little nearer to me and I uneasily noted that his height lent an illusion of slender delicacy to a body that in truth was quite broad. The crowd of guests, servants and musicians hampered any quick retreat—should matters come to that—and the maze of blazing chandeliers overhead blocked my other route of escape. My pulse began to kick with anxiety.
“Your paintings, my dear Mr. Sykes, they have captured me utterly.” The duke spoke softly but I felt certain that his voice carried to Camilla Marcy. “The moment I laid eyes upon them I was seized by a frisson and so rapt that I stood in place staring for nearly a quarter of an hour.”
“You’ve seen my paintings?” I knew the moment I spoke that I sounded like a dullard. Hadn’t he just said he’d seen them? But I’d been so occupied by wondering what crimes in my ugly past had set a duke against me that I wasn’t thinking at all of art. And it seemed inconceivable that a duke should have encountered any of my works, much less been so moved by them as this. I felt stunned and then suspicious of his flattery. Both Harper and Mr. Weller, who acquired art for the Sommer Gallery, were complimentary of my artistic endeavors but certainly not this enthusiastic.
“I’ve not merely seen them,” the duke replied—something about the way he stared so intently into my face made me think he was about to pounce and I edged back from him just a little. “I’ve been completely ravished by them.”
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed Camilla Marcy’s pale brows rise. The two country gentlemen beside her gawked at the duke and me. I thought I even glimpsed Eugenie Marcy’s black shadow edging towards us. But the person whose help I could have used was Harper—he knew all about titles and who in which noble families might be rotters. But where had he gone?
The strains of music filling the huge room assured me that he’d escorted Miss Venet onto the dance floor. Which left me on my own in less than easy company.
“I had no idea that Mr. Sykes possessed so much talent. I declare, Mr. Sykes, you have been keeping your light hidden under a bushel!” Miss Marcy slapped my shoulder with her fan as if we were on such good terms that I wouldn’t object to being struck. I considered gouging her with one of my hard black nails to see how committed she was to the charade. But she sashayed just out of easy reach to the duke’s left.
“I do so love art,” she proclaimed.
“How charming,” the duke responded off handedly, but then his attention snapped back to me and his expression turned somehow softer, almost gentle. “You are not an easy man to locate Mr. Sykes. I’ve spent the last three weeks riding across the countryside following those small clues included in your paintings only to be frustrated when I discovered that Lord Foster had hidden you away on his dour estate. I had no choice but to foist my company upon the squire and his simple family purely in hopes of at last making your acquaintance.”
“We’ve been honored by your company, your Grace,” Camilla said. “In fact, brother was just commenting on how much he hoped you would stay for the hunt.”
“You and your family have been entirely too kind in enduring the burden of my company, Miss Marcy.” The duke’s gaze flickered over the squire and his mother without a hint of warmth. Then he turned to Camilla Marcy. “Miss Marcy, you must be a splendid dancer. As I recall your dance card is nearly full already?”
“Yes, but not entirely. If your grace wishes—”
“Indeed, my dear Miss Marcy,” the duke cut her off. “You mustn’t tarry a moment longer on my account. I’ve already kept you from your partners too long. Please don’t feel that you must linger here when you’ve already been far, far too generous in sharing your company with me.”
Miss Marcy’s face tightened but she didn’t let her awareness of the slight show for more than that instant. She bared the line of her pretty white teeth to the duke in a hard smile.
“Thank you, your grace! You are so kind, considering the feelings of the gentlemen on my dance card.” With that she turned and strode away with her head held painfully high.
“Come, before another swoops down upon us,” the duke whispered to me and then caught my arm in his very strong grip and began to draw me back towards the closed doors of the veranda.
I almost resisted out of reflex but then thought better of it. Here, half-blinded by the glare of so many candles and trapped beneath a blazing ceiling I was at every disadvantage. But out in the dark with access to the stormy sky, I would be in my element. If I wanted free of the duke I would need only throw myself into the wind and soar up where he could not hope to follow.
“Lead on, Grenfell.”
We slipped out into the blustery night air, though only a light spray of rain reached us. The duke pulled the doors closed behind us and sighed as if relieved of some immense weight.
“Hard night?” I asked.
“It is already much improved, I assure you.” The duke shook his head. “Please don’t think me cruel in dismissing Miss Marcy so abruptly but the girl and her mother have been absolute harpies to that Miss Venet this entire week.”
So, another handsome admirer of Miss Venet. I leaned against the ornate railing of the veranda, overlooking the Marcy’s garden grounds. A cherub fountain pissed into the rain and sprays of night blooming jasmine clung to white trellises as the storm pelted them.
“They taunt her abominably over some childhood affection for Lord Foster’s groundskeeper and never seem to tire of pointing out how very poor the fellow’s entire family must be.”
I’d witnessed Hugh Browning endure the same needling and worse, likely because he was so much more charming than the squire that the Marcy women secretly feared he’d manage to outshine Charles, despite his poverty.
“So you’ve dragged me out here to discuss Miss Venet? Are you hoping I can provide you with a portrait of the lovely girl posed as some flower-clad nymph, perhaps?” I asked.
The duke laughed a little self-consciously, then moved to my side at the railing. His cologne curled over me as he placed his gloved hand next to mine.
“No, Mr. Sykes. Pretty as she is, young Miss Venet has nothing at all to do with my actions of late. Certainly not any bearing upon my desire to speak in person and privately with you.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Then why have you secured my complete attention out in the rain—Grenfell?”
He bowed his head so close to mine that I thought he might actually bite my ear, but instead he whispered.
“I want you Mr. Sykes. I am half out of my mind from wanting you.”
I stepped back quickly. “You don’t even know me.”
“I’ve seen your paintings.” The duke’s voice remained soft and friendly. “I know that you and I share a passion that others do not understand and cannot appreciate.”
“Perhaps we do, but that doesn’t mean—”
“I know that as a Prodigal and an artist you are largely without resources.” The duke cut me off with a wave of his hand. “Whereas I possess wealth and influence in obscene abundance. And while I am sadly devoid of any artistic merit myself, I have made it my mission in life to shelter those creative souls whom I know to share my… tastes, if you will. It is my dream to create a place where our kind can share art, music, and literature that speaks of the glory and beauty of our desire.”
I felt certain that when the duke spoke of our kind, he didn’t mean Prodigals. But the rest of it confused me some. Certainly, I wasn’t understanding him correctly. He couldn’t be offering me a place in some kind of sodomite refuge that he’d established, could he? He was famously eccentric. I guessed there was really only one way of knowing.
“Are you proposing to whisk me away and be my artistic patron or are you just chatting me up for a bit of ass?”
Again the duke laughed.
“My intention is to offer you the former but I certainly wouldn’t say no to the latter. Just so long as it wouldn’t hamper your… relationship with your muse.”
“Your sketches of him appeared so intimate,” the duke spoke into my silence. “I admit I assumed that you and he were…”
All at once I knew who the duke was talking about and also exactly what art of mine had so fired his blood. Not my landscape paintings, but the nude studies that Mr. Weller offered to only a very select clientele. Most were rough, intimate drawings that I’d made of Harper in private moments. The studies weren’t so detailed as to render Harper perfectly recognizable but they captured a sensual essence of him in rare, languid repose.
“My… muse wouldn’t likely take to kindly to a one-off,” I admitted. Harper did have a bit of a jealous streak in him though there’d hardly been an occasion for him to feel it. Certainly, not while he paraded Miss Venet around the ballroom.
“The two of you are quite committed?” The duke’s expression turned almost wistful.
Ginn Hale resides in the Pacific Northwest with her wife and two cats. She spends many of the rainy days tinkering with devices and words and can often be sighted herding other people’s dogs, bees and goats. Her novel Wicked Gentlemen won the Spectrum Award for Best Novel and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.