Author: Ginn Hale
Characters: Belimai Sykes & William Harper
I didn’t intend to share any confidence that might endanger Harper, but I nodded.
“Then he must come with you. I’ll find work for him on my estate.” The duke patted my hand in an almost paternal manner though he couldn’t have been even a decade my senior. “It can’t have been easy for the two of you here.”
“It’s not easy most places,” I admitted. How strange it felt to come this close to discussing Harper and myself. And at the same time, oddly relieving to feel that in all the world there might be one other soul who could listen with sympathy. “But I’ve been happy.”
“Yes, love can make a paradise of a wasteland, so they say,” the duke whispered. “Still, I understand from the local gossip that Lord Foster is possessed of a religious zeal for work. And from your depictions, I can only assume that your muse must be under Lord Foster’s thumb.”
I didn’t laugh at that. In truth, Harper was often worked to exhaustion by himself in the role of Lord Foster.
“His home is here. I don’t know that he could be happy elsewhere.” I shrugged and beside me the duke nodded somberly.
“He wouldn’t be the much-discussed Hugh Browning, I don’t suppose?” the duke asked.
“I couldn’t possibly give up his name,” I responded.
“Yes, quite right.” The duke leaned on the railing and gazed out at the dark maze of the grounds below us. “It’s only that you looked very slightly pained during the discussion of Miss Venet’s flirtations with Mr. Browning.”
He had me there, but over the wrong man. And it wasn’t even jealousy that pained me. Not really. But something more akin to a dreadful sensibility seemed to lurk in my dark little heart. Harper needed money while Miss Venet possessed an immense dowry and she was obviously taken with Harper. Who wouldn’t be? Marriage could also offer him an heir to his beloved estate and banish the sort of suspicions that arose when a man remained too long a bachelor. It was all so pragmatically perfect that it felt horribly inevitable.
“You must not let fear of the future spoil your present happiness,” the duke told me.
I wondered just what he must have read in my expression.
“You aren’t half observant, are you, Grenfell?”
“Hardly,” he gave a short laugh. “I was simply watching you very intently. And I know how easy it is to feel uncertain when all the world seems set against you. But you are not alone.”
“No, I’m not.” That was part of the problem. I hadn’t been alone for nearly five years. In that time I’d grown so attached to Harper and to even the countryside that now it troubled me that I might not be able to bear losing him or leaving here. But would I stay—could I endure it if he took Miss Venet as his wife and brought her into our home? Into our bed?
I stared at the rain-battered jasmine. How tenaciously it held to its trellis. No doubt stronger storms than tonight’s had come and gone before without displacing it. I tried to let that idea soothe my anxiety.
If Harper asked me to, I decided, I would try as best as I could to accept Miss Venet as a necessity of our life together. If Harper wanted her…
Then it occurred to me, how truly unlike Harper such a proposal would be. He’d abandoned Crowncross to escape deceit, to live just as he pleased—with me alone. He was stubborn and upstanding and perversely unmoved by the lure of convenience.
If I hadn’t let the sting of jealously distract me so badly, likely I would have realized all this much sooner. I knew William Harper both at his best and worst. Five years by his side, in bed, out in fields and up on roofs had taught me that I could trust him.
All at once I found myself grinning like an idiot at the Marcys’ garden.
“We will have been together five years come midnight,” I said.
The duke looked a little startled and then offered me a genuinely delighted smile.
“My congratulations to you both,” he said and I felt embarrassed. Had I become such a country bumpkin that I now went around announcing things to strangers as if I were a four-year-old who believed that all the world needed to know when my birthday came?
“Thank you,” I said.
“No. It is I who should thank you. You and your muse give my heart hope, you know,” the duke told me, though he too gazed out into the rain. “Joy is all around us if we just have the courage to embrace it, and each other.”
“I suppose you’re right. Such trust does require courage.”
For a few moments we were both quiet. Music and light filtered from the ballroom but didn’t intrude upon on our calm. I hardly knew the duke—and given time I might come to loathe him—but just now he made the best company I could have hoped for at Squire Marcy’s ball. There was something about speaking to him that reminded me of the relief that I felt during my childhood when it had still been possible to unburden myself in confession.
I realized that as odd as he was, I didn’t want to lose track of the duke. I rather liked him.
“Are you serious about buying my art?” I asked.
“Absolutely. I’ve already snatched up everything I could lay my hands on. You are a very talented man.”
“Even if I don’t leave with you?”
“Even so,” the duke assured me.
I considered that. There was an undeniable danger in providing art to the duke. After all, I knew nothing of the other men to whom he would show my paintings or mention my name. Then I thought of the gaping hole in Harper’s roof.
“I think we can work out an understanding,” I decided.
“Wonderful!” the duke threw his arm over my shoulder and offered me a hug. I drew in a breath of him and tasted his honesty and happiness like the sweetness of honey. We discussed my pay and how often he could expect a painting. He made reasonable requests and spoke quite knowledgeably about pigment composition and the long drying times of oil paints.
Behind us the door to the veranda squealed as it was shoved open. The duke drew back with a relaxed expression as Harper glowered at him. Despite the gloom I easily discerned Harper’s clenched jaw and the butt of the pistol, hidden beneath his dark evening jacket. Candlelight from the ballroom played over the angular lines of his face and cast the corded muscle of his extended forearm into sharp relief.
“Belimai, I very much need a private word with you,” Harper ground out. Next to me, the duke bristled at Harper’s terse tone. He even stepped forward as if to shield me. Then he stilled, taking in Harper’s lean figure in the sharp light, and his face lit with recognition.
“Lord Foster…oh, I see,” the duke said as if Harper were the solution to a tricky puzzle. He glanced back at me and smiled wryly. “I leave you to your muse.”
Harper scowled all the harder and I resisted the urge to laugh as the duke departed the veranda, looking profoundly smug. After a moment Harper drew to my side.
“What was that all about?” Harper asked.
“Oh, I was just passing time alone with a handsome nobleman.” I couldn’t help but tease Harper a little. “You seemed so busy dancing with Miss Venet that I thought you wouldn’t even notice.”
“Of course I noticed,” Harper snapped then his expression changed a little. “Belimai, You know there’s nothing romantic between Miss Venet and me, don’t you?”
“Well not on your part at least,” I responded. “She was all but knocking me and Miss Marcy aside to claim you earlier this evening.”
“I don’t blame her.” I assured Harper. “Obviously the girl has good taste but it’s a little unkind of you to lead her along.”
“Me? Lead her along?” Harper laughed but I had no idea why. “Miss Venet is nearly as wily as you. Though not half as handsome.”
“Wily? How so?” I demanded.
“Her or you?” Harper asked. He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and managed to light it despite the spatter of rain bouncing off the overhanging roof.
“Much as I love to hear you expound upon my qualities, why don’t you tell me what mischief Miss Venet has managed to involve you in.”
“I didn’t say she involved me.” Harper exhaled a thin plume of smoke with a sigh.
“Of course she did.” I considered Harper. “She told you a sad story didn’t she?”
Harper laughed then nodded.
“You know me too well,” he said.
“I ought to after so long.”
“Five years, come the stroke of midnight,” Harper said.
I don’t know why I hadn’t expected him to have kept track, but somehow I hadn’t.
Harper continued, “I’d hoped to just get all this mess with Miss Venet over with and be back home early tonight. But it doesn’t seem likely.”
“You still haven’t said what she’s gotten you involved in,” I reminded him. The fact that he’d brought his pistol made me worry that Miss Venet had, indeed, managed to concoct some terrible trouble. Gambling debts? Ophorium addiction?
“She wants to elope,” Harper said grimly.
“With you?” I asked and Harper rolled his eyes at me as if I were an idiot.
“With Hugh Browning.” Harper sdrew in another long drag of his cigarette then exhaled with an annoyed expression. “It all would have gone off without a hitch tonight except this duke turned up and the Marcys’ moved Miss Venet, her chaperone, and her father to different rooms on the third floor of the east wing, where there’s no bloody trellis to climb down and too much staff to easily slip out through the doors.”
I considered the situation for a moment while Harper smoked.
“She can’t be all that heavy. I could probably lift her—”
“No,” Harper said flatly. “I already told her and Hugh that you are not to be involved in this. If I’m discovered aiding Miss Venet to elope, there’s little the Marcy’s can do to me aside from snub me, which has some appeal. But as a Prodigal you could catch real trouble. I like Miss Venet, but she’s not worth risking your freedom for.”
Harper contemplated the red glow of his cigarette, then said, “A fire would clear the house but it’s too risky with so many people inside.”
I thought of Hugh Browning’s sudden interest in flying potions and guessed that he’d ignored Harper’s ultimatum. I couldn’t hold it against Hugh for trying. I understood the frustration of being forbidden from the one I wanted far too well. And Hugh had been truly drunk when he’d brought it up. Likely the next morning he hadn’t even remember testing the potion we’d brewed.
I smiled thinking that must’ve made certain bruises quite the mystery for poor hung-over Hugh.
“Why are you smiling like that?” Harper asked.
“Because I have a gift for Miss Venet.” I drew the vial from my pocket. “It tastes wretched and will only last her fifteen minutes, but if she downs it she ought to be able to float from the third story to the stables with a bag or two.”
Harper scowled at the brown apothecary vial in my hand.
“Should I ask where you got it?”
“Made it myself when I was a little tipsy,” I replied. It wasn’t exactly a lie though I felt certain that Harper recognized the vial.
“Hugh’s lucky he’s leaving on his honeymoon or I’d be having some words with him.” Harper ground out his cigarette on the underside of the marble railing and then took the vial from me. “I’ll be right back. Don’t let some duke carry you away while I’m gone, will you?”
“I’ll resist as best I can but he has made me quite the compelling offer,” I replied lightly.
Harper stilled and stared at me as if I’d struck him.
“Belimai,” he said quietly. “I know it’s been hard here with me but—”
“But you needn’t fear,” I cut him off, unable to stand him looking so raw with worry. “Go rescue the young lovers. I’ll be here when you come back, I swear.”
Harper nodded and went quickly.
I waited, feeling the wind play through my fingers, and strolling the length of the veranda. Voices and laughter drifted to me on swells of dance music. Perhaps I should have felt alone or abandoned, but I didn’t. Instead a sense of contentedness filled me. I took a few playful steps and danced a few feet into the air.
I didn’t hear Harper return, but I knew his touch the moment his hand closed around mine and he drew me down to his side.
“I’m so damn lucky to have you…” Harper whispered.
“So you’ve saved the day after all?” I asked.
“No, you did.” He didn’t release my hand, but slid his fingers up to caress my wrist. He gazed at me in that way that seemed so open and made even his silence feel eloquent. I leaned into him for just a moment. Then I drew a step back to the veranda railing and Harper joined me leaning half into the rain and gazing at the jolly stone cherub as it blithely pissed up at the brooding black sky above.
“It won’t be long before midnight,” Harper commented.
“An hour or so, I’d guess,” I agreed.
“I had really hoped that we could have been away from here and home by now,” Harper said.
“There’s always next year,” I said and again Harper gave me that flatteringly affectionate glance. An instant later some uncertainty creased his brow and he scowled down at his arms.
“What I was saying earlier,” Harper began. “I meant it about knowing that it’s not been easy living with me out here. If I didn’t have you, Belimai, I don’t know that I could stand it myself. You deserve so much more than I have to offer but I hope you’ll accept this—” Harper straightened and jammed his hand into the pocket of his evening coat. He drew out a small band of gold and held it out to me. “I only wish I could give you more.”
I silenced him with a kiss and then I snatched the ring up.
It was heavy and simple but it fit me perfectly.
Harper’s countenance lit up as I held up my hand to show him his ring on my finger.
“I won’t give you up to a duke without a fight, you know.” Harper’s tone sounded light and confident now.
“In truth I’m not exactly the one he was after,” I replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Grenfell is an admirer of my artwork, but he’s been particularly taken with your figure.”
“My figure? When would he ever have…” Harper trailed off with a look of mortified realization. “Tell me that you didn’t put those drawings on sale.”
“I refuse to incriminate myself,” I replied. “But I will tell you that I will be able to buy you a new roof, Lord Foster. And I hope to keep you comfortably unclothed beneath it.”
I squeezed Harper’s hand in mine.
“You should make your excuses and take me home to your bed, Lord Foster,” I whispered.
Even through the dark I could see the blush coloring Harper’s tanned cheeks. I expected that the duke would be delighted with the painting I was already envisioning.
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.