20 January 1936
Edward Aumerle Lancaster—Aumerle to everyone in the family, because the Lancasters, for all their money and influence, are not imaginative when it comes to naming, and they're rather overrun with Edwards and Edmunds—is the first to notice that once Richard Kent-Bordeaux walks into the boardroom of Lancaster Holdings, Ltd., Flintshire Division, to settle a horrific lawsuit and the looming bankruptcy of the company by handing over the reins to their cousin, Henry Lancaster, Henry can't take his eyes off of the man.
He's not ogling Richard, exactly. In fact, Aumerle suspects that he'd pay less attention if Henry were, because that would be normal. Richard is almost indecently handsome. Tall, aristocratic and lean, he has short blond hair that curls lightly, a swashbuckler's pencil-thin blond moustache that Aumerle is certain Douglas Fairbanks copied from him, high cheekbones and wide blue eyes that seem oddly ingenuous. Add in a killer sense of style to go with his quintessentially English good looks and part of the reason that Richard attracts attention becomes all too clear.
Striding over to the boardroom table clad in a pale gray, cost-the-earth suit and bowing his head graciously as he greets his few friends and his numerous enemies, Richard looks like the king of the world. The only thing he's missing is a crown.
Richard seats himself at the table, his gaze lightly touching all of those present, save Henry. Henry strives not to react, but the sudden lift of his chin and the tension in his body both say more clearly than words that he knows he's been deemed unworthy of Richard's attention, and that this cuts like a flick knife.
It would be so much simpler if Henry were a manipulative serpent of a man like his father John, who, if he were alive right now instead of trying to oust Lucifer and conquer Hell, would be sitting at the opposite end of the table, reading everyone's secrets in pursed lips or momentary flinches while his own face was gave not a hint of what he was doing. Or if Richard were more like his father, the fierce and chivalrous army officer that even the Kaiser's soldiers admired and honored. But Henry is about as complicated as well water, and he has never played mind games—at least not wth anything approaching skill. And—perhaps thanks to his father's slow death from lungs ruined by mustard gas and pneumonia--Richard has no love for war and no use for the code of the warrior.
Most of Henry's allies and Richard's friends are pretending that they aren't seeing former friends and current relatives on the opposing side. Some don't bother to pretend and instead gaze angrily at each other. I could beat you, their eyes say. Name a battle. Agincourt. Waterloo. I would have crushed you there.
Part of it is posturing. The rest is pure frustration, the product of a lawsuit so bloody that it was the War to End All Wars in legal form. Some of the older members of Lancaster Holdings have, in fact, referred to the lawsuit as "Jarndyce & Jarndyce," which isn't quite accurate. Lancaster v. Kent-Bordeaux didn't endure for generations, slowly bankrupting and ruining everyone vaguely connected with it; it viciously chopped through the family, their businesses and very nearly the nation as well, amputating jobs, fortunes, hopes and lives.
The legal butchery has to stop. Everyone agrees on that. Henry's side has more and better lawyers—again, not a surprise, given whose son he is—so he'll get to be in charge after today. But Aumerle's not sure that means that Henry has won. He only knows that Richard—impulsive, passionate, tactless, well-intentioned Richard—has lost.
Aumerle isn't sure if this loss, following on the heels of Richard's Irish boyfriend, Robbie de Vere, dumping him for the life of a nomad pilot and a dark, lively girl named Agnes who prefers the name Ignatius, and the cruelly abrupt death of Richard's wife, bohemian artist and former flapper Anne Luxembourg, from influenza, is nothing compared to those other losses or the proverbial straw-and-camel routine. Maybe a little of both.
Then Richard begins to speak in a mild and pleasant tone, as if he were discussing a puzzling but not especially important subject over tea and hot buttered scones.
"I am amazed that things went as far as that foul lawsuit, let alone coming to this point. I thought"--a quick glance at one of Henry's sometime allies, Percy Northumberland--"that even you would remember who the president of Lancaster Holdings is, you who once worked here as one of the company's trusted directors."
Aumerle wonders if Northumberland has noticed that Richard said nothing about trusting him personally. From Richard, implying that a man is unworthy of trust is a deadly insult. But Northumberland is a shark of a man, battening on swollen egos, feelings of resentment and old hatred as if they were species of fish designed to be his food. Aumerle doubts if Northumberland has ever trusted anyone...or wished to.
Unsurprisingly, Northumberland says nothing. But to Aumerle, both his forbidding expression and his silence are filled with contemptuous comments about melodramatic fools who are so weak as to expect trustworthiness and honour either from alleged friends, let alone enemies.
Unwillingly—for Aumerle does not want to see humiliation burning in Richard's eyes on today of all days; let the man keep a scrap of dignity, please—he glances at his friend.
Richard's face is aloof, unreadable and regal, the face of a king who, having been captured by his enemies, now faces execution by traitors. He may be doomed, but by God, he will not give them the pleasure of seeing either his wounds or his grief.
This would be more reassuring if Richard were better at concealing his feelings. But Aumerle had been there when Richard heard about Robbie's defection and Anne's death, and the same thing had happened both times. Richard had blanched as if an unseen bullet had hit something vital and then, his eyes so raw with rage and loss that it hurt to look at them, had begun to curse death, fate, God, time and the Lancasters. He had done this for hours, pausing only to swallow what wine he could obtain, grimacing as if it were foul-tasting anaesthesia.
Richard has no talent for accepting loss, and no gift for grieving with dignity.
Aumerle studies his friend's uncharacteristically immobile face, thinks of the calm tone in which he spoke to the treacherous Northumberland, and wonders, with growing unease, just what the hell is going on.
It's been a long time, Richard thinks, since I played chess with Cousin Henry.
And oh, yes, what's going on in this room right now is a chess game—every move orchestrated, from his clothes to his hair to his words to the calm expression on his face. Some people might even think that it's part of a ploy to prevent a hostile takeover of the company he's ruled like an emperor since he was twenty-two.
But that, Richard knows, would be futile. The buzzards and vultures are not gathering; they're already here. The takeover's been, if not planned, lusted after since before he was born. All because his grandfather had too many sons and had favored his eldest above all the others as the heir to Lancaster Holdings.
There would have been less trouble if Father had survived. Almost everyone had liked and admired Edward Kent-Bordeaux, and even those who didn't like anyone, such as Henry's father, dour, saturnine Uncle John, managed to give him a crumb or two of respect. Richard can't even remember hearing stories about anyone, even Grandfather, becoming angry over Father changing his name from Lancaster to Kent-Bordeaux; granted, that was for an inheritance and the Lancasters have always loved money and power, but Richard is certain that if he had been the one to change his name, he would have met with stark disapproval. He's not his father, and yet he is—or was--his grandfather's heir.
Two of his uncles—proud, ambitious, capable men in their prime when he was but a child, and not at all pleased that, to keep the Lancaster business empire strong, they'd have to labour on behalf of a boy heir—never forgave him for either.
It could have ended. His uncles had had twelve years to learn to deal with the situation. Thirteen, as it turned out, but who would have expected that his uncles would collaborate with the rest of the board of directors and get a tame judge to declare that he wasn't of age at twenty-one? It had taken him a year to get that legally unsnarled, while strangers and employees alike whispered that these rich young chaps weren't always all that bright or capable, and really, Kent-Bordeaux's uncles had to know something, or why would they be doing everything in their power to keep him from being effective?
And in addition to this, Uncle John had dripped poison in the ears of dear cousin Henry from birth to adulthood. You should have this position, this wealth, this power. You would have, had your grandfather left the business to his eldest surviving son instead of a child. If you were good enough, you would claim what is rightfully yours. But you never, ever will be. Words never quite spoken but suggested with every look and action, insinuating themselves into thought and emotion until they were as much a part of Henry as his bones and blood.
There's no cure for such covetousness. By now Henry feels—thanks to Uncle John, this damnable lawsuit and Uncle Thomas's disastrous murder—that all that Richard has (and is) is no more than his due.
Richard can't prevent Henry from taking everything. That game is lost.
But by God, he can turn Henry's win into a Pyrrhic victory. Gentle words can be swords.
So he smiles, pretending to listen to Northumberland, who is burbling drivel about Henry's honour, nobility, trustworthiness and—oh, here's a laugh—loyalty. Richard narrowly avoids bursting out laughing at this, catching himself only at the last minute when he sees the men on Henry's side of the table nodding solemnly.
"Peace," he says at last, wearying of Northumberland's sycophancy. "The worth and nobility of Mr. Lancaster are not in doubt, unless others here doubt them. I myself know precisely how good and gracious he is."
Which is both diplomatic and accurate.
"Cousin," he continues, "you are welcome here. I do hope that you shall enjoy your visit to the company offices here in Wales, and that your demands shall be dealt with easily. "
Henry frowns at this, rubbing the side of his nose as he always did as a boy when puzzled. Richard, having claimed the position of a host welcoming visitors who normally would have no place here, bows his head graciously. He must submit, or seem to submit, he who has no talent at all for humility, though he feels as though he's lying broken and bleeding on a highway, as though he is the highway, battered, filthy and ground-down.
It occurs to him that he might well end up in a grave by the highway, a tiny kingdom six feet deep. His, for all eternity. After all, the last thing that the family would want is for him to be around to file another lawsuit, to disgrace the family by falling in love with yet another rebel of no family and inappropriate background. That he loves Anne and Robbie to this day is of no importance. Lancaster Holdings, Ltd., is all in all to the family. They will protect it...even from their own.
He wonders briefly who will give the order, then mentally kicks himself. Henry, of course. Who else?
Henry would like to say that he has no desire to be here, no wish to deal with Richard, but the truth is, he has longed for this day for two years, ever since the lawsuit began. He has no love for law—legal words and phrases are jaw-breaking, and barristers and solicitors spin more labyrinthine webs than his father ever did—so perhaps it's not so strange that he wanted this taken care of in a boardroom rather than a civil court, with he himself surrounded by loyal friends and fierce allies. And Richard would be calm and courteous, silently radiating the opinion that Henry, not he, was the rightful president of Lancaster Holdings and the uncrowned king of England. He'd even dreamed, sometimes, of his struggles with Richard being some sort of divine test to prove his fitness for command.
He'd craved these things for so long that it had not occurred to him that things might not play out according to his fantasies.
And yet here is Richard, behaving with insouciance and cheer more suitable to a garden party.
There's nothing wrong with Richard being cheerful and charming. For Richard, both qualities are like breathing: automatic, instinctive and requiring no thought whatsoever. Still, Henry had hoped that on such a solemn occasion, Richard's brittle, glittering charm would be somewhat muted.
He can't even say what he's objecting to, or why he feels as if his skin's being abraded with sandpaper.
He's alone in this, though. The faces of those on his side of the table vary—some are long and equine, while others are the boiled pink of Easter hams—but all but one are wearing placid expressions, as if Richard were playing out the turnover of the family company according to a well-known and well-cherished script.
The one exception is Uncle Edmund, who's paying less attention to Richard than he is to his son, Aumerle, sitting at Richard's right hand and focusing on Richard with the ferocious intensity of a bodyguard-prince guarding his king. If Henry were in a mood to care about such things, he might be amused by the fact that the two look like a photograph and its negative—Uncle Edmund in a navy blue suit, Aumerle in off-white; Uncle Edmund with a white shirt, Aumerle with a royal blue one; Uncle Edmund's tie, dark blue, while Aumerle's is pure white. Even their faces look like negatives, for Aumerle's mother was a Spaniard of Moorish ancestry, and Aumerle is uncompromisingly brown. Not tan. Not beige. Brown.
Which, he realizes abruptly, is the colour of the suit he's wearing—dark brown. Not to mention short in the leg and—oh, lovely—one black sock and one white one. He looks like a clodhopper straight off the turnip farm. Even worse, he looks like he works for Richard. Not the sort of man who belongs in a boardroom. Not at all.
And of course Richard picks that precise moment to stop speaking and to look at him inquiringly, as if he expects him to say something terribly significant.
"I've only come for what's mine," he says, trying to sound reasonable and regal and instead sounding, even to his own ears, like a petulant child demanding sweets.
Richard bows his head. It looks theatrical. It also looks....quite characteristic of him, actually. Henry tries not to wish that he had that instinctive grace--and that the winter sunlight would stop playing on Richard's hair. If Richard's going to be devilish annoying, he could at least look the part.
When Richard speaks, it's in a voice as smooth and creamy as new-made butter. "Your own is yours, cousin...as I am yours."
Oh, he couldn't mean what that sounded like...could he?
It only takes Henry several seconds to decide that yes, he could. Richard has always liked men as well as women, after all, and, despite such friendships being illegal, has never regarded his decadent tastes as something to hide. The man truly would have made a splendid Roman emperor.
This makes him chuckle, and Northumberland looks at him askance, disgust engraved in his expression. Henry starts to say something, then realizes that denying an accusation that hasn't been spoken will raise it in the minds of those who haven't thought of it yet. He can't win.
He should have reacted with horror, he realizes. Horror. Revulsion. Hatred. The problem is, he doesn't hate Richard, though this would most likely shock every man at the table.
He scrambles about for some suitable response. "Well, since you're my own, I hope I shall serve you and yours well."
There. That sounds unambiguous and moderately intelligent. And it's true, too, for he does hope that he'll serve the company well. He wouldn't even mind treating Richard well, provided that Richard could stop treating him as though they were still equals.
One of his allies groans, and for a moment, Henry can't understand why. It's not as if he said anyth-
He can feel his cheeks growing hot, and just for a minute he hates Richard, hates him passionately for making him say things he doesn't mean (or rather, says a traitorous voice in his head, things that, on some level, you do mean,) and then he shoves the voice into a dungeon, rolls a boulder in front of it and hastily thinks of pleasant things, like having everything that Richard has always had...
...or being everything that Richard has always been? whispers that voice, and Henry thinks briefly how odd that a voice from part of his mind can say things that are patently untrue while suggesting that they're the exact opposite before noting that Richard's lips are quirking up at the corners, giving him the appearance of a smug marmalade cat.
He's fairly certain that he shouldn't be thinking of Richard's lips in any context, much less thinking of them before wondering why in hell Richard looks so pleased with himself.
But he doesn't have much time to mull this over, because Richard is speaking again, all confidence and courtesy, and damn it all, a man who has been so thoroughly defeated by life shouldn't sound like this.
"Of course you deserve what was once mine; don't those who know how to get what they crave deserve the best?"
The words are said in so innocent a tone that Henry doesn't realise that the question could be answered "No." What does strike him with a force like a blow is that Richard is being gracious in defeat, and that he himself could never do that. He would never even think of behaving that way...much less want to.
Which means, does it not, that Richard is the better man.
Henry tries to shove that thought away as soon as it sidles into his mind, but it scuttles away from him into a corner where it peers at him with cold, predatory eyes.
It isn't fair. Henry knows that he can command Lancaster Holdings with skill, and that he won't be battling half the family in the bargain, as Richard has had to for years. He's the war veteran who signed up at thirteen (though, thanks to the proper forged documents, he'd been posing as a short sixteen-year-old) and who fought at Passchendaele; he's the one who turned Uncle Thomas's murder into a cause, a crusade against corruption and cover-ups.
His father had hated that. But then, his father had hated everything he did that had not been planned out in advance.
It had taken him years to learn that Richard had known that at least one member of the family had been helped plot the murder, and that he'd seen Henry's accusation of Lancaster Holdings bursar Thomas Mowbray as a double bluff...though whether to protect himself or John Lancaster was the question.
He hadn't known that Richard had been under suspicion himself at the time—but that he'd got Henry and Mowbray out of the country and into temporary exile because he'd believed Mowbray to be innocent, and Henry...
...well, guilty or innocent, Henry was family.
Never mind that doing so undoubtedly made the Yard more suspicious. Never mind that there are still those who believe that Richard helped plot the murder of his uncle—or even that he was there when the man was kidnapped outside his own home. He saved Henry—and Henry suspects that Richard found him an irritant even before the lawsuit, though for the life of him he can't imagine why--and then he didn't even bother to make use of the fact that Henry owed him.
That Henry still owes him.
And it doesn't help to know that if their positions had been reversed, he wouldn't have even thought about saving Richard. Not because he dislikes the man, or because he considers him an enemy. Richard is a rival and an opponent, but not a foe.
No. He wouldn't have bothered to save Richard because he would have been in danger, too, and clearing his own name first would have been infinitely more important. Striving to save his annoying cousin wouldn't have been practical.
It wouldn't have been personal, he hastily reminds himself. Just...good business.
Which makes things worse.
As if from a distance, he can hear Richard talking again, and he wants to shout at Richard as if he were a sergeant and Richard a raw recruit, to tell him to shut up, shut UP, that's an order, I don't want to hear one more syllable out of you, is that clear?
But his tongue is paralyzed, and the words don't emerge.
"Cousin," Richard is saying, "I am too young to be your father, though you are old enough to be my heir. What you will have, I'll give, and willingly."
Hearing this—in various and sometimes suggestive contexts, not that he'd ever admit this--has been one of Henry's daydreams for years, and he doesn't know why it sounds so intolerable to him now. Perhaps, he thinks confusedly, it's because kings aren't supposed to kneel to clodhoppers, or crown them, either. That only works in fairy tales, and even there the farm boys and fishermen and woodcutters all go through torturous trials before they get the princess, half a kingdom and a crown.
And suddenly he realises—he's in the wrong story. He's not the hero, finally getting his due after years of toil. He's the bloody usurper, stealing what can never be his and flinging the rightful king out in the cold.
And just as this realisation dawns on him, Richard smiles a hair more and nods all but imperceptibly, as if to say, Yes, Henry, you've finally got it.
That smile stabs him, and for a moment he can barely breathe.
He knows he needs to speak, because his friends and allies are all staring at him, wondering why he doesn't answer. He has to swallow a few times, but eventually he manages to choke out two words. "'Willingly,' Richard?"
A shrug, followed by a wry smile and words that, for the first time today, contain a drop of bitterness. "The law compels me to be willing, for the judgement of the court has told me what its will and therefore what my will must be."
And Henry stares at him. He knew Richard opposed this, of course, but it had never occurred to him that Richard might feel coerced and yet would still try to make an art of the surrender of power.
Because, when all fails and there is no hope left, a gentleman will choose to go out with style.
Henry has never felt so outclassed in his entire life.
"And now," continues Richard, "I think we must finish what may be done here. There are still some things that must be taken care of here before we conclude matters in London, is this not so?"
No, Henry thinks, no. We can stop this. I don't want the job, not this badly--
And then he knows that he does want to be President of Lancaster Holdings this badly. Even if it hurts the man who saved his freedom and his life. Even if it means a lifetime of distrust surrounded by wolves in men's clothing who will forever be watching him for the slightest sign of weakness, and who will pounce and hamstring him if they see even the hint of one. Even though betrayers and usurpers never prosper. Even though by grabbing what Richard has, he'll lose all hope of rekindling even a scrap of friendship with Richard.
Even with all that, he can't say no. But a small acknowledgement of Richard slips out nonetheless, and Henry isn't aware of it.
"Yes, sir." He places his hands palm down on the table. "Let's do what needs to be done."
It isn't until the next morning when Henry buys the Times near his hotel that he learns Nature, who apparently has a very nasty sense of humor, has put the crowning touch on the matter of Lancaster Holdings, Ltd.
George V is now dead after a long illness, and his son—who reminds Henry more than a little of Richard—has inherited the throne.
The king is dead.
Long live the never-king.