Derek hears a grounds keeper cross the gravel below his window for the third time before he opens his eyes. The weak dawn light falls finely into the room through a crack in the thick drapes.
He knows that in many rooms of this house there will be nothing but ceaseless action and noise, the pre dawn hours are some of the busiest for the servants of an estate like this. Clothes will already be dampened by sweat and muscles aching with labour but this room is still and silent and the effort of merely opening his eyelids seems like an exhausting feat this morning. As it has every morning for as long as he can remember.
Grief has been his companion for more years than he cares count and whilst it may be a selfish, controlling friend, it is at least constant and steadfast. It's dulled all the sharp edges and created the dense haze through which he watches the world spin by, safely and from a distance.
The continued wearing of his mourning clothes, the only linens to be kept clean and perfectly laundered in his closet, is another stone in the wall he's built around himself. His friends may call it morbid and self indulgent during their many incessant attempts to reintroduce him to society but he cares not. He has tried that life before and it has only ever led to pain. He is many things but he is no fool and will not make the same mistakes twice.
The grey light falls on an envelope lying on his writing desk. It arrived yesterday, an invitation from a well-bred local family for a formal dinner. It is of course understood that a gentleman of his standing must be invited to every dreary and insignificant gathering in the local parish, anything else would be considered an insult. It is just as clearly understood that each solicitation will receive the small, crisp card stating 'with regret' in the hands of an immaculate, intimidating footman.
The thought of society in the country fills Derek with dread, and not a little disdain. His social interaction has lessened over the years to a handful of occasions in the last 12 months and these have been exclusively in town. Aside from a couple of stiff dinner parties with old friends of his family who made little attempt to hide their shock at his strange manner and appearance, the rest of his outings have been to his club, dining and playing cards into the early morning with other gentlemen who have the means to do almost anything they wished but a mind to do nothing at all.
On one of these visits the dining had outweighed the card playing and he'd found himself stumbling in the cold down Sloane Street and into the noxious warmth of a brothel just off Cadogan Square.
Derek shifts in his bed, rolling from his back onto his side, burying his head in the cool pillow, the sharp sting of humiliation still present in the memory of that evening causing a small moan to escape and bury itself in his bedding. The image of the young woman's face as he backed away from her and the feel of the stifling heat of the room were all suddenly vivid and real. The revolting perfume that the whore had been drenched in seemed to cling to his very sheets.
Derek pushed himself up taking gulps of air and put out a shaking hand to grasp the glass of water that lay by his bed. The water was stale and not that cool but a few gulps helped clear his mind a little, he felt the panic curl back and the calming haze fell back into place, covering and shielding his mind once more.
He'd known the whore house had been a mistake from the moment that young fop from Hertfordshire had announced his intentions for the evening and invited Derek to join him. At the time he'd blamed the strong drink that had been flowing all evening but now, alone and in the cold light of day, he can be honest enough to himself that it was desire that dragged him through the icy streets that night. The hunger to touch a warm, soft body and to be touched in return. Recently it felt like a starvation, the craving so fierce and strong that at times it burnt through the mist of his thoughts and he felt clear and sharp for the first time in years.
He fell back against his bed, hands covering his eyes, pushing against them until he could see white spots against his lids. He knew he needed to get up, needed to make his appearance as the starched, grim, lord of the manor. His presence was required to ensure the servants did not falter, did not start to slacken and let things slide. The estate was large and despite his discipline and attention to detail it was a constant worry to him that it might go under, and with it his family's heritage, pride and history.
But for some reason even that fear could not move him to stir from his bed this morning. He remained reclining against the soft, down pillows, eyes shut like a child hoping the monsters would disappear if they kept them closed for long enough.
He heard the soft click of his bedroom door handle turning and then the gentle glide of the door against the plush carpet as it opened. His eyes remained shut, knowing it was simply a chamber maid bringing up his breakfast as they did every morning. He only took breakfast in the dining room on the rare occasions he had guests to stay, the action reminding him too painfully of life with his family, when the dining hall had buzzed with chatter and noise at every meal.
Soft steps made their way carefully across the floor, past the end of the bed and down the side towards where he lay. They were halting and light, as if their owner was nervous. Realising for the first time that the person who stood next to his bedside could not be neither Erica or Kira, both of whom never failed to strut quickly and confidently through the door each morning depositing his tray heavily on his desk where by this time he would almost always be, already starting to work his way through the endless correspondence and legal documents which seemed to form an ever tighter seal enveloping his life.
His eyes opened to take in a young boy, surely no more than sixteen, clutching the breakfast tray so tightly his knuckles were white, stood mere inches from where Derek lay.
He was slender, the rough cotton of his servant's shift hanging loosely from his delicate frame. His skin was smooth and pale, dotted with moles, skin that would make the spoilt society girls he knew weep with jealousy. Derek lifted his eyes to the boy's face, took in the fine planes of his cheekbones, the exquisite moulding of his features highlighted by the soft, early morning light framing his head, short, light brown hair curling into his nape. His eyes were turned downwards in subservience and his plump, pink lips were slightly open, breathing a little heavily, whether from nerves or the long walk from the kitchens, Derek couldn't be sure.
All he could be sure of was the sudden, violent bolt of lust that shot through his body and mind at the sight of this sweet boy before him. The milky fog of grief that kept a permanent residue across his mind instantly shifted, was pushed away by this rush of thirst that made the needs he'd felt on the night of his trip to the brothel seem anaemic and feeble by comparison.
'Put the tray down'. His first words of the day came out rough, heavy with sleep and lust.
Keeping his eyes firmly down the boy turned to his left and hesitantly laid the tray on the bedside table. He went to take a step back, clearly readying to leave but Derek's hand shot out, clasping his wrist roughly. 'I didn't say leave'.