Supper was over that Sunday evening and so the four of them walked out into the front garden, conversing amiably in the deepening twilight. Arthur was lighting the first of several post-meal cigarettes and murmuring something appreciative about the late summer blooms in Bell's flowerbeds, and Jonathan lagged behind the others, watching with boyish fascination the wavering flight of a moth. His wife took the opportunity to thread her arm through Colquhoun Grant's, leaning her head affectionately on his shoulder.
"You know how much Jonathan and I enjoy having you over for these Sunday suppers," she said gently. "But it makes us sad to think of you dining alone all the rest of the week."
"I don't hear you telling Arthur that," he remonstrated with a good-natured smile.
"That's because I doubt he ever dines alone."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Grant rubbed his chin as he considered his boss, walking several steps ahead. Even for a casual meal with close friends, Arthur looked immaculate: expensive suit, gold watch, polished shoes. "I think he eats alone quite often, since the divorce from Kitty. It's other activities he rarely does alone."
Bell laughed, squeezing Grant's arm. "You're very good at changing the subject, you know."
"I'm an intelligence officer, Bell. I'm trained in all manner of subterfuge and double-speak."
"Seriously, though." She stopped walking and looked earnestly into Grant's handsome face. The breeze was growing somewhat brisker with the approach of darkness, and it ruffled Grant's golden hair with its fingers. "I wish you could find someone. You deserve happiness, Colley. I keep thinking how sorry I am that things didn't work out with Sarah."
Grant sighed, more wistfully than he would have liked. "I liked Sarah. She was lovely, intelligent, funny. She was also, unfortunately, madly in love with my brother."
"Oh Colquhoun," Bell cried sadly, but Grant merely laughed.
"You mustn't worry about me, Bell. Truly. I'm a soldier, remember? I'm used to taking care of myself."
"You used to be a soldier," she corrected him. "Now you're a government intelligence officer."
"There's little difference. I spend a lot of time traveling, here one day, gone the next. Crashing in safe houses and cheap hotels, wearing the same set of clothes for days on end, unable to tell anyone where I am or where I'm off to, let alone what I'm doing. In truth, I have no business being in a relationship. What kind of a life is this to offer anyone? I'm better off on my own."
"I can't agree with that," Bell said, her dark eyes sorrowful. "There's someone for everyone in the world. Just look at Jonathan and I." She turned in time to witness her six-foot tall husband squeal and bat his arms madly at the moth which had turned its attention away from the flowerbeds to dive bomb his curls. Bell sighed. "What I mean is, maybe you're not meant to be with ninety-nine out of a hundred people, yes. But that hundredth one... If you can find that one, I believe it will make all the difference."
"Finding that one, though, is like finding a needle in a haystack," Grant said.
"Or an iota of good humor in Norrell's personality," Jonathan added, escaping the insect and loping up to join them, a cheery grin on his face. Seeing their somber expressions it was clear that he had only grasped the last bit of their conversation. "Er, sorry -- what were we talking about?"
"They're talking about Grant's non-existent love life, of course," Arthur murmured, lighting a second cigarette with an impossibly debonair flick of his engraved lighter.
"And now it seems everyone is," Grant muttered.
"If Grant were to take some advice from me, which of course he won't," Arthur added, "he might try loosening up a bit. Being a bit more adventurous. Shaking off some of that soldierly stiffness."
Grant gaped at the man. He thought he had been rather adventurous: who was it, after all, that had gone alone on all those behind-border missions, unsupported except for a radio disguised as a ballpoint pen, a transmitter chip in the sole of his boot? "I'm sorry, who are you again?" he said. "Surely you can't be the great Arthur Wellesley, my commanding officer?”
"I was your commanding officer, Grant. Now I'm your supervisor. In case you hadn't noticed, we're not in the army anymore, old chap. Oh yes, we're still fighting a war. But it's a different kind of war, one made up of bits and bytes and stolen jump drives, that sort of thing. You're done with parade grounds and stiff uniforms and carrying laden packs of equipment on your back, so you can afford to live a bit differently now. No need to remain so buttoned up and rigid all the time."
"I had no idea I possessed so many devastating character flaws," Grant replied with some genuine effrontery.
But Arthur was on a roll now, holding forth on a favorite subject -- his own opinion -- and he couldn't be bothered to stop and listen. "Incidentally, one thing that hasn't changed is the French. Do you know that the last hacker we apprehended was some shady character from Marseilles?" he said, addressing Jonathan and Bell. "Can't remember his name at the moment, probably Pierre or Guillaume or some such-- No, wait. Naps. His name was Naps, if you can believe it. But I digress. We were talking of Grant here and his desperate need to get laid--"
"I beg your pardon?" Grant cried.
"The man simply needs to broaden his horizons, try new things," Arthur continued. "Men, for starters."
Jonathan and Bell joined Grant in staring at Arthur in astonishment. "I wasn't talking about me, good God!" Arthur huffed. "I'm a multi-woman man. I meant other men. Grant hasn't made it work with a woman of late, so-- perhaps there's a man out there who will do just right for him."
Grant was, for a moment, at a loss for words. He didn't speak often of his private affairs, let alone his sexuality, and certainly not to Arthur. "How did you know that I'm bisexual?"
"Oh, come Grant." Arthur laughed. "That's really quite adorable. You're not the only intelligence officer around these parts, you know, or did you forget that I started my career in intelligence, in India? It hardly matters, I've not the slightest interest in your sexuality--"
"Really?" Grant deadpanned. "You could have fooled me."
"--so long as you are an effective officer, and you are certainly that. Besides, I've seen you with a few men. Mere flirtations, I think, but there was that one, that Spaniard, whats-his-name. You quite fancied him, I think. Whatever happened to him?"
Grant stared, grinding his teeth a little. "He died."
"Right." This took a bit of the wind out of Arthur's sails. He coughed, cleared his throat, and gazed up at the sky. "Lovely evening, this."
"Look, let's forget I brought this up," Bell said, patting Grant's arm. "I shouldn't have done, as dear Jonathan so often reminds me." She cast a significant glance at him which Jonathan answered with one of his own. "You do whatever makes you happy, Colley, that's all that matters. We all have your back."
Grant smiled warmly and bent to kiss Bell's cheek. "You're lovely. The great tragedy of my life was in not finding you before you hooked up with that idiot," he quipped. "Why on earth do you stay with him?"
"Oh well, you know." Bell smirked. "Children shouldn't raise themselves. Somebody's got to rear him."
"Ha! Very amusing!" Jonathan cried, feigning displeasure. "Such wit to go with those enchanting eyes, that perfect little bum." Bell yipped as Jonathan gave her a playful pinch and she swatted at him; he ducked her half-hearted blows and, grinning, shook Grant's hand. "Good to see you as always, my friend. Don't let these do-gooders get you down."
"A delicious supper and a lovely evening," Arthur was saying, taking Bell's hand and bringing it to his lips. She rolled her eyes, smiling and blushing with pleasure at the same time, and Jonathan rushed to intervene. "Careful," he said, snatching her hand from Arthur's lecherous grasp. "She has very delicate hands, easily breakable. It's a congenital Woodhope condition, very rare -- genetic, I'm afraid. Oh look! She's wearing a ring. Just happens to match mine--"
"Stop it, you oaf," Bell hissed.
"Well Grant, shall I give you a lift home?" Arthur offered, and with a few more words of parting the two ex-soldiers left the Stranges standing on their front walk in the budding starlight.
Arthur's car was a Jaguar, and a new one: it still had that intoxicating smell of fresh leather and a console that gleamed in the fading light. Grant was not a man who felt the need to accumulate material possessions, but he couldn't deny a ride in one of Arthur's luxury vehicles whenever the opportunity presented itself. "Just drop me off at The Quartermaster," Grant told him, inhaling the new car smell and running a hand admiringly over the dash. "I'll have a pint or two before heading home."
The Quartermaster was the name of Grant's favorite pub, a military-themed establishment only a few blocks from his flat. Arthur shook his head. "Why do you persist in frequenting that place?"
"I thought you liked it," Grant said, surprised. "They have your picture on the wall, after all. And not even in the men's loo hanging over a urinal, which is where I thought they should place it."
Arthur couldn't help but laugh. "There's nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes. But you'll never meet anyone if you keep hanging out at the same place every evening."
"I don't hang out there," Grant insisted, "I merely stop in for a pint from time to time. Though, as it happens, I'm not attempting to meet anyone. I have no wish to. I have never had a relationship that lasted more than six months and yet I'm quite satisfied with my life, which tells me that I have no need of one. There's no point, so I will no longer even make the attempt. I have sworn off love."
"Ha!" Arthur's laugh was abrupt and derisive. Grant stared at him.
"What's that supposed to mean? You don't believe me?"
"I do not. Face it, Grant, you are a romantic at heart. A big, squishable softy. I'm serious," he said as Grant laughed in his turn. "You try to hide it and you do an admirable job, stuffing it all down beneath your Scottish reserve, your soldierly devotion to duty, your stiff upper lip. But I know better. I've seen the swollen crimson organ beating out beneath your "For God and Country" breast. It's there in the way you rush to defend your men from injustices. In the way you've always fought to call attention to the plight of the women and children and elderly people in the regions you've traveled through. It was clearly on display that night at Fitz's bachelor party when you had a few too many pints and began belting out tunes like a Broadway diva."
Grant rubbed his forehead uncomfortably. "Don't remind me about that."
"And you forget, I've met your mother." Arthur turned his gaze from the snarl of London traffic ahead long enough to grin at Grant. "What a lovely woman. If she was but a few years younger--"
"Don't!" Grant cried.
"Perhaps you weren't aware of it, but she told me everything. About the amateur theatricals you staged as a slip of a lad with your brothers and sisters. How you were always singing: traditional Scottish ballads and church hymns and show tunes and Beatles songs. She told me about your piano lessons and your Shakespeare recitations, how you first wanted to go to drama school--"
"So what does that prove?" Grant asked. "I liked theatre and music once, so what? I put all of that behind me when I became a soldier. How does any of it relate to why I’m not in a relationship?"
"It proves that you have a lot to offer, Grant," Arthur said, his tone now the serious one he used to brief his men on the latest security threats, to issue assignments in a way that brooked no disagreement and suggested the dire consequences of failure. "You are a man of many dimensions, and you could make some man or woman very, very happy. Don't hide your light under a basket."
"Bushel," Grant said quietly. "It's a bushel."
"Basket, bushel, why should I give a fuck? Whatever it is, I mean it. Bell was right. You deserve to be happy."
As much as he tried not to, Grant ruminated over Arthur's words as he sat at the bar in The Quartermaster, sipping his pint. Perhaps he had been wrong to smother those other aspects of his personality. Perhaps it was pigheaded to put up a wall around himself and never give love another try. Perhaps, somewhere out there right now in the sparkling labyrinth of lights that was London, there was someone wondering the same thing about themselves, wondering if another attempt at love might bring happiness.
Perhaps there was someone out there that Colquhoun Grant was destined to be with.
He finished his pint with a long swallow and set it, with a decisive thud, on the top of the bar. "What bloody rubbish," he growled, and left for his flat.
At that moment, across the city, William De Lancey's ramen noodles were burning.
They were burning because William had neglected to remove them from the stove, and he had neglected to remove them from the stove because of the ding emitted by his laptop. Utter, near paralyzing horror had gripped him at that sound, and all thought of his supper was instantly forgotten. It took every once of courage he possessed to leave the kitchen and walk over to the computer where it sat on the dining room table.
"It's not the end of the world," he kept repeating to himself as he moved, one tentative step at a time. "You're under no obligation. You can say no, turn them down. Even if this was a massive, massive mistake, you can still get out of it. There's no shame in that."
He chided himself for the way his hand trembled slightly as he reached forward to dismiss his screensaver and read the message he had received. He reminded himself of how steady his hands had been back in the Army, when he'd had to move under fire to deliver a message, instructions upon which the success or failure of a mission had hinged. Surely a man who could do that, a man who had helped to organize and move battalions of men, hundred of millions of pounds of Army equipment, could get through reading his first response from a dating website?
As he sat down at the table and clicked on the message, however, he rued - and not for the first time that day, or even that hour - the moment of loneliness that had prompted him to put his profile and pictures up on BiLife, a dating site for men and women open to relationships with members of either sex. It had been stupid, nothing more than a Saturday night alone in his flat with Netflix and a bowl of microwave popcorn and no one to share either with. He had survived a bad car crash in France two years before, a crash that had left him with serious abdominal injuries and put him in the hospital for three months. He had survived war zones and the crash of a military helicopter into the building he was working in, and all the less dramatic ups and downs and stresses that life threw at every person. He should have been able to survive a Saturday night on his own.
He had survived many such Saturdays in the fourteen months since he and Maggie Hall had called it quits. There was no doubt about it: he had loved Maggie. She was pretty and vivacious and smart, with an infectious laugh and an ever-optimistic outlook on life. But she was also a woman who was firm in what she wanted. And what she wanted, at the age of 34, was a husband. A house in London and a baby to fill its rooms with gurgles and laughter and awkward, padding steps. They had been together for two happy years and William had talked -- occasionally, in a vague, offhand way -- about marriage, but he had never bought a ring, never proposed. Gradually Maggie had begun putting on the pressure: gently enough at first, elbowing him in the side to point out a wedding dress in a shop window, innocent comments on how cute a passing toddler looked in their pastel onesie. Her parents, who were considerably wealthy, had even hinted at sweetening the deal, her father taking William aside at one family gathering and suggesting that after a wedding he might be amenable to purchasing a house or -- if William's pride couldn't abide that -- at least to helping with a down payment. They liked William and Maggie adored him, and it might all have worked out just fine.
But William found himself unable to do it. He kept putting it off with one excuse after another: the ring, the bended knee, the honeymoon and the house, his own ruddy-cheeked child on his lap. It wasn't that he was opposed to being a father, or opposed to marriage. It was just that, for some reason - despite his love for her - he was opposed to it with Maggie Hall. Something about it felt wrong. Some indecipherable voice in the back of his mind, in one chamber of his heart, seemed to urge him against it.
There had been times since he explained it to her -- since the tears and the raised voices, the recriminations and, finally, the mutual separation -- when he wondered if he'd been wrong. If he'd simply been scared. But deep down inside, he knew that wasn't the case. He'd gone on a couple of dates since, with men and women, and none had worked out. But William was sure, somehow, that there was someone out there he was meant to be with. It was what had led him to sign up on BiLife. It was what had sent his heart hammering with excitement and dread to hear the inbox on his profile ding.
Swallowing down his nerves, wiping the sweat from his palms on the thighs of his jeans, William began to read. The first part of the message was a standard form, giving a summary of the profile of the user that had contacted him.
Colquhoun Grant, age 37, London. Scottish by birth. Army veteran, now working for the British government. Interests included theatre and film, music, the outdoors, hiking and horseback riding.
Butterflies began to dance around the walls of William's stomach. An army veteran! With interests in theatre and music and the outdoors! It was all incredibly promising. But there was the link to Grant's profile and pictures, and William's cursor hung blinking over the line of hypertext for a full minute before he summoned the courage to click through.
He gasped. The butterflies turned into rockets, bursting in showers of fire. Colquhoun Grant was gorgeous. Not perfect, no; not in the way of those few people whose sculpted cheekbones and large eyes made them almost otherworldly. But in the way that mattered: the genuine, everyday way. In that way, Grant was stunning. Golden hair and a dazzling smile and eyes so lusciously dark they were like polished walnut. And from what William could see in the pictures Grant had posted, a great body to boot: broad chest and strong shoulders. He was obviously a man who liked to keep fit, healthy and active. And there was something else too. William got the impression from Grant's expression, from the whole of his appearance, of good humor, kindness, and good sense. It was just an impression, but it was a strong one.
Grant had written him a short but well composed paragraph. He had seen William's profile, noted his Army service and his hobbies, and he was interested in a date. Might William be willing? If so, he should send Grant a message and they could converse a bit, get to know each a little more, and plan a date. Wednesday night would work for Grant if it would work for William. Grant closed by expressing the hope that he would hear from William soon.
William hesitated no longer. His fingers were still sweaty, his hands still trembling a little, but he immediately began to type a reply.
"Jonathan, did you take the rubbish out to the bin after supper like I asked you to?" Bell queried as her husband attempted to sidle into their bedroom that night.
With a grimace, Jonathan did an abrupt one-eighty and went back downstairs.
Bell was standing in front of a full-length mirror in her nightgown, brushing her hair, when suddenly her mobile rang. She picked it up without looking at the caller id, thinking that the only person who would be calling so late in the evening would be her hapless vicar of a brother, Henry.
But it wasn't Henry voice that skipped all greeting and instead declared: "I've done something a bit naughty, I'm afraid."
"Arthur?" Bell asked in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
“I fear you'll be desperately angry at me, but someone had to take action. It wasn't going to happen on its own. But you must prepare yourself for the details: they are wicked, and you must promise not to share them with your husband."
Now Bell was decidedly uneasy. Arthur's reputation was a matter of national gossip and Bell had no desire to be taken into his confidence where his amorous activities were concerned. "Arthur, I don't think I should--"
"I put Grant's profile up on BiLife without his permission," Arthur said in a rush. He didn't sound at all contrite about what he had done, only mildly amused. "Do you know what BiLife is?"
"Yes, yes, I've seen the ads, but -- oh Arthur! I should never have brought the subject up tonight, it's none of our business! Grant will never forgive you."
"He might, at that, after Wednesday night. I have a good feeling about it."
Bell frowned. "What's Wednesday night?"
"His first date. I pretended to be him and contacted another user. It's all settled."
"Arthur!" Bell cried in horror.
"What? If it goes swimmingly, as I think it will, you'll all be thanking me. Everyone will be calling me a great hero. Again."
"I think it's downright cruel!" Bell said. "Setting Colley up with some strange man against his will!"
"Oh, but that's the beauty of it, my dear," Arthur practically cooed. "This particular man is not a stranger. Not to me. He was under me during my Army days. I don't mean that literally," he added quickly. "I mean he served under me. Quartermaster's department. Good chap."
Jonathan was trudging back up the stairs, whistling. "I've got to go, Arthur, Jonathan's going to wonder what we're talking about."
"He won't approve. You mustn't tell him, Bell. Promise!"
"Fine, fine. I won't tell him. Keep me informed," she added as she prepared to hang up. "Send me pictures!"
The date Grant didn't know he had arrives and Grant is none too pleased. But when he sees what William De Lancey has planned for him, Grant has a change of heart. Meanwhile, at the Strange household, Henry Woodhope makes a big mistake and Jonathan comes face to face with his greatest fears.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
That Wednesday evening, Colquhoun Grant stood in front of the mirror in his bathroom, grimacing. He ran a hand through his blown-dry hair and sighed. He had followed the directions carefully but, nonetheless, it had come out too dark, he deemed: it made him look pale, washed out. Well, that was he got, he supposed, for doing it on his own.
Arthur had told him that, for this next assignment, a disguise wasn’t necessary. But Grant preferred to be as inconspicuous as possible and thought a slight alteration of his appearance might serve him well. And so he had bought hair color, a medium brown shade that he had just applied, and a pair of glasses with clear, prescription-less lenses. He put these on and studied himself, slightly aghast.
“Jesus. I look like my old maths tutor.”
The doorbell of his flat rang at this unpropitious time and, cursing, Grant left the bathroom -- the sink liberally stained with hair dye -- and wrenched open the door.
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
The man who stood on his threshold was a few years younger than him perhaps, though his baby face was the kind that deceived. His ginger hair was cut boyishly full and his skin was porcelain perfect, cheeks just touched by a pink gleam of health -- or, perhaps, embarrassment. His eyes, which had gone round as sovereigns at Grant’s words, were a bright cornflower blue, rimmed with dark golden lashes.
William De Lancey, for his part, was almost as taken aback by Grant’s first words as he was confused by his appearance. The man he had contacted on BiLife -- the man whose profile and messages had been enough to rouse fireworks of excitement in William’s chest -- had been sandy haired. The man who stood holding the door and glaring was just as handsome, but bespectacled and dark. Was it possible Colquhoun Grant had a twin? It would explain the rude greeting, but Grant had made no mention of it in any of the messages they’d exchanged.
Whatever. It was too late now to call the whole thing off or begin again. Drawing himself up with wounded dignity, William cleared his throat and forged ahead. “I’m William, of course. William De Lancey. We did agree on eight o’clock, did we not? Well, here I am. Are you ready to go?”
Grant boggled at the man through his new glasses. “I beg your pardon? Go where?”
William rolled his eyes. “Okay, I get it. You warned me this might happen, so I guess you’ve decided to make it some kind of test.” To Grant’s amazement, the man pushed past him into the living area, looking around at the rather spartan furnishings and shrugging his shoulders. “You said that you might get cold feet but that, under no circumstances, was I to take no for an answer. So I won’t.”
Grant stared, frozen for a moment in confusion, his mouth opening and shutting again with a sound. Finally, he closed the door to the flat and turned to the stranger, his body planted in a defensive position.
“I don’t have the first fucking clue what you’re talking about,” he said in a dangerously quiet voice, his training in gear and his mind already traveling to the gun he kept in the drawer of his nightstand, of how he could circle around the strange man to get to the bedroom and retrieve it, “but I think you should leave now. I must warn you, I was in the army and I now work in intelligence for the British government, and I am licensed to carry--"
“Yes, yes, I know all of that,” the man cried in exasperation. “Look, if this isn't some kind of test you’re giving me here, than would you mind just telling me why you contacted me? Why, if you were so reluctant about doing this, you bothered to send me messages and write so enthusiastically about yourself, about tonight? I went to a lot of trouble planning this date and, more than that, it took a lot for me to take the plunge and sign up on BiLife in the first place, you know? This will be my first and last attempt at online dating, I can promise you that--"
“Online…. Look, you’ve made a serious mistake,” Grant said. “I don’t know who you are and I’m quite certain I’ve never contacted you in my life.”
Now the man named William was getting angry: Grant could see it in the bright glint of his eyes, the rapid flush of his cheeks. “So now you’re denying that you contacted me?”
“You’re bloody right I am!”
“I don’t know what kind of sick joke you’re playing at my expense, but if you try and deny that you ever contacted me, too bad, I’ve got all the messages saved, right here.” William fumbled in the pocket of his jacket and brought out his mobile, almost dropping it in his furious haste to pull something up on the screen. “Here, every message you sent me, the link to your profile, my responses -- all of it.” He held the phone out to Grant. “You want to try and deny that?”
Grant stared at the phone, bewildered. There were his pictures on a profile page; there was his name at the bottom of several messages to a William De Lancey, the last one of which ended by saying “Looking forward to tonight.”
“Do you deny that’s you?” William demanded, pointing at the phone.
“No. No, that’s me. Those are my pictures, that’s my name. Those are my hobbies. But -- you have to believe me, I didn’t write any of those messages. BiLife… I didn’t join this site, I didn’t put up a profile. I’ve never tried online dating in my life…” His words fell off abruptly and he closed his eyes, realization striking him and leaving him awash in anger and frustration.
William shook his head. “Who’s Arthur?”
“Damn him,” Grant muttered. “He just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could he? Just had to interfere. Always thinking he knows what’s best for everyone.” Grant began to pace, punching his left palm with his right fist, addressing his words to his absent boss. “My life is not one of your bloody campaigns, Arthur, you immense ass!”
“Excuse me,” William piped up, “but could you please let me in on the joke here? What’s going on?”
“Yes, you’re right. It is a joke.” Grant was still pacing, apoplectic. “He’s a joke. Arthur Wellesley, my boss. He’s done this, you can be sure of it. Put together a profile for me on that site. Contacted you pretending to be me. The bastard. Having a right good laugh right about now, I’d expect.”
To Grant’s surprise, William laughed. “Actually, it doesn’t really seem like Arthur’s kind of joke to me. He doesn’t go in for the pranks so much as public humiliation of those who have thwarted him.”
Grant stopped abruptly. “You know him?”
“Of course I know him. I served under Arthur in the army. We hadn’t seen that much of each other since I resigned my commission and went into the private sector, but then I ran into him just last week in Westminster. He certainly made no mention of planning this.”
“You were in the army?” Grant found himself looking at the younger man in an entirely new light.
“Quartermaster’s Department. I’m surprised our paths never crossed until now, to be honest. Judging by your profile we were on active duty in the same regions, under some of the same commanders.” He offered Grant a smile of kindred feeling that quickly faded. “Unless, of course, Arthur made that all up and you were never in the army at all.”
“11th Foot,” Grant answered briskly, “later seconded to Wellesley’s intelligence staff.”
“Then it is a surprise.” William paused for a moment, then decided to take a chance. “Maybe this isn’t a joke at all. I mean, isn’t it possible that Arthur just wanted us to meet and thought this was the best way to force us into doing so?”
Grant bit his lip and slowly shook his head, saying the words as gently as he could. "Arthur's just trying to prove a point to me. That's all. It has nothing to do with you. I'm sorry that you got dragged into Arthur's scheme to try and teach me a lesson."
"Hey, it's fine," William said, feeling quite the opposite. "It's not like I had anything else to do on a Wednesday evening."
Grant felt that he owed the other man more of an explanation. "I've made it abundantly clear to Arthur that I'm not interested in dating. Anyone."
"Oh. Right." William felt like a balloon that had lost a measure of its air. "Right. Well, I've taken up enough of your time. I apologize for barging in on you like this--"
"Wait!" Grant stopped him on his way to the door. "Look, I've been unconscionably rude. You just caught me by surprise, that's all, but none of this is your fault. Let me get you a drink. I insist," he added when William looked at if he was starting to refuse. "It's the least I can do. What would you like? I can make tea, or -- something stronger? I have brandy."
William's logic told him to leave; everything else, including his love of brandy, told him to stay, let things play out as they would. "Brandy would be -- amazing."
Grant smiled. "I think we could both use one. Please, have a seat."
William sat down on the sofa and Grant soon joined him, taking the opposite end. For a few moments they drank in awkward silence until Grant, little less awkwardly, cleared his throat and said: "So. Have you, uh -- have you had much luck with this dating site? Not my cup of tea, I'll admit, but for anyone so inclined... I mean, good for you, giving it a try."
William laughed ruefully. "I actually just joined on Saturday. Yours was the first response I received."
Grant closed his eyes and set his jaw in a scowl. "Goddamnit Arthur. I'm going to punch him in the face the next time I see him." He glanced at William, nodding. "I am. I swear it. What can he do to me now? We're not in the army anymore, as he often reminds me; he can't have me court-martialed. He wouldn't dare sack me and, even if he had me arrested, it would feel so very good."
"It's really okay," William told him. "It's probably for the best that this happened. It was a mistake: I should never have signed up in the first place. I'm not good at blind dates." He swirled the brandy around in his glass, watching the little whirlpool that formed in the amber liquid. "Or any of this stuff, really."
Grant was studying him carefully. Now that his initial irritation and confusion had passed, he had noticed -- to his discomfort -- how handsome William De Lancey was. Beautiful, almost, with those soft pouty lips and the hint of freckles dusted across his nose and cheeks. "So why did you sign up?" he asked curiously.
"Moment of weakness." William sighed. "It's been over a year since my last relationship ended and -- I'm glad that it did, you know, I have no regrets about that. But sometimes -- it's not even the physical stuff you miss, the intimacy. It’s just having someone you can talk to. Someone who understands the person you really are."
"I couldn't agree more."
Another interlude of silence grew between them until William was almost ready to set down his brandy and flee, when suddenly Grant turned to him and asked: "What did they say? Those messages you thought I'd written?"
William started to reach into his pocket. "Would you like to read them?"
"No, no. It's okay, just -- give me a summary."
"Well... you just talked--" Catching himself, William winced and made the correction, "Arthur talked about you. About your army service. About it having been awhile since you'd been in a relationship and how you got your heart broken. About how you wished you could find someone who would appreciate you for you, and not for your abilities as a soldier or as a strong arm to lean upon. That sort of thing."
Grant nodded, surprised. "All true."
"And there was one thing that you-- That he wrote that really moved me. You-- Arthur," William rolled his eyes at his mistake, "said that you are so much a part of your native land, or it is so much a part of you, that you've taken on its features as a part of your personality. That you are fenced off from the world by walls and mountains. That you can sometimes be cold, sometimes stormy. But that underneath it all you are hot-blood, constantly in motion, and constantly feeling - feeling so much that, simply to survive, you have to lay dormant under your cooling snows. That you want to find someone who recognizes the beauty in all of that."
"Blimey," Grant said, stunned, his glass of brandy forgotten in his hand. "I didn't know Arthur had that in him. I thought the extent of his ability to wax romantic started and ended with, Your place or mine?" William laughed heartily at this and Grant smiled, watching him. "So what did you say," he asked, "about that?"
The younger man colored a little. "I said that I've always loved Scotland. The Highlands and the low."
Immediately, both men looked away and took a swig from their glasses, and the painful silence resumed. It was too much for William, and after several minutes he drained his glass and got to his feet.
"I should go. Thank you for the brandy, and again I'm--"
"No, hang on a minute." Grant sighed. "You said, a moment ago, that you'd gone to a lot of trouble to prepare this date, didn't you?"
"Well -- yes, I suppose--"
"Well then, let's go. Why not?" Why not indeed? After all, how bad could it be? De Lancey seemed like a decent enough fellow, and they certainly had a ready-made subject for discourse: namely, Arthur Wellesley's treachery.
"Are you sure?" William asked Grant. He nodded.
"Yes, unless -- Well, unless you've changed your mind about me. Which, I suppose, is entirely possible, seeing as how I'm not actually the man you thought you were corresponding with."
"No, you're not," William put in. "I think you're far more interesting."
Grant was silenced for a moment by this unexpected praise and, having no idea what to say in response, briskly changed the subject. "Do I need to change?" He gestured at his t-shirt, coat, and trousers.
"No, not a thing. You're perfect just as you are."
Thoroughly embarrassed by this, Grant averted his gaze and busied himself in taking off his phony glasses. "I don't actually need these," he muttered, setting them on a table. "It's for work--"
"I guessed as much." William smiled when Grant looked at him wearily. "It's okay. I don't need to know."
"Good. Because I'm afraid I can't tell you."
They were at the door when Grant asked how far it was to the restaurant William was taking them to.
"Oh we're not going to a restaurant," William said cheerfully, the cheer helping to disguise his trepidation. "I had something else in mind."
"Oh? Oh. Okay." Grant played amiable, but the truth was that he was disappointed. He hadn't had supper yet and he was starving.
They walked through a maze of streets, dodging club-goers and couples with dinner reservations, the noisy rush of London traffic whirling around them. The sky above was still lit with the last violet-grey of twilight, but down below it was all headlights and traffic lights, brightly lit marquees, a sensory overload until William made an abrupt turn and led Grant into a dark, narrow by-street. About a block and a half on he stopped at a little door in the side of a building and began fumbling around in the pocket of his jeans. "Key -- in here somewhere," he murmured, giving Grant a nervous smile. Finally it was in his hand, a single key on a small tarnished ring, and Grant waited as he unlocked the door, giving the building they were about to enter a once-over.
It was not a promising prospect. Several stories high, the old brick structure looked abandoned. The few windows on that side of the building were boarded up and plastered with long-yellowed newspaper. When William got the door unlocked, it took a forceful budge with his shoulder to open it, and the hinges screamed with disuse.
Inside was complete darkness and the musty odor of damp wood. Grant stood, sighing internally and trying to remain patient, as William ventured ahead of him and promptly collided with something. "Hang on," he said, and in another second a beam of light appeared in his hand, cast by a small but powerful torch. "The lights are all busted back here and there's no one to replace them, so..." He moved the beam and it fell against a wall piled high with broken furniture: chairs with ripped cushions, lamps without shades - even a whole door covered in chipped blue paint. "It's through here," William said in a voice that was half-encouraging, half-despondent, as if he could sense in the darkness Grant's skepticism and reluctance. But Grant said nothing and grudgingly followed the light.
His optimism about the date seemed to have abandoned him as he groped his way forward, dust rising thick to his nose with each step. Was De Lancey not at all what he had tried to pass himself of as? Did he really know Arthur? Or was this some kind of elaborate trick? Had this stranger lured him into some flophouse where he'd be robbed, into the headquarters of some cult that would attempt to forcefully indoctrinate him? Or did De Lancey live somewhere in this wreck of a building, and this was all an elaborate plan to seduce him? That thought was laughable, except Grant was in no mood for laughter. Something cracked beneath the sole of his shoe and he peered down at the floor to see what looked like shards of broken glass. A light bulb. Unbelievable.
His thoughts were so occupied in contemplating what kind of situation he was unwittingly walking into that Grant didn't realize that William had stopped moving in front of him. He collided with the other man's back, getting a strong whiff of his cologne.
"Sorry! I'm sorry, I should have warned you I'd stopped," William cried, reaching out in the darkness to pat apologetically at Grant's arm. Grant shrugged off his touch. "It's just behind here," William added in a small voice, and there was a strange rustling sound: not like he was opening a door, Grant thought, but like he was pushing aside cloth.
"I hope you like it," William said, and Grant's eyes were dazzled with light.
It had been a curtain: a voluminous red velvet curtain. And Grant found himself standing at William's side on the wing of a stage. White fairy lights were draped in great swathes over a folding latticework screen, and dozens of flickering artificial candles were set in a wide arc on the boards and across the front of the stage where the footlights had once gleamed. There was a small round table with a red cloth that matched the shade of the curtain and two cushioned chairs, and the table was set with plates and utensils, several covered dishes, crystal flutes and a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice. The effect of the candles was to create an orb of shimmering light on the small stage, light that faintly illuminated the tiers of empty seats while leaving the periphery of the small theatre in soft shadow. And in the middle of that circle of light, next to the dinner table, was a piano.
An old, battered upright, with a bouquet of fresh flowers set upon its top. It was unlike any bouquet Grant had ever seen: not one of those pre-made arrangements you could pick up in any floral shop, different combinations of flowers representing complimentary hues on the color wheel. He took a few dazed steps forward and realized what he was seeing: it was a bouquet of red roses and purple Scottish thistles, tied with a tartan ribbon. Clan Grant.
As he stood in the middle of the stage, staring around him, William followed a few tentative steps behind. "I overdid it, didn't I?" he said, then swore softly beneath his breath. "Jesus, when will I ever learn? I either do nothing or I do too much. God, you must think I'm pathetic. I should have just gotten reservations at a restaurant like a normal person--"
"You did all of this?" Grant muttered, still fixated by the sight of the piano. "For me?"
"Why? You don't even know me."
William shrugged. "I-- I wanted to. Know you, I mean. In a way, I felt like I did. Now I know that it was really Arthur I was messaging, but-- The things he said about you made me feel like I already knew you, understood you. I'm assuming, of course, that everything he told me was true. That you play the piano and sing, that when you were in school -- before you joined the Army -- you used to love to be in plays and musicals, used to love performing--"
"It's true." Grant spoke very quietly. He walked over and gently, almost reverently, laid the fingers of his right hand on the row of black and ivory keys. "I haven't touched a piano in years."
"That's what you said-- he said," William corrected himself quickly. "He said it had been so long since you'd played music, even though you loved it, and I just thought-- I thought that was terribly sad. I thought I might try to encourage you, that you might enjoy it, and I know the people who own this theatre through a friend of a friend, so--" He sighed. "Maybe I presumed too much." He paused, watching Grant as he caressed the keys, and he moved a few steps closer. "If I may ask, why did you stop? I'm just curious. Something you took such pleasure in. Why did you stop playing?"
Grant hesitated before turning at last and giving William the smallest smile. "I had no one to play for."
For the first time that evening, William suddenly felt the warm glow of hope. It was a breathtaking sensation, like a little candle flame popping up in the vicinity of his heart, tickling and soothing at once. "Well... you have someone right now."
Grant seemed to come to a decision and his smile grew. He shrugged suddenly out of his coat and draped it over one of the chairs, then rolled up both sleeves to the elbow and sat down on the piano bench. His hands, fingers splayed, hesitated over the keys and he was deep in thought. "What shall I play?" he asked, first to himself and then turning to William, dark eyes glittering in the lights.
"Whatever you'd like."
Grant gave a short, decisive nod and pressed down upon the keys. The old piano made a clear, ringing sound, amplified by the acoustics of the theatre, and Grant fell into a brisk, cheerful melody. William lowered himself slowly to the end of the bench, watching in fascination the way Grant's hands danced up and down the keys, crossing over and beneath one another, stilling for a moment and pressing softly, then thundering down, making the strings inside the old wooden casing twang and shudder. Then William turned his attention from Grant's hands to his face as Grant watched the keys beneath his fingers. It was transformed. The skepticism and caution of earlier had vanished completely: his whole visage was lit with the warmth of pure pleasure, his dark eyes sparkling, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. William found himself grinning in sympathy without initially realizing it, and his heart had taken up a faster rhythm in his chest -- though this, he told himself, was just the effect of the music, the pounding of each struck key reverberating against his breastbone.
It was a familiar song, William knew, though he wracked his brain for the title, remembering that it was “Consider Yourself” from Oliver! just as Grant rounded off the song. He lapsed immediately into the slow, dark melody of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and turned to look at William, giving him a wink.
"It's coming back to me now," he said.
"Of course it is. It's just like riding a bike or--" William bit down on the word he had been on the very verge of using, his cheeks going crimson. "Other things. I would assume."
Grant laughed. "Come on, what would you like to hear? I'm taking requests."
"Oh, I don't know. I don't know much about classical music or show tunes. I'm more into pop myself--"
"Sinatra?" Grant asked, and the melody changed abruptly into an easy, swinging rhythm.
Grant played the first few bars several times over, staring at the music stand with a distracted expression, and William wondered what was wrong. Then, clearing his throat once, Grant began to sing:
I took a trip on a train / And I thought about you /
I passed a shadowy lane / And I thought about you /
Now William was forced to admit that his rapid heartbeat had nothing to do with the piano. Grant's voice was deep and rich, sliding over his skin with an electric thrill. Between the voice and those dark eyes, William was thinking inexplicably of drowning in liquid dark chocolate, and licking his lips without intending to. Fortunately Grant was too busy playing to notice and William caught himself and put a stop to his instinctive actions, flushing again with embarrassment. At the end of that song Grant transitioned smoothly into another classic, "Just the Way You Look Tonight," glancing aside at William as he played. Hope burned hotter.
"I feel like I should be wearing a fedora while belting these out," Grant commented, doing a flourish on the keys. Struck with a sudden idea, William jumped to his feet.
"Hold that thought."
He knew there was a trunk of costumes somewhere in the storage area they'd passed through. Using the torch, he scrabbled around in the darkness until he found it, and fate rewarded his efforts: a dark blue fedora with a black band -- a bit battered on one side but still totally serviceable -- sat nestled atop a faux-leather Roman breastplate, both encircled by a green feathered boa. Grabbing the hat, William shot like a bolt back to the stage.
"Perfect!" Grant cried when he saw it, and he tossed his head back, dyed dark hair tousled charmingly by the movement. "Put it on me."
William bit his lip as his fingertips came into contact with Grant's hair. He slipped the hat upon Grant's head and immediately Grant began playing a new song. Another show tune but this time William recognized it faster: “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls. Maggie had made him see a revival a few years' back and he'd actually enjoyed it.
Grant immersed himself fully in character. On the line I’ve seen the way / you’ve treated other guys you’ve been with he lifted one hand from the keys and cuffed William softly on the cheek, making him laugh. "You should never have stopped doing this," William told him as the song came to its end. "You're a natural."
Grant smiled softly, picking out random chords. "Not much opportunity to sing show tunes in the intelligence service. And, as I said, not very rewarding without an appreciative audience." He looked thoughtfully at William and, reaching up, set the hat at a rakish angle, then began to play a softer melody. William recognized this song, too. I’ll Know.
… I’ll know as I run to his arms / That at last I’ve come home safe and sound…
As he sang, Grant's gaze returned frequently to William's eyes and William, suddenly overcome by an inexplicable bout of shyness, found the contact too much to bear. He stared at Grant's hands as they moved slowly, his wrists arching up, fingers stretching to reach the varied keys. The man had beautiful hands, with slender, shapely fingers. William found himself following the lines of the strong tendons in his wrist, the rippling of the bones beneath his skin, and he could not help but imagine those hands moving over his shoulders, those fingers marking the line of his spine...
… Until then, I shall wait / Until then, I’ll be strong…
And Grant's forearms... Jesus wept, but they were gorgeous. Shimmering with fine sun-kissed hairs, corded with veins, just thick enough to suggest their warmth, the strength of their embrace…
… Oh, I’ll know when my love comes along…
William pulled at the collar of his shirt. Perhaps he'd put up too many lights: it was growing unbearably warm. "All right?" he heard Grant say and he started, realizing with a shock that the music had stopped and Grant was looking at him with some concern.
"Oh! Yeah. Yes. I was just thinking--" William scrambled to cover for his wandering thoughts. "The power of music to influence a person's state of mind. It's remarkable, you know? A song can remind you of a particular time in your life, a person, a place, things you thought you'd forgotten. It can make you feel hope or sorrow, express things you could never put into words..."
William's voice drifted off as Grant began a new song. The notes were instantly familiar, and a spiraling sizzle of excitement flew up his spine as he found Grant's gaze soft upon him as he began to sing:
It's a little bit funny / This feeling inside /
I'm not one of those who can / Easily hide /
I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do / My gift is my song and... this one's for you...
This time, William didn't look away. The theatre, the whole of the world, collapsed around them, shrinking to the size of the circle of light in which they sat, and William found he was completely content with this. Suddenly, inexplicably, he wanted -- needed -- nothing else in this world. Not oceans and mountains and long stretches of white sand beach; not food or drink or the feeling of the sun soaking warm into his skin. He wanted this man: this beautiful, reserved, complicated man with a voice like a river and the hands of a god. Maybe it was too fast, maybe he was running away with himself at the risk of his heart, but he couldn't help it.
And yet he knew. He's too perfect, he thought. Altogether too wonderful to want me back.
... if I put down in words / How wonderful life is, while you're in the world...
Grant let the notes die gradually beneath his fingers, his heart thundering against his breastbone as he stared at the keys. He's too lovely, he thought. Too full of life and joy, to want anything to do with a weary cynic like me.
"That was beautiful," William said quietly.
"I meant it."
William's eyes widened, a nervous swallow bobbing the Adam's apple in his throat. "What?"
"It's just, you put all of this together for me. A man you didn't really know. And I have no way of thanking you, except for this." He gestured lamely to the keys. "My gift is my song, as they say."
William smiled. "I couldn't imagine a better one."
The truth was, of course, that he could: but there was no way he was letting his mind go there.
As they talked at the piano, unbeknownst to them both, someone else was inside the theatre, skulking in the shadows behind the uppermost row of seats. Yes, it was wrong; yes, he knew it. But how else could he next confront Bell's gimlet eye and assure her that his risky gambit had paid off?
"Henry! I'm so glad you could come!"
Bell gave her brother a quick hug, then ushered him into the kitchen. "There's tea in the pot, and other drinks in the fridge - grab yourself one," she said, hurrying away to open the oven door, checking on one of the several dishes baking away inside. "I'm sorry to be such a poor host but I have a thousand things happening at once. The cake and the pie are baking, the salad's chilling, I've got potatoes boiling... What have I forgotten? Oh! I ordered a basket of fruit for Jonathan: you know how he loves kiwis but he doesn't get them very often? Well I ordered a whole gift basket and it's being delivered - well, any time now." She checked the time on her mobile, then rushed back to the stove, throwing a bright smile over her shoulder. "But I'm so glad you could make it."
"Well it was awfully short notice," the vicar said, hoisting himself up onto one of the stools at the kitchen island and popping a freshly made cheese puff into his mouth. "Couldn't it have waited for the weekend?"
"No." Bell was vigorously stirring a pan of sauce, pausing to take a taste and adding a dash more pepper. "It's not everyday Norrell gives Jonathan a raise. In fact we didn't think it would ever happen, so I thought it only right to mark the very day with a celebration."
"How many people are coming?"
"Well I tried to get ahold of Colley but couldn't. And Arthur isn't answering his phone. So it looks like it will just be the three of us."
"What?! You've cooked food enough to feed several small countries!"
Bell gave her brother a look of exasperation. "Have you never seen Jonathan eat? Oh no!" She slapped her forehead. "Eggs! I forgot the hard-boiled eggs!”
Just then the bell rang and she ran out of the kitchen. When she returned moments later, she was holding a bundle of shiny balloons.
"Decorations have arrived!"
"Oh! Are those helium?" Henry rubbed his hands together, smiling brightly, and slipped one of the ribbons the balloons were attached to out of Bell's grip. "I've always wanted to try this... Do you know, Bell, ever since I've started dating Hannah -- Hannah Watkins, you know, not the one that works for Norrell -- I feel so adventurous, so free-spirited! I am trying all sorts of new things--"
"Henry, please don't, I didn't buy that many--" But Bell’s remonstrance came too late. Her brother had untied the ribbon and was sucking a liberal quantity of helium into his lungs. When he lowered the balloon, he grinned with immense pride and gave her God's blessing in a sharp falsetto.
"Why, it does work!" he squeaked, and Bell summoned as much patience as she could to return the smile before going to the oven and whispering beneath her breath, I am surrounded by little boys.
At that moment, they heard a knock and the front door being opened and, simultaneously, Bell's mobile -- which lay on the countertop near Henry -- began to vibrate and chime. Throwing her hands in the air in mild despair, Bell pointed toward the phone.
"That will be the fruit basket. Answer my phone, Henry -- it will be Jonathan. He's running late again. Do ask him when he thinks he'll be home!" she added, leaving the kitchen at a jog.
Henry picked up the mobile without glancing at the screen, merely sliding his thumb across the surface to answer and offering a cheery, high-pitched "Hello!"
"I'm doing something very, very naughty for you," a deep male voice said on the other end of the line.
Henry's mouth dropped open a few inches. "I beg your pardon?" he squeaked.
"I'm taking pictures right now." The man's voice was a low, soft purr, somewhat husky, and Henry could hear faint sounds of movement and the rustle of fabric, as if the caller were engaged in some activity with his hands. "I think you're going to like what you see."
"Good lord!" Henry cried. "Who is this?" And in his apoplexy, his voice cracked, a male tone wavering between the high notes.
There was a pause. "Who the devil is this?"
"I asked you first!" Henry bawled into the phone. He glanced behind him to see Bell walking back into the kitchen, Jonathan behind her.
"Jonathan!" Henry cried in surprise.
"Jonathan?" the caller asked, now thoroughly confused. "Why are you asking me who I am, don't you recognize my voice you half-cocked Merlin wannabe!"
As Bell and Jonathan stared at him -- Jonathan wondering why his brother-in-law's voice intermittently went up several octaves -- Henry turned back to the phone, his face gone purple with shock and rage. “How dare you mention your private parts to me, sir! How dare you call here, trying to entice my married sister into acts of sin! Unless--" With a look of utmost horror, Henry held the phone away from his ear and, staring at Bell, drew himself up to his full, pompous height. "I demand to know the truth, Arabella, as your brother and your intermediary with God. Are you having an affair with this man?"
"What?!" Bell cried.
"What?!" Jonathan yelped behind her.
"I am sorry that you have to find out in this way, Jonathan, but really-- Bell, it is not too late to confess your wrongdoing and save your marriage--"
"What are you talking about, you idiot?" Bell shrieked, and lunged at him, grabbing at the phone. "Who are you talking-- Oh, it's just Arthur!" she cried, looking at the screen.
Henry gasped. "You're having an affair with Arthur Wellesley?"
Jonathan's eyes narrowed and his upper lip curled into a sneer. "I knew it. That rutting stag--"
"Jonathan!" Bell scolded. "He's a national hero!"
“It’s just Arthur?" Arthur was saying as Bell put the phone to her ear, trying to hear him over the voices of her brother and husband. "It's just Arthur? I've never been so wounded..."
"What do you want, Arthur?" she snapped. "I'm rather in the middle of things at the moment."
"I have photos. I'm sending them now." Bell heard the ding that indicated that she'd received an e-mail. "They're on a date and, if I'm any judge of things -- and I am -- it looks to be going very well."
Bell looked at the photo that had popped up on the screen. She could just make out Grant, sitting beside a handsome, ginger-haired man at a piano on a stage lit with candlelight. For a split second she was thrilled. Then her blood began to boil.
"Arthur, when I asked you to send pictures, I meant send pictures of the man you set him up with. Not pictures you took from spying on their date!"
Henry was talking in such tones of high dudgeon that Jonathan only caught the last bit of what Bell had said. "Arthur's sending you pictures?" he demanded, moving towards her. "Of what, exactly? His cannon, I suppose!"
"I heard that," Arthur commented wryly. "As if there's any need. It's reputation proceeds itself."
Bell covered the receiver portion of the phone with her hand and glared at her husband. "Don't be stupid, Jonathan. The pictures are of Colley."
Jonathan went the same shade of red as a ripe tomato. "Arthur's sending you nude pictures of Grant?!"
"I always knew getting involved with these people would bring trouble," Henry muttered.
"Are you having an affair with Grant too??" Jonathan goggled.
"Would you both please SHUT UP?!" Bell cried. "Nobody is having an affair with anybody, got it? Arthur is merely updating me on--" She took a breath and, in a more sheepish tone, fessed up to what she had not yet revealed to Jonathan. "Arthur went on a dating site pretending to be Colley and set him up with a guy and-- well, it seems like they're hitting it off."
Jonathan and Henry lapsed into in awkward silence as they digested this information. Arthur's voice came indignantly from the phone -- "Hello? Oh hello? I don't like being ignored, you know!" -- but no one responded. Finally, forcing a look of dignity onto his face, Jonathan crossed his arms on his chest and shook his head at Bell.
"Well. I hope you're heartily ashamed of yourself, pushing poor Grant into such a situation."
Bell's jaw dropped and a fire sprang into her eyes that made both Jonathan and Henry take weary steps backwards. "How - dare - you. You, who just five seconds ago was accusing me of having an affair! And with Arthur Wellesley, of all people!"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Arthur demanded.
Jonathan noticed his wife's clenched fists and he swallowed nervously. "She's got her blood up, Henry. This would be a good time to run." And without a moment's delay, the two men turned and fled the kitchen, nearly tripping over one another in their haste.
"Cowards! Come back here!" Bell took off in pursuit, sliding to a stop in the hallway just behind Jonathan and Henry. A deliveryman was standing just inside the front door, holding a large cellophane-wrapped basket.
"Delivery for a Mr. Jonathan Strange," the man said, reading the name off his tablet.
"I'm Jonathan Strange," Jonathan said, straightening up into an adult posture and trying to tame his flyaway curls with a sweep of his hand. "What is it?"
"Fruit basket, free of charge," the deliveryman said, beaming at all three of them. "Store was out of kiwis, you see, so they've sent pineapples instead!"
He tore off the cellophane with a flourish and Jonathan fainted.
I Thought About You: lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1939
Luck Be a Lady: Frank Loesser, 1950
I'll Know: Frank Loesser, 1950
Your Song: lyrics by Bernie Taupin, 1970
They had sat in companionable silence for a time, tasting words in their mouths that neither one was yet brave enough to say. "Sing something else for me," William asked at length.
Grant thought for a moment. His gaze fell upon the bouquet of flowers and he placed his fingers on the keys.
Oh my love is like a red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June /
Oh my love is like the melody / That’s sweetly played in tune /
So fair art thou, my bonny one / So deep in love am I /
And I will love thee still, my dear / Till all the seas go dry…
Suddenly his voice faded off, the lyrics dying on his tongue and his fingers slipping on the keys. William had leaned closer and brushed his lips to Grant's right temple. When Grant didn't move away, William kept his face there, against Grant's warm skin; the tip of his nose touched Grant's cheek as he moved his lips to Grant's ear and whispered softly: "Don't stop."
With an effort, Grant kept playing, his heart drumming so loudly in his head that he could barely discern the melody. William lay his brow against the side of Grant's head, breathing in the scent of his hair, his cologne, drinking the man in until he was drunk and dizzy and blissful.
Then the music stopped abruptly and Grant's hand was on William's arm, turning him around.
Grant held William's face with both hands as he kissed him. It was not a tentative kiss, either, risking little, but a full, forceful kiss that stole breath and sense and inhibition. Scarcely daring to believe it was happening, William raised his right hand and laid it over Grant's left, feeling those strong tendons and knuckles and slender fingers and golden hairs, feeling the world shift underneath him.
"I may have been wrong," Grant murmured, his lips still touching William's as he spoke, hands still holding the younger man's face.
"About what?" William asked, almost too breathless to speak.
"About wanting to punch Arthur the next time I see him." Grant paused to taste William's bottom lip again before proceeding. "I think I may want to kiss him now."
William grinned. "But not like this, I hope."
"No," Grant smiled, shaking his head a little, unable to take his eyes off William's swollen lips. "Not like this." He seized the other man and kissed him again, this time running the splayed fingers of one hand through that wealth of ginger hair, and William moaned softly into Grant's mouth, clutching at his biceps through the fabric of his shirt. They alternated the angle of the kiss, shifting right and left, tasting one another with urgency and heat, until -- abruptly -- Grant broke away.
"Not getting cold feet again, are you?" William teased, though a shiver of fear ran underneath his words. "I'm not to take no for an answer, remember?"
"Those were Arthur's instructions, not mine."
"Well, for all his flaws you must admit that he's a man who knows what he's about," William said. "Winning wars and holding lines. But whatever it is you're about to argue, Colquhoun, it doesn't matter. I'm not giving up." William glanced from Grant's warm eyes to his mouth and he couldn't help himself: he pressed forward, touching his own lips to Grant's again. "I want Scotland," he whispered. "I want all your hills and your all valleys."
Grant laughed. "But my job. It's not an easy life I'm living at the moment, William. And I couldn't even tell you about anything I'd be doing."
William could hardly contain himself as he waited for Grant to stop speaking. "As chance would have it, I'm about to take on a job of a similar nature. I'm leaving the private sector. I've been offered another position."
Grant shook his head. "There, then -- you see? It could never work. We'd end up never being in the city at the same time--"
"Not this one, maybe. But there are an awful lot of cities in the world." When Grant merely stared at him in bewilderment, William laughed. "Fate has a hand in everything, Colquhoun, and it's even more powerful than Arthur. Remember I told you that I hadn't seen him in years until I bumped into him in Westminster last week? Well, we talked a bit and he found out I was doing programming and -- he offered me a job in your bureau. Told me there would be a lot of travel, a little danger, and that I'd be partnering up with his best agent. Of course he didn't tell me that agent's name at the time, but -- I think I've figured it out."
Grant had no words. He merely stared at William for a few seconds, shook his head, and grabbed the younger man. It was a brief kiss, William laughing too hard and too joyfully to indulge for long.
"Should we eat supper now?" William asked when they tore themselves away from each other. He glanced at the table, the covered silver dishes, the bucket of melted ice.
"Do you think it's still warm after all this time?" Grant asked.
"Doubtful. How do you feel about cold chicken and champagne?"
"Well, considering how this is the best date I've ever been on," Grant smiled, "I think it will be just fine."
Jonathan Strange’s eyes fluttered open and his first sight was his wife’s face bent close over him, gazing at him in concern. He smiled and, remembering the mistake he had made earlier -- before the Pineapples came to punish him -- he fumbled for her hand.
“I’m an idiot,” he mumbled.
“Yes, you are. But you’re my idiot.” Bell leaned down and kissed his lips. “And you ought to know that my head will never be turned by Arthur Wellesley. Or any other man.” She smiled at him. “I’m in this for the long haul.”
Jonathan kissed her fingers. “How long is that?”
“Until the very end. And forever after that.”
They kissed again and Jonathan put his arms around Bell, pulling her down upon him. They rolled together on the hallway carpet, laughing, and Henry -- standing nearby, forgotten -- began to feel rather sick at his stomach.
Or perhaps that was just the helium.
Their hands were clasped, their fingers intermingling, as they walked away from the theatre, down the busy sidewalks toward Grant’s building. When they finally reached the door, William brushed his lips against Grant’s cheek and gently pulled away.
“I think I should say goodnight now,” he explained. “I want to take this slow. I want to have the time to enjoy every moment, to anticipate everything. This is too important to me, too special, to rush-- if that makes any sense?”
Grant smiled. “Yeah, it does. And we have time. The rest of our lives, in fact.” He reached up and pushed a tendril of ginger hair back from the younger man’s brow. “But I can see you again? Soon?”
William’s eyes sparkled in the reflected gleam of the building’s lights. “How would tomorrow night work for you? Or tomorrow afternoon? Or tomorrow morning?”
“All of those. All of those work for me.”
“And sooner too,” William added. “I’m just a phone call away. If, you know, you want to make plans for tomorrow. Or just chat. Or if you just want to hear my voice. That’s good too.”
“I’ll do it,” Grant promised.
They went toward each other at the same instant, each enfolding the other in his arms as tightly, as completely, as if he would protect the other man from every harm and every hurt. Had Arthur called him a romantic? Well yes, Grant thought, it was true. All the passion he had held in check for so many years freed itself in that kiss, in the greed and energy with which he tasted William’s lips and tongue. William kissed him with no less ferocity and Grant knew, with a shiver of excitement, that this was the way it would always be between them. They were soldiers, after all, and they would always do battle with each other, each fighting for supremacy, each struggling to be the most passionate, to claim the other through sheer force of touch and kiss.
Their relationship would be one ongoing war. Their bed would be a battlefield.
William broke off breathlessly and let his brow rest against Grant’s. “You should go,” Grant whispered, though he didn’t mean it.
“I should,” William replied, not moving.
Grant’s hand circled slowly against the small of William’s back. “Thank you for tonight. You helped me remember who Colquhoun Grant is.”
Forcing himself to step away, William grinned. “You should never have forgotten him. He’s a wonderful man.” He walked a few steps down the pavement, then turned. “You know, I think I might just be falling in love with him.”
And Grant, feeling a weightlessness that almost disconnected him from reality, stood in the pooled light of the front door and knew the feeling was mutual.
Arthur Wellesley sauntered out of the theatre where he had waited, hunkered down in the shadows of the balcony, until Grant and De Lancey left. He was whistling: one of the tunes Grant had played, though he couldn’t name it. He was immensely pleased with himself -- which was, of course, no new sensation. But still. It was always something to relish.
“Another mission accomplished, madam,” he said aloud as he passed an image of the queen in a shop window. “And now home, to a glass of wine and an early night of well-earned rest.”
At that moment, he looked up at the marquee of the building he was passing. It was discrete by the standards of such places -- just the illuminated outline of a naked woman -- but it was enough to arrest his steps.
“Then again, maybe not,” he said, and turning, went inside.
William De Lancey lay in his bed with a smile on his face, far too distracted to sleep. They were happy thoughts, the things that passed through his mind, and yet there was regret. Now that he had been home for almost an hour, he was beginning to think that “taking things slowly” was immensely overrated. He might by lying in Colquhoun’s arms at that moment or, better yet, not lying. Grant looked like a man with stamina and William had a whole mind full of methods for channeling that energy.
He was just picturing himself exploring Grant’s naked body with eyes and hands and tongue, when his mobile buzzed. He picked it up and beamed.
“Hey there, you.”
“Am I disturbing you?” Grant asked. “Were you asleep?”
“Not likely. I’m wide awake. Thinking about you.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Did you decide on a time for tomorrow?” William asked. “Something you wanted to do?”
“No,” Grant admitted, a smile in his tone. “I just had to hear your voice.”
“Well,” William stammered, heat flooding through him, a joy he could hardly bear making his head spin. “That’s good enough for me.”
A Red Red Rose: Robert Burns, 1794