5 January 1813
His Royal Highness Harry Edward Styles, Prince of Wales, Earl of Cheshire, and heir apparent to the British throne, was bored. The masquerade ball that was already in full swing around him was not the source of his boredom, the people were. Harry loved meeting new people, it was one of his favorite things to do, but no matter where they went, everyone of note tended to travel around with his family.
This was, unfortunately, his lot in life during the London season. Matchmaking mothers throwing their daughters at him, the same ones season after season. The longer he waited to choose a suitable partner, the younger the fresh faced debutantes became. Adding more immaturity to the pool of familiar faces was not aiding in his search.
Harry actively wanted to settle down, he really did, all he wanted was a quiet life in the country. Ruling said country was not meant for him. His mother was still a young queen, and was incredibly happy in her position, just as the people were happy with her. Harry’s older sister Gemma was a natural choice to take her place, and while Anne was still ruling, they had come up with a plan as a family to bring that to fruition. As the laws stood, she would not be able to inherit, and Harry would remain the heir apparent, but a new law had already been drafted to effect the change in the second half of this parliamentary session. If Harry, Anne, Gemma, and really any members of Parliament that knew Harry on a personal level, had their way Gemma would be the new heir by Parliament’s summer recess, and the close of the season.
That was precisely the reason Anne was hosting a masquerade ball now. This season was about finding Gemma a match before everyone knew of her change in title. That’s not to say she would not be able to find a match once it took effect, and that is also not to say men were not already after her for her position within the royal family, but there was a difference between a life as the sister of the would-be king and eventually being the Queen.
All of the balls and house parties had begun two years ago as an attempt to find someone for Harry to wed, but Anne quickly realized how futile that particular quest was, so the focus this season was on Gemma. The family always chose a property to spend the Christmas season visiting, and they brought what felt like the entire ton with them, so it had to be a large property. This year they had settled on Wentworth Woodhouse, a property in South Yorkshire, well more than a days journey away from their usual residence in St. James’ Palace in London. Much farther away than their usual holiday venues, Wentworth Woodhouse was an incredibly large country estate that had more than three hundred rooms, and did actually house their guests fairly comfortably. It was Anne who had insisted on venturing this far north this year, convinced that it would create more diversity in the social scene as there were some families of the peerage that had a tendency to stay up north.
Anne had her heart set on a masquerade ball for Twelfth Night, and Harry could not blame her. Christmastide, or the twelve days of Christmas, was his favorite time of year and Twelfth Night was meant to be the last hurrah of the holiday season. Which was why he was mildly upset that he was not having any sort of fun. While he commended Anne for inviting local peers and their families, the simple fact of it being a masquerade ball negated any interest new faces might bring him. Mostly because one could not actually see anyone’s face to identify who was new.
The first few times he struck up a conversation with someone behind a mask, he found himself talking to the same cast of characters he was accustomed to, so he had momentarily stopped trying in order to go pour himself some wassail. Without the mask he would not have been able to get it himself, someone would have stopped him. With the mask, he would get an extra moment of peace, while everyone was pretending to not recognize him.
Eventually, his best friend Niall, the Earl of Westmeath, one of Ireland’s oldest and most established titles came bounding over to him with all the exuberance of a thirteen year old boy intent on climbing a tree. His hair was in disarray, and his mask was off his face, pushed back to the crown of his head. Harry had known he would be the first to “reveal” himself – mystery and intrigue were foreign concepts to Niall.
“Harry!” Niall announced loudly, despite Harry’s every effort to get him to quiet down, “Are you enjoying yourself this evening?”
“Not particularly,” Harry said on a huff.
“Oh, stop pouting will you? There are at least four and twenty different families here tonight, surely someone will finally catch your eye.” Niall sounded exasperated which made absolutely no sense, because he was single himself. Where did he get off lecturing Harry on being unattached?
“Not possible, Niall. I cannot tell who I have not met before, they are all covered up with masks – like you should be,” he added as an afterthought.
“Harry, you are the crown prince of Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and a bunch of other places. You need to find a spouse. I am a lowly Earl,” Harry scoffed at that, “and therefore, I have some time to find someone to surpass your sister in both beauty and virtue.”
Harry rolled his eyes at Niall, having been subjected to this discussion more times than he could count. Niall pretended to be infatuated with Gemma, but when it came right down to it, the two of them were effectively siblings and have both said it would never work. Also, Gemma would chew him up and spit him out before the honeymoon even began. Niall was no match for her, and he knew it.
“Oh look, there’s Stafford!” Liam Payne, Marquess of Stafford, was another of their friends from Eton.
“Niall, how can you possibly tell that it’s me behind this mask?” Liam asked, crossly. Harry could tell he was put out by the fact that he was recognized, having put his full efforts behind finding a mask that would hide his face. He didn’t know for sure, but that was the kind of person Liam was.
“I can recognize everyone. Mask or not. It’s a gift,” Niall proclaimed, smile beaming, lighting up the dim candlelit room. “I have yet to find my cousins the Tomlinsons though, the oldest brother, Louis, inherited the barony when he was very young and stays away from town, but I do enjoy visiting him up here.”
“Is that where you’re staying this trip then, Niall?” Not all members of the ton who traveled with the royal family for the festivities chose to stay on the property. Many chose to stay with their own extended family in the surrounding area, because while this was one of the largest estates in England, it tended to get a little cramped with everyone milling about. Harry had noticed Niall was not staying in the house with them this year, which made their occasional early morning rides much more difficult.
“I try to stay there as often as I can, Louis is a sight more entertaining than you lot!” Affronted, Harry went to protest, but Niall had already moved on, “Oh look, there’s his sister Charlotte, I’ll be off then.” Harry could barely hear the last sentence as Niall was already halfway across the ballroom. When he looked to his left to commiserate with Liam, he saw that Liam had already gotten distracted by then as well. Like puppies, those two were.
Finding himself alone again, he scanned the room for Gemma. He knew she was wearing a turquoise gown with gold accents, and her mask was black and gold with peacock feathers sticking up off the left hand side of it. He could just spot the feathers moving back and forth amongst the dancers in the middle of the floor, so she must be having fun. She lived for this sort of thing, and he was glad she was enjoying it. There were quite a few young men that were invited specifically to be at her disposal, she should be enjoying it. There was an equal number of young ladies, and while his mother claimed it was to keep the numbers even, Harry knew she had not yet given up her hope in him.
This time last year, Harry sat down with his mother in one of her parlors in St. James and told her that he was much more likely to find a partner amongst Gemma’s suitors than he was the gaggle of young ladies being thrown at him. She was incredibly supportive of him, wanting to see him settled because she knew that was ultimately his goal, rather than for any kind of advantageous connection. At the time she had asked if a young lady was entirely out of the question, and he truthfully answered no. He did not much care about gender, or title, or anything really. He just wanted to find someone that shared his values, which was apparently too much to ask in the superficial, title-grubbing world of the ton. Again, as a family, they had chosen not to disclose Harry’s preferences to prevent the aforementioned matchmaking mothers from quite literally doubling their efforts in marrying off one of their children to a prince.
Unfortunately, with all of the support, it was still difficult to find anyone remotely interesting among the crowd.
With a frustrated groan, Harry turned abruptly towards the table to retrieve more wassail. Instead of open air, he found himself colliding with a decidedly corporeal object.
“Oi, watch out next time,” came the disgruntled voice from somewhere near Harry’s left shoulder. The voice was higher than his own baritone, and had a very slightly raspy quality that added to the lilting northern accent.
“I am so sorry, please excuse me. I had no idea someone was behind me, I was off in my own little world, not paying any attention, as per usual,” Harry’s ramble trailed off as the man turned to face him. His mask was a brilliant midnight blue with silver accents that did nothing but allow his crystalline blue eyes to shine through.
“That’s quite alright, love. I should have been paying more attention as well. Could you imagine if I had passed you by as pretty as you are?” Harry could do nothing but blink at this stranger. He knew for a fact, mask or no, that this man was a stranger. He would have known that voice, or those eyes, if he had encountered them before. And now this stranger was being downright flirtatious?
Sensing Harry’s shock, but not understanding the cause of it, the stranger back-tracked, “I’m sorry as well, that was rather forward, you must forgive me. I’m not used to this sort of crowd.” Where a minute ago he had looked confident and smug, now a tinge of sheepishness was creeping in around the edges of his expression.
“What do you mean, this sort of crowd?” Harry managed to ask.
“Well, it’s not often the royal family comes to town,” he said facetiously, then paused for dramatic effect, “have you met any of them yet?”
“Any of who?” The wheels began turning in Harry’s head. Was it possible that this stranger did not recognize him? Could he be so lucky?
“The royal family. Have you met any of them yet? Princess Gemma is quite beautiful. I have yet to lay eyes on Prince Harry or the Queen, though.” This stranger’s eyes were dancing with mirth in the candlelight. He seemed to be both in awe of what was going on, and yet somehow, just barely, put off by it.
Harry cleared his throat, “Um, yes. I have met them before.” It wasn’t a lie, he had met them. The first time was twenty-two years ago, but this stranger did not need to know that.
“Fascinating!” The stranger continued. “I don’t much understand the appeal of this lifestyle, myself, but can understand how some would.”
Who was this man that was so immediately opening up to Harry? Did he not understand how the ton worked? Everything was sultry banter, darkened corners, illicit rendezvous, and gossip behind closed doors the next day over tea. Though, he did say he was not used to this crowd. Maybe things were much more open up here, away from town. He must be from one of the families his mother mentioned that stayed away. Harry couldn’t help himself and let out a little sigh of longing.
“What’s your name?” The stranger spoke so softly that it took Harry a moment to realize he was asking him a question.
There were two paths in front of Harry now. Down one was the truth, he was the crown prince with all of the pomp, circumstance, and reverence afforded to him. Though, he could tell by the spark in his stranger’s eye, he probably would not receive much in the way of that from him. Down the other path was a lie, Harry could make up a name, an intriguing back story and all that went along with it. He opened his mouth to do just that, anything to keep this stranger’s engaging humor encased in the amber that was this moment, but found he was too exhausted. Keeping up the charade of a fake identity seemed entirely too much intrigue for him this evening, and he had already had a lifetime of intrigue.
“Do you mind,” Harry started, “could we possibly,” the stranger looked at him expectantly, “that is to say...”
“Come on, Curly, spit it out.”
“Curly?” Harry asked, train of thought derailed for a moment.
“Well, yes. That’s all I can see you of after all. Your curly hair.” He reached up and curled one of Harry’s loose ringlets around his pointer finger and gave a little tug. Just that one little touch to his hair sent a jolt to Harry’s system, champagne bubbles running through his blood.
“Would you mind if we didn’t divulge our names? It’s nice to talk to someone who may not already know me.” Harry could not bear to meet his strangers eyes, though the temptation was great. That made it sound as though there was a reason someone would know something about Harry that he wanted to avoid. Which was true, but his question had made it sound like an awful reason, which it wasn’t. His title wasn’t good or bad, it just was. Therein lay his struggle.
“Of course, Curly. Take advantage of the anonymity and all that.” Harry finally looked up and saw his soft, open smile, and saw him tap the bottom of his mask where it curved around his quite breathtaking cheekbones.
Harry brought a hand up to make sure his own mask was securely in place, “Exactly.”
They began to stroll leisurely around the ballroom deep in conversation. While looking for a more quiet place to talk, Harry learned that his handsome stranger had indeed grown up in the area, and had visited this estate quite frequently. He and Harry managed to sneak away from the crush of the ballroom and find one of the tucked away portrait galleries.
They spent the evening in hysterics. Harry had never laughed so hard in his entire life, they talked of everything and nothing. They made up silly stories for the ridiculous portraits that lined the walls, and confided in each other what it meant to be trapped in their own worlds. Harry tried to be as vague as possible, as did his stranger.
He talked about staying up north, and how much he loved taking care of his siblings, but how much he had missed out on when he inherited his title at sixteen. His father had died when he was only a baby, whereas Harry’s had died when he was old enough to understand, but before Anne had become Queen. Harry did not dare tell him the specifics, but the underlying feeling was one understood by anyone in a similar situation.
His stranger’s mother had married again, and had four more children, before being widowed and married once again. She was happily married now, and his stranger had two more siblings.
“I have had to figure out how to launch my sisters into society. Thankfully it has only been one so far, but there are four more to come. Thank God my youngest sibling is a boy. He’s still in dresses though, so nothing to worry about there, yet.”
They had settled in a large cushioned window seat at the end of the gallery, drawing the heavy velvet curtains closed to block out the world. As the evening wore on their discussions became more serious and philosophical. The candle sticks they had stolen off a table in the ballroom to light their alcove were melting down, and would run out eventually.
“I should be getting my sisters home soon,” his stranger said, sounding as reluctant to leave their bubble as Harry was.
“Yes, you probably should,” Harry answered without making any move to leave.
“Curly, I just want you to know, no matter what happens, that this was the best and most exciting evening of my life.” His stranger was staring out the window watching the snow fall down, and Harry got the sense that he did not usually offer his own vulnerability like this. The honesty from earlier? Most definitely. But, true emotions seemed to be a treasure he kept inside. Harry had only known him for an evening, and already he knew deep in his bones that he wanted to dig through his stranger’s soul to unearth every piece of treasure he could find.
This was what Harry had been missing. This was what Harry would never find again. Harry practically vibrated with the need to tell his stranger who he was, but something held him back. Based on what he said, and Harry’s instinct, he knew his stranger felt the same way, but would revealing his identity really be fair to him?
If Harry did reveal his identity, and they wanted to be together, it would throw his stranger into a whirlwind of attention and activity that he most likely had never known before. He could come to town, but Harry knew he would never want to leave his siblings. It would never be fair of Harry to ask that of him. Plus, as his stranger said, he was uncomfortable and out of place with the ton, and that would have to become the center of his world.
Harry would not, and could not, force someone into that lifestyle just to be with him. And, God, how he longed to be with him.
He didn’t even know his name.
He supposed he should be more cautious, this stranger could be a spy from France sent to bring about the downfall of the royal family, but nothing about his stranger indicated that to Harry. They were completely closed off from the party, if he had been sent there to kill him, or kidnap him, or something, he would have done it by now.
His stranger dragged his eyes away from the landscape, his blue eyes shining, filled to the brim with unshed promises. There was a reason his stranger was keeping his secrets as well. Maybe he was waiting for Harry to reveal his own first. Harry had been the one to initially request that they not share their identities, so he was probably respecting Harry’s wishes. But, neither one of them knew it would get this far when they came to that agreement at the beginning of the evening.
Suddenly, with a sense of clarity he had never felt before, Harry had a plan.
“Do you trust me?” he asked his stranger, his pulse drumming so heavily in his ears that it would surely permeate the air around them.
His stranger’s gaze bore into his for a moment, as if searching for something.
“Yes,” the answer was so quiet, Harry almost didn’t hear it, he didn’t need to hear it, he could see it in his eyes.
Harry’s stranger lifted his hand and traced along the bottom of Harry’s mask, just barely grazing his cheekbone, but Harry could feel that one little point of contact as if it was a match struck against his skin.
He too brought his hand up to cup his stranger’s jaw and filled the space between them, finally, at last, pressing his lips to his stranger’s.
If the graze of his cheekbone had been a match, his whole body was kindling, and he was at once engulfed in flames. His stranger was so responsive to his embrace, parting his lips ever so slightly so that Harry could lean further into him, deepening their kiss.
They stayed wrapped up in each other for as long as possible before it became necessary to pull away and create some semblance of distance.
“I have some things I need to take care of, I know that sounds vague and like I am begging off, away from you, away from this, but please, understand that I’m not. I need you to understand that,” Harry pleaded with his stranger. He was dragging his hands up and down the wool on the arms of his stranger’s coat, reluctant to lose any kind of contact.
“I do, I understand, but how will you find me? I want to be able to find you again, but something tells me it will be a lot more difficult,” he gave a light chuckle despite the gravity of what he was saying. Maybe he had guessed Harry’s identity, maybe he hadn’t, but either way Harry needed to maintain his distance until he was much lower down on the line of succession. If he knew his stranger’s identity, he would never be able to resist finding him before the new law was passed. He knew that.
“I will stop at nothing to find you again. I have to let you go now, but it will not be permanent, I promise. I never thought I would find anyone who,” Harry cut himself off, feeling overwhelmed. What if something happened to his stranger and he never found him again?
No. He could not think like that. He had to stay strong, figure out this business with Gemma, and then he could retire. Well, he would never be able to retire, but he could settle somewhere.
“I understand, Curly. Believe me, I understand.”
“Go, find your sisters, take them home. It will feel like the blink of an eye before I’m back here. The next time the ton comes to town, I’ll be with them, and you’ll know I’m here for you,” Harry promised. He could tell it confused his stranger.
“But isn’t that up to the royal family? This is the first time they’ve visited up here in fifteen years. If that’s how long it takes, I’ll be ready for you, but I was hoping it would be sooner than that.” His stranger gave him a naughty little smirk that held the promise of so much. Harry had to wait an extra moment to collect himself.
“I’ve heard rumors that they’ll be visiting up here much more often now that this estate has been renovated. And wherever they go, the ton tends to follow.”
“And you’ll follow?”
- - -
The Right Honourable Lord Louis William Tomlinson, Baron of Cusworth Hall, was tired. He was more than tired, he was mind numbingly exhausted.
When he finally found his sisters at the end of the masquerade ball over at Wentworth, it had been much later than he had intended on leaving, and he had already missed the reveal. Everyone had taken their masks off and the evening had started to become slightly wilder. Drunkenness had begun to reign, everyone trying to hold on to the holiday season that much longer. He found his sisters with the other débutantes. He sent a prayer up thanking whoever was out there that they had stayed with the chaperoned group, and had not been compromised in any way shape or form.
It had been his intention to chaperone them throughout the evening, he did not trust their care to anyone else, but then…
Well, he had been slightly distracted. He had been distracted by a smooth deep voice, and chestnut curls, and emerald eyes, and broad shoulders. He was powerless against them. He had never met anyone like Curly before, and never would. He knew that, and now he had to let go, trust. Two things that did not come easily to him.
That night after they returned, he had been so keyed up that he had not been able to fall asleep. Then again the next night, and again, and again for a solid week. He was plagued by curls and restless nights.
Now, a week later, his sisters had already retired for the night still chattering about the ball, but he knew his cousin Niall was up and about. Most likely running through Louis’ supply of whiskey, or port, or both.
“Louis, you look like shite.”
“Thanks, Ni. Always great to hear.” Louis dropped himself down into his favorite chair by the fire, hoping to ward off the mid-January chill.
“I’m serious, mate. What has you wandering the halls at night? Your late night trips to the kitchen have not escaped my notice.” Louis groaned and rubbed at his eyes.
“You remember the masquerade ball at Wentworth last week?”
“The one your sisters have been going on and on about where you ducked out with Prince Harry never to be seen again until it was time to go home? Yeah, sure. I remember that one.”
Louis’ blood froze in his veins.
“WHAT?!” was all he managed to squeeze out of his lungs.
“Yeah I went off looking for Lottie, and I turned around to bring Harry with me, but then I saw you run into each other, and then you talked for a minute, and then you disappeared.” His expression changed, and he began to waggle his eyebrows, “What exactly were you doing off in a remote corner with the crown prince, Lou?”
Everything Curly had said to him began to fall into place. He had not wanted to reveal his identity because he was the bloody crown prince. Did he not trust Louis? They had only had one evening together, to be sure, but he must have known Louis would never say anything. Or did he do it to protect Louis? Louis thoughts were spinning too quickly, he could barely keep up with them.
Then something else he said occurred to Louis. He said he had “some things to take care of,” but what did that mean? Was he giving up his right to the crown, for Louis? Surely not. Harry couldn’t give up something like that after one night with a stranger. That night had completely changed Louis’ entire universe, and he thought Harry felt the same, but giving up the crown for that was entirely too rash. The enormity of the situation settled on Louis shoulders. He had kissed the crown prince of Great Britain. Oh, God. Some of the things he said to Harry. He had turned his nose up at the ton. To the prince!
“I’m going to guess by the expression you’re currently sporting, you didn’t know it was Harry you were talking to. But the two of you were together all evening? How could you not?”
“It’s not like I’m ever in town, Niall. Plus, we never took our masks off, though they did kind of get in the way a little when we were doing… other things.”
Niall started jumping up and down and dancing around Louis’ study, “Yes, yes, yes! I knew it!”
“Alright, alright, calm down. As far as he knows, I am still not aware of who he is.”
That seemed to sober Niall’s mood a little, “Well, are you going to tell him that you know?”
“I don’t think so, I mean, we’ve never even been formally introduced in the real world. He doesn’t even know who I am,” Louis paused to let that sink in, “I’m only a Baron, Niall. Shouldn’t he be off marrying a foreign princess? Or at least the daughter of a Duke or something?”
“Well what did he say to you? How did you end it?”
“He asked me to trust him, said he had ‘some things to take care of’ and that he would be back at some point.” Niall’s brow furrowed. “What? Is that bad? It’s bad, isn’t it. He really was begging off.”
“No, Lou, not necessarily. That’s just much more cryptic than Harry usually is. I wonder if it’s because it’s about that business in parliament.” Niall shrugged, and went to pour himself some more whiskey.
“What business in parliament?”
“Well, Harry told me they’re trying to change the line of succession so that Gemma is next in line for the throne instead of him. Then if Gemma had any children they would take their place before him, too. Basically Harry is trying to put as many bodies between him and the throne as possible, God love him.” Niall gave a small chuckle at his own private joke.
“When did he tell you that? Specifically when.” Louis pressed, getting up out of his chair to pace in front of the fire.
“Before we left to come up north. I was having tea with him and Gemma at St. James.” Louis paused in his pacing, and ran over to throw his arms around his most beloved cousin. Niall sputtered for a moment, but returned the hug in kind, “Gee, I love you too, Louis.”
Harry was not giving up the crown for him, Harry had been trying to give up the crown all along. That explained so much of what he told Louis about feeling trapped in his position, by his title. If Harry was no longer tethered to the crown they had a chance to work this out. Louis had no idea what “this” was, but all he could think about was holding Curly – Harry – in his arms again.
- - -
Six Months Later
Harry’s bum was still sore from the journey up north. It had taken much longer this time because he had brought along more servants, and, well, more of everything. Not to mention his mother, Gemma, and half the ton. Last time he came, he was the heir apparent, and he stayed for a fortnight. This time he was living with his household at Wentworth Woodhouse, but was hoping to stay much longer. However long it would take to find his blue eyed stranger, and then some, hopefully.
Unfortunately over the time it took to end the parliamentary session, his mother the Queen, and Gemma had managed to wheedle out of him how important returning to South Yorkshire truly was. Hell, Harry had no poker face, it had not been more than a week after the masquerade that his mother had finally figured it out.
“What exactly happened at the masquerade, darling?” Anne had questioned one morning over tea.
“What ever do you mean?” Harry had tried to play innocent, but Gemma was not having it.
“Oh come off it, brother, what the hell happened? You disappeared that night, and you’ve been different ever since.”
“Gemma, watch your language!” Anne chided, and Harry thought that would derail her, but his luck would not hold, because she turned back to Harry and studied him for a moment. “I’m not sure darling, you just seem more settled lately.”
“Well. Mother, I wanted to talk to you about that,” Harry began.
“You’ve met someone!” Gemma crowed from her place on the settee across from him.
Harry sent her a quelling look, “I may have, in fact, met someone.”
It had taken awhile to explain everything about that night, and why he didn’t know the identity of his suitor – his mother had quite a few things to say about that – and he reaffirmed his wish to settle somewhere in the country when the Succession of the Crown Act passed, and he had now because of his stranger, decided he should start up north. His mother had been supportive, and said they had better get used to traveling all that way, offering him Wentworth Woodhouse at his full disposal.
Wentworth was entirely too large for him by himself, but then he thought of his stranger, and his stranger’s mother, step father, and multitude of siblings. It was certainly large enough to hold all of them once his mother and Gemma left. That is, if his stranger wanted to settle there with him. He hadn’t pressured his stranger to do anything six months prior, and would not now. That much had not changed.
Harry had barely set one foot in the door at Wentworth before his valet was telling him that the Earl of Westmeath had come to call.
Niall? Harry thought he was still in town. Had he beaten Harry up north? This was perfect of course, because if one wanted to track someone down, one should always start with Niall.
“Harry! What brings you back up to South Yorkshire so soon?” Niall greeted him heartily.
“Well, Niall, I was actually hoping to enlist your help in finding someone.” And he proceeded to tell the story, again, to Niall. Every time he retold it, once to his mother, once to Niall, and once to his cat Dusty – which he would never admit to – Harry felt the magic of that night dim just a bit. Would his stranger recognize him? Would he want to be with him? Settle down? Start a family?
He tried to play a game in his mind to make the time go by: one step away from the last time he held his stranger in his arms was one step closer to the first time he would hold him again. If he ever found him, that is.
After he was done telling the story, Harry expected a little excitement on Niall’s part at the fact that he had finally found someone to spend his life with, a journey Niall had always been the captain of before. Instead he was met with a knowing smirk.
“You know, Harry, you never got the chance to visit my cousin Baron Tomlinson of Cusworth Hall the last time you were here,” the abrupt change in subject confused Harry, “He lives up here, if your mystery man is anyone titled and spends significant time in the area, he’ll know who he is. Come call at Cusworth tomorrow for tea, he’ll get you sorted.”
That’s right! Niall had mentioned a cousin last time. Perfect. Harry would put the quest in said cousin’s capable hands.
- - -
The next day, Harry straightened his cravat in the carriage on the way to Cusworth Hall. The estate was no more than two miles away from Wentworth, now that the weather had cleared for the warmer months, he might like the walk. Especially if Niall was staying for an extended period time. It would certainly be convenient to visit his friend.
The carriage pulled up to the estate, and Harry admired the structure. It was tall and imposing, but felt almost cozy at the same time. The Tomlinson barony was doing well for itself. He was glad anyone connected to Niall was living so comfortably.
Niall was there to greet him at the door when he arrived, much to the chagrin of the family butler. As Harry went to introduce himself to the butler, he caught the tail end of a smile on the old man’s face. Clearly, the staff was familiar with Niall and his mannerisms.
The butler found it equally as difficult to hide his expression of shock when he realized that Harry was trying to introduce himself. Harry knew it just wasn’t done that a member of the peerage, much less a prince, would introduce himself to a servant beyond handing him his card, but Harry liked meeting people. And one benefit of being prince was that people didn’t cast you out for lack of manners, no matter how uncouth your actions.
“Prince Harry,” he stated, holding out his hand.
“Your Highness,” the butler said, bowing as low as his back would allow, ignoring the proffered hand. That made Harry smile. The butler knew what the proper address was, and would not let Harry forget himself. If the baron’s staff was this fiesty, he was either just as fiesty himself, or he was a doormat that let his staff walk all over him. Niall was so fond of him, it had to be the former.
Niall led him into what was clearly the formal sitting room, and Harry saw a figure standing with his back to the door, facing the window. As he tried to crane his neck to see the baron, he managed to stumble over a bit of carpet.
“Bugger,” Harry swore at his own innate clumsiness.
- - -
The Right Honourable Niall James Horan, Earl of Westmeath, was ecstatic. He had purposely slipped into the sitting room behind Harry, with the sole intention of slipping back out again.
He had left his two best friends in the sitting room with no one to answer to except four walls, and two very soundly locked doors. And him, of course. Without any specific details. Well, maybe some details.
He wondered whether he should commission a new suit for the wedding, his tailor in Dublin would be more than grateful for the business, and definitely willing to make him something and ship it over.
Ah, well. That was a problem for another day. Right now he had to go instruct the staff, and Louis’ mother, to leave them well enough alone.