Twenty-five years ago, the Earl of Reddig entered into a contract with the Duke of Westvale to give one of his grandchildren of marriageable age to the Duke’s grandson at a time when it suited him to one day marry.
He had happily put that contract behind him and did everyone the disservice of dying without mentioning said contract to his son, who became the new Earl quite ignorant of his father’s machinations until now.
Dumbfounded, he stared at the man who came in the Duke’s stead, one Mr. Eldon Stammets, and said with no little fear, “I have never in my life seen this document, nor did I agree to it.”
Eldon Stammets considered himself a man of some distinction, a man of note in the ducal household, entrusted with the most private and dearest of instructions from the Lecter family. He was not about to be dissuaded by anyone who was not of the esteemed Lecter family, be they Earl or Alpha or any combination thereof.
“I am sorry,” he said, the words careful and polite, his features schooled into calm despite the rising tide of inner offence. “I fear that I was not clear. Perhaps you would like to take a moment and reread the contract once more?”
“I don’t need to reread it!” the Earl said, incensed, his round cheeks filling with color. “I am telling you now that I am not abiding by a contract which I have not signed!”
“I am afraid I have the necessary legal paperwork to the contrary,” Eldon said, cautious to be gentle as if pressing the point were to change his mind. “The previous Earl himself signed it some twenty five years ago, clearly agreeing to give one of his grandchildren in marriage in exchange for an alliance with the Lecter line; more specifically, one of your eligible children to wed His Grace’s grandson and heir.”
“His grandson who has been missing from this country for the past ten years,” the Earl said, speaking loudly enough to be heard in the hallway. “The same grandson whose arrogance and stubbornness and previous marriage are the subjects of gossip to an unending degree? The very same grandson we all assumed would gladly give up his inheritance to spend his days as a country doctor when he retired from the military—that grandson?”
Eldon stiffened at hearing the Lecter family spoken of in such a way. “Are you attempting to tell me, my Lord Earl, that you consider the contract null and void?”
“No, you twit, I’m saying in the meantime I unknowingly married my daughters off to men who are wealthy enough to care for them and very much on this country’s soil, sir! I have no daughters left!”
Mr. Stammets was not a man who would willingly return in defeat nor be easily put off of his given task. Patiently, he said, “I am aware that you do, in fact, have a daughter of marriageable age. She is some eighteen years now, is she not? Not yet Out? She will do quite nicely, I am sure. His Grace desires me to return at once with a report of the child, so please have her presented.”
The Earl stared at him once again, his blue eyes wide and unblinking.
“It is a longstanding agreement, my Lord. It is Expected,” Eldon said, reminding him of his duty.
“Mr. Stammets,” the Earl said, his mind working quickly to find a way out. “Hannibal Lecter is notorious in his temper. He already stands condemned in the public eye as a murderer of his late wife. What guarantee do I have that my daughter will not be mistreated?”
He looked down at the contract and read it twice. Nowhere did it say that they had to be female, only that they must be of childbearing age and capable of providing the expected Alpha male children to continue the Lecter line. While the Earl was not willing to part with his youngest daughter to a murderous and intolerable future Duke, he was more than happy to be rid of the Omega born alongside her.
“The former Lady Clarges died of unfortunate natural causes and your daughter is a noblewoman,” Mr. Stammets said, sounding shocked and embarrassed at his lack of discretion. “I assure you, my Lord, that no one in the ducal household would treat a gently-bred lady with anything other than respect and delicacy.”
The Earl swallowed and stood. He caught the eye of his butler, Blake, and said loudly, “Blake, fetch me Willia.”
Blake started at the unfamiliar name, but rapidly gathered himself, taking his cues from his master’s wide-eyed glare.
“Of course, my Lord,” he said, nodding. “It will take some time, however, as she is...”
“Reviewing cook’s menu,” the Earl filled in, clearing his throat. “It will take a short while to let her ready herself, Mr. Stammets. You know how particular females are about their appearance.”
“I am in a hurry,” Mr. Stammets said, displeased. “But I wish to see her at her absolute best. I am content to wait.”
The Earl gave him a wavering smile and rang for tea, hoping his plan would work.
*New chapter artwork by the amazing TheSeaVoices! Thank you so very much! And thank you to the Patron who commissioned the art!*
“What’s happening?” Will asked for the thousandth time, confused by the flurry of activity around him. So far, in between the estate office and the house, he’d only been told that he must hurry, that he must look presentable, and he must mind his manners. “Has something happened?”
He was shuttled into his sister’s suite without further explanation and was confronted by all manner of dresses being flung about in such haste that the maids all looked fit to faint.
Blake was giving quiet, clipped orders to Mina’s maids. Mina herself was pale and wide-eyed near her dressing room, quite bloodless and shocked. Concerned for his twin sister, Will called her name and she gave him a half-smile that meant something terrible had happened and he was to make sure she didn’t suffer for it, as always.
“Will,” she said, sweetly and with wheedling intent that he was immediately worried by. “Papa has a great favor to ask of you.”
Will tensed, knowing his father asked very little of him but his absence, since Will had the temerity to be born Omegan rather than a “full” boy.
“Mr. Graham, the Earl has indicated that he wishes you to meet a visitor,” Blake said, frowning softly. “Please, Mr. Graham, if you could undress?”
“Will, darling, there’s really no time,” Mina said, hastening towards him, wringing her pale little hands before her, the picture of worry. “This visitor is not patient and you don’t wish to upset Papa, do you? You know how it goes if you upset him.”
Mystified and frightened, Will started to do as he was asked despite the many people in the room. No one in this household had ever been particularly thoughtful of him for the past eighteen years and he did not expect them to start now, but it was still terribly embarrassing to take his clothes off in front of so many critical, assessing pairs of eyes.
Apparently, he moved too slowly for the moment because in a trice no less than four of Mina’s maids lit on him and stripped him down to his skin.
Flushed with mortification, Will covered his groin with his hands, protesting softly as they started to tug at his limbs to dress him. His objections were overridden, unheard by his sister, who was exchanging heated conversation with Blake.
“What is happening?” He finally reached a volume that made both of them look at him, annoyed. Beseeching, he quieted somewhat as the maids began to redress him in Mina’s clothing and asked again, “Please… what is happening? Why are you dressing me in your clothes?”
“Will, Father wishes you to play a role in my stead,” Mina said, deciding that her best means to success was his acceptance and collusion. “Willia, you will answer to. Do you understand?”
Will cringed as he was corseted and encased in silks and satin, from stockings to throat. He was, luckily, just as slender as his sister and her healthy bust gave allowance in her clothing for his broader shoulders, but they were otherwise quite alike from their riotous dark curls and limpid blue eyes to the tiny crook in their pinky toes.
“Mina,” he said, unused to naysaying his sister because it had always earned him his father’s wrath for the past eighteen years. “Father has always threatened to hang me should he ever find me in a frock!”
“Mr. Graham—Lady Graham,” Blake automatically corrected, overseeing the transformation with a critical eye. “It is your place in this household to make life easier for your family, is it not? Your grandfather entered into a very surprising contract with the Duke of Westvale that would require your dear twin sister to marry a man who simply does not suit her. You shouldn’t like for that to happen, should you?”
“Will,” Mina put in, watching them arrange his curly locks into a modest hairstyle that hid their lack of length. “You would never want me to be given away to some stranger, would you? You know how long I’ve been waiting for Timothy to come ‘round, don’t you? Surely you wouldn’t rather see me packed off to the Duke of Westvale’s snobbish heir?”
“You would be a Duchess one day,” Will said, bewildered and uncomfortable as they slid his feet into her little slippers, which were too small and far too tight. His anxious blue eyes flicked from Mina’s closed face to Blake’s own hard one. “Mina, why would you wish me to be shown in your stead when you stand to gain a duchy?”
Mina’s sideways glance to Blake warned him that there was a very good reason, indeed. He fleetingly wondered how they could ask him to take her place and show mercy to her when none of them would show mercy to him, but the thought was gone before it even fully formed. He had been a burden to them for the whole of his life, just as his father said; the least he could do was be silent while wiser heads than his took charge.
“Darling,” Mina said, as she always did when she wished him not to argue. She even stroked his face, a rare kindness that she knew he craved. “Father has already promised me to Timothy. It would be so embarrassing now to break things off, hm? Still, he cannot breach a contract with a Duke.”
Will trembled. His voice was unsteady when he said, “They will murder me for this deceit, Mina.”
That seemed to touch her when other things would not. She pet him again, careful not to disturb the job her maids were attempting on his curls. Very gently, she said, “They would not dare, Will. Trust me, will you? By the time they realize you are an Omega they will be forced to accept you or risk a very damaging scandal. Please, Will. Please, do this for me? You could be a Duchess, if he is favorable to your feminine side as Papa is not. At any rate, you will be marrying up, which is more than the dismal future Father has planned for you.”
Will shivered a little, uncertain but still convinced of one thing—his father’s dislike of him would ensure he would not long survive Mina’s marriage and passage from their house to her husband’s.
“And just imagine, Will,” she went on, pressing her advantage, a lively and beautiful mirror of himself whom he loved absolutely. “There is every chance that you will find a happy home there. You will have status, power enough to protect you from Papa, and you might even find that Hannibal Lecter is tolerable to deal with. You could be happy, darling, hm?”
“Perhaps this is for the best...” he whispered, the corset making him even more breathless than his sudden hope.
“Mr. Graham, you know better than to question your father’s decisions,” Blake scolded, uniformly disapproving of the way he was dressed. “He is an Alpha, after all. Alphas always know what is best for creatures such as you.”
Will ducked his head at that, a scarlet flush climbing his cheeks.
“You look so much like me,” Mina said, tipping his chin up again to look at him. “It’s like looking into a mirror when I’m very sad and fragile.”
“We have no more time, I’m afraid,” Blake said, nodding that the getup would do for now. “Come along, Mr. Graham, er, Lady Graham.”
Will followed him, moving smoothly despite the unfamiliar clothing and too-small shoes, his natural Omegan grace adapting quite nicely while his heart fluttered with excitement and fear. A thousand worries assailed him, a thousand tells that he was not what he claimed. How on earth could he hope to fool this beta, let alone the Alphas that must abound in the Duke’s household?
He started to voice this fear to Blake but they arrived at his father’s office and a knock on the door forbade him from asking more questions. His father called entry from within and Blake announced him, holding the door wide, saying, “Lady Willia Graham, my Lord.”
Nervous, Will stepped into the room and greeted his father, a rosy pink blush on his pale cheeks. He nodded meekly at the stranger in the room whom Blake introduced as Mr. Eldon Stammets, a servant in the employ of the Duke of Westvale. Will inclined his head again in greeting, tensing when his hand was swept up and a kiss was grazed across his knuckles.
“This is my only remaining available child, Willia Graham,” the Earl said, the flush on his face betraying his irritation at seeing Will got up as a woman. His anger coiled around Will like a vise, plucking at his instinct to deflect the potential violence of the Alpha who had control over him. Self-preservation won that round, as he still bore the marks of the last time he’d dared to soothe his father’s temper and found it turned on him instead. “As you can see, she is very modest and sheltered.”
Mr. Stammets released his hand, showing no curiosity over the fact that it was less soft than he might have expected. Instead, he gestured for Will to sit and waited until he had done so, automatically arranging his skirts around him as he’d seen his sisters do countless times before and tucking his feet back out of sight to hide how ill-fitting the shoes were.
“Lady Willia Graham,” Mr. Stammets warmly said, clearly pleased with what he was seeing. “What an exquisite jewel you are! My Lord Earl, His Grace shall be very pleased at the quality of the spouse you are providing his heir. This will be a great alliance, indeed. Now, tell me of your education.”
Will hesitated, gathering his thoughts before he answered, keeping his voice deliberately soft. “I have had the same education as any young lady expected to run a noble House. I am afraid my instruction does not differ from that of other ladies my age.”
Mr. Stammets nodded, and made a small notation on the paper he was holding.
“I can surmise, then, that you are more than capable of keeping household accounts and directing staff,” he said, taking from it what he would. “But what of other ladylike accomplishments, Lady Graham?”
Will wet his lips. Mr. Stammets’ eyes lingered there, and his father bristled, sensing his interest.
“I am very well-versed in the harpsichord,” Will told him, quietly doling out those accomplishments that his father had always belittled for being too feminine. “I am a tolerable singer and a very good rider. I am an ardent reader and prefer to keep my own company. I am, however, a very good listener.”
His father cleared his throat, and Will subsided, falling back into his seat as if he’d been chastised.
“Well, my dear, it sounds as if you will make the Marquess a biddable and agreeable wife,” Mr. Stammets said, almost rubbing his hands together with glee. “Yes, yes, Lady Willia Graham, I believe you shall do quite nicely.”
“So we are agreed, then?” the Earl cut in, eager to be done with it.
“The final decision will rest with His Grace, but I cannot see any reason why two such lovely people should not marry, as per the contract,” Mr. Stammets said, his mind already made up. “I shall carry my observations to His Grace and return with his answer.”
“I have one condition,” the Earl said, flushing. “Should His Grace agree, I wish him to send his lawyer and a proxy so that the marriage can be performed here. I will have Willia leave this house secure in her new place.”
“I am sure those terms will be more than acceptable considering the Marquess is still some time out from arrival,” Mr. Stammets said, making another note with a smile. “He has not, of course, learned of the gracious way in which his family has arranged for his return, but I am confident he will be home to take his place as soon as the news is delivered.”
“Blake,” the Earl called, and the office door opened immediately. “Please see that Mr. Stammets is refreshed and set out with fresh horses.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Blake said, escorting the Duke’s man out.
Will sat very still, his chest rising and falling slightly beneath the tight silk and starched, ruffled neckline of the dress. He waited for his father’s anger, for his loathing, perhaps even for a slap for his audacity. Will had very quickly been beaten out of his proclivity for pretty and soft things, shamed for his interest in dolls, his love of seemingly feminine things pruned out of him with such savagery that the memories still woke him from terrified sleep.
“Will,” his father said, and he twitched, drawing into himself slightly, defensive postures that usually only incited his father to more towering rages. He did not, however, decide to indulge in one at present. Instead, he cleared his throat and softened his tone to say, “If His Grace agrees, you will marry the Lecter heir.”
“Yes, Father,” Will whispered, not looking at him, not daring to meet his gaze.
“Your sister’s clothing fits you,” the Earl observed, a thread of displeasure coloring his words. “You will be packed off with her things. She is due a new trousseau for her wedding.”
“Father,” Will said in the subsequent silence, daring to steal a glance up. “They are an Alpha family. Will they not realize that I am Omegan?”
His father frowned, irritated to have it pointed out to him. “Do you think yourself so clever that you have considered things which I have not?” he questioned, the sharpness of his voice cutting. Will dropped his gaze immediately, desperate not to issue an unbidden challenge. “The marriage will be signed, sealed and delivered before you are delivered to the ducal household. By the time anyone realizes you are not, in fact, your sister, it will be too late to do anything about it.”
Will schooled his face to show none of his nervous tension but it was clear in his voice when he asked, “Will they not despise me for deceiving them?”
“Whether they do or do not is no matter to me,” the Earl answered. “They are, however, a distinguished family and the contract did not specify a beta female. They wish to have another generation to secure the line of succession and you are capable of providing that, confused creature that you are.”
Will’s hands pressed over his flat belly, hard as stone beneath the cinch of the corset and bone stays.
He had no choice but to answer, “Yes, Father.”
“William,” his father said, resting his forehead in his hand, his skin pale and taut. “I never dreamed a day such as this would come. Fate has worked in our favor on this count, however. At least I can spare your sister a terrible fate thanks to you. I never counted on your Omegan nature being anything other than a curse.”
“I know, Father,” Will said in a tone of apology, familiar guilt washing over him. He had tried all of his life to be the son his father wanted, disappointing him daily with his very existence, with his penchant for beauty, with his love of things his father considered emasculating, like his fascination with his sisters’ dresses, baubles, and activities.
“The fact of the matter is that despite everything, you were never the son I desired,” the Earl sighed, rubbing his face with weary resignation. “At least in this, you will have a use.”
“I am sorry, Father,” Will said, his voice soft and small.
His father lifted his head to stare at him, gruff and embarrassed when he admitted, “I haven’t done right by you, William. I’ve bent your nature to suit my ends and it may go the worse for you when it comes down to it.”
“I have always been glad to please, Father,” Will said, his father’s admission chilling him as no icy water ever could. It frightened him to hear his Alpha speak with such uncertainty. It upset the balance of his world to realize that his father might have made some mistake with him, that he had not, in fact, been acting in Will’s best interests by bullying him to more masculine pursuits.
“It’s that damned Omegan nature of yours!” the Earl said, and Will flinched. “Of course you were glad to please! But here you are, about to be married off to a future Duke and the one good thing I could have done for you probably ruined by my desire to have a real son.”
“I am your son,” Will said, his stomach clenching with nausea, with deep fear. “If they send me back unwanted, Father, I will continue to be your son.”
“No, Will,” the Earl said, looking at him with something like regret, but it quickly became the familiar dislike that had greeted Will from his earliest memories. “No, you were never my son and you never can be, no matter how much I wish it was otherwise.”
Will flinched again, ducking his head as hot tears formed in his eyes. He willed them away, fingernails biting into his palms as he fought not to cry in front of his father. Tears had been lovingly soothed from his sisters and followed by coddling and indulgence, but Will’s tears had always been thoroughly chastised and berated, resulting in his standing alone in a corner of the nursery until he could get himself “under control”. He had learned with time. Everything his father had taught him, he had learned because he could see things as his father did. It was an unspoken, unacknowledged talent he had, this strange empathy of his. It was the reason that his father—rapidly understanding that proximity affected it—had insisted Will be separated from other company at an early age lest he be too much like them and less so the son he wished Will had been.
“That habit of yours,” the Earl said, the only way in which he ever addressed Will’s helpless ability to take the perspective of those around him. “You will need to control it.”
“Yes, Father,” he murmured.
“William, understand that you cannot allow it to overcome your good sense!” his father insisted, scowling. “They won’t stand for such nonsense! Do you understand?”
“Yes, Father,” he said again, staring steadily at his hands fisted in his lap, the cold wings of panic fluttering in his heart.
“This man I’m giving you to,” the Earl said, not remarking Will’s distress anymore now than he ever had. “He has a reputation for being high-handed and stubborn. Do not give him any reason to be unkind to you.”
“I will not give him reasons, Father, to the best of my ability.”
“Do as he says,” his father told him. “Whatever he wants of you, you give him. Do you understand me?”
“Whatever he wants,” his father repeated, as he always did when he felt Will wasn’t absorbing what he was being told. “If it is dresses and frippery, then so be it. If it is being shut away at a distant estate bearing children in succession, then so be it. There is no room in the ducal house for the creature I raised, understand? Serve your purpose and keep them from complaint with this family.”
Will shivered, at a loss. Helpless, he looked up at his father with fear brimming in his bright blue eyes and said, “I don’t know how to be the person they want, Father.”
Something passed in the Earl’s gaze, then, some slow understanding or even compassion, overdue as it was. “I know that, William. Perhaps in such a setting your natural instincts will guide you better than my necessary correction ever could.”
Will frowned and looked back at his lap, trying not to tremble with nerves.
“Go to your room,” his father said. “Tell Blake to have the servants start packing.”
“Yes, Father,” Will said.
It was the last time in a very long time that he spoke thusly with the man who had loathed him from the moment of his birth.
The Lecters were an esteemed family, a family with a long and noble history of service to the throne for which they had been remarkably rewarded with titles and holdings. They were one of the oldest Alpha families in the whole of the Empire, bluebloods bred and true.
It was only within the last century that the mighty had fallen, so to speak. The family fractured beneath the weight of its dignity and power, outshoots flung to the four corners of the Empire, and new and startling notions became the norm.
The most startling of which was the fact that the Lecter heir, Hannibal, Marquess of Clarges, had studied to become a medical doctor and actually practiced.
It was often overlooked that he did so on the battlefield as his duty to the crown. Overlooked, of course, by a Society quick to gossip; not overlooked, however, by a bevy of concerned relatives dreading every day of combat that sought to take their Duke-in-waiting away from them, thus leaving the lines of inheritance in question.
“Another letter, m’Lord,” Berger said, pushing into his master’s tent with the missive held in front of him, a look of acute dread on his face.
Hannibal took it, leaving bloody fingerprints on the ivory-colored paper, his face already falling into a grim frown which his valet knew all too well from his years of service.
He opened it, brown eyes flicking over the paper, and sighed on a soft laugh, rolling his eyes heavenward.
“Yes, m’Lord?” was the immediate response.
“Do you find thirty to be an unusually great age?”
Berger froze, uncertain. “Not terribly so, m’Lord,” he decided was safe enough.
Hannibal smirked. It was not a pleasant smirk, all things considered, but it was about as close to humor as he got these days and it relieved his valet to see it.
“Apparently,” Hannibal said, tipping his head back on another sigh. “I have been given an ultimatum.”
Berger perked up, attentive to any conditions that might involve them going home to their own blessed country.
“My dearest grandfather has bought my commission,” Hannibal said, his voice tight and dark and vastly unhappy. He handed the letter to Berger, who read it quickly, eyes widening. “I either return immediately or forfeit my place as his heir.”
“He surely wouldn’t...” Berger began, though he read it twice himself, disbelieving.
“My grandfather is not one to make idle threats and the lines of succession must be secured,” Hannibal said, annoyed. “It is perfectly reasonable to act as he has, just incredibly annoying and overbearing because he knows I would never forfeit.”
Berger finished the letter, swallowing hard at what he’d read there. “And the other, my Lord?” he asked, his voice a near whisper.
“On the matter of my wife?” Hannibal inquired, the polite menace of his tone making Berger wince, doubly so when those humorless dark eyes landed on him, sparkling with ire. “That matter, too, depends on my answer. Should I give up my place why, then, the young lady he has chosen will be given to my successor.”
“His Grace has already chosen,” Berger said, somewhat mystified but not entirely surprised. The missives over the years had become increasingly short and to the point. More than once the subject of a wife had been broached without answer.
“He, unfortunately, has taken my silence as assent,” Hannibal said, glowering. He waved his bloody hand in a dismissive gesture and said, “It matters not. I am sure, as the daughter of a noble, she will be perfectly capable of providing the Alpha son he desires, as any other woman. She will serve her purpose and be rewarded with a title. No gently-bred woman would wish for more, would she?”
“Oh… of course not, my Lord,” Berger agreed. “...no woman would ask for more.”
Hannibal laughed mirthlessly at that one, his eyebrow arching over one piercing dark eye. “Believe me, Berger,” he said, shaking his head. “My grandfather would never dare hand me an Omegan wife.”
“...because they are spoken for so young, m’Lord?” Berger asked, hesitantly touching on his master’s single blind prejudice, unable to resist his curiosity about its source.
“Because they are useless irritants incapable of rational thought and I’d rather marry a mule than be saddled with an Omega,” Hannibal told him, his mild tone only putting a sting in his words. “And my grandfather knows that well enough. That aside, there is that damnable contract of his with the former Earl of Reddig. No doubt his insipid little granddaughters will be clamoring over who is to be a future Duchess.”
Berger stayed silent for a long moment before tentatively asking, “So… what will you do?”
Hannibal sighed heavily again, shaking his head hard enough that the short locks of his brown hair whispered back across his forehead.
“I suppose you must pack, Berger. We are going home.”