Over the following days, the pressure Drummond had been under began to ease a bit. He’d endured what was likely to be the most difficult meeting with his parents; Sir Robert had stopped nagging him about the broken engagement and Drummond’s own political future; and most importantly, he was free of the dreaded wedding and unwanted marriage. It’s true that work was newly demanding, given the fractures in the party, but that was the kind of stress that challenged and invigorated him, rather than made him feel exhausted and frustrated. The only thing that still weighed heavily on him was the situation with the Duchess and how difficult she made it for he and Alfred to meet.
Alfred, on the other hand, had felt his pressures increasing. The Duchess was relentless, and he had begun to bristle at the frequency with which Miss Coke sought him out. On top of that, he had noticed Wilhelmina reading The Iliad, which he found rather unnerving, since serials had been much more her preference in the past. He supposed she had simply seen him reading it and decided to do so as well—another expression of her rather annoying attentiveness to him. In darker moments he reflected on the fact that she suddenly seemed to be reading about men whose love for one another “surpassed the love of women” (her use of that phrase in conversation had sent a chill up his spine), and he wondered whether there was a veiled meaning aimed at him. He found it all rather ominous.
He had been making lists of any marriageable men he knew, and contemplating the likelihood with which they might find Miss Coke a suitable future bride. While he had a handful of prospects that were promising, he wasn’t overly optimistic that any of them would be taken with her. And then there was the matter of how to introduce them to her and cultivate opportunities for a courtship to bloom. The good news was that there were still over two months left in the London season, so that gave Alfred some time to play Cupid; the bad news was that he had little control over social events and the guest lists. He would have to seize opportunities as they arose.
The first one presented itself quite fortuitously in the form of an invitation to a ball at the London home of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk. Norfolk’s elder son had already married, but his second son, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, was certainly eligible, and the evening promised to bring a good number of other bachelors from among the aristocracy. Alfred needed to ensure that Miss Coke was indeed among the invited and that she would attend.
He decided it was time for an alliance to help him plot, plan, and perhaps spy a bit, and he knew just who to turn to.
Harriet was seated by one of the pools outside the palace, sketchbook in hand, though as often seemed the case these days, there were very few strokes to show for her time and observation.
As he approached her, he asked, “How is it coming along?”
“Hmmmm?” She seemed distracted, but turned to Alfred and smiled. “Oh, the drawing? Not very well, I’m afraid. I can’t seem to master the curve of that tree branch. I was trying for a simple detail sketch, not a landscape, but I can’t seem to manage even that. Oh, well,” she seemed to shake off her distraction and focus on him at last, “I am sure I’ll have better luck in the afternoon light. And what brings you to the gardens, Alfred?” The two had shared a comfortable friendship for so long that they were perfectly happy to dispense with formal titles in private conversation.
“Well, Harriet,” he replied, seating himself next to her on the stone bench, “I have a project, and I am appealing to you for help.”
“Oh? That sounds intriguing.”
“I wish to find a suitor for Miss Coke,” he said, as he glanced at her conspiratorially.
“Really? Whatever gave you this interest? Is it to keep her from clinging to you?”
Alfred laughed out loud. As distracted as she had been while dressed in her mourning weeds and sorting through her feelings for the prince’s brother, Ernst, she still managed to have observed a bit of the world around her. “Ah, you’ve noticed.”
“Yes, and I’ve been very impressed with your continuing courtesies. I had almost wondered if perhaps you returned her affections, but that would have been a bit… surprising.” Harriet had never known Alfred to express any romantic interest in a woman, though he occasionally had appeared to be smitten by a man. This might have shocked her in the abstract, but having known him for so very long and feeling toward him as one might a beloved brother, she took it as one of his quirks. It was not something they had ever discussed outright; it was simply a silent understanding between them. “Alfred, may I ask you a question?”
“Ask me no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.”
“Well, I hope you’ll tell me the truth, though I should understand if you would rather not.”
Alfred’s hands began to feel restless. “Now you’re worrying me. Ask your question and let’s get it over with.”
She smiled at him. “Are you the reason for Mr. Drummond's broken engagement?”
Alfred’s heart seemed to stop and his mind raced as he looked away—how many people would they have to hide from?!—as Harriet took his hand with great tenderness. “I only ask because of things the Duchess of Bucchleuch has been hinting, but I would never confirm it to her or anyone else." She added lightly, "You know too many of my secrets for me to be anything but discreet with yours." He didn't answer, and could feel her gaze as she awaited a response. "Alfred, look at me.” He lifted his head and met her eyes, and he could see the same warmth that had always been there. “Nothing you could tell me—short of confessing murder—could lessen my affection for you. I just… well, I think I may owe you an apology.”
“Well, if Mr. Drummond broke his engagement... for you, then that must mean that what you two feel... for each other... is really quite serious. I suppose I've always thought you were in a youthful phase that you would one day outgrow. I’m afraid I’ve underestimated… I’ve failed to appreciate the depth of your feelings... and I have perhaps made light of them when I did not mean to.”
Alfred felt such a wave of relief that the tears started rolling down his cheeks. He pulled out his handkerchief to dry his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Harriet assured him, “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“My apologies. How embarrassing. But you’re the only person who’s ever said anything like that to me; it’s rather overwhelming.” He looked her in the eyes again. “Yes. Yes. I was the reason. I didn’t ask him to—in fact, I tried to dissuade him—but he would not have it. He could not marry under false pretenses, and although we must hide, we do hope for some kind of a future together.”
“Oh, Alfred,” Harriet sighed. “You have chosen a hard road.”
“Had I a choice, I would have picked an easy one.” Alfred spoke quietly. “You and I do have that in common.”
“What do you mean?”
“We both know what it is to love where we should not. And we both know how it cannot be helped.”
Harriet laughed sadly. “That is very true.”
They sat for a few moments in silence, Alfred’s hand still in Harriet’s.
“So this project. I would very much like to hear about it.”
“Ah, yes, back to the project. I’m afraid my ‘courtesies,’ as you called them, have been misinterpreted. What can I do? I’m a courtier at heart; it is simply not in my nature to be rude. And the Duchess has it in her head that I should propose marriage. She watches me like a hawk waiting to swoop on its prey. It’s made it quite impossible for Edw—Drummond and I to spend any time together. I think our lives would be made a bit simpler if we could get Miss Coke to the altar… with someone else.”
“Well, that makes perfect sense. And how may I assist you?”
“I would assume that, as a lady of the court, she’s been invited to Norfolk’s ball, but I need to be sure and I need her to attend. In addition to their son, I know there will be many eligible gentlemen there. You could ensure she’s on the guest list, don’t you think?”
Harriet nodded. “That should be simple enough. And encourage her to attend, too?”
“I can certainly manage that, and it shall give me a purpose. You know you can always count on me, Alfred, as your agent and your spy.” She flashed him her most enchanting smile. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“I cannot thank you enough—for everything—my dearest Harriet,” Alfred said, as he kissed her hand with a chivalrous flourish and rose to leave. “You are a pearl among women.”