Despite now having Harriet to confide in and consult, Alfred was deeply discouraged after the ball. His project appeared to be more challenging than he’d realized, and Miss Coke seemed to cling to him as excessively as ever.
Worst of all, there were still precious few opportunities for he and Edward to see each other. They generally had to make do with discreet looks across the Queen’s desk as she spoke with Sir Robert. Rarer still were moments of personal conversation, generally snatched in the palace hall and without assurance of privacy. They could see the longing in one another’s eyes—and fought valiantly to hide their feelings from everyone around them—but found it nearly impossible to manufacture circumstances in which they might quench even their most modest desires. It was deeply frustrating.
Edward felt it, too. It had been more than a week since their last moment of true intimacy on the palace balcony, and in all that time an occasional ‘accidental’ brushing of hands was the closest contact they could manage. He was desperate for more. So when he was sent to the palace one evening with papers for the Queen, he felt a spark of hope. The Prime Minister himself was retiring for the night, so Drummond had no imperative to return to the House. It was the most promising opportunity he'd had in ages... and if he could just be alone with Alfred, his day would end on a joyful note.
When he arrived, he found that the evening meal was over and the royal party had retired to the music room. How he wished Sir Robert weren’t so busy these days and that they might be guests at a palace dinner once again. While it was not as good as being alone together, he could at least revel in Alfred’s beauty and delight in his sparkling repartee. At court gatherings, Alfred was always so urbane, and especially dashing in his evening attire.
Instead, Drummond was asked to wait in the Queen’s office while the page went to inform her of his presence. He stood stoically, wishing Alfred would arrive in her stead, but no—presently Her Majesty appeared. He bowed.
“Good evening, Mr. Drummond.”
“Good evening, ma’am."
“I hope this will be expeditious. I have just requested a piano duet from Lord Alfred and Miss Coke, and I don’t wish to keep them waiting for their command performance.” Drummond’s heart sank. That meant Alfred would be unable to excuse himself; there was no chance they could meet now.
“No, ma’am, it will be very brief.” He masked his disappointment and crossed to the Queen’s desk, where she was now seated. “Your signature is required on this one…” He waited as she looked over the first document and affixed the royal signature, “…and this one.”
When she had dispatched with the second document, she asked, “Is that all?”
“Yes, ma’am, that is all.”
She looked at him as he collected his portfolio. “It seems a lot to go through for two simple signatures, does it not?”
“Yes, ma’am, I suppose it does, but Sir Robert needs them first thing in the morning.”
“Well, your dedication to the prime minister is admirable. I wonder, Mr. Drummond, if you would care to join us in the music room? It seems to me you should receive more for your trouble than a parchment or two. We have not had the pleasure of your company in some time, and I am certain you are missed.”
Drummond tried to work out whether the Queen was implying anything about Alfred and himself, but saw nothing in her countenance other than simple courtesy. I am becoming oversuspicious, he thought. “Your Majesty, it is most kind of you to invite me. I would be delighted.”
“Good. Then let us enjoy the food of love.”
Drummond was a bit taken aback. “I beg your pardon, Your Majesty?”
“Shakespeare. 'If music be the food of love, play on…?' Perhaps you need to attend the theatre more often, Mr. Drummond.” As she smiled quizzically and led him out of the room, Drummond chuckled to himself at the uncanny aptness of the quotation.
The moment he entered the room behind the Queen, he could feel Alfred’s presence—feel that his eyes were drawn to Edward’s tall figure—almost before his own eyes could locate Alfred in the room. He had been preparing himself in the palace corridor to remain calm and not reveal anything by his demeanor, but the moment he caught sight of Alfred wearing the same cravat and vest as the evening of their first kiss, he felt his heart leap into his throat and knew he had utterly failed.
Almost as quickly, he was aware of the Duchess of Buccleuch looking deliberately between Alfred and himself. They had each seen the delight on one another’s face, but now he knew they must extinguish it with due haste. Alfred had already reverted to his customarily cool façade, as he and the rest of the room’s occupants stood at the Queen's return.
“I invited Mr. Drummond to join us for some music and refreshment before he leaves."
"Such a late hour to be toiling away, Drummond," Prince Albert replied. "Sir Robert must keep you working very hard.”
“Indeed, Your Royal Highness, but I am honoured to serve the Prime Minister, despite the odd hours. I must, however, apologize for my attire. Had I known Her Majesty would so graciously invite me to join you, I would have dressed more appropriately to the occasion.”
Ernst came forward to greet him. “Nonsense; you’re most welcome. Here, let me pour you a brandy. I haven’t seen you since the carriage ride from Scotland.” Drummond’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of Scotland, and he forced himself not to look at Alfred—knowing that if he did, he couldn’t help but betray his emotions. The Duchess already had a dangerous picture in her mind of Alfred and him together on the grounds of Blair Castle; she would undoubtedly be alert for anything that might confirm her suspicions.
Until this moment, he had not appreciated just how tricky it would be to navigate his behavior in these types of situations. They had not yet been together in a setting such as this since their friendship had blossomed into… well, into something more. He followed Ernst to the decanter so as to avoid making contact with Alfred's beautiful blue eyes; if he did, he was certain everything he felt about their time in Scotland would show in his face immediately and give them both away.
By now, the Queen had taken her seat and all were once again at ease. He heard Alfred say in his most polished courtier's voice, “Your Majesty, you wished to hear a Mozart duet, I believe?”
“Yes, and I mentioned it to Mr. Drummond as well, so I’m sure we would both be disappointed were you not to play.”
Alfred glanced quickly at Drummond and appeared to lose his voice just then, so he simply bowed to the Queen, offered his hand to Miss Coke, and went with her to the piano.
It was an odd moment for Edward, and he wasn’t quite sure how to compose himself. He hadn’t been around Alfred and Wilhelmina together since learning of the Duchess’ matrimonial aspirations for them, so to see the two coupled off—even in such an innocent way—was a bit disconcerting. And he became aware yet again that the Duchess kept glancing at him; he tried very hard not to be caught looking back, but it did happen once, sending an unpleasant chill down his spine. She turned away again, proceeding to gaze with satisfaction at the pair as they seated themselves close together on the piano bench. Edward winced inwardly at the sight. He felt almost faint, and was grateful when Ernst indicated a chair where he could take a seat.
The duet itself sounded lovely, but every note was like a pinprick to his heart. Each time their hands crossed or their fingers touched, Edward felt a pang of jealousy. He knew it was absurd—he knew Alfred had no romantic inclinations toward Miss Coke—but he wanted to be there instead of her. He wanted to be the one touching Alfred, sitting close to him, smelling the sweetness of his hair, brushing those smooth fingers with his own. He had the ridiculous thought of taking up the piano, although of course he knew that wasn’t the actual obstacle they faced. He had to keep looking away so as not to be engulfed by his emotions. He knew he must remain neutral in the face of the Duchess’ continual barbed glances in his direction. If her eyes could shoot daggers, he’d be a dead man by now.
He was also becoming aware that the Duchess of Sutherland was observing him, too. At first, he thought she was looking at Ernst, seated nearby, but eventually realized that he himself was the object of her furtive glances. Whatever could that be about? he thought. She did not seem hostile like the Duchess of Buccleuch, but he found it unsettling nonetheless; she’d never paid him much attention before. He tried to shake it off and focus on the music, but then every time he did that, he was brought back to his jealousy. No matter where he turned his attentions, he was miserable. He wished now he had had the foresight to decline the Queen’s invitation.
After the duet had ended and applause and compliments had been shared, Drummond tried to figure out how to extract himself from the situation. What he really wanted, of course, was to find a way to share a moment alone with Alfred, but the chances of that looked vanishingly slim. The best he felt he could hope for was release from his agony. The conversation went on around him as he tried to find an opening for a gracious exit.
So he was most relieved when the Queen and the Prince rose and announced they were retiring for the evening. It revived a faint spark of hope that maybe... just maybe... others would follow and he might manage a private moment with Alfred after all….
Once they had gone, the elderly Duchess disabused him of that notion when she seated herself defiantly. “I was shocked to hear of your broken engagement, Mr. Drummond." She addressed him brusquely. "A sad situation indeed, and such an odd way in which to make it public.”
Drummond was caught completely off-guard by her candor. She really doesn’t mince words, does she? He was further distressed to see that Miss Coke was scrutinizing him as well and had settled next to Alfred on the divan—a bit closer to him than was strictly necessary.
Alfred looked uncomfortable himself, but jumped into the conversation quickly to give Edward a moment to recover. “Yes, I was with the Duchess when she read the announcement in the papers. She seemed to think I would know something more about the circumstances, but alas, I’m afraid I had to disappoint her. You should have filled me in, Drummond. I do like to be the first to know everything.”
Edward had gathered his thoughts now and was better able to play along with the conversation. “My apologies, Lord Alfred, but there really wasn’t anything more to know than what was written” he said, clearly for the Duchess' benefit. “We came to the decision by mutual agreement, as was stated, and felt it would be best to be forthright and quell any rumors before they began. You know how people like to gossip.”
Miss Coke looked at him askance while the Duchess pressed on. “Well, if you ask me, it only served to make you more prone to be the topic of conversation. Quite a way to draw attention to yourself, really.”
“I feel certain Mr. Drummond would rather not discuss such a delicate matter in mixed company,” Harriet interjected, before addressing the whole room. “On a happier note, I have heard some exciting news: Mr. Dickens is preparing to publish a new serial later this year. I was not sure he would return to the form after the success of his Christmas Carol, but I should be glad to read whatever he conjures in whichever form. He’s so descriptive—don’t you think so, Miss Coke?” And with that, the conversation turned. Drummond was most grateful, and shared a look of relief with Alfred, but they still had to exercise caution under the elder Duchess’ ever-critical eye.
As the hour grew later, the old woman showed no sign of excusing herself, and Drummond was again despairing of any chance that he might claim a moment alone with Alfred.
It was Harriet who broke up the gathering as she rose and asked, “Would you be so kind, Lord Alfred, as to summon my carriage? I’ll be staying at Stafford House tonight.” Ernst looked at her with thinly-veiled surprise and then turned away; there seemed to be tension between he and the Duchess of Sutherland, but Drummond didn’t really want to know what that drama might be about. He was taken by surprise when she turned to address him next. “Mr. Drummond, my coach can also take you to your apartments if you’re tired from your long workday.”
He was on the verge of declining her offer until he saw the encouraging look in Alfred’s eyes. “Yes, thank you, Duchess, I would be most grateful.”
“I will bid you all good evening as well," Alfred said graciously, "I believe I will retire for the night once this duty is done,” and he bowed and left quickly with Harriet before the Duchess or Miss Coke could inquire after him. Drummond picked up his papers, bowed to the ladies and Ernst, and followed the other two. He was still aware of the Duchess’ eyes boring holes in his back as he left the room.
As the three made their way toward the palace entry, Drummond walked a bit behind—indeed, he felt he might be behind in more ways than one. Ahead of him, Alfred and the Duchess were both smiling broadly and occasionally shooting an amused look in his direction, after which they would whisper and laugh quietly with each other. He certainly felt like the odd man out.
Alfred went to speak with the footman while the Duchess stood back and flashed a kindly smile at the perplexed Drummond.
“I take it you know that Lord Alfred and I are very old friends.”
“Yes, Duchess, I believe I knew that.”
“I’m not sure you know how close we are, or how important his happiness is to me.” Drummond looked even more confused.
She lowered her voice. “Alfred has shared with me the nature of your friendship”—his head began to swim—“and I want you to regard me as your advocate and confidante.”
He couldn’t quite take in what he was hearing, nor did he know her well enough to trust her words. Was she setting a trap? If so, he was determined not to fall into it.
“I’m sorry, Duchess, I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Mr. Drummond, you needn’t dissemble with me. I assure you, you have only my good will.” He didn’t know what to think, and was relieved to see Alfred returning to them.
“Well,” Harriet addressed Alfred in hushed tones, “if I were testing Mr. Drummond, he would have passed with flying colors. I’m afraid he doesn’t know he is safe confiding in me.”
“Edward,” he said softly, “Harriet knows. She knows, and she has pledged us her friendship and support. Our secret is quite safe with her.”
Drummond looked back and forth at both of them in turn, completely flabbergasted. “I… I don’t understand….”
“You must be tired, for it is really quite simple,” Harriet replied. “But perhaps you need some time to take it all in. Alfred can explain everything to you later.”
The carriage had pulled up, and Alfred offered his arm to escort Harriet down the steps. Edward seemed to be glued to the spot until Alfred called over his shoulder, “Come along, Drummond."
He did as he was told, following them down the steps and into the carriage, where they all seated themselves. “You’re coming, too, Lord Alfred?” he asked, still confused.
“I think Mr. Drummond does not have the benefit of our years of silent conversation.” Harriet addressed Alfred first, before turning back to Edward. “I’ve manipulated the situation more than I probably should have, but I very much want to ensure that you two have an opportunity to… catch up on recent events. My driver will take me to Stafford House, and then he will take you both to Alfred’s home in Grosvenors Square. I don’t believe the Duchess of Buccleuch’s extra sets of eyes will have had an opportunity to follow you. Although you will need to be cautious when you eventually return to your own residence, Mr. Drummond. Nevertheless, you should have ample time to… confer.”
She suddenly seemed a bit abashed at the intimate innuendos in her words, and looked down at her hands. As Edward gazed at her mutely from across the carriage, Alfred, seated next to her, took her hand and squeezed it. “Isn’t it wonderful? To have a friend? For both of us to have such a friend as Harriet?” He kissed her hand as she smiled demurely.
Edward was quite overcome. “I’m speechless… and you know, that's a remarkable state for any politician. How can I ever express my gratitude, Duchess?”
“You already have, Mr. Drummond," she said warmly. "Continue to be Alfred’s friend, and you shall remain mine as well.”
When the carriage arrived at Stafford House, Alfred escorted Harriet to the door. As Drummond watched them walk away, he let out a deep breath and slumped back into the seat, feeling like a condemned man who had suddenly been granted a last-minute reprieve.
They had a friend. They had an ally. They had someone on their side.
He nearly cried from the relief of it.
Once Alfred was back again and seated, he knocked on the carriage roof to signal to the driver, and laid his hand tenderly on Edward’s knee.
“And now, my dear man, we are finally alone.”