It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single Alpha, in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a mate.
Nowhere was this truth so well fixed – and oft repeated – as within the walls of Wolf Manor, a household dominated by an Alpha woman whose sole aim in life was to get rid of her five children.
'Mr Graham,' shrieked the lady in question one Wednesday morning, 'have you heard that Muskrat Hall is let at last?'
Mr Graham and his son, Will, glanced at one another across the breakfast room table where both were enjoying a fine repast of red herrings, and rolled their eyes in unison.
'Will, I suggest that you take your morning ride now. No reason for both of us to suffer needlessly,' muttered Mr Graham, folding down his morning paper with an air of weary resignation as his good lady's footsteps echoed ever more loudly in the outer passage.
Dropping his knife and fork with a resounding clatter, Will pushed back his chair and rose with more haste than grace. 'Thank you, Father,' flashing a grin, 'for your most noble sacrifice.'
'Harrumph. Be off with you, child.'
Boots clattering over the cobbles of the courtyard - having availed himself of the escape route provided by the servants' entrance - Will found himself ambushed by his two most excitable sisters.
'Will, you will never guess!' cried Abigail, running across the yard, skirts billowing around her ankles as a fresh October breeze whipped them up. 'There is to be a ball at the Red Dragon Inn –'
'And our new neighbours are to attend!' exclaimed seventeen-year-old Fredricka, as usual several steps behind her boisterous sister and endeavouring to keep up.
'Save your breath to cool your porridge, Freddie,' scolded Abigail. 'I shall tell Will.'
Will folded his arms and cocked his head to one side, eyeing his youngest sibling with fond exasperation. At fifteen, Abigail was a veritable handful of wilful Alpha precociousness. 'Well? Who are these paragons that they cause such a stir?'
'Their family name is Verger,' recounted Will to the eldest Miss Graham some hours later, in the peaceful sanctuary of the summer house.' A brother and sister, recently arrived from the north of England. Self-made Alphas, by all accounts. And, according to Mama, each worth four or five thousand a year.' Pitch and volume increasing, he offered an uncanny and rather cruel impression of Mrs Graham. 'What a fine thing for our children!’
'Stop, Will.' Laughing despite herself, Alana nudged her brother's shoulder. 'But I do now understand why Mama is determined that we are all to be measured for new evening clothes.'
'New evening clothes?' Will grimaced. 'Father will be thrilled.'
'Father will understand that with five children unmarried, and an estate entailed away to a distant relation, needs must be met when such an opportunity presents itself,' replied Alana gently.
At almost three-and-twenty, the eldest Graham sibling was possessed of a calm understanding and wisdom that Will, nearly three years her junior, both admired and envied. Still, in one respect her words stung, although he knew that had been far from his sister's intention in uttering them. '...an estate entailed away...'
For Will, though bearing the name Graham, had come to do so only after his shy young Beta mother, ill and distraught, had come knocking at the front door of Wolf Manor to present a shocked Mr Graham with the two-months-old product of a highly uncharacteristic drunken indiscretion. Despite the shame of his usually staid Beta father and the mortification of Mrs Graham, the ailing barmaid had been installed immediately in an upstairs bedroom and a physician called to attend on her. Alas, little could be done for the consumptive creature, and after her passing Will had been handed into the care of a wet nurse and raised, at Mr Graham's insistence, as his and Mrs Graham's own. Mr Graham, delighted to have been granted a son under any circumstances, determined to lavish on his boy all the love in his heart for the rest of his days. As for Mrs Graham, the fact that a full two years passed between Will's arrival and the birth of Molly, the third of the five Graham siblings, spoke much of her feelings on the matter. Certainly it was a highly entertaining topic of conversation for the neighbouring gentry, several of whom indulged for years in regular, gleeful sessions of commiseration with the unfortunate woman. Will might have been destined to perpetual estrangement from his reluctant adopted mother, had not his tender, loving heart and sensitive nature prompted him to make overture after overture until Mrs Graham, worn out from her efforts to dislike the child, decided finally that it was much the easiest course to simply embrace him as her own.
Will's silence prompted his sister to place a comforting hand on his arm. 'I know what you are thinking and it is not your fault.'
'The fact that I presented as Omegan and therefore proved to be useless as both brother and son?' He picked moodily at the peeling paintwork of the bench. 'Mama might disagree.'
'Mama loves you and well you know it,' admonished Alana.
'She would have loved me better had I presented as an Alpha.'
'Will!' Alana frowned, a rarity enough for Will to feel slight shame over his moroseness. 'Yes, it is true that as an Alpha you would have been entitled to the inheritance of Father's estate. But you know very well that as a male Omega, your marriage prospects are far greater than those of the rest of us.'
'Oh come, Alana,' countered Will scornfully. 'You know very well that as an illegitimate son, my marriage prospects are materially damaged, coveted Omegan status or not. Who of good standing would wish to attach themselves to someone with such a scandalous past?'
'Scandalous past? You were born, that is all!'
Sighing, Will took hold of his sister's hand and squeezed it. 'Do not distress yourself. I am content, truly. I know that I am loved, Alana. And did Father not send me to the best schools? Not to mention Oxford.' A mischievous smile tugged at his lips.
'That you earned on your own merit,' said Alana, voice warm with pride. 'And to have been admitted a full year early! I am so pleased that you are to work in Uncle Crawford's law firm, Will. Just think, London!'
'After a twelvemonth helping Father modernise the estate,' Will reminded her. 'London will certainly be a challenge.'
'Which you will thrive on,' asserted Alana. 'Never have I known anyone as adaptable as you, dear brother.'
Will huffed a laugh. 'In this family, circumstances demand adaptability. Take Father, for instance.'
'What of him?'
'According to Abigail, he has been refusing to visit our new neighbours because it would require him to stir from his beloved library.'
'Heavens, Mama must be apoplectic!'
'Precisely.' He shook his head in amusement. 'Yet I wager that Father will have paid that call within a day.'
'Because it will please Mama?'
'Because it will restore relative peace and harmony to the household.' Will grinned. 'Adaptability, Alana.'
To everyone's relief, Mr Graham did indeed pay the necessary introductory call on the Vergers, only a few days after having declared to his wife in solemn tones that he would not. Of course, the cost of this delay was long periods of woebegone screeching and scolding, but Will managed to avoid much of it by extending his morning rides to well past luncheon, a freedom to which his sisters, sadly, were not privy.
On the third such morning, he rode his grey stallion out a little further than usual, beyond the boundary of his father's land to a small lake, an isolated spot where, years before, Mr Graham had taught him the fundamentals of coarse fishing. Tying Winston's reins to a low-hanging branch beneath the ample shade of a willow tree, Will retrieved a bottle of lemonade from the small basket strapped to the saddle. Although now mid-October, summer was reluctant to relinquish her warm grasp on the country, and as the sun shone high and uninterrupted, Will was quick to shed his coat and neck cloth. Having unbuttoned his waistcoat and pulled off his boots, he sighed his satisfaction and settled back on the mossy bank to quench his thirst and take his fill of the tranquil scene.
He was thinking idly of the fly fishing expedition which he and Brian Price had planned for the following day when he detected a curiously familiar scent – fresh and earthy, with a mineral tang, as if suddenly he had been transported to his favourite stream and was standing immersed in the cool, delicious flow.
'Do you have trouble reading signs?'
Starting up from his half-recumbent position, Will whipped his head around, only narrowly avoiding spilling the contents of the bottle down his front as he located the source of the compelling scent and his eyes travelled up from a splendid pair of black knee-high boots, past tight-fitting faun breeches and linen greatcoat, to a high cravat framing a face of perturbingly severe, aristocratic beauty. Angular and haughty features were framed by a straight sweep of dark blonde hair, peeking out beneath a black high-crowned hat. The man exuded authority.
For an instant a peculiar feeling, part-recognition and part-yearning, washed over Will and he stilled. But then the stranger frowned and, suddenly mindful of his own dishevelled appearance, Will flushed and lowered his gaze.
'No,' he mumbled defensively, all thumbs as he attempted to re-button his waistcoat, finally giving up and scrambling to his feet.
Bare feet, Hannibal Lecter noted with disdain. To match the long sweep of pale skin exposed by the shirt which flapped open in a most distracting manner as the boy hastily brushed grass from his backside.
Opening his mouth to demand the boy's full attention, he closed it with a snap as he was struck by two things simultaneously. First, the delicate fragrance wafting from the boy, herby and sweet, which reminded Hannibal of the pine forests around his boyhood home. And secondly, the realisation that he was, for the first time in his life, face-to-face with that rarest and most coveted of social treasures: a male Omega. How he knew for certain, he could not have explained. Perhaps it was the boy's slight frame and delicate features; perhaps the blue fire in eyes alight with intelligence; or the delectable scent which wrapped around Hannibal’s senses like tendrils of silk thread, tugging sensuously. Whatever it was, his primal Alpha instincts strained towards it, eager to soak in the presence of so much Omegan beauty.
He removed his hat and tucked it under his arm in an unconscious act of chivalry, taking an involuntary step forward before stopping abruptly and, with ruthless self-control, quashing the strange feelings rising like a tide. Never in his life had he allowed himself to be a slave to his instincts, nor to be defined by status or gender, and he would not begin now. Besides, the fact remained that the boy – however alluring – was trespassing.
'Really?' he drawled, recovering his equilibrium. 'I beg to differ.' And pointing with one gloved hand to the large sign positioned on the adjacent bank, he waited for the inevitable apology.
Which never came.
'I have been coming here for years and never have I seen that before,' declared the boy dismissively, squinting slightly as he read aloud in a scornful tone, 'Private property: trespassers will be evicted. Indeed? And for what, pray, will you be evicting me? The heinous crime of flattening grass blades while imbibing lemonade?'
For a moment Hannibal simply stared, dumbstruck, at the slip of an Omega who, in a clear, lilting voice had just spoken to him in a manner in which he had never before, in all his eight-and-twenty years, been addressed.
And suddenly he heard again his uncle's voice, laced with grief; saw the two of them standing together over his father's coffin: 'I know that you miss Lithuania, Hannibal. Dual heritage is never an easy thing to live with. But when your father inherited Ravenstag, he was determined that the family would no longer be split between two countries. He chose to settle in England because he wanted you and Mischa to have the best possible futures. Well, Ravenstag is yours now. But it is too big a burden for one person. It is time that you married. Find your equal; find your partner. Know. See.'
He blinked and the picture evaporated.
'Or poaching, perhaps,' he snapped, finding finally his own voice again.
The young imp had the effrontery to raise a delicately arched brow at this. 'Please, feel free to search me,' he scoffed, arms outstretched in brazen challenge. 'Though where you believe I have hidden the rod I cannot think.'
Hannibal, unfortunately, could, and the series of images that flashed unbidden through his mind as he contemplated conducting such an intimate search were enough to thoroughly discompose him. And so, for the first time in his life, he surrendered the field of battle.
'Troublesome child,' he growled, adjusting his gloves with excessive care. 'I have no more time to waste on you.'
What the Vergers saw in this godforsaken place he knew not, and for the thousandth time he cursed his inability to persuade his most intimate friends to choose an estate near his own, that he might have had a convenient escape from such country savages.
'You are not fond of eye contact, are you?' observed the boy cheekily as Hannibal turned away, the final irony being that for several hours afterwards he was unable to banish a haunting afterimage of wild, dark curls, round cheeks, full red lips and laughing blue eyes. And the faintest trace of sweet pine that lingered long after the image had faded.
Another week passed in a blur of excitement - amongst the younger Graham siblings at least - in anticipation of the Red Dragon assembly. Will was rather less enthusiastic, for he had heard from more than one source that the Vergers and their friends had a collective reputation for being above their company. As they were by all accounts an exclusively Alphan party, this was no great surprise to anyone.
Nevertheless, he allowed his mother the pleasure of alternately wheedling and scolding him into the purchase of a new outfit: long-tailed blue coat, grey breeches and waistcoat. And on the evening of the ball, he was declared 'exceeding handsome' by Abigail and Fredricka.
As for the much-anticipated debut of the newcomers, increasingly wild rumours had been flying around the neighbourhood of the Vergers' intention to flood the assembly with guests – at one stage, the number nearing a highly improbable twenty. In fact, when the party entered the assembly room, it consisted of only five altogether: Mr Mason Verger and his younger sister Margot, their elder sister Mrs Cordell and her husband Mr Cordell, and another young man.
Standing near the back of the room with Mrs Graham, Alana, and Beverly and Brian Price (offspring of Sir James Price, the jovial Beta organiser of the evening's entertainment), Will was thankful of the distance afforded by his family's early arrival and the newcomers’ lateness. For he had no wish of being publicly overwhelmed by the combined scents of a pack of unfamiliar Alphas.
That said, from such a distant vantage point he was unable to secure a clear view of the party, and so was forced to content himself with Beverly's characteristically tart appraisal.
'Mr Verger is handsome enough. He and his sister, Mrs Cordell, have an air of decided fashion.'
'Looks the gentleman, but I fear he is a boor for he is already halfway down his second glass of wine.'
'Miss Verger has a pleasant countenance,' interjected Alana, colouring delicately as Will aimed a knowing look her way. 'I only mean that she appears to have easy, unaffected manners. And that makes her pleasant in general.'
It had long amazed Will that the two people to whom he was closest were both Betan. For Beverly and Alana could not have been more different – the former coolly analytical, even cynical in nature; the latter sweet-tempered and docile. They shared, however, an unswerving loyalty and protectiveness towards Will for which he was ever grateful.
'Hm. And what of the fifth member of the party? The one with the uncommon name?'
'Ah.' Beverly's voice lowered conspiratorially. 'You mean Mr Lecter? He is much handsomer than Mr Verger. And much richer.'
'Indeed he is,' gushed Mrs Graham, in rather louder tones. 'For Lady Price tells me that he has ten thousand a year. And a large estate in Derbyshire! To be sure, a most eligible Alpha.'
'Hush, Mama,' hissed Will. 'Here comes Sir James with one of them.'
Accompanying their bumbling, genial host was none other than Miss Verger. Will retreated to the rear of the group on the Alpha's approach, but he quickly discovered that he need not have worried. Her scent was light and delicate, like meadow grass, and apart from one curious glance as she took the measure of him, she paid no overt attention to Will. Indeed, if her eyes lingered on anyone it was Alana. Miss Verger smiled through the introductions and, to Will's pleasure, asked to stand up with Alana in the next two dances.
Watching them move together through the first dance, Will mused on how well their looks complemented each other. Both were fine-featured with dark hair fastened back, as was the fashion; Miss Verger's into a series of intricate plaits interwoven with purple ribbon to match her velvet gown, Alana's in a simple chignon with short curls released to frame her face.
Content to observe rather than participate, Will took a seat freshly vacated and frowned as his sensitive nostrils picked up the earthy, mineral scent that he had first encountered a week since. Surely it could not be...
Looking around, he received something of a shock when, catching sight of Miss Verger taking her leave of Alana, he saw her approach a horribly familiar figure standing nearby.
'Come, Hannibal,' chastised Miss Verger. 'Why do you insist on standing about by yourself in this stupid manner? You had much better dance.'
Aloof, hooded eyes regarded her with a scowl which Will remembered with disconcerting clarity from that day by the lake when he had first, apparently, met Hannibal Lecter.
'I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it. Besides, your siblings are engaged, and there is not another person in the room whom it would not be a punishment for me to stand up with.'
'Rude, Hannibal! Shockingly rude!' cried Miss Verger. 'And patently false. Why, I have just been dancing with Miss Graham and she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! And look, there is her brother sitting just behind you, who is very handsome and, I daresay, very agreeable.'
He will not like that. The lion does not follow the lamb.
Disconcerted, Will shook his head to banish the fanciful thought and focus on the issue at hand. Grateful as he was that Miss Verger had mentioned nothing of his Omegan status, he was dismayed to have been singled out at all. At any moment, the arrogant Mr Lecter would look his way and realise that he had already met Alana's 'handsome' and 'agreeable' brother. What would then follow was anyone's guess, but the prospect of a scene was dismaying to say the least.
Patience wearing dangerously thin, Hannibal turned to pour scorn on Margot's claims and found himself, to his intense chagrin, looking upon the blushing countenance of the impudent boy from the lake. Of course, it made sense of the fact that he had imagined catching traces of the Omega's sweet, fragrant scent on the air almost from the moment he had entered the room. But given what Hannibal had just learned of William Graham, the boy's presence was anything but welcome.
The lean, youthful lines of his body were tonight, admittedly, more suitably clad than during their first encounter – grey breeches and a fitted cutaway coat of deep blue, which matched the dark-fringed eyes now lowered in a show of demureness rather than flashing in bold defiance. Nevertheless, that full bottom lip drawn between small teeth was holding back an unmistakable smirk. Incredible, given the boy's history, the broad strokes of which had earlier been related to Mason and himself in a salacious whisper by, presumably, the town gossip, no doubt eager to curry favour with her new neighbours. As much as he despised such tactics, he despised smugness more and, still smarting from the Omega's insolence during their last encounter, Hannibal was determined to obliterate that damned smirk.
He looked at William Graham until, catching his eye, he withdrew his own and said coldly, 'He is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me.'
'But, Hannibal –'
'Margot, you should know by now that I am not predisposed to romantic whims. Nor am I in any humour to give consequence to the local gentry's by-blow.'
The stunned silence which followed this scornful pronouncement was broken only by the sharply indrawn breath of a clearly mortified Margot, who quitted him without another word.
Having been stung to speak more unguardedly – and much more cruelly – than he was usually wont to do, Hannibal was unable to resist glancing back at the target of his vitriol. He was surprised at the composure with which the boy held himself, although on closer inspection the bloom of colour had quite faded from those previously rosy cheeks. The sight prompted a curious tug in his chest and he turned sharply away.
The following morning, the Red Dragon assembly was the main topic of conversation amongst the residents of Muskrat Hall.
'Country manners,' sneered Mason from his seat at the dining table, where he was greedily tucking into a large serving of grilled bone. 'I swear, if I had not just invested in a pack of foxhounds and freshly stocked the wine cellar, I would be off to town again in a moment. Season be damned!'
'Well, I feel no such dissatisfaction,' pronounced Margot cheerfully. 'I declare I have never met with pleasanter people in my life.'
'The eldest Miss Graham in particular, eh, Margot?' interjected Mrs Cordell slyly, while endeavouring to nudge her still-intoxicated husband awake with her foot beneath the table. He emitted several startled snorts and fell immediately back to dozing over his plate.
From his station by the window, Hannibal stiffened at the mention of the Graham name, but made no comment.
'Oh, indeed,' sighed Margot. 'She is an angel.'
'She is certainly a pretty little thing,' allowed her brother. 'What say you, Hannibal?'
'She smiles too much,' he muttered, though the offensive smile uppermost in his mind belonged not to the gentle Miss Graham but rather to her firebrand of a half-brother, a fact which infuriated him no end. 'And as for the rest, I saw little evidence of beauty, brains or fashion.'
'Ridiculous,' was Margot's dismissive pronouncement, whereupon Hannibal was left in no doubt of her continuing annoyance over his behaviour the previous evening. Attacking her soft-boiled egg with vigour, she added reprovingly, 'When we attend Sir James Price's house party, you would do well to look again at Mr Graham.'
'To what end?' he snapped, intensely irritated by his friend's refusal to let the subject drop.
'Well, I suppose one must allow that his Omegan status makes him at least semi-interesting, if, alas, still not quite respectable,' drawled Mason.
'He is by all accounts extremely intelligent and widely admired,' protested Margot.
'I saw neither pleasing symmetry nor grace in the boy,' lied Hannibal, turning back to the window, arms folded. 'In my opinion, he has hardly a good feature in his face.'
Ignoring Margot's frustrated sigh, Hannibal decided there and then that he would, indeed, take another look at William Graham. But only to further criticise and thereby teach his soft-hearted friend to attempt no more ill-conceived match-making.
Meanwhile, the matter was also under discussion at Wolf Manor, where Beverly and Brian were paying the obligatory post-ball visit.
'Poor Will – to be only just tolerable!' teased Brian. The Alpha pup bounced onto the newly-upholstered sofa, earning a glare from Mrs Graham, and subsided quickly.
'He is an odious man!' fumed Beverly. ‘Not handsome enough to dance with indeed! And as for his other comment - well, I cannot countenance such rudeness!’
'It is of little matter,' replied Will archly. 'We already knew him to be a proud, disagreeable sort and this merely confirms it.'
'Not that anyone else fared much better,' offered Alana, who invariably looked for the good in everyone, a trait Will often wondered at. 'Apparently, he spoke to hardly anyone all evening. But Miss Verger told me that he never speaks much in public. Perhaps he is shy.'
'Shy?' exclaimed Will sourly. 'Since when has that word ever applied to an Alpha?
'Since when have you bowed to generalisations?' countered Alana, gently reproving.
Will shrugged. 'Very well, then. I shall put it another way. If a determination to dislike everything and everybody can be so defined, then by all means, call him shy.'
'Well,' sniffed Mrs Graham, 'it is my opinion that to be liked by such a disagreeable man – rich Alpha or not – would be an even greater misfortune. Another time, Will, I would not dance with him even were he to ask you.'
This prompted a snort of laughter. 'I believe, Mama, I may safely promise you never to dance with Mr Lecter.'
In truth, although he was able to discuss the story with great spirit among his friends and family, Will had been greatly offended and, in a way that he could not explain, disappointed by Hannibal Lecter's behaviour. Still, his disposition always delighting in anything ridiculous, he quickly convinced himself that he could dismiss the incident – and the Alpha – as unworthy of further consideration.