Liam is dancing his third of the night when the Commander walks in. He cannot say for certain what about the man catches his attention, but he can say that the air in the room changes. He glances round to find the cause of it, and catches sight of an astonishingly large gentleman in Navy regimentals, equipped with an ivory-headed cane, an unfashionable beard, and cropped brown hair. Liam knows he is not the only one looking, but so many other faces around the ballroom are taken aback, uncertain. They have no idea what to make of a man who has just entered a fashionable do in full-length trousers and the plainest boots ever to be shined by a valet.
But Liam is a man unleashed upon London for his first Season, armed with all the knowledge of his preferences that willing partners at an English boarding school can afford. Liam is a man who knows exactly what he wants.
He thanks his partner for the dance and scurries to Mr. and Mrs. Rogers. Ben, beautifully shy soul that he is, still remains at their side.
“I say, Rogers,” says Liam, “do you know the Navy officer who just walked in?”
Rogers spares a glance to the heavens at Liam’s impropriety—no proper young man ought to address his tutor so informally, a rule Liam knows and cheerfully ignores—before examining the Commander where he stands with Captain Kurmazov and Lieutenant Chapman. Rogers’ normally easy countenance flickers.
“That is Commander Michael Brouwer,” he says, “lately of Grisham House in Hampshire.”
“And His Majesty’s Royal Navy,” says Liam appreciatively, mostly to himself, taking the measure of Commander Brouwer’s broad shoulders and the thickness of his arms.
“I know that name,” says Mrs. Rogers. “Did you not serve together on the Wolverine, dear?”
“Briefly,” says Rogers. “He was not a man to put overmuch stock in his ship’s chaplain.”
“Did he see action against Napoleon?” Liam asks. “Was he at Trafalgar, or Waterloo?”
“Waterloo was not a naval battle,” says Ben, exasperated but fond.
“You would have to consult the newspapers,” Rogers says. He uses the tone that means it is improper to ask such things—and he does not like to discuss his time in the Navy.
“Well you clearly know more about him that just his rank and estate,” Liam says, because he respects Rogers, but he can tell. He can always tell.
Rogers struggles with himself visibly, enough for even Ben to show curiosity in his answer. “I am acquainted with the Commander,” he says. “I know him to be a fair-minded, decent man, devoted to his family. However,” and here Rogers looks directly into Liam’s eyes, “he does not suffer fools, or those who play at being fools, and he is not gentle in dressing down an offender.”
The Commander still stands with Kurmazov and Chapman, but their conversation seems to have come to an end.
“You should introduce us,” Liam says. Mrs. Rogers hides a smile behind her fan. “Why else does one travel to London for the Season, if not to broaden one’s acquaintance? As a poor, sheltered lad from the colonies,” Liam makes his eyes large and sad, “is it not the duty of my more widely known tutor and dear family friend to expand my horizons?”
Ben looks torn between amused and embarrassed at Liam’s display. Mrs. Rogers taps Liam’s arm lightly with her fan in rebuke. Unfortunately, there is nothing in the content of Liam’s argument to refute, so Rogers sighs, offers his arm to his lady, and leads the way around the ballroom. He barely completes the introductions before Commander Brouwer begins to make his excuses.
“That is hardly good ton, Commander,” says Liam. “It’s only my first week in London, and even I have observed we must exchange at least three vague pleasantries before we’re allowed to escape.”
Up close, Brouwer’s nose is rather too much of a good thing, but his eyes are hazel and sharp when they meet Liam’s. He looks like he wants to grab Liam by the scruff of his neck and shake him like an errant puppy. Liam wants him to.
“Twenty years at sea has eroded my knowledge of ‘good ton’,” Brouwer says, with delightful sardonic bite. “I am afraid it is quite too late for me to grasp it—the minds of the young are so much more adaptable.”
“Come now, Commander,” says Kurmazov, sounding put out that he finds himself obliged to speak. “The Islander and the Sappho spent the better part of the year ten based out of the Home Station together. Cast no aspersions on your adaptability where I must defend it, if you please.” Brouwer bows slightly in accedence.
“It is indeed a pleasant surprise to see you, Commander,” says Mrs. Rogers. “Do you plan to stay in town long?”
“I plan to stay in town until the summer,” says Brouwer, in the tones of a man holding back more frank words in deference to the company of a lady.
“How grim you sound, Commander!” says Liam.
“It is a grim thing, when one’s fate is out of one’s hands,” Brouwer returns. “More so than usual, that is. If you will excuse me, I must go remind Admiral Donohue of my continued existence.” And with a clasp of Kurmazov’s hand and a bow for Mrs. Rogers, he leaves.
Rogers leads them in a retreat shortly thereafter, in the face of Kurmazov’s formality and Chapman’s haughty reserve. “Your parents remained in Halifax because they trust you not to embarrass them, and me not to let you come to ruin,” he tells Liam. “I tell you this as a friend, Fitzgerald—you can be quite provoking.” Ben snorts, and Liam grins. “Please, for the sake of your family’s name, stay away from Commander Brouwer, or you will almost definitely provoke him into making an utter embarrassment of you.”
Liam, as his parents and teachers will freely attest, is terrible at taking direction.
Provoking he may be—shameless, flirtatious, impolitic he may be—but Liam knows how to work a ballroom for information.
“Family?” asks Mr. Gallagher. “By Jove, the only family he has is a mother and brother back in Hampshire.”
“He married quite young, as I recall,” says Mrs. Erskine. “A girl from Portsmouth, where he grew up. She left their house while he was away at sea, but he had not yet acquired Grisham House—they were nobody in Society, really, at that time, and she died a year later quite in obscurity.”
“No one knows the details, of course,” Lord Levesque says, “but it did nothing to help the Commander’s reputation. You will observe he has yet to make Captain—most likely, he never will. The Admiralty have no need of such a brute in peacetime.”
Mrs. Donohue flutters her fan anxiously. “Oh no, not a brute, surely,” she says. “Admiral Donohue assures me the Commander is quite even-handed and competent to the men under his command.” She places strange emphasis on the last three words, smiling wanly. “Only, perhaps not so competent as to take charge of a first-rate vessel.”
Kurmazov and Chapman, when Liam circles back to them, take longer to warm to the subject, but they offer more interesting facts. “Brouwer had command of the brig-sloops Sappho, Patroclus, and Wolverine,” says Kurmazov, frowning lightly after Liam relayed Mrs. Donohue’s opinion. “Smaller vessels—less glamorous, perhaps—but his word was law, his work was valuable, and he ran a disciplined ship.”
“It is unlikely the Admiralty will make him Captain, now that the war is over,” Chapman says. “They do not need as many men to throw into the breach, which allows them to be more selective.”
“Lieutenant,” says Kurmazov, chiding.
Chapman flinches, but continues, in the way of a sulky schoolboy insisting he is correct. “The Admiralty has not reassigned him.”
“Why would they not?” Liam asks. “He is reported competent, disciplined, and fair to the men under his command.” Kurmazov and Chapman exchange glances. “Why are his circumstances discussed so circuitously? Surely if he had done something very dreadful, it would have been laid out in the papers.”
“It is good to be on the side Commander Brouwer fights for,” Chapman says, and nothing else.
Mike knows this will not end well. He knows it like he knows the direction of the winds and the position of the stars, though London’s tall buildings and excess of light dull his sense of both. He doesn’t know it immediately—barely pays any mind to the young gentlemen Rogers is chaperoning this Season—but within a week of the Donohue ball, he fucking knows.
Nothing about Liam Fitzgerald is subtle. The boy is every inch the excited puppy on his first romp in the park, yipping and hopping, trying his best not to piss himself in excitement. And much like a puppy, his attempts to persuade Mike to play with him alternate among annoying, adorable, and amusing. Fitzgerald manages to find him everywhere—ballrooms, of course, but the limited number of invitations Mike received drives Fitzgerald to seek him out elsewhere. Inside a month, Fitzgerald just happens to cross Mike’s path at his preferred public house, coffee house, boxing club, book dealer, and park. Far from being put off by Mike’s lack of conversation, Fitzgerald chatters without reserve. Whatever he has heard of Mike’s reputation—and he has heard things, doubtless—it doesn’t serve to stymie him.
Loathe though Mike is to acquire more acquaintances than absolutely necessary, he admits that Fitzgerald is entertaining. He’s a fucking jewel in the firmament of Society. Mike sees flashes of the brilliant gentleman Fitzgerald could be: charming, good-natured, energetic, persuasive, flirtatious without being scandalous, intelligent but with the good sense to know when to show it and when to play the fool. Irish born, Canadian bred, but English educated with the accent and bearing to match—Fitzgerald absolutely has the qualities to succeed in Society, but his background is too varied to take success or acceptance for granted. Wealth and a good name will take a foreigner far in England, as they did with the Konstantinovich and Petrov families, but Fitzgerald only has wealth. He cannot afford to dally with washed up, obscure Navy Commanders when there are sons of the peerage to befriend.
But does Mike discourage the lad? Does he turn away from the sunshine smiles and sky-blue eyes? Does he create polite distance when it becomes increasingly clear that Fitzgerald is forming an attachment? Does he stop himself from wanting to bed the lad, even though the force and content of his own desires unnerves him?
No. No he fucking doesn’t. It’s another way Mike knows he’s not a decent man, let alone a good one.
As if he needed the reminder.
Liam takes notice of Commander Brouwer. There should perhaps be a qualifier appended to that statement—Liam takes notice of Commander Brouwer when they’re near each other, for instance—but that wouldn’t be true. There is no qualifier. Liam takes notice.
He notices that Commander Brouwer always has his ivory-headed cane with him, though he barley limps at all—however, there are times Commander Brouwer leans heavily on the cane, his knuckles white, while he shuts his eyes and seems to steel himself. On those occasions—once at a musical evening, once at a salon—Commander Brouwer leaves early and is indisposed for days. The gossips raise eyebrows and smile knowingly, as if a Navy officer’s indisposition is the same as that of an overindulging heir to an earldom. Liam wants to be of use to Commander Brouwer when his wounds ail him, but he is caught between his own astonishment at seeing the Commander so subdued and the Commander’s clear desire not to make a fuss.
The Commander does not dance, and drinks quite moderately. When not in regimentals, he favors burgundy, dark blue, and shades of brown. He listens more than he speaks, and hears more than most realize. He does not hesitate to give the cut to those who have offended him or people he feels are under his protection—poor Mr. Benson can attest to that.
Liam also notices that, despite Commander Brouwer’s aversion to fashionable attire, he is always impeccably turned out: his linen pressed, his boots shined, his cravat simple but irreproachable. So, when the Commander emerges for his morning walk with his waistcoat mis-buttoned and his cravat askew, Liam feels obliged to intervene.
“Commander!” Liam stands on the bottom steps of the modest but respectable house Brouwer has taken for lodgings. “You look somewhat worse for wear this morning.”
“Mr. Fitzgerald,” says Brouwer. “Good morning.” The phrase holds more censure than two words should be able to contain.
Liam does not let him pass. If Brouwer is truly in London to encourage the Admiralty to deal with him, it would not do to appear in public so unkempt. “Your waistcoat, Commander,” he says, with just enough tact to lower his voice a bit. “Unless you endeavor to set a new trend of misaligned buttons, I am afraid you must invite me indoors.”
Brouwer verifies the report, curses, and makes a tactical retreat—he truly can’t leave Liam on his doorstep without causing even more gossip than he already attracts, and they both know it. Liam would relish the opportunity to examine the Commander’s lodgings (clean but spartan, at first glance), but Brouwer utterly shocks him. Instead of going upstairs to fetch his valet and remedy the waistcoat, Brouwer steps into the sunny front parlor and attacks the buttons himself. Liam, loathe to miss the Commander in any mode of undress, stands in the door.
“Is your valet not in the house?”
“Novak is ill,” Brouwer growls. His fingers are clearly too large to manage the buttons gracefully. “The cook and the maid don’t live in—I keep no other servants.” Liam is watching Brouwer’s hands, imagining how they would feel on his skin, so he sees them start to tremble. Brouwer curses. “Drag a Prussian lad out of the North Atlantic and he’ll outwork all the other hands by dawn—first fever in two years or more and it catches today—” Brouwer throws up his hands, only one button undone, his hands too large and shaky for the job.
Sensing his opportunity, Liam strides fully into the room. “Allow me,” he says. “I’m no valet, but my hands are smaller at least.”
To his astonishment, Brouwer allows it. Liam gets to stand close to him, the entire breathtaking bulk of him. The second button slides through the hole at his fingers’ prodding. The third. Liam’s knuckles brush against the firm warmth of Brouwer’s abdomen. The Commander smelled of laundry soap and cedar. Humble scents, easily explained: clean clothes, a cedar armoire. They should not effect Liam the way they do. He reaches the offending button. Fastens it in the correct buttonhole. Works his way back down Brouwer’s stomach. It’s hard to hear over the heartbeat thudding in his ears, but Liam thinks Brouwer’s breath is heavier than when they began.
To prolong touching the Commander as long as possible, Liam tugs the waistcoat pointlessly, and brushes imaginary lint from Brouwer’s shoulders for good measure. The cravat is soon returned to good order (unfortunately). The cufflinks are another matter.
“My dear Commander,” says Liam. He takes Brouwer’s wrist in hand and can’t suppress a shiver. Brouwer is letting him! “They’re on backwards.”
They stand there, in the sunny front parlor, standing close enough to share breath, no one else in the house but a bedridden valet, Liam holding Brouwer’s wrist and Brouwer letting him. Brouwer has such hands. Big. Strong. Not dirty or chapped like one hears about sailors’ hands—no cracked or discolored fingernails. Liam wonders if they feel as rough as they look. How might Brouwer’s calluses feel against his lips? Liam extends considerable effort not to follow his impulse to stroke the back of Brouwer’s hand.
“Are you going to fix them or stare at them all morning?”
Liam is going to fix them. Very carefully, without so much as brushing Brouwer’s skin, Liam changes the cufflinks to the right way round. As he finishes, he catches a glimpse of the shadowed, vulnerable flesh of Brouwer’s inner wrist. Overcome, Liam folds Brouwer’s hand between both of his and presses their hands to his cheek. It’s as close as he can get to what he really wants—Brouwer’s large, strong, refreshingly rough palm against his cheek.
Brouwer’s hand twitches. “Mr. Fitzgerald.”
The cufflinks are done. The waistcoat is buttoned properly. Commander Brouwer is fit to be seen in company. Liam should release him. Liam doesn’t want to.
Commander Brouwer heaves a sigh and gently disengages. He picks up his cane and moves to the hall. “We should go.” In a daze, Liam allows himself to be ushered out of the house.
Mike successfully avoids the issue until the evening Fitzgerald walks into his club, six weeks after their first meeting. (Less than a week after the episode in the front parlor, which Mike has not been thinking about.) The interior of Alexander’s is more Continental in decoration than the toffs at White’s and Boodle’s could countenance, but its seats are deep and comfortable, its bookshelves and kitchen well stocked, and its members inclined toward minding their own fucking business. The low-voiced conversations, crackling fires, and light scent of cigar smoke in the air are a welcome reprieve from the rest of London. Out there, Mike is a half-feral Navy officer begging for scraps; in here, he has a customary seat by the corner hearth and a bottomless glass of ale at his elbow. In the event his head, knee, or other war wounds decide to give him trouble, Alexander’s is one of the few place in the city where Mike is known well enough not to be bothered by the staff or other members—where he is known well enough not to be bothered, full stop.
Until tonight, when Fitzgerald walks in and removes his topcoat to reveal breeches cut scandalously close. The tails of his blue coat, such as they are, do nothing to conceal the ludicrous swell of his arse. Mike nearly chokes on his ale.
Perreault just has to elect any young pup who fits Alexander’s unique criteria, apparently.
Twenty years of naval service keep Mike from flinching, or indeed reacting at all. He will not be caught out. Fitzgerald bounces over and throws himself into the chair opposite Mike with a grin.
Mike glances around the edge of his paper, says, “Mr. Fitzgerald,” and goes right back to it. He wonders if he will ever be rude enough to drive the whelp off. A true English gentleman would pick up a discarded section of the Times, pretend to read it, and excuse himself after a quarter of an hour.
Fitzgerald—the bloody hellion—cackles and asks, “What’s the news of the world? Napoleon escape his island again?”
“Not as yet,” says Mike. The waiter comes by, and Fitzgerald orders a glass of ‘whatever the good Commander is drinking.’ Shameless pup. “Careful,” says Mike, when the man has left the glass and gone again.
“Conversation! At last.” Fitzgerald will not cease smiling. “What should prompt such an entreaty, Commander?”
Mike looks pointedly downward, where the toe of Fitzgerald’s pump slides against his own stockinged leg. No one’s near enough, or paying them enough attention, to notice, but it’s shockingly forward. The fire at Mike’s back is entirely too warm; he shifts his leg away.
Fitzgerald’s smile deepens into a grin. “So rare to see you in knee breeches, Commander—those long trousers of yours have been hiding a frightfully good leg, all the debutantes at the concert were speaking of it.”
“And are we not among friends?” Fitzgerald continues. “What care should be taken among friends?”
“More than you seem capable of exercising,” says Mike. Damnably rude, to anyone else, but Fitzgerald just keeps grinning. No public place is safe for fucking leg-stroking—not even a club like this, whose entire membership are men who prefer men. “Does your bear leader know you’ve been stalking me like a hound on the hunt?”
Fitzgerald lifts his chin. “Rogers is my tutor, not my father. I don’t have to tell him where I spend the hours.” He smiles again, this one self-satisfied. “And if he asked, I could truthfully say that Ben and I went to a long concert by some up-and-comer from the Continent—“
“Rossini,” says Mike.
“—sung in a language we could hardly comprehend—“
“—followed by drink and conversation at my club.”
That doesn’t sit right with Mike. Rogers is a good man—not a guarantee among men of the cloth—and is, as far as Mike is aware, taking damned good care of Fitzgerald and the younger Mr. Morris. Despite being five years Mike’s junior, Rogers has a fatherly air; spirit of a shepherd, and all that. He’s a better man than Mike, not that that’s a difficult distinction to achieve. The relationship between Fitzgerald and his tutor is none of Mike’s concern, but Rogers had been under his command.
“See here,” he says, “if you put Rogers out with your sneaking, I will end our association.” Fitzgerald raises an eyebrow, still smiling. “I mean it, whelp. He is a shepherd who is wont to worry over his lambs, even when they aren’t running off into lions’ dens.”
Fitzgerald pouted. Fucking pouted. His eyes were entirely too blue, his hair just wavy enough to suggest someone may or may not have had their hands in it recently. “Will you ever invite me into your den, Commander Lion?”
Mike snaps his newspaper back into place. He’d rather read about coal mining safety lamps or Lord Byron’s miserable marriage than respond to that drivel. The back of his neck feels hot—one of the waiters really ought to screen the fire.