Supper was over that Sunday evening and so the four of them walked out into the front garden, conversing amiably in the deepening twilight. Arthur was lighting the first of several post-meal cigarettes and murmuring something appreciative about the late summer blooms in Bell's flowerbeds, and Jonathan lagged behind the others, watching with boyish fascination the wavering flight of a moth. His wife took the opportunity to thread her arm through Colquhoun Grant's, leaning her head affectionately on his shoulder.
"You know how much Jonathan and I enjoy having you over for these Sunday suppers," she said gently. "But it makes us sad to think of you dining alone all the rest of the week."
"I don't hear you telling Arthur that," he remonstrated with a good-natured smile.
"That's because I doubt he ever dines alone."
"Oh, I don't know about that." Grant rubbed his chin as he considered his boss, walking several steps ahead. Even for a casual meal with close friends, Arthur looked immaculate: expensive suit, gold watch, polished shoes. "I think he eats alone quite often, since the divorce from Kitty. It's other activities he rarely does alone."
Bell laughed, squeezing Grant's arm. "You're very good at changing the subject, you know."
"I'm an intelligence officer, Bell. I'm trained in all manner of subterfuge and double-speak."
"Seriously, though." She stopped walking and looked earnestly into Grant's handsome face. The breeze was growing somewhat brisker with the approach of darkness, and it ruffled Grant's golden hair with its fingers. "I wish you could find someone. You deserve happiness, Colley. I keep thinking how sorry I am that things didn't work out with Sarah."
Grant sighed, more wistfully than he would have liked. "I liked Sarah. She was lovely, intelligent, funny. She was also, unfortunately, madly in love with my brother."
"Oh Colquhoun," Bell cried sadly, but Grant merely laughed.
"You mustn't worry about me, Bell. Truly. I'm a soldier, remember? I'm used to taking care of myself."
"You used to be a soldier," she corrected him. "Now you're a government intelligence officer."
"There's little difference. I spend a lot of time traveling, here one day, gone the next. Crashing in safe houses and cheap hotels, wearing the same set of clothes for days on end, unable to tell anyone where I am or where I'm off to, let alone what I'm doing. In truth, I have no business being in a relationship. What kind of a life is this to offer anyone? I'm better off on my own."
"I can't agree with that," Bell said, her dark eyes sorrowful. "There's someone for everyone in the world. Just look at Jonathan and I." She turned in time to witness her six-foot tall husband squeal and bat his arms madly at the moth which had turned its attention away from the flowerbeds to dive bomb his curls. Bell sighed. "What I mean is, maybe you're not meant to be with ninety-nine out of a hundred people, yes. But that hundredth one... If you can find that one, I believe it will make all the difference."
"Finding that one, though, is like finding a needle in a haystack," Grant said.
"Or an iota of good humor in Norrell's personality," Jonathan added, escaping the insect and loping up to join them, a cheery grin on his face. Seeing their somber expressions it was clear that he had only grasped the last bit of their conversation. "Er, sorry -- what were we talking about?"
"They're talking about Grant's non-existent love life, of course," Arthur murmured, lighting a second cigarette with an impossibly debonair flick of his engraved lighter.
"And now it seems everyone is," Grant muttered.
"If Grant were to take some advice from me, which of course he won't," Arthur added, "he might try loosening up a bit. Being a bit more adventurous. Shaking off some of that soldierly stiffness."
Grant gaped at the man. He thought he had been rather adventurous: who was it, after all, that had gone alone on all those behind-border missions, unsupported except for a radio disguised as a ballpoint pen, a transmitter chip in the sole of his boot? "I'm sorry, who are you again?" he said. "Surely you can't be the great Arthur Wellesley, my commanding officer?”
"I was your commanding officer, Grant. Now I'm your supervisor. In case you hadn't noticed, we're not in the army anymore, old chap. Oh yes, we're still fighting a war. But it's a different kind of war, one made up of bits and bytes and stolen jump drives, that sort of thing. You're done with parade grounds and stiff uniforms and carrying laden packs of equipment on your back, so you can afford to live a bit differently now. No need to remain so buttoned up and rigid all the time."
"I had no idea I possessed so many devastating character flaws," Grant replied with some genuine effrontery.
But Arthur was on a roll now, holding forth on a favorite subject -- his own opinion -- and he couldn't be bothered to stop and listen. "Incidentally, one thing that hasn't changed is the French. Do you know that the last hacker we apprehended was some shady character from Marseilles?" he said, addressing Jonathan and Bell. "Can't remember his name at the moment, probably Pierre or Guillaume or some such-- No, wait. Naps. His name was Naps, if you can believe it. But I digress. We were talking of Grant here and his desperate need to get laid--"
"I beg your pardon?" Grant cried.
"The man simply needs to broaden his horizons, try new things," Arthur continued. "Men, for starters."
Jonathan and Bell joined Grant in staring at Arthur in astonishment. "I wasn't talking about me, good God!" Arthur huffed. "I'm a multi-woman man. I meant other men. Grant hasn't made it work with a woman of late, so-- perhaps there's a man out there who will do just right for him."
Grant was, for a moment, at a loss for words. He didn't speak often of his private affairs, let alone his sexuality, and certainly not to Arthur. "How did you know that I'm bisexual?"
"Oh, come Grant." Arthur laughed. "That's really quite adorable. You're not the only intelligence officer around these parts, you know, or did you forget that I started my career in intelligence, in India? It hardly matters, I've not the slightest interest in your sexuality--"
"Really?" Grant deadpanned. "You could have fooled me."
"--so long as you are an effective officer, and you are certainly that. Besides, I've seen you with a few men. Mere flirtations, I think, but there was that one, that Spaniard, whats-his-name. You quite fancied him, I think. Whatever happened to him?"
Grant stared, grinding his teeth a little. "He died."
"Right." This took a bit of the wind out of Arthur's sails. He coughed, cleared his throat, and gazed up at the sky. "Lovely evening, this."
"Look, let's forget I brought this up," Bell said, patting Grant's arm. "I shouldn't have done, as dear Jonathan so often reminds me." She cast a significant glance at him which Jonathan answered with one of his own. "You do whatever makes you happy, Colley, that's all that matters. We all have your back."
Grant smiled warmly and bent to kiss Bell's cheek. "You're lovely. The great tragedy of my life was in not finding you before you hooked up with that idiot," he quipped. "Why on earth do you stay with him?"
"Oh well, you know." Bell smirked. "Children shouldn't raise themselves. Somebody's got to rear him."
"Ha! Very amusing!" Jonathan cried, feigning displeasure. "Such wit to go with those enchanting eyes, that perfect little bum." Bell yipped as Jonathan gave her a playful pinch and she swatted at him; he ducked her half-hearted blows and, grinning, shook Grant's hand. "Good to see you as always, my friend. Don't let these do-gooders get you down."
"A delicious supper and a lovely evening," Arthur was saying, taking Bell's hand and bringing it to his lips. She rolled her eyes, smiling and blushing with pleasure at the same time, and Jonathan rushed to intervene. "Careful," he said, snatching her hand from Arthur's lecherous grasp. "She has very delicate hands, easily breakable. It's a congenital Woodhope condition, very rare -- genetic, I'm afraid. Oh look! She's wearing a ring. Just happens to match mine--"
"Stop it, you oaf," Bell hissed.
"Well Grant, shall I give you a lift home?" Arthur offered, and with a few more words of parting the two ex-soldiers left the Stranges standing on their front walk in the budding starlight.
Arthur's car was a Jaguar, and a new one: it still had that intoxicating smell of fresh leather and a console that gleamed in the fading light. Grant was not a man who felt the need to accumulate material possessions, but he couldn't deny a ride in one of Arthur's luxury vehicles whenever the opportunity presented itself. "Just drop me off at The Quartermaster," Grant told him, inhaling the new car smell and running a hand admiringly over the dash. "I'll have a pint or two before heading home."
The Quartermaster was the name of Grant's favorite pub, a military-themed establishment only a few blocks from his flat. Arthur shook his head. "Why do you persist in frequenting that place?"
"I thought you liked it," Grant said, surprised. "They have your picture on the wall, after all. And not even in the men's loo hanging over a urinal, which is where I thought they should place it."
Arthur couldn't help but laugh. "There's nothing wrong with it, as far as it goes. But you'll never meet anyone if you keep hanging out at the same place every evening."
"I don't hang out there," Grant insisted, "I merely stop in for a pint from time to time. Though, as it happens, I'm not attempting to meet anyone. I have no wish to. I have never had a relationship that lasted more than six months and yet I'm quite satisfied with my life, which tells me that I have no need of one. There's no point, so I will no longer even make the attempt. I have sworn off love."
"Ha!" Arthur's laugh was abrupt and derisive. Grant stared at him.
"What's that supposed to mean? You don't believe me?"
"I do not. Face it, Grant, you are a romantic at heart. A big, squishable softy. I'm serious," he said as Grant laughed in his turn. "You try to hide it and you do an admirable job, stuffing it all down beneath your Scottish reserve, your soldierly devotion to duty, your stiff upper lip. But I know better. I've seen the swollen crimson organ beating out beneath your "For God and Country" breast. It's there in the way you rush to defend your men from injustices. In the way you've always fought to call attention to the plight of the women and children and elderly people in the regions you've traveled through. It was clearly on display that night at Fitz's bachelor party when you had a few too many pints and began belting out tunes like a Broadway diva."
Grant rubbed his forehead uncomfortably. "Don't remind me about that."
"And you forget, I've met your mother." Arthur turned his gaze from the snarl of London traffic ahead long enough to grin at Grant. "What a lovely woman. If she was but a few years younger--"
"Don't!" Grant cried.
"Perhaps you weren't aware of it, but she told me everything. About the amateur theatricals you staged as a slip of a lad with your brothers and sisters. How you were always singing: traditional Scottish ballads and church hymns and show tunes and Beatles songs. She told me about your piano lessons and your Shakespeare recitations, how you first wanted to go to drama school--"
"So what does that prove?" Grant asked. "I liked theatre and music once, so what? I put all of that behind me when I became a soldier. How does any of it relate to why I’m not in a relationship?"
"It proves that you have a lot to offer, Grant," Arthur said, his tone now the serious one he used to brief his men on the latest security threats, to issue assignments in a way that brooked no disagreement and suggested the dire consequences of failure. "You are a man of many dimensions, and you could make some man or woman very, very happy. Don't hide your light under a basket."
"Bushel," Grant said quietly. "It's a bushel."
"Basket, bushel, why should I give a fuck? Whatever it is, I mean it. Bell was right. You deserve to be happy."
As much as he tried not to, Grant ruminated over Arthur's words as he sat at the bar in The Quartermaster, sipping his pint. Perhaps he had been wrong to smother those other aspects of his personality. Perhaps it was pigheaded to put up a wall around himself and never give love another try. Perhaps, somewhere out there right now in the sparkling labyrinth of lights that was London, there was someone wondering the same thing about themselves, wondering if another attempt at love might bring happiness.
Perhaps there was someone out there that Colquhoun Grant was destined to be with.
He finished his pint with a long swallow and set it, with a decisive thud, on the top of the bar. "What bloody rubbish," he growled, and left for his flat.
At that moment, across the city, William De Lancey's ramen noodles were burning.
They were burning because William had neglected to remove them from the stove, and he had neglected to remove them from the stove because of the ding emitted by his laptop. Utter, near paralyzing horror had gripped him at that sound, and all thought of his supper was instantly forgotten. It took every once of courage he possessed to leave the kitchen and walk over to the computer where it sat on the dining room table.
"It's not the end of the world," he kept repeating to himself as he moved, one tentative step at a time. "You're under no obligation. You can say no, turn them down. Even if this was a massive, massive mistake, you can still get out of it. There's no shame in that."
He chided himself for the way his hand trembled slightly as he reached forward to dismiss his screensaver and read the message he had received. He reminded himself of how steady his hands had been back in the Army, when he'd had to move under fire to deliver a message, instructions upon which the success or failure of a mission had hinged. Surely a man who could do that, a man who had helped to organize and move battalions of men, hundred of millions of pounds of Army equipment, could get through reading his first response from a dating website?
As he sat down at the table and clicked on the message, however, he rued - and not for the first time that day, or even that hour - the moment of loneliness that had prompted him to put his profile and pictures up on BiLife, a dating site for men and women open to relationships with members of either sex. It had been stupid, nothing more than a Saturday night alone in his flat with Netflix and a bowl of microwave popcorn and no one to share either with. He had survived a bad car crash in France two years before, a crash that had left him with serious abdominal injuries and put him in the hospital for three months. He had survived war zones and the crash of a military helicopter into the building he was working in, and all the less dramatic ups and downs and stresses that life threw at every person. He should have been able to survive a Saturday night on his own.
He had survived many such Saturdays in the fourteen months since he and Maggie Hall had called it quits. There was no doubt about it: he had loved Maggie. She was pretty and vivacious and smart, with an infectious laugh and an ever-optimistic outlook on life. But she was also a woman who was firm in what she wanted. And what she wanted, at the age of 34, was a husband. A house in London and a baby to fill its rooms with gurgles and laughter and awkward, padding steps. They had been together for two happy years and William had talked -- occasionally, in a vague, offhand way -- about marriage, but he had never bought a ring, never proposed. Gradually Maggie had begun putting on the pressure: gently enough at first, elbowing him in the side to point out a wedding dress in a shop window, innocent comments on how cute a passing toddler looked in their pastel onesie. Her parents, who were considerably wealthy, had even hinted at sweetening the deal, her father taking William aside at one family gathering and suggesting that after a wedding he might be amenable to purchasing a house or -- if William's pride couldn't abide that -- at least to helping with a down payment. They liked William and Maggie adored him, and it might all have worked out just fine.
But William found himself unable to do it. He kept putting it off with one excuse after another: the ring, the bended knee, the honeymoon and the house, his own ruddy-cheeked child on his lap. It wasn't that he was opposed to being a father, or opposed to marriage. It was just that, for some reason - despite his love for her - he was opposed to it with Maggie Hall. Something about it felt wrong. Some indecipherable voice in the back of his mind, in one chamber of his heart, seemed to urge him against it.
There had been times since he explained it to her -- since the tears and the raised voices, the recriminations and, finally, the mutual separation -- when he wondered if he'd been wrong. If he'd simply been scared. But deep down inside, he knew that wasn't the case. He'd gone on a couple of dates since, with men and women, and none had worked out. But William was sure, somehow, that there was someone out there he was meant to be with. It was what had led him to sign up on BiLife. It was what had sent his heart hammering with excitement and dread to hear the inbox on his profile ding.
Swallowing down his nerves, wiping the sweat from his palms on the thighs of his jeans, William began to read. The first part of the message was a standard form, giving a summary of the profile of the user that had contacted him.
Colquhoun Grant, age 37, London. Scottish by birth. Army veteran, now working for the British government. Interests included theatre and film, music, the outdoors, hiking and horseback riding.
Butterflies began to dance around the walls of William's stomach. An army veteran! With interests in theatre and music and the outdoors! It was all incredibly promising. But there was the link to Grant's profile and pictures, and William's cursor hung blinking over the line of hypertext for a full minute before he summoned the courage to click through.
He gasped. The butterflies turned into rockets, bursting in showers of fire. Colquhoun Grant was gorgeous. Not perfect, no; not in the way of those few people whose sculpted cheekbones and large eyes made them almost otherworldly. But in the way that mattered: the genuine, everyday way. In that way, Grant was stunning. Golden hair and a dazzling smile and eyes so lusciously dark they were like polished walnut. And from what William could see in the pictures Grant had posted, a great body to boot: broad chest and strong shoulders. He was obviously a man who liked to keep fit, healthy and active. And there was something else too. William got the impression from Grant's expression, from the whole of his appearance, of good humor, kindness, and good sense. It was just an impression, but it was a strong one.
Grant had written him a short but well composed paragraph. He had seen William's profile, noted his Army service and his hobbies, and he was interested in a date. Might William be willing? If so, he should send Grant a message and they could converse a bit, get to know each a little more, and plan a date. Wednesday night would work for Grant if it would work for William. Grant closed by expressing the hope that he would hear from William soon.
William hesitated no longer. His fingers were still sweaty, his hands still trembling a little, but he immediately began to type a reply.
"Jonathan, did you take the rubbish out to the bin after supper like I asked you to?" Bell queried as her husband attempted to sidle into their bedroom that night.
With a grimace, Jonathan did an abrupt one-eighty and went back downstairs.
Bell was standing in front of a full-length mirror in her nightgown, brushing her hair, when suddenly her mobile rang. She picked it up without looking at the caller id, thinking that the only person who would be calling so late in the evening would be her hapless vicar of a brother, Henry.
But it wasn't Henry voice that skipped all greeting and instead declared: "I've done something a bit naughty, I'm afraid."
"Arthur?" Bell asked in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
“I fear you'll be desperately angry at me, but someone had to take action. It wasn't going to happen on its own. But you must prepare yourself for the details: they are wicked, and you must promise not to share them with your husband."
Now Bell was decidedly uneasy. Arthur's reputation was a matter of national gossip and Bell had no desire to be taken into his confidence where his amorous activities were concerned. "Arthur, I don't think I should--"
"I put Grant's profile up on BiLife without his permission," Arthur said in a rush. He didn't sound at all contrite about what he had done, only mildly amused. "Do you know what BiLife is?"
"Yes, yes, I've seen the ads, but -- oh Arthur! I should never have brought the subject up tonight, it's none of our business! Grant will never forgive you."
"He might, at that, after Wednesday night. I have a good feeling about it."
Bell frowned. "What's Wednesday night?"
"His first date. I pretended to be him and contacted another user. It's all settled."
"Arthur!" Bell cried in horror.
"What? If it goes swimmingly, as I think it will, you'll all be thanking me. Everyone will be calling me a great hero. Again."
"I think it's downright cruel!" Bell said. "Setting Colley up with some strange man against his will!"
"Oh, but that's the beauty of it, my dear," Arthur practically cooed. "This particular man is not a stranger. Not to me. He was under me during my Army days. I don't mean that literally," he added quickly. "I mean he served under me. Quartermaster's department. Good chap."
Jonathan was trudging back up the stairs, whistling. "I've got to go, Arthur, Jonathan's going to wonder what we're talking about."
"He won't approve. You mustn't tell him, Bell. Promise!"
"Fine, fine. I won't tell him. Keep me informed," she added as she prepared to hang up. "Send me pictures!"