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Our Glory Days

Chapter Text

All things considered, walking home was perhaps one of Zac’s worst ideas.

The train ride from Manchester to Whaley had been soothing, allowing him to watch the land gradually become more and more like home as it passed by his window. The Yorkshire countryside he now walked through was familiar, to be sure, but it was also more taxing than he had anticipated. The effects of war on the body were no match, it seemed, for even Captain Zachary Hanson, the twenty-two year old son of The Earl of Beasley.

Altogether, The Great War hadn’t left many scars on Zac’s body—at least not on the outside—but there were two noticeable changes. The first was the slight limp with which he walked, caused by what was really more a drinking wound than a war wound. Not that he would tell his mother, Lady Beasley, that particular version of the story. The second was the long, unfashionable hairstyle he sported. He had commanded a former barber, and so most of his unit were kept in decent shape, but after realizing the effect his unruly hair had on the ladies, Zac had decided to leave it be. He had, however, thought to brush it into a neat ponytail before setting off on his trek. Still, he wondered if they would recognize him, even though he wore his military uniform and had sent a letter informing everyone that he was finally coming home.

Home…

Home lie just down the road and across the bridge. Even from where Zac stood, on the other side of the Ribble River, he could see Beasley Hall rising up to greet him. The architecture was a bit of a mishmash, largely Tudor with additions and remodels at various times in its five hundred year history, but it was nevertheless imposing.

And for Zac, it was the most comforting sight in the world.

The cobblestone path leading up to the main entrance was as he remembered it, tall trees shading the walk so that once you were underneath it seemed late evening rather than mid-afternoon. The large doorknocker still gave the foreboding sound that seemed to echo through your very soul, a sound that had frightened Zac as a young child. To top it all off, the door was still opened by Dawson, who Zac was convinced had been butler since the day Beasley Hall was built. These days, Zac felt just as old as the stone-faced butler looked.

“Mr. Zachary,” Dawson said, his face betraying no emotion. “I’m afraid we didn’t know when to expect you. Shall I send someone for your cases?”

“I sent for Shanks; he’s picking them up at the train station. Thank you, Dawson.”

Dawson gave a curt nod. “Very good, Sir. Your parents are in the library, if you’d like to go—”

Before he could finish his sentence, small footsteps echoed through the great hall, and soon the source of them appeared. Zac hardly recognized his youngest sister Zoe, her blonde curls bouncing as she bounded across the room and lept into Zac’s arms. He let out a groan as he struggled to hold her up, his bad knee threatening to give out.

“Now, who’s this?” He asked. “This tall, it must be Lady Jessica.”

Zoe giggled. “It’s me, Zac. Zoe. I begged and begged the governess to end my lessons early so I could wait for you, but she wouldn’t.”

“Well, you have to do what your governess says now, don’t you?” Zac asked, groaning again as he lowered Zoe back to the floor. “Learn how to be a proper young lady. You’ll be coming out before you know it.”

“I’m not going to come out. Jessica didn’t have to.”

Zac ruffled her hair. “We’ll see about that in a few years now, won’t we? Where are Jessica and Avery?”

“Avery’s finishing her embroidery lesson, and Jessica’s still at the hospital. She’s there all the time.”

Zac let Zoe take his hand and lead him into the library, all the while chattering about how gross Jessica’s job tending to the wounded soldiers was. Zac had to laugh; he was sure he had seen far worse on the battlefield, but if any of his sisters came close to having the constitution necessary to handle British soldiers in all their glory, he hadn’t been so sure Jessica would have been it.

Dawson hovered protectively over them, opening the heavy library doors and standing aside to let them enter. Tea had been set adjacent to the two large couches by the fireplace. Lord and Lady Beasley sat across from each other, murmuring quietly, and Lady Avery sat at the end of one couch, giving her embroidery a positively murderous look. At least that much hadn’t changed, Zac thought to himself. He couldn’t recall another time when Beasley Hall had been so quiet; his parents were unusual in that they hadn’t seen fit to stop at the typical heir and a spare. Between the seven siblings, the house’s staff and constant guests coming and going before the war, Beasley Hall had seemed akin to Oxford Circus at times. Now, it seemed like a museum—or worse, a mausoleum.

The butler cleared his throat. “Captain Hanson has arrived, my Lord.”

There was a moment of silence, as though the statement was so outlandish that no one could quite process it. Avery eyed him suspiciously, and Zac couldn’t blame her for not being so certain he was in fact the brother who had left just a few short years ago. His father stood first, but rather than address Zac, he turned to Dawson.

“Have cook send up another platter of those scones, will you?” With Dawson dismissed, he turned to Zac. “You must be hungry. I’m afraid we hadn’t planned a large dinner; we weren’t sure exactly when to expect you.”

“I was hoping to surprise everyone,” Zac replied.

“And you did,” Lady Beasley replied, reaching a tentative hand out to him. “I’m sure we can arrange for a dinner in your honor later this week.”

Zac took her hand and led her back to the couch. “You needn’t make such a fuss.”

“It isn’t every day the prodigal son returns home,” Lord Beasley remarked.

“That brings me to my next question,” Zac began. With a nod toward Zoe, who was playing with Avery’s extra thread, he said, “I’ve seen these two lovely ladies, but where is everyone else? This place is like a tomb.”

His parents shared a look, and Zac realized he had asked the wrong question. So many years in the military, forced by necessity to communicate quickly and openly with men of all classes, had taught him to be too direct, he supposed. He would need to tame that if he were going to reintegrate into country manor life.

“Darling,” Diana addressed Zoe. “Why don’t you help Avery put her sewing away. I think that’s quite enough for today.”

Once the two of them were out of earshot, Zac edged forward in his seat, hoping to finally get some real answers.

“Mackenzie is at school of course,” Walker finally replied.

Zac nodded, recalling a letter the previous autumn explaining how his youngest brother had followed family tradition and begun his public education at Eton. He bit his lip to resist the urge to ask about his older brothers.

His mother cleared her throat. “And I believe Taylor is at his office. It’s near the church; I’m sure he would love if you visited him there. You should have enough time to walk down before dinner.”

Zac stared pointedly at the two of them. They were clearly avoiding the topic of Isaac, and Zac hadn’t the foggiest idea why. He supposed their letters hadn’t mentioned Isaac much, but there couldn’t be much to say about endless pleasure trips and dates with this heiress or that. Zac didn’t mind being the third son; being the heir didn’t just sound like too much pressure, it sounded positively boring.

Diana seemed about to say something, but the door opened and a footman Zac didn’t even recognize carried in a tray of scones and placed it on the table next to the tea. An awkward silence fell upon the room, even after the footman had left. Zac could only stare at his parents, hoping they would see fit to clear up his confusion.

Once the footman had gone, Diana cleared her throat. “Well, you know, dear; your brother is always traveling, working on those books of his. His letters are often delayed or don’t arrive at all. We really can’t keep up with where he is.”

“Sometimes Isaac arrives home before the letters do,” Walker added with a short, curt laugh that Zac didn’t find funny at all.

“Where was he traveling this time?” Zac asked. “I thought he had gone to America, chasing after some investment prospect or another.”

“Oh no, nothing came of that,” his mother replied. “He went to India several months ago. Something about studying the influence our military presence has had on their native lives. I’m sure he’ll turn up eventually. You know how he is.”

“Yes,” Zac replied. “I suppose I do. If you’ll excuse me.”

“You’ll be here for dinner, of course,” his mother said, standing to excuse him.

“I will,” Zac said, standing and walking to the table. “But I think I’ll skip out on tea and go for a walk. You said Taylor was at his office?”

“He stays there until it’s time to change for dinner,” Diana replied. “If you could, stop in at the hospital and see that Jessica comes home at least early enough for Mrs. Berry to fix her a plate of leftovers.”

Zac nodded. He took one last glance at the tea table and nabbed a scone, stuffing it into the pocket of his pants. He might be upset with his parents’ cavalier attitude toward Isaac’s absence, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate his first home cooked treat in ages. In any case, it might help him survive the walk down to the village where his brother kept a small law office.

No one stopped Zac on his way out of the hall, and a part of him wished they had. By the time he reached the bridge again, he was in such pain that he decided he might never walk again. He was noble enough to get away with it, he decided. He could hire a chauffeur to drive him any distance further than from his bedroom to the dining room.

Finally, he reached his destination. The office was small, tucked into a building that dated back centuries and had been the carriage house of another, older and since demolished manor owned by some distant relation or another. Zac couldn’t keep all the details straight; Taylor was the one with the mind for facts and logic, hence the reason he had been the son to study law and Zac the one to choose a military career.

He rapped on the heavy door, then gave it a good shove open before waiting for any sort of reply. It held only three tiny rooms, Taylor’s being the farthest toward the back. At the sound of the door Taylor had come rushing out, stopping short in the hallway to stare at Zac as though he were looking at a ghost.

“One brother returned from the dead,” Zac said grimly.

“We never thought—” Taylor began, then nodded. That was as much of an acknowledgement as Zac needed.

“I’ve been home already,” Zac replied. “It’s all very English over there—carry on, nothing wrong, nothing to see here. Surely I can count on my lawyer brother to cut through to the truth for me.”

Taylor sank into a nearby chair. “The truth is we don’t know. That’s honestly all I can say with any certainty. We’ve all heard of those plots, those conspiracies. All failed, of course, but they made a splash. Isaac’s letters were more concerned with the local politics, clashes between the castes and so on. I don’t pretend to understand all the politics, but it seems like the climate there is becoming rather volatile.”

Zac shook his head. “They’re on our side, Taylor. At least, they fought with us. The Indian regiments I met were full of fine chaps.”

“Then I don’t know what to tell you,” Taylor replied. “You know as much as I do now, and it’s precious little.”

“So it is.” Zac gave a nod. “I’m supposed to pop in and check in on Jessica, but the longer it is before I see another uniform, the better. I’ll be in your debt if you’ll round her up before dinner and cover for me if I’ve not returned to the manor by then.”

“Need I ask where you’ll be?” The slight smirk on Taylor’s lips said that he already knew. The Green Dragon in Beasley had been far too familiar to him before his military tenure, and he only hoped they recognized him now.
Zac returned Taylor’s expression. “As usual, it’s likely best that you don’t.”

The two brothers stood to part company, Zac unsure whether to hug or salute Taylor, both of which went against his training both as a soldier and a member of a great family. In the end, they settled for a series of nods, smiles and promises to catch up in more detail later.

It was only a short walk to the pub, and for that Zac was grateful. What he needed most right then was a stiff drink and a comfortable chair to ease his stiff leg. That wasn’t entirely true, though. What he really needed most was for his eldest brother to materialize out of thin air, like a spectre in those strange novels he liked to write. He needed some assurance that the war hadn’t turned everything in his world upside down. After everything, he needed Beasley Hall to be the same place it had always been, but he was beginning to suspect those wishes were in vain.

****

When the door closed behind Zac, Taylor sank farther down into his chair. Had he been right to answer Zac’s questions? His brother had always been pointed and direct, a trait that got him into trouble constantly in society. Military training had clearly done nothing to improve that; if anything, it seemed to have made him worse. Not only that, it had given him an air of confidence and superiority that left Taylor feeling like he had no choice but to obey.

Wonderful, Taylor thought to himself. As if there weren’t already enough rumors and mutterings about his manhood. Now he didn’t even have the backbone to stand up to his younger brother.

It was no secret that Taylor had received special permission to be exempted from military service, even when everyone above and below him in social standing was up for the draft. It wasn’t unusual, of course, for members of the upper class to seek medical discharge, and Taylor had spent that one year convalescing by the seaside. The fact that he was at university counted for him too. Still, he had heard the snide comments about the real reason why he had been deemed unfit for military service.

None of that was really worth devoting much thought to, though. It didn’t get Taylor any closer to finding his missing brother or learning how to relate to the one who had just returned home. He picked himself up and walked back to his office, which was littered with papers from all the work he had tried and failed to accomplish that day. Ever since the letters had stopped coming from Isaac, so too had Taylor’s productivity tanked. The later he stayed at the office, though, the more his family thought he was working. At least it kept him from making note of all the ways Isaac was absent from their lives, all the little moments that made it glaringly obvious that Beasley Hall was not the same as it once had been.

He had spent most of that day doing nothing but re-reading Isaac’s old letters, hoping to find some hint in them that he had missed before. Taylor had a mind for the law, even politics to an extent, but the finer details of war were beyond him. He knew there was talk of another Afghan War, which would necessarily involve Indian forces, but beyond that, he couldn’t even pretend to understand the Hindu-German plots. And no matter how many times he read the letters, the words remained the same. He closed the folder and replaced it in the top drawer of his desk.

He supposed there was nothing left to do but check in on Jessica at the hospital. A part of him wished Zac had had the heart to do it himself; Taylor was sure Jessica would have preferred to see Zac for the first time in her element and not stuffed into her dinner gown. But Zac would be Zac, and Taylor would always be left to clean up his messes, it seemed.

After a short and pathetic attempt at cleaning his office, Taylor called it quits for the day. The other two lawyers with whom he shared the office had already gone home for the day, and so he locked the door on his way out. It was only a short walk to Jessica’s place of employment. Beasley Village Hospital was a modestly sized building, typically serving only the small village population’s minor ailments. When local soldiers had begun to return home in large proportions and with complicated injuries, Taylor’s family had given a hefty donation to turn the adjacent former abbey into an extra wing. Jessica had wasted no time volunteering and had likely learned more on the job than if she’d taken a nursing course.

Taylor stepped past the abbey’s gates and through the heavy doors that lead into what served as their triage unit. The smell of antiseptic nearly covered the smell of blood, but Taylor felt himself going weak in the knees anyway. Perhaps those who said he was unfit for military service were truly onto something.

“I’ll let Lady Jessica know you’re here, Mr. Taylor,” said a passing nurse whose name Taylor didn’t remember.

Taylor could do little more than nod, for fear that if he opened his mouth, he would do something truly unacceptable. At least, he reasoned, being sick in a hospital was fairly convenient, if embarrassing.

Thankfully, Jessica appeared quickly, her blue and white uniform rumpled but surprisingly clean. Taylor was equal measures impressed and jealous that his sister was, like Zac, so obviously more competent than him. She brushed back a strand of hair that had fallen loose from her nurse’s cap and gave Taylor a tired smile.

“Done for the day, then?” Taylor asked.

“Not hardly,” Jessica replied. “It’s never done here. But I’ve been informed that I do need to rest and eat at some point. If I don’t leave now, I think they’ll find an empty bed and confine me to it.”

“Well, come on then,” Taylor said, holding out his arm to her. “We better go while you’ve still got the energy to help me roll our brother home from the pub.”

“Zac’s home, then?” Jessica asked after a moment’s pause.

Taylor nodded. “He is. And somehow I think the adventure has only begun for the rest of us.”

Jessica laughed, but Taylor was afraid it wasn’t a joke at all.

Chapter Text

Jessica sat as still as she possibly could while her lady’s maid Leona attempted to tame her hair. Her chignon had come all but completely undone during her shift at the hospital, and she was sure that wouldn’t do for dinner, even if her parents hadn’t had time to invite anyone special for Zac’s first night home.

Avery sat impatiently on her bed, already having been fastened into her own dress, a horrid chartreuse silk and lace affair that the family had purchased along with any number of terrible, supposedly fashionable items that would serve Avery well if she were to finally have her season the following spring. Jessica had long given up hope of her own season, and hardly even cared that she was still wearing many of the items purchased just before the war had been declared. Her own pink and blue chiffon dress was hopelessly out of style, as Avery had pointed out several times that evening alone, but all Jessica cared about was that it was comfortable, especially with the new-fangled brassiere she had purchased because hospital service in a corset was nearly impossible.

“One of my new necklaces might look good with that gown,” Avery said. “You need something to—”

“I don’t want something,” Jessica cut in, then bit her lip and sighed. “It’s fine the way it is. Maybe next time I’ll let you pick out the whole ensemble for me.”

“Would you do that? Really?” Avery asked, suddenly perking up.

“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt,” Jessica replied, trying not to giggle at the look on Leona’s face. Leona knew as well as Jessica did that it was often easier to go along with whatever Avery wanted, even if it resulted in a fashion disaster.

Avery had just begun to prattle on about her new jewelry and shoes when a sharp knock came at the door. It opened a mere inch that Jessica could see in her mirror, just enough to let in a familiar, soft voice. “Are the little ladies all decent?”

Before waiting for an answer, Zac nudged his way into the room, and glanced around seemingly unbothered that Jessica was still in her thin dressing gown.

“No, I must be in the wrong room,” Zac remarked. “These young women can’t be my sisters.”

Avery giggled and hopped from the bed to give Zac a very unladylike hug that Jessica didn’t even have the heart to criticize her for. After a moment to compose herself, Avery stepped down and straightened her dress. “You shouldn’t be in here, you know.”

“I shouldn’t do a lot of things I do,” Zac remarked. He straightened his tie and gave a quick glance over Leona. Jessica wasn’t so sure she liked that, but she knew better than to comment on it.

Leona tucked a small pearl pin into Jessica’s hair, and gave her a questioning glance. Jessica nodded, not wanting to speak and draw any more attention. Still, she saw the way Zac’s eyes lingered as Leona took her leave, closing the door so silently behind her that it was almost as if she hadn’t been in the room at all.

Zac cleared his throat. “You’d think I’d been gone for twenty years, the way things have changed around here. Next I’m going to find out you’ve rearranged the entire house as well.”

“She’s new,” Avery replied, obviously understanding Zac’s meaning, even if she didn’t know better than to speak of it.

“I’ll say,” Zac muttered.

Jessica stood and gave him a pointed look, and he threw his hands up in defeat.

“Alright, alright,” Zac replied. “But I’ll have you remember that I’m not the one whose valet had to be given a hefty cheque and a glowing recommendation just to keep his mouth shut when he left.”

Left is a mild way of putting it,” Avery remarked.

Jessica stared at Avery, then back at Zac. Of course Zac would have explained to her what had happened with Taylor’s valet. Zac never knew when stay quiet; he was half the reason Avery’s manners were so terrible, she was sure. She shuddered to think what color language Zac might have used to describe Taylor’s habits. Jessica herself had only connected the dots years later, when Taylor brought one after another pretty boy college friend home to visit.

Before Zac could say anything else unsavory, the dinner gong rang, its heavy sound echoing through the entire hall. It set Jessica’s teeth on edge, as it always had, but at least she could take comfort that one missing brother would be returning to the table tonight.

In a surprisingly gallant move, he held out both arms and raised an eyebrow. “Well? We don’t want to be late, do we, ladies?”

As it was an informal dinner, only family, there were no cocktails. In any case, Jessica could already smell cider on Zac’s breath; he’d cleaned up well in his dinner jacket and black tie, but some things weren’t so easy to hide. At least none of the family seemed to notice that anything was amiss as the three of them joined the party and walked through to the dining room, where the first course of oyster soup had already been laid.

Taylor trailed in last, straightening his navy dinner jacket. Jessica had to admit it looked nice on him, but if he tried to wear that when they had guests for dinner, he would hear about it later from their mother. Once he had taken his usual place, Lady Diana gave a nod and smile, and everyone sat. Although Jessica questioned some of their traditions, some of them felt nice. The sense of order and decorum was comforting at times, especially when other parts of her life had gone so completely out of order.

The seat to Jessica’s left was empty, as it had been for nearly a year. To her right, Taylor sat still adjusting his tie. She knew it bothered him to visit her at the hospital, but at least she hadn’t been covered in blood this time. When she’d appeared in that state, Taylor had required two nurses and a bottle of strong smelling salts to bring him round.

“You still look a bit pale,” Jessica murmured, picking at her crimped cod.

“You know how much I adore the hospital,” Taylor replied, then gave a nod toward Zac, who sat just around the corner of the table, nearly whispering some story to Avery that Jessica was sure wasn’t appropriate for mixed company. “In any case, I think he’s likely to swoon before I do. He was down the pub half the evening.”

“Well, it’s nice to see some things haven’t changed,” Jessica said.

“Now, now,” Taylor chided, but his smile said he wasn’t all that serious. “There’s no need to let your bias show. We’re already well aware I’m your favorite brother.”

“Are we, then?” Jessica asked, giving him a smile of her own.

Perhaps he was. She probably hadn’t said as much since she was a little girl, but she supposed she always had been closer to Taylor. He was just enough older for her to look up to as a child, but close enough that once he had returned from university, they felt like equals. It didn’t hurt that he was likely to never marry and, having skipped her coming out thanks to the war, Jessica’s prospects were rather bleak as well. Although the reasoning for their singledom was different, there was still a certain kinship between the two of them.

After the second course had begun with a lark pudding, Lady Diana finally turned to Zac. “Now, darling, I know it’s dreadfully short warning, but I would like to host a dinner in your honor next week. All things considered, surely no one will mind the breach of protocol.”

Zac gave a short snort of laughter. “Surely protocol has fallen down the priority list during wartime?”

“Not hardly,” their father replied. “Not if your Mama has anything to say about it.”

“Yes, well, we can make a few exceptions from time to time, can’t we? Even I’m capable of that.” Lady Diana gave him a stern look that quickly faded away to a smile. “Anyway, I’ll send word first thing tomorrow to Viscount and Lady Bryant, and I suppose we ought to invite Lord Tucker et al as well.”

Taylor and Zac both stiffened at that, although Jessica couldn’t imagine why either was surprised. Their family had long ago selected Lady Natalie for Taylor, and the two of them seemed to get on well enough, if their relationship was purely platonic. She didn’t quite see the need in inviting the Tuckers, though; the idea of Isaac and Lady Kathryn marrying had been all but abandoned since Isaac’s disappearance.

“Isn’t the Viscount’s nephew a marquess now?” Lord Hanson asked.

“He is,” Lady Diana remarked, shooting Jessica a none-so-subtle glance. “And so young to be one, but I suppose there were no other, closer heirs.”

Jessica tried to smile back, but she remembered all too well the way they had tried to foist her onto the Viscount’s son. Thankfully, he had found an American heiress of some sort who, in addition to being closer to his age, also had a hefty inheritance to recommend her.

“What luck,” Lord Hanson replied, a bit of awe in his voice.

Jessica didn’t see what the big fuss was. So what if Lady Natalie’s cousin was a marquess now? Marrying him wouldn’t make a bit of difference for her family’s fortunes. All that mattered was that the heir married well so that the estate stayed within the Hanson family. And right then, the heir was nowhere to be found. They ought to be looking for a good match for Taylor, Jessica thought, although that might prove even more difficult than marrying her off. But if, god forbid, Isaac didn’t return, the estate would fall to Taylor.

God help them all if that came to pass.

“Is there anyone else any of you would like to invite?” Lady Diana asked. “We ought to make this a big affair.”

“It’s a shame so many of the other men in my unit won’t get such a warm welcome home,” Zac replied.

The room went deadly quiet, half a dozen forks falling silent at once.

“I’m sorry,” Zac said, pushing back his chair. “If you’ll all excuse me.”

Although there was a pained look on her face, Lady Diana nodded and stood. Everyone else followed suit, the room staying completely silent until Zac had departed.

Once Zac had departed, dinner continued in an awkward, quiet fashion that was wholly out of the ordinary for such a usually loud family. Once the final course had been served, Lady Diana excused herself, citing a headache, but Jessica suspected that if she truly did have a headache, her children were the blame for it.

The Earl followed quickly behind her, leaving the rest of the children (sans Zac, who was nowhere to be found) to retire to the library. Zoe didn’t last long before she started yawning. Once Avery was sufficiently interested in her novel, Jessica moved in closer to Taylor, still keeping her voice low in case Avery was paying attention. She was only two years younger, but in so many ways, she still seemed like a child, especially after all the horrible things Jessica had seen at the hospital.

“Do you think Mama is already planning to start matchmaking again so soon?” Jessica asked quietly.

“I think the better question isn’t when but how much Zac will protest, if tonight was anything to judge by.”

“You can’t really blame her, I suppose,” Jessica remarked. “After all, we’re all well into our twenties, and none of us married yet. It doesn’t exactly look good.”

“It’s a testament to her stubbornness that she hasn’t given up on any of us as a lost cause yet,” Taylor replied.

“Stubborn is a kinder word than delusional,” Jessica quipped.

“In any case, what good does it do to invite Lady Natalie and Lady Kathryn?” Taylor asked. “Everyone has already decided that Natalie and I will eventually settle down together, and Kathryn has been promised to Isaac practically since the two were in diapers.”

“And if Isaac doesn’t return home?” Jessica asked. As close as she had been to the war, seen the effects of it firsthand, she knew better than Taylor to expect the worst. “That leaves you as the heir. Maybe they’re trying to make a better match; Lady Kathryn’s family is better positioned to help the estate stay afloat. I don’t think the pressure is on Zac. I think the pressure is on you.”

Taylor didn’t speak, but the color had gone out of his face. That said enough.

“I like it as much as you do,” Jessica replied. “The weight of the estate might not be on my shoulders, but do you think I’m oblivious to how strange it is that I, as the eldest daughter, am still a maid? It’s not the same, but it’s still pressure.”

“It isn’t the same,” Taylor agreed, then gave her a weak smile. “But I appreciate the commiseration nonetheless.”

“I’m always here if you want to whinge and complain,” Jessica said. “It’s my specialty at the hospital, you know. You wouldn’t believe the sob stories I’ve heard from some of those poor soldiers, and I’ll never tell a soul anyway.”

“You ought to be the first lady priest,” Taylor replied, his smile turning into a full on smirk.

“Well, that would certainly solve the problem of who they’re going to marry me off to, wouldn’t it?”

Taylor chuckled. “Ah, but you never know. This Marquess Thingamy might be just the man you’re looking for.”

“I’m sure Mama and Papa would love that,” Jessica replied. “Honestly, what are the chances? Unless he has the power to end this war, count me uninterested.”

“You don’t ask for much, do you know?” Taylor asked.

“And what about you?” Jessica asked especially softly, still causing Taylor to choke on his sip of whiskey.

“What about me?” Taylor countered.

“It’s no real secret why you and Lady Natalie aren’t even officially engaged yet,” Jessica replied. “What’s the point in waiting?”

Taylor took another sip, looking off into the distance as though he were working carefully on choosing his next words. “I don’t think either of us realized at first just how dead set on it our parents were. I supposed we both thought they would give up eventually. But the truth is that we do get on. It wouldn’t be a loveless marriage in every way, just in that way. But I suppose we dragged it out for so long that now we’re just hoping to convince people that she’s the one playing coy and hard to get.”

“Maybe I can convince them I’m just playing coy and hard to get, then,” Jessica replied.

Taylor chuckled. “With every Tom, Dick and Marquess they throw your way? We’ll see how well that works out for you.”

“On that note,” Jessica said, pulling herself to her feet. “I think I’ll call it a night.”

“I’ll be up for a while, I think,” Taylor replied, finishing off his glass and standing up to get a refill.

“A little something to help you sleep?” Jessica quipped.

“Something like that,” Taylor said. “Or hoping its siren call brings Zac out of hiding and I can try to talk some sense into him. As if I’ve ever been able to.”

Jessica took a few steps toward Taylor. “He’s lived in different world to us. It’s a hierarchy, but a different one. One that’s earned, one that he won’t question… but which will, I suppose, make him question our way of life. Think about it—he fought with boys who might have worked for us. Boys he would have never spoken to at any other time in his life. I see it on the ward all the time; the class divide hardly matters at all to these boys who’ve fought and nearly died together. There’s a different type of respect. A different understanding of the world.”

Taylor nodded. “That makes a certain sort of sense, I suppose. I can’t pretend to truly understand it, but I can see that in him. Of course he’s going to question all of this. He’s not the only one of us to go against the grain, that’s for sure.”

“With seven kids, they ought to have expected a few bad apples, hmm?” Jessica replied, giving Taylor a smirk. “On that note, I will say goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Jessie,” Taylor said. A little softer, he added, “This will all work out, somehow. God helps us, it will all work out.”

Jessica gave Taylor a smile and a nod, but she wasn’t so sure. It would, she feared, take divine intervention to save them all from themselves.

Chapter Text

A week later, Zac found himself in Whaley. After seeing the state of his dinner jacket, and how poorly it fit him now, Lady Diana had insisted that he spend the day doing a bit of shopping so that he wouldn’t completely embarrass the family in front of their guests. Only partially embarrassing them was about the best he thought he could manage, but he saw better than to say that.

Instead, he obliged his mother by taking the car into Whaley and spending the better part of the morning going from shop to shop in search of a new wardrobe that was better fitting and at least a bit more stylish than the clothing he had left behind when he went off to basic training. Not that he had any idea what was or wasn’t stylish, but he knew what he liked and he trusted the shops’ attentive, nosy workers to take care of the rest for him.

It was all tedious and taxing, and Zac decided he had more than earned a long lunch at The Swan Hotel. It was a bit too early for the pubs he preferred, and somehow he was sure Lady Diana had sent spies to watch over him and make sure he did as he was told. So, the closest thing to a ritzy hotel that Whaley boasted would have to suffice. The drinks weren’t anything to write home about, but the meal was decent enough, and combined together, it left Zac in better spirits. Feeling so much better, he decided to stop into the art supply shop he had spotted on his way into town and refresh his supply.

He was in such a good mood that he hardly watched where he was walking at all. Nearly as soon as he had walked out the doors of the hotel, he felt himself colliding with someone, a sharp elbow catching him in the side as whoever he had hit crashed to the street with a splash. Zac looked down and saw, with some horror, that it was a young woman who looked to be around his age. Her dark hair had come undone in their collision, long strands falling out over her shoulders. Her travelling suit might have been neatly tailored in a shade of soft pink, but it was hard to tell with the coating of mud it had gotten—thanks to his own clumsiness, Zac realized.

“Forgive me,” Zac said, slowly coming back to his senses. Had he really had that much to drink with lunch? He hadn’t thought so.

“I might,” the young lady said. “If you help me out of this slop.”

“Of course,” Zac replied, offering her a hand. He winced a bit as he lifted her up; although she was a willowy thing, the effort put a strain on his leg. A strain that he really didn’t want to show, considering that this girl might have been rather attractive when she wasn’t covered in mud. With that thought in mind, he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “Now that I’ve done you that favor, care to give me your name? I mean, I’d like to be as accurate and detailed as possible later, when I tell everyone about how we met.”

“Oh, well,” the girl said, something of a smirk on her lips. “You’re lucky Mama isn’t here to chastise me for talking to strangers. But if you must know, you can call me Katie.”

“Well, then, Katie,” Zac said, putting emphasis on her name. It was an ordinary sort of name, and he wasn’t sure that it suited her, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what sort of girl she was, anyway. “Shall I help you with those dirty things?”

“Help me with them?” Katie repeated, her smirk growing. “Oh, no, I think not. I haven’t known you nearly long enough for that.”

With that, she brushed past him, her stride taking on a much haughtier tone. Zac wondered if he had misjudged her and her class.

Still, he couldn’t stop himself from calling after her as she strode toward the hotel. “If I told you my name was Zac, would that help? Now we’re acquainted!”

Katie just turned back to him and gave a soft laugh. Zac didn’t think that was much of an answer at all, but he decided to consider it a win nonetheless.

He watched until she had disappeared through the doors of the Swan Hotel, and for a brief moment, he pondered what a girl like her was doing there. Perhaps she was higher class than her tolerance for his brazenness let on. Still, he supposed it was possible she worked there rather than being a guest. She didn’t seem like she was in service, though, nor did she seem like some stuff old lord’s daughter. She seemed closer to being Zac’s equal, in terms of personality and wit if not class, than any woman he could think of ever having met. He didn’t know how he felt about that, other than just a little bit aroused.

With that thought in mind, he decided it was well past time to head home. He had left the car with the chauffeur, Poole, who he had agreed to let drive him since Poole needed to pick up some parts he had ordered for their Rolls. Zac wouldn’t have minded making the trip himself, but the company kept him from dwelling on thoughts of Katie for the entire drive home… just for most of it.

Once they had returned to the manor, Zac spent most of the afternoon huddled in his room, trying out the new paints he had bought and testing his old ones to see which were past saving. The collection had gone unused for so long, oil paints being rather useless on the front line, that most of it was dried up and worthless.

He remained occupied for the better part of the evening, until the light was so low that he could hardly tell umber from Payne’s grey, and decided perhaps it was time to dress for dinner. He did, after all, had to keep up appearances and at least make the slightest attempt to impress the guests. With that in mind, he began to pack up his paints, and was halfway done when a knock came at the door.

“Come in,” Zac said, assuming it was Sturgess, the valet he had been informed that he was now sharing with Taylor, despite his insistence that he really didn’t need another man to dress him. Instead, he turned to see that it was Taylor himself, already partially dressed for dinner.

“Just thought I would make sure you were ready,” Taylor said, stepping into the room.

“You mean sober,” Zac replied. “Mama sent you?”

“She knows you better than you’d like,” Taylor said, casually sitting down on the edge of Zac’s bed while Zac continued to clear up his mess. “For the rest of our sake, if not for hers, do you think you can refrain from causing a scene this time?”

“But where’s the fun in that?”

Taylor sighed. “You do understand that there are more important problems facing this family than your utter lack of discipline? My god, Isaac is missing, Zac. And even if he weren’t, the war has ruined families richer than ours. Jessica of all people pointed out that if Isaac doesn’t return, all of our fates rest on my shoulders, and that ought to scare you more than a whole squad of German soldiers.”

“I wouldn’t say more than, but it’s very nearly equal to.” Zac sat aside his paints and collapsed onto the bed next to Taylor. “I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

“Well, you’ll be fine, either way,” Taylor replied. “A military career is distinguished enough, even with no title or position. Country lawyers are a dime a dozen, and it isn’t as though I’ve had much cause to mingle in society before now. No one is exactly beating the door down to throw their daughter at me the way they did Ike. If Isaac is… I can’t even say the word, but if that happens, you can bet I’ll have plenty of new prospects.”

“And not a single one who’d really get your motor running.”

Taylor gave Zac a withering look. “I wouldn’t exactly put it that way, but you do see my dilemma.”

“I do,” Zac replied. “And I’m afraid I don’t have a solution for it tonight. I can think of a few colorful military terms to apply to the situation, but you don’t want to hear those. All I can tell you is that we’d best be careful or we’ll both end up engaged before the night is through.”

Taylor stood up and straightened his tie. “That’s exactly what I’m afraid of.”

Zac nodded. There was nothing else to be said, really. If he dwelt on the issue, he knew he would be useless at dinner. Instead, he bid Taylor and quick farewell and rang for Sturgess. Might as well get on with it, he decided. He could play the part as well as anyone, if he tried. Putting on the proper costume was the first step, and once he was stuffed into white tie and tails, the act could begin. Soon enough, the dinner bell rang and Zac made his way down the stairs. A few higher class locals were milling around, most of whom Zac recognized even if he couldn’t have recited their titles and peerages. Zac grabbed a drink from a passing footman’s tray and stood next to Taylor, giving him a wry smile.

“So much for staying sober,” Taylor mumbled.

“I’m just softening the edges a bit. Everyone will thank me for it.”

Before Taylor could respond to that, the library door opened and Dawson stepped in. His chin held high, he announced, “Viscount and Lady Bryant, with their daughter Lady Natalie; Lord and Lady Tucker, with their daughter Lady Kathryn; and Nicholas Wellesley, fifth Marquess of Radnor.”

Following their introduction, a stream of royals poured through the door. Zac vaguely recognized the two couples, and Natalie looked similar to how he remembered as well—still short and still pushing the boundaries of good taste and fashion with her straight, short sleeved dress in red velvet with gold trim. The marquess was, as his parents had said, quite young, and surprisingly handsome for someone so high ranking.

That wasn’t what caused Zac’s glass to tremble in his hand, though. What caused that was the sight of Lady Kathryn.

As Zac remembered her, Lady Kathryn was tall and gangly, her features too large for her face, especially the mouth she often used to taunt him. It seemed to amuse Isaac to see his little brother mocked by a girl, and that only egged her on. Zac never understood what Isaac saw in someone so awkward and cruel. The young lady standing on the other side of the room was clearly her; her hairstyle barely disguised her large ears and her freckles were as pronounced as ever. But she had grown into her looks, and was now statuesque and stately. Her ivory gown, accented with beads in the same color, was nearly the same shade as her pale skin, and it gave a scandalous effect of near nudity.

But what really caused Zac to curse underneath his breath was the realization that she was the very same girl he had seen that afternoon. With the mud cleaned off, she truly was a sight to behold, but Zac no longer held out any hope of succeeding in his pursuit of her.

****

Taylor had been a mess through the entire dinner, though he hoped no one had noticed. He had been seated between Lady Bryant and some vicar’s wife, leaving him completely separated from Natalie, who he desperately needed to talk to. The marquess had been directly across from Taylor, through some wonderful trick of fate, and Taylor hoped he hadn’t imagined all the eye contact they had shared. Still, it might have meant nothing. They had still hardly spoken at all, but Taylor couldn’t get the image of the marquess’s sparkling eyes out of his mind.

As soon as they were allowed to go through, Taylor glued himself to Natalie’s side. His voice barely above a whisper, he asked, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Would you have believed me?” She countered. “You know how it goes. Any time someone says ‘oh, you must meet my cousin,’ the cousin turns out to be as smelly and chinless as they are rich. In any case, it’s not like I’ve ever asked him about his preferences.”

“Right, of course,” Taylor replied, nodding. “And I wouldn’t ask you to. I’ll just pine from a distance, as usual.”

“Your brother’s doing a bit of that, too,” Natalie replied, causing Taylor to pause. She nodded her head to where Zac stood engaged in what seemed like a very boring conversation with some older men, no doubt regaling him with tales about their own military service. There was a good reason, Taylor decided, why they had called it the Boer War. Zac nodded along, but his eyes were clearly trained on Lady Kathryn, who was laughing at something the marquess had said.

Taylor had a feeling that he knew exactly how Zac felt right then.

“He’s redefining barking up the wrong tree, isn’t he?” Taylor asked. Even if Lady Kathryn hadn’t been attached to Isaac, Taylor couldn’t imagine she would ever show any interest in Zac.

“Indeed he is,” Natalie replied. With a bit of a gleam in her eyes, she added, “I don’t think I can do anything for him, but let me see if I can help you out.”

Before Taylor could ask what she had in mind, she was sashaying across the room toward her best friend and cousin. Taylor, of course, couldn’t hear a word they were saying, but he got the hint when the marquess glanced at Taylor above the rim of his glass. To Taylor’s horror, only seconds later, the handsome young man was striding across the room, straight toward him.

“My Lord,” Taylor said, hating how breathless he sounded. Evidently, a handsome man transformed him into a giggling school girl. He was rather disgusted with himself, and could only hope the marquess didn’t notice.

“Taylor,” he replied, a soft smile crossing his face. “Natalie talks about you constantly. I just had to introduce myself and see what all her fuss was about.”

“Talking is one of her favorite hobbies,” Taylor said, only a little teasingly. “There’s precious little she doesn’t talk about constantly.”

“But not when you two are getting married,” the marquess replied.

Taylor shook his head. “No, my Lord. As I’m sure you know, we haven’t even made the engagement official.”

“Call me Nicholas, please,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to the title. It’s all a bit ridiculous, considering you and I are the same age. But I think you know a bit about having unwanted responsibility thrust upon you.”

“Not yet, but I fear I’ll learn what it feels like soon.”

Nicholas took a step closer to Taylor, and Taylor felt his heart actually skip a beat. “Then that gives us something in common, though I’m sure it’s not the only thing. We could be great allies, I think, in all the changes to come.”

“We could,” Taylor choked out. He downed a healthy sip of his drink, needing something to do other than stare at Nicholas’s beautiful cheekbones.

“We’ll keep in touch, then,” Nicholas said, making it clear that it wasn’t a question. “And I hope your father will accept my invitation to the hunt next month. September is beautiful at Harewood Castle, but it will be even better if you come.”

Taylor was sure he hadn’t imagined the emphasis on you. It was him that Nicholas wanted to see, not the better hunters of the family, nor either of his eligible sisters. Taylor stuttered for a moment, then regained his composure and replied, “I can’t speak for everyone else, but I’d love to come.”

“I hoped you’d say that,” Nicholas replied, and his smile nearly made Taylor melt into a puddle on the floor.

“Will you—will you be staying around Beasley for a while or are you only here for the night?” Taylor asked, feeling a bit brazen.

“Only until Wednesday, I’m afraid,” Nicholas replied. “I don’t relish the drive back to Leeds at all. Perhaps I’ll stay for longer next time, but I hope we’ll have time to talk more before I leave.”

“I’m sure we will,” Taylor said. His tongue loosened by the drink he had been downing to give himself courage, he added, “I think we’ll find plenty to talk about.”

“I think we will, too, Taylor,” Nicholas replied, brushing his hand over Taylor’s. “I think we’ll find plenty to talk about indeed.”

At that moment, Taylor was sure that he and Nicholas were the only people in the room at all. His concerns for the future, his fears about what sort of match he might be forced to make… all vanished. Nothing mattered but Nicholas’s touch and the way he smiled at Taylor like the two of them shared some great secret. And, Taylor supposed, they did.

Chapter Text

Lady Kathryn had ignored Zac nearly all night. She had been polite and charming enough when the conversation required her to be, but she had made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with him. If he had felt affronted and embarrassed by her ability to unnerve him on the street earlier, it was nothing compared to how he felt being ignored in his own house. True, she had never liked him. That was no secret at all. But when they had met as simply themselves, and not their titles, the dynamic had been different. Zac didn’t see why she had to pretend as though that wasn’t true.

Then again, Zac had to wonder if she had recognized him. Had she known it was the former object of her taunting all along? He feared that he needed to know, but would hate the answer.

He was a bit dismayed to learn that their guests were spending the night; a part of him would have rather put Lady Kathryn out of his mind once and for all. But she had gotten under his skin, and knowing that she would be sleeping under the same roof meant that he wouldn’t be able to ignore her or ignore his need to get under her skin as well.

So he drank a bit more than he should have, leaving him pleasantly buzzing by the time everyone parted ways and headed to their accommodations for the night. Lady Kathryn and Lady Natalie were sharing the room next to Jessica and Avery, only a few doors down from Zac’s. It wasn’t perfect, but Zac trusted that Natalie would keep her mouth shut. After all, she hadn’t betrayed Taylor’s confidences after all these years. Once he had been helped out of his dinner jacket and was sure that all the younger, prying eyes were asleep, Zac padded down the hallway toward the Avalon room where he knew he would find the woman who had been plaguing his thoughts all night.

He ducked around a corner when he spotted that one lady’s maid, he thought her name was Leona Something-or-other, leaving the room. With her ginger hair and big eyes, she was nearly as intriguing to him as Lady Kathryn, but it wasn’t the right time to think about that. Once her back was to him and he was sure he hadn’t been seen, he let out a sigh of relief. At least he knew Kathryn and Natalie were alone. He stole down the hall to their door and turned the knob as quietly as he could, assured that he wouldn’t catch them in a state of undress since the maid was gone.

“Leona, did you forget--” Natalie asked, her words dying as she spun around and saw Zac. She rushed to pull her dressing gown tighter around her body, but Zac hardly noticed her at all. Zac’s attention was focused entirely on Kathryn, who sat on her bed in a cloud of pale pink lace.

“I came to speak with Katie,” he said, spitting out her nickname as though it were poison.

Natalie gave Kathryn a look that seemed to imply that Kathryn was under no obligation to do what Zac said. Obviously Taylor had told his little confidant about Zac’s reputation. Well, he supposed, Kathryn would learn about it one way or another, if she didn’t already know.

Somewhat to his surprise, Kathryn waved a hand dismissively. “It’s fine. We’ll speak outside.”

Zac would have preferred to stay in the room, but he would take what he could get. He followed Lady Kathryn into the hallway, enraptured by the way her dressing gown seemed to both float around her body and hug her subtle curves at the same time.

“I hope you’ll make this brief,” she spoke, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I should have recognized you right away, you know,” Zac said. “Although I suppose I had hoped you would grow into a lady and stop being such a… such a…”

“Such a what?” Kathryn asked. “Cat got your tongue? I’ve never known you to hold back before. You certainly never did when you told me I was lucky I’d been paired up with Isaac, since no one else would want a lady who looked like a monkey.”

In spite of himself, Zac laughed aloud. He clamped a hand over his mouth to silence the sound before it brought anyone out of the nearby bedrooms.

“I’m not asking for an apology for any of that,” Kathryn continued. “If you honestly think your opinion matters to me now, then you’re even more conceited than I gave you credit for. I could care less what the Lothario third son of an earl thinks of my appearance.”

“You seemed to care this morning,” Zac shot back. “Talking to a strange man in the street without a parent in sight. That sends a certain sort of message, Katie.”

“It certainly does,” Kathryn replied. “The message that I recognized your pathetic, drunken self and knew you were, if annoying, relatively harmless.”

With that she gathered up her dressing gown and pushed past him.

“Oh, we’ll see about harmless,” Zac said, though he was talking to nothing more than her bedroom door, which had just slammed shut in his face. “We shall see.”

The door opened just a crack and Lady Kathryn poked her head through. “Keep dreaming, Captain Hanson.”

“Oh, I shall,” Zac replied. “I’ll be dreaming of you, Lady Kathryn. Every night.”

Lady Kathryn gave an exaggerated shiver. “That’s a genuinely horrifying thought. I think I’ll need an extra bath tomorrow just to scrub away the disgust.”

“Now, that’s not fair at all,” Zac replied, stepping in closer to her. “Because now all I’m going to think about is you in the bath. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention at all, but I felt it best to let you know. Wouldn’t want you to misspeak like that again and give a guy the wrong impression.”

“No, we wouldn’t,” Kathryn replied, the tiniest hint of a smirk appearing and disappearing from her lips so quickly that Zac almost missed it. Almost. “I can’t thank you enough for showing me the error of my ways.”

“I’m sure it’s not the only thing I could teach you,” Zac countered.

“I imagine not,” Kathryn replied. “I’m sure you have a wealth of ill-gained knowledge just ripe for the sharing. But, again, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You might have mistaken me for something else this morning, but I think we know where we stand with each other now.”

“Yes,” Zac replied, taking a step back. “I think we do. Goodnight, Lady Kathryn. And sweet dreams.”

“I’m sure I could say the same to you,” she replied, flashing him a devious smile before vanishing behind the door.

As Zac backed away from the door, he had to shake his head. In truth, he had no idea where he stood with Lady Kathryn at all. Even her words contradicted themselves, and her near constant smirk told yet another story.

All that he knew for sure was that she was a challenge. And he loved a challenge.

****

Taylor didn’t linger long at Beasley Hall the next morning. Few of the guests were in the dining room when he wandered in to breakfast, and that was fine by him. He feared what he might do the next time he saw the marquess, especially if the two of them were alone. Of course, no one else would think anything of it; two young men alone was nothing unusual, and surely no one of the marquees’s standing could share Taylor’s proclivities.

Or could he?

Taylor wasn’t so sure. There had seemed to be a certain undertone to their conversation the night before, but it was difficult to say. It had been easier at university, where no one really cared what title Taylor did or didn’t have, and there were any number of underground clubs catering to his needs. Now, though, back in the world of country gentry, one had to be more careful. To stay safe, Taylor had abstained entirely. He could only hope it was like riding a horse, and it would all come back to him with practice.

Being careful that morning meant leaving the manor early and almost unnoticed, citing some pressing matters at the office. It was a lie, of course, but he could still always find something in his mess of an office to keep himself occupied well into the afternoon. That day was no exception, and he hardly even noticed that luncheon had approached until his stomach began to growl. He leaned back in his desk chair and contemplated his options. He could go back to the manor, where no doubt a nice luncheon had been laid to impress the guests. But that would mean potentially seeing Natalie and the marquess. That wouldn’t do. Perhaps a walk into town to get lunch at the pub Zac frequented. It wasn’t Taylor’s typical haunt, but the food was good enough.

“Excuse me, is this the office of the Honorable Taylor Hanson?” A soft, smooth voice asked, causing Taylor to nearly fall out of his chair at the sound. With a wry smirk, the marquess, who had suddenly appeared at the door, added, “Ah, yes, there’s his grace.”

“My Lord,” Taylor breathed out, the phrase both a courtesy and an exclamation, considering the circumstances. Gathering himself a bit, Taylor added, “I mean, Nicholas. I hadn’t expected to see you—not here, anyway.”

Somewhat sheepishly, Nicholas held up the picnic basket that Taylor hadn’t even noticed in his hand. “I had the cook make this up for you, since I didn’t think it likely you’d make it back to the manor in time to lunch with the rest of us.”

“No, I—I got a bit caught up here,” Taylor replied.

“I can see that,” Nicholas said, taking a few steps into the room. “Shall we take this outside, then? That is, if you’d like a bit of company.”

“That sounds perfect,” Taylor replied, hoping that the blush he felt creeping up his entire body wasn’t visible above his collar.

He brushed aside the paperwork he had been vaguely occupied with and followed Nicholas out of the office, shamelessly staying a few steps behind so that he could watch the subtle sway in the marquess’s steps. It was official, then, Taylor decided. He was a completely lost cause. Still, he made note of the fact that Nicholas choose a very secluded copse next to the old churchyard to set their picnic. Somehow, Taylor didn’t think that was a coincidence; it was a very deliberate move.

The two sat down on a blanket, neatly spread by the marquess, and Taylor wondered how often Nicholas had call to lay his own lunch at the castle as he did now. He thought better of commenting on that, and instead took a seat and watched happily as his superior laid out a meal of lemonade and light sandwiches for the two of them to share.

“Your humble servant,” Nicholas said, smirking and making a show of bowing his head.

“It’s a good thing we’re alone,” Taylor remarked, taking a dainty sip of his lemonade. “We’re already treading on thin ice by dispensing with the titles and pleasantry. We shouldn’t make a mockery of it all together.”

“Shouldn’t we?” Nicholas asked. “What could be more worthy of mockery than someone like me, confirmed bachelor of barely twenty-four, suddenly becoming lord of a castle?”

“I hadn’t realized we were the same age,” Taylor chocked out, not daring to address Nicholas’s other descriptor.

Nicholas eyed him, his sky blue eyes going cloudy. “As I said last night, I think you and I have quite a lot in common. It’s a wonder we haven’t met before.”

“I’m not often in Leeds,” Taylor replied dully.

“That may be,” Nicholas said, a hint of amusement in his tone. “Only I’m sure we must frequent some of the same clubs in London. I can tell we have similar tastes.”

“Can you?” Taylor asked, hoping his tone was appropriately flirty. Although Nicholas was being annoyingly coy, Taylor was sure now that he was not reading too much into his words.

“Or shall I say, I have similar tastes to my dear cousin Natalie? If it’s not too bold to admit, I didn’t think you could live up to her descriptions, but indeed, you exceed them.” Nicholas inched closer to Taylor, leaving absolutely no question as to his meaning. “If I’ve misjudged you, now would be the time to speak up.”

“You haven’t,” Taylor breathed out, his vision blurring and doubling as Nicholas inched further closer to him.

He was even more beautiful in such close range, Taylor thought dully. All thought ceased entirely as Nicholas closed the gap between them, pressing his lips firmly against Taylor’s. Only their lips touched, no doubt leaving Taylor room to push him away if he had so wished. But he didn’t wish to do anything of the sort. Instead, he reached a hand up and rested it gently on the back of Nicholas’s neck, hoping to encourage him to deepen the kiss.

The encouragement worked, and Taylor soon felt Nicholas’s tongue sliding along his lips, its touch like warm velvet. He parted his lips to allow Nicholas entrance, trying as best he could to stifle the moan that wanted to escape when their tongues met. It had been far too long, but still Taylor couldn’t think of a kiss that had ever felt so good.

So brief, too. All too quickly, Nicholas pulled away, his lips looking pleasantly bee stung, and his cheeks bright red. He stared at Taylor for a moment, saying nothing but breathing heavily.

“Well,” Taylor finally breathed out. “I’m not sure we’re close enough to the churchyard for that to be strictly blasphemous, but I’d say it’s close enough.”

“Would it be too bold to admit it’s not the only blasphemous thing I’d like to do with you?”

“With me or to me?” Taylor asked, feeling momentarily bold and more than a bit lovedrunk.

Nicholas chuckled, leaning in so that their foreheads touched briefly. “Yes, I knew we had a few things in common.”

“Two peas in a pod,” Taylor remarked.

Nicholas laughed loudly, and the sound was infectious. Taylor found himself giggling unashamedly, no longer worried that the marquess wouldn’t be interested in him. He wasn’t the marquess anymore. He was simply Nicholas, a man that Taylor could see himself quickly falling in love with.

“We really shouldn’t keep neglecting our picnic, though,” Taylor said, exaggerating the hint of regret in his voice.

“There will be time for plenty more picnics,” Nicholas countered.

“Only this is our very first. Call me sentimental, I suppose. But I do also fear that if I don’t distract myself, I’ll forget about the meal entirely.”

“Am I a distraction, then?” Nicholas asked, clearly amused.

Taylor grinned. “Amongst other things.”

Nicholas laughed loudly again, the sound infectious. Taylor hardly even cared if it carried through the whole valley and gained them an audience. That wasn’t wholly true, though. He knew what they did was dangerous, but it was dangerously addictive, too. Just one taste of Nicholas would never be enough for him, but he saw the prudence in abstaining at least until their luncheon was finished.

After that, though, Taylor couldn’t say. His willpower was only so strong, after all.

Chapter Text

Jessica sighed heavily and mopped her brow. A few hairs had fallen loose from her cap, and she struggled against hope to tuck them back in. She supposed, in the greater scheme of things, it really didn’t matter if these boys were tended to by a nurse with her hair hanging just a bit loose. The only protocol that mattered in the hospital was medical protocol.

Even though the guests had still not left, Jessica had refused to give up her shifts at the hospital. The work she did was important, at least on a small scale, and she stubbornly refused to take a break just because there were a few various nobles knocking around the manor for a few days. Her mother hadn’t been so happy about that, but Papa seemed oddly amused. Having served an honorary military post himself, Jessica supposed he understood her sense of duty. Or perhaps he was simply more modern than she’d given him credit for, and didn’t see the big fuss over his daughters having their own work outside of charities and flower shows.

She worked all the way through to luncheon, and was relieved when another nurse came to tell her that she had visitors. A new boy—not a man, he could scarcely be older than her—had been brought in a few days ago, and something about his condition shook her to the core. They had tended his wounds to the best of their ability, but still he didn’t wake. Jessica felt there must be something more she could do to help him, but she could not. She was skilled, but she was no doctor. Lingering long by his bedside, unable to help, left her thoroughly unsettled, and she was relieved to get away.

Her visitors were, to her surprise, a party comprised of the ladies Natalie and Kathryn, and Natalie’s mother. After a moment to collect herself, Jessica remembered that Lady Bryant had worked as a nurse for a time as well, something that hadn’t been so scandalous given her lower rank. Natalie’s charity interests, Jessica knew, largely centered around some children’s hospital near Leeds where she lived. And Kathryn, of course, was scarcely separated from her best friend. Still, Jessica herself had no great affection for either of them, so she could think of no reason why they would truly care enough to deliver her meal.

Still, she accepted it with gratitude and guided Lady Kathryn to a secluded bench where they could eat in peace while the two Bryant ladies were taken on a tour of the facilities. Lady Kathryn had no interest in that, Jessica could see, and she needed the break, as well. The two took their seat and ate in somewhat awkward silence, Jessica trying to work out something to say that wasn’t too pointed or accusing.

Kathryn was the first to speak. “I’ve been instructed to ask if you’ll be riding with us this afternoon.”

“Not after such a long, rough shift here, no. I can think of few things that would feel worse than sitting in a saddle.”

“That’s a shame,” Kathryn replied.

“Why is that?” Jessica asked, eyeing her. Why would Kathryn care one way or another about Jessica’s presence or absence? The two had barely shared ten words over the years; this was the longest conversation Jessica could remember ever having with her eldest brother’s fiancée.

“The bigger the party, the lesser the chance of having to talk to—” Kathryn paused and pursed her lips, obviously realizing she had spoken too freely. “Only, I mean—the more people, the better the conversation, don’t you think?”

“I’ve never been very good at all the small talk anyway,” Jessica replied. It was noncommittal enough, she supposed. A big part of her wanted to press the issue. Who could Kathryn have been referring to? Isaac wasn’t there, of course, but they had always gotten along well enough. They were both dreadfully dull, at least.

Kathryn shook her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t want to put you in the middle of anything unpleasant.”

“Of course not.” Jessica glanced at the hospital behind Kathryn’s shoulder. What could be more unpleasant than working there? The intricacies of upper class social interaction, for one thing, but Jessica was still at least capable of viewing it all with a detached sort of interest. And she certainly couldn’t help being interested in whatever or whoever had ruffled Kathryn’s feathers.

There were few candidates, really. Other than the Bryants and Tuckers, all of the guests had been locals who were easily able to return home the night before. It would be a small riding party, then. Avery and Zoe could both be loud and needy, but Natalie and Kathryn had always seemed to like them well enough. Jessica herself was in the wrong age bracket to have ever gained their affection; not close enough to their age to be a true friend but not far enough from it to be deemed a potential protégé.

That left only her brothers, Jessica realized. Taylor was, for obvious reasons, right out. And that left only one, perhaps the most obvious, candidate.

“What has Zachary done now?” Jessica blurted out, not even bothering to pretend she was embarrassed with her own imprudence.

“Not much, yet,” Kathryn replied, eyeing Jessica somewhat suspiciously, as though she feared she might be tattled on. “But I expect he’s only getting warmed up.”

“That sounds like him,” Jessica agreed, giving Kathryn an appraising look.

Yes, it all made sense now. Lady Kathryn had, sometime after announcing her engagement to Isaac, finally grown into her looks. She had always had a regal bearing that Jessica envied; it nearly hid the fact that she was all legs and elbows. Now, her looks matched the graceful manner with which she carried herself. Simply put, she was beautiful, and that was all it took to get Zac’s attention. Perhaps it was some perverse desire to prove he wasn’t anything like Taylor, but Zac had never been particularly discrete. Of course, Taylor had to be discrete, whether he wanted to be or not. Either way, Jessica could hardly stomach Zac’s behavior at times, and it seemed Lady Kathryn shared her distaste.

“I’m sure it does,” Kathryn replied. “You’ll forgive me, but I am well aware of his reputation. I know you’re all close, so I don’t mean to offend you. I only hope that perhaps you can pass along the message that I’m not interested in the least. He might be more inclined to believe it coming from you.”

“He’s not one to easily take no for an answer, no matter what the source.”

Kathryn nodded. “I was rather afraid of that. Well, that just means I’ll have to get more creative. He’ll learn soon enough who he’s tangling with.”

Jessica stared at Kathryn, rather impressed. She was graceful and regal, but she had a temper as well; Jessica had a vivid memory of several fights between Isaac and Kathryn when they had been teenagers not yet officially engaged. Perhaps, for once, Zac was biting off more than he could chew. Jessica made up her mind not to warn him at all.

“I’d imagine he already knows,” Jessica replied. “Although, to be honest, he usually goes for more—well, low-hanging fruit, shall we say. He likes the thrill of the chase well enough, though.”

Kathryn laughed softly. “What boy doesn’t?”

“I wouldn’t really know,” Jessica mumbled, ignoring the look that earned her.

“In any case, you will tell him that he’s barking up the wrong tree, whatever sort of fruit he’s seeking,” Kathryn said. A slight blush colored her cheeks as she seemed to realize how lewd her words might sound.

Jessica stifled her own laugh at that. “I’ll tell him exactly that.”

“You might choose other words, as long as it comes to the same point.”

Jessica nodded. She was lying to Kathryn’s face, she knew, but whether she told Zac or not, it wouldn’t stop him. If he had seen even a glimpse of Kathryn’s spirit, he wouldn’t be deterred. If anything, he would be more interested. From all Jessica had seen, she didn’t think Zac had ever faced a challenge like Lady Kathryn before, and she had to admit, she was going to enjoy watching the fallout.

****

Lady Kathryn spent the better part of the afternoon chiding herself for opening her mouth to Jessica. Jessica might not have had any interest in romance or gossip, but Kate was sure that even she could see that the lady doth protest too much. Zachary himself was thick enough not to see through her protests, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before everyone else did.

Just a few more days, she reminded herself. If she could get through the ride this afternoon and a few more dinners where she would hopefully not be obligated to talk to Zachary at all, she would be safely home and free from these conflicting feelings about her fiance’s younger brother.

Did Zac even appreciate how delicate of a situation she was in? Kate had to wonder. She liked Isaac well enough, she supposed, though there had never been any great affection between the two of them. Still, that didn’t mean she wished him ill or wasn’t affected by his disappearance. She hated herself for even considering that, were he never to return, she might be free. Of course, that still didn’t mean she would be able to choose her own husband, but she supposed it would increase the chances of her parents choosing someone she liked a bit better. It couldn’t hurt her chances, at least.

And what were the chances that her parents would choose Captain Hanson? Slim to none, Kate reasoned. Still, it wasn’t as though she needed to marry especially well. The eldest of the twins would inherit, and the family’s fortune, modest though it was, had survived the war well enough. With the family safe, Kate was—so far as her parents saw fit—reasonably free to do what she wanted with her life.

She doubted that freedom extended to marrying her presumably dead fiance’s younger brother.

Kate shook her head, as if it rid it of these thoughts. None of it mattered—at least, not until they knew Isaac’s fate for certain. All she could do for now was refuse Zac’s advances, lest she appear too eager to move on. Given the way he was leering at her as they all stood by the stables, awaiting their assignments for the day, she suspected that would be much easier said than done.

It did not pass Kate by that she and Zac had been assigned horses named Tristan and Isolde. She was certain Zac himself had played some role in making sure that happened. She just barely managed to restrain herself from rolling her eyes when Zac shot her a quick wink before mounting his steed. They were handsome horses, at least, and Isolde seemed pleasant enough as Kate led her into a trot. In that respect, at least, the ride might not be so bad.

The grounds were gorgeous, too, and Kate felt herself relaxing as she rode casually around them. They weren’t hunting, just riding for pleasure, and so she felt no need to do more than enjoy the scenery.

Her mistake, though, was in not remaining alert. She hardly noticed anyone had ridden up beside her until he spoke. “Would it be terribly inappropriate to tell you how lovely you look today?”

“Coming from you, even that is inappropriate.”

Zac simply smirked, and Kate felt her stomach twist itself into terribly complicated knots. “My dear, I haven’t even begun to be inappropriate. But I can, if you like. Might I start by saying I’d much rather see you ride astride?”

“That wouldn’t do in a skirt now, would it?” Kathryn asked, self-consciously taking a hand off the reins to pat the skirt of her linen habit. It was stylish, but not so stylish as to sport the new jodhpur style pants that her parents didn’t quite approve of. She knew that was right out when she saw the way they eyed Natalie’s outfit.

“Who says there was a skirt present in my fantasy?” Zac replied, his smirk twisting into something altogether vulgar.

Kate felt a deep blush working its way up her chest, neck and over her entire face, until she felt that steam might come out of her ears just to let off a bit of pressure. After taking a deep breath, she replied, “I’m sure I don’t want nor need to know anything about your fantasies.”

“Then shall we talk about yours instead?” Zac asked. “I can’t imagine my dear brother figures into them. So tell me, who’s really on your mind when you’re alone with His Boringness?”

“It’s hardly right to speak that way of the—” Kate paused.

“The dead, you mean?” Zac raised an eyebrow, then drew his horse closer to hers. “We don’t know that yet, darling. But I suppose I know your fantasy now—you dream of being free to pick your own man. And if you were? Well, then, you wouldn’t need to protest so much when I speak to you. That’s it then, isn’t it? It’s not that you don’t want me; it’s that you’re far too constrained by your duty to admit it. I must say, duty is not one of my favorite qualities in a woman.”

Kate sat up straighter in the saddle, as though it were possible to sit up any straighter than one naturally did when riding sidesaddle. The effect, she hoped, was that she looked even more regal than usual; at least, it put her on the same level with Zachary. She hoped that would shake him. She didn’t dare show that she was affected by his words at all.

He had seen through her, though. He had seen right through her all too easily. She didn’t dare admit to anyone that a tiny part of her did wish to be free of her obligation to Isaac. But even if she were, it wouldn’t leave her free, as Zac had said. It might very well see her saddled to some middle aged widow or a veteran with worse injuries than Zachary himself.

And even if she were free… would she choose Zachary?

She hated that she even had to ask herself the question. That, on its own, was close enough to an answer, and it wasn’t an answer that she liked in the least.

“When I have ever,” Kate began, again drawing herself up to her full seated height. “When have I ever seemed to care what qualities you preferred in a woman, or indeed, appeared to conform to said qualities?”

“When you put it that way—never, I’ll grant you. But even a stopped clock is correct twice a day.”

“Which is more than one could say for you,” Kate quipped, then gave the reins a sharp tug, hoping to put some distance between the two of them.

He would catch her up eventually, she was sure. It was a pitiful attempt at an insult, but had shaken her to her core. He knew. He understood how conflicted she was, how she had suddenly found herself attracted to someone, even though she wasn’t free yet. And worst of all, he knew the identity of that someone—him.

They had practically grown up together, though. How could she be attracted to him? In spite of the uniform and the gravitas it gave him, Zac was still the chubby little boy who had tormented her every time she came to visit. God, had he been flirting with her even then? Kate dismissed the thought as soon as it came. Flirtation was one thing; Zac had been outright cruel, and it had hurt her more than she had realized at the time. Perhaps she wasn’t attracted to him now at all; perhaps it only amused her to see that he was clearly attracted to her. To see how the tables had turned.

Yes, that must have been it, she told herself.

She couldn’t be attracted to him, anyway. What was there to be attracted to? Perhaps he had aged fairly well, but so had she. That was nothing to get so excited about, even if his baby fat had hardened into muscles that were obvious even in his dinner jacket. Still, he had that annoying smirk and wore his hair scandalously long. He was an odd mixture of features that shouldn’t have worked together at all and yet—

No. Kate shook her head. She was not attracted to Captain Zachary Hanson, of all people. It simply wasn’t possible.

And even if it was possible, it wasn’t at all acceptable. What would Isaac think? Well, he would probably laugh, Kate realized. It had always amused him to see her fight with Zac. He would probably find it thoroughly amusing that she now felt this strange twisting in her gut when she looked at his annoying little brother.

But would he be jealous? Kate asked herself. She didn’t have an answer, and that worried her. If Isaac wouldn’t be jealous, wouldn’t feel the need to fight for her… If there was one thing she could say for Zac, she was sure that he would fight for any woman he considered his.

And she was becoming increasingly aware that, god help her, she might rather be his than Isaac’s. If only she could keep the two of them from ever finding that out.

Chapter Text

It had been nearly two weeks since the dinner party, and Taylor’s thoughts had been occupied by nothing so much as the fifth Marquess of Radnor. He thought of the marquess’s soft blue eyes, the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, and how wonderful it felt to kiss him. He could only dream of how wonderful it might feel to do other things with him.

In short, Taylor had been completely useless for two weeks and was beginning to wonder why he even bothered getting out of bed and going to the office each morning.

Still, until it was proven that Isaac wasn’t returning and his title passed instead to Taylor, then Taylor must go to work as he assumed normal people did. He was sure his family would have allowed him to stay home, even before the business with Isaac, but he didn’t dream of it. Staying occupied with a career kept him out of trouble, even if it made him a bit unique amongst his class. God knew he needed all the help he could get to stay out of trouble, if his fantasies about Nicholas Wellesley were anything to judge by.

He finally wandered into the dining room just as the day’s post was being handed out. His father murmured knowingly as he glanced at the addresses and passes the letters along to their intended recipients. Taylor was surprised to receive one from a name in London that he didn’t recognize. Unsolicited letters asking for his attendance at this event or that, or his help with this legal matter or that, were not especially uncommon, but those tended to arrive at his office, not at the manor.

There was nothing particularly interesting to this letter; it was the usual request of his presence at an event along with an underlying hint that there might be an interesting legal matter for him to take a look at while he was there. Taylor doubted it was interesting at all; they rarely were.

What did interest him, though, was the second letter tucked discretely in the envelope and written on a different piece of stationary altogether—a piece that looked far, far more expensive. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but—

To the Honorable Taylor Hanson:

I hope you will not think I have tampered with Royal Mail to ensure that this letter reached you. I assure you I have far more above board means of doing so. Nevertheless, I thought it best that this letter be received by you privately lest we encounter prying eyes and curious minds.

The matter for which the addressee of this letter writes to you is of little consequence, but as he mentions, there is a great to-do the same week at which your presence is greatly requested by himself and of course myself as well. Indeed I am sure it would be requested by all in attendance were they to know you the way I do, although I must also be grateful that they do not.

Please write back to Mr. Evans at once, as I’m sure he will be anxiously awaiting word from you, as am I. If you accept his invitation, I will take that also as an acceptance of mine. I am sure we will all have a wonderful and productive time. We will surely make a London man of you yet.

Yours,
Nicholas

Taylor carefully folded the letter, taking care to rearrange his face as well as he tucked Nicholas’s missive back into the folds of the far less interesting note. In truth, there had been nothing particularly salacious in Nicholas’s own letter, but the pure fact that he had signed it with only his name, while addressing Taylor by his proper title was enough. It wasn’t a mistake of etiquette; a marquess, even a brand new one, would have known better than that. No, Nicholas was making a specific point of putting Taylor above him.

It made Taylor want even more to be underneath him.

He forced out a fake cough, covering his face in hopes of also hiding the blush he was sure must be creeping across it. He had it terribly bad, he realized, if his own thoughts were embarrassing him. Jessica raised an eyebrow at him, but no one else seemed to notice anything amiss. She would notice, though. They had always been close, and had grown moreso in the absence of both Isaac and Zac. She might not know exactly what he was thinking right then, but she could form her own opinions about the letter, and Taylor suspected she wouldn’t be far from the truth.

“Right,” Taylor said, clearing his throat. “I think I best be off. I’ve an invitation for an event next week, and I’ll need to clear out some things at the office first.”

“An invitation?” Lady Hanson asked.

Taylor nodded. “A charity thing in London, which is really just a ploy to have me look over some legal papers of some sort. But the party sounds interesting enough.”

“Will Lady Natalie be there? You should bring her along if you’re allowed a plus one.”

Just barely resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Taylor replied, “I’m sure it would all bore her to death. Perhaps I’ll have time to call on her while I’m away, though.”

“I’m sure she’ll love that.”

Taylor nodded, then glanced toward Jessica. “Shall I walk you down to the hospital then?”

“Yes, thank you,” she replied.

Taylor stood and waited for Jessica to push back her chair and hold out her arm to him. He knew there was no reason she would turn him down; they had taken to walking together nearly every day. Still, it gave him more of an excuse to leave and cut the conversation with his mother short. The more they talked, the closer she would get to the truth of his plans in London, he was sure. The last thing he needed was for his parents to be questioning his budding friendship with the marquess.

“London, is it?” Jessica asked once they were out of the lord and lady’s earshot. “You don’t know many people there, do you?”

“I’ll have you know I have friends everywhere,” Taylor replied, matching Jessica’s teasing tone.

“Anyone Lady Natalie would know, then?”

Taylor stopped in his tracks. “You’re a smart cookie, aren’t you?”

“Just observant.” Jessica grinned. “He was handsome, but much more your type than mine.”

“And I’ll trust you to keep that opinion to yourself,” Taylor replied.

Jessica nodded, her expression turning sober. “Of course. But I do expect to hear any good news from the trip.”

“Of course,” Taylor replied. “It will certainly make a better topic for conversation that what you do with your days.”

Jessica just chuckled in response, as the two continued to walk down the path toward the hospital and Taylor’s office. He was infinitely lucky, he realized, that his sister didn’t judge him. Between her and Natalie, he could almost convince himself that he was safe. He could almost let down his guard, and live his life as he wished.

Almost.

****

A few short days later, the guests had left and Beasley Hall returned to business as usual, as they best could. They were British, after all. If there was only one thing at all they could do, it was carry on even when the world was falling down around them. Jessica imagined that even God himself would have trouble ridding the world of the British empire at the end of all things.

As for Jessica herself, she went back to the hospital and carried on with her own work. Time spent at the manor only drove home the fact that things there were very, very wrong. She might have been able to carry on, but she wasn’t much of an actress. Zac being home, turning everything on its head, only further drove home the fact that Isaac was still missing. Jessica didn’t dare voice her opinion but she feared that with Taylor at the helm, their family was doomed.

But none of that mattered when she was at work. All that matter then was making sure the soldiers under her care received the best care she could possibly give them. There was one, though, who worried her more than the rest. He still hadn’t woken from his comatose state, even though his body appeared to be healing well, if slowly. Whatever injuries he had were deep inside, unable to be seen by the naked eye. When other duties didn’t take her away, Jessica found herself lingering by his bed, even though there was nothing she could do.

When she had long stretches of free time, Jessica simply sat by his bedside and read to him. She had secreted away a copy of My Antonia, and read it to the soldier three times over. Jessica knew nothing of pioneers and prairies, but reciting the words aloud seemed to give life to them so that she could lose herself in this mystical world of the American west. She hardly even noticed the strange looks other nurses and doctors gave her.

Whether or not her patient heard a word of it, she didn’t know. There was simply no way to tell, but she had to believe. She had to convince herself that somehow, reading to him made a difference. If she considered the possibility that it didn’t, that was there was nothing at all that she could do, then she might as well give up entirely and go home.

Day after day, she read the book to him, over and over, until she was sure that she had it memorized and could have performed a pantomime of it, playing every single part herself. Still, he didn’t stir, although in moments of fatigue, she thought she saw a glimmer of movement out of the corner of her eye. But when she looked closely, the nameless soldier was as still as ever.

She was all set to begin her fourth reread of the book, but when she opened her mouth to read the first words, she found that she just couldn’t do it. It was pointless and hopeless. He was never going to wake. She sighed and sat the book down on his bedside table.

“I must be losing my mind,” she mumbled. “Everyone else here certainly seems to think so. Reading to someone who can’t hear, or at least can’t respond, to a single word I’m saying. I might as well sit here and tell you all about the boring minutia of my life, for all that you’ll get out of it. How about that, then? Ah, this morning my brother Taylor had a letter asking him to come to London. Highly suspect, but I think I’m the only one who noticed. Perhaps Zac. But the rest will turn a blind eye all too happily. Zoe stepped on the dog’s tail and nearly caused a domino effect of footmen and trays. It was rather impressive, really. Zac was in a rare mood, and that’s saying something for him. And don’t think I haven’t noticed the way he looks at my ladies’ maid. Between him and Taylor, we’re all doomed, I’m sure. And even moreso if anyone hears what all I’ve just said. Good thing you’re unconscious, then, isn’t it?”

“Good thing indeed,” a hoarse, unfamiliar voice croaked out.

Jessica nearly jumped out of her chair. His eyelashes fluttered so that his eyes hardly even seemed to be open, but there was a faint smile on his cracked lips. He was awake. And he had presumably heard every word she had just said.

“Oh, god,” Jessica groaned.

“Not entirely the reception I was hoping for,” the soldier replied.

Jessica pulled herself to her feet and straightened her uniform. She tried in vain to rearrange her face into something of a neutral expression. “I should—I mean, I must go find the doctor. He’ll need to check you over now that you’re awake.”

The soldier reached for Jessica’s hand. “Wait. Before you go, can you tell me your name? I’ve listened to you for days, your voice was… it’s all I’ve known. At least give me a name I can put with your voice and your face.”

“Jessica,” she said softly.

He smiled. “Teddy. You can call me Teddy.”

Jessica returned his smile, then scurried away to find the attending doctor. In only seconds, the soldier who she now knew as Teddy was surrounded by doctors and nurses, and she felt herself suffocating. She rushed outside, practically gulping in the fresh air that smelled nothing at all like hospital. It was refreshing, physically, but it did nothing for Jessica’s frame of mind.

What had she done? How much of her ramblings had Teddy heard? She was sure she had made other, nearly unconscious comments about her family before, not thinking that anything was truly getting through. She had obviously been very, very wrong.

She stayed outside for how long she couldn’t say, but she wasn’t really hiding. Eventually, someone would come looking for her. Knowing that, Jessica took a deep breath, steeled herself and walked back into the hospital. There were other soldiers who needed her attention, and she tried not to even glance Teddy’s way as she tended to her other charges. Even though she didn’t glance his way once, she could feel his eyes on her, following her every step around the room.

Jessica knew she had to do something. She wasn’t entirely sure what but that much she knew. Once the furor sounding the soldier had died down, she felt safe in approaching his bed again. Although he still appeared weak, he was propped up against the pillow and had a faint smile on his lips, the smile of one who knows he has survived something terrible.

Jessica stepped up to the side of his bed and tried not to meet his eyes, which were, as she expected trained on her. Taking a deep breath, she said, “Teddy.”

“That is my name,” he agreed, his smile growing. “Do you need something, angel?”

“Angel?”

The corner of his lips twitched. “Isn’t that what you are? My guardian angel?”

“I’m simply a nurse,” she replied.

“Oh, I hardly think so,” he said. “Have you left my side at all? I think I’ll hear your voice in my head for the rest of time.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied, although she wasn’t sure why she felt the need to apologize for that.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “I didn’t mean it like that at all. Only that for days and days, you were it. You were my entire world. I didn’t know anything but your sweet voice, and I think a part of me was perfectly content with that, happy to stay in that fictitious little world where there was nothing but you. But I had to put a face and a name with the voice.”

“Don’t say you woke only for me,” Jessica replied, her voice barely above a whisper. “You can’t pin that on me. That much responsibility… I’m not made for that.”

“Aren’t you?” Teddy asked. “You’re a nurse. Saving lives is what you do, I presume. And it was mine you concerned yourself so much with, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Jessica conceded, glancing down so that he could not see her face.

“I won’t pretend to know what you were thinking,” he said. “But I feel confident in saying that whatever it was, it went beyond the normal duties of a nurse. If I’m overstepping, please tell me and I swear I won’t say another word.”

Her eyes still focused on the floor, Jessica said, “You’re not.”

“I didn’t think so,” Teddy replied. “Now, won’t you sit down and tell me more? About yourself. I want to get to know my guardian angel.”

Jessica shook her head. “I think I’ve already said more than enough.”

“You don’t trust me,” Teddy remarked. “I understand that. After all, you don’t really know me at all. Not in the way that I feel I know you now. Won’t you take a chance and get to know me? What can it hurt?”

“it can hurt any number of things,” Jessica replied.

Teddy let out a hoarse laugh. “Yes, yes I suppose it can. But that’s the risk you’ll have to take, isn’t it?”

Jessica looked up at him. Although there was a hint of amusement on his face, she also saw sincerity. Judging by his accent, he wasn’t from the area at all. He might truly have no idea who she was; although he didn’t speak indelicately to her, he didn’t display the sort of deference that the lower class soldiers, aware of her breeding, seemed to give her. She was effectively anonymous, it seemed. If that were the case, then perhaps it would hurt nothing at all to talk to him, although she would be careful not to implicate her family in any way. Still… what could it hurt just to talk?

She pulled her chair closer to his bed, sat down and took a deep breath. Where to begin?

Chapter Text

The charity event was nearly as tedious as the meeting Taylor had had with one Mr. Evans, Esquire, whose legal matter was exactly as interesting as Taylor expected it to be—which is to say, not at all. It was clearly a scam, and Taylor hated breaking the news. There were so many of them, though; even years later, people claimed to be long-lost Titanic survivors or to possess some piece of precious cargo from the ship. Taylor had seen it all a million times.

As for the charity ball itself, Taylor couldn’t help noticing that nearly everyone in attendance was a young, single male like himself. He didn’t mind that, but most of them were desperately boring, and he found himself stuck chatting with the worst of them, no matter how hard he tried to convey his disinterest. Nicholas was plagued by so many so-called friends that Taylor could do little more than shoot him a few glances all night.

“No, thank you,” Taylor said reflexively, not even looking at the waiter who stood in front of him with a tray. When he didn’t leave, Taylor noticed that a small slip of paper on familiar looking stationery was tucked under the proffered champagne glass. With little more than a glance at the waiter, he said, “On second thought.”

He flicked the note open casually while taking a sip from the champagne. Sure enough, it was the handwriting he had become intimately familiar with over the past week of re-reading his note over and over again.

T –

I’ve inquired at the desk for your room number. I’ll trust that it won’t be locked when I come up later. If so, that just means I must try harder.

-- N

Taylor practically shivered at the thought of what Nicholas trying harder might entail. He downed the rest of his champagne and handed the glass off to a passing waiter. Nicholas was still engaged in a conservation that didn’t look scintillating in the least, if his facial expression were anything to judge by, and Taylor made sure to hold eye contact with him for just a few seconds too long. He held the note up discretely then tucked it into his pocket and gave Nicholas a smile. He returned it with the faintest of nods, his companions completely unaware of the exchange.

But Taylor knew and Nicholas knew, and that was all that mattered.

There was a part of Taylor that wanted to begin undressing as soon as he made it to his room, but that seemed a bit hasty. For all he knew, Nicholas only wanted to chat. Or perhaps to kiss a bit more. Taylor would be perfectly happy only kissing him. At least, he could convince himself that he would be. The truth was that he was already panting and sporting a painful erection, his body pressed against the door to his room as he tried to catch his breath at just the thought of being intimate with Nicholas.

A soft knock at the door jarred Taylor from his thoughts. He might not have heard it at all, had he not been right against the heavy wood, but as it was, the sound echoed all the way down to his toes. He spun around and took a quick look in the peephole, only to confirm what he already knew. His white tie undone, Nicholas stood in front of the door looking surprisingly vulnerable.

Taylor opened the door and stepped quickly behind it, in case there were any witnesses. At this hotel, and at this time of night, Taylor doubted there would be many prying eyes. The establishment for this particular ball had been chosen well; Taylor had a feeling Nicholas had a part in that.

If Nicholas had looked nervous before Taylor opened the door, he didn’t show it at all now. He gave Taylor a broad smile, the faint wrinkles around his eyes making Taylor’s heart skip a beat, and Taylor had to resist the urge to pull him into the room by his loose tie.

“Nicholas,” Taylor breathed out, unsure that he could speak any word at all besides the man’s name.

“Taylor,” he replied, looking for a second like he wanted to say more. Instead, he simply bounded into the room, letting the door slam behind him, and crushed his lips to Taylor’s.

This was nothing at all like their first kisses, shared so dangerously and furtively on the churchyard. This was desperate, full of longing—and not only on Taylor’s part, he noticed. This man, this beautiful, highly eligible man… wanted him. Really, truly wanted him. At that thought, Taylor couldn’t stop himself from moaning, the sound reverberating through the room and in Nicholas’s mouth.

“I’ve thought about this since I left Beasley,” Nicholas breathed out, pulling back from the kiss to trail his lips down Taylor’s jawline. “Honestly, I’ve been useless the whole week. Nothing at all on my mind but you… and the things I would do when I saw you again.”

“What things might those be?” Taylor dared to ask, surprising himself with how easy it was to duplicate Nicholas’s seductive tone.

“Things that would have made Oscar Wilde blush,” Nicholas replied, spinning Taylor around so that he was once again pinned against the door.

Taylor didn’t have to wonder long what those things might be. He watched wide eyed as Nicholas dropped to his knees and made quick work of Taylor’s trousers, leaving them a puddle on the floor and Taylor completely exposed to him. Taylor let out a low moan as Nicholas ran his tongue up his length, already throbbing and aching for him. If he could see how desperate Taylor was, it only seemed to spur him on further.

Nicholas worked Taylor’s length skillfully, with an art Taylor had rarely seen before. Taylor’s head fell back against the door with a crack that might have worried him under other circumstances, but all he could think about right then was the feeling of the fifth Marquess of Radnor on his knees with Taylor’s prick in his mouth. Nothing else in the world mattered but the pleasure he felt at Nicholas’s touch and tongue.

Taylor found his release embarrassingly soon, but Nicholas didn’t seem to mind. He pulled himself back to his feet, licking his lips, and pulled Taylor toward the bed, tugging ever so gently on his tie. Taylor let himself be led, realizing that he would let Nicholas lead him anywhere. If Taylor had any doubt left that he was completely hopeless, it vanished in that moment.

They fell onto the bed together in a heap of limbs and made quick work of the rest of each other’s clothing. Taylor slid his hand between their bodies and found Nicholas’s hard cock, working quickly to return the favor. Their bodies moved together in perfect rhythm, Taylor’s leg wrapped around Nicholas’s in order to press as much of their flesh together as possible. The friction created by Nicholas’s hot, throbbing prick rubbing against Taylor’s was nearly enough, Taylor thought, to set his entire body on fire.

When Taylor’s head finally fell back onto the pillow, his body feeling as though it were drowning in pleasure, he let out a sigh that turned into a loud laugh. He wanted to be embarrassed by the sound, but he didn’t have the energy left for any emotions other than love and satiation.

“Well,” Nicholas breathed out. “Was it worth the trip to London?”

“I think I would travel to Timbuktu for that,” Taylor replied. “For you.”

“You’ll be pleased to know I don’t plan to ask that much of you. Only that I get to see you as often as we can arrange and invent excuses for.”

“I’m sure with Natalie’s help we’ll be able to arrange it quite often,” Taylor replied.

Pulling the blankets up around their naked bodies, Nicholas replied, “You got lucky in my dear cousin, didn’t you? What are the chances of being paired off with someone who understands her role and is content with it?”

“I suppose it helps that she knows I’ll never stop her from… pursuing her own interests, shall we say. Plenty of poorly matched couples live that way. But I know I am still infinitely lucky that she has never judged me for--well, you know.”

“The love that dare not speak its name,” Nicholas replied, the words breaking off into a snicker.

“You’re quite the dandy, aren’t you?” Taylor asked, giggling himself.

“Mmm, and you’re one to talk. With that suit? Honestly, your choice of clothing is positively scandalous. I didn’t know second sons of earls were allowed to wear anything but solid black suits.”

As he spoke, Nicholas’s foot was trailing up Taylor’s bare leg, making Taylor giggle even more. He threw his head back and laughed loudly. “I don’t think second sons of earls are supposed to do a lot of things I do, but it hasn’t stopped me yet.”

“Quite the rebel, aren’t you?”

“What’s the fun in not being the son to inherit if you can’t bring a little disrepute to the family as well?” Taylor asked, his laughter finally dying out. “But honestly… oh, I shouldn’t even ask. Pretend I didn’t say a word.”

“You ought to know I’m not capable of that at all,” Nicholas replied, brushing back a strand of Taylor’s hair. “Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s perfectly all right to ask, and I will do my best to answer.”

“What, precisely, are we doing here?”

“I should have thought that was quite clear,” Nicholas replied, a soft teasing tone to his voice. “We are doing whatever we want, it would seem. I can’t deny that I’ve wanted you since the moment I saw you, and I’m not in the habit of denying myself anything I want.”

“Define want.”

“If you’re asking whether or not I’m doing the same things with other men, you need only say so.”

Taylor took a deep breath and nodded. “In that case, I suppose that is ultimately what I wish to know.”

“Since we met, no. I will admit it was not a conscious choice, but if you wish for it to be from now on, it will.” Nicholas paused and gave Taylor a meaningful look. “Is that what you wish? Because I’m not oblivious to the fact that you will one day be married to my cousin and, I assume, expected to provide a few offspring.”

“I should think there’s considerably more pressure on a marquess,” Taylor replied.

“Will you ever stop thinking of me as my title?” Nicholas asked. “So you’re a few steps down from the title I didn’t even ask for. You’re a hair’s breadth away from being the next Earl of Beasley. You know that, don’t you? You must.”

“Of course I know that,” Taylor practically snapped. He sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you, but of course I’ve spent the last few months dreading what will happen to me, what will be expected of me, should Isaac never return. Before that, all I had to worry about was not dragging the family into too much scandal. Failing that, I was really free to do whatever I liked.”

“And now you may not be,” Nicholas replied softly. “Of course I understand that. Probably better than anyone, and I’m sorry to throw it in your face.”

“It’s quite alright,” Taylor replied, then shook his head. “Only, well, it isn’t really. But I’m doing my best to deal with it, mostly by ignoring it entirely and pretending everything is going to be fine.”

“A time honored British tradition, really.” Nicholas smirked a bit when he said it, and Taylor couldn’t help but laugh, the tension effectively gone from their conversation.

“There’s a big question mark where my future ought to be,” Taylor remarked. “It would be really nice if there was at least one element of it that I didn’t have to question. That’s why I ask. I want to know that in at least one area of my life, I will be able to anticipate what’s coming.”

“And you shall,” Nicholas replied softly. He leaned in and gave Taylor a quick peck on the lips. “I’m sorry that I like to joke and tease so much. I am, believe it or not, capable of taking things seriously. And I would like to take you very seriously. It won’t be easy for us, but you’re no idiot. You know that. You know what we’re up against, and that it can only get worse from here.”

Taylor nodded. “But in other ways, it can only get better.”

“Another time honored British tradition,” Nicholas replied, giving Taylor another quick peck. “Doing whatever the hell you want as long as you keep up appearances.”

“It’s always been my strong suit,” Taylor said, smiling contentedly.

He still had no clue what the future would hold for him, but he felt a little more secure in knowing that he had someone to share it with, someone who understood the unique pressure put upon him by his birth. Had any of the boys he had known at university understood? One or two, perhaps. Certainly Arthur hadn’t. But Nicholas was someone whose situation was all too similar, although he wore it with such grace that anyone but Taylor would have never known his struggle.

Taylor pulled him closer and kissed his cheek. “Will you spend the night or will that be too much to ask?”

“Not too much at all,” Nicholas replied, then gave a massive yawn that he didn’t even try to hide. “Mmm, I think you’d have been stuck with me whether you wanted to be or not. You’ve exhausted me entirely.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Taylor said softly, pressing his cheek against Nicholas’s neck and letting his eyes fall shut.

The next thing Taylor knew, the morning sun was streaming in the window and he was alone. That didn’t especially surprise him; of course Nicholas would want to sneak out before the maids made their rounds. It still disappointed him. He rolled over to the side where Nicholas had lain and saw that another piece of his stationery sat squarely on the pillow with Taylor’s name on the envelope in Nicholas’s trademark looping handwriting.

Taylor –

I know it is dangerous to put so much of our affair onto paper. Were these words to fall into the wrong hands, we might well be ruined. Still, I find it easier to express myself using the written word than the spoken. I know you will find that amusing; I have practiced to the point that hardly anyone can tell just how nervous I am. I still find myself constantly, to use a ridiculous phrase, putting my foot in my mouth by saying too much—or, conversely, getting myself into trouble by saying too little.

The truth, which I have tried so hard to share with you, is that from the moment I laid eyes on you, I felt a deep connection between us. An understanding. One might call it a kinship, but that’s hardly a romantic word. It almost makes me wonder why Lady Natalie waited so long to see that we were introduced. But surely she knows you better than anyone else in the world. She must have seen what would happen were we to meet. I do not mean to disparage my dear cousin; only I think anyone would understand if she wanted to keep some small part of you to herself.

As for me, I do not mean to share you with anyone.

Of course, I know I must share you with her, and so it is lucky that the three of us are such good friends. Natalie may have your name and position, but I mean to have your heart entirely to myself. And of course I wish you to know that the opposite is true as well—that you possess my heart and soul completely.

I am truly sorry that I could not say these words, or any near enough to them, when we lay in bed last night. I hope to rectify this when we next meet, which I hope will be sooner rather than later. Please write as soon as you have returned to Beasley, and we shall make plans for our next—dare I call it such—tryst.

Yours, in any and every sense of the word,

Nicholas

Taylor slid the note back into its envelope and let his head fall back against the pillow. His and only his. Taylor could think of no sweeter words that had ever been written to or indeed spoken to him. He could not wait until he had returned home to return the favor. Not caring that he was still nude, he pulled himself from the bed, wrapped a sheet around his waist, and began to rummage through his luggage for a scrap of paper on which to write a note. If Nicholas had not left, the front desk should surely be able to deliver Taylor’s missive. He could only hope; he did not want his response delayed even one second longer than necessary.

It did not matter one bit that they had only known each other for two weeks. When put that way, it did sound a bit ridiculous, Taylor was forced to admit. But Nicholas was right. The two shared a connection that few others could claim. While Taylor could regret that fate—in the guise of one Natalie Bryant--had not brought them together sooner, he could only be thankful that they were in each other’s lives now.

Chapter Text

Once all the guests had departed, Zac found himself in a depressingly boring routine that reminded him why he had sought a career in the first place. How in the world did other nobles handle the endless boredom of having nothing to occupy their time but hobbies? Zac didn’t understand it, and he hoped he never would.

There were only so many things around Beasley Hall that he could paint, given that he had spent most of his childhood painting them all. Nothing about the hall ever changed, not even the scenery. Still, painting outside gave him some privacy, even if it was difficult to haul himself and his gear to the various locations where he chose to work. At least the manor’s grounds were secluded enough that he never encountered anyone during his little painting excursions. The last thing he needed was for anyone to realize just how pathetic he was, hobbling around like someone twice his age.

He hadn’t realized how long he had been at work until he saw what appeared to be a ladies’ maid struggling up the hill toward him with a picnic basket in hand. Zac knew that, in spite of his rank, he should have stood up and scrambled to help her, but that was easier said than done. He stretched out his leg until it would stretch no further, and knew he had been sitting too long. If he stood, he would topple right over, and that was something no one, not even a ladies’ maid, needed to see.

As she closed in on him, Zac realized he had seen this particular maid before. He couldn’t recall her name—something with an L? Letitia, perhaps, or Lucinda. Something along those lines. She was new, like so many of the house’s staff, and Zac had not learned them all yet. There were so many more women, he noted, and he supposed that was because many of the men of the village had gone off to the war. He wondered how many might not return at all, or would choose not to remain in service when they did, after having seen so much more of the world and learned that so much more was out there for the taking. He wouldn’t have blamed any of them who did.

Zac wondered if anyone else in his family knew just how close change was, and how quickly their way of life was fading away. He was not sure that any of them did realize it, nor would they listen if he told them. He would only be the crazy military son with no respect.

“I brought luncheon from the house, Sir,” the maid said, letting the picnic basket drop rather unceremoniously in front of him.

“I’d have expected a kitchen maid to make this sort of delivery,” Zac replied, reaching for the basket and just managing to scoot it toward his side without toppling out of his chair. “But thank you. And give my compliments to the cook; she never disappoints.”

“I’m afraid we’re a bit short on kitchen maids at the moment, and well, I’m one of the newest.”

“Low man on the totem pole,” Zac remarked, which earned him only a confused, blank stare. “Well, I should expect to see a lot more of you, then. And I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”

“Leona, Sir.”

“What a beautiful name,” he replied, smiling up at her. Her nose crinkled as she returned his smile, and it only highlighted the beautiful sprinkling of freckles across it. “A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.”

She nodded and smiled, and Zac knew there was nothing she could say in response to that. He had put his toes just over the line, and even a brand new maid like her knew the thin ice they were treading on now. She gave a small curtsy and scurried away quickly, not hazarding a glance back over her shoulder at him until she was several yards away.

Zac couldn’t resist raising a hand and wiggling his fingers in a small wave. It only made her turn and scurry away faster, and he laughed in spite of himself. He might have been taking advantage of his position, but he hardly cared. If he was going to be stuck on the estate all day, he had to find some way to amuse himself, and flirting with the maids was as good a hobby as any.

Once she was safely out of sight, Zac pulled the picnic basket right to his side and opened it. There was a blanket inside, but he knew he would never get back up again if he sat on the ground. Instead, he remained in the camp chair he had brought with him to paint with and laid his lunch right in his lap. It wasn’t dignified, but being dignified had not been a concern of his for quite some time.

“You’re going to get yourself into trouble, you know,” Taylor said, suddenly appearing by Zac’s side and blocking out the sunlight.

“I didn’t know you were back from your London trip yet,” Zac replied, choosing to ignore whatever Taylor had been implying.

“It won’t help you to change the subject,” Taylor shot back. “But if you must know, I got in late last night. I believe you were already passed out drunk by then.”

“That does sound like me.” Zac nodded in agreement.

Taylor took it upon himself to spread out the blanket and sprawl across it. Without asking, he plucked a sandwich from the basket and took a dainty bite. Zac snarled, but decided not to waste any more energy on complaints and pettiness. There was really no point in starting an argument with his brother. If they could manage to get along, then perhaps Taylor would be distracted from criticizing Zac’s every move.

“How was that trip of yours, anyway?” Zac asked, pasting as big of a smile on his face as he could manage.

“I’m not convinced at all that you actually care,” Taylor replied, dabbing at his mouth with a napkin, having quickly finished his sandwich. “But if you must know, it was wonderful. And that’s all you’re going to know about it.”

Zac scowled. “I don’t know why you don’t trust me. You share more with Jessica than you do me, and god only knows what that’s doing to her young mind.”

“It isn’t that I don’t trust you,” Taylor admitted. “Only you’ve never made any secret of the fact that you don’t approve of me. So I’m not sure why you’d want to know any of the sordid details.”

“Then I suppose we’re even,” Zac replied. “Don’t think I don’t know how you feel about me, either. But I am hurt that you’d think I don’t approve. Watching you, or anyone else in this family, give me a run for my money as biggest disappointment, simply amuses me. If you’ve mistaken my amusement for disapproval, then I am sorry. I truly couldn’t care any less what you do in your own private life, as long as you’ve the sense to keep it private.”

“I’m deeply touched,” Taylor said, pulling a fresh pear from the picnic basket.

Zac just nodded, popping open the small bottle of cider and raising it in a poor imitation of a toast. He gave Taylor a wry smile, then tipped the bottle up and took a large swallow.

“You do know,” Taylor said, “our family is well and truly ruined if it’s up to you and I.”

“I don’t know that I have any say in the matter, even if I am likely to be promoted to second son. But I’ll be happy to share a drink with you while we watch it go down in flames.”

Taylor grabbed the cider from Zac’s hand and took a long swig. Passing the bottle back to him, he said, “It’s a date, then.”

Zac just barely resisted the urge to make an incredibly inappropriate joke about that particular turn of phrase. He hoped Taylor realized how much strength that took. More than that, he hoped Taylor knew that whatever happened, Zac was truly on his side.

God help us both, Zac thought to himself.

****

The first thing that Isaac registered when he awoke was the heat.

The first thing Isaac registered every time he awoke was the heat. It was inescapable. Even first thing in the morning, his clothing was plastered to his skin with sweat.

He was, at least, well enough to leave his bed now. He changed into a fresh set matching linen shirt and trousers, and padded into the dining room where breakfast was waiting on him. The cook at the convalescent home of sorts where he now rested was Indian, but she had studied English cooking and did a decent enough job approximating it. Not quite enough to remind Isaac of home, but enough to make him long for it.

It was sacrilege to say, but the tea was better than back home. He lingered long, drinking a second cup. He was, at the present time, the only patient there, having been moved a few weeks ago once he was declared recovered from his concussion and able to function well enough with his arm in a sling and the lingering dizzy spells.

Isaac was not entirely sure how long he’d been in hospital. His memory of the events leading up to it had been erased entirely, although he was given to understand that some local troubles had boiled over and there had been an attack near the embassy. He had, apparently, been caught up in the explosion, though he remembered nothing of it. Enough of his wounds had now healed that it all seemed like nothing more than a story, something reported in the newspaper but far remote from his own life.

He had just gone back for this third cup of coffee and a reasonably edible scone to accompany it when he heard shuffling footsteps quickly approaching the door. It swung open with a deep creak and one of the house boys whose names he had not yet learned appeared.

“Sahib,” he said. “There is a man here to see you. A man in a uniform. English.”

“Send him in,” Isaac said, although he could think of no reason why a soldier would be there to see him. Then again, he could think of little at all these days.

For what he was told was a full fortnight, he could not even say for certain what his own name was. When he remembered it, he knew the worlds held a certain weight and meaning, but he could not recall that either. A messenger from the viceroy had come to visit him, and only then did he realize just exactly who he was.

The soldier stepped into the room, looking even more official than Isaac might have imagined. He was not much older than Isaac himself, he thought, but military service tended to age men faster. Isaac wondered how his brother Zac looked… if he still looked like anything at all. He’d had no word from his family, and for all he knew, Zac’s body lie somewhere on a battlefield, forgotten.

“My Lord,” the soldier said. “It took us a while to track you down here. Communication is a bit haphazard here lately, I’m afraid.”

“For what purpose did you need to, as you say, track me down?” Isaac asked.

“As I said, communication has been a bit haphazard. I’m afraid I must report that we cannot guarantee any post has escaped India intact for the last month. We’ve only just received a large packet of letters intended for you. I’ve come here now to deliver them, however overdue they may be.”

“I see,” Isaac replied. That would explain why his family had been silent, he supposed. “I’ll have them now, if you please.”

“Of course, Sir.” The soldier produced a stack of letters from within his coats and slapped it down on the table, and Isaac had to wonder how there had even been room to conceal so much.

“Thank you,” Isaac said, sliding the twine-bound veritable brick across the table toward himself.

He didn’t wait for the soldier to leave before tearing into the stack. There were any number of boring missives from his parents, detailing all the comings and goings at Beasley Hall. As he read the words, the manor came to life for him again. Until that moment, it had seemed so remote. He knew it was his life, and yet he could not recall a thing that truly felt real. As he read Jessica’s letter about working at the village hospital, he could actually hear her laughter at how queasy the blood made Taylor.

And Taylor…

His letter was restrained, but he wrote with all the persuasiveness expected of a lawyer. In this particular instance, he was pleading with Isaac to return home and free him from the burden of being heir. Isaac had to stop reading once to catch his breath. He had been so reckless, coming to India in the middle of a war, even if India was on the same side as England.

What had he done to his family?

The one and only letter from Zac said it all.

 

My dearest brother:

Goddamn you.

Yours,
Captain Zachary Hanson

 

The very last letter was from a name that Isaac did not immediately recognize. Miss Nicole Dufresne. Who could that be, he wondered? He peeled the envelope open carefully, and the scent of expensive perfume hit his nose. The scent brought back the rest of his dormant memories, and he wondered how he could have ever forgotten the American heiress.

He had been so convinced that his trip to America would be his most eventful trip. Glancing down at his sling, he decided perhaps it was time to give up traveling. But not before one last voyage.

Isaac glanced up from the letter and was surprised to see that the soldier remained stock still by the door. Clearing his throat, he asked, “If I wanted to be sure that a letter was delivered, what would be the best method?”

“There may be no such way at the moment, My Lord,” the soldier replied.

Isaac sighed. There simply had to be a way.

“You may consider, if the message can be condensed, having a telegram sent. The embassy has reopened, and I am sure they could get your message through.”

Isaac nodded. “That will have to do. If you could, let them know I will come by as soon as I can clear it with the good doctor.”

The soldier nodded, then turned neatly on his heel and departed.

Isaac glanced down at the letter again. Though it was sent weeks ago, it appeared Nicole had not met anyone else in his absence. With her wealth and good looks, he was sure she had no shortage of suitors. He was a fool for leaving without asking her hand in marriage. Having come so close to death, he realized he could afford to let no other opportunities pass him by.

As soon as he could get a message sent and secure passage, he would be on his way to America again, for what he hoped was the last time.

Chapter Text

Mornings at Beasley Hall were like icebergs, Taylor had long ago realized. The end result was all that was visible above water, as it were, while the real action was all below stairs. University had turned him into something of a morning person, which caused plenty of confusion when one of the scullery maids realized he was awake while she was trying to stoke his fire. It amused him, in a way, to watch all the machinations come together, although he knew he wasn’t really supposed to. It was all supposed to happen as if by magic, the manor perfectly warm and breakfast laid in style when the family finally awoke, hours after the house itself had sprung to life for the day.

Taylor was often the first one in the great hall for breakfast, beating even his father and the morning post. He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat by the window, his mind still replaying images of his brief trip to visit Nicholas.

He could not say when he would have a chance to see Nicholas again, but couldn’t help feeling happy at the way things had gone. They were moving quickly, perhaps, but men like them didn’t have much choice. They had to take whatever opportunities presented themselves.

A footman entered the room quickly, interrupting Taylor’s thoughts. He laid out the newspaper, perfectly ironed for ease of reading, and Taylor couldn’t resist picking it up. He didn’t think his father would mind if he read it first.

The first page was filled with news of the war, as it had been for years. Taylor could hardly remember what it was like not to hear about bloodshed and devastation as a normal part of conversation. The article described how Australian and Indian forces had experienced some success lately, pushing the Turks back as the English disrupted their supplies and communication. Taylor knew it was war, but he hardly thought it was fair to deprive even the enemy of food. He would have to ask Zac about it all later; perhaps he could explain all the military terminology that made Taylor’s eyes glaze over as he scanned the page.

“Ah,” Lord Hanson said, pausing in the doorway. “I should have known you would be awake. Anything interesting in the paper?”

“More of the usual,” Taylor replied.

His father gave a low murmur, turning away to fill a plate before taking his seat at the head of the table. He ate in his usual quick and businesslike manner, then sorted through his own mail with the same sort of precision. Taylor carefully slid the newspaper back to him, having gotten his fill of the gory details.

“There’s a note here from the Marquis of Radnor,” he remarked.

Taylor’s head snapped upward and he reached out his hand, but the letter was not forthcoming.

“He’s invited us all to the castle for the hunt. Nice to see people keeping the traditions going, even when—”

Zac’s appearance in the doorway put a quick stop to that sentence. Taylor wondered when they were all going to realize that they need not tread lightly around Zac. Out of everyone in the family, he was clearly the toughest. He might have had a short fuse, but treating him with kid gloves was hardly necessary.

Zac stared back and forth between the two of them, then wordlessly grabbed the newspaper and stuffed it under his arm. Without a word or even another glance, he filled a cup of coffee and sat down at the table.

Taylor decided it probably wasn’t the best time to ask him about the war news.

“Shall we go, then?” Walker said after a few minutes of awkward silence had passed.

“Where to?” Zac asked, his head buried in the paper.

“To Longford Castle for the hunt. It will be the first the new marquis has hosted, but it’s sure to be a hit. He seems like the sort who knows how to throw a good party.”

“I’ll say,” Zac replied, glancing at Taylor over the top of the page.

Taylor flicked his hair and glanced away. That little look didn’t dignify a response at all.

As if summoned by the news of a party, Lady Diana, Jessica and Avery all appeared at once. Zoe trailed behind a bit, her feet shuffling as she struggled to catch up with her older sisters.

“Pretty little maids, all in a row,” Walker remarked as the women made their way into the room.

“Someone is trying to butter us up, girls,” Diana remarked, and the girls tittered.

“Not at all,” he replied. “But if it puts me in any position to make demands, then I may ask that you don’t spend all of my money on new outfits for the hunt at Longford Castle.”

“The hunt at Longford Castle!” Avery echoed, and Taylor had to laugh. His middle sister was proving to be quite the little debutante, though perhaps a bit too enthusiastic.

“Yes, we’ll be leaving in a fortnight to spend a full week there. That is, if you all approve.” Walker’s eyes were sparkling; as though there were any chance the Hanson girls would say no to a party. He chuckled softly as their incredulous looks. “I’ll send for Mackenzie as well. He shouldn’t be left out of all the fun.”

Jessica sat down next to Taylor, her mood rather somber compared to the rest of the room. He was sure he ought to say something, but he wasn’t so sure it was the right time or place. He placed a hand on her arm, and she gave him a nod.

“In the hall,” she said softly.

Taylor nodded.

He quickly but discreetly finished his meal, then excused himself, saying he preferred the light in the library to read his post. It was a blatant lie, but no one seemed to notice, too consumed by talk of the impending holiday to Longford Castle.

He had paced back and forth around the hall only a few times when Jessica finally appeared in the doorway. She glanced around to be sure they were alone before walking toward him.

“Walk me to the hospital, will you?” She asked.

“You only wanted an escort,” Taylor replied teasingly, offering his arm to her anyway. “And here I thought you were going to share some really juicy gossip.”

“You know I’m not the juicy gossip type,” Jessica shot back.

“No, I suppose you’re not,” Taylor said, opening the heavy manor door and motioning for Jessica to go ahead of him. “What is it, then? Something at the hospital?”

“Yes and no,” She replied. She fell silent as they walked down the path, and Taylor wondered if he ought to prod her further. “Only, I find it a bit silly to carry on with things like hunting trips when the wounded are still pouring in. When the war seems no closer to ending than it ever has, no matter what they keep saying about armistice. How can we pretend none of that is happening? And how can I go when I’m clearly needed here?”

“Then don’t go,” Taylor said. When Jessica stopped walking and eyed him, he added, “You may not have come out, but you’re a lady. A woman. A full grown adult, capable of speaking her mind. I can’t guarantee everyone will listen, but it’s worth a shot. Tell them what you told me—that you’re needed here. They can hardly argue with that.”

“I can only imagine how well that will go over,” Jessica said.

Taylor shrugged. “It’s worth a shot. Give it a try, and at least you know you’ve attempted to do the right thing. If you’re told you’re going along anyway, then worry about making the best of it then. But until then, just keep on and know that the people here do see your worth.”

“Thank you, Taylor. I needed to hear that.”

There was a strange look on Jessica’s face as they walked on, and Taylor couldn’t even begin to place it. He didn’t see the point in even trying. There was something more on her mind, obviously, but she would talk about it when she was ready. Pressing the issue would do neither of them any good, especially not when he had managed to brighten her mood some.

Soon enough, they reached the hospital and parted ways, Taylor promising to return around luncheon to walk her back to the manor. By then, he hoped, she would have worked up the nerve to confront their parents, and he would be right there by her side when she did.

It was a short walk on to his office, where Taylor hoped he would be able to focus on any of the various tasks at hand. If he were honest, he was a little bit upset that Nicholas had addressed the entire family and not him. His rational side understood why that was necessary, though, to avoid undue suspicion.

Still, it didn’t make him feel any better.

Taylor had only been at work for a moment, when an errand boy came in holding a telegram that he insisted was quite urgent. Taylor plucked it from his hand and dismissed him, his heart fluttering at the thought that this could be the message he had longed for from Nicholas. He ripped into it and saw that he was very, very much mistaken.

 

FROM CALCUTTA, INDIA 11TH. SEP 1918.

THE HONORABLE JORDAN TAYLOR HANSON

RECOVERED FROM INJURIES TO BE DESCRIBED IN DETAIL LATER AND HAVE SECURED PASSAGE TO AMERICA WITH PROMISES TO RETURN TO ENGLAND BY CHRISTMAS PLEASE INFORM FAMILY I AM SAFE AND WELL

VICSCOUNT CLARK ISAAC HANSON

 

Taylor reread the telegram a good half a dozen times before the words penetrated his brain. When they did, he sprang to his feet and shoved the rectangle of paper into his pocket. He did not know why the telegram had come to him, though he supposed his office was closer to the town and therefore easier to reach. What he did know, however, was that the family would not forgive him if he did not deliver this cryptic message as soon as he possibly could.

With that thought in mind, he scurried out of his office, forgetting his earlier promises to join Jessica for lunch.

****

Jessica didn’t dare to tell Taylor, but there was another reason why she had no desire to leave Beasley for any length of time, even one as short as a week.

That reason was currently occupying a bed overlooking the courtyard of the hospital, looking rather chipper for a wounded soldier. Jessica had quickly checked with the rest of the staff to be sure she had no other pressing duties, and sure enough, her schedule had been perfectly arranged to allow her to visit with her new friend.

“Nurse,” Teddy said softly as she approached his bed. His voice was still a bit hoarse from disuse, but it was music to her ears. “I was hoping you would be here today.”

“Me particularly?” Jessica asked. “Surely any nurse would do.”

“I’m sure a fair few of them can read, but none so well as you.” Teddy nodded toward a small package sitting on the table next to his bed. “Go on. Open it. I had it sent away for especially.”

Jessica picked up the package and untied the twill holding it together. The papers fell away and revealed a magnificent leather bound book. Between the binding and the apparent rush shipping, this had surely cost Teddy a pretty penny.

“The Magnificant Ambersons,” she read from the cover.

“I thought we would try something different. I think I could recite My Antonia from memory now. Only, if you aren’t busy taking care of your other charges.”

Jessica smiled down at him. “I’m sure I can make time for you.”

“I hope you don’t think I don’t like Willa Cather. But I thought perhaps a change was in order. It’s no criticism.”

“No, of course not,” Jessica replied, opening the book. “I quite liked the first of his. I guess I enjoy American stories.”

“You’re a modern woman, of course you do,” Teddy replied, smiling up at her.

Jessica felt herself blushing as she opened the book and began to read. Her voice was a little weak at first, and it frustrated her. She shouldn’t let a boy get to her like this, not even a good looking soldier like Teddy. Eventually, as she read more, she found her voice again and began to feel more comfortable.

She had managed to read four chapters when another nurse came along carrying a tray of food for Teddy. It occurred to Jessica that she had completely abandoned her other duties, but she was, after all, a volunteer. She could leave right then if she wanted to. Of course, she didn’t want to. She wanted to remain with Teddy all day.

“Well, I suppose it’s time for a break,” Jessica said after the other nurse had departed.

“Must we?” Teddy asked, picking up his cutlery nonetheless.

“Only for a while. I fear my voice may be going.”

Teddy glanced down, looking a bit sheepish. “I am sorry. I know I’ve demanded a lot of your time and energy.”

Jessica shook her head. “I didn’t mean to complain. Only I want to do a good job. Live up to your expectations of me.”

“I am sure you could never disappoint,” teddy replied. He fell silent for a moment, as he carefully ate his lunch. “Don’t you get a chance to eat, as well?”

“Oh,” Jessica replied, glancing around the room and sitting up a little straighter. “I was—that is, I mean, my brother was meant to come collect me for lunch. He must have gotten caught up at work.”

“He must have,” Teddy agreed.

Jessica opened her mouth to speak again, then thought better of it. She found herself fidgeting nervously as Teddy ate, wondering just where Taylor might have been. Finally, when she had resolved to ask another nurse if there had been any word, a nurse came bustling over toward her.

“Lady Jessica?” She asked. Before waiting for a response, she continued, “There’s been a message from Beasley Hall. Your brother sent a telegram.”

“Taylor sent a telegram?”

The nurse shook her head vigorously. “No, it’s—it’s your eldest brother. There’s been word from Isaac. The messenger says Taylor received the telegram and rushed off without thinking to alert you. He sends his apologies, and the Earl asks you return home immediately.”

Jessica glanced back and forth between the nurse and Teddy. He gave her a small nod and a smile.

“Go on then,” he said. “And take the book. It’s yours, you know.”

“I couldn’t—”

He shook his head and held up a hand. “Please. I want you to have it. Just a token of my appreciation for all you’ve done. It doesn’t come close to what I must owe you, but it’s a beginning.”

“I suppose, if you put it that way.”

He smiled again. “I do. I really do.”

She stood and held tightly to the book. “I suppose I should practice my reading then. Thank you.”

“Thank you, Lady Jessica.”

She followed the nurse from the room, and saw that her family’s chauffer was waiting in the hall. She supposed Taylor must have truly felt sorry for forgetting her, if he had a car sent to fetch her. Although it had been a quiet shift, she relished the idea of not walking that distance, especially when her mind was in such turmoil.

Only a matter of minutes later, the car was idling in front of the manor. Jessica didn’t wait for the chauffeur to come around to her side before climbing out of the car on her own and scurrying into the house. She was, at times, capable of being ladylike and following protocol, but she decided this was an occasion that didn’t call for protocol at all. Presumably, when ones long lost brother was found, one could do as they damn well liked.

She hoped her family agreed.

As it turned out, they were all gathered in the library, in something of a rough semi-circle around Lord Hanson, who was slumped in his desk chair with a small piece of paper in his hand.

“Jessica,” Taylor said. “I am sorry. I’m glad you got the message.”

She shook her head. “It’s fine. But please, can someone tell me what has happened?”

“We don’t really know, dear,” Diana replied. “His message is… well, cryptic, to put it lightly. All we know, truly, is that he is still alive.”

“Or was when he sent the telegram,” Zac put in, not at all helpfully and earning him glares from everyone, even the butler.

“But what does the telegram actually say?” Jessica asked, feeling altogether left out, even though she knew none of them had done it on purpose.

Walker held it up, although it was clear he had memorized its contents already. “He’s recovered from his injuries—we don’t know what kind. And he’s headed to America—again, to what purpose, we don’t know. All we know, and we should focus on this, is that he is alive and well enough to travel. That in and of itself is a blessing.”

There was a softness and reverence to her father’s voice that Jessica was not familiar with. She realized, belatedly, that this meant the family was perhaps saved. The expression of relief on Taylor’s face said he had realized it, too.

If Isaac returned, perhaps all was not lost. Perhaps things could carry on as they were meant to at Beasley Hall. Still, Jessica couldn’t help feeling that nothing would ever really be the same again.

Chapter Text

To Zac’s utter lack of surprise, the family proceeded with their plans to attend the hunt at Longford Castle as though their lives hadn’t been completely turned upside down by two telegrammed lines from Isaac. It was almost amusing, really, to consider just how unaffected they pretended to be, how much they felt compelled to keep up with the performative nature of their position in society.

During their preparations for the trip, he had practically sprained his eyes from rolling them so much. He wasn’t sure how he would survive the actual trip.

They were comparable to a military convoy as they rolled down the road to Leeds, then followed a winding country path to the castle. The castle itself was imposing, to say the least, a long line of staff and residents standing perfectly in two rows by the front gate to welcome their guests. Zac watched in amusement as Taylor and Nicholas shot each other what little subtle glances they could without sidestepping their duties. They seemed so obvious, yet he was sure no one else noticed.

No one, except perhaps Natalie.

Zac had not even realized she was there, but he was unsurprised to see that Lady Kathryn stood nearby, looking as annoyingly poised as ever.

“Captain Hanson,” Kathryn said, her lips turning up in the tiniest hint of a smirk as she gave a small curtsy.

“I expect you’ve heard the news,” he said plainly.

Her head snapped up and her expression turned to a scowl. “I have. Your brother was kind enough to write to me and relay the message.”

Zac noted that she had not received a message from Isaac himself, and he knew that must mean something, but it likely wasn’t something that should be discussed in public. Normally, that would not have stopped him, but there was something in Kate’s expression that almost scared him into silence.

As though realizing she had given too much away, Kate adopted an overtly neutral expression, which amused Zac. Not quite smiling, she said, “I do hope you’ll join us all for dinner. Longford throws a party like no other, and I do believe you enjoy a good party.”

“I do,” Zac replied honestly. “I hope to see you later as well.”

She nodded, but did not acknowledge his words in any other way. Zac was sure something important had passed between them, but he could not have said exactly what. He hated knowing that it would be on his mind for the rest of the evening, yet he would not arrive at any sort of answer. Lady Kathryn was simply that infuriating, and it only infuriated him more because he knew he should not have cared. She was Isaac’s problem; not his.

And yet, he could not stop thinking about her.

For much of that evening, the guests were left to explore the castle at their leisure. Zac found a few interesting tableaus to sketch, but otherwise kept finding himself occupied with thoughts of Kate. He was disappointed to see that they were not seated together at dinner. Instead, he was placed by a handful of far more boring young ladies who he was sure were meant to entice him. Under any other circumstances, they might have, but on that particular occasion, all he could see or think of was the look on Kate’s face when he had asked her about Isaac.

He truly hadn’t believed that she loved his brother. Perhaps he had been wrong. Yet, if so, shouldn’t she be pleased to learn that he was still alive?

Of course, there was still the question of just why he had gone to America rather than returning home straight away…

Perhaps, Zac realized as they made their way to the study for after dinner drinks, Kate could shed some light on that particular mystery.

He decided he would need a drink for that, but was dismayed to find that the time it took to retrieve one allowed some chinless noble to swoop in and capture Kate’s attention. Although she seemed less than enthralled with his conversation, the icy stare Kate gave Zac told him he wasn’t welcome to interrupt.

A different tactic presented itself when he realized that Taylor had given all of his attention to Nicholas and left Natalie all alone. Zac sidled up to her, unashamedly playing up his limp a bit in hopes of garnering some sympathy. Whereas Kate had always been a bit of a bully to him, Zac had seen Natalie as something of an older sister. Perhaps she would still feel the same and would open up to him.

“Lady Natalie,” he said softly, offering his drink to her in a toast. “To good news.”

“Ah, yes,” she replied, a knowing smile on her face. “We were all very pleased to hear of the Viscount’s recovery.”

“Were you indeed?” Zac asked, his voice as casual as he could manage, just a hint of amusement slipping into it.

Natalie eyed him. “Of course we were.”

“Only it seems those who have most to gain from his safe return seem to be the least happy now.” There was no point beating around the bush, Zac decided. Might as well get straight to the point; if Natalie seemed surprised or confused, he would know it immediately.

However, her face did not betray any surprise. She was smarter than Zac gave her credit for; of course she knew exactly what he was getting at. She nodded. “Only he isn’t returning straight away, is he?”

“No, indeed he is not,” Zac agreed. “One wonders the reason why. America, of all places? I think I’d rather stay in India.”

“There’s no accounting for taste,” Natalie shot back, giggling a bit at her own joke. Her expression quickly turned sober again. “I don’t see the harm in telling you. It’s only a worry at this point, and might be entirely unfounded. But you must know he did meet a woman during his last trip to America.”

“I did not know,” Zac replied. “I was in basic training at the time. Not a lot of gossiping going on there, at least not about the affairs of minor nobility.”

“Of course not,” Natalie said, narrowing her eyes a bit. “And of course, there’s no gossiping going on here.”

Zac smiled as sincerely as he could manage. “Not at all. Just two old friends talking.”

“And I think they’ve said more than enough,” Natalie replied.

Zac nodded. He knew he had already overstepped his bounds by asking her anything. It had been successful, although somehow it didn’t make him feel any better. If Kate had reason to believe that Isaac intended to break their engagement, that would certainly explain her sour mood. Still, he couldn’t help thinking that she had never been all that enamored with him anyway. Knowing she might finally be free ought to make her happy.

It also ought to make her a bit less resistant to his charms, Zac thought.

Then again, perhaps she truly wasn’t interested in him. She certainly had no lack of suitors, if this party were anything to judge by. Had she not been quite so tall, Zac wouldn’t have even been able to see her for the crowd of men around her, clamoring for a bit more of her attention.

It was all just a bit more than he could take, at least at his current alcohol level. He downed his drink quickly, then headed back to the sideboard in search of a refill. Yes, this night was going to call for quite a bit of drinking, he decided.

The more he drank, the less Zac was amused by all the various nobles who had assembled at the castle for the first night of revelry. He wandered outside, pacing up and down the walkway until his leg ached and his drink was empty. By the time he made it back inside, he saw that the party had broken up. He wasn’t too upset about missing the majority of it, not in the sort of mood he was in.

He placed his empty glass on a table, not caring how long it took the staff to find it. The grand, winding stairs were a challenge in his state, but he managed them somehow. Zac was sure someone had told him which room he was in, but he could barely remember anything before that strange conversation with Natalie. Finally, muscle memory led him to a door that looked familiar.

Just as he was about to turn the doorknob, he heard female voices. From a room a few doors down, a familiar face emerged. He struggled for a moment to recall the name that went with those soft ginger curls before it finally came to him.

“Leona.”

“Sir,” she said, jumping a bit, then freezing on the spot. Her freckled cheeks turned dark pink, and Zac found that he really enjoyed having that effect upon her.

“I apologize,” he said, taking a few steps closer to her. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Of course not,” she replied.

Zac took a few more steps, leaving them little more than a foot apart. “I suppose you’re just finishing up for the night?”

“Yes, Sir,” she said. “I’ll be going now, if that’s alright.”

“I suppose it is,” he replied. “Only, I do hate being doted on by a valet. Yet I can’t quite manage these ties on my own. I don’t suppose I could trouble you?”

“I’m no valet,” she shot back.

Zac smirked. “I think you can manage.”

“I’ll give it my best,” Leona said, beckoning Zac closer.

He obliged, crouching down just enough to allow her to reach. Her touch was gentle, but skilled, and in only a matter of seconds, she had loosened his tie. She stretched upward just a bit, and Zac knew he had read her correctly. He placed a hand on her cheek and closed the distance between them with his lips. With his other hand, he pulled her into a small alcove that he hoped would conceal them should anyone else in the castle be awake.

“I suppose you need assistance with this as well?” Leona asked, placing a hand on Zac’s chest, her delicate finger playing with a button on his shirt.

“I may,” he replied. “But allow me to be of assistance to you as well. It’s only fair.”

Before she could ask what he meant by that, Zac leaned down and pressed his lips to Leona’s neck. She let out a soft, satisfied moan, and he was happy to see he still had it. It had been quite some time since he had been with a woman, and he had to admit he wondered if the war had somehow changed him. He was pleased to see that, so far, it had not.

As he raked his fingers down Leona’s sides, she practically melted into him, even through the many layers of clothing she wore. Zac fumbled amongst her skirts to take a hold of her leg and lift it to wrap around his. With his weight balanced on his good leg, he could ease her skirts up and run his hand up her thigh.

“Sir…” She began, whatever sentence she had thought of saying fading into nothingness as Zac’s hand found its way between her legs.

She was soft and warm, and he reveled in the way she felt against his hand. The soft moans he extracted from her were equally as satisfying, although he did fear that the sound would carry. Still, he could not find it in himself to move from that spot and seek a more secluded place for this forbidden little tryst. The fact that they were risking everything to do it right then and there somehow only made it more enjoyable for Zac, and he presumed that Leona agreed.

“Have I told you how beautiful you are?” Zac asked, nudging her chin upward so that he could kiss her again.

Leona shook her head. “You have not, sir. But you’re certainly welcome to.”

“You’re beautiful,” he replied, pressing his lips to hers as he nudged her legs further apart.

His hand was soaked with her wetness now, his legs already trembling. While he enjoyed pleasuring her, he was not sure this was the best position. It was perhaps best that they not linger any longer than absolutely necessary.

With that thought in mind, Zac withdrew his hand and unbuttoned his trousers. Leona pulled away from their kiss to gaze down at him, wide eyed, as he pulled his prick out and gave it a few quick tugs. To his surprise, she wrapped her hand around his and mimicked his movements. For a ladies maid, she was full of surprises, he decided.

“My, my,” he breathed out. “Aren’t you something else?”

“As are you,” she replied. “My Lord.”

Zac wasn’t sure if she was complimenting him or forgetting his position. He decided he truly didn’t care. All he cared about right then was buried beneath three layers of petticoats and drawers. He adjusted her leg on his, wrapping it around his waist, and let her guide him into place.

“Oh my—Zachary,” she gasped out as he slipped inside of her.

“Leona,” Zac said, pressing a kiss to her neck. “Beautiful Leona.”

It took him only a moment to find a decent rhythm, planting one hand on her hip and the other on the wall behind her to steady himself. It was, perhaps, not one of his finer moments, but the hitch in her breathing said that he was doing just fine. She continued to let out soft moans and purrs, and Zac felt as though he were living for each and every noise. At that moment, he could not think of a more beautiful sound than her voice, nor a more beautiful picture than her freckled nose crinkling up in ecstasy.

It was, rather embarrassingly, over in only a matter of minutes. Zac decided to chalk that up to the alcohol he had consumed that night. In any case, Leona did not seem disappointed, her gasps and moans building to a crescendo that Zac’s rational brain thought must have awoken at least one person down the hall. The rest of him, however, did not care at all, his own release coming soon after hers in an explosion of stars behind his eyelids and tingles that started at his toes and spread throughout his body.

Altogether, he considered it a success that he did not topple over when pleasure overtook him. The smile on Leona’s face as he pulled away from her was a secondary win.

“Sir,” she breathed out, smirking. “I hope I—have been of service.”

“You have indeed,” he replied. “Perhaps more than you know.”

“If you should need anything else,” she said, stepping in close to him again and planting a hand on his chest, “you know where to find me.”

“I do indeed,” Zac replied, hoping she did not notice how much he wobbled as she touched him.

Leona stepped back then and straightened her skirts. With another quick glance up at him, she turned and walked away. Zac contemplated saying something else to her retreating figure, but could not decide what. All too soon, she vanished around a corner and his chance was gone as well.

Zac turned then to walk back to his room, but stopped in his tracks when he saw that the door next to it was open. In that same pale pink nightgown, Kathryn stood staring at him, arms crossed over her chest. The expression on her face was unreadable.

“I can’t imagine why this surprises me,” she replied. “You certainly know how to live up to expectations.”

“I’m not sure that’s a compliment.”

She narrowed her eyes. “It most certainly is not.”

“I should ask you not to breathe a word of what you saw,” Zac said, stepping in closer to her. She reeled back away from him. “I should, but I know you won’t agree to it. But I’m not going to beg.”

“That’s a shame,” Kate replied, the tiniest hint of a smirk on her lips. “I might have quite enjoyed that show.”

“I’ll refrain from being crude enough to ask how much of this show you watched. But I will say that you do surprise me. Constantly.”

“Shall I take that as a compliment?” She asked.

“It was intended as one,” Zac admitted. “Kathryn… Kate, I don’t have anything to promise you if I ask you not to tell anyone my sins. But I do hope that this recent—development, shall we say—in your life… I do hope it works out well for you. Whatever that means. I hope you get what you want.”

She glanced down for a moment, her eyelashes fluttering against her cheeks. When she glanced back up, she wore yet another unreadable expression. “I hope things work out for you as well. I would say I hope you get what you want, but I am not at all sure you know what that is.”

“Maybe I don’t,” Zac agreed, although he was becoming more and more convinced by the second that he did indeed know, and he was staring right at it.

“Now,” Kate said, taking a deep breath. “I should say goodnight. We wouldn’t want to be caught like this. Tongues would wag.”

“They would indeed,” Zac replied, unable to resist smirking at the thought of pining Kate against the wall the way he had Leona. It was a rather pleasant image.

“Goodnight,” she said, smirking as well, as though she had read his thoughts.

She turned then and slammed the door in his face. To the solid, wooden barrier between them, Zac said, “She was no you, Katie. No you at all.”

Chapter Text

Taylor was not particularly athletically inclined, although he could shoot as well as any other earl’s son. He just tended not to hit anything, and considered it enough of a success that he did not cause any injury to himself or others during a shooting party. Thus he was relieved to be paired with Natalie for the first day of shooting. She knew him well enough to forgive his lack of skill, and it gave them a chance to be alone.

He supposed some might have found it odd how close they were considering—well, simply considering. But she truly was his closest friend in the world, and had never been anything but understanding of the fact that their relationship would never been anything more than close friendship.

Taylor was not unaware of how lucky he was.

As the two of the tromped through the woods, they were quite silent. Once they were sure they were alone, Taylor turned to Natalie and said, “I saw you talking to Zac last night. I am sorry you were stuck with him.”

“Oh, no,” Natalie replied, shaking her head. “It’s quite alright. Although I do fear I said too much.”

“He can have that effect on people,” Taylor remarked. “What was the subject at hand?”

“Kathryn.”

Taylor raised an eyebrow. “She hardly seems like his type.”

“Don’t you think? She’s female. Isn’t that enough for him?”

“Female, yes, but equipped with at least as much stubbornness as him. On the other hand, I suppose I do see the appeal.”

“Yes, well, I am not sure I believe her that she is entirely uninterested in him,” Natalie remarked.

“Natalie,” Taylor said, pausing and grabbing her arm. “If you know something—something to do with Isaac—and you’re not telling me—”

“I know you’re certainly not threatening me,” she replied, then glanced down. “But I do know something. And I fear I did tell Zac. Although it may be nothing, and I do hope it is nothing.”

“What is it?” Taylor implored.

“Kate was—she had feared Isaac found another woman. In America. Now he’s chosen to go there rather than come home, and she’s certain of it. It may mean nothing. But he had spoken to her multiple times of this heiress or that whom he met during his trip to the states. She thought nothing of it at first, but with this latest development…”

Taylor nodded. It certainly didn’t look good, he had to admit. Isaac had always been rather romantic, even though he had been promised to Lady Kathryn practically since birth. This was too much, though, even for him. Taylor could hardly believe it.

“I do hope it is nothing. And more than that, I hope I have not done something terrible by telling Zachary.”

“Oh,” Taylor replied, glancing at Natalie again. He forced a weak smile. “I’m sure he won’t do anything. He is—well, you know how he is. But he wouldn’t do anything to hurt Isaac or the family. He’s impulsive, but not an idiot.”

“I hope you are correct.”

“I hope I am as well,” Taylor admitted.

“Shall we get on with it then? We ought to at least pretend to be hunting.”

Taylor chuckled. “I ought to let you have a go. You’d do better than me.”

“I might do,” Natalie teased, giggling.

The two lapsed into silence again as Taylor made a few pathetic attempts, all of them missing the mark by quite a bit. He truly didn’t know why he had bothered. Of course, his absence from the shooting party would have caused even more of a stir than his obvious affection for Nicholas. He hoped the two of them had a chance to be alone later, but he certainly wasn’t counting on it. There would be an even larger dinner party that night, supplied at least partially by whatever was shot that day. Everyone would have to be in top form, and Taylor didn’t think that would leave much time to spend with his—well, he wasn’t sure what to call him. Lover sounded to tawdry. Whatever they were to each other, they would be little more than host and guest that night.

Several hours later, with nothing to show for their efforts, Taylor, Natalie and the valet they’d been assigned to carry their belongings, headed back toward the castle. They let the valet continue on ahead of them, affording them a little more privacy to continue talking before they were back in everyone’s company again.

“What will we all do now?” Natalie asked softly.

Taylor didn’t have to ask what she meant, but he didn’t have an answer for her. “Carry on and pretend this is all normal, I suppose.”

“You know, depending on what becomes of Isaac and Kathryn, there may be more pressure on us to set a date.”

“I suppose so,” Taylor replied. “You’ll forgive me if I say that I don’t want to rush into it. Shouldn’t we wait to see how the cards fall?”

“Should we?” Natalie asked, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t demand anything of you. Only I worry we’ll cause even more talk if we do nothing.”

Taylor sighed. “You may be right. Perhaps—if this is not too soon—we could have something arranged for Christmas?”

“Only if you’re sure it’s what you want,” Natalie replied, sounding a bit sheepish. “I know—I can’t say this without something conceited—but I know you’ll never find another woman. It’s been somewhat of a relief to know that. But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I thought I’d forced you into anything.”

“You wouldn’t be forcing me at all,” Taylor said, pausing to grasp both of her hands. “I do love you, Natalie. And you know that no matter what, I’ll never stand in the way of you finding something that makes you happy. Once we take this step, I hope, we’ll be free of so many prying eyes. We’ll be able to make our own happiness, together and otherwise.”

‘I hope you’re right,” Natalie replied, smiling up at him.

Taylor leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Thank you so much, Natalie.”

“For what?”

“For being so understanding,” he said. “I’m not stupid enough to think that just any girl would be happy with this sort of arrangement. Nor am I rich enough to believe you’re only humoring me to get at my money. Especially now that it seems I will not, in fact, be heir.”

“I never cared whether you were heir or not,” she said. “You know that. You know I only care for you. I adore our friendship, and I know that friendship is a lot more than many couples have, even ones who have been married for decades. Why shouldn’t I want to marry you?”

“I can think of a few reasons,” Taylor remarked. “But thank you, again, for not seeing them. Thank you for accepting me—in every way.”

“You’re welcome,” Natalie replied, smiling up at him.

He gave her hands a squeeze, then turned them loose and lead her back toward the castle grounds, where he knew a picnic luncheon awaited them. It might not have been the right time to announce their plans, but as they approached the party, Taylor decided he hardly cared. Why wait?

“Mama; Papa,” he said, as they approached his parents. “Can you gather everyone around? Natalie and I have something to say. That is, I have something to say. About the two of us.”

Natalie giggled softly, and Taylor decided it truly was a good thing he was only the second son. He wasn’t cut out for the spotlight at all. He felt his cheeks growing red as his family and hers gathered around, everyone eyeing him curiously.

“Ahem. Thanks, all. Natalie and I—well, we just wanted to announce that we’ve decided that we’ve delayed long enough. We’d like to be married this year at Christmas.”

A cheer went up from the crowd and glasses were clinked together, but Taylor couldn’t help noticing that not everyone was celebrating. Zac sat alone, not having even bothered to join the group for Taylor’s announcement. His gaze was trained on Lady Kathryn who also looked as though she’d just eaten something terribly sour.

And Nicholas…

Taylor could hardly judge the expression on his face at all, as he spun around on his heel and walked speedily away from the group. Taylor did not know what to make of that at all. He wanted to chase after him, yet he knew that he couldn’t. He was stuck, surrounded by praise and excitement, while his heart walked away.

****

Zac had been paired with an impossibly boring local girl for the shooting, and at least twice he had been tempted to turn the gun on himself. At least that might have made her scream if he’d threatened it, and god knew that would have been the most excitement he’d gotten out of her all day.
That night at dinner, his white jacket had been more stifling than usual. He knew he’d had too much to drink the night before, and he supposed that was as good a thing as any to blame for his bad mood. But he knew the truth.

Lady Kathryn.

The truth was that Lady Kathryn was making it impossible for him to have a good time. He’d found a little cheap thrill with the new ladies maid, and Kate had managed to ruin even that. Zac could not rid himself of the mental image of her face as he’d turned away from his dirty deed. Nor could he stop himself from wondering just how much she had watched.

He wondered if she had any clue the spell she had him under. A part of him was sure she did, and that it amused her to see him suffer so.

Then again, she too seemed to be suffering, and Zac knew why. Still, his brother’s indiscretion was no reason to lash out at him; he wasn’t responsible for Isaac’s behavior. Zac sipped his drink bitterly as he watched her flirting with yet another handsome, able-bodied suitor. He wondered if this one even noticed how dead her eyes looked. He wondered if he even cared.

Zac supposed this was his big opportunity to prove that he wasn’t completely worthless. While a part of him wanted to rebel against that and be as worthless as humanly possible, he knew what he had to do.

With some effort, he pulled himself from his chair and walked over to where Kathryn stood talking to whats-his-name. He cleared his throat loudly and said, “Lady Kathryn. I hope you haven’t forgotten that you promised to show me your favorite painting here at Longford. I’m sorry I waited so late to take you up on that offer.”

Kate eyed him closely for a moment, then quickly adopted a smile that nearly hid her confusion. “Oh, yes, of course. And I am sorry I got so caught up in talking to—er—”

“Lockwood,” the young man said, holding his chin obnoxiously high. "Viscount."

“Yes, course,” Kate said. “I did so enjoy hearing about your new rifle, but I fear did make plans with Captain Hanson here. You’ll excuse me.”

“Of course,” he replied, although he looked very much like he wanted to try said rifle out on Zac.

Zac gave him a wide grin, then took Kate’s arm in his and led her away. With the room so full of guests, it was easy enough to slip away unnoticed, and the two remained silent until they were well away from the party, walking down a hall that was, indeed, lined with opulent paintings, most of which appeared to be centuries old, like the castle itself.

“I would say thank you, but I am not at all sure what that was about,” Kate said.

“You mean you’d rather spend your evening with Viscount Chinless than with me?”

“I am not going to dignify that with an answer,” she said, turning up her nose at him.

Zac eyed her, and in only a matter of seconds she dissolved into laughter, her haughty demeanor fading away.

“Oh goodness, did you hear him, though?” She asked. “I don’t think even a soldier like you could care that much about a gun. I’m not sure why he was even bothering with me; he’s clearly already in love with his weapon.”

“Most men are,” Zac shot back.

“Mmm, well, you would know,” Kate replied, her laughter fading away.

“I am sorry that you saw that, you know,” Zac said softly. “I don’t know what else to say, other than to implore you again to keep my secret.”

“And I must ask you again: why should I?”

“You know I don’t have a good answer for that,” he said. “But what good would come of talking about it? It was one drunken indiscretion. The things I’ve seen, the things we did in France—this wouldn’t bear speaking about if you knew any of that.”

“Then I’m glad I don’t know any of that,” Kate said, and Zac was sure that he saw her eyes flicker down to his left leg for just a moment.

He cleared his throat. “That isn’t quite my point. All I mean is that it would do neither of us any good if you were to talk. You would hardly make yourself look good. And as for me, I think my reputation is already set. I think it would be more of a shock if I didn’t cause some sort of family scandal.”

“You could choose not to be like that, you know,” Kate replied softly.

“As could you,” Zac countered.

“And what, exactly, am I like?”

“Aloof. Unreadable. Pretentious.” Zac tilted his head to the side. “Actually, I suppose it’s all exactly what you’re meant to be. But god, is it boring.”

“I did not know I was here for your amusement,” Kate replied, just the tiniest hint of a smirk on her lips.

“Someone ought to be,” Zac said. “You’re as good as anyone else. Better, in fact. Because you are quite an enigma, and I am determined to figure you out.”

“Should I be flattered by that?” She asked. Without waiting for an answer, she added, “And what if I don’t want you to figure me out?”

“You should know that only makes me want to try harder,” Zac replied. With a soft sigh, he added, “Whether you believe me or not, this truly isn’t a game. I don’t, in fact, enjoy seeing you in pain. Whether it’s because of Viscount Arsehole or whoever.”

“Your brother, you mean,” she said softly.

“Or whoever.”

Kate glanced down, and Zac took a big risk. He reached out his hand and put it gently on her arm. She was even thinner than he imagined, but nowhere near as fragile. She didn’t even tremble at his touch.

“Kathryn,” Zac said softly. “I can’t pretend to understand what you’re going through right now, and I know you won’t tell me a thing about it that I don’t already know. But I swear to you, I am being sincere. I want to break through your façade, and not purely for my own amusement, though I admit that was how it began. Only it seems to me that you need a friend now. Someone who has seen and heard it all, and who is therefore incapable of judging you.”

“Someone like you,” she replied.

He shrugged. “I’ll step aside if you find someone better suited for the job.”

“I simply don’t understand why you care,” she said.

“Neither do I,” Zac admitted. “But what does that matter? Why do we feel anything that we feel? Whatever passed between us when we were kids, however much we tormented each other—we are part of each other’s lives. Part of each other’s stories. This is just… a new chapter. And we’re writing it now, however we like.”

“You assume I’m going to like what you like,” Kate replied, although Zac was certain he could hear her defenses lowering as she spoke.

“I assume nothing,” Zac said softly, reaching his hand up to brush across her cheek. “I’m only presenting you with an option, which I assure you benefits you far more than it does me. I only want to—well, to be your friend, honestly.”

“Honestly,” Kate echoed.

Zac nodded. Did he want more than that? In truth, yes. But Kate did not need to know that. Kate was not yet free to give him more than that, and so he would not ask. Maybe he was capable of changing after all. She did not need to know that either.

“I suppose that would be… acceptable,” Kate replied. “On my terms only.”

“Of course. Your terms.”

Kate nodded, a faint smile on her lips.

“To friendship,” Zac said, raising an invisible glass in a toast.

Kate chuckled, but mimicked the same movement. The two shared a laugh, and Zac could not remember the last time he had been so happy. The freckles on her nose were even more noticeable when she smiled, and her eyes sparkled in a way that did something to Zac, right behind his ribcage.

Before he could stop himself, he’d cupped her face in his hands and pressed his lips to hers. She made a soft whimper, but did not push him away. After a second or two, she relaxed, but Zac did not push his luck any further. He kept the kiss as chaste as possible, his hands staying planted on her face even as he finally broke the kiss.

“That was not at all friendly,” she said breathlessly.

“Indeed it was not,” Zac agreed. “I offer my apologies.”

“They’re not necessary,” Kate whispered.

Zac stared at her, hardly believing he had heard her correctly. He face had gone unreadable again, and he took a step back. Kate nodded slightly, then gathered her skirts and turned away. As he watched her walk away, Zac realized he had no idea at all what had just happened.

Chapter Text

Taylor was dismayed, but not particularly surprised that Nicholas seemed to make himself scarce over the next few days. There were so many guests at the castle that most hardly even seemed to notice that their host was barely present. He managed to appear for dinner, but he was only going through the motions. In spite of the short time they had known each other, Taylor could tell the difference. The sparkle he so loved to see in Nicholas’s eyes was gone entirely.

And he had a sinking feeling that he was the cause.

The final night brought a massive ball that saw more and more people piling into the castle in their finest. Taylor, however, could not relax and enjoy himself at all. He sat brooding in a corner, declining all offers to dance except for Natalie’s.

As he spun her around the room, he was surprised to see Zac and Kate dancing as well. He opened his mouth to make some sort of remark to Natalie about it, then realized he had no clue what to say at all. He would have to ask her about it later, he decided. Perhaps she knew something he didn’t.

When the song ended, a hush went over the room and Taylor realized his father had stepped up, Lady Diana and Natalie’s parents standing just behind him. He raised a glass and cleared his throat.

“May we all say a toast to the, hopeful, healthy return of my eldest son. I know we have all suffered long, waiting for any word that he was well. We have received word, and do hope to hear more soon. While he was gone, I know that we all felt the family was frozen, unable to see how to proceed. That time has, I hope, passed. And so, it is with great pleasure that I wish to announce that Taylor and Lady Natalie will be wed at Christmas, which will surely make it a very happy Christmas for both of our families. To family, and young love!”

A cheer went up from the crowd as what seemed like a thousand glasses were clinked together. The sound was beautiful, but Taylor could hardly even force a smile, particularly as he saw Nicholas slip quietly from the room.

Taylor waited until the band had begun again before turning back to Natalie and giving her a weak smile. “I’m afraid I must chase after your cousin. Do make some excuse for me, should anyone ask.”

“Cousin Nicholas has always had a flare for the dramatic,” Natalie replied. “Give him time and he’ll be fine. It isn’t as if this is a surprise to anyone.”

“It isn’t, but I do feel I should have talked it over with him first. So I must do what I can now to smooth things over.”

“Good luck,” Natalie said softly, giving Taylor’s hand a gentle squeeze before letting go. She gave him a nod that was as good as granting her permission, and he turned to make his way through the crowd.

If anyone noticed him leaving, no one said a word, and Taylor was very grateful for that. They would no doubt murmur about him in his absence, but so long as he did not have to answer any of their questions, Taylor found that he truly didn’t care.

All that mattered right then was tracking down Nicholas and doing whatever he could to make certain things were okay between the two of them.

Finally, Taylor spied a familiar figure slumped over the edge of a wall that overlooked the castle gardens. He did not want to call out to him, for fear that Nicholas would run or worse, simply shut down and refuse to speak to him. He took his steps as loudly as possible, giving him plenty of warning and time to decide which course of action was best.

He did not run, and Taylor decided to take this as a good sign.

“Taylor,” Nicholas said softly as Taylor came to stand beside him.

“Nicholas,” Taylor echoed. “I can’t pretend to know what you’re feeling right now.”

“No, I don’t suppose you can,” Nicholas replied. “As much as our positions are similar, I’m finding they are also quite different. You know of course it is only a matter of time before I am pressured to marry as well. Two marquesses in a row to die unmarried and childless simply wouldn’t do at all.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Taylor asked.

Nicholas tuned to stare at him. “How will you feel when I announce my engagement to some woman you likely don’t even know? Who couldn’t possibly understand us?”

“It is, as you said, what is expected of you. What you must do.”

“Yes,” Nicholas said, “but how will you feel about it?”

“How I feel doesn’t change anything. We do what is required of us. And what is required is that we marry and have children. For you even moreso than for me, if Isaac does indeed return home. The pressure is off me soon, I hope.”

“Then why get married now?” Nicholas asked.

“If Isaac did not return, if everyone accepted that he would not—I mean no disrespect to either of your families, but Natalie is not a good match for a viscount. But I like her—love her, even, though not in that way. We have an understanding that I do not believe I could find with any other woman. Our future may be more certain than it was just a few weeks ago, but I realized I cannot risk being matched with someone else who would not leave me free to pursue my desires. It did neither of us any good to delay longer.”

“You still have not answered my question. Or, I suppose, you have. You would not care at all if I married.”

Taylor stared incredulously at him. “Whether I care or not is irrelevant. It must happen. We cannot change that, no matter how much we want to. So what good does it do either of us to whinge about it?”

“What good does it do—” Nicholas began, then trailed off, shaking his head. “You forget that I was not raised for this. I was not prepared to live a life that was not my own. I don’t know how to do this as well as you do, Taylor. Don’t you see that half the reason I’m attracted to you is that you are everything I wish I was? Poised, confident, prepared for his duty.”

“I am flattered that you see me that way,” Taylor said, his tone only a little incredulous. “Inside, I am falling apart. Constantly. Piece by piece. You must see that. I may have been raised for this, but that does not make it easy.”

“My goodness, we’re a mess,” Nicholas replied, chuckling softly. “No wonder we found each other.”

“I suppose so,” Taylor said. “And for what it is worth, I am truly sorry that I did not approach you first. You should have known. I don’t know what will become of us, of this thing between us, but I do not want to lose it. To lose you. We can never fully be each other’s, but I could be more respectful of your feelings. I promise to do so in the future, if you’ll have me.”

“If I’ll have you,” Nicholas echoed. “As if there were any doubt. Would I be such an emotional mess now if I did not want you?”

“I suppose not,” Taylor replied sheepishly, risking a few steps closer to him.

“I do adore you, you know,” Nicholas said softly.

“I do know,” Taylor replied. “And I feel the same. More than you know.”

For what seemed like the first time in days, Nicholas smiled. Taylor put his hands on either side of Nicholas’s face and pressed their foreheads together. He knew this was only a first step, and they still had endless battles ahead of them. He was confident, now, that they could win those battles.

They simply had to. There was no other option.

****

Somehow, Jessica had convinced her parents to let her remain at Beasley Hall while the rest of the family went off to hunt and party at Longford Castle. Jessica could not imagine herself partying right then at all. While the world was still at war and injured men were still pouring into the hospital, there was, as far as she was concerned, nothing to celebrate at all.

Except perhaps one thing.

Her new friend, Teddy, seemed to be growing stronger each day. She knew it was likely only a matter of time before he was well enough to be released, and she did not know what she would do then. Would they be able to keep in touch? Would her family allow it?

Although she would never admit it to anyone, a part of her was glad of the war. It meant she did not need to worry about anything but day to day living. It meant her family had not given a single thought to finding a match for her. She was allowed to remain in this suspended state between childhood and adulthood, and she found she quite liked the freedom that it gave her.

On the morning before her family was set to return home, she found herself running a bit late. There was truly no set schedule; there was no shortage of volunteers, and anyone could jump in and fill her place if she didn’t come at all. But Jessica liked to be punctual, and it bothered her to stray from that habit.

Something about it just felt wrong, though she could not say what. It simply set her on edge, making the whole day feel off somehow.

When she finally made it to the hospital, that off feeling did not go away. It seemed to be an exceptionally busy day, nurses and doctors rushing around so that she could hardly elbow her way into the ward.

Jessica finally managed grab a young nurse’s arm and stop her. “What’s going on? What’s all the fuss about?”

“One of the soldiers has had a relapse of some sort,” the nurse replied.

“Who? What happened?” Jessica asked breathlessly.

It suddenly occurred to her that she was being shuttled out of the room. Nurses had gathered around her, two at each arm, and they were easily maneuvering her outside. The image of the pandemonium inside was burned into her eyelids and she belatedly released that everyone had seemed to be congregated around one bed in particular.

Teddy’s.

“Is he… what’s happened to him? To Teddy?” Jessica finally managed to ask the one nurse who had remained by her side in the courtyard.

“A hemorrhage. He’s developed internal bleeding that had previously been overlooked. In truth, we do not know how long it has gone untreated.”

“And will he be—“ Jessica could not finish her sentence.

The nurse shook her head. “We do not yet know. If the bleeding has gone on for too long, there may be irreparable damage. The doctors are doing everything they can, you must believe that. The doctors here are the best. They will not stop until they have exhausted all of their resources.”

“But it may not be enough.”

“It may not,” the nurse agreed. “But it may. Anything is possible. You must believe that.”

Jessica nodded, but she did not. She did not believe it at all.

It was as if she had wished upon a monkey’s paw. She had spent so long hoping for her brother’s return, to save her family from ruin. She had feared the worst and known that they were doomed if Isaac did not return. Yet she had enjoyed her freedom and the fact that her job had afforded her the chance to talk to men like she could not have before.

In order to have Isaac returned to her, she realized, she must sacrifice this growing friendship with Teddy. She knew without question that he would be taken from her. No matter what the doctors did, Jessica was sure that the bargain had already been made.

Due to her attachment to him, they would not allow her inside the hospital while the doctors were operating. Jessica paced the courtyard for a time, but found that that only made her more anxious. She found a seat and pulled out her book. It was not the same, reading to herself. She wondered if it would ever feel the same again.

In only a matter of weeks, everything had changed.

Jessica had thought women like her did not feel these sort of emotions. They couldn’t afford to. They married out of duty, not out of love. Perhaps they did still fall in love, though. Jessica had never asked. Perhaps they did fall in love, but perhaps not always with the men they had to marry. She had never considered that before. She did not want to consider it now.

She had just finished the book when finally the same nurse emerged through the doorway again. She gave Jessica a small nod, and Jessica didn’t dare ask if that were a good sign or not.

“You may see him now,” the nurse said simply.

Jessica nodded, and followed her to the east wing where Teddy now lay, separate from the rest of the soldiers. Although she knew that was likely not a good sign, Jessica was glad of it. It gave her some privacy with him, which the doctors and nurses seemed to understand that she needed. Although she knew they were waiting just outside the door, she still appreciated being allowed a moment alone with Teddy.

He was pale, and Jessica had to watch him for a moment to be assured that he was still breathing. He was, but barely. It was the only sign that he still lived at all, and Jessica suspected he would not for much longer. Anyone who spent much time on a war ward developed a sort of sixth sense; men had a certain look about them when they were not long for the world, and Teddy now had that look.

“Oh, god,” Jessica said, falling to her knees next to his bed and grasping his limp hand.

He did not respond, nor did she expect him to. She knew that this time, he would not be roused by the sound of her voice, no matter how miraculous he had proclaimed it.

“What am I going to do?” She asked. “What will I do, Teddy? My goodness, I don’t even know your proper name. Nor do you know mine, I suppose. Yet I feel I have known you for years. I feel you’re a part of me. It isn’t fair, Teddy. But none of this is, is it? This whole bloody war. The things we’ve all seen—the things you must have seen and done. I can’t even begin to imagine, although I’ve seen the damage.

“I am falling in love With you, Teddy. You must know that. You simply must. If you could hear me before, I pray to god you can hear me now and that you know. If you did not indeed know already. It simply isn’t fair if you go to your grave without that knowledge. Teddy, whoever you are—I love you.”

At first, she thought she had imagined it. She held herself as still as possible, and it happened again. His hand gave the faintest twitch, and then—

“Jessica,” he whispered. “My Jessica. My guardian angel.”

“Oh, Teddy.”

“Edward,” he breathed out. “If you must know. It’s Edward.’

“Edward,” Jessica repeated. “I dare not ask how much you heard just now.”

“All of it, I believe,” he replied. He turned his head ever so slightly to look her in the eyes. “I do love you, too, you know. I hung on just for you. Just to be able to see your face before I left.”

“Don’t say that,” she whispered.

“But it’s true,” Edward replied. “I had to know you. I had to see you. When you were gone and I was all alone… I knew I must be near the end. With certainty, I knew it. I am sorry, to put such a burden on you. I cannot explain what you meant to me. What you did for me. But it has been a joy to talk with you these last few days and weeks. I hope—I hope it’s enough for you to carry with you.”

“It will be,” Jessica replied. “It must be. I will treasure these memories forever, Edward.”

“And where I am, I shall think of you always,” Edward replied.

Jessica knew it was bold, but she also knew the time to care about that was over. She leaned in and pressed her lips to his. She had only kissed a boy once before, on a dare from Avery. It had been nothing like this. Edward pressed his hand to her cheek and returned the kiss with what she was sure was all the force he could muster.

She had only just found the strength to pull away when a flurry of motion caught her eye. A nurse rushed into the room, sweeping her away from him. The nurse assured her that it was for the best, that he needed rest now and must not be bothered, but Jessica could not shake the feeling that she would never have another chance to see him.