The entire idea was sheer madness, of course, but Gerard was hardly going to let that stop him.
Some of the items he’d bought in person, under the pretence of shopping for gifts. For others—the undergarments, for example—he’d taken his own measurements as best he could and ordered from the makers directly, having his purchases delivered to a post office box held under a false name (one he’d originally used for the delivery of books that no respectable shop carried).
This much accomplished on his own, he came to a point where seeking the help of another was no longer avoidable. Gerard briefly considered the upstairs maid, whose silence could perhaps have been bought through loyalty, money, or both, and who would have at least some idea of what she was about. But it didn’t take long to determine that there was only one person he was willing to trust with this.
Michael didn’t seem particularly shocked when Gerard approached him with the idea, but then, Gerard had never seen his younger brother look particularly shocked at anything. He merely looked at Gerard, blinked once or twice, and repeated in a flat tone, “You want me to help you dress up like a woman.”
“It’s the stays in particular I think I’ll need help with,” Gerard told him. “Well, and buttoning the dress, and perhaps the wig.”
Michael raised an eyebrow, his expression unchanging otherwise. “And once I’ve helped wrestle you into a dress and a wig, what exactly are you planning on doing?”
“There’s a masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens,” Gerard said. “Tomorrow—”
“Tomorrow night, I know,” Michael finished, and then sighed, giving a slight shake of his head. “I suppose if you mean to try something like this, a masquerade is the safest place to do it, outside your own bedroom.”
“So you’ll help?” Gerard asked, with cautious hope, and when Michael nodded, he swooped down on his brother and embraced him, planting a kiss on his cheek. “Oh, Michael, thank you.”
Being laced into stays was not the most comfortable experience. Gerard was not precisely portly, but he was given to both infrequent exercise and frequent second or third glasses of wine at dinner, leaving him somewhat soft around the middle. There was a great deal of pinching, some shortness of breath, and more than one inquiry as to whether Michael was sure he was doing this properly (Michael replying that he’d done it in reverse often enough to not be completely at sea, and that if Gerard wanted his help he should accept it without complaint), but once the laces were tied and there was no more tugging, Gerard found the resulting tightness not unbearable, and even somewhat pleasant in a perverse way. There was even room at the chest for two wadded rolls of cloth, giving him a passable illusion of breasts.
After that, putting on the dress was far more enjoyable. The one he’d chosen was a bit old-fashioned, with a style that had declined somewhat in popularity, but that wouldn’t matter so much at a masquerade, and it suited Gerard’s purpose: a high bustline to conceal his lack of any natural endowment, full skirts to mask the shape of his hips, and enough layers of petticoat that he need have no fear of his manhood being discovered. It was a dark lilac in colour, with silver embroidery on the bodice, and the silk rustled appealingly as Michael helped him fasten it, sliding against Gerard’s skin in a way that elicited a delightful shiver.
Michael had him turn in a circle to make sure of the fit, and smiled wryly. “You would make a very pretty sister,” he allowed after a moment. “I should have to keep all your suitors in line.”
Gerard grinned at that, and then gathered his skirts up to step into the high-heeled shoes.
“Are you going to be able to manage those?” Michael asked, looking a bit dubious.
“I’ve practiced walking in them,” Gerard said. “Dancing may be a different matter, but then, I doubt I’ll do very much of that.”
The cosmetics were by far the easiest part, Gerard having obtained them well before the rest and taken some time to practice. A light sweep of rouge over his cheekbones, a dusting of powder that matched the dress in colour on his eyelids, and dark red over his lips. Michael ended up doing most of the work putting the wig on, Gerard simply reaching up to steady it now and then and handing Michael more hairpins whenever he asked.
The final touches were a simple band of dark silk around Gerard’s throat, a silver bracelet on his wrist (one that had belonged to their grandmother, taken from her room by Gerard more for sentimental reasons than because he’d ever planned to wear it himself), and a delicate half-mask that he’d painted to match the dress and the jewellery, tied behind his ears with a ribbon and then secured with a few extra pins.
Standing in front of his mirror to examine the total effect, Gerard barely recognised himself, which he supposed meant that he ought to be able to go unrecognised by any acquaintances he might encounter.
“Have you given any thought to how you’re going to get out of the house in that costume?” Michael asked.
Gerard had, as it happened. “You’re going to get the servants to leave the back stairwell empty for a few minutes, and I’m going to go down and then call a coach across the street.”
Vauxhall was full of light and music when Gerard arrived, lanterns gleaming in the trees and the sound of the orchestra spilling out onto the street. Gerard paid a shilling for admission at the gate and made his way inside, looking about.
He had been to Vauxhall often enough as a child, gaping at the spectacle all around and begging his parents for treats, and a handful of times as an adult, though on those occasions he’d kept himself largely separate from the pleasure garden’s other visitors, preferring to observe their merriment without joining in or lose himself in the more secluded walks. The place had never lost its sense of enchantment, manufactured though that enchantment might be, but as Gerard had grown older it had grown harder to feel that he was at all part of it.
Tonight, he already felt, would be different. Tonight he was no passive observer, but part of the same illusion of magical beauty that drew the crowds to Vauxhall, casting his own glamour every moment he was there.
The evening’s festivities were centred in the large clearing known as the Grove. The orchestra played from a building in the middle, open to the mild summer air, while some couples sat in the pavilions or supper-boxes all around and others danced or simply walked about in the open spaces between the buildings.
There was more than one young lady present who seemed to be without a chaperone, so Gerard wouldn’t stand out in that regard. As he made his way into the crowd of strangers, he felt a brief moment of anxiety, a belated second thought about whether or not he would truly be able to do this. But while several idly curious glances were cast in his direction, he saw no suspicion in any them, and after a few moments, he began to relax somewhat.
As he walked about, Gerard’s train of thought was rather suddenly interrupted when he stepped over an uneven patch of ground. Having reconciled themselves easily enough to walking in women’s shoes over even ground, his feet chose to greet this new obstacle with immediate revolt. He stumbled, and would almost certainly have fallen if not for the hands that caught him: one at his elbow, one at the small of his back, steadying Gerard for the brief but crucial moment it took to regain his footing.
“Steady on, there,” said a voice that presumably went with the hands, and Gerard turned his head to confirm this. A young man stood at his side, an expression of gentlemanly concern on his face, which was uncovered except for a simple black domino mask across his eyes.
He was short—Gerard thought he would be taller even without high-heeled shoes, and he was no paragon of height, himself—but handsome, with dark hair trimmed short and brown eyes that caught the light most attractively. He was dressed like a commoner, in a plain homespun shirt and russet waistcoat, but he had the bearing and accent of privilege.
“All right, now?” he asked, and when Gerard nodded, he relinquished his hold on Gerard’s back and elbow.
“Thank you, sir,” Gerard said, doing his best to pitch his voice high without it sounding false (another thing he’d practiced in the safety of his own bedroom).
“Not at all,” the gentleman replied. “It would be a crime to see a beautiful lady in distress and not come to her aid.”
Gerard felt sudden heat flood his cheeks, and for a moment, all he could think about was that he had just been called beautiful.
Then he remembered himself, and the full truth of the situation dawned on him: that he had just been called a beautiful lady by a handsome young man who had apparently been taken in by his disguise, and that he seemed to have blundered into exactly the sort of situation he had hoped to avoid by staying in motion and not engaging anyone in conversation.
Gerard struggled to collect himself, to give a composed answer and hope that his blush and awkward pause could be taken for ladylike shyness.
“Then I thank you for the compliment, as well,” he managed eventually. “And since I am no longer in distress, thanks to your intervention, I will bid you good evening.”
He bobbed down and back up in what he hoped was a passable curtsey, and then turned to walk away.
Frank had loved masquerades for as long as he could remember.
He loved the escape from the ordinary, the chance to be someone else for an evening, and he loved all the possibilities that went hand in hand with that. One could get away with things at a masquerade that would never be possible, never be allowed, in the ordinary course of things, and Frank never tired of that intoxicating feeling of freedom.
For example, in the ordinary course of things, it would be nothing short of scandalous for a young woman to appear in public without a chaperone. But at a masquerade, particularly one held at Vauxhall, a girl craving freedom or adventure could do as she pleased without fearing for her reputation—and in the past, Frank had gladly assisted more than one young lady in exploring that unusual liberty.
Not that there had been any ulterior motive in Frank’s mind tonight, when he came to the aid of the woman in the old-fashioned dress. He saw her stumble, he caught her, it was as simple as that. It was only afterward that he realised how beautiful she was, and that she seemed to be unattended.
She curtseyed and turned to walk away, and Frank followed, drawing abreast and keeping pace with her at a gentlemanly distance.
“But it’s far too early for good evenings,” he protested. “Unless there’s a partner somewhere you’re hurrying back to?”
The lady blushed again, the flush of colour showing easily against her fair skin. “Perhaps there is,” she replied. “Is that some concern of yours?”
“Well, if you do have a partner, he’s a fool to have let you out of his sight,” Frank said, and then quickened his pace and turned to stand before her, holding out a hand. “And if you don’t, then you should dance with me.”
She stopped short at that, seeming surprised at the request. “You flatter me, sir,” she said after a moment, “but I’m certain you could find a partner less likely to trip over her own feet, or step on yours.”
“Let me worry about my own feet,” Frank replied lightly. “As for yours, my lady, I can think of far worse fates than having to catch you again.” The woman’s blush deepened, and Frank took a step closer, giving her his most winning smile. “Please? One dance, that’s all I ask.”
She hesitated, glancing around at the crowd, and then back at him. Behind the mask, her eyes were large and expressive, their colour a bright hazel that shifted from brown to green depending on how the light struck them. There was a certain amount of apprehension in those eyes, but also curiosity and excitement, a combination of emotions Frank had seen before.
“One dance?” she echoed.
“One dance,” Frank said solemnly, extending his hand once more.
She lifted her own hand, hesitated a moment, and then placed it in his.
The sensible thing would have been to refuse, of course. But then, the truly sensible thing would be to have never embarked on this mad scheme in the first place. But he had, and it had succeeded better than he had dared to hope, and Gerard felt recklessly emboldened by that success. And after coming this far, why shouldn’t he dance at least once?
So he gave the young man his hand, and let himself be led towards the other dancing couples, doing his best to appear natural.
Gerard had received a certain amount of dancing instruction as a boy, and been taught to lead, of course. But he had rarely had occasion to put that teaching to use, and had some experience following as well, from the times he and Michael had practiced together. It wasn’t as difficult as he might have feared to make himself follow where the young man led as the orchestra struck up with a lively minuet.
“There, now,” his companion said after a moment, unconsciously echoing Gerard’s thoughts. “This isn’t so terrible, is it?”
“I’m reserving judgment until we both make it through the dance unscathed,” Gerard replied, feeling a smile start to creep across his face. “But it seems to be going tolerably well so far.”
The young man’s answering smile was broad, and had a touch of rakish mischief to it. He moved with an easy grace, quick and sure-footed as he led them into a turn. Gerard followed with less self-assurance, concerned less with keeping a graceful appearance than with simply keeping his feet.
Gerard did stumble again, towards the end of the dance, and true enough, his partner caught him again. For a moment, the two of them were closer than was strictly proper, the young man’s chest brushing against Gerard’s side and his arm around Gerard’s waist. Gerard drew back quickly (feeling himself blush yet again), and his companion let him go, hands coming to rest at his sides.
“You see?” Gerard said. “I’m afraid I’m not a very accomplished dancer.”
“Well, I find that the best way to become more accomplished at anything is through practice,” the young man said lightly.
In spite of himself, Gerard felt his mouth quirk up in a smile. “Meaning, I suppose, that I should disregard our agreement and dance with you again.”
The young man shrugged. “I’m perfectly willing to honour our agreement, of course. But should you wish to dance again, I should be more than happy to oblige you.”
The offer was tempting—very tempting, Gerard thought, looking again at the young man’s bright, curious eyes and easy smile. But he had been quite reckless enough for one evening, and didn’t intend to press his luck any further.
“I thank you for the offer,” he said, stepping back. “But I must refuse this time.”
The young man sighed, but gave an acquiescing nod. “If you must. Another time, perhaps, if we should meet again.”
“Perhaps,” Gerard agreed placidly, privately resolving that there would never be another time. Gathering up his skirts for another curtsey, he added, “It was a pleasure, sir.”
“The pleasure was mine,” the young man replied, with a courtly bow. “Good evening, my lady.”
Gerard smiled at him once more, and then moved away, seeking to lose himself in the crowd.
Frank watched the young woman go, doing his best to keep track of her as she moved through the crowd. Retreating to the edge of the clearing himself, out of the way of those still dancing, he lost sight of her briefly, then spotted the lilac of her dress again amid the confusing swirl of colour all around.
Standing on the other side of the Grove from Frank, she paused, watching the dancers for several moments. Then she turned, gathering her skirts around her, and left the clearing, vanishing quickly down one of the many tree-lined paths.
Frank wished she had stayed until the unmasking at midnight; wished he had some name or even a fully uncovered face to put to her. But even without that, perhaps they would meet again some other night. If nothing else, Frank felt certain he would remember her eyes.
Gerard made his way both home and back into the house without incident, enlisting Michael’s help again to get out of the dress and wig.
“Well? How was it?” Michael inquired as he unlaced the stays, managing to sound completely disinterested even as he asked the question.
Gerard thought back on the evening: the light and colour of Vauxhall, the music and the dancing, the way the smiling young man had looked at him and the way all of it had made Gerard feel.
“It was perfect,” he said with a sigh.
Once he’d changed into a dressing gown and washed his face, Gerard placed everything in a chest—the dress folded carefully on top, with the wig and shoes and undergarments tucked beneath it—and stowed the chest securely under his bed.
His entire outing might never have happened now, except that his feet were still sore from the shoes. It might all have been a dream. It was already beginning to feel like one, to seem like something he would surely never have been bold enough to do.
But he had done it. And having been so bold once, he already felt the temptation to do it again.
It was slightly more than a week after the masquerade when Gerard bought the second dress.
He had been on his way to one of the bookstores he frequented when he spied it through a shop window. It was a deep, rich blue, and more modern in style than the first dress he’d bought, with a simpler shape and longer sleeves. Gerard paused to look for a moment, and then hurried on. Several hours later, passing by the same shop on his way home, he paused again, for longer this time.
The next day, he returned to the shop and found the dress still there. And, after a few more moments of internal debate, he stepped inside to ask the shopkeeper about it, explaining that he had a young cousin who he thought might like it.
There was no masquerade that night—no excuse to wear a mask, no taboo barring anyone Gerard might meet from asking his name or other personal details. But Vauxhall was still Vauxhall, where one could go without invitation or announcement, and decline to answer questions, if one chose.
Michael sighed a bit, but helped Gerard dress again without further comment.
It was not, precisely, that Frank had been looking for the hazel-eyed woman. To phrase it that way implied that he had been going to Vauxhall in the evenings specifically to look for her, which was not the case at all. Frank often spent at least part of his evening at Vauxhall, and he had danced with (and perhaps stolen a kiss or two from) several quite lovely women there since the night of the masquerade. And if he’d also been keeping an eye out for the lady from the masquerade, well, what of it?
He had yet to see her again, and was beginning to worry that she might not be so easy to recognize as he had hoped, when he turned and caught sight of a women in a blue dress. She was standing apart from the crowd, turned so that Frank saw her face in profile, and of all things, it was her slightly upturned nose he recognised first.
He moved closer, watching her as she watched the crowd, taking in sweep of her eyelashes when she blinked, the way her dark hair was gathered loosely at her nape, the elegant line of her neck, cut across with a silk band as it had been before, the gentle swell of her bosom beneath the silk of her dress.
As Frank drew near, she turned, and he saw her eyes widen in recognition.
“Hello,” he said, smiling. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?”
“I’m surprised you remember, sir,” the woman replied.
“Oh, you were certainly memorable,” Frank said. Colour flooded her cheeks, and he hastened to add, “I mean that, of course, in the most complimentary way.”
“Of course,” she echoed, with a wry smile. “You were fairly memorable yourself, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Frank replied, and held out a hand to her. “And would be even gladder to introduce myself to you properly.”
She seemed to hesitate for a moment, then placed her hand in his. Frank bowed low, brushing his lips against her knuckles. “Frank Iero, at your service.”
“Iero?” she repeated, her tone curious.
“My family’s Sicilian, two generations back,” he explained. “And you, my lady?”
The woman drew her hands back from his, pressing her lips together for a moment before answering. “I beg your pardon, sir, but I would prefer not to say.”
Frank raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? As you like, but I must confess that only makes me more curious about you.”
“I hope you can live with having your curiosity go unsatisfied, then,” she replied evenly.
Frank gave an exaggerated sigh and spread his hands. “I’ll do my best. But if you wished, you could make my disappointment more bearable by dancing with me.”
“I’m not certain I should encourage your attention, Mr. Iero,” she said. Her tone was light, but there was a guarded look in her eyes.
“I promise to keep my curiosity reigned in,” he told her solemnly. “You can direct the conversation, if you like.”
She stood looking at him a bit longer, and then gave a faint smile. “Very well, Sir, but I intend to hold you to your word.”
Frank gave an acquiescing nod, and offered his hand to lead her into the dance. “What shall we talk about, then?” he asked. “Fashion? Literature? Politics?”
“Not politics,” she said instantly, with a look of distaste, and he laughed.
“Very well, not politics. What would you like to talk about?”
She thought for a moment, following him through the dance with a bit more confidence than she’d shown at the masquerade, and then glanced across at him. “Tell me, Mr. Iero, do you go to the theatre often?”
Gerard truly hadn’t expected to be recognised, hadn’t thought that the young man—Frank—would remember a woman he’d shared one (rather clumsy) dance at a masquerade with, or show any interest in dancing with her again.
Perhaps he should have refused, but for the time being, Frank seemed willing enough to let him (or, rather, ‘her’) remain a mystery. And it was surprisingly easy, dancing with Frank, making idle, polite conversation with him, to forget why this was at all a bad idea.
They danced twice before Gerard noticed how badly his feet had begun to ache, squeezed into the high-heeled shoes.
“Shall we sit down for a while?” he suggested.
“If you like,” Frank said, glancing about. “Look, there’s a bench.”
Sitting down in a dress still took some care—it wasn’t difficult, really, not compared to the shoes and the stays and everything else, but Gerard had to be mindful of the skirts and not simply throw himself down as he might have done otherwise.
“It’s a fine evening,” he said. More polite conversation, but also the truth; the sky overhead was clear, and there was a gentle breeze that kept it from being unpleasantly warm.
“It is,” Frank agreed. “And all the better for having seen you again.”
Gerard looked down at that, feeling his cheeks heat again. “You seem determined to make me blush, Mr. Iero.”
“Well, you do blush very attractively,” Frank replied.
“You needn’t flatter me so,” Gerard said softly. Aside from the fact that it made him feel worse about deceiving Frank, he wasn’t remotely used to receiving such compliments; they went to his head like strong wine.
“I mean every word of it,” Frank said, in a tone of sincerity.
Gerard felt a quick flutter in his stomach, pleasant and unpleasant all at once. This game was going further than he had ever intended, faster than he could gather his wits to stop it.
“I should go,” he said, gathering his skirts to stand.
Frank stood with him, a look of dismay on his face. “Have I said something amiss?”
Gerard shook his head. “No, truly—I’ve enjoyed your company, very much, but I didn’t intend to stay as long as I have.”
“Very well.” Frank took Gerard’s hand and bowed over it, and didn’t let go right away. “If I might ask—may I see you here again, some other evening?”
Gerard looked away from him, lower lip caught between his teeth. “I—I can’t say,” he stammered after a moment, knowing his answer should be a simple no but finding himself unable to say it.
“Then I can only hope, I suppose,” Frank said resignedly, stepping back.
Having indulged in a glass of wine to soothe his nerves once he was home (and then another to help him sleep, and a third upon realizing that the bottle was almost empty and might as well be finished off), Gerard didn’t emerge from his rooms until late the next day. His family and the servants were used to his habits, and paid them little mind; he scrounged a late breakfast in the kitchen, then wandered into the parlour to find Michael reading a newspaper.
“Are you planning to make a habit of this, then?” Michael asked idly, without looking up from his paper.
Gerard let out a sigh, sinking down onto a chaise. “I don’t know. I know I shouldn’t.”
“But you want to,” Michael finished for him.
“Yes,” Gerard admitted, after a brief pause.
Michael glanced up, eyeing his brother over the tops of his spectacles. “Do you think you can keep doing it without being caught? In all honesty?”
Gerard thought about the fact that no one at Vauxhall had seemed to look at him askance, and about Frank, who on the one hand hadn’t seemed to suspect anything, but on the other had shown a level of interest that could make it hard to continue to fool him if they did meet again.
“I…don’t know,” he said honestly.
Michael gave a slight shrug. “Well, give it some thought. If you really think you can manage it, I’ll trust your judgment.”
Gerard smiled wryly. He knew he shouldn’t depend too much on Michael for advice on whether or not to continue; their mother had always said that if her eldest son ever walked off of a cliff, Michael would follow him.
A knock on the door forestalled any further discussion. Michael called, “Come in,” and the butler entered.
“There’s a Mr. Iero here to see you, sir,” he said, speaking to Michael, and thus not noticing how Gerard sat bolt upright, all the color draining out of his face.
Michael did notice, and cast a curious eyebrow in his brother’s direction, but then turned back to the butler, nodding. “Very good; show him in.”
As soon as the butler had left the room, Gerard stood quickly, banging his knee against the parlour table in the process.
Michael looked back over at him, blinking. “Gerard?”
“I have to go,” Gerard said, hastening toward the parlour’s only other door. “I have…things. To do.”
“What on Earth is the matter with you?” Michael called after him, but Gerard was already closing the door behind him.
Frank had been meaning to call on Michael for some time; it had been entirely too long since the two of them had seen one another.
“What on Earth is the matter with you?” Michael was saying as Frank entered the parlour, apparently to no one at all, as he was alone.
“Hello, Michael,” Frank said, grinning. “Who are you talking to?”
“My brother, he was here a moment ago,” Michael replied, rising from his seat. “Hello, Frank.”
“I still don’t believe you actually have a brother,” Frank said teasingly as they shook hands; the existence, non-existence, or possible invisibility of Michael’s reclusive older brother was a topic of both debate and amusement among their circle of friends, and the few who claimed to have seen him before were often playfully accused of being co-conspirators in some strange joke of Michael’s.
“If you’d come in a moment sooner, you would have seen him,” Michael protested (if one could be said to protest without changing one’s tone of voice at all). “He ran out as though he’d seen a ghost.”
“Ah, well, I’ll have to be quicker next time. Catch him unawares.” Frank sat down, stretching his legs out in front of him. “So. You’ve been well, I trust?”
Michael returned to his seat as well, nodding. “Well enough. And you?”
Frank shrugged. “As usual. My father wants me to do something more useful with myself and my mother wants me to get married, but neither of them wants either badly enough to stop my allowance.”
“And there’s still no chance of your wanting to get married of your own accord, I suppose?” Michael asked.
Frank gave a short, dry laugh. “Considering that the most interesting girl I’ve met lately hasn’t even told me her name, I’d say my prospects are less than spectacular.”
Michael quirked an eyebrow at him. “Since when do you take interest in a girl and fail to get her name?”
“Well, the first time we met was at a masquerade,” Frank explained. “And the second time, she simply…wouldn’t tell me. I’ve asked around a bit, but no one seems to know her.”
“Oh?” Michael leaned forward a little, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Where did you meet her?”
“Vauxhall,” Frank told him, and laughed again, shaking his head. “I…it’s absurd, Michael, I barely know a thing about her. And yet I can’t seem to put her out of my mind.”
Michael looked at him for a moment, expression as unreadable as ever. “Tell me about her,” he said, at length. “What did she look like?”
Gerard was still hiding in his bedroom an hour later, when Michael came to find him, bent over a book that was failing to hold his attention as well as he was trying to pretend.
“So,” Michael began, folding his arms and leaning against the edge of Gerard’s desk. “Frank was telling me all about a mysterious lady who’s captured his interest. One he met at Vauxhall.”
Gerard hunched his shoulders, holding the book less than an inch from his nose as though he could hide behind it.
“Gerard?” Michael prompted.
“I didn’t know he was a friend of yours,” Gerard burst out, tossing the book onto the desk. “If you’ve ever mentioned him to me, I didn’t remember it, and Lord knows I haven’t met all the people you know, and I had no idea that he was going to come to our house without warning, for pity’s sake.”
Michael shook his head, the faintest hint of a smile tugging at his mouth. “Well. Now you know.”
“Yes,” Gerard agreed dourly. “…What did he have to say, exactly?”
“About his mysterious lady, you mean?” Michael asked, sarcasm tinging the words. “That he thinks about her often, and hopes that if they meet again he can learn her identity, but he would be glad just to see her again regardless.”
“Oh,” Gerard said quietly, looking down at his desk. “I see.”
“Gerard.” Gerard didn’t look up, but he could feel his brother’s eyes on him.
“Michael?” he replied, his tone unassuming.
“Gerard. Of all the bad ideas you’ve ever had—”
“Who said anything about having ideas?” Gerard replied airily, picking up the book again.
It took a few days for Gerard to work up his resolve, and another few for him to wheedle Michael into helping again.
(“It’s not as though I’m going to do anything besides dance with him,” Gerard had argued. “I’m not foolish enough to imagine anything more will come of this.”)
He bought the third dress in the meantime, this one in pearl-gray satin, and a new pair of shoes to better match it. What he would do with his growing collection of women’s clothing and accessories if he did stop wearing them was, for the moment, a question he had declined to give much consideration to.
It was possible, Gerard thought as he stepped through the gate, that he was more nervous walking into Vauxhall tonight than he had been the first night he’d come here in a dress. He was trying his best to master his anxiety—nothing to be anxious over was going to happen tonight, he was simply going to have to make sure of that—when he spotted Frank a short distance away.
Frank turned and caught sight of Gerard, and his entire expression brightened, a smile blooming across his face. Gerard felt that smile tug at his heart, even as his stomach seemed to drop into his shoes. But it was too late for second thoughts; Frank was already moving through the crowd toward him.
“I was hoping I would see you again,” he said as he reached Gerard, and beneath all the easy charm and society manners, there was something sweetly earnest in his tone. “I’m glad you came tonight.”
Gerard smiled back at him, unable to do otherwise. “I’m glad to see you again, as well.”
Frank offered his arm, Gerard took it, and they walked further into the Grove together.
“Would you like to dance?” Frank asked. “Or anything to drink?”
Gerard considered. On the one hand, he certainly felt as though he could use a drink. On the other, it would be best to keep his wits about him, and he also had to consider how it would look for an unchaperoned woman to drink too much. Nerves won out; surely a single drink wouldn’t be too much.
The cup Frank handed him was small, but the punch served at Vauxhall was known for its potency, and Gerard sipped slowly. Frank held out his arm again, and Gerard let himself be led without paying much attention to where they were going. When he glanced around again, he realised they had left the Grove. Their path was still well-lit, lanterns hung from the trees at regular intervals, and the music was still audible, but for the moment, they were alone.
“Should I be concerned about your intentions, Mr. Iero?” Gerard asked. For the moment, at least, he wasn’t—they weren’t so far away and the music wasn’t so loud that a shout wouldn’t be heard, if it came to that.
“We can go back, if you like,” Frank said, sounding perfectly sincere. “But I thought it might be nice to talk without so much noise around.” He guided Gerard over to stand beneath a tree and turned to face him, standing very close. “You look lovely tonight.”
Gerard blushed and sipped his punch, using that as an excuse to avoid Frank’s eyes for a moment. “Thank you,” he murmured, the words feeling awkward on his tongue.
Frank lifted a hand to Gerard’s throat, brushing his fingers against the silk ribbon. “You always wear this. Is there some reason for it?” Smiling, he added, “Some reason you’ll tell me, that is.”
Gerard took a quick step back, raising his own hand to cover the ribbon protectively. “No reason in particular.”
“You’re such a mystery,” Frank said, his smile turning wry. “I’ve thought about you often since our last meeting, you know. I know I promised to control my curiosity, but I can’t help but wonder why it is you’re so secretive.”
“Oh? And what do you suppose the answer might be?” Gerard asked, keeping his tone as casual as possible.
“I have a few theories,” Frank told him. “Perhaps you’re married, and every so often you drug your husband’s wine at dinner and slip away for an evening. Or perhaps you’re a foreign princess in exile, and must keep your identity secret to protect your life. I don’t suppose you’ll tell me if I’m hitting anywhere near the mark?”
Gerard gave a faint smile, glancing downward. “If either of those was the truth, I wouldn’t be very likely to confirm it, would I?”
“I suppose not,” Frank agreed.
Gerard sipped his drink, keeping his eyes lowered. “Mr. Iero—Frank—if I could tell you about myself, I would. I can’t explain further than that, but…I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”
Frank took a step closer, touching Gerard’s cheek gently, and there was no trace of the earlier joking tone when he spoke. “So do I, my lady.”
Gerard looked up, meeting his eyes. They stood like that, close together in the mild evening air and the warm, mellow glow of the lanterns, and when Frank leaned forward, Gerard watched it happen as if in a dream.
And then Frank’s mouth was against his, gentle and sweet, and Gerard let his eyes fall closed and let Frank kiss him and let the moment stretch out as long as he dared before pulling back.
Frank let go of him at once, stepping back himself. “Forgive me.”
“It’s all right,” Gerard said softly. Frank took a half-step forward again at that, and Gerard put up one hand to ward him off. “But to forgive one impropriety is not necessarily to encourage another.”
“Of course,” Frank whispered. He took Gerard’s hand and pressed a brief kiss there instead. “I beg your pardon.”
“Perhaps we should go back, after all,” Gerard suggested. His face was warm all the way to the tips of his ears, and his heart was pounding so hard it seemed incredible that he could hear his own voice over it.
Frank nodded wordlessly, offering his arm, and it was only by force of will that Gerard kept his hand from shaking as he tucked it into the crook of Frank’s elbow. Neither of them spoke until they were in the Grove once more, safely back in the midst of the crowd. Then Frank turned to face Gerard again, taking his hand.
“I won’t press you to tell me anything, but I want you to know—if I could court you properly—”
“Please don’t say that,” Gerard interrupted quickly, unable to meet his eyes.
Frank looked away, biting his lower lip. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” Gerard replied, tugging his hand free. “None of this is your fault.”
Abruptly, he felt the need to be gone, felt unable to continue this charade. Gathering his skirts, he pushed past Frank, ignoring his “Wait, please—” and moving away as fast as he could without stumbling. Gerard cast a single glance over his shoulder as he hurried away, and saw Frank standing as if frozen, one hand reaching out and a stricken look on his face.