The Young Blood
He hadn’t bothered with the fancy dress. For a long time—most of his life, really—Alfred Lamb, Earl of Kingston, had done the absolute minimum necessary to get by. More and more often, even that was beyond him.
The Holloways must have bankrupted themselves organizing this ball. Instead of being shown into the rambling manor house, he’d been taken around the side to the water gardens. Flimsy rowboats drifted along the man-made canals crisscrossing the grounds. Lanterns swung from posts at bow and stern, wavering spheres of light that illuminated one odd tableau after another. Here a shepherd in rough homespun manned the oars while an angel in a gown of diaphanous gauze and wire-frame wings smiled benevolently down at him. There a Roman general sat face-to-face with a fairy queen, hands folded in their laps but knees touching.
Man-made ponds filled much of the remaining space. Lit candles floated on broad, heart-shaped leaves in the still water. They drifted and swirled, ever-changing constellations of flame. Raised wooden walkways snaked between islands of solid ground just large enough to support fanciful gazebos and artfully crumbling faux ruins.
“Kingston!” trilled Violet Kendall. Judging by the sheer enthusiasm of her greeting, she was already sloshed. “Only just arrived and you’re already causing trouble!”
She appeared to have costumed herself as Salome. Either that or she’d come as a millinery shop—which possibility he couldn’t discount. She certainly hadn’t stopped at seven veils.
“I won’t have you insulting our hosts on such a glorious evening.” Violet plucked a square of orange-and-green-patterned cloth from her head, untied another of plum and lapis from around her waist. “So I will momentarily embrace the role of angel of mercy. Now come closer!”
Alfie allowed Violet to fasten the orange and green around his neck and to fold the plum and lapis over his head like a kerchief.
“Dodo!” Violet cried. “Come here! I need you!”
A brunette in a tight-fitted military uniform, very flattering to her shapely legs, detached herself from a group of admirers. She sauntered over, hips swaying, and let her heavy-lidded gaze slide slowly and deliberately over his figure.
“Well, well.” Dodo’s mouth was small, her lips thin, her smile self-satisfied rather than warm. “What have we here?”
“A project,” declared Violet. “You must contribute.”
“Tonight, I am a general.” Dodo struck a heroic pose, hands on hips and shoulders back. “Rather than join the fray, I shall orchestrate victory from afar. Let’s send him over to Susan. Those horns she’s wearing don’t suit her and”—Dodo winked at Alfie—“we all know Kingston’s a devil.”
“A commander as bold as you would surely march with the vanguard.” Alfie reached for Dodo’s waist, which set Violet to giggling with nervous glee. He slid the tongue of Dodo’s belt loose from the buckle and lifted the strip of heavy leather away as it began to slip down her hips. “Make a heroic sacrifice before she demanded one from others.”
“I’m not sure I trust you with that sword,” said Dodo.
“Wise woman.” Alfie fastened the belt around his waist, positioning the tooled leather scabbard over his left hip. “You shouldn’t.”
“Shameless.” Dodo tweaked his nose. “But we wouldn’t have you any other way. Susan’s over by the gazebo. Go on, now. You have a mission and I’ll be very stern with you if you fail.”
Alfie saluted and sauntered into the warm summer night. He dodged a few hostile glares, had his hindquarters pinched by a woman dressed as a nun, and shook hands with an old friend in a wooly bear costume before he reached the gazebo. Susan gave up her horns with a little coaxing and, energized, Alfie continued along the raised walkways collecting frippery.
He added a feathered, beaked mask to his ensemble and then a black velvet cape. The revelers struggled to make sense of his patchwork costume: was he Papageno from The Magic Flute? Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Alfie let them guess. Nobody recognized him by sight anymore and that was what mattered.
For a few hours his name, his griefs, his sins belonged to someone else. It was like crawling out from under a rock—out of the muck, into the pure clean air—or recovering from a long illness. Women who’d given him the cut direct for half his life danced with him. Men who wanted him dead invited him to play cricket, thwacking balls along the raised walkways and hooting when they inevitably drifted off course and tumbled into the water.
A redhead caught his attention. Her face was so blank and so beautiful he first took it for a mask. Only on second glance did he realize she wore no costume at all. She leaned against the column of a folly, beneath a bright lantern that cast dark, swooping shadows under her eyes and hollowed her cheeks.
She was visibly bored.
Alfie sauntered over, removing Susan’s papier-mâché horns from his head. He held them out, thinking that they’d suit her—combined with the way her mouth settled naturally into a frown and her eyebrows seemed fixed at a disapproving slant, she’d look rather demonic.
She swatted him. “Keep away with that nonsense.”
“You’ve come to observe?” Alfie asked, more curious than ever.
She looked past him and her lips thinned. “You could say that.”
Alfie followed her gaze to a stout man in an elaborate Viking costume—thick furs piled over his shoulders, a metal helmet sprouting horns of bone. He walked side by side with a woman dressed as a maid… no. An actual maid and the Viking was hustling her toward the nearest private alcove. No need to ask why.
“Your husband?” Alfie asked.
Alfie sidled closer. He used to tell himself that he’d made an art of slipping past women’s defenses. Lately, he’d given up on self-flattery. He had a bad habit, that was all. “Why don’t we—”
She interrupted with a flat, slightly exasperated, “No.”
Had she identified him? He couldn’t remember having seen her before, but that didn’t signify. He was not always attentive to his surroundings.
“Go back to your games,” she said, curt but not unkind. “I’m not fit for company.”
He could have chipped away at her resistance. He’d have found the right angle eventually—he always did. Coldness and rejection could be overcome. Anger always served his purpose, in the end. But her essential dignity called forth some dusty, tattered shred of decency he’d thought long lost.
He resettled the horns on his own head and walked away but the ball had lost its allure. “Keep away with that nonsense,” she’d said, and all the magic vanished in a puff of smoke. As though she’d peeled away a glamour.
She’d made an impression and he wanted to know her better. Know her well and intimately. But she’d returned him to himself, and the only good he could do her would be to stay away. So he did.
* * *
Alfie woke the next morning in an unfamiliar bed, sandy-eyed and almost as weary as when he’d finally fallen asleep. The bluish light filtering through the curtains put the time around dawn; he’d slept for a few hours, then. Better than some days, worse than others. The woman beside him stirred, eyelids twitching. He stroked the full length of her arm. Firm and smooth at the shoulder, giving and dusted with short silky hair along the limb, pebbled across the knuckles.
Whenever he focused on a woman’s body, the world seemed a perfect place. A feast of pure sensation, subtle variations of texture, all marvels of creation.
The ochre she used to powder her hair had stained the pillow during the night… both pillows, actually. She’d costumed herself as a tigress, which had been a wonderful cue to her enthusiasm in the bedroom. The details were a bit fuzzy—had he approached her or had it been the reverse? Had she told him her name or tried to hide it?—but whoever she was and however it had happened, she was beautiful.
He rolled onto his side so he could lean over the tigress’s shoulder. “Shall I stay or go?”
She stretched and twisted, yawning sleepily. “Best you go.”
“Alas. You are lovely as the dawn even at the dawn.” Alfie kissed her shoulder and filled his nose with the scent of her sweat, finally overpowering the attar of roses she’d applied to every pulse point, and traces of her own feminine musk. The whole night distilled down to a perfume.
He dressed himself as neatly as he could manage and listened for signs of activity at the door before stepping into the corridor. He usually did well to assume that his bedmates wanted to keep their association with him a secret.
Servants scurried to and fro as he navigated the Holloways’ home, bearing pots of coffee and tea, ferrying wrinkled clothes to the hot irons. Others rolled wine-stained carpets to carry away for cleaning and scrubbed scuff marks from the walls.
He met the Viking, the redhead’s unfaithful husband, seated all alone in the breakfast room before a plate heaped high with eggs, sausage, and toast. A fresh set of clothing had transformed the man from barbarian to gentleman; he’d even found time to wash. Considering the hour hand had yet to pass eight on the dial, he’d been unusually industrious.
“Long night?” asked the ex-Viking.
“Like all good long nights, it felt very short.” Alfie sat across from him and a silent footman glided forward to pour tea. He asked for a soft-boiled egg and buttered toast, then turned his attention back to the other guest. “Have we been introduced? I seem to recall…”
He knew for a fact that they had not been introduced, but he was curious about the man’s wife. Alfie’s title guaranteed that he outranked almost everyone he met—certainly most strangers—and so it fell to him to initiate conversation, to offer the friendly lie.
“Godfrey Banchory,” answered the man, offering his hand for a shake. “The Earl of Kingston, yes?”
“Glad to make it official.” Banchory chuckled, a pleased rumbling deep in his throat. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked up an appetite.”
The man possessed none of his wife’s dignity or restraint. What had Banchory seen in her? Did he have hidden depths, or did she lack them?
Probably it had been a practical alliance, a marriage contracted to win a bit of extra pastureland or plump out his per annum.
“They say hunger is the best sauce,” Alfie replied, tailoring his response to the man. “True at meals and on other occasions, as well.”
Banchory barked out a laugh. “A timely motto!”
“So tell me, Mr. Banchory. Where do you hail from?”
“Scotland, as I’m sure you can hear.” Banchory stuffed a forkful of egg in his mouth and pointed the tines at his rounded cheek. “Tutors tried to beat the accent out of me, but I’ve a damnably thick skull. I still live there about half the year; that can’t help.”
“It’s very faint,” Alfie assured him. Banchory’s voice had more public school in it than Scotland. Perhaps he played up his nationality to prevent it being used against him—not a bad tactic.
“You’re up early,” said Banchory. “I often find myself breakfasting alone after a late night.”
“Trouble sleeping.” He hadn’t slept a full night through in years. Even sex didn’t ease the way to slumber anymore. “What’s your excuse?”
“My wife.” Banchory rolled his eyes. “She’s a shrew. Keeps me on a tight schedule. We’re off to Bath so she can visit her dotty maiden aunt.”
“Bath?” Alfie mentally reviewed the invitations he’d received over the past month. “Do you know the Finlay-Coates? They’re entertaining at their country estate.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” said Banchory.
“I’ll write you an introduction,” said Alfie. “Drop by for a visit when you arrive and I’m sure they’ll extend an invitation.”
They made desultory conversation until a footman brought Alfie his breakfast. He sent the servant in search of writing tools and, once they were brought, addressed a brief message to Christopher Finlay-Coates. Then he folded the paper, plucked a candle from the table’s centerpiece and dribbled hot wax across the flap before stamping it with his signet ring.
“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to attend, myself”—he hadn’t planned to, but now he certainly would—“but I think you’d enjoy yourself.”
“I’m grateful for your kindness,” said Banchory. “And running late, unfortunately. A pleasure to meet you, Lord Kingston.”
“Fair weather and safe roads,” answered Alfie.
He lingered over his breakfast, lost in thought. Godfrey Banchory was an idiot. He openly despised his wife and, by the sounds of things, their married life was inharmonious. If any woman had ever been ripe for the picking, it was Mrs. Banchory.
The wonder of it was, it seemed the lady herself didn’t know it.