THE hand resting on his shoulder felt heavy as a stone. His thin legs, still wobbly from the weeks he’d been ill, trembled from the strain of holding up his head, his body, that heavy hand.
In front of him, the ground was still raw and black and grassless; a fading bouquet of flowers rested at the foot of the headstone, the markings on it also raw. “Alice, Lady Ware,” it read, and some dates. Below that was another name, “Emily Northwood, 1790.” Mama. And Baby Emmy.
“You weren’t well enough for the funeral,” Papa said above him, his voice growly and as physical as the hand on his shoulder.
The words washed over him, meaningless. The only thing he saw was the headstone and the fading flowers. Mama was dead. The last time he’d seen her, she was bending over him, wiping his forehead and telling him to go to sleep, to rest, that she would be there when he woke up. But she wasn’t. And crying for her didn’t help, didn’t bring her the way it always had.
Instead, it had brought Papa, who’d stood at the foot of the bed, frowning at him. Papa always frowned; it had frightened Tris into silence, as it usually did. He was afraid of Papa, but never more so than when he’d come into his room instead of Mama. He didn’t remember Papa ever coming into his room. “Where’s Mama?” Tristan had asked bravely, his voice sounding strange, thin and thready. His throat hurt.
Papa had looked even angrier, but his voice was quiet as he spoke. It scared Tris even more. “She’s gone.”
“Bring her back,” Tris said. He was trying not to cry, but tears were leaking. “Bring her home, please.”
“I can’t. She’s dead. She and the baby died from the fever. It’s just us now.”
Then his father did something horrible. He smiled. Tris had never seen Papa smile. It terrified him, and he screamed and screamed. Nurse came in and tried to calm him down, and sometime during his screaming, Papa went away and didn’t come back until this morning, when Tris was finally well enough to get dressed and go outside.
He looked over the raw headstone toward the vicarage. A large van was parked outside, and Mrs. Vicar was standing directing the men moving furniture into it. “Why are they taking Vicar’s furniture?” he asked his father.
“Mrs. Redding is going back to her people,” Papa said.
“Why? Who will take care of Vicar and Rob and Will and Cressy?” Rob and Will were his best friends. Cressy was only four, and a tagalong, but she was all right for a baby and a girl.
“Vicar Redding and the children died of the fever also,” Papa said. “They were buried near their home parish, not here, though.”
Tris looked up at Papa in consternation. “But—who will teach me? Who will I play with now?”
“You’re going to Westminster in a few months, as soon as you are fully well again. That’s school. I’m sure your mama talked to you about school. You’ll make new friends there.” Papa was quiet a moment, then said, “Pretty soon the grass will grow here, and it will be a lovely place for you to come and visit your mama and Emmy.”
“Why would I visit them?” Tris asked. “They’re dead.” He ducked away from Papa’s hand and ran down the hill to the carriage. When he got there he was too out of breath to climb in, so he stood beside it, crying, until Papa came and lifted him up into the gig and took the reins. They drove back to the house in silence.
Nurse met them in the hall and led Tristan upstairs, where she put him back into his nightshirt and tucked him back into bed. “You’re still not ready to be outside,” she said gently, “but soon you’ll be all healthy and can go out and play again.”
Tristan said nothing, but rolled over and pretended to sleep. He was still pretending when Papa came into the nursery. He stood for a long time at the foot of the bed, and Tris thought he knew that Tris was only pretending, but he didn’t move or say anything, and so neither did Papa. Finally Papa went away and Tris really did go to sleep.
OH, ALICE, James thought, looking down at the tiny, wasted little figure huddled in the bed. What am I to do with him? I don’t know the first thing about children. He sighed, then left the room and went down to his library. In the big family Bible, he wrote the dates of Alice’s and Emily’s deaths, beneath the entry dated less than a year ago for Emily’s birth. Alice had been so delighted with Emily, already teasing him about her future beaus and the awkward Seasons she’d have, flirting and parading her conquests before her doting papa. That future was gone now, erased as completely as snow in spring. His own future was equally gone, with no Alice to share it with.
Theirs had been a love match: he, a second son, happy in his studies at Trinity, vying for one of the hotly contested lecturer positions in mathematics, had had no intention of marrying but had rather planned for a bachelor academic career. Alice, the only child of a wealthy importer, had been introduced to him by a friend of his elder brother, and he had, to his own great shock, fallen desperately in love with her. His courtship had been cut off by her father, who was uninterested in acquiring a mere second son, no matter how ancient the family name. Alice, for her part, had steadfastly refused to marry any of the other suitors her father had dangled in front of her, stating calmly that if she could not marry James Northwood, she would marry no one. For a year, they’d spoken only through letters, hers written and smuggled from the house by a faithful maid; his scribbled in the dark of his scholar’s carrel.
Then Albert had died of a winter fever and suddenly James was the heir. Alice’s papa’s reservations vanished, James was torn from his beloved scholarship, and before he knew it, he was married.
He smiled despite himself and ran his finger lightly over the notation of his marriage ten years earlier, and the birth of his beautiful son Tristan two years later. He’d missed Cambridge, but he wouldn’t have wished it any other way. Only now….
Above the fireplace hung the portrait he’d had painted right after Emily’s birth: Alice, her silvery eyes bright beneath the fringe of dark curls, Emily in her christening gown cradled in her arms, and Tristan, standing at Alice’s knee, looking up at her. The painter, an up-and-comer named Thomas Lawrence, had caught the expression in Tristan’s face exactly: a soft, adoring look that perfectly echoed James’s own feelings about her.
God, how would he live without Alice? He knew nothing about children; all his expertise was in finance. The children had always been in Alice’s purview. He supposed he should consult with Nurse about what to do with Tristan; he had a vague idea that children needed supervision and management, and supposed it should just be approached as any of his other business interests, with common sense and logic. But not today. It was the first time he had visited the graves since the funeral, and he was too exhausted.
Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after. He sat at his desk and made a note of it in his memorandum book, then looked at all the other things he had to do, and sighed. Perhaps the day after….
Tristan Northwood opened one eye gingerly, feeling the rasp of eyelid across sandy eyeball. An impossibly bright light burned his retina; he quickly shut the eye but not before the flash of light revealed a face he thought he might recognize. Illumination came, though thankfully not the literal kind. “Reston,” he grated, his eyes still screwed shut. “What time is it?”
“Ten thirty, sir,” the valet’s voice said. It seemed to have an unnaturally loud, booming quality. Then the words sank in through the fog.
“Ten thirty? In the morning?”
“Reston, you’re sacked.”
“Yes, sir. Would Mr. Northwood prefer the green waistcoat for today or the blue?”
“Mr. Northwood would prefer that Reston, along with all waistcoats of whatever hue, go straight to the devil.”
“Yes, sir. Prior to my leaving, however, may I remind Mr. Northwood that he has an appointment with Baron Ware at eleven thirty this morning?”
Another attempt at vision was made, this one more successful. Reston was in the process of drawing the drapes against the vicious morning sunlight. When the room was sufficiently dimmed, he picked up the tray he’d set on the table by the window and brought it to the bedside. “Your coffee, sir.”
Tristan sat up, grabbed at his head just as it was about to fall off, and said hoarsely, “You’re not only rehired, Reston, but I’m raising your wages.” He took the cup gratefully.
“Yes, sir. The blue or the green?”
“The blue. No. Where’s that orangish one I bought last week?”
There was silence in the room, then Reston’s sere tones. “I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”
“Why not? You’re my damned valet.”
“Yes, sir. However, that was the waistcoat you wore last Thursday evening. You were not wearing it Friday morning when you returned home.” Nor the cravat, shirt, or boots, though the boots were later found where Mr. Northwood had apparently dropped them, in the mews some thirty yards from the stall where he himself had been discovered, dead drunk and wearing only trousers and a greatcoat. Reston privately thought it was only the pickling properties of the immense volume of alcohol that his master had imbibed that had kept him from freezing to death in the chill April air.
“Damn. I liked that waistcoat.”
Tristan drank his coffee moodily, then said, “Which is more likely to irritate my father?”
“The blue, sir. The—er—iridescent quality of the fabric is quite—eye-catching.”
“Blue it is. I suppose there’s no time for a bath?”
“Not if one wishes to be on time.”
“One doesn’t, but one wants to get this month’s lecture over with, so I suppose I shouldn’t dillydally. Damn. I wonder where I left the waistcoat? I don’t suppose I can advertise for it, after all—‘left in some lady’s bedchamber, one orangish-red waistcoat’.”
“Nor the shirt or cravat,” Reston said mildly.
“All that? I must have been on the verge of being discovered,” Tristan said. “Oh, well, that was last week and no one’s called me out yet, so I suppose I evaded capture that time as well.”
“It’s not like anyone could identify whose waistcoat it was, anyway—it was the first time I’d worn it, and… Lady Abernathy?”
“No, sir. Sir is accustomed to visiting Lady Abernathy on Wednesdays.”
“Drat. Oh, well. It’s not like I can’t afford to lose one waistcoat. I know—I’ll purchase another of the same hue, then if anyone does suspect, he’ll be flummoxed by the fact that I apparently still have it. Take care of it, will you, Reston?”
“What would I do without you?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.”
Tristan threw off the coverlet to find himself still nearly fully dressed. “Ballocks,” he said irritably and peeled off grimy trousers and drawers and shirt, then strode over to the washstand and soaped up a flannel with the cold water. Reston picked up the discarded clothing and said, “I’ll bring these out and return in a moment to help you shave and dress, sir.”
“Mm,” Tristan replied, staring at himself in the washstand mirror. He looked like hell, unshaven, eyes bloodshot, skin gray. He looked forty instead of his true twenty-eight. Twenty-eight, and still as tightly under the thumb of his father as he had been at eight. Worse—at eight he’d still had his mother to advocate for him. A year later she’d died and his newborn sister with her, leaving Tristan and his father to deal with their grief in their own separate ways. His father had chosen to control every waking moment of Tristan’s life, and Tristan had chosen to defy him just as thoroughly.
He was tired of it. Tired of waking every morning hung over or still drunk, with little or no memory of the night before; tired of rogering endless women with their soft, clinging hands and soft, clinging bodies and pervasive, nauseating perfumes; tired of hours spent in one club or another with the same obnoxious friends. Tired of the rebellion that never seemed to end, never seemed to do more than annoy his father. Not that the old man hadn’t tried everything to rein his heir in, including cutting his allowance. Tristan had merely cut his expenses to compensate, leaning on his friends and drinking cheaper gin instead of brandy, until his father got tired of hearing about it from his own friends and given in. He wasn’t a gamester, at any rate, and had never been a glutton; those activities bored him and did nothing to make him stop thinking. Sex and drink, those were the tickets to oblivion. But they never lasted long enough, and he was tired of waking up afterward. Tired of waking up, period. It was pointless, at any rate—even oblivious, he knew that he was a completely worthless individual, his sole value being that he was the heir to his father’s extensive properties. His father had made sure he knew that. “Ballocks,” he said again, and done washing, he pulled on fresh drawers and trousers just as Reston came back in, hot water and shaving gear in hand.
HIS father was waiting in the library of his town house in Clarges Street when Tristan arrived on the stroke of eleven thirty. The butler showed him in, his face expressionless as usual, though Tris knew he was as much a disappointment to Fulton as he had ever been to his father. It was his role in life, and he was nothing if not consistent. After a moment of his standing in the doorway, his father looked up and said irritably, “Come in, then, don’t dillydally. Awful waistcoat—what made you spend your blunt on that atrocity?”
“The sure knowledge that it would annoy you,” Tristan said casually.
“You look like hell.”
“Thank you, sir. May I return the compliment?”
“Don’t try to be clever, boy. You missed the boat on that one years ago. Your way of life is going to be the death of you.”
“Life is the death of all of us, sir,” Tristan said, and dropped into the chair in front of the desk, lounging back carelessly. His father’s eyes narrowed at him, but he did not address the issue.
Instead, the baron drew a piece of paper from the stack on his desk. “I’ve been hearing things about you far too much lately, Tristan. Your drinking has become an embarrassment to the family name.”
“Everyone drinks,” Tristan said with a shrug, “and everyone drinks to excess. Far be it for me to fail to follow the example of those wiser than I—which I understand from you is everyone.”
“And this business of your womanizing….”
Tristan said lazily, “I have yet to be accused to my face of anything of the sort.”
“God, I hope so!” The baron glared at him. “But there are rumors, and they are growing. You will end up looking down the barrel of a pistol at this rate.”
Tristan shrugged again. “Dueling is illegal, or hadn’t you heard?”
“That doesn’t mean it doesn’t still go on!”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“You will not!” Baron Ware stood and glared down at his son. “You have sown the last of your wild oats, my boy. I’ll not stand by and watch you piss away what’s left of your life without leaving anything behind. I’ve arranged a marriage between you and—”
“Marriage? Me? My God, what poor woman has you so annoyed with her that you’d burden her with myself?”
“Lady Charlotte Mountjoy. The Earl of Chilson’s daughter. She’s twenty-four, and she’s agreeable.”
“I would think so,” Tristan said, “seeing as if she’s twenty-four and unwed and apparently invisible, since I have never met the chit, she must be not only on the shelf but unattractive to an apparently amazing degree. Or is she one of those who prefers the company of her own sex and thereby a womanizing sot who’ll leave her alone is precisely the kind of marriage she wants?”
“You may be a womanizing sot, but you’ll not leave her alone, if you mean leaving your marriage unconsummated. Your legacy—and the freedom you so cherish—is dependent upon getting an heir off this woman, assuming you haven’t caught some filthy pox that has destroyed your ability to do so. Or at least making a fair attempt to get an heir. And to answer your question—or rather assumption—Lady Charlotte is not at all unattractive. She does, however, prefer the country, so has spent little time in town.”
“Well, that’s good, then,” Tristan said. “Since I don’t want her in town anyway.”
“You’ll have her in town until you’ve got an heir on her—preferably two. After that point the two of you can both go to hell, or wherever you choose.” His father flung the document across the desk at him. “Sign it and show up Monday at St. George’s at ten a.m.—sober and not hung over.”
“Don’t I get to at least meet my blushing bride before the wedding day?”
“And have her cry off? Hardly.”
Tristan reviewed the document. He’d expected the usual sort of thing, settlements and whatnot, but this was specifically aimed at him. He was to produce a minimum of two children, at least one of them a boy, after which his father proposed to settle two of his properties and their income upon him personally and one on his prospective bride, for the maintenance of her and her children, with a trust that would increase for each additional child. He would live with his bride until the two children were born and during that time he would continue his usual allowance with the addition of a lease on a townhouse. His wife would receive the same allowance. Between them it was assumed they would be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living.
There was an option for him to refuse—with the result that his allowance would cease, the lease on his rooms at Albany would be canceled, and the only concession to his living arrangements would be the offer of a purchase of a cornetcy in the cavalry. Tristan stared at this last in disbelief. “You’d cut me off?”
“No, but I would insist on your going into the army,” his father said coldly. “I have failed to make a man of you; if you choose not to let a wife make the attempt, perhaps the army will succeed instead. Lady Charlotte’s twin brother Charles has made a successful career as a cavalry officer; I don’t doubt that you’d do equally well. If you put your mind to it.”
“No doubt,” Tristan said, equally coldly. “You’d prefer me to be someone else’s responsibility? Or is it that you’d rather see me dead than your heir? I’m sure that distant cousin would be more amenable to your plans.”
“I am trying to save your damn life, boy! You have pissed away every opportunity I have given you. You have one last chance to turn your life around.”
“One last chance to let you control me,” Tristan said bitterly. “One last chance to show the world that the great Baron Ware can manage his heir just as well as he manages all his wealth and properties and investments and businesses. Well, do you know what, Father? Make your damn arrangements. I’ll be at St. George’s, and I’ll give you your bloody heirs, and may you be damned with them.” He snatched up a quill, shoved it unceremoniously in the inkwell, and scrawled his name at the bottom of the paper. “I’ll fuck your Lady Charlotte until she bursts with children, and then shove her back into the damned country where she belongs and then your ‘rumors’ will seem like nothing in comparison to the mud I’ll drag your precious name through.”
His father’s lips were a thin seam, but he took the sheet wordlessly and placed it in the pile on his desk. Tristan stood, dropped the inky quill on the carpet at his feet, and walked out.
COLLECTING his coat, hat, and gloves from an expressionless Fulton, Tristan stormed out of the building. At the end of the street, instead of turning right toward home, he walked down Curzon Street, crossed Park Lane, and entered the park, abandoning the more traveled paths for a sheltered spot he knew altogether too well. A bench sat on a slight rise beyond the Serpentine, with a view of the water though almost hidden from the strollers nearby. He flung himself onto the bench and covered his eyes with his hands.
Marriage. Not the kind of marriage he’d always sort of dreamed he’d have, with a woman he truly cared about—even if he’d never yet met her—but the kind of marriage he’d made such a career out of flouting. Marriage to a stranger, a woman with whom he shared no interests, no common acquaintance that he knew of, a woman he’d never even seen before. He’d never met the Honorable Charles Mountjoy, but knew what was meant by a “successful cavalry officer”—one who sat on his fat arse while sending his men out to die. Not the kind of man he would find interesting. He knew her brother, the Honorable Daniel Mountjoy, slightly; they belonged to some of the same clubs, but where Tristan and his friends frequented Angelo’s and Jackson’s, Mountjoy’s set preferred the gaming hells Tristan found boring. He wondered dully if Mountjoy’s sister was a gambling sort; if so, he’d soon put a stop to it.
He shook his head wearily. What made him think he would have any more control over his wife’s behavior than he did anything else in his life? Everything he did seemed to be a reaction rather than an action: drink too much because his father disapproved of it, take meaningless risks because he was his father’s sole heir, bed women he couldn’t marry for much the same reason. God knew that at this point he didn’t sleep with women because he got any great enjoyment out of it. Work to get the woman satisfied, then a few minutes of his own pleasure, a moment of blissful oblivion, and then it was over. Barely worth it anymore.
The sound of footsteps, and an automatic reaction; he leaned back, his arms across the back of the bench, his legs crossed and one Hessian swinging idly, the very picture of an idle buck enjoying the April morning. A pair of girls came giggling up the path; they hesitated on noticing him, but when he touched the brim of his curly beaver, they curtseyed hastily, giggled again, and hurried off down the way.
They made him feel old. Did his betrothed giggle? He hoped not—she was twenty-four, after all, and a woman that firmly on the shelf had no right to giggle like a schoolroom miss.
His betrothed. God. Maybe the cavalry was the right choice. But then he thought about having to bow to the demands of one of the officers he knew: arrogant, privileged, more concerned with their own comfort than that of their men, quick to lash out at imagined insult, quicker to punish imagined rebellion. Of the parade of battered veterans begging on every street corner, of the lists of casualties printed in every edition of the Times, the retired officers in his clubs missing an arm, a leg, an eye. He was a coward, he knew it, but the idea of coming back half a man frightened him worse than not coming back at all—perhaps crippled, forever helpless at the hands of a man who hated him…. He felt ill. No, marriage, even to a woman who despised him, would be better than that. And she would despise him, there was no doubt in his mind about that.
He climbed to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. No matter. He had an appointment for lunch with his friend Gibson and after that, a lesson with Henry Angelo. He would keep his appointment with his wedding with the same consistency as those, as unappealing as it was—he made it a point of honor to never miss an appointment, no matter how drunk he might be. He might be a womanizing sot, but he was by God an honorable womanizing sot. He snorted a laugh at the joke, and was laughing still as he headed down the path toward the street.