Chapter One

 

 

THE HANSOM cab was new; it smelled of fresh leather and lemon wood-polish. Gerald slowly breathed in the soothing scents in the hope his stomach would stop twisting out of its accepted spot. The small curtain that blocked the streets of London looked to be made from a combination of cotton and satin, heavy drapes that kept out the cold better than flimsier counterparts in cheaper cabs.

“Stop yer worryin’, boy.”

Gerald jumped a bit at his grandfather’s querulous order and then glared at the old man. At eighty-three, Daniel Smithson was spry and observant, not to mention a thorough pain in Gerald’s soon-to-be-married life. “Only if you stop being so cantankerous.”

Daniel grinned, green eyes sparking with amusement under their bushy eyebrows. “They put their pants on same as us, one pant leg at a time.”

“Not if they use power,” Gerald muttered.

Since they sat side-by-side, Daniel’s cane didn’t have quite the same force as if they’d been sitting opposite. It still hurt when the big, wooden thing came down on Gerald’s foot, and he yelped in pain. “Damn it, Granddad!”

Daniel said firmly, “You come from a good family, Gerald. We may not have so much money as them, but we were here first. You’re descended from an ancient line and have nothing to be ashamed of. They’re the interlopers.”

Gerald glared at his grandfather a moment longer and then turned his attention to the window and peeked outside. The city had thinned into refined streets with mansions in the Regent Park area. Darkness had fallen, and the lamplight cast odd shadows. In the six months since he’d become engaged, he’d been to Leo’s parents’ home four times: twice to dine with Leo and his parents, once to meet Leo’s uncle, and the last for a dinner with the whole family.

Gerald sighed. If only his uncle weren’t going to be there tonight.

The first dinner with His Grace the Duke of Wickersham, Lord Mark George Harris III, the patriarch of the family, had not gone well.

“You cannot marry him, Leo. I forbid it.”

“Try and stop me, Uncle. I dare you.”

The two had been frightening in their cold, quiet tones. If they hadn’t been family, Gerald would have truly worried about the situation devolving into a fight. At the time, he’d simply held his breath until Mark had stormed from the room. Gerald had sagged into Leo’s arms, the tension leaving him in a rush as his betrothed soothed him.

Gerald came out of his thoughts when the hansom jolted to a stop at their destination. He climbed out deftly and helped his grandfather down. A strong breeze of bitter night air slid across the back of his neck, and he shivered. When he went to pay the driver, the man waved him off and bobbed his cap, saying, “Taken care of, m’lord. Enjoy your evening.”

Gerald flushed at the undeserved title. That was the hardest thing so far to get used to—people treating him differently for being with Leo. To be truthful, it didn’t sit well, and he doubted it ever would.

Daniel cackled at him. “Best get used to that, my lad.”

Gerald silently groaned and walked to the front door, Daniel falling into step with him. The door opened just as Gerald reached for the knocker. The butler, Nathan, was somewhere in his forties, stiff-backed as a metal chair, and impeccably dressed in his dark suit, as always.

“Good evening, sirs. Please come in,” Nathan invited, stepping back.

Gerald did so, allowing the butler to take his coat in the well-lit foyer. He waited for his grandfather to relinquish his coat as well, and then they were led to the nearby great room. The home was tastefully decorated with art on the walls, marble floors, and expensive furniture throughout.

The great room was empty, but didn’t stay that way long. Leo and his much younger brother, Carroll, entered moments later. Carroll was a smaller version of Leo, with blond hair, slate blue eyes, and sharp cheekbones; his mischievous personality also echoed Leo’s to a more than fair degree. The only real difference were the ten years between them and the length of their blond hair; Leo’s was braided to the small of his back while Carroll’s was cut above the ears, curling in a becoming fashion.

Leo beamed at Gerald and took his hands, tugging him down for a gentle kiss, pressing their mouths together briefly. “I missed you.”

Gerald blushed a bit at that and ignored his grandfather’s chuckle. “And I, you. Carroll, I did not expect you here this evening.”

Carroll rolled his eyes as they shook hands. “I was released from captivity a few days ago.”

Leo caught his younger brother with an arm around the neck and said, “As if university was such a hardship.”

Carroll squirmed out of his hold and retorted, “It is! My professors conspire to bore me to death.”

Leo tucked himself alongside Gerald, slipping an arm around his waist as he faced Daniel and said, “And you, old man. Still alive?”

Somewhat to Gerald’s dismay, Leo and his grandfather had bonded quite strongly in the months since the engagement. Not that he hadn’t wanted them to get along, but the two together were a force of nature that frequently dragged Gerald along willy-nilly. Their current mission was to get Gerald to start charging more for his work and moving into a “proper” studio and hiring someone to man the storefront.

Daniel chortled and said, “I will live to be a blight on your behind for years to come, my lad!”

Leo grinned broadly. “Of that, I have no doubt.”

Lord and Lady Harris entered the great room, both dressed in casual evening wear; at least what passed for it in this household. Lady Adele Harris was a slight woman, with her sons’ blond hair and blue eyes, as well as their mischievous nature, though toned down in her womanly ways. Lord Vail Harris was scarcely taller than his wife and just as blond, though with distinctly gray eyes. They were both genteel and easy to speak with, much to Gerald’s relief even now.

Adele smiled warmly and kissed Gerald and Daniel on their cheeks in greeting. “It’s so good to see you both again. Thank you for coming this evening.”

Daniel bowed over her hand. “It’s our great pleasure, Lady Harris. You are a delight to these old eyes.”

She blushed prettily. “Now, sir, I recall telling you to call me Adele at our last meeting. We are to be family, after all.”

Gerald just barely refrained from rolling his eyes at his grandfather’s burst of charm. It wasn’t a real wonder that all the widowed women over sixty—and some not yet widowed—were after his grandfather. He shook hands with Vail. “Good evening, sir.”

“Good evening, Gerald,” Vail replied, smiling at him. “I see Daniel’s in rare form tonight.”

Gerald grinned reluctantly and nodded. “He is.”

Leo gave him a squeeze. “Henshall couldn’t make it tonight, though he sends his regrets. Rachel finally gave him the time of day, and they have a dinner this evening.”

The eldest brother looked like no one in his immediate family. Dark haired, with pale, almost colorless eyes and a height to rival Gerald’s, Henshall Harris took after his grandfather to such a marked degree that whispers of power, and more mundane rumors, abounded in regards to his birth. Not that it would have mattered to the peerage had Henshall been born to the old man through Adele, blood was blood, scandalous trespass or not. Fortunately, Adele and Vail’s loving, gentle marriage was such that anyone who knew them, knew how ridiculous all such rumors were.

Gerald smiled at the thought that Henshall had at last succeeded in getting the attention of Lady Rachel Farnsworth, only daughter of one of the highest peers in the land, outside of the Royal Family. The cool, distant brother had been more than a little disconcerting to Gerald until he had shown his uncertainty regarding a present for the young lady. Gerald had crafted a dainty purse for her and assured Henshall it was personal, but not too intimate for an acquaintance.

“Dinner is served,” Nathan said, catching everyone’s attention.

Leo released Gerald and took his hand as they all walked out of the room.

The formal dining room had been set, and Gerald winced a bit. He still wasn’t sure about when all the silverware needed to be used, though Leo had given him a couple of offhand lessons. He sat next to Leo and waited as everyone else sat. Daniel was next to Carroll, opposite Gerald, while Vail and Adele took the heads of the table.

Dinner turned out to be a succulent roast duck with small potatoes and various vegetables. The wine was sweet and strong, so Gerald limited himself to one glass. Conversation floated pleasantly, and Gerald found himself laughing frequently.

“Less than a month and I’ll have another son,” Adele said, dabbing at her eyes with her lace handkerchief. “I can hardly believe it.”

Gerald bit back a grin at the flush that slid over Leo’s face as he complained, “Mother, please.”

Adele pinned a stern look on Leo. “Oh hush. He’ll make a better son than you ever did.”

Gerald did his best to turn the laugh that threatened into a cough and quickly took a sip of his wine.

Leo grumbled under his breath, causing the rest of the table to laugh outright.

Gerald rested a hand on Leo’s neck. “Don’t worry, my love. I’ll try not to outshine you too badly.”

At that, Leo chuckled and tugged him in for a brief kiss. “See that you don’t, darling.”

Vail cleared his throat. “Have you decided on where you’ll honeymoon?”

Leo laughed, even as Gerald grimaced. “I’m still having trouble convincing Gerald to leave the shop at all.”

“Oh, you simply must take a trip, Gerald!” Adele exclaimed. “Leo says you’ve never been to the Continent! Or America! Although really, that would be longer than a honeymoon just to get there.”

Discreet maids refilled the wineglasses during the conversation. Gerald caught the eye of the young woman filling his and smiled at her. She blushed a bit and bobbed a curtsey before withdrawing.

“You’re going to scandalize the servants, treating them so well, darling,” Leo murmured, fondness evident in his warm gaze.

Gerald shrugged and kept his opinion about servants to himself. They’d already argued about how many to have in their household. Honestly, they hadn’t decided anything yet, and the wedding was close enough to make him very nervous about all the loose ends.

And then Mark strode through the doors. Strong and broad, dressed formally, the man was the epitome of a lord. Even if he wasn’t as good-looking as the devil, with dark hair, blue eyes, and classical features, the aura of power would intimidate and seduce. He gave Gerald a cool smile. “Good evening, Gerald. Mr. Smithson. It’s good to see you both again.”

Adele stood, exchanged a brief hug with him, and moved without complaint to an empty chair beside Carroll, next to Vail. It was clearly a well-rehearsed move that happened often.

Gerald forced a smile and replied, “Thank you, Lord Harris.”

Leo took his hand under the table. He gave Mark a lazy smile. “Uncle. I thought that you weren’t going to make it. You’re always so punctual.”

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world, Nephew,” Mark replied, just as smooth. “After all, it’s not often one’s heir attempts to marry so far below his station. I’ll take every opportunity to remind Gerald just how wrong this is, for I know you won’t listen.”

The silence was so thick that everyone heard the gasp in the hall. The servants were obviously listening to his humiliation. It was probably their entertainment for the month.

Another reason not to have any, Gerald thought numbly.

Vail stood, red-faced with anger, and snapped, “Apologize this minute, Mark! How dare you insult Gerald so! I dare say, he’s a better man than you, and shall be a fine addition to this family.”

Mark’s gaze remained on Gerald as he said, “Certainly, you’re a better man than I. You aren’t, however, anything close to being an equal; mine or Leonard’s.”

Blue eyes sparking toward gray, Leo stood. “I would speak with you in private, Uncle. Now.”

“Certainly, Nephew.” Mark stood, a faint, amused smile on his face.

Leo and Mark left the dining room, and Gerald could only think, He’s not wrong.

Carroll reached across the table to grip Gerald’s forearm. He said firmly, “Don’t listen to the old blowhard.”

Adele gasped. “Carroll! Language!”

Carroll rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mother, but it’s true! He’s just being that way because Gerald isn’t a woman. If Gerald could birth children, Uncle Mark would be perfectly fine with his lineage.”

“This is not fit conversation for the dinner table,” Vail stated. He sighed a bit and said, “Gerald, I’m sorry that Mark is being so very difficult. You are more than welcome in this family by the rest of us.”

Gerald finally shook off the fog and managed to reply, “Thank you, Vail, that is greatly appreciated. If you’ll all excuse me a moment?”

There were nods all around, and he stood, deliberately not meeting his grandfather’s gaze. He knew Daniel would be ready to spit nails, and Gerald had too much to deal with just then. He walked out of the dining room and ran a hand through his hair, taking several breaths to steady himself.

“Sir?”

Gerald looked over at the maid who’d served his wine and tried to smile at her. “Yes?”

“It weren’t right, what his Lordship said to you,” she whispered. “They’re in the study, if-if you want to know.”

Gerald’s smile came a little easier at her timorous endorsement. “Thank you. Nellie, is it?”

Her hazel eyes widened—maybe she wasn’t used to people remembering her name—and she nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“Thank you, Nellie,” Gerald said and then went in search of his errant betrothed.

 

 

SELDOM HAD Leo been so infuriated with his uncle. They’d nearly come to blows during his apprenticeship and rarely agreed on matters of law or policy, but this white-hot rage at how casually Mark insulted Gerald was new. They walked in silence to the study, mostly because Leo didn’t trust himself not to start shouting right there in the hall. Leo motioned him through first, envisioning his uncle’s abject humiliation in some form in the near future as recompense for Gerald’s. Just because it had happened in front of family didn’t mean it hadn’t been humiliating. Leo had seen the whiteness of Gerald’s face and the hurt in his amber eyes.

His father’s study had always been a place of comfort for Leo. Filled with books from floor to ceiling on three of the four walls, the room was awash with sunlight or starlight from the windows that occupied the fourth. The study welcomed everyone, but tonight Leo only wanted to set it on fire.

Mark didn’t waste time or words. “He’s not your equal in power, peerage, or even education. You’re lucky he knows how to read. I have nothing against Gerald as a person. He’s a good man, as your father stated, but he is not for you.”

Leo took a calming breath, knowing how badly this could go if he let loose the way he truly wanted. He didn’t, technically, need his uncle’s permission to marry, but Mark could make life extremely difficult for them both. Stepping closer, Leo said, “I want you to understand one thing, Uncle. I love him. I will disinherit myself before I give him up. I want your blessing but make no mistake; I do not need it. Gerald is… he’s more than my equal. He is good and kind and true. All the qualities we lack, and I need him like I need to breathe. You will not part us.”

Mark stared at him for a long moment. “I cannot give you my blessing. Not with him.”

Unexpectedly, Gerald walked into the study. Leo looked over to find him drawn up stiffly, his face pale with determination. “Why not? There is surely more reason than simply my lack of titled lineage. To what about me do you object?”

Mark walked over to him and said quietly, “Neither your gender nor your lack of quality endears you to me, no, but the real reason for my disapproval? You are as mundane as a person can be. There is not a hint of power within you. Not the tiniest glimmer. You not only can’t bear my nephew an heir, but you keep him from doing so with anyone else by marrying him. Be his lover, I care not. Be his ‘companion,’ if you must, but leave him free to marry someone with power, peerage, and the ability to continue my line. Someone acceptable.”

Leo didn’t know he was going to strike his uncle until Gerald caught his arm before it connected with Mark’s face. From Gerald’s soft gasp, there’d been real force behind the blow, and his betrothed had used considerable strength to stop him.

Mark prudently withdrew a few feet. “I can see that there is no reasoning with you, Leo. Just know that the day you marry is the day that Carroll becomes my heir.”

Leo pulled his arm from Gerald’s tight grip. “Then you’d best prepare your papers, Uncle.”

Mark gave them each a clipped nod and strode from the room.

Once the door closed, Gerald breathed out, “Oh my God. Leo….”

Leo immediately focused on his tenderhearted partner. He drew Gerald to the settee and tugged him down. He laced their fingers together and said, “Gerald, look at me.”

It took a few seconds for those beautiful amber eyes to obey, but at last Leo could see into their troubled gaze.

“I love you and I will not give you up.” He kissed the backs of Gerald’s hands. “You’re mine and I’m yours, remember? Partners.”

A weak smile finally surfaced, and color began to return to Gerald’s face. He sighed explosively. “Still, Leo. What will you do if he truly disinherits you?”

Leo chuckled and put an arm over Gerald’s broad shoulders, drawing him back against the narrow sofa as he said, “Darling, that’s the least of my worries.”

Gerald gave him a curious look. “What’s your biggest worry, then?”

Smiling broadly, Leo teased, “That you don’t show up on the wedding day.”

Gerald rolled his eyes and said, “I think your priorities may be backwards, Leo.”

Leo kissed his temple. “No they aren’t, darling. They’re in perfect order. Come on. Let’s get back to dinner. I know for a fact that Cook made your favorite for dessert.”

Gerald brightened visibly and stood up, pulling Leo to his feet. “You know I love you, but if I miss Cook’s chocolate mousse because of your uncle, I may have to hurt you.”

Leo chuckled and walked with him back to the dining room. Everyone was still there, waiting. They relaxed almost as one upon seeing the two of them returning in good spirits. Leo ushered Gerald back into his seat and then rang for the maid to tell her to continue with dessert. Sitting beside Gerald, he said, “Sorry, Carroll, but it looks like I’m such a disappointment to Uncle Dearest that you’re next on the chopping block.”

Carroll immediately groaned. “I think I hate you right now.”

Their mother immediately scolded, “Hush, Carroll, you do not. Now, Gerald. I have a very important question for you.”

Leo hid a grin, knowing exactly what his mother was going to ask. He caught his father’s gaze and found a troubled expression there. His father quirked an eyebrow at him, and Leo shrugged, indicating they would talk later.

“Yes, Adele?”

“Who is your tailor?”

Leo couldn’t help but laugh at Gerald’s aghast look; wide-eyed was such a lovely expression on him.

Adele practically beamed at Gerald from across the table. “I’ll gather from that, you have none. I will give you my tailor’s card before you leave this evening. He’s just exceptional, and you’ll need someone very good for your wedding suit.”

The maids returned just then with dessert. Leo wasn’t mistaken that there was a good deal more in Gerald’s bowl than anyone else’s, and he smiled fondly. Even the servants loved Gerald.

Conversation returned to the wedding and making plans as they finished off wine and dessert. By the time the evening ended, Leo’s mood had returned to its pre-Uncle levels. He held Gerald’s hand on the way out to the foyer and released him only so Gerald could put on his coat. Leo smoothed down the old thing and said, “I’m going to buy you an entirely new wardrobe once you can’t say no, darling.”

Gerald’s eyes crinkled with good humor. “So you really are just marrying me to dress me properly.”

“No, but it’s certainly a benefit,” Leo quipped.

A sharp pain in his back made Leo gasp. He whirled toward Daniel and automatically brought up a powered-shield in self-defense; the old man’s cane had given him more bruises than getting shipwrecked in Australia ever had.

Daniel poked at him again and scowled upon meeting the invisible wall. “You keep that uncle of yours in check, boy. I still have other offers for my only grandchild, and they will treat him well instead of making him feel like scum on the bottom of their shoe.”

“Granddad!”

Leo waved off Gerald’s horrified exclamation. “No, Gerald, he’s right. My uncle is no longer a consideration, Daniel, I swear. Gerald will be treated with all due respect from here out.”

Daniel glared at him a moment longer and then relented with a minor harrumph. “See that he is.”

Gerald’s face was flushed when Leo next looked at him. It was a becoming sight, and Leo smiled, drawing Gerald down for a lingering kiss. Sliding his fingers through Gerald’s thick, dark hair, he gently scratched at his scalp a moment and then broke the kiss and withdrew his hand. Gerald blinked at him muzzily, sending a pang of love through his heart, and Leo said, “I will call upon you tomorrow, darling. Sleep well.”

Gerald nodded. “I’ll be in the shop most of the day, I expect.”

Another kiss, shorter this time, and Gerald left to join his grandfather and return home.

When he turned, Leo found his father waiting in the foyer. Right. Time to discuss plans for dealing with Mark. It was long past time to do so. He followed his father back down the hall to the study and thought about ways to neutralize his uncle. Knowing his father as he did—Vail Harris had been in the Army for years, after all—Leo sensed his father would not take the insult to his future son-in-law lightly or lying down.

Leo smiled wolfishly and closed the door behind them so they wouldn’t be disturbed.