LORD THOMAS Pendleton, second son of the Duke of Branmoor, rolled over, shielding his face from the harsh sunlight coming through the window of his room at the Oxford and Cambridge University Club.

“It’s no good, Thomas” came a man’s voice. “I’ve already summoned a carriage. You’d better get up.”

Thomas opened one eye and saw his friend, Andrew Nash, sitting near the bed, dressed in his finest riding clothes and looking far too cheerful.

“I feel wretched.”

“No doubt,” Andrew replied unsympathetically. “You finished off that entire bottle of whisky last night.”

Both men were in their midtwenties, having recently graduated from Oxford. It was there, at the club, that they’d first made each other’s acquaintance four years earlier. Andrew wasn’t of the nobility, but he’d managed to turn his late father’s import business into an exceedingly profitable enterprise, and Thomas was embarrassed to see that Andrew’s traveling clothes were of a far finer make than he himself could afford.

He sat up and tentatively placed his feet on the floor.

“What kind of friend lets me drink half a bottle of whisky by myself?” he asked irritably, running his hand through his thick chestnut hair as if that might somehow soothe the dull ache that gripped his head. The wooden floorboards were cold against his bare feet, but he lacked the motivation to find his slippers.

Andrew found them for him and slid them across the floor with his walking stick until they were within Thomas’s reach. “I could hardly have stopped you. Besides, being drunk made you more susceptible.”

“Susceptible? Susceptible to what?”

Then it all came back to him, and the significance of Andrew’s outfit finally filtered through his alcohol-muddled brain. “Oh no. Andrew, you couldn’t possibly hold me to a promise made while I was in my cups.”

“Couldn’t I?”

Andrew’s blond curls and mischievous smile always made Thomas think of an angelic Michelangelo sculpture gone bad. Andrew watched him through long-lashed blue eyes as Thomas dragged himself over to the nightstand to splash some water on his face.

“Unless you’d care to settle your gambling debts yourself….”

“Andrew,” Thomas said, raising his face to regard him in the mirror, “it’s crude to talk of money matters so blatantly.”

Andrew shrugged, unconcerned. Normally, a man of his station would be more respectful of the son of a duke. Indeed, a man of his station would normally never wake a nobleman in the morning and then watch him stagger around before he made himself presentable. But their friendship had long ago grown to the point where they dispensed with such formalities, at least in private.

“I’m afraid I lack your breeding, so forgive me. But you were the one foolish enough to wager with Stratford, knowing you didn’t have the stake.”

Thomas reached for his shaving brush, wet it, and began swirling it around on a bar of soap. “I thought I could win.”

“But you didn’t.”

Slathering the soap on his chin was easy enough, but Thomas’s hands were shaking, making the idea of running his straight razor along his neck somewhat unappealing. “I do appreciate you saving me from humiliation, Andrew, but you must understand. I am no longer welcome at Branmoor Hall, at Christmastime or any other. I simply can’t take you there.”

“Nonsense.” Andrew set his cane aside to come close and take the potentially deadly straightedge weapon out of his friend’s unsteady hand. “It’s been years since you left. I’m sure your father would love to see you.”

“You don’t know him.”

“Well, neither do you. Not after six years. He may have changed his mind about a great many things. And you promised last night to take me to the country, in exchange for forgiving your debt.”

“I was tricked.”

“Absolutely.”

Thomas allowed Andrew to take his chin in hand and shave him. It was mildly embarrassing, but Andrew was so much better at it than he was. Thomas had been forced to dismiss his valet years ago, when his allowance proved too paltry to afford such a luxury.

He would be lost without Andrew, truly. The man was the dearest friend he could ask for, always there when he needed companionship, always willing to cover his debts, even nursing him when he was ill.

And what was Andrew asking for in return? To spend the holidays in the country, just this once.

At Branmoor Hall.

Andrew had never been there, of course, so no doubt he had formed an overly idyllic image of life in a country manor. But after the passing of his mother four years ago, Andrew had no family, and the holidays seemed to weigh upon him. Thomas certainly didn’t have enough money to repay him for last night. Nor would he for a very long time.

Thomas sighed. “Very well. But I warn you, we may be turned away at the door.”

Andrew simply gave him that mischievous smile again.

 

 

THOMAS HAD insisted on tea before leaving the club, which delayed them further and made the driver of their carriage irritable. Andrew gave the man a large tip for waiting and helped Thomas climb into the carriage. Then they were off down Pall Mall.

Thomas, of course, nodded off immediately. Andrew sat across from him, watching him sleep, the tousled hair and sensuous mouth so beautiful and sweet in repose. Andrew sighed and forced himself to look away—at the dirty London streets slipping past the window, at the novel he was pretending to read, at anything else besides Thomas.

What would happen if Thomas ever opened those soft, jade-colored eyes and saw Andrew watching him with eyes full of not only affection, but desire? It was too horrible to contemplate.

Someday, Thomas would drift away from him. Their intense, close friendship would fade, and Thomas would find comfort in the arms of a woman. It was inevitable. But until that day, Thomas was his. Not in the way Andrew desperately longed for, but in the only way it could ever be. So for now he would revel in it and fight to keep the truth from ever slipping out—that he loved Lord Thomas Pendleton with all his heart.

My God, if he ever were to discover it!

Thomas would be horrified. Repelled. As any respectable English gentleman would be. At best he would turn Andrew away and never see him again. At worst he might press charges as well. That sort of thing was against the law, as Andrew well knew.

Andrew forced these dire thoughts out of his head, and turned back to the carriage window, watching the dingy London streets, until they eventually left the city behind.

The village of Branmoor was several hours away from London, and somehow Thomas managed to sleep through the entire journey, except for brief stops in Bromley and Sevenoaks, where he managed to rouse himself for relief and to consume some sandwiches and tea bought from street vendors. Andrew had let him sleep, though he found the journey dull without a companion to talk to. His novel quickly bored him, so he contented himself with watching the rural landscape drift by.

He’d never been to the country as a boy; his family had resided in London and had no living relations outside the city. Andrew’s mother had often spoken of how she missed the small cottage she’d lived in as a young girl, painting a charming picture of the English countryside that had made Andrew yearn to see it. But his father had been born in London, and to the best of Andrew’s knowledge, had never set foot outside the city until the day he died.

Perhaps he was being foolish. Most likely, he would discover that Branmoor Hall was drafty and unpleasant, and he would quickly find himself longing for the modern amenities London had to offer. But his best friend was the second son of the Duke of Branmoor! How often did one get an invitation to spend the holidays with a noble family—even if the invitation was forced? Thomas had described the great hall full of candles, gay Christmas balls, and feasts of goose and pheasant and Christmas puddings. It sounded so wonderful.

Too, Andrew desperately wanted to see where Thomas had spent his childhood. Perhaps some part of him thought it would strengthen the bond they shared.

He was concerned, of course, that the holiday would prove an unhappy time for Thomas. The man described his father as a tyrant who’d tried to force Thomas into a marriage to a woman he hadn’t loved. Just as he’d forced Thomas’s older brother, Lord Edward, Marquess of Wexholt, into an arranged marriage. Thomas had fled to London, and it was only through the intervention of his mother that he hadn’t found himself cut off entirely but at the receiving end of a small allowance.

Andrew prayed his foolishness wouldn’t make matters worse for Thomas, but his friend had spoken fondly of the mother he feared he might never see again and the niece he’d read about in her letters but had never met.

After losing the last member of his own family, it seemed tragic to Andrew that Thomas should remain cut off from those he loved because of an argument six years in the past. Surely there was a possibility of reconciliation.

If worst comes to worst, Andrew told himself, I’ll support the bastard. For as long as he’ll let me.

Twilight was almost upon them when the carriage rounded a small hill. Suddenly there it was—Branmoor Hall, lit up orange by the setting sun against a darkening sky, with the glass of scores of windows reflecting red-gold fire. Andrew’s breath caught at the sight of it. He’d never imagined it being this spectacular. The hall was enormous, rivaling any of the buildings Andrew had seen in London, and surrounded by evergreen hedges and immaculately manicured lawns, though the grass was rather brown at this time of year. An extensive woodland lay beyond that, and some distance to the south, Andrew could see the small village named for the hall.

As the carriage drove up to the wrought-iron gate and the coachman conversed with the gatekeeper, Andrew roused his friend.

“Welcome home, Lord Thomas,” he said cheerfully.

Thomas rubbed his face and peered blearily through the carriage window. “We’ll see just how welcome I am.”