All in the Family
London, January 1758
The Society for Appreciation of
the English Beefsteak, A Gentlemen’s Club
To the best of Lord John Grey’s knowledge, stepmothers as depicted in fiction tended to be venal, evil, cunning, homicidal, and occasionally cannibalistic. Stepfathers, by contrast, seemed negligible, if not completely innocuous.
“Squire Allworthy, do you think?” he said to his brother. “Or Claudius?”
Hal stood restlessly twirling the club’s terrestrial globe, looking elegant, urbane, and thoroughly indigestible. He left off performing this activity, and gave Grey a look of incomprehension.
“Stepfathers,” Grey explained. “There seem remarkably few of them among the pages of novels, by contrast to the maternal variety. I merely wondered where Mother’s new acquisition might fall, along the spectrum of character.”
Hal’s nostrils flared. His own reading tended to be confined to Tacitus and the more detailed Greek and Roman histories of military endeavor. The practice of reading novels he regarded as a form of moral weakness; forgivable, and in fact, quite understandable in their mother, who was, after all, a woman. That his younger brother should share in this vice was somewhat less acceptable.
However, he merely said, “Claudius? From Hamlet? Surely not, John, unless you happen to know something about Mother that I do not.”
Grey was reasonably sure that he knew a number of things about their mother that Hal did not, but this was neither the time nor place to mention them.
“Can you think of any other examples? Notable stepfathers of history, perhaps?”
Hal pursed his lips, frowning a bit in thought. Absently, he touched the watch pocket at his waist.
Grey touched his own watch pocket, where the gold and crystal of his chiming timepiece—the twin of Hal’s—made a reassuring weight.
“He’s not late yet.”
Hal gave him a sideways look, not a smile—Hal was not in a mood that would permit such an expression—but tinged with humor, nonetheless.
“He is at least a soldier.”
In Grey’s experience, membership in the brotherhood of the blade did not necessarily impute punctuality—their friend Harry Quarry was a colonel and habitually late—but he nodded equably. Hal was sufficiently on edge already. Grey didn’t want to start a foolish argument that might color the imminent meeting with their mother’s intended third husband.
“It could be worse, I suppose,” Hal said, returning to his moody examination of the globe. “At least he’s not a bloody merchant. Or a tradesman.” His voice dripped loathing at the thought.
In fact, General Sir George Stanley was a knight, granted that distinction by reason of service of arms, rather than birth. His family had dealt in trade, though in the reasonably respectable venues of banking and shipping. Benedicta Grey, however, was a duchess. Or had been.
So far reasonably calm in the face of his mother’s impending nuptials, Grey felt a sudden drop of the stomach, a visceral reaction to the realization that his mother would no longer be a Grey, but would become Lady Stanley—someone quite foreign. This was, of course, ridiculous. At the same time, he found himself suddenly in greater sympathy with Hal.
The watch in his pocket began to chime noon. Hal’s timepiece sounded no more than half a second later, and the brothers smiled at each other, hands on their pockets, suddenly united.
The watches were identical, gifts from their father upon the occasion of each son’s twelfth birthday. The duke had died the day after Grey’s twelfth birthday, endowing this small recognition of manhood with a particular poignancy. Grey drew breath to say something, but the sound of voices came from the corridor.
“There he is.” Hal lifted his head, evidently undecided whether to go out to meet Sir George or remain in the library to receive him.
“Saint Joseph,” Grey said suddenly. “There’s another notable stepfather.”
“Quite,” said his brother, with a sidelong glance. “And which of us are you suggesting…?”
A shadow fell across the Turkey carpet, cast by the form of a bowing servant who stood in the doorway.
“Sir George Stanley, my lord. And party.”
General Sir George Stanley was a surprise. While Grey had consciously expected neither Claudius nor Saint Joseph, the reality was a trifle…rounder than anticipated.
His mother’s first husband had been tall and dashing, by report, while her second, his own father, had been possessed of the same slight stature, fairness, and tidy muscularity which he had bequeathed to both his sons. Sir George rather restored one’s faith in the law of averages, Grey thought, amused.
A bit taller than himself or Hal, and quite stout, the general had a face that was round, cheerful, and rosily guileless beneath a rather shabby wig. His features were nondescript in the extreme, bar a pair of wide brown eyes that gave him an air of pleasant expectation, as though he could think of nothing so delightful as a meeting with the person he addressed.
He bowed in greeting, but then shook hands firmly with both Greys, leaving Lord John with an impression of warmth and sincerity.
“It is kind of you to invite me to luncheon,” he said, smiling from one brother to the other. “I cannot say how greatly I appreciate your welcome. I feel most awkward, then, to begin at once with an apology—but I am afraid I have imposed upon you by bringing my stepson. He arrived unexpectedly this morning from the country, just as I was setting out. Seeing that you will in some sense be brothers…I, er, thought perhaps you would pardon my liberty in bringing him along to be introduced.” He laughed, a little awkwardly, and blushed; an odd mannerism in a man of his age and rank, but rather endearing, Grey thought, smiling back despite himself.
“Of course,” Hal said, managing to sound cordial.
“Most certainly,” Grey echoed. He was standing closest to Sir George, and now turned to the general’s companion, hand extended in greeting, and found himself face to face with a tall, slender, dark-eyed young man.
“My Lord Melton, Lord John,” the general was saying, a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “May I present Mr. Percival Wainwright?”
Hal was a trifle put out; Grey could feel the vibrations of annoyance from his direction—Hal hated surprises, particularly those of a social nature—but he himself had little attention to spare for his brother’s quirks at the moment.
“Your servant, sir,” he said, taking Mr. Wainwright’s hand, with an odd sense of previous meeting.
The other felt it, too; Grey could see the faint expression of puzzlement on the young man’s face, a faint inturning of fine dark brows, as though wondering where…
Realization struck them simultaneously. His hand tightened involuntarily on the other’s, just as Wainwright’s grip clutched his.
“Yours, sir,” murmured Wainwright, and stepped back with a slight cough. He reached to shake Hal’s hand, but glanced briefly back at Grey. His eyes were also brown, but not at all like his stepfather’s, Grey thought, the momentary shock of recognition fading.
They were a soft, vivid brown, like sherry sack, and most expressive. At the moment, they were dancing with mirth at the situation—and filled with the same intensely personal interest Grey had seen in them once before, at their first meeting…in the library of Lavender House.
Percy Wainwright had given him his name—and his hand—upon that occasion, too. But Grey had been an anonymous stranger then, and the encounter had been necessarily brief.
Hal was expressing polite welcome to the newcomer, though giving him the sort of coolly professional appraisal he would use to sum up an officer new to the regiment.
Grey thought Wainwright stood up well to such scrutiny; he was well-built, dressed neatly and with taste, clear-skinned and clean-featured, with an attitude that spoke of both humor and imagination. Both traits could be dangerous in an officer, but on a personal level…
Wainwright seemed to be discreetly exercising his own curiosity with regard to Grey, flicking brief glances his way—and little wonder. Grey smiled at him, now rather enjoying the surprise of this new “brother.”
“I thank you,” Wainwright said, as Hal concluded his welcome. He pulled his lingering attention away from Grey, and bowed to Hal. “Your Grace is most…gracious.”
There was an instant of stricken silence following that last, half-strangled word, spoken as Wainwright realized, a moment too late, what he had said.
Hal froze, for the briefest instant, before recovering himself and bowing in return.
“Not at all,” he said, with impeccable politeness. “Shall we dine, gentlemen?”
Hal turned at once for the door, not looking back. And just as well, Grey thought, seeing the hasty exchange of gestures and glances between the general and his stepson—horrified annoyance from the former, exemplified by rolling of the eyes and a brief clutching of the shabby wig; agonized apology by the latter—an apology extended wordlessly to Grey, as Percy Wainwright turned to him with a grimace.
Grey lifted one shoulder in dismissal. Hal was used to it—and it was his own fault, after all.
“We are fortunate in our timing,” he said, and smiled at Percy. He touched Wainwright’s back, lightly encouraging him toward the door. “It’s Thursday. The Beefsteak’s cook does an excellent ragout of beef on Thursdays. With oysters.”
Sir George was wise enough to make no apology for his stepson’s gaffe, instead engaging both the Greys in conversation regarding the campaigns of the previous autumn. Percy Wainwright appeared a trifle flustered, but quickly regained his composure, listening with every evidence of absorption.
“You were in Prussia?” he asked, hearing Grey’s mention of maneuvers near the Oder. “But surely the Forty-sixth has been stationed in France recently—or am I mistaken?”
“No, not at all,” Grey replied. “I was temporarily seconded to a Prussian regiment, as liaison with British troops there, after Kloster-Zeven.” He raised a brow at Wainwright. “You seem well-informed.”
“My stepfather thinks of buying me a commission,” he admitted frankly. “I have heard a great deal of military conversation of late.”
“I daresay you have. And have you formed any notions, any preferences?”
“I had not,” Wainwright said, his vivid eyes intent on Grey’s face. He smiled. “Until today.”
Grey’s heart gave a small hop. He had been trying to forget the last time he had seen Percy Wainwright, soft dark curls disheveled and his stock undone. Today, his hair was brushed smooth, bound and powdered like Grey’s own; he wore a sober blue, and they met as proper gentlemen. But the scent of Lavender House seemed to linger in the air between them—a smell of wine and leather, and the sharp, deep musk of masculine desire.
“Now then, Percy,” the general said, slightly reproving. “Not so hasty, my boy! We have still to speak with Colonel Bonham, and Pickering, too, you know.”
“Indeed,” Grey said lightly. “Well, you must allow me to give you a tour of the Forty-sixth’s quarters, near Cavendish Square. If we are to compete with some other regiment for the honor of your company, we must be allowed to exhibit our finer points.”
Percy’s smile deepened.
“I should be most obliged to you, my lord,” he said. And with that, some small, indefinable shift occurred in the air between them.
The conversation continued, but now as a minuet of manners, precise and delicate. And just as a courting couple might exchange worlds of meaning with a touch, so they did the same, with no touch at all, their unspoken conversation flowing unhindered beneath the disguise of routine courtesies.
“Are you fond of dogs, Lord John?”
“Very much so, though I am afraid I have none myself at present. I am seldom at home, you see.”
“Ah. You make your home with your brother, when in England?” Percy glanced in Hal’s direction, then brought his eyes back to Grey’s, the question plain in them.
Does your brother know?
Grey shook his head, attention ostensibly on the bread roll he was tearing. The question of what Hal knew was a good deal too complex to deal with here. Leave it that Hal did not know about Lavender House, nor his brother’s association with it. That was enough for now.
“No,” he said casually. “I stay at my mother’s house in Jermyn Street.” He looked up, meeting Percy’s eyes directly. “Though perhaps I shall seek lodgings elsewhere, now that her domestic arrangements will be altered.”
Percy’s mouth lifted in a slight smile, but Sir George, pausing in his own conversation to chew a morsel of beef, had caught this remark, and now leaned across the table, his round face reflecting earnest goodwill.
“My dear Lord John! You certainly must not alter your arrangements on my account! Benedicta desires to keep her house in Jermyn Street, and I should be most distressed to feel that my presence had deprived her of her son’s company.”
Grey noticed his brother’s lips press thin at the notion of Sir George’s occupation of Jermyn Street. Hal glanced sharply at his brother, admonition plain in his face.
Oh, no, you don’t! I want you there, keeping an eye on this fellow.
“You are too kind, sir,” Grey replied to Sir George. “But the matter is not pressing. I shall rejoin the regiment shortly, after all.”
“Ah, yes.” Sir George looked interested at that, and turned to Hal. “Have you fresh orders for the spring, my lord?”
Hal nodded, a plump oyster poised on his fork. “Back to France as soon as the weather permits. And your troops…”