He could not yet think of her as dead. Perhaps he would not until he reached Helwater, and found himself amongst her family, walking through the places that had known her. He tried to envision her, but found that her face had faded from his memory, though he kept a strong sense of her form, lithe in a brown habit, chestnut-haired and quick as a fox.
Quite suddenly, he wondered whether he could recall Percy Wainwright’s face. He had spent all of a two-hour luncheon the day before yesterday in gazing at it, but was suddenly unsure. And much of the second hour in imagining the form that lay beneath the neat blue suit; he was more sure of that, and his heart sped up in anticipation.
What he saw in his mind’s eye, though, was another face, another form, vivid as flame among the damp greens and grays of the fells. He saw it, the long, suspicious nose, the narrowed eyes hostile as a leopard’s, as though the man himself stood before him, and the pleasant thrum of his blood changed at once to something deeper and more visceral.
He realized now that the vision had sprung up in him at once, the moment his mother had spoken the words, “Geneva Dunsany is dead”—though he had instinctively been suppressing it. Geneva Dunsany meant Helwater. And Helwater meant not only his memories of Geneva, nor the griefs of her parents and sister. It meant Jamie Fraser.
“God damn it,” he said to the vision, under his breath. “Not now. Go away!”
And walked on to his engagement, heedless of the chisping snow, his heated blood in ferment.
They had agreed to meet beforehand, and go together to Lady Jonas’s salon. Not sure either of Wainwright’s means or his style, Grey had chosen the Balboa, a modest coffeehouse chiefly patronized by sea traders and brokers.
The place was always cheerful and bustling, with men huddled intently in small groups, plotting strategy, wrangling over contracts, absorbed in the details of business in a fragrant, invigorating atmosphere of roasting coffee. Now and then a clerk or ’prentice rushed in in panic to fetch out one of the patrons to deal with some emergency of business—but in the postluncheon lull, most of the merchants had returned to their offices and warehouses; it would be possible at least to have a conversation.
Grey was punctual by habit and arrived just as his pocket watch chimed three, but Percy Wainwright was already there, seated at a table near the back.
He did recognize the man; indeed, his putative stepbrother’s face seemed to spring smiling out of the dimness, vivid as though he sat by a candle flame, and the disquieting wraith of Jamie Fraser disappeared at once from Grey’s mind.
“You are very prompt,” he remarked, waving Wainwright back onto his stool and taking one opposite. “I hope you did not have too far to come?”
“Oh, no; I have rooms quite near—in Audley Street.” Wainwright nodded, indicating the direction, though his eyes stayed fixed on Grey, friendly, but intensely curious.
Grey was equally curious, but took care not to seem to examine his companion too closely. He ordered coffee for himself, and took the opportunity of Wainwright’s speaking to the waiter to look, covertly. Good style, an elegant but quiet cut, the cloth a little worn, but originally of good quality. Linen very fine, and immaculate—as were the long, knob-jointed fingers that took up the sugar tongs, Wainwright’s dark brows lifting in inquiry.
Grey shook his head.
“I am not fond of sugar, but I do like cream.”
“As do I.” Wainwright set down the tongs at once, and they smiled unexpectedly at finding that they shared this trifling preference—then smiled wider, finally laughing at the absurdity, for lack of anything sensible to say.
Grey picked up his coffee and spilled some into the saucer to cool, wondering quite what to say next. He was intensely curious to learn more of Percy Wainwright, but not sure how closely he might inquire without giving offense.
He had already learned a little from his mother: Percy Wainwright was the son of an impoverished clergyman who had died young, leaving the boy and his mother a small annuity. They had lived in genteel poverty for some years, but Mrs. Wainwright had been quite beautiful, and eventually had met and married General Stanley—himself a widower of many years’ standing.
“I believe they were quite happy,” his mother had said, dispassionate. “But she died only a few months after the wedding—of the consumption, I believe.”
She had been looking thoughtfully into her looking glass as they talked, turning her head this way and that, eyes half-closing in quizzical evaluation.
“You are very beautiful, too, Mother,” he’d said, both amused and rather touched by what he took as this unusual evidence of doubt.
“Well, yes,” she said frankly, laying down the glass. “For my age, I am remarkably handsome. Though I do think the general values me more for my rude good health than for the fact that I have all my teeth and good skin. He has buried two sickly wives, and found it distressing.”
His mother, of course, had buried two husbands—but she didn’t mention that, and neither did he.
He asked the usual social questions now—did Wainwright go often to Lady Jonas’s salons? Grey had not yet had the pleasure. How did Mr. Wainwright find the company there, by comparison with other such gatherings?—meanwhile thinking that the late Lady Stanley must have been very beautiful indeed, judging by her son.
And I doubt extremely that I am the first man to have noticed that, he thought. Is there anyone…?
While he hesitated, Percy gave him a direct look and put the question that was in the forefront of his own mind.
“Do you go often? To Lavender House?”
He felt a slight easing, for the asking of the question answered it, so far as he was himself concerned; if Wainwright were in the habit of frequenting Lavender House, he would know that Grey was not.
“No,” he said, and smiled again. “I had not visited the place in many years, prior to the occasion when I met you there.”
“That was my first—and only—visit,” Percy confessed. He looked down into his dish of coffee. “A…friend sought to introduce me to the company, thinking that I might find some congeniality of persons there.”
“And did you?”
Percy Wainwright had long, dark lashes. These lifted slowly, giving Grey the benefit of those warm-sherry eyes, further warmed by a look of amusement.
“Oh, yes,” Percy said. “Did you?”
Grey felt blood rise in his face, and lifted his coffee to his mouth, so that the warmth of the liquid might disguise it.
“The pursuit of…congeniality was not my purpose,” he said carefully, lowering the cup. “I had gone there in order to question the proprietor about a private matter. Still,” he added, offhanded, “it would be a foolish man who disregards a pound discovered lying by his foot in the road, only because he was not looking for it.” He darted a look at Percy, who laughed in delight.
Suddenly, Grey felt a rush of exhilaration, and could not bear to remain indoors, sitting.
“Shall we go?”
Percy drank off his coffee in a gulp and rose, reaching for his cloak with one hand, even as he set down his cup with the other.
The walls of the Balboa were plastered with trivia for the edification of patrons—the entire series of Mr. Hogarth’s “Marriage à la Mode” etchings encircled the room, but were surrounded—and in some cases obscured—by thick flutterings of newspaper broadsheets, personal communiqués, and Wanted notices, these advertising a need for everything from six tonnes of pig lead or a shipload of Negroes, to a company director of good name and solid finances who might assume the leadership of a fledgling firm engaging in the sale of gentlemen’s necessaries—whether these might include snuffboxes, stockings, or condoms was not made clear.
Glancing casually at the new crop of postings as they made their way to the door, though, Grey’s eye caught a familiar name in the headline of a fresh broadsheet. DEATH DISCOVERED, read the large type.
He stopped short, the name Ffoulkes leaping out of the smaller newsprint at him.
“What?” Percy had perforce halted, too, and was looking curiously from Grey to the newspaper.
“Nothing. A name I recognized.” Grey’s elation dimmed a little, though he was too excited to be quelled completely. “Are you familiar with a barrister named Ffoulkes? Melchior Ffoulkes?” he asked Percy.
The latter looked blank and shook his head.
“I am afraid I know no one, much,” he said apologetically. “Should I have heard of Mr. Ffoulkes?”
“Not at all.” Grey would just as soon have dismissed Ffoulkes from his own mind, but felt obliged to see whether anything of what Hal had told him had made it into the public press. He tossed a silver ha’penny to the proprietor and took the broadsheet, folding it and stuffing it into his pocket. Time enough for such things later.
Outside, the chisping had stopped, but the sky hung low and heavy, and there was a sense of stillness in the air, the earth awaiting more snow. Alone, away from the buzz of the coffeehouse, there was a sudden small sense of intimacy between them.
“I must apologize,” Percy said, as they turned toward Hyde Park.
“For my unfortunate gaffe yesterday, in regard to your brother. The general had told me that I must not under any circumstance address him as ‘Your Grace,’ but he had not time to explain why—at the time.”
“Has he told you since?”
“Not in great detail.” Percy glanced at him, curious. “Only that there was a scandal of some sort, and that your brother in consequence has renounced his title.”
Grey sighed. Unavoidable, he’d known that. Still, he would have preferred to keep this first meeting for themselves, with no intrusions from either past or present.
“Not exactly,” he said. “But something like it.”
“Your father was a duke, though?” Wainwright cast him a wary glance.
“He was. Duke of Pardloe.” The title felt strange on his tongue; he hadn’t spoken it in…fifteen years? More. So long. He felt an accustomed hollowness of the bone at thought of his father. But if there was to be anything between himself and Percy Wainwright…
“But your brother is not now Duke of Pardloe?”
Despite himself, Grey smiled, albeit wryly.
“He is. But he will not use the title, nor have it used. Hence the occasional awkwardness.” He made a small gesture of apology. “My brother is a very stubborn man.”
Wainwright raised one brow, as though to suggest that he thought Melton might not be the only one in the Grey family to display such a trait.
“You need not tell me,” he said, though, touching Grey’s arm briefly. “I’m sure the matter is a painful one.”
“You will hear it sooner or later, and you have some right to know, as you are becoming allied with our family. My father shot himself,” Grey said abruptly. Percy blinked, shocked.
“Oh,” he said, low-voiced, and touched his arm again, very gently. “I am so sorry.”
“So am I.” Grey cleared his throat. “Cold, isn’t it?” He pulled on his gloves, and rubbed a hand beneath his nose. “It—you have heard of the Jacobites? And the South Sea Bubble?”
“I have, yes. But what have they to do with each other?” Percy asked, bewildered. Grey felt his lips twitch, not quite a smile.
“Nothing, so far as I know. But they had both to do with the—the scandal.”
Gerard Grey, Earl of Melton, had been a clever man. Of an ancient and honorable family, well educated, handsome, wealthy—and of a restless, curious turn of mind. He had also been a very fine soldier.
“My father came to the title as quite a young man, and was not content to potter about on the family estates. He had a good deal of money—my mother brought him more—and when the Old Pretender launched his first invasion in 1715, he raised a regiment, and went to fight for king and country.”
The Jacobites were ill-organized and badly equipped; the Old Pretender, James Stuart, had not even made it ashore to lead his troops, but had been left fuming impotently off the coast, stranded by bad weather. The invasion, such as it was, had been easily quashed. The dashing young earl, however, had distinguished himself at Sheriffmuir, emerging a hero.
German George, feeling uneasy on his new throne despite the victory, and wishing to demonstrate to the peers of his realm the advantages of supporting him in military terms, elevated Gerard Grey to the newly created dukedom of Pardloe.
“No money with it, mind, and only a scant village or two in terms of land, but it sounded well,” Grey said.
“What—whatever happened?” Percy asked, curiosity overcoming his impeccable manners.
“Well.” Grey took a deep breath, thinking where best to begin. He did not want to speak at once about his father, and so began from the other end of the affair.
“My mother’s mother was Scottish, you see. Not from the Highlands,” he added quickly. “From the Borders, which is quite a different thing.”
“Yes, they speak English there, do they not?” Wainwright nodded, a small frown of concentration between his brows.
“I expect that is a matter of opinion,” Grey said. It had taken him weeks to become sufficiently accustomed to the hideous accents of his Scottish cousins as to easily understand what they were saying.
“But at least they are not barbarians, such as the Highland Scots. Nor did the Borderers join in the Catholic Rising—most being strongly Protestant, and having no particular sympathy or common interest with either the Stuarts or the Highland clans.”