Just a Little Wickedness
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Joe Logan came to London in search of his missing sister, Lily. But months have passed, and not only is Lily still lost, more children have disappeared as well. The trail of the missing children might be growing cold, but things are just starting to heat up between Joe and Alistair.
When both Alistair and Joe seek out the help of The Brotherhood—an underground organization dedicated to helping the gay community—they are drawn into a much deeper investigation of children who have gone missing all over London. When it begins to look like people very close to Alistair's family are involved, Alistair finally has a chance to make his father proud. But will the wild and wicked love blossoming between Alistair and Joe help them find Lily, or will their affair be exposed and destroy both of them?
PLEASE BE ADVISED: Steam level – very spicy! And yes, this is an m/m romance, so if that's not your thing, feel free to pass on this one.
THE BROTHERHOOD series consists of:
Just a Little Wickedness
Just a Little Temptation
Just a Little Danger
Just a Little Seduction
Just a Little Heartache
Just a Little Christmas
Just a Little Madness
Just a Little Gamble
Just a Little Mischief
Just a Little Rivalry
Release date: March 6, 2020
Publisher: Merry Farmer
Print pages: 322
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Just a Little Wickedness
London – March, 1890
It was barely past seven in the evening, and already a headache was forming behind Alistair Bevan’s eyes.
“It’s terrible,” his father, Lord Albert Bevan, Earl of Winslow, huffed, squirming against the back of his seat in the well-appointed carriage they traveled in. “That a man like Lord Chisolm could walk about town, holding dinner parties, and passing himself off as a genial host is simply disgraceful.”
“Yes, dear, we know,” Alistair’s mother said with a long-suffering sigh, patting her husband’s hand.
“The truth must be known,” Alistair’s father went on, his white moustache quivering. “Families such as the Eccles clan need to be exposed for their sins.”
“I agree, Father,” Alistair said in as soothing a voice as he could manage. “But perhaps it would be better to wait until some sort of concrete proof is discovered before slighting the name of one of the most influential families in London.”
Alistair sent a sideways look to his brother, Darren, seated in the carriage beside him. Darren wore a pinched frown that was all too familiar to Alistair. The glance they exchanged was loaded with the unique sort of tension that could only be shared by brothers who knew their father was losing his mind.
“I thought Lord Chisolm and the rest of the Eccles family were your friends, Father,” Darren said in a manner that was usually reserved for speaking to a child.
“Of course they are my friends,” their father replied indignantly. “One must always keep their friends close and their enemies closer, as they adage goes.”
“Is that why we rushed about the moment we arrived in London from Dorset?” Darren asked with a smirk. “To pretend that your mortal enemy is actually your bosom friend so that we can keep them close?”
Alistair didn’t approve of his brother’s teasing tone, but he didn’t try to stop the question.
“We are behaving as any civil members of the aristocracy would,” their father insisted. “We received an invitation, and so we are accepting it.” It was a good enough answer, and Alistair was almost pleased by it, until his father added, “And if we’re clever, we can catch those beastly slave traders at their game.”
Alistair winced, raising his hands to rub his throbbing temples. There it was again, his father’s dogged insistence that the Eccles family—the ones who bore the Chisolm title as well as the ones who didn’t—made their money through the slave trade.
“Papa,” Alistair sighed, his eyes squeezed closed. “I’ll grant you that the Eccles’s might very well have made their fortune on the slave trade a hundred and fifty years ago, but you do realize that it is eighteen ninety and that the slave trade has been outlawed these eighty-three years now.”
“He knows what year it is,” their mother said in a tight voice, offended at the very idea that her husband’s sanity was being questioned.
“You only know what you studied in those dusty old books of yours, son,” their father scolded Alistair. “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy.”
Alistair opened one eye to peek at his father. The man had gone from getting lost in the past to quoting Shakespeare. It wasn’t going to be a good night, and they would be out in public when the inevitable breakdown happened.
“Perhaps we should turn around and go home,” he suggested, but it was already too late.
The carriage rolled to a stop in front of a stately Mayfair mansion and an attendant in fine livery rushed forward to open the door. Alistair stepped out first, followed by Darren. Darren offered a hand to their mother, escorting her on to the white marble front steps, while Alistair did the best he could to help his father out of the carriage without making him appear like the frail, old man he was. The worst of it was that Albert Bevan wasn’t even that old. He hadn’t yet turned sixty, and already his mind and body were failing. It could only mean one thing—that Alistair would inherit the earldom, the land and fortune, the seat in the House of Lords, and the duty and responsibility that went with it all far sooner than he was ready to.
“Now,” his father said as Alistair offered his arm to support him in his struggle up the steps to where Darren and Lady Winslow were waiting in the doorway, “keep your eyes peeled for anything sinister.”
“Yes, Father,” Alistair sighed, squaring his shoulders and walking on with as much dignity as he could.
“There’s no telling what sort of evidence could be lying about in plain sight. Men like Chisolm are clumsy when it comes to hiding their nefarious activity. They grow too proud and too self-congratulatory, and that is when we must swoop in and bring them to justice.”
“Of course.” Alistair nodded, but inside, his heart felt as heavy as a stone.
He could remember a time when the world revolved around his father, when the man was the epitome of strength and wisdom to him. He would have given anything to have that man back, but since that was as impossible as fetching a chunk of cheese from the moon to go with supper, the best he could do was to be the man his father needed him to be, as hard as it was. There were so many things that would disappoint his father to his core if he knew, starting with the fact that Alistair enjoyed the romantic company of men the way he was supposed to enjoy that of women.
“Let me know if you need me to take a turn,” Darren murmured to Alistair as they reached the magnificent front hall of the stylish mansion.
“I will,” Alistair promised, then glanced around at the opulence.
The Chisolm mansion in Mayfair was new, as far as stately London homes went. It had been constructed barely twenty years before in the place of an older, Georgian building, and held all the modern conveniences a man of as much wealth as Lord Chisolm had could buy. The chandeliers were gilded, the art was that of grand masters, and the furnishings in the parlor they were led to, where titled and notable guests from the most desirable families in London gathered before supper, were artworks in themselves. Alistair noted several members of the royal family in attendance. He also noticed two pairs of wide, startled eyes staring out at the guests from a Japanese screen set in front of what looked like a concealed servants’ entrance to the room.
That charming detail—staff in the house peeking at the glorious guests—set Alistair a fraction more at ease. He deliberately glanced away, loath to give up the secret of whoever was spying on them.
That ease was shattered a moment later when his father leaned closer to him while staring across the room. “You see there?” He nodded to a young woman dressed in the latest Paris fashion, her hair piled fantastically on her head. “That is Lady Alice Norton. She is one of the most eligible heiresses on the market this season.”
Alistair’s stomach sank. “She is quite the beauty,” he said, knowing it was what he was expected to say.
“She is exactly the sort of bride you should be setting your sights on,” his father went on. “Not only is she a social triumph already at her young age, she could provide you with sons who bear a connection to the royal family.”
Lady Alice happened to glance in Alistair’s direction at that moment. All Alistair could do was to smile tightly and nod to the woman in acknowledgement. The thought of courting Lady Alice—or any other woman, for that matter—turned his blood cold. He was no liar, and any overture he made to a woman would be a lie of astounding proportions. He knew who he was, though hardly anyone else did, certainly not his family. But he also knew his duty. He knew what was expected of him.
“My lords and ladies, supper is served,” announced a butler who was dressed as elaborately as any of the guests.
For once, Alistair was glad of his father’s frailty. It meant no one expected him to single out one of the ladies in the room to escort into dinner. Darren upheld that tradition for the family, and their mother was escorted in by a bishop, which she would no doubt crow about for days to come. Alistair followed behind the rest of the guests, supporting his father as a savvy footman gestured for him to bring his father to a place that had been specially arranged.
“Keep your wits about you,” Alistair’s father whispered as they crossed into the dining room.
“Father,” Alistair sighed. “Surely a family that goes out of its way to prepare a special place for you at the table is not infiltrated with the enemy.”
His father let out a humorless laugh. “You would be surprised, my boy. And besides, Lady Chisolm is a Fitzgerald, not an Eccles. I’m certain this is her doing.”
Alistair opted not to answer. Partially because several guests were already staring at them. Paul Eccles, Lord Burbage, Lord Chisolm’s oldest son, in particular seemed to be keeping one eye on them as Alistair helped his father into his seat.
“Do you need some help there, Farnham?” Burbage asked, addressing Alistair by his formal title in spite of the fact that they’d known each other since university. Alistair rarely bothered with formalities when it came to men near his own age who traveled in his same social circles, but he couldn’t think of Burbage in any way but formally.
“No, thank you,” he replied with a civil smile. As soon as his father was as comfortable in his chair as he could be, Alistair seated himself in the chair beside him.
“Only, it seems as though your father needs more assistance these days than he used to,” Burbage went on, his grin a little too pointed, as he took a seat across the table.
A few of the guests seated nearby were kind enough to look startled at the comment. Lady Burbage—Paul’s wife of less than a year, who was already a little too round with child for polite company—leaned closer to whisper something to him with a scowl. Burbage ignored her.
“I am still here, young man,” Alistair’s father said in a voice that was louder than it should have been, drawing even more attention. “So don’t count me out yet.”
A few of the ladies tittered with nervous laughter as footmen moved about the table, serving the first course. Alistair felt heat rise up his neck, but it was hard to tell whether it was anger or embarrassment. He would rather have died than admit his father was an embarrassment to him, but the facts were the facts.
“The situation in Mozambique is quite concerning.” The titled gentleman sitting on Alistair’s other side tried to strike up a conversation. “But I’m certain we’ll have Portugal on the run in no time.”
“Their position is untenable,” Alistair agreed, although the only thing he knew about the problems in Africa was that something was going on.
“They never should have—”
“Look at that,” Alistair’s father hissed on the other side, dragging him away from polite conversation.
Alistair sent an apologetic glance to the man trying to talk to him—who easily turned to converse with the middle-aged woman on his other side—and turned to his father.
“Chisolm will have an heir and a spare before summer,” his father went on, nodding to Lady Burbage, or rather, the portion of her stomach that was visible above the table.
If Alistair could have slumped under the table to hide from the inappropriate topic of conversation, he would have. “Father, perhaps we could discuss this later.”
“You mustn’t let them get too far ahead of us,” his father whispered in return. “You’re just as capable of marrying a socialite as Paul Eccles is.”
“He’s referred to as Lord Burbage, Father.”
“He’s a viscount,” his father muttered on, either stating the obvious or on his way to making a point. “You’re a viscount,” he went on. “His father is an earl, your father is an earl. And I can say with relative certainty that you will be an earl before he is.”
“Father, please.” Alistair glanced around, trying to gauge who was listening in and who was politely ignoring his father’s lack of propriety.
He caught sight of two tiny heads poking around the corner of the modest doorway at the end of the room and was certain they belonged to the same pairs of eyes he’d spotted behind the screen in the parlor. If he had to guess, by the look of them, he’d say their spies were a hall boy and scullery maid. Lord Chisolm certainly didn’t have children that young and Burbage was only beginning his brood.
“Look around you, son,” his father went on. “You could have your pick of a bride. And I’m quite certain you could do better than snotty little Paul Eccles.”
The woman seated on his father’s other side cleared her throat loudly.
Heat flooded Alistair. “You know this isn’t an appropriate dinner topic,” he whispered.
His father huffed. “What is the point of going out in society if not to make couples? What is the difference between flirting in a ballroom and strategizing in a dining room?”
The evening wasn’t going to go well. His father was already raising his voice. Alistair was no fortune-teller, but he could predict that within ten minutes, his father would be standing and attempting to auction him off to the highest bidder. He had no choice but to act.
As soon as the footman carrying the soup course came near, Alistair sent him an apologetic look. The man frowned curiously, and as he attempted to serve his father, Alistair bumped his arm, sending just enough soup splashing onto his father’s dinner jacket to disrupt proceedings.
“I’m sorry, my lord,” the footman apologized.
“It’s my fault entirely,” Alistair murmured to him, adding an earnest look to make certain the man knew it, then standing. “Come along, Father. I’ll help you tidy your jacket.”
Not a soul at the table looked the least bit surprised. Darren sent Alistair a grateful nod. Their mother glanced down at her soup in sorrow as the friend seated next to her whispered something comforting to her. Across the table, Burbage was doing a poor job of hiding a snicker. His father, Lord Chisolm, seated at the head of the table, let out a dramatic moan and rolled his eyes, making it clear he thought the once great Lord Albert Winslow was a pathetic joke.
Acid churned in Alistair’s gut as he closed an arm around his father’s shoulders and escorted him from the room.
“There’s a parlor across this way where you could rest,” Chisolm’s butler said, directing them across the hall. “I could see if one of the valets is available to help with the jacket.”
“Thank you.” Alistair nodded to the man.
“Where are we?” Alistair’s father asked as soon as he was seated on a cozy settee next to a cheery fire.
“We’re waiting for a valet to come along to help with your jacket,” Alistair explained.
“Good, good.” His father nestled back into the pillows as Alistair arranged them behind his back. “I’ll wait here while you search the room for signs of foul play.”
“I’m not going to snoop through Lord Chisolm’s house,” Alistair said, shaking his head. “You might not want to admit it, Father, but there’s nothing wrong with the Eccles family. I can’t say that I like them very much, but they’re no more nefarious than half the other grand families in England.”
“That’s what they want you to think,” his father insisted, closing his eyes and letting out a happy sigh. “You’ll find the truth. I trust you. I rely on you.”
Alistair stood helplessly by, watching as his father fell fast asleep. It was bittersweet to know he had his father’s complete confidence. Every son wanted to feel their father’s approval, but one false move on Alistair’s part and that confidence would be blown out of the water. One tip of his hand and his father would see through the illusion Alistair presented to the world.
He wasn’t going to let that happen.
He moved away from the settee, walking to the fireplace to lean against the mantel, staring into the low flames. He would do his duty by his family. If his father wanted him to court Lady Alice Norton, or any other woman, he would buck up and do it. He would push his true self aside to be who his father needed him to be. He would produce an heir, take over the running of the estate, and do whatever it took to be the best Earl of Winslow possible, no matter how quickly it all happened. He would—
“Excuse me, my lord. I was told you were in need of the services of a valet?”
Alistair turned away from the fireplace to look straight into the deep, dark eyes of the most beautiful man he’d ever seen in his life. He was tall, with broad shoulders, a narrow waist, and dark hair that was swept rakishly to one side. As soon as he saw the startled look on Alistair’s face, his perfect mouth formed into a smile that went straight to Alistair’s cock.
There was only one thing Alistair could say as every resolution to do his duty blasted away from his mind.
Time was running out. The longer Joe remained in the employ of Lord Burbage without discovering so much as a clue as to what had happened to Lily, the less likely he was to find her. He strode through the halls of Eccles House, tempted to explore his employer’s study or the library or to look for some other corner of the house that he hadn’t already pored over while Burbage and his father were occupied at supper. He was clever enough to explain his presence where he wasn’t meant to be—cleverness had never been his problem—but even so, he couldn’t risk being dismissed. Not until he had answers about Lily.
Giddy whispers from around the corner closest to the formal dining room caught Joe’s attention as he debated doubling back to search Burbage’s study. He knew what he was about to find before he turned the corner and grinned. As quietly as he could, he approached the two bright-eyed children on their knees, peering into the grand dining room. They were so absorbed in ogling Lord Chisolm’s guests that they didn’t hear him approaching until he bent close to them and whispered, “Boo.”
The children squealed and leapt up, scrambling backward, knowing they’d been caught.
“Toby, Emma, what are the two of you doing?” Joe asked, laughing.
Before the two could answer, first footman, Ned, marched around the corner looking as though he would call for the children’s blood. “Get back to the kitchen or I’ll tell Mr. Vine to sack you and kick you back to the gutter where you came from.”
Joe reached for Toby and Emma’s hands. “There’s no need for that, Ned,” he warned the young man.
Ned stiffened, tugging at the bottom of his livery jacket. “I think there’s every need, Mr. Logan.”
“I’ll take them back downstairs.” Joe sent the uptight footman a flat look and turned to lead the children away. “Don’t mind him,” he told the children as they walked. “Ned has ambitions, and you can never quite trust a man with ambitions.”
The children giggled.
“Did you see how grand they all looked, Mr. Logan?” Emma asked.
“Is that woman at the end of the table the queen?” Toby added.
“No,” Joe laughed. “She’s just some fine lady. I’d rather spend a night playing soldiers with the two of you than sit down to eat with that lot.”
“But they’re ever so grand,” Emma argued, looking preciously earnest as she did.
“I’m going to be a soldier when I get older,” Toby insisted. “Even though I’m just a hall boy now.”
“Count your blessings where you find them,” Joe told them as they neared the door to the servants’ quarters. “Being a hall boy and a scullery maid is a damn sight better than what you could be.” He would know. The stark difference in the lives of his siblings who had gone into service versus those who had stayed on the farm as day laborers was astounding.
And then there was Lily. He couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had lured her into a harlot’s life, by hook or by crook. Lily was uncommonly pretty. But he’d found no evidence of her at all in any of the brothels he’d investigated. Which had led him to the theory that a guest of the Eccles family had sweet-talked her away from an upright life. He could find nothing to support his hunch, though. If he didn’t find out what had happened to his sister soon, he didn’t know what he would do.
“Now, don’t you two have work to do?” he asked, shooing them toward the servants’ door.
Before they could answer, Mr. Vine stepped out of one of the fine parlors near the front of the hall, spotted Joe, and changed direction to march toward him. Joe pushed the children on, praying they were smart enough to scurry downstairs to work before Mr. Vine questioned what they were doing upstairs.
“Ah, Mr. Logan,” Mr. Vine said, ignoring Toby and Emma, much to Joe’s relief.
“Mr. Vine.” Joe nodded to the butler, careful to observe all the formalities that their positions in the household required. God knew he couldn’t afford to land on the butler’s bad side. Not with his reasons for being in the house and not with all the things Mr. Vine could discover about him if he scratched the surface.
“There is a guest in need of assistance in the Queen Charlotte parlor.” Mr. Vine got straight down to business.
“Assistance?” Joe shook his head slightly. “From me?”
“Lord Winslow has spilled soup on his diner jacket and is in need of a valet’s skills to set things to right.”
“Ah, I understand. I’ll attend to him right away.” Joe bowed slightly, taking great pains to show respect, and then hurrying on without being told. He didn’t care much for Mr. Vine, but a comfortable life depended on befriending everyone around him and giving them no reason at all to take notice of things they shouldn’t. He hadn’t made it safely through as much of his life as he had, being who and what he was, by drawing attention to himself, that much was certain. Although it meant he hadn’t had as much fun as he’d wanted to either. But circumspection was necessary when a man had his sorts of tastes, and ever since Lily had disappeared, he couldn’t afford distractions.
Which was why striding into the Queen Charlotte parlor and coming face to face with a perfectly dressed gentleman staring into the fire with the most sorrowful expression Joe had ever seen felt like running headlong into a solid brick wall.
Joe drank in the sight of the man—the way his clothes fit perfectly over an obviously fit body, the slight curl of his light brown hair, and above all, the intensity of emotion shining from his devilishly handsome face—before clearing his throat and saying, “Excuse me, my lord. I was told you were in need of the services of a valet?”
The man jerked away from the fire and his eyes met Joe’s. The spark that passed between the two of them was palpable. On top of that, Joe could have sworn the man muttered, “Fuck,” in a deep, rich tone.
“Mr. Vine informed me you spilled soup on your dinner jacket,” Joe said, taking a step forward, clasping his hands behind his back and attempting to adopt the proper, submissive posture. He couldn’t do it, though. Every fiber of his being wanted to stand tall and to move gracefully, to catch the gentleman’s eye.
The gentleman watched him for a few more, captivating seconds before shaking his head and saying, “Not me, my father.” He nodded toward the settee closest to the fire.
Joe hadn’t noticed the sleeping man. He had a feeling someone could have fired a canon in the parlor and he wouldn’t have noticed. Not with the vision of masculine perfection drawing all of his attention. He threw caution to the wind and met the gentleman’s look with a flirtatious smile. If his instincts about the man were wrong, he could make light of his overly friendly look and save face, but he doubted he was wrong.
Only when he reached the settee did he pull his gaze away from the gentleman to study his father. In an instant, pity raced through him. The father had, indeed, stained his finely tailored jacket. A jacket that must have fit him well at some point, but which was too large for his shrunken frame now. The man was obviously ill, and if Joe knew anything about anything, he wouldn’t be recovering.
“May I?” he asked the gentleman, reaching for the jacket to assess the stain better.
“Go right ahead,” the gentleman said with a sigh, crossing to the settee.
Joe could tell in an instant that it would take more work than he could do in the parlor to clean the stain. At the same time, he was loath to undress the older man. He was so frail that, even next to the fire, the poor dear might catch a chill. Instead, he stood. A rush of excitement coursed through him at the gentleman’s proximity.
“You’ll have to have your valet or his clean the jacket once you get home,” he said, his voice dropping to the warm tone he usually reserved for men he wanted to become more than his friend.
The gentleman blinked once, his eyes locking with Joe’s. A moment later, he took in a breath and said, “I don’t have a valet.” Prickles of excitement raced down Joe’s back, as though the gentleman had told him he didn’t currently have a lover but would like one. “Father does, though,” he went on, breaking away to sit on the settee and take his father’s hand.
The moment of connection evaporated, much to Joe’s regret. It had been ages since he’d reacted to a man like that. “If you’d like,” he said, “I can fetch some soda water to take out the worst of the stain for now. It’ll be enough for you to make your way home presentably.”
“Thank you,” the gentleman said with a weary smile.
Joe’s heart skipped a beat. What wouldn’t he have done to wipe that sadness out of the gentleman’s eyes. Several ideas of how he could make the man forget whatever hurt him—and everything else—popped to his mind.
“Give me just a moment,” he said, bowing, then turning to leave before his body betrayed him by showing just what he thought of the gentleman.
He walked sedately out of the parlor, then broke into a run as soon as he was around the corner. He dashed downstairs, nearly knocking Toby over as the boy swept the downstairs hallway, fetched the soda water and a cloth, then darted back toward the stairs, not wanting to spend a moment more than he had to apart from the gentleman. He skittered to a stop as he passed the wine cellar, then backtracked to pluck a bottle from the shelf, then raced to find a wineglass and corkscrew as well.
Finally, he made his way back up to the parlor, his arms filled with all the things he’d fetched. He forced himself to stop just shy of the parlor and to wait for his heartbeat to slow. At last, he checked his appearance in one of the many hall mirrors, then walked calmly into the parlor as though he’d been as cool and disinterested as the North Sea the whole time.
“Here we are, my lord,” he said with a friendly smile as he approached the settee. The gentleman hadn’t moved, nor had the pain in his expression eased as he watched his father. “I took the liberty of bringing you something to drink as well.” He hesitated, then added, “You look as though you could use a drink.”
The gentleman hummed in agreement, drew in a breath, then stood to make a place for Joe. As Joe handed him the bottle and glass, their fingers touched. The effect was so electric Joe’s face went hot.
“Do you think he’ll mind if I work on his jacket while he sleeps?” Joe asked, just above a whisper. He prayed the gentleman would think he’d lowered his voice to avoid waking the father up.
The gentleman met his eyes, and for a moment the undeniable attraction was there again. The gentleman’s eyes dropped to Joe’s lips, then he let out a sigh, turned away, and said, “Not at all. He probably won’t even notice.”
“Understood, my lord.” The moment was gone once again, so Joe sat, took the bottle of soda water from his pocket along with the cloth, and unstoppered the bottle. The gentleman’s sleeping father barely moved as Joe went to work, dabbing at the stains.
“We shouldn’t have come tonight at all,” the gentleman said as he took the wine bottle to a small table against the wall. He paused, then asked, “Do you have a corkscrew?”
Joe paused in his work to reach into his pocket for the corkscrew. When the gentleman came to take it, their hands brushed again. Joe could have sworn the man lingered before turning away and returning to the table.
It was ridiculous. Joe was a valet from a background that was barely middle class. The gentleman was obviously wealthy and titled. And yet, what made them different from normal men leveled the playing field between them. At least to a certain degree.
“Why do you say you shouldn’t have come?” Joe asked, eager to keep the conversation going, as he worked on the father’s jacket.
The pop of the wine bottle sounded before the gentleman spoke. “You can see that my father’s health is not good.”
Joe made a sympathetic sound, smiling at the slumbering gentleman.
“His mind is increasingly unsound as well,” the gentleman went on. He paused, then said, “It is agony to watch the man whom I have admired and looked up to for my entire life decline into little more than a shell of what he once was. And for him to decline at so young an age.” He paused again to take a drink of wine as he walked back to the settee. “He’s not yet sixty.”
“I’m sorry,” Joe said, glancing up from his work to show him just how sympathetic he was.
The gentleman let out a long breath and shrugged. “There’s nothing to be done. Every doctor money can buy has been consulted. No one knows how long it will be. Years still, in all likelihood. But that just means more years to watch…this.”
“I cannot imagine,” Joe said.
“I just wish I didn’t feel so useless,” the gentleman went on, resting his free hand on the back of the settee. “There’s so little I can do.”
On impulse, Joe reached up to rest a hand over his. “I’m certain you’re doing the best you can.”
The gentleman didn’t move his hand or shake Joe off. He stared at their fingers in a way that made Joe want to thread his through the gentleman’s and to hold on for dear life.
“I’ll have to assume the duties of the title and all that entails,” the gentleman went on. “Father seems to know it as well. He has taken to pointing out eligible brides to me every time we go out. He’s desperate to see me married and to have a grandchild before he goes.”
“Which must be painful for you,” Joe said in a frank tone.
The gentleman’s eyes jumped to meet his, suddenly fearful.
“I’m the same way,” Joe rushed to confess. “But I think you sensed that from the moment I walked in the room, as I did with you.”
Color splashed onto the gentleman’s face. He pulled his hand away, taking a long drink from his wineglass. Once he’d swallowed, he said, “So you understand how far I must go to be the dutiful son.”
“I do.” The gentleman’s father’s jacket was as clean as it was going to get, so Joe tucked the cloth back in his pocket, set the soda water on the floor, and stood. “I have a duty of my own,” he said. “My sister has gone missing, and our family is counting on me to find her.”
The gentleman’s brow shot up in surprise. “I’m sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do?”
A smile played across Joe’s lips in spite of the heaviness of the situation. “That’s very kind of you, my lord.” He hesitated, then extended his hand. “My name is Joe. Joe Logan.”
The gentleman took his hand and shook it. “Alistair Bevan.” When Joe raised one eyebrow, he went on with, “Don’t bother with the Lord Farnham part. I’ve already confessed more to you than I have to my own family, so it wouldn’t feel right.”
“If you say so, Alistair.” Joe’s grin widened. Especially since their hands were still joined.
Alistair seemed to notice and let go quickly. “Your sister is missing, you say?”
The seriousness of the situation returned, but a sense of camaraderie remained between the two of them. “For eight months now. She’s fourteen and came to London to work as a kitchen maid. I fear she has been lured into a dangerous situation. She was here for six months before she vanished without a trace.”
“Here?” Alistair frowned slightly. “Here as in London?”
“Here as in Eccles House.” Joe lowered his voice. “Which is why I applied for the position as Lord Burbage’s valet.”
Alistair’s frown deepened. “Were you working as a valet before?” He immediately shook his head and said, “That wasn’t the question I wanted to ask.”
“I was trained as a tailor first, but yes, I worked as a valet in the country, near Leeds, before,” Joe told him. “It’s how I know that soda water isn’t enough to remove a stain from a tomato-based soup, and that your father needs all of his clothes retailored to accommodate his weight loss.”
Alistair’s eyes went wide for a moment before the gloom settled in on him again. He laughed humorlessly and shook his head. “Most people think the fate of the world and the empire and its colonies is the most terrifying thing we have to deal with in life, but they’re wrong.”
“It’s the little traumas of our families that frighten us the most,” Joe picked up the thought.
Alistair met his eyes. They understood each other. It was the most beautiful and true moment Joe had experienced in years. He would have given anything to stay there with Alistair, talking through their lives, their sorrows, and their joys. He would have given even more to have the freedom to walk around the settee that separated them, to take the sad gentleman in his arms, and to kiss him until his sighs of sorrow turned into moans of pleasure.
“Any suggestions about how to do what has to be done when it’s the very last thing you want to do?” Alistair asked, the heat in his eyes hinting that he had the same thoughts.
Joe opened his mouth to say no, then stopped. “Actually, I might have an idea,” he said. It came to him out of nowhere. “Have you ever heard of an organization here in London called The Brotherhood?”
He could see in an instant by Alistair’s expression that he hadn’t. “Do they find wives for men like us?” he asked with a self-deprecating smirk.
“They might,” Joe answered with a shrug.
Alistair’s brow pinched into a frown. “What kind of organization are they?”
“A social one,” Joe said. “For men like us. Of all classes. Not a brothel or anything like that,” he rushed to clarify, knowing too well that many of the clubs and groups of men like them were for the purpose of finding a warm body to pass the night with. “In fact, that sort of thing is discouraged on the premises of the club.”
“They have a club?” Alistair stepped closer, his expression intrigued.
“Yes. It’s on Park Lane, facing Hyde Park.”
“And are you a member?” A look of hopeful curiosity lit Alistair’s eyes.
“I am.” Joe nodded. “But not a very active one. I’ve only been to the club once. It was nice,” he said, feeling as though the word were entirely inaccurate for the peace and relief of a place where he didn’t have to worry about what he said or how he behaved. There were precious few places in the world where men like him and Alistair could take a deep breath and be themselves.
“You believe this Brotherhood would have a solution to my problems?” Alistair took another step closer.
“At the very least, I’m certain you would be able to find someone to talk to who has been in your position and could advise you,” Joe told him. “The one time I was there, I noted several married men of the aristocracy among the members. Men who have been in the position you are in now. The Brotherhood is not limited by class or wealth, though. It welcomes everyone from high to low.”
“How very modern of it.” Alistair’s smile returned, as did the spark in his eyes. “I suppose if you recommend the place—”
His words were cut off and he jumped back, spilling some of the wine from the glass he still held, as a sudden swell of noise and conversation rose up in the hall. At the same time, his father stirred and mumbled as he awoke. Supper, and the intimate moment, had ended.
Alistair took another step back and a last swig of wine. “Thank you, Joe,” he said, keeping his voice down. As soon as he set the glass on the table with the wine bottle and glanced out into the hall as guests filtered out of the dining room, breaking into male and female groups to continue the socializing, Alistair’s entire demeanor changed. It was only then that Joe realized how much tension had drained from his new friend’s shoulders and how soft his voice had become. All that vanished before Joe’s eyes, leaving a sharp pain in his heart.
“What’s going on in here?” another gentleman, who bore a resemblance to Alistair, said as he stepped into the room with a grey-haired woman.
“Mr. Logan here has been helping tidy up Father’s jacket,” Alistair said, crossing to the couple. “Is it safe to assume you would rather go straight home than take tea with the ladies, Mama?” he asked the older woman, kissing her cheek.
“Yes,” the woman said, looking as though she’d had a miserable time at supper.
Alistair smiled weakly at her, then turned back to Joe. “Thank you for your help, Mr. Logan.”
“My pleasure, my lord.” Joe snapped into a formal bow, throwing the imaginary mantle of service and deference around his shoulders to protect both him and Alistair from any hint of what they’d shared being picked up by the others. He marched to the door, back as straight as any good servant’s.
“I’ll have the carriage brought around,” the man who must have been Alistair’s brother said.
“And I’ll see to Father,” Alistair said with a nod.
As Joe walked past him, their eyes met one last time. Neither betrayed so much as a hint of what had clearly ignited between them. As Joe left the room, he vowed to himself that, no matter what it took, he would find a way to spend time in Alistair’s company again.
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