“I think a gentleman conducts his affairs with kindness and with honor,” he said, at last. “That being so, if the recipient is a woman or a man—does it matter so much?”
Percy gave a short laugh.
“Kindness and honor? That’s all well—but what of love?”
Grey valued love—and feared it—too greatly to make idle protestations.
“You cannot compel love,” he said finally, “nor summon it at will. Still less,” he added ruefully, “can you dismiss it.” He sat up then, and looked at Percy, who was looking down, tracing patterns on the counterpane with a fingertip. “I think you are not in love with me, though, are you?”
Percy smiled a little, not looking up. Not disagreeing, either. “Cannot dismiss it,” he echoed. “Who was he? Or is he?”
“Is.” Grey felt a sudden jolt of the heart at the speaking of that single word. Something at once joyful and terrible; the admission was irrevocable.
Percy was looking up at him now, brown eyes bright with interest.
“It is—I mean, he—you need not worry. There is no possibility of anything between us,” Grey blurted, and bit his tongue to keep back the sudden impulse to tell everything, only for the momentary ecstasy of speaking of Jamie Fraser. He was wiser than that, though, and kept the words bottled tight in his throat.
“Oh. He’s not…?” Percy’s gaze flicked momentarily over Grey’s nak*dness, then returned to his face.
It was late in the day; light skimmed across the room from the high attic windows, striking the dark burnished mass of Percy’s curling hair, painting the lines of his face in chiaroscuro, but leaving his body in the dimness of shadow.
“Is friendship and sincere liking not enough for you?” Grey was careful to avoid any tone of pettishness or accusation, making the question merely one of honest inquiry. Percy heard this, and smiled, lopsidedly, but with answering honesty.
“No.” He stretched out a hand and ran it up Grey’s bare arm, over the curve of his shoulder, and down the slope of his breast, where he spread his palm flat over the nipple—and took a sudden grip of the flesh there, fingers digging into the muscle.
“Add that, though…” he said softly, “and I think it will suffice.”
They saw little of each other during the days, Grey being busy with the increasingly frantic preparations for departure, and Percy consumed by the rigors of his own training and the needs of the four companies under his command. Still, in the evenings, they could go about quite openly together in public, as any two men who happened to be particular friends might do—to supper, to a play, or a gaming club. And if they left such venues together, as well, it caused no comment.
No one at Jermyn Street would question Grey’s occasional absence at night, for he often slept in the barracks or at the Beefsteak, if he had been kept late on regimental business or out with friends. Still, to be gone every night would cause notice, and so the nights they spent together in Percy’s rooms were doubly precious—for their scarcity, and for the realization that they were coming to an end.
“We must be circumspect in the extreme,” Grey said. “On campaign. There is very little privacy.”
“Of course,” Percy said, though given what he was doing at the time, Grey thought he was not paying particular attention. His fingers tightened in Percy’s hair, but he did not make him stop. Time enough to repeat the warning—and he was no more eager than Percy to contemplate the inevitable interruption of their intimacy.
An intimacy of more than body—though God knew, that was sufficiently intimate.
Percy had taken him at his offer on their first night, again the next morning, and had used him with the greatest gentleness—a gentleness that unnerved him, even as it brought him nearly to tears.
He had not made that particular offer again, disturbed as much by the experience as he had been by the long-ago rape, though in a very different—and admittedly more pleasant—way. Percy never pressed him, never asked; only made it clear that should Grey wish it…And perhaps he would, again. But not yet.
The unexpected intimacy of mind between them was as intoxicating—and occasionally as unsettling—as that of the flesh.
Percy had not referred directly to the story Grey had told him regarding the duke’s murder since the night they had first lain together. He knew his friend must be thinking of it, though, and was therefore not surprised when Percy mentioned the matter a few days later. Not pleased—he did not precisely regret telling Percy the truth, but was surprised at himself for having done so after keeping the secret for so long, and felt a sort of lurking unease at the secret he had guarded for so long being now shared by another—but not surprised.
“But what happened afterward?” Percy demanded. “What did you do? Did you not tell anyone? Your mother?”
Grey felt a flash of annoyance, but recognized in time that the cause of it was not Percy’s question but the memory of his own helplessness.
“I was twelve years old,” he said, and Percy glanced at him sharply and drew back a little, sensing the edge in his voice, despite its calm. “I said nothing.”
The gardener had found the duke’s body, later in the morning. A hastily convened coroner’s jury had found a verdict of death while the balance of mind was disturbed, and two days afterward Grey had been sent north, to stay with distant cousins of his mother’s, in Aberdeen. The duchess, with a prudence he did not appreciate until years later, had left, too, to live in France for several years.
“Could she not have taken you with her?” Percy asked, echoing Grey’s own anguished—but unspoken—question at the time.
“I believe,” he said carefully, “she considered that there might be some risk to her own life.”
He believed—though very much ex post facto—that she had in fact courted such risk.
“Courted it?” Percy echoed in surprise. “Whatever do you mean by that?”
Grey sighed, rubbing two fingers between his brows. There was an unexpected relief, and even pleasure, in the intimacy of talking, finally, about all this—but this was balanced by the equally unexpected distress of reliving those events.
“It’s a gray place, Aberdeen.” Grey was sitting up in bed, arms round his knees, watching the last of the night evaporate from the roofs of the city. “Stone. Rain. And Scots. The bloody Scots.” He shook his head in recollection, the sound of their talk like the rumble of carriage wheels on gravel.
“I didn’t hear much. Scandals in London…” He shrugged. “Not of interest in Aberdeen. And I imagine that was the point; to shield me from the talk. My mother’s cousins were kind enough, but very…remote. Still, I overheard a few things.”
The duchess—or the countess, as she had taken to styling herself—had apparently been very visible in France, to the murmurous disapproval of her Scottish Lowland relations. Not young, she was still a very handsome woman, and rich.
“There were rumors that she had to do with some of the French Jacobites. And if there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that my mother harbored—and harbors—no sympathy whatever for that cause.”
“You think she was looking for the man who killed your father.”
Grey nodded, still looking out the window, seeing not the lightening sky above London but the gray rain clouds of Aberdeen.
“I don’t know if she found him,” he said softly. “I convinced myself after a time that she had. Had killed him in turn—or in some other way contrived his destruction.”
Percy raised an incredulous eyebrow.
“You think—or thought—that your mother had killed him?”
“You think women are not capable of such things?” Grey didn’t quite laugh, but turned his head so that Percy could see the half smile on his face.
“Not generally, no. My mother could certainly not…” Percy trailed off, frowning, evidently trying to visualize Benedicta Grey in the act of murder. “How? Poison?”
“I don’t know. She’s rather direct, my mother. Much more likely a stab to the heart. But in fact, I don’t suppose she ever found the man—if indeed she was searching for him. It was just…something I told myself she was doing.” He shrugged, dismissing the memory. “What happened to your father?” he asked curiously.
Percy shook his head, but accepted the change of subject, an expression of wry humor on his face.
“Believe it or not, he was run over by a mail coach.”
“No, I mean it, he was.” Percy shrugged, helpless. “He was standing in front of a public house in Cheltenham, preaching at the top of his lungs and quite oblivious to his surroundings. We heard the coach coming—”
“You were there?”
“Yes, of course. He’d take me along, to give out tracts or pass the hat when he preached in public. Anyway, I pulled at his coat—I could see the coach then, and how fast it was coming—and he cuffed me away, absently, you know, like one would brush away a fly, too absorbed in his vision of heaven to notice anything on earth. He stepped forward, to get away from me. Then it was on us and I jumped back, out of the way. And…he didn’t.”
“I’m sorry,” Grey said.
Percy glanced at him, mouth half turned up.
“I wasn’t. Self-righteous, heavy-handed bastard. My mother wasn’t sorry, either, though his death made it very hard for her.” He flipped a hand, indicating that he wished to waste no more conversation on the subject. “Going back to your much more sincerely lamented father—I have been thinking about what you told me. Do you—do you mind?”
“No,” Grey said cautiously. “What have you been thinking?”
Percy cleared his throat. “I’ll tell you, but since you mentioned the, um, inquest. You are quite, quite positive that your father did not…uhh…”
“No, he didn’t, and yes, I am sure.” Grey heard the edge in his own voice and made a small gesture of apology. “Sorry. I…haven’t spoken of it before. It’s—”
“Raw,” Percy said softly. Grey glanced up and saw such a warmth of understanding in Percy’s eyes that he was obliged to look away, his own eyes stinging.
“Yes,” he said. Like a fresh-cut onion.
Percy squeezed his leg comfortingly, but said no more of Grey’s feelings, returning to his line of thought.
“Well, then. If—I mean, since that is the case, we know something important, do we not?”
“The murderer himself didn’t seek to disguise the death as suicide. Your mother did that. Do you know why, by the way? I suppose you never asked her.”
Grey managed a wry smile at that.
“Could you have asked your mother such a thing?”
Percy frowned, seeming to consider the question, but Grey didn’t wait for an answer.
“No. I’ve never spoken to my mother regarding the matter. Nor Hal.”