Out of the Frying Pan
Parford Manor, Somerset. Late September, 1843.
Richard Dalrymple was determined to be civil.
He didn’t think he could ever shake the bone-deep envy that he felt, coming up the drive to his former family home. This place was imprinted on his memory: He’d played at soldiering with the stable-boy in that copse of trees. He’d caught his first fish on the far bank of that river, fallen off a horse for the first time there, and used that fence rail to get back on. The deeply familiar smell of autumn crept to him. A thread of rubbish fire on the wind mixed with earth and damp. Nowhere else in the world smelled like Parford Manor in autumn.
No matter how Richard prepared himself, no matter how often he told himself that he didn’t want it anymore, the nostalgia took him every time.
This could have been mine. But no. That was the illusion his childhood had foisted on him.
The carriage came to a halt. He inhaled, fixing in his mind who he was, how he was going to behave. This was family he was visiting. It was precisely as if he were a second son visiting his elder brother. No need to feel jealousy. Nothing had been lost; it had simply never been his in the first place.
The door swung open, and Richard stepped out onto the drive. Gravel crunched under his feet. He fixed a smile on his face, and did his best to make it genuine. And then he looked up, looked up the wide staircase leading to the formal entrance. His sister stood on the wide stone steps, holding a bundle in her arms.
And in that instant, he stopped having to try. He smiled—really smiled—and found that he couldn’t stop. He strode forward and clasped his sister in a one-armed hug.
“Margaret. It’s good to see you well.”
She couldn’t hug him in return, her arms being full, but she inclined her head against his neck. “Richard. I’m so glad you’ve arrived.”
He stepped back and looked at her. It had been weeks since her confinement. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected; delivery always sounded like a horrific ordeal, one that necessitated months of lying about, unmoving, and then hours of screaming. Honestly, he couldn’t see why anyone would chance such a thing.
But his sister didn’t seem any worse for what she’d gone through.
He glanced down at the bundle in her arms and prepared himself to say something vaguely, politely complimentary.
Margaret’s baby was awake. The child’s eyebrows were furrowed in an expression of infant concern, and she looked at Richard as if she were uncertain of him. She frowned at him, waving a fat arm about.
“You know,” Richard said, “I have never been a lover of babies. Awkward, tiny, helpless, screaming things.” He reached out to brush the tiny fuzz on her head, but stopped, unsure if he should even touch her. “And they’re all so red and ugly, but you have to pretend to admire them.”
His sister narrowed her eyes at him. “Richard, this is my daughter you are talking about.”
“Yes, that’s precisely the thing.” He couldn’t look away. “Are you sure she’s a regular baby? Because she’s adorable.”
“You’re pretending.” But his sister smiled anyway.
Richard shook his head. “Would I lie to my own goddaughter?” He leaned in. “Hello, Anna.”
Baby Anna’s eyes widened. They were dark brown and solemn. She peered up at him as if she were trying to make out who he was. Richard could feel something expand in his chest.
“Christ,” he said. “She has Mother’s eyes.”
“Don’t blaspheme around the baby,” Margaret said calmly. “And yes. I know. They’re your eyes, too.”
Curious, seeing his own eyes looking up at him. He wasn’t used to seeing them so unshadowed, so innocent.
Richard swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Her fingers are tiny.”
A snort came from behind Margaret. “Everyone always says that. They’re perfectly proportioned for her size. Imagine what she would look like with your hands.”
Richard looked up at these words. His brother-in-law—his successor—the man who’d taken all this from him was standing at the door, perfectly at ease. It had taken years for Richard to set aside his hatred.
But now, it hit him—envy and sorrow and release all at once.
This was as close as he would ever come to having his own child: watching Margaret and Ash’s child grow from a distance, having her named his goddaughter. He felt an uncomfortable pain in his chest, as if his ribs had become too small. He wished that he had the daring to lean in, to see if she would wrap those tiny fingers around his outstretched hand.
“Congratulations, Ash.” The words had no rancor. “She’s…” He groped for a word. Befuddling. Odd. Lovely. Awe-inspiring. Terrifying. “Amazing,” he finally settled on.
“I know.” Ash smiled as if he’d heard Richard’s entire litany. “She really is. Come in. Everyone’s already here.”
He’d been doing his damnedest not to think of it, but at those words, cold washed through him. “Everyone?”
“Everyone. The last guest aside from you arrived not fifteen minutes before.”
Richard’s smile had become a fraud again. “How lovely,” he heard himself say. His words sounded harsh and tinny.
He’d forgiven Ash, but there was one person who he couldn’t—he wouldn’t—pardon. Ash had benefited from unfortunate circumstances. But those circumstances had a cause, and even after all this time, Richard couldn’t forget who had betrayed him.
“Is...” It had been so long since he’d referred to him by his Christian name. “Is Smite here?”
Margaret paused, her dark eyes searching him. “Of course,” she finally said. She didn’t ask if that would pose a problem, but he could feel the question lingering on the air. She exchanged a look with her husband.
In the years since his sister had married his worst enemy’s brother, Richard had done his best to practice polite avoidance. But then, there were times—such as when a child was being christened—when it was impossible.
It was impossible, Richard reminded himself, because they could neither of them stay away. This wasn’t about their mutual antagonism. It was about little Anna.
“Don’t worry about me,” Richard said quietly. “I can be civil.”
Civil meant that Richard exchanged the barest of nods with Mr. Smite Turner. Civil meant that he refused to give in to his usual internal diatribe, suppressing it in favor of talking with everyone else in the room.
He’d made his peace with Mark Turner years before, and they spoke idly about indifferent mutual acquaintances. They’d been a few years apart in school, but knew many of the same people. Margaret’s husband was always welcoming. He never gloated, never once rubbed Richard’s nose in the fact that he’d quietly set up an account in trust for him, one that saw to all his needs. Ash always made Richard feel at home, which was quite an accomplishment, given that he was doing so in a house that should have belonged to Richard. And Margaret’s closest friends were here—Lord and Lady Carlton, their Forsyth cousins.
Easy enough to stay civil, when Smite Turner stayed on the opposite side of the room. When they went for Anna’s christening, Richard pointedly chose a separate carriage. And when he entered the church, he found Smite had already sat himself at the far end of the bunch.
He could almost hear him sneering. You’ll torture yourself for years, wondering when I will break your confidences. I couldn’t have crafted a more fitting punishment. Congratulations, Winnie.
God, Richard hated him. He hated him almost as much as he hated the fact that destiny had thrown them together like this, unable to avoid each other entirely, forced into each other’s proximity month after month, simply because Richard’s sister had fallen in love with the worst man possible.
He hated him, but Richard could hold his tongue.
He was even beginning to think they’d pass the day without incident at all.
After the service, they trooped back. Most of the guests departed—they’d make the London train, after all, if they left now—and the family stayed for a light repast. A scant few chairs separated Richard and Smite, but it was enough—enough that Richard could in all politeness address himself to Mark’s wife and his own sister.
After the final course had been laid, Smite—who was seated at the far end of the table from Richard—stood.
“Thank you very much for your hospitality,” he said to Ash, smooth as always, “but I really must be going.”
There was a moment of frozen silence. At the head of the table, Ash stood and crossed over to his brother. “Really?” He spoke in a low voice, but Richard—who was trying very hard to appear as if he wasn’t paying the conversation any mind—could still make it out. “Come now, Smite. Surely you could stay for a little longer. We’re all here.” Ash pointedly didn’t look at Richard. “You, me, Mark, Jessica... And it’s miles back to Bristol. Just one evening, Smite. It would mean so much to me.”
Across the table, Mark Turner looked down and shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He looked on the verge of speaking, but didn’t say a word.
Smite didn’t blink. He looked away from Ash. He reached out, as if to touch his brother’s shoulder, and then curled his hand into a fist and pulled it away. “I wish I could, Ash. But I must take my leave.”
“It’ll be dark by the time you’re home,” Ash protested. “And...”
“And that means I mustn’t delay any longer,” Smite finished smoothly.
“Is there something I can do?” Ash asked.
“Nothing,” Smite said simply. “It’s nothing you can fix, Ash.”
And that was when Richard realized what was happening. He’d heard those protests before. God, he’d once used to make Smite’s excuses, back in that unimaginable time when they’d been friends.
“Good God, Turner,” he blurted out from across the room. “Don’t tell me you’re still having nightmares.”
At his seat, Mark winced. Ash blinked in confusion. All conversation ceased, spoons halting midair.
Smite turned to Richard. For the first time all day, his gaze landed on him, his eyes cold and unmoving.
“Ah,” he said.
It was the first syllable that Smite had spoken to Richard since that long-ago birthday. More than a decade of silence, and that one syllable froze him to the core, made Richard feel that he was in the wrong. That he’d stepped wrong.
But Ash stood frozen in place. “Nightmares?”
“Good for you, Winnie,” Smite finally said, his voice low and cutting. “Still telling everyone else’s secrets. Well. I suppose everyone has to have some kind of talent.”
“What the devil?” Ash looked between them.
“Don’t blaspheme around the baby,” Margaret snapped.
Mark made a motion. “Sit down, everyone. Sit down.”
“No.” Ash took a step toward his brother. “What in God’s name does that mean?”
Smite hadn’t taken his eyes off of Richard. “It means that Dalrymple can’t keep his mouth shut.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Richard snapped. “How was I supposed to know you were keeping so ridiculous a secret from your own brother?”
Ash took another step forward. “Why does Dalrymple know your secrets and I don’t?”
Smite glanced at Richard once more, accusation wafting from him in waves of anger. God, the unfairness of it all—of holding Richard accountable for mentioning something so little to his brother, when Smite had betrayed everything.
“Ask Dalrymple,” Smite said savagely. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to explain it all.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Ash reached out. “I don’t want to hear it from Dalrymple. I want—”
Smite looked around the room and shook his head. “I have to leave now.”
Everyone else might have thought him unfeeling. Richard didn’t want to notice it—that extra blink of Smite’s eyes, the harsh grating of his breath. Even after all these years, he still knew the signs.
“Smite…” Ash reached out.
A mistake. Richard knew it was a mistake, which meant that Ash knew hardly any of Smite’s secrets.
Smite flinched back. “I’m sorry.” At his side, Smite’s hand twitched again, jerking a few inches toward his brother. “I’m truly sorry.” He swallowed. But he didn’t reach any farther. Instead, he tucked his hand into his pocket. “I must be going.” And with that, he turned and left.
The meal staggered to a painful close. The party laughed and spoke, determined to prove that nothing was amiss. And if Ash glanced at Richard a few times over the course of the evening, he didn’t approach and ask any inconvenient questions.
No. Those were left for later.
It was late at night when Richard found himself alone with Margaret—and of course, Little Anna. Anna had just fed, and she was gradually falling asleep, lashes drifting shut and then coming open. Down below, people were still conversing, a dull murmur of noise.
“So,” Margaret said, rocking Anna gently from side to side. “Today was…interesting.”
Richard glanced over at her.
“I keep hoping that you and Smite will somehow tolerate one another,” Margaret said. “Then I might see the two of you together from time to time.”
“Impossible,” Richard finally said. “And…impossible.”
Margaret waited for him to elaborate, and when he didn’t, she sighed. “I don’t think he’s cold, exactly. I know he cares about Ash. And he’s gone out of his way to make me feel welcome.” She sighed. “But I really don’t understand anything about him.” She glanced at Richard. “I was really hoping you might help. Just a little.”
The hell of it was that Richard understood practically everything. He looked away. “I would say that he was a cold bastard, but the truth is, he’s just never had any warmth, and he has no use for people who need it.” He folded his arms around himself. “Neither has he any use for people who make mistakes.”
“That still doesn’t make sense,” Margaret said. “Now, do I get an explanation or do I have to threaten you with holding the baby?”
“Oh no.” Richard held up his hands. “Not that. It’s really not that difficult. We were once friends,” Richard told her. “A very long time ago. Excellent friends, really. And then Mark and Edmund got in a tussle. Mark broke Edmund’s arm. I tried to get him sent down, and Smite, well. He’s ridiculously loyal. He was furious with me.” And perhaps…perhaps now, Richard could understand that fury. It had been the mirror of his own—he’d needed to protect his brother. But Richard shrugged that aside. “When he’s angry, he’s the most ruthless, unforgiving opponent. He hit me. He insulted me.” Richard swallowed and looked away. “So I happened to tell the other boys that he sneaked out by himself to have a good cry on occasion.”
“Cry?” Margaret stared at him. “Smite cried?”
“He missed his sister. She had passed away, and…” Richard shifted uncomfortably. Even now it didn’t feel right to tell this story. It was as if he could sense Smite’s accusing eyes on him still.
Margaret blinked at him.
“He didn’t take kindly to that disclosure.” Richard looked away. “That…that thing he does? That thing where he freezes you out and pretends he cares about nothing? It’s a bit of an act.” Richard sighed. “He does it to fool himself—pardon me, his words are, ‘practice discipline.’ I probably should not have revealed even that. We argued. And he threatened to reveal my secrets in turn.”
“Your secrets.” Margaret shook her head. “Is that all that this strutting contest between the two of you is about? Spilling childhood confidences? God, I could knock your heads together. You big, arrogant, stupid babies.” She glanced down, and bit her lip. “No, far stupider than that. Babies are clever, aren’t they?”
Richard shut his eyes. “Margaret, I told him our parents’ marriage was invalid.”
She looked up, her eyes wide.
“I told him. I didn’t even think about it. I…I finally had someone I could trust, someone I could share that burden with. I didn’t think what it had meant. His own damned brother was next in line for the dukedom, and I just blurted it out to him like it was nothing.”
His sister’s eyes were brilliant. They had never talked of their family’s almost-ruin, not since her marriage.
“I gave him the means to destroy me—to destroy all of us, you and me and Edmund alike. I trusted him. I was so, so stupid.”
Margaret shook her head. “No. You were young, and you were friends…”
“He promised he would punish me for my disclosure. He…he has this cold anger, one that never ends. Every month I hoped that he’d forgotten. But I’d look at him and know that he could ruin me at any moment. He told me that one day, I would figure out what he intended to do to me. And that when I knew, I should come and let him know. To beg, I suppose.”
Margaret shook her head. “He’s hard, yes, but he’s always been fair with me. I can scarcely imagine him making such threats.”
“Oh, imagine it, all right.” Richard dug his fingernails into his palm. “I remember it clear as day. And you don’t need any imagination to know what happened. He bided his time for years, and when he was ready to dole out my punishment, Ash brought suit. Father’s marriage was declared void, and—”
Margaret brought up a hand. “What? You think Smite was responsible for that?”
Richard stared at his sister in disbelief. “Of course he was. Who else knew?”
He didn’t understand those syllables. He didn’t know what they were doing in his sister’s mouth.
“Lilliette Collins,” Margaret repeated. “Father’s first wife. She’s the one who approached Ash and told him. Smite never said a word. I’m sure of it.”
Richard’s hands felt like ice. “No. You’re wrong.”
“I would know,” Margaret said urgently. “I’ve heard Ash talk about his brothers often enough. Smite never tells him anything. Least of all…that.”
Richard couldn’t move. It had been years since his hatred and hurt had crystallized into envious, bitter rage. Years while he’d been feeling robbed. Years since he’d cursed himself for trusting anyone, for thinking that he had a friend.
“Smite told.” His hands shook. “He told. He had to have told.”
“Richard, I don’t think Ash even knows you and he were once friends.”
Richard stood, strode to the window. The back garden was cloaked in darkness; only the elms in the distance made dark silhouettes against an already darkened horizon.
Fuck, Richard thought. Shite. Damn it all.
He didn’t say any of those words, though. Not in front of the baby.
Instead, he simply repeated himself. “Smite told.” It sounded feeble to him. “I was sure he did.” He swallowed and steadied himself against the wall. “I was sure, so sure, Margaret. Sure that the suit to declare Father a bigamist was just the beginning. That soon he’d be telling more. That the worst was yet to come—”
He looked over and caught his sister’s befuddled expression.
“There’s worse?” she asked.
There was worse. He was shaking all over now, the cold from deep inside him covering him. He wasn’t ever going to be warm again.
He turned away. “I told everyone that Smite was engaged in an illicit relationship with a friend of his—a barrister.”
“I know.” Richard looked away. “But, Margaret, that was only after Ash had revealed the bigamy. I thought…I thought…”
He’d been too scared to think, too angry to keep quiet. He waited at the window, waited for the tremors in his hands to come to a halt. But they didn’t.
“How could you say such a thing?” Margaret finally whispered. “Accusing him of something so unnatural.”
His hands shook harder.
“It’s a felony, Richard. They hang people for…that. And to say such things in mistaken revenge.” She swallowed and looked away. “I would never have thought you would do something so vicious, so wrong.”
“I was desperate.”
She looked up at him, and he saw that same accusation in her eyes that he’d seen in Smite’s visage earlier.
God, Smite had it right all along. He hadn’t needed to say anything. Richard had savaged himself. He’d destroyed everything that mattered.
“I have spent so long trying to tell Ash that you…” She swallowed. “I’ve taken your side, Richard. Smoothed things over. Hoped, and hoped. And now I find out that you…that you… I thought I knew you.”
“No.” He turned away and pressed his hands together. “You never did.”
“Edmund, now… Edmund, I knew was capable of true viciousness. But you?”
“I was scared. Desperate. Margaret, you must understand. I was so sure he would…” But even he couldn’t understand. How could she?
Her chin went up. “I don’t understand anything. If people had believed you, you might have had him hanged. Or ostracized. Desperation is one thing, but that would have been murder. It’s criminal, that’s what it is.”
“Yes,” Richard heard himself say, looking away. “It was criminal. But that’s the thing, Margaret. I am a criminal. I have been for a very long time.”
She looked at him in disbelief. “You’ve done this before, then? Accused people like this?”
“No. No.” He swallowed. He wrapped his arms about himself. “Margaret. Smite knew—knows—something about me. Something worse than a few nightmares. I’ve been so scared, so sure that he was waiting to reveal it all. It’s…it’s…” He couldn’t say it. “It’s no topic for mixed company. If I can’t say damn in front of Anna, I can’t—”
“Richard,” Margaret hissed, “if you don’t calm down and speak sense, I’ll smack you.”
“You don’t want to know, Margaret. You don’t want to know what I’ve done.”
“That time I was gone for three months, on that sailing trip with Davies? We weren’t fishing.”
She blinked at him in confusion.
“You told me once that I was straitlaced—that you’d never even heard of me with a mistress. There’s a reason for that. I’ve never had a woman.”
She looked dubious. “You’re a virgin?”
Richard swallowed. “No. I’ve never been with a woman. I’ve tried, and…it just hasn’t worked. Men, on the other hand…” He made a fist. “Men… I really like men.”
She stood and walked across the room, turning away from him as she did.
“I know,” he said. “You can’t tell me anything I haven’t told myself. I’m unnatural. What I’ve done…it’s unspeakable. I don’t know how I face myself some days. For the last decade, I’ve lived with the certainty that one day, one day…” His fists clenched. “That one day, Smite would tell everyone. I only spread a rumor. I hoped that it would make everyone think that his accusation, when it came, was pure pettiness. Maybe if I sowed doubt, they wouldn’t believe him.”
She didn’t say anything.
“I know I was wrong. It was over the line. It was…it was awful.”
Margaret turned back to him. “Oh, God. Richard.”
“Don’t blaspheme in front of the baby,” he said weakly.
Margaret glanced down. “She’s asleep, and sometimes only blasphemy will do.”
Richard followed her gaze. “So here we are. Of course he hates me. He’s not wrong to do it. And now you tell me he didn’t even snitch about Father’s marriage. Of course he didn’t. He kept my secrets close so he could revel in my hypocrisy. He couldn’t even give me the satisfaction of feeling right. He is such a jackass.”
Margaret gave him a tight smile.
“But it’s my fault.” He looked away. “It’s always been my fault. I’ve always been this way. I understand. I’ll leave tomorrow. It’ll make everything so easy; he’ll visit again, for as long as Smite ever does such things, and you won’t have to see me.”
“I would apologize to you. To him. But I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard.” And it wouldn’t do any good. It had all always been an illusion—family, home, inheritance. Nobody had ever taken it from him. Richard had never had any enemies except himself. He shut his eyes and accepted it: He’d lost everything after all.
And then warmth brushed his arm. He opened his eyes and looked into his sister’s face. She was still carrying Anna.
“I don’t pretend to understand everything,” she said. “But I can tell you’re hurting.” She leaned against him.
And afraid. God, he was tired of being afraid.
“But Richard.” She swallowed. “I love you. I don’t want you to go.”
He tried to speak, but his throat wasn’t working.
“You said I didn’t know you, but I know that you taught me to swim when I was six, despite Nurse’s protests.”
Richard smiled in spite of himself.
“I know you punched Harry when he pushed me down. I know you’ve swallowed your pride and your anger and made peace with my husband, when you’ve had every reason to resent him. And me.”
His eyes stung. His hands were still shaking.
“Here,” Margaret said. And before Richard knew what his sister was doing, she’d pressed little Anna into his arms. She was so small—and so heavy—a warm bundle of infant. She squirmed briefly in her sleep, but then grew quiet once again.
“Hold her,” his sister ordered.
“So I can do this.” She put her arms around him.
He hadn’t realized how much he’d wanted that. How much he’d needed it. And because he couldn’t move—because he didn’t dare disturb the infant in his arms—he inclined his head to hers. They stood together for a very long time.
“Are you going to tell me about Smite’s nightmares?” she finally asked.
He smiled. “No. After this? It seems churlish to tell his secrets after all.”
“But maybe I should tell him…” He sighed, and thought of the cutting look that Smite had given him. Of the way he’d so assiduously avoided him.
And he remembered what Smite had told him on that day so long ago. Once you figure out what I intend, come let me know.
“Maybe,” Richard said, “I should tell him I’m sorry.”