Faebourne: Chapter 1

1.

Duncan Oliver was in every respect an unremarkable gentleman. He was not tall, though also not any shorter than would be deemed acceptable. He was not rich, though again not particularly in want. He was average in looks, with dark hair and clear, celadon green eyes that were easily his most striking feature. And though he rode well, he was not especially keen on sports or gaming. In summary, Duncan Oliver was the kind of man easily overlooked by the world. To this he had become accustomed and resigned.

And so the day someone finally did notice him became the day his life changed.

~*~

Duncan had settled into one of the overstuffed armchairs of his club—a club as middling as he was—to read Gentleman’s when George Fitzbert dropped into the chair on his left and began talking before even bothering with a greeting.

“Have you seen them yet?” George asked.

Duncan did him the courtesy of looking up from the magazine. George’s caramel-colored hair trembled tenuously in its Brutus curls as George himself vibrated with all the energy Duncan never seemed to have. “Seen whom?”

“The Milne brothers.” At Duncan’s patently blank look, George sighed and leaned in so as to speak lower. “They’ve joined the club!”

Ah, Duncan deduced, I am meant to know who these Milnes are. “I’m afraid I don’t know them,” he told George.

“Of course you don’t,” said George. “No one does. But you should know of them.”

Duncan shook his head. “What’s to know?”

George twisted his lips. “Little, more’s the pity.” Duncan knew George enjoyed gossip almost as much as a woman; not having information clearly put him out. “They never leave Faebourne. Except old Nathaniel Milne came to London some thirty years ago for a Season, found himself a bride, and disappeared again. Now his two sons are here.”

“To find brides?” Duncan asked.

George shrugged and bounced back out of his chair. “Possibly. Easter and the Season are nearly upon us. Are you staying for it?” In typical fashion, he did not give Duncan opportunity to answer. “I’m off to Gully’s. Care to join me?”

“You were so keen to see these Milnes,” said Duncan.

“And see them I will, sooner or later. But I can’t sit around the club waiting. They’ll turn up somewhere. Must have dozens of invitations from curious quarters.”

“But they won’t be at Gully’s, I’ll warrant.” Duncan thought of the tobacco-darkened rooms and suppressed a shudder. Thomas Gulliver’s home was open to comers and goers every evening, but those who wandered in and out were not of the highest quality. Duncan didn’t think himself a snob, but he did have standards.

“No one knows what they’re like,” said George. “Being of no acquaintance, they could turn up anywhere.”

“One doesn’t find brides at Gully’s,” Duncan pointed out.

“One doesn’t find a bride in a club, either,” George said with a meaningful lift of his tawny brows. Duncan pointedly returned his attention to Gentleman’s, and George clucked disapprovingly and made himself scarce. But George’s remark left Duncan pondering what he should do for the upcoming Season. Stay in London? He was not in the market for a wife, nor would he be any mama’s first pick for her daughter. Yet Duncan had stayed for past Seasons, now and then, and found them diverting at the very least.

The alternative was to go home to Dove Hill, a house as modest as was Duncan. His valet Davies would surely protest if they were to pack up and withdraw; Davies much preferred the excitement of town and did not hesitate to make his feelings known.

Well then, if only to avoid Davies’ grumbling, they would remain in London for a while yet. But Duncan determined they would leave before the height of summer. The end of the Season had girls grasping for anyone within reach, and Duncan had found himself on the wrong end of their desperation once or twice. The young ladies themselves had been lovely enough and well bred, but Duncan abhorred the idea of being anyone’s last resort. He would marry for love, if he ever married at all.

~*~

From such ruminations Duncan moved on to more immediate matters, namely his supper. Should he go back to the townhouse or stay at the club? Feeling sluggish from an afternoon ensconced in a comfy chair, Duncan felt inclined to get up and move, possibly walk home. But the thought of Mrs. Bentham’s indifferent cooking gave him pause. Might he rather eat first then walk? He was standing in front of the chair, still trying to decide which way to turn, when the two young men strolled in.

The taller one had closely cropped hair that was somewhere between blond and brown. And the slightly shorter one was crowned with longer, reddish-gold curls.

The fabled Milnes.

It wasn’t only that Duncan had not seen them before and so assumed they were new members; the club had new members all the time, he supposed, and he could not know all of them. It was that these two young men—Duncan estimated the older one as no older than his twenty-eight—were wrapped in an aura of something unworldly. Not otherworldly, necessarily, but something about them suggested innocence. Like a fairy tale.

Their clothing was correct and very new, very fashionable. But the way the younger one’s wide eyes took in their surroundings hinted at naiveté. Duncan privately wished him away from the gaming tables. Indeed, something in him wanted to rush forward and advise them both against too much drink as well.

The young man caught him looking, blinked, and then, to Duncan’s surprise, smiled and strode in his direction.

Duncan, startled, stepped backward and nearly fell back into the chair he’d only recently vacated.

As Duncan worked to keep his balance, the older Milne brother turned his attention on him. No smile from that one, Duncan noted as he looked around helplessly for someone to either call him away or intervene and engage the Milnes. But it was early yet by London’s standards and the club was largely empty.

Still smiling, Young Master Milne stopped in front of where Duncan stood. Now they were closer, Duncan saw his eyes were a kaleidoscope of colors—blue and green shot through with threads of gold. The young man radiated warmth and vigor.

Not so his brother, whose eyes were a clear, cold grey that suggested granite and winter. His gaze traveled between his sibling and Duncan as though reading something in the air.

“H-hello,” Duncan stammered, his usual good manners temporarily deserting him in the face of this odd pairing and their unswerving attention. “I’m Oliver. Duncan. Duncan Oliver,” he clarified.

The younger one reached out and took Duncan’s hand, and Duncan only stopped himself from flinching. “Thank you. I’m Edward Milne and this is my brother Richard.” He pumped Duncan’s hand until Duncan’s arm wobbled like a gelatin.

“Let him go, Edward,” Richard intoned.

Edward did as instructed but continued to smile, his eyes sparkling as merrily as a child’s on Christmas morning. He glanced around. “It’s very dark in here.”

Duncan sought something to say. “Oh, well, clubs are usually.”

Edward turned his bright, birdlike attention back to him. “Are they? Seems a shame. We’re here for supper. Will you eat with us?”

Duncan’s mouth fell open and he risked a quick glance at the foreboding Richard before answering. “That’s very kind…”

“Is it?” Edward asked, and he seemed genuinely interested. “Or is it not done to ask people that?” He looked up at his brother, but Richard’s expression remained, at least in Duncan’s view, inscrutable. The man might have been made of stone.

After what felt like ages, Richard roused himself enough to say, “You talk too much, Edward.”

Edward only smiled like it was some famous joke.

Oh dear, thought Duncan. He could not leave these two to attempt to navigate the club on their own. Duncan did not entirely understand why it mattered to him, but he felt embarrassed on their behalf. And as the first person to have formed a connection with them, he felt to some extent responsible for them, too.

Better, in fact, to remove them from the club entirely.

“I was on my way home for supper,” Duncan said. “Perhaps you would join me? It’s not a long walk.”

Edward’s mouth fell into a little “o” like a child confronted with a much-desired treat. “Really?” He looked up at his brother. “Oh, Richard, can we?”

Richard blinked down at Duncan for a long moment before saying, “That is most kind. We happily accept.”

If that is what happy looks like, Duncan thought, I’d hate to see him unhappy. But what he said was, “Wonderful! Well, then, shall we collect our coats?” He fleetingly considered sending an invitation ’round to George but decided not to risk it. George was likely to spread the news and show up with ten other people. As it stood, two more would set his small household to a fuss.

Coats and hats later, they were on the streets of London. It was what Duncan thought of as the evening lull—the women were finished shopping, and the daylight was too faded to show off one’s togs by promenading, yet it was too early to be out for a party or rout. The streets were mostly inhabited by darting messengers going between houses and servants out running errands and stopping to gossip along the way. It meant the three of them made an odd sight, odder even than they might have done. Edward kept gawking up at the buildings so that his steps listed this way and that, and Richard reached out regularly to redirect him without his seeming to notice.

“So,” Duncan said as they walked, for Richard’s silence was like a weight, “did you arrive recently in London?”

This suitably diverted Edward from his sightseeing. “Eight days ago,” he said. “We’ve come to find—”

“Edward,” his brother said, and the word was like a cut, sharp and stinging.

“Well, anyway,” Edward went on without missing a beat, “we’ve never been, you know. To London. Where are we going?”

“My townhouse is…” Duncan felt cornered into defending himself. “It’s not, you know, Grosvenor or Berkeley, but it’s still a good neighborhood. Why, where are you staying?”

“Papa had a house, took us ages to find it,” said Edward. “Don’t know where anything is in this place. There’s so much of it.”

“So much of… London?” Duncan asked.

“All these buildings and roads,” Edward said. “Not at all like home.”

Duncan had it on his lips to ask about their home, but they had reached his townhouse, and Wilkins already had the door open. “Lay places for two more for dinner, would you?” Duncan asked, and to his credit Wilkins managed to hide any surprise as he took away hats and coats and went to do as bid.

“We’ll just…” said Duncan, leading his guests out of the entry and into the drawing room. It was small and somewhat sparse, though the yellow walls made it cheerful. He’d left it all the same as he’d inherited it, never having the inclination to change anything. Seeing the old chairs and scratched table now through others’ eyes, however, Duncan realized it might appear shabby and outdated. At least a fire warmed the space.

But then seeing his guests’ faces, Duncan wondered. For the first time Richard’s flinty expression softened to something like curiosity as he gazed around at the room, and Edward had his palms pressed together, his face lit with ecstasy. “It’s so…” Edward began, but then apparently lost his words.

Wilkins returned with a bow and announced dinner was ready.

“Gentlemen,” said Duncan, “if you would follow me.” And he led them through the double doors and across to the dining room.

Like the drawing room, the dining space was nothing special, nor was it especially large. Duncan could have fit no more than a dozen guests at table, not that he’d ever tried to fit more than half that at any given time. More often he either ate alone in the library or, when craving company, in the kitchen with Davies, Wilkins, Mrs. Bentham and Bailey.

The places for the guests had been laid to either side of the head of the table to facilitate conversation. Richard took the seat to Duncan’s right, putting Edward on his left. Duncan noted the brothers’ manners were correct and not at all stiff; they clearly came from quality.

“You were saying,” Duncan said over the mutton, “that London is not at all like your home?”

“Do you live here all the time?” Edward asked.

Duncan shook his head. “Only when the servants get bored.”

Richard cocked his head, and his grey eyes gleamed with interest. “You would not choose London over the country?”

Duncan sat back and sighed. “I don’t know,” he said after a minute’s rumination. “I’ve never had to choose.”

“But if you did? Have to choose, that is?” Edward asked.

Duncan considered. “Dove Hill is where I grew up. And it is roomier. I think… Yes, I would say I am more attached to it than here.”

“You would choose the country,” said Richard.

Duncan nodded. “Yes, I daresay I would.”

Upon later reflection, it seemed to Duncan that Richard and Edward exchanged a meaningful look when he spoke those words. But hindsight is always clearer, as they say, particularly after one has been abducted.