They remained there in the library, dessert exchanged for after-dinner brandies while the candles burned low. There were endless subjects to broach, tastes to explore, opinions to be sought, but their conversation only skimmed the surface. They were cautious of giving offence, treading gingerly past things that felt too sharp after the revelations of the day.
Hannibal told Will of the school he was sponsoring, finding it was a topic they could share without reservation. He was pleased to inform his mate that its charter would, in fact, now include Omegas. It made Will flush with pleasure and made Hannibal even more determined that he should only see Will’s delighted smile from now on.
It was much later than Will was used to when he was finally escorted to his room, his hand once more asked after, his permission given again. There was a difference now in the way it touched him, that press of soft lips against his skin. There was no barrier between them, no understanding of another whose place he might be occupying for a moment’s convenience.
There was only potential, ripe and incomplete yet there all the same, building a warmth that seemed to chase back the lurking threat of Will’s heat in a contradiction that confused him.
As he dressed late the next morning with Jimmy’s expert assistance, he ventured, “Jimmy, can I ask you something somewhat… intimate?”
“Naturally,” Jimmy said, never pausing in his work but flashing Will a curious glance. “I’m here to help.”
Will hesitated, framing his thoughts carefully before he asked, “Is it possible for an Alpha to suppress an Omega’s heat?”
Jimmy did pause then, but only for a moment.
“I’ve heard of it happening between bonded pairs,” he said, rapidly buttoning Will’s shirt. “But only if it was a false heat, like one stress-generated or triggered by another Alpha.”
He was quiet a moment longer, then ventured, “I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit flushed. Are you worried it’s ahead of time?”
Will nodded, holding his arms out for Jimmy to get his cuffs.
“Well, you’ve been under quite a lot of stress recently,” Jimmy mused, “and I’m sure it doesn’t help to have that frightful beast Dolarhyde quite literally breathing down your neck.”
“I keep getting feverish,” Will said, brow wrinkling in concern. “I worried that Hannibal was making it worse, but it fades around him. Do you suppose we’re… incompatible?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Jimmy tutted, shaking out his waistcoat and helping Will slide it on. “If I can be blunt with you, I think it’s because you are compatible. Bonded pairs are known to settle their mates into their natural rhythm; I realize you haven’t bonded yet, but considering how much time you spend with him, it’s very likely you’re syncing up with his… well, sorry for the crude term, but his rut. He’s not been around an Omega in years, so he’s probably gearing up for one.”
Will’s eyes rounded. “I hadn’t considered that.”
“You haven’t had much exposure to an Alpha with his pedigree and His Grace wouldn’t hit all the same reactions for you that your husband does,” Jimmy reminded him, easing Will’s jacket on. “I don’t think you have anything to worry about, my Lord. If it is the way I think, then the closer you are to your husband, the better chance you have to stave it off for a bit, at least until the two of you get to know one another somewhat better and fall into a rhythm.”
There was a quiet knock at his door and Jimmy went to answer it, leaving Will to consider what he’d been told.
“If it’s Francis, tell him I should like to take a walk,” Will called, smoothing his jacket and checking his buttons. “My head is fuzzy this morning. I think I need some fresh air.”
“Oh, my! No, my Lord, this is much more welcome than Mr. Dolarhyde,” Jimmy said, his tone getting Will’s attention.
He turned around to find his valet bearing a huge bouquet of fresh flowers in a cut-crystal vase, his beaming smile barely visible past the thick display.
“Shall I read the note?” Jimmy asked, his teasing smile becoming a grin.
Will took the note from him before he could and leaned close to breathe in the floral perfume. It was very pleasant way to start his day and he was smiling as he drew back to read the note, letting Jimmy fuss with the flowers.
I hope the morning finds you well, and inclined to have my company.
“Should I place these here or on your vanity? I wonder if the sun will wilt them?” Jimmy asked, puttering about the room to find the perfect place for the bouquet.
“Take it downstairs to the foyer, please, Jimmy,” Will suggested, clearing his throat to firm his voice. “Leaving them here where they cannot be seen seems wasteful.”
“Certainly, my Lord!” Jimmy said, hastening to do as he was told.
Will took advantage of his absence to go to his jewelry box and pry the lining up. Inside, in the space that had previously hidden that unpleasant letter, lay the note that Hannibal had written him last night. Will felt entirely foolish placing this new note within, but he was loathe to part with them.
‘For comfort when you’re alone again…’
He tossed his head against that thought and put the lining to rights, ensuring he left no trace that would lead to their discovery. He caught sight of himself in the mirror and paused, looking with a critical eye at how he was dressed. His new clothing fit like a glove, the expert tailoring accentuating his firm figure, the deep colors a rich complement to his complexion and dark curls. He stared at his reflection a moment, smoothing his patterned waistcoat, breathing out the odd tingle of anxiety that threatened. He knew he should not indulge in such useless vanity, that a young man must not make a spectacle of himself with color and cut, that he must at all times be serious and attentive to his work and not distracted by frivolous thing, but it was difficult to remain disciplined under such circumstances.
“You are not an Omega, Will Graham,” he whispered, steadying himself with the reminder. “You are not a man, nor a woman. You are only yourself and that is all you need to be.”
The familiar words settled him, but there was no drowning out his nervous anticipation, because Hannibal had made his intentions very clear last night.
His husband was going to court him. He was going to apply every bit of his formidable power to wooing Will in an effort to reconcile, which made the possibility of his next heat take on all sorts of new dimensions.
It was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.
Will smoothed his curls and turned away from the mirror with a resolute nod, reminding himself that he had nothing to be vain about and no reason at all to feel concerned about his looks, no matter what fanciful imaginings his husband expressed.
‘If you will not stand to hear me call you beautiful, then I will kiss you every time I think to say it…’
“Nonsense,” Will breathed, but a half-suppressed smile teased his lips. He moved out to the landing with an eagerness he was afraid to examine too closely. He noted with some surprise that Francis was not there, nor was there any trace of his woodsmoke and leather scent.
Curious but reticent, Will headed downstairs with his wide eyes sweeping, searching for a servant who could point him in Hannibal’s direction.
It was Hannibal himself who called to him, striding in through the front door in a waft of his familiar, rich scent with a lively sparkle in his amber eyes that teased a smile to Will’s full lips.
“No breakfast this morning, Lord Clarges?”
“I wouldn’t dream of starving you,” Hannibal said with a slight smile, and raised his hand ever so slightly towards Will’s. “May I say good morning?”
“You won our bet,” Will said, feeling heat in his cheeks when Hannibal’s warm fingers slid beneath his own and tightened, strong and firm. His hand was swept up and delivered to Hannibal’s lips for a kiss. The soft press of his mouth on Will’s hand was brief, gentle, but the warmth of his breath lingered even after he raised his head.
“You do seem very pleased with yourself for some reason,” Will said, noting how invigorated his husband was. His hair was mussed from the breeze, his cheeks pink from the cool air, and his heavy Alpha fangs were bared behind his boyish smile. It was very easy for Will to picture him as he had been twenty years before, a headstrong youth with the temper of a bull and the playful grin of a fox.
“I always manage to be pleased with myself one way or another,” Hannibal reminded him, taking heart by how approachable his spouse seemed. “But I do have quite a lot to be pleased about, don’t I? It’s a beautiful morning, we have eluded harm at Hartford House, and I have the prospect of spending the day with my beautiful spouse, whom I can kiss without being coshed for it.”
“You hope you won’t be coshed for it.” Will’s mouth twitched and he summoned a wry look that made no dent in Hannibal’s infectious good spirits, merely compelled his hand to be kissed again. “Thank you very much for the bouquet. The flowers are lovely.”
“I thought you would enjoy them. Marsham can feel so gloomy at times,” Hannibal said, casting a meaningful glance around the foyer where the flowers were on display, Will’s hand held lightly in his fingers. “Bringing the outdoors within does brighten things some.”
“I have some thoughts on that subject, coincidentally,” Will told him, shifting to see over Hannibal’s shoulder, wondering that the door was still open. He could see the shadows of people out on the cobblestone drive but could not fathom what was happening.
“You were saying you had some thoughts on Marsham Heath,” Hannibal urged him, moving to block his view. “I hope you don’t find our modest little estate terribly shabby.”
“No, of course not. It’s lovely,” Will answered, annoyed to be so stymied by his husband. “It’s very comforting here.”
“Not precisely comfortable, however,” Hannibal said, shifting again when Will did, blatantly preventing Will from seeing outside. “It lacks amenities. I can’t imagine Grandfather has been here in twenty years; we’ve neglected it.”
“I have met with Mr. Wells and drawn up plans,” Will informed him, subsiding with an exasperated frown. “The particulars are upstairs in my room, but we plan to have the house plumbed. If the numbers fall right, we might be able to line it for gas, should that eventually catch on out here.”
Hannibal’s brows rose at that. “You certainly waste no time.”
“It is important to be useful and I wished to be distracted yesterday, considering my husband had bolted off to Galley Field,” Will said, giving Hannibal a sharp, wry look. “You might have said why you were going.”
“There were far too many things for you to slap me with,” Hannibal pointed out, brushing his thumb over Will’s knuckles. “Considering you have flung a table at me, I was understandably leery of there being an entire service-worth of plates, candlesticks, chairs at your disposal. I didn’t dare divert you when you were making so impressive an exit. You are, indeed, a dangerous person, Will.”
“Don’t you soon forget it,” Will said, satisfied enough to stop needling his husband. The harsh feelings of last night were softer this morning, present but muted, and he was content to leave them where they lay.
“That would never happen,” Hannibal promised. “Now, should you like to pester Thatch for a late breakfast? Or would you prefer to know why I was outside?”
Will cocked an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth curling up and his lungs filling with a deep, calming breath, as if his entire body was greedy for the scent of his bonded Alpha. “Why were you outside?”
“I was hoping,” Hannibal said, his amber eyes earnest and bright, “that you might teach me to fish.”
“I shouldn’t teach you anything, after the way you’ve behaved,” Will said, smirking at how crestfallen Hannibal seemed before he realized Will was teasing. His voice held a gentle note of affection when he said, “I haven’t brought my gear, Hannibal.”
“I brought it,” Hannibal said, puffed up as a peacock and preening with pride.
It was impossible to resist such pompous, self-congratulatory posturing, and Will smothered a laugh, amused. “T-thank you, Hannibal, that was very thoughtful of you. Shall we ‘laze about eating’ as well?”
“I expect I will insist on it,” Hannibal said, grinning. “As a matter of fact, Thatch is getting everything ready for us.”
“Is that what’s going on?” Will asked, surprised and pleased. He found himself looking forward to a day alone with his husband. No work, no worries, no one with murderous intentions. Only fresh air, new places, and the prospect of a few hours spent casting lines and relaxing.
He looked over at Hannibal when his hand was raised again, and blinked when his husband paused in the act of kissing him to ask at the last second, “May I?”
Will gave an almost imperceptible nod, charmed despite himself but still mystified by Hannibal’s actions.
“For your beautiful smile,” he said, in answer to the question so obvious in Will’s big blue eyes, and kissed his hand again for good measure. “And for the hope that I see more of it.”
Will’s anticipation suffered a blow when he and Hannibal went outside and only one of the horses was saddled. The other was loaded with his fishing gear and a basket lunch and clearly with no spot for him to ride.
“Unless you are sending me off alone,” Will said, bemused, “we shall need another horse.”
“Considering the residual effects of your concussion,” Hannibal countered, moving to check his horse’s saddle straps, taking no risks with his mate’s safety, “I felt it would be safer to ride double, and we won’t be going terribly far.”
“Then I should be safe enough on my own horse,” Will said, considering the two of them doubling up on Hannibal’s horse and finding his cheeks blooming pink.
“Nonsense, you might fall,” Hannibal said, patting the saddle. He looked altogether too pleased with himself again, Will noted. “Up you go.”
After a long, considering moment, Will mounted with grace and settled, reluctantly noting how it felt like he was moving for a moment even after he was still.
Hannibal was up in a heartbeat, easily sliding into the saddle as he lifted Will up onto his thighs, one arm curving around Will’s waist to hold him fast, his other hand taking up the reins.
The horse lolled into motion and Will took a breath, his lids drooping to half cover his eyes in the gusting late morning air. The strong sunlight faded beneath the heavy canopy of the forest, the scent of pine and fresh green growth somehow only enhancing Hannibal’s Alpha scent. The easy movement of the horse lulled him to relax and Will became more aware of his husband. There was something comforting in the heat of the strong body around him, a kind of relief in the powerful thighs beneath his, the pressure of Hannibal’s corded arm at his waist, the steady thunder of his heart pressed to Will’s back. There was no tension in him, just warmth and strength that enfolded Will in him, enveloped but not undone, not lessened, merely… safe. It made the cliff seem far less frightening a specter, chased away by the busy chattering of wildlife and his husband’s protective presence.
Hannibal felt Will uncoil by slow degrees, his slender body finally giving with the motion of the horse as they took a deer trail through the woods into the deeper forest. He was warm enough that Hannibal suspected a fever, but he didn’t have any signs of illness other than the residual effects from his fall. He resolved to keep a close eye on him, though the intention got lost somewhere in Will’s soft scent when he leaned back and his wind-tossed curls tickled Hannibal’s nose.
“Are we avoiding the town to maintain the illusion of secrecy?” Will asked, skin prickling with awareness of Hannibal’s subtle snuffling at his curls. “Or shall we call on the Crawfords very soon?”
“Word travels quickly,” Hannibal said, resisting the lure of those curls with difficulty. “Grandfather’s coach is easily recognized and our movements cannot remain private for long; it wouldn’t hurt anything to leave a card with the Crawfords to be polite. Jack has done a fine job accommodating my requests for your safety.”
He felt Will tense a little, and murmured, “You haven’t any cards.”
“I’ve never needed them,” Will said, defensive but firm. “Mina had some made up for me before I left father’s house…” he trailed off, embarrassed. “I put them away when I realized I wouldn’t use them.”
Hannibal gave Will’s side a soothing caress and squeezed him a bit to reassure him.
“I will order replacements for you,” he said, smiling when Will sent a searching glance back at him, his blue eyes still shaded with the remnants of his concussion and the weight of their past. “You will need them, Will, believe me.”
Just that one caress was all he dared, but even that left Hannibal dangerously shaken. It was terrifying to realize how fragile their peace was, how delicate he should have always been. It was a wonder he hadn’t entirely broken Will’s ability to trust him before now, shattered against his arrogant assumptions like that unfortunate teacup.
He thanked his lucky starts that hope was less fragile than he feared and cradled his thoughtful mate, whose thick lashes fluttered becomingly as he faced ahead.
“What else did you manage to do in my absence yesterday?” Hannibal inquired, coaxing him into conversation. His hot breath spilled against Will’s ear, distracting and tickling.
“Not terribly much aside from planning with Mr. Wells, though I did have the strangest encounter afterwards,” Will said, lifting his face to the breeze to quell the warmth that seemed to permeate him in Hannibal’s presence, a prickling awareness that was not his heat, as he had feared, but something potentially more dangerous.
“What sort of strange encounter?” Hannibal asked, turning the horses onto a wider trail once they were deeper into the woods.
“I had gone for a walk,” Will said, the memory of the moment making him shiver. Hannibal’s hand spread against his ribcage in response, fingers cupped against the curve of his side. “Francis was with me, of course. We ran into a man on the trail.”
“That is quite a happenstance,” Hannibal said, concerned. He shifted Will just slightly in his lap, brow wrinkling. “Considering how large the surrounding forests are, you could go for a dozen walks and never meet a soul. Who was he? Did he know you?”
“No, no, he’s a local,” Will said, hastening to assure him. “His daughter works at the house. He seemed… very odd. His name is Hobbs.”
“Hobbs? I am not familiar with any Hobbs family in the area,” Hannibal mused, wracking his formidable memory for any tidbit it might offer.
“He was poaching,” Will said. “He tried to claim he was the gamekeeper, but Mr. Wells had informed me that Marsham Heath does not employ one.”
“Not since my great-grandfather’s time. It proved impossible to regulate these forests and there was enough game for everyone,” Hannibal said, ducking a little to avoid a low-hanging branch, momentarily pressed over Will’s back in a manner that made his little mate huff with indignation.
“Grandfather felt it was unnecessary to have a gamekeeper,” Hannibal said, straightening as soon as he was able, though with reluctance. “You sound unsettled. Did he agitate you?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Will said, troubled when he recalled the moment. “He seemed very unsteady. I was grateful for Francis being with me. Have you seen him? Francis, I mean.”
“He informed Berger that he had an errand to run for your sister in the Capital,” Hannibal said. “I’m not pleased, mind you, to have him roaming around on unknown business, but at least two of Magistrate Crawford’s men are trailing him.”
“Trailing him? What on earth for?” Will asked, his voice sharper than intended with his surprise.
“No one is above suspicion, Will,” Hannibal reminded him.
“No, but Francis wasn’t even near when my saddle was cut!”
“That you know of,” Hannibal pointed out, bringing Will to reflective silence. “I was not able to tell you before, due to our abrupt parting, but Francis is a dangerous man, Will. He was in the Navy and nearly killed a man who insulted him. He was dismissed from service and spent time in prison before your sister took him in.”
Will wet his lips, and breathed, “That is… unnerving, to say the least. One can never be entirely certain of another’s intentions, but I do not feel that Francis is particularly dangerous to me. He has known me since childhood and is sincere in his desire to protect me. You only have one version of the truth and I would prefer to hear his side of things, in all fairness.”
“I wouldn’t presume to question your judgment, Will, as it is only your decision who to keep near you, but I reserve the right to be suspicious of him,” Hannibal said. “I would have thought you of all people would know where he was off to. He didn’t ask your permission?”
Will shook his head, absorbed in looking around at the wooded trail, spying a ruckus of squirrels ahead, squabbling over a treat. He realized Hannibal was silent, thoughtful with worry. He leaned forward enough to look up at his husband and said, “Francis is my sister’s servant, in the end, and must do as she bids him for the sake of his own peace… and he does not need to shadow me in your presence, considering I am safe with you.”
He could feel Hannibal’s pleasure through his bond and Will smiled in response, putting Francis as well as Hobbs and his strange behavior to the back of his mind.
They rode through the deep forest until the trees began to thin. Hannibal wished they could ride forever, an eternity of him cradling Will’s warm, relaxed body in his arms. It was heartening to see him so content, so free of his cares and untroubled. Yet the distant sound of water called, and the noise of it woke Hannibal’s anxiety slowly, like fingers teasing loose a knot, relentless and gradual.
Will sensed his husband’s growing unease but did not prod at it. It touched him that Hannibal would go to such lengths for the sake of his enjoyment when coming to such a place so clearly bothered him, and with such good reason—Misha, the storm, and the accident that had stolen his family.
Hearing it from Bedelia had given Will the facts, but Hannibal had lived it, and now he guided them closer to the very river where his family had died, taken by the senseless violence Nature was so greatly-equipped to visit on those with so few defences.
Will’s hand settled on Hannibal’s where it was pressed to his side and he curled his fingers over his husband’s, silent and wondering if he should broach the subject of Hannibal’s loss and admit what Bedelia had told him.
“The mills are upstream,” Hannibal said, rallying when he imagined how much Will would enjoy some time at his hobby. He turned the horse up the trail, widened by men and beasts alike. “Do you see them?”
“Yes,” Will said, his fingers tightening on his husband, at his hand and at his thigh where Will was not even aware of touching him.
The mills loomed beyond the sunlight-dappled haze of the trail, stained with brilliant green moss and darkened with age. There was something hushed and reverent about them in Will’s eyes, the massive wheels fallen from their axes, places of busy industry now left to crumble and be reclaimed by the river.
Staring as they emerged from the treeline, Will asked, “They have been entirely abandoned?”
“For the most part, yes,” Hannibal said, his anxiety fading into warmth at Will’s touch, the pleasant timbre of his voice, the nearness of him. “There should be one or two docks yet sound enough to fish from.”
Will sensed the shift in him and smiled, hoping that Hannibal could enjoy himself and that, perhaps, his ugly memories of this river could be overshadowed by new ones, by memories they could make together.
They rode towards the least time-worn mill and dismounted, working in companionable silence to unload the horses and hobble them near the water in the shade of an overhanging tree.
“Now, I have no idea how any of this goes together,” Hannibal said, loading himself up with Will’s gear and testing the dock with his weight to be sure it would hold. “So you’ll have your hands full teaching me.”
“The first rule of fishing is being comfortable,” Will said, unbuttoning his jacket and shrugging it off, scolding, “Please don’t stare at me, Lord Clarges.”
Hannibal grinned, encumbered by gear as he was, and said, “I can hardly help it. You look perfectly elemental, Will. This truly is where you are happiest, isn’t it?”
“It is,” Will admitted, draping his jacket over a low-lying tree branch and tugging off his boots to put his stockings within. He collected the gear from Hannibal with ease, suggesting, “You should follow my lead. Hot and uncomfortable is no way to spend your morning.”
Hannibal watched him move eagerly out onto the dock, the tuck of his waistcoat emphasizing his trim waist and slim hips. He was distracted enough by the sight that Will had to scold him again, urging him to come along.
Will already had one of the poles together when Hannibal reached him, and grinned up at him with a brilliance that rivaled the sun, his blue eyes squinting against the light and his little, modest Omegan fangs actually showing for a change.
“I feel rather rebellious out in the daylight half undressed,” Hannibal said, sitting down next to Will at the end of the dock, bare feet dangling over the water rushing below. “In spring we could dip our feet.”
“The dock at home is low enough to do so,” Will said, handing him the pole to put the other together. “Though it floods in the spring.”
Hannibal inspected the pole, watching Will work so effortlessly with the efficient movements of long practice. He leaned over to look at the water and surreptitiously looked his fill at Will’s long feet and trim ankles, admiring his perfect little toes and the fine length of them. Even sitting his feet turned in a little, which was vastly adorable.
“Stop that,” Will said, attempting to tuck his feet back out of sight beneath the dock.
“I was looking at the water,” Hannibal said, lying and knowing that Will knew it, but instead of chastisement he got a wry smile. “Now, what on earth do we do?”
Will showed him how to bait his hook, laughing at Hannibal’s wrinkled nose and moue of distaste. Despite his fumbling attempts, he was finally able to get his hook appropriately set and mimicked Will’s cast, both of their lines pulled by the current to bob together, the corks bright against the water.
Will heaved a deep, happy sigh, face tipped up to the breeze, eyes closing. He could feel Hannibal next to him, his warmth and his scent comforting, the vibration of his presence through Will’s bond like a soothing tickle along his nerves. He drew a deep breath, holding his fishing rod lightly, and smiled when Hannibal said, “You look content, Will.”
“I am,” he said, slitting one eye open to find his husband watching him, his eyes hooded against the sun but tender, his gaze soft.
“I wish you could always be so,” Hannibal murmured, turning his attention to his line before the intensity of his gaze could make Will nervous.
“Days like this are worth two of any other,” Will said. He looked back over the water and sighed, content to bask in the moment.
“Are you still tired?” Hannibal asked, mistaking his deep breath for a stifled yawn.
“A bit,” Will admitted, chuckling. “I could not rest last night for thinking of your school and its possibilities. The lives it will change and the lives it will save is remarkable. I must admit, Hannibal, that it is rather more progressive than I had credited you with.”
“Intelligence is a rarity our society can ill-afford to squander,” Hannibal said. “The medical world is advancing and we need sharp minds to stay abreast of innovations.”
“Between the way in which you swooped to the rescue of your young ladies and your talk of teaching medicine to women as well as Omegas, I find myself amazed,” Will admitted, lazily reeling his line in to recast. “I had never imagined you to be so altruistic.”
“Given my impressive ego?” Hannibal teased, delighted when one of Will’s eyebrows thoroughly disapproved. He chuckled and sighed then, content to enjoy his time with Will any way he could manage. “I will have you know that I am the very picture of altruism, Will.”
“Not to mention the picture of modesty,” Will laughed.
“While we are speaking of my finer qualities,” Hannibal said, smoothly segueing to his proposal. “The Ministry of War is sponsoring its annual charity Masquerade this evening. It is always a big draw in the Capital for the off-Season. I usually just donate; however, I might be compelled to go if you were so inclined.”
Will cocked his head, unable to repress a small smile to see Hannibal preen a bit under his gaze, sitting just a touch taller, the unquestioned Lord of all he surveyed.
Except of Will, of course.
“I do hope by ‘charity’ they do not mean to divert the monies raised to fund their war effort,” Will said, his gaze following the light bob of Hannibal’s cork. “I could never support that.”
“You’re a pacifist?”
“A pragmatist,” Will corrected. “The war has dragged on far too long. It is a wonder there are any men left to father children.”
“Luckily, many of them did their fathering before they left these shores,” Hannibal told him. “The proceeds go to support the families they left behind, as well as the wounded soldiers who have returned home. There will be drinking and dancing and an unfortunate mixture of the two before the night is over. It could be fairly entertaining for that alone. Were we lucky, Aunt Margaret would be there; she does so love to dance and cannot hold her drink.”
Will chuckled at the image Hannibal conjured, his thoughts moving back to Mina’s exuberant recounting of the balls she had attended in her role as Lady Rathmore. It made him wonder what Hartford would look like should the Duke throw a ball, and he got lost for a moment in a ballroom lit with thousands of tapers, filled with gorgeous gowns and twinkling jewels and dapper jackets, all twirling to the lively strains of an orchestra.
“It won’t be worth seeing until near midnight,” Hannibal said, noticing his absorbed expression. “We’ll see how you feel by then, hm?”
“I’ll feel perfectly fine,” Will said, giving him a sour look that made Hannibal grin in delight. “You needn’t coddle me, Lord Clarges. I think I should like to see the dancers, at least! But we have no masks or costumes.”
“There are always such available to purchase, though I would prefer to have something made to your preference,” Hannibal said, not entirely pleased with the possibility of looking at all shabby. “However, I am sure there will be several shops from which to choose. The invitations languished at the Townhouse and now it is far too late to start from scratch. But we will be properly masked for it nonetheless. If all else fails, we can always check what is in storage. The attics are filled to bursting. We Lecters are very reluctant to let go of anything.”
“Yes, I am aware,” Will said, smiling when Hannibal accepted it with an elegant cock of his head. “Then we are agreed. We’ll attend your charity ball this evening.”
“Indeed we will,” Hannibal said, and added with a twinkle in his amber eyes. “Since you are my husband, I will do as you say.”
Will skated a sly glance at him and his rueful smile became soft laughter that was better than any music to Hannibal’s discerning ear. Even more precious was the excitement that filled his blue eyes when he spied Hannibal’s cork go under and said, “You’ve got a bite!”
Will’s excitement was infectious and Hannibal abandoned himself to Will’s whims, content to go where his mate led and hopeful that he could close the gap between them.
The fish got away despite Will’s best efforts to instruct him, a laughing struggle of futility that ended with lost bait, a lost fish, and a sizable tree branch dragged up from the riverbed. Hannibal declared himself a hopeless fisherman in short order and retrieved his journal from their gear, content to sketch Will as he fished, the morning moving towards afternoon in companionable, light conversation and a good haul, though Will threw them all back the wiser for their near misfortune.
They lunched in the shade and shared a bottle of wine, barefoot and relaxed, cuffs rolled and waistcoats abandoned, neckerchiefs cast aside and shirts loosened. Will read aloud from his dreadful book, laughing at the faces Hannibal made and trying not to be self-conscious that his husband was sketching him yet again.
“You must surely have every expression I can make, by now,” Will said at last, putting his book aside when his eyes began to strain. He moved closer, stretching out on his belly next to where Hannibal lay with his journal tipped in offering. Will thumbed through the pages, his amusement whetted by his growing pleasure, though it left him flustered to see himself through his husband’s eyes. “You have idealized me.”
“Not in the least,” Hannibal said, sitting up to turn the book back several thick pages. “Who is this?”
“Mr. Hawkes,” Will said, delighted by the likeness. “And your grandfather!”
“Do they seem idealized?” Hannibal pressed, petting Will’s hair.
“No,” Will admitted, grinning and flipping to the front of the book, his smile fading to see sketches of men who were clearly soldiers, a composition of haunted eyes, taut mouths, stiff posture. Others were weary, slumped in poses of extreme exhaustion, huddled in pain, while others were staring off at better times, poised on the cusp of tears that Will could all but feel. “Hannibal, these are remarkable.”
“My first unit,” Hannibal told him, flicking through the pages with ease to open it to a new section. “Captain Rogers, an Alpha in charge of the last unit Berger and I were attached to. I never knew at the time, but the majority of these portraits here are of Omegas.”
Will moved through them slowly, seeing how well Hannibal had captured them in their anguish and bravery, nervous tension suffusing them, a tribute to their strength in the face of war.
The soldiers gave way to a dark-haired woman with a serious stare sitting hand-in-hand with another dark-haired woman who seemed softer, no less hardened by life but more forgiving.
“That is Margot,” Hannibal said, pointing at the first woman. “And Alana.”
“They are both so beautiful,” Will breathed, caught in the symmetry of their mirrored positions, in the graceful curve of wrists and throats and shoulders, in the steel he could see reflected in their eyes.
“They made good subjects,” Hannibal said, watching Will turn the pages, the illustrations of his life he never imagined his mate would find interesting. “That is Marissa, our daughter.”
Will’s brows rose, and Hannibal laughed, embarrassed, “Force of habit. Every baby I deliver is mine, it feels. I have raised her as my own.”
“I expect, were I to decide in your favor,” Will murmured, looking at the sweet, happy little face sketched there on the page. “That you would wish us to further her prospects?”
“Only with your permission,” Hannibal said. “She is a lovely and loving child and I only want the best for her.”
“I will insist on knowing them,” Will said, continuing his rapt perusal.
“I hoped you would,” Hannibal admitted. “We will all deal with one another quite a bit in the future, if you so choose. I pray we may all be friends together.”
Will paused on another page, a dark-haired little girl looking both appalled and delighted by the snail on her hand, her mouth rounded in a way that rather reminded him of Hannibal.
“Mischa,” Hannibal breathed. “My little sister. Well, as near as I can recall her. I draw her at times, so that I may remember her.”
“There are no paintings of her?” Will asked, troubled.
“No,” Hannibal said, tracing the curve of her cheek without quite touching the paper. “The only portrait of her was in a locket around her mother’s neck. It was lost… the night I lost them all. I do my best not to let time take what little their accident left me.”
“She was very beautiful,” Will said, feeling a pang of grief for her, such a short life ended in such a terrible way. He wondered if Hannibal might be willing to talk of it, but he did not push. Some pains, he knew all too well, were better left in memory.
“She greatly resembled her mother, who was a considerable beauty,” Hannibal said, thinking of her despite himself. “I should have known that Mischa was Omegan, like her mother…”
Will glanced up at him, surprised into saying, “She was? And you knew nothing of it?”
“I was too young to tell by scent and my father refused to allow anyone to educate me,” Hannibal said, frowning when the admission cracked a door on his memory he’d held closed all of his adult life. “Her mother tried to keep us separated…”
‘…child is a bastard in the end and you’ll keep her clear of the boy or I’ll ship her off…’
“Hannibal?” Will asked, frozen by his sudden tension and the surge in his anxiety.
“Forgive me, I just… it’s been a very long time since I looked back on my childhood so deeply,” Hannibal breathed, giving Will a smile that wavered at the edges. “I think perhaps it was a separation at my father’s insistence.”
“Why should anyone want to separate siblings?” Will asked, thinking aloud rather than questioning Hannibal. “You both shared his blood; she was as much your sister as she was his daughter.”
“He was a difficult man and I have very limited memories of him,” Hannibal said, musing, “Which I suppose is odd in itself as I was already ten when the accident took them from me.”
Will frowned, thoughtful and considering. “That is somewhat more than odd, Hannibal… But you said that your past was unhappy; it is the nature of man to abandon that which troubles him to embrace that which does not. If you have chosen to forget your past, it is only to focus your energy on the present.”
“Perhaps,” Hannibal said with a smile, but it troubled him all the same and he could feel it lingering at the back of his mind, tempting closer inspection.
“Is this Galley Field?” Will asked, distracting him with ease, hoping to draw him away from his unhappy thoughts.
“Yes,” Hannibal said, willing to be diverted by his mate and recalling that he was not the only one with a past he’d rather not examine. If Will could look at his sketches and find pleasure in them on this beautiful day, considering all he’d lived through, then Hannibal could strive to be his equal in pleasant company. “We can go there, if you like.”
Will said nothing to that, merely continued to turn the pages until he came back to those of himself, captured in talented strokes of lead with a carefree beauty that he simply could not recognize himself in.
“These are all incredibly beautiful, Hannibal. You’re very talented,” he said, lightly touching the corner of the page where Hannibal had sketched him in a moment of laughter, and the young man he saw there seemed a stranger to him.
“You are a pleasure to sketch, Will,” Hannibal said, smiling at how flustered he became.
“I have never looked like this,” Will softly laughed, blushing. “These could be my sister.”
“You are far more beautiful than your sister,” Hannibal said, taking the book from him and closing it, tying it with its frayed ribbon. He put the book aside and stroked Will’s hair again, just watching him, considering him.
“My father used to tell me I was ugly,” Will whispered, dropping his gaze to his hands, picking at the blanket Hannibal had spread for their lunch. The fingers in his hair were gentle, and he turned to offer more of his head for the enjoyable touch, not even aware that he had done so. “I always wondered how Mina could be so lovely and I so frightful when we shared the same features. He told me it was a… deficit of personality that made me unwholesome. How does one overcome a deficit of personality?”
“By ignoring one’s father for being a fool,” Hannibal said, smiling when Will’s eyes darted up to his. He sighed and helped Will to sit up, half in the curve of his body, closer than Will usually allowed him to get. He smoothed Will’s wild curls again and cupped his cheek, intending to reassure his mate.
His words got lost in the limpid depth of Will’s blue eyes, in the supple way he turned to face Hannibal with his full mouth parted on a question that never came. Hannibal moved on instinct, exerting gentle pressure on his cheek, ripe potential blooming like sweet fruit between them.
Will didn’t resist the touch or Hannibal’s insistence. His heart pounded in his chest and it took all of his strength not to shiver, half with panic and half with excitement. It was so dangerous to let Hannibal close to him, dangerous to let his mockery of a bond grow stronger, dangerous to feel his skin burn where Hannibal touched him as if heat was the only thing he could offer in return. His eyes widened when Hannibal leaned into him, the fingers on his jaw tipping his head up until they were eye to eye, nose to nose. Will thought he should speak, put a stop to it for both their sake’s, but all that came out was a soft exhale.
Hannibal’s tender gaze was filled with warmth, with affection, with a desire Will could not understand with his lack of experience. Their eyes met and both of them smiled, tentative and hopeful. He shivered when Hannibal nudged him in a slow, cautious nuzzle, the tremble that coursed through Will shaking Hannibal as well. The sensation of skin brushing skin, of whispering breath, of fluttering eyelashes washed over him and he lifted his hand to Hannibal’s shoulder to steady himself, fingers stroking aimless patterns.
Hannibal inhaled his sweet scent, stronger for being out in the sun, and rubbed his cheek against Will’s, resting there for a moment to savor the touch of his warm, silky skin and the enticing perfume rising up to meet him. Will felt more than heard him softly ask, “May I?”
He swallowed hard and tried twice to speak, wet his lips, and finally managed, “Y-yes…”
The sweet trail of Hannibal’s mouth on his cheek forced his eyes to flutter closed and Will held perfectly still, perfectly breathless. It was butterfly faint and gentle pressure against the corner of his mouth, teasing, soft, and coaxing. Will turned just a fraction, lips meeting lips, a throaty sound escaping him when Hannibal’s hand tightened gently on his jaw, holding him where he wanted him.
Hannibal swallowed Will’s gasp, covering his mouth with his own, a sweet press of lips encouraged by the way Will opened for him, hesitant but eager. He trailed his tongue lightly over the plump fullness of Will’s lower lip and sucked, the slight, excited noise he elicited from his mate bringing his blood to a boiling point. He tipped his head, seeking entrance, Will quickly adapting and mirroring his kiss. He felt Will’s slender fingers clench in his shirt and tug, urging him closer, and he deepened the kiss, thrilling to the tentative touch of Will’s tongue against his, cautious and light.
He tasted of sweet wine and fruit, of heat and startled welcome, of trembling excitement and innocence. His slender body vibrated in Hannibal’s grip, a wild, fey creature only half-trapped in the mortal realm, kissing him back with a strength of passion that promised to erupt in the same fiery way as his temper.
Hannibal bit softly and sucked, drawing a moan from Will, answering it with one of his own. Will responded to that sound, to the need he could feel heavy in his belly and echoing from his husband. He coiled against Hannibal and shifted to offer more of his mouth, more of himself, open and willing. Even the intensity he could feel growing in Hannibal’s kisses couldn’t inspire caution—he wanted this, wanted the startling, skillful thrust of his tongue and the coaxing suck on his own, wanted the way Hannibal purred into his mouth with each breath, as if desire could be divorced from preference and render him something with the potential to inspire it.
He wanted this to never end, to never leave this moment that was so entirely peaceful and perfect.
“Will,” Hannibal breathed, his kisses more urgent. He couldn’t keep the hunger hidden, couldn’t resist exploring Will’s mouth as thoroughly as he could manage without frightening him. His hand dropped from Will’s jaw and sought his waist, pulling Will flush against him, caressing the taut muscle of his sleek side, feeling the shiver that wracked them both.
There was a new side of himself unfolding in that moment and Will marveled at it. It swelled within him with force, pounding like a heartbeat, something which fed on his husband’s kisses and clamored for more. It was dangerous and demanding, awakening his senses to every touch, every sound, every exquisite moment. It might have frightened him with its force, but he was too awed that he had hidden it for so long to be afraid. It made him bold, fearless even, as if the cliff within him held no danger he could not conquer so long as he could feast on Hannibal’s kiss.
It was physically painful for them both to back off, to rein in the urge to tumble back on the blanket and carry things to their natural conclusion. It was a testament to their mutual willpower that they softened the kiss, but Hannibal was reluctant to let it end. He slid his wet mouth to Will’s chin, to his cheeks, to his closed eyelids and the tip of his nose, gentle worship and tender affection that made Will’s eyes burn with tears he couldn’t explain, couldn’t acknowledge even now.
“You are beautiful,” Hannibal whispered, kissing his mouth again, finding the little nub of his earlobe and biting it gently just to hear the catch in Will’s breath. “You are clever and funny and astonishing.” He kissed his jaw, he kissed the fading knot on his head with care, the arch of his eyebrows. “You are wonderful and surprising and kind.”
He kissed his lips once more and pressed his forehead to Will’s, breathing, “You are even more beautiful inside than out, Will, and that is the very best kind of beautiful a person can be.”
Will’s eyes fluttered open, his eyes swimming with unshed tears, his long lashes mingling with Hannibal’s own. He drew in Hannibal’s breath as he exhaled, floating in his scent and the warm acceptance he could feel breaking his heart into pieces, putting them back together again in a new and painful configuration cemented with hope. He felt himself stroking Hannibal’s shoulder, warm and solid muscle shifting beneath the thin material of his shirt, mirroring the caress of Hannibal’s hand on his side.
Hannibal smiled at him, slight and filled with tenderness. His hand slid from Will’s side to his cheek and stroked him, then into his hair to gently tease through his curls. He nuzzled his nose against Will’s and just stayed there a moment, eyes closed as if he relished their closeness.
It was a strange thing to consider, imagining that his husband might genuinely enjoy being with him. Strange and wondrous, and Will’s hand moved from Hannibal’s shoulder to his cheek, his fingertip tracing the track of stitching with delicacy before falling to brush his mouth. Hannibal kissed Will’s fingertips and a soft, embarrassed laugh escaped him, nerves making an appearance at long last.
Hannibal eased back and gave Will his space, noting with delight how rosy his cheeks were and how flustered but pleased he was. Seeing him there beneath the afternoon sun, jostled free of his composure to show the young man within, Hannibal couldn’t keep from hoping that he could bring his somber, solemn mate to be even more open in the future.
Will’s full mouth curled in a lopsided, endearing smile and he said, “Thank you, Hannibal.”
Hannibal’s brows rose at that and Will clarified, “For bringing me here. For this afternoon… it was very thoughtful of you.”
“I want you to be happy, Will,” Hannibal said, and slid his fingertips over Will’s in a light caress. “I cannot change the past, as you have said, but I can ensure that your present is all that it should be.”
Will pondered that, a slight frown wrinkling his brow as he considered Hannibal’s words against his father’s insistence, against his own doubts.
“Shall we attempt to make a fisherman of me after all?” Hannibal asked, curling his fingers into Will’s and lifting them to press a kiss to his knuckles, hoping to distract Will from whatever denials his terrible upbringing might offer. “Or should we leave for the Capital?”
“Already?” Will asked, his worries giving way to sudden excitement at the suggestion. “Will there be time to see the city before the ball?”
“It is less than an hour by coach,” Hannibal said, releasing Will’s hand with a final squeeze to begin gathering up the remnants of their lunch. “We can explore as much as you like for as long as you like.”
Will felt a flutter of excitement at the prospect of seeing the Capital, but reined it in to ask, “And what is your professional opinion, Doctor Lecter? Am I well enough to enjoy such a trip?”
“You came here by coach feeling much worse than you do at present,” Hannibal said, chuckling softly as he repacked the basket. “An hour will hardly harm you, and if you fatigue we can always make an early night of it. I don’t want to overwhelm you.”
“Do you think you’ve been underwhelming me to this point?” Will remarked, smiling at the way Hannibal’s bright eyes flashed with humor.
“I certainly hope not,” Hannibal said. “I’ll have Jimmy and Berger pack overnight bags and we’ll be on our way. After a wash, of course. Fishing is remarkably stinky business.”
Will laughed, amused by the way his nose wrinkled with distaste. The ebullient feeling seemed to buoy him up as they reloaded their gear and headed back to Marsham, and Will couldn’t help but wonder if such a pleasant peace could truly last.
They rode back to Marsham Heath in comfortable conversation, and it did not seem so strange to be doubled up on Hannibal’s patient horse, leaning back into the cradling warmth of his body. Even the steadying hand tucked at his waist only felt inviting, safe, and comforting, and Will hardly realized when his own hands fell to rest on Hannibal’s thighs, curving around the muscle there as if that very place had been formed to suit his touch.
Moseley was in full swing as they emerged from the woods onto the lane up to Marsham, its inhabitants doing brisk, industrious business on this beautiful day. From the height of the hill where Marsham Heath sat, Will could clearly see the road to the Capital at the far end of town. He noted with some surprise a rather large group of soldiers moving south towards the sea and felt a sudden flare of worry.
“That can’t bode well,” Hannibal remarked, his amber eyes fastened on the passing company. He drew the horse to a stop, his attention fixed on the soldiers.
“They’ve been mobilized,” Will said, more to himself than to Hannibal. “Where is the nearest garrison?”
“Blackwall,” Hannibal said. “We passed it on the way in to Marsham. These men are heading towards the port.”
“I thought the war was winding down,” Will said, anxiety settling in his chest when he glanced at Hannibal and saw the pensive, worried look on his face.
Will was not reassured when his husband softly said, “So did I.”
Hannibal’s gaze stayed fixed on the soldiers. There was a frown on his lips, stern and severe, making the stark planes of his face once more into Apollo’s, godlike in reserve.
Will found it easy enough to follow the train of his thoughts. He, too, looked back at the soldiers, the trailing end of their formation moving past in a haze of faint dust that seemed to cloud the promise of their new beginning. “Perhaps you’ll find out more at the ball this evening.”
“Excuse me?” Hannibal said, jolted out of his thoughts by Will’s comment.
“There will be representatives from the Ministry there,” Will said, rubbing the bend of Hannibal’s arm, light and soft, but the touch going straight through him to chase away his tension. “They will not keep the truth of the situation from you, surely.”
“No, they wouldn’t,” Hannibal admitted, covering Will’s hand with his in gentle press.
Will drew in a slow breath and asked, “They wouldn’t ask you to return, would they, Hannibal? Considering you are your grandfather’s heir?”
The uncertainty in Will’s words did strange things to Hannibal’s heart and he tipped his head to Will’s to drop a kiss on his temple.
“Let’s don’t borrow trouble,” Hannibal said, shoving his disquiet down. He knew that Will, astute as he was, couldn’t be fooled by such a show, but he didn’t argue when Hannibal said, “Nothing like that should happen, Will.”
It didn’t escape Will’s notice that he didn’t add, ‘I promise…’
Upon return to Marsham, Jimmy and Berger promptly packed small trunks for their stay and set out ahead of them. After a wash and a change of clothes, Will and Hannibal were packed into the coach and on the road to the Capital, still with no sign of Francis.
It took less than a quarter-hour before road they hit the outskirts, the small villages growing larger and spreading wider, humanity reaching out for the Capital that connected them all.
The city came up around them all of a sudden, the buildings rising up, horses and carriages and all manner of people moving past the windows in a flurry of movement that made Will’s head spin. He gazed out at it in silent awe, eyes wide, hardly aware of Hannibal leaning over him to watch with him.
The noise was astonishing, as were the smells, everything pungent overload, yet he couldn’t stop staring, stop breathing it in, stop soaking it up, greedy to fill his mind with its details.
Hannibal stayed silent behind him for the longest time, just watching him experience a city he himself knew well enough to find mundane. The coachman, on his prior instruction, drove them to every site of importance their great city held, and Hannibal pointed out buildings and landmarks that Will had only seen in the papers or in books. They saw other Peers, famous actresses and actors, and Hannibal resolved to take him to the theater at his earliest opportunity. They turned onto the Row and Will gaped at the storefronts, the excess of richly-dressed people spending far too much time and far too much money on frivolities. It took twice as long to tour the city than it did to reach it in the first place, and Will was more relieved than disappointed when Hannibal ordered the coach to the Townhouse. There was so much for him to take it that it left him tired, with the threatening beginnings of a headache.
“Chelsea House is on its own garden square, which keeps it a bit off the main thoroughfare,” Hannibal said, pointing to the tall building coming into view. “But my office is just a block off and I admit I am excessively fond of our location.”
“Chelsea House,” Will said, rediscovering his smile and excitement as the coach rolled to a stop. The stately building stood alone on the garden square, peacefully solitary but not removed from the bustle of the city. It rose up rather than out, narrow to Will’s eyes, but exquisitely detailed on the outside, as if the architect had been determined to make up for the lack of bulk with ornamentation.
“Where I spend the majority of my time,” Hannibal said, opening the door before the footman could reach them in order to let Will clamber out. “It was much easier to tend my practice from here than run back and forth to Galley Field.”
Will stood there before the building just looking at it, breathing in the mingling scents of blossoming flowers, stagnant water, and fumes from the factories—a dizzying and cloying mixture of scents that would take some getting used to.
Hannibal stopped next to him, smiling at him when Will met his gaze. The kiss they shared returned with vivid sensation, the memory of it pinking Will’s cheeks.
“I had always assumed you lived at Galley Field and did just that,” Will said, touching the railing of the stairs as he moved towards the door in a futile attempt to distract himself.
“Holidays, usually,” Hannibal said, coming up just behind him. “But with my practice and duties here in the Capital, Chelsea House has been home for the most part.”
The door swung open to admit them, revealing a stern-looking butler whom Hannibal referred to as Mr. Black before whispering in Will’s ear, “He pretends to be deaf as a post but he hears everything, trust me.”
Will grinned, relieved when the door swung closed behind them to shut out the din and the scents. The inside of Chelsea House smelled of wood polish, pastries, and lemon oil, a welcome bouquet that made Will aware of just how much his head was beginning to ache.
“Mr. Black, this is Will, my spouse,” Hannibal said, placing a firm had at the base of Will’s spine. “Naturally, as he is also Lord Clarges, you’re to mind him as you do myself.”
“I will be sure to mind him, my Lord,” Mr. Black said, the words slow and measured. He blinked in Hannibal’s direction and added, “As I do not mind you.”
Will stifled surprised laughter and Hannibal drew up, miffed, saying with stiff dignity, “Well, you didn’t have to tell him that, Black.”
“Welcome to Chelsea House, my Lord” Mr. Black said, inclining his head to Will. “We have been waiting so very, very, very long to meet you.”
“That’s quite enough of that. Go do something useful,” Hannibal said, turning his attention to Will as Mr. Black saw to the door. “How are you feeling after our little ride?”
“My head is aching some,” Will admitted, touching the bruise on his temple. “But I would rather not take anything, if you don’t mind. The air here is quite thick.”
“It takes some adjusting,” Hannibal said, and signaled to a maid peeking at them. “Take his Lordship up to the Duchess suite, please.”
“No, no arguments,” Hannibal warned. “My husband has decided we will attend a ball this evening. We cannot do that if you are incapacitated. Take some time to rest; the Capital will still be here, I promise. I will see if we have any word from Grandfather and send notice that we are well.”
“Is that safe?” Will asked, brow furrowing. “If someone is watching Hartford—”
“Everything is going through Mr. Stammets and our solicitor here in the Capital,” Hannibal assured him. “Nothing is posted from or to our location in a way that might give us away, though my movements have never been secret for long. If you wish to write to your sister, I would be happy to include the letter in the next packet to be sent.”
“Thank you, I should,” Will said, sighing to think of Mina at Hartford with the Duke. Her odd behavior was very concerning and entirely unfathomable, but Will couldn’t spare the energy to worry over it. As Hannibal had said, he needed to take some rest and prepare for the evening or else he wouldn’t be fit to enjoy the very thing he had insisted on.
Hannibal sent him off with a gentle pat against his back, a gesture of familiar affection as unexpected as it was welcome, and Will gave a small smile in response before following the maid upstairs.
Will was too excited to properly rest. He spent some time alone in his suite, grand but faintly stuffy, as if it hadn’t been inhabited for years. It made Will wonder where Alana and Margot had stayed when at the Townhouse, if Hannibal had not given them the Duchess suite. It was reassuring, however, to know he had not put them in every place that Will should have been. Perhaps part of him had known better, after all.
Jimmy was out at Will’s insistence for a much-needed break and he found himself alone, staring out at the city from his window. The time of day was such that no year-round Society folk were to be seen yet as they were resting away the afternoon before a night of activities. The street below was still thick with traffic, with maids and footmen on errands, with people walking their masters’ dogs, with carts trundling back and forth with baskets, with the occasional street merchant being shooed away by a passing constable.
He abandoned the window to admire the suite, which was smaller by necessity but still richly appointed and even updated with gas lines, which Will determined they should get as soon as possible out at Hartford House.
Prevented from exploring at large, he made do exploring his suite, coming at last to the wardrobe where Jimmy had already unpacked him. There was a lamp near the doorway which the servants used to light the windowless little room. Will lit it and went inside the vast closet simply out of curiosity.
His own things took up more room than he expected, considering Jimmy had packed for a short stay. There were a few boxes neatly shelved and he fetched one down, putting the lamp on the small jewelry dresser in the corner so he could pry the lid up.
There were trinkets inside, calling cards, loose buttons, programs for plays and operas that had not run in fifty years. It seemed to be the contents of the Duchess vanity cleared out, perhaps after the tragic death of the Duke’s wife. It had all been swept into a box to make way for someone new, but Will had no idea who that might be as Grandfather had never remarried.
The other box was a lacquered jewelry box, a rich, deep color that gleamed in the light even with its layer of dust. He picked up his little lamp and went out into his sunlit room to better inspect it, putting everything back where he had found it and placing the box on his vanity.
It was even more intriguing once he could see it properly. A scene was inlaid on the top, elegant cranes captured in dusty flight, mother-of-pearl wings outstretched. Curious, he lifted the small latch and opened it.
The hope for mystery was defeated by the sight of its faded silk lining, revealing only an empty box. Disappointed, he started to close it again, but noticed that the edge of the lining had pulled away from the bottom, was frayed a bit as if having been tugged many times over the years of its life.
Curiosity and excitement renewed, Will grasped it with gentle caution and tugged.
The lining pulled free as it did on his own jewelry box, and beneath was the plain wooden base, with just the smallest divot for a determined fingernail. He pried it up, delighted to find a false bottom.
And nestled within it was a strange book.
He fished it out, noting the binding was some unusual substance he’d never seen before, wood-like and pliable. It was sewn on the outside of the cover in a manner that bewildered him.
“Who put you here?” Will murmured, opening the cover to find a blank page. He frowned, wondering, “Why on earth would someone hide an empty book?”
He heard a thump on the landing and started, dropping it. He hastily moved to shut the box and placed it near his own jewelry box, the book falling to one side on its face. He got to his feet, pushed his little chair in, and picked the book back up, surprised to find that the half-open back cover showed writing.
Curious, he opened the book’s back cover and scanned it, the sharp, minuscule characters printed in orderly columns in a language that he could not make any sense of. At the corner, however, there was a single paragraph written in English, tiny but clear.
I have forsaken myself. I am a warrior no longer. I have cast off the armor of my father and exchanged it for a prostitute’s robes. I must do what I can to survive. I have nothing. I own nothing. I belong nowhere and I can never go home… My family’s name is all that is left to remind me of who I am.
I am Murasaki. I am Murasaki. I am Murasaki and will always be…
Will’s eyes widened with shock. He flipped rapidly through the pages and found that the book was almost entirely filled with writing. Heart pounding, he settled in a chair near the window with the journal cradled in his lap, his thoughts busily working on how he could find out what she had written, the mysterious Lady Murasaki.
Will woke with a start, clutching the journal to his chest and nearly tumbling from the chair. Jimmy was bustling about carrying in armfuls of clothing that Will didn’t recognize.
“Goodness, what on earth time is it?” Will asked, surprised that he’d fallen asleep. He’d pondered the mystery of the journal and how best to approach the puzzle it offered so deeply that he had not realized when the questions inflaming his imagination had become his usual vivid dreams.
“Nearly nine,” Jimmy said, startling him from his thoughts with the answer. “You must’ve been very tired to fall asleep there, my Lord. You should’ve rang for me and had a proper sleep.”
“No, that’s alright, it was unexpected, Jimmy,” Will said, scanning the clothing with a frown. “What is all this?”
“Potentially, your costume,” Jimmy answered. “Lord Clarges had us up in the attic but he deemed every bit of clothing unfit. He sent Berger and I out for costumes, instead. Surprisingly large selection for so little notice, but the Lecter name works miracles in most instances.”
“Sent out for them, did he. Has he chosen anything?” Will asked, gingerly getting to his feet, his back complaining at the abuse of sleeping in a chair.
“He said he would wait until you chose, and he would dress to match,” Jimmy said.
Will moved to the window instead, the journal cradled to his chest, his attention ensnared by the view of the city beyond lit up in the darkness. “My goodness, Jimmy…”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Jimmy asked, smiling with delight. “Chelsea House is situated so nicely! That garden square is just beautiful, my Lord. I was already peeking at it from the basement. It’s so nice the property stands alone, isn’t it? It feels less crowded. And Mr. Black, the butler, is just the most darling man. Goodness, he is a sassy spirit!”
He went on, but Will only half heard him. His attention was entirely taken by the sight of townhouses stretching into the distance, lit by globes of gas lamps so bright that the glow reflected from the canopy of smoke and smog. Carriages passed by almost right beneath his window, bearing servants on unknown tasks and gentlemen off to their own pursuits. The Capital was gearing itself up for a night of decadent gaiety.
And tonight Will was going to be a part of it.
“I’ve only read about it, heard about it,” he said, moving away from the window with a hammering heart when Jimmy stood back to let him choose. “It’s so much more grand than I thought it would be. Seeing the architect’s designs certainly didn’t do the reality any justice.”
“I imagine you’ll be seeing quite a bit that fits that bill, Lord Clarges,” Jimmy said, beaming. “Now, here are the masks, and these are all that he asked for…”
He started holding up costume after costume, costly beaded and bejeweled pieces stiff with lace and chased with embroidery, heavy with pearls, of every color and style imaginable. There were even dresses among them. Will felt a strange, heavy pang to see them, and asked, “Jimmy, did he know there would be dresses?”
“Yes, my Lord,” Jimmy said, bending to lift one in his arms and hold it up. “He was very specific about what he wanted—male attire, female attire, and even the newest Omegan styles that have caught on in the Capital. Naturally, I know your sizing and we sorted accordingly.”
Will subsided, surprised. Jimmy smiled at him and said, “He specifically told me that you should have your choice of anything that takes your fancy, and not to think about it too much. It’s a masquerade ball, after all. No one will know you unless you wish them to.”
“No one,” Will said, an idea forming.
He leveled a weighty look at Jimmy, who said, “Oh no. I know that look. My Lord, whatever you—”
“Let me have a look, Jimmy,” Will said, the strange revelations of the journal momentarily pushed aside for his heightening excitement. He tucked the little book up safely beneath his pillow before returning to the costumes, the revelations of the dead forsaken for the pleasures of the living.
Dresses, Omegan-style clothing, men’s fashions—for the first time Will felt the trembling delight of choosing without restraint and the possibilities made his heart stir. Faceless and nameless, he could watch the crowd without any expectations on him. He could be anyone in the world, free to chase or be chased… or even kissed. It made his heart thunder with excitement, keyed his nerves with anticipation.
On such a night, anything at all could happen—princesses could meet their princes, Peers could dance with a milliner’s daughter, and Will might shed all disguises. For once he could be the self he dreamed of, the person who slumbered in his secret heart.
If only just for one night.
Hannibal, for the first time in a long time, was indecisive about his wardrobe. He was a man of varied tastes in dressing himself, demanding only the best quality, the most current fashions, the most expensive fabric, the most in-demand tailor—he was never at a loss for what to wear.
The costumes were no different. They were so far out of anyone else’s ability to pay that he had before him only the finest, most exquisite pieces in his size.
But he kept thinking of Will’s blue eyes beneath his thick and disapproving eyebrows, of the set of his mouth when he was displeased.
He kept thinking of the way he looked when he laughed with genuine delight, unselfconscious and abandoned.
He very much wanted to see Will’s blue eyes light up with pleasure at the sight of him, and thus he was quite stuck.
“Ah, Berger, what do you think?”‘ he asked when his valet came in to help him dress. “There is the mask I have chosen, but I am at a loss with the costume. I’ve narrowed it down to two—”
“Whichever one you picked first, m’Lord,” Berger said, well used to this particular ritual and knowing how it usually fell out. “M’Lord, I need you to not panic.”
“It’s a costume, Berger, not a guillotine,” Hannibal said, somewhat bewildered by his serious tone. He looked over at his valet to chide him but it died on his lips. Feeling the rise of the panic Berger dreaded, he asked, “What’s happened?”
“Well, it’s like this, m’Lord,” Berger said, hangdog expression firmly in place. “Price said his Lordship asked him to get your guest invitation and bring it to him.”
Hannibal just stared at him, fear and worry melding into a burning coal in his chest.
“Now, he’ll be safe as can be, my Lord. He asked me to be sure of it for your peace of mind, so I pulled two men from the agency to ride as footmen, another two of our boys to back them up, the coachman will keep an eye on him, and Price will ride on the coach with him,” Berger said. “But he wants to go alone to the ball.”
“Alone,” Hannibal whispered, looking aside before Berger could read the disappointment in his expression. A thousand worries assailed him—what if the murderer, by some cosmic fluke, managed to locate Will and hurt him? What if someone offended him? What if, what if, what if, and a thousand more things he could neither control nor prevent. But Will had chosen to take the risk.
He had chosen to go alone.
Hannibal lowered the costume, resenting the fine trembling of his hands, and said, “Then I suppose I don’t need any of this…”
“He did leave this for you, m’Lord,” Berger said, not without sympathy, and handed him a folded note.
Hannibal took it and unfolded it, heart pounding. Will’s graceful but no-nonsense script crossed the fine paper in just one line.
Catch me for a kiss if you can, Lord Clarges.
Hannibal grinned and loosed a soft, delighted laugh, his relief leaving him shaken. He placed the note carefully on his vanity and turned to his choices with renewed passion.
“Hop to, Berger,” he said, hastening to ready himself.
“My husband has issued a challenge,” Hannibal said, and turned that ferocious, eager grin on his longtime valet. “And I will not lose.”