The house smelled of nothing, a smell that James could never get used to. All his life, scents always assailed his nostrils. Perhaps it was the buzz of activity in the house when his father used to be around, or the sweet smell of tea leaves simmering in a teapot when he was a child. But this time, it was nothing. And the thought of nothingness made him feel much more alone than ever.
A sigh escaped his lips as he reclined further in the chair, fingers skimming over the soft linen napkins and ornate cutlery. Just seeing them took him way back to when he served his country, spending his time hidden under the mud-covered battlefield, the acrid smell of gunpowder filling his nostrils.
He had been on the battlefield when the news came – something so terrible that he sank to the ground in pain, eyes brimming with tears. James forced himself not to think about those awful memories, to allow himself to enjoy the life he had now. A life he never wanted.
“Alice, you have to stop sulking,” his mother’s high-pitched voice rose in the room, a careful soprano that reminded James of all the times he had been scolded as a child.
It had only been eighteen months since he returned home, and a part of him yearned to be carrying a weapon. To fight for his country and not just sit at home and sip tea like people of the ton. James stifled a yawn, closing his eyes for a brief moment, and let himself wander through his memories. Vivid ones of him carrying a musket, his hair smeared with mud…
“James,” his mother called out to him, her voice taking a low tone now. “Your breakfast is getting cold.”
For one, James was not interested in eating. They had come to London only a week ago, and he hated everything about it. The noise, hustle, and bustle of carriages along the cobblestoned streets, all of the people in Hyde Park, and the horse-riding men on the tracks. James had been surrounded by noise all his life, and now that he was at home, he craved some quiet.
More than anything, even breakfast, he wanted to be back in the countryside. James yearned to be back on his horse – he had named it Helios – and ride down the large estate, to feel the wind in his hair as he let himself get lost again. It was his way of having fun. Being alone and surrounded on all sides by nothing but greenery, to talk to himself about things he would not tell anyone else. Not even his mother.
“Do you want something else?” his mother, Lady Hamilton said to him from across the dining table. “I can ask the maids to prepare something else.”
James shook his head softly, and his ash blonde hair fell over his face. He pushed them back, not even attempting to touch the food. He wanted to tell his mother that he wanted nothing more but to return to the tranquility of the countryside, but James knew that the probability of that happening was so low that his mother would allow horses to prance around in the drawing room than allow him to leave London.
And that was all because of his sister, Alice. It was early spring, and the Season was just beginning. Every ambitious mama would come to London with her daughters, thrusting them in the path of eligible bachelors. Also, they came for the juicy gossip that the Season provided, of news that happened between the time that the last one ended and this one began. Like all mamas, his mother brought his sister for the Season. This was Alice’s third one and somehow, she had not been snatched by an eligible man.
James knew that more than anything, it was his duty to get Alice married this time. He was now Viscount Hamilton and not just James. At the thought of the responsibility that came with the name, he wished that his brother was still alive. His brother was trained by their father for this role. The perfect gentleman now lay in rest at their countryside home, just near their father.
“Duty,” he muttered under his breath, raising his head to stare at the white high vaulted ceilings and the ornate chandelier that hung from it.
James never liked the word when he was at home. Instead, he preferred it when he was rolling in mud, serving his country, and making sure that everyone was safe. At least it was better than sleeping in till midday and visiting clubs. More than a decade ago, James wanted that life. The one his brother had.
He wished to fill his belly with whiskey, to laugh with friends as they talked about horses and bets, boxing rings, and champions. More than anything, James wanted to be acknowledged by his father. All his life, they poured their love and attention on Ned, his older brother and James felt like a third wheel in his own home.
But he had found his friends while he was away from home. Second-born sons like him recounted how much trouble they gave their families because they wanted to be noticed. And after spending so much time fighting and drinking ale, James began to see the world in another light. Being a second-born son did not mean that he was not noticed. It meant that he was free to do whatever he wanted. Unburdened by responsibility, James could soar, travel, fall in love and grow.
“James, is there something on your mind?” his mother asked, not raising her nose from the sheet in her hand. “Perhaps you would like to talk about it?”
Alice snickered, her bright green eyes shimmering in the sunlight that came from the window. She was the youngest in the family, and James could recall what a petulant child she’d been. Alice had always been interested in art, spending her time in the small gallery, her hand splattered with watercolor. Even now, he could see her fingers trailing listlessly on the white cloth that covered the table as if she were trying to paint something.
“Nothing Mother,” he replied, looking out the window and unconsciously rubbing his hand on his cheek.
His hand passed over the crater on his face, and it sent a tingling through his body. A wide mark ran down the side of his face, twisting down the cords of his neck, and disappeared under the dark green cravat. James had looked in the mirror that morning, knowing that society would never accept him as he was.
The jagged pink scar was a reminder that no matter how elegantly dressed he was, the ton would never accept him as one of their own. It was a mark of honor among soldiers, evidence that he fought tooth and nail to serve his country. But for people who fed on gossip and scandal, who viewed riches with envy, his scar only made him seem like a reprobate.
“Brother,” Alice said for the first time that morning, “perhaps we should go to the park? I am tired of sitting in this house all day.”
James shook his head. There were too many people in London. Those that would see him and balk, cowering because of the hideous scar on his face. No, he would rather remain in the house, loitering away as he counted the days till they could return to the countryside.
“I am sure Mother would like to show you around,” he replied softly. “I have not been in London for many years, and I do not want us to get lost.”
“Nonsense,” his mother retorted, holding up the sheet of paper. “You are the Viscount now, James. Viscount Hamilton. And your sister is in your care. You must see that she is matched by the end of the Season. If you do not take a walk with her, how do you expect to do that?”
Duty or not, James did not want to venture past the wrought-iron gates that were crawling with bougainvillea. In the house, even the servants stared at him like he was some stranger, merely staying for a few weeks before departing. Little did they know that he was here to stay.
“Say, Mother, You are the best at matchmaking and all things involved,” he replied in a bit to flatter his mother. Flattery made Marcia bluster and smile. “And it is tradition for mamas to accompany their daughters, as I would merely scare them off.”
Alice watched them with interest, a smile playing on her lips. James noticed it and bit down on his lips to stop himself from smiling. In his mind, he hoped that his mother would take the bait and accompany Alice to the park instead.
His mother sighed dramatically, dropping the silverware ceremoniously on the napkins. “You should consider putting yourself out too, James. The Season’s balls should start in a few weeks or less, and eligible debutantes would come swarming. You can find a wife for yourself.”
“What?” James exclaimed, utterly bewildered by his mother’s words. “Get married?”
Lady Hamilton nodded subtly. “Do not look at me as if my words are new. You are the Viscount now, James. It is your responsibility to make sure that the family name continues. Do you want some evil cousin to encroach on everything your father built?”
James could not believe his ears. Ever since he returned, his mother had not said much to him except to remind him that he was now the man of the house and he had a responsibility. A duty to uphold. He knew how titles moved from father to son, but he had never imagined getting married. Not with the scar on his face.
When he did not talk, his mother continued. “Even the gossip sheets are talking about you, James. This one says that: Viscount Hamilton has returned from serving his country and all the ambitious mamas are out to take him for themselves. With such fortune, it is no wonder why everyone wants him. And after hearing tales of his charm and form, every debutante will be out for him. But will the viscount succumb to matrimonial bliss this Season? You know what they say about eligible bachelors. The more they make themselves unavailable, the harder the mamas go after them. It is –
“Mother, please stop,” he said, unable to hide his embarrassment. “Any more and my ears will bleed.”
Alice laughed. “His charm and form? The author of that sheet must be talking about someone else.”
James bristled at his sister’s words. Before the scar, he was known as the cunning of the two brothers, strikingly handsome with his ash blonde hair and piercing blue eyes he got from his mother. Also, he was a consummate sportsman, riding the horses on hot sun-beaten tracks and bringing them to victory. The ingenious streak still resided somewhere within him even though he knew that when he left to join the war, that part of him stayed back at home and was now covered in cobwebs.
“Everyone knows that you have returned to take over as the viscount,” his mother said. “Getting married is the next thing to do. Have children and continue the Hamilton name.”
James sat there, unblinking. He wanted to argue, to tell his mother that he would never marry. At least, not with the jagged scar on his face. But from a young age, he knew that his mother loved arguments, even more than juicy gossip. He uttered not a single word, remaining silent for the remainder of breakfast.
No matter how he tried to look at it, James was well aware that he had lost his charm. No lady would be willing to marry a gentleman with scars. With that in mind, James knew that the issue of marriage would die down soon. And he would be able to go back to his quiet life in the countryside.
Genevieve was happy. At least she knew that much about herself. It was the start of a new season and that meant new dresses from the modiste, boring lectures from her mother about how a proper lady should behave before a gentleman, juicy gossip from her friends and spending time with them, and most of all, new books from her father. It was the latter that she enjoyed the most.
She ran a slim finger over her fuchsia dress, the silk swimming between her fingers. It was part of the collection from the last Season, the very gown she had worn to the Vauxhall ball – the biggest of the Season. She had been the center of admiration, her gown shimmering gold under the soft lights that lit up the open-air ball.
But even with all of the dresses, Genevieve was still unmarried even with the many offers of marriage she had received. As the daughter of the Duke of Montmere, her father had high standards that most of the eligible bachelors of the last Season did not meet. Even though it saddened her that a few of her friends were already married, she knew that her father’s judgment was right. He wanted something great for her and she would gladly wait until the right gentleman crossed her paths.
“This Season is going to be the best one yet,” Elizabeth said, carefully dropping the porcelain teacup on the newly waxed oak table in the drawing room. “I have heard that bachelors would be coming from all over the countryside.”
Kitty waved her off with a slight gesture, rolling her eyes dramatically. “Elizabeth, you said the same thing last Season. And look at where we are. Still unmarried.”
Genevieve laughed lightly, her voice carrying on the light spring breeze that wafted in through the windows. Her friends were the absolute best, and all of them made their debut in society last Season. The Queen even named Genevieve the diamond of the Season – the most honorable title a lady could have for the entire Season. With that, many men visited and brought gifts, flowers from all over London, and many more even offered proposals.
She hoped that this Season would be the same. All of them did. Staying unmarried for two seasons might be disastrous as the new bachelors would be younger. And that might be cause for trouble.
“We were not named diamond of the first water,” Elizabeth countered in a smooth contralto. “Even Genevieve is not complaining.”
“I am,” she said suddenly, surprised by the firmness of her voice. Then she loosened up a bit. “I mean, last Season had wonderful gentlemen. Remember Lord Montgomery? He bought almost all of the florists to deliver to my house every morning.”
Kitty laughed. “And the dismay on his face when His Grace rejected his proposal? I heard he moved to the country this Season and will not be here till the end of the Season.”
“End of the Season?” Elizabeth chimed in. “Who comes to London after the Season has ended?”
Kitty shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe bachelors that want to visit White’s. But then, they should have enough whiskey in the countryside.”
“I wonder how they drink that vile poison,” Genevieve said and let out a strangled cry. “Every drop is regrettable.”
They all laughed and went back to sipping tea and helping themselves to the delicious sponge cake that Genevieve’s house was known for.
“But really,” Kitty spoke up, breaking the silence that stretched between them, “this Season must not pass us by like the last. I do not want to become an old maid by next Season.”
Elizabeth laughed. “We are still very young, but Kitty is right. We are not getting any younger. By next Season, I will be one and twenty.”
“For this reason, we have to make plans,” Genevieve said. “For the audacious mamas, finding the perfect husband seems to be child’s play.”
“And yet, we seem to find it so difficult. But we are different from the insipid wallflowers of last Season. Imagine last Season when Estella wore an old cream dress to the Vauxhall ball.”
Genevieve stifled a laugh. Estella was far older than them and had seen more Seasons than they had. Everyone knew that Estella hung around at balls, moving around in the dark and leaving even before the dance was over. Almost no one knew her because she kept to herself, and now, she was married. To a fine gentleman by the name of Lord Ferguson.
“She is married now, Kitty,” she replied, watching the dust motes dance in the rays of sunlight. “I know that there must be something wrong.”
Kitty smiled. “And what might that be?”
“I do not know yet,” Genevieve replied with a small but fulfilling smile on her face as she brought a small sheet of paper from her reticule.
She had been working on it after last Season’s disappointment, and the pages were smudged with ink. Nevertheless, she showed the paper to her friends with an aura of superiority around her. Genevieve had thought about the previous Season when her family retired to Stonehaven, their estate in the countryside. All the gentlemen that turned to her had certain qualities that her father did not approve of.
So Genevieve had written down all of those qualities, hoping to find someone that might have none of them. But in the end, she knew that it would be close to impossible. Instead, she wrote all the qualities she expected in the perfect husband, and she was determined to find a man that matched all of those qualities this Season.
“This here,” she said, holding the paper out to her friends, “is my ticket for this year’s Season.”
Kitty read it over, her eyes were wide with incredulity. “Blue eyes?”
Genevieve shrugged, pouting slightly. “Blue eyes are rare but beautiful, Kitty. I mean, have you ever looked at someone with those dazzling eyes? I wish to be looked upon by them, is all.”
Elizabeth groaned. “And that stands at the top of the list? Surely, eyes are not the only prerequisite to marrying .”
“Of course not,” Genevieve stated, stifling the mirth that bubbled in her throat. “But I fancy those bright eyes. Think of a summer night when you just lay awake and gaze into your husband’s eyes. Pools of blue, just pulling you towards them.”
Kitty laughed again – a high-pitched one that rang through the room. “Those books are responsible for your fantasy, Genny. This is the first time that you do not have that impossibly thin nose of yours between the pages of a book.”
Genevieve smiled, taking Kitty’s words as a compliment. “If you say so, then my father is responsible. He does not want to have a daughter whose mind is only on watercolours and gossip.”
They continued to talk about books for a while, about how Genevieve sometimes got lost between the pages of a book, caressing the spine and immersing herself so much that she sometimes forgot the world around her. While they spoke, Genevieve wondered how people could not like books.
For her, the pages were a means of transport, taking her to worlds unknown. Through the leathery smell of the pages, Genevieve found a whole new world waiting for her. The sumptuous letters slowly fed into her mind, and from when she laid her hands on her first book, she found a new kind of intimacy. One that not even friends could provide. On sunny days, she got lost in the cavalcade of healthy spines and yellowed pages. In winter, she lay under heavy sheets and eiderdown, staring at the pages until she drifted away into sleep.
It was why she found gossip sheets to be exceptionally boring. One time, Kitty had asked her why she did not read them with such joy as the rest of the ton did. But Genevieve had just waved her away with an excuse. Deep down, she did not see the relevance of the words on those silly pamphlets. None of the authors provided the same feeling as real books did, how they helped her journey into worlds unknown.
“I went about the previous Season the wrong way,” Genevieve said, shifting on the ornate brocade chair and feeling the silk of her dress rustle under her. “There were several offers for a proposal, but every one of them was turned down by my father.”
“We know all about that,” Elizabeth said softly. “Finding a solution to this problem is of utmost importance if you do not want to remain unmarried this Season.”
She let out a sigh. “This time, I will not only put my needs but also my family’s as well. A perfect gentleman that will not only be eye-catching but dutiful as well. Nothing like Lord Hastings who was nothing but talk.”
They all laughed at the joke before Genevieve continued. “Before he even makes calls to our home, I will present his name to my father and mother first for their approval. That way, things can go more smoothly than ever.”
“Knowing you, whichever gentleman you decide to marry will have to be nothing less than perfect,” Elizabeth drawled, shifting away from the rays of sunlight.
Genevieve nodded with a sly smile on her face. She had inherited that trait from her parents, and it was a habit of hers that her friends found to be quite frustrating. She liked perfection and would do whatever it took to attain it. Genevieve was fastidiously neat, even without the help of her lady’s maid, Jenny. Even when she learned to paint and dance, she perfected both arts to the point of exhaustion.
Last Season, her quadrilles and waltz impressed all the gentlemen that had the privilege to dance with her. Some stepped on her feet, but she hid her horror with a small smile and when the music finally stopped, she got away from them at the first opportunity. And now, Genevieve craved perfection. More than anything else. She wanted the man she would spend the rest of her life with to be compatible with her if not perfect. So much so that she made a long list of the qualities she wanted. And among them was the ability to dance well and read just as much.
Genevieve had seen some marriages crumble and she did not want to become a stranger in her own home. She knew in her heart that if she found the perfect gentleman, their marriage would be perfect as well. They would not just be husband and wife, but friends and lovers. Till death do them part.
“Making a list is not too much work,” she said, gesturing to Elizabeth. “I got this list down in less than a fortnight!”
“You must know what you want,” Kitty put in, eyes shining. “But I agree with you, Genevieve. Making a list is a very good idea.”
“Enough about these lists,” Elizabeth groaned, ringing for some cakes. “This is the start of a wonderful Season and we will begin by attending dinner at my parents’ manor this evening.”
“Nobody told me about that,” Genevieve moaned in distress. “The modiste has not finished my dresses yet.”
Elizabeth smiled – a sly one that pulled her lips into a wicked look. “You still have all your dresses from last Season. Or have you given them out so fast?”
Genevieve shook her head. All her clothes were carefully arranged in a closet, and she hoped to give them out to anyone who needed them by the end of the Season. She did it every year, helping the maids and usually letting Jenny pick her choices first.
“They are still gathering dust in the closet by the window. I have not opened that box in months,” she replied painfully.
Kitty spoke softly. “Then you will have to make do with one of the dresses. Elizabeth has invited us two weeks prior. It would not be fair to cancel now, would it?”
Genevieve grumbled in her seat and reached for the book on the small stool. She wound her fingers around the spine, carefully tracing the stenciled edges. “Fine. I will have Jenny pick out the best one for tonight. And I will have to go to Madame Bellatrix’s shop for my dresses. They should have been completed since the previous week.”
“In as much as we share your grievances, we all know that Madame Bellatrix makes dresses for most of the ton. Seeing as this is the start of a new Season, she has her hands full. I visited her just a few days ago as well.”
Genevieve let out a sigh. “Then she should get more apprentices to help. At least, that will make her work a bit faster.”
Elizabeth stared at them as they bickered before sliding into the conversation. “Before I forget, a distant cousin of mine will be attending as well. He is from my maternal side, and his name is Viscount Hamilton.”
Kitty’s eyes widened. “Viscount Hamilton from Lady P’s gossip sheets? The eligible bachelor with the wit and charm?”
“Lady P has it all wrong,” Elizabeth stated, her voice hoarse. “From what I heard, he is a recluse and prefers to spend all of his time in the countryside.”
“Even with all of his charm?” Genevieve asked.
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. “Mother told me that he has a scar on the right side of his face. A scar he got from the war. Maybe that is why he spends all of his time alone.”
Kitty sighed heavily, the sound echoing through the now silent drawing room. “We should applaud him for his great service to all of London. It cannot be easy to fight a war much less carry a heavy scar on your face for the rest of your life.”
Genevieve nodded wistfully, her heart going out to the young man she had never met. As she sipped the last of her tea, she wondered how he must feel. Perhaps like a bird with broken wings, unable to fly. She pushed the thoughts out of her mind, wanting to make her heart light again.
“We must leave now,” Kitty said, looking outside the window. “Time is really moving fast. My house is quite far away, and I have to prepare for dinner. I just hope that Dorothy has picked out a dress for me.”
The sun was receding into the horizon now, lighting up the skies in pink and orange, and gold. Time had run out fast, just like it usually did when Genevieve was having a conversation with her best friends or when she was reading a book. She looked out the window, hoping there was a little more time for her to snatch a few words from the pages of the book beside her.
“Mother needs me to help show the viscount around the house,” Elizabeth said, getting to her feet and smoothing the creases in her dress. Then she turned to Genevieve. “Do not be late.”
She laughed and bade them goodbye, watching their figures fade and slip out the large door. With a sigh, she ambled up the stairs with the book in hand, unable to read a single word before the day ran into darkness and starlight.
James wished that the night would never come. It came too soon, hanging over his head like an overcast cloud, covering the whole world in a darkness so tight that it made his head swim. Suddenly, he wished for the blue-grey dusk of London afternoons, the color and hazy light that came through the slim windows of the Arlington manor. Without thinking, he caressed his right cheek, his hand running over the long scar that marred his face.
The night hung like a threat all day, with every passing hour reminding James of the ordeal he would have to face at dinner. His mother had been invited to the Arlington manor earlier in the week for a dinner, one to commemorate the start of a new Season. When the letter came in a yellow scented envelope with an ornate wax seal, James wanted to tear it up into little chunks and toss them into the flames in his study.
But his mother, Lady Hamilton, sat there while he cut the wax open, watching him carefully as he tried to read the contents. At the sight of the name, Marcia – his mother’s name – James cringed at the informality that he knew stemmed from more than three decades of friendship and familiarity. He could recall that the whole family used to go there but they had been kids then, running up and down the stairs, trying to see who wouldn’t be out of breath. Eventually, they would lay on the carpet at the bottom of the grand staircase, their eyes gazing at the vaulted ceilings and hearts pounding in their chests.
He shook himself awake, separating his thoughts from his reality. James tended to mix them now, the hours crashing into themselves as days crawled slowly past. He indulged himself with whatever book he could find in the library – a way to get past the reclusive lifestyle that had been chosen for him by his circumstances.
There used to be a time when James did not have to go through the laborious chore of straightening his cravats or pulling his breeches. For a long time, he did not even wear cravats. He considered them a waste of accessories, the thin slips of fabric around the necks of gentlemen. Instead, he preferred the breezy feeling of an open shirt, of riding through the fields until his hair was matted to his scalp with sweat and he had to feed his horse some sugar cubes for the journey back home.
James wished for that life once more, wishing he could just reach out of the window and pull it back to himself. But years had passed since he had ridden a horse for the fun of it. Even when he returned to take over his brother’s position as Viscount Hamilton, he only rode horses because his mother asked him to stretch his legs. They seemed stressful on his tailbone now, each jolt of animal muscle sending pain through his spine.
Soft hands pulled at the fabric of his coat in a bid to straighten it, and slowly, a smile came to his face. When he arrived back home, a valet had been assigned to him by the name of Peter and soon, James had found a friend. They talked about the war and James’ memories, of the acrid smell of gunpowder and the noise that came with gunshots.
He found it easier to speak with Peter than anyone else in the house except his sister. Sometimes, they just exchanged a few words and Peter left him to attend to the affairs of the house. Checking accounts, appending signatures on bills, and making sure that the family was staying afloat even with the exorbitant expenses of buying new dresses and attending functions. Other times, they spoke till the clock struck twelve, the candlelight burning low as he faced the window.
“Is this okay, my lord?” Peter asked in his usual gruff voice, straightening the fawn-colored waistcoat and its gold buttons.
James replied with a simple ‘yes’ before allowing the real world to fade all around him again. He wondered why he was getting dressed so much when this was supposed to be a family dinner. At least, that was what his mother said and a part of him wondered if she said those words just to alleviate his worries about socializing with members of the ton.
He knew that he was not yet ready to meet other people that were not part of his family. The doctor had told James that he would get used to the scar with time, but he still felt it tingle and itch every other day, and sometimes it became raw with pain. He silently hoped that today was not one of those days where he would keel over in pain, clawing at his face to make the pain stop.
After the scar that forever changed his life, James had not met other people except his mother and sister, the maids that roamed around the home, the valet, the butler, and a few other people in the house. Not one of them was an outsider. They all knew him before the scarring – the handsome young man he was turning out to be. Even though James did not want to meet other people, he knew that sooner or later, he would have to socialize. At least for Alice’s sake.
Barely following the sound of Peter’s low humming, his thoughts drifted away to memories of his brother, Ned. Even though their father treated them differently, James and his brother were still best of friends. They looked almost alike, with their ash blonde hair they inherited from their father, but while James had striking blue eyes, Ned’s was a grey like steel but soft and filled with happiness. They went everywhere together and talked about everything.
When the letter arrived at the camp that Ned was gone, James did not know how to feel. At first, it was terrible anger, a tidal wave of horror that threatened to wash him off the face of the world. His brother had died of an illness after spending so many weeks in bed and paraded by physicians. The anger became sickening grief, one that kept him down for days on end. Even now, at the thought of Ned, he blinked back tears.
James knew that if Ned were still alive, he could decide to skip the dinner entirely and settle down at White’s, filling his lungs with cigar smoke or warming his belly with whiskey. For a long time now, James disliked the vapidity of family dinners, sometimes speaking rather pugnaciously in a bid to excuse himself from his father’s watchful gaze. Ned would shoulder all of the responsibility as he had always done, shifting the attention to himself so that James could slither away unnoticed.
Ned’s words were usually smooth and kind, enthralling people the moment his mouth opened. It worked on their father every time James did something wrong like gambling with almost everything he had in the boxing ring and losing it all. Ned would apologize and their father’s heart would soften. James was always the troublemaker, and he did all of this to make his father acknowledge him. He was tired of being treated like a spare; like he did not matter. Like he was not worthy of their father’s time and attention.
At the time, it hurt so much that James sometimes resorted to doing something much worse than he had done before. When he decided to leave the house for the battlefield, he could see the secret happiness on his father’s face. And for that, he resolved to never come back home. But here he was, his cravat straightened by Peter’s expert hands.
“Hope this is not too tight,” the valet said, pulling the cravat fabric a little stronger.
James spared himself a glance in the mirror, amazed at Peter’s efficiency and skill at making him look presentable. Now, he donned a white inner shirt made from linen, the material soft on his body. A proper waistcoat followed, brown and dark, a memento of his brother. The tailcoat was ivory, double-breasted, and fitting him perfectly. The cravat was a matching brown, contrasting with the paleness of the coat. In more ways than one, James finally looked less like the troublemaker he was and more like a viscount.
Until he turned the side of his face. The candlelight illuminated the scar, making him look ghostly. His skin was a bit tanned, courtesy of spending his time under the countryside sun, sinking himself into the books from the large library. But the scar was pink, a jarring contrast to his face and he rubbed it slightly, tracing the path it took from his face and down to his neck. All of his fears started rushing in, further worsened by Peter’s histrionic gestures when he straightened the back of his coat.
“Leave it,” he said, walking away from the mirror and watching the muted twilight blue of the sky.
“Yes, my lord,” Peter said, leaving the room at once.
In the silence that ensued, James sank into the chair by the open windows, watching the curtains flutter in the light spring breeze. He was Viscount Hamilton now, a position he never wanted. One that only Ned was the perfect fit. His brother was handsome and intelligent, striking in a way that responsibility and duty came easily to him. But he was different. A troublemaker at heart, following the twist and tumbles as life led him on.
A soft sigh escaped his lips after he took in a mouthful of air. “I am Viscount Hamilton.”
The words were an affirmation of his position, his way of telling himself that he had a family to take care of and a responsibility to tend to. He knew that wallowing in self-pity and trying to deceive himself would only amount to nothing. The mantle was on him now, and there was no other choice.
It was Alice’s third Season, and as the viscount and head of the house, he had a duty to make sure that his sister was matched by the time the Season came to an end. Also, he wanted her to be happy. Just like his parents were. Even though their father did not like him very much because of his incorrigible knack for mischief, he loved their mother.
Sometimes, they would sit in the belvedere overlooking the messy tangle of trees, talking to one another like old friends. James would watch them from afar, his gaze held by the tranquility and affection that his parents showed one another. When his father passed away, it had been a horrible time for the family. Mother locked herself in her room, slowly turning into a shell of who she used to be. Her skin turned a sickly gray, eyes sunken from starvation. And James was grateful that Ned was there. To comfort her and bring her from the brink of nothingness.
He had a duty too, to make sure that Alice was well taken care of. That she was happy with whomever she decided to spend the rest of her life with. James wanted her to be loved and at the thought, he felt an unfurling inside him as he touched his scar once more.
With a grunt, he flipped his pocket watch closed and roused from his seat by the window.
For the first time in a while, James felt safe among people. He was in the drawing room at the Arlington Manor, engaged in a conversation with the Marquess of Arlington, Lord William Arlington. James was never one for conversation but when the older man spoke to him, he was soon carried away.
Lord Arlington talked about himself with gusto, determined to tell James everything he needed to know, all at once. At first, it was frightening, but it later occurred to James that Lord Arlington probably never had any company except older men like himself. He spoke of his days in Eton and Oxford, surrounded by people who thought of him as brilliant. Lord Arlington talked with an uncluttered simplicity, one that James enjoyed as much as reading a book.
“How are you enjoying your stay in London?” he asked, dabbing at his face with an embroidered handkerchief even though the windows were open.
“Very well,” James replied courteously and with a smile that he hoped did not make him look as roguish as he saw himself in the mirror. “Although I quite prefer the quiet of the countryside to the bustle of these streets.”
Lord Arlington laughed, one that made his pudgy face even pudgier. “Don’t we all? This Season has been uncharacteristically dull. If not for my wife dragging me all the way here, I would just continue enjoying my stay at Venus Hall.”
James smiled easily. “We both have a responsibility to make sure that your daughter in your case and my sister in mine, get matched this Season.”
“As much as I would like to speak about the marriage mart, I have to change the subject for my wife will intrude on our conversation if she hears about such a topic,” he replied, patting his greying hair. “Perhaps we should talk about business?”
James nodded, thankful that the topic was about to change. For one, talking about marriage seemed to bring back his mother’s comment some days ago. And even though he did not voice his disinterest that day, a part of him wished that he had.
“I heard that you are in the tea trade now, having moved away from your father’s heavy wheat production,” Lord Arlington said, sinking deeper into the velvet-covered furniture. “How has it been?”
“Flour is still an important consumable in homes, but tea seems to have a lesser workload and higher profit,” James stated proudly. “But the better the quality of the tea leaves, the tastier and more expensive it becomes.”
“Ah, I see. I once heard from a scholar that tea is better than wine for it causeth not intoxication. And I must agree that he is quite right. But the importation of tea is quite expensive don’t you think? Your mind must be running helter-skelter to put such an investment on such a lucrative enterprise.”
James looked at Lord Arlington’s slackened jaw and waved away his distrust. “Importing is rather expensive just as you have stated. Instead, I purchased a large piece of land in Cornwall when I returned to take over my position as the head of the house. The weather has been favorable and I have hired plenty of peasant farmers to tend to the land and grow the leaves. By the end of the Season, we should have our tea primarily in all of London.”
“Magnificent!” Lord Arlington exclaimed. “I would never have thought that we could grow tea here in England.”
“It is not a straightforward process,” he said, “but it is very possible. And I have some connections with the Queen. When the first batch of tea leaves is harvested, they will go straight to her. A kind of incentive to allow me to distribute to all of England. And maybe with time, we can be looking at exports.”
“Surely, we will need to talk about this more. Perhaps I can even invest in this trade and tell all of my friends about it. I am quite sure that Lord Snell and Lord Mallen will see the tea trade as a profitable venture. Even His Grace, the Duke of Montmere would be surely interested.”
James smiled at Lord Arlington, his heart giddy with excitement. “We should meet over drinks then. I will make sure to send for someone to bring a sample from the first batch.”
Lord Arlington replied, but around James, the world was fading away again. He looked to his left and saw his mother speaking animatedly with Lady Arlington – whom she called Cynthia when they were together – and Alice had stalked off to the window, staring at empty space.
James smiled at Lord Arlington, knowing that he made a great decision by coming over to their house for dinner. He would never have thought that the marquess would want to become an investor in his business. James knew that having Lord Arlington on his side would strengthen his business, and his jovial demeanor was sure to bring more potential investors that would make his trade even better.
He had stopped producing wheat a few weeks after his brother had passed away, noting that it used too much manpower and after paying off his workers, the profits were usually low. His mother had told him to increase the land used in producing wheat so that they could harvest more, but James knew that meant they would have to hire more people, and the profits would remain the same.
When he told the workers to cease production, his mother had been aghast. But James had a plan, one that would increase their profits tenfold without so much need for menial labour. From removing a huge amount of money to purchase the land in Cornwall, to importing seeds and planting, it had not been easy for James. Filling his late brother’s shoes while starting from scratch was tough, but he proved that he was tougher.
Starting out, he needed a few investors so that he could get money to get more seeds and start bigger, but everyone he met did not trust him because of the hideous scar on his face. To them, he had been involved in some illicit and unsavoury business and not defending his country from invaders. But now, things were finally looking up.
Lord Arlington and his friends had large fortunes, and James could use their connections to reach more people. The people of London imported tea, but now, he would be the only producer in the whole country. It was a massive untapped market, and he hoped that everything would work out just the way he planned.
“My lord,” the butler bowed beside Lord Arlington, his voice ringing through the room. “His Grace, the Duke of Montmere, Her Grace, the Duchess of Montmere, and Lady Genevieve have graced us with their presence.”
Lord Arlington shot to his feet and James did the same, curious as to who the Duke and Duchess were. He had never seen them in his life, and he watched as everyone straightened themselves out. With a smile on his face, he hoped that the night would not become a disaster because he had not been expecting visitors as he thought this would be a family dinner.