Chapter One

I reached out from under the blankets and rang the bell for Boyd.

“Good evening, Boyd.”

“Good morning, sir.”

This surprised me. “Is it really?”

“Yes, sir.”

I pushed the covers back with a shaky hand (“right as an aspen lefe” I thought of saying, but couldn’t be bothered) and peered at Boyd. He looked offensively healthy (like a ripe, delicious apple, waiting to be bitten, but I quashed the thought, as I had been quashing similar thoughts for years), and I squinted at him with rather an ill will. “I am going to need a restorer, Boyd.”

“I have anticipated the request, sir.” He handed me a tumbler and I, after performing the ritual steeling-of-the-defenses necessary to facing the first swallow, downed it like the first of so many goldfish, gulped by some damned silly upper-classman pulling a stunt.

Once I had retrieved my eyes (they having rolled from my head like the wand’ring spheres of the poem by who-d’ya-call-it), I sat up, feeling something closer to human. Of course there was the small matter of an energetic cricketer whose spiked cleats still dug into my head, but ’tis to be expected, and never shall it be said that a Monaghan cannot handle his fogram. “You are a marvel, Boyd.” I sat up and rubbed my head muzzily.

“You are very kind, sir.” He stepped back and held my dressing gown up.

If only one day he would lose the blasted thing, then perhaps I would have to climb out of bed in only my pyjamas, or–better yet–only my pyjama trousers, and then perhaps the sight of my bare chest might work some magic, and then perhaps Boyd might step closer, and then perhaps I might take his slim, neat hands into my own and pull him closer yet and then perhaps–Ah well. Fruitless garden of the mind, that. I sighed and slid my arms into the proffered garment, wishing my rather nagging erection would vanish.

Thus attired, I made my tender way into the parlour, where the marvel had eggs, kippers, bacon, and toast ready to hand. The Times was there also, and coffee, thanks be to the god of all grindable beans.

Boyd was ironing in one corner and I had just settled in to the crossword (“Eight letters, ‘How an higher angel might woo his love…'” “Serenade, perhaps, sir?”) when the bell rang with less a tinkle than a jar. I clutched my head as Boyd swanned out to answer it, tucking the ironing board away as he went.

Aunt Philippa, drat the luck. She barged in, ate a slice of (my!) bacon, and made herself comfortable within the best brocade wing chair. “Dominic, you ass,” she brayed in a voice really unsuitable for any early morning, and certainly this one, “Dominic, you ass,” she repeated, “I understand that you are going to Lady Vencible’s country house for the Yuletide.”

“That is my plan,” I replied. I did not add that it was subject to change–for instance, should I die due to a massive brain aneurism caused by her voice.

“She is an old friend of mine, and I want to put you on the alert not to act any stupider than you really must. Besides, Lord Ian Holm will also be there, and you know how he feels about you.”

She glowered out from beneath lacquered eyebrows at me, and I swallowed my small bleat of terror, replacing it with a weak, “Oh, ah?”

Lord Ian, for those of you unacquainted with my earlier history, was once convinced that I, Dominic Monaghan, would make an ideal son-in-law. Not really surprising, considering the Monaghan charm, the Monaghan looks, and the Monaghan millions, but I’m dashed if I know why he thought I would stand still for the operation. His daughter Olivia is one of those soupy young plants who twitters on about faeries and wee bunnies and darling angels until a chap can hardly enjoy his evening dram. By a rather striking sequence of events I did somehow become engaged to the gawd-help-us. It took all of Boyd’s (enormous) cranial capacity to scoop me from the fire on that occasion, by convincing Sir Ian that I was mentally unstable–not unbalanced enough to require a quick trip to the white-walled room, but far too weak in the head to marry his precious Olivia. Luckily she immediately fell into the arms of a dashing (and terrifying, but that is quite another story) army colonel and never looked at me again except with pity upon her features. Ever since then, the honourable peer has been just looking for an excuse to bung me in the loony kettle, and generally I avoid him. Discretion being the better part of something or other and all that.

So. You can see why the news that Lord Ian would also be enjoying the merriest part of winter at Buxton-on-Romper did not bring the ringing carol to my lips.

Aunt Philippa was blathering on. “His nephew will be there, too, I understand, quite a good lad–don’t you go getting him into trouble, now, Dominic. His mother is another friend of mine, and she’s kept him quite sheltered–no alcohol, no cigarettes–and she likes him that way. So just you keep your roistering ways to yourself. He’s far too young to be chummy with the likes of you.” She snorted, a sound which cut through the tendons like a fish knife through scales, and relaunched the good ship Philippa. “Don’t see me out, Boyd can do it,” she said, and made her ponderous exit, trailing sickly sweet rosewater scent behind her like a wake.

Well. This certainly dulled some of the glamour I had so looked forward to. And also of course Boyd would have heard the conversation, and there would be some explaining to–

Ah. Here he was. His usual perfectly bland expression was well in place, but I detected a certain thinning of the lips. Lovely lips, really, my favourite part of Boyd, if you didn’t count his eyes, the aforementioned neat hands and feet, the high smooth forehead, the attractive line of his swallowtail coat over an arse that would cause the angels to weep… Still. Lovely lips. Lovely mouth. Thinned, as I say, in disapproval now, and there was also a particular twitch to his wrists (flexible wrists, those) as he loosed the ironing board with a clang that had me clutching my head in a trice.

“My dear Boyd–”

“Ah. I do apologize, sir. I had forgotten about your delicate head.” He had done no such thing–the man never forgets anything, and anyway his usual warm Scottish lilt was about as warm as the icicles on the railing of the front steps.

“Boyd.”

“Yes, sir?”

“You overheard Aunt Philippa, no doubt.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I had meant to tell you today, Boyd, that our trip to Cinqueterra for the holiday has been changed over for this one.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Less work for you, Boyd–no fussing about traveling, porters, all that sort of thing. Almost a holiday for you, I fancy.”

“Yes, sir.” Boyd industriously flattened a shirt which looked already quite flattened, and I began to feel really rather put out.

I mean, there was a master and a servant in the room, and there was no doubt, was there, that I was that master, and that Boyd was that servant. I drew myself up in my chair. “Boyd.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You needn’t keep saying ‘Yes, sir’ in that irritating manner, Boyd. I am sorry if you are displeased about this change in plans, but it is final, and I expect that you shall see everything my way before the end of it.”

“Yes, sir.” Boyd folded the shirt, a narrow furrow deepening adorably over his long, lovely nose as he slapped it into the basket.

“Boyd.”

He looked up, and the furrow was gone. “I do apologize, sir. I meant to say, ‘No doubt, sir.'” The green eyes were perfectly clear and perfectly diffident. So why did I have the urge to throw my arms round him and beg forgiveness?

Stuff and nonsense. Taking a bracing breath, I spoke. “No need to apologize. Please have our things ready in the two-seater this afternoon. We’ll leave for Buxton-on-Romper at half-past three.”

“Yes, sir.”

I thought of reprimanding him, but restrained myself. If Boyd wished to test the hardihood of the Monaghans with the cold shoulder, the Monaghan blood would rally to the flag. Say what you like, we Monaghans are not to be trifled with or managed. On the other hand, I would hate to have my best cufflinks left behind.

>> -Chapter Two- >>