Chapter Five

Now many men of the more or less heterosexual type might see Liv Holm and say “Dommie, you are a poofter of the highest degree.” And they would be right. But besides all that. I can objectively say that Liv is, indeed, one of God’s better-wrought works upon the earth, as birds go–sleek black hair and luminous white skin and glowing eyes and a sweet melodic voice and curves in all the right places. If you like that sort of thing, which I do as a sort of study in aesthetics but otherwise it’s frankly wasted upon me.

But really, in my defense I should say that were I as straight as the proverbial arrow (shot by someone other than Alexander or another Greek, one must suppose), I would shy away from Liv as though the girl were made of red-hot molten iron. Perhaps I have not been clear enough in describing her as soupy, but if ever a girl might be described as soupy, this was she. Liv would waste her lovely melodic voice upon poetry of the stupidest, sappiest kind, she would put the glowing eyes most glowily to use when going on about wee faeries and elves and such hideous nonsense. She would have been a frightening prospect even had I been the most matrimonial-minded of men; since I was, in fact, engaged only by the prospect of the delectable William Boyd, she was downright terrifying.

And now she was standing upon my doorstep, looking kind and pathetic and rather knock-kneed on account of the crutches, and what was I to do? What, I ask you?

“Liv, darling, lovely to see you after such a long time,” I said, and held the door open wide for her.

She entered my rooms with somewhat diminished grace. I stood gawping for a moment, then remembered my manners and trotted about to settle her in a chair. She bunged me in the elbow with the crutches and then I caught one right in the goolies before I managed to wrench the possessed creatures from her grasp. “Let’s just lay these aside for when needs call, shall we?” I wheezed, limping to an adjacent wingchair, where I sat bent over, contemplating my prospects as a eunuch. Some of them had excellent taste in clothes, at least, and I was picturing myself in something gauzy and Arabian-Nights-esque, being unwrapped by the Sultan (rather fairer than most Musselmen, I suspect, but possessed of the most perfect mouth gifted to the race of men and genii) when Liv let fly with what can only be called a Meaningful Sigh.

She’s always been one for the Meaningful Sighs, so I didn’t attach much significance to it, but she followed it up with a rather limp Flutter of the Hands, and a Soulful Look, and I was getting quite nervous by the time she opened the old m. to let ship with some actual words. “Oh, Dommie.”

“Yes, indeed, so you’ve said,” I replied patiently.

“Dommie, you know, don’t you, that I am not one of these modern girls.” She blinked at me moonily. “I so often feel misplaced in these quick-moving times, as though set here by an erring Fate, when in truth I am more a creature of ages long passed.” I was forced to admit her perfect correctness; I never had thought of her as a modern girl. I did not add that she seemed to me a creature not so much from another time as another planet. Discretion of speech being more than mere eloquence or something along those lines. The wardrobe gave an ominous sort of shudder, and I started as though bitten.

Oh bugger, she was going on. I tore my eyes from the wardrobe door, which shivered with another slight tremor, and attempted to focus on her. “And so I hope that your opinion of me will not be diminished by what I want to say to you.”

“Oh, I say, certainly not–there is nothing you could say which would diminish you in my eyes, Liv.” I coughed, and the wardrobe sneezed. I immediately exclaimed, “Oh pardon me!” as loudly as possible and rubbed my nose vigorously.

Liv looked confused, but forged ahead regardless–have to admire that kind of grit, really. “Bless you, of course, and thank you for paying me such a gallant compliment. It leads me so nicely into what I have to say–and again, I would never dream of saying this to anyone but you, who understand my soul so perfectly.” She leaned forward rather alarmingly. “Dommie.”

“Hmm?” I tried to look at her, rather than past her at the wardrobe.

“I know that you have pined in vain for me, since those halcyon days nearly two years ago at Underwold-on-Sloughbourne. And I have concluded, too, that your early subterfuge of being weak in the wits was just that–a subterfuge.” She laughed gaily, a tinkling little laugh that made every muscle in my body clench, even those which are much better off relaxed, particularly at intimate moments which might, hypothetically, involve myself, and Boyd, and a jolly large helping of salad oil… Right. She was still blathering: “You knew that Colonel Bean was in love with me, and you concocted that story of yours because your nobility of soul would not allow you to stand between us. But Dommie, I would never have allowed you to step aside so selflessly if I had known that.”

I confess that words failed me for a moment. I heard a faint giggle from somewhere in the direction of the wardrobe, but even this could not distract me. Or, unfortunately, Liv. Help. I needed help. I’d no bally idea what she might say next, but I was frightened, I am man enough to admit it–I was terror-struck.

I reached behind me and groped desperately for the bellpull. “Would you like something to drink?” I wheezed, giving the cord a surreptitious yank. Boyd. I needed Boyd. “Who came down with you from Scotland?”

“Oh–” she waved her hand dismissively. “Seanie and his servant he brought back from India, treats the man like his own child.” Seanie? Ah. Colonel Bean, she must mean, her petrifying fiancĂ©. “Miranda Otto, you remember her from Underwold of course–” a horsy, vaguely pretty sort of girl, I recalled, always hovering round Liv and glaring at Bean and any other males who came within twenty yards. “But they are not the gist of the matter. Or rather, Seanie is.” She was not to be derailed. “Since he came back from India in the summer, he’s not been the same man. I recently broke off relations with him,” –bollocks!– “and frankly he seemed almost relieved.” And no wonder, but it seemed less than politic to point it out, as her eyes were swimming sadly.

“Oh, ah, Liv, that’s terrible, you and he seemed ideally suited to one another,” I mumbled, handing her a handkerchief. It was a lie, of course–impossible to imagine Bean as being suited to anyone, there being a notable absence of whip-wielding lion tamers in our social circle–but I had to say something. I tugged frantically at the bellpull again. Boyd! How I longed for him! I needed a drink.

“Well, we aren’t–dear friends still, of course, but the engagement is all off. And so,” she raised her teary orbs to me and smiled bravely–Boyd! Help me!— “I will marry you, my darling Dommie.”

Suddenly I needed more than a drink, I needed a cyanide pill, or possibly a rusty knife. Either-or, I am flexible. I fingered the silken cord behind my back, ignoring the fact that the wardrobe across the room was quivering. Perhaps I could hang myself with the bellpull.

She was suddenly all business, a steely glint in her eye. “Tomorrow you can tell my father about it all,” she said. She pointed at the crutches. “Would you be a love?”

The door opened and Boyd swanned in. I wanted to feel relief, but all I could manage was utter misery. I mean, there he was, looking serene and butlery and perfectly scrumptious, and there she was, fluttering at me diabolically.

“Boyd, Miss Holm was just leaving, could you…?” I gestured weakly toward the crutches, slumping back in the chair with my hand shading my eyes.

“Certainly, Miss.” He solicitously helped her stand and propped the crutches under her, stepping back just in time to avoid a smart whack in the knee.

“Good night, darling,” she said chirpily.

“Nnnngh,” I replied.

Boyd closed the door behind her blasted willowy form and came to stand before me. I could see his black trousers and shining, mirror-bright shoes. “Sir?”

“Nnnngh,” I said again.

The blackest pits of hell. In the grips of the most abject of abject miseries. Face down in the bathtub and not a bubble left to breathe. It is not often that we Monaghans find ourselves thus, but so it was that Boyd found me that dreadful, dreadful night. I could not look at him–could not bear to meet his beautiful green eyes, examine the perfect mouth, sweet nose, high and noble brow, knowing as I did that they would soon be reft from me, torn from my sight as Liv would, unfortunately, not be. No mistress would allow a valet who aroused her husband’s desires far more often than she did. I sighed.

The trousers and shoes moved, shifted, and–oh, my heart! Boyd was kneeling beside me. He lay one small, perfect hand upon my knee. “Sir, are you ill?”

I looked up. His face was so close and so kind, so very full of care. The noble brow was creased with anxiety, the green eyes considerate and worried. His perfect little bow-shaped mouth was pursed, and I felt a wild recklessness surge within my breast. If I was to die, I would not go without having at least one kiss.

“Boyd,” I said with the calm resolution of the man at the block, and I leaned toward his sweet lips.

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