Below them in the darkness, a clock chimed half past two. "Just once, I'd like to leave somewhere in daylight," Rafe grumbled under his breath as they crept down the stairs. "Wearing my boots. I'd like to take my trunk with me too."
"Shh." Their trunk and its contents were worth twenty pounds. If Ash Cohen could have brought them away safely, he would have, but they meant exactly that to him—twenty pounds. The only thing he had that he couldn't leave behind was two feet in front of him, sulking.
His brother knew perfectly well that they left places in daylight with their trunks all the time. Only certain jobs—like this one—required sneaking off in the dead of night. But Rafe was always at his worst just after a successful swindle.
Ash supposed it was natural to feel empty and frustrated when an enterprise you'd spent weeks or months on was abruptly over. Ash himself would feel giddy, if his brother didn't insist on ruining his mood. Now instead of fizzing like a celebratory mug of ale, his chest cavity filled with—butterflies was too pretty a name for them. Moths, maybe, dirty-looking gray-and-white ones, swarming about and clinging to his innards.
At least Rafe didn't let pique spoil his concentration. He stepped unerringly around the squeaking, creaking places they'd scouted in the staircase, eased open the door on hinges they'd oiled, and shoved his feet silently into his boots. Ash did the same and followed his brother out into the night.
Rafe had never been able to hold a grudge for longer than ten miles, if Ash resisted the urge to cozen him. Today, it was nine and a half (calculated with their average speed of walking and Ash's watch) before he gave Ash a sidelong, apologetic smile and said, "I could eat a whole side of beef right now."
Ash relaxed. He wished he could be less sensitive to Rafe's moods, but it had been this way for twenty-five years now and showed no signs of changing. When baby Rafe had smiled and waved chubby little arms in his direction, nine-year-old Ash had felt special, important, as if he could vanquish lions. Before Rafe, he'd been nothing, one of an army of little street thieves. Ash smiled back and gave his brother a shove. "I've no doubt you could. Giant."
Rafe laid a large hand atop Ash's head. "Midget." Actually, Ash was of average height, and greater than average breadth. But Rafe towered over him, and that was Ash's greatest pride and accomplishment: one look, and you knew he'd always had enough to eat.
And people did look. Heads turned when Rafe walked into a room, huge and golden. Dark, sturdy Ash looked like an ox or a draft horse, his brute strength meant to carry others' burdens. Rafe was a thoroughbred. Maybe if Ash hadn't shared so many dinners with his little brother, he'd be a giant himself, but he had no regrets.
Another five miles and they were in complete charity with one another, and probably safe enough from pursuit to buy something to eat at a crowded inn. Rafe, more memorable, waited outside with his hat low over his face while Ash bought pasties and ale to be consumed a little way down the road.
Once the food was gone, however, Rafe's good spirits went with it. When he began worrying a worn handkerchief between his hands, Ash knew something was very wrong.
The scrap of fabric was all Ash had managed to keep when his mother died. Since he couldn't split his memories with his brother, Ash had given him the handkerchief as soon as Rafe was old enough to safeguard it from boys wanting to steal and sell it. He carried it always but almost never took it out.
"I'm sick of swindling," he said at last, with a heavy finality that Ash didn't like.
"You say that after every job. You'll be right as rain when we've found another flat. We always get on best when we're working."
"I'm sick of flats. I'm sick of a profession that hurts people. I want to be able to point to something I've done at the end of the day, something good."
Ash patted his pocket. "Two hundred pounds is a damn good thing, if you ask me."
Rafe frowned. "Other men give something back for money. They leave something behind them. We only take. I liked Mrs. Noakes."
"I liked her too," Ash said, stung. He liked everybody. That was why he was so good at his job. You couldn't swindle a person you couldn't get on with. "And she can afford to lose two hundred pounds."
Rafe turned his head away. "It isn't the money. Think of how she'll feel."
"Think of how we'd feel if we starved," Ash snapped. "We have to take care of ourselves—"
"—because no one will do it for us, I know." Rafe rarely raised his voice when he was angry. Most of the time, when he was trying to express an emotion other than happiness, he slowed down. It only meant he was struggling to find words, but in his deep voice, it gave every word a weight and echo, like a church bell tolling. Ash hated it. "I just want to make someone happy for a change."
You make me happy. The words stuck in Ash's throat. They really meant, Don't I count? They were weak and childish, and he knew the answer was no, anyway. He had brought Rafe up to take him for granted, to believe him strong and capable and impervious to the world's blows. He had wanted his brother to feel safe, as he himself never had. Fear, anxiety, illness, sadness—he'd protected Rafe with fierce care from them all. It seemed bitterly unfair that this was his reward.
"I don't enjoy the work anymore," Rafe said. "I'm sorry. I've tried and tried, but I find myself wishing the lies were true. That we were really shipwrecked Americans, or speculators who'd found copper on Mrs. Noakes's land, or anything other than thieves."
"You can't get—"
"—too fond of your own lies, I know. But haven't you ever, Ash?"
The dirty little moths settled back into his stomach and chest and clung. He had exactly one secret he'd never told Rafe. Sometimes he forgot about it for days on end, and when he remembered, it was worse than stepping out of a warm shop into a snowstorm.
"Once." The word scraped his throat like a dull razor.
Rafe waited, but didn't press him. Ash wished he would. He wished Rafe would make him tell, because by now it was obvious he'd never find the courage otherwise. "Then you know what it's like," Rafe said finally. "I want to leave."
Everything stopped. The birds singing in the bare branches, the sun rising in the sky, Ash's heart beating in his chest—they all went silent and still. "Leave?"
Rafe held his gaze, earnest and sorrowful. It was the look he gave flats when he told them their money was gone, there'd been a ship lost at sea, a horse gone lame in the first lap, a bank failure. That was what made Rafe such a brilliant swindler: he had an honest face. Ash wanted to put his fist in it. "You can keep most of the money," Rafe offered. "I've thought about it. I could join the army—"
The money? Rafe thought he cared about the money? "You'll join the army? Even you can't be that stupid. Starve and fight and die for what? For England? What did England ever do for you? Men slice into their own legs with an ax to get out of the army!"
"Or I'll go to Canada. I've got to leave, Ash." He said it so slow and heavy it was like a judge pronouncing sentence. "I've done everything with you. Always. I don't know how to stop, without stopping. I won't be able to stick to it if you're there to talk me round. We both know it."
Resentment seared Ash's throat, sticky and hot as pitch. That was gammon. Rafe was the easygoingest man in the world right up until he dug in his heels, and then there was no moving him.
Rafe was going to leave, and Ash would be alone.
Instinctively, he bought himself time. "Well, if that's how you feel, I won't try to change your mind."
"Thank you for understanding. I didn't think you'd—you're the best of brothers." Rafe put an arm around his shoulder, his face glowing with...relief, Ash thought. Relief that Ash hadn't made an unpleasant scene. In spite of himself, Ash's stupid heart eased a little, that he'd made Rafe happy. "Thank you for everything. I'll—I'll miss you. I'll write you horribly misspelled letters, if you can think of a safe place to send them."
Mrs. Noakes had been a nice woman. Ash had liked her. But she'd grown up with a family, a home and plenty of food and clothes. She'd always have those things, two hundred pounds or no.
The world had given him and Rafe nothing, and they'd proved they didn't need it. Ash looked around at the muddy little clump of trees they stood in. The morning was cold and their breath misted in the air, but they were alive and well, with food in their bellies, good coats on their backs and good boots on their feet. The two of them against the world, and Ash would put his money on them every time. This little slice of England was all he'd ever wanted.
All Rafe wanted was to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Now that Rafe had said it aloud, had given it shape, it made sense in a way Ash's idyllic picture of Two Wandering Jews never had. Rafe's depression between jobs was real, and his cheerfulness during a swindle was a brief intoxication. Ash had seen it too many times—dull-eyed, hopeless men who only found a spark of life when they could forget everything but the roll of the dice, the turn of the card, the pounding of the horses' hooves. He should have recognized it in his brother.
When Rafe had been hungry, Ash had found him food. When Rafe had been cold, Ash had got him clothes. When Rafe had been sick, Ash had brought him a doctor. He'd begged, borrowed, bargained, whored and stolen to do it—stolen every way he knew, and then made up a few new ones. He'd made it look easy, so Rafe would never feel how close they were to starving, freezing, dying of fever in a gutter somewhere and being dumped in paupers' graves.
Who would he even be, without Rafe? What right did Ash have to expect more than he'd already got?
What good did it do to be so angry, when he couldn't make Rafe want to stay anyway? It was twenty-five years too late for any sleight of hand. Rafe knew exactly what life with Ash was like, and he'd decided he didn't want it.
If Rafe wanted a new life, a respectable life, Ash would find a way to steal that for him too—one with no cannonballs or long sea journeys in it, either. And then, to keep himself from changing his mind, he'd do something he'd never done before. He'd give back something he'd stolen.
He'd tell Rafe everything.
A plan came to him, as it always did—half-formed as yet, but the first step was clear. He could do this. He could make it look easy, and be as maudlin as he liked later, when there was no one watching. "Do me one favor."
Rafe's face still glowed. "Anything."
The lump in his throat wouldn't go down. "If you must join the army, buy a commission. So you can change your mind if it doesn't suit you."
Rafe laughed incredulously. "We have two hundred pounds in the world."
"We'll do one last swindle. Two or three thousand pounds should buy a commission, outfit you, give you something to live on."
"We've never done a swindle that big."
Despite everything, Ash grinned in anticipation. "Think we can't do it?"
Rafe eyed him narrowly, but he gave in and held out his hand to shake on it. Ash had known he would.
"We'll split up to search for flats," Ash said, and Rafe took out his guidebook without prompting. They'd done this dozens of times, planned their routes together so that they could know where to send letters when they'd found a likely prospect. Today the familiar task felt painful and new.
Ash watched his brother walk off down the road and tried not to wonder if he'd ever see him again.
Lydia Reeve sat at her desk, making a list of everything she needed to do before Christmas and ignoring the pressure behind her eyes that meant she might cry at any moment. She had prided herself all her life on being a steady sort of woman, not given to waterworks, and now, since her father's death two weeks ago, she felt as if she did little else. It was worst when she was alone, with nothing to distract her and no role as hostess, employer or sister to fall back on.
Last year she and Lord Wheatcroft had made this list together, her father sitting on the settee just there in his old tartan banyan and cap while she took notes at her desk on alms and charitable subscriptions and Christmas boxes for the tradesmen. He'd roasted chestnuts in the fireplace for them to share.
She dared not put her head in her arms and indulge in tears even here, alone in the Little Parlor. A servant might enter at any moment, or her younger brother, Jamie. There was something terrible in that moment of being discovered weeping, a sharp pang of exposure and humiliation that went all through her and became the worst loneliness in the world.
She sniffled firmly and fixed her eyes on her list. The one thing she had written so far was new coats for the workhouse children. She bought them every Christmas, and it looked to be a cold winter. Perhaps she might order them early this year. Last month when she had visited the workhouse, little Mary Luff's sister was drowning in Mary's coat and Mary was pretending not to shiver.
Yes, she would order the coats now. She had only to talk to Jamie and warn him of the expense. Then perhaps she could ask him to help her with the rest of the list. He would have to begin his duties as the head of the Ministerialist party in the nearby town of Lively St. Lemeston soon enough. Why not now?
Jamie wasn't in her father's study. He'd taken the household ledger with him, however, so Lydia thought he must be around the house somewhere.
Half an hour and five fruitless inquiries of the servants later, Lydia was almost ready to cry with frustration. At last she wrapped herself in her warm cloak and went to check the hothouses.
Sure enough, she found him in his cactus shed. He jumped when she opened the door, slicing into his finger with his knife. "Can you not knock, Lydia?" he demanded, sucking on the cut.
"Are you hurt? Let me see."
"I'm fine. But look at my poor Cotyledon orbiculata!" He stood at a narrow table, an unpotted succulent with flat, ruffle-edged leaves unceremoniously exposed amid a jumble of pots, dirt and tools.
She peered at it uncertainly. "Is it very much damaged?"
Jamie huffed. "Never mind. What did you want?"
He never seemed happy to see her anymore. She didn't understand what she'd done. She didn't know why she'd left her warm parlor to find him, as if he would comfort her. "I mean to place the order for the workhouse children's Christmas coats. I wanted to warn you to expect the bill."
He frowned, prodding his plant with his bleeding finger and not looking at her. "Lydia," he said hesitatingly, "I need to...I don't..." He glanced up, his pleading expression turning abruptly into a scowl, and burst out, "You have to stop sending me all these bills!"
She drew back. "What?"
"I'm not going to be the patron of the Pink-and-White party. I don't want to."
Lydia stood speechless. He could not have said what she had heard him say. It didn't make sense. It wasn't possible.
"God, please don't cry," Jamie said desperately. "I'm not trying to hurt you, I only..."
Lydia breathed in and out. He didn't mean it. He was overset by Lord Wheatcroft's death. He was overwhelmed by his new responsibilities. She had to be strong for him. She had to make his duties in Lively St. Lemeston seem ordinary and welcoming. Anyway, if she cried, Jamie would think she was trying to bully him.
"I know." She managed a smile. "But Jamie—"
"Don't call me that." Jamie pushed his sandy hair away from his forehead. It flopped back into his eyes. "My name is James."
"Your name is Lord Wheatcroft now," she reminded him gently. "Lord Wheatcroft has led the Tories in Lively St. Lemeston—"
"For a hundred years, I know. But, Lydia, Father spent a fortune to do it. It's two seats! The Opposition would need, what, fifty more seats at least to challenge the Tories in Parliament?"
"It isn't about the seats in Parliament. It's about Lively St. Lemeston. It's about these coats for the workhouse children. Our people rely on us."
"The home farm is fifty years behind the times." Jamie turned away to fuss at a green-and-purple plant with a strange toothy fringe. Its name was something to do with a tiger, Lydia thought. "Our people are those who live on Wheatcroft land. I'm not saying Father neglected them, only it's so much money to puff ourselves up in the town when..." He glanced nervously at her.
Lydia felt as if she'd been struck. To puff ourselves up in the town, as if their father's years of hard work, all the good he'd done, his noble calling were nothing. As if all her own work over the last fourteen years were less than that, even. A piece of vanity. Was that how he saw her? A pathetic old maid desperate to feel important? "But Advent is coming. Everyone will be expecting—"
"Everyone always expects something," Jamie muttered.
"What is that supposed to mean?"
His mouth set, that determined almost-pout he'd made ever since he was a baby that somehow conveyed, I am being reasonable and you are a pack of monsters. Despite everything, her heart turned over with affection. Why couldn't they agree?
"I don't understand why we have to pay for votes," he said. "If a man wants to sit in Parliament, let him pay his own way. And if the Tories are really the best choice, isn't that a good enough reason to vote for them, without a bribe?"
Was he joking? Lydia's jaw ached from holding her face still. "That isn't how it works," she said patiently. "Anywhere."
Jamie waved aside the entire ancient edifice of British politics with an agitated hand. "Do you know how much Father spent on this election? Nearly a hundred pounds just for ale, Lydia."
Of course she knew how much Father spent. She knew to the penny. Lydia drew herself up, but it didn't make her feel any more in command. It still astonished her how tall her brother was; it had happened behind her back. One year he had come home at Christmas precisely her height, and at Easter he was an inch taller. After spending most of that summer at a friend's, he'd arrived back at Wheatcroft looming above her and enormously pleased about it. Lydia was no will-o'-the-wisp, but at five foot three in her stocking feet, she stood not a chance of seeming physically imposing next to her stocky brother. "Who do you think will take care of those people, if we don't?"
"Someone else will have to."
She had never noticed that people were particularly eager to take on work she couldn't. "I know you don't really feel this way. You've always wanted to continue Father's political work. You've never said a word—"
He couldn't even let her finish a sentence. "What's the point in telling you anything? You know how I feel better than I do."
"I didn't mean that. Jamie, please."
"You were both so set on me being the next patron of the Lively St. Lemeston Tories. It would have been a great row for nothing."
Her voice rose. "So you waited for him to die?"
Jamie looked stricken. Lydia wished she could take the awful words back.
But it was true, wasn't it? Her expectations and opinions, her disappointment—those didn't sway him at all. It was so unfair. Ever since their dying mother had placed a squalling, newborn Jamie in her nine-year-old arms and said, You must look after him for me, Lydia had. She had doted on him, kept vigil at his sickbed, taught him to read and hired his tutors. When he went away to school, she'd written to him three times a week, every week. His holidays had measured out her years. What had Father done, exactly, besides give him an allowance and tell him to stop crying when he hurt himself?
If only Father were here. Jamie would listen to him.
His face twisted apologetically. "I miss him too. But, Lydia, we can both do as we like now. You don't have to spend every minute of every day on Father's hobby, bribing tradesmen and cooing over other people's dirty babies and writing letters till your hands cramp."
Had he despised her letters too? "They aren't bribes," she said stiffly. "They're patronage."
"Il faut cultiver son jardin," Jamie said. "That's what I want to do."
She frowned. One must grow one's garden?
"Haven't you read Candide?"
"When would I have read Candide, Jamie? Why on earth would I have read Candide?" I've been working while you've been enjoying yourself at school. She didn't say it.
Jamie scowled. "It's an important book. It ends with Candide realizing that the world is too large and ugly for him to mend. But he can bring order and bounty to one small patch of earth, and that's what he wants."
It was a pretty justification for turning one's back on responsibility. They were part of a class in whose hands rested the welfare and the wealth of England. Surely her brother could see that was a privilege that must be paid for? "I know you like gardening, Jamie, but—"
"It's a metaphor!"
"Well, you seem to be taking it literally." She hauled Father's careful, handsome ledger from under a pile of dirty knives and trowels and held it out accusingly.
Jamie's face flamed, and he shrank back like a little boy being shown the willow switch. "I was going to read it."
Lydia drew in a deep breath. "Oh, Jamie, I'm sorry. I know you're doing your best. Here, let me look at that cut."
He hid his hands behind his back. "My best is never good enough," he said under his breath.
He was young, that was all. Too young to know what he wanted. He'd come to his senses in a year or two (before the next election, if God was merciful), and be grateful that she'd maintained the Wheatcroft interest for him. People in Lively St. Lemeston were counting on her. She refused to let them down. She refused to let Jamie down.
But how was she to pay for any of it? Advent was coming, and Advent was expensive. She had no money of her own that wasn't tied up in a settlement for when she married. Well, perhaps there was a way around that. She would send for the family lawyer and ask him about the terms of the trust. In the meantime she would warn their political agent, Mr. Gilchrist, not to make too many monetary promises.
She tucked the ledger under her arm. Her smile felt like a death rictus, but Jamie either couldn't tell or didn't care. He smiled back in relief. Her heart smote her. "Of course it's your decision, James. But...you'll take your seat next week, won't you?"
"Parliament begins sitting next week." You know that.
"I..." He went a little pale. "It's too soon. Maybe next year."
Lydia swallowed her protests. She must make allowances for his youth and nerves. "Very well. Maybe next year. Do you mean to stay here for Christmas?"
Christmas was their family's time to be together—and, of course, to unite against the patrons of the local Orange-and-Purple Whig party, the awful Dymond family, who descended on the town for the season. Jamie had always spent his Christmases at Wheatcroft, even after he had begun going to friends' houses for the rest of his holidays.
Jamie's face contorted with remorse. "I'm going to Hal Whitworth-Perceval's. Christmas at Wheatcroft without Father...I can't. But it's to be a mixed party. You could come with me. Please do."
Lydia swallowed. She would not cry. "I don't think so. But thank you. Do me one favor, will you?"
He waited, unwilling to commit himself until he'd heard what she wanted.
"Don't tell anyone you've decided to let the Wheatcroft interest lapse in Lively St. Lemeston. Just until the New Year. Give yourself this Christmas to change your mind."
He gave her an annoyed, guilty look, and nodded.
The path back to the house took her through the Italian garden. She sat on a freezing bench for a moment to compose herself, her body so stiff with anger it should have cracked the marble. She brushed the dirt from Father's ledger, removing one glove despite the cold and licking her finger to clean the embossing.
There was no purpose to this rage. She breathed in and tried to relax. At once tears stung her eyes and panic closed her throat. She let the fury flood back so that she could breathe, and went inside to write their solicitor.
"I loved everything about Sweet Disorder: the freshness of the politically oriented plot, the clear-eyed affection with which Lerner sketches a vibrant small-town Regency community, and most of all, the steamy, deeply-felt romance between two wary people who have everything to lose by falling in love." —Cecilia Grant, author of A Lady Awakened, on book one of the Lively St. Lemeston series.
More coming soon.