Lord Sterling had taken things a bit far when he had commissioned, with the utmost secrecy, a portrait of his lost lady love. It was a massive painting, a ghastly thing that hung over the fireplace mantle in the main drawing room, commanding all attention to it in the most distracting and unseemly manner. Inevitably, guests would inquire after the subject of the imposing piece and Lord Sterling, ever prepared, would weave them a sad tale of love almost won then snatched away by the cold hands of death. He would often end up choking back tears. It was a hideous display. No one who witnessed it would doubt that this man had loved a love greater than any fairytale, that there could be no question of bringing another lady into the household when his lost love’s presence loomed large and reached into every corner of Hartley House.
It didn’t matter that it was all a farce. There had never been a Lenore Dashwood, or if there had been or was such a woman Lord Sterling had had never met her, much less fallen madly in love.
Lord Sterling took his private joke very seriously. It was something of a hobby of his to add new details to her life, to slowly weave his Galatea like armor around him. The early details were the simplest, her family, how they had met, how they had fallen in love, then the sudden turn in her health that led to her untimely death before their life together had truly begun.
More flourishes and details were added over time, filling Lenore out, her little quirks and habits. She liked to thread wildflowers in her hair. She hated marmalade, but it was made specially by the same cook she had been fond of as a girl. Even as a young lady, she still climbed the occasional tree when she could get away with it.
It was a way for Lord Sterling to keep his mind occupied in the rare times when Hartley House was empty of guests to entertain. His flair for the dramatic was put to good use, and it was a great testament, Fred Milner felt, of his own professionalism that all he gave away was a mild nervous twitch when the subject of the painting came up.
His master liked to be well dressed and well groomed, was never harsh or cruel, valued his valet’s skill and let him take time off to spend with his family whenever time allowed or necessity obligated. All in all his employment in Hartley House was comfortable, the apocryphal Lenore Dashwood notwithstanding.
Under its current master, Hartley House had become renowned in society circles as the place to be for a good time. Visitors flocked to the country manor, conveniently built only a few hours from the city, for weekend trips, lavish parties and hunting retreats, all drawn to the bright guiding light of its master. Lord Sterling was as energetic as a man half his age, with a busy mind and restless legs always looking for something to occupy his time. He welcomed all of his guests with the warm manner of old friends.
One such party, an intimate weekend affair with a guest list comprising of two couples and a bachelor friend of one of the men, started off as any other. They arrived just before noon and, taking advantage of the rare sunny weather, marched out for a picnic on the rolling hills of the estate grounds. After a mixed game of croquet the party returned to the manor for a lavish dinner, ravenous after keeping up with Lord Sterling’s frenetic itinerary.
After dinner they retired to the drawing room. Since the ladies were already friends Lord Sterling did away with convention and had everyone brought in directly for conversation, games and tea. Milner had a little drawing room game of his own. He would try to anticipate which guest would bring up the painting so that he could assign them to the Rose room. Despite its pleasant name, it was the draftiest room in the manor.
It was Mrs. Travers who asked. Neither her, her husband, nor their friend had ever been up to the manor so Milner had a good bet on one of the three. Between them she seemed more sentimental than her stone faced husband or their friend, who had an aloof somewhat mocking manner about him.
Delight twinkled in Lord Sterling’s eyes even as his expression fell with the ease of an actor settling into a familiar role.
“Ah, that is my Lenore. Beautiful, wasn’t she?”
There was a murmur of agreement from the circle of guests. Lord Sterling continued on.
“She was a winsome and charming girl. We met when we were young, she’d fallen out of a tree and was brought in to the kitchen to be tended to. I was a bit precocious myself as a lad, I’d snuck in to steal some of the cook’s pastries before luncheon and we liked each other immediately, as children do.”
“Oh how sweet!” the other lady, a Mrs. Blythe, interjected. “Was her family staying at the house?”
Lord Sterling paused, moving closer to the portrait, resting an elbow on the mantle in thought, as if the next words were difficult.
“It was not so simple, no. Her father and his sons were employed in the house as stablehands. As Lenore told it later, her mother was ill, and he decided to bring her along. Since she was a free spirited thing, he left her to wander round the grounds. Thinking, I supposed, it would be easy for her to go sight unseen over the countryside.” He paused, a bittersweet smile flickering briefly across his lips. “I suppose it would have worked out, if not for the tree.”
Mrs. Travers gave an encouraging giggle, swept up in the story.
“The daughter of a stablehand?” Mrs. Blythe sounded delightedly scandalized. “However did you get the match approved?”
“I was perhaps eight or nine and not thinking of much other than buttered rolls and a new playmate at the time. But later when we met again, well. It was that age where young men and women start to notice each other and I was completely besotted.”
He paused dramatically, letting his expression turn to one of determination.
“Our stations aside, I knew there would never be anyone else for me. I marched down to Towbridge-”
“That’s the town about a mile south of here, isn’t it?”
The interruption startled Lord Sterling out of his story, his animated face stuttering to a stop.
“It’s interesting.” The man, a Mr. John Branley, continued. “I knew a man who grew up in Towbridge.”
If his master sensed a trap being laid, he didn’t let it show, smiling politely at his interrogative guest. “That’s quite interesting, Mr. Branley. Sometimes the connections threaded between us are closer than we think.”
Mr. Branley responded with a smile that made Milner’s back itch. If his master sensed the same danger his valet did, he didn’t let it show, instead seizing on the opportunity to pick up the thread of his story.
“Yes the Dashwood family has lived in Towbridge for many generations, perhaps your friend knew him. Peter Dashwood was his name, Lenore’s father that is. Where was I? Ah, yes my proposal. It was a summer afternoon-”
“Peter Dashwood, did you say?” Mr. Branley interrupted again. Lord Sterling stared at him in disbelief.
The other guests shifted slightly, discomfited by the man’s hostile tone. Mr. Travers muttered a warning “Branley.” under his breath but was ignored.
“I knew a John Cook, your Mr. Dashwood’s cousin I believe. I had thought he only had sons. In fact I’m quite sure that’s what he told me.”
Mrs. Travers at last swooped in to rescue her host. She trilled a little laugh and tapped Mr. Branley in playful admonishment with her fan. “Really, Mr. Branley. I’m sure you’re misremembering. Do let Lord Sterling finish his story, I would love to hear more about Ms. Dashwood.”
Mr. Branley said nothing else, only smiled again. It was a curling, nasty thing like a rattlesnake. Though he was not interrupted again, Lord Sterling’s performance was entirely deflated. He hurried through a lackluster recounting of her untimely demise, which was usually his favorite part. Lenore Dashwood’s tragic descent into sickness, wasting away to nothing, often brought real tears to his eyes in the telling. Today he spoke the words with the enthusiasm of an obituary written by a distant relative and read by a clerk. Once finished, he made a gamely effort to bring the atmosphere back around by suggesting they retire to the parlor and play a game of charades. Lord Sterling’s smile never quite regained its usual easy warmth, and Mr. Branley watched him unnervingly closely for any other cracks.
His master was inconsolable that night. He stomped around his rooms, wringing his hands with wet eyes in a fit completely unseemly for a man his age. Such a tantrum would have led Milner to slap any other man. However, Lord Sterling was his employer and, more to the point, Milner was rather fond of the silly man. Instead he busied himself setting out the Lord Sterling’s things for bed.
“What was the purpose of that pointless prodding? He all but declared that Lenore never existed!”
“No Lenore Dashwood has ever existed, sir.” Milner replied evenly, inviting his master to step over to the dressing table. Fondness aside, there was only so far that he was willing to indulge this farce.
His master gave him a long look back through the mirror, red-eyed, as Milner helped him remove his dinner jacket. “I know she isn’t real, don’t be silly. But she’s mine. My story, I created her.”
Milner gently put the jacket away while his master pulled at his cufflinks with an irritated motion.
“You can’t know how vexing it is to have that ghastly man trample all over her memory. What was Travers thinking, inviting such a wretch. He completely spoiled the mood of the entire evening.”
Milner schooled his expression, taking the shirt and studs in hand. It was not often that such a sour mood came on Lord Sterling and he never referred to his guests with such harsh words. Hospitality was sacred to his master, he followed its edicts with more reverence than those of the Bible. Milner felt his own irritation scratching at him like an unreachable itch. Whatever game that blasted man was up to, he would put a stop to it. It wouldn’t do to drive him out, his master would never abide it, but he would find a way. He was after all, a very good valet.
The next morning, Mr. Branley was the first guest up, taking coffee and a light breakfast in a sunny room with an excellent view of the hills. When he spotted Milner he waved him over.
“Is that Dashwood fellow still employed here?”
“No sir, he passed away many years ago.”
“One of his sons then?”
“No, sir. Neither of them stayed on after their father. Isaac Dashwood married and took new employ under his father-in-law’s trade. I do not remember what became of his other son.”
Milner wanted to slap that mocking smile off the man’s face. “How convenient.”
“Do you remember anything then? Of this Lenore?”
“It was before my time at Hartley House, sir.” Milner spoke the words with confidence, since they were technically true. That confidence deflated a moment later when faced with his opponent’s knowing smirk, as though they were in on a joke.
“If I may be permitted to ask, sir, what is your interest in Lord Sterling’s late fiancee? I do not recall the name Branley being associated with the Dormer family, or the Dashwoods.”
Mr. Branley’s eyes lit, a hound sensing a hare in the brush.
“I dabble a bit in stories, poetry mostly, and Lord Sterling’s sweeping tale of lost love piqued my interest. I had hoped to learn more about the young woman who so captured a lord’s heart that he never loved again, but when I made my own inquiries no one could tell me anything about a Lenore Dashwood of Towbridge. Or of any common lady being courted by a gentleman of such high standing.”
“Perhaps you were asking the wrong people, sir.”
“Perhaps. It is good then, isn’t it, that I am here where I can ask the right people.”
“If you wish to know anything about Ms. Dashwood, then you may ask Lord Sterling. It brings him comfort to speak of her, if the question is gently put.” Another truth, which won him another smile that made Milner feel like he had betrayed his master.
Mr. Branley grabbed a piece of toast and buttered it generously, a pause in his interrogation. When he spoke again, it was on a different subject entirely. “It was at a club I frequent, in the city. A friend of mine, Hargrave, invited Lord Sterling to show him around and to brighten the place up. We didn’t speak directly, as I myself had nothing to say to him. But I think you will agree he is an impossible man not to notice.”
Milner conceded that point with a nod.
“I was astounded to catch him deep in conversation with Norris Armstrong, have you met him? No? Well, my congratulations on your good fortune. A thoroughly uninteresting waste of air and good tailoring. But there sat your master in conversation with him, absolutely rapt. Genuinely interested in what was being said to him, like Armstrong was the Bard himself reborn. There was no great transformation to the untrained eye but Armstrong, as much as an unboiled potato trussed up in a suit could, came to life under that attention and spent the rest of the evening in the most pleasant afterglow.”
Milner listened, a fond swell of pride in his master glowing warmly in his chest, but gleaned no other insight from the anecdote.
“That is certainly a pleasant story sir. I am sure Lord Sterling would be please to hear that he made such an impression on this Mr. Armstrong. But, if I may be permitted to say, it is not an uncommon reaction among those who have made Lord Sterling’s acquaintance.”
Mr. Branley responded with a slow smile, like Milner had answered his own question. Then he turned back to his breakfast, ending their conversation. Milner left, feeling less certain of how to protect his master.
Later in the afternoon the rain had started up and had confined the party to the house, where each of them were recouping from the previous day’s exertions. Mr. Branley was standing in front of the massive portrait in deep contemplation when Lord Sterling entered. He started slightly when he saw the object of his ire, caught like a startled rabbit between his intense dislike of the man and his obligations as a gregarious host.
Mr. Branley had turned at the sound of the door opening and pinned Lord Sterling with his intrusive gaze.
Manners and deep grained politeness propelled Lord Sterling to greet his guest, but it was with notable stiffness.
“It is a stunning piece of work, this portrait.” Mr. Branley gestured at it invitingly, as though beckoning Lord Sterling to come study it with him. Lord Sterling managed a small step before stopping again, caught between warring instincts, a prey animal faced with an unknown potential predator.
“I happen to be a great admirer of Francis Reed.”
“You know his work?” His master was being drawn in despite himself. He took another hesitant step forward when Mr. Branley turned back to the portrait as if freed by the broken gaze.
“Very well in fact. He is a friend of a close friend. I have been fortunate enough to visit his studios on multiple occasions.”
“One evening when we were sharing a bottle of red, he told me about a very interesting commission he had received many years ago. It was a portrait of a lady, which wasn’t unusual in and of itself. The devil was, as they say, in the details. Or the lack there of. The lady in question did not sit for the portrait, and in fact the only thing he had been given was a description that read like something out of a novel. He was quite pleased to put his imagination to work. It was rare for him to be paid to exercise his creative mind, or so he told me.”
Lord Sterling’s only reaction was a slight furrowing of his dark brows, a remarkable level of restraint on an expressive face that wept and laughed so easily.
“Why are you doing this?”
It was a whisper, and there was so much pain in the quiet words that Milner winced. The man did not react outwardly, but something about his demeanor changed.
“I am curious.” He confessed.
“Curious.” Lord Sterling repeated in a flat tone.
“Curious why a man whose warmth draws friendship like moths helpless to flame cleaves himself to a phantom to keep everyone at arm’s reach.”
The words hit his master like a slap. He stared at Mr. Branley, eyes wide. His mouth opened wordlessly, then closed. They stared at each other for a moment, then another moment too long. From where he stood at the edge of the room observing, Milner could not see what passed between them.
When Lord Sterling spoke again, the words shocked all three men.
“Lenore was my cat when I was a child. She lived on the grounds, a barn cat, a wild thing, but I took care of her. And one day I found her, in the field. She had died. I buried her out there, I put flowers on her grave. It was sentimental of me perhaps but I was nine and she was my friend.”
Milner watched the man’s arm twitch at his side, an demonstration of restraint. Instead he asked, very gently, “And Dashwood?”
“One of the stable hands son’s. He wasn’t a friend, we weren’t allowed to be friends because of our stations, but I admired him. And I…”
Lord Sterling clapped a hand over his own mouth in self-censure. Now at last tears did well up in his eyes.
Mr. Branley’s restraint failed him the second time. He reached for Lord Sterling, in comfort perhaps, but Lord Sterling shrank away, mumbling a broken excuse and retreating out of the room in haste.
Milner watched the man. Watched his tense jaw work. Watched him close his eyes against some great emotion. Perhaps it was guilt over the hurt that he had caused. Milner hoped that it twisted in him like a knife wound.
He wanted to say, Get out of this house, you swine. He wanted to rail against him for his pointless needling cruelty. Instead he said, “Port or brandy for you, sir?”
Something of his feeling must have escaped in his tone. Mr. Branley’s mouth twitched in a miserable smile and he waved Milner away.
In anticipation of a repetition of the previous night’s foul mood, Milner sent for a cup of warm chocolate to be brought up. He knocked and was bade to enter, immediately taken aback by his master’s even temper.
He favored Milner with a wan smile when he saw the maid enter with the tray of chocolate and biscuits. “My dear fellow, you are very thoughtful. I am far too old for children’s treats.”
“There is no age at which one can’t benefit from a bit of simple comfort, sir.”
Lord Sterling thanked the maid as well and took a perfunctory sip before returning to his study of the window.
“Shall I help you undress for bed?”
“Yes, thank you.”
His master was uncharacteristically still, as though his energy had been drained by that short conversation. Undressing his master was a task he could do in his sleep, and the routine motions gave Milner plenty of time to mull over the earlier confrontation. He hadn’t known about the cat. Perhaps it was part of his master’s little joke, a small injection of truth in the farce. He thought about the way it wasn’t that admission that had choked him but the other.
As Lord Sterling slipped on his nightshirt and Milner handed him a brocade robe, he considered for the first time why his master had constructed such a farce. There were all kinds of reasons that a man might want to keep his bachelorhood. He was the second son of a Baron, and his wealth and Hartley house were both inherited from his mother’s side. His older brother had a brood of his own, as did his younger sister, so there was of course no pressure for him to marry if he did not want to. Some men simply didn’t want the obligations of wife and children, but Lord Sterling was the last man who could be described as someone who enjoyed his solitude.
There was of course the other reason. Milner thought back, trying to remember any flirtations, any signs of attraction or dalliances but could not. His master was kind and generous with everyone, his attention always seemed to distribute evenly, regardless of who he spoke with. If Lord Sterling had other kinds of encounters, they certainly would have to have been discreet to be kept from Milner.
The thought troubled him somewhat, that his master could have kept such a secret from him. His professional pride felt momentarily bruised until he considered the other possibility. That there were no secret encounters. That for all Lord Sterling surrounded himself with friendship and company, he had all this time been fundamentally alone.
It crested over him like a tidal wave, a sharp sadness for a man he considered a part of his own family. He thought on his own household, lively and warm with his wife’s cooking and his children's laughter, and the rooms of Hartley House for all their grandeur seemed suddenly cold and lifeless.
He couldn’t offer a word of comfort to his master. It would be inappropriate, and indiscreet. His master had not wanted to share this secret with him, and Milner was obliged to respect his master’s will. Instead he fussed over his master, tucking him in to bed like one of his own young ones. Lord Sterling tried to wave him off half-heartedly but gave into his man’s ministrations with a heavy sigh and the ghost of a laugh.
He was informed by a footman the next morning that Mr. Branley had returned to the city on some urgent business. Milner felt a tension he didn’t realize he was holding leave him. Finally, that horrid man was gone and his master would be back to his old self.
To his surprise, when Lord Sterling asked after the empty place at breakfast he did not respond, as Milner had expected, with relief but a somber acceptance. His mood, far from improving, remained concerningly withdrawn. When his guests needed his attention he managed a pantomime of his normal bright manner but any moment he was unobserved by eyes other than Milner’s his face fell to that melancholy blankness that Milner did not want to become familiar to him.
The rest of the party departed after another day of games and good food, and then the house was quiet. More quiet than it had ever been in Milner’s time in its employ. Normally, the small spaces between guests were a time to catch one’s breath, to relax. Now it felt like the cold draft left behind when a fire died. He watched his master carefully, wondering if this was how he always felt when there was no one around to distract him. He wasn’t still, even in such a mood he couldn’t remain so, but he wandered listlessly from one place to another, picking up a book only to put it down, going for long walks at a plodding pace, barely speaking unless strictly necessary.
After three days of this behavior, when the strain and effort at normalcy as the usual flow of guests paraded in and out of the house began to take an equal toll on his master’s health and Milner’s nerves, he made up his mind. It was time to put a stop to it.
Using his children’s health as an excuse to beg off, he caught a carriage to the city.
Lord Sterling had a set of rooms in the city, rarely used in the past few years since Hartley House was always booked with guests and Lord Sterling preferred his childhood home to the impersonal city apartment. Rather than call up the staff to get the place in shape, Milner secured lodging with his wife’s cousin in case his quest detained him overnight, instructed the driver to wait for him until half past ten, and began his search.
On his trip he had formulated his plan of attack. It would be inappropriate for a valet to call upon the gentle folk who were his master’s guests on personal business but a painter was no higher than himself in social standing. Since he had arranged the sale and transportation of the portrait, he knew where to find the studio and made his way there without issue.
He expected to be turned away, having turned up unannounced. Instead, when he presented his name and station as Lord Sterling’s valet, he was immediately invited directly up to the painter’s apartment. He entered a cozy drawing room where the painter, who he recognized by the flecks of yellow, red and blue on his trousers, and another man were drinking and speaking with easy camaraderie.
The painter, Mr. Reed, brightened when Milner entered, jumping up to shake his hand with stained fingers. His companion watched on with mild confusion from his perch at the mantlepiece.
“How fortunate for you to have arrived, I’ve almost finished up my current piece. Does Lord Sterling have another commission for me? The last one was so very interesting, I had the hardest time with my next sitting I must say, it was terribly dull.”
“Not at this time, though he is very pleased with the portrait.”
Mr. Reed looked somewhat disappointed but waved him to an empty seat. Milner took it, sitting stiffly in the well worn cushion as it attempted to swallow him whole. “I have come on Lord Sterling’s behalf on separate business.”
“I’m intrigued, man, but not sure how I can be of help. I am sorry to say that we are not otherwise acquainted.”
“There is a man. He mentioned that he was a mutual friend of yours and that he had been to the studio.”
“You are seeking him out? I’m afraid I’ll need a bit more than that. I can’t hope compare to your master in his unrivaled hosting abilities but there are a fair few gentlemen that drift in and out.”
“John Branley is his name.”
The two men exchanged knowing glances.
“He was up at Hartley House, wasn’t he? With Travers.” The man at the fireplace interjected. “He’s been in a rather odd mood since he returned, I do hope he behaved himself.”
“Branley can be terribly direct sometimes, especially when he’s latched on to some notion.” Mr. Reed added.
“Like a dog with a bone.” The man at the fireplace agreed. “Or a bull in a china shop.”
“There is some unfinished business from his visit that Lord Sterling was hoping to conclude.” Milner said carefully.
“It’s what, six o’clock?” The painter’s companion, who appeared to have taken helm in the conversation, peered at a clock on the wall. The hands were stuck at decidedly the wrong hour. “I expect you’ll find him at the Savroy. Probably halfway down a bottle of brandy if the last three days are anything to go by.”
“Thank you sir.” Milner wasn’t sure how to get in to a club without a membership but at the very least it was a lead. He could wait outside and follow Mr. Branley from there if he had to. He thanked the men for their assistance, rose, and was surprised to find the man by the fireplace following him out.
The man clapped him on the shoulder, a bit too roughly, but his tone was friendly. “I’ll take you there. They serve an excellent dinner on Tuesday nights and I’m starved.”
They walked together through the dark streets, the autumn air icy and thick with smog. His companion hummed an off key tune, twirling his walking stick like a baton. The other pedestrians gave them a wide berth.
After a few streets, he broke silence. “He’s made a pig’s ear of it, hasn’t he?”
“His visit to Lord Sterling’s manor I mean.”
“It is not my place to say.”
The man waved his stick in irritation, swatting at invisible flies. “Oh, don’t protect him, I knew this would happen. He’s been absolutely obsessive about the whole thing for years now. We all hoped that he’d move on but he really is a terrible romantic. A complete idiot, head firmly over and all that. I told him it would end like this, you know, reading into things and making all kinds of assumptions. I just hope he hasn’t made too much of a muck of things. If he’s spoiled Lord Sterling’s parties for all of us I’ll never forgive him. Nor will half the city. Perhaps Reed can do up a wanted poster of him.” He laughed at his own joke and went back to humming his marching tune.
Milner tried to string together the missing parts of the man’s ramblings as they pulled up to the club. He could not resolve the description of a terrible romantic with the sneering Mr. Branley he had encountered. His guide nodded to the doorman and ushered himself and Milner in. He had never been in a gentleman’s club. It was cramped and smoky, a confusing maze of alcoves and dark corners and well worn mismatched furniture. All around them men smoked and drank in quiet conversation. The man guided him confidently to the bar where they spotted Mr. Branley just as he’d described: huddled over a crystal glass of dark liquid, shrunk in on himself, his misery plainly spelled out in his bowed head and hunched shoulders.
“I’ll leave you to it from here, old chap.” The man clapped him again on the shoulder, “Be as hard on him as you like.”
Milner intended to do just that. He took a seat beside Mr. Branley, who didn’t even notice his presence. He just stared into his drink, slowly turning it in his hand.
“Good evening, Mr. Branley.”
Mr. Branley whirled around, startled. He gaped for a moment as though Milner were a spectre risen from the grave and summoned to torment him.
He look past Milner, peering into every dark corner of the club with hungry eyes. “Is he…?”
“I have come alone sir. On my master’s behalf but without his knowledge.”
Mr. Branley’s gaze returned to Milner, expression wary. He waited for Milner to continue. Milner took in a deep breath, considering what approach to take. A tirade of his boorish manners and cruelty rose and died on his tongue. Doing the man down when he was so miserable already would do nothing to help his master. And that after all, was why he had come.
“In your carelessness, sir, you have taken something away from him. Something very important, and left him hollow without it.”
Mr. Branley’s face twisted.
“Carelessness?” He repeated, incredulous. “It was not carelessness. That’s not why I…”
He put his face in his hands with a groan, then raked them through his hair and tugged.
Watching him, Milner didn’t plan his next words, or understand why he chose them except perhaps by some instinct of emotion, of being an attentive valet who was attuned to his master’s needs as naturally as he knew how to breathe. “He asked after you.”
Mr. Branley looked up, eyes snapping to Milner. His eyes were wild and red-rimmed, his hair disheveled. He stared like a man who wanted to pick open Milner’s brain and drink down every little word or secret like a drowning man. His voice was small and hoarse, “What?”
“He has been despondent since you left. And I-” His own voice cracked, the admission a painful lump in his throat “-I do not know how to help him.”
Milner wondered if his own care and misery was in any way mirrored in the other man’s expression.
“And I think you can.” He said with certainty, feeling the truth of the words as he they left him.
“Anything.” It was almost a whisper.
“Come back with me to Hartley House.”
Mr. Branley hesitated. “I don’t know if that’s wise.”
“You have a duty, sir. To mend what you have sundered.”
Mr. Branley flinched at his harsh tone, but nodded. He down the rest of his drink, placed a few coins at the bar, and stood like a soldier marching into battle against overwhelming odds. “When do we depart?”
“As soon as it suits, sir.”
Mr. Branley gave him a tight smile. “Then let us be off.”
They stopped briefly so that Milner could arrange for a note to his wife’s cousin to inform him he wouldn’t be staying the night and then they took the waiting carriage back to Hartley House. It was a quiet journey back. Milner was calm now that he had a course of action and his prize in hand. Mr. Branley on the other hand was a nervous wreck, fidgeting and tense. As they approached the manor he used the faint reflection in the carriage window to check his hair, trying to call it to order and straighten his lapels. He looked very much like a young suitor on his way to make his declaration and the comparison struck Milner like a revelation.
No guests were expected at this hour, and Milner waved away the panicked footman who had come rushing out at the sound of the approaching horses. He ignored the mild curiosity in the young man’s eyes as well as the other servants they passed, with their master’s former guest trailing behind Milner like a chastened child.
A maid informed him that Lord Sterling was taking a drought in the drawing room. He dismissed her and hastened his pace. His master never drank alone.
When they approached the drawing room, he gave his companion a quiet signal to wait, then he knocked gently and stepped in.
"Is that you, Mr. Milner? I thought you had taken off for the night. How is little Tommy?”
“Quite well sir, it was a false alarm.”
“Oh well, that’s good. I am very glad to hear it. I told Mrs. White to do up some of that broth, you know her cure all. I was about to have it sent off to Mrs. Milner, but since you’re here be sure to take it with you.” His master gave him a faint smile that he knew was genuine despite his dour mood. “You didn’t need to come back though, one of the footmen can assist me tonight. Go and be with your family.”
“Thank you sir, I will." I am, sir. He didn’t say.
“Before I leave, sir, Mr. Branley is here to request an audience.”
He watched the words strike his Lord like lighting, his countenance instantly sparking back to life. He mouthed the name silently, testing, before repeating it out loud in a question. “Mr. Branley? Is here?”
“Yes, sir. He regrets his hasty departure and wished to speak with you somewhat urgently. He has just arrived from the city. It is quite late so if you would prefer that I prepare a guest suite and wait until morning I will inform him.”
“No!” Lord nearly fumbled his glass in his haste.
“No,” he said again, more collected. “Please show him in.”
“Very well, sir.”
Mr. Branley was pacing outside when Milner slipped out to get him. He’d already undone his careful grooming. He coughed slightly to catch his attention. When Mr. Branley approached, Milner gave him a once over and brushed a bit of dust off his jacket in a fatherly gesture that surprised them both.
“Lord Sterling will see you now, sir.” He announced so that his master would hear and be ready.
He opened the door again for Mr. Branley, shutting it behind him not quite fully but enough to fool its occupants, and kept an eye out for any of the other servants wandering too close. The conversation inside the drawing room was quiet, though Milner strained to hear he couldn’t catch the words. Eventually there was nothing but silence, and he chanced a look inside the room, just to assure himself that all was well.
The sight inside the drawing room nearly undid him. Lord Sterling was seated in the same armchair. Mr. Branley knelt at his feet, hands clasped tightly around Lord Sterling’s own. They were staring at each other like there was nothing else in the world but the two of them. Even the looming face of the portrait of Lenore was banished to irrelevance by the bright spark of their reunion.
“How long?” Lord Sterling whispered in a shaky breath. Milner had never seen such an expression on his face before, a tender wonder, so vulnerable Milner knew he would do anything to protect it and the man who had brought it out of him.
“Since the first moment I laid eyes on you, since the beginning of time, since the very word was invented.” Mr. Branley gave a little laugh, bent his head reverently to brush a kiss against Lord Sterling’s rough knuckles.
“But why me? We’d never even met.”
Mr. Branley laughed again and turned Lord Sterling’s hand over to press more kisses into his palm. "I was half in love with you already by the time you’d left the club that night, but when I heard the story of the painting, I knew that I could not bear it. That I had to steal you away from her.”
“I never thought it would matter.” Lord Sterling’s voice was small, a tiny confession of the loneliness that must have been eating him away right under all their noses. Milner cursed himself for the wool in his eyes.
“How could it not?” Mr. Branley’s voice was fierce, his hands wrapping tightly again around Lord Sterling’s hands, holding onto him like a lifeline. “How could anything matter more?”
Lord Sterling’s next question was so hesitant it was almost a whisper. “Will you stay?”
Mr. Branley’s answering smile was nothing like any Milner had yet seen, and it transformed his face wholly. It was so real and genuine that Milner found that a smile had spread to his own mouth.
He left them to their privacy, the tears in his own eyes blurring the image as Mr. Branley rose to meet Lord Sterling. He wiped away at the tiny drops of happiness, shutting the door with long practiced quiet and flagged down a passing maid.
“We will need a room set up for Mr. Branley tonight.”
“Yes Mr. Milner. The Rose Room?”
Milner smiled inwardly at her loyalty. “The Peony room. Get all the help you need, and get it done quickly.”
The maid’s eyes widened slightly, but she nodded and hurried off. The Peony room was adjacent to Lord Sterling’s own, and had never been set up for a guest. It was, Milner thought with certainty, finally time.