One Summer of Surrender(3)

By: Jess Michaels

Lucien arched a brow. “You despise the allemande, Felicity. Do try to make your little lies to keep me here more believable.”

Felicity rolled her eyes and then stuck just the tip of her tongue out at him. “It was the first thing that came to mind, damn it. But I truly don’t want you to go. It’s been so long since we all went to a party together and really spent time with each other.”

“Yes,” Gray said, tilting his head to catch Stenfax’s eye. “Stay. I would say the thing about the allemande, but Felicity already got caught in that lie, so give me a moment and I’ll come up with an excuse.”

“No excuses,” Rosalinde said gently. “We only wish to enjoy your company, as Felicity says.”

Stenfax sighed. “You are almost impossible to refuse when you band together to work against me.” He shook his head. “Almost. Look, I’m not enjoying myself, this party is far too crowded and that orchestra is quite possibly the worst one I’ve ever heard. My head is throbbing and in a moment I may start bellowing about politics and ruin the entire night. It’s best for me to just go now before the evening deteriorates into fisticuffs with some seventy-year-old who never wants change to happen in his lifetime or anyone else’s.”

Gray sighed and exchanged a glance with the women before he clapped a hand on Stenfax’s shoulder. “Very well, it seems there is no dissuading you. At least allow me to walk you out.”

Stenfax nodded before he bussed Felicity’s cheek, then Rosalinde’s, and said his goodnights. The two men then walked through the ballroom and out into the much quieter foyer. Stenfax caught a footman’s eye and lifted his hand to send the boy scurrying for his horse. It would likely take a few moments to arrange it with his leaving so early.

“What is it?” Gray asked when they were alone in the small space.

Stenfax let his eyes fall closed. This was a topic he did not broach. Not with anyone. “Nothing,” he said softly.

Gray turned to face him head on. “You are shutting down, Lucien. Locking us out. It’s like…” Stenfax looked at his brother in time to see Gray’s face twisted momentarily. “It’s like before.”

Stenfax flinched at his younger brother’s raw expression. The pain of it forced him to think of that night three long years ago when he’d nearly ended his life. There had been ripples of that horrible experience through every moment of his existence since then. Changes that could not be denied. Hearing the faint whisper of fear in his overly protective brother’s voice was one of them.

He placed a hand on Gray’s forearm and gently squeezed. “It’s not, I assure you.”

There was a moment when Gray’s relief was plain, but then it was gone. He tilted his head slightly. “I don’t mean to be crass, but how long has it been?”

“Been?” Stenfax repeated, though he was utterly aware to what his brother referred.

Gray folded his arms. “You know. Since you had a woman.”

Stenfax looked out the open door into the darkness. He shook his head. “I don’t know. A long time.”

That was a lie, of course. He knew exactly how long it had been since he’d last been with a woman. Over a year. And even then, the sex had been a rote act meant to release some tension. It never really worked.

“Go find some pleasure,” Gray suggested, dragging Lucien back to the present. “Wake yourself up. Burn off some energy.”

“I don’t know,” Lucien said with a sigh.

“Let me know for you,” Gray insisted. “Please. I don’t want to see you shrivel into yourself ever again.”

Stenfax heard Gray’s true worry and he clenched his fists at his sides. “Very well,” he said, more to appease his brother than for his own pleasure. “I’ll go to Vivien Manning’s.”

Gray’s eyebrows lifted. “The Mistress Matchmaker? Actually, that’s a wonderful idea. Get a mistress, someone to see more permanently.”

Stenfax shook his head. “No, I’m not in the market. I-I don’t think I’m in the market. It’s just that I’ve always gotten on with Vivien and she can help with someone discreet. Maybe I’ll want her for a few days or even a few weeks. Perhaps you’re right that it will help.”

“Good.” Gray said the words, but as Stenfax looked at him he could still see his brother’s deep concern.

He frowned. “It’s not about her,” he said, addressing at last the subject that always hung unspoken between them.

Gray bit back a humorless laugh. “It’s always about her.”