He glared at the dangling chain, the dark leather that split it into two twisting gently in the breeze.
He had wanted to go on it, to enjoy the sunshine and the playful air that had been missing during their long months of seclusion. Winter was horrible, forced indoors completely—well, not totally completely, his traitorous mind reminded him. There were the occasional day when he was allowed to make snow-angels and build forts and snowmen in the waist-deep snow. . . but they were rare treasures indeed. Mother didn’t like him getting dirty and no one else seemed to like to play.
“William? William, where are you?”
“Coming, Mother!” he piped back, knowing that she’d want him to fetch her tea or the doctor again. She was always sickly in the winter, part of the reason for his total seclusion, and viewed the coming of spring with a kind of mixed air. Relief that some of the pain would be over, but also dreading the loss of those who spent all their time waiting on her.
William, instead, had a mixed view of winter. He disliked being forced to wait upon his demanding and ungrateful mother, but it gave him a chance to read whatever he wished. Mother didn’t care what the book was, so long as he read it to her with a slow, measured cadence. He read her poetry, literature, anything that looked mildly interesting—some of the books quite scandalous for a boy of barely ten years. She never seemed to pay any attention, though, and allowed him the freedom of her husband’s library.
Her husband—not his father.
Father had died when he was very young, he’d been told. William preferred to think that he’d escaped from the clutches of his needy wife and was off in India or China having exciting adventures. He dearly wanted to go to those places, to find his father and join him in rescuing maidens or discovering lost treasures or even just watch as he made numbers dance upon the page. It was the only memory he had of his father, sitting behind the big oak desk that his mother’s husband now used, enthusiastically describing how he’d taken the tiny sum his father had left him, investing and watching until the tidy sum Mother gloated about had been created. He had shown a very young William long columns of figures that represented mines and ships and silken bolts with gold thread.
“William! I need my tea!”
His current father wasn’t a bad man, of course—he wasn’t home enough for William to decide one way or another, to be honest. William had little idea of what he did. He was supposed to be a barrister in the city, but since he was stuck here in Barking with his invalid mother, William had never been able to truly believe the stories of complicated and exhausting cases that required total concentration and not the slightest hint of disruption.
William privately believed that he was currently living off his real father’s money and enjoying the many pleasures London had to offer.
To tell his mother that, however, was to invite a slap in the face and banishment from the library. His mother, despite her penchant for fainting and sudden weaknesses, was sharply aware of her own comforts and how to secure them—particularly when it came to her son. Banishment from the library was the worst of all her frequent punishments and, given how deeply William was effected by that punishment, she threatened to use it whenever she was displeased. Which was quite often, thank you. William learned long ago that the few servants they were allowed would bring him a book or two during his periods of banishment, so while the punishments were not pleasant, they were at least not completely and mindlessly boring.
Too, William had recently discovered that if he took up ink and parchment then the words seemed to just. . . flow from him. Like liquid sound, they poured from his mind to fill parchment after parchment of the scraps Cook had given him. He never let anyone else read his missives, not even the lone servant girl they had who frequently gave him long sighs and big eyes to try and persuade him. He, however, remained firm. They would not read his words, just as no one in this achingly huge old house saw his thoughts.
“William!” The peevish screech startled him out of those thoughts and he hurried in to the house proper.
Why the true servants couldn’t do this, William never understood. Not because he had better things to do or because it wasn’t his job, but because it was the servants’ job—and they were paid quite nicely for their time. All William received was one banishment or another: school, friends, the library, it didn’t matter. He was alone, and that was final.
His mother was glaring at her pocket-watch—a gift from her grandfather—by the time William assembled the tea and brought it to her. “You’re late,” she accused. For a perpetually weak and sickly woman, her accusations lost not a bit of their heat and venom.
“Forgive me, Mother,” he said humbly. It would never do to be anything less than humble. “I was outside.”
“Yes, and like a hairy little marmoset you were climbing over everything weren’t you? Did you get yourself filthy again?”
She’d seen a marmoset, once, when she was much, much younger. A traveling menagerie with wild and exotic animals from all over the world. She’d been quite fascinated with the leaping, chittering animal. When he was younger, he could dimly remember the term being used affectionately—now it was very intentionally derogatory.
“I wish to sleep now. When I wake, you will read to me.”
“Yes, Mother,” William said with a respectful half-bow, backing his way out of the room and then running outside. Tea was a complicated affair, and the sun was finishing its westward decent by the time he’d been freed. Frustrated, William kicked at the hard-packed dirt. Now he would have to wait until tomorrow, if there was even time then, to ask Cook’s husband to help him string the chain up to make the swing work properly again. Annoying, greedy woman. He’d dearly wanted to feel the air rush past him as he pumped back and forth.
“Naughty little boy.”
Silk. The voice was silk and the American Chocolate his mother loved so. Rich and dark and beckoning with promises he had no name for. Laughter bubbling through the richness, just a hint of worldly cruelty tempered by startlingly childish innocence.
A woman dressed in forest green and intricate lace glided over to stand next to him. He had no idea where she had come from or why she was there. “Is it broken?” she asked artlessly, playing with a lock of her long, dark tresses. “It doesn’t move, but it’s supposed to. Isn’t it?”
“I’m going to get Cook’s husband to help me, tomorrow. I’m hoping it doesn’t rain, though, so that I—” He managed to clamp his jaws shut over his inane babbling, wishing he knew how to converse appropriately. With only servants and his mother for company, William knew just how lacking his social skills were—and this lady was pretty, her attention seemingly just on him. It made his chest feel tight.
“No rain, not tomorrow,” the lady half crooned, swaying slightly as spoke. “It’s all gone away, gone across the sea to skip and jump with waves and big fishes.”
“Fish—er, yes, ma’am.” He could do politeness, if not the debonair charm he wished he could. Mostly, he had to settle for earnestness; Mother always said it was his father in him, though, so maybe that wasn’t so bad.
“You are a naughty boy,” the lady exclaimed delightedly, halting her dreamy swaying. Her eyes were huge in her pale face, swallowing him into depths that seemed to crackle and flicker around him. William held his breath, entranced as she leaned so close their noses almost brushed. She smelled of lavender and roses. “Would you like to come with me? We’re going to a party. There’ll be lots and lots of people and Daddy says that if I am good, then I can take one home with me. Will you come home with me, William? And then we’ll dance and dance with burning fish while the rain washes all the—”
Harsh and jangling, the awkwardness of the brogue offset entirely by a note of—amusement? William turned to see a huge man dressed to match the lady hurrying over to them, face unreadable in the darkness.
“Dru, my sweet,” this new man said, “we have places to be.”
“But he was being naughty,” Drusilla answer, her tone almost wheedling. William wondered why a lady as lovely and fine as this one sounded much like his friend James’ little sister: whiney and close to outright sniveling. “And I wanted to play. Da—”
“Naughty, was he?” William was quite certain the hasty comment was to cover whatever it was Drusilla was about to say. Suddenly nervous, he half-glanced back towards the house. He could run fast, he knew, but it was several hundred yards away. . . “And how was this good, proper young lad being naughty?”
William was intimately familiar with mockery.
“I was not,” he announced firmly, knowing how utterly foolish this was. “I simply wanted to play on the—the swing.” Of course, that was a decent enough answer if he was five and not nearly a man grown! William once again cursed his mother, leaving him in this backwater estate where he could never properly learn the things he ought.
“A swing, is it?” The gentleman laughed, mockery still evident in the sound, but the amusement was stronger, now. “We can’t leave it here, lyin’ all broken, then, can we?”
Before William could stutter out a word—although there were so many tumbling through his mind that he had no idea which was attempting to be spoken—the large man had picked up the chain and hauled himself halfway up the tree. The sounds of grunting and a muttered Gaelic curse floated down and then the gentlemen was landing lightly on his feet.
The swing was fixed.
“Ohh!” Drusilla squealed and spun about in a circle. “See what Daddy has done? Now you can go to your pumping!”
William swallowed, edging slightly back towards the brightly lit house. His pumping? What on earth did she mean by that? And ‘Daddy’? The gentleman was older than she, that was quite clear even in the dark, but not nearly old enough to have a fully-grown child. Who, despite her own adult status, still called him ‘Daddy’. “I—I thank you,” he managed, still cautiously moving away.
“Aye, lad, did we scare ya, then?”
“No, sir, however, Mother will be expecting me. I—I had best get back. . .”
The gentleman took a menacingly large step forward, the shadowed look on his face making William’s blood run cold—
Drusilla put a slim arm out to hold him. “Too soon, too soon,” she crooned, beginning to sway again. Then she abruptly stopped and simpered. “I want girls tonight. Can we have girls? Pretty girls with no love in their hearts, who mock and tear and hurt with words. Girls who—”
“Of course, my sweet. Girls it shall be.” Taking Drusilla’s arm, he led her past the gate—it was open? Why was it open?—and down the long winding road to the main part of town. “You canna be runnin’ away from me like that, Dru. Darla would have my hide if I lost you again.”
Drusilla murmured something consoling before half-turning on her ‘Daddy’s’ arm to look back towards the small boy who had been unable to move. “Good bye, my dashing young stranger. Write me books of your glowing and glistening—”