These days, Charles often wondered why he continued to be surprised.
Of course Billy had gotten into an argument with some of the elitist idiots who matriculated at their university. And of course the disagreement had escalated from words – barbed, nasty words, designed specifically to devastate and humiliate – into harsher vitriol and, ultimately, into naked violence. And of course Charles himself had been compelled to join in on his brother’s behalf, punching and kicking to ensure, if nothing else, that Billy wouldn’t be swarmed by more than two of the six larger boys.
His knuckles were sore and skinned, now. There was blood drying on his cheek, just beneath a shallow cut that from the corner of an eye to the top of his cheekbone. He was winded and muscles ached in places that he hadn’t known existed. Charles closed his eyes, allowing the pain to wash over him, and thought about the dozen other ways the two could have avoided conflict and the myriad punishments that the headmaster could levy against them for causing such a public disturbance.
It wouldn’t matter that Billy had been provoked. No, that would have been too much like fairness. The boys weren’t nobility like Charles, but their families had managed to accrue vast amounts of wealth through various means. The Fairfax name didn’t carry the same weight anymore. His father’s poor financial decisions, coupled with his open acknowledgment of his bastard son, had robbed their family of much-needed political capital. Charles and Billy were treated, for the most part, as something to be tolerated at best and insulted at worst.
“Hell of a fight, wasn’t it?” Billy asked.
Charles opened one eye and looked to his left. Billy sat next to him, pressing a cold compress to a bruise that promised to turn an impressive shade of purple before too long. He kept one arm pressed to his rib, but he was breathing easily enough that Charles doubted anything serious had been broken or fractured.
“We lost,” Charles pointed out. “Badly.”
Billy wiped a spot of blood away from one corner of his lips and smirked. “Bet they’ll think twice before they start up with that shit again, though.”
Charles struggled valiantly to keep a reciprocal smile from appearing on his face. He failed. As the smile began to stretch his lips, he shook his head and sighed. “I’m certain that lot learned their lesson,” he said. “Next time they want to corner you, they’ll bring ten instead of six. Just to make certain you don’t bleed too much on their shoes.”
“They’d better bring twelve.” Billy’s smile thinned, then vanished. He straightened his back and turned to look Charles fully in the face. “Been dealing with shit like that for too long, as is. Be damned if I’m going to let anyone start up with that here.”
Charles nodded and said nothing. This was a familiar back-and-forth with Billy. Ever since their first meeting, Charles’ brother had carried a Big Ben sized chip on his shoulder and, almost since their first joint appearance in public, other nobles and rich children had been all too happy to taunt him. The exact nature of the mockery varied from person to person. Some people went after the circumstances of his birth. Others attacked his accent…or, at least, they’d done that until Billy learned to hide the lower-class consonants and vowels in casual conversation. Some even went so far as to imply certain things about Billy’s mother, and the nature of her employment.
That last group learned quickly to choose other targets. Billy and Charles were very thorough about conveying the exact cost of that particular slander.
“What’d they say this time?” Charles asked.
Billy picked at his teeth. “Wasn’t anything new.”
“Do you know what made them start in on you?”
“Other than the fact that they’re a pack of bloody berks?”
“Yes. Other than that.”
Billy shrugged. “Think their leader’s girl might have fancied a bit of rough. At least, that’s what she told me.”
Charles sat forward, as well. “You didn’t.”
“Not this time, no,” Billy said. He laughed. “Not that she didn’t try to change my mind. Might have managed it, if her bloke hadn’t decided to make an appearance today. Although…well, now I think he might have made up my mind for me.”
“You never learn, do you?” Charles asked, expecting no answer except for the self-satisfied smirk that Billy wore on a near-constant basis. “Did you at least chat with this one first, or did she just throw herself in your path?”
Despite his birth…despite his accent…despite how little Billy fit into proper high society, nothing seemed to stick to him. For as many enemies as he made by simply existing, Billy made twice as many friends. It didn’t matter what he wore or how he acted; women still flocked to him. It made him an insufferable friend. What escalated him into a superlative brother – at least, in Charles’ limited experience – was his complete lack of self-awareness.
“You’re one to talk,” Billy said. “What’s your lady’s name? Chelsea? Danielle? You go through them so fast that I can’t keep up.”
“That’s not the same thing, and you know it.” Charles paused. “And her name is Laurel, by the way.”
“Seems like the same thing to me,” Billy said.
Charles considered debating the point. He decided against it within short order. It wasn’t something that Billy would be able to understand. Their father had claimed Billy as a son, but Billy himself had refused to change his last name. That marked him as an outsider more than most things, but it also insulated him from the worst part of a noble heritage.
Everyone who liked Billy did so because they liked Billy. He had nothing to offer them: no money, no lands, no honorable name. He was simply himself and that was all he needed to attract men and women to his side. There were days when Charles felt certain that everyone in his life – except for his father and for Billy – only cared about what benefits a relationship with him might yield.
Not that he had those days very often anymore. Even those sycophants and opportunists had trickled to nothing, in light of his family’s declining fortunes.
Charles started to say something – he had no idea what – when the door to Lord Fairfax’s personal study opened and their father exited. Circles so dark that they were the next best thing to black ringed his eyes and there were thunderclouds in his expression.
“I hope the two of you understand,” Lord Fairfax began, “that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated. Not now, not so long as you live on this property, and not as long as you live. There are expectations and decorum and those are requirements that will be met!”
At the crescendo of his opening salvo, Lord Fairfax slapped an open hand against a conveniently placed nightstand. Glasswear and candlesticks fell to the carpet, accompanied by soft thumps as each item made contact with the floor.
In all of his years, Charles had never grown fully accustomed to his father when he was in a mood. It wasn’t that Lord Fairfax had ever hit him. That had always been the purview of his late mother, God rest her damned soul. What set his nerves on edge was the complete shift from father to nobleman, the change in demeanor and bearing that signified that Lord Fairfax had entered the room and would brook no further argument.
The Lord came out less and less these days. That didn’t diminish the effect when some misadventure pushed him into that transition, though.
Charles cringed away from his father’s outburst, instinctively trying to make himself somehow smaller. Billy did no such thing. Instead he jumped out of his chair and took two long steps forward to meet Lord Fairfax’s blazing glare.
“I’ll be happy to keep my mouth shut, just as soon as these pricks get it through their heads,” he snapped back, every line of his body as imperious and commanding as Lord Fairfax at his best. His accent came back in full force, adding a healthy dose of seasoning to each word. “Anytime they want to start something with me, they’re free to try. So long as they’ve got the balls to do it proper, instead of taking shots at you, or Charles, or my mum.”
“William, you – “
“It ain’t William, and you know it!” Billy took another step forward. He was almost nose-to-nose with their father now. “If you got a problem with that, or you think I ought to just shut up and play the role of a charity project so that you don’t have to explain me to your rich friends, I can leave anytime. Got that?”
Lord Fairfax and Billy stared at each other while Charles stared at Billy. No one spoke to Lord Fairfax like that…at least, not to his face. But to confront the man in his own home was unheard of. Charles found himself both thrilled that Coleman wasn’t present to behold the scene and, oddly, upset that there weren’t any other witnesses to confirm what he was watching.
The tension in the room grew to unbearable thickness. Charles could feel the battle of wills between his brother and his father, could almost see it like thin blue lines of arcing electricity that danced between their locked eyes. He prepared himself emotionally for the moment when one or the other snapped and lashed out.
The moment never came.
Instead, Lord Fairfax drew in a deep breath, held it for a second or two, and then released it slowly. As he exhaled, he seemed to deflate. His body language shifted and slid into a more casual, conciliatory posture; his eyes softened; and, when he spoke, it was clear that the nobleman had left the room. “Billy,” he said, in a softer voice, “you have to understand the pressures that our family is under.”
“Bad business deals, bad partners,” Billy said. “I’m not an idiot; I know you’re losing money.”
“We’re losing money,” Lord Fairfax corrected gently. “You’re a part of this family, too.”
“Yeah, but it ain’t my money.” He gestured at their surroundings. “If these bills are too much to handle, why don’t you sell some of this?”
Charles blinked, stunned. He had grown more accustomed to Billy’s nonchalant dismissal of material wealth, but…but they couldn’t get rid of the trappings of prosperity. Some of the things on the estate – some of the things in that very room – were over a hundred years old. It was one thing to bleed money on the stock market. It was something else entirely to sell off your very history.
As if Billy had read his mind, the older boy turned and faced Charles. “And before you say anything about it, it isn’t my history. You’re my brother, he’s my father, but the rest of these people? They don’t have anything to do with me.”
“That’s not the point,” Lord Fairfax said. He opened his mouth to continue but a wracking cough interrupted him. He doubled over for five seconds…then those five seconds stretched out into ten. When he finally regained control of himself, nearly fifteen seconds of scratchy, choking sounds that were awful to hear had passed.
“Look,” Billy said, placing one hand on Lord Fairfax’s back and stroking. “Look, I’m sorry I got into the fight. You’re right; I have to consider what it looks like for you. I can’t keep going back to who I was every time somebody says the wrong thing to me.”
Charles noted the lower-class accent was gone now, replaced by the approximation of high society that Billy deigned to use. He was capable of mimicking even their father flawlessly, but he chose this halfway point as an homage to both sides of his parentage. Or, at least that was what he made a point to tell Charles, every time the conversation came up.
Lord Fairfax looked as though he might say something else for a second or two, before removing a handkerchief and wiping at the corners of his mouth. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said to Billy. His eyes traveled from his oldest son to his youngest and that tight, controlled authority crept back into his voice. “Both of you.”
He pivoted on his heel and walked away, in the direction of the bathroom instead of his personal study. Both boys watched him go.
“See?” Billy asked, when their father was out of sight. He collapsed back onto his chair, smiling broadly and easily. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Charles shot Billy a dark look. “It wasn’t so bad for you. I don’t even know what he would have done if I’d been the one to get in a fight at university.”
“What’s the worst he could do? You’re bigger than him. We both are. It’s not like he could hit us or anything like that.”
That hadn’t stopped Charles’ mother, but he kept that memory to himself. He cheerfully shared almost everything with his brother; there were some things, however, that he preferred to keep close to his own chest.
“You don’t know what he was like before you got here,” Charles said. “It was…”
“What, was he one of those men who goes around proclaiming his superiority to everyone who would listen?” Billy interrupted, barely making an effort to hide how absurd that proposition was.
And Charles privately admitted to himself that it was an absurd thought. Lord Fairfax hadn’t ever been overtly domineering. He’ d been good to Charles, just…it was ‘good’ in a very impersonal sense. They shared nothing with each other, except for the mutual loss of a woman that neither had particularly cared for.
Lord Fairfax shared something more personal than that with Billy, though. It wasn’t just the loss itself, so much as the raw wound that the death of Billy’s mother had left in both of them. Charles had never met the woman and, in fact, knew very little about her. Neither Billy nor their father wanted to talk about it and so he found himself on the outside of that very private pain.
He was jealous of that, for no reason he could name.
“Would you really have done it?” Charles asked, instead of the dozen other questions he longed to speak.
Charles swallowed. “Would you have left?”
Billy tilted his head from one side to the other and shrugged. “Probably not.” Then, suddenly hearing the plaintive tone of Charles’ voice, he looked sharply over at his brother. “I wouldn’t have left you. You’re family. But other than that? It’s possible that I might have tried to make a go of things on my own.”
“How? Do you have money saved up or something?”
Billy gave Charles a secretive smile. “Not at the moment, no. But…well, let’s just say that I know a few people who might be looking to hire some extra hands.”
Charles puzzled over that for a few seconds. Billy had lived on the estate since his mother’s death and that lifestyle came with so many privileges that it seemed unlikely he’d found himself in need of part time employment.
“What’d you mean by that?” Charles asked.
Billy peered at the door that their father had exited through before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial volume. “Well, just because dear old Dad is running low on funds, that doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to make use of our illustrious peers.”
Charles lifted an eyebrow.
Billy sighed and broke his thought process down even further. “I’ve got friends on both sides of the Thames, if you catch my meaning. I got people like these entitled pricks up at Uni who all want to pretend to be rougher than they really are…and I still know a few people who never made it up out of the slums. Figure there might be a way we could make a little money, if we’re willing to run messages from one of those groups to the other.”
It still took Charles a few moments to connect the dots. “Drugs?” The word came out in a harsh whisper, a little louder than he’d intended.
Billy rolled his eyes. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Maybe we could come up with just enough to hold things over until the business side of things smooths over. Or…well, you’ve seen how bad Father’s health has been, lately. If we’re out of money, what’re we going to do if something…happens?”
The slight hiccup in Billy’s speech, the momentary hesitation, spoke entire volumes to Charles. He doubted that anyone else would really have been able to pick up on it.
Charles considered what his next words should be. Billy had offered him something and, despite how casually he’d mentioned it, there wasn’t any doubt that it was a serious proposition. Years ago, before their father had revealed his infidelity, Charles would never have considered doing anything illegal. The risks were too great, the possible repercussions too massive to allow.
Now, though? Now, he had an older brother who seemed incapable of failure. Someone who had survived the loss of a mother who had loved him, who had managed to carve out a place for himself in the notoriously unwelcoming high society of London nobility.
Someone who their father loved and who honestly didn’t appear able to do wrong.
As much as that thought galled him, it also provided him with an unusual impetus to act. He could see the possibilities unfolding in front of him. He knew that his “friends” at Uni partook of drugs, whenever they thought they could get away with it and he was on better terms with most of them than Billy. With the two of them working together…they might be able to turn more than just a decent profit.
The two of them might be able to do something for their father. Something that all three of them would share, then, instead of just Lord Fairfax and his eldest illegitimate son.
“How…” Charles swallowed nervously, started over. “How would we do it?”