His attention fixed on the grand estate in front of him, Adam Weatherly shut the door to his carriage and smiled as the clean summer air filled his lungs. Having been confined to the stiflingly hot interior of the coach for the past several hours, he was never in his life more appreciative of the fresh scent of the country meadows than he was at the moment. With a grateful sigh, he glanced over his shoulder at his driver. "Patrick," he called to the young man, "have my belongings brought into the house."
Already amid unloading Adam's luggage, the servant responded with a succinct nod.
Adam then returned his gaze to the house. Pushing back the golden strands of hair falling into his dark eyes, he hurried up the granite steps to the front door, the keys to the estate jingling in his coat pocket.
As he passed through the doorway and entered the vestibule, he carelessly tossed his hat to the coat rack beside the door and then proceeded to loosen his cravat and undo the buttons of his jacket. He absently glanced about the small room as he readjusted himself to the environs of his home, his eyes alighting on inconsequential objects—his father's cane, the lone candleholder protruding from the wall opposite the doorway, and a pair of black boots he could not recall having ever seen before. At the sight of the latter, he knitted his brow and quickly turned toward the parlor entrance. "Mrs. McAllister!" he called. "I've returned home!"
At the same moment that Adam's driver was stumbling into the house, the large trunk in his arms obstructing his view, a tiny woman darted into the vestibule and nearly barreled into the burly servant. Watching the near-miss collision from a safe distance away, Adam fought to contain the laughter threatening to burst from his lips.
Mrs. McAllister scowled as she glanced in his direction just in time to catch sight of the smirk that had momentarily adorned his face. "Mr. Weatherly," she acknowledged with a begrudging curtsey. "We were not expecting you until tomorrow evening."
"Oh?" Adam replied with a grin. "Have I spoiled your plans, then?"
Her cold demeanor suddenly transforming into an affable one, the housekeeper rolled her eyes and permitted a soft laugh to escape her lips. "No, Mr. Weatherly," she said, shaking her head, "but you do complicate matters greatly. Dinner arrangements have already been made, and a place has not been set for a third party."
Adam took a step forward and placed a hand on the older woman's shoulder. With a smile that brought a mischievous gleam to his eyes, he said, "Well, then, set another one."
Mrs. McAllister scrunched up her face with annoyance, but as Adam continued to smirk insolently, she at length released a heavy sigh of weakening resolve. "As you wish, sir."
Adam laughed and let his eyes wander toward the door to the parlor. "Do you see? Disaster averted." He started to head out of the room, but at the exit, suddenly stopped. Quickly returning his attention to the middle-aged woman, he furrowed his brow and held her gaze with a thoughtful frown. "Mrs. McAllister?" he questioned. "Did you say a third place at the table has not been set? Did you not mean a second place?"
The housekeeper shook her head. "No, Mr. Weatherly. I was not mistaken."
Adam narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he shifted his attention to the unfamiliar pair of boots he'd spotted earlier.
Mrs. McAllister followed his gaze before suddenly starting. "Oh, yes!" she exclaimed. "I forgot to mention that your cousin has returned from Cambridge."
The creases in Adam's brow relaxed as an expression of pure delight suddenly overtook his bewilderment. "Oh, I see," he replied with a mischievous smile. "And where might the little pest be found?"
Mrs. McAllister grimaced at his choice of epithet. "In the garden, sir," she said.
Adam nodded, poking his head into the parlor before adding, "And my father? The house is rather quiet; I doubt he must be home, then."
"Colonel Weatherly is visiting Mr. Edmund Hastings," Mrs. McAllister replied, shaking her head to show her disapproval of his last comment as well. "He shall return in time for supper."
Adam snorted as he glanced over his shoulder at the older woman. "Perhaps he won't, and then you'll not have to worry about setting a third place."
Seeing her part her lips in preparation of a more than likely censorious reply, he waved his hand dismissively and hurriedly disappeared from the room.
As he marched through the parlor and into the main corridor that led to the rear of the house, Adam's steps were deliberately loud. He joked with the male servants who came across his path and impertinently pinched the female ones who dared to do the same, the smirk on his face never once relenting to seriousness. At an age when men typically sought to marry or had done so already, Adam found it better to spend his days grating on his father's nerves, refusing to even consider courtship, let alone marriage. His handsome features and good fortune were more than enough to catch the eye of any woman he desired, his charm sufficient in maintaining her attention until he'd had his amusement, and for the moment, Adam could not have been any happier with his life.
He soon reached the garden, and spotting his cousin beneath one of the trees in the grove off to the side of the garden, he exhaled deeply. With his knees drawn up and his eyes narrowed to the sheets of paper resting atop them, the dark-haired youth was leaning against a dogwood tree, completely unaware of his older cousin's approaching footsteps. Annoyed with the other man's aloofness, Adam decided to suddenly jerk the younger man from his reverie by shouting out his name at the top of his lungs. "Caleb!"
The dark-haired youth, however, was unresponsive.
Adam repeated his obnoxious behavior once more, but his cousin remained unflinching, steady in his task of frantically scrawling across the parchment, Adam soon realized as he reached him. "Have you gone deaf, dear cousin?" he asked with a scoff before seating himself beside the younger man.
Caleb Weatherly put up a hand and gestured with a finger for his cousin to hush up. "How have you been, Adam?" he asked absently, his attention still fixed on his writing.
Adam rolled his eyes. "Well, let me see," he began in a calculatedly contemplative tone. "On my way home from Manchester, where I went to collect garbage from the streets, I fell out of the carriage window and broke several of my ribs. I then grew sick from consuming said garbage, but aside from those unfortunate occurrences, I have been quite sound."
"Oh, lovely," Caleb replied, and then suddenly glanced up. Turning to face his cousin, he gave him a cursory study before adding, "You look quite sound."
Adam frowned. "You think yourself rather witty, don't you?"
Smirking, the younger man shrugged. "Really, though, Adam, how have you been?"
"I was actually very happy until Mrs. McAllister informed me of your return." Adam's lips curled up into a grin as he playfully punched Caleb in the arm. "And you, how have you been, cousin? I daresay your last letter to me was almost more than a month ago. What has kept you from writing?"
Caleb smiled sheepishly, lifting the papers he'd been studying slightly off of his knees and rustling through them with his other hand. "I have been writing, just not to you."
A groan escaped Adam's throat as he brought a hand to his forehead. "Oh, do tell me you've not wasted my father's money by spending all of your days dilly-dallying with poetry, rather than studying!" he cried.
"Not all of my days," Caleb replied, returning his green eyes to the papers, "just on the days when I can." He ran a hand through the short black strands of hair falling into his eyes, and admired his work with a softened expression on his face that made his handsome features seem youthfully innocent.
"Oh, you Cambridge boys are so odd," Adam declared, roughly grabbing the papers from his cousin's hands and jumping to his feet before the other man could even react.
"Adam!" Caleb protested, immediately standing up as well, his height well matched with his cousin's. "Give them back!"
"No," Adam replied as he turned away, guarding the papers by hunching his shoulders. "Let's see what has got you so enthralled that you'd not even look up when I called your name, even though we have not seen each other since Christmastime." He glanced down at his cousin's writing and began to read aloud, "...She is the canvas upon which I shall paint Beauty, with the softly glowing stars and the scarlet Dawn as my palette..." He grinned sinisterly, but had not the chance to continue as Caleb suddenly jumped in front of him and snatched the papers from his hands.
"You ass!" the younger man yelled.
Adam nearly doubled over in laughter. "Oh, cousin!" he cried, tears starting to fill his brown eyes. "It seems to me that you are in love!"
Caleb sneered, shoving him roughly into the tree. "Oh, go to hell, why don't you?" His eyes narrowed darkly as the expression on his face grew grave.
Eventually, Adam's amusement died down to a mere snort. "Of course," he murmured, in a sad attempt at an apology, "you scholarly types never do have the time to fall in love, do you?"
Caleb shot him an annoyed glare, but the look on his face had suddenly grown unreadable. He made no response, and instead, only turned away from Adam to start back toward the house.
"Oh, come on!" he heard Adam cry from behind him, his feet slapping loudly against the pavement as he ran to catch up with him. "I'm sorry, all right?"
As Adam came to his side, Caleb glanced at him out of the corner of his eye and sighed. "Do not call me a Cambridge boy ever again, all right? I might attend the school, but I am not one of them." His voice shook with anger, and Adam could tell that he was desperately trying to mask whatever other emotion he was feeling at the moment.
But before he could make an inquiry, his younger cousin had already disappeared into the house and had not bothered to hold the door for him.