Ms. Sarah Brown had been in service to the Norwood household for as long as she could remember. Her mother, and her mother's mother before her (and, they were sure, many further mothers before that), had all been loyal servants to the Lords and Ladies Norwood of previous generations, and as such, the Brown family considered themselves to be a notch above the other help of the house. Indeed, at a blistering eight and thirty years, Sarah was the Norwood's beloved (particularly to the young Lord Norwood, who had once known her as something of a nanny) housekeeper and, in effect, unfortunately responsible for all the young girls - some of whom were no better than the trollops she was sure had born them - in employment, alongside the careful organization of every inner working of the family's comfort.
Thus, with such strong demands weighing her shoulders, and such familiarity with the Norwood family, Ms. Brown was a rather impossible woman to please when it came to their relations. She loved the Norwoods; they were a glorious family, whose name deserved to be spoken of only in praise. Thus, here and there, she did occasionally direct her character to the appropriate behavior upon the visiting of certain individuals.
For example, on those days when Mr. James Thornton deigned to visit, there would so happen to be a coolness to her demeanour which might send the birds flying south. The boy was, as any sane woman would gather, completely inappropriate within any connection to Alexander. He was barely a gentleman, and even then, she was quite sure it was only in title; Sarah was certainly capable, just as any other woman, to pay careful attention to the words that circulated from household to household. There was no perfection in him, and perfection was what she demanded of anyone who associated with her family.
Likewise, should the Duke Delbert Botsforth stop by for a spot of tea, Sarah would become accustomed to a horribly bored glazed expression. For Lady Victoria Faurenford, Ms. Brown would acquire a lofty disapproval of such a stoic, proud woman (as, being one herself, there was no question of their being unable to get along). Indeed, there were few people at all whom Ms. Brown would admit happily into the Norwood household; not the Kings, nor the Winslets, nor the Wrights, and most certainly not the Lavelles. London, she feared, was home to a more and more lacking compilation of society, and that if such were to be the case, she would do her part to shield the Faurenfords from the most unfortunate portions of it.
And so, when the bell rang on a Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Brown approached it with a stormy demeanor, ready and willing to turn away any and all the ladies and gentlemen come to seek attention from her most noble family. It was enough that the girls had little talent in answering the door as it was; she had no need to be chasing them here and there to be making tea and fetching this or that, particularly when the visiter wasn't of worth to the exercise.
Ms. Brown was a businesswoman in that way. She would not expend the energy when the result would not be of proper pleasure to her.
"Oh, Mr. White!"
There was a shock in her expression which quickly turned to delight; ah, finally! Here he was, returned, one of Alexander's friends who she found thoroughly decent and amiable. Mr. Eustace White was a most genial fellow, pleasant and accommodating to all he loved; and he loved a great many. A fact which only heightened her admiration of him, she found, contrary to her usual countenance.
"Come in, come in, dear, how are you?"
"Quite well, Mrs. Brown, and yourself?" What a charming smile he had, noted Sarah happily. It was one she had begun to forget. And so tall, too! He had the shoulders of the most handsome of gentleman, though the plain boyishness of his features left him with less admirers than he deserved.
"Oh, the same as I always am. But you must tell me, before I usher you up to Alexander as I'm sure that's what you've come for, how your time away was."
"Seeing my family was rather wonderful, though the occasion was, of course, very morose."
"Of course, of course - I trust you received the household's flowers?"
"Yes, thank you, they were beautiful."
"Should I not see Lord and Lady Norwood, be sure to give them my thanks."
"Certainly, Mr. White. Now, please, follow me..."
Gesturing for him to follow, Sarah turned towards the stairs, the wide smile parting chapped lips in a rare break from the dour frown that more regularly rested upon them. Perhaps, finally, with his old school friend returned from that awful funeral, Alexander might begin to feel himself again.
Deliberate footsteps were followed by less intricately placed ones, and Mr. White tailed Mrs. Brown to the foot of the stairs and up the next floor, the hands of each resting gently on the wooden banister as they made their ways. Two flights were climbed, a cheery silence resting comfortable between them in favour of the sound of footsteps, until Sarah halted in front of a particular open doorway.
"Alexander?" she questioned, eyes turning round the library. "I've a guest for you."
Bleary eyed and ruffled, a blonde head of hair appeared from between two of the tall bookshelves, and the young Lord Norwood blinked in confusion at the sudden intrusion upon his solitude. Eustace smiled, and raised a hand in greeting to his friend, to which the elder boy's face responded to automatically with a grin.
"White, where have you been."
"I promise you, Alex, only the most unfortunate circumstances could have kept me from London as long as they have. Did you not hear?"
Alexander shifted, taking steps towards Mrs. Brown and Mr. White, and setting the book he held down on an available desk.
"Hear? No, I'm afraid not, Eustace. I've been rather distracted the past week."
"Ah. Well." Lips thinned cooly at the prospect of having to continue to distribute unplesant news - Eustace White was, rather, a man who proffered that which was positive, and rarely gave countenance to those facts that caused discomfort. His shoulders squared, and his hands slipped to straighten his lapels in distraction. "There's been a death in the family, Alex. My mother's uncle passed away not two weeks back. And I'm rather astounded that you weren't aware - your parents sent the loveliest condolences."
Momentarily, Alexander looked at his friend confusedly, before straightening and turning his attention to his household's overly curious housekeeper. "Thank you, Sarah," he addressed her, dismissing her with a warm smile. "I will let you know should we be in need of anything else."
"Of course, Alexander." It was with a most polite nod of her head that Mrs. Brown regarded her favourite Norwood; while, with so blatant a dismissal, she might have found cause to respectfully disagree with the elder Norwood boy, or potentially even the Lady Norwood (though never Lord Norwood, of course), ignorance of Alexander's wishes would not be permitted.
And, of course, she was already in possession of all worthwhile knowledge to do with the White family's loss - Sarah was content to leave, skirts brushing behind her, knowing that there was little that she could possibly be missing in returning to her duties, other than the delightful company of two young men.
The door closed behind her, and Alexander extended an arm to his friend, placing it on his shoulder and leading him to a pair of comfortable chairs. The two men sat down, and, frowning briefly, Alexander leaned forwards, his elbows resting easily on his knees.
"You have my apologies. There have been few moments in time which I've lacked sensibility so fully."
"It's quite alright, Alexander. I hardly knew the man; in truth, if I might speak plainly, and in slight disrespect, I don't believe there were many who loved him. A great many of the family - my mother's side is quite concerned with monetary well-being - were there with the primary interest being their pockets." Eustace smiled briefly, his posture recovering from distaste.
"My ignorance remains unpardonable."
Laughing, Eustace shrugged. "You're forgiven, Alexander. Any further attempts to wrangle my compassion will be viewed as an attempt to pull pity from me. And you are anything but a pitiful fellow - I would be loathe to see it in you."
"In recent light, that could be argued. But thank you."
"It's actually on the topic of the funeral - or rather, the circumstances surrounding it - that I've come to see you."
"Yes. You see, I have on that side of the family a young cousin - of some sort or other, the directness of our relations are of the kind that are always confusing to me - who inherited my great-uncle's fortune, his grandfather's. His parents died a few years back, terrible accident, and he's recently come into the full sum of his wealth."
"A cruel reward," Alexander remarked, brows furrowed in distaste.
"Indeed it is. And you see, my mother is now his closest relation, and he will be coming to stay with us while looking for a home in London. He's decided to move here. And my mother has asked me to introduce him to society - so, Alexander, it's for this I've come to you."
"To me? What for! Surely you are more than capable concerning his social welfare, I've yet to meet a man less well liked than you, Eustace. Though, certainly, I'm flattered that you thought of me."
"I have my friends. But my place in the world is not quite the same as yours, Alexander. I am no Lord, and hold only a few ties worth young Winston's care, if he should want to become respected the way he should be in the next few years. I was hoping, if it is not too great a favour, and if I am not over-stepping my boundaries, that you might be willing to aide him in that. He's a genial boy. Too innocent to be left to his own devices, but with his character I'm sure that he'll have no trouble in making friends."
"And I would be happy to aide him in any way I might be able, though I do believe that you are overestimating my capabilities in charm."
With a shake of tousled, golden brown hair, Eustace smiled, the kind tone to his eyes making his plain features, for the moment, very handsome indeed. "Thank you."
"I owe you more than that, for all you've done for me in the past. And of course, in particular, considering the circumstances, I am happy to be in your service, whatever I might be able to do."
"How generous of you, Alexander."
The voice which uttered this final sentence was deeper than those of the two men currently sitting opposite one another, and it was rich with irony and entertainment. James Thornton, standing with a wry smile in the Norwood family's library doorway, rose a hand in greeting and took a few strides into the room.
There were two very different reactions to the newest addition to the party, and the air bristled against Eustace's cheek as the dynamic shifted; Eustace White did not like James Thornton, and James Thornton had never found cause to truly attend to Eustace White. They were, effectively, the two closest friends that Alexander had, and yet remained mortally different.
In Eustace, it was his goodness and aptitude for hard-earned success that Alexander admired, neither things being such that Lord Norwood had ever truly found talent with. Eustace was an amiable man; and beyond that, a loveable one. He held the hearts of most of whom he met, and it was his honesty and pleasant nature that won them. A man could trust a fellow like Eustace White with his life.
With James Thornton, however, Alexander enjoyed the excitement of being kept on his toes; he trusted James, against the wishes of those around him, and knew that he could. Few could, perhaps, but Alex remained concrete in his knowledge that James would not turn on him. For Alexander offered him friendship, and the only solid friendship that Mr. Thornton had - something he would need, should he intend to (as Alexander knew he did) marry higher than his birthright gave him leave. And in exchange for this trust, James allowed Alexander insight to a world that was not limited by the structures of knowledge that Alex had grown into; no, James lived without the world of society, toeing the lines of propriety to see how far it was that they stretched. Perhaps it was this, he occasionally considered, that had led him to seek out Elizabeth in earnest; James had an effect on him, caused him to wish for that which did not fix within propriety.
In truth, Alexander loved both men dearly; they were each a brother to him in his own right, and it was his most tender desire that they should someday prove themselves amiable to one another. For now, however, he could only wain a sigh at Eustace's stony expression, and cast James a look with his eyebrows raised at the tenderly menacing grin that lit his lips.
"Hello, James," he said, standing and offering a hand to his friend. "I don't believe I knew that I was expecting you."
"Really, Alexander, I wouldn't think that I had to bother to announce myself anymore."
"Yes, you could smell him coming, couldn't you?" This nasty retort was uncharacteristic in Eustace's tone of voice, and Alexander, ashamedly, had cause to bite the inside of his lip to stop the smile that blossomed in response. James, in contrast, merely offered Eustace a cool expression.
Then, promptly, the moment was ignored.
"I trust your time away was well, Mr. White."
"As well as a funeral might be, Mr. Thornton."
"Quite. And you yourself are in good health, I hope."
"Indeed I am."
"Mm." James nodded curtly, and cast a sidelong glance towards Alexander, who smiled warmly (and minutely apologetically for almost laughing at his friend's expense) in return. "And might I ask exactly what it is that you're in service to Mr. White for, Alexander?"
"Oh!" Alex jumped, his smiling lighting more genuinely. "Eustace's cousin is coming to London - what was his name, Eustace?"
"Yes, Winston Yorkland. Eustace asked if I might, well, I suppose, sponsor him in a manner of speaking."
"Generous indeed." James muttered, fingering the cigarette case that lingered in his pocket. As his finger touched the corner of the box, however, inspiration returning him to the conversation. He looked up, eyes curious. "Ah - Yorkland?"
Eustace rolled his eyes. "Yes. My great-uncle was the heir to the Yorkland fortune."
"And yet?" James rolled the words off his tongue, expression endearing the rest of the sentiment without words- how, his eyes asked, had Eustace become so comparative a pauper, should his familial ties be so indisputably wealthy. For there was not a well to do family in
"My grandmother married for love."
It was not Eustace - who was only mildly irritated by the statement - but Alexander, in a sudden rush of hard-featured aggression, who put down James' snide remark. Brown eyes glanced his friend over, and James rose an eyebrow, fingers slipping into his cigarette case and running along one of his pearly white friends.
"No need to be so personal about it, Alexander. I would've hoped that you'd have gotten over the girl by now. She's nothing to you, really."
"It's nothing to do with her. You are in my house, and you will speak kindly to the relations who I so choose to keep here, James Thornton."
A lesser man, perhaps, would have shrunk at any cold anger emulating from one Lord Norwood - the younger or the elder - but James Thornton was not a lesser man. He understood, most cavalierly, that the episode had little to do with him. As most things did, once they were dissected enough.
"A marriage for love has little value but for the few years that the lady keeps her bloom, Alexander. And then it perishes to a blur of the mundane. You are lucky - I believe, any and all of us have informed you of as much - that you did not fall for such a trap. Elizabeth would have made a much better mistress to you than she would ever have made a good wife. In the part of you that is sane, rational, you know better."
"Then you are either a more stubborn or more stupid man than I give you credit for."
Cheekbones stiffened and brows furrowed, though - as they always remained - neither man's stance stood more defiantly than at any other time. Their irritations with one another were visible only in the aggravated way which Alexander gripped the top of the chair, or in how James swiveled his cigarette between his fingers. In the clench of teeth and the hardness of jaws, and a deadened buzz between two unrelenting alpha figures; somewhere deep, James felt pride. However broken Alexander had become, the experience had not weakened him. No, there had never been a moment before when Alex had so recklessly stood up to him.
Perhaps there was something in him for Victoria, after all.
"I apologize for my personal slight," James allowed, relaxing against the bookshelf he stood beside. He shrugged, and gestured haphazardly with the hand that held his cigarette. "But I will not retract any statement about the girl. I've always disagreed with it, in any serious manner. But I promise, I have only your best interests at heart. You know how it pleases me to act your mother goose, Alexander."
Sighing, the young Lord Norwood closed his eyes, a headache throbbing up from the depths of his skull. "Yes, James, I understand," he murmured, raising a hand to massage a temple. "I am not of a temper to discuss it as of yet, however."
Eustace, who in the moment of great interest, had kept himself seated quietly to the sidelines, interjected: "What has happened, Alexander?"
Alex shook his head, waving the question away. "It's nothing. I - Might you be able to ask me later, perhaps?"
"I suppose so." Curiously, Eustace tilted his head, analyzing his friend from his vantage point; Alexander did look slightly haggard, as he so rarely had in the past. Older, perhaps, in the simplest manners.
Mr. White then cleared his throat, and got to his feet. He was uncomfortable in any situation that involved James Thornton, and most particularly when he was not respectably included in whatever it was that had Alexander so flustered with him - a thing that Eustace had been waiting for for many a year. "In any case, my business here with you is finished - I believe I will see you at the Faurenford luncheon in a few days, Alexander?"
"Yes, you most certainly will."
Eustace smiled. "Then I will see you then. Mr. Thornton. Alexander. Ah - no, I will see myself out. Thank you, again, for agreeing to take on Winston."
But the smile that followed his friend out the door was not so genuine as he would have liked, and Alexander sunk back into his chair. With fluid movements, James seated himself across from his friend, finally pulling his matches out from another pocket and lighting the cigarette he held. Silence, for a moment, reigned between the two friends, and James took a soft inhale of smoke.
"Are you really still so torn up about it."
"Yes." The word came with a great inwards shuddering, and it was all Alexander could do to keep it from becoming physical; it had, at times in the past, been a very literal shake of his body. Could it be helped? He felt nothing without her. The world simply kept turning, time sanding at his life, as he remained in standstill.
James reclined, a great plume of smoke filling the space between them; the sound of his breath fought off the silence.
"Then perhaps, my dear Lord Norwood, it is time to consider a woman to fill that hole."
"Is there such a woman?"
"There is always a woman. Any woman. And you could have your pick, the man that you are."
"I am forever definitively correct, good sir. And am I not living proof? Me, who is worth not so half as much as you?"
Alexander smiled, a roll of his eyes returning the life to his expression ever so slightly. "Your self-deprecation does little to earn my favour, Mr. Thornton."
"Then we are of the same expression."
"I suppose we are."
"Then you will not mind if I feign ignorance to your state of disarray, and perhaps make moves to make amends with you by striving to find you a woman so you might return to your joyous self again?"
"If I were to begin doubting you, I suppose it would not be now."
"Very good." Lips twirled upwards, and James took another breath of the great murky air. The smoke rested in his mouth, for just a moment, filling him where words always just slipped right by. Finally, his chest contracted, and the breath escaped him, bringing with it one last interrogation:
"Now, I do believe you mentioned that you would be attending the Faurenford get together?"