“FİNİSH THAT AMERİCAN SCOUNDREL!” “Show the English bastard!” Luke blanked out the shouts of the British war prisoners and the American watchdogs, and ducked down to escape a straight punch from his opponent. The man was, same as he, naked to his waist, and bore the signs of their fist fight all over his upper body and face. In fact, his left eye had begun to swell significantly, and he could barely see out of it, which gave Luke the advantage he needed to win the EnglishAmerican showdown. He feigned a straight punch with his left, followed up with a right uppercut, and dove underneath the wild swing of his opponent. The hooting and whistling of his fellow prisoners rose to a whole new level, as the man stumbled against the ropes that formed the edge of the improvised boxing ring. His rival blinked a few times but managed to hold himself upright. He had the massive stature of a bull, but once enraged, very much like the animal itself, he unfurled an impressive force in his attack. Luke, with his slender stature, which had become lean during the month of imprisonment, could have taken advantage of his light-footed nimbleness and rapidity, had he not been so exhausted. With a roar that actually reminded him of a raging bull, Luke’s rival managed to overcome the distance between them. All that Luke had to do was step aside and watch the massive mountain of a man shoot past him. During the old days of his fights in the boxing taverns back in London, which had once been his favourite pastime, Luke would have been certain of his victory at this point: a final kick into the back of his opponent’s knees, and victory would be his. Anyone who fought like a gentleman in the filthy boxing matches in London’s underworld, had lost even before the first blow. The truth was that Luke was tempted to give the American a powerful kick, but he did not dare it. The atmosphere could turn at any time. In fact, Luke was not even sure whether it was a good idea for him to win the fight.
Certainly, his victory would be good for his fellow prisoners’ morale, but who could guarantee that the guards would not follow his win by cutting their rations in half or denying them much-needed bandages? War brought out the best in some people. However, in most, it woke a side that should have been better hidden. So, Luke gave his opponent time to catch his breath and come at him again in another attack. This time, he let him come closer, and earned a sidewinder into his ribs that took his breath away. How easy it would have been to sink to his knees and pretend to be finished. The howling and whistling around him became a muffled, humming sound in his ears, as his rival hit him with force in his neck. Did he actually fall to his knees? The foulsmelling brown mud came closer. Luke suppressed the urge to raise his arms to his head, to protect himself from the shower of punches that rained down on him. When he lifted his head to the side, he could see the face of his friend, Branwell. Complete bewilderment was reflected in his eyes, and that hurt Luke more than the beating he was enduring.
The American towered over him. The only way to win, after all, was not something a lord and gentleman would have chosen, but Luke had not been either in a very long time. He let himself fall forward and rolled – not particularly elegantly, but all the more surprisingly to the American – to one side. For a split second, the enraged blue eyes, red face of his rival, stared at him in confusion. Then Luke saw his opponent’s face slowly moving through an expression of disbelief, to – as Luke knew from his own experience – unbearable agony. He had kicked the man in his precious crown jewels. As this was an American, who prided himself on the independence of his country from the British motherland, one most likely did not say crown jewels here, but… Luke drifted off. The fight had cost him the last bit of strength that the Battle of Lake Erie and the imprisonment that had followed, had not yet taken from his body. Did someone call his name? No, that was impossible. Here, everybody knew him only as Luke Thorn, not by his real name, Luke Thornfield, Lord Layton.
No. He shook his head. The last thing he saw was Branwell, who despite his own wounded arm, had climbed across the ropes and rushed to him. FİVE WEEKS LATER, he was once again Lord Layton, as he sailed into London’s harbour. The American President, Madison, and the British Prime Minister, Jenkinson, had negotiated a prisoner exchange, and the prince regent had made it a stipulation of the deal, that it had to include Lord Layton. Luke knew that his father, who was a close friend and advisor to the prince regent, must have had his hands in the game. Nobody, apart from Commander Barclay, who had led the British fleet into battle, had known about his noble heritage. But not anymore. Branwell, whom Luke had, with some difficulty, managed to remove from the Americans’ hands, looked at him from the corner of his eyes, partially in disbelief and partially in aggravation. As the newly appointed chamberlain of Lord Layton, it was good that Branwell always had something to do, if only to keep Luke company in a game of dice.
The journey on the agile ship took twenty-five days, which they spent getting used to their new identities. With each nautical mile that the Persephone sailed closer towards London, Luke became more tense, whilst Branwell seemed to feel more and more comfortable in his new role. It was the stench of rotting wood and human filth that told Luke, more than anything else, that he was back in London. The dark river, which was yet another name for the Thames, was the lifeline of London, but it brought with it noise and filth, which he had not missed during his stay in the former colonies. Hundreds of frigates and increasingly popular clippers crowded up and down the river. Most of them carried trading goods, much as the Persephone did, as they headed for the West India docks to unload their precious cargo. From his position on deck, Luke could see the workers, and above all, he could hear them cursing at each other in the thickest Cockney accents. The first smile since his departure curled his lips. London was the heart of the British Empire and it had not changed a bit. Unlike him.
The war… “Are you expected, Sir?” Branwell’s voice tore Luke from his observations. In the cold October air, his breath created white clouds with every word in front of his mouth. “I assume so,” Luke replied. He had only just noticed how cold it was. “Surely my father knows exactly when our ship will dock, down to the exact hour. There is not much that happens without his knowledge.” Branwell turned to the young man. The superficial wound had healed well, and his face had received a healthy colour during the crossing. “Just one more thing,” Luke said, as he searched the pier for a familiar face or, God forbid, his father’s carriage. “We have experienced a lot together during this war.
As long as we are alone, I do not care about exaggerated formalities whilst we are amongst ourselves. I’m still Luke.” “I understand,” Branwell replied, slightly distracted. Obviously, he could not get enough of the sight that presented itself to him. No wonder. He had come to London from the Yorkshire moors to make his fortune in the capital city, when he had been snatched up by the Royal Navy’s promoters on the second day after his arrival. They had forced him to join the navy. While that kind of signing was legitimate in the eyes of the law, Luke believed it was just as despicable as the forced servitude in America. Luke had come to appreciate many things during his time in the colonies – which, strictly speaking, were not colonies anymore – but slavery was not one of them. Sooner or later, the ones exploited would strike back, just as had happened during the bloody revolution in France.
History had a tendency to repeat itself. Stupid that only very few people ever learned from it. “Sir… Luke, I am very grateful for everything you have done for me,” Branwell began, once he had gotten his fill of everything there was to see, but Luke cut him off. “I don’t want your gratitude,” he said. “What I need is a friend.” “LADY FELİCİTY, what a pleasure to see you so soon after your illness.” Lord Salisbury’s face belied his words. His facial expression did not change as he greeted her, but instead looked her up and down like a farmer eyeing up a cow at the market. Not that Felicity had any idea what a farmer was looking for when buying cattle, but that did not matter. All that mattered was the feeling that Lord Salisbury portrayed towards her, and it was not a pleasant one.
A couple of months ago, she would have given him her brightest smile, before crossing him off her dance card for all eternity. Five minutes after his spiteful innuendo, she would not have wasted another thought on him. She would have spent hours in front of the mirror, chasing her maid back and forth until she was absolutely satisfied that her appearance corresponded to the latest fashion. Today… things were different. Her mother had only just managed – with a great deal of effort – to convince her to slip into the new pale-blue dress, which the seamstress had finished yesterday. Today, she feared the snarky remarks and judgement of the people whom she had not cared one whit about, less than half a year ago. However, Felicity’s short absence had been noticed by the prying eyes of fine society, and had stirred up all sorts of rumours during the few weeks wherein she had not left the house. “Would you allow me to get you a refreshment, Lady Felicity? You look a little overheated, if I may say so.” “No, you may not,” Felicity replied, leaving it to him to decide whether her refusal of permission would apply to the refreshment or the remark. She was well aware that she was being impolite, but why should she care? She did not.
Even her mother, who stood beside her, listening to the conversation, seemed to approve of her daughter’s reply, as the Duchess of Evesham touched her daughter gently on her arm, before she turned towards the presumptuous gentleman. “How is business, Lord Salisbury?” she asked. “I have heard that your partnership in the entertainment industry demands a lot of your time and money.” The duchess’s gaze would have forced a stronger man than Lord Salisbury to his knees. As soon as her mother had spoken those words and seen Lord Salisbury first turn pale and then bright red, Felicity wished that she had thought of the riposte herself. For a peer, there was no greater disgrace than being associated with the trading social class. In addition, it was a poorly kept secret that Lord Salisbury had an opera singer as his mistress, who was spending his fortune – or at least, what he could expect to inherit after his father’s passing – with generous joy. Lady Blankhurst, a friend of Felicity’s mother, took her by her arm. “Just look how he pulls back, that cowardly dog. Now, all we need to see is him crawling with his tail between his–” “Evangeline, please.
” The duchess interrupted her friend. The two women formed a strange pair. Felicity’s mother, the duchess, was a picture of pure elegance, with her dark-brown hair and eyes of a similar colour, which stood in stark contrast to her friend’s untidy greyish-blonde curls. The duchess leaned towards a conservative wardrobe in clear colours, whilst Lady Blankhurst favoured revealing dresses in girlish pastels, which did not suit her. “We are not here to listen to comparisons from the animal world. Felicity is here to amuse herself, not with the two of us, but with young people of her age. Look over there, dear.” She gestured towards a young, dark-haired man, who was approaching them. “That is Viscount Charters. I do seem to remember that he stood high in your favour, just a few months ago.
” Yes, before Rupert had entered her life and destroyed it, Felicity thought. She knew that her mother’s patience, despite all of her understanding, was limited. Much like any good mother, she wanted to make sure that her daughter was married to a respectable gentleman, and since the duchess had three daughters, it was all the more difficult to get them all under the hood. So, Felicity pushed aside her memories of the events that had occurred in the early summer and gave the viscount a smile that strained every single one of her facial muscles. The poor man, who had almost reached her except for a few steps, turned white as soon as he saw her face, and excused himself with a hastily muttered apology. Her mother sighed, but Felicity saw Lady Blankhurst’s corpulent figure tremble in a sudden but suppressed outburst of cheerfulness. “I believe the young men these days do not have any courage in their bones,” her mother decided. Even the corners of the duchess’s mouth twitched, if only briefly. “I believe that your daughter has no interest in the male species at the moment and…” Lady Blankhurst began, but then fell silent when the next young gentleman approached. Even before he could voice his request, Felicity had dismissed him with a curt movement of her bejewelled hand.
Sometimes Felicity thought that if she had been allowed to lead the British troops into battle, she would have brought even a stout general such as Napoleon to his knees. “I just have no taste for… those things anymore. Everything seems so redundant to me, so meaningless.” Her objection was only partially true. In fact, Felicity knew she had to marry someday. She even wanted to, but not to any of those aristocratic peacocks. With that type of man, she had finished, forever and ever. She would prefer a softly spoken clergyman or, even better, a country vicar, to ask for her hand in marriage and to take her away from this city. She wanted a man whose character was kind and Godfearing. Someone, who knew egotism only as a word – yes, that man she would happily follow to the altar.
Unfortunately, her parents had different plans for her. A man who was literally as poor as a church mouse, and who did not have the remotest chance of gaining a title, was out of the question for their daughter. “Hell will freeze over before I will allow you to throw yourself into the clutches of some cleric,” had been her father’s words when Felicity had hinted where her preferences lay. “Is it not enough that your sister had to marry an idolater?” This tirade had gone on and on. She had wondered if her father’s aversion was exclusively aimed at the status of clergymen, or whether he would have raged had she presented him with Mr Hawthorne as a prospect. She had met the Bow Street Runner the previous year for the first time, and to this day she found his presence rather pleasant. Although her mind had been preoccupied with other things during their first encounter, Felicity still believed that his interest in her exceeded the purely occupational aspect. At certain moments, Felicity wondered if she and the detective would have become closer, had she not been his prime suspect in a case back then. His gaze had noted every single detail of her appearance, Felicity was sure of that. Or was that just some figment of her imagination? She chided herself a fool.
Was it not enough that she was unable to forget the events of the summer? Did she also have to yearn after missed opportunities? “You need something to cheer you up, sweetheart. Besides, you have to think about your sister, Rose. If you do not marry, she will not have the opportunity to find a suitable husband for herself.” The duchess was not so conservative as to believe that she should not seek a suitable husband for her youngest daughter, Rose, before her middle child, Felicity, was married. However, Felicity’s father, the duke, and the heir to one of the oldest aristocratic families in the British Kingdom, felt that it was his absolute duty to follow the old rules of the establishment. This included that the eldest daughter married first and the youngest last. “May I not simply stay at home? I do not mind if Rose marries before me.” Felicity knew that her objection would fall on deaf ears, but the longer she stayed here at the dance evening, organised by Lady Scatterborough, the less comfortable she felt. The overwhelming number of candles created enough heat for her to feel unwell, and the relentless noise of the voices and clinking glasses sounded louder in her ears with every passing minute. At her request, the small group had already positioned itself to the right side of the hall, away from all the immediate turmoil.
Still, her throat seemed to feel tighter as more couples joined the dancers in the middle of the room, thereby forcing the remaining guests closer to the walls. The cheerful melodies of the trio playing their string instruments – after all, it was just a small event and an orchestra would have been out of place – seemed to become more and more jarring. “Here, drink this,” the duchess ordered and handed her daughter a glass of champagne, but Felicity only took a tiny sip. She was unable to force one drop past the uncomfortable lump in her throat. “I want to go back home, Mother,” she pleaded, and finally, her mother’s face softened. “I will accompany you,” Lady Blankhurst said, even before Felicity’s mother was able to make a decision. “I completely agree with your daughter, my dear Julia. Even a mausoleum is more exciting than this. We should go.”