The Labours of Lord Perry Cavendish – Joanna Chambers

Lord Perry Cavendish stood on the summit of the hill and gazed down at the rolling patchwork of the Buckinghamshire countryside below him. Not that you could really call this tame little slope a hill—not in Perry’s opinion. Where he came from, they’d scoff at the idea that this landscape might be regarded as anything other than sadly flat. The locals called this summit “Hadley Hill” and spoke about it as if it were a lofty mountain, but by Perry’s reckoning, it wasn’t even five hundred feet at its highest point, and there was no climbing in it. He’d barely got out of breath walking up here. It did have quite a pretty view, though, he supposed. Perry took off his hat and let the wind rip through his thick brown hair. It was a bright, gusty day, blowy and brisk. The wind made Perry’s eyes water and sent a battalion of clouds scudding across the sky, their shadows skimming over the sprawling grounds of the Edgeley Park estate. Perry had been invited to stay at Edgeley Park by his oldest friend, Lysander Winterbourne. Zander was the estate manager at Edgeley Park—and the lover of the man who owned it, Adam Freeman. The Park had been Zander and Adam’s home for the last two years, though Perry had only learned the truth of their relationship the previous Christmas during a house party at Zander’s family home, Winterbourne Abbey. Even now, months later, he could remember how shocked he’d been by that first, astonishing glimpse of Zander and Adam, kissing one another. Until that moment, Perry had had no idea that his best friend in all the world preferred men. In fact, even in that moment—faced with undeniable proof in the form of Zander and Adam passionately embracing—he hadn’t quite believed it.

Some shadowy part of his mind had hazily wondered if Zander had found out about Perry, if he’d decided to make a May game out of Perry by pretending to be like him. It had only been a moment’s madness. Perry had quickly realised that what he was witnessing was the secret intimacy of true lovers. That Zander, the perfect, golden youth Perry had hero-worshipped for all their boyhood, had been concealing the same forbidden desires as Perry. And that he had fallen in love with another man. Adam Freeman. Later, Perry had wondered whether he might have had a chance with Zander himself, if he’d been braver. It was, in fact, a thought that had occurred to him repeatedly over the weeks and months following that day. Deep down, though, Perry had known that Zander would never have wanted him that way—Perry wasn’t clever and handsome like Adam Freeman. He was just Zander’s hulking friend—Gogmagog, as old Warner, their housemaster at Fletcherfield, had called him. He wasn’t brave like Adam, either. Adam had told Zander he wanted him the very day they met—Perry had only been able to screw up the courage to face up to his own nature after he’d seen Zander and Adam together. Even now, months later, he’d still not managed to work up the nerve to actually attempt any of the things he so longed to do. Instead, he’d distracted himself with his old habits of gambling and drinking his days away and always, always, going to bed alone. One day, though, two weeks ago now, Perry had woken up feeling horribly bluedevilled and more unwell than he had in ages.

The pain spiking in his head had been agonising, and his gut had been churning with sickening nausea, his hands shaking uncontrollably. He’d felt like death. Worse, he couldn’t really remember the events of the day before. He’d been dipping deeper and deeper in the months since Christmas, sometimes going several days without ever really being fully sober. When he’d finally dragged himself from his bedchamber, he’d found a letter from Zander waiting for him. The letter repeated—as all Zander’s letters did—an open invitation to Perry to visit Edgeley Park. Perry was not to stand on ceremony but to come whenever he pleased. It had suddenly sounded like the best idea Perry had ever heard. He’d get out of London. Go and bury himself in Zander’s bucolic paradise and stop pickling himself. But he hadn’t thought it through properly. He’d dashed off a note to his mother, jumped in his curricle, and left London that very day—without considering whether this was really the best time for a visit. Or whether appearing at Edgeley Park without any kind of warning was appropriate, notwithstanding Zander’s invitation. He’d realised, as soon as he arrived, that it was the worst possible time for a visit. The wheat harvest was just about to be brought in, Zander was at his very busiest, and Adam had just left for London for a fortnight.

In his defence, Zander had been urging Perry to visit for months, always making a point of saying that Perry needn’t trouble to write ahead. And to be fair, Zander had welcomed him warmly. It was just that he’d obviously been mortified that neither he nor Adam were going to be available to entertain Perry during the day. Thanks to his own stupidity and impulsiveness, Perry had been left to entertain himself since he’d arrived, only seeing Zander for dinner in the evenings. Old Warner had had the right of it. Lord Perry Cavendish was an out-and-out imbecile. Damn, but coming here had been a rotten idea, Perry thought as he clambered to his feet and crammed his hat back on. He’d come to Edgeley Park because he wanted to break with the past and change his life—he wanted to explore his own newly acknowledged nature—but all he’d managed to do by coming here was to isolate himself in the back of beyond, with no one for company but a man who would never consider him as a romantic prospect. With a disgusted huff, Perry set off walking briskly again. Barely an hour later, he was back at the house. He vaulted over the wall that surrounded the orchard rather than walk the long way round to the gate, then took a shortcut to the house through the kitchen gardens. By the time he was approaching the house, it was plain that something was going on. A well-appointed carriage stood at the front door, being unloaded by two footmen. A selection of trunks and hatboxes was already waiting to be taken inside. “I say,” Perry said as he approached the footmen.

“Is Mr. Freeman returned from London?” They both looked up, and one said, “Yes, my lord. Only just arrived.” Perry wasn’t sure how he felt about that. While his days had been long and somewhat tedious, at least he’d enjoyed Zander’s full attention each evening. In truth, he wasn’t greatly enamoured with the thought of spending long periods of time alone with Adam each day while Zander was occupied. Not that Adam was anything other than pleasant to him, but Perry still found the man rather intimidating and was quite sure he thought Perry a total dunce. Climbing the steps to the front door, Perry stepped into the large hallway, his eyes seeking out Adam’s familiar figure, only to alight upon someone else entirely. The man stood in the centre of the hallway, his hat dangling from his left hand, his auburn hair shining like a new penny in the shaft of sunlight that streamed down from the cupola above. He was of medium height and slender build, an elegant figure in dandyish clothes—a bottle-green coat over a pale-yellow silk waistcoat embroidered with intricate vine leaves, tight, cream pantaloons, and shiny Hessian boots that had clearly never encountered so much as a single speck of mud. And Lord, he was quite the comeliest fellow Perry had ever seen… Right then, the dandy’s gaze landed on Perry, and suddenly, Perry realised he was just standing there, simply staring. He flushed—probably beetroot red given how hot his face felt—as the dandy looked him up and down in open assessment. “My word,” he said in a light, knowing voice. “Aren’t you a big fellow!” Perry hadn’t thought he could blush harder, but he did. “I’m six-foot-two and a half,” he said and wished he could sink through the floor when the dandy laughed.

What a fatuous thing to say! “I can see that,” the dandy said. He stepped forward and held out a gloved hand. “The Honourable Jonathan Mainwaring at your service.” He winked and added roguishly, “Hopefully.” Perry gulped. Was the man flirting with him? He wasn’t sure how to react, so he fell back on habit, taking hold of the offered hand and shaking it firmly before saying in a voice that sounded horribly repressed, “Lord Perry Cavendish. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Mainwaring blinked and looked down at their hands. “Well, good heavens,” he said. “Don’t you have a crushing grip?” Mortified, Perry dropped Mainwaring’s hand as though it was a burning hot coal. Mainwaring seemed amused by that, and also rather curious. He stepped closer, making Perry feel oddly panicky. “You’re Lysander’s friend,” he said. “I’ve heard about you.” “Yes,” Perry said, his tone positively strangled now.

“Our families have been friends forever. And Zander and I went to Fletcherfield together.” He cleared his throat. “School, I mean. Fletcherfield is. A school.” Oh God. “Yes, I’ve heard. And I’ve also heard you both like gentlemen,” Mainwaring said, winking outrageously. He had very pretty eyes, the colour of green wood. Perry was so struck by them that he only seemed to hear the words the man had spoken a few moments later. …you both like gentlemen… “Oh—I—I—” Perry stuttered, having not the faintest idea how to reply. He was absurdly relieved when a new and familiar voice interrupted them. “Jonny Mainwaring, are you teasing Lysander’s friend?” Mainwaring started, and Perry turned to see Adam Freeman striding towards them, Zander following in his wake at a slightly slower pace. Mainwaring’s expression grew contrite.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend,” he said, casting an apologetic glance in Perry’s direction. “Only to jest. I do apologise.” “No need,” Perry mumbled, his face still hot. “I’m not offended.” He flushed again, very conscious that in any other company, he’d have been expected to call out any man who suggested his tastes ran in the direction Jonny Mainwaring had indicated. “It’s good to see you, Perry,” Adam said. “Thank you for inviting me,” Perry replied, shaking the hand Adam offered. “Sorry I turned up at such a dashed awkward time of year. Should have thought. Stupid of me.” Adam patted his shoulder. “Not at all. You’re Lysander’s oldest friend.

You’re welcome any time. I hope you know that.” Zander had stepped past Adam to greet Mainwaring, though he did so far less conventionally, leaning forward and kissing the man on the cheek. “It’s good to see you again, Jonny,” he said warmly as he drew back, still clasping the man’s shoulders as he examined his face. “How are you?” Mainwaring beamed at him. “All the better for seeing you, my dear. I swear you get more handsome every day.” Zander released him. “And you look as lovely as ever. Which is not to say that a little peace and quiet won’t do you good.” He smiled. “I’ve had your usual room made up, and I’ve got a surprise for you.” “A surprise?” Mainwaring echoed, his tone delighted. “Yes,” Zander said. “There’s a cottage in the grounds—the old owner called it the Shepherd’s Hut, which is pure affectation as it was only built a decade ago.

When we cleared it out, it struck me that it would be perfect for you to paint in when you visit us, so we’ve aired it, and all the painting equipment you left last time has been put in there. It will be your very own studio.” Mainwaring’s eyes gleamed with sudden tears. “Oh, Lysander,” he said. “My dear, you are so very kind. Thank you!” He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his eyes. “Look at me, being a watering pot!” Zander chuckled, his gaze warm and affectionate. “Well, I’m glad you’re pleased. Now, why don’t you go and get yourself settled? I’ll have a bath sent up so you can wash and dress before dinner.” “You spoil me,” Mainwaring said happily. “Well, you’re very easy to spoil,” Lysander assured him. “Dinner at seven, all right?” Moments later, Mainwaring was sweeping up the stairs with the two footmen in his wake, laden with boxes and trunks. “So,” Zander said, turning to Perry with a smile. “You’ll have gathered that’s Jonny Mainwaring, Adam’s dearest friend since…” He glanced at his lover in enquiry. “How long have you known each other?” “Oh, forever,” Adam said.

“Twenty years at least.” He yawned. Zander smiled fondly at him. “You need a nap,” he said. “You’ll be falling asleep in your dinner if you don’t rest.” “Very well,” Adam said. He waggled his brows at Zander. “Come and tuck me in?” Zander laughed softly, a faint flush heating his cheeks. Perry’s stomach twisted. Zander turned to Perry again. “Drawing room at seven, Per?” “Perfect,” Perry murmured. He was rewarded with a brief smile before Zander and Adam hurried upstairs, anxious for their long-awaited reunion. Perry sighed inwardly as he watched them go. The way Zander and Adam looked at each other made his heart ache in good and bad ways. He was pleased his friend was so happy—of course he was—but he could not imagine ever having what they shared, and that made him a little sad.

In truth he couldn’t even imagine having considerably less than they had. Even a tumble between the sheets with a willing man felt like too much to hope for. Unaccountably, at that thought, he remembered the sight that had greeted him when he’d stepped through the door a few minutes before. Copper hair, the comeliest face he’d seen in a long while, and that light voice, just dripping with teasing promise. “The Honourable Jonathan Mainwaring at your service… Hopefully…” He flushed again at the memory, but this time he smiled too. Feeling foolish to be smiling on his own, he fought the irresistible tug at the corners of his mouth, biting back the smile as best he could, but it grew inside him, an expanding good feeling he carried with him up the stairs and into his bedchamber.


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Updated: 10 June 2021 — 18:12

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