Authors: Bonnie Dee and Summer Devon
Tags: #opposites attract, #healing, #family drama, #almost cousins, #gay historical
As his world collapses, love opens his heart.
Robbie Grayson has always felt like a bit of an outsider in the Chester family, though he’s related by blood. An orphan taken in at a young age, he is further set apart by a limp inflicted by a childhood illness.
Nevertheless, he’s content enough with his quiet country life—until a mercurial wastrel named Charles Worthington explodes into it. And Robbie is assigned to play nursemaid to an invalid with an attitude.
Injured in a carriage accident, Charles arrives at the Chester estate drunk as a lord and with empty pockets. Despair consumes him as his broken body slowly heals, but the kindness of quiet, thoughtful Robbie saves him from drowning in self-pity.
Over chess matches and conversation, these polar opposites challenge each other to break out of old patterns, until desire burns through the thin veneer of pure friendship. Yet their passion could destroy the family bonds they value so highly. Especially when someone catches wind of their relationship—and threatens blackmail.
Warning: This book contains hot man-on-man lovin’ between not-quite kissin’ cousins.
Summer Devon and Bonnie Dee
To Loki, Molly, Susie, Zoey, Buttons, Gizmo, and Robin, because we appreciate our furry coworkers who help ground us in reality.
County Durham, England, 1884
“Cousin Robbie, can you help me with my sash? Mary doesn’t tie as good a bow as you.” Gemma turned her back so Robbie could reconfigure the broad satin band around her plump waist. He didn’t mind. The child was right. He
better than her nanny at making a perfect bow.
The little girl had found in him in the library where he was putting the last touches on turning the book-lined space into a welcoming bedroom for an invalid to recover in. With all the dark woodwork, this room would never be anything but gloomy, but he’d brought in some flowers and colorful paisley scarves draped across several surfaces to at least try to lift their guest’s spirits.
Robbie bent to examine the pale rose ribbon that straggled down from Gemma’s waist. To make a greater contrast to the pink organdy gown, the ribbon should be a bright apple green. His mouth watered at the thought of something bold with those luscious colors. But not on a child. Perhaps a large room. A painting, yes, he could see a painting with those complementary colors blazing with no apology across a landscape.
“Aren’t you done yet?”
He fluffed out the butterfly wings and smoothed the trailing ribbons before giving her a pat on the back. “There. I couldn’t convince you to perhaps read a book?” he asked. It was something of a private joke between them.
“But my story is boring, and the puppies are so darling,” she protested. “Anyway, what does it matter what I look like? No one will even notice if I’m not there.”
“You must be present to greet your Cousin Charles. It’s the polite thing to do.”
Gemma sighed deeply, as if “the polite thing” were akin to being placed on the rack. Robbie smiled. Perhaps she was right. He wasn’t looking forward to a strained and awkward meeting with the new addition to their household. Another relative, like himself, forced to rely on the kindness of the Chester family.
“Why does he have to come and stay here?” Gemma whined. “Why do we have a cousin we’ve never even met?”
“Your Cousin Charles is from the north. He lives very far away, which is why he’s never been to visit before. But he is your father’s cousin, and so a second cousin to you. He’s family, and when family is in trouble, we help them out.”
“I suppose so.” Gemma brightened. “Like you. Right, Robbie? You’re like our brother, except not.”
“That’s right.” He smiled and stroked the springy red-gold curls that framed the girl’s round face.
“Did his parents have a steamboat blow up under their very feet as well?”
Robbie had told her the truth of his parents’ death. He didn’t believe in veiling reality with talk of God calling them home, as his Aunt Lenore would’ve told her daughter. He hadn’t counted on the relish small children took from dreadful stories.
“Yes, I believe he’s alone in the world.” Or Mr. Charles Worthington wouldn’t be forced to rely on his cousin for aid during his time of crisis.
“Do you miss your parents very much?” Gemma asked. This was another part of her usual list of questions.
“Yes. I miss them very much.” Thanks in part to time and to Gemma’s frequent questions, the pain had leached from the memory. Yet they remained vivid: the numbing shock of the initial aftermath of the accident, as if he himself had been submerged in that icy water, followed by intense pain in the weeks and months that followed. Not only had he lost his parents but his home as well.
“But you came to live with us, and then everything was fine,” Gemma concluded.
He leaned to kiss the top of her head. “Yes, of course. Everything was fine.”
The standard litany over, she could relax. She smiled and picked up her ball from the floor, but before she left the room, she had one more question, a new one she hadn’t asked before.
“You’ll always be here. Right, Robbie?”
He smiled. Her childish trust was touching, and he didn’t want to disappoint her, but he couldn’t spend the rest of his life clattering around the Chester estate. Even with his disability, surely he could do something more with his life.
“I’ll be here when you need me,” he offered.
Gemma grinned and clattered off to find the puppies in their kennel by the stable. He had no illusions she’d sit quietly and look at a picture book.
Robbie decided it was time to retire to his room and see about his own appearance. A clean collar and cuffs and a different waistcoat would present a better appearance to the stranger who would be arriving in less than an hour.
Charles Worthington. Uncle Phillip’s cousin. Family rallied when one of their own was in need, and it sounded as if Worthington was in desperate straits. The man had been in a carriage accident that left him with one cracked and one badly broken leg. His money had run out, and he could no longer pay servants to care for him. He’d had no choice but to visit his country relatives, the Chesters, for a prolonged stay while he healed.
Robbie freshened up at his wash basin, slicked down his brown hair and replaced both collar and cuffs on his blue shirt. He regarded his reflection in the mirror. Presentable and forgettable as always. That was fine with him. Blending into the wallpaper could prove useful at times, when people said more than they intended to in his presence.
When he was freshened, Robbie took a book and went to sit with it out in the garden for a rare break from the work he did for his uncle. On such a fine, windy day, he would’ve preferred to take a walk on the heath, but it was important to Uncle Phillip that the entire family be present for his cousin’s arrival, an undivided unit welcoming Charles into their home.
At any rate, his hip was aching quite a lot today. Better that he didn’t hike too far and then have to turn around and hobble his way home. Sometimes his intentions outreached his abilities, and he was forced to rely more on his cane. Robbie limped downstairs, the foot on his shorter leg hitting each step with a thump. Having a paralyzing fever as a child had permanently altered his gait. He’d lived with a withered leg for most of his life and rarely thought about it, except when meeting new people. Their curious or pitying glances were a trial he preferred to avoid when possible.
He brushed fallen crab apples from the wrought iron bench beneath the small fruit tree and dropped onto the bench with a small grunt. What a pleasure to spend some time studying Da Vinci’s drawings in the precious art book he’d received as a present from his aunt last Christmas. But even the master’s artwork couldn’t hold his attention today. His mind kept drifting to the impending arrival of the new houseguest.
What would Charles Worthington be like? Perhaps an ally, someone with whom he could converse or maybe challenge in a game of chess? Robbie’s younger cousins, ten-year-old Bertie and seven-year-old Gemma, were dear to him, but they were hardly companions with whom he might share adult conversation. As for Cousin Samuel, although he was nearer to Robbie in age, they would never be close friends. The more Robbie worked with Uncle Phillip on the estate, the more distant Samuel became. Ever since he’d gone to university, he’d become nearly antagonistic to Robbie, who was at a loss as to how to remedy the situation or repair their relationship. Samuel was taking a tour of Europe after his graduation, and perhaps he’d return to the hall feeling friendlier toward Robbie.
Robbie heard the cart from the train station coming up the gravel drive. His pulse quickened as he rose and walked around to the front of the house to greet the new addition to the household.
The servants didn’t line up to be greeted and inspected. This was not a visit by a lord of the estate, merely the arrival of an impoverished relation. But Aunt Lenore had the children assembled on the lawn,
“to provide a welcoming atmosphere.”
The day was so pleasant that Gemma and Bertie weren’t complaining, though Bertie kept thumping the ground with a croquet mallet he’d found and Gemma picked a ruffle on her pinafore.
The sound of the approaching cart reached the lawn, and the children stopped chasing each other around the grass to watch the drive expectantly.
A keening voice sang in time with the clop of the pony’s hoofbeats.
“Good heavens,” Aunt Lenore hissed, then in a louder voice, “Mary, take the children inside. Now, please. Yes, I mean it, Bertie. I think perhaps we shan’t have a formal greeting for Cousin Charles after all.”
Robbie bit his lower lip rather than break into laughter—his aunt’s agitation was too evident. She turned to her husband. “Is…is that some sort of drinking song?”
“Hm. I think, yes. Perhaps you might go inside as well, my dear.” They fell silent long enough that another bawdy verse drifted up to them. In a grim voice, Phillip continued, “I suspect my cousin will not be in a fit state to be in the company of ladies.”
The cart rounded the corner and came into view rolling and bumping up the drive.
And now Robbie realized that a low buzzing accompanied the loud tenor. Mr. Forrester, the driver, must have noticed the group gathered by the gravel drive, for the buzzing stopped at once. Mr. Forrester, one of the most silent and grim men Robbie knew, had been singing.
This was a day of mind-boggling surprises.
Uncle Phillip muttered, “Why on earth is he sitting up with the driver? The pony cart seats are an easy, low step up. That was the confounded point of sending it for him.”
The open cart was full of bags and a strange contraption of wheels.
The ginger-haired man seated next to Forrester on the cart wore a rumpled dark suit. He lightly thumped the driver’s shoulder with his fist. “Carry on, carry on, my good man. We are nearly to the point of no return, but we are not there yet. We remain free and wandering fools for the next several seconds at least.” The passenger waved his hand as if conducting a huge orchestra. He saw the group by the entrance to Chester Hall, gave a cry of “View halloo,” and launched back into song, something about the lass who could ne’er say no.
Robbie had never heard such a song in his life. Amusement and annoyance and something like anticipation washed over him in competing waves. Such joyful, obscene nonsense.
“Oh no.” His aunt still stood next to him. Her hand covered her mouth. “What is he singing?”
Less than fifty feet for the cart to travel.
It would be up to him to escort her inside, and sure enough, Uncle Phillip said, rather sharply, “Robbie. Would you kindly take your aunt indoors?”
Of course that was his role. He nodded, yet he felt a strange reluctance to miss a moment of this grand entrance.
Robbie gave her shoulders a gentle squeeze. “Come along, Aunt Lenore. We shall go speak to Mrs. Jackson about dinner.”
“I think she need not rush the meal. Indeed, I think a good lie-down is in order,” she added.
He wondered if she meant for herself or for the yodeling man seated on the pony trap. “He has a good voice,” he said absently.
a song, Robbie.” She sounded near tears. “My children. You, my dear boy. It is not at all the thing.”
He wanted to protest that at twenty-three he was hardly a child, but he only kissed her cheek. “It will be fine. He is inebriated, and the children couldn’t understand the words of the song.”
In fact, Charles Worthington enunciated extremely well for a drunkard, but soothing Aunt Lenore must be Robbie’s first concern.
“Perhaps he dislikes travel,” he added.
Another loud warbling verse reached them. This one contained language—obviously obscene words—Robbie didn’t know. He felt poorly educated.
She clutched his arm. “Do you suppose he could be violent? I have heard that some men in their cups can cause great harm. Do go help your uncle cope with him. There’s a good boy.” She’d occasionally asked him to take over the care of her fractious offspring in just such a manner. He didn’t bother to point out a limping and slightly built man would present no sort of threat to anyone bent on violence. Robbie could soothe a child in a tantrum, but he was less certain about his ability to cope with a caroling sot.
Yet he had to hide a smile, for he felt exhilaration at the notion of encountering the drunken singer.
“Of course.” He gently removed her hand from his jacket and gave it a squeeze.
“Come find me as soon as you get that man into his room.” She paused and pressed her lips tight. “I spent hours rearranging the library so he might be able to wheel his Bath chair into it and never encounter stairs. I shouldn’t want a man like that driving anything, not even a chair, especially not in the house.” She reddened as if voicing her disapproval showed too much emotion. “But go, do. And see what might be done.”
Outside, Uncle Phillip stood scowling, his arms folded, watching Forrester wrestle with a bulky green and wood and bronze contraption that had been wedged into the passenger compartment. A chair.
“Here now, don’t break m’leg again, my good Forrester,” Worthington warbled, still singing. “I have no legs but those. And crutches,” he added in a regular voice. He leaned over and seemed to grope along the back of the seat.
He straightened, pulling the sticks out from under something. Yanking hard, he seemed about to overset himself.
Uncle Phillip made a disgusted noise and turned his back.
Forrester, wrestling with the chair, didn’t notice.
Robbie limped quickly toward the carriage. For a moment, he took in the redheaded man’s features—the high-bridged hatchet of a nose that made an emphatic statement, a pair of brown eyes which sparkled in the sunlight, a wide mouth bracketed by deep grooves. He looked like a man who made it his business to smile and laugh often, and just looking at him made Robbie start to smile too.
Worthington gave another, stronger pull at the crutches tucked behind the seat, and that proved too much.
Robbie reached up as if he’d be able to stop the inevitable fall. He didn’t of course.
this,” Worthington said and slowly toppled over the armrest and fell on top of Robbie.
Robbie landed hard on the gravel, the weight of the long-limbed man crushing him down. He heard something in his shoulder click and was instantly filled with pain.