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A Man of Deep Reserve

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Someone had to go first, that was the hell of it. They were all braced for it to be Silas, who after all was the oldest, the hardest lived, the hardest drinker, the most likely to find his head bashed in, and, in a way, the best prepared, having faced his own mortality before. They had all expected that Miss Rawling, visiting the shop, or Sir Dominic, waking in the morning, would find the old radical not merely dozing but, at last, at rest. They were all as ready as it was possible to be. But that was not what happened, and instead Silas had spent the last two days alternately pretending to be a devoted old servant, for the excuse to be nearby, and with his arms around his lover in one way or another. David had seen to it that no one below stairs had said anything about the man who hadn't lived among them in thirty years, as he had packed, cleaned, made lists, burned papers, given words of comfort, and prepared a household for unexpected transition: invisibly.

He was almost completely unaware of his own thoughts, much less anything so inappropriate as a feeling. What thoughts did make their way into his awareness were disconnected and fragmentary: that there was no space reserved at his master's feet; that really it would have been better, if the calamity had to come at all, if it had come at home instead of in England, where he had no time to understand before he had to manage; that he wished he could wash the white off his hair one last time; that the cottage was his property now, if he could ever bear to set foot in it again.

So he had no idea why he found himself, that evening, in the long gallery, staring into the face of a man who seemed far younger than David could ever remember. As far as he knew, his mind and heart were completely blank now that he was without purpose, just waiting, allowing time to pass, and it might as well be here. In fact he was not at all aware of quite how much time had already passed until the man beside him said, "Mr. Cyprian?"

Turnabout was entirely unfair in this circumstance. He had had no chance to compose himself to face anyone else, and the presence of tears streaming down his face struck him as a blow. How could he be crying in Tarlton March, of all the worst possible places to finally break down, when he hadn't been able to cry at all in the church or at the graveside where it might have been unremarkable? "I beg your pardon-" he said, and struggled as he never struggled with forms of address. To call this man your lordship should have been without uncomfortable meaning, but he couldn't say it, and couldn't find the energy to wonder why not, only an image for some reason of yellow and purple flowers.

"Just Dickie, please. I know it's horribly improper but no one can manage my title today," Lord Richard said. "My condolences on your loss."

David was certain he should have been the one offering condolences. Instead of a polite response, his brain gave him the information he would have wanted if he were still any use. Twenty years ago, when the nephew married, there had been concerns that it was not a good match, undertaken too hastily, but although there were no children and Lady Richard often stayed in London while her husband went to the country, David had never heard any whisper of scandal or seen any evidence of misery. Rumor in the person of Mr. Harry, repeating the reports of his goddaughter, who was a great friend of Lady Richard, had it that the couple were quite content. That didn't stop the uncle from worrying, of course, but life on the Continent had been lovely and slow so that worry stretched out over years and did not cloud affection. Certainly there was nothing in the solid, gentle man in his fifties to suggest regret. He was a man of deep reserve, but the sort that overlay quiet confidence rather than insecurities. He had a name as a power broker among the Whigs, enjoyed music, attended his wife's salons when he was in Town. And now David had stood silently looking at the fellow for much longer than such a respectable personage deserved. He looked nothing like his uncle at rest, but had just a little of his expressions and way of moving. "I beg your pardon," David said again.

Lord Richard looked at the painting, tilting his head just a little as his uncle might have. "I wanted to talk to you," he said. "As Uncle Richard's heir."

That was something David could handle, discussing handing over Arrandene and the other properties. Other people's concerns were safer. He took a breath. "Yes, your lordship?"

"Dickie, please. Really. Would you come to dinner on, say, Thursday? At our rooms, of course, not Albermarle Street yet."

David was once again at a loss for words. "Dinner?" he repeated.

Lord- Dickie waved a hand, and it occurred to David that the man's awkwardness wasn't caused by conversing with a servant, but driven by the same mysterious impulse that moved him to speak at all. "Dinner. With Mary and Harriet, and me of course, and, well, you probably know better than I do who to ask. Harriet's friend Mr. Mason, I think, and almost certainly Cousin Harry. But whoever you think best. Except, you see, my mother wants to meet you."

"Lady Cirencester wants to meet me," David repeated.

"Not that I knew it was you. No one guessed, of course. We assumed it was a foreign person. But it was you all along, yes? Unless-" he gestured at the painting. No, he gestured at the fox. "Unless I'm being entirely presumptuous and you have nothing to do with that."

David hesitated. A denial sat on the tip of his tongue. There was something pleading in Dickie's eyes, something in the words Mary and Harriet that hoped for understanding, although he got no sense that Dickie had inherited his uncle's preferences along with everything else. After so long without approaching anyone, maybe he wouldn't have anyway. David was hard pressed to care about the invitation, but at the same time, he couldn't force himself to put himself outside the life he'd just lost. If his hair were still red, there would be no point to saying no. That decided him at last. He inclined his head.

Dickie had a grin more like Harry's than Richard's, unstinting but with just a little grief. He put out his hand. "Then may I offer you an overdue welcome to the family? Do come to dinner, tell me who else knows, and- do you like cognac? We'll break open the reserve and toast my uncle and you can get drunk and tell stories. Please come."