“They left together?” Dalrymple echoed.
“Ah,” Smite heard himself interject from his vantage point by the fire. “Miranda. You should know something. Of the many unforgivable things that Dalrymple has done, the worst was this: he started a rumor a few years back, claiming that I preferred men.”
Miranda’s spine straightened, not in haughty dignity, but as if she were a cat, drawing herself up and puffing her fur out in rage. She let out a scalded breath and hopped to her feet.
“You did what?” she demanded of Dalrymple.
“I can explain!” Dalrymple brought up his hands.
But Miranda bounded across the room to him. She was far shorter than Dalrymple was; still, she managed to loom. “I don’t care to hear your explanation. Do you know what they do to men like that?”
While Dalrymple was still sputtering for an answer, she slammed the ball of her hand against his shoulder.
“They hang them,” Miranda said. “And it doesn’t matter how good the men are, or how much they keep to themselves, or how kind they are to inquiring children.” Her voice trembled. “It doesn’t matter if they can translate ancient Greek into the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard in English. They hang men like that. Do you know what it is like to live in fear of one whisper, one rumor, one false step? Do you know what it is like to fear love, because it will get you killed?” She punched his other shoulder. “Do you know what it is like to never stay in one place, just so nobody becomes suspicious of you?”
Dalrymple looked up at her. There was a long silence, broken only by the rasp of the other man’s breath.
And then… “Yes,” Dalrymple whispered. “I know precisely how that feels.”
Miranda took one step back. She raised her hand to her mouth.
Dalrymple dropped his eyes. “I know what it is like to live under threat. For many years, the only person who knew of my proclivities was Turner here. And he suggested that if I took one wrong step, he would reveal everything.”
“I did not,” Smite said, annoyed all over again. “I promised you I’d hold your secrets in confidence. You should have known that I would keep that vow.”
“Oh, yes. Lovely for me, that I should be forced to put my life in the keeping of a man who despised me.”
They faced each other directly for the first time that evening. Smite found himself growling. “Have you any idea how much of an insult it was when you believed that I would be so cavalier with my promises?”
“Why must it always be about you?” Dalrymple demanded. “I have been trying to be civil. How much must I abase myself before you, before you’ll deign to treat me as human? Why am I always the one who must put forth the effort?”
“Because you were the only one in the wrong,” Smite snapped.
Dalrymple turned white. “Is that what you think?”
“I never accused you of crimes. I never spread innuendo blackening your character. Yes, it is what I think. It also happens to be the truth.”
Dalrymple stood up. “Well. Fuck you, Turner. You could have stopped it at any time. For years, I begged you to tell me that you’d keep quiet. For years, you said nothing.”
“You should have known I would keep my promise.”
“Oh, I should simply have known without your saying so. I beg your pardon,” Dalrymple said icily. “When I weigh your scarcely-wounded vanity against my very real fear that I would face the gallows, you come up rather short.”
Smite caught his breath. He felt as if he’d had his legs swept out from under him, that he’d landed in an ignominious heap upon the ground. It made all his righteous anger seem…slightly less righteous. It made him even angrier that Dalrymple appeared to have an actual point.
Miranda had stepped away from them both, and she was watching with something akin to horror. For the first time, he saw himself through her eyes—cold, unforgiving, and in pursuit of principle to the point of pettiness.
“Just once,” Dalrymple said. “Once, over the last twenty years, you could have said, ‘Oy, Dalrymple, old chap, I’m not going to have you killed.’ It would have cost you nothing—nothing but a tiny, wounded portion of your pride. It would have meant that I could breathe easily instead of watching over my shoulder. I know I shouldn’t have done any of the things I did. But when your elder brother ferreted out the truth of my bastardy, I thought you had told him. That you were finally going for my throat. That summer before Ash married Margaret… I said and did a lot of things I regret now. I was wrong. I’m sorry.”
Dalrymple held out his right hand, palm up.
Smite wanted to turn from it all. But there was nothing righteous in his anger now. It had turned black and unyielding. He wanted to walk away, to lick his wounds and mull all this over. He wanted this great, trembling uncertainty to dissipate like so much smoke.
“I hate having second thoughts,” he muttered.
“Necessary, for second chances,” Dalrymple put in.
“Pithy,” he responded. “That doesn’t make it right.”
He should say the words Dalrymple had said. I was wrong. I’m sorry. He couldn’t bring himself to do so. Instead, he reached out and took Dalrymple’s hand. “For what it’s worth,” he said, “I never wanted you dead.”
The other man’s grip was firm and solid. His fingers convulsed, though, and his eyes squeezed shut.
And then because, damn it, his duty demanded it of him, Smite managed more. “You’re right. I was an ass.” He grimaced. “Is that all you require?”
Dalrymple’s eyes flew open. “You—”
“Don’t think anything of that,” Miranda said, coming to stand by Smite. “For him, that was an apology on bended knee. Anything more than he just managed, and he’ll overload his sentimentality quota.”
Smite felt a touch of annoyance, and he yanked his hand away.
But Richard Dalrymple gasped. “Never tell me he still has the sentimentality quota.”
Miranda’s look of surprise mirrored his. “Never tell me that the sentimentality quota truly exists.” The two of them exchanged shocked glances, and Smite found himself folding his arms across his chest.
“Oh, yes,” Dalrymple breathed. “He’s had a senti
mentality quota since he was thirteen.”
“Good heavens.” Miranda looked up at Smite.
Smite pressed his lips together and gave her a repressive shake of the head. She ignored it and turned to Dalrymple. “I assumed he’d made it up to put me off.”
“You thought I was lying to you?” Smite growled. “That was a poor guess on your part. Why would I invent such a thing?”
“Hmm. Why did you invent such a thing?”
“Sheer perversity.” Dalrymple stood and walked to the sideboard, where he poured himself a tumbler of brandy. “But—ah—rather, I suppose I should leave the story for Turner to tell.”
“No, go on,” Smite said. “You’ve been telling my secrets for years. Why stop now?”
Dalrymple flushed. “God, one mistake, and you make me pay for it—”
“What he meant by that,” Miranda interrupted, “was ‘I’d rather not speak of it myself, and so if you would be so good as to explain, you would be doing me a great favor.’”
Smite felt a rueful smile tug at his lips. “I might have so meant,” he muttered.
“He has a politeness quota in effect, too,” Miranda said, looking toward Dalrymple with excessive earnestness. “He used up the sum total on the greetings this evening.”
In response, Smite raised an eyebrow at her. “I would implement a quota on cheekiness, if I thought I had any hope of enforcing it.”
Miranda smiled outright at that. “In other words,” Miranda said, turning to Richard, “ignore his glower and satisfy my curiosity, please.”
“Turner, are you sure you want me to tell the story?”
He shrugged. “Go ahead.”
“So, when Turner first came to Eton, he was a bit behind the other boys in his schooling. His tutoring hadn’t been quite up to par.”
“Ha,” Smite said.
“And he was rather upset for a variety of reasons.”
Smite folded his arms. “No need to delve into those. She’s heard most of it anyway.”
Dalrymple accepted this. “In any event, Turner decided that…dealing with the aftermath of his tragedy was all well and good, but he needed to concentrate on his Latin. So he gave himself a sentimentality quota—thirty minutes a day to think of all those things, so long as he worked the rest of the time.”