A Midwinter Prince

(Book One of Two)

This is the first book in Laurie and Sasha's story. Book 2 is The Lost Prince.

Laurence Fitzroy is trapped in a golden cage. The only son of a wealthy London baronet, he’s struggling to escape his father’s suffocating world. But Laurie is losing his fight. At nineteen years of age, bright and imaginative, he’s no match for the brutal Sir William. Laurie wants to be an actor – bad enough as far as Sir William is concerned, but, worse than that, he’s gay.

 

One bitter winter night, he meets a young homeless man huddled in blankets outside the opera house. The two form a bond straight away, and Laurie takes him home, wanting only to offer him food and a warm bed. But Sasha is a passionate Romani immigrant, and his beauty and sweet nature soon overwhelm Laurie’s chaste intentions, leaving him hopelessly in love.

 

Laurie and Sasha reach out desperately to one another from their different worlds, and against all odds begin an affair, hidden in the attics of Laurie’s sumptuous home and on the bleak moorland of a Romani encampment. For Laurie, it’s a delicious sexual awakening, and Sasha returns his affections, opening up to him a whole new world of freedom.

 

But Sasha has secrets, and a murky, violent past. When he vanishes, he leaves Laurie bereft and alone in a city he hardly recognises any more. Now Laurie has to stand on his own two feet and find the strength to rescue his lover – and himself.

Excerpt

Laurence Fitzroy, nineteen years old, heir to a baronetcy and who knew how many acres of Suffolk countryside, stopped on the steps of the Lyceum, oblivious to the exiting crowd he was forcing to part around him. He fastened his pale silk scarf over the open neck of his shirt, wondering vaguely what had happened to the bow tie he’d impatiently ripped off during the performance. Laurie liked opera well enough, but first-night shows where his father’s only motivation for being there was the need to be seen in the best box in the house… He drew a deep breath of the lung-catching air, feeling himself wake up, become alive once more to the lights, the blistering cold, the living river of human souls parting to accommodate him. He was bored, restless, lonely.

Taxis were pulling up by the pavement, two abreast, almost blocking the thoroughfare. No sign of the limo. Charlie must have had one cigarette too many with Mrs. Gibson down in the kitchen before setting off. Laurie sighed. That wouldn’t please the old man one bit. He glanced up the Strand as if he might turn and walk in that direction instead, into the night.

Sir William Fitzroy stood on the pavement in the crowd, Laurie’s mother clasped to his side like a decorative, blank-faced doll. As Laurie watched, his great red face swung around and darkened still further with angry blood upon spotting his son hanging about on the opera house steps, looking as usual completely disoriented. He raised one meaty hand and made an unmistakable gesture. Here, boy. Now.

Laurie was not in the habit of rebellion, and now would be a stupid time to start. As for walking off into the night, wealthy or not, in real terms he had on him the price of a bus fare and one night in a B and B. Then, without further cash injections from the huge, grim-faced man waiting on the far side of the road, he was…well, he was that shape in the blankets over there, that fragile-looking piece of human flotsam huddled in the doorway to Lindley’s. Except, knowing him, he’d have let someone else steal his blankets. Laurie sighed and began to make his way across the road. His mother, frail little sparkling figure in the circle of Sir William’s arm, was looking for him anxiously too. What the hell was the hurry? There was still no sign of the sleek Daimler in which Sir William liked to be seen going home from events like this. Lesser mortals, Laurie couldn’t help but notice, had piled into their taxis and even their buses and underground train stations and made their escape by now.

 

The boy huddled in the blankets outside Lindley’s was asleep, his head tipped back against the concrete pillar of the doorway. He had close-cropped black hair and skin Laurie thought would be olive in daylight, though now he was painted by the lights of passing cars, the shifting spectrum of the window display. His face, passive and grave, had a sculpted foreign beauty Laurie had never seen before.

 

He was terribly still. Laurie noted how his own body heat had leached away in just the time it had taken him to cross the road, how he was pulling at his thin tuxedo jacket and starting to shiver. How long would he survive without shelter on the streets of London tonight?

 

He didn’t know if it was curiosity or fear that drew him closer. This boy was his own age, not dissimilar to him in looks and build. What were the real differences? What force dictated that Laurie would go home in a limo tonight and sleep between warm sheets, while this image in the transforming mirror remained here, abandoned in the bitter night to live or…

 

God, was he breathing? Slowly, barely aware of what he was doing, Laurie struggled through the last currents of the crowd, entered the doorway, and crouched beside him.

 

He was not more philanthropic or caring than the ordinary run of teenage boys. Up till now, his horizon had been so crowded with his own joys and pains that he’d spent little time looking past them. And this was far from the first down-and-out he had seen on the pavements outside theatres and opera halls while all around him denizens of another world—his world—glittered and burst and disappeared like bubbles from a glass of champagne. Those others had not touched him. Laurie had not yet been sufficiently human himself to accept properly that they were too. Something in the line of this boy’s smooth, exposed throat, the abandonment of one hand, which had fallen palm up out of the blankets and lay within inches of passing women’s spiked heels… “Hello,” Laurie said, uncertainly. “Are you all right?”

 

Brown eyes flicked wide. The open hand snapped shut like a clam, plunged inside the parka for a knife it either did not find or chose not to deploy, and emerged a second later, thrust out toward Laurie in a gesture of desperate warding off. “Please. I don’t have anything.”

 

“I…I know. I’m not going to hurt you.” Laurie sat back on his heels. He was trying to place the accent—not Hungarian, though not far off. Something Eastern European, rich and softly modulated. “I was just afraid you were dead.”

The boy gazed up at him. Then to Laurie’s surprise, the fear drained from his fine features, and they lit up with a wide, compelling grin. “Perhaps I am. I have never seen a city sky so full of stars. Perhaps you’re the angel of death.”

 

“That should bother you more than it seems to,” Laurie said, helplessly smiling back. But the boy’s attention was no longer on him. He was looking up over Laurie’s shoulder, up beyond the rooftops of the Strand. Instinctively Laurie glanced that way too.

 

The sounds of the midnight street faded around him. No, he had never seen a sky like this, either. Even on his family’s estate down in Suffolk, light pollution from nearby houses and farms had spun a web across the night. And in London—well, it never happened. You were lucky to catch a moonrise. Yet suddenly the tops of the buildings were bearing between them a river of light, a thousand-hued pinprick blaze that stole the breath from his lungs. “Beautiful,” he said, then recalled himself to reality. “That means it’s going to be bloody cold, doesn’t it?”

 

The boy returned his gaze to him. It was serene now, looking for some reason at Laurie as if he was the one in need of help, the one lost in the night. Laurie felt it like a kindly brush to his skin. The boy said quietly, “Oh, God, make small the old star-eaten blanket of the sky…’

Laurie ran the words through his mind. He did know them, though he couldn’t be sure where from. “That I may fold it round me and in comfort lie. Where did you learn that?”

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”