“A two-month engagement is hardly proper at all,” said Lady Winifred. “Don’t you agree, Susannah?”
“Perhaps they are truly in love,” replied Miss Morton. “That’s always a possibility.”
“It is, but it’s not a probability, my dear.” Lady Winifred sniffed as she raised her teacup and took a sip. Then she wrinkled her nose and placed the cup on the small table beside her chair. “I’ve told my granddaughters that affection should not be the prime consideration when choosing a husband. Not to say that it shouldn’t play a role at all, but to give it more importance than it merits is usually a grave error.”
Lady Winifred Ramsay had not made such an error herself; she’d had the foresight when she married to select a husband whose fortune and advanced age assured her a mercifully brief sojourn in the state of conjugality, and a much longer and more satisfying one as a rich widow. After siring their two sons, her late husband, the Earl of Brompton, had had the good sense to perish after a short bout of scarlet fever. Her ladyship was grateful that the Fates had favored her so generously, and hoped that her granddaughters had made equally fortuitous matches.
Miss Susannah Morton regarded Lady Winifred over the rim of her teacup. Her ladyship cut an impressive figure for a woman of her years: her gown was of the utmost propriety—no frivolous crinolines, and a neckline higher even than the fashion of the day dictated for day wear. Her bearing was that of a woman who knew her exact worth in the world and intended to let all those who surrounded her know it as well. She had certainly conveyed it to Miss Morton.
Although she had already heard most of the details from Evie and Ginny, Miss Morton asked Lady Winifred, “What do you know of the lucky young gentlemen who will be marrying our girls?”
“Virginia has made the far better match. She will wed Lord Paul Stanwell, the younger son of the Marquess of Weathersby. Eveline, unfortunately, has chosen to align herself with the son of a man of trade. I believe his name is Hedspeth. From Manchester. He does have a vast fortune, however.” Lady Winifred sighed.
“Hedspeth as in Hedspeth Mills?” asked Miss Morton.
“Yes. I suppose if one must marry a tradesman, it’s an advantage if he is known for his dominance of the industry. Still, I had hoped for better for Evie. I cannot understand why she consented to this arrangement.” Lady Winifred shook her head sadly. “Susannah, please pour me a spot more tea. Thank you, dear.”
Miss Morton did as she was asked, then said, “I can’t help but think there must be some bonds of affection between Evie and Mr. Hedspeth. Surely some marriages are based upon more than strict calculation of mutual benefit.”
“My dear Susannah, you are not a married woman yourself and cannot know what is most desirable for a felicitous marriage. If you did, you would not be in the straits in which you currently find yourself.”
Miss Morton felt heat rise to her face. After the weddings next month, she would lose her place in the Ramsay household and need to find a new position—not be an easy prospect for an unmarried gentlewoman of three-and-thirty.
“Well,” she said, helping herself to a biscuit, “I suppose we shall see how our girls fare soon enough. The gentlemen are due to arrive at Aldergate tomorrow, I believe.”
“They are,” said her ladyship. “Heaven help us all.”
Mr. Graeme Hedspeth stepped out of the train at Brompton station. While the driver from Aldergate loaded his trunks into the carriage, he observed the rural landscape surrounding them. The low, dun-colored hills were shrouded in a thin fog, and his overcoat did little to keep out the damp chill. He rubbed his ungloved hands together and started to climb into the carriage.
“Mr. Hedspeth, sir, I need to find the other guests. Would you mind waiting a moment?”
Graeme turned to look at the driver, a middle-aged man wearing an oilskin coat. “No, not at all,” he replied. “Take your time.” As the man strode off towards the platform, Graeme fell back against the cushioned seat in the carriage.
He had to admit that he was a bit nervous about this house party. Not due to Evie, not at all; she was the one part of this whole business that didn’t make him nervous. It was the rest of it: her family, the other guests, and his own regrettable self. These were things he couldn’t change, at least not within the space of a few days.
He reminded himself that he wasn’t here for them, but for her. Yet they—the Ramsay family, with their titles and their land—were inextricable from Evie. He couldn’t have her without them. And he did want her, so he must resign himself to accepting them as well.
Was accepting the correct word, though? It implied a sort of approval. He could never approve of the system of landed aristocracy that had made his life, and the lives of others, miserable in so many ways. He remembered the teasing at school, the barely concealed sneers at Oxford, and the subtle snubs of ladies at balls who had consented to a dance with him—one dance, no more—before they turned their attention elsewhere. It had been nearly enough to make him give up the pursuit of a wife entirely, no matter what his father wanted for him.
But then he had met Evie. She was a lady, the daughter of an earl, with enough family money to assure him that she wasn’t a fortune hunter. And she had looked at him as no woman had ever looked at him before. As if she saw him, not just his money, and liked what she saw.
When he had proposed and been accepted, he knew that the gossips had gone quite out of their heads. Half of them believed Lady Eveline Ramsay was lowering herself by consenting to wed the younger son of Thomas Hedspeth, founder and owner of one of the most prosperous textile mills in the country; the other half believed she had made the best match possible. After all, the times were changing, and lack of generations of gentility could be counteracted by a certain amount of wealth.
It was unfortunate that Graeme himself wanted little to do with that wealth, now that he had seen another path for his life, one far more appealing than serving as part of his father’s textile empire.
The door to the carriage creaked open, and the driver helped a lady in a wide-brimmed bonnet and paisley shawl climb into the seat opposite Graeme. He gave her a little bow and said, “Good afternoon. I’m Mr. Graeme Hedspeth.”
The lady was followed by a gray-haired gentleman with the longest, bushiest sideburns Graeme had ever seen. Graeme himself had a pair of sideburns, but he took care to keep them neatly trimmed. The recent mania for ostentatious facial hair perplexed him.
“Ah, it’s the suitor himself! Pleased to meet you, dear boy.” The gentleman smiled and nodded at him. “I’m Lord Alfred Harrington. And this is my wife, Lady Margaret.”
She held out her gloved hand to Graeme.
He took it and made another slight bow, saying, “You are uncle and aunt to the Ramsay siblings, as I recall?”
“Yes,” said Lady Margaret, settling back as the carriage started to move. “Their mother was my dear sister, God rest her soul.”
Graeme nodded gravely. Evie had told him that her mother had died when she and Ginny were still practically infants. Thankfully, Miss Morton had been quickly engaged as their governess, becoming, so Evie had told him, the closest thing to a mother they would know for the next fifteen years.
“I do regret that I was never able to meet Lady Brompton,” he said. “She must have been a wonderful woman.”
“Oh, she was.” Lady Margaret smiled sadly.
There was a silence, which made Graeme acutely aware, as always, of his inability to think of appropriate remarks.
Lord Alfred asked, “So, Mr. Hedspeth, are you looking forward to the hunt?”
“Ah, no. I’m afraid I don’t hunt.”
“Really? And why is that?” Lord Alfred looked affronted.
“I am morally opposed to hunting. I believe it is cruel.”
Another silence. Graeme looked out at the passing countryside and thought that this coming week would probably include many such silences. He elaborated, “I believe there are better ways of culling the fox population than torturing them into the ground for sport.”
Lord Alfred grunted. “In that case, you can stay with the ladies in the drawing room, while we men enjoy ourselves.”
“Oh, Alfred, stop it.” Lady Margaret swatted her husband’s arm. “Mr. Hedspeth, I think it’s admirable that you have principles and are standing by them.”
“Thank you,” said Graeme.
Lord Alfred was looking at him strangely, and Graeme recognized the look. He’d seen it from his father and brother often enough. He knew he wasn’t what other people expected of a man of his station. He did not hunt, and rode only competently. He much preferred the company of his books to the pleasure of sport. He didn’t even enjoy participating in the business dealings of his father. And these oddities, compounded with some of his other interests, had made him feel that there was no place where he belonged, until he met Evie and she put his fears to rest.
“Oh, look,” cried Lady Margaret, “there’s Aldergate!”
They were coming up the long drive that approached the Ramsay estate, and Graeme felt his heart skip as he caught his first glimpse of it. Unlike his own family home, a Georgian manor purchased fifteen years earlier, Aldergate had been in the Ramsay family for centuries. Its Gothic arches and tendrils of ivy spoke of a permanence and solidity that Thomas Hedspeth could never purchase. Graeme smugly reflected that he had, at last, achieved something his father never could: access to true aristocrats.
It was a pity they didn’t interest him in the least.
Lord Paul Stanwell observed the carriage as it approached the front entrance of Aldergate. He had arrived an hour before and was taking tea with Ginny, Evie, and Lord Brompton when Evie sprang up and cried, “They’re coming!” She and her sister crowded to one of the windows, and Paul strolled over to another. He watched as a gray-haired gentleman and his stout wife emerged from the carriage, followed by a tall, somberly clad young man with a mop of dark hair and a heavy brow.
Evie turned and ran out of the room. Lord Brompton, sitting on a cushioned chair with his gouty foot resting on a low stool, called after her, “Evie, do slow down! You’ll hurt yourself!” He shook his head and clucked. Paul offered his arm to Ginny, and they followed Evie out to the drive.
The butler, Mr. Graves, was supervising the footmen, who were carrying in the guests’ luggage. Evie stopped short in front of the young man and smiled. She said, “Graeme,” and he took her hand and kissed it reverently.
Paul resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. He was not as great a cynic as most people thought him to be. However, such public demonstrations of affection struck him as needlessly performative. Moreover, he found it hard to believe that what lay between Evie and Mr. Hedspeth was true affection. Lust, perhaps? He had nothing against lust, of course. And yet, as he watched Evie and her betrothed stare into each other’s eyes, he was skeptical.
He had to remind himself that not everyone shared his predilections. Sometimes it seemed as if they did; sometimes it seemed that three-quarters of the men in London were his strange bedfellows. That was why it felt so monumental to be giving it all up to wed Lady Virginia Ramsay.
Many men would not consider such an outcome a sacrifice. And Paul didn’t either, truth be told, because he did not intend to make a sacrifice. He saw no reason why he couldn’t carry on with his habits after the wedding, so long as he and Ginny were able to produce a few children. And surely they could manage that. She was a beautiful, high-born girl; even a man like Paul could no doubt rise to the occasion for her.
Evie was clinging to Mr. Hedspeth’s arm as they walked toward the front door, and Paul felt Ginny tighten her grasp on his. Of course, sisterly rivalry would rear its head now that the two suitors were meeting for the first time.
He offered his hand to Mr. Hedspeth. “At last we meet. Paul Stanwell.”
Ginny added, “Lord Paul Stanwell. Son of the Marquess of Weathersby.” She gave Paul a reprimanding look.
“Of course, my dear.” Paul met the other man’s gaze as they clasped hands. Mr. Hedspeth’s eyes were a deep brown, almost black, and they surveyed Paul with a quick, discerning glance. That was unexpected.
“Mr. Graeme Hedspeth. Of the Manchester Hedspeths. At your service.” He gave a slight bow and smiled faintly.
Paul withdrew his hand and said, “Please call me Paul. After all, we are to be family, are we not?”
“Yes,” said Ginny, “and it will be so wonderful, won’t it, Evie?” She turned to her older sister expectantly.
Evie answered, “I certainly hope so.” She smiled serenely at her fiancé, who returned the smile with softening eyes.
Paul’s impatience returned. “Shall we go in and finish our tea?”
The two couples walked back to the drawing room where Lord Brompton awaited them. He hoisted himself on his cane to greet Mr. Hedspeth, but the younger man urged him to sit back down. “Your lordship, please don’t exert yourself for me.”
“Thank you, dear boy. I’m afraid I’ve had another attack of gout. Rotten timing, but I’m hoping I’ll be ready to ride again in time for the hunt.”
The young people resumed their previous seats, Mr. Hedspeth settling on the divan next to Evie. A maid brought in another teacup for him, and he leaned back carefully and crossed his legs at the knee.
“So,” he said, taking a sip, “what is the plan for this week?”
“Tonight we’ll have a small dinner at home, just us and the Harringtons,” said Lord Brompton.
“Tomorrow Robbie will be arriving, and we’ll have a ball in the evening to honor the happy couples.” He nodded at them; the ball was technically an engagement party. “The day after is the hunt. Beyond that, I don’t think we have anything definite planned.”
Paul said, “I’m sure we can find ways to entertain ourselves. It’s such a lovely countryside. Such a nice change from the city.”
“Do you spend much time in the city, Paul?” Mr. Hedspeth emphasized the Christian name, and Paul remembered that he had not been given the same permission.
“I do, Mr. Hedspeth,” he replied, “but I’m finding the country much more congenial since I met Ginny.” He tilted his head toward her, making her giggle. “Do you spend most of your time in Manchester?”
“Not at all. I’ve been at Oxford lately.” Mr. Hedspeth took another sip of tea and added, “You may call me Graeme, Paul.”
Was the man mocking him? For what reason? Paul decided to sharpen his blade. “How fascinating, Graeme. Yet you managed to drag yourself away from your studies long enough to capture the attention of Lady Eveline. However did you do it? She has long been pursued by likelier suitors than you.”
Graeme narrowed his eyes. “I’m still trying to figure that out myself. I have no idea why a woman of such grace and intelligence as Eveline would ever accept the hand of a man like me. Perhaps you should ask the lady herself?” He turned to Evie.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she answered. “I was wooed by your devastating good looks and blazing wit.” She pursed her lips and suppressed a laugh.
Paul wouldn’t have said that Graeme was good-looking, at least not in the way Paul knew himself to be. Yet there was something compelling about him. He exuded an intensity that Paul found both infuriating and challenging. And that was a relief; he’d been afraid he might need to tolerate a dullard in the coming years.
It washed over him again, the marriage and all it would entail. Could he really do it? Could he be what his family had been waiting for him to become: a respectable husband and a father? His own father had believed that Paul was entitled to some oat-sowing; what gentleman wasn’t? But his gambling debts had racked up while his reputation wavered, especially after the Figaro scandal. Paul knew that before much longer his clandestine activities would become too difficult to conceal. A marriage, particularly to a young lady of Ginny’s standing, would quell any rumors that arose. After all, he wouldn’t be the first man of his inclinations to seek a wife. If he’d been given the choice, of course, he would have continued on as before, but he had learned that younger sons of marquesses don’t have such freedom.
I became a fan of the romance genre almost three years ago, when I discovered the work of K.J. Charles. Before that, I had disdained romance as “bodice rippers”—trashy paperbacks for bored housewives. Once I started reading widely in the genre, however, I saw that romance novels were, in many cases, as well written as those in literary fiction (and, in some cases, better written). Not only that, but they dealt with serious topics, such as politics, gender roles and relations, mental health, and social class.
With my romance novel Second Sons, I hope to provide not only an engaging, entertaining story, with the requisite happily-ever-after (or HEA, as it is called in the genre) but also a critique of the hierarchical, capitalistic society in which it takes place. The main characters, Graeme and Paul, are respectively the son of a prosperous mill owner and the son of a marquess. Given their high status in the society of mid-19th-century England, their romantic and sexual relationship functions as a rebuke of the hierarchy of which they are a part. Graeme, in particular, has a growing sense of the inequities of capitalism, and has been participating in socialist and Marxist groups. Paul is an aspiring singer, but has been forbidden by his aristocratic family from pursuing a career as a professional musician.
Queer historical romance is often radical in its politics, since it is usually impossible for its protagonists to get married, the most typical outcome for heterosexual hist-roms. As a result, it questions the status quo and needs to find ingenious ways for its main characters to reach their HEA. I hope that my novel will be a notable addition to this canon.
Kit Carmichael writes queer historical romance. She read far too many Victorian novels at a formative age, and is now destined to wander the moors in a hooded cloak. She lives with her family in New England, where, though there are no moors, there is plenty of old-timey stuff for her to geek out on. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram (@kitcarwriter) or visit her website, kitcarmichael.com.
Embark, Issue 16, April 2022