By Alexis Hall
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If thou remember’st not the slightest folly
That ever love did make thee run into,
Thou hast not loved.
—William Shakespeare, As You Like It
In the room where Lancaster Steyne trained me, he kept a bonsai tree. He taught me how to tend it—how to offer care without mercy—and I am not insensible of the irony. I wonder if he still has it, though me, of course, he gave to Caspian. Who, in turn, gave me to counsellors, therapists, psychoanalysts. And finally, he gave me a job.
I would have done anything for him. Tended to his every desire. Surrendered my body for his use. Taken pain for his pleasure, both being equally meaningless to me. The truth is, I still would. So I serve, in the capacities he allows. In the ways his conscience will permit. And I let him pay me for it because he needs to. Because he also needs to believe I am not Lancaster’s creature. So he can believe it of himself. Even this, I will do for Caspian. I will lie for him.
The differences between us run deep. I have lost what little sense I ever possessed of who I was before Lancaster found me, and I have no interest in who I could have been without him. There is some part of me that misses still the serenity of those days: dark rooms and light and the comfort of routine. My world was a simpler place with him at its centre. Not necessarily a kinder one, but none of my experiences have taught me to expect kindness, and I certainly value simplicity.
“I will make you perfect,” he used to tell me as I knelt at his feet. And I welcomed his making. Until then, I had been nothing. I had been dank places and money changing hands, the course of my life as inevitable as the path of the veins down my forearm. But Caspian is not like me. He has never been as low or as lost. He has always had choices. Whereas I am shaped, either by nature or because of Lancaster, to find solace in constraint, in service, in the abnegation of the self, he suffers. He struggles. Of course, Lancaster has never expected of Caspian what is now an instinct in me. But he was not made to subordinate his will to that of another. He is not to be tamed. Or if he is, neither Lancaster Steyne nor Nathaniel Priest has the heart for it.
And I, what can I do but watch? As I have always watched. My care for him is in everything I do—in his diary, meticulously kept, the reports I prepare, the meetings I schedule and minute, the tasks I perform without question or hesitation—but it is not my care he needs. I have no resentment for that. It is never reciprocation I have sought, only use and, from that, purpose. Though it is far from anything Lancaster intended for me, Caspian has given me both. His generosity leaves me abashed and his gentleness has never been necessary. And this summer I saw him happy for the first time.
It didn’t last. And now—also for the first time—I begin to question. Not to him. Never to him. But my hands sometimes shake beneath my desk. Mistakes creep into my work, a double booking, a forgotten duty, not many. But I have never made mistakes before. All Caspian says is that I must be more careful next time, though I can barely bring myself to meet his eyes. The pain is too stark in him.
I have no interest in power. It is a messy thing, unlike the quiet order of submission. But I don’t know how to serve a man when his actions are hurtful to himself. I don’t know how to obey when my mind is already in open mutiny. I don’t know how to help him. Silence is betrayal of his happiness. Action is betrayal of his trust. And it is all a betrayal of me. Or perhaps of Lancaster. He was supposed to make me perfect. Yet here I am in turmoil. And what disturbs me most is that I can see what Caspian cannot. Which is simply this:
Arden St. Ives changed us both.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Boy meets billionaire. Billionaire offers boy short-term prearranged sex contract. Boy runs away from billionaire. Billionaire comes after boy. Boy and billionaire get back together. Billionaire sends boy to America on account of boy’s best friend having been in horrendous car accident. Boy comes home again. Billionaire freaks out because of abusive history he never fucking told boy about. Boy blows it with billionaire.
Boy gets on with life.
And you know something? Boy’s life wasn’t too bad.
I’d moved in with Caspian’s sister, Ellery—into what I’d thought was going to be a converted warehouse for Spratt’s Patent pet foods but turned out to be just a warehouse she blatantly had no intention of converting into anything. Looking back, I wasn’t sure why I’d expected otherwise. But I had the loft, and we mostly had electricity and running water, so it was actually semi romantic in a writing poetry and fucking Kerouac kind of way. Well, except when I stumbled home drunk and collided with a girder, and Ellery had to take me to A&E. But that was one time.
As for Ellery, she came and went at all hours, shamelessly ate my food, and sometimes crawled into my bed to sleep curled up next to me. It was like having a cat, if the cat also took a lot of drugs and threw wild parties. Not that I think Ellery meant to throw wild parties—they just happened around her, especially now that her band, Murder Ballad, was taking off, or at any rate accruing a devoted cult following. I had no idea how, because they didn’t seem to advertise their gigs or hold them at, y’know, venues (the last one had been in a derelict church), but somehow, the word got out.
Because apparently songs about child murder, sororicide, and accidentally cheating on your husband with the devil performed in abandoned buildings were less nichey than the elevator pitch suggested. Or maybe it was just Ellery. She was electric on stage. As far as I knew, she arranged most of the music herself and she was in every swoop of the soprano, every cry of the violin, every beat of the drums: savage and mournful and free.
I was still at Milieu, though it would have been pretty damning if I hadn’t been. An ouchie in the heart region made time drag itself along like a dying cowboy in a western, but it had been a mere handful of months since Caspian had left me. The longest autumn of my life. The coldest winter.
Or else that was nonmetaphorical cold because the heating had gone off again. I pushed my sleep mask onto my forehead and poked my nose out from under the quilt Mum had made. Immediately regretted it and vanished back under my pile of blankets. This was a major disadvantage of being a proper grown-up: You had to get out of bed. Not that I had a bed. I couldn’t afford a bed. I had a mattress on the ground. But it was probably really good for my back. And at least I wasn’t living on Coco Pops in a hovel by myself, which was all I could have managed on my salary without Ellery.
I would have done it, though. Because deep down I knew that no matter how sharp and real and inescapable my pain felt right now, it would fade. My life was more than Caspian Hart. Weird as it seemed, he’d shown me that.
Shown me how to fly, then pushed me through a window.
Some days, I was fucking pissed about it. Others I was just sad. But occasionally, I’d wake up in the rose and silver haze of a London dawn. Sit there on my mattress, wrapped in the quilt that still smelled of home, watching the light gleaming on the mist that coiled off the canal and…feel the shape of something like okayness at the tips of my fingers.
This morning, however, okayness was definitely not within touching distance. In fact, I was all for sticking my head under the pillow and pretending I didn’t exist.
Except then I’d be late for work.
I got out of bed and, whimpering softly, peeled off the two pairs of socks I was wearing. The floor was hideously cold against my bare feet, but it was better than slipping on twisty little stairs that led to the main level and ending up in A&E again.
The bathroom was basically a long corridor that had been partitioned off, with a shower over a drain at the far end. Ellery, with the air of someone defiantly uninterested in interior decor, described it as Shawshank chic. And truth be told, it was a bit of a shock to the system after the pristine marble palace that was One Hyde Park. But I adapted, reminding myself I’d washed in way worse places when I was a student.
Morning ablutions complete, I spent some time picking out clothes and making my hair super cute. Life as a junior editor wasn’t actually that glamorous—mainly I made tea, wrote boring copy, proofed other people’s more interesting copy, and did what was called “gathering assets,” which boiled down to Googling shit—but you still had to turn it out. You had to look like the sort of person who worked at a high society lifestyle magazine. Not posh, exactly, but as if you knew what you were doing fashion-wise.
Thankfully, I’d emerged from the womb serving manic pixie dream queer. I went for some skinny leg, windows check trousers, a chunky cable knit jumper, also courtesy of Mum, and my very pointiest shoes. Then hurried downstairs to see if Ellery had eaten all the Coco Pops.
Which, apparently, she had. Or rather was just about to, as she tipped the last of the packet directly into her mouth. She was wearing an oversized T-shirt, which simply said BASTARDS, and some stripy thigh-highs, and was curled in the corner of the vast L-shaped sofa that was our only item of furniture. I mean, unless you counted the table I’d made out of wine crates. And the taxidermy walrus that…actually, I still had no idea about the walrus. Ellery said he was called Broderick.
The rest of the band, who didn’t actually live with us but might as well have, were scattered about in various states of consciousness. The drummer—Osian Ap Glyn—was facedown in the middle of the floor in a tumble of red hair. For a moment, I thought he might be legitimately dead, but then he twitched and I heaved a sigh of relief. Innisfree, who did keyboard and soulful vocals, and was essentially the anti-Ellery, was sitting in the lotus position with her face turned ecstatically towards the sunrise. And Dave, the guitarist, was, as ever, just there, looking as if he’d blundered into Ellery’s life by mistake and couldn’t think of a way to politely excuse himself.
“Innis made you a packed lunch,” said Ellery as I edged carefully round Osian.
“Oh wow.” My heart sank. “She shouldn’t have.”
Innis turned briefly in my direction, like a more serene version of that scene in The Exorcist. “It’s my pleasure, Ardy. Healthy body, healthy soul. And compassion in every bite.”
“There’s a quinoa salad,” Ellery told me sadistically. “With kale and avocado.”
“And dried beetroot crisps.”
Innis smiled, showing her perfect, shining teeth. “And, as a special treat, some of my hand-made protein balls.”
“Thank you.” I squirmed miserably.
“Don’t forget your tea.”
I was so very doomed. “You made tea too?”
“Nettle and fennel.”
“Ardy’s favourite,” exclaimed Ellery, very much earning the betrayed look I cast in her direction.
I gave her the middle finger, picked up the eco-friendly silicon storage container Innis had left me, along with the bamboo-fibre travel cup, and made for the door. Closing it firmly on both Ellery’s laughter and Innis reminding me to buy a coat.
Because, as it happened, I had a coat. A really fabulous one. But it had been a gift from Caspian. And while I was sure one day it would be a welcome reminder of a man I’d once loved, right now it just hurt too fucking much to wear it.
Besides, I grew up in Scotland. Southerners knew nothing about cold.
I hurried along the canal and then up the steps that took me to street level so I could cross the bridge. And right there, slumped against the railing so inconveniently that I nearly tripped over his feet, was Billy Boyle, Ellery’s stalker-paparazzo. I’d only met him a couple of times before, and on each occasion I’d afterwards found myself the subject of some nasty column inches, mostly speculating about which of the Harts I was banging. I didn’t like him, is what I’m saying.
He used his teeth to pull a Lucky Strike from the packet he was holding, and lit it with a flick of his lighter. “All right, Ardy?”
“You know nobody really says ‘No comment,’ don’t you? Only Tory MPs when they’ve been sending pictures of their willies to fourteen-year-old girls.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
I did my best to evade him, but there wasn’t much I could do short of running into traffic, so he fell into step beside me. His cigarette smelled different—nastier—to whatever Caspian smoked. But still. It was familiar enough to make my heart ache afresh.
“You back with Ellie, then?” he asked.
There was no way I could answer that question without it implying something I didn’t want to imply. Which was probably the whole point. “No comment.”
“Good choice, mate.” Boyle grinned wolfishly. “She’s by far the best of them. Can’t beat sticking your dick in crazy.”
Urgh. He made my skin crawl. “You’re disgusting.”
“Just telling it like it is.” He shrugged. “But what a family, eh?”
I walked a little faster. There were people around and cars on the road, so I had no reason to feel threatened. Which I didn’t really—just fucked with and prodded at and imposed upon. And I wasn’t sure what I could do about it in any case. Since I was pretty sure being icky wasn’t breaking any laws.
“The dad was a Boy Scout. The mum’s a snooty bitch. And the brother…well, you’d know more about that than me, wouldn’t you, Ardy baby? But the stories you hear.”
He was just trying to get a reaction. So I gritted my teeth and refused to give him one.
“That’s the rich, though. Think they can do anything.”
I kept my head down. Kept walking.
“You should consider telling yours.” Boyle cast his cigarette butt carelessly into the gutter. “Story, I mean.”
Startled, I stopped a moment. “Wait. What?”
Another of his scavenger’s grins. “Thought that’d get your attention.”
“Not in a positive way.”
“Don’t be like that. I’m trying to help you.”
“No,” I said firmly, “you’re not. You’re trying to exploit me.”
Normally, I cut through Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park on my way to the station—which probably sounds a bit morbid, but it was actually a lovely place, full of grass and stone and quiet, especially in the morning—but the prospect of Billy Boyle chasing me through a graveyard, or lurking there on future occasions, was absolutely horrendous. I turned onto Bow Common Lane instead, stifling a sigh when Boyle turned with me.
“Could you go away,” I said, figuring it was worth a shot. “Please?”
But the man was as relentless as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the sole of my shoe. “I’d get you one hell of a deal, Ardy. And it’d be classy. Sunday magazine classy. You should think about it.”
“Okay. I’ll think about it.”
“Chance to tell your side of things. Completely sympathetic to your point of view. And of course, I’d make sure nothing too complicated got in the way of that.”
Wait. Complicated? I gave him an incredulous look. “Are you threatening me?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I’d say”—he stroked his chin thoughtfully—“I’m acknowledging the infinite subtleties of human nature. I mean, you haven’t exactly been a saint, have you, mate? And a story like this—if we play our cards right—could be worth a couple of mil at least. Imagine that. You’d never have to work again.”
“Aw, come on, Ardy.” Boyle sounded genuinely bewildered—even a little hurt. “Why not?”
“Um, how about because I’m not a total shithead?”
There was a brief pause. And I thought he was going to give up, but no. He kept talking. “Do it for Ellie then.”
“Right. Because she’d really appreciate me making her brother the subject of public speculation.”
“Bit of payback for all the shit he’s put her through.”
That made me laugh—in a mean, sceptical sort of way. “You can’t really expect me to believe you’re doing this for Ellery and not the money.”
“Like I said”—he shrugged—“the infinite subtleties of human nature.”
I just rolled my eyes.
Boyle reached into an interior pocket of his brown leather jacket and pulled out a scrap of paper with something scribbled on it. “Take my number, at least.”
“Fine.” I didn’t actually want his number—or anything to do with him—but it was clearly the only way I was going to get rid of him.
“Don’t wait too long, yeah? You always want to be ahead of a story, not behind it.”
He was probably just digging. Trying to freak me out. Unfortunately it was borderline working. “What story? There’s no story.”
“Thought you were supposed to be a journalist.” He flashed his yellowing, pointy-toothed smile at me. “You should know by now, there’s always a story.”
“Whatever you say. See you around, Ardy baby.”
He gave me a mocking, two-fingered salute and sauntered off. Finally, fucking finally, leaving me alone. And not feeling great, in all honesty. As well as running late.
I made a dash for the station and made it just in time, leaping between the Tube doors the second before they closed, and then wriggling and squishing my way through a forest of armpits until I was able to wedge myself into a nook at the back of the carriage.
It wasn’t a long journey—only about fifteen minutes, if there were no delays—but I felt ridiculous looking back on the time I’d spent at One Hyde Park, believing I lived in London. That wasn’t London. This was London. Long, dark tunnels, strangers diligently not looking at each other, and the scent of soot and sweat.
Maybe I was a complete weirdo, but I liked it more.
It was real to me in the way that Caspian’s cold, beautiful, sealed-off world could never be.
Although, I will admit, I missed being able to call him the moment something went wrong. Not because I wanted him to fix all my problems for me, but because having him on my side—knowing he cared about me and wanted the best for me—was its own magic. Like Queen Susan’s horn, he let me find my way through life, sheltered by the promise that help was always close by.
Though I hoped all I had to do with Boyle was ignore him. Count on my own irrelevance and the fact that Caspian was already well guarded from nonsense like this. I’d pretty much resolved on a course of resolute nonaction as I elbowed my way off the Tube, but then I remembered that I still had Finesilver’s business card in my wallet. He was the Harts’ lawyer, and from what I’d been told, he specialised in reputation management. Frankly, he was terrifying in this smiling, silk and steel kind of way. But he’d been nice enough to me on the one (also Boyle-related) occasion we’d met. And since this involved Caspian indirectly, maybe he’d be able to give me some advice.
I still had a few minutes before I needed to be in the office, so I nipped past the now-familiar statue of William Pitt the Younger and sat down on one of the benches in Hanover Square. I’d texted Caspian from here when I first got the job at—
Why was he everywhere? No wonder I loved the Tube so much. Some days, it felt like it was the only place he wasn’t. As if my memories of him had wrapped themselves up in the whole fucking city. And my love was a dog off its lead. Wandering by the roadside, getting ragged and thin, sniffing every street corner for just a trace of Caspian, trying to find its way home.
With shaky fingers, I dug out Finesilver’s card and dialled the number. Of course, he was too important to pick up his own phone, so I ended up having to introduce myself to an assistant and explain, not very coherently, who I was and what I wanted. Then, already convinced that this had been a terrible idea, I waited on hold for an uncomfortably long time. And finally:
“Mr. St. Ives.” Finesilver sounded very, very different on the phone. Sharper, colder, and a hell of a lot meaner. “How can I help?”
“Um, you remember that reporter guy? Boyle?”
I flexed my fingers, horribly aware I was sweating over my phone. “Well, he’s been hanging around again. He wants me to sell my story.”
“I see. And I presume this call means you’re amenable to a counteroffer.”
“You’re not amenable?” He cleared his throat. “Mr. St. Ives, I understand that you may be carrying some resentment towards my client, but any attempt to hurt him will cause far more damage to your reputation than it ever could to his.”
This was giving me serious déjà vu. Not only was it the second nebulous threat I’d received today, but it wasn’t even the first time I’d been accused of trying to spill Caspian’s secrets to the press. And it was unbelievably depressing to discover that you could apparently get used to it.
“I’d never do anything to hurt Caspian,” I said.
“And your circumspection will be generously recompensed, pending the proper legal assurances.”
“Just a few standard and nonintrusive nondisclosure agreements.”
The conversation was getting away from me—thundering off like an out-of-control train down unintended tracks. “You don’t understand. I don’t want money and I’m not signing an NDA, but it doesn’t matter because I will never, ever go to the papers.”
A very slight pause. “Then why are you calling me?”
“Because…because…Boyle? I thought you needed to know this stuff.”
A longer pause. “Arden”—Finesilver’s voice softened—“I cannot help Miss Hart unless she allows me to do so, and you are no longer under Mr. Hart’s protection.”
“You may, however, be certain that I will continue to safeguard my client’s interests. And I recommend that you continue to ensure that yours align with his.”
“I already told you,” I muttered, “I won’t go to the papers.”
“Forgive me, but my profession does not reward the assumption that people will keep their word. Which is to say, if you find your morals wavering, you shouldn’t hesitate to contact me, and I will shore them up with material benefit.”
Boyle, with his sly glances and nasty insinuations, had made me feel pretty fucking dirty. But this was way worse. “Right. Okay.”
“Was there anything else you wanted, Mr. St. Ives?”
I should probably have escaped with what remained of my dignity, but bitterness got the better of me. “No, thanks. You’ve more than satisfied my need to feel cheap and blackmaily.”
“That was not my intention.”
“Then I guess it’s just a bonus.” Finesilver started to say something else, and I cut him off. “But for the record, I only phoned because I wanted to get rid of Boyle.”
“I’m afraid I’m in no position to advise you.”
- "[A]n empowering story about being free to express and explore your desires . . . there's joy in the way [Alexis Hall] makes mundane things feel like moments of awe."—Love in Panels
- On Sale
- Sep 3, 2019
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Forever Yours