Since their mid-teens, Luke has been deeply in love with his childhood friend and neighbour Jem, who spends most of the year at the decadent court of King Charles II in London. In the intervening years at home on Twelvetrees Farm in Oxfordshire, Luke has been occupied by helping his disabled father run their small estate, taking on the burden of work to support his family. Meanwhile, Jem has enjoyed all the worldly pleasures available to him at court.
When they are both twenty-one, Jem returns to Westlecot Manor to spend the summer, and Luke’s feelings for him reach boiling point. Luke can no longer cling to the belief he is important to Jem. He is overwhelmed by jealousy at the prospect of Jem's dalliances with any visitors to the manor house, while aware Jem is bewildered by his outbursts of disapproval.
Will Luke allow his jealousy to get the better of him? Might he dare to speak his deepest feelings? Or would that destroy their lifelong bond forever?
I cursed myself for allowing my resentment to get the better of me. I should have accepted Jem as a bright and carelessly happy creature and be grateful he still sought my company despite being surrounded by a glamorous throng.
But somehow, as June became July, my sense of grievance gathered. I used the excuse that I was dog tired, working from dawn to dusk, my father’s worries for the coming year burdening me, as I pushed myself even harder in an attempt to allay his anxiety.
Weary as I was by late in the day, I couldn’t refuse to accompany my family to the evening diversions at the manor. It would have seemed churlish to our good friend Sir Harry, and, with so many men present used to casual customs, I was needed to help my mother keep a careful eye on my sisters or be a strong and willing arm to support my father when required.
Repressing a yawn while watching the dancers, I tried not to resent Jem, glowing with health, well-rested, the life and soul of the party, conviviality itself. For some reason, this particular night, he bore the brunt of my frustration, his vibrancy and happiness contrasting painfully with my cares and exhaustion. I cursed his leisure time, his immaculate appearance, his care-free existence. I was heart-sore with wanting him, sick of myself and my ever-present foul mood.
We were about to depart for home, leaving the merrymakers to continue dancing until the early hours. I had fetched my mother’s shawl for her and was walking through the vestibule by the library on my way to the entrance hall where my family made their farewells.
At that very moment, one of the court ladies emerged from behind the library door, flushed and giggling, in the act of retying the laces at the front of her bodice. One step behind her, inevitably, was Jem, an amused smile on his lips as though he had been well-entertained.
“Luke,” he called out to me in good spirits as the lady scurried off to her chamber to tidy herself before returning to the main party. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
The expected polite reply froze on my lips.
“Your father is a generous host as always. But I’d rather be in my bed, and resting up for the long day ahead,” I replied curtly.
“Oh, come now,” he said jovially, patting me on the arm, “after your labours, you should take the opportunity to make merry amongst us all.”
“Take your example, you mean?” I asked sharply.
Jem seemed to perceive my uncertain humour, and his smile faded. “Luke, what’s the matter? Did you not enjoy our party?”
His innocent query unleashed my pent-up bitterness.
“It’s all very well for you to say, without a concern in the world. You don’t have to rise as soon as it's light, be an extra pair of hands for your father so that he doesn’t fret himself into an early grave or keep watch over your mother and sisters and worry about her portion and their dowries. Those weights are not on your shoulders.”
Jem tried to calm me with a quip, “But they are such powerful shoulders,” he said, running an appreciative hand over the sleeve of my sober jacket. Rather than soothing me, that seductive touch stung me to harsh speech.
“Not that you’d care or notice,” I continued bitterly. “You’re too busy chasing after any available skirt or pair of breeches.”
Jem looked taken aback by my outburst. “But Luke,” he started to protest mildly.
“Oh, away with you. Go frolic with whom you please,” I said roughly, and for the first time ever, I walked away from him without a second glance, let alone an ameliorating word.