James Thorne, the widowed Viscount Tadbury, insists he will never remarry -- not because he could never love again, as the romantics of Society assume, but because he already does. His late wife's brother, Nicholas, who now lives in James's home, educating his sister's children, is the least appropriate person imaginable. To love a man so closely related by law is unseemly, improper, surely dishonorable, and James values honor and propriety above all things. His beloved Nicholas must never know his true feelings, for his opinion of James could only suffer by it.
Nicholas, meanwhile, has been in love with James since the day they met -- the day James was introduced as his sister's betrothed. Of course he could not act on his feelings then, and how can he now? How can he press himself on a grieving widower, or betray his sister's memory?
When Nicholas is badly injured during the social event of the Season -- James's brother's engagement ball -- will one of them be shaken into confessing their feelings? Or will they lose their chance forever?
"You'll want a drink," he remembered abruptly -- that was the first thing James had said to him when he arrived at Tadbury Hall three years ago. He'd felt ground to powder after days of travel, frantic to reach his sister when he got word of how ill she was. Sleepless and shaking with anxiety, he had alighted from his carriage to find a household already shrouded in black crepe. He had missed the funeral by a day.
"You'll want a drink, Nicholas," James had said, and pushed a glass of rum into his hand. Nicholas had thrown it against the wall and shouted, "I'll want my sister, you son of a bitch!"
James had stared at him, expression grim, and at first Nicholas took it for disapproval, contempt at his outburst. Only after a long, awful moment did his rage ebb enough to see the truth -- that James's eyes were red, his face grey, his knees locked to keep him from swaying.
"Are the children ...?" Nicholas had asked hoarsely.
"The children are recovering," James replied. "They ... they don't know yet. They were too ill to attend the funeral, and ... I haven't told them." He looked around the room, lost and small in a way Nicholas had never seen.
And Nicholas, who had thought himself stupidly in love with James Thorne from the moment he saw him, somehow managed to fall for him all over again, in a new and deeper and more painful way. He had loved James the bright, gallant, leonine young viscount; now he loved the James who was broken, crumbling and alone. The James who was less of a golden dream and more of a reality, beautiful in its bumps and bruises.
"We can tell them together," Nicholas said, hesitantly clasping James's arm. "Dolly, at least, should remember me ..."
"I don't need your help," James snapped, pulling away.
"Perhaps not, but I'd appreciate the opportunity to be of use to Maria's children, since I can't now be of any use to Maria."
James regarded him narrowly for a moment before letting out a sigh of defeat. "You look ready to fall over, Nicholas. I'll have someone take you to your room; you can sleep until dinner. We'll see the children together this evening."
And they had, and it had been terrible beyond words. When his tearful niece begged Nicholas not to leave, he had promised to stay as long as she and Freddy wanted without so much as glancing at James for permission.
When they left the children asleep, and found themselves alone together in the corridor outside the nursery, Nicholas had braced himself to fight it out with his brother-in-law. He intended to keep his promise, propriety and even basic etiquette be damned. But James had only looked at him and shaken his head.
"Might do us good to have you, at that," he muttered. "And there's no question what she would have wanted."
He'd walked off without another word, though they had exchanged a good many words in the coming months, not all of them fit for the children to hear. James was a proud, stubborn, high-handed cockerel of a man, and Nicholas knew himself to be a sharp-tongued, disagreeable sort as well. If anything could have killed his feelings for James, that first year, when they were both grieving and territorial and prickly as tomcats, should have done it.
It had not. James's dark moods only emphasized the beauty of his smile, when it appeared; coaxing it out became a painful little treat to Nicholas, a pleasure that ached. A favor, a raised eyebrow, a trifling gift, a sarcastic remark delivered at the right time -- any of these might bring that smile out, always a little surprised at itself, and transform the tension between them into a sudden, brief unity, like a firefly lighting in the darkness. James's ability to forget a quarrel -- whether surrendering the argument in one of those firefly moments, or letting a matter drop once he'd said his piece, or turning instantly to more urgent concerns if they arose -- was a virtue Nicholas did his best to emulate.
These days they seldom truly quarreled, only bickered and teased, and with the sting gone that was as great a pleasure as any Nicholas had in life. A wide field of fireflies, one glow beginning as another ended so that the darkness was never complete.
Now, instead of the unattainable dream -- Maria's perfect husband -- James was simply the man in the bedchamber down the hall, a flawed maddening wonderful man who could, if he chose, marry again.