“No—I was planning on forgetting.”
“Sorry.” Thomas reaches into his jacket pocket and slips out a green glass bottle. “Maybe this will make up for it?”
Thomas Rourke isn’t just the young Duke of Anthorp—he’s a naughty boy. A terrible influence. And he’s taken me firmly under his wing.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Irish whiskey. Old Irish whiskey from my father’s personal collection. The bastard used to guard it like gold. I thought we’d crack it open together.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “A few nips will make that legislation go down a lot easier.”
I look over my shoulder—there’s not a guard or maid or a spying judgey secretary in sight.
“Come on, then.” I smile.
There’s a shadowy spot behind a big evergreen, hidden from the view of the guards at the palace wall. Thomas and I sit on the grass and I reach under the tree like it’s Christmas morning, for my secret white box. A moment later, I light my cigarette and tilt my head back to blow out a long, languid stream of smoke.
“If a photographer ever snaps a shot of you with a fag in your fingers, your father’s going to lock you in your room for a month.” He pulls the cork out with his teeth and takes a deep swig from the bottle—because we’re classy like that.
Then he chokes and sputters.
I give the bottle a sniff, then before I change my mind, I bring it to my lips and gulp quickly.
And I immediately regret the decision. It’s like drinking fire. I drop my cigarette and cough my esophagus up into my hands.
Like a lady.
“It burns,” I rasp, eyes watering.
Thomas winks. “That means it’s good.”
There’s more drinking—and coughing—and by my second cigarette I feel light and wonderfully floaty. Thomas pulls an arched, intricately hand-carved wooden pipe from his pocket.
“Oh, no, Thomas—not the pipe.”
“I like the pipe,” he mutters around it. “It makes me look distinguished.”
“It makes you look like Sherlock Holmes.”
“Exactly. Holmes is distinguished.”
I shake my head. “You keep saying that word—I don’t think you know what it means.”
He points at me with the hideous pipe. “Shut it, you. Or I’ll keep this all to myself.”
He holds up an envelope—with sharp, masculine handwriting on it.
Thomas gets a letter from his brother about every two weeks—it’s the most exciting thing in both our lives. And if I let myself think about that too much, I’ll drown myself in this terrible-tasting whiskey.
I pluck the letter from his fingers, turning it over in my hands.
“Did you read it yet?”
Thomas snatches it back. “No. But if I were a gentleman I would have. Especially after the last one that was all about the luscious tits and arse of the Egyptian girl who liked him so much.”
Naughtiness is strong in the Rourke family. But Edward’s is different from his brother’s.
I suppress an embarrassed giggle. “There were two Egyptian girls. And he liked them right back, from what I recall. At the same time.”
Edward’s letters are the perfect mix of eloquence, wit and vulgarity—sometimes he draws pictures, and he’s one hell of an artist. They’re more interesting than any film and more fun than that Elvis Presley hip swing all the American parents are losing their minds about.
They’re my peek into the outside world. The real world. A world of sweat and sex and fighting and dancing—where people walk on the grass barefoot and eat with their hands. A world where life doesn’t revolve around titles or etiquette and double-damned political mind games.
Thomas opens the envelope and reverently unfolds the letter. He gives his pipe a puff—coughs twice because he shouldn’t be smoking it—then begins to read.
“I’ve stopped in Sweden for a few days, to stock up on gear on my way to a climbing expedition in Greenland. I arrived by train—hopped a boxcar—not the most elegant way to travel, but it’s quick and interesting. And there’s something freeing about having everything you own in the world strapped to your back in a pack. If you get the chance, I recommend it.
“I met a family of indigents in the car—a pretty mum, dad, little boy and cute girl. They shared their supper with me and despite their circumstances, they seemed happy. Content. Grateful for the food in their stomachs and the temporary roof over their heads. The lad was about seven or eight—with dark hair and glasses that were too big, but close enough for him to use. He reminded me of you. I left the few hundred kroner I had beside him while the family slept, then I jumped off at my spot, while the train rumbled on.”
I’ve never seen a picture of Edward, but in my mind he’s taken on a life of his own. Roguishly handsome, strong and charming, he lives the life of a hero-pirate-Viking-god. The kind of man who works in the sun, shares a pint with a friend, flirts with the prettiest lass, and manages to rescue an orphan or two from a burning building before he calls it a day.
Edward Rourke is the most exciting man I’ve never met.
“I’m writing to you now from a quiet hillside, with a campfire and tent beside me and the Northern Lights over my head. I’d heard aurora borealis is a stunning sight, something you have to see to believe—and Christ, they were right. It’s like a river in the sky of the most magnificent colors. Swirls of greens and reds and deep purple—all dancing together, a living symphony of color. It’s magic made real, like I can reach out and touch it. I don’t have the words to do it justice. I wish you were here, Thomas. I wish you could see this.
“I’ll be in Sweden until the end of the week; send your reply to the post address in Greenland below. I hope all is well with you, little brother, and I look forward to hearing from you more than I can say. Stay out of trouble—or, more to the point—don’t get caught making trouble. And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do (which of course isn’t much).
Sometimes he stays in one place for a few weeks or a few months, but never for good. I watch Thomas’s eyes light on the bottom of the page, before his lips curl up into a grin.
“PS—give my regards to Lenny.”
Warm, rushing sparks of electricity spread under my skin like some incurable rash.
Lenny. That’s me. What Edward calls me in his letters, because Thomas has told him we’re friends. It’s the most ridiculous name. Only slightly less ridiculous than the effect it has on me.
“Are you blushing, Lenora?” Thomas asks.
I turn up my nose. “I don’t blush. It’s your stupid Irish whiskey going to my head.”
I grab the letter and lie back on the cool grass, scanning it to make sure Thomas didn’t leave anything out. Then, subtly, I bring the paper to my nose and inhale. There’s a hint of pine and freshly cut wood.
“Did you just smell my brother’s letter?”
Perhaps not so subtle after all.
I lie like the stellar politician I’m being raised to be.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You did! You sneaky, sniffing, lying princess—you smelled the letter!”
Thomas’s tone turns singsongy teasing.