A brief moment of silence.
Hugh winced as he put a hand to his head. What a night. Those fellows certainly could take a drink. Quite impressive for first-timers. Not that he was any kind of slouch. It was just that, for some reason, he felt as if he’d had twice the amount of liquor as usual.
He yawned widely and rolled over. There was a loud thud as he fell off the couch and hit the floor.
The admonishment fell on groggy ears; but the sound of arguing voices through the nearby wall was the equivalent of five straight cups of espresso.
“Gone all day! I never see you anymore! And now, I find out you’ve been drinking?!”
“Aw, lay off, will you?”
The first voice was female and unfamiliar; the second, a most definitely hungover Shelley. Hugh grinned.
“Got him in a bit of trouble, eh?” He gave a sage nod, and winced again. “Ah, women.”
“We’ll all be in trouble in a minute.” Barrett’s forehead creased in worry. The door opened; with the adrenaline of necessity, the boy jumped behind the sofa.
Shelley entered, bleary-eyed, doing a terrible job at fending off the older woman just behind and below. Though she herself could be no more than four feet tall, the broom she brandished in righteous fury easily made up the difference.
“I always knew this poetry foolishness would lead to ruin.” Every sentence punctuated with a bristle-filled smack upside the poet’s head, who was attempting to stave off the onslaught in an exceptionally feeble manner. “Mark my words—“
“Lay off, Mum!!”
“Mum?” Hugh’s grin widened enough to split his head in half.
The woman paused in mid-thwack to survey the room. “I told you not to bring your good-for-nothing friends around here anymore.” The broom raised threateningly in Hugh’s direction. “You, whoever you are. I’ll give you until the count of three to get out of my house, or else I’ll—“
This was one of those rare times Hugh’s limited experience came to his aid. He swept his most impressive bow. “No sooner said than removed, Madam. Delighted to make your acquaintance.”
Her brows lifted in curiosity, tempered by suspicion. “You don’t talk like one of these other idiots. Who are you?”
“Hugh Valentine Ballentrae.” He swept another bow, to make sure. “The Third.”
Nothing like a coat of glamour to defuse a volatile situation. Her delighted smile served to cover his mild confusion at having got the whole thing out at last.
“Why… a gentleman?” Shelley’s Mum flushed slightly pink and gave her hair an absentminded pat. “My son, bringing home a gentleman. Well, this is a surprise, to say the least.”
“Then you don’t approve of his usual fraternizations?” Even Hugh had managed to surmise this much, but he was on a roll here.
She shot a glare around the room that dripped icicles over every cringing head.
“No.” The smile returned. “But, a gentleman! In my home! What a day this is! There may be hope for you yet.” This last shot toward her son before continuing. “All I ever wanted was for him to make something of himself. He could have worked in a chips shop, you know.”
“Work is beneath those in touch with their souls.” Perhaps wisely, Shelley aimed the objection at the floor.
His mother rolled her eyes. “Oh, there you go again with that soul business! I never heard foolishness like this out of your sister—“ Cutting off again to whisper conspiratorially to Hugh— “Mary’s in her third year now, resident cryptozoologist at Wollstonecraft University… and single…” Once more lobbing a volley at Shelley, not a beat missed. “But if you hate work so much, we could have bought you a title. Don’t have to work a day in your life, if you have a title.”
“Wise words.” Hugh nodded seriously.
The young poet favored them both with a scowl of frustration. “Argh! I’ve told you a hundred times, that’s the very thing I’m rebelling against, is pompous twits like him! You never listen!”
“Maybe that’s because all I ever hear is nonsense.” Her tone lowered an octave with disturbingly abrupt concern. “Now, Hubert… I hate to do this… but I think it’s time you moved out on your own.”
If Shelley’s brows shot up any further they’d have hit the ceiling. His voice shot up too, and cracked against it. “Moved out?!”
“Yes.” His Mum laid a solicitous hand on her son’s arm. “Time for you to go out into the big world. …Just you stay away from the cities, mind. There’s nasty girls in those cities… and rats.”
“I will look out for his well-being, Madam.” No mere colonial gentleman was going to beat Atticus Wellington when it came to laying it on thick. “Serve as his mentor.”
“Indeed.” Atticus nodded at both anticipatory and skeptical responses. “Not only that, but I have employment for him. You will be delighted to hear that I have recruited your son into my personal army, to fight for the glorious cause of freedom.”
“How wonderful!” Shelley’s Mum turned to her gaping son and swatted his ear sternly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“But I didn’t agree—“
Atticus waved this off. “You didn’t have to.”
“This is just what he needs,” the woman nodded. “Discipline.”
“It hasn’t been easy, you know.” Shelley’s Mum went on, ignoring her son’s consternation. “Raising him without a father’s stern hand. Of course, his father was just like him: lazy, shiftless… became a drunkard.” She flipped about to the stunned poet. “But with some regulation, you may have some hope. You’ll come back to your mummy a regular little man, won’t you?”
“Yes, he’ll be mixing with the best element there is.” Atticus agreed. “Me. As will all of his friends.”
“His friends, too?” The woman nodded, cementing the deal. “I like you more and more, sir. Oh, Hubert… let me get you something for the journey…”
She and the broom bustled back off through the swinging door, which flapped into the silence.
Next Week: One Man's Army