What’s a man born to wealth and privilege to do when he finds himself suddenly bereft of all the things he’s taken for granted? Magnus Dawson is — or was — the third son of the Duke of Hereford, but with his father dead, Ledbury, Magnus’ oldest brother, is given the title. For all that there is shared blood between them, the two have never been close and his brother wants Magnus out. Out of the house and out of his way. While he went to Eton, Magnus was never much of a scholar. Instead, he served in Her Majesty’s army and has precious little to fall back on but the money his father has left him in his will. Money that will hold him for three years, unless he should chance to marry. Instead, Magnus goes looking for friends, any and all of them, in the hopes someone might have something for him to do.
Toby Marsh was a scholarship student at Cambridge, specializing in languages. Working as a tutor to indifferent students barely puts food in his mouth, let alone money towards the rent, and so when the Foreign Office offers him a job, Toby reluctantly agrees. It’s been some years since he served as a valet (and that service is one he wants to forget), and he’s never been keen on the company of spoiled lordlings, handsome or otherwise.
Neither Magnus nor Toby are in a position to say no to the job. For Magnus, it’s maddening to have to play the role of a brainless dandy — dandy he may be, but brainless? Only when he’s drunk, thank you — especially when the man serving as his valet makes his pulse race. For Toby, it’s a struggle to at first keep his contempt for the other man hidden, and then his own passion as he gets to know the man behind the rank and title. Now, just add in a dead body, and things may yet get interesting!
Magnus and Toby are both homosexuals in a time where, if it were public knowledge, such a thing could ruin a man’s reputation and hopes for the future, which makes their situation even more precarious. They dance around one another, feeling out the other man to see if, maybe, possibly they share similar inclinations. And even then, when Magnus is mostly sure, there’s no polite way to come out and ask about it. So it’s quiet, slow hints growing larger and more blatant, but always with that quiet delicacy.
Magnus dreams of love, of having someone at his side for the quiet times of night, someone to talk to and laugh with and share his life. Toby wants security, respect, and to be seen as an equal in all things. While Toby was studying at Cambridge, his father died and even the reduced tuition of a scholar was beyond him. His roommate, another noble, offered to take on the financial burden if Toby would be his valet and tutor. At the time, thinking this was an offer made by a friend, he accepted, only to learn that most of the peerage treat their servants as, well servants. Magnus is nothing like the other lords he’s known, but Toby is still careful, still uncertain that Magnus could ever see him as something more than a valet.
There’s a decided dash of farcical melodrama at times with the two men all but swooning onto chaise lounges owing to the unresolved sexual tension between them, with the usual overwrought assumptions of “he couldn’t possibly want someone like me!” and “how can I bear it!” and the constant use of the phrase cockstand which — to me — just made me snicker. Toby adds to all of this with the marvelously massive chip on his shoulder in regards to rank. Should Dawson mention rank, or heaven’s forbid a lack of rank, Toby will swan off in a huff, retiring for the night in wounded indignation.
Once the mystery begins, the characters calm down — maybe because they’re both getting some action at this point — and it becomes more of a mystery with an incidental murder in the middle of the English countryside. But the murder isn’t the focus of the story and, personally, it felt rushed and a bit clumsy with the setup and conclusion. Instead, there’s the slow building of friendships, Magnus having to find his footing in a world where he can’t rely on his father’s protection and has to ponder what to make of his future, and Toby having to realize that Magnus is Magnus, and not the boy who abused his friendship in school.
This was a bright, light, enjoyable read and I would be very curious to see more from this author.