Anthony, Earl of Crofton

by Rebecca Cohen

Anthony, Earl of Crofton - Rebecca Cohen
Editions:Kindle: $ 3.99

A tale set in Stuart England, where the king’s life depends on his most loyal of subjects.

Anthony Redbourn, Earl of Crofton, delights in his reputation as a charming rogue. Life is never quiet at the court of King James I, especially with his good friend and secret lover, Sebastian Hewel, by his side. As an actor with the celebrated King’s Men, Sebastian has his own admirers, but neither man has eyes for anyone else.
When a plot against His Majesty is uncovered it threatens Anthony and Sebastian’s charmed lives, and they are dragged into the political intrigue and the race to save the king from danger. Fear that a traitor is linked to the King's Men leaves Sebastian and Anthony with no choice but to stage a very public dissolution of their friendship, so Anthony can be free to be the patron of a new rising actor, and Sebastian can be the prodigy of another noble.
It is a dangerous game they are playing to expose the plotters and still find a way to meet in secret, as Anthony is adamant that they will not sacrifice the love they have fought so hard to win. They will do whatever it takes to protect the king’s life, and their commitment to each other.

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Excerpt:

Anthony Redbourn applauded loudly, his heart swelling with pride. The actors from the King’s Men bowed low, basking in the audience’s appreciation of yet another marvellous performance for the court of King James. Richard Burbage had been magnificent as Hamlet; but, as always, Anthony’s attention had not wandered far from the dark-haired beauty playing Laertes.

“Crofton, your young Mr Hewel is quite the favourite. He has made Laertes his own.”

Anthony glanced in the direction of his friend, Stephen Winters, the Duke of Marchent. “It is an honour to champion one of the leading talents of such a worthy acting company.”

“I am sure you appreciate his talents,” Marchent said with a sly smirk, alluding to his knowledge of the true nature of Anthony and Sebastian’s friendship.

“It would take a blind, or simple, man not to recognise Mr Hewel’s calibre.”

“Quite.”

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The actors left the temporary stage, hurrying so selected members of the company could change quickly and then make the rounds of court. Anthony had seen to it that Sebastian was always welcome as his guest and one-time brother-in-law, but for other young actors, being invited to court was their first step to achieving the recognition many of them craved.

The refrain from the musicians started in another of the state rooms. “But enough idle talk. I feel the need to show some of the youngsters that the Earl of Crofton is as sprightly as ever.”

“I will follow. At least while my legs are still fit to gavotte before the wine addles them.”

“It is your head, not your legs, that should be cautious.”

The dancers swept across the floor with an elegance that Anthony loved to watch. He’d never had trouble finding a willing dance partner or two. The court was full of young women who looked up at him as if he were a prize that could be won, his easy charm doing little to dissuade them. After a lively galliard, he stepped away from a beautiful Spanish woman, begging forgiveness as he excused himself, and she moved swiftly on to another noble and continued dancing a pavane.

A servant handed Anthony a goblet of wine. He stood to the side to watch the dancers, spotting Sebastian bow low and kiss the hand of the Baron of Palberry’s eldest daughter.

Anthony smiled as the pretty young woman let Sebastian lead her to dance. They made for an attractive couple, her blonde hair contrasting with Sebastian’s dark, but while she might be staring into the green of Sebastian’s eyes in hope they could extend their dalliance beyond dancing, she would be disappointed. Anthony knew Sebastian only had eyes for one person, and Anthony had learnt not to let his temper get the better of him. Although, it had not been the easiest of lessons. Sometimes he wondered if Sebastian’s acting talents were too good. Still, some careful consideration in his choice of dance partner would be advisable; otherwise, he would find himself facing the rage of that young lady’s father, the Baron of Palberry, having none of the new king’s love of the theatre or its actors.

Sebastian would have to be blind not to see him waiting and watching. Sebastian’s beauty had never been in doubt; his twin sister, Bronwyn, might be a plain woman, but Sebastian was an excellent male specimen. Seeing Sebastian lead an elegant gavotte brought to mind how Sebastian’s long, shapely legs had wrapped around him the night before. No wonder others were also entranced. While he would admit it had taken a little time to get used to it, Anthony was now very fond of Sebastian’s neatly trimmed beard, even if it had looked unsightly during the endless time it had taken to grow. The wisps of hair had provided many opportunities to tease, and had made Anthony realise that not all men were blessed with the ease with which he had cultivated his own, very fine, beard.

Watching Sebastian’s graceful movements roused many memories of how they had graced numerous dance floors together, albeit with Sebastian hidden away behind layers of women’s clothing, while pretending to be Anthony’s wife. Thinking back, he could hardly believe their audacity, but even though two years had passed, he still ached on occasion to be able to grab Sebastian in the middle of a crowded room and claim him. He’d lost count of the number of times he’d had to hold back from intervening when a likely suitor had tried to capture Sebastian’s attention. But Anthony could trust his lover; Sebastian had never once given Anthony reason to doubt him, despite Sebastian being almost as popular at court as Anthony himself.

Court had changed since the death of the old queen. Where once Elizabeth’s presence at a meal meant formality, James brought with him a livelier flare. Some of his fellow nobles muttered among themselves about their vulgar king, but Anthony had no complaints. As far as he was concerned, James was a breath of fresh air. And it didn’t hurt that Anthony had received several private audiences with King James over the last year.

The king had already left, retreating once the dancing had started. However, he’d been vocal during the feast before the King’s Men’s performance. Nobody in earshot could have been in any doubt of his disparaging opinions on the shortcomings of some of the Scottish nobles, who had not given him the support he’d demanded as their king before prior to the English throne. Not all of the king’s countrymen were equally loved.

A quirk of Sebastian’s lips removed Anthony from his musing. Finally, Sebastian had spotted him waiting. With a polite bow, Sebastian disengaged from his partner, eloquently brushing off her best attempts to make him to stay on for another dance.

Sebastian’s eyes sparkled with desire as he approached. Anthony knew he was the only one who got to see that, even if there were times in the past when he hadn’t truly deserved to be. “Lord Crofton. I did wonder if you would grace us with your very welcome presence this evening.”

Sebastian had known of Anthony’s intentions to attend, but Anthony had long since schooled them both in the need to be heard saying the right things by casual observers. Sebastian wasn’t the sole actor in their relationship. Anthony had been using his charms to fool the court for years. And now that practice allowed him time with his lover. “You should know better than to doubt I would miss the festivities in honour of yet another great performance by the King’s Men.”

“Whitehall lends herself very well to the occasion. Say you, what did you think of Burbage’s Hamlet?”

Anthony had barely noticed the other actors. “I gave him little attention. Laertes held my interest completely.”

“I am flattered, my lord.” Sebastian gifted him a gentle smile and bowed. “It is one of my favourite roles, and it is a pleasure to me that my performance is appreciated by a man known for his great taste in art and culture.”

“I think you’ll find, I always appreciate your performance.”

Sebastian tilted his head to one side, his eyes hooded with a promise of things to come. Anthony pressed on.

“Perhaps, Mr Hewel, you would grace me with your company at my townhouse this evening. We could further discuss your prowess.”

“I would be honoured.” Sebastian glanced around, but Anthony knew there were too many people for Sebastian to be too daring. “It will be fine merriment to toast our friendship with a bottle of your best claret.”

“I should have known. Like most of my companions, you are only after the contents of my wine cellar.”

Sebastian leaned closer and dropped his voice. “Oh, you possess many other qualities I find more engaging.”

Anthony loved it when Sebastian was playful, loved to see the desire burn in his eyes. “Then I suggest we retire so I can prove you right. That is, if you believe court can stand to be without you for the rest of the evening.”

“I could ask the same of you, my lord.”

“Oh, they would probably welcome a break from my attendance. Some might say I haunt the palace more frequently than the ghosts.”

“I would think you a very welcome manifestation.”

Anthony steered Sebastian away from the crowds. “If you are so inclined, we could leave now. I trust your horse is in the stables.”

They’d travelled to Whitehall Palace separately—Sebastian with the other players and Anthony on his own. Star, Sebastian’s horse, was not in the stable at the townhouse, and Anthony had wondered if Sebastian had left her in the care of one of the helpers at the theatre for a few coins, to ensure she’d be well looked after.

“She certainly is. For some reason, I can’t quite imagine why, I thought I might be heading to Holborn this evening and not back with my fellow players.”

“How very astute of you, Mr Hewel.”

They didn’t have the chance to go far before they were intercepted.

“Not leaving us already, Lord Crofton?”

Anthony bowed and kissed the hand of the Countess Volaine, one of what seemed to be a hundred visiting foreign dignitaries. Her dark hair and bright eyes would have once inflamed his ardour and he would’ve lavished her with his time and a string of compliments. But those days were behind him, and he itched to get away and sate his hunger for Sebastian. She stood next to a younger, pretty woman called Diana, who was the daughter of one of Queen Anne’s ladies-in-waiting.

“Alas so, my lady.”

“Oh, but I must offer my felicitations on your betrothal to Lady Sara. She must be bursting with anticipation,” said Diana, sounding breathless as she fluttered her fan.

He wouldn’t have dared to venture such a description if he’d been in the presence of Lady Sara Tremayne. “Naturally. I daren’t think how excited she will be when the month is out and we officially celebrate at Crofton Hall. But now, I fear, Mr Hewel and I must depart.”

Diana wrinkled her nose, looking disappointed. “You are leaving as well, Mr Hewel?”

“Alas, I must beg your forgiveness. I have promised his lordship that we would raise a toast over his good fortune.”

Diana sighed. She was not the first woman to find Sebastian dashing and be disappointed when he departed. Her bosom heaved, and she stared doe-eyed at Sebastian. “How terribly noble of you, Mr Hewel. It must be difficult, considering your late sister.”

Sebastian answered with a well-worn lie, since no one was to know that the engagement to Sara was nothing more than a convenient ruse. “There is no difficulty for me, my lady. His lordship is free to marry again. I will be delighted to see him united with someone who will ensure his happiness. I only hope he will be as content with Lady Sara as he was with dear Bronwyn.”

Anthony thought Diana was waiting for a reply from him. Sebastian would tease him later about how he would soon be married for a third time. “Sebastian, as you know, your sister is irreplaceable; she will always hold a piece of my heart. But Lady Sara is a gentle woman and will make an admirable Lady Crofton.” He bowed to the two women. “We really must be leaving. I wish you a pleasant evening, my ladies. The king’s hospitality is a joy to behold.”

Anthony led Sebastian away, but were where still close enough to hear the countess say, “Lord Crofton is a striking gentleman. I had thought he’d be more like the others at court, happy to share his passion wide and free.”

“Maybe when he was younger,” replied Diana. “Bronwyn was something of a marvel. Many at court could not believe the effect she had on Lord Crofton’s behaviour, and it lasted long after her death. I thought Lord Crofton would be generous with his favours after a discreet period, but as far as I have heard, and despite countless offers, there has only been Lady Sara since Bronwyn’s passing.”

Sebastian laughed quietly under his breath. “If only they knew,” he muttered.

“Less of my shortcomings. I saw you were a favourite with the court today.” Anthony led them through the palace and out to the stable block, their unexpected appearance causing a servant to scurry in the direction of their horses. “Have my warnings regarding hostile fathers fallen upon deaf ears?”

Sebastian tutted. “I am nothing more than a willing dance partner, my lord. With no land or title, I am not a great prospect for any lady once the music has finished.”

“You sell yourself too short. One of London’s finest actors was how I heard you described earlier this afternoon. A full purse and fame of a non-notorious fashion would make you an excellent husband in the eyes of many.”

“But as you said, the eyes that might look on me favourably have fathers or guardians that would not. And quite rightly so.”

They both knew their careful words were for anyone who might overhear their conversation. Gone were the days where Anthony could reach over and claim Sebastian as his own as he once would when Sebastian had dressed as his sister. At least in public. Once Bronwyn was laid to rest, their outward interaction could be nothing more than the closest of friends, Anthony acting as Sebastian’s patron in the theatre. But still, he didn’t like to hear Sebastian talk of potential lovers, even if he knew it would come to nothing. Neither did he like Sebastian speaking as if he was worth so little. To the world, Sebastian was a beautiful young man, free from attachment and with a real future as an actor, being one of the prestigious King’s Men. No wonder he was coveted by those who saw him. Anthony was no less drawn to Sebastian today as he was the first time he’d seen him playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, five years ago at the Swan Theatre. And he was forever grateful that he’d been able to turn Sebastian’s audacity to pass himself off as his sister to his own advantage.

The late spring air was warm enough to be pleasant but not stifling. Anthony was not looking forward to the turning of the seasons. The summer’s relentless heat would settle soon, and with it the stench and irritability of the city’s inhabitants.

Anthony had been pleased that King James had settled into Whitehall Palace, rather than Richmond or the other palaces Queen Elizabeth had preferred. Whitehall was much better situated for Anthony’s own benefit, being a short ride from his Holborn townhouse and the right side of London for returning to Crofton Hall.

Once the groom had brought out their horses and Anthony had retrieved his travelling cloak from the saddlebags, he mounted the chestnut stallion, a relatively new addition to his stable. Sebastian followed suit, riding Star, a horse whose temperament suited Sebastian. Unfortunately, Anthony doubted Star would be able to continue with journeys as far as Crofton Hall for much longer than a few more months.

“We must look to getting you a younger horse,” he said as they left the palace grounds.

Sebastian patted Star’s neck. “Perhaps, but there are many more miles in her yet.”

“Not if you continue to ride her so far. Let us go to the horse merchant in Hertford on our return. You can keep Star at the hall to ride out locally, but travelling between the city and Crofton Hall may be too much for her soon.”

Sebastian stroked Star’s mane. “You may have a point. Do not let my agreement with you go to your head.”

“You say that as if I am seldom right,” Anthony said with an amused huff.

Sebastian kicked out with his heels to encourage Star to speed up. “I do not need to grace that with an answer.”

Anthony did the same. “Impetuous whelp. You should watch your manners. Some earls would have your tongue for such disrespect.”

“You and I both know that you have better use for my tongue than holding a place in a jar.”

Anthony stifled a laugh. He would not let Sebastian distract him. “Your abilities are not up for debate. We were discussing your horse.”

“Star will suffice for the time being. I couldn’t hope to afford another horse of her quality with my current means.”

Anthony would need to persuade him.

“You are well aware that money is not an issue, Sebastian. I will make the necessary provisions. I want you to be able to travel freely but, more importantly, be able to return to Crofton Hall as often as possible, so I can always have you close.”

“I know, my love. But how would you explain away such an extravagant gift, especially to the brother of your dead wife now Lady Sara will be your new one?”

“If you had not noticed, I do not find it necessary to explain myself to anyone. I clear my conscience with a priest, my politics with the king, and everyone else can hang before I alter my ways to appease them.”

Sebastian laughed. “I could not describe you better myself. But I suppose I will appease you—I do so often enough.”

“Appease me?” Anthony kicked him playfully. “There are some days when I think you were put upon this earth to taunt me.”

“If I am such a terrible fellow, I could, instead of travelling on with you when we reach Holborn, take the road to the right, cross over to South Bank, so to make my way to my rooms.”

They’d argued about Sebastian’s damned rooms, but Anthony had eventually admitted that Sebastian was right: he should have a place in the city to refer to as his own. If only for decorum’s sake, as Sebastian spent precious few nights in the expensive bed Anthony had bought for the rooms a few streets from the Globe. But two could play at Sebastian’s game.

“If you would rather be relieved of my company then, please, depart.”

“Then you would have peace, and we both know peace and quiet are not words that sit well upon you. No, it is my duty to ensure you are not attacked by that terrible fate.”

“I am constantly in awe of how you bear your slavery to such a rotten master.”

 

COLLAPSE

Anthony Redbourn and Sebastian Hewel are characters from the Crofton Chronicles series

About the Author

REBECCA COHEN spends her days dreaming of a living in a Tudor manor house, or a Georgian mansion. Alas, the closest she comes to this is through her characters in her historical romance novels. She also dreams of intergalactic adventures and fantasy realms, but because she’s not yet got her space or dimensional travel plans finalised, she lives happily in leafy Hertfordshire, England, with her husband and young son. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and sloe gin with lemon tonic in the other.

First published in 2011, Rebecca primarily writes gay romance but in many sub-genres (historical, sci fi, fantasy, contemporary), and she simply can’t bear not to follow a story even if it is set in a different time, space or reality.


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