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Making History at Crofton Hall

by Rebecca Cohen

Crofton Hall is buzzing with anticipation for the filming of the Secret Histories TV special about a scandalous affair that has been hidden for over four hundred years.

The hall's new historian, Dara Callaghan, is drawn not just by the hall's rich history but to TV producer, Nathan Lorimer. Nathan is finally ready to start dating again, several years after the death of his husband. There's something about Dara, a quietly spoken Irishman, and the romance that surrounds Crofton Hall, that makes him want to take a chance.

Meanwhile, Ben Redbourn, 16th Earl of Crofton, is trying to persuade his boyfriend Ashley Niven that he'd like to don doublet and hose and play Sebastian to his Anthony. But Ashley's not having any of it... until someone else agrees to the take the part of the 1st Earl of Crofton's lover.

This is the second Modern Crofton novel, featuring Benjamin Redbourn, the 16th Earl of Crofton and descendant of Anthony Redbourn, 1st Earl of Crofton from my historical series, The Crofton Chronicles. While designed to be read as a standalone, events that lead to this novel follow chronologically from Saving Crofton Hall.

Trigger warnings: discussion of grief and dealing with bereavement

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Excerpt:

Dara wished Professor Timmory would sit still for a moment. Her incessant rifling through her papers was beginning to annoy him.

“Professor Timmory.”

“Dear Lord, Dara, after six years as my post-doc I think you should be able to call me Madeline.”

Her track record was as intimidating now as it had been when he’d first come for his interview, so even though she had given him express permission several times, he had to fight to get his brain and mouth to cooperate. “Sorry, Madeline. Yes, about me being your post-doc, I wanted to ask about the grant application.”

“No joy, I’m afraid.” She snatched up a photocopy of an engraving from the front plate of a book of medieval poetry. “But you’re not to worry. I have a solution.”

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Dara had known the department might not get the funding to support his research, even Cambridge University was having to tighten its belt with wave after wave of budget cuts, but hearing it delivered in such a blasé manner made his eye twitch. If he wasn’t careful the migraine he’d fought off the night before would crash over him with no resistance.

“How am I not meant to worry? You’ve as good as told me I’ve lost my job.” Not just his job but his dream of working his way up through the echelons of Cambridge academia to owning his own book-lined office and spending his days peering over his glasses, that he didn’t yet wear, and humming in agreement with senior staff while secretly plotting to beat them in the next round of grant proposals.

“Yes, I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.” She started hunting through her piles of paper again.

Cambridge academics were not known for their understanding of the real world. He doubted she had any clue how much a pint of milk cost, but he had hoped that with Madeline’s contacts and her TV series, she might be less sheltered from reality than most of her colleagues. “Is that all you’ve got to say? I thought you valued my work and contribution, not just to the department but your personal research.”

For the first time since stepping into her office that morning, Madeline stood still and looked him directly in the eye. “It not a matter of the calibre of your research, Dara. In fact, you’re so brilliant that I thought of you the minute Ben mentioned he was thinking of employing a historian.”

“What? Ben?”

“Crofton Hall.”

Of course he knew the name, he could hardly escape it with the buzz in the department. “The stately home which found the Shakespeare First Folio?”

“Yes, yes.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But far more important: the letters.”

Letters?”

“Good Lord, Dara, have you not had your coffee this morning? You’re not normally this slow. The ones between the actor and the earl. Secret gay tryst documented in primary source documents.”

Ah, those letters. The ones she’d not let anyone else read and had caused frantic phone calls to TV executives. “I might have more of an idea as to their contents if I’d been allowed to read them.”

“Well, now’s your chance. I know you had your heart set on the grant renewal but the budgets are being squeezed, and instead you have the sort of opportunity the like of which you’ll never get in an academic department.”

“But—”

“Hear me out.” She fished two keys on a chain out from under her blouse and used one to open her desk drawer. She removed a small metal box and unlocked it with the second key. “I know the Shakespearean scholars are wetting themselves over the complete Folio with annotated stage directions, but the real historical gold are these.”

She held up two squares of folded paper. Dara reached out and took one of them. “Gold?”

“These are copies of just two of many—a bloody trunkful. Ben Redbourn, the current Earl of Crofton, has the rest at Crofton Hall. It’s the tip of an iceberg, Dara. I’m absolutely positive there’s something big hidden in that house, and Ben needs a historian to help him find it.”

Dara carefully unfolded one of the pieces of paper and read the elegant handwriting.

How the Winter suits you. Pale skin like the snow that falls afresh and greene eyes that dance with Secrets. I would keep you warm, the fires in my belly burn brightest for you my love. Let me chase away the cold, and burye myself in your hidden heat. Damn the distance between us, but it will not be long and I will worshipp you and you will shout my name to the Heavens.

“A love letter. Although the writer has a rather high opinion of himself.”

“What else would you expect from Anthony Redbourn, 1st Earl of Crofton.”

He’d spent his PhD scouring letters and piecing together scraps of evidence, only for promising sources to evaporate in a cloud of fakery. “Verified?”

“Against known pieces of the 1st Earl’s handwriting.”

Even after one reading Dara could tell this wasn’t normal for the period. If he hadn’t known it was between two men, the language would’ve given it away that the recipient was no lady by any definition of the word. “And you suspect there’s more to it than some colourful exchange of language?”

“Oh yes.” She smiled and her eyes sparkled in a way Dara only saw when she was excited. “I think the earl’s lover was his brother-in-law, the actor Sebastian Hewel. But as I said, the Redbourn family are looking to employ a historian for Crofton Hall. There’s a wealth of family history and there are hints—if we care to look—that this was more than a passing dalliance.”

His fingers tingled as he held the letter, Madeline’s enthusiasm infectious. Was he holding proof of something exceptional? “I take it there’s no way I could explore the possibility through a research position with the university?” he asked more out of hope than realism.

“I’m truly sorry, Dara. I did try, but at least you’ll have my backing if you do decide to give the Crofton Hall position a go.”

“A bit presumptive. They may have someone else in mind.” Based on what Madeline had said, Dara hoped they hadn’t but he’d never been one to believe in luck. He’d worked his arse off to get where he was and now an opportunity like no other had fallen in his lap.

“Ben has asked me for a personal recommendation. With your interests, both professional and private, I couldn’t think of anyone better.”

“Private interests?”

“I thought you’d be interested in your people’s history.”

My people?”

“Well, um, gosh. You are gay? Aren’t you? I’m sure you brought a boyfriend to a Christmas drinks party a couple of years ago.” She flushed, not something he’d ever seen her do before. “Oh God, please don’t report me to HR, I really wasn’t meaning to be disparaging or offensive.”

“It’s fine. Yes, I’m gay, but I wouldn’t consider it as an additional qualification for the job.”

“Of course not. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest you mention it when you speak to Ben—not that he’s a bigot as that’d make him a hypocrite, and he’s not that either.” She tutted. “I’m ballsing this up completely. Look, it’s an amazing opportunity, a chance to tap a virtually unexplored historical archive. Are you interested? Because if you are I can arrange for you to speak to Ben straight away.”

He hated being put on the spot. But without a job he couldn’t afford the rent on his flat in Cambridge, and if Professor Timmory, with all her connections, couldn’t secure funding for a post-doc then pickings for a new position were going to be slim. “I suppose I could at least look into it. It’s in Hertfordshire, somewhere, isn’t it?”

“Between St. Albans and Hatfield. About an hour’s drive away from Cambridge.” She picked up a crumpled printout of a Wikipedia entry about an Elizabethan manor house. “Here you go. Y’know, I’m pretty sure there’d be the chance to live in if you wanted. Crofton Hall’s a beautiful place—you’d be mad not to.”

COLLAPSE

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.

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.