Lord Henry Arthur Fitzwilliam Foxbrooke, Viscount of Nobbury and heir to his father’s title and estate, stood in the entrance hall of his family home and seethed.
In front of him, a woman in a red latex crotchless catsuit squeaked across the tiled floor. A naked man crawled behind her, led by a dog leash attached to a studded collar. The man glanced at Henry and barked. The sound bounced off the panelled walls, colliding with peals of laughter and groans of lust that echoed from elsewhere in the house.
Henry ground his teeth. One of his father’s infamous soirées was in full swing.
Whether it floated your boat or sank your ship, as long as you were a consenting adult and left your pets at home, every sexual proclivity was catered for at Foxbrooke Manor. The parties had been running for decades ever since Henry’s father, Arthur, unexpectedly acceded to the title of Duke and turned the ancestral seat from a stuffy stately home in Somerset to a go-to destination for high-class hedonists and their hangers-on.
The affairs had started out small, but once word got out about the smorgasbord of sex and other stimulants on offer, they engorged. The Daily Mail newspaper was one of the most voracious critics, working itself up into a frothing frenzy of self-righteous indignation as it sought to lay the lassitude of youth, the decline of ‘British’ values, and the rise in house prices firmly at the door of Foxbrooke Manor.
The fact that the Duchess of Somerset, Henry’s mother, was a Black American model and movie star was unusual enough. However, a year after producing Henry and his twin sister, Estelle, Vivienne Camille Boucher-Foxbrooke began an affair with an Irish single mother from the village and introduced her to the Duke. Three months after that, Dervla O’Sullivan married the Duke and Duchess of Somerset in a pagan ceremony, and she and her infant son took the Foxbrooke name.
The three adults may have been happy in their unconventional relationship, however the mainstream media was not. The Daily Mail spearheaded a letter-writing campaign to show the Foxbrooke family just what the Great British Public thought of them and their lifestyle.
Arthur, Vivienne and Dervla responded by creating a pyre and burning every piece of correspondence in the centre of Foxbrooke village on a Saturday afternoon, surrounded by their young children.
Life was never the same again.
‘Henry! My boy!’
Arthur George Edward Foxbrooke was descending the wide staircase, a champagne flute in one hand, a lit cigarette in a holder in the other. He was dressed only in a patterned gold silk dressing gown that stretched over his tummy, and a pair of old carpet slippers. His salt-and-pepper hair stuck up in all directions and his cheeks were flushed. If Holly Golightly, Henry VIII and Hugh Hefner had indulged in a three-way, the Duke of Foxbrooke would be their love child.
‘Perfect timing,’ his father said, drawing him in for a hug.
Henry stood stiffly, his overnight bag clutched to his side as the smell of patchouli punched him in the nose.
His father disengaged with a satisfied smile. ‘I’ve just finished servicing your mam.’
Henry repressed a shudder and brushed his jacket as if to remove the scent of his second mother, now clinging to him like an unwanted hug. ‘Dad—’
‘I wish your mom was here,’ his father continued, his brow furrowing. ‘The sooner that fashion shoot thingumajig is over, the sooner I’m back between her—’
His father blinked, as if woken from a dream.
‘Your message said there was an emergency,’ Henry snapped.
Arthur took a drag from his cigarette, ash dropping to the floor. The sight and smell made Henry’s skin itch. Sod staying the night. He wanted to get back to London on the next train and dump everything he was wearing at the dry cleaners.
‘Yes.’ Arthur fixed his pale blue eyes on his son’s brown ones. ‘You’re the emergency.’
His father glugged a mouthful of champagne and unsuccessfully stifled a burp.
‘Come with me. I’ve got something for you.’ He turned on his heel and beckoned Henry to follow.
Henry’s heart sank. He should have cross-checked with Estelle or any of his other siblings if there was actually an emergency before setting off. However, any conversation with his family always ended with them asking him the same question, to which he never provided the answer they were looking for. He figured it was better for everyone if he minimised contact rather than continue to disappoint them.
He focused on the slap of his father’s slippers as he strode through the Manor. His dad didn’t believe in throwing anything away that still functioned, so his slippers were dirty and threadbare. They’d been used as chew toys by the family dogs, had holes from his big toenails, were stained from cooking accidents, and were shiny inside from sebum.
Each Christmas, Henry bought him a new pair, and each year they were re-gifted to one of his brothers or given to the village charity shop. But Henry refused to give up. If he could convince his father to condemn his slippers to the interior of a biohazard bag, maybe there was hope that one day the rest of Arthur Foxbrooke could be moulded into some sense of normalcy.
His dad stopped at the entrance to the long gallery. The floor was a chequerboard of black and white tiles ground down by the passage of footsteps across time. The walls were panelled in dark wood, and suits of armour stood sentry by the many doors. Halfway down the space stood a couple wearing high-vis jackets and safety shoes. By their rigid posture, Henry guessed they were attending the party for work, not pleasure.
‘First-aiders,’ said Arthur out of the corner of his mouth. ‘You never know where a vegetable may get stuck.’
Henry blanched as his mind vomited a medley of unpleasant images.
‘I’m joking,’ his father chortled. ‘But this is what I’m worried about.’
‘You. I’m worried about you. We all are.’
Give me strength. Henry took a big breath. ‘You’re worried about me?’
His father’s eyes creased with concern. ‘Yes—’
A door banged open ahead of them, and a couple of women slid into the corridor. They were naked and glistening, holding onto each other to stay upright as they cackled. Henry stared pointedly at the wood-panelled ceiling as they stumbled towards them.
‘Enjoy the jelly room?’ his father asked.
‘OMG yes,’ one replied. ‘And you made them with vodka! You’re a total legend, Foxy.’
Henry stiffened at the pet name. The media had recently transferred his father’s moniker to him, and he hated everything about it. How could they think he was anything like his dad?
‘Have you tried any of the other wet play areas?’ Arthur continued. ‘Our latest addition is the lube room. We’ve got water blasters locked and loaded with every flavour of the rainbow.’
‘Such fun!’ the girl squealed.
Henry swallowed to keep the bile from rising. He needed to get out of there and back to the safety of his controlled life in London. Even though his eyes were still glued to the ceiling, the scent of raspberry jelly was closing in. He flinched as someone touched his arm.
‘OMG, it is you. Cass, look. It’s Foxy junior!’
‘Eek! Excited face! Wanna come and play?’
Gritting his teeth, Henry shook his head.
‘Maybe later,’ his father replied. ‘Why don’t you two run along and have fun. There’s a champagne fountain in the library, and at eleven you can play “hunt the marshmallow” in the billiards room.’
The women slipped away with shrieks of excitement and Henry let out a breath.
‘Dad, I’m leaving now.’
His father took his hand. ‘Dear, dear Henry.’ He sighed. ‘I so desperately want you to be happy.’
Arthur looked genuinely pained and something inside Henry’s chest tugged. How could he say that what stressed him out the most were the antics of his father and a family legacy he wanted no part of?
‘I am happy, Dad. I like my life in London.’
Arthur lifted the cigarette holder and took a drag even though it had burnt out. Henry knew the action was designed to give his mouth something to do rather than badger his son to come home permanently.
‘Love,’ his father finally said. ‘You don’t have love in London.’
Henry opened his mouth, but his brain couldn’t find the words to fill it.
His father squeezed his hand and led him towards a door. ‘Just give them a chance, okay?’
Them? ‘What have you done?’ His heart rate spiked, adrenaline rushing through his veins.
‘Just talk to them. Kick back a bit and relax. They’re lovely ladies. And very excited to meet you.’
Arthur opened the door to around twenty beautiful women. They looked up expectantly.
Henry shut the door. ‘Dad! Just no. Jesus Christ, that is not what I want.’
His father didn’t seem perturbed. ‘Okay, my boy, not a problem at all.’ He led Henry farther down the long gallery and opened another door. ‘This should be more suitable.’
Inside were a group of good-looking men who smiled with undisguised interest as they met Henry’s gaze.
Henry slammed the door and turned away, trying to control his breathing. His father had lost the plot.
‘Dad, this is…’ He scored his fingers through the tight curls of his short hair. ‘Look, you don’t have to set me up. I can sort out my own love life.’
‘But you’ve never had a relationship—’
‘Yes, Dad, I have.’
‘Not that we know of. You’ve never brought anyone home before—’
‘And why do you think that is?’ he exploded. ‘Jesus Christ. I want to bring someone home to meet a normal family.’
His father guffawed. ‘No family is normal. You just mean boring.’
‘I’ll take boring a million times over this.’
'And I've got a girlfriend.'
His dad perked up. 'How wonderful! What's her name?'
'None of your business,' he snapped. Lying didn’t come easily to him, and he was beginning to sweat.
'When can we meet her?'
Henry started down the corridor. 'I'm leaving.'
'Henry, hang on…’
But he was done.
It was too late. As his front foot made contact with the jelly, it slipped from under him. Henry windmilled his arms to stay upright, his other foot stepping in the gloop. Gathering speed, he slid at an angle along the tiled floor. He reached for a suit of armour to steady himself, but it detached from the wall. For a moment their spin could have been considered dancing before all balance was lost, and the pair crashed to the ground in a jumble of human and metal limbs.
The two first-aiders rushed to his side, seemingly eager to help someone who was fully clothed.
‘Are you okay?’ asked the woman as her colleague removed the pieces of armour.
‘I’m fine,’ Henry spat, getting to his feet and surveying his ruined suit.
His father was bent over, wheezing with laughter. ‘Oh Henry, I wish I’d got that on film. Do you want to borrow some of my clothes?’
Henry shook his head and grabbed his bag. He needed to get back to London immediately. He could control everything there.
Henry stared at the contents of his desk drawer. Hundreds of paperclips were strewn haphazardly, a chaotic mess on top of the neatly placed notepad and pens. He picked up a paperclip. It had been bent out of shape. He lifted another, then another. Each one had been fucked with.
Henry was usually the last to leave work each evening and the first to arrive the next morning. This had happened during the night. He’d never considered himself a violent person, but the urge to punch his colleague into next year was intensifying daily.
He replaced the paperclips into their box, swapped it for a new one in the stationery cupboard, then turned on his computer. He was in the middle of brokering a huge deal on behalf of an international steel conglomeration and couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. The commission was worth tens of thousands of pounds, and he needed every penny.
‘Oi, oi, Foxy!’
Henry glanced at his watch. Seven a.m.
Essex boy Carl swaggered into the open-plan office, his hair still damp from the shower. He threw his jacket on a desk and flexed.
‘Guess who just benched more than Jamesy-boy?’ he asked with a grin.
Henry raised his eyebrows at the rhetorical question.
Carl threw his arms wide. ‘Me, baby! There’s a new king in town.’
A man sauntered in behind him. ‘Only because I’ve been up all night drilling your sisters. Tomorrow, I’ll put you back in your place.’
James Hunter-Savage had arrived.
Tall and muscled, James had his suits tailor-made, his tousled black hair trimmed weekly, and his shave executed by a Turkish barber wielding a cut-throat razor. James had over two years and two inches on Henry and seemed compelled to mention these facts at every opportunity. He was the most successful broker at Conqueror and produced enough testosterone to supply the bulls at Pamplona.
Henry hated him.
James had been three years ahead of him at Eton. He was confident and brash and excelled at sports, whereas Henry was shy and finished growing after leaving school. They both rowed, and their paths crossed again for a year at Oxford University. At only six foot two, Henry lacked the height and bulk to make the top tier. James, on the other hand, rowed Oxford to victory in the boat race.
Just the sight of his face rubbed Henry up the wrong way. And when was Carl going to shut up? He flicked his attention back to the computer screen as an automated reminder pinged in from HR.
Reminder. Mandatory attendance this morning at the experiential training session. Arrive 09.50 for a 10.00 start.
Wasn’t there an email about this a few weeks ago? He scrolled back until he found it.
From: Lorna Ferguson
To: Henry Foxbrooke
Subject: Training Workshop
At Conqueror we are keen to strengthen interpersonal connections between colleagues and foster a spirit of collaboration. The Industrial Brokerage team has been identified as a department that could benefit from additional support in building communication skills, so we are bringing in a facilitation company to run an experiential training session.
Please find all the details in the attachment.
Henry ran his hands over his face. More HR bollocks and a total waste of time. No matter how many PowerPoint presentations he was made to endure, no productivity graph or pie chart was going to convince him to sit down and break bread with Hunter-Savage.
Brokering deals was a relentless treadmill. Week in week out, he slapped on a confident and gregarious mask and schmoozed and charmed the owners of London’s most exclusive nightclubs to gain access for small men with big wallets. He didn’t have the energy or desire to maintain the performance with his colleagues. They weren’t his friends now and certainly wouldn’t be after this morning’s event.
At nine forty-five, Henry lined up his keyboard with the bottom edge of the desk and placed his mouse two and a half inches to the right. He pushed his chair in, leaving his jacket over the back, then took the stairs to the top floor of the Conqueror building and the biggest conference room.
The tables and chairs had been pushed to one side, leaving most of the floor space clear. He didn’t have time to clock anything else, as a young woman appeared in his face.
‘Hi! I’m Libby!’ She took his hand, squeezing tightly. ‘So fantastic to meet you! What’s your name?’
‘H-Henry,’ he stuttered, taken aback by the energy of her welcome.
‘Awesome. It’s so great to meet you, Henry. My full name is Liberty, but only my mother calls me that if I’ve done something wrong. Most of the time everyone just calls me Libby, which is cool too; I like it and it’s a bit like a version of Elizabeth, which was my grandmother’s name. What’s the story behind Henry?’
She was still holding his hand. He broke her clasp and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘Er… I was named after my uncle.’
‘Amazing! Are you close? Tell me about him.’
It was like being assaulted by a sunny day. Her bright blue eyes held his, and his peripheral vision told him she was wearing yellow. Even her bobbed auburn hair seemed to glow.
He cleared his throat. ‘My uncle died when my mom was pregnant with me and my sister.’
Her face fell and she clutched his hand again. ‘I’m so sorry. That must have been awful for her.’
‘Um, she didn’t know him very well. He was my dad’s older brother.’
‘Such a shock for your family. Does your father talk about him much?’
What the fuck was going on? ‘Not much, but my grandmother does.’
‘Oh! I’m sure she would have shared so many wonderful memories of him with you. Do you remember any of your favourites?’
The more sensible part of Henry’s brain was yelling at him to extricate himself from this overly personal conversation immediately, however a part of him that had lain dormant for years was utterly disarmed. Words fell out of his mouth before he could stop them.
‘She said he was thoughtful and polite, sensible and kind.’
‘And does she think the same of you?’
Heat ran up his neck into his cheeks. Her smile was so encouraging that before he was aware of doing so, he nodded.
She beamed at him. ‘I think that’s glorious. The world needs more thoughtfulness and kindness in it.’
The fire in his face intensified.
‘And politeness and sensibleness.’ She frowned, still holding his hand. ‘Is “sensibleness” a word?’ She laughed and everything about her seemed to shine even brighter. ‘I try to be thoughtful, kind and polite, but I don’t think I’m particularly sensible. What’s your top tip for improving my sensibleness?’
His mind blanked. ‘Er, bulk buy toilet roll and keep one hidden in case of emergencies?’ he offered, not knowing where the thought had come from and internally cringing.
She let out a peal of laughter so warm and generous he knew she wasn’t laughing at him. ‘That’s perfect advice and one my housemate would do well to remember.’ She released his hands and clapped hers together. ‘Henry, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. We’re going to have a great time this morning. I promise to remember who you are, but Claire hasn’t met you yet, so please can you stick a label on your front with your name on it? They’re on the table over there.’