A Promise of Tomorrow [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Rowan McAllister
eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Lord James Warren, Viscount Sudbury, lives a quiet, safe, and predictable life alone on his estate in Suffolk, only traveling to London once a year to visit family and satisfy his more forbidden needs. But this year, his routine is shattered when his niece and nephew ask him to help a beautiful young man they've only just met. Kyle Allen, alone and running from his abusive lover, stirs feelings in James he has long denied for fear of tarnishing his reputation and losing his family's love. Though undeniably drawn to Kyle, James's honor demands he keep that part of himself completely secret, even if Kyle is feeling the attraction as well, despite the pain and betrayal he's recently suffered. Assistance and a future for Kyle might be secured, but then they would face a choice: stay apart and continue leading half-lives... or risk everything for love.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2010
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24 Reader Ratings:
London, July 15, 1818
The sky was leaden and the air heavy and humid as his coach pulled into Eaton Square. It had been threatening to rain all day, but the blessed relief from the summer heat hadn't come. The moment his carriage had reached the crowded streets of London, their pace had slowed to a crawl, robbing him of even the slight breeze flowing in through the windows and leaving him sweltering inside the compartment.
James, Lord James Alfred Warren, Viscount Sudbury, released a heavy sigh and adjusted his cravat as another bead of sweat slid down his neck, though whether the sigh was one of relief that his journey was almost at an end or in dread of what lay before him, he couldn't have said.
And so it begins, he thought morosely as his carriage rumbled to a stop in front of his sister and brother-in-law's brick townhouse.
Today was the start of his annual sojourn in London; four interminable weeks of suffering through the same old round of balls and assemblies, calls and return calls with people he had little to no liking for and even less interest in, weeks of fending off widows and simpering debutantes on the hunt for husbands and weeks of being on his best behavior, lest he slip up with his country manners and
embarrass his sister and her family.
Truth be told, he hated London, during the season or no. The press of humanity, the noise, and the smells all combined to foul his usual good humor within moments of entering its streets, and today was no exception.
As a man full-grown, at almost five-and-thirty, London held little of the allure it had for him in his youth. Oh, the plays and lectures could always keep him entertained for an evening or two, and he rather enjoyed a bit of boxing or cards at the clubs, of course. But he couldn't quite say that he wouldn't find just as much pleasure from a ride through his own park or a day of shooting in his reserve, and there at least he could rest and relax in his library and find a moment's peace when he wanted one.
He was a man of simple country pleasures and not in the least ashamed to admit it. He was neither fashionable nor elegant. In fact, his sister would often tease him that he had more in common with his farmers than his peers, and she was usually disappointed that he didn't take it as the reproof it was. His farmers were good, hard-working men more worthy of respect, in his opinion, than many of the dandies and fops he was forced to associate with in town.
Yet here I am again trundling down the cobbled streets to waste another few weeks of my life in idle chatter and silly parties.
Using his handkerchief, he wiped his brow and neck before donning his hat and gloves in preparation for stepping out into the street. He took a moment to brush any dust off his coat, then grimaced as he realized he would soon need to make a trip to his tailor to make sure his clothes weren't going to make him an object of ridicule.
Heaven forbid the cut of my coat be even a single season out of date. I'd never hear the end of it from Charlotte. He rolled his eyes.
If he thought his sister would allow it, he'd dress in sackcloth and leave his hair uncombed and his face unshaven for the entirety of his stay in town. Then at least the marriage market might leave him alone and allow him to visit with his family in peace.
He grinned for a moment at the thought of appearing in public looking like a madman and the ladies of the ton scurrying away from him in terror, then sobered when he realized it probably wouldn't make any difference. For a chance at his title, family name, and fortune, he was fairly certain most of them would be willing to overlook anything he might do.
Well, perhaps not anything, he thought with a wry twist to his lips. It's the rare woman indeed who would happily turn a blind eye to a husband who prefers to share his bed with men and one who would never be able to give her children
And even if he could find such a woman, he'd never be able to live out that kind of farce. His honor would not allow it, nor would his patience. As a confirmed bachelor, he fully admitted he was set in his ways, and having another woman, in addition to his sister, meddling in his life and home would be intolerable.
No, the ladies of the ton pursued him in vain, and he would have to spend the next few weeks desperately trying to avoid them without seeming to avoid them. As subtlety was not his strongest suit, it was tantamount to torture, but there was no getting out of it.
Years ago, he and his sister had made a bargain, and Charlotte was not a woman to be crossed. If he did not show up at her house in town at least once a year, she'd descend on him at Kentwood Hall, and there would be no peace. She'd force a house party or some other nonsense on him, and there he wouldn't be able to escape the people living in his house, eating his food, and demanding to be entertained.
And if she were feeling truly spiteful, she'd invite some marriage-minded young chits, and he'd find himself cornered in his own library or some other private place, desperate to get away before a scandal forced him into matrimony. It had happened once, when Charlotte was still trying to find him a suitable wife to help him run Kentwood, before he'd been old enough to tell her where to put her matchmaking skills. He'd only narrowly escaped, and it was not an experience he intended to repeat.
No, London could be tedious, but he'd take it in a heartbeat if it meant he wouldn't have to suffer through another house party.
James sighed again and looked up at the house. His sister meant well. She worried about him all alone on his estate, attending only the rare party and never hosting unless there was no way to avoid it. Perhaps she was right to worry. He did get lonely and a little melancholy from time to time, but he wasn't the kind of man to stay maudlin for long; he was too practical for that. He'd made his choices long ago, with good reason, and there was no point in mourning them now.
My, aren't we sanguine today. James shook his head at himself.
Adjusting his cravat for the hundredth time that day, he took a deep breath and let it out again in resignation. There was no help for it. He'd have to get out of the carriage sometime, and delaying wouldn't help matters any. At least on the street he could stretch the cramps out of his legs and perhaps the linen of his shirt would come unglued from his back.
When his footman opened the door, James stood up and descended the step to the street. As he turned to give final instructions to his driver, a flash of pale gold caught his attention momentarily, distracting him from his servants. Out of the corner of his eye he spied a young, towheaded carter passing in the street, the defined muscles of his forearms flexing beneath rolled shirtsleeves. The boy looked up, and a pair of sweet brown eyes briefly met his before the young man quickly ducked his head and mumbled "m'lord" as he trundled past.
Raising a single brow but otherwise giving no sign he'd seen the boy, James lowered his head a little and pretended to swipe a bit of dirt from his coat. Watching the boy a few moments longer, he was rewarded with the sight of a firm, high backside flexing beneath coarse linen trousers, and he felt a different kind of heat infuse his body. Brief as it was, the sight reminded him of at least one of London's saving graces: pleasures he could find in town that he could not in the country.
Well, not without running the risk of blackmail or possibly a mob of outraged villagers. He grinned to himself.
After the carter disappeared around the corner and he was able to rein in his wandering thoughts, James exchanged a few words with his servants and headed toward the house with a smile on his lips.
Yes, there were definite advantages to spending a little time in town, pleasures to be indulged in, and it had been far too long since he had done so. His pulse sped and his boots lightened a little in anticipation.
He'd have to pay a visit to Madam Renard's, and soon. If his reaction to the sight of a simple carter going about his work was any indication, his year of celibacy was obviously having an effect on his mind.
He knew of other men, of course, who did not share his scruples, who made little to no effort at discretion, trusting title and wealth to keep them safe from any real scandal, men who were whispered about far and wide, though no one would dare speak against them openly. Long ago, he'd promised himself that he would never be one of them. He had worked too hard for the honor of his family to throw it all away with such foolishness. His sister and her children were the only close family he had left, and their good opinion and reputation meant too much to him to throw it away for lack of a little discretion and restraint.
He mounted the steps to his sister's door and reached for the bell. The first chime had barely sounded before he caught a splash of color out of the corner of his eye and grinned. His niece, Anna, wearing a lovely blue calico, was grinning and waving at him from the front parlor window. He barely had time to wave back before she turned and disappeared from view.
Smiling, he turned back to the door in anticipation. If his niece and nephew couldn't lift his spirits, then nothing would. The twins should be all the proof he needed that any sacrifices he might have made had been worthwhile. Whatever he might have given up had been repaid a hundred times over with the joy of sharing their lives and watching them grow into a fine young lady and worthy young gentleman.
The door opened and Wilton, his sister's butler, bowed, saying, "Good afternoon, my lord. Welcome back."
"Thank you, Wilton, it's a pleasure to be back," he replied, handing over his hat and gloves.
The moment he was free of his belongings, Anna flew into his arms to kiss him hello. He indulged himself in her sweet embrace for a few precious moments before setting her back on her feet and taking a good look at her. She'd grown a little since the last time he'd seen her, but she still looked tiny next to his bulk. At a few inches over six feet, he resembled his farmers in body as well as temperament, and he still needed to bend nearly in half to give his niece a proper embrace.
Of course, he shouldn't have allowed her to embrace him at all. She was nineteen now and a full-grown young lady, but he couldn't help being secretly delighted by her greeting and decided only a gentle rebuke was in order.
"I see your governess still hasn't managed to tame you, my wild little beast," he said, though the corners of his mouth couldn't help but quirk when she snorted in response.
"Oh Uncle, you know it's been ages since I needed Mrs. Holt to watch over me. I've learned my lessons as well as anyone, I assure you. I will comport myself with utmost decorum when we are in company, but when we're alone, I had hoped that my favorite uncle might continue to indulge me for a few more years, at the very least," Anna said, smiling at him coyly through her thick brown lashes.
"Imp," he responded, stopping just short of ruffling her carefully dressed hair. His hand might get caught in all the ribbons needed to tame that same unruly mop of brown curls that he was cursed with, and he might never get free again without the aid of scissors. Looking at the elaborate creation, he didn't envy her maid the task of taming that tangle every morning and was quite thankful he could keep his own cut short and wouldn't have to be bothered with such nonsense.
"And where is your partner in crime?" he asked, looking about for his nephew.
"Oh, he's off with his school chums again, I suppose. That's all he seems to have time for these days," she said, and James could hear the thinly veiled hurt under her feigned disinterest.
Since her brother Andrew had gone away to school, and now to university, James knew they hadn't been able to spend much time together. As young children, they had been nearly inseparable. But time and duty took their toll on everyone, and it appeared Anna was feeling the distance between them more and more.
He took her hand and patted it kindly. "We'll see if we can keep him home at least a little during my visit, yes?"
Her smile brightened a little, and the twinkle came back to her eyes. "He may be home more than any of us cares for, if he isn't more careful," she leaned in and whispered. "He's been getting himself in a bit of trouble at the club, losing money hand over fist, and you know how Father feels about gambling. Another night like he had last week and he'll spend the rest of the season confined to his rooms."
"Oh dear," James said, chuckling. "Let us hope we can save him from that fate, at the very least. But for now, imp, I am all over dirt from my journey and wish to go to my rooms to bathe and dress before your mother sets eyes on me. By your leave of course, Miss Ashton?"
"By all means, my lord." She curtsied in response to his formal bow and stepped out of the way for him to climb the stairs.
"I will inform Lady Ashton of your arrival," she called after him archly before turning with a swish of her skirts to scurry in a most unladylike manner toward the back of the house.
James shook his head and smiled as he continued to his rooms. No, his world was just as it should be, and there was no reason to wish for anything else.
As James stepped out of his coach and into the crowd in front of the Sutcliffes' sprawling house, he tugged distractedly at his new waistcoat. Meyer had done an excellent job, as always, and his clothes fit him to perfection, but he couldn't help feeling uncomfortable in his new finery. He would much rather be in his buckskins and worn wool hunting jacket, sitting comfortably in his library, than dressed up like a dandy on display for the London vultures. But tonight was the Sutcliffes' annual end-of-season ball, one of the most coveted invitations in town, and Charlotte had insisted he attend and that he look his best. As Lord and Lady Sutcliffe were old family friends and distant relations, he could hardly refuse.
He tugged unnecessarily on his coat and gloves once more before joining the crowd making their way up the steps to the house. He stood nearly a head taller than everyone in the crowd, and, as usual, his size garnered him much more attention than he would have liked. It was damned difficult for him to go unnoticed at the best of times, and tonight he'd have to use every bit of cunning he had if his plans for later that evening were to come off without a hitch.
He'd been in town nearly two weeks now and had yet to find an evening to sneak away from his family to see to some of his more pressing needs. Charlotte had commandeered nearly every waking moment of his time with visits and parties, everyone giving a last gasp before quitting London, he supposed. But as much as he loved his family, he hadn't had the touch of anyone but his own right hand in over a year, and his body was making it quite clear to him that he wouldn't be able to wait much longer.
Tonight would be the night he rectified that situation. With the crush of people attending the ball, he would be able to slip away without anyone from his family even noticing his absence. For the sake of propriety, he would spend a few hours fulfilling his obligations; then, when the streets had emptied a little, he would make his way to Madam Renard's and blessed release.
Anticipation made him edgy and impatient, but none of it showed on his face or in his manner as he made it to the front of the receiving line and greeted his hosts warmly. On any other night, he would have been quite pleased to spend the evening visiting with them, but he was much too distracted and they had their guests to attend to, so he merely greeted them briefly and moved on with a promise to call later in the week.
He made his way directly to the nearest tray of filled glasses before beginning a random circuit of the rooms. The Sutcliffes always served the best wines, and he was in need of something to calm his nerves. He was as edgy as a maiden on her wedding night, and the hours were going to feel like days if he didn't find something to distract himself. He finished his first glass before he even made it out of the room and retrieved another before continuing on. He spoke briefly with friends and acquaintances here and there, but avoided staying with any group too long.
The time passed painfully slowly despite the multitude of distractions at his disposal. He must have checked his pocket watch at least a dozen times in the hour he'd been there, and he even held it to his ear once or twice just to make sure it hadn't stopped on him. It was at times like this that he thought perhaps one trip to London a year wasn't enough, but then all he had to do was look about him at the throng of idle, bored, pompous, backbiting, dull-witted people milling about the ballroom to remind himself why he stayed in the country. Any more than a few weeks a year and he'd definitely say or do something that would scandalize his family.
He downed the rest of his glass and plastered on his best smile as he was hailed by one of the aforementioned gentlemen, Sir William Archer, a tedious but relatively harmless friend of his brother-in-law's. He allowed himself to be drawn into a discussion on horses and the results of the Ascot earlier that summer. As he dabbled a little in breeding, it helped distract him for a time, but when he found himself checking his watch again, he decided it was time to move on to another distraction.
Putting his watch firmly back in his pocket in disgust, he selected another glass of wine from a nearby tray, made an excuse to Sir William, and set out for the parlor, where tables had been set up for games. He should probably slow down on the wine or he'd be staggering out of the ball instead of just sneaking.
James hovered about the parlor for several moments before giving up on the idea of joining the play. He was much too preoccupied to be able to do anything but fill the purse of one of his peers, and the thought didn't appeal to him.
Instead, he decided he should seek out his family and see how they were enjoying the evening. They'd come separately, as the Ashtons' barouche only held four comfortably, and James had yet to spot them in the crush. The twins were young enough that balls of this kind were still a source of great excitement, so perhaps some of their enthusiasm might rub off on him and help keep his mind off what was to come.
After a bit of hunting, he finally spotted both Anna and Andrew on the far side of the ballroom and began to make his way toward them through the press of bodies. It took every ounce of grace and agility he had to make his way through the crowd without spilling his wine or treading on anyone. A man his size, even in slippers, could do a great deal of damage to delicate, flimsily clad toes if he weren't careful.
He lost sight of them twice and had started to sweat by the time he was able to finally close the distance enough to see their smiling faces. He couldn't help but smile himself as he saw Anna laugh merrily and bring her fan up in front of her face to cover her blush, though his smile quickly turned to a frown when he realized it was a stranger she was fluttering her eyelashes at.
Could his little hoyden actually be flirting with someone?
James was a little startled at her behavior. Feeling protective and a little jealous all at once, he looked to see who could have inspired such behavior in his niece and nearly dropped his own wine glass at the sight that met his eyes. Standing in front of Anna, not ten feet away from him, was what had to be the most beautiful young man James had ever seen, and he couldn't help but halt in his tracks and stare stupidly at him, all thoughts of his niece flown from his head.
Good God, who are you? And would you take it greatly amiss if I threw you over my shoulder and carried you off to my carriage?
Shocked by his own thoughts, he took a step backward and shook his head. Unfortunately, the move brought him into contact with several other party guests, and this time he did spill his wine, forcing him to take his eyes off the vision across the room and apologize profusely to the injured parties. After the appropriate amount of groveling had been seen to and he'd wiped the wine from his hands, he looked up to find the cause of his difficulties walking away behind a tall, blond man. Anna and her brother had moved on as well, leaving him torn as to which direction to follow.
His feet, however, had no trouble making up his mind for him. Of their own accord, they turned and followed the young man and his companion out of the room. His mind reasoned that, as a protective uncle, he was only following so he could find out more about the young man who had captured his niece's attentions, but deep down, he knew that that was only an excuse.
Eventually, he caught up with the two men near the card tables. They were conversing with a small group and apparently awaiting their turn at play, giving James a perfect opportunity to study the young man without being noticed. He skirted the edge of the room so that he could watch without making a spectacle of himself and leaned back against the wall, partially concealed by a column.
Closer examination only confirmed his earlier reaction. The young man was absolutely stunning. Black curls, longer on top and clipped close to an elegantly arched neck, caught flashes of blue from the dozens of lamps and candles in the room. He wasn't tall, perhaps the same height as Andrew, and his lean frame spoke more of grace than strength, in better keeping with the current fashion than James's hulking build. His pale, flawless complexion showed only the smallest hint of shadow along a delicate jaw and pointed chin, and his slender brows arched above a small, straight nose and sculpted cheekbones. James was reminded of the stories of fairies and elves his old nurse used to tease him with before putting him to bed.
As he continued to watch, the object of his less-than-innocent regard accepted a glass of wine from a passing footman and brought it to his lips, causing James to bite back a groan. Those lips... good God they were sinful. Full, pouting lower lip topped by a slender, bow-shaped upper, both of which just begged to be nibbled on.
James quickly looked away before any sign of his thoughts could manifest on his person, and his eyes landed on the young man's companion. The other man was older than his friend, taller and broader too, though nowhere near James's size. His face was somewhat pinched and hard to James's eyes, and, after a moment, James realized he recognized him.
Victor Weir. The name rose from his memory, bringing with it little pleasure. They'd only met once or twice in passing. He was a gentleman of some means and considerable connections among the peerage, if rumor could be believed, but James had never warmed to him. He'd always thought of him as a bit of a cold fish, and the manner in which he was ignoring his beautiful companion didn't improve James's opinion of him in the slightest.
Deciding that the thought of Weir had cooled his blood enough to risk another look, James turned his attention back to the young man at his side, and a pair of startled green eyes met his own. The moment their eyes met, he felt himself fall into a sea of emerald and gold, and he couldn't have looked away even if he had wanted to.
James didn't know how long their gazes remained locked before the young man jerked and turned his head to the man next to him. Looking down, James could see Weir had taken his companion's elbow and was staring angrily in James's direction. He was fairly certain the man didn't recognize him, for the scowl remained on his face, and he made no attempt to cover it. He knew if Weir could see him clearly, he would never have dared to show open hostility to a man of his rank.
The young man at Weir's side had paled and was looking pointedly at his shoes, biting at his lower lip nervously, making James wonder at the cause of his distress. They'd only shared a glance, nothing more, no reason for such a reaction. There must be something more going on than he was aware of, and he was surprised at the concern he felt. Before he could even begin to understand what was happening, however, Weir was steering the young man across the room by the elbow and the two of them were disappearing into the crush in the main hall.
James was tempted for a moment to go after them. He even took a step in that direction before reason reasserted itself and he stopped. What would be the point of going after them? He didn't like Weir, and presuming on their limited acquaintance for an introduction to his companion would not go unnoticed. Even if they were introduced, what could he possibly gain by becoming better acquainted with him?
A great many sleepless nights and the distinct possibility of making an arse out of myself, that's what.
No, in the interests of his sanity, he needed to walk away now and forget he ever saw the man. He was acting like a fool, and he had no excuse for it. The mere sight of a beautiful young man shouldn't have caused him to abandon his wits in a crowd of his peers. He needed to get to Madam Renard's now before he let his body lead him into any more potentially embarrassing situations.
His mind made up, James turned on his heel and attempted to casually make his way to the front of the house. If he moved with too much purpose, people would notice and whisper, and he didn't want to cause the slightest stir. It was earlier than he had planned to leave, but there was no help for it. No good would come of his staying at the ball any longer.
He called for his hat at the door and made his way into the street to find his coach. He didn't want to risk waiting for it to be called. It would be just his luck for Charlotte or the twins to come through the hall while he was waiting at the door.
He found the coach a few blocks away, and after rousing his surprised servants, was finally on his way to the night of debauchery he'd promised himself. Once his body was sated, he felt certain his reaction at the ball would be easily explained away as the temporary madness of a man too long deprived.
* * * *
Kyle was in trouble. He knew it by the pinched look about Victor's mouth and the painful grip his lover had on his elbow as he steered him through Lord and Lady Sutcliffe's ballroom. What he didn't know was why, and therein lay the cause of his anxiety. If he couldn't puzzle out what he'd done before the end of the night, Victor would be even angrier at his stupidity.
When they stopped at the edge of the ballroom and Victor released his arm, Kyle rubbed the tender spot with his palm and looked expectantly toward his lover, but Victor had already turned away from him and was speaking casually to a friend, leaving Kyle feeling even more anxious.
The truth was, he couldn't seem to do anything that made Victor happy anymore. Ever since they'd come to London, everything he did or said seemed to be wrong. The only thing he could do that seemed to please his lover was dress in the fine clothes that were bought for him, play the pianoforte for his guests, and remain silent unless spoken to. Kyle had learned to say as little as possible in the past few months lest he open himself, or Victor, to ridicule for his lack of refinement.
As Victor continued to ignore him, Kyle decided he'd best spend his time sifting through the events of the evening, trying to figure out what he'd done wrong. He didn't think he'd said anything untoward. He'd been polite when addressed but otherwise kept his thoughts to himself. In fact, the evening had seemed to be going quite well. Victor had had plenty of opportunities to speak with his friends and conduct a little business, which always seemed to make him happy.
Kyle let his mind and eyes wander about the room, still puzzling over Victor's sudden change in mood, until he realized he was looking for someone in particular and a sudden guilty thought occurred to him. The man in the ballroom. Had Victor caught him staring at the other man?
Kyle swallowed nervously and looked to his lover. He knew Victor had seen the other man looking in their direction. Victor always noticed things like that, most of the time long before Kyle did. His lover told him frequently that men watched him when they were out together, though Kyle never saw them, and usually the idea seemed to make Victor happy. He would say that he liked that other men wanted what was his. Kyle had never liked being referred to as a possession, but he'd learned to keep those feelings to himself. Nothing good ever came from arguing with Victor.
Maybe Victor was angry because this time Kyle had been the one doing the looking. Kyle bit his lip as his stomach fluttered nervously. It had only been a look, nothing else. He'd been bored and a little anxious, as he always was at formal gatherings, just looking about the room for something to distract himself. He hadn't been focused on anyone or anything in particular until he caught sight of the giant of a man against the wall. He hadn't really meant to stare at him, but when those intense brown eyes had met his, he hadn't been able to look away.
Who was he?
He had thought at the time that he looked vaguely familiar but was sure he would have remembered if he'd ever seen the man before. It wasn't just that he was handsome, though that certainly hadn't escaped his notice. But his eyes were what Kyle remembered more than anything else. They were warm and deep, kind and strong and so many other things Kyle couldn't name. In that moment, he'd had the fantastic notion that he could get lost in them forever if he were given half a chance. Now, out from under their spell and standing next to an irritated Victor, Kyle felt foolish for his fanciful notions. Victor was right. He'd been reading too many of Mrs. Radcliffe's novels.
Thinking of Victor brought him back to the present and the realization that perhaps he was indeed at fault for Victor's anger. Kyle sighed to himself and settled in for another miserable night. He could do nothing about it now except try to avoid any other mistakes and hope Victor's anger would cool after a few more hours. Perhaps if he played one of Victor's favorite songs when they returned home or he thought of something special to do for him in their bedchamber.
A small part of him winced a little in shame at the mewling tone of his thoughts. He shouldn't have to grovel. He hadn't really done anything wrong, but he quickly pushed the feeling aside. Things were just a little tense between them right now. Victor had a great many responsibilities weighing on his mind, and all Kyle had to do was try a little harder to be more understanding and things between them would get better again. The fact that this line of reasoning had run through his mind all too often of late did occur to him briefly, but it was also quickly smothered before it could take root.
What other choice did he have?