“This is a terrible idea.”
“It is an excellent idea,” Natasha argues, smiling sweetly at some acquaintance or another. “As all of my ideas are.”
“Your ideas are awful,” Clint points out. The ballroom is full to bursting and he has to lean in to be heard. “You once challenged me to shoot an apple out of the sky while riding my pony widdershins.”
Natasha clasps hands with another domme. “And you speared the apple marvelously, my dear.”
“Of course I did, but I fell and twisted my ankle afterwards and was laid up for a month.”
“True,” Natasha admits, letting go of the domme’s hand and leading Clint away through the ball. “A gifted horseman, you are not.”
“Exactly,” Clint agrees, hurrying to catch up with her. “Wait, why did you not introduce me? I thought the purpose of my presence here was to be introduced to every eligible dominant of your acquaintance?”
“Not every eligible dominant, Mr. Barton. I do have standards, you know.”
“I beg your pardon, Ms. Romanov, I thought you did not.”
“Hearsay and slander,” Natasha says, but she’s smiling. “Oh, excellent.” She leads Clint to the side of a beautiful domme with black hair. “Lady Melinda May? May I introduce my ward to you?”
“Ms. Romanov,” Lady May says. She extends her hand politely. “Of course you may.”
“Lady Melinda May, this is Mr. Clint Barton. Mr. Barton is the new heir-in-trust of the Barton estate in Watersford.”
“A pleasure,” Lady May says, while Clint tries not to swallow his tongue. Good gracious, he has never been introduced to a lady before. “May I congratulate you on the excellence of your dancing? I had noticed you earlier, during the quadrille.”
“Thank you, My Lady,” Clint says, managing not to stutter.
“May I see your dance card?”
“Certainly.” Clint produces it carefully.
“Thank you.” She glances over the empty slots. “Could I secure myself a turn?”
“Most certainly,” Clint assures her.
Lady May pencils herself in and then hands the card back. “I look forward to the pleasure.”
Unable to think of anything to say, Clint bows. The moment Lady May leaves, Natasha laughs.
Clint scowls. “I was flustered.”
“Indeed, you were!”
“I was. I still am. Please feel free to continue casting me about as your amusement.”
Natasha’s chuckles ease and she gives him a fond look. “Ah, my dear. Never change.”
“I do not intend to. Now, what other heart-stopping introductions do you have planned for me tonight? I’m not sure I could take meeting every member of the Aristocracy, but I assume you wish me to try.”
“Not at all,” Natasha says lightly, “but now that you mention it, I believe Sir Morse is available. Her knighthood is fairly recent; she, too, needs to acquaint herself with new friends. Right this way, my dear.”
Clint bites his cheek to stop himself from cursing. Calling his guardian inappropriate words in public would be a terrible breach of etiquette, and though Clint may have occasionally slept in the barn - he certainly had not been welcome in the house when his father had been drinking - he was not completely without manners.
Sir Morse turns out to be a lovely lady with a regal bearing who appears far too intelligent to become involved with a sub like him. That being said, she accepts the introduction and they dance the next set together. Clint unexpectedly enjoys himself. She is a lively partner.
Still, he finds the constant pressure of conversation exhausting. Clint finds Natasha after his last reserved dance. “My feet request that we retire, for I am utterly spent,” he tells her. “Besides, I think I have met every dom in the room.
“Not every dom,” Natasha counters, glancing about with a frown. “I have one last introduction to secure for you. Though it is strange - I cannot see him, but he must be here. I am sure I saw him at dinner.”
“Mr. Fury, I know,” Clint points out.
“Of course you do,” Natasha says, blushing slightly, “but he was to bring a friend with him tonight, as a personal favour to me.”
“That is very neighbourly of him,” Clint teases.
“Oh hush,” Natasha says, but her blush deepens. “Mr. Fury is a neighbour in Watersford, but here in London he is a sought-after dom with a lovely town home. He owes me nothing. We perchance met at a dinner party the other night and he mentioned a friend who was coming to stay.”
“Is this friend the reason you insisted I wear my best jacket this evening?”
“Tis a lovely jacket, Mr. Barton. It suits your figure admirably.”
“It would suit me better if we were home in front of the fire,” Clint grumbles. “I am spent.”
“One more dance,” Natasha urges him. “We are here at the request of Sir Johnson, after all, and it would not do to retire too early. I had hoped Mr. Fury would - ah ha! There he is! I have found him.”
Clint is tugged nearly off his feet by her hand on his arm. Despite the hour, he smiles. Surely Natasha’s haste has less to do with finding him a dom and more to do with her joy at seeing Mr. Fury again.
He restrains himself from teasing her further, however. He knows how such affection must pain her. To be so enamoured by another dominant… ‘tis a scandalous thing.
“Ms. Romanov,” Mr. Fury says, the moment they meet. Like her, his face brightens as he catches sight of her. Clint wonders yet again if Natasha’s feelings might not be unrequited. “I have been looking for you.”
“And I for you,” Natasha answers. Her smile is small, but tinged with real warmth. “I had hoped you would keep your promise.”
“And so I have,” Mr. Fury says, turning towards the dom at his side. “Colonel Coulson, I would like to introduce you to Ms. Natasha Romanov, of whom you have heard me speak, and her ward, Mr. Clint Barton, the heir-in-trust of Barton Manor. Mr. Barton, Ms. Romanov, this is the second child of the Earl of ----, Colonel Coulson, late of His Majesty’s Royal Army.”
They all bow and curtsy appropriately. Clint applies himself to remembering the correct measure he should dip from the waist when meeting such an august figure, and only has time to study Coulson when he lifts his gaze from the floor.
When he does, he can hardly look away.
Colonel Coulson is an attractive gentleman. He is of average height, standing perhaps a finger-width above Clint himself, and in possession of both a strong chin and sharp, arresting blue eyes. He is older than Clint, mayhap by a decade, mayhap by less. The corners of his eyes are creased by fine lines, but Clint finds them pleasing. They give the Colonel a weathered air. His shoulders are strong and his carriage erect, though he does lean slightly to one side, his weight braced against the beautiful wood of a carved cane. The appendage could be an affectation, but Clint suspects by the grip he has on the handle that it is more likely a necessity.
He may have simply twisted his ankle in a foxhole, of course, but Clint fancies that, as a Colonel, he may have seen active combat. Clint does not know the name Coulson, but that means little.
Overall, he finds him fascinating.
The Colonel clearly does not feel the same. The moment his eyes alight upon Clint’s, he frowns. A line appears in the middle of his brow, his shoulders tense, and overall his bearing becomes one of firm disapproval.
Clint blinks. He has never engendered such an immediately hostile reaction before. It is disappointing. Of all the dominants he has met here tonight, Colonel Coulson is the one who fascinates him the most. Clint wonders if it is his age, his low rank, or his dismal fortunes to which the Colonel most strongly objects. It is most likely the fact that he holds Barton Manor in trust. It is certainly an unusual situation, if not completely unheard of.
“Colonel Coulson is staying with me in Watersford come the fall, and I thought it best to introduce him to my friends while he was in London,” Mr. Fury is saying. He is either blind to the building tension between their parties or determined to ignore it. “I could not neglect the excellent Ms. Romanov, whose picturesque estate borders my own.”
“You are too kind, Mr. Fury,” Natasha protests. Her eyes dart between Clint and the Colonel. She must sense the air of disapproval which emanates from the man. “Will you remain in London long?”
Fury shakes his head. “Another week, perhaps two.” He glances at Coulson and a complicated expression crosses his face. “Perhaps less. The season has almost ended and the needs of my manor call. My steward has written twice in the last five days alone.”
“The harvest does beckon,” Natasha agrees lightly. She glances at Clint, her brow flickering in question. Clint presses his lips together in answer, and Natasha turns back to Mr. Fury with an apologetic smile. “But for now, London awaits. Thank you the complement of your address, Mr. Fury.”
“Thank you for the pleasure of your company, Ms. Romanov.” They clasp hands gently. There is slightly more to the press of fingers than society allows should occur between two doms, but each lets go of the other before an inappropriate amount of time can pass.
Natasha smiles and takes Clint’s arm with a pleasant air that Clint knows is affected. “We shall see you next in Watersford.”
“Until then,” Fury says, and the party exchanges bows. Clint glances quickly to Coulson, but the Colonel’s scowl has not abated. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Natasha says. She leads Clint away. “Well,” she says, exhaling the moment they are out of earshot. “That was unexpected.”
“It is understandable,” Clint says, feeling fatigued. “Despite your best efforts, I am only what I am, and there is little enough there to recommend. I am sure the Colonel is weary of being introduced to poor submissives with aught but a family name, and I do not have even that.”
Natasha scowls. “You listen to me, Mr. Barton. You are a wonderful person and a lovely sub. I do not say this as your friend or as your guardian, but as a woman who knows you. Colonel Coulson, or Sir Morse, or Lady May, or any of the dominants we have met here tonight, would be privileged to have your affections.”
Clint blinks. “I do not think - ”
“I do,” Natasha says, cutting him off, “and because I am your friend and your guardian, that is all I have to say on the subject.”
Clint holds his tongue to silence until they are seated in the carriage. “Thank you,” he murmurs at last.
“You are welcome,” Natasha says quietly back. “Now, let us examine your dance card. We should determine in which order we are going to arrange our visits, should any of your admirers wish to call.”
In the end, both Sir Morse and Lady May continue the acquaintance, but neither seeks to speak to Clint in private before the season ends.
“It is all right, my dear,” Natasha consoles him on the drive back to Watersford. “We shall find you a suitable partner, yet.”
Clint tries and fails to summon a smile. “Of course we shall.”
“We knew our chances this season were slim,” Natasha reminds him.
Clint huffs a breath. That is true. Society dictates that the mourning period come first, and, in truth, Clint had been little interested in games of favour those first few months after Barney had died. He would have been poor company and made a dismal showing, so, in that respect, their late arrival to London had worked in his favour.
Still, it is difficult to return to Watersford knowing he will not be sleeping at home. As an uncollared sub, he could not hope to stay at Barton Manor alone. He is to accompany Natasha back to her estate where she, as his legal guardian, will chaperone him.
“We will return tomorrow,” Natasha says, patting him on the knee as they continue past the drive that would take them to Barton Manor. “You may collect whatever you wish.”
“I will take only my bow,” Clint assures her. “Though I suppose a chance of clothes would not be amiss.”
Natasha laughs. “Did I not buy you enough new things in London?”
Clint makes a face. “Indeed you did.” Natasha had been too generous by half. “But I will hardly need such finery here. A few of my old things will do nicely.”
“You never know,” Natasha teases. “Colonel Coulson will be staying with Mr. Fury at Pembleton, after all.”
Clint scowls. Despite several more parties, a few afternoon tea invitations, and one or two strolls around the park, Clint has yet to meet a dom he finds more instantly interesting than Colonel Coulson.
Which is a shame, because the man clearly despises him.
“That is very amusing,” Clint grumbles. “Thank you for laughing at my complete failure to elicit any interest from that man.”
“I apologize for teasing,” Natasha says, picking up immediately on his real distress. “He is a boor, and does not deserve you. I am glad he made his feelings known so immediately, that we should not waste a second thinking on him. Although,” she adds, thoughtfully, “he is staying at Pembleton. It is very likely they will ask us to dinner a time or two.”
“And sully their table?” Clint dismisses. “I think not.”
Natasha straightens, quick to defend. “Mr. Fury adores you.”
“But his friend abhors me,” Clint reminds her, “and he is a good host. Mr. Fury may have ignored the disastrous outcome of our meeting, but he will not forget it.”
Natasha deflates. “That is true. Ah, well.” She shakes her head. “We will have a quiet hunting season in Watersford, and then perhaps return to London for the Christmas parties. I have friends who have requested the honour of our presence at a ball come January.”
“That,” Clint says, relaxing into his seat, “sounds like an excellent plan.”
“This is a terrible plan,” Clint grumbles, throwing himself onto the kneeling cushion in Natasha’s study. “Bring on the parties and the endless frivolities, I wish to return to London forthwith.”
Natasha spares him an apologetic look, glancing up from her accounts. “Did you have a difficult time in Watersford?”
“It was awful. I do not know which was worse, that half the storekeepers cooed and asked how I was managing after the tragic passing of my brother - as if they were not aware that Barney had drank himself into an early grave - or that even the smallest child seemed to understand that I hold Barton Estate in trust. ‘We shall parcel that right away, Mr. Barton,’” Clint mimics. “‘To the Romanov Estate, is it not?’ And then the moment I turn away, ‘The poor dear, such a tragic tale.’”
“Oh, dear,” Natasha says.
“Mr. Pym stopped me in the streets, ostensibly to chat about London attire, but in reality to grind it into my mind that I will never find a proper dominant ‘in my state.’”
“That was very wrong of him.”
“It was improper, mayhap, but it was not wrong,” Clint grumbles. “I do not know what Barney was thinking.”
“He was thinking of your future,” Natasha says firmly, “for once in his life. Now, leave me to my business. Go for a walk. You are far too maudlin for my tastes.”
Clint glances at the papers scattered over her desk. “You simply wish to curse at your accounts in privacy.”
Natasha scowls at her inkwell. “They are driving me to Bedlam.”
“You need a better steward.”
“Do you have any suggestions?”
“You should ask Mr. Fury,” Clint teases. “I am sure he would have someone to recommend.”
“Oh, be off with you,” Natasha says, but she is smiling. “Leave me to my mathematics.”
Clint spares the papers a dirty look. There are some things he feels privileged not to be expected to understand. “That I shall, Ms. Romanov. That I shall, indeed.”
Natasha shakes her head and returns to her accounts. Clint leaves her in peace.
He steps towards the garden door, debating for a moment whether he should take his bow, but deciding in the end against it. He had already practiced for several hours that morning in an attempt to fortify himself for his trip into town. It had not been enough, and Clint wishes he could lose himself again in the rhythm of nock and release, but his shoulders already ache from the weeks of forced inactivity in London and further practice now would only damage his form.
Leaving his bow behind, Clint exits to the garden and then crosses the fields to the strip of wilderness that borders Natasha’s property. It does not take him long to find the familiar path that winds its way around Watersford. Clint exhales once he is out of sight of the house. Natasha is his friend, as well as his guardian, but Clint cannot deny the peace he finds only in solitude.
He amuses himself bird spotting as he walks, losing himself enough in the activity that the sound of a horse nearby startles him. It rounds the corner of the path up ahead, and Clint only has a moment to debate hiding in the underbrush before he will be found.
He hesitates too long, and is discovered. “Mr. Barton,” says an unfamiliar voice, laced with surprise. Clint feels his heart sink, realizing just who has come across him when he most wished to be alone.
“Colonel Coulson.” He bows.
The Colonel dips his head in acknowledgement. He is seated astride the noblest steed Clint has ever seen. It stands erect, its gaze as sharp as its master’s, and even Clint, who is no horseman, can appreciate the ease with which Coulson handles the reins.
Despite his irritation at being interrupted, Clint cannot help but admire Coulson’s trousers, which hug his thighs indecently, and his coat, which fits him perfectly across the shoulders
Clint brushes ineffectively at his own attire, which is patchy in places, and wishes he had worn a little more of his London finery today.
“I… had not expected to meet anyone. Good day, Colonel. I hope you are enjoying your time in Watersford?”
The Colonel nods. He also seems thrown by Clint’s presence, but manages a cordial expression. “I am, Mr. Barton, thank you. Mr. Fury is a generous host. I was just taking a tour of the countryside.”
Clint nods. He hopes if he says nothing, Coulson will ride on.
The Colonel hesitates. “I believe there is a creek up ahead. Would you do me the honour of accompanying me?”
Clint frowns. The creek had been his intended destination, but he has no desire to share it with Coulson. He would most likely mock Clint the moment they arrived. “I thank you, but no. I had neared the end of my walk and was about to return to Ms. Romanov’s manor.”
The Colonel moves to dismount. “Then I should accompany you.”
Clint stops him with a shake of his head. “Such courtesy is not necessary.”
Coulson stares. “Of course it is.”
“Perhaps in London,” Clint says firmly. He has no desire to be accompanied by Coulson anywhere. “In Watersford, however, it is perfectly acceptable for a sub to walk a short distance by himself. There are no ruffians here to accost me.”
Coulson frowns. “But - ”
“Besides,” Clint says, glancing towards Coulson’s bad leg. “It is a far distance.”
Coulson’s features harden. Clint, who had spoken out of irritation born of his fruitless day, immediately regrets his words as well as the insinuation behind them, but the damage is done. Coulson settles back onto his horse.
“Of course,” he says, his voice cool. Clint hadn’t realized how warm his tone had become, until that warmth has fled. “Forgive my interruption, Mr. Barton. I will leave you in peace.”
Clint opens his mouth to apologize, but before he can speak, Coulson is gone. With a flick of his reins, he directs his horse with expert skill, and the animal jumps into action. They are down the path and out of sight around the bend before Clint can draw breath to stop him.
“Did you have a nice walk, my dear?” Natasha asks the moment he returns.
“I am going to curl into a ball and never come out again,” Clint informs her. “Clearly, I will do less damage that way.”
Natasha’s expression falls. “Oh, my. What has occurred?”
“I spoke without thought,” Clint says with a sigh. “Colonel Coulson came across me on the path and I, in my irritation, said something hurtful.”
Natasha’s brow furrows. “Oh, dear.”
Clint knows that expression. “What?”
She shoots him an apologetic look. “It is only that I have just now accepted a party invitation from Mr. Fury.”
“A party invitation?” Clint asks in dismay. “Why? For what?”
“A small gathering at Pembleton,” Natasha explains. “Colonel Hand will be there, the new leader of the regiment quartered in Watersford, and I thought it would be beneficial for you to meet her acquaintance.”
Clint groans. “Will you never stop match-making for me, Natasha?”
Natasha’s expression falls. “I can draft a letter with our regrets.”
“No, no,” Clint rouses himself. “That would not do. We must go, I know. I am simply feeling sorry for myself. I appreciate your efforts on my behalf, Natasha. The fault is mine.”
“Not only yours,” Natasha defends faithfully. “If the Colonel had not made such a poor first impression, I am sure you would have watched your words more carefully.”
“Perhaps,” Clint admits. “Still, the damage is done. Tell me the date and time of this event, and I will ready myself. Whatever humiliation he has planned for me in retaliation will be well earned.”
When the day arrives, however, there appears no humiliation in sight.
Clint looks anxiously around Pembleton for Colonel Coulson. He had spent the night tossing and turning in his bed, preparing himself for the worst - a cold shoulder, certainly, perhaps a disdainful glance down the nose. The Colonel was sure to know his situation from Mr. Fury, and would be able to produce any number of hurtful anecdotes that could be dropped into respectable company. Clint had steeled himself against their power, but now that he is here, he does not see the Colonel at all.
Ah, there he is. Clint finally spots Coulson standing near to Mr. Fury as guests arrive. Clint adjusts the lay of his jacket and steps forward with Natasha. By the time they greet their host, however, Coulson has disappeared.
“Mr. Barton,” Mr. Fury says with warm regard, “and Ms. Romanov. A pleasure as always.”
“Mr. Fury,” Natasha replies, a smile on her face despite the crowded room. She cannot appear to help herself where this man is concerned. “Thank you for your kind invitation.”
“I had hoped it would only be the first of many these winter months, but I suppose only time will tell.” He glances once at Clint.
Natasha’s expression falls slightly. “Yes, well. We can aught but hope.”
They share an odd, secret moment, a curious look passing between them. Clint wonders if it is some sort of dom thing, but then Natasha shifts. There are other guests standing behind them, clearly waiting to pay their respects. “I look forward to speaking with you on this matter later.”
“As do I,” Fury says, before gesturing them inside the parlour room. “There are refreshments available. Please, help yourselves.”
Natasha inclines her head and Clint bows. They move forward before the guests behind them can become restless.
“What was that about?” Clint asks.
Natasha shakes her head. “Another time, perhaps. Ah, Colonel Hand, just the person I wanted to see. May I introduce my ward to you?”
Colonel Hand is a tall, imposing woman with steel grey eyes. Clint can see something of Coulson in her, in the military bearing they share, but while Coulson’s eyes hold the suggestion of warmth - even if Clint has barely seen it - Colonel Hand’s gaze is cold.
She looks Clint over as though he were a specimen, but not one she instinctually finds displeasing. That is, at least, a mark in her favour.
“Mr. Barton,” she says, once the introductions have been completed, “yes, of course, I have heard of you. A pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”
She does not look as though it gives her pleasure, but Clint can admit that he finds her difficult to read.
“On my part as well,” Clint says with a bow. “Are you enjoying your time in Watersford?”
“It is adequate,” Colonel Hand allows. “The country is fit for troop deployment, and we have several operations to practice before winter comes to pass. The society is… tolerable, I suppose.” She eyes Clint again. “Will there be more gatherings like this one?”
Clint is not sure what to say. “I - we have parties such as this at various times throughout the year, Colonel. Private functions, mostly, and Mr. Fury typically hosts a ball in November. I do not know if he will keep that schedule this year.”
Her gaze is cool as she absorbs that information. Clint finds it difficult to hold. He scans the party as a distraction, startling himself when he sees that Coulson is nearby. He seems to be watching him, his gaze darting between Clint and Colonel Hand.
“I see no reason why he should not,” Hand says, at last. “I also understand that you have a reputation as an excellent dancer.”
For some reason the compliment, coupled with Coulson’s blank-faced gaze, causes Clint to blush. “I enjoy dancing, yes.”
“Then perhaps, when the occasion arrives, you might do me the honour?”
“I - ” It is presumptuous to ask, since a ball has not even been declared yet, but Colonel Hand does not seem inhibited by that.
“Please consider it,” she says, before Clint can finish his response. She turns then to speak with another acquaintance, leaving Clint to fish-mouth in her wake.
Coulson takes a half-step towards him, but instantly Natasha is there, leading Clint away. “Are you all right?”
“I believe so,” Clint says, still feeling off balance. “Colonel Hand is an interesting character.”
“By all accounts, she is,” Natasha agrees. “Mr. Fury says to watch for her, as she has a habit of getting what she wants.”
“What she wants is a dance.”
“Well, then.” Natasha’s gaze is sharp. “The question is, what is your response to that?”
“I am not sure,” Clint admits. “She unsettles me, but she is interesting and quite beautiful.” He sighs. “Truly, Natasha, I do not know. Can we speak of this at a later date?”
“Of course, my dear. I was just moving to gather some refreshments. Would you like to accompany me?”
“Very much,” Clint says gratefully, and follows her to the table. The other guests mingle about them, laughing and twittering with gossip. Clint manages to make polite conversation, but groans when the request for music is made, and a space cleared for dancing.
“I did not know I would be required to decide so quickly,” he confesses to Natasha.
Her gaze is sympathetic. “I know, my dear, but I believe the younger subs would like to dance with the officers. You cannot blame them.”
The officers are wearing sharp red coats and shiny, polished buttons. Clint wonders for a moment how Coulson had looked in his, before forcibly directing the thought away. It would do nothing for his equilibrium. “I suppose I cannot.”
He spots Colonel Hand making her way towards them. Her red coat shows off her trim waist to good effect. It also highlights the predatory gleam in her eye, which Clint can admit is making him somewhat weak in the knees. “Oh, dear.”
Natasha looks around and spots her. “You have perhaps half a minute to make your decision.”
“I - ”
Before Clint can gather his wits, Colonel Coulson is suddenly standing in front of him. He blocks the advance of Colonel Hand, and effortlessly captures Clint’s attention.
“Mr. Barton,” Coulson says, his voice low and arresting. Even though he is not in uniform as so many others in attendance are, including Colonel Hand, Coulson manages to look well in command. His shoulders are straight, the grip on his cane is sure. Clint wonders what the man would order him to do if they were alone together, and shivers. “May I have this dance?”
Clint can feel himself sway towards him. He swallows in an effort to regain control of himself. “I am sorry?”
“A dance,” Coulson says, a slight smile on his face. Behind him, Colonel Hand is glowering. “If you would do me the honour?”
Clint stares, confusion and attraction warring in his gut. He wants to say yes, to submit to his man, and he does not understand his attentions. “I need some air,” he says instead, quickly turning to walk away.
Stumbling blindly through the parlour room, Clint finds a set of double doors that lead to an outdoor patio. He opens them gratefully, stepping outside.
In the fresh, cool air, Clint breathes easier. The leaves are just turning colour, the sun is still bright in the sky.
He has perhaps a minute of peace, and then the doors behind him open again. “I apologize,” a low voice says.
Clint turns around. Colonel Coulson is there, looking proud but apologetic. Clint is not sure how he manages it. It is a combination of those shoulders, along with his frown, and the way he does not quite meet Clint’s eyes.
“For interrupting Colonel Hand’s advancements,” Coulson says. “I thought you appeared uncomfortable. I was only thinking of your peace of mind.”
“Were you only?” Clint challenges. He does not know where the accusation comes from.
Coulson’s expression flickers. “Perhaps not,” he admits. “Still, that was the impulse that drove me. I apologize if it was unwelcome.”
Clint sighs. “It was not. You saved me from making a difficult decision. Colonel Hand is… forthright, which is unsettling for me. I am not accustomed to doms angling for my affections.”
Coulson frowns. “However not?”
Clint scowls. “Do not jest. I am the second child and only sub of a minor landowner in town, with few family connections and no wealth except that which lies in the estate. My looks are as you see before you and my situation has only been complicated by the insane decision my brother made before his death to entrust the estate to me through my eventual dom.”
Coulson’s expression does not change. “The looks I see before me are nothing short of arresting. Your eyes could command sonnets, your arms novel-length soliloquies. Your situation is unusual, but hardly without precedence. Your suitors, Mr. Barton, should be respectfully lined up outside the door, not pouncing on you in a drawing room.”
Clint stares. “Surely you are joking. How can you say such things? I thought you detested me!”
Coulson looks surprised. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you were abominably rude to me the day we first met!” Clint cries, and then colours. “Not to mention, I was terribly rude to you as well just the other afternoon. I am very sorry, Colonel Coulson. I was irate, and startled. I humbly beg your forgiveness.”
Coulson shakes his head. “No forgiveness is necessary, Mr. Barton, you said nothing which was not true.” He takes a deep breath. “My rudeness to you was not your fault. That evening…” He pauses. “Mr. Fury had spoken to me of your beauty. He promised to secure an introduction. When I saw you dancing, however, I knew any hopes I had were in vain. It was clear that you would never accept me.”
Clint stares at him. “Whyever not?”
“Because of my injury.”
“What would I care of your injury?”
“Because…” Coulson looks confused. “I cannot dance with you. Not like you were. Small assemblies such as this, yes, I can get by, but the way you danced that evening - Mr. Barton, I can not equal that. Not any more.”
Clint steps forward, his heart hammering. “I would not ask you to. No, wait,” he begs when Coulson would speak. “What does it matter if we cannot dance together? Partners are not granted more than one or two dances at an Assembly, regardless of inclination or ability. I would dance with Natasha, with my friends, with Mr. Fury, mayhap, and when the evening ends I would return home with you. It would be you who directs what dancing we do together in private, and I am sure you could think of many ways to work around your bad leg.”
Clint knows he is being forward, but he cannot help himself. He cannot bear to think of Coulson misinterpreting his intention. Coulson, for his part, stares at him, his eyes dark and hungry. “Mr. Barton…” he begins.
The door behind them opens. “Ah, there you are.”
Clint jerks his gaze away from Coulson’s. Colonel Hand has found them. She is standing with her hands upon her hips, watching them from the doorway. “Mr. Barton? The music has started. May I have that dance?”
Clint glances back to Coulson, whose gaze has not moved.
“No,” Clint says, slowly. “I am sorry, Colonel Hand. If you wish we may dance together at Mr. Fury’s ball, if indeed he does hold one, but at the moment I do not think it would be appropriate for me to dance with you.”
Hand looks between himself and Colonel Coulson, and blows out a breath. “Oh, very well. Coulson,” she accedes with a nod. “Good to see you again.”
Coulson doesn’t bother glancing her way. “Hand.”
“Good evening to you both, then,” she says, before retreating back inside.
Clint and Coulson stare at each other.
“May I call upon you?” Coulson asks, suddenly. “Tomorrow?”
Clint smiles. As if there would be any doubt regarding his answer. “You may.”
Natasha demands the entire story during the short carriage ride home. Clint gives it to her, and does not bother to disguise his giddiness. She would only see through it, besides.
“And he will call upon you?” she demands, looking as invested as Clint feels. “Despite your impertinence? On the morrow hence?”
“So he said,” Clint answers, his smile wide. He feels as though he could fly. “He claims to have always desired me, but felt himself for some reason unequal to the task.”
“Well, we cannot make it easy for him,” Natasha declares. “Not after the way he made you suffer. He must court you properly, or not at all.”
Clint hugs himself like a schoolboy. “I believe that is his intention.”
Natasha nods satisfactorily. “Good.” She waits a moment, then leans over and squeezes his knee. “I am very happy for you.”
Clint smiles. “Thank you, Natasha. For everything. And for insisting that I wear my best coat, on that evening last month in London.”
Natasha grins, and continues the favor the next morning, by helping Clint to select his clothing with care.
“No, no, the light blue one. It brings out your eyes.”
Clint pouts. “I prefer purple.”
“I know you do, but trust me in this. The cut of this jacket is much more fine, and it suits your person admirably.”
“Very well,” Clint acknowledges, and allows Natasha’s man to dress him. He stands for inspection when all is done. “Is it well?”
Natasha’s expert hands address the fold of his cravat. “There, now it is.” She smiles. “He will not be able to resist you.”
Clint rolls his eyes. “It is a walk about the property, not a stroll down Hyde’s Park.”
“Hyde’s Park would be too windy,” Natasha counters, then starts when the butler announces Coulson’s presence. “He is here!”
Clint descends the staircase carefully, attempting not to disturb the fit of his coat, but relaxes when Coulson smiles at him. “You look a dream, Mr. Barton.”
“You appear very fashionable yourself, Colonel,” Clint responds. It is true - Coulson’s jacket is very fine, and his trousers expertly tailored. One hand holds his cane, but the other he extends towards Clint. “Shall we?”
They walk the length of the property, Natasha a short distance behind them. They discuss many things that day, comparing novels, plays, and interests. They share several occupations in common, and find others they can relate to. Coulson sweetly requests the honour of watching him practice archery, while Clint begs a lesson in horsemanship. They make plans to meet again the next day, and two days after that, and then again over the week’s end. Colonel Coulson even calls unannounced once, apologizing for forsaking propriety in his desire to see Clint. Natasha, who is luckily available to chaperone, chides the Colonel lightly and then sits in the corner of the salon with her needlework while they visit.
The following week, Mr. Fury invites them to dinner at Pembleton. “I am thinking of holding a ball,” he announces, smiling first at Clint and then at Coulson, before directing his attention to Natasha. “Sometime in November, do you think?”
“I think that is an excellent idea,” Natasha allows. “It would be a very memorable occasion.”
Clint manages something, he does not know what, because at that moment Coulson favours him with a look that turns his insides to jelly. Their courtship period has been adequate. Surely, someday soon…
Thankfully, a short few days later, Coulson rides to Natasha’s estate alone.
“If I might speak with you in private, Mr. Barton?” he asks, upon gaining entry to the house.
Clint feels his heart begin to beat hard enough to tear its way out of his chest. “You may.”
Natasha favours them both with a look, but stands and makes her way out of the drawing room.
“Mr. Barton,” Coulson says, the moment they are alone. “I wish to tell you how happy you have made me, these past several weeks. I had never imagined there might be a person, so beautiful a person, who shared so many similar interests, and who seemed willing - who encouraged, even - my attentions, even after so disastrous a first meeting, the fault of which is completely my own.”
Clint opens his mouth to defend him, but Coulson shakes his head.
“Please, Mr. Barton, allow me to acknowledge my own deficiencies. My injury in battle was heartbreaking to me. I saw my entire future turn to smoke and float away and I wondered, for a while, what purpose could be left for me in life. I am the second dominant child of an Earl, and my sister will inherit both the title and the estate. I saw my purpose in life in the Army, and did not think there could be anything for me away from there.”
He looks at Clint with such clear love in his eyes, such certainty, such candor, that it makes Clint weak in the knees.
“And then I met you. I met a man of such humour, goodness, and friendliness of spirit as to astound me. Your beauty I have spoken of, but I have not told you of your other perfections, the joy with which you look on life, which inspires me to heights I had not known. I have fallen in love with you, Mr. Barton, and I can only ask that you make me the happiest of dominants, and consent to wear my collar.”
Clint’s heart feels so full, it is fair likely to burst. “Colonel Coulson,” he breaths, sinking down to his knees. “I have never wanted anything more deeply, needed anything so completely, as I do your collar about my neck.”
Coulson takes a sharp breath in at Clint’s words, or perhaps it is the sight of Clint on his knees, but his hands are steady as he lays them over Clint’s shoulders. He strokes Clint’s neck, the bare skin that will be covered by his collar on their wedding day, when it will be fitted and never removed.
“Colonel,” Clint breaths, content to stay forever submissive to this dom. To his Dom. “You have made me the happiest of men.”
Coulson shakes his head. “That is I,” he protests, his eyes glimmering with happiness, and also something possessive which makes Clint shiver with need. “To see you here, to imagine you wearing my collar… I would marry you tomorrow, if that could be arranged.”
“The earlier the better,” Clint agrees.
“Indeed. I will speak with Natasha.”
Coulson lifts his hand to Clint’s head, holding him tenderly by one cheek, before gently tugging Clint to his feet. Clint wavers, overcome, but Coulson helps him to a chair.
“There, there,” he says, speaking softly. “Breathe deeply for me.”
Clint stares into his eyes. “Anything.”
Coulson’s eyes darken. “Soon, my darling. Soon.”
Clint struggles to contain himself. It takes some time, but before long Coulson is able to leave him and seek out Natasha for her permission.
“Are you happy?” Natasha asks him, coming to speak with him alone while Coulson waits in the hall.
“So happy, I feel it cannot be possible, that it must all be a dream,” Clint confesses.
Natasha kisses his forehead. “It is possible, my dear, and what is more, you deserve it. I have half a mind to make him suffer, but I suppose waiting this long to hear my answer shall suffice. If it is well with you, I will give him leave to collar you.”
“It is well,” Clint confirms. “Oh, Natasha! It is well.”
She smiles at him, blindingly bright, and then goes to give Coulson the news.
They are married in a ceremony attended by Natasha and Mr. Fury, at the small church in Watersford, before the month is up. Barton Manor becomes Coulson Place, and Clint and his husband move in directly.
On their wedding night, Clint learns the true value of submission. Up until this moment he had been a child, but now he is a man. He looks at Coulson and finds him completely worthy, both to hold Clint’s estate, and his person.
In their joy, Clint and Coulson - though he is Phil now, in private - allow themselves a year of married life before beginning the formal process of adoption.
“We do not want to rush things,” Clint tells Natasha, during the Fury ball in November. “A year is quite sufficient to enjoy ourselves before worrying over the difficulties of adding a child to the mix.”
“A full year?” Natasha asks, touching her belly with one hand. “Would nine months or so be long enough?”
“Oh, Natasha!” Clint exclaims, restraining himself from embracing her in the crowded hall.
“What do you think?” she asks him, concern colouring her tone.
“We would be honoured,” Clint assures her, grasping her hand in happiness. He had noticed that she looked particularly radiant today, but had not been certain if that were merely his own joy spilling over. “We had not planned on expanding our family so quickly, but have no particular reason to wait. We may need to enlist the services of an accomplished forger,” he says with a grin, “but that is easy to do.” Adoption is a regular enough practice, so often needed when neither member of a married pair could conceive, but most children are adopted from other respectable families, with both dom and sub clearly outlined. Obviously, Natasha would need to make other arrangements.
Natasha colours. “I would enjoy being a godmother more than a mother, I believe.”
“Does Mr. Fury feel the same?”
“He does.” Natasha’s eyes track his progress through the ball. “The secrecy is difficult, but that is nothing more than we expected when we began this affair. I can only say that I am happy, Clint, and that if our condition grants you and the Colonel more happiness, well, then there is nothing to regret.”
“Nothing at all,” Clint promises her, squeezing her hand again. “I will speak to the Colonel, but I can tell you his opinion now - we would be honoured to adopt your child.”
“Thank you,” she says, before releasing his hand. “Here is your husband now, come to collect you for a dance, I believe.”
“You are correct,” Clint agrees, smiling as the Colonel extracts himself from the crowd.
As always, Coulson looks magnificent, his shoulders straight, his waist trim. His eyes meet Clint’s and they crinkle - love, dominance, and surety clear to see.
“Will you join me for a dance, Mr. Coulson?” he asks with a smile.
“I will, indeed, Colonel Coulson,” Clint answers with joy. He takes his husband’s proffered hand. “We will see you at dinner, Natasha.”
“You surely will,” Natasha agrees. She smiles at them both. “Enjoy yourselves.”
Clint looks into Coulson’s eyes and smiles. “That we shall.”
~ The End