The day Captain Jamie Benn’s life changed began as most days did: early, with a light breakfast of tea, kippers, and oatmeal. This was followed by a brisk walk and, on his return, a cup of tea and a careful study of the increasingly tangled household accounts.
At midmorning Fiddler, his valet, brought in a fresh cup of tea, some toast, the mail, and the papers.
The mail was nothing out of the common--tradesmen’s bills he was disinclined to look at, invitations to balls he had no intention of attending, and card parties he had neither interest nor funds to attend--save for one tiny envelope with tidings from Calais, where his brother, Lieutenant Benn, and his bride had recently been put ashore.
Jamie read the note carefully, grinning at his brother’s description of the sailors playing in the rigging, and sighing heavily at the end of an account of a glorious drink- and dice-filled night in a tavern. He sent back a note, updating Jordie on local news--the epic tale of the wanderings of a loose cow being the highlight of the week--and warning him to not lose too much money.
The paper he skimmed, and, once assured London was still standing and the French Emperor remained secure in his island prison, set it aside in favor of Farmer’s Magazine.
At noon Fiddler brought more tea and a cold collation. When his plate was clean, Jamie called for Daisy, his bay mare, to be brought ’round, and went out for a ride.
An hour later he was in the village enjoying a pint of beer at the pub, and attempting some gentle persuasion on the matter of new techniques in sheep husbandry with his tenants. Jamie was engaged in a measured discussion of said sheep with the elder Mr. Swayne when Eakin, his driver, made an unexpected appearance in the doorway, dressed for town.
Jamie rose, alarmed and painfully aware that the conversation in the room had abruptly ceased. Eakin crossed to him and pressed a small envelope into his hand. It was surprisingly heavy--the paper was surely very fine--and he did not recognize the hand.
“From General Chiarelli, sir,” Eakin said, his voice low and his face carefully blank. “His man brought it by, said you’re to report to town this afternoon. Didn’t wait for a reply. Daley directed me to bring the curricle down.”
Jamie nodded, excused himself to Mr. Swayne, put down a few coins to pay for his drink, and went outside. The promised curricle was there, with Dallas and North Star in harness, sleek coats gleaming bright in the sun like polished obsidian. Fiddler was waiting next to the rig, holding a clean coat and a fresh neckcloth. Jamie changed quickly under Fiddler’s critical eye, then climbed up next to Eakin in the curricle.
“I’ll send word if I’m to be home for supper,” he said as Fiddler unhitched Daisy and swung up on her back.
Fiddler saluted--he had acquired army habits, and they were not easily broken--and then they were off, Eakin setting a brisk pace.
Jamie pulled the general’s note out of his pocket and studied it for a moment. He could not imagine what the man wanted with him, much less so urgently. They had spoken only once before, at Vauxhall, and that only to exchange pleasantries about the weather. Jamie took a deep breath, braced himself for the worst, and opened it.
Inside he found exactly what Eakin had relayed: a civil greeting and a request to call at the house on Harley Street in the late afternoon, with a brief apology for the abrupt notice. He read it aloud to Eakin in tones of great puzzlement. Eakin was no help, however; he simply made a noise that suggested the ways of fine gentlemen were beyond him. Jamie shoved the note back in his pocket and sat back on the squabs.
“Captain Benn,” General Chiarelli said, rising from his seat. Jamie sketched a bow.
“My thanks for your indulgence in this matter,” Chiarelli said, and waited for Jamie to lower himself into the nearest chair--a delicate, gold-limned article that seemed too fragile to support his weight--before resuming his seat. “I am leaving for Brighton tomorrow and I would like to get this business concluded before I depart.”
A maid arrived with a tray of tea and biscuits, which she set on the desk, heedless of the general’s papers. She moved to the door, and closed it quickly behind her.
“My apologies for curtness of the letter,” the general said, handing one cup to Jamie and taking the other himself. “But it is a matter of some delicacy. General Nill assures me that I can rely on your discretion.”
“Of course, sir,” Jamie said, working hard to keep his expression neutral even as his pulse began to race. He wondered if he was going to be asked to be a spy, or perhaps--a diplomatic mission--
“Nill also tells me you have charge of your family estate,” Chiarelli said, jerking Jamie back to mundane concerns.
“Yes, sir, Oak Cliff is my responsibility,” Jamie said, bafflement at the abrupt change of subject mixing with the usual jolt of anxiety that assailed him when he was forced to discuss his family home.
“Your tenants are thriving?” Chiarelli asked, turning the plate of biscuits towards Jamie.
“They do tolerably well,” Jamie said, flushing a little, and took a biscuit. “Last summer was--unkind to them.”
The general hummed thoughtfully into his tea. “Last summer was unkind to everyone.” The general took a biscuit of his own. “I’m also given to understand you have an older brother.”
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said, permitting himself a smile. “He and his bride arrived in Calais this morning.
“He has no interest in the estate?” Chiarelli asked, dunking the biscuit into his teacup.
Jamie sat up straighter in his chair. “No, sir, he’s turned pious since the end of the war, and he’s to be the vicar at Oak Lawn when they return.”
The general ate his biscuit in two bites, and Jamie decided he could risk nibbling at his own.
“And you have no entanglements, no understandings of your own?” the general asked, his gaze narrowing.
“No, sir,” Jamie said, quashing a spike of defensive irritation. “I have been mostly in the country, this last year, and so far I have not encountered any suitable ladies or gentlemen.”
Chiarelli nodded and glanced down at his papers. Suddenly he looked old and exhausted, and Jamie’s confusion at his line of questioning was replaced by concern for his welfare.
Chiarelli raised his head. “You remember my ward, Lord Seguin, the Marquess of Brampton.”
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said, now even more at sea. “He is well, I hope?”
Seguin had had his come-out three seasons previously. His engagement to Count Medved, a dashing, wealthy, older gentleman, had been the first of the season and such a triumph that all others had been deemed small beer in comparison.
“He is a scapegrace,” the general said, his tone turning sharp. “Boxing the watch, at routs every night, mixing with a bad element at every turn. He’s even made a pet of a prize hunting dog.”
Jamie blinked a couple of times and was quiet, for lack of anything sensible to say. Normally such larks among young men were not a matter of concern, but Chiarelli evidently took a sterner view.
“He and the Count were to be married, now that he’s reached his majority but--it will be in the Gazette tomorrow--the Count has broken with him and chosen another, and he is once again my concern,” Chiarelli said, exhaling slowly, and Jamie almost dropped his tea cup.
No wonder the general seemed so weighed down by cares; his house was about to be engulfed by scandal. The reason for Jamie’s presence was suddenly crystal clear: the only way to blunt the blow would be to find the Marquess a husband immediately. Preferably one that was not often in town, mixing with the ton.
The general sat back in his chair. “I see you have reckoned out my intent, Captain. There would, of course, be a generous settlement.”
“Sir,” Jamie began, but the general interrupted him, naming a sum of truly astonishing proportions. Jamie stopped, astounded. He took a deep breath. If he accepted, there would be enough to not only settle all of the household accounts, but also to make the whole house habitable once again. He could even lessen his tenants’ misery in what promised to be a difficult winter.
However, he would also be saddled with the wild Marquess, who was unlikely to be interested in the bucolic joys of rural life. He might also not wish to be taken off the market again so quickly, much less by a man not of his own choosing.
“Lord Seguin has agreed to the scheme,” the general said, as if reading Jamie’s mind. “He’s solid, at bottom--just young, and in need of discipline. He’s not profligate, merely--a little headstrong.”
Jamie looked at his knees and thought again about the men he’d seen in the pub earlier--their worn coats, the anxiety in their drawn faces, their carefully averted eyes as he had his drink--and swallowed carefully. The marriage might yet be a love match, and if not, certainly he and Seguin could come to some arrangement.
Besides, a brief rustic exile in reduced circumstances--a month, perhaps two, would probably be sufficient for the ton to find other concerns--would certainly do Lord Seguin no lasting injury. Whereas Jamie and his tenants would reap the benefits of having a grim winter eased for quite some time.
“I accept,” Jamie said, raising his head and pressing his free hand flat upon his knee, to stop it from shaking.
The general gave him a tight smile and yanked on a silken cord affixed to the wall by his desk.
“Campbell will show you to your room,” he said, standing up and draining his teacup in one motion. “I’ll send my carriage for your man. The special license has already been arranged, and the vicar will call tomorrow morning to finalize the matter. I expect you will want to depart for the country when your nuptials are concluded.”
Jamie took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. “Of course, sir. Thank you, sir,” he managed. He felt as though the world was spinning.
Chiarelli’s smile looked more like a grimace. “Indeed, it is I who owes a debt of gratitude to you. If you will excuse me, Captain--”
“Of course, sir,” Jamie said, rising as well, then sitting down with some force once the general was safely out of the room.
Married, Jamie thought. I am to be married in the morning. He missed his brother, suddenly.
He was not left to stew for long, however; no more than five minutes passed before Campbell appeared as promised, and led him off to a lavishly appointed bedchamber. Jamie scarcely noticed the finery, enmeshed as he was in composing letters: to Jordie, informing him of this unexpected turn in Jamie’s affairs, and to Daley, his butler, commanding him to dispatch Fiddler immediately and then to have a bedroom prepared and a wedding breakfast arranged.
Oak Cliff might be both humble and bedraggled, and this wedding not at all the one Seguin or Jamie would ever have anticipated, but Jamie could at least see to it that Seguin’s introduction to his new life included a clean bed and a warm meal.
The next morning, Jamie paused at the door of the drawing room to collect himself. He took a deep breath, and another, then gave himself a little shake and put his shoulders back. He’d faced the French in war; he could face his own wedding.
As promised, the Marquess, the general, and the vicar were waiting for him, as well as a parlormaid, presumably there to serve as a spare witness. The Marquess was exquisitely rigged out in a black silk coat, gold waistcoat, spotless white breeches and shiny Hessians, beard neatly trimmed and not a single chestnut hair out of place. Jamie tucked one of his own stray dark locks back behind his ear, and was once again grateful that his regimentals spared him the complex task of formal dress.
The Marquess and the general turned together; Jamie made a perfunctory bow to the general, then turned to meet Seguin’s wary gaze. His narrow face was blank--carefully so, Jamie was sure--but there was a certain anxious sadness in his eyes. Even so affected he was beautiful, and Jamie was entranced.
“Lord Seguin, Captain Jamie Benn of the Horse Guards,” Chiarelli said.
“My pleasure, sir,” Seguin said, stepping forward to offer Jamie his hand.
Jamie took it carefully, and was surprised and pleased at the firmness and warmth of his grip, and the suggestion it carried that Seguin’s trim frame belied his strength. Jamie pondered, for a moment, how Seguin might appear without his jacket, then quickly banished the thought. When he met Seguin’s eyes, he seemed equally startled.
“Reverend Collins, if you would do the honors, please,” the general said, and Jamie hastened to step into his appointed place.
The ceremony seemed to take forever--Jamie was painfully aware of every cough, shift, and shuffle made by himself and everyone else in the room--but at the end of it he could not have described the finer points, even if pressed.
“Your carriage is waiting outside, gentlemen,” the general said, moving towards the door. “Have a safe journey.”
Jamie fumbled for some words of parting--he had no idea what politeness demanded in such a situation--but the general was gone before he could make any comment.
The vicar walked with them to the carriage, a travelling barouche, much larger than Jamie’s curricle, with two strapping greys to pull it. He wished them both joy, shook their hands, and begged to be excused as he had promised two parishioners he would mediate a dispute about a pig.
“Of course, sir,” Jamie said, and then they were, abruptly, quite alone, save for the coachman and a few men who were busy ferrying an array of boxes, trunks, and bags into the barouche as well as the horse cart and Jamie’s curricle, parked behind it.
“Captain, I have the honor to present Mr. Button, my driver,” Seguin said, and the coachman tipped his hat. “If it is all right with you, I have told my valet, Mr. Peverley, to ride in the curricle with your Eakin.”
“By all means,” Jamie murmured, even as he tilted a little bit to look at both vehicles.
The one thing he did not see, amid the boxes and bags, was any sign of a dog. Medved must have taken charge of the animal, he thought, and dismissed it from his concerns.
“Where to, your lordship?” Button asked, pulling Jamie’s attention back to the matters more directly at hand, as Seguin turned to Jamie with an expectant expression.
“Oak Cliff,” Jamie said. “Just south of Bagshot.”
“Very good, sir,” Button murmured, as Jamie opened the door.
“Captain Benn,” Seguin said, quietly, when Jamie reached out to help him inside, and Jamie paused. “I am aware this is a marriage of convenience. I am grateful for your intercession, but you need not trouble yourself playing the devoted husband.”
Jamie flinched. So much for a love match, whispered a small, cynical voice at the back of his mind, and he lowered his hand slowly. Seguin looked away, briefly; when he met Jamie’s gaze, his mouth was set in tense lines.
“I--” Jamie began, then stopped. He did not want to impose himself upon Seguin; it seemed kinder to give him a few moments of privacy. “I will ride up front,” he concluded.
Seguin nodded and climbed in the carriage; Jamie closed the door behind him carefully, then jumped up next to Button.
Oak Cliff, when they arrived at it, was gleaming in the sun and appeared to be, quite uncharacteristically, the picture of respectability. The driveway had been raked, the wild hedges tamed by shears, and the shutters looked like they might have been given a fresh coat of paint.
Jamie grinned, pride briefly surging past marriage-induced anxiety, and made a mental note to give all the men an extra ration of beer.
Daley emerged first--Jamie suspected he had been watching for them--followed by the rest of the men. Jamie jumped down from the carriage, opened the door, and handed Seguin out. He emerged blinking, and wearing a guarded expression.
“My household, my lord,” Jamie said in an undertone. “I am afraid you find us a skeleton crew, only suitable for a bachelor.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage, Captain,” Seguin murmured as Jamie stepped forward to make the formal introductions.
Afterwards Jamie led him inside so they might have breakfast, leaving the unpacking to be done under Daley’s watchful eye. The meal passed in heavy silence; Jamie could think of nothing to say and Seguin seemed in such poor spirits that Jamie was disinclined to press him simply to make conversation.
Seguin excused himself as soon as his plate was clean and departed, presumably to take direction of his affairs. Jamie settled in his study, as was his normal custom, though his concentration was often disrupted by the muffled thuds and clanks of passing boxes and traps. At mid-afternoon he went out for a brief but vigorous walk; he returned to find his men still hard at work, and wondered if there was a secret compartment in the bottom of one of the coaches that had somehow escaped his notice.
Jamie expected Seguin would remain in his rooms for the night; he was therefore surprised when Seguin joined him for dinner, impeccably turned out in a black coat, green silk waistcoat, and cream trousers.
Jamie, who had traded his regimentals for his favorite bottle green coat and buckskins as soon as politeness would allow, and had only put on a fresh neckcloth and clean waistcoat for dinner, instantly regretted his choice; he suspected Seguin must think him quite a bumpkin.
“Good evening, sir,” Jamie said, and Seguin dipped his head in acknowledgement as he sat down.
“I take it all has been arranged to your liking?” Jamie asked, making a small pile of roast beef on his plate.
“Yes, thank you,” Seguin said, spearing a baked potato with his fork. “Peverley tells me your men are most efficient.”
“Their time in His Majesty’s service has prepared them well,” Jamie said, and snagged a potato of his own.
Seguin paused, fork in the air, his expression unreadable.
“They were with me on the Peninsula,” Jamie explained, slicing his meat carefully. “I took on as many of them as I could when we came back. It’s honest work and it keeps them off the parish rolls.”
“A worthy cause,” Seguin said, and resumed eating.
An extended silence followed.
Jamie used the time to study Seguin. He didn’t seem at all like the wild creature advertised, nor as coolly resigned to his fate as he had in the coach earlier; rather he looked very young and a little lost, and Jamie felt a distinct pang of sympathy. Jamie himself had left for the front when not much older than Seguin, but that, at least, had been his choice, and he had had Jordie with him; Seguin was all alone in a new place.
I must make him feel comfortable here, Jamie thought, poking at his green beans. Convenience or not, we must live together, at least for a little while.
“Is there anyone in the neighborhood you’d like to call upon?” Jamie asked. “Or I can have the drawing room aired if you’d prefer to receive friends here.”
“You’d have the ruffians I met playing cards in your house?” Seguin said, fixing Jamie with the longest, most direct look he’d given since they met.
“Any friend of yours is welcome here,” Jamie said, doing his best to keep his tone mild.
Seguin narrowed his eyes, as if he was searching for the trick in Jamie’s words; Jamie waited.
“Thank you,” Seguin said softly, his mouth curling into a small smile.
“Speaking of your friends,” Jamie said, setting his fork down carefully, “You need not worry about being separated from their society for long. This is, as you said, a marriage of convenience; neither of us need play at devotion. A month or two should be sufficient to turn the attention of the ton to other matters. I certainly won’t detain you here past the harvest.”
Seguin glanced up at him, surprise and something else in his eyes, but it was gone, sharpened into colder, considering expression, before Jamie could be sure of it.
“And what will you do, once I’ve--gone?” Seguin asked, taking a drink of his beer.
“I’ll stay here, as I have been,” Jamie said. “I might come up to visit my club from time to time, but I’m sure we can work out a mutually agreeable arrangement.”
“And until then?” Seguin asked, settling back in his chair.
“Until then, you may feel free to do as you please, and enjoy the liberty of the house and grounds,” Jamie said.
Seguin’s eyebrows swooped upwards, and Jamie winced, immediately regretting his choice of phrase.
“My apologies, my lord,” he said. “Too long in the Army, I think. What I mean to say is, ah, you may enjoy your leisure. You need not concern yourself with my activities, and I will not infringe upon yours, unless you so desire. Is that agreeable to you?”
Seguin’s expression flickered again, and then he leaned forward, hand extended for Jamie to shake. “It is.”
Jamie rose to take it then sat back down, the roil of concern in his belly somewhat settled. After a minute he went back to his dinner, consciously slowing his eating pace, so he did not appear to be bolting his dinner like an animal.
While he chewed, he considered what else they might talk about. He turned a few ideas over in his mind, wishing he had read the morning paper more closely and had more to discuss at dinner than local gossip about wayward livestock and the state of the village green.
Some time later Seguin cleared his throat; when Jamie looked up, he noted Seguin’s plate was empty.
“If you will excuse me, sir, I think I shall retire for the evening,” Seguin said, moving his napkin to the table.
Jamie squashed a flare of disappointment. They had both had a very long day and were starting a new life under awkward circumstances; Seguin was probably exhausted.
“Of course,” Jamie said.
Seguin bowed and was gone before Jamie could say anything else.
“--ye wicked wee besom,” Eakin was saying when Jamie walked in the barn; his pronouncement was followed closely by an irritated snort from Daisy.
“What has she done now?” Jamie asked, closing his hand around the apple in his pocket, which, like the carrots and oatcake on the other side, he’d stolen from the kitchen.
“Eaten half my hat,” Eakin muttered, waving the offended article in front of Jamie’s face before shoving it under his arm. “‘T’were my own fault, sir, I left it on her door while I was feeding the new gentlemen.”
“Ah,” Jamie said, fighting a smile, and turned to look at his horse. “Still, that is very naughty behavior for a lady as fine as yourself.”
Daisy snorted again, nostrils flaring, and pitched her ears forward. Eakin made an amused noise and strode off to the far end of the barn. Jamie moved closer, and stroked her neck while she lipped at his pocket.
“Brat,” he murmured, and surrendered a carrot.
She turned her head into his shoulder and knocked it gently, one ear flicking slowly.
Jamie leaned his head against the delicate curve of her neck and inhaled deeply, the vague sadness and unease that had lain coiled in his chest since he awakened eased by her familiar scent. She nudged him again, and fixed with him a pointed look.
“I’ve gone and gotten married, my girl,” he said, carding his fingers through her mane. “It’s a bit awkward just now, but it means I’ll be able to keep you in fancy ribbons for a while longer. Let me get a brush and I’ll tell you all about it, hmm?”
He was intent on a rough spot on her flank--a tangle made worse by mud and what might have been a burr--and also in the middle of describing the ceremony, complete with a funny voice for the vicar, when she stomped one foot and whickered loudly.
When Jamie straightened up and turned around, he found Seguin standing in the doorway, regarding them with wary amusement.
“Good morning, my lord,” Jamie said, wiping his hands on his buckskins and hoping his blush was not too obvious. “May I introduce Princess Ingeltrude out of Christianna by The Major--Daisy to her friends. Daisy, the Marquess of Brampton.”
“Your Highness,” Seguin said very seriously, and made an extravagant leg.
Daisy snorted and shook her head, then extended her neck, nostrils flaring; Seguin took a step back, clearly alarmed. Jamie paused--he had thought the quality to be broadly on intimate terms with horses--then patted Daisy’s neck.
“It is all right,” Jamie said, setting the brush to the side and motioning Seguin to come closer. “She just wishes to better make your acquaintance. Curl your hand into a fist--yes, just like that--and let her smell you properly.”
Seguin took a few steps forward and extended his arm slowly, his face still set in anxious lines. Daisy sniffed once, then enthusiastically licked his curled fingers. Seguin laughed, and took a step nearer. Daisy snorted, then stretched out her neck, grabbed his sleeve with her teeth, and tugged him closer to investigate his pockets.
“Daisy,” Jamie said, sharply, when Seguin froze, clearly discomfited. “My apologies, my lord, she seems to have forgotten her manners this morning.”
“It is I who must apologize,” Seguin said, holding perfectly still. “I have brought no treats, and pay poor court to the lady.”
“Unhand him, you wretch,” Jamie said, and she flicked him a saucy glance but released her hold.
“Good girl,” Jamie said, pulling an oatcake out of his pocket. “Here, my lord, open your hand.”
As Seguin took the oatcake, his fingers accidentally brushed against Jaime’s, and they both jerked back as if stung. Seguin’s eyes widened, and Jamie gave him an apologetic smile. Daisy extended her neck once more, nostrils flaring, and Seguin stepped back, the oatcake clutched to his chest.
Jamie yanked at her bridle. “Settle down, madame.”
Then he beckoned Seguin closer, and moved to stand behind him, to guide his arm so that his hand was directly beneath Daisy’s questing tongue. Seguin was by no means tiny--they were almost of the same height--but nonetheless he felt small in Jamie’s arms. Jamie tried to keep a modest space between them, and did his best to ignore the tingling incited in his limbs by the long, warm line of Seguin’s body.
Daisy, for her part, took up her treat in one bite, her eyes half-shut with pleasure.
Seguin wiped his hand on his breeches and grinned broadly--it totally transformed his narrow face--and obediently scratched Daisy behind the ears when she nudged him with her head.
Jamie stepped back and rubbed his chest, trying to ease a sudden warmth and tightness there. He realized he must have made a noise when Seguin turned away from Daisy to look at him, his smile fading.
“I must also apologize to you, for disturbing your morning.” Seguin said. “I went in search of the key to the drawing room, and Daley said I might find it with you.”
“Oh,” Jamie said, flushing again. “Yes, of course--I didn’t--” He paused, took a breath, then fished his keys out of his pocket and handed them over. “My apologies. It’s the large silver one in the middle. You can leave them with Daley when you’ve finished.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Seguin murmured, tucking them into his pocket and turning back to Daisy. “Farewell, Your Highness.”
Daisy blinked at him, then licked his hand and nudged him with her head; Seguin smiled again, his eyes crinkling at the corners, bowed to her and then turned to Jamie, bowed once more, and departed.
“Mind you don’t get attached to him, Princess,” Jamie said sternly, grabbing the brush. “He’s only here a little while, and then he’ll be off back to town without us.”
Daisy fixed him with a flat look, then put her head down to nose at the strands of hay on the floor. Jamie rested his head against her flank for a moment, then returned to the work of getting her clean.
The following morning Jamie was awakened by the sound of heavy rain lashing against the windows. He cursed into his pillow and seriously considered rolling over and going back to sleep. But a sense of duty--the war might be over, but he could nonetheless not afford to become sloppy in his habits--propelled him to ring for Fiddler and commence his day.
“His lordship is already abroad,” Fiddler said by way of greeting as he set down Jamie’s breakfast tray and turned to build up the fire.
“Good morning to you too,” Jamie said, rubbing his eye with the heel of his hand. “So early? I would have reckoned him a late riser.”
“Peverley said he passed a restless night,” Fiddler said, freshening the water in the basin.
“Did the house keep him awake?” Jamie asked, suddenly both embarrassed and concerned.
Jamie loved Oak Cliff, but it did creak something terrible at times. As children he and Jordie had used the eerie noises as illustrations for increasingly gruesome stories of ghosts.
“Peverley did not offer his opinion on that subject, but I didn’t notice anything unusual,” Fiddler said, not turning around. “And Horcoff reports he ate a hearty breakfast.”
Jamie arched an eyebrow at his back but didn’t press the point. He had not yet sunk so far as to ask his valet to gossip with him about his own husband.
Jamie accepted a cup of tea and his mail from Fiddler, then ate breakfast in silence, alternating between watching the rain and reading, before submitting himself to Fiddler to be shaved and dressed. Thirty minutes later Jamie descended the stairs to find Seguin in the drawing room, barefoot, stripped to the waist, and performing vigorous calisthenics. Jamie could not help himself; he stopped and stared, and did not recover his manners and announce himself for some time.
“Captain,” Seguin said, shifting upright with such grace that Jamie felt a little dizzy.
If Seguin had had a difficult night, it did not show anywhere Jamie could see.
“I’ve had word from the library that a book I requested has arrived,” Jamie said, pointedly fixing his gaze on Seguin’s face and not the tempting expanse of exposed skin. “I will be going up to the village this afternoon to fetch it if you would like to accompany me.”
“I am at your disposal, sir,” Seguin said, bowing slightly.
Jamie suppressed a sigh; he didn’t want to drag Seguin around unwilling, and had only asked so as to not appear unfriendly. It was quite a foul day, and sensible people would all be home where it was warm and dry. Jamie was only going in because he needed the book in question for a pressing project, but there was no way to rescind the invitation without sounding churlish.
“We’ll leave in two hours,” Jamie said, and retreated to his study and the safety of an agricultural treatise.
Jamie didn’t make anything of the staring, at first. They were walking at a respectable pace, engaged in pleasant conversation about the merits of various works of fiction, and Seguin was, as usual, dressed in the height of fashion, while Jamie’s only concession to the formalities of public promenading had been to change his buckskins for breeches. He supposed they did make an unusual pair, even to the most jaded observers.
The whispering, however, got his attention.
It manifested as a low rustle of voices, barely noticeable under the low wash of rain against the windows and the hum of general conversation, but followed them as they moved between the bookshelves. Jamie could catch a word or two if he concentrated: Did you hear. Turned out. Too wild. Disgrace.
He clenched his teeth and kept silent; acknowledging them would only fuel the fire, and he was unwilling to ruin an otherwise delightful outing by making a public scene. But he made sure to catch the eye of a few of them--gentlemen with whom he had shared a pint; women who had once pestered him to make up a couple to join a quadrille--and was gratified when they seemed disconcerted.
Seguin, for his part, gave the air of being deeply enmeshed in making a selection from a row of gothic novels, but Jamie saw rigid line of his shoulders and the color high in his cheeks, and was not fooled.
“Captain Benn!” a female voice called out, and both Jamie and Seguin turned to face the direction from whence it had come.
“Lord Seguin, may I present my neighbor, Mrs. Adelaide Brewer,” Jamie said, both pleased and relieved that she, at least, would acknowledge them in public. “She is the author of a valuable treatise on the treatment of common seasonal ailments, while her husband has given me much beneficial advice about chickens.”
Seguin doffed his hat and bowed; the lady in question, padded by years but nonetheless resplendent in a striking red walking dress, flushed prettily and dropped a quick curtsey in his direction.
“Nigel and I wish you congratulations, sir, and the girls also send their hopes for great joy,” Mrs. Brewer said.
Jamie mustered up a smile and very carefully did not look at Seguin. “What brings you out on such a foul day?” he asked, trying to change the subject as they shifted out of the way of browsing patrons.
“Miss Lucy ran out of novels and was moping about in a very untidy way,” Mrs. Brewer said, pulling her shawl more closely around her shoulders. “Miss Abigail desired a new ribbon for--”
She abruptly stopped talking as a small dog wriggled out from under her skirt and gave Jamie and Seguin a considering look through a delicate curtain of hair.
“And this bold creature wanted a walk but objected to the rain,” Mrs. Brewer said.
“Hello, Poppet,” Jamie said, grinning, and leaned over to present his fingers to be licked and sniffed. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed an expression of surprise pass over Seguin’s face, and wondered if he was behaving an undignified fashion.
“Spoiled brat,” Mrs. Brewer said, as Jamie straightened up, but there was affection in her tone.
“Might I pick her up?” Seguin asked, from somewhere around their knees; he had dropped into a low crouch for Poppet to make a proper examination of his person.
“Oh, but she’s quite muddy,” Mrs. Brewer said, and by then it was too late.
Seguin was already standing up, the dog propped against his shoulder. His coat was smeared with mud and leaves, his breeches covered in tiny brown paw prints. He did not seem to notice or care, and had submitted to Poppet’s desire to wash his face with her tongue with no complaint. Jamie, all concerns for his own dignity forgotten, could not help but smile at him.
“Stop that, you terrible animal,” Mrs. Brewer said, and both Seguin and Poppet ignored her.
She sighed and turned back to Jamie.
“I’m sending the invitations out in a day or two, but as you’re here now, I’ll tell you,” she said, smoothing down her skirts. “We’re having a little party in a month’s time--just the neighbors, you know. You will come, won’t you? And bring your husband as well, of course.”
Jamie glanced at Seguin, unsure how to answer, given their agreement.
“Will there be a loo table?” Seguin asked, giving Poppet one last cuddle before setting her back on the ground.
“Loo, and whist, and Miss Abigail has demanded charades as well,” Mrs. Brewer said. “And Nigel has threatened to bring out his accordion.”
“Then we shall be there,” Seguin said.
“I’ll claim a line on your dance card now, your lordship,” Mrs. Brewer said, perhaps a little triumphantly, and Seguin smiled. A real smile, Jamie realized, watching Seguin’s eyes crinkle at the corners, not the polite, careful, fleeting ones he had been given.
Jamie squashed a flare of jealousy. It was really quite ridiculous; Seguin could smile at whomever he pleased however he liked. Just as Jamie was about to inquire after Mr. Brewer’s chickens, he was attacked by a fit of sneezing. Seguin looked alarmed, while Mrs. Brewer gazed at him with an expression of maternal concern.
“Ush, dear, you mustn’t stay out in this weather, you’ll catch a chill,” she said, patting his arm. “Straight home and to bed with you, with a hot water bottle.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jamie said, wiping his watering eyes with his handkerchief, hoping that would be enough to reassure her and change the subject.
“And you’ll look after him, won’t you, your lordship,” she said, looking at Seguin but squeezing Jamie’s arm gently. “Have the cook make some beef tea, it will be just the thing. And--oh! Poppet! Come back here!”
The last was exclaimed with some irritation, as the animal in question bolted away, barking joyfully.
“Poppet! Ooh! Be quiet!” Mrs. Brewer said, taking two steps after the dog before apparently recollecting her manners. “You must excuse me, my dears, I must catch that wretched creature--but do call upon us soon!”
And then she disappeared into the stacks, calling for her dog.
Jamie sighed and rubbed his face. He did feel tired and cold, suddenly; he’d forgotten how damp the library could be.
When he looked up Seguin was gazing at the stacks, his face set in unreadable lines. Jamie cleared his throat, and Seguin turned, his expression becoming wary, which only made Jamie feel cross and put upon, and also wonder if he had a reputation as an ogre that he did not know about. I will not bite, he thought irritably, and then promptly felt guilty about it.
Perhaps Mrs. Brewer was right, and he did need to be sent to bed like a sick, sulky child.
“Well,” Jamie said, “I suppose we may as well be off. You have everything you want?”
A wry expression flashed across Seguin’s features, and then he nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Jamie clenched his teeth against an indecorous response and left, Seguin trailing behind him. Outside, the rain had mostly stopped, but it was still cold and raw.
“I’ll take the outside,” Seguin murmured when they got to carriage, and jumped up with Eakin before Jamie could stop him.
“All right,” Jamie said, relief mixing with his already disordered feelings, and climbed inside.
The interior, decorated in shades of black and gold, was as luxurious and well-appointed as the outside. It did nothing to appease the headache slowly growing behind Jamie’s eyes, so he closed them, and blocked it out. After a while the steady rumble of the road soothed him to sleep, and he did not wake until the carriage came to a halt outside Oak Cliff, and even then felt so cross and fuzzy that he retreated to his bed for the rest of the day.
The following morning Jamie took breakfast with Seguin, to make up for abandoning him the night before. Jamie’s plate was accompanied by an enormous pile of mail. He pushed it to one side, unwilling to start climbing that mountain until he had at least gotten through his first cup of tea.
Seguin, on the other side of the table, had only a few letters, and only opened one of them at the table. He did not make any comment, but his expression, cloudy and drawn when he arrived at the table, did brighten somewhat.
Jamie ate his bacon too, for good measure, before pulling his letters towards him.
The first one was an invitation to a chorale. The second one was for a card party. The third one requested his and Lord Seguin’s presence at something he couldn’t quite decipher but seemed to involve fancy dress.
Jamie sighed, poured himself a fresh cup of tea, and took a deep, fortifying drink.
“An embarrassment of riches,” Seguin observed, his tone mild.
“Indeed, I am spoiled for choice,” Jamie said, frowning at the small pile of open invitations. “Mr. Oglesby’s chorale is to go on in a week’s time, and he is, so far, up against Lord Nefron’s card party. They are both likely to be tedious affairs and I would as soon stay home and sort seeds.”
“Would you like some help?” Seguin asked as Jamie was reaching for the fifth envelope. “I’ve no head for agriculture, but I’m told I have excellent taste in entertainment, and I’m certainly well versed at writing notes filled with genteel regret.”
Jamie fixed him with a narrow look; Seguin’s tone was somewhere between rueful and amused, but his expression suggested the offer was genuine. Jamie pushed the mountain of envelopes to the middle of the table, extracting the only envelope written in a hand he recognized.
Yr note rec’d this morning; my bride and I wish you great joy, you lucky scoundrel. Jessica begs for a full description of your wedding finery and an accounting of any fine words spoken by the general or the preacher. I would like a complete menu of the wedding breakfast - did Horcoff welcome your bridegroom with half-cooked chicken pot pie or leathery roast beast? Also, did his lordship bring any spare horses with him, and if so can I borrow one, as the nag at the vicarage is no bigger than a pony and I am sure to squash her.
Seguin made a thoughtful noise; when Jamie looked up to investigate he was squinting at something written on a pale yellow piece of paper.
“Captain Weber has invited us to a picnic a week from today,” Seguin explained. “He promises rum punch and games.”
“Captain Weber,” Jamie repeated. “Our regiments encamped next to each other for a time, but I don’t know him very well,” Jamie said. “I do like rum punch and games, though.”
Seguin nodded and put the letter to one side.
Meanwhile, I have made inquiries in the fleshpots of Paris, and your feckless rascal of a husband is known here only as a dab hand at piquet even when deep in his cups, so I expect your union will be a happy one so long as you continue to avoid the card table.
Jamie sighed and rubbed his eyes with one hand.
We depart for the south tomorrow; please advise if you’d like me to collect anything for you--I can adjust my shopping list to reflect your new budget. Would you like some wine? cheese? a castle? I hear some of them are quite cheap these days; perhaps you could invest wisely and buy two at once.
Your loving brother and ob’t s’v’t,
Jamie folded the note and shoved it in his pocket, then ate a piece of toast.
Seguin, for his part, seemed totally enmeshed in the task of sorting Jamie’s correspondence. Jamie watched, fascinated, as he deftly shuffled the envelopes, frowning at some and smirking at others. Once or twice he arched an eyebrow, though Jamie could not tell if it was in puzzlement, suprise, or amusement.
He looked away when Seguin glanced up from his task, and pretended deep interest in his fried potatoes.
“All right,” Seguin said a few minutes later, as Jamie was finishing his eggs, and tapped a handful of envelopes on the table. “I have selected four: Captain Weber and his picnic; Captain Crosby, who requests our presence at something I can’t quite make out, but his wine is always excellent so it doesn’t matter; Baron Lavin’s garden party; and of course Mrs. Brewer’s party. If those are agreeable, I’ll decline the rest by return post.”
“That would be--that would be most agreeable, thank you,” Jamie said with real feeling, gazing upon the much larger stack of rejects with some relief.
“My pleasure, sir,” Seguin said, turning his attention to his breakfast.
Jamie plucked a muffin from the basket and buttered it slowly, trying and failing to reconcile the reckless lordling of popular legend with the canny reality currently dicing tomatoes into his eggs. He wondered what other talents might lay concealed beneath the surface.
“Damn it,” Jamie said, frowning at the field. More specifically, at the herd of cows standing in the middle of it, tromping on his cabbages.
Daisy flicked her ears back and Jamie reached forward to pat her neck.
“I shall have to send word to Dunkle,” Jamie said, narrowing his eyes and nudging Daisy on over the next rise in the road with his knees. “And perhaps call on him again, as apparently my letter--what the devil?”
There were three strange horses in his paddock: a handsome bay and two magnificent Friesians.
Daisy neighed loudly, and all three of them stopped grazing to look at her. Jamie stood up in his stirrups for a minute, then resettled himself and urged Daisy back to the barn.
“Eakin!” Jamie called out as he dismounted.
Daisy whuffled and stamped a foot; Jamie patted her neck absentmindedly and called for Eakin again. He was just growing annoyed at the lack of response when a familiar head popped out of one of the far stalls.
“Dunkle’s cows have gotten out again and are trampling our cabbages,” Jamie called out. “Send Garbutt to tell him to come and collect them. I see we have company?”
“His lordship has callers,” Eakin said, coming out of the stall and moving to divest Daisy of her saddle. “Horcs made apple pie; there’s a slice put by for you.”
“Oh,” Jamie said, both mollified and vaguely chastened.
Daisy knocked his shoulder with her head and whuffled quietly, one ear cocked towards the house. Jamie scratched her ears, kissed the broad expanse of her forehead, and departed for the kitchen.
Twenty minutes later, he was on the stairs, on the way to his study, when he remembered he had last seen the book he was reading in the drawing room, where, according to Horcoff and Daley, Seguin and his friends were currently enmeshed in a cutthroat game of bridge. Jamie paused for a moment, waffling between choosing a different book and intruding on the party to retrieve the one he wanted, before heading back down the stairs. It would only take a minute, after all, and then he would leave them be.
“--shameless scoundrel,” Seguin said, as Jamie opened the door, but there was delighted laughter in his voice.
He was dressed casually, in a black coat, dark green waistcoat and white trousers, and sitting at a card table with three other gentleman, two dark and one fair. The blond, who was wearing bold red damask coat with black trim, cream breeches, and shiny black Hessians, was seated next to Seguin, and Jamie recognized him immediately: it was the wild Lord Kane, well known for his skill at cards and fondness for drink.
“He was delightful and I have no regrets,” said one of dark-haired gentlemen, who was wearing a startling combination of bright blue coat, orange-striped waistcoat, and black breeches, and sitting with his back to the door.
The second dark-haired gentlemen, who was clad in a sober navy coat, lavender-gray waistcoat, buckskins and riding boots, scowled at his cards. His profile was familiar; Jamie supposed he must have seen him before, perhaps in town.
“Wait until you get the--hello, Captain,” Seguin said, rising smartly from the table, followed rapidly by his fellows. “May I present Lord Gagner--” the man in the blue coat bowed--”Lord Kane, and Mr. Brown.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” Jamie said, nodding at them. “My apologies for disturbing you; I’ve just come to retrieve my book.”
Seguin set his cards down. “Oh, we’re done with this rubber and I’m quite sure I’ve had enough bridge for one day. Brownie was going to play us some music, if you’d like to join us in listening.”
“I--” Jamie paused, caught by Seguin’s hopeful expression. “All right.”
Brown shot Seguin a look Jamie could not interpret, but moved to sit at the piano. Gagner and Kane settled in nearby chairs, leaving only the couch open. Jamie sat down gingerly, already having second thoughts about staying, while Seguin settled in easily opposite him.
“Play us something light, Brownie,” Seguin commanded, and Brown paused for a moment, fingers hovering above the keyboard, before launching into a sweet, slow song that Jamie only vaguely recognized.
Jamie glanced around the room, noted the generally pleased expressions, and tried to relax and enjoy the music. Seguin, for his part, seemed quite entranced, although the stillness of his expression threw the anxious lines around his eyes and the faint smudges under them into sharp relief.
“Ush, man, it is much too sunny a day for Chopin,” Gagner proclaimed, as the last note faded. “Perhaps some Moore--”
“No,” Brown said, swiveling on the bench. “You need to practice your dancing, Kane, do you not?”
Kane flushed to the roots of his blond hair, and Gagner hooted with glee. Seguin turned and shot a fierce look at Brown, who smirked unrepentantly. Jamie, left out of the joke, studied his knees disconsolately.
“Come, we will all practice,” Gagner declared, getting to his feet and pulling Kane out of his chair. “Line up, gentlemen.”
Jamie rose slowly, half inclined to make his excuses and leave, but Seguin’s expression--now suffused with amusement--persuaded him to stay.
“‘Emperor of the Moon,’ please, sir,” Gagner said, clapping his hands.
Seguin made an exasperated noise. “Again? Surely there is something more modern--”
“We can start with a waltz, if you like,” Gagner cut in, silky smooth, and it was Seguin’s turn to blush.
“I like ‘Emperor of the Moon,’” Jamie said, and that seemed to settle the question; Brown played a satirical set of scales, then launched into a sprightly tune.
Jamie followed the beat clumsily, half his attention on Seguin, half on his own feet. Seguin, as it turned out, was quite an accomplished dancer. His hands were light in Jamie’s, his turns crisp, his little hops precise. He kept up a steady stream of chatter, mostly ribbing Kane and Gagner for lack of coordination or missed steps, and Jamie was hard-pressed to keep a straight face.
“Can we try a waltz?” Kane inquired, after they had worked through three other dances. “I hear the Duke is going to allow it at his next ball.”
“I suppose we may as well,” Gagner said, and stepped into place, resting a hand on Kane’s hip with easy familiarity.
Seguin flashed Jamie an apologetic look but didn’t protest. Jamie took a deep, steadying breath and curled one arm around Seguin’s back and raised the other to clasp his hand.
“It will be all right,” Seguin murmured, tipping his head back to give Jamie a reassuring look and patting his back gently.
It wasn’t, at least for the first few turns; in fact it was all too much--too close, too loud, far too intimate. Every inch of Jamie’s skin was prickling with the warmth of Seguin’s proximity, and he wanted nothing more than to break away and make a run for his study.
To add insult to injury, Kane and Gagner, though shamefully off tempo, moved together with easy grace. Meanwhile, he and Seguin took turns crashing into one another and treading upon each other’s toes, each inadvertent contact setting off a new wave of trembly excitement. Jamie felt both shamefully clumsy and breathless, and quite despaired of himself until he looked down and saw Seguin was equally affected, his cheeks pink, his eyes overbright.
“That was terrible,” Gagner said when they came to a halt. “Again, Brownie, and with feeling, please.”
Seguin groaned and rested his head against Jamie’s chest. Jamie swallowed hard, raised a hand to his neck, and petted him tentatively, which had the effect of snapping Seguin to attention.
Brownie commenced playing before Jamie could apologize. This time, while still somewhat uncomfortable, Jamie felt steadier on his feet; by the third turn he was able to look up long enough to comment on Kane’s inability to follow the beat, causing Seguin to snort with laughter and trip into his chest.
“Can you believe he had a dancing master?” Seguin whispered when he had recovered himself, and then tripped again when Jamie widened his eyes in disbelief.
“Quit arsing about, Seggy,” Gagner called out, his tone somewhere between teasing and correction, and Seguin made an exaggerated expression of repentance.
Jamie grinned, and twirled Seguin about until the anxiety had entirely faded from his face.
“Captain Benn,” Weber said, coming to stand at Jamie’s elbow. “I hear I must wish you joy.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jamie said, clinking his glass of rum punch against Weber’s when it was offered.
“How is Lord Seguin? Settling into harness well?” Weber asked, nodding a greeting at a pair of passing ladies.
Jamie coughed quietly, grateful that Seguin was occupied elsewhere on the lawn, playing a shuttlecock game with Lord Kane, Weber’s own husband Count Josi, and a few other ladies and gentlemen Jamie recognized vaguely from parties he’d attended in the neighborhood.
“He seems content,” Jamie offered when Weber fixed him with an expectant look.
It was not quite true, but it was not entirely a lie, either. Their relations were stiff and awkward, but not intolerably so; Seguin was, if nothing else, a charming house guest. Aside from their one foray into dance, the previous week had passed quietly, and they had fallen--seemingly easily--into separate but congenial routines that mainly overlapped at mealtimes.
They had also made some calls, and been called upon by some of Jamie’s more particular neighbors. Seguin had been a delightful conversationalist, displaying endless patience for discussion of small domestic indignities, and a model of decorum. The most outrageous thing he’d done was display a besetting weakness for co-opting lapdogs for vigorous games of tug-of-war. However, when they were alone at dinner he proved to be a fount of scandalous stories. Jamie was sure he had not laughed so hard since he left the Army, and he took no small pleasure in being able to amuse Seguin in kind.
Married life was, if not pleasant, certainly comfortable. Possibly too comfortable; Jamie had had to remind himself on several occasions--mainly every time his stomach flipped over when Seguin smiled at him--that Seguin was only a temporary visitor.
“Needs a firm hand,” Weber said thoughtfully, and Jamie wondered, not for the first time, if that was an automatic response to the mention of Seguin’s name.
“Not quite as firm as Medved’s, perhaps, but…,” Weber began, then trailed off into silence.
“I have heard the Count is a difficult man,” Jamie prodded, his curiosity aroused.
Weber snorted into his drink and glanced around them quickly before edging closer to Jamie.
“He’s of the old school,” Weber said. “Comes from quite an ancient family, very proud of it. Fierce fighter, though, and very particular about his horses. He has a whole stable full of Lippizaners and one great brute of a destrier he brought back from the war--I once tried to give the creature an apple and he almost took my hand off. Then Medved scolded me for trying to spoil him.”
A great clamor arose on the lawn; Jamie turned to look, but it was nothing, just the shuttlecock nearly falling to earth. Seguin, Jamie noted with some pride, had terrific form and excellent reach, even when harried on all sides.
Jamie took a sip of his punch. “He sounds like quite a chilly character.”
“Oh, he’s warm enough, just strict,” Weber said. “He runs a formal, traditional household.”
Jamie made a thoughtful noise. That would, if nothing else, explain Seguin’s dedication to dressing fully for dinner every night.
“Doesn’t see many people; won’t do if they aren’t the right sort, you know,” Weber added, clearly warming to his subject.
Jamie snorted--he knew exactly the type--and drank some more of his punch.
“His entertainments tend towards the improving. Always came away feeling like I’d been back in the schoolroom--what is it, Roman?” Weber asked as his husband appeared next to them, face flushed and cravat askew.
“You are needed on the field,” Josi said, waving his battledore. “You too, Captain Benn.”
“All right,” Weber said in a much softer tone, and downed the rest of his drink in one shot.
Jamie followed suit, then joined them on the lawn. He knew most of the players; Weber made quick introductions to those who were strangers, and Josi produced a pair of battledores.
“First person to let the ’cock fall above three times is the goat, and must eat one of Miss Murphy’s rhubarb and strawberry tarts,” Kane said, voice pitched low, pointedly not looking at the lady in question, who had laid out her blanket some distance away.
“Are they quite dreadful?” Jamie whispered at Seguin, who widened his eyes and nodded.
“For some reason she saw fit to include vinny cheese,” opined one of the other gentlemen; Jamie thought his name might be Neal.
“Didn’t stop you from finishing off two, glutton,” Josi teased, then ducked when Neal made as if to whap him with his battledore.
“Stations!” Kane said, considerably louder, and they broke off into pairs.
Jamie found himself facing Seguin, standing straight, one arm raised, his eyes on Kane, who was serving the shuttlecock. Seguin’s face was pink from exertion, and he looked happier than he had the entire time Jamie had known him. Jamie smiled at him, and was pleasantly surprised when Seguin grinned back at him.
Weber whistled loudly, and the game was on. Neal caught it first and fired it at Josi, who whipped it towards one of the smaller ladies. It seemed quite certain she would miss it, but then Seguin stepped in, caught it neatly, and flung it straight at Neal, whose attention had strayed to a handsome group of cavalry officers standing near Miss Murphy’s blanket. The shuttlecock hit the ground to great acclaim and some muttering--could eating a third tart be a punishment for someone who had already consumed two?
Neal shrugged and served the shuttlecock, this time at Weber, who seemed to be admiring Josi’s grin, though it emerged he was not terribly distracted, and did not miss the chance to propel it towards Kane, who was hemmed in all sides. These limits did not stop him; somehow he was able to jump up and fling the shuttlecock towards Sharp, who was standing at the edge of play, and had picked an untimely moment to make a study of a nearby basket of fruit.
“Ho, rascals,” he said, when the shuttlecock bounced off his Hessians, but he served it back with good grace.
Jamie caught it that time, and sent it flying towards Weber, who once again snapped to attention at the last minute and sent it twirling away towards Kane.
Thus play continued for some time, and Jamie was able to lose himself in it. Seguin seemed equally focussed; once or twice they were even able to work together, passing the shuttlecock back and forth between them lazily, then when the other combatants had grown complacent and their attention wandered, firing it at an inattentive victim. Jamie was most pleased to have caught Weber out twice by the end of the day, though he was forced to admit Josi had caught him napping--or, rather, watching Seguin study gameplay--at least one time.
The game broke up when three people had served as the goat, and all of the tarts were consumed. The unlucky losers departed in search of rum punch to cleanse their palates; Jamie turned back to his blanket, and found Seguin was waiting for him next to their basket.
Jamie flopped down as delicately as he could, conscious of his bad hip. He was a little over-warm, but mostly quite content. He would, he decided, just lie down for a moment before eating his lunch.
“What delicacies has Horcoff attempted?” Jamie asked, poking idly at the lid of the basket.
“Something with eggs,” Seguin said. “I think it might be a pudding? But there is also a cold collation, and bread, and cheese.”
Jamie grunted his approval, moved his hat over his face, and drifted for a while, lulled by the low murmur of the crowd and Seguin humming to himself while he unpacked the basket. Then Seguin made a pleased, startled noise, jarring him awake, and he pushed his hat back a fraction.
“Grapes,” Seguin explained, pulling a few off and popping them into his mouth.
Jamie frowned, and rubbed at his eyes. He wanted some grapes, but he really didn’t feel like sitting up yet. He was still thinking about it when Seguin leaned over and tapped a grape against his lips.
Surprised, Jamie opened his mouth, but in claiming his prize, captured both fruit and finger. Seguin hesitated, his fingers on Jamie’s lips, then pulled his hand away. Jamie was about to apologize when Seguin pressed another grape into his mouth, and then another.
Jamie ate carefully, baffled by the sudden intimacy but unwilling to disturb the fragile peace of the moment. When the grapes were finished, Seguin moved on to the cheese, a sweet rich Brie. While Jamie was mindful of his teeth, he did still sometimes catch an errant digit. The cheese was delicious, and Jamie did not want to miss a single bite. He went so far as to suckle gently on Seguin’s fingertips, chasing the remains of an especially large morsel on his thumb. Seguin held very still for a moment, studying the bright checked pattern of their picnic blanket. Jamie tasted the faint salty tang of his skin and wondered if his mouth would be the same.
That, and the dawning suspicion that were making a spectacle of themselves, made Jamie take the next piece of cheese with his hand. Seguin gave him a brief questioning look, then peered into the basket for some time before finally extracting a hunk of ham. Jamie stretched his arms above his head, then rolled over first on to his elbow, and from there to a proper sitting position. When finally upright he was chagrined to discover Seguin’s shoulders were once again tight with tension.
“You are quite good with the battledore,” Jamie said, as a peace offering.
“Thank you,” Seguin said, his face relaxing a fraction as he nipped at his meat. “I must thank you, though, for your perspicacity--your capture of Josi’s last volley was well timed. I was sure he was going to make me to eat one of those wretched tarts.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I was sorry to miss out on a taste of such confections. I was going to ask Miss Murphy for the recipe and see if Horcoff could rise to her heights,” Jamie said, fashioning an expression of sincere innocence.
Seguin fixed him with such a look of stunned horror that Jamie had to struggle to keep a straight face.
“My brother is always petitioning for new desserts,” Jamied added, deciding to see how far he could push the joke. “I’m sure neither marriage nor travel will have reformed his sweet tooth. They would come as a welcome addition to our table.”
Seguin continued to stare at him, wide-eyed, until Jamie cracked and started laughing.
“Wretch,” Seguin said, his tone sharp but a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and flung a balled-up napkin at Jamie’s head.
“We could make them part of his welcome-home feast,” Jamie said between giggles, catching the napkin easily and tossing it back to him.
Seguin pretended to pout, then threw a piece of ham at him; Jamie was so captivated by the curve of Seguin’s mouth and the soft, open look in his eye he let the ham fall in the grass. He realized he must have let his gaze linger too long, too familiarly, when Seguin abruptly looked away, a real frown passing over his face. Jamie was readying himself to apologize for overstepping when Seguin looked back at him, his face once again a smooth impassive mask.
“When is the good lieutenant expected back?” Seguin asked, his eyebrows rising.
“Michaelmas, I think,” Jamie said, ignoring the sinking feeling in his stomach. “If he and his lady wife can tear themselves away from the pleasures of the south of France before Christmas.”
“I suppose I shall be gone, by then,” Seguin said, his tone brisk but his expression wistful.
You don’t have to go, Jamie wanted to say, but didn’t; he had promised Seguin his freedom, after a fashion, and did not want to muddy the waters, or give the appearance of pressuring him to stay.
“He is in town quite frequently,” he offered instead. “And his wife is far better at cards than either he or I. I will see you are introduced.”
“Thank you,” Seguin said softly, and looked down at his hands.
They were rescued from further awkwardness when Eakin came to inform them Weber’s men were packing up, and it was therefore time for them to go as well.
Jamie arrived in the barn to find Daisy’s stall empty.
He walked the length of the building, to see if Eakin had perhaps moved her for some purpose known only to him, but found only Seguin’s greys and his own geldings, all of whom watched his increasingly panicked progress with mild interest.
“Eakin!” he finally shouted.
After a minute the man poked his head out of the hayloft. “What is it, sir?”
“Where the devil is my horse?” Jamie demanded.
“Daisy? Why, she took his lordship out for his morning constitutional, same as usual,” Eakin called down in an amused tone.
Jamie was sure those words were not in the right order, but he let it go.
“They’ll be back soon, I expect,” Eakin continued. “You know how she is about exercise.”
Jamie took a deep breath, and leaned forward to rest his hands on his knees until his heart stopped pounding.
Daisy had carried him through the war, and home again, and many places since then. She liked a good ramble, and she knew her way home. Seguin was far less flighty than he was painted. Together, they would, doubtless, be fine.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Eakin said, his tone much softer, and Jamie straightened up.
“It’s quite all right,” Jamie said. “I did say he could do as he liked. I didn’t think he was that keen on horses.”
Eakin’s expression turned uncertain. “He’s come to visit his own gentlemen, once or twice, but - they’re a bit standoffish. Our girl seems to have taken a shine to him.”
Jamie blinked. “Daisy? Our Daisy? The same horse who once ignored an apple offered to her by the general, who she saw nearly every day?”
Eakin made a wry face and shrugged one shoulder. Jamie hmmphed to himself and walked down to visit the greys. One of them deigned to accept an oatcake and a scritch behind the ears, but the other just glared at him balefully. Jamie chucked a carrot into his nosebag and moved on to Dallas and North Star, who were far more pleased to see him. He had just managed to comb the tangles out of Dallas’ mane when he heard the familiar clip-clop of hooves on dirt.
“Good morning, Captain,” Seguin said, when Jamie walked out to meet them, and Daisy whuffled a greeting.
She had only her bridle and a walking lead; Seguin was wearing a sensible brown corduroy coat, fawn waistcoat and buckskins, but, curiously, casual shoes rather than riding boots. Perhaps they had just gone for a walk. In any case, Jamie’s anxiety eased significantly, finding them intact.
“Good morning, your lordship; Daisy,” Jamie said, summoning up a smile.
Daisy flicked her ears forward and gave herself a shake. Seguin made a startled noise and shifted away; Daisy settled almost immediately and fixed him with a wide-eyed look. Jamie stared at her in amused disbelief.
“Would you like a carrot? Yes?” Seguin asked, his tone softening considerably.
Daisy knocked him with her head, and he laughed; Jamie’s heartbeat kicked up again, and he was sure he was blushing.
Seguin stuck his hand in his pocket, and then under her nose. “My apologies for spoiling her, my lord.”
“An extra carrot or two will do her no harm,” Jamie said, just as Daisy stomped her foot and nudged Seguin again, looking for more food.
“Here, madame, have an oatcake,” Seguin said, his expression growing somber, and pulled one out of his other pocket. “She’s quite an impertinent young lady but--I shall miss her.”
Jamie took a careful breath. “Well, you may come and visit her any time.”
Seguin flicked a startled glance at him, and then a smile. Jamie returned it, and stepped forward to take the walking lead from him. Seguin tipped his head back, when Jamie got close, and Jamie was suddenly consumed with the desire to kiss him.
Instead he broke away quickly, and led Daisy into her stall. The next time he looked up, Seguin had vanished.
Crosby’s event was, as it turned out, a conversazione, leavened with cards and dancing. They arrived to find a line of carriages all the way up the street, and the pavement clogged with the quality.
“Excuse me,” said a well-upholstered matron, treading upon Jamie’s toes as she pushed her way to the front of the throng.
“Freddy!” Seguin called out from his place beside Jamie, waving his arms wildly at someone further down the steps.
“Seggy!” that gentleman called back, and shoved up next to them with a pair of friends.
Seguin fell on Freddy’s neck with enthusiasm, and clapped the other two on the back, before presenting them to Jamie. Not that it did much good, as Jamie could barely hear Seguin’s introductions over the crowd; he nodded and smiled and shook hands and promptly forgot everyone’s name.
“--terrible flirt,” said the older gentleman behind them on the steps, and Jamie’s inclination to turn around and ask what he meant by it was forestalled by Seguin catching him by the sleeve and hauling him forward with the suddenly moving line.
“I heard she ran off with a cavalry officer, can you imagine,” a passing lady said as Seguin let go, and then her companion tripped on the trailing edge of her gown and fell into Jamie.
Jamie stumbled, and both ladies shrieked. Seguin caught Jamie’s arm and steadied him, concern in his expression, and Jamie suppressed the urge to grab him by the hand and flee.
“Oh, we’ve lost Freddy,” Seguin said, once the apologies and anxious fussing had come to a close, rising up on his toes to survey the crowd.
Jamie straightened his jacket and accepted a cup of wine from a passing steward. It really was oppressively warm. “Perhaps he has made his way to the loo table.”
Seguin made a thoughtful face and stretched up to search the crowd once more. Jamie was about to suggest they venture deeper into the house when the object of their concern reappeared, face pink and hat rakishly askew.
“Seggy, you must come with me to the piquet table. Bissonette is there and I mean to school the bugger--begging your pardon, sir,” he added hastily on noticing Jamie.
“No,” Seguin said, edging closer to Jamie. “I think we’ll see what’s afoot in the drawing room.”
“No?” Freddy repeated, incredulous. “You haven’t been out in weeks, and now you want to go and listen to tedious people prattle on about nonsense? Stuff, Seggy, marriage has made you very boring.”
Seguin flushed pink; Jamie took a breath, and another one, trying to remain calm while being buffeted by the crowd. He was already sweating heavily and wasn’t sure if he wanted to punch something or find a quiet place to hide. The only thing he did know that as much as he wanted company, he was not interested in being Seguin’s jailer for the evening.
“You don’t have to stay with me--go and sort the fellow out. I will make my own way,” Jamie said, putting a little bit of command into his voice.
“But--” Seguin began, and his expression might have been surprised, or perhaps hurt, or maybe both, Jamie wasn’t sure.
“Shush, you heard the man, come on,” Freddy said, and pulled him away into the throng of people.
Abruptly left alone, Jamie drank the cup of wine in his hand and took another. Eventually he let the crowd carry him into the drawing room, where a fierce-looking footman directed him to take a seat at a table full of young ladies and gentlemen, none of whom Jamie knew.
“Horse Guards,” one of the young men repeated thoughtfully after Jamie introduced himself.
“Oooh, a military man,” one of the young ladies cooed, and Jamie did not miss the flash of jealous irritation in her male companion’s eyes.
“Retired,” Jamie said, folding himself into the proffered chair. “I’m a gentleman farmer now.”
“Tell us a story from the front!” another one of the ladies demanded, and Jamie forced a smile.
“Oh, but they are all quite tedious,” he said, trying to keep his tone light, in hopes of maintaining the convivial atmosphere.
“I suppose all that dashing about and blood and thunder does get a bit boring after a while,” another gentleman drawled, then winced as if someone had stomped on his foot.
Jamie clenched and unclenched the hand that was under the table, where they could not see it. Suddenly he missed Seguin and his easy way with people. Perhaps he had been too hasty, sending him away.
“Please forgive Bertrand, he’s quite silly,” said the lady next to him. “Louisa, are you still reading Shakespeare in the evenings? Perhaps there is a line or two you’d like to share.”
Louisa, as it turned out, had been studying Hamlet, and was quite keen to show off her knowledge. The wine was, as promised, quite good, and was almost enough to permit Jamie to enjoy her performance of two poorly memorized soliloquies, as well as the rather dull lecture on the finer points of Whiggish thought on the proper functioning of Parliament that immediately followed, courtesy of one of the gentlemen.
Jamie excused himself to refill his glass, and when that was done decided to try his luck with another table. His reward for this gamble was a disquisition on various merits of fishing in Cornwall and Scotland, and an extended sermon on the offenses committed by architects in the City of London.
When the last speaker finally sputtered to a halt, Jamie excused himself again and made his way to the garden, in hopes of some relief from the heat caused by the press of bodies.
He found it sparsely populated, with only a few scattered couples taking advantage of the evening breezes. Jamie settled on a bench and watched them take turns down the paths, talking softly as they passed. He considered going to find Seguin so they might also have a quiet stroll, and perhaps a stolen kiss or two. He eyed the low hedges and flowering trees by the garden paths and considered their merits as shields from prying eyes, but as soon as he had those thoughts, he remembered the true state of their circumstances.
He was staring at the top of his boots, feeling sorry for himself, when someone called out to him. The voice was familiar; when he looked up to find the source of it, he discovered his host standing in front of him.
“Captain Crosby, “ Jamie said, enunciating carefully, and hoped he did not look or sound too overcome with drink.
Crosby grinned at him, the medals on his chest glinting in the candlelight. “What an unexpected pleasure! It’s good to see you out and about. And I understand I must wish you joy.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jamie said, looking down at his hands. He caught sight of his wedding ring, and the faint glimmer of gold in the candlelight only made him feel worse. I want to go home, he thought, and pressed his fingertips against his ridges of his eyes, because the truth was, he wanted to go home with Seguin.
“Are you all right, sir? You sound quite melancholy,” Crosby said, sitting down next to him, his expression becoming concerned.
“I think I have fallen in love with my husband,” Jamie said.
“I see,” Crosby murmured, in tones indicating he did not see at all.
Jamie straightened up. “It was to be a marriage of convenience--we agreed to it like gentlemen.”
Crosby made a thoughtful noise.
“And now,” Jamie began, then sighed. “It is nearly time for us--for him to take his leave of me. I would not let him go, but I would not keep him against his will.”
“And he remains resolved to uphold his end of the bargain?” Crosby asked, head tilted to one side.
“I--I suppose so,” Jamie said, barely able to meet Crosby’s eyes. “I cannot say for sure. We have been on good terms of late, but….” He trailed off into silence, unwilling to embarrass himself further.
Crosby hummed low in his throat. “In my experience, such agreements can easily be renegotiated, when--made in haste.”
Jamie turned to study him, looking for any hint of mockery or falseness, but Crosby’s expression seemed sincere.
Jamie was gathering himself to reply when he heard a flurry of voices behind them, and caught his name in the conversation. He turned to find Seguin standing on the steps, squinting into the darkness.
“Over here, your lordship,” Crosby called out, and Seguin moved quickly to join them. The light of the candles cast strange shadows, making the curve of his mouth seem melancholy and the darkness under his eyes far heavier than it had been inside.
“Good evening, Captain,” Seguin said, bowing to Crosby before turning to Jamie and catching his face in his hand.
“You are all right?” Seguin asked, his brows knitting together, and Jamie fought the urge to close his eyes and pull Seguin close.
“Yes,” Jamie managed, though his heart was hammering at Seguin’s touch. “Did you thrash Bissonette?”
“No, but Freddy won twenty pounds off him,” Seguin said, breaking into a smile. “And now--while this is indeed a delightful affair--I must beg your indulgence and ask that you escort me home, as I find I am quite fatigued and in no mood for further adventures.”
Crosby coughed quietly, and Jamie had the distinct feeling it was to cover a laugh.
“Of course, sir,” he said, and rose to his feet, then bowed in Crosby’s general direction. “Good evening, Captain, and thank you for your hospitality.”
He stumbled a little on the cobblestones when he tried to walk; Seguin caught his elbow, then put a steadying arm around his waist. His arm was warm and solid, his grip firm, and Jamie was once again suffused with the hot prickles of desire.
“Good night, gentlemen,” Crosby called after them in an amused tone.
Normally Jamie would have been shamed to be a figure of fun, but at that moment he was too foxed with drink to care. He let Seguin lead him back to the carriage, and pour him inside.
The following morning, Jamie was in his library, nursing his wounded dignity and sore head and deeply enmeshed in The Castle of Otranto, when Daley stepped inside and cleared his throat.
Jamie made an inquiring noise and looked up.
“There is a gentleman here to see you, sir,” Daley said, and Jamie could tell by his tone that he felt this was somehow completely irregular.
“Did he give his name?” Jamie asked, marking his place in his book with a finger.
“Marchand, sir,” Daley said. “He claims to be a friend of Lord Seguin’s, and that he must see someone immediately, and cannot wait for his lordship to return from visiting his tailor.”
Jamie made a thoughtful noise and stood up, shaking out his arm and shoulders. He doubted it was a matter of honor or debt; those sins had never been laid at Seguin’s door. Seguin had seemed preoccupied of late; perhaps he had been anticipating Marchand’s visit. In any case, Jamie was curious enough to see him.
“Am I fit for company?” he asked, raking his free hand through his hair.
Daley narrowed his eyes, studied Jamie for a minute, then nodded. Jamie tucked his book under his arm and followed him downstairs.
Jamie found Marchand studying a family portrait. He was short but broad, wearing an extraordinarily high-collared shirt and cravat, a bright yellow double-breasted tailcoat, and dark brown trousers; there was a fashionable hat under his arm and a large brown dog at his feet.
Jamie arched one eyebrow. No wonder Daley had thought the gentleman a bit irregular.
“Hello,” Jamie said, and both man and dog turned to look at him. “Captain Jamie Benn, Horse Guards. How may I assist you, Mr. Marchand?”
Marchand ran his gaze over Jamie in a manner that verged on insulting; Jamie drew himself up, but then the dog padded over and commenced sniffing Jamie’s boots and then his knees, his tail wagging faster as he moved.
“Marshall, arrête! Au pied, ici,” Marchand said sharply, his brows knitting in a fearsome frown.
The dog ignored him; Jamie blinked a couple of times and lowered one hand for inspection, just to be polite, and was also ignored.
“Au pied,” Marchand barked out again, and the dog darted away, past Daley and into the house, nose to the ground.
“Chien putain,” Marchand muttered, then rubbed his face.
Daley looked from Marchand to direction the dog had gone and back again, clearly poised to follow him, and Marchand waved him off. “C’est vraiment bien, il cherche son maître.”
“Pardon me?” Jamie said, though he had understood about half of it.
“Cet animal misérable, il appartient à Lord Seguin.” Marchand pronounced Seguin’s name in the French way, Jamie noticed. “He is quite ruined maintenant, for hunting, pour la chasse, vous comprenez? Ruined!” Marchand made a displeased moue.
“Le Comte Medved, he orders me to sell him, mais je…” Marchand made a little motion with his hands, “I hide. J’ai fourni sanctuaire. It is un secret, oui? Jusqu'à... ehh, I think I can train more, train better. Ça c’est très difficile d'obtenir un bon prix quand il n'a pas été formé correctement! Chien putain,” Marchand scowled ferociously.
“Cependant, rapidement après, they break, oui? L'engagement a été annulé,” Marchand continued with various excitable hand gestures illustrating his words. “Alors, je pense que I give back, le petit chien, à Lord Seguin parce qu’il lui aimait malgré tout. I plan this: une petite surprise, oui? He will have his dog lors d’il retourne à la société, when he has his freedom.
“Malheureusement, le Comte, maintenant il partira pour Paris tout de suite, et je dois y aller aussi. Medved, he thinks le chien maudit is gone, il a été vendu, et il ne jamais peut venir avec nous -- alors, I bring him here.”
Jamie stared at him, still struggling to follow the conversation, and stunned by the revelations he did understand.
“J’ai déjà trop attardé,” Marchand said. “S’il vous plaît transmettez mes félicitations à Lord Seguin.”
“But--” Jamie began, and Marchand had his hat on and was out the door before he could say anything else.
“Well,” Eakin said, looking up at Jamie from the bridle he was cleaning, “He is quite a handsome fellow. And eating well, so the journey hasn’t done him any harm.”
Jamie made a thoughtful noise and sat down on an overturned feed bucket. Marshall, who had been reluctantly extracted from the kitchen--and how much time had Seguin been spending there, to leave such a strong scent behind?--continued to slurp the bowl of porridge he had been given.
“He can stay where he is for now,” Eakin continued. “I’ve put Dallas and North Star down the other end, so he won’t disturb ’em. Daisy doesn’t mind a bit of company, do you, old girl?”
Daisy whuffled and stomped her foot. When Jamie turned to look, she was watching them intently, her ears up and pointed at Marshall.
Jamie studied the dog, as if that would help explain his mysterious origins. He certainly did not look like any hunting dog Jamie had ever seen before; he wondered where Seguin had gotten him from, and under what circumstances. Marchand’s words came back to him: I hide . . . a secret . . . until he had his freedom. Clearly Seguin had not mentioned the dog because he did not know it necessary.
Marshall stepped back from his dish, did a whole-body shake, and padded over to Jamie to demand petting. Jamie obliged him for a time, then stood up and brushed the hay filaments off his trousers.
“Storm’s coming in,” Eakin said absently, rubbing one knee.
Jamie hummed an acknowledgment; he could feel it in his own hip and shoulder as well. Marshall huffed, flopped down on the floor by Eakin’s other foot, and rested his head on his paws. Jamie walked down the length of the barn to say hello to his geldings, then back to the house to wait for Seguin to return.
The rain arrived before Seguin did, pouring down in sheets, battering the windows, creating muddy lakes all over the back garden, and hammering against the roof. Jamie was in the attic with Garbutt, checking for leaks, when he heard loud chatter below and climbed down to investigate.
He found the corridor aswirl with his men: Cole with buckets of steaming water, Eaves bearing a warming pan, McKenzie with an arm full of blankets.
“His lordship arrived, sir,” Cole said, setting the buckets down. “Overset the curricle in a mud puddle on the road. Hasn’t taken any real hurt, just filthy and soaked to the bone.”
Jamie paused, absorbing that information. He wrestled for a moment with the impulse to go and see Seguin for himself before giving in and following the men down the hall to Seguin’s room.
Seguin was sitting on the edge of the bed, naked save for his breeches and a quilt Jamie had never seen before wrapped around his shoulders. He looked pale and tired, and he was shivering. He raised his head when Jamie came in, and made a visible effort to smile.
“Lord Seguin,” Jamie said, and then stopped, because he didn’t know what he had meant to say next. Mostly what he wanted to do was pull Seguin into his arms to warm him, but he suspected that such familiarity would not be appreciated.
“I’m all right, Captain,” Seguin said, pushing himself to his feet and shuffling towards the now-steaming bath. “The curricle might be a little bit worse for the wear, though.”
Sod the curricle, Jamie thought as Seguin handed the quilt to Peverley, revealing a series of bruises darkening across his ribs and shoulders. He untied his breeches and let them fall to the floor, revealing more marks on his hips and thighs.
Jamie inhaled sharply, his pleasure at discovering Seguin’s form immediately overridden by concern for his health, and struggled to compose his expression when Seguin turned to look at him.
“I--see you’re well looked after here,” Jamie managed. “I’ll have Fiddler bring up some liniment later.”
He did not realize he’d forgotten the dog until he was back in the attic. He considered going back down, then decided against it; the news, and further explanations, could wait until Seguin was settled. He’d get to the bottom of the matter over supper.
The South of France remains charming and, well, French. We are, if nothing else, very clean and exceedingly well fed. However, I have received word that I am wanted at the parsonage at my very earliest convenience, so we shall be making for England, green and pleasant land, at the next tide. If all goes well, we’ll be underfoot again by the end of the harvest.
You will keep your husband around that long, I hope, as the wife and I are both perishing to meet the man who has conquered your heart and stolen the affections of your horse. I am shocked, shocked, I say; I would never have thought Daisy to be so fickle.
(Do not argue with me, baby brother: little birds tell me the two of you have been seen gazing soppily at each other all over town, and furthermore two pages of your letter were consumed with rhapsodizing about his skill at badminton, a game which you loathe. Don’t worry about the agreement, we’ll sort it out when I get home.)
I expect the wine will make its way to you well before I do; keep an eye out for it and make sure Daley puts it in a safe place, i.e. not the kitchen. The cheese I will bring with me. I did ask about getting a castle delivered, and the only result was the mayor going very pale and having to sit down. So if you want a larger ancestral pile, you’ll have to come and fetch it yourself.
Your loving brother and ob’t sv’t,
“Lord Seguin sends his compliments and begs to be excused from dinner, as he is somewhat under the weather,” Daley said as Horcoff set a tureen of potato soup upon the table.
“Of course,” Jamie said. “I will look in upon him later and see how he does.”
“Very good, sir,” Daley said, and departed, presumably to convey Jamie’s message.
Jamie sat in silence while Horcoff brought out the rest of the meal: baked potatoes, carrots, and a slightly charred roast. He ate quickly; after so many nights in Seguin’s company, he was unused to dining alone, and found it a grim task.
Despite his haste, it took the better part of half an hour to get through the meal and make good on his promise to check in on Seguin. When he arrived outside Seguin’s door, he was fleetingly cheered to see a light beneath it, but his hopes for conversation were dashed when Peverley answered his knock, book in hand.
“His lordship is asleep, sir,” Peverley said quietly; then he stepped back, out of the way, and returned to his chair.
Jamie crossed to the bed, where Seguin was curled up under the quilt he had been wrapped in earlier. He grabbed the loose edge and pulled it more fully over Seguin’s shoulder, wrinkling his nose at the strong smell of liniment that wafted upwards. Seguin made a small pained noise in his sleep, and it took all of Jamie’s resolve to avoid running a hand down his back. Jamie straightened and turned to find Peverley regarding him steadily over the top of his book.
“If he has not recovered by morning, I’ll send for the doctor,” Jamie said, and Peverley nodded.
“Rain again, sir,” Fiddler said, pouring hot water into the basin. “And Peverley reports his lordship has indeed caught a chill, and the liniment has been no help, as he seems to be in great pain. I have already sent for the doctor.”
“Thank you,” Jamie said, then curled on his side and lay quiet while Fiddler moved about the room. “Is the roof leaking?”
Fiddler paused in the act of shaking out Jamie’s favorite jacket, a green article with black and silver trim. “Garbutt thinks it might be, sir. He and Cole have taken some buckets up to the attic and will report back with their findings. Also, Eakin sends his compliments and begs to know what he is to do with his lordship’s dog.”
Jamie clapped a hand over his eyes and sighed. He’d forgotten about the bloody dog.
“Bring him up to the kitchen so he doesn’t disturb the horses,” Jamie said, hauling himself reluctantly out of bed.
“Very good, sir,” Fiddler murmured, and left the room.
An hour later, Jamie was in his study, working on his second cup of tea and reading a newspaper account of a scandalous elopement, when Daley knocked on the door.
“Doctor Hull to see you, sir,” Daley said when Jamie looked up.
“Send him in,” Jamie said, all thoughts of prurient diversions banished.
Hull, when he appeared, was as trim and brisk as Jamie remembered, if somewhat more silver about the temples. Daley was right behind him, bearing a tea tray, which he deposited neatly on Jamie’s desk.
“Well, what is the butcher’s bill?” Jamie asked, handing over one of the cups and turning the tray towards the doctor.
Hull snagged a sugar cube and dropped it into his tea. “He’ll live. Willow-bark tea for the fever, mustard plaster for the chest, laudanum for the bumps and bruises, and some rest and feeding up. I expect he’ll be right as rain in no time.”
Jamie exhaled slowly and refreshed his cup from the teapot.
“And you, Captain, how have you been? I haven’t seen you since I tended your shoulder. I take it married life is agreeing with you?” Hull inquired before taking a delicate sip of his tea.
“It does, sir,” Jamie said, faltering a little, as that was both true and the problem. “Still feel the cold in the shoulder now and again, but generally I do quite well.”
Hull made a thoughtful noise, took another, deeper, drink of his tea, and rose to his feet. “I’ll come back to check on his lordship in a week. Meanwhile, see that he keeps to his bed and isn’t overly excited.”
“Yes, sir,” Jamie said, and almost saluted.
Keeping Seguin in bed was, as it turned out, no easy task.
“I’m fine,” Seguin said, swaying to his feet.
Jamie sighed. “Your lordship--”
“Tyler,” Seguin mumbled, taking a couple of wobbly steps forward. “I’m your husband; you need not be so formal, Captain. Y’can call me Tyler.”
Jamie blinked, then caught Seguin--Tyler’s elbow, and held him still. Tyler tried to yank free and almost fell. Jamie caught his other elbow and pushed him down on to the bed.
“Jamie,” Jamie said, trying not to laugh at Tyler’s mulish expression. “You may call me Jamie, and you are in no condition to be going anywhere, much less a garden party.”
“I’m fine,” Tyler repeated, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “Don’t want to stay home alone.”
“I’ll be here,” Jamie said. “And--Daley, you may open the door now--”
There was a creak, and some muffled thumps, and then a flash of brown fur.
“Marshall!” Tyler exclaimed as the dog jumped up on the bed and commenced licking his master’s face.
When it became clear Tyler was quite overcome by their reunion, Jamie turned away and pretended interest in a painting he had considered many times before.
After a minute Tyler cleared his throat, and Jamie turned around. Tyler was clutching the dog to his chest and regarding Jamie with reddened eyes and a wariness Jamie hadn’t seen in some time.
“A Mister, ah, Marchand called while you were visiting your tailor yesterday,” Jamie said. “He was on his way to Paris for the winter, I believe; he could not linger long. I meant to speak of it last night, but….” He shrugged and trailed off.
Tyler’s eyes widened a fraction, but some of the wariness faded.
“He’s a good boy,” Tyler said as the dog wriggled free of his grasp and flopped down on the bed next to him.
Jamie, who had already been regaled with several tales of Marshall’s kitchen misadventures, doubted that quite sincerely, but forbore to speak of it.
“Indeed, he is a remarkable animal,” he offered instead, and was rewarded with a rueful grin.
“He was a gift from the general, on the occasion of my previous engagement, and has been a boon companion,” Tyler said, pulling the dog closer and nuzzling at his ears. “He was meant to be a hunting dog, but I have no taste for the sport. And then Medved did not much enjoy his society and would not countenance an animal that did not do his job. . .” he trailed off into silence for a moment, resting his head against Marshall’s shoulder. “I thought him lost altogether, and I have been quite desolate without him. I am greatly pleased to have him restored to me. My apologies for imposing upon your household in this way.”
Jamie was ready to deny that notion when Marshall sneezed explosively. Tyler recoiled, laughing, which in turn set off a coughing spell. The dog jumped away in surprise; Jamie moved to hand Tyler a handkerchief, and rubbed his back until his breathing settled.
“Thank you,” Tyler murmured, wiping at his eyes with the sleeve of his nightshirt, then grunted when the dog jumped up on him once more.
Jamie made a low noise of acknowledgement and busied himself with pouring them both a cup of tea and piling two plates with biscuits. He withheld Tyler’s until he admitted he had given up on the idea of attending the party, and was settled against his pillows, Marshall curled against his chest.
“I’m told boredom is the sworn enemy of the convalescent,” Jamie said, settling himself in a nearby armchair. “So I have called in some crack troops from the library.”
Tyler arched his eyebrows over the rim of his mug; Marshall whuffled quietly and dropped his head into his paws.
“Which adventurer would you prefer, Robinson Crusoe or Pantagruel?” Jamie inquired, holding two volumes up for Tyler’s inspection.
Tyler yawned hugely and set his mug on the table near the bed. “Crusoe.”
Jamie stretched out his legs and opened the book; the spine was worn from repeated reading, and the roughness of the leather beneath his fingers was both comfort and anchor.
Twenty minutes later, when Tyler was snoring softly, Jamie quietly closed the book and stood up. Marshall’s ears popped up in inquiry, but he settled soon enough when Jamie scratched his head. Jamie pulled the quilt up over Tyler’s shoulder and slipped out of the room.
One. Jamie counted, moving his pencil slowly along the ruler, careful to keep his lines straight. Two. Three. Four.
He stood up in order to get a better angle on his drawing, jostling Marshall, who was lying on his feet. The dog rumbled around the bone he was gnawing on, and Jamie leaned over to scratch him behind the ears before returning to his project.
Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
Outside the door of his study, the floor creaked loudly. Jamie raised his head, eyes narrowed, just as the door opened, revealing Tyler in his nightshirt and dark green banyan.
Jamie tugged a stray piece of paper over his work, so as not to smudge the charcoal, and straightened up.
“Hull ordered you confined to your bed until tomorrow,” Jamie said, attempting to sound stern.
Tyler widened his eyes and pulled his robe closer about his person. “But Jamie, bed is very tedious when one is alone. And you have made off with my sole companion.”
Jamie had a sudden, vivid image of how he and Tyler might entertain themselves in bed, and blushed. Tyler’s eyes widened further and he tightened his grip on his banyan, though the sparkle in his eyes suggested his saucy jibe had been deliberate.
“You may have him back, if you like,” Jamie said, prodding Marshall with his toes.
Marshall grunted and hauled himself to his feet, tail thumping against Jamie’s chair, then wriggled out under the front of the desk.
Tyler crouched down to greet him and promptly tipped over onto the floor into an untidy sprawl of limbs. Tyler grunted with the impact, but seemed otherwise unfazed; he soon pushed himself into a kneeling position. Meanwhile Marshall shot Jamie an alarmed look.
Jamie dropped his pencil and moved around the desk, amusement, affection, and concern warring in his chest. He froze, briefly, when confronted with Tyler gazing up at him from the floor, but soon shook it off and hauled him to his feet. Tyler wobbled unsteadily and Jamie huffed even as he caught his elbow.
“Bed,” Jamie said, firmly, as Marshall sat down between them.
“No,” Tyler muttered, raising his chin and for a moment Jamie thought he might reach out and grab Jamie’s waist, in order to be harder to dislodge.
Marshall whuffled, padded over to a nearby chaise lounge, and flopped down next to it. Jamie thought that a fine compromise, and said so.
“Fine,” Tyler said, still clearly sulking, but he permitted Jamie to help him get settled with no further complaint.
Jamie draped a nearby horse blanket over him and went back to work.
“What are you doing, anyway?” Tyler asked, yawning a little at the end.
“Designing a chicken coop,” Jamie said. And perhaps a kennel, added a voice he had been trying to ignore for the better part of three days.
Tyler hummed softly and fell silent. The next time Jamie looked up he was asleep. Jamie left him there until he had finished sketching the coop, at which point it was almost time for supper. Jamie considered dining in his study, so as to be able to keep an eye on Tyler, then decided against it, scolding himself for being a sentimental fool. Nonetheless, he gathered Tyler up in his arms and carried him back to his bed himself, rather than entrusting the duty to one of his men.
Three days after that, Tyler was indeed much restored, and both Dr. Hull and Jamie deemed it safe for him to attend Mrs. Brewer’s party.
Since it was a formal affair, Jamie wore his regimentals; Tyler was resplendent in a black coat, white satin waistcoat with green trim, white breeches and gleaming Hessians.
They arrived to find the driveway a tangle of horses, carriages and stable boys. Jamie shoo’ed Tyler inside, insisting he would catch up, so that he might see the greys properly looked after.
Once the horses were settled, he made his way to the drawing room, stopping first to greet Mrs. Brewer, and assure her that Tyler was indeed blooming with health after his recent ordeal, and then to talk with a few of his other neighbors.
When he finally arrived in the drawing room, a diverse collection of Jamie’s neighbors were scattered around the room: a pair of elderly bankers Jamie recognized from his infrequent trips to the village; several well-upholstered widows, a few with sons and daughters in tow; Captain Crosby, in attendance with a tall, dark gentleman with sleepy eyes and the distinctive gray coat of a Russian cavalry officer; Zetterberg and Lundqvist, their white belts gleaming amid a knot of black and blue-clad admirers; at least one young man Jamie had met at a horse race; and a few of the ladies from the last ball he had reluctantly attended. They were all holding glasses of punch, and conversing with various degrees of intensity; Mrs. Brewer had once again outdone herself in making mismatched pieces fit perfectly together.
Tyler was, as Jamie had expected, also there waiting for him; surprisingly, General Nill was with him. They appeared to have been passing the time with a game of cribbage.
“My apologies for my tardiness interrupting your game,” Jamie said when he reached them, his gaze falling on the table.
“It is no matter,” Nill said, shifting in his seat. “We will wipe the slate clean, and you can join us.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jamie said, and sat down.
“I’ll be dealer,” Tyler said, gathering up the cards, his large hands as deft as ever.
“I suppose all that time you spent at White’s was useful for something,” Nill said, as a maid arrived with plates of bread, meat, cheese, and mugs of punch.
“Indeed, sir, ’twere very educational,” Tyler said, mouth twisting into an unhappy smile.
“Perhaps I should make more visits,” Jamie said, feeling stung on Tyler’s behalf and also unexpectedly protective of his husband. “I am shamed to confess I have no particular skill at cards.”
Tyler’s expression flickered between startled, amused, and rueful, but some of the tension around his eyes eased, so Jamie counted it as a win. Nill fixed Jamie with a sharp look.
“My men quite despair of me,” Jamie continued, and told them the story of his first (and so far, last) disastrous attempt at whist.
By the time he was finished, Tyler had abandoned the cards out of a need to use both hands to hide his laughter, and Nill just looked exasperated. Jamie supposed he was definitely disqualified from diplomatic missions now, but that was a small price to pay for the delighted look in Tyler’s eyes and the reduction of tension in his shoulders.
After a minute Tyler regained enough composure to distribute the cards, and the game recommenced. Jamie was nearly wholly absorbed by the calculations required to keep track of the score; mercifully, Tyler was capable of keeping the conversation going without much prompting.
At ten o’clock, Mrs. Brewer swept in and announced supper was served. Jamie rose first, followed by Tyler and the general. Tyler clasped his hands behind his back, and kept pace with Jamie as they walked to the dining room, where a table full of savory pies, roast meat and delicate cakes awaited them.
An hour later, just as Jamie was finishing a second glass of wine, Mrs. Brewer ordered the card tables cleared aside for dancing. Jamie stifled a groan, and wished he had not eaten quite so much.
He was relieved when Mrs. Brewer came to claim Tyler for the first dance, which was a vigorous Strip the Willow.
When their mother moved on to her next partner, Lucy and Abigail intercepted Tyler on his way back to the dessert table, and then cajoled Jamie into joining them for a quadrille.
Two dances later, Jamie was readying himself to make an escape when the band struck up a waltz. Tyler looked up at Jamie, his eyes wide and clear with invitation, and Jamie did not have it in him to refuse. He took Tyler’s hand and gathered him in.
Once in the circle, he surveyed the field of other dancers out of idle curiosity. In doing so he caught Captain Crosby’s eye, and in return for a friendly smile, got a knowing look and an arched eyebrow. Jamie flushed and dropped his gaze to the top of Tyler’s head. I must tell him, he thought. But how?
Before he could come to any conclusions, the music swept them into motion, and all considerations outside of the steps slipped away.
At the end of the evening, pleasantly warmed by wine and conversation, Jamie called for their carriage. After helping Tyler inside, he was moving to close the door and take his usual place next to the driver when Tyler put a hand on his arm.
“It’s a raw night, Captain. Come inside with me,” Tyler said.
Jamie met Tyler’s eyes for a moment, given pause by the use of his title, but seeing nothing there but affection and amused concern, he obediently climbed in.
Tyler shook out the traveling rug and spread it over their knees, then shoved his way under Jamie’s arm and burrowed close.
“You had a good time tonight?” Jamie asked, draping an arm across his back and holding very still, partially out of shock, and partially in hopes of concealing said shock from Tyler. They had become easier with each other since Tyler’s illness, but outside of the dance floor, this level of closeness was new.
“Yes,” Tyler said. “Even if I did get stuck playing whist with Zetterberg and Lundqvist.”
“Are they quite terrible?” Jamie asked, sincerely curious. After escaping from the dance floor, he had spent most of the evening discussing Crosby’s plans for his Arabians.
“Nearly as wretched as you,” Tyler murmured. “But one must be sociable with one’s allies.”
Jamie laughed outright at that, and pressed a kiss against Tyler’s crown without thinking.
Tyler jerked away, and any apology Jamie might have made was forestalled by Tyler leaning forward and kissing his cheek, chaste and sweet.
“What was that for?” Jamie managed, trying to take a deep breath.
“For coming with me to the party,” Tyler said, and Jamie sorely wished he could see his face. “I hope your patience was not unduly tried by the company. You will be free of these sorts of obligations soon, at least.”
On the other hand, perhaps certain confessions would be easier in the dark.
“Tyler,” Jamie said. “I must beg an indulgence. I should like to amend our agreement. I propose we should--make a proper run at marriage. You will continue to improve my life, and I’ll come with you to all the parties, for you are my husband and I love you. You laugh much too loud, are too fond of dancing and cards, and often smell like dog, and I would not have you leave, nor anyone else in your place.”
Tyler inhaled sharply and kissed Jamie again; this time it was much less innocent.
“I take it you are in agreement?” Jamie asked, a little breathless, when Tyler pulled back.
“I am, sir,” Tyler said, his tone turning earnest. “I shall henceforth have you to hold and to cherish, for conversations about horses and dogs and the shocking behavior of our neighbors but also about cabbages and the doings of worms; for picnics in our garden and lunches at White’s; while hungover and while well-rested, forever and ever amen.”
He leaned forward and kissed Jamie again, gentle and tender. Jamie got his hands on Tyler’s hips and hauled him into his lap, and thus they remained, curled together, trading kisses and scandalous suggestions, until the lights of Oak Cliff welcomed them home.