Jessamy woke with a start.
The room seemed dark and silent, other than the sound of his own breathing, but something had woken him. When they had first visited Alver he had found himself waking at odd times just from the sounds the old house made but he was used to them now and quite sure whatever had woken him was something new.
Of course with a house full of guests odd sounds were almost a certainty but not in the middle of the night!
Why Frederica and Alverstoke wanted to fill their house with such foolish people Jessamy wasn't sure. Frederica assured him it was necessary to associate with people of consequence and that, out of the season, gatherings had to take place in the country. He might have argued more but she'd gently pointed out that so far she hadn't asked either Felix or him to accompany them and they could next time if he wished.
Somewhere below a door creaked, unmistakeable this time, and Jessamy sat up.
It probably wasn't robbers, they'd have made more noise, but whoever it was must be in the drawing room or library and that seemed very strange this late.
Carefully Jessamy slipped out of bed and into his slippers and dressing gown. He was familiar enough at Alver now to be able to move about with no light, long games of Hide and Seek with Septimus and Felix when there was nobody else around to make him aware of his dignity had solved that.
As he crept quietly down the stairs Jessamy wondered who it might be. Felix would never have gone for the library, Septimus was away visiting his father, Charles and Chloe were on the same errand. None of Alverstoke's other guests seemed likely to take a nocturnal ramble. Lord Buxted certainly wouldn't nor any of the interchangeable society couples Jessamy couldn't quite remember the names of.
Slowly edging along the downstairs hall Jessamy could just make out a faint light under a door. He'd been right in his guess of the library.
Damerel perhaps? He certainly seemed stranger than any of the other guests. Jessamy had gathered from the servants' gossip that prior to his marriage he hadn't been altogether respectable but he couldn't imagine Damerel or his wife needing a book that urgently late at night.
"Could whoever it is creeping around out there please stop it?"
The voice sounded peevish and still unfamiliar and Jessamy bristled.
"I'm not creeping," he pushed the door open and peered at the pool of light by one of the armchairs. "What on earth are you doing down here?"
Jessamy and the stranger stared at each other for a moment, neither wanting to back down, before Jessamy finally placed him.
"You're… Aubrey aren't you?"
"That's right," Aubrey still looked annoyed. "And I suppose you've come to throw me out. Some relation of Alverstoke's?"
"He's married to Frederica, my sister, so a sort of relation I suppose." Jessamy stepped further into the room. "And I hadn't come to throw you out just discover who was moving around downstairs. You woke me."
"Well now you can see me you can go back to bed."
Aubrey's tone was short enough to raise Jessamy's hackles again. He didn't much like being ordered around in his own home. Or nearly his own home.
"What are you reading?"
Aubrey glared at Jessamy; clearly wishing him away but Jessamy just stepped closer and turned the book so that he could see.
"The Life of Pelopidas? Not exactly light reading is it?"
"No." Aubrey pulled the book back towards himself.
"But you just had to read it in the middle of the night?"
"I couldn't sleep if you must know," Aubrey snapped. "This wretched weather is making my bones ache and Venetia said I had to come and learn to talk to people other than her but I don't really see why when I'll be at university soon not in the middle of a London season gossiping with idiotic girls and old women."
Aubrey flushed as he finished his speech and looked down to stare at the page he'd been reading, though Jessamy could see his eyes weren't moving.
"It does seem ridiculous, all this talk of hats and gloves and balls." Jessamy leant against the table Aubrey had rested his candle on. "You should be glad you never had to go to London during the Season."
Aubrey didn't answer but he did look back at Jessamy.
"Charis mooned over dresses and Frederica planned all sorts of things and we seemed to fall into all kinds of scrapes and…" Jessamy trailed off blushing at the thought of his scrapes. "Still it's over now and with both of them married perhaps I can stay here and study and ride till I go to university myself."
"You ride?" Aubrey sounded very deliberately bored.
"Oh yes, when it isn't raining like the end of the world." Jessamy looked at the windows, knowing what the weather must be like outside even without seeing through the shutters. "Cousin Alverstoke has a wonderful stable and he's asked me to help keep them exercised. Perhaps if the weather clears tomorrow you'd like to come with me?"
Aubrey looked as if he was about to agree but then an ugly look crossed his face.
"I doubt he'd want me anywhere near his precious horses."
"But…" Jessamy started and then remembered watching Aubrey arrive and the way he moved with a pronounced limp. "I'm sure he'd…"
"I'm sure he'd want only real horse men riding them." Aubrey's voice and face twisted with bitterness. "It's been made clear to me that's true before."
"By Alverstoke?" Jessamy looked horrified.
"No, by…" Aubrey stopped himself. "Well it doesn't much matter does it these week long stays are all very much the same no matter who the host."
"Well if Damerel will vouch for you I'm pretty sure Alverstoke would let you." He paused and then continued with characteristic honesty. "I didn't exactly make a great first impression on him myself but he lets me ride them."
A look of something resembling hope flashed across Aubrey's face before he managed to school his features to look bored again.
"And even if not maybe you'd like to come and have a look?"
Aubrey nodded and turned back to his book again but Jessamy still wasn't going to be dismissed.
"Were you able to find what you wanted in here?" Jessamy looked around the dark library. "If there's something particular you wanted I'm sure I could…"
Jessamy sighed and sat down in the only other chair lit by the single candle, reaching for the book he'd been reading earlier.
For a few minutes there was silence in the library as they both read, or seemed to. Jessamy wondered why on earth he hadn't left the bad tempered boy to his late night studies but something kept him there. Aubrey seemed engrossed by the Plutarch, a calmer look on his face than Jessamy had seen there before.
"Alright," Aubrey's voice cut across Jessamy's thoughts. "What are you reading?"
"It's a book of sermons."
"Sermons? Quite a way from Plutarch then? Perhaps you should give him a try?"
"Oh I have," Jessamy said quickly, "I've read most of the Plutarch Alverstoke has anyway. Some of it wasn't included in any of my previous tutor's suggestions but then if I'm aiming at ordination I should probably read things a little more edifying than the Sacred Band of Thebes."
"But you still read it didn't you?" Aubrey's teasing tone made Jessamy flush deeply.
"Well Plutarch is an important…"
"Plutarch nothing you wanted to read it so you did. I've never much believed reading can corrupt a person, nor ideas, or I'd have corrupted Venetia long ago and other than marrying a rake she seems to be perfectly respectable."
"Oh yes, that's what Damerel was." Aubrey grinned, suddenly looking much more appealing than Jessamy could have believed. "We're not supposed to talk about it now because they're trying to make sure Venetia's name remains unsullied by his previous reputation but it's true."
Jessamy looked at him speechless.
"Not that that's the point," Aubrey looked at him thoughtfully. "Reading didn't make her marry him, nor did it make her any less respectable except to some very stupid people and I doubt reading would stop you being suitable for Ministry."
Jessamy swallowed hard and tried to look back down at his book but the words swam in front of him.
"What else have you read in this library, it's very well stocked for someone who didn't strike me as a great reader."
"I've read…" Jessamy started but couldn't quite finish.
"It strikes me that those scrapes you were talking about falling into earlier and your choice, and it is a choice, of reading material and your preference for horse riding over serious study are all more to the point."
"I know." Jessamy stared at his hands. "I very often behave in disappointing ways but I will improve and Frederica says it will teach me to be a better minister."
"You know she's probably right." Aubrey leaned towards Jessamy, "a few sins always help when trying to preach. Just think of Augustine."
Aubrey suddenly seemed very close and, leaning across the table, he plucked the sermons from Jessamy's hands. There was a look in his eyes that Jessamy couldn't identify at all but it intrigued him enough that he couldn't look away.
"After all how can you talk about sin and repentance if you have lived all your life as a monk, hidden away and behaving like a plaster saint?"
"Well I suppose," Jessamy looked down at his hands, clutched in his lap, only to see that Aubrey's own hands were right there on his knees. "I suppose nobody can always behave exactly as they should."
Jessamy couldn't stop looking at Aubrey's hands, resting just lightly, next to his own. It hadn't felt strange when Aubrey had put them there, he hadn't even noticed, and now Aubrey was only inches from him and the whole conversation seemed to have escaped from him.
He'd come down only to check on a wandering house guest, to be a good host as Frederica would say and instead he was…. He was…
"You can't," Aubrey's voice cut through his thoughts again and he looked up, eyes flickering across Aubrey's face before meeting his gaze again. "Sometimes you have to learn by experience."
Jessamy licked his lips unconsciously and his breath stuttered as he felt Aubrey thread their fingers together.
"You think too much." Aubrey lent in so close he was almost whispering into Jessamy's ear. "It's one of my failings too but just now…"
Aubrey brushed his lips across Jessamy's cheek and he felt his fingers tighten in Aubrey's and then Jessamy turned his head and their lips met.
It was brief and chaste at first and Jessamy pulled back, and opened his mouth to say something but before he could Aubrey leaned in and kissed him properly.
Jessamy felt a spark, as if his heart had stuttered, and he pulled one hand free only to rest it on Aubrey's shoulder. Aubrey's mouth felt hot and wet and messy but good and Jessamy couldn't quite make himself think clearly enough to pull free.
A sudden crash of thunder startled them both and they pulled apart.
"Well." Aubrey's lips were redder than before and Jessamy thought he could hear a slight breathlessness.
"That was…" Jessamy stopped uncertain of what he wanted to say.
"I think perhaps it's time to retire for the night?"
Aubrey raised an eyebrow and Jessamy blushed furiously.
"I didn't mean…"
"I know you didn't."
Aubrey smiled and it looked so natural and attractive on him Jessamy found himself staring at Aubrey's mouth again before a small cough brought him back to his senses.
"Perhaps," Aubrey started sounding more unsure than he had all evening. "Perhaps if the rain doesn't stop tomorrow and we have to stay indoors you could show me some more of the library?"
"Of course," Jessamy tried to pull himself together and sound calm but a glance at Aubrey's hands, gripping each other with white knuckles showing his nervousness shook him again. "I think I'd like that."