"Did you know that in Egypt, all alphas are circumcised as a rite of passage, but in Turkestan, they circumcise omega males instead?" Genim Jasper Styals Lanyon, affectionately known as Stiles, remarked at the breakfast table. Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "Egyptians view circumcision as a key to unlocking ancient mysteries. Turks, on the other hand, believe circumcision decreases sexual pleasure and therefore promotes chastity."
At the end of this barrage of words, his companion looked up from the open book next to his plate. "What’s that, Stiles? Did you say something about chastity?"
"Yes, Isaac. Circumcision and its supposed effect on chastity," Stiles said blithely, used to his younger brother ignoring him for his books. "How a mere lack of foreskin is supposed to discourage omega males from self-abuse is beyond me. It is a great deal too fantastical!"
"I’m more interested in how to discourage omega males from disturbing the peace at breakfast," Isaac said sardonically.
Stiles waved a careless hand. "Oh, don’t mind me, go back to your reading. I always enjoy such interesting conversations with myself."
Isaac raised an eloquent eyebrow.
"Only you have let your coffee grow cold, besides abandoning that toast. One of us needs fattening up, and it’s definitely not me!"
Isaac gave an exaggerated sigh and reached for his toast.
Many older siblings would probably view this sort of behavior as insolence and take exception, but not Stiles. After their mother's passing twelve years ago, he, along with their estimable Nurse, had taken over caring for Isaac, who was then a sickly infant. Scott, only one year older than Stiles, was protective and kind. However, Scott was an alpha, and, in Stiles' limited experience, alphas were predominantly self-centered. It was not that Scott did not care for his siblings; he just seldom paid attention to anything beyond what immediately affected him. Stiles was very familiar with this condition as their late father was an alpha too.
Any interest Sir Francis Lanyon had held for his children quickly dwindled after his wife passed away. From time to time he would bother to question Stiles on his studies or commend Scott on his horsemanship, but he held no daily interaction with them. To Isaac he had even less to say. His youngest's infirm leg was lamentable (he once said to Stiles) since it was clear to everyone that Isaac was mad about horses. Isaac was nearly thirteen before his painful joint disease was arrested and allowed him to bestride a horse.
The reclusive existence that Sir Francis led in his Yorkshire manor naturally caused his children to grow up in seclusion. Only Scott, being the oldest and an alpha besides, was sent to Eton and thus escaped into the larger world. Neither Stiles nor Isaac had been farther from Underhill than the seaside town of Scarborough, and their acquaintance was limited to the few families living within reach of the Manor.
Stiles was, in essence, the only parent that Isaac had ever had. When their father passed away of a stroke three years ago, Isaac was sympathetic but did not share his brothers' feelings of sadness and regret.
"And how is he supposed to grieve," Stiles had said to their neighbor Lady McCall, "when he has no memory of Papa teaching him to fish, or speaking a kind word to him?"
"Yes, Stiles, but he was his father."
Stiles had given a mirthless chuckle at that. "He had been a father to Scott and me the first half of our lives. But he scarcely acted as a father to Isaac once Isaac was out of the nursery."
Lady McCall was disturbed by this pronouncement and begged him not to say any more. Stiles was a sensible, goodhearted young man, even if he did come up with the strangest notions. Sir Francis had perhaps been an unnatural parent, but Lady McCall could not countenance speaking ill of the dead. She quickly asked Stiles what he was going to do next. Stiles replied that since Scott was unlikely to take up his inheritance and settle down at Underhill for a good several years yet, it fell onto him to manage the manor and estate until his brother's return.
Although Sir Francis did not do so in writing, he had exhorted their family lawyer Deaton to consult Stiles regarding matters of estate. This was formalized when Scott had given him power of attorney. Stiles was touched and not a little surprised by their late father’s show of faith. Further, Sir Francis had left him a handsome competence—more than enough for Stiles to comfortably spend the rest of his life unmarried, if he chose to.
Stiles confided that his aunt had offered to host his Coming Out in London—after a proper period of mourning, of course—but he was reluctant to bring a then twelve-year-old boy to London. Isaac shied away from strangers, and the choking atmosphere of London could not do anything good for his health.
"Besides, I am persuaded that she only made the offer out of politeness. My cousin and I are only one month apart, and she has just turned eighteen. It must be quite awkward to launch a daughter and a nephew at the same time!" Stiles had heard that young omega men and young alpha women attended mostly different gatherings. The exception was Almack’s, which was open to both, provided that they were good ton.
Lady McCall could see that Stiles had his mind made up, but she could not help but feel Stiles was throwing himself away living the rest of his life tied to Underhill Manor. For all they knew, Scott might not return to Underhill until Stiles was near thirty!
While the kind lady lamented Stiles’ youth and vivacity being wasted in the countryside, Stiles was mostly indifferent about his looks. Both Stiles and Isaac had lithe, slender builds. Stiles was tall for an omega male—nearly of a height with their oldest brother Scott. At fifteen, Isaac had already overtaken Stiles, and this despite the pronounced limp in his right leg. Stiles suspected that when Scott finally returned to Underhill, the young beta would tower over him too.
Isaac’s sharp cheekbones and thin limbs made him look older than his years. Stiles, on the other hand, possessed rounded cheeks that gave his visage an illusion of plumpness. At twenty-one, Stiles was forced to accept that his cheeks were there to stay.
Resting his cheek on one palm, Stiles was suddenly struck by a thought. He glanced at Isaac, who as expected had turned back to his book, half a toast held in one hand. "Isaac, dear Isaac! I just remembered—one minute of your time, please!"
Isaac’s blue eyes held a suspicious look. "Just one minute of my time?"
"Well, one minute for me to explain it to you," he said unrepentantly. "If you're riding out presently, will you be so obliging and inquire if there has been a book delivered for me from London? Just one little book?"
"It's not one of your embarrassing novels, is it?"
"Oh, goodness, no," Stiles said with a small laugh. "It's only a treatise by Dr Conrad Haberlind—nothing unexceptionable!"
Isaac hummed, vaguely recognizing the scholar's name. "And what is the title of this treatise?"
Stiles took out a folded paper from his jacket pocket and handed it to Isaac.
"Corsets and Cravats: Omega Fashion and Its Sexual Symbolism," Isaac read. "Stiles! You can't possibly expect me to ask for this in public!"
"Which is why I wrote it down," Stiles nodded at the scrap of paper. "You can just hand it to him and not say anything," he said with satisfaction.
Isaac begrudgingly folded the paper back up and slipped it into his pocket. He rose and walked over to the window with his awkward, dragging step. "It's too hot to go out at all, but—" A small frown appeared on his brow. "My dear, your most ardent suitor has come to pay us a morning-visit!"
"Not again!" Stiles exclaimed.
"Riding up the avenue," Isaac said with mock cheer. "Looking as grim as a bear."
"No different than usual, then," Stiles said gloomily. "Brooding over nameless crimes, no doubt."
"What nameless crimes?"
"How should I know? Perhaps he suffers from a blood disorder that causes him to turn beastly on every day ending with ‘ay.’"
Isaac snorted in laughter and turned away from the window. "What a charming view you have of your husband-to-be."
Stiles widened his light brown eyes. "Oh no, I assure you I hold him in nothing but esteem," he said in exaggerated tones. "He’s perfectly honourable and respectable, and he was Papa’s dearest godson."
Instead of pointing out that Derek was Sir Francis’ only godson, Isaac cocked his head and gave Stiles a considering look. "Are you going to marry him?"
Startled, Stiles’ expression smoothed out. "I wish you would put that notion out of your head," he said in a sober voice. "He never gave me cause to think that he would make an offer for my hand. And besides, I can’t bear him teasing you."
Isaac searched his brother’s face. "It was years ago, when we were children."
Mouth quirking in one corner, he added, "Moreover, I quickly deduced that he only teased me when I was with you."
Stiles frowned and was about to ask his brother to enlighten him, when a voice was heard beyond the door. "In the breakfast parlour, are they? You need not announce me," the voice said dismissively.
"Fenced in, with no escape!" Stiles said, looking at the French window with longing.
"No, Stiles, you may not leave your crippled brother to fob off your suitor," Isaac said with mock severity.
Stiles sighed and turned to greet the visitor.
A solid-looking gentleman came into the room, with the manner of one who did not doubt his welcome. He was dressed in unrelieved dark colours, from his hat, riding-coat and buckskins, to his polished boots.
"Good-morning, Stiles. Isaac," Mr Derek Hale nodded at each young man. "I came to invite you fishing." When no reply was forthcoming, he added, painfully polite, "What do you say, Stiles?"
"Thank you," Stiles said sweetly. "But as Isaac had observed earlier, the weather is too hot. I shouldn’t expect to get a bite, even though the carps in your lake are so dreadfully obliging, they practically throw themselves at our fishing hooks."
Derek, like in so many other occasions, chose to not take notice of Stiles’ funning.
He was six years older than Stiles, and by virtue of being Sir Francis’ godson, had whiled away many days with Scott and Stiles when they were children. Stiles was his favourite then, perhaps because he would happily fetch and carry for him, and didn’t mind when he got hurt during their excursions. Instead of being exasperated by a much younger boy trotting at his heels, he had taken Stiles along on many adventures and had taught him to play cricket.
However, his magnanimity did not extend to Isaac, then a sickly little boy who often could only be comforted by Stiles. This, coupled with Derek’s absence the years after Lady Lanyon’s death, began to sour Stiles against him.
"How kind of you to have thought of us," Stiles continued. "But you shouldn’t have put yourself to so much trouble: I daresay you must have a thousand things to do."
Without missing a beat, Derek responded, "I was able to attend to the most pressing duties when you were still asleep."
Stiles’ mouth flattened, which did not go unnoticed by Isaac. Before Stiles could make an unfortunate remark, he pulled himself up from his chair. "I’ll be off to collect that book of yours, Stiles. I wish you will write to Simmons, when you have a moment to yourself, and desire him to send us one of the London daily journals in the future. Perhaps the Morning Post."
"There’s no need," said Derek. "I can ride over every day to share my copy."
Stiles’ amber eyes took on an alarmed look at this proposal. Without looking back, Isaac departed with a hasty "Goodbye!" to his brother and guest.
"What nonsense!" Stiles exclaimed, trying to hide his discomfort at being left alone with Derek. Ever since they were both grown, they scarcely spent a moment in each other’s company without Isaac or Jackson also being there. "If we had our own newspaper you wouldn't be obliged to ride over to us so often."
"I am happy to share mine with you," Derek said simply.
"I don’t understand why Isaac would want a daily newspaper; the weekly Liverpool Mercury is perfectly adequate!" Stiles forged on. "Who cares which old king has died or what the Queen had for breakfast?"
Derek’s eyebrows twitched but he said nothing.
"Well, not I! I don’t care three straws about it," Stiles said decisively.
Thankfully for Stiles, the Lanyons’ old nurse came into the room just then looking for him, thus providing an opportune distraction. Finding Mr Hale with her young master, she at once begged pardon and left the room. Stiles, however, rose to his feet and said he couldn’t possibly keep Nurse waiting.
"I have been neglecting my duties, and I should take care of them," he said, holding out his hand to Derek. "Worn sheets to inspect, mangled shirts to exclaim over, feathers to unruffle! So, I must send you away. You are such an old friend of the family that I don’t need to stand on ceremony with you."
Derek held his hand and gazed at him for a moment. Raising Stiles’ hand near his lips, he said softly, without looking away, "Goodbye, Stiles." He released his hand and walked out into the hall.
Stiles stared at the open doorway for several heartbeats, cheeks flushed. He told himself he wouldn’t have been half as flustered had Derek just kissed his hand, as was the custom with gentlemen callers. Nothing would have deterred Jackson from pressing a fervent kiss on his hand. Not that Stiles had done or would do anything to encourage either of his ‘suitor.’
He blinked and swept a hand across his brow. "This unbearable heat must be addling my mind! I should go up to see what Nurse wants. With my luck, the housekeeper will also have a whole slew of complaints."
After concluding his business with Nurse, Stiles perceived that the housekeeper did have a whole slew of complaints she wanted to unload. When she reminded him that it was now time for making bramble-jelly, he swiftly promised that he’d bring her a basketful of blackberries that very day. He made his escape to his bedchamber before she could involve him in the latest scene with Nurse over the new laundry-maid.
Shedding his morning outfit, Stiles pulled out an old shirt and waistcoat that used to belong to Scott. They were nearly of a size, so the outmoded waistcoat hung tolerably well on his frame. If his clothes were going to be stained while blackberrying, he would rather not wear his own clothes and incur Nurse’s wrath. A low, simple cravat and a stouter pair of boots completed his toilet. He left the house armed with a large basket and accompanied by an overexcited spaniel. The unwelcome prospect that Jackson Whittemore might make a call at Underhill sped him on his way.
During his solitary walk, enlivened with the spaniel jumping up and dashing off at intervals, Stiles thought of his conversation earlier with Isaac. Having a handsome competence, it was convention and not dependence that would tie him to Underhill. Single omegas did not live alone. Two omegas past the marriageable age, if they were related, might set up a household together, but they would be doing so in the teeth of family opposition.
As omegas formed the smallest part of the population after betas and alphas, they were much sought after as marriage partners. An omega rejecting all offers of marriage and choosing to remain single was branded an eccentric. Stiles was out of the ordinary, but in this respect he was no eccentric: at one and twenty he still had hopes to fall in love, and marry—hopefully with the same person.
An outsider viewing Derek Hale's manner of conduct toward Stiles would conclude that he was a devoted suitor. Yet Stiles himself could not help but feel that he was only courting him in order to please his dear mother, who for some reason had always favoured Stiles as if he were her youngest son. While Stiles recognized that Mrs Hale was fond of him, he never could decipher her son's feelings for him.
His other suitor, Jackson Whittemore, was more forthright. At seventeen, he was also barely older than Isaac. In view of Jackson’s age and temperament, Stiles understandably never gave any serious regard to his suit. His infatuation could be explained away by the fact that Stiles was the only eligible omega for miles and miles. Besides, Stiles was convinced that if Jackson ever stopped to think about it, he would never choose to marry someone who always confused the proper time to wear knee-breeches and trousers.
Stiles could only hope that Jackson would outgrow his infatuation before Isaac lost his patience and started a quarrel. Whereas Isaac treated Derek’s suit with amusement and tacit acceptance, he only held impatience and thinly veiled contempt for Jackson. The fact that Jackson was near Isaac’s age and enjoyed a great many freedoms not afforded to Isaac made things worse.
It is truly a wonder, thought Stiles, as he emerged from the park on to a narrow lane which separated it from the neighbouring estate of Dalton Priory, that the two of them have not come to blows yet. Jackson had the habit of dismissing Isaac’s presence entirely, perhaps on account of Isaac’s right leg. And when he did address Isaac, he usually did so while curling his lip with an air of superiority. Someone should really teach that boy due civility, preferably by planting him a facer.
"Now where did that wretched dog go?" Stiles paused and turned around in a circle. "Fluffy? Fluffy! I’d better not find you terrorizing some poor pheasant!"
After several minutes of calling and not seeing or hearing his erstwhile canine friend, Stiles concluded that Fluffy must have slipped under the farm-gate and entered the grounds of the Priory. He briskly walked a few hundred yards down the lane to the turnstile set next to the heavy farm-gate. These grounds belonged to Lord Davenant, but Stiles had an understanding with his bailiff, and was at liberty to roam where he liked.
The Priory grounds had been a tad neglected since the current Lord Davenant inherited it four, five years ago. Stiles enjoyed walking in the unkempt woods, and he could let Fluffy run free to his heart’s content there, since its owner rarely came near it.
Sure enough, Stiles spotted Fluffy sniffing along the ground, no doubt scenting out rabbits or some other hapless animal. Upon hearing Stiles’ approach, the spaniel sat up, tail thumping, and let out an amiable bark.
"Oh you don’t fool me, you disobedient animal," Stiles scolded, hand placed on one hip. "Stay there and don’t get into anymore of your antics while I pick some blackberries from that patch over there."
Fluffy barked in answer, which he chose to take as a 'yes.' He set out picking blackberries from the laden patch. Nobody would miss them, except for the birds. As far as Stiles knew, the current owner of the estate never shot his own birds, let alone tasked his housekeeper to make bramble-jelly.
The Celestins of Dalton Priory were an old and distinguished family, but the present holder of the title was considered to be slightly disreputable. Early in his childhood, there had been rumours that Daniel Celestin was the product of Lady Davenant’s affair in France with a quarter-Chinoise. Lady Davenant herself was the daughter of a Florentine noble, and society had quietly questioned the late Lord Davenant’s mingling his family blood with foreigners.
The rumours died down when the late Lord acknowledged Daniel to be his son and heir. Daniel, who grew up to be as handsome as he was delightfully charming, further made a good impression in society. He led a perfectly respectable existence, and was on the cusp of a promising diplomatic career when a scandal broke out five years ago. Nobody knew what had exactly happened, but his elderly father suffered a paralytic stroke upon hearing the news, and died several weeks later. Stiles, being too young at the time and far removed from gossip besides, did not catch even a tail-end of a rumour.
Soon enough, Stiles' basket was filled with blackberries. His fingertips and shirt-sleeves’ cuffs were stained by the juice of overripe berries.
"Time to track down that dog again," Stiles said, lifting the basket in the crook of his arm. Stepping away from the berry patch, he quickly discovered that his shirttails had somehow got caught in a trailing bramble. He had half a mind to just pull free forcefully, but Nurse would be horrified if she found out that he had walked all the way home in a tattered shirt.
Setting his basket on the ground, Stiles twisted around and tried to extricate his shirt, mostly by feel.
"Oh, how full of briars is this working-day world!"
The voice so startled him that Stiles scratched his hands when he turned to face the newcomer.
Standing a few feet away was the most handsome man Stiles had ever encountered. And considering that Stiles had lived his entire life surrounded by good-looking men—from his two brothers, his suitors, and even his uncle—this was quite an accomplishment.
He was dressed in regular riding clothes, yet with such an air of careless elegance that no country beau could emulate. His countenance looked engagingly open, but Stiles thought his eyes looked weary.
"Item, two brown eyes, with lids to them," Stiles blurted out.
Since the man just continued smiling, he could only deduce that Lord Davenant—for surely it could be nobody but him—was used to people losing temporary control of their faculties in his presence.
"Stay still, blackberry thief." Davenant looked amused as he approached Stiles, who had reflexively frozen at the command.
As he set to gently disentangle Stiles’ shirt, he asked conversationally, "Is it a custom for gentlemen in these parts to trespass in only a shirt and a waistcoat?"
Stiles had to fight the urge to squirm as Davenant freed his shirttail from the last clinging thorns. He moved one step away, narrowly missing the basket of berries, and said, "No, but why would anyone wear a riding dress to pick blackberries? The purpose of a riding dress is for riding, don't you agree?"
When he saw that the man looked rather bemused, he continued, "I'm terribly sorry for trespassing—it’s just, my dog, you see—and we have an understanding with your bailiff. At any rate, you can't tell me you're going to miss these blackberries!" Stiles finished this half-incoherent speech on a less than convincing note.
Davenant was gracious enough to pretend that Stiles had not said anything out of the ordinary.
"I'm Daniel Celestin, Lord Davenant."
"I know who you are," Stiles blurted out, and had to stop himself from covering his mouth.
"And I have the pleasure of addressing...?"
"Genim Jasper Styals Lanyon of Underhill," Stiles said promptly.
"Mr Lanyon," Davenant sketched a bow.
"Please call me Stiles. I have two brothers and the older one is Mr Lanyon, you see."
"Stiles. Styals was my late mother's surname. My brothers and I all have four names, which is ridiculous," Stiles rambled on, "since our family is not, and have never been, royalty."
A dimple bracketed Davenant's smile. "If I am to call you Stiles, then you should call me Danny—or Daniel, if you prefer."
Stiles' eyes widened. Nobody had ever invited him to use their first name upon acquaintance. As for his ‘suitors’—he had known Derek all his life, and Jackson was but a mere boy.
"That’s excessively obliging of you," he said, "Daniel." He wondered that he did not trip over the name.
"I would not like you to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable," Davenant—Daniel—Danny said. "It is merely what all my friends call me."
He smiled at Danny’s intimation of friendship between them.
"Now, Stiles Lanyon of Underhill, since gentlemen in these parts do not usually steal blackberries half-dressed, am I correct in my inference that omegas here do not usually walk without an escort?"
Stiles couldn't help but flush a little at that. "My reputation, Iago, my reputation!" He quipped.
Danny grinned, waiting for Stiles’ answer.
"I wouldn't have gone on a solitary walk if I had had advance warning that you are in residence," he said candidly. "Nor would I have trespassed or picked your blackberries either."
"It would have been perfectly proper, you know, if you had not been here. I would hardly need to don proper morning dress in the presence of a dog, and some rabbits and pheasants."
"Honest to a fault, aren't you?" Danny said, eyes crinkling. "You must be the single most fascinating omega I have ever met."
"I wouldn't know, since I've only met other omegas in the assemblies at York." Stiles couldn’t help but feel a bit thrilled at the compliment.
Danny looked contemplative at his answer. Presently, Fluffy emerged from the undergrowth to find his human in the company of a stranger. He started barking to warn the stranger away from Stiles.
Danny glanced down at the spaniel. "Ah, your brave escort is late to the party, defending your virtue."
"Fluffy!" Stiles scolded, when the dog did not cease barking.
"I'm sorry, he's terribly spoiled. He disobeys even Isaac sometimes. Only Derek can make him heel," he said to Danny, feeling awkward at Fluffy’s behaviour. "Isaac is my younger brother. Derek Hale is our neighbour."
"I've heard of the Hales," Danny said simply. He fell into step beside Stiles, as he made his way towards the turnstile.
Fluffy, recognizing the name of his Master, had finally quieted down.
"Well, I am glad to have made your acquaintance, Stiles of Underhill." Danny said when they reached the turnstile. "I am going to remain at the Priory for the present, and I mean to know you better."
Passing through the turnstile, Stiles turned around and gave Danny a wide grin. "How splendid! It is a trifle dull here, but that does not signify—you have seen so much of the world, we should have everything to talk about!"