Actions

Work Header

Your hand in my hand

Work Text:

If Jamie were able to spend the whole of his life lurking amongst book stacks in the library, he should have been the happiest man in existence. Unfortunately, this was not deemed a ‘proper occupation’ for Captain Benn of the 14th Horse Guard Regiment, lately of the Lonestar estate in Devonshire, despite Captain Benn’s frequently and vocally expressed wishes that Jordie Benn spent more time looking to his bride and their children, rather than taking his brother to task about his personal affairs. Jamie had had enough socialising to last him a lifetime; but since he had also been conditioned from the cradle to listen to his older brother, he found himself once again at a house party he had no desire to attend, if only to please him and Amelia – the two people dearest to Jamie’s heart.

Even Captain Benn had a limit to his ability to utter inanities, however. It was not as if he would take a liking to any mama’s obedient daughter or son, a fact Jordie knew well. And since this was the only purpose to navigating the horrendous crush of the most popular party of the season, Jamie had taken the liberty of availing himself of the host’s excellent cabinet, complete with walls entirely lined with beautiful old books that neither the host nor his offspring appeared to appreciate as they ought. Ensconced within a deep leather armchair, with his aching hip supported by a strategically placed cushion, Jamie had resigned himself to wiling away the next few hours that would pass before Jordie came to roust him so they could go home. D— it all, Jamie was rapidly reaching the point where he would take matters into his own hands and depart for Devonshire and the pleasures of residing in a manor that did not require the application of trousers and a cravat each morning. His beloved chestnut mare cared naught for such pleasantries so long as Jamie came to her with a few apples and a sugar lump prior to their ride.

Besides, the London damp was Hell on the old war wound. He sighed and turned the page in his book on hops farming. He had a notion that he might rally the men into trying their hands at making ale and selling it to the abundant ale houses dotting the county. Perhaps he might convince Lord L— to let him borrow the text? It really seemed extraordinarily useful. So absorbed was he, that the quiet sound of the latch lifting had him startle – though considerably less than the sight that followed.

Through the door came a young man, perhaps several years Jamie’s junior, impeccably turned out in a black coat open over the intricate embroidery of his gold brocade waistcoat. The unblemished white of his trousers hugged shapely thighs lean with muscle that, to Jamie’s trained eye, indicated a well-indulged love of riding. The view from the back was even more enticing – or it would be, to people who cared for such things. He was a fine specimen of the ton, and likely worked hard to be seen as such in the manner of most young men his age.

And yet, he was quite alone. His sigh carried to Jamie’s ears as the man closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the door, hand curiously vulnerable where it rested over the wood as if to ward against some power the man did not know how to vanquish. Jamie felt strange, to be the unintended witness to the man’s troubles. He cleared his throat.

The sound was so soft, it barely disturbed the silence, but the man jerked upright as though a lever had been pressed. He whirled around, colour high.

“My apologies,” Jamie said, although it was not he who had intruded.

The man’s lively eyes flitted over Jamie’s shape. His face relaxed.

“Not at all. It is me who ought to beg forgiveness for disturbing you.”

Jamie noted he did not, in fact, beg for anything of the kind. His lips twitched as he held the man’s defiant gaze. After a moment, the man appeared startled, though Jamie could not possibly hazard a guess as to why that should be. But his mouth did twist into a small, and Jamie believed genuine, smile.

“Lord Seguin at your disposal,” he said, sketching Jamie a bow.

With an inward sigh, Jamie forced his hip to behave and levelled himself to his feet to return the gesture.

“Captain Jamie Benn, ret.,” he supplied.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Captain.” It was a scrupulously correct response, but it was not cold for it, despite Lord Seguin’s drawn face.

“Likewise, my Lord.”

There was silence for several moments. Lord Seguin looked around the room with interest. Jamie took the liberty of settling back into the unreasonably comfortable chair. He did not quite manage to bite back a hitched sigh, however, and it drew Lord Seguin’s attention back to him.

“Old wound,” Jamie explained briefly, waving his hand at his uncooperative hip. “The London weather has not appeared beneficial.”

“I should say,” Lord Seguin hummed. “Pardon my forwardness. Is this why you are eschewing our hostess’ fashionable hospitality?”

The snort escaped Jamie despite himself. “If by ‘fashionable’ you mean so crowded that a man cannot breathe under his own power, then you would be entirely correct.”

Lord Seguin’s face broke into a smile that transcended his features into something quite beautiful.

“Oh, Captain, that I had met you sooner. Your tongue is sharp enough to cut through the nonsense that makes this town function. That is a compliment,” he clarified, when Jamie lowered his eyes in embarrassment. “And I’d wager your company might have saved me from many a… rushed decision.”

His smile disappeared, to Jamie’s disappointment, to be replaced by a wry twist of that mobile mouth. Jamie swallowed back at least two comments before thinking, d— it, Lord Seguin seemed like a good sort. He would not take offence.

“Might I be of assistance to you now, my Lord?” he enquired.

Lord Seguin sighed again, in the same cadence as his unguarded exhale from minutes ago.

“I rather doubt it,” he said, though quietly, as if more to himself. He tilted his head back, stretching his neck. “I made the grave mistake of falling in love, Sir, and I am suffering the consequences of my sin.”

Jamie winced sympathetically. “Married?”

“Soon to be, but that was not the cause. It was an insult to my friend that stabbed deeper than it should for mere friendship. Of course I had to make the blaggard pay.”

“Of course,” Jamie demurred. “Swords at dawn?”

“Pistols. Hit the shoulder, as intended, but he bled as if I had punctured his shrivelled heart. My friend’s fiancée was not best amused.”

“I am sorry to hear it.” And Jamie was, in a way. Just because he would never feel like this did not mean he was spared from envying this man a little.

Lord Seguin sighed again, shaking his head. “I am not explaining it properly. My friend Mr Brown’s intended is the sweetest lady you ever did see – until the moment someone she cares for is threatened, upon which Hell hath no fury. She was incensed because I had not let her shoot the bullet herself. She is convinced she would have been markedly more accurate than my pathetic attempt. I could never begrudge—. No. They are perfect for each other. My sincerest hope is that they will be very happy for a very long time.”

“And yet, that leaves you here, in this cabinet, with a lame Captain and hardly a drink to be found to ease your discomfort.”

To Jamie’s surprise, Lord Seguin rolled his eyes Heavenwards and barked a laugh.

“'Tis no discomfort, I assure you. It is vastly preferable to the gossip that appears rife about my person at present.”

Jamie winced. That would indeed be a fate he would not wish upon his worst enemy.

“You have my sympathy, Sir.”

Lord Seguin inclined his head. His long lashes spread over his cheeks like miniature fans.

“I wish—“ he huffed. “I wish I could make it stop.”

It was a shockingly intimate confession. But perhaps, sometimes, it was easier to speak about things that pained us to strangers.

That did not mean that Jamie was obliged in any way to reciprocate. And yet, he found himself wanting to. Mayhap the saying was true for himself, as well.

“I wish I knew how to make it start,” he said, the words coming unbidden and bringing with them a strange relief.

Lord Seguin lifted his head, eyes that had been dulled with recollection bright again with interest.

“How do you mean, Captain?”

Jamie shrugged.

“I have never been in love. Not even with a pretty face. That part of human existence seems to be locked to me,” he confessed ruefully.

He was rewarded with an affable smile.

“What a pair we make,” Lord Seguin exclaimed. “I, a fool for love; and you, Nature’s fool.”

Jamie chuckled. “Your observation is quite astute,” he agreed. "Perhaps we should marry and have done, put us both out of the gossips’ clutches.”

He had meant it as a joke, he was sure of it. But as the words fell from his lips, they rang with the kind of truth Jamie had rarely experienced. They seemed to strike Lord Seguin the same way, for he was staring at Jamie not with disgust, but savvy consideration.

“You are in earnest,” he said, testing Jamie’s resolve. “You do not know me at all.”

Jamie shrugged. It was impossible. It was perfect.

“Nor do many ladies and gentlemen obsequious to their progenitors’ directions. But you are wrong – I do know you would come to the defence of a dear friend merely to quash unseemly rumours designed to hurt him, all of which points towards you being a good man.”

“I could be a scoundrel. I could be in debt to my gills.”

“Are you?”

Lord Seguin snorted. “No, though not for lack of trying. My family is not fabulously wealthy, but my father made some good investments in his time.”

“So did mine,” Jamie supplied. “Our estate is the Lonestar in Devonshire. Not as vast as Lord Gretzky’s, but it is nothing my brother and I are ashamed of.”

“I believe I have heard of it,” Lord Seguin mused. “My family does not own an estate in the country, but we do have several houses in town. My mother and my sisters are very fond of the entertainment, and the family removes to our property in Bath for the summer months.”

“A good enough match, then.” Jamie could not believe he was truly discussing this. And yet, the more he thought of it, the more like the perfect solution it appeared. Unless—

“You are young,” he said gently. “You will recover, and come to love another.”

Lord Seguin shook his head violently, closing his eyes. “I do not wish it.” He spoke no more, but Jamie fancied he could detect a depth of pain beneath the simple words.

Laboriously, he pushed to his feet. Lord Seguin did not move to help him, for which Jamie was grateful.

“I am only the second son. The family estate is my brother’s by name, and will go to his eldest son when he dies. He knows about my deficiency, however, and he has drawn his will to stipulate that I and anyone I wish to associate with will have full use of the house’s East wing for as long as I need it. In return, I provide help with running the estate, for my brother is quite hopeless at it. I have a niece and a nephew, both still in shortskirts, and a variety of livestock you would be welcome to befriend or avoid as desired. I hope it goes without saying that the latter also applies to myself.”

Lord Seguin listened without interrupting to possibly the longest speech Jamie had ever made in his life. More to the point, he looked like he was considering it.

“You would allow me to go my own way? Come to town whenever I wish it, invite my friends to visit?”

“Naturally. I would, of course, be available to accompany you any time you wished it, for any reason, even if it is to shut the gossips’ mouths.”

“Captain,” Lord Seguin said slowly. “I am having trouble believing you are quite real.”

Inexplicably, Jamie’s cheeks heated at that. He clasped his hands behind his back, attempting to look reassuring.

“It is not much, I am well aware. But if you wanted it, it is yours.”

“Why?”

Lord Seguin appeared to be as shocked as Jamie at the plaintive question. Jamie shrugged, forcing himself to keep looking at Lord Seguin’s warm brown eyes.

“Because I would enjoy the company. Because I am tired of people in the area and the nearby town looking at me with pity. Because if not you, then who? I doubt that people who find it easy and pleasant to converse with me wait around every corner.” ‘Because you look sad and I wish to make it better’ was not a thing he said, though he had to acknowledge the sentiment was there behind his breastbone.

“I rather think you sell yourself too short, Captain,” Lord Seguin said, but it was not a rejection.

“You may appeal to my brother for confirmation if you wish, but I assure you I am quite the retiring type.”

As Jamie had hoped, that made Lord Seguin’s mouth quirk into a smile again.

“May I… think about it?” he requested, unexpectedly shy. “I wish to consult my mother.”

Jamie blinked. “But of course! I would hardly drag you to a chapel at two o’clock in the morning. I suspect a notice may have to be published, too. You are a member of the peerage.”

Lord Seguin nodded decisively. “Very well, then. I promise to give you my answer no later than a sennight forth.”

Jamie bowed slightly. “I am at your disposal. We are staying at Manchester Square.”

Lord Seguin bowed very correctly in return, looked at Jamie with an expression Jamie could not decipher, and took his leave. Jamie sank back into his seat, wondering when exactly it was that he had lost his mind.

---

“Are you out of your God d— mind?”

“Jordie,” Amelia said sweetly, eyes on Jamie’s impassive face over the breakfast table.

Jordie’s bushy beard quivered with indignation.

“Amelia, he hardly knows this man! That was the first time the two of them met!”

Amelia fixed her husband with a gimlet look. “Sometimes,” she said archly, “once is enough.”

Jamie had never been more grateful to have her for an ally.

At the head of the table, Jordie’s puffed-up chest deflated. “Aye, that’s true enough,” he said, looking at her in a besotted manner that Jamie knew he could never emulate. “But Jamie always said—unless…?”

Jamie shook his head. “No, it’s not like that. We both desire companionship. He… It’s not my place to tell, but he had his heart broken rather badly of recent, and the gossips are all over him.”

“So you’re doing this out of entirely altruistic reasons,” Jordie growled, eyebrows lowering suspiciously.

“That, and I like him. It would not be a hardship to be tied to him.”

“And what if he grows bored of the arrangement? What if he meets someone else?”

Jordie.

The Benn brothers flinched in unison. When Amelia took that tone with either of them, they knew well enough to backtrack as fast as the conversation (or their feet) would let them.

“But Amelia,” Jordie bleated.

Amelia glared at him, righteously enraged. “Are you suggesting this young man will tire of your brother and cast him aside for some new fling? And are you suggesting Jamie has not considered this, or would pressure him into something he doesn’t want?”

“No,” Jordie said meekly. Jamie felt his chest swell with affection for both of them, the purest feeling he had ever known outside of the first time he had held his niece and nephew in his arms.

“Good.” Amelia sat back, and the atmosphere diffused to something lighter and full of fondness. “You know I care about him too, Jordie, but your brother is twenty-seven years of age. You must agree he is old enough to make his own decisions, including whom to marry.”

Jordie was not happy, Jamie could see that. He supposed protectiveness came naturally to the older generation, and he was thankful to have his brother looking out for him. But there was something about Lord Seguin that made Jamie trust him instinctively. Maybe it was the genuine sadness he could see lurking under the polished manners; or maybe it was that smile, the real one that lifted his face into something else entirely. Perhaps it was his eyes, so very expressive, hiding nothing of his inner turmoil. Jamie felt they would do well together. He enjoyed looking after people, and he would find it easy to let Lord Seguin drift to the centre of his world. He had not been lying when he told his brother, and Lord Seguin, that he all he wanted in return was companionship, another person to share at least some aspects of his life with. He was not afraid of getting hurt, because they were both of them entering into this arrangement with their eyes wide open.

If Lord Seguin should accept it, that was…

It surprised Jamie, how much the thought that Lord Seguin might not distressed him. The scheme was harebrained, certainly, but Jamie found himself invested in the outcome nonetheless.

It was a relief when Lord Seguin did not keep him waiting. Amelia found him late in the afternoon of the next day, standing in the downstairs parlor and staring at the invitation in his hand like he was unsure it was not laced with poison.

"'Lady Seguin requests your presence at a family dinner, 7pm this coming Thursday, Your obedient servant, Seguin, &c.' My goodness, Jamie."

"I think perhaps I would rather a firing squad was waiting for me instead."

"Now, now." Amelia patted his arm. "This is good! Look, a 'family dinner'! I should think this is good news, hmm?"

Jamie swallowed. "Yes," he croaked. "I'm sure it is."

It was just… It was terrifying. What if Lord Seguin's family thought him a presumptuous upstart? What if they despised him? What if Lord Seguin changed his mind and was merely going through the motions before refusing his suit outright? Jamie had never been subject to so many conflicting emotions at once. He was glad his feelings were not engaged, for he was certain this gauntlet would be twenty times worse to run.

Thursday was the day after tomorrow, so he sat down and penned a quick note to accept the invitation, and to suggest Lord Seguin meet him and his brother and sister for a stroll in the park that afternoon, if he were so inclined. He watched with mixed emotions as the stable boy ran down the street, message clasped in his freshly washed fingers. On the one hand, it would be pleasant to see Lord Seguin again. On the other… Jordie.

Perhaps it was lucky, then, that he had little chance to change his mind before the boy came running back with a missive within a mere half hour. Jamie could hardly wait for Niemi to deliver it on his silver platter.

"Amelia," he called some five minutes later, walking next door into the family parlour where Amelia was sat reading a book. "I hope you do not have plans this afternoon."

He was chided for not consulting her earlier, of course, and quite rightly so. Jordie was even more affected, if the heavy-browed glower was any indication. Jamie wondered anew at the wisdom of introducing them before his suit had been approved. But he wanted to see Lord Seguin again, and if he did not tell his brother and sister about it, there would be Hell to pay.

He took excessive care with his appearance that afternoon. Lord Seguin had been so finely attired at the soiree where they met that Jamie felt compelled to present as good an image as could be arranged. He also took care not to appear as if he was impatient, because he was quite certain he could very well do without his brother's teasing. The walk to the park seemed to take longer than Jamie was used to, though he was wise enough not to mention that observation. They entered through the West gate and strolled towards the central sculpture where Lord Seguin had proposed to await them. As they approached, Jamie's excellent eyes fixed on the tall figure in a bottle-green coat, a pleasing colour that complimented Lord Seguin's dark hair and beard. On his arm was a pretty younger girl, neatly turned out in mint-green muslin with white lace at the neckline and sleeves. Their heads were close together, hair nearly intertwining. It was the same shade of rich chocolate brown, and Jamie recalled Lord Seguin's mention of sisters. Amelia was right; this was a good sign.

"Captain," Lord Seguin called, catching sight of them and waving. Jamie raised his hand, pointedly ignoring Amelia's nudge.

"Lord Seguin. It is a pleasure to see you again."

To Jamie's surprise, Lord Seguin reached for his hand and pressed it quickly before letting go. His grip was warm and sure; Jamie could feel his hesitation dissipate into nothing at the touch.

"My Lord, may I present Mr and Mrs Jordie Benn?"

Lord Seguin turned his charming smile at Jamie's family. Jamie just about succeeded in stifling a chuckle at how taken aback Jordie looked. Amelia, on the other hand, took it all in her stride.

"Most charmed." Lord Seguin bowed, lower than the company warranted. Jordie followed suit, while Amelia curtsied gracefully. "Captain, may I present to you my sister, Miss Candace Seguin?"

"Pleasure, Miss Seguin," Jamie murmured, bowing to her. She curtsied very prettily, large green eyes affixed curiously on his person.

"It is a beautiful day. Thank you for the invitation," Lord Seguin said to him. Jamie found it easy to smile, to tip his head, to demure. Amelia, bless her heart, ventured forward to link arms with Miss Seguin and lead the way down the path, blond head close to dark as they chatted. Jordie followed after them, looking bemused but leaving Jamie and Lord Seguin to fall to the rear of their group. Jamie was bursting with questions: what did Lady Seguin think of their proposal? How had Lord Seguin fared these few days? But he did not know how to ask in a way that would not be so forward as to appear rude.

Thankfully, Lord Seguin looked amused rather than dismayed.

"You may stop throwing me these sideways glances, Captain, you will strain your eyes. It goes well. Maman is amenable to meet you. She thinks I am rushing, but I'm sure she will listen to the two of us together."

Jamie nodded. It was to be expected. "My brother thinks I have lost my d— mind. Thankfully, his wife is the smarter party, and he listens to her at least."

"I am sure Candace is wheedling out information about all of you as we speak," Lord Seguin offered.

"I'm sure Amelia is as well," countered Jamie.

They grinned at each other, eyes catching and holding, sharing an understanding that warmed Jamie from the inside out. Lord Seguin's shoulder brushed against Jamie's accidentally, and then again. The spot felt warm even through several layers of fabric. It was… nice. So very nice to have someone to talk with like this.

They walked for nearly the entire length of the park before the ladies (and Jamie's hip) begged a stop to rest. The sun was still out, by some miracle of the season, and the company took over two benches facing each other, the ladies spreading their dresses along one, and the gentlemen sharing the opposite. Lord Seguin was a hum of heat against Jamie's side. He had waited for Jamie to sit, then situated himself so their sides were touching, but their hips were not. That small act of care felt enormous in Jamie's eyes. For the first time, he let himself believe that Lord Seguin felt as comfortable in Jamie's presence as Jamie did in his.

"Have you been to the theatre of recent, Captain Benn?" Miss Seguin inquired.

Jamie shook his head regretfully.

"Oh, but you must! There is a wonderful showing of a new play by the name of _______. Tyler's been at least twice, haven't you, Tyler? You must take the good Captain to see it."

Lord Seguin - Tyler - inclined his head noncommittally.

"Do you enjoy music, Miss Seguin?" Amelia asked, drawing the young woman's attention away from Jamie.

"If you would like it, it would be my pleasure to accompany you," Tyler said quietly over his sister's vociferous agreement.

"Oh, but you have already seen it twice, my Lord," Jamie returned with a smile.

Tyler shrugged. "I enjoy the theatre above all, save concerts. It would be no hardship."

"Well then, I should be delighted."

It would be worth wearing a starched cravat around his neck for an evening, to see that smile dawning on Tyler's face.

Jamie did not offer Tyler his arm on the way back, though it was not for lack of want on his part.

---

But before the pleasures of the theatre, there was the small matter of dinner with Tyler's family. Tyler's mother.

"It will be fine," Jamie was attempting to convince his reflection as he fumbled with his cravat. By his side, his valet Demers twitched futilely. They both knew that Jamie would grow frustrated eventually and submit to his ministrations, but Jamie had a stubborn streak a mile wide and, as someone who had ridden by his side through half of France, Demers knew this better than most.

"Of course, Captain," the man demurred, ignoring Jamie's disgruntled glare with the ease of long practice. "Might I suggest the hunter red coat?"

"Are you trying to get me laughed out of the house?" Jamie demanded, tugging sharply at one end of the cravat that would not lie flat. "No, the Navy blue."

Demers looked appalled. "Captain, I beg of you, you are not attending a funeral."

"I would rather look somber than like a peacock." Jamie eyed the forest green. "An acceptable compromise?" he asked, waving a hand at the coat in question.

Demers sighed, recognising a battle he would not win. "Very well, Captain."

Twenty long minutes later, hair tied neatly into a small bun and with his cravat lying flat at last, Jamie descended the stairs and tried not to feel like he was going to his demise. The matter was not helped by Jordie lounging in the parlour - lying in wait would be a more accurate description.

Amelia smiled, laying down her quill. "You look wonderful, Jamie."

"Yes, Brother. I am sure your lord will be suitably impressed."

Jamie rolled his eyes. "He has already seen me dressed up," he said, but could not keep the blood from his cheeks when Jordie and Amelia shared a loaded glance and giggled. Surely six years of marriage should ensure they no longer behaved like newlyweds?

"Regardless. This is an important night for you! It may well be the first evening of your engagement."

A fine, unexpected shudder danced down Jamie's spine at the words. He frowned, discomforted.

"Please do not rush before the horse," he muttered, tugging at the hem of his coat.

Amelia bit her bottom lip, though it did not hide her smile as well as she must have hoped.

"Godspeed, Brother," she said warmly.

Jamie took this as the blessing it was, and departed before Jordie could unnerve him further.

The Seguins owned a townhouse in Berkeley Square, an exceptionally fashionable address, which displayed better than any jewellery could the influence the family held. It only made Jamie more uncertain. Why would Lord Seguin pick a mere Horse Guard Captain to marry?

Before he could let the doubts turn him around, the front door of the house opened and Tyler himself came down the steps, smiling sweetly at Jamie.

"Captain," he said, tilting his head in a shortened bow that Jamie found he liked very much.

"My Lord Seguin," Jamie replied with a smile and a head tilt of his own.

Tyler chuckled, nudging Jamie's foot with the toe of his Hessian.

"Come. Everyone is waiting."

Jamie was not sure what the expression on his face must say, but it made Tyler's smile soften. "It will go well, I promise."

"I have faced enraged Frenchmen I was less wary of," he murmured for Tyler's ears only. "You have not changed your mind about taking up with a nameless Captain from an estate no one has heard of?"

Tyler stopped in his climb back up the stairs, and after a moment, so did Jamie.

"You have a name. Your name is Jamie," Tyler said, so earnestly that something inside Jamie's chest flipped over.

"You should call me by it," he managed to say.

Tyler's smile was incandescent - or at least, it felt that way to Jamie.

"I will," he said, eyes crinkling fetchingly. "Thank you."

He seemed like he was about to say more, but the door opened again, this time by a butler in full attire.

"My Lord, Lady Seguin requests your presence and that of your guest."

Jamie's face heated. Surprisingly, there was a stripe of pink along the top of Tyler's cheekbones, too.

"My apologies, Captain - Jamie," he amended, after Jamie gave him a look. The name sounded sweet in Tyler's mouth. "I suggest we do not keep Mama waiting any longer."

"I was ready to go in twenty minutes ago," Jamie pointed out, just to make Tyler laugh.

"You were not, you were terrified of my mother!"

"Only a little," Jamie fibbed shamelessly. He could not remember finding anyone else he had met thus far so easy to talk to, and laugh with.

"I told you, it will be fine," Tyler insisted. He still waited for Jamie on the other side of the door so they could walk in together.

Lady Jacqueline Seguin was a gently rounded lady of diminutive height, but not stature. Her sharp eyes, the same green as her daughter's, alighted on Jamie the second he walked through the door. She was sat on a well-appointed settee upholstered in a rich bronze-gold damask that offset the Seguins' colouring to perfection. She smiled at Jamie when he entered the room and held out her hand. Jamie took it, bowing over it, but could not help but think there was something reserved in her manner. Which was, he supposed, as it should be. She would not welcome just anyone with designs on her son, however noble those might be.

"Captain Benn, I am pleased you accepted my invitation," she said evenly. Her accent dipped the words in warmth, yet Jamie's initial impression was only straightened.

But he was not to be left stranded in the mire of social niceties. Miss Seguin came dashing into the room just then, pretty as a picture in a lilac gown with pale pink lace over her waist and sleeves. She was dragging a yet younger girl by the arm, whose honey blonde curls danced around her flushed face.

"Captain, you are here already! I do apologise for being late, Cassidy took simply forever to dress!"

"I did not," Cassidy protested, lower lip starting to pout and eyes brightening with unshed tears. It was such a very sweet sight, Jamie could not but smile.

"Ah, but the lovely picture you present makes it worth the wait, Miss Seguin," he said, hoping it did not sound as awkward as he feared.

Cassidy's expression brightened immediately, and she bestowed on him a wide smile reminiscent of her brother's. When Jamie looked back to him, he was smiling, too.

"Shall we?" he suggested, waving at a doorway through which Jamie presumed was the dining hall.

"Oh, do let's, I'm starving," Cassidy chirped, coming to stand next to Jamie and looking at him winsomely until he caught on and offered her his arm. She took it delightedly and tugged him through into the next room, surprisingly strong for her frame. Jamie threw Tyler a glance over his shoulder, only to find him looking pointedly at Lady Seguin, both eyebrows raised. He did not have time to assess that lady's expression, and was left wondering if he had just laid a hit or a terrible miss.

Dinner passed pleasantly enough. When no interrogation was forthcoming in the first quarter of an hour, Jamie began to relax from his stand to attention. He engaged the two younger people in conversation, for he felt much more at ease with their simple pleasures than the complex navigation conversing with their mother would require. The food was excellent, though Jamie barely tasted most of it. There were quite delicious thin, crisply baked potatoes and honey-glazed carrots that Jamie roused himself enough to compliment the cook on, who glowed in pleasure at the praise. It settled Jamie's nerves even further, and he was quite amenable to Tyler's offer of a cognac in the study, going so far as to let their fingers brush when the glasses were exchanged.

Evidently, this was what Lady Seguin had been waiting for in order to pounce.

"I should very much like to know what your intentions are towards my son, Captain Benn," she said, far colder than Jamie had expected. 'Ah,' he thought ruefully, 'this would be the part where I am thrown out for being far beneath the suitable level.'

He straightened his spine, instinctively assuming his military stance. Next to him, he heard Tyler inhale sharply.

"I assure you, my Lady, I only have the very best intentions concerning Lord Seguin."

Tyler took a step forward. "Maman, I do not— J'ai expliqué— I explained our arrangement. Captain Benn has no 'designs' on my virtue, for the love of God."

Tyler fell into speaking French when he was distressed. Interesting to know.

Lady Seguin made a conciliatory gesture, following it by an invitation for them to sit. They settled themselves into the three inward-facing armchairs set out in the middle of the room close to the fireplace. It would have been a most pleasant arrangement, had it not been for the tension filling the air and holding them hostage.

"I am just worried you are rushing, chéri," Lady Seguin said gently. "You are hurt, and you wish not to be, and that is natural. But this is a big step that you cannot take back."

The truth was, this was nothing that Jamie had not had cause to consider himself. He could not explain how he knew that Tyler was in earnest; that this was not a young man's sullen retaliation against being rejected. Yet, he did. He trusted Tyler to know his mind, to do what was best for him and those around him even in these trying circumstances.

Tyler himself was stiff in the chair to Jamie's right. "Maman," he began again, two spots of colour bright on his cheeks, but Jamie felt it was his turn to take the brunt of conversation.

"Lady Seguin," he said quietly. "I have no wish to keep Lord Seguin in a place he has no desire to be."

Lady Seguin looked at him shrewdly. It was easy to see the matriarch of the Seguin clan in that moment. If Jamie had been foolish enough to underestimate her coming here, he would have paid for his idiocy swiftly and without further ado.

"And what if he wishes to leave?"

"Then he is free to do so, with my blessing and my gladness that he has found someone else to love."

Tyler was staring at him, but it was nothing they had not discussed before. Jamie lifted an eyebrow in his direction, but Tyler remained silent.

"You would let him take a lover?" Lady Seguin pressed.

Jamie inclined his head. "As long as he is discreet, which I have no cause to doubt, Lord Seguin may see whomever he pleases. I will have no claim on his heart."

Lady Seguin leaned back in her chair and hummed. Emboldened, Jamie ventured to add, "I would only ask his indulgence that he warn me if he was leaving with no intention of coming back." His gaze held Tyler's, begging him to understand. "I would not try to stop him, but I… I need to know."

Wordlessly, Tyler nodded, and for a long moment, Jamie lost himself in those sad, wistful eyes.

Lady Seguin's sigh broke their reverie, drawing Jamie's attention back to her. She looked tired, cheeks that had been rosy throughout dinner now looking pale and drawn. Jamie sympathised. He would wager that this was not what she wished for her son. But it was what her son wished, and Jamie would do his best to see it happen - even if it meant girding his loins and facing his mother.

"If this is what you want, I cannot stop you," Lady Seguin conceded wearily. "Captain Benn seems like an honourable young man, I am sure he will do right by you."

"To the best of my ability," Jamie agreed.

"I know he will," Tyler said, looking at Jamie warmly. "We have an agreement, which is more than can be said for other foolish people rushing headlong into an ill-advised marriage."

Jamie smiled back at him. The moment stretched, bringing with it the realisation of how very lucky Jamie was, to have found someone like Tyler, who looked at him like he saw all of him and did not find the view offensive. Yes. They would do very well together.

"In that case, we shall put events in motion. Two weeks of courtship, a notice published in The Times, and you may marry a fortnight following. Have you thought of where you will reside?"

Jamie's mind whirled. Just like that, he was all but wed. Tyler did not seem overwhelmed; if anything, he looked eager to have the matter dealt with.

"We had thought we would retire to Lonestar for the first few months. After that, we shall see."

They had discussed nothing of the kind, and Tyler's sideways glance at Jamie said as much. It was a sign that Tyler had been paying attention, and he knew what Jamie would prefer, if he were to be asked. Jamie nodded at him, a wealth of gratitude bubbling in his chest. He could not wait to get out of London - but the coming month, full of seeing Tyler every day, seemed suddenly not so big an obstacle to his happiness.

---

"See?" Tyler asked the next day, when he met Jamie at the park again. "I told you it would be fine."

Jamie hummed doubtfully. He and Tyler had varying definitions of 'fine', it appeared. Tyler laughed at his expression, and took Jamie's arm. They were still at the 'courtship' stage, so it would not look unseemly for the two of them to stroll together by themselves. Once the notice was out in the paper, their activities would be much curtailed. Jamie rather thought he would leave the visit to the theatre for that time, when they would be forced in the middle of a well-meaning crowd protecting their virtue, such as it were.

For now, it was another fine day, and Tyler was warm at his side. Jamie found his spirits unexpectedly high, and did not have to feign his enjoyment of strolling through the lanes discussing the latest boxing match, which Tyler had attended and found much invigorating. Jamie had done his share of boxing in the Horse Guards; had, indeed, been considered one of the champions of the regiment. Tyler looked suitably impressed when Jamie relayed this fact, going so far as to practically challenge Jamie to a spar sometime after they removed to Lonestar. Jamie was not averse at all to the notion; it made his blood quicken, thinking about competing with Tyler in this area as well.

As they talked, it emerged that Tyler was a dab hand with the small sword, and a crack shot to boot. He laughed outright at Jamie's teasing suggestion that he should be given a tamer horse to get used to the grounds, swearing that his black Starlight would give any of Jamie's thoroughbreds a run for their money. They remained well pleased with each other, and made plans to visit Jamie's club the next evening.

"I have become mightily bored with a good amount of my acquaintances," confessed Tyler ruefully. "I should much rather become friends with yours."

"They are a bunch of foul-mouthed former soldiers, you understand," said Jamie. "Hardly fit company for Lord Seguin."

"Pish," Tyler scoffed. "They sound like excellent entertainment."

They walked together for a few more minutes until the time came to go their separate ways. Tyler was quiet, lips shifting like he was working on something he wanted to say. Jamie slowed, then stopped.

"What is it?" he said, pressing Tyler's arm before letting go. "You know you can say anything to me."

Tyler licked his lips, eyes flitting to Jamie's. "Why do you always call me 'My Lord'? You said I should call you 'Jamie', but you never call me by my name."

"I haven't been made free of it as yet, my Lord," Jamie replied with a small smile.

Tyler looked stricken. "But—of course, of course you may call me Tyler. Please, I'd like it. We are friends, are we not?"

"Yes," agreed Jamie. "Yes, we are. Tyler."

It was worth it to see that smile light up Tyler's face, the bright one that changed his features completely.

"Good," Tyler said happily. "That's settled."

"Indeed it is."

"Stop laughing at me, you wretch. I had no idea you stood so much on propriety."

"A Captain should have manners, Sir. How do you think it would go down if I were to call my General 'Sidney' without being invited to do so?"

"I have no idea. Poorly, I should think?"

Jamie snorted a laugh. "Well, not from Sidney; he is a good sort. Some of the others would not be so forgiving, however."

"A lesson to remember, I expect." Tyler rolled his eyes. "Until tomorrow, then?"

"Until tomorrow," Jamie agreed. It was unexpectedly hard to turn around and walk away. Jamie chalked it up to being unused to having such a close friend, who seemed interested in everything Jamie had to say - hardly a usual event.

---

Tyler was an instant and decisive hit at Jamie's club. Some of the other officers Jamie had served with were in town, and within five minutes it was clear that Tyler and Captain Sharp would become great, if unruly friends.

"He did not!" Jamie heard from across the room, whence he had removed to collect a glass of cognac for the two of them. It was followed by Tyler's delighted laughter, a sound that was already guaranteed to make Jamie smile in return. It dimmed a little once he drew close again and realised he was the subject of their conversation. Anxiety sparked inside his chest. It was not as if he was ashamed of his service or conduct; quite the contrary. But he always felt exposed when talked about. He never knew quite how to react.

Tyler smiled his thanks when Jamie handed him the tumbler. He appeared undisturbed; in fact, his eyes were bright with interest and enjoyment. Well. Jamie would not mind the subject if it made Tyler look like that.

"Captain Sharp is regaling me with tales of your daring escapades," Tyler said gayly. "Did you really check a Frenchman into a tavern wall for foul language?"

Jamie felt his cheeks burn. He glared daggers at Sharpy, who merely laughed at him. "I did. To be fair, he was extremely uncouth."

"Hmm." Tyler's eyes were dancing. "You do not strike me as the innocent type."

Something was happening under Jamie's ribcage, spreading warm fingers through his belly. He had no idea what it was, only that it made him blush even more and bite his lip.

"I assure you, he is not," Sharpy attested, a welcome distraction.

Jamie stood at Tyler's side and listened to them talk, but comprehended not a word. What had been that feeling? He had never experienced the like before. He made noises of agreement when appealed to, but otherwise remained mostly silent, letting Tyler chat to his heart's content. Before long, they were the centre of an expanding group of Jamie's fellow servicemen all attempting to best each other with the most embarrassing stories they knew. Captain Giroux was booed heartily for his contribution about an escaped pig intended for the pot; Tyler laughed himself nearly ill at Captain Toews' stories about the antics of a Lt. Kane, whom Tyler appeared to know from an evening filled with cards and drink that he assured Jamie was not as wild as Captain Toews was making it sound.

"The feathered shawl was returned to the lady with nary any of its elements missing," he insisted, while Jamie grinned at him in a manner assuredly less than neutral.

"Upon your honour, Sir?"

"Quite," Tyler laughed, handing him his empty glass. "Would you mind terribly…?"

Jamie was nodding and walking away before Tyler had finished.

"So." Captain Toews leaned his elbow on the lustrous wooden bar next to Jamie. "Something there, eh?"

Jamie's cheeks flamed. His first instinct was to deny it; but then he remembered - this was how everyone was going to see it. How they should see it, to silence the gossips.

"Maybe," he conceded.

Captain Toews smiled crookedly with the side of his mouth not bisected by a long, thin scar. "Congratulations, Benny. He's a good man. Known him a couple of years. Used to be a little wild in his youth, but he seems to have settled down. He'll make you a good husband."

"Thanks, Jon," Jamie said, touched. He had never been on especially intimate terms with most of his fellow soldiers, even when he was still in His Majesty's Army. It was good of Toews to vouch for someone he thought important to Jamie.

It was also interesting to be able to see Tyler through others' eyes, especially those who had known him in the past. It was good to have his personal observations confirmed by people Jamie had at one time trusted with his life.

Toews clapped him genially on the shoulder, then flagged down the barman so they could both place their orders. "I'll expect an invitation to the wedding and no mistake. Should be good for a party."

Jamie gaped at him. "Absolutely not. I am not having my own wedding ruined by you bunch of ruffians."

Toews threw back his head, his deep laugh making heads turn towards them, Tyler's included. He raised enquiring eyebrows at Jamie, who just rolled his eyes Heavenwards. Tyler was grinning when he looked back, and Jamie's lips twitched in reply.

"Oh, yeah. 'Maybe' my ass."

"Shut it," Jamie said cheerfully, collecting his two tumblers and walking over to rejoin the group.

"What was that about?" Tyler asked quietly, turning towards Jamie to create a little corner of privacy.

"Toews attempted to invite himself to our wedding. I disabused him of the notion."

Tyler laughed heartily, leaning on Jamie's arm to steady himself. "Perhaps not the wedding, but we should arrange a party at Lonestar in a few months. We can have your friends visit, maybe even host a dance. I am sure your neighbours will adore you for it."

The notion was not as abhorrent as Jamie might have found it a month prior.

"You can put that together, then, if you like."

"As long as I leave you out of it?" Tyler teased.

Jamie shot him a rueful look. "You know me so well already, Sir."

"Tyler," Tyler reminded him softly.

Jamie felt his face do something funny. "Tyler," he agreed. "And no, of course I would be on hand to assist. I am certain the servants will adore you for it. They have not had occasion to show off these many years."

"I am rather adorable," Tyler agreed. He tilted his head, smiling coyly. Jamie rolled his eyes for the show of it, but inside, he could not help but agree.

A slightly inebriated Tyler, Jamie was learning, was a very touch-fond Tyler. Jamie felt it on his person throughout the last hour and a half of the evening - his hands on Jamie's arms, his shoulder leaning against Jamie's, his fingers tapping against the small of Jamie's back. All friendly gestures that made Jamie himself feel a little dazed, warmer than the room warranted. When Tyler started outright draping himself over Jamie's frame, Jamie felt it was time to take action to save Tyler the embarrassment of a group of soldiers finding him a lightweight.

Tyler went happily enough, calling out goodbyes and waving enthusiastically at his new friends. Jamie's arm was around his waist, keeping him upright and preventing him from bumping into sharp angles. Finding a hackney was easy, as Jamie's club was situated on a well-attended street that saw plenty of traffic. Tyler climbed inside, waiting for Jamie to follow before slouching to put his head on Jamie's shoulder.

"I like your friends, Jamie," he said, slurring only a little.

Jamie permitted himself a small smile. "They like you too, Tyler."

Tyler perked up. "They do, don't they? I thought as much."

He launched into a retelling of some story he had heard tonight, and Jamie leaned back and closed his eyes, basking in the novel sense of contentment that suffused him. More and more, he was associating it with time spent with Tyler, even just strolling together down one of London's many curving streets. He wondered if this was what it was like, having a close intimate friend.

Already, he was realising that he would be hard-pressed to give it up.

---

The two weeks of their 'courting' passed quickly, and before Jamie knew it, he was having The Times thrown at his head over the breakfast table.

"Your lord's in it," Jordie said through a mouthful of kippers. "'So're you."

Jamie unfolded the paper with some trepidation, but all that met his eyes was a small, tasteful notice: "Lord Seguin to marry Captain J. Benn (ret.), a fortnight hence in St Helen's Church, Bishopsgate." It was a small bang to designate the end of his bachelorhood - Jamie knew that Tyler would be under a lot more scrutiny than himself. He wondered if it would be appropriate to call on him to see how he was coping; then decided he did not care if it was appropriate or not: he was going.

"Wear your orange coat," Jordie called behind his back.

The only reasonable answer to this was a very rude gesture, which Jamie had no qualms about performing with only its intended recipient as witness. He dressed quickly, and did not wear the orange monstrosity his brother had once forced upon him for his own enjoyment. Jordie could go to the devil and take the offensive garment with him. Attired in a simple rich brown jacket that Amelia had told him accentuated his eyes, he had the stableboy hail a hackney and gave the driver the Seguins' address.

The closer they got to Berkeley Square, the more crowded the street became. Jamie had no notion that the chaos pertained to him in any way, save to keep him from his destination longer than he appreciated; but when they reached the Seguin household, he was forced to admit that he may have severely underestimated the effect the notice would have. Curricles lined the street three-deep, and there were a number of young people milling about, waiting to be admitted. Jamie was startled, and a little dismayed, for it appeared he had no chance of making it inside within the hour.

Just as he was contemplating having the hackney turned around, a young lady separated from a group near the entrance and hurried in his direction.

"Captain!" she called. It was Miss Candace.

"Miss Seguin," Jamie responded immediately, making to alight.

"No, no! Direct the driver to the trade entrance, do! Tyler will be delighted to see you; he has been besieged all morning. Last I saw him, he was ready to tear his hair out."

"What is all this?" Jamie asked, befuddled.

Candace rolled her eyes. "What would you have but all the gossips in the area descending upon us in hordes?" she said scathingly. "As if they have any right to my brother's attention! What nonsense."

"You did not expect this, then?"

She scoffed, stomping her small foot in a fit of pique. "Hardly. Like you, we were all hoping for a quiet engagement and a nice, small ceremony. Not that those plans have changed, just as soon as we get rid of this impertinent crowd."

"Perhaps it would be better if I left? Less fuel for the fire?"

Candace shook her head vigorously. "Not at all! My brother will be incandescent with rage if I sent you away. Go on around, Sir. The butler has instructions to admit you forthwith."

Jamie had little choice but to bow and relay Candice's instructions to the hackney. Besides, he could hardly abandon Tyler to these sharks scenting blood.

It did not occur to Jamie what he was signing up for until he was being ushered into the house and within the sights of Lady Seguin.

"Captain," she greeted, looking relieved. "I must say, it is very good to see you."

The situation was clearly even more dire than Candice had alluded.

"What can I do?" he asked immediately.

Lady Seguin huffed an irritated breath. "I should have barred the lot of them from the house, but we were besieged before we knew it. Now, I know you spoke to Tyler about silencing the gossips. Are you prepared to do your part, Sir?"

Jamie swallowed nervously. "Name it," he said nevertheless.

'His part' made him break out in cold sweat. But he had served for many years in one of His Majesty's most utilised regiments, and he would not balk now.

"Captain Benn, my Lord," the butler intoned as he opened the door to the drawing room full of elegantly turned out predators.

Jamie had little time for them, save to push past to where Tyler sat on a narrow settee, surrounded by tea and cake trays and still more acquaintances. They had not known each other long, but Jamie fancied he could read Tyler as well as anyone he had ever known: the tiny pinched lines around his eyes, the forced quality of his smile. He could also see the moment Tyler laid eyes on him. Much of the stress smoothed out from his expression, leaving behind a wealth of exasperation and impatience with the scene before him. The smile he gave him was one Jamie was becoming increasingly familiar with and had named, 'I am pleased you are here'.

"Captain," Tyler said warmly, relief clear in his voice.

"My Lord," Jamie returned, taking his cue from one who was much more experienced in navigating the ton. He took a deep breath and stepped even closer, reaching for Tyler's hand and bowing over it, allowing his lips to brush the skin close to Tyler's wrist.

Tyler inhaled sharply, but gave no outward evidence of how shocked he must be. That was just as well, because titters were already starting to carry around them.

"You are a sight for sore eyes," Jamie continued, pressing Tyler's hand quickly before releasing it. The light came on behind Tyler's eyes as he realised what Jamie was up to.

"No more than you, Sir," Tyler said. His tone was none Jamie had ever heard from him - deeper and more coquettish than Tyler's normal voice. It made a small part of Jamie cringe, glad he had never been subjected to it, for it would have been clear that Tyler was trying to keep him at a distance. Jamie could safely say he preferred his Tyler over the tonnish version.

"What brings you here so early?" Tyler continued, batting his lashes up at him. "I had thought we had arrangements not earlier than two o'clock."

"Forgive me, my Lord. I could not wait that long. I had not anticipated finding you so engaged. I shall return at a more appropriate time." He flashed a lightning-quick grin at Tyler, to show his hand. Tyler's mouth twitched. He had got it.

"Oh, but Sir, you must not leave us so soon now that you have arrived," exclaimed the nearest matron. She was whip-thin, with a mass of white hair coiffed over the top of her head. Beside her sat a young lady and a gentleman with the same slight nose and chin. Good Lord, did the mamas expect Tyler to recount and pick someone else, now that he was determined to marry?

"Indeed," Jamie bowed. "I could hardly decline such charming company. I suppose I can stay until the time comes when we must depart." A long hour hence. Jamie took a deep breath and plastered on his most charming smile.

"Here, Sir, take my seat," Tyler said solicitously. "His hip, you understand. The Captain was in service to His Majesty in France, don't you know."

"Oh, indeed?" another young gentleman exclaimed, perking up.

'There will be Hell to pay once we're done here,' Jamie attempted to promise Tyler through a strategically lifted eyebrow. Tyler merely patted his shoulder and excused himself with an unrepentant grin.

Some three quarters of an hour later, the crowd finally began to disperse, no doubt hurried along by the hovering servants. Jamie was still unable to move or relinquish the terminally dull conversation - until Tyler came to his side looking appropriately apologetic and taking their leave of the last rumour mongerer. And then they were alone, and Jamie could throw himself back on the settee behind him and close his eyes, letting out a heartfelt groan.

"That was the most terrible experience of my life to date," he said plaintively.

The seat dipped beside him and Tyler's shoulder came to rest against his chest, Tyler's head pillowed in its now customary place on Jamie's shoulder.

"Supremely awful," he agreed hollowly. "Let's never do this again."

Jamie grumbled his endorsement of the idea. His hip ached from sitting and standing for most of an hour, and his current position exacerbated the pain somewhat. Without thinking much of it, he lifted his arm, settling it around Tyler's shoulders. Tyler let out a small noise of surprise, but quickly relaxed against him, fitting into the curve of his body just right. They let out a sigh in unison.

"Thank you for coming," Tyler murmured after several peaceful minutes. "I was certain I should resort to murder within the next minute."

"No, blood is Hellishly difficult to get out of brocade," Jamie protested absentmindedly, then startled when Tyler burst out laughing, body shaking against Jamie's side.

"Never leave me," Tyler managed, once his hilarity was under control. His hand flexed, warm against Jamie's side.

"I have no plans to," Jamie assured him. The vow felt a little too sincere falling from his lips; it was lucky that Tyler did not know him well enough yet to realise.

The door opened, admitting Lady Seguin and the two Miss Seguins into the room. If they found the sight that greeted them in any way strange, they showed no notion of it.

"Well! What a to-do," Lady Seguin huffed. To Jamie's surprise, she too sat down heavily on one of the spare chaise longues.

"Revolting spectacle," declared Cassidy, ignoring her mama's censorious look. "I am never getting married."

Tyler hid a giggle against Jamie's shoulder.

"This should be the last of them, one hopes," Lady Seguin mused.

"Yes, the two of you put on quite the performance," Candace said archly.

Jamie felt Tyler stiffen and he straightened himself, in the process removing his arm from around his soon-to-be husband. He ignored the bereft feeling it left behind.

"I hope so, for your sakes," he said politely.

Lady Seguin gave him a shrewd look. Jamie's lips twitched, and he inclined his head, conceding her point. When he looked back at Tyler, he found him smiling at Jamie's attempted subtlety.

"Since you came all this way to remind me we have a prior engagement, suppose we head to it?" he suggested.

Jamie frowned. "We do?"

"Should have thought about that before," Tyler said cheerfully. "It is quite a dreadful day outside. How about we visit the Society of Arts? I hear they have a charming exhibition of landscape paintings borrowed from a fellow by the name of Turner. Cassidy could benefit from some culture, isn't that right, moppet?"

Cassidy groaned, with feeling. "Must I?"

"You must," her mama instructed fondly. "Tyler and the Captain should not be seen to be alone for the next two weeks - in public, at least."

Jamie's cheeks heated and he averted his eyes. He did not know why her words made him so… Not uncomfortable, but not quite settled, either. He rose to his feet, hoping that movement will clear his head.

"I am amenable to the suggestion," he said.

Tyler looked at him for a moment, then rose as well.

"In that case, let me go and change into something fit for an afternoon of artistic delight."

He dragged Cassidy along with him, to force into a walking gown. Candace stood and stretched her arms above her head, before crossing over to a lovely piano forte and commencing a lilting tune. Left alone with Lady Seguin, Jamie tried and failed to keep his composure and remind himself he had her approval. He walked the length of the room to look out of a window, regulating his breathing until he did not feel like he was going to sweat through his coat.

Thankfully, Tyler was back just as Candace sounded the last notes and launched into a livelier song. Jamie heard his voice outside the door calling for his hat and cane, and moved to intercept him, pausing for a brief moment by the settee to take leave of his future mother-in-law. She gave a short nod in return for his bow; but as he turned away, he heard her say quietly, "Very well done, Captain."

---

Being an engaged man was not, Jamie found, very different from being a bachelor. His routine did not change, except for the addition of a partner on his daily walks and occasional rides. As Jamie had expected, Tyler had an excellent seat, giving even Jamie a run for his money in the subtle control of his black thoroughbred. No more than a twitch of the reins and the tightening of Tyler's thighs in their leather riding breeches had the horse dancing obediently in place as they waited for Jamie to mount Lucky Fourteen, his one indulgence in town. The cool air soon ceased to bother them as they exercised; hints of Spring had begun to enter their mornings - green shoots of daffodils dotting the flower beds, fruit trees putting forth buds preparing to bloom. The season, too, was accelerating to its final bang: the Benns' invitations to balls and soirees had tripled in volume, and their breakfast table had been graced by no less than four wedding invitations.

The day of Jamie's own nuptials drew ever nearer. He had been prodded gently (by Tyler) and not-so-gently (by his brother and sister) into ordering a new regimental coat and trousers for the occasion. Jamie had always liked the unobtrusive Navy blue of his uniform, brightened by the red-and-gold sash across his chest and lining the edges of the coat. At least he would feel comfortable on the day. He was looking forward to seeing the ensemble Tyler would wear, for he was always beautifully attired and he was sure to take extra care of his appearance on his wedding day.

If applied to, Jamie would admit he was nervous in one respect only: being the focus of so much curious scrutiny. As to the ceremony - the truth was, Tyler could lead him into a church today and Jamie would go gladly, without hesitation. He had no qualms as to their union. It was the thought of fumbling his vows in front of a good number of the ton that made him wake in the small hours with his heart thudding in his chest. He tried not to dwell on that possibility too much, instead making himself available at the Seguin household should he be needed for some errand, or settling a dispute on what colour the linen tablecloths should be for the wedding luncheon. He would just as soon had left for Lonestar the moment the ceremony was complete; but he would not cheat Tyler out of the opportunity to once and for all silence rumour's tongue. More and more, he found himself wistfully contemplating the havoc his fellow soldiers would wreak on the gathering. If only there was no danger of being murdered in their sleep by Lady Seguin herself.

Tyler applied himself diligently to the task of distracting him as often as possible. Jamie found himself begged to accompany one or the other Miss Seguin to the shops, or to the park, or, at one notable occasion, to deliver Miss Candace to an afternoon at one of her friends' at-homes, whereupon he also found himself being introduced as "my Brother, Captain Benn." Jamie did not have many relatives - his mother and father had had no siblings, and Jamie and Jordie had grown with only each other for company. Jamie found himself enjoying the expansion of his family, first enriched by Amelia and the children and now by Tyler's sisters.

Tyler had also not forgotten his promise to accompany Jamie to the theatre. Three days before their vows, Tyler bid him by note to free his next evening, and that of his brother and sister should they wish it. The Seguins held a box at the theatre, a fabulous extravagance that Jamie understood to be the family's single non-negotiable expense. The Benns were hereby cordially invited to accompany them to a showing of _______.

Once Amelia and Jordie had been consulted - he had learned his lesson - Jamie wrote to gratefully accept the invitation. They were to meet at the theatre house directly, for their company would not fit in a single carriage. Indeed, it seemed that half of town had decided to attend the play that evening. Jamie alighted a good five minutes' walk away from the building in order to find the Seguins before Jordie and Amelia reached the front. He was in luck, for Tyler was visible immediately upon Jamie's approach, talking with a strikingly beautiful couple close to their age. Jamie watched as the man said something that made Tyler giggle and regard him with an expression that, for some unfathomable reason, made Jamie feel chilled.

This must be the man Tyler was in love with, Jamie realised. He had never seen Tyler look upon another person with so much emotion in his face. He hesitated: he was unsure whether his presence would be appreciated or resented. The decision was taken from him when Tyler looked around and spotted him.

"Jamie," he called, waving him over with a smile that, while not being of a caliber to the one that had been directed at his beloved, was warm nonetheless.

"May I present Mr and Mrs Tyler Brown? Tyler, Elizabeth, this is Captain Benn."

"At your service," Jamie said, feeling wrongfooted. He bowed stiffly.

"Captain," Mrs Brown said, curtsying gracefully. She had a pleasant, welcoming smile that was threaded through with curiosity.

Mr Brown bowed, too, but said nought save for a speaking glance he gave his friend. Jamie's chest felt tight. Never before had he felt so out of place with Tyler at his side.

Instead of continuing their conversation, Tyler turned to him to enquire after his brother and sister. The reminder had Jamie looking around, ashamed to find he had quite forgotten his companions. He saw them coming shortly and raised his arm to capture their attention. Introductions were made again once they had approached; and then it was time for them to go in. Jamie hovered at the edge of the group, unsure of where his place should be. To his surprise, Tyler turned, looked bemused to find Jamie not standing next to him, and walked over to take Jamie's arm and nudge him forward. They walked inside the theatre house and parted ways with the Browns.

Jamie walked silently beside him. He did not know what to say. Should he mention Mr Brown? Or would Tyler rather not address the meeting at all? He did not seem upset, merely a little quiet. Jamie elected to tighten his hold a little, draw Tyler closer in a wordless show of support. Tyler looked up, eyes seeking Jamie's; he made a little questioning hum. Jamie merely shrugged, but did not step away. They walked like this all the way up to the Seguins' box, where Tyler drew Jamie to sit next to him in the front row of chairs, off to the side. It put Tyler closest to the stage, which he tried to protest, but Jamie insisted he could see just fine from his seat. The rest of their families arranged themselves behind them, a pleasant hum of background noise to soothe Jamie's unease.

Minutes passed with the lights yet to dim. Jamie cast around for something to say.

"It has been years since I have been inside this building," he chose.

"I had no idea he'd be here," Tyler blurted, almost before Jamie was finished. It was the first time Jamie had seen him anything but perfectly in control of himself. Is this what love did to people?

"I am sorry," Jamie murmured.

"No, no," Tyler hummed absently. "It's not bad, just." He did not seem able to continue.

Jamie remained still for a moment; then he thought, to Hell with it. He reached over and took Tyler's hand.

'I am here,' he wanted to say. 'I am with you,'

Tyler stiffened, staring down at their linked hands. Jamie did not move his, and after a full minute's hesitation, Tyler slowly relaxed, fingers twitching and then entwining with Jamie's.

'Thank you,' his touch said, and Jamie tried not to fidget, grateful that Tyler had chosen to accept his support.

The lights flickered and dimmed. Jamie's focus shifted to the stage, but did not remain there for long. He enjoyed the theatre, but not with the single-minded dedication Tyler displayed. His face lit up from the moment the actors took to the boards; he followed each movement eagerly, looked to nearly be able to recite their lines by heart. Emotions chased their tails over his features as the tale was relayed. Truth be told, Jamie found the sight so much more captivating than the scene played out for his entertainment.

As the break between acts was announced, Tyler sat back with a satisfied smile.

"Did you enjoy the first half?" he turned to ask Jamie.

"Very much," Jamie agreed, liking all the more the way Tyler's eyes lit up. He only realised he was still holding Tyler's hand when he felt Tyler's fingers squeeze warmly around his palm. He flushed a little, but it felt… right, somehow.

"I was going to set out in search of refreshments," Jordie said, leaning forward. "Care to join me, Brother?"

Jamie nodded and stood, regretfully letting go. He saw Tyler flex his hand a little and wondered if he should have done it sooner. He had enjoyed the contact far too much. Jordie was just in time, as usual - Jamie could use the break to pull himself together.

He followed Jordie out of the box and down the crowded corridor. They could barely move, the crush was so thick; but Amelia had asked for a glass of lemonade and there was no question of refusing her.

"You and Tyler are getting along," Jordie observed in his no-nonsense way. "If I did not know better, Brother, I would have said you are besotted."

Jamie's entire face flamed up. If he did not know himself better, he would have agreed.

"The man Tyler's in love with is here," he said lowly, for Jordie's ears only. "He was upset. I find that I do not like seeing him so."

"That is only right and proper," Jordie agreed, pausing to let two matrons pass by. He shot Jamie an unreadable look. "You know, it is perfectly acceptable if you should change your mind."

Jamie stared at him. Was his brother suggesting—

Jordie shook his head. "No, you halfwit. If you should fall in love with him."

Jamie's entire world narrowed to a point. He wasn't. He couldn't.

Right?

"...saw him, yes! I cannot believe he threw Mr Brown over for that?"

Jamie's head turned without conscious direction. Two young ladies were standing in the corner, shoulders very close together. One of them was shaking her head; the other waved her fan dismissively.

"He is so old," the one in the lavender gown said. "And his hair is so unfashionable, nothing like Lord Seguin's."

The lady in the blue-green sheath nodded. "He looks so hapless. I wonder how long it will be before he makes some faux-pas and Lord Seguin has to defend his honour in a duel!" The two of them broke into tittering laughter.

Jordie's fingers latched onto Jamie's elbow and tightened. Evidently he had heard the conversation, too.

"I just don't understand what he sees in him…"

The voices were lost in the crowd as Jordie frogmarched him forward.

"Pay no mind to the gossips," he instructed. "You know what they are like."

"They are not wrong," Jamie reasoned dully.

Jordie looked back at him, frowning. "I thought you did not care what people think of you."

"I don't."

"Then what is it?"

Jamie glared at him. "I care what Tyler thinks," he gritted through his teeth.

If this was what love was like, he could see why Tyler wanted no part in it.

"Jamie." Jordie dragged them next to a convenient column and backed him up against it. "You know what Tyler thinks of you. He thinks you are wonderful. He has told you as much. And anyway, I thought this wasn't a love match?"

"It isn't," Jamie insisted.

It was not a love match for Tyler, anyway.

Oh, Lord in Heaven, please, no.

He looked helplessly at Jordie. "It can't be," he insisted. "It has never happened to me before."

Jordie rolled his eyes. "Neither had boxing, but you fell into that pretty quickly, too."

"That is not even remotely the same thing," Jamie countered. "I am sure this is not that, either. I like him. He is my friend. He has become a very close friend. That is all it is."

"If you say so," Jordie said doubtfully. "You still going through with this?"

Jamie did not need to ask what 'this' was. "Yes," he growled.

Jordie put his hands up, an old habit from when they were children. "All right, Brother. Far be it for me to argue. I think he is good for you, in all truthfulness."

Jamie grumbled under his breath as Jordie set off in the direction of the refreshment table again. He was being an imbecile. Seeing what Tyler looked like in love had shaken some part of him that must have still been wondering if all of this was real. He could not be in love with Tyler. He could not fall in love. That was the whole reason for their arrangement.

And even if he could, Tyler would not want it, and that put an end to Jamie's wondering. It must have been all the concentrated emotions in the theatre building, that made him feel uncertain.

They made it to the lemonade table and back to the Seguins' box without further incident. Jamie passed Tyler the glass he had procured for him, returning Tyler's smile briefly and retaking his seat. He did not reach for Tyler's hand again, nor did he allow his eyes to stray to Tyler's face during the second act. He might not be nearly as handsome as Tyler or Mr Brown, but Tyler had chosen him, and with his eyes wide open. Jamie would not betray his trust by allowing doubts to enter his mind a mere two days before their wedding.

---

The day of the ceremony dawned bright and mild for the season. Jamie rose early, performed his ablutions and spent a good half hour making sure his uniform was on correctly and lay just so. His stomach was a tight little ball below his sternum, and it took three tries before he could thank Demers for his assistance. He stood back from the mirror and looked himself up and down. The blue coat fit like it always had, a touch tight in the stomach but fine through the shoulders and back. His breeches were the brightest white, his Hessians gleaming with polish. His sword was a welcome weight at his side; his fingers itched to grip it, to reassure him it was still the same weapon that had kept him alive across a good portion of the French countryside. But this was hardly the time. He had to leave within the next half hour, and he still had not had breakfast or coffee - a fact on which his stomach and his brother were apparently in agreement, if the yelling coming up the stairs was any indication.

He hurried down, nearly tripping on the midpoint landing because he was gathering wool. He shook himself and managed to descend the rest of the stairs without losing the remainder of his dignity, which he supposed was something to be pleased about.

"Oh, Jamie," Amelia said from the sideboard, where she was filling a plate. "You look wonderful."

She put the plate down before coming forward to embrace him. Jamie closed his eyes and received it gratefully, basking in her affection and the sense of peace her light fragrance always instilled in him. He stepped back to take a look at her. She wore a delightful lemon yellow gown with tasteful lace details and an embroidered bodice that seemed a little… Hmm. Tighter than usual?

He looked up at her with wide eyes. She looked back for a moment, before letting out a joyful laugh.

"I told you our Brother would work it out faster than you," she threw at Jordie, who rolled his eyes good-naturedly.

"You are with child again?" Jamie hazarded. His face felt like it could split in half, so happy was he.

"I am," Amelia confirmed. "I did not want to overshadow your day. We were going to tell you once we were back at Lonestar."

"But that's—that's wonderful. I'm so happy for you. Jordie, you rascal, I cannot believe you bet against me!"

"I cannot believe you guessed it, with how distracted you have been the past week," Jordie grumbled. He put down his knife and fork and picked up his cup of coffee. "You ready to be wed?"

Just like that, the butterflies were back in Jamie's stomach.

"I think so," he said shakily. "No, I am. Yes."

Amelia looked up at him and patted his cheek. "Your Mama would have been so happy to see this day," she said, a touch of tears in her voice.

Jamie nodded, taking her hand and pressing it to his mouth. "Thank you," he said gruffly. It had been years, but he still missed his mother fiercely some days.

"Dearest, let him get some food. He looks like he might keel over 'ere long."

Amelia sighed, but obeyed her husband for once. They walked to the sideboard together, where she fetched her plate and Jamie filled his. Once he had several kippers and rice cakes and a full cup of coffee inside him, Jamie felt human again and much more ready to face a church-full of wellwishers.

"We should go," he said, eyeing the clock on the headboard. Jordie put down his cup and nodded to Demers, who disappeared in the direction of the stables.

"Let's go, then. The Church waits for no man."

The carriage was brought around just as they filed out of the front door. Jamie handed Amelia in, then stood back to let Jordie vault inside before climbing after him. His heart was beating double-time in his chest; his hands were sweating. Only Tyler's face in his mind's eye was stopping him from unhitching one of the horses and riding all the way back to Lonestar by himself.

The trip to the church took a good hour, despite it being a Sunday and much of the traffic being absent. Jamie fretted the whole way about being late, despite having taken the precaution to depart more than two hours before the ceremony was due to start. Finally, he could see the distinctive domed tower in the distance, and was able to breathe again.

They were the first to arrive. The church was nearly empty, one or two parishioners lingering after the morning service had finished to quietly pray or have a word with the vicar. Jamie walked down the length of the great hall, looking up to admire the high white arches and the dark beams that held up the ceiling. He felt a sense of calm envelop him and still his jitters. He was doing this. He was going to look into Tyler's eyes and, before God and the gathered witnesses, take him to be his wedded husband, and promise to care for and support him for as long as they both shall live - or until Tyler found someone else with whom he wished to spend the rest of his life.

The thought was a little maudlin for the occasion, however, so Jamie resolved to think only about the positives - that they would both gain a loyal companion, someone whose presence they enjoyed. Someone they could talk to and laugh with, who knew them well and liked the person they saw. And that was more than many people got out of their marriage, so Jamie should take what he was gifted and be grateful for it.

The air was fragrant with the lingering traces of incense. He breathed deeply, clasping one hand around the wrist of the other, which was holding his headpiece behind his back. He looked up into the rafters, bright with sunlight streaming through the stained glass window, and smiled.

"Hi," Tyler said from a few steps away. Jamie turned.

"Hi," he breathed.

Tyler was a vision. Cream breeches slid into polished knee-high Hessians; above them, he wore a dark blue velvet coat and a beautiful vest buttoned to the neck, pale blue silk embroidered with leafy vines in a silver thread. The sparkling white of his cravat brought out the golden colour of his skin and the rich dark of his hair and beard. Jamie was aware that he was standing there gaping like a halfwit, but he found it difficult to think, let alone speak coherently with such a sight before him.

"You are beautiful," he managed after a full minute of staring.

Tyler's cheeks flushed fetchingly, and he lowered his gaze to Jamie's chest.

"So are you," he said. "This is a good look."

Jamie smiled, ducking his head. How had he thought that he could not do this? It was easy as child's play with Tyler at his side.

"Thank you. I would not want to embarrass you," he said wryly.

Tyler rolled his eyes and scoffed. "As if you could. You are a paragon of virtue, Jamie Benn, and I am about to tie you to myself forever."

Jamie bit his lip. "Sounds rather nice, when you put it like that."

"It does, does it not?" Tyler beamed. "Come see the girls. They will swallow their tongues when they find you in full regimentals."

After that, it was just as easy as Jamie had supposed. The full hour was chiming before he knew it, and then he was standing on Tyler's right - as was proper for an officer and gentleman. The clergyman said the words; he bid them exchange vows; and then he was announcing Lord and Captain Seguin-Benn to the gathered crowd of witnesses, and they were married.

It was easy, and then all of a sudden it was anything but. Jamie's heart slammed into his chest as Tyler bent closer and pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth. His breath quickened; he could smell Tyler's scent, bayberry and sandalwood traced through with a hint of smoke, and he felt like he had been struck by lightning, fused to the floor, mouth falling open as Tyler drew back and turned to their audience with a smile. Jamie was aware of following suit; of Tyler taking his hand and leading them both down the aisle between the pews, but he could think of nothing but the tickle of Tyler's beard on his cheek, the softness of his lips as they touched Jamie's skin. He was aware that his breathing was still uneven, coming in short, overwhelmed pants. He caught Jordie's wide eyes as they passed by him and his wife. He looked as startled as Jamie felt.

"Oh, Captain," Candace sang from the end of the aisle, and at last jolted Jamie out of the fugue state whence he had been held captive. She dashed forward and embraced him, knocking his hand out of Tyler's with her enthusiasm. "I may now at last call you 'Brother'!"

"Indeed, Sister," Jamie said warmly, patting her back. Cassidy was waiting when Candace at last let him go; she was next in his arms as the entire assembly clapped indulgently. Jamie caught Tyler's eye above her head. He looked so pleased, and so fond, that Jamie swore to himself not to let whatever strangeness he may have felt ruin things between them.

The wedding breakfast was held in a nearby guest house, whose private rooms had been outfitted to host the wedding party. It was a dreadful crush, which signified in its own way how fashionable Jamie and Tyler's wedding was considered by the ton. At least two hundred people had attended, and he and Tyler had to stand at the entrance to the rooms and receive congratulations for over an hour. By the time the last of their guests had moved through into where the refreshment tables were set out, Jamie's hip was in agony and even Tyler's eyes were pinched in the corners.

"I need to sit down for a moment," Jamie murmured to him, loathe to display weakness but even more unwilling to push through to the point where his muscles would seize and he would be unable to move at all.

Tyler nodded, bracing Jamie's elbow. He must have been thinking about this already, for he immediately lead them down a narrow passage and into the small garden at the back of the guest house. There was a bench with its back to the outer wall, facing some shrubs and a pretty flowerbed. Jamie lowered himself onto it gratefully.

"Do you need anything? Some water? Wine?" Tyler asked anxiously.
Jamie shook his head.

"No, thank you. I just need a minute. Do you mind—Jordie should have my cane."

"Not at all," Tyler said. He lingered only to press Jamie's shoulder in sympathy before departing.

Jamie leaned cautiously back, groaning softly when the muscle at his hip unclenched and the pain started to fade. He put his foot farther out to stretch his leg and sighed in relief.

"...he did! He went through with it! It beggars belief!"

"I know, Letitia! How is it possible that someone as handsome as Lord Seguin could settle for someone like that Horse Guards soldier!"

Jamie looked up at the Heavens. His luck was appalling. He knew that if he should check, he would see the two women from that night at the theatre. Why were they even here, if they thought so little of him? But of course, they had to see if Tyler would keep his word. Fate, it seemed, was determined to torture him with the knowledge that he would never be able to compete with the famous Mr Brown.

Someone cleared his throat from the same direction; Jamie heard the two women gasp.

"I will thank you to never again refer to my husband in such appallingly rude ways," Tyler's cold voice drifted from the same window that had brought Jamie such misery. "He is above you in all ways possible, not least having the honour of being the kindest, most patient gentleman I have the pleasure of knowing. It is beyond despicable that you think to criticise his appearance, when he has fought for your freedom, and suffered much hardship because of it."

The ladies stammered their denials and apologies, their voices drifting away into the distance. Jamie remained in his seat, poleaxed by the impassioned defence of his virtues by the very man he had so wished to impress. His face burned hot; his palms sweated where they had clenched against the wood of the bench. His chest felt like it was expanding wide enough to fit a whole world in it. That Tyler thought… It was so much more than Jamie had dared hope for.

That gentleman himself walked out of the door at that moment, Jamie's cane held tightly in his hand. He looked angry, brows low over his eyes and the edge of his jaw ticking irregularly. His expression lightened when he saw Jamie, and then closed again when he took in his state.

"You heard." It was not a question. He turned to look at the open window on the other side of the doorway, through which came much regaling and conversation.

Jamie inclined his head. "Thank you for your kind words," he said, smiling ruefully.

Tyler let out a frustrated growl. "That anyone should even think—that I should have to defend you to those parias! It cannot be borne." He stamped the end of Jamie's cane onto the flagstones.

Jamie reached for him, relieved when Tyler noticed and stepped close enough for Jamie to take his hand and draw him to sit down.

"It is hardly the first time I have heard that reasoning; nor will it be the last. You must know how exceptionally handsome you are. Anyone who looks at us together will be thinking such thoughts."

Tyler turned so he was facing him, face falling. "Jamie," he said, distressed.

Jamie patted his hand. "It is enough for me to know that you like who you know me to be. I do not care about the rest. You are my husband, and your opinion is the only one that matters to me."

"I do," Tyler said, changing their hold so that both of his hands cradled Jamie's between them. "I like you very much. I rather think you have become my best friend."

Jamie smiled, letting show how happy that made him. "Then everything is as it should be," he said.

Tyler looked unconvinced, but soon settled down, frown lifting.

"How much longer do we have to play host, do you think?" Jamie asked, intentionally changing the subject.

Tyler pursed his lips. "At least another hour," he said, apologetic.

Jamie sighed. "Then we had better go in."

"How is your hip?" Tyler asked, offering Jamie a solicitous hand.

"Much better," Jamie reassured him. "I am ready to face the rest of the firing squad."

Tyler chuckled, which eased what tension had remained from the encounter. "That's the spirit."

Jamie followed him inside, feeling somehow lighter than before they came out.

---

At last, some hours later, the remaining guests had departed. Jamie, Tyler, Jordie and Amelia, and the three Seguin ladies sat on a row of chairs at the back of the room and let out a sigh of relief.

"When are you planning on leaving town, gentlemen?" Lady Seguin inquired.

Jamie looked at Tyler, silently deferring to him. Tyler looked thoughtful.

"Most of my luggage has been packed already," he mused. "There are some things I still need to oversee, but I think, within the week? Benn?"

Jamie opened his mouth, before realising Tyler was addressing Jordie, who hummed.

"A week seems doable; perhaps even sooner. We had been preparing for the return trip before Jamie decided to get engaged." He grinned crookedly.

Tyler returned it; thankfully, he had yet to take offence at Jordie's plain talking. "It is settled, then," he said. Then his face took on an expression Jamie could not interpret. He turned to face him. "Where shall we sleep until then?"

Jordie bit his lip on a snort that, hilariously enough, was echoed by Lady Seguin.

"My room is not particularly big," Jamie said, face aflame. How was it possible that they had not discussed this before?

"Mine is a very good size," Tyler said. He appeared to be flushing, too. Jamie normally enjoyed the sight, but just then it made something funny shift in his stomach. "You may transfer your effects into our house, if you please."

"Very well," Jamie acquiesced, grateful when the words did not come out strangled and unintelligible. They were married; it was expected they should share a bed, at least while in London.

Whether by design or a happy coincidence, it took no more than an hour to move Jamie's effects into the Seguin household. Demers was on point, having, it seemed, anticipated his master's orders. Jamie was not left with much to do except be shown the upper floor of the house, which he had not thus far had occasion to visit. Tyler had not exaggerated the charms of his room, for it was well appointed in shades of yellow and gold, and full of sunlight even at the late afternoon hour. The bed was large, framed by black lacquered columns that reached near the ceiling. Most of the furniture was crafted in the same black lacquer, inserting a note of opulence in the otherwise unfussy room.

It drew Jamie's eyes like a lodestone. He stood several steps back from the bedframe, wondering if he should feel a certain way. He was to be sharing the space with his husband that night, and perhaps many more to come. The only other person Jamie had ever shared a bed with was Jordie, some twenty years in the past. He wondered if there was etiquette he did not know. He wondered if it should be awkward, when they would not be using the bed for anything but its literal intended purpose.

Before he could work himself up into a state, however, he recalled that Tyler and he were hardly strangers. They had touched frequently before. It occurred to Jamie quite out of the blue that it may, in fact, be nice to be in such physical proximity with someone Jamie was fond of. Perhaps Tyler would lie close enough for his side to touch Jamie's, keep him warm in the night. Perhaps their arms would intertwine. It was a pleasant thought.

"All is to your satisfaction?" Tyler said from close behind him. Jamie turned.

"Perfectly," he agreed. He pointed a finger to the bed. "Which side do you favour?"

Tyler shrugged elegantly. "I am not fixed. I would be happy to accommodate you."

"I do find it easier to rise to the left," Jamie admitted.

"There you have it, then." Tyler's mouth twitched slightly. He looked at Jamie then away. "Do you find this strange?" he asked, in a much more timid way than Jamie had supposed he had in him.

"What?" Jamie turned to face him better. "You must clarify, my Lord. Being married? Acquiring a bedmate? Moving into a new house?" He smiled. "There is rather a lot to be found strange under the circumstances."

As he had hoped, Tyler's posture loosened. He smiled back. "I suppose there is, at that. But do you find any of those strange? I would have you comfortable in my home—your home now, too."

Jamie shook his head. "I find myself unexpectedly well-disposed towards all these things."

"Truly?" Tyler turned towards him with a bright expression on his face.

Jamie nodded. "Truly. Sharing a home with you will be no hardship to me."

Again, Tyler's face assumed an expression Jamie could not fathom. But he seemed cheerful enough when he turned towards Demers and directed him to where he should deposit Jamie's belongings. While he was thus engaged, Jamie crossed over to the window, looking out towards the house's impeccably turned out gardens. Rose bushes were putting forth a mass of leaves, even though it would be some weeks yet before even buds would be found amongst the foliage. Crocuses and hyacinths brightened the flowerbeds, complemented by a row of fragile-looking white-and-pink tulips. As he watched, a giggling Cassidy came running across the small yet tidy lawn, chased by a happily yelling Candace, no doubt in pursuit of the settlement of a grievous offence.

As he stood basking in the spot of sunlight like one of the Lonestar's herd of marmalade cats, listening to the happy noises without and Tyler's warm cadence within, Jamie found himself enveloped in a sense of well-being that creeped into his bones, deepened his breathing and lifted his lips into a smile. This was his life now. Yes, there would be changes; and yes, there was little doubt he would find some of them unsettling. But Jamie was fast coming to the conclusion that he would endure all of that and more, to be standing here with what he now held in his hands.

---

Jamie woke slowly, warm and deliciously comfortable. He could hardly believe his fortune. Mornings were not Jamie's friend, ever since he returned from the rocky plains of France. On good days, his hip required a careful stretch and a gentle ease into movement. On bad days… Jamie was not proud of the language his bedroom had occasionally been witness to. This blissful, drowsy lack of pain was something Jamie had not experienced for a number of years. There was no wedding gift Tyler could have given him that Jamie would have appreciated more.

He also woke to an arm resting along his chest and the sleepy weight of Tyler pressed to his side, head buried in Jamie's shoulder. Even through his sleeping shirt, he could feel Tyler's breath huffing lightly against his skin. There was no word that could describe the bone-deep contentment, nor the absolute unwillingness to ever move at all. Tyler's mattress must have been made of magic and the down from some mythical creature, so perfectly did it shape itself to fit Jamie's body and hold it like a mother would her babe. Jamie was not a poor man by anyone's account, but he would give all the wealth that was his to have that every night and every morning. His cheeks heated to remember the groan he had let out the previous evening, when he had first sank within the bed's embrace; yet he knew he would make it again, and never cease to appreciate this wonder.

But almost more than the bed, it was the heat of Tyler's body so close to his that made Jamie loathe to quit his current position. In the night, they had shifted and looked to have sought each other, for Jamie's arm was again around Tyler's shoulders, his cheek pillowed on Tyler's soft waves. 'Delightful' was the word that sprang to Jamie's drowsy mind - the moment was indeed rich with delight and soft pleasure.

"Mmf," Tyler muttered when Jamie's fingers found their way into his hair. He curled closer, beard catching on the fine linen of Jamie's shirt as he rubbed his cheek against his shoulder. His breath evened out again; he was still asleep.

Jamie supposed neither of them had a place to be this early, so he felt entirely justified in closing his eyes again and following suit.

He did not forget the revelations of this morning, however, when Tyler at last rose to join him for breakfast some hours later. He waited until Tyler had procured coffee and a plate of eggs and kippers before he put forth his heartfelt request that Tyler inform him whence he had found the miracle of nature that was the mattress in their bedroom, and whether it had angel feathers or somesuch within.

Tyler's eyes widened above the rim of his cup. He beamed happily. "You slept well, then?"

"'Well' is a gross understatement," Jamie avowed. "I beg of you, be so kind to order one for Lonestar, I would be happy to part with half a King's ransom in exchange."

Tyler laughed, long fingers curling around the butter knife. He waved it in a jaunty salute. "Your wish is my command, Husband. I shall speak with our agent forthwith. He was the one who found it after Father took a fall. I had it moved to our room yesterday. I am glad to see that proved an auspicious guess."

"Oh, quite," Jamie said with false restraint, and Tyler chuckled again. He swallowed his mouthful of toast and started asking Jamie questions about the estate that might have been seen as too forward prior to the ceremony the day before, but were this morning entirely appropriate. Jamie was only too happy to answer as to the number of the tenants, and the majority of the crops raised in the Lonestar fields. They spoke of Jamie's thoughts on hops, for which he was grateful as it reminded him to look up the book he had been caught in the evening of their first meeting. Tyler was unabashedly enthusiastic about the prospect and volunteered to accompany Jamie to his book dealer to see whether they might have a copy.

The morning passed in that easy manner. Their conversation flowed past breakfast, segued into called replies as they changed their coats in opposite corners of their room, and recommenced at a milder volume once they took to the street, Tyler's arm tucked into Jamie's, their heads tilted towards each other. Several gentlemen whom they passed tipped their hats at them; many more ladies lifted their fans in recognition. It appeared as if, overnight, both of them had become another well-respected couple whose good opinion was highly valued. Jamie noticed, of course, but did not remark upon it save to lift an eyebrow after one such exchange. Tyler caught it, responding with a timely crinkling of his eyes. Jamie continued their discussion on distilling techniques, comfortable in the knowledge that he was understood.

The book agent was a success. Jamie tucked the large volume under his arm as Tyler hailed a hackney to convey them to Lincoln's Inn Fields where the Seguins' man of business held an office. It was a duller day than the one before, not cold but devoid of the sun's rays that remained hidden by a thick cover of cloud. Jamie was glad to sit and be driven, rather than walking the distance like he might have been tempted to if the weather had been fine. They alighted outside a red brick building housing several businesses. The Seguins' agent was situated on the first floor; the meeting was brief, and included the man's felicitations towards his Lord Seguin and his husband on their marriage. Tyler requested that the appropriate legal papers be drawn and arranged for a time before their departure when they would return to sign them. Jamie took his leave then, as the agent seemed anxious to discuss some matters with his Lordship during this earlier visit. He wandered towards the square, finding an empty bench to sit and enjoy the goings-on while he waited.

It was hard to believe that forty-eight hours prior, he had been a bachelor. That five weeks ago, he had yet to meet Tyler at all. He felt changed - branded, almost, by his experiences in that mere sliver of time. He let his eyes drift comfortably along the green lawns, the strolling couples, the edges of pale blue sky he could spy in between the clouds, and tried to identify the feeling that had taken residence in his chest. Calmness he knew; and resignation, and acceptance. He had not known this peaceful understanding, the settled equilibrium, like a compass needle that had at last found its true North. Had he been asked, he would not have said before that he was lonely. And yet, it was the absence within him that made him understand that the reverse had been true.

He tried not to think of the day when he had lain with his blood leaking out into a muddy field mangled by horses' hooves and men's desperate scramble in unsuitable boots. He had thought then that he was witnessing his final moments. If it had not been for Demers, finding Daley and dragging him over to Jamie so they could stem the flow with their bare hands, Jamie knew he would have been a goner. He bore the scars of his service with what grace he could scramble. The twisted, raised lines over his collarbone at least gave him no trouble. He knew he was lucky not to have had a blood vessel or a nerve trapped under broken bone. His hip - at least no one had to see that ugly picture but himself.

And maybe Tyler, his brain whispered. Jamie shook his head. Thoughts like that could get a man into trouble; and besides, Tyler held no interest whatsoever for those parts of Jamie's body. Nor should he. Jamie had seen Mr Brown; more than that, he knew how Tyler felt about him. He had no idea why he was even thinking these thoughts instead of enjoying the prospect of soon being home at Lonestar. Lord, but Jamie missed those green hills and meadows, the happy murmur of the brook that ran through them. He was ready to ensconce himself back within the grounds he had grown up in, the house that would always welcome him no matter how far he travelled. He missed his horses, and he missed the children, and he missed his ancient labrador Stella, even if the most she could be moved to do was snooze the afternoon away in Jamie's study and maybe play fetch for a half hour. Apart from Tyler, London held no charms that would tempt him to stay longer.

No sooner had his mind wandered thence that Jamie felt a hand on his shoulder, warm even through the layers of his jacket and overcoat.

"Woolgathering?" Tyler asked fondly. Jamie looked up into his smile, helpless to do anything but return it.

"A little," he conceded. "I was thinking of home."

Tyler hummed. "Only a few more days before we are on our way."

Jamie nodded and stood without needing to brace himself. That bed really was made of unicorn hair or somesuch.

"Lunch?" he suggested easily, letting Tyler take his arm again.

"Delightful," Tyler agreed, setting off in the direction of the inn nestled in a corner of the square. "Let us see how lucky we are. Their Shepherd's Pie is particularly good."

---

For all his wishful thinking, the dawn of their departure still took Jamie by surprise. The entire house was full of bustling activity when he left his and Tyler's bed. His husband had long been up by the look of it, probably supervising the loading of the coaches. They were to leave as early as possible, to take advantage of the light. The road to Devonshire was in good repair, but the journey was long and winter had not entirely quit the land. It would behoove them to be cautious whenever possible.

"Ah! There you are," Tyler exclaimed. He looked to be in good spirits, a becoming flush on his cheeks and hair in a slight disarray. "We are almost ready. We may depart as soon as you have breakfasted."

Jamie pushed down the urge to say he was ready to go, and instead allowed Tyler to nudge him into the breakfast parlour where his new sisters were drooping into their tea from the early hour. They perked up when he entered, however, and engaged him in pleasant conversation and many veiled requests to be allowed to visit. Jamie hid his smile in his own cup and pretended to give the matter serious thought. He brought forth several reasons why they should not enjoy it, from the distance to the village to being followed around by two besotted children. His protests took no hold; and at last, he was obliged to allow that the Seguins may visit whenever they find a suitable occasion - if they had been good and dutiful daughters to their mother.

Tyler arrived just in time to witness his sisters' victorious dance around the table. His eyes sparkled with amusement and questions; Jamie solemnly relayed to him the promise that had been extracted, then had the pleasure of laughing heartily when Tyler explained to the girls how they had been conned. In short, their last morning in town passed quickly, and soon enough they were climbing into the carriage to set upon their travels. The excellent condition of the carriage and the availability of horse changes whenever they had need of it meant that, all things proceeding as normal, they should arrive at Lonestar around lunchtime two days hence.

The distance, together with the toil it took on Jamie's body, ensured that he was not moved to visit London above once a year, at which time he, Jordie and Amelia would stay for an extended period. The two of them had departed the day before, wishing for a slower pace of travel to accommodate Amelia's delicate condition. Jamie and Tyler should catch up with them around Warminster and ride the last day of the journey together. For now, Jamie was content to lean back in his seat and watch as London slowly gave way to the countryside, where the horses could pick up pace and the air turned sweet with Spring. Next to him, Tyler stretched once, then let out a sigh as he slumped against Jamie's shoulder. Without thinking, Jamie nudged him in the position with which they had both grown comfortable - Tyler tucked into the curve of Jamie's body, Jamie's arm around him.

"I cannot wait to see your home," Tyler said sweetly. Jamie could feel the words through his chest, the rumble of Tyler's voice a vibration he was not yet used to.

"I am so looking forward to returning," he confessed. "I always miss it when I go away."

"Tell me about the things you expect to find. What usually happens this time of year?"

So Jamie did. He talked about the budding trees, the fresh young grass dotted with flowers both cultivated and wild. He described the birthing of lambs and calves and, if they had had a lucky season, young foals that Jordie would groom for sale to discerning trainers. He told Tyler about the flocks of ducklings drifting down the brook after their mothers, and the inevitable litters of puppies and kittens somewhere in the neighbourhood that would draw all the young people like a magnet.

"There will be various dances, of course, all the more now that they will be eager to make the acquaintance of a proper London gentleman."

Tyler yawned a little, covering it with a hand that returned to rest on Jamie's side. "Oh? Is such a paragon moving into the neighbourhood?" he asked innocently, laughing when Jamie jostled him.

"You jest now, but even your feet will soon tire of all the dancing you will be invited to take part in."

"Never," Tyler declared, spoiling it with a stifled giggle. "It sounds like a good life," he ventured.

"I am rather fond of it," Jamie smiled.

They grew silent for a few minutes, and when Jamie tilted his head down to look, he found his husband dozing with a cheek pillowed against his chest. Tyler's eyelashes looked even thicker from this close, something Jamie had not had the liberty to observe at such length before. His nose was finely shaped and dusted with a light smatter of freckles. His mouth—

Jamie tore his eyes away, uncomfortably aware of a tightening in his chest. He did not know why his body had started behaving in such an exceedingly baffling manner. In different circumstances, Jamie had detected the selfsame tightening of chest, a fluttering feeling in his stomach, shortness of breath, and his palms growing unexpectedly damp. He was also aware of blushing more frequently than normal, and experiencing… tightness in his breeches that he knew to be a prelude to him growing hard - an event that had exclusively occurred before in the privacy of his bedchamber with no other person to see it. The one common denominator on all those occasions was the presence of the man that was now his husband. Even more unusually, Jamie did not find himself averse to the new feelings. On the contrary; he had started to catalogue their appearance, even enjoy it. He liked the way it made him feel when Tyler smiled at him, all warm and like it would not be wrong to smile back. He liked how it felt to have Tyler close, how easily Tyler touched him - to capture his attention, to direct him, even leaving his hand on Jamie's person for no express reason.

He wondered what more he might discover about himself, with all the time spreading languidly before them.

The ride continued in this contemplative vein until Tyler awoke again and had the carriage stop for a fast ablution and to recover a picnic basket from the luggage packed on its rear end.

"I had Cook put together a luncheon for us, so we would not dally," he said, setting out the contents on the bench seat across from them. There were chicken drumsticks glinting golden in the light, juicy tomatoes, a hunk of cheese cut into convenient slices, and a freshly baked loaf of bread. Tyler even uncovered a small bottle of wine and two glasses, though he put them back laughingly when Jamie gave him a look and indicated the sway of the carriage. The two of them fell upon the food with far less grace they usually afforded their meals, leaving nothing left to pack save the plates it had been arranged on.

Afterwards, it was Jamie's turn to nap against Tyler's shoulder, drowsy from the good food and the warmth of Tyler's side and the gentle rhythm of the turning wheels. They wiled the rest of the day away in much the same manner, talking when something roused them, comfortably silent the rest of the time. Jamie knew better than to attempt to read, knowing the rocking would give him a headache, and Tyler seemed disinclined to do much else than what had already occurred. To Jamie, who was not used to such laziness during his days, it was surprisingly tolerable. They stopped twice to change horses and stretch their legs, unsurprised when the light began to fade. The lanterns on the side of the carriage permitted them to continue several hours after a stage coach might have stopped, but soon enough both driver and passengers were more than ready to disembark for the night.

The inn they decided to stop at was large and well-lit in welcome.The yard was busy, but not so much that a room for the night could not be obtained. The innkeeper took them up the stairs himself, wood creaking under his heavy gait as he showed them to the end of the corridor and into a nicely appointed room. There was plenty of space to set out their travel bags and nightclothes before availing themselves of the supper their host had had brought up.

Once they had eaten and drank two glasses of wine apiece, Tyler staggered over to the bed and sprawled out on his stomach, face buried in a pillow.

"I cannot believe I napped most of the day away, yet I still feel exhausted," he complained.

Jamie groaned a little in agreement and heaved himself to his feet. His hip ached dully, as if to punish him for his inactivity. With a sigh, he began to remove his neckcloth and shirt collar, leaving the linen open around his throat. What a relief it was, to feel the air circulating freely again! He rubbed at the itchy raised skin on the right and cracked his neck.

"Ouch," Tyler said, much more clearly than before. Jamie glanced over his shoulder to see that he had moved to sit on the edge of the bed, hands unfastening his boots. "How is your hip?"

"Bearable," Jamie shrugged. He took hold of the shirt's neckline and tugged it over his head.

"Oh," Tyler said faintly. Jamie grabbed his nightshirt and drew his arms through the sleeves as he turned.

Tyler's eyes were fastened on the scars, eyes wide. Right, they were usually covered when Tyler came to bed.

"Sorry," Jamie said, lowering his eyes. He threw the shirt over his head, smoothing it down quickly.

"What for?" Tyler asked a beat later. He didn't sound disgusted, merely curious. Jamie could cope with that.

"I know it's not a pretty sight," he said, waving at his shoulder. "I didn't mean to—I forgot, is all. Usually only Demers sees me undressing."

Tyler's hands, which Jamie found himself staring at, quickly finished removing his boots and dropped them in the corner by the bed. Then he stood, faced Jamie, and calmly said, "No."

Jamie's eyes snapped to Tyler's in surprise. There was an expression on Tyler's face that Jamie could not profess to understand; but there was a fierceness to it which held Jamie captive all the same.

"You do not apologise," Tyler said flatly. "Not for that." His eyes lingered on the spot Jamie had covered. Slowly, he approached, lifting a hand to draw the collar aside. His eyes traced the mess of cuts and dips, pink and milk-white against the rest of Jamie's skin.

"Does it hurt?" he asked, softer than before.

Jamie shook his head. "Not really. Itches, mostly."

"I'm glad."

Tyler's breath teased against the skin of Jamie's throat, so close he stood. After another moment Tyler let his hand fall, but not before his fingers traced gently over the cotton. He stepped back and, without saying anything more, started to get ready for bed. Jamie used his turned back to remove his breeches and stockings, padding barefoot to the bed and sliding under the covers with a sigh. Tyler was not the only one exhausted by the long hours on the road, but Jamie found himself unable to settle, mind drawn over and over to the look on Tyler's face as he stood looking at his scars. Before he could even begin to imagine what thoughts may have been flitting through Tyler's mind, the covers lifted on the other side and the bed dipped. Tyler lay down on his back, unusual when normally he would scoot over to Jamie immediately and curl around him. Jamie did not move, letting Tyler call the play.

"I don't like it when you talk about yourself like that," Tyler said sometime later, quiet and a little tentative. Jamie reached across the space between them and touched Tyler's arm, drew his fingers down to find his hand in a fist against his hip.

"It has never occurred to me not to," he replied.

Tyler's fingers loosened and turned to thread through Jamie's.

"Well, don't," he said mulishly.

Jamie sighed his agreement, tugging a little on their hold. Tyler didn't move for the longest moment. Just when Jamie had resigned himself to sleeping without the warmth he had become used to, Tyler rolled onto his side, leaning his head on Jamie's shoulder and folding their arms between them so that the back of Jamie's hand rested on Tyler's chest.

Neither of them said anything else before their breathing evened out and they slipped into sleep.

---

Jamie had never in his life been happier to see the honey-cream stones of Lonestar appearing in the distance. The second day of the trip had slid into uncomfortable in the late afternoon, and getting out of bed this morning had been nothing short of an act of will and stubbornness to see it through. He could see, too, that Tyler was getting anxious, sliding him worried glances and keeping quiet as Jamie grit his teeth and prayed for the ride to be over. He had tried to apologise once, but Tyler had given him such an unimpressed look that he had subsided immediately. Last night, he had tentatively offered to help in any way he could and Jamie, leery of making him even more uncomfortable, had shown him how to press on the muscles to ease the cramp. He had lain on the bed, eyes closed, both relishing and resenting the hard press of Tyler's fingers through his night shirt, much more nimble and skilled than he'd expected. Tyler had given him no quarter, either - he had leaned his full weight into the massage, squeezed past what Jamie would have managed to do himself, and though it hurt like a living hell, it had certainly eased the pain enough for Jamie to drift into a restful sleep.

"We are doing that every night from here on in," Tyler had informed him tartly in the morning, once Jamie had dragged himself from under the covers and stood frowning down at their carriage being prepared for departure.

"It is really not that bad every evening," Jamie had protested. "It's just the enforced immobility and having to sit in one position for so long. When I am home, I go riding in the morning, then for a long walk in the afternoon, and often venture to the village to check in with the tenants. It is enough exercise to keep me in working order."

Tyler had smiled, but did not appear moved from his mission. Jamie had huffed and resigned himself to letting Tyler find out for himself that Jamie was not always a cripple who could not function on his own.

Now, Tyler's face was near to pressed into the carriage window, greedily taking in the sight of his new home.

"Jamie, it's beautiful," he gushed, turning to flash Jamie a brilliant smile before returning to his observation. "What a grand old manor you have here. No wonder you are loathe to leave it."

Jamie smiled, something warm unfolding beneath his ribs. "I am very pleased to hear it's making a good impression."

Without looking, Tyler reached back to find Jamie's hand and give it a squeeze. He left his fingers loose around Jamie's, just another of a dozen small touches he liked to leave scattered through the day. Jamie was quickly becoming not just accustomed, but a little addicted to them.

The two carriages drew up to the front of the house in short order. Jamie opened the door, gratefully leaning on their driver's shoulder to climb out. A hand closed on his elbow; Tyler had rounded the carriage and was there to brace him as he stretched and stifled a groan. Behind them, Jordie was handing Amelia out carefully. In the last week, she had started to show a small bump under her skirts. Jamie made a note to send a missive to the tailors in town to expect a new order soon and send him the respective bills.

"Welcome home, Sirs, my Lady," Daley said heartily from his position at the head of a line of staff. "Captain, on behalf of the whole household, may I extend our heartfelt congratulations on your nuptials."

"Thank you, Daley," Jamie said, touched. He had not expected such a welcome, but was very grateful for his butler's planning - no doubt influenced by his thoughtful wife, Lonestar's housekeeper. That lady stood beaming a step behind her husband, strawberry-blond hair twisted in a neat bun to keep her unruly curls as much under her cap as possible.

"Daley, Mrs Daley, everyone, this is Lord Tyler Seguin-Benn, my husband."

Murmurs of "My Lord" filled the air, all of the staff craning their necks as politely as possible to have a look at their new master. Tyler nodded genially at everyone, gamely running the gambit of staff so they could introduce themselves to him. There were not a great many - the Benn household was small and well-managed, and more than enough for them.

Just as Tyler was reaching the end, shaking the hand of Lehtonen, their head gardener, there was a commotion behind the line and two maids quickly stepped apart to let through the miscreants.

"Mama! Papa! Uncle Jamie!" they screeched, throwing themselves bodily upon their parents. Amelia caught Jane well enough - she was still only four years of age, and tending towards skinny and fast. Jordie grabbed Max before he could bowl over his mother and sister, throwing him in the air. Despite being nearly six years old, Max too veered on the thin side, though he was two full heads taller than his sister.

"Hello, rascals," Jordie boomed. His progeny giggled and clung to their respective holds, though Jane was also attempting to climb over her mother to reach her father's shoulder. Jamie took her from Amelia with a murmured admonishment and turned to face a Tyler who looked thoroughly charmed.

"Miss Jane, Max, I would like you to meet Lord Tyler Seguin-Benn, my husband."

Jordie put Max down at the same time as Jamie deposited Jane at his feet before Tyler. The two children stood shoulder to shoulder, and the three gazed at each other with undisguised curiosity.

Tyler cracked first. "Hi," he said, squatting down so he was nearly of a height with them. "I'm Tyler. It's very nice to meet you."

Jane twisted her fingers in her skirt and looked at him with wide eyes. "Uncle Jamie married you?" she asked, awed. "You're very pretty."

Tyler grinned. "Not as pretty as you, miss," he demurred.

"Can you play croquet?" Max demanded. "Daley taught me but I don't have anyone to play with right now because Thomas and Matthew are away to Bath with their parents."

Tyler made a considering face. "I can, but I have not played for a long time. You will have to remind me the rules."

"I can do that," Max said enthusiastically.

The children and Tyler grinned at each other, clearly having reached an understanding. Around them, the staff bustled, unpacking the luggage that had arrived - the remainder of Tyler's belongings were due to reach them in the next few days. Amelia came closer to usher her offspring inside, listening attentively to everything they clamoured to tell her. Tyler straightened, watching them with a fond smile.

"Cute little mites," he said. "Bet they keep you on your toes."

"You have no idea," Jamie said wryly. "Come. I'll show you the house."

He enjoyed this, Jamie realised as he lead Tyler through the rooms comprising the ground floor. The layout was mostly traditional - a breakfast hall; several drawing rooms - two private, two for the receival of guests, and one more for family use; a music room whose doors opened into a large space officially termed 'the ballroom', though lately it had been used by the children to go on a tear when the weather precluded their play outside. In the south-east end, below Jamie's bedroom and at the end of the long line of household work rooms, the family sun room took up a good amount of space. With its huge, mostly uninterrupted windows, it caught all of the light on offer throughout the day, and was full of houseplants in huge pots, smaller ferns, and even some exotic orchids. The plentiful sunshine made it also the preferred haunt of the estate's cats, several of whom could at all times be found napping on the warm floors. Other than his study, it was Jamie's favourite room.

On the opposite end of the house, in the west corner behind the staircase leading to the upper floor, was where Jamie's beloved study-cum-library nestled. Alongside one of the private drawing rooms, the music room, and the sun room, its high French windows opened onto the gardens at the back of the house. It was early yet in the year, but soon enough the dozen varieties of rose bushes lining the lanes would bud and flower, and the air would fill with their heady aroma. For now, the tulips were out, and the hyacinths, and the daffodils. Truly, Spring had set out her skirts in Devonshire.

Tyler lingered in the doorway when Jamie showed him into the study, wide eyes flitting between the crowded bookcases and the leather armchairs arranged in twos and threes around the room. At the back, close to the windows, Jamie's desk sat large and imposing and covered in papers that piled up in his absence. While Tyler looked around, Jamie crossed over to it and sighed, picking up some notices from the top of the pile.

"Do you not have a steward to help you with these?" Tyler asked, looking curiously over his shoulder.

"I did," Jamie sighed. "Garbutt left just before Christmas to get married, and I'm still reading in his replacement. Johns shadowed Garbutt for a month before the switch, but you know how these things are best learned as you go along."

Tyler nodded his agreement, then walked around Jamie to look down at the desk. "Do you mind?" he asked, pointing at a ledger of recent crop yields. "And be honest. If you do not want me poking my nose in the estate's business, I'll… respect that."

His words rang true, but there was also clear reluctance in his voice. From what Jamie had observed, Tyler enjoyed being busy and seemed to have a hands-on approach to estate management. He had thought about this, even before the ceremony. Theirs may not be a love match, but Jamie had always hoped that, if he ever did find someone he wished to marry, they would be happy to involve themselves in all aspects of his life. Besides, Tyler appeared to have an excellent eye for detail that Jamie often did not have the luxury to employ, having as he did so many things to survey.

"Be my guest," he replied easily, enjoying the pleased smile on Tyler's face. I would welcome the help - and your thoughts on anything that catches your eye."

He was becoming engrossed in his correspondence again when warm fingers enclosed his wrist and made him look up, startled, into Tyler's mischievous face.

"Perhaps, before you bury yourself in work, you might show me our rooms?"

It was an innocuous question, but it made him blush all the same. He was a terrible host. Tyler was trying to hide the smile that hovered in the corners of his mouth, however, so he must not be too put out. Jamie apologised immediately and lead the way to the upper floor where the family set of rooms were situated. The East wing was linked to the west via a long corridor of guest rooms, at the end of which lay the double doors to the second Master bedroom. Jamie pressed forward to throw them open, then stepped back so Tyler could precede him inside.

After his parents passed, the house had remained untouched for nigh on a decade, neither brother even remotely interested in changing the only memory they had of them. He and Jordie had slept in their old bedrooms for all of that time. They rarely had guests, and in any case, they could not countenance anyone sleeping in their parents' old room. But then Jordie had met Amelia, and in the process of a not so very long courtship, it had become clear that Lonestar was not a manor ready to welcome a new mistress. Jamie had left the two beloveds in town and returned to oversee the renovations himself. The two master suites had been entirely overhauled, old furniture inspected and replaced where necessary. Jamie had chosen a blue and bronze theme for Jordie and Amelia's wing, and for the other, he had picked a forest green and gold colour scheme. That had been before The Conversation, which had come out of the blue for Jamie but had settled his anxieties about whether he should seek other lodgings. His brother and new sister would not hear of it. It had been the first time the two Benn men experienced the true force of Amelia's temper, and the subject had never been raised again.

And so it had come to pass that Jamie had taken residence in the newly refurbished East wing. The master bedroom was large and flooded with light, spending most of the day bathed in sunshine that picked out the gold accents and made the green walls glow, as if one had walked into a lovely clearing in the woods. The colours complimented Jamie, and he could see immediately that they did many good things for Tyler's complexion as well. The bed was large, taking up a good portion of the westerly wall with its bedposts reaching towards the ceiling. Two nightstands and several chests of drawers stood on either side of it, along with a dressing corner blocked out by two partitions. The room included a chaise longue and a loveseat making their little nest by the windows together with a reading table strewn with whatever books Jamie was halfway through at the moment. There was also a writing desk by the window, as well as a small bookcase that was getting rather too full to remain on its own for much longer.

"It's a wonderful space," Tyler said, standing in the middle of it and turning around slowly. He smiled shyly at Jamie. "It feels like home."

Warm and pleased, Jamie smiled back. "I am so very glad to hear that."

Along the turn of the corridor, there were several other rooms. One of them was a fully equipped dressing room, which Jamie had already mentally allocated for Tyler's particular use. On its other side, there was an upstairs sitting room that looked out to the front of the house. It was furnished in soft greys and pale greens, which had once been intended for their sister, long lost in infancy before either of her brothers were old enough to remember. It had sat unused for many years, as Jamie had his study and the children rarely chose to spend more time inside than was absolutely necessary.

The north-facing part of the house contained several more guest rooms, and with that, the tour of Lonestar's living quarters was complete.

"It is not the biggest manor in the land, but there is space for growing," Jamie said, stroking the bridge of his nose self-consciously while Tyler looked out of the sitting room window onto the small good-sized kitchen garden at the side of the house. They could see Molly picking some carrots for dinner, tossing them on top of several heads of lettuce and laughing at something Jenny called to her from the herb patch.

"I think it is a charming house full of charming people," Tyler said, turning to smile up at Jamie. His eyes were warm and somehow soft, and Jamie was very much afraid he could get lost in them.

The bell for lunch rang then, and Jamie's belly rumbled on cue. Tyler laughed, patting his own flat stomach.

"Excellent timing, I'm ravenous," he said lightly, turning to lead Jamie out of the room. He did not falter at all on his way to the dining room, which Jamie was glad to see. It was not a confusing layout, and since Jamie had had occasion to observe Tyler's very good spatial awareness, he knew it would present no challenge.

The whole family gathered for the meal, the children excited for once to spend time with the adults after their long absence. Cook had prepared rabbit with seasonal root vegetables, which Tyler seemed to enjoy; it spurred Jamie to pass through the kitchen after the meal and ask that Cook have a chat with Tyler and incorporate his favourites into those of the Benns'.

There was also another, less altruistic reason for his visit. It lay sprawled half-under the big kitchen table, snoozing away the afternoon. When Jamie crossed over to crouch beside her and ruffle her ears, Stella lifted her muzzle and rolled over to put her head in Jamie's lap, gazing up at him adoringly.

"Hey, girl," he said softly. Stella licked at his fingers, sniffing him curiously. "Yes, you are quite right. Want to meet him? Come on."

Stella climbed slowly to her feet, stretching her legs. She was pushing sixteen, a grand old age for a labrador, and Jamie adored her unconditionally. The sound of her nails clicking at his heels never failed to make him feel like he really was home.

Tyler was no longer in the dining room, nor was he in Jamie's office.

"Where could he be?" Jamie murmured to Stella. "Go on, dearest. Find him, find Tyler!"

Stella sniffed the air, turning her shaggy head back and forth, then set off for the sun room. Jamie pushed the door open when she pawed at it, and they both stuck their heads inside. At first glance, the room appeared empty. The two of them narrowed their eyes to escape the glare of the sun off exquisitely sculpted marble and sandstone shapes, and that's when Jamie caught sight of Tyler in one corner, shaded by large palm leaves as he leaned forward to study one of the orchids scattered around the room. It was the royal purple specimen, Amelia's favourite. Tyler's hand was raised, forefinger delicately tracing one of the velvety blooms.

Never known for her patience, Stella nudged the door open with her shoulder and clicked inside, head lowered and nose extended. Tyler startled and turned, eyes catching first on Jamie's and then on Stella's curious face. The transformation was incredible. Tyler's whole face lit up, and he immediately dropped to his knees on the rug, hand outstretched for Stella to inspect.

"Hi, hi," he crooned, burying his fingers in Stella's fur once she had licked them and pressed closer. "Hello, beautiful, who are you? I'm Tyler."

"That's Stella," Jamie answered, a little embarrassed by the gruffness in his voice. He had not anticipated Tyler's reaction would move him so. "Scratch her belly, she loves that," he added when Stella promptly rolled over and looked at Tyler beseechingly. Her eyes nearly shut in pleasure when Tyler obliged.

"She is a beauty," Tyler said, scritching under Stella's chin. "I have always adored dogs, but Mama becomes dreadfully ill when one is in the house, and we never spent enough time in the country to be able to keep one."

"Stella has been my strength many a time," Jamie admitted. "Especially when Jordie and I have had disagreements."

Stella showed no sign of quitting Tyler's company, nor Tyler any desire to stop petting her. Jamie wondered if they could spend an entire afternoon here, Stella flopped on the floor with Tyler next to her, Jamie sitting on one of the benches or loveseats nestled between the exuberant plants, watching them fondly.

"I can already see you are to replace me as her favourite," he joked.

As if on cue, Stella rolled back onto her feet and ambled towards Jamie, laboriously propping her front paws on his knees and reaching up for a kiss.

Tyler rolled his eyes. "What nonsense. She adores you."

Jamie ruffled her fur and leaned down to press a kiss to her muzzle, then let her go. Tyler watched them wordlessly, a smile hovering over his mouth.

"Much as I'm enjoying this, I really must attend to some work today," Jamie said regretfully.

"Of course," Tyler nodded, rising himself and folding his hands behind his back. "I shall take a turn in the gardens, stretch my legs."

It was curious, how much Jamie found himself wanting to send his work to Hell and offer Tyler his arm. But responsibilities were his for the bearing. Perhaps another day.

So he left Tyler with a smile and returned to his study, where he wiled away the rest of the day half-buried in paper and rapidly reacquiring ink stains on his first and second fingers. It was warm in the study, so he cracked open the window to the gardens and half-listened to the sound of Max, Tyler, Jane, and Stella gambolling nearby mixing with the scritching of his pen. Max came to fetch him when it was time for supper, and then Tyler insisted on one of his massages, nudging Jamie face-down on the bed so he could get at his hip and lower back. Jamie bit back the louder groans that wanted to escape, and once the ordeal was over, gratefully rolled between the familiar-smelling sheets. Soon enough, Tyler curled around him once again, the warmth of his body soothing tired muscles. Jamie sighed contentedly, wanting to savour the feeling of home and family and Tyler. He would just close his eyes for a moment.

He came awake with a small start, unsure at first what had roused him. Light was inching between the curtains; he had somehow slept through the night. He stretched carefully, taking stock. There was no more than a twinge from his hip, which was great - but Tyler was tense under his arm in a way that not only stated he was awake, but that something was amiss.

"Tyler?" he ventured, sleep-rough.

"Do your servants know about you?" Tyler asked quietly. "About the conditions of our marriage," he clarified when Jamie made a questioning noise.

"Oh," Jamie said. He had rarely heard Tyler sound so hesitant. "Um. No?"

Tyler made a small noise. "Will they not expect to find evidence of consummation?"

Jamie felt his face grow fever-hot. "Oh, I… had not thought of that. When I—" Was he really going to talk about this to Tyler? Surely it was not proper. And yet— "When I… find release," he choked out, breathing not at all steady, "I am always careful to catch it in a 'kerchief. But perhaps you are correct. Certainly if we wish to avoid rumours…"

"Oh," Tyler said. "I… I had not thought… You said—"

This was the worst conversation of Jamie's life.

"My body still reacts. Mostly when I wake. Never with other people."

The silence between them was tense, and so were they. Yet, Tyler had not pulled away.

"So… What should we do?" Tyler whispered. "I don't want to make you - regret—"

Jamie's arm tightened around him. "Never," he swore. "Tyler, I won't."

Tyler shifted his face into Jamie's chest. "So if I were to… Could you?"

Jamie had never felt less turned on in his life. Tyler, too, was soft where he was plastered to Jamie's hip. He swallowed tightly and gave Tyler's question all due consideration.

"I think… Maybe. I never, not with anyone - but you are not 'anyone'. You are… You are my Tyler. And if you could, with me here, then, maybe, yes."

Silence fell again; but this time, it did not feel so fraught. The two of them lay together and breathed deeply, trying to unwind.

"That was a horrible conversation to start the day," Tyler grumbled. "I'm sorry, I just got to thinking, and… I couldn't stop."

"No, you were entirely right," Jamie said, shaking his head. "I never would have thought of a detail like that. I'm lucky to have you."

"Even though I am pushing you in uncomfortable directions?" Tyler said wryly.

"Even then," Jamie affirmed. "Perhaps especially when it comes to things I may avoid out of disinclination to deal with them."

After a moment, a thought occurred.

"We talked about me, but… what about you? Would you feel comfortable doing that? I know you—you said—" He did not want to bring up the spectre of Mr Brown in their bed.

Tyler huffed a laugh. "I may not wish to fall in love again, but I have no compunctions as to that part."

Jamie flushed again. The idea of Tyler wanting to do that with Jamie in the room - it made him feel inexplicably hot, enough that the back of his nightshirt clung damply to his skin.

"We talked about - if you wanted to take a lover," he made himself say.

Tyler raised his head and pressed a kiss to Jamie's jaw. "I know, Jamie. There is no need to revisit that topic. I am certainly not looking just yet."

'Oh, good,' Jamie thought, and immediately felt ashamed of himself. That was the bargain they struck. He would abide by their agreement no matter what.

It would have been nice to escape all those emotions and confusion in sleep, but Jamie felt far too awake to even consider it.

"Think I'll go riding this morning. Want to join me?"

Tyler's face lit in a grin. "Would I," he agreed eagerly. "I can meet your boys and girls!"

"My—" Oh. The horses. "Right. You can indeed."

Jamie felt much more relaxed on the back of Victoria, his beloved chestnut mare. Tyler danced past him, strong thighs reining in Albert - a stallion they had got ostensibly for Victoria, though she still would not let him approach her closer than ten steps when they were let out together. Tyler was laughing, calling asides to Jamie as he guided Albert along the lane. The sound mixed with the birds chirping in the trees and the distant barks of their closest neighbours' chocolate labrador, probably chasing a squirrel in the copse of trees dividing the two estates. It sounded like home in a way that Jamie, for all the years he had spent roaming Lonestar's grounds, had never quite experienced.

"Come on, I'll race you to the creek," Tyler yelled, tearing down the drive. Jamie laughed and followed with a whoop of excitement. They could do a full circle of the grounds; and on the way back, he would show Tyler the shortcut through the green - maybe also that lovely picnic spot on the crest of the far hill.

---

Tyler did not bring up their conversation for the next couple of days. It was at once a relief and an annoyance - mostly because Jamie could not stop thinking about it. Every night Tyler lay close to him, hand on Jamie's chest, one leg pushed between Jamie's for a better fit; and every morning, Tyler would wake up sleepy and warm in Jamie's arms, and Jamie would have to fight the urge to draw him closer, touch him more, anything. He absolutely could not make himself talk about it first. But what if Tyler was waiting on him?

And then, one morning, Jamie woke up to something hard and hot pressed to his thigh. Tyler was still asleep, but his hips pressed closer in a slow, sensuous rhythm that had Jamie breaking out in a hot flush. He bit his lip, shocked and mortified to feel his own body respond. How was this possible? He couldn't—could he?

Tyler shifted against him with a small moan choked in the back of his throat, and Jamie—

"Oh God," he whispered, floundering between the need to move away and press closer. His cock was stirring, filling out against the press of Tyler's thigh, and if Jamie just shifted up—

Tyler's eyes snapped open.

"Oh God," he said, in a very different tone than Jamie's murmured prayer. "Jamie, I'm so sorry."

He rolled away immediately to lie on his back, hands over his face.

"It's fine," Jamie croaked. "It was just a dream, right?" Probably of Mr Brown. Jamie hated his brain.

"Right," Tyler agreed, muffled. His ears were red. Jamie absolutely forbid himself to find that endearing, and failed half a second later.

Tyler took a deep breath and scrubbed at his cheeks. "D—," he muttered. Jamie should stop, he should not be doing what he was doing; his eyes should categorically not be fixed on Tyler's groin - and yet, he did not seem to be able to help himself. There was a protrusion in the sheets, a lump that more than proved Tyler's state. He did not know why the sight made his hands itch, as if he wanted to—

His gaze snapped to the ceiling, cheeks burning. He wanted to put his hands over his own groin, but that would focus Tyler's attention on what was happening in Jamie's nether region.

"Um," Jamie tried, then had to stop to swallow. "Maybe—do you want to—?" If Jordie found out about this, Jamie would have no peace ever again.

Tyler shot him a sideways look, then nodded. "Suppose we could try."

Tentatively, Jamie reached under the sheets and curled his hand around his cock. He sighed in a mixture of relief and desperation. The touch felt so good; it always did, the rare times Jamie had occasion to do this. He had never imagined another person with him, just concentrated on the sensations and let them carry him over the edge.

But Tyler's heavy breathing made it impossible to forget there was another person in the room with him. Normally, the idea alone would throw Jamie out of his focused state, ruining the glow of pleasure. He did not understand how this time was different, except that it was; except that knowing Tyler was the one there with him made something bright and sharp curl in his gut, and to his shock it was no more than a dozen strokes later that he was spilling over his fingers with a gasp, making a mess of his nightshirt. He lay there panting and reeling, heat still twisting in his gut.

Oh, Hell. He was in trouble, wasn't he. It was one thing to consider Tyler close, his best friend; it was quite another for the thought of Tyler's hand on his cock to make him climax so violently he was still shaking. Jamie threw an arm over his eyes and forbid himself to cry. He was done for, and it was his own damned fault, because—

"Yes, Ty," Tyler gasped, hips jerking off the bed. The smell of sex saturated the air around them, and it was all Jamie could do not to get up and run.

For the first time in his life, he thought he understood what love could be - and the person who brought about that revelation was still in love with someone else.

Tyler was right. Love brought nothing but trouble.

It was fine. Jamie would not make it awkward. He knew his place, what he could and could not have. He would not push for more than he was allowed. Tyler was more important than that.

The morning after that was a little stilted, but Jamie grit his teeth and persevered, and by the afternoon things had settled into their usual groove. The day passed, then the week. Soon enough, they had been married a month; Tyler was by now well acquainted with the Benns' closest neighbours, was a regular sight at the nearby village, and had learned the secrets of Lonestar and its surrounding area almost as well as Jamie. His smile was always bright, his voice always warm with a hint of mischief. He had acquired a shadow, courtesy of his new friend Mrs Jenkins, who was one of Amelia's particular friends and coincidentally the owner of the chocolate labrador who was forever patrolling their grounds. Mrs Jenkins bred pups in her spare time, and she had insisted Tyler take one from the recently grown litter since he loved their mother so. At Jamie's encouragement, Tyler had not hesitated above a minute before scooping up the puppy from Mrs Jenkins' arms and cuddling it close to his chest.

It had become a frequent occurrence to spot Tyler wandering the lanes with Marshal on his heels, playfully gambolling in his wake. Jamie very carefully avoided staring at the sight. There was stupid, and there was inexcusable, and he was not going to pressure his new husband and good friend into something Jamie knew he did not want. It was better for his inner peace when Tyler was to be found ensconced in the sitting room next to Jamie's office, which he had claimed for his own and converted to a study of sorts. The small writing desk in the corner was quickly becoming inundated with papers and ledgers, as well as books left open in different stages of research. Tyler asked, and Jamie agreed, that it would be best if Tyler's desk from the Seguins' townhouse be delivered to his new home. In the meantime, Tyler took to frequently popping his head into Jamie's study to discuss an idea that had occurred, or to solicit Jamie's opinion on an investment he was thinking about undertaking for the family. It was so exceedingly comfortable that, for all of Jamie's misgivings, he could not deprive himself of Tyler's company whenever Tyler was willing to indulge him.

Indulgence of… other kinds was not so frequent. In a way, Jamie could not help but be glad for it. He was beginning to comprehend just how wide-reaching the consequences of Jamie's change of heart could be. Tyler was as sweet and affectionate as ever, but more often than not, it was Jamie who had to stop his hands wandering with the wish to touch him, press his shoulder, take his hand. The way Tyler smiled at him, without the slightest hint of guile, had begun to make Jamie's heart flutter in his chest in a manner most unbecoming for a marriage of convenience. If only Tyler were less charming; if only he did not allow Jamie to see his goofy, child-like enjoyment of life. How was Jamie supposed to resist that in addition to Tyler's kindness and quick thinking?

Apart from the trouble it caused Jamie, it had served to make Tyler a welcome visitor to any of the neighbouring households, of which Tyler took less advantage than Jamie might have expected. They had, of course, attended several dinner invitations and country dances, as befitted a newlywed couple so that Tyler could be introduced. But after that first burst of activity, Tyler seemed to prefer spending the evenings at home with the Benns, visiting his new friends during the day instead. Jamie was delighted to see him settling in; his presence was rapidly becoming essential to Jamie's wellbeing and happiness.

Jamie was also busy dodging Jordie and the look in his eyes that promised they would talk, and Jamie would not enjoy it. Avoiding that occurrence had become even harder once Tyler's desk had arrived, and brought with it a new mattress for their bed - the same kind Jamie had sworn eternal devotion to in the house on Berkeley Square.

"Tyler," Jamie had said, overwhelmed. He had been meaning to remind Tyler of his request to ask his agent for assistance in obtaining one for their house. Considering the timing, Tyler must have ordered it before they even left the Capital.

Tyler had watched him with a strange little smile, content to shrug when Jamie had thanked him profusely for his thoughtfulness. "Consider it a belated wedding gift," had been all he had said, and Jamie did not know what to do, how to respond to that level of care from anyone not - but wait. Tyler was family, no matter the circumstances. Jamie had already let him inside his heart, shared his home with him. He was not so blind or deluded to deny that what he felt for Tyler went far beyond convenience or mere regard.

He was just not prepared to admit this to his brother, even though he did not fool himself on that front, either - Jordie knew something had changed, and he would not leave Jamie in peace until he had got his secret out of him.

All in all, it was an excellent time to start preparation for the gathering that Tyler had made noises about since before their wedding. They would invite their friends to a week's visit, to be filled with the usual country activities and at least one occasion to dance. Tyler was excited when Jamie broached the subject and threw himself into the organisation with much vigour. Enough food would be ordered to accommodate the hoards of former soldiers, and the guest bedrooms would all be aired and prepared to receive visitors. Tyler even went so far as to contact the inn in town and take up some of their rooms for the period.

Jamie felt no reservations leaving Tyler to take on the bulk of the planning, while endeavouring to be available whenever Tyler had need of his council. In the meantime, he enjoyed the flush the activity brought to Tyler's cheeks, the excited - if somewhat distracted - air that accompanied him at all times. He was in his element, and Jamie felt a pang of regret that he would not be able to provide Tyler with much in the way of this kind of event in their routine.

Perhaps - Jamie had been thinking for some time that it might be nice to organise some kind of fete to follow the season of harvesting, especially if his plans panned out and their ale production was successful. His tenants would enjoy it, and it would give them the chance to mingle with the other townspeople, forge new friendships and connections. Not to mention that it would be very fortunate indeed from a tradesman's perspective to have a reason to bring innkeepers from the region to one place, where they could sample the estate's output and perhaps make arrangements for an order to be delivered.

Jamie indulged a projection in his mind's eye of Tyler putting the festivities together, engaging all manners of people with his charming manner and hatching plans for all kinds of entertainment, and could not keep a small, wistful sigh from escaping his chest. Perhaps it would be a way for Tyler to escape the boredom of the country's humdrum routine, and give him a reason to stay.

Before Jamie knew it, several weeks had passed with minimum fuss, days full of bustle and nights of Tyler crawling into bed and falling asleep against Jamie's side, arm thrown over his chest and head pillowed on Jamie's shoulder. A time or two, Jamie awoke to find Tyler still asleep, unconsciously shifting his hips into Jamie's thigh, and heat would break out all over his body, dew his skin with dampness at the thought of how much he wished he could reach down and play a more active role in the occasion. But all too soon, Tyler would either still again or wake fully and immediately withdraw, mumbling under his breath and removing himself from the room altogether; and Jamie would be left with regret simmering in his chest, and do his best to forget that he could feel this way at all.

Ironically, when the time came, the Browns were the first of their guests to arrive. Mr Brown jumped out of their carriage the moment it stood still, turning to hand out his beautiful wife in his wake. Tyler was delighted, Jamie could see as much from where he had hidden away in the sitting room upstairs, taking a few moments to gather himself before he had to face their guests. The two men embraced, and Tyler took Mrs Brown's hand before pressing a kiss to her cheek. Jamie observed, and breathed deeply, and told himself that it was okay for it to hurt, but it was not okay to show it. He had known what he was getting into, he reminded himself, even if he could not have imagined just how much things would change in so little time. He needed to take the reins of his emotions firmly in hand and do his duty as host - and as Tyler's husband.

To Jamie's profound relief, by the time he descended the steps to the front of the house, another carriage had pulled up, bearing the other three Seguins. Mr and Mrs Brown's arrival was thus overshadowed by delighted siblings embracing each other tightly, dragging Jamie into it before he could step back.

"So wonderful to see you again, Brother," Candace declared, kissing his cheek. "We have been positively expiring with anticipation! Tell me, what have you planned for us?"

She took his left arm, and Cassidy, a lovely picture in periwinkle blue, took his right. They steered him around the house and towards the gardens, professing that they were desperate to stretch their legs after the long journey. No sooner had they passed the kitchen garden when Marshal dashed past the opposite corner. He skidded to a stop with his side pressed into Cassidy's legs, his excited yips mingling with Cassidy's thrilled exclamations. Both girls dropped to their knees immediately, heedless of their dresses getting covered in dirt from Marshal's big paws.

"He is your brother's," Jamie told them with a smile, privately thinking that Tyler would be hard-pressed to convince his sisters to depart without a puppy of their own. He nudged the three creatures towards the back of the house, past the rose garden and to the lawn that flowed into the slope that rose to one side of the house. They were soon joined by Jane and Max, and the children and dog ran away with happy shrieks, passing a ball between them that Marshal chased with his tail wagging madly.

Jamie folded his hands behind his back and walked slowly amongst the roses, tipping his head to enjoy the warm sunshine on his face and the trills of the birds in yonder trees. He stood at the end of the path and watched the playful group for a while, pleased and grateful for the excuse to avoid the other new arrivals. It was shameful to feel that way, and he gave himself a stern talking-to while he lingered - he could not let his feelings spoil the gathering Tyler had so diligently planned. It would be the worst kind of insult; and worse, it would drive Tyler further away.

Footsteps crunched the gravel at his back. He turned to find his mother-in-law coming towards him and extended a welcoming smile to her as she drew closer. She returned it, taking stock of his face with a look shrewder than Jamie had hoped for.

"You look well, dear," she said at last. "Married life suits you."

"Indeed," Jamie allowed. "It has been… much more than I expected."

Lady Seguin's smile was small and wreathed in a mixture of emotions. "It often is," she said enigmatically. Then, to Jamie's distress, she proceeded to shoo him back towards the house. "I will watch the children. My legs could do with a stretch as well - sitting still for so long does not do my old bones much good."

Jamie wished he could protest, but he knew she was right. He had to face the music sooner or later. His luck was holding, however; in the time he had spent in the garden, a number of his fellow soldiers had stormed the house on horseback. The noise level had increased exponentially, and Tyler looked delighted to preside over the full drawing room, moving from conversation to conversation and introducing the Browns with the same ease that he utilised to point towards the refreshments laid out by the staff. Jamie made a note to include a little bonus in their monthly pay for being so efficient when they rarely had occasion to host such an event.

"Ah, there he is," Sidney said jovially, coming over to shake Jamie's hand and slap him on the back. "Quite the affair you have put together. I was glad to receive the invitation, we don't often have call to get the old band together."

"It's good to see you too, Sidney," Jamie said gladly, for it really was. Jamie had missed his old general more than he had supposed - seeing him made warmth bloom in his chest.

He looked around the full room to temper his expression, then stared in surprise. There were a good number of unfamiliar faces, and the realisation crept up on him that much of the language he was hearing was not English.

"I hope you do not mind," Sidney said with a smile. "We are currently engaged in a… sort of exchange programme, you might say. We have been requested to escort some of our Russian counterparts for several months in the hopes of achieving closer ties with the Russian Empire. We brought them along to liven up the party. Do not worry about hosting them - we shall procure rooms in town."

"Not at all," Jamie replied, if a little stilted. "Your friends are welcome. As for accommodation, ask Tyler, he has secured some rooms for guests already."

Sidney beamed. "Splendid! Let me introduce you."

Blinking, Jamie pulled himself together and shook hands with an exuberant General Ovechkin, a Captain Malkin who winked mischievously before nudging Sidney's shoulder as if they were long-time friends, and several lieutenants whose names Jamie was hard-pressed to remember. They seemed like gentlemen, pristine in their intricately decorated regimentals, and mixed well with Jamie's fellow soldiers.The room was full of laughter and intrigued looks. Jamie's friends had known each other for many years, and this infusion of new blood into their company seemed to have awakened their curiosity - not to mention their libido.

Tyler appeared to be having the time of his life. His smile nearly split his face in two; his enthusiasm and pleasure in the company was infectious. In that particular moment, he was flirting shamelessly with both Lt. and Mrs Sharp, who had accompanied her husband for the occasion and clearly found Tyler delightful. Jamie circulated the room and enjoyed the view out of the corner of his eyes as he greeted Captains Knight, Cho, and Toews, as well as a Russian lieutenant who stuck close to the latter's side and looked around curiously. They were soon joined by Lieutenants Price and Subban, who were eager to hear the latest gossip from the regiment. Sometimes, Jamie swore that the British Army could disseminate a rumour faster than any telegraph.

Once he had greeted all of their guests, Jamie was content to find a convenient wall to lean against and observe the pleasant chaos. Before he could decide whether he wanted a cup of tea enough to brave the crush again, there was Tyler walking towards him holding just such a one. He handed it to Jamie with a smile and came to stand next to him, leaning into his shoulder. Jamie indulged himself by lifting his arm to rest around Tyler's shoulders and pulling him close.

"You have done marvellously well," he lowered his head to say in Tyler's ear. "You have a gift for putting an occasion together."

He could feel Tyler's smile as his husband turned his head to press a kiss to Jamie's cheek. Jamie flushed all over, heat sliding down his spine and making his fingertips tingle. He withdrew his hand to take a sip of tea. Thankfully, Tyler did not move away again.

"I did not expect so many to attend," he confided. "But I rather think it will make the dance an even bigger success."

"Indeed. And in the meantime, I daresay we will do quite a bit of riding. Perhaps a picnic, too."

"To be sure," Tyler agreed happily. "These fellows are not suited to a sedentary life."

"I hope Daley heeded my instructions to make sure the wine cellar is well-stocked," Jamie murmured ruefully.

Tyler laughed and nudged his shoulder.

"Are you suggesting our house will shortly turn into a den of iniquity, Captain? I am not sure the cats will be impressed."

Our house.

"I am not suggesting anything of the sort. I am telling the honest truth."

Jamie did so love Tyler's laughter. It made his whole face glow; it was impossible to look away. Not even the spectre of Mr and Mrs Brown could dim Jamie's enjoyment of the day. Perhaps he would be successful in girding his loins and enduring their presence. His only prayer was that their proximity would not make Tyler change his mind about this marriage after all.

As predicted, the next few days passed quickly, full of noise and games and playful dares. They rode, met some of the Benns' neighbours who, Jamie fancied, had made it a particular point to cross paths with the visitors, and explored the grounds of the estate. Jamie showed the curious few, General Ovechkin included, his ale distillery, which was coming together very nicely indeed, and would be ready to start mass production within the fortnight. Tyler spent some time with his mother and sisters, whom the company took for a lovely picnic at the top of the nearby hill that offered panoramic views of the north edge of Dartmoor. Jamie had always loved the land of his childhood, wild and untamed and so very beautiful. He found himself content to enjoy the chatter and the fine weather while the children and Marshal cavorted around the group. He enjoyed even more watching the strange mating dances that some of the officers were performing with their Russian counterparts. Jamie was certain that by the time Sidney and Captain Malkin left Devonshire, there would be much more than just professional courtesy between them. Tyler seemed to agree, for he often caught Jamie's eye to grin and wiggle his winged eyebrows in their direction. Jamie found himself responding, returning the sly smile, enjoying the easy intimacy of speaking without words.

He was, in fact, becoming hopeful that they would weather this gathering without anything stirring the waters and capsizing the boat of their union. Of course, he should have known better than to even think such a dangerous proposition - for then came the day of the dance, which wasted no time in bringing turmoil to the life Jamie had begun to think was settled. The morning found the house buzzing with activity. Tyler could be seen flitting from one room into the next, head bent close to Mrs Daley's, Molly and Jenny trailing them at all times. Thinking it would be easier to get out of his way, Jamie proposed a ride into town - there was a box of extra candles to be collected, and he gladly volunteered for the duty. Tyler gave him a frazzled smile, a pat on the arm, and swiftly shooed him out of the house.

His idea had been good. The nearby town was by no means small, and the shops were bustling with patrons whom the Lonestar group happily joined. Jamie left them to it in order to conclude his business, then checked with the book agent to see if any of the tomes he had ordered were available for collection. Later, he allowed himself to be lured to the White Star for luncheon, a concession to the state of preparation in the Benns' household with the added bonus of leaving the Russian soldiers to get ready in their rooms upstairs. It was a good day, and not even the considering looks he could feel upon his person from the table where the Browns sat with Lieutenants Bergeron and Marchant could not spoil his pleasure.

Afore long, the vain peacocks that were Jamie's friends insisted that they should go back to the house to prepare for the dance. Jamie thought it prudent to follow along - there could be a late errand he would be requested to run. He should really be on hand if Tyler needed anything Jamie could assist with. Along they went, enjoying the fine weather. The temperatures were getting higher with every day; they would all require baths when they returned. Jamie himself could do with a dip in the ornamental lake not far from the house. When he shared this fact, he was met with universal approval and bid show most of the others the way.

So it was that, a little over an hour later, there was a group of dripping wet former soldiers meandering towards the house, laughing and bumping into each other and generally enjoying excellent spirits. Even Jamie felt a little dizzy with good humour, giggling helplessly at Captain Malkin's antics. That is how Tyler found them at the edge of the gardens - he stood with his arms crossed over his chest and an eyebrow raised speakingly near his hairline. Jamie's companions, terrible friends that they were, called out greetings and skirted quickly around him, leaving Jamie to face his husband with what he was sure was a dreadful flush on his face. It only got worse when Tyler slowly looked him up and down, taking in the soaked breeches, the sodden white linen shirt that clung to every inch of Jamie's skin, the careful way he held his hat and the parcel containing the candles away from the danger of water damage.

"Is this what I can expect every time you are dispatched on an errand in the coming Summer months?"

Tyler's mouth was twitching with mirth, and the smile in his eyes was nearly enough to make Jamie close the distance between them and press a kiss to those tempting lips. If only that was a thing the two of them did, this day would be entirely perfect.

"Not every time," he demurred, dipping his head and biting the corner of his mouth. "Sorry. Did I delay you?"

"Not at all," Tyler assured him. "And even if you had, I dare say you would have been swiftly forgiven."

His eyes lingered on Jamie's chest. Jamie felt too hot, as if the air was too thick to keep breathing. Could he mean— Was Jamie reading things in his remark that were mere wishful thinking? The moment stretched, heavy with unsaid things and caught glances. Jamie licked his lips and pressed them together. Tyler blinked languidly, his eyes tracking up to Jamie's face.

A shout from the direction house broke the tension between them. Tyler cleared his throat and turned back towards the noise; Jamie fell into step with him, intensely aware of the coolness of the air on his wet skin and just how little he was wearing in broad daylight. From the corner of his eye, he could not help but notice the high colour of Tyler's cheeks - was he blushing? Was it because he had seen Jamie so improperly attired? Was he embarrassed by his bumbling husband? Jamie's good mood evaporated, replaced by awkwardness and a hint of shame. He should know better than to act like a child unaware of the consequences. He was a grown man; a host of a well-attended gathering, no less. To behave like this was so very inappropriate. He could not blame Tyler for disapproving.

He left the parcel with Mrs Daley and excused himself to their room, where he stripped off the offending garments and threw them in the corner in a fit of self-directed anger. So stupid. He stood watching their bed, ruminating on all the poor choices he was making, all the uncertainty simmering inside him. He knew he wanted Tyler. He knew he was very likely in love with him. He also knew that Tyler was probably not over his feelings for Mr Brown, and that Jamie had no right to make it even more complicated for him.

Perhaps he could observe them tonight. The dance would give him an excellent opportunity to gauge the status of their friendship. Since his and Tyler's conversation that strange morning in their bed, the topic had not been raised. It could be that Jamie was mistaken in how deep Tyler's regard for Mr Brown remained. In any case, it would provide useful guidance for how Jamie could proceed from hereon in. If there was even the smallest chance that Tyler could return his affections… Jamie would be a fool not to grasp it, and a coward to boot, and if anything Jamie knew he would not allow himself to be, it was that. Not when the matter at hand was this important for both their future happiness.

With that in mind, Jamie decided that he would atone for his earlier disrespectful behaviour by making an effort with his appearance. He knew Tyler liked it when he was formally attired, so Jamie combed back his still-wet hair and secured it into a tight bun at the back of his head. He put on a fine white linen shirt, closing the collar with a simple yet flawless knot of his mint-green silk cravat, and for once did not complain when Demers stepped in to fix it. He bid Demers help him into his forest-green coat, hoping to evoke that first supper when his and Tyler's fates were decided and intertwined; when everything had seemed so easy, and all Jamie had had to worry about was winning over Tyler's mother. Jamie thought of that evening often. How awkward the two of them had been around each other! And yet, both of them had craved the connection that had come to life between them, and had sought to encourage it. At the time, Jamie had foolishly thought it mere empathy that lead him to think so warmly of Tyler. Now, he looked back and marvelled at how blind he had been - that he had failed to see how important Tyler had been to him even then.

He stood before the full-length mirror and looked closely at his reflection. Everything seemed to be in order - his shirt lay flat beneath the cream waistcoat, coat snug around shoulders that Jamie had always found too wide himself, but could no longer complain about when it allowed Tyler to sleep comfortably with his head pillowed above his old wound. The black trousers hugged his legs and disappeared into polished Hessians. Yes. He would do.

Demers irreverently slapped his hand away when Jamie reached up to fiddle with his cravat one last time.

"You look good, Captain. Don't spoil all my hard work, eh?"

Jamie rolled his eyes and was poised to grumble back when the door of their bedroom opened and Tyler walked in. He looked distracted but pleased, alive with the energy of a gathering well executed. His eyes were far away, as if in his mind he was still downstairs, making sure everything was flawless. They snapped to attention when he realised he was not alone in the room; he stopped in his tracks, staring at Jamie with something dark and hungry in his face.

Jamie spread his arms, turning a little on his heel. "Well? Will I do?" he asked as calmly as he could when his heart was slamming in his chest.

"Will you do?" Tyler asked, incredulous. "I should say."

His gaze dragged up and down Jamie's frame like a physical touch. The tip of his tongue peeked through the corner of his lips, swiping along the bottom one before tucking away from sight again. Jamie felt faint with how much he wanted to kiss him.

"I wonder if I can make nearly as good a presentation," Tyler teased, eyes smiling up at Jamie's.

Jamie rolled his eyes. "There is no need for you to romance me with flattery. I married you already."

Tyler stared at him, arrested. Jamie flushed when he replayed his words and saw how they could be interpreted. Tyler just did not know how very true they were, or how very much Jamie meant them.

"I'll go downstairs, then. Leave you to get ready," he managed, perhaps a little strangled but not embarrassing himself too badly. That would come later, when he saw Tyler in whatever carefully chosen ensemble he wrapped around himself tonight. Jamie held little confidence that he would be able to project a picture of anything but a smitten husband.

"Yes," Tyler said faintly, not moving apart from turning to keep Jamie in his sight as Jamie headed for the door. "Good."

Jamie's neck felt too warm under so many layers, as if he was carrying Tyler's regard with him all the way to the ground floor.

As he had anticipated, everything in the house looked exquisite. The ballroom was decorated in bronze silks attached to the walls and ceiling, in what Jamie assumed was the London fashion. They complimented the pale russet walls and the polished floors. Everything shone in the light of the setting sun, including the maids busy lighting the dozens upon dozens of candles scattered around the long room. At one end, the sideboard that usually held their breakfast stood draped in cream tablecloths, laden with drinks and a good two dozen dishes - trifles, puddings, Jamie's favourite lemon tart, several savoury pies, some Bath buns, even a tray of sandwiches and pastries for those who did not wish to be burdened with a heavy supper. The requisite punch bowl had a corner all by itself, along with some bottles of lemonade and wine. Tyler had even supplied a number of bottles of Lonestar Ale, one of the first batches to be finished from their new distillery.

Jamie's chest filled with pride to see his husband's thoughtfulness and skill. Tyler was so smart, so good at this. He must have delighted in working his tricks in London, when the Seguins entertained as much as everyone else. Conviction grew inside Jamie to broach the subject of a fete - once this week was finished, and he could see how the chips would fall. He just hoped that Tyler would choose his new life over his old infatuation - would choose to stay, in the end, with Jamie and what he was now sure was growing between them.

Jamie had never been more grateful that they kept country hours, bringing the guests early to their door and likely sending them back out not long after midnight. It gave him less time to fret and second-guess himself. Afore long, the room was full of bodies and gay chatter, the clinking of glasses and the sound of tuning strings from the doors thrown open to the music room. Jamie circulated amongst the guests, taking the time to stop and chat with families from town and his neighbours the Staals, whose sons Jamie had never really enjoyed but the elder of whom he had a good working relationship with. He watched his fellow soldiers make a definite impression upon the families in the neighbourhood - and their children. Everyone seemed fascinated with people whom Jamie had seen in various state of undress, inebriation, and injury, and therefore held no further mysteries for him.

Mrs Sharp, resplendent in mauve silk, held court in the centre of the room along with her husband, a now-very-pregnant Amelia, Lady Seguin, and some of her husband's friends. One of the neighbourhood boys appeared very taken with Sidney; the latter was always polite and friendly, if a little reserved, but it brought Jamie no end of amusement to see the way Captain Malkin was glowering at the poor lad who had the temerity to make eyes at General Crosby. Captains Knight and Cho, on the other hand, had requested the musicians to strike up a country dance and, together with a bright-eyed Lieutenant Subban, were engaged in clearing a space in the middle of the room with brutal efficiency. General Ovechkin caused a wave of laughter to ripple through the crowd with his extravagant request that General Crosby accompany him for the first dance.

Jamie, who was accustomed to reading the mood in a field of engagement, found it this evening to be jovial and pleasant, their guests quick to delight and take advantage of such diverse company. Tyler, as usual, had been right - Jamie understood now that his neighbours had been waiting for some time for the Benns to take their rightful place in the social life of the district - including accepting their turn to entertain on occasion. Even the children had got involved; every now and again, Jamie could see Max's tawny head darting through the crowd at the head of half a dozen other small humans who treated the ballroom as their own personal playground. A breeze cooled the overheated air from the open doors to the garden, and Jamie could be sure that his grounds too would be well-trodden this evening.

He was walking the periphery of the room when Tyler found him. His eyes were bright with delight, cheeks fetchingly flushed. His mouth was red from drink and laughter. He wore a lovely bright green coat to complement Jamie's darker version, and he looked so beautiful that Jamie was helpless to smile back, reach forward to take his hand. Tyler let him, his fingers threading through Jamie's.

"Come dance with me," he cajoled. "I know you hate it, but just once."

There was no world in which Jamie would refuse him. They detoured to the sideboard for Jamie to put down his glass of ale and then Tyler drew him onto the open floor, grin infectious enough to soothe some of Jamie's natural anxiety when it came to dancing. Thankfully, Tyler had chosen a slower cotillion, where Jamie had to focus on his steps and not think too much about everyone watching them with various expressions of indulgence. Tyler's hand was hot in his, confidently bracing Jamie in the required change of footing. Jamie was surprised to discover that dancing with Tyler was not at all the chore he had found it earlier in his life. Tyler was fleet-footed and graceful, making even Jamie appear so by default. So focused was he on his husband that he found that he was disappointed when the music came to an end.

He was a little less disappointed when Captain Malkin called for a waltz, swiftly drawing General Crosby to his side. Tyler, still standing very close to Jamie, smothered a laugh in his shoulder.

"What say you? Should we indulge?" Tyler asked mischievously.

He knew full well that, while in London the waltz was danced regularly, it was still considered risque in the country. Jamie wondered whether he should interfere; but by that time, a good portion of the room was divided into couples vibrating with anticipation. It would have called more attention should Jamie forbid it, rather than let it play out.

Tyler's hand caught his; Jamie's left shoulder tingled from the warmth of Tyler's palm resting upon it. With considerable misgivings, Jamie placed his hand on Tyler's back and drew him flush. The nearness was already too much - to feel Tyler's chest pressed against his, Tyler's thighs opening slightly to let Jamie's leg between them - Jamie felt like he might go up in flames at any moment. Tyler's face was uncharacteristically solemn; his pupils appeared too wide for his eyes.

The music struck. Jamie drew him ever closer, swinging him into a turn.

Tyler danced the waltz with as much grace and aplomb as he did everything else. Jamie hardly felt like he was adding anything at all, other than holding tight as they twirled under the shifting candlelight. Nevertheless, Jamie felt short of breath, overwhelmed by Tyler's nearness, by all the things he wished he was free to do - lean closer, press his lips to Tyler's plush mouth, guide him so his back was pressed to a wall and surge forward—

His cock stirred, no doubt encouraged by the brush of their hips. Jamie wondered dizzily if Tyler could feel it; if he knew the effect he had on Jamie. If he would find it too much like Jamie was reneging on their agreement - of if, just possibly, he might like it…

Tyler drew to a stop. It took Jamie longer than it should have to realise that the music had ceased, and couples all around them were drawing apart and clapping in delight. Tyler's cheeks were pink, his mouth wet from where he had licked his lips. Everything was breaking down; the sight was too much, pushing Jamie out of control. He had never felt so wild, so close to being unable to draw back from the edge. This was not what he should be doing. He should be assessing Tyler's behaviour, not pushing hard to influence it. Tyler looked discomfited, and Jamie felt ashamed of himself. He had promised! And instead, he was this close to mauling Tyler in public. God, Tyler, would hate him then for sure. Jamie should not have let his jealousy of Mr Brown, his unseemly possessiveness of Tyler push him so far away from appropriate conduct, husband or no.

He managed no words, but did make a deep bow to Tyler before he walked away. He passed through the ballroom into the music room, then out of the open doors to the garden. As he had foreseen, couples dotted the lawn and the paths between the rosebeds. Jamie felt so alone, so lost as he leaned on the side of the house, trying to get his bearings. The chill of the night air did little to calm the torrent inside him. For so many years, Jamie had been content with his lot. He had a loving family, a beautiful home, plenty of work to occupy his mind. He had not given much thought to a partner, other than to smile and shake his head and resign himself to never finding anyone who could accommodate his strangeness. His life had been quiet but full. It had been enough.

It was nowhere near enough now. Now, he knew Tyler; knew him so well and so deeply, it sometimes felt as if he had become a part of Jamie in a way that only his family and home could lay claim. He had become the person Jamie most wished to see in the morning, and the person he could not fall asleep without at night. He was the life in Jamie's house, the spark in his days. And he was someone who relied on Jamie to not seek more than Tyler was comfortable with giving. Jamie could not break his trust; he could not force Tyler to have to choose between his peace of mind and a home over his head. He would have to pull back. Distance himself, as much as it would hurt.

If Tyler didn't do it for him, now that he had seen how little control Jamie possessed when it came to his husband.

Jamie violently did not wish to go back inside. He wanted more than anything to hide in his study and shut out the world for the rest of the night; but his staff was well-trained and conscientious, and had locked the room's French windows. Jamie would have to circle through the inside of the house, like it or not.

He kept to the outer edges of the music room once he was inside. The party had spilled through, groups of people chatting and holding glasses of punch. Jamie was almost through to the door leading into the house when a burst of laughter from the ballroom made him glance thither and his heart stopped in his chest.

Tyler was leaning against the wall close to the open doors, arms around Mr Brown. Their faces were close, foreheads pressed together. Jamie could see their profiles well; the anguish on Tyler's face reached inside him and twisted, ripping the little fragile shoot of hope that had taken root. Jamie had never felt pain like this before, not even when his parents had died. He had been too young and too numb to understand. Now, he understood all too well what he was losing. Mr Brown's hand came up to cup Tyler's cheek, thumb stroking the thin, vulnerable skin under Tyler's eye. He raised his head to press a kiss against Tyler's temple. Jamie felt it like a stab in the gut, like the hit that had torn through his hip.

"Hey, Benny, have you seen…oh."

Jamie barely acknowledged that Sharpy had come to a halt at his shoulder, turned in the direction whence Jamie's attention was so riveted.

"Jamie." A hand came to rest on Jamie's shoulder, squeezing reassuringly. "I'm sure it's nothing. They are old friends, are they not?"

Jamie was sure of nothing of the sort, but he could not say so out loud, least of all to Sharpy.

"Yes," he murmured.

Mr Brown smiled a little, which brought an echoing small smile to Tyler's mouth. Jamie could not watch anymore. He squared his shoulders and turned to Sharpy, dislodging his hand in the movement.

"I'm sorry, did you want something?"

Sharpy looked at him closely, expression concerned. Jamie could not handle it, not then - not when he felt like he would break into a million pieces at any moment. He grit his teeth and narrowed his eyes at Sharpy, daring him to comment.

"You know, I think I'll go ask Jordie," Sharpy said kindly, patting Jamie's arm. "You look a little pale; why don't you go sit down?" he added, just a touch too loud for it to be meant for Jamie alone.

Pathetically grateful for the excuse, Jamie nodded and looked away - straight into Tyler's eyes. It was as if someone had slammed Jamie into a wall, so jarring did it feel. He wrenched away, stumbling a little before he found his footing and marched out of the room, down the corridor, and into his study. He closed the door behind him with an aching finality, a fitting punctuation to the mess he had made of his life. He could not say how long he stood there with his hand pressed to the smooth wood - long enough to realise that his posture mirrored Tyler's when Jamie had first laid eyes on him. He snorted, then laughed bitterly, letting his head thump against the barrier that separated him from everyone on the other side. He had never thought he would have to erect one between himself and Tyler; the thought had seemed preposterous. They knew each other inside and out - except that Jamie apparently knew so much less about himself than he'd imagined.

He wondered - had Tyler felt like this, that first night, hopeless and helpless and full of sadness, wishing he could somehow stop feeling anything at all? How well Jamie understood him now. No wonder Tyler had gone back to Mr Brown. When you had all of this emotion laying havoc inside you, you would do anything to be with the person causing it, even if it would lead to disaster.

Some unknown time later, Jamie quietly opened the door again and crept towards the back stairs, desperate to avoid detection. It seemed that he was a coward after all, for he would postpone the inevitable confrontation for as long as he could - at least until morning, when he wouldn't feel so flayed open and raw. In their bedroom he struggled out of the coat he had put on with so much hope earlier that night, then shed the rest of his clothes over the chair by the wall for Demers to sort through tomorrow - or burn, for all that Jamie cared. Sliding into bed was double-edged torture, the wonderful mattress that Tyler had bought for him molding itself to his body where he lay while the rest of it remained an empty expanse. He supposed he should get used to it again.

As he drifted in and out of sleep through the night, one thought remained in the forefront of his barely conscious mind - Tyler never came up to their bed.

---

The next morning brought Jamie no peace or acceptance. He had slept poorly and felt laden down with doom, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Amelia was visibly distressed to see him like this; she tried several times to talk to him and make him tell her what the matter was, but Jamie could not bear to revisit the sight from last night, for all that he knew it would never leave him. Eventually he realised he could not swallow another mouthful and took his tea with him to his study instead, hoping that work will help pass the time until Tyler decided to make an appearance. Jamie was not so foolish to think that Tyler would not come for him - once Tyler had made up his mind, he did not wait to act.

Around noon, the knock came. Jamie heard it with a heavy heart. In truth, he did not think he could ever face the situation with any more equanimity than he was already braced to express. It was nobody's fault that the pieces fell as they did. Tyler had been nothing but a delight to have in Jamie's life from the start; and yes, losing him would hurt dreadfully. But that was not Tyler's fault. It was Jamie's, for wanting something he had been warned from the very inception that he could not have. If only Tyler wanted Jamie to fight for him, he would do it gladly, with tooth and claw. He might even beg. But that was not their arrangement, and so he instead he would be civil, and wish Tyler all the best, and let him go, because there was nothing else that he could do.

"Come," he called, steeling himself.

As he had anticipated, the Tyler who stepped into the room was subdued, looking at the floor more than he did at Jamie. After a moment of silence he took a deep breath, as if this conversation was as difficult for him as it was for Jamie.

Jamie put his pen down, lest he break it without realising, and folded his hands together so Tyler would not see them shaking.

"You are leaving," he guessed.

Tyler's head jerked up; distressed brown eyes locked with his before Tyler looked away and nodded.

"I am. Mr and Mrs Brown have offered to drive me to London."

"Of course," Jamie breathed. Of course it would be. He allowed himself to close his eyes, but only for a moment. He had made a promise, and now he was being called upon to keep it. He would do his duty.

"Thank you for telling me," he said, as evenly as he could make himself. "I wish you and Mr Brown every happiness imaginable. I am sorry I could not provide as much."

Tyler did not reply. When Jamie forced himself to raise his eyes to Tyler’s face, he looked stunned.

"Jamie, are—are you under the impression that I am leaving to live with the Browns?"

Jamie frowned. "I had assumed as much. I must confess, it is not a surprise. I have recently had occasion to discover that love is not so easily circumnavigated, nor pushed aside like the irrelevance one supposes it to be. I only hope that the situation will be to your continuous benefit. I know I do not have a claim on you in that way. You may rest assured that I will not make any unreasonable demands."

The words had hardly faded when Tyler took a step closer and said, "Jamie," in a tone of voice that sent Jamie's pulse racing. "I am not leaving to live in sin with Mr Brown."

Lord preserve him. Had Tyler fallen in love with someone else? When had—Jamie had not even realised! How stupid he must appear. Worse yet was the aching realisation that Tyler had managed to move on - just not in Jamie's direction. Not that it mattered who the mysterious object of Tyler's affections was. Jamie would lose him anyway.

"Right," he said. "Right. My mistake. Well, no matter. My wishes for your future happiness remain the same." His teeth ached from gritting, and his eyes stung from tears he would not allow himself to show. He wished this stilted conversation was over already so he could go lick his wounds in peace.

Tyler looked equally as miserable. "I'm so sorry I broke our agreement," he said dully. "I never meant for this to happen, especially not when I know how - after everything you've shared with me about your previous experiences with love. I just… I'm sorry, Jamie. I feel so foolish, but I cannot stay here, knowing you could never love me like that. It hurts too much."

Jamie's eyes widened and his mouth fell open. "Wait," he gasped as Tyler turned towards the door again, intent on leaving. "Tyler, wait, please. Did you say—you love me? Me?"

Tyler's shoulders twitched. He turned to face Jamie with narrowed eyes. "I do. What, pray tell, is wrong with that? Do you consider yourself in some way unworthy of being loved? Because that is the most ridiculous nonsense I have ever heard."

Jamie shook his head, still dazed. Belatedly, he stood and came around his desk, facing Tyler on equal ground. His whole body felt like it might shake apart.

"No, I. Tyler. I thought I was alone in this." He swallowed tightly. "You see, you are not the only one who broke our agreement."

He was also not the only one shaking, from what he could see of Tyler's hands. "Jamie, what are you saying?" Tyler begged, eyes searching his face.

Jamie took a step closer, then another, buoyed by the hope he had thought lost. The confession tumbled off his tongue, so much easier than he could have imagined: "I have fallen quite helplessly in love with you, and I never wish to part from you again."

Tyler's expression had started shifting as soon as Jamie spoke; by the time he had finished, Tyler looked thunderstruck, like he could not believe what he was hearing but, by God, he wished it was the truth.

"Is that—are you sure about this? Jamie, you're not just saying this because I was foolish enough to think I knew myself, when clearly I did not know anything at all?"

Jamie reached for him; Tyler met his hand halfway, twisting their fingers together.

"Not in the slightest," Jamie avowed, pressing his mouth to Tyler's knuckles. "I have been miserable these past few weeks, thinking I was ruining all between us. I did not know that what I was feeling was love when we started on this journey, but in hindsight, it has been obvious from the very first."

They stood and gazed at each other like besotted ninnyhammers, yet neither could look away.

"Do you love me, truly?" Jamie asked at last, still unable to believe he could be so incredibly fortunate.

"With all my heart," Tyler swore, and pulled on Jamie's hand until their chests were divided by a scant inch that Tyler wasted no time in closing the rest of the way.

His lips on Jamie's were a revelation, a slow, nearly worshipful touch that fast shifted into something more urgent. Jamie let out a whimper and tilted his head from pure instinct. He had never been touched that way before; his skin felt over-sensitive and too tight, his chest full of such joy as to be rendered indescribable. His free hand lifted to frame Tyler's face, fingers tracing over his cheek and the soft hairs of his beard.

It was as if the sensation knocked loose the memory that had so tortured Jamie mere minutes ago. He pulled away, thumb shifting along the underside of Tyler's eye.

"I saw you and Mr Brown last night," Jamie admitted in a whisper. "I was—it hurt so much."

Tyler's face fell, regret weighing down the corners of his mouth.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. His hands came up to hold Jamie's face in return, fingers brushing through his hair. "I had just realised I couldn't hold back what I wanted anymore. That waltz… Jamie, you have no idea what that did to me. To have you so close; to have you look at me like that - I could not bear it. I knew that you did not love me. Or, I thought I knew…" He gazed at Jamie in wonder, then leaned in to press another kiss to his mouth. "I knew Tyler would understand. He is happy for me, you know. That I have found someone else to love. Though, there is something else I need to tell you."

His smile, as Jamie had so often observed, changed his whole face, lifting it with happiness. Jamie could not stop himself from kissing him again, tracing his lips with the tip of his tongue, trying to taste it.

"What is it?" he asked, when he could bring himself to stop kissing Tyler and catch his breath.

Tyler was still smiling, eyes tracing Jamie's features. "I had no idea what love really felt like until you," he said quietly, for Jamie's ears alone. "I thought I was in love with Tyler; but Lord, Jamie, to have you in my life, to share everything with you - to have you in my arms every night, to be the person you smiled at so openly - this feeling bursting inside of me right now, I have never felt before."

Jamie could not get his hands on him fast enough. They kissed for so long, Jamie's knees felt weak. As if he knew, Tyler guided him to one of the reading chairs and gently pushed him to sit, crawling into his lap right after.

"Is this hurting?" he asked immediately, nodding at Jamie's hip. Jamie shook his head quickly - he could hardly feel anything other than immense relief, overwhelming gladness, and so much joy that he did not know could be contained in one human being.

"No," he gasped, drawing Tyler close again. "Please don't stop."

Tyler's arms wound themselves around his neck and he shifted until he was sitting astride Jamie, holding most of his weight off Jamie's lower body even as their chests pressed together shoulder to stomach. He kissed Jamie with abandon, as if his walls too had at last come crumbling down. Jamie closed his arms around his back and let him, pressing his hands to Tyler's shifting muscles and aching to feel them without Tyler's coat in the way.

"I love you so much," Tyler whispered into his mouth. Jamie's whole body tingled, to the tips of his fingers and toes.

"I love you," he returned, looking deep into Tyler's warm brown eyes. Their noses brushed, then their mouths again, slow, sweet kisses that made Jamie dizzy with want.

"If it was not broad daylight, I would drag you upstairs and not let go of you for hours," Tyler murmured in his ear. The huff of warm air made Jamie shiver; it turned into a wracking shudder as he imagined Tyler above him, pressing him into the bed, wrapping him in his arms and holding him so close with nothing between them.

"Tyler," he whispered, pressing his face to Tyler's throat. He smelled so good there, like his bayberry and sandalwood cologne and something else that was pure Tyler. It was a scent Jamie knew intimately now; it evoked images of lying tangled in bed, falling asleep or waking up, taking comfort in each other's presence. Experimentally, Jamie pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the skin, following it with a shy flick of his tongue. Tyler jerked in his arms, hips coming down enough for Jamie to discover that he was hard in his trousers. The brush of their lengths together was astonishing; Jamie gasped helplessly, arms squeezing tighter around Tyler, wanting to feel that intense sensation again.

"Jamie, stop, please," Tyler said breathlessly. Jamie immediately let his arms fall, confused when Tyler protested and pressed closer, leaving a kiss under Jamie's ear. "No, I mean. Save it for tonight?"

Jamie cautiously replaced his hold, relaxing when Tyler melted into him with a contented sigh.

"Anything you want, love," he whispered. "Anything you need."

Tyler pulled back to regard him with a pout. "What I want is for you to be naked in our bed right now," he said tartly. Jamie nearly choked at the blunt words; heat slithered down his back and lodged in his groin. Tyler huffed, one hand stroking languidly over the back of Jamie's neck. "But our house is full of people we are supposed to be hosting."

"Whose bright idea was that?" Jamie couldn't help but tease, laughing giddily when Tyler rolled his eyes.

"Yes, well. You could have dissuaded me, you know."

"Didn't know I could," said Jamie quietly.

Tyler looked down at him for a long moment before leaning in to kiss him again.

"Always," he murmured into his mouth. "Always."

---

Sharpy, predictably, was insufferable. He teased Jamie and Tyler equally for their besotted looks, enough to have his wife hit him on the arm and drag him away to someplace he could not make trouble. Jamie flushed a little, but otherwise made no move whatsoever to keep said besotted look from his face - Tyler had not let go of his hand since they came out of the study.

Lady Seguin, to Jamie's horror, spent several minutes smirking smugly at the both of them, as if she had known from the start that this would be the outcome of the whole to-do. The others did not find their behaviour unusual - but they did not know the truth about his and Tyler's courtship. Jordie alone pulled him aside as they were walking in to supper, looking delighted. When Jamie told him what had happened, Jordie embraced him soundly and told him how happy he was for them both. He sounded a little choked, which in turn set Jamie off; all in all, Jamie was a little bright-eyed when he walked into the dining room, but he couldn't stop smiling even when Toews mocked him for being a sap. He was one to talk, anyway - as if Jamie didn't notice the way his hand brushed against that of the blond Russian lieutenant in full view of the room.

"I take it we will be travelling by ourselves tomorrow?" Jamie overheard Mr Brown say to Tyler as they moved to the drawing room for tea and port. His heart filled with gladness when Tyler laughed and shrugged Mr Brown's arm off his shoulder. Mr Brown did not appear in the least upset; rather, he was smirking like the cat that ate the cream. He sent Jamie a long, considering look, before walking over to shake his hand.

"I know you'll take care of him," he said. Jamie bristled a little at the presumption that it was his place to extract such a promise of Jamie, but Mr Brown said no more, leaving Jamie with a quick nod of his head.

"Oh no," Tyler said when he saw his face as Mr Brown walked away. "What's he done now?"

Jamie sighed, letting his frustration drain away. Tyler was staying, with him. Mr Brown had no further claim on either of them.

"It was nothing," Jamie said with a smile. He could be magnanimous in victory.

Tyler hummed, unconvinced, but let Jamie link their arms and lead them towards the tea table, where he made up a cup for Jamie before taking one for himself.

"Thank you," Jamie murmured, pressing a kiss to his temple. For everything, he did not say. For staying. For choosing him. For loving him. Tyler did not reply beyond a smile, but Jamie fancied he knew what Jamie meant.

At last, the others retired abovestairs, so Jamie and Tyler could follow suit. No sooner had the door closed behind him that Jamie found himself pressed to it and kissed thoroughly enough to steal his breath.

"Wanted to do that all evening," Tyler confessed.

"Wanted to do that for weeks," Jamie countered, hands sliding down Tyler's back to his waist.

"That too," Tyler agreed, busy untying Jamie's cravat and throwing it over his shoulder. "Why so many clothes? I liked it better when all you wore was a shirt under your coat."

"We have company," Jamie argued mildly. He was enjoying this immensely. It felt good to see evidence that he was not the only one driven out of his mind with the need to touch.

"D— them all to Hell," Tyler growled, yanking Jamie's shirt collar out of the way.

At last, Jamie's neck was bare. Tyler wasted no time fitting his mouth to it, kissing down to Jamie's scarred collarbone where he settled in to trace the dappled skin with his tongue.

"Tyler," Jamie choked. He had no idea that place was so sensitive.

"Wanted to do that since the first time I saw you with your shirt open."

That had been during their journey to Devonshire.

"That long?" Jamie asked wonderingly.

"Longer," Tyler moaned, coming back up to lick into Jamie's mouth. "I didn't want to fall in love again. That didn't mean I was blind."

Something cold shivered down Jamie's spine. He leaned away, ignoring Tyler's whine when his attempt to kiss Jamie again was foiled.

"Do you not want to be?" Jamie asked in a small voice. "In love with me."

Tyler's eyes widened; he shook his head emphatically. "Jamie, no. This… what lies between us is so much more than I thought I could have. You are the most wonderful man I know. I wouldn't trade it for the world."

Jamie swallowed. "Good. Because I know what I said before, but I do not know if I could ever let you go."

Tyler pressed closer, aligning their bodies from chin to toe. "Don't," he whispered. "Don't let me go."

Jamie crushed his arms around him, burying his face in Tyler's neck again. He rather thought this was becoming his favourite place to be.

It was as if that moment slowed time around them. Tyler resumed disrobing him, but his gestures lingered now, brushing against uncovered skin until Jamie was panting. His stomach twitched hard when Tyler reached down to unfasten his trousers and let them pool to the ground. His fingers gathered the edges of Jamie's long shirt and traced up, baring him to Tyler's eyes until it was drawn all the way over his head.

"You are so beautiful," Tyler breathed, fingers stroking over Jamie's shoulders and down his side. His thumb passed over Jamie's scarred hip, so gentle it nearly brought tears to Jamie's eyes. "So big, and solid, and mine."

Jamie shuddered, hard. He felt rooted to the spot, like a rabbit with a fox bearing down on him - except that he knew Tyler would never hurt him. He might kill him from desire 'ere long, however.

"Please," he whispered, reaching up to push Tyler's coat off his shoulders. Tyler moved with him, helping him take away the last physical barrier between their bodies. Tyler was a work of art that Jamie had never seen in its entirety. His chest and abdomen were chiseled as if from marble, but warm and giving to the touch. Together, they slid Tyler's trousers off his hips. Jamie's eyes hungrily rove over what was uncovered - Tyler's length full and firm, rising away from his groin. Jamie's mouth watered. What if he were allowed to taste it? Was that something he could do?

Suddenly, he felt shy and inadequate in his inexperience. He had never done this before, while Tyler had many times, with people so much less awkward than Jamie. He didn't realise he was twisting his hands together nervously until Tyler's slid over them and held them close.

"We can stop," Tyler said gently.

Jamie had never wanted anything less in his life.

"Please don't," he begged. "I'm sorry. I don't know what to do. I don't know what is allowed."

Tyler lifted one hand to tip Jamie's face into a position to be kissed. Jamie fell into it gratefully. This, at least, he knew how to do - thanks to Tyler.

"Everything is allowed," Tyler said, gentle but firm. "Anything you want to do. Anything you don't want to do. You have but to say."

Jamie swallowed. "Can I touch you?"

In answer, Tyler stepped out of his trousers and towards Jamie, close enough for their skin to touch everywhere. Jamie's eyelids fluttered. It all felt so good.

"Please touch me," Tyler breathed.

Jamie spent a long time filling his hands with Tyler's body, the curve of his shoulders, his strong arms, the dip of his hips. In the meantime, Tyler pressed against him and resumed dragging his mouth over every inch of Jamie that he could reach. It all felt different, Jamie was discovering. Some places Tyler kissed just felt nice, while others - Jamie was glad their room was so remote, for he could not for the life of him stop the noises coming out of his mouth. He was so aroused; all of his skin felt like one highly sensitive spot primed to be explored. Greatly daring, he slid his hands lower, curving them around the globes of Tyler's buttocks. Tyler tensed all over before his mouth opened on Jamie's collarbone and sucked.

"Oh," Jamie moaned. The sensation was exquisite, lodging straight into his groin. "Oh, Tyler."

"Lord above," Tyler murmured, stepping back. "On the bed," he bid him, hands tracking Jamie's movements. "Lie down."

Jamie did as he was asked, relaxing into the cool sheets. Tyler stood staring at him for a long moment, eyes very dark as they took Jamie in from head to toe. Just when Jamie was ready to start squirming, Tyler climbed in after him, kneeling above Jamie and leaning down for a kiss that made Jamie's insides catch fire.

"Please," Jamie heard himself gasp. "Please, I need you."

"What do you need, dearest?" Tyler's voice was wrecked, gone low and rasping. "Tell me."

For a long time, Jamie had not let himself think about the things he wanted from Tyler. Then, for a little while, his control had lapsed and he had imagined in such explicit details what he would have Tyler do, if only he were willing. Well, he was now; he was here, in bed with Jamie, waiting on his command. It was intoxicating.

"Want you to fill me," Jamie whispered shyly. Tyler sucked in a shocked breath, pulling his lip between his teeth. "If that's, if you want."

"Jamie," Tyler groaned. "God, you have no idea how much I want."

"Truly?" It made Jamie ache to look up at Tyler, a sweet pain behind his ribs, embarrassed but thrilled at the same time.

"Yes." It came out as a near-sob; Tyler shifted position, one knee pushing between Jamie's, one hand palming Jamie's thigh, Tyler's thumb tracing higher until all Jamie wanted to do was open his legs. "You drive me to distraction. Are you sure?"

"Please," Jamie said. "Just… Tyler, please."

"I have you, darling," Tyler murmured, leaning down on one elbow to kiss Jamie deeply.

Jamie felt so hot, so desperate. His skin was damp with sweat; everywhere Tyler touched him was like a brand marking him with belonging. It was incredible. Jamie did not know how it could get any better - then Tyler's thumb reached the crease of his groin and pressed between his legs, and a shocked moan punched out of him. If Tyler touched his cock, Jamie would climax on the spot.

"Easy, my love, easy," Tyler crooned, pushing one of Jamie's legs up towards his belly.

It opened Jamie to Tyler's gaze, the place no one had seen before. Tyler's eyes were wide and hungry, the only thing that stopped Jamie from trying to cover himself. Tyler pressed a kiss to the side of Jamie's knee and, as if it was a lever, it made Jamie's body go molten and loose.

"Just like that, darling," Tyler said softly. He reached for the nightstand on his side of the bed, opening the bottom drawer. He withdrew a bottle of some kind of oil, warming it in his hands.

"What is that?" Jamie asked curiously. He felt like he was drifting, still aroused but in a deeper, more languid way - not so desperate to finish, like he could take his time and they could get there together.

"Almond oil," Tyler said, flicking the cap. The room immediately filled with the distinctive smell. "I… I hoped."

Jamie rested his foot on the bed and reached for Tyler's hand, drawing it up to his mouth to kiss his fingers. "I love you," he said, just to see the smile grow on Tyler's face.

"Going to make you feel so good, my sweet," Tyler promised, dropping a swift kiss to Jamie's mouth before he poured some oil on his fingers and reached lower.

The first touch to that spot was a bit of a shock. It did not feel like this when Jamie cleaned himself! Perhaps it was Tyler's nimble fingers pressing lightly against his opening, teasing at the edges. The shock receded, leaving behind a growing warmth.

"Come on," Jamie said impatiently, shifting into it. Tyler smirked and pressed harder, slipping the tip of one finger inside him.

"God, yes," Jamie groaned. It was nothing, but it felt good. He wanted to know how much better it would feel when Tyler put his whole finger inside him. "Tyler," he grumbled, trying to flex his hips closer.

"Patience is a virtue," Tyler sing-songed, giggling when Jamie glared at him. "Fine, my goodness. Should have known you'd never take anything lying down."

Jamie looked down his body, flat on his back, and raised one speaking eyebrow at his husband. Tyler rolled his eyes and suddenly, Jamie had to throw his head back and try to breathe, because he felt so full, something pressing him open, finding its way inside Jamie's body. It felt incredible, but knowing it was Tyler doing it to him made it even better.

"You're doing so well, Jamie," Tyler's rough voice told him. "How does it feel?"

"Wonderful," Jamie breathed. His inner walls flexed, wanting to get more of that feeling inside him. "Tyler, I…" Words were too much to form just then. He just… He had to…

"I know, sweetheart." The digit withdrew, only to come back with more pressure, more fullness. "Lord, Jamie, you are a natural."

"Wouldn't know," Jamie managed, hungry for more of that exquisite pressure.

"Trust me, you're perfect."

There was a growl in Tyler's voice that was playing havoc with Jamie's insides. He wanted more, now.

"D— it, Tyler, will you just—" He made an inarticulate noise of exasperation and seriously thought about flipping them over, but he was quite sure Tyler would glare at him and make him lie back down.

"Is this what you want?" There were three fingers inside him, Jamie just knew, and Tyler was doing something, spreading them out, spreading Jamie open, and he would go out of his mind with lust if Tyler didn't—

"I can't believe how easy you are for me," Tyler whispered, feverish, as he stretched up to kiss Jamie like he wanted to climb inside him. "I can't believe how well you take it, and you haven't ever—"

He groaned like it was punched out of him. The sound made Jamie feel victorious, because he was taking Tyler apart and he wasn't even inside him yet.

"Come on," he murmured against his mouth. "Come on, dearest, please, fill me up."

Tyler swore in French, which Jamie had never heard him do before. He sounded desperate, as desperate as Jamie for them to take it to the next step. He pulled away, taking his fingers out to reach for the oil again. Jamie decided then and there that he hated not having Tyler inside him, didn't know how he would survive with the knowledge of what could be and what he didn't have for vast, long stretches of the day. Tyler slicked his cock with shaking hands, which he wiped on the bedspread before kneeling between Jamie's legs and lifting one of them to curl against his waist. His left hand stroked Jamie's mangled hip gently, then pinned it in place so it wasn't jarred too hard. With the other, he took hold of his cock and pressed it slowly inside.

Jamie felt like he was dying. His lungs had seized, his skin felt hot enough to split apart, and there was inexorable pressure pushing his body open, making space for Tyler to fit inside him. It was nothing like Jamie had imagined, and everything he couldn't live without ever again.

"Jamie," Tyler said, voice strangled, "Jamie, speak to me. Are you—is it good? Do you want to stop?"

"If you stop, I will kill you in cold blood," Jamie rumbled. He felt amazing. Everything was brighter, warmer, better. He flexed his leg, tilted his hips, and moaned as Tyler slid all the way inside him. "I never knew," he whispered. His eyes felt wet. "I didn't—Tyler, I didn't know."

Tyler kissed him, breath shivering between their mouths. "I love you," he said, biting the words into Jamie's lips. Jamie moaned again, letting go of the coverlet in which his hands were fisted and bringing them up to clutch Tyler's shoulder, the back of his head.

"You feel so good," he slurred. "Come on. Ride me."

Tyler took him at his word, bracing one elbow by Jamie's shoulder and starting up a smooth rhythm that slid him in and out of Jamie's body. High-pitched whimpers fell from Jamie's mouth; his eyes kept rolling back into his head. His cock felt hard to bursting, as if pleasure was pumping into it with every thrust. Then Tyler pulled back a little, shifted Jamie even more open, and slammed inside again. Jamie yelled as a shock of pleasure rushed through his limbs and straight into his cock.

"Tyler," he moaned, probably too loudly, but he didn't care, could not care when his back was arching and his cock was pulsing its climax all over his front. Everything had gone dark and hot and full of melting pleasure, and still Tyler pushed inside him, frantic now, chasing his own release.

"Come on," Jamie heard himself say. "Come on, Tyler, inside me, mark me up, all yours."

Tyler let out a strangled moan and jerked in him as far as he could go. Jamie felt the wet flush of his finish so deep, it made his body tighten again.

"Oh God," Tyler whimpered, shaking so much that it jolted Jamie when he collapsed on top of him. "Oh my God."

Full of a delicious languor, Jamie raised his arms enough to wrap around Tyler's back, one of his hands carding through his damp hair. Tyler was mouthing kisses over his throat, still breathing hard. Jamie thought he could lie there forever, until the world stopped turning.

"Are you well?" Tyler asked. He sounded exhausted. One of his hands was weakly petting Jamie's side.

"Never felt better," Jamie replied. He was so tired, and felt so good. "Gonna sleep, I think."

Tyler huffed a laugh, making Jamie shiver. "Wrung you out, eh?"

Jamie grinned. "Don't let it go to your head," he advised.

"Too late."

Tyler was grinning too when he kissed him, drinking Jamie's gasp when he separated their bodies. He manhandled him into their usual position, with Tyler curled around Jamie's hip and clinging to him with all of his limbs. It was even more comfortable than usual. Jamie's lungs were saturated with their mingled scents; his skin was soaking Tyler's warmth, and at long last Jamie could curl an arm around Tyler and twine his fingers in his hair without feeling like he was taking something that didn't belong to him.

"Goodnight, my love," he murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of Tyler's head.

His only reply was a soft snore. Tyler was dead to the world.

"'Wrung me out', my arse," Jamie whispered, grinning like a halfwit. He would be sure to mention to Tyler tomorrow how he had been the one succumbing to exhaustion after their lovemaking. See what Tyler made of that.

But for now, he felt too loose and too warm and too content to do anything but follow his husband into sleep.

---

EPILOGUE

Jamie stood by the window, watching wordlessly as Tyler crept closer to Amelia's bed. She observed him with amusement; beside her pillow, Jordie was biting his lip so as not to laugh.

"Come hold her," Amelia said, beckoning Tyler with a nod of her head.

Tyler looked at her, looked at Jordie, even looked at Jamie before his eyes finally dropped to the bundle in Amelia's arms.

"I washed my hands with the kitchen soap," he said nervously. Jamie wondered if he had been as scared to hold his own sisters - but then he had been quite young when they were born.

"Excellent," Amelia said soothingly. "Now come here. Put your arms like this."

Finally, Jordie took his daughter out of her mother's arms and put her in Tyler's, adjusting his hold. Tyler looked terrified.

"She isn't going to break, dear," Amelia said, tired but happy.

"I don't know that," Tyler protested. He looked too afraid to move.

Amelia lay down with a sigh, shifting to get comfortable. It hadn't been a hard birth, according to the midwife, but it had still taken it out of her, as those things were wont to do. Jordie moved lower on the bed to help his wife get settled. Finding himself in the way, Tyler took a cautious step back, then another, until he turned and walked all the way to Jamie's side. They stood shoulder to shoulder looking down at the tiny red face.

"She looks angry," Tyler whispered. Jamie bit back a snort.

"They all do when they've just been born," he advised. "Give her a few weeks, then we'll be able to see her true face."

She was asleep, thank goodness. Jamie was not sure that Tyler was ready to handle a wailing infant just yet - though he would get used to it like the rest of them, and fast, if Jamie's memory of the last two times served him right.

"She'll be old enough to take out just in time for the fete," Jordie said from behind them.

Jamie looked at Tyler; the two of them shared a conspiratorial smile. The planning stage of the event was in full swing, and Jamie had been right - Tyler was in his element, and happy as a duck in a pond.

"What are you going to call her?" he asked his brother while keeping one eye on the love of his life holding their new niece.

"We're thinking Helena."

"Good name," Tyler murmured. As if she had heard, the baby woke up and batted her arms at his face. Tyler's smile brightened the whole room. "Hello, Helena. I'm your uncle Tyler."

"Besotted," Jordie sniffed. Jamie arched an eyebrow at him, and the two brothers grinned at each other. "Yes, yes," Jordie conceded, put-upon. What a ninnyhammer. As if he was not in thrall of his daughter already.

Just then, little Helena proved she was a Benn through and through, with the impressive lung capacity that ran in the family. Tyler was quick to hand her over to her father, slapping Jamie's arm when he laughed at him.

"Now go away," Amelia said imperiously. "I have to feed her."

They did not wait to be told twice. It was early in the day yet, just after lunch; their routine had been set for some time around planning the festival. It had only been somewhat disturbed for the past couple of days because of the birth, so Jamie followed his husband down the stairs and into Tyler's study next to his own. It looked like a war room right now, maps and lists taking up every available flat surface. Johns, their steward, was bent at the waist with his nose in one of them, tracing a path only he could follow. He straightened quickly when he heard them come in and cleared his throat.

"My Lord Tyler, we should talk about the stalls."

Jamie heaved a theatrical sigh. "I shall leave you to it, then."

Before he could step too far out of reach, one of Tyler's hands shot forward to curl in the lapel of his coat and Jamie found himself dragged forward for a thorough kiss. Behind them there was a strangled noise as Johns quickly turned around, no doubt going bright red. Tyler enjoyed being the cause of that. Jamie just enjoyed Tyler being happy.

"Go check on the distillery," Tyler directed imperiously once he was done making Jamie lose all coherent thought. "I have grand plans for this batch."

"Yes, my General," Jamie said, saluting not half as jokingly as he pretended.

"Good," Tyler said smugly. "And don't you forget it."