Meredith Rodney McKay, Lord of McKay Manor, owner of a fine estate, a substantial fortune, and an even more impressive mind, had recently come to appreciate the value of a brisk walk across the moors. He found the exercise and fresh air cleared cobwebs from his brain, allowing him to make greater insights in his scientific endeavors. Also, the walk could be reported to his good friend and doctor, Carson Beckett, guaranteeing at least a few days' respite from being nagged about his tendency to work late in the night and eat infrequently and voraciously.
The greatest advantage though, was that walking allowed him a peaceful time away from his sister and her daughter. Jeannie had requested to move back home with her husband and daughter, so that her husband would have adequate time to write a literary masterpiece. The two siblings hadn't been close as children, given to bickering more than bonding, but his grandfather had drilled into Rodney the concept of family obligation and responsibilities. Though he wanted to say no, his grandfather's teachings and the anticipation of Jeannie's badgering wouldn't let him. Foolishly, he'd assumed that the spaciousness of the manor meant that he would interact with his relations only occasionally at meals. He hadn't realized that both of the ladies would want his regular attention, Jeannie to lecture him on his life and activities, and little Madison demanding playtime.
Indeed, to his utter astonishment, Rodney was becoming more and more fond of his brother-in-law Kaleb, even though he found his passion for literature ridiculous. Kaleb understood the importance of solitude and saw little need to impose his presence upon Rodney. Instead, his days were well occupied scribbling away in one of the bedrooms that had been converted to a study for him.
The path through the moors sloped upwards, and Rodney felt the gentle stretch in his calves, as he heard an odd yowling noise. It sounded angry and scary, and he froze momentarily, contemplating the wisdom of fleeing. He looked around for the house cats that often followed him on his walks. Both Thomas and Galileo were there, several paces behind him. Thomas was licking at one white paw, as if completely unconcerned. Galileo was looking off to the side, slowly blinking his big green eyes. Neither appeared to be disturbed by the sound, only entrenched in their pretense that they weren't following him in the manner of a hound. Taking comfort from their easy manner and the lack of further noise, Rodney let his curiosity drive him on. He had the unfortunate habit of surrendering to his desire to know and understand anything unusual, which had resulted in more than one mishap during his childhood and the occasional embarrassment as an adult.
The path leveled out again and he saw a large tan-colored cat crouched on a pile of rocks, with a crumpled figure beneath it on the ground. The sight of the big cat made him freeze again. The animal's teeth and claws were enormous and sharp, and could rend a man to death with great ease, and his green eyes were staring at Rodney. Finding himself paralyzed, he waited for it to spring, unable to move, but with a twitch of its tail and another yowling noise, it turned away, springing off the pile of rocks and running away across the moor, rapidly disappearing from view.
Relief expelled the breath from his lungs, and he bent over, hands on his knees, shaking. Galileo came over and brushed against his leg, and Rodney patted him absently. "Yes, kitty. I'm fine." Then he moved toward the crumpled figure, afraid he would find a corpse. Kneeling, he ran his hands over the man's back and legs, looking for wounds, but finding only a bump at the back of his skull, in the midst of his dark and very messy hair. Trying to be gentle, he straightened the man's legs and rolled him over.
Lying on the ground had left dirt on his face and clothes, but not enough to disguise his handsomeness, or that his clothes were of excellent quality. Rodney paid very little attention to fashion, but he was sure his sister would find the design of the black jacket and long trousers and gray waistcoat pleasing.
"Sir?" he asked, tapping lightly on one cheek, conscious that he had been touching a complete stranger with familiarity, and uncomfortably aware that he would have enjoyed it under better circumstances. Jeannie nagged at him to find a wife, but Rodney was well aware that the reasons he always babbled nonsensically with the fairer sex were diverse and complicated. Actually, not that he did all that well with the masculine sex either, being of a somewhat impatient nature, but he did feel more comfortable in their presence. And he was certainly more interested in capturing their attention.
The man didn't wake. Reluctant to leave him to seek assistance, Rodney pulled out his hip flask, and cupping the man's head in one hand, tilted it back, pouring a few drops of Scotch malt whisky between his parted lips. The stranger coughed and curled to the side.
"Where am I?" he asked, with an accent that was oddly flat. His eyes were as beautiful and as green as the strange cat's, though with more dark flecks in their depths. His resemblance to a cat was also evident in the shape of his ears, which were oddly pointed.
"You're on the moors."
Whatever caused his unconsciousness must have created a problem with his comprehension. "Yes, the moors. There is a bump on the back of your head and an enormous cat was preparing to make you his meal."
"Yes, a very large cat," Rodney said, trying to stifle his impatience, wondering if it was only the blow to the head that had injured the man's comprehensive abilities, or if he was normally so slow. It would be a shame if his intellect failed to match his appearance, but not uncommon. Intelligence was a much rarer trait than physical attractiveness. "The type normally found in zoological exhibitions."
"Did you chase it off for me?"
"Well - no. It ran off when I approached. Undoubtedly my arrival scared it, and that's what caused it to flee." Though it had looked more irritated than frightened, not that Rodney saw any reason to admit that fact.
The man licked his lips several times, the gesture making Rodney notice their quite attractive shape, full and soft. "My throat is dry."
Rodney offered his flask. "I have only Scotch."
"Thank you." He took a small sip, seeming to lick it over his chapped lips more than swallow it. The sight of his pink tongue flashing over his lips fascinated Rodney. "I'm on the moors, you said?"
"Yes." Please let it be the blow.
"Why are you on the moors? How should I know? I may be a genius, but I have never pretended to mind reading or those other powers charlatans claim to have."
"Oh," the man said with obvious disappointment. "You don't know me then?"
"Of course not. You're a complete stranger to me. Do you think you know me?"
"I don't know. I don't remember anything. My name or why I'm here. I was hoping you could tell me."
"Aye, amnesia," Carson said, his Scottish brogue toned down for the stranger's benefit. "It's not uncommon after a blow to the head. In most cases like this, your memory will return on its own, but it may take some time."
The door suddenly swung open, Rodney's sister Jeannie entering with a loaded tea tray, which she placed on top of the dresser.
"Jeannie!" Rodney exclaimed, scandalized by her boldness in entering a bedroom of a partially dressed man. The stranger began fumbling with his shirt, redoing the buttons to cover his chest, which was pleasantly hairy, and which Rodney had tried to not stare at during Carson's examination. The stranger half-rose, as if realizing he shouldn't be sitting on a bed in the presence of a lady.
"I am married, Meredith," Jeannie said, beginning to pour a cup of tea. "I am familiar with the sight of a man's chest. And our mystery guest looked like he could use some sustenance. Sugar and milk?" she asked him.
"I don't know how I like my tea."
Jeannie quickly covered her surprise by adding a generous measure of cream and two lumps of sugar. "This is how Meredith likes it."
The man sank back to the bed as he accepted the tea, his long fingers curling around the fragile China cup. "I thought your name was Rodney?" he asked before drinking.
Shadow leaped onto the bed, beginning to knead the man's thigh. He'd probably scented the cream and was hoping for a taste.
"Meredith Rodney McKay, of McKay Manor. I prefer Rodney." He glared at his sister, not that she took any notice. She never did, often displaying an almost masculine ability to ignore other people's feelings.
The man curled his fingers into Shadow's black ruff, skritching him under the chin. "It's a little sweet."
"A little extra sugar will be good for you," Carson said, packing his instruments into his bag. "Though I wouldn't advise it as a normal practice." He gave Rodney's waist a pointed look, to which Rodney returned a glare. Rodney seemed to spend an unnatural amount of his time glaring at the people in his life.
"I can't pay you. I don't seem to have any money on me." The stranger took his hand away from petting Shadow to pat absently at his trouser pockets.
"Don't worry yourself about it. I'll come see you again in a few days to check on your recovery."
"Come see him? See him where?" Rodney asked, pouring himself a cup of tea, defiantly adding cream and sugar.
"Here, Rodney," and "Here, Meredith," echoed together, Carson and Jeannie sharing a mutual look of exasperation. "You can't let him leave!" Jeannie added. "He doesn't know who he is or where he needs to go."
"Yes, I do understand the concept of amnesia," Rodney said, "But he can't stay here. Surely he should stay with you, Carson? He's ill!"
"I don't have room for him in my lodging, Rodney, and he doesn't need to be in hospital."
Jeannie put her hands on her curvaceous hips. "We have plenty of space."
"Yes, but – " Rodney stopped, aware from Carson and Jeannie's expressions that he was being particularly ill-mannered. The stranger was staring at his cup of tea, his face down, giving Rodney an excellent view of his rather wild yet exceedingly attractive hair. Rodney's fingers itched to run through that disordered mop. Or curl up against his thigh, in Shadow's place. The stranger was a danger to his restraint.
"I can leave," the stranger said. "I should leave. You don't have any reason to offer me hospitality."
Heaving out an exasperated sigh, Rodney surrendered to the demand behind his sister's fierce stare. "No, of course, you must stay. Even with Jeannie and her family here, there are plenty of spare bedrooms."
"Jeannie and her family? You aren't man and wife?"
"Oh God no," Rodney contradicted him assumption instantly. Jeannie was irritating enough as a temporary guest. She'd drive him mad as his wife. "This is my sister, Jeannie Miller."
"My husband Kaleb, my daughter Madison, and I are staying with Meredith temporarily." Evidently pleased by Rodney's capitulation, Jeannie's expression softened and she offered the stranger the plate of sandwiches. "You must be hungry."
"Thank you." The stranger took a cucumber sandwich, nibbling it cautiously.
Closing his bag, Carson sat too. "Now we need something to call him, for my patient notes."
"Not Albert or Edward," Rodney stated firmly. "What?" he snapped at Jeannie, who was glaring at him. Maybe he spent an unnatural amount of his time glaring at the people in his life because they so often glared at him. "We've had quite enough discussions about the new King. You'd think a monarch had never died before."
"Queen Victoria ruled for 64 years, Meredith. You should have more respect for her and her son. He has a very difficult task ahead of him."
"I have this," the stranger offered, popping the rest of the sandwich in his mouth to pull out a handkerchief with the initials 'JS.' "James? John? Joshua?"
"You look like a James," Jeannie announced decisively.
"He looks like a James as much as I look like a Meredith," Rodney said sourly. "Does it have to be a biblical name?"
"Meredith! There's nothing wrong with names from the Bible."
"Yes, says the woman who named her daughter Madison. Is that from the Old Testament or the New?"
"How about Jay?" the stranger suggested, stroking his hand down Shadow's sleek back. He seemed a very tactile person, and definitely one with an appreciation for feline creatures. "That seems fine."
"Aye, he might as well name himself. And it may be a nickname that he's used to hearing," Carson said soothingly.
Rodney and Jeannie gave a last little glare at each other, before Jeannie turned to their visitor, saying, "Yes, very well. Jay seems like a nice name. Do you wish more to eat? Try the chicken sandwich. They're excellent."
"Yes, please," Jay said, taking one of the other small sandwiches from the plate, and Jeannie beamed at him. She always seemed to enjoy feeding everyone except Rodney, who she insisted ate quite enough.
"I should be going. Send word if he has any setback."
"I'll walk you out," Rodney said, and saw Carson to the door, pleased to have the excuse to escape from Jay's distracting company and his annoying sister.
"I'll stop by in a few days to check on him, but send me a message if you need me to drop by earlier."
"Are you sure he shouldn't be under your care?" Rodney lamented as his butler Richard opened the door for Carson.
"Aye, Rodney, I'm sure," Carson affirmed with great emphasis before nodding politely to Richard and walking out the doorway.
"Do I understand our visitor will be staying?" Richard asked, shutting the door behind Carson. Rodney never knew how Richard managed to be exactly where he was needed, but was grateful for that talent.
"Yes." Rodney sighed, heading to his den. "Until his memory returns or my sister is satisfied he is well enough to leave. We're calling him Jay for now. Let Cook know please." Thank the Lord that his staff were so exceedingly well-organized and competent. They would make all the adjustments necessary to take care of another person. Extra food, or whatever, and Richard would explain it all to Rodney at the end of the month when he presented the expenses to add to the household accounts.
"Hmm?" Rodney sat at his desk, taking up his notes for his new paper, conscious that Richard had followed him and was hovering in the doorway.
"Should I see about additional clothes for our guest?"
"Oh, yes." Rodney waved one hand. "Please do."
"Very well." After a moment, Richard coughed.
"Do I understand that Madam Jeannie is alone with Mister Jay in his room?"
"Oh." Rodney looked up from his notes, which were far more interesting than his sister's reputation, especially as she should not have entered the stranger's room in the first place. It would serve her right if a scandal brewed around her indecent actions. Still, it would involve Jay too, and Rodney had no wish to cause him harm. "Yes, perhaps you can suggest to Kaleb or Madison that they might join her. Let me know if neither is available." Madison might not qualify as an adequate chaperone in most people's eyes, but her presence should satisfy the proprieties.
"Very well, my lord." Richard disappeared, leaving Rodney to his reading, which he managed all afternoon without interruption. The fact that Rodney had to read the same passages several times because his mind kept wandering to his guest was something he chose to ignore.
The evening went exceedingly well, though it didn't alleviate Rodney's concern that the newest member of his household was a dangerous distraction. Since Jeannie and Kaleb espoused unusual ideas regarding how their child should be raised, Madison shared dinner with them every night. Rodney had given up on suggesting that she could eat in the nursery, as he and Jeannie had done when children. The three Millers were fascinated by Jay's circumstances, especially Madison, who seemed to regard his sudden arrival and amnesia as a story akin to a fairytale. Jay's unusual accent led Kaleb to speculate that he was a colonial, but while mentions of America seemed familiar to him, they didn't resurrect any personal memories.
Rodney found himself admiring the visual of his guest, intently listening, the candlelight softening his edges and making his green eyes sparkle with curiosity. He held his utensils oddly, which validated the colonial idea, but otherwise his manners were polite, if a bit casual, and not what Rodney might have expected from an American.
"But I haven't thanked my host for rescuing me from the dreaded cat," Jay said, raising his wine glass toward Rodney.
The toast made Rodney blush, even as he wondered if Jay's tone was teasing or mocking. He often had difficulty distinguishing between the two.
"The dreaded cat? What cat?" Jeannie asked. "Not the McKay Moor Cat?"
He should have known she would instantly latch onto that old story. Rodney sighed. "It was a large tan-colored cat, Jeannie. There is no McKay Moor Cat."
"The McKay Moor Cat is a fascinating legend, Rodney," Kaleb inserted. "I've done some research on it, hoping that I might use it in my novel."
"Yes, legend. As in not true. As in most likely invented by our grandfather to give us a connection to the moors."
Madison's eyes were bright with curiosity. "What is the McKay Moor Cat, Daddy?"
"The McKay Moor Cat – " Jeannie and Rodney started at the same time, because he felt he should explain since it was a McKay cat, not a Miller, but Rodney sighed and waved his hand, deferring to her. Let her be the one to fill her child's head with gobbledygook.
"The McKay Moor Cat is a cat that appears at a time of a great crisis in the McKay family. Father saw it only days before his death, you know he did," she added sharply to Rodney.
"Father saw a great many things before his death, most of them colored by too many glasses of port." It was a fortunate circumstance of their lives that their grandfather had viewed his son's weaknesses with an objective hard-headedness and ensured that his son had limited access to his inheritance. 'At least if you fritter it all away on your scientific gewgaws and books, you might discover something useful, something that'll make some money. Your father'll drink it away,' he'd told Rodney bluntly, before explaining the terms of his final will.
"Whether it was the McKay Moor Cat or not, how did you save Jay from it?" Kaleb asked. Rodney had noticed his tendency to insert distracting questions in the midst of their squabbling and appreciated it, although he would have preferred if Kaleb had simply found a way to control Jeannie.
"I found him on the path through the moors. There was a large cat over him, preparing to strike. It ran away at my approach." He would have liked to sound more heroic, but the more he said, the more he would encourage Jeannie to start foretelling gloom and doom. For such an intelligent woman, she had the unfortunate tendency shared by too many people to believe in fanciful nonsense without scientific proof.
"Then it must mean that you are important to the McKay family," Jeannie said decisively. "For I cannot see you as an enemy, so surely you will become a great friend. The cat wished to make sure that Meredith found you and brought you to us."
Jay appeared momentarily uncertain, as if not quite sure how to handle his sudden status elevation from guest to great friend, then raised his glass again. "Then I thank both my host and the cat."
Rodney clinked his glass to Jay's and drank deeply. At least half of the toast was sensible.
As he undressed for bed, Rodney realized that none of his cats were in the bedroom. It wasn't abnormal for one of them to be adventuring on some nightly pursuit, but for him to be completely alone was decidedly odd.
He donned his blue flannel robe over his white cotton nightshirt, pulling the belt tight, and picked up a candle, venturing into the hallway, calling, "Kitty, kitty, kitty," softly. Catching the flash of a tail entering the next room, he poked at the door with one finger, encouraging it to swing silently open. Jay was sleeping already. His shoulders were bare, making Rodney wonder with indecent excitement if he was unclothed. Surely Richard would have found him a nightgown?
The cats were arranged all over the bed, the last one leaping up to join his fellows. They would pin Jay down, and make it difficult for him to turn over while sleeping. Rodney could hear the purring that would normally lull him to sleep. "Traitors," he hissed resentfully, though he knew he would join them if he could.
Rodney's feelings were unsettled as he descended to breakfast to discover Jay already present. He stood as Rodney entered, looking flustered to be caught eating before his host, but Rodney waved him to sit down. He'd never believed in formality where such essentials as eating were concerned, though he was still a bit miffed to have lost all of his bed warmers. "Please, continue eating."
With a shy smile, Jay sat. "I seem to be an early riser. I took a long walk at sunrise and was starving."
Taking a better look at his guest, Rodney ordered peremptorily, "Stand up again," which Jay did hesitantly.
"Don't call me sir. Rodney is fine. And what are you wearing?"
Jay plucked at the plain brown jacket, waistcoat and breeches. "Your butler found these for me. I believe the maid took them in some."
"Yes, yes, Richard mentioned he would find you clothes. But – " Rodney's hands flailed as words failed him. The outfit was simple, ordinary, boring, and had probably been stored in the attic since his grandfather bought the manor from the Sheppards. It didn't actually detract from Jay's appearance, because nothing could, but it did make him resemble a precious jewel discarded on a bale of hay. An emerald, to reflect his eyes.
Jay frowned, confused. "What?"
"Never mind." Rodney stomped over to the side table, serving himself eggs, ham and toast. "We'll go to the tailor in the village after breakfast. He can make you some more appropriate clothes."
"I don't have any money. I can't pay for more clothes."
Settling at the table, Rodney answered, "I'll cover the expense." He tucked into his food.
"I don't know who I am, or what kind of clothes I should be wearing for my place in life."
"Ridiculous. You were wearing gentleman's clothes when I found you. Besides, you're a colonial. You think everyone is equal, so why shouldn't you wear gentlemen's clothes?"
A corner of Jay's mouth quirked, like he found Rodney's comment funny. "I don't remember being American, but I'm pretty sure that believing in equality as a concept and everyone being equal are two different things."
"Ha! But you don't know." Rodney stabbed his fork toward him. "So you will listen to me and we'll go into the village after breakfast. I won't accept a negative answer."
Jay toyed with his silverware. "Thank you," he said finally. "I'll repay you as soon as I can."
They managed to escape the manor without seeing any of the Millers. The stable boy had two horses saddled and waiting, and Rodney wondered if he should have asked for the carriage instead, not sure if Jay would remember how to ride. His concern was allayed by Jay's easy smile and the way he stroked his fingers over the animal's nose, as he crooned, "Oh, you are beautiful, aren't you?"
The sentiment seemed a bit absurd. Rodney had always bought good quality animals, but sturdy ones, not gorgeous. Still, it boded well that Jay would be comfortable riding.
"What's his name?"
"Considering his color, that's a perfect name."
"You've received an education then," Rodney said, watching as Jay took the reins and effortlessly swung into the saddle. He looked splendid, like he was born to ride.
He paused, sitting on the horse. "Pegasus, a white winged horse, sired by Poseidon and the Gordon Medusa, brother of Chrysaor, ridden by Bellerophon, right? Yes, I guess I do know Greek mythology. Don't most people?"
"No, they don't. Most people don't even know where Greece is, much less appreciate its culture." Rodney took the reins for his horse from the stable boy, and mounted, conscious that he was less graceful. "We should see what else you know. It may help us to figure out where you came from."
"Or at least what I liked to study," Jay said, flashing a grin. "First, let's see how well I ride."
Perfectly was the answer. Jay should have been on a horse named for a centaur, considering how well he and the animal blended together. The path was narrow in places, so Rodney dropped behind them, admiring the easy roll of Jay's hips. Only the stark contrast between Jay's brown clothes and the horse's white hair ruined the illusion of one being.
Rodney had never been particularly fond of the necessity of fashion, other than the need to have clothes and a vague awareness that some colors brought out the blue of his eyes, and that the more expensive fabrics were best for his sensitive skin.
However, Jay had the lean figure which appeared to best advantage in every style, and Rodney discovered a hidden passion for holding bolts of fabric next to his face, discussing earnestly with the tailor which would flatter him the best.
"And evening clothes," Rodney added, snapping his fingers at Charles.
"I don't need evening clothes," Jay protested.
"Of course you do. Jeannie is always lecturing me that I should give parties for the neighborhood. Let the Lord of the Manor be seen."
"Your lordship may wish a new suit of evening clothes too. It has been a number of years since you acquired one."
New clothes for himself was the last thing Rodney had contemplated, but he quickly embraced the idea. "Yes! I will have new clothes and we'll have a small party. Invite the neighbors. We'll hire some musicians and it'll be good for the local community. Jeannie will be pleased." And Rodney would have an excuse to make Jay dress in evening clothes.
Charles smiled. "And also very good for your local tailor, if I may say so, my Lord. It is always a pleasure to serve the great house."
Jay fidgeted, and even to Rodney's unperceptive eye, he could tell Jay was searching for a reason to decline and not finding one. "I will repay you as soon as I can."
"Don't be ridiculous," Rodney snapped, because Jay's consistent desire to not impose was becoming annoying. Jeannie and her family never apologized for invading his space and were frankly far less enjoyable house guests. "I have plenty of money and a few outfits of clothing aren't a burden."
Jay's eyes widened in surprise, and then he visibly relaxed, as if he appreciated rudeness. "Well then, if you've got plenty of money, maybe my evening clothes should be silk?"
"Yes, of course. Black silk. Your best quality fabric," he ordered Charles.
"Rodney, I was teasing. I may not remember much, but I'm pretty sure silk is expensive."
"Well, I'm not. If we're having a dance for you, you'll be in silk."
"If you'll just stand still and let me measure you, my Lord?" Charles moved quickly and efficiently, using his tape to take Rodney's measurements. "It's a shame that the S on your handkerchief doesn't stand for Sheppard. There's a rumor that the solicitors are searching for descendants for an inheritance."
Rodney tried to hold himself still, but his arms waved in agitation. "Inheritance? What inheritance? And why look for the Sheppards? That family died out."
"I don't know what inheritance, my Lord. A solicitor came to town a few months ago, to talk to some of the older townspeople, to see if they could find any information on the son who had moved to America."
"There was a son who moved to America?"
"Yes, sir. The youngest son of the Sheppard who sold your grandfather the manor."
"I've never heard this before. Why haven't I heard this before?"
"It was a long time ago, Sir. And everyone knows there was bad blood between the Sheppards and the McKays. They may not think you'd want to hear about it."
"Yes, but not so long ago, that it hasn't come up again," Rodney snapped, "And I don't know why I should care about people I've never met." He felt oddly discomforted by the information. The Sheppards had been an old, respected family, who were believed to have done important favors for many monarchs, but who either had been too stupid to demand a title, or perhaps smart enough to avoid court politics. Whatever the truth, the family had been in desperate straits when Rodney's grandfather had made his fortune with his distillery of Scotch whisky, and decided he wanted to move south from Scotland and become lord of an English manor. And what Rodney's grandfather wanted, he got.
Rodney forced the air out of his lungs as Charles wrapped the tape around his chest.
"My lord should be able to breathe comfortably throughout the evening."
Regretfully, Rodney released his breath, letting his chest expand to its normal size. "So what happened with the solicitor?"
"I believe he went away dissatisfied, my Lord. There was little that the townspeople could tell him."
Just as well. No one needed the reminder that the McKays were still 'new' money, even if already in the third generation. "Can you have the evening clothes ready by next Saturday?"
"Certainly, my Lord."
"You don't even know if I'll be here by then," Jay protested. "I might recover my memory tomorrow."
"If you do, then you can delay your departure. Or return for a visit. It also could take months for you to remember." Jay's expression turned decidedly sulky, but with a note of sadness in the curve of his lower lip, which had Rodney reassuring him, "I'm sure it'll return much sooner."
"I hope so."
Charles' story of the Sheppard's solicitor had been useful, since it made Rodney broach a practical suggestion. "We can send a letter to my solicitors in London and see if they can send inquiries."
"Do you think they might be able to discover my identity?"
"Yes, well, they're solicitors. They're supposed to handle such things and they're very competent."
"Yeah." Jay rubbed the back of his neck. "Let's hope that they are more competent at locating my identity then they have been at finding the Sheppard heir."
"My solicitors aren't looking for the Sheppard heir. They would have found him. Now I'm ravenous. Do you wish to eat lunch in the village? The inn does a nice steak and kidney pie."
"I'm your guest, Rodney. Whatever pleases you."
The way Jay said it, even Rodney could tell he wasn't pleased with his dependency, but Rodney was not above allowing his own wishes to control others when given the opportunity. Which really, considering he was the Lord of the Manor, should arise more often. But he seemed to be constantly plagued by what his tenants needed or his sister thought suitable. Even before she and her family returned to live at the manor, she had subjected him to frequent letters detailing how he should handle his life.
He was going to eat in the village and enjoy Jay's company, he decided, without distraction from Jeannie and her family.
"Yes, yes, I will come see you soon," Rodney promised the fifth person who had interrupted their lunch. Between the people who wanted to speak to him and the maids who found excuses to loiter around Jay, eating lunch at the inn was excruciating, even if Mrs. Weir's pie still had that excellent flaky crust which Rodney remembered fondly from his previous visits.
"You must always be busy, with everyone in the village needing your attention," Jay said sympathetically, but with a trace of wistfulness, as if he'd like to be needed.
Rodney had forgotten that there was a reason why he normally stayed at the manor. People were less inclined to bother him if they had to make an effort. "I should have been a younger son, so I could pursue my scientific studies in peace."
"I'm surprised you haven't married. A wife could help you out."
"You don't need to mock me." Rodney poked his fork at his pie, suddenly losing his appetite.
"I'm not mocking you. You obviously handle a lot of responsibilities."
"I meant, about needing a wife. I'm aware that I don't have your obviously easy manner with women."
Jay gave him a quizzical stare. "My easy manner with women?"
"The way you flirt with them and they fawn all over you." Rodney realized he was making a fool of himself, revealing his jealousy, but he couldn't seem to stop. "Every woman in this room would be thrilled if you gave her the slightest of smiles. Whereas I – "
"You what, Rodney?"
"Yes, well, being Lord of the Manor hasn't succeeded in overcoming what the local young ladies regard as my many disadvantages. I am considered an exceedingly difficult and unappealing person."
"You have beautiful eyes, an appealing face and figure, and have been extremely kind to me. If the young ladies of the town are blind, that's their loss."
The apparent sincerity of Jay's words warmed Rodney. He was not accustomed to flattery and though he instinctively doubted that Jay could mean all that he had said, he appreciated hearing it. "Thank you." He stabbed at his pie, taking a large bite, feeling suddenly ravenous. "Um, appealing face and figure? Beautiful eyes?"
A faint hue of color that could have been a blush crossed Jay's face. "I'm not supposed to say that kind of thing, am I?"
"Well, you do appear to be American," Rodney said graciously. "Americans are known for being blunt. And truthful."
Jay smiled, and Rodney noted again the attractiveness of his smile, and how one corner of his mouth and the eyebrow tilted up together. "That's me, blunt and truthful."
Whether Jay was blunt and truthful remained in some doubt in Rodney's mind, who had difficulty accepting his own appeal, but Jay's intelligence and education were definitely of a high quality. Rodney quizzed him on a variety of subjects on their ride to the village and back. He quickly abandoned history, as it was never his favorite subject, and Jay seemed to have an extremely skewed view of the past -- more proof that he was American. Their discussion of literature was equally brief, though Jay's knowledge seemed more extensive than Rodney's. Perhaps Rodney should ask Kaleb to explore the subject with their guest.
Jay's knowledge of mathematics was quite sound. Not to Rodney's degree, but his ability to do complicated sums in his head was extremely pleasing. Furthermore, he seemed to enjoy his ability, flashing a grin at Rodney each time he gave an answer, which was invariably correct. People who truly loved mathematics were disappointingly few and far between in Rodney's experience. If Rodney had believed in miracles, he would have counted it one that he found a lover of mathematics on the moors.
Science was an equally fertile field, Jay listening attentively as Rodney expounded on his theories of physics. He even asked relevant follow-up questions, and on a few occasions, made frustratingly perceptive observations which may have revealed some flaws in Rodney's theories. Though Rodney was sure that his theories were sound, and he would easily have provided appropriate and thorough answers, if not distracted by the easy roll of Jay's hips on the horse and how the faint gusts of wind made his hair even more charmingly disheveled.
Jeannie was ecstatic about the idea of a dance, and of course, instantly rhapsodized about the subject of least interest to Rodney. "Every young lady is going to want to dance with you," she flattered Jay. "I hope you are prepared to do your duty. And Meredith, you should be on your best behavior. It's long past time for you to find a wife."
To Rodney's surprise, Jay looked abashed and shuffled his feet. "I don't even know if I can dance."
"Then we should find out. Meredith, come play for us."
"Music for dancing is not what I studied, Jeannie."
"Yes, but you've heard music for dancing, which means that you can play some."
"You play piano?" Jay asked Rodney, even as he obediently followed Jeannie into the music room. Rodney trailed after them, wishing he could disappear, but knowing that Jeannie would hunt him down until he played to her satisfaction.
"Meredith is an excellent musician. Heavens only knows why, since he is the most unromantic man in existence."
"My technique is perfect," Rodney said, picking up Holly from the bench and giving her a small cuddle before placing her on the floor. The cat jumped onto the windowsill and began licking one paw as Rodney sat down at the bench, pushing back the lid to reveal the piano's keys. He had brought up the idea of a dance to see Jay in evening clothes, so he would have to accept the consequences, though he uttered a heavy sigh as he asked, "What do you want me to play?"
Placing her left hand on Jay's shoulder, Jeannie held out her right. Rodney concentrated for a moment, remembering the last waltz he'd heard, which might have been at the festivities following Jeannie's wedding, and began playing. Jay hesitated, before placing his left hand on Jeannie's waist, clasping her right hand, and sweeping her around the floor. They danced easily and beautifully, Jay leading her masterfully. Taking control had always been a challenge for Rodney when they had received dancing lessons together, as Jeannie tended to act like she should lead, but she relaxed in Jay's arms and let him guide her.
"Yes, that seems quite sufficient." Rodney stopped playing. He'd had enough of watching his sister and Jay dance, and was beginning to realize that he'd blundered again. An entire evening watching Jay dance with women and having to do the same thing, could anything be more hellacious? What madness had seized him? "He can dance."
Dropping into a deep curtsy, Jeannie gave Jay a blinding smile. "Admirably."
Jay bowed in return. "Thank you for the dance. And thank you for playing," he added to Rodney, as they walked to stand by the piano.
"Meredith, this reminds me. Can you start teaching Madison to play?"
"Isn't she a little young?"
"She's older than you were."
"Yes, but I wanted to play and taught myself. I didn't have an uncle to teach me."
"You taught yourself?" Jay slid onto the bench next to Rodney. "Just by looking at the music?"
"Our governess showed me the basics but I figured everything else out by myself." Rodney fingered a few keys, remembering his intense childhood passion for music. "I heard the sound and loved it so much, I had to play."
"That's amazing. Can you play some more?"
"Yes, I suppose so. What would you like to hear?"
"Your favorite piece."
Giving one of her pointed smiles that Jeannie used to disguise she was disagreeing with Rodney's choice of action, Jeannie said firmly, "We should talk about the guest list."
"Talk to Richard. He'll have the list from the last time."
"The last time? Hasn't that been years ago?"
"It's a small village, Jeannie. It doesn't change much. Our guest wishes to be entertained. Perhaps music will bring forth some memory," he added, flexing his fingers, feeling inspired.
"Yes, very well, Meredith. I shall take full responsibility for the guest list." Jeannie flounced out of the room, her skirts swirling behind her.
Rodney smiled at Jay and began to play for him. His music might be all technique, but with Jay smiling at him, Rodney could almost believe he'd finally found a way to bring passion out of the keys.
Rodney took John on his normal constitutional walk across the moors that afternoon. Surely exercise was good for amnesiacs, and Rodney wished to continue enjoying Jay's company. Thomas and Galileo followed them at a discreet distance, as was their normal practice.
"You've been very kind," Jay said, as they paused at the highest point on the moor, admiring the view.
"You may believe that, but you would be incorrect. I would have sent you off with Carson if Jeannie had allowed me, and hosting a party for you will have the primary benefit of distracting her from pestering me. She'll be ferocious in her determination to find you a wife from the village."
"I may already be married."
That seemed extremely likely, if disappointing. They were both of an age that most men would already have married. Even if he wasn't of a wealthy family, Jay would have been considered a catch for his looks alone. "I'm sure she won't try to actually arrange your marriage until your memory returns," Rodney reassured him, though he wasn't as positive as he sounded. Jeannie could be incredibly strong-minded.
"Still, I should help you in a more tangible way." John's expression was mulishly stubborn, which was probably for the best, though Rodney's libido wished his tone had been more suggestive.
"We don't know what you're capable of doing."
"We know I'm reasonably educated. From my ability with mathematics, I can certainly help with your accounts. If nothing else, I have a strong back. I could dig ditches."
"Since I don't need any ditches dug, let's start you with the accounts." The accounts involved mathematics, but of the most boring, prosaic variety, and Rodney was never fond of doing them.
As the manor came into view again, Jay gave a gentle sigh. "I feel almost like it could be 200 years again, in a Jane Austen novel."
"As far as most of the village is concerned, it should be. They like the simple way of life. I'm planning on bringing gas to the manor, but most of the village still regards candles as the height of innovation. The thought of change is more frightening than a visit from Lucifer." Rodney checked his pocket watch. "Still, it is time for afternoon tea, which is a tradition worth upholding."
Jay gave him an easy grin. "It's not a turkey sandwich, but a scone with clotted cream would hit the spot right now."
"Turkey." Jay paused on the path. "Turkeys are from America, aren't they?"
"Yes, turkeys are from America," Rodney confirmed, wondering dismally if John would return to that country when his memory was restored.
The next few days passed enjoyably and swiftly. Jay's excellent head for mathematics allowed him to efficiently and accurately bring the account books up-to-date. He was even able to work with Casanova curled on his lap, purring loudly. Rodney checked Jay's work meticulously but could find no flaws. He would be pleased if Jay stayed a long time, so Rodney could focus his attention on his research.
Jay shared Rodney's afternoon walk, making a pleasant companion. His presence at meals and Jeannie's preoccupation with the dance kept her from engaging in her standard lecturing on his lifestyle.
Even better, Jay accompanied Rodney on the visits he had promised to make while lunching at the inn, proving to be a useful companion in dealing with tenant issues. He was a staunch ally in Rodney's efforts to encourage the local farmers to modernize their agricultural methods. His easy-going manner allowed him to encourage the farmers to take risks and he never seemed to become angry with their obstinacy.
In fact, the only flaw in his appearance, personality, and attitude was his laugh, which occasionally emerged as too loud, with a note that could almost be called braying. If Jeannie was inclined to lecture Jay, Rodney was sure that she would have encouraged him to cultivate a more dignified chuckle, but Rodney liked the noise. It made Jay sound sincerely happy, unconscious in his enjoyment.
Perhaps the only drawback of his presence was the cats' continued disloyalty. On an unreasonably cold night, Rodney cursed the lack of bedwarmers and leaped out of bed. He fumbled to light a candle and crept stealthily down the hall to Jay's room, intending only to peer in, hoping that perhaps his gaze would shame some of the cats into returning to him.
To his surprise, a candle was still lit on Jay's nightstand. The covers were shoved away, and Jay was lying naked on the bed. He was gorgeous, elegant limbs and white skin covered by a healthy amount of hair. His hand circled his manhood, which was erect and deeply flushed in color, leaking from the tip. Rodney froze, realizing he had invaded a deeply intimate moment, even as Jay gave a savage jerk, moaning, his eruption coating his fingers.
The intensity of his yearning caught Rodney unawares, the desire to stop forward, to cover Jay's hand with his own, to feel how he deflated, watch his body slump into relaxation. He must have made a noise, as Jay glanced in his direction, eyes startled.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean – " Rodney turned and fled, cursing as the door shut behind him with a loud bang.
He reached the safety of his own room, closing the door softly. His member felt heavy, aroused, and he desperately wanted to take himself in hand, even as he told himself he shouldn't, because he knew he'd visualize Jay in his most private moment.
A quiet tap sounded on the door behind him. "Rodney? Can I talk to you?"
Jay had followed him. Why? To berate him for the invasion of privacy? "Please, please, you have to go. Leave me alone. I can't – "
A long pause followed, and just as Rodney was ready to open the door and surrender to the inevitability of facing an unhappy Jay, he heard, "Okay."
With a sob of relief, Rodney threw himself into bed, curling up tightly.
Sleep was elusive, Rodney's mind restless, but he finally fell into a deep sleep close to dawn, which made the knock on his door extremely irritating. "Yes, what?"
"I wished to know if you would like me to pack some clothes for Master Jay's departure."
Rodney contemplated the ceiling momentarily, his brain too foggy to function, before the word 'departure' penetrated like a spike through his skull. Scrambling out of bed, he stumbled across the room, unlocking the door to see Richard standing outside. "Departure? What departure? Where is he going?"
"He has not specified his destination. I assured him that you would wish him to take some clothes with him, but – "
"Don't let him leave. He is not to depart. Do you comprehend?" Rodney slammed the door in Richard's face, flinging on clothes before racing downstairs, where Jay stood in the hallway, Richard blocking the front door.
"What do you think you're doing? You can't leave. You have no money. Jeannie is planning a dance for you."
Jay turned toward him, his face cold and blank without his normal good humor. "You asked me to leave."
"I asked you – I didn't mean leave, leave, I only meant - " Rodney stopped talking, uncomfortably aware of Richard's presence. "You," he said, pointing to Jay, "in the morning room now. Richard, if breakfast isn't ready yet, please bring us tea. And food as soon as possible."
Rodney and Jay retired to the morning room, where Rodney collapsed into a chair, the racing of his heart slowing into a more even tempo. "You thought I would demand you leave? For – " He expressed himself with an awkward hand gesture.
"I've lost my memory, not my awareness that I'm supposed to control such urges."
Richard chose that moment to enter with a tea tray. "Breakfast should be ready shortly."
"Thank you, Richard." Rodney pounced on the tray, pouring himself tea with a healthy dose of cream and sugar. The interruption was welcome, as it allowed him time to think, and the sweet, hot tea helped his brain engage. "I only asked you to leave me last night. I never intended to throw you out of my home."
"It must have disturbed you to see – what I was doing."
Jay's color was high, and Rodney was sure his was equally so. "I am a man. I have done that myself. In fact, I believe that it is a natural and healthy occurrence, not a shameful event that should be suppressed."
"Then why were you so upset?"
"I was startled, that's all. That's the entirety of the matter."
"You begged me to leave you alone."
As if sensing a disturbance, Shadow wandered in and leaped on Rodney's lap, purring and kneading his thighs. Rodney petted the cat, enjoying his calming influence, though knowing Richard would chase him out as soon as he returned. "It wasn't a subject I wished to discuss last night."
"Because the bright light of day is such a better time," Jay said, and this time Rodney clearly recognized mockery.
"You seem to be over your concern of being a guest dependent on my hospitality."
That shot made Jay flinch. "I'm willing to leave."
"No! You don't - "
Richard walked in with a tray of covered dishes, setting them on the sideboard. He would normally have commented on what he was serving, explaining which dish was cook's best, but he didn't break the heavy silence. He did pause to scoop Shadow from Rodney's lap, and carried him out. Rodney didn't argue, having conceded to Richard's insistence that the cats were not allowed in the dining room.
"We'll talk this afternoon. On the moors," Rodney announced in his best Lord of the Manor tone, the voice he'd learned from his grandfather and didn't use nearly enough. To his relief, John nodded.
"The thing is, I am a man of science." Rodney walked briskly, looking straight ahead. This confession would be embarrassing enough. He didn't need to see Jay's horror. "I believe in logic and reason and challenging outmoded ideas."
"I'd realized that."
Rodney sneaked a quick glance at Jay, and then continued. "But there are certain beliefs that even I would not challenge, even if we know that historically, such beliefs have not been viewed as absolute realities."
"Did you want to give me an example?"
"Yes, for example, the early Greeks believed that there was nothing wrong with one man loving another, though the Queen regarded this possibility as utterly obscene."
Jay did that lip-lick gesture that Rodney found so distracting. "Rodney, are you saying - "
"I'm not necessarily saying anything." Rodney tried desperately to gauge Jay's reaction. "Only that in matters of a romantic, or even, erm, sexual nature--" he was blushing, he could feel his cheeks and even the tip of his nose getting warmer, "--people have held many different views."
"And you think masturbation is a healthy act."
Rodney wouldn't have phrased it so, but was relieved that Jay was so blunt. People were obviously raised differently in America. "Yes, precisely. I'm a man of science. I'm enlightened. I was, of course, startled by what you doing, but it didn't offend me. I didn't mean you to leave because of my delicate sensitivities, which my sister would happily tell you are not at all delicate." There, that should do the trick of satisfying Jay's curiosity.
"That's only a longer version of what you said this morning, Rodney. And it doesn't explain the begging."
Normally, Rodney appreciated a fine mind, but at this moment, he wished Jay was less analytical. "I believe I said I was startled. For all that it is a natural act, it's not something I've seen other men do." He paused in his walking, his eyes meeting Jay's, willing him to drop the matter.
"You were more than startled. You were desperate for me to be away from you." He stepped so close that Rodney could feel the heat of his body.
Rodney floundered, but his search for more words was interrupted by Jay speaking in a queer voice. "Rodney, start walking to the house. Slowly."
"What? Why would I - " Rodney whirled toward the spot Jay was looking at, and there was the large tan-colored cat, its fangs even more gleaming and intimidating. Fear paralyzed Rodney, only permitting him to whimper in an embarrassing fashion.
Thomas bounded forward, as if he wanted to defend them or play with the cat. "Thomas!"
"Rodney." Jay's hands curled over his shoulders, urging him backwards.
"Thomas!" Rodney hissed again, even as he took a step back slowly, his foot knocking on pebbles on the path.
"I'll get the cat." Jay stepped around and in front of Rodney.
"Were you born without a bone for caution in your body? Come back here." Rodney grabbed his jacket, tugging, but John yanked away, bending to pick up Thomas, his head still high to meet the gigantic cat's eyes. Feeling frantic about the risk Jay was taking, Rodney searched for anything that might be used as a weapon. He shouldn't have resisted his sister's attempts to make him carry a walking cane.
Rodney leaned down to pick up a rock from the path. Its heavy weight seemed inadequate protection against the cat's claws and teeth, but Rodney needed to take some sort of action for his sake and Jay's. He stepped forward, raising the rock, preparing to throw even as Jay stepped back. They bumped into each other, the rock leaving Rodney's hand and falling far short of its target. Rodney tried to grab Jay, to stabilize them, but his ankle twisted on another rock, and he began to fall, still clutching at Jay. They went down hard, sprawling on the hard ground. Thomas yowled, leaping out of Jay's arms and sprinting off. The moor cat yowled too, and Rodney rolled to throw himself on top of Jay, covering his body with his own, waiting for the slash of sharp claws.
Heartbeats later, Rodney looked up cautiously. He and Jay were alone, no cats, small or large, in sight. Galileo must have run off after Thomas.
Jay didn't respond. His eyes were shut. Rodney felt under his head, finding a fresh bump on the back. The McKay Moor Cat had brought injury to him again.
The blow didn't seem to have caused any additional damage, though Rodney insisted on sending for Carson to have Jay examined. Jay was equally determined to not be examined, insisting on remaining in the sitting room, where he could not be expected to undress. Carson prodded gently at the back of Jay's head, pronounced him fit, made a sarcastic tutting remark about the apparent danger of being a guest in Rodney's care, drank a quick cup of tea, and left. By this time Jeannie and Madison had joined them, and Kaleb wandered through to enjoy a scone.
Suddenly they were alone again in the sitting room, the other three members of the household having gone off to their various activities.
For all that Rodney had been wishing that Jay had lost his memory of the last two days, he seized on the moment, determined to have this done, like a scab ripped off a wound. "I like men."
"Pardon me?" Jay looked startled more than repulsed, which was reassuring.
"I find the sight of your bare body appealing, not shocking. That's what I was trying to avoid telling you. No, please," Rodney cut in before Jay could speak. "I realize that you're in a vulnerable position in my household and I want to promise you that I would never take advantage of you. Father - well, a number of maids and governesses quit on us abruptly over the years, and I was always repulsed by his example. I would appreciate if you would not speak of this matter to anyone else. If you feel it necessary, I can arrange for you to go stay at my club in London while you wait for your memory to return. I would bear the expense, of course." Clasping his hands behind his back, Rodney waited for a response.
"Thank you for explaining to me. I'd like to stay here, if you don't mind."
"No, certainly I don't mind. You're welcome to stay as long as you like. Is that, um, all you have to say?"
"Yes, thank you." Jay gave a nod and left the room, leaving Rodney both relieved and crushed. He had hoped Jay wouldn't be horrified by his admission, but he'd also dimly hoped that Jay might share his interest, a wish that clearly wouldn't be fulfilled.
The revelation changed matters between them, though Jay never demonstrated any disgust of Rodney. His manner was subtly distant, though he still accompanied Rodney on his walks. However, he began spending more time with Richard and the cook in the kitchen, or taking Pegasus for rides into town. When questioned, he claimed that he was trying to jog his memory, to learn why he'd been in this area, an excuse Rodney found patently unbelievable. To all appearances, he accepted Jay's excuses for keeping him at arm's-length, not feeling that he had the right to impose his company on the other man.
Perhaps, he reflected one morning, watching Jay ride off on Pegasus, he should finally write that letter to his solicitors. The task had crossed his mind several times, but kept being forgotten before Rodney reached his study. His solicitors were indeed efficient, and might succeed in discovering Jay's identity. Then he would leave, resuming his life, and Rodney would lose his company.
Rodney poured himself another cup of tea, letting the task slip from his mind again.
The night of the dance approached, and Rodney had to concede that Jeannie and Richard made an efficient pair. The house was cleaned from top to bottom, furniture rearranged for the convenience of dancing and card games, a delicious array of food organized and prepared, and a trio hired to provide music.
Dressed in his new evening attire, Rodney waited by the door, ready to welcome people as Richard let them in. London society may consider being late fashionable, but this was the country, and guests would begin arriving timely, impatient for a rare evening of entertainment and good food. Hearing steps on the stairs, he turned to see Jay walking down, wearing the silk black jacket, waistcoat, and trousers, crisp white shirt that Rodney had ordered, and black bow tie. His hair appeared to have been carefully combed but on the verge of springing into a thousand directions again. Rodney swallowed hard, struck anew by Jay's handsomeness.
"Hi," Jay said, oddly sounding shy.
"Jay." Rodney had to swallow again, his mouth dry. "Charles did a tolerable job, I see," he said briskly.
"On you too," Jay said, and it must be Rodney's imagination that his tone was of shy admiration. Still, he smoothed his hands down the front of his black silk jacket, pleased that Charles's tailoring showed his figure to the best.
"Jay!" Jeannie came lightly down the stairs, her blue dress highlighting her blue McKay eyes. "You are so handsome. Every woman will want to dance with you."
"Um, thanks?" Jay said, but then the door rang, signaling the first arrivals and the beginning of the dance.
The evening was both as wonderful and horrible as Rodney had feared. The food was excellent, the cook having outdone herself in her efforts. The sight of Jay in his evening clothes was exquisite, and Rodney enjoyed watching him, as he seemed to be having a pleasant time, making polite conversation with many of the guests, smiling often.
Jay even gave his odd, loud laugh on several occasions, causing a few people around him to flinch, and giving rise to muttered conversations about the unrestrained nature of Americans.
The dancing was torture, as Jeannie foisted every maiden of even vaguely reasonable marriageable age on Rodney. And of course, all those same maidens, tried with equal determination to foist themselves on Jay. Even the married women wanted to dance with Jay, not that Rodney could blame them. He would have loved a chance to twirl around the room in Jay's strong arms.
"Lucius!" a man's voice called happily across the ballroom, and heads turned to the stranger. Richard appeared to be trying to insist that he leave, in that incredibly polite manner Richard always maintained. "Don't be ridiculous, I can't leave," the man responded, his accent sounding flat like Jay's. "That's my good friend Lucius Lavin." To Rodney's dismay, he barreled through the crowd and straight to Jay, taking his hand and pumping it excitedly. "Lucius, I heard that there was a man with your description and no memory here. I came straight away."
Jay tried to remove his hand from the other man's grasp. "Did you?"
"I'm John. John Sheppard. We came across on the boat from America together." The man gave a smile as wide as his face. He was as tall as Jay, with hair as dark, but his body was far more solidly built, with shoulders and a chest that were significantly broader than Jay's.
There were muted gasps from the people closest to them, and silence slowly descended on the ballroom, everyone watching the scene unfold.
"So you're here to claim the Sheppard inheritance?" Jay said slowly, as if parsing together what John was telling him.
"Yes, of course. It's why I came from America. I'm the son of the youngest brother of the last Sheppard who lived here. He was the black sheep of the family and was banished to America. But I'm here now!" he said, grinning at the entire crowd as he threw his arms out.
"And you're a friend of mine?"
"Of course, Lucius! We became great friends as we crossed the ocean. I can tell you everything you told me about your family and help you continue on your journey. You have people waiting for you. In France. England was only the first stop for you. Your family will be worried."
Jay – Lucius – could be of French descent, Rodney supposed, horrified at the thought that not only would Jay – Lucius – be leaving him, but he wouldn't even be living in the same country. Not if he had family waiting in France.
"It's curious that my name is Lucius Lavin, since my handkerchief had the initials 'JS' on it."
"You must have borrowed one of mine," John said immediately, while Rodney frowned, remembering the elegant initials that had led to them calling their visitor – Lucius – Jay. Was John lying?
"It's funny how my recollection of events is different."
The interloper froze, an odd grin fixed on his broad face. "You have no memory. You have no recollection of events. You can't contradict me."
"Maybe just seeing you has brought everything flooding back. Like that I'm John Sheppard and you're Lucius Lavin. We did travel over from America on the same ship, but I told you I was coming to collect my inheritance, after receiving a letter from my grandfather's solicitors. Only you tried to kill me on the moor and would have succeeded if you hadn't been interrupted."
By the McKay Moor Cat, Rodney thought in shock.
"I'm sure you went through our trunks and switched everything that might identify us, but I'm equally sure that the solicitors have other ways to identify the heir. And that those ways will identify me as John Sheppard, not you."
"This is preposterous! I try to do you a favor and you try to steal my identity. If this is the way you're going to act, I'm leaving."
Jay – Lucius – no, John – drew back his arm and very solidly punched Lucius, landing a firm blow on the side of his face. Lucius – yes, definitely Lucius the liar - staggered back, put his hand on his jaw, and yelled, "Ow! That hurt!"
John hit him again, and this time he collapsed, spread eagled on the floor. For such a large man, Lucius had an astonishingly weak jaw.
"Richard, would you please help me drag this man to a room where he can be locked up? And then send someone for the magistrate. I want to press charges."
The guests watched in shock as John and Richard each took an arm and dragged Lucius out of the room. Jeannie clapped her hands and said brightly, "Let's have another dance now!"
The problem with a successful party was that no one wanted to leave. By the time Rodney was finally able to climb the stairs to his bedroom, he ached with the strain of being a good host. He was no stranger to staying up this late when absorbed in a scientific endeavor, but rarely for the tedium of chatting, visiting, and dancing. At least his stomach was well filled with the cook's delicious food, and due to the revelation of John's identity and the arrest of an attempted murderer, this party would be talked about for decades, which should make Jeannie happy and give Rodney an excuse to avoid having another for a long time.
After all, nothing could top this one.
To his surprise, the cats were sprawled all over his bed. Rodney frowned at them, grateful for their return, but perplexed at the cause. He'd deliberately lost track of John, but he assumed the other man hadn't decamped in the midst of the night.
"Jay. I mean, John."
He was standing by the window, his black jacket removed, his shirt open at the collar, allowing a glimpse of black chest hair. "I need to talk to you."
"Can't this wait until the morning?"
"I need to apologize."
"For not telling me you'd regained your memories after your second fall on the moor?" He waved one hand at John's start of surprise. "Yes, I had figured that out for myself. I just don't understand why you didn't announce that fact immediately."
"I didn't want to leave right away," John admitted, biting at his lip.
"I'd already made it plain you were welcome to stay." Rodney shut the door behind him, and set the candle on the nightstand by the bed. He didn't know what John wanted to discuss but privacy seemed wise. "I wouldn't have kicked you out. I may not be the most pleasant person, but I believe I've been a decent host."
"The Sheppards and McKays were supposed to be enemies."
"The Sheppards and McKays weren't around each other long enough to become enemies. Your grandfather sold the mansion to my grandfather and your family left the area. The so-called feud is as fake as the McKay Moor Cat."
John raised his eyebrows. "Which is true, as we both saw. You saw it twice."
"Yes, very well," Rodney conceded grumpily, petting Romeo, who purred in response. "So perhaps the Sheppards weren't happy to sell. I don't know. I wasn't born then."
"I just wanted to be sure that you wouldn't be mad at me for who I was."
"Well, I'm not. I think it's ridiculous to judge people by their ancestors. There." Rodney waved toward the door. "You may go now."
"And I also had to think about this." One of John's hands came up, cupping Rodney's chin, before John brushed his lips on Rodney's. The surprise move made Rodney gasp, his lips opening with the exhale of sound. John's tongue delicately touched on Rodney's lips, warm and wet and everything Rodney had dreamed of during long, dreary nights.
"You're not – don't tease me."
"I'm not teasing." John shuffled his body closer, the black silk of their suits brushing. "I want this. I want you. You do still – "
"Yes, of course. Forever," Rodney swore, his hands clasping John's hips, bringing their groins together.
"Good," John said, in a voice rich with satisfaction, pushing on Rodney so that they fell onto the bed. One of the cats squawked an indignant meow, all of them leaping onto the floor, but John and Rodney barely noticed, too absorbed in learning the taste and feel of each other's mouths and bodies.
Instead of a cat's insistent meowing for his breakfast, Rodney woke to the subtle feel of a bearded chin rubbing on his shoulder. He shivered with pleasure at the rough texture against his skin. "Good morning," he said unaccountably shy.
"It's definitely that," John agreed, tightening his arms around Rodney as they spooned together in the bed. Shadow gave them a baleful look from the windowsill.
Twisting his head, Rodney looked at John, his hair in its normal unkempt state, his eyes brilliantly green, and his lips swollen from the passionate kisses they'd exchanged. He opened his mouth, but couldn't think what to say, too many thoughts crowding through his brain, wanting to know everything about John.
John gave him a goofy grin. "Cat got your tongue?"
"I thought you were going to steal it away last night." The memory was crystal clear, John's naked body on his, keeping him warm even though the bedclothes had slipped to the floor, John's hips thrusting steadily on Rodney's, even as he sucked Rodney's tongue into his mouth, hot and frantic and giving Rodney more pleasure than he'd known could be borne.
"I want to steal you away. All of you."
"Stay here," Rodney offered. "Stay at the manor."
Hesitation flickered in John's beautiful eyes. "People will talk."
"Let them. Have I struck you as a person who cares what other people say?"
"I do have an inheritance. Investments that were supposed to be worthless but finally paid off. Dad signed them over to me. I could buy some land around here, help with the modernization."
"Buy the manor land," Rodney offered impulsively. "We'll form a partnership and you can handle all the boring nonsense of running an estate while I do my research."
"We'll be the Sheppard and McKay who ended the feud."
Rodney rolled his eyes. "Yes, and we can start calling that beast the Sheppard Moor Cat, since you're the one it keeps knocking out."
"You sound like you expect me to be hurt again," John pouted, inching his body on top of Rodney's, encouraging him to roll onto his back, so he could make himself comfortable. Their bodies fit well together, almost of the same height, and John's lanky weight was a desirable presence on Rodney's solidness.
"I never want you hurt again," Rodney said. "I love you," he added, surprising himself, though John's beaming smile made the honest admission well worth the risk.
Thankfully the lateness of the party meant that Jeannie didn't pester Rodney to explain his failure to arise before noon, restricting herself to one snippy comment that couldn't dent Rodney's blissful mood.
"Come on," she said, taking his hand as he tried to pass her. "You have to see what we found."
"Tea?" Rodney lamented, thinking wistfully of hot food to replenish his strength. He let himself be dragged upstairs and down the hall, toward the back of the house, where Jay – no, not Jay, John, John, John forever, for the rest of their lives – Kaleb and Madison were examining framed portraits leaning against the walls. Merlin was winding around their feet, brushing fur on everyone. "Pictures?"
"Portraits, Rodney, of the Sheppards. We got them down from the attic while you were sleeping. This is the best one."
Rodney could see why Jeannie thought it was the best one, because John could have posed for it. An older, slightly broader John, but with facial features and a wildness of hair that were almost identical. "These were left by the Sheppards?"
"That's Granddad. Dad always said I look like him. It's usually not a compliment," John added with a wry twist of his mouth, which made Rodney wonder if he and John both shared uneasy relationships with their fathers. He usually wasn't interested in people's personal lives, but he wanted to spend hours listening to John, hearing of his life in America and why his father had been willing to give up the inheritance to him. So he'd go away to a distant country?
They would take their walks on the moors every day, and Rodney would learn everything about John.
"Well, it should be, for you're very handsome men," Jeannie declared with a staunch loyalty.
"It certainly should be enough proof for the magistrate that you're John Sheppard," Kaleb noted practically. "And that that Lucius fellow needs to be kept in jail."
"I'll send Richard with a note to the magistrate and ask him to come over," Rodney promised.
"I'm going to miss you, Uncle Jay. Uncle John," Madison corrected herself, taking John's hand. "When you go to London."
Taking her other hand too, John lifted her off her feet, swinging her lightly. "Actually, I was thinking of coming back here after I get my inheritance."
"Yes, um." Rodney cleared his throat, wishing that they'd practiced, trying to give Jeannie a bland look. "John and I were discussing that, um, maybe he should stay here. He's been very helpful with the tenants and the account books. His family is from this area."
"Yes, Rodney." Jeannie rolled her eyes at him. "We all know where John came from. Are you sure you'll be happy here, John? It's a very quiet little village."
John gave a shrug, not letting the gesture interrupt his swinging of Madison. "I've been attacked by a man once and a cat twice while I was here. It seems hectic enough to me."
"But staying with Rodney? Kaleb, Madison and I won't be here forever. Then it'll be just you and Rodney rattling around in this big house."
"You won't be here forever?" Rodney couldn't keep the hope from his voice. "Did you have a date?"
"Rodney!" Jeannie batted at his ear, not inflicting much pain but making Rodney flinch.
Catching Jeannie's hand, Kaleb pulled her close to him, away from her brother. "I hope it won't be too much longer, Rodney. My book is almost done. And, honey, I think John and Rodney will do very well here together."
For a second, Rodney wondered if his brother-in-law was more observant than he'd realized. After all, a good novelist should be a keen student of human nature, he supposed. Then he dismissed the worry, because John was saying casually, "I was thinking you might go with me to London, Rodney. It would be nice to have company."
"Yes," Rodney replied, trying to sound equally casual, though his heart was jumping with joy at the thought of taking a trip with John. "We can stay at my club and see your solicitors. London has some excellent museums."
"Take him to some fun places too, Rodney." Jeannie brushed her hands together then swept some cobwebs from her dress. "I need to clean the dust off me."
"We can plan over breakfast," John suggested.
"It's lunch time," Jeannie corrected, as she, Kaleb, and Madison walked down the hallway in front of Rodney and John, so that no one but Merlin saw John give Rodney a gentle kiss good afternoon. "But!" she said, whirling swiftly, "If you do end up being best friends with John forever, you have to admit that the McKay Moor Cat was responsible for this change in your life."
"Yes, Jeannie," Rodney agreed, remembering that she'd predicted during their first evening that John would become a great friend. Hopefully a much greater friend than Jeannie would ever realize. Not that he would remind her of that prediction, but it was definitely time to reinvent the legend his grandfather had created.
John rested his hand on the small of Rodney's back. "Lunch? I'm starving."
Giving him a grin, Rodney walked toward the dining room, feeling John's warm touch every step of the way. Yes, the moor cat was definitely getting a new image, as a protector of the McKay-Sheppard family.
~ the end ~