Each one of them far more in love with their first spouse than any future spouse, their understanding was one of distant affection, and their marriage to each other was made with little fanfare. The same could not be said of their children; James Barnes and Stephanie Rogers were the closest of siblings, bound by a familial love beyond what would be implied by their lack of blood relation. It was James who sat by Stephanie's bedside when she was taken ill in her youth, who read to her from all of the latest literary magazines and older collected editions, and was her closest friend.
She and James became each other's constant companions, Stephanie's horseback riding skills were far improved from her time with James, and James's letter writing was far in advance of any of his fellows for his time with Stephanie. They found a great deal of comfort, each in the other's company when James's father - their mutual father in all but blood - passed, leaving the estate to his son at the young age of sixteen.
James made his own arrangements for the comfort of the only mother and sister he had known, with a continued place in his home and a dowry at the very edge of his means for Stephanie. It was no comfort when James fell in battle, in Russia, without wife or heir, at the age of twenty.
Stephanie, now seventeen, found herself in no great want of a husband, but in very great need of one.
"We can make do without," Mrs. Barnes said, of the matter, towards the end of their mourning. Mr. Barnes's distant relation - a second cousin, and a solicitor - had been kind enough to allow them the courtesy of not sending them packing while still in their mourning. "A distant cousin has offered us rent of a small cottage on his property. The parties will be not quite what you have become accustom to, but we will make do."
"I do not want you to make do, Mamma." Stephanie wanted every comfort for her mother, and felt that she had more than earned it. "I have thought on it, and between our incomes we may be able to afford a Season in London and that will be it. I will light on whichever gentleman is capable of providing a comfortable existence for you."
"Stephie-- I do not think you were built for such a compromise."
Stephanie knew, in her heart, that her mother was right. She was handsome enough, and even in the country had attracted a small share of potential suitors, although no proposals. That was, in no small part, due to the fact that James had been very firm on the matter of assuring his sister was properly married, to someone with whom she could share an affection, at least. It was also in no small part that Stephanie hoped her husband might have been kind, and a man she could enjoy the company of, but romantic thoughts that had no place in the compromise of marriage.
"Perhaps it will not be a compromise," she answered. "There must be some gentlemen who would not be so difficult to find some affection for."
Of course, in her heart she knew that although she was handsome, she was not nearly so much as many other young ladies; and although her dowry was not inconsiderable, it was not nearly attractive enough to a struggling lord or gentleman; and although she was well studied and read and practiced in music and arts, she was by no means exceptional in that either. She also knew she had the very real defect of being completely unable to do as she was told if she thought the instruction was wrong.
She shared those troubles with her dear cousin and friend, Miss Carol Danvers, and after a great deal of back and forth over the late fall, she found herself, and her mother, entreated to come to London for the entire Season. Mrs. Barnes agreed to the invitation, but only after she and Stephanie were situated at her cousin’s in the meanest little cottage that Stephanie could imagine.
The stakes of her failure well in mind, she and her mother made for London.
Stephanie had never been to London herself, but Carol had been a frequent visitor to the Barneses and she had been among the few young women that James had considered courting before his death, due in no small part to Stephanie's affection for her. That meant her understanding of London, although confined to letters, was not that of a naif.
There was a great deal of time and attention spent on the business of clothing, and the business of calling cards, and then on the calls themselves, and Stephanie's very first invitation to a ball of one Mr. Charles Xavier.
She was all nerves, largely due to her intentions, and the weight of her purpose for the Season. Miss Stephanie Rogers had to be of singular purpose: the locating of a husband who would allow herself, and most importantly her mother, a comfortable existence; she owed her mother no less, and she would not allow herself to become distracted by the concerns of love and affection, if she was very lucky, that would follow.
"I thought you would be enjoying yourself," James Rhodes said from his side, similarly scanning the room. Lieutenant Rhodes was a great family friend to the Starks, his father and Anthony's uncle having served together in the army many years ago, the boys had been friends since their youth.
"Any other party, certainly, with Xavier I'd rather something more intimate. We will barely get a word in with each other." Anthony started to make his way around the room, Rhodey joining him. "Ah, my eyes have fallen on the young Miss Danvers, accompanied, as always, by Miss Drew, and... guest."
The slight flush was barely visible on his friends dark cheeks, but Anthony was too familiar with him to miss it.
"You must at least ask her to dance, preferably twice!" He'd known his friend, and his affection for Miss Danvers, for far too long to let him go another Season without making a true pursuit of the lady.
"Lieutenant Barnes has been dead only a few months."
"Was there an understanding?" Anthony asked, although he knew the answer.
"Then what else is there to understand?"
Anthony gave up on the prospect of punch, and instead all but dragged his friend to the other side of the room, where Miss Danvers was presiding over her small flock. To Anthony's eye, the newcomer was an attractive sort, a fraction taller than Miss Danvers, blonde, with an attractive curve to her lips and blue eyes that could be noted from across the room. Very attractive, then, and Anthony decided she would likely be doe eyed and unintelligent, which was a misfortune; his mother had, at a very early age, impressed upon him the importance of an intelligent wife. She had not impressed upon him the importance of an intelligent dancing partner, however.
All the appropriate re-acquaintances were quickly made, and they moved on to the first matter that Anthony was most concerned with: the identity of the mysterious friend to Miss Danvers.
"Mr. Stark, may I introduce my cousin, Miss Stephanie Rogers, newly come to town."
The conversation, from there, was innocuous, there was a brief mention of the weather - which at least Anthony could tolerate because London was exceptionally cool for the beginning of a new year - and after a time it became obvious that his dear friend, Rhodey, was suffering from an inability to actually ask the lady to dance, perhaps because of his audience.
Miss Drew, it seemed, was in agreement, but had no sure way to broach the subject if the entreaty to him in her eyes was any indication.
"Miss Drew, Miss Rogers, might I interest you in a glass of punch?" It might have been a slight, if Miss Danvers didn't seem so immediately grateful and Miss Drew didn't seize upon the opportunity, with Miss Rogers seeming to catch the tenor not a moment later.
"Thank you, Mr. Stark," Miss Drew said a moment later. "For the punch."
Anthony couldn't quite contain his smirk. "I am afraid Lieutenant Rhodes will need to fend for himself with the punch bowl for Miss Danvers."
The promised punch finally acquired, Anthony considered topics of conversation that might draw the so far understated Miss Rogers in.
"How are you finding London, Miss Rogers?"
"Somehow both larger and smaller than expected," she answered a moment later. "The scenery is so different, and the light has an entirely different quality."
"I suppose I'm more acquainted with it," Anthony answered. "My youth was spent so often in the London that I would be entirely lost in the country. Mr. Barton says exactly that when I am up at his estate for fox hunting."
Miss Drew, not doubt entirely unintentionally, gave his foot a firm stomp, which did not in any way prevent Anthony from continuing with the ladies on their route to stop in front of the man himself. After several courtesies, Anthony deposited Miss Drew with Mr. Barton, and continued his monopolization of Miss Rogers. From there, it was a simple matter of requesting a dance.
"All your talk of light and the scene, do you draw?"
"And paint," Miss Rogers answered, although a slight stumble in her voice betrayed words kept in.
"My mother has simply the finest hand," Anthony said. She had been a draftswoman at her father's engineering firm in America, and her frequent trips back to America were largely in furtherance of designs, but she very often sketched and painted when her mind was not otherwise occupied. "I am certain your work is lovely. And are you here for the whole Season?"
Miss Rogers's mumbled 'I hope not' had obviously not been for Anthony's ears, nor had she intended it to cross her lips, but cross her lips it had and Anthony had to stifle his own desire to laugh. She clearly knew her misstep the moment she had made it, if her flush was any indication.
"I'm certain the Lords and Ministers feel much the same way, Miss Rogers," Anthony assured her. "Miss Danvers made mention that you are her guest?"
"Myself and my mother, Mrs. Barnes."
Anthony stopped himself from frowning. He knew the name, of course, Barnes, Lieutenant James Barnes, lost a few months ago in Russia, part of both Rhodey and Lieutenant Sam Wilson's division. He'd heard there was not even a body to return home, which had been a great offense for Rhodey. "I knew of a Lieutenant James Barnes."
Miss Rogers's face immediately spoke volumes, stumbled for a moment, and then regained her smile. "My brother."
It would have to be a half-brother, but her voice allowed no argument. "I was sorry to hear of his passing."
Miss Rogers nodded, but she clearly wished the topic closed.
"If you will be here for much of the Season, you will have opportunity to practice your painting."
"I already have a few sketches." She smiled, bashful, and Anthony suddenly wanted very much to see them, or to take Miss Rogers on a carriage ride through Hyde Park, perhaps watching her as she worked rather than being burdened by conversation. Anthony always did his best thinking on those rides and ladies insisted on filling them with chatter.
It was an unusual impulse for him. He often wished for a lady companion on his walks or his times at a ball, or at Almack's, but he never felt any great inclination for it to be someone in particular until that moment.
Unfortunately, that ended the space of a dance, and the next would be a waltz; Anthony always made a great point of not dancing a waltz with someone who was not well aware of his - lack of - intentions. It would be simply unfair to Miss Rogers.
"Shall I return you to your cousin?" Anthony asked, and brought her over to Miss Danvers when Miss Rogers answered in the affirmative.
He then found himself ambushed by Xavier, and his sister, Miss Xavier, and knew the social dance well enough to know that he had been suckered into a waltz with the lady again; he deeply suspected that Xavier knew he had no interest, and yet his sister did keep up her persistence.
Like Miss Rogers, she was blonde, and she always wanted to speak on the latest book she had read, and Anthony was only too happy to oblige her, but he fled for the safety of Rhodey's side after that; the man looked as though he was in need of a stiff drink.
"Are you quite well, Rhodey?"
"Miss Danvers is just as vibrant as ever."
Anthony felt the sudden urge to gag.
"Miss Rogers is apparently quite a distant cousin, but she is Lieutenant Barnes's sister."
"A conversational snag I stumbled on well enough on my own," Anthony answered. "What is the relation? Miss Rogers also said 'brother', yet clearly they do not share a surname."
"The former Mrs. Rogers remarried soon after she was widowed, Mr. Barnes was similarly a widower, and between the two they raised both Lieutenant Barnes and Miss Rogers. Miss Danvers was not so indelicate to say, but I was taken with the impression that while it was Mrs. Rogers who wed to avoid destitution fifteen years ago, it would be Miss Rogers who would be doing the wedding this time around."
Anthony avoided the wince, but it did make him reevaluate the exchanges of the night, slightly. Miss Rogers did not come off as some desperate, simpering miss, she had been very genuine, bordering on too genuine.
"So don't pick her as one of the ladies you flirt outrageously with for the Season, she doesn't have the luxury," Rhodey said, with candor that would have been far above his station if Anthony did not consider him like a brother.
"I don't simply pick them at random, Rhodey. I have every intention of making one my wife, eventually, when I find someone who can keep up." Anthony scanned the crowd again, saw that Miss Drew had been taken in one direction, Miss Rogers in another. "Now, I'm going to dance with Miss Danvers and speak of nothing but your handsome figure."
Anthony did take her for a turn about the room, and he may also have inquired after Miss Rogers... they were cousins, after all.
"Lieutenant Rhodes seemed taken with you," Jessica said, of Carol.
"Again," Carol answered, sighing as she filled their teacups. "It is just like last Season, he blows hot and cold, makes a dozen calls and dances a dozen waltzes, and then by the end of the Season he disappears to one front or another and I might see him next Season."
Jessica nodded. "He is as bad as Mr. Stark on that matter. I think the Lieutenant must have learned it from him."
"Mr. Stark seemed very courteous," Stephanie felt honor-bound to protest. He had danced with her once, trading trifles about her art, and they had taken that turn with both herself and Jessica, and they had taken a turn during one of the dances Stephanie had wanted to sit out, and he had spoken at some length about New York, where his mother was from, in America.
"Do not let yourself be taken in," Jessica answered. "He is like this every season, but at least Lieutenant Rhodes has the dignity of only paying his attentions to Carol, rather than all about town."
Carol, to Stephanie's displeasure, nodded. "He is only two and twenty, and has still left at least a dozen hearts broken. Miss Xavier would have it that she is his eventual intended, but it seems more likely she is blind to facts, rather than that there is an understanding. Mr. Xavier and Mr. Stark are the closest of friends, and the uniting of their families would be gossip on more than Miss Xavier's lips if it were the case."
"Oh." Stephanie wasn't so naive as to say that she had fallen for Mr. Stark, but for all he'd discussed New York, he also had asked after her art, as though it was something more than a pastime, which to her it was. He was the only one who had said 'I very wish to see it' as though he'd meant it. "Lieutenant Wilson, then?" She asked.
He had also been very nice, and they had had two dances. Stephanie was unsure of considering a military man, but she had no room to be choosey given her current circumstance. The loss of her brother was still too fresh to be taken in by a red coat the way some ladies were, but he had seemed a kind sort, even if he spoke more of her brother than she would have liked.
"Second son," Carol answered, immediately. "He has an aunt, though, who is quite fond of him. Technically his fortunes are tied to her good favor, but she delights in nothing more than his happiness. It was she who secured his commission at his request. I think so long as he didn't bring a washwoman home, she would be happy with his choice."
That was a possibility, then. Stephanie would not depend upon it, but if Lieutenant Wilson came to call she would have to keep his circumstance in mind. "I'm not so certain I would like an officer," she said.
Carol and Jessica nodded.
"But I cannot be too closed to the possibility," she said, before turning back to Jessica. "What about Mr. Barton?"
Jessica looked as though she would like nothing less than talking about Mr. Barton. It was Carol who answered a few moments later, with a whisper that could not at all have been considered conspiratorial. "Mr. Barton suffers a similar affliction to Lieutenant Rhodes, he paid all of his attention to Jessica for the last Season, only to leave quite suddenly when all of the gossip had it that a final visit would be expected."
That made the interactions between Mr. Stark and Jessica make all the more sense, if Jessica had been jilted by Mr. Barton.
The rest of the morning was given over to the discussing of finery, and then they set about their respective morning calls, Stephanie out with her mother in the carriage they had acquired for the Season.
"You seemed taken with Mr. Stark, Stephie."
"But he is not the marrying sort," she answered. "Miss Danvers and Miss Drew did not count seducer among his sins, but he seems to make his enjoyment of the Season in the chase, but not in the catching."
"Ah," Mrs. Rogers answered. "I heard he has as much as 15,000 a year."
"And it could be 150,000 for all the good it would do us. We danced one dance, Mamma." And Stephanie, for all her desire to see her mother looked after and comfortable, was not prepared to say 'yes' only for money. "If Mr. Stark calls, I will receive him, but just as Miss Danvers and Miss Drew have beseeched me, do not set my cap for Mr. Stark. I will be the model of civility, and that is all."
Her resolved lasted exactly as long as the next day, when Mr. Stark did call on her. Lieutenant Rhodes also called on Carol at much the same time, so they were forced to make use of both receiving rooms, and Stephanie was forced to cling to her needlepoint for strength under the watchful eye of Mrs. Barnes.
The cut of his clothes was no doubt fashionable, but Stephanie more noticed that the lines flattered his shoulders and waist quite handsomely, while his beard neatly framed his mouth. There was not even a hint of somberness to him, but nor was he outlandish, he was absolutely breathtaking.
Mr. Stark was the picture of civility with them both, and in the half hour he divided his attentions between the two of them, even if it meant their conversation was far more trifling than it had been two days ago.
"I know it is still quite cool," Mr. Stark said, as he was set to depart. "But in the next few weeks the weather may turn. If it does so, may I take the liberty of sending a note to ask you to join me for a ride in Hyde Park, Miss Rogers?"
Stephanie checked with Mrs. Barnes by a glance, and her mother's face made it quite clear that no matter the gossip about Mr. Stark's general lack of intentions, she still approved of the activity. Stephanie also found, regardless of the gossip, that she also approved. "Of course, Mr. Stark."
"I invite you to furnish a groom if you wish, Mrs. Barnes." Thus ensuring they would be well chaperoned.
When Mr. Stark finally departed, Stephanie intruded on Carol soon after, unable to contain her excitement despite the more somber occasion. "Mr. Stark invited me to go driving with him!"
"He did?" Carol looked up at her confused, but only for a moment before she smiled. "That is lovely, Stephanie."
"I hear a great deal of equivocation in your voice." Stephanie sat next to her cousin, feeling some of her excitement deflate.
"Well... Mr. Stark very rarely takes rides with ladies," Carol admitted. "And certainly not so soon in the Season. I hesitate to say I misjudged his intentions, but it is peculiar behavior for Mr. Stark."
Stephanie, for a moment, let herself hope that Mr. Stark might mean something by it, but she kept her cousin, and Jessica's, warnings in mind.
In the intervening two weeks, she saw Mr. Stark no less than six times; he called on her twice, and they had three balls and other gatherings, where they danced exactly once, but on one occasion danced a waltz, and also saw each other at the opera. Mr. Stark and Lieutenant Rhodes both descended upon their - more modest - box to share pleasantries at one of the intermissions.
It was a Thursday, and the day broke clear and almost warm, more like a Spring day than Winter, and almost as soon as she had finished breakfast and morning gossip with Carol, a message arrived from Mr. Stark requesting her presence on that afternoon's ride. He also, quite pointedly, invited her to bring her sketchpad, as the early aspect of the Season would mean that the carriages would be far fewer, and the opportunities to see the vistas more frequent.
She sent her acceptance, and the hour - five o'clock - and awaited Mr. Stark's arrival.
"Probably best you got it over with then," Rhodey answered, not apologetic in the least. "You can lose your fancy of her, and let her get on with what she is actually here for: a husband, not a flirtation."
A traitorous, yet small, part of Anthony's mind said that he might not mind a marriage if Miss Rogers was as a pleasant lady to take rides with as she was to dance and call on. He did not share the thought with Rhodey, because he would surely face ridicule for it. "I hope you have your eye on Miss Danvers and a dance later tonight. A waltz, Rhodey, nothing less will do. You are absolutely the worst at announcing your intentions properly."
"And you do nothing but announce my intentions," Rhodey shot back, heated, but with no disrespect. After a long moment of reflection he continued more softly. "Barnes always spoke of her fondly."
"He no longer is able to say anything," Anthony answered.
The fact did pain him, that Miss Rogers was in the circumstance she was because of it only compounded the tragedy. His own father had made considerations in his marriage contract with his mother to assure that, even in the event his mother had not produced a son, she would not find herself destitute. The fact of most entailments kept that from being possible for many women bothered Anthony far more than many of his fellows because of the strong independence of his mother, her money, her education, and her candor. When it was listed among Anthony's character faults, it was often laid at the feet of his mother because she was an American, Anthony thought it was more rightly because his mother was Maria Stark née Carbonell.
Rhodey had made no response while his mind rambled, however, so he continued his ramble out loud. "You do not even know if the fondness was reciprocated. You have only the words of a soldier off at war, thinking of home, and even if Miss Danvers would have accepted, there is no use worrying over it. Miss Danvers will grow older, and more concerned about her ability to procure a husband, and she will accept some offer from a gentleman of less character than you because you could not make your intentions clear." Anthony gave a great sigh, and turned to Rhodey full on. "This would not vex you if you had simply asked last Season."
Barnes had still been alive at the time, and if the lady declined, then Rhodey would know, and if the lady accepted, he would always be secure in the knowledge that he was accepted above Barnes.
"And leave you a bachelor? How much trouble would you get into if I was not here for most of the Season with my wife keeping me closer to your estate than your town house?"
"I'm sure it would only be a little," Anthony answered, sure of nothing of the sort. "Go ahead, I will see you tonight."
"Where I can listen to you ramble on about the lovely Miss Rogers again, and again. Have a good drive, Tony." They hugged briefly, and then Anthony could not wait for long before all but yelling for Jarvis.
His man did not take it ill, thankfully, which may have had something to do with the fact that Anthony, maybe, if he were being honest with himself, had been all nerves about the weather for two weeks, waiting for a day that might not be too intemperate for Miss Rogers.
Despite his fumblings, he arrived punctually, and his one grooms was met by one from the Danvers household. They were ill matched, but Anthony thought it more important that Mrs. Barnes feel her daughter well-chaperoned, especially as it was so early in the Season and they were unlikely to draw the same attention as they would have later.
After he had Miss Rogers settled, they headed towards the Park. "You could not have crafted a more perfect day, Mr. Stark."
"I would claim some hand in it, Miss Rogers, but then it would have been last week at the latest." He noted that Miss Rogers had a sketchbook clutched in her hands so hard her knuckles were slightly white. "If you wish to stop to enjoy some view or other, you must only let me know, and we shall stop."
Miss Rogers nodded.
"Do not concern yourself with ignoring me, Miss Rogers, I enjoy some measure of quiet on a ride." She stayed silent in response. "Not a full measure, though. Did you enjoy the opera?"
They had already discussed during the intermission, nothing particularly cutting, but it had been pleasant, and Miss Rogers took the invitation to offer her thoughts, candid, but kindly put, and although Anthony had strong thoughts on the matter, Miss Rogers had no trouble speaking her mind to the contrary.
He did not even realize that they had passed a good twenty minutes in conversation until Miss Rogers's attention seemed momentarily lost over his shoulder. They had dispensed with Rotten Row, and were now circling the Serpentine, and the view had apparently taken Miss Rogers's fancy, so, as promised, he urged his man to stop, and after a gentle encouragement, Miss Rogers made use of her pad and pencils.
In spite of his own words, Anthony did not find himself thinking great thoughts, he found himself watching Miss Rogers as she made first a study of the general form of her composition, and then what might be a note as to the details for further exploration later. Miss Rogers had very nice hands.
In truth, Miss Rogers had very nice everything. It was considered poor form to note, but Anthony had, that she was neatly formed, womanly, and although her hair was mostly covered by a bonnet, stray curls of honeyed blonde hair were visible around the ears. So while Miss Rogers passed her time enamored with one sort of view, Anthony spent it admiring another.
"I--" Miss Rogers closed her book. "I think I can finish this later, Mr. Stark. There is no reason to spend all our ride here."
"Will I at least be treated to the finished project?" He asked.
Her response was to bow her head slightly, and blush, but there was a happy curl to her lip that Anthony could not mistake. "If you would like."
The ride itself continued, and they were forced to make very few hellos. It was far too early to need to see and be seen the way it would be in the full of Spring.
"Have you had any particularly interesting thoughts, that would be fit for a lady's ear, Mr. Stark?" She asked, obviously teasing him about his original instruction to her.
He had had not a single thought, not one, that did not pertain to Miss Rogers and her beauty. "Matters concerning Parliament, mostly," he answered, making himself a liar, but he did eventually continue. "I confess I am at a loss as to what is the best light for a drawing or a painting. Today is temperate, but is it the best for your art?"
"It is a very good day for it," Miss Rogers answered, and she did seem to consider for a moment. "For a sketch I like the sun - although a parasol or bonnet becomes paramount - bright enough that the details are illuminated, or that light could be seen through the trees, but not so bright as to cause a glare off of the water or a lighter stone. Wind is also the natural enemy of paper."
Anthony smiled at the last, because he had on at least one occasion seen a solicitor or some other man of letters whose papers were scattered to the wind in an inopportune gust. Miss Rogers's answering smile said she knew of the happening, or something similar.
"I will keep a thought to the weather, then, and perhaps send another letter some afternoon when we could make another ride."
"I would like that very much, Mr. Stark."
They circled the Serpentine, and spoke of fishing, and Anthony mentioned his desire to visit Mr. Barton over the next fall and the hunting there. Miss Rogers feigned ignorance, as it was a far too gentlemanly pursuit, and spoke instead of the pleasure of the table to follow, but Anthony noted she seemed well-versed in more hunting than was to be expected. He would have wagered that fault was on Lieutenant Barnes, but he did not bring up for fear of ruining Miss Rogers's good cheer.
Fate was against him on that matter, however. "My father and... and my brother would always go out with guests. We ha..." She tried, she very much did, but the memory was harder than she had expected, it seemed. "We had boar, although they were not so dangerous as the ones you sometimes hear of."
"You enjoy it?" He asked.
She replied in the affirmative. "I count it among my favorites."
"My estate has good boar hunting," he said, only a moment later realizing how it must have sounded, and then a moment beyond that realizing that he did not care if Miss Rogers took it as an invitation to consider his home, and the potential for her place in it.
"That is very fortunate for your guests, then." Miss Rogers answered, but her tiny smile gave Anthony a certain amount of hope.
"And those who live there," he agreed, and her tiny smile grew a fraction at that, but she turned away to glance over the lake rather than at him.
They continued on the topic of travels - less fraught than the topic of Anthony's home - which ended up as a recitation of some of the cousins Miss Rogers counted as close enough to be on visiting terms with. The topic ended with an uncle of Mrs. Barnes's who Miss Rogers informed him was the patron of their good fortune to not be out of home. Miss Rogers did not say as much, but that was clearly the summary. Sadly, Anthony knew the estate at least passably, and knew it to be small; any such house that would have been let to a cousin would needs be even smaller. Anthony would have been surprised it the house had a dozen rooms.
Miss Rogers, for all she'd fumbled over the mention of her brother, seemed happy and resolute concerning the topic of her lodging, and Anthony wondered if she might chance the failure of a Season if she did not mind the exile. She did have Miss Danvers, another Season in London wasn't beyond possibility.
Anthony imagined the potential fondness of being able to exchange letters with Miss Rogers... which then led to the thought of being unable to, because she had not been so contented with that station and had been forced to marry. He realized, very suddenly, that the idea was intolerable.
It was intolerable that he could not take Miss Rogers driving again tomorrow; it was intolerable that he could not dance with her as many times as they wanted tonight. Anthony's sudden confrontation with the intolerable made him feel ill.
By the time he had taken Miss Rogers home, and kissed her hand, he had already begun to compose the letter to his mother in his head.
He had since called, and seen her finished sketches from their ride, and commented on their accuracy and skill, they had even discussed literature from time to time, and Stephanie should like nothing so much as to see him every day.
She had tried to remain impassive, but it was simply not working.
"I think I should refuse him the next time he calls," she told Carol as they gossiped in the morning. "One more comment about my reading or my drawing or his desire to see me paint, or hear me sing again, and I will--" She did not know what she would do, but she thought of Mr. Stark constantly now, and his good opinion of her seemed to know no bounds, even when she stumbled on the strictest matters of propriety, even when she protested strong opinions, he seemed to find it entirely charming and he continued to call.
"Stephie, I know I spoke as I did and warned you off Mr. Stark, but I have seen him and the way he looks at you. He's asked you on a drive and clearly intends to make another turn at it. He danced with you at every party, even when there are more than enough ladies to fill his card without you. He calls on you weekly. I do not think you should count on his proposal, but-- it seems far more possible than I've ever seen before. And I came out about the same time he began spending the Season in earnest. Three Seasons of behavior, never deviated from, until he danced with you."
She had no reply.
"At least your Mr. Stark actually takes you on carriage rides. Lieutenant Rhodes continues to be the most tentative of suitors."
"He looks at you with fondness, Carol. Perhaps he fears you made of glass, and too rough handling will not be tolerated."
Carol made an elaborate show of huffing. "I have accidentally trod on his feet - and him on mine - enough that he should know I do not require delicate handling."
They both grinned and then started to giggle, only to be interrupted by Mrs. Barnes coming in, looking far happier than Stephanie had seen her in months. In her hand, she held card on crisp, and heavy stock. "Then did Mrs. Danvers tell you, already?"
Stephanie shook her head. She had been told nothing by Mrs. Danvers since breakfast.
"We are invited to Mr. Stark's, for an intimate dinner."
Stephanie gaped, indelicately, for only a breath before she closed her mouth. "A dinner?"
"Mr. Stark only has one dinner a year, Mrs. Barnes," Carol said, frowning. "It is later in the Season and always Mrs. Stark is in attendance."
"The invitation is from Mrs. Stark," Mrs. Barnes answered, holding out the card so that Stephanie might see.
"Mr. Stark's mother?" Stephanie asked, admiring the card and the penmanship of the invitation, it looked hand done, not by a printer. "Why would she have her party so early in the Season?"
When she glanced back up, she saw both her mother and Carol looking at her as though she had said something very stupid.
"Mrs. Stark's party is always made up of whatever ladies Mr. Stark has taken a shine to that Season," Carol explained. "It also always includes Mr. Xavier and his sister although it's long since been accepted that that match is not to occur by everyone except Miss Xavier. With the former Mr. Stark deceased, Mrs. Stark is the one who must be pleased with any potential choice of wife."
Carol and her mother then returned to looking at her.
"You cannot be serious," Stephanie protested. "How am I to impress her?"
"You'll be fine, Stephie," Carol said, rushing up to put her arms to Stephanie's shoulders. "Mrs. Stark is said to be quite willful. You know how Americans are. Mr. Stark met her in America, and I heard that they had danced once before he asked her father for her hand, to which, Mr. Carbonell said 'well it's her that has to marry you, Stark', and he spent four months in New York taking her about to everything and anything she desired."
That was all well and good, an American behaving like that, but Stephanie didn't think that Mrs. Stark would be impressed by some pretentious miss behaving that way. There was also the fact that everyone took it as given that Mrs. Stark was there for Stephanie. Carol and her parents and brothers were invited, as were Jessica and her father, Miss Xavier, of course, so Stephanie thought it far more likely that she was simply included because of Carol, no matter what anyone else said on the matter.
Of course, Mr. Stark had to ruin her defenses by saying, as he escorted her for a turn around Almack's, that he was looking forward to Stephanie and his mother meeting.
"It's all very daunting," she said.
"I will let you in on a secret, Miss Rogers: the severity is all for show, she is really quite friendly."
It was even more daunting when they finally had their dinner, herself, her mother, and the Danverses all arriving in one carriage and were announced with some fanfare to be met by Mrs. Stark. She was stunning, even past forty she was beautiful enough to turn heads, with the same dark hair as Mr. Stark, and the same bright blue eyes that seemed constantly appraising. Her face betrayed no emotion one way or the other during their introductions, and Stephanie fought heavily against the urge to fidget.
The conversation was easy - Carol and Jessica's presence helped steady Stephanie's nerves immensely - and both Mrs. Stark and Mr. Stark played their own roles very well, with Mr. Stark falling effortlessly into the role of 'bachelor son' to an important woman more than of master of his house, without seeming subsumed. Mr. Stark very clearly loved his mother, and that also warmed Stephanie, as she had worried he would not appreciate her.
Mrs. Stark did not spend much time speaking with Stephanie, no more or less than any guest, though. "Miss Rogers, I recognized you instantly, you are exactly as my son described you. Perhaps a touch taller."
Stephanie felt the strong urge to shrink. Mrs. Stark was stately, but Stephanie was taller than her, closer in height with Mr. Stark.
"Don't do that, dear," Mrs. Stark said. "Tall is good."
She relaxed into herself again. "Your son has been quite kind to me," she ventured, attempting to take Mr. Stark at his word that his mother was not so icy as she might appear.
Stephanie than suffered a brief interrogation as to her family - it was far less elevated than any other guest - and then on the topic of her reading - James had always said she was overread, but that was his fault as much as hers; She could not tell if Mrs. Stark was satisfied, or dissatisfied, but they were called to the table, where they were seated by rank. It left Stephanie as far away from Mr. Stark as possible, even at the relatively small dining table, but fairly near enough to Jessica that their eyes could meet and she offered a few smiles of support.
Dinner was divine, and by the third course she had noticed a certain pattern to the meal, and that it was composed of many items that Stephanie had, at one point or another, expressed a fondness for to Mr. Stark. It was not every item, but as many as could decently be fit into a single meal, and the boar was exceptionally well done, and an odd season for it. Even Carol made an effort to meet her eyes, and his mother, seated near her, had obviously caught the thrust as well.
Afterwards, the ladies withdrew, which left Stephanie without the distraction of Mr. Stark, but left her with the terror that was Mrs. Stark. But rather than being formidable, they simply took a few turns about the room while Mrs. Stark asked about her son, about her favorite book and her favorite opera - books she had several, but she was forced to admit the one she had seen a few weeks ago was her first opera, but Mrs. Stark didn't seem to think her uncouth for it.
Mrs. Stark asked her to play and sing, which she did, and after that, as a matter of course, there was more playing and singing, but their was an air that suggested that was not the purpose of the evening.
It was all unfaltering in its politeness, and Stephanie had never felt so exposed, especially as she knew she must have stumbled, both in conversation and her playing, but Mrs. Stark seemed not to notice at all, and her friends all gave her a quiet, but sure, support.
The evening drew to its inevitable close, and Mr. Stark saw her off with a kiss to the hand and no further assurances of any sort; by the time she, her mother, and the Danverses were in their carriage, she thought she might pop. Then she was beset upon by stares and then questions on all sides, wherein Stephanie was forced to admit that the evening had been, although obviously much about Mrs. Stark meeting Stephanie, that there was no particular tone of a mother's interrogation to it.
"She is American," Carol said. "I had thought she might challenge you to a horse race."
The entire carriage, thankfully, found it funny.
There was no visit or call for the next two days, and the ball that Stephanie next attended was the first where Mr. Stark was not in attendance. Lieutenant Rhodes made a point to dance with her, and inform her that Mr. Stark was spending more time with his mother while she was in, which seemed better than if he had not thought it important to mention to Stephanie.
Everyone except Stephanie seemed convinced there would be a final visit on the horizon, but Mr. Stark did not visit on her at home day, the first time since she came to London that he had not. That evening, though he sent a letter requesting the pleasure of her company, and after some discussion it was decided that he would be invited for tea the next day.
Stephanie had wanted to suggest a ride, as she did so love Hyde Park, and its connection with Mr. Stark was absolute in her mind by then. Mrs. Barnes insisted, however, that Mr. Stark should come to visit her at home; if there were groomsmen present there would be gossip as soon as a question was asked, at home it would be private.
Her sleep was poor that night, and although she hoped, she did not dare count on Mr. Stark's call as anything other than a reacquainting after several days absence.
It did not take much for her to decide that Stephanie was of a good sort of character.
"You look very handsome," she said, brushing her hands over his shoulders and smiling up at him. "I will be here when you return, tea for success-- otherwise I think it wiser to leave you to your brandy."
Anthony tried not to think of that, but his mother was not wrong.
"You remind me of your father. He was his own bundle of nerves every time we were out, concerned over every little detail." She gave his coat a gentle tug as well, even though it was neat as could be.
"Did it ever bother you that people thought he married you for the money?"
"Everyone from his solicitor to his servants' fishmonger knew that it was not for the money," she answered. "You, on the other hand, everyone will be certain you married that one for love."
"And you are fine with that?" Anthony asked, again, for what must have been the two dozenth time. "When I think about the idea that she might be married to someone else, it makes me ill. She is far too sweet for that, and if I delay she might be lost to me forever."
"Anthony." His mother slid her arms around him in a tight hug. "I would never begrudge you that after your father and I did the same. She is a sweet girl, and what she does not already know she will learn, and even if she did not attend Oxford, I think she will run circles around you on some things. Even if it's not reflected in name or title, she has a great character. Now go, silly boy, you do not want to be late."
He was not late, but he was still nervous, and his intentions had been very plain indeed, with tea being brought for just the pair of them, although he had no delusions that they would be left alone long.
"Miss Rogers... thank you for the invitation to tea."
Miss Rogers smiled, but it was her faltering one, the one that spoke of false cheer, and Anthony worried, for the moment, that the question would be unwelcome, but the worry passed in a moment. "I thought perhaps you meant to take your leave for some time."
"Never. It is perhaps my greatest fault: withdrawing when I have something heavy on my mind, a question of some import and magnitude." He took a deep breath, and looked into Miss Rogers's eyes, clear and blue, and meeting his own. "I suppose there is no living with me then."
Miss Rogers obviously ached to speak, so much so that Anthony noted she had her lip between her teeth, as subtly as she was able. She would have had very strict instructions, although Anthony was well aware how she felt about those, even if she tried to hide that part.
"I find myself enamored with you. My thoughts, before filled with all manner of things are now consumed by you. I wish to take you anywhere you desire. I wish to see you by my side. I feel I am at my best beside you. You are sensible and kind, honorable and courteous, and far too sharp to be with someone who would not also appreciate the occasional edge." Anthony felt his own heart pounding in his throat, but the next was the most important of parts, the only important part. "Miss Stephanie Rogers, would you do me the honors of consenting to be my wife?"
There was a moment of silence, in which Anthony could hear nothing but the pounding of his pulse in his ears. That passed, and Miss Rogers reached out and took his hand in both of hers, squeezing. "Of course I will, Mr. Stark."
They had only a few moments, his hands and hers linked between them, and he had those seconds to look into her eyes, the same deep blue he had noted a little over two months ago when they had first met. A fairly conspicuous sort of noise came from the hall, and Mrs. Barnes entered a few seconds later, long enough that he and Miss Rogers were able to spring apart and look not at all innocent.
With the question already asked and answered, Anthony was emboldened enough to stand, and greet Mrs. Barnes with only some degree of trepidation. "Mrs. Barnes, I have asked for your daughter's hand in marriage, and she has accepted. I hope you will approve of our union, because I cannot imagine your daughter's continued assent if you were to oppose."
"I think you'll soon find that Stephie does exactly as she pleases when she thinks it is for the best," Mrs. Barnes answered, causing her daughter to blush instantly. "But you both also have my approval." She gave him a warm smile, and then clasped his shoulders and looked up at him. She then picked up a piece of needlepoint, and retired from the farthest point in the room from where Miss Rogers sat.
Anthony considered that to be all the chaperonage they would require, and sat next to Miss Rogers. The reality of the moment sunk in when he took up her hand again.
"Did you know," Miss Rogers said, her thumb running over the back of his hand. "I always feel you see my faults as benefits."
"I was not aware you had any faults, Miss Rogers," Anthony answered. When she looked up at him, he gave her a smile enough to let her know it was intended to be humorous. He did love her 'faults', how much time she spent on her art, her forthrightness when it came to speaking her mind, and her willingness to argue when she felt her thoughts correct.
They spent the next half hour or so planning a few fine details. Anthony wanted a day or two to broach the subject of his engagement with Charles, so that he could also break that news to Miss Xavier, and Miss Rogers was glad enough for that as well. She wanted the time to allow the news to settle into her mind.
"And... I know I shouldn't care what the gossip is, but I know our courtship has been quick, by any standards." Miss Rogers blushed, again. "My feelings are true, but..."
"It has an appearance," Anthony said, knowing she was correct. "We will wait as long as you like. I shall even hold off on telling Mr. Xavier if you would like. I have brought you this, however." He brought out a necklace, delicately molded. "I think it will be no surprise to learn it is my mother's, but she agreed it would look exceptional on you. Wear it close to your heart."
Eventually it was agreed upon that Anthony should depart, and he did so with great reluctance, and he let his lips linger over Miss Rogers's hand longer than strictly appropriate, but Mrs. Barnes did not seem to mind as she smiled, showing him to the door.
He gave the good fortunate to his mother, and upon learning that the engagement would be on the longer side agreed that she was not interested in spending the rest of the Season in London awaiting the marriage, so she would return home and attend to the various happenings there.
Anthony and Rhodey celebrated at one of the gentlemen's clubs, where they both diced and played cards, and enjoyed the good times and fortunes, and when Anthony poured his friend into a carriage he reminded him that it was now entirely important that he make haste with Miss Danvers, as he was wholly unprepared to enter matrimony alone.
It had been little more than a day, when the happiest, most wonderful and most joyous of tidings completely tore apart his own happiness.
She and Carol spent the next morning considering the particulars of the wedding, when might be the most appropriate, and when she wished to return with Mr. Stark to his estate; Stephanie would also need to broach the topic of mother, because Stephanie did not want her mother to continue in that mean little cottage on her cousin's estate.
"You must stay the whole Season," Carol insisted. "Even if you are married earlier along. No matter what Mr. Stark wants, you cannot let him steal you away to the country so soon."
"I will speak to him about it on our ride." She set her hands gently on her lap, considering Mr. Stark, and her great affection for him. "Oh, Carol, I thought for certain I would find myself with someone with far more unattractive qualities than Mr. Stark. He seems entirely dedicated to my happiness, so I am certain he will allow us to stay the Season if I request it."
"It is because he is so madly in love with you," Carol answered, with a smile. "I've seen so many matches where it seems as though the husband dotes only rarely on his wife, and she would rather be at home than suffer through his presence. I am so happy you have avoided such a fate, no matter the situation that you were in."
"I did not know I could be so happy. I thought it would never be so again, but Mr. Stark has lightened my heart and helped to brighten the shadows." There would always be that hole in her heart, which her brother used to inhabit, but Mr. Stark helped mend the worst of that hurt.
"You two are disgustingly well matched, I think," Carol said, grinning.
Their giggle lasted only a moment, until Mrs. Barnes opened the door, pale as a sheet, a hand clutched over her heart.
"Mamma?" Stephanie said, concerned for her mother's color; she was not the sort of lady prone to vapors and her countenance frightened Stephanie.
A man entered the doorway, dark hair long and not well kept, with enough dark clothes that he looked like he might have been a burglar of some sort, but with the left arm of his jacket tied off to show that there was no left arm to be had on him. He did not appear to threaten, so much as menace by his very presence, and although Mamma still seemed alarmed she did not seem frightened.
The man's face was rough with several day's growth, but it was finally the eyes, a deep brown, but warm, that made her recognize him. The nose was the same, and the chin familiar even under the stubble, but it was the eyes that were so clearly those of her brother that it shocked her to the core.
"Stephie?" The man said, soft and kind despite his rough appearance, and that was her brother's voice as well, a voice she had not heard in over a half a year.
His smile was bright and instantaneous. That was her James, and she flew to him in a moment and wrapped her arms tight around him although he smelled of horses and the road and the river nothing could have been more right than the fact she was holding her brother, and he was holding her, his arm around her back and pulling her close.
"James," she said again, more sure of herself now. "How I have missed you every day that you were not here."
His hand rested on her neck while her faced tucked in against his shoulder and she found she had started to weep. It was all so familiar, a reminder of a happier time before her fears and her anxieties about her future and mamma's had overtaken her.
Her brother, here, alive, safe, and mostly whole; there was no greater thing she could have imagined. Even Mr. Stark was forgotten for the moment, her brother the center of her world.
"I began home as soon as I was well enough," James said, hand still along her neck. "I made the greatest haste I was able to, but I had been sick with fever and worry for months."
Mamma seemed to have gathered her senses again, and a hand on each of her children's shoulders. "A grand explanation can wait for tea, and for you to wash the road off of you," she said to her son. When James had reluctantly stepped away, her mother also nudged Stephanie along. "Your brother has, as usual, gotten you muddy."
The command was less direct but no less obvious, and Stephanie called for some water to rinse the worst of her own grime and change. She arrived back downstairs far sooner than James, and Mr. Danvers greeted her in the sitting room. He and Mamma were discussing the need for a solicitor to deal with the complicated matter of James no longer being dead.
When James returned, he was changed into clothes that seemed neat and well made, but not any that Stephanie recognized, darker colors, and meant for cooler weather. Without a word, he sat at Stephanie's left, and when his hand was offered, Stephanie took it in both of hers, smiling up at him. He had seen to a shave, and his hair was neatened back enough to no longer fall in front of his eyes, but a haircut was demanded.
"I will take care of the matter of the solicitor, Mr. Barnes," Mr. Danvers assured him. "It may be several days or weeks, but the matter will be resolved, and your home is open to us while the concern remains."
"Thank you, Mr. Danvers," James answered, and he gave Stephanie's hand yet another squeeze. "I was more concerned with my mother and sister knowing I was alive."
Mr. Danvers took his cue, and he smiled, and left the Barneses to their reunion. Stephanie was crying as soon as Mr. Danvers had left.
"Don't cry, Stephie, please. Only happy tears."
"They are happy tears," Stephanie protested. "I had not imagined I could ever be so happy again, and yet you have been returned to us." It had been such a week, Mr. Stark's proposal, and then her brother's return, it was all of the things that she had sometimes dreamed of but never allowed herself to hope for.
"I was worried the measures you might take after my death, Stephanie," James said, squeezing her hand. "I am returned, my lands and fortune will be restored, and there is no need for you to be here with the aim you no doubt have."
Stephanie looked up at him. "Which aim is that?"
"As soon as I heard you were in London, and with the Season starting... please tell me no scoundrel has talked you into accepting his hand," he said, his hand clinging to hers. "It was my greatest fear as I traveled."
"No..." Stephanie answered, unsure what to say. "He is not a scoundrel at all."
James's face fell. "You are engaged. There was no need, I was flying home," his voice had started to grow frantic, as it often did when James was upset or distressed, as his mind struggled for a solution. "I will go to him. I will tell him that he does not have my permission to wed you. If honor demands it, I will duel him, but I will not have you trapped by him."
"James," she said, her hand on his shoulder, trying to calm him. "James, James, please. There is no need for that. Mamma is pleased with the match, I am pleased with the match. I love him quite strongly and he dotes on me and he is so kind."
James looked into her eyes, perhaps searching for deceit, and then he looked towards Mrs. Barnes, who gave the most agreeable of smiles. "He is a great gentleman, James."
"A gentleman he may be, but he has taken advantage of your circumstance. You deserve the world, Stephie. He cannot have known you for longer than two months, and you say you are in love?"
"I am in love," Stephanie answered, cross with her brother now for not believing her. "And he is in love with me. Everyone noticed it from the first, he brought his mother to town early so that she could meet me and he could ask for my hand and both Carol and Jessica agree that Mr. Stark has paid his attentions to me quite constantly since our very first meeting."
"Mr. Anthony Stark? I had it from his man, Lieutenant Rhodes, that he is an inveterate flirt."
"And yet he asked for my hand not two days ago," she answered. "James, if there was any doubt in my heart, I would not have said yes to him; his fortune would not have made up for it if I thought he did not care for me. That we even met at all is an even happier accident. I would not have been in town, I would not have met him, and I would not have been nearly so happy, had I not felt the need to come in search of a husband."
Stephanie wrapped her brother up in a hug, clinging to him.
"You always said you wanted me to be happy. I have my brother returned and I am to marry a man who loves and understands me. You do not need to duel for my honor, or demand he ask your permission, because if you deny him, James, I will be so cross with you for ruining my happiness."
James, finally, seemed to have accepted her word, but he did glance to mamma. "What do you have to say on the subject, Mrs. Barnes?"
"He meets with my every approval."
Stephanie felt the worry in her heart lessen, and she returned to her sitting next to James, smiling at him.
"I still want to meet him," James said. "It is not right that a man marry another man's sister without meeting his approval. I will not withhold my permission, Stephie, do not pout, but I will meet him and I will take his measure for myself."
"I do not believe you will find him wanting," Stephanie assured her brother. "He thinks of my happiness before all else.
Stephanie felt so certain of her love for Mr. Stark, and felt certain that her love was returned. She had no concerns over him eventually finding favor with James. Everything was working out better than she could even imagine. She had her brother back from the dead, she had a fiancé who she adored, and everything was going so well for her.
"Lieutenant Barnes, miraculously returned from Russia, missing one arm, but in good health otherwise." Anthony had heard in the early morning. One of the valets from the Danvers residence was partial to Jarvis, and although it was still under wraps that a proposal had been made, the fact that one was expected was not lost on the servants; Hughes, the Danvers valet, had made certain to tell Anthony's man at the market all the details.
"You sound like I feel." Rhodey sat down near Anthony and sighed. "With Barnes returned, Miss Danvers will once again be uninterested in me. Why are you sullen? Your fiancée's brother is returned to her from the dead. She had missed him for months."
"I am exceedingly happy for her," Anthony said, putting his book down on the table there and standing. "I love Miss Rogers, and I am happy to have her promise, but the return of the Lieutenant leaves my heart weary for another reason."
Rhodey looked up at him, confused, as Anthony paced.
"Miss Rogers was only in London because of the loss of Lieutenant Barnes. Miss Rogers was only considering a husband because of the loss of Lieutenant Barnes."
"Don't be ridiculous, all ladies want a good marriage and a good husband. She would have said yes in either case."
"And thus my entreaty to you has become your entreaty to me. Did I not tell you, time and again, that there was no use concerning yourself with whether or not Miss Danvers would have accepted your suit if Lieutenant Barnes had been alive? And now I find myself questioning whether or not Miss Rogers would have accepted had Lieutenant Barnes been alive." Anthony sighed, and rubbed his hands down the sides of his face before he continued. "How will I ever know for certain?"
"You're one of the most eligible bachelors in England," Rhodey answered. "You could have proposed to Miss Danvers - regardless of Lieutenant Barnes being living or dead - and she would have accepted."
"But Miss Rogers is not Miss Danvers; Miss Rogers did not envy herself the Season in London, and she had told me once that Lieutenant Barnes was very discriminating in the people he would allow to court her, even at home." Anthony paced the small space of the room. "Am I to marry her, never being certain that she truly wanted me?"
"You think Miss Rogers agreed to marry you for your money?" Rhodey asked, voice dripping with skepticism.
"Well certainly I do not believe it was the only factor, no." Tony knew her well enough for that. "No, the trouble is would she have agreed so soon? Would she have agreed at all? Would Mrs. Barnes have preferred a longer courtship? Would Mr. Barnes have even consented to the marriage at all? Even I can admit I would not have asked so soon were I not worried for her circumstances myself. I feel no regret for that, Rhodey, and I do not believe I ever will, but I am not Miss Rogers."
"So since she no longer needs to be married, you are worried she would no longer want to be married?"
"That is an excellent summary."
Rhodey stood, and came over to his his hands on Anthony's shoulders, pausing him so he could not expel more nervous energy. "I have never met a single lady who did not want to be married."
"I should at least offer her the option. I shall go to her, and confess my continued feelings, and tell her that, if she should have any reason to not wish to be joined to me any longer, then our engagement can be broken with no honor lost on either side." That was the benefit of their secret, then.
"But you want to marry her."
"Not like this," Anthony answered. "I love her, more than I ever believed possible, and I will not have her bound to a marriage of necessity if it is not also of love."
Rhodey shook his head, and sighed, but he knew Anthony too well to argue when he had set his mind to something. "Then go, talk to her, and I hope she tells you exactly how ridiculous a fear that is."
Anthony did not call the day of the news concerning Lieutenant Barnes, even he thought it was best to leave the family to their time at home, but he did arrive the next day to find Mrs. Barnes most happy to see him, and Lieutenant Barnes most cross. They exchanged a handshake, but the Lieutenant did not even bother to hide his dislike, and when Mrs. Barnes ushered out the Lieutenant to leave him along with Miss Rogers, it was clear that Miss Rogers was very cross about the whole thing.
"I apologize for not calling yesterday as I said I would, but I thought it best with the news..."
Miss Rogers smiled at that. "Mr. Stark, I cannot believe how happy I am to have my brother returned to me."
Anthony knit their fingers together between them, and he looked over to Miss Rogers. "It made my heart glad to hear of it." It was not quite true; he would never have wished the man to remain dead, but the complication did make him weary. "It did make me wish to speak to you on a matter of some importance."
"Of course." She turned so that she would face him further, and Anthony gave her hands a gentle squeeze.
"I love you." Her smile brightened in response, so much that Anthony felt he was glowing just by looking at her. "I cannot imagine anyone else I would like to spend my life with than you, Miss Rogers."
"I believe we covered this when you proposed, Mr. Stark," she said, a laugh in her voice, but the blush to her cheeks belied the comfort with the declaration.
"We did." He took a deep breath. "My honor demands I make a different sort of offer now. I do wish us to be wed, but if your brother's return has changed your regard or your desire in any way, I am prepared to stand aside. The engagement has not been made public, and no honor or standing would be lost on either side."
"Why would I ever wish to do so?" Miss Rogers asked, in such a tone as to give Anthony hope that she had no such intention.
He did feel he must make it clear. Honor usually precluded the breaking of an engagement, so the circumstances might be odd. "Your reasons for coming to London for a Season were plain and I made haste in my own proposal for fear I might lose you. If you would like to delay, to allow us longer to court before the decision is finalized, if you find less need of me after your brother's return... I want to marry you only if it is with the full conviction of your heart."
"You..." Miss Rogers looked down at their joined hands. "You would not have asked were it not for my circumstances?"
Anthony felt himself immediately on unsettled ground from the question. "I would have. It would have perhaps been not so early in the Season, but my intentions were plain to me since our first ride, perhaps sooner."
"So you asked out of fear that I did not have the character to refuse a man I did not love?" Miss Rogers pulled her hands away from Anthony. "My brother returns from the dead and tells me I do not know my own mind, and then my fiancé comes to continue the insult the very next day. Do you not trust me, Mr. Stark?"
"I do," he protested. "I trust you with my heart most completely."
"But you did not trust me. You did not trust me to ignore other men's suits because I required a husband; you did not trust me to decline if they offered; you did not trust me to have said yes to you because I love you. I was glad of your proposal when it came, but now I am not so glad." Miss Rogers stood, and took several steps away from him. "I do not think you can love me, Mr. Stark, if you do not trust me."
Anthony had never considered that this might be Miss Rogers's response, he'd thought that perhaps she would be glad, or flattered, and then hopefully would tell him his concerns were for naught, and they would be happy again; the same woman who enjoyed arguing with him about the opera and art and dancing had now been offended by the slight to her honor, and the answer was a knife in the chest.
"I--" He stood, he could not think with her so tall over him. "I had intended to speak to Xavier today, and tell him of my happy news, but... I realize you are cross with me, Miss Rogers. I did not mean it as a slight to your honor, it was a practical matter of our circumstances. I will do anything to make amends, Miss Rogers, anything."
Miss Rogers, to his horror, reached up behind her neck to unhook the clasp of his mother's necklace, and then took the few steps it would take to press it to his chest. "They pray do not consider us engaged, Mr. Stark. I will not marry you if you do not do me the courtesy of trusting me to know the mind you say you love."
His hand came up to catch the necklace where she had pressed it. "Very well," he said, although the words felt choked out. "I-- may I call again, perhaps in a week or so?"
"No, Mr. Stark, I would prefer if you did not."
The hand holding the locket to his chest was a fair cover for his action when he pressed his hand to his heart, unable to stop the ache within at her words. He could not imagine having so offended her, and his own advice to Rhodey, and the advice echoed back to him, reminded him he could have kept his tongue and been happy, but he could not have been. No matter the reasons, the change in circumstance had changed Miss Rogers's heart, and the doubt that would have plagued Anthony would have been just. "I love you, Miss Rogers. I do not believe I ever will stop, but we are no longer engaged, and I will not call on you again. I thank you for the brightest two months of my life, and farewell."
He somehow made his departure with some measure of manners, kissing Mrs. Barnes's hand and shaking Lieutenant Barnes's in turn, and he made his way to his carriage and home, where despite it being a great show of weakness, he locked himself in his study and wept.
"Stephie?" Her mother asked as she opened the door, James only a second behind her.
"Stephie!" James was at her side in a moment, an arm over her shoulder, and Stephanie fell into his embrace a moment later. No longer holding back her sobs. "What did he do? I will go after him at once. I knew he was a scoundrel, I will not tolerate it. I will duel him in the streets I do not care about propriety. Stephie, what did he do?"
She did not answer, only cried more deeply into James's jacket as he tried to sooth her.
Her mother tried to hush her, and the three of them sat back down as James hugged her and her mother rubbed circles into her back. "What happened. Mr. Stark looked pale. I have never seen him so."
It took several minutes of soothing before Stephanie felt well enough to pull her head from where she tried into James's chest, and she was able to explain what had transpired. "Mr. Stark told me that he still loved me and still wished to be wed, but if I had reason to wish to no longer be engaged he was prepared to break our engagement with honor preserved on both sides."
Neither her mother or brother spoke for a moment. "But, Stephie, that is great!" James answered. "You said he loved you, and indeed he loved you well enough to allow you to leave if you chose."
"I could not believe he would think that of me," Stephanie said. "After I had confessed my own affection, he thought that I would be that changeable. I told me if he thought so little of my resolve, that I did not wish to be engaged to him any longer."
"What!?" Mamma said, behind her. "What were you thinking?"
"Mrs. Barnes, peace," James said, and then pulled Stephanie in for hug. "Our Stephie has her pride. When tempers are cooled in a few days or a week, hopefully your Mr. Stark will be prepared to call again. If he understood the need to offer you an exit, he should also understand your pride."
"I told him not to call," Stephanie answered.
James sighed. He did sit with her though, and Stephanie cried, although he tried to remind her that she did love the man, which was odd, because not a day ago James had hated Mr. Stark quite vehemently.
"I understand," Carol told her, after supper. "Did you know Mr. Rhodes did not call on me today, even though it is my at home day and he had said that he would call? No, apparently I am only to be called on while his friend is courting you, not after."
Stephanie hugged her cousin around the shoulders, and they considered the changeability of men.
Mr. Stark did not call, and the day when Mr. Stark had said they would go out riding, he did not send a note, and the next three balls, Mr. Stark again did not attend.
Lieutenant Wilson, as usual, asked her to dance at all of them. She tried to lose herself in that conversation, enjoying his company, but if anything she was even more sad than she had been when she had though James dead. Her brother's passing had been a months old ache by the time she had come to London, her broken engagement to Mr. Stark was far fresher.
"You seem a bit distracted today, Miss Rogers," Lieutenant Wilson said as they were halfway through their second dance - a waltz.
"I suppose I have been melancholy of late," she replied.
"What reason could such a beautiful lady have to be melancholy?" He continued to lead her around the room, still smiling, still happy. "Your brother, my good friend, is returned to you."
Stephanie glanced over to where James was standing along one of the edges, avoiding the prospect of dancing with anyone but ladies he already was well acquainted with, Carol and Jessica, mostly, while he sat out most other dances. For this dance he was standing, looking almost sullen in the direction of her and Lieutenant Wilson.
"It gladdens me, but I suppose my thoughts have simply been more somber of late." There was no good reason for such a change. To Lieutenant Wilson, Stephanie had always been bright and happy, so the change was very noticeable to him. "He has a great deal on his mind."
"That is no cause to worry," Lieutenant Wilson assured her.
Stephanie thought it was, but she did not argue. Clearly Lieutenant Wilson did not understand that a weight on her brother would be a weight on her, and she could not confess that her somber mood was because of the sting of the loss of Mr. Stark, even when her brother was returned to her.
When they finished their dance, Stephanie returned to her brother's side only to see that he was deep in conversation with Lieutenant Rhodes, the latter fleeing the scene as soon as he noticed her approach.
"What did Lieutenant Rhodes want?" She asked, looping her arm through his.
"Just a few trifles, nothing important."
She had the distinct impression that she was being lied to. "And the reason you were glaring daggers at Lieutenant Wilson?"
"I do not like how quick he was to press his suit," James answered.
"And yet that does not bother you about others?"
"Others were not off to war with me. At least a few of my fellows admired your beauty or asked what you enjoyed. Lieutenant Wilson did not seem interested at the time, and yet here he is, dancing every time he sees you."
James was being ridiculous, as usual, and they ended up retiring from the party fairly early due to his melancholy.
"Do you wish to speak on what happened?" Stephanie asked, as they returned from the ball alone.
"Lieutenant Wilson danced with you and I do not think he has a great affection for you," James answered.
She sighed. "I meant whatever has had you in this state since you returned. I do not think my dancing is important enough to make you so sullen."
"It's not for a lady's ears."
"That has never stopped you before."
"I--" He reached up and rubbed along the stump of his arm, the one that came only to the middle of his upper arm. "The weather pains me, some. I almost find I miss Russia. There are pieces of it I miss. I miss--" James seemed set to say something else, but he shook his head. "That will be settled soon enough. No, I am pained because of what happened between you and Mr. Stark."
"Talk not to me about Mr. Stark," she protested, immediately.
"I think that if I had delayed, or come sooner, you would not be so unhappy, but instead you dance with men you do not love, when there is a man you do love who would call on you in an instant if you gave him cause..." James's hand squeezed hers, and Stephanie allowed it even though she thought to protest.
James did have it true; she did still love Mr. Stark, she did not love Lieutenant Wilson, and when he had offered to take her driving in Hyde Park, all she could think was that it would remind her too much of Mr. Stark. She accepted, but knew her heart would be elsewhere. It was not simply pride that kept her from writing to Mr. Stark. "I think he would not love me, anymore."
"I think he does," James answered. "You wounded him deeply, and the wound would not have been so deep were it not for the great depth of affection."
"He wounded me deeply."
James seemed to give up after that, and sighed. "Very well, Stephie. So even though he loves you, and you love him, you will allow yourself to be unhappy?"
In truth, she knew, with a few weeks between the slight and the present, that she had perhaps over-reacted. She knew Mr. Stark had not meant his offer unkindly, indeed he seemed to have earned a great friend in James by making the offer at all. She had just been so hurt by the offer, so soon after his proposal, as though she would change her mind so quickly... "I do not see how he could continue to love me after I hurt him so."
"And yet he offended you by implying he was changeable?"
The question cut because it was true. "I would not know what to say." It had never been a problem between her and Mr. Stark, they had always communicated so easily until the day they broke their engagement.
"Write him, ask him... ask him to think of you? He would call if you said he was welcome, I am sure of it." James brushed a curl off of her ear. "You are so good at letters."
"I do not think I am prepared for that," she said.
James sighed, and kissed her forehead, and then retired to bed.
"Master Anthony?" Jarvis pushed open the door to his study, where Anthony was hunched over a table, scribbling. "Lieutenant Barnes to see you." Jarvis offered the silver tray to show the card.
"I am not at home."
"Very good, sir." Jarvis left.
Anthony returned to his engineering and thought nothing else of Lieutenant Barnes until Jarvis returned a few minutes later.
"Lieutenant Barnes apologizes, and realizes it is not the done thing, but says it is most important he speaks to you."
He sighed, wiping the ink from his hands and neatening his shirt before he pulled on his jacket. "Tea, then." He then headed off to the drawing room.
Jarvis returned with Lieutenant Barnes a moment later, and Anthony joined him in sitting while Jarvis made the final preparations towards tea. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"
"I wanted to apologize, however belatedly."
Anthony was in no mood to hear it, whatever Lieutenant Barnes had done to wrong him, Anthony had more than contributed to his own failure with Miss Rogers.
"When I heard Stephanie was engaged, I panicked. I love her dearly and the idea that she had been forced into an engagement because of her circumstances pained me." James look a deep breath, and nodded. "I was quite firm that there was no way you could be a gentleman, or you could truly love her, and she protested vehemently. I fear if I had not been so... firm in my protests, perhaps she would not have felt so slighted by your visit."
"It does not matter anymore," Anthony assured him.
"So you no longer love her?"
"I said no such thing." Anthony still could not imagine a day when his emotions towards her had cooled. "It does not matter because your sister does not wish to see me any longer, and even if her ire may have cooled, I will not do her the disservice of assuming she again does not know her own mind and call on her, in direct contradiction of her wishes to me."
Barnes nodded, and they both remained silent as Jarvis came in and deposited the tea service, and Anthony served them both.
"My sister is willful."
"I had not noticed," Anthony answered, with a smile. It had been what he loved about her.
"She has taken to dancing with Lieutenant Wilson. He is taking her for a drive in a few days."
Anthony felt his throat constrict, and he looked down at his teacup. "I hope she is very happy with him."
"She isn't," Barnes answered. "She is sadder than I have ever seen her. Her sunny disposition has been clouded for weeks." James fumbled, slightly with the teacup and saucer. Not even the most agile could drink tea and hold a saucer in one hand.
Wordlessly, Anthony moved the service so it would be near enough to James to use as a table.
"Did you promise her you would not see her at balls?"
"She merely asked that I not call." 'Merely', the request had broken Anthony.
"Were you invited to the Murdock's?" Anthony nodded. "Come. Ask her to dance."
"She will say no," Anthony protested.
"Than ask her again."
Rhodey spoke to Anthony like this sometimes, and it was a surprise to realize that Anthony allowed it from Lieutenant Barnes because of how high a regard he had for Miss Rogers. Lieutenant Barnes was all but demanding he go to a ball, court his sister, and Anthony found himself considering it.
"Part of this blame lays with me," Lieutenant Barnes continued. "I do think she cares for Lieutenant Wilson, but she does not love him, and although he is a good soldier, I do not think he loves her. I have spent my whole life, since she was a young girl, protecting her from the world as best I could, and that has backfired. I have hurt her, and helped rob her of happiness. So, please."
"Very well, Lieutenant. I will see you at the Murdock's." Anthony took another sip of tea and then looked over at him. "Could I ask what changed your mind? It has been almost three weeks since your sister broke our engagement."
"Lieutenant Rhodes approached me and... informed me you... were still withdrawn. I took the chance that it meant you had not changed in your feelings towards my sister, just as she has not changed in her feelings for you. She had finally retreated into the moment where she feels foolish for her anger, but not so foolish that she would write to ask you to call."
Anthony took heart, and he did clean up and attend the Murdock's gathering. He requested a waltz of Miss Rogers, and as expected, she declined. He brooded on the failure for three dances before he asked again, and she accepted.
"You look well," he said, as soon as they were on the floor.
"You as well, Mr. Stark."
After the music had started and the dance had begun, Anthony considered what else he might say. "I have missed your company."
"... Myself as well, Mr. Stark."
"Have you been drawing?" He wanted to see her work, wanted to sit with her and hold her hand, wanted to dream of brushing a lock of hair off of her ear and kissing her there.
"I have not been in the mood," she answered.
"If the weather holds tomorrow, perhaps I could send--"
Miss Rogers interrupted him. "I am already spoken for tomorrow." She sighed, and looked up at him. Anthony had been worried, until that moment, of her coolness, only to see that the corners of her eyes had a slightly sheen of wetness to them. "Mr. Stark, I-- thank you for dancing with me."
"If you would like to call on me--"
She did not finish the thought, and Anthony waited, breath and heart caught in his throat as he waited. Eventually he cleared his throat. "I would, like, that is."
"I would not be adverse, Mr. Stark."
They ended their dance with him returning her to the corner where Miss Danvers and Miss Drew were set up around Lieutenant Barnes. He asked after Miss Danvers, and then invited her to dance as well.
"Don't think you're forgiven, yet, Mr. Stark," Miss Danvers said, as soon as they were out of earshot.
"I don't, Miss Danvers," Anthony answered without pause. "I will make it up to her for as long as I must."
Miss Danvers seemed to consider a line of conversation, and then abandoned it, before picking up another, or perhaps the same one. "Should I expect Lieutenant Rhodes to return to dancing and calling, then?"
Anthony looked down at her, confused for a moment. "Would you want him to?"
Lieutenant Barnes had been so kind as to tell him Miss Rogers still felt affection for him that Anthony was loathe to send Rhodey courting again, but if that was Miss Danvers's wish...
"Not if it is merely to make it so you may call on Miss Rogers without doing me a slight, since he is present," Miss Danvers answered.
Anthony did frown at this, since it seemed her understanding of it was the opposite. "I-- the first day I met Miss Rogers, I danced with her because Rhodes wished to dance with you. Certainly the affection became real in time, but it was, in fact, the reverse to start."
"What?" Miss Danvers glanced over her shoulder; Anthony realized that she actually knew exactly where Rhodey was, perhaps had been tracking his progress around the room. "He--"
"If I send him over to you, will you believe it is because he wishes, rather than to ease my way to Miss Rogers?"
Miss Danvers did not answer for almost the length of their dance, and Anthony did not press her. "Yes," she finally answered as Anthony began to escort her off the floor-- towards Rhodey, not back to her party.
"What if she--?" Rhodey said as they were exiting the party.
Anthony stomped on his foot. "Only one of us is allowed to ruin his happiness on that excuse. Go. Call. On. Her."
He and Miss Rogers's courtship the second time around was more tentative and halting. Anthony did not speak of love, although he felt it acutely. They went for rides, they danced, they walked, he called... and yet he was well aware that Lieutenant Wilson was doing the same.
His pride itched for him to take a knee, to propose again, and he very nearly did two weeks after they had reconnected, but he held off, because he did want Miss Rogers to make the choice freely. He would not make the same mistake again.
She had missed him, had missed his smile and the way he looked at her, the way he encouraged her art, the way they picked over a play, and the way he held her when they danced. Their carriage rides were the highlight of her day when they went out.
Lieutenant Rhodes resumed his own courtship of Carol, and although they both had their moments of skepticism, he did seem in earnest.
She and James went for a walk one morning after one of her and Mr. Stark's rides, in one of the nearby gardens, her arm looped through his, holding off the sun with her parasol.
"I don't think I've ever seen you more happy," James said as they walked.
"I am happy. I know you cannot rely on these things, but... I keep thinking of the future, growing older, children..." She thought she might like children. At least two. She was so close to James that the idea of an older son not having a little sister or brother to run around with wouldn't be acceptable. "I thought for sure, when you returned, you would look to Carol..."
James shook his head. "No, I-- since you have determined to make a Season of it, I am eager to see you find someone you like."
"'Someone you like'," She echoed. "You speak as though you have not already decided."
"But have you?" James asked. "Lieutenant Wilson is interested."
Stephanie thought about him. "He is kind." He had noted her upswing of mood, but had not seemed to guess the cause. "I had thought-- before Mr. Stark, I had expected to accept his offer if he had asked. It was only Mr. Stark making clear that he was serious that gave me pause."
"I don't know," she admitted. "I care deeply for Mr. Stark, and... I think another proposal could be expected. But I should consider Lieutenant Wilson on his own merits."
She loved Mr. Stark; she did not love Lieutenant Wilson. She never admitted as much to Carol, and certainly not to James, but she sometimes wondered what it might be like to kiss Mr. Stark, if his lips would be soft or his beard scratchy... Lieutenant Wilson was attractive, fit, lean... and yet Stephanie did not think about his lips.
"How do you think you know when you've found the right person?" She felt that way with Mr. Stark, but what if it was simple infatuation? Certainly they had had more ups and downs in their brief acquaintance than herself and Lieutenant Wilson had; perhaps that constancy was better in the longer term. Perhaps he would be a more stable influence.
"I think-- I think sometimes you just know. You see someone, and just a look, or a feeling, and you know that is the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, have children with, grow old with." James squeezed her hand, and considered further. "I want that for you."
"I want that for you," she answered. "I know you said you wished to focus on me, but I think if I am going to perhaps be wed this year, you should join me."
James laughed. "I will. I promise, Stephie."
"What would she be like?"
James huffed in response.
"Come now, I do not wish to focus on my own troubles. Let me hear of yours."
They continued to walk, and James thought deeply on the matter as they did so. "Tough. She would be tough, and know her own mind, and driven, maybe even headstrong."
Stephanie thought that didn't sound at all like the type of lady a gentleman of James's standing should want for a wife, and she said as much.
"Maybe all your talk about finding the right partner has worn off on me. What would I do with a lady who bowed and scraped? You and I both have always grabbed for what we want; even when you were young, and sickly, you struggled beyond that, forcing yourself out on rides and walks to help your wind. How many young ladies, or their mothers, would have shut them away and made them delicate and fragile? But you're nothing of the sort." James smiled at her, fond. He remembered that struggle far more politely than Stephanie did, but it had been a hard fought struggle.
"I am still fragile," Stephanie admitted. "How hurt I was by Mr. Stark's words..."
"I think that passion is good," James said. The two of them continued to walk, although Stephanie took a few moments to enjoy artfully cut hedges or the smell of flowers while James watched. "A good marriage, to a rich man, or even a powerful man, is no guarantee of happiness. Those above us in standing, and there are many, are taught that that happiness is something that may come in time from a match that is suited on the topic of money, of status, of willingness to have children..."
Stephanie paused. "You always said I was being silly when I talked of love and happiness in a match."
"But I still was happy when you made it paramount to your suiters back home." James came up beside her, his hand resting against the back of her neck.
"It would be easier if Lieutenant Wilson was a less good man."
They both clearly knew what she wanted, but she did have to wonder if the consistency of Lieutenant Wilson might have been better for her. Her love for Mr. Stark would have been a dark mark on their marriage, though, if it could not be overcome.
"He is a good man," James agreed. "I did my best to provide you with a good dowry so that your husband would treat you well. It's usually the only assurance a father or a brother has that his sister will be well-treated."
Stephanie did not understand where James was going with his words.
"What greater assurance than love, Stephie?"
"You have made your argument," she said, unable to hide her smile at the words. "I will decide, for myself, what I want and what would make me most happy. And do not think this will hold my tongue about the matter of you and a wife."
"I will handle the matter of a wife as soon as you handle the matter of a husband, maybe sooner."
Stephanie had no idea how her brother hoped to find a woman who would meet his requirements if Stephanie was so potentially close to a husband. But she didn't question it, just allowed him his parties where he danced only with the few women he already knew, and didn't seem interested in meeting anyone new. She considered that he might still be troubled from his time in Russia, sick, he had lost an arm, and he had said he had worried a great deal. She wished there was some way to help him, but James had hesitated in telling her details. It must have been terrible for him.
He did seem to have struck up something of a friendship with Mr. Stark, however; not that Lieutenant Wilson wasn't already on good terms with James, but it was at least one area where they were evenly matched.
Mr. Stark had taken to dancing with her twice at every party, which had all of the gossip they had mostly avoided during his first courtship out in full force. Mr. Stark was well know for not paying that sort of attention to a lady, and that drew the attention of several women who would have preferred Mr. Stark pay attention to them, and several mothers who felt the same way about Mr. Stark and their daughters.
The weather had finally turned beautiful, and she couldn't go a week without a request for a ride through Hyde Park with either Mr. Stark or Lieutenant Wilson; she even found herself with a request from both Lieutenant Wilson and Mr. Stark on the same day, but she had been forced to decline Mr. Stark’s due to the timing. When she headed out for her evening ride, she found that Mr. Stark was in the library with James.
He looked right there. She wondered what it might be like to see James over at Mr. Stark's house in the evening, the two of them drinking brandy or relaxing while she and Carol were in one of the other rooms with Mamma. Stephanie shouldn't have been thinking about that, not when she was about to go on a ride with Lieutenant Wilson.
His carriage was lovely, as always, and he helped her in and joined her before he two of them headed to Hyde Park. He was attractive, as always, and neatly dressed, and his attention was on her as they progressed.
The day was warm and comfortable, they chatted about the weather, and then the latest balls, and the theater where she and James had gone just last week. Lieutenant Wilson hadn't been there, but Mr. Stark had the two of them had spent the second half in his box because it was far better and he had been alone. Mr. Stark had not prevailed upon Lieutenant Rhodes's to join him that night.
It was comfortable, and polite, she enjoyed it. She and Mr. Stark were usually far more critical of a piece, not out of dislike, but because they enjoyed that, little back-and-forths, but... maybe that wasn't good, she wasn't certain sometimes.
The Park was much the same as usual, the same trees and buildings, each one she had captured at least once on paper, even if she still wondered if there was some angle she might--
"Miss Rogers?" Lieutenant Wilson said, prompting her to turn back from where she was taking in the scenery. "I have enjoyed the last few months with you, getting to know you better, watching your happiness return with your brother..."
Stephanie nodded, briefly, although it was not so much James's return... but she did not bother to correct him.
"I think we would be most happy together. I am great friends with your brother and--"
Stephanie found she couldn't quite focus on what Lieutenant Wilson was saying, as she realized, slowly, that this was a proposal. Lieutenant Wilson was going to ask her to spend her life with him... and all she could think was that if she said yes, she would miss her ride with Mr. Stark tomorrow.
That was probably all of the clarity she needed.
"If your sister will soon be entering the state of wedded bliss, perhaps you should consider it," Anthony said, looking down into his brandy, thoughtful. He wanted Miss Rogers to enter into wedded bliss with him, but still, it seemed likely to happen no matter the man.
"I'm quite happy for now, Stark," Barnes answered. He did seem somewhat melancholy, despite his protestation. "I am still getting used to..." He gestured at the stump of his arm, covered, but still noted by its absence.
"I do feel honor-bound to mention that my friend Rhodes has taken a shine to your Miss Danvers," Anthony said. As much as he wished Rhodey's happiness, he had to at least warn Barnes, out of the recent bond they shared over Miss Rogers.
"I had noticed," Barnes said, smiling. "No, I am happy for them. I will admit I had considered Miss Danvers once or twice, but she clearly prefers Lieutenant Rhodes. From what Stephie tells me, it would be better if you took Mr. Barton by the ear and pointed him at Miss Drew."
He laughed, there was no other response he could take. "Oh, Miss Drew... I think it would be best for her if she didn’t care for him, but Mr. Barton..." Anthony shouldn't speak that far out of turn, especially not with a man he was still coming to know fully. Mr. Barton did seem to like Miss Drew, but he somehow failed to grasp the importance of making an actual proposal in a timely fashion. "Hopefully that will be sorted before the Season is out, but I would not hold out much hope if I were Miss Drew."
"He could--" Barnes trailed off, looking over Anthony's shoulder, where Miss Rogers was standing, bonnet in hand. "Stephie?"
"Oh," Miss Rogers said when Anthony turned to see her. "Mr. Stark. I didn't realize you would still be here."
"I lost track of the time, it seems. I should leave you to supper."
"No." Miss Rogers seemed to realize she'd spoken out of turn, and then recovered. "I would like to speak with you, Mr. Stark, alone."
Barnes made a gesture, indicating the door, and Anthony followed her out into one of the drawing rooms where he sat, waiting for Miss Rogers to join him on the couch; she did not, instead she closed the door tightly and stood several feet from him.
"Lieutenant Wilson has proposed to me."
The words were a dagger to his chest. He had known it might be coming, but a great part of him had assumed there was no chance of her accepting. She looked flustered though, and perhaps excited, so it was possible that the proposal had stirred her beyond the affection Anthony had thought she held for Lieutenant Wilson. "I see."
"That is all? 'I see'?"
"What would you have me say?" Anthony answered, unsure whether to be upset or not, to argue or not. "My regard for you has not changed, if you have accepted my heart will not be the same again, but you have either agreed or declined him, so I am either crushed or elevated by that answer. I did not rush to some second proposal because if you reply yes to me it should be because you wish to be married to me, not because I have asked before Lieutenant Wilson."
The answer, thankfully, seemed to find its mark, and Miss Rogers relaxed. "I had thought to accept, or at least consider, but when I thought on it, my very next thought was 'but then I could not go for a ride with Mr. Stark tomorrow', and I realized that however much I sometimes enjoyed Lieutenant Wilson's company, it was always because you were absent, not because he was present. I had thought that perhaps our lack of argument would mean stability, but then I realized nothing of importance would be said because I would be forced to restrain my thoughts, something you have never demanded of me."
Anthony couldn't imagine restraining such an agile mind.
"And there was a very pleasing little flock of ducks on our ride and I did not have my sketch pad and I could not ask him to stop for me to draw it," Stephanie continued, mouth downturned just enough to show her displeasure.
He chuckled and then stood to reach out his hands, touching them to her shoulders; she melted into him and it was the most exquisite feeling. "Maybe tomorrow," he promised her.
"If you are not distracting us with one proposal or another," she answered.
It was remarkably blunt, although he had certainly made no secret of his desire and willingness to propose again. Still, it was remarkably Miss Rogers as well. "You do not want me to propose?"
"Not on our ride. We are both far too distracted for that."
She made a compelling argument, so Anthony stepped away, and then took to one knee, holding onto one of Miss Rogers's hands. "The only thing to do, then, is to ask you now, so tomorrow I might be distracted by your beauty and the way your hair falls against your face, but not by my thoughts of how to again say: Miss Rogers, I love you more than anyone, you make me more happy than I have ever been, my mother adores you and my friends approve of you even as you break my heart... so I know there is no possibility of my hurting you, they will all abandon me for you. Please do me the honor of consenting to be my wife... again."
"Mr. Stark..." Miss Rogers smiled down at him. "Of course you would see the solution as being to propose now. Yes, I will consent to be your wife. Again."
He rose, and brought her into a hug, only a brief moment of contact before pulled away. He ached to tip her head upwards and kiss her, but did not want her to think him too forward. Anthony had been concerned for her answer, or at least that she would consider Lieutenant Wilson, but he would simply have to make certain she never regretted that decision.
"I suppose I'd best ask your brother's permission."
"Done." Barnes was standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame, smiling.
Anthony was suddenly very grateful that he had not attempted to kiss her. Miss Rogers seemed to be having similar thoughts, but her hands rested lightly on his chest. "I will see you for our ride tomorrow, Mr. Stark. I also-- think perhaps we should wait to announce, as a kindness to Lieutenant Wilson's pride. I will not break our engagement again. I promise."
"Unless I assume that some bit of newly found information makes me offer, and you, once again, become offended," Anthony answered with a tiny smile. "No, Miss Rogers, I will not make that mistake again."
He kissed her hand, and had one of the servants go to fetch Hogan from where he had been gossiping with the servants, so his carriage could be brought back around. Barnes he shook the hand of.
"I will see you again soon, Stark."
Anthony returned home, and wrote his mother with the good news. He also sent a note to Rhodey, similarly to tell him the good news. A conversation with Xavier would need to be had soon as well, but his circle had taken it as fact that he would propose to Miss Rogers, so it was only a matter of letting them know that it had occurred.
There was no ball he needed to attend tonight, so he had a light supper, and Jarvis joined him to prepare him for bed.
"Your mood is once again improved, Mr. Stark."
Jarvis, of course, was aware of the various trials and dramas of his courtship with Miss Rogers, it was almost impossible for a head of the household staff - and occasional valet - to be unawares. "There is to be a Mrs. Stark... again."
"Congratulations, sir." He took Anthony's coat and set it to be brushed free of dirt.
"You did see her at the dinner party, but, I think I will have Mother down again, and invite the Danverses and Barneses again." It wouldn't do for the servants to not be used to Miss Rogers. It was possible she would want a new house, and maybe some new staff, or she would be content with the family town home...
"Very good," Jarvis answered.
"Isn't it?" Anthony asked, beaming. "No gossip, I'll need to talk with Mr. Xavier before it's all over London."
The incline of his head was all the assurance Anthony needed.
He called on Miss Rogers in the morning, for her at home day, but they were chaperoned by Barnes today, and had to content themselves with a loose clasping of hands; Anthony returned his mother's necklace to its rightful place around Miss Rogers's neck, and he broached the possibility of Miss Rogers and Barnes joining him in his box for their next play or opera, since Rhodey didn't actually much enjoy the stuff, the box was lost on him.
Their ride in the evening was spent with Anthony doodling some designs while Miss Rogers drew a few studies of birds who were so bold as to wander close, but they did spend a great deal of the time in the pressed cluster of Rotten Row.
"I wonder if they gossip about me," Miss Rogers said as they returned home. "Out with Lieutenant Wilson one day and you the next."
Anthony hmmed in thought for a moment. "People said the occasional unflattering thing about my mother, back when she and father were first married. Pay it no mind, you have your honor. I know you find it hard to hold your tongue, but on this it is not worth it. I trust you."
Miss Rogers smiled at him, eyes bright, and Anthony thought this was all more than worth it. Their fingers tangled together as he drove her home.
He saw her inside, and then squeezed her hand one final time. "Think of me until you see me again, Miss Rogers."
"Always, Mr. Stark." The slight color in her cheeks held a great deal of promise, but Anthony bit his tongue to keep him from saying something inappropriate.
He called daily, sometimes to be chaperoned by Barnes, sometimes by Mrs. Barnes, and sometimes joined by Rhodey in his continued courtship of Miss Danvers, sometimes - but far too rarely - they were allowed to spend a few minutes in peace, and Anthony was bold enough to use the freedom to touch his fingers to Miss Rogers's hair, to tease the strands that fell from her neatly done up styling. Her response was always the same, a blush and downcast eyes, with a little quirk of her lips that she trembled to keep down.
"Have I mentioned how beautiful you are? How much I am in love with you?"
"Only daily, Mr. Stark," she answered, lips losing their war not to smile.
"And that your mind is as captivating? And that I enjoy the way your nose wrinkles in the brief moment you wonder whether or not to argue with me?" He reached out and after a moment of hesitation, brushed his thumb across the bridge of her nose.
"I always argue."
"Yes, another reason I love you."
Sadly, Barnes interrupted with a soft knock, and the two of them pulled far enough away for propriety. "When are you two going to stop with this ridiculousness and get my sister out of this house?"
"James!" Miss Rogers said, voice scandalized.
Anthony, at least, was ready for the question. "My mother will be back in London in two weeks. The chances she and your mother will not run through every dress store in London are slim. That means two weeks for mother, three or four for all those things mothers insist on for their daughters. We can be wed at my church, unless you are attached to Miss Danvers's. Six weeks?"
His words were in answer to Barnes, but he watched Miss Rogers for her response, which was to blush, and then look up at him with a tentative nod. "That sounds sufficient."
"Unless you'd like to be wed at home after the Season--"
A wild-eyed sort of panic that screamed 'absolutely not!' settled over Miss Rogers's face, and it was almost comical.
Anthony leaned in to whisper - loud enough for Barnes to still hear: "If I did not know better, I would think you thought me a scoundrel who intended to depart without making you my wife, Miss Rogers."
Miss Rogers primly cleared her throat. "Sooner is better, Mr. Stark."
Barnes laughed. "You two. On your way, Stark?"
"I'd best be, before Miss Rogers talks me into Gretna Green." His mother would have been cross... for exactly an hour, before she hugged him soundly and kissed him and Miss Rogers on the cheeks... and then ordered them into a proper church for a proper wedding 'Anthony, what were you thinking?' "We'll be having dinner after mother comes down, just the Barneses and Miss Rogers, unless you would like me to get Rhodes and Miss Danvers seated next to each other again."
He left, wishing they could be married sooner, but the preparations should be had first, and Anthony would want to have Miss Rogers meet Yinsen, the priest who had helped Anthony through the worst of his pain when his father had died five years ago. Everything, finally, was back on course.
The days were warm, she spent a portion of every one with Mr. Stark, and a large portion gossiping with Carol and Jessica or James, or both. The family was together over breakfast, Stephanie helping James with serving himself one-handed, from the selected meat and fruit and biscuits that had been prepared that morning.
"Stephie, did you hear?" Carol asked, leaning close as Stephanie poured tea for James. "There are Grand Duchesses visiting from Russia."
James made an odd sort of choking noise, covering his mouth, but Stephanie was instantly attentive to Carol. "Well they are our allies, right?"
"For the moment," Mr. Danvers answered, sounding none too pleased with all things Russian. He gave a pointed look to James, clearly a reminder of what that alliance had cost their family personally.
"They're not so bad," James answered, spooning some sugar into his tea and stirring carefully. "I wouldn't have been able to return home if it were not for the kindness of Russia and their surgeons."
"Someday you will tell me that story, James," Stephanie said, a hint of proclamation in her voice. "It is a shame and a dishonor that your own sister had not heard of your adventures in a foreign land."
"The adventures were mostly had on my back," James answered. "And sometimes in pain." He reached out and gave her face a gentle pat. "Most of it is not fit for a lady's ears."
Stephanie gave James a look to say that that had never stopped him before, but James ignored her.
"Grand Duchesses," Carol said again, to remind them of the matter at hand.
"That just means they're in the royal family at all, dear," Mrs. Danvers said. "And they have enough space they could make every citizen a Grand Duke and they wouldn't run out."
"I still think it's impressive," Stephanie said. "What are they doing here?"
Carol shook her head. They all cast a glance at Mr. Danvers, who shrugged. It then followed, that they looked to Mrs. Danvers, in case it was a matter of gossip, and she also shook her head. Stephanie gave a little sigh, and turned to James. "I don't suppose you know?"
"I don't even know their names," James protested.
"Grand Duchess Natalia and Grand Duchess Tatiana," Carol answered, immediately, and then set about looking at James with wide, begging eyes.
James cleared his throat. "Well... they're sisters, Natalia is the elder, at eighteen, and Tatiana is sixteen. They're granddaughters to the old Tsar, not the new one." He seemed to not quite know what to say. "Their father is... non-traditional, the current Tsar does not like him."
This was far more than anyone else at the table knew, so Stephanie turned to also pout at her brother for more.
"There was a scandal a few months back... Natalia is a gifted dancer and one of Boney's toadies took a shine to her before the war. There was an arranged marriage which she was well known to not want." James took a pause, and seemed very focused on his tea.
Carol looked sad by the news, but Stephanie didn't know why she might. "What is she doing in England if she's married to a Frenchman?"
"Ah..." James brushed his fingers through his hair. "She took advantage of an opportunity to meet an English gentleman and they eloped."
"Romantic!" Carol said.
"Surprised the husband lasted a day," Mr. Danvers said.
James shrugged. "The Tsar was not happy, but her father was."
Stephanie frowned slightly, and watched the way James's face moved, or rather didn't. James's face had always been expressive, little twitches to tell of pain, joy, happiness, but right in that moment, his face was too still. Still, she wasn't certain until he caught her scrutiny, and his face changed from one of calm indifference to one that spoke of no small amount of guilt. "James Buchanan Barnes!"
If she hadn't already been fairly sure, his flush would have clinched it then.
"James!" Mamma added. "You did marry her at least?"
"Two months ago, just before I came back." He was almost stumbling over his words now, not at all the smooth image her brother usually projected. "She's very nice, well educated, a wonderful dancer... I had thought everything with Stephie would be in order by now..."
Stephanie glowered at him, as though her courtship troubles compared at all to James getting married, in secret, to a Grand Duchess, and not telling anyone.
"You married a Grand Duchess?" Carol asked, and now she was more amused than she should have been, especially when Stephanie and Mamma were so grave. "Does that make you a Grand Duke?"
Stephanie was too busy trying to understand what had even transpired. Her brother as married to a Russian Princess. Not one particularly near the throne, but the fact remained that she was descended from a Tsar.
Carol seemed to have finally joined in the gravity of the situation, and was gawking openly. "But the Grand Duchess Natalia is at least four months pregnant."
"What!?" James rose from the table. "Four months?"
Four months! Stephanie found herself shocked, her brother, either had married a woman with another man's child, or... certainly not James, he would not have been so crass and without character to have lain with her before they were married. Not her brother.
"Young man," Mamma said, voice deadly hard. "Drawing room. Now."
James headed toward the drawing room, and Stephanie did not even pretend to linger, she dashed after them almost as soon as they had risen.
"Stephie," her mother said. "I do not think--"
"It's fine, Mrs. Barnes," James said. "I might as well tell the story only once. I did not mean to conceal it... Natalia was meant to come in another month or two, not so soon, although if she is already four months pregnant..."
"Is the child yours?" Mamma asked, as they sat.
"Yes," James answered with no uncertainty.
"James!" Stephanie exclaimed a moment later. "But she was not your wife!"
"Stephie, hush." Her mother put a hand on hers. "Now is not the time for that. You are married?" James nodded. "Anglican?"
James took a deep breath, and shook his head. "She's Russian, Mamma. Her father was more than content with a Russian Orthodox wedding. He was even the one who sped me on my way when I explained the matter of my sister and the lengths she might take in my absence."
"You are to have an Anglican wedding, immediately, before your sister, if Mr. Stark or his mother aren't horribly scandalized by the whole affair," Mamma said, striking a new fear into Stephanie's heart.
Mr. Stark always said that he loved her fire, and that she argued, but Stephanie knew that she still had many of the qualities a man looked for in a wife. Lieutenant Wilson had thought so, but if the Church or society were so scandalized by her brother's marriage and his actions, his child who would be born only seven months into their marriage... and only five into the wedding that would be recognized by their church.
"Surely Mr. Stark will not--" James began.
"His mother is a proper heiress," Mamma continued, "and this after Stephie broke his heart?"
Stephanie looked down at her own hands, and shut her eyes tight against the tears. Mamma was right, perhaps Mrs. Stark would be scandalized by the whole situation and decide such a disreputable family was not worth marrying into. "James?"
James looked over at her, and he did look sad, and contrite, with a frantic energy under it all.
"Do you love her?"
"I do. She..." He paused.
Mamma looked set to say something else, and Stephanie put a hand on her mother's wrist. "She is your daughter, now. We should at least know if she makes James happy."
Stephanie did not want to think of herself in that moment, of the wreck that might be her marriage... that might not be her marriage. She needed to know if her brother was at least happy.
"I don't know how long it was after I fell, but... my arm had been mangled by the fall, and it was infected. I was feverish and Natalia later told me after that I was so sick that the healers thought I would die." James placed a hand against the stump that remained of his left arm. "I thought she was an angel with fiery red hair, but she was just a daughter visiting her father from where he commanded the Tsar's armies. She held my head in her lap, gave me vodka and then her fingers held the strap of leather between my teeth during the surgery, and while I was healing she told me stories of her dancing and I told her of home. She asked if I would take her home, marry her... and I accepted."
"She asked you?" Stephanie asked, even more scandalized than she had been just a minute before.
James pointedly ignored the question, which meant the answer was yes and he did not wish to say. "We are wed. I will marry her here as well. Hopefully the Starks will forgive my poor behavior. I will speak to him tomorrow, after things are more settled."
Things did not settle. James wrote a short letter to Natalia, telling her where he was located, and they discussed the matter heavily with Mr. Danvers, who seemed very disappointed, but glad that it was not his daughter who was in such a bind.
Unfortunately, Harrow, the Clergyman who was the head of the church the Danverses attended, would not even think of it.
"He has very firm views on the topic of... bastardy," Mr. Danvers said the word with enough fire that Stephanie felt the judgement there.
She was disappointed in James, more so than she could have imagined, but she was attempting to be philosophical about it. If Natalia was not upset, and Natalia's father was not upset, then perhaps she should forgive her brother.
"The child would not be a bastard if Natalia and I are wed in the eyes of the Church before it is born," James answered, his voice was calm, but Stephanie was starting to see the cracks in his armor, the nerves. She wondered if it was the marriage, or the pregnancy. "And on that matter I have at least four months. We might need a special license, then, if we can't have him do it."
"I--" Stephanie bit her lip for a moment. "Mr. Stark-- he said he is a great friend to his priest, Yinsen. He might..." She trailed off, feeling hopeless. She had hoped to leave her brother's situation out of Mr. Stark's eyes for as long as possible, but a special license would be difficult, with Natalia being Russian, pregnant, and obviously not Anglican.
"Stephie," James came up and put his arm on her shoulder. "No, he... he has become a friend to me since I returned, but... this should be done quietly, we can get home in a few days, I'm certain Kates would..."
"James." She looked up at him. "Mr. Stark has asked to be my husband. I think it is only fair he understand all that entails. He did me the courtesy of allowing me to break our engagement because his honor demanded it, I will not let him enter into our family in ignorance if he would find it too shameful."
Stephanie than stood on her toes, and gave her brother a soft kiss on the cheek. Her only consolation as she took their carriage to see Mr. Stark was that Lieutenant Wilson would have certainly found the situation too shameful.
"Sir?" Jarvis interrupted his thoughts with a soft knock. Anthony turned. "Miss Rogers is here. She seems most upset."
"With Mrs. Barnes?"
Anthony's eyes widened slightly. It must truly be dire for Miss Rogers to have come alone - not at all the done thing - but that did leave him concerned. "Have her in the sitting room, and have one of the female servants come up to serve as a chaperone, and tea."
He waited for that task to be accomplished, and then headed into the sitting room, where Miss Rogers was sitting, looking very sad, and like she may have been crying. One of the maids, Miss Hill, if Anthony wasn't mistaken, was sitting close and sounded as though she was trying to calm Miss Rogers, but when Anthony came in she stood, bowed, and stepped far enough away to give some approximation of privacy.
"Miss Rogers?" He asked.
Her answer was to look down at her handkerchief. "Oh, Mr. Stark, I-- I am afraid I must ask you for a very great favor."
Anthony nodded, and then took her hand in his. "Miss Rogers, if it is in my power to grant, I will try."
"You are too kind to me," Miss Rogers said, face still downcast. "You spoke of your desire to have your Mr. Yinsen perform our marriage, and that you are a great friend to him."
He nodded again, although he did not believe Miss Rogers could see. Anthony hoped she would not ask him to be married by a different man. He and Yinsen had been close for years, and he did not want to throw out such a friendship without good cause. Yinsen always spoke favorably of family, and of his eagerness to see Anthony have his own; it would be a shame for the man to not be there at the start of such an endeavor.
"Is he the sort of man who would be opposed to officiating over vows made in greater haste?" Miss Rogers asked.
It was not at all the question Anthony had expected. Although he would have happily married Miss Rogers weeks ago, and Miss Rogers had expressed her own desire to not let their engagement linger longer than necessary, he saw no reason for the haste, and it did concern him. If he did not have such a strong opinion of Miss Rogers's character, he would have been concerned for her fidelity or chastity. "I-- that is, Miss Rogers, I am not opposed to us being wed sooner, and certainly Yinsen would grant me a wedding in greater haste, but I do not understand the need."
"Oh." Miss Rogers looked at him for the first time, and he saw her blush. "No, I do not ask for myself. That is a matter that will need to be discussed later."
Anthony felt his blood run cold at that, concerned, immediately, that Miss Rogers had changed her mind about her desire to have them wed.
"It concerns James."
"Rhodey?" Anthony said, letting the nickname slip without second thought. "If he has shamed himself with Miss Danvers I will personally see to it that he stand--"
Miss Rogers squeezed his hand. "Hush, no, I am sorry, I am explaining it wrong. James, my brother."
Anthony then thought that perhaps he had shamed himself with Miss Danvers, or there was some unfortunate compromise that had occurred because they lived under one roof, or something of the sort. "He requires the services of a priest, in all haste?"
The soft sob that bubbled from Miss Rogers's chest made his throat tighten. "Yes. I am sorry, and I am embarrassed by his behavior, but he is my brother and I still love him dearly. I do not wish for them to be seen any more shamefully then what has already transpired."
Barnes clearly worked fast; he had only been in England for a little over a month, and Miss Rogers's distress spoke of disgrace and a fallen woman, at least. "What has transpired? You have not been at all clear on the subject."
"When he was in Russia, he met a woman. They were married in the Russian Church two months ago." Miss Barnes took a deep breath. "She is with child... far more than two months. James thinks very highly of her, but gossip will not take it kindly. It is scandalous."
It was, and Anthony was surprised that Barnes had such an action in him, but Anthony himself was not immune to the temptations of a beautiful woman, even if he had since been drawn away from them by the singular presence that was Miss Rogers. "She is here, in London?"
"As of today," Miss Rogers confirmed.
"Did she come with the entourage that accompanied the Grand Duchesses?" That would have been a way for the woman to make her way to London if she was not of means. His concern now was that Barnes had no true intention of marrying the girl, and that his coming to London had represented a desire to escape from the Russian marriage. Anthony found himself soured to Barnes by the thought.
"She... is the Grand Duchess, Natalia." Miss Rogers again looked distraught. "It was apparently a great scandal in Russia as well. My brother will have a scandal on two entire continents."
Anthony tried to find some humor in it. "But not the Continent."
Miss Rogers, far from laughing, hid her face in her hands. "Grand Duchess Natalia used the elopement to break an unwanted engagement with one of Napoleon's favorites."
There was at least some humor in that, to Anthony's uninvolved ear, but he understood how that would not be a comfort to Miss Rogers under the circumstances.
"After they are wed, we will need to orchestrate a scandal in America, then," he said, again trying to cheer her. "Please do not cry, Miss Rogers. Yinsen... he is a good man, and he also understands that men are not perfect, that we sin, and that does not mean that they are not still good men underneath who may make a fresh start. Can you assure me that your brother's intentions are true towards Lady Natalia?"
"They are. I can," she answered, immediately. "He is very much in love, and I suppose apart from the circumstances, and that she is Russian, it is actually a fair match... her father is brother to the Tsar, although they do not get on well."
"Natalia Romanova..." Anthony considered the name. "If I can make it Natalia Barnes, it will be done, Miss Rogers. I will go to Yinsen and discuss the matter. It is the least I can do for the man who will be my brother-in-law."
"So you... still wish to be married?"
Anthony stared at her for a moment, his heart thudding in his ears at the question, far too much like his own just a few short weeks ago. "Miss Rogers, of course I do. Do you?"
"Yes, yes! Of course. I simply thought James's behavior..."
"Has not changed my regard for you," Anthony assured her. "Now, no more talk of breaking engagements or not wishing to be married. Let us take a break from breaking each other's hearts and hurting each other terribly... we have at least five weeks until we are married." He then gave her a little smile, just a little joke.
Miss Rogers laughed, finally. "You are too kind to me, Mr. Stark."
"I am certain everyone but I would agree with you there. Now, go home, be with your family. I may call later in the day with Mr. Yinsen, and your brother and his wife-to-be must be prepared to face at least a small interrogation." He rose, and squeezed her hand.
After Miss Rogers departed, escorted by Miss Hill to her carriage, Anthony raided the very carefully stored tea that Yinsen preferred, that Anthony used for just such an occasion to sweeten his friend. The tea was, to Anthony's nose, revolting, but Yinsen had a great fondness for it. He then sent a note, and then himself, to find Yinsen at his small rectory that made up his home.
"Stark," Yinsen greeted him with a hug. "I hope this means you have proposed to that young Miss Rogers that gossip has you about town with."
"I have," Anthony answered, "And she has accepted, but I'm afraid this is a... slightly less happy favor I have to request." He handed the tea to him, and Yinsen accepted it, gesturing for him to come to sit on the uncomfortable chair that was his favorite in the sitting room. "Miss Rogers and I are to be married in approximately five weeks, at your convenience, of course."
Anthony chuckled. "There is always one, isn't there?"
"With you, Stark, always."
Anthony then set about to explain the circumstance of James Barnes and Natalia Romanova as best he knew with what little information Miss Rogers had been able to provide, the Orthodox marriage, the child clearly conceived out of wedlock, the lack of an Anglican union, and the obvious scandal of the whole circumstance. Yinsen, as was his way, listened, and offered silent support as Anthony continued his explanation.
When the tale was finished, Yinsen sat, contemplative, for several moments, and Anthony began to grow concerned for the success of his petition.
"In all our years together, I do not think you have ever asked for a favor for another, and you rarely ask them for yourself."
"I was more selfish in my youth," Anthony answered. His father's death had hardened him, and forced him into his role as head of his house far sooner than he would have wanted. The maturity had weighed on him, and that was a weight that Yinsen had helped to lift. "This is of great need to Miss Rogers, and as we are to be one flesh, I must consider Barnes my brother. I know there are some families who would see him shunned for his behaviors, but he is... young." Anthony laughed, remembering, just after he said it, that Barnes was of an age with him.
"So old and wise now, Stark?" Yinsen asked with a little smile.
"All thanks to you," Anthony answered. "... and perhaps a bit to Miss Rogers."
Yinsen did agree to call on the Barneses, and Anthony joined him in his own carriage for them to make the trip to the Danvers residence, where Anthony was admitted without need to providing a card, and escorted back to one of the withdrawing rooms.
Mrs. Barnes, Barnes, Miss Rogers, Lady Romanova, as well as a younger girl, with brown-red hair who would be Lady Tatiana Romanova, were all in attendance, with a great deal of attention paid to Lady Romanova. She was very beautiful, Anthony could appreciate that even if his eyes were only for Miss Rogers, with flowing dark red hair, full lips, and eyes that were hard despite the girl's young age. Her pregnancy was quite obvious on what must have usually been a lean frame, and although Anthony considered himself no expert she was at least four, or maybe even five months on. She and Barnes had wasted little time, it seemed, Anthony recalled the man was pronounced dead only about six months ago.
She was flanked on either side by Barnes and Miss Rogers, and Lady Romanova seemed to be benevolently tolerating Miss Rogers's and Barnes's hands on her belly.
Yinsen, never one to waste a chance to tease Anthony, leaned in and whispered. "Perhaps we should schedule a baptism as well? If it weren't unseemly, I'd lay a wager it will be within the year for you and Miss Rogers."
Anthony cleared his throat, but did not otherwise dignify him with a response. He had thought on the topic of children with Miss Rogers, they were, of course, a necessity, but they were also a desire, one that seemed mutual.
"Mr. Stark!" Mrs. Barnes was on her feet and giving him a sound hug as soon as he arrived, welcoming him intimately.
"Mrs. Barnes, may I present Mr. Yinsen." He then introduced Miss Rogers and Lieutenant Barnes, and left it to Lieutenant Barnes to introduce the Romanovas, which he did.
Anthony then orchestrated the retreat of all the assembled save Barnes and Lady Romanova, and Mrs. Barnes led them to one of the other drawing rooms and asked for some tea.
"Mr. Danvers is very cross," Mrs. Barnes confessed. "I fear we may soon wear out our welcome with this trouble. Miss Romanova is very lovely but--" She glanced towards Lady Tatiana, perhaps begging her indulgence and understanding in the matter.
She shrugged. "Natalia is always causing these troubles. That is why Papa is so fond."
Mrs. Barnes buried her face in her hand, looking very embarrassed as she looked over at Anthony, probably gauging his response. Anthony reached out a hand and brought Miss Rogers closer to him.
"Your sister frequently elopes with English gentlemen?" Anthony asked, partially out of humor, and partially because he was curious.
Lady Tatiana did, at least, gasp at that. "No, Mr. Stark, she... she wants just dancing and not to be married in France, but Papa never wanted her married in France either, but Mr. Barnes is good enough for Papa."
"High praise, to be good enough for a father," Anthony answered.
Their conversation drifted to slightly less fraught topics, however, Lady Tatiana would be returning home in a month or so, with Lady Romanova staying with Lieutenant Barnes for the foreseeable future. Anthony would have to see if Lieutenant Barnes had arranged for lodging in the city, because it was clear that the Danvers Family was not as pleased by the development towards matrimony.
Miss Rogers, who had apparently worn herself out from the day's excitement - a great deal, since it was barely the afternoon - curled up at his side, taking his hand in hers, and seemed to relax, finally.
"Are you alright, Miss Rogers?"
She nodded. "Yes, thank you, Mr. Stark, for everything you did... I think I will be alright. Mr. Yinsen seemed open to the marriage."
"Yinsen has a great love of family, above everything else, if a man has family he is rich beyond words," Anthony murmured, just loud enough for her to hear. "So, yes, I believe he will wed them, maybe soon."
Miss Rogers let out a sigh of relief. "I hope so. There was so much to do, so many concerns, that... I think it has only just struck me that I am going to be an aunt!"
Anthony smiled, and did not resist the urge to touch her hair, brushing a curl off her ear. "And I will be an uncle."
"It doesn't seem real just yet," Miss Rogers said.
"And yet we are here," Anthony answered. "But I must be off. I need to go call on Charles Xavier, maybe a few more of my more socially influential friends. We will need to see to it that your brother and your soon-to-be sister are actually received after they wed, or the legitimization of your little niece or nephew will be for naught."
Miss Rogers looked as though she wished to protest, but her face softened and then she nodded, understanding. "You are correct, Mr. Stark. I will see you again soon?"
"Tomorrow, at the latest," Anthony promised her, and then he said his farewells. "I will send a carriage for Yinsen so you do not need to trouble yourself with that. Give him my best."
He then needed to tackle the worst of mountains: Mr. Xavier, and telling Miss Xavier that she would not be Mrs. Stark.
But the cost of Mr. Yinsen providing her brother and Natalia with vows in great haste, were vows made in great haste. Mr. Stark had stolen away James in the morning to get him into a nice suit, and Stephanie, Mamma, and Lady Tatiana had taken the measure of Natalia's clothes, brought from Russia, to decide whether or not they were suitable for a wedding.
Hiding that Natalia was with child was a lost cause, sadly, although she seemed to think nothing of it.
"You do not mind that everyone knows you are with child before you are married?" Stephanie asked, at a moment where the pair of them were alone, and Stephanie was experimenting with tying a ribbon behind Natalia.
"My father does not mind," Natalia answered. "My husband does not mind. It does not distress me." She turned, looking over her shoulder to Stephanie. "If I had done as I was supposed to, I would now be married to a man more than twice my age, who my father despised, who decided he wished to marry me when I was only twelve, and who my uncle saw no harm in agreeing with."
Stephanie felt somewhat bad for even asking, but as much as she knew the wedding must take place, for her brother's honor and reputation, and for his wife's honor and reputation, Stephanie could not help but be concerned that Natalia wished to marry her brother more for her own needs, than because she loved her brother. Certainly it was the same fear she had been cross with Mr. Stark for having, but she could not help the nagging doubt.
Whatever Natalia saw in her face, she laughed, not upset at all. "My original intention was merely to ruin myself on your brother, to make myself unsuited for my intended. I did not intend to trap him. If anything, he ensnared me."
She smiled at that, and her hand fluttered down to her belly.
"Your brother is quite the romantic, and I thought it was something that I would not be drawn in by, and yet I am here." Natalia did not say anything for a long moment, but then nodded. "It is practical, and I hardly bring nothing to the union, but... yes, I do care for him."
Stephanie looped her arms around Natalia's shoulders and hugged her close. "I am more than happy to call you sister, then."
"I think you would prefer to call Mr. Stark 'husband', though," Natalia answered, smirking.
She would, and although she was happy for the time to reflect and grow fond, she could not deny a small part of her that was more than eager to have them wed, to find out what it would be like when they became man and wife. When she thought of it, she found herself flushed and warm. "I do think of him often."
"I can tell." Natalia smiled again, warm now, and brushed Stephanie's hair back with her hands, leaving her neck and shoulders bare, before tying it back in a simple ponytail. "Now, stop worrying about my designs on your brother, and help me with my shoes." She sighed and sat down, primly, and smoothed the fabric of her dress over her belly. "I used to be far more agile, that is something I can blame your brother for."
"It seems to me that would be a mutual decision," Stephanie answered, but she did go to her knees to help Natalia with her shoes.
"You are delightful. I hope Mr. Stark knows you have that mouth."
"He counts it as a favored aspect."
Apparently Natalia found the answer very funny, but after she was neatly dressed, her hair done, her clothing all in place, they were prepared for the wedding, and Stephanie was surprised how well attended it was. Certainly it was no grand gathering, but the Danvers and Drew families were in attendance Lieutenant Rhodes, the Xaviers, Lady Tatiana, Mr. Stark, of course, so while it was hardly a social event of the Season, it did have enough presence to not have the air of a furtive elopement or of something shameful.
Mr. Stark sat with her and Mamma, his hand holding one of hers while Mamma clung to her other, crying happy tears. Stephanie did not cry, but she did smile throughout the ceremony. She did greatly enjoy the way Mr. Stark kept stroking a thumb over her knuckles, interspersed with a press of lips to her hand. Only the fact that she was in church, inches from her mother, kept her from feeling even more flustered than she did by the actions.
By the time that vows were exchanged and sealed with a kiss, Stephanie thought she was going to combust... only to have her mother - the traitor - help her into a covered carriage with Mr. Stark for the journey to his home where they would have a brief celebration for the couple.
Mr. Stark seemed to have no idea what he had done, if the innocent smile he gave when he tucked an arm around her shoulder was any indication.
"You are incorrigible," she complained, as soon as they were away.
"You speak of us waiting to be married another five weeks, and yet you..." She lifted up her hand, as though to encompass everything that Mr. Stark was doing to her.
He seemed to understand, if the sly grin on his face was any indication, and after a moment of hesitation he brought a hand up to cup her chin, pulling her forward so close that an untimely jostle of the carriage could have thrust their lips together.
"Yes or no, Miss Rogers," Mr. Stark whispered.
She did not need to think to know her answer. "Yes."
Their lips came together the rest of the way, and Stephanie tensed, immediately nervous, only to have Mr. Stark shush and soothe her. "Relax, love."
She tried, she tried desperately, but it was only once Mr. Stark's lips parted and she copied, and the warmth of his mouth forced her to calm, to settle into the lazy way that Mr. Stark slipped a tongue against hers and she fought back, instantly; if she was to be claimed she would claim him in turn, and her hands found their way to his waist, holding him as he pulled her close.
The warmth she thought of as belonging to Mr. Stark, of thinking of being by his side, paled in comparison to this, to this fire brought on by mouths twining together in the back of a carriage, by how badly she wanted and did not know what.
Mr. Stark pulled away, and Stephanie found herself making some inhuman, wanton noise at the loss, but a thumb pressed to her lip and quieted her. "We should be to my house shortly."
Stephanie found her breath difficult to catch, and her shoulders trembling; the soft touch of Mr. Stark's hand to her shoulder did nothing to calm her.
"Perhaps I judged my brother too harshly," she said, only to have Mr. Stark laugh, his warm, rich laugh, when he was amused and happy with something she had said.
He brushed a stray curl over her ear, and then followed it with a soft kiss against her ear. "Maybe a little."
Stephanie scooted away, far too aware, now, of the effect Mr. Stark had on her, and how much it made her want to be close to him, to ignore the rest of the world and simply kiss him, and let herself be kissed.
Mr. Stark allowed it, even let his hand drop from where he was touching her neck, and he did not press the advantage that Stephanie was certain he knew he had, and the last few minutes of carriage ride passed in a pleasant silence.
They were the first to arrive back at Mr. Stark's house, and the servants had obviously gone out of their way with the food, the drink, and the neatness of the house, which Stephanie appreciated in knowing how much they cared for Mr. Stark and, by extension, the happiness of her brother.
"How was the wedding, sir?" The Steward - Mr. Jarvis, if she wasn't mistaken - asked.
"Flawless, but I'm certain all involved are glad to be on the other side of that." Mr. Stark looked to her, and had a small little smile that begged her input.
"Yes. Natalia and James looked very happy, but I think they both are looking forward to... being out of the house." In truth, Stephanie thought they would appreciate the break from Mr. Danvers and his judgement of the pair of them. Mamma and Stephanie both loved James regardless, but Mr. Danvers seemed to be thinking he should have never consented to have Stephanie in his house at all.
Mr. Stark seemed to catch her thoughts, or at least found the whole thing amusing, because he smiled at her, and led her farther into the house.
"I think you will make a flawless lady of the house," Mr. Stark said, tugging her into one of the empty rooms and kissing her on the temple. "And Jarvis likes you, that's high on the list of people to please."
"After Lieutenant Rhodes, your mother..." She wrapped her arms around him. "Mr. Stark, I find you very pleasing."
"Miss Rogers, I find you most pleasing." He leaned in, and gave her a soft kiss. "Now, we should stop this, as I have a party to host, we have a party to host."
Stephanie allowed herself a moment to bask in that thought, that even though they were not yet Mr. and Mrs. Stark, they were never the less receiving guests into the house they would soon share.
Apparently everyone in London save for Miss Danvers and Barnes were under the impression that Miss Danvers and Barnes had an understanding. This meant that Barnes often took advantage of Anthony's hospitality to hide away in his house rather than make himself available in his own.
Once Anthony's mother was in town, and she, Miss Rogers, and the gaggle of ladies that Anthony had come to think as belonging to her (Miss Danvers, Miss Drew, Ladies Natalia and Tatiana, and Mrs. Barnes) all made their exit to shop for wedding wear for Miss Rogers. Anthony thus ended up entertaining Rhodey and Barnes, and tried not to allow the looming wedding to distress or concern him.
"We appear to be two steps away from a duel in Hyde Park!" Barnes complained. "They both seem completely convinced that I have in some way misled Miss Danvers. Although it was not the case in the eyes of the church, I considered myself a married man since coming back to London, and gave her no reason to think I had any intentions."
"Nor does she seem to think there was any intent, at least that was what I had from Miss Rogers," Anthony answered.
"The Danvers boys are..." Rhodey paused, and cleared his throat. "To be blunt, they are young. I don't think there is any real danger of them asking for a duel, or being taken seriously if they do."
Anthony had seen the Danvers boys, and he didn't have any doubt that Barnes, even one-armed, would take them handily.
"I don't see what they hope to accomplish," Barnes said, finally sitting again and taking a sip of the brandy that Anthony had opened. "The wedding is accomplished, in England and Russia. Natalia and I are wed. I have not ruined their sister in any way. Even though we are cousins, we have always been chaperoned by either Mrs. Barnes, Mrs. Danvers, or Stephie."
"I think it's obvious," Anthony answered. "They don't care for Rhodey."
Rhodey frowned at him.
"Do you have another answer?" He asked his friend. "You made your suit last year, and why were you dissuaded?"
His friend did not answer.
"They made the same entreaty to me," Anthony continued. "They implied, strongly, that Miss Danvers was spoken for by Mr. Barnes, but there was no understanding, even before Lady Natalia."
"That seems fairly underhanded for a pair of teenaged boys," Barnes answered. "Miss Danvers and I did occasionally exchange letters, but I always received the impression that they were... for a cousin. Her affection for me was more an outgrowth of her fondness for my sister. I had thought to court her, perhaps, but it would not have made a great deal of sense from any practical standpoint, and there was no great love between us."
Rhodey looked as though he was considering taking Barnes out to Hyde Park for a duel after that. "He's just being honest, Miss Danvers is no heiress, and... Barnes did far better with Lady Natalia on that front, however accidentally."
Anthony's words seemed to calm Rhodey, slightly, but he still looked annoyed by the lady of his affections being broken down into heiress or no, title or no, and that, more than anything, was the reason he thought the Danvers boys were misguided in their ire towards Barnes - and by association, Rhodey.
"I do find myself anxious to know how you managed to find an heiress, and a Grand Duchess, in the Russian wilderness, while you were - by all accounts - half delirious with infection and pain," Anthony said, eager to steer Barnes away from the topic of Miss Danvers before Rhodey took affront.
"It's not at all romantic," Barnes assured him.
"All the more reason for my curiosity." Anthony had, of course, imagined anything from the romantic to the deeply salacious, and he was curious where Lady Natalia fell on the continuum.
"I was expected to die," Barnes answered. "She... came to me and... offered comfort, which I did not decline." The light flush to Barnes's cheeks suggested that narration was every bit as salacious as Anthony had considered. "Her intent was that when I die, she would claim we had eloped and thus render her engagement invalid. Her father preferred that to the marriage; she would instead be a widow, supported by her father's land and estate."
The idea was incredibly calculating, and deceitful, and yet Barnes spoke of her with nothing but fondness. Anthony found himself surprised.
"Still, they did not simply leave me to die. Natalia saw to it that her father's personal surgeon tend to me, saw to the amputation and the administering of drugs for the infection." Barnes smiled at that. "She was a rare woman, and sat with me through the surgery itself, her hands holding the leather to my mouth all during. It was not until after I was recovering that she confessed her deeds, but... I found I did not mind at all, she spoke of her fondness for ballet, of horseback riding, of dancing, of reading and conversation, and I think I quite easily fell in love. When it was clear I was unlikely to die, she asked if I would wed her, and I said that I would."
Anthony could not quite bring himself to be surprised, and his own courtship with Miss Rogers was just strange enough that he thought it unwise to judge a man for appreciating a woman who, when they had first come together, had hoped for his death, but there did seem to be genuine affection, and certainly Lady Natalia could have avoided the marriage all together if she had wished.
"Rhodey, I think you're the only one among us who might bother with a conventional marriage at this rate," Anthony said, smiling over at him. "If you bother to make your intentions known."
Rhodey didn't dignify the words with a direct response, but he did sigh, the wistful sigh of a man in some sort of love or another. Anthony recognized the signs.
"She does care for you," Barnes said. "You should hear Stephie rage over your inability to propose, though. At least you already know her temper, Stark."
"Too well," Anthony said. "No, that is what I love about her."
"Both of you are..." Rhodey set his head in his hand. "I do intend to ask. I just... I suppose I should stop concerning myself with whether or not you are interested, even if you were, the moment has long gone. You--" He turned to Anthony and pointed-- "are terrible. I will ask Miss Danvers for a ride."
He then excused himself, and headed home.
"Now they will try to duel Rhodey," Anthony said, smiling over at Barnes.
"You got your best friend into a duel."
"The younger Danvers boy is twelve," Anthony answered. "You're more established than Rhodey, I don't blame them for preferring you to him, but really it's a matter for Miss Danvers to decide, and as near as I can tell she decided at least a year ago."
"Will you next badger Mr. Barton into proposing?"
"He's on his own for that... unless Miss Rogers prevails upon me, and then I think I will be completely helpless to do anything but what she requests of me." She might. Anthony did not know how his fiancée viewed Mr. Barton, but he was a great friend to Anthony, so there would be some exposure there regardless. He did find the man worthy of continued friendship after the wedding.
"I love how much you love my sister," Barnes said, a moment later. "When I was younger, I had plans for her to have the most perfect husband, gentleman, wealthy enough to spoil her, fond enough of her to do so..."
"It's too bad she fell in love with me, then," Anthony answered.
Barnes laughed. "If you think you can fool anyone into thinking that those things are not the case, you are not nearly as intelligent as you think you are, Mr. Stark."
He would, in fact, do absolutely anything for Miss Rogers, and he knew as much, he knew himself, and he more than enjoyed it when his mother came home with Miss Rogers and far more clothes than anyone could need in a lifetime, all of them fashionable. No one had any delusions, either, when mother herded out the others and he had a half hour or so, blissfully uninterrupted while he and Miss Rogers frantically re-made the acquaintance of each other's mouths.
Miss Rogers had also become far more liberal with her hands, which trailed down Anthony's front and although they stopped above his waist, it was a near thing, with her hands fisting into the cloth of his jacket, and with Anthony trying not to rumple her dress.
They were interrupted, far too soon, by Jarvis knocking on the door, and waiting far too long to open the door afterwards. "Mrs. Stark has requested you join her for tea if you are quite finished with Miss Rogers?"
Anthony arched an eyebrow at Jarvis, and gave him a look that would have promised a dismissal if he wasn't so attached to the man.
"Perhaps you would prefer something cooler?"
Miss Rogers, much to Anthony's delight, stood, brushed a hand down her skirt, and looked Jarvis square in the eyes. "Yes, lemonade, if you could, Jarvis."
Jarvis gave her the warmest of smiles. "Very good, Miss." And then he left.
Anthony couldn't help his chuckle when he stood to come up behind her and kissed her throat softly. "He likes backbone," Anthony explained, before sweeping aside Miss Rogers's hair and kissing the ridge of her own spine. "Which is why I am fond of you as well."
"Well, if we are to be wed, he will simply need to accept that you and I will be..." Miss Rogers blushed, which Anthony could see all the way at her neck, where he continued to kiss. "Engaged."
Anthony stopped, and then chuckled. "Well said, Miss Rogers. Come on, I think our mothers will only allow us to disappear unaccounted of for so long."
The two of them headed back in where his mother was serving tea and very conspicuously not drawing attention to the fact that Anthony and Miss Rogers had been without chaperone for some time.
Miss Rogers even managed to not blush when Jarvis brought in a pitcher of lemonade and served her from it.
Mr. Stark had taught her more about kissing in the month than she had imagined could be known, and some part of her ached for a more that she could not put into words. It did not shake the nerves of her wedding day, however, when she had been dressed, accompanied first by Mamma, and then Natalia, who smoothed down her dress and smiled on as Stephanie paced.
"Nerves?" Natalia asked, but her smile said she already knew the answer.
"It is not the wedding," Stephanie answered. "It seems it is not difficult to say 'I do', and Mr. Stark and I seem to have become expert in the matter of kissing..."
She let herself trail off, hoping that Natalia would follow her thought, could assure her, and break some of her nerves.
"Ah." Natalia leaned in and brushed away a few stray curls before helping them lay against Stephanie's head. "Well... relax, take your time, and remember that you are disgustingly in love with him."
Stephanie was in love with Mr. Stark, over the months she had grown to know him well enough to find him charming, but to also see that he deeply cared for her, which should have helped allay some of her fear, but there were still nerves.
She did manage to soothe herself enough to be walked down the aisle by James, and then to be guided through her vows. Mr. Stark smiled at her, and when he said that he took her, for better or worse, she could almost hear him laughing over how long it had taken them to get there, and the little bumps along the way... to be fair she thought she might have heard it in Yinsen's voice as well. When she replied that she also took Mr. Stark, for better or worse, she may have thought of the fact that he seemed to hide himself away when considering a problem, but she smiled through that as well.
When he kissed her, it was with the same smile on his face, and on hers, so much so that they had trouble keeping their lips together at all.
Stephanie almost instantly thought better of the party, of the endless well-wishing and smiles, although she knew it to be little more than a pair of hours. Of course, when they were finally alone, a different sort of nerves set in, only made worse by the fact that Jarvis quite plainly left them to their own devices as they headed up to Anthony's room, where he closed the door behind them and Stephanie was left with the distinct impression there would be no lemonade forthcoming.
Mr. Stark drew her in, and kissed her, just as he always had, and it took her a moment to respond, leaning into it. "Stephanie," he said, the first time he'd said her name, much less like that. "Relax."
She had thought it would not be easy, but the two of them ended up tangled together on the bed, his hands on her back, stroking carelessly, and their mouths pressed together in lazy kisses, far more languid than the frantic pace they set between minutes of supervision. The dull, distant ache in her belly that became more prominent every time they kissed returned almost immediately.
After a few moments of contemplation, Anthony began to unpin her hair, loosening the curls as he worked; Stephanie considered her husband, and how unfair it always was when he kissed her neck, driving her to distraction, and he never seemed to have the same problem, so she slowly reached for his cravat, before undoing it. He did not protest at all when she brought her lips to his throat and began to kiss, her hands running up his chest.
Anthony did not stop her, if anything, he encouraged her, fingers in her hair only breaking her exploration to urge her up to kiss his lips. "Don't stop there, consider me yours for the taking."
"I thought it was the other way around," Stephanie said, returning to her kissing, and then playing with the buttons of his coat before popping one open, and then another.
"I thought, perhaps, it would be more mutual," Anthony responded.
Natalia's wisdom on the matter came to mind, relax, take her time, as that seemed exactly what Anthony seemed intent on doing, kissing, running his hands over her, his fingers caressing her thighs and her stomach as he undid her lacings down her back and stripped her of her dress, as he kissed down every inch. When she made her own nervous movement to place herself atop him, he allowed her to return the favor, unbuttoning his jacket and shirt, kissing down his chest along the trail of dark hair that led her down to where his manhood tented his trousers.
Anthony did not rush them; they kissed, hands tangled in hair, in sheets, and the ache she had come to associate with wanting Anthony near was only increased by him, by his fingers brushing against her opening and teasing inside, by his mouth and beard tickling down her belly.
"I love you."
"Always," he answered.
When she thought she might combust from the slow teasing, from the way her body trembled under his touch, Anthony brought her under him and pressed his lips to hers. He was slow with her, gentle, and it did hurt some, but not quite enough to dampen the warmth inside of her. His fingers and his lips returned to the work of driving her mad.
By the time he finished inside of her, her nails had clawed into his back, and she was panting, wanton, below him, begging for more from him even though she felt exhausted by him.
He curled up beside her, and Stephanie snuggled against his chest, pressing a kiss there, and then nuzzling. Anthony kissed her on the crown of her head.
She had thought it would hurt more - and it had hurt, some - but that was nothing compared to how incredible he'd made her feel. "We should do that again."
Anthony laughed, drawing her atop him and pulling her in for a firm kiss. "As often as you'd like, Mrs. Stark."
An hour later, true to his word, he stayed under her while she slid onto him and moved, learning how she best liked him, and when she was finished with him he managed to cajole her into a nightgown and himself into a shirt, before they fell asleep in each other's arms.
She answered with a contented little hum before she rolled onto her back and stretched, groaning as she did.
"Alright?" He asked, hugging her back against him when she finished.
"Sore," she answered, pressing a kiss to his shoulder. "Good... married..."
He couldn't help but chuckle. "I'm going to go downstairs and make certain Jarvis knows I'm still alive, read the paper... would you like me to send a tray up?"
"No, no... I'll be up shortly. You could send up Hill."
Tony let her sleep, at least some, as he had water sent up so he could scrub himself, and Jarvis then helped him into his clothing for the day.
"We didn't think so see you up so soon," Jarvis commented, doing up his cuffs. He somehow managed to make the comment free of innuendo; he doubted Rhodey would have been so able.
"Then they are forgiven for what I assume will be a belated breakfast."
He ended up sitting at the table, drinking tea and reading the paper as breakfast slowly began to appear around him. Stephanie finally joined him just as the spread finished assembling, she gave him a quick curtsy good morning, and then sat next to him.
Breakfast was easy and unhurried, the two of them going over the same topics they always did, before they ended up together in one of the drawing rooms, Anthony working on a letter, Stephanie engaged with her own drawing. Mamma joined them and only making Stephanie blush slightly when she mentioned expecting her to sleep longer.
Barnes somehow took it as his duty to call, bringing the new Mrs. Barnes along as well, and as much at it was clear that Barnes wanted to take his sister and - in no uncertain terms - assure she had been well treated, he settled for talking with Anthony on what he allowed himself to pretend was business.
"We will be heading out of town soon," Barnes said.
Anthony nodded. "Stephanie has made it clear we are to stay the Season. I suppose your departure is so your child won't be born in the city?"
"Yes. I believe with Stephanie out of the house, Mamma will come with us as well."
"And rob me of having two mothers under one roof? Thank you, Barnes." The truth was he did like Stephanie's mother, but it did make sense, with Natalia expecting, that they would want Barnes's mother close.
"Ah, well, you are used to your mother. I still worry about Stephanie for all your mother seems to like her." He glanced over to where all three ladies, Natalia and both generations of Mrs. Stark were on a sofa together, discussing something that had all three giggling. "And if you want Mamma, I'm certain you could arrange to be expecting, she would certainly want to be here then."
"Just because you and Natalia made great haste does not mean that Stephanie and I will do the same," Anthony answered, doing his best to hold his tongue beyond that.
He certainly would not have minded if that became the case. It was fairly true that it would be a concern for the pair of them over the next few years, especially since Mamma had no desire to find herself out of the estate even if her dowry more than covered her expenses.
"Still, do you expect me to believe you will not be trying?"
"It will happen when Providence sees fit," he answered, and he considered that the final word on the matter, although at this point he was fairly certain that he was trying to make certain he was not the only scandalous Barnes.
Finally the pair of them left, and Mamma left them to their time in the study. "Everything alright?" He asked as Stephanie returned to his side.
"Natalia simply wanted to make certain you had treated me right."
"And?" Anthony asked, tucking an arm over her shoulder, leaning in to kiss her.
"Very much so," Stephanie answered. "I-- yes, very much so."
She laughed, and twisted so that she was leaning over him, her leg hooked between his, drawing him even closer. Absolutely no shame involved, she leaned in further and began to kiss him, and the two of them easily tangled together, her mouth on his, his hands running up her back and coming to rest against the small of her back, drawing her in so she could straddle him.
"If I'd known you would be so insatiable, I would have married you sooner."
Stephanie's hands went to his waist, and she began to tease the buttons of his vest. "I like this better. More anticipation."
"I've never been very good at waiting..."
"I will not make you."
The kissing drew heated from there, Stephanie making a fierce showing at kissing, her hands rumpling his shirt as her hands fisted into the fabric there, demanding and claiming...
Until a soft knock on the door.
"Go away!" Anthony growled, hopefully it was Jarvis, he knew he would mean nothing by it.
"Anthony!" Stephanie protested. She stepped away from him, straightening her dress and leaving Anthony to make certain he did not look entirely lewd. He was fairly certain he did.
Jarvis entered the room, obviously knowing that he had interrupted, and if the smirk on his lips was any indication he thought it was quite sweet. "Lieutenant Rhodes, sir."
"Did I imagine getting married yesterday?" He asked to neither of them in particular. "I thought it was common courtesy that a family receive..."
"Miss Danvers is also with him."
"Cousin Carol?" Stephanie asked, although the clarification was unnecessary. "Could you see to some refreshments, and..." She glanced towards him, and Anthony fixed his jacket again, as it was entirely askew. "Show them in?"
Jarvis came over to where Anthony was making a valiant effort to look at though he had not been interrupted in the most intimate of manners. Jarvis gestured, and Anthony stood, only to have Jarvis succeed at neatening him far better than he'd been able to before.
"I will repay the kindness, Anthony," Stephanie promised when Jarvis left.
"I do not see how---"
Stephanie looked as though she was going to eat him.
"Oh. Well," he yanked his jacket down again. "I suppose we can entertain for a bit."
This visit came with the happy news of an engagement at least, marriage to come before the end of the season, and he and Rhodey took some pains to plot how they would see Barton eventually fall into matrimony, and Stephanie and Miss Danvers continued to laugh in the corner.
When they were finally finished with that call, which went on for far too long for Anthony's tastes, Stephanie took his hands in hers and began to drag him, passing Jarvis as they walked.
"No interruptions or I'm firing the whole house," Anthony said.
"He doesn't mean that," Stephanie assured Jarvis, although Anthony knew Jarvis was already well aware of that. "No interruptions."
"Of course, Mrs. Stark."
Anthony lost his cravat somewhere on the stairs, and his jacket on the floor a few rooms from the bedroom, Stephanie's hair was half untied by the time the door closed behind them.
There were, thankfully, no interruptions from there.
He did not see her again until the next morning, when, presentable again, she arrived at breakfast and sat at her customary place to his side. "Feeling well again?"
She made a face, which suggested the answer to be 'no', but smiled at him anyway. "Well enough. I suppose I'm just tired from the journey."
Anthony handed her the small stack of letters that had come for her before they had arrived, while he continued to read through his own. "Mr. Barton has invited us North for some hunting later in the year."
There was no immediate answer, just Stephanie picking through breakfast without much enthusiasm, before she slowly seemed to focus on the matter at hand. "Will James and Carol be there?"
"It sounds like that is the intention." Anthony reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. "I have also been entreated to invite Miss Drew."
That finally got his wife to laugh. "Oh Jessica... Carol and I are prepared to lock her and Mr. Barton in a room until she is considered quite ruined and then have you, James, Mr. Rhodes and any other number of men be quite firm about the necessity of a marriage."
"I don't understand the problem," Anthony admitted. "I proposed twice!"
"Well, I suppose it is good I did not set my cap for him," Stephanie answered, picking up a roll and splitting it open to be buttered. She opened up one of the letters and began to read.
"I am glad you did not either, we..." He stopped talking as Stephanie slid off of her chair and then onto his lap, giving him a soft kiss. "I would miss this." He slid his arms around her waist, hands down her sides. "Somehow I would know I was missing this."
"Fate and Providence?" She asked, leaning in to kiss him, and then nuzzle along his neck.
"Yes. So, what do you say, Mrs. Stark? We we to assist my good friend Mr. Barton in securing himself his bride, or shall I tell him he should have proposed during the Season?"
"I will write to her," she answered, mouth still teasing along his throat. "But Jessica is cross with me and Carol."
"She has gone from a young lady to an old maid in a matter of months. The fact that she is a few years older than me has done her no favors on that matter as well." After a few moments, she settled, head resting on Anthony's shoulder while her fingers teased at his jacket, just enough to promise, but not enough for Anthony to think she would keep that promise. "I would not encourage him if Jessica did not think highly of him."
"Lord knows why."
"Mr. Barton is quite handsome. Not quite so handsome as you, but he does his best."
"Well, there are very few who are." Anthony settled into actually continuing his breakfast, since Stephanie did sometimes just like to perch there, much to the embarrassment of the servants the first few times, but they had come to accept it as the way of the master and mistress of the house, and politely ignore it. "So, yes to Mr. Barton?"
Stephanie nodded into his neck.
"Rhodes would like us as well, although I think we shall see him when we are at Barton's, so perhaps that can be delayed a few months." Anthony nodded at that letter. "As though I really think that the four of us will not be in each other's pockets all next season. Any news from your letters?"
"We have a nephew," she said, grinning at him. "George, after James's father."
Anthony pulled back enough to look at Stephanie, and her glowing smile. She was so obviously happy, and Anthony loved to see her that way. "And Natalia is well?"
"Well enough to write that she is exhausted." She gave him a soft peck on the nose. "The doctor said she is recovering well. I do not think I look forward to that aspect, when we have our first."
The Child - George - was obviously anticipated, but the news, and knowing that Natalia was well, was a wonderful way to start their own eventual family. Anthony was more than prepared, eager even, and Stephanie spoke of her own desire for children, but for all of Barnes's joking, they had not made a great deal of progress on that matter.
"I will be at your disposal every minute of every day, then, Stephanie."
That won him a smile, and a hand teasing against his throat, before she kissed him there.
"No doubt a son is a relief for him after the... drama his demise caused the first time. Although, I cannot be over concerned, it did bring you into my sphere. I hate to think what would have occurred if you had married some country gentleman." Anthony rubbed a hand over her knee. "A son is good."
"And a daughter is not?" Stephanie asked, arching an eyebrow dangerously.
"A daughter is more than wonderful - Mamma would not be pleased to hear me say otherwise - but a man may be more secure in his legacy with a son." Anthony ran a hand over her knee, and across her thigh, enjoying that he could, that Stephanie always loved that attention.
"So you would be pleased with a daughter?"
"Of course." He would be glad enough with any child. He and Stephanie had been married for several months now, and had not been infrequent in their lovemaking. "You happy and healthy, us with a child, I would love that more than anything in the world."
A few years ago, when he had first began to consider the prospect of a wife, Anthony had realized he was unlikely to find someone who was particularly complimentary. He danced, he flirted, he took ladies on drives; he had taken it as given that he would not find someone who complimented him, who knew how to fill silences or to leave them as suited his mood. When he had met Stephanie, he had known, almost from that first moment, that he wanted to have her as his wife, and the months since their marriage had only increased his belief in that.
Stephanie took his hand, and brought it up so she could press a kiss to the palm of his hand.
"I am most happy with the results,” Stephanie agreed with Anthony’s silent thoughts. “The original circumstances were painful, but now we are here, married, happy..."
"As long as you are happy."
"Desperately." She held onto his hand, turned it over, and then brought it to rest against her belly, her hands holding Anthony's there. "I went to the doctor before we left London."
Anthony did not quite let himself hope, but he looked up at her, knowing the question would be in his eyes.
"You will soon be a father," Stephanie told him, and he dragged her in for a kiss, hard. When he released her, she gave him a smile. "I had not felt well for several days... but I was frequently sick in my youth and I was worried... but no, instead it was happy news."
He did not bother to answer, because she should more than know that already, instead he brought her down to kiss again, his hands framing her face and holding her close. "The happiest. Ha, beat Rhodey!"
"Anthony!" Stephanie said, scandalized. "Really, as though that is the most important part."
"Well your brother was after me the day after our wedding, I can only imagine what your mother, my mother, your brother, and anyone else would say if we did not soon have a child... and Rhodey said he wishes to make certain our children are close friends."
"James will want the same."
"I think, if we have a son, we should name him James, and then your brother, and Rhodey, will both be endlessly frustrated with us for stealing their name, and when we shout after him, because he will certainly be a terror, and I will tell your brother it's his fault for naming his first George."
"You are horrible," she answered. "But... maybe, there's also Howard, or Ian after Mamma's father."
"So what you are saying is we need to have several boys?" Anthony asked, lip quirked as he gave into the urge to run a hand across her belly. He wouldn't have known she was with child by looking at her, obviously, but it was a pleasant thought.
"Tell me you never wanted a little brother or sister?"
"Never," Anthony answered, but he punctuated it with a kiss. "We'll need to let Mamma know, of course, and Jarvis so the kitchens will be prepared to cater to your every whim."
"I thought it was you who would be at my disposal every minute. I am disappointed, Anthony."
"Any minute. Every minute."
For the rest of their lives. That was a promise that Anthony could keep.