I looked at our wedding pictures to see—maybe—he looked at me that way—back then—and no—he didn’t—he looked at me with admiration—I didn’t know there was another way to be looked at—how could I know—I didn’t know his face was capable of doing that—the way he looked at you—in my living room.
-Lane in The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl
It began with the proposal.
Arthur received a favorable response to his letter to Mr. Cavendish at breakfast. Both his respectable income as heir to a small country estate and his reputation as a practical young man of sober habits recommended Arthur to Mr. Cavendish. It would not be a dazzling match for a pretty, vivacious girl, but it was more than acceptable for his niece, an orphan with five thousand pounds and a brother more or less in trade. Skimming the letter, Arthur attempted to take this prose as a compliment to himself and not as a slight to his beloved. Mr. Cavendish clearly believed that Miss Eames was getting the better part of the matrimonial bargain and didn’t scruple to say as much to Arthur. He seemed to think that to be a young man in love was, as a matter of course, to be taken in—a good joke that everyone, hopeful groom included, was in on. Arthur folded the letter neatly and tucked it in his waistcoat pocket. The important point was this: Mr. Cavendish had given Arthur’s suit his blessing.
All that was left was to make his intentions known to the lady herself. Arthur happened to be engaged to dine at Mrs. Panton’s that afternoon, and Mrs. Panton, thrilled to be involved in the accomplishment of such a romantic and unexpected match, would readily arrange for Arthur to be alone with Miss Eames. Arthur had rehearsed his speech all week. He didn’t know the details—where the proposal would take place, the shade of Miss Eames’s gown, the exact witticism with which she would greet his declaration. But this was an acceptable level of uncertainty. It made Arthur’s pulse flutter. If his hands shook and the knot of his cravat was not up to his usual impeccable standard—well. He was sure of Miss Eames’s regard, but could a man ever be wholly sure of the success of his suit before the asking?
Arthur Leven was a careful man, and it was against his nature and inclination to throw himself into the unknown, to risk his peace of mind by offering for a girl whom he was not certain cherished a strong affection for him. He had waited to know his own heart as well, to weather out his stormier emotions and give himself time to evaluate Miss Eames as a suitable life partner. This was what he told himself—and what he told his father, whose pride in his son’s steadiness was everything to his only child. In reality, Arthur must admit to what the whole neighborhood knew: he was over his heels in love, besotted, with Miss Eames, and had been since she first arrived at her friend Mrs. Panton’s early that spring. Miss Eames had taken their quiet corner of —shire by storm, turning lazy picnic outings into impromptu curricle races, whipping the young ladies into a mix of adoration and envy with her knowledge of London fashions, and riding to the devil every chance she got on the temperamental, giant chestnut hunter she refused to give up—a gift, she insisted, from her brother.
If someone had asked Arthur last winter what sort of young woman he might prefer for a wife, he would have described a creature far different from Miss Ariadne Eames: a young lady as rich in modesty as she was in accomplishments; someone stately, solid, with a warm smile and a love of reading. The last two requirements were perhaps whimsical. Arthur knew that marriage couldn’t be everything to him. He hoped, however, that his future wife might have a kind heart and a desire to animate their evenings together in spirited discussion of literature.
Miss Ariadne Eames had a very kind heart, and she approached all conversation with spirit. She was not stately nor solid, per se, and Arthur had yet to see her sit still long enough to read a full chapter of a book from beginning to end. But still. She adored when Arthur read aloud, and she was a capital dancer and horsewoman. Once they were engaged, Arthur anticipated claiming, as her betrothed, even more of her smiles, dances, and horseback tete-a-tetes. He anticipated spending a dreamy summer and fall in her company as her husband, partner in her escapades—well, sort of. Arthur rather hoped there’d be fewer escapades once they were married. While charming, they were, honestly, exhausting. And what would his father say if Arthur or his wife risked dragging the spotless Leven reputation into scandal?
The proposal answered Arthur’s expectations. They were in Mrs. Panton’s eastern parlor—the one with the French doors that led out into some very pretty gardens—and Miss Eames wore light blue.
“Darling Arthur,” she said, “Of course I’ll marry you, if you’ll really have me. Think of what a dreadful flirt I’d be if I turned you down after that kissing in the shrubbery.
“Oh, don’t worry, ma’am,” she continued, louder, as Mrs. Panton tittered audibly from behind the parlor door. “It was the most proper little kiss in the world.”
And before Arthur could make heads or tails of that, let alone pull his betrothed close for a repeat performance of the shrubbery embrace, Mrs. Panton and the Miss Stevens spilled into the room to offer their congratulations. Mr. Panton insisted they share a celebratory fine brandy in honor of the occasion at the end of dinner, and Ariadne sat fifteen whole minutes at her desk to prepare the good news for post.
“If you are writing to Mr. Cavendish—“ Arthur began.
“Knowing you, you’ve written enough to my uncle for the both of us,” Ariadne laughed. “No, I am writing to my brother.”
The First Week
"I publish the Banns of marriage between Arthur Leven of —shire and Ariadne Eames of —shire. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first time of asking."
Mr. Frederick Eames was to come down from town for their wedding post haste, a full two weeks before the happy event itself.
“Oh dear!” Ariadne giggled. “Not even I call him Frederick.”
And she said, “He wants to make sure you’re up to snuff, I imagine. Without parents, we’ve been everything to each other. I’m surprised you didn’t write for his consent. Now that he’s of age, my uncle hasn’t been my guardian these past five years.”
Arthur frowned and paused, his cup of coffee raised halfway from the table. “I thought it would be more proper to write to your uncle, but if you think—”
“Arthur, I’m only quizzing you.” Ariadne reached across the breakfast table, dragging the sleeve of her riding habit through the butter, and liberated the cup from Arthur’s frozen hands. She settled back in her chair, blithely dabbing at the butter with her napkin, and proceeded to drink Arthur’s coffee, making a face at its sweetness. Arthur’s raised eyebrows were met with an elegant shrug. “Well, you were being such a slug about pouring tea for me, and I have ridden all this way.”
Arthur hastily rang the bell for tea and fresh breakfast things to be brought up from the kitchen; neither he nor the servants were used to anyone other than Arthur, who ate the meager breakfasts of an ascetic, occupying the breakfast room before ten.
While they waited, Ariadne smoothed out her brother’s letter on the table. From his vantage, Arthur couldn’t make out the words, but he admired the neatly lined sheet covered in lovely, sloping script. It was the sort of letter that his cousin Mal was always complaining that her brothers didn’t know how to write—neat, long, clearly full of more news than ‘the weather is fine, the hunting is excellent, see you in a fortnight.’
Ariadne said, “Besides, he wouldn’t have approved of you asking his consent. Would’ve said it wasn’t worth anything without mine.”
Arthur opened his mouth but didn’t know what to say exactly—I thought I should get as much consent as possible?! He felt his frown deepen and his consternation increase. “Your consent! Ariadne, you know your wishes are the closest to my heart. If I thought you didn’t want the engagement—”
“Oh, Arthur,” she said. “I know. Don’t be so serious. Let’s talk about something better. Don’t you think my brother ought to stay here with you at Henfax? Mrs. Panton will have him, of course, but she’s been dying to fix him with one of the Miss Stevens for the past two seasons, and I can’t stand to have our wedding sullied by her scheming.”
Arthur did a quick calculation. Henfax wasn’t an enormous house, but it had been constructed with large hunting parties in mind. Even with his cousin, her husband, and the sundry relatives and friends who would soon fill up the house for the wedding, there would be plenty of room for Mr. Eames, for any of Ariadne’s guests. “He’d be welcome to stay here,” Arthur said.
“He’s bringing a friend too—a Mr. Darley. They met on the continent.”
“I’ll write to my mother this morning. But of course, they’re both welcome.”
“Excellent. Oh, we’ll have such a capital time! If I can get away from all the horrid wedding arrangements and the weather stays clear, we’ll have an expedition out to the Gorge. And a party!”
“But dearest, the wedding is a party—”
“The wedding is a spectacle. I’m talking about a small party, with dancing! And we shall go out riding everyday—you, me, and Eames, and this Mr. Darley. And your cousin, if she’ll join us.” Ariadne’s eyes were alight, and she was beaming at Arthur so that he couldn’t help but smile back at her. “It’ll be such fun! I couldn’t bear to share Eames with the Miss Stevens, but I can share him with you.”
“Dining en famille are we?” The door flew open, and Arthur started in his seat. His cousin Mal was posing in the doorway, grinning at them. “Miss Eames.”
“Mrs. Cobb!” Ariadne held out her hand beseechingly to Mal, who sashayed around the table and settled next to her. Arthur watched as Mal made quick work of serving tea and selecting the best muffins and rolls from the basket for herself and their guest. His cousin and his betrothed had only been introduced several days before, when Mal and her husband had ridden over from Conham to meet Miss Eames, but, as Arthur had predicted, they were already fast friends, on as easy terms as their new acquaintance and promised relation to each other permitted.
“Arthur agrees that it’s an excellent idea for Eames to stay here,” Ariadne told her.
“See, I told you he would be agreeable.”
“So agreeable! The most agreeable.”
“I see what I’m up against in the two of you.” Arthur sighed. “Do you have any other petitions for me? While you hold my coffee hostage, I’m a captive audience.”
“If you think I will pity you for having two extremely clever women looking after you, you are quite mistaken,” Mal said, squeezing Ariadne’s hand.
Arthur looked at his future wife—butter-smeared, windswept, and quite beautiful—and he thought of the easy way she had laughed about stealing down to the stables at first light to ride over to Henfax without leaving a message for Mrs. Panton, who no doubt would worry. When he was married, it would be nice to be looked after just a little, instead of having to manage everything himself, for everyone in his family. But Arthur just couldn’t quite picture how this light, laughing, mischievous person would go about taking care of him.
But matrimony was mysterious that way, wasn’t it? He couldn’t clearly picture himself a husband and Ariadne a wife, shouldering new responsibilities, someday stepping into the well-worn positions his parents occupied as stewards of Henfax. If he told this to Mal, she would certainly quiz him; when they were children, she had often laughed at his lack of imagination. But it didn’t matter. He loved Ariadne, and the wedding was happening. They would figure out the reality of their marriage soon enough—in just three weeks.
“Oh, I might pity Arthur a little bit,” Ariadne said, entwining her fingers with Mal’s. She winked at him over her teacup, and he smiled at her. He was a lucky man. There was no denying it: she was the most charming woman he had ever met.
Ariadne must have written the invitation to her brother and his friend straight away, for though the Miss Stevens and the neighborhood eagerly awaited the gentlemen’s arrival on Sunday, Mr. Frederick Eames and Mr. Yusuf Darley arrived at Henfax Saturday afternoon.
The day had started out fine but had become overcast and then blustery. At Arthur’s urging, Ariadne had agreed to curtail their afternoon ride to the park and the lanes just beyond its western border so that they would be able to return quickly to the house in the event of a storm. They had just crossed into the park from the lanes—Ariadne exuberant from taking the fence on her chestnut—when the two riders were spotted in the avenue. They were miniature figures from the great distance, identities all but impossible to discern, but Ariadne instantly shouted “It’s Eames!” and took off across the park at a gallop, whooping with excitement.
Arthur’s favorite hunter was more circumspect than Ariadne’s chestnut—too much like its owner, he thought wryly. “Miss Eames!” he shouted, to no avail. With a sigh, he urged his horse after hers. But his indecision had given her a fair lead, and unwilling to push his horse to its limit, Arthur slowed to a canter and gave up the chase. Better anyway to give the siblings a private moment for their reunion. Arthur tipped his head back and took in the leaden sky, waited to feel the sting of raindrops on his face. There was nothing—just cool, crisp air, electric with the promise of lightening. It was good that they were heading back to the house. The storm would break soon.
Arthur imagined that Ariadne would greet her guests at the front of the house where the avenue met the gravel roundabout before the entrance hall; the groom and the stable boy would hasten to fetch the horses and bring them around the house to the stables. Thus he rode directly to the stables. To be honest, he could use some quiet moments tending to his horse to gather his thoughts and ready himself to meet this intimidating in-law-to-be, his affianced bride’s nearest and dearest relation. What if Mr. Eames took a dislike to him and opposed the match? Ariadne had insisted that she was her own mistress when it came to choosing a husband, but surely the opinion of a beloved brother, if set against Arthur, would have some sway?
Arthur was proud where he had a right to be, but he was not a vain man. He liked to think he wasn’t blind to his own faults. Chief among those faults—after lacking imagination and being too serious—was his inability to converse easily with others, particularly other gentleman of his age. He wasn’t strapping or swaggering, stylish or gallant; he couldn’t take the ton or the club by storm. He got shy around his peers, and his manners lost the greater part of what was pleasing about them when he was relaxed enough to just be himself. Of course he’d gone to school, and then he had spent a few seasons in town without making any notable conquests or foes—without making much of a splash at all. But after those years were over, he had returned to Henfax and a decidedly unsociable existence.
If he had an occupation, some pursuit toward which to direct his energies and channel his faculties, these facts of his life might be different. He loved Henfax, but there wasn’t anything to do at Henfax, beyond soothe his mother’s nerves and play sounding board to his father’s every decision as a landowner, landlord, and magistrate. Arthur wasn’t naturally indolent or even naturally amiable. (A school fellow who had once called him a milksop had gotten a fist to the face!) He simply wasn’t suited to the leisurely life of a country gentleman of modest fortunes, no matter how much he loved his family and his home.
In both these respects—as a quiet man with rustic manners and as a gentleman of leisure—Arthur expected to clash with Mr. Eames. Mr. Eames would doubtless be as wild as his sister, a young buck devoted to shooting, hunting, and playing cards. He’d find stolid Arthur a sorry companion. Further, Eames was in trade, in the professions—well, if publishing could be called either. (Arthur had gone along with Ariadne’s pronouncement that it was both without argument, though he was fairly certain publishing was not a traditionally respectable profession. He was surprised his father hadn’t made a fuss about the connection—more proof of Miss Eames’s overpowering charm.) According to Ariadne, Eames had embarked on a literary career, publishing reviews and criticism, and then had acquired the floundering magazine The Tamsyn Review, turning the enterprise around till it was finally making not only a name for itself but a tidy profit. Arthur had to take Ariadne’s word for it; their local lending library did not yet carry The Tamsyn Review. At any rate, Eames sounded like a brilliant, enterprising sort; he would surely look down his nose at Arthur’s lack of accomplishments.
“Lack of accomplishments,” Arthur muttered, irritated with himself at his choice of phrase. Accomplishments! As if he were a lady!
While indulging in these mawkish reflections, Arthur had led his horse to her stall and brushed her down methodically. Now he paused, wiped his hands clean, and leaned back against the wooden wall with a loud exhale. He ran his hands through his dark hair and scowled down at his boots. “Well, devil take him,” he swore. “I am plenty accomplished.”
“I would dearly love to know, sir, what feats you comprehend in your idea of accomplishment.” A low laugh. The voice gravel deep and sinuous, making Arthur’s heart lurch, his breath catch.
There was a strange man leaning with his muscled arms crossed atop the Dutch door of the stall. The gray hunter, usually prickly with strangers, seemed inclined to favor this one; she reached her neck out, as if she would nuzzle him, and he raised a large hand to palm her velvet nose without taking his sharp, greenish eyes off of Arthur. His countenance was expressive and handsome with it—straight nose, full lips, those intent, heavy lashed eyes, fixing Arthur to the spot with their scrutiny.
“Won’t you tell me—show me? Or am I to go to the devil too for asking?” the man murmured.
Arthur shivered. He was struck, as if spelled dumb, which must be why it took him a long moment—too long a moment—to trace the familiar in the man’s features.
“Eames,” Arthur said finally, voice thick. “You must be Mr.—ah—Frederick Eames. Her brother.” Arthur stepped out of the shadows, right up to the stable door, till he was eye to eye with Eames. His horse shuffled behind him, and Eames’s expression slid from surprise to regret to mirth so quickly that Arthur wondered if he had imagined the regret.
“So you’re Arthur Leven, not the stablehand,” Eames drawled, looking him up and down. “I should have known.”
They were lit by the gloaming light of the storm-darkened afternoon, and the sliver of space between them had a surreal, out-of-time quality, richly shadowed and dangerous, like something from a long-gone fey realm.
“Yes, I’m Arthur.” He opened his mouth, but all bantering words deserted him. Just as he had feared, he was tongue-tied, slow. It was rough manners between strangers, but before he could stop himself, he had taken Eames’s hand—the broad, scraped, rough-palmed hand that had just dropped from petting Arthur’s horse. They shook hands, and Eames didn’t let him go.
“Well Arthur, we’d better get to the house,” he said, clicking open the Dutch door and pulling Arthur through, as easy as if they were dancing. “The rain’s about to come.”
“What about your horses?” Arthur asked, confused.
“There.” Eames nodded to a roan and two giant chestnuts—one Ariadne’s, the other clearly its twin. “I like to settle them myself in a new place. Come on. The groom said he’d be along in a minute to take care of the rest.”
“I didn’t hear you come in.”
“You were in your thoughts. I know how that is. Didn’t hear you myself until you spoke.”
The earth was quiet—even the wind had fallen off—and the atmosphere nearly sizzled with anticipation. The blue light over the house and the gardens was eerie.
“Maybe—maybe we should wait,” Arthur said, slowing. He was suddenly afraid—but of what? The storm?
“We can make the house,” Eames said.
They ran, a panting dash across the lawn. Then with a roar the sky broke. Sheets of rain slammed into Arthur, and his world collapsed to dichotomous elemental forces: the cold of the water and the heat of Eames’s hand in his. The grass was slippery; suddenly he was on his knees. Strong arms seized him and hauled him up, till he was standing pressed to the warmth of Eames’s chest, enfolded, and they were gasping under the onslaught of a rain so drowning that it blocked out the rest of the world. Arthur could barely see a foot in front of him, could barely see Eames, but they were nose to nose, and Eames’s brown hair was plastered to his forehead. It happened so quickly that Arthur was sure he must have dreamt it, was sure he must be mistaken—but he thought somehow he leaned forward and Eames’s wet, parted lips met his, just brushed across his for a moment—and then it was over, and Arthur had imagined it, of course. Eames had a steady, brotherly hand on Arthur’s shoulder, guiding him.
“Through here,” Arthur shouted over the roar of the water, and they stumbled through the door into his study.
“Well,” Eames laughed, shaking himself off like a dog. “That was something, wasn’t it? Practically druidic.”
Arthur stared at him.
Eames raised his eyebrows. “The rain,” he supplied. “You must have summoned it. Admit it. You’re a sorcerer, aren’t you, Mr. Leven?”
Arthur smiled, then cleared his throat and smoothed the expression from his face. “I take it you’re not often in the country, Mr. Eames.”
“Not as often as I’d like. I’m afraid I’ve been missing out.” His gaze dropped from Arthur’s face to look over his body, where his shirt and trousers clung tightly to his figure. In fact, the cotton of Arthur’s shirt was nearly transparent against his chest. He must have absent-mindedly taken off his riding coat in the stable when he was brushing down his horse. Eames was staring at him appreciatively, brazenly; then he actually licked his lush lips.
Arthur, to his horror, felt his face visibly heat. “Spring rainstorms are common,” he said, voice stiff. And dear God, would that his voice was the only stiff thing about him! His horror increased as he followed Eames’s gaze and took in the incontestable presence of an erection tenting his wet trousers.
There was a clatter of footsteps in the hall.
“Do you think,” Arthur said faintly, “I might borrow your coat?”
Eames instantly stripped off his coat—further revealing broad shoulders and muscled arms beneath—and handed the garment to Arthur, who held it awkwardly in front of his body, just as Mal and Ariadne burst through the study door.
Mal was first though the door, and Ariadne ran smack into her when Mal halted on the threshold, staring at the two gentleman conversing in large puddles and sodden clothes.
“Look at you!” Mal cried. “Arthur, there’s not even a fire in here! Miss Eames will certainly do the bunk on your wedding if you let her brother catch his death of cold.”
“Oh, Eames is fairly hardy, ma’am,” Ariadne said, pushing around Mal to approach the two men. “Arthur, darling, you look like a drowned cat!”
“Arthur darling,” Eames repeated in his sister’s lilt, lips quirked into a smile. “A drowned barn cat, to be specific.” He turned to Ariadne. “Do you know, love, I found him haunting the stables? I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve torn him away from some warm hidey-hole in the hayloft and a passel of kittens.”
Mal laughed delightedly as Arthur clutched Eames’s coat tighter and tried to look as if he didn’t mind their ribbing.
“Miss Eames,” Mal said, “Would you do me the honor of introducing your brother?”
“Mrs. Cobb, this is my brother, Mr. Frederick Eames. Eames, this is Arthur’s cousin, Mrs. Mallorie Cobb.”
Eames bowed gravely, his eyes dancing. “Delighted, ma’am. You live at Conham? I was there once as a boy. The grounds are exquisite.”
“You would find them different now—though no less exquisite, I hope. My husband has caught the passion for landscape improvement.”
Eames inclined his head again.
“Let me ring for the housekeeper,” Mal continued, “So you can get settled upstairs and change. Mr. Darley has already gone up. We promised him tea in the library at quarter past.”
“Won’t that be cozy!” Ariadne exclaimed. “It’s really a fine library. I can’t wait to show you,” she told Eames, who bowed his acquiescence with the air of one who knew better than to try to get a word in edgewise while Ariadne was expounding on a scheme. To Mal, Ariadne said, “You don’t need to ring for Mrs. Barton. I can show Eames the way. There’s no need to stand on formalities with the two of us.”
“See, she manages the house already!” Mal said.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Eames murmured, and his gaze slid from Mal to Arthur for a moment in a way that made Arthur shiver. But surely he just had a chill from standing too long in his wet clothes.
Mal paused as she and Arthur followed the siblings out of the study and toward the stairs, blocking Arthur’s escape by stretching her arms out across the doorway.
“You must like him,” she said, giving Arthur a searching look. “You wouldn’t let just anyone drip all over the floor of your study.”
Arthur shrugged, uncomfortable, turning the borrowed coat over in his hands. “I hardly know.” Then he took heart and met Mal’s gaze with the glare of challenge he had mustered against her on his better days since they were children. “I want to like him. He’s Miss Eames’s nearest relation. I want him to think well of me.”
“Fair enough.” Mal dropped her arms, and let him flee to his room.
Arthur was the last to rejoin the company in the library. He stood a long time in front of his mirror, combing back his wet hair, thinking about the arrival of Mr. Frederick Eames, about how the brother and sister favored each other—those matching mischievous eyes and ready grins. Do you know, love, I found him haunting the stables? Arthur Leven, not the stablehand. A very accomplished young man.
By the time he returned downstairs, the rain had lessened from downpour to steady drizzle. The curtains of the tall, narrow library windows were drawn back so that a view of the misty park could be enjoyed from the circle of warmth before the fire. The long, high-ceilinged room was more cheerful than Arthur had expected; the fire in the large hearth must have been kept up since morning. To accommodate Ariadne’s whim of entertaining in this usually sedate space, Mal had ordered extra couches and chairs brought in and arranged in the usual reading area. The tea tray had just been set down, and Ariadne was sitting on the edge of the couch she shared with Mal and Mal’s husband Dominic Cobb to pour tea for Eames and a tall, dark complexioned man with a pleasant, open countenance and a handsome head of black curls. Eames introduced him at once to Arthur as Mr. Yusuf Darley, a scholar of the natural sciences and author of some renown. Eames had been lucky enough to secure an introduction to him when they crossed paths in Rome, he explained, and in the fall Eames’s imprint would have the incredible honor of bringing forth a book of Mr. Darley’s most important work, the first to be published in England.
“It’s a great honor, sir, to have you in my home,” Arthur said honestly. “Now I wish that I had read more widely in the sciences, so that I could fully appreciate your expertise.”
“The honor is mine,” Mr. Darley answered. “And I would be happy to recommend some texts. I’ve traveled with several, in fact, that you are welcome to borrow. Not—“ his eyes slid from Arthur to Ariadne with a smile —“that you’re likely to have the time at present.”
“Arthur always makes time for reading,” Ariadne answered, as Mal made a noise of agreement. “He is second only to my brother in the time he spends bent over his books.”
Eames coughed. Arthur settled himself in the open chair between Ariadne and Eames and decided that he would pretend that whatever strange interlude had occurred between him and Eames in the stables had not happened. What had Eames said? Druidic rain, Arthur a sorcerer. Let that encounter be strange magic then, something from a different world adjoining this one only in odd moments—not something real. “It’s pleasant, how you’ve arranged the room,” Arthur admitted to Ariadne as she passed him his tea.
“It’s in honor of Eames’s arrival! I wanted him to be as close to the books as possible. Besides, the drawing room is so gloomy when the sun isn’t out.”
“When you’re mistress of Henfax, I daresay you can have all the rooms redone exactly as you like,” Mal laughed.
“Oh, I suppose so!” She wrinkled her nose. “I hadn’t thought of that. But then again, they are all so very Arthur—and—and his family. I’m not sure I could bear to change them. To be that sort of—oh, I don’t know—that sort of imposition on the house.”
“You say that now! I hadn’t been married a month before I told my husband, either these curtains go or I do! And he gave me free rein over the house after that!” She laid an affectionate hand on her husband’s arm, and Dom startled awake from where he had been dozing back against the cushions. Arthur watched as he dug in his waistcoat pocket for the small notebook he used to jot down his dreams.
“Do you know, dear, I had the queerest dream about our house. It was in an upside down city, and all of us were there, buying fruit,” he began, squinting up at Mal, who beamed down at him encouragingly. Dom and Mal were entirely, ridiculously in love. Arthur might well spend a great deal of time in his study with his books, with company like the two of them. He gladly turned to Eames when Eames spoke.
“Do you live here alone?” Eames asked Arthur.
“With my parents,” Arthur answered. “They are still in town.”
“And will they live here with you after—?”
“No, they have taken a house near Conham to be nearer to my cousin. They plan to remove there after the wedding.”
“You keep a house in town?”
“Not one up to my uncle’s standards.” Eames smiled. “But it suits me. And my sister, when I can induce her to stay with me.”
“It’s our late mother’s house,” Ariadne chimed in. “Our father settled it on her as a wedding present because she came to the marriage with next to nothing. He wanted her to have something of her own.”
Ariadne and Eames’s hands touched across the table as she refilled Eames’s teacup, and they shared a private glance. “Ariadne is the keeper of our family history,” Eames said.
“She never mentioned,” Arthur murmured. They had never spoken long on such topics. He thought also—he couldn’t help it—about marriage presents, houses in town. How he could never afford to give Ariadne such a gift.
“Ah.” Ariadne glanced from Arthur to her brother with an air of apology. “I’m afraid Arthur and I have had quite a dashing romance. There’s been no time for history or housekeeping with all the curricle races—“
“Oh no, not the curricle racing again,” Eames muttered.
“—ballroom cuts and coups and triumphs—”
“—illicit rendezvous in the shrubbery—”
Eames gave Arthur a hard look.
“And that affair where, by our—ah—judicious interference, we prevented an imprudent marriage between Mrs. Panton’s lady’s maid and that ruffian of Mr. Browning’s.”
“You’re forgetting the boating party where we saved Miss Louisa Stevens from drowning.”
“Indeed! Oh, that was great fun!”
Eames was still looking daggers at Arthur. Arthur doubted he’d heard a word beyond shrubbery.
“Not much time for heart-to-hearts about family history or our sordid pasts, you see,” Ariadne was saying to her audience with a becoming affectation of sheepishness.
“Well, in this you and Mr. Leven are perhaps not unusual, Miss Eames.” Mr. Darley smiled. “I’ve heard it said that one of the great pleasures of marriage is truly learning about one’s spouse, once the performances and rigors of courtship are over.”
“Performances!” Mal cried. “Surely, you don’t think of courtship as merely a performance!”
“No, no, hear me out! Not merely a performance, but a performance nonetheless.” Mr. Darley held up his hands. “I mean no slight. Just that we put our polished manners forward—all our desire to please the ones who so please us—and of course there is more of us to be seen and discovered after such a short preamble to a life together.”
“It is not outright dissembling,” Ariadne agreed, surprising Arthur. “I mean—it ought not to be, where the parties involved are honorable. Just—oh, I suppose it’s human nature, wanting to be seen as our best selves, when we’re really not our best selves most of the time. Though I suspect there’s something more deeply transformative in the act of trying to appear to our advantage.”
“Love calling us to be our best selves?” Eames gaped at his sister. “Did you really just—?”
“Oh hush, you.” Ariadne hefted a couch pillow, as if to toss it at her brother.
Eames raised his cup to Arthur. “Mr. Leven, I salute you! You have made a romantic philosopher of my sister.”
Ariadne tossed the pillow at his head.
Outside, lightning flashed.
“Better to have ballroom intrigue when he’s your admirer and heart-to-hearts when he’s your husband.” Dom tucked away his notepad and finally joined the conversation. He squinted at the company with the air of one who’d said something profound.
“Right you are, Mr. Cobb,” Eames replied, pillow in hand, ready to be chucked back at his sister. Upon better acquaintance, he would have thrown it at Dom, Arthur thought.
When the conversation proceeded, wobbling off down a different track, Eames turned to Arthur with a broad smile that was belied by the so you’ve been trysting with my sister in the shrubbery, have you? gleam in his eyes and said, “So, Mr. Leven, will you show me your books?”
“Well, we are in the library, Mr. Eames,” Arthur stammered, raising a hand to gesture to the tome-lined stacks.
Eames made a dismissive sound in his throat. “My sister informs me that, ah, you inform her that your poetry collection is quite impressive.”
This got a chuckle from the company. Arthur tried to smile too.
“Go on, show him your special books!” Ariadne said. “We get on quite well without you dusty bookworms.”
“Very well,” Arthur sighed. “If everyone will excuse us. Come with me, Mr. Eames.”
A door connected the library to Arthur’s study. Arthur held it open for Eames and then hesitated only a moment before shutting it, blocking out the rise and fall of conversation around the fireplace. While they were upstairs, a servant had lit a fire in the room and mopped up the water that they had tracked in from outdoors; Arthur could still see the dark, wet spots on his oriental rug. He wondered if Eames would have proposed book-examining if he had known it meant a return to this room and, perhaps, the strange atmosphere of their meeting.
Eames was standing in the center of the room, pulling absently at his cravat as if it constricted him. He was looking not at Arthur but at the shelves that lined three walls of the study. Arthur watched as he stepped, transfixed, to the case that contained Arthur’s favored books of poetry. It was near his desk, so that the collection spilled down from shelves into piles next to his letter writing materials and then to cover the entirety of the workspace. The books on his desk were not neat but were lovingly arranged, held open with paperweights and tea saucers, strewn with small pages of notes.
Arthur felt a tug in his chest and fought the urge to loosen his own cravat, to run to the window and toss open the casement like a madman, letting in the rain, just to get more air. The unexpected stable meeting and its aftermath had been confusing, but Arthur had been conscious of his jumble of nerves, hopes, and expectations for the meeting with his brother-in-law-to-be; it was within the realm of reason that his mind and body could react in unwanted, unwarranted ways to the unexpectedly handsome man’s appearance.
But this—this was a slap in the face. Mr. Frederick Eames, alight with wonder, cradling Arthur’s treasured Catullus with the beautiful blue morocco binding, lush lips parted to read aloud under his breath. Mr. Frederick Eames, who obviously, completely loved books.
No, no, no, Arthur’s reason shouted. Not again, not now. Not this man.
Arthur Leven was a proud man; he liked to think that he wasn’t blind to his faults and that he looked the truth of things straight in the face, even when—especially when—it was unflattering. The truth was that he was attracted to Mr. Eames.
Attracted? Hell, he wanted to bend Eames over the mess of his desk, to get his hands all over that large, muscled body and his lips around Eames’s cock. He wanted Eames to fucking speak up, to recite Catullus against Arthur’s ear while fucking Arthur into incoherence.
The familiar, delicious want shot through Arthur’s body. Eames. His large hands looked gentle, flipping the pages of the Catullus. It wasn’t just lust for a pretty face, broad shoulders, a well-turned leg this time. No. This was a man who ran a literary magazine. They had just met, and Arthur wanted to ask him a million questions, to know everything about his life, work, and ideas. What was it Ariadne had said? That he and Eames spent all their time bent over their books. Jesus Christ. Arthur licked his lips. Eames was dangerous to him, to his plans, to his peace of mind. He had to contain himself.
Arthur was bound to be married this time. In a fortnight. To this man’s sister!
To Ariadne, his dear Ariadne, his betrothed.
Oh, he was outdoing himself this time. Descending into real depravity. Not his desire for men—Arthur knew, law of the land be damned, that those desires weren’t immoral, even if their indulgence ran cross-purposes to his duty to his family. His desire for Eames was wrong. He was in love with the man’s sister, damn it.
Eames looked up at Arthur, and it took a moment for his expression of open delight to shift into a more guarded smirk. “The look on your face, Mr. Leven. Positively stricken. Don’t worry. I won’t manhandle your Catullus. It’s—it’s a beautifully bound copy.”
Arthur cleared his throat, stepped closer. “I’m not worried. I can see that you understand how to handle a book, Mr. Eames.”
“I should hope so. It’s only my life’s work,” he muttered, but he looked pleased with the compliment.
“Did you see the end paper and the matching tooled designs on the spine?”
“Yes. An excellent choice for this text. Did you order it so yourself?”
Arthur nodded. “I know a little about the care and construction of books. When I am in town, I purchase them in linens and take them to Staggemeier’s, and I go to Ridgeway’s or Lackington’s.”
“You should come see my shop next time you’re in town. These days I spend my time on the magazine and the publishing part of the work—editing, corresponding with our authors, and handling all the tiring business aspects, you know. We even contract out some of our book printing now, we get so busy. But I have spent my fair share of time running presses and doing binding, especially before taking on the Review. Seems to me it’s important to understand all aspects of the work. Even if that makes me a jack of all trades and master of none at best, a dilettante at worst.”
“I should think it gives you a better head for the business, if you can wholly understand and value every man’s work contributing to it.”
“And every woman’s,” Eames added. “We have female editors, printers, and bookbinders. My sister tried her hand at all of those offices, in fact, before our aunt and Mrs. Panton stole her away to greater respectability.”
They were standing close, poem 51 held between them, and Eames gave him a sideways look. “You don’t seem like the sort to stand in the way of reforms, for all you’re a fine country gentleman.”
Arthur shook his head. “I’m not.”
“Not a fine country gentleman or not a full on Tory?” Before Arthur could answer, Eames snapped the book shut and pressed it into Arthur’s hands. “Listen,” he said, making serious eye contact with Arthur, all trace of initial flirtation truly gone. “I owe you an apology, Mr. Leven. The way I spoke to you earlier, in the stables and—”
Arthur felt himself flush in confusion. “You don’t have to—”
“No, I do. Hear me out. I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way.” He swallowed. “Looked at you that way. Sometimes I’m a bit of a rascal. God knows I mean no harm. My mouth and my eyes and my—well—they get far ahead of my good sense. I want you to know that I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to worry about me leering at you—or your stablehands for that matter. God, I sound like a nasty cove, don’t I?” Eames’s full lips twisted into a self-deprecating half-smile, and he ran a hand through his close-cropped hair, mussing it delightfully.
Arthur was—Arthur was speechless.
“So that’s half of it,” Eames went on, sounding a bit less certain. His greenish eyes still pinned Arthur, like he wouldn’t let himself look away, despite his discomfort. He placed one broad hand on Arthur’s shoulder; it should have felt confusing, at odds with his speech, but Arthur found the weight steadying. “Men of—of our predilections should stick together, yeah? Do right by each other. That’s why I want to speak plainly.”
Arthur nodded, mouth dry. There was no point in protesting, in dissembling.
“But that leads me to the other half of it.” Eames’s countenance darkened.
Arthur wanted to cringe. But he stood straight under Eames’s fierce gaze. “Go on,” he breathed.
“You’re marrying my sister.”
“Yes. I—I love her.”
“Do you?” Eames was studying him carefully, and the hand on Arthur’s shoulder tightened. The pressure was almost painful now. It felt good, too good. Oh, Arthur was a right bastard.
He raised his chin. “I do. Just because I enjoy the company of men doesn’t mean I can’t desire a woman or be a good husband to her.”
“That’s true enough. For some men.”
“It’s true for me,” Arthur insisted.
Eames’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Leven, I want my sister to be happy. To have a truly happy marriage, like our parents’ marriage—brief though their happiness was. I don’t want her to have a marriage of convenience. Of your convenience. We might be parentless, and her five thousand might seem like a pitiable sum to you, but I assure you we do quite well in the world. I believe my sister wishes to marry, but she doesn’t need to marry; she knows I’ll provide for her. She certainly doesn’t need to marry you.”
“She assures me that she wants to marry me.”
“Yes, on first glance, she seems to like you well enough,” Eames said gruffly. “Tell me, do the two of you have an arrangement?”
“What?” Then Arthur realized what Eames meant. “No. She doesn’t know that my—my tastes include men.”
Eames swore under his breath. “God, this gets better and better.”
“What, and I suppose you think I should have included that in my proposal?” Arthur snapped. “Bringing up such a thing to a gentlewoman! It would have been—imprudent. Indelicate, to say the least—”
Eames laughed, dry, humorless. “Yes, I’m sure she’ll appreciate your delicacy when you’re leaving her bed for the molly house.”
Arthur stiffened and shook off Eames’s touch. He felt his hands clench into fists.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Eames said softly, dangerously. “Don’t you dare get your hackles up with me for looking after my sister’s best interest. You’re a damned fool. She is too. Should have known better by far, growing up with me. You should have waited for me to—for me to come here. For my advice, my consent.”
Christ, he was insufferable. “If she wants to call off the wedding, she certainly can,” Arthur said through gritted teeth. “I’m sure your advice would be enough to bring her around to that decision.”
“If she wants to call off the wedding, she certainly can,” Eames parroted, incredulous. “And at what cost to her reputation? Did you think of that? Don’t think I won’t tell her.”
Arthur felt a flare of panic. “Wait. Give me a week.”
“Yes—ah—just give me one week before you tell her. A week for you to watch us together and see how I care about her. You’ll see that we’ll be happy together.” Eames wasn’t arguing yet, so Arthur rambled on, pressing his advantage. “You just got here. How can you judge? Give it a week before you tell her, before you try to separate us.”
“So you agree that telling her is the honorable thing?”
No. He didn’t want to, and he couldn’t say the words to Ariadne. “Yes. She should know. She should choose, knowing everything.”
Eames let out a long breath, gave Arthur a considering look. Arthur tried to relax his fists, but his body practically vibrated with tension.
“A week,” Eames said slowly, his voice a low, purring rumble that just shredded Arthur’s every resolve. “You’re telling me I should wait a week before I try to stop my sister’s marriage to the man who’s rubbing his cockstand against my thigh.”
Eames shifted, and Arthur gasped, looking down at the press of their bodies with a heightened sense of shame and pleasure; he hadn’t realized how close he’d stepped to Eames, with all his posturing and pleading.
“Mm.” Eames lifted a hand and brushed his knuckles lightly, so lightly, along the line of Arthur’s jaw. Arthur shivered, then glared at him, anticipating the moment they stepped apart and returned to formalities, not wanting it to come. “You’re a fool, Mr. Leven,” Eames said. “But fine, have your week.”
Arthur nodded. He wouldn’t say thank you. Eames really was a rascal, tempting Arthur with his calloused printer’s hands, his heavy-lashed green eyes and sterling moral compass. He’s the reasonable one, Arthur’s inner voice chimed, but Arthur pushed reason away for later.
Both of Eames’s hands were on Arthur’s waist now. “Fucking hell,” Eames grumbled, “You just had to be gorgeous, hungry for it, and engaged to my sister, didn’t you?” Then with a heavy sigh, he put Arthur away from him and crossed the room to Arthur’s shelf of atlases, adjusting his trousers.
Arthur straightened his waistcoat primly, dug the brandy out of his desk, and poured them each a glass. His pours were shaky, and he hated himself, just completely loathed himself. Fuck.
“You better take both of those, love. You look like you need them.”
Eames's voice wasn’t even kind; it made Arthur forget that Eames had just called him gorgeous. So he gave him a dark look and shoved the glass at him.
“Suit yourself then. Cheers.” Eames turned back to the shelves and busied himself with Arthur’s poetry collection for a whole half hour, until dinner was announced. He didn’t look up once, as if Arthur had become invisible. The dismissal shouldn’t have stung, but it did.
Arthur sat at his desk and nursed his brandy, watching drops of rain streak across the window’s glass. It occurred to him that when they first stumbled, rain-soaked, into Arthur’s study, Eames hadn’t seen the mesmerizing books at all. He had eyes only for Arthur.
The Second Week
"I publish the Banns of marriage between Arthur Leven of —shire and Ariadne Eames of —shire. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the second time of asking."
After their thoroughly discomfiting tete-a-tete in the study, Arthur tried to give Eames a wide berth. But he reckoned without the machinations of the women of the house. Mal and Ariadne seated Arthur by Eames at dinner—and at cards—and, somehow, at Mrs. Panton’s dinner the following day.
“Well, I have to play the good hostess and entertain Mr. Darley,” Ariadne told Arthur by way of explanation, when Arthur finally cornered her and suggested that she might like to spend some time with her brother. “Your cousin is brilliant, but she’s completely enraptured with her fop of a husband. They get that far away look in their eyes, and civilized conversation is a lost cause.” She gave one of her elegant shrugs, miming exaggerated horror. “Well, it’s quite ridiculous.”
“Yes, ridiculous,” Arthur agreed, though he could hear the obvious fondness beneath Ariadne’s censure of the Cobbs. See, he told himself, neither Ariadne nor I want those puppyish goings on. We’re happier and more sensible as we are.
“So, it falls to you to entertain my brother,” Ariadne continued, as if everything was settled.
“He’s a good sort, isn’t he? Neither your rustic manners nor your grand airs will put him off.”
“My airs!?” Arthur protested. “Wait, how can I have rustic manners and grand airs?”
Ariadne laughed. “You’re a mass of contradictions.” She twisted a bracelet on her arm and looked up at Arthur through her eyelashes in a manner she knew was very winning. “Once he gets to know you, he’ll love you as much as I do, I daresay.”
“We can only hope,” Arthur said faintly. “He hasn’t—ah—said anything against our marrying, has he?”
She dropped her coy manner and gave him an appraising look, her lips twisting into a thoughtful moue. “No. But I suppose he hasn’t given his blessing either.”
“So you’ll be extra charming this week, won’t you? Win him over?”
Arthur made a noncommittal sound that Ariadne seemed to take for an affirmative. Her lightness returned, and she took hold of Arthur’s arm with one dainty gloved hand. Arthur wondered fleetingly how one sibling could be so bird-boned and the other so—so large. The memory of Eames’s strong arms wrapped around him the rain rose unbidden in his mind.
He and Ariadne were meandering in the garden and had come upon a fork in the path. Ariadne gave his arm a yank, pulling him in the direction of her preferred walk.
“Ah, there it is,” Arthur said.
“Oh, nothing. I was thinking of how different you and your brother are—but then you both have a frightfully strong grip.”
“We both have? Been strolling arm in arm, have you? Grappling? Arm wrestling?” She gave a dramatic sigh. “I just knew Mrs. Cobb and I were missing the good stuff when we left the lot of you at table hoarding all the port.”
“You would regret missing arm wrestling.” Arthur answered her sigh with his own. “I’m marrying the tiniest Amazon in existence.”
“In another life I was a great big Viking warrior—or a Pict—”
“Perhaps a Magellan—”
“No, Marco Polo!” Ariadne’s jovial tone had shifted to something almost wistful.
Eames and Darley approached them from the house. The conversation shifted, of course, to general topics, and Arthur was left to reflect on the perversity of Ariadne’s charge. Arthur was to keep Eames entertained! If she only knew how Arthur’s self control was on a knife’s edge the closer he was to Eames and his watchful, green eyes.
Short of taking his meals in his room—and oh, wouldn’t that go over well—there didn’t seem to be a way to avoid Mr. Eames. Which is good, Arthur told himself. You want to be in his presence to give him an opportunity to observe you and Ariadne. You need only avoid being alone with him.
Eames was all courtesy and easy, pleasing manners—a lively conversationalist and an equally animated listener. Arthur would wager that if anyone in their small party could detect signs of reserve between the two of them, they would place the responsibility for the discomfort in Arthur’s monosyllabic answers and stumbling speeches, his moments of quiet and embarrassment. Rustic yet haughty manners! Ariadne had pegged him well, and the realization was more than a little bitter in his craw. But this isn’t me, he told himself. He was himself when he was writing and reading in his study, when he was riding, when he was unpacking new volumes of poetry from tissue paper packaging, inhaling their fresh ink smell.
“Your father and Mr. Cobb hunt at Henfax, but you don’t, Mr. Leven? What prevents you?” Mr. Darley asked during the first dinner. Arthur looked for clever words at the bottom of his cup, but beside him Eames said, “I don’t hunt either. Haven’t the stomach for it, running those poor little foxes into the ground.”
During cards, when Ariadne teased Arthur for barely knowing how to dance the quadrille, Eames gamely offered to help him improve—much to everyone’s mirth. “Do you know,” Eames said, trying to turn the subject while Arthur’s ears burned, “When I first acquired The Tamsyn Review, we used to print all the latest dance collections to finance the magazine. After setting type for every dancing master in London, I believe I could muddle my way through every fashionable dance of the last decade.”
“Can we put you to the test?” Mal asked. “I’ll wager a guinea we can stump you.”
“I’ll wager three!” said Ariadne.
“I’ll wager four whole guineas that you fall on your face!” Dom cried, not to be outdone. “And that Arthur steps on your toes.”
The next day, at Mrs. Panton’s, when Arthur was worn thin by drawing room conversation and bored to tears by Miss Stevens’s performance at the pianoforte, Eames sat next to him in the window seat and proceeded to make him ache with held-in laughter by drawing caricatures in what looked suspiciously like Dom’s dream notebook.
“Mr. Eames, you won’t be dull like Mr. Leven, will you?” Miss Louisa Stevens skipped over from the cluster of other young people. “You’ll come join our glee?”
Eames had spirited the little notebook out of sight and sat with his hands clasped, a picture of innocent idleness. “Oh, I’m afraid I’m far, far duller than our Mr. Leven,” he replied, smiling widely. “You’ll have to do without me too.”
Miss Louisa gave Arthur a sour look that deepened to outright dislike when Eames remained glued to his side for the rest of the evening.
On each of these occasions, Arthur was left mortified and blushing like a boy not out of the schoolroom. Could anyone blame him for being eager to escape Eames’s company and return him to the charge of his sister?
It was after the conversation in the garden about strong hands and a host’s obligations that Ariadne proposed that she, Arthur, and the guests of Henfax all ride out to the Gorge. The rain, which had come and gone the past two days, looked to let up long enough to make the prospect of the ride pleasant. The tenant farmer who brought the eggs swore the day would be fine, and Ariadne heard his auguring from the cook herself—so the whole matter was decided. Mal politely refused the invitation with her husband’s anxious support, stating that the doctor would discourage such an adventure at this point.
“We will miss you,” Ariadne assured her. “But I will think of you comfortable here while I am skirts-deep in mud with bits of gorse in my hair, cutting the cleverest path through the countryside.”
“Good God, and I thought it was to be an expedition of pleasure!” Eames exclaimed.
“Oh, the keenest!” she replied.
Eames grinned at Arthur. He thought he was funny, clearly, mocking the consternation that had rushed to Arthur’s face at the idea of the bushwhacking Ariadne described.
“I’m afraid you’ll be wasted on redecorating drawing rooms, Miss Eames,” said Mr. Darley. “You have the heart of a campaigner.”
He and Ariadne shared a smile. Arthur was busy biting his lip and schooling his features back to complaisance, trying not to look at Eames.
The four of them set off early, just after breakfast.
By the end of the ride, Mr. Darley admitted that Miss Eames had the heart of a campaigner, the endurance of a soldier, and a general’s way of giving orders too. She wouldn’t hear of slackening their pace or choosing straightforward paths over more daring ones on her own account or her horse’s (because indeed her horse looked ox-strong and showed as few signs of flagging as she did)—only on Arthur’s account.
“You see, darling,” Eames said finally, pulling up alongside her. “Look how pale our Arthur is. He’s quite knocked up. Say we break a few minutes for refreshments?”
“Thank you, Mr. Eames,” Arthur said through gritted teeth. “But I’m absolutely fine.”
Nobody listened to him. Ariadne acquiesced to Eames’s request with a small sigh and reined in her horse.
They drank water and ate half their sandwiches, sitting by a rather picturesque stream, and Eames put his hand on top of Arthur’s, leaning in close to point out a blue tit in the brush. “How pretty,” he whispered. “Do you see him?” He waited patiently, several long breaths, for Arthur to scan the greenery and spot the flash of blue.
“Yes, there he is,” Arthur found himself whispering back.
Ariadne and Mr. Darley were deep in conversation on some topic of natural science about which Arthur was surprised to find himself indifferent. The blue bird hopped from branch to branch; he actually flew closer, and Arthur and Eames inhaled as one as he turned his head this way and that to regard them with his bright eyes.
“If I had my sketchbook out already—” Eames said with regret. “Do you think if I got up to grab it—but no, that would scare him away.”
“They’re really quite common,” Arthur breathed.
Eames made a small sound of displeasure. “Quiet, you’ll offend him.”
“I don’t think so. Look at how brazen he is, staring at us like that.”
“I don’t think he finds us up to snuff.”
“Then he’s just like you, really.”
Eames laughed, and the bird took flight, its blue getting lost in the matching hue of the clear sky. “Is that what you think of me?”
“Can you draw him from memory?” Arthur asked instead of answering.
Eames squeezed Arthur’s hand before carefully withdrawing the touch. “A common garden bird? I think so,” he said.
It was only then that Arthur remembered that they were supposed to be at odds with each other, maintaining their strange standoff—not touching hands and whispering like schoolboys. He felt himself flush again with confusion.
But Ariadne saved him from puzzling out what to say next to Eames and in what tone to say it. “Onward!” she cried, and so they rode on, reaching the towering rock formation earlier than Arthur had anticipated.
When Arthur was a boy, he had always wanted to be riding. He used to beg his tutor to grant him and Mal a holiday from their lessons and let them take off cross country—and failing that, for the man to ride with them and make geography and science come to life outdoors, to preside over picnic history lessons and Latin compositions shouted into the wind. It was to the man’s credit that he understood his charges would learn better through this weekly indulgence. On special occasions, the three of them would ride out to the Gorge, making a full day’s expedition of it.
All these years later, Arthur still cherished fond feelings of the place, and it felt like a holiday to gallop along the widening creek bed, through the water, and into the winding little canyon, between the moss-covered walls of rock that rose up from the otherwise flat countryside to hem them in. Early in their acquaintance, Arthur had taken Ariadne here along with the more intrepid riders of Mrs. Panton’s guests. Her delighted response to the Gorge had made the first inroads toward Arthur’s affections. By the end of the ride, he had decided that he was well on his way to being in love with her.
Now, as they neared the canyon, Ariadne was eager to play guide to Eames and Mr. Darley. Arthur listened with a smile as she explained the approach and promised Mr. Darley a wealth of interesting natural features and pools of river creatures to examine once they reached the small, gravel beach hidden between the rocks. He was content to follow the others, and he let his horse linger for a moment at the initial stream crossing, listening to them splash ahead. Perhaps he should have felt more jealous of his and Mal’s special place—but they had never been like that, the two of them. Secure in each other and in their enjoyment of what they loved, they had always spoken openly of their treasures and had been pleased when they found kindred-souls willing to listen—because it was so rare, out here in their corner of the country. Coming out into London society had changed them, Arthur supposed, had taught them both to hold their cards closer to their chests.
At the heart of the Gorge, they tied up the horses and proceeded to explore and—in Arthur’s case—to laze about in the sun.
“Arthur!” Ariadne called. She had stripped off her boots and stockings and tucked her skirts up so that she could wade in the pools where the stream dallied on its way through the canyon. “Arthur! Come look at the Austropotamobius pallipes!”
Arthur waved but didn’t stir from his perch on the warm, flat stone. He had pulled off his boots too, and he sat crosslegged in rolled up trousers and his shirtsleeves, enjoying his view of the curves of the canyon, of the greenery spilling over the edge of the cliffs above them. “Later!” he called. “You go!”
She gave up and turned back to her critter hunting. Mr. Darley was doing a frightfully good impression of Dom, Arthur thought, making notes in his book while talking animatedly with first Eames, then Ariadne. After a while, he and Ariadne splashed further upstream, out of sight, and Eames made his way back to Arthur. Unlike the rest of them, he actually looked good, at ease, stripped out of his finery—sleeves rolled up, feet bare, the beginnings of a sunburn on his nose. Arthur wondered if he looked like this when he was printing, except sweatier and smeared with ink.
“Can I join you?”
Eames tossed his leather satchel onto the rock and clambered up after it. Arthur scooted over slightly to give him a more shade-dappled seat. “Sit there,” he said. “Can’t have you going back to town with an unfashionable tan.”
Eames snorted. “What about you?”
“I can use some sun.”
“You’re very pale.” There was a question lingering behind his words that he wouldn’t ask. But he was curious. Arthur could tell.
“I took a bad fall from my horse a few years ago,” Arthur said, giving in. “No, not that one. A big chestnut rather like those brutes the two of you ride. She, ah, got the worst of it, I’m afraid. Twisted her leg so badly there was nothing we could do.” He sighed. “I loved that horse.”
“And you?” Eames asked, undeterred. “What happened to you?”
He shrugged. “I healed up alright. But I’m not as—strong as I used to be. Not as steady on my feet as I was, and I get winded easier. You noticed that earlier.”
“Why didn’t you say something earlier?”
Arthur shrugged again. “I was fine. I can handle myself fine.”
Eames frowned at him.
“I don’t need to be coddled. Besides, I’m resting now, aren’t I?”
Eames leaned back on his hands, then shifted forward again to dig in his satchel. He pulled out a sketchbook and a box of cased graphite pencils that he set on the rock between them. Arthur picked one up to admire it; it was handmade and meticulously sharpened. Their fingers brushed as he handed it to Eames, who began to sketch, bringing the blue tit from earlier to life on the page with bold, certain lines.
“Do you have colors too?” Arthur asked, transfixed.
“Mmm. Watercolors, in the bag.”
“What do you draw, besides birds?”
Eames dug a second sketchbook out of his satchel and passed it to Arthur. This time their fingers didn’t touch. “That one’s landscapes,” he said.
“You organize your sketchbooks by subject?”
“Well. They do spill into each other here and there.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed. That’s—delightful.”
The drawings were delightful too. Arthur flipped through the sketches, some in pencil, some watercolor that crinkled the fine pages.
“So tell me, what would your cousin say if I were to ask her about this accident of yours?”
Arthur’s hands stilled around the book. It was open to a pencil sketch of a house, perhaps the house that had belonged to Ariadne and Eames’s mother. “Mal? Oh, probably that they all thought I would die, or some such rot. I hear my father wept in front of the servants, and everyone thought that if I went off, my mother would go right behind me, she worked herself up into such a fit. I don’t remember—I was running a high fever at the time. There. Are those the lurid details you were fishing for? Have I satisfied your curiosity?”
“Satisfied it? Hardly. On this subject, I’m afraid you never shall.”
“What? The subject of my misfortunes?” Arthur frowned at Eames, but Eames grinned at him; he tipped his paper to show that he had finished the bird and had moved on to sketch Arthur.
“The subject of you, darling.”
Arthur’s pulse quickened, even though his reason nagged that he shouldn’t be so easily flattered. “Do I really look like that?” he asked. The young man in the sketch appeared hale enough; but his hair was windswept, and he stared out into the distance like a—well, romantic hero. Arthur shook his head, bemused.
“Mm. No, I suppose not,” Eames sighed, tapping his pencil against the page. “Sit still and let me have another go, will you? We’ll see if I can’t capture your sorcerer persona. Yes, that’s it—more wicked, more wicked—scowl harder for me, darling—ow!”
Arthur had tossed a pebble at Eames’s nose. Eames tossed it back. Then they were grabbing each other, and for a moment, Arthur thought Eames might wrestle him down onto the warm rock until he gave in—but he wouldn’t give in, he would—
They locked eyes, and the moment passed.
“Okay, I’ll be a good model,” Arthur breathed, letting Eames go and reestablishing a careful distance between them on the rock. “How’s this scowl?”
Eames ran a hand over his face and smiled a little shakily at Arthur. He picked his sketchbook back up and said, “Beautiful.”
When they returned to Henfax and settled to tea, Mal handed Ariadne a letter that Mrs. Panton had sent over, knowing Ariadne did not intend to return to the Pantons’ till evening.
“From our aunt,” Ariadne said, showing Eames the direction before tearing open the missive. “Oh, it’s a great bother,” she exclaimed a moment later, thunking her teacup down on the table with such force that it tipped into her saucer. “My aunt declares she simply can’t make the arrangements for my wedding clothes herself, despite all the measurements I took great pains to send! I am to go up to town directly, she says.”
It was a testament to how intimate they were all becoming that no one batted an eye at Ariadne’s complaint; they just hastened to murmur consolation and regret for the imminent break up of their small party. Surely, not one in a hundred brides would lament an opportunity to traipse around London acquiring her trousseau, but Ariadne truly looked forlorn.
“Here I am to miss some capital riding to be dragged through shops all day, getting stuck by pins. It’s rotten luck, being a woman.”
“Let me take you up to town, love,” Eames said at once, righting his sister’s teacup and taking her hands. “I should check on how Attersly is getting on in the shop anyway, and that way you won’t be at the mercy of our aunt and uncle. I’ll be at hand to whisk you back down to the country at an hour’s notice, and you wouldn’t even have to go to Harley Street.”
“No business, Eames! You promised me you’d take a real vacation. I wouldn’t dream of tearing you away from Henfax.”
“Really,” Eames said, “It would hardly be an interruption of my vacation to make the journey in your company. We could hire a chaise and four and—who knows—find some sort of adventure on the road!”
Mr. Darley cleared his throat. “Let me be of service. I’m afraid I have no solicitous sister to stay my return to town. I have already postponed my journey in deference to all Miss Eames’s happy schemes,” he said, sharing a smile with Ariadne. “But I shouldn’t put it off much longer, I’m afraid. There would be plenty of room for both of you in my carriage.”
“We had hoped you would remain for the wedding,” Arthur said.
Mr. Darley made him a small bow, as Mal and Dom shared a glance. “I don’t suppose, Mr. Darley, we might impose on you as well,” Mal said. “My aunt is an indifferent traveler, and she will bear her removal from town to Henfax much better with me and Mr. Cobb there to help my uncle attend to her comfort. And if I play duenna to Miss Eames, there’s no need for Mr. Eames to cut short his country vacation and ride up to town.”
“Certainly! A neat solution. It won’t be any trouble at all,” Mr. Darley assured them. Ariadne beamed at him.
“No,” Eames said hastily, fiddling with his teaspoon. “I’m afraid I was serious when I said some business for the review needs my immediate attention.”
“Well, then we’ll have a cozy journey, the five of us,” Ariadne said.
They all looked at Arthur—well, everyone except Eames, who seemed to be looking anywhere but at Arthur. It made Arthur want to kick something. He worked to keep his tone light, casual, as he said, “Oh no. With so many stars in happy alignment, you cannot want for mine! Someone’s got to stay behind and look after the arrangements for the wedding.”
“What about your wedding clothes, Arthur? Who will buy them?” Eames asked; fidgeting, he had dropped the spoon beneath the table and was now sipping his tea, expression bland.
“You’re sure you don’t mind the mass desertion?” Eames pressed, looking at Ariadne until she squeaked, shifted—almost as if someone had trod on her foot—and joined her voice to Eames’s.
“Yes, Arthur, are you sure?”
“No, really, I should prefer to stay, to have the house to myself for a few days.” He frowned, his mind racing ahead from their socializing to all the wedding logistics and necessary, though trifling, household matters he had neglected since Mr. Eames and Mr. Darley’s arrival. “There’s so much to manage before my relatives descend on Henfax.”
“Oh, well, we shall miss you terribly,” Ariadne sighed, looking at her brother. “We’ll try not to have too much fun without you.”
The next day, their last day all together at Henfax before the wedding, Arthur emerged from his study and three hours of blissfully quiet note-taking on Mendelssohn’s Morgenstunden oder Vorlesungen über das Dasein Gottes to find a flurry of decorating taking place in the drawing room.
It was for Miss Eames’s small dancing party, one of the housemaids informed him with a curtsy. Just an informal, little gathering of four or five couples. They shouldn’t require but one room.
“Then must we strip the garden of flowers for it?” Arthur complained, sneezing. “Look at all this crepe paper! It’s as if—”
“—someone were getting married?” Mal asked, appearing beside him with her brows raised. “Oh, live a little, dearest.” She squeezed his arm and tucked a cream-colored rose into his button hole. “It’s just one night’s fun.”
“Well, if it’ll make Miss Eames happy.” Arthur stroked the rose’s velvet petals and attempted to survey the hustle and bustle with more equanimity. “I suppose it’s alright.”
“And Mr. Eames? Will you allow the disturbance of your drawing room for Mr. Eames’s happiness?” Mal was blinking at him with a pleasant, disarming smile.
Surely she didn’t mean anything in particular, but Arthur stammered anyway. “He’ll be pleased by whatever pleases his sister, I daresay.”
“Oh, I daresay so,” Mal said very solemnly, taking back her rose, which Arthur realized he had begun to absently pluck to pieces. “That does seem to be his guiding principle, doesn’t it? Ah, speak of the devil!”
Eames and Ariadne came in from the garden bearing even more flowers.
“Oh, am I the devil this time?” Ariadne grinned, unloading her armful of daffodils on Mal, who promptly handed them to the housemaid. “I can be very wicked and play the part—”
“Certainly not,” Arthur answered, just as Mal said, “I was just reminding Arthur of your threat to re-do the drawing room. He’s underestimated you at his peril, he admits.” Arthur sneezed again.
They were quiet for a moment, all looking at each other and at the young women settling the flowers around the room.
“So we’re to have dancing?” Arthur asked.
“Yes,” Ariadne answered. “Mrs. Cobb’s arranged it all. The Pantons, the Miss Stevens, Mr. Browning, and Miss Fisher are coming over for the evening, and your cousin has promised to play music for some country dances, at least.”
“For all the country dances I know and some I don’t! Well, aren’t you going to engage Miss Eames to dance, Arthur?” Mal elbowed him.
Arthur elbowed her back and cleared his throat. “What do you say, Miss Eames? Will you do me the honor?”
“I’m afraid Mr. Darley has engaged me for the first,” Ariadne replied, looking down at the ground for a moment, almost as if embarrassed, before she grinned up at Arthur and slugged his arm with her usual verve. “Say we put you down on my card for the second, and—”
“—and I won’t be such a slug about it next time?” Arthur smiled down at her. “As you wish, m’lady.” He stole the cream rose back from Mal and presented it to Ariadne with a little bow.
“You’re a good sport, Arthur,” she said, twisting the rose between her fingers.
If she sounded a little sad—well, likely it was just Arthur’s imagination. He was a little sad and very, very tired, to be honest. It was as if a raincloud had detached itself from the druidic storm heralding Eames’s visit and had somehow become tethered above Arthur’s head. No matter where he hid, in the house or in the park, the little cloud seemed determined to float along after him, sprinkling him with hopeless desires and what ifs. Probably Ariadne, Mal, and whomever else stood close to Arthur caught a residual chill and bitter rain in the face.
But maybe some dancing would cheer him up and drive the little cloud away. That sort of merriment chased away other people’s melancholy, didn’t it?
“And don’t worry, dearest,” Ariadne continued, finishing the job Arthur had started and worrying the rose all to pieces. “I already engaged Miss Louisa Stevens to dance the first set with you.”
Arthur sighed and stared at the petals lying limply on the floor. On second thought, to hell with dancing. He had a dark feeling his raincloud was here to stay.
“Chin up, dearest,” Eames murmured, as Mal and Ariadne drifted away to exclaim over the arrangement of the daffodils. “Maybe Mrs. Cobb can take your place, and you can play the pianoforte?”
“I, play the pianoforte?” Arthur gaped at him.
“What? I hear on good authority that you’re a very accomplished young man.”
Arthur knew everyone in their little party very well—or passably well, in Eames and polite Mr. Darley’s cases—so despite his dour predictions, he did not expect the evening to be as much of a trial as a ball at the Assembly Rooms or even a dinner at Mrs. Panton’s. He would dance with Ariadne and his cousin, with Mrs. Panton and whichever of the Miss Stevens had relinquished her designs on Eames for the night. Mr. Panton would drink too much brandy, and Dom would try to engage them both in some occult conversation about “the science of dreaming.” Too much dancing and he’d need a respite, but between the brandy and the dream science, that wouldn’t be too difficult to manage.
So he was surprised when after the fourth or fifth dance—a particularly lively reel that left him short of breath—his escape from the set was cut off by his friends, who were all clamoring for him to join a quadrille with Mr. Eames. Eames laughed along with them for a moment, and then made a pretty-worded, good humored excuse in his low, honeyed voice.
“What! No, no! We’ll take no excuses!”
“You promised to teach Arthur the quadrille!”
Laughter, laughter. Arthur grit his teeth and stood his ground, trying to cover his heavy breathing with a cough. He supposed he could bear this out like he usually did.
Eames though. Eames looked very embarrassed, his cheeks flushed and his handsome mouth curved into an apologetic smile directed at Arthur. He tugged at his cravat, disheveling it in a way that made Arthur’s hands twitch. “I did say that, didn’t I? My sister lets me quiz poor Mr. Leven too much. But, ah, I wouldn’t want to impose on Mr. Leven, or deprive the ladies of two partners.”
“Oh, don’t beg off on my account,” Miss Louisa simpered, making way for them at the center of their little set. Arthur was sure he saw a gleam of revenge in her eye, the minx.
“Nor mine,” Miss Stevens said.
Eames looked like he was about to melt into the floor. He was glancing around at them all with a little frown crinkling the space between his brows, and those lovely, full lips parted, just a little, in surprise—like he couldn’t quite believe all these polite folks were so dead set on taking their amusement from his and Arthur’s discomfort. What? Arthur wanted to say. You’ve never been made a joke of before?
“Well, we won’t dance this next dance, anyway,” Eames said.
“No begging off! Go on, Eames!”
“His word as a gentleman!”
“I have four guineas on it. Four!”
“Not this dance,” Eames said again, very patiently. “Can’t you see Mr. Leven needs to rest a moment?”
Arthur tried to press his hand to the sharp stitch in his side, against his embroidered blue waistcoat, discreetly. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“You’ll have to wait on your bet. We’re getting some air and a drink, excuse us,” Eames said, all but steering Arthur out of the room, onto the terrace overlooking the garden.
They walked several yards from the house, just beyond the edge of the lamplight. Arthur sunk onto a garden bench, breathing in the crisp, night air deeply, until the pain in his ribs subsided.
Eames was watching him with that frown, standing just a couple paces off, like he didn’t dare come closer to Arthur.
“Don’t be like that.”
“Like what? Concerned for your wellbeing?”
“Like an idiot,” Arthur snapped—but softly, softly. The garden was mercifully quiet, untroubled by the carousing within the house, but the separation between the two worlds was deceptive: they were still amidst company, and they couldn’t afford to forget it. “You’re acting like you’re surprised at how people are. And don’t say it’s because we’re a provincial lot. I haven’t been away from town that long,” Arthur said. “People are the same everywhere.”
“But I am surprised,” Eames said tightly. “I like to quiz my fellows and laugh at my neighbor’s faults as much as the next person. Moreso, probably. I know it seems like Ariadne and I are always making fun of someone. But I like to think there’s a difference between quizzing between friends and, oh, I don’t know—curse it, Arthur. These people get my hackles up when they’re so fucking droll with you.”
“Even your sister?” Arthur asked.
“Yes, especially my sister.”
“It’s bad ton,” Arthur said, mouth curving in a wry smile. “Taking umbrage over trifles.” He should feel—oh, he should feel beyond frustrated with Eames. Who was Eames to blunder into the center of Arthur’s life, to start directing its principals and bit players? But he was surprised at how overcome with gentleness for Eames he suddenly was. “You mean well, so I’ll forgive you this time.”
Eames sighed. “Your condescension, as always, Arthur, is much appreciated.” Arthur wished he could see his expression, but Eames was backlit by the glow of the party.
“You have to remember I grew up with half these people—the Pantons, Mal, and Dom. You see them laugh at me for—for having a stick up my arse. But you haven’t been here to see all the times I’ve said cutting things or lorded over them for being illiterate boors.”
Eames chuckled and lowered himself onto the bench next to Arthur, keeping that careful space between them. “Fair enough. How about that drink?” He held out a tumbler of brandy.
“Shall we drink to—to bad friends with good intentions?”
“And, ah, good friends with bad ones? We can be friends, can’t we Arthur?”
Arthur’s breath caught, but it wasn’t from overexertion this time, or even from the realization that Eames had slipped into calling Arthur by his Christian name, shaping the syllables like a caress; it was Eames’s voice itself—that sinewy, suggestive tone that had made Arthur’s cock leap to attention in the stable, just a few short days ago. It felt like a long time, a very long time since he had started wanting Eames. Fool that he was, he never wanted the feeling to end.
They clinked glasses and drank.
When they returned to the drawing room, the company’s supplications began anew.
Mal re-settled herself at the pianoforte with some music that would do for the figures of a quadrille, and Dom stood ready to turn the sheets as she played.
“Come on then, Mr. Eames,” Arthur said, knowing defeat when he saw it. He stepped up to Eames and took his hand. “If sisters can stand up together for want of partners, I suppose brothers can too.”
“We’re not brothers yet,” Eames said as they moved into place. He was avoiding Arthur’s eyes, looking down at their feet. His face was all pleasing angles in the candlelight, with the flush still clinging to the long planes of his cheeks. He was the beautiful one. Too beautiful. It was unfair, really.
“I suppose I’m to be the lady,” Arthur sighed, shifting his stance.
“No, darling, you’d better lead,” Eames murmured, his breath warm on Arthur’s cheek. “I don’t half trust myself to put my hands on you.”
Arthur gave him a warning glance, but Mal had begun to pound out the opening bars of Le Pantalon, the other couples were already bowing greetings and then whirling in each other’s arms, and no one was close enough to overhear their whispers. “So I’m ‘darling’ again and not ‘poor Mr. Leven.’”
“Darling Arthur. Always darling Arthur. If you only knew how it pains me to dissemble in front of the boorish masses.”
Arthur snorted. “You’re a riot. Go on and lead me through this fashionable French dance of yours, Mr. Eames. And no squawking when I step on your feet.”
“No stepping on my feet, or we’ll owe Cobb four guineas.”
“Only if you also fall on your face.”
“Well, it’ll be my fault if you do. I have two left feet.”
“Have you always—?”
“Yes, always,” Arthur replied, quickly. He could hear that familiar question lurking beneath the deceptively simple inquiry: is it because of the accident?
“You’re not wrong-footed,” Eames said after a moment. “You’re a lovely dancer.”
“You might be the only one who thinks so.”
“What about that ballroom triumph Ariadne went on about?”
“Ah, you mean when she stole Lady Morrow’s would-be partner the Duke of W—. I was but her clever accomplice, managing an impossible introduction and distracting Lady Morrow in a key moment. It was rather impressive, if I can say so myself.”
Eames chuckled obligingly, but he didn’t look pleased. “You shouldn’t be the sidekick. You should be the main dish, dearest.”
It was too much. The noise and the music—the merriment—Eames’s insinuating kindness—his warm eyes and possessive touch. Arthur had to get some air before he collapsed or did something insane like throw himself at Eames’s gorgeous mouth in the middle of the fucking quadrille. When the movement of the dance caused them to step apart from each other, he seized his opportunity and fled, mumbling a general “excuse me” to the room as he practically sprinted into the hall, to his study to liberate the brandy bottle from his desk, and then down the lawn to the stables.
He’d go say hello to his horse and his passel of kittens, undemanding company who would forgive his bad manners.
The groom was absent—in the kitchens probably, drinking ale with the cook and waiting for Arthur’s guests to call for their carriages. Arthur padded as quietly as he could in between the stalls of resting horses, pausing to greet his gray hunter and whisper his woes to her. She was a patient listener, but something drew him onward to a tool and tack room in the back of the building where the scent of leather and polish overpowered the smell of animals. Starlight spilled in from the skylight, and Arthur was disinclined to light the lamp on the work table. He sat on the wide, low bench beneath the peg board where tools were lovingly arranged and began to count his breaths. Calm, calm, he thought. Eventually both the pain in his side and the frantic spinning of thoughts in his mind subsided. He counted his ninetieth long breath, his hundredth. He kept going until he lost count. Crickets chirped a cheerful mazurka, and there was a rustling beyond the walls of the room that might be mice or the barn cats hunting them. Horses shifted and whinnied softly as footsteps sounded, coming closer.
It was Eames, of course. Arthur realized he had known Eames would come after him.
Don’t speak, Arthur’s reason counseled. Wait, stay silent, and he will go.
“I’m in here,” Arthur called. Damn it.
Eames approached slowly, a will-o-the-wisp and its long shadow bobbing closer and closer in the aisle between the stalls. He closed the door to the tool room behind him and set his flickering lantern down beside its unlit twin; the lamp was turned down low, but its small flame threw crazy shadows across the room, covering the walls with ominous, spiderweb landscapes made from innocuous bits of tack.
“Eames.” That was all Arthur needed to say.
In an instant, Eames was there between Arthur’s legs, dropping to his knees, running his large hands over Arthur’s thighs. His fingers dug into Arthur’s skin through the thin fabric of his breeches. Arthur pulled him forward greedily and tangled his fingers in Eames’s hair, ran his hands over the back of Eames’s neck and the muscles of his shoulders. He began to pull at Eames’s coat, and Eames tugged it off impatiently. Exploring hands weren’t enough; Arthur pressed kisses to his jaw, his throat, wrecking the harmony of his cravat and not caring.
Eames’s mouth was perfection. Arthur had been balefully glaring at those full lips for days. He could hardly bear to just kiss them, to give himself that pleasure, when he knew he was a total cad, when he knew he shouldn’t—but, oh, he wasn’t going to stop—
Eames had no such reservations; he sought Arthur’s mouth and moaned into the kiss, not reaching up for Arthur but kneading his palms against Arthur’s thighs, working open the front of Arthur’s breeches.
Eames, Eames, Eames. Arthur wasn’t sure if the litany of his lover’s name ran through his head, occluding all thought, or if he murmured the syllables aloud like an endearment against Eames’s mouth.
Eames bit Arthur’s lip as he pulled away. Arthur gasped and arched forward, but strong hands gripped his waist, easing him back. Eames had worked Arthur’s cock free of his clothing, and he now sunk down to swallow its length.
“Oh, fuck,” Arthur gasped, hips bucking forward before he could help himself. Eames’s fingers dug more tightly into his waist. God, his mouth was so warm, and when he flicked his tongue over the head of Arthur’s cock, Arthur thought he might die from the dizzying rightness of it. He hadn’t had this in so long, and it had never been like this.
Eames pulled off Arthur, panting, to say, “Grab my hair. Yeah, go on, pull on it.”
Arthur obediently grabbed fistfuls of Eames’s short-cropped hair and pulled on him until he took Arthur in his mouth again, letting Arthur thrust into his throat. God, he felt so good—
“Eames,” he begged.
He should give some warning, but he was so awash in the building sensation that he let it crash over him; he was dimly aware of how he was fisting Eames’s hair, his knuckles pressed to his scalp, making Eames moan around Arthur’s cock as Arthur came. Arthur bit his lip hard to keep from shouting. Eames sucked and licked him until the sensation was too much, and Arthur wasn’t sure he could keep quiet a moment longer. He tried to uncurl his fingers from Eames’s hair, and he pulled Eames up, marveling at his heavy breathing, his lips wet with spit and Arthur’s come.
Arthur tilted his head up to be kissed and then wrested away to admire Eames’s cock. As Eames settled with one knee on the bench alongside Arthur, almost straddling him, Arthur saw he had already loosened the fastenings of his trousers. He was slick with pre-come, so heavy and thick that Arthur wanted to choke on him.
“God, pet, I need to come.”
“I want you to come all over me.” He tore at the buttons of his shirt, exposing his chest to the cool night air and Eames’s calloused palms. God, how was he going to explain this to his valet? Eames moaned, swore, stroked the smooth skin of Arthur’s chest. Arthur shivered as fingertips brushed his nipples.
“Say it again,” Eames choked.
“Come on me,” Arthur begged. “I want you to come all over me.”
Eames took himself in hand and jacked himself onto Arthur’s mouth and throat and chest. Arthur gasped, his skin tingling where Eames’s come streaked it. He felt a second, echoing climax hit his body, wrapped his hand around Eames’s, and leaned forward to rub Eames’s cock over his mouth and face, smearing the come there.
“Jesus,” Eames said. "Arthur."
Eames kissed him and kissed him—sat down on the bench beside Arthur, pulled Arthur into his lap—wrapped his arms around him tightly until their rapid breaths fell into an even rhythm and then slowed together.
“I’ve made you filthy,” he said finally, brushing fingers against the drying come on Arthur’s chest. “And there’s nothing to properly clean you with out here.”
“I suppose I do need a more proper wiping down than a horse.”
Eames laughed, buried his face in Arthur’s hair.
“We should go back to the house,” Arthur said. “Someone might notice us.” His fingers tightened their grip on Eames’s shirt even as he said this, and Eames hugged him more tightly too.
“Everyone’s retired. It must be three o’clock in the morning,” he said gently.
“Oh. I was—“
“In your thoughts, yes, I know. Arthur—damn it, you make me forget all reason. Come up to my room.”
“I can’t,” Arthur said, kissing him. “We shouldn’t—“
“I need you again,” Eames sucked a bruise onto Arthur’s neck where his cravat usually hid his pale skin.
“Careful!” Arthur gasped, leaning into the caress.
“I want to strip you down, take my time with you.”
They gathered their shed garments, helping each other straighten the deshabille of their evening wear with hands that shook to tear clothing away instead of secure it. The walk back to the house and up to Eames’s room was tense, but they encountered no one; the sliver of moon lit their path, perhaps casting blessings on them so that steps and doors didn’t creak, dogs didn’t bark, and servants didn’t stir as they let themselves into Eames’s chamber.
Eames put the lamp by the bed and turned the wick up. Then he did strip Arthur down and take his time with him, working him open and fucking him until Arthur nearly wept with how much he needed Eames to fill him.
When they were sweat-damp and languid, lying in a tangle of limbs, Eames kept playing with pieces of Arthur’s hair, twisting long, dark strands of it around his fingers.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I won’t let you marry her. You should—you should be marrying me, damn it.”
Arthur held the back of his hand to Eames’s forehead, as if to check for a fever. “Are you out of your senses?”
“Oh, you know what I mean. Arthur—God, I want you.” He rolled and pinned Arthur beneath him, pressing kisses to Arthur’s neck until Arthur moaned and completely relaxed against the bed, tilting his chin back so Eames could have more of him, could kiss his throat where he was already carelessly bruised, marked by Eames’s teeth.
“You’re going in the morning. You’re all going in the morning, and I haven’t—we haven’t spoken to her. How can I cry off?”
“Arthur, I can’t believe I’m saying this—it’s a near complete reversal—but you need to think of yourself! This is your life, man! Do you ever think of your own happiness?”
Eames propped himself up on an elbow. “Arthur, I’ve known you a week, granted, but I’ve seen you up at seven everyday answering letters of business and meeting with the steward and your farmers—whom half the time you ride out to visit, no matter the weather, before anyone’s even come down to breakfast. And then you allow yourself the great pleasure of reading and writing at your desk for some hours—a rather grueling program of study, I can’t help but notice—good God, Mendelssohn followed by Hegel for fun—no wonder you consider translating Catullus from Latin ‘light reading.’ After that, you ride with my sister until you’re wan and falling out of the saddle—but will you rest then? No. You must wipe down your god-damned horse, as if you didn’t have a groom. And I hear report that, besides all this, you’re usually caught up in chaperoning your mother over half the county, playing cards and no doubt listening with infinite patience to myriad old ladies.”
Arthur snorted. Opened his mouth to protest, shut it again.
“Well, am I wrong? I can’t tell whether you’re grimacing or about to laugh at me—but please, I’m not calling you a weakling or an invalid. I’m just wondering when in God’s name you find time to rest. You do sleep, don’t you, darling?”
That question settled it: Arthur grimaced.
“I try,” he said. “The pain in my side tends to flare up at night.”
“Yes, I should imagine so.” Eames ran a hand through his hair, exasperated. “You need some looking after—mind you, I said some. If you’re too proud to let anyone else lend a hand, you might at least try it yourself.”
“Proud? But it isn’t pride. Well, it isn’t all pride,” he amended, frowning, trying to think how he could make Eames understand. “Don’t you see what my life would have become if I had given in to everyone’s concern? With no occupation, already my parents’ main focus of attention, I would have become an invalid.”
“So that’s what you’re afraid of—”
“It seems like a reasonable fear to me. I’m trapped enough already, thanks to my doctors' dithering about 'the benefits of rest and fresh country air' and such nonsense. My independence is what makes life at Henfax bearable.”
“Trapped? You? Oh darling, you could do so much. None of this is predetermined—predestined—set in stone. Come to London with me.”
“I read your papers, your essay on Mendelssohn. Arthur, you’re brilliant. We could run the review together, as partners.”
Arthur rolled away from Eames and stared up at the ceiling. He couldn’t let Eames see the excitement that impossible idea had brought to his eyes. “God, if I could have both you and that work. But think of the scandal if I turned up in London to live with—or, ah, work with the brother of the woman I jilted.”
“But what if Ariadne is the one to cry off?”
“Could I ask that of her? I know you said that she doesn’t need to marry me, but think of her reputation, how I would be wounding it by pushing her to retract. It’s so unfair.” He thought too of what his parents would say. Of his responsibility to Henfax.
“But is it more unfair than proceeding with this marriage under the circumstances, without talking to her, without having a conversation as equal partners about what’s best?”
“Look, Eames, you and I have had—we’ve had this week at least. And tonight. I’m grateful.”
“Ugh,” Eames said, flopping down on his back beside Arthur. “Don’t give me a speech.”
“Look, I just—I should go. You should go. To London, I mean. We can’t—how can we? It’s madness, thinking we could make it work. And Ariadne on her way to buy wedding clothes!”
“At least—at least let me think about it. God, I can’t think with this house full of people.”
Eames looked so sad, now blinking at him as if he was sure Arthur would melt, would reconsider, after just one more moment, one more caress, one more kiss. Arthur felt he should perhaps gather his resolve and leave Eames’s bed as a testament to his decision—or lack of decision, really—but he just couldn’t move. Not while Eames held him so close, kissing him with the conviction he wanted Arthur to discover.
When Eames fell asleep and the first tendrils of dawn-light crept around the curtains, Arthur wriggled out of his embrace and fled to his cold room. He sat at his desk writing for what felt like a very long time. The pain in his side was stabbing, and at moments he could barely catch his breath. Finally, he lay down and gave himself over to sleep.
He slept deeply for several hours, and when he woke buried beneath his pillows, it was with the certainty that the difficult part of the escapade was over. Eames was gone. Ariadne was gone. They were all gone to town and had been hours on the road by now. Arthur had gotten through the muddle of the evening, the muddle of the whole week. Not gracefully, not with honor perhaps, but he had managed. He was alone in the house again.
He remembered the letter to Ariadne that he had written hastily in the middle of the night as his candle burnt down. Before he forced himself to sleep, he had tucked it away from any servant’s eyes underneath his blotter. To send it or not to send it? Well, he would have time to think the matter through now—while Ariadne was in town buying wedding clothes for next Sunday! Don’t think of it yet, Arthur told himself. One thing at a time. First, getting dressed. Then, coffee. Then descending into a pit of self-doubt and self-loathing, regretting the horrid mess he’d made of his life.
After the reviving ministrations of his valet, Arthur staggered downstairs to the breakfast parlor, and there was Eames, eating a muffin and reading The Times. He looked like he had just come in from outside—and indeed one of the French doors was thrown open, letting in the most luscious, late spring air, sweet and laced through with birdsong and the small stirrings of wind chimes from the garden. It was like something out of a book. Eames looked wonderful: hair mussed, coat tossed across an empty chair, sleeves rolled up to expose his strong forearms, brow crinkled as he studied the news. He was absently biting his lip and tracing small sugar circles in his saucer. Arthur’s heart clenched in his chest. I want this, he thought. I want this every morning.
“You?” he said instead. “What are you doing here?”
Eames leapt to his feet. “Oh, ah. Well. You see—Ariadne said—that is, it turns out there wasn’t room for me in the carriage, after all.”
Arthur had never seen Eames so flustered.
He stood stock still, thinking of his fantasy of the quiet house: Henfax a memory palace he could wander alone, piecing together the unraveling strands of his life, trying to make repair, to plot his course forward.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” he blurted out, the room blurring before him inexplicably. “I’m so glad you didn’t go.”
“Arthur.” Eames was there shutting the door to the room behind him and then taking Arthur in his arms. “I couldn’t go.” He spoke against Arthur’s hair, his voice not just muffled but also thick with feeling. “I couldn’t go away from you yet.”
The yet broke Arthur just a bit, and he shook in Eames arms, clenching his eyes shut and his fingers into his palms in an effort to repress what felt like a cataclysm rending his heart and mind in two. Don’t leave me ever.
The Third Week
"I publish the Banns of marriage between Arthur Leven of —shire and Ariadne Eames of —shire. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in Holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the third time of asking."
If the previous week had passed by excruciatingly, molasses slow while Arthur fought to resist Eames’s charms, the final days before the wedding seemed to race by in no time at all. The bride-to-be and her relations, along with Arthur’s family, were scheduled to return from town late Friday. Other friends and family were expected at Henfax as early as Friday morning. Arthur and Eames were living on borrowed time—a stolen, brief island of time, a truce with the wider world.
Not used to depending on his servants’ discretion, Arthur was at great pains to concoct errands to take them out of the house and to ensure uninterrupted, unobjectionable time alone with Eames. Eames laughed at his struggles but offered helpful suggestions.
“I may have some experience with this,” he claimed. “You’ll see, when you come up to my house in London—”
“Oh, you’re very experienced, are you?” Arthur tackled him to the bed and silenced him with a kiss.
One morning, they went out riding and tried to find the stream-side spot where they had rested and bird-watched on their expedition to the Gorge. They found a different but equally pleasant perch, sheltered by brush and made beautiful with waving clumps of wildflowers. There they spent the afternoon lounging on a blanket, sketchbooks and picnic provisions strewn around them.
“You must think me a wretched bad brother,” Eames said, after they had been quiet for some time. They were lying on their backs, Arthur resting his head on Eames’s stomach. He had been half dozing, half watching clouds.
“I hardly have the moral high ground to be thinking that sort of thing about you—about anybody—”
Eames continued as if Arthur hadn’t spoken. He was deep in his thoughts, chasing them. Arthur could tell. “Stealing Ari’s betrothed out from under her nose.”
Arthur was a coward, yes, but he hated hearing Eames bring Ariadne’s name to bed with them, so to speak. He was glad Eames was abstracted, talking at him and not with him; he didn’t seem to notice Arthur wince.
“It’s just that—that you’re not right for each other the way you’re right for me. If you had been, maybe I wouldn’t have—“ He turned and pulled Arthur close, settling him across his chest so they could kiss. “But you are right for me—I mean, we’re right for each other.”
Now Eames looked at him, searching, beseeching. Arthur smiled and kissed him. Eames murmured, “It’s alright if you don’t believe me, darling. You love me, even if I’m a rascal. I know you do—”
Arthur kissed him harder, relieved Eames had formed the words for him. He was afraid he loved Eames more than he could say.
The weekend loomed nearer and nearer. Arthur began to feel it under his skin. Thursday, when Eames touched him, it was as if he were pressing into a bruise, into the place where Sunday and the wedding lived in Arthur’s body.
From his habitual seat in the breakfast parlor, Arthur surveyed the grounds of Henfax. He wrote letters of business, he consulted with the housekeeper about the weekend’s menu and which rooms to air out for the guests. All this, while Eames slept. When Eames woke, they would drink coffee together and laugh and find some hidden corner of the park to tumble in. And Arthur’s heart would ache—a new, strong pain, making a greater wreck of him than the pulsing ache in his side. What of Ariadne? What of Ariadne? Arthur’s reason whimpered as Eames kissed the fading mark on his neck. When Eames turned away from Arthur in bed, eyes heavy with concern, Arthur knew he must be wondering the same thing. What of Ariadne? And also perhaps, what will Arthur decide? Because Arthur still hadn’t said one way or other what he was going to do. He might be living his decision, in bed wrapped around Eames, but he still hadn’t said anything, hadn’t declared himself.
They talked about it, of course, back and forth and back and forth. Eames laid out elaborate schemes supported by neat rationalizations, and Arthur listened, commented, elaborated here and there. It was almost as if they were making plans together, collaborating, but they weren’t. The power skewed in Arthur’s direction. Eames would argue, but he wouldn’t beg; Arthur would plan with him to a point, but he was the one who would ultimately make a decision. He wondered how exactly Eames’s initial clear threat—that he would tell Ariadne the truth about Arthur to prevent their marriage—had withered and vanished from their discourse. Then Arthur realized that Eames didn’t want to hold that threat; he wanted Arthur to come to just conclusions and take proper actions on his own.
If Arthur would not join him in town to run The Tamsyn Review, they could go to the continent, Eames said. Attersly could serve as editor for the time being, and they would figure something out over the course of their Grand Tour.
If Arthur must stay at Henfax, Eames could join him when the season was over. And if Arthur could come up to town now and then during the season, he would be welcome in Eames’s house. Mr. and Mrs. Leven could keep to their plan of leaving Henfax for the house near Conham.
If Arthur would but talk to Ariadne, she would understand. She would want Arthur to be happy and would throw herself into the concoction of some scheme that would doubtless surpass what Eames had thought of so far.
Arthur listened, nodding, but he didn’t decide.
The hours slipped by relentlessly. It was Thursday evening, and guests might be expected tomorrow morning. The preparations for the wedding trucked on. Arthur had received a letter from his mother detailing their travel plans; he kept it in his waistcoat pocket next to the note Ariadne had penned to let him know she had arrived safely in London and was embarking on the dreaded shopping expeditions.
At tea, Eames was quiet and restless; his eyes were watchful on Arthur, who could barely stand the pressure, who wanted to scream.
“Alright,” he said, draining his cup and forcing himself to meet that fond, greenish stare with composure. “That’s it. No more of this insanity. We’ll—I’ll talk to Ariadne. I’ll cry off, if she’ll let me.”
“She will!” Eames murmured, insistent, sitting forward in his chair.
Arthur inclined his head. “I—I think you’re right. But if not, I think—I think I might feel honor bound to go through with the marriage.”
“It won’t come to that.” Eames’s lips tightened, but he gestured for Arthur to go on.
That was as far as Arthur’s plan went. He paused, frowning.
Eames was solemn and pale, mouth tense. Arthur replayed their conversation and then threw his hands in the air. “Fuck!” he said. “God, Eames, forgive me for saying it that way. Of course she won’t hold me to the engagement, and of course I won’t give you up. That shouldn’t even be in question, alright?”
“Darling,” Eames said. “I know.”
They waited for Ariadne and the Cavendishes to arrive.
Friday morning, Friday afternoon. The Cobbs and Arthur’s parents returned. Arthur’s parents were introduced to Eames, and they spent the evening together, Arthur struggling to mask his nerves, Eames doing a better job of appearing cheerful, and Mal’s eyes darting between the two of them, betraying anxiety otherwise hidden by her gaiety of manner.
Saturday morning, Saturday afternoon. Still Ariadne and the Cavendishes did not come. Preparations for the wedding were disordering the house—guests wandering, servants readying food, decorations everywhere. The parish priest stopped by the house to talk with Arthur about the service.
“What shall we do?” Eames asked when the man left. He was pacing up and down Arthur’s study. “Ride up to town?”
Arthur resisted the urge to tear at his cravat—an Eamesian gesture that made him smile, despite the sense of confusion and doom that descended more heavily upon him with each passing Ariadne-less hour. “I don’t know! Why isn’t she here?” he murmured for the hundredth time. “She didn’t say she would return this late. She said nothing of the sort to Mal, when Mal visited her before leaving town.”
“I’ll ride out on horseback,” Eames decided. “I can make the journey quickly. I’ll find her and tell her—”
“Tell her what you think best,” Arthur said decisively. “I can give you a letter. Or, curse it, I suppose I shouldn’t.”
“Don’t. It’s not worth it, if it were to be mislaid. I’ll find her, and we’ll manage somehow.”
There wasn’t much time to waste, once this was decided. Arthur had to kiss Eames goodbye in his study. Then when the groom brought his chestnut around, he had to stand idly by on the step as Eames mounted, bid him a brisk farewell with his hand to the brim of his hat, and rode off down the avenue.
Arthur told the servants he wasn’t well after that, and it was true. He ducked out of socializing with his parents and guests, hollowly promising them more of his attention amidst the revelry tomorrow and citing fatigue and nerves as his excuse for retiring early. He resisted the urge to barge into Eames’s room and bury his face in the sheets there; the housemaid had probably already changed them. If his parents or the Cobbs worried about Ariadne’s absence, they said nothing, following Arthur’s example of forced good cheer. Perhaps they fretted behind his back, but Arthur fled upstairs and left them to it. He told his valet to alert him if Mr. or Miss Eames entered the house, no matter the hour—which set him up for a more-sleepless-than-usual night, as he tossed and turned, imagining hoofbeats in the drive or his valet’s knock at the door. But no one came.
His raincloud of misery returned, swollen and ominous. Doom, it thundered. What if Eames couldn’t find Ariadne? What if he didn’t return in time? What if he and Ariadne missed each other on the road? What if Ariadne didn’t arrive until they had to be out the door to the church? What if she arrived dressed beautifully in new, sprigged white muslin, glowing, excited for their marriage? What if Arthur couldn’t pull her aside? What if he couldn’t speak up to forestall the ceremony? And Eames didn’t come?
What if Arthur ended up married to Miss Eames after all?
The adventure ended with a wedding. But not, as he had expected, his own.
Sunday morning, Arthur ordered his breakfast brought up to his room. He sat at his desk, picking at his toast and drinking too much coffee, staring out the window into the mist that blanketed the park. It was early yet, the maid had informed him cheerfully as she set down the tray and tied back the curtains. Plenty of time for the fog to clear. Surely it would be a beautiful day for a wedding, and she wished him great joy.
Arthur thanked her. He knew he should get up and see if his valet had returned from his last minute errands and from assisting his father, but perhaps not yet. It had been an hour since the man had shaken him from uneasy dreams, reporting that Mr. and Mrs. Cavendish had arrived—without Ariadne. Stirring from his chair seemed a herculean task, and it was early still. His hands started to shake, but it was certainly from the coffee.
A corner of the unsent letter peaked out from beneath his blotter, taunting him.
A blue tit warbling in the garden was suddenly drowned out by the scattering gravel and hoofbeats of a rider in the drive.
The rest of my life, Arthur thought, staring out the window. The gray of the sky and the gray of the fog oppressed the earth, which itself was rather gray in the dawn. She'll arrive late on the heels of some escapade, we’ll be married, and I will have the rest of my life to become familiar with this misery, to learn it inside and out.
He would have time for recrimination and self-loathing too; strange, but it wasn’t oversetting him now. He just felt scrubbed out inside, a polished, empty vessel.
Usually Arthur would be the only creature stirring upstairs at this hour, but on such a festive occasion, the house full to the gills with well-wishers, the murmurings and footfalls of early-risers could already be heard from down the hall. There was a light step outside his door, and he heard the soft tattoo of Mal’s particular knock.
“Arthur,” she called.
He stirred himself to let her in. Mal stepped hastily into the room and pushed the door shut. “Arthur, she’s not here,” she said. “She’s not coming.” Mal waved a letter at Arthur, her lips compressed into a severe line, her face very white. “I’m sorry, I opened it. I had no right—only—I thought it might be so—and I thought it might be better if I could tell you, before you read it.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “It couldn’t possibly matter,” he murmured, then shook himself. “I mean—thank you, Mal.”
“Oh, dearest,” Mal said, handing him the letter. He scanned the single sheet twice to take in the words, but his mind felt disengaged, far away. With Eames on his chestnut, perhaps, riding across the park, out-galloping thunderclouds.
Arthur handed the letter back to Mal.
“She’s not coming,” Mal said again.
“Yes, it appears so.”
Arthur and Mal looked down at the letter.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Mal said after a moment.
“Dear God, what will my father say? Or the Cavindishes?”
“Oh, let them go to the devil! Arthur, are you—are you alright? I did think you might be glad, but—”
Arthur felt a strangled sound emerge from him that he was terrified would be a sob—but no, it was laughter. Mal joined in uncertainly, but soon they were leaning into each other, faces wet with mirth.
“Ugh, I needed a moment of that,” Mal said when they finally broke apart, trying to catch their breaths. “I’ve been wound tight as a drum the past weeks, looking back and forth between the four of you, wondering what in God’s name was going to come of it all—”
“The four of us?” Arthur scrubbed his face with his hands.
“Oh, love,” Mal said gently, pulling his hands away and keeping them in hers, tugging him till they were face to face and he was forced to meet her eyes. “I know you love Eames. No—don’t get started—the whole world doesn’t know, and your secret’s safe. But I know you, Arthur. I wish you would have talked to me.”
“I couldn’t—I was afraid you would—oh, curse it, Mal—I suppose I should have trusted you.”
“We could have managed this business a great deal better if you had.” She waved the letter at Arthur. “Without forcing Miss Eames to dash off to Gretna Green.”
Arthur shook his head. “Maybe. I don’t know, Mal. Knowing Ariadne, she relished making her great escape.”
“Wait, Mal—forcing—you don’t suppose—” Arthur felt a stab of panicked horror in his chest. “You don’t suppose I forced her hand, that otherwise she wouldn’t have—”
“Arthur. Breathe.” Mal gripped his shoulders. “Don’t be daft. If you could have seen the way she and Mr. Darley looked at each other the whole way up to town. Lord, I bit my fingernails to the quick, watching them, thinking about you. It’s certainly a love match—besides, she says so here in the letter.”
“So she loves him. She’ll be happy.” Arthur felt his body begin to relax. “Oh, that’s—that’s wonderful.”
“Mmm, yes.” Mal sagged against the wall. For a moment, she looked very tired, and Arthur felt a stab of guilt for causing her worry at a time when she should have been resting or enjoying a gentle, simple celebration with her family. She looked very pretty in her new gown of embroidered, soft blue muslin and silk shawl, leaning her head back against the fading rose wallpaper print of his room. An image of Ariadne from the height of their courtship rose to Arthur’s mind—Ariadne rising triumphant from the lake water, curls plastered to her face and neck, her arms wrapped around poor, half-drowned Miss Louisa Stevens. Her gown was ruined, and her hat floated off and got tangled up in the reeds. But her pale face, emerging from the water—she had thrown back her head, scattering drops the sun lit bright like firework sparks—and she had been radiant. “I’ve got her!” she had hollered, as soon as they broke the surface.
How had Arthur thought that he could pair with that exuberance? How had he ever sat at his desk writing for a stodgy old man’s permission to court Ariadne? How had he planned to tie her Henfax, to housekeeping and child-raising and cutting flowers for the drawing room?
Arthur wondered if Ariadne had felt useful, had felt joy and purpose, had felt like she was rescuing him when she accepted his proposal? What would she have been rescuing him from—from solitude, stuffiness, servitude to his parents’ whims?
Another image: Eames in his shirtsleeves, his broad shoulders hunched over his sketchbook, his large hands so carefully sketching the filaments of the blue tit’s feathers. His handsome face contorted into a comical picture of concentration, mouth slack and brow knit—but he was beautiful—and then he had looked up at Arthur with an expression identical to his sister’s when she had emerged from the lake—joy—“I’ve got him!” He had got the bird’s likeness exactly so—he had got Arthur, Arthur’s secret heart beneath his reserve and fears and even the pulse of his desire—and he knew it, Eames knew it.
“Arthur, love,” Mal said gently, “You’ve had a near miss today. Don’t you think it’s time you made your great escape?”
“I don’t know—but—“
But he belonged at Henfax. But he would be a disappointment to his family if he left. But what if life in town didn't suit him, and he had a relapse?
“Arthur.” Mal pushed herself upright, stepped away from the wall, and pressed the letter back into Arthur’s hands. “You have been given many gifts this month—by people who love you—not the least of which is the freedom Ariadne gives you in this letter. You deserve all of these gifts.”
“In other words, don’t muck it all up,” Arthur finished for her.
She kissed him. “Precisely. Now finish dressing. We have some news to break to the family.”
The world rushed back in—the sounds of the company assembling below, grooms readying the carriage, servants making preparations for the meal that was supposed to follow their trip to the church. Arthur groaned.
“Courage!” Mal said.
Arthur tied his cravat. And, well, it looked perfect; it would do any corinthian of the ton proud. “Alright,” he told Mal. “Let’s stop this wedding.”
They went downstairs to the drawing room. Mal rang the bell and spoke to the servants. Soon, the principal members of the family were assembled, and Arthur, taking a deep breath, told them that there would be no wedding between him and Miss Eames—Mrs. Darley—that day.
The older generation took the news about as well as Arthur had expected—that is, with an excess of shouting, fainting, and generally threatening to shuffle off the mortal coil in apoplectic fits. There was even a minor food fight.
The butler, being every inch a professional, betrayed no emotion when he stepped into the fracas to declare, “Mr. Leven, Mr. and Mrs. Darley are here to see you, sir. They’ve just now arrived. I’ve taken the liberty of showing them into the library, but shall I—?”
“I’ll go out to them. No!” Arthur said, as his father and Mr. Cavendish surged forward to follow him, both very purple in the face. “I will go alone, for a moment. If you’ll excuse me.”
He stalked out of the parlor into the hall but found himself opening the door to his study, not the library. In the calm of his sanctuary, he shut his eyes and breathed in the familiar scent of leather and dried lavender; he needed a moment, a quiet moment between storms, to calm his nerves before facing Ariadne and Mr. Darley with congratulations and open arms. He was glad for them. He just needed a moment to master his aching, envious heart and wrestle a smile into place. If Eames were here…but where was he? Floundering alone on what felt like the brink of matrimony, and then before their families’ anger, Arthur found it hard to remember that Eames had ridden out to help their cause, that he hadn’t abandoned Arthur.
The door flew open behind him. “I thought I said—”
“No, love, it’s me,” Eames panted. His cravat was loose, and his hair was darkened with sweat at his temples; he looked like he had just jumped from his horse and probably smelled that way too—in other words, he looked wonderful. Shrugging off his great coat onto a chair, he strode to Arthur and pulled him into a half-embrace. “Tell me, am I too late?” he asked, searching Arthur’s face.
Too late? “Eames, you didn’t really think that I would—”
“No, of course not—”
Arthur let out his breath in a shaky rush. “Well, then you think me better than I am. I’ve been in a panic since morning, thinking it would somehow all happen, that she’d arrive ready to marry me, and you wouldn’t be here—that I’d go through with it somehow.”
“Arthur,” Eames said, running a soothing hand down his spine. “Ari wrote to me, and the rider carrying her message found me on the road. I rode all night because I couldn’t bear the thought of you here by yourself, left to explain things to my uncle and aunt and a household of people.”
“That might be the kindest thing anyone’s ever done for me. But I—I managed it. They all know. I wouldn’t go into the drawing room just now. They’re still—giving vent to their frustrations.”
“I can imagine.”
“Can you?” Arthur’s lips twitched. “Someone might have thrown my great grandmother’s urn into a bundt cake.”
“My aunt, was it?” Eames waved this away. “All in a day’s theatrics for a Cavendish. And your grandmother’s urn is—ah—alright?”
Arthur nodded. “Just, you know, covered in icing.”
He and Eames shared a smile, and Arthur felt buoyed. To think he had been sitting in his bedroom, consumed by melancholy just an hour before. Now Eames was here—and perhaps they could—
But there was another thing to take care of first. “Ariadne and Mr. Darley just arrived, actually. They’re waiting in the library,” he said. “I was just stepping out to—to offer them my congratulations.”
“Shall we go together?”
“Promise me you won’t call out Mr. Darley. I’m counting on him to hold your sister’s attention for a long, long time.”
“So I’m free to bestow all my attention on you. If—if you’ll still have me.”
“Arthur. Yes,” Eames said simply. And because they were alone in the room, the servants engaged en masse in propping up and providing smelling salts to Mrs. Cavendish and Mrs. Leven—and probably Dom as well, at this point—they dared to close the last, agonizing distance between them for a tight embrace.
No one watching could have described it as a proper little kiss, Arthur was certain of that.
When they entered the library, Ariadne and Mr. Darley were seated side by side on the one of the couches by the fire, looking far too gloomy for a pair of newlyweds.
“Arthur!” Ariadne ran to him. She was a vision in white and gold, like a bride from a picture book. “Arthur, I couldn’t just send a letter! We came as quickly as we could when I realized what a beast I was being, leaving you to deal with our families alone. Have you told them yet?”
He hesitated for only a moment before he pulled her into a hug, kissing her cheek. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Eames stride to Mr. Darley and take his hand. “My dear, dear Mrs. Darley, please don’t be sorry. All is well. You are married to a man you love—” He drew back and looked at her face, which had already brightened considerably.
“Yes, I love him!” she gasped, blushing. “More than anything.”
“—and it’s a cause for celebration. We avoided doing a very wrong thing, marrying, and you—you are to thank for that. Your bravery and your willingness to risk censure.” Arthur shook his head. “I’m not sure I was going to be so brave.”
“Don’t say that!” Ariadne’s whisper was fierce, her grip on Arthur’s hands painful. “I won’t believe it of you for a second. Arthur, do you know why I accepted your proposal?”
She pulled him further into the room, away from Eames and Darley, and settled them into the window seat where they had once spent half an afternoon reading Lyrical Ballads aloud: one of their best days together.
“I was delighted to have found a friend who could countenance my high spirits without judgement. You offered me a different life, Arthur, but you didn’t try to make me become a different person to fit into it. I thought if I couldn’t find a full partner in my escapades, I could have a partner who would love me despite them. Then I met Yusuf, and I realized I had been a fool to think that love involves conferring favors, that there was any way you could be truly happy while I was only partially satisfied, and that a state of partial happiness with me would be preferable to you than being free.” Her gaze slid to Eames. “Or not so free, I suppose.”
“No, not so free. Ari, he’s asked me to live with him in town. To run The Tamsyn Review with him.”
Her eyes lit up. “And you’ve said yes! Oh, Arthur.” She buried her face in his shoulder again for a moment, then wiped away her tears. “Do you know, Yusuf is taking me to the Isle of Wight to study tide pools? And from there—we don’t know where yet, but I suspect we might travel the world.”
“Oh, my dearest Amazon, you are going to be exquisitely happy. I know it.”
“Yes, I’m certain of it. That’s what makes it feel almost too good to be true.”
“I know what you mean.”
“We’ll have to fight against that feeling.” She was using her general’s voice now, brooking no argument or excuse. “Arthur, promise you’ll let yourself be happy. Promise you’ll let Eames do his part to make you happy. I know him so well. It won’t be work for him, pleasing you. You mustn’t think it is. Looking after you your comfort or, I daresay, running all over town to procure some rare book just to make you smile—that will be the keenest pleasure for him, you understand? I know your experience of Henfax has been of a sort of limbo, with you bound to look after others, to stamp down you own desires. But living with Eames won’t be like that. Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know. I’ll try to believe you, Ari.”
She just stared at him, expectant.
“Alright,” he sighed. “I promise.”
“Your brother looks like he wants a word with you.”
“Several, I don’t doubt.” They got to their feet, but Ariadne retained Arthur’s hand, hesitating. “Would it be too much to ask you to forgive me for being horrid to you these past three weeks?”
“Well, can you forgive me for proposing in the first place? For making a mess of things all the way to the altar? For not talking to you sooner?”
“Then we’re even.”
They shook hands.
“You know,” she said. “We’re practically family now—brother and sister, if you’re taking Eames for better and worse.”
Ariadne laughed as Arthur felt himself blush. “Well, he hasn’t offered in quite those words—”
“An oversight, darling,” Eames murmured, stepping up behind Arthur and taking his arm. “But that’s not fair, Ari. You can’t be congratulating me before I’ve congratulated you! My little sister, a bride.” He shook his head in amazement.
Mr. Darley said to Arthur, “Mr. Leven. I owe you an apology as well.”
“Please,” Arthur cut in. “We have an excess of apologies and congratulations owed between the four of us. For my part, all is forgiven.”
Just then, there was a clatter and a loud hollering from across the hall.
“They don’t seem to be in a forgiving mood yet,” Eames said.
Mr. Darley frowned. “Shall we go to them and urge them to be more moderate?”
The shouting increased in volume.
“That’s my father,” Arthur said.
“And our uncle,” said Ariadne and Eames at once. Eames continued, “He’ll never listen to us until he’s worn himself out.”
“Well, must we rejoin them before then?” Ariadne wondered. “I, for one, have been shouted at enough for one lifetime.”
“I know that look,” Mr. Darley said, touching her face. “You have a scheme in mind, my dear.”
She looked up into his eyes with that unmistakable, Puckish glow of excitement. “If we climb out the window,” she said. “We can skirt the kitchens and get to the stables without anyone noticing.”
“Another expedition to the Gorge! Oh, won’t it be lovely! A hot day like this, I have a mind to go swimming.”
Arthur looked up at Eames. He thought about his fears of abandonment, coffee in the morning gloom, their frantic kisses in the study. More than anything, he wanted to hide Eames away in his bedroom and ravish him. But that could wait. They would have time.
Eames might have been thinking the same thing; he and Arthur exchanged a slow, warm smile. “What do you think, Arthur?”
“I think that sounds like a capital plan.”
So they went out the window and rode to freedom through the spring sunshine, the blooming gorse, and the green, rolling hills of the park.