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Steeplechase (2017)

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Samuel Gibbs kept his head low, his long red hair tucked up under his felt hat and the brim pulled down to shade his eyes. He stopped in front of the heavy door behind the Westminster pub in the late May evening and glanced at the inconspicuous sign hung on the door: The Merry Widow. Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself for what lay beyond. As he stepped into the poorly lit room, he was nearly overwhelmed by a noxious melange of sweat, smoke, blood and ammonia, yet the smell excited him. He could feel his heart start to pound in his chest as he saw the raised circular platform at the front, surrounded by a railing, and several rows of semi-circular tiered benches behind, many already filled to capacity with half-drunk, raucous spectators. A rooster crowed confidently, and Samuel's heart raced, his mouth going dry as he thought about the night's main.

It wasn't that cockfighting was frowned upon by elite society. In fact, much of the aristocracy viewed it as a perfectly acceptable gentleman's diversion, and any gentleman who fancied himself a sportsman quickly developed more than just a passing interest in the sport. Respectable establishments like the Cockpit Royal in Hyde Park ran events starting on Shrove Tuesday, coinciding with the racing calendar. A very diverting evening could be (and had been!) spent there, drinking and gambling with the upper classes. However, there was just something about attending an event with the common classes. It was always a little louder, a lot rowdier, and more about the guineas to be won over maintaining dignity and decorum. And presently, with the tip he'd received about a particularly aggressive Sweater, he stood to win a small windfall - and settle the unsavoury business of his debt to Sir Levi Barton.

Sir Levi was a somewhat nefarious fellow who had grown up in St. Giles, and who was rumoured to have bought his title after cheating the Marquess of Tewkesbury's youngest son out of a small fortune at hazard. It was not that far-fetched of a tale as Sir Levi certainly didn't act like a proper gentleman on the best of days, and unlike Samuel, he didn't care who among the Quality might catch him mingling with the lower classes in that stinking cockpit hidden away behind the Fox and Firkin. That in itself was laughable in its irony, for when the mood struck, Sir Levi could act rather affronted when the Ton snubbed him, believing that he was somehow owed their respect.

"Ah, Gibbs! There you are!" Sir Levi greeted with a jovial slap to the back. "I almost didn't recognize you!" he chuckled. "To see you skulking about like a common rogue is really quite amusing, and takes me back to our early days. I daresay the chance of someone of any import seeing you here are slim, and yet, you still fret over your reputation, as if you held any sort of precedence at all. You are just a retired Lieutenant. Granted, adequately decorated and honourably discharged, still a gentleman, but only just barely."

"Now I say, Barton, you're being a right bastard tonight, aren't you?" Samuel laughed. "At least I came by it honestly, and it was a rather noble direction for a rake like me. I shall soon become a fine tradesman, and take over my father's warehouses from my step-brother. Or perhaps I'll leave him to administer such mundane affairs and become a breeder of champion Thoroughbreds."

The bell sounded, announcing the start of the first match of the evening, and Sir Levi grabbed Samuel's elbow and pulled him through the stinking crowd towards the rail so they could get a better look at the goings-on. "Breeder of Thoroughbreds!" Sir Levi scoffed. "And where will you raise these exceptional horses?" he asked. "The Strand is rather liberal, with all the poets and artists, but I think even the cit that ponce around might object to you turning your flat into a breeding stable."

They watched the setters-on attach the steel gaffs to the cocks' legs, and once the birds were released, they watched the two combatants circle each other, wings splayed and feathers puffed, before leaping into the air and attacking with wings, beaks and spurs. Samuel, his attention focused on the pit, replied, "It's a venture I would enter into with Sir Cecil. He is quite interested in horses, and keeps a rather fine stable at his country house in Derbyshire. I would only need one to start. And a good reputation." It wasn't long before the Lemon had defeated the Red. "Damn," Samuel muttered. "I had planned to wager on this match; odds were good."

Sir Levi snorted. "Hawkesworth!" he said with disgust. "I do not understand why you content yourself with being in the pocket of a man such as that."

Samuel smiled. "Sir Cecil is a good man. I owe him much."

Sir Levi turned his attention from the ring to glance sidelong at the man beside him. "From where I stand, I say it is he who owes you. You saved his wretched life, and yet he is the one to benefit from the accolades, promotions, and titles."

"It was he who took out countless of those French bastards after the cowardly Spaniards fled at Talavera, most at the point of his sword, before he was gravely wounded. He was my Captain, and fought with the bravery of ten men; I could not leave him to die in that place. And I was appropriately compensated for my loyalty; Sir Cecil recommended me for my Lieutenancy." He watched as the next match was being set, and he called out to the bettors, "Oy! Ten pounds on the Grey!" Once his wager had been placed, he turned to Sir Levi. "I do not believe that Sir Cecil received more than his due course for his actions. He was a good Company Commander, and he cared about those under his watch." He lowered his voice, "We lost so many men there, the wounded left to the care of the Spanish while Wellesley - or rather, Wellington - retreated to Portugal. Rather than send reinforcements, he stood fast, embroiled in a dispute with our would-be allies over supplies, yet he's named Viscount for this 'victory'? Now there, Barton, is an injustice, though I may be a bit slanted in my reasoning." Samuel's eyes sparked with excitement as the Grey and the Claret were released, his conversation ended. The Grey went on an immediate assault, and he was soon caught up in the cheering with the masses.

Sir Levi chuckled. "I had no idea you had such a taste for blood sport, Gibbs," he remarked. "Or is it only when it involves lesser creatures?" A dark smile passed across his face. "If you're that intent on being someone's lackey, you should come work for me. Business can be rather cutthroat, and I could use a man like you by my side. A loyal man." The smile widened. "An indebted man. Willing to deal with the 'lesser creatures' I do business with."

Samuel's smile turned somewhat uncomfortable. Unlike his friendship with Sir Cecil, his friendship with Sir Levi was more one of convenience than mutual reciprocation. Unfortunately, Samuel's taste for wine and women, and a recent string of bad luck gambling, had left him owing. Samuel hoped that tonight's earnings would make him square with Sir Levi. After all, Samuel had no interest in conducting any sort of business with Sir Levi. The way Samuel saw it, it was simply a matter of time before Sir Levi found himself in the Old Bailey. And as an aspiring gentleman, Samuel wanted no part of that. Unfortunately, cutting ties with someone as willing to lend money as Sir Levi was a difficult prospect for a habitual gambler like Samuel. "I shall return to you the one hundred I owe you tomorrow night at Brooks's, Barton. As we agreed."

Sir Levi smirked. "We shall see."

By the end of the evening, Samuel's losing streak seemed to have changed for the better. He won his match with the Grey, and another on a stout Black. And, when the time came for the main, the Sweater proved to be rather assertive. He had his opponent down in a flash of silver spurs and ready for the supper table within ten minutes. Samuel was beyond pleased as he put his winnings in his billfold and headed outside. He had won enough to pay back his debt, and would have sufficient left over to allow him a diverting evening playing whist or hazard the following night. Sir Levi, however, seemed rather sour about the whole thing, having early on decided that Samuel's 'tip-off' had been a sad attempt to rook the gullible out of their money, and he'd passed on any wagering. Instead, he'd taken great delight in taunting the redhead about his stupidity. However, when Samuel's cock had come up aces, once the initial shock had worn off, he'd been quite put out about the whole thing. Standing with Samuel on the cobblestones, he ran a hand haphazardly back through his short-cropped blond coif, and then pulled his snuffbox from his breast pocket. After inhaling a pinch, he sneezed, blew his nose in his handkerchief, and then smiled. "Good fortune to you then, Gibbs. I'm pleased for you."

The two crossed Victoria Street, and then turned onto a small alley to cut up towards St. James Park, where the two would part company. As soon as he stepped into the alley, Samuel felt the press of a knife in his back, and a hand at his throat as he was pushed roughly against the bricks. "Yer billfold or yer life," the man hissed in a heavy Scottish brogue, the thick fingers clamping tighter.

Samuel held up his hands in front of him, signalling that he would comply, and he reached into the front pocket of his coat. As he turned, instead of withdrawing his money, he balled his hand into a fist and delivered a sharp jab, smiling when he felt the crack of bone and heard the assailant, a rather large man judging from the shadow he cast, cry out in pain. He delivered another sharp uppercut to the jaw, and a quick left to the gut, though before he could turn to escape, the man slashed out wildly with his knife, cutting Samuel deeply in the cheek.

"Ye'll regret that act of bravery!" the large man said as he punched Samuel between the eyes, sending him reeling just enough so that he could roughly manhandle him, filching his billfold from his pocket and disappearing into the night.

"Gibbs!" Sir Levi exclaimed once the assailant had departed. "You are wounded! We must get you to the surgeon!"

Samuel shook his head, even as he held his handkerchief to his cheek. "I was robbed, Barton. I could not go to the surgeon without some form of recompense."

Sir Levi smirked. "You are my friend, Gibbs. I will cover the cost of the surgeon and you can reimburse me once you are recovered. There is one who works late hours near St. Margaret's. For the sake of your health, I must insist."

The next evening, a much less jovial Samuel Gibbs stood in the gaming room at Brooks's, talking to his friend, and former commander, Major Sir Cecil Hawkesworth, 4th Baronet - or simply Sir Cecil these days, as the good Major had been honourably discharged from the army after his valiant efforts at Talavera.

Sir Cecil currently had his quizzing glass held up to his right eye, the sharp green peering assessingly at Samuel. "Savagery!" he declared as he inspected the wound, seeing no imminent signs of infection. "I implore you to come back to the house at the end of the evening, and I shall send for my own physician. I would hate to see it become gangrenous." He smiled brightly when Samuel nodded, the redhead having learned long ago that it was usually in his best interest to comply with Sir Cecil's wishes. "Excellent. Perhaps I'll even convince you to stay over, and tomorrow, we can ride in Hyde Park. I have a beautiful new colt you simply must try." Sir Cecil frowned a moment later. "Though, I must ask, and do forgive me for prying, Mr. Gibbs, but what caused this foul atrocity to befall you?"

With some sheepishness, Samuel told Sir Cecil how he'd been in Westminster for a cockfight, needing to win a fair purse to pay back his debt to Sir Levi, and how, after the main, and they'd headed home, he'd been burgled - and wounded for fighting back.

Sir Cecil tsked and sighed heavily as he dropped his quizzing glass, obviously disappointed. "Mr. Gibbs, I know it is your business where you spend your leisure time, and with whom you choose to acquaint yourself. However, I do not for the life of me understand how you can associate with a rogue and cad such as Sir Levi. I wish to help you with your goal of becoming a proper gentleman, and I will afford you every assistance you may require. But I cannot in good faith do that if you continue to keep company with men such as him. It is a futile endeavour on my part, for no good will come of your continued arrangement. And for my own sake, as much as it would pain me to do so, I will not allow myself to be known as a man who consorts with rogues and scoundrels."

Samuel felt truly ashamed as he listened to Sir Cecil's words. "You are correct, Sir Cecil. It doesn't befit me to keep his company. I would end our association, but there is a debt of honour I must repay first."

"And, at the risk of sounding gauche, where do you stand with Sir Levi?"

"One hundred. Plus the visit to the surgeon last night."

Sir Cecil arched a brow, and with the utmost discretion, he quietly removed his billfold and silently passed Samuel the necessary funds under the guise of loaning him a handkerchief. "If you are serious about making a fresh start, Mr. Gibbs, I will assist you. I will loan you what you need to square yourself away. In return, you will become my pupil. I will train you in all matters equestrian so that you may start breeding champion Thoroughbreds. When you have succeeded, you will present to me your first winning stallion, and we shall be even."

"Sir Cecil, you do too much for a rake like me! I could not-" Samuel cut himself off when he saw Sir Levi enter the gaming room, ostentatiously dressed to the point of pretention between his flashy clothing and the obscene amount of rings he wore. He had a large raven-haired man at his elbow, ruggedly handsome except for the two black eyes he currently sported, and a well-purpled bruise on his jaw. "Bastard!" he murmured, his eyes narrowing crossly as he realized what had happened the night previous.

"My word! Sir Levi is certainly cutting a very noticeable figure this evening. If one had any doubt as to how he was doing in the world, one need only look at his fingers to find the answer. Though his acquaintance is certainly a savage looking fellow!" Sir Cecil remarked, and then he chuckled softly. "Though I would suspect it's safe to say that Sir Levi daren't be burgled tonight with such a companion at his side."

"Yes," Samuel replied, and he touched his cheek. "Though I do believe I made the gentleman's acquaintance last evening." Samuel frowned. "Of course, I have no direct proof, but that man has the bearing of my assailant, and the injuries I delivered. If he is a Scotsman, I will be duly convinced. Of course, I didn't think of it at the time, but it does strike me as odd that I would be the target, dressed as a commoner, when I was walking with Sir Levi, who was rather overt about his status." He gave Sir Cecil a small bow, pocketing the handkerchief as he did. "Do excuse me for a moment."

Samuel crossed the floor to Sir Levi and his companion, and bowed. "Good evening, Sir Levi."

"Gibbs!" Sir Levi replied cheerily. "Good to see you. I trust you're feeling better?"

"I am, thank you." His dark eyes shifted to the man next to him, and then back to Sir Levi. "It's good to see you, Barton," Samuel said coolly, growing increasingly wary of the man next to him, not wanting to fall to fisticuffs inside the club.

"Oh! Where are my manners? Samuel Gibbs, may I introduce you to the Much Honourable Richard Gow, Laird of Boone."

"We're nae at court, Barton. Ye can address me as Boone, Mr. Gibbs," Boone said, extending a hand.

"Pleasure," Samuel lied as he shook the offered hand, dropping his own and trying not to grimace as though he'd just touched something disgusting. "Though I feel as though we've met before," he added, his lips curving upwards as his eyes narrowed. "In Westminster, perhaps?"

Boone's eyes widened almost comically, and he puffed himself up. "I don't know what ye be on about, Mr. Gibbs. I enjoy a bit o' bareknuckle, and got a wee bit carried away. Last night-" He went quiet when he saw the glare Sir Levi was giving him.

Samuel's attention shifted back to Sir Levi. "As I wondered. Barton, you bastard! You arranged this so I would remain indebted to you!"

Sir Levi's expression was positively glacial. "I would be very careful about the accusations I was making, were I you, Mr. Gibbs. I would hate for someone of import to discover that a common by-blow was skulking about the rank and file. You know how the gossips love to speculate on the actions of the rabble." He cocked his head to the side and a very cruel smile passed across his face. "And I would remind you to remember your place when you address me. I have earned my title, and I will not stand to be disrespected."

"Is there a problem?" a cool voice drawled.

Sir Levi turned, and then bowed slightly. "No, my lord."

"Hn." Lord Stanthorpe's gaze travelled coolly over the trio. He gave Samuel a curious look, though said nothing, and then returned his attention to Sir Levi. "I was under the impression that Brooks's was a place of esteem, priding itself on exclusivity. And yet, imagine my surprise and horror to find this…vulgar mushroom standing before me and parading about with some farce of a title. I should speak with the executive and see how someone so blatantly unrefined could manage to acquire a membership. I do believe it might have been an error - and a grievous one at that. I would suggest you conduct yourself more gentlemanly before you embarrass yourself any further, Sir."

Sir Levi watched the lanky blond walk away without another word, and he scowled. "If that prat has me blackballed, you will pay dearly for that slight, Mr. Gibbs," he said. "And I am calling in your debt now. Pay me, or you shall be indebted to me."

Thanking God for Sir Cecil's generosity, he retrieved the neatly folded handkerchief and offered the money out to Sir Levi.

Sir Levi gaped when he saw the tidy stack of pound notes, though when he heard Sir Cecil's voice waft over to him, the Baronet chatting amicably with Lord Appleton, his eyes narrowed. "No. As you were delinquent, I choose to make a new bet."

Samuel's face paled. "W-what manner of bet?" he asked, knowing he wasn't going to like the proposition.

Sir Levi smirked. "I want you to do a favour for your precious Sir Cecil. I wager that you cannot get him to seduce a person of my choosing before the Glorious Twelfth." The smirk widened. "And the person I choose is that stodgy, missish fatwit Giles Harington."

"Lord Stanthorpe? Bollocks!" Samuel exclaimed on a hushed hiss. "I don't think the two are acquainted, nor would I presume that either gentleman prefers the company of his own kind!"

"Gentlemen!" Sir Levi exclaimed contemptuously. "Perfect gentlemen of the backdoor, you mean! I would bet that both are champion backgammon players!"

Samuel couldn't speak to his lordship's preferences, but he knew from his time in the army that Sir Cecil did, in fact, appreciate the rougher sex. He'd had his suspicions when Samuel and a senior non-com had been caught by then-Captain Hawkesworth in a moment of indiscretion while the senior officer had been out for his evening constitutional. Or more succinctly, the Company Commander had walked in on Samuel buried balls-deep in the Company Sergeant Major behind a copse of trees, the latter roughly jerking his cock as both men rode out an incredibly satisfying orgasm. Captain Hawkesworth had simply given them both an awkward smile, apologized for turning left rather than right on his path from camp and, after suggesting that fifty yards further down was a 'sublime hedgerow with remarkable density', he'd carried on with his stroll. Later, those thoughts were confirmed when Samuel had been nursing his Captain back to health in Spain. The two had shared a single, electrifying kiss as Hawkesworth had expressed his gratitude and confessed that, if he had to die, he could do so happily having experienced 'a rather meaningful embrace'. Nonetheless, Samuel would not reveal his friend's leanings, nor would he engage in such a scheme. "You say such scandalous things, Sir Levi. I refuse to participate in such a vulgar act! I don't care what disgraces may befall me. And I will even submit myself to the horrors of Debtor's Prison. But Sir Cecil is my friend, and Lord Stanthorpe is a respectable gentleman. I will not comply."

"Stanthorpe is a recalcitrant prig and a reluctant peer undeserving of his title. As for Hawkesworth, I just think him a damnable ass." Sir Levi's smirk widened. "I don't think you understand the nature of our wager, Mr. Gibbs. If you refuse, I will not have you blackballed, and seeing you jailed will not satisfy me. I will simply have you disposed of. And while I'm sure you'd agree that your life is rather worthless, and that no one would miss a pitiable creature such as you, I shall also see that your step-brother and his family are also done in to ensure that your pathetic bloodline comes to a complete end. His lady is with child, is she not? His third, if I remember correctly. That would be a tragedy." He offered a falsely sympathetic smile. "But if you are successful, I will wipe clean your debts to me, and you and I will be square. Do we have an accord?"

"And how do you plan on determining my success?" Samuel asked. "Such matters are extremely private, and Sir Cecil is a gentleman of the highest calibre. You are asking them to engage in a dangerous tête-à-tête. He would not tell even me, even if it was de rigueur to do so."

Sir Levi chuckled. "I have a gift for determining such things. I suppose I shall just have to feel convinced. Let's call it a 'personal satisfaction'."

Samuel pressed his lips into a thin line, and after closing his eyes for a moment, he nodded in resignation. "Truly, you are a son of a bitch. You have left me with little recourse, offering such damnable options. Aye, we have an accord."

Sir Levi grinned wickedly. "Excellent. I shall have it entered into the betting book. Of course, I will word it in such a way that only you and I will be privy to the specifics, lest the prattle-bags tip off our key players and put an end to things prematurely. This should be a simple thing for a rake such as you. And with more than sufficient time to complete your task, I would suggest you have ample time for your matchmaking."

Samuel felt sick to his stomach as he excused himself from Sir Levi and went to find his friend. He stood silently off to the side while Sir Cecil concluded his conversation, and once the brunet had turned his attention back to him, Samuel offered him a weak smile. "Can we converse privately? There is a matter of some delicacy that I must discuss with you."

"Of course." Sir Cecil led the two of them over to one of the window boxes, and after sitting down on one of the cushions, he smiled at his friend. "Please, Mr. Gibbs, speak your mind to me."

"Sir Levi would not accept the payment. He demanded a new wager because of my delinquency, and I fear I am in quite deep with him right now."

"Oh my, that is troublesome. How deep?" Sir Cecil asked, a note of concern in his voice.

"To put it bluntly, I'm fucked." Samuel licked his lower lip to moisten it when he saw Sir Cecil's disapproving moue. "Sir Levi is no longer content to simply shame me. He wishes to embarrass you because he is resentful of our friendship, and after he was dressed down this evening by Lord Stanthorpe, the Baron moved to the top of his blacklist." His dark eyes shifted away as, unable to look his friend in the eye, he said, "The wager is that I must convince you to pursue his lordship and…do the business."

The colour drained from Sir Cecil's face, and his eyes went wide in abject horror. "Absolutely not! I am sorry, Mr. Gibbs, but that is asking quite a lot of me to spare your reputation. What I confessed to you in Talavera was not to be made public knowledge."

"I did not, and would never, betray such a confidence, Sir Cecil. Sir Levi's loutish suggestion is simply the most boorish thing his foul mind could concoct." Samuel sighed. "I did tell Sir Levi that it was a shameful request. I told him I would let him humiliate and disgrace me, even have me jailed, before I would make such a request of you. But he is wicked, vile and without honour. He told me that if I did not do this thing, he would take my life in recompense. Again, I would gladly have given him my last breath in fair trade to spare you, but he has promised to murder my step-brother and his wife, my two nephews, and the child she carries in addition. There is nothing I can do; it is my word against his. And with that Scot bastard at his side, presumably to bear witness for him, it would be two against one, if anyone would even hear me. I am truly stuck, and I am sorry for bringing my own misery upon you. You have helped me more times than I can count, and I always seem to leave you in compromising situations."

Sir Cecil closed his eyes for a moment and rubbed at the spot just above the bridge of his nose. "You do at that, Mr. Gibbs," he said with a bit of a chuckle, green eyes shifting to their corners as he gazed sidelong at his friend. "But I suppose that is the price one pays to befriend a rake such as you. You certainly make life interesting for me. When the time comes that I stand before the Almighty, I shan't say I lived a life of ennui." Dropping his hand back to his lap, he thought for a moment about what Samuel had told him. "It would seem the odds are against me. Both are incredibly evil acts. To callously ignore the six lives that are on the line to save my own would make me a true cad, especially since women and children are being unduly threatened. I will make my best efforts to succeed, though I suppose Sir Levi will have to content himself with my attempts over the outcome. When it comes to affairs of the heart, regardless of how charming I may be, one cannot force what does not exist."

"I am forever indebted to you, Sir Cecil."

Sir Cecil smiled softly. "I would prefer that you weren't, and so, I wish to make a gentleman's accord with you of my own."

"Of course!" Samuel said. "I agree immediately, not needing to hear the terms."

Sir Cecil laughed softly. "I accept your agreement, but as a gentleman, I feel duty-bound to tell you that should I succeed, you will be expected to give up your rakish ways. You will stop gambling. You will acquire land and become a proper gentleman." He saw the shocked expression in the soulful brown eyes, and he chuckled warmly. "I shall allow you to be somewhat rakish when it comes to choosing your companions. I do understand why so many find it an attractive quality. But only sometimes."

Samuel smiled. "That seems fair."

Sir Cecil nodded, and then with a heavy sigh, he fell quiet for a few moments. "I suppose I should thank Sir Levi for at least choosing a comely gentleman, and not some vile tub-of-guts like Lord Rotherby. And from what Lord Appleton was telling me, Lord Stanthorpe has a Thoroughbred running in the Derby; a common interest to incite conversation."

Samuel looked impressed. "Now that is something! I may have to ask you to wager a pound on his horse for me. As a token of luck to you, Sir Cecil." He gave a cheeky wink at that, though sobered and hurriedly stood to bow a moment later when they were joined at the window by Lord Stanthorpe. "My lord," he greeted. "We were just speaking about you." He swallowed thickly when he saw the way the violet eyes narrowed slightly and the corners of his mouth turned downwards. "Or rather, about your horse that will be running in next week's race meeting." When the blond's mouth relaxed some, so too did Samuel. Calling upon his gift for conversation, he smiled winsomely at the man. "Sir Cecil is rather fond of horses, and rather learned through his own self-study. He has quite an eye for spying a prime bit of blood."

A pale brow arched in interest as Lord Stanthorpe's attention shifted to the brunet. "Is that so? Do you have an entry in the Derby?"

Sir Cecil blinked in surprise, and then laughed. "Good God, no, my lord!" he replied, though after a moment, he did smile conspiratorially. "I do, however, have a two-year old colt I just acquired, and he's been brought down from my country house so that I might spend some time with him. I do believe, with continued training, he might well be fit to compete in his three-year-old season. And, with the success he finds there, by his fifth season, he'll be ready for breeding."

Lord Stanthorpe nodded. "Perhaps you might allow me to visit your stable at some time?" he asked. "You speak with a confident air, Sir Cecil; a refreshing change from the posturing arrogance so common to these venues. If your colt does perform well at his inaugural, as your companion would have me believe, I should like to arrange now to have him meet my mare, Beauty, when he is ready."

"Well, if it is convenient for you, my lord, Mr. Gibbs and I were just discussing taking Paladin for a ride in Hyde Park tomorrow morning."

"Yes, and I do apologize, Sir Cecil, but I just remembered that I had an appointment at Truefitt and Hill, and will not be able to ride with you." He bowed to the two men. "If you will permit me to take my leave, I do believe I saw Mr. Seton by the bar, and I haven't spoken with him in an age. My lord, Sir Cecil." With that, Samuel left the two men to converse.

Lord Stanthorpe cocked his head to the side, giving the retreating back a curious look. "Your friend Mr. Gibbs is a peculiar fellow," he remarked. "Seems a trifle simple."

"Yes, he is," Sir Cecil replied with a smile. "But that is part of his charm. One is never certain what antics he might get up to. It certainly makes for a diverting evening. And I assure you, my dear Mr. Gibbs is much savvier than he seems." He let his gaze travel briefly over the slender form in front of him, taking in the cut of the bespoke jacket and snug breeches, the defined calves encased in silk stockings. His smile widened. "I know of you, my lord, but I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I am Major Sir Cecil Hawkesworth, 4th Baronet, Retired."

"Lord Giles Harington, 3rd Baron of Stanthorpe," he replied with a nod of his chin. And after a moment, he added coolly, "Pleasure."

"Truly, it is mine." He chuckled softly. "If I may be so bold, my lord, since I appear to be without a riding partner tomorrow morning, perhaps you might join me? Hyde Park is delightful, but always better when one has a companion to share the splendour of the morning."

Lord Stanthorpe gave him an assessing look, and after a moment, he nodded. Reaching into his breast pocket, he retrieved a card and passed it to Sir Cecil. "You may call for me at eleven."

The next morning, dressed in tight buckskin breeches and a dark green tailcoat, Sir Cecil handed off Paladin to a groom and rang for Lord Stanthorpe. He waited in the parlour, and when his lordship made his appearance, Sir Cecil rose from the chaise he'd been relaxing in and bowed, a small smile curving his lips as he admired the finely tailored cut of the navy tailcoat, and the bright white of his linens. "You are looking well this morning, my lord," Sir Cecil greeted.

Lord Stanthorpe, had been caught off guard by the elegant figure standing before him. The buckskin breeches were incredibly flattering, and the dark green seemed to make Sir Cecil's eyes appear that much brighter. He snorted in disgust, silently chastising himself for falling to the idle prattling thoughts of a woman. Offering a small nod in greeting, he said, "It's a good morning for a hard ride, Hawkesworth."

Sir Cecil's smile widened. "Indeed it is, my lord. I'm looking forward to the exertion." His smile remaining innocuous, he allowed the deliberate innuendo to hang in the air between them, privately admiring the flags of colour that had appeared on the blond's face. "I brought Paladin," he said as they headed outside and he gestured to the pristine white Thoroughbred, Lord Stanthorpe's horse already saddled and waiting for him. He studied the roan filly before him, and he chuckled softly. "I do believe you are testing me, my lord. This horse is not yet of age; not the Beauty of which you spoke last night."

"You have a good eye."

"Hn, indeed." Sir Cecil raised his quizzing glass to examine the animal more closely. "Still, a beautiful horse in her own right. She doesn't appear to have the hot-bloodedness to be a race horse, but I'd imagine she would make for a rather enjoyable ride nonetheless."

Lord Stanthorpe cleared his throat and turned away, trying to ignore the heat he felt not only in his cheeks but creeping through his whole body. "Are you always this insufferable, Hawkesworth?" he asked as he slid a foot into the stirrup and swung himself up.

Sir Cecil laughed as he, too, mounted his horse. "No, my lord. Today is an exceptional day. I am usually much worse," he said. "Though I've been told it's one of my finer qualities."

Lord Stanthorpe snorted in amusement as he put heels to his horse and rode out onto the street, the soft gait of hooves behind him telling him Sir Cecil was following. "Droll," he remarked, finding the brunet charming in an eccentric sort of way. "You must have been popular in your Regiment."

Sir Cecil shrugged. "I don't know about that, my lord. Leadership is about doing what is right over what is popular. I did my best, fought side by side with some of the best men I've been privileged to know, but still we suffered heavy casualties at Talavera. I tried to save as many of my men as I could, but I took a French blade to the gut for my troubles. If not for Mr. Gibbs and his superior care, I would have perished in Iberia. I can still see the faces of the ones I lost. I understand that such things are inevitable in war, but it troubles me to this day that their blood paid for my rank and title. I never expected either. It would have been in poor taste to refuse it. It's why I endeavour to always act in a way that will honour them."

Lord Stanthorpe was quiet as he listened to Sir Cecil's story. "Obligation," he said finally. "That is something I understand very well, Hawkesworth." He frowned slightly. "I was never meant to hold a title. My uncle, Kenneth Harington, was the 2nd Baron. My mother was taken in childbirth, and my father, the younger brother, died from consumption shortly after, so I was raised by him since infancy. He never fathered any heirs of his own, and when he suffered a severe apoplexy at his Twelfth Night Ball this past January, it fell to me." He shook his head a little. "I despise politics, and have no use for Parliament, but it is my duty. And I will do it, because it's expected."

"I am sorry for your losses, all of them," Sir Cecil said sincerely. "And I appreciate the confidence you've taken me into, my lord. It shall remain privileged between us."

Lord Stanthorpe's mouth twitched for wont of a smile. He had no doubt that he could confess the most heinous of sins to Sir Cecil and the man wouldn't breathe a word to anyone. A frown followed as he thought about that, and how, after only formally making his acquaintance the night previous, he trusted him so completely. It was an unusual thing for him, he preferring to remain cool and standoffish. But there was something about the brunet's demeanour and bearing that was comfortable. And Lord Stanthorpe could see himself developing a deep friendship with the genteel brunet. He glanced sidelong at the man beside him, discreetly observing the way his thigh muscles rippled and flexed as he moved with his horse, the aristocratic shape of his nose, the slender arch of a brow. Clenching his jaw, he hurriedly turned the other way under the guise of searching for the dove that had just cooed in the distance. He exhaled slightly. Such thoughts were inappropriate for a gentleman!

"Lord Stanthorpe? My lord?"

Lord Stanthorpe turned when he heard his name, somewhat embarrassed that he'd been caught daydreaming instead of socializing with his riding companion. "Apologies, Hawkesworth. You were saying?"

Sir Cecil laughed softly. "Your mind was off in the ether!" he teased, and then he smiled warmly at the other. "I fear that our conversation has given us both a fit of the blue-devils. To that end, I suggest a little friendly competition. Your horse versus mine, just to the end of the road. Barely a half mile. The loser will provide the winner his supper. I shall look forward to you entertaining me at Watier's. I have not yet become a member there."

Lord Stanthorpe blinked in surprise, and then laughed. "Your arrogance is overshadowed only by your wit, Hawkesworth. Do tell your staff to expect me, and I am partial to pheasant. With parsnips. We shall dine at seven!" With that, he put heel to his mount and took off at a fast canter, easily taking a quick lead in the race.

Sir Cecil chuckled and followed suit, but with his horse being bred to race, he was able to push him to a gallop, the white colt overjoyed at being able to run full-out. It wasn't long before he'd caught the roan and passed her, reaching the end of the road and reining in a few seconds before Lord Stanthorpe joined him. Breathless and grinning like the devil, Sir Cecil patted Paladin on the neck and then turned to his companion. "I prefer to dine at half-six."

Lord Stanthorpe, also breathing hard from the adrenaline and the exertion, but smiling nonetheless, shook his head as he chuckled. "You, Sir, are a right rotten bastard. But that's all right. I shall send a carriage." He sat and looked at the brunet atop his white colt, and he snorted in amusement. "He will make a fine race horse. And you will be my personal guest at the Derby. I must insist."

Over the next week, Sir Cecil and Lord Stanthorpe spent the majority of their days together. Each day at eleven, Sir Cecil would call on his lordship, and the two would go riding in Hyde Park. On a couple of occasions, Mr. Gibbs had joined them, but usually for just an hour before he would excuse himself to other appointments. And each day, Lord Stanthorpe would challenge Sir Cecil to a race. Each day, his lordship would lose and would, as wagered, provide Sir Cecil his supper. In the afternoons, they would frequent Brooks's, and sit together over brandy and discuss all manners of subjects. Lord Stanthorpe had been notably impressed by Sir Cecil's intelligence, and not at all surprised to learn that he had attended Oxford and studied science prior to entering the army with the intention of training to become a doctor. And still, his knowledge of literature, politics and current events rivalled the most educated of peers. Lord Stanthorpe found him fascinating, and the more time he spent with him, the more he wanted to learn about Sir Cecil - and the more his rigid sense of self-control was starting to wane.

The ride to Surrey at the end of May had been amicable, and when they'd reached Epsom Downs, the two stood together and watched the grooms prepare Beauty, a truly gorgeous ebony black mare. Sir Cecil had strolled about the stables while Lord Stanthorpe had spoken to his people, silently observing the other entries, and listening to the chatter among the grooms and jockeys. When he rejoined Lord Stanthorpe later, he smiled. "Well, the latest on-dit is that your entry should provide adequate competition among the favourites. With the death of Lord Grafton this spring, everyone is curious who will take the Cup, and the betting is unlike anything I've ever seen."

"Be honest, Hawkesworth. Based on what you've seen, how would you rate us?"

Sir Cecil offered a crooked smile, but shook his head. "There are twenty-eight subscribers, and Mr. Buckle is riding. As you know, he has an exceptional reputation and understands the nature of horses. And then there is Mr. Andrew's horse, which is the odds-on favourite. Beauty is untested, and I'm not familiar with your jockey, but I do believe that we are contenders to show, possibly place."

"Damn," Lord Stanthorpe said. "When that old fart went toes up, there was much boasting around the stables as to who would take the Derby Stakes. I have small side bets with Lord Darlington and Mr. Andrew - he has become increasingly undignified with his bragging after winning the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in the April meeting. Both are accomplished owners; I do hope Beauty performs sufficiently here, and in a fortnight at Ascot. It would be terribly embarrassing to come dead last, and discover too late that she was nothing but an old nag."

In the end, Phantom, the horse jockeyed by The Governor took the purse, much to the delight of his owner, Sir John Shelley, and Beauty came third, earning Lord Stanthorpe a respectable amount from his own wagering.

Lord Stanthorpe smirked somewhat smugly as he walked away from the stables. "I know it is common of me to do so, but it was incredibly gratifying to beat both of Darlington's beasts, and to silence that cock-crow Andrew. His impertinence offends me. I suppose this should also silence the prattle-mongers that I am not as ham-fisted in matters equestrian as was originally speculated."

Sir Cecil chuckled. "Yes, my lord, I'd say your mettle was shown today. I do wish with all my being that your horse could have won, but a show for her first event is truly excellent. So long as she stays consistent, I promise you she will still make desirable breeding stock. She is a damned fine horse, but needs an experienced hand to run her on the track. Her hesitation shows not a lack of ability, but a lack of confidence." He peered meaningfully up at Lord Stanthorpe through his brows, an enigmatic smile slowly curving his lips upwards. The gesture widened when, again, he saw the barest flags of colour highlight the man's cheeks, and watched him turn his glance away under the guise of checking his pockets for his handkerchief. Continuing on in the same conversational tone, he said, "If she does not win at Ascot, perhaps you might consider changing your jockey? A great horse can relax and perform exceptionally when entrusted to someone who feels a deeper connection with the mount as opposed to someone who rides simply for something to do."

For several moments, Lord Stanthorpe couldn't find his voice, his mouth having gone exceptionally dry as he listened to Sir Cecil's words. The hidden meaning was subtle, but to look into the handsome man's face, he was sure that he was speaking about matters other than horses! Lord Stanthorpe wanted to test his theory very badly, but the area was too public, and he was too unsure. It was a risky gamble when one had the utmost confidence, but he didn't know if he was yet willing to risk his friendship and offend Sir Cecil if he guessed wrong. Instead, he nodded stiffly and said, "Perhaps you are right, Hawkesworth. If I do not find satisfaction at Ascot, I shall consider doing as you suggest. You're a learned fellow, knowledgeable in a variety of subjects. Do you have someone in mind?"

Sir Cecil grinned brilliantly. "I think I know a gentleman who would serve your needs more than adequately, my lord."

Sir Cecil and Lord Stanthorpe arrived at Ascot on the morning of the first day. As they'd strolled around the heath, they'd made a few side bets on some of the smaller races (much to Lord Stanthorpe's consternation when Sir Cecil seemed to win just about every wager he placed), and just enjoying the atmosphere of the event. On the third day, the Gold Cup race was run. Beauty fared better there than she had at Epsom Downs, and in a field of fourteen, she came second to a horse named Jannette, thereby netting Lord Stanthorpe twenty guineas in purse money. Afterwards, the two had left the noise and bustle of the track and taken a quiet stroll in the early summer evening around the grounds. "Your horse performed magnificently, my lord," Sir Cecil said. "I will not be surprised if next year, she is in the winner's ring."

Lord Stanthorpe smiled. "I appreciate your confidence, Hawkesworth. Though I have been giving much thought to what we discussed at Epsom. About suggesting an appropriate jockey to me." He licked his lower lip, and met the green eyes. "I would like to discuss that with you at some length."

Sir Cecil's lips curved upwards and he studied the attractive figure before him, feeling a slight quickening to his pulse, and a dull throb in his groin. "Would my lord prefer somewhere more private?" he asked. "I would be horrified if someone were to inadvertently eavesdrop on our exchange. The consequences could be very costly, and might impact your standing next season. Might I suggest a walk through the gardens? The topiaries are exquisite, and one needn't worry about the thin walls or loose-tongued guests."

"Excellent suggestion, Hawkesworth. When dealing with such affairs, discretion is always the wisest course." As they casually walked along the promenade, occasionally tipping a hat to those they might pass, Lord Stanthorpe said, "We may not have known each other for a long time, but I do consider you a good, dear friend already. I would be pleased if you did not address me so formally."

"As you wish, my lord. S-Stanthorpe," Sir Cecil added on belatedly, cursing the awkward stutter, and offering a stilted smile as he momentarily removed his hat to run a hand through his dark fringe when he heard the laughter. He gave a slight tilt of his chin. "I thank you for the courtesy."

"Mm." Lord Stanthorpe couldn't help the grin; he'd never seen Sir Cecil flustered before, and he found the slight flush to the pale cheeks a rather attractive addition - not that he would embarrass the man by mentioning it. They reached their destination, and as they passed through the hedgerow that would take them into the garden proper, they turned onto the cobbled footpath, following it around to where whimsical topiaries shaped like pegasi and unicorns frolicked against the twilight sky. "It really is quite remarkable," he mused.

"Yes. You are," Sir Cecil said, his expression somewhat troubled as he studied the dignified face, and the fine features. "Please forgive me for my boldness," he whispered before he closed the distance between them, his lips gently touching to the other's for a moment before his passions took over and he pressed deeper, parting his lips slightly to tease at the supple set with his tongue.

Lord Stanthorpe tensed. He hadn't been surprised by the kiss, but his own awkwardness and inexperience showed in his posture and his body shrank back slightly even as he pushed more into the embrace. The feel of tongue sent a quick thrill of excitement down his spine, and he let out a soft sigh as the questing muscle pressed inside his mouth, gentle but insistent as it twined with his own, as if coaxing it to respond. He could feel his body reacting to the contact, his cheeks heating with desire, his cock hardening in his breeches, and then, almost as quickly as it had started, Sir Cecil eased back. His eyes narrowed in curiosity as he saw the despondent expression on the other's face, and he asked, "What troubles you?"

Sir Cecil briefly sucked on his lower lip, as if trying to commit Lord Stanthorpe's taste to memory, breathing slowly to get his traitorous libido under control. Not looking at the other, he said, "I do not deserve your friendship or your courtesy, my lord."

"I thought I asked you to address me more familiarly."

"You did, and I cannot. I must stop before I make a complete mull of everything."

Lord Stanthorpe felt as though he'd just been plunged into an icy pond. "Do you not wish this?" he asked coolly, his tone sharp.

"I do. Very much so. But I have deceived you."

"Deceived me? You would not. You are a gentleman, and an honourable one."

"I used to believe that. But I must make a confession to you, for I believe you to be a good, respectable man who deserves the utmost honesty. I came to you under a falsehood. I was given a task, which was to make your lordship's acquaintanceship - in the biblical sense - in order to satisfy the conditions of a wager at Brooks's. To be clear, it was not my wager, but I was drawn into it to help a friend who found himself in quite a dire situation. I did not expect to form a friendship with you, nor did I expect that I would feel so deeply for you." He took a step back from the other and bowed his head. "I could have continued with this falsehood as if it did not exist. It's unlikely you would have discovered the nature of the wager, and I would have lived quite happily pursuing this. But I cannot in good conscience do this thing, knowing what it is at its core."

Lord Stanthorpe's eyes widened, and he gaped in shocked disbelief at the other man, unable to speak. Finally, icy rage swooped in, and his mouth curved downward in a cruel sneer. "You are an ill-bred, unscrupulous cad!" he exclaimed. "You will not speak to me again so familiarly, and should we have the misfortune to meet more formally, I shall see you as the gentleman invisible. I shall have no further dealings with you, and if I have my way, I shall see you exiled for your treachery." He stared hatefully at the brunet for a moment, and then snorted in disgust, offering no further dialogue as he turned and walked away, leaving Sir Cecil standing there alone.

Sad green eyes watched the other man storm proudly away, and once sufficient distance had been put between them, Sir Cecil turned on his heel to head for the stables and his own horse. You are more merciful than I would have been had the situation been reversed, he thought, and after paying a groom a ridiculous excess of money to have his horse saddled to leave immediately, he rode home alone.

The next afternoon, Sir Cecil sat by himself in one of the parlour chairs at Brooks's, toying with a glass of brandy and staring out the window at the street below. His eyes shifted to their corners when he saw Samuel take the chair opposite, and then returned to the glass.

"Good God, Hawkesworth, you look a fright! It looks like you've not slept in days," Samuel said as he sipped his glass of port. "What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were in Ascot until the week-end?"

The corners of Sir Cecil's mouth curved down further, his gaze narrowing slightly. "I have thrown away probably one of the most satisfying friendships I have ever had the delight of knowing. Though you may tell Sir Levi that he can close his wager in the book."

Samuel gaped. "Are you unwilling to continue?" he asked.

Sir Cecil's eyes hardened further, though a small smile curved his lips upward. "Don't insult my honour, Mr. Gibbs by suggesting I'm defaulting on my word. I was successful," he said. "Though I did tell Lord Stanthorpe of my deception - I did not mention your name directly - and he has cut me. I am ruined, but I bear him no ill will for it." He sighed heavily. "Please forgive me, Mr. Gibbs, but at this moment, I would prefer my own company to yours."

Samuel knew the look Sir Cecil favoured very well. The man was a true gentleman, but when he was angry, he was terrifying. It wasn't that he turned ill-tempered, but rather, he took on a cold, thinly-veiled amicability that was even more frightening. Especially since Samuel had seen the sort of brutalities Sir Cecil was capable of when they'd fought together on the battlefield. He never wanted to be the one to push the brunet from talking to acting on his emotions. "I understand. And I am deeply sorry for putting you in such a position. But I appreciate this thing you have done for me. I will find a way to repay you."

"Please don't," Sir Cecil said as he downed the rest of his glass. "I believe I have been 'compensated' enough."

A week passed, and Sir Cecil hadn't been seen at Brooks's, and he'd been ignoring Samuel's calling cards. That particular Wednesday, Samuel was sitting at the card table, playing a game of whist. He was about to deal the next hand when one of the staff appeared at his side and whispered that his presence was being requested in one of the private drawing rooms. Passing off his seat to Lord Royston, he followed the other man to a closed door, and after glancing at him, he knocked and entered. He was surprised to see Lord Stanthorpe standing there, the man's back to him, and quietly, he closed the door behind him and then bowed. "You asked to see me, my lord?"

"Hawkesworthe said something curious to me the last time we spoke, something I've not been able to get out of my mind, and I find it quite vexing. He told me he was compelled to act like a cad in order to help a friend caught in a terrible situation. A dire situation, I believe were his words. Since you're the only damned pig-widgeon I ever see him with, I can only assume he meant you." Turning around to face the redhead, he narrowed his gaze. "Since he was sparing with the details of the situation, you will tell me what grievous fate awaited you to where he would sacrifice his own reputation to protect the honour of a brains-in-his-bollocks half-wit."

Samuel gaped, first in shock, and then in offense, as Lord Stanthorpe continued to insult and berate him. Though, with the Baron's last, he felt a deep sense of shame, the fight falling from him as he realized the truth of the statement. He'd allowed Sir Cecil to besmirch his own reputation and ostracize himself socially to save his family - people Samuel had never even bothered to introduce Sir Cecil to. With much embarrassment, he told Lord Stanthorpe how he'd become indebted to Sir Levi, how, under very suspicious circumstances, he'd been conveniently robbed of the money to pay him back, Sir Levi preferring to keep Samuel indebted so he could use him to complete some rather unscrupulous business practices. Finally, he told Lord Stanthorpe how he'd confronted Sir Levi and his companion about it, and Sir Levi had been offended, doubly so after his lordship had addressed him specifically that night, and to honour the slight, he'd come up with a new bet. "The whole thing was a bit havey-cavey from the start, and I refused. He could take my honour. He could take my life. But when he threatened to take that of my step-brother, his good lady, and their three children, too, I was at a loss, my lord. It was a devil's wager. There was no choice to make that would have a good outcome. Sir Cecil said that both options were distasteful, but he would not see the lives of six lost to protect the honour of one. And in return for doing this thing, I have promised him to become a respectable gentleman. He is going to help me acquire land, and breed Thoroughbreds."

"I see," Lord Stanthorpe replied dryly. "It was a hopeless pursuit from the start; that was the point of the wager. A fool's wager. It would seem your idiocy is contagious. Excuse me." Damned noble fool, he thought as he headed to the gaming room, remembering their conversation about Talavera and how he'd charged into the battle to save the men who had served him. You can't save the world, but that won't keep you from the attempt, will it? He saw Sir Levi lounging in a chair, smoking a cigar and drinking a glass of whiskey. "Your business with Gibbs is concluded?" he asked. "If it is not, then as of this moment, it is."

"Ah, so you've sampled the forbidden fruit, have you Lord Stanthorpe?"

"I admit to nothing, and it is common and vulgar to discuss such matters in polite company."

The blond grinned coldly up at him, noting the angry expression, and he tsked softly. "The Baronet not that hot a bit of sauce then, my lord?" he taunted lewdly. "Bit like a swan then, I'd suppose. Pretty enough package, but the meat's not quite up to snuff, eh?"

Lord Stanthorpe just glared, and though his hand clenched into a fist, he wouldn't debase himself for a cretin like Barton. "You are piteously crude. I shall see you ruined before the end of the season," he hissed to Sir Levi. "And indebted to me before the end of the year." He bowed curtly and offered a cold smile. "You can put that in the betting book, if you'd like. Assuming your membership remains in good standing that long." Once outside, he told his footman to pick him up on Berkeley St. in an hour; it was not far, and he would walk.

Shortly after eleven, Lord Stanthorpe called at Sir Cecil's townhouse. When the butler answered the door and gave him a curious look, he belatedly realized the hour, but pressed on. "Lord Stanthorpe calling to speak with the master of the house." He pulled one of his calling cards from his pocket, deftly folding down one of the corners with his thumb as he passed it to the servant.

The butler offered an elegant bow in return and took the offered card, inviting Lord Stanthorpe to wait in the entrance hall before excusing himself. He headed up the parqueted staircase and knocked on the door to Sir Cecil's bedchamber. When bade enter, he bowed. "Sorry to interrupt you, Sir."

"Who was at the door, Mr. Coughlin?"

"Lord Stanthorpe, Sir. He has presented a card."

Sir Cecil frowned when he heard who it had been, curious as to why the Baron would pop by at that hour, especially after their last parting. "Is he well?" he asked, unable to keep the note of concern from creeping into his voice. "Meaning, is the matter urgent?"

"He appears so, Sir. And no, Sir. No urgency was mentioned."

Sir Cecil took the offered card, and a small, private smile passed across his face when he saw the folded corner. Lord Stanthorpe had come to the door himself rather than send a footman. He had not yet dressed for bed, but Sir Cecil was not in the mood to entertain visitors - not even Lord Stanthorpe. In fact, ever since their last conversation at Ascot, he'd been loath to even go out socially and had been refusing all offers of company. He figured it would be best to ease back from Society now, and fade off into obscurity before the next Season. Admittedly, he was curious about the Baron's presence, but he was also reluctant to see him. He had meant it when he'd told the other that he'd come to develop feelings, and Lord Stanthorpe's subsequent rebuke had hurt deeply. With a heavy sigh, he looked down at the card, and then reached for one of his own. After inking a personal message at the bottom, he handed the card back to Mr. Coughlin. "Please tell his lordship that I am not in."

"Very good, Sir," Mr. Coughlin replied as he took the card and returned to the entrance hall. "Regrettably, my lord, Sir Cecil is not at home right now," he said as he passed off the card.

Lord Stanthorpe nodded as he took the card, a bit of a smile curving his lips upward when he saw the tidy handwriting penned beneath the engraved script:

Will call tomorrow

Lifting his gaze from the card, he said, "Tell your master to come at whatever hour is most agreeable to him." With that, he took his leave and headed back to his own home on Grosvenor Square with nothing more to do than wait.

He was just finishing his breakfast when he heard the bell. A couple of minutes later, a footman appeared and bowed. "Sir Cecil Hawkesworth is calling, my lord."

Lord Stanthorpe wiped his mouth on a linen napkin. "You may show him to the library. We have some delicate business to discuss, so unless the Prince Regent himself comes calling, we are not to be disturbed," he instructed, and after finishing the last of his coffee, he dabbed his lips once more and went to meet Sir Cecil. As he moved through the rooms, he tried to keep his expression one of neutral indifference and his gait even despite his wont to run up the stairs in his excitement to see the handsome Baronet, his blood already racing in his veins as he held back a smile. He waited impatiently while the footman pushed open the doors, and then he spied the brunet standing at the window, his back to him, and looking out at the street below. He took a moment to admire the alluring taper from shoulder to waist, the bespoke dark navy frock coat making it seem even more enticing. His momentary disappointment at finding Sir Cecil's calves hidden away in riding boots was soon forgotten as he was treated to slender thighs encased in snug leather instead. He closed the doors behind him with a soft click, and when Sir Cecil turned, he quickly shifted his gaze away, hoping that his visitor hadn't caught him doing something so gauche as staring like a wanton strumpet! Sir Cecil bowed, and Lord Stanthorpe cleared his throat. "So, you came. And damned early, too. Any sooner, and I'd have suspected you were looking to breakfast with me."

"I would never be so indecorous as to presume your lordship would, or should, extend an invitation. However, as per your lordship's instruction to my servant, I was asked to come at a convenient hour. I do apologize if I interrupted your lordship's repast, but I did not want to offer insult by unnecessarily detaining you if you had other engagements on for the day."

Lord Stanthorpe snorted in amusement. "Your consideration, and your candor, are both appreciated." He licked his lower lip, feeling suddenly very awkward, uncharacteristically unsure of what to say next. He was not known for being indirect, but he'd never found himself in a situation quite like this before. "Please, sit," he invited finally, taking one of the two Fournier chairs and settling into the plush crimson damask, his fingers resting lightly on the dark walnut arms.

Sir Cecil gave a nod of thanks and took the other chair which sat at conversation distance away, crossing a leg at the knee and waiting patiently. After a few moments of extended silence, he smiled warmly and asked, "Did your lordship require something of me?"

"An explanation."

"My lord?" Sir Cecil said, obviously confused by the request.

"I have not seen you at Brooks's in some time."

Sir Cecil's frown deepened. "I was under the impression that you did not wish to see me or engage me in conversation, so I have deferred to your lordship's wishes. My absence would most assuredly avoid putting you in an uncomfortable situation."

Lord Stanthorpe couldn't argue with the logic of the words. His jaw clenched tightly, realizing that Sir Cecil was doing exactly as he'd told him to. When he relaxed it, he said somewhat brusquely, "I spoke with your odd friend, Gibbs."

"…Oh." Sir Cecil forced a smile. "He is a rather charming fellow, and a decent sort once one looks beyond the rakehell image he presents."

"I still say he's a simpleton, and even more so knowing he imposed his devil's predicament upon you."

A discomfited expression flitted across Sir Cecil's face. "I believe I explained to your lordship my involvement in that particular affair. I entered into it willingly, and I even asked for compensation for doing so. I was not coerced."

"No, perhaps not. But you did omit some key elements in your telling. Such as the nature of the compensation you asked for. And how you deliberately ignobled yourself so that you might spare the lives of an entire family line, not knowing one whit if Barton would keep his word or not. I haven't decided if you are the most unerringly loyal and chivalrous man in all the British Empire, or the biggest fool I have ever met." His lips parted slightly for a cheeky smirk.

Sir Cecil glanced at the man opposite, the start of a pert smile showing. "With your lordship's indulgence, I would say a combination of both, in some measure."

Lord Stanthorpe blinked in surprise, and then chuckled. "You have a talent for being an insufferably insufferable bastard."

"Yes, my lord," Sir Cecil agreed amicably. "A fact that was addressed quite succinctly by your lordship shortly after making your acquaintance."

"Well, it is something I think bears repeating as often as possible in your case. Though I believe that I am the one best suited to deliver such a message."

"Of course, my lord. It is your right as much as it would be my privilege to be told."

"Indeed." Lord Stanthorpe's smile faded. "There is one other matter that I must discuss with you. I have recently had my eye on a rather attractive stallion, but I'm not quite sure how to handle him. I don't wish to let him go to someone else, but I think he may be a bit reluctant to trust me after my conduct around him. He has a noble spiritedness to him, and is of very desirable stock, but I don't know if he would be willing to accept me as a rider."

Sir Cecil arched a brow as he listened to the other speak, though after a few seconds, the corners of his mouth quirked upwards. "If you are sincere with your intentions, he will trust you, my lord. Even words spoken heatedly can be forgiven if the sentiment behind them is honest. As for how to handle him…" A wicked smile broke as he trailed off. "Perhaps your lordship would benefit from hands-on education?"

"If you have time for a lesson, by all means, Hawkesworth!" Lord Stanthorpe said with a chuckle.

"Sadly, my lord, today does not favour the time or location for a lengthy bit of instruction. However, we could go over a few details if you wish?"

"Only if you call me by my name. My first name."

Sir Cecil smiled roguishly. "As you like…Giles." His eyes falling half closed, he uncrossed his legs and got to his feet, placing his hands on the arms of Lord Stanthorpe's chair before leaning down to kiss him.

Lord Stanthorpe's groin pulsed with want when he heard his name spoken on such a sensual tenor, his cock hardening painfully at the unabashedly wanton (and decidedly ungentlemanly!) look the other was giving him. And, when Sir Cecil's lips touched his, he groaned hungrily as he surged upwards, grabbing him by the lapels of his frock coat and returning the embrace with ardent fervor, the chair tipping backwards in his haste.

Sir Cecil was thrown off-balance by the abrupt change in position, but he managed to catch himself, turning so that they reached the récamier before landing on the floor. As Lord Stanthorpe met the cushion, Sir Cecil put a knee between the other's thighs, hands resting along the raised back as he mouthed along the blond's jaw, a frustrated sound escaping him when further travel was hampered by the tidy cravat. Glancing up at Lord Stanthorpe, he smirked and then rolled his gaze downward, loosening the elegant knot with his thumb and forefinger and then tugging the cloth the rest of the way open with his teeth. Licking his lips, he pushed the starched fabric aside, and then thumbed open the buttons on his shirt, fingertips caressing along the smooth column of his neck before lips found purchase on the pale flesh, a tongue following to leave the skin wet and glistening.

Beneath him, Lord Stanthorpe groaned softly, his head falling back to give the other greater access as he cursed the restrictive nature of his waistcoat and frock coat. Every touch, every libidinous gaze, only fuelled his desire, and when he felt the insistent drag of teeth along his collarbone, a rough, guttural curse escaped him as he arched his hips upward, his cock straining against the fabric of his breeches.

"Such language! I've not heard such tawdry things since I was in the Army," Sir Cecil teased, his breath a hot whisper against Lord Stanthorpe's ear. "It becomes you, in this forum. It makes me desire you greatly." He chuckled darkly, and after sucking lightly on the lobe, he said, "It makes me think of fucking."

Lord Stanthorpe gasped when he heard the bawdy talk, the words coming from a gentleman as refined as Sir Cecil sending a surge of pleasure straight to his cock. They had barely touched, and he was on the verge of coming, mewling and writhing like a woman. "Please, Hawkesworth. I beg of you, stop this cruel teasing," he murmured, his lust-darkened eyes half-lidded, a faint sheen of sweat on his brow.

Sir Cecil cocked his head to the side as he ran his tongue along his lower lip, one hand gliding along the fabric of Lord Stanthorpe's frock coat to deftly unfasten the buttons, the waistcoat following shortly after. "You wish for me to stop?" he asked as his fingertips traced down the fall of breeches before cupping the other's erection and squeezing softly.

"No!" Lord Stanthorpe exclaimed, his voice louder than he'd expected. His eyes fell closed when his breeches were opened and his cock slipped free from its confines. "God!" he groaned as supple fingers surrounded him, gripping tightly and stroking with firm but gentle motions, each one ending with a slight twist to tease the head. He sagged back against the fabric when he was granted a momentary reprieve, and he said on a breath, "I need you."

Sir Cecil smiled, but shook his head. "As I told you, today does not favour such leisurely pursuits, but I shall make good, mark my words. In the meantime, I can provide satisfaction."

"And what of you? Do you not desire satisfaction?"

"There will be other opportunities. Knowing that, I am content for today." With that, he returned to fisting Lord Stanthorpe's cock, pushing himself back just enough on the chaise longue to where he could take the head into his mouth.

Lord Stanthorpe's throat went dry, his hips bucking up into the hot, wet heat as he watched the brunet. Every feather light swipe of tongue pulled him ever closer to that precipice, each languid stroke of wrist, each bob of head fuelling his desire. His breath was coming in great, heaving pants, and given Sir Cecil's position, he was able to do little else than lay there and enjoy the exquisite torture being lavished upon him. Finally, with a throaty grunt, his body tensed and his hips snapped upward as he came, the world taking on a gauzy, ethereal sensation for a few moments as he rode out his orgasm. As he fell back against the bolster, he looked up at the other, and then, he chuckled.

Sir Cecil arched a brow, even as he discreetly ran his tongue along his lower lip, and then dabbed at the corners with the tip of a ring finger. "Did you not enjoy yourself?" he asked.

Lord Stanthorpe shook his head, even as he got to his feet to stand on still-trembling legs in order to fix his clothing. "It's not that. It just astounds me that after what you just did, you can sit there looking the model of sartorial elegance, while I sit here looking incredibly unruly."

Sir Cecil offered a cheeky smile. "I have no explanation to offer you," he murmured as he began to fix the other's slightly wilted collar and refasten his cravat. "I'd be curious to hear your theories on the matter. Though, truth told, Mr. Brummell's influence aside, I do believe there's something to be said for a man in a particular state of debauched dishevelment. As circumstances warrant." He stood then, helping attend to Lord Stanthorpe's dress. "Here endeth our lesson for today, though once we reach the Glorious Twelfth, I think we might continue your education in earnest. The country air does wonders to stimulate the mind."

"Do you hunt then, Hawkesworth?"

Sir Cecil's grin went positively criminal. "I do if the prey is sufficiently diverting."

Both of Lord Stanthorpe's brows went up with that. "You don't say? Perhaps we could hunt together this year? You could show me your technique. My country estate is sufficiently large to accommodate us both."

"Oh! Equestrian and sport hunting! Two of my favourite things." Sir Cecil smiled. "Though once the weather turns cold, I'm more content to stay in with a glass of brandy and a warm fire. You could find yourself with a house guest until spring."

Lord Stanthorpe snorted in amusement. "Then I'll be sure to tell the servants to adequately prepare for such an eventuality. It's settled then. As the Glorious Twelfth draws closer, I'll send a carriage to collect your things and have them moved." He checked his appearance in the glass and, satisfied, he opened the doors to escort Sir Cecil out. After agreeing to meet that evening at Brooks's, he returned to the library to attend to some business. He had a small bit of estate land that, as yet, had no tenant. He would first need to see about asking Mr. Gibbs to administrate it on his behalf. It was mostly pastoral, with a small orchard in the east corner. And it had a good stable. He would see that there were competent hands to help run it. And then, he would give him a horse of his own. A Thoroughbred.

It seemed an appropriate thank you.