"Mr Falconer!" George turned at the sound of his name, grateful for something to relieve the tediousness of the ball. He smiled faintly when he saw Harold Ackerly working his way through the crowded ballroom towards him, someone apparently trailing along behind him.
Once the black-haired man reached his side, George offered his hand to him. "Hello, Ackerly. Thank you for coming."
"Not at all, Falconer." Ackerly smiled as he shook the brunette's hand. "It's not every day the most beautiful girl in the area comes out into society."
His eyes swept across the room to where his sixteen-year-old daughter, Lois, held court with all the young men his wife, Charlotte, had insisted they invite. "This is as much for my wife as for my daughter, you know that."
"Oh, yes." Ackerly nodded, a knowing smile on his face. He turned at the sound of a cleared throat and, for the first time, George saw that the stranger was a Naval officer, dark blue coat glinting with gold trim, his hat tucked under his arm. "My apologies. George, this is my cousin, First Lieutenant James Ackerly of the HMS Intrepid. Jim, this is our host, George Falconer."
The lieutenant smiled as he offered his hand. "An honour and a pleasure, Sir."
"A mutual one, Lieutenant," he answered sincerely, shaking the offered hand, his eyes meeting the blue-grey ones briefly. "Men who serve in the Army and Navy are well-admired here."
James' smile widened briefly as he dropped his hand to his side. "I'm flattered. I wondered if I might have a chance to dance with your daughter."
"I have no idea," George admitted this with a wry smile, wondering why he felt a small pang of disappointment at the request. "The best person to ask for that would be my daughter herself."
The dark-haired man glanced across the room at the bevy of admirers around the girl. "It would appear I'll have some difficulty approaching her."
"Come on, Jim." Ackerly thumped his cousin's shoulder with a grin. "This can't be as bad as a ship-to-ship battle."
Laughing a little self-consciously, James glanced across the room again. "At least in such a case, I know how to act. In this, I'm not quite so sure."
"Come on, I'll introduce you." Taking his cousin's arm, Ackerly steered the man away.
George watched them go with a sense that something had fundamentally altered in his life, but he had no idea what. As Ackerly deftly waded through the crowd of young men with James in tow, Charlotte appeared at her husband's side, slipping her arm through his. "Who's the young man with Mr Ackerly, dear?"
"His cousin, Lieutenant James Ackerly," he told her, watching as introductions were made and the officer bowed properly over Lois' hand. "Of the HMS Intrepid."
They watched in silence as the two conversed, unable to hear the words over the noise of dozens of other conversations around the room. Lois blushed and smiled prettily at something James said. Much to George's astonishment, his daughter nodded in response to a question the lieutenant asked and he smiled back, white teeth flashing in his tanned face. James bowed over her hand once again and withdrew, allowing the other young men to crowd around her once again, almost defensively. "Excuse me, Mr Falconer. I think our daughter needs me."
"By all means, Mrs Falconer." He took her hand and kissed the back before allowing her to glide across the room to Lois' side.
George didn't speak to the Naval officer for the rest of the evening, content to watch him talk and dance with the other guests and young ladies. When James approached with Ackerly to say his farewells, George kept the work-roughened hand in his for a moment longer than necessary. "Will you come shooting with me tomorrow, Lieutenant?"
"I'd be glad to, Mr Falconer," James replied with a warm smile, his hand tightening briefly around George's. "What time shall I come?"
He barely took time to think. When he went shooting, he always left soon after breakfast. "Would 9:00 be too early for you?"
"Perfectly fine with me." With that, James released his hand and turned away with Ackerly.
That night, in his diary, George wrote:
I don't know why I invited him to shoot with me. I generally prefer to shoot alone, unable to concentrate when others are with me. Yet I did invite him. Something about Lieutenant James Ackerly of the HMS Intrepid draws me. It's like I'm caught in an undertow, unable to fight the pull out to deeper waters. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
"How long will you be ashore, Lieutenant?" George asked the next day as they walked back to the house. The shooting had gone well and they'd sent the servants ahead with the dogs and the birds they'd bagged.
James smiled wryly, removing his hat to wipe at his forehead with a handkerchief. "For however long this peace will last. Or, as my captain would say, for however long Napoleon will refrain from waging war."
"Not long, then," he responded ironically, eliciting a chuckle from the other man as James tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket. "How long will you stay with your cousin?"
The lieutenant shrugged, ducking under a tree branch George held out of his way. "Most likely for the entire peace. Unless I find a ship."
"What about the Intrepid?" George clasped his hands behind his back, glancing briefly at James as they walked along the path.
The black-haired man smiled ruefully. "My captain was killed in action while we were on our way back to England. I was acting captain when we returned, just as we received news of the Peace. Consequently, my captaincy wasn't confirmed and I remain a lieutenant languishing on half-pay unless or until I find a ship."
"Why are you here instead of in Portsmouth or London?" George wasn't sure why he asked the question. It was really none of his business why James chose to do one thing instead of another.
Fortunately, the younger man didn't take offence at the older man's question. "Finding decent lodgings in Portsmouth, let alone London, on a lieutenant's half-pay is next to impossible, so Harold offered to let me stay with him while I wait for a ship."
"Well, if you and your cousin tire of each other's company, I hope you'll consider coming to spend a few hours with me." Even as he made the offer, George wasn't sure why he made it. "I only have my wife and daughter for company now, with my son, Russell, away at Cambridge. It would be pleasant to have another man to talk with."
Though he kept his gaze straight ahead, George could see James glancing at him in surprise out of the corner of his eye. "That's very kind of you and I'll certainly keep your offer in mind. Thank you, Mr Falconer."
"You're welcome, Lieutenant." They continued their walk in a companionable silence. For once, he wasn't eager to escape the other man's company in order to be alone. In fact, he'd have liked nothing more than to spend the rest of the day with him.
Why does James Ackerly hold such an appeal for me? He's just one more acquaintance among many I'm forced to maintain. Yet, with him, it's not simply something I'm required to do. I want to spend time with him. Far more time than anyone else, even my wife, whom I should rather spend time with most of all. Yet, I'd rather spend time with James than Charlotte.
"If the weather is fine tomorrow, will you join me for a ride?" George asked James a couple weeks later. The lieutenant had become a regular visitor to the Falconer household since his first visit, accepting any invitation issued by George or Charlotte unless he had a prior engagement.
Given this, it was thus a bit of a surprise when the younger man shook his head. "I apologise, Mr Falconer, but I won't be able to join you tomorrow. I have to travel to London to withdraw my monthly pay and speak with the few contacts I have in the Admiralty about getting a ship."
"Would you mind having company on your trip?" he asked without thinking. "I have business in London that needs attending to, but have been avoiding because I loath making the trip by myself and taking my wife and daughter at this time of year is out of the question."
Jim gazed at him in surprise, as well as something else George couldn't quite identify. "Are you sure you can afford to make the trip right now?"
"Yes, I'm sure." He nodded, ignoring the glances his wife and daughter were exchanging. As the head of the house, he could do as he wished without consulting anyone. "The question is whether you would mind the company."
Smiling, the lieutenant shook his head. "No, I wouldn't mind. In fact, I would welcome it. The journey always seems much more tedious when I'm alone."
"That settles it, then."
Yes, it did settle it, and I have no idea why I made the offer. I just knew I didn't want to go without his company. If going with him was the only way to keep spending time with him, then I'll go to London. I really do have business there, but it's not as urgent as I made out. It's more of an excuse to go.
Unable to sleep, George sat down at the writing desk with his diary. Glancing over at the abandoned bed, he assured himself that the other man still slept. A smile quirking his lips, he began to write:
Tonight, I became an adulterer and a criminal.
Another glance at the bed so he could take in the tousled black hair free of its regulation queue, kiss-swollen lips curled into a satisfied smile. George closed his eyes as he remembered stumbling up the stairs with James--no, Jim, as that's what he'd asked George to call him--far more drunk than he could ever remember being...
"Shh, you'll wake everyone up!" Jim hissed at George, who couldn't seem to stop giggling as they climbed drunkenly up the stairs.
He tried to stop, but Jim hauling him bodily up the stairs was very funny for some reason. His broad shoulders shook with suppressed laughter as they stumbled at the top of the stairs and fell heavily against the wall opposite. A door opened down the corridor and an irritable voice called, "Pipe down! Some of us are trying to sleep!"
"Sorry!" Jim called back, grabbing George's hand and pulling him down the corridor in the other direction, towards the room they rented for the night. The brunette could only stumble and giggle along behind him, the large quantities of rum and wine he'd imbibed making him almost giddy. In the privacy of their room, the dark-haired man pulled George around to face him and shook him. "What is so blasted funny?"
He could only shake his head and spread his hands helplessly, unable to stop laughing now that he'd started. After giving the older man a long, considering look, the young man leaned in and kissed him. George was so surprised that he stopped laughing. He hardly dared to breathe or move, in fact, his entire being focused on the press of Jim's lips against his...
After Jim ended the kiss, I grabbed him and pulled him into another one, eager for more. We hardly paused for breath between kisses, stumbling blindly for the bed at the same time. We were still fully dressed when we tumbled onto it and I almost started giggling again.
George smiled as he paused to rest his cramped hand. Jim had chosen that moment to begin undressing the brunette, removing every article of clothing from his cravat to his shoes with the greatest of care and tenderness...
By the time George was naked, his heart was beating rapidly in his chest. Hesitantly, he reached up to return the favour, admiring Jim's lean, muscular build and acutely aware that he was going soft around his middle already. The lieutenant didn't seem to mind, stealing a soft kiss as George leaned in to untie the ribbon binding Jim's raven-black hair into the required queue.
He melted into the kiss, undone as much by the passion and hunger of it as by the simple, ineffable taste of Jim. Almost without thinking, he pressed closer to the younger man, his arousal sluggish from his overindulgence in alcohol, but growing. Jim responded eagerly, shifting their positions so George lay atop him, chest-to-chest and hip-to-hip.
With Charlotte, sex is simply a marital duty to perform. It's cold, clinical, and brief, with no lingering once the act is completed. With Jim, it was heated, passionate, and hungry. The initial encounter was admittedly brief, but that wasn't the end of it. Once we'd caught our breath, Jim rolled me onto my back and began to, well, I suppose 'explore' would be the best word to use.
Though 'worship' might be even more fitting. George shifted on the hard chair as he remembered the way Jim had kissed and caressed practically every inch of the brunette's body. Long before the dark-haired lieutenant finished, George had been hard and aching again.
He started when a pair of arms slid around his shoulders from behind, a sleep-heavy voice murmuring in his ear, "What are you doing here?"
"I couldn't sleep," he explained, reaching up to cover both of Jim's hands with one of his. "So I came over here to keep from disturbing you."
"I'd have welcomed the disturbance," Jim whispered in his ear, following it with a playful nip at the sensitive spot behind it.
George couldn't have stifled his soft, surprised gasp at the jolt of sensation that seemed to go straight to his already-aroused member if he'd tried. "Again? We have a full day of travel ahead of us tomorrow."
"We can sleep in the carriage," Jim replied, gently freeing his hands so he could slide them under George's forest green dressing gown. "I see the bulge you're not quite hiding."
His cheeks grew warm as he looked down at his lap and the quite obvious tent his renewed arousal was making of the forest green fabric. "Usually, once is enough for me."
"I'm flattered to be the exception." He could hear the amusement in Jim's voice as the younger man pushed the dressing gown off George's shoulders and down his arms to his waist. "Won't you come back to bed? It's much more comfortable."
"Mmm, yes." Freeing his arms of the gown, George turned in the chair enough to catch Jim's lips in a warm kiss.
Jim responded with a pleased sound, tugging the belt of the dressing gown loose so it fell away from the brunette's leaking arousal. Moaning against the younger man's lips, George rose and moved with him to the bed. This time, it was Jim who was gently pushed onto his back and George who explored...
I cannot find it in myself to regret what has passed with Jim. It may be criminal and sinful, but it's also wonderful. For the first time in my life, I feel truly alive and it's all a credit to Jim. He's at the Admiralty right now, drawing his half-pay and attempting to make use of his contacts to get a ship. Much as I would rather keep Jim onshore with me, I know he misses the sea. This peace has been a blessing for some--Charlotte's brother still hasn't returned from his trip to Paris--but a curse for others. Still, I'm grateful it afforded me the chance to meet Jim and know him. We might not have met otherwise and I might have gone through the rest of my life without knowing what it's like to be truly alive.
The peace is over. Jim must travel to London tomorrow. I'm to go with him, as I always have before. This may be the last time we'll see each other and we intend to make the most of it.
George held Jim close as they caught their breath and calmed their racing hearts. "Promise me you'll be careful?"
"I always am." Jim stroked George's arm soothingly, as if he understood what the older man couldn't say. "Promise me you won't cling to the past if the worst should happen?"
He said nothing for several minutes, his face buried in Jim's unbound hair as he breathed in his scent. "I'll try not to, but I cannot promise it."
"I understand." He felt Jim lift his hand to kiss the back, and then the palm. "I'll miss you."
George pressed a kiss to the nape of Jim's neck, making him shiver. "I miss you already, thinking of life without you."
"So don't think about it." Jim shifted, turning in George's arms to face him. Despite his words, there was a faint, understanding smile on his lips.
He caught those lips in a kiss, desperate to distract them both from the impending separation. Jim returned the kiss with interest, likely as desperate as George for the distraction. They feel asleep in a tangled, sticky mess afterwards, holding tightly to each other.