Peter Hale, accompanied by his nephew Derek, returned to London after a Grand Tour that had lasted ten years, as night fell and the fog rolled in off the River Thames. It was thick enough that Derek, who had not missed the London weather any more than his uncle, commented that any passing Scotsmen might mistake it for a felted cloak. Rather than immediately avail themselves upon the hospitality of the head of the family, Derek's mother and Peter's elder sister, they sent their man ahead to find them lodgings in a hotel.
There were several reasons for their uncharacteristic concern for Talia, Duchess of Emberton, head of the Hale family, and it being late and the weather inclement were not considered, and how they, well Peter, wished to recover before having to deal with his sister and her demands, and also his introduction to Peter's bride, without several days of recovery, and possibly drinking.
Peter had been married the night before he had left London and was under instruction not to return for ten long years. Years made longer, he guessed, by the presence of his nephew, who had entirely missed the point of the Grand Tour being debauchery and preferred to be bathed, and tucked up in bed with a book and a glass of wine by no later than ten of the clock.
Any and all attempts to debauch the young man were wasted, beautiful opera singers, both male and female, young nobles eager to please, sometimes both of them at the same time, wise gentlemen well versed in the pleasures of the flesh - none of them offered Derek any interest. He went on Tour for the purpose of being a tourist, Peter was at his wit's end with the boy.
He wasn't so much a boy now, having just turned thirty-one, around the age when a man should be considering marriage and looking around for a suitable bride, omega or beta, to provide them with a bushel of sticky babies. Peter was unsure why babies were always so sticky, but they left a trail of glooey saliva wherever they had been - like lace festooned slugs and about as attractive Peter thought but didn't say aloud for even in Gentlemen's clubs comparing their beloved, or at least acknowledged, heirs to the same creatures that bedeviled their gardeners was not the best course of action.
It had been a child that he had married, against his will, with his ear still smarting as his sister, at her wit's end, had arranged the affair for him. The boy was old enough to agree but he had been roused from his bed, tucked up in his father's banyan, and was at that awkward age in boys where they woke up and found themselves at least a foot taller than they had been before going to bed. All boys went through this, alpha, beta or omega. Even Derek had although in his case he went from a pretty child to a youth who looked like he had had his height beaten out of him with an ugly stick. He had turned into a handsome man but it had taken years to manage it, and a neatly trimmed beard.
His bride, who had an unpronounceable name that everyone shortened to Mischief, looked like a bundle of sticks tied together and shoved into a white shirt and green silk banyan. He had been all elbows and knees, yawning his way through the ceremony perched on his nurse's knee with his thumb in his mouth. He appeared to be a camelopard dressed for, and roused from, his bed. Talia had confirmed, twice over, that he had been old enough to marry and at thirteen he was, but it was only on condition that Peter did not return until he was completely in his majority and at least twenty one.
Peter, horrified at the idea of marrying the thumb sucking scarecrow, had agreed, agreeing to accompany Derek on his Grand Tour and after that, it was done. He had been on the boat at the London Docks and ready to leave for Oslo on the morning tide.
So on returning to London Peter was not eager to return to the embrace of his family, not because he did not care for them, and did not wish to see them in person, but it meant accepting his role as husband to a complete stranger. Ten years traveling with Derek had not been enough to quench the desire for debauchery.
So instead of returning to the house in Temple Church where the Duchess kept her London lodgings, especially with the season about to start, the two of them took rooms at a fine hotel in Mayfair under the pretense that they required rest before entering society. Or at least that was how Peter had sold it to Derek.
Talia might accept it as giving Peter an opportunity to take a course of mercury, which he did not need, but either way it gave them a few days without the iron grip of the Duchess, and they could still be back in society proper by the opening days of Parliament - which was when the season started in earnest. Talia could acquire for them vouchers for Almacks, if their names did not open the door, and Derek would certainly be the victim of the fortune-hunting mamas and aunts, and they would be welcome back, as all sons who took the Grand Tour, willingly, as Derek had, or not.
Peter was appreciating his last few days of freedom before he spent a season with the scarecrow that he had left behind that night, and the freedom of staying in a hotel allowed that.
Derek had admitted that he wished to leave a calling card with his mother announcing himself and proclaiming his desire to visit, and to arrange a time, but that he had no overwhelming urge to relocate to her house and her control. It was accepted that whilst Derek was to serve as his uncle's chaperone and made sure he wasn't too debauched - but what happened after Derek went to bed after supper was between Peter and the moon - Peter was to hopefully find a bride for Derek because he was certainly old enough.
Talia might have been a dear and someone that they loved dearly, but she was a touch controlling, and secretly ruling England - King George was insane and the Prince Regent was more interested in debauchery - he and Peter got on astonishingly well - but even a continent away she had made demands.
Derek was a good man, not the heir, Laura was happily married and when they had left she was about to make Talia a doting grandmother, and although he could be rather boring Peter enjoyed his company. Derek was witty in a way that Laura was not, and although he was around the age when a gentleman of good wealth married, at one and thirty, he had not found the interest.
One night in Mallorca, when they were drinking the local tipple, an aniseed-flavoured poison that had managed to recreate the feeling of being untethered from the universe, Derek had confided in his uncle that whilst he quite enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh he found it hard to remain interested unless he knew the person well indeed. There had been a lover in Constantinople, a young married omega boy who had eyes like the starry sky and a smile like the breaking dawn. He and Derek had spent weeks in a shy courtship, with the omega's elderly alpha wife looking on with fond amusement.
They had spent over a year in Constantinople, waking each morning to the bells of the Hagia Sophia, wandering through the whitewashed streets to find shops selling bitter coffee, thick as tar and sweetened with brown sugar scraped from cones as they watched, and sticky sweet lokum which Derek had the genius idea of dropping into his gin one evening flavouring the sharp soapy liquor into a sweet rose scented pleasure.
Peter had introduced the practice to a local pleasure house who had called it the delight of the Turks and started to serve it to their customers to sup between inhales of scented smoke.
That year in Constantinople was the closest Peter had seen to his nephew in love, the sort of love that the British frowned on and he had been as heartbroken as Derek had been when it ended, even as amicably as it had.
They had left Constantinople soon after.
Yet Talia would want to see her son married, she would want him settled and if he could be happy it would be a bonus. Talia had found such joy in marriage she wanted everyone around her to be similarly joyful, regardless of their own inclinations or desires.
And after one particularly British scandal, which Peter maintained was not his fault, Talia had come up with the idea that it would be Peter, and not Derek, would marry the Stilinski omega, the prized son of one of her closest friends. Both families had been eager to join through marriage and the boy, Mischief, was certain to have caused a scandal before any season, not because the boy was lusty, because at thirteen it was far too young to make such assumptions, but because the boy was a flitterwit who loved to read and had no gauge of what was or was not appropriate to say. Combined with a dwindling family fortune and a scandal two generations back - England remembered everything - the boy's chances were limited so Talia had suggested that he be betrothed to her shy son.
Somewhere in that, and in the following mess of flirting inappropriately with a naval Admiral's new wife - apparently being caught with his hand up her skirt counted as flirting inappropriately to Talia - the arrangements were made that he marry Peter in a midnight ceremony so rushed that the bishop, who had been visiting from Nottingham and was not involved with the parish at all, performed the ceremony - pausing mid oration to take large mouthfuls of fortifying brandy. The parish register was brought forth and Peter forced to sign, because as long as Talia agreed the law was satisfied, Stilinski, Mischief's father, signed and the marriage was set, and the boy was to spend the next ten years as a Noon Bride: someone who had married but had not consummated the wedding, this left him in the care of his father, although if Talia had anything to say about it that hadn't lasted long, and able to continue his life as if nothing had happened, but when the time came Peter would come and claim his bride, and any other suitors were stymied by the prior marriage.
A noon bride's virtue was protected as much as that of a blanc, the unmarried youths of the season, but they weren't restricted in the colors that they wore and could act as a chaperone for a blanc.
They had all of the advantages of being married with none of the disadvantages of having a husband.
So returned to London with a mixture of both comfort of being home and the dread of having returned to the bosom of his family, Peter reacted the way any gentleman in his position would, he went to his club.
After a late night's drinking, Peter made himself climb out of his bed in mid-morning so that he could call on his tailor, who was yet to learn of his return and arrange for a new wardrobe for his reentry into society. Peter was vain enough that it meant more to him to be properly attired before announcing his return to his family.
His mouth tasted like the floor of a stable and his skin felt it like it had been dragged the length of the Thames, but his valet had worked wonders with a hot cloth so he did not look nearly as execrable as he felt. He was even wearing a rather fine jacket that he had bought in Venice which would be the fashion there for a year or two but was probably snicker-worthy in certain circles.
As it was not raining, and the day was fine, cold, with a hint of frost even that late, but fine for London in January, he made the decision not to take a carriage and to walk, although it did take him through Regent's Park, which at that time of day would be at it's busiest with people enjoying the weather as much as he did.
This meant there would be a few people riding their horses, usually in a lacklustre manner that was about taking their daily walks, there would be nurses with their charges, carriages with blancs and their chaperones getting used to the journey so it would not be so out of place later when they later took the journey to see and be seen when the season was in full swing.
There was something of a furore in the park for just as he meant to cross through it a pair of horses went past at a full gallop. Not so close that he was disturbed or forced to dive into a bush, which he would certainly claim later for better conversation, but it was still rather unusual and more odd indeed one of the riders was an omega, notable for the clothes that he wore, was holding his hat firmly on his head and whooping with laughter loud enough he sounded like a wild animal.
He was certainly far too loud for Peter's hangover.
It was the tremendous noise that he was making that drew Peter's attention to him. He sat a fine figure upon his horse, which struck Peter as unusually spirited for an omega to be riding, especially in Regent's Park, and not in the country where such behavior could be ignored.
The omega was lovely, with dark hair caught in a tight braid to his scalp, and a miniature military cap with white ostrich feather that matched the white Prussian braid on his military-style Spencer jacket. That was worn with a pair of high waisted black breeches and, curiously, knee-high black leather boots with a brown trim, such as were worn by the master of the hunt, and not an omega socialite. He had the reins in one white-gloved hand and the other was determined to try and keep his hat, which had a long white silk sash tied around the brim and trailing behind him like a pennant, on his head. With his blood high and rising up in the stirrups to urge the horse on he was a marvel and more than anything Peter wanted that drive and power under him.
He had thought he wouldn't have a final romance before he was a victim of the kindnesses of his family, and his new mari, but that omega had shattered his resolve.
Peter was good at many things - but he was never good at resisting temptation.
He walked across to where the omega was pulling up his stallion, as fine and spirited a piece of horseflesh as any that Peter had ever seen - and certainly much more horse than any that he had ever seen an omega ride - as the omega climbed down, waving away the alpha he had been racing against when he attempted to help him down. From a very statuesque black alpha, he accepted a long black velvet cloak trimmed in grey fur, and pushed his arms through slits made for ease of use, and then a small flask from which he took a lusty swallow. "Mr. Raeken," the omega said turning to the alpha, "I must concede the race," He had a grin that split his entire face and his mien was defiant. He knew how he looked and that people were staring at him but he did not care.
He had a soft mouth, a peach complexion dotted with beauty marks, some of which formed a pleasant triangle on one cheek, and his eyes were a pleasant brown. His hair was neatly bound but wisps had come free of the braid and were now framing his face and falling on to high cheekbones. He had a lovely long throat, although most of him was covered in the heavy cloak, and stood at his shoulder was the giant black man, who wore a greatcoat and wool hat and looked capable of snapping Peter in two like a stick.
The omega might have been utterly unaware that Peter was there, involved in his conversation with Mr. Raeken, but his man had made eye contact and with it came a silent threat. "I shall have to owe you the guinea," the omega continued, looping his arm through Mr Raeken's arm, "I do not have pockets right now, but I am planning to share nuncheon with my dear Lydia, you could accompany us and I will have access to some change," he was not leaning into the alpha at all, as he might with a lover, but instead the gesture was, despite it's apparent intimacy, not at all conceding any thing to the alpha. Even if the chaperone was not present, and very physically intimidating, the omega might have been blithely unaware of how such reactions should be taken.
"There might be other things that I might accept for a prize," the alpha said, because alphas would be alphas and they were all almost exactly the same - the exception would be Derek who barely had any sexual thoughts at all, never mind about an omega that they barely knew.
"Oh, is that so?" The way that the omega said it, something in his tone suggested that he did not have Derek's baffled innocence, and he knew very much what the alpha wanted but that the alpha was not coming close to getting it, "I do not think that my dear Lydia would agree, and I find it is best not to act as your friend's procurer, it does destroy the friendship rather."
The alpha, Raeken, did not to his credit groan at the comment, but his expression became a little more brittle. He was a handsome man, blonde, although his skin was darker complected than Peter himself, and he was comely enough, perhaps a little broader than Peter but not quite as tall, and his clothes were expensive. He had wealth but it did look like the omega, followed as he was by a very imposing shadow, wore more obvious finery, and even his servant's clothes were well tailored and made of expensive fabrics. "I doubt even Mrs. Whittemore," that must have been the dear Lydia that they spoke of, "would break such a long acquaintance over such a simple sin, you do not think she will break with you over a small favor."
The omega laughed again, "I do not know," he continued, "acting as procurer for someone who has not agreed to be procured and for the small price of a guinea, I do not know which would offend her more, that I have pimped her to you, or that I did it for a guinea, she would demand at least five pounds of the amount garnered, it would cost me much more than I lost to you."
At some point during the omega's speech Mr Raeken realised that he had misunderstood and that his gentleman's education, most of which was gained at clubs and among other alphas had missed the definition of the word procurer. It was not a surprise because alpha gentlemen, the alpha ladies had their own clubs, used the baser word, either referring to a person as a pimp or a madame, if it was a woman.
The omega looked delighted at the misunderstanding and then leaned in to his chaperone and with a nod said, "of course, Boyd, you are correct, my dear Lydia would not accept less than ten pounds for her favors. But I will be at Vauxhall gardens, this evening, Mr. Raeken, if you are also present I can certainly give you your guinea."
The omega might have been unaware of Peter's attention but the black man who stood guard over him met Peter's eyes and exuded such menace with a glance that Peter did not step forward with a guinea or introduce himself. In fact, he continued walking and continued on to his tailor. The servant was, in fact, very tall and very broad and looked like he had not spent the last ten years traveling the continent. Peter considered himself healthy and sporty, but everything about the servant, Boyd, was a promise of violence to anyone who disturbed his charge.
After the measuring and choosing of new fabrics, etc, Peter returned to the hotel where he told his nephew, who was sat in a large chair by the fire reading and drinking from a tea bowl beside him on a small table. He had his legs crossed, and the hotel informed him that his nephew had sent out several calling cards and had been visited by the tailor that was most used by the hotel. Derek had never been as interested in fashion as his uncle. Given the opportunity Derek would dress like a fisherman, wearing soft wool sweaters and moleskin pants.
Derek would clearly be happy once he was given the chance to move into the country where no one would care what their lord was doing, and was happy with a mari who he loved and loved him.
He was stuck in London though until his mother, the Duchess, was content he was happy.
Peter loved his sister but she was very controlling.
"How was your walk?" Derek asked without looking up from his book.
"I saw the most darling omega," Peter began but Derek cut him off by snapping his book shut hard with a breathy thud.
"No," Derek said, matching Peter's gaze.
"I," Peter started.
"Do you remember the last time I told you no?" Derek asked him.
"Venice," Peter mumbled. Derek was never one to push his opinion on anyone, it just wasn't his nature, but every now and again he would put his foot down.
"and what happened in Venice?" Derek wanted to make sure that he knew what it was he was telling his uncle.
"You told me not to push with the Arante widow," Peter said, taking the seat facing Derek's and reached across to pour himself some of the tea, adding a dash of milk so that it was to his liking, before taking a pleased sip. He was cold and the tea was warm, and the fire was small but pleasant against his skin.
"And what did you do?" Derek was not letting this go.
"I swam through the canal at night to knock on her window," Peter said, he had thought the entire thing was incredibly romantic.
"And she screamed, hit you in the face with her besom, and you spent the next three weeks in your bed sick from something you caught in the water." Derek had a calm even tone as he said it. "You are now a married man, and you are planning to cuckold your new mari before you've met them, Peter, if Mother finds out she will send you away again," he had a point. Talia would possibly send him, without his mari obviously, to India where he could not threaten her political aims, she had already sent him on a grand tour. He would have to relocate as an emigre.
But the omega was truly lovely.
"The boy is married," Peter said, protesting because once he had made a decision he was loath to change his mind. He was just as stubborn as both his sister and nephew, "I do not think there would be much of a scandal, you know how London is about these things." London was a place where discretion was valued over morality. A gentleman, or woman, could pretty much do as they will as long as no one revealed it. The middle classes valued things like morality, the upper classes did not care as long as it did not hit the papers.
Derek rolled his eyes and put his book down on the table leaning forward. "This is going to end badly," he said, and he sounded like an oracle so great was his determination.
"He is visiting Vauxhall Gardens tonight," Peter said, sitting back and crossing his legs, "when I mentioned an intention to visit there tonight to my tailor, whilst he was taking my measurements, and he mentioned it is a common practice for people to visit in the evening."
"In January?" Derek asked, surprised by this.
"Yes, they finished the bridge there whilst we were absent and strung it up with fifteen thousand or so glass lanterns, there are supper boxes and performances late into the evening, it is considered to be quite romantic." Peter said, sounding wistful about the idea, "there are a Moorish Tower and tightrope walkers and people on the trapeze."
"And this omega of yours, who is he attending these wonderful romantic gardens with?"
"Someone that he called dear Lydia and his companion called Mrs. Whittemore, clearly a friend, and it would not be untoward if we visited this evening and introduced ourselves, you know how a relationship must bloom, Derek, I am not suggesting that I leap out from behind a bush and drag the boy into the foliage to have my wicked way with him. I am not an animal, my intention was to come to an agreement that would be mutually pleasurable for the two of us," Derek's expression remained blank. Every alpha had heard tales of blanc who were lured into dark corners by those animals who did hurt them knowing that the blanc would be ruined long before they were. Some did it to guarantee a marriage to a wealthy blanc, where the family would agree to the unthinkable to prevent the scandal.
"He agreed to meet a Mr. Raeken there, I did not introduce myself at the time, but he was remarkable, a true beauty, with his blood up from riding, it was truly a sight to see."
Derek did not look convinced. "We have agreed to meet Mother tomorrow afternoon," he said. "We cannot spend all night at the pleasure gardens across the river."
"I did not agree to that," Peter pouted. It was not an argument, he would have to attend, but he could certainly sulk about it.
"We can go there for supper," Derek conceded, "and you can introduce yourself, but we will be back here for midnight, I know that you will want at least an hour with your valet tomorrow before meeting Mother," Derek finished off his tea with a long swallow. "I know that I do."
A night at Vauxhall gardens
Vauxhall Gardens were a set of pleasure gardens that had been part of London for nearly two hundred years, and each year they grew more ostentatious. When Peter and Derek had left London the gardens were only reachable by boat, they had been building the Vauxhall Bridge which had since been finished, so they called on the gardens just before nightfall, in the late afternoon, with the plan to have an early supper. Peter did not know when his beau would be attending and it was the size of the gardens and the small chance of actually meeting him that had swayed Derek to attending at all.
Warm wool coats and hats did little to break the wind which was biting and icy where it swept across the river, and into the carriage which bounced and clattered across the cobbles of the paved roads of the capital. After ten years of travelling Peter was mostly sure that the innumerable carriage rides had jangled all of his bones loose, and he had spent the last six years spending a day in bed complaining about the ache in his bones after they travelled more than six hours in a carriage, and the last two Derek had copied him. Spending any time in a carriage again after returning to London was not something he could say that he enjoyed.
So when the carriage pulled up outside of the gardens he sprang out with more joy than was seemly, but he was nowhere near old enough to ache the way that he did after even a short journey. He might bath before bed, with Epsom salts and sage to ease them, because visiting Vauxhall Gardens might have been a pleasant idea when it involved a boat ride, but fresh cobbles had done him no favor.
"Thank the heavens that's over," Derek said as he rearranged his coat and used the movement to roll his shoulders, "I do not care how new the springs on that hansom are, I am convinced that I felt every piece of gravel on the road."
"There was a blade of grass I am convinced tried to break my spine in two," Peter continued with the hyperbole, long years between them had given them plenty of shared conversations and private jokes.
"If not for my boots I am sure I would have sprained my ankle on that last turn," he said as he pulled on his hat, a fine top hat that he had ordered in Venice and as such looked slightly wrong, "and then we would have to return, and I think I might have walked."
Peter laughed out loud which drew the looks of some of the others waiting to enter through the gates, but he did not care. He had never cared much what people thought of him, that was not quite true, he cared that people found him fashionable and charming, but if they did not like him then he lost nothing through the lack of acquaintance.
Derek just glared at the people, mostly mothers with children old enough to come out during the season, or having a second or third season, after the third people tended to try the other centres of society such as Bath, or Harrogate in order to find prospective mari for their offspring, at least one had a "well I never" expression but Derek's cold glance made them return their attention to their children. Some of whom tittered and one of which loudly whispered, in the way that people were never as quiet as they thought they were when they were whispering, about how handsome the two of them were.
Peter didn't correct the girls in their assumption that their mother would not care for their looks, because she was eyeing Derek appreciatively in a way that said more about the girth of his arms than it did the cut of his coat.
They were waved through the entrance and into the park proper were others were charged a small fee, securing that most English of paradoxes, that the people who could most afford such luxuries were the ones least likely to be charged for them.
Vauxhall Gardens were a vast sprawling park in the south of London where people went to see and be seen. The gentry's entire purpose, Peter thought, was the act of seeing and being seen, so using the park was not a stretch, although it being as popular as it was during the London season was surprising as the season ran from mid January to early June and the park was freezing, with a wind coming off the river that was vicious and whipped the bare trees almost into a frenzy. The walkways were crowded, however, with jostling bodies and noise underneath hanging glass lantern than jingled as the branches they were on were moved by the weather.
Peter recognized and welcomed quite a few of the people that were meeting, each of them exclaiming how wonderful it was that he and Derek had returned and that it was so good to see them back. More than one mentioned how arriving in London was a bore before the season started for there was nothing to do, except wander through the gardens which were open year around and make comment on what other people were wearing and pass gossip.
Over cups of hot wine, served in glasses of which there were not many and those were returned after the customer was finished to be washed out and used again - some canny visitors brought their own cups, tucked away in large reticules - Lady Brailsford was happy to tell Peter everything that he had missed in his absence, whilst cooing over how well that Derek had grown. She had been a matron when Derek was on leading strings but she did enjoy embarrassing him as she squeezed his arms with her entire hand and commenting "you're all grown up," as if it was a great achievement that only he had ever mentioned as a possibility and that very few attained.
Lady Brailsford did not believe that any of the season's diamonds were worth mentioning, that all of them were bland and rather insipid, usually, there was one that did something when they were presented at court that made them interesting but no one had yet. One omega, two years or so ago, had made the terrible faux pas that when she had curtseyed in front of her majesty had let rip with a loud and long fart, immediately turning her head to the Lord Chancellor with a look of such affront that there was some speculation that she had hoped to blame him. Knowing the Lord Chancellor it was entirely possible, unfortunately, the poor girl had taken the blame, and she was having her season in Harrogate this year apparently.
Peter adored Lady Brailsford; she had the best gossip.
Lady Brailsford was a widow who had no intention whatsoever of remarrying any of the alphas who came her way, she was rich enough that she could happily live in society and present her daughter, who had been an infant when Peter had left. Lady Brailsford had the curious honor of being the only omega whose alpha had died in childbirth, when upon hearing his wife had gone into labor whilst riding dropped off his horse dead with a heart attack, which was more sudden than anyone expected for an otherwise healthy young alpha.
Lord Brailsford had been the love of her life and she was quite content in full mourning, but attending all of the events of the season that took her fancy where she mostly gossipped and played games of Vingt et un.
If anyone knew who the omega was it would be Lady Brailsford and when she slipped her arm through Derek's, commenting on how her little darling had clearly grown up in all of the right places, by which she meant biceps and thighs, for she qualified it, and that she knew a fine artist if he wanted to record the perfect image of the perfect alpha for posterity. It was made with the harmless leering of a woman who had absolutely no intention of taking it further than that.
It also, and it was likely that Derek was perfectly aware of this, prevented the more predatory mamans and tantes aiming their daughters and vidame at him in the hope that he was wealthy enough to make him a viable prospect in marriage. In the coming days they would learn who he was and how to best use that information but for now, Lady Brailsford made an excellent shield.
She was also an excellent source of information.
Peter noted not the vidame that had caught his attention first but instead the vidama that accompanied him. She was lovely in a soft, doll-like way, but she also wore solid black, complete with a lace veil over her copper red hair and under her black tricorn trimmed in black fur. She had a black fur cape around her shoulders and up around her neck but her skirt was heavy black satin jacquard where a floral pattern of matte fabric caught the light. As was appropriate for an omega, even one in full mourning as she clearly was, she wore a mantua gown but there was no hint of what was under the fur cape.
She was stood next to the vidame, who had again chosen a more Prussian style, wearing a dark green Stevenson that was adorned with black braiding, under a black wool military style cloak that he had left open, showing a sliver of shirt between the braided cuff of his jacket and his black suede gloves. He was wearing a round cap of black fur that was pulled down over his ears and his hair was unbound from its previous braid and instead fell in a mess of curls and cowlicks under his hat.
Peter had seen the hats on the omega of Ekaterinburg and thought that they were called kubanka.
Noticing Peter's interest in the young woman Lady Brailsford shook her head as if despairing of him. "They call her the black widow," she said and she sounded sad, "poor thing, she turns twenty-four this spring and buried three husbands." Peter had not expected that- "her first was a family friend, he had sponsored her so there she was barely sixteen and he died on top of her on her wedding night. His family bullied her into marrying his heir, Gabriel Valack, you remember him of course." Derek made a sound of distaste suggesting he did know him very well indeed.
"Within a year he had been pinked in a duel and died of blood poisoning," having known Valack if she had poisoned him then no one would have held her accountable, well, the law might have, but society wouldn't have cared. "The third she married for love, a young buck called Whittemore, went to war and didn't come back, she's wealthy enough but they consider her cursed, even the fortune hunters won't chase her down."
Derek made a noise that suggested he might be sad for the vidama but he understood the fear that the fortune hunters did, and the lack of a title would make her even more unappealing. Things could be overlooked for a title, but she remained vidama.
"She is lovely," Peter said, "magnificent tits."
Lady Brailsford batted at Peter's shoulder with a mock swat, with a muttered comment that he was still awful.
"Can't tell with what she's wearing," Derek said, "so it's clearly wishful thinking on your part, dear oncle," Derek called him that just to mock him.
"Come along," Lady Brailsford said, "I'll introduce you."
The omega in question, Vidama Whittemore, was in conversation with an alpha that neither Peter nor Derek recognized, but when Lady Brailsford approached her expression changed to a soft fondness. She was very lovely but she was also in full mourning and therefore it was considered very bad form to court her in any way. Even if a widow had not cared for their spouse it was still proper to intrude. She could come out of mourning at any time after the first six months, first into half-mourning then completely. If she was in full mourning it meant either she had only recently lost her husband which, considering the war on the peninsula, was possible, or she had chosen to remain in mourning. Peter did not want to push, well, not in front of her.
When Lady Brailsford approached her she apologised to the alpha she had been talking to and turned, "Belinda," she said with a smile, she had a soft gravelly voice and she was beautiful, not just lovely, "I wasn't expecting you to attend the gardens tonight, what a lovely surprise."
"Lydia," Lady Brailsford said leaning forward to kiss her on both cheeks in the French fashion, "you look as lovely as always, let me introduce you to my companions," she introduced Peter and Derek by both name and titles, specifying that they were the brother and son of the Duchess Emberton.
Lydia nodded politely as they introduced themselves to her, and started a conversation with Derek and Lady Brailsford, Peter took the opportunity to introduce himself, which was something of a faux pas, to the omega who had caught his eye earlier in the day.
This time he did not have his giant bodyguard standing over him.
"I must admit I have not had the pleasure," he started, catching the eye of the omega. He had the most remarkable eyes, when the light from the overhead glass lanterns caught them they looked almost like they were made of amber, and his smile was even more luscious up close, and with the wind he kept licking his lips with the tip of a darting tongue.
"Really?" the vidame said, "I was certain that we met long ago, perhaps in a dream," he had a rich voice that spoke of confidence and quite a bit of private amusement. It was a tone that Peter knew well from the stars of the demi-monde, many courtesans would affect the tone of knowing something that the person that they spoke to did not, which gave them an air of mystery, "certainly by firelight," he finished.
"I am certain that I would remember," Peter offered,
"I would like to think that I was unforgettable," the vidame said, he was in his early twenties, perhaps twenty-three or four, and seemed to be very rich. His clothes were expertly tailored and he wore just enough jewelry to showcase himself and not his purse.
"I would be certain to remember one such as yourself," Peter said, accepting the hand that was offered to him for a kiss, "the image of you is arresting indeed."
"And yet, sir, I am sure that you have forgotten me, for you have certainly forgotten yourself." There was something a little darker in his tone as he said that, something of a threat. "For I know that you do not know who it is that I am,"
"You are the loveliest thing in this park tonight," Peter said, "what more do I need to know?"
"Silver tongue and spindle limbed," the omega said with a smile, "that was what I was told, that given the opportunity you would steal away my heart and my honour, travel suits you, my lord, for you have broadened in chest and shoulder, but you are still the arch seducer are you not?"
"I do enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, I must admit it," Peter was getting the terrible impression that this was getting away from him and he was not sure why or how it had gone wrong. Perhaps the black bodyguard of earlier had slandered him after seeing him at the park, "but there is no shame in such, what pleasures can be shared between two are only shameful if one is unwilling."
The omega reached out and cupped Peter's face with his cheek, "I shall tell you an inveterate truth, my lord," he said, "you shall not grace my bed."
It was a lot blunter than Peter expected because normally there were more coquettish protestations, more give and take before the refusal. It was rare, not that he was turned down, but that it was so blunt. Often there was a lot more conversation and perhaps some mild groping before someone felt comfortable enough to turn him down so very surely..
"Stiles," Derek said, smiling at the boy, "I barely recognized you." Derek leaned forward and caught the boy in a light embrace, the sore more properly given to family but Derek did not care overmuch for the rules of society and was too staid to willfully break them.
"Derek," the omega, Stiles, answered with the same easy familiarity. "I was just discovering that your uncle doesn't remember me, and yet assures me that I am unforgettable."
"You know that he is a boor," Derek said, offering his arm for the omega to take, "we are meeting with Mother tomorrow, will you be there?"
The boy's smile was impish as if in the knowledge that he kept to himself he was aware of an outcome that Peter had not considered, "I wouldn't miss it for all the world."
When Talia Hale, Duchess of Emberton, entertained family she did not make the effort to dress at the height of fashion, although she was a fashion setter. She wore a simple velvet dress in the empire style and had her long black hair in a neat braid over her shoulder. She had no intention of calling into parliament or visiting society so she had not sat through the prolonged process of having her hair dressed.
Her omega duchesse, Marianne, was not in London at the time but had sent word she would be visiting - she despised London and stayed in their country home with their youngest, Cordelia- most commonly called Cora, who had recently married and hated London as much as her maman.
So Talia welcomed her son home without her beloved mari. Talia was little given to affection, so when they met the duchesse they were always surprised by how very different the two of them were, Talia was tall and statuesque, with straight sleek dark hair and faintly olive skin, where Marianne was small and plump with frizzy blonde curls that were always escaping whatever style they had been coerced into. Talia was calm and measured and Marianne was loud and brash and laughed loudly and long and was affectionate even with total strangers.
When Peter and Derek were led in by the butler, a new gentleman that neither of them recognised, Talia was sat in a cushioned armchair in front of the fire drinking tea from a new porcelain tea set. There were a few slices of toast and cakes laid out on a plate for her to pick at but she did not seem interested in the food, and when she saw Derek her expression softened from being so stern and she stood up, putting down her cup with a loud clink, and walked across the room to gather him in her arms, kissing him on both cheeks before she took in the whole of his appearance. "My little boy," she said softly, "all grown up and turned into a man, complete with bristle," she kissed his forehead.
"Europe has been so good for you, but I have missed you sorely, your maman is coming to London just to spend time with you, I shall have to buy her jewellery for she was right that you would not surprise us with a foreign bride," there was a joke there.
She looked across at Peter, measuring him with her gaze before cooly saying, "Peter," in acknowledgement.
"Talia," he replied, "you are looking well."
"I am not the one who has spent a decade raking his way through Europe, I had thought you would take more time for a mercury treatment." There was a fond mocking in the way she said it, the sort of brutal teasing between alpha siblings that gave no benefit to the other.
"According to Mr Jenner," Peter said, "one such as I has had so many mercury treatments for so many things that I have become quite immune."
Talia laughed, "you are as wicked as when you left, I had hoped that Derek would temper you."
"I had hoped that I would temper Derek," Peter replied.
"Derek had hoped that he would not get caught in the middle of such things," Derek said, talking about himself in the third person before he flipped out the tails of his superfine jacket to sit in one of the chairs in front of the fire. "But Derek also knows that it is a forlorn hope."
"Derek has been sorely missed in this house," Talia said, taking her seat again, sweeping out her skirts in a flawless and almost invisible gesture. "Peter, not so much," that at least was more teasing than mockery. "but you must tell me about your travels, your letters were too few and far between," Derek had sent letters every week, long rambling things that could go over several pages and he sent them to several people.
"I have an entire chest of sketches that I returned with," Derek said, "there are things that I simply could not describe for I lacked the words, and although I did include small illustrations in my letters most of them needed entire pages to try to capture, no matter how slightly, their beauty or majesty. I am blessed that I got to see them."
"I recieved your letters too, Peter," Talia said, "all ten of them."
Peter had written to his sister for her birthday every year and had included it with Derek's mail.
"Derek was loquacious enough for both of us," he said, "you did not need to hear the same stories twice."
"I had hoped that you would return with a sweetheart, Derek," Talia said, "and I would be more likely to find word of them in your uncle's letters than your own," there was another dark look at Peter because those letters had not been written, "if not for Derek, brother, I would have had no word that you were not dead and dear little Mischief made a widow."
"Come now, sister," Peter said, "you know as well as I that I am hardy, I only had one major sickness in all the time that I was away."
"Which he got swimming through the canals in Venice," Derek said, "at night, in winter," he paused for effect, "wearing his shirt and pants, he swam near enough a mile there, and then a mile back with no respite."
"Did your lover not grant you access?" Talia asked, for she knew her brother well.
"She hit me in the face with a broom," Peter muttered under his breath, "and nor did she visit me in my sickbed, not even an enquiry was sent."
"She told everyone that he was afflicted with the a case of the flux," Derek said, accepting a cup of tea from his mother, "and that with her young children that she had no intention of spreading it, she said nothing of his midnight adventure although all of Venice knew it by the next morning."
"It was romantic," Peter protested.
"It was something," Derek had a smirk around the lip of his teacup as his mother toyed with his uncle like a cat with a mouse, "it is a wonder you were not called out by her husband."
"She was a widow," Derek said, "but she had several very large, very violent brothers. I think only being ill with the flux was what stopped them murdering him in the night."
"It wasn't the flux," Peter protested, he had been very ill, but he had not been afflicted with watery bowels or extreme vomitting, just fevers and sweats and then a prolonged recovery of pure exhaustion and chills. The physician had said that he was blessed because a man who was in lesser health might have died. Derek had served as nursemaid and one of the servant girls had been paid to lie alongside Peter at night so that their bodyheat would preserve him, and a pretty penny she was given for it too. If Peter had not been insensate she might have worried for his wandering hands but at the time she just had to put up with his snoring. He was too ill to be a lecher.
"We must allow dear Peter to remain feeling sorry for himself," Talia said, "he falls ill so rarely, he must make the most of it, so he can suffer romantically." Peter didn't like his sister very much in that moment. "But come, brother, take a seat, have some tea. It has been too long since we three have been in company, we must make the most of it, for we do not know when it shall happen again."
"Why does it sound like you are about to urge me to leave the country?" Peter asked, wary.
"Why is that your immediate thought, and not that you might move into your own house?" Talia asked.
"I am yet to buy a house," Peter said, "I have always lived here."
"Dear Mischief purchased a house in Grosvenor Place," Talia said as if it was not a huge reveal in the narrative, "it is a small thing, and his father had bought himself a pile in the country that became Mischief's after we lost him, god rest his soul."
Peter blinked, he had gone away a rich gentleman who lived in the bosom of his family, which included a Duchess and allowed him access to her rather sizeable properties and locations across England, and came back a property owner. It also suggested that the skinny little child that he had left had fallen into cahoots with his sister which did not bode well for his future.
Talia was much older than Peter, having been a married woman by the time he was born- a late surprise to his parent's marriage. This meant in many ways he had served as her eldest child, raised among her own children so he was closer to them as siblings than he was to her, and his instinct was to call Marianne Maman instead of his own mother such was his upbringing. It also meant that when Talia made mistakes as a new parent she made them with Peter. She lacked Marianne's warmth and endless love and so it became easier to turn to Marianne than to Talia, so there was a distance between them. Yet both being alphas they bickered like cats if they were together too long. There was also some jealousy, on both sides, for Peter was unrestrained by Talia's duty, but Talia was respected because she was the elder sibling where Peter was considered feckless.
Before Peter had left he was starting to fall into the position of Talia's left hand, fielding the information that she used to make her decisions in parliament, and out of fear of what he might become if left to that role she had urged him to take his Grand Tour with Derek. The marriage to Mischief just prevented further scandal. If Peter created a scandal it reflected on Talia and if it reflected on Talia she couldn't affect the change on parliaments that she did.
Whether she intended the tour to take ten years was of some conjecture, for she never, in her letters, urged them home or away. Peter believed as long as Derek came back with someone who made him happy they could stay away as long as they liked.
Derek had not found such a one.
"I have a house?" Peter asked. The entire situation had him quite poleaxed.
"Yes, it is quite pleasant, well appointed, young Mischief did not want to impose but was loath to leave London, he was most eager for your return." Talia spoke of Mischief with the same tone of voice as she did her own children, and it was likely that after the marriage he and his father had moved into the country estate with Marianne and Cora to finish his education. He had possibly spent the last ten years as part of her family. "His staff are so exquisite I must admit that I keep trying to poach them, but they are loyal. His majordomo alone is worth a king's ransom, I do not know where he and his father found him, or I would be there trawling for staff daily."
She smiled fondly, "he's a dear thing, Mischief. He's been my solace here in London the past few years, none of the others can abide the city. Laura remains in Sussex with her children and her Jordan, she manages the estate and sees no reason to visit the city, Cora despises travel and will only attend if she is informed that she must, and your brothers, Derek, are still in America on business. They visit the continent at least once every two years to help promote abolition, and Stephen has been elected to congress there, I did mention it in my letters."
Derek assured his mother that he had known that, "Mischief tells me that you have been writing to him, Derek," she said, "and that you, Peter, have not."
Derek frowned at his uncle. He had the remarkable ability to look utterly disappointed with Peter without seeming to move any facial muscles to do so. Derek had, by nature, a stern appearing face and he was intelligent enough that most of what people thought of him was negative because he was quiet. In conversation he would listen more than he would talk. He was not shy as much as he did not put himself forward as much as people expected of one of his station.
Ten years had taught Peter how to read the smallest gesture on his nephew's face and right then he was very disappointed even before he made a huffing noise that despaired of him.
"I had thought that perhaps you would take the separation as a way to get to know your bride," Talia said folding her hands in her lap, and tilting her head. Unlike her son Peter had never had to rely on small gestures to understand what she was thinking. "Even to woo him, but every year I watched him get more and more disappointed at how you ignored him."
"I am not much given to letter writing," Peter said, feeling at least a little shamed. At first writing to the boy had seemed idiotic and a little forward. He didn't know the child and the only thing linking them was their marriage. He had no idea how to address him or what to talk to him about, so he had put it off. Then it had been so long it was embarrassing and it would have meant admitting that he was wrong in not writing to the boy, so it was better to not write to him entirely.
There had been gifts, trinkets, the sort of thing that it was proper to send, despite that Peter had never really cared for propriety. He had sent him things that could decorate his rooms, there had been a book as well, Peter remembered, and perhaps a doll. He had never forgotten the boy but he had not written, which on recollection might have been a mistake.
Derek had written to him, he was sure that he had at least made sure that the boy, who was ensconced in the same familial glow as young Cora, was remembered.
There had been a conversation in Geneva, Peter remembered, in the opium scented fugue that had infested that house where they had spent a few weeks with Shelley and Byron and their open house, where Derek had spent the time transcribing Miss Wollstoncraft's novel because even in a very den of debauchery where there had been omegas and betas, even alphas, willing to explore the pleasures of the flesh, any and all of them, he had acted as amanuensis for the one other person who was not involved in the orgy.
They had sat, drinking gin flavoured with anise that made their mouths feel gummy, cut with water and sugar, and Derek had asked Peter about Mischief and if he really felt trapped by the marriage, it was one of the few times that he had ever come into the conversation at all in the decade that they spent travelling.
Sometimes Derek would mention that Mischief would like a thing, such as the tight spice scented streets of Cairo - which had been infested with French soldiers on leave - but mostly he was far from Peter's mind.
"I made a point of writing to him often," Derek said, "just as I wrote to Laura and Cora, for he is family now."
On that night in Geneva Derek had asked if Peter wanted to divorce the boy, or to bully the bishop into an annulment. Peter had looked up to the moon, heavy and fat in the sky, and ducked the question.
It was an entire topic that he had not wanted to even think about. Perhaps he had hoped that if he put the boy entirely out of mind he would not be real.
It was not even the concept of being married that offended him, or the boy in particular but there was no choice in it, it was just another thing that Talia had decided for him.
"You could have at least sent him note, Peter," Talia said.
"There were gifts," Peter said, "he was never far from my thoughts."
"And not once you thought to include a scrap of writing to confirm that for him," she said and that was her politician voice, the one she used to make the House of Lords bow to her will. When Talia spoke in parliament everyone else shut up.
"I don't know him," Peter answered in a temper. "You chose him, I don't know him, and he doesn't know me. You made the decision that we would get to know each other after we were wed, in a ceremony that even Miss Austen would not include in her novels to lampoon for fear that no one would believe it."
"I am not the villain in your melodrama, Peter," Talia said, "you are the one who did not take any advantage to have Mischief think well of you upon your return, your selfishness has put you in that position."
"My selfishness, sister?" he asked, "when it was your intent that the boy and his father join our family, you did not care if it was Derek or I that he married as long as you had his father's support in parliament."
This was what happened when he and Talia were together for any length of time, Talia as head of the family made decisions and they were all supposed to just fall into line with her will, and Peter was too determined and alpha to just give in without a fight. So they fought- all of the time. It was possibly why Derek was so calm about alpha power struggles, when he wanted something it was so unusual that Peter had always given in, but mostly he left Peter to his alpha posturing without comment, or calm disdain. He would voice his opinion but did not fight and argue to get his opinion agreed with.
"Yes, Peter, you are a selfish, willful brat, and you are taking it out on that poor child that you didn't get your way when if I had left you to your own devices half of the alphas in London would have called you out. Would you rather I had bought you colours and packed you off to India?"
"You could let me make my own mistakes," Peter accused, "why should I learn when you buy my way every time to protect your own place in parliament?"
"I think I have intruded on a family moment," the omega, Stiles, said from the door. He was wearing a riding habit and had walked past the butler who was waiting for his coat, hat and gloves as he removed them. His face was flushed from his morning exercise and it suited him well. He had looked lovely the first time that Peter had seen him, and by the lamplight in the gardens his eyes had seemed dark, in the bright light of Talia's sitting room he had a peach complexion with the winter staining his cheeks and the bridge of his nose red. The tip of his nose was turned up in a way that seemed to tug his lips open. His lips were glossy, possibly with something to stop them chapping, "am I late? I was told to arrive around this time."
Talia on seeing the omega stood up and opened her arms, "Mischief," she enthused embracing him cloak and all.
Peter's stomach sunk. The omega he had attempted to seduce upon his return was the same one he had both married and ignored for ten years. He had not recognised him, for the boy he had left was a collection of elbows and knees he was trying to grow into and the one he had returned to was a beauty. And Peter had come back to an omega who knew his own mind, managed his own household and was incredibly pissed at him.
in which they have lunch, which does not sound nearly as ominous as Peter finds it
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
With the four of them gathered for a light late morning tea Talia urged them into the intimate dining room that she used for her own meals when she was not entertaining. This meant that the servants were caught in the tail end of clearing away her papers. In most London homes the adage that servants should be never seen or heard but their benefit felt applied but Talia never chided her servants for interfering with her movement if they were about their duties. She was of the opinion that she had interrupted them and not the other way around and had impressed that opinion on most of their children. What Peter remembered of his own maman she had not followed that belief.
So the servants ducked their heads and worked a little more quickly but they did not immediately abandon their tasks, curtsey and run the way that they might have in another household.
When the room was prepared, and the fire in the grate lit, Talia gestured that they sit so that they might eat as they talked. Talia might have been one of the peers of the realm but she had acted as parent to all three of them and despite them all being grown men she was used to the practise.
Mischief, Stiles, was talking animatedly to Derek as he had the night before whilst Peter remained stunned silent by the revelation that the omega he had been planning on luring into his bed was the very omega he had been planning to cuckold.
Talia had said that she was not the villain in Peter's melodrama - Peter was beginning to suspect that the truth was that he was the villain in Stiles'.
For the first time he saw how he must look to Stiles, married against his will as much as Peter was, to an absentee husband who barely remembered him and then when he returned tried to seduce him as a stranger. Stiles had every right to be angry, and to make matters worse he was delightful.
When Stiles talked to Peter there was no rage, just a casual disdain and amusement of knowing a secret that Peter did not. Peter was beginning to suspect that secret had more to do with recognising Peter when Peter had not recognised him.
Peter made the decision to take Stiles more seriously, with the knowledge that he was his mari and not just an omega who might be interested in some fun.
When the maid brought in pastries Stiles reached across and placed one of the warm buns on his plate, slicing it in two with practised gestures and then slathering it with butter, shoving half of it in his mouth almost in one bite. "Mischief," Talia chided, "you should have outgrown the infinite hunger of youth," it was fond as she said it.
"I wish I could say that it was true, but I still cannot get enough of Mrs. Haversham's fresh Sally Lunns," he was talking aroudn the food which said how comfortable that he felt in the Hale house, "she might be the finest baker in all of London."
"You shall become as large as a house," Talia mocked him and it felt entirely like an old joke shared between friends in a long acquaintance.
"It does not matter," Stiles said with the same easy delight that seemed to be the best part of his personality, "I am already married." That was said with a dark look at Peter, and then he stuffed the other half of the bun into his mouth. "And with Saturn," Peter didn't know what that meant, "I get plenty of exercise," he reached over and took another bun which he again cut in two and put on plenty of butter, "I have found that racing alphas in the park is great fun and means that I am having to have my clothes taken in."
"You were in the park yesterday," Peter blurted out, "the alpha won a guinea."
"Boyd told me that you were there," there was a hint of a darkness in Stile's voice when he said it, "he thinks that you didn't introduce yourself because you did not want to be improper and did not recognise me," but then the darkness vanished as if he had wiped it away with a swipe of his butter knife.
"I have found that I get more races if I allow the alphas to win," Stiles said, "in the country I can take Saturn and give him his head, let him run as long and fast as he wishes, no one there cares, but if you ride fast in Regent's Park people talk or complain, but if you are racing," he left it open, " that is a jolly game and that's very different indeed."
"You shall get a reputation," Derek said, pouring the tea into his cup. Derek always had loved tea and drank as much of it as was offered. He drank it as was with no milk or lemon, or even sugar, just strong and black.
"I have a reputation," Stiles answered, his entire tone was blithe as if he did not care. "I am a darling of society because I am witty and charming and am a dear friend of the infamous Vidama Whittemore who throws the best parties, although no one wants to court her, no matter how wealthy she is."
"I am a little disappointed that you did not bring her with you today," Talia said, "Lydia is such a darling."
"She was feeling under the weather today, she was a little free with the hot wine in the Gardens last night, and it never agrees with her the next day," Stiles said, "why someday she might even feel up to a ride with me in the morning."
Talia laughed as if that was a fine joke indeed. "You must tell her that I asked after her, it has been too long since she came to call, and when Marianne arrives I know that she will be eager to see her."
"I had thought that that would be a friendship that you would not care to see furthered," Stiles was enjoying the conversation and Peter could not help but notice how lovely he was in animation. He did not sit still, he waved around his teacup so that the tea inside slopped over the sides and down his hand. When the hot liquid caught his skin he put the cup down and put the hurt finger in his mouth, and realising that Peter was watching him he quirked up and eyebrow, one that was sculpted and shaped.
Stiles did not look like he was aware of his beauty but someone dressed him who was, and he was beautiful. He had light peach skin, a fine clear forehead, and his hair was a mass of loose almost curls, the sort that many sought to recreate with hot curling irons and pins. It looked like he had had his hair braided for his ride and had, in the journey to the Hale home, unbraided it and scrubbed his hands through it to loosen it.
He wore riding habits in the Prussian military style with Stevenson jackets that ended at his waist and were fronted with thick braiding in an elaborate pattern that was split by the opening of the jacket. This one had a high Mandarin style collar and was a deep forest green with black braiding, and he wore the sort of pants more commonly accepted for an alpha, which were tight to his thighs and ended at the ankle, under his boots. He wore hunting boots with a brown trim which told those who hunted that he knew exactly how to manage his horse and the hunt.
It was also unique enough to be strange for an omega to hunt, never mind hold a rank in the hunt high enough to allow a brown trim on his boots. He also counted on the alphas that he raced for stakes in Regent's Park to be unaware of this.
Stiles knew that Peter found him attractive and Peter could see him thinking and he wasn't sure that he liked it. It started to scare him a little.
Stiles put down his tea and turned to Talia, "I think I'm going to have to stop drinking tea when it's so hot," he said, "I know that omega feel the cold but that doesn't mean I should douse myself in hot water."
"It is a waste of good tea," he said, "and tea is too expensive to do so," it was rare that Derek was impish, he was witty but he had amazing timing where a single quip could utterly undo a person. It was made more devastating by the fact that Derek was naturally quiet and despite being a very large man, standing six foot tall and as broad as a dock worker, he had the ability to be overlooked. "Perhaps hot champagne instead," Derek was wicked indeed, for he knew his uncle's taste for champagne, and the image of the liquid pouring over the soft skin, flecked with beauty marks, and the bubbles tickling in the creases, chased up with a clever tongue.
"But, nephew," Stiles said with mock affront, using the nomenclature to make himself seem older and wiser and the word made Talia snicker to herself, "you know that it's not proper for omega to drink champagne," he said, "and it would make me all sticky."
Talia nearly spat out the tea that she had just taken, bringing a napkin to her mouth to cover it but her eyes blinked trying to laugh and not choke or spray them with tea. It would not be done for one of the premier peers of the realm to spray tea like a fountain, even among family.
"Can you imagine the furore if people found that I had been bathing in champagne, the alphas of London would swarm me like flies," he said.
"They already do," Talia said, making sure to watch her brother's reaction, "last I heard you had a queue of people who come to watch you dress."
Peter, who had been toying with a sweet biscuit in his hand snapped it hard with a loud crack at that.
The dressing of omega peers was a rather sexless activity that was open to invited guests. The omega had a dressing room where a few people would join them as they dressed, they were already modestly covered but conversation, along with a serving of wine, tea or other hors d'ouevres as they dressed behind a screen and had their hair styled.
With Stiles spending most of the morning riding he would be dressed for most of the day, in the early afternoon, for calling on or recieving guests which would be a suit of an expensive but not elaborate design - omegas could change outfits upwards of five times a day - and the act of choosing that outfit was a public affair. Not all omega did it, and it was considered a little old fashioned. Very few modern alphas liked to share their omega in that way so learning that Stiles had started the practice in Peter's absence did not amuse Peter.
He was waiting on Peter complaining about it. Peter could see it on his face, watching Peter's expression as if daring him to complain.
The alphas of London were swarming his omega - he did not like it. He had not thought that he was possessive, and Stiles was a stranger, but some primal, animal part of him, something he had never really encountered before, wanted to hurt and rend and stand over Stiles and shout MINE. And he didn't like that part of himself, and he knew full well that Stiles would not like it. Talia would send him to India if he started calling out every alpha who so much as looked at the omega she had chosen for him.
But there was an intimacy in watching someone dress, even if it was choosing pants to go on over braies, and a vest to go over a shirt.
Peter did not like it - at all.
He was aware that he did not like it and did not like that he did not like it.
So he shoved the biscuit into his mouth and chewed so he would not say anything.
Talia noticed him with the biscuit but said nothing, just smiled in that infuriating way that she had when she had found something that she knew she could use later to her benefit. Peter continued to chew mechanically, unable to taste the biscuit in his mouth.
"Of course if I didn't dress like that I would be the laughing stock, I have a valet, of course," everyone agreed with that with a nod like of course he had a valet, "and a modiste, but I apparently have no sense of style. I bought this lovely red velvet frock embroidered with little gold foxgloves but apparently it makes my hips look as wide as a milk cow, and that isn't a look that people like. For some reason walking around with hips as wide as a milk cow isn't considered attractive."
"I think the opposite is true," Derek said, "good child bearing hips are such a virtue in an omega. It sounds like they lied so that the other half of London wasn't staring at your hips and imagining you heavy with their child. There is little an alpha likes more than evidence of virility, and those wide hips would give them something to hold on to, it's why omega skirts are so wide." He said this in a way that was utterly matter of fact, as if it was a truth that everyone knew and was not designed to make Peter growl because this omega was his.
Alphas weren't usually susceptible to these instincts, although they were there all of the time, if he was being struck this powerfully it meant that Stiles was in heat, and both Talia and Derek knew it and whilst they were struck with the urge to please him they weren't overwhelmed to the point that they wanted to fight every alpha who ever came near him.
And Stiles, judging by his expression, knew it as well. "But I have such narrow hips, I must make up for it with long thighs or I would look like a beta with my shoulders," he said, licking his lips in a way that had to be deliberately provocative. It had to be.
He was absolutely in control of the situtation, even if it looked like he was just pleasantly maintaining conversation and eating all of the Sally Lunns.
Peter knew this was not going to end well for him, he just didn't know how it was going to happen, but he knew that Stiles would be it's executor.
A Sally Lunn is a very light slightly sweet bun, sort of like a very large slightly sweet bread roll, it's made with yeast but it's not a fortified dough in the traditional fashion, they're yummy and not difficult to make
they were often served toasted with a thick covering of butter, but even just picking them apart and eating them as is works as well
think good white bread but better
in the Regency period they were ALL the rage in Bath where a single bakery still holds Sally Lunn's original recipe, but everyone had their own recipe, so Mrs Haversham's recipe would be different from Stiles' own cook,
After lunch, Peter was in a mood. He could not have easily defined the mood that he was suffering but he was certainly in one. He excused Derek at the door to the hotel and went to the club where he played several games of billiards hoping to clear his head.
He was disconsolate and angry and disgusted and actually a little nauseous. He picked at a fine dinner, he ignored a glass of exquisite wine and actually, on his return to the hotel, walked past his favorite brothel, even though the Madame was outside smoking her pipe and recognized him.
She offered him a discount as a welcome back but was then offended when he said no, saying some rather unflattering things about European whores and how they were not nearly as fine as those in London. He assured her that she was quite correct however he was out of sorts and it was not the sort of out of sorts that could be solved with a willing young body.
She countered that they had fine spirits too but he just laughed and stood with her whilst she finished off her pipe. He had always enjoyed her company and her fine conversation. She had trained her whores well so that they were as educated as she could make them, so they were as expensive for their skill in conversation as their skill in bedplay.
When he left he pressed a guinea into her hands that she think of him fondly, and she pressed a kiss on his cheek, leaving behind a smear of her rouge.
On his arrival back into the suite of rooms that he had taken with his nephew Derek was sitting down to a fine dinner of roast beef and vegetables with red wine. On seeing it his stomach growled as if he had not already eaten, for although he had picked at the food he had cleared his plate, and he had eaten mechanically at lunch with his sister, but on seeing the meat on Derek's plate he was suddenly ravenous.
Derek's hand closed around the knife in his hand when he looked at his uncle, "really?" he asked, and looked even more disappointed than usual.
Peter was a little baffled by this until Derek gestured at his cheek with the back of his hand and he checked his reflection in the peer glass over the fire. Although it was dark out the room was brightly lit with a myriad of lamps set to full on surfaces around the room, creating pools of warmth around the room despite the white paneling with it's silver painted trim. There was a merry fire in the grate with coal keeping the room warm and mostly scent free - the smell of Derek's supper was divine and worked exquisitely with the burning lamp oil. So it was easy enough to see the smeared red rouge on his cheek.
"An old friend, I stood with her in the lea of her building, she kissed me farewell, nothing more," Peter said, before he sat down he took a glass from one of the cabinets and poured himself a glass. "She offered," he admitted, "but I refused."
"It is not like you to deny yourself the pleasures that you want," Derek said, and then took a large lump of the beef on his fork and into his mouth. It truly looked delicious. Peter had eaten pork rolled around pureed winter apples and raisins and then cooked on a spit before being served with turnip mash and a mustard gravy. His club had excellent food and it had not lost their excellent cook in his absence. He had cleared his plate he should not be lusting over Derek's supper so securely.
"I am in a mood," Peter said, in the usual manner that Derek had once said most resembled a small child arguing with their nurse.
"I shall alert the times, they can run with it in the morning, I can see the headline now." Derek had never had the patience for Peter's moods.
"There is no need to be glib," Peter said, Derek raised an eyebrow and kept on chewing. His supper looked delicious and he was tempted to steal some of the roasted carrot strips.
"You are feeling sorry for yourself to the extent that I half expect you to throw yourself on your fainting couch and pressing the back of your hand to your forehead and declaring the humanity of it." Derek wasn't wrong in what he said but it wasn't the totality of it either. "You have discovered that the child bride you've spent the last ten years willfully ignoring exists has turned into someone you find attractive and because you have spent the last ten years willfully ignoring his existence he wants nothing to do with you and your pride is hurt." He cut into the beef showing the pink middle.
"Your supper looks magnificent," Peter said, "do you know if the kitchens are still open?" he wasn't changing the subject, even if Derek was going to accuse him of it, when he stood up and called for a staff member, placing an order for a beef supper.
"You are insufferable," Derek said instead, "and Mother is right, you should move into the house in Grosvenor Place as soon as you have the opportunity. I don't think that Stiles will allow you in his bedchamber but you will have a bedchamber of your own and you can make attempts to apologize. I have been the victim of your apologies, I am sure with practice that you might be able to convince him."
Derek took another bite of beef, chewed and swallowed before he continued. "Or you could grant him a divorce."
Had Peter something in his hand he would have broken it.
Having an anullment or a divorce would not be shameful to Peter, it would not necessarily reflect well on Stiles, depending on the reason given, and that he would have to go to court - the annulment would easier to gain with Talia's backing. He could write off the marriage, give Stiles an allowance, possibly the house in Grosvenor Place - which Peter had never seen - and continue on his way. It was possible that Talia would extort from him the promise to take colors and move to India or the Peninsula. It would more likely be India for Talia did not wish him to die, and in India, he could find a woman or body servant that he liked better.
It would mean going crawling to Talia which he did not want to do, and accepting that he was unable to fulfill the little that she had asked of him. She would be disappointed and she was awful when she was disappointed, worse Marianne would be disappointed and that would make Peter feel positively awful because Marianne was a saint in her disappointment. She would sigh and agree that it was for the best and that she would do her best to support him, folding her hands in her lap and then smoothing out her frizzy blonde hair and going "oh Peter," in her soft, sad way.
When Talia was disappointed Peter had a tendency to stand his ground. When Marianne was disappointed Peter wanted to reverse the clock and make it so that he had not done the thing that made her disappointed in him.
"Come now, nephew, like your mother will allow that," Peter said trying to look as if he was not bothered by the very suggestion and his inability to allow it was entirely Talia's fault and not his own nature. Peter had never cared for failure. He was an English gentleman. The entire world was his for the taking and the world knew it, and the only person it seemed that did not acknowledge it was the mouthy little omega that his sister had married him to.
He might not have been so affronted by the whole situation, which was another of the complicated mess of emotions that he was suffering through like an alpha on the verge of their first rut, if he had not found the boy so damned attractive and the boy was not so adamant that he would not share Peter's bed.
Had the boy simply acceded to the marriage, and when they had met introduced himself as Mischief, instead of Stiles which was a name that Peter did not recognize, and told Peter that they were married and meekly agreed to give Peter his husbandly rights Peter would not be so flummoxed by the creature.
If the boy had just flirted back perhaps.
Then he had sat in Talia's private sitting room more comfortably than Peter himself and dazzled and made it clear that he was everything Peter could want and would never have.
"You blame my mother for many things that are your own fault," Derek said, finishing his supper and pushing away the plate, "but there are times you also blamed me, for letting you do a thing I advised you not to do, or I flat out told you not to do. You are not a bad man, Peter, but you are not good at admitting your own faults."
Derek was correct, Peter was not a bad man, for an English gentleman he was something of a saint. He did not bilk his suppliers, always paid his bills on time, if not early, he never pressed his suit where he was rejected, and certainly did not force his attentions regardless. He enjoyed flirting and the affections that came of it, but never resorted to violence, except when it was absolutely necessary. He had fought, pinked and been pinked in duels. He didn't drink to excess or gamble beyond his means. He had a tendency to arrogance and the self-assured belief that he was right and it was the world that was wrong. Although he was not overly talented he was skilled in two ways, he had an ear for languages that allowed him to learn them quickly, and he had a very fine and skilled seat upon a horse.
Unlike many of his fellows he did not demand and react like a wounded beast if refused, he asked and if refused accepted it with good humor, whether it was the affections of a plump milkmaid or a fine piece of horseflesh. He listened to Derek but so much of his advice was stulted and boring for Derek preferred his bed empty that he might get a good night's sleep than eschewing sleep to give a willing lover shared pleasures. Derek was more of an aesthete who did not over abuse his pleasures so that they were finer when he did. He had his solicitor do many philanthropic acts on his behalf that he might share his good fortune. Yet it was Derek that people considered a truly good man.
"I shall have to leave you to consider such things," Derek said, "for I have ordered a bath and a brick between my blankets. I have plans for tomorrow and desire to be well rested, so if you are content to throw your tantrum in silence I am not overly concerned. I can't imagine you'll destroy the room or make enough noise to disturb me, after all, it will be Stiles who will be signing any bills that are sent to the family."
He stood up, swallowed the last of his wine and went into the private bedroom that was his own, with their shared valet following him so that he could attend him in his bath. It was likely that when the two separated that the valet would accompany Derek, who after all was an easier employer.
Clearly, Peter was given to histrionics. And occasionally needing to be rescued from outside windows to the extent that their carriage had a ladder on it.
Still, in his distemper, Peter ate the fine supper that was served him by the hotel staff, and then followed his nephew's example of a hot bath and then bed.
He was woken before he was ready to wake by the hotel staff knocking upon the door with a steady rapping. Pulling a dressing gown on he answered the door, noting that Derek and their man were clearly out if he was being awoken in order to open the door, but not awake enough to be able to question why or make a guess as to where he might be.
"My lord," the footman said making a point not to look at him, "there is a carriage here for you."
Peter made a noise that might have been a question but he wasn't quite awake enough to actually vocalize into words.
"It has the Hale crest," the footman said. "It has the proper credentials, we thought," he paused, "I mean, shall I send it away?"
Peter had enough thought in his head to realize that it was probably Talia who had sent the carriage and if she was summoning him he had better attend. He had already angered her enough for one week, so giving in now would be a small victory he could allow her. "Tell them I'll be there within the hour, I merely need to dress. And have some coffee sent to the room, I think I'm going to need it."
Peter dressed quickly and eschewed the offer of the hotel footman to help him dress, wrapping his cravatte around his wrist that he not forget it and could fashion it in the carriage. He had, after all, spent ten years traveling, he had dressed in many a carriage. The hotel allowed him to take the pot of coffee, which was not served in a silver carafe, in the carriage, secure in the knowledge that if he did abscond with it or damage it the Hale family would pay over the odds for its loss. Peter didn't care, he just needed the coffee right then.
Fascinated as he was throughout the journey by the coffee, which was served in his favoured fashion, thick as tar and twice as sweet, and in huge amounts, so he did not notice that the carriage did not take him to Temple Church where Talia lived and instead took him to Grosvenor Place, or that he had not fastened his neckerchief.
Grosvenor Place was amongst the finest and most fashionable addresses in London, being in the space between Hyde Park gardens and the Buckingham Palace gardens, and were close enough to the Royal Mews that they might as well be part of the Palace estate but were owned by members of society. It was very rare that one of those houses came up for sale but it was to an address there that Peter was taken and the driver, a tall beta in a fine winter coat and a headful of brownish blonde curls, making him look like a statue of an angel in a Romanesque Church.
As Peter climbed down, leaving his coffee behind with a pang of regret, for three cups was clearly not enough for what was coming, the glossy black door opened and a female alpha in a staid black dress stood there, "My Lord," she said with entirely the proper amount of deference, "if you would follow me." She was a plain woman with light brown hair neatly tied back in a tight braid that tugged on the skin of her brow, and an expression of such calm that it looked like she was controlling her opinion to such an extent that she had frozen her facial muscles in place. She was clearly the butler. "I am Mrs. Finch, if you would follow me," she introduced herself as Peter stepped into the entrance hall, which was, as suited the address, a large room in its own right with chairs against the wall and a large peer glass over a table on which was a large spray of hothouse flowers in a Chinoiserie vase. There was a large cream colored Aubusson rug on the marble floor.
The foyer led into an open oval-shaped hall with doorways leading from it, but without explaining where things were Finch led him through a single door to a staircase which he ascended. The stairwell curved along the outer wall where a large glass window was set showing the road, and up the stairs. Here the walls were fashionably painted a pale cream and trimmed in gold and there were thick red wool carpets on the dark wood of the floorboards. It was, Peter had to admit, a beautiful house. Opening one door to reveal a dark snug with dark panelling on the walls and a large fireplace, with red velvet couches arranged around a small table and a lap loom used for embroidery, again the wooden floorboards were covered in thick carpets but these seemed a little more worn and there was a lamp lit to combat the thin winter light that was coming in through the windows.
It was the sort of room that was at its best on winter nights when it was warm and close and full of lamps. It was also clearly the room that was most inhabited, and was the chosen sitting room of the inhabitants.
"My Lord," the omega, Lydia, said standing. She wore a black chemise a'la reine and her hair was caught in a knot at the back of her neck. She was not dressed in any way for company. "Thank you for accepting my invitation."
Peter, not sure what to say to the vidama despite his perfect manners, turned to Finch and ordered more Turkish coffee.
"Vidama," he said almost collapsing into one of the couches. It was pleasantly overfilled so it made a sound like an exhale when it took his weight. "I should inform you that this is hours before I would normally wake and so you should not expect much from my conversation."
She moved her head, "I invited you here because it is the time that Stiles," she used the same nickname for him that Derek had used, "is out riding, he will not be back until early afternoon, that gives me some time to talk to you without interruption."
"You could have come to the hotel," he said, but knew that she could not, what reputation that he had retained through her widowhood would have been destroyed if she was shown visiting a hotel with no intent to stay there and unaccompanied by a chaperone, especially when her infamy included that she lived in London. An unmarried omega visiting a hotel alone in the town where she lived, why the gossips would be besides themselves to share the information.
She didn't bother to grace that suggestion with a reply. Behind her, placed against the wall, was a large Japanned cabinet trimmed in gold. It was a beautiful piece of furniture that looked somewhat familiar but did not suit any of the rooms that he had seen. It was clear that they could not remove the cabinet for some reason but did not want to showcase it despite that it was a well made and beautiful cabinet. Noticing that he was looking around the room she looked over her shoulder and made a derisive laughing sound, before she stood up.
Her chemise was fine enough that it seemed to float when she moved. A chemise a'la Reine was a massively oversized open robe of fine muslin cotton that was gathered at the neck, where it tied, a second gathering under the breasts where it tied, and cinched in with a sash or bow at the waist over another tie. Other than that it was open. It was only the gathering of the fabric that prevented it being sheer. It had a large loose collar that fell around the gathered fabric. They were almost scandalous and omega did not tend to wear them when they left the house or were expecting guests but they must have been comfortable for given the opportunity female omega would choose a chemise a'la reine over a gown every time. Most wore a shirt underneath it and as she walked to the cabinet he saw a flash of white where the black muslin was split. She paired it with a heavy red kashmiri shawl.
It was only because the omega queen of France, Marie Antoinette, favoured the chemise that people dared to wear them at all. They were very popular amongst female omega and often they would wear them in lieu of a dressing gown or banyan.
"This was a gift," Lydia said calmly walking to the cabinet, "from you. Stiles was delighted, it arrived on his seventeenth birthday, he felt validated and cherished. Right until he opened it," she opened the doors to reveal a miniature house inside, all of the rooms laid out and ready to be set with furniture. It was of as fine construction as the cabinet and clearly showed great cost, there was a chandelier which seemed to be made of real gold, but no attempt had been made to furnish it.
"There he was, feeling grown up for the first time in his life, he had come out to the queen and was ready for his first London season although he would never be a blanc, and then this arrives: a child's toy."
Peter wanted to point out that the point of that toy was to learn to manage a household, and that it showed that he was thinking of the boy, but it had been luck it arrived on his birthday, and it had been luck that Peter had seen the cabinet, almost certainly had not looked inside, and ordered it for Talia's children most likely. "He bought this house the next day," she continued, "convinced that if you were so determined to have him dress a house it might as well be one he could live in."
So, he had bought a house in one of the finest addresses in London for spite. Peter could appreciate that. He had also, from the little that Peter had seen of the house, clearly decorated it well. For a moment Peter wondered who had paid for it, but then shrugged it off, even if the boy had used Peter's own wealth he could easily afford it. He had thirty thousand a year from his estates and his investments brought in far more, and even if he had spent all of his wealth he knew that Talia would financially support him, even if meant buying him colors and sending him to India.
"He has kept every gift that you've sent him," she continued, "even those he wanted to smash into pieces and throw on the fire."
The way she said it, without malice and with a hint of sadness, struck Peter like a blow. He had always seen the boy as an impediment, another way that Talia was determined to control him and his life, and exert her alphahood all over him. He had seen the boy not as a person but as a thing and that was unfair, and Peter was willing to admit that in doing that he had done the boy wrong.
And the boy's revenge was in petty ways like the very expensive house in a very prestigious address that he decorated beautifully.
Peter also suspected that allowing the Widow Whittemore to live in the house was one of those petty rebellions. He had no doubt that she shared the house, and she was the one who used the Hale coach to fetch him.
"I should have written to him," Peter admitted.
"I do not know why you are telling me that," she said, "I am not the one you need to apologize to, my lord, I am his bosom companion, not his upset."
"Then why have you sent for me?" Peter asked. "Hours before I am due to rise." Peter admitted that he did keep sticking on that upset.
"I wished to see you," she said, "without your family and your nephew, for Derek has spoken well of you despite your own silence. You have broken Stiles' heart a hundred times over whilst you were away and then you did not recognize him in Vauxhall Gardens, breaking his heart all over. I wished to look you in the eyes and hope to understand. I wanted to know if I would help or hinder your cause, for if you intend to hurt him further I shall make your life a living hell," there was a gravel in her voice that had turned to a steel edge, "but if you attempt to make amends I shall not interfere."
At that Finch entered with a tray, containing both a silver carafe of coffee and one of chocolate and two small porcelain cups shaped like seashells, placing the tray on the small table between them. "You should move into the house," Lydia said, "I shall inform Stiles he is to refuse any more bills from your hotel, you can pay your bill in full and then return here. After all there is no need for the expense. You shall have your own chamber, of course," he nodded, "but you shall find Stiles' locked to your entry, and my own, of course."
"Of course," he conceded.
"After all you are a lord of the realm, people will wonder if you and Stiles have argued if you continue your lodgings at the hotel, and you shall not ruin his reputation further," she turned to Finch who stood at the door awaiting further instruction, "his lordship will require aid moving into his rooms, if you could ask Isaac and Corey to help him with his things."
Peter didn't have room to argue. She had made provision for him to move into the house and he there was no point that he could make that would not sound like whining. As he poured his coffee, which was thinner than he cared for it, the liquid splashed up onto the white cravatte wrapped around his wrist and so flummoxed was he by the entire encounter he spent long moments staring at the stain.
"When you are ready, my lord" Finch said with a bow of the head before she left the room, "there is a bell pull that you can use to summon me, and I shall give you a tour of the house." And that, Peter discovered, was that.
During the time that Peter was moved into his house on Grosvenor Place, whether he wished to be or not, by Mrs Finch's rather amazing utility - enough that Peter commented that she should be employed by the British Army and that she would have the entire Peninsula War solved by Christmas - Derek took their hired carriage out of London in order to visit an old friend further up the river. He had considered hiring a boat but decided it would take as long as the carriage and at least in the carriage he would not be forced to make small talk.
He had informed his friend of his intention to visit within the week so he was sure he would be expected and although it meant spending most of the day in his carriage, spending the night at his friends, where he would share conversation, then leaving late the next day to return to London. This meant he avoided most of Peter's sulking and tantrums, for he did not know that Peter had been moved out of the hotel.
His friend, Alexander Lightwood, of the Northampton Lightwoods, was a friend from university who, to escape an overbearing mother, had bought himself colors and spent six of the previous years assisting with the war effort in Russia. He and Derek had shared long correspondence and Derek was eager to spend time in his company for although the two were not much given to conversation they enjoyed each other's company and would share long walks in the area around Lightwood's country house. It was a small house, with only six bedrooms and only two members of staff but Alexander, most commonly called Alec, said it suited him very well indeed, and Derek was most eager to see him again.
Perhaps an hour's journey from the Lightwood house, Longbourn, one of the horses which drew the carriage seemed to develop a limp and his man advised him, with the usual blunt deference, that she probably just needed some salve rubbed in to loosen the muscles or she had a stone under a shoe, and there was an inn up ahead where he could manage it, and failing that trade her out for a hireling to finish the journey.
Derek was used to such delays having been travelling for ten years and so took the excuse to stretch his legs and possibly see if the inn had ale worth drinking. It was still relatively early, barely in the afternoon according to his full hunter pocket watch, and the inn was perfectly regular, of the sort that peppered England like fleas. He was sure it was called something like The Green Man or the Red Lion and that the innkeeper's wife would most certainly offer him a private room, at a cost of course, for him to take some luncheon.
Not bothering to even note the appearance of the place Derek accepted a cup of hot ale, and a plate of what they claimed to be pork stew, graciously, knowing from experience he could be there for upwards of an hour and he could not help but be polite. He could afford the food easily, even with the loose change he kept on his person without having to take any from the heavy purse his man, Graistan, carried for him.
The hot ale was appreciated for he had not realised how cold he was, tucked up in the carriage it had not been as obvious that it was biting cold, buried as he was in rugs with the curtains closed against the wind, but it warmed his throat and belly and felt delicious in his hands.
With that little amount of heat to defrost him from the long journey through the icy London streets, and then the frosty countryside, it stirred within him the need to relieve himself, even as he moved his spoon around the pewter bowl, the stew was more vegetables than meat, and what meat there was tended to gristle, so he put up with it for a few minutes before deciding he would not bother with the stew and just visit the pisoir.
Most inns, especially those with a coach yard, had a large public pisoir, a fence over a trench for the gentlemen to piss against, and on the other side of the fence a wider trench for the ladies to squat over. If the inn was considered particularly fine then the area was paved with metal grating over the trenches and the fence was replaced with stone, and the entire area was enclosed, Derek had even seen one with a roof once.
If anything other than a piss was needed it was polite to ask for a chamber pot and then one's own man would empty it, or in most cases the carriage would stop beside a particularly large bush where their efforts would be private, before they could continue on their journey. In their years of travel Derek learned it was best to visit the chamberpot first thing in the morning, before they set off in the carriage, and if he needed to again, it was best to hold it. A quick piss beside the roadside was something everyone had done at some point, anything else suggested illness or having eaten something the night before that soured the stomach. And most of the nobility had, at one point or another, vomitted beside carriages.
This early in the day he could not imagine that there would be a queue, and was relieved to find that there was not, he took care of the necessary quickly, and used a bowl of clean looking water in a nearby tub to wash his hands, although he might have been the only man to visit the coach house who did, and was returning to the inn to await Graistan telling him that he could continue his journey when he became aware of the commotion.
Being a gentleman the sound of a truly impressive volley of curse words and insults in a woman's voice attracted his attention, for he had always found that the women in his life had never wanted to sully themselves and there were gutters in London's East End that were less foul than the woman's vocabulary and what he came across when he finally encountered her had him automatically go for his fruit knife, which he wore tucked into the pocket of his vest.
A large and drunken alpha, not one of great wealth judging by his clothes was attempting to grope a young omega, the woman of the expressive vocabularly whilst she battered him over the head with her reticule and the alpha that she was obviously with, a tall foppish man with a flop of black curly hair and a need to decide if he was going to shave or grow a beard, in a white coat was holding his handkerchief to his nose and tilting his head forward.
"Might I be of some assistance?" Derek asked, for it was obvious what was happening, the omega, a dark skinned girl in a pale yellow and white dress under a thick dark red velvet cloak, had been travelling with the fop, whose jacket matched her gown, when the offending alpha had decided he was more manly than her protector and the fracas had started.
"Do you think I need your help?" the omega said, grabbing her assailant by the pinkie finger and twisting hard so that the man fell to his knees on the frozen ground.
"I didn't think you'd want to ruin your reticule," Derek told her, "I have a whip in my carriage if you think it would achieve the same effect." The omega was beautiful, with a soft dark mouth rouged the colour of wine, and black eyes. Her hair was a dark honey colour of brown and she could not have stood taller than his shoulder, certainly no more than five foot tall. Her riding habit was expensive but not so much that it would look out of place on a journey, and judging by her bonnet and cape she was on her way to London for the winter season.
"I'm not going to fuck you," she said and took the opportunity to kick her attacker square in the genitals, "any more than this fucking pig fucker," despite the way that the alpha crumpled, her cherry red leather boots did look to be quite solid and the kick delivered with the top of her foot and up in a way that made Derek want to wince, "so don't fucking try anything, Eliot, you good?"
Her alpha mumbled something under his kerchief that could have been assent.
Derek could not help but grin at her. She was as tiny as she was fierce and he was pretty sure that he did offend her in any way she would take the fruit knife from his pocket and murder him in such a way that it left no mark on her dress. She was amazing in a way he had not expected omegas could be.
Omegas were witty and charming and could be vicious, but it was always a controlled detonation of anger best served to destroy their opponent, he could not imagine any of the omega that he had known in his life using the distraction to grab a pinkie hold to bring down an alpha who must weigh a hundred pounds on them and then floor them with a groin kick that was hard enough it probably turned her assailant from an alpha into an omega.
Derek was quite surprised that when they went back into the common room that the two elected to sit with him. She allowed Derek to pull out a chair for him and called over the innkeeper with a snap of her fingers, and her posture was measured and stiff as she did it. Her hair was gathered under a small black tricorn trimmed in fur that had been dyed dark red and gathered into a tail at the nape of her neck with a ribbon which like her hat matched her cloak. Her companion, who she had called Eliot, was wearing a great coat that matched her outfit and was still holding a lace kerchief to his nose which was still streaming. It seemed that he had attempted to rescue the omega before Derek had, and Derek was alpha enough to admit that the only reason that his intervention had allowed her to rescue herself.
When the innkeeper came over Derek told her what had happened and ordered some brandy, to fortify her nerves and to steady her companion, and was pleased when the innkeeper did send several young, and large, betas to deal with the man before he brought over the jug, calling Derek "your lordship."
The omega, who was yet to introduce herself, raised a perfect eyebrow at that, from his wardrobe she had gathered that he was wealthy, but he could tell the same from hers.
"Derek Hale," he introduced himself, offering her his hand to shake, "Lord only by virtue of birth, with no other title to call my own," he left it open for them to introduce themselves.
"Margot Hanson," the omega said, "vidama, obviously," she picked up the cup and emptied it in a single swallow without a single reaction to the alcohol, before pouring herself another, "and this is Eliot Waugh, heir to the Waugh Baronetcy."
"Your betrothed, vidama?" Derek asked politely, both of them burst out laughing, the fop, Eliot Waugh, nearly spraying them all in brandy. He was a handsome man, and despite his height, he had several inches on Derek who himself stood six foot tall, he had a way of making himself seem very small, he slouched in his chair and tilted his head down in a way that was both simultaneously mocking and shy. It was a rare combination.
"He is my guardian," the vidama said.
"Where is your chaperone?" Derek asked, for it was very irregular that she travel unaccompanied with an alpha, even her guardian. If he was unmarried she could be ruined, and although Derek himself did not care if she was, he knew it would make her life incredibly difficult.
"Todd," Vidama Hanson said, "that pustulant little cunt lip pimple," and that was the most polite thing she had to say about him. She revealed, through conversation foul mouthed enough that a London fishmonger's wife might have blushed, that she had inherited the boy's service and despite that he was utterly useless at his job. He had managed, whilst they stopped off, instead of having the carriage brought around so that the horses could have a feed bag he had managed, somehow, to convince the driver that they were onboard and had left them behind, and then when Vidama Hanson went to fetch Eliot that she might vent her temper, which was clearly best done in private conversation. It was then that the alpha decided to pursue her obvious wealth and met the vamp of her boot intimately.
It was then that Derek entered the story.
Waugh revealed, at some point, after a few glasses of brandy, as he wiped the blood from his face with the corner of his kerchief dipped in the liquor, that Vidama Hanson was his ward and that he had taken her into his household after her parents refused to host a season for her. The two were old family friends and he affectionately called her Daisy, which in French was Marguerite which came from Margaret too.
The two were as close as siblings, and the two enjoyed the London season and were, along with one other omega, the hosts that were the most envied. This was said not with confidence, or even arrogance, but the calm assurance of someone explaining that water was wet, and that after their first season they and the widow Whittemore had agreed that rather than compete that they would simply not arrange their festivities at the same time.
Derek found himself engaged in conversation telling them of his journeys with Peter through Europe and the time started to fly by until Graistan came in to tell them that the horse would be okay to draw as one of a coach and four if they didn't push them hard, but a few days rest at Longbourn would do her a world of good. Derek surprised himself again, for he was not one of those people who were at ease in conversation. He had always had Peter for such things. Yet he openly reached across the table and invited the two of them, strangers only hours before, to stay with his friend in Longbourn until they could get their matters in hand, which Derek clearly understood was that Margot would get Todd's balls in hand and squeeze.
Peter decided that despite it's inhabitants he would like the Grosvenor place house. It was well appointed, conveniently located, and best of all had a dumb waiter in the bathroom to carry up steaming hot water from the stove. The room that Lydia, as she insisted that he call her as they were almost family after all, led him to was the master bedroom, which surprised him. He had expected to be taken to one of the attic rooms for servants at worst or guest bedrooms at best. Instead the room was large, overlooked the gardens and had it's own fixed bathroom where a grate under the large copper bath allowed it to be easily emptied, and a fire place. The dumb waiter was a delightful discovery as it meant he could have his baths the way that he prefered, piping hot, not impeded by the geography of the house. No matter the intent of the servants water got cold when it was carried up at least one, although in this case two, flights of stairs.
He had a large canopied bed, two large couches, a full vanity, which was not common for men in society who, with modern fashion, rarely wore as much make up as their grandfathers had, a barber's chair on wheels that was set against the wall and one of the walls was almost entirely with peer glass between the shuttered windows. The room was decorated in a lovely robin's egg blue that was masculine but not overwhelming, and was attractive certainly. It was not necessarily what Peter would have chosen for himself but he saw no reason to change it. The bedding was just as fine, with strips of blue and green velvet making up the counterpane and the hangings were heavy silk.
There was no suggestion that the room was ever allowed to get cold enough to warrant closing the drapes. There was a small commode and counter with a washbowl and jug for his daily toilet and thick rugs on the polished wooden floor.
Had he been introduced the room as a guest he would have been grateful for the room was the sort that people gave to Talia, and not to himself, and Peter had not thought that they would give him any care.
However, it was apparent that Peter had always been a presence in the house, even in his absence.
The double door to Stiles' rooms, which Peter was told he would not be granted access to unless he was invited, and that Boyd would be pleased to enforce that, were facing the double doors of his own rooms and open, showing a pleasant sitting room inside. Lydia had a similar set of rooms that she made clear Peter would never be granted access to, but instead of a sitting room, as cluttered with books and papers as Stiles' was, Lydia's was clearly an office with walls of bookcases filled with trinkets and heavy volumes that should have been in the library - and he had no doubt that there was a library in the house.
Omega were often educated to the highest standard that their parents could afford and although, in the company of alphas, they often pretended to be flitterwitted and insipid, but both Lydia and Stiles clearly loved knowledge and filled their spare hours with its acquisition.
He had been scared, although perhaps he had not been ready to voice even to himself, was that the boy that Talia had chosen for him would be a society flitterwit only interested in fashion and gossip, but his private rooms, what little Peter had seen of them, seemed to be devoted to studying as opposed to fashion.
Peter was used to being the smartest person in the room and he knew it, and almost all of his life he had been surrounded by people who could not keep up with him intellectually so he didn't bother. Why should he exercise his smarts when it gained him nothing. Even those months he had spent with Byron and Shelley had left him bored, but both Lydia and Stiles seemed to enjoy knowledge for the sake of knowledge.
Again Peter had underestimated Stiles simply by virtue of his gender.
Talia had chosen well - not that he would ever tell her that.
He continued his tour of the house, taking note of such things as hidden staircases, which guest rooms had such things as private commodes, where doors connected other rooms etc. He was shown the staircase to the attic where the servants had their own private chambers but with the stern instruction that he had no need to see more for he had no point of being up there.
That done Lydia took him down the stairs in time to see Stiles charge down one of the other staircases wearing a pair of low waisted braies, stockings and a sleeveless lace peignoir tied at his neck and fussing angrily at Boyd who was following behind him with a shawl.
"You!" Stiles said, pointing at Peter as if he was the cause of whatever foul mood that Stiles was suffering from.
Peter did not dignify that with a reaction.
He kept forgetting that the boy was now a man, of four and twenty, and he had grown into his height. When Peter had left for Europe he had been a clumsy collection of joints that did not move the way that they ought. Now he was grown the strange proportions of the camelopard had been replaced with the fine lines and quiet strength of a gazelle. The beauty marks continued down his chest and arms, and a soft stomach was visible under the cotton tie of his braies, his arms and shoulders though were strong and muscular, his shoulders were much wider than Peter had suspected. He would never be a large man with a barrel chest and biceps like oak casks, instead he was long and lean and lovely. Against his best instincts Peter licked his lips.
"His lordship is moving in," Lydia said and reached out to pluck the shawl from Boyd's hands and reaching up, for Stiles stood a single stair above her and towered over her like a giant with the added height, wrapped it around his shoulders. The dark red Kashmiri wool looked fine against his skin. "We discussed this over breakfast, remember, love," she said softly. Although her tone was fond and slightly patronising Peter knew that it was not important that they had discussed it, and it was just as likely that they had not, Lydia would have her way regardless. "It is a terrible show of wealth for a man to have such a fine house and still stay in a hotel, it would cause even more talk."
"Mr Harris can talk as he will," Stiles said and tugged the shawl tight about his shoulders.
"Mr Harris will talk as he will," Lydia corrected as she fussed with the shawl, "and he will, at length, and I take it he was at the park today for your ride."
"You might be a horrible man," Stiles told his husbnad, "but Mr Harris is the devil made flesh. I am sure that he only goes to the park to harangue me, and I do not see what is so unseemly about taking my exercise in the late mornings."
"Knowing Mr Harris," Lydia said, Peter knew better than to get involved in what was clearly a long standing conversation about the evils of the said, Mr Harris,, "he does it entirely to harangue you, you know what a horrid little man he is, he has not forgiven you for slighting him."
"I did not slight him," Stiles protested, "how was I to know he was courting me, he spoke barely three words to me in as many weeks, and then he shows up to ask my father for my hand in marriage when he alone in London did not know that I was already wed." Peter wanted to laugh, he truly did but he said nothing. Part of him was also planning some horrible fate for Mr Harris, perhaps having him disallowed from his favourite club. Peter, and by extension Stiles, was a Hale and the Hales were very powerful, it was entirely possible that although she would deny it Talia ruled England in the place of the mad king and his useless prince regent. She would deny it, of course, after all such bragging was unseemly.
"You are not responsible for the idiocy of alphas who do not listen when they are told that you do not want to dance with them, that you are married, that you are not interested in pursuing a romance and that if they do not remove themselves from your property that they shall be removed." Lydia turned, "be a dear and put some clothes on, love," she said, patting Stiles on the arm twice, "I shall have chocolate sent up to the yellow parlor and we can complain. Unless you have callers coming to help you with your wardrobe."
"I have no engagements this afternoon or evening, I fully intend to climb into uncomfortable and ugly clothes and drink chocolate and red wine and complain about Mr. Harris until I am left speechless." he looked across at Peter, "but you, sir, are not invited."
That said he turned and went back up the stairs with Boyd following behind, cursing under his breath, Stiles that was not Boyd, who had just given a long-suffering sigh that suggested to Peter that if Boyd was not allowed to drink the tea for it's calming properties he might become Peter's ally if Peter offered him free access to the caddy. Tea was expensive, but loyalty was priceless.
"He is angry at you," Lydia said as she showed him to what would be his sitting room, "I don't blame him, but with the season starting," she paused, "be kind, keep your hands to yourself and he might, eventually, forgive you." She moved her head in a way that suggested that she was used to tossing her hair to punctuate her opinions but the way that she had her hair styled meant that she could not. She did not walk as much as glide. "This is your sitting room, or den, or office," she said it flippantly, "for your use, we shall have your solicitor send over any papers that he believes needs your attention, if you need anything to make it more comfortable or suited to your tastes let me know and I shall certainly make sure that you receive it."
"I am not sure if that would be Mrs. Finch's job or Stiles' own." The name still felt strange in his mouth, he had always called him Mischief but he wanted to be called Stiles so Peter would call him that.
"The gossip in this city is insidious," Lydia said and her tone was like marble, cold and untractable, yet not without beauty. "Stiles suffers from your reputation and men like Harris do not make it easier, I am the black widow," she said, "it is well known that those who come to my bed die," her hand flickered to the edge of the shoulder of her gown like she was used to hiding something with the fabric and she was scared in that moment it had come undone, "but he is," she stopped, choosing her words, "those things which are unattractive in a bride are often coveted in a lover," she said, "and he enjoys the attention, if nothing else."
"We all like to be liked," Peter said, aiming for diplomacy.
"Stiles is not liked," Lydia said, "he is desired, he is rich and handsome and enjoys life, and why should he not, so people see him and desire him, they wish to see him under them, especially when they suspect that he is untouched. They want to be the one to touch him. Your return will not change that. What control that Stiles has comes at a cost, he races them because it reminds him that he has power over his own destiny, such as it is. He allows them to come watch him dress for appointments because it makes them think they are in control and they make mistakes he can use against them. Stiles has been at war since he came to London, you hurt him, and you are something else they will use to hurt him." She went to leave, "I take liberties, perhaps, I allow him the freedoms that he needs, I perform those tedious tasks like knowing the upholsterer or the plasterer or the man who paints the stucco, I keep those details." She smoothed her hands over the fabric of her skirts. "It is a task I find soothing and he finds boring, in this house I am the one who performs the role of wife," she smiled sweetly at him, "but i think that we both know what will happen if you tried to make me perform those wifely duties, after all, I have buried the last three men who did."
With that, she turned and walked down the corridor to leave, "oh, and your lordship," she was careful to use his title, at least for now, "I have arranged interviews for you to have a new valet, the applicants will be coming from the agency tomorrow. You might want to make yourself comfortable in your den before then."
The den, as Lydia had called it, was a lovely dark green color with matching velvet upholstery on the two couches sat before the large white marble fireplace, that was taller than he was. There was a peer glass over the mantle, although he did not know why when even a tall man such as himself would have to raise his arm to lean on the mantle. The walls between the windows were covered in bookshelves, filled with what he suspected were decorative only. It was not uncommon to visit a publisher and buy the books that had been returned by booksellers much cheaper than they would be in the booksellers just for the purpose of filling bookshelves to make people look erudite. These books would then be replaced as new books that were chosen to actually be read were bought to take their place.
Between the bookcases, over the white sash windows which faced the streets and the staircase that led to the basement where such rooms as the kitchen, the stores, the laundry and the beerhouse were, were stuffed animals, mostly prey animals like deer, but there was a wild boar. It was possible that Stiles' father, Noah Stilinski, Lord Honiton, had been the one to hunt them.
There was a large desk with leather blotter dominating the room and a second, a secretaire, against the wall behind it which was closed and locked, although Lydia had not given him the key. Finding the bellpull that would summon a servant to build a fire in the grate, there was a coal scuttle, and a fire already set but not lit, but Peter could not find a firestriker to do so himself, and more coffee. Now he was fully awake something to eat was also appealing, although he could not speak, yet to the talent of his staff in the kitchen.
The Lightwood House, Longbourne, was a small country estate near the Thames but far enough from the hubbub of London to be quite rural. It had belonged to a country gentleman who, knowing that he was dying with no obvious heirs, sold it out from the shadow of a grasping cousin who had hoped to take over the property. The Squire had hated the cousin and so had been full of glee when he signed the paper and moved into the only estate cottage with a nurse and his favourite chair. As such the house had been run down and it had taken the three years of his ownership for Lightwood to finally finish it to his satisfaction.
There was what would grow to be an avenue of cedar trees, but for now were just saplings, leading up to the main double door. The entire house was brick with white painted lintels and sash windows, and a path that led around to the pleasure garden at the rear.
Derek had never actually been in this house. It had been purchased after he had left for Europe with Peter and he had been forced to hold Lightwood's hands through the trauma which had led to him buying a house as far from his overbearing Alpha mother as he could before she cut him off from the money he himself had inherited or earned. Derek's mother might have been overbearing but she lacked the tyranny of Maryse Lightwood. So letter by letter Derek had done his best to support his friend in his decisions with the general message that Maryse could go hang.
Lightwood, whilst being as taciturn as Derek in conversation, proved to be quite loquacious when writing letters. He wrote long letters questioning every decision that he made in the house which Derek knew to be his way of avoiding the topic that he really wanted to talk about. Lightwood had a male companion, an omega from the orient who was self sufficient, independently wealthy and exotic, which was all the things that Maryse most hated. She had chosen for Lightwood a pretty, quiet, well connected young omega who Lightwood just could not connect with, and then, forced into marriage by his mother, abandoned at the altar to the scandal of all London, especially as he went "I cannot do this, I'm sorry," and walked over to the omega that he was living scandalously with and kissed him for all to see.
And at the time Derek was in Germany and couldn't take him out drinking to celebrate.
Lightwood, like Derek, did not have a lot of friends, because he seemed stern and angry when he was just shy, and marrying a foreign omega in an elopement to Gretna Green had not redeemed his temper. He had been tolerated in society when they thought their prospective brides might catch his fortune in marriage. He did not miss it and found himself a happy place in the country where he could hunt and grow his roses. His omega continued in business so they did need to be near to London, but seemed quite delighted living outside it where his dark skin did not see him discriminated against.
Derek had never met Lightwood's omega, but he had taken up a correspondence with him being as they shared a mutual hatred of Maryse Lightwood.
Lightwood met the carriage at the door, shouting back to his butler that it didn't matter because he was already at the door and no it didn't matter if it was improper, it was only Lord Hale.
Marriage suited Lightwood, he was tall and lean, his dark hair cut shorter than fashion cared, but it favoured him and his distinctive grey eyes. He was clean-shaven and wore a black superfine with black breeches and riding boots. He looked like he had been about to depart, possibly hunting, when the carriage had arrived and he had recognized the crest when the carriage had passed between the cedars. He stepped down, still shouting to the butler, but now asking for footmen, and to make sure that wine was decanted, and that the pastries were ready.
It was good to see Lightwood so free, he would never have dared if he still lived in his mother's properties.
Derek opened the door and hopped down, accepting the embrace from his friend. Then he admitted that he had collected some guests on the journey if that was well, and as Waugh climbed down Derek offered his arm to help Vidama Hanson to help her descend. As she raised her head under the brim of her bonnet to look at the house the light hit her face and Derek could not but marvel at her beauty.
The sunlight falling through the clouds was truly her element, matching the pale yellow of her dress where it showed under her burgundy cloak, "Mr. Lightwood," she said with a slight curtsey and an appraising glance. Derek was sure that in the same quick once over she knew his lineage, his prospects and the contents of his ledger books. "Lightwood," he started, "may I introduce Vidama."
That was as far as Derek got before she stepped forward offering her hand for Lightwood to kiss.
"Please, call me Margot," she said, "there is no need for us all to be formal, there are no mothers here to chide us for our behaviour," she offered him a shy smile, "and my guardian, Eliot Waugh," Lightwood was a little bowled over by her behaviour which was much more forward than he was expecting from a society omega.
"Vidama," he answered, "Margot, come on inside, all of you, cook has made lunch and you can meet my Mari," Margot did not flinch at the word, in fact she seemed to let out a little tension that Derek had not realised that she had been holding until her shoulders eased slightly. It also surprised Derek that he was looking closely enough that he even noticed. He was not as good at noticing such small gestures as Peter was, although Peter had made sure to school him on how to do it.
It was as if she had realized she didn't have to act, any more than she did with Derek. It was hard to pretend to be a perfect society doll after an alpha had seen you kick another alpha in the groin hard enough to force him to sing soprano.
She softened into herself and it made her lovelier, and he was amazed at how lovely he found her. He was often academically aware of a person's attractiveness but it took a long time before he saw them other than simple physiognomy, it took time for him to recognize laughter or anger in a person's eyes, or in the set of their head. With Margot, it was like he had known her for years, which surprised him.
Lightwood moved out of the way to grant her entrance as Waugh introduced himself, and there was a moment of frisson as Waugh asked Cambridge and Lightwood answered Oxford, he had attended with Derek, and then Waugh moved his head to flick the long managed curl that fell across his forehead to make it look perfectly fuckswept, before he went inside the dark entrance of the home.
Lightwood's house made no pretensions, although beautifully decorated it did not ape the more accepted styles of society houses, the panelled walls or striped wallpapers, in fact each room was painted a solid colour with white trim and dark furniture, some of which was covered in pristine white linen. There were four large armchairs aimed at the fire, which was lit and merry, and heavy multicoloured rugs all over the floor that were clearly from places as distant as Afghanistan with dark colours and angular patterns. There was a footstool in the corner which was a small wooden elephant covered in leather and another animal that Derek did not recognise made of small squares of brightly coloured fabric and rickrack.
The sitting room was very much the heart of a home.
Lightwood's mari was a tall man with broad shoulders, much broader than Derek expected of an omega who tended to willowly, in a shirt of Indian cut and billowing pants gathered at the ankles combined with a pair of wooden soled shoes held on by cloth thongs reaching between his toes and over the top of his feet, that he wore without stockings, revealing the colour painted on his toenails. He was not Indian but more oriental, with thick black hair that he had cut to the scalp on the sides but in a loose flop, not unlike Waugh's, on top and he had thick shadow around his eyes. "Alec, you must introduce us," and his accent suggested an English education.
In his letters Lightwood had told Derek that his omega, Magnus, as the son of an English gentleman, John Bane, and an omega from distant Manila, and Magnus had had an English nurse and education in Manila until his early puberty when his father returned to England because of the growing Spanish influence in the city, leaving his omega behind but taking his son. Although Bane was a wealthy man even an omega child could not gain him access to the upper echelons of society and it was agreed that Magnus would have his coming out with a family friend i his father paid for the expenses of both.
He had been something of an outcast and when his father died he took over his business, which many alphas tried to compromise him for, and so he had started to avoid society, as Lightwood was also avoiding society the two had a lightning romance, at the same time that Maryse had arranged a marriage for her alpha son.
Derek knew him so well but had never actually met him. "I know that I owe at least one of your for my happiness."
"That'll be Hale," Lightwood said, moving over to stand beside his husbnad, careful not to dislodge his glass of wine. Lightwood had worried in his letters that Magnus often relied on wine when he was uncomfortable, using the glass as a prop and distraction, "Come, my love, Hale is my dearest friend in all of the world, I am so glad that at last you can meet." Derek, as uncomfortable in social situations as Lightwood stepped forward and offered Magnus his hand to shake. "And this is Vidama," Lightwood paused clearly having already forgotten the name.
"Hanson," she offered, "Margot Hanson, but between us vesdames, we can surely call each other by name," she was almost leering at Magnus and that too amused Derek. This woman amused him endlessly. She actually delighted him which caught him very much unawares. It normally took a long time for him to be anything other than baffled by people.
Magnus gave an exaggerated look of delight, "Margot the Destroyer, I have wanted to meet you as long as I have wanted to meet Hale, what delights you bring me, my love, how can my distant treats even compare?"
Alec gave his husband a fond look of despair, "I keep telling you, and I know you know, when you hear that someone has an unpleasant cognomen you don't address them as such."
Magnus just went to a small table and poured a sherry glass of a clear liquid from a glass decanter, "between us vesdames, I think you rather like it when people call you that."
She took the glass from him, as their maid appeared to take her coat and bonnet, she had removed her gloves before leaving the carriage, and in a single swallow emptied it, with a lick of her lips she asked "quince?"
"I make it myself from trees on the property," he said waving his hand around his head to gesture the land around them, "shall I show you my still?"
It might have been a surprise but it seemed that Magnus and Margot had built an instant and lifelong friendship based entirely on liquor.
Having eschewed his coat and hat, which the maid had taken with Margot's cape, Waugh went to the counter, "you don't mind, do you?" he asked pouring himself a glass of the eau de vie, "even before the debacle with Todd today has been a liquor and biscuits kind of day."
"Hale," Lightwood said with a beaming grin that Derek didn't believe that he would ever have seen on his friend before, "you always have had the ability to meet the best kinds of people." To Lightwood the best kind of people were those who were social so that he didn't have to be. If someone like Waugh was in the room then no one noticed he and Hale stood in the corner happily sharing no conversation at all. Waugh was a social butterfly, and in the short time that Derek had known him he had realised that the fashionable fop was a front for something broken underneath, if Waugh controlled the conversation then no one could pry into topics that he did not want to broach. Derek only recognised it because of the years of close proximity to Peter, in comparison Waugh looked like a rank amateur. It was entirely possible that his broken glass fragility was designed as much as the foppishness he affected, after all every alpha had their own courting rituals, and it was likely that Waugh's had swayed many a head. Margot's vitriolic and vituperative vocabulary served a similar purpose. Derek would have to inform his uncle, all those years of Peter calling him a bad judge of character and he understood people very well - as long as they were like Peter. And Peter was nowhere near as unique as he thought himself. Magnus won't dominate your vidama's attention for too long, there are pastries set out in the dining room, come eat."
Waugh flicked the curl again, but a soon as he did it fell back across his forehead, but Lightwood continued talking, "and you must tell me about the months you spent with Miss Wollstonecraft, I have read her novel cover to cover several times over. Why just this past September I took it with me out to a blind in the woods where I was waiting on nightfall to chase quail, I do not know why that I was so disappointed when it got too dark to read, I know the story well enough, but your letters speak of her so warmly."
Peter was advised that on this, his first night in his marital home, he would not be expected to dress for supper, and that as long as he turned up no one would really care. Lydia told him in the same perfunctory manner that she had pointed things out in the house that they often had guests but if they did he would be informed that his attendance would be required, who was visiting, and if there were things that he needed to know.
She had taken over his life with a calm efficiency that brooked no argument.
She had asked him, with a notepad and pencil, if there were foods that he preferred, those he did not like, and what were his breakfast preferences, all things that should have been Stiles as the master of the house. Peter as alpha was considered above the household management, the house was expected to serve him, but Lydia had taken that role and seemed to enjoy it. Perhaps she had learned the skills when she was married to Valack. Yet he did not want to ask her, it was not that she scared him, or that he cared for the manners necessary in society, but that she was closed off and hardened. Grief had a way of doing that to people and Lydia it seemed had lost more than most.
She had a coldness that seemed untouchable as if she had learned a terrible secret and in learning it she had been remade. She was beautiful, but it was a hard beauty, like one of the marble statues that stood in the vestibule that he had sent back from Europe. He was sure that nothing would try the wide peace of her serenity - because she had earned that serenity in blood.
The dining room had a table large enough to sit twenty, of a rich dark mahogany, with silver candlesticks, one at each of the three sittings. Traditionally, as alpha of the house, Peter would sit at the head of the table as long as none of the guests were of a higher rank than him, but he had been sat facing the fire where the two omega had been placed, so that the fire was directly behind them allowing them the full benefit of its heat. It was well known that omega felt the cold terribly.
Lydia had eschewed her chemise a'la reine for a dark purple banyan with Oriental frogging that covered her to her ankles but would come to mid-shin on Peter, with a pair of small felted wool clogs, and had her hair up in a braided crown such as was favored in countries like Bohemia among the farming class. It held it up and off her face but it was prettily framed by wisps that had fallen free. She wore no cosmetics or jewelry and remained as lovely as she had when she had worn them. She looked like a Russian princess and sat at the table with a yawn.
In London high society it was unthinkable to have supper before ten of the clock, with the social engagement carrying on into the early hours of the morning.
Most members of society slept until at least noon.
Peter was definitely one of them.
Lydia sat at the table like it was the last stop before bed, having the footman serve her ginger beer in a pewter mug, and draining it entirely in a single swallow before asking for a second.
Peter had tasted the wine and found it to be a pleasant vintage, but his manners stopped him emptying his glass the same way.
They had been quiet for ten minutes, according to the mantle clock, which was a vast ormolu nightmare of pastorally shaped porcelain under a glass dome, before Stiles came in.
Like Lydia, he looked to be dressed for bed, in a dressing gown that appeared to have been purchased from the far Orient and was made of a blend of linen and silk that fastened across the best and held fast at the waist with a pale pink sash that appeared to have been taken from another outfit. It had deep wide sleeves and came to just below the knee, but where Lydia's was black, to reflect her mourning, Stiles' wore a shade of peacock blue that would be the envy of any lady ordering a gown. It was paired with a set of mustard colored patterned stockings with purple garters, and under the high brightly colored collar, which he had tugged down a bit to scratch at his neck, it was apparent he was naked.
Even though the entire outfit was terribly mismatched and very unflattering Peter felt a flare of lust in his belly, and the idea that he could just untie that pink satin and peel back the peacock coloured robe to reveal the soft pink belly underneath it, or that he could just tug up that heavy fabric and reach underneath it for silk thighs.
Unlike Lydia Stiles accepted the wine, daring Peter to comment as he did so.
Peter said nothing.
"Tell me we're combining the fish and soup courses," Stiles said to Lydia, "it's so cold down here."
Peter knew that omega felt the cold. It was a universally acknowledged truth of the world. He knew that the two of them had their backs to the fire so that they could appreciate the heat but he wouldn't have said that the room was cold at all. It was on the cooler side of temperate but it wasn't cold.
Without thinking, Peter stood up, sloughed off his jacket and put it around Stiles' shoulders. Stiles glared at him but burrowed into the warmth of the jacket regardless. He wore it like a shawl and did not put his hands, that now Peter could see clearly freed from the wide fabric of his sleeves, were wearing woolen mitts through the sleeves.
"And now I shall lament that I do not have an alpha to offer me his coat," Lydia said.
"As if you do not have a woolen chemise on under your banyan," Stiles muttered.
She tilted her head as if neither denying or accepting the truth of the statement. "He feels the cold terribly," Lydia said, "much worse than most, his father has said that you could set him alight and he'd think the room temperate."
Stiles pulled a face at her so that he acknowledged the comment and accepted it with the sort of good humour that it would go no further but that it was not appreciated. "My father is used to colder climes, unless the ice is forming inside the windows he complains of the heat, I always thought that it was best that we evened each other out."
"Come now, Stiles," she answered, "you moved into the house here because you were tired of him walking into a room and opening all the windows and doors whilst complaining "it sure is stuffy in here.""
Stiles raised an eyebrow, "on the ice floes of Sibera whilst being towed in a sleigh pulled by white snow bears my father would complain it was stuffy," he turned to Peter, "it is how others know he is a military man."
"In Oslo," Peter said, "they build a great hotel out of snow, with beds made of ice and lit by lanterns hung from the ceiling, they lay furs across them and warm you with aquavit until you are too drunk to feel the cold."
"That would not suit us," Stiles said, "Lydia does not drink spirits, or even wine, and I am not sure that I wish my father to travel so far just that he might complain that it is stuffy."
Lydia laughed into her cuff at what Stiles said. "It does sound very much like the sort of conceit that alphas perform to show that they are more alpha than the next, tell me, Peter, did you stay in the ice hotel?"
"I was with Derek," Peter told them, accepting his soup, which looked to be pea and ham, "he said that he did not want to wake in a wet fur even if he was sharing it with me, how is one to know if it is the aquavit or if it was the ice melting."
"Are you sure that Derek would be pleased for you to tell stories of his incontinence?" Stiles asked, "I was under the impression that he was attending the season in the hopes of finding himself an omega that Talia approved of," Peter did not quite laugh but it was a close thing, and it was only the mouthful of soup that he had taken from the spoon that prevented him - he did not think anyone present would care to be covered in pea soup.
Also, it was excellent soup and he did not want to waste it.
"Talia will throw him at every omega that she considers suitable, but Derek is very good at aiming when being thrown, I have been doing it for ten years now, he is quite adept at ducking out of such things. I understand that you have been keeping correspondence with him, Stiles," he was making sure, "I am not sure, Lydia, if the same is true for you, because Derek wrote many letters."
"Certainly more than some," Stiles muttered in a way that was meant to look like it was under his breath but at the same time was deliberately intended to be heard. Peter heard the comment and took the offense that he was clearly intended to. He made the decision not to react. He had been in the wrong in not writing but he was not so proud that he could not admit it nor so humble that he wanted to openly admit it.
"You are making your nephew sound like a shuttlecock, batted about between you and your sister," Lydia said calmly.
"It would take a huge racquet to do so with Derek," Peter said, "and much stronger alphas than I, I cannot speak for my sister, of course, but Derek does know his own mind. He only seems tractable, I am quite sure Derek will do something that we both will consider a perfectly safe activity for an eligible bachelor and come back with someone perfectly unsuitable and adore them completely." Peter knew Derek well, he was a Hale, and very much, like all of the other Hales, knew his own mind. It was clear that behavior extended also to those who were Hales by marriage. For Stiles was not shy of speaking his own mind.
"It would be a strange sight, although knowing Talia as well as we do," Lydia said in that arch tone she had that suggested that she had a secret that was strange and terrible and if she revealed it that civilization entire would collapse and she enjoyed keeping that secret. She had a certain smugness amidst the terrible sadness that she wore like a mantua, "I wonder if tennis would not work better, you and your sister, the Duchess, in a stone courtyard covered in nets as you torment poor Derek for the amusement of the ton."
Stiles snorted a laugh into his soup, and then looking Peter clear in the eye he lifted the bowl between both hands and instead of drinking daintily started to noisily slurp from it. Peter was not so simple, nor so drunk, that he did not know that Stiles was doing it entirely to disgust him."
"Come now, Stiles," Lydia said putting down her spoon, "you sound like a dog with the shits," the coarse word was so unexpected that Peter dropped his spoon against the bowl with a loud clatter, "this is beneath you."
"It is such excellent soup," Stiles said, wiping his mouth with the side of his hand.
"You are doing this entirely to agitate me," Peter said, "It is almost as if you wish me to have to exert my alpha rights to punish you, because then you can go to Talia and tell you how awful I have been, because you think that she will take your word for it."
For a moment Stiles looked shocked, his mouth fell open a touch, and his eyes widened, then he narrowed his gaze and hardened his soft lips in what would have been, had he not controlled it, a sneer. "Is that what you wish to do, Peter, punish me for my bad manners?" he turned his head and looked at Peter direct. He was content that what he was going to say would return the control to him. "Shall you drag me from my chair, bend me over the table, hitch up my robe and spank me like I was a child between the soup and fish course of supper."
For a moment Peter's mind almost whited out at the image of Stiles in such a position, his perfect as bare and bouncing as Peter pinked it with the flat of his hand and Stiles saw it happen, he catalogued it and the speed at which Peter recovered his composure. "Come now, Stiles, as if I could get any kind of leverage, I would strip you to your skin in front of the fire and bend you over my knee, and make you count each strike. I could do that, one hand between your shoulder blades and the other landing, running my hand over your skin after each strike so that you were aware of each sensation, and make sure it's in front of the fire to keep you as hot as your ass under my hand."
Peter could see a flush spread over Stiles' neck even as he frowned. He liked the idea, he liked the idea more than Peter did but he was not willing to give an inch in their war.
Lydia huffed a sigh, and it was only when he turned to her that Peter saw that the conversation unsettled her but she did not want to let it show. He was a student of human nature and as such, he watched intently how people reacted and moved. In the ton, it was the greatest currency a person could hoard. "There are times I truly regret not drinking," she said and emptied her cup of ginger beer. "Am I to be treated to this show at every course? If so I wonder what delight I shall be given over coffee?"
"I do believe Mrs Wood has made a spice cake," Stiles said deflating the tension in the room, "but I have insisted that she serve the possets in separate cups, for I think tonight I shall benefit of the rum in her recipe. I never sleep well when there are strangers in my house."
"Rum?" Peter said and took another spoonful of his excellent soup, "how delightful, I haven't had a good posset since I went on tour."
After a delightful supper with the Lightwoods, Vidama Hanson, and Mr. Waugh, Derek retired to a guest room to work on his correspondence. Derek was a copious letter writer and kept a copy of every letter he wrote to be paired with the letters that he received in case someone ever decided to publish them. He had started this bizarre practice just before he had left for his grand tour and had a small pretension of publishing them, with the other' permission, in a series of volumes for others who went on tour. This practice, of copying each letter, allowed him to edit and correct his words but it meant that a task that usually took little more than an hour could take him the best part of an afternoon. He wrote letters to everyone who was glad to receive them and as such he was teased that he would spend his fortune in franking.
He was telling Stiles the amusing story of his meeting with Vidama Hanson when a noise caught his attention. Checking his watch by lamplight he saw that it was long past the hour when even society people were often abed, and Lightwood had asserted his desire to be in bed early for he had a morning hunt planned, for fowl was best caught in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, and it was likely that having caught what he sought that he would return to his bed and the omega keeping him warm.
Often at such an hour even the servants were long in bed, one would be sat up waiting by the bells in case they were called but even they would have their head against the wall and snoring. So to hear any noise at this late hour was unusual, so with his lamp held in one hand, like an omega in a Gothic novel, such as the one Miss Wollstonecraft had written, he left the room where he was staying. It did not occur to him to put on more clothes, for he had stripped to his shirt and breeches and a pair of wool slippers that he had purchased in Constantinople.
It was cold but he was not so bothered that when he stepped into the corridor he did not immediately consider dashing back to pull on a dressing robe. He would have to add that to his letter to Stiles for he would scold Derek for not pulling on at least a shawl, he might not run as cold as an omega but Stiles worried that he might fall sick. Stiles had a tendency to parent everyone in his circle. It was not easy for Stiles to accept new people but when he did they were part of his family with all the good and bad of it. Peter had to learn that about his mari.
Holding loft the lamp like a beacon Derek went down the stairs, his steps cushioned by the thick carpet and the whitewashed walls between the portraits were softly washed in the gold light of the lamp as he descended. Two of Lightwood's hunting dogs who had been asleep in the hall had raised their head even before Derek descended one of them softly whining to the closed double doors to the sitting room, barred entry and clearly unused to it, so they sulked.
Derek had known Lightwood since university and he was a hunter born and bred, and his dogs were as much a part of his household as Magnus as his mari. There was a few cats too, that ruled the house like furred queens and empresses which Magnus would pick up as he walked past, holding them to his face and talking to them as equals. When Lightwood had revealed that he had several farm animals on the land, raised for their meat, Derek had smiled and known that those animals would grow old and never see the slaughterhouse.
Derek tested the door and opened it a crack. A light stood on the mantle and spilled light on the tableau before the fire. It looked like one of the Florentine paintings that Derek had seen in such places as Roman churches. Vidama Hanson, Margot, in her golden gown sat on a stool before the fire with her skirts spread and sat on the floor with his head in her lap, like a Pieta, was Waugh, as she tilted her head with her gaze soft on him and ran her fingers, in her lace gloves, through his hair.
There was a toppled chair beside them which was clearly the source of the noise that had disturbed him.
Derek had no gift as a painter which he lamented for the image it presented was beautiful.
Margot raised her head and met his gaze, and shook her head softly. Derek took a step backwards and closed the door.
As he climbed the stairs he tapped his thigh two times, as he had seen Lightwood do with his dogs, and the dogs raised their heads and then finally stood up to follow him to his room and the fireplace there. He did not want them to remain whining at the door of the parlour and interrupting whatever it was that Margot was doing there.
In his head, he wasn't sure when he started calling her Margot instead of Vidama Hanson.
Perhaps as little as ten minutes later, when the dogs had stolen his bed and not just the rug, and Derek was still at his letters and so did not truly care about having to find himself a place around them, there was a mild scratching at the door, as if whoever was there did not want to wake him if he had returned to his bed but still wanted his attention if he had not. The dogs turned towards the door, including one who was facing the other way and when she tried to look over ended up flopping over bodily to crash into her fellow which made Derek smile, even more than he had when she had started talking in her sleep, her feet running and kicking her fellow in the head.
Derek went to the door and opened it to reveal Margot, "I was hoping that you were still awake," she said, "Eliot's asleep, will you help me put him to bed. I don't want to make a big to-do about it," that answer was why she hadn't asked Stephen, the footman who was on duty that night, to help her.
"Aren't you worried about your reputation?" he asked, "I can put him to bed with Stephen and they don't need to know you were involved."
For a moment her face went hard and then she realized that he was offering her an out. "It's," she said, "sorry, it's," she couldn't find the words which clearly frustrated her. She tugged down the sleeves of her dress, "motherfucker," she said under her breath. "Look, let's just put him to bed."
He followed her downstairs and saw how delicately she had slid out from under him for she had used a pillow to replace her lap so he was draped across the chair where she had been sat. Derek eyed him up in the dark and then, using a technique he had learned and mastered for ten years of traveling with Peter, picked him up with one arm under his back and the other under his knees and stood up, being careful of his head. Waugh was several inches taller than Peter but they were about the same weight, and Waugh, unlike Peter, didn't get kissy when he was drunk. With enough liquor in him, Peter would have kissed the wallpaper. Derek was used to it, but Waugh just leaned against his chest.
"Can you open the doors for me?" Derek asked and noticed how Margot had tilted her head, pulling her chin back as she appraised what she saw and found that she liked it. She was clearly impressed, "practice," he said not bothering to add that there were some liquors that knocked Peter on his ass like a blow.
He carried Waugh without a noise of complaint and laid him out on one of Lightwood's guest beds, Margot pulled the blanket down first, tugging off his jacket and boots and pulling the blanket back over him, letting him sleep off the drinking.
"You're very strong," Margot said, reaching out to touch Derek's biceps through his shirt, "stronger than you look." Her hand started to fuss with the skin at the base of her throat as if she was used to wearing a chain that she played with, she had pursed her lips and was leaning into him.
"Margot," he said, "do you mind if I call you Margot?" She said clearly that she did not, "I am very flattered by your interest," he had been travelling with Peter for ten years, he was used to people showing interest in him, "but,"
"You're not interested," she didn't sound insulted at his lack of interest, just a mild disappointment.
"I don't know," he said, and it surprised him that he could be honest.
The answer surprised her too. "The fuck?" she asked.
"I don't find it easy," he said, "desire, I," he paused, "you are a beautiful young woman, but, it takes me time, I am uninterested unless I truly know and love the person."
"Oh," she said, and sounded a little disappointed, then "oh," as she realized what he said, "oh, that's well," she smiled, and then linked her arm through his, "shall we go sit in the parlor?" she asked. "I don't think I'll sleep now, although the Lightwoods have been nothing but generous in their hospitality."
"Their dogs have stolen my bed," Derek said.
"At least someone has gotten in your bed tonight," Margot muttered, it was a little under her breath but he heard it regardless and she found it unexpected when Derek laughed. "You are magnificent when you laugh," she said and reached out to touch his face, "I think that not enough people in your life have told you that."
"It is a compliment that a man could bear to hear more," instead of the parlour he guided her through the house to the kitchen, pulling out one of the chairs for her to sit at the kitchen table, and pulling down a kettle from the wall to fill it with water from the pump before putting it on the stove, which he started. Fussing around at the shelves he found a tin of dried lavender with which he could make a pot of tea and put the workings out on the table.
"I thought your mother was a duchess," she said, He had told her that at the inn when they had met, "And yet you know your way around a kitchen, you'll make someone a lovely housewife one day."
"I can make pancakes too," he said, "but I am yet to find someone to make me an apron to protect my vests."
She laughed and it was a genuine sound, and he liked making her laugh. It was a sound he got the impression she didn't make often. Waugh had a sadness about him, it gave him a sort of ethereal nature like Derek might at any moment turn around and find that he had never been there, but Margot had a hardness, a fierceness that she wrapped around herself like a shawl, and that hardness made her fierce. She attacked because the alternative, that she be a victim in anyone's eyes, was anathema to her.
Peter was excellent at reading people. He could look at a person and within moments knew everything that he needed to know about a person and how to manipulate that knowledge to his own benefit. Years of living in close proximity to his uncle had taught Derek some of the techniques that Peter utilized. This did not mean that Peter was infallible, often his own arrogance interfered with what he thought of a person, but mostly he was right. Derek had found, in the lack of Peter's voracious sexual appetite, he could be observant in a way that others were not. He knew how and without the desire to bury his knot in the person he was appraising he could be attentive where Peter was not.
Margot controlled what others thought of her. She knew she was beautiful and desired, so she used that desire against those who could hurt her or those she sought to protect, which was, as far as Derek knew, only Waugh who had a sadness as deep as her anger. She used her beauty and her foul mouth, her reputation as Margot the Destroyer was cultivated instead of resisted, even though she had to know how it ruined her chances of a good marriage.
Her strength, which would have been prized in an alpha and was considered an impediment in a blanc, was something she was not willing to compromise and Derek admired her for it. Margot had been made hard and had learned strength and she did not give an inch. Derek wished he could be more like her in that, for he had a tendency to roll over and show his belly to his mother, or other alphas who would talk over him.
"I can't accept pancakes," she said, "it makes it very hard to keep this figure," she ran her hands down the curves of her bodice, which was boned and shaped by omega corsetry, "I am saving room for breakfast, Lightwood tells me that his cook has the finest bacon in Southern England, and fresh quail eggs," when Lightwood had mentioned it, before they sat down to an excellent dinner of carp and winter vegetables, followed by venison in red wine and sweetened with raspberry preserves melted into the meat's juices. It had been as good as Lightwood had claimed that it would be. With Magnus managing his own business in trade, inherited from his father and which Lightwood had no interest in, they had access to many spices that many others did not, and the cook had been delighted to have guests stay another night, whether they had planned to leave or not, because she would spend the day making a curry out of the mean old rooster that they kept. Curry was a new dish brought to England from far India which involved many spices mixed with thick cream and Derek had only heard of it and was eager to try it.
"Your sacrifice is for the good of the empire," Derek said with a smile.
"Clearly," Margot said with a smile of her own as she smoothed her hands down her corset in a flirtatious gesture, "my waist is a national treasure." He agreed with her and it softened her expression for she had decided that he was honest in his lovemaking in a way that others were not. His lack of desire, for he had been honest he simply did not know her well enough to have such interest, gave her an ease about him that she did not recognize in herself.
Peter made the most terrible discovery in regards to his young bride after supper. Stiles, it seemed, either wore so many layers that he resembled nothing more than a pile of fabric with a head sticking out, or not a stitch, and without Lydia and his attendant, Boyd, to dress him, he would be seen wandering around the house with nothing on and Boyd chasing him with a shawl because Stiles would complain, loudly, about the cold, and Boyd would reply that if he put some clothes on he'd be warmer.
After supper and possets Stiles settled in front of the fire to play Vingt-et-un with Lydia, who included Peter in their game, for it was a simple game where cards were drawn and whoever had closest to twenty-one won the stake, and the first to win five hands would take the rubber which was the stake of the game plus a stipend for each game. Instead of playing for money, such as would happen at society meets, they were playing for hairpins, where the rubber was a hairpin with a patterned head.
Lydia offered to cover Peter's stake in exchange for a guinea which was certainly far more than the pins were worth and he knew that once he had a valet he would be sent to buy hairpins because the game was fun. Lydia was clearly cheating, but Peter did not know how, and threw just enough games that Stiles could not openly call her out, but he was cheating too, nothing so obvious as having cards up his sleeve but he seemed to have lucky draws and Peter was cleaned out long before the first rubber was won, for however they were cheating - and they clearly were - he was not aware of it. When he admitted that he was bested Lydia gave him a sweet smile and said that he could remain to watch if he wanted, that was when Stiles shrugged off his dressing gown, the beautiful peacock robe, to reveal that underneath he was only wearing braies and his woolen mittens. "Bloody thing," he said as he let it fall down his back, "can't properly play with the damn sleeves in the way."
Earlier in the day Peter had seen Stiles wearing a lace peignoir pinned carelessly at his neck and he had admired Stiles then, but like this, without even the lace in the way, in the firelight he was magnificent. His skin was creamy and soft like sun-warmed peaches, flecked with beauty marks that Peter wanted to discover. He had a pleasant breadth to his shoulders, which his clothes did a lot to cover, and although slim he was neither lank, wiry, or unhealthy. Peter could trace the bones of his spine but not each individual rib and his stomach was pleasingly soft, not overly muscular as some alphas strained towards. His biceps were full and his nipples were bright and the same color as his soft lips, although the mouth was screwed up in thought. It was beautiful to watch him move, to reach forward to place the cards, to pull back to consider the way that Lydia played.
They both knew that the other was cheating but they couldn't prove it so they couldn't accuse the other, or Lydia knew perfectly well and it amused her more to continue. Her face was smugly fond whilst Stiles screwed up his face like he was playing a game much more complicated than Vingt-et-un.
Combined with the lovely image provided at dinner, of the boy naked and stretched over Peter's lap as Peter brought color to his plump ass and thighs as the boy stretched and groaned and enjoyed it Peter was not surprised he could not tell how Lydia was cheating, he could barely think.
Stiles' throat alone was such a thing of beauty that he was not surprised that half, as he understood it, of the alphas in the ton were following him around like lapdogs, it was a perfect column of strength and yearning, with the perfect imperfections of the moles and his prominent Adam's apple. In his head, despite not being a painter, Peter was imagining a portrait of Stiles as an odalisque, with wisps of suggestive fabric on a couch bathed in glorious Mediterranean light and staring directly at the viewer, challenging them with that golden gaze that was both inviting and pushing them away.
Having made the decision to commission the painting he was debating artists when it occurred to him he would have to hang the thing, never mind talk Stiles into posing for it, would he have it in his bedchamber to remind him of what Stiles was denying him, or in the hallway where every passing alpha could stare at it. If he had it hung, lifesize, in his bathroom it would be ruined but it would allow him to cover it when it tempted him too much.
He had been too long in Europe. He called over the servant who stood at the door, he did not know their names yet, the tall beta with the curly hair and amazing jawline, and ordered a splash of brandy in his chocolate. He felt he needed the extra fortification.
"Peter," Lydia said with a raised eyebrow and tilt of her lovely head, "you look perturbed, surely it can't be owing me a guinea for the rubber."
"I am still drained from the travel to London, it has only been a few days, my body waits to climb back into another carriage." It was a truth but it was not the truth of what was going through his head, "I am still waiting for the inevitable aches and pains of such a travel."
"It must be hard to be so old," Stiles said, taking the opportunity to shuffle the deck of cards.
Peter accepted the comment with grace although it was not intended to be gracious, "even omega bones can be rattled by some of the roads in Europe, it is no wonder that so much of the military budget is spent in boots. No matter how well sprung the carriage they are not suited for potholes large enough to drown a man." He appraised Stiles, "combined with ice and poor weather it is a most unpleasant experience, worse yet when the day is hot in places like Italy or Greece, where it feels like the very air boils and you are stuck in a carriage and that even with the windows curtains open there is not a breath of air, just a shimmer of alpha sweat and warm lemonade to ease you through it. It would make an old man of anyone. I imagine that I shall be fine given time and exercise, but for now, the cold seeps into my bones for Stiles, sitting as you are, between me and the fire, are soaking up all the heat."
Lydia smiled, "then shall we play in a room with a larger fireplace?"
"Madame, the way you play Vingt et un I am already roasted," to his delight Lydia let out a peal of pleased laughter, "I am caught before two of the loveliest creatures in London and am expected to concentrate on cards, when the queen of wands and the jack of diamonds sits in front of me, it is no wonder I am making such a poor show."
Lydia enjoyed being flattered, Stiles bristled under the compliments, "I was wondering if you had had a portrait commissioned yet, Stiles?"
"It is unfashionable to do so until one is pictured with one's children," Stiles said, "only scandalous members of society do so, the mavens of fashion are quick to cut one who dares so much."
"I never understood that," Peter said, "when an omega is so much more than a vessel for an alpha's children," Peter was a man who was aware of his audience but that he was with two omega did not seem to register with him, for he was surprised when they both loosened the tension in their neck and shoulders, tension he had been unaware that they held. "Forget fashion, Stiles, have a portrait commissioned, and do so in your riding habit," that again was unfashionable enough that it would cause talk, it was something that was not done in the ton, but in the lower reaches of society, where money was earned and not inherited. Unaware of the rules of high society only they would do something so gauche.
"You would see me unwelcomed in Almacks," Stiles said. "I would be cut in the street for such a thing."
"No," Peter said, accepting the cup of hot chocolate which had come at last, "you shall not, you shall blame me, it is well known that I am not given to following the rules of society, you shall smile and gesture to suggest that what am I to do, that you know that it is not done but that you are caught. Let me be the villain in your melodrama," he said, remembering the phrase that Talia had used, "blame me for those things you wish to do but society will not allow you to, I am a Marquis," he gestured with the cup, "they will not cut you, you provide them access to Talia, if you wished you could walk into Almacks without a voucher wearing nothing but a smile and they would gossip certainly but they would not turn you away."
Stiles stood up, allowing his dressing gown to fall at his ankles as he pushed the chair back with a loud groan. "you have been absent for ten years, what do you know of fashion? what do you know of society when you were gone? You continue to treat me like a child," he was angry, "I am not a child, you have left me to manage this place alone, commission your own damn portrait, it shall give your hand company."
That said he walked out of the room, wearing nothing but his white linen braies and leaving his beautiful robe on the floor behind him.
Lydia looked at Peter and sighed before she finished her ginger beer. "A gift is not an apology," she said and laid out the cards in a game of solitaire.
Peter made the decision to go to bed, telling Isaac to bring the brandy to him. He was of the opinion that he needed it.
Peter awoke with a hangover justly earned. Stiles kept an excellent cellar, or Lydia did even though she did not drink herself, though Peter did not know why, and he had emptied the decanter eschewing the chocolate. He had a vague memory of sending for bread and cheese, but he wasn't sure he had or if he had eaten it. He felt nauseous, his head was planning to hurt, it had not decided to yet, but sometimes hangovers, especially the truly bad ones waited an hour to make themselves known, and his skin felt like it should have belonged to a freshly landed fish. He ordered a bath and a pot of Turkish coffee, having to explain to Isaac, who had taken over his care until he had a valet of his own, how it was made.
He took advantage of a steaming bath in his luscious new tub and placed a cold compress over his eyes as they decided that they were ready to ache like they wanted to escape his head. There was a taste in his mouth that was not entirely unlike the dust of Constantinople marketplaces after they had been trading cows in midsummer. Even his fingernails hurt.
"For fuck's sake," the voice said as it bumbled into the room with a tray, "no wonder Talia chose for you to on tour with Derek, you are incapable of looking after yourself." Peter dragged the cold compress over his eyes to look at Stiles, who was the one carrying the coffee which he put down on a small table, "I see why you drink your coffee in the Turkish way, it's the only way to be strong enough to drag you from your bed."
"I look after myself just fine, whilst I am often in good health, I have the constitution of an ox, but I would be rather disappointed if I had woken this morning fine for it meant that I would have wasted that entire bottle of brandy that I completed last night on my own. I am the author of my own discontent and if you do not mind I would like to continue wallowing in it." Peter was exhausted, aching, unwell, and the only comfort he had was the steaming water of the bath, he did not have it in him to play games with Stiles who was wearing his black knee breeches over a white shirt with a black Spencer jacket open on his shoulders. Peter did not know if Stiles was about to go riding or returning from it because he had no idea of the time. He never did when he woke up hungover. The only thing supporting his head was a roll of cloth under his neck. If the bath had been a smidge longer he might have slid under the hot water and drowned. He felt awful.
"We have an engagement tonight, and you have to interview a valet, they are gathered downstairs and if it was not me that disturbed you it would have been Lydia and she would not have been so kind." A chill ran down Peter's spine at the very idea. "There is no scandal on me seeing you in your bath," he gave a dismissive look to Peter's body, "if you get out I shall shave you."
"Should I worry that you wish to take a razor to my throat?" Peter asked, pulling himself up to sit, "and pass me the coffee, take pity on the old man that you called me, for right now I am not unconvinced that I do not need it to live."
Stiles offered him a dressing gown instead.
With a groan that was almost painful, Peter climbed out of the bath and into the robe, letting Stiles belt it and grabbing the coffee can as he walked past, taking a sip to test it's strength and then emptying it in a few large swallows. "One moment, please," he said as Stiles went to walk him to the grooming chair in the main room. He filled the cup again from the tall silver coffee pot, drank it down again then filled it a third time before he sat down with the cup in his hands.
At some point someone, probably Isaac of the angelic curls as Peter had taken to calling him in his head, had brought a bowl of steaming water, shaving oil and a badger hair brush. A razor sat next to a strop and towel which Stiles draped over his arm once he had removed his jacket. Unusually he was wearing a pair of embroidered galluses to hold up his pants, it was a style more commonly seen on alphas who wore white silk ones, but Stiles' were embroidered with sprigs of what looked to be Heather. They looked comely against the billowing fabric of his shirt because no vest was part of his outfit. "I did consider, " Stiles said as he lathered up the brush, "having the gentlemen downstairs interview by shaving you," he used the brush in a perfect circular motion on Peter's chin. It was almost like he knew what he was doing which was odd for Omega did not have facial hair that they needed to shave and were so venerated in society that it was not a skill that there was value in teaching them. "Then Isaac said that you were taking a bath and I made the decision that it is better to pay someone for the trauma before inflicting it on them unawares." Before Peter could reply with any kind of upset Stiles started to shave him with the razor too close to Peter's throat for him to want to upset him further.
Once he was done, and his attention to detail was deliberate and thorough, making sure to rub a perfumed balm into his skin when he was done, the sort that he had heard that beta women used on their skin, but did not sting the way that his cologne did not. Stiles reached down and wiped his hands on Peter's robe. His breath was washing over Peter's face and he was close enough to kiss, and Peter wanted to kiss him. His mouth was soft and pink and his tongue flickered out to wet his lips and Peter wanted to taste the coffee on his breath. Stiles smiled and then reached up under the dressing gown, his hand still slick with balm, and wrapped it around Peter's cock which responded eagerly to the touch. He gave a few experimental tugs, making sure that he had the angle as he moved the foreskin down over the head of Peter's cock. Then he stood back, letting go and wiping his hands again. "I have an appointment," he said, "are you going to save that for me, husband, and don't forget we are going to Lady Troutbridge's this evening for cards, so I shall have gentleman callers visit to help me dress." He looked at the tented fabric of Peter's robe, "try not to make a fool of yourself interfering."
Peter made the decision of choosing his new valet through a strict process of elimination, he, having dressed himself, asked them to choose which of three outfits laid out would be suitable for visiting his club. Each outfit that he had put together was slightly unacceptable to fashion, for the wrong galluses were paired with pants that did not require them, a patterned vest was paired with a double-breasted jacket that would cover it, riding boots were paired with silk breeches. If the applicant chose one of the outfits without arguing he was immediately excluded. If the applicant tried to curry favor and simpered he was excluded. One dared to rearrange the clothes into a suitable outfit, explained why he was doing it and dared to exclaim that Peter needed more help than was suggested by the agency.
Peter hired him on the spot, whilst Lydia, whom he deferred to in a way that he did not to Peter, explained his duties as Peter's valet, that he would have his own room in the house, a sizeable wage of twelve pounds a year, but that his wardrobe, bed, and board were included. He was asked if he could start immediately as Peter had previously shared a valet with his nephew, Graistan had chosen to stay with Derek, and now he was left without. When he said that he could he was given two crowns to help him get his matters in order and Lydia had Mrs. Finch show him to his new room, and that she would take it from there.
Lydia seemed amused by Peter's peccadilloes regarding the clothes but admitted that she would have chosen the same applicant.
As the young man, Matthew, left the prestigious Grosvenor Place address to collect his belongings via the servant's entrance underneath the front door Peter observed Stiles' return in a cabriolet driven by Boyd. He had gone riding in the same fitted riding habit that he had worn before. It gave him a strict elegant look but he had covered it in a heavy fur-lined cape, one that was more popular in Bohemia, many of Stiles' fashions were Bohemian in origin, and he had removed his hat and replaced it with the fur hood of the cape. As Peter was to learn that he always did when he went riding his hair was bound in a neat braid, although he had not thought that it was long enough. His face was pleasantly ruddy from the weather Peter noticed through the window as Stiles descended from the cabriolet in a way that was a miracle of limbs resembling nothing more than a newborn foal taking its first steps. Boyd watched this with the stoic reserve of someone who, although used to it, was prepared to leap forward to catch him should any part of the complicated shifting of limbs involved in the procedure betray their owner sending Stiles sprawling face first into the paving slabs.
Judging by how bad-tempered Stiles climbed the stairs to the front door his ride had not been relaxing at all. Peter wondered if he had run afoul of Mr. Harris again, or if it had been the fat fluffy snowflakes that were only now starting to descend outside that had ruined his exercise. There was no sign yet that the snow would linger but it would mean that instead of the cabriolet to attend Lady Troutbridge's that evening they would have to take the coach.
Peter stepped out of his office to welcome Stiles home, for he had not forgiven him for what had happened when Stiles had shaved him, and Matthew's appointment at least prevented it from happening again, but Stiles handed his gloves to Mrs. Finch, without removing his cape, demanded a cup of hot wine, for it was vicious out, and that he would be in his room until all of his callers were present. He even slammed a door behind him. Mrs. Finch exchanged a glance with Boyd who nodded with a hint of shared knowledge. Whatever it was that had angered Stiles it had happened before. Lydia had, according to Mrs. Finch, gone to Rotten Row to be fitted for a new gown and so was not present. That meant it fell to Peter to try and raise his mood if the entire day was not to be ruined by his distemper.
"Mrs. Finch," Peter said, "I shall bring him his wine."
For a moment Peter wondered if his determination to correct the behavior was because he had spent ten years close enough to Derek that they could share pockets, so if either was in a foul temper - which was inevitable - the other suffered unless it was corrected. Ten years was a long time to spend with someone in a snit. And as much as Derek would deny it he was as prone to them as his uncle.
Mrs. Finch was polite as she accepted his will but gave Boyd a look to suggest that he was responsible for his own demise, but that she would be there with a bucket of hot water to prevent his bodily remains from ruining the upholstery.
Peter did not return to his office to wait on the wine but instead took one of the chairs that lined the walls of the vestibule at the bottom of the main stairs, and was pleasantly surprised at how quickly the maid, a blonde beta girl who managed to curtsey without upsetting the tray, appeared with the wine. It was on a silver tray with a heavy earthenware jug, capped with a silver lid, and a blue Delph cup with saucer.
To properly mull wine was the process of several hours, Peter knew, so it was likely that Mrs. Woods, the cook, kept some ready to be reheated on order. There was only a single cup, so they didn't expect Stiles to invite Peter to stay to share it. Peter carefully carried the tray as he climbed the stairs, he was nowhere near as proficient as the girl was at carrying it, but did so without slopping the wine everywhere or dropping the cup or saucer - although that he fixed to the tray with his thumb.
He knocked on the door to Stiles' apartment and entered only when he was told to bring in the wine.
Stiles had shucked off his cape and jacket, and pulled loose the braid that had fixed his hair in place. His galluses hung loose either side of his hips but he still wore his boots. "Boyd," he said turning, "come help me with my boots, I do not care what people say I am putting on my damned slippers."
"I'm not Boyd," Peter said putting the tray down, "but I can certainly help you with your boots, and nor do I care if you are wearing your damned slippers, though I must wonder what it is that they have done that you have cursed them to hell."
Stiles bristled as he turned, it was like watching an angered cat the way that his entire body tensed. "You, sir, have no business here."
Peter reacted to his anger with a louche coldness, "I had wondered what it was that angered you so, after you calling on me this morning I sought to return the favor."
Stiles looked Peter up and down as if searching for some secret motive. "I do not wonder that you do not know the cause of my discomfort, sir, for I am told that you are well acquainted with all of the gossips in the city."
Peter considered this for a moment, taking the opportunity to pour the steaming hot wine into the cup and passing it, saucer and all to Stiles who took it, and leaving the saucer on the side table cupped his hands around the vessel to better appreciate its heat. "I have been absent these last ten years, I have to trust my tailor that those clothes that I have ordered are fashionable, it could be that ruffs have returned and until I appeared at a ball to find my neck unadorned in comparison that I would learn of it. And you, yourself, have lamented how few letters that I have written. London is as strange to me now as Constantinople or Cairo, except that I know the street names." He sat down in one of the chairs by the fire and faced his young bride, who was hunched over the hot wine, breathing in the fumes that he might warm through. "So what is it that you think that I have heard that you know to be untrue that has angered you so."
"Have you not heard how I am a harlot and the groundsheet for half of the military men in London?" Stiles said. The term he used was particularly unpleasant for even a harlot had the dignity of choosing her partners. "One particular rumor calls me a knot-warmer and a cum-dump."
Peter blinked at that. "And if you were why should I care?" Peter said, "you are your own creature, and often when such rumors abound it is because of petty jealousy, someone is spreading rumors about you that are particularly vile, and it is clear that such rumors upset you."
"Of course they upset me," Stiles blurted out, "the things that they say, and I have to go into stores where matrons whispers and fall silent when they see me, I cannot visit a teashop in Mayfair without them pointing and whispering and I am tired, Peter, but I must remain silent for the worst thing I can do is challenge them." He emptied the cup in a few swallows, "and now I can't get my fucking boots off."
"That I can help with," Peter said, "and if you wish to spend the day in bed,"
"I'm not fucking half of London and I'm certainly not fucking you," Stiles cut him off.
"I was going to finish," Peter continued, "drinking chocolate and red wine and reading the latest Mrs. Ratcliff novel I shall happily tell Lady Troutbridge that you are taken to your bed with a megrim."
Stiles eyed him up critically. "I like Lady Troutbridge," he said, "and you're not getting out of meeting her tonight."
"I shall ask you and you might wonder at my sincerity, but would you prefer to decamp to Little Moreton in Cheshire and forget the season?" Little Moreton was the house in the country that was Peter's own, it was a small thing of only fifty or so rooms but was a medieval house rebuilt at the height of the Elizabethan period and as such the outside was a careful pattern of black beams amidst white stucco. The long west hall of the second floor with its wall of windows was the only exception to the Tudor woodwork which gave the house the look of a toy. Cheshire was not entirely outside of society, it had theatres if no opera, and balls, routs and even card meetings such as London did. It was just much quieter.
"And the axiom that the alphas do not understand society proves itself true yet again," said Stiles with a twist of his lips.
"As is the one that omegas expect alphas to be mindreaders to understand their upset," Peter punctuated that with a smile.
"My upsets are things you cannot fathom nor solve, so leave me to my temper, I shall be the paragon of wit and gaiety, none shall question my temper." He bowed his head, "even if the megrim does sound tempting."
"Stiles, you are a Count, a peer of the realm, you set fashion, you do not follow it, a Hale does not bow their head, we are unassailable because we do not allow them the pleasure of seeing their barbs land. And we can always have our solicitors make their lives hell."
"And if it is just the snow which upsets me, and ruined my ride?" Stiles asked, sitting down now that he had completed his hot wine.
"If you wish the image of an old man shouting at clouds I can certainly commission a painting, but it's too cold to do it for real." Despite himself Stiles laughed, he clearly did not want to be amused but he was regardless. "Now do you wish me to help you with your boots?"
Peter was intercepted on his way to his office, which was a comfortable room now that he had had a couch moved in and put in place in front of the fire, a thing that Mrs. Finch was happy to accomplish quickly, by a pair of young Alpha bucks that to Peter's mind ought to still have been in the schoolroom. They were in the vestibule as he crossed it, taking off their gloves and great coats, their hair littered with melting snowflakes. "Are you here to help Stiles dress too? the finest ass in London he has" one of them said with a leer.
"A bit old aren't you?" the other asked, "aren't you old enough to be his father? I'd say."
"My lord," Peter added for them.
"What?" the first said, looking baffled.
"You shall address me as my lord," Peter said firmly, "and you shall show some respect whilst in this house."
The first bristled, leaning forward as if in preparation for violence, "and what will you do about it, old man?" he felt supported by his peer certainly who was waving his shoulders as he squared up for violence. The two of them stunk of spirits.
"His lordship will not need to do anything," Boyd said appearing out of a side door like an avenging angel in the old testament, six foot plus of muscle and not an ounce of give in him. "Come now, Bletchley, you know the rules, no drinking and no causing fights. I've warned you before I recall."
"Mr. Boyd, if you would be so kind as to escort the gentlemen to the door," Peter said, he had promised not to interfere with Stiles' alpha callers but this was not the same surely, these two young bucks were clearly drunk and hoping to start violence with Stiles as a sideshow exhibit.
"You can't do that," the second man, the one who had not been introduced started to bluster, "do you know who my father is?"
Peter who had turned to leave snapped back, "do you know who I am, boy?" Every part of him that was urbane and polite was gone and in it's place was the man who had been told to go to Europe, the duellist, the man that Talia had said would be better suited to colours for there was a streak of cruelty in him that she found terrifying that most of the time he never used or needed to, satisfied as it was with his petty victories but at that moment it loomed over him, more terrifying even than Boyd for the two of them recoiled. "I am Peter Hale, Marquis of Moreton and Ashleigh, and this is my house," he enunciated every syllable like a threat, "the omega that you are coming to lech over is my husband and by my allowance, and that kindness I withdraw, you and your friend may return when you are sober and more willing to abide by the rules that are clearly in place. Now as I said, Mr. Boyd, if you would be so kind as to escort these two gentlemen to the door, they will be leaving now."
The two of them grabbed their coats and hats so quickly that Bletchley left behind his gloves in their hurry to leave. Watching the two of them try to run down the street Boyd erupted with laughter, a deep booming laugh before he went back to whatever it was that he had been doing, leaving Peter to return to his office, but hanging back when another alpha came calling, this one Peter recognised from racing Stiles that day in Regent's park, Mr Raeken, and loitered out of sight before deciding that this one time he would be one of the alphas that attended his bride when he dressed - just to protect him certainly from these avaricious young bucks and their lechery.
Lady Troutbridge was old. This was something of an understatement which suggested that she might be of an age with Peter's own mother, long deceased, but instead, she was very old, in the way that London was. She wore a blue gown fifty years out of fashion, if not more, with wide salopettes and a trail of applique flowers to form a garland and a high white powdered wig that slipped around on her head as she moved. Her hands were like the claws of birds but when Stiles went into her parlor he seemed delighted to see her, although she needed opera glasses to make sure who it was that approached her sucking her false teeth loudly. "Mischief," she said in a voice that sounded like cracking leather, "so good of you to come, and is that dear Lydia with you?" she left powdery kisses on both cheeks, for her face was painted in nightingale powder, leaving a perfect white mask with rouged on her thin mouth and a thick lace band around her neck with a huge red lace rosette in place of a flower. She looked very much like the monster from a nursery tale that Talia had told him would gobble him up if he misbehaved - which he had done a lot. Peter wasn't sure that when she moved she didn't disturb the spiders that had made their webs around her like a monster as the bones of her stays - possibly the only thing holding her upright - creaked when she moved.
Both Lydia and Stiles, however, clearly adored her.
"And who is it you bring me?" she asked, reaching out her claw-like hand for him to kiss. Peter wanted to bolt and run for the stairs and escape into London screaming. He was sure London would understand and not have him committed to bedlam the instant that they saw her. Even her voice was dry and dusty like it was coming from the tomb.
As Stiles introduced him, and Peter did bend to kiss her, he noticed a movement at the hem of her skirts, which was at first a twitch and then it peeled back and a small black thing came out from under her skirts and scurried towards him.
Peter might have cleared an entire yard with how far back he jumped and Lydia, ever the eminent stateswoman bent down and picked up the kitten from the floor before it tried to scale her dress with its claws. She was the only one of the two of them that did not laugh, Stiles and the old lady cackled like a pair of shrews at his reaction. "Really, husband," Stiles said, "such a mighty beast to rear from?" he took the kitten from Lydia as, one having escaped it's fabric prison it's brothers and sisters followed suit, and held it to his face as he looked at Peter. "Such fierceness," he said, "I can understand your fear, clearly he's a man killer."
"You, sir, are a puckish brat," Peter said, flicking out the tails of his superfine as he took the seat the butler, who might have had some years on his Lady, offered him.
"Would you have me some other way?" Stiles asked him with a smirk, "you would be bored with one of society's maidens, scared of their own shadows, too scared of you to laugh when you make an ass of yourself, did you compete in sports at university?" he asked, "for the form of your long jump is exquisite."
Lydia smiled at him fondly, lifting another of the kittens as a footman, this one around Peter's own age and not old enough to remember the great flood like everyone else in this house it felt like, brought in a decanter of wine and several packs of cards for them to play with.
Lady Troutbridge might have looked like the sort of child eating ghost that haunted Peter's dreams and nursery fears but she turned out to be a rather wicked hand at Boston and had the sort of biting wit that people enjoyed, and he considered it a loss when he considered that he could have known her before he had left for the continent. The only downside was the deluge of cats that she owned. She made no mention of it in conversation but Peter counted no less than seven adult cats and easily twice that number of kittens, which ranged from almost fully grown to barely confident on their feet. Each of them smelled sweetly of lemon and rosemary where they were clearly doused to treat any insects of the biting kind. Her footmen, of which she had two, stepped over the cats with the sort of balletic grace usually saved for the Paris Opera House intervals.
She also cheated as fiercely and with the same hidden techniques as Stiles and Lydia and Peter was glad that they were playing for candies and not real stakes for he would have lost all of his property. He knew that omega often played cards against each other or with society matrons at balls for small stakes, but he didn't know why. Rakehells would be much more interesting if they were populated with people like Lady Troutbridge, especially as the creeping terror that she evoked never really went away.
At one point between rounds, as Stiles and Lydia fondly bickered over a play being legal and more wine was served, not to Lydia, who was drinking tea, she fell asleep and Peter only realised when she woke up with a hacking and spluttering wet cough that sounded like she was about to vomit up a hairball - a possibility with the amount of cats that infested her apartments - that caused her wig to slide to the left and her false teeth to fall from her mouth and she sat up in a creaking of bone stays and apologised, before taking her glass and emptying it in a few swallows and then putting her teeth back in.
She was both delightful and nightmare material which Peter had not thought was possible.
It was like inviting Baba Yaga over for tea because she had the best gossip and brought with her a lovely sponge cake, then not so much overlooking how she ate one of the chambermaids, but making sure she used a napkin.
She was also fleecing him at cards.
Peter had learned the game in Yekaterinburg and he had thought that the Russian family with which he and Derek had stayed were fierce but Lady Troutbridge would have owned their land if she ever played against them.
She also had the sort of mouth that would see a man discharged from his club for innuendo and depravity.
It was well known that in London there were three levels of sexual depravity. There were the acts one would ask of one's mari. There were the acts one would ask of one's paramour. Lastly, there were the acts one would ask of a prostitute. In this way, the true extent of an alpha's depravity could be explored without censure from society. One might ask a girl, or boy, in a brothel for an act, and pay for it, but they didn't mention it at the club, least of all in the company of omegas, who by their education were kept sexually naive that their alphas might find a simpatico in what they introduced them to.
Lady Troutbridge would have made the madam of Peter's favorite whorehouse blush like a convent school girl. Then she would have cackled with almost malicious delight that she had done it.
Some of the acts that she described, in lurid, leering detail, even Peter, who considered himself a debauched sybarite who had explored with the best of them, had never heard of, and Peter's surprise and discomfort provided no end of amusement for Stiles, who had admitted that he had had a bad day, which Peter had not gotten to the bottom of, and was drinking red wine in large swallows, and when he was presented with a cheese board tucked in with gusto, telling the butler who delivered it that he must be a mind reader for Stiles always craved cheese when drinking red wine.
It was clear Lady Troutbridge's household was used to this behavior. Whilst they did not prevent him drinking they did put food in front of him to sop up some of the alcohol. There were soft bread rolls made with unbleached wheat and covered in sweet unsalted butter. There were hard cheeses and soft cheeses with black olives preserved in their own oil, that was seasoned with herbs, in a bowl with whole cloves of garlic that Stiles fished out with his fingers and gobbled with obvious relish. There was slices of thick pork pie and bright yellow piccalilli in little white bowls. All of it was designed to complement the red wine that they were drinking.
Peter understood then why supper had been lighter than usual, with only three courses and smaller portions. It was clear that they knew, even if he did not, that they would be almost gorging themselves later on what would constitute tea to most households later.
Lydia was given a slice of cake, drizzled in warm sweet cream for she complained that she had a delicate constitution, and without the bellyful of red wine that Stiles had consumed she did not have the buffer for food that he did. Peter had noticed that often when they ate together Lydia picked at the savory courses if they were served, or more likely just ate the dessert course. He did not know how she kept her slim figure dining almost entirely on cake but he did not care to ask.
Every time a dish looked even close to becoming denuded another came to replace it. Savory little dishes like those Peter had had in Spain so every time it looked that Stiles might stop eating he was tempted with another. Sundried tomatoes baked into a bread, sweet and tangy under salted butter. Small camembert cheese baked in tiny dishes with long toasted crusts of white bread for the dipping. There was never so much that they might eat themselves to satiation but certainly enough to help prevent a hangover the next morning, even with a gritty red wine.
Lady Troutbridge had clearly spent time on the continent and her chef was exquisite. Her pork pie in aspic was all that Peter had missed about England on his travels. He had missed English food but had simply put it out of mind, pies were not made with hot water crusts on the continent, so he had them with shortcrust. There would be different game in the terrine, with no eggs in its centre, instead there were bright green olives. Why lament the lack of a beef and ale stew when he could have a lamb tagine with dried apricots. When he most missed English fare he tried something more exotic until he had not even considered that he missed it.
He did insist then that one of the servants compliment the cook on her pie for it was worthy of more words than he could give it, with his mouth dry and his lips numb from the wine.
When Lydia, the only sober one among them decided that it was time to leave Peter was drunk enough to kiss the old lady on the cheek, and thank her for her hospitality. He had to put his arm around Stiles' waist to help him down the stairs to the carriage but that was not much of a hardship, and because of that he ended up sitting next to Stiles who, drunkenly, put his head on Peter's shoulder, announced he smelled nice, as Peter tried, and failed, to drape a rug over his knees and fell asleep.
He didn't sleep long, because Peter wasn't that lucky. "I hate you," Stiles pouted, as much as his lips which were probably as numb as Peter's own, and were stained dark by the wine, his breath washing over Peter was pretty rancid. He clearly had several glasses of mint and barley water in his future when he got back to the house. "I hate you because I wanna have a good time," this was clearly a euphemism, "and I don't get to have a good time, and I wanna have a good time, all the good times, in all the positions, I have a book, and I can't, because I'm married to you." This was accompanied by more pouting, "and you're," he flapped his hand about, "you."
"Stiles," Peter said, sweeping Stiles' hair back from his face, "we can have this conversation when you're sober, darling, when you know what you're saying."
"Fuck you!" Stiles snapped, "I'm not stupid, why're you saying I'm stupid?"
Peter sighed, "you're not stupid," he said, "you're just really foxed. Here," he tried again to put the rug over his knee and again Stiles pushed it away.
"M'not stupid," Stiles said putting his head back on Peter's shoulder, "you're warm," he mumbled, "but you're still you and I hate you," his voice was trailing off as he went back to sleep, and by the time he finished speaking he concluded his statement with a snore, so Peter moved his head so that his mouth was closed.
"Are you warm enough, Lydia?" Peter asked, still holding the edge of the rug that Stiles had cast off. She told him that she was so Peter rolled it up and shoved it in the space between Stiles' back and the edge of the carriage, so that Stiles was almost turned and wouldn't ache as much when he woke.
Outside the fat fluffy flakes of snow were blanketing the city. With Stiles' breath washing over his neck Peter didn't really feel the cold.
On return to the Grosvenor place house Peter managed to get Stiles to ride on his back, the boy would not be helped or carried either way and immediately went back to sleep, with Peter's hands under his thighs and his breath washing over the short hairs at the back of Peter's neck. Lydia, with a sweet smile, went to bed and left him to it. Boyd opened doors for him, as Peter carried him up the stairs murmuring "don't be sick, don't be sick," because if Stiles was it would be all over Peter.
Stiles' bedchamber was more spartan than Peter's own, almost starkly utilitarian, the bed was large, certainly, but the coverings were chosen for warmth and not beauty, and there were books and piles of paper all over the coverlet at the bottom and sides, Boyd turned down the coverlet and lifting most of hte books, using the pieces of paper to bookmark those that were open, as Peter, puffing a bit under the strain, for Stiles was not light and he might have managed longer if there were not a staircase in the way, put him down. "Mmmm, not yet," Stiles muttered in his sleep, "warm," and sleepily held out his arms. This caused his pocket to reveal itself as the harbinger on a small, bright orange kitten, clearly acquired without Lady Troutbridge's knowledge or consent. It was likely Stiles had stuffed the kitten in there to keep him out of mischief and forgot, but as the kitten, which was barely a few weeks old, and flimsy in the way new kittens were, climbed across Stiles, found the other pillow and went to sleep.
He took off Stiles' shoes with not as much care as he probably should have, before hefting him up to take off his coat and jacket. In the rare occasions that Derek had gotten to this state Graistan was the one to undress him but Peter was happy to let Boyd set the fire. "M'not a harlot," Stiles muttered as Peter unbuttoned the fall of his pants.
"Never said you were," Peter said, even as Stiles tried to bat him away. "You are, however, drunk, and you do need to be undressed for bed, now hips up, darling."
That appeased Stiles who let Peter undress him, then lift his legs so instead of hanging half off the bed he was fully on it, at which point he rolled over, away from Peter, and curled up to go to sleep with his hands beside his face and the kitten on the next pillow. Peter covered him with the three blankets that were on the bed under the coverlet and let him sleep.
"Boyd," he said, "make sure there is some barley water beside his bed," he was relatively sure Boyd knew to do that but it was best to be sure, "he's going to be thirsty when he wakes."
On the day that Stiles woke up with a hangover after an evening's overindulgence with Lady Troutbridge and no memory of either stealing a kitten, which he had, or being put to bed by his husband, which was also true, Derek returned to London accompanied by Waugh, who was as ill from overindulgence as Stiles, and Vidama Margot Hanson, who had been gifted a gown that had belonged to his omega sister, who had, only four years previous, eloped with a Spanish alpha to the scandal of London and the disapproval of her and Lightwoods mother, Maryse.
The gown was a pleasant thing, held to Margot's smaller frame with pins, and Magnus doing his best to hide what had been a patterned hem for Margot lacked nearly six inches on Isabelle whom she had never met but was glad that she had access to clean clothes, even as she commented that they might have been made for a giantess. Rather than offending Lightwood, who was, after all, the original owner's brother, Lightwood found the entire thing hilarious.
He had a sort of infectious glee where he was so happy with life and all that it contained that nothing could upset him and even Margot having a tirade about the absentee Todd gave him a sense of absolute amusement that was, in its own way, both disturbing and adorable. He remained taciturn but the stoic facade that he maintained at University was replaced with this all-encompassing happiness.
Derek found, to his surprise, that it was infectious and even found Margot catching herself smiling unawares and even the melancholic Mr Waugh was heard laughing.
Margot had confided in Derek, on a long walk through the local woods where they were scandalously unchaperoned, that Waugh was harrowed for he was to marry. Derek had assured her that most considered that a source of joy, but Eliot, and she always referred to him by name although she still called Derek by his surname, refusing that final intimacy and reinstating at least one rule of society, was to marry an omega chosen by his family, and the girl, Theophania, whom everyone called Fen, was a dear thing and did not deserve the sorrow which Eliot could not help but provide her.
"I do not understand," Derek said, "many omega in marriage live apart from their alphas, would she be unahppy outside society."
Margot had sighed and spread out her skirts to sit on a fallen trunk to adjust her gloves and cloak, her hood was fallen down around her loose brown curls and Derek was reminded that she was beautiful, for often when they talked he could forget becaues she was brilliant, devious and as smart as any alpha he had ever known, even those who had taught at university which she informed him when he told her was really fucking gendered, like she was an idiot just because she had a womb, like having independant thoughts and ovaries were contradictory. She had no idea how she was charming him.
"It is not that Eliot does not care for Fen, for she is a dear thing, but she loves him dearly, she has known all of her life that they are to be married though he has tried to wriggle out of it since, fucking idiot that he is, Eliot doesn't care for women, to be honest, he doesn't care much for omega, he's more interested in a cock than a cunt and she hasn't got one of those, although I did offer to take her to a certain store, she'd need a pochelette anyway." A pochelette was a glass device used for training omegas to take a knot, and it was one of those things that every one knew existed but no one mentioned, like douches.
"Are you saying you can buy alpha cocks?" Derek asked, he imagined it was another of those things that just about everyone knew but no one ever mentioned - because they certainly hadn't mentioned it to him.
"Oh, yes," she said waving her hand dismissively, "you can even get harnesses, they make them out of porcelain, I have a particularly nice one in delph ware so you can send it down to be washed with the teaset. It has a handpainted image of Marie Antoinette on it," she said and she was feigning such a look of innocence that Derek knew not to trust it, "she's got her skirts hitched up and a gentleman from the revolution is giving it to her right proper," Derek laughed, he couldn't help it. "It's an antique," she continued, "it was a gift from my sainted grandmother," Her expression turned impish then, "and it curves just right," she offered out her hand for him to help her to a standing position, "let me know when you start to desire me," she said, "and I'll shall introduce you to Marie and her harness."
Yet now Eliot sat in Derek's carriage, occasionally sighing to remind everyone that he was unhappy, and unhappily sober, because at some point during the season he was expected to marry a female omega and rather than seeing it as gaining a life partner who would manage his house, he saw it as a death sentence. He was a little given to dramatics. However Derek had just spent the last ten years with Peter, Eliot's sighs were not worth noticing in comparison. Margot didn't want him to be unhappy but did think he was making a little more of it than deserved to be made.
Many alphas reached arrangements with the people that they married, marriage was a business arrangement but love could be found anywhere. It might have been made worse if Fen genuinely loved Eliot, but even if she did surely then she would want him to be happy, and when Derek had tried to explain that he could certainly discuss it with her and come to an amicable agreement he had just sighed and returned his gaze to the window. "Oh for fucks sake," Margot said, "I don't fucking care you prefer to fucking take it up the ass or bend over some hairy alpha and make him take it up the ass, I fucking care that you're safe and that you're fucking happy, and Fen is the same, and if you insist on playing the fucking martyr there are elixirs you can take if you can't fucking get it up thinking about soldiers or whatever it is you get off too, Derek here is fucking delicious, fantasise about him." Rather than being offended Derek found it hilarious. He did not remember the last time he had laughed so much than when he was with her, and it was like Lightwood's laughter, where there was simply so much joy within him that he could not hold it in. This would have surprised his uncle who had considered that Derek had slid from the womb dour and long acquaintance with the world had not changed that.
Margot was so unique and so completely herself that she was everything that Derek had ever wanted to be and everything that he admired. Even Peter, for all of his statements of how undefined by the strictures of society that he was, had fallen back into the same patterns of behaviour as what was expected of him, even when he didn't realise that that was the case. There were things that were expected of an alpha of the ton, there were behaviours and patterns that were what was known, and Derek might not have been the connoisseur of people that his uncle was, but he was observant. He was shy so rather than put himself forward he was quiet and that quietness allowed him observations others would not be privy to.
Combined with his penchant for letter writing - he was a voracious letter writer and wrote letters to anyone who was polite enough to write back. That gave him windows into other people that simple observation did not, he could stand at the back of a ballroom and watch and with his sour expression, he didn't want to be there and made no secret of it, to the extent that Peter had taken great joy, on the boat from Belgium to Whitby, where they first decamped before taking the next boat to London, of reading aloud passages from Miss Austen's excellent Pride and Prejudice whilst laughing "it's you," at descriptions of Darcy, and his last letter had started "it is a truth universally known that a single alpha in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a mari."
Peter was nowhere near as droll as he thought himself.
Derek had not written, to Peter at any rate, about Margot. He was not sure how he felt and Peter, well-meaning, would tell his mother and Talia would, wanting him to be as happy in marriage as she was, force the courtship, or more likely insist it be called off entire. If she did that then Peter would champion the courtship just to be perverse, and Derek was not sure that it was a courtship yet. He liked Margot, she was frank and honest and preferred that people feared her than liked her, she cared not a jot what society thought of her and rolled roughshod over any complaint. If she considered a proposal from Derek, which he was unsure he was going to make at all, it would be for her own reasons and Derek suspected it would have more to do with the circumference of his biceps and the freedom a title such as his would allow her. If Derek proposed marriage then it would not be a quiet business arrangement, Margot certainly would not accept that, but based on mutual lust and Derek didn't feel that. He might later, but for now, she was fascinating and wild and he wanted to see her in her own environment in the ball that she had arranged where she was utterly in control, and not at the whims of the incompetent Todd.
She was happy reading in the carriage, ignoring Eliot's sighs and occasionally raising her head to make sure that he had not flung himself from the window in a fit of pique. She was reading Les Liaisons Dangereuse in the original French and had already joked to Derek that with his love of letter writing and his capacity for languages that they could recreate it and send letters about all the salacious people in London, even creating fantastical trysts for them to get into, and of course she would take the part of the fabulous Marquise de Mertuille and he could be Valmont, seducing poor virginal Eliot as they cut a swathe through the married peers of the realm. It took a moment before he was sure that she was teasing him.
When he was he made a comment about her being fabulous in an eyepatch at which point she had batted him with her gloves for spoiling the end because she hadn't finished it yet, she had only just borrowed it from Lightwood.
"We shall have to have them made, Daisy," Eliot said from the corner, "black velvet of course with gold orchids stitched on them, "was it La Maupin Julie D'Aubigny that wore an eyepatch that made her the darling of society?"
"She was the fencer and opera singer," Margot said, with her thumb in the book to keep her place, "It was Dona Ana de Mendoza, she lost the eye dueling apparently," she continued, "and was still one of the great beauties of her age. My grandfather had a portrait of her," that was the first time she had spoken voluntarily about her family so Derek didn't interrupt, "he maintained that she was in our family tree, if not legally, that one her bastards married in or had an affair with an ancestor whose mari accepted the child, or their mari had an affair with one of them, every time he told the story it was different, it might have been wishful thinking."
"If she was a beauty, Daisy, then there might be some truth in it," Waugh said, "for you are the most beautiful woman in London."
"Too fucking right," she agreed, "but she was an omega who used her education for Spain, at least for a little while, and what is she remembered for - that fucking eyepatch."
"And what would you be remembered for, Margot?" Derek asked her. He was genuinely interested.
With a snort about how people saw omegas almost half under her breath, which was surprising because she normally didn't hide her opinions, she went back to her novel.
Waugh might have had a point, with her dusky skin and dark brown curls she was a great beauty, her eyes were like black olives and her mouth soft, she had a pleasant tininess and perfectly small feet.
"Ah our great Dona has spoken," Waugh said, "we shall go to London and commission four hundred perfect eye patches, one for each day of the year and some extra for special occasions.
"I'd get a lazy eye, and I want my eyes as tight as my ass, you haven't seen it, Derek, but I can assure you that you could bounce a shilling off it."
"Come now, Daisy," Waugh drawled, "you know stuffing your bum roll with sand doesn't count."
"I'm reading my book," she said pointedly, "don't you have a ditch to drink yourself into, darling?"
"Why, have you got brandy in your bumroll?" Eliot raised an eyebrow as he asked her.
"No, but I have aquavit in my pochet." And how could Derek react other than to laugh.
Peter woke from his comfortable bed in the early afternoon, sent for a light breakfast of fresh bread with butter and jam and thick Turkish coffee, which he ate in the bath, and then dressed for a day at leisure. He managed to come down the stairs just in time to see, from the open window of a downstairs sitting room through the door Stiles was pulling up in the carriage meaning that the previous evening's red wine had not prevented him taking his exercise. He went to the vestibule to meet Stiles to instead be met with many large crates and an alpha he had not expected for many weeks to be arguing with Mrs. Finch.
Desdemona Greenberg was an alpha whose parents were just rich enough to send her to university but lacked the blunt for a grand tour. In such circumstances, they were invited, and paid, by those taking a tour to manage their luggage. This was not the clothes that accompanied them which were kept in chests lashed to the back of their carriages, but those things that they purchased which were too large to simply affix to their carriages. These would be sent ahead of the tourists often to a central location, in this case in Berlin, from which they could be moved en masse to London. This allowed Greenberg a grand tour just with more travelling. She would follow from one location to the next via Berlin and that she had arrived so quickly from the continent said more of the ambling pace that the Hales had taken from Liege than it did to her efficiency.
The Hales had paid her travel, a comfortable stipend and all she had to do in exchange was manage their luggage over ten years. This had left her comfortably wealth enough to marry well and she had the tenancy of one of Derek's smaller properties, a country house in Northampton - gifted to her when they were deep in their cups and put in writing - as payment. She had seen more of Europe than even the Hales, traveling back to Berlin in a repurposed vardo wagon, such as the Roma used.
She had told Peter that the Roma had the terrible reputation of being thieves but more than once she had made camp with them and found them to be kind and patient and nothing had gone missing. They had shared what they had readily and seemed insulted when he had given them coin in exchange. Once they had helped her with a broken wheel when other carts had gone past. She had nothing but fine words for them and admitted that reputations often caused more harm than good, after all, she was hardly the reputed ideal of an alpha, nor had she met one.
That exchange had taken place in Russia where Derek had been caught in some sort of tournament of alpha prowess so it was hard to agree with her when Derek was shirtless and throwing axes just to show how good he was at throwing axes and drinking the local liquor.
And she had arrived in London both faster than Peter had expected her and with a lot more crates than he had expected.
"Desdemona," he said stepping forward to kiss her on both cheeks, "you're early, but please assure me that at least some of these are Derek's." Mrs. Finch did not look impressed at the marble floor of the vestibule being completely covered in cheap crates and travelling chests. There were even a few large pieces of furniture. Peter had gotten it into his head that the luggage would be taken to Talia and she would sigh and send it on to Moreton where the servants would unpack it and find homes for it without disturbing him at all.
Before Greenberg could answer Stiles wandered in, with the door held open by Boyd. Boyd had the decency to try and remain stoic so the only reaction he had to the warehouse sitting in the vestibule was that his eyes were slightly wider than usual for a moment.
"What the fuck is this?" Stiles asked. Clearly, his ride had gone as well has it had the previous day. He remained the same sour disposition although he looked exquisite in his riding habit with his hair braided neatly. He had put a jeweled hairpin in his hair, possibly to hold an unruly cowlick. His riding habit was the usual Louise of Prussia military style but today it was a green so deep it was almost black and only the black braiding on his jacket showed the difference. The same braiding formed a line down his breeches into his boots. Peter wasn't sure if these breeches were tighter than the white ones he usually wore but they definitely framed his thighs beautifully.
Stiles was beautiful, and with his temper up he was magnificent - not that he would want to hear it right now. He even had a little gloss on his lips which he licked at in his temper.
"My luggage has arrived," Peter said airily, "I must commend Miss Greenberg on how quickly she delivered it for I did not expect it until late February, she brought everything from Berlin, I was wondering if we could invite her to supper, she is an excellent conversationalist."
Greenberg was not an excellent conversationalist but she was not so naive that she didn't realize she was being batted across to Stiles like a shuttlecock to distract his attention. Wisely she said nothing.
"Arrange it with Lydia," Stiles said, "she shall not be happy to have to find homes for all of this," not even knowing what was in the boxes Stiles was happy to as rubbish, the usual tourist rubbish designed to people stupid enough to buy it because they were in whatever place they had purchased it. And some of it was.
"Desdemona," Peter said, smiling at Greenberg in a way that made her want to bolt, she knew nothing good ever came from that smile, and she froze, like a mouse in an adder's gaze, the way she always did when he used that smile on her, "in which chest is the books."
Stiles froze, just for a moment but Peter saw it. "Both Derek and I are voracious readers and long carriage journeys are tedious even when Derek is not your conversational companion, we purchased many books."
"Do not think that you can buy my affection, husband, I have my own wealth and I have my own books," Stiles said firmly, but Peter could see him waver.
"I do not know if Derek packed it separately but he has a handwritten copy of Miss Wollstonecraft's manuscript, I do not know if he informed you he served as amanuensis as she wrote it, but he has a copy that is both full of errors and has details that were cut," Stiles was not salivating, not quite, even as he licked his lips with a soft little tongue, "if it is with the other books it will be here, I suppose there is only one way to check for sure." He gestured with his head towards the boxes. "Oh some of it is the usual tourist rubbish, but not all of it. I had thought you would be like a child at Christmas."
As soon as the words fell from his mouth Peter knew that they were a mistake. "Such gifts for your child bride," Stiles snarled it, "Mrs. Finch, if you can sort this mess," he waved his hand about, "I have a megrim forming, I shall not be down again today."
"So," Greenberg said, "I shall be going then,"
"Don't be ridiculous," Peter said, "you've only got here, come, have tea with me."
Stiles shouted down the staircase, the wide marble one with the blood red carpet that he never used, "oh, and husband, you cannot expect me to entertain your doxy."
"Doxy," Peter muttered under his breath, "you mean greenberg," he shouted back, "she's not my doxy, she's my courier. She's an alpha and she works for me."
Stiles responded with an expletive and a slammed door.
"I should," Greenberg looked longingly at the door.
Peter stopped her advancing towards it, "we have an excellent cook and the door is closed to callers, come, I have another task for you, and I shall pay handsomely for it."
Greenberg kept her wistful gaze on the door as Peter led her to his office, "someone is spreading rumors about my mari, I do not know the details of these rumors, but they upset him, and his upset is," he looked at the ceiling. "I barely know him but I do not wish him ill and I do not like people touching my things," there was a flash of greed and covetousness that Greenberg had not seen before, "and worse someone ill using those things that belong to me. I want you to go about your business, to do what you were doing, but to listen, to find out what people are saying of my dear bride."
"What's his name?" Greenberg asked.
"Mieczyslaw Hale, Viscount Moreton and Ashleigh, he is most commonly called Stiles," Peter told her sitting on one of the couches in front of the fireplace with it's small table for tea and gesturing that she take the other, "now as you can imagine I cannot investigate because as soon as I do they know I am his husband and fall silent, but they do not know that we are acquainted. Perhaps ten pounds would be enough for such an investigation, and of course I shall make sure you can enter Whites, I shall sponsor you for membership afterwards. You also do not have to worry that I shall be offended by the content of the rumours, I already know they are salacious. I shall almost certainly be angry, but that anger will not be directed at you, and if you can discover the source of them I shall double your gratuity. Does that sound acceptable?"
Greenberg, dazzled by the promise of twenty pounds, which was enough to buy ten fashionable gowns or twenty comfortable ones, or hire a butler for two years at London prices, agreed.
"Oh, and I shall smooth over the misunderstanding regarding supper. Do you have a fixed address? At present, I cannot offer you lodgings here, but I can arrange something for you if it is needed." She assured him it was not and pulled out a card upon which she scribbled out her parent's address which was in a much less fashionable suburb. "You will receive an invitation, your service is gratefully appreciated, my poor mari is just angry."
"If someone is spreading rumors I'd be angry too," Greenberg said, "it must be bad if you've heard them already."
"The only information I have is that it has something to do with a man called Harris, which I admit is not much to go on," Heather, the blonde housemaid, who was a slip of a girl in a plain grey work dress and bright white apron, came in with a tea service and freshly made scones, there was even clotted cream and jam. "Pass my compliments to both cook and Mrs. Finch," Peter said, "and thank you." She beamed at him as she rested the tray on the table. She offered to pour but he refused her with a warm smile.
"If your mari is upset with you, my lord, perhaps flirting with the housemaids is not a good place to start." Greenberg had always been frank in her way, mostly because she had no part of herself given to deception.
"I am just being kind," Peter protested, "I had not thought that I was flirting. That caused him to think it over, to question his interactions with Heather, with Lydia, with Lady Troutbridge, had he been flirting. Heather was a pretty thing, clear skin and a pretty curtsey in the place lemon and soap way betas often had in service. Lydia was lovely, with her long red hair and her creamy white breasts held firmly in place by black lace. Peter had long since come to the conclusion that the only perfect breast was the one he had his mouth on at the time, but Lydia's were magnificent from what he could tell, her pale skin was so prettily framed by her mourning dress. He'd looked, certainly, he was only human, but she was in mourning and out of the question, even if she wasn't Stiles' friend and their house guest. If he had fantasized about what her thighs would look like it was academic, between him and his hand.
Surely Stiles would realize that if he had been flirting it was harmless when it was aimed at Lady Troutbridge who struck him as something out of one of those gothic novels that Derek enjoyed.
He had to figure it out, didn't he?
Peter was sure that his luggage could be sorted by Mrs. Finch's quiet efficiency and would be arranged to suit Lydia's tastes, and was happy helping out, jacket pulled off and shirt sleeves rolled up, gausses hanging at his waist and cravatte lost so the lace would not be torn, to take things from the crates so they could be cataloged and passed to a half barrel of steaming water, there in the vestibule, to remove the foreign muck from them. He was enjoying the labour when Stiles came down with the kitten in his arms. He narrowed his eyes at the scene and then held the kitten out. "What's this?"
"It's a kitten," Peter replied, "you see when a mother cat and a father cat love each other very much."
"Why do we have a kitten?" he wasn't going to give into the mockery.
"Because you stole him from Lady Troutbridge, he stowed away in your pocket, I've sent her word that we have him, I am waiting on her reply."
Stiles reacted like he had been deflated as if all the anger in him had been allowed to drain out of him. "I thought you had bought him to try and buy my favor."
Peter looked up at Stiles, aware of how he looked, with shirt sleeves rolled around his elbows and collar open, like a workman in a field somewhere in Dorset of all places, he even had a smear of dirt on his cheek. He knew that he looked virile and all he was lacking was a piece of straw between his lips. "Stiles, if I had bought an animal to curry favor I would have purchased a horse."
Stiles buried his face in the orange fur of the kitten. "I do like cats." He ignored the fuss and bother that was going on around them, stood halfway down the stairs, as they unpacked the crates. It was something he said because he wasn't good at silence. He talked a lot, everyone said how he was loquacious to the point of inanity but he didn't talk like that around Peter. Around Peter he guarded every word.
"If Lady Troutbridge demands the return of her little stowaway a replacement can be found, a lap kitten, unless, no I don't imagine any have issues with cats," he looked around the gathered household staff and there were some heads shaked in the negative. "We can include it in the portrait I have commissioned of you by Sir Thomas Lawrence," Stiles went to say something, "before you complain, my love," Peter cut him off, "the fellow owes me a favour and why should I not want to immortalise you as you are now, young and lovely, full of the first flush of youth, a beauty of the ton," Stiles lowered his gaze back into the fur of the kitten, "are you still plagued by the megrim?" he asked.
Stiles took the opening he was given, "yes, I just wondered about the kitten."
"Mrs. Finch," Peter said, "let it be known that we will be closed to callers, Mr Boyd, will you accompany me, I have a few errands that I have to run, that I have just remembered. Heather, if you could attend his lordship, thank you." It was a wonder how quickly they rushed to obey, Heather going to the kitchen to get some of the store of ice and a cloth for his brow, and lavender for his fire. Boyd even followed, although it was with a quirked eyebrow.
Peter had Boyd drive the carriage to a rather shady looking apothecary in the part of the East End most commonly home to the Chinese immigrants of London. He then, muttering under his breath that some things never changed, went in, alone, and when he opened the door told Boyd he would need some help with the boxes.
He had bought several crates of bottled drinks with labels like Dandelion and Burdock Soda Water; Hibiscus and Raspberry Puree with Bath Spring Water, and Peppermint Cordiale with Boston Creme, and a Violet and Jasmine crush, each crate holding twelve pint bottles of the concoctions, each hand labelled, and on top of it he put a small bag with it's own smaller glass tinkles, and helped Boyd put them in the carriage, laying them out side by side so that they would not slide around too much and then climbed up next to Boyd on the driver's seat. "Why do I think that you are up to something that will get me in trouble, my lord?" Boyd asked and Peter thought it might be the longest sentence that Boyd had spoken to him.
"Oh absolutely," Peter said, "what fun is it otherwise?"
Boyd was not impressed with Peter's easy charm. He just made a breathy hn noise and drove the horses.
Back at the house he had the crates loaded into the kitchen, "for the staff," he said, "they are without liquor but still quite deligtful, you might wish to share them with Vidama Whittemore, but do not worry, I have put in an order for them to be replaced in two weeks time," Boyd had the disapproving hn noise again. Peter took a bottle of red wine, freshly decanted and the little bag he had bought at the Chinese apothecary before climbing the stairs. "Oh, if you could prepare a cold supper tonight, then you may all have the night at liberty, I shall explain this to the Vesdames." He took one of the bottles of ginger beer that Lydia drank so much of and stuffed it into his pocket.
Boyd's expression made it clear that he was sure that this was not going to go well, but he would do what he was paid for..
Stiles had closed the drapes over his windows, and not just closed the shutters, which meant that the room was dark and close, with the only light being from the fireplace. Peter let himself in and put the decanter down on a small table. "How's your head?" he asked.
Stiles was draped across the bed in shirt and pants with his arm over his eyes, the kitten was asleep curled on his chest. "Have you ever had a megrim?"
"Actually, yes," Peter said, "once, and I swore never again," he poured a dribble of wine in a cup, and from the little burlap bag he took a small vial of white powder. "Did you take laudanum?" He asked as an afterthought as he uncorked the bottle.
"I'm an omega, Peter," Stiles said dismissively, "don't you know, laudanum might make me infertile or stupid, or both, I can't get anyone to give me any."
Peter tipped a little of the white powder into the cup with the dribble of wine and mixed it with his fingertip, sucking the extra mix before he half filled the cup and carried it over. "A trick I learned in Europe," he said, "it tastes foul but it works." Stiles sat up and waited a moment before letting out a breath, allowing his stomach settle, and sipped the wine, emptying the cup in two swallows. "If you can, just sleep it off."
"I get megrims, Peter, it is my monthly curse. I do not know if it's better or worse than Lydia's cramping," he offered a bitter smile, and Peter put his hand on Stiles' head, which felt hot and sweaty under his palm, but he swept back his hair. "The ice helped, thank you." He lay down slowly so as not to upset his stomach further. Peter had had a single megrim whilst in Venice, overwrought and undone, left laid low by a terrible sickness and he had had, according to the doctor, simply done too much and despite the pain in his head he was not dying and nor would he go blind and that this was just a common megrim, and Peter decided, once his mind allowed him to think without the stabbing pain, he had found a remedy that he was told was very effective and had carried a vial of the powders with him.
That the apothecary had also carried the syrups and cordials was just a bonus.
Once Stiles had drained the cup Peter uncorked the bottle of ginger beer and handed it across for Stiles to clear his palate. "Finish that when your stomach feels more sound," he said, and then sitting on the end of the bed, he reached across to Stiles' feet where the coverlet was bunched up, resettled the kitten on Stiles' pillow. "Sleep, dear one," he said softly, "it won't seem so awful in the morning."
"You're not meant to be kind," Stiles muttered, "you're making it so hard for me."
"If you were not unwell, dear one, I would have such euphemisms," Stiles started to laugh but groaned instead. "I did you a terrible wrong, I forgot that you would grow up, I put you out of mind as a child and I was wrong."
"I think if I was not so unwell that you would not be so honest."
"The powders will kick in soon enough, dear one," Peter brushed his hand over Stiles' hair, "sleep, I've asked for a cold supper tonight, so it will be there when you wake if your stomach has settled." Stiles couldn't help the yawn that split his face before he turned and buried his face in the pillow. "I'll stay until you fall asleep."
In the blue sitting room Lydia was sat at what Peter considered an unusual labor for her, quilting. She had several fabric shapes which she made into tangrams and then stitched together, creating mathematically beautiful but rather bizarre patterns. "Ah, Lydia," he said sitting on the couch facing her. There was a screen in front of the fire which was burning brightly and filled the room with sweet smoke. There was a jug of ginger beer in front of her and several dainty biscuits for her to nibble on as she worked. She lowered her hands with her quilting pieces still in them and gave him a dark look for interrupting her. The blue sitting room was not one that she introduced callers to - possibly because of the glut of small farbic shapes sitting everywhere waiting for her to choose them, setting them down on the piece of paper with the tangram shape she had chosen.
Peter had always enjoyed tangrams, as a child he had a set of boards with outlined shapes and a box of shaped tiles. It had kept him quiet and busy on many a wet afternoon when he could not just run amok on the grounds and was expected to stay quiet, lying on the rug in Talia's office arranging the tiles into shapes which he would show to Marianne who would praise him for it with a bonbon and a kiss on the forehead.
"I was hoping you had access to Stiles' calendar," he told her taking one of the madeleine cookies on the plate in front of her.
With a raised eyebrow she pulled a small black notebook from the pocket of her apron, after she had pinned her work to the chestplate, and with a small pencil on a silver holder fixing it to her chatelaine she opened it. "What do you want to know?" she asked.
Peter wasn't sure if her tart tone was because she didn't want to be interrupted or because he had dared eat one of her rather exquisite madeleines. "A week," he said, "out of London, before the end of February, four days at least, ten at most, but I'm flexible."
"And am I to be included in this endeavour?" She asked, and there was not an ounce of give in her.
"Do you wish to be?" he had a leer as he said it, appraising her rather magnificent breasts where they were visible against the stomacher of her gown and her lovely neck, she had a shawl pinned to her gown under her apron but they were expesed, and he let his gaze linger up to the curve of her ear where there were soft bronze colored curls.
"No," she answered curtly, "so what is it?"
"Daisy Bodkin," Peter said, "is a dear family friend, she is also the finest breeder of horseflesh south of Birmingham," his gaze lost it's lechery and fixed entirely on her eyes, "I recieved an invitation to go stay and I thought my dear mari might enjoy it more than the bitchiness of the London Ton, a sort of working holiday, for I fully expect to return with at least one more horse in the stable."
"That's a euphemism I have not heard before," Lydia drawled.
"I do pride myself on originality," he answered, enjoying this harmless flirting with her, they both knew nothing would ever come of it but it seemed that Lydia liked to be reminded she was desirable even if half the ton was convinced she was cursed and the other enjoyed her misfortune, "but no, I fully expect that I shall be charmed into buying a horse."
"I am aware of what you did for him today, how you went out into the snow to fetch him medicine for his megrim," she fussed with the pencil in its holder, capping and uncapping it with its little silver lid.
"News travels fast in this house," he answered, not surprised at all.
"Not laudanum, I trust, you know that we omega are too delicate for such things," that was said with a sneer, Lydia did not believe that laudanum would cause infertility, it did sound rather implausible now Peter actually considered it.
"A remedy I discovered in Venice," he said, "what the doctor there prescribed for the one that I suffered following an illness," she nodded, "cocaina in red wine, unpleasant on the palatte but it does solve the problem. I simply went to the apothecary that I visited before I left London, is it not true of every rake that they must know an apothecary with a rather broad view of the common morality."
"There are closer apothecaries that can provide headache powders," she said, "within walking distance."
"But they do not sell the syrups and cordiales that I know Madame Yukimura does, I might have bought headache powders for Stiles, but I bought substitute wines for you too, my dear."
"I shall arrange his calendar and make sure he's available just after Vidama Hanson's rout, it is the third of the season and it would produce talk if he did not attend, she and I have something of a rivalry when it comes to the production of these affairs." Peter tilted his head in question, "I shall not be usurped as hostess of the ton by" there was a pause before she said it, "Margot the Destroyer."
This chapter needs a note
Abenham calls Peter Moreton, this is not a case of mistaken identity, Peter is Lord of Moreton and Ashleigh, so he will be addressed by his peers by his title, not your lordship [because that puts him of higher standing than them] or his name [which suggests a familiarity they don't have] but his demesne
so he is called Peter by his family, Hale by his friends and Moreton by his peers
At Lydia's insistence they missed the first event of the season, she made it clear over supper that only try-hards and those with blancs to present would attend and they would not be among them. Peter was to go to his club, that evening, whether he wanted to or not, and that unless Baroness Orczy apologized they would not be accepting any of her invitations and that was that. Lydia talked over any attempts to even question her rule and tilted her head in dismay looking every inch the vacuous incomparable when she did so, when Peter tried to complain, and dared to ask what it was that the Baroness had done.
She silenced him with a glare.
For the second meeting, the first ball, Lydia insisted on checking what it was that they intended to wear, putting Stiles in a rose pink satin that clung to his figure and with his hair oiled and brushed into a distinctive style, only just long enough to be braided, and with a white ribbon peeking out through the dark hair he looked impeccable and just snorted in dismissal when Peter told him that. Lydia's dress was black satin covered in net and was stricter than she normally favored, with her hair in a bronze colored cloud about her head, caught at one ear with a length of black ribbon. She and Stiles made a distinctive pair, Stiles looking for all the world like a bonbon, ripe and ready to be devoured at one's leisure and Lydia who should have chosen to dress for her beauty but dressed for mourning instead but still took the time to have her hair dressed and rouge and powders applied.
Stiles was also wearing a pair of fob earrings, large seed pearls under candy pink ribbons that framed his neck and collar so prettily, "they're from Versailles," Lydia confessed, "his grandmother filched them," she said with a smile, "I do think she and I would have gotten along,"
"sticky fingers," Stiles admitted with a smile, "aren't they precious, we had the suit commissioned just to match them." He turned around with tiny dancer's steps, and almost fell over his own feet in doing so and let out a loud bray of laughter that took up his entire body, there was nothing of restraint in him, in fact, he struck Peter as being a little drunk. Peter couldn't talk, he had had a large brandy before coming downstairs too.
Stiles was feeling indulgent letting Peter help him with his overcoat, a heavy red knee-length wool coat trimmed in white fur that matched the cap he pinned into his braid, and with white military frogging such as Louise of Prussia would wear. Peter wondered if he should ask if Stiles was related to her but at the same time he was aware that if he was wrong then Stiles, or Lydia, but most likely both, would make comment about how just because two people dressed alike or were from the same geographical location roughly did not mean that they were related.
Lydia, who had a cape with a fur collar and hood did not grace him with the dignity of allowing him to aid with it, even if tying the ribbon was difficult with her gloves on.
"Peter," Lydia said as they sat in the carriage, the one that was used for such things, Talia was a stickler for details so there was the everyday carriage, the cabriolet and the making an impression carriage which had polished black paint and the family crest of Moreton and Ashleigh, Peter didn't care but Talia had made sure that they had all the things that were expected of them. It was unlikely that Talia would be present for the ball but it was certain she would hear of any breach of etiquette and that she would grace them with an unwelcome visit to explain why etiquette was important. "It would be proper," Lydia used that sort of language when she wanted Peter to obey without question or complaint, "if you escorted Stiles for the first dance of the evening."
Stiles went to say something but instead just tucked the pendant that he wore under his shirt into his mouth. It was something he did when he wore gloves Peter noticed. If he had anything in his hands it went into his mouth, and when he didn't he gnawed at the edges of his thumbnail until Lydia would thwack him with her fan to make him stop.
Peter took the dance card and wrote his name in every slot before he handed it back. "I shall take every dance," he said, "it will give us time for conversation without you walking away from me."
Stiles offered him a smile and crossed his legs, "I shall step on your feet, although I cannot say that it's deliberate, you must not step on mine," he let his foot dangle to show off his red velvet shoes, "these're new and I rather like them, they're almost comfortable."
"I could get you satin slippers," Lydia said, "to match mine, they are comfortable as long as you don't stand on something sharp like gravel or grit, then you might as well be barefoot."
Peter had the blessing that the fashion for alpha men at the time were boots and he had a comfortable pair of black flat-heeled knee-high boots that he had been wearing for the past ten years and that his new valet had polished to a sheen that made them look freshly purchased. "You may step on my feet all you like, my dear one," he said, "and I shall consider each bruised toe worth it."
"You're a strange one, Peter Hale," Stiles said with a shake of the head and a laugh under his breath.
"I live to please," Peter answered with a wolf's smile, "and I do enjoy a waltz."
"You are aware the waltz is quite scandalous," Lydia said as she checked on her black lace fan, spreading it out and closing it again.
"Oh, I know," his wolf's grin was rapacious now, "and I would dance it with you also if you cared to dance, although with your small frame I suppose you are an excellent partner at a volta."
"I wouldn't know," she answered, "I came to London a widow, I have never had a dance card."
Peter acted shocked and horrified, "what a travesty," he said, "I do declare the indignity, the only two things to do in the London season are to dance and to drink, and you do not care for liquor, please tell me you fleece people at cards as soundly as you cheated me."
Lydia couldn't help the laugh, "they have no idea how I do it," she said, "but I might have won a stake or two."
When they arrived at the assembly rooms where the ball was being held Peter was a little disappointed for he enjoyed flirting, even the sort of harmless flirting he had with Lydia, he might have wanted into Stiles' breeches but he did not want up under her skirts, except in the academic sort of fashion. If he had had images of the two of them sprawled out naked in his bed waiting for him impatiently as they touched and tasted, well then it was between a gentleman and his chamberpot. He climbed down and helped them both to their feet, and Stiles deigned to rest his fingertips on Peter's outstretched arm as they climbed the steps, Lydia trailing behind but very much looking as if they were merely her entourage preceding her.
They were introduced and moved into the circles that they were expected to, Peter making sure that Stiles had a glass of champagne and Lydia a cup of lemonade before he went to join his peers. There would be a time before the first dance as the band were only just taking their places at the head of the room.
"Moreton," he was greeted by Lord Abenham with a deferential doff of the head. He nodded in response greeting his fellow. Abenham did not frequent Whites so Peter had not seen him since his return and if he was present at such an event he had his eye on one of the new brides that were being presented as wives in their first season, who were as naive as blancs but not as well protected. Abenham had given half of the ton cuckold's horns but he was placed so highly in parliament that no one dared gainsay him. "I had heard that you had returned from the continent, so how was the hunting?"
"I cannot say that I can complain," he answered, "my journey was enlightening in many ways."
"Odd that you showed up with that pair, however," Abenham stroked his impressive facial hair, his sideburns reached down to his jaw and were thick enough to need a comb, with hard wiry silver and white hairs. He took enough snuff that the hairs that hung below the bulb of his nose, reddened by brandy and hot rooms, were stained brown. He was obscenely wealthy and unmarried so he was always invited to these sorts of meetings, but it was more likely he would fall foul of a bad pinking in a duel and die of blood poisoning than ever marry.
Peter made a noise that left him an opening.
"The Slavic Harlot and the Black Widow," Abenham said with a sneer, "prettiest pair in London but everyone knows what they are like, she had three husbands and buried them all, you know she murdered her first husband on her wedding night with a pillow," He opened his waistcoat and took out his snuff-box, taking a healthy pinch and huffing it back like a professional before he pulled out his handkerchief and gave a pair of healthy sneezes into the linen, "is it a wonder her second husband beat her half to death, I'm told he was quite fond of his cousin, the unfortunate first groom."
A lesser man than Peter might have said something then, but he was prepared to give Abenham more rope with which to hang himself, Peter had wanted to know the rumours that surrounded Stiles and Abehnam, who was not so much a gossip as the sort of ghoul who enjoyed other people's misery, was happy to oblige him. "The third bought colours to escape her and her rapacious appetite," he snorted, "I enjoy life far too much to dip under those skirts, I had thought you were the same, Moreton."
Peter just tilted his head before calling over the waitstaff to refill their glasses with arrack and brandy.
"And the "Slavic harlot"?" Peter asked, "you must remember I have been out of London for the past ten years, many such things have passed me by." He might have been prepared to hold the rope whilst Abenham knotted it as well as offering him enough with which to hang himself.
"Trapped some fool in marriage when he was just fourteen," Abenham said with a sneer, "I imagine he was lovely at that age, all untouched and licentious, but clever enough to snare his the alpha who plucked that rose."
"Is that so?"
Abenham had warmed so much to his subject that he didn't notice how dangerous Peter's tone and stance had become, "slutted his way through London, everyone knows someone that that boy has had in his bed, with his poor wealthy husband cast out of London for what he did, allows every alpha that smiles at him the opportunity to dip his wick into that well, like it isn't as diseased as that of an East End penny strump..." He was cut off by Peter's fist colliding with his bulbous nose.
Peter then pulled the kerchief from Abenham's jacket and wiped the blood from his knuckles as Abenham spluttered with his hand over his nose. "Speak about my husband like that again, Abenham, and it will be pistols at dawn, do you understand me? If another word about my darling virgin mari falls from your mouth I shall put you in your crypt and make sure everyone knows why, every confidence you have ever given me shall be in the scandal sheets, do you understand me?" Abenham who had probably never been struck in his life nodded, and then fled, still holding his nose. Peter let the kerchief fall to the floor as if he had not just struck a man hard enough to cause him to leave and that everyone gathered there was watching him and took Stiles' hand, "come, my love," he said. Stiles, dumbstruck and baffled by the turn of events let him, "I do believe that you promised me this dance."
After the ball, Peter was surprised that the house was cold on their return. As the house was managed by not one, but two, omega who felt the cold most keenly the house was usually merry and warm, but the house had a chill that suggested that no fires had been lit and that the windows had been left open. He paid it no mind other than noting that it was cold when it had not been before. He went to his bedroom feeling pleased with himself because of how well the evening had gone and how sweet Stiles had been after he had punched out Abenham. He had had the opportunity to dance with him no less than three times which allowed him to hold him in his arms and breathe in the smell of content omega and lilac perfume. Matthew was waiting, dozing, when he came in, with a book in his hands that he hadn't been reading and there was a fire burning in the grate, making the room almost too hot.
Matthew helped him with his boots, then to wash his hair and shave him, it was late and Peter had every intention of not bothering the next day when he eventually crawled from his bed seeking food. He quickly ate one of the day's leftover Sally Luns, and happy that all was well sent Matthew to bed informing him that he would have a late start the next door, before stripping down to the skin and climbing into his bed, which had been warmed by a hot brick between the sheets. He spent a moment in the dark luxuriating in the warmth and softness, debating whether Matthew deserved a small gratuity for such excellent service when he heard a knock on the door. It could not be Matthew, he thought, he had only left less than five minutes previous.
Grabbing his dressing gown and wrapping it around his shoulders, slamming his feet into his slippers, he went to the door to find Stiles, wrapped in a fur-lined velvet blanket, with one bare shoulder revealed, where it had fallen down with his arm holding out a single candlestick, his hair was still braided as if Peter could reach out and tease it free but it did appear that under the blanket he was utterly naked. His skin looked divine in the small pocket of candlelight. Peter nearly made a sound of triumph but cut it back before it escaped.
"My room is really cold," Stiles said, and there was still gloss on his lips and he still had that lovely scent of content omega and lilacs only now with hot beeswax, "can I sleep here tonight?"
"Of course," Peter said, stepping out into the corridor to let Stiles in.
Stiles turned, all soft bare skin and cochineal colored velvet and soft grey fur and handed Peter the candlestick. "Thanks," he said, "Boyd will make you up one of the gest rooms," and then he closed the door in Peter's face. Holding the candlestick Peter couldn't even hammer on the door as he heard the key turn in the lock, there was nothing to be done, he supposed, except getting Boyd to make him up one of the guest rooms and plot the slow revenge that he would have on Stiles for this.
He had punched Lord Abenham. Peter had laid out a peer of the realm for Stiles and this was his gratitude. Peter had been involuntarily celibate since he had returned to London to impress his mari and this was how he showed that he was thankful. This would not go unpunished, he should get the master key from Mrs. Finch, open that door and bend that boy over his lap and make sure he knew that Peter was absolutely in charge.
However, Peter had the idea that if he spanked Stiles it would be a sexual act.
He should go into town, there would be a brothel or two still open at this hour, he could easily get a boy who looked like Stiles, an eager young beta and fuck this urge out of his system, but the problem was that that boy would not be Stiles and it wouldn't work and Peter knew it.
He went down the corridor beside the kitchens where one of the footmen, not Boyd, was sat with his head back against the wall, snoring. "Benjamin," Peter snapped. He was angry and was aware that it was not Benjamin's fault but Benjamin had the terrible misfortune of being there. "I require one of the guest rooms made up, a fire in the grate and you can put a brick between the sheets when it's done. I shall be in the kitchen until it's ready."
Benjamin, who had been leaning back on two chair legs nearly pitched forward as he tried to wake up, understand what he was being told to do, and stand up all at the same time, but he managed a milord before he went to scamper up the stairs on legs that weren't behaving yet.
Peter went into the kitchen where the day's bread was sat in front of the fire proving and the two kitchen staff were taking a rare opportunity of quiet at near five in the morning to grab a hot drink and a gossip, and were not prepared for their lord to enter the kitchen wearing nothing but a dressing gown and a pair of wool slippers. To further add to Peter's indignity the young kitchen girl burst out laughing, but it was a nervous laugh, the sort of laugh that escaped at a funeral or from a child that was watching a sibling be scolded. "Good morning, ladies," Peter said and sat at the kitchen table. The cook recovered first, giving her assistant a rather dirty look she got up, wiped her hands on her apron, and got down a tankard from the hook. "We're just having some peppermint tea, my lord, would you like some?"
Peter accepted the tea because it was cold and it gave him something hot to wrap his hands around. He thanked her for her kindness and sat scowling in front of the range, still wearing only his slippers and his dressing gown, and waited for Benjamin to bring him the news that the guest room was ready for him. He was aware that his bad temper was entirely Stiles' fault but other than a functional politeness to the kitchen staff he was not feeling suited for company.
When he went back up the stairs, after Benjamin who was holding a lamp to guide his way he saw Lydia cross the corridor, wearing only a sheer nightrail, into his own bedroom and if that was not the perfect ending to what had been, until Stiles stole his bed, a rather good day.
When he climbed into the guest bed, freshly made and well done despite how quickly Benjamin had managed it, taking no more than half an hour to dress the room, he let his hand wander down into his dressing gown, which he had gone to bed in which he never did, due to the cold, and let his mind wander to the thought of the two of them in his bed. He was mostly sure that they were not lovers, and would not care if they were, but the image of them together, in his bed, was intoxicating. His quick glance of Lydia had shown her to be pleasantly plump, like a portrait of Venus, with soft pale skin, heavy thighs and rounded hips, her breasts were heavy, but not so much so that unsupported that they fell to her stomach, and her nipples were high and tight from the cold. She had a pleasing neck and her skin would look so pretty contrasted against Stiles' more golden tone. His long slim limbs would be striking against her softer frame, and he could drag those long fingers over the pleasant curve of her stomach, her dimpled ass and thighs against his sleeker form. Lydia's voice had a gravel where Stiles was a tenor, how would they sound in their pleasure, what noises would she make if he lowered those plush lips of his to her neck, to her shoulders, her collarbones, if he dragged his tongue up the curve of her armpit whilst his hands spread over the curve of her ribs, before flicking his clever little thumbs over her breasts. What would her hands be doing, would they be in the apex of his thighs, rubbing and pulling at his cock, something Peter was yet to see, even as her head fell back. Or would her hands be in the cleft of his ass, rubbing at his slick opening, letting it plumpen under her fingers?
His cock had a pleased weight in his hand as he let the images fester, taking his time with slow motions, occasionally flicking his thumb over the head as he pulled back the foreskin, focussing on the image of the two of them bringing each other pleasure because they wanted to, because they were cold, because they were in his bed. He threw back the blankets before he finished, the sheets were fresh and he could easily manage this with his handkerchief, one of which he had in the pocket of his now open dressing gown. He pulled it out, letting it rest on his stomach, scratching the nails through the hair there before he brought it down to manipulate his balls.
Stiles would be gorgeous in his pleasure, all that lovely skin pinked and flushed as orgasm took him, then that moment where he went boneless after, how would Lydia look, would she throw back her head, would she grab the sheets beside her hips or grip the pillow as Stiles pushed his head between her thighs and tongued her to completion, would her knees bend as her toes curled into the sheet, would she gasp or moan, or would she scream? Would she turn him over, so that she could feast on the slick in the cleft of his ass, driving her tongue and her fingers into his heat or would she arrange him under her, so that her knees were on either side of his head and she could reach even as he licked into her?
Peter came into the handkerchief with a sort of deflated noise, cleaning himself up thoroughly before he pulled back the blankets and let the kerchief fall off the bed, what a pleasant fantasy, he thought to himself, perhaps he would use it in his revenge, tell Stiles about what he had done, how he had brought himself to a pleasing conclusion with the image of the two of them between each other's thighs. He took a deep yawn, how curious, he realized, he had not thought to put himself between them.
He would go see Derek the next day, he decided, he had to talk to someone, or he would be undone and do the two of them. It was an option, he decided, flirt with both to tease them both, but it would not work, Lydia clearly had no interest in either of them, which was a little distressing or he could have brought this to a most pleasing resolution. He needed to have sex, he decided, or he was going to strangle the boy.
Peter woke as Stiles returned from his daily ride, shouting for Mrs. Finch loud enough that he woke Peter who had been unaware of how deeply he had been asleep. He rang for Matthew who questioned his location but helped him dress in shirt and pants, with his house slippers, but neatly turned out in case they had callers, although now that Peter thought about it no one other than Talia ever called on them. Stiles and Lydia were something of social pariahs, they were invited to all the best parties and balls, and young male alphas would call on Stiles to help him dress, but no one came for tea and gossip. That, now that Peter had realised it, could be altered. He would invite people like Lady Brailsford, who had always been a close friend, to tea and once others saw that they had access to the gossip of the ton would follow.
Feeling proud of himself he went down to the sitting room where Stiles, still in his riding habit that framed his thighs so beautifully, but with the jacket switched out for a Kashmiri shawl, as he poured tea. "Good afternoon, husband," Stiles said clearly feeling very proud of himself for the previous night's mischief, "did you sleep well?"
"Like a babe at their mother's tit," Peter replied, for he had and waved over the footman, Benjamin, to request another cup and plate. There was plenty of pastries and fresh bread for him to break his fast with, and tea might not be as palatable to him as Turkish coffee when he first awoke but he could suffer. "I might move permanently into that room, the bed is most comfortable, it's almost as if the one that I was given was allowed to settle, but I know Mrs. Finch would certainly not allow that to happen."
"I found your bed supportive and warm, with the house so cold I even sent word that Lydia could join me," Stiles said, he reached across and took one of the jars and dropped a healthy spoonful of the raspberry jam into his tea.
"I know," Peter growled it, "I saw her on my way to the guest room, it gave me the most diverting images, why I had to take myself in hand," he could see the momentary flash of lust on Stiles' face, "such a vision, the idea of you and Lydia both in my bed."
The lust was immediately replaced with laughter, loud and free. "You have more chance of getting in my bed than Lydia's," Stiles answered, "and I am having too much fun."
"Oh I wasn't there, darling," he dragged the word out so it felt like a caress, "just the two of you."
Stiles was still laughing, "I'm not Lydia's type any more than you are," he answered, "but I thought of you today whilst I was out, I took the opportunity of a break in the weather," it had been snowing on and off since they returned from the ball, but that was not unusual for January in London, "to do some shopping. Look," Stiles reached down and picked up a cardboard box which he settled on his lap, untied the string and opened it with some to-do. From the box, he pulled a strange glass object with a tear-shaped ridged protrusion on a wand of no more than an inch that ended in a medallion about the size of a sovereign shaped like a rose. The medallion was cranberry colored which twisted up the want and spiraled around the tear shape, which was about the size and shape of a lemon. It took Peter a moment to recognize it for what it was, a pochelette, a device for training omega to take alpha knots. "Isn't it the most darling thing," Stiles batted it against his mouth, "I got a few other little things," he then pulled a shaped porcelain phallus which had, for a reason Peter couldn't understand, a blue etched image of a clipper ship, and another made of a dark tightly grained wood that was waxed to a sheen. Both phalluses had large bases, and the third, which was glass like the pochelette, had a rather distinctive curve even if it lacked the girth of its forebears, had a handle to make it easier to use.
"Darling," Peter said, "You do realize that as your alpha I have one of those and it would mean you could simply lie back and enjoy."
"Peter," Stiles said mocking moral outrage with a twist of his lips, "I didn't know you had your own dildo, it might be a sight to watch you use it, we shall have to get Mrs. Finch to invest in more oil, you don't lubricate like I do," and that declared he took a bite of his scone, heaped high with clotted cream and raspberry jam, jam the exact same colour as the glass in his pochelette.
Derek was still lodging at the hotel as his solicitor showed him properties that were available for rent in London at the inflated season prices. He was accepting callers when Peter followed their example and called on him. On Peter's arrival, the only caller was a tall alpha that Derek introduced as Eliot Waugh, the heir to the Waugh Baronetcy who was yet to have an estate to address him by. Derek said that with the sort of bored tone of voice that suggested that he was expected to say those things but had absolutely no interest in them. "Waugh is hiding from Vidama Hanson who is currently managing the final details of the ball she is hosting three days hence."
"Are you to marry her?" Peter asked sprawling into one of the cushioned chairs that his nephew had around the room.
"Daisy, oh god no," Waugh said as Derek muttered something in the same vein, "my father is her guardian,"
"Vidama Hanson," Derek said, "has taken over as something of master of ceremonies for the Waugh family, it is something that she enjoys and is good at." Waugh waved a wine glass as he agreed, "it seems to be something of a delight for her to command people around as if she is an emperor."
"She is much better at it than I am," Waugh said, "more attention to the finer details. I am to marry Vidama Theophania Bryant, from the Northampton Bryants of Lamport."
Peter nodded in a way that suggested that he knew them well even if he had, in fact, no idea who they were. Waugh it seemed was as used to these polite gestures as Peter. It was a useful means of conversation where anything could be avoided with just the right shrug, and two people could be fast friends for life and know almost nothing about the other.
"Will Vidama Bryant be attending the ball that Vidama Hanson is throwing?" Peter asked, the entire conversation was an exercise in politesse, Peter absolutely did not care but he knew it was expected to ask.
Waugh was tall, perhaps a hand taller than Peter but without the compact bulk that made the Hales look shorter than they were. Derek was, for example, the same height as Stiles but looked to lack a few inches on him. Waugh was both tall and thin, almost to the point of emaciation and so he looked tall, like a crane fly, all limbs and covering much more surface area than seemed necessary. He was spidery in a way that made him look like furniture did not fit him the way that it should. His hair was a black sprawl of curls that was just as spread out as he was. He was a handsome alpha, young and virile, clean shaven but he looked exhausted almost to the point of being unwell.
It made Peter wonder where Derek had made his acquaintance for he was not the sort of person that Derek usually surrounded himself with. Derek liked people who were loud so that he did not need to be.
He did not usually gather to himself lonely misanthropes who looked determined to die of liver failure before they turned thirty which this alpha was.
"God, I hope not," Waugh said in a deliberately morose fashion.
"Waugh is engaged to Vidama Bryant due to a long-standing family agreement," Derek said explaining for his uncle, "it is an engagement he is currently unable to break."
"Does he want to marry Vidama Hanson?" Peter asked. He was missing several important parts of this story he knew.
"Oh god no," Waugh said, "she's not to my taste."
"Waugh prefers alphas," Derek said as if it was not considered a huge character flaw in society and the sort of thing that could, if revealed, see him ostracised from society.
Peter looked Waugh up and down, "well, he's not to my taste, Derek, but if he's to yours who am I to argue, I'm not intruding on your tryst, I hope."
Derek roared with laughter, an unusual reaction, "and look, Waugh, you owe me a guinea," he said, and it was just as unusual for Derek to make that kind of gamble, to the extent that PEter wondered if he had been replaced with a simulacrum who just looked like him.
"Hale's not my type," Waugh said, "you on the other hand."
"I am everyone's type," Peter said, getting up to get himself a glass of wine, "we can commiserate over disastrous weddings that our families arranged for us."
"I thought that you were everyone's type," Waugh said, "not your bride's?"
"He is a little shit," Peter said, "and it's war between us now, my pride will accept nothing else."
"What did you do?" Derek asked. It was like his nephew to immediately think that Peter was to blame and in this case he was innocent.
"I punched out Abenham," Peter said, "he was calling Stiles a harlot completely unaware that I was his husband, so I defended his honour as I should."
Waugh muttered something about how Abenham should have been punched out several years before if it was just the spreading of such vile rumours that would earn him such.
"And how did the little shit repay me? he had arranged for the house on Grosvenor Place to be open to the elements so it was as cold as the ice forming on the Thames with the exception of my own rooms."
"That doesn't sound bad," Derek said.
"Oh yes, how considerate, it meant that when he knocked on my door, naked but for a blanket saying he was cold and wished to sleep in my bed he had an excuse to be there," Derek nodded, "and then the little shit used my manners and the fact that I stepped out of the way to grant him entry to close and lock the door behind me."
Derek barked out another of those unusual for him loud laughs.
"It gets worse, he sent word to Lydia that my room was lovely and toasty so she joined him there. The only room in the house fit for people to not die of exposure in and not only was it mine but I was the only one not given access. And he waited, he fucking waited, for Matthew, my new valet, to leave before he did it."
Derek was clearly amused but tried to school his expression, "so he pretended to reward you for laying out Abenham, who absolutely deserved it ten years ago and I'll be surprised if that was the first time anyone did, and then stole your bed?"
"Then, when I shared breakfast with him he had been riding, he goes every morning," both of them nodded him on, "and he had been to a certain store off Rotten Row that sells marital aids and explained to me all the ways he can use them, without me." Derek was pressing his lips together to prevent the laughter spilling out, "and when I offered him assistance, he asked me about my own marital toys and suggested a type of lubrication because I don't produce my own."
Waugh was the one with the loud braying laugh, he then unfolded himself from the chair, a feat even more like that of a baby foal than Stiles' attempts, and poured a glass of what looked to be rum from the decanter and handed it to Peter.
"So, it is to be war."
"He will win," Derek told him. "He has a rather powerful ace in his sleeve."
"My sister," Peter growled, "if I push too far she will have me en route to India faster than you can say Peter red really is your color, and that is a victory that would suit him, but he also knows that if he forces the ace she might send him with me."
"But, Uncle," Derek said in that sweet tone of voice he used exclusively to tease Peter, "I thought you liked curry."
"What Derek is not telling you," Peter continued, ignoring his nephew's offering to the conversation, "is that there but for the grace of God goes he, you see, he was the one expected to marry the firecracker."
"Until Peter was caught with his hands under the skirt of the wife of a man expected to be far more important to the war office than he proved to be, and in an attempt to prevent it coming to pistols at dawn,"
"three months before the hothead officer in question got into a different duel and got his damn head blown off," Peter felt the urge to add.
"Yes, three months before then, Mother renegotiated the terms of the marriage contract so that Stiles married Peter and not myself, but the things which Stiles is so rightly pissed at Peter for are things I made a point of not doing by virtue of being a decent human being." Derek beamed at his uncle. "So even if Peter had not been found with his hand en flagrante delicto and Stiles and I had married following my return from the continent as originally planned I would not have not written to him for ten years, sent him gifts he considered more suited to a child and then, not recognizing, attempt to flatter my way into his bed."
"You deserve everything you've gotten so far," Waugh told him, "you are lucky that is all that he has done, I am sure that Daisy would have torn her dress, run to the Duchess' in the night and told her how you tried to force the issue, allowing her to maintain her lifestyle in London just now with an officer's wages to boot."
"And your Vidama Bryant, do you fear she might lock you out of your own bedroom?" Peter had come here for sympathy, and all he was receiving was mockery. It was unfair. His hand still hurt from striking Abenham.
"I fear it is more likely to be the other way around, that I might have to lock her from mine." Waugh said with a sigh so lusty it was certainly rehearsed.
"Why? have you not arranged these things with her. What is it that Miss Austen said, happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of choice."
"Chance," Derek corrected him. "She said chance."
"She meant choice," Peter continued, "a marriage is a business arrangement, once these things are discussed with your mari it is a matter of discretion."
"Peter," Derek said, sounding exhausted, "you have been part of a marriage for no more than a month, and in that time your mari has made your life hell, you have not consummated the marriage because if you tried not only would he cut your balls off and wear them like earrings, your words in your letter, uncle, not mine, but Mother would have you in Calcutta on the next boat out wearing the colours of a regiment that would least suit you, you are hardly in a position to give someone else advice on a felicitous union."
"Then learn from my mistake, explain things to your omega," he emptied his glass, "come to an arrangement, tell her how you feel and then invite the alpha gentleman who takes your fancy into your household as a family friend, it's not like you can get him pregnant," he then qualified it, "nor can he get you pregnant, and if it takes time for her to come to terms with it, or you absolutely must have it consummated, then there is a fabulous little store off Rotten Row that sells everything you might need so that she can bend you over and you can both be happy."
From the pocket of his vest, Waugh pulled a guinea and flicked it over to Derek who caught it out of the air.
"Then we shall have to polish of this coven of men in disastrous marriages that should be able to be resolved with communication by having Hale marry Daisy."
"You're assuming that she would have me," Derek said, "she does very much know her own mind."
"She has told me, rather succinctly, that she would spread you out like butter given the chance," Waugh said. Peter made a comment about how she sounded like a keeper, "you shall be attending her ball, tell me that you will dance with her."
"Derek doesn't dance," Peter told, "he has the grace and fluidity of a felled tree."
Derek made a noise of derision at the comment, he just sucked on his bottom lip and crossed his arms over his chest.
"If a tree falls in the wood," Peter started, "and no one is around to see it would it still give a better waltz than Derek?"
"What I do not understand," Peter said from his place on the carriage bench facing Lydia, Stiles had tucked himself into the corner of the carriage so that to the outside observer he was sharing a seat, but he was more leaning against the door and staring out of the window than he was interested in what was going on inside the carriage, "is why they call her Margot the Destroyer."
Lydia laughed, "to think, my lord, that you might have missed so much being abroad from London for half a score years," the entire statement was made with a sense of smug amusement that ill-suited her in his opinion. "It is almost as if the entire social structure is different."
"It is exactly the same," Peter answered, "just the faces differ, rarely do people pay attention to omega and they make little impact on politics." Peter made little impact on politics too but Lydia was too polite to say so.
"You are charitable to say so, sir," she offered him a little smile, "for we change the world in our salons and soiree, and it is a thing that Vidama Hanson and I compete with."
"She arrived in London, two, three years ago now?" Stiles answered, still staring out of the window, "around the same time we did, that first few months no one knew she was managing the Waugh's social engagements, just that she was educated, and beautiful and had a large dowry, you can imagine how popular she was. People came to see us out of a sense of morbid curiosity, Lydia had just taken the black and I was naive, perfect opportunities for seduction, I'm sure you'll agree." Peter did agree, for he would have seen the two of them exactly the same, a perfect pair of plums waiting to be plucked. "Vidama Hanson seemed all that was good in the world, perhaps too dusky for common beauty, but she had a lovely dowry, an almost obscene amount." He offered Peter a wry smile, "enough to turn any head even if she has an Afghani coloring, or so they say. I wouldn't know, I've never seen an Afghani."
"Her mother is Arabian," Lydia mentioned, "she is very beautiful but very foreign in her features, you cannot miss her in a room."
"I doubt a foreign heritage is reason enough for such slanderous descriptions," Peter said.
Stiles turned in his cheek and patted his husband on the cheek in condescension, "it is so sweet that you think so," he said.
"Imagine, a young girl of twenty-one, freshly come to London, a brilliant garnet among diamonds and clearly eased into the most modern of fashions by those who know better and very, very rich. That first season she was beating the suitors off like flies." Lydia told the story as if she was amused by it. "And that is where she came by her nom de guerre," there was a smile as she said it, her hands in lace gloves but buried in a muff of sable on her lap. Like Stiles, she wore a heavy velvet cape over her gown, but could not wear a cap or hat over her styled hair in case it was mussed before they arrived at the Waugh ball. Especially at an event that Vidama Hanson was hosting Lydia could not look anything other than perfect. "You see she didn't just politely remove those buzzing flies from her influence, she swatted them down without remorse or weakness. She took those weeks of politely smiling and pretending she was an educated idiot and she learned, she knew everything that would make an alpha leave her alone and she used that information judiciously. She did not dissuade her suitors, Peter, she destroyed them and salted the earth where they stood." There was a hint of pride in her voice as she said it, "she ruthlessly pursued those who would not take the hint, she undid their plans, she used influence and knowledge and had alphas loyal to her to destroy their investments. More than one was turned away from their clubs in her name."
"Strangely," Stiles pointed out, "it just made her more popular, with Lydia she throws the best parties, she will dance and make love to any who engages her, as long as you take no for an answer she's delightful, cross her and you might be more comfortably situated on the continent."
"Who was it that was so distraught by her refusal that he bought colors?" Lydia asked, "went and ended up in the peninsula because she made it clear what she thought of men that wouldn't take no for an answer?"
"Donetti," Stiles offered, "horrid man, held me responsible for my father beating his to an investment that foundered anyway. Last I heard he was doing well in the Peninsula, it suited him greatly."
"Has she destroyed any of your suitors, Stiles?" Peter asked sweetly. The look that Stiles gave him should have curdled milk.
"I am not as talented as Margot at cultivating them," Stiles answered with a sneer, "nor do I have her advantages, if I did not flatter my suitors then I would have no recourse against those rumors that are spread about me." Peter had a moment's thought, something that would definitely be better chewed over when he had the time.
"Perhaps we should outfit them with tabards and swords if you use them to protect your honor," Lydia said with a smile that suggested a return to good humor and mocking the "suitors" as opposed to those in the carriage.
"I find it's cheaper to give them embroidered handkerchiefs," Stiles said, "I buy them in bulk from a lovely lady on the Isle of Dogs."
"You go to the Isle of Dogs?" Peter tried to curtail his protective alpha instincts, Stiles was his own person, he neither wanted nor needed Peter's protection but there were behaviors that caused it to rise up in Peter like a tide, like going to a very rough part of the city.
"No!" Stiles said, "and nor do I invite her to the house, I get Boyd to pick them up for me halfway, she gets a guinea per box of five and I get all the embroidery I could want to give as tokens, do you want one, I think I," he started ruffling around under his dark velvet cloak and then pulled a scrap of white muslin out, which he handed to Peter, "there you go. You won't feel so left out now."
In the lamplight Peter examined the fine work on the fabric, the edges had a tatted lace delicately sewn in place. "Her work is exquisite," he said, "we should get her an apartment somewhere less dangerous and sell her work in one of the modistes in Rotten Row, we could make a fortune."
"We have a fortune, Peter," Lydia said, "her husband is," she made a gesture with her head, "we don't short her for her work, but we don't think to give her more money would work out well for her when if he drinks he has, in the past, broken her fingers. We give her money he takes it for gin and removes her capacity for work."
"That too can be taken care of," Peter growled. He never understood why some alphas, and beta men, had to enforce their opinion with violence. It always struck him as being a sign of weakness, or even insanity. He could not understand it because it was so far out of his own nature.
"She wouldn't thank you for it," Stiles said and went back to staring out of the window. "He'll return to the peninsula soon enough, he always does." And he was content to leave it at that.
Peter was left with the feeling that he had a glimpse into another world that he could not, by very nature of his birth, understand, and that he was making huge misassumptions because of it, and that those misassumptions were at the core of what he did not understand about Stiles.
Then the carriage arrived at the Waugh mansion and they were disembarking in order to attend the ball.
The Waugh ball was a glittering spectacle of satin and silk, diamond glimmered at lady's throats and wrists. White gloves were on show as alpha ladies favored short sleeves despite the weather, and even omega ladies seemed to prefer a three quarter length sleeve and with short gloves, there were flashes of wrist and forearm on display. On a small stage in the main ball room, a quartet was warming up for the evening's revelries by playing folk songs or requests for those who asked. Alpha gentlemen dared more varied colors, and one even wore a mustard-colored superfine that whilst it was certainly unique did not favor his coloring or frame. Beta men tended to the same dark colors, green or blue, a few risking burgundies, whilst there were a few military scarlets visible in the crowd.
The omegas were a sea of white and color, the blancs, in pastels were gathered around in one corner, gossiping amongst themselves whilst the younger married omegas wore bright colours, pinks and greens and peacock blues, as they grew older the colors became more sedate and the brilliance of the jewelery picked up the slack in showmanship.
Lydia was not the only omega in black, a young man with the saddest eyes Peter had ever seen came over and kissed both Lydia's hands in greeting, and she kissed his cheek and assured him he was very brave for coming tonight, in a role that should have been Vidama Hanson's. She was bustling about like she was Lady Waugh making sure that everyone was greeted.
She was lovely, which Peter had not expected. She had a small softness that made her nom de guerre of Margot the Destroyer seem even more out of place. She was wearing a very pale yellow that was almost white, layered in white gauze embroidered with tiny yellow blossoms and purple-blue white hydrangea blossoms, and her hair was styled into a curl over her shoulder where she was wearing yellow diamonds and pearls, highlighted against her skin. She was not as dark as some he had seen but her skin was much duskier than that of her peers and she had a voice like treacle.
She remembered the name of every guest and even those who had not been invited, treating each like a bosom friend she was glad to see after a long absence. Nothing about her or her manner struck him as being that of the infamous Margot the Destroyer. She would have looked entirely at home in the courts of Venice or Constantinople, but in London, she was a jewel in a poor setting, for her beauty was too unusual to be easily overlooked.
Certainly, there were other black-haired dark-eyed girls and male omega but they lacked her easy exoticism, made all the more remarkable by the fact that she wore London fashions.
If Peter was not determined to bed Stiles before it killed him - under the estimation that it just might - he might have advanced his suit on her.
Helping her with hostess duties was a young bride, clearly already married by her bright coloured gown, with her hair dressed a'la grecque was an omega smaller even than Margot, although she had a more athletic figure under her gown, years of raking had given Peter an educated eye so that even the layers of padding on a gown could not distract him. She had heavy lidded black eyes, a wide mouth and a pleasing face but when she greeted Lydia in Margot's place she had a voice like smoke curling under a door and such a pleasant earnest manner that any weaknesses in her beauty were immediately ignored.
Peter was not such a naif to assume that because she was affable and charming that she was not as smart or as dangerous as Margot, or Lydia, or even Stiles if she was to be found in their company. She was introduced as Lady Coldwater and she looked across at a sandy-haired gentleman who was in close conversation with Mr. Waugh, the two were stood as close as lovers, and Peter saw part of the tragedy going on with Waugh.
It was not that Waugh preferred the company of alphas that distressed him, it's that he preferred the company of one alpha and that alpha was bookish, distracted and clearly dragged to the ball by his lovely young wife, and the blunt-faced young omega girl must have been Theophania. She was pretty enough with an earnest sort of country loveliness, the sort that suited hard work and a lemon and soap lifestyle, she had broad shoulders and her hips were wide even under her bumroll. She stood as tall as the sandy-haired Lord Coldwater and she was clearly devoted to Waugh who was ignoring her.
It was the sort of thing that it would take Miss Austen to resolve, and Peter had no intention of giving more advice that he had - that if everyone talked to each other they might be able to reach an easy compromise.
He was aware of the irony in his own situation and that had he taken his own advice at any point in the last ten years he would not be in this situation.
Peter had flirted with Vidama Hanson, for he would have felt it detrimental to his character had he not, before he joined the cluster of alphas in the corner. He had put his name in Stiles' dance card for the last dance of the evening, because Lydia's pride would not let them leave earlier, no matter if they had plans for a journey the next day.
He moved over to the cluster of alphas, on the mezzanine overlooking the ballroom floor, and taking a seat and a glass of brandy and champagne, joining the conversation. When they saw him the conversation shifted to how he had laid out Abenham and they wanted to know if he had intentions of repeating the behavior. He informed them that it seemed to be a consequence of his new connubial bliss - he was not beyond lying - that he seemed to react to accusations or slander against Stiles with violence.
He said, swirling his drink in his glass, "I had not thought that I was so protective, but I never did like other people playing with my toys," that was said with a threat over the rim of his glass.
"You will let us know when you are done playing with him, Hale," one of them said, "he's the best sport in London."
Peter sighed and put the glass down, sitting forward on his armchair. "Curious, isn't it?" Peter asked, "how each of you knows someone who knows someone who tumbled him, but yet none of you can name one alpha that crossed his thresh-hold," he left a pause entirely for dramatic effect, "almost as if the rumor has absolutely no footing in reality. He's the best sport in London but no-one has been invited to his chamber, with his dupe of an alpha in the country. It's almost like slander has defined his experience in London, I wonder if his husband would like this sort of behavior."
"Well," the original alpha sputtered, "there's you, we all know you."
"Of course you do," he smiled, and every part of it was a threat, "and of course I have," his smile deliberately showed far too many teeth, "I'm the dupe of an alpha." The sound of his glass being placed on the table marked an end of the conversation. "I have been absent these past years, you must update me on the gossip," and although the threat remained the tone lightened enough that one of them offered an amusing anecdote about a mutual friend who had been caught in a compromising situation when the constabulary raided a brothel looking for a thief who had taken refuge there after trying to run from the runners.
"Would you look at that?" one of them said, looking over the balcony at the swirling waltzers below. "That's a sight for the ages."
Peter climbed out of his chair and moved over to the rail, the other alphas joining him to see this marvel, asking who, what, what were they looking for?
Peter smiled as he noticed it, there performing a rather stiff waltz was his nephew, Derek, and in his arms was Margot the Destroyer. That certainly was an outcome to watch, for Derek looked for all the world like he was in love, and Derek did not easily express himself, but he was looking at her like she was a wonder of the world. Derek took time to feel desire or love, and behind Peter's back he had given that time to Margot the Destroyer. Lydia would be livid. Not that it was any of her business and she would have a private tantrum and then congratulate them both and wish them all the happiness in the world, that was the sort of person that Lydia was.
"Some young blanc is actually dancing with Sir Jared," another exclaimed, "and a waltz at that."
After returning very late to the Grosvenor Place house it was decided that with their journey to Daisy Bodkin's it would be best that they prepared now and could sleep in the carriage. The Hale family had bought, at great expense, a carriage for long journeys that had what Marianne had called an omega nook, a deep bench with velvet upholstery that she could lie on and sleep bundled up in blankets and arrive rested, if not refreshed. Peter had arranged that he use it for the journey so Stiles was given the opportunity to quickly wash and dress, and came down the stairs drinking from a tankard of chocolate that he admitted he had spiced liberally with brandy. Peter took one look at him and shook his head, "Mrs Finch," he asked the woman, who was wearing a dressing gown and looked like she wanted nothing more than to return to her bed, "where did you put the cases of clothes that Miss Greenberg delivered?" On hearing the answer Peter left Stiles standing there and then came back holding a heavy shapeless coat, it was, Peter told him, from the coldest parts of Northern Russia and was a seal skin lined in bear fur, and was much warmer than the silly pelisse that Stiles had pulled on. He pulled it around Stiles' shoulders, letting him slip his arms into the sleeves and the heavy coat fall to his knees before he pulled it closed so that the fur softened around him, warm and soft. "There's snow on the roads," Peter said, patting Stiles on both shoulders, "you should be wrapped up from it." He himself had pulled on a heavy wool greatcoat with a heavy knit scarf that again had come from Russia where they used them wrapped around their head under their fur hats, one of which Stiles was putting on his head.
"I look like a wardrobe," Stiles groused.
"You look like you won't expire of cold," Peter corrected him, "your luggage is on the carriage, are you ready, my dear?"
The use of endearments between them had become a game, each trying to use them to remind the other of the battle that was taking place in their home, with each offering sex and refusing it. "Oh, my love," Stiles said with an arch smile, "I was born ready."
He allowed Peter to pull fur mittens on his hands, eschewing the more fashionable fur muff, and then put his hand on Peter's arm to descend the stairs to the carriage where Boyd had set up a second tankard of "spiced" chocolate, and made sure Stiles was ensconced on the wide bench that went under the driver's seat, where most carriages had storage and was wrapped up in rugs. "Wake me when we reach Miss Bodkin's," he said, "I fully intend to sleep all of the way there." And swallowed up by pillows and blankets he slurped his chocolate, only leaning forward to put the cup back between the metal rails put there to hold it, and did exactly as he said, he slept.
In his years Peter had seen many lovers sleep, it was a rare pleasure to lie in bed and watch someone, sated and comfortably numb, sleep beside him. There were those who slept like Derek, on his side facing the door in case someone might come in, arm over the blanket and body rigid like a plank. There were those who slept curled up like Dublin prawns, with their knees pulled in to their chest where they lay on their sides and their head barely on the pillow. There were those who spread out stars taking up as much of the mattress as possible on their backs, those that lay on their backs with knees bent and one young lady who had resembled nothing as much as a frog, lying with her knees under her and her face smashed in the pillow.
Stiles managed to drape himself over the bench, almost swaddled in the blanket with his face hanging off the side and his mouth open, pressed against the velvet footrest, where he was drooling. There was nothing of grace or beauty in it, there was a frisson of desire at the image of him with hips cocked and legs spread, Peter was only human after all, and Stiles was luscious, like a peach that if squeezed would spill its juice. He also snored. What surprised Peter was that he found it endearing. He was tired, unable to sleep in the carriage for watching Stiles. He mumbled in his sleep rousing Peter every time, even from some rather delicious fantasies involving Stiles, himself, the carriage and a cobbled road.
Peter wanted to peel back those heavy furs and push Stiles back naked upon them, he wanted to put his hands or his mouth on that peachy skin and see what noises Stiles would make then. He wanted to see what it looked like in firelight for he was relatively sure, based on the quality of his complexion in candlelight. He wanted to touch and thrust and also to shake the boy. One particularly interesting fantasy saw Peter drape a fur over his knee and then the boy, naked over the fur as he brought his hand down on those peach buttocks and watch them pink and red under his hand. He wanted to explore Stiles' sexuality and what he liked, but also to burrow under blankets with him, to find him open and wanting under his hands and just slide in, welcomed, and bring them both to lazy orgasms in their bed.
And the worst part was that Stiles knew it, he knew Peter wanted him, and he wanted Peter, but he wasn't willing to give an inch, he was teasing and enjoying being teased. It was as close to a courtship as he had gotten.
That thought sobered Peter entire.
Peter had stolen that from him and then remained distant. He had put Stiles so far out of his mind it was as if the boy had not existed. But Stiles had existed, he had grown up and all those things that were considered rites of passage for people his age were missed because Peter had been in Europe and had not given him a passing thought.
Daisy Bodkin had been a diamond of the ton. She was titled, related to the higher tiers of nobility, beautiful and rich. She seemed to be everything that an alpha could want. Educated, lovely and sporting she was considered the prize of the season, as Vidama Marguerite she had had London at her feet. Then her elderly great aunt for whom she was named died suddenly leaving her vast fortune and crumbling estate to her, and she had eschewed all of society to restore the house. A few brave alphas braved the journey but found that although she was patient with them she clearly had no interest. She bought herself a mare and a stud and started to breed and train horses with her money. A thing that was unthinkable for an omega, and in the next twenty years, defiantly and proudly a spinster, she had become the finest breeder of horseflesh in the south of England. Even the most judgmental of society would overlook her peccadilloes to be considered as the owner of one of her new geldings which were the finest hunters in England. A Bodkin hunter was the envy of their neighbours but people overlooked that it was a single omega who managed the estate and its enterprises.
There were rumours, of course, of salacious misdeeds, which were always quashed with the same answer, she lived in monastic solitude with another omega, Angelica, who was a widow from Edinburgh and the two were happy.
Peter had always liked Daisy, she had been presented at court the same year he had started university and he had made sure to frequent every card table in every rout and meeting he could when he was in London. She was beautiful so he flirted, but they both knew it was lackadaisical and expected. He was a beautiful youth oblivious to anything but his own beauty and surrounded himself with beautiful things to maintain that illusion. In the young Vidama Marguerite he had found someone more interested in animal physiology and natural philosophy than in the latest on dits, and he could talk to her like an intellectual equal. Had she in any way liked the company of alphas he would have proposed marriage just for that. In fact on one occasion he had offered it, in a joking sort of way, to free her from the society that was draining the beauty from her with its constant demands.
Daisy was the reason Peter kept telling Stiles to leave society that was making him so unhappy.
He just hoped that she did not reveal that Peter had written to her often, sending her trinkets, for she was a dear friend and it was nice to have a friend with whom he had no sexual attraction. It was like having a sister that did not interfere in his life. He should not have been surprised, although he was, when they arrived and Stiles greeted Daisy like an old friend. Peter might not have considered befriending Stiles, but Daisy would have, and the two shared a love of riding. He had allowed Peter to feel smug about the introduction and the two of them were old acquaintances.
Daisy met them at the door, wearing a man's greatcoat, her hair tucked up under a wool cap, and a riding crop resting against her shoulder, "you're late," she said, and turned and went back into the house. Daisy had become perfunctory, capable and efficient, she made sure that everything around her was just so and that included her friendship with Peter Hale.
Stiles, waddling under the layers he was wearing was quick to follow her. The light snow in London was thicker here, several hours drive from the city, perhaps as much as a foot covered the fields and trees, giving the landscape a black and white chiaroscuro of hard lines and a white chocolate sky. Her house, Rudd Manor, was stained black by the weather, looking more austere because of the snow, and there was a large fire burning in the grate of the entrance hall. "Come, come," she said as she helped Stiles peel off the layers, "the tea will be stewed, Angelica will be heartbroken, come along," and went to a door on the left and opened it to a cosy sitting room. "Boyd, you can go warm up in the kitchens, there's a luncheon there for you, let my people bring their luggage upstairs, it's far too cold for such travelling, come along," and just like that everything was arranged.
Her sitting room was everything she was not, where everything about her was capable efficiency, with her greying hair swept back into a loose knot on top of her hair, held in place with pins not to style it but to keep wisps from her face. She wore a shirt and skirt with a jacket of thick Scots tweed with suede pads at the shoulders and collar to prepare it for hard wearing, and a pair of riding boots that were visible under her skirts. Angelica wore a lace cap and black gown that was more appropriate but far too sedate for the fashions more common in London. She wore black lace gloves, "come now, Daisy," she said, as Peter saw her, "like I would let the tea stew, Peter," she let him kiss her on both cheeks, "you grow more handsome every time I see you, like a cheese, more and more an acquired taste." She turned to Stiles, "and look at you, you get taller, the last time I saw you why you were all baby fat and eyes," she kissed him on the forehead, "and we sold you Saturn on the promise you would look after him."
"Like he was my own child."
"He takes him out every morning, runs races with half the alphas in town," Peter said, sitting on the couch.
"I hope you remember to let them win once in a while," Angelica said with a smile.
"Of course, or they'd never let me race otherwise."
After a pleasant and heavy supper where the conversation was light and amusing Peter turned to Daisy and asked if everything had been made ready, although Stiles looked him askance. She agreed that it was, and wished him luck, informing him that they didn't keep London time in this house but there would be someone ready to greet them back.
"I have a surprise for you," Peter said with a grin.
"If it's your cock I wouldn't be surprised," Stiles answered. He was sullen all of a sudden and Peter did not know why.
"No, not this time," Peter was not one to be daunted and offered Stiles his arm, "come, my love," he said, "youll need to wrap up for this."
The morning after the Waugh ball, as Peter and Stiles were traveling to the stud farm of Vidama Bodkin, Derek woke earlier than he had expected to, considering how late he had been up the previous night, and instructed the hotel to send twelve yellow roses to Vidama Hanson thinking of how lovely Margot had looked when they danced.
In Vienna, where the waltz was almost a way of life, it was said that the dance could be performed so swiftly and so sweetly that it would not extinguish a candle held by the alpha partner. He had seen it performed but never understood why the Austrians were so determined to make it happen, between that and their tradition of pinking each other in duels Derek was baffled by them but found them personable enough for the six months that they had stayed in Vienna. That sort of alpha posturing suited Peter quite well.
But dancing with Margot he had understood it, he wanted to know what it was like to dance so serenely that it was almost otherworldly and suited how he thought of her, fae and lovely and tiny enough to fit into the palm of his hand, but tricksome and cruel and as terrible as the dawn.
She was a mass of perfect imperfections, and Derek wanted to spend his entire life unraveling her mysteries, but he was not sure that he desired her- yet. He had had momentary fantasies, her dark hair spilling loose over a bare shoulder, but he had had the same sort of fantasies about Waugh with the easy reassurance that nothing would come of it.
Derek had always found desire to be a personal business that had nothing to do with the person who was being desired, even as many of his peers thought that such hunger gave them the right to the bodies of those that they desired, either by coinage or force. Any sexual congress should occur by the express permission of both parties that could be rescinded at any time, by either party. He had had sex and enjoyed it with several partners but it took him a long time to come around to desire, and most of the time he just didn't see the point. He understood that other people were driven by those desires and came to them quickly, but he himself did not.
He knew that Margot desired him for his body, but she was witty and seemed to enjoy his company and after that first offer she had not pressed or done more than let his fingers linger on her bare wrist.
For a long time Derek had assumed he was broken because he was so different from his peers, he was not easily distracted by fine calves or a magnificent pair of tits but he could appreciate that they were lovely, he just didn't want to get his hands or mouth upon them. When his fellows came out of lectures and set to boarding houses and bordellos Derek had gone to the library and read. It was Peter who had discovered that the deep sadness that affected his nephew was that overwhelming sense of being wrong or broken, and had, passing over a flask of brandy, and said people were different, not broken, and that any eye who looked at him askance should be blacked and that simple reassurance had meant the world to Derek.
When he had tried to explain the curious nature that he shared with desire to Margot she had accepted it without question or demur. She had offered, he had said no, and that was as far as it went. She enjoyed his company and sought it out and she had laughed when they danced the volta, throwing her in the air with a peal of laughter that was inappropriate. Blancs were not supposed to perform the scandalous dance or the waltz, but Margot just brushed aside the complaints and gave a dark disdaining glance to those who said so.
She was beautiful and fierce and determined and every inch the destroyer they called her - and it just made her more magnificent.
She would like the roses, he thought to himself, she almost always wore the color yellow, which flattered her complexion and it was far too early in their courtship for him to gift her diamonds.
He paused he had not known until he thought the word that it was what he was doing - he was courting her. It surprised him for he had not thought that he ever would, then he wondered if perhaps she was courting him, and then laughed, it was not like she had sent him roses to thank him for the dances. Chocolate covered espresso beans imported from Italy didn't count, did they?
For a moment he wished Peter was available for discussion because he would know, but Peter was taking Stiles for the surprise that he had planned nearly two weeks before. He could visit his mother, Derek thought, but she would get involved and then it would become a huge to do which was the last thing that he wanted. Whenever Talia became involved in anything it became a huge to do. He loved his mother but she had the discretion of a dropped anvil. If he asked his mama she would tell his mother but she would give better advice.
He could visit Laura, but if that was the case why not just wait for Peter to return. He stirred his tea over and over in the cup, the noise of it making a soothing sound. He was struck that he knew how she drank her tea. He remembered Stiles' because he put plum jam in his tea to sweeten it and drank it black and the idea struck Derek, who drank his with just a small splash of cold milk, as utterly abhorrent and left him wondering how much the tea had offended him to do that to it. Margot liked a slice of lemon and half a cube of brown sugar.
Surely that was important - that he knew by rote how she drank her tea.
Her coffee she drank black laced with a generous dram of scotch whiskey and only after supper, or she was in town and felt like she absolutely needed a drink from dealing with Todd all day. Apparently, Todd was responsible for her single white hair. Derek told her she was being silly, she had no white hairs, but if she did then Todd would completely be to blame.
Did he desire her he wondered, her shoulderless dress and the coil of black hair dropping against it had left his mouth dry - was that desire, he wondered. When he had desired Gökçe it had struck him like a blow to the gut, he had become undone with it, waking up hard and aching desiring the soft places on his golden skin, the cleft of armpit and crook of knee, the arch of the back of his neck, the long slim lines of his back and the firm strength of his thighs. They had fallen upon each other like locusts, with drugging kisses and hands dragged against oiled skin, it had been a fire under his skin and he had thought that all desire would be like that. It certainly seemed to be how others felt it. For once Derek hadn't felt broken in his sexuality.
He and Gökçe had burned hot and under the indulgent eye of his elderly alpha it was expected and welcomed, Gökçe had a great hunger for the pleasures of the flesh and he and Derek had spent whole days just enjoying each other in the hot sun and spiced nights.
He and Peter had delayed their departure from Constantinople for long months as the relationship continued, and slowed and ended peacefully when Gökçe and his alpha had left the city.
Brought back to the present by dropping his teaspoon in his cup with a clink Derek thought of Gökçe with a fond smile because the two had been happy in their mutual passion, and he thought of Margot dressed as he had, in gossamer pants gathered at ankle under the loose silk tunic and the layers of beads around her neck and wrists and a matching gossamer veil held in place by a chain and pendant that fell against her forehead. She would be sat on a carpet next to a window, staring up at him, dark hair falling over her shoulder, barely covered by the whisper-thin fabric.
His mouth went dry at the image, yes, he thought, it was desire.
He had bought clothes for Gökçe in the Constantinople bazaar, things that were too fine to give to any but a mistress or a wife. There was a silk blouse and the silk gossamer pants in a creamy gold, and over it a red tunic coat, that he could not remember the name for, that was split to the hip at either side, and embroidered with gold leaves and ribbon panel in heavy silk, accompanied by a velvet belt over which there was a jointed metal belt that looked like a snake swallowing its own tail and from which hung golden charms. It was matched with a veil of the same gossamer that was large enough to wrap a woman whole for her grave and was worn over loose hair.
He could ask Margot if she would consent to be painted wearing it, elegant and lovely, exotic and beautiful, sprawled in a pool of sunlight and playing a mandolin, or at least pretending to, with the cleft of her bosoms visible through the opening of the dark red fabric.
It was desire, he knew now, it was different though, a slow banked fire instead of the bright burning but short-lived desire he had felt for Gökçe.
He rang the bell on his tea table for Graistan who had taken over the role of majordomo, after deciding Derek was a lot less stress to serve than Peter for the same wage, and told him to make sure he had plenty of writing paper but that Derek would be going shopping, he couldn't offer to court Margot if he lived in a hotel, so if Graistan could find suitable accommodation, there were certainly plenty of properties in the family coffers, but something fashionable in London would do, Derek would be busy and attend the club tonight, because he was at sixes and sevens. He was going to offer for Vidama Hanson, if she would have him, and other than that he had absolutely no idea what to do.
Graistan was, as always, was his rock, the calm in the storm of what he felt, and told him that that was all well, but he would probably be best starting off by putting on pants.
Derek thanked him for the information and told Graistan that he should make a list of things that were necessary, for Derek himself felt all at sea, and together they could work towards a happy conclusion, but Graistan was absolutely right, he should start by putting on pants.
That was followed by the question what if Margot had not cared for the roses?
Roses were out of season and only those grown in hothouses were available in London in late January, so they had been expensive, but what if they were too expensive? What if he had overstepped and when he presented himself to Waugh's father he was refused because he had gone too far and spent too much and Waugh was insulted because he was flashing his wealth. And for all the times for Peter to leave the city it was now, when Derek was having both a revelation and the crushing fear that that revelation had left him with.
Perhaps he needed a coffee, he thought, served the way that Margot preferred - with one-quarter coffee and three-quarters whiskey.
He would go shopping, he would buy an engagement gift, he would order new clothes and he would go to the club and play billiards until he felt surer about his decision. Except for how the decision itself felt inevitable, he had never been so sure of it - it was the rest of it that was terrifying him.
Pants first, then whiskey, then shopping. He could do this. He was a Hale. He was brave and sure and true and he was walking to the tantalus and pouring himself a brandy, still in his dressing gown and slippers.
Once he was fully dressed in several layers of fur which he complained made him look like a walrus Stiles was allowed to go to the front door where his surprise was waiting. Peter had gone to a lot of effort to make sure that this was possible, removing Stiles from London, arranging everything with Daisy by post to the point that it was available after supper. When Stiles opened the door the night was crisp and clear, there was a blanket of snow on the ground that Peter had hoped for but could not have guaranteed and sitting upon the drive was a sleigh with four imported reindeer to pull it. The sleigh was bright red and fitted with bells and lanterns that they might light their way but the moon was so bright that there was no need for them. "I thought we might have a midnight sleigh ride," Peter said with a nonchalance that made it seem like it was the most ordinary thing in the world.
Even in harsh winters it was unnecessary for the British to keep sleighs for the snow was never deep or persistent enough to warrant them, and that Daisy had one suggested more of a bad business deal or a bizarre gift- one which Stiles did not put past Peter- than it did a conscious purchase. The reindeer were imported alongside it for horses were more likely to stumble and Daisy would do nothing to threaten her herd.
The reindeer were led by a surly looking man who eyed Stiles' Russian overcoat coat, the one that Peter had given him, with a sigh and some envy. "Shall we, my love?" Peter asked, gesturing with his hand.
Stiles made a noncommittal noise for he did not want to admit that the entire thing was in fact incredibly romantic.
With his hands in fur mittens, Stiles climbed into the sleigh, allowing Peter to fuss him with the furs and sit next to him under them. Stiles wasn't taking the gloves off for anything, this was Peter's idea, as he was quick to point out, let his hands get cold. The handler brought over a metal handwarmer which he gave to the omega, and in a thick Bristol accent asked when they would be ready to leave.
"When you're ready, good sir," Peter said politely, the man shrugged, pulled up his hood and took to the driver's seat, with a soft thwap of the reins the reindeer began to pull the sleigh, letting the bells on their harnesses chime prettily.
"What would you have done if it had continued snowing?" Stiles asked he was mostly only visible as a strip of skin between his raised collar and the brim of his fur hat where his eyes were.
"Waited until tomorrow," Peter shrugged, "but the gods are smiling on me." He fussed a little with the fur over his knee, "brandy, my sweet?" Stiles considered it for a moment, letting the promise of the warming effect of the brandy war with the fact he'd have to remove a glove to get it, and decided against it. Peter poured himself a glass and sat back, cradling it to his chest.
The landscape was beautiful like this, the sky a crisp and clear dark blue with a corona around the brilliant white moon, the light was reflected by the show making the trees and hedges seem tenebrous in a way that they were not during the day. The snow had an eerie effect on sound too, making it seem crisper and muffled all at the same time, and the air was sharp as needles where it touched the skin.
"Is this not a pleasant surprise, my dear?" Peter asked, the use of fond pet-names between them had become something of a challenge, each using them with no real emotion behind them to try and get under the other's armor.
"Yes," Stiles admitted to himself, "it is."
Peter was silent for a while, taking a sip of his brandy, before he offered the glass to Stiles, who, mittens and all, took it and from it imbibed a lusty swallow, then licking the last of the spirit from his lips.
The world was silent around them except for the huffing steps of the reindeer, who were enjoying the journey more than their driver, and the shush-shush sound of the sled on the snow. "Daisy told me about this," Peter gestured to the sleigh with a free hand, "in her letters, she sold two mares to a Norwegian prince and he was so pleased he gave her this as a thank you, he called it a cultural exchange." Stiles snorted under the layer of fur, "she had no idea what to do with four reindeer and a sleigh, the weather here rarely gets the opportunity to be poor enough but she takes it to the village and has the children ride around in it, whooping and hollering, it exercises the beasts and gives the children a pleasant day."
"You wrote to her?"
Had Peter had more of his wits about him he might have realized how dangerous that question was. "She and I are old friends," Peter said, staring at the sky, "it would have been rude not to respond to her letters."
"So there was someone you wrote to?" Stiles tone did not suggest the storm that was coming from that question, a storm Peter should have seen on the horizon with the snow clearing the way.
"Just Daisy," Peter admitted, "she knew me when I was a slip of a lad and she was still in society, she is more like a sister to me than anything else but there were times I needed her counsel and times when she needed mine."
"It is strange," Stiles said, almost to himself, "at first when you did not write I told myself you were waiting until I was of age, that you simply had nothing to say to a boy barely out of the nursery," he paused, "but I waited, you see I wanted to know the man that I had wed." He stopped again, "Then I became of age and the letters didn't arrive, I suppose by that point I had convinced myself you would send for me, that I could see Europe with you. Seventeen came and went, then eighteen, then nineteen, and still I received no word, oh there were gifts, things you sent because you had seen them and had no meaning, a porcelain doll from Paris, the miniature cabinet from Amsterdam, the blanket from Sweden. Like a fool, I cherished them all." Stiles had clearly rehearsed this speech and Peter did not dare interrupt him.
"I eventually got bored of waiting, I decided you had no thought of me, Derek wrote religiously, every week a new letter, he told me of your exploits, I came to know you through him." He paused again, looking out over the snowy landscape, "I joined society, I bought the most expensive house in London I could find with your money and invited Lydia to live with me, to help me spend your money, to decorate it. For a year I enjoyed society, I liked the attention, I like the way the alphas pay attention to me. But I waited, I flirted, I teased but I never followed through. And still, you did not even write to me."
Peter at least had the grace to remain chastened.
"I even debated going across Europe to meet you, I convinced myself it would be more appropriate than just writing to you."
"Why didn't you?" Peter asked, "write to me, I mean."
Stiles' laugh was a dark, sour thing. "The arrogance of the alpha," he muttered, "you impose all of these rules, all of these strictures, and it does not matter when you bull through them, it does not matter when you are inappropriate. How would I have looked, Peter, so desperate for your attention that I write to a man to whom I have not been introduced?" He stopped again, took the glass from Peter's hands and drained it with a lusty swallow, "then so much time had passed, I thought, if I spend his money he will notice me, then when you didn't I spent it because you didn't care. I made investments and imagine my horror, husband, when they worked and I made more money. He shook his head. I became the scandal of London and not even for something I did, I slighted some ass and he spread word that I would spread my thighs for any who asked, and how quick people are to believe any slander. So I had to appear above it, beyond it, so damn rich and powerful that it did not matter what they said. And still, you did not even write to me."
"Stiles," Peter said.
"I had made a decision today," Stiles said in that low, quiet, sad voice, "that I would forgive you, that I would let it go, that I would allow us to start as if we had met for the first time at dinner." He stopped again and Peter could hear the waver in his voice, "you didn't write to anyone after all, why should I be different?" He cut Peter off when he went to speak, "but you wrote to her. Oh not as a lover, she wouldn't have you, she has no interest in alphas, anyone could see that, but you wrote to her and not to me. Driver," he leaned forward, "can you take us back?"
"Sir," the driver said, "look," and pointed at the sky.
Stiles tilted his head up and looked where stars were streaking across the sky in white lines like stitches. There was no way Peter could have arranged it, to be honest, he had not even known it was happening, but with the sky so bright it was easy to see the meteor shower as it lit up the sky. Alone in the field with only a small lantern to illuminate them it was clear to see them as they fell and burned, and Stiles said, with a look of wonder Peter wanted more than anything to be able to recreate in him a hundred times, "we can wait a little longer."
They remained in the sleigh for upwards of an hour, revealing his rancor with Peter Stiles seemed lightened, as if he had concealed it even from himself and that in telling him he had removed a terrible burden from his shoulders. They watched the stars streak across the sky, passing the flask of brandy between them and when Peter clapped together his hands, for he was only wearing thin leather gloves, Stiles frowned and took Peter's hands between his own mittens to warm them, calling him an idiot and an alpha both.
"Tell me about your travels," Stiles said, "tell me about Venice, is it really as beautiful as people say."
In this Peter could be honest, talking of the grey streets and how they quietened with the autumn, of the fabulous Carnevale with its masks and rules and freedom all at the same time. He talked about the food and the music and the way the water reflected off the canal waters on to the ceiling of their rented apartments at night and how soothing it was to sleep under the waves like that.
He even surprised himself when he talked about Lady Amelia and how he had swum in the canal to visit her to continue a rather interesting conversation, which Stiles knew to be a euphemism, against Derek's better judgment and how he had been slapped in the face with a broom for his presumption and spent the next week in bed sick.
From there he told of the journey through the Alps to Tyrol and how more than once Peter thought that the carriage would topple from the roads which were so steep and narrow that even goats would avoid them, but the carriages trundled along under the watchful eye of bored Austrians.
He spoke of Vienna and the beauties there, the beauty of wood and stone instead of water like in Venice, and from there Budapest and Dubrovnik. He spoke with passion about Constantinople and said honestly that Stiles would love Copenhagen if it wasn't so damn cold.
Wetting his mouth with the brandy he spoke of Greece and the blistering heat of Morocco with its shadowed alleyways and far too many British soldiers who turned a small part of Marrakesh into a false England, but how you could hear the water sellers cry out in the mornings and how each house was built around a small tiled fountain and how the house that he had stayed in had a fig tree in a pot and how in the morning they could simply pluck the fruit from the tree and eat it fresh.
Staring at the sky he did not see how Stiles hung on his every word.
He talked about the smell of places, how the long carriage rides often left him nauseous and aching and how Greenberg always managed to beat them to their destination. He said how he had wished he had an ability in the arts that he might be able to show Stiles the things that he had seen, the waterfalls and the fjords of Norway which were so beautiful that they left him breathless.
He spoke of so many things with a distant wonder as if he could reach out and recapture it if he knew just the right word or incantation. He even described places in France where they had pretended not to be English, just in case, and how beautiful and harsh Corsica was where Napoleon was born but how they had stayed there only a few weeks waiting for a change in the weather.
"I have never been further abroad than Brighton," Stiles said, "not even to Dover."
"Would you like to?" Peter asked. "It is the wrong time of year to embark on a journey, but there are certainly places we could visit, Amsterdam is close, it is a puritan place, staid and boring but their coffee is exquisite and from there we could go to Bruges, or even up into Berlin."
"Vienna, to see the opera there," Stiles said firmly, "then Wroclaw, where my mother was from."
Peter turned to Stiles who had rested his head on Peter's shoulder whilst he was talking, "I see no reason why not."
Stiles waved off Peter's attempt to help him down from the sleigh, and as he did, resting his hand on the lip of the vehicle a stone rolled under his foot which caused three things to happen together. There was a terrible noise like snapping branches, Stiles made a wail more suited to a paid mourner, or a beloved pet whose foot was stood on in error, and Peter lurched over to try and catch Stiles before he fell.
Stiles' pushed him away, "I'm fine," he protested before he put the foot in question down and made the noise again this time with an intake of breath and a tirade of curses more suited to Vidama Hanson. Peter didn't wait for a second refusal, slipping his arms under Stiles' legs he lifted him in a bridal carry and brought him into the house and set him down on the couch in front of the fire.
That late, and it was the very early hours of the morning, almost the entire house was a-bed and it was clear that the doctor would not be easily available, so Daisy sent one of the footmen, of which she had two, to fetch the horse doctor who lived on the estate and would be able to strap a turned ankle well enough.
She took command as if she was a military general, barking orders, including for her leather shears for the boots would have to go, bowls of both ice and boiling water, packets of powders, and all manner of treatments better known for horses than people.
Stiles, given a few drops of laudanum diluted with burdock for his pain, glared at Peter "this is your fault," he hissed, "I really like these boots, I got them comfy, Daisy, they were my favourite boots, he ruins everything," and then foxed by the pain relief started to gush over one of the house cats who, seeing the commotion, sat on his chest and started purring. Perhaps given too large a dose of the laudanum Stiles was delighted by this outcome and started talking to the cat about the kitten that had stowed away in his pocket and was his now and that he had called it Loveday and how Lydia was looking after him but that she complained that his claws got caught in the net of her skirts.
Afflicted with an opium addition to in vino veritas Stiles went on, as Daisy cut off the boot in question to reveal what was clearly a broken ankle, to reveal to the cat about how he was married to the worst man in England, a punishment made worse because Peter was charming and witty and he really wanted to climb him like a mountain but he wouldn't because he was a rotter and, this was in a stage whisper, a total prick-knot.
Daisy couldn't help but snort with laughter as she revealed Stiles' foot on the couch. It was broken, the worst of it held in place by the tight leather boot but, without the support, it started to swell, purpling and ugly even as she put the stocking, now soaked in the ice water over it.
"It's broken," she said, "you should have been more careful," she told Peter.
"I didn't help," Peter protested.
"And that's how this happened," she turned to Stiles, "we'll get this strapped, and get you tucked up in bed with a hot brick."
"Can kitty come too?" Stiles asked, trying very hard to focus.
"Certainly," Daisy said, as if Stiles was a very small child who would normally resent the tone, but was too shot in the neck to care much about anything, even the way that she was laying cold compresses on the broken bone to help prevent it swelling too much.
The horse doctor came in, he was a west-country laborerr with facial hair that would have been a thick beard had both sides of it met at his mouth, and looked like he had dressed quickly for he had tugged on his leather oil coat over his nightshirt and deerskin pants, nor had he laced his ankle boots tight. He had not even bothered with a hat, just a length of what looked like old horse blanket. He carried a heavy leather bag with him which he put down in front of the fire.
"It's broken, sure-'nuff, Missus," he said looking at it, "we'll get this splinted and laced and get this foal back in his paddock," as he took the small stool by the fire.
"Mr Barnabas," Stiles said gleefully recognising the man, "did you see my kitty, look?"
"Mr Stiles, is that you?" Mr Barnabas said with the same sort of smile reserved for an old friend, "look at you, all grown up, I thought I taught you better than to go out in this weather," he sounded paternal and fond, "no wonder you broke your ankle."
"Is it broken?" Stiles asked, looking at the man over his cat, "I didn't know, but my husband," that was said with a dark tone that promised retribution, "thought it would be romantic." Had Stiles' hands not been occupied with the cat he might have made air quotes around the last word.
"Then that word doesn't mean what he thinks it means," Barnabas said, "because it sounds likehe did something bloody stupid instead."
Peter couldn't even defend himself as the man ran his hands over Stiles' ankle, feeling the break with his fingertips. It was clear among his other duties the man was a bonesetter. He knew what he was doing. "We can lecture him about it in the morning, pup," and Peter wanted to berate the man for speaking to Stiles so infomrally but it was clear that Stiles was well known here - had Daisy invited him herer when Peter left, had she made the move to include Stiles when Peter himself had not? He would not put it past her. Stiles did have a Bodkin Hunter for his daily rides.
"I haven't broken my ankles before," Stiles said proudly, "I broke my wrist when I fell out of a tree, I didn't want to tell my Papa because Mama was so sick," he stuck out his wrist to show them, "my governess was so angry with me, she was scared I'd lose my hand because it was so big, it was like a melon from Spain," then he sort of turned his head which was a sort of lolling flop motion, "Peter, have you had melons from Spain?"
"I have, pup," Peter said, brushing Stiles hair back from his forehead, not relieved to find it clammy.
"I like melons," Stiles said, "and figs, my Papa used to have figs and honey for his breakfast, with Turkish coffee whilst he head his paper and made sucking noises through his teeth about the state of society. I miss him," he said it so matter of fact, "but Talia was kind, she said, Mischief you must come live with me, you'll be like one of my babies, but he was my papa and I didn't want to leave."
"Stiles," Daisy said softly, "Barnabas is ging to set the bone now, it's okay to scream."
"Stiles," Peter said, seeing the pieces of a puzzle laid out for him but missing a key component, the arch stone of his understanding was lost. "What happened to your father?" Peter remembered Lord Stilinski as a fair man, he had a wicked wit and an intolerance, not so much for stupidity, but for clever people who feigned it to get ahead. He was a plain man who was exactly as he appeared with a good reputation. Peter knew Stiles mother had been in bedlam those hard last few months of her life, but now he considered it he had no idea where Lord Stilinski was.
"He's dead, Peter," Daisy said in a low voice, "he died not long after you left, a quick fever; hale by lunch and dead by breakfast." She said it so succinctly that to Peter it felt like a knife blow.
"I," Peter was lost for words. "I am an ass."
"Never was truer words spoken," Daisy muttered, "but we'll beat it out of you sooner or later."
Boyd carried Stiles up to bed, looking long suffering as if it wasn't the first time he had had to suffer such indignities but he would not let Peter take his place with such precious cargo. Stiles was asleep before Boyd had reached the staircase.
Peter walked over to the sideboard and poured himself a glass of brandy, drinking it down in loud swallows, then he poured a second one and handed it to the bonesetter who took it with a "thank'ee, m'lud".
"I have married a whirlwind and seeded it with hate and misery," Peter said to himself.
"I'm just a horse doctor, m'lud," the bonesetter said, "but there are ways to handle an abused mare, one that had a rider too heavy with the whip, they might help."
"He's not a horse, man," Peter snapped, "I'm not going to carry sugar cubes in my pockets to feed him." He felt guilty that Stiles had gotten hurt in his plan to be kind to him.
The bonesetter didn't seem to be offended by Peter's curt one, "you start by getting them used to you, to people, to them knowing that you are not going to hurt them, that you won't use the whip, then you start to touch, just grooming them, or giving them blankets. With time and patience, you can turn a flighty mare into a sound ride."
"Be kind, Peter," Daisy said, shoving the poker into the fire, she had thrown the old and cut away stockings into the blaze and was making sure that it burned. "He's lonely, be there, be here, where he is. Or take him with you," satisfied with the fire she took the pins from her hair so it fell down over her shoulders, "now I'm to my bed, I'm sure you gentlemen can make sure the house is shut up for the night."
Peter didn't go to bed until the light started to paint the sky over the snow pink. He sat at the fireplace and drank, thinking. He pondered many things, and considered for the first time that perhaps his war with Stiles was selfish. Stiles had every right to punish him, and Peter had every need to listen. Perhaps the old bonesetter was right, the way to win Stiles wasn't with grand gestures of huge gifts, it was with time and patience and reassurance.
It could begin with support for the broken ankle, even if Stiles would spend the next few weeks on some kind of pain relief. He could visit Yukimura's apothecary, she might have something less injurious for omegas in her store.
It was time, Peter realised, to stop being the alpha, and to be more like Derek, to listen.
He was unaware that Derek was in London realising that if he wished to keep Margot he would have to be more like Peter.
Peter could listen to Lydia, who suffering had made wise beyond her years, he had friends, people who hadn't been offended by his lack of communication. He couldn't erase or ignore the past ten years, it was time to start again, and changing things. He had friends on the continent that he could communicate with. He could make plans to take Stiles to Wroclaw, which he had said that he wanted to see.
He had a moment of Stiles in one of those European salons, holding court with people who had interesting things to say about music or politics or novels or philosophy. Balls were fine and dandy but the conversation was gossip shared at the card tables or making love n the dance floor. Conversation was shared in private tea rooms of houses between friends, but the Salon had been a fine tradition, why had it stopped? he wondered.
If gossip was determined to destroy his boy then Peter would fuck gossip, he would put him in a place where he would shine. When they returned to London and he had access to his address book he would send out invitations, to musicians and actresses, composers and novelists, bankers and physicians, all those people who would die for Talia's favour, and he would invite them in the afternoon to the house on Grosvenor Place, where Stiles could sit on his chaise, his broken foot supported, and hold court. He would make the house a place where people could father for conversation, for company, or even just a place to be with everyone who was doing those things. There was a fine young violinist in London that Peter had known in Florence. If he attended then people would come, just to see him play.
He would be there for Stiles without presumption or pushing, he would concede the war and put aside his injured pride.
Then he smiled to himself, if Stiles wanted to climb him like a mountain Peter was happy to mark out the paths to take.