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The Betrothal Bargain

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Dean Campbell, Viscount Winchester, first laid eyes on Castiel Allen, Duke of Milton, on the morning of the wedding.

They were both dressed in their finest outfits, Dean’s jacket fitted so closely to his shoulders and chest it clung like a second skin. Perhaps that explained the sudden shortness of breath he experienced when he met Milton’s brilliant blue eyes, perfectly complemented by his sapphire waistcoat. Milton gave him a polite but distant nod, his attention fixed more on the clergyman than on Dean. Managing a slight bow of his own, Dean dragged his gaze away from the firm cut of Milton’s jaw and towards the other two men standing at the front of the church.

It was, after all, their wedding day, and Dean was here to act as witness, not to sneak surreptitious glances at the way Milton’s breeches hugged his powerful thighs.

The betrothal of the Earl of Silverton to Mr. Benjamin Lafitte had caused quite the stir among the ton. Silverton’s title was well-respected, but it was widely known that much of the money had run out due to the excesses of its previous holder. In his youth, Silverton had sown his own fair share of wild oats, but now approaching his mid-thirties and recently risen to the rank of earl, responsibility could no longer be ignored. He needed a spouse, and a rich one at that.

Benny’s family had amassed a fortune in trade, and while he had been educated as a gentleman, he had no true claim to the name. Marriage to Silverton would give him that.

Truly, it was a perfect match, or what passed for one in their mercenary society.

Dean only hoped his friend would not come to regret this decision. He had counseled Benny against it, with the honesty only a friend of many years could risk, and been met with Benny’s resigned shrug. “Love is a luxury even I cannot afford,” he’d said.

Watching him now, Dean saw traces of that same resignation. Benny’s face was calm and composed, no sign of tension in his broad shoulders, but no trace of joy or even hope on his firm features. There ought to be something, Dean thought. Something more than this. For Heaven’s sake, it was his wedding day.

The ceremony was brief, and soon enough Benny and Silverton were exchanging rings. Dean studiously kept his gaze on the newlyweds rather than on Milton as they were escorted to the vestry to sign the register. Milton’s signature was strong, without flourish or excess, and as he passed the quill pen to Dean, their fingers brushed lightly together.

Dean pulled back as if scalded, and Milton’s eyes flicked up to his. Lord, they were truly blue, not the sort of hazy grey that was often called blue. Feeling a faint flush rise in his cheeks, Dean took the pen and signed the register, all too aware of Milton's curious gaze.

It didn’t escape his attention that the newly-wed couple had scarcely exchanged a single word. The formalities concluded, Benny inclined his head towards Dean and said, “Thank you for being here today.”

“Of course,” Dean replied swiftly. “And may I be the first to offer my congratulations?” He turned and made a brief bow to Silverton. “To you as well.”

“I’d prefer if you’d offer a drink,” Silverton muttered. With a heavy sigh, he extended his arm to Benny. “Shall we, husband?”

Benny’s lips tightened, but he took the proffered arm and shot Dean a warning glance over his shoulder. Dean bit back the harsh reply that had been forming on his lips and fumed silently as Benny and Silverton exited the church, the well-wishers outside breaking into a chorus of congratulatory shouts.

Unfortunately, this left Dean standing with Milton, a man to whom he had never been formally introduced, several ranks above him in station and notoriously taciturn. He hadn’t even come to town for the betrothal ball, choosing to only attend the ceremony itself despite his closeness to Silverton. Based on his very limited interactions with them, Dean had a difficult time imagining the two of them as friends.

Milton cleared his throat and glanced sidelong at Dean. “A lovely ceremony,” he remarked.

Dean couldn’t stop himself from grimacing. “Not the word I would use, Your Grace.”

“No?” Milton raised one dark eyebrow. There was something incredibly ducal about the gesture. “What word would you use, then, Winchester?”

Hesitating, Dean scanned their surroundings. There was no one within earshot, and from what Benny had told him, Milton would be returning to his sprawling country estate (or one of them) within the next few days. Besides, weren’t dukes above such petty things as gossip?

“I might have said loveless,” he replied.

“Ah.” A strange expression crossed Milton’s face. “You’re a romantic.”

“I merely--” Dean stopped, shaking his head. This was entirely too personal a conversation to be having with a man with whom he had the barest acquaintance. “I worry for my friend’s happiness,” he said eventually.

At that, Milton nodded gravely. “As do I.”

Dean frowned. “It seems all Silverton cares about is his next drink. Provide him with that, and he ought to be well content.”

Drawing himself upright, Milton fixed Dean with a stern glare. He was a few inches shorter, Dean couldn’t help but notice, but with the athletic build of a man who rode frequently and spent his share of time in the boxing ring. And of course, there was that ducal presence, the commanding air of a man who had been titled from birth and treated accordingly ever since.

Viscount or not, Dean quailed slightly under the force of that stormy gaze.

“It would serve you well not to judge a man by one single comment,” he said, all haughty reprimand. “Balthazar has not had an easy time of it, and he is a proud man. Everyone knows why he and Mr. Lafitte entered this match, and it must be extremely galling for a man of his temperament to suffer those whispers.” He set his jaw firmly, eyes challenging. “I suggest you do not add to them.”

A number of possible responses flashed through Dean’s mind. If the marriage was indeed so embarrassing for Silverton, how must it feel for Benny, knowing he was only valued for his wealth? What were people whispering about him, and did Silverton give a fig about his reactions?

Something stopped him from letting loose with an angry retort. Not the difference in their ranks-- while Milton could employ his influence to devastating effect, it was well-matched by Dean’s reckless disregard for propriety when those he cared about were involved-- but the very real emotion that flared in his eyes during that thorough set-down.

If Silverton could inspire that sort of loyalty in Milton, perhaps there was more to the man than met the eye.

Inclining his head in acknowledgment of Milton’s remarks, Dean summoned a small smile. “Am I to be called out, sir? I would hate to disrupt Mr. Lafitte’s wedding breakfast to ask him to serve as my second.”

It was a calculated risk, jesting with him that way when he had given little evidence of humour thus far. Milton blinked at him, clearly startled by Dean’s wry tone, and then a slow, knee-weakening grin spread across his face.

Good Lord, the man was handsome. A pity he kept himself locked away in the country for most of the year. He would make a fine addition to the gardens and ballrooms of London, glittering even amongst the most celebrated beauties of the Season.

“Not yet,” Milton replied. “Though I ought to warn you, I’m a fair shot.”

Examining the breadth of his shoulders and the size and strength of his hands, Dean had no doubts about the veracity of that statement. “A shame,” he said breezily. “I, on the other hand, am an excellent shot.”

Milton choked back a laugh. “Such modesty.”

Dean shrugged. “Unlike you, sir, my title is a recent acquisition. I have yet to learn all the behaviours dictated by my rank.” Leaning closer, he lowered his voice. “I do know, however, that it would be most unbecoming for the two witnesses and closest friends of the newly-wedded couple to be late for the wedding breakfast.”

Lips twitching, Milton inclined his head gravely. “Indeed. I shall see you there, then?”

“You shall.” Dean bowed briefly. “Your Grace.”

“Winchester.”

Milton didn’t turn back as he exited the church and strode towards his waiting carriage, allowing Dean’s gaze to linger appreciatively on the figure he cut as he walked away.

An intriguing man, Milton. He was much-talked about in town, of course-- enormously wealthy, reclusive, and a duke to boot-- but no mention of his inclinations had ever been made, or at least not in Dean’s hearing.

This day was about Benny, though. Firmly pushing aside thoughts of Milton's well-shaped arse, Dean settled into his own carriage and gave the coachman direction to Silverton’s town house. He would see his friend through a likely awkward wedding breakfast, perhaps take the opportunity to draw Silverton into conversation and learn what sort of man he truly was, and soon enough, Milton would be safely ensconced in the country and swiftly forgotten.

***

Two hours later, Dean wondered if he had tempted fate by so strictly planning how the rest of his day would go. Sam would laugh at him if he knew, but as it was, his brother was seated at the far end of the table, invited through his connection to Dean rather than any real close relationship with either of the grooms. They hadn’t yet had the opportunity to exchange a word, which worked to Dean’s advantage-- Sam would immediately know there was something on Dean’s mind, and he had never been able to dissemble with his younger brother the way he did with so many others.

Seated to Benny’s left, Dean would be ideally placed to support his friend if not for the absolute bore who sat to his own left. Some relation of Silverton’s-- Dean hadn’t honestly paid attention to the connection-- he was a droning, self-important man, and for all his occasional disregard for social niceties, Dean could not risk embarrassing Benny by simply telling the man to be quiet.

In addition to this unfair punishment, Milton was seated across from Dean and a few places over, making him perfectly positioned for Dean’s wandering eyes and attention. While Crofton prattled on beside him, Dean watched as Milton interacted with those around him. He was well-versed in the art of polite conversation, like any gentleman, but to Dean’s evaluating gaze, there was no real spark of interest in his eyes.

He had often heard Milton described as a serious man, as befitted someone of his rank. Watching him now, Dean understood why that might be the impression he gave, but it did not entirely match the warm, amused grin that Milton had given him during their earlier conversation. More intrigued than ever, Dean caught Milton’s gaze and held it, then threw him a swift wink.

There was nothing overtly flirtatious in the gesture. Nothing that Dean couldn’t brush off as shared mischief if necessary. Eyes widening slightly, Milton ducked his head and gave his dining companions his full attention, but there was a telltale stain of pink across his sharp cheekbones.

A solid leg brushed against his under the table, and Dean looked over to meet Benny’s clear blue gaze. “What trouble are you getting yourself into now, Winchester?” he asked, keeping his voice low.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Dean replied with perfect honesty. “What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into?”

Benny snorted and cast a swift look at his new husband. Silverton looked back at them both, eyes keen despite the lazy way his eyelids drooped over them, and raised his glass in their direction. “We both know what this marriage is,” Benny said. “And what it isn’t.”

A strange ache in his chest, Dean sighed. “You’re certain about this, then? It’s not too late to run away. Scotland, perhaps.”

“Are you discussing our honeymoon plans?” Silverton’s tone was light, but pitched to carry. “I had considered Scotland, but the weather is so unpredictable. I wouldn’t wish for an inauspicious start to this marriage.”

A burst of polite laughter rang from those within earshot. Benny smiled, but Dean saw it for the grimace it was. “We thought we would stay in town at least a little longer,” he said. “After all, the entertainments are just beginning, and we’ve accepted a number of invitations.”

“Not for tonight, of course,” Silverton said slyly, and while the other guests tittered with laughter again, Dean clenched his hands into tight fists beneath the table.

He truly did not understand what Milton saw in this man, and he cursed Benny for ever agreeing to this match.

Rising abruptly, he murmured an excuse and strode away from the table. Fortunately, as the meal ended, many others were beginning to leave their seats and circulate around the room, so his sudden departure was less noticeable. He attempted to catch Sam’s eye, but his brother was deep in conversation with his friend Kevin Tran.

A passing footman offered a tray of refreshments to Dean, and he gratefully accepted a cup of tea. Taking a fortifying sip, he saw Crofton approaching and quickly turned aside.

Right into Milton, whose firm hand on his arm was the only thing that kept Dean from stumbling. His tea, however, had no such support, and a few drops sloshed dangerously close to the perfect white of Milton’s shirt.

“I do beg your pardon,” Dean said rapidly. How gauche of him. He set the tea down on a nearby table and clasped his hands behind his back, hoping he wasn’t about to receive another stern lecture on proper gentlemanly behaviour. This time, he thought he might even deserve it.

But Milton waved a dismissive hand in the air. “No harm done.” He narrowed his eyes at Dean, then glanced towards Crofton, who had halted his approach at the sight of him. “I can’t blame you for fleeing from Crofton.”

“You know him?”

“Unfortunately, yes.” Milton gave a discreet shudder and pursed his lips. “I’m sorry you had to endure his prattling for that entire meal.”

“It looked as though you were enduring some trials of your own.”

Milton’s lips quirked in a wry smile. “I am rather out of practice at social interaction. I don’t receive many visitors at Rexford Park, and it has been some time since I’ve come to town.”

“You must be eager to return home, then.”

“I am,” Milton admitted. He ran one hand through his hair, leaving it attractively dishevelled. “My mother and sisters will be disappointed, but I told them I never planned to stay more than two days. I believe they thought they could convince me otherwise, but if I cannot use my vast consequence to be firm with my own family, what good is it?”

Dean laughed, imagining the frosty air of authority Milton would have adopted in informing his family of his plans. “And until then? Have you also accepted invitations to the Season’s entertainments?”

Milton shook his head, a look of distaste crossing his handsome features. “I was spared the effort of having to decline them by virtue of never receiving them in the first place. I informed few of society’s hosts and hostesses of my plans to be here, and they have learned from experience that their invitations are unwelcome at Rexford.”

“Ah.” Dean fought down a surge of unwarranted disappointment. Had he not hoped for Milton’s quiet removal to the country? “So you will not be in attendance at Lady Talbot’s ball this evening.”

“No,” Milton said slowly. His dark lashes lowered over his eyes, then lifted again as he tilted his head to the side, studying Dean intently. “As I said, I wasn’t invited.”

Dean couldn’t stop an undignified snort escaping him. “You’re the Duke of Milton. I hardly think you need an invitation.”

That commanding eyebrow raised again. “And so I ought to rely on the importance of my name to grant me access where my presence was not requested?”

Dean sighed and waved an airy hand before him. “I simply meant that were you to arrive, especially accompanied by an invited guest, Lady Talbot would be beside herself at the thought of being the only hostess in London to entice the elusive Duke of Milton to her rout. She would crow about her triumph for the rest of the Season.”

Milton’s face remained still, but there was a sudden spark of amusement in the depth of his eyes. “Are you suggesting I accompany you?”

Dean shrugged, a casual gesture that did not at all match the way his heart raced in his chest. “Perhaps.”

“I see.” Milton considered him for a long, breathless minute, then nodded firmly. “I will give the matter some thought. But do not wait for me.”

With a pointed sniff, Dean made a show of inspecting his nails. “Hardly. I doubt I would even have space for you on my card, should you choose to attend.”

Milton’s large hand closed around his elbow, his grip loose, but the warmth of it burned right through Dean’s expensive jacket. “I rather think you’ll make room, Winchester.”

All the blood in Dean’s body rushed south at the low growl of his voice. Sweet Heaven, the way his name sounded on those lips--

Before Dean could gather his composure to reply, Milton withdrew his hand and stepped back. Picking up Dean’s abandoned cup of tea, he passed it back to him and said, “You look as though you could use this,” and strode off.

Dean drained the rest of the tea in one gulp, wondering how on earth he was going to survive his torturous anticipation of the evening to come.