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A Regency Christmas

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Aspen Vale, November 15, 1815

 

My dear nephew,

Pray do not be alarmed upon receiving this letter, for I send it not in malicious intent, but in hopes of seeing you once again. It has many years since the death of my dear, sweet sister—your mother--, so I am without certainty if you even remember me. If such is the case, then allow me the opportunity to first tell you how heartbroken I was to receive word of the death of your parents which was followed by the disappearance of you and your brother from the family whose care you had been placed. It was never my intention to leave either of you with such people, and while not an excuse, my husband’s business did not allow for me to provide a home for you or your brother. A regret that saddens me deeply for I loved your mother, so very much and wanted to honor her memory by caring for those, who meant the most in the world to her.

Now if you can find it in your heart to forgive an old woman for not honoring her sister’s memory, I would be overjoyed if you would allow me the opportunity to make your acquaintance once more by extending an invitation to your and your family at Christmas. With the death of my husband last year and having no living children of my own, I have found myself in need want of company during this time.

Please write back at your earliest convenience.

Yours, very sincerely,

Lady Mallory

 

“If you handle that letter any more, it’s in serious danger of falling apart in your hands.”

Looking up from the letter in his hands, Clinton Barton gazed passively at the red-headed seated across from him and then down at the small ginger child tucked into his side. His aunt’s letter had been weighing heavily on his mind since the moment it had arrived, and for no other reason than the long buried memories that were stirred from her writing.

“Thanks for your concern, Natasha,” Clint snorted, tucking the letter into his coat pocket while taking care not to jar the child fast asleep at his side.

With a slight incline of her head, Natasha settled back into the carriage’s velvet cushions and closed her eyes, allowing the rocking and swaying of the carriage to lull her into a much needed nap. Following a terrible night’s sleep, Natasha had been shocked at the early hour that Clint had forced her and the child from their beds and bundled into the chaise and four.

In all her years of knowing Clint, he had never been one to get up before the crack of dawn unless it was under the threat of pain or the prospect of money. Although Natasha could not discount the change that had occurred in Clint, if only because the Clint of almost twenty years ago was not the Clint she had met five months ago while visiting Bath. While they had both aged physically during the intervening years, there was a maturity about Clint that Natasha had never seen before, one that was quickly explained by the arrival of the young ginger child and his nurse.

As Clint made the introductions, Natasha was struck by how much the boy resembled Clint in looks and temperament; yet, it was not until much later when Natasha would learn the truth of the boy’s origin. That he was not Clint’s son like she had originally thought; but instead the son of Clint’s brother Barney, who had come to Clint for help and then left his son behind in Clint’s care. And Clint being the good-natured man he was, he had taken the tiny creature in, loving and raising him as his own.

~*~*~*~

As soon as the pair of horses crested the small hill covered in frost, the lighter of the two riders called out a soft “whoa” as he set back on his saddle and squeezed the horse’s flank with his knees, signaling the horse to stop. “She is a meddling old bitty,” he announced without preamble like he and his companion were continuing an earlier conversation.

With a smirk and small chuckle, the other man leveled a sharp glance in the speaker’s direction and remarked, “Not surprising. Without children of her own and at least a decade of widowhood looming, she has nothing better to do than meddle.”

“Nick, I am almost fifty and I have no need or desire for a mate at my age.”

Upon those words, Colonel Nicholas Fury gave a deep chuckle as he reached out and clapped his friend on the shoulder and said, “Imagine my surprise at how you have managed to stay unbonded for this long.”

“Blind luck,” Major Philip Coulson, the Right Honorable the Viscount Coulson, deadpanned.

“And here I thought it was your winning personality,” Nick shot back, causing Phil to scowl at him.

"How are we friends?"

Nick shook his head and rolled his one good. “It happened when I stupidly decided to save your life,” he recalled.

Pulling back on the reigns, Phil attempted to settle his dancing horse before remarking, “I seem to recall a different version of events.”

“You always do.”

Phil made a face; yet instead of giving a reply, he turned his attention toward the frosted landscape, surveying his domain with a careful eye. A domain that he had never wished to have. For so long, Phil had been content with his life as soldier; but the death of a distance cousin had given him a title and a small fortune to call his own. Though even with the responsibility of tenants and servants, Phil still remained a soldier at heart.

"Jasper and that spitfire of a wife of his have been invited by Lady Mallory," Nick stated after a couple of minutes, breaking the silence that had fallen over them.

“That should be interesting to witness,” Phil observed. “I heard from Captain Rogers that Mr. Garrett tried to assault her on the high street and then she broke his arm with a strange oriental move.”

“Never took you for a gossip.”

With a nonchalant shrug, Phil said, “I have a lot of time on my hands.”

"You need a hobby other than horses," Nick told him while giving him a look of reproach for his apparent life choices.

"I have other hobbies..." Phil countered, voice trailing off at the end.

"Like?" Phil’s face twisted into one of deep concentration as he tried to think of an answer to Nick’s question. Though the dark skinned man was quick to interject with, “And finding new flavors of dow nuts is not an answer.”

“Swords!” Phil, all but yelled, after Nick denied him his one good answer. “I have an affinity for swords.”

“As an officer in his majesty’s services, I should think you would have an affinity of swords. Otherwise, I would strongly suggest you seek another line of work,” Nick advised brusquely.

"Like what... boating?"

Fury’s brow rose at Coulson’s remark, though he quickly changed the subject before they found themselves discussing the ever present war raging between Mr. Jasper Sitwell and themselves, over the life of a soldier versus the life of an East India trader. “Apparently, Lady Mallory’s nephew will be joining this year’s house party and I have come to understand he is quite single.”

"Now who is the gossip," Phil joked smugly, earning a scowl from Nicholas.

"I choose to call it selective intelligence.”

"Ever the spy," Phil sighed with a look and an eye roll. Though he decided to not wait for Nick’s reply, and urged his horse forward, setting off towards his estate at a gallop with Nick following close at his heels.

~*~*~*~ 

When the hired carriage pulled to its final stop before the large country house, Clint felt a knot settle into the pit of his stomach; a feeling he had not known since he was waif waiting for Lord Stark’s steward, Edwin Jarvis, to decide his fate after having saved Jarvis from being murdered by a fellow poacher. Luckily for him, Jarvis had seen some good in the orphaned youth and had given him over to the employ of the stable master, who had overseen Clint’s training and education with regards to horses and the running of a large estate’s stable.

Skills which, through hard work and a frugal lifestyle, allowed Clint to purchase his first horse and a small parcel of land. From there, Clint’s holdings, along with his reputation as a premiere trainer of racing horses, had continued to grow over the next decade, allowing Clint to eventually establish himself as a prosperous country gentleman.

Yet, experience had taught Clint to always been apprehensive in the face of the upper classes. While he might have land and fortune, the upper echelon still viewed him as an outsider due to the circumstances of his early life. A childhood that Clint had had no control over, but had managed to turn around with a bit of good fortune. Which was why, he intended to give his nephew everything he could possibly want, except for maybe another parent.

“Clinton.”  Upon hearing Natasha utter his rarely used Christian name, Clint’s face twisted into a grimace as he turned away from the carriage window to look his companion in the eye. Though he did not make a sound, waiting for Natasha to continue. “We are here.”

With a roll of his eyes at the obviousness of her statement, Clint reached down and ran his hand lightly over the top of his son’s ginger head. “I see.”

Natasha barely hide her smirk before the carriage door opened, and a footman’s white gloved hand appeared, indicating that he ready to assist her from the carriage. Gripping the hand gently, Natasha rose from her seat as much as the carriage’s roof would allow and stepped forward, letting the footman guide her into the open air.

Once Natasha was safely out of the carriage, Clint twisted his body and moved around his son, taking care not to disturb the little boy’s sleep as he exited. Yesterday’s journey had taken a toll on Joshua, leaving the little boy worn out from all the excitement of travelling. Yet when the trio had finally stopped to rest for the night in Boston, Joshua had found it impossible to sleep due to the bawdy nature of the inn’s regular patrons, so Clint was remise to wake his son before he absolutely had to.

After exiting the carriage, Clint leaned back into its dim interior and bundled Joshua into his arms, moving swiftly while managing to take care and not wake the slumbering boy. As he worked, his movements spoke of a man, who took an active role in the rearing of his child, and where this seemed to be an old hat for him. It was only after he was standing once more, with child in hands, in the late afternoon sun that Clint finally turned his attention to the assembled household.

“Clinton?” Barely stopping himself from grimacing at the use of his full Christian name, Clint pasted a false smile on his lips as she continued speaking. “Is that you?”

“Lady Mallory?” Clint ventured hesitantly, his eyes taking in the owner of the estate.

From where he stood, Clint could see a woman of around fifty with whitish-blonde hair artfully styled in short ringlets under her lace cap and velvet bonnet. She was of average height and even under the swath of her violet wool pelisse, Clint could tell that her figure was still slightly on the slender size. And it was he continued to catalog her manner of dress, a pang of sadness shot through his heart, if only because seeing her gave him an image of what his own mother would have looked like at this age.

An easy smile appeared on her face as she stepped forward, her hands palm up so she might clasp Clint’s hand in greeting, which she did. Squeezing the calloused hand between her soft ones, she all but commanded, “Please Aunt Mallory is fine,” and then she reached out, cupping Clint’s jaw and remarked, “You have your dear mama’s coloring.”

With her hand still on his cheek, she fell silent as her eyes drifted back and forth across his tanned and lined face. He had the face of a man, who worked hard for a living and was not worried about getting his clothes dirty if it meant putting a roof over his head and enough food in his belly. And it was as she took her fill of her nephew’s appearance that her mind finally registered the bundled that lay within his arms. “Oh and who is this little lamb?”

“My son, Joshua.”

Clint watched as her eyes drifted from the child to Natasha, who up until this moment had been standing silently and patiently behind him. “So this must be your bonded,” she stated with a quick flicker of her eyes from Joshua’s ginger hair to Natasha’s own, “I can see the resemblance.”

Without missing a beat, Clint looked over his shoulder at Natasha, who peered back at him with a quirk of her eyebrows, silently daring him to let his aunt assume what she may about their relationship. “Actually Lady Mallory, I would like you to meet his godmother, Miss Natasha Romanova.”

“Romanova? What a peculiar last name,” she attempted to remark off-handedly. Though, her body language spoke volumes. She was clearly burning with an abundance of curiosity over the child’s origins; yet decorum dictated that now was not the place to ask such questions.

“It is Russian,” Natasha replied in a clear and concise English accent. It had been some years since she had last spoken with a perpetual Russian accent; although that never stopped her from pretending from time to time in order to have her way.

“Oh,” Aunt Mallory murmured breathlessly. “Shall we?” She then asked while indicating to the home’s large set of front doors.

As introductions were being made, the wind had slowly begun to grow stronger, blowing ever colder gusts of air across their exposed faces. Jack Frost brought winter early to Lincolnshire and with a vengeance, throwing out frost, biting winds, and freezing rain as he pleased.

With a nod of agreement, Clint held out his elbow for his aunt to take, and escorted her into the house, leaving Natasha to bring up the rear. While Clint might not have been born with the etiquette society had expected of him, Edwin Jarvis had seen fit to drum into his head even if it was the last thing the steward did.

Once inside the relatively warm house, Lady Mallory led the group in the direction of the yellow drawing room, which afforded the most pleasing light during the late afternoon. Not long after Clint and Natasha had settled onto a soft settee that the housekeeper, Mrs. Whittle, arrived with tea and a platter of cakes.

“I thought you would enjoy a nice cup of tea before retiring to your rooms before dinner,” Lady Mallory commented after taking a small sip of the warm beverage.

“Thank you, but you did not need to go to so much trouble,” Clint told her, a little embarrassed by the grandeur of her home. As they had passed through the front hall, Clint’s eye was immediately drawn to the marble flooring, the ornate statues, and the gilding upon the walls.

Although he had amassed a considerable amount of wealth, Clint stilled lived within modest means—keeping only as many servants as he and Joshua absolutely required, which at the moment was seven: his steward, the housekeeper, two maids, a cook, a footman, and a nurse maid for Joshua.  And considering the size of his home, a quaint four bedroom cottage, most thought the number of household servants he kept was probably a few to many.

“It is no trouble, Clinton. I invited you to spent Christmas with me, so let me spoil you as I should have done after the loss of your parents. Besides I have no children of my own, and you are the only family I have left the world.”

Her reassurances seemed to settle Clint, allowing the knot of apprehension he had been feeling for days to lessen. After a youth spent feeling nothing but disappointment and rejection, Clint had been remiss to introduce his child to family that he, himself, could not recall ever meeting. Yet, a quick counsel with Edwin Jarvis concerning this very matter had made Clint see that he should not shut the door on the possibility of giving Joshua more people to love and to be loved by.

The next half hour was a mixture of comfortable silence and general conversation about the weather, Clint’s business, and a couple of the house party’s other members, before the small party dispersed for other locations within the house; Clint, Natasha, and Joshua to their rooms and Lady Mallory to discuss dinner preparations with the housekeeper and head cook. 

“Lady Mallory has placed you in the lavender room,” a young maid stated as she opened the door for Clint, who was still carrying Joshua in his arms, “and Master Joshua will be next door.”

“No,” Clint barked, though he had not intended for it to come out so forcefully, “Joshua will stay with me.”

Knowing better than to argue, the maid simply nodded and backed away, leaving Clint standing in the middle of the doorway while she went to retrieve Joshua’s belongings from the Indian room. Clint entered the room and laid the slumbering child on the bed, keeping an eye on him until the maid had returned with Joshua’s truck.

“Is there someone, who could watch him until I return?”

“Of course, Mr. Barton. I would be happy to,” she replied with a gentle smile. “Is there anything else that I can do for you?”

“Point me in the direction of who I need to see about borrowing a horse,” Clint said.

There was a small pause before she spoke again. “Let Martin, the footman at bottom of the stairs, know and he will have it arranged for you.”

“Thank you.” With a last brush of his hand across Joshua’s ginger head, Clint turned away from his son and walked out.

As much as he loved his child, Clint would have preferred leaving Joshua and Natasha in the carriage while he road alongside. Though when they stopped to change horses at the ten mile mark, Joshua had been a bundle of anxiety and excitement. While he had been excited for trip itself, he had been anxious due to being placed in an enclosed space with a virtual stranger.

“Going somewhere?”

With a grin, Clint turned and faced Natasha, who was leaning in the doorway of her own room, which was diagonal from Clint’s. “For a ride; I need to stretch my legs. Care to join me?”

“And suffer the wagging tongues of Lady Mallory’s servants, never.”

Clint chuckled and then gave a mock salute before spinning on his heel, leaving Natasha to rest and change before supper was served promptly at 10 pm.

~*~*~*~

“New to the neighborhood?”

Clint twisted on his saddle and watched intently, his heart beginning to race, as the newcomer slowed his own horse to a stop beside Clint. Most would not have considered the other man to be handsome; but there was something about his eyes that drew Clint in, causing his body to react in such a way that it had not since he was young man fumbling blindly in the hay loft with a fellow stable lad.

“Of sorts. I’m visiting my aunt, Lady Mallory,” Clint managed to state clearly while giving no indication of the unforeseen effect the stranger’s arrival had on him.

The other man nodded and tugged lightly on the reins, further stilling his impatient horse. “Ah. You must the nephew, everyone has heard so much about.”

“And you sir?”

“Major Philip Coulson,” Phil delivered with a smile that caused his eyes to crinkle merrily at the corners.

Keeping one hand on the reins, Clint held out the hand closest to Phil and said, “Clinton Barton, Major Coulson.”

“Please, call me Phil, Mr. Barton.”

“That would be improper, Major,” Clint retorted, quirking his eyebrow slightly at the other man’s impropriety.

Phil shrugged and then looked around, like he searching the area for signs of life other than themselves. “Who will tell? The trees?”

With a chuckle, Clint replied, “Possibly.”

“You seem to be a man of little faith, Mr. Barton,” Phil remarked off-handedly as he continued to peer at Clint on his own steed.

“Faith is not the word I would use, Major Coulson,” Clint countered. While Joshua’s arrival might have put an end to Clint seeking temporary company, it had not caused him to become blind or dumb to the flirtatious intentions of others. And Major Coulson was definitely interested in Clint.

“How long will your stay be for?”

“A few weeks, I suspect. My aunt seems to be a woman not to argue with,” Clint admitted.

“No truer words have been spoken.”

With a nod, Clint leaned back on his saddle, gazing into the darkening dark sky before he pulled his watch from his vest pocket, checking the time. “I must apologize, but I should be getting back to my son,” he stated with a tiny frown. As much as he would have preferred to continue conversing with the Major, Clint knew he needed to return to his room before Joshua awoke in a strange place without his father nearby.

“Of course,” Phil affirmed, trying yet failing to keep his own disappointment off his face. Luckily for him, Clint witnessed it briefly flash across the officer’s man. “I guess I will be seeing you around the neighborhood.”

“Looking forward to it.” Clink winked before guiding his horse back across the field to his aunt’s stables.

~*~*~*~

The first of the house party to arrive that evening were Mr. and Mrs. Jasper Sitwell, a middle aged couple, who had become the talk of the neighborhood the minute they arrived and had managed to stay as such in the five years since. While the couple were good natured and cordial to their neighbors, the gossips never seemed to get enough of talking about how peculiar Mrs. Sitwell’s manner was.

For starters, she was not even English, let alone from the Continent. Jasper Sitwell had made his fortune as a trader for the East India Company and while on a trip to the Orient, he had meet and fallen in love with his now wife. The couple had spent the next decade in India and it was only upon retirement from his duties that Sitwell decided to return to his homeland, bringing his Oriental wife and her strange customs with him. Strange customs that included her clothing, which was still very set in the fashion of her country, and a series of movements she called Taijiquan in her native tongue.

“What a beautiful robe, Mrs. Sitwell,” Lady Mallory commented once the women retreated to the drawing room so the men could enjoy a small glass of brandy before joining them.

Qiaolian Sitwell’s lips quirked into a small semblance of a smile as she smoothed the bright silk fabric of her embroidered robe. “Thank you, Lady Mallory,” she replied in perfect English.

The older woman nodded and then turned her attention to Natasha, playing ever the good host by making sure to give each guest an equal amount of attention whether she wanted to or not. It was not that she did not like her nephew’s friend, but she worried that her appearance would waylay her matchmaking schemes regarding her nephew. While she might not have known her nephew very well, she did see the loneliness in his eyes; a loneliness that his son could only do so much to counteract.

“So Miss Romanova, what brought you to England?”

“My father was a Russian diplomat at the turn of the century,” Natasha supplied, the lie rolling easily off her tongue. She knew Clint would disapprove of the lie; however, it was not as though she could tell them the truth and say that she was the daughter of political refugee and that after his death, she made a career out of blackmailing politicians for financial gain.

“Must have been exciting, traveling with him?” Lady Mallory gushed, in an attempt to draw Natasha into a conversation. During their late afternoon tea, the Russian had barely spoken a few words to her, leaving Clint to supply all the proper responses.

“Yes.”

With a purse of her lips, Lady Mallory turned her attention back to Mrs. Sitwell, who had a large tome upon her lap. Yet before she had the chance to address the Oriental woman again, the gentleman appeared in the open doorway, seeming to share a joke between them.

“Clinton,” Lady Mallory greeted, holding out her hand as a sign for him to join him on the sofa beside her. Being the gentleman that Jarvis had painfully cultivated, Clint crossed the drawing room and did has his aunt had bid, sinking into the sofa beside her.

Yet it was not long after gentleman’s arrival in the drawing room, the company began to disperse to their rooms for the night, for tomorrow morning would see the arrival of the remaining members of the house party…meaning the fun and games that Lady Mallory had planned would start in earnest.

~*~*~*~

“Papa!”

When the delightful sound of his son’s voice made Clint and Natasha pause their morning stroll through the garden, Clint crouched down and readied himself to catch his favorite bundle of energy. Catching the little boy under his arms, Clint lifted him up and propped him on his hip, so he could use his other hand to brush the flakes of snow from Joshua’s head.

“Having fun, kid?”

Joshua grinned, showing off the empty space where one of his bottom front teeth used to be. “Lookie,” he exclaimed and then pointed his pudgy little finger toward a sad looking stray that was waiting not far from them.

From where Clint stood, the dog had seen better days, and based on the level of healing on the stray’s missing eye, those days were long gone. “Lucky?” Clint asked. While he could understand Joshua perfectly, Clint still could not stop himself from teasing his son because of the small lisp the boy had.

“No,” Joshua screeched, “Look!”

“The dog, Barton,” Natasha deadpanned with a roll of her eyes. “He’s talking about the dog.”

“I know,” Clint replied and then turned refocused his attention on Joshua. “What about it?”

“Want!”

Staring into the earnest face of his son, Clint was torn between giving into Joshua’s wants and doing what was best for him. Luckily, the decision was taken away from him by the arrival of Major Coulson and another man… a one eyed African, who was wearing a black great coat with his bright regimentals peeking out from under the collar.

“Mr. Barton.”

Clint gave a nod in greeting, returning a quick, “Major Coulson,” before the arrival of Lady Mallory and Mrs. Sitwell interrupted the group

“Oh good,” Lady Mallory exclaimed while approaching the small gathering, “you and Colonel Fury have finally decided to join us.”

“Yes, Lady Mallory,” Phil replied with a small tip of his hat.

“Excellent,” she continued, barely pausing for breath, “I trust all the proper introductions have been made.” Instead of giving them a chance to reply, she merely turned on her heel and started back across the garden towards the house.

Once Lady Mallory’s back was turned, each person gave another a quick questioning glance before Clint shrugged his shoulders and made the choice to follow his aunt’s silent command of returning to the house. Plus, he had heard something about hot chocolate was to be served later in the morning, and Clint was not one to say no to the prospect of chocolate.

Taking Clint’s lead, Natasha fell into step with him while Mrs. Sitwell followed a few steps behind, and the two military men brought up the rear.

“So that is your Mr. Barton,” Fury murmured, making sure to keep his voice low so the rest of the party did not hear their conversation.

“As you can see, he’s not my Mr. anything,” Phil retorted as his eyes flickered towards the stunning red head at Clint’s side. On the ride home last night, Phil had dared himself to hope that Lady Mallory’s nephew was widowed; yet standing in front of him was evidence to the contrary.

“I’m sorry, Phil,” Fury admitted, though he could not stop his lone eye from being drawn to the fine figure that Mrs. Barton struck in her deep red spencer with matching fur muff.

“No apologizes needed, Nicholas. I was foolish to think the best of the situation.”

Fury stared hard eyed at his friend and stated, “I do not believe hope as foolish concept, Coulson. Especially when it is the first time I have witnessed you giving the mere thought to bonding or marriage in all the years I have known you.”

“Be that as it may,” Phil began, “if I had not thought such things then I would not be so disappointed in seeing the truth.”

“Gentlemen!” Lady Mallory called out, jarring them from their discussion; she was standing just inside a set of double doors appearing to wait upon them. “Will you be joining us… sometime today?” With a smirk, Phil shook his head and quickened his step, for he had no wish to make the hostess of their little house party displeased with him.

~*~*~*~

“If you’ll excuse me, it would appear that this one is in need of a nap,” Clint announced to the company at large, already rising to his feet with a dozing Joshua in his arms.

After having spent the morning running and playing in the gardens around the vast estate, Joshua had barely made it through his cup of hot chocolate before leaning against Clint’s side and closing his bright blue eyes to sleep.

During their small repast of hot chocolate and sweet cakes, Phil had watched with interested eyes as Mr. Barton had handled every aspect of caring for his young son, while his wife had merely sat there, making small talk with Colonel Fury and Mrs. Sitwell. While it was not unheard for a man to care for his child when he was an omega; yet Phil had never witnessed the occurrence when the couple were a pair of betas.

“Of course, dear,” Lady Mallory all but cooed, “the little lamb needs his rest.” Giving his aunt a small smile, Clint inclined his head and left the drawing room, taking care not to awake the boy in his arms as he did so.

With Clint gone and the rest of the gathering engaged in lite conversation and cards, Lady Mallory rose from her chair and crossed the room, settling into a vacant chair not far from the major’s own. “It must become lonely, rattling around that large house by yourself?”

Phil quirked an eyebrow, his mind already sensing where she was trying to go with her opening remark. Since moving to the neighborhood, Lady Mallory had been trying for years to find him a suitable bondmate; yet Phil had never been inclined to take her suggestions, choosing instead to focus on his wards and managing the massive estate he inherited. “My wards provide me plenty of opportunities to never be truly lonely.”

“But with them so focused on their schooling and travels, I find they do not visit as often as they should,” Lady Mallory hummed, “Would you not agree, Lord Coulson?”

“They visit as much as I find I’m able to handle at any given time. Otherwise, there is a great danger of Mr. Fitz or Miss Simmons making us all homeless.”

Lady Mallory tried to hide her chuckle behind the rim of her tea cup, though Phil saw it. “Too true, Lord Coulson.”

“Besides, their sporadic visits are always preferable to spending my days as a meddling gossip,” Phil added as he stood from his chair. “Now if you will excuse me, Lady Mallory, I have some correspondence I do need to return.”

Taken back her neighbor’s brisk retort, Lady Mallory watched with a grim face as the veteran soldier strode from the room, only stopping long enough for a brief word to Clint, who had only just recently returned. “Join me, please, nephew,” she called out, waving her hand in order to beckon the younger man closer.

“Have I missed anything exciting, Lady Mallory?” Clint asked by way of greeting as he dropped into the chair vacated by Lord Coulson.

“Please, I wish you would call me Aunt, Clinton,” she scolded, witnessing the grimace that crossed Clint’s face on use of his Christian name.

“Only if you’ll call me, Clint,” he countered with a grin and wink, causing peals of laughter spill from his aunt’s normally prim mouth.

As much as the now Lady would like to try and hide it, Clint could see the innkeeper’s daughter that she had been in her youth… before marrying a dashing Naval officer had provided her refinery she had never known, refinery which had eventually included measured speech and manners under the yards of silk and crepe.

“Now tell me,” Aunt Mallory began while taking hold of the blonde’s hand and patting it, “where is Joshua’s mother?”

“I honestly do not know,” Clint told her regrettably. While Joshua deserved all the love and care in the world, Clint wished that he was able to give the little boy the one thing he need most in the world… his birth mother. But Clint had not heard from or seen Barney since the day he walked out, leaving a crying three week old in his brother’s care.

A scandalized look flashed across Aunt Mallory’s face before she managed to school into one of idle curiosity. “What do you mean?”

“I have not a clue as to where Barney is,” Clint admitted sadly.

“What does Charles have to do with Joshua?” Aunt Mallory asked after a pause, once she remembered that Clint’s older brother, Charles, had been called Barney as a child.

“He is his mother, Aunt.”

With a frown on her face, Aunt Mallory said, “I had no idea,” before adding, “and he abandoned that poor little boy. When?”

“A few weeks after his birth. Barney was never the maternal type, despite his sex,” Clint explained. “So I was not all that shocked by his leaving.”

“He is lucky that he had you to count on, Clint,” she remarked. “Now tell me the truth, what is the story between you and Miss Romanova?”

“Nothing.” 

Aunt Mallory gave her nephew a critical and calculating look like she was trying to determine whether or not he was telling her the truth. A minute or two passed in complete silence before she leaned forward and asked, “What are your thoughts about Lord Coulson?”

“Lord?”

“Why yes, Clint,” Aunt Mallory gushed. “I thought you knew.”

“It would appear that Major Coulson, forgive me, Lord Coulson failed to mention his title,” Clint muttered darkly.

“Not surprising. Lord Coulson does not like to use his title for he feels he did not earn it, unlike his military rank,” Aunt Mallory supplied. “A distant cousin passed away leaving the title and the estate in, then Major Coulson’s hands. Let me tell you, when Lord Coulson arrived in the village, every mother with an unmarried beta daughter or omega was out to make a match with him.”

“And he was never interested?”

“Never!” She exclaimed in agreement. “Everyone thought that once he was settled, he would choose someone from the neighborhood, yet he never did. Instead, a duo of orphans arrive on his doorstep about seven years ago. Each one, the child of a former friend from his army days and just like that, he takes them in. Providing for them like it was his job. Now, though, each have gone off to make their own way in the world, but they still visit occasionally.”

“He sounds like an agreeable man,” Clint remarked lamely, unsure of what to say to his aunt.

When their discussion had first began, Clint thought his aunt was just making conversation; but on closer inspection, Clint realized that his aunt was attempting to play matchmaker between he and Lord Coulson. Not that Clint was all that averse to her meddling because all indication was that Lord Coulson was an agreeable man, and one that Clint was finding himself dangerously attracted to.

In his younger years, Clint believed that one day he would find someone to settle down with; yet Joshua’s arrival changed all that. From the moment, Clint found himself staring into the eyes of his nephew’s slumbering face, he knew he’d do everything in his power to keep the boy safe, even if it meant denying his heart the chance at love.

“I’m glad you think so, Clint,” Lady Mallory replied while giving one last pat to his hand before standing and making her way over to where the Sitwells, Miss Romanova, and Colonel Fury were engaged in what Clint imagined to be a very interesting discussion.

~*~*~*~

"Lord Coulson, Colonel Fury, come join us for a game of cards?" Lady Mallory asked as soon as they and Mr. Sitwell returned to the drawing room following their brandy and cigars in the billiards room.

Lady Mallory's question sounded more like a command to Phil, but who was he to refuse their hostess her whims, especially when she seemed so determined to meddle in his personal life. Yet, there was one detail concerning her matchmaking scheme which left Phil a little confused… who exactly was she trying to pair him with?

Obviously, neither of the Sitwells were a possibility, due to them being happily bonded. And while Phil secretly wished that Mr. Barton was single, his wife and child were, unfortunately, evidence to the contrary. Which meant the only feasible option was Nicholas Fury, and just the idea of bonding with Fury was laughable.

“Of course, Lady Mallory,” Fury agreed, crossing the room to join the women and Mr. Barton at the card table. After taking a seat at the table, Fury spared a brief glance at Phil, who begrudgingly joined him moments later.

“If all of us are to going to play, then we must choose a new game,” Lady Mallory announced to the room at large with a small clap of her hands.

“Actually Lady Mallory,” Mrs. Sitwell began in her usual clipped English, "I would prefer a book, if that is agreeable to you."

"Reading is a decidedly singular occupation," Lady Mallory remarked while giving the appearance of it being merely an off-handed comment. However, both women knew differently. Since arriving in the neighborhood, Lady Mallory and Mrs. Sitwell had been silently at odds for a reason that no one could figure out the cause of.

"If that is your opinion, then I must confess, I'm a very singular person," Mrs. Sitwell replied as she meet the Lady's gaze with a slight quirk of her dark eyebrow.

Instead of a reply, Lady Mallory simply smiled and turned her attention back to the remaining individuals at the card table. "Now that I think about it, I do have a few letters that I absolutely must reply to before it gets any later in the season," she announced just a few moments later, already slipping from her chair and climbing to her feet.

Swallowing a sigh, Phil smiled solemnly at the card table's two remaining occupants before finally taking his seat across from Mr. Barton. After retrieving the stack of playing cards from the middle of the table, Phil ducked his head, seeming to be solely focused on shuffling and dealing cards, which left Fury in charge of making conversation,

"Are you enjoying the neighborhood so far?" Colonel Fury inquired, directing his question to Miss Romanova, once Phil had finished dealing the cards.

"Yes," Natasha replied immediately and then falling silent once more. She had never been one for idle chatter and as it stood, she was still questioning her sanity in agreeing to accompany Clint on this little trip.

Colonel Fury bite back a smirk and leveled his one eyed gaze at the ginger haired woman. He could not put his finger on it; but there was an intriguing quality about her, so being the spy that he was, Fury was determined to find out her secrets.

"I understand from Lady Mallory that your father was a Russian diplomat stationed in London.”

With a nod of her head, Natasha continued arranging her cards all while giving furtive glances in Fury’s directions… glances, which did not go unnoticed by Fury. “Since we are speaking of understandings, Colonel Fury, I understand that made you made a name for yourself in the Napoleonic Wars.”

“I think you will find, most made some kind of name in the Napoleonic Wars,” Fury smirked, causing Natasha to quirk a lone eyebrow while Phil gave him a pointed glare.

“Indeed, sir?”

'Flirting with a married woman,’ Phil thought to himself as he continued to watch the interactions between his friend and Barton’s wife.

While he would never claim that his friend was an honorable man a hundred percent of the time, Phil knew that Fury lived by a code that only he knew the rules of and Phil had come to understand that one of those rules just so happened to be no affairs. So Phil could not reason why Nick would be flirting openly with a married woman and in front of her husband!

“Excuse me, sir,” a young maid voiced, interrupting the group and forcing Phil’s gaze from Mrs. Barton’s rather tiny lace cap. In Phil’s mind, it was not so much a cap as a rounded piece of lace she had pinned to the top of her head. “Master Joshua is awake and crying for you.”

Without further prompting, Clint pushed his chair back and followed the young maid from the room, intent on getting to his child as quickly as possible. As Clint left, Phil watched with hooded eyes, mentally adding yet another infatuation against the man’s wife: choosing the company of a man over the well-being of her child. Yet social queues stopped him from remarking on her behavior, because after all, it was not any of his business. Placing his cards face down on the table, Phil removed himself from the table, leaving Nicholas the ability to flirt with Mrs. Barton without an unneeded audience.

“Lord Coulson?”

At the ringing of Lady Mallory’s address, Phil turned his head and gazed at her. “Yes, Lady Mallory?”

“Where are you going? Are you tiring of our company already?” She quipped with a tiny grin, apparently finding some humor in her own questions.

“Of course not, Lady Mallory. I merely wished to stretch my legs,” he told her, giving a bow before straightening and opening a glass paneled door, which lead into a small terrace garden.

~*~*~*~ 

Lady Mallory

Requests the honor of Mr. and Mrs. -----‘s

company at a Christmas Ball,

on the 21st of December.

R.S.V.P

 

“Did you know about her giving a ball?”

Clint glanced up from the game of spillikins he was playing with Joshua with wide eyes and silently watched Natasha pace the length of the room twice before finally speaking. “Of course I did,” he began, voice dripping with sarcasm, “I just happen to enjoy watching you make that face upon discovering you must participate in an activity you loathe.”

“I do not loathe it,” Natasha grumbled, eyes narrowed as she continued to give Clint an expression that could only be described as one of contempt.

“Individuals, who enjoy dancing and socializing, generally do not look upon their friends in that manner,” Clint pointed out, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of Natasha’s scowling face. “Is that not right, Joshua?”

The little boy, in question, tilted his head and allowed his eyes to flicker back and forth from his father and godmother as though he giving the question some deep thought. A few moments passed before Joshua nodded and grinned, then resumed playing his game. With his tongue sticking out at the corner of his mouth, Joshua furrowed his brows in concentration as he debated which stick he would try for next.

Deciding to leave his son to his game, Clint turned his full attention to Natasha, who was still pacing the length of the room. “This dance is perfect opportunity for you to discover whether Colonel Fury merely enjoys your company or wishes to pay particular attention to you,” Clint remarked.

“You know full well I have no intention of marrying or bonding, Clinton Francis Barton,” she retorted, not bothering to hide her smirk at seeing Clint’s reaction to her use of his full name.

“You should not let the past stop you from being happy, Tasha.”

“I’m perfectly happy, Clint,” she growled, causing Clint’s eyebrows to shoot up at the intensity of her reaction to his concern.

“No, you are content. It’s not the same thing, Tasha, and you know it,” Clint countered forcibly, choosing to use her nickname once again for no other reason than because he could and he loved to watch her eyebrow twitch.

Leveling a dark gaze at Clint, Natasha smoothed down her skirt and snapped, “I do not recall asking for your opinion regarding my personal life,” before spinning on her heel and stalking towards the door. She had intended to leave those as her parting words, yet something deep inside told her not to mince her words. “Maybe you should take your own advice before presuming you have the right to lecture me.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Natasha quirked her lips, giving a secretive smile as she opened the door and slipped out, leaving Clint to mull over her words. In spite of his posturing, Clint really was an intelligent man, so Natasha knew that he was either playing coy or in a matter of minutes he would understand exactly what she had been alluding to.

~*~*~*~

“Are you not fond of dancing?” Clint ventured upon finding Lord Coulson standing just outside the door leading out to the terrace garden. Over the course of the last few days, Clint had discovered the Lord had a fondness for the outdoors, in spite of chill in the air and snow on the ground. And it would seem his fondness had grown, especially as the music and lively conversation had swelled during the course of Lady Mallory’s ball.

“Only when I have the company of an agreeable partner,” Phil replied, his gaze landing on Clint’s handsome face. How he wished he had meet this man sooner, instead of being forced to witness proof of his marriage and devotion to his wife and child. While he bore no ill will towards Mr. Barton for taking an active interest in his son’s well-being, Phil could not help think that Mrs. Barton did not act as a mother should towards her husband and son.

“Is no one of such a description within the party tonight?”

Phil breathed a sigh, watching as the wisp of hot air danced before his face before being swept away by a gust of cold air. As much as Mr. Barton tried to be coy with his question, Phil knew what he was asking and etiquette—as well as Phil’s own sense of ethics—dictated that he put a stop to their acquaintance before words were spoken that neither could take back.

“Mr. Barton, let me be forthright when I say, our acquaintance cannot continue for I find myself in danger of falling in love with you.”

With a look of confusion on his face, Clint stepped forward, his hand raised as though he intended to lay it upon Phil’s person; yet his Lordship was quick to move away, maintaining his distance from the other man. “If what you say is true, then explain to me, in detail, what stops you from making an offer to me.”

“I speak of marriage, Mr. Barton, and faithfulness,” Phil stated forcibly, his tone belaying his exasperation with Clint’s overwhelming lack of propriety. While he could not be sure if it was the nature of the man’s upbringing or if it was just his inherit nature, Phil took his immoral behavior as a sign that he was making the best choice possible when dealing with Mr. Barton. “I will not be party to an affair. You must understand; it is not within my nature.”

Upon hearing those words, Clint’s face lost all indication of his confusion, only to be quickly replaced by one of indifference. “I understand completely, Lord Coulson. Now please allow me to take my leave, for I do not wish to retain you any longer than you feel is proper,” Clint told him in a clipped tone, and so with a stiff bow, he withdrew, leaving Phil standing in the cold.

~*~*~*~

As the ball began to wane and the first of her guests began to depart, Phil seized the opportunity and made his way over to Lady Mallory, who was saying goodbye to her guest each in turn. “Pardon me, my Lady, but I must take my leave early. I have business in the South that cannot be delayed.”

“Can your business not be delay, sir? It is almost Christmas.” Lady Mallory frowned while giving Phil a curious stare.

“I fear I cannot. My steward arrived with news concerning my ward, Miss Simmons. As such, it is my duty to render any kind of aide that I can.”

While Lady Mallory might have given a nod of agreement, it did not mean that she was not upset that all of her plans for her nephew and Lord Coulson were now ruined. It had never been intention to meddle in the affairs of her nephew’s heart; yet the moment she had seen the almost instinct attraction between Clinton and Lord Coulson, she had made it her goal to see this Christmas end with, at the very least, an understanding between the pair.

“Of course, Lord Coulson. I pray you have a happy Christmas, indeed,” she murmured, then paused a moment, adding, “and if you happen to find yourself within the neighborhood before our marry party is to disband, pray return to us. You would be most welcome.”

With a final bow of courtesy, Phil took his leave of his hostess, striding purposefully through the elegant entryway and out to his awaiting horse. Though he had no need or desire to travel for London, he could not risk not giving the appearance of being on urgent business, even if he only intended to retreat to his estate and lick his wounds.

~*~*~*~

“He has a wife!” Clint exclaimed, as soon as the music room door was firmly shut behind them. Since learning the truth of Lord Coulson’s circumstances, Clint had been silently boiling with anger, even as his own heart was breaking. For so long, he had denied his heart the opportunity to love another, and yet, it appeared luck would not be on his side, for the man he desired already had a spouse.

“Are you sure?”

Shooting his friend a look that could only be described as bewildering, Clint collapsed into a nearby chair and snapped, “He told me himself, Tasha.”

Natasha stayed silent for a minute, mulling his words over before speaking once more. “Yet, Fury has made no mention of a wife or even a husband.”

“And why would he? They are not his spouse!”

“Please,” Natasha sighed, “calm yourself. If you wish, we can leave immediately, so you do not have to continue in these people’s company.”

“No. I promised my aunt, a Christmas. And a Christmas, she shall have,” Clint told her. “Besides, I understand business drew him to London… no doubt his spouse.”

“She must not be all that agreeable if she keeps to town while he spends his days in the country,” Natasha pointed out, grinning at her own wit. “Especially, when evidence proves he prefers the outdoors to almost anything else.”

Clint’s eyes narrowed at her, and yet he chose to ignore her remark in favor of running his fingers along the smooth ivory keys of the nearby piano. There had been a time when he vividly recall his mother playing the pianoforte; however, time had played its part in dimming those beloved memories, in much the same way it had of her smiles and laughter.

“Will you be accompanying me back to Thetford?” Clint questioned instead, forcing his mind away from the unpleasant thoughts swirling in his mind.

“No, I’m afraid I must return to Bath sooner than I wish.”

Clint frowned at her response. After their meeting some months ago, Natasha had not wasted a moment accepting his invitation to return to Thetford with him. Now though, it seemed her business in Bath was not as conclude as she had originally believed. “Is everything all right?”

“As well as it can be,” she sighed. “Do not worry yourself, Clint. I shall be perfectly safe,” she advised, though a devilish kind of twinkle appeared in her eyes as she added, “Especially given Nicholas’s offer of escorting me upon the journey.”

“Nicholas, now is he?” Clint teased, unable to contain his enjoyment at witnessing the deep blush staining his friend’s cheeks. Though Clint would never consider Natasha a woman of low morals, her use of men in her line of work made it seem that a man would never catch her eye in such a way to cause this type of reaction. Especially, a Colonel in his majesty’s army.

“Quiet you,” Natasha growled, though her barely concealed smile showed there was no heat in her words or manner.

Despite having his heart broken by Lord Coulson, Clint bubbled with laughter and joy at his friend’s good fortune and happiness. After all, she deserved it and just maybe in time, he would find another person, who made him feel like Coulson had.

~*~*~*~

“Oh, my darling boy,” Aunt Mallory exclaimed, once Clint had alighted from the carriage with Joshua in his arms. “I’m so happy that you have arrived,” she continued, throwing propriety out the wind by embracing first her nephew then her great-nephew, who she took from Clint’s arms without asking his permission to do so. In the months since his departure from Aspen Vale, Clint and his Aunt Mallory had grown close through their letters, transforming their once awkward acquaintance into one of true familiar regard.

With grin on his face, Clint leaned forward, kissing her cheek, before drawing back and directing the groomsmen to see to the horses while he followed his Aunt Mallory into the elegant house. “I was not aware that you kept in house in Bath, Aunt,” Clint remarked while a footman helped relieve him of his hat and coat.

“Not usually, since I only spend a few weeks here,” she replied, “but with Colonel Fury’s and Miss Romanova’s wedding, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to spend a longer period here.”

“How long do you intend to stay?”

Aunt Mallory tapped her chin and smiled coyly. “Possibly the whole summer, if a certain nephew would be agreeable?”

Clint shook his head and said, “Aunt, as much as I would love to say that I will, I’m afraid I cannot. My stables do not allow me the will to leave them as often as I might wish.”

“If I’m to be denied your company for the whole of the summer,” she began, “might I be allowed to have Joshua’s company?”

“Let me think on it.”

Aunt Mallory smiled again, and then bent her head, brushing her lips across the curls of Joshua’s ginger head. “You will not win, nephew,” she teased.

“Madam, my will, as is my love for my son, is made of iron. You shall not move me if I do not wish it.”

“I see your father in you, a little,” she remarked off-handedly. “However, your dear mother’s presence is stronger. You are a good father, Clint. I’m so proud of the man you have become.”

“Thank you, Aunt,” Clint replied, voice hoarse due to his barely checked emotions that came from hearing her praise of his character. Edwin Jarvis was the only other person, who had ever thought to lead a kind word and congratulate him on the man he had become… in spite of the circumstances concerning his childhood.

Taking her elbow in hand, Clint lead her in the direction of what he could only assume was the drawing room of the house, and it was only after they were inside that he retrieve his son from his aunt, settling on one of the many sofas with the child in his lap.

“How was your journey?” She ventured while ringing the bell for tea. Even though, supper was only a couple hours away, Aunt Mallory knew that Clint had foregone dinner, in order to make good time on their journey.

“Long,” Clint drawled. “Though we are here now, and for that I am happy.”

Aunt Mallory inclined her head and settled into the chair opposite him, waiting a moment before saying, “After tea, I will have Maggie show you to your rooms, so you might rest before the happy couple arrive from supper tonight.”

“Oh,” Clint breathed. “Do they dine with you often?” Clint questioned curiously. Natasha had never made any mention of her having such an acquaintance with his aunt. Yet, she generally was not the type to make the whole of her personal life known.

“Yes, I thought I had told you,” Aunt Mallory stated pointedly, “In any case, I believe I understand that Lord Coulson will be joining them,” she added helpfully, a lone eyebrow raised as though she was silently questioning his true dealings with Lord Coulson.

“Will he?” Clint asked indifferently. It had taken many months before Clint had finally been able to put the whole business of his attraction to Lord Coulson behind him, and throw the whole of his focus into his stables and of course, his son. “And will his spouse be joining him?”

Giving him a puzzled look, Aunt Mallory leaned forward and took his hand. “What spouse do you speak of, Clint?”

“The spouse, which stopped him from making me an offer of marriage.”

“But my dear, he has no spouse,” Aunt Mallory stated gently. “Believe me, I’ve been trying to get him married since he arrived in the neighborhood. None of this makes sense, my dear boy.”

“Then I am as confused as you, Aunt,” Clint sighed.

Then with the arrival of tea, the pair fell into almost silence, save for the occasional question Aunt Mallory asked of Joshua—once the little boy had been awoken, so that he could have his share of the biscuits and a mug of frothy milk.

~*~*~*~ 

“You are a damn fool, Philip Coulson,” Fury boomed, voice giving way to blusterous laughter at the expression of utter confusion upon his friend’s face.

“Explain this to me in plain English, Fury, for she is already married,” Phil retorted forcibly, practically jumping from his chair, even as Fury took his seat in front of the fire.

“She is not, or has she ever been,” Fury stated plainly, as though Phil was a simpleton. “Mr. Barton is her oldest friend and she is godmother to his son.”

“So there is no wife.”

Rolling his one good eye, Fury heaved a great sigh while barely keeping his annoyance in check. As much as he cared for his friend, there were some instances when he wished he could simply shake him to make him understand reason. “There is no wife and from what Natasha had imparted upon me, there had never been a wife.”

“Then where did Joshua come from?”

“He is his nephew by his brother, who had a less than desirable character,” Fury explained gently. “He left the boy to Barton not long after birth, and Barton was not willing to let the boy go.”

“And we are to have dinner with them tonight?” Phil interjected, tone full of excitement at the prospect of seeing Mr. Barton once more. In all the months since their parting, the man had never been far from Phil’s mind and to discover that everything had been all a misunderstanding filled him with joy. “What time do we leave?”

Fury broke out into laughter once more, shaking his head in utter bemusement at his friend’s manner. Though, he could not blame the poor man or his level of rapture, if only because he had stupidly spent the rest of the winter believing Mr. Barton to be lost to him. “The carriage will call in half an hour and will be retrieving Natasha from her accommodations along the way.”

“In that case, I must hurry and make myself ready for supper,” and with those parting words, Phil scrambled out of the drawing room, door practically slamming behind him in his rush to leave.

“Damn fool!” Fury snorted into his tea cup.

~*~*~*~

For Clint and Phil, supper turned out to be a slightly awkward affair, where either was willing to make eye contact with the other and the majority of the conversation was left to Lady Mallory and the happy couple. A fact that did not go unnoticed by their friends, if anything they were forced to conceal their smiles and their urge to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation.

“Will you join me for a walk, Lord Coulson?” Clint ventured tentatively, once their meal had concluded. As the party began to make their way to the drawing room for tea and cards, Clint found himself stopping before his aunt’s front door. He could not reason what had made him stop or even ask for Lord Coulson’s company; but the damage had been done and he would have to follow through, no matter the outcome.

“Of course, Mr. Barton,” Phil agreed, his heart racing at being singled out by the other man. As much as he had wished that Mr. Barton would be willing to renew his addresses, Phil had not put so much hope into it because as Fury had pointed out, he had been a damn fool when it came to his dealings with Mr. Barton, so the younger man had every right to snub him.

Once the door had shut firmly behind them, Clint led the way down the short path to the main walk and then turned in the direction of the assembly rooms. While he had no wish to actually venture that far from his aunt’s home, the walk in that direction was well lit, so it would allow them the chance to read the other’s face.

“You must allow me to beg your forgiveness, Mr. Barton,” Phil offered, unable to stay silent any longer. All throughout supper, he had longed to throw himself at this man’s feet and plead for a pardon of his terrible behavior towards him in December. Yet, he had stayed silent and unwilling to meet Clint’s eye. “I fear a misunderstanding arose when we last met.”

“On who’s part, Lord Coulson?”

“My own,” he affirmed. “I have never been the type to believe that I am a person to whom good fortune can happen. So when I realized that my attraction to you was returned, I immediately ignored all the evidence to the contrary and assumed you to be married.”

“Married!” Clint barked. “To who?”

“Your friend, Miss Romanova.”

Clint chuckled and shook his head in bewilderment. “Natasha will surely find great amusement in that when I tell her.”

“In much the same way Fury did, I imagine,” Phil countered dryly, though not without some laughter in his tone.

“What a pair we make,” Clint murmured, causing Phil to glance at him in a questioning manner. “When you refused my offer in December, I must confess, my mind immediately went to you being married,” he supplied plainly, earning yet another questioning glance from his companion. “After all, what was I to think when you began to speak of affairs and your own moral compass, sir?”

“We are fools, Mr. Barton, blind fools,” Phil declared mournfully.

Reaching out, Clint brushed his hand along the sleeve of Phil’s jacket and then down to his hand, twinning them together. Propriety be damned as far as he concerned. For months, he had been denied the company of this man, and by rights, his ability to touch. “I have but one question of you now, my dear sir. Marry me?”

A look of shock passed across Phil’s face before settling into a blinding grin. “I believe I’m the one who is supposed to be offering you marriage,” Phil teased.

“I know that if I left it to you, Joshua would be at Harrow before you managed an offer to me,” Clint joked and then raised both eyebrows in silent challenge.

A deep chuckle filled the air as Phil surged forward and pressed close to his intended, bringing his hand up, so that he might caress Clint’s cheek. “You jest, my dear man; but I see your point,” he conceded softly. “The hour draws late, shall we start back to your aunt’s, my love?” Phil whispered, breath ghosting across the other man’s lips. How he longed to kiss him, yet he dared not, especially in full public view.

“Yes,” Clint murmured and then threw propriety out the window by kissing Phil full on the mouth. “I have wanted to do that since our first meeting,” he proclaimed, grinning cheeky at his husband-to-be.

“Then, who am I to stop you,” Phil countered, in almost the same manner as Clint, before taking his hand and returning in the direction they had just come.

If he was honest, it was not so much the hour as the company they had left, which hastened his want to return. For he had known Lady Mallory longer than Clint and knew her nature to be one full of curiosity, never stopping until she had all the particulars on a subject… regardless of whether it had anything to do with her person or not.

“Who indeed?” Clint teased, eyes bright with love and happiness, as he rested his head upon Phil’s shoulder, soaking up the warmth his companion offered as they walked towards his aunt’s home.

 ~*~*~*~ 

~ Epilogue ~

“Remind me again, my dear, why I agreed to this again,” Phil grumbled, shooting a glance from his husband to carriage that was just rounding the bend in the lane.

With a chuckle, Clint brushed his fingers across his husband’s before laying his hand upon Joshua’s head, who seemed to have shot up over the course of the year. “Because my aunt is not a person, who one can say no to. Especially, when she is determined to have her way,” Clint pointed out, not so helpfully.

“Father?” There was a warmth in Phil’s gaze as he met his son’s eyes and waited for the boy of barely six to continue speaking. “When can I have a brother or sister?”

Upon hearing the question, Phil and Clint gave each other a pointed look before Phil’s attention returned to his son’s earnest face as Clint removed his hand from Joshua’s head and rested it lightly on a barely there baby bump.

Although Clint had finally passed the early months of pregnancy, there was no guarantee he would bring this child to term, in spite of his doctor’s hopefulness on the subject. Even though Clint wished to see this baby born alive and healthy, he found he could not have the same hope as his doctor or even Phil. Twice before he had been pregnant and twice before he had miscarried, and all because of the actions of his father. From what the doctor could surmise, one of the beatings had been so severe that it had left Clint damaged, which explained why he had never presented like an omega as he should have.

“Do not tell me, you are sick of having your papa and me all to yourself already,” Phil teased.

With a shake of his head, Joshua sent his ginger curls bouncing; an action, which reminded Clint of how much his son was in need of haircut. “Never, father,” he replied, “but the nursery is so boring with only Lucky for company. All he does is sleep!”

“Well, we will just have to change that,” Clint interjected playfully as he leaned down to look his son in the face, “won’t we.” Reaching out, Clint ran his fingers along the son’s side, eliciting peals of laughter from the boy.

While the family of three had been so focused upon each other, none had realized when Aunt Mallory’s carriage had pulled to a stop nor when the woman had alighted from the carriage. “May I be privy to the joke?”

“Aunt Mallory!”

“Aunty!”

Opening her arms, she waited a beat before wrapping her two favorite boys into her loving embrace, and then pressed a kiss to Clint’s cheek. “You are practically glowing, my darling boy,” she whispered into her nephew’s ear, making sure Joshua would not overhear her remark.

“Lady Mallory,” Phil greeted, bowing to his husband’s only known living relative. “You are always welcomed.”

“Good morning, Lord Coulson,” she replied in turn, smiling at her nephew-in-law before turning her attention back to her nephew. “Will I be your only guest this Christmas?”

“No,” Clint asserted. “The Furys and the Sitwells will be arriving, along with Coulson’s wards.”

“All of them?”

Clint nodded and echoed, “All of them.”

“Well I must say,” Aunt Mallory began, “this is going to be merry Christmas, indeed.” And with that, she swept up the stairs, knowing that neither man would leave her waiting for very long. So with an eye roll, Phil gripped his husband’s elbow while grabbing his son’s hand and then led both of them into the manor behind the boisterous Lady.