Peter was as good as his word, when he deigned to give it, and he paid a call to the Stilinskis that very afternoon.
The Stilinski house was well-maintained and of a medium size, done in the Greek Revival style. It was quite different from Hale Manor, which had been designed not only to house a number of large packs when necessary, but to impress while doing so. It sat at the foot of an immense dark forest, and even the smaller lodge that had been built in the woods for hunting was on par with any house in the neighborhood. The few weeks the Hales set aside for outdoor visits, carefully arranged between full moons, were some of the most anticipated of the off-season.
The butler immediately showed Peter to a sitting room, which Peter circled twice before taking a seat. The decor itself was appropriate for a man of the Earl's standing, though slightly outdated - likely it had not been changed since the Countess passed. Peter was starting to sense a theme.
"Lord Hale!" Stiles's voice echoed in the room - polite but a touch surprised. When Peter turned to look, he could not help noticing the shadow of suspicion lurking in Stiles's eyes as well. It was well-hidden, and if Peter had not overheard the conversation between Stiles and Lydia the other night he might not have seen it. It would seem Peter had to step carefully. 'Charming' usually sat well on a Marquess of a certain age, but in this case polite and a little clever would be better; Stiles didn't want to be charmed.
"I thought to improve upon our acquaintance," Peter said easily. "Despite our uncertain start at Lady Martin's party." He tipped his head politely even as he winged an eyebrow upwards, as if to suggest they were conspirators in something.
Now the hint of a smile at the corner of the boy's mouth was at least more genuine. He was a boy, Peter thought, still young, still becoming. A little foolish or foolhardy, to have such rumors sweeping about him, but his suspicions showed that he was not stupid. Peter could tolerate many things - and believed he did, daily - but stupidity could only be born for great reward.
"I am starting to find some acquaintances have deserted me," Stiles admitted. "Though it is no loss, I suppose, if it only takes whispers."
"I have few true friends, myself," Peter said easily. "If quality and quantity cannot be equally managed, I supposed quality is to be the preferable aspect."
Stiles seemed to hesitate for a moment, then moved on. "Would you like to take a walk through the gardens?" he offered. "I've spent most of the day in the library, and I'm afraid even I require a little exercise now and then."
"Of course," Peter said, and offered his arm. There was another momentary hesitation before Stiles took it. They were of a similar height, Peter noted, and the press of their arms against one another was not at all displeasing.
The grounds were significantly smaller than that of Hale Manor, unsurprisingly, but well maintained. The flowers were more brightly colored than some would find acceptable, perhaps, with a great deal of mutabalis roses around the edges. Peter couldn't help but wonder if the late Countess's memory ruled supreme here as well.
Their first few minutes of conversation were as rote as at Lady Whittemore's ball - the forever remarkably unremarkable weather, inquiries into the health of one another's families, a review of the upcoming social calendar - though Stiles began to loosen his tongue as they walked. He had a tendency towards sarcasm, a dry sense of humor, and little patience, it seemed.
"I confess," Peter said, as they began their second turn around the garden. "I did come here with a motive." Peter thought it prudent to get down to business quickly, both because he certainly wouldn't be the first to make an offer, and because too much dithering seemed dishonest in its own way. It might come off as mercenary to get down to brass tacks so quickly -- the whole affair was mercenary -- but it seemed crueler still to put a friendly face on it and drag it out.
"Oh?" Stiles asked. His grip had tightened and loosened so lightning-quick it would be easy to think Peter had imagined it. "A motive you're going to so easily confess?"
Peter smiled. "You seemed the type to prefer blunt honesty to pretty lies."
The twitch on Stiles's face seemed to equally profess his agreement, and his annoyance at finding himself in agreement.
"I've heard the rumors of your indiscretion," Peter continued casually. "At this point the whole county has, at least." Stiles's heartbeat trips, and begins to speed faster. "You already had something of a reputation, as I'm sure you well know. And after this latest incident the odd looks, the whispers, the snubs -- they're not going away this time. They're only going to get worse."
Peter could hear, if he listened closely, the grinding of Stiles's teeth. "I suppose I should thank you for your concern--"
"Oh, I'm not concerned." Peter patted where Stiles's arm was still securely entwined with his own. "I have a proposition. A rather blunt one, I'm afraid. I'd like to marry you."
Stiles's jaw was clenched so tightly Peter would see his temples throb. "I should congratulate you on being the first in a line, I suppose. Willing to snatch up a used Viscount at a reduced rate."
"Oh, and you'll be an Earl someday, don't forget," Peter reminded him. "Not to mention having a Magistrate for a father-in-law is nothing to sneeze at."
"How silly of me to have let it slip my mind!" Stiles threw his hands into the air. An angry flush had overtaken his face, blooming sharply on his cheekbones. And while Peter enjoyed it, and the flush it brought to his face, it seemed prudent to move along before Stiles had him forcibly removed from the grounds.
"Before you have me thrown out onto the street," Peter said, with all the leisure his temperament allowed, "Might I explain why I am different from the others that will come? There are a variety of reasons, I imagine, but only one will currently interest you."
"I'm on tenterhooks," Stiles snapped.
"I know the rumors are false," Peter said, and this seemed to be so shocking that Stiles froze with his mouth half-open. "I know that the rumors swirling about mean nothing. I know you are no more ruined than you were a month ago, despite the court of public opinion."
Stiles was looking at him with something that was not quite confusion. It was something like shrewdness. Something like fear.
"There will be others," Peter continued. "You're right about that. But none of them will believe you. They will believe the rumors, they will want you because you are a bargain, yes, because they wish a connection to your father and your mother's relations and they will care nothing for you. And I am not like them."
"I can't get your measure," Stiles said after a moment. "You are friendly, then you are pointed, then you are the rake, then you are honest -- I am trying to figure out the rules of your little game, and I am failing, I think."
"No game," Peter said. He clasped his hands behind his back and sighed. "Not beyond the usual one. I must marry - or should marry, I suppose, for I am certainly of an age - and I think we will suit. I don't want a simpering miss just out of the schoolroom, or a boorish, rutting youth. Miss Martin thinks well of you, which is as good a recommendation as I could ever find. You are clever, and beautiful, and at this moment within my reach. I wouldn't be here if you didn't have your station to recommend you, but I can only assume you look upon my money and my name similarly."
"It's not a bad match," Stiles said flatly, after a moment. Peter had nothing more to inherit unless a large portion of his family died, but he was a Marquess, and a wealthy one at that. A Hale. "Even unsullied, I suppose I could hope for little better."
"I don't expect an answer now," Peter said. "As you said, I am likely to be only the first of many. I didn't come here to blackmail you into anything, merely to make my offer plainly, before the others."
Stiles was silent for a moment. "I see." He looked Peter full in the face, piercingly, before walking slowly back towards the house.
"Court me," Stiles blurted out, right as they reached the back entrance of the house, and Peter stilled. "That's - Yes, I'll say yes, right here, in front of you now, but court me first."
"For appearances?" Peter didn't particularly care that Stiles would be entering the marriage with a blemish after his name, but perhaps Stiles was more sensitive. "However urgent it seems now, I assure you that once a youthful indiscretion has been sewn up, Society quickly searches for fresher meat." He was impulsive, Peter realized. Not altogether a good quality, but one which in this case fell in Peter's favor.
"For my father," Stiles said. At Peter's raised eyebrow he let out a sigh, and rubbed at the wrinkle that had appeared between his own eyes. "He and my mother were a love match. I'm certainly not asking you to pretend to be in love with me - I doubt either of us could pull that off! - but I think it would appease him, to know that my marriage was one of my choosing, rather than the result of scandal."
That was irritatingly understandable and Peter would look quite the heartless blackguard to refuse. He supposed concessions could be made.
"You'll be attending the Whittemores' ball this week?"
After a moment, Stiles nodded.
"Then I suspect I will ask you to waltz, twice, and you will accept," Peter said. "And I imagine that would be more than enough to set the tongues of all society wagging."