Andrew’s head was throbbing by the time his carriage drew up to the front of the house. The sea crossing had been terrible and the past seven hours on the road from Dover had reminded him of his still-healing musket wound with every hole in the road.
Normally, these were the sorts of minor annoyances that Andrew could shrug off. Very few things dampened his mood typically and a bad journey certainly shouldn’t have been one of them, but this week had been hell and he just wanted to crawl into bed and pretend it was all a nightmare.
Or rather, what he wanted was to return to the Peninsular and his men immediately, but that would never again be an option so it was best not even to think about it.
He hopped up as soon as the carriage stopped, desperate to stretch his legs, and almost smacked the door into a footman who was reaching out to open it.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Andrew said quickly. “Are you all right?” He tried to smile, but the footman was looking firmly, professionally straight ahead.
“Your Lordship,” he said, inclining his head.
Oh god. That.
“Thank you, Mr – ” Andrew hesitated. The footman was old and severe-looking and Andrew didn’t recognise him at all. He hadn’t been home in a year, but his mother wrote him pages and pages about her new hirings and firings so he felt as though he should.
“Ford, sir,” the footman said. Andrew had definitely never met him before, but that didn’t stop him feeling guilty.
“There are some, some bags and things,” Andrew tried. He’d never been good at giving orders to the staff; it had always felt so rude. He wanted them to like him and they wouldn’t if he was always telling them what to do, would they?
“I’ll talk to the driver, sir,” Ford said. He sounded perfectly pleasant still but Andrew saw the way his eyes flicked over Andrew and then away. He was definitely being judged. And almost certainly found lacking.
Andrew managed to find another smile. “Thank you,” he said. “Is my mother at home?”
“Yes, sir. Her ladyship is in her sitting room.” Andrew waited, but there was nothing else. Andrew missed their old footman; he used to tell Andrew all the gossip.
“Thank you,” Andrew said again and turned toward the house.
It was late in the evening, clouds drawing in and blotting out the moon, so he could make out nothing more than the imposing front entrance of his childhood home. Despite its size, Ewell Priory had always felt warm and inviting to him, but he felt a little overwhelmed tonight, now that it was truly his, and he couldn’t help feeling glad that he didn’t have to stand back and survey it properly right now.
Tomorrow, he’d do that. Or maybe it would rain and then he could wait until the day after to get started. That would be nice.
Andrew shook his head at himself, stepped over the threshold and –
- nearly fell over when a small blur of black and gold flew down the hall and crashed into his chest.
“Andrew!” the blur said, sounding delighted. “You’re so late. Aunt Susan said that maybe we’d got the day wrong, but I knew we hadn’t.”
Andrew laughed, stepping back and putting his hands on her shoulders so she wouldn’t fly at him again. That kind of impact did nothing for the hole in his hip, but he definitely appreciated the sentiment. And the embrace.
“Good evening, Miss Hallie Kate,” he said, grinning at her.
Hallie rolled her eyes, tossing long, golden brown ringlets over her shoulder impatiently. She curtsied exaggeratedly. “Why good evening, Lord Epsom, welcome home,” she said faux-primly.
Somehow, hearing her call him that in her most sarcastic voice made it easier to accept.
He reached out and tugged on one of her curls. “When did you get so tall? Weren’t you half this height when I left?”
“Well,” Hallie said slowly. “You have been gone forever. And I’m seventeen now; was I supposed to stay short always?”
“Yes,” Andrew said firmly, unfastening the catch on his cloak. He looked around, wondering where best to leave it that wouldn’t earn him another glare from the frightening footman. Finding nowhere, he eventually settled for draping it over his arm.
Hallie laughed at him and reached out, taking his hand. “Will you come and see Aunt Susan with me?”
Andrew barely hid his wince. He desperately wanted to see his mother, of course, but what if she was crying? His father had only been dead a month; Hallie was still in mourning dress, even.
“Come on,” Hallie said, tugging and he followed her helplessly up the stairs.
Hallie was his father’s ward - which possibly meant she was now his ward; he wasn’t sure how that worked and mentally added that to his ever-growing list of things to ask his man of business about. She and her brother had come to live with them nearly ten years ago so she was practically his sister by now and had every right to drag him around the house if she wished.
“Hallie,” Andrew said quietly, stopping her before they got to the door to the sitting room. “How is she?”
Hallie bit her lip, starting to shrug then stopping herself. “Sad,” she decided eventually, “but not too sad.” She gave him a firm push. “Go and see for yourself. I’m going to drag Jesse out of the library.” She jumped up and kissed his cheek then ran off.
Andrew blinked after her; he hadn’t realised her brother was still living here. Last he’d heard, Jesse was reading history at Cambridge. Frowning, Andrew was distracted enough that he completely forgot to hesitate any longer and walked straight into the sitting room.
Andrew’s mother stood as soon as he walked into the room, holding out both hands to him. Dimly, Andrew remembered that he’d intended to greet her as befit the new Earl of Epsom but all that was forgotten as soon as he saw her. She was his mother and he’d missed her.
“Oh, my darling,” Mama said, pulling him down to rest his head on her shoulder and stroking the top of his hair. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.”
Andrew clung to her, marvelling at how soft and warm she was after months and months of nothing but hard, male bodies wherever he turned. “Mama,” he said and she shushed him, stroking his hair again.
Eventually, Andrew managed to detach himself and they sat down on the settee. His mother was holding his hand between both of hers, soothing her thumb over the calloused parts of his palm.
“You used to have such soft hands,” she said sadly.
Andrew managed a smile. “You can’t fight a war with soft hands,” he said, thinking of the fit of his rifle against his skin, how easy it had grown to hold. He could have brought it home with him, but instead he’d left it with his replacement, hoping it would bring him luck.
“Your father,” Lady Susan said, then cleared her throat. She looked up at him and ploughed on determinedly. “Your father was very proud of you.”
Andrew’s eyes burnt hot. He didn’t know what to say. What did you say when your father took his horse out early one morning and broke his neck on a path he could have ridden blindfolded.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here,” he said helplessly.
His mother squeezed his hand more tightly. “And what would you have done if you had been?” she asked sensibly. “Besides, Hallie and Jesse were wonderful; I didn’t lack for support.”
“But you, I – ” Andrew didn’t really have an argument for that. He just felt uselessly, formlessly guilty. He squared his shoulders and tried to think like the new Lord of the Manor. “Well, I’m here now. I’ll begin to look at Father’s papers tomorrow, I suppose. Has his man of business been here often?”
He’d hoped that she’d find it reassuring, that he was taking charge and (pretending) to know what he was doing but instead, her hand clenched around his tight enough that he lost feeling in his fingertips.
“Let’s not talk about that now,” she said, standing up. “It’s late and you must be exhausted. Why don’t we talk in the morning? Are you hungry? Most of the staff will have gone to bed but Mrs Field has always loved you, so I’m sure she wouldn’t mind rustling something up.”
“I’m... All right,” Andrew agreed, standing up as well. Now he was definitely worried; his mother never dismissed him like that. “And I’m not hungry, thank you.” With the way all this mounting pressure was looming over him, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be hungry again.
His mother patted him on the shoulder and drew her shawl closer around her body. Andrew noticed for the first time that the fire in the large, marble fireplace was barely lit.
“Are you cold?” he asked, concerned, and stepped over to the fireplace. “There’s some extra kindling here if you’d – ”
“No, no,” his mother said quickly. “I’m going to bed now, so there’s no need.” She turned her face up to his and he kissed her cheek automatically. “Good night, darling. It really is wonderful to have you home.”
“It’s wonderful to be home,” Andrew lied with his widest smile. “Sleep well.” She gave him a small nod and swept out of the room.
Still feeling jittery, Andrew picked up the poker and shifted a few smouldering logs around. They hissed satisfyingly and he remembered being much younger and building illicit bonfires with his brother, Ben.
He was still lost in thought a couple of minutes later when the door opened and he looked up hopefully; he wasn’t terribly good at brooding so he hoped this was Hallie come to distract him.
It wasn’t Hallie, unfortunately, but it was someone else he recognised. “Lily!” he said happily, striding forward.
Lily beamed at him for one quick, bright second then dropped her eyes, biting her lip like she was trying to chew the smile right off it. “Your Lordship,” she said, curtseying. “My apologies, I didn’t realise anyone was still up.”
Andrew made a face at the top of her white cap. If people didn’t stop using his title, he was going to do something drastic. Like renounce it. Or maybe just have a bit of a strop, but either way, they’d be sorry.
“Lily,” he chided. “I’ve known you since we were fourteen, come on.”
“You were thirteen,” she said, peeking up at him from under her shiny, red fringe.
Andrew laughed. “Fine,” he conceded. “I suppose I was.” Lily had first come to them as a kitchen maid and she’d never tried very hard to stop Andrew sneaking into the kitchen to steal apples and slices of cake.
Lily straightened, still looking at him like she thought he might suddenly dismiss her for familiarity or something, which made Andrew sad – he hoped no one really thought he was going to be that sort of bastard.
“I came up to check on the fire, but would you like something to eat?” Lily asked. “They let me cook sometimes now.”
Andrew made a face of mock-horror. “Definitely not, then!” he said, relieved when she giggled. He hesitated then asked, “But can I ask, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism but – ” He trailed off; he was genuinely terrible at being anyone’s master.
Lily obviously thought so too. “My Lord,” she scolded, “You’re allowed to criticise me if necessary. I promise not to cry.”
“If you cried, I’d probably have to hang myself,” Andrew told her seriously. “But, all right, here goes: Lily, I am a little disappointed that the fire was so low this evening; my poor mother nearly turned into an icicle.”
Lily winced and Andrew thought for a moment that he really had upset her. Then she said, “Maybe you should talk to your mother about that,” and Andrew got really worried.
“Why?” he asked slowly. Was his mother trying to slowly freeze herself to death out of grief? That would be horrible.
Lily hesitated for so long that Andrew was worried she wouldn’t answer. Finally she blurted, “Don’t tell anyone I told, but her Ladyship gave orders a sennight ago that all fires were to be kept as low as possible and only lit if a member of the household was actually in the room at the time. That’s why I came up, I was going to put it out when I thought there was no one in here.”
Andrew blinked at her. All his memories of winters in this house involved cheerful fires roaring in every hearth. “But why?” he asked.
Lily shook her head quickly. “You really need to talk to her Ladyship,” she said and now she did sound upset. “Please, Andrew.”
It was the use of his name that convinced him.
“All right,” he said, holding up his hands. “I won’t ask anything else. Thank you for telling me.”
Lily smiled at him. “I’m glad you’re home,” she said, which everyone seemed to say but no would ever said why. What did they expect that he could do, exactly?
Andrew couldn’t manage another insincere reply so he mumbled something and turned to the door. “I’m going to bed now,” he told her, “So feel free to do whatever you like with the fire.”
She curtsied again – Andrew couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not; he hoped she was – so Andrew had to do what he’d said and let himself out of the room.
His bedroom had barely changed at all from what Andrew remembered. The only new additions were new curtains hanging over the windows and a stately, hardback chair tucked beneath a similarly imposing writing desk in one corner.
Andrew wondered if that meant that he should prepare himself for a lifetime of writing letters and poring over ledgers. He had barely scraped through school, so maybe it should be the rest of the world who prepared themselves, he thought wryly.
He wasn’t sure if he had a valet yet and, if he did, there was no sign of him, so Andrew undressed himself quickly, equal parts pleased and guilty to see that his bags had been delivered to his room and unpacked perfectly.
Exhaustion hit him somewhere between shedding his clothes and pulling on his nightshirt and it was suddenly all he could do to drag himself into bed. His sheets felt fresh and almost obscenely starched after the rough army-issued blankets he’d grown used to. His pillowed dented just right under his head and the curtains over the windows blocked out all light.
It was everything he’d been dreaming about while on the Continent, but now he couldn’t settle. He was too comfortable, too alone and too safe all at once.
“Come on, Andrew,” he told himself firmly, voice echoing in the dark. “Moping simply won’t do.”
It had been a long, draining month, so despite all the new things that it would probably be sensible to lie awake worrying about, he instead fell asleep.
Someone had set out a jug of still-steaming water, which implied that Andrew did have a valet, even if he was apparently invisible. Andrew washed quickly, then remembered how filthy he’d felt after getting out of the carriage last night and slowed down, taking his time and marvelling at the luxury of hot water and as much soap as he wanted to use.
He dabbed the washcloth over his wounded hip as lightly as he could – it was sore from too much travel and slightly puffy around the edges, making him limp slightly from the twinges of pain but, well, he wasn’t dead, so he couldn’t complain.
He dressed himself in clean clothes and tied on his black armband, taking less time over his cravat than he normally would because he’d suddenly remembered he hadn’t had dinner last night and he was starving.
Lily gave him a pointed look and shooed him out of the kitchen when he tried to ask for some bread and cheese so Andrew grumpily took himself off to the dinning room and sat down to be waited on, which was ridiculous since he was the only one up right now and Hallie and Mama and, presumably Jesse, would all need breakfast later on.
Still, breakfast turned out to be eggs, toast, plum cake and lashings of tea, so Andrew quickly forgot to be grumpy and smiled so widely at the maid when she refilled his tea that she blushed and splashed milk onto the tablecloth.
After breakfast, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself and was just considering visiting the stables to see if a horse could be saddled for a quick ride when he heard the sound of the ringing doorbell echo through the house.
Andrew frowned, glancing at the clock above the mantelpiece; it was far too early for visitors and the house was still in mourning, anyway.
Two minutes later, the door opened and Ford the Disapproving Footman cleared his throat. He seemed to do that a lot; Andrew wondered if he was allergic to cavalry officers in general or just to Andrew in particular. “Mr Cumberbatch to see you, my Lord," he said.
“Who?” Andrew asked, automatically rising.
“The late Earl’s man of business, sir,” Ford said and stepped back before Andrew could ask anything else, ushering in a tall man with a serious expression and incongruously gleaming red-gold hair.
“My Lord,” Cumberbatch said, holding out a hand. He was younger than Andrew would have expected, older than Andrew certainly, but no more than five-and-thirty. “Please forgive the earliness of the hour, but when I heard you had arrived home – ”
Andrew waved away his apologies and nodded at the chair opposite his. “Please have a seat, Mr Cumberbatch,” he said, “Would you like some tea?”
Cumberbatch sat but shook his head quickly. “No,” he said, “thank you. My Lord, I’m not – ” He broke off, looking up at Ford, still waiting patiently in the doorway.
With a sinking feeling, Andrew said, “Thank you, Ford,” and waited for the door to shut before turning to Cumberbatch, tensing for some bad news.
Cumberbatch was fiddling with his cuffs but he stopped immediately when he saw that Andrew had noticed. “My Lord,” he said again. “I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to consult your father’s ledgers?”
Andrew didn’t even know where his father had kept his ledgers. “I arrived very late last night,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound too defensive.
Cumberbatch nodded quickly. “Of course. Well the fact of the matter is – ” He hesitated. God, it must be very bad.
“Please,” Andrew asked, leaning forward, “Just tell me.”
Cumberbatch looked at Andrew steadily, leaning forward to match Andrew’s pose, which Andrew admired. “My Lord, the situation is not good.”
“Not good?” Andrew repeated. “How bad is not good?”
“May I be blunt?” Cumberbatch asked, then clearly decided that he might because he ploughed on before Andrew could agree. “If you were to sell the Priory and your house in London, you might have enough left over for a small house for your mother and Miss Eisenberg.”
Andrew stared. His mind was reeling. They’d never been short of funds, his father hadn’t gambled, his mother wasn’t extravagant in her spending and Andrew had earned his own pin money for years. “But how?” he asked faintly.
Cumberbatch shook his head. “Your father made some rather bad investments before I came into his employ. Added to which, he spent a lot of money ensuring that Lady Alexandra and your nieces were comfortable after your brother died.”
Andrew nodded. Some small, selfish part of him wished that Ben had had a son, then he could have inherited this whole sorry mess instead of Andrew; Alexandra would have known what to do until this hyperthetical son was old enough to take charge.
“But,” Andrew tried helplessly. “But how can there be no money? My sister-in-law lives very modestly.” Then he thought of his mother’s instruction to limit the fires lit in the grate, the lack of staff. “Does my mother know?”
Cumberbatch inclined his head awkwardly. “She had an inkling,” he admitted. “And when she asked, I confirmed her fears.”
Andrew nodded again. “Of course.” His mother was much cleverer than he was; of course she’d worked it out. He stared down at his hands. His brain was buzzing; he couldn’t even work out where to start. “What do I do?” he asked, looking up at Cumberbatch without lifting his head.
Cumberbatch looked sympathetic. Normally, Andrew didn’t like people feeling sorry for him, but he’d accept anything right now if it meant that someone might help him. “Believe me, I’m doing everything I can to find a solution.”
Andrew nodded. “The Priory is my mother’s home,” he said. His too, of course, but he could always land on his feet. What he couldn’t do was live with the guilt of throwing his mother out of her home.
“Of course.” Cumberbatch stood up and offered Andrew his hand again. “I’ll leave you to your day now,” he said, as though Andrew would be able to think about anything else but what he’d just been told.
“Please come back as soon as you have news,” Andrew said, not letting himself cling to Cumberbatch’s hand and refuse to let him leave until he fixed this.
“Of course,” Cumberbatch said again, nodding, and then he was gone.
Andrew stared blankly at the doorway, mind whirling. He wasn’t Lord of the Manor material; he was under no illusion about that. He wasn’t the sort of person who could take command of a bad situation and think laterally to turn it on his head. He was good at making friends and fighting the French, those were his only skills. He didn’t know how to save his family from ruin.
Andrew sank back down into his chair and dropped his head into his hands.
The problem was that no one had ever really taught Andrew how these things worked. The title was supposed to have been Ben’s, so he was the one who their father had taught to read the books and manage the land. As the second son, Andrew had always been shooed away and told to go out riding instead, and by the time Ben died, it was too late. Andrew had already enlisted.
He couldn’t help feeling a little resentful about that now. True, he wasn’t as intelligent as Ben had been, but he could have learnt.
Andrew paused in his pacing around the drawing room as an idea struck him. The library, he decided. There would be books in the library on financial matters, he was sure of it.
With the spring put back into his step by having something to do, he bounced his way in search of Knowledge. Definitely of the capital K sort.
This time though, he needed to find his father’s business books, not the fiction section, and he honestly had no idea where to start. The library was made up of three small rooms in the East Wing of the Priory, knocked together to make one large room, half of each dividing wall left behind to form alcoves.
It took Andrew less than five minutes of searching before he wanted to give up and cry instead. There were just so many books.
His father’s old writing desk was tucked into one corner – he always used to prefer to write his letters in the library than in the study for some reason. There was a pile of papers in the top right-hand corner, held down by a paperweight, which Andrew recognised. He’d brought it back from his Grand Tour, before all the trouble started and Europe became off-limits, but he hadn’t realised his father had kept it.
Andrew picked it up, turning it over in his hands. He wondered if his father had been working on these papers the day he died, if this paperweight was amongst the last things he’d touched.
“What are you looking for?” a voice asked behind him and Andrew jumped, dropping the paperweight guiltily.
He turned around and found himself looking at a young man about his age, wearing a plain white shirt and simple brown trousers. Andrew blinked at him. He was dressed like a gardener, but there was something familiar about his cascade of unruly curls and bright blue eyes.
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, doubtfully. It had been a good few years since he’d seen his father’s other ward, but he couldn’t believe that Jesse had changed this dramatically; he certainly hadn’t had those cheekbones the last time Andrew met him.
The boy who couldn’t possibly be Jesse Eisenberg nodded his head jerkily, “My Lord,” he said uncertainly.
Andrew had to force himself not to gape. Earls definitely didn’t gape. He cleared his throat instead. “Goodness, Jesse, I hardly recognised you,” he said, holding out his hand. “It’s so good to see you.”
Jesse’s mouth quirked a little bit and he shook Andrew’s hand quickly before sticking both hands in his pockets. “I, um. I should say something about how I wish it were under better circumstances,” he said. “But that sounds horribly trite.”
Andrew tried not to smile but failed. “I’d forgive you,” he promised and earned a slightly wider smile. No, he was sure Jesse hadn’t used to look like this; Andrew would definitely have remembered if he’d had eyes that bright or dimples that deep. Although, come to think of it, Andrew couldn’t remember seeing Jesse smile very often when they were younger, which was a sad thought.
“My Lord,” Jesse started again and Andrew held up a hand.
“Please don’t call me that,” he begged. “It’s bad enough that the servants do.”
“What should they call you?” Jesse asked, “‘Oi you’?”
“That would be much better, yes,” Andrew told him seriously, only smiling when Jesse did.
Jesse looked heavenward, like he wanted to roll his eyes but was resisting. Andrew wasn’t offended; he had that effect on people sometimes. “What I was going to say,” he said, “is that I’m sorry about your father.”
“Oh.” Andrew bit his lip. It was strange; his father had been dead for nearly a month now, but it still felt like a fresh slap every time Andrew remembered. He swallowed. “I mean, thank you. But, well, he was sort of your father too, I suppose.”
“Not really,” Jesse said automatically then looked stricken. “Oh my god, that sounded terrible. I just meant, I mean. God, pretend I didn’t try to speak, all right? That would probably be the kindest thing to do for both our sakes.”
Andrew stared at him, watching the blush spread across his cheeks and feeling himself grow charmed. He’d always been fascinated by Jesse’s American accent, and time spent apart had apparently done nothing to lessen that.
“I think you should always talk to me,” he heard himself say then wished he hadn’t because that sounded like flirting and he definitely hadn’t meant it to.
Jesse stumbled to a halt, blushing darker. “Of course you don’t,” he said quickly. “Anyway, what was it you were looking for before I interrupted you?”
“Oh, um.” Andrew sighed, remembering why he’d come to the library in the first place. “I was looking for my father’s ledgers and, and any books he might have had on estate management and, um, things.” He tried to sound casual, not as though he was desperately clinging to the hope that something in this room was going to help him save the day.
Jesse looked at him searchingly for a moment then nodded. “Follow me,” he said and walked away. Andrew hesitated for a second, pocketed his father’s paperweight and hurried after Jesse.
When Jesse and Hallie had come to live with them, Andrew had assumed he and Jesse would be friends since they were practically the same age, but Jesse had discovered the library the same day that he’d moved in and Andrew had rarely seen him after that. It looked as if all that time hadn’t been wasted, because Jesse led him straight to the books he’d been searching for.
“There,” Jesse said, looking proud and awkward and awkward about feeling proud. “Uncle Ri-, um, your father, I mean, used to refer to these a lot.”
Andrew knelt down in front of the row of books that Jesse was pointing to, reading the titles quickly and hoping something would pop out at him. Sadly there were no guides or pamphlets on how not to run an estate into the ground after accidentally inheriting it.
“Oh,” Andrew said, sitting down on the carpeted floor. He looked up at Jesse with what was probably a pathetic expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you know which were his particular favourites?”
Jesse looked at Andrew then at the floor then back at Andrew. Then he sat down next to him. “This one,” he said, pulling one thick volume out and handing it to Andrew. “He read this one a lot.”
Andrew grabbed it thankfully. “Thank you,” he said, curling his fingers around the dust jacket. He traced the lettering across the front, thinking. “Did you, uh, did you and Father spend a lot of time in here together?” He wasn’t jealous, just a little sad.
Jesse shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said but didn’t give Andrew any more detail.
All right, Andrew thought; maybe it wasn’t really any of his business. Besides, he had more important things to worry about than the relationships other people had had with his father.
“Thank you,” he said again, taking a deep breath and opening the book. He’d reread the same paragraph three times and it still hadn’t sunk in by the time Jesse shifted and stood up.
“You’re welcome,” Jesse said, and it was probably an accident, but his fingers brushed Andrew’s shoulder as he walked away.
Every possibility he’d found for increasing their income involved injecting money first, which was a problem since Andrew didn’t have any. He’d gone over the accounts and that wasn’t even an exaggeration: they literally had no money.
By the time it had grown dark, he had a headache and the tension in his shoulders felt like it would never leave. The candles that Jesse had fetched for him at some point in the afternoon had started to gutter and Andrew’s eyes were watering from trying to keep reading in the failing light.
He leant back and let his head bang gently against the wall. “God,” he groaned then shushed himself, looking around in case Jesse – or anyone else – was still lurking around.
Luckily, no one seemed to be there, which was good; Andrew might be losing hope, but he didn’t want anyone else to know that.
“Andrew?” he heard Hallie’s voice calling from across the room.
Andrew sat up straight, shaking his shoulders out and quickly pasting a smile onto his face. “Hello,” he said, standing up to meet her. “Have you had a good day?”
She looked like she had. Her hair was uncombed and there was a flush across her cheeks as though she’d only just come in from outside.
Hallie shrugged. “I had drawing lessons this morning, which were boring because I always have to draw fruit. Why would anyone want to draw fruit? Is someone going to want to marry me more because I can reproduce the exact likeness of a satsuma for him?”
Andrew shook his head, trying not to laugh. He’d always wondered that himself.
“But then Jesse let me take him for a ride in my curricle this afternoon,” she told him, brightening. She narrowed her eyes, looking at him closely. “How did you get him to leave the library? I’ve hardly managed that once since he came home for the summer.”
She looked expectant, like she thought he might actually have some wisdom for her. “I don’t know,” he admitted, trying not to explore how strange he felt that he’d apparently chased Jesse out of the library.
Hallie frowned. “Are you all right?” she asked, reaching out and squeezing his wrist. “You look all – ” She waved her fingers at his face. “Squinty.”
Andrew laughed, managing to make it sound genuine. “Too much reading,” he told her with a shudder. “Don’t do it; it’s terribly bad for you.”
Hallie grinned like she thought he was joking. “You’ve almost missed the start of dinner,” she told him. “Aunt Susan was worried, but Jesse told her where you were and then she went really quiet.” She bit her lip, looking more like the little girl he remembered. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Andrew said quickly, lying automatically even though she was going to have to know eventually. She’d definitely notice when he was forced to sell her home out from under her and send her out to work as a governess.
Andrew’s stomach knotted up with worry and he lost his appetite.
“Yes?” Hallie echoed. “Is that all you’re going to say to reassure me? That was a terrible lie, Andrew.” She sounded cross, but Andrew could hear the worry underneath.
Andrew clasped a hand to his chest. “I’m shocked and appalled that you think I’d lie to you, Miss Eisenberg,” he gasped. He shook his arm in her grip. “Are you taking me somewhere or just clinging to me because you love me so much?”
Hallie made a face at him. “I don’t like you at all,” she told him, letting go of his sleeve and taking his hand instead. “And I’m taking you to dinner, come on.”
Andrew let himself be led to the dining room because he couldn’t keep skipping meals, not if he wanted to maintain the charade that everything was fine.
Just outside the door, Hallie stopped and turned to him, frowning at him quizzically.
“What?” Andrew asked, automatically checking his hair in case he still had a quill tucked behind his ear or something.
Hallie beckoned him closer so he bent his knees obediently, letting her straighten his collar and tweak his cravat. Andrew wasn’t sure why it was so important to her that he looked neat while eating his dinner, but Andrew did like to look his best so he didn’t complain.
“Better,” Hallie decided, looking pleased, then smiled up at Ford, who’d been ignoring them with a particularly unimpressed expression.
His expression twitched just slightly toward something less sour at Hallie’s smile, which confirmed Andrew’s theory that it was really just Andrew who he didn’t like. Ford opened the door and Hallie skipped inside, stopping and looking back pointedly at Andrew.
Andrew shook his head at her, confused. Or rather, he was confused for the two seconds it took him to cross the threshold and then he understood.
“Carey,” he stuttered, staring at the girl seated next to his mother. He shook his head quickly. “Um, Miss Mulligan, sorry.”
Carey stood up, twinkling a smile at him. She looked incredible, warm and beautiful and everything Andrew had been missing while he was away. The urge to run to her and wrap her up in a hug was almost overwhelming. He wanted to reach out and drag her away, tell her everything that was wrong and make her pet his hair like she used to when they were young.
Luckily, before he could do anything so inappropriate, someone cleared their throat and the rest of the world came back into focus. There was his mother, taking a sip of wine, Hallie slipping into her seat next to Jesse and beaming happily, elbowing Jesse who was ignoring her, concentrating hard on his dinner instead. And opposite him, Carey’s father.
“It’s good to see you home, Captain,” he said, looking pointedly at Carey until she sighed and sat back down.
Andrew snapped to attention immediately. “Sir,” he said.
Major Mulligan nodded, holding out a hand, which Andrew shook immediately. “Hope you don’t mind us calling round on your first day home, it was all I could do to stop Carey riding over here at first light.”
“Father,” Carey chided then flashed a conspiratorial smile at Andrew. “I would have waited until at least mid-morning.”
“And you would have been most welcome,” Andrew said gallantly, but it was a beat or two too late and Carey’s smile dimmed questioningly.
“So,” Major Mulligan said into the slightly awkward pause. “How’re things on the Peninsula?”
“Getting there, sir,” Andrew told him gratefully and they spent the rest of dinner discussing the war, which helped the time to pass, but did nothing to make Andrew feel better about having left the campaign.
He was going to have to sell his commission, he realised. At the back of his mind, he’d secretly hoped that he might be able to come home for a month or two, get things settled here and then go back to the lines. In reality, things were much worse than Andrew could ever have predicted, and there was nothing he could do but stay to see it through.
Andrew didn’t want to think about that right now - Major Mulligan had helped Andrew to secure his place in the army; his good opinion meant a lot. But then, Andrew thought, sneaking a glance at Carey, he’d be disappointing all the Mulligans soon enough.
“What’s wrong?” Carey asked as soon as they were out on the patio, the glass doors closed behind them.
“Everything,” Andrew told her then bit his lip, taking a seat on the wall and crossing his legs. “No, pretend I didn’t say that. I’m just being melodramatic.”
Carey tipped her head, coming to sit beside him. “Are you, though?” she asked softly. She reached over and put her hand on Andrew’s knee. He hadn’t realised he was jiggling his leg until her hand curled over his kneecap, stilling it.
“You shouldn’t,” he told her, because they couldn’t be familiar with each other anymore, not with the same understanding they’d had before.
“Oh, why?” Carey scoffed, misunderstanding. “I hardly think that my hand on your leg is going to cause a national scandal. We’re practically engaged, remember?”
Andrew didn’t mean to flinch, but he couldn’t help himself. “Not, not exactly,” he managed then felt like a heel when she withdrew her hand, frowning at him.
“Well,” Carey agreed slowly, “No.”
They weren’t engaged, not officially. But they’d had an understanding for as long as they’d both known what marriage meant and there’d never been anyone else for Andrew. Carey had been his best friend since before they could talk, she was the person he trusted the most and felt the most comfortable with; it had only stood to reason that they’d get married one day.
“Sorry,” Andrew said, putting his hand over Carey’s and squeezing, her gloves cool against his skin. He knew that this was it, this was the moment when he should explain to her about his sudden poverty, but he couldn’t do it. Once she knew, there’d be no going back – he was in no position to make an offer to anyone at the moment and no one with any sense would accept an impoverished earl with nothing but a failed army career to his name.
Carey shook her hand free and put it on the back of his head instead, fingers stroking the nape of his neck. Andrew groaned and let his head rest on her shoulder. They shouldn’t do this, he knew that, she knew that, but right now, he couldn’t resist.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Carey said, turning her head and pressing her cheek to the top of his head. “Tell me when you’re ready.”
“Yes,” Andrew promised and closed his eyes.
“You know,” Hallie said, sidling up to Andrew where he was leaning against the fireplace, staring into the hearth in what was definitely an unforgivably brooding fashion, “for someone who’s just been reunited with his lady, you look ridiculously sad.”
“I can’t marry her,” Andrew told her unthinkingly. Just saying it made something harsh burn in his throat.
Hallie stilled, twisting around to face him and staring at him. “What?” she asked. She was looking like she expected him to be joking, but when he didn’t laugh, her face began to fall. “But you’ve always been going to marry Carey. She’s going to be my sister, remember?”
Andrew groaned. “Don’t say that. You just said that to make me feel worse.”
“Yes,” Hallie said, unabashed. She pulled on his arm until he turned from the fire, making him look at her. “Tell me what you’re talking about so I can talk you out of it.”
Andrew shook his head. “You don’t want to know,” he assured her. “Let me worry about it. That’s what I’m here for.”
Hallie didn’t look reassured; if anything, she looked annoyed. “Why?” she asked. “Because I’m young or because I’m a girl?”
“No, neither,” Andrew told her, frowning. “Of course not. Because it’s my problem, not yours, and you shouldn’t have to worry about other people.”
Hallie rolled her eyes. “Jesse spends all his time worrying about everyone; I’m sure it’s in my blood already.”
Andrew looked at her. It was hard to see her as anything more than the little girl who used to follow him around the grounds when he was down from Eton and come up with increasingly elaborate plans to run away with him at the end of each holiday. She still had the same dark ringlets, the same hopeful expression, but she was almost a woman now and Andrew really needed someone to talk to.
He sat down, patting the cushion beside him until she sat down too, straightening her skirts primly and putting on a listening expression. She was clearly at least half teasing, trying to make him feel better by making a joke of it; Andrew wished that what he had to tell her could be so easily laughed away.
He stared down at his hands for a moment, taking a deep breath then made himself look at her. “We’re in trouble, Hallie Kate,” he told her. “The estate, I mean. The estate is in big trouble.”
Andrew told her the whole story and Hallie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she listened. He had been a little worried that she might cry – he couldn’t stand making people cry – but instead she just swallowed hard a couple of times and then set her jaw.
Hallie shook her head slowly when he’d finished explaining their options. Or what few options they had, which essentially came down to either selling the estate or selling themselves. Or divine intervention, he supposed, and personally he was hoping for that one. “I can’t believe it,” she said softly. “Andrew.”
Andrew swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly much closer to tears than she was. “I’ll fix it, but I’m not sure if – ” He couldn’t say it. Hallie was due to come out this year; he knew how much she was looking for it.
“It’s all right if we have to delay my Season,” Hallie said, putting on her bravest face. “I don’t mind.”
Andrew rubbed his hands over his face. “Yes, you do,” he said. He reached out and wrapped an arm around her. “I’ll sort something out. I promise you’ll get your Season.”
Hallie turned in his arms, snuggling in against him. He wasn’t sure which one of them needed a hug the most, but he suspected it might have been him.
“We’ll sort something out,” she told him fiercely and he didn’t have the heart – or the energy – to argue with her.
“What is it?” Andrew asked immediately, abandoning civilities for hope.
Cumberbatch sat down opposite Andrew and, this time, accepted the scotch when Ford offered it.
“I may have a solution, My Lord,” he told Andrew. He raised a hand before Andrew could do anything inadvisable – such as fall at his feet and praise him as a saviour. “But you probably won’t like it.”
“What is it?” Andrew asked cautiously. He was prepared for any necessary hardships himself, but if it involved asking his mother or Hallie or Jesse to suffer, then the answer was going to have to be no, no matter how good a scheme Cumberbatch had come up with.
“Tell me,” Cumberbatch started, “How well do you remember the late Mr and Mrs Eisenberg?”
Andrew frowned, confused by the line of questioning. “Hardly at all,” he admitted. “I met them once when I was very young but that’s all. Why do you ask?”
The Eisenbergs had been his parents’ friends but, living in the Americas, the last ten or so years of their friendship had been restricted to letters and the occasional small parcel for Andrew and Ben.
Cumberbatch twisted his hands together, looking uncomfortable. “And are you aware that Mr Eisenberg made a considerable fortune from the American banking industry?”
“Yes?” Andrew said slowly, a faint suspicion starting to dawn as he saw where this might be leading.
“Your parents were very kind to the Eisenberg children following their parents’ deaths,” Cumberbatch prompted as though hoping Andrew would understand what he was suggesting before he had to spell it out.
He let it hang. Andrew stared at him. “No,” Andrew said quickly, hearing his voice rise with horror. “No, I’m not marrying Hallie. For heaven’s sake, she’s seventeen.”
“But of legal, marriageable age with your mother’s consent,” Cumberbatch said delicately. When Andrew just kept staring at him, shaking his head, he cleared his throat. “Well then, have you considered the, uh, the alternative?”
Andrew tipped his head, trying to work out what Cumberbatch could possibly be suggesting. There was no way Andrew was marrying Hallie, for her money or any other reason.
“Jesse Eisenberg,” Cumberbatch prompted gently.
Andrew laughed, startled and genuinely amused for the time it took him to remember that Cumberbatch didn’t tend to make jokes while discussing Andrew’s poverty. “Are you serious?” Andrew asked blankly.
Cumberbatch shrugged delicately. “You would acquire sufficient wealth to more than secure your family’s future and the upkeep of the Priory.”
“But Jesse,” Andrew said. “Jesse doesn’t even know me. There’s no possibility that he would marry me, even if I were to agree.” He tried to imagine being married to Jesse, but couldn’t make his brain cooperate. When he thought of Jesse, he thought of books and candles, blue eyes and dimples, which was nice but it wasn’t enough to base a life on.
Cumberbatch reached for the decanter, refilling his glass and swirling the scotch around inside as though he’d rather look at that than at Andrew. Dimly, Andrew felt sorry for him.
“It was Mr Eisenberg’s idea, My Lord,” Cumberbatch told him eventually.
“What?“ Andrew demanded, startled. “But how did he even know…? Wait. Hallie told him, didn’t she?”
Cumberbatch coloured. “Miss Eisenberg did offer herself as the solution initially,” he admitted. “Mr Eisenberg came to me soon after and suggested this idea instead.”
Andrew shook his head; he just couldn’t see it. “But why?” he asked, following Cumberbatch’s example and poring himself a stiff drink. Married to Jesse, no, it didn’t make any sense. “He’d be ruining himself.”
Marriage between men had been legal for most of Andrew’s life but that didn’t mean it was accepted by the grand old ladies and gentlemen of society. Most were of the opinion that the King had descended into madness earlier than anyone had realised when he’d changed the law to allow his favourite son to marry the Earl of Grantham.
“Less so than would have been the case a generation ago,” Cumberbatch demurred. “You may lose a little of your standing in society but the estate would be restored and you would be securing the futures of Miss Eisenberg and your brother’s family.”
Andrew groaned, tugging on the ends of his hair. He looked over at Cumberbatch helplessly. “I don’t know what to do,” he told him, abandoning dignity. Saving Hallie and his brother’s daughters was worth any sacrifice, of course, he’d just never expected this.
Helpfully, Cumberbatch topped up his glass for him. “Might I suggest speaking to Mr Eisenberg?”
Andrew picked up his glass and drained it. “Yes,” he said, standing up, “Excellent idea.” It was a terrifying idea, going to confront someone who had as good as just proposed to him. “Um, I don’t suppose you know where he is?”
Cumberbatch smiled slightly, sympathetically. “I’d try the library, sir,” he said, which almost made Andrew smile in return.
“Of course,” he agreed, wondering as he let himself out into the hallway, whether he could really see himself marrying a man who voluntarily spent so much time amongst old books. He probably smelt of them, Andrew thought hysterically, and then giggled guiltily to himself.
“Hello,” he said, shifting awkwardly on his feet. “Have you, um?”
“Spoken to Mr Cumberbatch?” Andrew prompted. “Because yes. Jesse.”
Jesse’s teeth sunk into his bottom lip, creating a pale dent which Andrew immediately glanced away from then forced himself to look back at, considering.
“It’s, um, it’s a logical solution to your situation,” Jesse said, folding then unfolding then refolding his arms across his chest.
Andrew couldn’t help the soft laugh that escaped. “It’s a proposal, Jesse,” he said, “not a logical solution.”
Jesse coloured, flush rising across his cheeks. “Well, if you want to get romantic about it,” he said then blushed darker. “Not that I am,” he added quickly. “I don’t, I’m not, I know you’re not in love with me, but I thought maybe we could help each other out.”
“How would I be helping you?” Andrew asked then realised they were essentially bartering for their futures in the middle of the library. “Shall we talk somewhere else?”
Jesse shook his head quickly. “I like it here. If you make me sit with you in the study or something, you’ll probably be able to change my mind.”
He looked pained and helplessly uncomfortable so Andrew didn’t argue, just sat down on the windowseat where Jesse had been before, smiling when Jesse came to sit next to him.
“How would I be helping you?” Andrew repeated, twisting to face Jesse head on.
Jesse glanced down at his lap. “Well, you have a title. I wouldn’t mind marrying into nobility.”
Andrew frowned. That definitely wasn’t a good enough reason to marry someone, not for someone like Jesse with no political aspirations. “And?” he prompted.
“Well, you.” Jesse waved a hand then stopped himself, tucking his hands between his knees and looking up at Andrew. “Hallie is tied to your family. If you’re ruined, so will she be, and I’m not prepared to risk it.”
Something strange happened in Andrew’s stomach, almost as if it had tried to clench with nerves and relax with relief at the same time, because that sounded plausible and, if Jesse had a plausible reason to marry Andrew, then Andrew had no reason not to agree.
“But, but, but.” Andrew forced himself to take a deep breath; he wasn’t going to be a stuttering mess right now, this was important. “But are you prepared to, um, to, you know? With me?” God, he should have brought Mr Cumberbatch with him, maybe he could have translated.
Jesse frowned, drawing in on himself slightly. “Are you?” he asked. “Since you don’t seem to be able to say it.”
Andrew spread his hands, helpless. “It’s a bit of a shock,” he said then listened to how that sounded. “Oh, no, wait, not a shock. Just a, um, just a surprise. I haven’t exactly ever thought about you and me and, and us. Not like that.”
“I didn’t expect you to be jumping for joy or anything,” Jesse snapped, looking hurt, which made Andrew feel terrible. “But I thought you’d at least think about it. It’s a good solution.”
Immediately, Andrew started to feel guilty. “That’s not what I meant,” he protested. “Why wouldn’t I be jumping for joy? You’re quite the catch, it’s just, I can’t, this is my mess, there’s no reason why you should have to fix it for me.”
Jesse sighed, reaching out like he wanted to shake Andrew’s shoulder then dropping his hand before they could connect. “I know you’ve never felt like I was part of your family the way you do with Hallie.” He held his hand up before Andrew could protest. “But I do, um. I do feel part of it. Your parents were so kind to us and Hallie is practically a Garfield. If I can help, I’d like to.”
Andrew swallowed. There was a buzzing in his ears. “All right,” he said. He tried to look up at Jesse but he couldn’t seem to focus. This was it, this would fix everything, but it was also the end of everything else, his career, his future, everything. “All right. If you’re sure.”
“Wait,” Jesse said, staring at him. “Was that a yes?”
He looked so shocked that Andrew automatically felt embarrassed. Maybe he should have thought it through more, at least pretended to deliberate. But Jesse looked wide-eyed and like he was trying to be brave and Andrew didn’t want to mess him around.
“Yes,” Andrew said, smiling tentatively. “If you’ll have me.”
Jesse opened his mouth to say something then closed it again, shaking his head at himself. “Well,” he said softly, “I guess that’s settled then.”
Andrew didn’t say anything. He wasn’t quite sure what to say right now. This wasn’t how he’d pictured the day he became betrothed.
Jesse glanced across at him. “Not that I want to break this touching, romantic moment but, um. But do you think you should go see Miss Mulligan?”
Just like that, Andrew’s tentatively relieved feeling fizzled out. Oh god, Carey.
“Thank you,” he said, standing up quickly. “I mean it, thank you. And, but, excuse me.” He pushed his way blindly out of the library, almost running into Hallie, who’d clearly been listening at the door.
He was almost sure he heard her call his name, but he couldn’t stop right now.
Carey was alone, thank goodness, and she flew across the room to him immediately. “What is it?” she asked. “Whatever’s happened?” Her hands were firm on his shoulders, pushing him into the nearest chair where he sunk down gratefully.
“I’m getting married,” Andrew told her, looking up at her and hoping she saw how sorry he was.
Carey blinked. “Oh,” she said faintly and put a hand on the back of his chair to steady herself. “I’m sorry, I mean congratulations.”
Andrew shook his head quickly. “Don’t. I’m sorry.”
Carey paused for a moment, looking down at him. She closed her eyes for a moment and, when she opened them, there was something fragile in her eyes. “Like you said last night, we were never promised to each other. Not really.” She took a breath and her smile turned more genuine. “So, who is she?”
Andrew looked away. He couldn’t watch her try to be happy for him, not when he knew he was ruining all her plans, taking her away her chance to live the life she’d always wanted.
“It’s Jesse,” he said and watched her blink at him questioningly for a moment before understanding dawned.
“Oh,” she said again. She sat down beside him, still looking at him closely. Eventually, she said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” and it was Andrew’s turn to stare at her in shock.
“Of course you should be surprised,” he told her, jumping to his feet and pacing the room. “This isn’t the result of some childhood infatuation, Carey. I don’t have any choice!”
Carey frowned. “What do you mean?”
Andrew hesitated. He really hadn’t meant to tell her. Carey was practically family, but she wasn’t quite and you didn’t discuss money with anyone who wasn’t family, and preferably not even then.
He looked across the room at her and felt so much sadness that he didn’t know what to do with it all. “Everything’s such a mess,” he managed and then choked out a rough explanation, just edited highlights of his current situation.
Carey was standing right in front of him by the time he was finished, eyes shining with tears. Andrew hated that he’d upset her, hated even more how much she must pity him, but he couldn’t turn away from her.
She reached out, curling her hand around the back of his. “It is a sensible solution,” she said quietly.
Andrew tugged at his hair. “I know, I know,” he groaned, “but I wanted to marry you. We were going to have a good life together, weren’t we?”
Carey bit her lip. “We were never a love match, darling.”
Andrew sighed. “No, I know, but you could have carried on with your studies and we would have, it would have been nice to start a family one day, wouldn’t it?”
Andrew had had it all planned out: over long nights at war, he’d dreamt about coming home to Carey, to being cosy and comfortable and loved even if they weren’t in love. Andrew had never been in love; he thought he probably wouldn’t be very good at it, to be honest. He felt a lot, all the time, and from what he’d read about love, feeling that much would probably kill him.
“And Jesse?” Carey asked.
Andrew looked away. “I don’t think he likes me very much, he’s only doing this for Hallie.”
Carey rolled her eyes at him. “Don’t be silly. How can he possibly not like you? Everyone likes you. You’re breaking my heart and I still like you.”
Andrew’s head snapped up but Carey was smiling, just slightly. “How could you – That was a horrible thing to tease me about.”
She reached out and put her hand against his cheek. “I’m only partly teasing,” she assured him as though that was supposed to make him feel better.
Andrew closed his eyes. “I’m so sorry,” he said again. He felt like he’d be saying it to her forever, assuming she ever wanted to see him again after this – he wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.
Her heard the soft rustle of fabric, felt her hand drop to his shoulder and then his eyes snapped open when she stood on tiptoes and pressed a light kiss to his mouth.
“Carey,” Andrew said, catching her around the waist and kissing her back automatically. They’d never done that before; like she said, they weren’t a love match.
“We would have had a good life,” Carey agreed, finally answering his question. She stepped back and patted him firmly on the arm. “Now, off you go. You have a wedding to organise and, if you leave it up to Hallie, there will definitely be ponies involved.”
Oh god, Andrew realised, she was right. Not just about the ponies, but about the whole thing. They were going to have to have a wedding and probably very soon, before his father’s creditors started banging on the door in person rather than just sending snippy letters.
“Andrew?” Carey asked, sounding more amused than Andrew thought she should. “Are you all right or shall I get you some more brandy?”
Andrew took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “No, thank you,” he said, squaring his shoulders and conjuring up a little dignity even though it was probably wasted on Carey. “I’m going to go home and I’m going to plan my wedding.” He was foolishly proud that his voice didn’t shake at all when he said that. Well, hardly at all. Not much, anyway.
Carey squeezed his shoulder one last time. “Good boy,” she said. “And don’t give a thought to me here, jilted and pining.”
“Carey,” Andrew protested, “that’s really not funny.” It wasn’t and he felt awful because he knew she wasn’t really joking, but just the fact that she could at least pretend to be did make him feel a little better. When he returned to the Priory, it was with a faint, tentative flush of hope that maybe everything was going to work out after all.
Jesse seemed equal parts terrified and entertained by the whole thing, watching the preparations from the sidelines and only stepping in occasionally to veto things like white doves in the church and, as predicted, pony rides to the reception.
“Doves,” Jesse said, shaking his head and walking across the gardens away from Hallie and toward Andrew. “Can you believe that girl?” he asked, pitching his voice so Hallie could definitely hear him. “I’m ashamed to be related to her.”
Andrew grinned at Hallie’s indignant squeal. “Oh, she’s not all bad,” he said, moving a pile of papers off the grass so that Jesse could sit beside him. “At least she isn’t trying to make us wear matching taffeta jackets or anything.”
Jesse shuddered. “Don’t say that so loud,” he hissed. He contemplated the ground for a moment then folded down next to Andrew, shooting him a quick smile before fixing his eyes on Hallie and Andrew’s mother again.
Andrew shuffled his papers together and tried to think of something else to say that would keep Jesse talking to him. They kept cycling between companionable commiseration over the wedding plans and intense awkwardness when they remembered exactly whose wedding was being organised.
“Have you sent out your invitations?” he asked, thinking of his own sorry pile of letters, which had gone out in the post that morning. They weren’t having a big wedding, naturally, and Andrew had been away for some long that he wasn’t expecting many acceptances. Still, he hoped that a few of his friends might drag themselves to Surrey for the occasion.
“Yes,” Jesse said, nodding. “Though I’m not sure if the Post Office will be able to handle the extra volume.”
Andrew looked up, frowning. “How many people have you invited?” he asked, then felt guilty. Jesse was paying for the wedding – he could invite as many people as he wanted, of course.
Jesse picked up two blades of grass and started to twist them together. “Oh, well. A friend or two from Cambridge. Justin Bartha. I contemplated inviting Old Mrs Mills who lives in the village but her arthritis does play up in the mornings.”
“Justin Bartha?” Andrew asked. Justin was the squire’s son but Andrew wasn’t sure he’d ever spoken to him.
Jesse’s chin came up. “He’s my best friend,” he said, looking at Andrew like he thought Andrew might have some sort of objection to that. Andrew had no idea why he’d think that since Andrew’s best friend (other than Carey) was the eccentric second son of a Duke who always slept in until noon and regularly forgot to put on clothes before going out into the street.
Andrew missed Matt.
“Well, I hope he comes then,” Andrew told him sincerely and frowned a little when Jesse blinked at him. “What? Did you think I was a terrible snob or something?” He’d be incredibly upset if Jesse really did think that.
“No,” Jesse said quickly then hesitated. “Well, not exactly? I thought you didn’t really like anyone except your particular friends, that’s all.” He bit his lip and made a sorry face, except Andrew didn’t think he was really sorry, Andrew thought he might mean it.
“I like everyone,” Andrew protested, genuinely concerned that Jesse might think otherwise.
“All right,” Jesse said, holding up his hands. “Sorry. Just, when we were younger, you never, um. I mean you never…” He made a face at himself. “No, forget it. It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does,” Andrew protested, twisting around so fast that his papers spilled off his lap.
He flapped a hand at Jesse when he started collecting them up again but Jesse didn’t stop, carefully matching corners together while he said, “When we were children you only wanted to spend time with your own friends, that’s all. Nothing terrible.”
Andrew wanted to tell him that no, that was terrible, and also to protest that that wasn’t how he remembered things at all – he’d tried to be Jesse’s friend but Jesse hadn’t been interested. At least, Andrew had thought he wasn’t.
“Jesse,” he started, but Jesse shushed him, looking like he wished he hadn’t mentioned anything.
“What are these?” Jesse asked, looking down at the papers in his hand in a clear grasp at a distraction. He obviously noticed the figures scrawled across them because he blushed and tried to hand them back. “Sorry, they’re none of my business, are they?”
“They will be this time next week,” Andrew said, letting Jesse keep hold of them. “I’m just trying to get my head around the rents my tenants pay. Everyone seems to pay different amounts and at different times during the year; it’s all Greek to me, I’m afraid.”
“I speak Greek,” Jesse said distractedly, scanning his eyes over the top sheet.
He was quiet for a moment while Andrew tipped his head up to the sun, trying not to feel too embarrassed that his miserable time at Eton hadn’t equipped him for this kind of life.
“Oh, I see,” Jesse murmured after a moment and then shoved the papers back across to Andrew. “It looks like the system’s based on yield. You see here where it lists productivity by acre?”
“If you say so,” Andrew agreed but leant in, forcing himself to pay attention while Jesse painstakingly uncomplicated it all for him.
By the time the sun had set, Andrew had a (slightly) better understanding of how his land worked and Jesse had a bright pink line of sunburn running down his nose.
“Oh no,” Andrew said, worried. “I’m sorry, I should have noticed.” He automatically reached up to touch it the way he would with any of his friends, but dropped his hand just shy of Jesse’s skin when Jesse’s cheeks pinked to match his nose.
“That’s okay,” Jesse said quietly, leaning back on his hands. It might have been a casual, accidental move but it also happened to put his face far out of touching distance. “I burn when I so much as think about the sun, so it’s not your fault. I should probably get myself a parasol like a pretty Continental lady.”
Andrew tried to picture it and smiled to himself. “You would look lovely,” he decided. Then he thought about how the sunlight had made Jesse’s curls glow and found himself saying, “Although it would be tragic if people couldn’t see your face,” before he’d thought about it.
Jesse just stared at him, eyes unblinking and almost silver in the sunlight for a really long few seconds before he looked away. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” he said lightly, “people might talk.”
Andrew laughed, relieved that the weird tension had been broken. “Then it’s a good job we’re making honest men of each other soon, isn’t it?” It was easier to joke about that right now although it still made him feel more flustered than it probably should.
Jesse hesitated for a moment then, “Yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed and very carefully bumped his boot against the side of Andrew’s.
Andrew ate breakfast in his bedroom and tried to keep out of everyone’s way. They’d decided against holding the ceremony at St George’s, Hanover Square, even though that was the place to marry these days. It was questionable enough whether Andrew’s mother should really be breaking her mourning to attend the service; it would definitely have been frowned upon if she’d travelled into London for it.
Ford knocked politely just before nine, casting his eyes over Andrew as though it was appalling that Andrew was still in bed.
“Are you ready to dress, My Lord?” he asked, holding out his arm which was carefully draped with Andrew’s clothes.
“Oh,” Andrew said, surprised. He’d been mostly dressing himself since he got home because it had turned out that his elusive valet was nearly seventy years old, and needed to have a nap every morning after exerting himself carrying water for Andrew’s basin up the stairs. “Thank you.”
“Your attire should be impeccable for your wedding day,” Ford said seriously, with just enough edge to imply that he thought Andrew’s clothes usually were not impeccable.
“That’s very thoughtful,” Andrew said, sliding out of bed and rinsing jam from his fingers in the washbasin. Ford’s sniff showed his opinion on that.
It took nearly an hour until Andrew was dressed to Ford’s standard and Andrew had to admit that he did feel much more like his old self now that he was properly attired. His Hessian boots were gleaming, his cravat was perfect, and Ford had even managed to do something to his hair so it no long stood up in thick, awkward clumps.
“What do you think?” Andrew asked, turning from side to side in front of the mirror. He felt a little embarrassed to be worried, but if Jesse was going to marry him, the least Andrew could do was make an effort.
“Impeccable, My Lord,” Ford declared with a nod of self-satisfaction which Andrew definitely couldn’t begrudge. Then Andrew remembered that he wasn’t the only one who needed to dress that morning and felt guilty for not thinking of it sooner.
“Has anyone seen to Mr Eisenberg?” he asked, hopefully.
“Mr Eisenberg declined any offer of help,” Ford told him flatly. “He assured me that he and Mr Bartha were more than capable of the task.”
“Mr Bartha?” Andrew asked, surprised. “Did he stay the night, then?” Justin had come to the Priory for dinner last night and he and Jesse had still been up talking quietly and intensely when Andrew went to bed, but Andrew hadn’t realised he was going to be here all night.
He wondered what they’d been talking about that was so important – probably what a mistake Jesse was making settling for Andrew, Andrew thought, then shook his head, appalled at himself for such uncharitable thoughts.
“Apparently so, My Lord,” Ford said, expressionlessly.
Andrew tried to catch his eye in the mirror, wondering if there was something Ford was trying to tacitly tell him but, if there was, Andrew couldn’t deduce it. And, well, he probably didn’t want to know.
“How long until I need to leave for the church?” he asked instead.
Ford glanced out of the window – of course he could tell the time by the sun, of course he could – and pursed his lips. “Imminently, My Lord,” he said and Andrew felt a sudden spike of fear, which he ruthlessly shoved down. Imminently was… well, imminently was soon. Andrew was going to be married soon.
“Well,” he said, as brightly as he could. “I supposed I’d better be heading downstairs then.”
“Quite, sir,” Ford agreed and tactfully looked away when Andrew’s knees wobbled the first time he tried to stand up.
I hope we lose a wheel, he thought wildly then made a face at himself. Of course he didn’t hope that. He just needed one more moment to compose himself, that was all.
“Are you nervous?” his mother asked, squeezing his knee.
“No,” Andrew told her quickly. “No, of course not.” He tried to smile, but she didn’t look reassured. “It’s not as if it’s difficult, is it? I can hardly muck it up.”
Mama shook her head. “Of course not,” she said patiently, “and you wouldn’t anyway. But that wasn’t what I was asking and you know it.”
Andrew ducked his head. “Sorry,” he muttered. He should know better than to try to convince his mother he was all right when he wasn’t; she really did know him far too well.
Mama twisted around in her seat, her cumbersome black dress rustling loudly. “You can still change your mind,” she said, serious and low. “We’ll find another solution, one which doesn’t involve you throwing away your future.”
“I’m hardly doing that,” Andrew protested. “It’s not as if I’m marrying some lecherous old man or even someone who will make me move miles away from home. It’s only Jesse, Mama.”
“Yes,” Mama agreed, sounding like that wasn’t the point. “I’m very fond of Jesse, but are you?”
“Of course,” Andrew said quickly, just as they pulled up in front of the church. He was fond of Jesse; he wasn’t sure it was possible to spend time with him and not be. “He’s lovely.” He squeezed her hand. “Mama, don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.”
The driver was opening the door and the vicar was hurrying to meet them so his mother couldn’t reply. She didn’t look convinced though, so Andrew decided he was just going to have to be certain enough for both of them.
They’d let Hallie out of her mourning clothes for the morning since it was her brother’s wedding day and since the late Earl hadn’t actually been her father, but Jesse and Andrew were both still sporting their black armbands as a mark of respect.
The absence of Andrew’s father was just another thing that Andrew wasn’t really thinking about. Like the wedding, like what was going to happen after the wedding, like the fact that none of his friends had been able to attend and it looked like their wedding party was going to consist of just the five of them.
“Hello,” he said, stepping up next to Jesse just in front of the door.
“Hello,” Jesse echoed, eyes skimming quickly over Andrew before he looked away. “You, um, you look.”
“You too,” Andrew said. “You look very handsome.” That at least was true; Jesse had clearly been hiding a secretly fashionable side – or he’d given in and let Hallie take him shopping – because he was wearing a very stylish blue coat which matched his eyes and a pair of pale pantaloons which clung to his thighs and made Andrew blink and look away.
“Really?” Jesse asked, raising his eyebrows. “Because I was thinking of changing into a hair shirt – it would have to be more comfortable than the collar points on this one.”
Andrew laughed, trying to do so quietly when his mother and the vicar both turned to look at him. “It’s fashionable, Jesse.”
“Eugh, fashion,” Jesse said feelingly but he smiled when Andrew laughed again.
“Thank you,” Andrew said just before they started to follow the others into the church.
“What for?” Jesse whispered. It was cool inside the church, slightly musty-smelling the way churches always were.
“Making me laugh,” Andrew told him honestly. “I feel less like I’m going to die of nerves now.”
“Oh,” Jesse said, sounding surprised but pleased. “I’m, um. Good. I mean, I still feel like my own hysterical collapse is imminent but maybe you can catch me?”
“Always,” Andrew agreed automatically. He stepped to the side slightly to avoid a poorly placed pew cushion, and his sleeve brushed Jesse’s, the back of Jesse’s hand cool against Andrew’s. They were nearly at the altar.
“Gentleman,” the vicar said, smiling between them as if he were unaware of how rushed and unconventional this marriage was. “Shall we begin?”
Andrew glanced at Jesse, only to find Jesse already looking back at him. “Yes,” Jesse said firmly and Andrew took a deep breath. They could do this.
It felt… it didn’t feel like anything really. Andrew kept looking at Jesse, repeating this is my husband over and over in his head, but he just felt like he was playing a game with himself, not like this was real life.
“You may kiss,” the vicar said, almost questioningly, and Andrew felt his eyes widen with something that wasn’t quite horror.
“Um,” he said and flicked his eyes up to Jesse’s face.
Jesse was staring resolutely at their joined hands. His eyelashes were casting shadows on his cheeks and kissing him didn’t seem too terrifying an idea. Maybe.
“Shall we?” Andrew whispered.
Jesse didn’t say anything, but he did wet his lips reflexively so Andrew leant in quickly, just aiming for a quick kiss to seal the marriage. But at the very last second, Jesse turned his head and Andrew’s lips skimmed his cheek instead.
“Sorry,” Jesse mumbled, so quiet that Andrew almost didn’t hear him even though his mouth was close to Andrew’s ear.
Andrew straightened up, embarrassed and flustered all over again. “No,” he said softly, “that’s fine.” It was fine; it was stupid to feel sad that Jesse didn’t want to kiss him. Andrew didn’t want to kiss Jesse either, of course, not really.
So that was that. They were married. Andrew waited to feel different but it didn’t come.
“Congratulations,” said the vicar, fading back into the vestry and Hallie jumped out of her seat, throwing herself at Andrew and Jesse, one arm across each of their chests.
“That was amazing,” she cried, squeezing them both. “I know it’s all, you know, weird and awkward and things, but watching my brothers get married was amazing.”
“When you put it like that, it just sounds incestuous,” Jesse said dryly and disentangled himself, accepting a hug from Andrew’s mother with a, “Really, Aunt Susan, anyone would think you liked me.”
Andrew tried not to watch him, but failed.
“Are you all right?” Hallie asked, leaning against his shoulder. “Does it feel weird being married?”
“Yes,” Andrew told her grandly, “I feel like a man now. I can cast aside my short trousers and take my place at the adult table.”
Hallie rolled her eyes. “You’re weird. Also, you and Jesse should go and say hello to Mr Cumberbatch since he came all the way down here for your wedding.”
Andrew looked up, surprised, and sure enough, Cumberbatch was standing in the aisle, next to a tall, broad man in an ill-fitting Sunday suit.
“Jesse,” Andrew said, catching Jesse’s sleeve and giving it a little tug. Jesse slid away from Andrew’s mother and fell into step beside Andrew surprisingly easily.
“Mr Cumberbatch, thank you for coming,” Andrew said, holding out his hand to Cumberbatch who shook it firmly.
“Congratulations to you,” Cumberbatch said with a smile that took in them both. He put his hand on the arm of the man standing next to him. “This is Thomas Hardy, my husband.”
Andrew blinked. If same-sex marriages were uncommon for the upper classes, they was almost unheard of amongst the middle class.
“Good to meet you,” Jesse said, and Andrew jerked back into his manners.
“Yes,” he said quickly. “Thank you so much for coming.”
Hardy shrugged, flashing Andrew a small, twinkling smile. “Heard this was all Benedict’s fault, so I thought we should at least show our faces.”
“Tom,” Cumberbatch hissed while Hardy widened his eyes innocently.
Jesse laughed quietly, like he wasn’t sure he was supposed to. “Are you staying for lunch?” he asked, glancing over at Andrew. “We’re having a, um, a wedding brunch, I suppose.”
“Thank you but we can’t,” Cumberbatch said, and Hardy, who’d been opening his mouth to respond, closed it again with a snap, smirking at the back of Cumberbatch’s head.
“Lunch with the mother-in-law,” he murmured conspiratorially. Cumberbatch elbowed him in the stomach and his breath rushed out noisily on a rusty laugh.
“Good day to you,” Cumberbatch said, walking Hardy away from them. “And congratulations again.”
“Thank you,” Andrew called after him, then glanced over at Jesse, surprised to see him watching Cumberbatch and Hardy leave with something wistful, almost sad, on his face. “Did you know Mr Cumberbatch was married to a man?”
“No,” Jesse said. He glanced at Andrew quickly. “That doesn’t bother you though, does it?”
Andrew frowned. “Of course not,” he said slowly. “I mean.” He waved a hand awkwardly between them. “It can’t really, can it?”
“Oh, but.” Jesse very obviously wasn’t meeting his eye, but Andrew didn’t understand why. “I know that this doesn’t mean, that you aren’t really…” He trailed off. “Oh look, I think Hallie’s calling us.”
She wasn’t. The lie was entirely obvious but Andrew couldn’t work out what Jesse had been trying not to say to him. He couldn’t force him to explain right now though because Jesse was striding away from him and now Hallie had noticed them and was waving them both over.
The wedding brunch was exquisitely uncomfortable with Jesse apparently unable to look directly at Andrew and Justin shooting Andrew unreadable, unimpressed looks every couple of minutes.
Andrew tried to carry the conversation, because he couldn’t stand situations where people weren’t getting on well with each other and especially not when people weren’t getting on with him but apparently Justin was immune to all his efforts.
“Jesse,” Andrew said, stopping him with a slight brush of fingers against Jesse’s arm. They were both standing at the refreshment bar, a little way removed from where Andrew’s mother was attempting to drown her worries in coffee and Hallie was clearly charming Justin with some diverting story or other.
“Would you like some tea?” Jesse asked, indicating the pot steeping on the table.
Andrew did but he decided that if he let Jesse near the teapot, he’d probably use it as a defensive weapon to prevent Andrew talking to him, so Andrew shook his head. “Is there, uh. Does Mr Bartha hate me?” Andrew asked then winced. He definitely hadn’t meant to ask it like that.
Jesse blinked. “Only slightly,” he said, which did nothing to make Andrew feel better.
“But why?” Andrew asked. He glanced back at the table and saw that Justin was watching them again, eyes narrowed. Then Andrew thought back to what Ford had told him this morning and couldn’t stop himself from whispering, “Were you courting him?” He turned away from the table in case Justin could read lips.
He felt like a complete fool for not having wondered about that before. Jesse had been the one to make the offer to him so Andrew had just assumed that Jesse was unattached.
Jesse glanced down at the teapot and then back up at Andrew. “No,” he said, “No, not at all. Don’t worry about it, it’s nothing. Justin’s just protective, that’s all.”
“Protective of - ?” Andrew started to ask but Jesse was turning away, heading back to the table. “Wait.” Andrew scrambled to catch up with him. “Why does he think you need to be protected? I’m not going to hurt you.”
Andrew would never hurt anyone, and definitely not Jesse.
Jesse smiled with absolutely no humour at all. “Of course not,” he said quickly and slipped back into his chair, jostling Justin’s arm so he turned immediately to drag Jesse into the conversation.
Andrew stood for another moment, feeling confused and out of place in the middle of his own dining room.
“I think I’ll retire to my sitting room,” Mama said, once Jesse was perched on the end of the settee again, looking more uncomfortable now that Justin was gone. “Hallie?”
Jesse and Andrew both stood when she did but Hallie just frowned up at them all. “Why?” she asked slowly. “It’s early.”
“Andrew and Jesse have important matters to discuss,” Mama said pointedly. It took Andrew a moment to realise what she meant, and it was only Jesse’s face flushing a sudden, brilliant red and then blanching white that made him realise that ‘discussing’ really wasn’t the term she was looking for at all.
“Mama,” he croaked but she shot him a look and swept out of the room with a firm, “Come on, Hallie.”
“Fine,” Hallie sighed, picking up her book. She was still grumbling, “I still don’t see what they can’t discuss in front of us,” when the door closed behind her.
Jesse was still incredibly pale when Andrew managed to look at him again and Andrew found himself saying, desperately, “Maybe she really did mean that we have things to discuss.”
Jesse shook his head desperately. “No, she meant we need to fu- .” He coughed over the end of the word like Andrew wasn’t, hadn’t been, a soldier and heard much worse. “She meant we need to consummate our, um, our thing.”
Andrew laughed a little hysterically. “Our thing?” he echoed.
“Don’t?” Jesse asked, pleadingly and Andrew’s unsuccessful attempt at levity skittered to a stop. “I’m sorry, I know you’re teasing but, god, I can’t right now.”
“Jesse,” Andrew said softly, feeling his insides all clench up together. “We don’t have to.”
Jesse glanced up at him. “We really do though,” he said. “I mean, assuming you don’t want… Unless you want to give up and opt for an annulment? I know I haven’t exactly done a sparkling job as a husband so far.”
Andrew thought of Jesse shyly avoiding him all day but still being right by Andrew’s side every time Andrew looked for him. “It’s been one day,” Andrew told him. “I don’t want an annulment.” A horrible thought occurred to him. “Unless you do?”
Jesse was quiet for so long that Andrew mentally started to conjure up arguments for why Jesse shouldn’t leave him, how he could definitely try to be a better husband from now on.
“No,” Jesse said eventually and Andrew could breathe again. “Let’s, um. Let’s.” He flashed Andrew an unreadable, probably terrified, smile. “Let’s go consummate, I suppose.”
Andrew wanted to make a quip there about romance and that proposition’s lack of it, but he found he couldn’t swallow, let alone speak. Besides, Jesse had asked him not to tease him and Andrew found that he’d do anything not to make Jesse sound so pained again.
“All right,” Andrew said and reached out, hesitating for just a second before taking Jesse’s hand.
Jesse’s fingers were cold but he gripped Andrew’s hand back hard, tipping his chin up and looking so ridiculously brave that Andrew couldn’t do anything but walk with him out of the room and up the stairs.
It was dark in the room, lit only by the candles which they’d carried with them from downstairs and set on Andrew’s writing desk. Someone had aired out the room and there were freshly cut flowers on the windowsill.
Andrew felt a hot flush of embarrassment that someone had clearly tried to make the room nice for his wedding night. He wondered if it was Lily and then couldn’t decide if it would be better or worse if it were one of the other maids.
“It’s… nice?” Jesse said uncertainly.
“I didn’t ask them to do it,” Andrew assured him quickly because the last thing he wanted was for Jesse to think that he’d had designs on him from the beginning.
“Of course not,” Jesse said, sticking his hands in his pockets and looking down. “I didn’t think you had.” He cleared his throat. “Do you. Should we. Let’s, um. Should we sit down?”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, clinging onto that and sitting on the edge of the bed. Jesse sat down beside him and then sat on his hands, probably because they were shaking, Andrew thought, not because he was trying to resist touching Andrew.
Andrew wouldn’t have minded being touched, actually. Anything to get the ball rolling – so to speak – would have been appreciated just then.
“Jesse,” Andrew said, putting his hand on the bed between them and turning to face him. He wanted to lean in and start this off with a kiss, but he didn’t like the idea of Jesse turning away from him again so he hesitated.
Luckily, Jesse seemed to find a bit of confidence from somewhere because he reached up and rested his fingers against Andrew’s collar.
“Take your cravat off?” he asked. He was only touching the fabric of Andrew’s shirt but Andrew could still feel the heat of his skin seeping through.
“Take if off for me?” Andrew asked, just a little bit provocatively. He didn’t want to treat this just as a business transaction but he would if Jesse wanted him to.
Jesse smiled slightly and Andrew smiled back, pleased. “I was going to,” Jesse confessed. “But won’t you get angry if I crumple it?”
“No,” Andrew assured him, “Of course not. Go on.”
Jesse bit his lip then tugged on Andrew’s cravat, wrinkling it in his hand before dropping it on the bed.
It pained Andrew a little, but he was making a point and that point was that he’d never be angry with Jesse, so it was worth it. He did feel a little better when Jesse used the absence of the cravat to start working on the buttons on Andrew’s shirt.
Andrew exhaled slowly, trying to feel something other than terrified. He’d done this before, of course, or something like it at least. But that had been fast, drunk and rough, not this slow, shaky thing that was building between him and Jesse.
“All right?” he asked when he realised that Jesse’s fingers hadn’t moved beyond the third button.
“I’m sorry,” Jesse said, dropping his hands. “I can’t.” He rushed on before Andrew could reassure him. “I mean, I can, but I can’t, um. My hands are shaking too much to undress you. Sorry.”
“That’s fine,” Andrew said quickly, because hearing Jesse say undress you had made him feel hot all over for just a second. He sat back, trying to smile encouragingly. “Shall we undress ourselves for now?”
“Yes,” Jesse nodded and then stood up, hands on his jacket. “Don’t watch.”
Andrew laughed but obediently turned away. “I won’t,” he promised.
It was only a little easier to get himself naked than it had been to sit still while Jesse tried to do it for him. Now it was Andrew’s hands that were shaking and he probably couldn’t have looked at Jesse right now even if he had been allowed to.
“Andrew?” Jesse said eventually, just as Andrew was dropping his britches. “I’m, um. You can.” He laughed shakily. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Fuck, Andrew thought, straightening up. Was he ready? He was certainly naked. All right, he thought, and turned around.
Jesse was sitting up in Andrew’s bed, the blankets pulled up and held against his chest by his folded arms.
Andrew felt suddenly very naked. Jesse’s eyes dipped to somewhere definitely below Andrew’s belt and then snapped up against very quickly, cheeks staining red.
“Is, is there room for me in there too?” Andrew asked, completely unable to do anything about the shake in his voice.
Jesse nodded quickly. “Sure,” he agreed and shifted to one side, still clutching his blanket toga tightly.
Andrew’s knees felt wobbly but he made it to the bed, kneeling next to Jesse and wishing there was some blanket left over to lay across his lap.
They watched each other, just staring and blushing together for so long that Andrew started to wonder if they were ever going to manage to get any further. In the end, he decided to be brave. He was an officer of the British Army, he could have sex with his husband for heaven’s sake.
“Let’s just,” he said and reached out and caught one of Jesse’s hands, tugging it down from across his chest.
Jesse seemed to unfold, like he’d just been waiting for Andrew to say it was allowed. “Yes,” he said hoarsely and pulled his hand out of Andrew’s grip, putting it on his shoulder instead and pulling him closer.
Andrew thought for a second that Jesse was going to kiss him, but he didn’t, just let his blanket fall to his waist and slid his hand down Andrew’s chest, raising goosebumps with his fingertips.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, pressing into his hands before he could stop himself. It had been so long since anyone had touched him and it hadn’t ever… it had never been someone whose company he enjoyed as much as he was growing to enjoy Jesse’s.
“Have you done this before?” Jesse asked, sounding curious rather than jealous or flirty.
“Yes,” Andrew said because what was the point of lying? “Have – ” He lost the end of that sentence because Jesse had apparently decided that beating around the bush wasn’t for him and his hand had dropped to Andrew’s lap.
“Sorry?” Jesse asked, biting his lip but not moving his hand. “Too quick?”
“N-no,” Andrew breathed, putting his hand over Jesse’s and trying to will his penis to grow interested in the fact that a very attractive boy wanted to touch it.
Nothing happened and Jesse started to pull his hand away, looking down and away.
“Don’t,” Andrew said, “please. I’m sorry. God, it’s not, it’s not you. I just.” He tried to smile, probably hitting something nearer mortified. “I’m just really nervous.”
Jesse bit his lip harder. He should keep doing that, Andrew thought wildly, as his cock twitched with interested. “Do you think I’m not?” he asked.
He stroked his palm across Andrew’s belly, down over Andrew’s inner thighs and his balls. Things were definitely happening now and Andrew could have cried with relief.
“There you are,” Jesse breathed. “I was worried the sight of me with no clothes on had turned you to stone.”
“I – ” Andrew gasped, half hard now and growing more so with Jesse’s hand around him. “I haven’t actually seen you with no clothes on yet.”
“True,” Jesse hummed but didn’t rush to do anything about it. He worked his hand slowly, thoughtfully, his other hand in the centre of Andrew’s back, holding lightly. “Do you think this counts as consummating?” he asked a couple of minutes later when Andrew was starting to feel shaky, sweat prickling his skin, trying so hard not to just shove rudely up into Jesse’s fist.
“I, maybe, I don’t.” Andrew groaned. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, I can’t think.”
Jesse pulled him closer and Andrew curled against his side immediately. He felt like he should be embarrassed – Jesse was so composed still and Andrew so very… wasn’t, but he was too close to be embarrassed, too close to feel anything but a building need to come.
“Hang on,” Jesse murmured and tightened his grip. He hesitated for a second and then suddenly the comforting warmth of his face near Andrew’s was gone and he was leaning down instead.
Andrew genuinely had no idea what he was about to do but then warm, wet lips wrapped around the head of Andrew’s cock and Andrew swore loudly.
“Sorry,” he gasped and, “You don’t have to do that. Jesse, fuck, you don’t – ”
Jesse pulled off, which was the last thing Andrew wanted but, well, he had just told him that he should. “Why?” Jesse asked, looking genuinely puzzled. “Doesn’t it feel good?”
“Of course,” Andrew told him, which seemed to be all Jesse needed to know because he went right back to what he’d been doing.
It was really all too much. Today had been overwhelming and Jesse’s mouth felt fantastic and it was all Andrew could do to choke out a warning before his orgasm rolled through him, leaving him dazed and a little lightheaded.
He flopped backward onto the bed, boneless and warm. “Oh,” he managed, staring up at the ceiling. He could get used to being married if it always felt like that.
Completely unable to stop his smile right now, he rolled onto his side, reaching for Jesse who was running his tongue around his teeth with an interested expression on his face. The sight made Andrew’s spent and sensitive cock twitch.
“Thank you,” Andrew said, not sure what else to say. He reached up and tried to tug blankets from Jesse’s waist. “Come here now?”
“What? No, it’s, no. No, that’s all right.” Jesse slapped Andrew’s hands away, seeming to draw in on himself all over again, the confidence that he’d just shown fading away into something uncertain.
“Well, that’s hardly fair,” Andrew said, pushing himself up on orgasm-rubbery arms. He tugged on the blanket again, not trying to remove it if Jesse really didn’t want him to, just wanting Jesse to know that Andrew did want to.
“Andrew,” Jesse said firmly. “We both know that the only reason that you married me today was for my money.” He held up a silencing hand to stop Andrew arguing. Andrew didn’t actually want to argue. Well, he did, but it was hard to since that was true. “I’m not expecting services in kind.”
Andrew blinked at him then laughed. He didn’t mean to, it just sort of burst out of him. “Jesse,” he said cajolingly, still punch-drunk from the very nice sex. “I promise I don’t think you think I’m a whore. I just want to have sex with my husband on our wedding night.”
Jesse didn’t look at all convinced so Andrew decided to try an honest confession and hope Jesse didn’t laugh him out of bed: “And I’ve wanted to kiss you since we were standing at the altar.”
Jesse blinked. “Why?” he asked, sounding confused.
Because you ask questions like that, Andrew thought, surprising himself with how fast the answer came. “Why not?” he countered. “You have lovely lips.”
Jesse huffed, rolling his eyes but he smiled just slightly, just enough to give an impression of dimples.
He’s going to let me kiss him, Andrew thought and leant in quickly before Jesse could change his mind. He wasn’t sure why it was so important to him but it definitely was.
Jesse didn’t seem inclined to change his mind, even tipping his face down to meet Andrew’s. It was just a dry, tentative brush of lips but it settled something in Andrew that had been restless since they walked into this room.
“Jesse,” he urged, tugging on Jesse’s arm.
Jesse let himself be pulled down onto the bed beside Andrew and didn’t make any more effort to hold the blanket in place when Andrew pulled it away.
Andrew really, really didn’t mean to but he just had to stop and stare at Jesse’s nakedness for a moment. Jesse’s smooth chest was flushed pink, there was sweat sheening his belly and thighs and his cock was definitely interested, flushed red and leaking at the tip.
Andrew felt a fresh wave of inadequacy for how slow his own body had been to catch on and for how fantastic Jesse looked like this.
“Don’t,” Jesse gritted out and Andrew looked up, surprised. Jesse was looking resolutely away.
“It’s all right,” Andrew said quickly, realising what must be bothering him. “There’s no shame in having enjoyed… I mean, if you liked.” He made a hand gesture which hopefully conveyed putting your mouth on me.
“Right,” Jesse said quickly. “That’s what – ” He stopped.
“Can I touch you?” Andrew asked, some part of him thinking that he should cover Jesse up again before he got cold.
“I suppose if you really want to,” Jesse said uncertainly, “But you don’t have to.”
“I do,” Andrew promised him. “I do want to.” He did. It was only fair, after all. He pulled Jesse closer, fingers slipping over the surprisingly sweaty skin at the small of Jesse’s back.
Andrew wasn’t sure what to do next. He didn’t want to copy what Jesse had done to him. Even though that had felt wonderful, he wanted to do something different for Jesse. While he was thinking about it, he kissed Jesse again.
Jesse kissed back willingly, pushing his hips forward once before stopping himself. He must really like using his mouth, Andrew thought wonderingly.
“Like this?” Andrew asked carefully, pressing against Jesse’s back just firmly enough to get him moving against Andrew.
His erection was blood hot and solid, hard enough that Andrew felt a little bruised and a little breathless when it pressed into his hip. Andrew had a sudden sense memory of one drunken night with another captain in his regiment, hands and thighs and not much else. Experimentally, he pressed a leg between Jesse’s, smiling into Jesse’s mouth when Jesse shook all over, making a soft, keening noise.
Andrew mentally increased the cause of Jesse’s arousal to really, really liking using his mouth.
“Andrew,” Jesse whispered, like he was apologising for being hot and sweaty and a little bit desperate in Andrew’s arms. Andrew would have to be a completely different person to ever object to that. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t going to – ”
“Wasn’t going to what?” Andrew asked, kissing Jesse again and pulling him closer, urging him to grind down against Andrew’s leg.
Jesse didn’t answer, moans turning wordless and barely audible.
“You look amazing,” Andrew muttered into Jesse’s skin because everyone liked to know that, didn’t they?
Jesse apparently really did because he made one harsh, grunting sound that went straight to Andrew’s chest and started to come, splashing Andrew’s skin for a second before he fumbled a hand between them and caught the rest, apologising even as he was shaken by a couple of jerky, uneven aftershocks.
There was really nothing Andrew could do than to push him fully onto his back and kiss him hard. Jesse’s hands landed on Andrew’s back, one curled into a sticky fist, the other sliding up into Andrew’s hair for a kiss that turned unexpectedly wet and messy and full of tongue, before Jesse pushed him away, laughing awkwardly and sitting up just enough to grab his shirt and wipe his hands.
Andrew hummed, turning over onto his stomach and touching Jesse’s belly curiously. There was a white smear of someone’s come there and Andrew was surprised by the sudden urge that came over him to lick it away.
Before he could decide if he was going to, he realised that Jesse was watching him and blushed, offering Jesse a lopsided smile instead.
Jesse smiled back for a moment then hesitated, pulling back and sitting up more purposefully.
“Mm, no,” Andrew mumbled. He felt half-asleep so it was easy to reach out, curling a hand around his elbow. “Stay?” he asked, fingers loose around Jesse’s arm in case he really did want to leave.
Jesse didn’t move for a long time, while Andrew struggled to keep his eyes open and not to hope too hard that Jesse would stay. Then, “All right,” he said, scooting back down. “I hope you don’t snore.”
“I don’t,” Andrew said confidently then frowned. “But you can poke me if I do.”
“Oh, I will,” Jesse assured him even though Andrew was fairly certain that he wouldn’t.
It was a large bed with plenty of room for them both to lie down without touching, but Andrew had no interested in that. It would be rude to invite Jesse into his bed and then ignore him, so he threw an arm gently across Jesse’s chest, checking that Jesse didn’t object before sliding closer and sealing his lips to the top of Jesse’s arm, comfortable.
“Thank you,” he said quietly.
Jesse frowned. “I’m not sure I did anything particularly amazing,” he said, “you must have had better in the army.”
Andrew tipped his head back to look up at Jesse. “I meant for everything,” he said. “Although the, uh. Although tonight was rather lovely, but. Thank you for marrying me; I know you didn’t have to.”
Jesse looked resolutely up at the ceiling. “Of course I did,” he said firmly. “I’m getting a title out of it and an estate. I - ”
Andrew interrupted him with a disbelieving hum. “You already lived here,” he said, “and you don’t give a fuck about having a title.” He immediately felt bad when Jesse tensed. Apparently sex made him impolite; he was going to have to work on that. “I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I didn’t mean to... Did I... It’s been a long, strange day, you shouldn’t pay any attention to me.”
Jesse breathed slowly for a couple of minutes and Andrew found himself counting along, hoping that Jesse wasn’t about to get offended and leave.
“Maybe we should go to sleep,” Jesse said eventually. Andrew wondered if he’d ruined everything by questioning it, if he should give Jesse some more space but Jesse grabbed his hand before he could withdraw his arm. After a moment, Andrew tangled his fingers with Jesse’s and closed his eyes.
“Good night, Jesse,” Andrew said. He thought about it carefully and then kissed Jesse’s cheek.
Jesse turned his head, catching the corner of Andrew’s mouth in a kiss before returning his, “Good night,” and then, softer, “Andrew.”
Andrew settled back down beside him, leaving Jesse to snuff out the candle in the lamp before sliding back down into bed, closing their eyes against the total darkness. The room was quiet, Jesse’s breathing soft and his body warm against Andrew’s.
It was almost like being properly married, Andrew mused, and fell asleep on that thought.
He’d slept in late and the sun was high in the sky. He yawned and felt warm, cosy and more relaxed than he’d felt in over a month, so he sat up in a flurry of arms, determined to claw back some of his old energy. He was tired of being this person who worried all the time.
His muscles felt pleasantly achy even though they hadn’t really had the most energetic of sex and he made sure to stretch just a little bit more than he needed to while getting dressed, just so he could feel it.
“Good morning,” he said cheerfully, swinging into the breakfast room a little while later.
Hallie was sitting alone, eating toast one-handed while trying to write a letter with the other hand but she looked up when Andrew came in.
“I’m writing to Carey,” she announced. “She sent me a note asking about the wedding.”
“Did she?” Andrew asked levelly, refusing to be brought down by the reminder that Carey’s parents hadn’t let her attend. “What are you telling her?”
Hallie shrugged. “That it was sort of boring but you and Jesse looked nice. And now I’m telling her you banished me to Aunt Susan’s sitting room in the evening so you could talk secrets,” she added pointedly.
Andrew choked on the piece of bread he’d just tried to swallow. “For goodness sake don’t tell her that,” he wheezed because Hallie might have somehow not twigged what it was that married couples did in secret on their wedding night but Carey certainly would.
“Why?” Hallie asked innocently, raising her eyebrows.
Andrew coughed some more to buy himself some time. He poured some coffee, kept coughing, took a sip and then couldn’t put it off any longer. “Well, because. Because some things are private and only for, for families and she, uh. Not that she’s not, but she’s not exactly - ” He broke off. Hallie was giggling into her sleeve. “Oh my god, you’re a wicked child.”
Hallie bit her lip, blushing but still giggling. “Sorry,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “But Aunt Susan gave me a talk on the ‘conjugal obligations of a married woman’ last night which was all your fault so I thought you should be properly punished.”
Andrew laughed helplessly, covering his face. “I’m so sorry,” he groaned. “Are you mentally scared? Shall I ask the doctor to bring the leeches?”
Hallie stuck her tongue out at him, which was probably the sort of behaviour that he shouldn’t encourage, not in a young lady about to make her debut, but Andrew had honestly never cared about that sort of thing.
“Andrew?” Hallie asked after a moment. She sounded serious so Andrew put down his coffee cup and looked up. “You and Jesse, you are happy, aren’t you?”
“I, uh. Yes,” Andrew assured her. She didn’t look convinced so he hurried on. “It’s a little strange, obviously, but Jesse’s very, he’s… He’s very easy to be married to. So far, anyway.”
Hallie smiled, going back to her letter looking satisfied. Andrew didn’t even try to interrupt her, the way he usually would have, too lost in thought because even he hadn’t been able to tell if he were lying or not.
“Hello,” Andrew said, whispering so as not to disturb him too abruptly.
Jesse jumped anyway, looking up at Andrew with wide eyes that slowly returned to a normal, less startled size after a couple of slow blinks. Andrew thought about the bruises on his skin and couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Good morning,” Jesse agreed, taking the coffee Andrew offered him and putting it down on the edge of the desk. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes?” Andrew said, sitting down on the windowsill and resting his socked feet on the very edge of Jesse’s desk. Jesse looked from Andrew, to Andrew’s feet and back again but didn’t actually object. “Did you?”
Jesse nodded and Andrew said, “Good,” and it was almost as though they hadn’t been sleeping in the same bed all night.
“I was wondering if you’d like to come riding this afternoon?” Andrew tried. He hadn’t been wondering that until right now but the sun was shining brightly and it might be nice to spend some time away from the house, just the two of them.
“I can’t,” Jesse said quickly. He waved his papers at Andrew before setting them down again, realigning the corners. “There’s so much to go through here.”
“Isn’t that what we have Mr Cumberbatch for?” Andrew asked, trying not to feel or sound too disappointed.
“It’s Sunday,” Jesse reminded him. “I don’t want to disturb Mr Cumberbatch but I do want to get started.” He carefully underlined a row of figures and then added, in what was clearly a failed attempt at casually changing the subject, “Would you like a valet?”
“I…” Andrew blinked. He wasn’t sure where being bought a valet landed on the spectrum of his pride versus maintaining the estate. “I do already have one,” he hedged eventually.
Jesse waved that away. “Oh, I’ll take him,” he said. “You should have someone new, someone who knows how to do all those twisty, fashionable things you do with your cravats and your hair and… things.”
“I do twisty, fashionable things with my hair?” Andrew asked, smiling. “I don’t think I do, actually, but now I really want to start.”
Jesse glared up at him but his lips were twitching, just slightly. “You know what I mean,” he protested. “And I’m right. You definitely do need a valet. The left side of your collar is a full sixteenth of a inch lower than the right side.” He smirked when Andrew couldn’t stop his hand flying up to it and scribbled something on the corner of a page, rubbing the end of his quill against his lips, apparently lost in thought.
Andrew stared. He really, really didn’t mean to dwell on it, but he suddenly couldn’t think of anything but how Jesse’s lips had looked wrapped around his cock last night. There was a definite stirring in Andrew’s nether regions so he crossed his legs quickly to hide it. Unfortunately, he was so quick that he forgot he was braced precariously between the too-narrow windowsill and the edge of Jesse’s desk and he nearly toppled over onto the floor.
Only the excellent balance skills he’d learnt riding horses in the cavalry saved him, but they didn’t save him quietly and Jesse looked up sharply.
“Are you all right?” he asked, mouth definitely twitching now, damn it.
“Fine,” Andrew told him quickly. “I’m very coordinated. Coordinated and graceful.”
Jesse smiled. “You’re very distracting, you should go away.”
Andrew pouted, trying to make it seem like he was only pretending to be disappointed. “I’d rather spend the day with you,” he said and watched Jesse’s smile fall away.
“Andrew,” Jesse scolded. “You don’t need to say things like that.”
“But I mean – ” it, Andrew started to say but Jesse shook his head.
“Don’t say things like that,” he said firmly. He dipped his quill in the ink with more force than necessary. “Please just… Just go riding or something, all right? I’ll see you later.”
Now Andrew was definitely disappointed, not to mention a little hurt. “All right,” he agreed, jumping down. “I’ll um.” He stopped just by Jesse’s chair, wondering if it would be all right to kiss him goodbye.
Jesse settled the question by resolutely refusing to look up at him so Andrew took himself away, no longer in quite the good mood he’d woken up with.
“It’s as if he hates me,” Andrew complained. He and Carey were wasting away the afternoon in the orchard that bisected their two properties, sheltered by trees where her parents wouldn’t know they were spending time together.
“Probably,” Carey agreed distractedly. When Andrew turned to look at her, shielding his eyes from the weak autumn sun filtering between the leaves, he saw that she was scribbling in her notebook.
“Carey Mulligan,” Andrew gasped, clutching a hand to his heart. “I’m pouring out my soul to you and you’re not even listening?”
“I’m definitely listening,” Carey disagreed, writing something else. “But all you’ve said for the past hour is ‘Jesse doesn’t like me,’ ‘Jesse doesn’t want to play with me,’ ‘Oh how I wish Jesse would kiss me again.’ I’d love to be able to advise you, darling, but I really don’t have anything new to say.”
“I never said anything about kissing,” Andrew muttered, looking down at the grass.
Carey glanced up at him, sighing and putting down her notebook when he couldn’t hide the expression on his face. She leaned over and touched his shoulder. “Andrew, when you sighed and said you thought you and Jesse would be ‘friends’ after your wedding night? That wasn’t very subtle.”
Andrew blushed. He did want to kiss Jesse again, kissing Jesse had been excellent and his face was unsurprisingly lovely up close, but that wasn’t all that Andrew wanted. If it was a choice between being friends and having more kisses, Andrew would have taken friendship in a heartbeat.
“We’re going to be married for the rest of our lives,” Andrew finally settled for saying. “I want us to be happy.”
“I know you do,” Carey told him, tilting her parasol so it shaded them both and Andrew could stop squinting from under his fingers. “But it’s only been a week, maybe you should give it a little time. Or maybe…” She stopped.
“Maybe what?” Andrew asked, perking up. Carey always had good ideas.
Carey sighed. “No, pretend I never said anything. I was just going to suggest that you might try organising something special, like a trip to town or a nice meal for just the two of you. But then I remembered that this is you I’m talking to and that instead of something simple, you’d do something ridiculously overblown and probably scare the poor boy away.”
“No,” Andrew said, sitting up quickly and ignoring the part where she knew him far too well. “Carey, that’s a wonderful idea. He wouldn’t be able to say no to that. I could arrange a picnic, that’s not too overblown, is it?”
Carey shook her head at him helplessly for a moment. “No,” she said. “No, that’s sweet. You should do that.”
Andrew beamed at her, pushing up onto his hands so he could press a quick, grateful kiss to her cheek. “Thank you,” he said with feeling. “Now, tell me what you’re scribbling in your book. Is it about me?”
“I’m really very busy,” Jesse told him, looking at the horses that Andrew had saddled and biting his lip. “Why not take Hallie instead?”
Andrew widened his eyes. He’d been told that he looked like a St Bernard puppy when he did that and for some reason, that tended to make people more amenable to his plans. “But I arranged it for you,” he said sadly. “I picked the plums for the cake myself.”
Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
Andrew nodded quickly. Mostly he’d followed Lily around, holding her basket while she picked plums and told him he was in the way, but he thought that probably counted.
Jesse sighed. “If the estate falls to ruin because I wasn’t here this afternoon, I’ll make sure everyone blames you.”
“That’s more than fair,” Andrew assured him, stomach going suddenly, surprisingly fizzy with excitement. He hadn’t realised he was this invested in Jesse agreeing. “Will you come? Really?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, still looking uncertain. “I suppose I have to if you went to all the trouble of picking plums for me.”
“It was very hazardous,” Andrew assured him. “Some of those plums did not want to be picked. I barely escaped with my life.”
Jesse nodded seriously. “I’ve heard that that is a problem with plums. Did you lose many fingers?”
Andrew had to bite his lip so he didn’t laugh and ruin it. Jesse was playing with him, it was wonderful. “All of them,” he said, with an appropriately dramatic flutter of his fingers. “The doctors say the only cure is a picnic with a lovely man.”
“If I see a lovely man, I’ll let him know,” Jesse promised and then smiled, sudden and bright for a second before he tamped it down again. “When, um. When do you want to leave?”
“Now?” Andrew asked, still thinking about that flash of smile. He wanted to take Jesse away from his books and papers and see if that would help him to smile more.
Jesse cast one more look at the picnic basket strapped to Andrew’s horse, looking like he wasn’t really seeing it. He looked sort of conflicted but Andrew was still sure he was going to say yes. “Give me five minutes to change my boots, then,” he said and disappeared into the house.
Andrew watched him hurry up the stairs and smiled to himself before turning to check the harness on Jesse’s horse. He wasn’t sure how good a rider Jesse was, but either way, Andrew wasn’t going to let him fall and hurt himself.
“This looks very nice,” Mama’s voice said behind Andrew and Andrew turned to grin at her, trying to control his happy bouncing.
“It’s nothing much,” he said, easily. “Just some lunch.”
Mama looked at him closely, checking that there was no one listening before asking, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Just some lunch,” Andrew repeated, adding a little nonchalant arm-swing so she wouldn’t worry.
“Andrew,” she chided, since apparently his don’t worry body language wasn’t working. “My marriage to your father was arranged by our parents, did we ever tell you that?”
“No?” Andrew said, staring at her. “Really? But you were, you were happy, weren’t you?” He’d watched his parents’ marriage for twenty-three years, if they’d only been pretending happy, he was going to have to reassess his whole view on the world.
“Yes, of course,” Mama said like that hadn’t been the point. Andrew was pretty certain that that was the point. Andrew was shocked. “But it took us years to love each other the way we learnt to eventually.”
She paused and Andrew knew what her point was now.
“I’m not trying to make Jesse fall in love with me,” he promised her quickly, “I’m just trying to make everything a bit nicer between us. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Mama repeated. “That’s why you had Cook up half the night baking cakes and making jams and it’s why I just overheard you flirting hard enough to shame a sailor.”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed because he knew his mother and no amount of arguing was going to convince her. “Exactly.”
Mama shook her head. “Be careful,” she said, pulling him down a bit too hard so she could kiss his cheek.
“Of course, I’m an excellent rider,” Andrew told her brightly, deliberately misunderstanding. He looked over her shoulder and waved. “Oh look, here’s Jesse.”
“Be careful,” she repeated. She turned what Andrew always thought of as her hostess smile on Jesse, the smile that she didn’t really mean. “Hello, Jesse. Have a good afternoon.”
“Um, thank you,” Jesse said watching her go for a moment before turning to Andrew. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Andrew told him. Andrew seemed to be telling everyone that everything was all right a lot lately; it was a good job he was so good at it. “Come on. Up you get.”
Jesse made a hilarious face at the horse. “Sure,” he said, “but do me a favour and don’t watch? I, um. I can ride. But I sometimes end up facing the wrong way the first time I try to mount.”
Andrew laughed before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. He stepped up to the side of Jesse’s horse and closed his eyes. “Here, I’m not watching, but use my shoulder if you need something to boost yourself up with.”
“Oh, I, um.” Jesse cleared his throat. “Thank you.” Andrew heard the clip of a boot entering a stirrup, heard Jesse’s horse breathe out hard and then Jesse’s hand was on Andrew’s shoulder, just for a second but very firm and very warm. Then, “Oh, look at that,” Jesse said, sounding amazed and Andrew opened his eyes to find him seated firmly in the saddle, conveniently facing in the same direction as the horse. “First time.”
“Well done,” Andrew said, clapping and hurried around to mount his own horse. He knew he shouldn’t, but he decided to ignore what his mother had said. He was really looking forward to this afternoon: good food and a couple of hours with Jesse; it was going to be wonderful.
“Shall we go back?” Andrew asked regretfully, but Jesse shook his head.
“It’ll pass,” he said confidentially then grimaced when a drop of rain landed right on the end of his nose.
Andrew laughed, startling his horse, which neighed questioningly. “Of course it’ll pass,” he agreed easily because this was their afternoon together, and the weather wasn’t allowed to ruin it. “It’s only a spring shower.”
“In November?” Jesse asked, jumping a little in the saddle when his horse skipped over a molehill. Jesse was a fairly good rider, Andrew had been impressed to see, but he didn’t seem to enjoy it at all.
“Yes,” Andrew said. “November is springtime in New South Wales.”
“Have you been there?” Jesse asked. He hunched his shoulders as the rain started to get heavier and Andrew did the same, raindrops cold down the back of his neck.
“No, there’s no fighting there,” Andrew told him, wondering if he should make something up. Jesse didn’t usually ask him questions that weren’t would you like a valet? Or how many lady’s maids is too many for your mother?
“But you’ve been to the Continent?” Jesse pressed. “Did you go to Paris? Was it amazing?”
Andrew pursed his lips. “The buildings were amazing,” he hedged. “It probably wasn’t the best time to do the Grand Tour, though. Everything was so unsettled and we were rushed on from everything I wanted to see. And then, when I returned, it was with the army.”
“Which you miss,” Jesse said quietly, looking intently at the reins as though the terrain had suddenly become dangerous and he needed to concentrate.
“Which I miss,” Andrew agreed, then added quickly, “but I don’t... I had to come home, I don’t begrudge or... and I’m not. I’m not.” He was sorry, of course he was. “You make it easier,” he finally settled on and then found himself focusing hard on the glossy black back of his horse’s head.
Jesse didn’t say anything. Then, “It’s really raining now,” he observed, which it was. Andrew’s hair was soaked through and his jacket was starting to grow heavy.
“Damn,” he sighed. “Do you want to go back?” He turned to glance over his shoulder at the way they’d come but the sky was blacker over there, even more ominous.
“Not really?” Jesse said, looking that way too and wrinkling his nose. He shivered, pulling his jacket closer around him. “I think the weather would probably be better in New South Wales.”
“Or the Continent,” Andrew agreed, bringing his horse up alongside Jesse’s in the hope of shielding him from some of the rain, which was now being caught on the wind, lashing into their faces. “Oh, this is horrible. I’m so sorry.” He had to raise his voice to be heard.
Jesse shook his head, rainwater flying from his hair. “Not your fault,” he called through the clatter of rain and the crunch of falling leaves. “Come on, let’s head to the racecourse, they’ll let us shelter in the grandstand.”
“Brilliant,” Andrew told him, grinning through the rain. He had no real idea which direction Epsom racecourse was in from here – mostly because he’d been watching Jesse rather than the route they were taking – but he didn’t want Jesse to know that so he turned his horse confidently to the west and set off, making sure Jesse was keeping pace.
Apparently, Jesse much preferred riding when they were going fast. He kept up with Andrew easily, overtaking him on turns that Andrew wouldn’t have taken blithely, even in the dry.
“Jesse!” Andrew called, horrified but laughing. “Don’t break your neck.”
“I won’t,” Jesse said, sounding confused that anyone could doubt his horsemanship, but he pulled up immediately, slowing to keep pace with Andrew.
Andrew was surprised at the acquiescence for a moment before he thought back over what he’d said, don’t break your neck, he’d said, but he hadn’t even been thinking of his father, who had broken his neck.
“Sorry,” Jesse said, swiping wet hair out of his eyes.
“No,” Andrew said, “I wasn’t thinking about that.” What he meant was you make me forget to think about that, but it was raining too hard and too nastily now for declarations like that.
He scanned the horizon, hoping that the towering supports of the racecourse would spring into view. They didn’t but, if he squinted hard enough, he thought he could make out the corner of some white and tan brickwork, just peaking out from some overgrown hedges.
“What’s that?” he said, pointing. “Is that a cottage?”
Jesse shielded his eyes, looking where Andrew pointed but shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t have my glasses.”
Andrew had thought there was something different about Jesse’s eyes in the library that afternoon, but he hadn’t liked to ask what, in case that seemed strange or intrusive, somehow.
“Let’s have a look,” he said, cantering down the hill toward the hedgerow.
It did turn out to be a cottage, but it was clearly abandoned. There were dead plants in the window boxes and weeds knee-high in the garden.
The door opened when Andrew dismounted and tried the handle.
“You can’t just break in,” Jesse protested but he jumped down too, tying his horse next to Andrew’s on the lee side of the building before they headed in together.
“It’s not breaking in,” Andrew promised. “It’s seeking shelter. People do it all the time.”
“Do they?” Jesse asked, frowning. “No one’s ever sought shelter at the Priory.”
“That’s because the Priory isn’t a spookily abandoned cottage,” Andrew told him. “You read novels, don’t you? You know how this works.”
“I, um.” Jesse stared at Andrew, like he was surprised that Andrew knew that tiny thing about him. Andrew wouldn’t have thought that that was too surprising but he started to feel embarrassed anyway from the way Jesse was looking at him.
“You used to read a lot when we were young,” Andrew explained quickly. “I just assumed you still did.”
“I do,” Jesse agreed, nodding slowly. He shivered suddenly. “I think the cottages in novels have roaring fires in the hearth.”
“True.” Andrew frowned, taking in for the first time how wet they both were. It hadn’t felt too bad while they were riding, but now he was freezing, his hands beginning to numb. “Take your outer things off, I’ll go and look in the bedroom for some blankets.”
“Take them off?” Jesse asked, but he was asking Andrew’s retreating back.
There were no blankets in the bedroom – there wasn’t even a bed in the bedroom. Whoever had moved out of here had stripped it well. Then Andrew had a brainwave. Pulling the back of his coat up over his head, he made a dash back to the horses, unstrapping the forlorn picnic hamper and lugging it into the house.
Jesse was standing in the empty living room, stripped of his coat and shoes and shivering hard despite the small fire that he’d somehow managed to start.
“Are you magic?” Andrew asked, impressed. “You must be magic.”
“Yes,” Jesse agreed. “I’m a witch, sorry, should I have mentioned?” He waved at the doorway that Andrew thought probably led to the kitchen. “There was some half-damp firewood beside the oven. I thought we could start a small fire with the least damp bits and hopefully dry out the rest.”
“Good idea,” Andrew said, putting the picnic basket down and opening it. There on top was the neatly folded blanket that he’d asked Lily to air for him that morning. “Here.” He held it out. “I don’t think it’s got too wet.”
Jesse took it but held it away from himself. “I’ll just get it wetter,” he said. “You should take it.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “Jesse. Don’t be self-sacrificing. The plan was that we both take it.”
Jesse shook it out. It was fairly big but not really big enough for two, but Andrew was ignoring that right now. “How?”
Andrew waggled his eyebrows. “We may have to get friendly,” he said, delighted when Jesse blushed.
He started to take his jacket off, laying it next to Jesse’s and then moved to his shirt. He only stopped when Jesse’s eyes widened, face turning paler than the cold could account for. Then Andrew started to feel guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you probably don’t want, I know it’s not proper for…”
Jesse waved him quiet. “It’s perfectly proper. We are married. I’m just…” He took a deep breath. “I’m being silly. Come on, let’s get out of these wet things.”
By tacit consent, they got undressed in separate corners of the living room and Andrew let Jesse wrap himself in his half of the blanket before hurrying over to join him. It was hard to keep a foot of space between two reasonably tall men who were sharing a blanket and shivering hard, but they managed it, sitting on the floor in front of the fire and trying not to look at any uncovered parts of each other’s bodies.
“Well,” Jesse said, breaking the silence. “What, um. Let’s see what you brought to this fantastic picnic, then.”
Andrew poked one arm out form under the blanket and tugged the basket closer. His picnic was definitely a sunny-weather one, full of breads and jams and cakes. At the bottom, was a large bottle of fine red wine, which Andrew hadn’t asked to be packed, but wasn’t going to object to.
“I think this is the only warming thing we have,” he said, holding it up apologetically.
Jesse held out his hand for it. “That’s all right,” he said. He looked over the food Andrew had laid out. “This, um. It looks… Thank you.”
Andrew shrugged, spreading some blackcurrant jam on some bread and offering it to Jesse. “This afternoon wasn’t supposed to go like this,” he said sadly. “I wanted you to have a good time.”
Jesse took the bread, flashing Andrew a small, genuine-looking smile in return. “I’m not having a terrible time,” he said. “I mean, I’m wet and cold and naked and probably about to develop pneumonia, but otherwise.”
Andrew laughed and fished out the corkscrew. “Here. If we’re going to catch our deaths, we might as well be drunk for it.” That had been his regiment’s policy while they were riding through a Russian winter, but he thought it probably applied here too.
“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, resting his head on Jesse’s shoulder just to see if Jesse would let him.
Jesse twitched slightly but didn’t try to throw him off. “Hmm?” he asked, tipping the bottle up to take a swig. Andrew was close enough to hear him swallow and he turned his head to watch.
“Nothing,” Andrew said, closing his eyes. “I’m just warmer now. It’s nice.”
Jesse shifted a bit, pulling the blanket closed around them. The fire was roaring now and it was almost too hot for the blanket but Jesse seemed to want to keep wearing it so Andrew didn’t mention that.
“You’re drunk,” Jesse told him, offering the bottle again. Andrew shook his head so Jesse put it down on the floor, his moves overly careful in his uncoordination.
“No,” Andrew argued because he wasn’t, not quite. “You’re just comfortable.”
Jesse didn’t say anything so Andrew poked him. “Ow,” Jesse complained.
“Sorry,” Andrew said, rubbing his fingers over the soft place on Jesse’s side that he’d poked. Jesse’s skin was smooth, damp with sweat and Andrew flashed back to the memory of Jesse’s thighs, flushed and pink under Andrew’s hands on their wedding night.
Jesse shivered and grabbed Andrew’s hand, taking it off his side.
“Are you cold?” Andrew asked, worried, and keeping hold of Jesse’s hand when Jesse tried to reclaim it.
“Andrew,” Jesse muttered, but he didn’t try too hard to take his hand back. Andrew laced their fingers together because Jesse had really warm hands and it felt nice.
“Tell me something?” Andrew asked, because the whole point of this afternoon had been to get to know each other better.
“What?” Jesse asked. “What do you want me to tell you? Would you like me to tell you about the blisters I have from riding horses in the rain?”
“If you want to,” Andrew told him, starting to sit up. “Wait, you have blisters? Let me see.”
Jesse caught Andrew’s wrist, tugging Andrew back against his side. Andrew liked it there so he didn’t fight it. “It’s fine,” he said. “And it’s, um. They’re not on my feet, anyway.”
“Oh,” Andrew said, watching Jesse blush. He reached up and touched Jesse’s cheek. “I like it when you blush,” he confessed. “Is that strange?” He hoped it wasn’t strange because he didn’t want to stop liking it.
Jesse flushed harder. “Why do you say things like that?” he asked, slapping Andrew’s hand away.
Andrew shrugged. “Because it’s true. Because you should know that you’re lovely, I suppose. No, really,” he added when Jesse didn’t look at him. “You’re so wonderful. I wish you knew that.”
Jesse huffed out a sound that might have been a laugh. “You sound like Justin.” He wrapped the end of his blanket around his fingers. “But, um. Thank you. I mean, I know you’re drunk and you wouldn’t be saying that otherwise, but it’s nice to hear.”
Andrew wanted to protest that he wasn’t that drunk and he would be happy to say it to Jesse whenever Jesse wanted, but he got distracted by something else. “Are you sure you’re not courting him?” he asked.
Jesse turned to him, frowning. “Who?” he asked, blinking. “Oh, Justin. No.” He tipped his head from side to side, hair brushing Andrew’s cheek. “Well, I guess, we were a little bit when we were really young, but that was years ago.” He pressed his hand to his mouth. “I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“Drunk,” Andrew reminded him helpfully. “You were courting him? I knew it.” The surge of triumph lasted about three seconds, then he just felt really sad. “Do you love him? I could…” He sat up, putting some space between them. “If you want to keep seeing him, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t object.”
Jesse sighed. “I told you, it was when we were young. Don’t be silly, I don’t want to step out on you.”
“Did you have sex with him?” Andrew heard himself ask then froze, horrified. “Sorry, I’m sorry, that’s none of my business, I’m – ”
“Yes,” Jesse said, picking up the bottle of wine, putting it down again. “Yes, a few times when we were fifteen or sixteen. Mostly in his father’s hay barn; it was embarrassingly clichéd.”
Andrew tried to smile at the image but couldn’t manage it. “Oh,” he said.
“What?” Jesse asked him. He was twitching his fingers against the back of Andrew’s hand and Andrew wondered if he realised he was doing it. “Did you want me to a be a virgin for our wedding night or something?” He sounded like he was mocking Andrew but Andrew could hear the actual worry underneath.
“No,” Andrew said quickly. “Of course not. I mean, I wasn’t.”
“No, of course you weren’t,” Jesse said, something weird in his voice. “I never thought you would be.”
“There were just… it was just some people in the army,” Andrew told him, shrugging. “It wasn’t anyone special.” He wished it had been, he’d always meant to wait until it was.
“What about Carey?” Jesse asked, quickly like he really wanted to know.
“She’s a girl,” Andrew said frowning.
He’d meant for that to mean and I’ve never met a girl I wanted to have sex with, but apparently Jesse didn’t hear it like that because he said, “And that’s a terrible double-standard,” sounding cross.
Andrew opened his mouth to defend himself because he really didn’t think like that but his mouth wasn’t working with his brain today and what he actually said was, “It was better with you,” which he’d definitely never meant to say. He knew they weren’t allowed to talk about their one night together; he wasn’t that drunk.
Jesse made a soft noise. “How could it be?” he asked dismissively. “I know I was nothing special.”
Now Andrew had to sit up. The blanket fell off his shoulders but he was hot now so he didn’t care. “Of course you were special,” he said, worried that Jesse didn’t know that. “Jesse.”
Jesse reached out, trying to put the blanket back around Andrew. “All right, all right, I was special, now come here.”
Andrew shook his head. He knew when he was being humoured. “You were special,” he repeated, catching Jesse’s shoulder automatically when Jesse turned toward him. He searched Jesse’s face, trying to find any sign that Jesse believed him. He couldn’t though and that made him impossibly sad. It made sense, somewhere in the back of his head, to lean in then, pressing his mouth to Jesse’s. “See?” he asked, pulling back. “Special.”
Jesse breathed out hard, warm, wine-flavoured breath blowing across Andrew’s face. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that,” he said seriously but he reached up and pushed Andrew’s sweaty hair out of his face so Andrew didn’t think he could be too annoyed.
“Never,” Andrew disagreed. He was distracted by Jesse’s damp-looking lips and by the fact that they were getting closer. It was a surprise when Jesse kissed him although it definitely shouldn’t have been.
“No, really,” Jesse said against his mouth, “Stop talking.” He pressed on Andrew’s shoulder and Andrew went willingly, lying back against the dusty wooden floor and wrapping his arms around Jesse’s shoulders, returning his kisses eagerly.
Something at the back of his mind was reminding him that they didn’t do this, but he couldn’t see why not. Jesse was such a good kisser and he was touching Andrew’s shoulders carefully, stroking his hands down Andrew’s arms like Andrew was something important.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, touching Jesse’s sides, cupping his hips and pulling him closer. “Kiss me?”
“I am,” Jesse said, laughing against Andrew’s chin. “Oh god, I shouldn’t be, but I am.”
“Of course you should be,” Andrew argued and then Jesse was licking into Andrew’s mouth, pressing his tongue against the roof of Andrew’s mouth and Andrew just held on, kissing back until he was breathless.
Somehow, amidst all the kissing, Andrew kept pulling on Jesse’s hips and Jesse let him, and then Jesse was kneeling between Andrew’s thighs. It felt really good, so Andrew automatically spread his legs wider, giving Jesse room.
“Do you want to stop?” Jesse asked, kissing Andrew’s jaw, his chin, his throat. “How drunk are you?”
“Don’t stop,” Andrew begged. He could stay like this forever; he felt loose and warm, relaxed and wanted – Andrew loved being wanted.
Jesse pressed closer and Andrew groaned, shifting back until he felt the head of Jesse’s cock slide between his legs. Andrew’s breath caught and Jesse swore, sliding shaking hands up the back of Andrew’s thighs.
“Fuck,” Jesse hissed into Andrew’s mouth, “We don’t have anything, why don’t we have anything we can use?”
Andrew’s skin flushed hot at the idea of Jesse inside him. He wanted it so much, he could hardly breathe. “That’s all right,” he promised. “Spit works too.” That was all they’d ever used in the army - it had hurt for days but Andrew could put up with that for Jesse.
“No,” Jesse said, “No that won’t do at all. I’m too drunk to be that careful and I’d have to kill myself it I hurt you.”
That was a really nice thing to say, but it didn’t get Andrew fucked. “But I want you to,” he pouted, pushing up again, spreading his legs like that would be all it’d take to change Jesse’s mind. Andrew felt sort of wanton and he didn’t mind that at all.
“Not as much as I want to,” Jesse told him, sounding like he meant it. He reached down and curled his hand around Andrew’s erection. “Let me try something?”
Andrew nodded quickly. “Anything.” He started to change his mind about then when Jesse pulled out of his arms. It was colder in the room without Jesse pressed against him but then Jesse started sliding down Andrew’s body and Andrew forgot about that.
He hoped for Jesse’s mouth on his cock again, because that had felt amazing last time, and Jesse did kiss him there once, twice, slowly, but then he kept moving down until he was kissing past Andrew’s balls and his mouth was… He was…
Andrew made a sharp, embarrassing noise and scrambled his feet against the floor, torn between scrambling away and pushing back for more of Jesse’s soft tongue and gently probing fingers.
“Jesse,” he moaned, helpless and scandalised and incredibly aroused. “People don’t do that.”
Jesse didn’t say anything, just reached up and started to stroke Andrew’s cock and then there was nothing Andrew could do but surrender to how amazing he felt.
It felt as if it went on forever but at the same time, it was no time at all until Andrew couldn’t hold out any longer.
“Jesse,” he gasped, “Jesse, Jesse.” Jesse squeezed Andrew’s hand and Andrew clung to him, shaking and moaning through his orgasm.
Jesse smile was something very close to smug when he crawled back up Andrew’s body. “How was that?”
“Amazing,” Andrew assured him, eyes falling shut. He felt tired and dizzy and too warm and really, really good. “Are you going to fuck me now?”
“I was thinking about it,” Jesse told him, pressing close. “Can I?”
“Mmm,” Andrew agreed lazily. “Please.”
“Sure?” Jesse asked. He was kissing Andrew’s neck like he had to be kissing him somewhere; Andrew smiled stupidly up at the ceiling.
“Please,” Andrew said, probably again, possibly for the millionth time. He felt like he might have been begging for a while and then he wasn’t begging, he was groaning, because Jesse was finally, finally inside him.
They both sort of froze, just little twitches of Jesse’s hips and answering ones from Andrew’s.
“All right?” Jesse asked, leaning his weight on one elbow and pushing Andrew’s hair out of his face. He was studying Andrew’s face like he was looking for something, but Andrew couldn’t tell what.
“Come on,” Andrew said softly and Jesse did.
“I didn’t do that with Justin,” he said, “I wouldn’t have done that with anyone el… I mean. I didn’t do it with Justin.”
“Sorry,” Andrew said, not sure why Jesse was annoyed. “I just assumed.” He kissed Jesse’s cheek slowly and carefully until Jesse relaxed back onto his elbows. “Because you were really good at it.”
Jesse looked away, distracting himself with tucking the blankets around Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew put his head on Jesse’s chest, curling up against him. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” Jesse said eventually. “That’s all.”
Andrew kissed the nearest patch of skin. “Mm, lucky me then.”
Jesse hesitated for so long that Andrew wondered if Jesse was going to ask him to stop draping himself all over him, but eventually, Jesse’s arm wrapped around him, holding him tightly. “You know we can’t really sleep here, don’t you? Hallie and Aunt Susan would have a fit if we didn’t come home.”
Andrew yawned. He was far too tired to ride right now. “Can we nap first?” he asked. “Please?”
He felt something that might have been a kiss against the top of his head but was probably just a breeze or a spider or something. Hopefully not a spider. “Yes,” Jesse sighed. “But when people shout at us, I’m blaming you.”
“That’s okay,” Andrew mumbled, kissing Jesse’s chest again. He liked kissing Jesse’s chest; he liked kissing Jesse. “I’ll always defend you.”
“Shh,” Jesse whispered. “You should stop talking now. If you don’t stop talking soon, I’m going to start believing you mean it.”
“I do – ” mean it, Andrew tried to say, but his words got lost in a yawn.
“Shh,” Jesse repeated, “just go to sleep,” and Andrew did.
They got dressed slowly, wincing at the chill of half-damp clothes against their skin. There was a dull ache throbbing in Andrew’s temples, the beginnings of a hangover, but he couldn’t stop shooting Jesse smiles every time their eyes met.
“Stop that,” Jesse scolded, buttoning his coat and hiding all his lovely skin from Andrew.
“Why?” Andrew asked, reaching over and tying Jesse’s necktie for him.
Jesse tipped his chin all the way up as though he didn’t want Andrew to touch the slightly stubbly skin along his jaw.
“Because you look demented,” Jesse said, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“I do not,” Andrew told him cheerfully. He smoothed Jesse’s tie down and leant in, kissing Jesse quickly. “There.”
Jesse jumped backwards as though Andrew had scalded him rather than kissed him. “What are you doing?” he squeaked.
He looked so horrified that Andrew thought about being disheartened but instead he pasted on a smile and ploughed on. “I think we should keep doing this,” he said, ignoring the nervous flutter in his stomach.
“Doing what?” Jesse asked, voice still higher than it should have been.
“Kissing?” Andrew said. “And, um, the other things?” This had seemed like a good idea while he was dozing in Jesse’s arms but now, with Jesse looking at him like he’d lost his mind, he was starting to feel a few doubts niggle at him. “I just thought… We are married and it was, it was good, wasn’t it?”
Jesse stared at him, eyes growing wide. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I, um. I don’t think that would be a very good idea at all.”
“All right,” Andrew said, disappointed and suddenly much less forgiving of his headache. “All right then, let’s go.” He wrapped the blanket around a couple of times in his hands and then stuffed it back into the basket. “Ready?”
“I, um, yes.” Jesse said, biting his lip. He looked torn and Andrew thought for a moment that Jesse might change his mind but he didn’t and they rode back to the Priory in horribly awkward silence.
“Because there are so many bandits on Epsom Downs, Hallie Kate,” Jesse said, holding her at arm’s distance. “And don’t hug me right now, I’m all wet.”
“What did you do?” Hallie asked. She turned and glared at Andrew, putting her hands on her hips. “Did you push him in the lake again? Because that’s not allowed, I’m trusting him to you.”
“What?” Andrew asked, holding up his hands automatically because a glaring Hallie was a scary thing to be faced with. “No, it rained. And, what, what do you mean again?”
“Nothing,” Jesse said pointedly, “She’s babbling because it’s long past her bedtime.”
Hallie looked at him for a long time but finally she rolled her eyes and huffed, “And whose fault is that? I was so worried.”
Andrew leant in and kissed her cheek. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he said.
Hallie glared for a couple more seconds then gave up and smiled. “All right,” she said, leaning in and patting his shoulder, then making a face when his coat squelched under her hand.
“I’m going to go get out of these clothes,” Jesse announced. “Good night, Hallie.” He flicked his eyes up to Andrew and Andrew was fairly certain he saw him start to blush. “Andrew.”
“That’s, that’s a good idea,” Andrew agreed, because it was. “See you in the morning, Hallie.”
Hallie watched them walk up the stairs, frowning at them both from the bottom. “You’re acting strangely,” she called after them. “I’ll find out why, you know.”
“You really, really won’t,” Jesse muttered under his breath and Andrew swallowed down a laugh.
“Sirs,” Ford said from the shadows at the top of the stairs. Andrew tried not to yelp and felt Jesse startle next to him. Ordinarily, he would have squeezed Jesse’s hand reassuringly, but he wasn’t sure if Jesse would welcome that right now, not with where they’d left things.
“Hello, Ford,” Andrew said, reaching the top of the stairs and leaning against the banisters with what was hopefully a no, you didn’t scare the hell out of me air.
“I’ve had the housemaids draw a bath for you, sir,” Ford said with a nod. “Will you be requiring anything else tonight?”
Andrew would have loved someone to help him out of his horrible wet clothes but it was really late and he felt too guilty to keep Ford up any longer. “No, no, that’s fine,” he started to say but Jesse cleared his throat pointedly.
“Help his Lordship undress for his bath, please, Ford, then you’re welcome to go to bed,” Jesse said and Andrew had to stop himself gaping at him. He was always so impressed by people who knew how to ask the staff for inconvenient things.
“Of course, sir,” Ford said and there was a note of respect in his voice that told Andrew that he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Andrew tried to shoot Jesse a grateful smile but Jesse was looking past him rather than at him. “Jesse, you should take the first bath,” he said, trying to get Jesse to look at him.
Jesse opened his mouth, presumably to argue then closed it again. “Thank you,” he said, far too politely for Andrew’s tastes and turned toward the room that Mama had had converted to a bathroom after she’d had the flushing water closet installed.
Andrew winced as soon the bathroom door shut behind Jesse. Being married was harder than he’d expected.
“My Lord?” Ford asked, clearing his throat. “Shall we?”
“Yes, please,” Andrew sighed and followed him toward Andrew’s bedroom.
After Ford had peeled Andrew out of his clothes, making a pointedly blank face at the state of them, Andrew wrapped himself in his favourite silk dressing gown and made his way to the bathroom.
“Jesse?” he called, knocking softly before opening the door.
Jesse made a disapproving noise and sat up quickly in a swoosh of water. He was pink all the way down his chest from the hot water, but Andrew only got to see that for a second before Jesse pulled his knees up, wrapping his arms around them.
“Andrew,” Jesse scolded. “I’m naked. Haven’t you seen enough of me naked today?”
“No?” Andrew said, honestly confused and wondering if that was a trick question. “I don’t think that’s possible.” He hovered uncertainly in the doorway. “But I could go? I just thought it might be nice to, to talk? I mean, well, not to talk in an ominous way just… Are things awkward between us now? I’d really like for things not to be awkward.”
“No, um. No, of course. I didn’t mean to, I mean…” Jesse snorted, pressing his face into his drawn-up knees for a moment. “Of course, how could anything ever be awkward between us when we’re both so articulate?”
Andrew laughed, coming to sit beside the bath. The floor was cold through his dressing gown but the combined warmth given off by Jesse and Jesse’s bath made it bearable.
“What was Hallie talking about?” Andrew asked, propping his chin on the edge of Jesse’s bath and beaming when Jesse sighed but lay back in the water. “When did I push you in the lake?”
“Hallie was lying,” Jesse said quickly. “She does that a lot, terrible girl, we should talk about sending her to Bedlam immediately.”
“Jesse,” Andrew pouted. “Tell me?”
“God,” Jesse groaned and covered his face with his wet hands, “I can’t believe she mentioned it. I’ve threatened her with dismemberment if she ever mentioned it. Do you think I might not be properly scary?”
“I think you’re terrifying,” Andrew lied helpfully. He reached over the edge of the bath and poked the nearest part of Jesse’s body that he could find without looking, which turned out to be Jesse’s elbow.
“Fine,” Jesse groaned. “It was ten years ago, just after we moved here so I’m not surprised you don’t remember. Your friend Sir Robert Pattinson was here and you invited me to spend the afternoon with you so but Sir Robert made up this game that involved climbing the trees by the lake and swinging across the water.”
Andrew nodded. Rob had always enjoyed making up games like that, the more likely to get them killed the better. It was probably a bit alarming that he’d headed into foreign policy after Oxford, really.
“I don’t know why I went along with it,” Jesse continued. “I guess it was because I was new and I wanted you to like me. But, anyway, I ended up falling in and you, um. You laughed.”
“I didn’t?” Andrew demanded appalled, not because he didn’t believe Jesse but because he couldn’t believe that thirteen-year-old him would have done such a thing.
Jesse shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t ever have mentioned it if Hallie hadn’t and I’m not even sure why I told you. I must still be drunk; I should have made something up.” He sat up, water sluicing down his chest. “Hand me a towel, please?”
Andrew did, mind still reeling. “I don’t remember that at all,” he said, not even tempted to watch as Jesse got out of the bath and wrapped the towel around his waist. “Jesse, I’m so sorry.”
Jesse stopped in front of him. “Andrew,” he said firmly. Andrew looked up, realising that he was essentially on his knees in front of Jesse but not getting up because he liked it there. “It’s all right. I was kind of upset about it when I was twelve, but I’m over it now. If it helps, I don’t think you were trying to be cruel, I think you just thought it was funny and you didn’t realise I couldn’t swim.”
“Oh my god,” Andrew said faintly, scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Can I go back in time and punch myself in the face?” Clearly this was the reason why they hadn’t been friends before; of course Jesse hadn’t liked him after that.
“I don’t think so,” Jesse told him apologetically. He paused for a moment then reached down and untangled Andrew’s hands from his hair. “Stand up for me?” he asked, gripping Andrew’s fingers.
Confused and wondering if maybe Jesse was going to punch him in the face instead, Andrew did. Jesse didn’t punch him. In fact, Jesse leant in and kissed him carefully, like this was the first time they’d done it.
“Oh,” Andrew said, strangely breathless. “What was that for?”
“Getting upset even though it happened a decade ago,” Jesse told him with a small smile. He pushed lightly on Andrew’s shoulder. “Go on, have your bath before the water gets too cold.”
Andrew nodded, still a bit dazed from the kissing and everything. He dropped his dressing gown before he remembered that Jesse didn’t want them seeing each other naked anymore, but Jesse didn’t immediately go into vapours or anything, so he assumed it was all right now.
Jesse watched Andrew climb into the bath and then blushed suddenly and turned away. “I’ll leave you to it,” he muttered and got all the way to the door before stopping and turning back. “Andrew, um. What you… what you said before? About – ” He waved a hand between the two of them and looked down. “Maybe it wasn’t the worst idea.”
“Really?” Andrew had just sunk down into the water and he nearly drowned himself trying to sit up and look at Jesse incredulously.
Jesse shrugged. “It’s a sensible solution. We’re clearly – ” He coughed. “Compatible.”
Andrew smiled slowly. “Clearly,” he agreed. “I was thinking that perhaps you could move your things into the bedroom next to mine? Only if you want to, of course, but most married couples have adjoining bedrooms and, and that way if you, if you ever want – ” He couldn’t say it. “Well, it would be nice to be nearer each other, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” Jesse agreed solemnly. He smiled suddenly, unexpected and breath-taking. “Particularly if we want to stop Hallie sticking her nose in.”
“Oh god,” Andrew laughed, “Can you imagine? She’d either be horrified and slap me in defence of your virtue or she’d think we were a love match after all and go into raptures.”
Jesse didn’t smile. There was something really intense in his eyes, but all he said was, “Yes, imagine.” He put one hand on the door and added, without turning around, “Come to my room after your bath if you want?”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, raising his voice since Jesse had stepped into the hall without waiting for his answer. “I’ll be there.”
He sank down into the water after Jesse was gone, humming to himself and dunking his head to wash his hair. Maybe being married wasn’t all that complicated after all; weirdly and against all the odds, he and Jesse seemed to be getting fairly good at it.
In previous years, Andrew had always waited until April to move to London for the Season, but this year there was a lot more to do so he and Jesse and Hallie packed up and relocated before January was even over.
The London townhouse felt strange and small after so many months in the country, but Andrew had always liked it here and it had the added bonus of not reminding him too much of Ben or his father, who had both always preferred the Priory.
“Oh, I love it,” Hallie said, running down the stairs again after her second tour of the house. Jesse was overseeing something to do with… something in the pantry; Andrew wasn’t sure what, but he hoped it would lead to food, and Andrew was engaged in the very important task of sending out his calling card to every friend he had in London.
He just hoped that a few of them remembered him – it had been a while and none of them had come to the wedding.
“You’ve been here before,” Andrew told her, signing his name at the bottom of a note to Robert Sheehan. Robert, at least, could always be relied on to be in Town, since he claimed that the countryside gave him rashes. (Andrew privately suspected that that was more to do with who he liked to screw in the cornfields than with the cornfields themselves.)
“But not for a million years.” She flopped down onto the settee next to Andrew and put her head close to his. “Jesse’s panicking,” she whispered.
“What?” Andrew asked, putting down his letters to frown at her. “Why?”
“Because of the Queen,” she told him, like that should have been obvious. “Being presented at Court is rather a big deal, Andrew.”
“Oh.” Andrew had known that Jesse was a little nervous about that but then Andrew was a little nervous about that; he hadn’t realised he was really worried. “Aren’t you?”
“No, of course not,” Hallie scoffed, carefully concentrating on smoothing down her skirts in a way that told Andrew that she definitely was.
He bumped their shoulders together. “Well, that’s good, you and I will just have to keep an eye on Jesse, then.”
“Keep an eye on me where?” Jesse’s voice asked from behind the settee and Andrew dropped his head back against the cushions to smile at him from upside-down.
“In London, of course,” he said. “No one here will ever have seen curls as lovely as yours – and Hallie Kate’s of course – and they may try to steal you away from me.”
Jesse didn’t quite blush, which was a shame since Andrew loved making him blush, but he did roll his eyes in something that looked like embarrassed annoyance.
“Stop that,” he muttered, which was what he always said, so Andrew didn’t think he meant it, and he flicked the top of Andrew’s head. “Come on, I need to borrow you.”
“Ooh,” Hallie said but they both ignored her.
Andrew hopped up and walked around to Jesse. “Here I am,” he said, subtly puffing out his chest a little. “Borrow me.”
Jesse’s mouth twitched like he was trying not to smile. “Come on then,” he said and led the way up the stairs. Andrew followed him eagerly. He didn’t really think that Jesse was whisking him away for an afternoon of sex, but a boy could hope.
They’d decided to use the main bedrooms on the second floor of the house, which was a little strange for Andrew as those had always been his parents’ rooms, but there was nothing but a dressing room between them, which they’d decided to share, so it did have some benefits.
When Jesse led him into the bedroom that they’d chosen to be Andrew’s, Andrew started to get really hopeful. Then he took in the man standing by the bed, carefully folding Andrew’s clothes, and blinked.
“Oh,” Andrew said. “Hello.”
The man flashed Andrew a grin and deftly shook out Andrew’s favourite tailcoat. He had a wide smile and the most amazingly red hair Andrew had ever seen but that didn’t really explain why he was in Andrew’s bedroom, touching Andrew’s clothes.
“This is Mr Joseph Mazzello,” Jesse said, nudging Andrew gently in a way that said behave. Andrew was fully willing to behave; he’d just like an explanation. And maybe the room to themselves. “He’s your new valet.”
“My new valet?” Andrew echoed. Then he worried that that had been sort of rude and hurried forward, holding out a hand. “Pleasure and all that, Mr Mazzello,” he said hurriedly.
Mazzello tipped his head slightly like he was surprised by the offer of a handshake – which he probably was, Andrew realised; Andrew never got these things right. Then he grinned at Andrew again and shook hands enthusiastically.
“It’s Joe, your Lordship,” he said, “and I hope you don’t mind all this.” He waved a hand at Andrew’s molested wardrobe. “Mr Eisenberg said you were interested in fashion but I wanted to check for myself that there was nothing here likely to make me go blind.”
Andrew laughed and heard Jesse try to stop himself doing the same. “That seems perfectly reasonable,” he agreed, because it did. “Have I actually hired you then?”
“I’m afraid so, sir,” Joe said and went back to considering Andrew’s coat.
“I like that one,” Jesse said quietly when it looked like Joe might not be going to approve it. Andrew immediately made meaningful eyes at Joe who nodded in acknowledgement and put the coat back.
“All right, we’ll leave you to it,” Jesse said and tugged on Andrew’s sleeve.
Still sort of confused, Andrew followed him. When Jesse looked like he might be heading back into the corridor though, Andrew steered him toward the dressing room instead and then into Jesse’s bedroom.
“Sorry,” Jesse said quickly, before Andrew could speak. “I know you probably wanted to have some involvement in the process, but I’ve been asking you for months if you wanted a new valet and you’ve been dodging the question so. I, um. Well, I thought coming to Town would be a good time to unexpectedly spring one on you?”
Andrew reached out and smoothed down Jesse’s lapels. “Why are you apologising like you think I’m cross with you?” he asked. “You bought me a valet who actually looks like he might talk to me. You’re fantastic.”
“Oh,” Jesse said, letting out a slow breath. “Oh, that’s good. But I didn’t actually buy him for you; he’s a person not a gift.”
Andrew laughed, sliding his hands down Jesse’s arms and linking their fingers together because he was allowed to do things like that without Jesse shaking him off. Most of the time, anyway. “I know,” he promised. “I only said that to see if I could make you put on your cross voice.” He squeezed Jesse’s fingers. “I really like your cross voice.”
Jesse squirmed a little, fingers loosening. “You really don’t… I mean, it’s. It’s been three months, Andrew.”
“Yes?” Andrew agreed, confused. They definitely had been married for three months and Andrew was enjoying it much more than he’d expected to. “Why, are you growing bored of me?”
He tried to sound like he was teasing, but that suddenly seemed quite possible; Andrew was the one to lavish all possible compliments on Jesse and Jesse never initiated any of the contact between them.
Jesse rolled his eyes, which was reassuring. “Never mind,” he sighed. His thumb was pressing against the centre of Andrew’s palm, which was probably only arousing because everything was more arousing if Jesse did it. “What do you want to do now we’re in London?”
Andrew leant in, nudging his nose against Jesse’s cheek. “Well,” he said slowly.
Jesse shivered, but stepped back. “I was thinking more you might want to go outside the house?” he said a little breathlessly.
Andrew opened his mouth to make a suggestive comment then thought better of it. They’d had a lot of sex over the past three months, but talking about it was still enough to get one or both of them flustered.
“I don’t mind staying in,” he offered. “You and Hallie don’t really know the area.”
Jesse waved him off, having to pull one of his hands free to do so which Andrew reluctantly allowed. “Don’t be stupid. I know you have friends in Town and I’ve kept you in Surrey for months, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to have a day away from me.”
“Jesse,” Andrew said, putting his hand over Jesse’s mouth. “If you say things like that, I’m going to follow you around forever and refuse to move more than a handspan away from you.”
Jesse finally gave in and laughed, pushing Andrew away gently. “Go away,” he said. “Go visit your club or something and leave me to hire lots more staff who you’ll charm and completely fail to treat like staff.”
“Probably,” Andrew agreed cheerfully, moving in for a kiss which Jesse tipped his chin up to meet despite all his attempts to make Andrew leave. Andrew broke away after a moment – or two – because kissing Jesse tended to lead to other things and Hallie was downstairs and Joe was next door. “I’ll see you later. Have a good day.”
“You too,” Jesse said and Andrew thought for a second that he sounded sad but, when he checked, Jesse was busying himself looking for something on the bookshelf so he decided he must have imagined it.
“That’s a shame,” Andrew said, shifting in his seat and hoping he wasn’t telegraphing too loudly how desperately he wanted to get out of there. “Is he at the club?”
Lady Lynne shrugged delicately. “I wouldn’t be surprised wherever Matthew turns out to be,” she said, which surprised Andrew since Matt’s mother was normally his biggest supporter.
“Is something wrong?” Andrew asked, worried. Maybe he should have written to Matt as soon as he got back to England, but he had had a few other things on his mind. “Is Matt all right?”
Lady Lynne took a deep breath, eyes straying to the door like someone might be listening. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she murmured, “but you’ve always been Matt’s closest friend; perhaps you can talk some sense into him.” She pulled a sheaf of paper close and quickly scribbled something across it. “Here, this is the address where Matthew is staying.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said, taking the paper automatically and slipping it into his pocket. “Should I…” He didn’t know how to ask if Matt was most likely to need a doctor, a chequebook or a priest.
Lady Lynne shook her head. “Apparently he has all he needs. Tell him… Tell him I miss him, please?”
“Of course,” Andrew promised, mind reeling with possibilities. He felt awful, worrying about what sort of misery could have befallen Matt while Andrew was off pretending to be the Earl of Epsom.
The address that Lady Lynne had given him was around Haymarket, touching the theatre district, which could mean anything, and the house which Andrew’s carriage pulled up outside looked perfectly pleasant, if a little scuffed around the paintwork.
Andrew checked the address with his driver but they were definitely in the right place so he bounded up the steps with a little bit less trepidation – it certainly didn’t look like a den of iniquity. Still, he made sure that he was gripping his cane handle in just the right way to swing before he knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a tall girl wearing a pretty blue dress with a shawl flung clumsily around her shoulders and Andrew let go of his cane feeling foolish.
“Oh,” he said, blinking. “Hello.”
The girl regarded him levelly. “Hello,” she agreed. She had an accent; Scottish, Andrew thought. She didn’t sound surprised to see him, and Andrew wondered briefly if she was used to having gentlemen callers. Then he felt horrible about thinking such a thing and mentally took it back.
“I’m looking for the Honourable Matthew Smith,” Andrew asked, pulling off his hat and bowing to her a little since he was interrupting her in her home and all.
The girl shook her long, red hair back over her shoulders and straighten up. She was very tall, almost as tall as Andrew, probably Matt’s height and Andrew spent a second wondering if she could be Matt before deciding that the stress of the last few months had made him hysterical.
“Why?” she asked, folding her arms. “Does he owe you money?”
“No,” Andrew said immediately then, “Well, yes. But I’m not here to claim it back or anything. I just hoped to see him. I’m Lord – ” He still hated to say it. “My name’s Andrew Garfield; Matt will hopefully be pleased to see me.”
Unexpectedly, a smile flashed across the girl’s face. “Really?” she asked. “I thought you were off fighting the French somewhere.”
Andrew stared at her. “Not anymore,” he said, managing not to say who are you? or anything else rude or incredulous.
“Obviously,” the girl said, rolling her eyes. “I’m Karen.”
She stuck out her hand – sideways like she expected him to shake it as he would a man’s. Andrew took it awkwardly; she wasn’t wearing gloves like all the women Andrew knew, and her palms were rough against his. Rougher than his, embarrassingly.
“Come in,” she said, half-dragging him over the threshold. “Matt will be so happy to see you.”
Matt, Andrew noted, not Lord Matthew. So she definitely didn’t work for him.
“Matt!” Karen yelled up the stairs, making Andrew jump. There was a thump then a bump then a rustle.
“Oh, ow,” Matt’s voice floated down to them. “You made me drop my ink pot on my toe, wretched woman.”
Andrew grinned helpfully. “Don’t speak to a lady like that, Matthew,” he called, since apparently shouting was permissible in this house.
This time the crash was much louder, followed a moment later by Matt’s head – uncombed and upside-down and wonderfully familiar – appearing over the banister.
“Holy fuck,” he said and then disappeared again.
Andrew looked at Karen, intending to apologise for Matt’s language but she was laughing, shaking her head fondly. “You’d better go up,” she advised. “That was almost an invitation.”
Well, Andrew still had no idea why Matt was here, but at least ‘here’ seemed like a nice, hospitable place.
“Thank you,” he said, “Miss - ?”
“Mrs Darvill. But like I said, it’s Karen,” she told him firmly. She patted his arm with an easy familiarity. “Off you go, before he gets engrossed in another chapter and you and I have to make awkward small talk for the next hour.”
Andrew didn’t need telling twice; he’d seen Matt on a writing binge before. The stairs creaked a little under Andrew’s weight but they seemed sturdy enough. The wallpaper was a little faded, but neatly hung, and the rugs at the top of the stairs were plush when Andrew sank his shoes into them.
It was a nice house, Andrew thought, comfortable.
Matt was in the room at the end, standing up in front of a desk and frantically scribbling words into a notebook. He’d turned the page sideways, filling the margins as if getting the words onto the pages was too important to waste time turning to a fresh page.
“Two minutes,” he said before Andrew could even say anything. He held his spare hand up behind his back as though to ward off any inclination Andrew might have to interrupt him.
Smiling, Andrew took a seat on the edge of the double bed that was pressed into one corner. A pile of Matt’s clothes was folded on a chair at the end of the bed and Matt’s pocket watch and snuffbox sat on the corner of the writing desk, as familiar to Andrew as his own.
It looked as though Matt really was living here, Andrew thought, eyeing the bed curiously, and wondering if Karen slept here too; wondering what Mr Darvill thought about that if it were the case.
Andrew didn’t get any time to ponder on it further – not that it was really any of his business to ponder in the first place – because Matt dropped his quill with a loud and satisfied, “Aha!” sound and turned around.
“Andrew Garfield,” he said, smile wild and wide enough to fill his face. “Stand up right now and give me a hug.”
Laughing, Andrew hopped to his feet, dragging Matt into a tight embrace before Matt could do the same to him. Matt smelt like ink and paper and long nights – and also a lot like lavender, for reasons Andrew couldn’t place. He was running his hands over Andrew’s back, down to his hips and then up his sides. Andrew squirmed, gusting out another laugh into Matt’s neck.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Checking you aren’t shot anywhere,” Matt told him simply. He stepped back, fingers warm and accusing over Andrew’s hip. “And you are.”
“Well, yes,” Andrew said, shrugging helplessly. “But I told you that. It was almost a year ago; I’m fine now.”
Matt blinked. “Was it really?” he asked, distracted. He was pulling Andrew’s shirttails out of his britches, which would be awkward from anyone else but, from Matt, was really just expected behaviour. “Fascinating.”
He’d uncovered Andrew’s ugly mess of a bullet scar and was tracing his fingers around the edge, murmuring words like warm and pale and smooth. Andrew blushed uncomfortably; Matt had been like this the one time Andrew had come back from Christmas break with a broken wrist and foolishly let Matt investigate it.
“Ouch,” Andrew said mildly even though it barely hurt anymore. It felt strange to have anyone touch his scar; Jesse usually avoided it.
“Oh hush,” Matt scolded. “This is research. I’ll credit you in my novel, if you’d like.”
“Please don’t,” Andrew begged, imagining how it would look to see with thanks to Captain Garfield for being stupid enough to get shot at Albuera forever in print.
Before Matt could reply – or stop poking at Andrew, and why had Andrew missed him, again? – Andrew heard the quiet chinking noise of china rattling together, and then Karen hip-checked the door open, a loaded tea tray in her hands.
She stopped, taking in their relative positions – Andrew half dressed and Matt crouched in front of him – and raised both eyebrows. “Would you prefer to be alone?” she asked dryly.
Andrew flushed hot, hurriedly retucking his shirt. “One day you will be the death of me,” he told Matt crossly.
Matt just smiled, rolling lazily to his feet. “You adore me,” he said confidently. “Why else would you have tracked me down to this hovel?”
“Excuse me?” Karen asked archly and Matt almost poked his own eye out, waving his hand like he was trying to waft the words away.
“Figure of speech,” he said. “You know how I get: all word-ish and inconsiderate.”
Karen sighed. “Sit down and drink your tea,” she told him, taking a seat on the bed herself and patting it until Andrew sat beside her. “Don’t mind Matt,” she said as though Matt couldn’t hear her. “He’s found someone who’s prepared to publish his novel.” She winked. “Now he just needs to finish it.”
“Really?” Andrew asked. “That’s fantastic, Matt, congratulations.”
Matt bobbed his head. “Had to happen eventually, considering how many of the blasted things I keep churning out,” he said into his tea but the side of the teacup couldn’t hide his smile.
Andrew smiled, knocking their knees together. He wasn’t quite sure why Lady Lynne was so worried; Matt seemed to be doing fine. Which reminded him. “Your mother asked me say hello,” he said, cautiously because he’d never known the Smiths to be on the outs before and wasn’t sure how to approach it. “And to say that she misses you.”
Karen stiffened beside him. Matt didn’t move at all. “Does she really?” he asked eventually then stirred some sugar into his tea. “This is lovely, Karen. Almondy.”
Karen rolled her eyes, relaxing. “No, there’s no arsenic in your tea,” she said, sounding as though she’d said that many times before. “He’s writing a murder mystery,” she told Andrew. “It makes him paranoid.”
“Of course,” Andrew agreed and didn’t press for details. He cast around for a change of topic. One presented itself rather readily. “Um.” It was hard to say this casually; maybe this wasn’t the best change in topic possible. “We missed you at the wedding.”
There was a clatter as Matt dropped his spoon into his teacup. Weak tea splashed his hand but he didn’t seem to notice.
“What wedding?” he demanded. “Andrew, what on earth have you done?”
“I sent you an invitation!” Andrew protested, slightly crosser than he meant to sound because he was still rather hurt that Matt hadn’t come.
Matt shook his head. “My parents aren’t exactly forwarding my post to me these days,” he said apologetically.
“Huh,” Andrew said, thinking. “Well, that would explain why you weren’t there.” He laughed, suddenly, because of course Matt hadn’t got his invitation; Andrew wasn’t sure why he’d expected any different.
Matt was still staring at him. “But who?” he asked. “Not Carey, surely? She would have scoured every house in London to make sure I didn’t let you down. Which, by the way, terribly sorry about that, old chap.”
Andrew waved him off, even though it would have been easier to get through the service with Matt at his side. “No, um. No, not Carey.” Surprisingly, it hardly hurt to admit that anymore. “Jesse, actually. Jesse Eisenberg.” He curled his fingers nervously into fists. Every time he told someone new, there was always the chance that they might be appalled that he’d married a man, and even though Andrew knew Matt didn’t care about things like that, he still felt anxious.
“What?” Matt laughed, “The orphan in the library?” When Andrew flinched, he sobered immediately. “Wait, I’m sorry, you’re serious?”
“Congratulations?” Karen asked, looking between them curiously. “You should bring your wife for dinner soon.”
“Husband,” Matt murmured.
Karen didn’t pause. “Oh, definitely bring him. My husband would love to meet you, Matt talks about you all the time and – ” She stopped, cutting herself off when the shrill sound of a baby crying filled the air. “Damn. I think someone’s feeling neglected.” She smiled at Andrew. “Come and say goodbye before you leave.”
“I will,” Andrew promised, managing to hold his answering smile until she left before rounding on Matt. “A baby?”
Matt frowned inquisitively like he couldn’t work out what Andrew was implying. “She is a married woman. Sometimes they produce tiny humans.”
“And this husband is… where exactly?” Andrew didn’t care if Matt and Karen were carrying on, but he did care if Matt was likely to be challenged to a duel; he’d more than likely get distracted by a daisy at a crucial moment, even with Andrew there to load his pistols for him.
“Work, I should imagine.” Matt glanced at the clock on the windowsill. “Yes, work. He’ll be home in five hours. I don’t suppose you can stay that long? He really is a delightful chap.”
“Um.” Andrew really wanted to; he was incredibly curious about all this. “I can’t. I shouldn’t leave Jesse alone all day.”
“Yes,” Matt said, snapping his fingers. “That. Why on earth have you married Jesse? Was there an understanding? It was my understanding that there was no understanding other than the understanding of an understanding between you and Carey.”
“Stop saying understanding,” Andrew pleaded.
“But I like the way it rolls off my tongue.” Matt smirked. “It’s very under… stated.”
Andrew made a face at him at him because sometimes that was necessary, even when one was three-and-twenty and the Lord of a (terrifyingly) large estate.
He glanced at the doorway to check that they weren’t going to be overheard then leant in close to Matt. “The estate was on the brink of ruin,” he confessed. “Jesse offered me a way out.”
Matt’s eyebrows rose slowly. “If you needed money, dearest, you should have written. My parents might be cross with me, but they’d always have been willing to lend a little – ”
Andrew laughed. “It would have taken much more than that,” he confessed. “But thank you.” He shrugged. “And, anyway, it’s not… it’s really not bad at all.”
Matt leant forward, reaching up and poking Andrew’s cheeks until Andrew batted him away. “You’re blushing,” Matt decreed incredulously. “Andrew. Andrew, Andrew, Andrew.”
“What?” Andrew focused on pouring them both some more tea rather than looking at Matt.
Matt threw a sugar cube at him. “Might there be a little sparkle in your eye for the mysterious Mr Eisenberg?”
Andrew felt unexpectedly hot all over then shook his head quickly. “We’ve become friends,” he said, putting down his teacup with a little clatter. “It’s nice. That’s all.”
“Hmm,” Matt said, but he was kind enough not to pursue the topic further.
He hadn’t been terribly good at it, so he was more than a little relieved that he and Jesse weren’t going to adding to their family any time soon.
(Although that did raise the question of an heir, a question that Andrew decided they would worry about far into the future.)
It was obvious as soon as he got home that they had a visitor. There was an unfamiliar cloak hanging in the hall and he could hear laughter trailing all the way down the stairs.
“A Mrs Emma Timberlake,” Joe whispered while he was taking Andrew’s coat from him. “Young, American, very pretty.”
Hmm, Andrew thought. He didn’t recognise the name but, if Jesse was anything to go by, he did like Americans. “Very good,” he said because Jesse and Hallie were allowed to have their own visitors, of course they were. “Can you arrange for some tea to be brought up?”
“Already done,” Joe promised him easily and Andrew managed to keep the smile off his face until after he’d turned away, following the sounds of raucous conversation up to what used to be his mother’s parlour.
The first thing that caught his eye when he opened the door was how widely Jesse was smiling, laughter brightening his eyes and staining his cheeks pink. It was… diverting; Jesse hardly ever looked that way. At least not where Andrew could see.
“Andrew,” Hallie said, waving him into the room. She was sitting next to an incredibly pretty, blonde young woman who was clutching her hand and beaming at her like Hallie was the best thing on earth. Which she was, of course. One of them, anyway.
The girl got to her feet. “My Lord,” she said, holding out a hand.
“Mrs Timberlake,” Andrew surmised, taking her hand and bowing because that was the right thing to do and because it made it her smile brightly.
“Emma.” She curtsied deeply, not the casual little bob that he was used to, smiling up at him the whole time. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. “I’ve been hearing all about you.”
Jesse coughed, settling back into his seat while Emma led Andrew around to sit with them. “We knew Emma back in New York,” he told Andrew. “Our parents were friends.”
Emma clapped her hands together happily. “I was so excited when I realised that the Eisenbergs who everyone’s talking about were my Eisenbergs.” She reached out and squeezed Hallie’s hand again. “Hallie was so tiny the last time I saw her and now look at her; she’s such a grown-up lady.”
Hallie blushed and laughed, curling her hand around Emma’s. “I do remember you though,” she said shyly, which was a first since Andrew had never seen Hallie be shy a day in her life before.
“Wait. Everyone’s talking about us? Who’s everyone? What are they saying?” Jesse sound horrified. Andrew wanted to reach over and take his hand but Emma got there first.
“Everyone is dying to meet you,” she told him. “Your husband was apparently a very eligible bachelor until you ensnared him.” She turned and winked at Andrew.
Jesse blushed and, annoyingly, so did Andrew.
Emma laughed at them then gave Andrew an appraising look. “Yes,” she said, “I can see what they mean now.”
“Um,” Andrew said intelligently, then tried hard to think of something else to say. “What brings you to London?”
“I’ve always wanted to see England,” Emma told him, leaning forward like everything she had to say was a secret just for their little circle. “My late husband left me quite enough to set up over here, so I jumped at the chance.”
“I see,” Andrew agreed. He heard his voice go stiff and hated it but he still couldn’t easily talk about money matters, especially not in front of strangers.
Emma laughed. “Oh I’m sorry,” she said, patting his hand. “I forgot that the horribly rich don’t talk about how rich they are.”
Andrew smiled awkwardly, willing to let her assume that that was the problem rather than explain how all his riches came from her friends the Eisenbergs. “I’m sorry for your loss,” he managed belatedly.
Emma blinked at him. “Oh, my husband,” she said as though she’d forgotten. “Thank you.” She smiled slightly down at her lap. “We knew he was dying when I married him, you see, so it wasn’t such a shock.” She lent closer. “He was hoping for an heir but it turned out that the spirit might have been willing but his flesh was, well…” She trailed off with a saucy little smirtk.
Andrew blinked at her, scandalised for a whole fifteen seconds before he started to laugh helplessly.
“Emma!” Jesse scolded, with a pointed look at Hallie who was staring at her in unabashed adoration.
“I really don’t know what to say to that,” Andrew admitted, managing to swallow down his laughter.
“Oh dear,” Emma said brightly. “This is why society is still holding me at arm’s length, isn’t it?” She didn’t sound sad about that at all.
“You’re lucky,” Jesse muttered, wringing his hands together. “We’re being presented at court tomorrow and I think I’m probably going to die.”
“Oh please don’t die,” Andrew said automatically even though inside he was frowning – Jesse hadn’t admitted to him that he was nervous, yet he immediately told Emma.
“You’ll be fine,” Emma said bracingly. “The Queen didn’t go into vapours over me so I doubt you’ll do anything to traumatise her.”
“I might,” Jesse said. “I might accidentally insult her or forget how to bow or, hell, I might go into vapours.”
Emma slapped Jesse’s knee like they were old friends. Which they were, obviously, but it wasn’t as though they’d seen each other in the last ten years. “Well, you have to survive,” she told him. “I want you all to come to my ball next week.”
“All of us?” Hallie asked quickly, making Emma laugh.
“Yes,” she said, “all of you, assuming Jesse and Andrew say you may.”
“Jesse?” Hallie asked quickly, turning huge, pleading eyes on him.
“What about asking me?” Andrew protested, since he was, technically, her guardian.
Hallie flapped a hand at him. “Oh, all I have to do is look like I’m going to cry to make you say yes. Jesse? Please?”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “I suppose so,” he said, adding under Hallie’s whoop of delight, “but do I have to go?”
Andrew seized his chance to be the one to comfortingly squeeze Jesse’s hand this time. “We’ll all go together,” he promised, feeling ridiculously pleased when Jesse shot him a tiny, pleased smile.
Emma and Hallie were chatting happily about ball dresses – apparently they were planning to go shopping – and paying no attention to Jesse and Andrew.
“I’ve had the strangest day,” Andrew told Jesse quietly.
“Was your friend not at home?” Jesse asked.
“Oh he was,” Andrew said. “Just not his home.” At Jesse’s puzzled frown, Andrew shook his head. “I’ll explain later. But I think I agreed that we’d go for dinner in Haymarket some time.”
He expected Jesse to look horrified since he was quickly learning just how much Jesse hated socialising. Instead, Jesse lit up. “Can we go to the theatre?” he asked quickly then ducked his head. “I mean, um. I mean, if you don’t mind. Which you probably do.”
“I love the theatre,” Andrew told him eagerly, “The Blue Stocking is playing at the Lyceum, if you’re interested?”
“Definitely.” Jesse was smiling at him like Andrew was offering him an amazing treat. Andrew wasn’t sure why it hadn’t occurred to him before that Jesse would enjoy the theatre, since he read all the time. If only Andrew had paid a bit more attention, he could have organised a surprise.
They were still smiling at each other when something soft hit Andrew on the side of the head. “Ow,” he said, picking up the fallen cushion and glaring at Hallie.
“Have you finished planning your date yet?” she asked, blinking innocently when Andrew spluttered. “I’ve asked Emma to stay for dinner.”
“That’s a very sweet interpretation of events,” Emma faux-whispered. “I basically insisted on staying.”
“You’re very welcome,” Andrew assured her because anyone who made Hallie so cheerful and Jesse laugh so easily was always welcome in their house.
“It’ll be fine,” Andrew promised them, squeezing both their hands once they’d got out of the coach. “It won’t take more than two minutes and then we’ll go somewhere nice to eat.”
“Don’t talk about food,” Jesse complained. “The minute the butterflies in my stomach stop dancing, I’m going to be starving hungry.”
“Just as long as your stomach doesn’t rumble during the presentation,” said a fresh voice behind them and Andrew turned to see Carey’s mother standing on the pavement beside her own carriage.
“Lady Nano,” Hallie said happily, skittering over in her awkward heels to catch her hands. “Thank you so much for doing this.”
Lady Nano smiled down at her. “It’s a pleasure,” she said warmly. She looked up and caught Andrew watching her, nodding stiffly before turning her attention back to Hallie.
Jesse tucked his hand into the crook of Andrew’s arm, pulling him back a little. “She’ll come around soon,” he murmured. “She’s presenting Hallie, isn’t she?”
“Only because she promised before I scorned her daughter,” Andrew said sadly, then felt guilty. Lady Nano was doing them a very big favour presenting Hallie since Andrew’s mother was still in deep mourning and couldn’t do it. Andrew just wished that he had someone better than himself to offer Jesse.
“Come on,” Jesse said, leading Andrew forward. “And please feel free to keep pouting. It might distract me from my own terror.”
“I’m not pouting,” Andrew protested even though he probably was. He put his free hand over Jesse’s and squeezed it. “All right. Let’s go and meet the Queen.”
“Oh my god,” Jesse moaned but let Andrew escort him inside.
“No,” Jesse said firmly. “Never again.” He had finally stopped shaking but Andrew thought that was probably more because of the slug of whiskey he’d accepted from Lady Nano once it was all over than because he’d enjoyed himself at all.
“It wasn’t all that bad, was it?” Andrew asked, stirring sugar into his tea. They’d stopped off at a teahouse on the way home, and were currently trying to avoid getting cake crumbs on their fine clothes.
Lady Nano had declined to join them, which had put a tiny dent in Hallie’s bright smile and made Andrew feel like a heel.
“It was wonderful,” Hallie assured him then kicked Jesse under the table. “Wasn’t it, Jesse?”
“As wonderful as tooth decay,” Jesse agreed. “Slightly better than syphilis and about equal to a bout of scarlet fever.”
Hallie sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine,” she said. “You’re no fun at all.” She looked up when the door opened and brightened. “Oh, look, it’s Abigail!”
She raised her hand in a wave then frowned when Abigail Breslin and her parents swept straight past, heading for a table toward the back.
“Maybe she didn’t see me?” Hallie said uncertainly. She started to rise. “I’ll go – ”
“I wouldn’t,” Jesse said quickly. He shot a look at Andrew who made a face right back. The Breslins were old family friends and they definitely had seen the three of them sitting here – a cut like that had to have been deliberate.
He chanced a quick glance over his shoulder and saw that Abigail seemed to be arguing with her parents. Or trying to, since they were ignoring her, talking loudly about sandwiches and carefully not looking in Andrew’s direction.
“I don’t understand,” Hallie said, sounding upset. “What did I do?”
“Nothing!” Andrew promised at the same time that Jesse said, “It’s not you.”
Hallie looked between them. “But.” She looked over at the Breslins again. Mr Breslin was a Member of Parliament and Andrew didn’t remember him having supported any of the petitions to reverse the new marriage laws but apparently his private opinions were different. “Just because you’re both men?”
Andrew felt cold, the sticky cake he’d eaten settling sluggishly in his stomach. “We knew some people wouldn’t be happy about it,” he said, like he didn’t feel absolutely horrible about it.
“Maybe it’s not that,” Hallie said. She reached over and laced her fingers with Andrew’s. “Maybe they’re just having a bad day or – ”
“Hallie,” Jesse said quietly, nodding his head.
Abigail was approaching their table hesitantly. “Hello, Hallie,” she said, trying to keep her eyes down although they kept jumping up to Andrew. “Would you like to join us?” It was clear the invitation was just for Hallie.
Abigail looked awkward and miserable. Andrew remembered playing with her when she was a baby and he lost some of his own hurt to anger that her parents were putting her through this.
“Abi,” he said quietly. “It’s all right.”
She cut her eyes toward him without turning her head. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
Andrew shook his head. “Hallie, would you like to take tea with Abigail? We don’t mind.”
Hallie looked torn, biting her lip. “No, thank you,” she said, giving Abigail a disappointed look that Andrew didn’t think she really deserved.
“Thank you, Abigail,” Jesse said and she went away.
They sat in silence for a moment. Andrew felt like there was a knot in his chest. Abigail was probably Hallie’s best friend and he desperately wanted to apologise for putting her in a position where she had to choose.
“Well, that was traumatic,” Jesse said at last. “Who wants to go home?”
“Me, please,” Hallie said quickly. She sounded like she was trying not to cry and Andrew hated that her exciting day had been ruined.
They paid the bill quickly and Andrew couldn’t resist following the waiter when he went to get their cloaks, torturing himself by passing close to the Breslins’ table.
“Good afternoon,” he said brightly. They flinched. Andrew wasn’t normally a mean person but he couldn’t help feeling just a little bit satisfied at that.
Abigail shot him a tiny smile and he grinned back reassuring before collecting the cloaks and sweeping back to Jesse and Hallie.
Jesse was biting his lip around a smirk. “Feel better?” he asked, taking Hallie’s cloak from Andrew and helping her into it.
“I feel like I want to smack someone,” Andrew confided in a whisper. “It’s terrible.”
“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Jesse muttered, “People who act like that – ” But Hallie was twitching impatiently toward the door, so he cut himself off with a shake of his head.
The ride home was quiet. Andrew did his best to get Hallie talking about Court again, but the most she would do was concede that Princess Sophia was very pretty indeed and that the Queen had scared her a little.
As soon as they got home, she disappeared upstairs, leaving Andrew and Jesse looking helplessly at each other.
“Should we talk to her?” Andrew asked uncertainly.
Jesse shook his head, sinking down into the nearest armchair. “And say what?” he asked, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. He looked tired. “That sometimes even the nicest people are secretly judgemental bastards?”
“No! Maybe. I don’t know.” Andrew sat down on the arm of Jesse’s chair. “Mr Breslin and my father used to play cards,” he said. “I always thought he liked me.” It sounded childish when he said it like that but Jesse didn’t laugh at him.
“Mr Breslin and I discussed politics over dinner just last spring,” Jesse countered. He leant his head against Andrew’s arm, asking for affection in a way that he usually didn’t. Andrew willingly wrapped his arm around Jesse’s shoulders, pressing his face into the top of Jesse’s head.
“You make me feel better just by existing,” Andrew murmured.
For once, Jesse didn’t tell him not to be silly, just turned his head toward Andrew, his breath warm on Andrew’s throat.
“Shall we go to the theatre tonight?” Andrew asked quietly. “We should do something nice together to make ourselves feel better.”
“Oh.” Jesse sat up, twisting to look up at Andrew. Andrew missed the weight of him against his side. “I can’t tonight. I told Emma I’d go to the opera with her. I’m really sorry, I just thought you’d be bored with me since we’d be spending most of the day together.”
“You didn’t really think that, did you?” Andrew asked, appalled. “I couldn’t ever be bored with you.”
Jesse shrugged and didn’t answer the question. “Would you like me to cancel? I can if you want.”
“No,” Andrew said quickly, because that would be selfish and it was stupid to be disappointed that Jesse already had plans when Andrew had only thought to ask him out two minutes ago. “No, of course not. Which opera are you seeing?”
“Um, Così fan tutte,” Jesse said, almost questioningly like he was checking to see if Andrew thought that was a good enough excuse not to come to the theatre instead.
Andrew made himself smile widely. “Have a wonderful time,” he said sincerely, maybe a bit too sincerely since he did mean it and really wanted Jesse to believe that he meant it.
“Thank you,” Jesse said. He wrinkled his nose and tugged on Andrew’s arm. “We’re not done consoling each other yet,” he said pointedly.
“Oops, sorry,” Andrew said and slid down into the chair beside Jesse, squashed against his side. He put his arms around Jesse’s shoulders, smiling when Jesse leant their heads together. “Better?”
“Getting there,” Jesse agreed and they didn’t say anything else for a while.
Andrew took a simple supper. Then he gave the staff the rest of the night off, since there was no point them all being home to dance attendance just on him.
It turned out that that was fine in principle but the house was eerily quiet now he was the only one in it.
He tried taking a turn about the room the way his mother and her friends did at home, but felt like an idiot with no one but scowling pictures of long-dead relatives to watch him.
He picked up Jesse’s favourite novel from the table and dropped down onto the settee, intending to lose himself in a few hours of reading the way that Jesse could at the drop of a hat. He managed one chapter then had to bounce up and pace all the way around the room again. He couldn’t concentrate.
“Andrew Garfield,” he told himself sternly. “You’re being ridiculous.” He was sure that he used to be able to entertain himself quite adequately before Hallie and Jesse became such regular fixtures in his life.
Well, possibly that wasn’t true, but at least Andrew had always had his parents or Ben or Carey to go and bother when he got too bored of his own company.
Feeling sorry for himself and then cross with himself for that, he filled a glass with brandy and wound his way upstairs for an (embarrassingly) early night’s sleep.
There was singing coming from his bedroom. Alarmed, Andrew clutched his glass and his candle tighter and wondered if it were a ghost. Then the singing got louder and warblier and he decided that no, it probably wasn’t; no ghost would possibly sing that badly or that far out of tune.
Curious, Andrew pushed on the door and quietly stuck his head in. Joe was standing in front of the open doors of Andrew’s wardrobe, holding one of Andrew’s tailcoats in his arms and waltzing it back and forth to the almost-tune he was humming.
With nothing better to do, Andrew leant against the doorjamb, watching until Joe noticed him, stumbling to a stop and laughing blushingly.
“Sorry,” Joe said, making an exaggeratedly horrified face. “I…” He blinked. “No, there’s really no good explanation for this.”
Andrew waved him off, coming further into the room. “Does my coat make a satisfactory dance partner?” he asked.
“Not really,” Joe said slowly like he wasn’t sure if Andrew was just biding his time before dismissing him for being the sort of valet who danced with coats. Not that Andrew thought that sort of valet existed anywhere else.
“Yes, sorry,” Andrew agreed, “I tend to wear that one for cotillions rather than waltzing so it hasn’t had much practice.”
Joe laughed loudly. “Oh thank god, you’re really not angry?”
“Why would I be?” Andrew asked, honestly confused. “You looked like you were having fun. Although I am a little confused to find you here at all since I gave everyone the night off.”
“Oh, right, yes.” Joe turned away, carefully putting the coat back into Andrew’s wardrobe.
“Didn’t you want to visit friends? Or family?” Andrew pressed, even though it was none of his business. He was really just hoping that Joe might talk to him and he was fairly shameless in his attempts to acquire some company.
Joe turned back toward him, making a face. “I just moved to London; I don’t know anyone yet.”
Encouraged, Andrew sat down on the bed. “Where are you from?” he asked.
“New York,” Joe told him brightly. “Like Mr Jesse.”
“Oh,” Andrew said, surprised. Everyone Andrew met lately seemed to come from America. It was a shame that the Treaty of Paris had been signed so many years before he joined the army. If they’d still been at war, he might have been sent over there and made all sorts of friends. “Did you know him then?” Everyone else seemed to have done so why not Joe, he thought a little bitterly.
“Nah.” Joe stood by the edge of the bed, swinging his arms a little like he wasn’t sure where to put himself. “I just heard everyone talking about this scandalous American who’d stolen away the Earl of Epsom with his fortune and I thought, hey, sounds like the kind of family for me.”
Andrew laughed. “I’m glad,” he said. “Wait until you come back to Surrey with us; our footman’s been acting as my valet and he terrifies me. Also come and sit down on the bed with me, I can’t bear being loomed over like this.”
Joe hesitated for a second more then hopped up onto the bed, sitting cross-legged on the eiderdown. “You’re not much like an Earl,” he said thoughtfully, pulling his bare feet up onto the bed and resting his chin on his knees.
“No,” Andrew agreed sadly. “I’m terrible at it.” He took a sip of his brandy then held out the glass to Joe, who shook his head.
“No, no, I meant that in a good way,” Joe promised quickly. “I mean, I don’t know a lot of Earls, but I don’t think many of them spend their evenings communing with the valet.” He blushed suddenly, making a face. “Well, not talking anyway, and if you’re after something else then... then, no, I like Mr Jesse too much for that.”
“Oh god no,” Andrew said, sitting up. “I’m definitely not making any kind of proposition.” He groaned. “I’m just... inviting you to make yourself comfortable on my bed and offering you alcohol.” He covered his face with his free hand. “I’m so sorry, this must look terrible to you.”
Joe smiled, looking relieved. “I didn’t actually think you were desperate to give me a roll in the hay,” he said, laughing. “I just thought I should check, you know.”
“Definitely,” Andrew agreed. He offered the brandy to Joe who took it this time. Andrew let himself flop back onto the bed, sighing up at the canopy. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m a bit of a mess this evening.”
“Yeah.” There was a click as Joe put the glass down and then he rolled over, lying beside Andrew. “Want to talk about it?”
It was such a relief to have someone to talk to that Andrew found himself answering even though even he knew that he shouldn’t.
“I’m in a bit of a funk, that’s all,” he said. He made a face at himself. “I’m not very good at entertaining myself, I’m afraid.”
Joe snorted then covered his face, looking guilty. “I noticed,” he said quietly, like Andrew couldn’t get offended if he didn’t say it too loudly. “Can I ask, why is Mr Jesse out without you?”
“I don’t know,” Andrew said then realised that he sounded embarrassingly anguished about it. “By which I mean I do know, of course. He’s out spending time with an old friend which I completely support and respect.”
“Sure you do,” Joe agreed. He reached over, picked up Andrew’s glass and handed it back to him. “Come on. You probably can’t get drunk on one glass of brandy but I think it would be symbolically fitting to try.”
Andrew took the glass and then a healthy swig from it. “I like your way of thinking, Mr Mazzello,” he said sincerely.
It didn’t work.
Blearily, he peeked out at the world again and groaned. There was an empty decanter on the windowsill, which he was worryingly sure had been nearly full when Joe had decided to fetch it last night.
Sitting up far more quickly than was good for his hangover, Andrew cast a quick look around his bedroom. Not that he thought Joe would still be here, but he did remember getting very drunk and he’d hate for Jesse – or anyone else, of course – to get the wrong idea about anything.
Luckily, there was no Joe in sight but now Andrew was sitting up and he didn’t want to lie back down to feel rotten again. He rolled out of bed and found a jug of tepid water on his nightstand. It was probably left over from yesterday’s wash but water was water and he took several greedy gulps, drinking until his headache pounded a little less.
Then he wandered into his and Jesse’s shared dressing room, either in search of Joe or with the vague idea of dressing himself, he wasn’t sure. Instead, he found that Jesse’s bedroom door was slightly ajar, and that seemed like a much more enticing prospect than either battling buttons or hunting for breakfast.
Jesse was curled up on his side, nearly off the edge of the bed, which made Andrew frown. Jesse never slept like that when they slept together; he always ended up either half on Andrew’s side of the bed or sprawled across the middle, at least one limb pressed to Andrew’s.
“Jesse,” Andrew whispered. Jesse didn’t stir. It must have been a late night; Andrew didn’t remember Jesse coming home before he finally passed out. Not that he actually remembered passing out, come to think of it.
Jesse’s bed was the same size as Andrew’s, but it looked bigger right now. Softer and much more inviting.
“Jesse?” Andrew tried again.
Jesse mumbled something incomprehensible which Andrew decided was almost as good as an invitation so he twitched back the blankets and crawled into the nice, cool side of Jesse’s bed. He pressed his feet to the backs of Jesse’s calves and closed his eyes in relief.
His headache was much better and he felt more human. Unfortunately, that meant he had no excuse at all for the fact that he was curled against Jesse’s side, face tucked against Jesse’s collarbone.
“Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Jesse’s arm stayed around his shoulders but he stopped petting Andrew’s hair, which was a terrible, unforgivable shame.
“Good morning,” Jesse said softly. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Andrew said stoutly. “Why would I not...?”
“Well.” Jesse’s fingers sunk back into Andrew’s hair, fingertips against Andrew’s scalp, which felt so fantastic that Andrew really wanted to purr. “Mostly because you were astonishingly drunk when I got home last night. Honestly, I didn’t know people could be that drunk and still form sentences.”
“Oh no,” Andrew groaned. “Did we have a conversation?” He didn’t remember that at all.
Jesse laughed, which at least meant he wasn’t angry. Hopefully. “You had a conversation, lots of them. I was busy sending Joe off to his bed and then trying to get you to stay in yours when you mostly wanted to kiss me and tell me that I wasn’t allowed to go out without you ever again.”
Andrew was going to die of mortification. That was his one and only option. “Please tell me I didn’t use the word ‘allowed’?”
“No, all right,” Jesse relented. “You said you missed me and then you said that you were pleased I had friends and then you said you missed me a few dozen more times and then you – ”
“What?” Andrew asked, definitely horrified. “Oh god, what else did I say?”
“Nothing.” Jesse sounded far too breezy for that to be true. “Just silly things. Like I said, you were really quite incredibly drunk.”
A horrible thought occurred to Andrew. “Did I do anything inappropriate?” He tried to sit up but Jesse’s hand was surprisingly strong and firm keeping him in place.
“No, nothing like that,” Jesse assured him quickly. “You were, um. You were sweet, really? Babbly and confusing but, well, you’re babbly and confusing when sober, too.” He laughed slightly, as though he was still nervous about teasing Andrew.
“Hey,” Andrew protested, secretly relieved that he hadn’t made too much of a pest of himself and that Jesse was teasing him. He poked Jesse in the side. “Don’t mock me, I was drowning my sorrows. It was Joe’s idea and you employed him.”
“You have sorrows?” Jesse asked, all big-eyed and sarcastic. “Oh no, what are they? Did your favourite cravat not survive the wash?”
“You are in a wicked mood this morning,” Andrew said, delighted. He squirmed around so they were chest to chest and pressed his fingers to Jesse’s ribs, tickling him through his nightshirt.
“Oh god, no, don’t do that,” Jesse groaned, slapping his hands uselessly at Andrew’s arms. “That’s not fair, I thought you were indisposed.”
“I feel much better,” Andrew told him brightly, pining him with knees on either side of Jesse’s waist, Jesse’s hips hard against Andrew’s shins.
“That’s nice for you,” Jesse said pleasantly. “You weren’t the only one drinking last night, you know.”
“No?” Andrew asked. Jesse’s face was a little puffy from not quite enough sleep and his stubble was just long enough to catch the light when he smiled. There was nothing Andrew could do to stop himself leaning down and risking a kiss.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that Jesse kissed him back enthusiastically – Jesse rarely did anything else if they were in private – but every time, Andrew still felt as if he were being granted a special privilege.
Jesse’s hands slipped up Andrew’s chest, pushing his nightshirt up as he went, until it was pushed up under Andrew’s arms and Andrew was sitting, as good as naked, on Jesse’s hips.
“I’m enjoying this morning much more than I enjoyed last night,” Jesse told him conversationally. “And I had an excellent time last night.”
“Did, did you?” Andrew asked, stuttering in the middle when Jesse touched fingertips to his growing erection. “How was Emma?”
“Emma was fine,” Jesse said, almost too quickly. “Let’s not talk about her. Let’s not talk about anything.”
“Yes, okay,” Andrew agreed and let Jesse roll them over, press Andrew back into the mattress. Jesse’s bed was definitely more comfortable than Andrew’s, Andrew thought, considering pouting and then deciding that kissing was much more fun and productive.
“I wanted to do this last night,” Jesse whispered, kissing down Andrew’s throat. “You were so, you were all over me, you have no idea.”
Andrew flushed. He was pretty much always all over Jesse when he was sober; he couldn’t imagine how much worse he must have been last night.
“Jesse,” Andrew groaned, arching his back. Jesse’s lips were warm and careful, sucking kisses across his collarbone and Andrew couldn’t stop the way his breath hitched. “Oh, that feels so lovely.”
“Shh,” Jesse whispered. He was sucking hard, just below the place Andrew’s collar would cover. Andrew wondered if it would leave a bruise; he’d like that, he thought.
Andrew’s whole body felt heavy, languid and relaxed, sinking down into the bed and just letting Jesse kiss wherever he wanted to. Apparently Jesse wanted to kiss all over Andrew: silly places like the round ball of his shoulder and the inside of his elbow.
Andrew wasn’t quite sure what he’d done to deserve such attention, but he definitely wasn’t going to complain. At least, not until Jesse dragged wet lips across Andrew’s stomach and hesitated, coming to an awkward stop just beside his right hip.
“Oh,” Andrew said, shaken a little way out of his incipient sex daze. He put his hand over the ugly bullet scar, feeling self-conscious about it all over again. “You don’t have to… Sorry, I didn’t realise you… I know it’s horrible.”
“It’s not,” Jesse said softly. He nudged Andrew’s hand with his fingers, questioning. “I wasn’t sure if it hurt, that’s all. You don’t normally let me near it.”
Andrew shook his head. “It hurts sometimes but not to the touch, only when I walk too much or when the weather turns.”
Jesse’s eyebrows drew down and he looked gratifyingly concerned. Not that Andrew wanted anyone, least of all Jesse, to be concerned about him.
“I didn’t realise,” Jesse said quietly. He nudged Andrew’s hand again so Andrew moved it, revealing the sunken pit of flesh where he’d been hit, surrounded by many small, irregular white scars where the surgeons had had to fish out the shattered remains of the bullet.
Jesse’s fingers were very careful, tracing the contours of what had once been smooth skin. “What happened to the person who shot you?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Andrew told him. “I wasn’t exactly in a position to notice much immediately afterward.” He noticed the pinched look that flickered through Jesse’s expression and added, laughing softly, “Why? Did you want to hunt him down?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, eyes still fixed on Andrew’s hip. Then he shook himself. “No, what, of course not. I just – ” More careful tracing. “This is really close to vital parts of your body.”
Andrew shivered. “I know,” he said tightly because he did. He didn’t remember much about the first few weeks after getting shot, but he remembered a lot of pursed lips and talk of permanent damage.
“Sorry,” Jesse said quickly. “Of course you know that. Fuck, that was a stupid thing to say.”
“No.” Andrew grabbed Jesse’s hand, put it back against his hip. “It’s all right. I, I like, um, I like that you care?”
“Of course I care, don’t be stupid,” Jesse muttered, not looking up. He curled forward and pressed soft, barely-there lips to the very centre of Andrew’s scar.
Andrew moaned loudly, taken completely by surprise by how good that felt.
“Sorry,” Jesse said, jerking upright. “Did I hurt you?”
Andrew shook his head, wide-eyed. “No. No. No, the, uh, the complete opposite of hurting,” he promised.
“Oh,” Jesse breathed, looking relieved. “That’s very interesting.”
“Is, is it?” Andrew asked, losing his breath in the middle because Jesse was sliding down the bed, lips returning to Andrew’s scar, followed by a little bit of tongue.
Andrew screwed his eyes shut and tried not to orgasm immediately. His world descended into Jesse’s lips and Jesse’s tongue, first on his hip and then on his cock and it really didn’t take very long at all until he was biting back loud curses and accidentally pulling at Jesse’s hair, back bowing off the bed.
He wasn’t much use afterwards, but he managed to watch through half-closed eyes as Jesse brought himself off with his own hand, crouched awkwardly near Andrew’s feet. It was incredibly erotic, much more so than Andrew would ever have anticipated.
Jesse’s head was bowed, sweat visible along his hairline, chest heaving as he caught his breath. “Sorry,” he said, looking up and blushing when he saw Andrew watching him.
Andrew shook his head, waiting for Jesse to crawl back up the bed and then pressing them full length together. They kissed slowly, shivering slightly until Jesse reached down and pulled the blankets back up around them.
“That was really nice,” Andrew said then felt awkward about it. People weren’t supposed to be aroused by the sight of other people touching themselves, were they? “Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. It just was?”
Jesse kissed him again. “None of your, um. None of your army lovers paid any attention to your scars?” he asked, clearly misunderstanding what Andrew had enjoyed most.
Andrew only just managed not to laugh at the idea of the men who he’d shared hurried fifteen minutes with ever being described as his lovers, but, “Never,” was all he said, “It was much more painful back then. They weren’t sure I’d be able to re-join the army for a while.”
“Would that have been so bad?” Jesse asked, shifting them both so they were lying a bit more comfortably. “At least then you would have been safe?”
“I didn’t join the army to be safe,” Andrew told him, appalled. “I joined because, well. Well, all right, I joined because it was the only thing I was good at, but I did turn out to be really quite good at it, so.”
“Would you go back now if you could?” Jesse sounded nonchalant but he was pressed too closely to Andrew’s chest to be able to hide the sudden way he tensed as he waited for an answer.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Andrew admitted honestly. “But no, I don’t think I’d go back. I care about you… You and, and Hallie and Mama and everyone too much to risk going off and dying on you now, I think.”
It took Jesse a moment or two to relax but then, “All right,” he said, kissing the side of Andrew’s face for reasons Andrew didn’t understand but wasn’t going to object to. “I’m glad.”
“Mm,” Andrew agreed, closing his eyes. “Me too.” That didn’t make much sense but Jesse didn’t call him out for it.
This felt really nice, Andrew thought. Not even the sex, although that was always good, but just the two of them, cosily wrapped up in each other and talking.
“Have dinner with me tonight?” Andrew asked, kissing Jesse’s neck sleepily. It made sense in his head; he was having a lovely time with Jesse right now and he didn’t want Emma or anyone to get in first and take Jesse away from him tonight.
Jesse’s head was turned away, looking out toward the window. His arm was warm around Andrew’s shoulders though so Andrew didn’t think Jesse minded him asking.
“Didn’t we try that yesterday?” Jesse asked. “I didn’t think you had much fun.”
Andrew couldn’t stop himself flinching at the memory of how much the Breslins now hated him, oh god, and Jesse squeezed him a bit, apologetically.
“I meant just you and me,” Andrew said. “Here.” It made no sense for him to feel nervous; he was only asking his husband to have dinner with him in their home. He really wanted Jesse to say yes to him though, he realised.
“Oh,” Jesse said and the way he said it, soft and a little surprised, made Andrew think that he thought it was an important question too. Andrew didn’t really understand what was happening here but then Jesse said, “Yes, of course, I’d like that,” and it didn’t matter.
She pouted until he broke down and explained why, at which point she agreed easily. “You should have just said,” she told him. “I know married people need time alone together; Emma seemed worried when I told her that you don’t spend more time doing things together.”
“Did she?” Andrew asked, frowning. “Why ever - ?”
Hallie shrugged then looked troubled. “She asked if it was true that you’d only married for money and I wasn’t quite sure what to say.”
“No, of course,” Andrew said. “Emma shouldn’t have asked you such a thing.” He wondered why she had and made a mental note to ask her when they went to her ball.
“You do like Jesse, don’t you?” Hallie asked suddenly, as if she’d been worrying about it.
“Very much,” Andrew promised. It was true; he liked Jesse a startling amount, but he was surprised by the little knot of panicked tightness that settled in his chest at the idea that anyone, that Jesse in particular, might not know that. “Why else would I be bribing you so exorbitantly so I can have dinner with him tonight?” he added, reassuring them both.
“Right,” Hallie agreed, smiling. “I’ll tell Emma that.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Andrew told her quickly, still a bit unsettled over how interested Emma was in their business. “It’s really none of her concern.”
“Of course it is,” Hallie said, rolling her eyes. “She’s practically family.” She leant up and kissed Andrew’s cheek. “Thank you for the new books, we’ll go shopping tomorrow!”
“Hallie, wait,” Andrew called but she was already skipping away. He frowned, picking thoughtfully at his shirt cuffs.
He didn’t know why he was so unsettled by Emma’s questions – it wasn’t as if she could be interested in Jesse for herself; she was only recently widowed and Jesse was Andrew’s… Jesse was married. Still, it left him feeling a little worried and out of sorts and it was a relief when the footman announced that dinner was served.
“Oh,” was the first thing Andrew could think to say when he saw Jesse. Jesse looked almost unbearably handsome in a dark blue coat that complemented his eyes and took Andrew’s breath away. He cleared his throat. “That’s a, is that a new jacket?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, fingering the hem uncertainly. “Is it all right? Emma said it looked well enough but I wasn’t sure.”
“It looks very well,” Andrew said, perhaps putting a bit too much sincerity behind his words, but Jesse smiled, embarrassed and pleased, and Andrew didn’t think it was possible to ever be too sincere if it put that look on his face.
“Thank you,” Jesse said. “I thought perhaps I looked like one of those creepy marionettes from a Punch and Judy show.”
Andrew laughed and pulled out Jesse’s chair for him, instinctively reaching out and squeezing Jesse’s shoulder when Jesse sat down. “Definitely not,” he promised.
Jesse frowned up at him then across to Andrew’s place at the table. “I feel like I should stand up again so I can pull your chair out for you. Would that be too strange?”
“No,” Andrew laughed. “But it might condemn us to an endless spiral of never actually staying in our seats. What if I promise that next time, you can pull out my chair for me?”
Jesse thought for a moment then nodded. “All right,” he agreed. “That sounds fair.”
Andrew really wanted to reach across the table and take Jesse’s hand just then, but they were interrupted by the arrival of their first course.
“Oh,” Jesse said, as turbot soup was ladled out into his bowl. “This is one of my favourites.”
“Yes, I, um.” Andrew picked up his spoon. “I know.”
Jesse glanced up at his from under his eyelashes. “Did Hallie tattle on me again?” he asked. “I really do need to have her sent to a convent, immediately.”
“Oh no, don’t,” Andrew said seriously. “However else would I be able to sneakily learn things about you?”
“I don’t know,” Jesse said, smiling. “Ask me?”
Andrew gasped. “What a scandalously modern suggestion, sir. Next you’ll be suggesting we discuss politics or religion.”
Jesse smirked, biting his lip. “Eat your dinner,” he admonished, “and stop being so silly.”
Andrew grinned. “All right,” he agreed easily, and dipped his spoon into his soup, but not before giving into temptation and reaching over to take Jesse’s free hand.
Jesse’s fingers twitched in his for a second, then he turned his hand over and laced their fingers together. It made eating a little more cumbersome, but Andrew was prepared to put up with that.
“I suppose I should let you get back to – “ Jesse stopped, clearly at a loss to think what Andrew did in his spare time. Andrew thought back to last night when he’d had no idea what to do with himself either and was loath to let Jesse go.
Andrew squeezed his hand. “Come and sit with me?” he asked, leading Jesse over to the loveseat.
“Why, Your Lordship, if you’re planning to seduce me, you should know that my husband is a very jealous man,” Jesse said, laughing.
“Is that so?” Andrew asked, pressing close to Jesse’s side and sighing, content, when Jesse put an arm around his shoulders. “He sounds like a brute.”
Jesse’s fingers brushed the back of Andrew’s ear and Andrew shivered. “He’s not as bad as all that.”
Andrew’s chest felt tight. “I like you so much,” he said, abandoning the game because he couldn’t think clearly in the face of Jesse’s teasing smile.
Jesse turned his head, smile turning soft for a second before he ducked in and kissed Andrew.
Andrew’s heart stuttered the way it always did when Jesse touched him, but there was something more to it tonight, something about the shy but pleased turn of Jesse’s mouth, the fact that he was initiating a kiss somewhere outside the bedroom.
“Thank you for dinner,” Jesse said, almost teasingly, like that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all and he knew Andrew knew that.
“You’re welcome,” Andrew said reflexively and Jesse just smiled wider.
“I’m very impressed you managed to actually ask the cook to put herself out for you,” he said, still smiling, still so close and Andrew really, really liked this side of Jesse that was confident enough to mock him.
“It did take a lot of courage,” Andrew assured him. “And I’m probably going to buy her some flowers tomorrow to apologise.”
Jesse laughed, kissing Andrew again, lips gentle against the corner of his mouth.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, almost a question. Jesse’s hand was on Andrew’s thigh now, which should have answered that almost-question, but Andrew couldn’t be sure.
“Yes?” Jesse asked, fingers tensing on Andrew’s thigh like he thought Andrew was about to turn him down. Andrew thought that he should probably find some way soon to assure Jesse that he was never going to turn this, turn him down.
“I just, I just wanted to make sure you knew that dinner was just because I wanted to spend some time with you. It wasn’t because, because I thought we might, because I was hoping… Not that I wasn’t hoping, of course.” They might have spent this morning in bed, but Andrew could never get enough of Jesse.
Jesse’s hand slid up Andrew’s leg, thumb dragging along Andrew’s inner thigh, which was a blessed relief because it stopped Andrew talking.
“Thank you for dinner,” Jesse said quietly. “You didn’t have to, but I do appreciate it.”
“You’re, you’re welcome?” Andrew said questioningly. “It wasn’t exactly a hardship to have a lovely dinner with my lovely husband though.”
Jesse kissed his cheek and Andrew turned toward him, automatically. “Just let me thank you,” he scolded. “It’s kind of you, to, um, to make so much effort when we’re not really – ”
Jesse said things all the time that reminded Andrew that they weren’t really in love like some other married couples, but for some reason Andrew couldn’t stand to hear him say it tonight.
“Don’t,” he said quickly, maybe a bit too harshly because Jesse looked up, startled. “Sorry. I just. I just meant. Maybe we could talk about something else. I should ask if I want to know more about you, you said, didn’t you?”
“I… did,” Jesse allowed, sounding suspicious.
“Good.” Andrew put his head on Jesse’s shoulder. “Tell me about you, Jesse Eisenberg.”
Jesse, to no one’s surprise, did not enjoy dressing up to go to the ball.
“I can do that myself,” he was telling Joe when Andrew went to find him, sounding as close to tetchy as he ever came with the staff.
Joe carried on smiling placidly at him, dusting off the shoulders of Jesse’s coat.
“You look lovely,” Andrew said, leaning against the doorframe to watch them.
“Aw, thank you, my dear,” Joe said, flashing Andrew a look over Jesse’s shoulder. He laughed softly to himself at his joke and Andrew laughed along with him. Jesse didn’t seem to notice.
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, coming into the room and reaching up to neaten an already neat curl of hair. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Jesse said with a firm, not very convincing, nod. He tilted his head slightly away from Andrew’s fingers.
Joe stepped back, tactfully carrying a pile of discarded clothes out of the room.
“Will you dance with me?” Andrew asked, grabbing Jesse’s hand. He tried to twirl him around but Jesse wouldn’t go, lacing their fingers together instead and holding Andrew still.
“Here?” Jesse stroked his thumb over the back of Andrew’s hand and Andrew smiled automatically, involuntarily. “There’s no music.”
“No, silly, at the ball. There’s often dancing at a ball, or so I’ve heard.”
“Really?” Jesse asked, raising his eyebrows. “I had no idea.” He tugged on Andrew’s hand and, surprised, Andrew came closer, walking forward and waiting for Jesse to tell him to stop. When he didn’t, they bumped chests, which was far from unpleasant even if the layers of their shirts and waistcoats and tailcoats stopped him feeling all of Jesse’s lovely warmth.
“We have to go to the ball,” Andrew said softly even though he would so much rather have stayed here, pressed up close to Jesse.
“I know.” Jesse’s arms came up around him, hands spread warmly over Andrew’s back. He kissed Andrew’s chin, a dry brush of lips. “I want to ask you something.”
“All right,” Andrew agreed easily. “Is it ‘Andrew, dearest, would you like me to kiss you’? Because the answer will be yes.” It would always be yes, actually; he hoped Jesse knew that.
“No,” Jesse said (disappointingly). He smiled with one side of his mouth, looking unsure. Then he shook his head at himself. “Actually, yes, it is that too; let’s do that first.”
Half of Andrew was sure that whatever Jesse wanted to talk about had to be important, and so he shouldn’t let Jesse distract them both with kissing. The other half of him was, well, distracted by kissing so he stayed quiet, letting Jesse walk him backwards into the nearest wall, leaning back pliantly while Jesse kissed and kissed him.
Reluctantly, Andrew pulled back before he was ready, because if Jesse wanted to tell him something then he wanted to hear it. He was fairly certain that that was how marriages were supposed to work.
“What was it you wanted to ask?” He couldn’t resist kissing Jesse’s forehead when it wrinkled in a tiny frown, but that wouldn’t prevent Jesse from answering him so he thought that that was rather restrained on his part.
Jesse blushed. Andrew wondered if Jesse was about to ask him something naughty – he certainly hoped so. “I was just wondering if you, um. If you and I… You’ve been so affectionate and I definitely… and – ”
Andrew leant closer, hanging on every word. Whatever Jesse was about to ask, Andrew was fascinated.
Jesse licked his lips. “Are you in – ”
The door opened with a crash. “Jesse! Andrew! Where are you? Oh.” Hallie ground to a halt but it was too late. Jesse jerked back from Andrew, eyes wide and blush darkening.
“I have to see Joe about, um, shoes,” he said, even though he was already wearing boots. “I’ll, um. Yes. That was definitely fate. What was I thinking, honestly…?”
Andrew strained his ears, trying to pick something out of Jesse’s mutterings as Jesse hurried out of the room, but it was no good.
“Sorry,” Hallie said, wrinkling her nose in a way that she had definitely stolen from Jesse. “I forgot to knock.”
Andrew shook it off, turning his brightest smile on her. “And I’m not surprised. Miss Eisenberg, in that dress, a little thing such as door should never stand in your way.”
Hallie laughed, curtsying neatly. “Do you think it looks all right? Emma said this shade was flattering but I worried it was a little bright.”
“You look beautiful,” Andrew told her honestly. She also looked a lot older than her seventeen years, and this was her first ball. He was going to have to make sure to keep an eye on her. He felt very old all of a sudden.
“Thank you, so do you. Jesse obviously thought so too,” she added with a wink.
Annoyingly, Andrew felt himself blush. “He’s my husband,” he reminded her, brushing it off, “he has to think I look beautiful, it formed an integral part of the marriage contract.”
“No,” Hallie said meaningfully, “It didn’t.”
Good god, maybe she actually was older than seventeen; she was definitely more mature than him.
“None of that,” Andrew told her firmly. (He was getting better at being firm. Slightly. When the person he was being firm with didn’t mind humouring him, anyway.) “Come on or we’ll be late.”
Hallie rolled her eyes. “I know; that’s what I came to tell you.”
Andrew offered her his arm. “May I escort you to the carriage?”
Hallie looked at him for a moment as though sizing him up. “You may,” she decided after a moment. “But only if you offer Jesse your other arm.”
Andrew laughed; she was incorrigible. “I’ll be the envy of everyone at Emma’s party,” he told her stoutly, “arriving with two Eisenbergs.”
Andrew was predisposed to like everyone, and it was a little disconcerting to find that he didn’t want to like Emma even though she was making it very hard not to. If only she didn’t make Jesse laugh so easily, he thought, then hated himself for thinking it.
She was doing it again right now, kissing Jesse’s cheek and whispering something in his ear that made him splutter and bite his lip, eyes sparkling. Andrew caught his own bottom lip between his teeth, forcibly holding his mouth closed so he couldn’t ask what was so amusing.
“My Lord,” Emma said, catching Andrew’s hands next. “I’m so pleased you came, all of you. Please say I can claim you both for at least one dance?”
“Me too?” Hallie asked, perking up immediately at the talk of dancing.
Emma laughed. “Yes, of course you too. Although if your dance card isn’t full by the time you’ve taken one turn around the room, I’ll be shocked.”
Hallie smiled, clearly trying not to look too pleased. “Can we go in now? Please? I want to meet people.”
“Of course,” Emma said, linking their arms together. “Come on, let me introduce you to all my favourite people. They’re delightful; you’ll love them.” She looked back over her shoulder, smiling widely at Jesse and Andrew. “Come on, boys.”
They fell into step behind him, moving carefully between exquisitely dressed people, most of whom Andrew recognised by sight but didn’t know well enough to talk to.
“You’ll dance with me, won’t you?” Andrew asked Jesse, pleased to have a moment to talk to him before the rush of the ball began in earnest.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really planning to dance at all,” Jesse confessed softly. “I’m not very good.”
“Neither am I,” Andrew promised him. “We can tread on each other’s feet; it’ll be fun. Please?”
“You sound like Hallie when you pout like that,” Jesse told him, but it wasn’t a no, so Andrew took it as a yes and smiled, pleased. He was definitely going to claim at least one dance with Jesse; he was looking forward to it.
A tall, curly-haired man, wearing a topcoat so eye-searingly violet that even Andrew wouldn’t have had confidence in his ability to carry it off, was leaning against the table, laughing and rubbing his cheek. It appeared he had just been slapped.
“Oh for goodness sake,” Emma muttered, stalking across the room. Andrew shared a glance with Jesse who nodded so they followed her.
“Justin,” Emma hissed, stopping in front of the man and planting her hands on her hips. “What did you do?”
The man – Justin – widened his eyes. “I asked her if she’d like to dance,” he said. His accent was similar to hers. Another American, it seemed, to add to Andrew’s growing collection.
“Where?” Emma asked dangerously.
Justin looked away, shuffling his feet. “In the direction of my bedroom?”
Andrew bit his lip so he wouldn’t laugh. That was a terrible social faux pas, but Justin’s expression was funny.
Emma took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “One day, I will kill you,” she said sweetly. Then she seemed to notice Andrew and Jesse. “This is my brother-in-law, Mr Justin Timberlake. Please don’t judge him too harshly; he has a terrible mental affliction. One where he believes that he’s irresistible to every woman in the world.”
“I believe it because it’s true,” Justin told her belligerently. “Mostly. At least ninety-five per cent of the time, anyway.”
“Justin,” Emma sighed. “Don’t make me regret inviting you. I could have made you stay at home, you know.”
“You wouldn’t,” Justin said, sounding confident. “I’m very popular. Several society mamas have already approached to enquire about my fortune. I expect to become engaged at lease three times this Season.” He glanced over at Andrew, catching his eye. “It was only twice last year.”
Emma shook her head, obviously fighting back a smile. “Oh, do go away. Pick one young lady and dance with her, please. I think Miss Mulligan is around here somewhere; she seems a sensible girl who won’t fall for your charms.”
“Miss Mulligan?” Andrew asked automatically. He noticed the way Jesse stiffened against his side but put it out of his mind to ask about later. “Carey Mulligan?”
“Yes.” Emma smiled at him. “She seems a lovely girl, do you know her?”
“Yes,” Andrew said with maybe more feeling than was wise. He hadn’t seen Carey since before Christmas and he missed her whole family dreadfully. “She’s, we’re, we - .”
“The Mulligans live close to Andrew’s family home,” Jesse told Emma, apparently taking pity on Andrew’s stuttering even though he didn’t actually look at Andrew while he said it.
Andrew smiled at the side of Jesse’s head, grateful. “Yes, that,” he agreed. “Exactly.”
“You should dance with her,” Jesse said quietly. “Emma, why don’t we dance?”
“No, wait, I’d like to dance with you – ” Andrew protested but Emma had already accepted Jesse’s hand. She looked a little confused, throwing Andrew a quizzical look, but he had no explanation.
He had missed Carey but that didn’t mean he didn’t still want to dance with Jesse. He couldn’t imagine why Jesse thought it would.
Andrew watched Jesse and Emma lead each other onto the dance floor, heads bent together while they talked. Emma was frowning. Andrew desperately wanted to know what they were saying.
He looked around the room, searching for Carey. She wasn’t hard to find since she was right next to Justin, who was easy to spot even all the way across the room.
Andrew waved awkwardly. Carey’s face split into a smile when she saw him and she waved back enthusiastically. Andrew exhaled, relieved. At least someone was pleased to see him.
A sudden laugh from the dancers had Andrew looking back at Jesse and Emma. One or both of them had clearly tripped and they were holding each other up awkwardly, laughing and not seeming to mind that they were making a minor spectacle of themselves.
Andrew’s hands itched suddenly; he wished he was the one dancing with Jesse, he wanted the warm press of Jesse’s fingers against his, the bright glow of Jesse’s smile aimed directly at him. He wanted that always, he realised, and he didn’t want to share it with Emma or with anyone else. He wanted Jesse to be his, not just on a piece of paper but really.
The lurch of yearning hit him so strongly in the chest that he stepped forward before he could stop himself.
He paused, right on the edge of the dance floor, aware of a few people looking at him curiously.
What am I doing? he thought, stepping back as quickly as he could, almost tripping over his own feet which did nothing to stop people staring at him. He grabbed the first drink he could find, draining his glass as quickly as possible. His hands were shaking. And they still wanted to be tangled up with Jesse’s.
Oh god. Oh god, this really wasn’t good.
Carey was unexpectedly right there, slipping her arm though his. “Gardens?” she asked softly. “You look like you could use some air.”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, because he still felt stunned, rocked to his core, which didn’t even make much sense when he thought about it. It seemed laughably obvious now that he was in love with Jesse; how could he possibly be anything else?
“All right,” Carey said, sitting him down on a bench in the arbour. Andrew didn’t even remember coming outside. “What’s wrong?”
Andrew shook his head; there was a fresh glass of wine in his hands and he hadn’t finished drinking yet. By the time this glass was empty too, he’d found the words.
“I think,” he said slowly, testing the words out in his head to see if they fit. They did, of course. “I think I’ve fallen in love with Jesse.”
“Oh.” Carey sat down next to him, arm coming up and wrapping around his shoulders. “Dearest, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you really surprised?”
“No.” Andrew sighed, defeated. “He’s wonderful. I didn’t really stand a chance, did I?”
Carey made a sound like a swallowed laugh and pulled back. “That wasn’t what I meant,” she said kindly. “I meant that you are awfully inclined to romance. But, well, you’re right, he is a very nice man. Is being in love with him so terrible?”
Andrew nodded sadly. He felt wretched and a bit drunk and very hopeless. He’d always known he wouldn’t be very good at love. “It’s awful,” he confessed.
Carey frowned. “Why?” She bumped Andrew’s arm. “You have married him, you know. Being in love with one’s husband is allowed.”
Andrew shook his head. “But he’s not in love with me,” he said, waving a hand in the hope that if he showed her how enormous a problem this was, she might find a solution for him. “I think he’s, no, I’m almost sure he’s in love with Emma.”
“The hostess of this party?” Carey asked, frowning. “That Emma? Do you really think so?”
“She makes him laugh,” Andrew said miserably. “I don’t make him laugh.”
Carey sucked on her bottom lip, looking sympathetic. “I’m sure he likes you too, though,” she said, as though like was enough. “You’re good friends, aren’t you?”
Andrew shrugged. He stared down at his hands and didn’t say anything.
“Oh dear,” Carey sighed, putting a hand on the far side of Andrew’s head and pushing it down to rest against her shoulder. “Poor old stick.”
Andrew groaned and leant into her, letting her hug him and pet his hair even though this would be difficult to explain if anyone walked by. He was starting to regret drinking so much wine so quickly; it was hard to think clearly.
“I didn’t know love felt like this,” he confessed, “I thought it was closer to how I feel about you.”
Carey didn’t answer for so long that Andrew started to regret saying anything. He hadn’t meant to hurt or annoy her.
“What does it feel like?” she finally asked. “Tell me.”
“As if…” Andrew fumbled around for the right words. He wasn’t poetic like Jesse. “As if I’m being repeatedly stabbed in the stomach by something blunt, but I’m almost enjoying it?”
Carey laughed, snorting into Andrew’s hair. “Your life is truly a tragic one,” she said, with what Andrew felt wasn’t complete sincerity. Still, she wrapped her other arm around him, hugging him close, so he didn’t complain.
“I love you,” he murmured, because he did, even if it wasn’t the same.
A startled sound cut off whatever Carey was about to reply and Andrew looked up to find Jesse standing on the stone patio overlooking the garden, staring down at them. He looked wide-eyed and upset for a second before his face set into something devoid of any expression at all.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed happily, pushing carefully out of Carey’s hold. He tried to stand up too quickly and ended up sitting down again. He really shouldn’t have had that second glass of wine. “Oh dear, I can’t stand up. Come and get me?”
Jesse stayed where he was, hands curled around the low wall for a moment or two before pushing away and hurrying down the stairs toward them. “Are you drunk?” he asked. He didn’t sound as amused as he normally did when Andrew made a fool of himself; Andrew wondered if something bad had happened.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, swaying more than he needed to so that Jesse would hold him up. Jesse did, but only with a hand under his elbow – Andrew had been hoping for an arm around his waist. Apparently realising he was in love made him even more desperate for touches than normal.
“Yes,” Jesse said shortly. “Unless you count Emma’s brother-in-law paying much too much attention to Hallie.”
“To Hallie?” Andrew asked, remembering guiltily that he’d been planning to keep an eye on her tonight.
“Yes,” Jesse repeated but didn’t offer anything else. He nodded to Carey who had stood up as well. “Miss Mulligan.”
“Jesse,” Carey said softly. Andrew watched her reach out to touch Jesse’s arm and watched Jesse flinch away from the touch and didn’t understand what was happening here at all.
“Come on,” Jesse said to Andrew, still in that affectionless tone. It made Andrew want to crawl all over him, kiss him everywhere until he softened again, but this probably wasn’t the place and Jesse definitely wasn’t giving any indication that he’d welcome it.
“Where are we going?” Andrew asked.
“Home,” Jesse said firmly. “I’m tired and it’s long past Hallie’s bedtime.”
“But it’s a ball,” Andrew protested, nevertheless letting himself be pulled along. He’d rarely ever seen Jesse closed off like this, certainly not since he’d come home, and he hated it.
“Good night,” Carey called once they were back in the house and Andrew had to look over his shoulder to return the sentiment since Jesse wasn’t letting him stop.
Hallie was waiting by the front door, looking mutinous, but she did seem tired, so maybe Jesse hadn’t simply used her as an excuse to leave.
They climbed into the waiting carriage in silence, but Hallie started chatting as soon as they’d sat down, telling Andrew all about the young men who’d asked her to dance and the society matrons who’d spoken to her and the stylish ladies who’d complimented her dress.
“That all sounds wonderful,” Andrew told her sincerely, but he couldn’t be as enthusiastic as he wanted to be, not with Jesse turned away from them, staring out of the window at the dark streets moving along outside.
Andrew reached out tentatively, putting his hand on Jesse’s leg. Jesse didn’t move away but he didn’t acknowledge Andrew in any way either.
Hallie widened her eyes at Andrew, asking with a tilt of her head what was wrong with Jesse. Andrew shook his head with a helpless shrug.
“What about Mr Timberlake?” Andrew prompted Hallie, since her conversation was the only thing stopping the silence in the carriage from becoming unbearably oppressive.
“What about him?” she asked guilelessly. “He was funny. He told me that he was the most eligible bachelor in London so I laughed at him. I’m not sure he liked that very much.”
Andrew couldn’t help laughing. “I bet he didn’t. You won’t start an affair with him, will you? I know he’s charming, but I don’t think he’s right for you.”
Hallie looked offended. “I almost certainly won’t,” she said, puffing up. “But if I did, that would be my concern, wouldn’t it?”
“No,” Jesse said, still not looking away from the window. “It would be Andrew’s. He’s your guardian. He went to all the trouble of marrying me to protect your name and status; that would be a terrible way of repaying him.”
“Marrying you was no trouble,” Andrew told him quickly, staring hard at Jesse’s back, trying to make him turn around, give Andrew one of those funny little embarrassed smiles, but he didn’t react at all, only stared more fixedly out at nothing. “Jesse?”
“We’re here,” Jesse said flatly and sure enough, the carriage rocked to a halt just then. There were the usual sounds of the driver quieting the horses and then the click of the door being opened from the outside.
Hallie shot Andrew another worried look and then let herself be helped out. Jesse moved to follow her but Andrew stopped him with the hand still on his thigh.
“What’s wrong?” he asked softly. He hoped it was only that Jesse had had a miserable time at the ball, although Andrew would feel terrible if being married to him had forced Jesse into a social whirl that he truly hated.
Jesse picked up his hand and dropped it onto the upholstered seat. “I’m not a substitute,” he snapped, sounding halfway between upset and furious, before pushing past Andrew’s knees and jumping down unaided from the carriage.
“What?” Andrew called after him, completely confused, but he was talking to empty air.
Even in the cold light of day, Andrew couldn’t work out why that would be, although he suspected it had something to do with him cuddling up to Carey in the garden.
Why would Jesse care about that, though? Andrew wondered. He surely didn’t feel that he was being cuckold, not when he was the one laughing and whispering with Emma like they were a courting couple.
Andrew pushed back the bed covers; he really didn’t want to think any more about it. He’d apologise at breakfast for whatever he’d done to upset Jesse, and then everything could go back to how it had been before.
He’d just pulled on his bathrobe, wondering if he could go down to breakfast without getting dressed, when someone started to pound on his bedroom door.
“Yes?” he called, startled, and the door swung open, revealing Hallie, hair undone and falling around her shoulders, waving a letter at him. He stared at her. “Whatever’s the matter? Has something happened?”
Hallie’s colour was high as though she was very upset or very angry or some strange combination of both. “Jesse’s gone,” she said. She was definitely upset. “He left you a note and – ”
“Gone where?” Andrew asked, nearly snatching the note from her hands, ignoring the fact that she’d already opened it. He scanned it quickly then blinked and returned to the beginning, reading more slowly this time, sure that he must have misunderstood.
My Dear Andrew,
As of this morning, I have returned to Cambridge to continue with my studies, which I cannot in good conscience delay any longer. Luckily, I have missed only the first few weeks of the Lent Term.
Please forgive my sudden departure, which I thought would be for the best. Hopefully your situation will now be easier and I wish you every happy.
“What does he mean, your situation?” Hallie demanded. “What situation?”
Andrew had been wondering that too. “I have no idea,” he told her honestly. “I don’t – ” He sat down on the bed, looking up at her helplessly. “Is he really gone?”
She nodded sadly. Her eyes were full of unshed tears. “He didn’t even say goodbye.”
Andrew patted the bed, offering her a seat. “It’s not your fault,” he promised her. “I don’t know how, but I’m sure it’s mine.”
Hallie sat down next to him, slipping her hand into his. “But what happened? Before last night, you were so happy.”
Andrew swallowed heavily. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “I suppose, I suppose perhaps he really does just want to return to his studies? We never discussed him abandoning them for – ” me “good.”
“You never discussed him going back this term, either,” Hallie countered. “He told me he was planning to take the rest of the year off and start again in October.”
“Did he?” Andrew asked, distracted. He’d just realised that he’d never asked Jesse anything at all about how their marriage might affect his education. He’d just blithely enjoyed the fact that Jesse didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back and hadn’t thought anymore about it.
No wonder Jesse had left him; Andrew was a dreadful husband.
“I’m sure he’ll write to you as soon as he’s settled,” he told Hallie. It wasn’t much of a comfort, not when she looked so upset, but Andrew felt a lot like crying himself, so it was the best he could manage.
“We could take a carriage to Cambridge and drag him home with us?” Hallie suggested hopefully. “I could make myself cry and you could do that thing you do with your eyes – I’m sure he wouldn’t be able to resist us both.”
It was incredibly tempting, but Andrew couldn’t do it. “If he doesn’t want to be here, I’m not going to make him,” Andrew told her firmly.
“But he does,” Hallie protested. “He loves you so – ”
“Stop,” Andrew begged, because that was just cruel. He was sure she didn’t mean for it to be, maybe she actually believed it, but it was so close to what he wanted and so far from reality that he couldn’t bear to hear it.
Hallie’s hand squeezed his tightly. “He’ll come back,” she said softly, laying her head on his shoulder. “I promise.”
Andrew nodded. He bit his lip hard, determined not to cry in front of her and didn’t say anything to that.
London was unbearable without Jesse. Emma visited often, bringing the incorrigible Mr Timberlake with her, but Andrew left Hallie to entertain them, a little worried about what he might say to her.
He tortured himself by wondering if she’d known Jesse was planning to leave, if perhaps she had already visited him in Cambridge. It wouldn’t be a very difficult journey to make without attracting comment.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Joe told him, folding his arms and frowning at Andrew like he was a puzzle. “You look like you need to get very drunk.”
Andrew sighed. “We tried that, remember?”
Joe grinned at him. “I didn’t mean with me, although I wouldn’t object. You have friends, don’t you? Ones that you aren’t married to or hiding from?”
“I – ” Andrew hesitated. He had Carey, but he could hardly get drunk with her. Then he remembered Matt, and his cosy little home with someone else’s family. “That’s a good idea.”
Joe preened. “I know,” he said easily. “I’ll fetch your coat.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Andrew said automatically. He’d been so intent on getting to Matt that he’d forgotten it might not be convenient.
The man’s grinned toned down but didn’t fade away. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Are you lost?”
Andrew had done his best to wear his least obviously expensive coat, hoping to fit more easily into Haymarket this time, but apparently his disguise wasn’t good enough.
“No, I was, um.” God, this was what happened when he retired from society for a month; he stopped being able to hold a conversation. “Is Lord Matthew here?” he asked. “Or Mrs Darvill?”
The man nodded. “They are,” he agreed. “Mr…?”
“Garfield,” Andrew said, offering a hand. “Captain Andrew Garfield. Mr Darvil, I presume?”
“You presume correctly,” Mr Darvill told him, shaking his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you; Matt talks about you all the time. Your Lordship.”
“Damn,” Andrew laughed. “Caught.”
“Arthur?” a voice floated from inside the house. “Whoever’s at the door?”
Karen came hurrying down the stairs behind Mr Darvill, baby Allegra wrapped in a blanket in her arms. “Oh,” she said. “Hello. Are we expecting you? Matt? Did you forget to tell me something?”
“No,” Andrew said quickly. “No, I just stopped by. I’m sorry, I should have sent my card on ahead.”
Karen shook her head, reaching around her husband to haul Andrew into the house. “Don’t be silly,” she scolded. “We’re just about to leave for Vauxhall Gardens but you’re more than welcome to join us.”
“Yes,” Mr Darvill said quickly before Andrew could demure. “Of course, you’re welcome. Matt!”
There was a sigh from the living room and then Matt came trudging out. He was also dressed to go out but there was a notebook clutched desperately in his hands.
“Whatever do you want?” he asked. “I’ve got to finish this – . Andrew!”
Andrew smiled. “Show some more respect to your hostess, Matthew,” he chided, clasping hands with Matt and pulling him in for a quick embrace.
Matt frowned, pulling back and poking his fingers into Andrew’s cheeks. “You’re sad,” he announced, making Andrew squirm and regret coming here after all. “Do you need to get drunk?”
“Yes,” Andrew said desperately since there was no point trying to save face with Matt around. “I was wondering if you’d like to help.”
“Would we?” Matt asked. “Would we?” He raised his eyebrows at the Darvills. “Would we?” At their nods, he looked back at Andrew. “We would.”
Andrew felt awkwardly as though he were invading a private moment, even though Matt was already doing that, surely. Still, Andrew paid their entrance fee, which seemed the least he could do, and volunteered to entertain himself and Matt if Karen and Arthur wanted some time to themselves.
“Nonsense,” Karen said dismissively. “Come on, I want to see the tightrope walkers.” She tucked one hand into Arthur’s arm and the other into Matt’s. Andrew was definitely interrupting a private moment, although he was starting to reassess exactly how many people were involved in it.
The tightrope walkers were incredibly diverting and Andrew would usually have loved them, but right now, all he could think was how much he wished Jesse were here to enjoy it with him. Jesse would have been horrified by the heights they reached, would probably have tried to cover his eyes or maybe even hidden his face in Andrew’s shoulder.
Andrew’s neck tingled with the imagined warmth of Jesse’s nervous laughter, and his heart ached.
Afterwards, they visited the Rotunda, and then Arthur bought them all a round of drinks from one of the smaller tents along the walkway.
“Not sure what’s in this,” he said, handing out a cup to each of them. “But I’ve been promised it’ll be good for what ails you.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said, accepting the mug and taking a sip. He coughed, eyes watering. “If what ails me is breathing, I think you’re right.”
Karen winked at him. “Cheers,” she said, knocking their cups together and taking a long drink from hers.
An embarrassingly short time later, Andrew was telling them all about the situation with Jesse. “It’s dreadful,” he moaned, head propped up on one hand. “I miss him so much I want to die.”
Arthur looked sympathetic but Matt and Karen both laughed at him. Andrew patted Arthur’s knee; he liked him, he decided.
“You do not want to die,” Karen scolded him. “You want to do something about it rather than just complaining.”
“Yes,” Matt said enthusiastically, waving an arm around. “Why not storm up to Cambridge and declare your undying love? That would be fun, wouldn’t it? I’d come with you.”
Andrew shook his head, eyes closing helplessly. “I can’t. He’ll turn me down. I’ll die. What are you doing?” That last was to Arthur who’d picked up his hand, fingers pressed to his wrist.
“Checking how likely you are to die,” Arthur said shrugging. “You seem in robust health to me.”
“Are you a doctor?” Andrew asked, impressed.
A complicated expression crossed Arthur’s face. “I will be,” he said, sounding determined.
“Oh, um, if I can, well.” Andrew floundered. He didn’t actually know any doctors personally, but he was sure he could find one, if Arthur needed a recommendation.
“It’s no good,” Matt said sadly, laying his hand on top of Arthur’s. “I’ve already offered that. Several times.”
Arthur frowned at them both. “It wouldn’t be the same if I had help,” he said, “but thank you.”
Andrew nodded, looking at the place where Matt’s fingers were spread across Arthur’s pale wrist. He ached, wanting Jesse even more desperately than he had before.
Karen reached across the table and tapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Captain,” she said, “I need a dance partner. These two are hopeless dancers.”
Andrew knew that that wasn’t true – Matt, at least, was an excellent, if overly enthusiastic, dancer – but he obediently rose to his feet, offering her his hand.
“Thank you,” she said, leaning into his side. As soon as they were out of sight of the table, she said softly, “Arthur and I love Matt very much.” Andrew startled, even though he’d suspected it was something of the sort. “We were scared to pursue it, of course, but in the end it seemed as though it would hurt us more to let him go.”
She didn’t say anything else but Andrew got the message. “I don’t know which would hurt me more,” he confessed, taking her hand while the band warmed up.
“Yes, you do,” she said and tossed her hair back over her shoulder, setting her best foot forward as the music picked up for the start of the dance.
Hallie wasn’t helping at all. She kept tinging her spoon against the side of her teacup and laughing when Andrew winced.
“You’re a devil child,” he told her, his voice flat since he didn’t have the energy for inflection this morning.
“Who were you with last night?” Hallie asked. “You came home so late.”
“Oh, sorry,” Andrew said, feeling guilty. “I didn’t mean to abandon you.”
Hallie shook her head. “You didn’t, don’t worry. I was… well, I was out too.”
Andrew’s head shot up, which hurt rather a lot. “You were?” He frowned. “With whom?”
Hallie smiled sunnily. “Friends.”
It was at moments like this that Andrew really wished his mother were here. He wasn’t qualified at all to successfully parent a seventeen-year-old girl. Before he could press her, though, there was a knock at the door.
“Mr Cumberbatch is in the drawing room, My Lord,” the footman said, causing Andrew to nearly drop his jam knife.
“Thank you,” he said, exchanging a worried look with Hallie. Why ever would Cumberbatch have followed them all the way to London? “Offer him some tea, would you please?”
“Very good, sir,” the footman said and bowed his way out.
“Do you think something’s happened to Jesse?” Hallie demanded immediately, which was exactly what Andrew had been worrying about as well.
“No, of course not,” Andrew assured her. “Why ever would they send Cumberbatch to tell us that?” Except they might have done, if a letter had come to Ewell Priory. “Stay here. I’ll call for you if anything’s happened.”
Hallie nodded, her jaw tight.
Andrew wanted to linger over his breakfast – he had a vague memory that his father had never leapt up to attend to visitors – but he simply couldn’t wait.
Mr Cumberbatch was sitting in front of the fire in the drawing room, sipping from a cup of tea and regarding a pile of papers sitting on the table in front of himself.
“My Lord,” he said, starting to rise when he saw Andrew.
Andrew waved him back down. “Mr Cumberbatch,” he said. “Is anything amiss?”
“No, no,” Cumberbatch assured him, watching Andrew closely while he took a seat across from him. “Your family is quite well. I’m here with a message from Mr Eisenberg.”
There was something very slightly questioning in his tone, but he was too good at his job to just come out and ask. Andrew thought he had a perfect right to ask, considering he’d come to the wedding.
“Is Jesse – is Mr Eisenberg well?” Andrew asked eagerly, leaning forward. “Have you seen him?”
“Yes,” Cumberbatch said, simply. “I visited him in his rooms in Cambridge just this week.”
Andrew bit his lip. It wasn’t Cumberbatch’s job to give Andrew detailed information on his husband’s life.
“He seemed very well,” Cumberbatch added, voice gentler than normal.
Andrew nodded, grateful. “He has a message for me?” he asked, hands starting to shake. Jesse couldn’t be asking for a divorce; Andrew hadn’t done anything that terrible, he was sure.
“Yes,” Cumberbatch passed over a few sheets of paper. “Mr Eisenberg wishes to finalise certain financial details. Since he has returned to Cambridge, he has asked me to make sure that you and Miss Eisenberg are provided for.”
“Provided for?” Andrew echoed. That sounded very final. “But he is coming back, isn’t he?” The Easter break would begin in a few weeks; Andrew had been counting down the minutes.
Cumberbatch didn’t answer. “He proposes that you should have free access to his account with the bank for household expenditure as well as a small stipend for each of you every month.”
“He’s not coming back,” Andrew concluded, heart sinking. “I don’t care about the money. Does he know that?”
“If you’ll forgive me, you do care about the money,” Cumberbatch said gently. “If you’ll remember, the money was the reason for your marriage in the first place.”
Andrew groaned, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. He didn’t care about looking pathetic in front of Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch had already seen him at his worst, when it looked as though they might lose the Priory.
“I know,” he said unsteadily. “Thank you.”
There was a click as Cumberbatch set a quill pen down on the table. “The paperwork requires your signature,” he prompted.
Andrew shook his head, picking up the pen. He scanned his eyes over the top page, but didn’t take it in. None of the words made any sense right now.
“If I don’t sign this,” he asked, “What will happen? Will he have to come home?”
“No,” Cumberbatch told him. “But Miss Eisenberg will be worse off financially and so will you.”
“All right,” Andrew said. He could take a hint. “Where do I sign?”
Once the paperwork was complete, Andrew walked Cumberbatch to the front door himself.
“I’m sorry,” he said, trying to conjure up some of his usual good humour. “We only ever seem to meet when I’m in the doldrums. I hope you don’t dread visiting me too much.”
Cumberbatch smiled obligingly. “Not at all, My Lord,” he assured him. They’d reached the door now and his eyes flicked left and right before saying, his voice almost too soft to hear, “Mr Eisenberg is equally as troubled. He’s certainly taking no pleasure in your estrangement.”
Andrew’s heart did something complicated. It tried to squeeze at the awful thought of Jesse upset and also to leap with something like hope. The result was rather painful.
Still leaning forward slightly, Cumberbatch added, “My family tried to stop me marrying Tom.” He said it quickly, as though he hadn’t meant to confess anything of the sort. “The best marriages are worth fighting for.”
Andrew nodded, swallowing. “And sometimes it’s best to know when to give up.” As much as he loved Jesse and wanted to be with him, he wasn’t going to upset Jesse any further by trying to pursue it. He’d much rather break his own heart than Jesse’s.
Cumberbatch tipped his head, looking sad for Andrew, but he left without any more helpful comments. Andrew closed the door behind him then leant against it for a moment, composing himself.
“Andrew?” Hallie called from the breakfast room.
Andrew pasted on a smile before turning toward her. “Everything’s fine,” he called out brightly. “It was just some boring paperwork. Jesse sends his love; maybe you can go up and visit him soon.”
I do hope you’re well and enjoying Cambridge
but not too much. London is terribly quiet without you. Hallie is busy with her own social whirl; she seems to be a great success with all the right people.
I am not so busy. There seems little point going out and being happy when all I do is remember how much happier I was when you were here.
I wish I knew what I’d done to make you leave. Tell me? Whatever it is, I promise to fix it and spend my whole life apologising if only you’ll let me.
I love you. I’m so glad you married me. I…
Andrew swore, pushing back from his writing desk and crumpling the half-finished, much-edited letter between his fists. He couldn’t send it, of course he couldn’t send it, and even the act of writing it hadn’t helped him to feel any better.
He wished he were a better writer, more able to explain to Jesse not just how he felt but in a way that might make a difference to how Jesse felt.
Sighing and beginning to feel utterly fed up with himself and his inability to shake off this funk, Andrew dropped the letter into the bin and let himself out of the library.
The sound of voices filtered along from the drawing room, which was a surprise since he hadn’t been told they had guests.
“I honestly fail to see why this is so difficult for you to grasp,” Hallie was saying. She sounded frustrated and a little angry, so Andrew sped up his steps.
“Hallie?” he called, reaching for the door and pushing it fully open.
To his surprise, Hallie was in the room alone with Emma’s brother-in-law Justin. He and Hallie were sitting opposite each other, leaning closer together than was strictly appropriate.
The colour was high on Hallie’s cheeks, but not as high as it was on Justin’s. They both looked flustered by Andrew’s arrival, and he narrowed his eyes, wondering what he could possibly have walked into the middle of. Men of Justin’s age shouldn’t be having private conversations with girls of Hallie’s.
“Hello,” Andrew said, smiling blandly from one to the other of them. “This is a surprise.” He let his voice rise up at the end, a gentle question.
“Yes, um,” Justin surged to his feet, clasping Andrew’s hand before quickly releasing it. “I was just passing by. Emma asked me to drop some lady things off with Miss Eisenberg and – ”
Hallie made a sound, pressing her hand to her mouth and rolled her eyes. “Yes,” she said firmly, “that was very kind of you. Please thank Emma for the lady things.”
Justin bowed low. “Always a pleasure,” he said, arm twitching as though he was planning to kiss her hand but had then thought better of it. “Will I see you tonight?”
Hallie nodded. “Of course,” she said, looking up at him from under her eyelashes.
Wait, Andrew thought, staring at them. Was she - ? No, they couldn’t possibly be flirting. Hallie was too young to know how to flirt. At least, Andrew certainly hadn’t been very good at it at seventeen. He wasn’t even very good at it now.
“Tonight?” he prompted, because they seemed to have forgotten he was there, staring at each other, their eyes blinking at odd intervals.
“Miss Eisenberg is doing Emma and me the great pleasure of accompanying us to the opera,” Justin said smoothly. He glanced at Hallie then back at Andrew. “You’re welcome to join us, of course.”
It couldn’t have been more obvious that Andrew was anything but welcome. He considered taking Justin up on his offer anyway, since Hallie was his responsibility, but the fact of the matter was that he trusted her. She might be enjoying Justin’s attentions, but she wasn’t going to do anything indiscreet with as obvious a flirt as Justin. And as much as Andrew might privately worry about Emma’s friendship with Jesse, he knew she’d look after Hallie.
“No,” he said, and pretended not to see the relief on both their faces. “I have already made plans, but thank you. We’ll be seeing you later, then?”
“Yes.” Justin brought his hand up in a weak pretence at a salute and nodded at Hallie. “Miss Eisenberg.”
Hallie smiled and they both watched him take his leave. As soon as the door had closed behind him, Andrew rounded on Hallie, eyebrows as high as his incredulity.
“Really?” he asked. “You’re encouraging Justin?”
Hallie sniffed. “I’m doing nothing of the sort. I simply…” She trailed off, glancing away. She was blushing again.
Andrew sighed. “I suppose he is very handsome.”
“Oh?” Hallie asked innocently. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Of course not,” Andrew agreed, not believing a word. It was amusing to see her a little bit flustered and uncertain and, he thought, one of them should be happy about something. He supposed he could wait a little while before putting a stop to it.
“Where are you going tonight?” Hallie asked, apparently having regained her composure enough to quiz Andrew. “You told Just- Mr Timberlake that you had plans.”
That had been a spontaneous lie, but now that Andrew thought about it, Matt had invited him to dine at Haymarket tonight. “I’m having dinner with some friends,” he told her. He hadn’t told her about Matt’s current living arrangements, not sure how to phrase it in a way that wouldn’t lead to her asking far more questions than he could answer.
“Good,” Hallie said decisively. “You’ve been so sad.”
“What? Hallie.” Andrew forced himself to laugh. “I’m fine. A little lonely, but perfectly happy.”
“Hmm,” Hallie said, sounding unconvinced. She bit her lip, looking guilty. “I don’t have to go out tonight, if you’d rather we stayed at home together?”
Andrew shook his head. He wasn’t in the mood to be relentlessly chipper – which was the only sort of behaviour that would completely reassure her. “You go out, enjoy yourself.” He narrowed his eyes, hoping he looked at least a little paternal. “But don’t enjoy yourself too much.”
Hallie smiled. He was a little surprised that she didn’t scold him for worrying, and even more surprised when instead, she crossed the room to him, wrapping her arms around him and standing on tiptoes to kiss his cheek.
“I love you,” she said.
For some strange reason, Andrew’s throat became instantly choked. “I, I, I love you too,” he said. “Obviously.”
Hallie pulled back, her smile a little wobbly. “Obviously,” she agreed. She squeezed his hand. “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right again soon.”
“Everything’s fine now,” Andrew said automatically because he hated people to know when he wasn’t happy and he especially hated that he’d apparently truly worried Hallie. “How could it not be? I have you.”
To his surprise, Hallie didn’t smile back, just nodded firmly. “That’s right,” she agreed, with a decisive little bounce of her head. “You do.”
“No one loves me,” Matt sighed to Andrew when Arthur laughingly rebuffed him for the tenth time.
Andrew stared at him. “Everyone loves you,” he contradicted, since that was certainly true in this house at least.
Matt wrapped his gangly arms around Andrew’s waist from behind and propped his chin on Andrew’s shoulder. “Did you hear about Carey?” he asked.
Karen and Arthur stilled for a moment then busily got to work talking very loudly and clattering wine glasses around with unnecessary force.
“No?” Andrew asked warily. “Is she well?”
“She’s engaged,” Matt said simply then tightened his arms around Andrew as though he expected Andrew to fly into a jealous rage or succumb to the vapours or something.
“Oh,” Andrew breathed, feeling a smile start to spread across his face. He turned around, forcing Matt to let go of him. “Really? To whom?”
Matt was watching him carefully. “A Mr Marcus Mumford. Don’t know him myself but I hear he’s a decent sort of fellow. You aren’t upset, are you?”
Andrew laughed. The last thing he was was upset. “I’m delighted for her,” he said honestly. “Why, did you imagine I was pining for her? You know who I miss.”
Matt made a face “True enough, but I thought with Jesse gone, you might have been considering – ”
“No,” Andrew said firmly, more harshly than he’d intended. “Sorry. Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap.”
Matt waved the apology away. “No matter, it was me and my big – ”
He broke off, looking around in confusion as the sudden sound of urgent banging filled the room. “Whatever is that?”
“Someone at the front door,” Arthur said, rising to his feet. Karen followed him, drawing her shawl around her shoulders and picking up the poker from the fireplace.
Matt and Andrew glanced at each other then followed them.
Of all the people who could be at the door, Mr Cumberbatch’s husband Mr Hardy would never even have occurred to Andrew.
“There you are,” Hardy said, eyes roving around the hallway before narrowing in on Andrew. “We’ve been scouring half of London looking for you.”
He walked straight into the house, barely sparing a nod for Arthur and Karen, who were staring at him in justifiable confusion. Mr Hardy was a big man and he nearly filled their little entranceway.
“What are you doing here?” Andrew demanded, shaking himself out of his shock. “I don’t – ”
“Your driver said he’d dropped you around here so Benedict and me have been knocking on every door in the area.”
A cold feeling of dread started to settle over Andrew. “Why?” he asked. “What’s happened?”
Hardy started to look uncomfortable. “Benedict should probably be the one to – ”
“No,” Andrew said quickly, “tell me now.” He felt a hand slip into his, squeezing reassuringly.
Hardy blew out a breath then squared his shoulders. “It’s Miss Eisenberg,” he said plainly. “She’s eloped.”
Hardy nodded. “Benedict thinks there’s a good chance you can catch up to them if you leave now.” He looked closely at Andrew. “Are you sober enough to make the journey?”
“Yes,” Andrew said quickly. He was feeling shaky but that wasn’t due to any alcohol. How could he have been so stupid as to let this happen? How could he have let Jesse’s baby sister try to ruin herself like this? He turned to Matt, who was still holding his hand. “I have to – ”
Matt gave him a little push toward Hardy and the door. “Go. Send word if we can help in any way.”
Andrew nodded and followed Hardy out of the house, mind caught up in a daze. “I can’t believe she’d be so foolish,” he mumbled, mostly talking to himself since he barely knew Hardy and there was no reason for Hardy to care.
“Young people in love do stupid things,” Hardy told him, shrugging. He put a hand on Andrew’s arm, turning him toward a side street. “Come on, I left Benedict knocking on doors up this way; he should still be – Aha, there he is.”
Cumberbatch was bounding down a flight of front steps, waving at them. “Oh thank god,” he said, clasping Andrew’s wrist, his voice and gestures more emphatic than Andrew had ever before seen them. “Did Tom tell you what happened?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, voice coming out gravelly. “Thank you for, for coming to find me, I’m not sure what... I don’t...” He broke off, clearing his throat. “What do you think I should do?”
Cumberbatch looked grave. “First thing’s first, we need to find them. We can’t make any more plans until then. If we can catch up to them quickly enough, we may be able to avoid a scandal. If not, marriage will be the only thing for it.”
Andrew swallowed; he felt sick. Hallie was so young, he didn’t want her married off to someone she barely knew. “Are they gone to Gretna Green?” So long a journey would require at least two overnight stops. If Andrew couldn’t reach Hallie before that, she’d be as good as ruined.
“So Mrs Timberlake believes.” Cumberbatch started hurrying along the pavement toward a waiting carriage and Andrew and Hardy fell into step behind him.
“Emma?” Andrew asked. “She knew?”
“No, not at all.” Cumberbatch held the carriage door open for Andrew, then followed him inside while Hardy spoke to the driver. “She became suspicious this evening and questioned Timberlake’s valet, who was unhappy about the plan to begin with and willingly told her everything.”
“We should ask her to come with us,” Andrew said, thinking quickly. “Hallie will need a chaperone, if they’re not already married, and – ”
“Mrs Timberlake has already offered her services,” Cumberbatch assured him. “We’re to pick her up en route.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said again. “You’ve thought of everything.”
Hardy joined them in the carriage and it lurched away into the street. “Did you tell him about the horses?” he asked Cumberbatch. To Andrew, he explained, “I’ve a friend who raises horses in Kent. It’ll mean a detour to pick them up, but we’ll stand a much better chance of catching them on horseback than travelling by carriage.”
That sounded like a fantastic plan to Andrew. He wished that he could clear the fog of shock from his brain long enough to think of other things they might reasonably be doing. “Has anyone sent word to Jesse?” At Cumberbatch’s denial, Andrew nodded, relieved. “Let’s not. It would break his heart to think of Hallie in any kind of trouble.”
“As you wish,” Cumberbatch agreed. He hesitated and then added, “Although it might provide him with a reason to return to London for a time...”
“No,” Andrew said, vehemently. “No, let’s not... I don’t... It can’t be like that.” Andrew couldn’t use his poor guardianship skills as an excuse to lure Jesse back home. He wasn’t selfish enough to risk worrying Jesse just for a chance to see him again.
The carriage pulled up outside Emma’s London residence before Cumberbatch could say anything further. She was waiting on the pavement and jumped into the carriage before any of them could stand or offer her a hand up.
“Oh my god, Andrew,” she said, throwing herself at him. “I’m so sorry. Oh god, can you ever forgive me?”
Andrew squeezed her hands, moving over so she could sit beside him. “I can only thank you,” he said sincerely. “If you hadn’t been so quick on the uptake, we still might not have known anything was amiss.”
“But I encouraged them,” Emma said wretchedly. “I thought it was sweet how taken Justin was with Hallie. He’s never shown much interest in so sensible a girl before; I thought she’d be good for him.” She curled her hands over her knees, knuckles turning white. “If it’s any help, I fully intend to wring his damn neck three times over when we find them.”
Hardy laughed, trying and failing to look abashed when Cumberbatch glared at him. “Let’s catch them first, ma’am,” he said, still grinning. “I was just telling Lord Epsom that we’ll be riding. You all right with that?”
“Yes,” Emma said firmly. “If someone can lend me a pair of britches, I can outride the lot of you.”
Cumberbatch coughed. “I’m not sure that would be – ”
Emma raised a hand. “If you say ‘seemly’, so help me, I’ll...” She coughed. “Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just so angry with Justin. I can’t believe he’s done this to me.”
Andrew patted her hand. “I’m sure it was at least half Hallie’s idea. She’s very unlikely to have been persuaded to do anything she didn’t already want to do.” And that was the hardest thing to bear; she’d deliberately planned to do this, knowing how much it would hurt him and Jesse and her own reputation.
“Maybe,” Emma sighed. She sagged back against the cushioned seat. “Maybe I’ll only murder him once if that’s the case.”
True to her word, Emma easily kept pace with them: outriding Cumberbatch, who didn’t seem particularly experienced, and Hardy who was keeping pace with him; bending low over her horse’s head to keep level with Andrew.
They stopped to water the horses in Barnet, but didn’t wait to eat or drink themselves. The owner of the coaching inn remembered having seen a couple matching Justin and Hallie’s descriptions just an hour earlier.
It was full-dark by now, just a few confused birds beginning to sing as they continued on along the Great North Road. Andrew’s hip was aching by the time they approached Hatfield, pain shooting down into his thigh with each bump in the road. He hadn’t ridden this long or this hard since before he was wounded, but he wasn’t about to let anything slow him down now.
“Are you well?” Emma called across to him, frowning when he couldn’t hold back a grunt of pain.
Andrew waved away her concern. “Fine,” he shouted back, the wind whipping away his words.
She didn’t look convinced, but didn’t argue, and soon they were stabling the horses at another inn. They were met at the door by a harassed-looking woman in an apron and widow’s bonnet.
“Are you here after the girl?” she asked, sounding anxious. At their nods, she sighed, pressing a hand to her heart. “Thank the lord. I knew something wasn’t right but they were both so very adamant. They’re in the bedroom at the top of the stairs, first on the right.”
Andrew’s heart sank. “Come on,” he said to Emma, grabbing her hand to pull her along. Emma didn’t need any encouragement, racing after Andrew up the stairs.
Andrew took a deep breath, terrified at what he might find, then flung open the door the landlady had indicated.
Hallie cried out in alarm when she saw the door open but Andrew didn’t care about that, scanning his eyes quickly around the room. Thank god, they were both still dressed. Hallie was standing by the window and Justin was sitting on the bed, although he jumped to his feet when he saw Andrew and Emma.
“How did you find us?” he asked, looking startled and alarmed but not nearly guilty enough.
Relief and fear and an unaccustomed anger made Andrew reckless. Pulling off his gloves, he stalked across the room and threw one at Justin’s feet. “Name your weapons, sir.”
“Andrew!” Hallie gasped. “What are you doing? You can’t – ”
Andrew ignored her. He was too angry to listen to her right now, scared he might say something horrible that he’d soon regret.
Justin, too, was gaping at him. “No,” he said, sounding horrified. “I won’t fight you.” He cast a wide-eyed look at Hallie who stared back at him. “You really need to let Hallie – ”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” Andrew snapped crossly. He’d had a horrible month and this was genuinely the icing on the cake. If there was one more thing he could possibly do for Hallie and Jesse, it was demand that this not go unanswered. “Friends of mine are downstairs, I’m sure one of them will be your second, now, damn it, will you name your weapons?”
Justin looked shocked and, to be honest, so was Andrew; he was usually dreadful at being forceful. “Pistols,” he stammered out. “But honestly, you really – ”
“Good.” Andrew turned to Emma, who was blinking at him but not, Andrew noticed, telling him that he was wrong to have called Justin out. “Will you take care of Hallie, please? Justin, I’ll see you at dawn.”
“Andrew,” Hallie called again, sounding wretched, but Andrew didn’t stop. His heart felt like it was ripping in two. He knew he should be worried about the duel, but he wasn’t. The only thing Andrew had ever really been good at was serving in the army, and he was a damn good shot.
Hardy was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. “Need a second?” he asked knowingly.
Andrew nodded, grateful. “Yes, please.” He sat down heavily on the stairs, dropping his head into his hands. “Am I wrong to have called him out?”
“Nah.” Hardy lent against the wall, arms folded. “Although, where I’m from, a round or two in the boxing ring would have been more the style.”
Andrew looked up at him, offering a wobbly smile. “Then I’m glad I never lived there; I don’t think I’d be any good at boxing.”
“Are you any good at shooting?” Hardy asked.
“Yes,” Andrew said, insides twinging with guilt; he didn’t want to hurt Justin, not really. “Yes, I am.”
“She shouldn’t be here,” he murmured to Hardy who was handing him his pistols.
Hardy shrugged. “Emma wanted to be here, so there was no keeping her away.”
Andrew swallowed. “If I’m... If anything happens, will you make sure Hallie doesn’t see too much.” Not that he was worried that Justin would deliberately try to kill him, but accidents happened. “And would you – ”
Hardy clapped him soundly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, if the bounder kills you, I’ll make sure Benedict spins a touching tale of love and devotion to your Mr Eisenberg. Quite a way with words, my husband.”
For some reason, that made Andrew’s throat sting. “Mine too,” he said, nodding and trying not to think about how angry Jesse would be if he knew Andrew was putting himself in harm’s way like his. That was, if he cared at all, of course.
“Ready?” Cumberbatch called. He was acting as Justin’s second, but he wasn’t happy about it.
“Ready,” Hardy called back and gave Andrew a reassuring pat on the back. “Aim for the pelvis,” he said, “really painful, won’t kill him.”
Andrew nodded sharply, and deliberately didn’t point out that he knew from experience exactly how much it hurt to receive a bullet there. He took the first pistol from Hardy and stepped forward.
Justin’s hands were clearly shaking where he stood waiting for Andrew. “I could apologise?” he offered as they met, back to back, but Andrew shook his head. He wanted to accept, he really did, but he had to do this; what Justin had done was too serious to atone for any other way.
“Ten paces, gentleman, one shot,” Cumberbatch reminded them, and they set off.
Andrew’s hand was steady on his pistol, but his mind was starting to rebel. He should have left Jesse a note, he thought, not just trusted Cumberbatch to make something up. If he died and Jesse never knew...
He reached ten paces and turned. He brought his pistol up, slipping his finger onto the trigger, and took a steadying breath.
He locked eyes with Justin, who stared back fixedly and then aimed his pistol into the air, high above Andrew’s head. Andrew stared in shock for half a heartbeat, then called out, “Wait!”
Justin waited, pistol still cocked but as yet unfired.
“What are you doing?” Andrew demanded, taking a step forward. “You can’t do that.”
“Technically he can,” Cumberbatch said apologetically. “If he chooses to delope, the duel’s over. That’s simply how it’s done.”
“To hell with what’s done, Benedict, the boy deserves some satisfaction,” Hardy argued.
Andrew ignored them both, striding across the twenty paces between him and Justin, handing his still-loaded pistol back to Hardy in passing.
“What are you doing?” he asked again. Justin was a little bit taller than Andrew and Andrew wasn’t normally very good at confrontation but neither of those things stopped him from going almost nose-to-nose with Justin now.
“I’m not going to shoot you,” Justin told him, spreading his hands helplessly. “Listen, there are things you don’t know. I promised I wouldn’t break a confidence, but I’m sure Hallie – ”
Andrew clasped Justin’s arm, just above the elbow. “I intend to have my duel, Mr Timerblake,” he said firmly. Something wide and trapped filled the edges of Justin’s expression and Andrew took a little pity on him. Lowering his voice, he added, “I have no plans to kill you, you don’t have to be afraid.”
Before Justin could reply, there was a sharp sound from the treeline and then Hallie was running toward them, apparently able to hold back no longer. Behind her, Andrew saw Emma throw up her hands and then give chase.
“Andrew,” Hallie said, skidding to a halt on the wet ground, one hand clutching Andrew’s sleeve. “You’re not to duel any more. I’m sorry, this was all my idea, Justin didn’t want any part in it.”
“That’s not the point,” Andrew told her. “I can hardly call you out and if I do nothing and society gets wind of this, which they will, then you’ll be ruined forever.” He hated the heartbroken look on her face, but there was no helping it.
“For goodness’ sake,” Emma panted, interrupting their standoff. She was slip-sliding through the grass, her slippers clearly getting no grip in the early-morning dew. “Are we having a duel or not? And if not, can we please go inside, it’s freezing out here.”
She’d almost reached them when her foot landed on an unstable piece of turf, causing her to slip. Andrew reached for her automatically, steadying her with his right arm and ending up supporting all her weight for the time it took her to regain her feet. A shock of pain rolled out from his hip, but he ignored it as he always did.
“No,” Justin said firmly, “We’re not duelling. Come on, Garfield, we’ll have tea and then Hallie is going to explain some things to you. Aren’t you?” That last was said very pointedly to Hallie who sighed and nodded.
“Yes.” She reached out for Andrew. “Please?”
Andrew had never been very good at getting angry and he was worse at staying angry. He sighed. “Fine,” he agreed, “but I reserve the right to reconvene if whatever you have to say isn’t very, very convincing.”
Hallie flashed him a smile, all innocence and relief. “It will be,” she promised.
“Thank god for that,” Justin said with feeling and threw his duelling pistol down onto the ground.
There was a moment while the pistol was still falling where everything hung, neatly poised, and then the pistol landed, hammer first on the hard, frosty ground. Andrew used the grip he still had on Emma to push her out of the way, and then there was a flash at the end of the barrel, a horribly familiar bang and –
– and then Andrew wasn’t aware of anything but shouts and pain and encroaching darkness.
He tried to sit up, but his arms refused to hold him, so he flopped back down against the pillows.
“Hello?” he called, staring up at the ceiling. It was a very familiar ceiling. It was, in fact, the ceiling of his bedroom back at Ewell Priory. That was a surprise, but actually, rather a lovely one; it was nice to be home.
There was a sound from the corner of the room and Andrew turned toward it, feeling his eyes widen when he took in Jesse, sleepily uncurling from an armchair in a shadowed corner of the room.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, reaching out for him.
A book fell from Jesse’s lap onto the floor but he didn’t stop to pick it up, just crossed the room in a handful of hasty steps and clutched Andrew’s outstretched hand. “How are you feeling?” he asked, squeezing Andrew’s fingers hard. “Do you feel better? Please tell me you feel better.”
“I feel better,” Andrew promised. He wasn’t sure how he’d been feeling before, but Jesse was here and holding his hand so he certainly felt very well indeed.
Jesse closed his eyes, breathing loud and fast. “You were shot in the thigh,” he said roughly. “Do you remember?”
For a moment, Andrew didn’t remember anything but how much he’d missed Jesse. Then it all came flooding back. “Hallie!” he said, trying again to sit up, this time putting more energy into it and nearly succeeding.
Jesse braced him, one hand on his back, supporting him until he could lean against the wall. “Hallie’s fine,” he said quickly. “Well, she’s absolutely miserable but it’s no more than she deserves, so.”
“Oh no,” Andrew said, biting his lip. “Not too miserable, I hope?”
Jesse sighed. “I’m going to pretend that your ridiculous soft-heartedness is due to blood loss and not a complete lack of sense.”
Hearing that made Andrew wince, feeling guilty. “I was horrible to Justin,” he confessed. “I shouted at him and everything.”
“Yes, and then he shot you,” Jesse reminded him. “Not to mention, he did run off with our little sister. Do you remember that part?”
Andrew’s insides warmed at the idea that Jesse considered Hallie their sister, not just Jesse’s alone. He’d missed their little family terribly. Instead of answering, he just smiled helplessly at Jesse. “It’s so lovely to see you.”
Jesse coughed. “Yes, well, I’m. I’m, um, you were. What else could I do but come home when you went and got yourself shot. I had to make sure they were looking after you properly. I wouldn’t make a very attractive widower.”
“Of course you would,” Andrew said staunchly. “You make an attractive everything.” He was sure he was allowed to flirt with Jesse now, even if Jesse was still cross with him. Getting shot had to have some perks.
Jesse blushed and started to stand up, looking suddenly awkward when he released Andrew’s hands, clearly only just realising he was still holding them. Andrew hadn’t thought of anything else, to be perfectly honest.
“I should let you go back to sleep,” Jesse said awkwardly. “The doctor said you need a lot of rest.”
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, catching Jesse’s sleeve. “You’re not going to go away again, are you?”
Jesse stared at him, wide-eyed, then shook his head. “Not for the moment,” he said softly, making Andrew’s chest relax with relief. “Aunt Susan and Hallie have asked me to stay until you’re back on your feet.”
Andrew nodded, dropping Jesse’s sleeve and refusing to feel disappointed that Jesse wasn’t staying for him. He was staying and that was the important thing.
Jesse hovered by the side of the bed for another moment then bent quickly and kissed the centre of Andrew’s forehead. “I’m glad you’re all right,” he said roughly.
Andrew smiled up at him, skin feeling tingly where Jesse’s lips had been. He leant his head back, pillows soft behind his neck and closed his eyes. Despite the pain from his newest bullet wound, he felt calmer than he had for a long while.
She lurked in the doorway, a pale, uncertain shadow of her usually bouncy self until Andrew frowned at her, asking, “Are you sure you’re my Hallie Kate? Where’s my hug?”
Hallie made a choked sound and threw herself at him, tumbling onto the bed the way she had when she was a child, crawling up the duvet and pressing her face into his shoulder. He couldn’t make out much from between the hiccuping sobs that tugged at his heart but he thought she was saying, “Sorry, sorry,” over and over again.
“Hallie,” Andrew said, upset to see her so upset. He shifted as carefully as he could, putting his arms around her and kissing the top of her head. “Darling, whatever’s the matter?”
Hallie pulled back, sniffing hard and glaring up at him like he was stupid. Which perhaps he was, since he had no idea why she was crying. “You nearly died,” she said, eyes brimming over again, although she brushed those tears away angrily. “I nearly got you killed.”
“Well, hardly,” Andrew said, as reasonably as he knew how. “Justin should have known not to throw pistols around as though they were toys, but I’m the one who insisted on the duel.”
“Because I ran away. Stop being so forgiving.” She did look genuinely annoyed that he wasn’t cross with her. “Especially as we weren’t even… That is…” She pulled out of his arms and sat up straight, ringing her hands together. “Oh, you’re going to hate me so much.”
“Never,” Andrew promised, meaning it. “You’re, you’re my, you’re my little sister, remember?” Jesse had said it first, after all; Andrew was fairly certain that meant he could say it now too.
Hallie stared at him, eyes wide and surprised. Then she started sniffling again, which hadn’t been Andrew’s intention at all. “Justin and I were never eloping,” she confessed in one broken, breathless rush.
Andrew blinked at her. “No,” he said slowly, “I’m sure you were. I found you, remember?”
“No,” Hallie said, “Well, yes, but we weren’t really – We weren’t…” She rubbed her face, took a deep breath and said clearly, “We never intended to be married. I thought it would be a grand scheme to run away so that you would worry and call Jesse home from Cambridge so the two of you could reconcile. I didn’t think you’d find us so quickly.”
Andrew could only stare. “You ran away because Jesse and I, because we were on the outs? Hallie-Kate.”
“I know,” Hallie told him, holding up a hand. “Jesse has already shouted at me and Aunt Susan and Emma are cross with me and Emma slapped Justin and, and, and I was only trying to help. You were so unhappy.”
Andrew reached out and pulled her back into his arms. She rested her cheek on his shoulder and breathed wetly into his ear.
“My happiness is no reason to risk yours,” he told her sternly. “If we hadn’t found you, you would have had to marry Justin, whether you loved him or not.”
Hallie shrugged, shoulders moving against his. “I know. I was prepared to risk it. He’s not a bad match, not really. And I rather fancy being a married woman; Emma says there’s much more freedom in it.”
“Does she?” asked Andrew, who hadn’t noticed his own freedoms much changed by marriage. Although he wasn’t a woman; he already had all the freedoms he could possibly want.
“I never meant for you to get hurt,” Hallie said softly. She paused then added, “Although it did get Jesse home, didn’t it?”
Andrew couldn’t help laughing. “Excuse me, I think you’ll find that I got Jesse to come home, by cunningly getting myself shot and then nearly bleeding death.”
Hallie laughed with him then stopped herself abruptly. “I’m not sure if that’s allowed to be funny yet,” she said uncertainly.
“It is, if I say it is,” Andrew assured her, kissing her softly on the cheek. “And I do.”
Hallie sighed, curling up against him. After a while, when she no longer sounded on the brink of tears, she picked up the book that he’d been pretending to read and flicked through the pages. “I don’t like this one,” she declared, “is it one of Jesse’s?”
“Yes,” Andrew said, refusing to feel embarrassed. Jesse had taken to reading in here while Andrew napped but he never stayed long after Andrew woke up. Andrew had hoped that by reading the same book, they might have something to talk about, but he really hadn’t been able to enjoy this one at all so far.
“It’s boring,” Hallie told him blandly. “I’ve read it. You should read this new novel that Emma leant me. It’s called Sense and Sensibility and it’s by an anonymous lady; it’s very good.”
To be honest, that did sound much more to Andrew’s taste than all this Greek nonsense. “You’ll have to lend it to me,” he said. “In fact, why don’t you go and get it? You could read me some before dinner.”
That had been a good idea, he thought, when her face lit up and she sped off to her own room; she was enough Jesse’s sister that books almost always improved her mood.
When his door opened a few minutes later, he looked up, expecting it to be Hallie returning. Instead, Jesse was standing in the doorway, watching him with a strangely soft expression on his face.
“Apparently the finest works of Homer are boring?” he asked, a smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
Andrew blushed, even though it would hardly be a surprise to Jesse to learn that he was much cleverer than Andrew. “There are no pictures,” he complained, “How am I supposed to properly understand poor Helen’s plight without pictures?”
“Poor Helen?” Jesse asked, sounding curious and, oh dear, Andrew really hadn’t meant to start a literary discussion. “Two people love her enough to go to war over her; that doesn’t sound too bad.”
“You’d hate it,” Andrew said then thought that perhaps he shouldn’t be so familiar anymore, perhaps he should have pretended to know Jesse less well than he did.
Jesse didn’t seem to mind though. “I would,” he agreed, nodding.
“And Helen’s always being pulled away from the person she loves,” Andrew pointed out, warming to his topic. “It’s terrible to be away from the person you love.” He felt his cheeks get hot because, damn, apparently he couldn’t even say the word love around Jesse anymore.
Jesse looked away sharply. “Yes,” he said, sounding much less warm than he had a moment before.
Andrew sucked in a breath, feeling an old, familiar pain that was nothing to do with the bullet wound. Somehow, in all the excitement with Hallie and Justin, he’d forgotten his suspicions about Jesse and Emma.
“What’s wrong?” Hallie asked in a small voice a moment later. “Are you fighting?”
“No,” Andrew said too quickly at the same time that Jesse said, “Of course not.”
Hallie didn’t look convinced. She held the book out to Andrew, looking uncertain. “I could just leave this with you?” she offered. “If the two of you need to not-fight some more?”
“No.” Jesse shook his head. “You’re going to read to Andrew, aren’t you? I’ll leave you to do that.”
“Stay.” The words came out of Andrew’s mouth before he’d thought about them. When both Jesse and Hallie turned to look at him, he had to plough on. “Hallie could read to us both. It would do you good to read something that was written after the Old Testament was finished.”
Jesse shook his head. “I need to talk to Aunt Susan about – ”
“Later,” Andrew said, with a meaningful look at Hallie, who was pulling a chair over to the side of Andrew’s bed and didn’t notice. She thinks you’re cross, he mouthed, which was perfectly true and also a little bit emotionally manipulative. Andrew felt guilty, but not guilty enough to take it back.
Jesse sighed, clearly aware that he was being tricked, which made Andrew feel better about having done it. He pulled another chair up alongside Hallie’s, which was disappointing since Andrew had been secretly hoping he’d sit on the bed with him.
“All right, Hallie Kate, thrill me,” Jesse said, turning all his attention on her.
Hallie straightened her back, clearly intending to do just that. “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex…”
Andrew glanced over at Jesse. His eyes were fixed on Hallie, clearly listening closely. His eyelashes cast shadows across his cheeks and his lips were slightly parted.
It was possible that Andrew didn’t listen to much of that first chapter, but he did spend a wonderful afternoon, just looking at Jesse’s much-loved face.
Andrew’s one comfort was that if anything did happen to him, she would always have Hallie and Jesse to turn to.
“Andrew, oh my goodness,” Carey said, grabbing his hands as soon as she arrived. She was followed by her parents who were apparently feeling more charitable toward Andrew now, either following his near-death experience or, more likely, because Carey was now happily engaged to someone else.
Andrew laughed, shaking his head. “I’ve had much worse,” he assured her. He patted his hip. “And at least it’s all down the same side. I would have looked a fright if I’d limped with both legs.”
Carey bit her lip, not looking any happier. “It’s just so dreadful. Highwaymen, in Hatfield.”
“Yes, terrible,” Andrew said and made a mental note to explain to her what had really happened. Highwaymen had made a good cover story, since no one wanted word of the real story to get out, but Carey deserved to know that it was no less safe than usual to travel the Great North Road.
When they took their seats at the dinner table, it felt strangely reminiscent of the last time they’d all sat here, before Andrew and Jesse had even been married. Jesse was sitting across from Andrew now, having insisted that Carey have the chair beside Andrew’s.
“Have you set a date for the service yet?” Hallie asked Carey as soon as the first course had been served.
Carey laughed, nodding. “June this year,” she said. “Marcus’s position takes him abroad often, so we wanted to marry as soon as possible, so that I could go with him. I’ve always longed to travel.”
She looked bright and happy in a way that Andrew knew he wouldn’t have been able give her. The thought didn’t make him feel anything but pleased, since they’d both fallen in love now, both had had a chance to learn how it felt, even if his was hopelessly unrequited.
A clatter turned everyone’s eyes to Jesse. He blushed, looking directly at Carey for possibly the first time this evening. “M-marry?” he asked, voice strange in a way that Andrew didn’t know how to determine.
“Yes?” Carey asked. She glanced at Andrew who shrugged. He hadn’t mentioned it to Jesse, but he’d assumed Hallie would. “I’ve been betrothed since January.”
Jesse’s face looked very strange but he didn’t ask anything else, just shook his head, almost to himself. “Please accept my best wishes,” he said hurriedly, still in that tight, flat voice. He pushed away from the table. “Excuse me, I’m sorry, I forgot that I… need to be somewhere else.”
“Jesse?” Mama called after him, sounding just as confused as Andrew felt.
“Did I say something wrong?” Carey asked, sounding distressed. She turned to Andrew. “Every time I try to be his friend, I think I ruin it somehow.”
“I can’t imagine it was anything you said,” Andrew promised her, frowning. “Mama, do you mind if I - ?”
Mama shook her head. “No, please, go and check on him. He’s been behaving very strangely since you all came home.” She laughed. “I do hope all that education hasn’t driven him mad.”
“I would love to go to Cambridge,” Hallie sighed, as Andrew left the room. “Do you think I might?”
Andrew felt strangely calm about the whole thing. He’d survived worse, as he’d told Carey, and so he knew he could survive this. He did wish he’d stopped to pick up his cane, though; the stairs were an almost insurmountable obstacle.
He made it to the fourth step before he had to stop, leaning heavily on the banisters and breathing hard.
“The hell are you doing?” Joe’s voice floated down to him and then there was a clatter of running steps, Joe’s hand on his elbow, helping to steady him.
Andrew groaned, straightening up. “Making an idiot of myself, I think,” he said, mentally reminding himself to warn Joe not to be quite so familiar in public since poor old Ford would probably have had a fit if he’d overheard. “Have you seen Mr Eisenberg? I seem to have lost him.”
“Yes, he came running upstairs two minutes ago, shut himself in his bedroom.” Joe tightened his grip on Andrew’s arm, sighing. “I suppose that means you want me to help you all the way up the stairs.”
“Please,” Andrew said with his most winning – although possibly slightly strained – smile.
Joe rolled his eyes heavenward. “You’re going to kill yourself over that man one day,” he warned, nevertheless, helping Andrew onto the next step.
Andrew shook his head. “I don’t mind,” he said. “That would be a fine way to go.”
It was Joe’s turn to groan. “I hope to god I never fall in love, then,” he said, although he sounded as thought he was at least mostly joking. “If it’s that dangerous to human health.”
“Shut up and help me up the stairs,” Andrew told him cheerfully. “I miss my husband.”
Joe deposited Andrew at Jesse’s bedroom door and then walked away, still shaking his head.
Andrew smiled and knocked softly. “Jesse?” he called. “Jesse, are you well?”
There was no response for long enough that Andrew started to wonder if he’d snuck out of the window while Andrew and Joe were on the stairs.
“Jesse?” he tried again. “My leg really hurts. I’d love to be able to sit down.”
The bedroom door unlocked with a click and then Jesse’s face peered out. “Go back to the dining room,” he advised. “You can sit there for as long as you want.”
“Can’t,” Andrew said easily, “Joe had to help me up the stairs, and he’s not here anymore.”
Jesse stared at him then sighed. “All right,” he said, stepping back.
Andrew pushed the door open and then nearly jumped out of his skin when something small and furry leapt up at his knees.
“Oh my goodness,” he said, laughing as a small, grey cat slinked around his feet. “Where did you come from?”
“Cambridge,” Jesse said, sounding awkward. “She, um. She sort of adopted me when I came back after Christmas. I couldn’t just leave her there when I left.”
“No, of course not,” Andrew agreed, captivated by the way the little thing jumped up toward his hand when he reached down for her. “What’s her name?”
“Magdalene,” Jesse said, “After, um, after the college. Maggie for short.”
“Maggie,” Andrew said, sitting down into the chair Jesse offered him and smiling widely when she jumped straight onto his lap. “Hello, Maggie.”
Jesse sat down on the bed and didn’t say a word, just watched while Andrew stroked Maggie behind the ears, listening to her purr grow much louder than should have been possible from such a tiny scrap of a cat.
“Carey thinks you don’t like her,” Andrew said after the silence had stretched on long enough.
Jesse’s expression turned shifty and Andrew started to worry that maybe Jesse really didn’t like her; he’d put Jesse’s stiltedness around her down to shyness. Jesse was always especially shy around people who were trying to make friends.
“I was just, um, I was surprised. I didn’t, didn’t realise she was betrothed.”
Andrew nodded. “Well, she is.”
“Since, um, since January, she said?”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, increasingly confused. “I didn’t find out until later.”
“Obviously,” Jesse muttered then clearly wished he hadn’t by the way he looked away.
“Jesse?” Andrew prompted. He tried to lean forward, but Maggie batted his chest lightly with her paws, apparently not appreciating her perch moving.
Jesse bit his lip. “I meant… I just meant.” He took a deep breath. “I meant that since you were declaring your undying love to her in January, that I should hope that you didn’t know she was to marry someone else.”
Andrew stared at him. “Pardon,” he managed faintly. “I’ve never pledged my undying anything to Carey.” Except possibly his friendship and that was more an unspoken understanding. “And certainly not in January.” In January, he’d realised he was in love with Jesse. That there would never be anyone else.
“I heard you,” Jesse said softly. “It’s all right. I don’t blame you. You’ve loved her much longer than you’ve been married to me.”
Now Andrew had to go to him. He picked Maggie up and deposited her on the empty chair with an apologetic pat between the ears.
Jesse watched him warily as he limped across the room to sit beside Jesse on the bed. “Should I not have said anything?” he asked, then tipped his chin up, stubbornly brave. “I think I have a right to at least mention it and so does Carey’s fiancé, if the poor bastard even knows.”
“You’re ridiculous,” Andrew told him, heart beating loud enough to feel inside his chest. “I’m not in love with Carey; I’ve never been in love with Carey. She’s my best friend and that’s the only reason I ever thought of marrying her.”
“I heard you,” Jesse repeated, “that night at the ball.”
Andrew wracked his brains, but he couldn’t remember that night too clearly. It was all overshadowed by the realisation that he loved Jesse and then by Jesse leaving. Wait.
“You heard me say something to Carey and then you left? Was that why you went back to Cambridge?” There was a tiny, desperate glimmer of hope in his heart, so fragile that it hurt.
Jesse didn’t say anything, just stared down at his knees. “I didn’t want to stand in your way,” he mumbled eventually.
Andrew put his hand on Jesse’s knee, squeezing hard. “You’ve never been in my way,” he promised. “I was a disaster of a person when you went away. I was so unhappy.”
Jesse looked up. “Why?” he asked, eyes wide with something that Andrew was scared to think might be the same sort of hope he was feeling.
“Because,” Andrew said uselessly. “Because I, I, because you made me happier than I ever wanted to be and then you went away and it, it felt like I couldn’t be happy anymore.”
He glanced up at Jesse, chewing on his lower lip. He probably shouldn’t have said that; it wasn’t fair. If he were braver, though, he would have said a lot more.
“I couldn’t breathe when I heard you tell Carey you loved her.” Jesse squared his shoulders and it occurred to Andrew that one of them was about to be brave, but it wasn’t him. “Do you remember, just before we left for the ball, I was going to ask you something?”
“Yes?” Andrew prompted, unconsciously leaning toward him. He’d thought over and over again about what that could have been.
Jesse’s cheeks were pink and he was twisting his hands together but he didn’t back down. “I was going to ask if there was a chance that… You kept being so nice to me and touching me and that night when you got really drunk with Joe? You told me that you loved me.”
Andrew stopped breathing.
Whatever Jesse saw on his face, made his voice shake as he finished, “I was going to ask if there was any chance that that was – ”
“Yes,” Andrew interrupted. His hand spasmed so tightly on Jesse’s knee that it must have been painful but Jesse didn’t even blink, just kept staring urgently at Andrew’s face. “Yes. God, Jesse, there’s every chance in the world.”
Jesse licked his bottom lip reflexively. “Oh,” he said softly.
The only thing left that Andrew wanted to do was kiss him and kiss him again and never stop kissing him, but he had to know first. “What, what about you?”
Jesse laughed soundlessly, looking down then back up again. “I’ve been in love with you since I was fifteen years old,” he admitted. “Which was a really stupid idea since you didn’t even know I existed back then.”
“God, Jesse,” Andrew sighed, hating his sixteen-year-old self for as long as it took for his brain to catch up with what that potentially meant for his current self. “Wait. Does, does that mean that you - ? That you still - ?”
Jesse nodded quickly. “Yes. Yes. I’m, um. I think I should probably kiss you now before you kill yourself trying to finish those sentences. Is that all right?”
“That’s fine,” Andrew breathed, because that was one sentence that he could definitely complete.
Jesse shifted closer, putting a hand on the side of Andrew’s face to steady him before leaning forward and kissing him gently.
It felt like a first kiss, like their first kiss should have felt if they hadn’t both been so terrified that night. Not that Andrew was any less terrified right now, but it was a much better sort of fear.
“Jesse,” he whispered helplessly, pulling Jesse closer, kissing him again.
“Shh.” Jesse stroked his hair back behind his ears and they kissed for a third time. “I missed you so much. I wanted to come home and ask if you’d be willing to have me in your bed the nights that Carey wasn’t there, but that felt too pathetic, even for someone as pathetically lovelorn as me.”
Andrew reached down and squeezed Jesse’s hands between his. “I’d like to have you in my bed every night. Can I? Can we just, do we have to have separate bedrooms; is there a law that says we must?”
Jesse laughed, shaking his head. “No, I think that’s just convention.” He smiled shyly. “And we’ve already broken a lot of those. We could break another?”
Andrew wasn’t sure what to do with all this happiness. It felt like it wanted to burst out of his fingers or make him do a jig or something. If his leg were better, he probably would have had to stand up right now to bounce around on the spot.
As it was, he did something even better: fisted his hands in Jesse’s shirt and pulled him closer for a longer, deeper kiss, slipping his tongue into Jesse’s mouth and trying to relearn every inch of his mouth.
Jesse made a soft, wanting noise in his throat and pushed against Andrew’s shoulder, encouraging him back against the bed. Andrew fell back willingly, hands sliding greedily up and down Jesse’s body, exploring his hips and his chest and his arse.
“I think you should apologise,” Jesse said thickly, leaning down to nibble on Andrew’s neck.
“I should?” Andrew asked uncertainly, lifting his hands away.
“Not for that,” Jesse said quickly, grabbing Andrew’s hands and putting them right back where they were. Andrew loved him so much. “For, um. What was I saying?”
“I have no idea,” Andrew confessed, using fingertips to explore the tempting seam down the back of Jesse’s britches while Jesse graduated from nibbling to more enthusiastic biting. “Apologising?”
“Right, yes.” Jesse’s hips rolled a little, pushing back into Andrew’s hands. “You got me so used to having regular sex and then I went back to Cambridge and there were nights when I could think of nothing but how much I missed your hands on me.”
Andrew’s already-eager erection throbbed at the thought of what Jesse might have done following those thoughts, but he found himself asking, having to ask, “You did, you didn’t find anyone else? I rather thought that you and Emma might have had an understanding?”
Jesse was silent for a second and then he started to laugh, just jerky little tremors at first that steadily escalated into breathless giggling against Andrew’s chest. Andrew smiled up at the ceiling, bemused, and wrapped his arms around Jesse’s back. Jesse was leaning a lot of his weight onto Andrew and Andrew’s various bullet wounds weren’t thrilled about that, but Andrew himself couldn’t have been happier.
“Should I take that as a no?” he asked, turning his smile into Jesse’s hair.
“No,” Jesse said firmly. “Emma is perfectly happy on her own and, anyway, kissing her would be too much like kissing Hallie. She’s been very supportive since she came to London, but not like that.” He stopped, peering up at Andrew. “Were you jealous?”
“No,” Andrew said, starting to shake his head then turning it into a nod. “Yes. Yes, horribly, hideously, painfully jealous. Poor Emma.”
“Yes,” Jesse laughed, pushing up on his hands to lean over Andrew. “Poor Emma. Poor Carey. If only you and I had ever bothered to have a conversation.”
“Where would be the fun in that?” Andrew asked, gasping when Jesse pressed closer still, the hard planes of his chest against Andrew’s, his legs moving to slot between Andrew’s.
Andrew tried to widen his legs to make room for him at the same time that Jesse brought his right left leg over. The result was a knee to Andrew’s thigh and a sudden, sharp pain that he couldn’t even try to hide.
“Fuck,” Jesse was saying when the pained buzz had faded from Andrew’s ears. Jesse was kneeling up, hand tentative and worried on Andrew’s thigh. “Is it bleeding? Did I make it bleed again?”
Andrew shook his head. He wasn’t sure, but nothing felt wet. “I think it’s all right,” he said, laying one arm over his face in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, that wasn’t very elegant or alluring, was it?”
“Yes, how dare you be in pain from the serious injury you’re still recovering from?” Jesse snapped. He sat up, folding his arms. “Well, we’re not having sex tonight.”
“What?” Andrew asked, reaching for him. “Why not? Jesse, you can’t do that to me. It’s been months.”
Jesse expression became firm. “Yes, thank you, keep whining, that’s doing wonders for my erection.” He rubbed his hand lightly over Andrew’s leg again. “I don’t think it’s bleeding but you should take these off so I can have a proper look. Should I call for Joe?”
“God, no,” Andrew said, because Joe put up with a lot but he didn’t need to get involved in Andrew’s sexual mishaps. He smiled winningly up at Jesse. “You could help me.”
Jesse rolled his eyes, but fondly, Andrew thought; it was a fond look of exasperation. “I can. I’m fairly confident that the act of undressing you won’t make me forget about your bullet wound again though.”
Andrew sighed. “Spoil sport.” He let Jesse help him to sit up, then together they got him out of his breeches. The bandage on his thigh was a little crumpled and uneven at the edges, but it was still a bright, white colour, no sign of any bleeding.
“Thank god,” Jesse breathed, sitting down abruptly. His hands were shaking on Andrew’s leg. “You don’t know, you weren’t conscious, but you lost so much blood. It took me hours to get to you from Cambridge, even though Mr Cumberbatch departed immediately to collect me. When I got there, Hallie and Justin and Emma, especially Emma, they were just covered in your blood. I thought, how can there possibly be any left inside you.”
Andrew squeezed Jesse’s trembling hand. “I’m fine,” he promised. “And my leg’s fine now. It doesn’t even hurt that much.”
Jesse flicked a look at him. “That’s a terrible lie,” he said, but not too sternly. He stroked his fingers along Andrew’s thigh, ruffling the dark hairs there. All this talk about nearly dying was having no effect on Andrew’s erection, which was now embarrassingly obvious against his bare stomach.
“It’s not,” Andrew argued. “I can’t feel pain when you’re here. I only feel love.”
Jesse laughed, shaking his head. “If I’d known that admitting my, our feelings was going to make you this ridiculous, I never would have.”
“Yes, you would.” Andrew lay down on his side, pulling Jesse with him. “I’m sorry if you don’t like me being ridiculous. I don’t think I can do anything but be ridiculous with you.”
He touched the end of Jesse’s nose, utterly charmed when Jesse’s nose wrinkled under his finger. Jesse looked down at Andrew’s finger, eyes crossing. “I don’t mind it too much,” he confessed softly.
“I know,” Andrew admitted in return, just as quietly. He kissed Jesse’s cheek. “Marry me?” he asked.
Jesse laughed, lovely blue eyes flicking up to meet Andrew’s. “I’m not sure,” he said slowly, “but I believe we’ve already done that.”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, “but that wasn’t real. If I could, I would divorce you and marry you all over again. Do you think there might be a scandal if we tried to do that.”
“Yes. And also I don’t want to divorce you, not even so I can marry you again.” Jesse sounded embarrassed but honest and, in truth, Andrew didn’t want to be not-married to Jesse either, not even so they could do it properly this time.
“Well, could we do something?” Andrew asked. “Have our marriage blessed or something, and invite all our friends this time? We could have a party afterwards?”
“Oh good, a party,” Jesse said flatly, “I do so love a party,” but he hadn’t said no to the rest of it and that was the part Andrew most cared about anyway.
Andrew closed the space between them, kissing Jesse carefully. “I love you,” he said, since he was allowed to now.
“I know,” Jesse said, smiling and biting his lip simultaneously. “I, I love you too. Although, I’m not sure your guests are going to love either of us; you have completely abandoned them.”
“Oh fuck,” Andrew said, laughing. “I completely forgot about dinner. We don’t have to go back down, do we?”
He didn’t want to do anything but lie here in bed with Jesse, even if Jesse was going to insist on sticking to his No Sex Tonight policy.
“No,” Jesse said firmly. “It would just be inconvenient of us to go back to the table now. They’d all have to wait while we ate. It’d be incredibly impolite.”
Andrew laughed, running his hand along Jesse’s side, up under his shirt. “You’re a genius,” he said, “I knew there was a reason I married you.” He nudged Jesse over onto his back and kissed him again, long and slow, curling his fingers in Jesse’s hair and content to stay, just like this, forever.
“Well,” Mama said slowly, standing back and surveying the rapidly-filling ballroom with elegantly arched eyebrows. “I must say, this is a sight.”
Andrew smiled, tucking his arm though hers. “Will you dance with me once the music starts?” he asked, leaning into her side. “I would like that very much.”
Mama smiled and shook her head, but Andrew didn’t think she was saying no. “If I can pry you away from your husband for long enough,” she said with a little laugh.
Andrew smiled back and kissed her cheek. She was out of mourning now, socialising freely once more, and it was wonderful to see her smiling again. He was glad that he and Jesse had decided to delay their party until she could attend. (Well, Jesse had been willing to delay it forever, of course, but he didn’t seem too miserable now, standing by the punch bowl and chatting animatedly with Karen.)
Mama slapped Andrew lightly on the arm, obviously noticing where he was looking. “Go on then,” she said, “I know how much it hurts you to be more than three feet from Jesse for too long.”
“Mama,” Andrew protested, blushing, “That’s simply not true.” It was more than true. He didn’t mind at all. “I survived for two months in the summer while Jesse was finishing his studies, didn’t I?”
“Barely,” Mama told him archly. She smiled again, leaning forward to kiss his cheek. “I’m so happy for you,” she added, sounding a little choked. “I couldn’t have borne it if, if you’d made such a sacrifice to save our name and had then been unhappy.”
Andrew was so happy these days that it was indescribable. He squeezed her arm. “Remember to save me that dance,” he said, then moved over to join Jesse.
Karen saw him first, waving him over. She was in the family way again, but Andrew didn’t think that was well known yet, since she was barely showing. With the way that Matt was beaming and bouncing around the place they’d had no choice but to tell Andrew.
“Hello,” Andrew said, throwing an arm around Jesse’s waist and leaning forward to kiss Karen’s cheek. “What are you two talking about?”
“The theatre,” Jesse told him, putting his hand over Andrew’s where it rested on his hip, as though he couldn’t decide whether or not he was embarrassed by Andrew’s affection. “Did you know that Karen is an actress?”
“I did,” Andrew said. “Why? Are you planning to throw over academia for a life on the stage?”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “Yes, because people would pay to see me several nights a week.”
“I would,” Andrew said automatically, slightly disappointed that Jesse didn’t blush anymore, just huffed, as though he’d expected Andrew to say something like that and had already been prepared to dismiss it.
“It really is a lot of fun,” Karen told them. “I’ll be at the Theatre Royal next month, you should both come along.”
“We’d love to,” Jesse said quickly, as though afraid Karen would take back the offer. Now that they’d finally been introduced, Andrew’s friends had taken instantly to Jesse, but Jesse still seemed to suspect that they were only being friendly to him for Andrew’s sake.
It was Andrew’s current mission to persuade him otherwise.
“Good.” Karen smiled at them both. “I’ll be relying on you to keep Matt quiet. The last time he came to see me perform, he kept calling for an encore every time I spoke. Poor Arthur was so embarrassed.”
Andrew laughed. “Speaking of,” he said, nodding his head across the room to where Matt was spinning Arthur around, trying to make him dance although there was still no music playing.
Karen sighed. “Excuse me,” she said, shaking her head in resigned amusement. “I’d better stop them before they destroy your lovely home.”
Jesse watched her leave and then turned to Andrew. “They’re very happy,” he said thoughtfully.
“So are we,” Andrew reminded him, refusing to let himself add aren’t we? They’d got much better at communicating over the last few months, so he was sure he’d know if they weren’t for any reason.
“Well, obviously,” Jesse said quickly, tangling their fingers together and giving Andrew’s hand a squeeze. He leant just slightly into Andrew’s side. “Why is the music taking so long to start?”
“Why?” Andrew teased. “Are you anxious to start dancing?”
“Oh yes,” Jesse told him, “I can hardly wait.” He shook his head. “I just don’t want anyone to get bored. We’ve made them come all the way to Surrey just for us, what if they’re having a terrible time?”
Andrew wrapped his other arm around Jesse, resting their cheeks together. “Stop worrying,” he said. “No one made them come, remember? They wanted to celebrate our anniversary with us.”
Jesse smiled slightly. “I can’t believe it’s been a year. It feels so much longer.”
“Longer?” Andrew clasped a hand to his chest. “You’re supposed to say that it barely feels as though a moment has passed since you made me yours.”
“Oh, am I?” Jesse asked. “Is that the rule?”
“It’s the rule of romance,” Andrew told him firmly.
“I’ll show you romance,” Jesse said, leaning almost all the way into him before pulling back sharply, apparently only just remembering that they were in public. They spent so much of their time cocooned away in their own little world that it was hard, sometimes, to remember how to behave around other people.
“Will you really?” Andrew murmured, feeling his heart speed up. He stroked the back of Jesse’s hand before glancing around. No one was paying them any mind, too focused on the musicians who were finally ready to start. “We could probably take a few minutes? Everyone will be preoccupied by the dancing.”
“What?” Jesse asked, voice rising in pitch. “No. We can’t.” He looked so handsome, all flushed and scandalised like that, that Andrew’s half-formed, mostly joking, suggestion started to feel much more imperative.
“Come on. Ten minutes. Please?” He tugged gently on Jesse’s hand, pleased when Jesse followed him, still blushing and muttering but not actually adverse.
They went to the library because it was close and had a lock on the door and Andrew fell to his knees as soon as they were alone.
“Oh god,” Jesse gulped, leaning back against the door and closing his eyes.
Jesse’s britches were much more confusing to open than normal, but Andrew dealt with them easily enough, pulling his cock free with only slightly-clumsy fingers.
“Oh god,” Jesse repeated when Andrew leant in, nuzzling at his groin. “We don’t, we don’t have time for, for that.”
Andrew licked the top of Jesse’s thigh, the base of his erection. “There’s always time for this,” he said sternly, but Jesse was probably right. It would be terribly rude to miss the whole party because he wanted to taste every inch of Jesse’s body, wanted to check that nothing had changed since this morning.
He took Jesse into his mouth and started to suck gently, humming happily as he did so. Everyone kept telling him that this constant need to touch Jesse would quieten soon. Apparently they were still in the honeymoon stage, and reality would descend eventually.
Andrew didn’t believe it for a moment.
As far as he was concerned, they’d started their marriage with reality; the rest of it, the rest of their lives, was going to be just like this, floating around on the edge of a constant, frighteningly sincere happiness.
Jesse’s fingers stroked though Andrew’s hair, tracing the shape of his ears with careful thumbs. “That’s… that’s so… that feels so.” He head slammed back against the door and his hips rocked forward. “Fuck. Why are we having a party? I want to stay like this all night.”
Andrew hummed his agreement. He definitely had no objections to that.
“Oh, oh, fuck,” Jesse muttered so Andrew hummed again, harder this time.
Jesse’s pulled at Andrew’s hair, which Andrew loved but Jesse didn’t usually let himself do, always worried he might accidentally scalp Andrew or something.
“Andrew,” Jesse groaned, back arching and body going tense before he suddenly relaxed, legs wobbling so hard that Andrew had to help him sink to the ground even as he was still licking the last vestiges of Jesse’s taste from his lips.
“Fuck,” Jesse said again, dropping his head onto Andrew’s shoulder. “I can’t possibly dance now; you’ve turned all my bones to mush.”
“That’s really sad,” Andrew said, “I was so looking forward to dancing with you. What’s the use of a mushy husband?”
Jesse snorted against his neck. “I’ll show you,” he promised, worming his hand up under Andrew’s shirt and finding a nipple.
“Mm,” Andrew sighed, nudging his mouth lazily against haphazard parts of Jesse’s face until Jesse laughed and lifted his head, meeting Andrew’s mouth for a proper kiss.
“Andrew,” Jesse breathed against Andrew’s lips, “You need to be quiet, all right?”
“I am being – ” Andrew started, confused, before Jesse twisted his left nipple sharply and he had to clamp his teeth shut tightly so he didn’t yell out. “Oh, oh.” The left side of his chest felt like it was burning, hot and painful and so good that Andrew could barely breathe.
Sometimes Jesse would do this, would read or hear about something he wanted to try and then spring it on Andrew when he least expected it. Andrew didn’t understand why some people referred to sex as a marital duty; he’d spend all day every day just like this if he could.
“Good?” Jesse asked curiously. He waited for Andrew to nod before doing it again.
Andrew bit his lip so hard he tasted blood. “Please,” he murmured, tangling his fingers in Jesse’s hair and pulling him closer, not even knowing what he was asking for, just needing.
Jesse bit the skin behind his ear lightly, catching a thin sliver of Andrew’s skin between his teeth. The pain was sharp, but low enough that the mark wouldn’t show beneath Andrew’s fashionably high collar.
Andrew felt weak and shaken, wishing fervently that they’d waited to start this until they were somewhere where he could strip off all his clothes and ask Jesse to bite him everywhere.
“Too much?” Jesse asked, pulling back and looking concerned. His skin was a little sweaty, sex flush still high across his cheeks.
“Only, um, only because we don’t have enough time,” Andrew assured him. “It feels so, um.”
He trailed off because Jesse was looking at him intently, clearly interested.
“Feels so what?” Jesse prompted.
Andrew shook his head, closing his eyes. “I love you so much,” he said instead, overwhelmed.
“Yes,” Jesse said lightly. “You too. Now shh,” he added, reaching for the fastenings of Andrew’s britches.
“Hallie,” Andrew protested. “You’re not supposed to talk like – ”
Hallie glared at him so he stopped talking. “Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that Emma’s here.”
“Oh good,” Jesse said, “She promised she’d lend me some of her husband’s books. Do you think she - ?”
“And Justin arrived with her,” Hallie finished smoothly.
Andrew snapped to attention, startled. “Really?” he asked, not sure how he felt about that. He hadn’t seen Justin since the duel, not even when he’d recovered enough to return to London for the end of the Season.
“Yes, and you’re not to be mean to him,” Hallie warned. “The poor thing got in so much trouble with Emma after our little misunderstanding. She sent him back to New York and he missed most of the Season.” She made it sound as though that were the worst possible punishment a would-be eloper could ever have experienced.
“Misunderstanding,” Jesse muttered. Jesse was much less forgiving of people who shot Andrew than Andrew was, apparently.
Andrew caught Jesse’s hand and squeezed. “We should say hello to them,” he said firmly, swinging Jesse’s arm a little when Jesse opened his mouth, presumably to argue.
“Very well,” Jesse agreed grudgingly. “But I won’t be friendly to him.”
“Of course not,” Andrew agreed cheerfully, since he knew full well that Jesse was incapable of being horrible to anyone’s face.
They found Justin skulking around the edge of the dance floor, looking unusually subdued and unlike himself.
He stood up straighter as soon as he saw them approach, hands sliding out of his pockets to twist awkwardly at his sides. Maybe being sent home to New York really had been a punishment; he certainly looked chastised.
“How do you do?” he said, clearly reaching for but missing his usual boisterous enthusiasm.
Andrew held out his hand automatically. “Timberlake,” he said, “It’s good to see you, I’m glad you came.”
Jesse made a choked noise but didn’t disagree.
Justin blinked at Andrew, glanced at Hallie, and then shook Andrew’s hand hard. “Are you quite recovered?” he asked softly, even though it was no secret that Andrew had been injured, only the circumstances surrounding it.
“Quite,” Andrew agreed. His leg still troubled him a little, but no worse than his hip always did and his doctors were confident that the leg, at least, would be fully healed before another year was out.
Justin nodded quickly, breathing out a slow sigh.
“Take some air with me?” Andrew asked, spontaneously. He’d liked what he’d known of Justin before the incident with Hallie, and Andrew was always happy to repair friendships.
“Andrew,” Jesse protested but Hallie stood on his foot. “Ow.”
Justin nodded. “That would be fine,” he agreed, falling into step beside Andrew, heading toward the gardens.
Outside, it turned out that Andrew didn’t really know what to say. What did you say to the man who had eloped with your little sister and then accidentally shot you?
“I just thought we should clear the air,” he said awkwardly. “Are you back in England for long?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Justin said slowly. He glanced out at the gardens then back again. “I have some business in New York and I think Emma would be happier if she didn’t have to see much of me for the time being.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Andrew protested. “Emma was just disappointed, I suppose but it’s not as if, I mean. You don’t plan to pursue Hallie again, do you?”
“No,” Justin said with reassuring certainty. “In fact, I.” He cleared his throat. “The business I need to attend to in New York is actually a betrothal.”
Andrew stared at him, surprised. He hadn’t thought Justin the type to settle down. “Congratulations,” he said sincerely. “Emma never said a word.”
“She doesn’t know,” Justin confessed. “It isn’t exactly set in stone yet. Britney – her name is Britney – is recently divorced with two young children. I’m having a little trouble persuading her that I’m a decent prospect. I think she’s worried about what the combination of our bad reputations might do to her children’s future.”
Andrew winced, not sure what to say. To be honest, he agreed with her, but then he also believed that love was more important than anything.
“Good luck,” he finally settled on. “I’m sure if anyone can convince her, it’ll be you. Or, I suppose, you could introduce her to Hallie? Hallie is, I’m told, incredibly persuasive.”
Justin’s eyes widened and then he laughed loudly. “Yes,” he agreed, “Yes, she certainly is. Can I take her back to New York with me?”
Andrew grinned. “For my part you can, but Jesse might object. He’s much fiercer than me, you know.”
“Oh I know,” Justin said ominously, which made Andrew curious as to exactly what Jesse had said to Justin while Andrew was lying around shot and unconscious.
Andrew slapped Justin on the shoulder. “Good luck,” he said. “You should bring her to stay once you’re married. We’d love to meet her.”
Justin smiled at him, looking surprised and hopeful. “I’ll hold you to that,” was all he said.
Andrew nodded. “All right. We should go back inside, I have to dance with my husband now.”
“May I dance with your sister?” Justin asked cheekily.
Andrew laughed, shaking his head. “If she agrees. But be warned, her card is probably full. She left behind a trail of broken hearts at the end of the London Season, you know.”
Justin saluted him. “I’ll take the risk,” he said, before walking away, presumably in search of Hallie.
Jesse was dancing with Emma when Andrew found him, but a tap on Emma’s shoulder stole him away.
“Where did he shoot you this time?” Jesse asked, sighing when Andrew refused to take the lead from him.
“On my lips,” Andrew said sadly. “It’s very tragic. You should kiss it better.”
“Really?” Jesse asked, but did lean in and kiss Andrew, very softly on the mouth. Andrew smiled, since he really hadn’t been expecting that.
“I was wondering,” Andrew said, after they’d been dancing for a little while. “How would you feel about buying a house?”
“Don’t we have one?” Jesse asked, frowning. “Unless that’s your horribly cruel way of telling me you want to live separately?”
“Never!” Andrew exclaimed. “I meant a house in London, one that’s ours rather than full of old ghosts. There could be a garden for Maggie and a whole room just for your books.” He realised he was babbling nervously and forced himself to stop.
“Yes,” Jesse said quickly, smiling up at him. “Yes, I’d like that.”
Andrew beamed at him. “I’m so pleased you married me,” he said, probably for the tenth time that day, but he didn’t care. It was always true.