"And here we all thought your heart was gone for keeps to Bonnie Captain Fleming, the Hyacinth of the Seventh."
There was nothing like warmth in a glasshouse in winter, not so many years after most of the glass had gone to neglect and weather and sparkling from the vacant cucumber frames; there was the phantom of it in the knife-light of the morning and the next best thing in the press of their bodies, more carefully now than if they had still been the young men conjured like ghosts of the regiment who limped only after falls and talked without a rattle and had not had the sense God gave their horses, that it had taken them ten years to lie in one another's arms. In truth, Sherry would have had the first time in a feather bed like one of Nora's ballads—there was no sensible manner of fucking that would not leave his leg aching like the devil in a pet, but he could have spared John's chest the cold—but they had been poking over the remains of the oranges and a curious whorl of brown spines that had been either a pineapple or a thistle with ambitions above its station when a great wave of something swamped him, sharp enough in the heart that for a moment he thought seizure, apoplexy before he remembered love and stupidity. Accustomed to the twinges and curses of a walk with the Earl of Sherbourne, John Linton had gone on crunching through the ruins of the damned orangery as if he had not noticed, or was doing him the kindness of not letting it show. Fleming had laughed outright at him, did you suppose it was the pay? Shivering in the comfortless brightness under the half-broken vanes, Sherry had looked at the pepper-shot of silver in his valet's hair, and the whimsical turn of his mouth that held hard as oak in battle, and his hands that touched him every morning and night as deftly as if there were no desire between them. He thought of charges, and routs, and destruction, and before he could stop himself by speaking, he set his teeth on the pain and went to his knees instead.
Somewhere above his head, John was still speaking, his fiddler's fingers weaving idly with Sherry's hair. "And when he settled on your sister instead, didn't we all lay bets on how you'd take it?"
"Didn't you, by God." As if they were talking of something real, not the other man's way of telling his own side of the long, hesitating dance, the part that was fear of the law and the part that was fear of the heart: "And what, for my sins, was yours?"
"Drink your consolation and oversleep the wedding by three ditches." He waited just long enough to be sure of Sherry's snort and then added, quite simply, "I have never been happier to lose."
"Linton—damn me, John—" Sherry began; it was not enough, not even lying across another man's lap with the salt of him still in his mouth, far plainer a declaration than anything he could have set to paper, even had he the words and the wit at the moment to use them. His leg felt frost-shot, he could feel his lover's side tensing for the familiar cough in the stone-chill open air. They were not young and if they stayed on this ungiving ground much longer, he would need more than his stick to help him back inside, and he would have given his title and every horse in his stables not to move for half an hour more. He reached for the other man's hand, found it as cold as his own and as fast to hold. "My dear," he said. "My dear."