I would like to thank Mari_Mcsly for this totally amazing work of art that she did for this fiction. I am overwhelmed with feels and nearly died of happiness when I saw it!
You can see the link here:
Lord Derek Hale, 3rd Duke of that name and widower of three years stood and looked at his reflection in the large looking glass. His valet, Peter – who had saved his life at Waterloo – fussed over the cut of his black riding jacket and despaired that his employer would wear nothing but mourning clothes.
"A navy, M'Lord, even navy." He muttered under his breath. Hale didn't acknowledge his words, he'd heard them before.
He wasn't in mourning for his wife, like so many thought – that bitter, twisted woman who destroyed his house and family with her lies. Her death was a freedom. He mourned for his innocence, for she had taken that from him. Trickster and harlot, he should have listened to his father – his sister, his brothers – when they warned against his infatuation with the beautiful Miss Argent, diamond of the Ton.
He had married her the moment he could, cutting himself from his family and his fortune – for love.
Never again. Never would he be so foolish, such an idiot for a lie like love.
Hale walked into Blacks and glanced around the room. Although it was far too early for even him to start playing cards, a few of the younger Bucks with money to burn were sitting at the tables.
He saw Lahey, Duke at 14 years of age and quite content to burn his way through life without a care – now free of his advisors at the tender age of 21 – already at the tables, placing his bets. McCall, never far behind him of course, and some younger lad he didn't recognise, watching the table like a hawk, but never placing a bet. Judging by the cut of his coat, inferior to his friends, the stakes were out of the reach of his pocket book.
"McCall." He nodded, he must at least be seen to be civil to one person a day, it might as well be family.
"Cousin Hale." Scott beamed, hair flopping over his eyes in what he no doubt thought made him cut quite the figure. "Will you join us?"
Scott was the son of his older cousin, who had married an Earl and produced a son only weeks before the man fell of his horse and broke his idiot neck. Scott was his only living male relative and would – as he was often reminded by various elderly females – inherit should Hale die without a son. He was pleasant and open, friendly and well liked. Nothing at all like Hale, who had a reputation for being… nothing like Scott.
"No." He replied, shortly, before walking away to his usual place. He picked up his news-sheet and ignored the rest of the large room, as was his usual habit.
But… the younger lad, who watched the tables, was talking – not loud enough for Hale to hear, but with an obvious enthusiasm that Hale found… difficult to ignore. Youth, he sneered to himself. Soon enough life would cure him of his smiles.
The Baron of Stiles was, in fact, nothing more than an old title and a good name. Funds were good enough that he wasn't about to mortgage the family lands, but unless he married well, he'd have to have excellent luck on the Exchange – and his stocks weren't as healthy as he'd have liked.
Aside from that, he was only just out of Oxford – his interest in Natural Sciences gaining him some notoriety in that field, but not enough to take an expedition to Africa. Unless he planned to fund it himself. Which was out of the question.
"I am, the sorriest sight this side of London." He despaired, looking at the glass of dark gold liquid. "I should retire to the house and raise my butterflies in peace."
He sat in Blacks, a most exclusive club that he would never have gained entrance to had he not been invited by Duke Lahey and Lord McCall, and sighed again. Lahey laughed softly and waves his gloved hand over the room.
"And miss all this?" He grinned. "There are ladies all over London desperate to get their claws on a title." He added. "Girls with money and ambitious Mothers."
All three shuddered. Mothers.
"You know fine well that the title Baron isn't going to hold up much in Town, not when I have to compete with Dukes and Earls." He pointed out. "I'm a country squire and proud of it." His friends knew him well. The unspoken bond between them that had been there since their school days, they knew that should Stiles ever marry, it would be only for an heir.
"So you should be." McCall announced, in his bright, pleased tones. "And you are well liked with your tenants, few Dukes and Earls could compete with that!"
"Thank you, Scott." Stiles smiled, taking a sip from the glass. "Although I think I'll spend the season trying to get a little more Town Polish before I dive into the marriage mart. I'm only just 20 years of age – far too young to settle down!"
"Here, Here!" Lahey agreed, holding up his glass. "We shall spend a few years of drunken revelry and only then shall we succumb to the dangers of unmarried virgins."
"Agreed!" Stiles nodded, aware that one day, he would have to push his feelings aside and find a nice girl, no matter what his nature was.
Stiles knew that the gaming hells his friends loved were not for him. He played a few card games, understood that his run of astonishing good luck was not – as he was trying to be convinced of – due to his natural ability, but more to do with the men running the tables. They saw him, young and stupid, and had set to reel him in with a run of winnings and easy money. He stopped playing before his 'luck' turned sour – left with a pocket book fuller than he started and a good idea not to return.
He'd taken his funds and purchased a new coat – deciding against the tailor that his friends suggested. He knew they meant well, but men with unlimited funds were not easily aware how the lack of money could affect their poorer friends. He found a decent man who made sharp, almost minimal styles, and had a coat ordered in a deep red. He decided against the louder shades – Lahey may very well wear mustard and green, but the man was a Duke and blind to criticisms on the colours of his waistcoats.
He'd also managed to avoid the whore pits and those… establishments that were run with gentlemen of his persuasion in mind, the ones with the painted boys and discreet payments.
"I don't understand why you insist on staying in those lodgings when you are more than welcome here." Lahey said, as they played billiards. He was leaning on his cue and looking around. "I've 20 rooms and more to spare."
"I enjoy my freedom."
"As do I." His friend shrugged. "But the expense must be higher this time of year. I'll have my man bring your things." He announced, ringing a bell. "Think of it as a repayment for aiding me all those times at School."
"I appreciate the offer bu-"
Lahey waved his hand dismissively. "It is done."
Hale saw the boy again, twice. The first was at a large meeting for shareholders in the new development in steam engines. Hale was thinking of investing, but not until some real results came forward. It looked like the young Baron (Stiles, a decent sized holding somewhere on the east coast) had invested deeply. The recent set back had made him pale dangerously. Idiot boy to put his money on something as unsure as railways. Hale was still not convinced that they would replace the horse like so many claimed.
The younger man had seen him also, nodded politely but did not approach him. He was wearing a red coat that looked almost military in its cut. Hale liked it – the current trend of adding as many fobs, capes and buttons as possible, in the most garish colours, made his eyes hurt. It seemed that the lad – despite terrible choices in investments – was half decent at picking a tailor.
The second time he saw him was at a lecture on the benefits of natural pollinators. Hale had a small, but dedicated atrium for exotic plants, and was always interested in the latest sciences to improve his collection. It was a popular hobby for men of a certain social standing. He saw a few familiar faces in the crowd. No ladies, of course. This was a scientific gathering.
Baron Stiles gave an interesting lecture on the value of Bee keeping and (oddly) seemed to have a passion for butterflies.
"Bee keeping, of course, has the added value of producing honey – and butterflies simply look pleasant. However, young ladies are much more inclined to see ones… ahem, gardens… if they are populated with pretty things rather than Bees." The laughter and general knee slapping around the room at that comment was uproarious, and young Stiles had a great many invites to social gatherings by the time he was finished.
"Your Grace." He nodded, when he reached Hale. Greeting him with the polite smile of a man who had a great many other hands to shake before he was done. "I'm afraid we have not yet been introduced."
"You are a friend of my cousin, McCall." He replied. "Carry on."
He had wanted to say more – ask more questions about the lecture, perhaps enquire about papers, facts – evidence on his experiments, but his manners were abrupt and course. He was never any expert at social graces and his disastrous marriage had made him more guarded.
"I shaln't waste your time." Stiles nodded, sharply – and Hale knew he had been too short. He didn't know how to fix it though, so nodded briskly and turned – leaving the hall before he had really planned.
Stiles sat at the desk in the large rooms Lahey had put him in and wrote furiously. His latest paper had garnered some interest in Town, and he was invited to a small private event at Duke Hastings home, to talk about his investigations. It was a great honour, and he hoped it would lead to some funding for his breeding programme. He had very good success with his butterflies at home.
His mind never really settled on one thing for long, as always it danced and evaded him unless he was focused completely – and right now he was thinking about Lord Hale. He wasn't sure why though, the man was distant and on the only occasion where they had actually spoken, was abrupt and rude. Stiles was normally more than willing to see the good in people, but he just didn't know enough about Hale. McCall, for all he talked about everything with an openness and ease, seemed to know as little about his own cousin as Stiles did.
"He was married." Scott said, nodding. "She died a few years ago, it was quite a shock." He paused. "Hale married in spite of his father, you know, was cut off completely, or so everyone thought. Mother never really talks about it, but Hale must have loved her very much. He's still in mourning, after all. Three years!"
Stiles nodded, and had forced himself not to ask any more questions. He didn't even know why he was so interested. The man obviously had no time for anyone other than himself.
Lahey was invited to every social gathering in London, his fireplace littered with white cards with delicate gold edging and neat script inviting him to this party, or that ball – dinner, a recital, garden parties and outings. His sister, Miss Erica Lahey, was pretty and popular and at the age of 17, on the market to find herself a husband. Which she planned to do before the year was out.
"You must escort me to Almacks tonight." She announced at breakfast, gracefully cutting her food into little squares. "For I wasn't out at all since Tuesday and it has become painfully evident that my brother cares more for his cards and lightskirts than he does his own sister!"
"Erica!" Lahey snapped. "You are not supposed to even know of such things, never mind talk about them at the breakfast table."
"Please, I am more than fully aware of what you do at your little clubs." She shrugged prettily, "I am quite disappointed in you though, Baron. I thought you would be able to talk some sense into my brother."
"I am refusing to be drawn into what appears to be a long standing argument." Stiles grinned. "But please, carry on."
Erica laughed, batting her eyelashes in a way that Stiles assumed was supposed to be flirtatious. She'd been practicing her flirting on him since she was old enough to talk, he was quite immune.
"Please desist from making a fool of yourself at the table." Isaac murmured. "I shall take you to Almacks. The sooner you get married off the better."
"Shall my Baron lend me his arm?"
"Of course, Erica." Stiles nodded, using her given name only when they were sitting as a family. "But please don't expect me to dance."
He had, at his friends insistence, bought new clothes simply for an occasion like this. His cream britches and simply cut navy coat might scream his uncomfort with the brash styles of London, but at least they gave no hint to his lack of funds. He looked well dressed, neat and styled – and Miss Lahey announced that she thought him so very dashing when she'd descended the stairs in her pale green dress of silks, blond curls piled high on her head and emeralds at her ears.
Although he often lamented on his sister and her clothing allowance, Lahey was a most indulgent brother and often showered his sister in lavish gifts. "I can afford it." He'd said, picking out the earrings and matching clasp. "And she doesn't trouble me much, for all she is a terror sometimes. She could be much worse." He added. "Some of the ladies I know… I'd shudder if they were my sister." He paused, telling the attendant to send the items to his home, along with the bill. "Although, as they are not my sister I do adore taking advantage of their behaviour."
Duke Lahey had been a good friend to Stiles, even after he found out that his childhood compatriot was... uninterested in perusing the local girls. He'd been most supportive at school as well, quietly introducing Stiles to other boys like him, when he could have simply ignored him – shunned him. Stiles would never be able to repay that.
Almacks was not only the most exclusive club in London, it was the only one run by ladies. These paragons of virtue were the social elite, duchesses and royals, they ran the dancehall with iron fists. Young ladies were said to throw themselves into hysterics if they were denied a ticket – denied the chance to set foot in the one room in all of London that could be truthfully called: The Marriage Mart. A waltz was as good as an official announcement. This was where the wars of single ladies were fought.
"Highly unfair of you to arrive with no thought to dancing." Erica smiled calmly at him, hand resting lightly on his arm. Her entire body language was different, soft and pliant.
"I would spend the whole night having to deal with your heartbroken suitors." He smiled back. "And how would I live with myself?"
Her laugh was like a soft bell, drifting over the room. A few heads turned, and saw the very rich Miss Lahey smile at the very clever Baron Stiles – a return smile on his lips. A little thing, really, when all was said and done.
Hale never attended Almacks. Pointless for him, as he wasn't looking for a wife. He was still getting over the mess that the last one had caused – so he didn't hear the rumours for days. When he did hear them he was… conflicted.
Lady Erica Lahey was not only one of the richest women in London, she was also one of the most beautiful. Her chances of landing an Earl or even a Duke was almost guaranteed. She had money, breeding, a good name and a doting brother. Baron Stiles, for all he was sharp and clever, was not rich – his name was old and well respected, but nothing grand – and he was not cut from the same cloth as Miss Lahey. They were worlds apart, had he not been friends with her brother she would likely have never looked at him twice.
"I say though, bad form." Whittemore announced over the table, cards in his hand. "To be staying in the same house as her." His implications were obvious from his tone.
"Lahey dotes on his sister." Lord Deaton replied. "I do not think anything untoward has happened. He would call Stiles out, friend or not."
"Nothing riles me more than fortune hunters." Whittimore carried on, as though no one had spoken. "He's managed to get his feet under the table."
Hale remained silent. He hadn't read Baron Stiles to be a fortune hunter – but he'd been wrong before, hadn't he? The bitter taste of disappointment and his own idiocy in his mouth, he played his hand and left Whittimore out of pocket.
The idea that Baron Stiles was after Miss Laheys fortune burned in his mind like a brand. She was young and foolish, and her brother may be too close to see the danger of having such a man stay in his house. Hale glared across the room – seeing Stiles talk animatedly with McCall and Lahey.
When Stiles left the table shortly after, heading for the restroom, he made his mind to follow.
"Lord Hale." Stiles nodded as he noticed Derek walking a few steps behind him. "Pleasure, as always." His tone was dry and even, speaking for politeness only.
He wasn't expecting it when Derek grabbed his arm and pulled him roughly into the small room where the outside cloaks were kept.
"What in god's name!" He struggled, managing to get a well-aimed punch before Hale managed to overpower him. He had the young man pressed against the wall, hands fisted in his coat.
"You are going to leave Miss Lahey alone." He growled, temper flaring to life. Memories running through his mind of how Kate had played him just like a fool – just like Stiles was doing to that poor innocent girl.
"Unhand me immediately!" Stiles hissed. "Before-"
"Before what?" Derek laughed. "You are nothing but a fortune hunter using your relationship with that poor girls brother to further your own sick schemes."
"I have no idea what you are talking about!"
Derek laughed, bitterly. "Why do people like you always deny? Half of London knows what you are."
"Half of London doesn't know me at all." The young baron shot back. "I am not a fortune hunter. I have funds enough, and investments too." He snapped. "And I resent the implications you are casting at me."
"Investments in railways?" Derek sneered. "Oh yes, how much have you lost so far?" When the boy didn't say anything, Derek knew he had been correct. "Do you think marrying that girl will reverse your fortune?"
"Marry who?" Stiles asked, "I have no idea what you have heard, Sir, but I am not engaged and have no mind to be so."
"Miss Lahey!" Derek sneered. "Do you deny it?"
"I have known Erica since she was 6 years old." Stiles snapped at him, gold eyes glinting in the darkness. "She is like a sister to me."
"All the better for you to snake your way into her life!"
"Sir, you are very much mistaken." Stiles repeated, but Derek's mind was playing over and over the fights he had gone through with his father, with Kate – that stunning blond who ripped out his heart and left him with nothing.
"You will leave town tonight."
"Are you… are you in love with her?" Stiles asked, suddenly. "Are you? Is this why you throw these insults at me?"
"I don't have any feelings for the girl."
"If you touch a single hair on her head I will kill you." Stiles levelled at him. "I will kill you before Isaac even becomes aware of it. You will not-"
"Do you think me a fool?" Derek sneered.
"Yes." Stiles shot back, tone flat. "I think you the worst kind of idiot to think that you will ever get near that girl."
"I have no interest in her." Derek laughed. "I have a keen interest in fortune hunters-"
"She's madly in love with Whittimore!" The baron spat out. "I'm not after her at all. If I needed money I'd apply to Isaac!"
There was something in his voice that sounded too raw, too close to sounding true – the way he said… "Isaac?"
"The Duke." Stiles glared. "He's my friend. I would never, ever treat his sister like that, a sham of a marriage."
"You think I believe you?"
"She would never agree, Jesus!" Stiles laughed at him, "She knows my… tastes… and would never agree."
"You managed to get me alone in a darkened room – I thought you might be aware that… umm…" He faltered. "But obviously not." He finished lamely. "Because that is the tale of my life."
"I have no idea what you are talking of."
"Yes, I've become aware." The young Baron nodded. "So if you could please not push quite so hard against me?"
Hale pulled back, not even realising just how he was leaning into the younger man – pushing him harder into the wall. Only when he moved did he become aware that certain parts of the boy were pushing back.
"I'm not going to marry Erica. Nor have I ever applied to Isaac for funds. I may not be as rich as you, Sir, but I am quite well enough in pocket to live as a gentleman of my station should."
He was aroused, the boy – obvious in his body. Hale had never in his life been so conflicted. He had known, of course, that such men were… around, but he had never been in such a situation with one before. He felt uncomfortable and ashamed that he had been so wrong about a person.
"I apologise." He said, pulling further way. "I am not at all indulgent with hunters."
"So I have become aware." The boy said, fixing his coat and trying to hide his arousal. Difficult with such tight fashions. "I am neither engaged to Erica nor seeking to make my fortune in such an underhanded way."
Derek only managed a nod, before he opened the door and stalked down the hallway. He left immediately.
Chapter 2: Chapter 2
The Baron of Stiles wasn't by nature an idle man. From a young age he struggled with remaining still, his mind always working further ahead than his body – engaging his mouth before his mind. In his studies that constant push to know more, see more and do more had been a great advantage – his teachers and tutors willing to adjust their methods of learning found in him a student worth their efforts. In his social life, it had led to a great many issues, namely, his idiotic disregard for his social standing.
He had told the Duke of Hale that he was… unnatural… in his tastes. The man, who didn't know a thing about him, now knew enough to ruin Stiles completely, his working reputation, his family name… everything. To say he was in a panic would be to underestimate the situation greatly.
"What if he tells the Royal Society of Natural Science?" He rushed, pacing back and forth. Duke Lahey was carefully tying his cravat into the intricate 'mathematical' style and had already ruined three attempts, long strips of cloth thrown to one side.
"I don't see why he should." Lahey murmured, long fingers deftly folding and tying, eyes fixed on the looking glass. "He has no reason to do so."
"He obviously holds me in enough disdain to attack me on a piece of idle gossip!" Stiles snapped, running his fingers through his hair. He kept it shorter than fashion dictated, simply due to his habit of ruining the style with his fingers in such a manner.
"I find it difficult to think why he would do such a thing." The curly headed Duke replied, folding his cravat again. "He did inform you of his distaste for fortune hunters. Although," He added, "Marrying Erica would be a capitol idea if you require funds, you know."
"I'm not going to marry your sister, Isaac." Stiles laughed, dryly. "I am most assuredly not that desperately out of pocket."
Lahey turned and gave him a steady look, one that spoke a great deal. "You will have to marry at some point, Stiles." He pointed out. "And I could think of no other whom I would call a brother with more fondness."
"I think your sister deserves better than a sham marriage."
"I think my sister believes that no one in this household is aware of her infatuation with the Moor." He replied. "And if you think I'm about to let a free-slave from the Americas near my sister-"
Stiles waved his hand over his friends impassioned speech. This too, he had heard before. "You know as well as I that your sister would not marry me."
"I could make her."
"I would not marry her if you did." He grinned. "And shame on you for thinking in such a way. We are living in the modern age, my friend. We are past the times of barbarian kings and forced unions."
"Perhaps you might think so, but I am in a situation where every mother in London thinks me half engaged to their insipid offspring." He sighed, long fingers adjusting the crisp white cloth at his neck. "I cannot leave the house but I am besieged by overbearing mamma's and mindless, simpering ladies."
"You should not be so rich, nor so handsome." Stiles grinned. "They think you ideal."
"They think me an idiot to trap me into marrying."
"That they do." Stiles agreed good naturedly. "You were never a scholar."
"I should call you out on that." Lahey said sternly, but his tone was hampered by the good natured smile never far from his lips. "Shoot you at dawn."
"In the park?"
"In the park, of course. Where else would shoot you? In the house?"
"One can never tell. Then of course, you would be the dangerous Duke Lahey." He laughed. "And would be forever assaulted by unmarried women asking you to fight for their hands."
Isaac shuddered dramatically. "Do not say such things before I have eaten, you should quite ruin my appetite."
As the days went on, Stiles became aware that Duke Hale had not, in fact, told London of his personal tastes. His small meeting at Duke Hastings was well attended and he was invited to many more exclusive events – he saw Lord Hale at some, but they avoided each other well enough that they were never in the same room, nor included in the same conversations.
That was until Lord Deatons dinner, where Stiles gave a small speech, well received – and listened to similar educators. He was seated by the door, a slight ways off from the rest of the room, listening eagerly to Sir Patrick Eventide's short lecture on the ground-breaking matter of chemical fertilizers. Such a thing was not widely used near the coast, where guano was popular, but Stiles was interested all the same. Perhaps he could use these methods within his own gardens? He pondered if the chemicals would affect the larvae and the butterflies.
He was far too interested in the subject matter to pay much attention to his surroundings, and so did not see – until it was too late to move with any semblance of politeness – Lord Hale approach him.
"Lord Stiles." The Duke nodded, looking from Stiles to Sir Eventide and back. "I had not thought this a subject you thought much on."
"Hmm?" Stiles said, looking up and blinking a few times. "Oh, Your Grace." He said, standing and giving a short bow. "I am interested in all aspects of science. This is quiet within my area of study, as well as being of personal interest."
"I believe Eventide is married." Hale remarked, dryly, looking at the man giving the lecture. It took more time than he cared to admit to understand the Duke's meaning.
"My personal interest pertains to the fertilization of my greenhouses, Sir." He snapped, understanding sinking in. "Not in other matters." He was trying to keep his temper in check, the last thing he needed was to have others becoming aware of their conversation by loud voices. "I am at a loss to know why you believe me base enough to be both a fortune hunter for a young lady and lacking in morals with a married man!" He managed, not quite keeping his anger from his voice, but low enough not to attract attention. His hands were shaking with pent up rage he was unable to vent.
The Baron was furious with him, and rightly so. Hale had purposely sought him out to apologise for his behaviour, and had insulted the boy even more. He had been taken aback that the younger man had spoken of a personal interest and had assumed, wrongly, that he was sexually attracted to Eventide. Which was, now he thought of it, beyond ridiculous. The man was in his 60's and well past his prime – Stiles a young man who more than likely was attracted to other… boys. Boys his own age.
"I misunderstood." He shrugged, "I sought you out to make amends."
"You have a most unusual way of doing so." Stiles remarked, nodding curtly. "I see a friend. Good day, sir." He cut off before striding away, leaving Hale standing like an idiot staring after him.
Hale, who had not made such a display of ignorance since he married Katherine Argent, was at a loss. He wanted to seek out the Baron and apologise, again, for being a bloody fool. He should, however, just ignore the situation and stop trying to make things better.
He knew that he should. But the idea that the young man thought him an utter idiot without manners nor – he was sure – understanding of the most basic concepts of conversation. Perhaps he even thought him simple-minded. Hale frowned at the boys back as he cut through the crowd with an easy grace – several people stopping him to swap a few words or simply introduce themselves. The 'friend' he sought at the other side of the room was the young Duke Lahey, who – after a few words (and much enthusiastic hand waving on the Barons part) shot him a deadly look and announced, in bored tones, that he was quite done for the night and would be off at his club for a hand or two at cards.
They left not long after.
The general hum of the room was that the Baron Stiles was a quick wit and a great scholar. His friendship with Lahey was apparently long standing, they were a popular set at school and the Baron kept his somewhat rakish friend in line. Not a gamester nor a drunkard, the Baron spent his evenings keeping a steady head on his shoulders that gained him a great deal of respect amongst his elders, even if his peers thought him rather dull. His relationship with Miss Lahey was, Hale learned too late, widely regarded as brotherly. He was not spending his time in London hanging in Ballrooms and chasing after pretty girls - only Hale knew the reason why that was, it seemed – nor did he spend his time always with his rich friend. Independent, steady and well liked, Baron Stiles was a man that other men thought highly of.
All of this he learned with a few simple enquiries about the lad, and the more he heard, the worse he felt about his behaviour. He had treated the boy ill, twice now, and could think of no way to make it right.
When he saw the boy again, near a week and half later, he had to convince himself that he was… wrong. He had been walking home, something he knew was ill advised with the cut purses and ruffians on the streets, but it cleared his head and helped him to think – and he saw him.
Lady Ballas' house was… a well-known house of ill repute. Not the kind of place that a man like Stiles would visit. He had already made it quite clear to Hale that women were not in his interest, so why was he leaving a brothel? He followed him for a few streets, believing himself to be somewhat stealthy, until the lad simply stopped in the middle of the road and announced:
"If you are set to rob me, please, spare yourself the time."
"Why would I rob you?" He asked, before remembering that he was supposed to be following the lad stealthily.
"Lord Hale?" The boy spluttered, turning on his heel and staring. "Why on earth are you following me?"
Rather than carry a conversation across an empty street at an ungodly hour, Hale walked over to the lad and motioned him to carry on walking. After a few moments of silence, the baron turned and looked at him accusingly. "Do you plan on answering my question, your Grace, or do you intend to walk this way in complete silence?"
"You were at Lady Ballas' house." He said, shortly – knowing how ridiculous such a thing sounded. Why had he followed the boy? Idiot.
"Yes?" Stiles questioned. When Derek didn't reply, the boy carried on. "I do not see why my social activities have anything to do with you, Sir, and I have no need to explain myself." Derek remained silent, walking on. The young Baron seemed to find silence offensive, and filled it with heated words. "Lady Ballas has a great many visitors to her establishment, do you follow them all home?"
"No." He snapped, aware of how idiotic he must appear.
"Then I must assume that you think me… what? A murderer now? A knave? Robbery?" He paused for a moment before continuing. "After all, it seems you already have a shockingly low estimation of myself and my activities – perhaps you have concocted an elaborate tale of piracy and treason?" He stopped walking and turned. "A Spy, perhaps?"
"For the French?" Hale asked, hating that his tone was amused. He was amused, the boy's ramblings were comical.
"Oh, at the least." Stiles laughed, as though he had forgotten to stay angry. "Perhaps the Spanish, paying me in… in…" His voice trailed off.
"And gold bars, stolen from the church." He stopped walking again. "I am a very dangerous man, you know, with my treasonous activities. Just being seen with me could result in death. Or worse."
"Worse than death?"
"I can think of a few fates worse than death." He stated, starting to walk again. Derek found himself mirroring his pace. "Exile. Exile somewhere cold." He pointed out. "Prison. Scottish cooking." He shuddered. "Before my father died we had a Scottish cook. I cannot describe how I looked forward to school food after those meals."
"When did your father pass?"
"A few years ago," The boy said. "He lived long enough to see me do well in school before his heart gave out. He was never really the same after my mother succumbed to red fever." He paused, stopping dead in his tracks. "You still haven't answered my question." He reminded suddenly. "As to why you were following me."
Hale knew that he would sound like the worst kind of fool for saying it, but the lad had a point. "I didn't think you were interested in the… experiences… one could buy at Ballas." He said, thankful that it was dark and the boy couldn't see how his ears were burning. His voice was flat and even though, and betrayed nothing.
"Oh." The young Baron said, before another: "Oh!" and then a snort of laughter. "I had often thought that my own curiosity was something unique, and here you are – doing something as foolish as I would."
Hale was going to say something about how he wasn't foolish, nor curious, but his actions spoke louder than his words, and he had just followed the boy for several streets. In the end, he shrugged. "Why were you there?"
"For Isaac." Stiles snorted with laughter. "His current mistress is becoming more trouble than she is worth and he sent me to curtail the relationship."
"And you did?"
"I owe him a great deal, and it is not the first time an irate woman has thrown plates at my head – nor heaped curses upon me." He laughed. "At school I was often the one sent to settle bills and the like." He grinned at Hale, who felt himself smile back. "Because I was the smallest and I often escaped unscathed."
"Does Lahey know…?" He let his voice trail off rather than ask the question outright.
"About my tastes?" He asked as Derek nodded. "Yes. He is quite understanding about the whole thing – he went so far as to introduce me to a few other boys at school. A most excellent friend." The way he spoke made Derek wonder if he was ever more than just a friend. He declined to ask, it was not his place. He shouldn't even be talking of such things at all, but he had a burning desire to know more.
"Yes," Stiles nodded. "He was confused at first, but once it was explained to him," Stiles waved a hand. "In general terms, he was more than understanding."
Derek was starting to see that the boy spoke with his entire body, using his hands, upper body and when laughing, even his feet. He reminded Hale of a newborn colt, all legs and joints. He was not like that when he was talking in public, and Hale wondered if he was always aware of his movements in a crowd.
"Has everyone been so… understanding?"
Stiles stopped walking and looked at Hale oddly, face confused. He obviously was thinking hard at what to say, his brow furrowed and mouth tightly pressed. "Isaac and Scott know, and Erica knows – of course she would know everything – but you are the only other person who knows of my nature. Aside from a few men like myself, of course." He added. "We keep very much to ourselves."
"Yes." Stiles nodded. "We must always hide our true nature." He said walking on. "People do not like what is not normal. I could let people become aware, but I would be a laughing stock – never taken seriously in my field. A man of natural science who does unnatural things?" He laughed bitterly. "I might as well just give up and go home."
Hale hadn't realised just how far they had walked, until the streets became familiar – the large, well lit areas that spoke of money and privilege. Stiles too – seemed slightly taken aback that they had arrived.
"You are staying with Lahey?" Derek asked, although he knew already that was the case.
"Yes, he offered, and the expense of staying in Town is high during the Season." He shrugged. "I would be a fool to turn him down – even if he had given me a chance."
"Staying with friends is infinitely better." Derek agreed. He wouldn't know. Since Kate, he had kept very much to himself, trying to rebuild the mess she had left in her wake.
"Yes." The young Baron nodded. "Well… goodnight Sir, should you ever find yourself lurking in shadows, please do let me know. I thought I was about to be robbed."
Stiles lay in the large bed and stared at the intricately painted ceiling, angels and gods – in the classic Greek style Isaac had decorated in. He was utterly hopeless, he chastised himself. Utterly, completely hopeless. Always the worst kind of idiot – always foolishly miles ahead of his situations. He saw one thing, and surged forth like an unstoppable wave. Like the railways – such an inventive, ground breaking technology that he believed would change the world. He'd invested a fortune, and had lost it all. Tobacco too – he thought that would be the future, and had been proven again and again that rushing in was a fools game.
And now with Hale. A Duke, of all bloody things. A very handsome, rich, handsome… Duke. A Duke who insulted him then seemed to want to get to know him, and now Stiles was running away ahead again.
He had been married to a beauty, a diamond of the Ton. He was still in mourning for Christsakes, and yet Stiles couldn't help but wonder… maybe. Maybe he asked questions because he was curious, or maybe he asked questions because he was… like Stiles. Perhaps he, like others, was not aware of these feelings until later in life or…
Stiles sat up in bed and punched the pillow as hard as he could. Duke Hale was not like him. He was a normal, 30-something year old male, with normal male urges and desires.
Stiles was the freak.
"There is another invite for you," Lahey said, pointing with this toasted bread. "On the side table."
Stiles had overslept, probably due to his restless night and wandering thoughts. He nodded roughly and grabbed the small pile. "Another society meeting." He said, breaking the seal and reading. "They would like me to hold a small lecture."
"Excellent." Lahey yawned. He didn't care of such things. "And you were invited through me to attend the Hastings Ball next week."
"I've nothing to wear." Stiles said, as a matter of course. He'd managed to keep that line as a reasonable excuse to avoid such events.
"I've taken care of that." Lahey nodded. "Ordered you a new set of dress clothes."
"Isaac!" Stiles hissed. "You cannot do that!"
"Of course I can. You did me a great service last night – the money she cost me will more than pay for a formal set."
"Isaac, please. I will not allow you to buy me clothing." He snapped. "It not only looks suspect to our friendship, but also that I am using you ill."
"Pah!" Lahey said, waving his hand to brush away the comments. "I sent the order in your name, and I made sure it was to your odious tailor who hasn't heard of the latest styles, no one shall know."
"I shall know."
"It will be our secret." Lahey shrugged. "Not the first we have had."
Stiles groaned. Whenever Isaac believed that he was losing an argument, he would cast some hint (and once even blatantly stating) about their once much more… intimate relationship.
They were both at school and Isaac was, like indolent rich boys were wont to be: bored. Stiles and his different views on sexuality had garnered his interest and they had a passionate affair that lasted under a year. Stiles had expected Isaac to brush him aside once it had flamed out, but they had remained solid friends. Now, the memories seemed… out of place. Odd. They had once been deeply in love, and loved each other still, but in such a different way now that romance was alien.
"You are impossible." He retorted, and Lahey shrugged.
"True. However, if you are going to be put out with me, please wait till after breakfast. My head, you understand."
"You should drink less."
"You should talk less." His friend muttered, going back to his toast and tea. Stiles glared for a moment before looking through his other notes.
"Looks like McCall will be back in time for the ball." He noted, scanning the letter. "His meeting with his land agent seems to be taking longer than he expected."
"Yes, his mother too – likes to keep him in the country."
"Away from your influence."
"I pride myself on being the most interesting man you know."
"You failed to pronounce 'infuriating' Isaac." Stiles muttered, going back to his letter as his friend threw him a dark look over the table. There was one more letter, heavy paper, with an instantly recognisable crest on the seal. "Hale sent me a letter?"
"I saw that." Isaac frowned. "Was going to burn it, but I thought it might be of import. Arrived before I came down." He glared at the letter in Stiles hands. "Although I don't see what he could possibly have to say to you after Deatons meeting."
Stiles glanced up. "Oh, we are past that now, Lahey." He shrugged. "You are quite behind in all the news."
Enjoying his friends spluttering on the other side of the table, Stiles popped open the seal and quickly ran over the contents of the note. "He has asked me to supply a working treatise of my experiments. He wants to try using Bee's at his country estate." He carried on reading as Isaac watched him closely. "And to introduce some various species of butterfly also."
"Would you be required to visit his country estate for this?" Lahey's tone was not amused.
"What?" Stiles said, looking up. "Hmm?"
"Will you go to his estate for this?" His friend repeated.
"No. I should be able to simply advise him how it would be done without any inconvenience." Stiles said, re-reading the letter. "Basic stuff, really." He added, trying to ignore the way his heart raced in his chest.
The Duke and Duchess of Hastings were well known for throwing elaborate parties that were considered the highlight of the social season. Stiles had never attended before, and as he stood waiting for Erica to descend the stairs, he felt a strange flow of nervous energy in his bones. His jacket was bright, cherry red, a colour he loved and despised at the same time. He felt that he would never fade into the background in such a bright colour, and not for the first time, threw his friend a dark look. Isaac Lahey though, Duke and richer than anyone he knew, was wearing a purple and gold paisley pattern than made Stiles seem positively demure in his coat.
"You must admit, it does become you." Isaac smirked. "Your tailor might not be up to my standards, but the cut… suits you."
"I am as red as the sun." Stiles hissed. "I do not like to stand out so."
"If you think a simple red coat will make you stand out, you are in for a great disappointment tonight, my friend." Lahey grinned. "Whittimore is wearing green and blue – with the most fantastic silver roping – and he is not the wildest dandy you will see." Isaac laughed. "You will think me quite under-dressed once we arrive. Trust me on this."
"I could not think of a worst way to spend an evening." Stiles bemoaned.
"Oh, there will be ladies and dancing." Isaac shrugged. "And hidden little alcoves. Lots of hidden little alcoves, you'll find" He glanced at Stiles and gave him a small smile. "Although perhaps that does not soften your mood towards the night." He sighed. "I know of no one of your tastes here. I enquired after Daniel, but he is still in Italy."
"I really do not need your well minded interference." Stiles retorted, without venom.
"It isn't natural to go so long without a partner."
"What makes you think anything about me is natural?" Stiles laughed bitterly. He didn't want to know how Isaac knew how long it had been since he'd had any kind of companionship.
"I find you the most natural person of my acquaintance." Isaac replied with a calm tone. "And it vexes me greatly that you think otherwise."
"Thank you, Isaac."
"I do love you, Stiles." His friend said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Just not as I once did."
"And I you," He smiled. "Those days are long in the past."
"I wish you were happy."
"I wish you were not so maudlin. Remember, there are ladies and alcoves." He winked. When Isaac became ill in spirits he was often several days in bleak moods that no one could help him from. It was happening more and more as he got older. "Many alcoves and so many ladies." He added.
Isaac laughed, nodding. "And many opportunities to take said ladies into said alcoves."
He was grinning when Erica finally appeared, in a shockingly cut dress that made her brother frown, and Stiles laugh.
"Are you thinking of all those alcoves?" He teased. "And now seeing how other men might try to get a certain lady in them?"
"You have ruined my evening, Erica." Isaac said to her. "And we are not even out the door."
"My goal in life, brother dear." She laughed – sapphires glinting in the candlelight.
Chapter 3: Chapter 3
Katherine Argent had been the most stunning woman Derek had ever seen, in the whole of his life. She was more than her pretty face and her laughs – she was clever, witty… perfect. He was young, foolish and rich – married her as soon as he could and watched in horror as the woman he loved ruined not only him, but his family.
She had started so slowly, so gently – telling him that his father didn't trust his judgement. Such a little thing that ate away at his confidence, steadily ruining his relationship with his father in so many little ways. Every look she had a tale for, how his sisters reputations were in peril – mixing with gamesters, drunkards. How his mother would not check their behaviour. Bad parents, bad apples. How lucky he was that she, Kate, loved him despite having such a family.
It had taken less time that you would think for her to drive a wedge between the Hale family. So little time for Derek to mistrust those who had always loved him.
When, disgusted by his sons behaviour, his father cut him off – Derek saw Kate for what she actually was. How she had only wanted him for what he could give her, how her love was a lie. The times he had found her in the arms of other men. He drank to forget.
No longer though. Her death, sudden and shocking, had set him free. Too late though, to beg forgiveness from his father. Too late to weep at the feet of his mother, and his sisters. They had been set upon by highwaymen – killed for the jewels at their throats, the money in their pockets.
He remembered Kate's face when he inherited. Her glee, her joy at the restoration of funds. How she gloated. His entire family had been killed and she had danced with happiness. He saw her then, for the first time. He felt in that moment that he was seeing her for the first time. She didn't get her fingers on a penny. They had been married 8 years – he hadn't touched her in 5, couldn't even look at her.
This party, this Ball, would have been everything she loved and was – simply because of this – everything he hated. Pretty girls in pale dresses, young men dressed like peacocks, a vivid display of wealth and opulence. He saw Dukes and Earls, Marquises and the occasional country Baron – their wives and daughters.
He was standing to the side, a cold air of disinterest keeping people at bay – when he saw the young Baron Stiles arrive. Duke Lahey always made an entrance, of course. Rich, young, handsome and an incorrigible flirt, he was everything that London wanted in a man. His arrival was always greatly anticipated by the mass of ladies who swooned dramatically. His sister, who Hale secretly suspected of being more than the mindless beauty she appeared, stood at his side. You could have missed Stiles if you weren't looking.
Not that Derek was looking, of course. He simply noticed because the boy was wearing the most shocking shade of red he'd ever seen, and it looked utterly ridiculous. Utterly. The cut was so tight that it clung to his body like a second skin – for a younger lad he had shoulders enough, Derek had expected him to be smaller – he was actually wider in the shoulders than Duke Lahey.
He wasn't the only one who noticed.
"I say," a pretty brunette whispered to her friend. "Who is the man in the red coat?"
"Pappa knows him." The blond returned. "He is Baron Stiles, from the coast. He wore a blue coat at Almacks and only danced one dance." Derek didn't feel bad for listening. They were not taking pains to be secretive. "He is only 20 and is very clever, and Erica Lahey is madly in love with him. So she told Lydia Martin – who told Charlotte Gibson, who told me." Their giggles set his teeth on edge. He glanced back to Stiles, and the blond on his arm, smiling and laughing at his words.
Stiles had, at his request, sent a great many notes to his house on the keeping and breeding of a healthy hive. His hand was neat but rambling – with a great many notes in the margins where he added comments he had forgotten. Informative and very detailed, he had missed nothing. Derek had sent the papers to his land agent at the estate with a request to implement the construction immediately.
He was unsure why his feet were suddenly taking him across the room, but once he had become aware of his movements he was unable to turn back, Stiles and Lahey had both noticed him, one with a frown – the other an open smile.
"Duke Lahey," Hale nodded briskly. "Baron." He turned to the blond. "Miss Lahey." He tried not to notice the way her gloved hand was wrapped possessively around the forearm of Stiles, how easy she was in his presence.
"Your Grace." She bobbed perfectly, small smile on her lips. "How wonderful to see you again."
Of course. Derek had happened upon her when she had been shopping. He had crossed the street to thank Stiles for the papers and had not noticed that he had been escorting Miss Lahey. He'd had to endure a painful few minutes of small talk before he could politely leave.
"Indeed." He said, hating that his tone was quite so dismissive. She didn't seem to notice, or if she did – it did not register in her eyes. In fact, she seemed… amused.
"I was just saying to my Baron, what a sad crush this ball is already! I should fear that half of London has arrived."
Her baron? Her baron? "Of course, it is the event of the social season. How clever Duchess Hastings is, to place her Ball so near to the end of the calendar! Why, no one should hold an event to rival it now." Her hand had not yet left Stiles arm, who stood smiling as though such intimacy was commonplace. "Our little party should be quite outdone." She added, pointedly.
Had he replied to the invite? He couldn't remember. Damn. "I'm sure that won't be the case." He said, tone not showing his unease.
"Oh, you flatter us." Duke Lahey said, tone dry and unamused. "Stiles, I dare-say we should try to locate McCall." Hale wondered if he had ever spoken over five words to the young Duke and suddenly felt very uncomfortable standing beside them.
"I wanted to thank you for the notes." He said, looking at Stiles, who smiled brightly – gold eyes flashing in the bright lights.
"Oh, you got them? I wasn't sure." Stiles replied, tone open and friendly. Nothing like the man who stood to his left and frowned at him. "Were they detailed enough?"
"Ah, yes." Hale responded, trying not to smile.
"I dare-say my land agent should be able to construct an exact replica with the information you sent."
Stiles laughed a little self-consciously, and Miss Laheys gloved hand still did not leave his arm. How comfortable she looked, standing prettily at his side.
"I apologise if I overwhelmed you! I tend to forget and write everything that pops into my head." He smiled. He had a nice smile, Derek noted.
"Yes, Stiles, quite often you forget yourself." Duke Lahey noted, pointedly. What the hell was his problem? His tone, or his words, seemed to register with Stiles, his whole face changed. Derek felt as though he was looking at a different man.
"Ah, yes." He nodded, tone less warm, less welcoming. "Although we shouldn't keep you, Your Grace." He nodded. At his side, still holding onto his arm, Miss Lahey bobbed. There was nothing to be done, Derek knew. Their conversation was over. He nodded to Stiles, Miss Lahey and turned to the young Duke, who was not happy. Hale could tell from the tight line of his mouth, the cold glint in his eyes. "Your Grace." He nodded.
"Your Grace." The boy responded, tone cool and distant. Yes, the young Duke did not like him. At all.
The best part of the night was watching Duke Lahey try to keep his sister as close to himself as possible, while trying to avoid all the match-making mammas that these Balls were full of. Hale watched from the side of the room, distancing himself from the throng of people, and watched.
Stiles danced twice, once with Miss Lahey, and the other with Miss Martin – who seemed to know him quite well. She laughed and batted her lashes as they twirled on the floor. Derek had assumed that the boy wouldn't be able to dance, but both his partners were shown to their best advantage as he covered the floor with ease. Miss Martin, with her unusual red hair, was one of the most desirable women in London – why did the young Baron, who had never been in London before, seem to attract such beauties to his side? Derek couldn't think of a single reason.
"I do not like the way Miss Martin looks this evening." Whittimore commented. He too, was standing to the side, glass in hand. Hale fought the urge to roll his eyes. Lord Whittimore was, as half on London knew, quite besotted with Miss Martin. The only person not aware of that fact was, oddly, Lord Whittimore. "Green is not her shade."
She looked stunning, Hale noted. Green was definitely her shade. "And Stiles looks a fool."
"And yet he is dancing with Miss Martin, and you are not." Hale pointed out coolly. Stiles did not look like a fool.
"She seeks to make me jealous." Whittimore replied waspishly. "As though I would be fool enough to tie myself to such a woman." He paused. "She is quite the bluestocking." He informed Hale, in a secretive tone. "Bookish. Always reading."
"I was not aware that was a crime."
"Makes them think." Lord Whittimore growled. "Women should not be allowed to think. It is the realm of men."
Derek did not reply. Perhaps Miss Martin knew Stiles through his work, if she were so very bookish. Perhaps that was why she danced and laughed with him as thought they were old friends. Whittimore was still talking, but his conversation was one sided and petty – as it normally was. Hale only put up with him because occasionally, he was quite a useful man to know. His horses were the best in England.
The Hastings Ball was the talk of London, not for the reasons that Hale would have thought. The arrival of Lord Daniel Mahealani, the heir to a fortune that made Lahey look like a pauper, had caused quite a stir. Tanned from his extended trip overseas, he was tall, handsome and – from what Derek could tell from his spot in the corner – friendly and open.
Very friendly. He greeted Lahey with a wave, Stiles in what could only be called a brotherly embrace that was returned enthusiastically – calling Whittimore across the room and shaking hands with everyone he spoke to. Derek felt that the only person in London whom the boy didn't know was Derek.
That hadn't lasted long.
He'd seen Lord Mahealani at Blacks, at Jones, at Gentleman Jacksons – everywhere. He was always laughing, always welcoming and always with Baron Stiles. Perhaps others may not have noticed it, but Hale found he could not help but seek out the younger lad in a crowd. Every time he saw Mehealani, he saw Stiles. Oh, they did not arrive together, nor leave together – but where you saw one, you were sure to see the other. Why this angered him, he had no idea. Not only did Stiles seem forever in his orbit, but Duke Lahey seemed more than willing to have the tanned and exotic gentleman talk to his pale friend. Derek had tried to speak to Stiles on a few occasions, only to have their conversation interrupted by Lahey on some idiotic mission, taking Stiles away - and his temper was starting to wear thin.
He managed to get him alone, at Blacks, finally. "My land agent informs me that the hive is already starting to buzz." He commented, sitting down without invite at the table where Stiles was seated alone. The younger man, startled for a moment, instantly grinned.
"Once the queen arrives, I'm glad to announce that there is very little work to be done on your part." He said, eyes glittering and a smile on his lips. He was holding a glass of amber liquid, but Derek had yet to see him put it to his lips.
"So you commented." Hale nodded, seating himself more comfortably. He could tell that Stile noted his relaxed manner, that of a man settling for a longer conversation. His response was a smile so openly happy that Derek couldn't help but smile back. "You seem to be always about these days." He commented. "I hardly think you have times to write such detailed papers any longer."
Stiles laughed. "Danny keeps us all very entertained with his stories – he was never a very dedicated scholar, but he does have a way with words." Danny? Stiles referred to Lord Mahealani as Danny? How familiar, Derek thought with a frown. "He brought me back some larvae, a few species that are only found on the coastal regions of Italy." Stiles beamed across the room at the man who had just arrived. With Lahey. Damn.
"That was… nice of him." Derek commented, as Duke Lahey seemed to be aware of their table as soon as he walked in. Damn the man, could he not simply just overcome whatever hatred he had and let Derek talk to Stiles uninterrupted?
"Oh, should you only know one thing about Danny," Stiles agreed with a smile. "He is nice. Quite the best man I know." He paused. "Although do not say so to Isaac for he becomes quite annoyed if he is not so well loved." Although his voice obviously meant his words in jest, Hale thought he could hear a great deal of truth in them. It took a few moments for Stiles words to work their way through his head. Not so well loved, he said. Not liked, but loved. Did Stiles love this overlarge, tanned man?
"Ah, Stiles!" Lord Mahealani laughed, joining them at the table with the open air of someone who does not realise that they were interrupting a private conversation. Not that their conversation was, well… private.
"Danny!" Stiles grinned. "I was just telling Lord Hale about the butterflies you collected for me."
"Lord Hale," Mahealani said, holding out his hand and smiling genuinely. "I'm afraid we haven't been properly introduced."
"Lord Mehealani." Derek said, nodding and letting the enthusiastic man shake his hand.
"Oh, please, call me Danny, if you will." The tanned man smiled. "Almost everyone does." Introductions over, Danny and Stiles settled into a conversation that seemed long running. "Miss Martin seemed quite attentive."
"Miss Martin and I are, as you fine well know, old friends." Stiles grinned. "I am quite over my childish infatuation with her."
"Not so childish!" Danny laughed, "Only last year you offered her your hand."
Derek found he was gritting his teeth, and made an effort to unclench his jaw. Stiles had asked that pretty red-head to marry him? Surely with the admission of his nature… such a marriage would surely be… uncomfortable. Derek found the idea uncomfortable at least. He remained silent.
"Lydia and I are good friends and she was being pursued by Earl Greenburg whom she had no desire to marry." Stiles grinned. "I simply did what any gentleman would do." He gave Danny, Lord Mahealani, an odd look that Derek could not decipher. "And I was not able to run off abroad at that time."
"Are you able now?"
Derek almost choked on his drink.
Lord Mahealani, for Derek would rather cut off his own arm than refer to that man as Danny, had made it quite obvious that he would not be adverse to Stiles leaving the country. With him.
The overgrown knave had basically announced it at the damn table. With Hale sitting right there! The utter bastard. The conversation had eventually turned around to more… general conversation, then Lahey invited them all to play at cards. He declined, wandering off to his normal chair, cursing his luck. He was still seated there a few hours later when Stiles walked over and invited himself to the only other chair at the small table. Derek believed that he could hear Duke Lahey's teeth grinding from the other side of the room. Derek did not smile. He was sure of it. Perhaps a little, maybe.
"Isaac and Danny often forget that other men are not quite so solvent." Stiles noted, glancing at Hale with a sly grin. "I've played my best and left with more than I sat down with – a good night all in."
"Indeed." Hale said, feeling strangely relaxed. "Some men should know when to quit."
"I… ah… yes." Stiles replied, looking at the drink his hand rather than at Derek. "I guess they should." When Stiles seemed to make no effort in talking more, Derek felt as though he perhaps may have somehow offended him. There was no easy smile, and the boy had a down expression around his eyes that were normally glowing in the lights.
"Miss Lahey seems quite fond of you." He commented. The younger man nodded slowly, eyes still fixed on his glass.
"Yes, I've known her for years."
"And Miss Martin?"
He didn't speak again, and left not long after.
Some men should know when to quit.
Stiles walked mindlessly through the streets, expression black. Should anyone have been following him for nefarious purposes, they would have known to leave him well alone – for he walked like a man who had a mind to do damage.
Some men should know when to quit. Duke Hales voice was mocking in his ears, mind replaying over and over those words. Stilesshould know when to quit. The man wasn't interested. He had been married. He was not un-natural like Stiles. He was normal and healthy and not interested. He had no idea of the way his pale eyes made Stiles feel, nor how that ghost of a smile that sometimes played on his lips flipped Stiles in two and left him heady – like he'd drank too much brandy. Idiot, foolish boy for thinking anything different. Just because Hale had spoken to him at the Hastings Ball, or sat down by him at Blacks, didn't mean that the man thought of Stiles in any different way. He probably thought he was being very modern, talking to Stiles knowing what he was. Stiles wondered if the man thought he was doing him some kind of favour.
Which made him soangry. Never in his life had Stiles been attracted to a man who had not previously initiated his interest. Never to a man who was solely attracted to women. What the hell had he been thinking? His groan sounded un-naturally loud in the empty street, bouncing off the walls of the well-kept houses. Damn. He was such an idiot.
Isaac's house was large, much larger than the others near it – befitting a Duke and man of his station. When Stiles got to the door it was opened for him by the ever attentive footman who nodded politely and took his hat and gloves.
His friend had given him one of the larger rooms, there was always a fire burning in the hearth and a warm brick in the bed. He should be pleased, thrilled, that he had friends who cared enough about him to wish for his comfort always. Yet all he had thought about for the better part of a month was a man who would never have any feelings for him other than morbid curiosity.
He had already turned Danny away – who took his rejection well, after all, he had turned Stiles away a few times too – and was now regretting that decision. He'd not been with another partner in years. The last man he'd touched was now settled down, married – a child on the way. Stiles wished him well, knew that he'd eventually need to marry one day. He needed an heir to pass his title down, a son to take his name and carry on the noble name of Stiles. He'd been with a woman, of course. He hadn't been disgusted or unable to perform, as he'd heard some men like him could be. He just hadn't been… interested. He'd not felt that rush, that heady feel of need and want and sweat.
What he really wanted, he thought as he pulled off his clothes and left them neatly to one side, was to know how it felt to be touched by a man like Hale. Would he be unsure, or strong? Were his hands soft or rough? Would he smile?
Such thoughts though, made his blood thicken in his veins, pooling in his groin and making him hard. He sighed, hating that he could not control his thoughts nor desires. What he needed, he was not going to get – not from Duke Hale, at least – and he didn't want it from anyone else.
Hale awoke with the feel of sweat on his skin and his hand fisted around his cock for the fourth time that week, like a damn child unable to control himself. He had been dreaming again of things that were not, and never would be, real.
He had been too long without a woman, that was the issue. Since Kate had died he'd been living like a monk and that was why his dreams were confused. He was confused. Conflicted. Desperate for something he could not, in his waking mind, understand.
His dreams were of golden eyes and a quick smile, and he tried to push those images away as he brought himself to completion, spilling his seed on the sheets, head pushed back into the pillows and a strangled name on his lips he could not bring himself to say.
He needed a woman. Anywoman. Soon.
The thing about Miss Erica Lahey was that for all she appeared to be mindless, insipid and a terrible gossip – she was in fact… none of those things.
She was clever, secretive and damn impossible to keep in the dark about anything. So when Stiles awoke late, and arrived at the breakfast table with dark shadows under his eyes, she frowned. Her brother, across the other side of the room, groaned.
"Stiles, what has gotten to you?" She said, pointedly ignoring her brother. "You have been out of sorts this last week and I am concerned."
"It is nothing, my love." Stiles replied – tone flat and emotionless. Erica nearly laughed. She would have laughed if she wasn't quite so worried. Stiles never referred to her as 'his love' unless something was wrong. Hell, even when he'd been bedding her brother (which she was honest enough to admit excited her more than it should have – given that Isaac was her brother) he'd only ever called her 'my love' once and it was when she'd walked in on them in a distinctly… intimate way… and he'd talked to her in his open, honest way about the nature of some men.
"It is Danny?" She asked. "Have you not reconciled and…" She waved a hand in the air gracefully. "Become close?"
"Erica!" Isaac snapped at her, and she rolled her eyes.
"Isaac, I have actually seen the both of you in a most intimate act – and you still act as though I am innocent to the goings on betwee-"
"God damn it Erica!" Isaac roared, and she knew that she had gone too far. Her brother never really raised his voice. When he did, he sounded very much like their father, and she closed her eyes tightly to fight the memories that washed over her. "Do not talk so." He said, in a subdued tone. "Think of the servant's." He finished, sitting heavily into his chair.
"I'm just worried about Stiles." She said, eyes glancing over to the man who had not made any attempt to show he could hear them, for all he was seated right at her side.
"I know." Isaac muttered. He was acting oddly as well. Her head snapped up, not able to hide the smile on her face.
"Are you… is that why Stiles is staying?" She asked, not managing to hide the glee in her tone. "Are you together again?" The idea that Stiles might become a permanent part of her brother's life was more than glad news to her. Erica loved Stiles, Isaac loved Stiles, for all he acted like he was quite over their affair.
"No." Isaac said, and his tone told her that was the truth. "I have told you before, it is behind us both."
"But you love each other!"
"I will always love your brother, Erica." Stiles spoke, voice exhausted. "But we have talked about this at length." Isaac shot him a relieved look that broke her heart. They would not be continuing their affair as she had hoped. "And we have both decided that it is better we remain as friends."
"Best friends." Isaac added. "Who care deeply for each other."
"But are not intimate."
"I don't see why you can't just always be like you once were." Erica sighed. "You were both so happy."
"And young." Her brother sighed. "And not a Duke, with hundreds of people watching my every move." He paused, glancing at Stiles. "It's a bit like that for a Duke, you see."
"I am aware." Stiles replied waspishly at Isaac, and Erica was aware that she was missing a large part of this conversation. Her brother was the only Duke that Stiles knew, so why the cryptic… She managed not to choke on her tea, smothering her cough with a wave of her hand. Duke Hale. Of course!
Duke Hale, the most handsome, eligible Duke in London, whom half the ladies were terrified of and half were mad in love with. He'd spoken to Stiles at the Hastings Ball, hadn't he? Spoke to him and Isaac had been so furious… because although Isaac may no longer wish to bed Stiles, he didn't want anyone else to do so either. She knew his nature. He was, after all, her brother and she loved him despite his jealousies.
So Stiles was pining after Duke Hale. How depressing. The man was still in mourning for his dead wife, after three years. So he either loved her more than life, or… he didn't wish to be bothered by the single ladies who were required to stay away from him until he was out of black clothes.
He wasn't the only one though.
Erica stood and looked at herself in the mirror, a sly grin playing on her lips. She loved this riding dress, in a bright red, with its matching dyed feather – huge and curled. It framed her face and made her eyes look positively massive.
Every day, Duke Hale took his horse, a lovely chestnut stallion – out to the park. And this morning, Erica Lahey would accidentally find herself in his path. Oh dear, she thought wickedly. How terrifying.
She hadn't told her brother, she certainly wasn't going to tell Stiles – she took her saddled horse (white gelding, sweetest temper) and a grooms-man and set off with her plan firmly in the forefront of her mind.
She saw him, riding just fast enough to be considered dangerous, but not fast enough to endanger his horse, at the edge of the park, and placed herself in the middle of the path. There was no other way around it – once he reached her he would either have to slow down – or dismount completely. Either one would work for her.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, she heard the pounding of hooves behind her. As the sound drew closer, she turned her head in fake alarm, hand flying to her mouth.
"Oh goodness!" She called, as the horse and rider bore down upon her location. She gasped, feeling perfectly justified in gloating when Duke Hale stopped his horse and glared at her, sitting dead centre in the middle of his path. "Oh! I thought I should be trampled to death!" She announced, fake flutter in her voice.
"Doubtful." Hale remarked, "You are still mounted."
"How wise you are!" She gushed, batting her eyelashes. It affected him not at all. She could have crowed with delight. "Lord Hale," she continued. "I should not have known you in all your speed. It is I, Miss Lahey." Was she putting it on too thick, she wondered, as he glared at her. "Duke Lahey's sister." She added, in-case he was so dim as to not remember her.
"Yes." He finally said. "I believe we have met."
"Oh, of course! You were introduced to me by my Baron at the Hastings party!" She agreed, enthusiastically. Her Baron, she noted, got his jaw to twitch. Ideal! "My brother is such a bore, not to have invited you to join us that night." She smiled, seductively. Not a thing, not even a blink of his eye – she was a beauty, she knew. She could turn heads in a crowded room with one soft smile, he was unaffected. She wanted to clap her hands. "He is so protective of his friends."
"Not so much of his sister." Hale noted, looking around.
"Oh, I have a groomsman here!" She laughed lightly. "I had asked my Baron," Another twitch of the jaw – oh, how splendid! "To join me, but he is so down in spirits lately." She sighed, perhaps laying it on a bit too much, she thought, as the Duke frowned at her.
"Down in spirits?" He asked, as though it caused him physical pain.
"Oh, for near a week!" She bemoaned, loving the power she now knew she had over him. "But I shouldn't bore you with such things," She sighed, "I shall let you be on your way, Your Grace. It was not my intention to keep you from your exercise."
"Let me escort you to the gate." Duke Hale said, suddenly, and Erica knew she had him hooked. Poor Duke Hale, had he known what was going through her mind at that point, he would have paled.
Chapter 4: Chapter 4
Hale prided himself on managing to keep his interest in the young Baron hidden from Miss Lahey. He was able to expertly steer their conversation to her friend without any apparent effort, she had no idea he was manipulating her.
"Oh, I was just a little girl when I met him for the first time." She gushed, obviously thrilled that he was seeking her company. He smiled internally, a simply compliment and a slight show in her interests and she was eating out of the palm of his hand. "He was at school with Isaac and he came to visit over the holidays." She smiled. "I had never met any of Isaac's friends before, and I was so impressed with the Baron – though he wasn't a Baron then, of course!"
"Of course." Hale nodded. "Your brother must have liked him a great deal."
"Oh, they were thick as thieves, they still are. I felt quite left out of their conversations sometimes." She added, shyly. "But my Baron always makes time for me now."
Hale felt his jaw tighten at the words. Her Baron. Really, how obvious could she be – she might as well come out and announce that she was in love with him. "I'm sure he does."
"He does!" She laughed, a light easy sound. "Why, he danced with me at Almacks, and at the Hastings Ball, and he dislikes dancing so much, though he has the very best figure on the floor. He could dance rings around any other man." She beamed, pleased by this.
"He danced with Miss Martin as well, if I recall."
"Oh, I don't think he did."
"Yes, at the Hastings Ball." He pointed out.
"A country reel." She nodded.
"It was a waltz."
"Are you sure?" Her voice was slight and confused. Had he not known better, he would think she was leading him on, but she was – as most people knew – nothing more than a pretty face.
"Quite sure." He bit out. "It was a waltz."
"Oh, you are right. I was so put out because the waltz was for me, and then Miss Martin stole him away." She said, with a sigh. "Even though he told me that it was quite over with her."
"You said he'd been acting oddly?"
"Yes." She nodded. "I'm quite worried about him. I don't think he is sleeping. I asked him yesterday morning, how he was, and he just nodded and said 'Fine, my love.' Which is not at all like him."
Hale frowned. My love. He wondered if perhaps she was simply reading too much into his words, perhaps her infatuation with the boy made her think he had said 'my love' when he'd said something… not that. Also, he wasn't sleeping?
"Perhaps he is ill?"
"Perhaps. I hope it is not a deeper issue." She pulled her horse to the gate and nodded to her groomsman, who was following at a respectful pace behind them. "I am so sorry to keep you, Your Grace." She said, "I hope I have not inconvenienced you this morning."
"Not at all, Miss Lahey." He nodded, tipping his hat. He had to think, had to get back to his study and think. What the hell could be wrong with the lad?
Erica managed to keep her victory dance in check until she was safely in her room. Oh, how easy men were to manipulate! Duke Hales interest in Stiles was almost palpable, but he obviously wasn't… used to those feelings. He was jealous of her words, she could tell from the way his jaw would twitch and his dark eyebrows would move with more expression than he perhaps would have liked. He'd nearly growled at her when she'd told him that Stiles had called her 'my love' which was just capitol. Excellent. He might not be so modern in his tastes as Isaac, who loved everyone regardless of their gender, but he was thinking of the young Baron in a way that wasn't as friendly as he may have convinced himself. Oh, he had remembered that Stiles had danced with Lydia, and that it had been a Waltz. He was obviously watching stiles with more interest than he knew.
She sat at her little desk and smiled as she opened her post. A small letter, that maybe would have seemed uninteresting to anyone else had her hand shaking as she popped the seal.
"My Dearest Erica," it read.
"Life in Manchester continues to be… trying. Although a man of colour may find employable work, it is not to the standard I had hoped with my education. I begin to fear that your brother is right, and we will never be together."
It ran on for several pages, and they were heavy with her tears before she reached the end.
Hale sat at his desk and looked over all the information he had managed to get on railways, and how the stocks were fairing. He knew the lad had invested deeply, and the 'Change was not showing any improvement – in fact, they had fallen further. It would make sense then, that Stiles would now be facing a great deal of financial worries. Perhaps the thought of being deeply out of pocket was heavy on his mind?
Perhaps now that 'Danny' was in town, he had been drawn deeper into the gaming hells – after all, did he not say that he had been playing cards at Blacks, when he had joined Derek at his table. He had commented that he'd walked away with more than he sat down with? Luck like that didn't keep, not if you were playing with heavy rollers like Lahey – the man could drop a pony at a single sitting.
The more he thought of it, the more it became clear to him. Stiles was losing money on the 'Change and gambling to try to win it back – thinking that his luck would hold. It would only be a matter of time before he lost a great deal – and it was taking its toll on the boy.
He leaned back into his chair and sighed. Damnation. He had no idea how to fix that without being obvious and offering the lad a loan. He knew in his heart that Stiles would never accept such charity. He needed a plan.
Stiles sat and watched Isaac play cards, shaking his head as his friend dropped yet another losing hand. He was convinced his luck would change if he just won once.
"Come on, Isaac." He said, leaning in so only his friend could hear him. "You've lost enough tonight. Let's just go home."
"I can do it." Isaac slurred. "I can win it back."
"I have no doubt in my mind, you could." He agreed. Damnit, had he not been watching how much Lahey had been drinking? "But it is late, and tomorrow we have to be seen at Almacks with your sister or she shall flay us both." He grinned, hoping that his friend was sober enough to remember his other obligations.
"I'd get arrested." He quipped, making Isaac laugh a little. "Come on. We can walk home if you'd like to." He added. A man with money very rarely walked anywhere – he was hoping the novelty appealed.
"Perfect." Isaac agreed after thinking it over for a long moment. He glanced at the table, nodding to the men seated around it. "I shall call it a night." He announced, waving off their cries of 'foul'.
The cold night air sobered Isaac only a little, enough that he could walk at least, and did not need Stiles to prop him up.
"You played for too long." He admonished his friend as they walked. "I've told you time and time again that those places are for fools."
"I know." Isaac nodded. "But I thought I could win it back."
"You can't." Stiles shrugged. "I've been watching those tables like a hawk, my friend and the house always wins in the end."
"You should play more." Isaac laughed. "You are a much better player than I."
"And that is why I do not play." Stiles laughed. "Men like that do not like to lose to fresh-faced boys just out of school."
"True." Isaac slurred, tripping and almost taking Stiles down with him. They both laughed.
"Gentlemen." A familiar voice said from behind them, and Stiles felt his heart trip and stutter. Damn. He'd been doing so well not to think of the man all night, and here he was.
"Duke Hale." He said, turning to face the voice in the dark. "What a pleasant surprise."
"Playing at Whites?"
"Lost a fortune." Isaac lamented, before he realised Duke Hale was there. "Oh, it's you." He frowned impolitely. "Why are you following us?"
"I was making my way back from Whittimores." Hale supplied, although he didn't have to tell Isaac a damn thing.
"Ah." Stiles cut in, before Isaac could say any more. In his state he was more likely to say something completely inappropriate or – worse – some innuendo that Hale would surely pick up on. "We decided to walk home." He supplied helpfully. "Let the night air sober us some."
"Capitol idea," Hale agree, giving Stiles a slight frown.
"I thought so." Stiles said, wishing now that he'd poured his drunk friend into one of the waiting carriages. That way he could have avoided Hale and perhaps have a night where he slept soundly, rather than thinking about all the reasons he was a bloody idiot for wanting the man.
"Do you require any assistance in getting home?" Hale asked, although Stiles was sure he was simply being polite.
"No." Isaac said rudely. "I don't want his help. Stiles is all the help I need."
"He's being helpful." Stiles hissed under his breath. "You are acting terribly."
"I'm not starting this childish game." Stiles retorted. Isaac was leaning too heavily on him, and Stiles had the feeling that his friend was not as drunk as he was appearing. "And please stop crushing my shoulder."
Hale was watching them both with amused eyes as Isaac straightened up a little, still swaying slightly, but not as flat out drunk as he had been.
"You two seem very much like siblings with your banter." Hale nodded, amusement in his tone of voice.
"Stiles declined to become my brother." Isaac said suddenly. "Still put out with him on that."
"Don't star-" Stiles hurriedly cut in, but Isaac was already talking.
"Want him to marry Erica." He said, voice betraying the amount of alcohol he had consumed. "Told him to marry her, said he could stay with me if he liked afterword's."
"Like brothers." Hale nodded.
"Not like brothers." Isaac said, very pointedly. "At all."
"Holy hell, Isaac!" Stiles snapped. "Shut your mouth immediately."
"I see." Hale replied, and from his tone Stiles knew he could see. Could probably see a lot more than was actually there.
"That was years ago." Stiles said in panicking tones, waving his hand. "When Isaac and I were at school and…" His voice trailed off. "Please don't tell anyone." He finished, "Isaac is a Duke, he's got to marry – if people find out he'll be ruined forever." He took a deep breath and glared at his friend. "He's drunk. He's had far too much to drink, and the moment he sobers up he's going to regret every damn word he just said, so please, please just forget?"
"Of course." Hale replied in an easy tone as Isaac stood glaring at them both, before actually passing out in Stiles arms. Stiles tried to grab him as he fell, Hale reaching too – and between them they managed to prop the drunk Duke up.
"How much did he drink?"
"A lot. I thought I was keeping a good enough eye on him, but he's always managing to slip it past me."
"You sound like his keeper." Hale said, starting to walk in the direction of the Lahey residence.
"I feel like it." Stiles grumbled, matching his step – keeping Isaac propped up between their bodies. "He drinks too much, he has his reasons – and he has been a good friend for me in my dark times, when my father died."
"How much did you lose tonight?"
"What? Oh, I don't play in hells." Stiles laughed. "I never understood the interest. I play with Isaac and Danny sometimes, but never for high stakes – they found out too fast how much they lose to me."
"You play well?"
"I play wonderfully." Stiles grinned at him, over the top of Isaac's lolling head. "I worked out the system when I was a boy and my father taught me to play."
"You count?" Even though he was trying to hide it, Stiles could hear the shock in Hales voice. Cheating at cards was the worst sort of slander.
"Yes." He nodded. "Can't help it. So I don't play."
"Probably a good idea." Hale agreed. "You could get shot for that."
They walked in silence for a while, Stiles wondering if he should say something, but his mind too full of things he knew he shouldn't say to talk.
"Does Miss Lahey know?" Hale asked suddenly, as though he had been holding his breath and needed to get the words out.
"Erica?" Stiles asked, unsure. "Know what?"
"That her brother wants you to marry her."
"Oh." He said, using the time crossing the street to think of the correct way of wording a reply. "Ah, yes." He said. "Yes, she does."
"Are you going to?"
"No." Stiles laughed. "Erica doesn't want to marry me."
"Are you sure?" There was a hint of disbelief in his tone that made Stiles wonder what exactly the gossip around town was.
"Quite." He said, giving Hale a puzzled look. "We've talked about it at length, she has made it clear to both her brother and myself. She would much rather Isaac and I returned to our… previous relationship." Stiles said, looking away from the dark haired man. "She was just a girl when she found out. Most supportive." Stiles nodded though. "Very understanding."
Miss Lahey had played him for a fool and he'd walked right into her trap. She had no romantic love for Stiles at all, the little minx had tricked him!
She was obviously aware of Stiles nature – her brothers too – good God. He'd thought he was being so bloody clever and she was playing him like a damn fiddle. He'd…
Derek's mind started whirring faster. He didn't doubt that Stiles had told his friend that Derek knew about his interest in men rather than women. If he'd told Isaac, he may have told Erica.
Which meant that all his subtle questioning about Stiles was not subtle at all. She knew damn well that he was trying to get information about the boy. She'd fed him line after line, and he'd swallowed the lot.
"I saw Miss Lahey in the park." He said, testing to see if Stiles had known about the meeting.
"Oh?" Stiles said, concentrating on carrying the weight of his friend. "Who was she with?"
"Just a groomsman."
"Erica went out on horseback?" Stiles said, looking over at him, face one of confusion. "She normally asks me to go with her." He frowned. Derek could see, in the light cast from the street lamps, that he did indeed have dark marks under his eyes that spoke of his lack of sleep.
"She said you declined."
Stiles stopped dead in his tracks, nearly sending his unconscious friend into the cobbled road. Hale grabbed the Duke and managed to avoid him hitting the ground, as Stiles stared. "She said I declined?"
"Yes." Hale answered. "A little help?"
"Oh!" Stiles grabbed the other side of his friend and hauled him upright again, throwing the boys arm over his shoulder to take the weight better. "I'm so sorry."
"Don't mention it." Hale said. Stiles knew nothing of Miss Laheys now obvious ruse to talk to him alone. Damn, but that woman was a snake.
"Perhaps she just wanted to talk to me alone." Derek mused, wondering what Stiles would think of that. The boy laughed.
"You don't sound too sure. I am a Duke, you know."
"And she is the sister of a Duke." Stiles agreed, still grinning. "But if you are under the impression that she sought you out for… romantic reasons, you are sadly mistaken."
"I am thought to be quite handsome."
"And you are." Stiles agreed. "But Erica is very much in love with another. She doesn't want to marry a Duke."
Hale knew he should be focusing on something other than Stiles agreement that he was, in fact, handsome. He knew he should be thinking about anything other than that. But the boy thought he was handsome. Perhaps he was even attracted to him a little. Derek tried not to preen, it wasn't that important that Stiles thought he might be handsome. Not at all. "She's determined to marry, even if her brother," Said with a huff at the man they were carrying, "Would rather she fell off a cliff."
"The man cannot be so distasteful."
"Oh, you have no idea. American. Free-slave. Trade."
"Ah indeed." Stiles paused, face paling dangerously. "I should not have told you that."
"I would not tell a soul."
"It was not my secret to share."
"You have my word."
"She's going to kill me."
Derek leaned over the man propped up between them and gripped the younger boys shoulder. "She will never know."
Stiles thought he was handsome. He heaved the unconscious Duke up the stairs to his Town house. The door swung open and a footman stood smartly to attention.
"Have his room readied." Stiles grunted, pulling Lahey through the wide door. Derek followed, still keeping the Duke upright. "You'd better appreciate this, you unmitigated ass." The young lad grumbled. A snort of laughter escaped Derek, which got him an answering grin from the young Baron. "I could probably take it from here."
"Don't worry, I'll help." He said, not really wanting to think too much about the speed of his reply.
They carried the Duke, still out of it, up the massive staircase and down the wide hall.
"This is his room," Stiles said, using his hip to open the door.
It was actually quite a lot like his own room, enough that Derek was slightly taken aback. He'd thought that Isaac would have some outlandish style, but it was all very neat and modern. The new Greek style. Nice. Crisp. Stiles led the Duke to the bed and let him fall against the mattress before pushing him full on the bed.
"Pass the cloth, if you would – got to get his damn boots off – and if I mark the leather his man will knife me in my sleep."
Derek couldn't help the laugh, Peter – his valet – was forever bemoaning the state of his leathers. He spent hours polishing them to a high shine and took it as a personal insult if Hale got a fingerprint on them. "My man uses blacking with champagne in it." He said, grabbing the cloth and handing it to Stiles.
"My father swore by fleece and brandy." Stiles supplied. "Although I never could quite see the difference." He covered his hands and tugged at the heel of the sleeping Dukes black boots. "His man uses something that smells like hell and brimstone – vomited from some demon." Stiles grumbled. "He refuses to divulge what it is."
"Trade secrets." Derek said, with a smile. He was leaning on the edge of the large dresser, watching as Stiles pulled one boot off. "You can't expect him to tell you."
"I just want to know why it smells so bad."
"Curiosity is a fine thing."
"Unless you are of the feline persuasion." Stiles quipped, pulling the second boot off with a sharp tug.
Derek grinned, watching as Stiles carefully ensured that Isaac was comfortable and head turned to the side, should he vomit in the night. He pulled the cover over him and sighed. "He drinks so much." Stiles said, voice sad. "I understand it, but I wish he was happy."
"You are not his keeper." Derek reminded, voice gentle.
"I am his best friend, and love him more than you will ever know." Stiles sighed, not looking at Derek. "He was the first person I ever loved, you see." His hand brushed a stray curl from Isaac's forehead. "When my father died he was a rock for me, I just wish I knew how to fix this now."
Derek hated the feeling of hopelessness that radiated from Stiles like a wave. Hated that he'd talked about loving the drunk on the bed, hated that he understood. He had loved Kate more than anything, once. He would have walked over glass for her – he did not doubt that Stiles would do the same for his friend, his lover.
"I'm sure he knows you love him."
"Of course he does." Stiles laughed ruefully. "We have had a much better relationship since we stopped… ah," He waved his hand in the air, blushing. "Being in a relationship. We were always fighting. Now, we never fight." He shrugged. "Well, we fight about Erica sometimes, but she hardly counts because Isaac knows I'd rather die than let anything happen to her."
"You are no longer… together?"
"What?" Stiles said, head snapping around, "We've not been… intimate… for years." He shrugged. "Oh, since before we finished school." He supplied, giving Derek an odd look. "I know it might seem odd, but men like us stick together, even after the physical side is over. It is not a large society, we watch out of each other."
"Danny," Stiles grinned, "Is the nicest, most honest man I know." The younger man nodded to the door, motioning Derek to leave. Derek couldn't help the frown, knew that Stiles saw it. "We are not together, if that's what you were trying to ask." Stiles said, shutting the door behind them with a soft click.
Derek was not expecting the feeling of relief to wash over him to be so strong. He had not liked the idea of Stiles being intimate with Isaac, but he had hated the idea of him with Danny. Stiles stood in the hallway and smiled. "Thank you for your help. He's a heavy man, and I would not have liked to drag him through the streets unconscious."
Stiles felt… strange. He had never spoken of Isaac to anyone before – he had been the only man that Isaac had ever been with, and no one knew about them as a couple- Erica didn't count, she'd actually walked in on them in the middle of a most intimate act. Unfortunately, Isaac had gone and told Derek, who was now fully aware of their past. Oh, he was sure Danny knew, that man could sense another like them in a crowded room, but they never spoke of it.
"No need to thank me, I simply did what any gentleman would do." Duke Hale nodded, politely. Stiles seriously wished he'd never spoken of his relationship with Isaac. He wish he'd never met Duke Hale. How complicated his life was becoming, fast unravelling around him and powerless to stop it.
"I… um… if you could, please, not speak of this to anyone I would be forever in your debt." Stiles said, feeling the heat on his face, knew he was blushing.
"You have my word."
He didn't get any further because Duke Hale was suddenly kissing him.
Duke Hale was kissing him! Stiles did not swoon, nor did he make an ungentlemanly sound in the back of his throat – it was not a whine, nor a groan. He did not make a sound.
His hands were not fisting in the older man's jacket, pulling him closer and desperately trying to press his entire body along the hard length of Duke Hale. He did not. He would go to his grave before admitting a thing. He was going to die as it was. He was going to die of sheer need.
He was pressed against the closed door of Isaac's room, Hale – stronger, larger – holding him in place easily as his mouth – god, his mouth – worked hard against his, tongues and teeth clashing, it was not the most expert kiss Stiles had ever gotten, but dear Lord in heaven, it was the best.
Danny was wrong. Danny was so wrong about Lord Hale, Stiles thought distantly. Danny who had told Stiles that Hale was in no way interested in men in that way – was wrong. Hale was interested. Hale was very interested, going by the feel of his hips pressing hard into Stiles, and that mind numbing grind that was making it difficult for Stiles to do anything other than whimper in need. Which he was not doing. Not at all.
His whole body was throbbing with need, desperate for more than he was getting – but not willing to move, because what he was getting was perfection. Hale had his hand gripping the back of Stiles neck with enough pressure to keep him firmly in place, but not hard enough to hurt – masculine and powerful, it alone was enough to make Stiles push against the hold, he knew that Hale would be more than strong enough to take it. Another hand was fisted into his coat, probably ruining the cut forever, if Stiles would just find the urge to care.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed, it may have been a year – or a moment – but it was Hale who pulled back, eyes glazed and unfocused. Stiles tried to pull him back, but the older man was (as Stiles already knew) much stronger than him, he may as well have tried to stop the tide.
"My room is further down the hall." Stiles managed, voice shattered and broken. He really, really needed Hale to understand how much they needed to get to his room. Before Stiles died. He was going to die if Hale left now.
"I… I…" Hale said, blinking slowly. Damn, but his eyes were stunning. "Where?"
Hale was trying not to use his brain, because it was screaming at him in English, French and Latin, that what he was doing was wrong. But as the door clicked behind him and he saw Stiles look at him with those gold eyes – nervous and unsure, he knew what he wanted – even if it send him directly to hell.
He grabbed, needing to close the space between them – cut out the air, press so hard into the boy that they became one person. Stiles was making needy, desperate noises in the back of his throat that fired his blood and burned into his skin – he needed more, needed everything that the boy could give him. When Stiles grabbed at his hair, tugging his head back and changing the pace of their kiss from frantic to deep – Hale actually felt his knees give out. They half stumbled to the bed, gripping and pulling at clothes as they went. Stiles jacket, probably ruined with the force Hale used to pull it off, hit the floor with barely a sound – his own following it. Free of the thick material, Hale could feel the heath radiating from Stiles skin through the thin cotton of his shirt. Why that, more than anything else, urged him more, he couldn't say – but the moment he hauled that white cotton off the boy his heart actually stuttered. His skin, which felt like it was on fire, was pale – with corded muscles that spoke of more physical exercise than Hale would have expected from one so thin. He wanted to study him, hold him down and stare – use his hands to get to know every inch of the young Baron. Stiles though, was already pulling at his own shirt, face frowning with concentration. Hale grabbed him by the neck, loving the sound that Stiles made as he seemed to revel in the touch, and hauled the shirt over his head. He pushed his weight into Stiles, who moved back, hitting the mattress of the bed. He whimpered and flexed, skin rubbing Hale in a way that made him growl with desire. He had never, never in the whole of his life, needed something so bad as he needed this now.
"Boots." Stiles urged, hands skimming over Hales' body as though he was trying to touch everywhere at once. "Boots." His voice was broken and desperate, loaded with sex and a need that Hale wanted more than anything to satisfy. "Trust me," Stiles gasped, as Hale ran his hands over the boys back, pulling him closer into his body. "Get your damn boots off before I die."
Hale, unsure as to why his boots were so bloody important when his mouth was engaged in a mind searing kiss that made it hard to think about anything – tried not to think what Peter was going to say when he found out Hale had kicked his boots off – scuffing the leather. He still didn't understand, until suddenly his back was pressed into the bed and Stiles was on his knees.
Holy mother of god.
Hales mind blacked out completely. All he could feel was pleasure and pressure – heat and desire. His voice was ragged, groaning and growling – filling his world with a need he didn't know he'd wanted.
When he was able to think, able to form thoughts and open his eyes, he risked looking at Stiles. On his knees and eyes closed, long lashes fluttering against his cheek as his mouth… his mouth… God. Hale had, of course, had a woman take him in her mouth. He'd never felt anything like this before – the perfection of wet warmth. The sight of Stiles mouth, those lips, wrapped around his cock – the sinful sounds that he was making… the way his tongue flicked down the entire length of him… Hale groaned, unable to form words – desperately trying not to thrust each time Stiles would take him so deep into his mouth Derek was sure he'd died.
And when, at the sound of a desperate groan, Stiles opened his eyes and looked directly at him – Derek was sure he would die.
Stiles knew that if there was one thing he was good at in the bedroom, this was it. Going on the desperate, enthusiastic noises that Hale was making, Stiles felt well justified in thinking he was doing the right thing. Especially when Hales hands found the back of his head and started to grip his hair, tension in his hands and the way he was trying to keep those little half thrusts under control – which Stiles appreciated. Nothing ruined the moment like gagging for air.
Stiles pulled back, letting go of Hale with a wet 'pop' that made the older man groan. Stiles resisted the urge to carry on – bringing Hale to completion. He wasn't sure what the Dukes recovery time was and Stiles was desperate for something he couldn't get anywhere else.
Hale growled in frustration as Stiles got back on his feet, kissing and licking his way up the Duke's body. The man was beyond muscular – the body of an athlete, each muscle clearly defined and perfectly formed. Stiles had great plans to map out the man inch by inch – later. He was only half way up when Hale grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him, bodily, on the bed. Stiles let out a startled sound that sounded far too much like a desperate moan as Hale climbed over him, kicking off his britches and pulling at the last remaining item of Stiles clothing.
He helped him as much as he could, with Hale pressed insistently over him, growling and grinding and generally making Stiles forget everything. His neglected cock, suddenly free of the tight britches that were the fashion, throbbed and twitched as he kicked off the last of his clothing.
For the first time, he felt Hale hesitate, leaning over him and watching as Stiles cock twitched under the scrutiny.
"You don't have to do anything." Stiles mumbled, blushing. "It's okay."
"I want to." Hale said, looking up at him – they were face to face, naked and aroused to the point of pain – Stiles couldn't have helped his reaction, hips bucking and eyes rolling back in his head.
"Hale, if you touch me, I will not last at all." Stiles moaned, as the older man trailed a line of open-mouthed kisses down his jaw. "Trust me on this."
They lay there, limbs tangled and kisses becoming more and more frantic – more desperate, until Stiles could take it no longer. "I need you." He moaned, gripping Hales shoulders and shuddering at the feel of the man over him – whose hands were powerful and commanding and slowly killing him.
"Tell me what to do." Hale nodded, mouth open on his neck – leaving a trail of bites and bruises. Stiles had almost forgotten that Hale was not… used to this. He didn't actually know what to do.
"There is a bottle, glass – in the dresser." Stiles managed to get out between desperate gasps. "It has some oil in it."
"You need oil?" Hales tone was confused behind his desire.
"Yes." He nodded emphatically. "Trust me on this, Hale, we need oil."
It should have been awkward, the fumbling and the confusion – Stiles appreciated that – but it shouldn't have been exciting, shouldn't have made him desperate for more.
Stiles tipped a fair amount of the oil onto his hands, warming it some before wrapping his fist around Hales cock. The man bucked and hissed out a long breath, nodding in agreement. With one hand carefully applying the oil to Hale, Stiles reached and pushed a long finger inside his own body, shuddering at the sensation. He'd managed to work a second finger inside himself, desperation taking over from the need to fully prepare, when Hale seemed to become aware of what he was doing.
"Ah." He growled – before grabbing the glass bottle and pouring a liberal amount on his hand. "I understand."
Damn right the man understood, Stiles managed to think before Hale pulled his hand away and replaced Stiles fingers with his own. He worked firmly, but slowly, winding Stiles up like a clockwork toy. He was a gasping, begging mess of limbs by the time Hale worked a third inside him.
"God." Stiles whined. "Please, please!" He begged. "Please!"
Hale pushed him onto the bed, onto his back, and pushed a knee between his legs. Stiles moaned when Hale, lifting him a little to help with the angle and let out a hiss of breath as he pushed inside.
Stiles saw spots on his vision and clamped his eyes closed, desperately telling his body to relax. Hale was large, larger than any man Stiles had been with previously, and it hurt.
"Are you well?" Hale asked, voice tight with effort. Stiles nodded, aware enough of the restraint Hale was showing in not simply pushing the whole way – God knows he had more restraint that Stiles would have been able to boast at that point. "I was not aware it would cause pain."
"How polite you sound." Stiles laughed, opening his eyes and seeing the concern on Hales face. "Considering."
"I am a gentleman." He replied, with a sniff. Perhaps it would have worked, if he had been clothed – if his cock was not inches deep inside of Stiles – but then it was utterly ridiculous. He couldn't help the laughter bubbling up. Hale tried to look offended, perhaps he was, but there was a smile in his eyes that Stiles hadn't seen before and everything was perfect.
It took longer than Stiles thought, to adjust to the size of Hale – to take each slow thrust without pain, but once he did…
It was like nothing he had ever experienced. He had, on occasion, been intimate and had a partner find that spot, that area of sensation inside of him that made him burst with perfection – but Hale seemed to hit it every single time. With each thrust he had Stiles moaning and begging, sweat covering their bodies as his cock, limp at the pain of penetration – throbbed to life.
Hale gripped at his shoulders, growled and moaned with each deep thrust – as if he could not imagine a better feeling – Stiles was unable to do anything but beg and gasp. He'd never been with a man who could make him feel that way. He'd not thought it possible.
Hale was quicken his pace, face a mask of blind want and need. Stiles whined, his own climax building as Hale managed to hit that magic spot again and again, friction perfect and desperate. He was going to cum without even touching his cock. Jesus – just the thought of that made his balls tighten and throat close. He came before Hale, long, thick strands painting their stomachs and driving Hale faster until Stiles felt him shatter, thrusting blindly inside of his body until he collapsed, exhausted on top of him, breathless and weak.
Erica pushed open her brothers door expecting to see the bed empty – and shut it quietly when she realised that he was still sleeping. She had spent the night in her room and had been awoken by the sound of… well.. gentlemen. She'd assumed that her brother had managed to get Stiles back into bed, but judging by the smell of alcohol in the room – he'd been lucky if he'd made it to the door without passing out.
Which meant that Stiles had been the gentleman she'd heard. One of the gentlemen, at least. Her habit of rising before the servants had saved her brother before, getting girls for hire (and the occasional gentleman) out of his room before the staff could find out – she drew the line at the sheets, he could deal with that on his own – and so felt no different as she hurried, barefoot, to Stiles bedroom.
She pushed the door open silently, and wasn't quite sure if she was someone inherently immoral that the first thing she had wanted to do was dance in victory, rather than the probably correct 'recoil in horror' at seeing the naked mass of limbs and male body parts. Large male body parts. Indeed.
They were still sound asleep – still wrapped up in each other – sheets ruined probably. She shut the door with a click, and walked with purpose to the sleeping men, picking up clothing as she went. Poor Stiles, his jacket was quite ruined – and she had so loved the navy.
Grabbing the only part she was sure wasn't going to send her straight to hell – she gave Duke Hales shoulder a firm shake. He didn't move. "Your Grace." She hissed, giving him another shake. Nothing. Damn men and their ability to sleep through anything, she thought – moving over to the chair and dumping the mess of clothes there. She managed to sort out what was the Dukes from what belonged to Stiles easily enough – making a note to loan Hale one of her father's shirts to wear, for his was actually ripped. She smiled to herself – how splendid, ripping clothes of one another.
She turned back to the bed and sighed. Perhaps she was evil, as her governess had told her, but all she could think of was how well they looked, naked bodies all wrapped up around each other. She wanted to draw them, charcoal would work, she thought, walking over to the bed and giving Duke Hales shoulder another firm shake.
When he still didn't move, she decided on a desperate measure, leaning forward and nipping the skin at the back of his knee, where her brother used to pinch her when she was a little girl.
His leg shot out and his eyes snapped open, fixing on her with confusion born of early mornings and late nights. "Your Grace." She bobbed, trying not to smirk. Or stare. He was quite the Adonis.
"What the hell?" He started, but his voice trailed off as he realised where he was. And who he was with. She saw the panic in his eyes seconds before it registered on his face and her hand flew up to cover his mouth before he shouted loud enough to wake the entire street. "The servants are still abed." She said, voice low. "If you do not make a fuss, we can get you out of the house without anyone knowing." She paused. "I will remove my hand if you promise not to call out." He nodded and she let her hand drop from his mouth. That had probably done some terribly sinful things to the man still asleep in the bed.
"You should leave."
"I should." She nodded. "But I shaln't. Stay here, I will get you a new shirt, the one you arrived in is… not suitable to wear."
"Do you have no modesty at all?" He hissed at her as she stepped away from the bed and he noticed how very naked he was. She shrugged, waving at her nightdress.
"I put clothes on."
"I mean with this." He growled, trying to cover himself with the sheets, only to find that Stiles was laying, unmoving across them.
"Oh, I don't care two jots about seeing you naked, Your Grace." She smirked as he tried to tug at the cloth. "And don't you dare wake him! He's not been sleeping for near a week – he needs to rest."
She turned to the door and shot a dark look over her shoulder. "I swear, if you wake him, I will be most displeased – and you have no idea how very bad that would be for you."
When she returned, a shirt belonging to her late father in her hands, Duke Hale was pulling on his britches, giving her a good view of his muscular back and buttocks. His head snapped around at the sound of the door closing and he gave her a look at would have sent her to the grave had she not also seen him quite naked. How little power he could hold over her now.
"I brought you a shirt." She whispered, eyes glancing over to the bed where Stiles was still soundly sleeping. Good. "It belonged to my father, so it should fit you." She said, holding out a pressed cravat. "I took one of Isaac's, so if you don't get it right the first time, you're going home without one."
"Thank you, Miss Lahey" He nodded stiffly, and she couldn't help but arch a brow at him.
"I have seen you quite undressed. You may call me Erica, I hate formality."
"Oh, how strict you must think you sound." She smirked. "You will learn very quickly, Lord Duke, that I am not quite so easily intimidated."
"I should have known so in the park." He muttered darkly, which caused her to snort with laughter. Glancing at the bed where Stiles was still sleeping soundly, She shrugged. "Isaac made some darkling comment that Stiles took rather badly and I wondered at it." She smiles gently at the sleeping man. "And you were the only other Duke I could think of. I wanted to know if you were as interested in him as he in you."
"It is none of your concern." Duke Hale bit out.
"Oh, I rather think it is." She disagreed. "He's as close to me as Isaac and he's the only one I trust with my secrets. I want him to be happy." She gave Hale a stern look. "You hurt him, Duke Hale, and I will make your life hell on earth."
"I am not scared of a little girl."
"You should be." She smiled sweetly. "For I am popular and loved, and know a great many young ladies whom would all be thrilled to know that you are not only out of mourning, but are – in fact – on the lookout for a new wife to fill your heart andyour nursery."
He paled. Duke Hale would know, of course, that such a rumour would result in his constant hounding. Ladies would be forever at him, mothers would take great pains to foist their insipid offspring at his feet. He would lose the freedom that mourning gave him.
"You wouldn't dare."
"Hurt him and find out."
"I do not plan to hurt him." Hale bit out. "I did not plan for this," He waved a hand over the bed where Stiles was still asleep. "At all." He frowned. "I do not know what to do."
"I understand." She nodded, and she did. "There are men who love both genders blindly, my brother – for all he would continue to deny his nature – is one of them. Perhaps you are too. But Stiles is not. When he marries, and he will, he will be miserable and alone." She paused, heart breaking a little at the thought. "I want him to be happy now, while he can be."
"I cannot make him happy."
"Then do not make him miserable."
"Leave. Do not seek him out, nor talk to him. Do not remind him what he cannot have." She sighed, her heart heavy. "Do not write to him nor be in his company. Anything else will give him hope and nothing breaks a person faster than hope." She paused. "Trust me on this – nothing hurts a heart more than hope."
Chapter 5: Chapter 5
Stiles woke up slowly – by inches. He knew he was alone before he even opened his eyes, the fire was already set and burning well, throwing warmth into the room and keeping his skin heated even though he was naked.
Hale would have already left, which he was thankful for – because there were a few things he didn't want servants gossiping about and his sexual partners was one of them. He wondered why Hale hadn't woken him, though, as he rolled over and stretched. His whole body was aching in the best way – he felt as though he were glowing, muscles he'd not used in too long twinging in protest. Damn it, he'd missed that feeling.
He lay abed for longer than he normally would – letting the previous night play over in his head as though they had been actors on the stage. How unsure Hale had been, how confident he later became – his mastery of Stiles body complete and beyond anything previously experienced.
Finally though, he knew he would have to rise. He was not idle, and could not spend the day drifting between sleep and pleasant memories – he had promised Erica an escort to Almacks, he was to meet Duke Hastings at his town house and supply some instruction on the most effective building of a beehive at noon. He could not continue to laze.
There was a bath already drawn for him, and he sunk into it with relief. God, his muscles were aching.
Once washed and dried, he dressed, noting that his clothes were already pressed and neatly folded on a chair – cravat waiting for him. Isaac had chastised him on not bringing a man with him to dress him and look after his clothes, but Stiles never really saw the need for one – he didn't use a valet at his country estate – London was no different.
The breakfast table was still set, Erica sitting daintily on her chair and reading the gossip sheet. A forgotten cup of tea sat beside her.
"Good morning, Erica." He smiled, feeling at peace with the whole world – happy and carefree. "You look particularly ravishing this morning."
"I look particularly ravishing most mornings." She replied absent-mindedly. "Only I live in a house with men who have no appreciation of female beauty." Her tone was distant and bland, but Stiles kissed her gently on the cheek as he passed her regardless.
"I throw myself at your feet, you are the most stunning woman of my acquaintance and I should tell you of that more."
"You seem very pleased this morning."
"I am at ease with the world and nothing should cast a dark mark on this day." He smiled, starting on his overloaded plate. He could have eaten a feast – he couldn't remember the last time he'd been so damned hungry.
"Would this having something to do with your guest last night?" She responded, tone careful. A shard of cooked ham caught in his throat at her words, causing him to cough and splutter. Through his watering eyes, he could see her delicate shrug. "I ensured he was out of the house before the servants rose."
Stiles blinked, trying to clear his throat and his vision and managed a nod. "Thank you."
"You are welcome." She replied, carefully. "I assume Isaac is not aware?"
"I will tell him."
"I would do no such thing if I were you." She snapped, and Stiles looked at her carefully, seeing for the first time the sad slope of her shoulders and the fading marks under her eyes which spoke of a long night weeping.
"Erica, love, what is wrong?"
"Nothing is amiss." She said, but her eyes were watering already and Stiles was never very good with emotional ladies. Rising from his chair, he held out his arm, meal forgotten.
"I say, what a splendid morning for a walk in the gardens. I should think we'd be able to spot something interesting if we took a stroll."
The gardens of Isaac's town-house were large and well kept, befitting a man of his station. Stiles preferred the wildness of the country, but he still enjoyed spending an afternoon watching the lazy track of time pass here. Erica, holding on to his arm with a tight grip that was at odds with her easy smiling expression, walked neatly at his side.
"Now, Erica, what is wrong?" he asked, once they were free of the house and seated in the centre of the walled space.
"Nothing, Stiles." She said, but could not stop the tear falling from her thick golden lashes. Gently wiping it away, Stiles felt utterly incapable of doing anything but wait. He did not know what to say, nor how to act. Erica was very often the only Lahey who was not affected by bleak moods. "I received a letter yesterday from Manchester." She admitted, and really, she needed no other explanation. There was only one person in Manchester whom she knew, and only one who would make her so very sad. "He writes that… that…" He voice trailed off and she swiped another tear from her pale cheek. "He thinks perhaps Isaac is correct." She whispered, voice so low that Stiles could hardly make out her words. "That we should never be together." Her voice caught on the 'never' and the rest of her words were lost in the folds of his jacket as she clung to him – weeping heavily into his shoulder.
This was what he feared. All he could do was wrap an arm around her shoulder and let her cry herself out. Stiles had no sisters, nor any memory of his mother – he lived a life without any real input from women at all, Erica was the only female he spent any time with, and he feared that he was inadequate for this task of comforter.
"Erica, love," He soothed. "You are, and always will be, the most wonderful, witty and beautiful woman I have ever known."
"I know." She hiccuped into his coat.
"And the most humble." He added, which earned him a soft punch in the ribs, and a muffled shadow of a laugh between her sobs. "But you have known for longer than anyone that this relationship was never going to become… real." He held her close as he spoke, knowing that his words were more painful to hear because they were true. Painful to speak, also, for her knew he spoke for himself also. "We are never going to be happy in this world, my love." He whispered. "But we can make the best of it. You will marry a nice, stupid boy, and I will marry a nice – simple – girl."
"I can't marry anyone." Erica whispered, voice muffled by his coat.
"You say that now, but you will, in time… you'll see that you can love another." He soothed, rubbing her shoulder gently.
"I can't." She repeated, face a mask of misery and pain as she looked up into his eyes. "I… I…" She started, then looked around the deserted garden franticly, pulling her mouth level with his ear. "I have already lain with him."
The fourth Baron Of Stiles is happy to announce his engagement to Miss Erica Lahey, sister of Duke Isaac Lahey of Aberstaton.
Stiles stood in the crowded room, Erica holding on to his arm tightly. They were smiling and nodding, pleased with everything and everyone that they saw – Isaac at her side and beaming with pleasure at the welcoming congratulations. No one noticed just how tightly Miss Lahey gripped her newly betrothed, and no one could see the way he tensed at every pleased tiding they received. Isaac was complete with radiant joy – no one could match his pleasure at the union. To anyone who asked he could not think of a better match. Stiles was his oldest friend, whom would now become his brother – his sister marrying a man he had a great deal of respect for, and Erica was gaining not only a man who loved her wholly as much as her brother, but a companion for life.
Life, Stiles thought, was a cruel bitch.
His school friends, the ones who knew his nature – like Danny – wished him well and admitted in tones easily overheard that they always knew that he carried a torch for Miss Lahey, for all he protested against it.
Hale was not there. Stiles had hoped to talk to him at this event, knew that he had agreed to attend, and spent most of the night – when not surrounded by well-wishers – trying to locate the man. He wanted to talk to him, wanted to steal a few moments of normalcy in this bright level of hell he was travelling down.
He had no other choice, but to offer Erica his hand and his protection. No longer a virgin, any man she married would shun and shame her publicly – she was no better in the eyes of her peers as a lightskirt, a whore for hire. Stiles would never allow that to happen.
"Are you insane, Stiles!" She hissed, eyes still red and swollen from her weeping fit in the garden. He was sitting her private rooms, the ones she entertained her lady friends with in the mornings.
"Yes." He nodded. "But you know as well as I that both of us are in hopeless situations. If we marry, I will have a wife – which I will have to take eventually – and you will not fall victim to ruinous gossip about your virtue."
"Stiles, this is madness." She replied, not even looking him in the eye. "I will not marry you."
"Erica, love, please listen. What if you are with child?"
"How do you know?"
"Stiles, I am not one of those simpering little ninnies who make up the whole of London ballrooms. I can read, and I am aware of the workings of my own body." She snapped. "I've had my monthly bleeds." She announced, and Stiles felt himself pale, which made her smirk.
"Erica – please." His voice was strained and desperate, for he worried he could not make her see sense. "This is one situation where your brother cannot save you – your name will be ruined if this was ever to out."
"I am well aware." She bit out, pulling away from him.
"I will not mistreat you, Erica, nor make demands on your person."
"I know that." She whispered.
"I will look the other way in your affairs."
"I know." Her voice was barely even audible.
"I'm not as rich as your brother – nothing like him, in fact." He added dryly, thinking of the money that he'd lost in railways and tobacco.
"I know." She said, nodding. Tears were running freely down her face now, eyes red and skin blotched. She was still the most beautiful woman he knew.
"This is the only way I know how to protect you." He whispered, holding her hand gently. "I don't know what else to do."
"I know." She nodded, grabbing his coat for the second time that morning and sobbing heavily into his shoulder. "I love him so much." She wept, voice torn and broken. "More than anything in this world I love him."
"I know." He soothed, rubbing her back and letting her cry. "I know."
"At least Isaac will be happy." She mumbled, sniffing loudly. "He's been praying for this since you stopped bedding each other."
"Erica, you know that your brother and I are not…"
"In love?" She supplied when his voice trailed off. "I know. I also know that Earl McCall is not being kept away in the country by his mother because of his health – and I know that is why Isaac is so very sad."
"Holy Hell, Erica, how do you know that?" No one knew that – Stiles shouldn't have even known that.
"Same way I knew you were pining over Hale." She sniffed sadly. "Why is this our lives, Stiles? Why are we not happy like other people are happy? We are rich and young, we are beautiful and clever – why can we not be happy?"
"I don't know, Erica." He admitted. "I think we must be quite selfish." Her return smile was weak and tear-filled.
"I will marry you." She said, after a few silent minutes. "We may never be happy, but I know you will not make me sad."
"I would rather die." He agreed.
Three days had passed and Hale had not been seen. Stiles, worried that any questioning would bring an interest into why he was so concerned about a man he had only publicly spoke to a handful of times, had not asked around as he'd wished.
As far as he knew, the man had vanished off the face of the earth. He wanted to talk to him, wanted to tell him why he was suddenly engaged – explain (in so far as he could without exposing Erica to censure) why he was marrying. He wanted… he wanted so much just to talk to him.
Duke Hale wasn't at his clubs, wasn't answering the note that Stiles had sent – wasn't seen at any of his usual haunts. To say Stiles was worried would be a grave underestimation of his emotions. Hale was not… like him. Hale was not used to such acts between men, and perhaps he was regretting everything, regretting Stiles. This hurt him a great deal to think on, but he understood.
As a man who had, for the entirety of his life, known that he was attracted solely to gentlemen, Stiles did not have a crisis of identity. Hale however, and bedded and even married – he was now faced with the fact that his life was not quite the same as it had been previously. Stiles wanted to talk to him about it, try to answer any questions he might have… explain, apologise if he must – for Hale might believe that Stiles had done him a bad turn, or taken advantage. But he couldn't talk to him – didn't even know where he was, and his unease over the whole thing was growing.
Perhaps he had left London to collect his thoughts: McCall had also retreated – all the way to the country – after his night with Isaac. To say Isaac was hurting was to slight his emotions. He was broken, for he had loved McCall since their first meeting and had thought, finally, that his devotion was paying off.
What a sad sight they made, dining alone, conversation stilted and broken. All three of them hurting heart deep in ways that they could never truly correct.
"I think that I should like to stay a few month at the coast once we are married." Erica suddenly announced. "Stiles estate is perfectly situated – and I think a change of pace would be ideal."
"Capitol." Stiles agreed, nodding. "I could spend that time working on the gardens and my collection."
"I will stay here." Isaac said, tone flat. "Alone."
"You could come." Stiles said. "and stay, I know my home isn't as grand as yours, Isaac, but you do love the ocean."
"I would look a fool following my sister on her wedding trip."
"Don't tell anyone. Say you are visiting friends." Erica cut in. "We would make such a merry trio!" She said, voice brittle and bright. "Oh, we should have picnics and long walks, and trips to the beach – a little sea bathing would be just the thing for us."
"I don't think I could."
"Of course you could." Stiles cut in, taking his enthusiasm from Erica. "Think of it, it would be just like when we were at school – without all the pesky adults."
That made Isaac laugh, at last.
Thank you for your letter of congratulations in regards to the union of myself and Mrs Erica Stiles (nee Lahey). We were disappointed that you were not able to make the ceremony, but understand that business at your estate kept you from attending.
I apologise if our last meeting has caused you discomfort, it was not my intention. I hope we part as friends,
Baron G. Stiles.
Derek held the letter – too short to be called anything other than a note really – in his hands and contemplated throwing it in the fire just to watch the words burn. Instead, despite his better judgement, he carefully refolded it and placed it back in his jacket pocket, where it had been these last few days. No one reading the note could think anything untoward about it, really. It was bland and uninformative.
Each word hurt like a knife though. They had married despite Stiles and his laughing arguments that Miss Lahey – Lady Stiles now, he thought bitterly – would never agree to such a union. He wondered what he had missed, what had transpired between them so shortly after his night…
Hale swallowed the whole contents of his glass in one draught, pouring another immediately. He could not think about it, would not think about it. The night was over. Done. The alcohol burned its way into his stomach, followed by another and another. He hadn't been sober since arriving at his country estate – he hadn't drank this much since Kate was alive.
Because the boy had ruined him. He'd been able to think of nothing but the feel of his skin, and the touch of his mouth – God, his mouth – and the feeling of perfection as he'd filled him deep and watched as he'd brought both of them to completion.
Good god, the Baron hoped they parted as friends. Derek hadn't want to part at all. He wanted to stay in bed and explore every damn inch of that boy, learn what he liked and disliked – explore the differences between their bodies and maybe… learn more. Do more than just take. He wanted to learn how to touch him, how to take Stiles in his mouth and maybe even take him into his body. Even now his cock was heavy at the thought.
But Erica had been right, Derek needed to leave, needed to go and not lead the Baron a merry dance because after all… he was a Duke. He had responsibilities, and a great many eyes watching his every move. His obsession with the Baron would not go un-noticed. And it was an obsession. He thought about him all the time, his laugh, his golden eyes – woke up hard and hot each night, dreams full of him.
Three separate replies sat, un-sealed, and he knew they would never arrive at Baron Stiles country estate. He could not write, because if the boy wrote back, Hale would find a reason – any reason at all – to get on his horse and seek him out. God, he was desperate for his touch.
He'd bedded three separate women after reading the announcement in the paper – the happy news of Erica and Stiles engagement. He'd been trying to disguise the anger and hurt and impotent rage. It hadn't helped. He'd been able to perform – but the women were not what he wanted, left him deadened and hollow. What he wanted was something he could not have.
Derek wanted Stiles.
Erica lay in bed and listened to the sound of Stiles sleep. They had decided to try and make their marriage work – and laughingly, this included sleeping in the same bed every few nights lest the servants talk. Their attempt at sexual intimacy had been… uncomfortable and they had both, after a few awkward fumbles, given up even trying. Now they simply climbed into bed and ignored each other, although she had enjoyed waking up wrapped in his arms. It was a comfort she had never known, and she could quite happily adjust to that part of their life together.
Half the time he spent his nights with Isaac, drunk as lords. He'd been sober perhaps three days out of the entire month and she could think of no way to make it better. They'd treated her like a princess since their arrival, anything she asked for she got, but the nights were impossible. They drank the house dry – and Stiles had some extensive cellars.
Erica sighed, and climbed out of bed, padding barefoot to the door.
Stiles country house was large and rambling, and she had always loved staying there. Far enough away from everything to give the illusion of utter seclusion, but close enough that Erica could ride to town in the pretty little curricle that Stiles had made for her as a wedding gift.
She padded through the halls until she got to her brothers room, and gently pushed the door open. Popping her head around, she saw him sleeping soundly – alone. There was a young serving girl who was quickly promoted to upstairs maid when Stiles and herself had walked in on Isaac in a most intimate position.
Stiles had been furious – so angry that Erica wondered if he still carried a torch for her brother – but later realised that the girl worked for him. Sleeping with the staff was not done, they were unlikely to refuse even if they wanted to, because they would be too scared to lose their position in the house. Stiles saw it as nothing more than rape – and it was only the heartfelt plea from the girl that she had, in fact, been the one to initiate the act that had stopped Stiles from throwing her brother out of the house.
Isaac promised her a house and a lump sum – a trifling amount to him, but a small fortune to the girl – if she carried on with their current arrangement. She'd been thrilled, what some might see as a whore, the girl saw as something greater – Mistress to a Duke, who was not only rich and handsome but (as Erica had heard from more than one source) a most accomplished lover.
But Stiles was alone, and she was alone. Boyd had written to her, understanding her decision and agreeing that this was the only option they had. He was American, a slave – free or not, his money was in trade. They could never be together. It was illegal: He was a niggro.
She had cried over the letter, and cried for longer still, wedged between her brother and her husband. They sat in the gardens and talked for hours. Isaac did not like Boyd – he was American and black, Stiles did not like Boyd – for he made Erica sad, and he believed that he had taken advantage of her innocence.
She had told them about how they had met, a chance meeting at Bath – how he worked
But she loved him, loved him more than anything she could have known in her life, and her heart was heavy.
Erica wanted Boyd.
Isaac received a letter not long after he arrived at Stiles estate that Scott, Earl McCall, was soon expected to marry a Miss Allison Argent.
She was, apparently, distantly related to Kate Argent and Scott could foresee that his cousin, the Duke, would look upon the match with a favourable eye because he was (as everyone knew) devoted to his wife and still mourned her death.
The letter was nothing but ash in the fire now – thrown in a blind, uncontrollable rage. Words that cut his heart and bled him dry: sorry, forgive, understand, responsibility, friendship. Forgive me, he wrote, underlined twice.
The serving girl was nice enough, and Isaac found comfort in both genders easily. But his heart was broken, there wasn't enough alcohol in England to soften that blow. He had loved Scott from the moment he'd met him – knew that his friend had no inclination to his feelings. Twelve years he'd pined, watched, adored, and then…
They had kissed, kissed and more – Isaac finally able to succumb to feelings he'd kept in check. How wrong he had been, thinking that it would be so easy.
When had anything been easy? With Erica and Stiles married, he had hoped for a happy house. But she was lovelorn and hopeless after her affair with the moor, and Stiles was trying desperately to hide the fact that he'd bedded Duke Hale and it had left him emotionally hurt. He wasn't sure why Stiles didn't tell him, perhaps trying to save him from a jealous rage or some such nonsense. Isaac wanted his friend to be happy, he just didn't think Hale would be the one to do it. A Duke had responsibilities. He laughed bitterly. I hope you find what you want. Scott had written.
Isaac wanted Scott.
Stiles sat and let the butterflies kiss his bare arms. The weather was hot, and the greenhouse was a furnace. He was trying to keep the temperature down by using vacuums and piped water, and it was starting to take effect – science at its best. Isaac and Erica were sitting on the grass outside, her drawing, and him, drinking.
He smiled as the perfect orange and white tipped beauty landed on his arm and tasted the salt on his skin before flying off. Such fleeting little things – perfect moments. Life was full of them if you knew where to look, and it hurt him that the two people he loved more than anything were struggling to see anything other than the pain of their lives.
He had drunk his way through his father's whiskey collection and had emerged… slowly. Two months of going through life in a drunken haze had simply pointed out the idiocy for the whole thing. He was well before he met Duke Hale, and although it didn't feel like it now, he would be well again. One night – a perfect moment – could not ruin a life. He could be happy. He would be happy.
When he stood up, he relished the fact that his head no longer split with every move. He'd not touched a drop of anything stronger than the local ale in near a week, and he was starting to feel the effects of two months solid drinking fade away. As he left the greenhouse, checking to see that no little stray butterflies were holding on, he caught a glimpse of himself in the glass. He looked pale, thin and drawn – ravages of drink still hanging over his skin. He smiled sadly. He knew what he wanted, and it wasn't to be found in the bottom of a bottle.
Stiles wanted to be happy.
Chapter 6: Chapter 6
Married life was turning out to be unexpectedly freeing for Erica. She was able to now to attend Balls unescorted – although Stiles very often would arrive later in the night and dance two dances with her. Normally a country reel and a waltz.
She could come and go with almost unchecked supervision and (best of all) was now invited to a great many ladies events that her unmarried friends could not attend. The conversation was nothing more than gossip and the latest on-dits by societies matrons, sometimes they would even talk of men. This, Erica found, was amusing in the highest degree – for these women believed that sexual intercourse was shocking. Erica thought sexual intimacy was… well… normal, and didn't really understand why so many women of her age and even older were still blushing at the idea of seeing their own husbands nude.
She'd seen her husband and her brother naked (together) more than once, and even the 'Devastating Duke Hale' in all his glory – she smiled remembering just how much glory the man was blessed with.
The strangest thing though, was that some of the women assumed because she was newly married, she wouldn't understand what they were talking about. She'd brought it up one night, sitting on the edge of her bed as Stiles read her a truly terrible poem about some fading hero.
"You'd think that being a newlywed, I'd be included in such conversations about sexual intimacy!"
"Perhaps they think you quite innocent and do not believe that you would have yet graduated to the more ribald aspects of the bedroom."
"Is taking a man into your mouth considered distasteful?"
"I wouldn't have thought so." Stiles said, leaning back into the pillows. He was blushing slightly, she noted.
"Do you enjoy it?" Erica asked. She had been thinking about the act for a long time, since she'd overheard one of the ladies at a meeting talk of it. It sounded… unusual.
"Erica, you know I don't like to talk abou-"
"I know. I just don't want these women to think that I'm not doing what I should be in this marriage." She sighed. "I worry that they think me uneducated."
"I'm sure they don't, and yes – I do enjoy it. Not everyone does." He sighed. "Now, are you going to sleep or talk my ear off more?"
"I think I should sleep." She agreed, climbing up into bed and snuggling into Stiles arms. They may not have been sexually intimate, but he was not adverse to other forms of intimacy. "London is so very busy at this time of year, and I've received more invites than I know what to do with. I am never at home." She sighed, closing her eyes and enjoying the feel of warmth and comfort from her closest friend. "I'm quite done in." She yawned. "What a year."
What a year. Duke Hale thought, sitting in his normal spot at Blacks. He'd heard that the Baron and his wife had returned for the Season – she was not with child, he'd heard in passing – and had been seen many places together. Although it was not the current fashion to be in love with one's wife, Baron Stiles seemed (as far as Derek had heard) quite devoted to her.
He'd been able to avoid them so far, thank God, because Derek wasn't sure how he would react. His current mistress was taking care of his physical needs, but more and more he had been wondering of visiting those houses where the sex for hire was decidedly masculine.
His mind was fixated on the idea when he heard a laugh from the doorway that nearly had him choking on air.
"Isaac, please, brother – you cannot assume that every fashion in London should be worn at the same time." He heard, drifting over the room in a good natured, teasing tone. "If you must wear stripes, do not couple it with spots. You have given me a headache without even touching a drop."
"I am, you ignorant whelp, the height of fashion." Isaac grinned, even from his seat at the back of the room Derek could tell that Isaac was sick, ill. He was pale and drawn, thinner than he had ever been – a stark contrast to his friend who seemed to have filled out along the shoulders and had grown his hair more into the fashionable length. His coat was still simple, the cut deceptively minimal. Hale found he was actually staring at the pair, and fought to pull his eyes away. The boy was like a magnet for his senses – they had not yet noticed him seated.
"Perhaps." Stiles agreed. "But you still look like…" Hale could no longer make out the words between them as they moved to the card table, greeted and surrounded by friends. Stiles again, did not play – but watched the table and his friend with an easy air of a man quite at his leisure. It wasn't until Derek noticed that Stiles was actively keeping his friend from indulging in the drink that he registered something was amiss.
Isaac was perhaps ill, but his illness was not a fever – not from the way his hands shook and his eyes were sunken in. He was in the middle of a full blown alcohol dependency that his friend was trying to monitor. Derek knew the signs, for he had been there himself – when Kate had been alive. How he could not face the world without a glass in his hand – how his life had spiralled out of control so badly that only the strongest of spirits would numb his heart and his head. The young Duke Lahey was well on the way to drinking himself into a grave, and his friend was trying to stop that from happening. Not his friend anymore though. His brother.
He sat and pretended to read his news-sheet for long hours, feigning a relaxed manner that he did not feel – and watched him. Watched them both – not just Stiles.
Isaac continued to call for wine, and Stiles – easy as blinking – laughed and teased, about what he could not hear. Although it was not stopping his friend from drinking, it was stopping him from drinking quite so much. He could hear the boy laugh – a sound that had haunted his dreams and his waking hours – and see him smile, those lips that had Derek break into a sweat at the thought of what they had done to him.
They did not turn, did not look about the room – they entered and left without ever seeing him, and Derek could not breathe easy until both young lords were gone. He had been in his company, and he had survived.
Stiles was exhausted. His friend – his brother now – was killing himself and taking a slow road to doing it. Nothing had been heard from Earl McCall, no note of any up-coming engagement and no letters for Isaac. The Duke, a man whom never wanted for anything, was now faced with the unwelcome notion of being denied the only thing he ever truly desired, and had been drinking solidly for an eight-month. His mistresses were ever changing, he grew bored quickly and his temper was unpredictable.
Stiles town house was nowhere near as grand as Laheys – and he refused to use the money from the marriage contract to move to a larger one. That money, as far as he was concerned, belonged to Erica to do with as she liked. His stocks were still plummeting in railways, but made up for by the rise in tobacco sales. It seemed that the American colonies were using more of the stuff and (at last) Stiles was starting to see some profit.
He was sitting in his study when Erica burst through the door, still in her riding habit and looking decidedly windswept.
"Stiles, good lord – you must hear this!" She announced, throwing herself into the small sofa he had brought through for her for these unexpected interruptions. Not waiting to see if he wanted to hear the news, she began. "I saw Earl McCall!" She hurried. "He was riding in a little set and two – with that Argent girl." Erica announced. "She's dark haired and quite pretty in the usual ways." A wave of her hand brushed of this compliment as commonplace. Erica cared only for blonds who may steal her title as the 'golden treasure' in the eyes of the ton. "And he called me over to talk to her. She's Katherine Argents niece, and she's here to be presented, and from the way he acted – you would think them good as engaged." She paused for breath before carrying on. "He asked three times after Isaac and seemed just as simple as he ever was, and the Miss Argent advised me that she was quite looking forward to meeting my brother - for 'darling Scott' talks of him so often she feels like they know each other already." She gave Stiles a loaded look. "I think she is quite aware that Scott and Isaac were once involved."
"How the hell did you manage to deduce that form a simple meeting?" Stiles frowned. If McCall was back in town, Isaac would become impossible to control. He would spiral deeper into his black moods.
"Oh, she isn't a ninny." Erica said, frowning. "I think she may be equally as clever as Miss Martin, and there was an expression in her eyes when she spoke of Isaac. She knows."
"She can't." Stiles argued. "Not if she's calling him 'darling Scott' and expecting to marry him."
"I married you." Erica argued. "And I'm under no false impression of your nature."
"Not every young lady in London is as… um…"
"Just say it."
"Immoral." Stiles grinned, tone teasing. "As you."
"I am not immoral." Erica frowned.
"You have twice asked me if you could watch!"
"You're a damn witch is what you are." Stiles snorted a laugh. "And the answer is still no."
"I find it exciting."
"I find it damned odd." Stiles replied. "And we need to work out how to manage Isaac now that McCall is back."
"Do you think he will get worse?" Erica frowned. "I had thought he would get better, if Scott was in London."
"In London and chasing after a skirt?" Stiles argued, getting to his feet. "If he's heard McCall is here, we'll be lucky if he's only finished the wine."
Rather than take the carriage to their brothers Town-House, Stiles and Erica walked. It wasn't far, the weather was mild – and Stiles had been holed up in his study for the best part of the day. They were arm in arm and discussing how best to remove temptation in the form of alcohol from Isaac's grasp when they nearly walked into Duke Hale.
Stiles managed not to vomit from the shock and instant distress, aware that he was gripping Erica's arm too tightly. Duke Hale did not seem happy to see them – to see him – at all. Stiles wasn't surprised. The lack of correspondence and meetings between them after that night had spoken much louder than words. Hale regretted the act, and now sought to distance himself from anything to do with Stiles. Although it hurt, he understood.
"Your Grace." Erica bobbed neatly, the only one out of their sorry party that remembered how to act properly it seemed. "What a pleasant surprise." She smiled, and Stiles wanted to kiss her feet for the easy, relaxed tone she conveyed.
"Erica." Hale nodded, stiffly. "Baron."
"Duke Hale." Stiles croaked. He wished he'd taken the carriage. What had he been thinking, that a walk would be refreshing and give them time to conspire. Now he was face to face with a man who'd been like a ghost hanging about his neck for the past year, his thoughts full of him even when he tried to think of others.
"We were just walking to my, our, brothers." Erica continued brightly. "For I have just met Lord McCall and Miss Argent in the park and am sure Isaac would love to hear the latest fashions that Lord Whittimore was-"
"Miss Argent?" Hale cut over her words like a knife. "Miss Argent?"
"Why, yes!" Erica nodded. "Ah, your late wife's niece, I believe?" She gave Stiles a slightly concerned look. "Do you not keep in contact with the family?"
"No." Hale bit out – as though he were suddenly furious. "I do not."
"Oh." Erica sighed, sympathy in her tone. "It must be very painful for you." She soothed. Stiles frowned, it did not seem that Hale was upset that it had reminded him of his dead wife at all. He seemed flat with rage.
"She was with McCall?"
"Yes." Erica nodded. "He's been in the country, we believe that the announcement will be printed as soon as she is Out."
"Of their engagement." Erica nodded. This time, Stiles was convinced that Duke Hale was not taking this news as the simple trifle that it was. "We should have assumed that you would have been aware – he is your heir, is he not?"
"Is something wrong?" Stiles asked, and felt his heart thud erratically in his chest as Hale looked directly at him with those pale eyes. "You seem unhappy. With the news. Not that you would be unhappy with anything else." He hurried, aware that Erica was rolling her eyes at him as he rambled. "Of course." He ended, lamely, looking at his feet. Damn, he'd thought he'd be able to just act like a normal human if faced with the man again. How wrong he had been. He wanted to hide behind Erica, who was giving him a look that clearly stated he should have closed his mouth and remained silent.
"You are visiting the Duke?" Hale asked, looking at Erica, and not Stiles.
"Yes." She smiled.
"To tell him about Scott."
"Yes." She smiled again, and Stiles felt the unspoken words go between them.
"Ah." Stiles wasn't sure if he had ever heard a more loaded 'Ah' in the whole of his life. Erica simply shrugged a delicate shoulder that wasn't an agreement, nor a disagreement to what Duke Hale was most obviously thinking. Stiles wanted the ground to open up and drag him directly to hell. "I shouldn't keep you." Hale nodded smartly. "Miss La…" He coughed, obviously remembering that she was Miss Lahey no longer. "Lady Stiles, Baron. Good day."
Derek slammed his study door with a deafening bang and let out a bellow of rage. Damn them, damn that whole family to hell. Argents – those money grabbing bastards – were trying to get their claws into his heir. He growled, low and dangerous in his throat. How dare they!
They must have found out that the boy was involved with Duke Lahey in an intimate way – and if this new female was anything like her aunt – was probably blackmailing the boy into a marriage he didn't want. Damn them! Damn that whole family!
Isaac didn't take the news as badly as Stiles feared.
"I assumed he'd already be in London before we arrived." Isaac said, waving a lazy hand in the air. He was already too drunk to stand. "I was quite prepared for this news."
"If by quite prepared, you mean 'drunk and insensible' then I can agree that you have outdone yourself." Stiles commented.
God, Isaac looked like hell warmed up – skin yellow and thin, eyes bloodshot. If he was eating at all, it wasn't enough to keep his weight, thin and drawn – he was no longer the picture of youth he had been last Season.
Erica worried herself ill at nights, Stiles tried to control what Isaac drank when they were out – but no one could successfully control a Duke. Not one with unlimited funds and a great many vices.
"I am, as I always have been," Isaac slurred. "Quite well."
Stiles motioned Erica to the side of the room. "He is worse than I anticipated." He sighed. "Erica, he's not going to last the year if he keeps on like this."
"We have tried to help!" She said, wringing her hands. "I am utterly spent. I worry constantly and plan, and nothing helps. He is beyond our control."
"I think what he needs is to get out of London." Stiles sighed. "Get him back into the country and force him sober."
"You've already tried that, Stiles." Erica reminded him. "Aside from tying him to the bed and hand feeding him, there is nothing more we can do."
"He is my best friend."
"And he is my brother, but look at him!" Erica hissed, emotion in her voice. "He doesn't want our help. He's not the same person anymore." A tear threatened to drop from her lashes and she angrily brushed it away. "I cannot take the pain of this any longer." She announced, stepping away. "If he wanted to improve he would simply stop drinking as you did." She said, not bothering to check her tone as she walked away.
Isaac turned his head and regarded her with his bloodshot eyes. "You have no idea what I go through." He yelled, voice not really strong enough to be much. "How I suffer."
"You are the only person in the world with pain, of course." She snapped. "When Boyd has gone back to America! And did you not hear us tell you about Duke Hale? How we saw him? Do you think you are the only person who hurts?" She screamed the last at him, tears flowing. "And now I must watch you drink yourself dead? I hate you! I hate you more than life!"
Erica left the house and walked home, angry and beyond caring who saw her. She knew that Stiles would remain with her brother, try to stop the servants brining him drink – everything they had tried before. Nothing helped.
She was dimly aware of a voice calling her name, but her temper, rarely shown – was all encompassing.
It wasn't until she felt a firm hand grip her arm and pull that she spun around. Duke Hale, standing by his carriage – face a mask of rage that she recognised as a mirror of her own.
"Miss Lahey." He said, gesturing to the fine carriage behind him, door open. "I will take you home."
She sat in the plush interior and let her tears flow, not really caring that Duke Hale was watching her. She had seen him naked, her tears were no less intimate.
"Your brother is not well." He stated. It was not a question.
"My brother plans to drink himself to death." She said angrily. "And I do not care if he does."
"You would not weep so, if that were true."
"We have done everything. We have forced him sober, we emptied the wine cellars, we sat with him every night for near three months and still – still – he drinks." She stared out of the carriage window, trying to hold back another wave of tears. "This is not the way to Stiles house."
"I told the driver to take us around Town till you were more composed." Hale shrugged. "You looked dangerously close to breaking down in the street."
"Think of it as repayment." Hale shrugged, leaning back into the seats. Erica nodded, knowing that he was referring to the aid she had given him on leaving Stiles bed without involving a servant. "How does the Baron do?" He asked, eventually. Erica had been waiting on the question.
"Well." She nodded. "Aside from Isaac, of course."
"I was… I was not expecting news of your engagement." Hale said, although his tone was flat and uninterested, Erica could see the tick in his jaw working. How easily she could read him. "I was under the impression that you were opposed to such a match."
"I was." Erica agreed. "But things transpired with… in my life… and Stiles believed that the best way forward was the protection of a wedding band."
"Your brother would have been delighted. Stiles told me that he was keen on the match."
"Yes, he was in transports." Erica smiled. "It wasn't until after the wedding that everything with my brother…" She wiped another tear away, "got worse."
"Miss Argent may not be what she appears." Hale said, and the dark tone of his voice had her full attention.
"I have met her."
"What did you think of her?"
"Pretty. I do not think she is as simple as she seems." Erica admitted. The look Duke Hale gave her confirmed a few suspicions she'd had since their meeting on the street. "You do not look favourably on the match." She stated.
"You think her too young?"
"I think her too much like her aunt." He growled.
"Your wife?" Erica frowned. From all accounts Duke Hale was devoted to his late wife. Married her despite his father's disapproval… remained in mourning… "You are not in mourning for your wife at all, are you?"
"I have been in mourning since my parents and sisters were killed." He said. "My black clothes have nothing to do with Kate."
The way her spat her name caused Erica an adjustment of her attitudes. "She was not what she seemed?"
"She was nothing but a fortune hunter and a harlot." Hale snapped. "And I think her niece may be blackmailing McCall."
"I think you are wrong about that." Erica argued, and waved her hand at seeing the disbelief on the Dukes face. "Scott is not a complicated person." She said. "He would not be able to hide his emotions from me. He is not being forced into anything. He loves her very much." She paused, looking at her hands. "I would be the first to agree with you, Hale, if I thought it were true – for I would be able in that fact to repair my brother to his good spirits. Lord McCall is not being blackmailed."
"Then it is some other trick." He retorted. "If Scott is in love with your brother-"
"Scott is not in love with Isaac." She snorted. "They spent the night together." She waved a hand. "But Scott was heavy in his cups that night and poor Isaac thought it was… permanent. It is Isaac who is beyond infatuated with Scott, has been for years."
"And Scott does not return the feeling?"
"I don't know." She admitted, "And I sit before you a woman who can always tell. Miss Argent, she knows about Scott and Isaac – I saw it in her eyes, although Stiles does not think it can be true."
"She would not marry him, if that were the case."
"I married Stiles." She argued. "I think this little dark headed girl is more than willing to meet Isaac, if you understand my meaning."
Hales expression was one of utter disbelief. "I do not think that can be the case." He said, voice conflicted. "You are wrong."
"He's attractive, rich, powerful…" She shrugged. "And rumoured to be a fantastic lover."
"He's your brother!" Hale choked.
"And Stiles is my husband – yet the last time I saw him naked, you were draped all over him." This time, Hale did choke, coughing on nothing but air. She smirked, powerful in her knowledge of the men in her life.
"You are a witch!"
"How amusing, Stiles believes the same thing." She shrugged, nonplussed. How dull must every other female in London be, if all it took was a few well-placed comments to reduce the mighty Duke Hale to a spluttering mess? "Then you must be."
"You are very likely a demon."
"Perhaps." She agreed. "And this Miss Argent may be an artful little dragon."
"I will not let her ruin Scott like her aunt ruined me."
"Then you will require help." Erica shrugged. "And that means me."
"God help me."
"Oh," Erica leaned back on the plush cushions of the carriage and smirked. "I don't think we need to include God at all."
Isaac sat in his study long after Stiles had left to talk to the Butler. He knew his friend and his sister were trying to help, but he didn't want their help. He didn't need their help. He wanted to be left alone with his pain. He wanted everyone to just leave him alone.
Stiles was home before his wife, and had been advised that she had not returned after leaving with him that morning. Although he knew Erica was a strong minded woman, the thought that she was out in London alone, with no protection – was terrifying. He should have left with her.
The daylight was fading fast as he called for his horse to be saddled – could think of nowhere she could possibly be – when he heard her voice in the hallway.
"Erica!" He called, relief and temper in his tone. "Where the hell have you been? I'm in the process of arranging a damn man-hunt!" He didn't get much further though, because Duke Hale walked into the foyer after her – hat and gloves in his hands, already handing them to the footman.
"Ah, you worry overly." Erica smiled. "Duke Hale met me while I was shopping and as he was invited to dinner, he decided to accompany me home."
Stiles tripped over his own breath. Hale wasn't invited to dinner at all – his cook was going to have a heart attack that a Duke was dining with them, for the Frenchman had no time to prepare – and there was no way Stiles was going to be able to eat a damn thing with that man in his vicinity. He glared at Erica.
"Indeed. How splendid."
"Oh, isn't it just?" She smirked, damn the witch. "Duke, why do you not regale my husband here with the tale you were just advising me of, while I change into something a little more suitable for dining." She paused. "and have cook advised of our guest."
With that, she left, leaving Stiles staring after her like a landed fish – panic obvious in his expression. "Ah." He finally managed. "Duke Hale." He nodded. "What a pleasant chance to meet Erica on your travels. Please, come into the, ah, the study."
Hale followed him at a respectable distance, but Stiles could feel the press of the man as though he were on his skin – damn, but he'd thought he had this under control!
Hale had made it more than clear – the lack of correspondence speaking louder than words ever could – that he was not interested in furthering their relationship. Stiles almost laughed at the thought. Relationship. They didn't have one! They spoke a handful of times and then had fallen into bed – he'd been the one to expand it in his mind. Relationship, ha!
He motioned at the chair by the fire, and sat himself behind the desk – trying to put as much distance between him and the older man, anything to ease the feeling of closeness that he knew was built up only in his mind.
"I assume that there is something amiss, for you to stumble across Erica as you did?"
"She was upset." Hale replied, eyes fixed on the fire. "I saw her leave her brothers in a fit of hysterics, and took her up in my carriage to save her from prying eyes."
"I thank you." Stiles nodded, aware of the distance in his voice. That had been before luncheon, it was after 6 now. "We are having some family issues."
"Yes, Erica told me as much." Hale replied. Stiles didn't want to think what had transpired between Hale and his wife in that exceptionally long carriage ride that would have the man using her given name. If Erica wished to have an affair it was her right, really. He'd just wished it wasn't with a man he'd also lain with. "He is drinking himself to a grave."
"Yes." Stiles nodded, heart heavy.
"Because of my cousin, McCall." Hale added, pointedly.
"Ah," Stiles said, blinking. "Ah, I couldn't say." He hedged. What the hell was Erica thinking, telling Hale about such things? The girl had lost her damn mind!
"I am already aware of the nature of their relationship." Hale supplied. "And I believe that we may be able to help one another with a mutually beneficial agreement."
The only mutually beneficial agreement Stiles wanted with Duke Hale involved a lot less clothes and a lot more touching. "I don't understand." Stiles admitted. "Why this is something you would be involved with."
"Miss Argent." Hale said, as though this would make it all so very clear. Stiles found himself looking blankly at the man.
"What of her?"
"She is not what she seems."
"She is your niece."
"She is no damn relation of mine!" Hale bit out. "Her aunt was a twisted, evil woman and any relation of hers is equally tainted."
Stiles had the servants leave the room for dinner, something that he knew would be talked of below stairs as most of them knew Stiles nature, but Hale had not yet finished advising him of the very serious problem they faced in the form of Miss Argent.
"Are you very sure, that she is blackmailing Scott?" He repeated, for what must have been the hundredth time. "Quite sure?"
"There is no doubt in my mind," Hale replied, cutting into the last moment feast that cook had managed to whisk up from nowhere. "That she is as bitter and twisted as her aunt." He paused, looking over at Stiles, eyes hard as ice. "The whole family is rotten to the core."
"But Scott is a simple man." She argued. "He would not be able to hide such a thing from his friends, for he has the most expressive face."
"Stiles is correct on that." Erica agreed, daintily eating. "When I spoke to him this morning he had no signs of a man under duress. He seemed genuine and happy to be in her company." She said. "I would have been able to tell. It is a skill of mine."
"Then he is unaware of her machinations." Hale replied. "Which is much worse, if he likes her." Hale frowned, his eyebrows low. "It should be our goal to separate them. Perhaps steer Scott into the direction of your brother."
"Scott is not interested," Stiles bit out. "In a relationship with Isaac."
"You don't know that!" Erica retorted, for this was an argument that they had more than once revisited. "You don't!"
"If Scott was interested, he would not have waited so long – nor ignored your brother afterwards." Stiles returned, hating that Hale was here to see this conversation for it described their own perfectly. "I do not think it is fair to assume that McCall is in any way interested in repeating that night."
"I think he might be."
"Erica, you have told me yourself that you are not sure of McCall, so do not try now to convince me otherwise." Stiles snapped. "I am more than willing to help my friend part ways with a woman who is set to ruin him, but I will not take any part in forcing him into a relationship he is not by nature drawn to." He glared at the blond woman he was married to. "This conversation is over."
Hale sat silently at the table and listened as Erica and Stiles talked about more common things. Erica it seemed, had a great mind for politics and could hold a conversation on the latest news from the House of Lords as well as any man he had ever known. But his mind was focused on Stiles, and the words the young baron had spoken. How firm he had been on the status of Scott's emotional distance from Isaac – how he had confirmed Derek's own fears with a few words.
Hale had not wanted to leave Stiles that morning, but Erica had told him – Erica had been right – to warn him off. Keep away from the boy if you'll only hurt him later. But when Stiles spoke of Scott, and how he believed that McCall was not interested in Isaac – because his cousin had ignored Isaac afterward, he felt it like a blow.
Had Stiles felt ill used? Had Derek treated the younger man as nothing more than a warm body? Did Stiles now wish him a million miles away? He obviously had not been wasting away as Isaac had been doing, his body stronger than it had been when they parted last, nor even so pale as before – so perhaps the bitterness in his tone was not directed at Derek.
Guilt though, washed over him. He had thought his own denial was hard, but it would be harder still to think yourself used in some way, an itch that had been scratched. No wonder the boy found looking at him difficult, Derek had treated him as nothing more than a warm body.
His thoughts ran mostly in this manner until the meal was over. "I shall leave you both to mull over your port," Erica said getting to her feet. "And once you are finished, you may join me in the blue room – for it is more pleasant than the formal."
"We shall join you immediately." Stiles replied. "I'm sure you shaln't mind if we take a drink through with us, rather than have you sit alone."
Erica smiled at Stiles warmly, and Derek felt that closeness between them like a kick to the gut. It was obvious to any that Erica was in love with her husband, and if he were any judge to the way that the Baron looked at her: Stiles was much in love with his wife.
Why had this become his existence?
Derek noticed that Stiles hadn't taken more than a weak wine with his meal, and was nursing a glass of amber brandy for the better part of an hour without it touching his lips.
Their conversation was genial and relaxed as they plotted, but Derek could feel that underlying mark of tension in the air, for all they were trying to hide it. Erica had retreated to bed not long after they had settled with a yawn and an apologetic smile.
"Miss Argent will more than likely be trying to get close to Scott for her father and grandfather know he is my heir. When Kate died without yet producing a child they were more than incensed. Her father – Gerard – wants nothing more than my head on a stick. He was the one who orchestrated my fall from grace."
"It should not take long to convince Scott that her emotions are… not as involved as his own." Stiles nodded. "He is a good man who readily believes what he is told by his friends."
"Do you still count amongst them?"
"I do." Stiles nodded. "My relationship with Scott has always been independent of Isaac. Should they continue to be on the outs with each other I am still within Scott's circle of confidants." He sighed. "Although should he be in love with this Argent girl and I cause a divide there, I will never forgive myself."
"She is playing him for a fool."
"You have a past with this family, and so I must agree – for no-one else in London knows them." Stiles nodded. "I take you at your word."
"She ruined me, utterly." Derek frowned, looking at the fire burning brightly in the hearth. "She knew everything about me from the moment I met her and she played me like a fool. I was mad on her, believed the lies she fed me every time – forgave her anything." He sighed. "I cannot allow anyone to fall for such evil again. Her plan from the outset was to drain my pocket dry, and she succeeded. I have been, these last years, fighting a poverty so crippling that there seemed no way out." He glanced at Stiles, who was watching him intently. "Three years I have struggled – since her death – and only now am I seeing any fruits to my labour."
"My father left me little funds." Stiles nodded. "I had planned to increase them through the 'Exchange, but it seems my luck there was short lived."
"Marrying Erica would have helped."
"Her money is her own." Stiles stated firmly. "I did not marry her for that."
"Why did you marry her?" Derek asked, glancing at the boy. "You had told me it was not something either of you wanted."
"That is not for me to say." Stiles returned. "I did what I could and we are, oddly, quite happy with the arrangement." He shrugged. "She has freedom and protection, and I have a wife who has agreed, at some point, to supply me with a heir."
"What of her needs, your needs?"
"She is able, under the protection of my name, able to indulge in any affair she wishes, as long as she is… ah… discreet – and I have long been able to keep my affairs well hidden from the public."
Derek frowned. They seemed to have the perfect relationship, one built not on lust but a mutual understanding. Why this angered him so, he could not tell.
"It is no life." He bit out.
"It is the best life either of us could have asked for," Stiles retorted, giving him a hard look. "And I have been happier these last few months than I have been since… since…" His voice trailed off. "I am happy." He stated firmly. "I am."
Derek rolled over in his sleep and Stiles let out a frustrated sigh. Damn! This was not how one fixed an obsession, blindly falling back into a pattern that spoke of nothing in his future but more hurt. He wasn't even sure how it happened – one moment he was talking to Derek and the next he was pulled on the floor in a desperate pit of need and hot kisses. The older man had a habit, it seemed, of catching him off guard and taking full advantage of Stiles willingness to get as much as he could.
Jesus, Hale had been just as desperate as he had been, pulling and pushing blindly until skin touched skin. Then a calmness had taken hold and the rest of the night had passed in exploration. There wasn't a bit of Stiles that hadn't been touched, marked in some way by lips or hands, teeth or tongue.
They'd fallen into Stiles room, Erica obviously aware before him that the night would end up in this manner, because not only was she not in his room as was her habit, but she'd filled the small glass bottle with oil and left it on the side table by the bed.
How he was going to be able to look at her in the morning he had no idea – because her room was separated from his by only one door that wasn't the thickest and damn if Derek wasn't a vocal person once he got started, those little growls and snarls, groans and – at one point – flat out begging (which did wonders for Stiles ego) would most certainly have been heard by his wife.
But Derek had been the one who wanted, and took, and gave – Derek had been the one who took the pace and made sure Stiles knew what he wanted.
Now though, wrapped up in sheets and aching in the best way, Stiles was faced with the cold reality that Hale would once again leave before dawn, and Stiles would once again be dropped back into the pit he'd worked so hard to get out of. How much of an idiot could one person be?
But the thing was, at this exact moment… Stiles was comfortable, warm and still weak from the best sex he'd had since… well, since the last time he'd had sex with Hale. So when the man reach out and pulled him close, skin and heat and hard lines that made him want to just melt – he found his eyes closing despite the turmoil in his head.
Erica awoke, as was her usual habit, before the servants. She didn't concern herself with a robe, just padded to the door that linked the two rooms and pulled it open. She'd known from the moment Hale set eyes on Stiles in the hallway that night that the Duke was inches away from grabbing Stiles with both hands. And, judging by the sounds that had come from the room in the night, he had.
At least twice that she counted. Sure enough, they were both asleep, wrapped up and warm together, sheets pulled over their skin and strong arms pulling them closer even in sleep. The best thing, though, was that unlike when they lived with her brother – Stiles didn't have a million servants rushing about all over the house, opening doors and their mouths faster than you could blink. Stiles staff had been with him for most of his life, and knew (although never said a thing, of course) that the marriage between them was not… normal.
She'd not been aware of that until the morning after they had arrived to find that her room had been made up for her best comfort, and Stiles room also – with a few additions that made her realise that the staff knew fine well this was a wedding of convenience. Stiles room had small glass bottles filled with oil – and in a discreet drawer in the side table, there was a wooden… member… that she was thrilled and embarrassed to find. It had been carefully carved to be as realistic as possible and well varnished so as not to splinter - there was no mistaking what it was used for, and when she'd asked Stiles he'd been beyond mortified.
So the fact that Derek Hale was currently sleeping in her husbands bed would shock no-one in this house. They really did make a nice looking pair, especially in this moment, when both of them were soft and sleeping. Derek, who seemed to walk through his life with a frown and a glare, looked shockingly young – it was hard to think that the man was under thirty when he was awake – and fragile. Stiles too, seemed almost childlike when sleeping, mouth slightly open and long lashes brushing his cheek.
Erica smiled and padded back to her room, closing the door without a sound. She was happy that Stiles was getting something he wanted at last – although if Hale was to cut out of his life again, she was worried that he would take another bad turn. Her guilt that she had been the one to cause those feelings, with her insistence that Hale stay away lest he hurt Stiles, was starting to abate.
"Hale." Derek could hear the voice, and feel the warmth of breath on his skin. "Hale." A male voice, soft though, and distant. "You need to wake."
"No." He mumbled, pulling the warmth closer to his body and grinning at the huff of pleased shock that blew over his skin. He felt amazing, wonderful, better than he could remember feeling in a long time, waking up slowly.
When he did finally manage to open his eyes, the first thing he saw was the golden eyes that had haunted him for the better part of a year, full lips bruised and swollen from a night of unrivalled abuse. Damn, the boy had a way with his mouth that had Derek turning inside out. The thought, coupled with the pressure of skin on skin, had the effect of turning his waking half firmness into a throbbing problem. Then the boy smiled and Derek could only groan as he slid down his body and – with a knowledge born of extensive exploration the night before - managed to hit every spot of weakness that Hale had on his journey down.
By the time his breath touched Derek's cock, he was growling for more. "Come on!" He urged, voice breaking as Stiles smirked, gold eyes flashing with power. Derek knew, then, that for all he was the older – and for all he was a damn Duke – the man who was settled between his legs was the one in control.
"What do you want?" Stiles grinned, and as he spoke, his breath – hot and moist – caused Derek's throbbing cock to twitch and leak, beads of wetness already running down his length.
"You know what I want." Derek bit out, hands fisting in the sheets that were a destroyed mess from the night before.
"Perhaps." Stiles continued. "Perhaps I want you to say it."
"Just take me in your mouth." Derek ground out, growling when all Stiles did was lick a wet stripe down the thick vein that ran down the underside of his cock. "Jesus." He gasped, sensation causing his body to tighten. "Do that." He breathed. "Do that again."
Stiles did, slower still, eyes never leaving Derek's. Heaven and Hell could both be damned if it wasn't the best sensation Derek had ever experienced. He wanted to close his eyes and simply feel everything, but Stiles golden brown gaze was locked with his, and the sheer eroticism was like a physical touch under his skin. "More." He managed, lifting a hand from the sheets and trying to pull Stiles head towards his cock.
"Stop that." Stiles said, pulling back and pushing his hand back to his side. "Not this time." He breathed, blowing a strip of hot air down the wet strip he'd made – causing Derek to close his eyes and hiss between his teeth. "This time, I'm going to make it count."
Why on hells earth that sounded like both a threat and a promise, Derek wasn't aware enough to know – but when he felt the tip of Stiles tongue brush the slit of his cock his eyes slammed open. Watching as the boy licked and teased causing more and more drops of sticky liquid to run down the length of him. Derek was unable to keep those gasps and growls from his throat as he lay watching – trying to hold on to what little sense he had left. When Stiles finally slipped his lips over and pulled Derek into his mouth, he was insensible with need. A few deep, sinfully obscene dips of his head - taking Derek's cock into his mouth and never breaking eye contact - had him calling out, fists pulling at the sheets and a deep desperate yell escaping him. He groaned as Stiles continued to suck and swallow until every last drop of his seed was milked from him, hissing as he became over sensitive and Stiles finally pulled away. His lips were swollen and wet, a sinful dart of his tongue over his full bottom lip had Derek pulling him up for a kiss that was salty and wet – teeth clashing in his desperation to get as much of the boy as he could. When he had calmed slightly (Though nowhere near enough to pull away) Derek could feel the desperate jerking gesture of Stiles arm, the aborted thrust of his hips as he groaned into his mouth. A few moments later, he felt the burst of wet heat as the skin between them was painted with the strings of Stiles own release – and Derek smiled as he pulled the younger man closer. He didn't care about the mess, or the feel of Stiles wet hand in his hair pulling him closer – all he cared about was the feeling of utter bliss that had washed over him.
Erica sat and watched as Stiles tried to look something other than utterly, completely thrilled through breakfast. His plate was piled high, and he was eating with the fury of the recently starved. Duke Hale, sitting on the other side of the table, was reading the morning paper and – aside from the occasional turn of a page – said not one word. She hadn't expected Hale to stay, and she could tell by the glances that Stiles kept throwing at the man that he had not expected it either.
"I will call upon Miss Argent this morning." Erica confirmed. "For I saw her yesterday and she will think me very polite in my attentions. Also, it will give me a prime opportunity to see how she is situated at home."
The fact that she was married to a mere Baron did not hold much weight in polite society, but the fact still remained that her brother was a Duke – an unmarried one at that – secured her position as a leader in society. Miss Argent would be a fool to shun her friendship.
"Will you require an escort?" Stiles asked, and Erica liked how Derek lowered the newssheet to watch him as he talked. It was almost romantic.
"No, it will be mostly unmarried ladies with their mothers and the occasional chaperon. I will call on Miss Martin and take her with me. I trust her judgement."
"She is not to know what is going on."
"What a fool you think me." Erica laughed. "She'll love the opportunity to scope out her competition. I merely need to listen to the things she tells me."
"You think this Miss Argent prettier than Lydia?" Stiles scoffed. She had almost forgotten that Stiles had a great liking for the pretty red-head.
"No. But Lord Whittimore will most assuredly make the time to seek her out." Erica grinned. "And if Lord Whittimore thinks she is pretty, then Lydia will hate her." She could see Duke Hale roll his eyes, and smiled brightly at him – for everyone knew that Lord Whittimore was madly in love with Miss Martin, if he would only admit it.
"I should trust you in all things." Stiles nodded, taking another bite of his morning repast. "You are the best of us all."
"And what should you do?" Erica asked, picking up a slice of her toasted bread and daintily applying some conserve. Derek was now watching her husband with a look that could almost be described as protective, if one thought a man like Stiles needed protecting.
"I plan on eating myself out of house and home." Stiles grinned – and how her heart nearly burst at that genuine pleasure on his face – and how silently proud Hale looked at causing his appetite. "And then I will call on McCall and take him to Tattersalls to look over a new horse I have my eye on."
"Will you talk to him about the Argent girl?" Hale asked, the first words out of his mouth since he'd walked in to the room. The fact that he had stayed the night was not uncommon, for many young men were rarely in their own homes, spending their nights drinking and making merry with friends. Erica recalled how many times young ladies would laugh as older brothers were missing for days at a time, only to find they were off staying with some friends a street across!
With Stiles married, a male guest or two would be nothing out of the normal – in fact, it had been commented unusual that Erica and Stiles did not lodge with her brother.
"No," Stiles said, colour high on his face. "No, today I will simply affirm our friendship and see what he says. He is an honest, open man." Another bite to cover his blatantly lovelorn gaze at Duke Hale. "And he rarely holds his emotions back. He will talk about her, and I will listen."
"Then it is settled." Erica smiled, determination on her face. "Today we will start to learn all we can about Miss Argent and her plans."
Chapter 7: Chapter 7
"Lady Stiles and Miss Martin, ma'am." The overstuffed butler announced. Erica smiled in her cherry red morning dress, handing her gloves to the footman, while Lydia stood in her pale green – the epitome of fashionable ladies of the ton.
"Oh, goodness!" Miss Argent said, getting to her feet. She was sitting with another young lady whom Erica assumed was her ladies companion. "Oh! Good morning, ladies."
"Good morning, Miss Argent." Erica smiled, nodding politely. "After our meeting yesterday I thought I should call upon you directly." She gestured to Lydia, who was smiling, but her eyes were calculating. "Allow me to introduce Miss Martin, my closest friend."
"Miss Martin." Miss Argent bobbed neatly.
"Miss Argent." Lydia replied. Her voice was warm and open, and Erica fought a smile as she heard the faintest edge of steel in her tone. Miss Argent was very pretty, and rich, and unmarried – she was (to Lydia, at least) a threat to her title of 'Incomparable'. That, of course, and the fact that there was already a calling card on the fireplace from Lord Whittimore was enough to harden the red-headed girls opinion.
"Please, sit." Miss Argent gestured to the chairs, where a small repast of light morning treats were laid out for guests.
"My husband is off to look at horses today." Erica sighed. "I am beyond bored."
"I hear Duke Hale was a guest, last night?" Lydia supplied, giving the dark haired Miss Argent a look. "Is he not your uncle?"
"Yes!" The younger girl nodded. "He married my aunt. It was very tragic when she died."
"Oh, for he is still in mourning clothes." Erica added. "He must have loved her very much."
"Poor soul." Lydia soothed.
"Indeed." The young Miss Argent nodded, but Erica could see that there was a hardness in her voice now, that had not been there before. "We were never particularly close, but father misses her a great deal – and she was a great favourite of my grandfather."
"Such a shame." Erica nodded. "However, you are out of mourning, I see – and must attend all the balls and parties you can this season!"
"I intend to make the most of it, indeed." Miss Argent nodded, dark eyes sparkling.
"Husband hunting is quite exhausting." Lydia remarked. "I daresay you'll be done in afore the week is out."
"Oh, I've already had an offe-" She started to reply, but stopped herself before finishing. Erica supposed as much when she saw McCall's expression the day before – lovelorn and hopeless – but Lydia knew nothing of this. Her eyes flew to the calling card on the mantle and Erica could swear the temperature in the room dropped. "I mean, of course, that I plan to make the most of my time here."
"Of course." Erica agreed. "I will ensure that my brother sends an invite to his garden party – I'm sure a few hours travel will not deter you?"
The Duke Lahey, once a year, hosted a garden party at his country home. It was near enough London that many hundreds of guests would take to their carriages and horses and make the trip. It was often called the social event of the season and so much gossip and stories were to be had there that missing it was considered social suicide.
"I shouldn't think so!" She beamed. "I am so looking forward to meeting the Duke, for Scott talks of nothing else."
"Lord Scott?" Lydia asked, puzzled. Lord Scott was in his 60's and, as far as Erica knew, had never spoken above two words to her brother.
Miss Argent blushed furiously, realising that she had perhaps made an error using his given name, and hurriedly replied, "Oh, Earl McCall, I mean to say."
"Ah." Lydia nodded. "Your brother and McCall are good friends, I recall."
"Oh, the best." Erica smiled. "He is the most charming man."
"Yes, he is!" Miss Argent agreed. "Most charming."
"She is the most charming lady I have ever had the pleasure of knowing." Scott beamed, brown eyes glowing brightly. "Why, she draws and sings and speaks French as though she were born to it." He carried on, as Stiles looked over the papers for the horse.
"Sounds delightful." He agreed.
"Oh, she is." Scott confirmed. "I met her quite by chance, you know, and then she told me that she was a Miss Argent, and I knew my cousin Hale would think highly of her." He said, with a stupid grin. "Her father is… ah… not so fond of me, but her grandfather likes me a great deal."
"Well, he is the head of the family." Stiles agreed. "If he likes you it must speak in your favour."
"That is just what I think!" Scott enthused, slapping him on the back. He paused for a moment and carried on in a rush. "I wrote to Isaac, to tell him, but he did not reply."
"He has lately been under the weather."
"Ah. I think he should like her." Scott said, looking at the horses for the first time since their arrival. "I… um… she's very nice. He should like her. I hope he likes her."
"I'm sure he shall, my friend." Stiles commented, voice as non-committal as he could make it. Scott didn't notice as he nodded.
"I'm sure of it. She is keen to meet him, at least." He grinned. "What with you married to Erica, won't we be a lively set at parties?"
"I'm sure we shall." Stiles nodded.
"I wasn't expecting you to marry her." Scott said, voice low. "Was it… was Isaac… are you… um." He stumbled, looking about himself. "With Isaac?"
Stiles laughed and shook his head, all around them the loud bustle of gentlemen and livestock. "No, Scott. I am not, nor have I been – for many, many years." She glanced at his young friend, who had a look akin to relief on his face. "As you fine well know."
"Ah, well, yes." Scott confirmed with a nod. "Yes, indeed. I'm sorry I wasn't at the wedding."
"Not at all, your health, I heard."
"Ah, yes. Mother… she thought it best I remain in the country. I was most unhappy to miss it though! And see Isaac, to celebrate -" He announced. "I argued most enthusiastically."
"I'm sure you did." Stiles laughed. "Now, what do you think of this horse?"
"Miss Argent – Allison – her father had one just like it." Scott said, solemnly. "I'm sure of it. I saw it in the stables when he took me hunting."
"Scott, you hate hunting." Stiles pointed out.
"I wanted to make a good impression." Scott said, looking awkward. "And I do have a decent enough seat when riding. I thought it would make him like me more."
"Ah, no. I think he had little opinion of my name or myself."
"Her grandfather though, likes you." Stiles prompted.
"Oh, yes. He asked a great many questions about my life, and my schooling – he even asked about mother and Hale – oh, he was most pleased with me."
"She certainly is pleased with everything she sees." Lydia commented as they walked arm in arm through the morning crowds of callers. Everyone they passed stopped to share a few words, ladies and chaperones lining the streets – all dressed for visiting.
"Do you think so?" Erica hedged. She had her own opinions on Miss Argent as wasn't quite ready to share. "She seemed pleasing enough."
"Oh, very pleasing." Lydia smiled, waving a gloved hand to a friend on the other side of the road. "Quite well put out, too – did you see her cuffs? Lace! On a morning dress?" She sniffed daintily. "How French."
"You don't like her?"
"Oh, I like her well enough." Lydia shrugged. "But should she think that arriving here in her lace cuffs and talking of 'enjoying her time in London' isn't the most obvious thing I ever heard, I should very much like to have my own skull examined!"
"You don't think she's here to enjoy herself?" Erica queried, which got her a cool stare from her friend.
"Erica, I've known you for years – and I know when you have your own agenda. This girl isn't in London to find a husband. She's following him down, plain as day. She's got her eyes fixed on a prize and she's not going to let a little thing like arriving in the middle of the season – I mean, who ever heard of such a thing? – get in her way."
Erica nodded. Besides her obvious slip with McCalls given name, there were a few obvious pointers that spoke to her arrival.
"She arrived in the middle of the Season." Erica pointed out at dinner. Stiles was sitting at the head of the table, and she had – bucking tradition – sat at his right hand side. Duke Hale, who arrived an hour before dinner and seemed unsurprised that he had a place set for him, sat on his left.
"I don't see why that is such an issue." Stiles admitted.
Erica rolled her eyes and pointed her spoon at her husband. "Men!" She frowned. "Arriving in the middle of the season is damned odd. I didn't notice at first, of course, but trust Lydia to see."
"You will have to explain, love." Stiles frowned.
"You arrive at the start of the social season." Erica pointed out. "Then are presented as soon as possible so that you may go to all the balls and parties. The later you arrive, the less exposure you get. Less people will remember your face, less invites. It means – if you like – less chance of landing a good catch."
"It disturbs me that young ladies describe us as fish." Hale commented at that, which made Stiles smile, and Erica to smirk.
"Well, you are. And this Miss Argent, she arrived too late to even set up a spot on the metaphorical riverbank. She's not here to fish. She's got one on the hook and she arrived here to reel him in."
"That would make sense." Stiles nodded. "Scott advised me that he came here against the advice of his mother – he wanted to see Isaac, from what he said."
"Then she followed him down." Erica nodded. "That would explain why she would show up now."
Both men nodded and she sipped her soup carefully. "Also, she let slip that her father was not keen on the trip – but her grandfather was most insistent."
"Scott said something about that too-" Stiles cut in. "The father doesn't like him, but her grandfather is more than willing for the match to go ahead." He paused. "Asked a great many questions about Scott's titles, land, family – even Hale – and seems intent on helping the couple along."
"Gerard." Hale bit out. "Was the main instigator in my marriage to Kate. He pushed her into the match, and ensured that I was aware that he, at least, looked on the match as a great boon."
"Then the issue might not be with Miss Argent." Erica supplied. "I spoke with her, and aside from the normal… social strictures… she seems like a nice, open girl. I do not think that she is in anyway plotting the ruination of McCall." She paused. "I think she does like him."
"Her aunt managed to convince all of London that she was wild about me." Hale reminded her. "I do not put much comfort in your observations."
"I can only advise on what I see," She shrugged. "I think she likes him – and I was right about Isaac." She added. "Miss Argent talked of how much Scott likes him, and how she cannot wait to meet him."
"And Scott, too, seemed overly concerned that Isaac would like her." Stiles remembered. "He talked of how she was nice and pretty, of course, but also that he would like her a great deal."
"You think she's… flexible… on such things?" Erica asked, waving her hand to try an encompass the two men sitting at the table. Her meaning was obvious. Hale didn't so much as blink, and Stiles simply grinned at her.
"I would stake my new horse on it." Stiles nodded.
Hale knew he should have left after breakfast and kept the remainder of his meetings with Stiles in the safety of public places. He knew this, but when he arrived back at his own, much larger lodgings, he looked about himself and felt a great disconnect.
"Peter, I will be staying as a guest of Baron Stiles till the week is out." He stated, flatly. "Have some things sent over."
"Of course, your Grace." Peter nodded. "Will you be requiring myself?"
This was something he knew he should have through on. The idea of having Peter aware of his… affair, was not something he was sure the older man would look politely on – but the idea of being without his Valet was… alien. He'd been with Peter for years, the man practically raised him.
"Ah, yes. I'm sure they'll have something in place for you." He nodded.
So when he arrived before dinner, he'd been somewhat… nervous. Stiles though, greeted him with warmth and Erica with a sly grin that he was still unsure how to deal with. He'd frowned at them both – which caused Erica to laugh like a little bell and hook her arm in his.
So now, dinner over, and lingering over the port with Stiles, he felt a strange sensation in his bones. They were seated together on an overstuffed couch, rather than the chairs. It meant that they could sit closer than normal, and Hale found he liked it. He was relaxed – more relaxed than he should have been for the situation, really. They talked about Stiles new horse, of all things, and nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to suggest that they were involved in a much more intimate affair at least. Erica was reading, occasionally rolling her eyes at some line she found beyond terrible.
"I do not understand why this book is popular." She finally announced in a lull of conversation, snapping it shut. "Everything is so veiled in double speak that I'm not sure if he is referring to trees or testicles."
Hale almost choked on his drink as Stiles laughed.
"Erica, love, please try not to kill our guest." Stiles replied, not bothering to censure her for her language at all. Hale had never before heard a woman talk of such things in his life, and wasn't quite sure what he should be thinking.
"Forgive me, Duke Hale." She said, blushing prettily – and Derek had the distinct feeling that she could conjure such emotional distress at will. No doubt the witch could cry on command also. "but have you read this?" She pointed to the book by her side. "It is beyond dull. I should very much like to read something that describes the act of love making in a more… realistic light – none of this 'like a mighty oak' nonsense."
"It's not meant for ladies." Stiles grinned.
"It's not worth the cost of printing." She retorted. "How dull. I had set myself up to be shocked."
"I am under the impression that very little could shock you." Hale replied, frowning at her. Stiles, at his side, nodded. He had slid down the small couch and was now pressed against Hale from shoulder to thigh.
"No one has ever tried!" She bemoaned. "Which is quite the saddest thing I've ever heard."
"I'm quite sure that should the gentlemen of London know just how lacking in morals you are, shocking you should become their primary goal." Stiles announced.
"I am not so terrible."
"You are beyond the pale." Stiles disagreed. "You forget the things you have asked of me."
Hale frowned. He was under the impression that Stiles and Erica's relationship was not a sexual one, but the conversation was most definitely charged with innuendo. They much have been intimate. Why this bothered him, he could not say, but it did.
"Witch." Stiles shot back, grinning. Hale did not like the fond way Stiles looked at Erica. He most certainly did not like the way the young woman batted her eyelashes in return. Stiles smiled at him, turning his head so he was looking directly at Derek. "Erica has been flirting with me since she was old enough to walk." He smirked. "She still seems unaware that her fluttering eyelashes have little effect on a gentleman of my persuasion."
"I know fine well." Erica retorted good naturedly. "But that shouldn't mean I must stop, surely?"
"Carry on if you will." Stiles shrugged, the movement brushing his arm against Derek's shoulder. "I find it amusing."
"One day you will see," Erica smiled sweetly. "That I am more than serious in the questions I ask."
"One day you will see," Stiles mimicked. "That I am more than serious in my refusal to accommodate you."
Gerard Argent was one of the 'old school Lords' the type that viewed their family members as breeding stock and planned, hopefully, to wipe out the existence of any tainted blood that had occurred with his grandfather's marriage to a bloody Frenchwoman (noble or not, the whole idea was distasteful to him). Hale knew this because when he met the man for the first time the very first thing the old man did was show him the family bible – all the names marked out in neat script, back generations of Argents. How pleased he was that Hale, with his own impressive pedigree would soon be joining the pages of his – and here he'd laughed – breeding manual.
Hale had been head over heels in love with Kate, and didn't think anything odd in the way that Gerard assumed they would marry. It was what Hale wanted, and he saw in the older man an ally.
It wasn't until after the wedding, when he started to see what the old man was. Manipulative and controlling, he tried from the outset to trample Derek's will – and had for a time succeeded. Derek would not upset Kate, not his love, and she would become distraught at the idea of her father being displeased.
Derek glared at the fire burning merrily in the wide grate and felt his temper burn even hotter. That man, that entire family was tainted and twisted. Poor Scott, to fall for such a trick. Perhaps this idiot behaviour ran in their blood.
"You are more than your normal shade of silent." Stiles said, leaning back into the small stuffed couch. Erica had gone an hour ago, pleading exhaustion and some kind of headache, leaving them both alone.
Stiles lips were swollen and his cravat crushed beyond saving, the younger man had slipped off the couch not long after Erica had left and had reminded Hale what a sinful mouth he had – god, he was going right to hell for the things that boy did to him and he didn't give a damn.
"I was thinking of Gerard Argent."
"I will try not to take that personally." Stiles grinned, and Derek wasn't sure what he meant. After a few seconds, Stiles shrugged. "You are beyond hope this evening I think. I'll go to see Isaac and try to convince him to attend Blacks."
"No." Derek said, with more force than he perhaps meant. Stiles looked offended, eyes darkening in temper.
"Sir, you forget that Isaac is my friend – my best friend – and I will not abandon him in his time of need."
"I meant," Derek said, voice softer. "That we should go to Isaac and we should remain at his house. Blacks is too much of a temptation to vice, and lord knows, he doesn't need it."
Isaac sat in his study and glared at the fire burning merrily in the grate. His head was on fire, his skin clammy and gut burning with lack of food and too much drink.
He hadn't even bothered to dress for dinner – something he took pride in – and now sat in his own private rooms looking like some diseased wanderer. The mirrors around the house showed him a man he didn't recognise. How had this become his life? How had one man ruined him?
If he was being honest, he knew that Scott McCall hadn't ruined him at all. That he was doing it to himself, but he was so deep now, so terribly deep into his moods and drink that he saw no way out. A moment of clarity was washed away with another drink from the glass. This was no time for thinking.
Peter, valet and gentleman's gentleman – prided himself on two things. Firstly, his blacking for leather boots was unparalleled and had resulted in many Lords trying to entice him away from Duke Hale – and Secondly, his son was a damn idiot.
"Matthew!" He fumed, sitting in his own private room, glaring at the paper in his hand. "You bloody idiot!"
He'd been working for an Irish Lord, and had now found himself without employment – making the mistake of criticising his employers choice in colours. Although, yes, Peter did think that green and pink stripes sounded bad enough to make his eyes bleed – telling your employer that was a damn fool thing to do!
He had sent a boy 'round to the Baron Stiles man advising him of his arrival, only to find that he didn't have one! What kind of Lord didn't keep a man to dress him? Peter had never heard of such a thing, and married to the sister of a Duke as well – it was preposterous.
But Matthew needed a position, did he not? Perhaps this change of scenery would not only be good for this Lord, but good for his son as well – and Peter was nothing if not willing to make the best of any situation if it aided him.
Stiles wasn't expecting Isaac to look any better when they both arrived at his large town house, but he certainly didn't expected him to look so much worse.
"Good god, man!" He burst out. "I've been gone a day and you look touched with plague – what the hell happened?"
"Nothing." Isaac slurred. "Who you brought?"
"Duke Hale." Stiles indicated, with a wave of his hand. "He's staying with me for a spell."
"Is he, indeed?" Isaac tried to focus.
"Yes." Stiles nodded, looking over his friend with sad eyes. How could such a lively person lose everything so fast? He was pale, drawn in – his cheekbones which were always prominent now stood out like blades – jaw even more pronounced with the lack of fat on his face. He looked like he had already died, rotting away in his chair.
"Should I worry over my sister?"
"Always." Stiles retorted. "She's still a bloody terror." Stiles picked up the glass that had fallen from Isaac's limp hand and placed it far enough away that the man couldn't refill it – if he could muster up the strength, which Stiles doubted he had. "She was out with Lydia this morning." Stiles supplied. "I think she may have bought half of London."
"I'll give you funds."
"I don't need the money, Isaac, you idiot. I was making conversation."
"Hurts my head."
"No bloody wonder." Stiles shot back. "You look like hell. I can't imagine even your mistresses will touch you now – you look diseased."
"I do well enough." Isaac slurred. Stiles looked at Hale, hoping that the man could somehow magically manage to get through where Stiles had failed. Derek shrugged, and glanced at the younger man, slouched and half dressed in his shirt and britches.
"Where is your man, to let you sit in all this filth?" Derek asked, and Stiles groaned. That would not help at all, Isaac loved his clothes – any comment that he wasn't dressed better than any other man in London was always enough to set him into a black mood.
"Gone." Isaac slurred, waving his hand in what Stiles assumed was to be the general direction of the door, missing it by feet. "Left. Like everyone."
"Well, you aren't half dressed, and you a bloody Duke too – so get on your feet, bathe and see us down here like a damn man!" Derek snapped. His tone held no chance to disobey, and Isaac did try to get to his feet before he collapsed. "Ring for the servants to pour him a bath. Two. One cold, and the other hot as they can get it." Derek said, turning to Stiles – who could only nod. "I'll get him upstairs."
Stiles opened the study door and called for the butler, going through a list of everything they would need.
"We've tried, my Lord, everything we could think of," The old man said, wringing his hands. "He's already fired me twice."
"And you are a good man for staying with him now." Stiles agreed. "But I think we will need to act fast. So get the water poured, and enough towels to dry him more than once – send for the physician as well – just to be sure it is the drink and not something he's picked up from… whatever." Stiles paused, remember the old tricks his father would apply to a long night of drinking. "And wake chief. Tell him to cook a large breakfast."
"It is after midnight, my lord!"
"Just do it, everything, eggs, hams, fish, toast a damn loaf and anything else you can think of – a full platter."
"Yes my lord." The Butler bowed, "Right away."
Isaac was aware that he was throwing up the contents of his stomach, and that strong arms were holding him over the basin. Whatever he'd eaten, or drank, was enough to make his lungs fizz and his eyes burn – the smell was enough to make him feel like death.
His skin was cold and wet, he'd thought at first he was sweating, but suddenly he was picked up and lifted into water. Freezing cold and unexpected, he gasped for air – strong arms holding him under the water causing his lungs to burn.
His mind was trying to grasp what was happening, but his eyes were cloudy and brain sluggish – all he knew was that someone was trying to kill him – and he wasn't ready to die.
"Help!" He called trying to fight off his attacker, pushing and kicking, but his legs were weak and arms had no strength. "Help!" He tried again, but whomever was holding him was paying his attempts to struggle no heed at all. Under the water he was pushed again, and his mind became sharp as glass. He could see Duke Hale, holding him under – see the pale eyes of the man and feel clearly the fists holding his shoulders down.
Suddenly he was out, air rushing back into his lungs as he took a frantic, panicked breath.
"Hale!" He managed to croak, "Hale, why?"
"Why are you trying to kill me?" He managed, only to be rewarded with a smile. His lungs were burning, tears pouring from his eyes as he had to struggle for every breath.
"Well, that's a good sign." Hale said, and Isaac had no idea what he was talking about. "If you are able to think again."
"What is going on?" He tried again, voice still weak and hoarse.
"We're sobering you up, you drunken ass." Derek snapped. "You blacked out."
Ah, his mind started to supply a few facts now, at last. Stiles, Erica… visiting. Drinking, lots and lots of drinking. He had fired his Butler – his valet had left. McCall was in love with some skirt. Ah, yes. Now he remembered.
"Why are you here?" He asked, looking around. The room was empty, Derek had taken off his coat and had his shirt sleeves rolled up, cravat off – looked mussed and wet and good enough to eat. "I'm not complaining." He added, swiftly, trying his best to smirk – and failing when he found himself gagging again, casting up more of his stomach. Luckily, Hale had the foresight to place him near enough a basin.
Once he had finished, he wiped his mouth and grimaced. "A drink will cure what ails me." He quipped, "Let's get something sharp and golden down our throats and we'll be right as rain in now time."
"You'll have water." Hale snapped, hauling Isaac to his feet. "And something other than alcohol inside of you."
"Promises, promises." Isaac grinned, giving Hale a long appraising look that was not returned. Isaac frowned. It didn't make sense that Duke Hale would be in his wash-room. "Why are you here?"
"I arrived with Stiles, he's in the other room."
"Stiles?" Isaac said, brain turning sluggishly. "You and Stiles?" Surely… wait… "Together?" How much had he drank that he was unaware of the fact that the man that Stiles had been pining over for the better part of a year was now showing up at his home with him. When had this occurred? Why had no one told him? Damn, but Erica would either be thrilled or inconsolable. He was never good at telling how she would turn out.
"We arrived together." Hale hedged, which made Isaac snort in derision.
"Of course." He replied. "You forget who you talk to, Lord Hale."
"And you forget anything if a glass is placed afore your eyes." Hale retorted. "A warm bath has been poured. You stink like a whorepit."
Food, the smell turned his stomach and made him wish for something nice, and liquid, to line his belly before he was forced down at a meal that would surely kill him.
"I can't eat this." He gestured. "I'll die."
"You've not eaten a thing in weeks by the looks of you." Stiles grimaced. "You look like a walking corpse. You'll eat until you throw it up and then you'll eat some more."
"I can't tell if you are trying to cure me or kill me."
"Well, if I wanted you dead I could have just left immediately after my arrival."
"You arrived with Hale." Isaac said, gingerly sitting in the seat. His whole body was hurting, the warm bath did nothing to help the ache in his bones.
"I did. He is a guest at my house for a spell."
"Why did you not tell me?"
"You were insensible to everything." Stiles shrugged. "And it is a recent development."
"How is Erica?"
"How do you expect? Any moment I should think she's going to ask Hale if he would mind an audience during… you know… and I don't know how to warn him off other than 'I married a demon in the skin of a siren'. Anyway, eat."
When Derek walked back through into the breakfast room, where Stiles had opted to have the food lain out rather than the formal space, Duke Lahey was eating a plate piled high with food like a man starved – which he probably was. The only drinking stuffs on the table was water – and Hale had hoped that it would be enough to start cleansing his body of the amount of alcohol he had induced over the past few months.
"My man left. Poached by Lord Greenburg." Isaac was bemoaning. "Damn the fool. Do you know how hard it is to find a decent Valet in London at this time of year?" He was still stuffing food into his mouth as he spoke. Although he was pale, and his eyes still dangerously yellow, he was already looking better.
"I'm sure you'll cope." Stiles grinned, and Hale could see that even Stiles looked better, as though a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He wanted to tell him not to get his hopes up – that Lahey could still easily fall back into those old habits - but he didn't want to break the mood.
"Cope!" Isaac blustered. "Cope? I've not got a damn man! How the hell am I supposed to dress?"
"I'm sure you can put on a jacket without aid, Isaac." Stiles grinned, and Hale found himself frowning at the younger man. "How ill you are both looking at me!" Stiles laughed. "I should think you related suddenly, with matching frowns."
"I'll ask my man, Peter, if he knows of a reasonable dresser." Hale found himself supplying. Dressing without a Valet was… well, it was damned odd – He doubted that he'd been over a two day without Peter since he'd hired him.
"Thank you." Isaac nodded to him, as he sat. "At least one of you has sense. Need a bloody man, as soon as possible."
"I mange just fine." Stiles smirked.
"You haven't my wardrobe." Isaac shot back, voice stronger than it had been all night. "Half my jackets I need a Valet and a boy to help me into – the fashion is so tight!"
"Let no man say I suffer for fashion."
"No man does." Isaac snorted. "Trust me on this, my friend."
They stayed the night at Isaac's, Stiles not wanting to leave his friend, and not trusting his staff to keep the bottles hidden. Isaac had been violently ill after his meal, but actually looked better for it. He prayed that the worst was past them.
Erica arrived in the morning, not overly concerned that her husband and his 'guest' had not returned from their late night visit to her brothers. She had been for a morning ride, long enough to clear her anger at her brother and his method of coping, and arrived at his house in a neat little pinstriped dress in green. She looked stunning, if it wasn't vanity to think it.
"Lady Stiles." The butler nodded at her. "Your brother and his guests are in the billiard room."
"Thank you, Walters." She nodded, handing the footman her gloves and hat. "How does he do?"
"Oh, much better, ma'am." The Butler nodded, walking her to the door. "Much better."
The door was opened and she stepped through, expecting to see a smoky den and the smell of drink, but found rather the windows opened wide and all three gentlemen in their shirt tails, looking as though they had not slept a wink.
"Oh, good lord, look at you all!" She tisked good naturedly. "Why, anyone could arrive and see you dressed like sulking schoolboys!"
"Ah, but ladies do not call upon gentlemen." Isaac grinned, he was leaning over the table and lining up a shot. His eyes were yellow and his skin was pale, but he was – finally – sober.
"This one does."
"Ah, but you are a demon." He aimed, shot, and sunk the billiard ball with an expert air. "And my sister, so you have seen me at my worse."
"Indeed I have." She said, perching on the edge of one of the chairs that lined the walls. "I expected to see you smoking cigars and ravishing young ladies."
"Bad company for that." Isaac smirked, nodding his head at Stiles and Duke Hale. Hale was leaning against the open window frame, cue in hand, and Stiles was in the chair – watching the game. She could not tell who was winning.
"Well, if you want to ravish young gentlemen, please – allow me to watch."
Isaac laughed, and so did her husband, while Hale managed to look at her stiffly.
"Demon." He muttered.
"Prude." She shot back.
And He smiled at her, he really did – although it looked like it may have caused him actual pain to do so.
"Have you told Isaac about Scott?" Erica asked him, looking at her brother who was now playing Stiles at Billiards. Derek shook his head slowly, although he knew that at one point they would have to. There was no reason for him to know, but he was sure that Stiles would want to his friend to know.
The Butler - a good man, Derek found, who didn't suffer fools and really did want the best for this lord and master, opened the door and announced in dire tones that Earl McCall was in the hall, cooling his heels.
"Send him in," Isaac said with a wave of his hand, which was remarkably steady.
Stiles shot him a look across the room, golden eyes worried and panicky - and Erica, who had been lounging in a most unladylike way was now sitting bolt upright in her chair, eyes fixed on her brother.
"Isaac!" Scott said, bursting through the door and bounding over to his friend, obviously not seeing the other people in the room. "My god, you look like hell!" He burst out. "I mean, Stiles said you were under the weather, but not that you were so sick. You should have written to me, I'd have come sooner." He said, then took a look about the room.
"Scott," Derek said, nodding his head at his younger cousin. He looked well enough, for a boy who spent the summer in the country.
"Cousin Hale! What a surprise." Derek was sure that it was. However, from where he was sitting - beside Erica - he might not think that he was... involved with anyone in that way.
"Indeed." Hale nodded back, calm and collected.
"And Erica, you must allow me to give my congratulations on your wedding, I'm sure Stiles told you, but... but well done!" He announced striding over and taking her hand. Erica allowed herself to be lifted to her feet and enveloped in a large embrace. "Well done, I hope you'll be very happy - I do."
"Well of course I'm happy." Erica laughed. "I married a friend, whom I adore." She laughed as she swatted him away. "And be careful of my person, for he may decide to fight you for the impertinence of holding me so close!" At Scott's distressed face she kissed him on the cheek and laughed. "I'm jesting, you fool."
"Oh, well!" He laughed, and Derek saw in that moment that there was no way this boy could hide his emotions. They played across his face instantly. He doubted that Miss Argent was blackmailing him. Something else was afoot.
Chapter 8: Chapter 8
Isaac was sober for the first time in almost a year – and he was feeling the effects of it fully and completely. His head was throbbing with a pain that he could hardly believe, and his appetite had still to return. For near a week he'd found himself casting up anything he ate, and it was only his youth that kept him from death. Not only was he thin and drawn, without his usual bounding energy he was also unable to attend any event at all – his departure from the social whirl was not un-noticed. It did, however afford him a great deal of time for thinking.
He had, once again, returned to his passion – drawing. Erica was a dream in watercolours, but Isaac preferred the more masculine charcoal. He sat, either bound to his bed, or kept to a couch (like a damn sickly woman) and drew everything. At first he drew only his surroundings, but had branched out and was now – although they blushed and argued – was in the process of drawing each member of his staff. He doubted that he could ever run out of people to draw, they were all so very different.
The biggest change, however, was that he had a new man, a Valet, whom had arrived on the recommendation of Duke Hales man – his son, in fact.
Matthew was handsome and sharp, with no qualms about expressing his distaste in Isaac's wardrobe. Immediately on arrival he had several of Isaac's favourite coats (including his new cherry pinstripe) and had ordered them burned. He'd brought in a new tailor whom took no direction from Isaac at all, but after seeing the designs he felt comfortable giving Matthew the funds required. He may not look quite as much a Dandy, but he wasn't going to look like a 'bloody rainbow in a coal pit' which was how Matthew described his current clothing selection.
Not only was he now completely in charge of dressing, but he had taken full control of Isaac's drinks cabinet also, much to his butlers delight – and had effectively cut Isaac off from all forms of alcohol and had removed the bottle of Laudanum that he was using the curb his headaches, citing that the stuff was worse for him than the drink.
He was funny and entertaining and well-liked by the staff, which made a change – because the last man was a damn nightmare and was forever ruffling feathers below stairs. Not only that, but he took his mind away from McCall and that Argent girl – with a few well-placed compliments. He was either aware of Isaac's preference and was testing the waters for something more, or he was oblivious and was buttering up his employer. Either way, Isaac liked compliments.
"Lady Stiles, Miss Martin and Miss Argent – Your Grace." The butler announced, before Erica swept in, two ladies at her heels.
"Oh, how well you are looking." She announced, sitting prettily in the chair opposite him. "We were passing by on our way to see the new silks in stock and thought we might as well visit."
"I thank you." He nodded, twisting his neck so he could see the other two young ladies. "Forgive me for not standing, I've been stuck down with illness for some time."
"Oh, they don't care two jots." Erica said, waving a delicate gloved hand. "How well you look."
"You mentioned." He smirked. "What silks?" She talked on about the new patterns and weaves that were to be found for some time, and Isaac was able to spend the time only engaging half of his brain – for the other half was taken by Miss Argent. Pretty enough, she was all smiles and polite nods as Erica prattled on. He saw nothing exceptional in her, but Scott was quite often the type of person who saw the greatest in all people. He would find her dark colouring and pretty eyes to be quite the thing, no doubt. Isaac was unmoved.
Perhaps his infatuation with Scott had finally run its course. He'd spent most of his life pining for the man, then – drunk and insensible – he thought he had him at last. Perhaps he was a fool, like Hale had believed him – to spend so much time on something he could never have. He was a Duke, a handsome, rich, popular Duke – his options were wide and varied. He would not be pursuing McCall further. It was time to move on, and this dark headed child was enough to convince him of that.
"I don't think he cared much for me." Miss Argent fretted, twisting her hands and probably ruining her gloves. "I don't think he liked me."
"He liked you just fine." Erica soothed, trying to keep the exasperation from her tone. The thing was, Isaac hadn't cared much for Miss Argent, and that had shocked her deeply. He wasn't acting out of the normal way, but there was a distinct lack of interest there. She'd assumed that he'd be flirtatious and accommodating – all he'd done was chat a while about silks and what not to buy – and compliment them in the usual ways.
"Oh, but Scot- I mean – Earl McCall, he was so insistent that we become good friends." Allison fretted. "I was so ready to apply myself to becoming his friend. Oh, Grandpapa will be so disappointed."
"What is it to your grandfather?" Lydia scoffed. "You have all but announced that you are engaged to McCall – oh, don't even try to deny it – and he's supported you in the match. Why would a friendship with Duke Lahey fret him?"
"Oh, he seems to think that Scott will not marry me if the Duke doesn't approve." She blushed. "He thinks they are very close."
Erica managed to keep a straight face. "Oh, in the normal way between males." She said. "I do not think men are as good at maintaining friendships as ladies. Why, they must always be in each other's pockets!"
"Good Lord, how right you are!" Lydia sighed. "For My father and his cronies are forever together, and must always be at clubs."
"But my Grandfather was so insistent that McCall might not marry me if the Duke disapproved."
"I do not see how it has anything to do with Duke Lahey whom Lord McCall marries." Lydia sniffed. "How remarkable your grandfather must be." She paused, and blushed perfectly, eyes flicking over the street to where three men stood talking, one with his eyes fixed upon her. "Oh, when did they arrive?" She sighed.
Erica did her very best not to snap her head around and glance at the men in the street, it just wasn't done. "Oh, good Lord!" She gasped. "Both of them?"
"Who are they?"
"Hush, and don't you dare look!" Lydia hissed, while managing to appear utterly serene and calm. It was a gift borne of endless public balls where everyone noted your expression.
"They are trouble, although I am not aware of the friend." Erica supplied when they were far enough away so as not be overheard. "One is very tall, and the other very handsome, and they are the most dangerous men in London."
"Oh, yes," Lydia blushed, half skipping. "They are the worst kind of Rake, gambling, shooting and so many women – I mean, really, who has the time? – that my mother refused to let me dance with either!" Her words were cautionary, but her tone was delighted.
"Even Isaac refused to let me stand with them." Erica agreed. "It is rumoured they haven't a penny to their names – and only keep themselves in pocket from gambling."
"But why are they not shunned?" Allison gasped.
"Because they are so very dangerous."
"And tall." Lydia crooned.
"You sound half in love." Allison remarked, obviously not understanding the draw.
"Oh, hush!" Both Lydia and Erica retorted together, before giggling.
Stiles wasn't expecting his wife to arrive in a flurry of gossip and giggles, but he still put his papers down and listened as she rattled off the news she had gleaned.
"Miss Argent is completely terrified Isaac doesn't like her – and he doesn't, mores the concern – he looks well, though. Oh, and the Lord Rakes have arrived, with another gentleman whom no one knows, he wears a tan coat and has the bluest eyes anyone ever saw, so they say."
"Indeed?" Stiles responded. "Isaac doesn't like her?"
"Oh, I think he likes her, but not in the way that Isaac normally likes young ladies, if you understand me."
"How odd." Stiles shrugged. "Scott was convinced she was just his type too."
"I like her well enough, though she is a little stilted."
"Not everyone is you, my love." Stiles reminded her with a wry grin.
"True. How marvellous though, if everyone were?"
"You mispronounced 'terrifying', Erica."
"What a wit you are." She smirked, causing him to laugh. "Where is his Grace?"
Stiles threw her a dark look, picking up his papers. "I have no idea." He replied, which was a lie. Hale had left early, to take care of some business with his clerk and Stiles didn't expect him back until well after nightfall – if at all.
It had been over a week since Duke Hale had first arrived with his valet and no clear idea of what was going on between them. His valet, though, knew exactly what was going on and made it quite clear that he disapproved of Stiles.
It had nothing to do with the nature of his relationship with Derek – not at all – but the fact that Stiles didn't have a valet. Married to the sister of a Duke and no valet? Why, Peter had never heard of such a thing.
So Stiles found his clothes lain out each morning, and his cravats handed to him as he dressed. Peter stood between the two men and handed them any items they needed and bossed Stiles about quite happily. He was in his element, picking at them both for Hales lack of colour, and Stiles lack of style.
He'd even gone so far as to announce that he envied his son – whom was working for Isaac now – because at least Duke Lahey knew how to wear a decent coat and wasn't afraid to add a cape or two, if needed.
"Well, should you see him, try to get as much information about this new Lord with the Brothers Danger, for a tan coat and blue eyes is as much as anyone knows, and gentlemen of quality do not just arrive out of nowhere."
"It's the Grandfather." Derek announced, walking into the dining room. Stiles and Erica were just about to start eating – and he was, of course, late. "I've spent the entire morning going over the marriage contract that I agreed to, and everything – and I mean everything – would have gone directly to him had I died."
"Oh, the land and the title would have gone to Scott, but the money – all the money – the tithes, investments, everything, would have gone to him." He sat down at his normal place and had a plate placed affront him almost instantly. "Gerard is behind this."
"I agree." Erica nodded. "For this morning Allison announced that her grandfather would be most unhappy that Isaac didn't like her."
"Isaac didn't like her?"
"Oh, not at all. She barely registered on his interest." She paused. "He will not be pursuing the dark-haired Miss Argent, I can firmly state."
"I haven't seen him in a week – how does he do?"
"Well, he is drawing again, which is wonderful – although he is still pale and thin… yes, I think he looked so much better." She paused. "Oh, and he's drinking tea only, it seems."
Derek nodded aware that this news seemed to help the weight that Stiles had been carrying on his shoulders. Good, for he had been worried about how another setback might affect Stiles.
"What, exactly, did she say, when she felt Isaac didn't take to her?"
"He thinks Scott will not marry her if Isaac disapproves."
"I think Isaac would like to think that he could wield that level of influence, but it seems Scott does like her more than the usual way."
"He's mad on her." Stiles agreed. "Isaac disapproving would simply result in a rift between them – although the way things currently stand… it would not make much of a difference."
"We cannot allow this marriage to take place." Hale insisted. From what he had managed to find out, Miss Argent was nothing like her aunt, quiet, not quite popular – in fact, her only friends were Erica and Miss Martin – and had arrived too late in the season to be considered much of an impact. "Even if Miss Argent is everything she appears, my father-in-law will taint that relationship until he gets what he wants."
"I cannot see how." Stiles said, taking a bite of his food. "I mean, he is not a God, and Scott has more support from his mother, his family and his friends than you had when entering into the marriage contract."
"I do not trust him – not as far as I could throw him."
"I cannot see how he could do anything." Stiles shrugged. "But you have my support."
A testament to how Derek was feeling about the younger man, this simple statement had him feeling better than he had in a long time. To have his support, to know that he was not alone – meant everything to him.
Lord and Lady Martin are Proud to announce the engagement of thier daughter, Miss Lydia Martin to Lord Jackson Whittimore of Whittimore.
"Well, it only took you three seasons to close the deal." Erica smirked, as Lydia sat in the pale drawing room and nibbled delicately on a scone and jam.
"Yes, it did. But I told you, did I not, that I would catch him? And now I have." She glanced over at Erica with a perfectly calm expression. "I always get what I want."
"Indeed you do. Poor young ladies are simply shedding tears at the thought of the handsome Lord Whittimore marrying the impossible Miss Martin."
"They are." She agreed, before her calm expression broke into a wicked little smirk. "Got him. Told you I would."
"Her father is refusing the match!" Scott wailed, bursting through the door, a figure of romantic despair. Stiles stopped reading and lowered the new text that he had managed to track down on the art of maintaining caterpillars.
At his side, Isaac and Hale were playing a hand of whist – he dreaded to think what the papers on the table were, because Isaac had announced that money was not as fun as barter.
"Who?" Isaac said, waving Scott into the only unoccupied seat – the one by Hale. "Calm yourself, my man – you are positively drained of colour."
"Lord Argent." Scott almost wept. "He refused the match. I don't understand why!"
"Perhaps he thinks you're too young?" Stiles supplied. "The only reason Isaac let me marry Erica was because he couldn't live without me."
"What a grand opinion you have of yourself," Isaac grinned. "You misunderstand the depth of my desire to offload my sister."
"Please!" Scott interrupted. "You have to help me!"
"If her father refuses the union, there isn't anything we can do, Scott." Stiles gently reminded him. "He's her father, she can't go against his wishes."
"We'll have to elope!"
"Don't be a bloody idiot." Hale cut in. "Elope? So that what? Her father can shoot you?"
"You have to help!"
"And we shall." Isaac said with a wave of his hand. "But calm yourself. I have had little sleep and a most interesting tale about a Lord Novak that you must here."
"Isaac, I love this girl, I don't want to hear about some Lord whomever you have managed to bed."
"Watch your damn tone with me, boy!" Isaac snapped, and for a moment he sounded a little too much like his father for Stiles to be perfectly comfortable. "You forget who you are talking to." Very rarely, Isaac lost his soft – calm tone and reminded those in his presence that he was actually a Duke – 14th in line for the throne, in fact – and a damn powerful man.
"I thought you were my friend." Scott stood. "It seems I was wrong."
"Lord Novak," Isaac countered, as Scott strode to the door, "Recently called upon a Sir Gerard Argent." Stiles snapped his head to look at his friend. Scott had stopped also, his hand resting on the handle. "What they talked about, no one is sure, but when Lord Novak left – he was in possession of a ledger that he did not have when entering." Isaac glanced at Stiles and gave a little half shrug. "I have many friends, whom enjoy talking."
"What was in the ledger?" Derek asked, voice tight.
"No idea." Isaac shrugged. "But I know that whatever it contained was important, for half the staff have been let go, and the remaining retainers are scrambling for other work."
"A house of cards." Stiles murmured. "Resting on a ledger?"
"And it is falling." Isaac smirked at Scott's back, he still hadn't left the room. "I asked around. This Novak – no one knows who he is. Well dressed, more than handsome – his eyes! – but not a damn soul knows who he is."
"Some unknown… lord… shows up at his door, take a ledger and leaves – and no one knows a thing?" Derek repeated, voice tightly wound.
"Oh, at least two people who know who he is." Isaac grinned. "The Lords Danger."
"Oh God." Derek sagged in his seat. "The bloody Winchesters."
"Duke Lahey, Duke Hale, Lord and Lady Stiles and Lord McCall – my Lords." Erica heard the butler announce them, and gripped her husband's arm tightly. This would be enough gossip to keep the ladies of London gasping and guessing for the rest of the season. The Lords Danger, the most notorious men in London, and she was standing in their foyer. The house – rented, of course, they didn't have the funds to buy – was shabby but clean. She tried to remember every detail.
They were ushered into the spacious billiard room where both Lords were playing a game, glasses half full and a bottle on the mantle. The only furniture in the place was the table, no chairs nor other furnishings at all. Erica noted that although it was empty, the drapes were cleaned – windows bright, and carpet had been washed.
"To what do we owe this… pleasure?" The older Lord asked, leaning on his cue. His tone clearly stated that he was unimpressed by the interruption. His eyes, green and quite lovely, scanned them over quickly before resting on her. She winked, and he stood a little straighter, grinning.
"Why, what an adorable set-up you have." She said, getting in before any in her party could talk. "What a pity we haven't have the pleasure to make your acquaintance before now. Lord Winchester," She smiled up at the taller, younger brother and gave a little half smile. "Lord Winchester. And Lord Novak, he must be here also?"
"What do you want with Novak?" The shorter of the two asked. Although his tone was even, Erica heard the predatory edge. Indeed, she really did have a sense about such things – and she was never wrong.
"We just want to ask him a question." Hale interrupted, and it was all Erica could do not to throw her hands in the air. Really, could they not see that a group of men we're not going to be able to get information out of these two?
"Just one question, and then we'll be on our way." She smiled, knowing that she looked her best, and the elder of the two brothers eyed her appreciatively. She looked him up and down a little slower than was proper, and when she looked back at him…
"I am Novak." A voice said from directly behind them. Deep and gravely, delicious and dark, that was a voice Erica could listen to all day. As one, they turned.
Lord Novak was smaller than rumour had pegged him, probably not much taller than Stiles, who was the shortest of all the men in the room, but he seemed to take up the whole doorway. The one thing that every had gotten correct though – was those eyes. His hair was a mess, his jacket crumpled – as though he had been asleep in this clothes.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." Stiles said, the only one willing to talk. "I'm afraid you'll have to excuse our impertinence, but are you at all acquainted with Gerard Argent?"
"What do you want with him?" The older of the two brothers replied, as Lord Novak simply looked at them all with those stunning eyes.
"I know him."
"Cas, don't answer a damn thing until they tell you what they want."
"They want to know why Lord Argent is refusing to entertain McCalls courtship of the Miss Argent."
"How the hell do you know that?"
"The ledger is here." He held out a leather-bound book and handed it to Stiles. "We no longer need it." He paused. "Go away."
The ledger was a written account of all the dealings Gerard Argent had ever made. All of them, in detail. "What a bloody idiot." Isaac muttered, as they took it apart, page by page, and built up a good idea of the man at the head of the Argent Family. "Putting this into writing."
Blackmail. From the pages, it seemed that Lord Argent had made his money in blackmail – and there were pages and pages missing, pulled out – whatever he had on the Lords Danger, they had removed it.
What was left was information on most of the noble families of England. "Good Lord!" Stiles choked out, "He's got every illegitimate child in England written in here!"
"God, Isaac – you've got a whole page." Stiles paused. "Why isn't he blackmailing you?"
"No point." Isaac laughed. "Everyone knows me, as you can see from some of the names here – if he tried to blackmail me… I'd just tell him to go ahead and announce my partners." Isaac scoffed.
"This is a prince!" Erica gasped.
"Two – in fact, only the one was a crown Prince though." Isaac shrugged. "I'm actually the safest person in London to sleep with." He grinned. "Can't use me to blackmail anyone, pointless really."
"He's obviously noticed that too." Stiles noted. "He's got Scott in here, on your list."
"Oh God." Scott choked. "No wonder her father can't even look at me."
"I doubt he even knows." Stiles soothed. "I'd like very much to know what Lord Novak said to him to get this handed over."
"He's got financial records of all of us." Stiles pointed out. "I'm in here – although it looks like his records only have a 'possible affair' with Isaac, nothing about… well – anyone else." He didn't look at Hale, didn't dare.
"Why is he so keen to get his hands on the Hale estate?"
"Here!" Erica pointed out, right after whatever the Dreamy Duo pulled out of the book – right there."
"The Hale estate – large cellars that are said to house a treasure in the soil below." She read. "As understood by the texts of the time, the house is built on a great fortune in the earth. Then he writes all the sources that state it, and… oh, some drawings."
"The Hale Treasure?" Derek said, voice incredulous. "This whole time he's been after that?"
Chapter 9: Chapter 9
"The Hale Treasure?" Stiles repeated, not really sure if he was hearing things right. "You have a treasure?"
"If you tell me it is some form of pirated gold from yesteryear, and your ancestors were free-traders, I may actually swoon dramatically at your feet." Erica added.
"She won't be the only one." Isaac grinned.
"Should I ring for some refreshments? Rum, perhaps?" His wife asked, causing both herself, and her brother, to dissolve into fits of humour that didn't seem to dissipate under the hard glare of Duke Hales disapproval.
"Why did you marry her?" He groused, in a tone that made Stiles want to laugh along with his friends.
"My skills in the bedchamber." Erica retorted, before Stiles could even open his mouth. "Back to the Hale Treasure."
"Erica!" Both Stiles, Isaac and Scott gasped at her, scandalised. "You can't say things like that!" Stiles managed, feeling the heat rise on his face. Damn woman was always managing to keep him just off his footing with comments like that in private, he surely didn't need her adding to his discomfort in public.
"Oh, tosh!" She said, tucking a stray curl behind her ear. "It's not like I'm in public, I know you all well enough to say what I think." She paused. "And I've just been reading the most scandalous things about each one of you, so stop acting so prudish. Two Princes!" She glanced at her brother and grinned. "I'm almost proud."
Stiles face burned as Derek snorted a laugh, and Isaac simply smirked at her. "I am so glad I managed to get you out of my house."
"You miss me terribly."
"Like a hole in my head."
"I love you also, brother dear."
"What about this treasure?" Stiles interrupted, before things descended into more chaos with the Lahey siblings – good lord, you'd think that they hadn't bickered enough as children.
"The Hale Treasure is a myth." Derek shrugged. "The whole 'riches in the soil' isn't a metaphor for gold or gems. It actually means that the soil is rich. Things grow well."
"How bloody disappointing." Isaac sighed.
"Well, there was gold once." Hale shrugged, "I suppose that's where it all started."
"My ancestors, they fought in the crusades. It's how we got the title – bestowed by King Richard. There wasn't any money though, the land was fallow because all the able bodied men were off fighting, and most of the country was starving to death by the time they returned.
The new Duke Hale though, didn't come back empty handed – he had gold and gems from all over, Egypt, Turkey – India. He used it to build the old mansion – the newer house built by my Grandfather uses the same original foundations – but the gold has been gone for generations. It's nothing but a family legend, trust me – I've had cousins and uncles going back forever digging up the old ruins and each one of them returned empty handed." Derek shrugged. "The family motto 'Within the Earth is Riches' just means... well, the soil is good for growing. It was the first in the area to start producing food and saved a lot of people from a harsh death."
"Well, Gerard Argent thinks that if Scott inherits, then he'll have access to this mythical treasure." Erica pointed out. "He thinks he lost the opportunity when the Duchess died without an heir."
"But I probably won't inherit!" Scott pointed out, giving Derek an odd look. "I mean, you aren't old – and many men have heirs long after it seems hopeless."
"I'm not re-marrying." Derek said, shaking his head. "The title will fall to you."
"I don't want it!" Scott snapped. "I've got my own land, and my own tenants to worry about, I don't want to become a bloody Duke as well."
"You'll have to get married!" Erica agreed. "People will talk. You'll have to find a nice girl and have her pop out a baby or two." Her words made Derek feel ill, and he looked at Stiles, who was actually agreeing. He didn't want Stiles agreeing to this!
"Oh!" Scott suddenly burst out, his face deep crimson. "I didn't think… oh! Stiles and… oh." Derek tried not to let his emotion show on his face. Scott, after all, had been intimate with Isaac – it wasn't as though he should be ashamed.
But he was.
Stiles saw it, saw it in his eyes and felt something within him… curl up. Nothing broke, or shattered – nothing so dramatic as that – but something in his heart just curled deep within him.
He wasn't sure what he was expecting, really. The man had been married to a woman – one whom he obviously had loved deeply at one point, if not any more – and Stiles was just… well… Stiles. And a man. Which made it all so much worse, really.
They spent the night at Isaac's, playing cards and billiards – Erica beating them all at both, damn Isaac for ever teaching her to play! – and not a single drink passed the lips of their gracious host.
Isaac didn't even try to flirt with Scott, which was a good step up from his normal behaviour, and found himself enjoying the night even though he was still banned from his own drinks cabinet. He understood why he shouldn't start – it would be unlikely that he would stop.
He was unwilling to leave Stiles, at some point in the night his best friend had retreated into his own head, and despite being just as talkative and animated as he ever was, Isaac was getting s distinct impression that he was not as happy as he seemed. Erica too, was picking up on it, and had already thrown him a questioning glance.
Sober and slightly pensive, he shut his chamber door with a click.
"You are most definitely the best dressed of your friends." Matthew smirked, standing up from his seat at the dresser. He had been reading something – the man was always reading something – although he didn't seem so concerned to put it down.
"Yes." He nodded, as he was helped out of his jacket. Fashions were currently leaning toward skin-tight coats – some mornings he needed another lad to help him into his clothes. Luckily, taking them off was easier.
"Hale seems to have an aversion to colour." Matthew continued, hanging the coat neatly and turning to help with the yards of white that made up Isaac's cravat.
"Yes." Isaac said, not moving his head as his valet worked swiftly. He quite liked how close Matthew was, standing toe to toe with him, but of course Isaac was taller. He wasn't sure about Matthew – the man liked to compliment, Isaac liked to be complimented. He liked clothes and fashion – but well… so did most gentlemen, and it was his job to care. So when his fingers perhaps lingered for a touch to long on his neck, or skimmed along the skin on his back as he was taking off Isaac's shirt… he didn't think too much about it. He'd learned his lesson with Scott – sleeping with men whom were unsure in their preferences was a dangerous road.
"Not a fob or button on the Earl either." Matthew continued. "And the Baron – father advised me he's not even got a man?"
"No." Isaac said, sitting on the edge of the bed while Matthew was on his knees and pulled at his boots. "He's never had one."
"How does he dress?"
"Remarkable as it seems," Isaac pointed out, as Matthew carefully pulled at the soft leather. "Gentlemen are able to cloth themselves."
"I am disinclined to agree." Matthew smirked.
Really, Isaac knew that he shouldn't be allowing his Valet to talk to him in such a way, but he enjoyed the banter. It was infinitely better than the constant disapproving of his previous man.
"Probably." Isaac shrugged, smiling. "Should men learn to dress alone, you would be forced into new employment."
"I do more than that." Matthew said, putting the boots to one side and using Isaac's thighs to push up into a standing position.
"I'm sure your talent with blacking of leathers will ever be in demand." Isaac conceded, which got him no reply other than a slightly confused smile. "That will be all." Isaac said with a wave of his hand.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, Matthew, I am fully able to prepare for bed."
"Yes, your Grace."
Erica spent the night in her old room, quite surprised when Stiles joined her not long after. She was even more surprised later – but all in all, she'd married him knowing that he'd expect an heir at some point, and well… might as well get it over with. She was extremely surprised by the end of it all – surprised and impressed – perhaps their marriage of convenience was a bit more convenient that she had thought.
Derek had assumed that Stiles would, at some point in the night, join him. When he awoke in the morning – alone – he had a sinking feeling that perhaps something was wrong.
Lord and Lady Argent, of Bromly, are delighted to announce the engagement of their daughter, Miss Argent to Earl McCall of Haverly.
Three weeks of Stiles being nothing more than a perfect friend was grating on Derek like a delicate torture. No late night visits, nor frantic meshing of bodies – when they were alone Stiles normally chatted amicably about whatever crossed his mind. Fresh from a week of almost hedonistic pleasure at the hands, and mouth, of the younger man – then plunged into the icy waters of a simple friendship had him reeling like an idiot. Coupled with overhearing a conversation that was not meant for him at all – Isaac telling his man that he would soon expect to be an uncle, had him back in his own home within 48 hours of seeing the ledger.
Scott had re-applied to Allison's father, this time using his knowledge that Gerard Argent wanted the match to go ahead, had asked for her hand when the older man was present.
They were currently in the throes of arranging the fastest wedding in the history of London – her father refusing to have a special licence drawn up, and insisting on a traditional ceremony. As far as he was aware, his lack of wife hunting was the only thing keeping Gerard Argent approving the match. His sudden and unexpected departure from Stiles bed had him thinking more of perhaps securing a lasting convenience – London was full of ladies whom a husband was nothing more than a well-placed mask – but would not do his cousin the bad turn of looking until he had married the girl he was obviously in love with.
What worried him more than anything was his apparent lack of sex drive in concern to anyone not Stiles. He wasn't attracted to Isaac, nor any of the other gentlemen of his new friends acquaintance – it seemed the only gentleman he knew that made his heart beat too fast and his hands itch for skin… was Stiles.
The main issue, however, was that this feeling of indifference was not limited to gentlemen. He had completely turned away from the idea of satisfying his need with any of the available ladies whom made it more than clear that they were open for such adventures. That worried him a great deal.
At least Scott was getting what he wanted, although managing to be rather underhanded about the whole thing. He'd mentioned at a dinner, under his breath to Derek, that he'd told Gerard that he was sure his cousin would never re-marry, and that he, Scott, was more than expecting to become the next Duke in the family.
It had been the conversation that had tipped the scales in his favour in the old man's eyes, and the announcement had been in the paper the next day – much to the delight of his young cousin.
Of course, without the ledger, the Argent fortunes were about to take a bad turn. The sooner that Allison, whom appeared to be as genuine a girl that Derek had ever met, was away from that life, the better.
The wedding wasn't exactly lavish, but it was attended by two Dukes and that always attracted a great deal of attention. Erica stood beside her husband and tried very hard not to sigh as he chatted animatedly with Duke Hale about bloody insects. She loved her husband, she really, genuinely did. He had been a friend most of her life, and recently made her more aware of the things she disliked and liked a great deal. More importantly, he seemed more than willing to make their marriage a real one, in every sense.
That was what concerned Erica more than anything. Stiles wasn't… attracted to her. Oh, he made sure that their nights together were more than enjoyable, and never failed to perform – but the whole thing felt like a performance. He was acting, pretending – and it was hurting them both.
Erica loved to the side of Stiles that she saw as soft and open, but she was attracted to the side of him that was masculine and hidden. The idea that in his private relationships he was… well more masculine was something that she got more than a fission of excitement from.
She'd asked a great many questions, and despite his reluctance to answer, had finally succumbed under the knowledge that she simply would not stop questioning until he gave in.
Her husband, it seemed, possessed quite a varied experience that had opened her eyes to a great deal more than she had expected from the act of lovemaking. She had learned a great deal and had wanted to learn a great deal more – and she wasn't got to get that until Stiles realised that Duke Hale was effectively pining for him. Oh, it took her a week to notice, but once she'd noticed the way that Hale would drop his eyes so that he was watching Stiles mouth rather than his expression, or the way he would lean forward when they were talking – or (she found herself noticing the little things more often) the way Hale would sit with his legs splayed and watch as Stiles spoke. Such small things that no one else would see, but damn the man was trying to grab Stiles attention and Stiles attention was nowhere to be found. It was as though he had shut off that part of his life, that part of his nature, completely… and Erica didn't think that was a healthy sign.
Later, when she was curled up in his arms, she wondered if it wasn't Stiles, but Derek, who was the problem.
"You need to do something." Erica announced to the room. Stiles was at dinner with Duke Hastings, whom had called him there to talk of his recent paper on natural pollinators, and she was eating with her brother and Derek.
"Who does?" Derek asked at the same time as her brother asked "Do what?"
"Stiles is unhappy."
"He's married to you, no bloody wonder." Isaac smirked. Erica managed to ignore the jibe which she was sure meant that she was on the list to get to heaven, despite her many flaws.
"He's unhappy because of something you did, and I don't know what it was." She said pointedly to Derek, who looked mildly furious that she'd even mentioned such a thing. Well, bully for him. She was worried about her husband and she wasn't about to let a grumpy glare put her off.
"I have done nothing at all."
"That might be the issue." Erica retorted. "He's decided that he's quite happy repressing what apparently was a thriving appetite for masculine companionship."
"Maybe he's changed." Isaac shrugged.
"Please forgive me if I'm not convinced he's suddenly changed the way he was born."
"Maybe he likes both." Derek shrugged, looking at Isaac who had taken no pains to hide his current mistress' – both of them. "From what you have insinuated, he is currently more than able to…" He waved a hand in the air vaguely.
"Ha." Erica laughed, although there was no humour there. "No. He's not interested in the female of the species at all. It doesn't mean he can't keep it up in the presence of one."
"Erica, I do not want to know what goes on in your head, but I don't want to be made aware of what goes on in the bedroom of my child sister and my best friend." He paused. "Unless you are announcing your pregnancy."
"I'll tell you when I know." She shrugged. She already knew – although she was waiting another week before she mentioned anything to Stiles. "But I believe that he's trying to deny a huge part of his nature and it is making him unhappy." It was making her unhappy too – watching as a man whom she had always loved try to be something he was not. Perhaps had she never known of his true nature she would not have noticed, but as it stood, it was like a slow wound that was not healing.
"This has nothing to do with me." Hale groused. "I wasn't the one who stop-" He cut off mid-sentence and glared at her. How telling, the words that he did not say. "It has nothing to do with me."
"You need to man up." She snapped. "You're walking around him like he'll break. Grab him, push him up against a bloody wall and remind him that he's a damn gentleman's gentleman."
Chapter 10: Chapter 10
Duke Lahey hosted – every year since coming into his title – a lavish garden party at his country estate. His land was only a few hours' drive out of London, so it was always well attended, not to mention one of the last events in the social calendar.
Guests who were lucky enough to catch an invite to stay the night were always able to return to town and share some form of elusive gossip that their peers will have missed. If there wasn't at least one hasty engagement, the event was considered a failure.
He'd invited the Lords Danger – but it seemed they were off on another crazy bent – Lord Novak simply disappearing into the unknown as quickly as he had arrived. Typical – Isaac had hoped to get this mysterious lord to attend, ensuring that his party was rife with gossip and speculation. So now he'd have the settle on the recent and hasty marriage of Lord and Lady McCall (nee Argent) and the soon expected announcement that his sister was with child.
"I don't really understand why she's not telling everyone." Isaac bemoaned as Matthew spent too long buttoning his shirt sleeves. "She's been casting up her accounts for near a month."
"Perhaps she's concerned." Matthew shrugged, still standing too close for Isaac to really ignore the heat from his body. "Complications can occur."
"I don't think she's worried about complications with the birth." Isaac muttered darkly. No, she was worried about complications with Hale. The man had still not managed to show Stiles the error of his now exclusively female company. Exclusively Erica, in fact, which Isaac wasn't exactly sure he liked.
He was jealous. Again. He hated this petty side of himself, this shameful desire to be the only one loved and in love.
Stiles had been his first male companion – and now the man was (as far as anyone could see) madly in love with his sister. When he'd been thrilled that they'd gotten married, he hadn't thought that his best friend, and former lover, would actually sleep with his sister. Now it was… complicated. And worse for Erica because she was becoming rather used to Stiles attentions.
He frowned, and Matthew stood back, turning to pick up his coat. The first of the guests would soon be arriving. "I liked the green today."
"No, the green would look terrible once you were in the gardens." Matthew said, lifting the blue coat.
"The green, Matthew."
"No, your Grace." His valet said smoothly, ignoring his command.
"God damnit, Matthew, I want the green." He snapped waspishly. The man really did overstep sometimes. He had no idea why he kept him.
"Why in God's name did you decide to wear green?" Erica commented, as they stood in the gardens. "You are fading into the shrubs."
"Oh, how you lift my weary spirits, when I am in need." He replied, hating that she was probably right. Damn Matthew.
"It is my one true calling, brother dear." She replied good naturedly. The party was in full swing, with brightly dressed ladies and peacocking men dressed equally as colourful. Isaac watched as his guests mingled. He would be required to wait at the doors another hour at least, to welcome the stragglers – there was always one or two who simply could not arrive on time. It vexed him greatly.
"Hale seems in good enough spirits." Erica pointed out. Isaac shrugged – the man had been quite happy for his cousin and the young Miss Argent (now Lady McCall) to marry the week previous. Secure in the knowledge of what Gerard Argent thought he would one day get his claws into didn't actually exist. At the wedding, not long after the vows, he'd been overheard telling his cousin that he too, would soon be looking for a wife. The look on Gerard Argents face was beyond all price.
London had reeled. Duke Hale would remarry – and he would be at Duke Lahey's garden party. Every eligible female in London had replied to his invite to attend. Those not invited were rumoured to be weeping into their bed-covers.
So Duke Hale was currently drowning in a sea of silks and pushy mothers. Good God, the man had the patience of a saint. He shuddered delicately – it was well known that Duke Lahey was not looking to marry at this point. He doubted he could have faked a smile for as long as Hale had been.
"Hmmm. I think he is realising that announcing that one is planning to step into the marriage mart at a wedding was not the wisest thing he has ever done." He paused, looking about. "Where is Stiles?"
"Oh, panicking in the drawing room." Erica shrugged smoothly. "I informed him that I was with child on the way here." She had known now for some time. She'd been putting off telling her husband for as long as she could, and felt… unhappy now that she could no longer hide it from him.
"How cruel." He had guessed as much, he assumed this was her admitting it.
"He was expecting it." She said, with a wave of her hand. "I think he already knew, but was waiting for my confirmation."
"You could have advised him in a private setting."
"No, this is better. He cannot panic for long, must attend to others around him – and most importantly – He is not able to fuss." She'd gotten used to his company – she enjoyed their nights together a great deal, for all she worried that he was denying his own nature. Perhaps she was shellfish, avoiding telling him so that he would continue to spend long nights showing her exactly how her body worked.
"You are a cruel woman."
"I am practical." She smiled, nodding as a young lady in pale yellow drifted past. "I would end up shooting him afore the end of the day should he start fussing like a brooding hen." She didn't add that she believed that he would return to his asexual, brotherly love, now he had no need to keep trying.
"You don't know he will."
"Oh, he will." She muttered, darkly. "I have a feeling he will."
Derek Hale, Duke and widower, desperately needed a drink. Anything stronger than the weak wine and lemonades that were being served in the warm summer garden under the large tent. He was sneaking through the house, frantic in his need for the bloody drinks cabinet. If he had to smile at one more simpering little girl with more hair than brains he was going to punch the next person who spoke to him.
The drawing room door was ajar and he pushed it open gingerly. Normally he would simply barge in, but after finding more than one supposedly empty room being used by a young lady whose mother would surely kill her for her actions in the arms of some gentleman, he had learned to be cautious.
Stiles was sitting on the couch, staring blankly into the unlit fire. He didn't even look up when Derek shut the door with a click.
"You seem pre-occupied." He commented, noticing how his voice caused the younger man to start in his seat.
"Oh! Hale." He said, voice startled. "I'm so sorry, I was a hundred miles away in my thoughts."
"No worries, my friend." Derek smiled. He was just glad that the room was not being used for some kind of tryst.
"Erica is with child." Stiles said, eyes fixed back on the fireplace.
His flat tone took Derek completely by shock. He sat heavily down on the small couch where Stiles was seated.
"Ah." Of course, he wasn't a damn idiot. He already knew that Erica and Stiles were trying for a child after his overheard conversation between Isaac and his Valet, so why did he feel like there wasn't enough air left in the room?
"She told me on the way here." Stiles continued in the same emotionless tone.
"Ah." Derek managed. "Congratulations." The words were like ashes in his throat.
"Thank you." Stiles intoned. He didn't sound thrilled at the prospect of a child at all. This, more than anything, snapped Derek out of his stupor. He had assumed that Stiles would have been thrilled. He seemed the type of man whom would be quite happy to have a million little children running about his estate.
"I would have thought you happier."
"So did I." Stiles said. "This is what I wanted. Needed. I need a son."
"This is good news, Stiles." Derek urged, although the words were painful for him. Another thing that was pushing them further apart. "A child is good news." He didn't add that it was what Stiles had in mind when he started bedding his wife, because the whole idea of Stiles with another person, a woman – his wife – was distasteful to him. Which was a terrible thought.
"Yes." Stiles nodded. "Yes. Good." He laughed suddenly. "A baby."
"I assume Erica was pleased."
"I'd think so. Women are generally pleased at the prospect of a child." He paused. "Although I'm not entirely sure Erica is the most maternal person of my acquaintance." That made Derek laugh. No, the girl didn't seem the motherly type. "I'm going to be a father."
Stiles wasn't sure how he'd managed to end up in bed with Derek Hale. The first time, well – he knew how that had happened. And then the few times after that. But this time? In the middle of the damn day, at his brother-in-laws party with a pregnant wife?
How was this his life?
God, the man knew his body like a damn map – knew exactly where to bite and nip, how much pain Stiles could take before it all became too much and then apply the perfect amount of gentle touches that were too much for him to take. They had been sitting on the couch, talking. Stiles had been in a blind panic. Then suddenly he was reaching for Derek and… God, anyone could have walked in. Anyone. He'd never been so reckless in his entire life.
He managed to stifle a moan into the pillow of the bed as his hips rocked into the mattress, trying desperately to get some kind of friction on his cock. His hands were captured over his head as Derek managed to find that magical spot inside of Stiles with every thrust – the sheer size of him both perfection and perdition, he ached and needed more than he'd ever thought possible. God, why did he think he could live without this?
He was desperate, needy, and trying not to be vocal – damn but the house was full of people! – as Derek pushed hard and deep, hips snapping and the obscene sound of flesh on flesh filled the room as well as his body. Derek too, seemed to be aware of their surroundings, his normal gasps and growls tempered by the knowledge that the hallway outside, could at any moment, be filled with people.
He wasn't even bloody naked – which was the worst part. They had been desperate, grabbing and hauling at what they could just enough so that this was possible – Jesus, they both still had their boots on, britches shoved down as much as was needed to get this. To get Derek inside him as soon as possible.
How could Stiles even think that he could go through his life without feeling so damn full?
He groaned again, face shoved hard into the pillow, hands captured over his head – and knew that he needed to make this last as long as he could. Who knows when he'd feel like this again?
People had started to comment that Duke Hale had not been seen since that morning in the garden, and as the hours drew longer, Erica decided that Stiles had taken long enough to digest the news of her pregnancy.
She made her way to the drawing room only to find it deserted, cushions over the floor.
She hurried to their room, wondering if perhaps he had taken a fit of temper like Isaac could be prone to do – or if he had simply decided that he could not deal with the crowds. When she opened the door to their room, it took her a few moments to understand what she was seeing, a few more moments for her to shut the door firmly behind her.
"Good lord, this is not the time for this!" She snapped, eyes not really resting on any one thing. Both of them were in states of undress, although neither of them seemed to have managed to get themselves fully free of their clothing. Her eyes skimmed over the obvious signs of sexual activity – the marks on the sheets, the bruised lips – and on their faces – one shocked, the other guilty. "People are looking for you, Derek!" She hissed. "I understand that I asked you to do this, but couldn't you have picked a better time? Good lord, it's not even three in the afternoon!" She paused. "You look like you've spent the night in a whorehouse, for crying out loud!"
They did. Lips were bruised, skin (what she could see in their various stages of undress) was marked, hair damp and clinging to their foreheads.
"Erica." Stiles managed to say, before they both scrambled for the clothes scattered around them.
She couldn't help but laugh. They looked like schoolboys who had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar – although she had seen where Stiles had his hand and it wasn't quite so innocent.
"Britches up, shirts off." She commanded, walking towards the bed. "Try to wash as much of the sweat off as possible."
"Erica!" Derek snapped. "We are fully able to dress ourselves."
"I'm not leaving, so you might as well do what I tell you." Erica smirked. "You need to do something about your hair as well." She suggested to Stiles. "You look like someone's been fisting their hands in it."
"Jesus, Erica!" Stiles choked, and it was a good sign that she resisted asking wither or not Derek had been doing so. Surely that deserved some kind of reward? She leaned forward and pulled, in once swift moment, the shirt off her husband's back. His spluttering and mad hand gestures were enough to make her laugh. "I'm pregnant with your child, Stiles, stop acting like you've been fully dressed the whole time."
They managed to follow her instructions in the end, although Stiles had required a washcloth for a more intimate use than she had previously thought would have been required. She expected that there was a great deal of preparation and cleaning that no-one ever really thought about in these acts incurring, such as cleaning away the oils used to make penetration easier. She sat on the bed and watched them both closely.
"Which of you is the woman?" She asked, as the question came to her. Derek spluttered, but Stiles, accustomed now to these types of questions gave her a look as he stood over the wash-stand.
"Ask a herd of cows which one is the sheep." He returned, which made her laugh and Derek frown.
"Don't encourage her." He snapped, and Erica saw the glare that Stiles threw his way.
"She's allowed to ask." He retorted. "After what she walked in on."
Erica smirked. "See? I'm the wife, I get to know these things now." She smirked. "My darling husband has told me a great deal about what goes on between two men. I was just wondering how you decide who… gets the best out of the deal." She paused. "How lucky you are."
"How so?" Stiles asked, rubbing the skin around his neck roughly.
"Well, you get the enjoyment of giving, and – unless I am labouring under some false pretence with males – the joy of getting as well." She sighed. "Makes for a more varied experience."
"I never thought of it like that." Stiles shrugged, drying off his hair with a shrug.
"I really don't need to be here for this conversation." Derek ground out. How prudish he was, after what he'd obviously been doing.
"You can retreat to your room, then." Erica shrugged. "Shirtless and dishevelled. I'm sure no one will even notice."
"You are a demon."
"You'll notice I have two males in states of undress and I am asking neither of you to ravish me." Erica pointed out. "Nor screaming in disgust and consternation at finding you inches deep in my husband, so please – refrain from calling me names."
"Erica-" Stiles started, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand, temper rising, fears about her new relationship with Stiles bubbling to the surface.
"I'm tired of being insulted! I married you knowing exactly what you were, and then I get it thrown in my face when I express an interest – or worse, you think I'm somehow worse for liking the things I like!"
"No one thinks the worse of you for liking anything." Stiles soothed, reaching for her and pulling her into a tight embrace. "It's just you are so open and we're not used to that."
Erica liked being held. Especially when the person doing the holding was half naked. She wasn't even sure why she had lost her temper, just that it all seemed so unfair that she was being somehow punished for her own nature and she'd been so understanding with everyone else.
She could feel Derek watching them, wisely keeping his mouth shut. Stiles petted and soothed her for a few more moments before kissing her forehead. "Come on, love – we're missing the party and Isaac'll pout for weeks if he thinks we're not having fun."
When he pulled away, she shrugged. "I suppose you are right." She paused, not caring if Derek overheard or not. "Did you like it… with me as well?"
"Yes." Stiles frowned. "Of course."
"Are you going to stop now I'm pregnant and you don't have to?"
He paused. She didn't even want to look at him, so she studied the pale skin of his chest, hard lines of masculinity that the clothes he wore hid from the world, the moles she had tried to count and never quite managed. She hated that she'd been weak enough to ask, and the longer he waited to respond, the more she resented Derek being there. Which was stupid, because she knew… she knew that Stiles needed him. She'd told Derek to do exactly what he'd just been doing. She just didn't expect to feel so damn jealous.
"I don't know." He said, eventually – and she knew he'd actually really thought about it rather than just trying to sooth her, which made a difference, even if the answer wasn't what she wanted. "I'm not Isaac, Erica, I'm sorry, I'm never going to be able to…" He waved a hand in the air, and then ran it over his face. "Like both equally."
"Fair." She nodded. "I understand that." And she did. She just wasn't sure how to go about getting herself a lover of her own to replace him… well… not without causing a total scandal.
Isaac glanced over at his sister who seemed pale and unhappy. "Why so dull?" He nudged. The garden part of the garden party was almost over, couples and groups moving into the house for refreshments and to prepare for dinner. There would be dancing later, before everyone went home. Someone had fallen in the punch and two couples had rather hastily gotten engaged after being discovered in rather compromising situations. His party was a success.
"I need to get myself a lover." Erica said, voice low enough that it didn't pass his ears, and he was ashamed to admit, those ears burned with embarrassment. His sister!
"Well… I thought your marriage was giving you what you needed?"
"It was, until Hale reminded him what he was missing."
"Ah." There was no doubt that Stiles would not need a lot of reminding. He had never been happy bedding women.
"Ah." His sister agreed. "And I've gotten used to the companionship." Enough emphasis there, he didn't need to question that further. Well… she was his sister. Perhaps some things were deep in the blood.
"Well, single men get overly attached, and married men are never available." Isaac supplied, hoping that it was helpful enough. "Sleeping with the staff is considered bad form, but… most people do it." He paused. "It's convenient."
"Unlike you, brother dear," She sighed, "I can't acquire a handsome Valet to see to my needs."
"I'm actually not sleeping with Matthew." He pointed out. Her gaze was disbelieving. "I'm not." He shrugged. "I'd tell you if I were."
"Why not?" She asked, "He's handsome, you seem to like him, he did make you wear green today, so I thought perhaps you weren't keeping him for his skills at dressing you."
Isaac frowned. "I don't sleep with every member of my staff, my love."
"Just the handsome ones." She quipped. "Do you think I could simply as Stiles to hire a handsome footman or some such thing?"
"Get a tutor." He suggested. "Learn a new skill."
"Flute?" She quipped, before making a gesture that no one could mistake for a musical instrument.
Amongst the gossip of the events at Duke Laheys house party, was the story that he'd laughed so hard he had to sit on the steps of his own garden and send a servant for a drink. No one knew what she'd said, but the next day his sister announced she was with child, so the general consensus was that she'd just informed him of her condition.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
Nothing ever goes as expected.
Erica had expected, after the garden party, that Hale would simply arrive at their townhouse and stay – just like had had previously. That hadn't happened.
She had expected that Stiles would stop spending his nights with her. He hadn't.
She had thought finding a tutor whom she actually wanted to bed would be easy. It wasn't.
And her pregnancy was a damn nightmare.
"I hate my body." She whined, sitting at her brothers table. The London townhouse had been shut up, and they were sitting in the garden of the Lahey estate, a massive, Ducal mansion with more rooms than anyone could ever require. Stiles had gone to Scotland to give a lecture at Edinburgh University after making quite a splash in London and, although she had been excited to see the city, Erica had been left behind because her life (obviously) was a nightmare she could not waken from. That, of course, and the fact that her pregnancy left her weak and unable to walk more than a few yards. She didn't even want to think about what had happened to her ankles.
"I know." Isaac agreed, handing her a delicate cup of china filled with warm tea. It couldn't be hot (the way she liked it, scalding her lips) because that would make her sweat, and she'd had to forgo the slice of lemon because the smell of citrus made her violently ill. "But think of this – you could be sitting in some horrid little Scottish hotel, eating terrible food and suffering the stench of those streets." He smiled at her softly. "But you get to be here, pampered and coddled, with your every whim quickly granted."
"I hate my body." She repeated. "I miss my husband, and I don't understand why things aren't just… working out like they ought to!"
"I've lost you, I'm afraid." Her brother admitted. "What isn't working out?"
Isaac, she knew, was almost fully recovered from his drinking binge, although he was still avoiding even the weakest wines and hadn't touched a drop of anything stronger than lemonade at dinner for months. His eyes, which had been dangerously tinged with yellow were returned to their clean, brightness – and his temper had evened out enough that she no longer felt like she had to walk on eggshells around him. He had days where he would not leave his room, but they were few and far between – and were often cut short by the actions of his Valet, who had (she had tried not to laugh) lifted him bodily from the bed where he was languishing and forced him to dress.
"I thought Hale would be around," She admitted. "I thought he would be spending time with Stiles, and he's not." She waved a hand over her massive stomach. "I thought I would be a perfect host for a child, and I've had nothing but trouble since I started to grow. I've still not found a suitable 'tutor' and I've been looking for months – and everything is..." her voice trailed off, the words just not sounding right to her ears. "I don't know." She finished lamely.
Her brother leaned forward and held her hand, kicking his feet up onto the table in a way that would have had their father beating him from one side of the house to another – she certainly had no love for the previous Duke, mean bastard – and leaned into her side.
"Hale is fighting the fact that he is desperately in love with Stiles." He pointed out. She didn't bother to say anything – she already knew the Duke was mad on him. "It is often too much to deal with. He's in love with a person of the wrong gender and he can't quite grasp why it feels right. That, and he is currently being chased by every single female in England, trying to get her hands on the title of 'Duchess Hale'."
That was true enough, Erica knew. He'd been mobbed – not quite expecting the rush, she expected – of so many young ladies in their first season, brash widows and armies of mammas whom all believed that their daughter was Duchess material.
Erica didn't even need to point out that the only lady whom he had even mildly expressed an interest was Miss Charity Harvington, a mousy, unassuming girl with no fortune and (at almost 27 years old) no prospects. Her name was good enough, and her family respectable, but the girl was… forgetful. No one ever remembered her at a Ball, she faded into the background and was (apparently) happy to do so.
"Do you think he'll offer for the Harvington girl?"
"Oh, I'll wager a pony on it." Her brother nodded. "She's perfectly amiable to spend her days in the country, as long as she has her little comforts." He paused and arched a perfect eyebrow at her. "Her books, her embroidery, and her ladies maid. I doubt she'll be taxing."
Stiles decided that although the university was bursting with excellent minds and surrounded him with like-minded people, he didn't like the city. It was crowded, smelly and badly designed – although they were currently building more modern buildings that reminded him of London. He missed his home, his butterflies, his friends – and his wife, which he wasn't expecting.
He'd expected that she wouldn't be able to make the trip, her pregnancy was advancing and she was extremely uncomfortable, but he had been disappointed all the same. He'd gotten used to her just always being there – and sleeping alone was something he'd come to dislike.
It had, though, given him a lot of time to think. Erica was unhappy. She had told him about her brothers idea to hire a tutor – he approved of the idea, but not of the profession – it had seemed sordid and below her. He had been keeping his word though, and made a valiant attempt to interview as many handsome young men as he could. She'd refused them all.
His hotel was nice enough, and he sat in the private rooms that he had rented and looked over his notes. There was the noise of carriages outside, the general ruckus of day-to-day life in the city, and the obvious sounds of a new guest arriving. He'd planned to stay a few days longer, but in all honesty he was itching to return. There was nothing keeping him here. The light knock on his door made him look up, and the door was opened by a slight girl – some serving lass who had been assigned to his comfort.
"A Duke Hale, mi'lord." She half whispered.
Stiles head snapped up as Derek walked into the room behind the girl, hat in his hands and already pulling off his gloves.
"Hale!" He exclaimed, getting to his feet after the first instance of shock left him. "Bloody hell, what brings you up here?"
Sex was out. Pretty much anything that Stiles had wanted to do was out of the question in a public hotel where one could never quite be sure of what could be overheard. Derek knew that, and knew it was the reason that the younger man was keeping up a flow of constant but interesting chatter about his work. Derek could see it in his eyes, the sweep of his gaze over his skin, or the way he would half forget himself and lean over for a touch before aborting the movement half way through.
God, Derek had never wanted anyone as badly as he did this boy. He'd managed to convince himself that he was in the cramped, ugly city for good enough reasons, although as he sat across from the pale face and golden eyes – he knew he'd been a bloody fool for thinking he had any other intention. He missed Stiles, and he wanted to see him.
Had to tell him.
Stiles though, talked like his life depended on it. Derek had a rough idea that Stiles might already know why Derek was there and was trying to delay the news.
"I offered for Charity Harvington." He cut over Stiles rambling.
"Congratulations." Stiles responded, although Derek could see that he was not genuine in that. "I assume the match was met with approval from her family?"
"We are to be married in a month." Derek nodded. "They have very little, this match is a wonderful advancement for them."
"Have you told Scott?"
"No." Derek shrugged. "You are the only one who knows, aside from her father – of course."
"Of course." Stiles nodded. Derek noted he looked… despondent.
"She has already expressed a wish to remain in the country – she has no love for London and it's delights." No response to that, Stiles just nodded. "She will keep her ladies companion." Derek pushed, wondering if Stiles would understand what he was trying to say without using the words.
"Probably for the best." Stiles nodded, although his words seemed distant. "If she is to remain at the estate year-round she would require companionship."
"They are very close." Derek agreed. He waited a few seconds for this to register in Stiles mind.
"Ah." The young Baron said. Then again, after a moment. "Oh. I see."
"Good." Derek nodded. "Oh, that reminds me. You asked if I knew of any valets?"
"I recall." Stiles replied, but he was now smiling, and his manner was much more relaxed. Derek knew that if they were alone – really alone, without the danger of some serving girl opening the door – he'd be more than happy to touch and be touched. "I don't think it really matters though." He shrugged, eyes almost glowing. God, Derek just wanted to reach over the space and… his mind blanked. He just wanted to touch him, really. Nothing even remotely sexual, just the freedom to touch him. He blinked. "Well… I found one." He managed to say, voice even and hopefully not betraying the sudden panic that the knowledge that he wanted… more. More than just sex that ripped his damn soul out of his body. "About the same age as Matthew – I think." He added.
"I'm managing quite well without a Valet, Derek." Stiles grinned, waving a hand over his clothes, which were – Derek had to admit – well looked after and neat.
"He's the grandson of my old housekeeper." Derek supplied uselessly, unsure as to why he even brought it up. Peter had done nothing but sing Stiles praises – he doubted very much that he would look fondly on Stiles getting a valet of his own if they were to somehow live together. He had enjoyed his time at the Barons – enjoyed bossing the both of them around as they dressed.
"Well, of course I'll hire him." Stiles shrugged. "Though I only do it because you seem to think I need to."
Isaac was in bed, simply refusing to move. He'd spent the night in his sisters room, sitting by her side and reading to her. As soon as Stiles returned the better – he was exhausted. She was having trouble sleeping (doubtless something to do with the extra weight she was carrying around) and was making him suffer for it by asking him to read to her like he had done when she was a child.
"Do you plan on laying here all day?" Matthew said, opening the heavy drapes and ignoring his protests of 'too bright' as he walked about the room. "I knew I should never have let you undress." He sniped, as he picked up the jacket from the back of the chair where Isaac had thrown it. "This will take a year to press."
"Matthew, please – go away." He moaned, rolling onto his side and pulling the covers over his head. "My damn sister had me reading her Byron till dawn."
"It's already after 3." Matthew continued, heedless of Isaac's pain. " Time to get up."
Isaac curled into a ball and refused to move. Damnit, he was a Duke, and he wasn't going to let some snotty overbearing servant boss him around. "You are fired." He snapped. "Bugger off."
"You've already tried to fire me this week." Matthew responded, still moving about the room. Isaac could hear him even if he couldn't see him. "But if you are dead set on it – my father arrived this morning, will I send him up instead?"
"Why is your father here?" Isaac said, sitting up. That made no sense to him at all. "Are you inviting your damn relatives?"
"I assume he's here before the Duke arrives." Matthew shrugged. "He's Hales man."
Isaac had forgotten that. "Did he say why Hale was visiting? And why I've heard nothing about it?" He didn't mind guests, but he did like to know about their arrival.
"He's returning with Stiles." Matthew shrugged. "I think the hazel britches with the green coat would be ideal for today." He said, walking around the room, picking up the discarded clothing that Isaac had thrown about the room as he'd climbed into bed. "Simple but defined. I'll tell father to come up directly and prepare you."
"Why the hell would I need Hale's man?"
"You just fired me."
"Shut up." Isaac laughed, throwing a pillow at his Valet. "You are insufferable."
"Oh, no. I'm off now, that's it." Matthew laughed, dodging the flying sack of feathers. "I demand my full months' pay and your indigo jacket as payment for services served."
It wasn't until he was dressed and Matthew was handing him the long strip of cloth for his cravat that he turned to the man. "You aren't leaving though, are you?"
Matthew shrugged. "No. I doubt anyone would pay me half so well." His eyes sparkled though. "And I'm not sure your indigo jacket would fit me."
Derek Hale, 3 rd Duke of that name, married Miss Charity Harvington, Daughter of Earl Harvington. The event was well attended by both families, including his heir – Lord McCall and Wife. The absence of the head of the Argent family was noted by all – and was missed by none. Baron Stiles attended, Wife in too delicate a condition to travel.
Derek wasn't sure why he'd brought Charity with him, but it seemed slightly unfair to marry her and then – a few weeks after – leave her in a house she knew nothing about. He should have perhaps waited a little longer, but it had been weeks since he'd seen Stiles, and he was done refusing himself.
His new wife seemed quite happy to be dragged half way over England in terrible weather as long as she was warm in the carriage, and had a book or her sewing to keep her occupied. Her ladies maid travelled with them, mostly so Derek wouldn't be required to make conversation, but they both remained silent as they sat, side by side – fingers deftly sewing away.
He missed Erica, he was surprised to find. He envied Stiles in his marriage, which was a friendship first and foremost. These long silences were… dull. He wondered when he stopped finding silence comforting and started to crave a steady conversation. Probably around the same time he had met Stiles.
They arrived at Duke Laheys country estate after dark, but they were expected. Erica, on her feet already – was standing at the door – waving at them as they approached, but all Derek could see was Stiles.
He was out of the carriage and crunching over gravel before the horses had stopped moving.
"Good Lord, woman, are you on your feet already?" He called out as he walked towards them.
"I'll have you know, I was on my feet before Stiles." She shot back. Derek barked a laugh as Stiles shrugged.
"I slipped and knocked my head."
"He passed out as soon as I started screaming." Erica cut over his excuses, then gave a rather pointed look behind him before reaching out her hands to Charity. He shot Stiles a quick glance, but he was all smiles and welcoming words. "Oh, you must be done in!" Erica coo'd. "My brother would have come down to great you, but we have yet to work out how to remove him from the nursery."
"Allow my congratulations." Charity half whispered.
"Oh, goodness!" Erica exclaimed, "How quiet you are. Well, you must allow me to show you to your rooms, and get you nice and settled in, we've got a lovely light meal for you once you are ready, of course."
Stiles wasted no time in taking Derek directly to the nursery. He hadn't expected anything different, and simply revelled in the closeness of his body as they walked.
Isaac, looking nothing at all like a Duke who was 14th in line for the throne, was sitting cross legged on the floor as a fat, jolly looking woman watched from an overstuffed chair by the fireplace. In his arms was a baby so small Derek could hardly believe that it was real. He had not spent much time in the presence of infants.
"This is Melissa." Stiles said, touching Isaac on the shoulder. "Jonathan is asleep – we wanted to bring them down to great you, but the weather is so bad…"
"Don't be an idiot." Derek said, looking down at the sleeping child in the cot. So small, tiny – baby Jonathan slept in the centre of the massive cot and was so still Derek couldn't even tell if he was breathing or not. "I still can't believe that she had twins."
"You can me both. She was so huge, though – and John was so small when he was born. Then out she came and… well… twins."
"Thank you." Stiles grinned, so wide that it nearly split his head in half. "We were hoping to travel up to my estate, but with Erica birthing early, and the weather…"
"You aren't taking them anywhere." Isaac cut over. Derek saw Stiles roll his eyes and smiled. It looked like Isaac was taking his duties as Godfather seriously. Derek foresaw some seriously spoiled little children in the future, Isaac was terrible at limiting himself – Derek doubted if he would be any good at refusing his niece and nephew.
The fat nurse gave a little huff of air and got up from her seat. "Come on now, duck, you give her up and get yourself down for some vitals." She coo'd neatly scooping Melissa from her uncles arms. "Shoo!" She waved, when they didn't immediately vacate the room.
"Nurse looked after Erica and I when we were children." Isaac said, once they were in the hallway. Derek had thought as much, going by her obvious comfort in her situation. "Erica wouldn't except anyone else, luckily, Nurse was always bad at denying me – she came right back when I asked." He beamed.
Erica watched as Charity sat and carefully ate her dinner as the gentlemen laughed and talked over their supposed victories and Stiles and Isaac congratulated themselves over her hard work – namely giving birth to twins. Charity Hale was… well… she was quiet. Unassuming. If Erica was being brutally honest, what Charity Hale was – was Dull.
Colourless, drab and forgetful – even of her new (and it was obviously new, because she was wearing the new fashion for short sleeves) dresses were stunning in colour and cut just right for a woman of her figure – she was unexceptional and… well, not about to get into a heated discussion about anything, ever. What a strain to keep the flow of conversation going around with such a dull little sparrow in a room of peacocks.
Isaac, for the first time in his life, was managing to remember that they were not in their usual party of four and was keeping the conversation more or less suitable for general consumption. Erica was struggling to do the same, and found herself worrying that the sleeping babe upstairs might grow into something as mousy and silent as this. Then she recalled that in order for that to happen, Melissa would have to lose her mother, her father and her rather flamboyant uncle in order for such a travesty to occur and her fears were soothed.
"How's your new Valet settling in?" Derek asked Stiles, as Erica took a sip of her wine. Isaac was still drinking only water – it seemed unlikely that he would sink back into his drunken depression again – and winked at her over the edge of his glass.
Yes, Colin O'Shale was settling in just fine. Not exactly handsome in the fashionable way, but his deep green eyes, ridiculously attractive Irish lilt and that brown curl that would always fall over his eyes had ensured that Stiles kept him employed.
"Oh," Stiles nodded, not quite looking over at Charity, but aware of her presence. "He's been a godsend." He looked over at Erica who nodded in agreement. "No idea what I'd do without him now."
Colin O'Shale, Derek decided, was the worst idea he'd ever had in the entirety of his life. He was standing in the corridor talking to Peter and Matthew as Derek walked past, his accent perfect and his looks… well… not exactly handsome, but there was something there that was attractive.
Damn, why the hell had he not taken a look at the man before he'd suggested Stiles take him on? Not, of course, that he was in anyway jealous, but… damn. He should have met the man before he'd suggested anything. Idiot.
He wasn't sharing a room with Charity, which he felt slightly guilty about being relieved about. Her room was across the hall, and he knew that she would never even think of walking across the hall in the night.
But now his thoughts were conflicted. Stiles and Erica had a suite of rooms here, down the corridor – and what if Stiles had been sleeping with his Valet?
The thought of that caused him actual pain. The idea that Stiles had slept (more than once) with Erica was something that he didn't think too much about – after all, they were married – but the idea that Stiles had slept with another man… that was entirely different. And shockingly painful.
Stiles kissed his wife on the lips and curled closer to her on the bed. She was already under the covers and half asleep, and he couldn't help but brush a few stray curls off her forehead. She'd returned from nursing the babies and had crawled into bed almost as soon as returning – not mentioning his lack of undress or obvious signs of not spending the night.
"Goodnight, my love." He said, and her sleepy half smile was enough of a reply. He rolled off the top of the bed and was half way across the floor when she turned.
"Tell Derek I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to talk to him today."
"Love you too." He paused, hand on the door. "Do you want me to come back before you wake up?"
"God no." She mumbled, curling deeper into the blankets. "You go have desperate and sinful sex and leave me alone."
He grinned and let her sleep.
"Is Isaac sleeping with his Valet?" Derek asked, pulling off his boots. He had wanted to ask if Stiles was sleeping with his valet, but wasn't sure if he was in a position to demand answers – after-all, they were both married. To women.
"Matthew?" Stiles questioned, before looking up at the roof. "God, I hope so."
"You don't know?"
"I don't think so. I hope they are, because I'd like to think that he had someone – but I think it hasn't gone past the insulting each other stage." Stiles shrugged. "Do you think Peter would object?"
"No." Derek said, after thinking it over. "Peter doesn't care about things like that, as you well know."
"Different when it is your son, I think." Stiles pointed out. Derek wondered if Stiles felt differently about subjects now he had children of his own.
"Are you trying to…" Stiles waved a hand in the direction of the door and - Derek assumed – the room across the hall, "carry on the family line?"
"Ah… yes." Derek admitted, not sure why he felt uneasy about talking about this with a man he planned on doing some seriously obscene things to as soon as possible.
"It's worth it." Stiles suddenly said. "I know it might feel a bit… off… and I know you don't love her – but its worth it when you hold your child in your arms."
"You seem happy."
"I am." Stiles grinned. "And Erica too – God, you should have seen her face when she met Colin." Stiles stopped pulling at his cravat and laughed. "I think she was inches away from writing you a very thankful letter about your taste in men – which she shares."
"The valet you made me hire?" Stiles looked at him, and Derek blinked. "I thought you suggested I take him on for Erica's sake."
"Erica is sleeping with your Valet?"
"Well… no." Stiles shrugged. "Right now she'd mule kick you across the damn room for even mentioning sex." He grinned, looking happier than Derek could remember, and stepped into the space between his legs. "I know though," He carried on, pulling at Derek's shirt with sure hands. "That they have been in some rather… interesting situations." Derek sucked in a breath as Stiles hands slipped under the cotton his shirt and splayed across his ribs. "Because her questions have gone from general to very, very specific." His mouth was only inches away from Derek's, and not for all the money in the world could Derek have pulled back.
"I missed you." He admitted, feeling stupid for even saying the words. They'd only been apart a month.
"I think you should show me just how much." Stiles breathed back.
Chapter 12: Chapter 12
Derek opened his eyes against the morning light and wondered if it would be possible to roll over and pretend that it was still night. Pressed heavily against his side and with one knee pushed under his thigh, Stiles slept so heavily that Derek was sure not even a full orchestra could have woken him.
He cracked open an eye and ventured a look about the room. Peter was already walking about the room preparing clothing, probably what woke him, and managing to look stupidly alert for a man who had been able to drink most of the staff under the table the night before. Well, they'd had reason enough to celebrate, after all.
Charity had informed him a year and half into their pregnancy that she had missed her monthly cycle and it would not be necessary for him to return to her bedchamber. Poor thing, she'd been utterly mortified when he'd (completely accidently!) walked into her rooms one night to find her in the arms of her ladies companion.
"My Lord!" She'd exclaimed, the first sound he'd ever heard her make that wasn't some whispered half mumble, diving from the bed and hauling her clothes over her body. The other girl (Olivia, he learned later) was simply frozen with shock and fear.
"Have you seen my cravat pin?" He asked, trying to keep his voice as neutral as possible. "I wasn't sure if I was wearing it last night."
"Ah, no, my Lord." She'd stumbled over her words. "I don't know." She finished. He'd shrugged.
"Well, if you see it, can you inform Peter? He'll likely obsess over it until he knows where it is." He'd nodded to them both before leaving the room. "Ladies."
It seemed since then, they had worked around what would surely have been the most scandalous set of affairs that London ever knew. Charity had spent more time with Erica, and less time with her head buried in her needlework – and had subsequently developed into a slightly more vocal companion who was at least able to hold her own in a conversation over dinner. He doubted that they would ever have that firm friendship that was the very heart of Stiles and Erica's marriage. He'd learned very quickly that although they were not having sex, Erica still enjoyed sleeping with Stiles, and expected Derek to either leave or stop complaining when she would climb in beside them some nights.
Erica, who probably would have risen (as was her habit) at dawn, would more than likely already be finished her breakfast – she'd taken up the habit of going for a morning canter through the country lanes if the weather was mild enough.
Charity would still be in her bed chamber, he didn't think she'd be all that keep to get out of bed herself – she wasn't as robust as Erica, who had snapped back to her pre-birth good health almost instantly.
He had a son. The thought hit him hard and he pushed himself up on the pillows, managing to free his arm from under Stiles without waking him. He had a son.
"Good morning, My Lord." Peter said, voice betraying no hint of the hangover that he surely had.
"I have a son."
"Yes, my Lord." Peter nodded. "I remember."
Isaac was sitting in the middle of his bed, legs crossed and arms full of chubby little giggles. His nephew and niece were the most important things he had ever had in his life, and he probably spoilt them rotten – but he didn't care.
Hales Ducal estate was not too much smaller than his – and Isaac had his own set of rooms now. He split his time between here, his own large estate, and the (comparatively) tiny country home of Stiles.
He actually preferred the smaller home of his brother-in-law, because there was no chance for isolation from ones nature. Derek and Stiles had to share a room, Erica and Colin had the adjoining room separated by only a door – Isaac had the room across the hallway and Charity and her companion had the rooms next to him. Certain times of the night were a mess of desperate noises and urgent hushing.
Here though, in the huge stately home of Hale, Isaac had four rooms for his private use as well as his bedchamber, and it could lead to some loneliness on his part. He made up for that with filling his mornings with the children. No one got up early aside from Erica, and although she loved her children, she loved her independence as well – once she'd returned from her morning ride she'd swoop in and his time with the babies would be over.
Matthew was at the dresser, drinking some vile looking hangover cure and trying to work out Isaacs clothing for the day – wincing with every manic giggle that Melissa made. "I warned you against drinking so much." Isaac smirked. He'd not touched a drop – almost three years without a drink had made him slightly smug on mornings like this, he could freely admit – and laughed as Matthew sent him a look that would have wounded a lesser man.
Their relationship was… odd. Isaac liked Matthew a great deal – more than he had liked anyone in a long time – but was unsure about the man. He had no women (nor men) in his life and seemed more than happy to keep it that way. He'd learned his lesson with Scott about sleeping with men whom were not inclined that way, and he was worried it would ruin the rather odd friendship they had. So when Matthew got drunk (as he sometimes did) and got a little too familiar, Isaac laughed it off and didn't take advantage. He'd learned his lesson.
"My father drank twice as much as I did." Matthew grumbled, taking another deep drink of the caustic green liquid and pulling a disgusted face. Isaac was sure he could see a whole egg yolk in there.
"Your father has proven more than once that he can drink a brewery and still stand upright." Isaac commented, before blowing a noisy bubble on Melissa's chubby belly – causing her to scream with laughter. "Learn from your mistakes."
"You are aware that with McCall announcing last week – and the new arrival yesterday – you are the only one without issue, right?" Matthew pointed out. Isaac frowned, his Valet must really be feeling his headache this morning if he was pulling out such a low blow. Isaac loved children. He just didn't know how much he desperately wanted one of his own until they had let him hold Erica's children.
"How cruel." He smirked, trying to hide the hurt that Matthews comment caused. He knew he'd need to find a wife eventually. He just didn't want to be stuck in some damn pointless relationship, forced to live with a woman he had no love for. Who probably wouldn't understand that Isaac needed more than a pair of breasts to keep his interest – or worse, be disgusted with his fluid lifestyle.
He turned away and tickled his nephew, laying on the bed and kicking his legs as though he were swimming, giggling and squealing like a little piglet. God, Isaac loved these children.
Erica watched as her brother flirted with the whole room. He was back to his usual London Finest, popular and in demand from all – the perfect Duke. His abstinence from alcohol had caused some good natured joking amongst his friends, but they were quite used to it now. The fact that Isaac was able to remain upright and sensible at any hour meant that he was able to keep three mistresses at once. She'd overheard a scandalised conversation from some matronly woman about that. She felt a surge of pride that her brother was probably the only man in London who could not only afford, but keep up with the demands, of three separate mistresses.
She was standing to the side of the large room, watching her husband and Derek chat to Duke Hastings. London was more than accepting of their friendship – simply because to look at them, it seemed impossible think that either were not what they first appeared. Stiles was the father of two rather perfect children (she wasn't bias, they were perfect) and Derek a son in the nursery, wife enjoying the quieter life at home. Erica's continuation of remaining in her husband's company was actually rather unusual, although London had put it down to her being madly in love with him (she was) and not bedding his Valet (that too).
She was pregnant again – that month where they'd gone to Edinburgh for Stiles lectures at the university and Derek had been required to remain in London for business had resulted in that – but she hadn't told anyone yet. Stiles could count, he'd work it out soon.
"Shush!" A frantic whisper hit her ears, coming from the potted plant to her left. "Someone could hear you!" Erica smiled. Was she over hearing some delightful little seduction in an alcove? How splendid!
"No one can hear me." Another female voice responded, sounding more frustrated than anything. So not a tryst. She tried not to be disappointed. "All I'm saying is I don't understand why you think it's disgusting!"
"You saw two men kissing!" The other woman – older, Erica thought, as her eyes darted over to her husband, who was not looking at all kissed. "You should inform me whom it was!"
"Why, so you can tell all your gossipy friends and ruin them both forever?" Erica liked whomever this girl was. Her interest was engaged too – Isaac was in the middle of the room – not kissed – so who the hell had this child walked in on? Her mind ran through the men whom she knew to have inclinations in that way. Her mind drew a blank.
"So is gossip!" The younger woman snapped back, before walking out of the alcove. Pretty, blond and tiny – wearing a rather drab shade of pale pink. Miss… oh God, Erica knew that they'd been introduced at some point. Her father was Lord Kelling, Erica was sure of it. Miss Kelling… oh damn, Rose? Beth? Isaac would know.
Earl Kelling is pleased to announce the engagement of his youngest daughter, Miss Elizabeth Kelling and Duke Isaac Lahey.
Beth Kelling was a gift from God. Isaac knew from the moment that he kissed her proffered hand and asked her to Waltz. Her eyes sparkled and shone and her tiny little frame made him feel like a giant. The top of her head didn't even touch his chin, and damn, he'd been thinking about doing some highly immoral things to that perfect English rose.
Then she'd talked, and it was like someone punched him in the throat. Hard. Twice. Her mouth had no filter – and Erica egged her on with more and more ribald comments. His sister had introduced them, and the bloody witch must have known that the tiny little angelic smiles hid a nature to rival his own. She'd managed to seal the deal on their engagement within a week of him meeting her – he'd fallen head over heels in love with the chit.
Her father was delighted, her older sisters (she had three – all dull beyond description despite their beauty) had gnashed their teeth and pretended to be thrilled.
Isaac pushed for the special licence – married her within two weeks of their waltz. London had been horrified, Erica had thought it the most romantic thing she'd ever seen in her whole life. Matthew wasn't talking to him at all.
He'd never slept with a virgin. His wife sat on the end of her bed and watched him as he walked towards her. If he'd been expecting some shy miss, he'd married the wrong woman – she leapt into his arms and kissed him breathlessly.
"God, can we please hurry this up?" She asked, pulling him back onto the large bed. "I want to know."
"Know what?" He asked, unsure if hurrying it up would be the best thing for a virgin. Surely she'd want a slower, paced seduction?
"Everything." She gasped. "Just everything."
Isaac hurt. Everything hurt, his wife was curled in the middle of the bed sleeping like a kitten. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had so much sex at once. Not since he was a lad, that was for sure. After the first time (there had been some resistance of her maidenhead) and a little uncomfort on her part – she'd been like a woman on a mission. He'd made sure that her pleasure came first - he wasn't a damn beast, after all – but in the end he simply had to ask her to stop. His refractory period was good, but he was still human.
When the door opened and Matthew walked in, Isaac gave him an exhausted wave. "You have the day off."
"I know." Matthew commented, looking everywhere but the bed – which was a mess of sheets and strewn pillows. "I just wanted to inform you that I've been offered a position with Marquis Jessop and plan to accept."
Standing in the hallway with a sheet wrapped around his waist having an argument with his Valet wasn't the way Isaac had planned his morning would go. If he'd thought about it at all, he'd have assumed perhaps breakfast and a little morning sex – not this.
"What the hell do you mean, you plan to accept?" He half yelled, temper flaring. "I'm a damn Duke! I pay you a fortune!"
"Marquis Jessop believes that he is about to make a great splash in London fashion and has asked me to attend to him." Matthew continued, voice even and calm, a great contrast to Isaac, who was aware he was too loud.
"Jessop is a fucking idiot!" He roared, before remembering the time – and the sleeping woman in his bed. "If this is about money, I can increase your pay."
"Its not about money."
"Why the hell would you leave me?" Isaac said, voice too loud and harsh in the silence of the hallway. "I thought we were friends!" Which couldn't have sounded more pathetic if he'd tried, really, he thought.
"We were – we are." Matthew said. "But things are different and I… I don't think it is a good idea for me to remain here."
"Nothing has changed!"
"You got married!" Matthew snapped, then coloured – looking over Isaac's shoulder with a strangled sound.
"Could you please stop screaming at each other in the hallways?" Beth's voice said from behind him. Isaac turned, heart sinking in his chest. "If this is a lovers quarrel or some such thing, please do it in the bedroom where the servants can't hear." She pushed the door further open and motioned them both in with a wave of her hand. "I couldn't help but overhear your screaming match." She said, closing the door behind Matthew who seemed very reluctant to look at either of them. "So I'm going to assume that this is your Valet, and you are lovers – and he believes that now you are married you will no longer carry on your sexual relationship."
Isaac wasn't sure who choked the loudest, Matthew – who was spluttering and stammering a hurried rebuttal – or himself, who feared any moment she was about to dissolve into a fit of tearful hysterics at the idea of her new husband sleeping with his Valet. Which he actually wasn't doing.
"We aren't sleeping together." Matthew spluttered.
"I imagine it would be rather detrimental to the sex if either of you were sleeping." She countered.
"We're not having sex." Isaac clarified.
"Oh." Beth said, eyes lingering over Matthew for longer than was really necessary. "Pity, he's quite nice, and I really wouldn't mind."
Stiles rolled over and found the space beside him, which should have been filled with the warm (hopefully hard) body of Derek Hale, cold and empty. It was enough to wake him from his half asleep bliss to wide awake and sitting up in moments.
His clothes were lain out on the chair where Peter (or Colin) had obviously left them, but those little things that Derek used – his cravat pin, fob watch and the small locket that housed a curl of his sons hair – were all gone.
Dressing casually, forgoing the cravat and pulling on his well-worn boots rather than the high tops that Peter had managed to blacken to perfection. There was no one here but family and he wasn't expecting guests.
Breakfast was in full swing when he arrived, and unlike a lot of other families, it was an insistence that the children joined them.
"Pappa!" Jonathan called, thudding along the carpeted floor and wrapping his arms around Stiles legs. Scooping him up into a tight embrace, Stiles looked about the room, trying to ignore that soon his soon would be far too large to pick up with ease. It surely hadn't been that long since he was crawling?
Charity, Olivia and Erica were in deep conversation about something, Melissa sitting on her mother's knee and carefully chewing on a slice of toasted bread. Charity had long discovered that her relationship with her companion and long-time friend was one of the things that actually drew her closer into this oddly dysfunctional family and had become a lot more talkative and outspoken. Her hand was resting on the table, gently lacing through Olivia's fingers. Stiles actually got on better with Olivia than Charity, but that was simply because of her love of drawing his butterflies.
Isaac and Beth were sitting at the head of the table – although it was doubtful that they would be staying much longer, because her hand was already snaking its way down under the table and Isaac was never a man to deny himself. His daughter Elizabeth was being fed by Nurse, and there was a running bet in the house to whom the father actually would be once she was born – her blue eyes and blond curls attested to Isaac, rather than Matthew – and Stiles lost a rather hearty bet to Erica on that.
Derek though, was sitting at the other side of the table, reading the morning paper as was his habit. Beside him, looking equally as serious, a miniature replica of his father, Gabriel. His time was split between watching his father and the full plate of food in front of him.
It wasn't perfect, not by far, Stiles thought as he sat down between his wife and his lover, setting his son back on the floor with a quick kiss to his head. They all argued (with the exception of Isaac and Beth, who probably didn't do enough talking to fight) and stepped on each other's toes more than they should, but really – their little hive of sin and love was the best any of them could have hoped for.
The Duke and Duchess Hale are delighted to announce the engagement of their Heir Lord Gabriel Hale to Lady Elizabeth Lahey. The match will solidify many years of family friendship between Duke Hale and Duke Lahey.
Their announcement, only a week after the wedding of Lord Jonathan Stiles to Miss Olivia Hale, was highly anticipated by London society.
The Times would like to congratulate all three families on their joyous news, and wish them all the best in the future.