Lord John narrowed his eyes in cool deliberation. With precise care, he removed one glove with efficient tugs on each fingertip until it came off easily in his hand. He tapped his other gloved palm with the black leather. To some, he might have appeared thoughtful. Those that knew him would recognise a temper under rigid control.
John took a half step forward and slapped Dr Meredith Rodney McKay across the face with his glove.
"Your verbal abuses have insulted even my hardened heart. Truly an accomplished task, Doctor. Usually, I can't be bothered to run to the defence of the fairer sex, let alone the general populace, but you, sir, have piqued my ire beyond what is tolerable.
"You've insulted my groomsman, my station, Lady Elizabeth, and worse of all, my stables."
John arched a brow, conveying his distain. Beau Brummel was notorious for his quizzing glass; Lord John Sheppard was equally famous for his raised eyebrow.
"Arabians, Dr McKay. My black Arabians are the finest examples of horseflesh you will find in this country!"
Dr Rodney McKay held his hand against his affronted cheek. It did little to hide the red mark on his fair skin. Lord John had never seen anyone's nostrils actually flare before. Curse him, he'd also never seen such blue eyes. They flashed with indignation.
"A duel? Did you just challenge me to a duel? Over my opinion on horse breeding? This seems a rational proposal to you?"
Instead of taking a step back, as John expected, Dr McKay moved closer. Close enough that John could smell the clean scent of his soap.
"My answer, Lord John, is no. I refuse this…this barbarism!"
Lord John ground his teeth. "We have witnesses, Doctor. Only a fool would back out now. Or perhaps you forget how fast word travels? Deny me my justice and you may as well close up shop now. The gossips will ruin you." John's voice grew low. "No respectable university or publishing house in this country will touch the work of a confirmed coward."
Dr McKay paled. "You can't be serious."
"I take my challenges very seriously. Now, Doctor, unless you are prepared to leave England for good, stop gaping like a floundering carp and name your choice of weapon!"
John may have exaggerated the outcome of public outcry; in truth, all but a few side runners seeking a fresh betting field would care, but McKay didn't know that. Besides, John's blood was up now. McKay needed a good set down and John was happy to provide one. He refused to consider that a duel would only force them to meet again when instead he should be encouraging Dr McKay to keep well out of his way.
"My choice of weapons? Very well, if you insist." McKay folded his arms across his chest, a move John couldn't help but note strained the shoulder seams of the doctor's tailcoat.
With a nasal huff, McKay elevated his chin and glared. "Lord John, I choose the sky. By which I mean the first to tame her wins. Unless you're not up to the challenge? You were no doubt thinking of something more brutish? Swords or—" The corner of his mouth curled in a sneer. "—those damnable pistols that have become so popular of late? Bah! A child's play of mechanics. I shall be interested to see if you can handle a more intellectual challenge. Or is that, dare I say, too elevated for you?"
There was nothing for it. John would have to take the challenge or listen to Society's whispers at every turn. Judging by the glint in McKay's eyes, the scoundrel knew it. The insulting plebeian had surprising gall—John would give him that. Refusing to be baited, he turned his most insolent gaze on the insufferable man in front of him. Giving every appearance of boredom, John waved one elegant hand in the air. "Done."
Truth be told, Radek Zelenka was more friend than manservant. They'd travelled abroad together since John's sixteenth year. Radek had a useful habit of getting John out of more scrapes than he'd admit getting into. The man had saved his skin and protected his honour from disgrace more than once.
He had a talent for skilfully concealing John's less than natural proclivities without a murmur of disapproval, a grace John didn't deserve but was grateful for it nevertheless.
Pouring a drink, he stared down at its amber reflection and remembered the folly of his youth. Belly full of fire, but still wet behind the ears, and cork-brained to boot, John had taken it into his head to run away to sea. Radek had found him down at the docks and dragged him back home, cursing in his native tongue the entire time.
It was an odd thought, wondering how different his life might have been. He'd doubtless been saved from a fate proven difficult, rough, and very likely ending with his burial at sea. Yet there were still moments when John remembered a certain sailor. The sailor's face was lost in the shadow of time, but the intense satisfaction of his hot, wide hands as John's youthful passion grew and indeed stiffened under their expert onslaught remained memorable. Hands, John's traitorous thoughts provided, not unlike Dr Rodney McKay's, and that made him wonder anew what those particular broad palms would feel like against his skin.
Foolish to be thinking like this and yet…and yet he couldn't stop and, in truth, didn't want to. Still some thoughts were best served in the privacy of his bedchamber and John knew this would be one of those nights. The corner of his mouth curled. No doubt one of many.
Radek Zelenka's inclinations ran entirely to the fairer sex. John never meddled in his manservant's affairs, and if the occasional light skirt was seen leaving Lord John's home? Well, the gossip merely worked in John's favour.
Zelenka was also the wiliest and smartest man John knew. If anyone could make sense of and defeat McKay's choice of weapon, he could. Tame the sky? By the devil, what did that even mean? He was about to bellow for the man again when the study door flew open.
"I'm here, there's no need to yell, your lordship," Radek said, drawing in a long breath. He gave his shirt cuffs a tidying tug and moved over to pour himself a drink from the open brandy decanter. Every move was as precise and neat as his attire. The brown tweed suited him, as did the tan waistcoat with burgundy trim.
The gold chain watch fob he sported was a particularly nice touch. John knew it to be a gift from his father, given to Radek in gratitude both for bailing John out of trouble numerous times, and for protecting the ducal family name from scandal.
Accustomed to Radek's ways, Lord John merely indicated that his own glass needed refilling. "I'm in a spot of trouble, old friend. I fear I've committed myself to a challenge I have no idea how to win. I need your help."
"I'd heard you'd challenged Dr McKay to a duel." Radek shrugged under John's gaze. "Don't blame me. It seems every footman and housemaid is a gossip these days. It's natural they'd be talking about it. Truth be told, this is the first time you've ever done such a thing. Even I have to admit it's quite beyond your usual laconic behaviour." He paused to push his spectacles up higher on his nose. "Tell me, what insult did he give that was so provoking?"
"He said my horses were…" John cleared his throat before continuing. "He said they were small and implied they were inferior in some way. My Arabians."
"Small? And this was enough to spark a duel? Pfff, of course it was. Your hand was forced, m'lord, what else could you possibly have done? Bah, I know his type. No doubt, his tastes run to the larger Percheron horses. Granted, they're a fine choice for draft work but too docile for my taste. They are naught but beef on the hoof compared to your Arabians, sir." He tsked softly and looked up at John. "I heard he insulted Lady Elizabeth as well. What did he say?"
"He proclaimed her—dowdy."
John loosened his cravat, crushing its neat, cream-colored folds in his carelessness. "Perhaps not in quite those words, but he insulted her bonnet. She was standing next to me, what could I do?"
"She was not by chance wearing the brown one that resembles nothing so much as a ship's rudder and sports a puce feather?" Radek asked.
"I'm afraid so, yes."
Radek slowly shook his head. "That bonnet should be shot and buried. Not even my tender passions for Lady Elizabeth can excuse that atrocity."
"McKay called it—" John bit back a snicker. "He called it a… a milliner's drunken hallucination and suggested she burn it. Not only was my back up but I had to do something quickly before he offered her a damn matchstick."
Radek winced but not before John caught sight of a twinkle in his eye. "It pains me to say it but he was not entirely wrong. Lady Elizabeth would try to support her cousin by wearing her designs, despite the fact most of them border on frightful."
"Yes, her intentions are noble but the outcome is too often…" John shuddered. "Well, let's say no more about it. Help me out of these boots, you devil, and tell me more about these tender passions you admit to. Sly dog. Elizabeth is not one of your light skirts, Radek, remember that."
"Be assured, I would never treat her other than her ladyship deserves." With a dreamy expression, he added, "I've written some poetry. Would you like to hear some of it?" Radek laid a hand over his heart. "Oh, vision so sweet, Aphrodite weeps, jealous tears—"
John held up his hand. "Stop! I'll tease you no more about it. Your affairs are your own. And don't think I didn't notice that cheeky glint in your eye. Now then, enough of matters of the heart. I need your brilliance now, Radek, for I haven't a clue how to win this. How in hell does a man tame the sky?"
"Well, now, I've an idea about that." He gave a final tug to John's boot, finally managing to pull it off. "You know, if you didn't get these tailored so snug to your calf, it would be a sight easier to get them off."
"Yes, but nowhere near as fashionable. I do have a certain reputation to uphold." Wiggling his stocking-footed toes, John leaned back in his chair with an easy grace. "Hmm, what were you saying?"
"Dr McKay considers himself something of an aerial investigator. You did not know? His newest fascination is equipping hot air balloons with steam-powered engines. Very dangerous work, if it can be done at all, which I sincerely doubt. The weight alone creates a problem."
"So, McKay will be expecting me to devise some kind of a balloon." John leaned forward in his chair. "What do you say we surprise the man, Radek, and come up with a completely different type of flying device? We'll best him at his own challenge. Yes, indeed, that's exactly what we'll do. Imagine the look on his face when he finds out!"
"Today. It's good to see you, Rodney." Major Evan Lorne reached out and shook Rodney's hand. "The footman let me in. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not. I'm sure old Tunney was suitably impressed to have a decorated war hero in our midst. As for myself, I'm just glad to see you back from the Peninsula in one piece." He glanced at the cane Lorne leaned on. "Or nearly so."
"A bullet to the calf. Barely a graze and nearly healed. I'll be relieved when I can sit a horse again. Hiring a hack to run errands is getting tiresome." He smiled. "It's remarkably good to be back. You're looking well these days, McKay. Town life must be agreeing with you."
"Tolerably well, discounting this morning's adventure. Sit down. Stay for a bit, and I'll tell you about it."
Lorne flashed him a sheepish grin. "Actually, I was hoping you could put me up for a short stay. I have some business meetings to attend and it will be much easier to do if I can stay in town." He eased back in the chair and rested one leg gingerly on the Egyptian style footstool.
The room was an eclectic hodgepodge of furnishings. In one corner, a trio of African spears found a home in a gothic style umbrella stand. On the desk, next to an enamelled purple and white fleur-de-lyse inkwell, sat a large bronze cobra head. Rodney was currently using it as a paperweight, but with its red painted fangs, it was near the ugliest trophy Lorne had ever seen.
He knew much of it McKay had brought back from his travels, although Lorne suspected the décor had more to do with his friend's chronic bachelorhood. A good woman would sort him out, whether he liked it or not.
"Please tell me you're done with military life and home to stay?" Rodney asked. At Lorne's nod of agreement, he continued, "Will you be taking over management of my property from your father, then? Do say yes. I haven't the time, and your father no longer has his wits about him. My estate isn't quite in ruin but neither is it earning a profit."
Rodney held up his hand. "Please, don't take offense, but if you've seen him, which I'm sure you have, you know it to be true. I couldn't oust the old man without Jeannie's fury coming down on my head. You know how my sister gets."
"I've seen him. It's for that reason I'm in town, to meet with the estate's solicitor. I may need to work an arrangement with a creditor or two but I expect that to be of little consequence. From what I've already seen of the accounts, I believe we have a good chance of restoring most of your assets. Rodney," Lorne paused. "It means a lot to me to have this chance to restore the financial damage my father's misguidance caused."
"Fine, fine. You're happy, I'm happy. Jeannie is happy. Now, no more talk of it. Only, do find me some funding as quickly as possible." He beamed at Lorne. "I have a new project!"
"Another one?" Lorne shook his head. "Is it too much to hope that it involves you getting married to a rich widow?"
Rodney stared at him, aghast at the suggestion.
"Forget I mentioned it." Lorne let his gaze wander slowly over McKay's odd, eclectic furnishings before adding, "I suspect it would solve so many of your problems, though."
"What problems? Are you implying there's something wrong with—" Rodney paused mid-rant. "Oh, never mind. We've more interesting things to discuss. Certain events have transpired and I'd rather you heard about them from me. Tell me, how well do you know Lord John Sheppard?"
Further discussion had to wait as the housemaid entered the room. She informed Dr McKay that his cream tea was ready and asked did he and his guest wish to be served here or in the dining hall?
"Here is fine." As he spoke, Rodney made quick work of clearing a small table off, piling books and papers onto the floor. "This way, Major Lorne won't have to move now he's made himself comfortable." He looked up only to roll his eyes at the mooncalf expression on the girl's face. "Yes, yes, he's a decorated war hero, and no, you can't stay in the room while we have tea. Now quick, bring it in before it gets cold."
Efficiency was a valued trait in the McKay household, particularly if one expected to keep their job, so it was no surprise when the tea tray arrived within moments.
"She must've had the waiter standing just outside the door," Lorne remarked. He took another bite of scone with jam and clotted cream. "Outstanding. Whatever you're paying your cook, she's worth every penny."
"Yes. And now that you're working for me, you can make sure she's paid enough to stay. Speaking of the servants—I've no idea how to pose this delicately, but I'm going to try: It's difficult to get good staff and even more difficult to train them to my… particular needs.
"Do you know I once caught a maid trying to tidy my papers?" Rodney sighed. "Terrible mess. It took me an extra day just to get them ready for peer review. Anyway, my point is I noticed the looks Eles…Evely…Edith, or whatever her confounded name is, gave you. I've a tolerable staff now and I'd appreciate it if you've find your base pleasures elsewhere."
"My base pleasures. Are you certain you don't mean my debased pursuit of pleasure?" Lorne asked, his casual amusement showing in the curve of his smile.
"Oh, do I mean that? Really? Hmm, I am a respected scholar, you know. I can hardly be expected to have a soldier's experience in these things."
"In either case, Rodney, I think I have enough discipline to keep my baser pleasures under control, but thank you for sharing your concerns with me," Lorne responded with a straight face. "Now, with that out of the way, why don't you go ahead and tell me what Lord John has to do with your newest project?"
Over the remains of the afternoon's cream tea, Rodney launched into an enthusiastic narrative of his earlier encounter with Lord John. "He slapped me," Rodney said, touching his cheek. "Can you believe it? True, it was with a glove, but it still hurt."
Lorne's eyebrows rose. "You were challenged by Lord Sheppard to a duel? Good heavens man, how did you manage to insult him so grievously? He won't lose. I happen to know he's beyond adept with both sword and firearms." Shaking his head, Lorne raised his cup. "It was nice to know you, McKay. I'm sure Jeannie will arrange a very fine funeral for you."
"Don't be an idiot." Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. "And you may rid yourself of that particular expression on your face. Smugness is such an unattractive attribute on one's friends, don't you agree?"
"You have a plan?" Lorne asked, biting his lip. "Do tell."
"Of course I have a plan. That's why I need money!"
"I don't believe Lord John is a man you can buy off, Rodney."
"Perish the thought. I have a much grander scheme in mind. I plan to build the first steam-powered balloon! Ha! I thought that would get your attention, Evan." Rodney began pacing the room. "Hot air is fine for lift. Any fool can do that. But steam…steam will give us the power to move across the sky unconstrained by the vagarious will of air currents. It will need a rudder, of course. I'm leaning toward duel propellers. What do you think?"
"I think it sounds damned dangerous. Men have died trying to fly a simple hot air balloon across the Channel. This is far worse."
"Yes, you're right! Others will have the same idea. We'll have to work in secret or risk having my very valuable plans stolen! If the French get their hands on them, it could be a disaster!"
"That wasn't what I meant, McKay."
Rodney patted him on the shoulder. "You can use some of those soldier instincts I'm sure you've retained to insure my project's secrecy." He waved a hand in the air. "A regular agent against espionage. Oh, I do like the sound of that." With an abrupt snap of his fingers, he added, "I could give you a secret name! The Masked Defender of Meticulous Project Aerial. Hmm, that seems a trifle awkward, but I'm sure I'll think of something suitable."
Lorne pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed.
There was the slight possibility he could win the money. Gaming halls were not his forte, and cards were not something he had any inclination for. He considered them a trivial pursuit and waste of his valuable time. Yet, the appeal of quick cash made him consider it. Rumours were oft told of how fortunes could be made in an evening, one needing only the smiling charms of Lady Luck on their side. How hard could it be?
Oh, bother. Speaking of annoyances, there was Lord John standing not six feet away from him. The Fates must be conspiring because it seemed they ran into each other more than coincidence could account for. Rodney scowled. There was nothing for it now; he'd been seen, and dear heaven, his lordship was waving him over.
"We meet again, Dr McKay." John gave a half-bow with an air of elegant casualness Rodney could never hope to achieve.
He looked Lord John up and down from his polished Hessians to the artistic, messy fall of the dark hair brushing his forehead. "This is a shade awkward, don't you think?" Rodney asked.
"Not in the least. You have items to purchase for our upcoming duel, as do I. Considering the uniqueness of our challenge, it's to be expected our needs would cross from time to time."
"But, devil take it, why you? Frankly, I expected you'd be bored by now." Rodney waved his hand in the vicinity of Lord John's head. "You…you and your rakish hair, dandy style, and those….those—inexpressibles—your set are never interested in anything for long. Yet, here you are, taking a confounded interest in ballooning! But why shop for supplies yourself? Why not send a servant?"
A smirk accompanied John's flirtatious bow. "I'm flattered you noticed. As for not sending a servant, I could ask you the same." He flicked an invisible piece of lint off his cuff. "However, I'm certain you've discovered that one must, from time to time, oversee certain things personally to keep up one's standards."
He shook his head, allowing the tiniest of pouts to peek through. "Mr Zelenka very nearly bought a quantity of yellow plaid silk for…well, now, I can't exactly tell you what for as it's a secret and all—but yellow plaid!" John gave a mock shudder. "It is too horrendous to contemplate!"
"Really? Um, was it cheap?" Rodney asked.
"Egad, you can't be considering—no, I won't allow it, come with me." John threw an arm over Rodney's shoulders and began walking, dragging him along, taking any choice out of the matter.
Rodney could make a scene, of course, and for a moment entertained the thought. But then again, that's how he ended up in this mess to begin with. If he couldn't avoid Lord John now, how much worse might it get? Would he wake up in the morning and find Lord John leaning in his doorstop with that lazy charm and sparkle of mischief in his green eyes? Rodney swallowed. "Ah, where are we going?"
"There's an excellent coffeehouse just down the street. You'll like it. They've added a new chocolate dessert to their menu and I want your opinion. Besides, it will give us a chance to discuss matters while we eat."
On their short walk over to the café, John watched in fascination at Rodney's rapidly changing expressions. He went from defiant to perplexed to interested in the matter of seconds. John suspected it was the combination of coffee and chocolate that won out, not the chance to spend more time in his company. John intended for that to change. He was finding Dr McKay far too fascinating to let slip through his fingers before exploring all possible facets of their burgeoning relationship.
"I'm curious, I admit," Rodney said. "Why here?" He gazed around the coffee shop. "Why this place, I mean. I would have expected you to seek some place more exclusive. A club like Whites or the like."
John shrugged. "I grow weary of the rarefied air, to be honest. A man can only take so much of politics and philosophy. Would it surprise you if I confessed that I've never really felt like I fit in? It's more my father's club, I suppose. Dear heaven, imagine running into the old man! I could hardly entertain— No, this is much better. I feel like I can stretch my legs and be myself. This suits us both, I think. Surely, you weary of The Royal Society and that bunch of dry, staid philosophers? You strike me as a more forward-looking man than that."
"I do? Yes, well, you're right, of course. You'd be surprised how few people give me that kind of credit."
Knowingly or not, Rodney flashed an innocent, flirting glance back at John through ridiculously long eyelashes. John wanted to crow in delight. It was all the proof he needed that when McKay fell, he'd fall hard and straight into John's waiting arms. How soon remained the question.
He reached out to scoop up a spoonful of sugar for his coffee, allowing his pinky finger to brush along the side of Rodney's hand. The shaky, indrawn breath he got in reaction wasn't a no. John wasn't fool enough to think it was a yes, either, but Rodney didn't pull his hand away and that in itself was encouraging. "So, doctor, will you give me any clues? Or must I guess?"
"Clues? I...I don't…" Rodney stammered. "Oh. My ingenious plan to defeat you, you mean."
John nodded, amused, flattered, and oddly charmed at the high colour remaining in Rodney's cheeks and his obvious fluster.
"Indeed. What nefarious plan do you have up your sleeve that will bring about my utter ruin? I am most fascinated to know." John leaned back with an air of casual boredom while under the table, away from curious eyes, his knee pressed against Rodney's. "Surprises can come from the most interesting places, don't you think?"
"You…you can't be serious."
"Quite serious. About many things." John caught Rodney's gaze and held it. Amused at Rodney's wide-eyed and sweetly baffled expression, he added, "Really, Dr McKay, you should try me some time."
Rodney choked on his coffee.
Pity he'd had to leave town later that same day. He'd have much preferred to spend another afternoon in the good doctor's company. John tied his cravat with idle care, barely bothering to look in the mirror. There was no one here to care or even notice.
Here for only two days, John would make do. He just needed to be here long enough to check on the stables and see the newest bloodstock for himself. Besides, he'd made a promise to Radek to look at his latest design.
Still, John pouted, there was no Rodney McKay around, and that was going to make for a dull weekend indeed.
He finished dressing in good time, pulling on the oldest tall boots he owned. Stepping outside, he took a few moments to enjoy the view and the fresh air. Town life had its appeal but John was beginning to agree with his younger brother. Country living held a certain charm, or at least it could, with the right person beside him.
This was only one of his family's holdings, and John was confident it would not be difficult to get his father to sign it over to him. The old man had been trying to get John to take hands-on interest in the Sheppard properties for years. His brother Dave would hardly grouse as John wanted the smallest and least used of the Sheppard properties, though he might be curious.
Let them wonder. Yes, he'd arrange a meeting with his father as soon as he got back into town. John headed toward the barn with a new vigour in his step and a smile on his face. It was going to be a treat, indeed, to see Dr McKay's face when he found out John Sheppard had just become his new neighbour.
Ten minutes later, John stepped into the converted shed where Radek was working on his aerial designs.
"Feathers, Radek?" John looked at the mess around him. Mountains of feathers sat in fluffy hills on every surface of the room. He stepped back in haste, brushing an errant feather from his cuff. No, this would never do. "Hmm, this method, and please spare me the details, I can't help but notice it doesn't seem to be going all that well. Were you, ah, trying to make wings?"
"Eh." Radek shrugged. "Perhaps you are correct. This is not my best idea. The framework is too heavy, the hinges stick at the most inopportune times, and I suspect you will have to jump off from some place very high."
"Dear heaven, Radek," John said, horrified, "are these pigeon feathers?"
"No, my friend, not good at all."
They stared at each other for a long minute. Then the corner of Radek's mouth twitched and suddenly the two of them broke into gales of laughter.
"Back to the drawing board?" John asked when he could finally speak.
"Yes. I will go back to town with you when you return." Radek said. "I have an idea or two yet that I need to research. Besides, I have hopes that Major Lorne can tell me how close Dr McKay is to finishing."
"We have nothing to worry about on that score. He's seems no closer than we are. What? Don't look at me like that," John said. "I know it because I ran into him on the street. Fine, I've run into him quite often. The man amuses me."
Radek continued to level a steady gaze at John.
"All right. He more than amuses me." John raked his hands through his hair. "I find him fascinating. And yes, I do want to get to know him better. Intimately better. Satisfied?"
Wordlessly, Radek stroked his chin.
"What more do you want me to say?" John put his hands on his hips, exasperated. "I like him. A lot. Enough so that I plan to make peace with my father and take responsibility of this estate.
"My god, I'm more than amused with Rodney, aren't I? I'm…I'm…emotionally invested! Radek, what am I going to do?"
"At least you show good taste this time," Radek said. He took John by the elbow. "Come back to the house. You will finish quickly your obligations here and then we will go back to town post-haste, yes? We don't want to risk him getting away."
John nodded, still feeling too stunned to speak.
"Elizabeth is having a grand party. I understand she's taken a shine to Rodney's young sister and wishes to help her make a good match. I know of this because I accepted the invitation for you." Radek laid a finger aside his nose. "I sense these things before they come. How else do I keep you out of trouble all these years, eh, John?
"You will meet with your father." Radek continued with a nod. "Arrange all things just so, and then we will go shopping." He patted John's shoulder. "We will see the best tailors and then we will make you the prettiest dandy at the ball, yes? Not even Dr Rodney McKay and his almighty balloons will be able to resist your charms."
Inside, Jeannie McKay turned from the window and lightly tapped her brother on his arm with her fan. "You make a terrible escort, Meredith," she teased.
Rodney didn't bother looking up from his newspaper.
It didn't matter. She was used to her brother's ways. Nothing was going to wipe the smile off her face tonight. From the moment Lady Elizabeth's engraved invitation arrived, she felt like she'd been walking on air.
It could have turned out otherwise. Horrified when she discovered Rodney had given insult to milady—her hat, of all things!—and knowing her brother had no idea the depth of his faux pas, Jeannie decided to take making amends into her own hands. The arrangements were simple enough. She made certain Rodney would be gone for the afternoon and then sent a card around inviting Lady Elizabeth to tea.
She was fraught with worry that her peace offering would go unaccepted, but whether it was due to curiosity or good manners, milady arrived promptly at four. Lady Elizabeth, as she recalled, had turned out to be a delightful guest.
Jeannie's eyes turned to look out the coach window, but her thoughts drifted back to their first meeting.
"Thank you so much for coming," Jeannie said, giving Lady Elizabeth her brightest smile. She'd been careful to select a modest gown and had set the servants to cleaning until the parlour shined. She was determined that Lady Elizabeth should find no fault with the McKay household.
Elizabeth inclined her head as she extended one gloved hand to encase Jeannie's own. "How could I resist such an elegantly worded invitation? Not to mention how cleverly you made note that your brother would not be in attendance. Off doing various gentlemanly pursuits where he can't insult the fairer sex, I believe you said." Elizabeth smiled. "Well worded, my dear. I take it to mean he is visiting Lord John, again?" she asked.
"How did you know?"
"Yes, about that. It's another reason why I accepted your invitation to tea. There are a few things about my dear friend John I think you should be made aware of."
Intrigued, but willing to wait until Elizabeth was ready to speak her mind, Jeannie ushered her into the parlour and begged her sit while she dismissed the maid and poured the tea with own hands.
Setting down her biscuit, Elizabeth looked at Jeannie with a distinct twinkle in her eye. "This challenge between John and your brother, it has them running into each other rather frequently, wouldn't you say?"
Jeannie nodded. "They're like schoolboys. I do believe if one of them had pigtails the other would be pulling on them."
"As I thought. This…oh dear, I'm not quite sure how to say it." Elizabeth paused for a brief moment before looking Jeannie straight in the eye. "You should know Lord John is quite the confirmed bachelor."
"You mean he's chosen to never wed? How can he possibly know? Is he—?" Jeannie felt the heat rising in her cheeks but she had to ask. "Is he… I mean has he chosen to be celibate because…" She swallowed, voice thick with concern. "Has he been wounded in some way?"
The corner of Elizabeth's mouth dimpled in amusement. "No. Heavens no, my dear. I meant marriage would be wasted on him. He doesn't need a title or money and a lady's affections are frankly unwanted and undesirable, as far as he's concerned."
"Truly?" Jeannie asked, fascinated. "You know, something like that would explain a lot about Meredith's, excuse me, Rodney's behaviour with women. Confirmed bachelorhood…." She paused for a moment, lost in thought. "Pardon my frankness, but this choice doesn't seem like it could bring much comfort in life. In fact, it sounds like it could it get devilishly lonely. Hmmm…surely, are you thinking what I'm thinking? You must be or you wouldn't have brought the subject up."
"That we should encourage things along?" Elizabeth beamed. "Jeannie, you are as brilliant as you are beautiful, and you do your house credit. I think we are going to get along famously."
Elizabeth told more of what she knew of Lord John, the state of confirmed bachelorhood, and what it might mean if his new attraction for Rodney turned to a serious matter of the heart. There was so much to learn and Jeannie had to admit the conversation certainly opened her eyes. It also eased her heart. From there, the discussion turned to matters of the duel, the unusual nature of the challenge, and a small wager against its outcome.
Jeannie dragged her thoughts back to the present and considered what she knew of her brother. He sat across from her, long legs crossed at the ankle as he scowled at something in the paper he obviously disagreed with. No fault could be found in his style of dress, and she suspected Major Lorne had taken him in hand. Certainly, she'd never seen that particular midnight blue, brocade waistcoat before. It flattered him in a way she couldn't quite put her finger on.
Still, Meredith was never going to make a good match—that was distressingly clear. He did have a certain style, solid shoulders, and very fine eyes. He could even turn a pretty leg on the dance floor due to his natural lean toward music. Not to mention the hours of practice their parents had drummed into both of them. Unfortunately, it remained his one and only social grace.
Dear mother had been quite keen on appearance. Father had a few set ideas as well. While it was fine for Jeannie to learn the pianoforte, Meredith found himself banned from it after age eleven. Pity. But father insisted no rapscallion son of his was going to turn into a — God forbid, your grandfather would roll over in his grave — entertainer. Instead, he'd tried to force Rodney into a love of the hunt. That only succeeded in driving Rodney to university that much sooner.
She also knew the McKay wealth only added to his attraction. He spoiled it all, of course, because he couldn't seem to keep his mouth shut. No young miss was going to set her cap for a man that could so easily get her shunned by society. As for the older, experienced widows and their like, Jeannie feared they'd eat him alive.
"Mer, do you ever miss playing the pianoforte?" she asked.
"What?" Rodney glared. "You promised you'd drop that ridiculous nickname. How do you expect people to find my work if no one calls me by my published name? And no, I don't miss it. Not all that much."
"That doesn't sound all that convincing to me—Rodney. Oh look, we're almost there!"
The carriage rolled to a halt and Rodney looked out the window with interest. "Well, well, I see they've strung Chinese lanterns up. With enough candles to light the entire yard. How long to do suppose before they set fire to the festivities?"
"I think it's pretty."
"It's a disaster waiting to happen."
Jeannie rolled her eyes. "Aren't you at least going to help me down from the carriage?"
"That's what footmen are for. Besides, I've paid for your new finery. That's what brothers are for, apparently. And that, my dear sister, is all you're getting from me. That one watered silk rose gown you're wearing cost me as much as it would have for all the silk for my balloon and then some. I believe I've been beyond dutiful, especially considering I've had to delay my project to escort you here."
"Oh! You are hopeless." A smile teased at the corner of her mouth. "Well, I'm sure if Lord John is there, he'll treat me properly."
"No!" Rodney dropped the paper with a snap. "Promise me you are not setting your cap for…for that rogue!"
"He's hardly a rogue, dear brother. More of a rake. The ton considers him quite the match, you know." She fluttered her eyelashes. In no way would she reveal the things Elizabeth had told her. Not yet, anyway.
"Stop it. Besides, I thought your plan was to make Kaleb Miller jealous. Don't arch your eyebrows at me. That's hardy acceptable behaviour for a young lady, now is it?" Rodney shook his head. "Truly, it wasn't that hard to figure out you and Lady Elizabeth had something in the wind.
"Furthermore, I don't approve of this. Never have. You're a McKay, for pity's sake, you can do better than that—that poetry reader! Still, I suppose I'd rather see you wedded to that milksop than left broken-hearted and ruined by Lord John."
"You're just saying that because of your silly duel. And Kaleb is not a milksop! He's a dedicated teacher and a respected professor. Haven't you read any of his work?"
"Strangely, I'm not that much of a glutton for punishment." Rodney folded his arms across his chest. "I let you rope me into this against my better judgment, and I'm allowing it only because I trust Elizabeth to keep you well-chaperoned. There will be no sneaking off to one of the balconies for a tryst, is that clear?"
She dimpled. "I promise. Oh, stop worrying. I only want to draw Kaleb's attention. He can get a little fusty if he's not made to take notice of certain things from time to time. So, dear brother, while I would like him to ask for my hand before I'm an old maid, I'm certainly not going to risk my reputation. Besides, we had to come. You didn't want to insult Lady Elizabeth again, did you?"
Rodney narrowed his eyes, but before he could argue further, the footman opened the coach door. They had arrived.
"Dr McKay, salutations. Surely, I may call you Rodney by now?" John's voice came from behind and sounded like dark silk.
Rodney tried to cover his surprise. He feared he wasn't very good at it because, when he turned to look at John, all he could manage was a dry swallow and a soft, "Oh."
John looked resplendent in black from his dark, tousled hair to the deep shine on his shoes. Rodney had never seen anyone dressed all in black before. Even his cravat was black. The effect was lean and rakishly wicked. Rodney doubted anyone else could pull it off, although he had a suspicion many would try. "You're wearing trousers."
"Why yes, I am. I think the black lends itself to a certain quality of line, don't you?" John extended a leg. "No nasty bunching or pulls making awkward wrinkles. And it has quite a nice drape with room to…well…since, there are ladies present, let's just say it has a certain modest elegance. There now, we've given suitable credit to Brummell where it's due, but enough of that for the evening. We are here to have an exceptional time, are we not?" John leaned over and husked in Rodney's ear, "You do want to have an exceptional time tonight, don't you, Rodney?"
"Here, let me get that refilled for you." John took the glass out of Rodney's numb fingers and waved a waiter over. "Your sister looks like she's enjoying—"
"She's spoken for," Rodney interrupted in a rush. "They'll be reading the banns any day now."
"Fascinating." John's mouth quirked up in a tiny smile. "Since everything is neatly under control here, we hardly need stay. Come with me. There's something I'd like to show you in the library."
"The library? Don't you think Lady Elizabeth will disapprove of us wandering around her house alone?"
"Perish the thought. I've known Elizabeth for years. We're practically family." John stood close and placed his hand low on Rodney's back. "Not to worry, you won't be alone. You'll be with me."
Rodney groaned but resigned himself to following John. How bad could it be? It was a library. There'd be books and chairs. Probably big, soft ones, the kind Sheppard would sprawl in like a lazy cat. He'd lounge there, loose-limbed and laconic, legs spread, head tilted back with that lazy, beckoning smile...
"Are you all right, Rodney?" John asked. "You seem a tad flushed."
"M'fine." Rodney swallowed his wine in one long gulp, oblivious to the intensity of John's gaze and the way he watched every movement of Rodney's throat. If Rodney had been aware, a new truth would have hit him. He was so very wrong to compare John to a motley tabby. The only kind of cat m'lord resembled was a black panther on the prowl.
Elizabeth's library might as well have been on a different floor of the house. They'd walked past numerous doors and down several corridors. John led the way and Rodney found himself thoroughly turned around. Granted, he could draw a floor plan with the easiest of skill but navigating this behemoth of a house was beyond him.
It might have been that dratted third glass of wine John had pressed on him. Rodney couldn't recall how it had emptied so quickly, but then again, a case of nerves always did make him damnably thirsty.
Or possibly, it was the feel of Lord John's persistent grip on his arm, or the way there was barely room to slide a sheet of rice paper between them—how the man could walk and still lean into him was beyond Rodney. It was devilishly distracting, but calling Lord John's attention to it only elicited a wolfish grin.
"Over here," John said. He pulled down a large tome from the shelves. "Have you seen this before?" He opened the book, finding the page he wanted quickly. "These are copies of Da Vinci's writings. What's of particular interest to us are these sketches of his aerial machines. You're the expert." John pointed to the picture of a helical airscrew. "What I want to know is, will this design work?"
"No." Rodney moved closer for a better look, unaware that he'd maneuvered himself into the circle of John's arms. "With modifications, who can say what we will achieve in the future? However, I don't advise you to use this as a blueprint."
"Hmm, well at least that's one more thing I can tell Radek to scratch off his list."
John's breath tickled the back of his neck and suddenly, Rodney was fully aware of how close they stood.
"We're not…" Rodney began.
"No? I thought we were," John hummed, so close Rodney could feel the vibration against his skin.
"I mean…I mean the challenge. It's not…" Rodney closed his eyes and swallowed. It would be so easy to angle his head back and let John kiss him. Want burned through him but indecision froze him to the spot.
"Do you dance?" John asked, breaking the mood. "The waltz—do you dance? It's becoming quite the rage, at least at private parties like this one. Elizabeth is quite for it."
"I'm sorry, what does this have to do with—" Rodney waved a hand at the book still sitting in front of them.
"I just thought you might like to try it. With me." John smiled. "We are at a party after all." John reached around Rodney to close the book.
Before he could put the book away, Rodney grabbed John's wrist. His fingertips burned with the sensation, and he swore in those few seconds, they'd somehow mapped every inch of John's skin where they touched. His voice came out thick and unrecognizable to his own ears when he said, "The glider. It's the most viable option, but be damned careful."
Rodney would remember their waltz in the library for a long time. The carpeted floor in deep shades of burgundy felt thick under his feet as he tried to remember the steps. Under the soft light of the desk lamp, John's cheekbones were thrown into sharp relief while his hand lay easy on Rodney's waist as though it belonged there. It was casual, clumsy fun, full of easy laughter and over far too soon.
On the ride home, he let Jeannie's recounting of the evening wash over him, barely hearing a word of it.
"Mer, are you listening to me? I said, Kaleb Miller is going to come by later in the week to ask you for my hand in marriage. Don't embarrass me by giving him a difficult time. I know father arranged a suitable dowry and I expect you to honour it in full. Mer?"
"Yes, fine." Rodney answered with absent agreement. He had more pressing problems. Lord John confounded him, dashing all of his preconceived ideas about the flirtatious, laconic lord to rubble. What was he to do now?
Lately, however, Rodney gave every evidence of a man sorely distracted. Lorne found notes left off mid-sentence and project designs tossed carelessly to the side. Then there were things like this shopping list. Pertinent information left off, leaving it up to Lorne make his best guess. Rodney never went with guesswork. Never. Something, or more likely someone, was have a serious effect on him. He was still scowling at the list in his hand when he heard his name.
"Captain Lorne? Evan? Ah, how good to see you, old friend! How long have you been back?"
"Radek!" A smile stretched across Lorne's face. "What are you doing here?"
"Shopping, like you. Eh, it's a long story," Radek said with a shrug. "If you are shopping for rope, I know a warehouse down by the docks where you can get a much better price."
"I'll accept any help I can get." Lorne clapped a hand down on Radek's shoulder. "As it happens, I know of a good ale house down that way. We can quench our thirst and get caught up on old times.
Radek bobbed his head. "You've rented a hack? Have your driver return it and we'll travel together in Lord John's carriage. I'll make sure you and your packages arrive safely. Where are you staying?"
They left the shop. Lorne informed the hack's driver of the change in plans, and they continued their conversation in Lord John's well-sprung barouche.
"How many years have you been with Lord John now, Radek? Do you ever think of settling down, perhaps setting up your own household?"
"Occasionally the thought crosses my mind, but…" He shot Evan a cocky grin. "M'lord would be helpless without me to keep him out of trouble. What about you?"
"Well, it's Major now. I'm home for good and glad of it. I'll be taking over my father's duties and handling the McKay estate accounts. As you can see, Rodney already has me running errands. "
"These things you are buying," Radek asked, "are they perchance items for a hot air balloon?"
"How did you know…ah, that ridiculous duel. Naturally, if Lord John is involved, you'd know about it."
"If you don't mind my asking," Radek continued to probe, "is Dr McKay making much progress?
Lorne grinned. "I'll tell you, if you'll tell me."
Radek shook his head. "Rumour is that he is devising a way to utilize steam power. It's a dangerous endeavour. An error in calculations and—pfffft—it can all go up in flames. I would not try it."
"Hmm, then I gather Lord John is trying a different sort of aerial device?"
"He is. But I am too thirsty to discuss it."
"And as it happens, we seemed to have stopped directly in front of The Boar's Head." With a chuckle, Lorne added, "Never change, Radek. Well, come on. The first pint's on me."
They found a table near the window. Over a warm pint and a plate of cold, sliced beef, it was only a matter of time before the conversation turned to matters of their respective households.
"I have heard congratulations are in order," Radek said.
"Jeannie's engagement, you mean? How did you hear so quickly?" Lorne asked. "Mr Miller only asked Rodney for her hand yesterday."
"I saw him directly after. I was running errands, much like today, and ran into him on the street. He asked about Lord John's tailor. I think he is considering black on cream rather than white…" Radek paused. He waved his hand as though brushing the thought away. "That does not matter. What is important is how he looked like a man walking on air. Very happy. Beaming with joy. This will be a good match, don't you think?"
"I think it's an excellent match. Only…"
Elbows on the table, Lorne leaned closer and lowered his voice. "It's the dowry. There are a few financial entanglements to resolve before it can be secured." He held up a hand, noticing the look on Radek's face. "I assure you his assets are as valued as ever, but the deuce of it is, they're not solvent and won't be for a few months yet."
"Does he mean for them to delay the wedding then?" Radek asked.
"I sincerely hope it won't come to that. But as for the duel, I fear he has no choice but to default to Lord John." Lorne stared down into his near empty mug. He idly swirled the last dregs of his beer before looking back up at Radek with a frown. "I just pray that Rodney doesn't do something foolish."
To his left sat a pile of accounts. Radek would see to them. John had no worries on that score. Fortune had smiled down on him lately and while it would be crass to say he was rolling in it—well, he hoped the adage held true. Lucky in cards, lucky in love.
Could he use that as an enticement? John knew about Rodney's temporary insolvency, thanks to Radek. Perhaps if he purchased the aerial supplies for him? To present to him as a gift, of course. What better way to win his affections! John could have Radek procure a list from Major Lorne. Yes, he'd start on this project immediately. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
He rang the bell, summoning his staff, and while he waited, thumbed through Radek's most recent drawings, taking care not to smear the ink. Ingenious designs, to be sure. Inventive, one could say, even fantastical, but none looked quite trustworthy.
"M'lord," Radek said, "how can I assist you?"
John waved a languid hand in his direction. "Don't stand on formality now. Can't be bothered with it. I've a fresh idea I need your help with. But first—" He held out the designs for Radek to see. "—are these odd bits and wooden wheels pieces of a dandy horse?"
Radek adjusted his glasses and nodded.
"Frankly, I never anticipated it being this difficult to create a device that works. I swear, Radek, if I never hear the phrase mastering-the-sky again, I'll be thrilled."
"Does this mean you're losing your taste for the duel, m'lord?"
"I can't say my heart's in it. Strangely, I don't want to defeat Dr McKay. Yes. Yes, you could say I've lost my taste for our argument."
"Shall I stop?" Radek asked.
"No. Despite my better judgment, my curiosity is aroused. I intend to see this through." John clapped a hand down on his friend's shoulder. "How soon can you bring the country house up to snuff?"
"It will take some traveling back and forth, but in a month, perhaps? No earlier than three weeks."
"Will m'lord want to hire new staff as well?" Radek asked, carefully.
This stopped John short. Filling a position with someone both trustworthy and discreet to his particular pursuits could be a delicate task. After a minute's deliberation, he said, "For now, no."
"Very good, sir."
Once things were settled, John wanted to bring Rodney back to the country house with him. Rodney was never boring, whether venting an opinion, usually at John's expense, or expounding on his latest theory. Yes, he could be cutting, but he was also brilliant.
One time, when Rodney was lost in his explanations and theories, a sweet joyfulness crossed his countenance, a secret door into what Rodney must have been like as a fresh-faced youth. It was a priceless moment, and one John hoped to see again.
Besides, over the last few days, Radek had come up with blueprints of some of the most cockamamie devices John had ever seen. Things that might generously be described as multi-wing Draisiennes and corkscrew heli-lifters. Just anticipating Rodney's opinion of them put a smile on John's face.
John went back to looking at Radek's latest diagram. "I see you plan for both feathers and smallish balloons at either end of the wheels." Biting his lip, he decided that some comments really were best unsaid. Still, he couldn't resist a bit of teasing despite the fact that his best pouts never had any effect on his old friend. John dramatically put one hand over his heart and said. "Say it isn't true. You're not planning on having me soar off a cliff, are you?"
The guilt streaking across Radek's face was answer enough, and John struggled to keep a straight face. Only, Radek knew him very well and should have been laughing with him by now. "There's something else, isn't there?" he asked, humour dropped and forgotten.
"It's Dr McKay, m'lord," Radek answered, as still and proper as John had ever seen him. This did not bode well at all.
"What about Rodney McKay?"
"Mr Miller just sent word that he saw him entering—well, see for yourself, m'lord." He passed John the note with the message, its scrawl and blotched ink indicating that it had been written in haste. "Says he hoped you might be able to do something, discreetly of course. He's concerned his fiancée will find out and then—in his words—there'll be all hell to pay."
"He's gone to Cowen House," John said, shocked. "That's naught but a gaming hell. Why in hell would he…."
"Planning to win enough to bankroll his aerial designs, I would think." Radek said." I'm certain it's not his expectation to lose."
John shook his head. "McKay won't stand a chance. He has no poker face. Blast and damnation, he'll be stripped of every farthing he owns if I don't get him out of there.
My walking boots and greatcoat, and be quick about it, Radek." John thanked his stars that he was still dressed. McKay was only two blocks away. He could walk there in less time than he could have a horse brought around.
"John." Radek handed him a cane. "Take it, just in case."
"I'd forgotten I had that." The unadorned, sturdy black cane concealed a sword. John turned it over in his hand to check the catch. "Very good. Excellent thinking. I doubt the riff-raff will have enough backbone to cause that much trouble, but—"
"But it's better to be safe than sorry, m'lord."
"Radek, I'll be bringing McKay back here. Prepare a room and send word to his household. Make it sound like he's been here all evening. He'll thank us later if we help him conceal his folly from his sister at least."
"What reason should I give?"
"Tell them we were discussing aerial investigation and got into a prolonged debate. No one who knows McKay will find that the least remarkable."
Egad, he'd arrived just in the nick of time to hear Rodney say, "I'm ... temporally strapped for the moment, just until my cargo hauls into port, any day now I assure you. I'll have no problem covering... Look, if you would just let me give you my IOU…there's no need to threaten…"
John decided this had gone on long enough. "McKay, my good fellow, there you are! Not avoiding me, are you? Supper awaits us and you know how tetchy my cook gets if it grows cold. It's worse than being henpecked by a fishwife. True, I indulge my servants too much, but it does save me from a fearsome headache to do so."
Rodney gaped up at him, finally moving to leave the table as he caught on to what John was doing. "Yes, supper. My apologies, I'd completely forgotten. Wrapped up in the card game, you know." He stood and patted his pockets. "A moment, I need to settle…"
"Of course." John arched an eyebrow. Everyone at the table froze. "I am certain these—gentlemen—will take your vowels."
"I can't seem to find…" Rodney began, patting down his pockets.
"Here, take my steel pen," John said, glad that he'd taken the precaution to slip pen and a new nib in his coat pocket before leaving. The sooner they left the better.
"Does anyone have ink? Rodney asked.
A grim-faced fellow slid an inkwell over with ill grace. As Rodney scribbled out a few notes in haste, John made it a point to memorize all of the faces at the table, though he knew most of them by name. Radek could discover where the rest of them lived. John was quickly making plans to collect each and every IOU. He'd also make damn certain it was understood by all—Dr McKay was off-limits for plucking.
"Well, do come on then. Supper's waiting," John said, nodding inanely as he urged Rodney along.
Still pale but no longer shaky, Rodney nodded. "Yes, we must go. Don't want to disappoint, you know."
They made their escape from Cowen House with little fanfare other than an ill-humoured scowl on their way out the door. John took a firm grip on his cane with one hand and placed the other on the small of Rodney's back as he guided him down the street in the direction of his townhouse.
Rodney breathed a sigh of relief. "Somehow, I thought that would turn out differently."
It was still early evening, not past eight, John was sure, but the stars were starting to come out. It was difficult not to imagine it a night for lovers as they walked side-by-side in companionable silence.
"I did mean it about supper," John said as they approached the door to his home.
"A hot meal, a glass of port, and the ills of the evenings won't be near as horrendous as you're thinking now. I insist you join me. Since we're here already, it would be churlish of you to rebuff my invitation now. Buck up, McKay! It's not the end of the world."
Rodney nodded and they climbed the few steps to John's door. As they removed their coats, handing them off to the waiting footman, the butler announced that dinner's roast chicken would unfortunately not be ready for another hour or more.
"Very good. We'll have drinks in my reading room for now, then." John dismissed the butler with a nod and beckoned for to Rodney to follow him up the stairs.
"This is your office?" Rodney asked when he stepped into the room, taking note of the large writing desk.
The room was distinctly masculine. The solid mahogany furnishings with their strong, clean lines served a practical function rather than a stylish one. An oil painting of a sailing ship in full rigging hung on one wall. Rolling waves broke against her hull, and in the background, the artist had painted the pale rays of morning sun breaking through a grey sky and promising a new day. A small brass plate set into the frame read, Weathering the Storm.
A thick carpet of solid, deep blue stretched across the floor. The room's only nod to fashionable style lay in the dark, red threads woven in a Grecian design all along the rug's border. It made a subtle and perfect match to the polished highlights in the mahogany.
"Office, study, drawing room, I've even used it as a dressing room on occasion. Call it what you will; it's inevitably where I spend a good deal of my time." John shrugged, looking over the room with a critical eye and then back at Rodney.
"Do you like it?" John asked.
"I do." Rodney cleared his throat. "Sorry, I was expecting something more…" He flashed John a teasing smile. "Something with a dash of glitter, I suppose."
"You wound me, Rodney," John said. He held a hand to his heart and pouted.
Rodney rolled his eyes.
With an answering grin, John sat down on the divan and starting pulling off his boots. He stopped mid-pull and stuck his leg up in the air. "Here, give me a hand with this. I don't want to call my manservant for something we should easily be able to do together."
Rodney took John's booted heel and gave it a robust tug. It slid off John's leg easily and he held up the other foot for Rodney to deal with as well.
"Ah, that feels much better." John slumped down against the cushions with a glad sigh. He peeked up at Rodney through his eyelashes. "Something wrong?"
"You haven't asked me how much I lost. Don't you want to know?" Rodney asked.
"Well, thank you. I…" He looked down at the floor for a moment before lifting his chin, mouth held in a determined line. "I made a rather bad showing, I'm afraid. If you hadn't shown up when you did, I'm not sure what might have happened. In addition, loathe as I am to admit it, I suspect your timely arrival saved me from being roughed up."
"We'll say no more about it. Besides, I could hardly let you come to harm before I have a chance to best you at our duel, now could I?"
Getting up, he poured Rodney a generous glass of port. "Here, drink this. It will help settle your nerves. Furthermore, you'll stay here tonight and I'll hear no argument about it. I've already seen to having your room readied."
Rodney hesitated for a moment before giving John a curt nod. "Thank you."
"Good," said John. "Now then, make yourself at home. Forgive my boorish behaviour, if you will, in leaving you to your own devices. It's my habit to have a bath drawn and get into something more comfortable at this hour. Then, Doctor, we'll have that supper I promised you. Do you think you can amuse yourself for a while without getting into trouble?"
"Possibly." He smiled at John tentatively and with a shy vulnerability that made John's heart ache to see.
"The library is in the next room and the music room is just above this one. I'll see that Radek is available to answer any questions you might have. "
John left the room then, leaving Rodney to his own devices. He'd told a bald-faced lie out of need. He'd prefer to stay, but before he could entertain the good doctor for the rest of the evening, he very much needed to change out of his tailored breeches and into loose trousers. If not, there would certainly be an embarrassing lack of secrets between them.
This recent kindness was an enigma. Lord John was a rake, a man about town, society's darling—a charmer, if you will. Why he should have any interest in Rodney's affairs confounded him. Indeed, in allowing Rodney to stay here, m'lord allowed him the grace of keeping tonight's disaster hidden from his household and protected his sister from worry. He shuddered. Jeannie would kill him if she found out how recklessly he'd risked his person and his finances.
Damn it, he owed John now, like it or not. Although, he had to acknowledge the truth of things. If the circumstances were such that he owed Lorne instead of John, he'd think nothing of it. These feelings for Lord John were complicated and confusing. As much as he might like, he couldn't keep passing them off as indigestion.
The library was an impressive room and larger than he'd expect to find in a townhouse. He'd never considered Lord John the literary sort but the wall of well-used books gave lie to that assumption.
He continued to poke around, finding not just books and journals but scientific instruments as well. In a small alcove sat a heliocentric planetary machine. The last time Rodney had seen one of these was at The Royal Society. One of his peers had brought it to the club to show off. The demonstration itself was all show and no substance. Still, the way his colleague managed to illuminate the device by setting a candle inside the sun's globe made a pretty picture.
This one was smaller than Lord Orrery's but no less precisely made. A detailed Earth orbited by an ivory Moon, which in turn orbited a brass Sun. Two other planets made of marble, blue for Venus and red for Mercury, completed the display. They sat high above their clockwork gears, ready to go into motion at the turn of a key.
He picked up a sextant, turning it over in his hands for closer inspection. The next item that caught his attention was a finely detailed astrolabe. This, too, had marks of use. Puzzled, Rodney put the pieces down with care and wondered, was Lord John an experienced navigator? If so, why in God's name hide it?
And yet, surely John didn't mind Rodney's explorations, otherwise why suggest it? Why leave him alone to discover this at all?
He took himself in hand. He'd already blossomed to firmness just from spending time in Rodney's company. He flicked a thumb across sensitive nerves as he pondered McKay's full mouth. A stroke, two more, and his blood surged fiercely. Frustratingly, it was not enough.
He needed more than his own hand could give, but that was his fevered curse to deal with. With practiced care, John trailed the fingers of his one hand low and lower still. There was a place, a sweet measure of space laying at the boundary of his awkward reach. But worth the effort, as it never failed to bring him to the verge of completion.
All that he needed now was to imagine it Rodney's probing fingers caressing him so. John closed his eyes, and with a gasp, he tensed, riding a crest of delicious passion. Moments later, every inch of him relaxed into decadent somnolence. Little death—an apt name indeed.
"How do you do, Dr McKay? I am Radek Zelenka and I've come to see if there was anything I could help you with."
"Oh," Rodney said, startled. "I didn't hear you come in."
With a slight half-bow of greeting, Radek said, "I've just delivered m'lord's shaving kit to him. He will be some time still, and he suggested I give you a tour of the house while you wait."
Rodney gave him a careful nod. "Very well. I did not actually believe Lord John capable of a bath and dress in a scant hour. I was intending to pass the time with a book from his library, but yes, I would be interested in seeing more of the house. It's quite large for one person. Does he entertain often?"
"He does not, but naturally, appearances must be maintained. You are, rather surprisingly, the first guest he's had here in some time. If you'll follow me, Dr McKay, I'll show you the music room. "
Wide curtained windows faced the side of the street. The pale yellow window dressings brushed the carpeted floor where a Persian rug in tones of amber, copper, and soft browns made the room seem warm and welcoming without making it look overly feminine.
Hmm, Rodney was willing to concede that perhaps Lorne had a point when he'd admonished him about his lack of any eye for interior design. No matter. What truly caught his eye was the ebony pianoforte standing in the centre of the room.
"Do you play?" Radek asked.
"A long time ago. Believe it or not, I once fancied myself a budding composer." He ran his hand over the smooth, polished wood and smiled ruefully. "Enough of that, I've more sporting things to consider now."
"You find being an aerial investigator satisfying, Dr McKay?"
"Interesting question. You sound like you've read some of my papers," He looked askance at Mr Zelenka and folded his arms across his chest. "You aren't by chance trying to pump me for information? It won't work."
"No, I suppose not. Don't blame me for trying, Doctor. I'm having the most wretched time helping m'lord find an idea that will work."
Curiosity, always his downfall, got the better of him and Rodney couldn't stop himself from asking, "What have you tried?"
Ten minutes later, several sketches of Radek's latest design lay strewn all over the top of the pianoforte.
"What made you try this?" Rodney asked, pointing at an image that looked like an elephant-sized balloon with feathers glued to it. "What were you thinking?"
"I have been experimenting with combining various designs for the greatest maximum lift."
"Just keep thinking that way if you want to build something everyone will laugh at and call Radek's folly."
"I hardly think anyone—"
"They will, they truly will. See here, you need to—" Rodney snapped his fingers. "I'll show you—give me the pen."
With a freshly inked nib, Rodney began to draw over Radek's work with bold slashes. "You've created too much drag, here and here—" He drew a dark circle around one particularly offense flaw. "— and here."
"But," Radek protested, "you have demolished all of its style!"
"Style won't get this monstrosity off the ground. I'm not sure a hurricane could."
Radek's shoulders fell. "I should start from scratch?" he asked.
"Yes." Rodney shook his head. "I know I'm going to hate myself for saying this. I have some older project designs I've given up on. They could be possibly be made to work if someone wanted to put the time, effort, and money into it. Nothing grand, mind you, but I think they'll help set you on the right track."
"Because it's not much of a challenge without a real competition, and because this design, while horribly wrong, does show a certain amount of creative genius." Rodney brushed Radek's next comment away with the wave of his hand. "Don't thank me. Do the work.
You know Major Lorne, don't you?"
"I'll tell him to expect to hear from you. Arrange a meeting with him to pick up the plans." Rodney cleared his throat. "Somewhere there's no chance of Lord John running into the two of you. Might be best if his lordship didn't know my part in this, don't you agree?"
Before anything further could be said, their conversation suffered an interruption by the dinner bell.
"Good heavens, it's about time! I'm starving," Rodney said. "Oh, what about—"
"I'll see to the papers," Radek said, already gathering them into his hands. "You and m'lord will be dining privately in his study. Oh, didn't I mention that?"
John stepped in the room, took one look at the arrangement, and frowned. "I'm sorry, Rodney, when I told my staff we'd be dining privately I hardly expected they'd practically put us in each other's laps. If you're uncomfortable, I can get them to find us a bigger table."
"No, it's all right," Rodney managed, mouth suddenly gone dry. Lord John hadn't bothered to dress for dinner. Instead, he wore an emerald green dressing gown made of heavy, rich brocade. Its wide sleeves were turned back showing the strong, naked line of his wrists. Only, that wasn't all. He wore the garment open at the throat. For the first time Rodney could see the tender curve of John's Adam apple, the soft hollow of m'lord's throat and beyond. A hint of collarbone, a strong line boldly defying the drape of green, teased at his vision.
"Excellent! I confess I'm starving."
Rodney managed a nod of agreement before grabbing the wine glass and pouring himself a hefty glassful.
"Should you be drinking that so fast on an empty stomach?" John asked.
"Most definitely, yes!" Rodney gasped out, voice ragged. His traitorous eyes followed the long line of John's body and the all too interesting shift of his robe. He held out his empty glass. "More, please?"
John shook his head with a gentle laugh. "Of course." He leaned closer. "I think I like you like this, McKay. Drink up!"
It could have been the wine, the excellent food, or perhaps his charming host; whatever the cause, it made Rodney bold.
"I couldn't help notice that your library has a decided nautical theme," Rodney said.
John nodded, indicating that he should continue.
"The sextant you have. It surprised me that it looked worn with use." Rodney cleared his throat. "I think you have certain skills you're hiding. That you're more than you let on."
John raised an eyebrow, but Rodney ignored it. "Tell me if my guess is right. You're an experienced navigator, aren't you? My god, do you have any idea how badly I could use those skills for my steam-powered balloon?"
There was a long pause. It didn't seem like John was inclined to answer. Finally, he said, "I've always had an interest in the ocean. When I was younger, I fancied going to sea, perhaps even one day …well, I was but a boy with romantic notions. I shouldn't need to add that it was hardly an ambition my parents approved of. Now I'm older, naturally I agree with their wisdom and I find—" He looked at Rodney from beneath his eyelashes. "—this life has certain adventures I'd be loath to miss."
"You're flirting with me!"
"It's about time you noticed," John said. His smile looked positively predatory.
Rodney felt certain the back of his ears were burning. Nevertheless, he had more to say, so he plunged on. "You have a screw loose. The sextant does. The adjustment screw. It's loose. I can fix it for you."
"Why, thank you, Rodney," John said. "I'd be delighted to have you give my screws all the attention they deserve."
Rodney buried his face in his hands with a groan.
In good humour, John placed his hand on Rodney's arm. "You can tend to it tomorrow. It's been an eventful day for us both. I suggest we retire for the evening and start fresh in the morning."
What remaining conversation Rodney could recall was enjoyable and required very little effort on his part. It was just as well, since he found himself yawning before he set his fork down. Shortly after, hand at his elbow, John escorted him to his room. He'd half expected Lord John to join him in the bedchamber. When he didn't, Rodney felt a pang of disappointment. Rather than examine the feeling, he pushed it out of his mind, took off his clothes, and crawled into bed.
Tomorrow, he'd fix John's adjusting screw. In the process, he planned to wheedle more information out of his lordship about his navigational talent. How good was he? Could he navigate the three dimensions in the air as well as he could navigate on the ocean? More importantly, and challenge aside, would John be willing to fly his steam-powered invention?
He fell fast asleep to visions of John all dressed in black as he piloted the sky in Rodney's yellow silk balloon.
Morning. Oh god, the sun. Rodney groaned. Vile, evil, sharp beams of light danced against his eyelids. He put his hands over his eyes to cut back the glare. He couldn't remember how much he'd had to drink but his head protested foully. This was all Lord John's fault, he just knew it.
Lord John! Rodney's eyes snapped open, a move he instantly regretted. There was nothing for it—he had to get up. This wasn't his room or his bed. How could he have forgotten?
Sitting up, he fumbled at the covers. Naturally, John would only use the finest linens for his beds and these caressed his skin like—Rodney narrowed his eyes—why were they caressing his skin? Damnation, he was naked! Worse, there was no sign of his clothes to be found.
He managed to get to his feet. With no small amount of swearing under his breath, he pulled a bed sheet around him in the Roman style. He was trying to figure out what to do about the expanse of bare leg remaining uncovered when there was a knock at the door. The sound of it ricocheted around his brain like cannon balls. "Stop. Just enter and stop pounding the hinges loose!"
"Good morning, Dr McKay," Radek said, entering the room. He carried a breakfast tray laden with coffee and food. He set it on the dressing table, poured the coffee, pressed a cup of it into McKay's outstretched hands, and turned to leave.
"Wait, what about my clothes?" Rodney asked.
"His lordship gave orders to have them freshened and pressed for you. They should be ready in another hour."
"Hmm, I notice there are two coffee cups. Not a mistake I assume?"
"Lord John will be joining you. Ah, here he is now." Radek turned and left quickly before either man could see the widening grin on his face.
"Rodney, you're looking…" John cocked his head. "I was going to say, you're looking well, but I think I'd best just say you look alive." His gaze lingered on the sheet and his mouth quirked up in a smile. "I think this particular morning attire suits you." He pulled a chair up to the table and waved Rodney over. "You don't mind my joining you this morning? Of course not. It's a delightful day, isn't it?"
"I hate you," Rodney responded. He sighed. "Don't you at least have a dressing gown I can borrow?"
"Sorry, old chap, I'm afraid all mine are tailored to my exact measurements. The breadth of your shoulders is…well, I can't risk the seams popping, now can I?" John flashed him a cheeky smile. "Drink your coffee, Rodney. It's the best money can buy. You'll feel much better for it."
To Rodney's surprise, the hour passed quickly. No one cared that he was wandering John's house in a sheet, and somehow they found themselves back in the library. His head was much clearer. The food and coffee had, indeed, done wonders to his physical being and his temperament.
Sextant in hand, he was in the process of showing John the flawed adjustment screw when word came that his clothes were ready. Their hands bushed as John lifted the instrument away.
"I should…Jeannie will be wondering—and there's Lorne… must tell him the botch of things I've made…" Rodney lifted his face to stare into John's eyes. "I…I have to go."
"I know." John's eyes were soft.
Rodney curled his fingers into his palms to keep from reaching out.
"Listen, don't worry Major Lorne with your gambling debts. Not just yet," John said. "I know those men and I doubt any of them will try to collect."
"They seemed the type to collect to me! Either by note or a personal visit in a dark alley."
"Please, Rodney. Trust me about this."
Wary of John's advice, he considered for a long minute before finally nodding his agreement. "You're quite sure?"
"I vow to you Rodney, no one will bother you about it again."
"We meet again!" Radek announced to the world in general, at Lorne's approach.
"It seems we're fated do so, at least as long as our employers are playing at this game of aerial mastery," Lorne said with dry acknowledgement.
"Ah, not a game at all, but neither is it a duel. Even if it were, I believe the rules have indeed changed. It is not about conquest anymore." He tapped the side of his nose. "Well, conquest, perhaps, but it has nothing to do with the sky."
"I mean this with kindness, but you, my friend, are a deplorable little man when you insist on being cryptic. What on earth are you talking about?"
Radek gave a sidelong glance at the shopkeeper. "Not here. Walk over to the park with me. This is something I prefer to keep between us. "
The walk wasn't far, and before long, they were sitting on a bench watching the ducks.
"Now, tell me," Lorne said, "what did you mean by the rules have changed?"
"The Sheppard family owns a number of properties, which I'm sure you are aware of, Evan, but Lord John never had any particular interest in any of them. At least nothing beyond a place to stable his horses and the use of a townhouse."
"I understand he has a younger brother who has taken a keen interest in managing the family properties. Has that changed?"
"You're telling me Lord John Sheppard has a newfound interest in the Sheppard family estates and it affects their duel. That's as clear as mud. Would you clarify that or is it going to cost me another pint?"
"No cost." He allowed a moment to pass as he gathered his thoughts, wondering what Evan would think of this odd turn of events. He did not expect his friend to burst out in laughter.
"They are to be neighbours! And McKay doesn't know?" He clapped a hand down on Radek's shoulder. "If Rodney is this nonplussed now, I can only imagine what this will do to him when he discovers it." He chuckled. "I would pay good money to see his face when he finds out."
"Isn't he your friend?" Radek asked.
"He is, indeed. This will be good for him. Hmm," Lorne tapped his chin. "When do you think Lord John will be moving to the countryside? Sooner is better than later."
"You think Dr McKay will move back to his country estate when John does, then." Raked said.
"I'm certain of it. You don't know what it's been like. McKay's been frothing from lack of funds to set Jeannie and Kaleb up in their own house. With him back in the country, they can have the townhouse. It's the perfect solution; he just hasn't been able to see it. All he thinks about is meeting Lord John again."
Radek nodded. "It's the same for his lordship. They are like two schoolboys with their first crush."
"This is more than a crush. I hope Lord John's careful with him. He's a decent man and I'd hate to see him hurt," Lorne said, turning serious.
"Have no fear of that." Radek clapped his hands together, "Now then, have you brought the design Rodney promised me?"
Lorne handed over a sheaf of rice paper, neatly rolled and tied securely with a dark ribbon. "I don't know how you talked him into this."
Radek shrugged. "He offered. I begin to see what you and m'lord like about him. Under that bluster is a good heart."
They exchanged a look. With obvious reluctance, Lorne pulled another sheet of paper from his pocket. "This has everything listed for Dr McKay's project, like his lordship asked for. You're certain no harm is meant?"
"He only wishes to help." Radek pulled the paper from Evan's hand. "Ah, the secrets of love, my friend, it's a powerful thing. Your doctor tells no one but us that he is providing m'lord with a design that can work. Even as his lordship tells no one but us that he intends to buy your all of your doctor's supplies and present them to him as a grand gift."
"Funny, you say? Perhaps you're right. However, at week's end, my business in town is concluded. It's back to McKay's country estate for me. I'm not sorry for it, my friend, because if this goes awry, I sure as hellfire don't want to get caught in the crossfire."
"I'm going to be gone for the day, Mer," Jeannie called out. "Lady Elizabeth has sent a carriage. We're going shopping."
"Good." Rodney smoothed down the front of his tailcoat and looked in the mirror just long enough to give his cravat a final tweak. "I'll be out all day myself."
"Really? This doesn't have anything to do with Lord John, does it?' Jeannie teased.
"Yes, if you must know. Stop looking at me like that. Hurry along, your carriage is here and you don't want to keep Lady Elizabeth waiting. Now, shoo."
"Well, in that case, dear brother…" Jeannie's cheeks pinked in delight. "I'll tell the servants not to bother to wait up."
Rodney shook his head at his sister's retreating skirts. Then, unaware of his own beaming countenance, he strode out the door to visit his friend, John Sheppard.
He'd barely walked a quarter mile when John pulled up beside him in a curricle. "Climb in, McKay. We'll take a spin around the park. The fresh air will be good for your constitution."
Settling in and sitting next to John, Rodney teased, "Admit it; you couldn't wait to see me."
John laughed and with a flick of the reins, they headed off.
"Somehow, I thought you'd be driving down the road with considerable more speed than this," Rodney said.
"I'm not in the mood for haste." John gave Rodney a side-long glance and pressed his shoulder more firmly against him. "It's a beautiful day. Enjoy it."
"Certainly. Only, we seem to be garnering a fair amount of stares."
They were. As they passed the pedestrians, dowagers smiled, debutantes frowned, and a few eyebrows rose. Rodney remained unaware of the statement Lord John made by taking such a leisurely ride through St. James's Park. John, however, knew anyone with a proper eye could plainly see his claim.
From there, they took a visit to John's tailor.
"Why are we here?" Rodney asked, as John led him inside, one arm casually making its home on Rodney's shoulder.
"Because," John answered, "you need a decent dressing gown."
"I don't. I have what I need."
"I'm sure you do…" John stepped close, lowering his voice to keep the tailor from overhearing. "At home. This one I'll have delivered to my townhouse." He put arm over Rodney's shoulder, leaning closer. "I mean for you to visit often and I'm just seeing to your comfort while you're there."
Before Rodney could protest further, John waved the tailor over. "See that you get a proper measurement of Dr McKay's shoulders. Exquisite, are they not?"
The tailor nodded agreeably, no fool when it came to appeasing the aristocracy. "I've rarely seen finer, your lordship." He took the measurement across Rodney's shoulders, eyes widening at the result. He took the measure a second time more carefully. "Whoever your tailor is, Dr McKay, he's a traitor to his craft." He snapped his fingers, calling out to his apprentice, "Bring the royal blue, the gold, and I think, the pumpkin might do nicely."
John raised an eyebrow.
The tailor paled, but drew enough courage to speak. "His eyes. I agree they are an astounding shade of blue. Naturally, I noticed that immediately. However, a complementary colour, m'lord, often works better than a matching one. If I am wrong, I will never mention it again."
"Hmm, very well. We'll try it."
Embarrassed with the attention, but not knowing what to say, Rodney quietly put up with having his measurements taken while John and his tailor decided on Rodney's wardrobe. By the time John and the tailor finished, Rodney was the owner of a new suit for the wedding, complete with black trousers, and not one but two dressing gowns, one in the pumpkin and one in a soft, deep purple. The only thing that kept him from huffing and squirming in impatience was the warm and appreciative look in John's eyes.
Time flew by, and before Rodney knew it, they were back at John's townhouse.
"You still have to fix my sextant," John said, his eyes sparkling in mirth. "And you did promise to have luncheon with me."
"I did." Rodney's belly took the opportune time to grumble.
"I hope a cold plate and tea will do?" John asked with a smile. "I'm afraid you'll have to put up with my meagre cooking skills. I've given my staff the day off."
Rodney drew in a sharp breath. "That's…that's fine. Of course it is. Everyone deserves a day off. It's very good of you to…I mean…" he paused, swallowing hard and finding it impossible to tear his gaze away from John's mouth.
Lost in a daze of what it would feel like to have that mouth crushed against his own, Rodney barely noticed his surroundings until John put a plate of tea, cheese, and biscuits down in front of him.
"It's not bad fare if I say so myself." John held a piece of soft cheese out, and feeling bold, Rodney leaned forward and nibbled at it straight from John's hand. More daring still, he licked between John's fingers, drawing one into his mouth with a gentle suck. Suddenly shocked at his own wanton behaviour, he pulled back, fearing he'd gone too far.
"Rodney." John leaned close, his voice like warm velvet. "I won't touch you without your permission. This isn't a lark for me. I swear it. Please want this, too."
Rodney stared at John, eyes wide open, and from the flush of colour in his cheeks, John judged it as a yes. He reached out and closed Rodney's mouth with one finger. "Come to bed."
"Can there be a better time?" John teased. Turning more serious, he took Rodney's hand, and with the gentlest of tugs, led him upstairs to his bedchamber.
"I...I might not be very good at this…I'm…" Rodney sighed, exasperation written all over his face. "I don't have any idea, other than a general …" His hands floundered in the air.
John interrupted him with a kiss. After several long moments and a bit out of breath, he pulled away, saying, "It pleases me that you don't have experience. It tells me that this isn't a mere romp for you."
"Oh. Should I take my clothes off now? I think I'd like to, if that's all right? It's just everything feels tight and itchy and I thought, maybe..." He looked up at John through his eyelashes. "I thought it might encourage you to take yours off." Rodney coloured a fair shade of pink before adding, "I've wanted to see you unclothed for some time now."
Of all the things that were easy between them, somehow this was the easiest yet. John's vague plans to undress Rodney fell to the wayside in favour of expediency. They were, in short order, naked and under the covers of John's bed.
"Do you know—" John began, the words stopped suddenly with a gasp as it became crystal clear that Rodney did know. His hands touched John everywhere, and finally, explorations done, at least temporarily, Rodney's warm hand circled 'round John's cock.
"You, how…yesss." John managed to articulate. A smug hum was all he got in return. He couldn't not thrust into Rodney's firm grip. Embarrassed at how quickly this was going to come to an end, he buried his face in Rodney's shoulder. It was too tempting and he bit down. His own skin felt branded beneath Rodney's touch. It was only fair he leave his own mark.
It triggered a roar from Rodney and suddenly they were rutting against each other, hands frantically dragging each other closer as their passions rose. Getting enough of each other seemed an impossible task and yet John's world narrowed down to intense fragments of time when Rodney began kissing every square inch of his skin. There could be no holding back when Rodney first licked and then closed his mouth over John's cock. Awareness faded to hot, throbbing need.
John opened his eyes some time later and cursed himself for being a neglectful lover. Surely Rodney needed… but no, there was a tell-tale wetness on John's thigh and belly that told a different story. The tragedy here was that he'd missed Rodney's entirely male rutting as he pushed himself against John in desperation. That he'd been desperate was a certainty in John's mind.
Arms encircling the delectable Dr McKay, he slid into sleep with a smile.
Waking up at crack of dawn, however, was not in his plan.
"It's not the crack of dawn," he heard Rodney's voice say. "The sun has been up for at least two hours."
"Not exactly a morning person are you, John? Don't be concerned. It's the throes of inspiration, for want of a better word. I just have to write down this idea…" Snapping his fingers, he brusquely asked, "Where, exactly, can I find paper?"
John waved in the general vicinity of the dressing table and turned his face into his pillow. The effort to go back to sleep lasted all of half a minute. Despite his best efforts, his curiosity was piqued.
"Something in the drawers? Rodney asked, already up and across the room pulling out what he needed.
"Come here," John growled, all out of patience at being left alone in bed.
With an absentminded nod, pencil between his teeth, and a page smoothed out over the cover of a book, Rodney settled down beside John.
"It's always going to be like this with you, isn't it?"
Instead of answering, which was an answer in itself, Rodney furiously scribbled down whatever it was that had put a bee in his bonnet.
"It's this weight versus lift difficulty. I've been thinking too small. Too hidebound. A one-man balloon will never achieve…no, what I need is a veritable ship. Something on the magnitude of…well, I'll need to experiment to obtain the numerical values for heat loss and for the weight of water trickling down the inside of the envelope…
"Don't you see, John?" Rodney's face was alight with excitement. "A larger steamcraft could stay in the air much longer and travel greater distances. We'd be true travellers of the air."
John watched as Rodney sped through complex equations, writing each down with precise care. The very moment he stopped and put the pencil down, John placed his hand on the back of Rodney's sweaty neck, the curl of those fine hairs a brand of fire against his skin. "Come back to bed," John husked. "Lay with me."
The pencil snapped in two.
"I'm usually more considerate and less prone to collapse. I regret that deeply." He touched Rodney softy on his cheek, a gentle caress.
"Don't be sorry. It made it easier for me…"
"Did you watch? Did you see how completely you'd undone me? Because you did. Your hands, your mouth…" John kissed him. "You weaken me to my bones."
Rodney laid his hand over John's heart. "Do you know what a languid, seductive creature you are? Seeing you like that made me desire you even more. Even were my feelings not engaged, I would have wanted you. I admit it surprised me how little difference it made that you are not…" Rodney stumbled over the next words. "A…a lady.
John chucked. "I should hope not. Where would be the fun in that?"
"Where would the fun—what?"
John held Rodney in the circle of his arms and whispered in his ear. "Buggering, Rodney, surely you've heard of it. I can make it very, very good for you if you'll let me." He ran his hand down low, cupping Rodney's erection. "Empirical evidence suggests you're not adverse to the idea."
"It's my scientific nature… oh, god." Rodney pushed raggedly into John's hand. "It's natural to be…be curious."
John vowed to be as careful as he knew how. He didn't merely want to bring Rodney a few moment's pleasure; he wanted to incite a passion for it, to arouse him to a degree he'd plead for John to bugger that exquisite ass of his as often as John could bring him to bed.
"Here, like this, on your knees."
"But I can't see you," Rodney protested.
"I'm here." John pressed a kiss to Rodney's bare back. "You'll feel me. I won't let go, I promise." Putting action to words, he continued to press a line of tender kisses from Rodney's shoulders to the shadowed cleft of his ass. He went further still, parting Rodney's cheeks with his thumbs. Moaning under him, Rodney spread his thighs wider. Staying in skin-to-skin contact, John opened a small jar containing a cream made to his specifications. He coated two fingers, though he would start with only one. The urgency of his own needs must wait. Sweet perfection was now his for the taking and John refused to rush.
Rodney bowed his head and trembled under him, but he didn't move away. "I've got you," John said, trying to be reassuring even as his voice cracked with desire.
In response, Rodney pushed back against his hand. "That's good," he gasped. "Don't stop."
With a low, unbidden growl, John stroked deeper inside Rodney. He knew he'd triumphed when Rodney howled, nearly ripping the bed sheet in two. John's need grew in equal measure. He nipped at one silken ass cheek while reaching to grasp Rodney's cock.
The position was too awkward for penetration so he leaned back, pleased to see Rodney ass up, thighs spread, and babbling for John to do something. Straightaway, please, before he suffered near apoplexy from waiting.
He should have known that sex with Rodney McKay would be fun. "By your leave, then," John teased, smiling, "that's exactly what I'll do." He hesitated a moment more. They were both as well greased as he could make them. Rodney seemed loose enough, and heaven help them, they were both beyond ready by now. Still...John eased the head of his cock into Rodney's tight opening. "Don't move or I can't be held accountable," he cautioned through grit teeth.
It was murderous heaven to have to move so slow. He needed to be encased with this silken glove around his cock; he was already lost to it, now he needed to push, to rock into it in a rhythm as old as time. Rodney's grunts and moans made it even more difficult and John's control began to slip.
"John!" Rodney threw his head back, shoulders shaking. His full, heavy cock was blood-hot in John's hand and wetness beaded at the head, but it wasn't enough. Wrapping both arms around him, John urged him back with a tug until Rodney was fully seated on top of him. This was more like it. He could touch everywhere now. Belly, thighs, nipples, and John let his hands roam in the sheer luxury of all that warm, creamy skin, knowing that for this moment, it all belonged to him.
"You're utterly delicious, I must tell you," John whispered against Rodney's skin. "And I shall have you again and again, because I don't think I can live without you now. Say yes. Say you need this as I do." John nosed the back of Rodney's neck. "You smell wonderful."
"I'm glad you approve. That's a yes, if you still need it pointed out. Um. Do you think you might…?" Rodney began as he squirmed in John's lap.
"Well, the words—harder, faster, deeper come to mind."
It was all three by the end. Harder, faster, deeper, sweatier, and a very satisfying mess to clean up at the end. Just before falling back to sleep, Rodney had thrown an arm and leg over John, holding him in place. Surprisingly comforted by it, John dozed off, happier than he could remember being in a very long time
"See here, Mr…what did you say your name was again?" Rodney asked.
"Smythe. Eldon Smythe." The blacksmith grinned at Rodney with a gap in his front teeth so wide you could drive a carriage through it. "Smythe like in Black Smythe, get it?"
"Quite. Very good, Mr Gum, uh, Smythe, I have…" Rodney paused to pull a paper from his pocket and carefully unfolded his drawing. "It's a special design. I'll need it made of that new stuff you call crucible steel. Can you do it?"
"Not here. That kind of work has to be done at the foundry." The man traced over the drawing with one sooty finger. "It'll cost ya. Cor, will you look at all 'em coils. Looks complicated. You're sure you don't want it done in brass? Be quicker."
"Brass is too dense and cast iron is too brittle. It will be too heavy. This needs to be done in steel."
Scratching at his chin whiskers, Eldon eyed the design and then Rodney. "Worried about weight, you say? Sort of like that other gentleman wot asked." He gave a knowing huff. "This ain't the first time I've seen a design like this, ya know. Just last week I had a fancy fellow askin' me the same thing."
"You…what?" Rodney felt the blood drain from his face. "You've seen a design exactly like this one? This fellow, was he dressed like a dandy? Rakish sort. With dark hair that looked like he just came from a roll in the hay?"
"Yeah. Just like that."
Impossible. John wouldn't steal from him, and yet how else…? Rodney took a deep breath. "Was his name John Sheppard?"
"Now that you mention it, yeah. Whoa, fella, you're white as a ghost. Don't keel over on me." The blacksmith looked frantically around as if a chair could suddenly appear out of thin air.
"I'm all right. If one considers being victim of the worse kind of manipulation all right."
Rodney held up a hand to stave off any attempts the blacksmith might have of waving smelling salts or something equally disgusting under his nose. "I just need a moment."
"If you say so. Do you still want me to contact the foundry?"
"No need. I'm hardly going to challenge Lord John with an exact duplicate of my own design." Dismayed, he added, "He's won, don't you see? It's over. Even if I could start from scratch, I couldn't. My heart's not in it."
Rodney didn't remember how he got home. He remembered walking to the park and sitting for a long time on one of the benches, replaying the events over and over in his head. There was but one conclusion. Lord John had played him for a fool.
"What did, Rodney, say?"
"According to him, he was told to take the vile rags, hang them from the rafters, and set fire to them."
"That makes no sense. Damnation, something's happened. This insult is clearly aimed at me." John began to pace. "Contact Major Lorne, find out if he knows what's made Rodney fly into the boughs."
"There's a problem with that, m'lord. The Major has already returned to the country estate."
"In that case, we'll have to be more direct. Go to Rodney's and present my card. Tell him…tell him he's invited to a private dinner, here. Tonight. Oh, tell him I've got his favourite wine. Be sure to get some of those chocolates he likes so well, too." He paused, raking his hands through his hair, frustration and worry clear in every move. "What else can I do, Radek? What else can I do?"
The week wore on and Radek's worry grew. He felt helpless as John sat at his writing desk and tore up one note after another.
"It's not good enough, Radek! I've never been at such a loss for words." John threw the pen down and buried his face in his hands. "He's refused every invitation, every olive branch, and I know he can't have forgotten…that our time together meant something."
"Perhaps if you would just eat something, m'lord." Radek laid a hand on his shoulder. "John, please eat. Bathe, get dressed, and get some fresh air."
John looked at him with haunted eyes and shook his head.
"A bargain, then," Radek said. "I'll make a trip to the country and insist Major Lorne come back. If he can't sort McKay out, then he can at least find out what's gone wrong. However, you must promise me to take care of yourself properly while I'm gone. And for pity's sake, get out of the house. Got to the park and socialize before rumours start, if it's not too late."
"What sort of rumours, Radek? That I'm a man crushed by a broken heart?"
"Exactly that, m'lord. You have a reputation to uphold. It may not seem so now, but you'll thank me later."
"Always one for good advice, my friend, and don't I always listen to you?" John gave him a wan smile. "You vow to bring Lorne back?"
"Yes." Radek wanted to say more. He felt like saying that if he had to, he and Major Lorne would drag McKay over here and make him apologize for the way he'd hurt John. Instead, he merely said, "I've already arranged for the carriage."
Jeannie came up to stand behind him where he couldn't see the furrow of worry on her face. "You've been in a mood for days, Mer. When are you going to tell me what's wrong? It's not about the wedding, is it?"
"Not the wedding. No. It's personal."
"Personal. Has something happened with Lord John?" she asked.
"You could say that. It's going to sound laughable to you, I know, yet I can't help it. I...I feel like I've been trifled with. Hoodwinked. Duped like a provincial pigeon still wet behind the ears. I should have known Lord John could never be interested in someone like me, but I never saw this coming."
"How can you be so sure?"
"My supplies. You know how difficult they've been to get." Rodney turned to look at his sister. There was nothing but sympathy in her eyes. He cleared his throat, finding it suddenly thick with emotion. "I discovered Lord John has commissioned precisely the same piece of work I need for my steam engine. And by that, I do mean it's exactly the same, to the smallest detail. How is that even possible unless he spied on my design?
"There can be no mistake?" Jeannie asked, voice full of confusion and denial.
"None." He rubbed his hands over his face. "That's not even the worse. To think I gave him—that night we…well, it's not something I intend to discuss further. Certainly not to a lady and my sister."
"I'm going to get to the bottom of this, I promise," Jeannie vowed.
With a strangled, bitter laugh Rodney said, "Oh I think the bottom's been gotten to already. Stay out of this. I'll handle it myself."
"No, you're right. It's time to resolve this once and for all." Rodney straightened, squared his shoulders, and lifted his head with a determined chin. Giving a decisive nod he said, "Have my carriage brought 'round. John will be at St. James Park this afternoon, as is his habit. No doubt because the ladies gather for a promenade by the lake this time of day." He grit his teeth. "Doubtless he's been charming them all week. No matter, at least I know exactly where to find him."
It might even had worked if he'd had someone with him to steady the boat while he stood, trying to keep his balance on its bow. Or if the hat were lower so he didn't have to stretch —too far—John went one way and the boat went the other.
He hit the water with a resounding splash. He found himself in a spot of trouble, the weight of his wet clothes and his boots dragging him down. With some effort and much relief, he made it to shore. Wet through to the skin, bedraggled and discomforted, he lifted his head from a most annoying coughing spell to look straight into Rodney's blue eyes.
"You're soaking wet!"
"That's what happens when you fall in a pond, Rodney."
"No. I mean, yes, of course that's what happens when you fall in a pond but why? What possessed to you stand in the punt to begin with?
John sneezed. "The chit's hat. She was on the bridge when the wind blew it into that overhanging willow. I thought I could reach it easier from the pond-side. You can't possibly suggest I should have tried to climb the tree in these breeches?"
Rodney's mouth dropped open. The wet fabric clung to John, leaving very little to the imagination. "Yes. I…I can certainly see why that would be a bad idea." He dragged his eyes up to John's face. "You're fortunate I came with the carriage today. Get in before you catch pneumonia. I'll take you home."
"You can send a stable boy back for it. The damn thing no doubt ran off while you were busy playing hero." Rodney's words were curt but his hands were gentle as he tucked the carriage rug around John's legs.
There was nothing for it after that. John lost complete control of the situation. He would have objected more, but how could he? Rodney was here with him now and they could finally get their misunderstanding sorted out. Damn, he'd missed him. "I don't need a doctor, Rodney."
"You'll see one, anyway. If you'd wanted to avoid it, you could have simply not swallowed a lake!"
John started to smile. Rodney was worried about him. There was hope yet.
In short order, he found himself in his robe and bundled up in blankets on the couch as Dr Carson Beckett listened to his lungs with a stethoscope. It was the first time John had seen one up close.
"I should probably leave," Rodney said. "Unless there's something I can do?"
"Stay. Keep me company. I'm sure the good doctor will be done with me soon."
"Um…yes, of course. If you're certain."
"I've kept your room ready for you," John said, something he wouldn't have admitted so easily under normal circumstances.
"I agree you should stay Dr McKay." Carson said. "His lordship's taken water into his lungs. We'll need to watch out for infection and fever. I don't like the sound of that cough, either."
Worry written all over his face, Rodney leaned over him almost close enough to kiss. John let his gaze linger on Rodney's mouth, throwing caution to the wind.
"What's the matter?" Rodney reached up and touched his lip. "Have I got something on my face?"
For all that John wanted to say, "Yes, me," and put action to those words, he smiled instead. "You're fine. I'm just glad you're here."
Dr Beckett tsked a bit, and frowned. "You need rest, lad." He pulled a twist of paper from his bag. "Willow bark. Have the cook make you a stout tea from it and drink at least three cups a day for the next few days. It will help keep any lung inflammation down. You can't be too careful with the sorts of things ducks and the like will leave in the water. Nasty business."
John grimaced. "That's a horrible thought. I was doing just fine without that image, Dr Beckett."
The doctor had the effrontery to grin back at him. "If it guarantees you'll take your medicine, it's well worth it. I'll be back tomorrow to check on you."
After the doctor left, and despite John's protestations that he was fine, Rodney persisted in behaving like a mother hen.
"Stop. Any more tea and I'll be drowning in that instead of the lake."
"That's not funny."
"Rodney, I'm fine. I've taken my medicine and I'm resting, per doctor's orders. Now show a bit of sensibly and pour us both a brandy. Ah!" John held up his finger. "Don't argue. And you know, it is a little bit funny."
Rodney glared but gave in and poured them both a drink.
"Sit down. It's time we had a talk."
"You look a sight. Dr Beckett said—"
"I'm fine. Now stop dodging the subject. What's going on in that brilliant brain of yours?"
Rodney stared down at his hands. Just as John was wondering if he'd get an answer at all, Rodney sighed and said, "I've been so stupid. I know I'm not much of a prospect and I don't attract the attentions of charming men, not in the way you…I should have known it was a sham from the beginning."
"What are you talking about?" John asked, thoroughly nonplussed. He was quite certain he hadn't hit his head on the boat, though that would have made more sense than Rodney's next words.
"I know you convinced me to trust you so that you could get close enough to steal my design. What I don't know is if getting me into your bed was part of it from the beginning. Did it amuse you, Lord John, bedding a gauche innocent? It makes no mind now. It's done. You got what you wanted."
"No, no I didn't get what I wanted," John said, aghast at the havoc his good intentions had caused. "I don't want your design, Rodney, I never did."
"A gift. Because I wanted to do something nice for you. Is that so hard to believe?" John wanted to reach out and reassure Rodney but waited, uncertain if his touch would be welcome. "If you don't believe me, ask Lorne. He supplied the list." John's face fell. "I can see you doubt me. Wait! Go to my desk, the list is there. You can see for yourself it's in Major Lorne's handwriting."
Still scowling but bowing to John's directions, Rodney found the list, written on his own house stationary, no less.
"Well?" John asked rising up on one elbow. Unfortunately, it induced a fit of coughing. He tried to wave Rodney's supporting arm away, then gave into it. It felt too good to lean on his support. "Do you believe me now?"
"Clearly, this list of my supplies is in Lorne's handwriting, and it's indeed, it is addressed to you. I've been a fool, haven't I? I'm so sorry for misjudging you, John. But this doesn't explain why he gave you this in the first place."
"Why? Because Major Lorne knows. My…my feelings were obvious to him."
John nodded, delighted to finally see the clouds lift from Rodney's eyes. "No more talk of it. I think we've both learned keeping secrets is not going to work for us."
"Did you know then that I helped Mr Zelenka with his aerial design?" Rodney sheepishly asked.
"I suspected. But only because the latest one seemed a lot more streamlined and considerably less threatening to life and limb."
At John's suggestion, and with his promise to drink another cup of—god-awful—tea, Rodney set up the chessboard. Neither paid particular attention to the game, their eyes too occupied with drinking in the sight of each other. More than once, their fingers brushed, causing a chess piece to fumble on the board, the square it landed on unimportant in this game.
John eventually fell asleep and Rodney realized how late it was. He'd got up to leave when John reached out and trapped Rodney's wrist in his hand. "Stay. Please."
"What was that last part, John?" Rodney leaned close. "I didn't hear you."
"Will you? Do I have your trust again?"
Rodney drew in a careful breath. It was torment for John as he waited for his answer but worth it when Rodney smiled, eyes twinkling, and said, "The dunking surely left you more addlepated than usual, my esteemed companion, if you think you have to ask."
John grabbed his hand, grinning back. "Esteemed companion, yes, and more, if you'll have it." Reaching out he cupped Rodney's face and drew him in for a kiss, sweet and full of promise.
"Jeannie wouldn't tell me." Rodney brushed a few stray grains of rice off his tailcoat. "Somewhere by the seaside, I think."
"And the townhouse…" John said, in an attempt to lead the conversation.
"I've decided it's theirs when they return." He cleared his throat. "I've a small problem I thought you might help me with. Two, actually. I'm having renovations done at the country estate and I'll need a place to stay until they are finished."
"I do believe I can help you. By amazing coincidence, I'm moving out of the city myself. It would hardly be neighbourly if I didn't offer you a place to stay. Consider it settled. Now, what else can I help you with?"
"I have this project, you see. Turns out it's much bigger than one man alone can do."
"Do tell," John said, nearly keeping a straight face. "This doesn't have anything with aerial investigation, by chance? Because if it does, I've come to be quite informed on the subject."
"Good, good. Naturally, I can handle most of the design myself, but there's this pesky business of flying the airship once she's built. I, um, find myself in need of a navigator."
"Really." John folded his arms across his chest. "It's an air ship, Rodney. You disappoint me." He leaned close and dropped his voice to a soft, seductive, purr. "After all this, dear companion, I was rather counting on being your cabin boy."