A Matter of Inconvience
"Kriiiiis!" Allison came sailing down the stairs and nearly knocked him right back into the coach before he had even managed to get both feet on the ground. Kris steadied himself with one hand and hugged her with the other, grinning ruefully: and he'd worried that he'd find her turned into too much of a proper young lady. The black dress made her look older than her seventeen years, and technically you could say her hair was up, but half of it had come spilling down in back.
"Are you all right?" she said, hugging him back, and she stepped back and looked at him, holding his arms. "Mother said you were going to—did the lawyers tell you everything?"
Kris hid a frown. "They told me all they needed to," he said, mildly. "It's nothing you need to worry about," but Allison just rolled her eyes.
"I'm not stupid!" she said. "Mother was going around crying and trying to hide it for weeks, it's not like I haven't figured it out. She just won't tell me how bad it is, so come on. Are we all going to be arrested for debt? I read a novel where a girl got locked in a prison and then she escaped with a rope out the window—"
"We're not going to be arrested!" Kris said, rubbing his face, and looked up as their butler came to the door and said formally, "Welcome home, your Lordship," and Kris swallowed hard as it hit all over again—his father was really gone.
His mother was waiting more sedately in the front sitting room, looking somehow smaller in her black gloves and mourning-clothes, but as soon as he came in, she dropped her embroidery and jumped up to hug him tightly. Her eyes weren't red, but they looked tired and strained, and he hugged her again after his second look. "It's going to be all right," he told her.
She smiled sadly and laid her hand against his cheek. "I'm so glad you're home, sweetheart," was all she said. "Tell us everything: has Bonaparte really abdicated?" she asked, as she drew him down to sit on the sofa next to her.
It wasn't going to be all right. That night, Kris lay in his old bed, the warm comfortable hangings heavy and strange after five years on campaign sleeping on cots and frozen ground, and listened to the familiar sounds of the great house creaking around him: friendly soft noises, so different from the tense waiting for the distant gunshots, the rumble of cannon. He'd dreamed of coming home so often that it was hard to believe he was really here; even harder to believe that in a month, two maybe, it would all be gone. Sold, to strangers; someone else would be sleeping here.
In the morning he told his mother and Allison; his voice didn't get much above a whisper. The worst of it was how Allison never let the news show on her face. There was no dowry; there would never be a London Season for her. His mother's portion was safe, but that was it; they would be able to take a small house somewhere quiet and unfashionable, away from society; a hell of a life for Allison, who'd pretty much been counting the days until her debut since she was nine years old.
The worst of it except for one thing. "I have to go back to London tomorrow, to—talk to the lawyers," Kris said, finally, and didn't mention the other visit he also had to make, but his mother's eyes were sorrowful on his face, and she nodded a tiny bit.
The next afternoon, Lord O'Connell gripped Kris's hand in his study, almost as much regret on his face. He said, "I don't see why you and Katharine can't take a turn in the gardens," a little too heartily, and let them walk out alone, Katy's hand gripped tight on the crook of Kris's elbow.
"Is it really that bad?" was the first thing she said after they were outside, without his having to tell her.
"Yes," he said, swallowing, and she nodded a little bit and let go of his arm to sit down on a bench. Her eyes were bright and wet, but she didn't let them spill over. She was so damn beautiful it hurt, and her calm, serene quiet, even now—everything he'd remembered over and over, through all the killing fields of the war, reading over the one secret letter she'd slipped to him the day he'd left her in this same garden, promising to come back.
"Is it—you know I don't need to be rich," she said. "My dowry isn't much, but—"
"This isn't about rich," he said, cutting her off. "I'll be living on my half-pay."
Katy paused. "Conway Park?"
"It has to go," Kris said. "Everything goes."
"Oh, Kris," she said, and half reached out a hand to him; he had to turn away, because if he'd taken it, he would've pulled her into his arms and kissed her, and Lord O'Connell was trusting him.
"I'm so sorry," he said.
She didn't say anything for a moment, but when he turned back, she threw her head back, bravely, and smiled at him. "I hope we can always be good friends," she said. "And—you never know. Things can—" She stopped, and her smile broke, and she said, "Kris, please go," in a lower voice, cracking. He went, fast, stopping just inside the house to press his eyes against his sleeve, even though the servants lingering in the hallway could see him.
He thought that was as bad as it could get; but after Katy he still had go on to his lawyers' offices and sit while they droned over settlements and debts and broken banks and shrunken rent-rolls. All the most important things in his life reduced to numbers on their scrolls and talked about in flat, impersonal tones, hours and dragging hours, and he couldn't leave. Katy's voice, breaking, kept playing on a loop in the back of his head.
It was dark when they were done. Mr. Sarver, his man of business, folded up his portfolio and the said, incredibly, "There's no rush to sell up, of course, my lord. We'll be sure to keep this quiet."
"I don't see why," Kris said, dully. "They've had to wait two months for their money already, and it's not going to show up out of thin air."
After escaping, he took a hackney to his club and started drinking. He'd almost never done that before; he liked his head clear when there might be fighting somewhere up ahead, and that had been all the time; but the only way he'd gotten through the last of the meeting was by telling himself he was earning one night of oblivion. "Just leave the bottle, and stick me into a corner if I fall over," he told the waiter, and started working into it grimly.
He was two thirds of the way down when Lord Desai's son came to sit with him: one of the few people Kris could've borne right then, with just a hard, sympathetic squeeze of his shoulder, and pulling up a glass of his own.
"I'm not good company tonight," Kris said, roughly, by way of warning.
"I know. That's why I'm here," Anoop said, and took the decanter away to pour himself some brandy. "I saw Katy's brother earlier."
"Don't." Kris couldn't help flinching; it was like someone rubbing a raw wound with salt. He stared down at the table and didn't let himself cry.
Anoop blew out a long breath. "I'm sorry," he said. "I hate that I have to bring this out now, like this—but your affairs won't wait, and—"
He stopped, and Kris eyed him sidelong; it wasn't like him to go tongue-tied. Then Kris said, "No—Anoop, I appreciate it, but I can't—"
"I'm not going to offer to lend you money," Anoop said. "Not that I wouldn't, but I don't have it to give, not the kind you need. But there's a way you can get it."
Kris stared at him and then laughed. "Anoop, do you get—we're talking twenty thousand pounds at least just to clear the debts. Another twenty to actually bring the estate up to where it can be profitable again."
"Yes," Anoop said. "There's a way."
"Who do I have to kill?" Kris said, dryly.
"Not kill," Anoop said. "Marry."
"Thank you, that's wonderful," Mrs. Lambert said, accepting the cup of tea. "I'm so sorry my son couldn't be here," she added. "I wrote him three days ago, when I got your invitation, but all I know is that he's somewhere in Paris, and God only knows how long it'll take to pry him loose."
Kris felt like he was floating a few inches outside himself. It all seemed nuts more than anything else—two months ago he'd been in the middle of the battlefields of Spain, up to his ankles in mud and shit and blood; four days ago he'd been speaking to Katy in her garden; today he was meeting—a prospective mother-in-law?
He'd been braced for the worst, someone like a grasping tradesman, treating him like a curio on a shelf for sale. Truth was, he'd almost wanted the worst. He could've said no to the worst. But Mrs. Lambert was anything but vulgar; he could even see his own mother liking her, unwillingly, even after she'd said, "Never—Kristopher, I absolutely forbid it. I won't see you sacrifice everything—"
But everything was going to be sacrificed. At least this way, he only had to sacrifice one thing, and if he couldn't marry Katy anyway, it wasn't much of a sacrifice. Why not marry this American with his sixty thousand a year, and save everything else? Kris couldn't see any logical reasons to say no; this way he could provide for Allison, he could save the estate. The only thing he had to do was sell himself, and at the moment, according to his lawyers, he was worth about nine shillings and sixpence.
"New York is home for us, but it's just too provincial for Adam. He's never quite been happy there. He needs more society than we have in the colonies—more music, and art, and theater." Mrs. Lambert smiled wryly. "But all the money in the world doesn't open the best doors in London."
That was as close as she got to hinting at the elephant in the corner until later, after his mother had left the room for a moment, and it was just the two of them. Then Mrs. Lambert put down her cup and said to Kris, "I hate to be forward about this—and of course nothing can be settled until the two of you have met. But to be honest, an arranged marriage was my idea for him in the first place, and I think Adam will be willing. But if you're not interested, please stop me now!"
"I'd be happy to meet him," Kris said. "When he comes back to London." That was as much as he could make himself say. But it seemed to be enough; Mrs. Lambert nodded, satisfied, and when his mother came back in, she stood up to take her leave, and said, "I hope you'll feel welcome to call at our home anytime," before she left.
"You are so not going to marry some total stranger just so I can have a giant dowry," Allison said stormily, after she'd been let out of her room. Kris had prudently locked her in right when Mrs. Lambert had arrived, since he knew that gleam in Allison's eye, and it meant trouble. "You're going to marry Katy!"
"I'm not going to marry Katy," Kris said, fighting hard to keep it from coming out sharp; it still hurt to say, to believe. "That's over, no matter what."
"But if you marry this guy, we're rich again, and if we're rich, you could marry Katy!" Allison said. "You'll be here in London, you'll be seeing her around at all the parties—it'll be totally worse than if we were all poor together somewhere else." She paused and said thoughtfully, "See, I should marry somebody rich. I'm not in love with anybody. You think maybe he'd take me?"
"If you think for one second I'm going to hand you over to some rich guy just to save—" Kris started, and stopped too late.
"See!" Allison said triumphantly. "You won't do it with me—"
"That's different," Kris said. "Look, this isn't about some kind of sacrifice. It's my job as head of the family. This way I don't have to sell the whole estate and ship back out to France. I'm not doing this for you, Alli-girl," he added, trying to pretend at lightness.
"You are such a horrible liar and I hate you and if you marry him I will never speak to you again," Allison said, and slammed back into her bedroom.
Two days later, he was sitting in the salon picking at the pianoforte—a song he'd written for Katy in his head during the long slog through Portugal—when Allison bounded in sparkling-eyed, seized Kris's arm with her black-gloved hands, and blurted, "I take it back!"
"What?" Kris said.
"You have to marry him!" Allison said.
"Kristopher," Lady DioGuardi said, sweeping in behind Allison without even handing her coat to the waiting footman, "you can't marry this man. I think he's out of his mind! "
"Uh," Kris said, and looked at Allison. Lady DioGuardi was Allison's godmother, and she'd been really kind to them so far, taking Allison to private parties and dinners on the quiet to save his mother the strain of company and Allison the isolation of mourning, but he really wouldn't have wanted her in on this particular arrangement. Not that people weren't going to find out soon enough, obviously, just—
"I had to tell her," Allison said. "She wouldn't let me talk to him otherwise!"
"I shouldn't have let her talk to him anyway!" Lady DioGuardi said. "What Paula was thinking of to invite these people at all, I would love to know—"
Allison rolled her eyes and shook Kris's arm some more. "You don't even understand, he is amazing."
"Of course she liked him," Lady DioGuardi said, after Kris's mother had come in and Allison had been packed off to bed, already gleefully planning out what she was going to wear to the wedding. "He romped with her all night. He danced with her twice and would have stood up with her again after that if I hadn't intervened; and my dear Kim, I am very sorry to tell you that she would have said yes."
"Oh, dear," Kris's mother said.
"And then he stayed by her nearly the whole rest of the night, whispering. They were giggling," Lady DioGuardi added, in ringing tones. "As for his clothing—" She shook her head. "The less said the better."
"So he was nice to Allison, and he has bad taste in clothing," Kris said, jabbing at the fire hard with a metal poker; he'd gone to stand by the mantel so he could at least try not to listen. He was going to do it; he didn't need to think about it too much beforehand. "Doesn't sound terrible."
"A powder-blue coat," Lady DioGuardi said, "covered with silver braid, and diamond buttons. I am not joking. And he was made up like an actress on the stage."
"You mean an actor," Kris said.
"I mean an actress," Lady DioGuardi said. "It was—" she waved her hands wildly. "—it was bizarre! Kris, you should have told me you were considering this. Why don't you let me introduce you to a few charming young men? The Marquess of Giraud's younger son has beautiful manners, and a very respectable portion."
"Unfortunately a respectable portion isn't going to cut it," Kris said, trying not to let it come out bitter. He wasn't sure how well he did. "I need a disreputable one."
"But so what are you going to do about, you know, an heir?" Captain Gokey said. "Would you do the—or will he—"
Kris closed his mouth on the none of your damn business answer he wanted to make and wondered tiredly how long Allison was going to be in the hat store. He liked Danny well enough—had been pretty damn grateful to have him and his artillery company at his back at Salamanca—but Danny had all the sensitivity and tact of his cannon.
Especially since the real answer was, Kris had no clue and didn't feel like getting one anytime soon. Lying down with a stranger instead of Katy was going to be awful enough without bringing children into it. If he could get Allison settled, Kris wouldn't give a damn who inherited the estate after him; there was some cousin on his father's side who could take it.
"That's a nice team of match bays," he said instead of answering, which was good enough to distract Danny's attention over to the street.
"Not as nice as those," Danny said, and following his line of sight to the far side of the park, Kris had to agree: a pair of black horses with one white stocking each on opposite legs, showy but with amazing lines, tossing their heads in the London traffic. "That carriage, though—"
The high-perch phaeton was painted glossy black and gold, with gold lining the inside of the wheels, and the driver was dressed to match in a gold-buttoned black coat and a top hat with one enormous gold-dipped plume billowing out behind him. Which nearly went ripping off in a second, because he was darting through an opening and springing the horses, despite the crowd. He nearly clipped the edge of the sidewalk as he made the turn and came down along the park, catching his hat with his other hand.
"That guy's nuts," Danny said, disapprovingly.
"Who?" Allison said, coming out of the store—empty-handed. She kept insisting she didn't need anything, like a hat was going to break them, even though she couldn't resist going into the stores to look at them. "Oh my God!" she said, and waved an arm. "Adam!" she yelled, and Kris winced as half a dozen dowagers turned to stare disapprovingly.
The phaeton driver looked over and waved back at her equally wildly, beaming, and promptly drove his carriage across four lanes to pull up right beside them. He leaned over the edge to kiss Allison's hand. "How are you, beautiful?" he said. "Are you shopping? Did you find anything amazing?"
Kris didn't say anything at first because he was too taken-aback, Danny gawking next to him: what the hell did this man think he was doing talking to his sister like that anywhere, much less in the middle of the street. "Uh, I beg your pardon?" Kris said, ice-formal, and then Allison jabbed him hard with an elbow.
"Kris!" she hissed. "This is Adam. Adam Lambert." She beamed up at Adam and said, "Adam, this is my brother, Kristopher, and he is totally not a stick in the mud except when it comes to me."
"Oh," Kris said, and stared up at—Adam. Adam, who was tall, with green eyes or maybe they were blue, smudged a little round with black, a shock of black hair under his hat and the most ludicrous coat Kris had ever seen, smiling down at him with a frankly sensual interest that was one step shy of offensive. Kris felt his cheeks heating under it.
"Wow, your horses!" Allison was saying, going to their heads to pet their noses. They snorted and tossed their heads, prancing.
"Do you want a ride?" Adam said, and Allison was squeaking, "Yes!" Running back before Kris could say a word, she held out her hand to Adam, who wound the reins around his other arm, reached down, and scooped her up around the waist to swing her between the wheels and onto the seat.
"Allison!" Kris said, through his teeth—dammit, that was Lady Jersey not four carriages away, and she was watching them all with interest. Adam only blinked at him and said, "Oh, am I not supposed to take her? I'm so sorry, I never get these things right."
"Kriiiis! Don't be weird!" Allison said. "Come with us! Danny, you totally don't mind, right?"
That left Danny exactly one answer to give; he tipped his hat just a bit, giving Kris a deeply meaningful glance, and said, "Your servant, Miss Allen," and left Kris standing there with Adam holding out his gloved hand behind Allison's back and saying, "Watch the front wheel."
Kris climbed up, feeling like he was getting into a tumbril, and squeezed in on Allison's other side. The horses leaped away from the curb. "So what do you think of them?" Adam said, zipping past a dog-cart and a carter with a load of wood, giving an unnecessary snap of his whip. "I just bought them this morning, but I think they're fabulous."
"They are so cool!" Allison said. "And I love this coat! Where did you even get this?"
"I had it made in Paris!" Adam said. "I met this absolute genius tailor there. He made coats for Napoleon!"
"There's an endorsement," Kris said.
"Well, not lately, obviously," Adam said. "But you can't tell me you didn't like that gorgeous red coat from when he was First Consul, before he went completely off the rails."
"Uh," Kris said, because he'd never actually paid that much attention to Napoleon's coats, really.
"Ohh, the one in the painting!" Allison said. "That is such an amazing coat. The same tailor made this one?"
"Yes!" Adam said. "Would you believe he had to close his shop after Napoleon abdicated, because nobody would go to him anymore? I found him living over a bakery doing mending for pennies, it was absolutely criminal. So he's moving to London, I'm setting him up in a new place here."
"Just so you can buy more coats from him?" Kris said. Allison looked at him a little puzzledly, and Kris swallowed and tacked on, "Couldn't you send away to Paris?" He didn't know why he was being so prickly. He'd always gotten along with pretty much everyone he met, and if Adam wanted to deck himself out like Christmas and throw around money like water, well, it was his money to throw around, and he had only himself to please.
For the moment, anyway. Kris felt his hands tightening on the edge of the seat.
"Not and get a decent fit!" Adam said. "Anyway, I am positive he's going to be a huge hit, so it's an investment."
Adam whipped the phaeton around another corner and into Hyde Park, slowing them a little as they got onto a shaded lane with less traffic. "Can I try?" Allison said.
Allison was actually a great driver, but Kris knew exactly how every guy he knew would react to the idea of handing his perfect match team to a seventeen-year-old girl, so he wasn't ready for Adam to say, "Of course!"
"You'd better swap with me and loop the reins, though, they're pretty frisky," Adam added, leaning over to thread the reins through a ring on the front corner of the carriage, and then he held the ribbons until Allison had climbed over him and gotten settled. That left him in the middle, pressed up against Kris's side, and Adam stretched his arm out over the top of the seat and put a boot up on the running board as Allison set the team trotting.
His legs were long in the snug pantaloons, and his boots were gleaming black. He was startlingly good-looking in an operatic way, Kris couldn't help but admit, even if Adam's thigh was indecently warm where it pressed up against Kris's leg.
"So this is a little awkward," Adam said softly, leaning over to murmur in his ear as Allison yipped out a "Whee!" and waved the whip in the air.
"Yeah, I, uh," Kris said, heat climbing his neck for some reason. He pulled himself the hell together and said, "We didn't know when you'd be back from Paris."
"I would have taken the overnight coach if my mother had been a little more informative," Adam said, and Kris didn't get that until he saw Adam's appreciative look.
He flushed a little—what the hell, Adam was looking him over like he was at market, maybe about to pick out another piece of horseflesh. "Like what you see?" he bit out.
"Are you kidding me? You're adorable," Adam said, blithe and oblivious. "I'm guessing it is totally out of the question for us to go somewhere and make out for a while, though. Ow!" he said, before Kris managed to choke out a response to that one, and looked reproachfully at Allison, who had just smacked him with the end of the reins.
"I am so not letting you try anything with my brother!" Allison said indignantly. "And keep your hands to yourself!" She poked Adam's shoulder with the whip.
"My intentions are honorable!" Adam said, but he sighed and took his arm away from the back of the seat and folded his hands up carefully in his lap. "There, is that better?"
"Yes," Allison said firmly. "And now you're going to take over again and switch places with me."
"Aw," Adam said reproachfully, but took the reins back and let Allison sit down between them again. "I really shouldn't complain," Adam continued. "I love being able to flirt here. You have no idea how stuffy everyone is in New York."
"I wouldn't say we're all that loose here," Kris said, trying to ignore how his shoulders felt colder where he'd been leaned up against Adam's arm.
"You haven't jumped out of the carriage screaming yet," Adam said cheerfully.
"See!" Allison said, bouncing into the sitting room ahead of Kris. "Isn't he amazing? I told you! Mother, we met Adam, and he drove us home!"
"Oh?" Lady Allen said, looking at Kris anxiously. Kris pretended not to see and went and rang the bell for some tea.
"So are you going to call on him tomorrow?" Allison said. "Mother, it was so cute, he was all over Kris. Not that I let him get away with that," she added smugly.
"I didn't really need my virtue defended," Kris said.
"You were letting him cuddle you!" Allison said.
"He was sitting next to me in a phaeton," Kris said, trying not to be annoyed at how completely Adam had won Allison over. "That doesn't qualify as cuddling."
"It was so cuddling," Allison said, but as Kris pointed out to his mother later, a girl who wasn't even out yet wasn't exactly the best judge.
"And—are you—are you still sure about this?" Lady Allen said, low. "Kristopher, you know I don't want—please, please don't let me see you sacrifice your happiness for money. There's no reason you shouldn't—wait a little while, at least."
Except there were a lot of reasons, and they were in a pile waiting for him on the desk in his father's study, along with his man of business. "I can put the creditors off for a week or two more," Mr. Sarver said. "Or—I'm sorry to put it this way, my lord, but I could put them off for an indefinite time, if I can tell them there are—expectations."
Kris didn't say anything, feeling queasy. He'd never imagined having to do anything like this. "Put them off for a few more days," he said finally. "I'll get in touch by the end of the week."
After Sarver left, closing the door, Kris sat in the office for a long time while the candles burned down, turning Katy's letter over carefully in his fingers, the edges ragged and stained with ash and even some blood, falling apart along the seams. He couldn't read it anymore, but he didn't need to; he knew all the words by heart. The latest stack of bills stood across from him on the other side of the table, a mountain next to the one thin slip of paper.
It might all be moot, anyway, he tried to tell himself. He wasn't that amazing a prize, and a man with sixty thousand a year could buy himself a title some other way, instead of betrothing himself to someone he'd met the day before. Adam didn't have to be in a rush.
Except Adam seemed to like speed, and Adam seemed to like him. Kris swallowed and bent his head. He wasn't going to be a coward about this. If he was going to sell himself to the highest bidder, at least he'd do it honestly. He opened the letter up and looked over it one more time, and then he touched it to the candle-flame and dropped it into the grate. Then he put his head down on his arms and stayed there, until it died and crumbled all the way to ash.
He rode over to the Lamberts' rented house the next morning. The butler showed him into a sitting room with a pianoforte and said, with a shade of doubt, "Mr. Lambert will be down... shortly."
There was a huge, ugly, expensive clock ticking away ominously on the mantel. After ten minutes of waiting, Kris gave up pacing and sat down to play a little, pretty much to distract himself from turning around and making a flat-out break for it. He kept wanting to hunt around for the letter, noticing on instinct that it was gone out of his jacket pocket, and then remembering over and over with a stab what he'd done, what he still had to do.
But Adam didn't have to do this. There was a pile of invitations on the salver in the front hall—mostly from fortune hunters and lower-ton families, but it was big enough. Adam didn't need to marry the first impoverished earl who crossed his path. Kris banged through some Bach, complicated enough he couldn't really think about anything else. He wanted Adam to come down and put an end to this—to say he wanted to get acquainted first, that he was grateful but—
What Adam actually said when he finally swept into the room was, "You play, too," like it was some amazing new discovery, and he seized both of Kris's hands and brought them up, eyes shining as he brushed his lips against them.
His hands were broad, and warm and strong. They didn't have any calluses. "It's a great instrument," Kris said, drawing his hands back. "You play?"
"Not a note," Adam said cheerfully. "I just warble along when I can get someone else to play." He waved a hand at the French doors. "Can I lure you out into the gardens? I know it's hot, but they'll bring us ices."
Kris followed him outside to sit on one of the benches underneath a huge shady oak, and had another of those strange, dizzying moments of disconnect in the middle of the rich lush green hedgerows, the orderly paths and the masses of roses, the sweet lemon ices melting cool on his tongue. The bench was covered with velvet cushions, the beautiful house with all its mullioned windows looking out at them, all the noise of the city muffled away. It was too close to Katy's garden, and too far away from everything real.
"My mother told me you're just back from the front," Adam said, and Kris flinched in surprise and looked at him; Adam's eyes were soft and oddly gentle, concerned. "It must have been so hard—after the abdication, and everyone celebrating, and having to rush home—"
"It's been—complicated," Kris said, which was the best he could do. He looked away. I could've talked to Katy about it, he thought, tight and hard clenching around his chest; he pushed that traitorous thought away.
"I hate to feel like this is a huge rush," Adam said thoughtfully, after a pause. "But on the other hand, if it wasn't one, you wouldn't even be here. No, no," he said, when Kris tried to work out how to answer that. "Look, I'm really not good at dancing around things, so let me just lay it out. I like you, and I hope you wouldn't be here if you didn't like me. But right now, if we do this, you're not so much marrying me as you're marrying a giant pile of money. And I'm mostly marrying London."
"You don't have to get married to stay here, you know that," Kris said, feeling like he was stalling for time.
Adam flung a hand out dismissively. "I don't just want to sit here in this giant house, twiddling my thumbs. I want to be part of this. I want to go to the most amazing parties in the entire world, and I want to throw some of my own. I want to see the newest fashions the moment they come out on the dance floor. I want to socialize with anyone who is interesting and amazing, and I don't want to have to think about it in some sort of awful strategic way. Right now, I have no idea who I can even say hello to without being encroaching, and who's saying hello to me only because I'm rich."
"I thought you said it was less stuffy here than in New York," Kris said.
"Oh, it is," Adam said. "There I didn't have to wonder, I was pretty much mortally insulting everyone around me by walking out the door in a coat that wasn't brown. Brown as mud."
He made it sound deeply tragic, and even with everything, Kris couldn't help laughing. It was hard not to like Adam, even if that took away the last shreds of an excuse. He dropped his head over his hands a little and breathed out. He could do this, so he had to.
"My point is, I think we'd be getting a fair trade here," Adam said, going on. "We're both bringing something to the table."
"I don't know how much I'm bringing," Kris said. "A title doesn't do much. And the balls aren't all that amazing."
"Do you think I get excited about my money?" Adam said. "The toys are fun, don't get me wrong, but money is only worth whatever it can buy. And it can't buy social status." He laughed. "I want the Prince Regent to come to my parties!"
"Uh," Kris said. "I don't actually know him—"
"Trust me," Adam said. "Once I've got a foot in the door, I can handle the rest." He grinned at Kris, and Kris found himself grinning back again, and then Adam's eyes got a little hooded and he said, in a lower voice, "So does that work?"
"I guess—" Kris said.
"—are we engaged? Can I kiss you now?" Adam said.
"— what?" Kris said, but Adam apparently took the first part as an answer to all three questions, because his hands slid into Kris's hair and he tilted Kris's head and kissed him.
Kris didn't know what the hell to do. Adam was kissing him, sweet cold tang of the lemon ice in his mouth, Adam's lips hot by contrast, and he was doing something with his tongue, and Mrs. Lambert was standing over them saying, "Adam!" in exasperation, and three weeks later, they were married.
Kris fell against the cushions of the well-sprung coach, dazed, the gleeful calls of congratulation from Allison and his friends still ringing after them. "Well, that was fun!" Adam said, sprawling next to him and carelessly putting his feet up on the other side, Hessians right on the velvet upholstery. He tossed his beaver hat over next to them and ran his hands through his hair, disarranging it into a wild spiky mess. He'd worn white pantaloons, all but molded to the skin, and a white coat too, with only the glossy black boots and a black cravat to stand against it.
Kris swallowed and turned his head to pretend he was staring out the window of the coach; he couldn't have said what the weather was like, though, or what streets they were passing. He felt almost blind.
Somehow it hadn't really hit him until about half an hour ago, standing in front of the minister and the rabbi, repeating his vows: his voice had cracked unexpectedly, and he'd had to stop a moment. He'd let himself be carried along, these last three weeks—Adam in motion was like a river in full flood, and it had all seemed a little ridiculous and almost a joke, until Kris had found himself saying the words that would bind him to a stranger for the rest of his life. It was done and over, no chance of reprieve.
He was deeply glad to have been in mourning—he'd seen Adam yearning at every step to let the affair explode, and Allison had been no help: her least crazy idea had been for them to hire the circus-riders from Astley's. Any less excuse than his father's death, and he probably would've been getting married in front of a full orchestra and five hundred people.
"You're sure you don't mind going to the hunting lodge for the honeymoon?" he asked again, to be saying something. He'd offered to go to Paris, or to Venice—the last of the fighting was long since over, and he'd expected Adam to jump at it, not to say, "No, I'd really rather stay somewhere quieter."
It was just as well Kris hadn't started selling off; the hunting lodge had been closed up by his father nearly ten years ago or more, but it was easy enough to send a few servants to reopen the place. Kris didn't understand what Mr. Sarver had done and had the feeling he didn't want to, but bills had somehow magically stopped being a problem even before the ink was dry on the betrothal contract, with its ludicrous numbers. Kris had tried to argue about some of them, but Adam had waved a hand and said, "Please, as though it matters," and had actually tried to sneak in a separate settlement on Allison behind Kris's back, even though that was completely inappropriate.
"I don't see why it's wrong!" Adam had said. "She's going to be my sister, too!"
"She isn't your sister yet," Kris said, "and you aren't marrying her." Though if it hadn't been clear that Adam wasn't interested in women for anything but outrageously intimate friendship, Kris would almost have suggested the trade Allison had offered up before: as far as he could tell, after a week's acquaintance, Adam and Allison already liked each other better than anyone else in the world.
"But I want her to have it!" Adam said. "She should have every last eligible in London chasing her."
"If I let you settle fifty thousand pounds on her, she would," Kris said. "Also every last ineligible, and probably also teams of bandits trying to abduct her. No."
Adam had subsided, with a brooding look that suggested the topic was going to get reopened at some point, but Kris had taken what small victories he could get. He'd been surprised to be spared the Grand Tour, also, and had felt like he should be grateful for it, but now that they were alone in a carriage rolling away to the mountains, Kris was sorry to have no distractions. He had no idea what they'd talk about without Allison there to chatter, without their mothers making conversation.
"It's not too late to go to Paris," he added; they hadn't gotten far on the road.
"We can go to Paris in the spring," Adam said. "I have much better plans for the honeymoon."
"Like?" Kris said, looking around, and Adam, sprawled lazily back into the corner of the coach, raised his head a little and half-smiled, teasing his lower lip through his teeth. Then he pushed himself up and leaned over, and caught Kris's mouth with his own, a slow suckling kiss that wasn't anything like the chaste brush of his lips in the chapel. Adam's breath blew hot over Kris's cheek as he nuzzled in, and Kris was panting, his hands gripping hard on the edge of the seat; he was shivering hot and cold all at once somehow.
He wrapped his hand around Adam's neck and kissed him back hard, almost angrily. He wanted to, he couldn't help wanting to, and it felt like a betrayal. The warm, faintly salty smell of Adam's skin shouldn't have made his mouth water, his hands shouldn't have been clumsy loosening the strings of Adam's beautiful, intricately-laced waistcoat.
"Oh," Adam said, low, nosing along the underside of Kris's jaw, his open mouth brushing Kris's throat, and Kris shoved him flat onto the seat, tearing at his own neckcloth jerkily, trying not to look at Adam's smiling, dreamy eyes while the coach rattled away the miles beneath them.
They were disheveled to the point of disgrace by the time they pulled up to the hunting lodge; Kris could barely breathe, and his mouth was sore from kissing. He hadn't known that could happen. "Oh my God," Adam said, peeking out of the coach window down the drive, "they're waiting for us. Kris, your servants are lining up."
"Yeah?" Kris said without really paying attention, dragging himself up and away from Adam, shakily. He felt a lot like the carriage had been overturned.
"We're a disaster!" Adam pushed him into a corner of the coach and buttoned him back up, tugging his waistcoat straight. "There is no hope for this," Adam added, meaning the neckcloth, but he did something with it; he didn't even try with his own, just knotted it back around his collar and stuffed the ends inside.
"I can try," Kris offered automatically, staring at him. Adam's mouth was red.
"Let's just make this fast, and maybe my coat will distract anyone from looking too close," Adam said, and swung himself out as the footman opened the coach door, turning to offer Kris a hand down.
The coat was distracting, and so was Adam himself; most of the servants had come from Conway Park, and they'd never seen him before. They stared, more than a little, and looked sidelong at Kris, a little doubtful and sorry even while they made their bows. He could see them putting Katy in Adam's place in their minds, and he had to keep his jaw clenched hard not to flinch from the looks of sympathy.
In his chambers, Kris ran his hands over his face. His valet had laid out his evening dress, and his things had been unpacked; from the sound going on in the adjoining room, that was taking longer for Adam. "If you'll allow me, m'lord," Orland said quietly, and helped him into his coat. Kris stood in front of the mirror until Orland tied the cravat and sent him downstairs; Adam took another half-hour to make his appearance, in an outfit that would've looked out of place at a formal event in St. James' Court: silver pantaloons and a cravat in turquoise silk, tied so elaborately it had probably taken up most of the half hour.
Kris didn't remember a lot about dinner; Adam filled the silence, and Kris managed to say enough, he hoped, not to be a jerk. He was still shaky inside, pulled taut after the long hours in the coach. He didn't want to, but he couldn't help thinking that soon—really soon now—
Adam put down his glass of wine with a click in the middle of the second course and said, "Okay, you know what, this is so not working." He stood and held out his hands to Kris, smiling. "Let's go upstairs."
"If—" Kris said. "Are you—" sure, he meant to ask, but that was stupid. There wasn't any sense putting it off, anyway, he told himself, and tried not to let his mouth get dry as he took Adam's hand and climbed the stairs back up to his room.
Kris hadn't, ever. During the campaign, some of his friends had shaken their heads at him and told him he owed it to Katy to know what he was doing, but he'd blown them off. "We'll figure it out together," he'd said, glad that he knew he could trust Katy, too. It hadn't ever occurred to him he might marry someone who wasn't—who'd given this to someone else, before. But it didn't matter now, of course; in fact it helped a little to think of Adam's hands on someone else. It made it easier not to want them as much.
"So you've—before," Kris said, not looking at Adam while he took off his cravat, and put his coat over a chair.
"Um, actually," Adam said, "I thought it would be nice to wait?" He looked apologetic when Kris stared at him, and offered, "I brought books?"
"What?" Kris said, wondering if Adam just wanted them to read in bed together or—
"With pictures," Adam said helpfully, and Kris said, his voice rising, "They make books about—"
They did make books about it. Adam also had written notes in a variety of handwriting—Kris was not asking where Adam had gotten those, because he didn't want to know; he also didn't want to know where Adam had bought the contents of the little carved chest that he dug out of his trunks. "Is that for—?" Kris said, staring.
Adam turned the thing upside down and back, a doubtful expression on his face. "Maybe when we have a little more experience," he said, and put it back in the chest.
"You know, I think maybe we should just see how it goes," Kris said, before Adam could pull anything else out.
"I think maybe you're right," Adam said, and leaned down to put the chest on the floor, and then he rolled back over twice and propped himself up over Kris, settling between his hips. "Do you want to go first?" he asked, hopefully.
"Whatever you want," Kris said; as long as it didn't involve large wooden things, all he wanted was to have it over with.
"Well—" Adam said, leaning down, and dropped a kiss on Kris's bare throat, and then another on his collarbone, and then—down a little further, and he licked curiously over Kris's nipple.
Kris jumped. Adam rubbed the flat of his tongue against it until it peaked for him, drawing tight and hard as if the air were bitter cold; it ached. Kris was breathing hard, and he'd gripped Adam's shoulders. Adam nosed at Kris's side, and dropped kisses along his ribs until he came to the scar where the Frenchman's bayonet had carved him open; he kissed that, too, and dipped lower still. Kris was shivering.
"Oh," he said, strangled. Adam had just put his hand around his—
"Hm," Adam said, thoughtfully, rubbing his thumb back and forward while he thought. Kris tried not to whimper. Then Adam put his head down and licked, and Kris jerked up helplessly and banged his cock into Adam's nose.
Adam jerked back and started laughing, and Kris said desperately, "This is not funny—" except then Adam settled his weight across Kris's thighs and licked him again, keeping him pinned this time, and the rest of the complaint drifted away, because Adam's mouth, oh God, his tongue, laving hot wet circles—
Adam tried to suck him, sliding his mouth over Kris's cock, careful and slow; the smooth edge of his teeth just grazed over the vein, and Kris wound his hands in the sheets and struggled not to move, not to—
"I can't work out how not to choke," Adam said, pulling off with a long drag of his lips over the head, and Kris abruptly came, spurts striping along Adam's cheek and into his hair, and the rest over Adam's hand and his own stomach.
"Oh, hell," Kris said, and tried to push himself up, mortified, but Adam didn't let him: his eyes went startling and hot and intent, and he pressed Kris down and held him and put his face down to lick—"Oh," Kris said again, strangling, his hips trying to writhe up and away at the same time from Adam's tongue on his—
"Oh," Adam said, breathy and low, "oh, Kris; oh—" and was kissing his thighs, hotly, and—and biting, and pushing his thighs apart. He was groping blindly, and Kris reached out with a shaky hand and gave him the little box of solid-packed clean white tallow Adam had taken out before. Together they got the lid off, and Adam dragged his fingers through it and rubbed them slick and greased between Kris's legs.
"Adam," Kris said, choking, as Adam's fingers pressed into him. It felt so—hurt a little, nothing terrible—Adam's mouth still on him, everything ten times more intense—Adam lifted his head and said, panting, "Is this—? I'm not hurting you? This is so strange—you're so close around my—"
"No," Kris said, "No, I'm, just—just do it," because if Adam kept on doing this to him, kept on taking him to pieces, Kris was going to beg; and he couldn't, he couldn't—
"All right," Adam said, "all right, just—" and he was crawling up, and fitting himself between Kris's thighs, and doing something—oiling himself, Kris thought distantly, staring at the canopy overhead and trying not to think past the moment, letting every minute come to him slowly one after another, even as Adam—
"Oh," he said explosively, suddenly giving way, and Adam eased inside smoothly and slow, his breath coming labored and in tiny, desperate pants. Adam stopped after a while halfway, his eyes shut, his mouth wet where he'd licked his lips and open to gasp for breath.
A line of sweat was trickling down the side of his throat, and Kris stared at it. He wanted it, wanted to taste it and run his tongue up Adam's neck along the trail, and he even twitched towards it, except he couldn't—his hips pushed forward, and his shoulders came up, and then he felt Adam deeper inside him and fell back, breathing in and out, fast.
Adam groaned and gripped his hips tighter and came in the rest of the way, his sides gliding damp with sweat against Kris's thighs until they were pressed together. Adam was bowed low over him. Kris put his hand around Adam's neck and pulled him down, straining until he could reach, salt on his tongue and Adam's hips starting to move, claiming, and he felt like he was falling a long, long way.
Kris had been ready to do his duty. He'd figured he'd get married, and he'd restore the estates, take care of his family, and Adam would run around London throwing parties. There would be conjugal duties and eventually there would have to be an heir, all of that, but they'd go their separate ways more often than not. It should have been boring and awful, something he did because it had to be done.
Instead it was three days later, with Adam humming Auprès de ma blonde in the dressing room and then coming back into the bedroom to sprawl next to him with a ripe apple in one hand and an obscene drawing in the other, saying, "Let's try this next."
"We could get up," Kris said desperately, because he was pretty sure they hadn't left the bed since tea-time yesterday, and the clock was showing one in the afternoon. "Maybe go for a ride. It's a nice day?" He had no idea if it was a nice day; the bedcurtains were still drawn.
But Adam was willing to be persuaded, so it seemed like a brilliant escape idea until they left the yard and were out in the back meadow, overlooking the slope down to the river, and Kris nudged his horse into a trot. He pulled it back to a walk almost instantly.
"Um," Adam said after a moment, wearing the same pursed-mouth expression on his face. "We could lead the horses?"
"Yeah," Kris said, a little strangled.
They both swung down onto the hard-frozen ground, winced, looked at each other, and Adam broke out laughing; after a moment Kris was laughing too, helplessly, because it was so damn ridiculous. "Do you think this is why women ride sidesaddle?" Adam said, still giggling, and then he tossed the reins up over a branch and caught Kris's face in his hands and kissed him.
Kris kissed him back, still laughing, and for a moment it all felt so right, his hand in the small of Adam's back pressing their bodies close, standing on his own land and Adam his too, warm and smelling so good—felt right and easy, and Kris didn't know whether the sudden hot surge of anger was meant for Adam or himself.
Adam broke off, looking at him a little puzzled. Kris forced a smile and said, "I don't know my legs are going to hold out all that long, either."
Adam smiled back, brighter again, and said slyly, "Well, I guess we'll just have to go find somewhere to lie down."
Kris managed to keep his face turned away towards his horse while they started walking the short way back to the house, swallowing a bitter taste of resentment. He hadn't offered a love-match and Adam hadn't asked for one; but now Adam seemed to think his heart could be picked up for the price of his title and a romp in bed—
That wasn't fair, and Kris knew it even while he let himself think it. Adam was holding up his side of the bargain, more than fair, and it wasn't crazy of him to look for affection or at least good company. Kris had given Katy up, he'd married Adam—his choice, however skimpy the choosing part of it had seemed. It was his duty to forget her; it was his duty to cherish Adam.
Only it was hard—it was so hard, after so much else that had already been hard. He loved Katy, loved her so much; it hadn't been a lie, or calf-love, and he wanted the right to mourn, not to spend every night in someone else's bed, feeling like a liar and a cheat because Adam's touch could make his blood heat up when it shouldn't have. He'd been bought and paid for; that shouldn't have opened him up like a box for Adam to come rummaging around in him.
"So how does this compare?" Adam asked, looking up at the lodge as they climbed the slope.
"What?" Kris said, jerking his head up.
"Size, I mean," Adam said. "Is Conway Park much bigger than this?"
"Uh," Kris said blankly. The lodge was a nice little country place—could have slept six couples, maybe a few more single men than that for a hunting party, if they didn't mind being squeezed into odd corners.
"And Conway Park—" Adam said, eyeing him sidelong.
"It's—" Kris shrugged a little.
"Please just tell me there isn't a moat," Adam said. "I can deal with almost anything except a moat."
"Uh," Kris said.
"There is not an actual moat!" Adam said. "You do not have to cross a drawbridge to get inside the house!"
"No!" Kris said.
"Okay, so don't scare me," Adam said.
"It's not around the house," Kris said. "It's around the ruins of the original—"
"Oh my God!" Adam cried, and Kris couldn't help laughing again. He didn't really get what Adam was so freaked out over, but it was funny. It made him want to see Adam's face when—and Kris had to look away again fast, the laughter sliding back down his throat as fast as it had come. He'd meant to bring Katy to Conway Park, as its lady.
"Will we go there after the honeymoon?" Adam asked.
Kris's shoulders tensed up, hard. It was the right thing to do: to present Adam to the household, and then the tenants, and take him over the house and the estates. "If you don't mind, I'd rather go back to London," Kris said, controlling his voice. "It's hard for my mother to be alone right now—and I know she's worried about Allison getting in trouble, in the city. And—you'll need to be presented at St. James—"
"Of course I don't mind," Adam said. "It's going to take me at least a month to have my court clothes made. But can we do that while we're still in mourning?"
"We'll be out of black gloves by then," Kris said, already mad at himself, and guilty. Adam was the one who had saved Conway Park from the auction block; he had more right to take possession than anyone. But Kris couldn't help it; he didn't want to take Adam there yet. The Court presentation would eat a few months—there would be calls to make and return, after, and the round of the Season. Then maybe Adam would want to travel, when the weather was warmer—
A few more months like that, and Kris would learn to stop thinking of what he'd lost. He wasn't taking anything from Adam; Adam wanted to go to London, and he probably wouldn't care at all about a huge rambly old estate. Kris told himself he just needed a little more time, and pretended it didn't sound like a half-assed excuse.
Unfortunately, that made this all his own damn fault, Kris belatedly realized, a week after getting back to London.
"Kris, I don't—please don't think—" his mother said, helplessly. "No one could ask for a better son-in-law—Adam is wonderful, and he—"
"What is it this time?" Kris said fatalistically. Three days ago it had been a necklace of emeralds and sapphires worth at least thirty thousand pounds. Adam had almost cried when Kris had made him send it back. Allison had cried, and also accused him of being a jerk.
"I don't know how to—I can't tell Allison she can't go to a Vauxhall masquerade with him," his mother said.
"To a what?" Kris said.
"But that's the point!" Adam said, when Kris started explaining, in what he thought was a totally reasonable way, that no respectable lady would ever go to a Vauxhall rout. "Kris, you have to see she's so bored."
Kris did get that: Allison had gotten a taste of freedom, but not quite enough; she was here in London, with all the excitement of the Season around her, but she couldn't do anything in black gloves. "That doesn't mean we're going to help her ruin herself!"
Adam waved a hand impatiently. "That's why a masquerade is perfect. And there won't be any chaperones around to pry—"
"Gentlemen do go to Vauxhaull routs," Kris said. "They'll gossip too."
"Not if they don't recognize her," Adam said, "which they won't. She hasn't been presented, no one knows her."
"They'd still recognize you," Kris said. "It wouldn't be a huge stretch."
"They won't recognize me," Adam said. Kris looked at Adam pointedly. Adam looked indignant. "I'm not going to slap on a domino and call it a night!"
"Adam, I don't care if you dress like a harlequin or a street urchin, people will recognize you," Kris said. "The answer's no. If you want to go, I can't stop you, but Allison's not going."
He expected Adam to get angry; instead Adam tilted his head and slowly smiled—the dangerous, sly smile. "If I can prove that no one will recognize either of us," Adam said, "will you let us go? And come along?"
"Uh," Kris said warily, "who decides if you've proven it?"
"Oh, you do," Adam said. "I'll trust your sense of honor." He raised an eyebrow. "And I'll make sure Allison understands this is a bet, so if we lose, it's not your fault."
Kris was pretty sure there was some angle here he was missing, but he was getting tired of Allison hating him, and barring her from Vauxhall was guaranteed to be at least another solid week of the cut direct. "That's not fair," he said, but weakly, and Adam beamed and leaned in quick to kiss him.
Actually, this was going to be good, though, he realized afterwards. This way, Allison and Adam could have all the fun of getting ready for the masquerade, buying clothes and trying on wigs and makeup in her chambers at all hours—Kris had given up on trying to convince either of them that it really wasn't appropriate for Adam to be sitting around in her dressing room—and Kris didn't have to worry about them actually going. Anyway, if he'd just said a flat no, Allison would probably have snuck out, and Allison alone at Vauxhall was the one thing worse than Allison at Vauxhall with Adam. But she wouldn't renege on a bet, so that made it extra safe.
Kris was grateful for a few more weeks of being in black gloves himself: he hadn't had to go to any parties, and he hadn't seen Katy at all. Adam was in and out of the house all day, shopping, riding, visiting tailors, returning morning calls and making an increasingly large number of acquaintance; Kris could slip out to his club most afternoons and come home late. It was more like the marriage of convenience he'd planned on, the one he could bear; if Adam knocked on the connecting door at night sometimes, and slipped into his bed in the dark, that was easier to forget in the morning.
But he did worry about Allison, and staying away left her alone too much; he couldn't help but feel grateful to Adam for finding something for her—until he came home from his club the afternoon of the masquerade and found his mother anxious: Adam and Allison had packed up four valises and gone off, leaving a note for him to come meet them at a hotel.
Kris stared at the note with the number of the room and crumpled it, and went right back out the door without bothering to change into evening dress; at the hotel he ran up the stairs and banged on the door of the room, ready to be seriously mad for once, and then he froze in horrified embarrassment as a lady he'd never seen before opened the door. "I think I've got the wrong room," he said, starting to apologize.
And then he realized the lady was wearing fancy-dress: a snow queen head-to-toe in white furs and white satin, with a fur and lace collar around her throat, a towering powdered wig and a sparkling tiara with a white domino attached. "Uh," he said, "are my husband and my sister—"
She smiled, her eyes laughing behind the mask, and backed to let him in. Kris came in and found Allison in front of a long mirror, in an elaborate shepherdess gown like something out of the days of Versailles, with her hair also under a wig and standing a good four inches higher on shoes with a platform. "Ha!" Allison said. "We so win."
"You really don't," Kris said. "Where's Adam?"
"I think we really do," the snow queen said.
Kris whipped around, staring, and Adam fell backwards against the door laughing.
"You're in a dress," Kris said, strangled.
Adam lifted off the tiara and the domino and beamed at him. "I brought a costume for you."
Kris stood dazed while Adam tied the black linen cravat on him in some hugely complicated way, and stared at Adam's bodice. The front of the dress swelled out beneath fur-and-lace trimming, freckles mostly hidden under a dusting of white powder—padding, obviously, but there was a soft dark hollow between the—breasts? Kris didn't understand how—
Adam laughed softly. "I'm squeezed in," he said, taking Kris's hand and putting it on his side, where Kris could feel a wide stiff band wrapped around him. "And some dark rouge to add to the effect."
"But what did you do with the hair?" Kris said, trying to stop staring, without much success.
Adam made a face. "I had it sugared off two days ago; you wouldn't believe how much it stung." He finished the cravat and pinned it down to the black shirt with a jeweled pin of onyx and smoky crystal, and smiling handed Kris a black velvet domino.
Allison was almost jumping with excitement and glee, and when they drew up to the gardens nearly whacked off Adam's wig against the top of the carriage door by dragging him out too fast. Adam was laughing, and caught Kris by the hand to pull him along with them: there was already a crowd thronging the walks, and heads turned to follow as they went past. There was a supper box reserved and waiting, directly across from the orchestra, and waiters ready with champagne and a dozen cold dishes.
Sense of honor or not, Kris started thinking better of having conceded the bet about three minutes after they arrived. The box next to theirs was filled with half a dozen young dandies, smoking cigars and entertaining a host of women Kris thought were actresses, their cheeks rouged up under their skimpy excuses for dominoes, with bodices cut so low they were in danger of falling out. They were playing some kind of card game, and as a forfeit one of the men bent his head and pressed loud smacking wet kisses to his companion's swelling breasts.
"Had enough yet?" Kris said to Allison grimly, as screams of laughter came over the divider: she was staring.
"What?" Allison said, switching her stare to him. "Just because they're being gross with some, like, bits of muslin? It's not like I don't know they exist."
"Great, thanks, because I needed to feel like more of a failure of a brother," Kris said, sighing. He did not really want to know what his mother was going to say when they got back to the house.
"Only if you wanted a missish sister, ugh!" Adam said, and gave him a glass of champagne. But he also bribed the waiter with a guinea to put up a painted screen between their boxes, so that was something. Kris tipped his glass back fatalistically.
Adam and Allison drank a bottle of champagne and ate about two dozen pastries each, and pointed out costumes to each other as people went wandering by, mostly to criticize, although one woman in a sea-foam dress with tumbled-loose golden hair won approval—"Like the Botticelli!" Adam said, blowing the woman a kiss.
"Oh, look at that one!" Allison said, pointing at a man almost all over in feathers.
"Papageno!" Adam said, and added, "From The Magic Flute?" when they both looked at him blankly. "Oh my God, you've never heard it?"
He put down his champagne and took a breath and started to sing a bit of it, and Kris nearly choked before he put his own glass down hard. He'd never heard Adam sing before. He was pretty sure it was a woman's aria, and Adam was hitting clear, shining notes going up and down as easily as if he was whistling them. People had already been pausing in front of the box to stare, just from the costumes; more of them stopped now, and Kris knew that was a bad idea, but he couldn't make himself break in while Adam was still going.
By the time Adam trailed off, there was a small crowd gathered, and Kris wincing recognized two officers from the 95th Rifles among the people applauding; Captain Jorge Nunez shouted, "Brava! Give us another one!"
"Okay, so this time we really do need to go," Kris said, hiding his face behind a hand. The mask suddenly didn't feel like good enough protection. Maybe if he was wearing a sack over his head.
"Not before the fireworks!" Allison said protesting.
"Come on, we'll go for a walk on the grounds and get away until they start," Adam said.
He held his hands out to Kris to be helped up and linked arms with him, swinging hand-in-hand with Allison on the other side as they slipped out of the box and went down the garden paths. The gardeners were lighting all the lamps overhead, and there was dancing going on in a square at the end of the Italian Walk, men and women romping around in a messy kind of waltz. Allison's eyes went wide and delighted, and she looked at Kris pleadingly.
Kris opened his mouth to say hell no, and then he rolled his eyes at himself: if Allison were going to be ruined for anything tonight, it wasn't going to be for a little waltzing. "You do this anywhere in public without mother saying it's okay, and I'm sending you back to Conway," he warned her, and Allison squeaked in glee and held out her hands.
Kris saw Adam to a chair by the side of the square. "Go, go!" Adam said, waving a white-gloved hand, and settled back to watch them. Kris whirled Allison around the square, and they avoided stepping on each other's toes more than a couple times so he was feeling pretty pleased. Allison said plaintively, "I missed you. I thought you were going to be all weird and stuffy forever."
"Sorry, Alli," Kris said quietly. "I've just been worried about you."
"I'm not dumb, I don't want to get locked out of Almack's before I even get in," Allison said. "But it's not like I want anyone who's going to mind if I'm loud."
"No, I get that," Kris said. "I guess I just want you to have the choice."
"Adam says that when he—um, oh," Allison said, catching herself a little too late. Kris was about to chase down that suspicious opening, but Allison said hurriedly, "Hey, I think we need to save him."
"What?" Kris said, and looked over: the Marquis of Cowell, in a plain black domino that didn't at all hide his face, was coming up to Adam with a single white rose, bowing, and asking him to dance. "Dammit," Kris said under his breath. Cowell was one step up from the patronesses of Almack's when it came to social standing; one sneer from him had wrecked reputations. If he got even a whiff of an idea who Adam and Allison were, they could both kiss their debuts goodbye. "Okay, we'll get him and leave—"
Except Adam was taking the rose and also Cowell's hand, and standing up to join him on the dance floor. It was a little funny: Cowell paused, looking up with a bit of a dubious expression; Adam topped him by a good six inches without even counting the wig. Adam just beamed at him and stood ready to be led out, though, and soon they were whirling by. Kris kept trying to get closer to them on the floor, without ever getting near enough to cut in or even to say a word to Adam.
Adam was laughing, too—they were too far away to hear what Cowell was saying, but Adam didn't seem to mind listening to it. Kris caught a glimpse of Cowell pulling Adam closer in, on a turn, with a hand in the small of his back, and leaning towards Adam's neck. "Do something!" Allison said.
"Like what?" Kris said, through his teeth. If Adam wanted to let Lord Cowell paw him in the middle of Vauxhall, it wasn't like it was all that much of his business.
Allison rolled her eyes and said really loudly, "Oh! I feel faint!" and keeled over.
Allison was almost as tall as he was, and wearing what felt like about fifty pounds of costume, so when she went she took Kris with her, straight down to the dance floor. The waltzers broke up all around her, but she stayed fake-limp, even while Kris tried to get her up and off to the side. "Alli, seriously!" Kris hissed at her, but she just cracked an eye and winked at him.
"Oh my God!" Adam said, dashing over, and helped Kris get Allison up and off to a bench on the side. He sat down next to her, ignoring his crumpled skirts, and started fanning her. "Are you all right, baby?"
"I'll be fine," Allison said in a faint, die-away voice. "I just want to sit here a little. Can I have your fan?"
"Of course," Adam said, handing it to her. He went digging into the little reticule he'd brought. "I don't think I have smelling salts—"
"Allow me," Lord Cowell said, holding out a vial.
Kris took it and said, "Here we go, this will make you feel better," grinning at Allison's dagger-look at him, and waved it under her nose.
"Oh wow, yes, thank you so much," Allison said, glaring at him and pushing his hand away.
Meanwhile Adam was waving a hand to some of the waitresses—a hand flashing guineas, which brought three of them hovering with cold drinks and one wielding a fan.
"I'm going to be fine," Allison said. "Don't all stand here. Ada—aa, go dance with—him, so people stop staring at me," she added, pushing Adam at Kris.
"What? We're not leaving you," Adam said blankly, and then said, "Oh!" his mouth twitching, and turned and handed back the smelling salts to Cowell. "Thank you, my lord, and for the waltz."
Cowell capped his vial and kept Adam's hand a moment. "Will I see you here another time—Ada, is it? Tomorrow night, perhaps?" Kris kept his hands at his sides, although he kind of wanted to strike Cowell across the face. He was right here, Kris thought indignantly.
"You'll have to wait and see," Adam said lightly. Cowell bowed and took his dismissal, and when he'd gone, Adam turned and took his fan away from Allison and rapped her on the knuckles, leaning in to hiss where the waitresses couldn't hear, "What, because I can't handle one flirtatious nobleman?"
"Ow!" Allison said, nursing her hand. "If he recognized you, you'd be screwed. Anyway, he's a total rake."
"He's not even a little my type," Adam said. "And in case you haven't noticed, I have a much more attractive husband."
"So go dance with him!" Allison said, giving Adam a little push.
"Only because it serves you right to have to sit here and watch," Adam said, and turned to hold out his hand to Kris, grinning.
It felt stupid to be leading Adam, what with being even shorter than Cowell, but Kris put his hand around Adam's waist and somehow it all worked: Adam followed his lead, and in a minute they were moving together easily through the other dancers, Adam's cool, gloved hand resting on his shoulder. "Sorry that Alli spoiled your dance," Kris said, trying not to notice the corset bones under his fingers, firm around Adam's waist. He'd almost stopped seeing the dress as a dress—it was just Adam in a costume—except—Kris swallowed.
"Is that jealousy?" Adam said, sounding hopeful.
"What? No!" Kris said.
Adam leaned forward and whispered, "I don't know, it sounded like jealousy to me," and tugged Kris's ear through his teeth as he lifted his head away.
Kris nearly skidded them out of the circle of the dance. Adam caught him by the waist and swung him back into the line, taking the lead for a few steps and his eyes dancing behind the mask as they went around and around. The dance floor was getting crowded, and Kris had to draw Adam closer; the heavy silk skirts brushed against his calves with every turn, and Adam was flushed and breathing hard, a sheen of sweat collecting on his throat and down his chest. Another pair of dancers, drunk, stumbled ahead of them; Adam pulled Kris in, and for a moment they were close together, his leg pressed between Adam's skirts, up and hot against him. Adam's eyes were really blue.
Kris jerked back, and turning took them out of the circle of the dance, back to where Allison was rampaging through the snacks again. "We'd better find somewhere to watch the fireworks," he said, strained. He grabbed a napkin to blot his forehead, breathing hard.
The waitresses pointed them at a quiet deserted nook with a view of the main grounds. Allison climbed up onto a low pedestal as the fireworks started, cheering while they went off; Adam sank down on the nearby bench and smiled up at Kris ruefully.
"My feet are killing me," he said. "I don't understand how women wear these all the time."
"I don't think I can carry you back to the carriage," Kris said, half-grinning.
Adam sighed hugely. "Romance is dead," he said sadly, and tipped his head up. Kris was bending down to him before he remembered Allison was right there, and they were out in the complete open where anyone could see them. By then he was too close, and Adam stretched and caught his lips. Adam's mouth was slick with some kind of paint, and he smelled a little of some kind of perfume, and the silk and fur were crushing under Kris's hands, but it was still Adam, and—
Kris broke off, panting, and belatedly looked around: fortunately Allison was still busy on her pedestal, jumping—she was going to break her neck in a second—to see if there were any more fireworks coming.
"Okay," Adam said, breathless, "I think it's time to go!"
"Aww," Allison said, but jumped down, and Kris did put his arm around Adam's waist to give him a little help back to the carriage. Adam was fanning himself with short, quick strokes all the way, and in the carriage he opened the window and waved in the cool night air. Kris stared out the other window, trying not to notice Adam's thigh pressed up against his through the crushed skirts. Allison rattled on about everything she'd seen, joyfully, until she started to wind down little by little, trailing off into a half-drowse against the side of the carriage, and then fell asleep.
Kris had the carriage pull into their yard. The servants were all asleep by then, and they sneaked in through the side door; Adam kicked off his shoes and carried Allison up the back stairs. She never even stirred as they laid her down on her bed. Adam carefully took off her wig and set it on the floor; then she rolled onto her side, pillowing her head on her hands, and settled deeper asleep.
Kris shut the door quietly behind them, and then they were down the hall at Adam's door. Adam hesitated on the threshold, his white-gloved hand on the knob, skirts and the heeled boots held up with the other. He said softly, "It wasn't too bad, was it?"
"No," Kris said, clearing his throat. "It was fun. Not that—"
"—you'd like to make it a regular occurrence?" Adam said, flashing a quick smile.
He stood in the doorway a moment longer, as if he was waiting, and then he smiled again, smaller and a little wavering. "Good night," he said, and was gone with the skirts rustling away; the door closed behind him.
Kris went into his room. He didn't light the candle; the moon was up and he could see, at least enough to toss the domino on the bedside table, and his purse. The coat was snugger than the ones he usually wore, and he had a brief struggle to get out of it. He laid it over the back of a chair. There was a stray thread of white silk bright against the black velvet, and he could feel a smudge of paint on his mouth. He breathed out and in again, deeply, his hand resting on the velvet. He could hear little noises on the other side of the connecting door. Adam would be stripping off the gloves and the jewels—undoing the laces—
Kris went to the door and knocked. There was a pause, and then Adam said, "Come in," softly, on the other side.
They stumbled across the room together kissing. Kris was fumbling with Adam's laces on either side. Adam had taken off the wig, the fur collar, the gloves—his arms were stripped smooth and hairless too, the skin rice-paper-soft under Kris's hands, the skirts crumpling between them as Kris struggled desperately with the knotted and snarled lacings.
"Oh," Adam said, panting, "Kris, oh—oh, forget it, just—" and together they heaved him onto the bed. He fell back against the pillows gasping, struggling to breathe against the corsets with his hand pressed to his waist. He was watching, heavy-lidded, and Kris felt hot under his eyes, wrestling out of his own clothes, just enough; his shirt loose around his waist and his placket open, pulling himself out, and then he climbed into Adam's arms and pushed the skirts up.
"Oh, God," Kris groaned: Adam's legs were smooth, too, and bare; all the way up under the heaped petticoats, and then his cock hot and hard and leaking into Kris's hand. Kris jerked him wildly, Adam shuddering and drawing in quick desperate shallow breaths, stretching a shaky arm out to give Kris the oil. Kris pushed Adam's legs back, the skirts going everywhere—silk and fur spilling over his hands, rubbing against his thighs.
Adam gave small hisses as Kris pressed into him, his heel tucked against Kris's waist, knee drawn up high, the other leg open, drawing him in deeper, and Kris fucked him desperately. "Don't, don't," Adam said, pushing Kris's hand off his cock. "Not yet, oh—" and rocked up into him.
It was just as well, because Kris needed both hands to hold himself up; he was shaking. He kissed Adam's collarbone, the fur of the bodice soft under his chin, and Adam's jaw—his beard was already coming back in, a little prickly and good against Kris's mouth, and the faint smell of perfume making him dizzy; like Adam was some kind of unearthly in-between creature—and the strangeness of being in Adam's bed, the heavy drapings close around them, it all felt like this was something secret and magic and apart from the whole world. Kris couldn't feel guilty, couldn't feel angry; and after, when he was spent and shaking, and Adam came into him, bending low, Kris reached up and buried his hands in Adam's hair and kissed him and kissed him, moving with him, letting him in.
Adam's mother was at breakfast the next morning, come to discuss the all-important court presentations: in three weeks they'd be out of black gloves, and Adam and Allison would be making their formal bows.
And after that—after that, it would be time to launch both of them into society; there would be dinner parties, and routs, and balls—Kris swallowed a few dry mouthfuls of toast, trying not to think what it would be like to see Katy across a crowded room with Adam by his side; how she'd look at him. She had to know, by now; but that wasn't the same thing as having it shoved in her face with hundreds of people around to watch her and smirk.
"And after that," Mrs. Lambert was saying to Adam softly, "sweetheart, after that I'll be leaving."
"Right after?" Adam said unhappily, and put down his own toast.
"I miss home, sweetheart, and your brother will be finishing school soon. He needs me." She smiled at Kris across the table, and at Allison. "And you don't as much, anymore."
Kris managed to stay out of the way for the last furious whirl of preparations, the dozens of fittings and alterations; Adam kept changing his mind about the exact length of the coat sleeve, the pattern of the lace of his jabot, the shade of ivory or white for the silk stockings. The final product was almost ridiculous in its magnificence: deep blue velvet for the coat and knee-breeches, embroidered with silver and gold threads; a shirt somehow all made of silver thread, how Kris had no idea; the cravat a waterfall of dark blue and white lace pinned with a diamond, and more lace dripping from Adam's cuffs. He'd done his eyes in smudged dark blue kohl, and he looked beautiful.
And all of it turned out to be not so much a waste as a disaster, because five minutes after Adam made his formal bow to murmurs and sidelong glances, Lord Cowell wandered over, drawn by the gossips, and looked Adam up and down.
"Charming," he said, and offered a hand; Adam, who apparently didn't have the sense to be freaked out the way he should've been, just beamed back at him and took it and said, "I'm glad you approve."
"A little outre, perhaps, but you carry it off," Lord Cowell said. Then he paused and frowned. "Have we met?"
"I can't imagine where we would have," Adam said cheerfully, while Kris tried not to strangle on horror, and after Cowell finally wandered off, still frowning, Kris grabbed Adam's arm and hissed, "We need to get out of here, now."
"It's not like he'll ever recognize me," Adam protested, reluctantly letting himself get towed, but Kris had a seriously bad feeling about it. That hadn't been just idle asking: Cowell was suspicious.
"If he has a clue, you and Allison—" Kris said, and stopped. The worst part was, it was his fault; he was the one who'd known better, and he'd let Adam and Allison lure him into it anyway, even though they were the ones who were going to pay for it if anyone did figure out it was them.
"Don't you think you're being a little bit—" Adam said.
"No, I'm not," Kris said. "Do you have any idea what a word from Cowell could do to you? To Allison? She could forget about a respectable marriage. No one would even look at you on the street."
"But why would he!" Adam said. "He seemed completely nice."
By the time Kris finished explaining in detail during the carriage ride just how much Lord Cowell was not completely nice, though, Adam had agreed on lying low for a few weeks: Kris thought mostly because Adam was worried that Kris's head was going to explode, but what the hell, he'd take it.
They'd expected to spend the next few days in a whirl of morning calls, driving out, card parties and private dances; instead they stayed sedate and quiet at home, and there were no distractions three days later when Adam had to see his mother off, back to the colonies. Kris went with him to Greenwich; Adam was waving smiling and bright-faced all the while as the ship drew away and then in the carriage on the way home broke into tears, pressing his face into his hands. "Hey," Kris said, startled, and went for him: Adam turned on the seat and buried his face against Kris's shoulder.
"I might—what if I never see her again?" he said, his voice cracking, and Kris slid a hand into Adam's hair and held him close. "We'll go visit," he said. "I promise, Adam, we'll go together—" and Adam raised his head and kissed him, cupping his face, kissed him over and over, intensely, until they toppled over onto the seat.
"Yes, oh," Kris was saying, gasping, Adam's hand between his legs and easing in wet, and then the coach was pulling to a stop, and Kris realized in horror they were home, and Adam barely got his discarded coat yanked up to cover the worst before the footman had the door open and was staring wide-eyed.
"We'll open the door for ourselves!" Adam said, to the gawking young man, and then had to add, "Close it!" before the footman jumped and shut them in again.
"Well," Kris said fatalistically, "at least we're lying low anyway."
"How scandalous can it be, we're married!" Adam said, and Kris covered his face and just laughed helplessly, until Adam kissed him again, and slid his hand back up Kris's thigh, and Kris realized that Adam was completely ready to keep going right here in the coach in the drive with the entire staff knowing exactly what was happening—
"We can't keep the horses standing," Kris said, maybe kind of squeakily, and Adam made a grumbly disappointed noise and said, "Ohhh, all right," and started throwing himself together. Kris was so glad to get into the house looking decent—he was not looking any of his servants in the face ever again—that he didn't even try to argue when Adam towed him straight into the nearest sitting room and shut the door and pounced him onto the divan.
Although, oh God, Adam was on a tear, and Kris couldn't help getting noisy when Adam was—when Adam did—"Oh," he said, "Adam," half-protesting, but Adam was working his fingers in, careful but just a little impatient, enough for Kris to feel just how badly Adam wanted it, pressing deep and rolling them around, sliding them out again. Adam was kissing his hips, the tops of his thighs, hand pressing in again and his tongue licking out just to taste—"Adam," Kris groaned, his hips arching up.
"Kris, oh, darling," Adam said, and closed his mouth around him without ever stopping his hand; Kris dug his hands into the velvet cushions, fighting to breathe; one leg slung over the back of the divan and Adam bent over him, his black hair so thick as his head moved and moved. Adam reached up for his hand and tugged it loose until Kris sank it into his hair, let himself grip tight. Adam's tongue slid teasing around the head, and Kris couldn't help pressing Adam harder down on him, involuntary, but before he could make himself ease off, Adam made a pleased, purring sound and suckled harder.
"Oh, God," Kris said, and he had both his hands in Adam's hair now, his hips starting to thrust wildly up into Adam's mouth, and Adam was letting him, Adam was—"Oh, oh, Adam, Christ," Kris moaned, helplessly loud, and broke apart in Adam's mouth hearing himself make the most outrageous noises the whole time.
He didn't need to worry about looking the servants in the face after that; none of them looked him in the face. His mother cleared her throat at dinner, a few hours later, and said in a slightly stifled voice, "Kristopher, I've been meaning to take another house for myself and Allison—"
"Oh, but why!" Adam said, with complete innocence. Kris dived in hurriedly and said, "Well, except Adam's still got his house, and for all the entertaining he wants to do that one's going to be better," which rescued things, although Allison was also inclined to put up a fuss.
"Mother doesn't want to be in a house full of guests all the time right now," Kris said to her after, which was true, and kept her and Adam from arguing, especially when he pointed out Adam could throw her a bigger debut ball in the other house.
"So what is the real reason for moving?" Adam said that night, sprawled on Kris's bed while in his room his valet puttered around laying out his clothes for the next day.
"Uh," Kris said, and shut the connecting door hurriedly, so Miles couldn't listen in.
"Ohhh," Adam said, a slow, wicked smile spreading over his face. "Kristopher, did I embarrass you?"
He didn't sound like he was at all sorry about it. Kris tried to glare at him, but Adam stretched himself out longer on the bed and looked at him heavy-lidded and said, "Come here and I'll do it some more." A hot rush slid up Kris's back, and without even thinking about it he was crossing the floor to Adam's waiting arms, already hungry for it.
Kris was starting to relax a few days after the move, enough to feel guilty about keeping Adam and Allison cooped up, which lasted right until the butler came to their door mid-morning and coughed and said, "Lord Cowell, m'Lord," and bowed Simon in.
Adam, standing at the sideboard, turned; Cowell halted in the doorway staring at him hard, and then abruptly said, "Good God, it was you."
Kris felt his breath lock up in his throat. Adam—insane Adam—threw his head back and laughed and said, "Oh; you've made me a liar! I swore to Kris no one would ever recognize me." He held out a hand, smiling. "But now I can thank you for the dance."
Cowell stared—and then he snorted, shaking his head, and stepped forward to take Adam's hand. "Lord Adam, you have the gall of an invading army," he said, and let Adam pour him a glass of wine.
He stayed the full half an hour, laughed three times, and accepted an invitation to dinner the next day before he left. After he was finally seen out, Adam said, "So why were you so worried? He's not scary at all!"
Kris fell over sideways on the couch and put a pillow over his face.
Nine other guests were hurriedly invited; Adam's chef made a ludicrously amazing dinner, even if there were about four more courses in each remove than good taste really called for; and in the drawing room afterwards Lord Cowell said, "And now, you will sing for us," and Adam laughed and held his hand out to Kris.
"Play for me?" Adam said, and gave them three songs.
"But however did you know Lord Adam could sing?" Kris overheard Lady Wedley asking Lord Cowell; Cowell only smiled a little, with an aura of complete smugness. There wasn't a lot Cowell liked more than being seen as infallible, Kris guessed.
In fact, he liked it so much that they had a tableful of invitations by the weekend: apparently Cowell had dropped a word in all the right ears, and now Adam was in fashion. When the vouchers from Almack's arrived two weeks later, Adam and Allison did a ridiculous dance all around the sitting room and knocked over a vase and a chair while Kris grinned helplessly at how happy they were.
"All right," Adam said when they got home from their first evening there, still sparkling; he'd danced with Lady Jersey and Princess Esterhazy both, "and now I'm going to throw a party."
"So, if we do end up back at war, I'm taking you straight to the Duke as his quartermaster," Kris said, putting down the newspaper with the screaming headlines of Napoleon's escape as the footmen went marching by the breakfast-room with the supplies. He had no idea how you got a thousand oranges in the first week of March, but the whole house smelled of them, like magic.
Adam laughed and kissed him—Kris barely even blushed anymore at getting bent halfway over and kissed breathless in the open, he was clearly getting depraved by association—and then was off calling, "No, no! swoopier!" about the new draperies being put up in the ballroom.
Allison and his mother had volunteered to do the invitations—Adam's handwriting degenerated when he got excited. They were at work when Kris stopped in at the house to see them, and he saw the O'Connells' direction on the enclosure at his mother's elbow, their invitation set a little bit apart. She glanced up at him, a question in her eyes while Allison kept busily scribbling on. Kris smiled at her, only a little effort needed. He'd managed to avoid doing more than seeing Katy across the room; there was no sense in putting it off any longer. It would've looked strange not to invite the O'Connells anyway, after their families had been close so long.
He was braced for it the night of the party, braced hard, so much that he was kind of distracted through the early part of the evening. It helped that there was so much to do—people arriving in a steady rushing stream, and he had to help receive guests, and then dance with a bunch of girls and be polite to a lot of dowagers and drunk lords, and by the time he finally saw her, Katy was out on the floor herself, dancing.
She danced the next dance with the same gentleman, two in a row, and went in with him to dinner. Her mother was sitting with Kris's, at the side of the ballroom, and looking on approving. Kris waited to feel something—jealous, maybe, or angry, or even just wistful, and instead he felt lighter, like he'd let a weight slide off his back. When the sets formed again for a country dance, he took a deep breath and slipped across the room and asked her to stand up with him.
They didn't talk a lot while they went through the steps, but flicked their eyes at each other, until Kris figured out Katy was trying to see if he was all right, and he was trying to see the same. The set broke up, and he said to her, low, "Do you want some air?" She smiled, quick, and nodded; he let her go, and she crossed through the crowd to one of the cracked-open French doors and stepped out onto the balcony.
He gave it a minute and ducked out onto the balcony after her, and Katy turned to give him a small, wavering smile; he thought his probably looked the same. Behind their backs the music was starting up again, and a low roar of voices rose and fell. "It's an incredible crush inside," Katy said. "He's—Lord Adam's quite the host."
"Yeah," Kris said softly, "he is." He paused and cleared his throat. "Lord Parbury's a good dancer."
Her smile strengthened a little. "He is," she said. Kris nodded. Katy added, softly, "I hope you're not—unhappy."
Kris said, "I—I'm not, anymore." It felt strange to say it out loud, to admit it to himself, but he could smile back at Katy and say, "I'll be able to wish you happy, I promise."
They stood smiling at each other another moment, and then Katy gave him her hand to kiss. "I'm so glad, Kris," she said. "And—will we see you at the Opera, tomorrow?"
"I don't think Adam would miss it if a pitched battle broke out in the streets," Kris said, grinning, and bowed over her hand once more before he let her go back inside. In the room, dancers were whirling again in a quadrille; Adam with his hair glittering under the lights was easy to see going through the steps, his cheeks flushed almost hectic-bright with color.
After a moment longer watching him, Kris turned to look out at the garden. His breath was still clouding in the air, but the ground was dark and rich, and there was the smell of early spring in the air. He thought maybe he'd see about getting the Conway diamonds reset for Adam somehow—Rundell and Bridge might have an idea. Spring was coming; it felt good.
Kris woke up too early for when he'd gone to bed: there was a lot of banging and rummaging going on next door in Adam's room. Kris dragged himself out, yawning, and pulled on a dressing-gown before he went to the connecting door to ask what was going on. Adam had still been up and entertaining a few die-hards even after Kris had given up.
Adam's valet Miles was looking harried while four of the maids, all of them sleepy-eyed, were packing clothes into three enormous trunks and five or six portmanteaus, not all that carefully; another trunk, already locked up, was being carried out the door by a couple of the footmen. Adam was standing in the midst of the chaos, already dressed, lining his eyes in front of the mirror.
"I almost don't want to ask?" Kris said, raising an eyebrow, and Adam said, without turning away from the mirror, "I'm going to Paris."
"What, right this—?" Kris said, confused, but then he cut himself off and went to Adam at the dressing table, so the conversation didn't have to include the five other people in the room. "Hey, what's going on? Did something happen?"
Adam finished the last touch to his eyes and put the kohl away in with his other pots and sticks of makeup, and turned to look at Kris. He wasn't smiling; his eyes were brilliant, black-outlined, but cold. "You have the most unbelievable nerve."
"What?" Kris said, blankly.
"I realize," Adam said, "that it was too much to ask that you'd have been honest with me, under the circumstances. But did you have to humiliate me in front of all of London? What was it, some kind of—of—revenge? For having the gall to think I could be a part of this world? For making you an offer you couldn't refuse?"
Kris stared at him, bewildered; it didn't make any sense. "Adam," he said, "I didn't—what did I—? What are you talking about?"
"Katy is her name, I think?" Adam said. "I'm not sure, only a dozen or so people last night made a point of mentioning it, but I really do think the name was Katy. Kris and Katy—adorable."
Kris dropped his head a moment, annoyed at himself for not thinking, and at Adam for believing whatever some gossip had probably stuffed into his head. "Adam, I promise, I don't know what anyone told you, but all I did was talk to her for maybe five minutes. Nothing happened."
"Nothing happened?" Adam said. "You invited the woman you love, the one you wanted to marry, to my house, to my ball, and you let me work it out for myself somewhere between the third and fourth vicious cat who congratulated me on being so sensible—so understanding—"
"That's not—" Kris said. "Look, I'm sorry, I should've guessed people would drag it up and try to make something out of it. But people talk. If she hadn't been invited, they would've talked about that instead."
"They wouldn't have been watching my face every single minute of the night to see if it hurt to watch my husband sneaking off on to the balcony to be alone with his former lover in the middle of our first party," Adam said.
"I just didn't want to talk to her in front of the whole ballroom," Kris said. "Adam, come on, don't you think you're taking this too—"
Adam laughed, and it wasn't a nice sound, sort of incredulous and sharp. "Do you know, the worst part is how much sense it made, once I knew? All this time, all these months, I've been making excuses for why you didn't—" He cut himself off for a moment, and Kris stared at him, a thread of worry running suddenly cold down his back. "Everything," Adam said, after a pause. "The tiny wedding with no guests, not wanting to be alone on our honeymoon—you didn't want to take me to Conway Park, you didn't want—children—" He looked away, pressing his mouth tight. "And I thought you were just reserved—oh, God, how stupid I've been."
He pressed his hand over his mouth, his eyes bright and so hurt, and Kris said, "You haven't," helpless in front of the terrible, stricken look on Adam's face. "You haven't been stupid," Kris said, trying to think what to say. "Yeah, there was something between me and Miss O'Connell. But it was over between us before I even met you."
"Oh, what, by a whole week? Because you didn't have enough money? Please, spare me," Adam snapped. He turned away to the vanity and started shoving the scattered cosmetics into a small satchel, with short, jerky movements.
Kris stepped closer. "Listen," he said quietly, "I'm sorry. I—I can't pretend it wasn't hard, or that it took me a while to—But that doesn't mean I don't care about you. It doesn't—Adam—"
It felt wrong to say more when he'd just said goodbye to Katy the night before; almost dishonest, even if it had been stealing up inside him all this time. He forced it out anyway, said, "I love you," cleared his throat and said, "I do," except it sounded wrong in his mouth, and Adam wasn't stopping, or looking at him at all, and Kris didn't know what else to say.
"Hey," Kris said, reaching for his arm. "All right, you know what, let's go to Paris. A few days will—"
Adam flinched away from him and stared a moment, and then he laughed, almost wildly. "I'm leaving you," Adam said. Kris didn't understand at first, and then Adam said, "My lawyers will write you about the divorce."
"What?" Kris said, his voice rising, because—was Adam out of his mind? Except there was nothing at all doubtful or yielding in Adam's face. "Adam, we're not getting a—" he realized the maids were still putting things into the last trunk, and the footmen were dawdling with the other. "Put that back down, quit packing that, and get out!" he snapped at them.
"Take that trunk downstairs right the fuck now," Adam countered savagely, as the footmen started to obey, and the servants all jerked to stare at him, wide-eyed; after a moment, the footmen lifted the trunk back up and scurried out of the room; the maids ducked out after them, and pulled the door shut.
"Adam," Kris said, trying to pick one of a hundred protests that all wanted to come out at once—it hadn't occurred to him Adam would—"you can't do this. Please—"
"Don't worry," Adam said, dragging in a long, shuddering breath. "I don't care about the settlements, you can keep all of that."
"I don't care about the damn money!" Kris said. He groped for something—anything—"No one's going to receive you if you do this," he blurted.
"Well, I don't care about that, so I guess that takes care of both our reasons for getting into this in the first place." Adam laughed again, brokenly. "I know, it'll be a tremendous scandal. But I'm sure all the best people will be ready to congratulate you on escaping me, and I'm sure Katy will—" He stopped and tipped his head back for a moment to stare at the ceiling, blinking; his eyes were wet and glossy, and the kohl was smearing a little at the corners.
"That's over," Kris said. "There's not—I don't want to be with Katy anymore! Adam, I want you."
"What I want is to never see you again," Adam said. He jerked the ring from his finger in a single hard twist, and tossed it on the dressing table; Kris followed it involuntarily, numb, watching the gold circle roll and tumble into a corner, alone on the black velvet.
Adam turned, head high, not looking at him, and went past Kris, past the last half-filled trunk, and out the door. "No," Kris heard him saying, out in the hall, "I don't care, I'll buy new things in Paris. We're leaving."
It was a little bit like being shot when you weren't killed at once, and the blood just kept leaking out of you slowly while you got colder and colder, too weak to do anything about it, and all you could do was lie there and wonder if it would stop before you died. Kris spent the day wandering around the quiet, echoing house, shaken; like it was all a strange, awful dream, and any minute now the door was going to bang open and Adam would be dashing in with three new hats and a coat, late for another party, dropping a laughing kiss on his mouth.
The servants were all quiet and subdued, still tired from the last night's ball and following him with sidelong glances when they thought he wasn't looking; the gossip had already traveled through the whole house.
Kris didn't sleep that night, lying flat in his bedroom staring at the canopy, hearing Adam's absence in the silence; no jars clinking, no hummed song. No soft knock on the connecting door, and no candle gleaming in Adam's hand, shining on his tentative smile. Adam always knocked, and he always waited for an answer before he opened the door. When had that started? Had Adam felt, all this time, that he wasn't sure of his welcome? How many nights had he knocked after Kris was already asleep?
The next morning the doorbell downstairs kept ringing steadily with callers, but Kris never got up, and the butler never bothered asking if he was receiving. The cards were on a salver next to his plate when he finally came down to tea: people he didn't really know but names he recognized—society ladies and hostesses, ambitious debutantes and their mothers, all the most exclusive of the haut ton. Kris could almost see Adam across from him at the table going through the pile, laying them out onto the cloth one after another, gleefully adding up points in his victory, so happy, and Kris put down his uneaten toast and left the table.
He didn't receive for two more days, or go out; the news would leak out eventually through servants' whispers if nothing else, but the longer he could put it off, the more chance that maybe it would stop being true. He wrote a letter to Adam and tore it up after; then he wrote two more, and halfway through the third he realized he didn't know where to send it. Adam might not even have gone to Paris, or might not stay there: he could go on to Italy, or to Berlin, or to Vienna. He'd talked about Venice, and Rome, and Lisbon, wistfully; and Athens.
Kris scribbled a hurried end to the letter, I love you, please come home, and stood up to ring the bell—the sooner he sent this the better chance a courier would have of finding Adam—but before he reached the bell pull, the butler knocked quietly on the door and said, hesitantly, "My lord, forgive the interruption—"
Adam's lawyer was a younger man, sharp-faced and lean and tall; he had barely been shown in before he was bringing out a sheaf of papers, and Kris waved them away. "I'm not signing any of those. Where is my husband?" he said urgently. "I'm pretty sure you have to tell me, under law."
"I would have to, my lord," Mr. Haley said, laying the papers out on the desk anyway, "but he gave me my instructions before leaving the city, so I don't actually know where he is. I think you'll find the settlement is more than—"
"I'm not consenting to the divorce," Kris said.
"He said you might say that," Haley said. "And if you did, I'm supposed to tell you—" He hesitated, and then he said, "Well, this is going to be awkward; I'm supposed to tell you that if you won't sue him for divorce on the grounds of fraud, he'll sue on the grounds of adultery, and of course, then we'd have to name the other party in court. He wouldn't tell me who she was beforehand," he added, as if that was supposed to be comforting.
Kris stared at him, horrified. People would whisper about him and Katy anyway; if she was named—it would smash her reputation completely. "There's no grounds!"
Haley shrugged. "I suppose the court would have to decide that?" He pushed the inkwell over from the corner of the desk, and the pen, and Kris stared down at it. "My lord, of course this is distressing, but I do promise you, we'll exercise the utmost discretion and speed. This can all be over in a few weeks: Mr. Lambert has—"
"Lord Adam!" Kris snapped.
Haley coughed and said mildly, "—of course, Lord Adam—has given us carte blanche to make the arrangements move very swiftly," he said, significantly. "There won't be any need for your presence once these are signed."
He offered Kris the pen, and Kris numbly took it. "The first signature here," Haley said, turning several pages in, and Kris dipped the pen and put it to the line.
Then he dropped it and walked out of the room, blindly. He went out into the gardens and sank down onto the bench, ignoring the cold. He couldn't. He had to, Katy was innocent in all of this, but he couldn't. Not without even seeing Adam. Maybe—maybe Haley could get word to him, at least? Kris wondered. Or—
"Kris!" Allison came into the garden, and he jerked his head up to stare at her. "Roddy didn't want to even let me in, what are you doing? Why have you and Adam been hiding out for a million years? You're not going to do something stupid and volunteer, are you? Because I will totally help Adam tie you up in the cellar if that is your plan."
"What?" Kris said, blankly, and realized he had no idea how to tell Allison that—"Wait, volunteer for—?"
"For the army." Allison looked at him suspiciously. "You look like crap. What is going on?"
"Why would I be—wait, Napoleon beat Ney?" Kris said. "Already?"
"Oh my god, you don't even know? Ney didn't fight him!" Allison said. "He went over with him, everybody says Napoleon's in Paris already."
"What?" Kris said, and then he was running into the house, Allison yelling behind him, "What? Kris—"
The news got worse with every mile closer to the coast. He'd grabbed a heap of notes and sovereigns, his pistols, and not much else; and by the time he got to Dover, there wasn't buying much of anything: the town was crammed full of panicked refugees, and more pouring in every hour off fishing-boats and scows and even a few glorified rafts. On the bright side, if you could call it that, Kris didn't have to pay more than a few shillings to be taken over; the boatmen were going over empty to bring back passengers from the other side.
They landed after dark: the fishermen pulled up on a deserted beach and let him sneak off; they promised to sweep by and check for them in five days. Kris knew pretty grimly if he didn't find Adam and get back by then, they probably weren't getting back; not without ransom or something else complicated.
The road was full of travelers, all of them going the other way, and soldiers marching towards Paris, under the tricolor flag. Kris spent hours pressed flat in the dirt, behind bushes, barely breathing as the companies went by singing. It was safer to travel at night, but he couldn't wait. He spent the time telling himself Adam had probably heard the news and turned back, somewhere along the way—Adam was probably back in London, laughing with Allison right now—except for how Kris couldn't believe a word of it.
He got to Paris just as night was falling, on the second day. The whole city was full of noise and excitement, people crowding the streets, the Marseillaise breaking out every so often. He had to take the chance, then: he hid his pistols and his sword under his bulky cloak, and ducked into a handful of low bars and bought drinks and broke out his bad Spanish accent, enough to learn that all British citizens had been rounded up and imprisoned as spies—they were going to be shipped out of the city to prisons somewhere else.
The best hotel in Paris was full of light and music when Kris went by. He couldn't risk the servants here—there were too many people right nearby to report him too—so he snuck into the stables instead, and found Adam's horse, or a horse that had to be Adam's: a big, showy seventeen-hands bay, impatient and fretting from lack of exercise, its tail braided with gold ribbons that were starting to come out, and the leather of the bridle hanging over its stall chased in silver and gold patterns. He petted the curious whuffing horse's nose, trying not to panic. The thought of Adam in some prison, starved, maybe beaten—he looked aristocratic, and rich, and the mob hated all of that.
There was enough activity that Kris managed to get the horse out into the streets without either standing out or getting spotted, his hood thrown up and over his face—not so far that he looked like he was hiding, enough to keep anyone from noticing he didn't look like a typical groom. He didn't mount up or scurry, just led the horse through the streets, ordinarily, like it was what he was supposed to be doing, with the huge walls of the Palais de Justice rising up higher and higher.
Kris found a dark wooded corner near the walls, overlooking the road that led away from the city, and tied the horse up while he waited. This was crazy in about thirty different ways, but even if he got caught, at least they'd probably lock him up with Adam. Right now he was ready to take that over not knowing.
He napped a little, getting sleep while he could, and waited, and waited, and then a little while after morning, the gates opened and the prison-carts trundled out, crammed full of people penned up inside cages like animals, and Kris's heart leaped as he saw the shock of Adam's black hair, pressed up near the top of the cage.
It was hard to force himself to wait. Kris untied the horse and walked it again, slowly, just barely keeping the cart's dust cloud in view until they'd gotten past the city limits, and the press of people in the streets was thinning out. He mounted, then, and picked up the pace until he had the cart full in his sights, and he kept it there until the sun was slowly creeping down again, and the cart was pulled over to the side of the road, into the courtyard of an inn.
Kris stopped on the side of the road across from the inn and wiped the horse down, walking it cool in a circle, and gave it some grass and water. Wait, wait, wait, he told himself, over and over. The horse needed to be rested; the darker it was, the later it was, the better. Maybe the guards would go inside. Maybe they'd leave the cart unattended, maybe they'd take the prisoners out to stretch their legs.
All but a couple of the guards did go inside, eventually. The prisoners weren't being let out, even though the cage was too low for Adam and some of the others to even sit up straight. The gaolers just handed up a few cups of water and let the prisoners fight over them, standing back to laugh. Kris was glad, though. It made it easier when he walked up and shot them.
The prisoners all started to gasp and scream. Kris hacked the cage door open, bashing the lock off just with brute force and the edge of his sword, and the prisoners spilled out, half of them trying harder to get away from him than from the cart. Kris didn't care, because Adam was climbing out, stiff, a purpling bruise across his cheekbone, but safe, safe and back with him, and he was staring at Kris.
"How did," Adam said, but there wasn't any time. "Come on," Kris said, and dragged him across the courtyard, both of them breaking into a run as the door of the inn opened and the rest of the guards came running to the noise.
Pistol-shot and muskets cracked behind them, firing every which way after the fleeing prisoners, and Kris stumbled; there was a hot searing pain along his thigh. Adam half turned, but Kris shoved him on ahead, panting, "Keep your head down!" and they were at the horse.
Adam swung himself up and reached a hand down; Kris didn't even try for anything but a scramble, and mostly fell onto the horse in front of him. Then they were running off across the fields, the spooked bay stretching into a gallop the second Adam gave him his head.
Adam's arm was tight around his waist. Kris put his hand over it and let his head fall back. His thigh was wet, sticky, and his head was reeling.
"Kris," Adam was saying urgently, "Kris—"
Kris woke up sneezing, and said a feeble "Ow"—then Adam's hand was covering his mouth, and Adam was pressing him back down into soft, dusty hay, huddled close against him. Kris froze, hearing voices nearby, speaking French. They were inside a hayloft somewhere, slits of sunlight coming in through slats of the wall. His leg was bound up tight, and Adam's shirt was missing its sleeves, loose threads hanging around his shoulders. His coat was lying over Kris and his disordered hair was full of bits of hay and almost spangled with golden dust.
A horse whickered below, and the voices faded into the distance. "Are you all right?" Adam whispered softly, his hand hovering over Kris's leg, as though he wanted to touch and didn't want to risk it, all at once. "Does it hurt?"
"We have to get to Calais by Monday night," Kris whispered back, and tried to struggle up. There didn't seem to be a whole lot of point in saying he felt dizzy enough to be sick to his stomach, his leg was burning, and it was going to be an effort to get himself on his feet. It had to be done no matter what.
"Or we could turn ourselves in!" Adam hissed, stopping him.
"What?" Kris said.
"They'd have a surgeon!" Adam said. "I can stand a few months in a prison if it means you're not dead."
"Adam, they're not taking me to a surgeon," Kris said. "I'm a British officer behind the lines, out of uniform; that makes me a spy. They catch me, they're hanging me."
"What?" Adam said. "You lunatic! Why did you come?"
"I didn't know what they'd do to you!" Kris said.
"I have all my rings stuffed into the lining of my coat," Adam said. "I was going to bribe the guards, get a room with a view, and eat French cooking until we beat Napoleon again!"
"Uh, yeah," Kris said, "I don't know where you got the idea French prisons are like hotels, but—"
"I don't care if they were going to stuff me in an oubliette!" Adam said. "That would still be better than you being hanged!"
Kris swallowed. "Does that mean you're still—that you—me—uh—"
Adam glared at him. "You're asking me that now?" Then Adam stopped; his eyes softened, and his voice got low and kind of purry, and he said, "You're asking me that now," and Kris said, "Adam, Adam—" trying to get it out, trying to say everything he hadn't said right before, how desperate he'd felt, how much he—Then Adam was kissing him, his hand cupping Kris's face sticky with dirt and blood, the smell of hay and horseshit all around them and Kris's leg burning with fever, guards outside still poking around the barn, and Kris thought he hadn't ever been this happy in his life.
"You had to wait until you were bleeding in a pile of straw and there are soldiers outside who want to hang you?" Adam said, between soft, careful kisses. "You could have just said something!"
"I tried saying something!" Kris said, panting and trying to pull Adam down closer. "You ran away and tried to make me divorce you!"
"Oh, God," Adam said, "we're probably divorced already."
"We are not," Kris said. "No thanks to you!"
"You didn't sign the papers?" Adam said, sounding wobbly, and kissed Kris again.
"No," Kris said, "and you're coming home with me, and we're going to have ten children, and spend all year at Conway House—"
"Hm," Adam said. "Maybe we'll need to discuss elements of this plan at some point, but right now—"
Kris stirred and lifted his head from the pillow enough to see the snow piled high on the sill. Through the glass he could hear Allison yelling gleefully, somewhere below—she was always first out into the snow. The old house murmured and creaked in the wind, and he snuggled back in. Adam made a small happy noise and opened his eyes, drowsily.
"Go back to sleep," Kris said. "He's not up yet."
"Liar," Adam said, as the small but urgent wail came from the other room.
"The nurse will get it?" Kris offered hopefully. Not that he wasn't happy to have an heir, but it'd been more than a month, and—well—
Adam's mouth curved, slow and happy. "Mm," he said, his knee sliding in between Kris's legs, his thumb tracing the faint scar along Kris's thigh. "I guess we could stay in bed a little longer."
He nudged Kris over onto his back and kissed along his throat, down the underside of his jaw all the way to his breastbone, soft and soft, and then he bit gently on Kris's nipple, and then he slid lower. Kris let his hands curl into Adam's hair, trembling a little, and then Adam's mouth was on his thighs, warm breath and the dart of his tongue.
"Oh," Adam said, licking a little, "And you haven't seen yet! The gown arrived yesterday."
"Yeah?" Kris said, distracted. He hadn't been paying a lot of attention to the preparations beyond working out the order of the bris and the christening.
A week later, he kind of regretted that, after his mom threw him a faintly reproachful look over the spangles and the flowers. But only a little.
= End =
With many many thanks to Merry and Mia and Julad and resonant and gear and everyone else I inflicted this monster on over the last mumblemumble months. <3
All feedback much appreciated!