Andrew woke far too early due to bright, winter dawn shining in through his windows and trying to blind him. His head ached horribly, badly enough that he picked up the bolster and tried to smother himself.
It didn’t work.
Blearily, he peeked out at the world again and groaned. There was an empty decanter on the windowsill, which he was worryingly sure had been nearly full when Joe had decided to fetch it last night.
Sitting up far more quickly than was good for his hangover, Andrew cast a quick look around his bedroom. Not that he thought Joe would still be here, but he did remember getting very drunk and he’d hate for Jesse – or anyone else, of course – to get the wrong idea about anything.
Luckily, there was no Joe in sight but now Andrew was sitting up and he didn’t want to lie back down to feel rotten again. He rolled out of bed and found a jug of tepid water on his nightstand. It was probably left over from yesterday’s wash but water was water and he took several greedy gulps, drinking until his headache pounded a little less.
Then he wandered into his and Jesse’s shared dressing room, either in search of Joe or with the vague idea of dressing himself, he wasn’t sure. Instead, he found that Jesse’s bedroom door was slightly ajar, and that seemed like a much more enticing prospect than either battling buttons or hunting for breakfast.
Jesse was curled up on his side, nearly off the edge of the bed, which made Andrew frown. Jesse never slept like that when they slept together; he always ended up either half on Andrew’s side of the bed or sprawled across the middle, at least one limb pressed to Andrew’s.
“Jesse,” Andrew whispered. Jesse didn’t stir. It must have been a late night; Andrew didn’t remember Jesse coming home before he finally passed out. Not that he actually remembered passing out, come to think of it.
Jesse’s bed was the same size as Andrew’s, but it looked bigger right now. Softer and much more inviting.
“Jesse?” Andrew tried again.
Jesse mumbled something incomprehensible which Andrew decided was almost as good as an invitation so he twitched back the blankets and crawled into the nice, cool side of Jesse’s bed. He pressed his feet to the backs of Jesse’s calves and closed his eyes in relief.
When he next opened his eyes, it was to find that someone was stroking his hair. Which, on reflection, was something that he definitely should have kept his eyes shut for, since it felt amazing.
His headache was much better and he felt more human. Unfortunately, that meant he had no excuse at all for the fact that he was curled against Jesse’s side, face tucked against Jesse’s collarbone.
“Oh,” he said, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Jesse’s arm stayed around his shoulders but he stopped petting Andrew’s hair, which was a terrible, unforgivable shame.
“Good morning,” Jesse said softly. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Andrew said stoutly. “Why would I not...?”
“Well.” Jesse’s fingers sunk back into Andrew’s hair, fingertips against Andrew’s scalp, which felt so fantastic that Andrew really wanted to purr. “Mostly because you were astonishingly drunk when I got home last night. Honestly, I didn’t know people could be that drunk and still form sentences.”
“Oh no,” Andrew groaned. “Did we have a conversation?” He didn’t remember that at all.
Jesse laughed, which at least meant he wasn’t angry. Hopefully. “You had a conversation, lots of them. I was busy sending Joe off to his bed and then trying to get you to stay in yours when you mostly wanted to kiss me and tell me that I wasn’t allowed to go out without you ever again.”
Andrew was going to die of mortification. That was his one and only option. “Please tell me I didn’t use the word ‘allowed’?”
“No, all right,” Jesse relented. “You said you missed me and then you said that you were pleased I had friends and then you said you missed me a few dozen more times and then you – ”
“What?” Andrew asked, definitely horrified. “Oh god, what else did I say?”
“Nothing.” Jesse sounded far too breezy for that to be true. “Just silly things. Like I said, you were really quite incredibly drunk.”
A horrible thought occurred to Andrew. “Did I do anything inappropriate?” He tried to sit up but Jesse’s hand was surprisingly strong and firm keeping him in place.
“No, nothing like that,” Jesse assured him quickly. “You were, um. You were sweet, really? Babbly and confusing but, well, you’re babbly and confusing when sober, too.” He laughed slightly, as though he was still nervous about teasing Andrew.
“Hey,” Andrew protested, secretly relieved that he hadn’t made too much of a pest of himself and that Jesse was teasing him. He poked Jesse in the side. “Don’t mock me, I was drowning my sorrows. It was Joe’s idea and you employed him.”
“You have sorrows?” Jesse asked, all big-eyed and sarcastic. “Oh no, what are they? Did your favourite cravat not survive the wash?”
“You are in a wicked mood this morning,” Andrew said, delighted. He squirmed around so they were chest to chest and pressed his fingers to Jesse’s ribs, tickling him through his nightshirt.
“Oh god, no, don’t do that,” Jesse groaned, slapping his hands uselessly at Andrew’s arms. “That’s not fair, I thought you were indisposed.”
“I feel much better,” Andrew told him brightly, pining him with knees on either side of Jesse’s waist, Jesse’s hips hard against Andrew’s shins.
“That’s nice for you,” Jesse said pleasantly. “You weren’t the only one drinking last night, you know.”
“No?” Andrew asked. Jesse’s face was a little puffy from not quite enough sleep and his stubble was just long enough to catch the light when he smiled. There was nothing Andrew could do to stop himself leaning down and risking a kiss.
It wasn’t exactly a surprise that Jesse kissed him back enthusiastically – Jesse rarely did anything else if they were in private – but every time, Andrew still felt as if he were being granted a special privilege.
Jesse’s hands slipped up Andrew’s chest, pushing his nightshirt up as he went, until it was pushed up under Andrew’s arms and Andrew was sitting, as good as naked, on Jesse’s hips.
“I’m enjoying this morning much more than I enjoyed last night,” Jesse told him conversationally. “And I had an excellent time last night.”
“Did, did you?” Andrew asked, stuttering in the middle when Jesse touched fingertips to his growing erection. “How was Emma?”
“Emma was fine,” Jesse said, almost too quickly. “Let’s not talk about her. Let’s not talk about anything.”
“Yes, okay,” Andrew agreed and let Jesse roll them over, press Andrew back into the mattress. Jesse’s bed was definitely more comfortable than Andrew’s, Andrew thought, considering pouting and then deciding that kissing was much more fun and productive.
“I wanted to do this last night,” Jesse whispered, kissing down Andrew’s throat. “You were so, you were all over me, you have no idea.”
Andrew flushed. He was pretty much always all over Jesse when he was sober; he couldn’t imagine how much worse he must have been last night.
“Jesse,” Andrew groaned, arching his back. Jesse’s lips were warm and careful, sucking kisses across his collarbone and Andrew couldn’t stop the way his breath hitched. “Oh, that feels so lovely.”
“Shh,” Jesse whispered. He was sucking hard, just below the place Andrew’s collar would cover. Andrew wondered if it would leave a bruise; he’d like that, he thought.
Andrew’s whole body felt heavy, languid and relaxed, sinking down into the bed and just letting Jesse kiss wherever he wanted to. Apparently Jesse wanted to kiss all over Andrew: silly places like the round ball of his shoulder and the inside of his elbow.
Andrew wasn’t quite sure what he’d done to deserve such attention, but he definitely wasn’t going to complain. At least, not until Jesse dragged wet lips across Andrew’s stomach and hesitated, coming to an awkward stop just beside his right hip.
“Oh,” Andrew said, shaken a little way out of his incipient sex daze. He put his hand over the ugly bullet scar, feeling self-conscious about it all over again. “You don’t have to… Sorry, I didn’t realise you… I know it’s horrible.”
“It’s not,” Jesse said softly. He nudged Andrew’s hand with his fingers, questioning. “I wasn’t sure if it hurt, that’s all. You don’t normally let me near it.”
Andrew shook his head. “It hurts sometimes but not to the touch, only when I walk too much or when the weather turns.”
Jesse’s eyebrows drew down and he looked gratifyingly concerned. Not that Andrew wanted anyone, least of all Jesse, to be concerned about him.
“I didn’t realise,” Jesse said quietly. He nudged Andrew’s hand again so Andrew moved it, revealing the sunken pit of flesh where he’d been hit, surrounded by many small, irregular white scars where the surgeons had had to fish out the shattered remains of the bullet.
Jesse’s fingers were very careful, tracing the contours of what had once been smooth skin. “What happened to the person who shot you?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Andrew told him. “I wasn’t exactly in a position to notice much immediately afterward.” He noticed the pinched look that flickered through Jesse’s expression and added, laughing softly, “Why? Did you want to hunt him down?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, eyes still fixed on Andrew’s hip. Then he shook himself. “No, what, of course not. I just – ” More careful tracing. “This is really close to vital parts of your body.”
Andrew shivered. “I know,” he said tightly because he did. He didn’t remember much about the first few weeks after getting shot, but he remembered a lot of pursed lips and talk of permanent damage.
“Sorry,” Jesse said quickly. “Of course you know that. Fuck, that was a stupid thing to say.”
“No.” Andrew grabbed Jesse’s hand, put it back against his hip. “It’s all right. I, I like, um, I like that you care?”
“Of course I care, don’t be stupid,” Jesse muttered, not looking up. He curled forward and pressed soft, barely-there lips to the very centre of Andrew’s scar.
Andrew moaned loudly, taken completely by surprise by how good that felt.
“Sorry,” Jesse said, jerking upright. “Did I hurt you?”
Andrew shook his head, wide-eyed. “No. No. No, the, uh, the complete opposite of hurting,” he promised.
“Oh,” Jesse breathed, looking relieved. “That’s very interesting.”
“Is, is it?” Andrew asked, losing his breath in the middle because Jesse was sliding down the bed, lips returning to Andrew’s scar, followed by a little bit of tongue.
Andrew screwed his eyes shut and tried not to orgasm immediately. His world descended into Jesse’s lips and Jesse’s tongue, first on his hip and then on his cock and it really didn’t take very long at all until he was biting back loud curses and accidentally pulling at Jesse’s hair, back bowing off the bed.
He wasn’t much use afterwards, but he managed to watch through half-closed eyes as Jesse brought himself off with his own hand, crouched awkwardly near Andrew’s feet. It was incredibly erotic, much more so than Andrew would ever have anticipated.
Jesse’s head was bowed, sweat visible along his hairline, chest heaving as he caught his breath. “Sorry,” he said, looking up and blushing when he saw Andrew watching him.
Andrew shook his head, waiting for Jesse to crawl back up the bed and then pressing them full length together. They kissed slowly, shivering slightly until Jesse reached down and pulled the blankets back up around them.
“That was really nice,” Andrew said then felt awkward about it. People weren’t supposed to be aroused by the sight of other people touching themselves, were they? “Don’t ask me why, I don’t know. It just was?”
Jesse kissed him again. “None of your, um. None of your army lovers paid any attention to your scars?” he asked, clearly misunderstanding what Andrew had enjoyed most.
Andrew only just managed not to laugh at the idea of the men who he’d shared hurried fifteen minutes with ever being described as his lovers, but, “Never,” was all he said, “It was much more painful back then. They weren’t sure I’d be able to re-join the army for a while.”
“Would that have been so bad?” Jesse asked, shifting them both so they were lying a bit more comfortably. “At least then you would have been safe?”
“I didn’t join the army to be safe,” Andrew told him, appalled. “I joined because, well. Well, all right, I joined because it was the only thing I was good at, but I did turn out to be really quite good at it, so.”
“Would you go back now if you could?” Jesse sounded nonchalant but he was pressed too closely to Andrew’s chest to be able to hide the sudden way he tensed as he waited for an answer.
“I didn’t want to leave,” Andrew admitted honestly. “But no, I don’t think I’d go back. I care about you… You and, and Hallie and Mama and everyone too much to risk going off and dying on you now, I think.”
It took Jesse a moment or two to relax but then, “All right,” he said, kissing the side of Andrew’s face for reasons Andrew didn’t understand but wasn’t going to object to. “I’m glad.”
“Mm,” Andrew agreed, closing his eyes. “Me too.” That didn’t make much sense but Jesse didn’t call him out for it.
This felt really nice, Andrew thought. Not even the sex, although that was always good, but just the two of them, cosily wrapped up in each other and talking.
“Have dinner with me tonight?” Andrew asked, kissing Jesse’s neck sleepily. It made sense in his head; he was having a lovely time with Jesse right now and he didn’t want Emma or anyone to get in first and take Jesse away from him tonight.
Jesse’s head was turned away, looking out toward the window. His arm was warm around Andrew’s shoulders though so Andrew didn’t think Jesse minded him asking.
“Didn’t we try that yesterday?” Jesse asked. “I didn’t think you had much fun.”
Andrew couldn’t stop himself flinching at the memory of how much the Breslins now hated him, oh god, and Jesse squeezed him a bit, apologetically.
“I meant just you and me,” Andrew said. “Here.” It made no sense for him to feel nervous; he was only asking his husband to have dinner with him in their home. He really wanted Jesse to say yes to him though, he realised.
“Oh,” Jesse said and the way he said it, soft and a little surprised, made Andrew think that he thought it was an important question too. Andrew didn’t really understand what was happening here but then Jesse said, “Yes, of course, I’d like that,” and it didn’t matter.
Andrew was inexplicably nervous about dinner now that he’d extended a formal invitation. He bribed Hallie with the promise of several new books and a new dress if she’d agree to eat dinner in the parlour just this once.
She pouted until he broke down and explained why, at which point she agreed easily. “You should have just said,” she told him. “I know married people need time alone together; Emma seemed worried when I told her that you don’t spend more time doing things together.”
“Did she?” Andrew asked, frowning. “Why ever - ?”
Hallie shrugged then looked troubled. “She asked if it was true that you’d only married for money and I wasn’t quite sure what to say.”
“No, of course,” Andrew said. “Emma shouldn’t have asked you such a thing.” He wondered why she had and made a mental note to ask her when they went to her ball.
“You do like Jesse, don’t you?” Hallie asked suddenly, as if she’d been worrying about it.
“Very much,” Andrew promised. It was true; he liked Jesse a startling amount, but he was surprised by the little knot of panicked tightness that settled in his chest at the idea that anyone, that Jesse in particular, might not know that. “Why else would I be bribing you so exorbitantly so I can have dinner with him tonight?” he added, reassuring them both.
“Right,” Hallie agreed, smiling. “I’ll tell Emma that.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” Andrew told her quickly, still a bit unsettled over how interested Emma was in their business. “It’s really none of her concern.”
“Of course it is,” Hallie said, rolling her eyes. “She’s practically family.” She leant up and kissed Andrew’s cheek. “Thank you for the new books, we’ll go shopping tomorrow!”
“Hallie, wait,” Andrew called but she was already skipping away. He frowned, picking thoughtfully at his shirt cuffs.
He didn’t know why he was so unsettled by Emma’s questions – it wasn’t as if she could be interested in Jesse for herself; she was only recently widowed and Jesse was Andrew’s… Jesse was married. Still, it left him feeling a little worried and out of sorts and it was a relief when the footman announced that dinner was served.
“Oh,” was the first thing Andrew could think to say when he saw Jesse. Jesse looked almost unbearably handsome in a dark blue coat that complemented his eyes and took Andrew’s breath away. He cleared his throat. “That’s a, is that a new jacket?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, fingering the hem uncertainly. “Is it all right? Emma said it looked well enough but I wasn’t sure.”
“It looks very well,” Andrew said, perhaps putting a bit too much sincerity behind his words, but Jesse smiled, embarrassed and pleased, and Andrew didn’t think it was possible to ever be too sincere if it put that look on his face.
“Thank you,” Jesse said. “I thought perhaps I looked like one of those creepy marionettes from a Punch and Judy show.”
Andrew laughed and pulled out Jesse’s chair for him, instinctively reaching out and squeezing Jesse’s shoulder when Jesse sat down. “Definitely not,” he promised.
Jesse frowned up at him then across to Andrew’s place at the table. “I feel like I should stand up again so I can pull your chair out for you. Would that be too strange?”
“No,” Andrew laughed. “But it might condemn us to an endless spiral of never actually staying in our seats. What if I promise that next time, you can pull out my chair for me?”
Jesse thought for a moment then nodded. “All right,” he agreed. “That sounds fair.”
Andrew really wanted to reach across the table and take Jesse’s hand just then, but they were interrupted by the arrival of their first course.
“Oh,” Jesse said, as turbot soup was ladled out into his bowl. “This is one of my favourites.”
“Yes, I, um.” Andrew picked up his spoon. “I know.”
Jesse glanced up at his from under his eyelashes. “Did Hallie tattle on me again?” he asked. “I really do need to have her sent to a convent, immediately.”
“Oh no, don’t,” Andrew said seriously. “However else would I be able to sneakily learn things about you?”
“I don’t know,” Jesse said, smiling. “Ask me?”
Andrew gasped. “What a scandalously modern suggestion, sir. Next you’ll be suggesting we discuss politics or religion.”
Jesse smirked, biting his lip. “Eat your dinner,” he admonished, “and stop being so silly.”
Andrew grinned. “All right,” he agreed easily, and dipped his spoon into his soup, but not before giving into temptation and reaching over to take Jesse’s free hand.
Jesse’s fingers twitched in his for a second, then he turned his hand over and laced their fingers together. It made eating a little more cumbersome, but Andrew was prepared to put up with that.
They withdrew to the drawing room after dinner. Andrew had paid a lot of attention to Jesse since they’d married, of course, but tonight, they had each other’s undivided attention and it felt as though they’d stepped back in time, to a time of courting that they’d never actually had.
“I suppose I should let you get back to – “ Jesse stopped, clearly at a loss to think what Andrew did in his spare time. Andrew thought back to last night when he’d had no idea what to do with himself either and was loath to let Jesse go.
Andrew squeezed his hand. “Come and sit with me?” he asked, leading Jesse over to the loveseat.
“Why, Your Lordship, if you’re planning to seduce me, you should know that my husband is a very jealous man,” Jesse said, laughing.
“Is that so?” Andrew asked, pressing close to Jesse’s side and sighing, content, when Jesse put an arm around his shoulders. “He sounds like a brute.”
Jesse’s fingers brushed the back of Andrew’s ear and Andrew shivered. “He’s not as bad as all that.”
Andrew’s chest felt tight. “I like you so much,” he said, abandoning the game because he couldn’t think clearly in the face of Jesse’s teasing smile.
Jesse turned his head, smile turning soft for a second before he ducked in and kissed Andrew.
Andrew’s heart stuttered the way it always did when Jesse touched him, but there was something more to it tonight, something about the shy but pleased turn of Jesse’s mouth, the fact that he was initiating a kiss somewhere outside the bedroom.
“Thank you for dinner,” Jesse said, almost teasingly, like that wasn’t what he wanted to say at all and he knew Andrew knew that.
“You’re welcome,” Andrew said reflexively and Jesse just smiled wider.
“I’m very impressed you managed to actually ask the cook to put herself out for you,” he said, still smiling, still so close and Andrew really, really liked this side of Jesse that was confident enough to mock him.
“It did take a lot of courage,” Andrew assured him. “And I’m probably going to buy her some flowers tomorrow to apologise.”
Jesse laughed, kissing Andrew again, lips gentle against the corner of his mouth.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, almost a question. Jesse’s hand was on Andrew’s thigh now, which should have answered that almost-question, but Andrew couldn’t be sure.
“Yes?” Jesse asked, fingers tensing on Andrew’s thigh like he thought Andrew was about to turn him down. Andrew thought that he should probably find some way soon to assure Jesse that he was never going to turn this, turn him down.
“I just, I just wanted to make sure you knew that dinner was just because I wanted to spend some time with you. It wasn’t because, because I thought we might, because I was hoping… Not that I wasn’t hoping, of course.” They might have spent this morning in bed, but Andrew could never get enough of Jesse.
Jesse’s hand slid up Andrew’s leg, thumb dragging along Andrew’s inner thigh, which was a blessed relief because it stopped Andrew talking.
“Thank you for dinner,” Jesse said quietly. “You didn’t have to, but I do appreciate it.”
“You’re, you’re welcome?” Andrew said questioningly. “It wasn’t exactly a hardship to have a lovely dinner with my lovely husband though.”
Jesse kissed his cheek and Andrew turned toward him, automatically. “Just let me thank you,” he scolded. “It’s kind of you, to, um, to make so much effort when we’re not really – ”
Jesse said things all the time that reminded Andrew that they weren’t really in love like some other married couples, but for some reason Andrew couldn’t stand to hear him say it tonight.
“Don’t,” he said quickly, maybe a bit too harshly because Jesse looked up, startled. “Sorry. I just. I just meant. Maybe we could talk about something else. I should ask if I want to know more about you, you said, didn’t you?”
“I… did,” Jesse allowed, sounding suspicious.
“Good.” Andrew put his head on Jesse’s shoulder. “Tell me about you, Jesse Eisenberg.”
The next few days passed in a blur of preparations for Emma’s ball. Before he’d joined the army, Andrew had always enjoyed all the fripperies of dressing up - although his idea of fashion hadn’t always matched up his father’s, who had tended to regard Andrew’s high collars and perfectly-tailored white waistcoats somewhat askance.
Jesse, to no one’s surprise, did not enjoy dressing up to go to the ball.
“I can do that myself,” he was telling Joe when Andrew went to find him, sounding as close to tetchy as he ever came with the staff.
Joe carried on smiling placidly at him, dusting off the shoulders of Jesse’s coat.
“You look lovely,” Andrew said, leaning against the doorframe to watch them.
“Aw, thank you, my dear,” Joe said, flashing Andrew a look over Jesse’s shoulder. He laughed softly to himself at his joke and Andrew laughed along with him. Jesse didn’t seem to notice.
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, coming into the room and reaching up to neaten an already neat curl of hair. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Jesse said with a firm, not very convincing, nod. He tilted his head slightly away from Andrew’s fingers.
Joe stepped back, tactfully carrying a pile of discarded clothes out of the room.
“Will you dance with me?” Andrew asked, grabbing Jesse’s hand. He tried to twirl him around but Jesse wouldn’t go, lacing their fingers together instead and holding Andrew still.
“Here?” Jesse stroked his thumb over the back of Andrew’s hand and Andrew smiled automatically, involuntarily. “There’s no music.”
“No, silly, at the ball. There’s often dancing at a ball, or so I’ve heard.”
“Really?” Jesse asked, raising his eyebrows. “I had no idea.” He tugged on Andrew’s hand and, surprised, Andrew came closer, walking forward and waiting for Jesse to tell him to stop. When he didn’t, they bumped chests, which was far from unpleasant even if the layers of their shirts and waistcoats and tailcoats stopped him feeling all of Jesse’s lovely warmth.
“We have to go to the ball,” Andrew said softly even though he would so much rather have stayed here, pressed up close to Jesse.
“I know.” Jesse’s arms came up around him, hands spread warmly over Andrew’s back. He kissed Andrew’s chin, a dry brush of lips. “I want to ask you something.”
“All right,” Andrew agreed easily. “Is it ‘Andrew, dearest, would you like me to kiss you’? Because the answer will be yes.” It would always be yes, actually; he hoped Jesse knew that.
“No,” Jesse said (disappointingly). He smiled with one side of his mouth, looking unsure. Then he shook his head at himself. “Actually, yes, it is that too; let’s do that first.”
Half of Andrew was sure that whatever Jesse wanted to talk about had to be important, and so he shouldn’t let Jesse distract them both with kissing. The other half of him was, well, distracted by kissing so he stayed quiet, letting Jesse walk him backwards into the nearest wall, leaning back pliantly while Jesse kissed and kissed him.
Reluctantly, Andrew pulled back before he was ready, because if Jesse wanted to tell him something then he wanted to hear it. He was fairly certain that that was how marriages were supposed to work.
“What was it you wanted to ask?” He couldn’t resist kissing Jesse’s forehead when it wrinkled in a tiny frown, but that wouldn’t prevent Jesse from answering him so he thought that that was rather restrained on his part.
Jesse blushed. Andrew wondered if Jesse was about to ask him something naughty – he certainly hoped so. “I was just wondering if you, um. If you and I… You’ve been so affectionate and I definitely… and – ”
Andrew leant closer, hanging on every word. Whatever Jesse was about to ask, Andrew was fascinated.
Jesse licked his lips. “Are you in – ”
The door opened with a crash. “Jesse! Andrew! Where are you? Oh.” Hallie ground to a halt but it was too late. Jesse jerked back from Andrew, eyes wide and blush darkening.
“I have to see Joe about, um, shoes,” he said, even though he was already wearing boots. “I’ll, um. Yes. That was definitely fate. What was I thinking, honestly…?”
Andrew strained his ears, trying to pick something out of Jesse’s mutterings as Jesse hurried out of the room, but it was no good.
“Sorry,” Hallie said, wrinkling her nose in a way that she had definitely stolen from Jesse. “I forgot to knock.”
Andrew shook it off, turning his brightest smile on her. “And I’m not surprised. Miss Eisenberg, in that dress, a little thing such as door should never stand in your way.”
Hallie laughed, curtsying neatly. “Do you think it looks all right? Emma said this shade was flattering but I worried it was a little bright.”
“You look beautiful,” Andrew told her honestly. She also looked a lot older than her seventeen years, and this was her first ball. He was going to have to make sure to keep an eye on her. He felt very old all of a sudden.
“Thank you, so do you. Jesse obviously thought so too,” she added with a wink.
Annoyingly, Andrew felt himself blush. “He’s my husband,” he reminded her, brushing it off, “he has to think I look beautiful, it formed an integral part of the marriage contract.”
“No,” Hallie said meaningfully, “It didn’t.”
Good god, maybe she actually was older than seventeen; she was definitely more mature than him.
“None of that,” Andrew told her firmly. (He was getting better at being firm. Slightly. When the person he was being firm with didn’t mind humouring him, anyway.) “Come on or we’ll be late.”
Hallie rolled her eyes. “I know; that’s what I came to tell you.”
Andrew offered her his arm. “May I escort you to the carriage?”
Hallie looked at him for a moment as though sizing him up. “You may,” she decided after a moment. “But only if you offer Jesse your other arm.”
Andrew laughed; she was incorrigible. “I’ll be the envy of everyone at Emma’s party,” he told her stoutly, “arriving with two Eisenbergs.”
Emma’s ball was just as lively and convivial as the lady herself. She met them in the grand hall and embraced Hallie, exclaiming over her dress and seeming genuinely pleased to see them all.
Andrew was predisposed to like everyone, and it was a little disconcerting to find that he didn’t want to like Emma even though she was making it very hard not to. If only she didn’t make Jesse laugh so easily, he thought, then hated himself for thinking it.
She was doing it again right now, kissing Jesse’s cheek and whispering something in his ear that made him splutter and bite his lip, eyes sparkling. Andrew caught his own bottom lip between his teeth, forcibly holding his mouth closed so he couldn’t ask what was so amusing.
“My Lord,” Emma said, catching Andrew’s hands next. “I’m so pleased you came, all of you. Please say I can claim you both for at least one dance?”
“Me too?” Hallie asked, perking up immediately at the talk of dancing.
Emma laughed. “Yes, of course you too. Although if your dance card isn’t full by the time you’ve taken one turn around the room, I’ll be shocked.”
Hallie smiled, clearly trying not to look too pleased. “Can we go in now? Please? I want to meet people.”
“Of course,” Emma said, linking their arms together. “Come on, let me introduce you to all my favourite people. They’re delightful; you’ll love them.” She looked back over her shoulder, smiling widely at Jesse and Andrew. “Come on, boys.”
They fell into step behind him, moving carefully between exquisitely dressed people, most of whom Andrew recognised by sight but didn’t know well enough to talk to.
“You’ll dance with me, won’t you?” Andrew asked Jesse, pleased to have a moment to talk to him before the rush of the ball began in earnest.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really planning to dance at all,” Jesse confessed softly. “I’m not very good.”
“Neither am I,” Andrew promised him. “We can tread on each other’s feet; it’ll be fun. Please?”
“You sound like Hallie when you pout like that,” Jesse told him, but it wasn’t a no, so Andrew took it as a yes and smiled, pleased. He was definitely going to claim at least one dance with Jesse; he was looking forward to it.
They’d barely danced one dance apiece – Andrew with Hallie, Emma with Jesse – before a commotion near the punch bowl had everyone turning to look.
A tall, curly-haired man, wearing a topcoat so eye-searingly violet that even Andrew wouldn’t have had confidence in his ability to carry it off, was leaning against the table, laughing and rubbing his cheek. It appeared he had just been slapped.
“Oh for goodness sake,” Emma muttered, stalking across the room. Andrew shared a glance with Jesse who nodded so they followed her.
“Justin,” Emma hissed, stopping in front of the man and planting her hands on her hips. “What did you do?”
The man – Justin – widened his eyes. “I asked her if she’d like to dance,” he said. His accent was similar to hers. Another American, it seemed, to add to Andrew’s growing collection.
“Where?” Emma asked dangerously.
Justin looked away, shuffling his feet. “In the direction of my bedroom?”
Andrew bit his lip so he wouldn’t laugh. That was a terrible social faux pas, but Justin’s expression was funny.
Emma took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “One day, I will kill you,” she said sweetly. Then she seemed to notice Andrew and Jesse. “This is my brother-in-law, Mr Justin Timberlake. Please don’t judge him too harshly; he has a terrible mental affliction. One where he believes that he’s irresistible to every woman in the world.”
“I believe it because it’s true,” Justin told her belligerently. “Mostly. At least ninety-five per cent of the time, anyway.”
“Justin,” Emma sighed. “Don’t make me regret inviting you. I could have made you stay at home, you know.”
“You wouldn’t,” Justin said, sounding confident. “I’m very popular. Several society mamas have already approached to enquire about my fortune. I expect to become engaged at lease three times this Season.” He glanced over at Andrew, catching his eye. “It was only twice last year.”
Emma shook her head, obviously fighting back a smile. “Oh, do go away. Pick one young lady and dance with her, please. I think Miss Mulligan is around here somewhere; she seems a sensible girl who won’t fall for your charms.”
“Miss Mulligan?” Andrew asked automatically. He noticed the way Jesse stiffened against his side but put it out of his mind to ask about later. “Carey Mulligan?”
“Yes.” Emma smiled at him. “She seems a lovely girl, do you know her?”
“Yes,” Andrew said with maybe more feeling than was wise. He hadn’t seen Carey since before Christmas and he missed her whole family dreadfully. “She’s, we’re, we - .”
“The Mulligans live close to Andrew’s family home,” Jesse told Emma, apparently taking pity on Andrew’s stuttering even though he didn’t actually look at Andrew while he said it.
Andrew smiled at the side of Jesse’s head, grateful. “Yes, that,” he agreed. “Exactly.”
“You should dance with her,” Jesse said quietly. “Emma, why don’t we dance?”
“No, wait, I’d like to dance with you – ” Andrew protested but Emma had already accepted Jesse’s hand. She looked a little confused, throwing Andrew a quizzical look, but he had no explanation.
He had missed Carey but that didn’t mean he didn’t still want to dance with Jesse. He couldn’t imagine why Jesse thought it would.
Andrew watched Jesse and Emma lead each other onto the dance floor, heads bent together while they talked. Emma was frowning. Andrew desperately wanted to know what they were saying.
He looked around the room, searching for Carey. She wasn’t hard to find since she was right next to Justin, who was easy to spot even all the way across the room.
Andrew waved awkwardly. Carey’s face split into a smile when she saw him and she waved back enthusiastically. Andrew exhaled, relieved. At least someone was pleased to see him.
A sudden laugh from the dancers had Andrew looking back at Jesse and Emma. One or both of them had clearly tripped and they were holding each other up awkwardly, laughing and not seeming to mind that they were making a minor spectacle of themselves.
Andrew’s hands itched suddenly; he wished he was the one dancing with Jesse, he wanted the warm press of Jesse’s fingers against his, the bright glow of Jesse’s smile aimed directly at him. He wanted that always, he realised, and he didn’t want to share it with Emma or with anyone else. He wanted Jesse to be his, not just on a piece of paper but really.
The lurch of yearning hit him so strongly in the chest that he stepped forward before he could stop himself.
He paused, right on the edge of the dance floor, aware of a few people looking at him curiously.
What am I doing? he thought, stepping back as quickly as he could, almost tripping over his own feet which did nothing to stop people staring at him. He grabbed the first drink he could find, draining his glass as quickly as possible. His hands were shaking. And they still wanted to be tangled up with Jesse’s.
Oh god. Oh god, this really wasn’t good.
Carey was unexpectedly right there, slipping her arm though his. “Gardens?” she asked softly. “You look like you could use some air.”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, because he still felt stunned, rocked to his core, which didn’t even make much sense when he thought about it. It seemed laughably obvious now that he was in love with Jesse; how could he possibly be anything else?
“All right,” Carey said, sitting him down on a bench in the arbour. Andrew didn’t even remember coming outside. “What’s wrong?”
Andrew shook his head; there was a fresh glass of wine in his hands and he hadn’t finished drinking yet. By the time this glass was empty too, he’d found the words.
“I think,” he said slowly, testing the words out in his head to see if they fit. They did, of course. “I think I’ve fallen in love with Jesse.”
“Oh.” Carey sat down next to him, arm coming up and wrapping around his shoulders. “Dearest, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you really surprised?”
“No.” Andrew sighed, defeated. “He’s wonderful. I didn’t really stand a chance, did I?”
Carey made a sound like a swallowed laugh and pulled back. “That wasn’t what I meant,” she said kindly. “I meant that you are awfully inclined to romance. But, well, you’re right, he is a very nice man. Is being in love with him so terrible?”
Andrew nodded sadly. He felt wretched and a bit drunk and very hopeless. He’d always known he wouldn’t be very good at love. “It’s awful,” he confessed.
Carey frowned. “Why?” She bumped Andrew’s arm. “You have married him, you know. Being in love with one’s husband is allowed.”
Andrew shook his head. “But he’s not in love with me,” he said, waving a hand in the hope that if he showed her how enormous a problem this was, she might find a solution for him. “I think he’s, no, I’m almost sure he’s in love with Emma.”
“The hostess of this party?” Carey asked, frowning. “That Emma? Do you really think so?”
“She makes him laugh,” Andrew said miserably. “I don’t make him laugh.”
Carey sucked on her bottom lip, looking sympathetic. “I’m sure he likes you too, though,” she said, as though like was enough. “You’re good friends, aren’t you?”
Andrew shrugged. He stared down at his hands and didn’t say anything.
“Oh dear,” Carey sighed, putting a hand on the far side of Andrew’s head and pushing it down to rest against her shoulder. “Poor old stick.”
Andrew groaned and leant into her, letting her hug him and pet his hair even though this would be difficult to explain if anyone walked by. He was starting to regret drinking so much wine so quickly; it was hard to think clearly.
“I didn’t know love felt like this,” he confessed, “I thought it was closer to how I feel about you.”
Carey didn’t answer for so long that Andrew started to regret saying anything. He hadn’t meant to hurt or annoy her.
“What does it feel like?” she finally asked. “Tell me.”
“As if…” Andrew fumbled around for the right words. He wasn’t poetic like Jesse. “As if I’m being repeatedly stabbed in the stomach by something blunt, but I’m almost enjoying it?”
Carey laughed, snorting into Andrew’s hair. “Your life is truly a tragic one,” she said, with what Andrew felt wasn’t complete sincerity. Still, she wrapped her other arm around him, hugging him close, so he didn’t complain.
“I love you,” he murmured, because he did, even if it wasn’t the same.
A startled sound cut off whatever Carey was about to reply and Andrew looked up to find Jesse standing on the stone patio overlooking the garden, staring down at them. He looked wide-eyed and upset for a second before his face set into something devoid of any expression at all.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed happily, pushing carefully out of Carey’s hold. He tried to stand up too quickly and ended up sitting down again. He really shouldn’t have had that second glass of wine. “Oh dear, I can’t stand up. Come and get me?”
Jesse stayed where he was, hands curled around the low wall for a moment or two before pushing away and hurrying down the stairs toward them. “Are you drunk?” he asked. He didn’t sound as amused as he normally did when Andrew made a fool of himself; Andrew wondered if something bad had happened.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, swaying more than he needed to so that Jesse would hold him up. Jesse did, but only with a hand under his elbow – Andrew had been hoping for an arm around his waist. Apparently realising he was in love made him even more desperate for touches than normal.
“Yes,” Jesse said shortly. “Unless you count Emma’s brother-in-law paying much too much attention to Hallie.”
“To Hallie?” Andrew asked, remembering guiltily that he’d been planning to keep an eye on her tonight.
“Yes,” Jesse repeated but didn’t offer anything else. He nodded to Carey who had stood up as well. “Miss Mulligan.”
“Jesse,” Carey said softly. Andrew watched her reach out to touch Jesse’s arm and watched Jesse flinch away from the touch and didn’t understand what was happening here at all.
“Come on,” Jesse said to Andrew, still in that affectionless tone. It made Andrew want to crawl all over him, kiss him everywhere until he softened again, but this probably wasn’t the place and Jesse definitely wasn’t giving any indication that he’d welcome it.
“Where are we going?” Andrew asked.
“Home,” Jesse said firmly. “I’m tired and it’s long past Hallie’s bedtime.”
“But it’s a ball,” Andrew protested, nevertheless letting himself be pulled along. He’d rarely ever seen Jesse closed off like this, certainly not since he’d come home, and he hated it.
“Good night,” Carey called once they were back in the house and Andrew had to look over his shoulder to return the sentiment since Jesse wasn’t letting him stop.
Hallie was waiting by the front door, looking mutinous, but she did seem tired, so maybe Jesse hadn’t simply used her as an excuse to leave.
They climbed into the waiting carriage in silence, but Hallie started chatting as soon as they’d sat down, telling Andrew all about the young men who’d asked her to dance and the society matrons who’d spoken to her and the stylish ladies who’d complimented her dress.
“That all sounds wonderful,” Andrew told her sincerely, but he couldn’t be as enthusiastic as he wanted to be, not with Jesse turned away from them, staring out of the window at the dark streets moving along outside.
Andrew reached out tentatively, putting his hand on Jesse’s leg. Jesse didn’t move away but he didn’t acknowledge Andrew in any way either.
Hallie widened her eyes at Andrew, asking with a tilt of her head what was wrong with Jesse. Andrew shook his head with a helpless shrug.
“What about Mr Timberlake?” Andrew prompted Hallie, since her conversation was the only thing stopping the silence in the carriage from becoming unbearably oppressive.
“What about him?” she asked guilelessly. “He was funny. He told me that he was the most eligible bachelor in London so I laughed at him. I’m not sure he liked that very much.”
Andrew couldn’t help laughing. “I bet he didn’t. You won’t start an affair with him, will you? I know he’s charming, but I don’t think he’s right for you.”
Hallie looked offended. “I almost certainly won’t,” she said, puffing up. “But if I did, that would be my concern, wouldn’t it?”
“No,” Jesse said, still not looking away from the window. “It would be Andrew’s. He’s your guardian. He went to all the trouble of marrying me to protect your name and status; that would be a terrible way of repaying him.”
“Marrying you was no trouble,” Andrew told him quickly, staring hard at Jesse’s back, trying to make him turn around, give Andrew one of those funny little embarrassed smiles, but he didn’t react at all, only stared more fixedly out at nothing. “Jesse?”
“We’re here,” Jesse said flatly and sure enough, the carriage rocked to a halt just then. There were the usual sounds of the driver quieting the horses and then the click of the door being opened from the outside.
Hallie shot Andrew another worried look and then let herself be helped out. Jesse moved to follow her but Andrew stopped him with the hand still on his thigh.
“What’s wrong?” he asked softly. He hoped it was only that Jesse had had a miserable time at the ball, although Andrew would feel terrible if being married to him had forced Jesse into a social whirl that he truly hated.
Jesse picked up his hand and dropped it onto the upholstered seat. “I’m not a substitute,” he snapped, sounding halfway between upset and furious, before pushing past Andrew’s knees and jumping down unaided from the carriage.
“What?” Andrew called after him, completely confused, but he was talking to empty air.
Andrew woke up late the next day, head pounding even though he really hadn’t had that much to drink. There was a nameless sort of dread pooling in his stomach, which didn’t make much sense until his mind cleared enough to remember that Jesse was very angry with him.
Even in the cold light of day, Andrew couldn’t work out why that would be, although he suspected it had something to do with him cuddling up to Carey in the garden.
Why would Jesse care about that, though? Andrew wondered. He surely didn’t feel that he was being cuckold, not when he was the one laughing and whispering with Emma like they were a courting couple.
Andrew pushed back the bed covers; he really didn’t want to think any more about it. He’d apologise at breakfast for whatever he’d done to upset Jesse, and then everything could go back to how it had been before.
He’d just pulled on his bathrobe, wondering if he could go down to breakfast without getting dressed, when someone started to pound on his bedroom door.
“Yes?” he called, startled, and the door swung open, revealing Hallie, hair undone and falling around her shoulders, waving a letter at him. He stared at her. “Whatever’s the matter? Has something happened?”
Hallie’s colour was high as though she was very upset or very angry or some strange combination of both. “Jesse’s gone,” she said. She was definitely upset. “He left you a note and – ”
“Gone where?” Andrew asked, nearly snatching the note from her hands, ignoring the fact that she’d already opened it. He scanned it quickly then blinked and returned to the beginning, reading more slowly this time, sure that he must have misunderstood.
My Dear Andrew,
As of this morning, I have returned to Cambridge to continue with my studies, which I cannot in good conscience delay any longer. Luckily, I have missed only the first few weeks of the Lent Term.
Please forgive my sudden departure, which I thought would be for the best. Hopefully your situation will now be easier and I wish you every happy.
“What does he mean, your situation?” Hallie demanded. “What situation?”
Andrew had been wondering that too. “I have no idea,” he told her honestly. “I don’t – ” He sat down on the bed, looking up at her helplessly. “Is he really gone?”
She nodded sadly. Her eyes were full of unshed tears. “He didn’t even say goodbye.”
Andrew patted the bed, offering her a seat. “It’s not your fault,” he promised her. “I don’t know how, but I’m sure it’s mine.”
Hallie sat down next to him, slipping her hand into his. “But what happened? Before last night, you were so happy.”
Andrew swallowed heavily. “I don’t know,” he repeated. “I suppose, I suppose perhaps he really does just want to return to his studies? We never discussed him abandoning them for – ” me “good.”
“You never discussed him going back this term, either,” Hallie countered. “He told me he was planning to take the rest of the year off and start again in October.”
“Did he?” Andrew asked, distracted. He’d just realised that he’d never asked Jesse anything at all about how their marriage might affect his education. He’d just blithely enjoyed the fact that Jesse didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go back and hadn’t thought anymore about it.
No wonder Jesse had left him; Andrew was a dreadful husband.
“I’m sure he’ll write to you as soon as he’s settled,” he told Hallie. It wasn’t much of a comfort, not when she looked so upset, but Andrew felt a lot like crying himself, so it was the best he could manage.
“We could take a carriage to Cambridge and drag him home with us?” Hallie suggested hopefully. “I could make myself cry and you could do that thing you do with your eyes – I’m sure he wouldn’t be able to resist us both.”
It was incredibly tempting, but Andrew couldn’t do it. “If he doesn’t want to be here, I’m not going to make him,” Andrew told her firmly.
“But he does,” Hallie protested. “He loves you so – ”
“Stop,” Andrew begged, because that was just cruel. He was sure she didn’t mean for it to be, maybe she actually believed it, but it was so close to what he wanted and so far from reality that he couldn’t bear to hear it.
Hallie’s hand squeezed his tightly. “He’ll come back,” she said softly, laying her head on his shoulder. “I promise.”
Andrew nodded. He bit his lip hard, determined not to cry in front of her and didn’t say anything to that.
London was unbearable without Jesse. Emma visited often, bringing the incorrigible Mr Timberlake with her, but Andrew left Hallie to entertain them, a little worried about what he might say to her.
He tortured himself by wondering if she’d known Jesse was planning to leave, if perhaps she had already visited him in Cambridge. It wouldn’t be a very difficult journey to make without attracting comment.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Joe told him, folding his arms and frowning at Andrew like he was a puzzle. “You look like you need to get very drunk.”
Andrew sighed. “We tried that, remember?”
Joe grinned at him. “I didn’t mean with me, although I wouldn’t object. You have friends, don’t you? Ones that you aren’t married to or hiding from?”
“I – ” Andrew hesitated. He had Carey, but he could hardly get drunk with her. Then he remembered Matt, and his cosy little home with someone else’s family. “That’s a good idea.”
Joe preened. “I know,” he said easily. “I’ll fetch your coat.”
The door was opened by a smiling man with reddish-blond hair and a closely trimmed beard. He was wearing a greatcoat and clearly just about to go out.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Andrew said automatically. He’d been so intent on getting to Matt that he’d forgotten it might not be convenient.
The man’s grinned toned down but didn’t fade away. “Can I help you?” he asked. “Are you lost?”
Andrew had done his best to wear his least obviously expensive coat, hoping to fit more easily into Haymarket this time, but apparently his disguise wasn’t good enough.
“No, I was, um.” God, this was what happened when he retired from society for a month; he stopped being able to hold a conversation. “Is Lord Matthew here?” he asked. “Or Mrs Darvill?”
The man nodded. “They are,” he agreed. “Mr…?”
“Garfield,” Andrew said, offering a hand. “Captain Andrew Garfield. Mr Darvil, I presume?”
“You presume correctly,” Mr Darvill told him, shaking his hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you; Matt talks about you all the time. Your Lordship.”
“Damn,” Andrew laughed. “Caught.”
“Arthur?” a voice floated from inside the house. “Whoever’s at the door?”
Karen came hurrying down the stairs behind Mr Darvill, baby Allegra wrapped in a blanket in her arms. “Oh,” she said. “Hello. Are we expecting you? Matt? Did you forget to tell me something?”
“No,” Andrew said quickly. “No, I just stopped by. I’m sorry, I should have sent my card on ahead.”
Karen shook her head, reaching around her husband to haul Andrew into the house. “Don’t be silly,” she scolded. “We’re just about to leave for Vauxhall Gardens but you’re more than welcome to join us.”
“Yes,” Mr Darvill said quickly before Andrew could demure. “Of course, you’re welcome. Matt!”
There was a sigh from the living room and then Matt came trudging out. He was also dressed to go out but there was a notebook clutched desperately in his hands.
“Whatever do you want?” he asked. “I’ve got to finish this – . Andrew!”
Andrew smiled. “Show some more respect to your hostess, Matthew,” he chided, clasping hands with Matt and pulling him in for a quick embrace.
Matt frowned, pulling back and poking his fingers into Andrew’s cheeks. “You’re sad,” he announced, making Andrew squirm and regret coming here after all. “Do you need to get drunk?”
“Yes,” Andrew said desperately since there was no point trying to save face with Matt around. “I was wondering if you’d like to help.”
“Would we?” Matt asked. “Would we?” He raised his eyebrows at the Darvills. “Would we?” At their nods, he looked back at Andrew. “We would.”
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven