After breakfast, Andrew tracked Jesse down to the library – unsurprisingly. He was sitting at a long, low desk at a right angle to one of the big windows, pouring over some documents and looking more at home than Andrew had ever seen him.
“Hello,” Andrew said, whispering so as not to disturb him too abruptly.
Jesse jumped anyway, looking up at Andrew with wide eyes that slowly returned to a normal, less startled size after a couple of slow blinks. Andrew thought about the bruises on his skin and couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Good morning,” Jesse agreed, taking the coffee Andrew offered him and putting it down on the edge of the desk. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yes?” Andrew said, sitting down on the windowsill and resting his socked feet on the very edge of Jesse’s desk. Jesse looked from Andrew, to Andrew’s feet and back again but didn’t actually object. “Did you?”
Jesse nodded and Andrew said, “Good,” and it was almost as though they hadn’t been sleeping in the same bed all night.
“I was wondering if you’d like to come riding this afternoon?” Andrew tried. He hadn’t been wondering that until right now but the sun was shining brightly and it might be nice to spend some time away from the house, just the two of them.
“I can’t,” Jesse said quickly. He waved his papers at Andrew before setting them down again, realigning the corners. “There’s so much to go through here.”
“Isn’t that what we have Mr Cumberbatch for?” Andrew asked, trying not to feel or sound too disappointed.
“It’s Sunday,” Jesse reminded him. “I don’t want to disturb Mr Cumberbatch but I do want to get started.” He carefully underlined a row of figures and then added, in what was clearly a failed attempt at casually changing the subject, “Would you like a valet?”
“I…” Andrew blinked. He wasn’t sure where being bought a valet landed on the spectrum of his pride versus maintaining the estate. “I do already have one,” he hedged eventually.
Jesse waved that away. “Oh, I’ll take him,” he said. “You should have someone new, someone who knows how to do all those twisty, fashionable things you do with your cravats and your hair and… things.”
“I do twisty, fashionable things with my hair?” Andrew asked, smiling. “I don’t think I do, actually, but now I really want to start.”
Jesse glared up at him but his lips were twitching, just slightly. “You know what I mean,” he protested. “And I’m right. You definitely do need a valet. The left side of your collar is a full sixteenth of a inch lower than the right side.” He smirked when Andrew couldn’t stop his hand flying up to it and scribbled something on the corner of a page, rubbing the end of his quill against his lips, apparently lost in thought.
Andrew stared. He really, really didn’t mean to dwell on it, but he suddenly couldn’t think of anything but how Jesse’s lips had looked wrapped around his cock last night. There was a definite stirring in Andrew’s nether regions so he crossed his legs quickly to hide it. Unfortunately, he was so quick that he forgot he was braced precariously between the too-narrow windowsill and the edge of Jesse’s desk and he nearly toppled over onto the floor.
Only the excellent balance skills he’d learnt riding horses in the cavalry saved him, but they didn’t save him quietly and Jesse looked up sharply.
“Are you all right?” he asked, mouth definitely twitching now, damn it.
“Fine,” Andrew told him quickly. “I’m very coordinated. Coordinated and graceful.”
Jesse smiled. “You’re very distracting, you should go away.”
Andrew pouted, trying to make it seem like he was only pretending to be disappointed. “I’d rather spend the day with you,” he said and watched Jesse’s smile fall away.
“Andrew,” Jesse scolded. “You don’t need to say things like that.”
“But I mean – ” it, Andrew started to say but Jesse shook his head.
“Don’t say things like that,” he said firmly. He dipped his quill in the ink with more force than necessary. “Please just… Just go riding or something, all right? I’ll see you later.”
Now Andrew was definitely disappointed, not to mention a little hurt. “All right,” he agreed, jumping down. “I’ll um.” He stopped just by Jesse’s chair, wondering if it would be all right to kiss him goodbye.
Jesse settled the question by resolutely refusing to look up at him so Andrew took himself away, no longer in quite the good mood he’d woken up with.
Andrew and Jesse’s first week of married life passed in roughly the same way that the first full day had: Jesse worked on things in the library, Andrew tried to coax him out, Jesse turned him down, Andrew got dispirited and spent the rest of the day riding himself and his horse too hard.
“It’s as if he hates me,” Andrew complained. He and Carey were wasting away the afternoon in the orchard that bisected their two properties, sheltered by trees where her parents wouldn’t know they were spending time together.
“Probably,” Carey agreed distractedly. When Andrew turned to look at her, shielding his eyes from the weak autumn sun filtering between the leaves, he saw that she was scribbling in her notebook.
“Carey Mulligan,” Andrew gasped, clutching a hand to his heart. “I’m pouring out my soul to you and you’re not even listening?”
“I’m definitely listening,” Carey disagreed, writing something else. “But all you’ve said for the past hour is ‘Jesse doesn’t like me,’ ‘Jesse doesn’t want to play with me,’ ‘Oh how I wish Jesse would kiss me again.’ I’d love to be able to advise you, darling, but I really don’t have anything to say new to say.”
“I never said anything about kissing,” Andrew muttered, looking down at the grass.
Carey glanced up at him, sighing and putting down her notebook when he couldn’t hide the expression on his face. She leaned over and touched his shoulder. “Andrew, when you sighed and said you thought you and Jesse would be ‘friends’ after your wedding night? That wasn’t very subtle.”
Andrew blushed. He did want to kiss Jesse again, kissing Jesse had been excellent and his face was unsurprisingly lovely up close, but that wasn’t all that Andrew wanted. If it was a choice between being friends and having more kisses, Andrew would have taken friendship in a heartbeat.
“We’re going to be married for the rest of our lives,” Andrew finally settled for saying. “I want us to be happy.”
“I know you do,” Carey told him, tilting her parasol so it shaded them both and Andrew could stop squinting from under his fingers. “But it’s only been a week, maybe you should give it a little time. Or maybe…” She stopped.
“Maybe what?” Andrew asked, perking up. Carey always had good ideas.
Carey sighed. “No, pretend I never said anything. I was just going to suggest that you might try organising something special, like a trip to town or a nice meal for just the two of you. But then I remembered that this is you I’m talking to and that instead of something simple, you’d do something ridiculously overblown and probably scare the poor boy away.”
“No,” Andrew said, sitting up quickly and ignoring the part where she knew him far too well. “Carey, that’s a wonderful idea. He wouldn’t be able to say no to that. I could arrange a picnic, that’s not too overblown, is it?”
Carey shook her head at him helplessly for a moment. “No,” she said. “No, that’s sweet. You should do that.”
Andrew beamed at her, pushing up onto his hands so he could press a quick, grateful kiss to her cheek. “Thank you,” he said with feeling. “Now, tell me what you’re scribbling in your book. Is it about me?”
The next afternoon, Andrew had everything planned – the only thing he was missing was Jesse.
“I’m really very busy,” Jesse told him, looking at the horses that Andrew had saddled and biting his lip. “Why not take Hallie instead?”
Andrew widened his eyes. He’d been told that he looked like a St Bernard puppy when he did that and for some reason, that tended to make people more amenable to his plans. “But I arranged it for you,” he said sadly. “I picked the plums for the cake myself.”
Jesse raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
Andrew nodded quickly. Mostly he’d followed Lily around, holding her basket while she picked plums and told him he was in the way, but he thought that probably counted.
Jesse sighed. “If the estate falls to ruin because I wasn’t here this afternoon, I’ll make sure everyone blames you.”
“That’s more than fair,” Andrew assured him, stomach going suddenly, surprisingly fizzy with excitement. He hadn’t realised he was this invested in Jesse agreeing. “Will you come? Really?”
“Yes,” Jesse said, still looking uncertain. “I suppose I have to if you went to all the trouble of picking plums for me.”
“It was very hazardous,” Andrew assured him. “Some of those plums did not want to be picked. I barely escaped with my life.”
Jesse nodded seriously. “I’ve heard that that is a problem with plums. Did you lose many fingers?”
Andrew had to bite his lip so he didn’t laugh and ruin it. Jesse was playing with him, it was wonderful. “All of them,” he said, with an appropriately dramatic flutter of his fingers. “The doctors say the only cure is a picnic with a lovely man.”
“If I see a lovely man, I’ll let him know,” Jesse promised and then smiled, sudden and bright for a second before he tamped it down again. “When, um. When do you want to leave?”
“Now?” Andrew asked, still thinking about that flash of smile. He wanted to take Jesse away from his books and papers and see if that would help him to smile more.
Jesse cast one more look at the picnic basket strapped to Andrew’s horse, looking like he wasn’t really seeing it. He looked sort of conflicted but Andrew was still sure he was going to say yes. “Give me five minutes to change my boots, then,” he said and disappeared into the house.
Andrew watched him hurry up the stairs and smiled to himself before turning to check the harness on Jesse’s horse. He wasn’t sure how good a rider Jesse was, but either way, Andrew wasn’t going to let him fall and hurt himself.
“This looks very nice,” Mama’s voice said behind Andrew and Andrew turned to grin at her, trying to control his happy bouncing.
“It’s nothing much,” he said, easily. “Just some lunch.”
Mama looked at him closely, checking that there was no one listening before asking, “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“Just some lunch,” Andrew repeated, adding a little nonchalant arm-swing so she wouldn’t worry.
“Andrew,” she chided, since apparently his don’t worry body language wasn’t working. “My marriage to your father was arranged by our parents, did we ever tell you that?”
“No?” Andrew said, staring at her. “Really? But you were, you were happy, weren’t you?” He’d watched his parents’ marriage for twenty-three years, if they’d only been pretending happy, he was going to have to reassess his whole view on the world.
“Yes, of course,” Mama said like that hadn’t been the point. Andrew was pretty certain that that was the point. Andrew was shocked. “But it took us years to love each other the way we learnt to eventually.”
She paused and Andrew knew what her point was now.
“I’m not trying to make Jesse fall in love with me,” he promised her quickly, “I’m just trying to make everything a bit nicer between us. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Mama repeated. “That’s why you had Cook up half the night baking cakes and making jams and it’s why I just overheard you flirting hard enough to shame a sailor.”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed because he knew his mother and no amount of arguing was going to convince her. “Exactly.”
Mama shook her head. “Be careful,” she said, pulling him down a bit too hard so she could kiss his cheek.
“Of course, I’m an excellent rider,” Andrew told her brightly, deliberately misunderstanding. He looked over her shoulder and waved. “Oh look, here’s Jesse.”
“Be careful,” she repeated. She turned what Andrew always thought of as her hostess smile on Jesse, the smile that she didn’t really mean. “Hello, Jesse. Have a good afternoon.”
“Um, thank you,” Jesse said watching her go for a moment before turning to Andrew. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Andrew told him. Andrew seemed to be telling everyone that everything was all right a lot lately; it was a good job he was so good at it. “Come on. Up you get.”
Jesse made a hilarious face at the horse. “Sure,” he said, “but do me a favour and don’t watch? I, um. I can ride. But I sometimes end up facing the wrong way the first time I try to mount.”
Andrew laughed before he could stop himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. He stepped up to the side of Jesse’s horse and closed his eyes. “Here, I’m not watching, but use my shoulder if you need something to boost yourself up with.”
“Oh, I, um.” Jesse cleared his throat. “Thank you.” Andrew heard the clip of a boot entering a stirrup, heard Jesse’s horse breathe out hard and then Jesse’s hand was on Andrew’s shoulder, just for a second but very firm and very warm. Then, “Oh, look at that,” Jesse said, sounding amazed and Andrew opened his eyes to find him seated firmly in the saddle, conveniently facing in the same direction as the horse. “First time.”
“Well done,” Andrew said, clapping and hurried around to mount his own horse. He knew he shouldn’t, but he decided to ignore what his mother had said. He was really looking forward to this afternoon: good food and a couple of hours with Jesse; it was going to be wonderful.
It began to rain almost as soon as they reached the Downs. Just gentle spots at first that made the horses frisk their heads and settled in Jesse’s curls like dew drops.
“Shall we go back?” Andrew asked regretfully, but Jesse shook his head.
“It’ll pass,” he said confidentially then grimaced when a drop of rain landed right on the end of his nose.
Andrew laughed, startling his horse, which neighed questioningly. “Of course it’ll pass,” he agreed easily because this was their afternoon together, and the weather wasn’t allowed to ruin it. “It’s only a spring shower.”
“In November?” Jesse asked, jumping a little in the saddle when his horse skipped over a molehill. Jesse was a fairly good rider, Andrew had been impressed to see, but he didn’t seem to enjoy it at all.
“Yes,” Andrew said. “November is springtime in New South Wales.”
“Have you been there?” Jesse asked. He hunched his shoulders as the rain started to get heavier and Andrew did the same, raindrops cold down the back of his neck.
“No, there’s no fighting there,” Andrew told him, wondering if he should make something up. Jesse didn’t usually ask him questions that weren’t would you like a valet? Or how many lady’s maids is too many for your mother?
“But you’ve been to the Continent?” Jesse pressed. “Did you go to Paris? Was it amazing?”
Andrew pursed his lips. “The buildings were amazing,” he hedged. “It probably wasn’t the best time to do the Grand Tour, though. Everything was so unsettled and we were rushed on from everything I wanted to see. And then, when I returned, it was with the army.”
“Which you miss,” Jesse said quietly, looking intently at the reins as though the terrain had suddenly become dangerous and he needed to concentrate.
“Which I miss,” Andrew agreed, then added quickly, “but I don’t... I had to come home, I don’t begrudge or... and I’m not. I’m not.” He was sorry, of course he was. “You make it easier,” he finally settled on and then found himself focusing hard on the glossy black back of his horse’s head.
Jesse didn’t say anything. Then, “It’s really raining now,” he observed, which it was. Andrew’s hair was soaked through and his jacket was starting to grow heavy.
“Damn,” he sighed. “Do you want to go back?” He turned to glance over his shoulder at the way they’d come but the sky was blacker over there, even more ominous.
“Not really?” Jesse said, looking that way too and wrinkling his nose. He shivered, pulling his jacket closer around him. “I think the weather would probably be better in New South Wales.”
“Or the Continent,” Andrew agreed, bringing his horse up alongside Jesse’s in the hope of shielding him from some of the rain, which was now being caught on the wind, lashing into their faces. “Oh, this is horrible. I’m so sorry.” He had to raise his voice to be heard.
Jesse shook his head, rainwater flying from his hair. “Not your fault,” he called through the clatter of rain and the crunch of falling leaves. “Come on, let’s head to the racecourse, they’ll let us shelter in the grandstand.”
“Brilliant,” Andrew told him, grinning through the rain. He had no real idea which direction Epsom racecourse was in from here – mostly because he’d been watching Jesse rather than the route they were taking – but he didn’t want Jesse to know that so he turned his horse confidently to the west and set off, making sure Jesse was keeping pace.
Apparently, Jesse much preferred riding when they were going fast. He kept up with Andrew easily, overtaking him on turns that Andrew wouldn’t have taken blithely, even in the dry.
“Jesse!” Andrew called, horrified but laughing. “Don’t break your neck.”
“I won’t,” Jesse said, sounding confused that anyone could doubt his horsemanship, but he pulled up immediately, slowing to keep pace with Andrew.
Andrew was surprised at the acquiescence for a moment before he thought back over what he’d said, don’t break your neck, he’d said, but he hadn’t even been thinking of his father, who had broken his neck.
“Sorry,” Jesse said, swiping wet hair out of his eyes.
“No,” Andrew said, “I wasn’t thinking about that.” What he meant was you make me forget to think about that, but it was raining too hard and too nastily now for declarations like that.
He scanned the horizon, hoping that the towering supports of the racecourse would spring into view. They didn’t but, if he squinted hard enough, he thought he could make out the corner of some white and tan brickwork, just peaking out from some overgrown hedges.
“What’s that?” he said, pointing. “Is that a cottage?”
Jesse shielded his eyes, looking where Andrew pointed but shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said, “I don’t have my glasses.”
Andrew had thought there was something different about Jesse’s eyes in the library that afternoon, but he hadn’t liked to ask what, in case that seemed strange or intrusive, somehow.
“Let’s have a look,” he said, cantering down the hill toward the hedgerow.
It did turn out to be a cottage, but it was clearly abandoned. There were dead plants in the window boxes and weeds knee-high in the garden.
The door opened when Andrew dismounted and tried the handle.
“You can’t just break in,” Jesse protested but he jumped down too, tying his horse next to Andrew’s on the lee side of the building before they headed in together.
“It’s not breaking in,” Andrew promised. “It’s seeking shelter. People do it all the time.”
“Do they?” Jesse asked, frowning. “No one’s ever sought shelter at the Priory.”
“That’s because the Priory isn’t a spookily abandoned cottage,” Andrew told him. “You read novels, don’t you? You know how this works.”
“I, um.” Jesse stared at Andrew, like he was surprised that Andrew knew that tiny thing about him. Andrew wouldn’t have thought that that was too surprising but he started to feel embarrassed anyway from the way Jesse was looking at him.
“You used to read a lot when we were young,” Andrew explained quickly. “I just assumed you still did.”
“I do,” Jesse agreed, nodding slowly. He shivered suddenly. “I think the cottages in novels have roaring fires in the hearth.”
“True.” Andrew frowned, taking in for the first time how wet they both were. It hadn’t felt too bad while they were riding, but now he was freezing, his hands beginning to numb. “Take your outer things off, I’ll go and look in the bedroom for some blankets.”
“Take them off?” Jesse asked, but he was asking Andrew’s retreating back.
There were no blankets in the bedroom – there wasn’t even a bed in the bedroom. Whoever had moved out of here had stripped it well. Then Andrew had a brainwave. Pulling the back of his coat up over his head, he made a dash back to the horses, unstrapping the forlorn picnic hamper and lugging it into the house.
Jesse was standing in the empty living room, stripped of his coat and shoes and shivering hard despite the small fire that he’d somehow managed to start.
“Are you magic?” Andrew asked, impressed. “You must be magic.”
“Yes,” Jesse agreed. “I’m a witch, sorry, should I have mentioned?” He waved at the doorway that Andrew thought probably led to the kitchen. “There was some half-damp firewood beside the oven. I thought we could start a small fire with the least damp bits and hopefully dry out the rest.”
“Good idea,” Andrew said, putting the picnic basket down and opening it. There on top was the neatly folded blanket that he’d asked Lily to air for him that morning. “Here.” He held it out. “I don’t think it’s got too wet.”
Jesse took it but held it away from himself. “I’ll just get it wetter,” he said. “You should take it.”
Andrew rolled his eyes. “Jesse. Don’t be self-sacrificing. The plan was that we both take it.”
Jesse shook it out. It was fairly big but not really big enough for two, but Andrew was ignoring that right now. “How?”
Andrew waggled his eyebrows. “We may have to get friendly,” he said, delighted when Jesse blushed.
He started to take his jacket off, laying it next to Jesse’s and then moved to his shirt. He only stopped when Jesse’s eyes widened, face turning paler than the cold could account for. Then Andrew started to feel guilty. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I know you probably don’t want, I know it’s not proper for…”
Jesse waved him quiet. “It’s perfectly proper. We are married. I’m just…” He took a deep breath. “I’m being silly. Come on, let’s get out of these wet things.”
By tacit consent, they got undressed in separate corners of the living room and Andrew let Jesse wrap himself in his half of the blanket before hurrying over to join him. It was hard to keep a foot of space between two reasonably tall men who were sharing a blanket and shivering hard, but they managed it, sitting on the floor in front of the fire and trying not to look at any uncovered parts of each other’s bodies.
“Well,” Jesse said, breaking the silence. “What, um. Let’s see what you brought to this fantastic picnic, then.”
Andrew poked one arm out form under the blanket and tugged the basket closer. His picnic was definitely a sunny-weather one, full of breads and jams and cakes. At the bottom, was a large bottle of fine red wine, which Andrew hadn’t asked to be packed, but wasn’t going to object to.
“I think this is the only warming thing we have,” he said, holding it up apologetically.
Jesse held out his hand for it. “That’s all right,” he said. He looked over the food Andrew had laid out. “This, um. It looks… Thank you.”
Andrew shrugged, spreading some blackcurrant jam on some bread and offering it to Jesse. “This afternoon wasn’t supposed to go like this,” he said sadly. “I wanted you to have a good time.”
Jesse took the bread, flashing Andrew a small, genuine-looking smile in return. “I’m not having a terrible time,” he said. “I mean, I’m wet and cold and naked and probably about to develop pneumonia, but otherwise.”
Andrew laughed and fished out the corkscrew. “Here. If we’re going to catch our deaths, we might as well be drunk for it.” That had been his regiment’s policy while they were riding through a Russian winter, but he thought it probably applied here too.
A few months ago, Andrew would definitely not have been this affected by half a bottle of wine. But now, barely out of the army, his tolerance had apparently completely disappeared because the world had taken on a distinctly tipsy tilt.
“Hmm,” he said thoughtfully, resting his head on Jesse’s shoulder just to see if Jesse would let him.
Jesse twitched slightly but didn’t try to throw him off. “Hmm?” he asked, tipping the bottle up to take a swig. Andrew was close enough to hear him swallow and he turned his head to watch.
“Nothing,” Andrew said, closing his eyes. “I’m just warmer now. It’s nice.”
Jesse shifted a bit, pulling the blanket closed around them. The fire was roaring now and it was almost too hot for the blanket but Jesse seemed to want to keep wearing it so Andrew didn’t mention that.
“You’re drunk,” Jesse told him, offering the bottle again. Andrew shook his head so Jesse put it down on the floor, his moves overly careful in his uncoordination.
“No,” Andrew argued because he wasn’t, not quite. “You’re just comfortable.”
Jesse didn’t say anything so Andrew poked him. “Ow,” Jesse complained.
“Sorry,” Andrew said, rubbing his fingers over the soft place on Jesse’s side that he’d poked. Jesse’s skin was smooth, damp with sweat and Andrew flashed back to the memory of Jesse’s thighs, flushed and pink under Andrew’s hands on their wedding night.
Jesse shivered and grabbed Andrew’s hand, taking it off his side.
“Are you cold?” Andrew asked, worried, and keeping hold of Jesse’s hand when Jesse tried to reclaim it.
“Andrew,” Jesse muttered, but he didn’t try too hard to take his hand back. Andrew laced their fingers together because Jesse had really warm hands and it felt nice.
“Tell me something?” Andrew asked, because the whole point of this afternoon had been to get to know each other better.
“What?” Jesse asked. “What do you want me to tell you? Would you like me to tell you about the blisters I have from riding horses in the rain?”
“If you want to,” Andrew told him, starting to sit up. “Wait, you have blisters? Let me see.”
Jesse caught Andrew’s wrist, tugging Andrew back against his side. Andrew liked it there so he didn’t fight it. “It’s fine,” he said. “And it’s, um. They’re not on my feet, anyway.”
“Oh,” Andrew said, watching Jesse blush. He reached up and touched Jesse’s cheek. “I like it when you blush,” he confessed. “Is that strange?” He hoped it wasn’t strange because he didn’t want to stop liking it.
Jesse flushed harder. “Why do you say things like that?” he asked, slapping Andrew’s hand away.
Andrew shrugged. “Because it’s true. Because you should know that you’re lovely, I suppose. No, really,” he added when Jesse didn’t look at him. “You’re so wonderful. I wish you knew that.”
Jesse huffed out a sound that might have been a laugh. “You sound like Justin.” He wrapped the end of his blanket around his fingers. “But, um. Thank you. I mean, I know you’re drunk and you wouldn’t be saying that otherwise, but it’s nice to hear.”
Andrew wanted to protest that he wasn’t that drunk and he would be happy to say it to Jesse whenever Jesse wanted, but he got distracted by something else. “Are you sure you’re not courting him?” he asked.
Jesse turned to him, frowning. “Who?” he asked, blinking. “Oh, Justin. No.” He tipped his head from side to side, hair brushing Andrew’s cheek. “Well, I guess, we were a little bit when we were really young, but that was years ago.” He pressed his hand to his mouth. “I don’t know why I just told you that.”
“Drunk,” Andrew reminded him helpfully. “You were courting him? I knew it.” The surge of triumph lasted about three seconds, then he just felt really sad. “Do you love him? I could…” He sat up, putting some space between them. “If you want to keep seeing him, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t object.”
Jesse sighed. “I told you, it was when we were young. Don’t be silly, I don’t want to step out on you.”
“Did you have sex with him?” Andrew heard himself ask then froze, horrified. “Sorry, I’m sorry, that’s none of my business, I’m – ”
“Yes,” Jesse said, picking up the bottle of wine, putting it down again. “Yes, a few times when we were fifteen or sixteen. Mostly in his father’s hay barn; it was embarrassingly clichéd.”
Andrew tried to smile at the image but couldn’t manage it. “Oh,” he said.
“What?” Jesse asked him. He was twitching his fingers against the back of Andrew’s hand and Andrew wondered if he realised he was doing it. “Did you want me to a be a virgin for our wedding night or something?” He sounded like he was mocking Andrew but Andrew could hear the actual worry underneath.
“No,” Andrew said quickly. “Of course not. I mean, I wasn’t.”
“No, of course you weren’t,” Jesse said, something weird in his voice. “I never thought you would be.”
“There were just… it was just some people in the army,” Andrew told him, shrugging. “It wasn’t anyone special.” He wished it had been, he’d always meant to wait until it was.
“What about Carey?” Jesse asked, quickly like he really wanted to know.
“She’s a girl,” Andrew said frowning.
He’d meant for that to mean and I’ve never met a girl I wanted to have sex with, but apparently Jesse didn’t hear it like that because he said, “And that’s a terrible double-standard,” sounding cross.
Andrew opened his mouth to defend himself because he really didn’t think like that but his mouth wasn’t working with his brain today and what he actually said was, “It was better with you,” which he’d definitely never meant to say. He knew they weren’t allowed to talk about their one night together; he wasn’t that drunk.
Jesse made a soft noise. “How could it be?” he asked dismissively. “I know I was nothing special.”
Now Andrew had to sit up. The blanket fell off his shoulders but he was hot now so he didn’t care. “Of course you were special,” he said, worried that Jesse didn’t know that. “Jesse.”
Jesse reached out, trying to put the blanket back around Andrew. “All right, all right, I was special, now come here.”
Andrew shook his head. He knew when he was being humoured. “You were special,” he repeated, catching Jesse’s shoulder automatically when Jesse turned toward him. He searched Jesse’s face, trying to find any sign that Jesse believed him. He couldn’t though and that made him impossibly sad. It made sense, somewhere in the back of his head, to lean in then, pressing his mouth to Jesse’s. “See?” he asked, pulling back. “Special.”
Jesse breathed out hard, warm, wine-flavoured breath blowing across Andrew’s face. “You’ve got to stop saying things like that,” he said seriously but he reached up and pushed Andrew’s sweaty hair out of his face so Andrew didn’t think he could be too annoyed.
“Never,” Andrew disagreed. He was distracted by Jesse’s damp-looking lips and by the fact that they were getting closer. It was a surprise when Jesse kissed him although it definitely shouldn’t have been.
“No, really,” Jesse said against his mouth, “Stop talking.” He pressed on Andrew’s shoulder and Andrew went willingly, lying back against the dusty wooden floor and wrapping his arms around Jesse’s shoulders, returning his kisses eagerly.
Something at the back of his mind was reminding him that they didn’t do this, but he couldn’t see why not. Jesse was such a good kisser and he was touching Andrew’s shoulders carefully, stroking his hands down Andrew’s arms like Andrew was something important.
“Jesse,” Andrew breathed, touching Jesse’s sides, cupping his hips and pulling him closer. “Kiss me?”
“I am,” Jesse said, laughing against Andrew’s chin. “Oh god, I shouldn’t be, but I am.”
“Of course you should be,” Andrew argued and then Jesse was licking into Andrew’s mouth, pressing his tongue against the roof of Andrew’s mouth and Andrew just held on, kissing back until he was breathless.
Somehow, amidst all the kissing, Andrew kept pulling on Jesse’s hips and Jesse let him, and then Jesse was kneeling between Andrew’s thighs. It felt really good, so Andrew automatically spread his legs wider, giving Jesse room.
“Do you want to stop?” Jesse asked, kissing Andrew’s jaw, his chin, his throat. “How drunk are you?”
“Don’t stop,” Andrew begged. He could stay like this forever; he felt loose and warm, relaxed and wanted – Andrew loved being wanted.
Jesse pressed closer and Andrew groaned, shifting back until he felt the head of Jesse’s cock slide between his legs. Andrew’s breath caught and Jesse swore, sliding shaking hands up the back of Andrew’s thighs.
“Fuck,” Jesse hissed into Andrew’s mouth, “We don’t have anything, why don’t we have anything we can use?”
Andrew’s skin flushed hot at the idea of Jesse inside him. He wanted it so much, he could hardly breathe. “That’s all right,” he promised. “Spit works too.” That was all they’d ever used in the army - it had hurt for days but Andrew could put up with that for Jesse.
“No,” Jesse said, “No that won’t do at all. I’m too drunk to be that careful and I’d have to kill myself it I hurt you.”
That was a really nice thing to say, but it didn’t get Andrew fucked. “But I want you to,” he pouted, pushing up again, spreading his legs like that would be all it’d take to change Jesse’s mind. Andrew felt sort of wanton and he didn’t mind that at all.
“Not as much as I want to,” Jesse told him, sounding like he meant it. He reached down and curled his hand around Andrew’s erection. “Let me try something?”
Andrew nodded quickly. “Anything.” He started to change his mind about then when Jesse pulled out of his arms. It was colder in the room without Jesse pressed against him but then Jesse started sliding down Andrew’s body and Andrew forgot about that.
He hoped for Jesse’s mouth on his cock again, because that had felt amazing last time, and Jesse did kiss him there once, twice, slowly, but then he kept moving down until he was kissing past Andrew’s balls and his mouth was… He was…
Andrew made a sharp, embarrassing noise and scrambled his feet against the floor, torn between scrambling away and pushing back for more of Jesse’s soft tongue and gently probing fingers.
“Jesse,” he moaned, helpless and scandalised and incredibly aroused. “People don’t do that.”
Jesse didn’t say anything, just reached up and started to stroke Andrew’s cock and then there was nothing Andrew could do but surrender to how amazing he felt.
It felt as if it went on forever but at the same time, it was no time at all until Andrew couldn’t hold out any longer.
“Jesse,” he gasped, “Jesse, Jesse.” Jesse squeezed Andrew’s hand and Andrew clung to him, shaking and moaning through his orgasm.
Jesse smile was something very close to smug when he crawled back up Andrew’s body. “How was that?”
“Amazing,” Andrew assured him, eyes falling shut. He felt tired and dizzy and too warm and really, really good. “Are you going to fuck me now?”
“I was thinking about it,” Jesse told him, pressing close. “Can I?”
“Mmm,” Andrew agreed lazily. “Please.”
“Sure?” Jesse asked. He was kissing Andrew’s neck like he had to be kissing him somewhere; Andrew smiled stupidly up at the ceiling.
“Please,” Andrew said, probably again, possibly for the millionth time. He felt like he might have been begging for a while and then he wasn’t begging, he was groaning, because Jesse was finally, finally inside him.
They both sort of froze, just little twitches of Jesse’s hips and answering ones from Andrew’s.
“All right?” Jesse asked, leaning his weight on one elbow and pushing Andrew’s hair out of his face. He was studying Andrew’s face like he was looking for something, but Andrew couldn’t tell what.
“Come on,” Andrew said softly and Jesse did.
“Justin is a very lucky man,” Andrew said sleepily afterwards, stroking Jesse’s chest. He’d meant it as a compliment and also as a way to casually let Jesse know how absolutely fine he was with Jesse and Justin’s past, but Jesse clearly didn’t take it like that because he tensed, starting to sit up.
“I didn’t do that with Justin,” he said, “I wouldn’t have done that with anyone el… I mean. I didn’t do it with Justin.”
“Sorry,” Andrew said, not sure why Jesse was annoyed. “I just assumed.” He kissed Jesse’s cheek slowly and carefully until Jesse relaxed back onto his elbows. “Because you were really good at it.”
Jesse looked away, distracting himself with tucking the blankets around Andrew’s shoulders. Andrew put his head on Jesse’s chest, curling up against him. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” Jesse said eventually. “That’s all.”
Andrew kissed the nearest patch of skin. “Mm, lucky me then.”
Jesse hesitated for so long that Andrew wondered if Jesse was going to ask him to stop draping himself all over him, but eventually, Jesse’s arm wrapped around him, holding him tightly. “You know we can’t really sleep here, don’t you? Hallie and Aunt Susan would have a fit if we didn’t come home.”
Andrew yawned. He was far too tired to ride right now. “Can we nap first?” he asked. “Please?”
He felt something that might have been a kiss against the top of his head but was probably just a breeze or a spider or something. Hopefully not a spider. “Yes,” Jesse sighed. “But when people shout at us, I’m blaming you.”
“That’s okay,” Andrew mumbled, kissing Jesse’s chest again. He liked kissing Jesse’s chest; he liked kissing Jesse. “I’ll always defend you.”
“Shh,” Jesse whispered. “You should stop talking now. If you don’t stop talking soon, I’m going to start believing you mean it.”
“I do – ” mean it, Andrew tried to say, but his words got lost in a yawn.
“Shh,” Jesse repeated, “just go to sleep,” and Andrew did.
It finally stopped raining long after it had grown dark, although the wind was still howling down the chimney and rattling the windows.
They got dressed slowly, wincing at the chill of half-damp clothes against their skin. There was a dull ache throbbing in Andrew’s temples, the beginnings of a hangover, but he couldn’t stop shooting Jesse smiles every time their eyes met.
“Stop that,” Jesse scolded, buttoning his coat and hiding all his lovely skin from Andrew.
“Why?” Andrew asked, reaching over and tying Jesse’s necktie for him.
Jesse tipped his chin all the way up as though he didn’t want Andrew to touch the slightly stubbly skin along his jaw.
“Because you look demented,” Jesse said, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“I do not,” Andrew told him cheerfully. He smoothed Jesse’s tie down and leant in, kissing Jesse quickly. “There.”
Jesse jumped backwards as though Andrew had scalded him rather than kissed him. “What are you doing?” he squeaked.
He looked so horrified that Andrew thought about being disheartened but instead he pasted on a smile and ploughed on. “I think we should keep doing this,” he said, ignoring the nervous flutter in his stomach.
“Doing what?” Jesse asked, voice still higher than it should have been.
“Kissing?” Andrew said. “And, um, the other things?” This had seemed like a good idea while he was dozing in Jesse’s arms but now, with Jesse looking at him like he’d lost his mind, he was starting to feel a few doubts niggle at him. “I just thought… We are married and it was, it was good, wasn’t it?”
Jesse stared at him, eyes growing wide. “No,” he said, shaking his head. “No, I, um. I don’t think that would be a very good idea at all.”
“All right,” Andrew said, disappointed and suddenly much less forgiving of his headache. “All right then, let’s go.” He wrapped the blanket around a couple of times in his hands and then stuffed it back into the basket. “Ready?”
“I, um, yes.” Jesse said, biting his lip. He looked torn and Andrew thought for a moment that Jesse might change his mind but he didn’t and they rode back to the Priory in horribly awkward silence.
“Where have you been?” Hallie demanded, throwing herself into Jesse’s arms. “I thought you’d had some terrible accident or been set upon by bandits or something. I wanted to go out and look for you but Aunt Susan wouldn’t let me.”
“Because there are so many bandits on Epsom Downs, Hallie Kate,” Jesse said, holding her at arm’s distance. “And don’t hug me right now, I’m all wet.”
“What did you do?” Hallie asked. She turned and glared at Andrew, putting her hands on her hips. “Did you push him in the lake again? Because that’s not allowed, I’m trusting him to you.”
“What?” Andrew asked, holding up his hands automatically because a glaring Hallie was a scary thing to be faced with. “No, it rained. And, what, what do you mean again?”
“Nothing,” Jesse said pointedly, “She’s babbling because it’s long past her bedtime.”
Hallie looked at him for a long time but finally she rolled her eyes and huffed, “And whose fault is that? I was so worried.”
Andrew leant in and kissed her cheek. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he said.
Hallie glared for a couple more seconds then gave up and smiled. “All right,” she said, leaning in and patting his shoulder, then making a face when his coat squelched under her hand.
“I’m going to go get out of these clothes,” Jesse announced. “Good night, Hallie.” He flicked his eyes up to Andrew and Andrew was fairly certain he saw him start to blush. “Andrew.”
“That’s, that’s a good idea,” Andrew agreed, because it was. “See you in the morning, Hallie.”
Hallie watched them walk up the stairs, frowning at them both from the bottom. “You’re acting strangely,” she called after them. “I’ll find out why, you know.”
“You really, really won’t,” Jesse muttered under his breath and Andrew swallowed down a laugh.
“Sirs,” Ford said from the shadows at the top of the stairs. Andrew tried not to yelp and felt Jesse startle next to him. Ordinarily, he would have squeezed Jesse’s hand reassuringly, but he wasn’t sure if Jesse would welcome that right now, not with where they’d left things.
“Hello, Ford,” Andrew said, reaching the top of the stairs and leaning against the banisters with what was hopefully a no, you didn’t scare the hell out of me air.
“I’ve had the housemaids draw a bath for you, sir,” Ford said with a nod. “Will you be requiring anything else tonight?”
Andrew would have loved someone to help him out of his horrible wet clothes but it was really late and he felt too guilty to keep Ford up any longer. “No, no, that’s fine,” he started to say but Jesse cleared his throat pointedly.
“Help his Lordship undress for his bath, please, Ford, then you’re welcome to go to bed,” Jesse said and Andrew had to stop himself gaping at him. He was always so impressed by people who knew how to ask the staff for inconvenient things.
“Of course, sir,” Ford said and there was a note of respect in his voice that told Andrew that he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
Andrew tried to shoot Jesse a grateful smile but Jesse was looking past him rather than at him. “Jesse, you should take the first bath,” he said, trying to get Jesse to look at him.
Jesse opened his mouth, presumably to argue then closed it again. “Thank you,” he said, far too politely for Andrew’s tastes and turned toward the room that Mama had had converted to a bathroom after she’d had the flushing water closet installed.
Andrew winced as soon the bathroom door shut behind Jesse. Being married was harder than he’d expected.
“My Lord?” Ford asked, clearing his throat. “Shall we?”
“Yes, please,” Andrew sighed and followed him toward Andrew’s bedroom.
After Ford had peeled Andrew out of his clothes, making a pointedly blank face at the state of them, Andrew wrapped himself in his favourite silk dressing gown and made his way to the bathroom.
“Jesse?” he called, knocking softly before opening the door.
Jesse made a disapproving noise and sat up quickly in a swoosh of water. He was pink all the way down his chest from the hot water, but Andrew only got to see that for a second before Jesse pulled his knees up, wrapping his arms around them.
“Andrew,” Jesse scolded. “I’m naked. Haven’t you seen enough of me naked today?”
“No?” Andrew said, honestly confused and wondering if that was a trick question. “I don’t think that’s possible.” He hovered uncertainly in the doorway. “But I could go? I just thought it might be nice to, to talk? I mean, well, not to talk in an ominous way just… Are things awkward between us now? I’d really like for things not to be awkward.”
“No, um. No, of course. I didn’t mean to, I mean…” Jesse snorted, pressing his face into his drawn-up knees for a moment. “Of course, how could anything ever be awkward between us when we’re both so articulate?”
Andrew laughed, coming to sit beside the bath. The floor was cold through his dressing gown but the combined warmth given off by Jesse and Jesse’s bath made it bearable.
“What was Hallie talking about?” Andrew asked, propping his chin on the edge of Jesse’s bath and beaming when Jesse sighed but lay back in the water. “When did I push you in the lake?”
“Hallie was lying,” Jesse said quickly. “She does that a lot, terrible girl, we should talk about sending her to Bedlam immediately.”
“Jesse,” Andrew pouted. “Tell me?”
“God,” Jesse groaned and covered his face with his wet hands, “I can’t believe she mentioned it. I’ve threatened her with dismemberment if she ever mentioned it. Do you think I might not be properly scary?”
“I think you’re terrifying,” Andrew lied helpfully. He reached over the edge of the bath and poked the nearest part of Jesse’s body that he could find without looking, which turned out to be Jesse’s elbow.
“Fine,” Jesse groaned. “It was ten years ago, just after we moved here so I’m not surprised you don’t remember. Your friend Sir Robert Pattinson was here and you invited me to spend the afternoon with you so but Sir Robert made up this game that involved climbing the trees by the lake and swinging across the water.”
Andrew nodded. Rob had always enjoyed making up games like that, the more likely to get them killed the better. It was probably a bit alarming that he’d headed into foreign policy after Oxford, really.
“I don’t know why I went along with it,” Jesse continued. “I guess it was because I was new and I wanted you to like me. But, anyway, I ended up falling in and you, um. You laughed.”
“I didn’t?” Andrew demanded appalled, not because he didn’t believe Jesse but because he couldn’t believe that thirteen-year-old him would have done such a thing.
Jesse shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t ever have mentioned it if Hallie hadn’t and I’m not even sure why I told you. I must still be drunk; I should have made something up.” He sat up, water sluicing down his chest. “Hand me a towel, please?”
Andrew did, mind still reeling. “I don’t remember that at all,” he said, not even tempted to watch as Jesse got out of the bath and wrapped the towel around his waist. “Jesse, I’m so sorry.”
Jesse stopped in front of him. “Andrew,” he said firmly. Andrew looked up, realising that he was essentially on his knees in front of Jesse but not getting up because he liked it there. “It’s all right. I was kind of upset about it when I was twelve, but I’m over it now. If it helps, I don’t think you were trying to be cruel, I think you just thought it was funny and you didn’t realise I couldn’t swim.”
“Oh my god,” Andrew said faintly, scrubbing his hands through his hair. “Can I go back in time and punch myself in the face?” Clearly this was the reason why they hadn’t been friends before; of course Jesse hadn’t liked him after that.
“I don’t think so,” Jesse told him apologetically. He paused for a moment then reached down and untangled Andrew’s hands from his hair. “Stand up for me?” he asked, gripping Andrew’s fingers.
Confused and wondering if maybe Jesse was going to punch him in the face instead, Andrew did. Jesse didn’t punch him. In fact, Jesse leant in and kissed him carefully, like this was the first time they’d done it.
“Oh,” Andrew said, strangely breathless. “What was that for?”
“Getting upset even though it happened a decade ago,” Jesse told him with a small smile. He pushed lightly on Andrew’s shoulder. “Go on, have your bath before the water gets too cold.”
Andrew nodded, still a bit dazed from the kissing and everything. He dropped his dressing gown before he remembered that Jesse didn’t want them seeing each other naked anymore, but Jesse didn’t immediately go into vapours or anything, so he assumed it was all right now.
Jesse watched Andrew climb into the bath and then blushed suddenly and turned away. “I’ll leave you to it,” he muttered and got all the way to the door before stopping and turning back. “Andrew, um. What you… what you said before? About – ” He waved a hand between the two of them and looked down. “Maybe it wasn’t the worst idea.”
“Really?” Andrew had just sunk down into the water and he nearly drowned himself trying to sit up and look at Jesse incredulously.
Jesse shrugged. “It’s a sensible solution. We’re clearly – ” He coughed. “Compatible.”
Andrew smiled slowly. “Clearly,” he agreed. “I was thinking that perhaps you could move your things into the bedroom next to mine? Only if you want to, of course, but most married couples have adjoining bedrooms and, and that way if you, if you ever want – ” He couldn’t say it. “Well, it would be nice to be nearer each other, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes,” Jesse agreed solemnly. He smiled suddenly, unexpected and breath-taking. “Particularly if we want to stop Hallie sticking her nose in.”
“Oh god,” Andrew laughed, “Can you imagine? She’d either be horrified and slap me in defence of your virtue or she’d think we were a love match after all and go into raptures.”
Jesse didn’t smile. There was something really intense in his eyes, but all he said was, “Yes, imagine.” He put one hand on the door and added, without turning around, “Come to my room after your bath if you want?”
“Yes,” Andrew agreed, raising his voice since Jesse had stepped into the hall without waiting for his answer. “I’ll be there.”
He sank down into the water after Jesse was gone, humming to himself and dunking his head to wash his hair. Maybe being married wasn’t all that complicated after all; weirdly and against all the odds, he and Jesse seemed to be getting fairly good at it.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven