Title: Forever Can Never Be Long Enough, or The Earl of Epsom Takes A Husband (AO3 Link)
Pairings: Andrew Garfield/Jesse Eisenberg (background Justin Timberlake/Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Benedict Cumberbatch/Tom Hardy, Matt Smith/Karen Gillan/Arthur Darvill and very background Carey Mulligan/Marcus Mumford).
Warnings: None. Just arranged marriages and a little bit of duelling.
Summary: Regency AU. When Andrew Garfield, the new Earl of Epsom, returns from the Peninsula War to find his ancestral home mortgaged to the hilt, he must marry Jesse Eisenberg, his parents’ mysterious ward, in order to save his family from ruin.
Notes: In a SHOCKING TWIST OF FATE (i.e. like everything else I ever write) this came about because of harriet_vane. She was reading Georgette Heyer’s Civil Contract and telling me what a good Jesse/Andrew AU it would make and then WHAM things happened in my brain.
With HUGE thanks to harriet_vane for reading along with every goddamn word of this and being relentlessly enthusiastic about it and not letting me give up when it just kept getting longer. Massive thanks also to elucreh, who battled technological fails to Regency-pick this monster and fix all my bizarre comms, and to everyone on twitter and LJ (everyone! you know who you are!) who made suggestions and were much more enthusiastic than I deserved.
Andrew’s head was throbbing by the time his carriage drew up to the front of the house. The sea crossing had been terrible and the past seven hours on the road from Dover had reminded him of his still-healing musket wound with every hole in the road.
Normally, these were the sorts of minor annoyances that Andrew could shrug off. Very few things dampened his mood typically and a bad journey certainly shouldn’t have been one of them, but this week had been hell and he just wanted to crawl into bed and pretend it was all a nightmare.
Or rather, what he wanted was to return to the Peninsular and his men immediately, but that would never again be an option so it was best not even to think about it.
He hopped up as soon as the carriage stopped, desperate to stretch his legs, and almost smacked the door into a footman who was reaching out to open it.
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Andrew said quickly. “Are you all right?” He tried to smile, but the footman was looking firmly, professionally straight ahead.
“Your Lordship,” he said, inclining his head.
Oh god. That.
“Thank you, Mr – ” Andrew hesitated. The footman was old and severe-looking and Andrew didn’t recognise him at all. He hadn’t been home in a year, but his mother wrote him pages and pages about her new hirings and firings so he felt as though he should.
“Ford, sir,” the footman said. Andrew had definitely never met him before, but that didn’t stop him feeling guilty.
“There are some, some bags and things,” Andrew tried. He’d never been good at giving orders to the staff; it had always felt so rude. He wanted them to like him and they wouldn’t if he was always telling them what to do, would they?
“I’ll talk to the driver, sir,” Ford said. He sounded perfectly pleasant still but Andrew saw the way his eyes flicked over Andrew and then away. He was definitely being judged. And almost certainly found lacking.
Andrew managed to find another smile. “Thank you,” he said. “Is my mother at home?”
“Yes, sir. Her ladyship is in her sitting room.” Andrew waited, but there was nothing else. Andrew missed their old footman; he used to tell Andrew all the gossip.
“Thank you,” Andrew said again and turned toward the house.
It was late in the evening, clouds drawing in and blotting out the moon, so he could make out nothing more than the imposing front entrance of his childhood home. Despite its size, Ewell Priory had always felt warm and inviting to him, but he felt a little overwhelmed tonight, now that it was truly his, and he couldn’t help feeling glad that he didn’t have to stand back and survey it properly right now.
Tomorrow, he’d do that. Or maybe it would rain and then he could wait until the day after to get started. That would be nice.
Andrew shook his head at himself, stepped over the threshold and –
- nearly fell over when a small blur of black and gold flew down the hall and crashed into his chest.
“Andrew!” the blur said, sounding delighted. “You’re so late. Aunt Susan said that maybe we’d got the day wrong, but I knew we hadn’t.”
Andrew laughed, stepping back and putting his hands on her shoulders so she wouldn’t fly at him again. That kind of impact did nothing for the hole in his hip, but he definitely appreciated the sentiment. And the embrace.
“Good evening, Miss Hallie Kate,” he said, grinning at her.
Hallie rolled her eyes, tossing long, golden brown ringlets over her shoulder impatiently. She curtsied exaggeratedly. “Why good evening, Lord Epsom, welcome home,” she said faux-primly.
Somehow, hearing her call him that in her most sarcastic voice made it easier to accept.
He reached out and tugged on one of her curls. “When did you get so tall? Weren’t you half this height when I left?”
“Well,” Hallie said slowly. “You have been gone forever. And I’m seventeen now; was I supposed to stay short always?”
“Yes,” Andrew said firmly, unfastening the catch on his cloak. He looked around, wondering where best to leave it that wouldn’t earn him another glare from the frightening footman. Finding nowhere, he eventually settled for draping it over his arm.
Hallie laughed at him and reached out, taking his hand. “Will you come and see Aunt Susan with me?”
Andrew barely hid his wince. He desperately wanted to see his mother, of course, but what if she was crying? His father had only been dead a month; Hallie was still in mourning dress, even.
“Come on,” Hallie said, tugging and he followed her helplessly up the stairs.
Hallie was his father’s ward - which possibly meant she was now his ward; he wasn’t sure how that worked and mentally added that to his ever-growing list of things to ask his man of business about. She and her brother had come to live with them nearly ten years ago so she was practically his sister by now and had every right to drag him around the house if she wished.
“Hallie,” Andrew said quietly, stopping her before they got to the door to the sitting room. “How is she?”
Hallie bit her lip, starting to shrug then stopping herself. “Sad,” she decided eventually, “but not too sad.” She gave him a firm push. “Go and see for yourself. I’m going to drag Jesse out of the library.” She jumped up and kissed his cheek then ran off.
Andrew blinked after her; he hadn’t realised her brother was still living here. Last he’d heard, Jesse was reading history at Cambridge. Frowning, Andrew was distracted enough that he completely forgot to hesitate any longer and walked straight into the sitting room.
Andrew’s mother stood as soon as he walked into the room, holding out both hands to him. Dimly, Andrew remembered that he’d intended to greet her as befit the new Earl of Epsom but all that was forgotten as soon as he saw her. She was his mother and he’d missed her.
“Oh, my darling,” Mama said, pulling him down to rest his head on her shoulder and stroking the top of his hair. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.”
Andrew clung to her, marvelling at how soft and warm she was after months and months of nothing but hard, male bodies wherever he turned. “Mama,” he said and she shushed him, stroking his hair again.
Eventually, Andrew managed to detach himself and they sat down on the settee. His mother was holding his hand between both of hers, soothing her thumb over the calloused parts of his palm.
“You used to have such soft hands,” she said sadly.
Andrew managed a smile. “You can’t fight a war with soft hands,” he said, thinking of the fit of his rifle against his skin, how easy it had grown to hold. He could have brought it home with him, but instead he’d left it with his replacement, hoping it would bring him luck.
“Your father,” Lady Susan said, then cleared her throat. She looked up at him and ploughed on determinedly. “Your father was very proud of you.”
Andrew’s eyes burnt hot. He didn’t know what to say. What did you say when your father took his horse out early one morning and broke his neck on a path he could have ridden blindfolded.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here,” he said helplessly.
His mother squeezed his hand more tightly. “And what would you have done if you had been?” she asked sensibly. “Besides, Hallie and Jesse were wonderful; I didn’t lack for support.”
“But you, I – ” Andrew didn’t really have an argument for that. He just felt uselessly, formlessly guilty. He squared his shoulders and tried to think like the new Lord of the Manor. “Well, I’m here now. I’ll begin to look at Father’s papers tomorrow, I suppose. Has his man of business been here often?”
He’d hoped that she’d find it reassuring, that he was taking charge and (pretending) to know what he was doing but instead, her hand clenched around his tight enough that he lost feeling in his fingertips.
“Let’s not talk about that now,” she said, standing up. “It’s late and you must be exhausted. Why don’t we talk in the morning? Are you hungry? Most of the staff will have gone to bed but Mrs Field has always loved you, so I’m sure she wouldn’t mind rustling something up.”
“I’m... All right,” Andrew agreed, standing up as well. Now he was definitely worried; his mother never dismissed him like that. “And I’m not hungry, thank you.” With the way all this mounting pressure was looming over him, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be hungry again.
His mother patted him on the shoulder and drew her shawl closer around her body. Andrew noticed for the first time that the fire in the large, marble fireplace was barely lit.
“Are you cold?” he asked, concerned, and stepped over to the fireplace. “There’s some extra kindling here if you’d – ”
“No, no,” his mother said quickly. “I’m going to bed now, so there’s no need.” She turned her face up to his and he kissed her cheek automatically. “Good night, darling. It really is wonderful to have you home.”
“It’s wonderful to be home,” Andrew lied with his widest smile. “Sleep well.” She gave him a small nod and swept out of the room.
Still feeling jittery, Andrew picked up the poker and shifted a few smouldering logs around. They hissed satisfyingly and he remembered being much younger and building illicit bonfires with his brother, Ben.
He was still lost in thought a couple of minutes later when the door opened and he looked up hopefully; he wasn’t terribly good at brooding so he hoped this was Hallie come to distract him.
It wasn’t Hallie, unfortunately, but it was someone else he recognised. “Lily!” he said happily, striding forward.
Lily beamed at him for one quick, bright second then dropped her eyes, biting her lip like she was trying to chew the smile right off it. “Your Lordship,” she said, curtseying. “My apologies, I didn’t realise anyone was still up.”
Andrew made a face at the top of her white cap. If people didn’t stop using his title, he was going to do something drastic. Like renounce it. Or maybe just have a bit of a strop, but either way, they’d be sorry.
“Lily,” he chided. “I’ve known you since we were fourteen, come on.”
“You were thirteen,” she said, peeking up at him from under her shiny, red fringe.
Andrew laughed. “Fine,” he conceded. “I suppose I was.” Lily had first come to them as a kitchen maid and she’d never tried very hard to stop Andrew sneaking into the kitchen to steal apples and slices of cake.
Lily straightened, still looking at him like she thought he might suddenly dismiss her for familiarity or something, which made Andrew sad – he hoped no one really thought he was going to be that sort of bastard.
“I came up to check on the fire, but would you like something to eat?” Lily asked. “They let me cook sometimes now.”
Andrew made a face of mock-horror. “Definitely not, then!” he said, relieved when she giggled. He hesitated then asked, “But can I ask, and I don’t want you to think that this is a criticism but – ” He trailed off; he was genuinely terrible at being anyone’s master.
Lily obviously thought so too. “My Lord,” she scolded, “You’re allowed to criticise me if necessary. I promise not to cry.”
“If you cried, I’d probably have to hang myself,” Andrew told her seriously. “But, all right, here goes: Lily, I am a little disappointed that the fire was so low this evening; my poor mother nearly turned into an icicle.”
Lily winced and Andrew thought for a moment that he really had upset her. Then she said, “Maybe you should talk to your mother about that,” and Andrew got really worried.
“Why?” he asked slowly. Was his mother trying to slowly freeze herself to death out of grief? That would be horrible.
Lily hesitated for so long that Andrew was worried she wouldn’t answer. Finally she blurted, “Don’t tell anyone I told, but her Ladyship gave orders a sennight ago that all fires were to be kept as low as possible and only lit if a member of the household was actually in the room at the time. That’s why I came up, I was going to put it out when I thought there was no one in here.”
Andrew blinked at her. All his memories of winters in this house involved cheerful fires roaring in every hearth. “But why?” he asked.
Lily shook her head quickly. “You really need to talk to her Ladyship,” she said and now she did sound upset. “Please, Andrew.”
It was the use of his name that convinced him.
“All right,” he said, holding up his hands. “I won’t ask anything else. Thank you for telling me.”
Lily smiled at him. “I’m glad you’re home,” she said, which everyone seemed to say but no would ever said why. What did they expect that he could do, exactly?
Andrew couldn’t manage another insincere reply so he mumbled something and turned to the door. “I’m going to bed now,” he told her, “So feel free to do whatever you like with the fire.”
She curtsied again – Andrew couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not; he hoped she was – so Andrew had to do what he’d said and let himself out of the room.
His bedroom had barely changed at all from what Andrew remembered. The only new additions were new curtains hanging over the windows and a stately, hardback chair tucked beneath a similarly imposing writing desk in one corner.
Andrew wondered if that meant that he should prepare himself for a lifetime of writing letters and poring over ledgers. He had barely scraped through school, so maybe it should be the rest of the world who prepared themselves, he thought wryly.
He wasn’t sure if he had a valet yet and, if he did, there was no sign of him, so Andrew undressed himself quickly, equal parts pleased and guilty to see that his bags had been delivered to his room and unpacked perfectly.
Exhaustion hit him somewhere between shedding his clothes and pulling on his nightshirt and it was suddenly all he could do to drag himself into bed. His sheets felt fresh and almost obscenely starched after the rough army-issued blankets he’d grown used to. His pillowed dented just right under his head and the curtains over the windows blocked out all light.
It was everything he’d been dreaming about while on the Continent, but now he couldn’t settle. He was too comfortable, too alone and too safe all at once.
“Come on, Andrew,” he told himself firmly, voice echoing in the dark. “Moping simply won’t do.”
It had been a long, draining month, so despite all the new things that it would probably be sensible to lie awake worrying about, he instead fell asleep.
Andrew woke early the next morning, accustomed to reveille at sunrise, even though dawn had never been his favourite time of day.
Someone had set out a jug of still-steaming water, which implied that Andrew did have a valet, even if he was apparently invisible. Andrew washed quickly, then remembered how filthy he’d felt after getting out of the carriage last night and slowed down, taking his time and marvelling at the luxury of hot water and as much soap as he wanted to use.
He dabbed the washcloth over his wounded hip as lightly as he could – it was sore from too much travel and slightly puffy around the edges, making him limp slightly from the twinges of pain but, well, he wasn’t dead, so he couldn’t complain.
He dressed himself in clean clothes and tied on his black armband, taking less time over his cravat than he normally would because he’d suddenly remembered he hadn’t had dinner last night and he was starving.
Lily gave him a pointed look and shooed him out of the kitchen when he tried to ask for some bread and cheese so Andrew grumpily took himself off to the dinning room and sat down to be waited on, which was ridiculous since he was the only one up right now and Hallie and Mama and, presumably Jesse, would all need breakfast later on.
Still, breakfast turned out to be eggs, toast, plum cake and lashings of tea, so Andrew quickly forgot to be grumpy and smiled so widely at the maid when she refilled his tea that she blushed and splashed milk onto the tablecloth.
After breakfast, he wasn’t sure what to do with himself and was just considering visiting the stables to see if a horse could be saddled for a quick ride when he heard the sound of the ringing doorbell echo through the house.
Andrew frowned, glancing at the clock above the mantelpiece; it was far too early for visitors and the house was still in mourning, anyway.
Two minutes later, the door opened and Ford the Disapproving Footman cleared his throat. He seemed to do that a lot; Andrew wondered if he was allergic to cavalry officers in general or just to Andrew in particular. “Mr Cumberbatch to see you, my Lord," he said.
“Who?” Andrew asked, automatically rising.
“The late Earl’s man of business, sir,” Ford said and stepped back before Andrew could ask anything else, ushering in a tall man with a serious expression and incongruously gleaming red-gold hair.
“My Lord,” Cumberbatch said, holding out a hand. He was younger than Andrew would have expected, older than Andrew certainly, but no more than five-and-thirty. “Please forgive the earliness of the hour, but when I heard you had arrived home – ”
Andrew waved away his apologies and nodded at the chair opposite his. “Please have a seat, Mr Cumberbatch,” he said, “Would you like some tea?”
Cumberbatch sat but shook his head quickly. “No,” he said, “thank you. My Lord, I’m not – ” He broke off, looking up at Ford, still waiting patiently in the doorway.
With a sinking feeling, Andrew said, “Thank you, Ford,” and waited for the door to shut before turning to Cumberbatch, tensing for some bad news.
Cumberbatch was fiddling with his cuffs but he stopped immediately when he saw that Andrew had noticed. “My Lord,” he said again. “I’m not sure if you’ve had a chance to consult your father’s ledgers?”
Andrew didn’t even know where his father had kept his ledgers. “I arrived very late last night,” he said, hoping he didn’t sound too defensive.
Cumberbatch nodded quickly. “Of course. Well the fact of the matter is – ” He hesitated. God, it must be very bad.
“Please,” Andrew asked, leaning forward, “Just tell me.”
Cumberbatch looked at Andrew steadily, leaning forward to match Andrew’s pose, which Andrew admired. “My Lord, the situation is not good.”
“Not good?” Andrew repeated. “How bad is not good?”
“May I be blunt?” Cumberbatch asked, then clearly decided that he might because he ploughed on before Andrew could agree. “If you were to sell the Priory and your house in London, you might have enough left over for a small house for your mother and Miss Eisenberg.”
Andrew stared. His mind was reeling. They’d never been short of funds, his father hadn’t gambled, his mother wasn’t extravagant in her spending and Andrew had earned his own pin money for years. “But how?” he asked faintly.
Cumberbatch shook his head. “Your father made some rather bad investments before I came into his employ. Added to which, he spent a lot of money ensuring that Lady Alexandra and your nieces were comfortable after your brother died.”
Andrew nodded. Some small, selfish part of him wished that Ben had had a son, then he could have inherited this whole sorry mess instead of Andrew; Alexandra would have known what to do until this hyperthetical son was old enough to take charge.
“But,” Andrew tried helplessly. “But how can there be no money? My sister-in-law lives very modestly.” Then he thought of his mother’s instruction to limit the fires lit in the grate, the lack of staff. “Does my mother know?”
Cumberbatch inclined his head awkwardly. “She had an inkling,” he admitted. “And when she asked, I confirmed her fears.”
Andrew nodded again. “Of course.” His mother was much cleverer than he was; of course she’d worked it out. He stared down at his hands. His brain was buzzing; he couldn’t even work out where to start. “What do I do?” he asked, looking up at Cumberbatch without lifting his head.
Cumberbatch looked sympathetic. Normally, Andrew didn’t like people feeling sorry for him, but he’d accept anything right now if it meant that someone might help him. “Believe me, I’m doing everything I can to find a solution.”
Andrew nodded. “The Priory is my mother’s home,” he said. His too, of course, but he could always land on his feet. What he couldn’t do was live with the guilt of throwing his mother out of her home.
“Of course.” Cumberbatch stood up and offered Andrew his hand again. “I’ll leave you to your day now,” he said, as though Andrew would be able to think about anything else but what he’d just been told.
“Please come back as soon as you have news,” Andrew said, not letting himself cling to Cumberbatch’s hand and refuse to let him leave until he fixed this.
“Of course,” Cumberbatch said again, nodding, and then he was gone.
Andrew stared blankly at the doorway, mind whirling. He wasn’t Lord of the Manor material; he was under no illusion about that. He wasn’t the sort of person who could take command of a bad situation and think laterally to turn it on his head. He was good at making friends and fighting the French, those were his only skills. He didn’t know how to save his family from ruin.
Andrew sank back down into his chair and dropped his head into his hands.
Andrew spent five horrible minutes feeling sorry for himself; then he decided that that it wasn’t helping anyone, so he stood up, putting on his most determined face. He was going to do something, not just leave it to Mr Cumberbatch to save him.
The problem was that no one had ever really taught Andrew how these things worked. The title was supposed to have been Ben’s, so he was the one who their father had taught to read the books and manage the land. As the second son, Andrew had always been shooed away and told to go out riding instead, and by the time Ben died, it was too late. Andrew had already enlisted.
He couldn’t help feeling a little resentful about that now. True, he wasn’t as intelligent as Ben had been, but he could have learnt.
Andrew paused in his pacing around the drawing room as an idea struck him. The library, he decided. There would be books in the library on financial matters, he was sure of it.
With the spring put back into his step by having something to do, he bounced his way in search of Knowledge. Definitely of the capital K sort.
Contrary to popular belief, Andrew did know where their library was. There hadn’t been much time during his youth when he hadn’t been riding with his friends or having a grand time in London, but he’d always found time to read the plays that his grandmother had stocked the library with before she’d died.
This time though, he needed to find his father’s business books, not the fiction section, and he honestly had no idea where to start. The library was made up of three small rooms in the East Wing of the Priory, knocked together to make one large room, half of each dividing wall left behind to form alcoves.
It took Andrew less than five minutes of searching before he wanted to give up and cry instead. There were just so many books.
His father’s old writing desk was tucked into one corner – he always used to prefer to write his letters in the library than in the study for some reason. There was a pile of papers in the top right-hand corner, held down by a paperweight, which Andrew recognised. He’d brought it back from his Grand Tour, before all the trouble started and Europe became off-limits, but he hadn’t realised his father had kept it.
Andrew picked it up, turning it over in his hands. He wondered if his father had been working on these papers the day he died, if this paperweight was amongst the last things he’d touched.
“What are you looking for?” a voice asked behind him and Andrew jumped, dropping the paperweight guiltily.
He turned around and found himself looking at a young man about his age, wearing a plain white shirt and simple brown trousers. Andrew blinked at him. He was dressed like a gardener, but there was something familiar about his cascade of unruly curls and bright blue eyes.
“Jesse?” Andrew asked, doubtfully. It had been a good few years since he’d seen his father’s other ward, but he couldn’t believe that Jesse had changed this dramatically; he certainly hadn’t had those cheekbones the last time Andrew met him.
The boy who couldn’t possibly be Jesse Eisenberg nodded his head jerkily, “My Lord,” he said uncertainly.
Andrew had to force himself not to gape. Earls definitely didn’t gape. He cleared his throat instead. “Goodness, Jesse, I hardly recognised you,” he said, holding out his hand. “It’s so good to see you.”
Jesse’s mouth quirked a little bit and he shook Andrew’s hand quickly before sticking both hands in his pockets. “I, um. I should say something about how I wish it were under better circumstances,” he said. “But that sounds horribly trite.”
Andrew tried not to smile but failed. “I’d forgive you,” he promised and earned a slightly wider smile. No, he was sure Jesse hadn’t used to look like this; Andrew would definitely have remembered if he’d had eyes that bright or dimples that deep. Although, come to think of it, Andrew couldn’t remember seeing Jesse smile very often when they were younger, which was a sad thought.
“My Lord,” Jesse started again and Andrew held up a hand.
“Please don’t call me that,” he begged. “It’s bad enough that the servants do.”
“What should they call you?” Jesse asked, “‘Oi you’?”
“That would be much better, yes,” Andrew told him seriously, only smiling when Jesse did.
Jesse looked heavenward, like he wanted to roll his eyes but was resisting. Andrew wasn’t offended; he had that effect on people sometimes. “What I was going to say,” he said, “is that I’m sorry about your father.”
“Oh.” Andrew bit his lip. It was strange; his father had been dead for nearly a month now, but it still felt like a fresh slap every time Andrew remembered. He swallowed. “I mean, thank you. But, well, he was sort of your father too, I suppose.”
“Not really,” Jesse said automatically then looked stricken. “Oh my god, that sounded terrible. I just meant, I mean. God, pretend I didn’t try to speak, all right? That would probably be the kindest thing to do for both our sakes.”
Andrew stared at him, watching the blush spread across his cheeks and feeling himself grow charmed. He’d always been fascinated by Jesse’s American accent, and time spent apart had apparently done nothing to lessen that.
“I think you should always talk to me,” he heard himself say then wished he hadn’t because that sounded like flirting and he definitely hadn’t meant it to.
Jesse stumbled to a halt, blushing darker. “Of course you don’t,” he said quickly. “Anyway, what was it you were looking for before I interrupted you?”
“Oh, um.” Andrew sighed, remembering why he’d come to the library in the first place. “I was looking for my father’s ledgers and, and any books he might have had on estate management and, um, things.” He tried to sound casual, not as though he was desperately clinging to the hope that something in this room was going to help him save the day.
Jesse looked at him searchingly for a moment then nodded. “Follow me,” he said and walked away. Andrew hesitated for a second, pocketed his father’s paperweight and hurried after Jesse.
When Jesse and Hallie had come to live with them, Andrew had assumed he and Jesse would be friends since they were practically the same age, but Jesse had discovered the library the same day that he’d moved in and Andrew had rarely seen him after that. It looked as if all that time hadn’t been wasted, because Jesse led him straight to the books he’d been searching for.
“There,” Jesse said, looking proud and awkward and awkward about feeling proud. “Uncle Ri-, um, your father, I mean, used to refer to these a lot.”
Andrew knelt down in front of the row of books that Jesse was pointing to, reading the titles quickly and hoping something would pop out at him. Sadly there were no guides or pamphlets on how not to run an estate into the ground after accidentally inheriting it.
“Oh,” Andrew said, sitting down on the carpeted floor. He looked up at Jesse with what was probably a pathetic expression on his face. “I don’t suppose you know which were his particular favourites?”
Jesse looked at Andrew then at the floor then back at Andrew. Then he sat down next to him. “This one,” he said, pulling one thick volume out and handing it to Andrew. “He read this one a lot.”
Andrew grabbed it thankfully. “Thank you,” he said, curling his fingers around the dust jacket. He traced the lettering across the front, thinking. “Did you, uh, did you and Father spend a lot of time in here together?” He wasn’t jealous, just a little sad.
Jesse shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said but didn’t give Andrew any more detail.
All right, Andrew thought; maybe it wasn’t really any of his business. Besides, he had more important things to worry about than the relationships other people had had with his father.
“Thank you,” he said again, taking a deep and opening the book. He’d reread the same paragraph three times and it still hadn’t sunk in by the time Jesse shifted and stood up.
“You’re welcome,” Jesse said, and it was probably an accident, but his fingers brushed Andrew’s shoulder as he walked away.
Andrew spent the day in the library, pouring over the books that Jesse had found for him. He was left with a lot more knowledge than he’d started with but also at least twice as much helplessness.
Every possibility he’d found for increasing their income involved injecting money first, which was a problem since Andrew didn’t have any. He’d gone over the accounts and that wasn’t even an exaggeration: they literally had no money.
By the time it had grown dark, he had a headache and the tension in his shoulders felt like it would never leave. The candles that Jesse had fetched for him at some point in the afternoon had started to gutter and Andrew’s eyes were watering from trying to keep reading in the failing light.
He leant back and let his head bang gently against the wall. “God,” he groaned then shushed himself, looking around in case Jesse – or anyone else – was still lurking around.
Luckily, no one seemed to be there, which was good; Andrew might be losing hope, but he didn’t want anyone else to know that.
“Andrew?” he heard Hallie’s voice calling from across the room.
Andrew sat up straight, shaking his shoulders out and quickly pasting a smile onto his face. “Hello,” he said, standing up to meet her. “Have you had a good day?”
She looked like she had. Her hair was uncombed and there was a flush across her cheeks as though she’d only just come in from outside.
Hallie shrugged. “I had drawing lessons this morning, which were boring because I always have to draw fruit. Why would anyone want to draw fruit? Is someone going to want to marry me more because I can reproduce the exact likeness of a satsuma for him?”
Andrew shook his head, trying not to laugh. He’d always wondered that himself.
“But then Jesse let me take him for a ride in my curricle this afternoon,” she told him, brightening. She narrowed her eyes, looking at him closely. “How did you get him to leave the library? I’ve hardly managed that once since he came home for the summer.”
She looked expectant, like she thought he might actually have some wisdom for her. “I don’t know,” he admitted, trying not to explore how strange he felt that he’d apparently chased Jesse out of the library.
Hallie frowned. “Are you all right?” she asked, reaching out and squeezing his wrist. “You look all – ” She waved her fingers at his face. “Squinty.”
Andrew laughed, managing to make it sound genuine. “Too much reading,” he told her with a shudder. “Don’t do it; it’s terribly bad for you.”
Hallie grinned like she thought he was joking. “You’ve almost missed the start of dinner,” she told him. “Aunt Susan was worried, but Jesse told her where you were and then she went really quiet.” She bit her lip, looking more like the little girl he remembered. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes,” Andrew said quickly, lying automatically even though she was going to have to know eventually. She’d definitely notice when he was forced to sell her home out from under her and send her out to work as a governess.
Andrew’s stomach knotted up with worry and he lost his appetite.
“Yes?” Hallie echoed. “Is that all you’re going to say to reassure me? That was a terrible lie, Andrew.” She sounded cross, but Andrew could hear the worry underneath.
Andrew clasped a hand to his chest. “I’m shocked and appalled that you think I’d lie to you, Miss Eisenberg,” he gasped. He shook his arm in her grip. “Are you taking me somewhere or just clinging to me because you love me so much?”
Hallie made a face at him. “I don’t like you at all,” she told him, letting go of his sleeve and taking his hand instead. “And I’m taking you to dinner, come on.”
Andrew let himself be led to the dining room because he couldn’t keep skipping meals, not if he wanted to maintain the charade that everything was fine.
Just outside the door, Hallie stopped and turned to him, frowning at him quizzically.
“What?” Andrew asked, automatically checking his hair in case he still had a quill tucked behind his ear or something.
Hallie beckoned him closer so he bent his knees obediently, letting her straighten his collar and tweak his cravat. Andrew wasn’t sure why it was so important to her that he looked neat while eating his dinner, but Andrew did like to look his best so he didn’t complain.
“Better,” Hallie decided, looking pleased, then smiled up at Ford, who’d been ignoring them with a particularly unimpressed expression.
His expression twitched just slightly toward something less sour at Hallie’s smile, which confirmed Andrew’s theory that it was really just Andrew who he didn’t like. Ford opened the door and Hallie skipped inside, stopping and looking back pointedly at Andrew.
Andrew shook his head at her, confused. Or rather, he was confused for the two seconds it took him to cross the threshold and then he understood.
“Carey,” he stuttered, staring at the girl seated next to his mother. He shook his head quickly. “Um, Miss Mulligan, sorry.”
Carey stood up, twinkling a smile at him. She looked incredible, warm and beautiful and everything Andrew had been missing while he was away. The urge to run to her and wrap her up in a hug was almost overwhelming. He wanted to reach out and drag her away, tell her everything that was wrong and make her pet his hair like she used to when they were young.
Luckily, before he could do anything so inappropriate, someone cleared their throat and the rest of the world came back into focus. There was his mother, taking a sip of wine, Hallie slipping into her seat next to Jesse and beaming happily, elbowing Jesse who was ignoring her, concentrating hard on his dinner instead. And opposite him, Carey’s father.
“It’s good to see you home, Captain,” he said, looking pointedly at Carey until she sighed and sat back down.
Andrew snapped to attention immediately. “Sir,” he said.
Major Mulligan nodded, holding out a hand, which Andrew shook immediately. “Hope you don’t mind us calling round on your first day home, it was all I could do to stop Carey riding over here at first light.”
“Father,” Carey chided then flashed a conspiratorial smile at Andrew. “I would have waited until at least mid-morning.”
“And you would have been most welcome,” Andrew said gallantly, but it was a beat or two too late and Carey’s smile dimmed questioningly.
“So,” Major Mulligan said into the slightly awkward pause. “How’re things on the Peninsula?”
“Getting there, sir,” Andrew told him gratefully and they spent the rest of dinner discussing the war, which helped the time to pass, but did nothing to make Andrew feel better about having left the campaign.
He was going to have to sell his commission, he realised. At the back of his mind, he’d secretly hoped that he might be able to come home for a month or two, get things settled here and then go back to the lines. In reality, things were much worse than Andrew could ever have predicted, and there was nothing he could do but stay to see it through.
Andrew didn’t want to think about that right now - Major Mulligan had helped Andrew to secure his place in the army; his good opinion meant a lot. But then, Andrew thought, sneaking a glance at Carey, he’d be disappointing all the Mulligans soon enough.
After dinner, Carey touched her hand to Andrew’s elbow. “Shall we get some air?” she asked and Andrew nodded, realising that there was nothing to be gained by refusing to spending time alone with her.
“What’s wrong?” Carey asked as soon as they were out on the patio, the glass doors closed behind them.
“Everything,” Andrew told her then bit his lip, taking a seat on the wall and crossing his legs. “No, pretend I didn’t say that. I’m just being melodramatic.”
Carey tipped her head, coming to sit beside him. “Are you, though?” she asked softly. She reached over and put her hand on Andrew’s knee. He hadn’t realised he was jiggling his leg until her hand curled over his kneecap, stilling it.
“You shouldn’t,” he told her, because they couldn’t be familiar with each other anymore, not with the same understanding they’d had before.
“Oh, why?” Carey scoffed, misunderstanding. “I hardly think that my hand on your leg is going to cause a national scandal. We’re practically engaged, remember?”
Andrew didn’t mean to flinch, but he couldn’t help himself. “Not, not exactly,” he managed then felt like a heel when she withdrew her hand, frowning at him.
“Well,” Carey agreed slowly, “No.”
They weren’t engaged, not officially. But they’d had an understanding for as long as they’d both known what marriage meant and there’d never been anyone else for Andrew. Carey had been his best friend since before they could talk, she was the person he trusted the most and felt the most comfortable with; it had only stood to reason that they’d get married one day.
“Sorry,” Andrew said, putting his hand over Carey’s and squeezing, her gloves cool against his skin. He knew that this was it, this was the moment when he should explain to her about his sudden poverty, but he couldn’t do it. Once she knew, there’d be no going back – he was in no position to make an offer to anyone at the moment and no one with any sense would accept an impoverished earl with nothing but a failed army career to his name.
Carey shook her hand free and put it on the back of his head instead, fingers stroking the nape of his neck. Andrew groaned and let his head rest on her shoulder. They shouldn’t do this, he knew that, she knew that, but right now, he couldn’t resist.
“Oh, sweetheart,” Carey said, turning her head and pressing her cheek to the top of his head. “Tell me when you’re ready.”
“Yes,” Andrew promised and closed his eyes.
The Mulligans didn’t stay late, leaving after another hearty handshake from the Major and a string of worried whispers from Carey.
“You know,” Hallie said, sidling up to Andrew where he was leaning against the fireplace, staring into the hearth in what was definitely an unforgivably brooding fashion, “for someone who’s just been reunited with his lady, you look ridiculously sad.”
“I can’t marry her,” Andrew told her unthinkingly. Just saying it made something harsh burn in his throat.
Hallie stilled, twisting around to face him and staring at him. “What?” she asked. She was looking like she expected him to be joking, but when he didn’t laugh, her face began to fall. “But you’ve always been going to marry Carey. She’s going to be my sister, remember?”
Andrew groaned. “Don’t say that. You just said that to make me feel worse.”
“Yes,” Hallie said, unabashed. She pulled on his arm until he turned from the fire, making him look at her. “Tell me what you’re talking about so I can talk you out of it.”
Andrew shook his head. “You don’t want to know,” he assured her. “Let me worry about it. That’s what I’m here for.”
Hallie didn’t look reassured; if anything, she looked annoyed. “Why?” she asked. “Because I’m young or because I’m a girl?”
“No, neither,” Andrew told her, frowning. “Of course not. Because it’s my problem, not yours, and you shouldn’t have to worry about other people.”
Hallie rolled her eyes. “Jesse spends all his time worrying about everyone; I’m sure it’s in my blood already.”
Andrew looked at her. It was hard to see her as anything more than the little girl who used to follow him around the grounds when he was down from Eton and come up with increasingly elaborate plans to run away with him at the end of each holiday. She still had the same dark ringlets, the same hopeful expression, but she was almost a woman now and Andrew really needed someone to talk to.
He sat down, patting the cushion beside him until she sat down too, straightening her skirts primly and putting on a listening expression. She was clearly at least half teasing, trying to make him feel better by making a joke of it; Andrew wished that what he had to tell her could be so easily laughed away.
He stared down at his hands for a moment, taking a deep breath then made himself look at her. “We’re in trouble, Hallie Kate,” he told her. “The estate, I mean. The estate is in big trouble.”
Andrew told her the whole story and Hallie’s eyes grew wider and wider as she listened. He had been a little worried that she might cry – he couldn’t stand making people cry – but instead she just swallowed hard a couple of times and then set her jaw.
Hallie shook her head slowly when he’d finished explaining their options. Or what few options they had, which essentially came down to either selling the estate or selling themselves. Or divine intervention, he supposed, and personally he was hoping for that one. “I can’t believe it,” she said softly. “Andrew.”
Andrew swallowed. “I’m sorry,” he said, suddenly much closer to tears than she was. “I’ll fix it, but I’m not sure if – ” He couldn’t say it. Hallie was due to come out this year; he knew how much she was looking for it.
“It’s all right if we have to delay my Season,” Hallie said, putting on her bravest face. “I don’t mind.”
Andrew rubbed his hands over his face. “Yes, you do,” he said. He reached out and wrapped an arm around her. “I’ll sort something out. I promise you’ll get your Season.”
Hallie turned in his arms, snuggling in against him. He wasn’t sure which one of them needed a hug the most, but he suspected it might have been him.
“We’ll sort something out,” she told him fiercely and he didn’t have the heart – or the energy – to argue with her.
Andrew was too tired to sleep badly that night, which was a relief. But waking up refreshed did nothing to give him new insight, so he was more than a little relieved when Mr Cumberbatch returned in the afternoon, clutching a handful of papers and looking tentatively pleased.
“What is it?” Andrew asked immediately, abandoning civilities for hope.
Cumberbatch sat down opposite Andrew and, this time, accepted the scotch when Ford offered it.
“I may have a solution, My Lord,” he told Andrew. He raised a hand before Andrew could do anything inadvisable – such as fall at his feet and praise him as a saviour. “But you probably won’t like it.”
“What is it?” Andrew asked cautiously. He was prepared for any necessary hardships himself, but if it involved asking his mother or Hallie or Jesse to suffer, then the answer was going to have to be no, no matter how good a scheme Cumberbatch had come up with.
“Tell me,” Cumberbatch started, “How well do you remember the late Mr and Mrs Eisenberg?”
Andrew frowned, confused by the line of questioning. “Hardly at all,” he admitted. “I met them once when I was very young but that’s all. Why do you ask?”
The Eisenbergs had been his parents’ friends but, living in the Americas, the last ten or so years of their friendship had been restricted to letters and the occasional small parcel for Andrew and Ben.
Cumberbatch twisted his hands together, looking uncomfortable. “And are you aware that Mr Eisenberg made a considerable fortune from the American banking industry?”
“Yes?” Andrew said slowly, a faint suspicion starting to dawn as he saw where this might be leading.
“Your parents were very kind to the Eisenberg children following their parents’ deaths,” Cumberbatch prompted as though hoping Andrew would understand what he was suggesting before he had to spell it out.
He let it hang. Andrew stared at him. “No,” Andrew said quickly, hearing his voice rise with horror. “No, I’m not marrying Hallie. For heaven’s sake, she’s seventeen.”
“But of legal, marriageable age with your mother’s consent,” Cumberbatch said delicately. When Andrew just kept staring at him, shaking his head, he cleared his throat. “Well then, have you considered the, uh, the alternative?”
Andrew tipped his head, trying to work out what Cumberbatch could possibly be suggesting. There was no way Andrew was marrying Hallie, for her money or any other reason.
“Jesse Eisenberg,” Cumberbatch prompted gently.
Andrew laughed, startled and genuinely amused for the time it took him to remember that Cumberbatch didn’t tend to make jokes while discussing Andrew’s poverty. “Are you serious?” Andrew asked blankly.
Cumberbatch shrugged delicately. “You would acquire sufficient wealth to more than secure your family’s future and the upkeep of the Priory.”
“But Jesse,” Andrew said. “Jesse doesn’t even know me. There’s no possibility that he would marry me, even if I were to agree.” He tried to imagine being married to Jesse, but couldn’t make his brain cooperate. When he thought of Jesse, he thought of books and candles, blue eyes and dimples, which was nice but it wasn’t enough to base a life on.
Cumberbatch reached for the decanter, refilling his glass and swirling the scotch around inside as though he’d rather look at that than at Andrew. Dimly, Andrew felt sorry for him.
“It was Mr Eisenberg’s idea, My Lord,” Cumberbatch told him eventually.
“What?“ Andrew demanded, startled. “But how did he even know…? Wait. Hallie told him, didn’t she?”
Cumberbatch coloured. “Miss Eisenberg did offer herself as the solution initially,” he admitted. “Mr Eisenberg came to me soon after and suggested this idea instead.”
Andrew shook his head; he just couldn’t see it. “But why?” he asked, following Cumberbatch’s example and poring himself a stiff drink. Married to Jesse, no, it didn’t make any sense. “He’d be ruining himself.”
Marriage between men had been legal for most of Andrew’s life but that didn’t mean it was accepted by the grand old ladies and gentlemen of society. Most were of the opinion that the King had descended into madness earlier than anyone had realised when he’d changed the law to allow his favourite son to marry the Earl of Grantham.
“Less so than would have been the case a generation ago,” Cumberbatch demurred. “You may lose a little of your standing in society but the estate would be restored and you would be securing the futures of Miss Eisenberg and your brother’s family.”
Andrew groaned, tugging on the ends of his hair. He looked over at Cumberbatch helplessly. “I don’t know what to do,” he told him, abandoning dignity. Saving Hallie and his brother’s daughters was worth any sacrifice, of course, he’d just never expected this.
Helpfully, Cumberbatch topped up his glass for him. “Might I suggest speaking to Mr Eisenberg?”
Andrew picked up his glass and drained it. “Yes,” he said, standing up, “Excellent idea.” It was a terrifying idea, going to confront someone who had as good as just proposed to him. “Um, I don’t suppose you know where he is?”
Cumberbatch smiled slightly, sympathetically. “I’d try the library, sir,” he said, which almost made Andrew smile in return.
“Of course,” he agreed, wondering as he let himself out into the hallway, whether he could really see himself marrying a man who voluntarily spent so much time amongst old books. He probably smelt of them, Andrew thought hysterically, and then giggled guiltily to himself.
Jesse was sitting in the window nearest the library door when Andrew burst in. The way he jumped up when he saw Andrew and the fact that his book was closed beside him implied that he’d been waiting for Andrew.
“Hello,” he said, shifting awkwardly on his feet. “Have you, um?”
“Spoken to Mr Cumberbatch?” Andrew prompted. “Because yes. Jesse.”
Jesse’s teeth sunk into his bottom lip, creating a pale dent which Andrew immediately glanced away from then forced himself to look back at, considering.
“It’s, um, it’s a logical solution to your situation,” Jesse said, folding then unfolding then refolding his arms across his chest.
Andrew couldn’t help the soft laugh that escaped. “It’s a proposal, Jesse,” he said, “not a logical solution.”
Jesse coloured, flush rising across his cheeks. “Well, if you want to get romantic about it,” he said then blushed darker. “Not that I am,” he added quickly. “I don’t, I’m not, I know you’re not in love with me, but I thought maybe we could help each other out.”
“How would I be helping you?” Andrew asked then realised they were essentially bartering for their futures in the middle of the library. “Shall we talk somewhere else?”
Jesse shook his head quickly. “I like it here. If you make me sit with you in the study or something, you’ll probably be able to change my mind.”
He looked pained and helplessly uncomfortable so Andrew didn’t argue, just sat down on the windowseat where Jesse had been before, smiling when Jesse came to sit next to him.
“How would I be helping you?” Andrew repeated, twisting to face Jesse head on.
Jesse glanced down at his lap. “Well, you have a title. I wouldn’t mind marrying into nobility.”
Andrew frowned. That definitely wasn’t a good enough reason to marry someone, not for someone like Jesse with no political aspirations. “And?” he prompted.
“Well, you.” Jesse waved a hand then stopped himself, tucking his hands between his knees and looking up at Andrew. “Hallie is tied to your family. If you’re ruined, so will she be, and I’m not prepared to risk it.”
Something strange happened in Andrew’s stomach, almost as if it had tried to clench with nerves and relax with relief at the same time, because that sounded plausible and, if Jesse had a plausible reason to marry Andrew, then Andrew had no reason not to agree.
“But, but, but.” Andrew forced himself to take a deep breath; he wasn’t going to be a stuttering mess right now, this was important. “But are you prepared to, um, to, you know? With me?” God, he should have brought Mr Cumberbatch with him, maybe he could have translated.
Jesse frowned, drawing in on himself slightly. “Are you?” he asked. “Since you don’t seem to be able to say it.”
Andrew spread his hands, helpless. “It’s a bit of a shock,” he said then listened to how that sounded. “Oh, no, wait, not a shock. Just a, um, just a surprise. I haven’t exactly ever thought about you and me and, and us. Not like that.”
“I didn’t expect you to be jumping for joy or anything,” Jesse snapped, looking hurt, which made Andrew feel terrible. “But I thought you’d at least think about it. It’s a good solution.”
Immediately, Andrew started to feel guilty. “That’s not what I meant,” he protested. “Why wouldn’t I be jumping for joy? You’re quite the catch, it’s just, I can’t, this is my mess, there’s no reason why you should have to fix it for me.”
Jesse sighed, reaching out like he wanted to shake Andrew’s shoulder then dropping his hand before they could connect. “I know you’ve never felt like I was part of your family the way you do with Hallie.” He held his hand up before Andrew could protest. “But I do, um. I do feel part of it. Your parents were so kind to us and Hallie is practically a Garfield. If I can help, I’d like to.”
Andrew swallowed. There was a buzzing in his ears. “All right,” he said. He tried to look up at Jesse but he couldn’t seem to focus. This was it, this would fix everything, but it was also the end of everything else, his career, his future, everything. “All right. If you’re sure.”
“Wait,” Jesse said, staring at him. “Was that a yes?”
He looked so shocked that Andrew automatically felt embarrassed. Maybe he should have thought it through more, at least pretended to deliberate. But Jesse looked wide-eyed and like he was trying to be brave and Andrew didn’t want to mess him around.
“Yes,” Andrew said, smiling tentatively. “If you’ll have me.”
Jesse opened his mouth to say something then closed it again, shaking his head at himself. “Well,” he said softly, “I guess that’s settled then.”
Andrew didn’t say anything. He wasn’t quite sure what to say right now. This wasn’t how he’d pictured the day he became betrothed.
Jesse glanced across at him. “Not that I want to break this touching, romantic moment but, um. But do you think you should go see Miss Mulligan?”
Just like that, Andrew’s tentatively relieved feeling fizzled out. Oh god, Carey.
“Thank you,” he said, standing up quickly. “I mean it, thank you. And, but, excuse me.” He pushed his way blindly out of the library, almost running into Hallie, who’d clearly been listening at the door.
He was almost sure he heard her call his name, but he couldn’t stop right now.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven