I've blogged over at slash and burn about word choice and linked that back over here in case anyone wants to take a peek at my efforts to write m/m historical romance. And yes dammit, it will have a happy ending. It's romance.
The tall mahogany clock made the familiar ominous tick as Ian waited in front of the equally ominous desk. Nothing good ever came from being called into the study, even if now the man behind the mahogany desk was brother rather than father. Standing at parade rest had lost the comfort of familiarity as if the empty sleeve pinned back at his elbow created some sort of asymmetrical impropriety to the stance.
Ian supposed he could have interrupted Edward’s shuffling through his books, but habit held him silent. The last time Ian had been peremptorily summoned to stand before the desk in question, his father had been behind it, and it was never to Ian’s advantage to interrupt the old earl in his calculations when such calculations concerned how many strokes of the switch would correct Ian’s behavior.
Edward—no, he must think of his brother as Rayne now. Their father had issued his final orders while his second son’s own life danced between life and death on the edge of a surgeon’s blade. Rayne rubbed a hand over his eyes and slapped away a ledger before looking up, dark brows shooting to his hairline in surprise. “God’s blood, Ian. Why did you not speak? How long have you been standing there?”
“Not long. I--I suppose old habits are the hardest to break.”
The corner of Rayne’s mouth twitched offering a fleeting glimpse of his younger self. “Expecting ten of the best?”
“The thought crossed my mind, God rest his soul.”
Edward made a brief nod of agreement, all trace of humor vanishing from his expression.
“Your sister tells me we have received an invitation to the Carleigh Twelve Night fete.”
The very instant the word Carleigh entered Ian’s ears, he wished himself on the receiving end of his father’s switch rather than the brother’s order he sensed would follow.
“I wish to cultivate the Marquess’s favor. He would be an ally in the House. You and the heir are of an age, are you not?”
“We knew each other at Cambridge.” And I mean that in every sense of the word, brother.
Edward had barely paused long enough for Ian to answer. “Your sister desires to attend. You shall act as her chaperone. And while there, you shall canvass the Marquess’s leanings on several items that will be coming before us. Perhaps your prior affiliation will lend itself to influencing the heir.”
I sodomized him just after father purchased my commission, but I doubt that is the sort of influence you seek. Pain, tears, and blood, and still Nicky had whimpered, “It’s all right.” And Ian, prick in such a hot grip, could no longer restrain the motion of his hips, even as Nicky bit through his bottom lip, his own cock flagging despite the attention of Ian’s fist. That sort of parting might lend itself to awkwardness on a renewal of their acquaintance.
But Lord Rayne could command Ian to undertake any sort of awkwardness his lordship deemed necessary, and if Ian didn’t care to undertake the latest commission, he could make his way own way in the world. Surely there was a yet-to-be discovered path for advancement available to a younger son with a missing limb and no familial support.
If he could face French artillery, he could face Nicky. Though he rather preferred the artillery. “When are we expected?”
“It is their usual Twelve Night fete. I am sure you remain familiar with the customs of our country.”
Of course, the twenty-fourth. Which meant he needed to get his sister Charlotte stuffed in a carriage as soon as possible. At this time of year, the journey to Carleigh Castle would take him perhaps three days on horseback. Traveling with whatever his sister would want to drag along would double or triple the time required. He had heard that females were difficult travel companions.
“See if you can’t encourage some sort of suitable attachment for her. Or at the very least, some respectable company. She is still a bit—”
“Hoydenish?” Ian suggested. He hadn’t been home long, but the sister he remembered who was so often pleading with him to conceal that she had once again been climbing trees and riding astride did not appear to have become much more civilized. Even as he had dressed this morning he had seen her well past the Italianate garden, tugging at something in the arbor and scribbling in a book.
“I think I should prefer headstrong.” His brother’s lips quirked again. “Damn me. Ian, I believe you may have smiled for a moment.”
Stanton men were not renowned for a sanguine temperament, and Ian had found very little to be cheerful about since his return from the Peninsular War. “I’ll do my best to correct it in future, Rayne.”
“See that you do. There are some papers I should like you to examine before you leave in order to familiarize yourself with the items that concern me.” Rayne began digging through the books and ledgers.
Ian nodded and stepped closer to the desk. If he was busy with Lord Carleigh, perhaps he could avoid his son. A mountain of letters to rival the Alps melted into an avalanche, and he reached out with his hand to stop it, forgetting for an instant the moment when he’d awaken to find his arm a half-yard shorter. Phantom pain shot deep into his bones, a fire in flesh that had long since been tossed out to rot on a field in Spain.
“Does it pain you much still?”
“No,” Ian lied. He had always lied easily. Except to himself. From what he’d been able to glean from conversations with other maimed officers both in the Second Fifty-second and others, the phantom limb would be with him until he joined it in death. His body couldn't remember what his brain knew: his left hand had been shredded by shrapnel, a tourniquet the only way a field surgeon could save his life. “I simply moved too suddenly. It will pass quickly.” Or it will throb for hours. But there is nothing to be done for that. “I shall inform Charlotte of your decision.”
On his return from the Continent, unable to face his family or friends, Ian had immured himself with distant cousins in Norwich. He preferred that damp time staring at marshes in England's arse-end to being trapped in this warm coach with plush upholstery if the comfort came with the burden of enduring searching stares from his sister. By the fifth day, those stares had grown more frequent, almost unceasing.
"Don't you have knitting or needlework? An improving book?"
Nan, Charlotte's maid, pursed her lips and stared out the window. Ian had difficulty deciding whether the contortion of her mouth was to hide amusement or disgust.
Charlotte's laughter in no way resembled the drawing room titters Ian had heard on his brief forays in Society.
"My dear brother, in my three and twenty years have you ever known me to engage in handwork or read an improving book?"
"Perhaps you should take it up."
"Perhaps you would care to share why you have ‘such a February face, so full of frost, of storm, and cloudiness’.”
“Ah, I see you have at least managed to plow through at least one work of Shakespeare. Father would be pleased to know your governess was not an utter waste of what funds he could rescue from the Exchequer’s clutches."
"And I see you are attempting to divert my attention."
"From the scenery?" Ian's arm ached as he fought the urge to gesture at the frozen fields with his missing hand.
"From my question. We are on our way to celebrate the most joyous time of the year with dear friends, yet from your expression, one would think you are being dragged to the hangman.”
That was one possible outcome of his sinful relationship with Nicky. Or could he request the block? Was a more honorable execution possible for sodomites who were younger sons of an old and loyal house? He really ought to know the exact statute, even if he had sworn never to repeat the crime. "I am filled with a generous quantity of holiday spirit."
"Your glower is very misleading. Come now, Ian. You were not always so much like father. Or Edward."
"Rayne," Ian corrected.
"Oh, of course, his lordship the Earl of Rayne. The same esteemed lord who dipped my plaits in ink."
"That was I, Lady Charlotte. Lord Rayne would be the chap who preferred to replace the ink with a dozen small spiders."
"Still here, dear sister."
"And you are still avoiding my question. What is this sudden dread you have of Castle Carleigh? You and Lord Amherst always seemed to be such particular friends."
A chill took a tight grip on Ian’s lungs. The emphasis as she spoke trod dangerously close to an insinuation. If Charlotte had been a man, he’d have considered resorting to violence to protect his--Nicky's?--honor. But a female, even one as hoydenish as his sister, could not be aware of such darker aspects of male desire. And she was waiting for him to speak.
"I find that a curious choice of words.”
Charlotte’s gaze was all too penetrating. “Dread?”
Ian clung desperately to the reprieve she had offered. “Yes. I am not dreading the party, merely my duty as your chaperone. With such a great beauty, I will have time for nothing but keeping your more importunate suitors at bay.”
Charlotte’s gaze had not wavered, but at last she smiled. “Are you certain there was no accompanying damage to your skull at Badajoz?”
One didn’t refer to the casualties of war in mixed company, but Charlotte was still the girl whose braids had looked best when tipped with black ink. “As I remember very little after the mine exploded, anything is possible.”
Her expression turned to sympathy and Ian looked away. This was what had kept him in Norwich long after he was fully healed. Useless sympathy when he felt consumed with anger. If he had moved more swiftly on the escalade, if he had not accepted the assistance from his lieutenant's hand, Lieutenant Archer would still be alive and Ian would be whole—or wholly dead. Either state preferable to his current existence.
"Do you think it will snow?"
"I fervently pray that it will not." It would be bad enough to be trapped at Castle Carleigh by the weather, but a snowfall would provoke Ian's memories of the five days he and Nicky had spent penned in by man-high drifts at the marquisate’s hunting cabin. It had been the first time they had dared to fully disrobe, the first time they could look their fill without fear of discovery. Five days of the same wretched stew turning to gruel over the fire, five days of Nicky's infectious laugh, five nights of hard flesh pressed together until they were bound by spit and sweat and spilled seed.
"You have the most peculiar look on your face, Ian. Does your arm pain you very much?"
He could not even school his features around his sister. How was he to look at Nicky, perhaps even at Nicky's betrothed or—bloody hell—Nicky’s wife without some untoward emotion starting in his face? Ian’s guts writhed with a dread against which he had thought himself inured since leading his company to that breach in the walls at Badajoz. He could ask Charlotte about Nicky’s state of attachment, even a female as peculiar as his sister would surely be aware of the alliances among the ton, but a newly found respect for her perception held him back.
"I am merely stiff from days in this carriage."
"You are wishing you had ridden."
“Of course not. I am pleased to keep you company.”
“You are a terrible liar.”
“I am an excellent liar. I told Rayne how much I admired that nag he spent far too much on leaving him none the wiser. You merely have a rampageous imagination which causes you to see pain or frustration where there is none.”
“Is that what it is?”
He met her steady gaze. Though she had yet to demonstrate the decorum Ian expected from a lady, his sister’s acquisition of a dangerous perspicacity and immunity to his teasing boded ill for any future peace of mind.
He chose to exercise the familial option of ignoring a pestering female relation, focusing his gaze on the passing scene, wishing he could ignore the memories provoked by the lazy spiral of snowflakes that had begun to fall.
Amidst the deluge of inappropriate reminiscences, one item which had escaped Ian's notice was the memory of the Carleigh tradition of lavish hospitality. There were so many guests milling in the Gold Salon with more arriving every moment that avoiding Nicholas Crandall, Lord Amherst was a mission at which even the most bumbling of soldiers could succeed. If the crush also ensured that no one had borne witness to Charlotte’s precipitous departure from the carriage, nearly bowling over the footman who was trying to assist her, so much the better.
The last stretch of the carriage ride might have been especially designed for Ian’s torment by one of Lucifer’s more creative demons. The coachman seemed determined to catch the wheels in every rut, a constant reminder that he was utterly useless, as he could neither brace himself nor his sister against the sudden lurches that bounced them like India rubber within the coaches confines. Then his gaze caught a familiar landmark and he was flung back into the bittersweet memory of the first time he had accompanied Nicky home to Carleigh. Nicky had wagered his skill at satisfying Ian against the speed of the coach and four.
Ian had been so sure he could outlast the final few furlongs he had taunted, “I can see the barns, Nicky and yet—”
Nicky had shockingly, devastatingly put his mouth to the same use as his hand, an obscene and wonderful kiss, warm and wet around the head of Ian’s prick. A rut jolted Ian deeper into the slick suction and there was no further need to mark furlongs, or even a yard. The heat of Nicky’s mouth, the movement of his tongue drew the sweet aching fire from Ian’s spine, brought it boiling from his stones and out his cock, and into Nicky’s mouth.
It should have been horrifying, but the notion that he had spilled between those wide, quick-to-smile lips only made his body clench again and again with pleasure. He had scarcely even cared when Nicky had wiped his face on Ian’s formerly immaculate trousers.
With that fresh in mind, he had scarcely been aware of the present-day coach coming to a stop and unable to halt his sister’s unladylike vault from the coach step. Intent on executing his chaperonage with a greater deal of success, he scanned the room, located her by dint of the towering yellow feather which graced her bonnet--easily recalled after the constant tickle against his nose as the coach jolted along--and cut a swath to her side like Major-General Picton into Cuidad Rodrigo.
Ian wished he could ply his saber for safe passage here. The manse in Norwich, the Stanton manor in Oxforshire, even their London Townhouse all were untenanted wastelands compared with the long narrow salon. Not since Badajoz had there been so many other bodies around him. And while the scents and sights of a nobleman’s salon in Derbyshire were far removed from the stench of smoke and blood--or worse the vision of what had been men fragmented by shot and shrapnel--Ian’s ears roared as blood pumped hard and fast, heating his skin, empowering his limbs. The voices around him faded under the drumming of his pulse, vision narrowing as if through a tunnel, the only sight not blurred that of the plume nodding on Charlotte's bonnet.
A hand fell on his shoulder. Blood now full of heat, muscles warm and vigorous, he whirled, good right hand reaching for the saber he no longer wore at his waist.
If there had been a trace of shock and fear on Nicky’s face, Ian’s chance to study it was lost as Nicky used the hand on his shoulder to pull into a half-embrace, which though entirely appropriate to the season and their outward familiarity, left Ian rigid. The thrum of battle-ready nerves still vibrated across his skin, but for an instant the familiar scent of the flesh just above Nicky’s collar managed to penetrate the sensory blinders keeping him shuttered from the crowd.
In that instant Nicky became a bulwark, shelter and shield against the worst memories of the peninsula. He was reaching to offer some reciprocation but Nicky had stepped back, hand sliding along Ian’s arm to close on the empty sleeve.
Ah, there it was. Horror soon masked by pity. The dark blond curls that had slipped through Ian’s fingers in countless caresses fell over Nicky’s forehead, but the clear blue eyes still laid his feelings bare.
“Lord Amherst.” Ian executed as correct a bow as possible with Nicky yet clinging to his sleeve and turned, wrenching free at last.
But although Charlotte’s plume was still in sight, the path to her had closed and as he sought another, Nicky stepped around him again.
“Lord Amherst, is it? Are you not aware that in this Bedlam no one would hear you if you shouted, Captain Stanton?"
“I am a simple gentleman only, my lord. As I am of no further use to His Majesty, I have resigned my commission."
More sympathy, lashes lowered in grief, drawing Ian's gaze to the candelight's sheen on Nicky's cheek, the wide curve of his lips. That mouth. The mouth that had--Ian tore his gaze free of the fascination, a wrenching separation that shared the aching emptiness of his left arm with all of his bones. Charlotte's gold plume had moved off, nodding near a lacey cap adorning the head of a tall slender blonde.
"And at the moment, my lord, I am failing in my new commission. I beg your leave as I must see to my sister."
"Then as always, I shall stand aside and permit you to do your duty." Nicky's voice held a rough edge quite unlike the one Ian had heard when he was in the throes of passion.
This was anger. And when Nicky turned and strode off without another word, Ian was forced to conclude that angry would not suffice. The young earl of Amherst was furious.