A Suitable Match

by Hinotori (火鳥)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/133682.html)

If there is anything more frustrating to a young man of independent thought attempting to establish his place in the world, it is to fall in love with a young lady of whom his mother would approve.

“It’s all off,” said Cyril, swanning into the sitting room and prostrating himself on the settee with dramatic flair. “The girl is polite and deferent and would make any man a lovely wife.”

Alistair put aside the letter he had been writing and assumed a sympathetic air. “You surprise me. I thought you described her as a quick-witted and gay young lady with nothing but contempt for the trappings of modern society.”

“I had had that impression, yes.” Cyril sighed gustily. “But I fear I must have been mistaken.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Alistair, with genuine regret.

“Not so sorry as her mother will be, I imagine,” muttered Cyril drily.

Alistair laughed, as was expected of him. “Undoubtedly.”

“I must apologise for calling you out in this manner,” said Christian Wingrave, once the maid had curtseyed and left the room.

“Please, if it had been a great inconvenience I should not have come.” Feeling perhaps that was a little rude, Alistair quickly continued. “Your letter intrigued me.”

“I’m afraid the subject matter is rather less interesting than my letter would have implied. It is about my youngest niece, Cecily.”

Alistair hesitated for a moment. “Miss Cecily Fairweather? I had not realised her to be your niece.”

Wingrave smiled. It lit up the planes of his face, transforming a face lined with worry into something quite startlingly attractive. Alistair found that he approved greatly. “Many people do not, for she is scarcely five years my junior. I am the youngest son of Henry Wingrave, and Cecily’s mother his eldest daughter. With the untimely death of my father, I spent a lot of time in my youth with the Fairweather household, and Cecily is like unto a little sister to me.”

Alistair inclined his head in understanding. “I suppose that my relationship with Cyril Rossington is similar. There is no blood relationship between us, of course, but my father worked with Mr Rossington for many years and we were raised almost as brothers.”

“Is that so?” Wingrave coughed and averted his eyes. “It is actually Mr Rossington I wished to speak about.”

Alistair felt a little disappointed by this revelation, Wingrave’s obvious discomfort doing little to soften the blow. “I am afraid that whatever sway I may have with my friend, it does not extend to his romantic efforts. He is quite determined to make his own choice in this matter.”

Wingrave laughed. “That I can understand. I had observed it in your friend myself.”

“Then, what do you wish to ask me?”

“Tell me honest, Mr Campbell. Last week I was under the impression that your friend was interested in courting my niece. Was that not the case?”

Wingrave’s imploring look inspired Alistair to a touch of indiscretion. “He was, yes.”

“And yet this week he will have nothing to do with her. He spurns her advances at dances, her messages are returned unread.”

Alistair began to feel a little embarrassed on Cyril’s behalf. “I am afraid… do you wish for me to speak frankly?”

“Please. I am not given to taking offence easily.”

“I fear to say that Cyril felt he had been misled as to the content of your niece’s character.”

Wingrave’s eyebrows rose. “Is that so?”

“He described her to me as ‘a young lady who would make any man a perfectly lovely wife’.” Alistair waited to determine Wingrave’s reaction.

Wingrave appeared puzzled for a moment, but then his expression smoothed into understanding. “Ah.” He paced the room for a moment. “I suspect that her mother may have had something to do with this.”

“Her mother?”

“You understand that it is very important that my niece soon find a husband. Her mother has had several informal offers from older men of high standing and I fear they will not stand for my niece’s indecision much longer.”

Alistair nodded in understanding.

“My niece is, unfortunately, given to speaking her mind without forethought, and has put off several would-be suitors by doing so. I suspect her mother may have told her in no uncertain terms that she was to do nothing to frighten away Mr Rossington.”

“Ironically, that was perhaps the only thing she could have done to turn my friend away.”

“I feared as much.”

“It is unfortunate. I thought they made a most charming couple.”

“Surely there is something you can do to change his mind?”

“Not directly, I am certain of it! Cyril is regrettably both stubborn and contrary, and any attempt to change his mind on this matter would undoubtedly just make his position more firm.”

“There must be some way we can convince him to give her a second chance.”

“Perhaps if we were to blacken her name in his presence? Are there any choice stories I can share with Cyril to pique his interest?”

Wingrave seemed surprised. “Then, you are interested in helping us?”

“As I said before, I thought they were a most charming couple. On the occasions I danced with Miss Cecily I was impressed by her wit and humour. I was quite disappointed when Cyril changed his mind about courting her.”

“You are a romantic, then?”

“More pragmatic than romantic, I am afraid,” admitted Alistair ruefully. “Cyril’s dear mother would most urgently like to see him married off, and I fear that it will not be much longer before she arranges a match behind his back. Cyril would not stand for it, of course, and since I do not want to see him run away to sea, I must find him a suitable young lady as quickly as possible.”

Wingrave laughed. “Then they are even more well-matched than I previously suspected! Oh, if only my sister had not ruined everything by making Cecily behave so unnaturally towards Mr Rossington.”

“Then you must convince your niece not to behave so out of character, should I manage to convince Cyril to change his mind.”

“I shall endeavour to do so. You have my thanks.”

Alistair bowed his head in acknowledgement.

“My man will see you home in the carriage, if that suits?”

Alistair thanked him and accepted the offer.

Requesting that Wingrave’s driver leave him at the foot of the path rather than drive him all the way to the door, Alistair set his foot on the crunchy gravel of the path with some dismay.

To be sure, he had not lied about his worry for his friend’s circumstances. But he could not help but wonder how much of his willingness to help could be attributed to a weakness to serious-eyed young men with pretty smiles.

“It sounds like you had a lucky escape with young Miss Cecily Fairweather,” Alistair told Cyril over breakfast.

“Is that so?” asked Cyril, without much outward interest.

“I understand that her last suitor was sent packing after a single dance. I am given to believe that she called him a boorish, opportunistic jaw-me-dead and that any woman who would consent to marry him could only be classed as a lunatic.”

Cyril raised his head in surprise. “That poor man. What had he done to deserve that?”

“By other accounts of the man, he was given to asking a woman’s opinion and then talking over her response.”

Cyril snorted. “At any rate, I cannot believe that of the young lady I had the misfortune of walking out with. You must be confusing her with some other Fairweather or Cecily.”

“It is not me who is confused, I assure you, for the young lady under discussion was most definitely Miss Cecily Fairweather.”

Cyril made another noise of derision. “Perhaps they were jealous because of great beauty? I have no qualms about stating that she is quite the prettiest girl in the neighbourhood. It is a pity she does not have a mind to match.”

Alistair sighed. “A great pity,” he murmured, when Cyril glanced at him curiously.

Cyril seemed to have been diverted by another thought. “But perhaps I am incorrect after all. Perhaps the minds of nice girls are well-suited to the pretty face. Should I turn my attentions to the merely-handsome women in the village? Perhaps I would have more luck with the actively unattractive.”

“I should think the mind of any person quite divorced from their personality.”

“You do not think that a person’s personality may be shaped by the way they are treated? A handsome individual is given much more attention in life than one who is not.”

“You, at least, have nothing to worry about on that front, being both rich, handsome and coming from a respectable family.”

“A respectable family, yes, although perhaps the individual is not as respectable as he could be?” Cyril laughed again. “I should make you apologise for the slight.”

Alistair snorted. “You could demand an apology, I suppose, although you may find yourself disappointed. I have known you too long to believe I may have caused you genuine offence.”

“Ah, Alistair, what a joy you are.” Cyril brightened. “Perhaps you can marry the lovely Miss Cecily, since you have taken such an interest in her.”

Alistair blanched. “I do not think it would be even worth trying, even if I were to have an interest in the young lady, since I have nothing to recommend me to her beyond my meagre collection of good looks.”

“And your friendship with me.”

“I have no more desire to become engaged for my connections than you do, my friend.”

“I would not wish it on you in the least,” Cyril reassured him. “What was it that Mr Wingrave wanted with you last night, by the way?”

Alistair was caught off guard, and reflected that he should have taken the time to come up with some story for their clandestine meeting. “It was of no importance. He wished to ask me about a poem I had mentioned at the last dinner party.” Perhaps Cyril did not even know of Wingrave’s relation to Miss Cecily Fairweather, and the matter could pass by without comment.

“He had a mighty odd way of going about it, then.”

“I must confess a certain attraction towards odd personages, then,” said Alistair, with a wink. “For I rather enjoyed the conversation.”

“Is that another dig at my respectability I hear? Really, Alistair, I am not sure what to make of this at all.”

Alistair hid his smile behind a glass of orange juice.

“Very well, you may have your country gentleman. I shall not be a jealous friend.”

“My loyalty to you is unblemished,” Alistair assured him. He hoped that Mr Wingrave might remain unaware of the implication inherent in Alistair’s words; or at least that he might forgive it as a cover for any future meetings.

“So what other gossip did you pick up from the village last night?”

“I’m afraid your refusal of her means that it all regarded Cecily Fairweather, since I am known to be your friend.” Alistair shifted on his chair and prepared a neat fabrication. “There was one story that when she was a girl she had the maids serve the village pastor tea made from the horse’s drinking trough.”

Cyril snorted with laughter. “What strange gossip these country folk come up with.”

Alistair prepared another story, this one quite true, according to Miss Cecily’s uncle, who had been beaming with pride when he related it. “She once interrupted her elder brother’s lessons in order to correct the governess on a little matter of the accuracy of her mathematics lessons.”

“What a remarkable thing to gossip about,” exclaimed Cyril. “Why should they make up a story about that?”

“One supposes it is unusual for proper young ladies to take an interest in mathematics.”

“I should be disappointed in any young lady who did not,” muttered Cyril. “But it seems quite unbelievable to me that it should have been Miss Cecily being talked about.” Cyril stabbed his fork into his plate and speared a piece of bacon firmly.

Having decided that this approach was clearly not going bear any fruit, Cyril’s mind being quite firmly made up, Alistair changed the subject to the day’s plans.

Alistair met Christian Wingrave in private for a second time under a gazebo at the grassy park in the village square. Under normal circumstances the park should be full of young couples and excitable children, but the entire village had emptied in order to attend the markets.

Alistair had managed to disengage himself from his party without much trouble and waited on the wooden bench for several moments before he saw Wingrave enter the park.

Wingrave stepped up his pace when Alistair rose from the bench to wave at him. He arrived at the gazebo shortly thereafter, the exertion having coloured his cheeks an attractive shade of rose pink. “I apologise for my tardiness. My housekeeper had an urgent matter to raise with me regarding the purchasing of brown or white eggs this morning.”

“That’s quite all right; I had not been waiting long.”

“I am pleased to hear it.”

“You won’t be so pleased with my news, however,” warned Alistair. “I fear I was completely unsuccessful in convincing my friend to renew his acquaintance with your niece.”

“That is a shame.”

“Indeed. He claims the rumours I related to him merely fabrications of those jealous of your niece’s good looks.”

“It would be more frustrating if it weren’t so believable. Still, mourning a failed plan gets a man nowhere. We must try a new tactic.”

“I do earnestly believe that Cyril has not lost all regard for your niece. The trouble will be in getting him to admit it, for at the moment he feigns complete lack of interest.”

Alistair sat down on the bench again and gestured that Wingrave should join him. This Wingrave did, leaning back against the wall of the gazebo and stretching his legs out in front of him with ease.

He tried to keep his mind on Wingrave’s problem, but the day was pleasant and he found the company distracting. He let the silence grow between them, hoping Wingrave would soon break in with a suggestion and save him the embarrassment of admitting that he had nothing to offer.

“It is quite ironic, this situation,” commented Wingrave. “By rights we should be trying to convince your friend of my niece’s suitability as a wife, not the opposite.”

“If Cyril had wanted a proper young lady we should have stayed in town. I rather think Cyril hoped the young ladies in the country should be a little less proper.”

“Ah, but it is so much harder to maintain your good reputation when you are in a village. The fear of gossip is constant, so the young ladies will try their very hardest to maintain a proper demeanour.”

“Thus your niece’s disastrous encounter with my friend, I suppose.”

“Indeed.”

Silence fell between them once again. In the distance, Alistair could hear a dog barking excitedly.

“That’ll be Mr Hargreaves’ spaniel,” commented Wingrave. “Poor old thing, it has no teeth to even hurt a fly, but it does like to make a fuss.”

Wingrave seemed to be in no hurry to re-enter the topic of their match-making. He offered a few comments on the local birds and the conversation drifted to a discussion on recent poetry.

The church bell chimed the hour abruptly, and the two men jumped.

Alistair straightened his collar and cleared his throat. Two spots of pink had risen on Wingrave’s cheeks and he was smoothing his trousers down self-consciously.

“About Cyril…” Alistair began.

“Indeed,” Wingrave interrupted quickly.

“It’s clear that blackening your niece’s name to him is not going to work. I rather fear that any further attempts on my part to push him towards your niece would arouse his suspicions.”

“Perhaps you could instead inform his mother of the budding relationship?”

“His mother? You are suggesting that I write to inform her of her son courting a most unsuitable young lady?” Alistair was starting to warm to the idea.

“Of course, it will be largely dependent on whether your friend’s mother sees you as a stabilising influence or not.”

“You are quite correct, I could hardly do it under my own name.”

“An anonymous village gossip, then.”

“But that is a problem in it itself. What is there to convince Cyril that it is not again cruel-minded gossip against the girl?”

“A positive letter, perhaps? Congratulating Mrs Rossington on her son making such a fortuitous match.”

“And to say that Cyril’s being willing to look past the matter of the girl’s frankness and lack of position being a commendation on his character?” Alistair laughed in delight. “I can do a fair imitation of a woman’s hand, but you must help me compose the letter.”

“With pleasure.” Wingrave coughed a little self-consciously. “That is to say, I would be delighted to assist.”

“To be completely frank, I suspect that the mere mention of any girl that Cyril may be courting outside her gaze may cause an explosion on the part of his mother. But it cannot hurt our cause to imply – in the nicest possible manner – that the girl may not fit into her picture of the ideal wife for her son.” He felt a little twinge of fear for Cyril’s reaction when he found out that Alistair had been involved in bringing his mother into this affair.

“Let us work on that basis for now. Er… perhaps you would like to dine with me tonight?”

The invitation took Alistair by surprise, but of course the market would be clearing out soon and he really should return and find the rest of his party. “Certainly. However… on what pretext?”

“Tell your friend that you and I were engaged in a deep discussion of modern poetry and that I wish to show you some volumes with which you were unfamiliar.”

Alistair laughed. “That is almost the exact excuse I gave Cyril for our last meeting. Nonetheless, it is close to the exact truth, so I will gladly use it.”

“Your friend must think me a frightful bore of a scholar, then,” said Wingrave ruefully.

“I am sure that is not the case,” Alistair lied cheerfully.

Cyril stormed into the drawing room and threw a sheaf of papers onto the table. Alistair sprung out of his chair to catch them before they slid of the table. “Cyril, what on earth is the matter?”

“Read this, and tell me you had nothing to do with it.”

Alistair’s stomach dropped, and he sorted through the leaves until he found the first page.

The letter was from Mrs Rossington, as he feared.

He read quickly. A most unsuitable match, yes, I forbid you to see this girl any more, it was all quite as Alistair had expected.

“What seems to be the problem? You have already declared your intention to never see this girl again.”

“The post is not that slow, and my mother has dated her letter. You cannot tell me that you believe my mother would not have sent off her reply by the next mail.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” Alistair said, with mock-confusion.

“This letter was sent after I had broken things off with Cecily. By at least a week, if I am not mistaken.”

“Oh. How strange.”

“And coupled with the revelation that your good friend Mr Wingrave is the uncle of young Cecily, I begin to smell a conspiracy brewing. In my own house!”

“Cyril, please, let me explain.”

“And the irony is,” Cyril continued unheeding, “that your infernal meddling has had the intended effect. My mother’s forbidding the affair makes it a thousand times more attractive to me!”

Alistair closed his mouth in abject surprise.

“And yet I find myself caught between two bouts of contrary actions. On the one hand, I strive to disobey my mother wherever possible. On the other, to be a victim of match-making!”

“In my defence,” said Alistair helplessly, “I really do think that you were mistaken about the girl.”

“From the sweet words her uncle whispered in your ear?”

“From your own conduct with her on your initial meetings. You could barely keep your eyes off her!”

“I have never denied her physical attractiveness.”

“You asked her to dance several times, and on numerous occasions I saw that she made you laugh.”

“She had clearly been coached between dances.” Cyril sniffed.

“Or perhaps she had been coached after the dance on the appropriate manner to behave to a young gentleman. That is the option I find far more likely.”

“And on that basis you decide to manipulate me into matrimony?”

“All I wanted was for you to give the girl a second chance. You were so happy after those first few dances,” Alistair added wistfully. “You cannot blame me for wanting happiness to return to you.”

“You wrote to my mother!”

“I was rather hoping that the ends would justify the means.”

“It is clear to me that I must give the girl a second chance, if only to prevent you from pulling my great aunt Augusta into the mix!”

Alistair winced. “I like to think I would have had enough sense to stop before we reached that point.”

“I would have thought you would have stopped before involving my mother, and yet look where we are now.”

“I am sorry.”

“Tell your friend Mr Wingrave to arrange a meeting for myself and his niece.”

Alistair hesitated. “Are you certain?”

“Yes, yes, for heaven’s sake! Go now, before I change my mind.”

Alistair fled. The servants having mysteriously vanished from the house, probably in response to the yelling, he changed into his walking clothes and made the trek into the village on foot.

He knocked on Wingrave’s door diffidently and waited patiently, wondering if he shouldn’t have tried harder to hunt down one of the servants and have notice sent ahead.

The housekeeper presently came to the door. Alistair introduced himself, and she led him through to the back room of the house.

“Mr Campbell? This is an unexpected pleasure.”

Alistair smiled automatically in response to the compliment. “I have unexpected news, wrapped in a rather rough package.”

“Is that so? Please, sit down.” Wingrave gestured at one of the armchairs.

Alistair sat. “Cyril received a letter today. From his mother.”

“Oh?”

“He immediately summoned me to berate me for having involved his mother in his romantic affairs.”

“Oh my.” Wingrave seemed to be fighting amusement. “I see we were more transparent than we thought.”

“Unfortunately so.”

“Then it is all off?”

“That is the queer thing about it. He sent me here to you to arrange a meeting.”

Wingrave started. “Is that really true?”

“Yes! Is it not incredible?”

“I shall send notice to my niece at once.”

Alistair waited while Wingrave sent for the housekeeper and wrote a quick note to his niece.

“Well,” sad Wingrave, breathless with excitement. “I cannot tell you how much hope this development gives me.”

“I am pleased to have been of service.” Alistair was finding it difficult to echo Wingrave’s joy. Guilt at having gone behind Cyril’s back ate at him, and tangled with it was the knowledge that after this he would have no remaining excuse to call on the other man.

Wingrave beamed at him for a moment, then his smile slipped. “Still, I must admit to some regret that our conspiracy is so abruptly ended. I must confess I was enjoying our little meetings.”

Alistair started.

Wingrave scratched his cheek sheepishly. “You must think me terribly inappropriate.”

“No… For my thoughts were much the same.”

Wingrave’s face broke out into another of those brilliant smiles. “Well!” He stood up, then sat down again, brushing his hands over his trousers quickly. “Well. That is very well.”

Alistair flushed with mingled embarrassment and pleasure.

“In that case… I would be delighted if you were to join me for supper tomorrow evening.” Wingrave gave him another sheepish smile. “It is the servants’ night off, so I’m afraid it will be a cold supper.”

“I am sure the company will more than make up for it,” said Alistair fervently.

The meal was, as promised, cold. Although it was by no means unpalatable, Alistair barely tasted it, too diverted by his companion and consumed by nerves.

Wingrave’s conversation kept to neutral subjects of politics, poetry and the war. Alistair desperately hoped that he had not, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, desperately misinterpreted the situation.

The meal dispensed with, they moved to the back room of the house, near the stairs.

They stood in the centre of the room, a few scant feet apart. Alistair did not like to move to seat himself without permission, and Wingrave seemed lost in some kind of deep discomfort of his own.

“Look here,” broke in Wingrave suddenly. “I hope you… That is to say, I invited you here because I thought I should like to get to know you better.”

Alistair cocked his head. The words could be innocuous, but then again, what other reason could there be to invite him and specifically mention that the servants would be absent? “I should very much like to get to know you better myself.”

Wingrave took a tentative step closer to him, and Alistair met him halfway. When they were standing breast to breast, he raised a hand to Wingrave’s cheek and stroked it gently. The skin was smooth – had Wingrave shaved before Alistair’s arrival? The thought that Wingrave had seen fit to take special effort for Alistair made a little curl of pleasure unfurl in his gut.

Wingrave raised a hand to capture Alistair’s in his. He gently brought it to his lips and kissed the fingertips gently.

Alistair’s eyes closed involuntarily and he let out small gasp. “Perhaps,” he said breathlessly. “Perhaps, you could show me upstairs?”

“With pleasure.” After a moment’s hesitation, Wingrave slipped his arm into the crook of Alistair’s elbow and let him to the stairwell.

The room was already lit softly, putting at last to rest any doubts Alistair may have had about Wingrave’s intentions towards him.

The door fastened securely behind them and the curtains shut, Alistair wasted no time in stepping back in Wingrave’s arms and angling for a kiss. This Wingrave was happy to oblige him in, and Alistair was pleased to find his mouth soft and eager.

A soft cupping of the bulge in Wingrave’s trousers was all the prompting they needed to break apart and begin to undress. The process was slow and careful, not wishing to leave any signs of duress on clothing that would have to be reworn in too short a time. Alistair revelled in every inch of bare skin that was revealed.

Wingrave was a very handsome man. A little soft, perhaps; he had the hands and figure of a scholar, not a sportsman. Nonetheless, Alistair found himself very pleased indeed with the man he saw before him. He smiled appreciatively.

“Does something amuse you?” asked Wingrave, a little self-consciously.

“Only in that I am very much pleased by what I see.”

Wingrave accepted the compliment with shy grace. “That is a sentiment with which I can agree.”

Their coverings removed, they reassumed their embrace. Wingrave pressed kisses to Alistair’s mouth while Alistair’s hands explored his back and sides, stroking and petting as they went.

They stumbled the two, three steps to the bed, Wingrave landing on top of it first and then wriggling with some dismay to get the heavy coverlets off and out of the way. Alistair found himself laughing helplessly at the spectacle until Wingrave achieved his freedom and pulled Alistair down on top of himself.

Alistair quickly rearranged himself so that he was straddling Wingrave, and leant in for another set of heated kisses.

Wingrave’s eyes had turned quite dark, and his cheeks were once again flushed pink. Alistair moved his kisses to Wingrave’s jawline, then his chest, then, not wishing to waste the advantages of his position, to his erect member.

Alistair had not had the opportunity to indulge this pleasure in some time, and he devoted himself to the task with particular care. Alistair’s actions were greeted with a rather satisfying collection of gasps and sighs.

He wrapped his hand around the base of Wingrave’s member and swallowed it down until he could stroke his own fingers with his tongue, while Wingrave let in a shaky breath.

Not one to break out into streams of profanity, this one. Alistair found he liked the awed muteness of Wingrave’s reactions.

Devoting himself to his task once again, Alistair was at last rewarded with a frantic warning and a loud moan. Licking the softening organ clean, he returned to the head of the bed, wincing a little as his knees protested his prior position.

Alistair laid his head on the pillow next to Wingrave, and was greeted with a rueful smile. Alistair kissed it away quickly. “My dear, you do not need to look so guilty. The pleasure was mine.”

“Nevertheless, I feel this exchange has been somewhat one-sided thus far.” With this, Wingrave began his own exploration of Alistair’s body. His gestures were light at first, soft and a little shy, but he gained confidence as Alistair plied him with encouragement.

Alistair was quite pleased with the result.

Feeling it would be imprudent to see Wingrave again so soon, particularly in light of Cyril’s acid tongue on the matter of the “conspiracy”, Alistair elected to spend the afternoon of the second private meeting between Cyril Rossington and Miss Cecily Fairweather in private contemplation at Cyril’s house.

Cyril stormed into the house a little earlier than Alistair would have hoped. His hair was wildly mussed and his expression one of bleak despair.

“Cyril, what on earth is the matter? Did it not go well?”

Cyril laughed bitterly. “It went splendidly. You were completely correct, that is the girl for me. She is witty and frank and completely unhampered by such trivialities as regard for the finer feelings.”

“Come, sit down, you look a fright. Tell me what happened.”

“I asked her to marry me.”

Alistair gasped. “And she refused you?”

“She told me, in no uncertain terms, that I must be the shallowest man in the world to expect her to just roll over at my feet and marry me after the way she had been treated.”

“Oh, my dear.”

“And the worst of it is that she is completely correct! What could I have been thinking, asking her to marry me so soon?”

Unable to think of anything to say that would not add to his friend’s self-flagellation, Alistair made wordless sympathetic noises.

“Well I have learnt my lesson! If she does not wish it, I will trouble her no further.”

“I am very sorry to have caused you this trouble.”

“You? I am afraid this situation is solely of my own doing. You would never rush into a thing such as marriage.”

“Nevertheless.”

“I think I shall return to London. Or… how would you feel about heading north for a while? I think perhaps I could find a house in the Lake District without too much trouble.”

“I… oh dear.” Alistair found himself blushing again.

“Alistair? Surely you cannot be that attached to this old house.”

“Not the house, no. But I do… find myself with a certain attachment to the village.”

His own misery seemingly forgotten, Cyril gaped at Alistair in astonishment. “Do you mean to say that it was not just a cover story for your conspiracy? You and Mr Wingrave really have come to an arrangement?”

“Technically, it was not until… after the conspiracy was dissolved.”

“Well!” Cyril still seemed quite taken-aback. “Should I be saying my congratulations?”

“I do not know if there is such a protocol in this situation.”

“Oh, do stop being so uptight, Alistair! You know I do not object and I could not begrudge you any happiness, but Alistair, I do wish you might have told me! You know I accept your preferences, even if I do not share them.”

“I know. I am sorry I kept it from you, but I felt the topic of Mr Wingrave was a sensitive one between us.”

“You are right in that. Perhaps I should be interviewing him to make certain that his intentions are honest, since your own family cannot.”

“Cyril, please!” said Alistair, laughing.

Cyril sighed, sobering again. “But I cannot, because he is Cecily’s uncle and I do not wish to have any more to do with her family!”

“Her sister was there, I suppose?”

“And Mr Wingrave. I’ve no doubt they both already have news of my utter humiliation, from the lady herself even if they had not overheard.”

“Oh, Cyril. Surely it is not so bad as all that.”

“I cannot say with honesty how it must look to them; you know a threat to a man’s pride is the bitterest gall!”

“I will go to him this evening, by your leave.”

“I would not keep you from your friend,” said Cyril, sincerely. “But pray, do not tell me of which you have spoken!”

“Mr Campbell, it is good to see you. I feared you may not be able to make our appointment after the events of this morning.”

Alistair sat on the chaise and smiled at Wingrave sheepishly. “It does seem that all our careful planning has come to nought, does it not?”

“I’m afraid my niece has something of a temper.”

“And I’m afraid Cyril is a little too inclined to haste. I had no idea that he would take it into his head to propose marriage so quickly!”

“I should have cautioned him against it. My niece has spoken to me at length on her desire to be seen as more than just an object of matrimony.” His sheepish smile indicated that this interview had taken place quite recently.

“Is there nothing we can do to change her mind?”

“I rather think that particular ship has sailed. We shall have to be patient and hope that her affection for Mr Rossington overcomes her offence at his suit.”

“Cyril is talking of returning to London.”

Wingrave started. “You, too?”

“I do not wish it, but by the same token I cannot afford to keep myself here without him. And… I would be hesitant to leave him on his own. He may be inclined towards rash action.” Visions of being convinced to take up employment in the merchant navy swam before his eyes. “Oh, this is quite the mess we are in!”

Wingrave took Alistair’s hand in his and petted it softly. “Then let us not think of these things for now. We have each other for now, let us take pleasure in our company.”

Alistair smiled. “That is an enticing plan, Mr Wingrave.”

He let Wingrave draw him into a kiss. “Would you… I would be honoured if you were to call me by my given name, at least when we are alone.”

“With pleasure… Christian. And I would be greatly pleased if you were to return the favour.”

“By all means, Alistair.” Alistair found he liked the way it was said, wonder and delight rolled into one intimate word.

“Shall we retire upstairs?”

Some time later, feeling loose and overall quite satisfied with the evening, Alistair let himself into Cyril’s house with the key, it being late and not wanting to awaken the servants and draw attention himself.

As he passed Cyril’s bedroom, he saw light leaking out from under the door. After a moment’s hesitation, he knocked quietly.

“Come in.” The voice was subdued.

“Are you feeling any more at peace?”

“I have decided to leave for town the day after next. It will be a great pity not having you with me, but I cannot stay here knowing that Cecily thinks so ill of me.”

“Oh, Cyril, my dear.”

“You are, of course, welcome to stay in the house and I will keep on a few servants to do for you.”

Alistair was not looking forward to being left rattling around the manor house, small for its kind though it may be, on his own. “If you go to town you will be forced to deal with your mother.”

“Oh, by Jove, you’re right.” Cyril hesitated, then cursed a few times. “I cannot let her think that I am obeying her letter!”

“By all means, no,” murmured Alistair.

Cyril scowled at his knees for a moment.

“But what of you? How was your evening?” Cyril’s eyes were bright with amusement. Alistair was being teased.

“My evening was quite productive,” said Alistair, with dignity.

“I take it you found ways to occupy yourselves?” Cyril was always at his most flippant when he was trying to bury some darker emotion.

“Cyril, please.”

Days passed, then a week. None of Alistair’s encouragement could convince Cyril to leave the house for more than hunting or invigorating walks in the country-side, so he was forced to attend the local dances alone. He danced with many women, but the highlights of the evening were, as always, smalltalk with Mr Christian Wingrave.

He was at present engaged in conversation with Christian over a glass of local apple wine.

The sound of running feet in the house, accompanied by frantic protests from the housekeeper, broke into their reverie.

“Ma’am, please, let me go ahead!” Alistair heard the housekeeper cry, before the door to the sitting room flew open and Miss Cecily Fairweather tumbled in.

Being that they were engaged in nothing more scandalous than sharing a single settee, Alistair managed to keep himself from blushing. Wingrave rose to greet his niece. “Cecily, what a pleasant surprise.”

“Oh, uncle! I didn’t realise you had a guest.”

“You would have if you had stopped to listen, ma’am!” wailed the housekeeper.

“Mrs Rutherford, please, there is no harm done, however I thank you for your vigilance. Cecily, please, sit down.”

The housekeeper exited the room with dignity, and Cecily sat gingerly on the edge of one of the armchairs, smoothing her skirts beneath her. “Why, this is Mr Rossington’s friend, is it not?”

“You are quite correct, Miss Cecily. My name is Alistair Campbell.”

“Tell me, how is Mr Rossington? My sister tells me he has not been seen around town for quite some time.”

“He is well, it is just that he has not been in a very social mood of late. He is at present in London on an urgent shopping excursion.” Cyril had spent nigh on an entire morning in his closet the day before, finally declaring that he had nothing fit to wear and that he must urgently correct this.

Alistair had taken this as a sign that Cyril’s humour would soon be improving, but Cyril had refused Alistair’s offer to accompany him.

“Oh! When will he be returning?”

“Niece, please! Why all these questions?” Christian broke in.

“Uncle, I fear I have made a terrible mistake.”

“Is your mother talking about Reverend Carstairs again?”

“Oh, uncle, you think me so mercenary! She is, but it is not that at all. I keep running my interview with Mr Rossington over in my head, and I feel quite annoyed at myself for having lost my temper like that.”

“As one who knows my friend rather well, I think you can be excused for some degree of temper; he can be quite frustrating,” offered Alistair.

Cecily laughed. “All the same, it was quite illogical of me. The match would be advantageous on both sides; he has money enough to satisfy even my mother; I can tolerate his company well enough; and it seems he would be willing to allow me freedom of thought, which is a rare jewel indeed.”

“And you say you aren’t mercenary.”

“I should hardly call that mercenary, merely logic applied to the principles of marriage. Parents and meddling relatives apply it all the time, I do not see why I should be excluded from it just because I am the bride.” Cecily tapped a finger on the table thoughtfully. “And I am genuinely fond of him, arrogant and judgemental though he may be.”

The sounds of another commotion in the hall interrupted Cecily’s musings.

“Where is Mr Campbell? I must speak with him at once!”

The housekeeper was protesting loudly.

“Why,” said Alistair, “I do believe that is Cyril. What on earth can he be doing here, of all places?”

Cyril burst into the room a moment later. “Alistair, so you are here. The housemaid said you had come to town and I knew you must be here. Oh!”

Cyril had just noticed Cecily.

“Please, sit down,” said Christian, with a dignity that only drew attention to Cyril’s state of disarray.

Cyril did not sit down. “I am very sorry to have interrupted you, Miss Cecily. I will retreat and return to talk to my friend at another time.”

“No,” said Cecily gently. “You may stay. If you want.”

Please sit down, Mr Rossington,” insisted Christian.

Cyril glanced at Cecily in some distress, then sat down with a distinct lack of grace.

“If you could bring us some tea, please, Mrs Rutherford.”

The housekeeper seemed a little put out at being removed from the drama unfolding in front of her, but complied with grace.

Once the tea had been poured and the housekeeper dispensed with a second time, Christian settled back in his chair comfortably. “Now, Mr Rossington, please tell us what brought you here in such a rush.”

“I wished… Oh, this is quite inappropriate of me.”

“Cyril, you are being quite ridiculous.”

“I suppose I am, at that. I wished to ask whether you thought it likely that Miss Cecily would be willing renew her acquaintance with me were I to apologise.”

Cyril was determinedly not looking at Cecily, but it didn’t stop the girl from reacting. “It cannot have taken you an entire week to come up with the idea of apologising!”

Cyril stiffened. “I did not–” he began defensively.

“But you are fortunate, because I believe I will accept your apology.”

Cyril started, spilling hot tea all over his lap. He barely seemed to notice. “Oh, Cecily, please tell me this means you will forgive me my being such an utter fool!”

“I cannot regret the sentiment, for you really were most appallingly rude and presumptuous, but I do regret the delivery. No man I love could deserve such malice.”

“Love? You love me?”

“Do you think it presumptuous of me to use that word? Of course, it is really quite incredible, given the short time we have known each other. Nonetheless, my regard for you far exceeds that of any other of my acquaintance.”

Seeing the two completely focussed on each other, Alistair rose quietly and gently touched Christian on the elbow. Together they crept away to the drawing room.

“Well!” said Christian. “I think that all worked out quite nicely.”

“I am glad. I do not know how much more of that infernal moping I could have put up with.”

“I think that as match-makers we rather misestimated our targets, however.”

“Perhaps you are correct. Still, I cannot regret that either, for it was quite enjoyable at the time.”

“Is that so?” Christian smiled with pleasure. “Well, we are at least in agreement on that.”

Alistair took a step closer, and Christian tilted his head up for a kiss.

“We shouldn’t,” murmured Alistair. “Who knows who else may take it upon themselves to burst in?”

Wingrave held him in his embrace a moment longer. “Perhaps you are right.”

Alistair leaned in closer and buried his face in the crook of Christian’s neck.

“Oh, propriety be damned,” muttered Christian, and broke away to put a chair in front of the door.

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