“Not dancing this evening?” Buck asks as Eddie lifts a wine glass to his lips and surveys the room with a disinterested glance.
“Apparently it gives the wrong impression,” he replies. “You would think after four years of this, everyone would have accepted that I’m not here to find another wife, but—”
“Oh no.” Buck grins. “See, the first year, they were being respectful of that poor Duke of Cedarhall who just lost his wife, then they weren’t as interested because you already have Christopher. Now though...now they’ve gotten used to having you around and it’s less about the prize of becoming a duchess and more thinking you’re lonely and in need of companionship. The perfect pet project...or so I’ve heard.”
“Christ.” Eddie rolls his eyes, but his lips quirk up. “The gossip mill cuts both ways, you know. Just last week, Lady Castlebury was asking why I haven’t taken you to task for being—what was it?—oh, right, a shameless rake toying with my sister’s affections season after season instead of doing the honorable thing and proposing.”
Buck stifles a laugh and sips at his own glass. “And what did you say? Did you defend my reputation as a gentleman?”
“Is that what you are?” Eddie teases, his voice dropping low as he leans closer. “I seem to recall a few hours ago some very ungentlemanly—” He laughs when Buck chokes on his wine and deliberately steps on Eddie’s foot.
“I informed the good lady that if anyone’s affections are being toyed with, they certainly are not my sister’s, and reminded her that despite the ton’s opinions to the contrary, men and women are perfectly capable of being friends without bringing marriage into it,” he finishes, his voice returning to normal volume. “Also that Adriana wouldn’t have you anyway so it hardly matters whether you propose or not.”
“Well that’s just rude, I would make your sister an excellent husband,” Buck replies.
“And a week after the wedding you would be found smothered to death in your bed.”
“Hardly fair—she loves me. I would make it at least a month.”
Eddie makes a sound of disbelief and Buck opens his mouth to respond just as he catches sight of something across the room and winces instead.
“Speaking of your sister...she seems to have found herself alone with my sister. Never a good sign, they’re far too powerful together.”
“I suppose you’ll have to go whisk one of them off to dance then,” Eddie replies. He turns into Buck and their positioning hides the way his hand wraps around Buck’s wrist for the briefest moment, his thumb darting under the cuff to glance over the thin, sensitive skin there. Buck’s breath catches as he barely contains a shiver, the memory of Eddie’s hands on him just a few hours prior rising all too readily to the surface.
“Meet me in the garden later?” Eddie asks.
“Of course,” Buck agrees quietly. “That is, if you manage not to get waylaid by any society matrons.”
“That was once—”
“—once per engagement maybe. They really are getting persistent.”
Eddie’s thumb makes one final pass over Buck’s inner wrist before his hand drops away. “I’ll be there.”
Buck feels the loss instantly. Not for the first time he wishes to escape London entirely, to return to his own estate in Wilfordshire or even to Eddie’s own Gracewood. He has long since reconciled himself to the fact that he will not allow his responsibilities to encompass marriage only for the sake of it, is fully comfortable with the thought of having no children of his own and allowing Maddie’s second son to inherit his title. But he also cannot deny that with the exception of the handful of weeks a year when they are able to be as they are during the season, or when he is able to visit Gracewood and spend time with Eddie and Christopher with a greater measure of privacy, he is...very much alone.
He shakes off the thought and sets his glass down on a stray table as he crosses the room to Maddie and Adriana.
“Not interrupting, I hope,” he says.
“Well, that’s a lie,” Maddie replies. “I imagine you are all too happy to interrupt.”
“The two of you putting your heads together rarely bodes well for me, that’s true,” Buck admits, nodding at Adriana. “Miss Diaz.”
“May I have this dance?”
“If you must.”
She offers her hand and Buck kisses it before guiding her to the floor.
“We weren’t discussing you, for what it’s worth,” Adriana murmurs as she takes her place amidst the crowd of couples. “As it happens, I was complaining to Maddie about the upcoming ball at Cedar House, the planning of which has largely fallen to me since despite being an annual expectation, Eddie has apparently decided that if he pretends it isn’t happening hard enough, it will not.”
“I would have thought him glad to see it come and go,” Buck replies, even as his stomach twists uncomfortably. The ball in question is, after all, one of the final events of the season, a stark reminder that they are, all of them, soon to go their separate ways once again.
When Adriana looks at him as the music strikes up, it’s as if she sees right through him.
“Would you, indeed?” She muses. Buck doesn’t get a chance to respond.
“My brother does look well tonight, doesn’t he?” Adriana asks, changing the subject as they turn. Her eyes spark with mischief when he hums idly in agreement. “Strange that bruise on his neck, though. I can’t imagine how he could have gotten such a thing.”
Buck recalls precisely the moment he decided to leave the mark, the instant he had tugged on Eddie’s hair to get access to a stretch of skin that wouldn’t be easily covered by a high collar. The way he felt—frustrated and needy and possessive—not even really thinking, just wanting a reminder that he could see to match the ones Eddie left on his own skin that have since vanished beneath stuffy clothing.
“Perhaps his fencing partner got a bit overzealous,” Buck offers, despite knowing that won’t be good enough for her to drop it.
“Perhaps,” she allows. “Or perhaps his lover saw Lady Lucas trying to get her claws into him the other night and wanted to stake a claim? Don’t look now, but she’s spent the whole ball looking like she swallowed a lemon.”
Buck smiles, no small amount of satisfaction warming his chest, petty though it may be.
“Well, given that your brother has been more than polite in rebuffing her advances at no fewer than the last three balls, maybe Lady Lucas needed the reminder that no means no and that he’s not the lonely widower desperately in need of a good wife to cheer him up that the ton thinks he is.”
Adriana gives him a long considering look before they change partners. When they come back together, she drops her voice.
“You have nothing to worry about or be jealous of. You know that, don’t you? If anything—” She cuts herself off abruptly and Buck’s brows raise.
She sighs and looks away and Buck fills in the blank himself.
“If anything...he should worry about me? Adriana, you know I wouldn’t—I spend every season with you, he knows I have no desire to marry. I wouldn’t—I couldn’t.”
The dance ends and she walks away before another can begin, knowing he’ll follow her. She stops when she reaches the balcony—still enough in the sight of everyone else that it’s not scandalous for them to be alone, but secluded enough to afford at least the illusion of privacy—and crosses her arms over her chest.
“I do know that, in fact,” she finally replies. “But does Eddie? Have you ever actually told him that in so many words?”
Buck wants to shoot back that of course he has, of course Eddie knows how he feels, that Buck has been his from the moment he stumbled upon Eddie in the midst of a fight with three gentlemen—the circumstances of which Buck no longer recalls except that Eddie hadn’t been at fault—from a shy smile and Well, my lord, you could have my back any day. But the words catch and die in his throat as his mind flicks rapidly through years of memories only to come up short.
He swallows hard and clears his throat roughly. “It’s not that simple.”
“Oh, and I suppose you’ve told Miss Flores how you feel, have you?” He bites back, but Adriana merely raises a cool eyebrow.
“As a matter of fact, I have,” she replies. “Ana and I are entirely aware of what we are to each other—she is my lover and my nephew’s governess, until such time as my brother elects to make different arrangements for Christopher’s education, after which she may marry or may not, and I will respect that in recognition of the fact that not all of us have the luxury of choice. You, on the other hand have every choice, every possible option available to you, and you would hardly be the first man to carry on an affair only to change his mind.”
“It’s been four years—”
“Yes, and to hear the gossip mill tell it, one must make certain allowances for the wariness of young lords who have been left at the altar—”
Buck steps back, feeling the words like a physical slap. “Don’t—that—that has nothing to do with anything.”
“I’m not trying to hurt you,” Adriana says, her voice gentling as she drops her arms. “And I apologize for being...blunt. But you’re not a fool, Buck. You know that’s what people say, what they think—that you won’t marry or seriously court anyone because Miss Clark broke your heart all those years ago and you are reluctant to risk letting it happen again.”
It had only been his third season—the first two, he had spent flirting his way through the entire crop of eligible ladies with no serious intention, but the third he met Abby and—
He knew what people said at the time, that she was too old for him, that she was a terrible match, that she was using him even—a wholly ridiculous proposition given that he was the one to pursue her. He even knew that she had doubts when he proposed, but had been young and idealistic enough to assume that love would be enough to quiet any real concern. He can still recall the feeling of standing in a church as the minutes ticked by and the whispers grew in number, of a messenger finally appearing with a sealed letter, the contents of which he found himself struggling to comprehend even as he read the words—Whatever you may think of me, I am doing this for your own good...For what it is worth, I am truly sorry…. Lord Nash had stepped in then, solemnly dismissing the guests and taking Buck to his own home instead of leaving him alone.
And Buck had left England entirely.
As a result, he missed the drama the next year when a random American had shown up as the distant heir to a title and estate that had been lying dormant for several months after an untimely illness took the life of the former duke mere days before his long-planned marriage to Lady Shannon Blakenley. Should rumor be believed, the royal family had considered reclaiming the estate rather than allow it to go to an unsuitable foreigner, but ultimately allowed Eddie to take up the title on the condition that he marry the lady himself.
Buck’s never known how much truth there is to any of the rumors surrounding that period—Eddie doesn’t discuss it often and he’s never felt like it was his place to ask. All he really knows is that by the time he finally returned to England there was a new Duke of Cedarhall, that the duchess had delivered an heir only to be taken by fever a few months afterwards, and that duke’s sister would be making her debut in society that season.
The rest is history.
He startles when Adriana touches his arm, dragging a hand over his face and sighing before he looks back to her again.
“You’re right,” he admits quietly. “That is what people say, what they think—I just failed to realize that people included your brother. I assumed he knew me better than that by now.”
“Buck...I don’t know if you haven’t realized because he’s very good at hiding it or if you just haven’t noticed, but my brother—there is a part of him that will never be fully comfortable with all of this, the money and the titles and the expectations. There is a part of him that will always be the poor soldier back in America who put Sophia and I first and did whatever he had to in order to make sure we would be secure after our parents died. Who stumbled into a title by accident of birth and married a woman he barely even knew let alone loved as its price. And that part—that part will never allow him to think he’s good enough for you. That part will always assume the worst unless and until you make it clear otherwise.”
Buck blinks. “But that’s—”
“Ridiculous?” Her lips curve up. “Indeed. Nonetheless, true.”
The idea that Eddie might be insecure about anything, about them especially seems so—Buck can’t quite—
“He’s never said,” he replies. “Never asked for anything.”
“Well, he wouldn’t, would he?” Adriana points out. “Which is why I am having this discussion with you, because trying to bring anything of the sort up with him is a lesson in futility.”
Buck glances over his shoulder and sees Eddie across the room talking with Lady Grant. As he watches, Eddie laughs at something Athena says, his smile lighting up the room. And Buck is—god, but he loves the man.
“What do you want me to do?” He asks, wrenching his gaze away and back to Adriana.
“Just talk to him,” she says. “Be honest about what you want. Because he will not, no matter how much he feels for you.”
Buck wets his lips and glances back to Eddie as he steps away.
“Well. Thank you, Miss Diaz. This has certainly been...enlightening.”
Adriana grins. “Of course, Lord Buckley. Now, I believe I have a conversation to finish with your sister. Have a pleasant evening.”
She sweeps past him without another word and Buck goes to get a drink, his mind swirling with thoughts. An hour later, as the clock ticks past midnight, he steals away to the garden to find Eddie waiting, leaning back against a bench. And there’s nothing to say, or rather, there is everything to say but nothing he can find the words for in the moment—instead, he merely crosses the distance in a few strides, sliding a hand behind Eddie’s neck and tugging him into a kiss the instant the other man turns to greet him.
Buck kisses him hard, his tongue sweeping into Eddie’s mouth as his lips part under the pressure. The heat sparks through him—he doesn’t know what to do with any of the information Adriana gave him, hasn’t had enough time to process it to decide how to address it, but he can press his feelings into Eddie’s lips, can run his hands down Eddie’s sides, possessive and needy, and say it that way.
“What was that for?” Eddie breathes out, eyes still closed when the kiss finally breaks.
Buck leans in and brushes his lips over the mark beneath Eddie’s jaw. I love you.
“I just missed you. That’s all,” he replies.
Eddie’s hand finds his and tangles their fingers. “Shall we walk then?”
Buck smiles. “Absolutely.”
They still have time. He’ll figure something out.
The knocking at the door corresponds with the pounding in his head. Eddie cracks his eyes open and winces immediately at the light streaming through the curtains—Christ, he really is getting too old for the season and the staying out all night that accompanies it, the drinking too much and falling into bed fully clothed.
“Yes?” He answers, his voice raspy. Adriana opens the door and laughs.
“Oh, honestly. You’re not even up? You’re hosting a ball tonight.”
“We’re hosting a ball tonight,” Eddie replies, bringing his arm up to cover his eyes. “Emphasis on tonight, which is still hours away.”
His sister crosses the room and shoves him aside to make room to sit on the bed next to him. Eddie snorts and reaches out blindly to pinch her side and she squeaks and swats at his shoulder. For a moment the clock turns back years and as long as he keeps his eyes closed he can imagine being back in America, he and Adriana and Sophia all crammed into one room living out of each other’s pockets. Not comfortable, but familiar. And then, he opens his eyes and drags a hand over his face as he sits up and the present washes back in.
“Last big event of the season,” he says quietly, and Adriana hums.
“Looking forward to going home?” She asks.
And isn’t that a difficult question? Because he is, certainly. He misses Christopher desperately and does every year—the season isn’t a place for younger children even if his son would have the patience to sit in a carriage for a day and a half to make the journey. But he also wouldn’t trade these weeks, the stolen hours he manages with Buck amidst all the society nonsense, the moments where he doesn’t have to be a duke or a brother or a father, he can just be Eddie Diaz and nothing more. And that never fails to make him feel terribly selfish.
“Yes,” Eddie admits. “And no.”
“You should invite him to Gracewood,” Adriana suggests.
“I have. He’ll be there at the end of next month.”
She sighs. “You know that’s not what I meant.”
Yes. He does. Eddie swallows hard as he stares up at the ceiling. He knows why she insists on having this conversation every year—she’s just looking out for him—but she doesn’t understand—
Every year he asks Buck to come to Gracewood after the season and every year he bites his tongue whenever he wants to ask Buck to stay, when he wants to make promises, say things he shouldn’t. He’s not going to do anything different this year.
“Eddie.” She fixes him with a look and he rolls out of bed, tugging his cravat off as he crosses to the wardrobe to try and find some fresh clothes to wear until it’s time to get ready for the ball. There are marks trailing down from his collar beneath his shirt and Adriana makes a mock sound of disgust before pushing herself up.
“Fine,” she says. “You’re a fool, but fine.”
She crosses the room and kisses his cheek. “Get changed and come downstairs to help me organize everything, please. Oh, and there’s a letter from Sophia. I left it in the study.”
Eddie catches her hand before she can leave and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Thank you,” he says. “For being here. For taking care of everything you do. I don’t know what I would do without you.”
Adriana smiles and squeezes back. “I know.”
And then he’s alone again.
The next several hours pass in a whirlwind of activities—flower arrangements and food preparation and musicians—and by the time Eddie needs to change again for the ball, it feels as if hardly any time has passed at all.
He sees Buck immediately once he finally enters the hall—the other man stands out in blue and gold silk and Adriana squeezes Eddie’s arm to steal his attention.
“You’re staring,” she murmurs.
“Can you blame me?”
She laughs. “You know, that’s fair. I suppose I can’t. But we do need to open the dancing—you can return to making eyes at your viscount afterwards.”
“Remind me why I haven’t married you off?” He teases.
“Because I am far too indispensable to managing your social life,” she shoots back. “Also because you love me.”
He passes a few hours making casual conversation with those members of society he has gotten closer to over the years and spares a few dances for the happily married ladies who have no expectations from him.
Finally, the clock chimes the hour once more and Eddie slips out to escape the crowd and take in the fresh air of the courtyard. The music filters out from the open windows and doors and Eddie sighs and closes his eyes as he leans against the edge of a fountain, granted some measure of privacy by the hedges that surround it. A few moments pass, and then he hears footsteps—he doesn’t open his eyes, but his lips quirk up when a familiar presence settles next to him.
“Ditching your own party?” Buck teases softly as his hand slips into Eddie’s.
“I don’t think I’ll be missed for a few minutes,” Eddie replies.
“Utterly false. I missed you instantly.”
Eddie opens his eyes just as Buck lifts their hands to his lips and brushes a kiss over his knuckles. Eddie’s pulse skips.
I love you, he thinks. I love you, I love you, I love you.
“I always miss you.” The words trip off his tongue unbidden and he swears internally at the slip of desperate honesty, but Buck just leans in and steals any follow up with a kiss.
“Dance with me?” Buck asks, his hold on Eddie’s hand shifting.
Eddie laughs quietly, the dark of the night hiding the way his cheeks warm.
“I might step on your feet if I try and do the steps backwards,” he replies.
“You can lead. I can handle it.”
Eddie curls his free hand around Buck’s waist and starts off when the music changes. True to his word, Buck follows easily, his steps smooth and sure. And for a moment, everything else fades away.
When the music ends, Eddie stops, but keeps holding Buck close, his lips ghosting over Buck’s temple. They’re close enough that he feels it when Buck swallows.
“I went to see my solicitor today,” Buck says.
“Oh?” Eddie starts to lean back, but Buck curls his fingers in the back of his coat. “Is something wrong?”
Buck shakes his head. “No, I just—I was reminded a few weeks ago of some things I’ve been meaning to do for some time.”
Buck pauses and for the first time, Eddie thinks he might be nervous. Which is ridiculous because Eddie can’t think of any reason why Buck would be, but—
“I asked him to draw up papers officially naming Kevin—Maddie and Howard’s second son—as my heir. It’s been unofficial already of course, but I wanted—I thought it was important to put it in writing.”
Eddie’s breath catches and his mind reels. He wets his lips, hope closing his throat.
“Why—” He clears his throat. “Why now?”
Buck’s hand cups Eddie’s cheek, thumb dragging along his cheekbone. His smile and eyes are soft and warm and Eddie’s fragile, bleeding heart pounds.
“Because I will never marry,” Buck says. “I will never sire an heir myself. Because—Christ, Eddie, because I love you. And this isn’t—it’s not an affair, not to me. If you asked me to come to Gracewood and stay, I would leave Covington to the care of my steward in an instant. I want—I want to be with you. Not for a season, not for scattered weeks here and there—all the time. I don’t just want to go to bed with you, I want to wake up with you. To spend my days at your side. To make vows and mean them.”
Buck kisses him then—tentative, hesitant, as if he’s unsure he’ll have another chance.
“I want to love you in the light,” he finishes. “And I thought it was time I made that clear. So...that’s why I went. And that’s what I wanted to tell you tonight.”
Eddie is frozen in place, stunned. The words are—perfect. And yet also unbelievable.
He so rarely gets the things he wants. And Buck is—everything.
Buck’s eyes scan Eddie’s face and his smile dims as uncertainty creeps in.
“Unless that’s...not what you want, in which case I need to drown myself in this fountain immediately,” Buck adds, the words thick with nerves. And that is what snaps Eddie out of his stunned stupor.
He tugs Buck in and kisses him fiercely until he’s breathless and panting. And words that he’s kept locked up tight for years come spilling out.
“Yes,” he breathes. “Yes—all of it, all of that—yes. Come home with me, be with me—stay. I love you. I have loved you since that very first season, have watched you love my sister and my son and have only fallen more every year since. If I had thought you would want—”
“I did,” Buck insists. “I do. I always have.”
Eddie kisses him again. “I’ve been such a fool.”
“No more than I have,” Buck replies. “But I will gladly spend the rest of my life making amends for it.”
Eddie shakes his head. “There’s nothing to make up for,” he assures. “Just stay—stay with me.”
One year later
“Christopher!” Buck calls out, laughing after being bowled over by Gracewood’s overenthusiastic newest crop of puppies. “Stay where I can see you!”
He gets to his feet again just in time for Eddie’s arms to slide around his waist from behind.
“Having fun?” Eddie teases as he presses a kiss under Buck’s jaw.
Buck hums and turns in the embrace to kiss his lover properly. “Even more now that you’re here.”
Eddie’s nose brushes against his as he pulls back smiling. He glances off into the field looking after his son, lifting a hand to shade the glare of daylight from his eyes. Then, he looks back at Buck and nods in the direction of the field.
“Shall we follow then?”
Buck twines his fingers through Eddie’s. “Let’s.”
And they step into the sun.