Chapter 1: Prologue
Louis lay atop his bed, the letter dashing his last bit of hope clutched tightly in his fist, and stared unseeing at the rose silk curtains draped around his bed. His other hand lay across his stomach as though to keep him from breaking apart into a thousand pieces. He allowed himself these few moments of self-pity as before long he knew it would be time to figure out what was to be done.
If only he had presented as an alpha, none of this would even have ever come to pass. He would have inherited the estate and the family fortune, and that would have been the end of it. He would have happily cared for his siblings until they were old enough to find a mate and marry, and then he would have lived out his days amidst his books and his flowers. Perhaps, he would have even found a mate himself.
If only his parents had survived the accident last year. A bitter tear slid down his cheek just before he brushed it aside angrily. He did not have time for self-pity. It appeared from the letter still clutched tight in his hand that their great uncle would be taking possession of the estate in a month’s time. Louis had one month to figure out where they will all go and how they will live.
He sat up in bed, wiped his tears with the back of his hand, and rang for a maid. He needed a cup of tea to start thinking things through. Eliza arrived bearing a tray laden with tea, toast, chocolate, and fresh rolls with butter, and Louis was thankful at how well the staff knew he and his family. He certainly hoped that their odious uncle would not toss their faithful servants out as well.
“Mr. Tomlinson, a letter’s arrived for you, if you’d like it now.”
“Yes, Eliza. That would be fine.”
Once Eliza had left the room, Louis took a sip of tea and proceeded to take up the letter on the tray. A smile crossed his face as he saw that it was from his dear friend and former neighbour, Lord Niall Mendes. He was glad to hear from him as Niall had been recently married to the Earl of Suffolk after his first Season in London last year. They had always planned their come out together as omegas in the ton, but the death of Louis’ parents had put a hold on his Season whilst his family was in mourning. He had lived it only vicariously through Niall’s vivid letters. Louis recalled how it had seemed Niall had cut quite a swath through the ton last Season.
Today, Niall’s missive was full of gossip and chatter, and Louis let his mind be filled with the words of his dearest friend. His mood darkened when he realised he must now reply with his own much more dire news. With a sigh, he set the tray to the side and clambered off the bed still dressed only in his cornflower blue dressing gown and to the small secretaire near the window. He paused trying to think of the proper words to tell Niall how terrible a bind they were all in here at Cantley Manor.
He did his best to relay his news without overtly asking for help. What could Niall possibly do for them anyway? A newly married omega beholden to his alpha mate had no power to help them. Louis had never met Lord Shawn Mendes, but surely he had little interest in Niall’s old neighbours.
No, Niall was not the answer to his dilemmas. He had to search out some other solution to his monumental problems.
Louis had no solution to his monumental problems.
Early morning light had just begun to peek between the blue and silver brocade drapes of Louis’ bedroom window. It slowly filtered through the room, but the light brought him no amazing idea of how to remedy his family’s problems. And so it felt more like a bitter reminder that their days at Cantley Manor were growing ever shorter.
It had been a week since receiving the ungodly missive unceremoniously sending them packing as soon as their great uncle was ready to come. He’d finally given in to telling Charlotte, his eldest sister, what was happening after she caught him tearfully going over accounts with the housekeeper. She had promised to give the problem of their living situation all her thought and attention, but there wasn’t much a young omega girl could do besides find a mate. Charlotte was far too young for that though and not even out yet. An uneasiness seeped beneath his skin as he thought about what that implied. Perhaps their only solution was for him to find a mate, but how was he to do that in less than a month’s time?
And what alpha would be willing to take on his five sisters and brother as well as a mate? It would have to be someone quite wealthy. There were no eligible alphas or betas nearby that met this criteria that Louis knew of. Their neighbourhood was a small one, and within it, the Tomlinson family’s title and estate were second only to the Horan family’s. Luckily for the Horan’s, Niall’s eldest brother presented as an alpha well before Niall presented as an omega, and the succession of their title and estate was never at risk.
It was much too soon to tell whether any of Louis’ siblings would present as an alpha and be able to carry on the title. There being so many of them, Louis was quite sure one of them would be, but until that day came, the estate would remain under the management of his great uncle. The nasty old alpha that he was, he’d barely waited through their requisite mourning period.
He lay abed much longer than usual, ashamed to go and face his family without even a hint of what to do next, when he heard a bit of a commotion going on outside. He could not see much from the window of his bedroom, but it was clear they had a visitor. A flame of panic ignited at the thought that his uncle had arrived weeks earlier than expected, and he raced out of his bedroom clothed only in a filmy dressing gown and stumbled down the grand stairway only to be met with the determined, twinkling blue eyes of his best friend.
He threw himself into Niall’s arms as he reached the bottom step, and Niall hugged him tightly.
“I can scarcely believe you’re here,” Louis mumbled into Niall’s lovely powder blue topcoat, now a bit damp from Louis’ tears.
“Of course, I’ve come, you fool,” Niall admonished. “I’m here to fetch you all.”
“What?” Louis stilled.
Niall released him from his hold. “Pack all your things! Pack all your sisters and your brother! You are now extended guests of mine and Lord Mendes in London!”
Late February 1816
As the traveling coaches neared London, the green of the countryside faded into the bustling, grey streets of London. Although it took quite some time to reach London, Niall had kept all conversation about on dits from the ton and various other nonsensical items rather than topics such as meeting his new husband or how long they were welcome at his new family’s home in London.
Louis was ashamed that he also avoided the topic, but he certainly had not wanted to frighten his siblings any more than necessary at this point. They had already been torn from everything they had ever known to be packed up into a series of coaches and told they were moving to London. Niall’s bright tone was infectious and nearly everyone seemed at ease. He knew Niall could sense his own underlying agitation about the situation, but Louis was determined not to speak of any of it until they could do so in private, presumably when they arrived at the London home of the Earl of Suffolk.
Whatever it was that Louis expected to see, he was unprepared for just how vast the Mendes’ mansion in Grosvenor Square truly was. A spectacular looking monolith in the heart of Mayfair. Well, there was certainly room for them all here. Louis attempted to nervously smooth the non existent wrinkles from his peach top coat with matching cape, readying himself to meet Lord Mendes.
A gaggle of footmen and servants descended upon them opening doors and helping them down from their coaches.
“You have nothing to worry about with Lord Mendes, Lou,” Niall whispered in his ear as Louis walked beside him into the house, their arms interlocked. “And besides, he’s not here just yet. Parliament at this hour, of course.”
They were all ushered into the house in a swarm of organised chaos. It seemed as though Niall had anticipated their immediate needs as a housekeeper appeared with omega’s maids ready to whisk each of them to their bedrooms.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I had my housekeeper choose staff for you. All but the governess and nursemaids. I thought you’d want a say on that, but she has multiple candidates coming to call tomorrow for you to choose from. I figured you’d want to get that sorted immediately.”
Louis tried not to burst into tears. Hiring staff for them? Niall clearly intended for them to stay for a truly extended period. “I don’t know how to thank you for this, Niall. I’ll never be able to repay your kindness and Lord Mendes’ kindness and--”
“Louis, you know you’d have done the same for me.”
The two friends stood before each other and read the truth in each other’s eyes. Louis would most certainly have done the same for Niall if he could, and he smiled his admittance as Niall clapped his hands to Louis’ shoulders.
“Please do go and get settled, Louis,” Niall said before he shooed him away with a gentle hand. “We have much to discuss once you’re ready to do so.”
Louis turned and shot a curious look at Niall as he went to follow his omega’s maid up the staircase.
“Surely, you knew I’d have made a plan by now,” Niall called after him. The gleam in Niall’s eyes shone brightly.
As their trunks were unloaded, Louis walked from each of the bedrooms on the upper floors of the Earl of Suffolk’s grand Mayfair mansion, inspecting where each of his precious siblings would be sleeping. Their chatter and laughter relieved him as they seemed to be considering this entire thing as a grand adventure. He knew there would come a time they wished to go home, and he only hoped they would somehow understand the impossibility of that for the time being.
When he was sure they were all taken care of and a light tea had been brought upstairs for them, he looked back in on his own bedroom. His omega’s maid had unpacked most of his trunks, and he acknowledged the sumptuousness of the room he’d been given. He gathered his thoughts for a moment as he perched at the edge of his four poster bed and looked about him in wonder. A thought tugged at him. What had Niall meant by a plan?
As if his thoughts were heard aloud, a maid appeared to ask him if he’d like his tea in his room or with Niall in the drawing room. He took a breath and stood. “I shall be down shortly to take tea with him there. Thank you.”
He walked slowly towards his destination, unsure of what schemes played through Niall’s mind for him. He could only imagine what Niall got up to last Season whilst on the hunt for an aristocratic alpha or beta mate. He seemed to have snagged quite the catch as far as Louis could tell as his half-boots tapped out a rhythm against the Earl’s marble floors.
As he entered the drawing room, Niall greeted him jovially. “Lou, you shall love these sandwiches. Come have a few whilst I fill you in on how you’re going to marry this Season’s most eligible alpha. Or even a beta if they’re wealthy enough.”
If Louis had been sipping his tea, he might have spat it out. He sat down warily instead and took a sandwich. “I was afraid this might be the plan.”
Niall raised an eyebrow. “Surely, you’ve considered that finding a mate is the only real solution to your problems.”
Louis sighed and picked at the edge of the sandwich with a small fork. “Yes, of course, that’s what I’ve thought of, but I don’t need the most eligible alpha of the Season. I just need one who will be willing to look after--well, all of us.”
“First of all, you may stay as long as you like. I know that must be weighing heavily on you,” Niall stated firmly.
“Niall, I know that’s not truly an option, but I thank you all the same for saying it.”
A look crossed Niall’s face that Louis knew well, one that proclaimed Niall’s stubborn as a mule personality. “I’ve already discussed this with Lord Mendes, and we have no one to answer to but ourselves. He says you can stay. I say you can stay. Therefore, you all can stay for as long as you need. Even if that means indefinitely.”
Niall added a haughty sniff to punctuate his statements as though Louis had just thrown him a bit of an insult. Louis felt tears begin to choke him. He had not thought it possible that there was any reprieve for them. He had been certain that he would be forced to send the children off to various relatives until he found a mate who would take them all in. After a long moment, he composed himself enough to determine that he’d do whatever it was Niall asked of him and also to ask, “So what is our next step in the plan?”
“You’ll need an entirely new wardrobe to start.”
Whilst a new wardrobe was paramount to Niall’s plan, there were many other things to attend to as well. They had arrived early in the Season due to Lord Mendes’ involvement in Parliament, which Niall claimed was a great blessing as they would have time to see to each part of the plan carefully before it was put into action.
They interviewed nursemaids and governesses the day after arriving, and Louis was quite pleased with the selection that Niall’s housekeeper had procured for them to interview. A Miss Olivier was chosen amongst them and was determined to begin the following day with lessons in the schoolroom.
That evening, Louis dressed carefully for dinner. It was his first chance to make a good impression on Lord Mendes who would be home to dine with them. He’d been kept quite busy the few days visitors had been residing in his home with no time to meet them. This made Louis even more nervous as it had become clear how important Lord Mendes was amongst his peers.
He checked the time a dozen times before finally descending the grand staircase and finding his way towards the beautifully appointed dining hall. Lord Mendes and Niall were already seated to dine when he entered and his nervous fingers fiddled with his favourite floral waistcoat as he waited to be seated.
“Mr. Tomlinson, it’s an honour to finally meet you. My husband is your ardent supporter as you know well, I’m sure.”
Louis took note of the tall, broad shouldered alpha that was Niall’s husband. He was quite handsome and had a lovely, warm glow in his eyes that told of his great affection for Niall. He also realised that not only was he much younger than he’d originally presumed, but that the faintly comforting scent of cinnamon and cloves that he smelled throughout the house was that of its resident alpha.
“Lord Mendes.” Louis bowed. “I can never repay you for your kindnesses to my famil--”
Lord Mendes was already waving off his acknowledgement. “Please, don’t. I’m truly happy to put my home to any use that my husband sees fit. He tells me he has many plans that we must all go over in great detail, but first let us eat, shall we?”
Louis was a bit astonished to hear that Lord Mendes would be a party to Niall’s scheming. He had assumed Niall would just keep quiet about whatever it was he had in store for Louis.
After dinner, rather than withdraw as was customary, Louis found that the Earl and his husband instead spent time together in the library as the Earl drank port and Niall read aloud from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake. He simply looked on with affection and perhaps a bit of desire to have a mate that was as compatible as Niall and his earl. And yet, it was not just compatibility that seemed to bind them to one another. No, there was deep affection there, the kind one might find if one were quite lucky enough to make a love match.
Eyes still twinkling, Lord Mendes turned to Louis. “Mr. Tomlinson, I hear we are tasked with you making the match of the Season.”
Louis opened his mouth to splutter something to the contrary, but Lord Mendes headed him off. “No, no, please do not deny it. My husband simply wishes to reenact his own plans from last Season. I’m afraid it may not be quite the same outcome. You see, I merely allowed him to believe he was capturing me when I’d set out to win him from the first ball I set eyes on him.”
“What nonsense. Do not let him spin you a Banbury story, Lou. My plan is bang up to the mark, and my mate is living proof of how well it works. We just have to mold the truth a bit.”
“Mold the truth?” Louis asked.
Niall nodded as he sat back into an armchair and folded his hands over his lap. “Yes, the truth is quite flexible, you see. We just need to mold it into the correct shape.”
A low chuckle rumbled from Lord Mendes. “I’m afraid we are mere pawns in my husband’s grand and elaborate plans for you. It’s best we just do what he says. Best not to fret too much though. I don’t foresee having much trouble marrying you off, Mr. Tomlinson, with or without my husband’s schemes.”
Niall turned a sharp eye on his husband. “What precisely is that supposed to mean?”
“Exactly what I said. I had no idea when you were making these plans that Mr. Tomlinson would look like--well--” Lord Mendes waved his hand in Louis’ direction. Louis looked down at the soft colours of his waistcoat and eyed it critically. Maybe he really did need an entirely new wardrobe. He supposed Lord Mendes knew the current London fashions.
“What’s amiss with his waistcoat?” Niall asked haughtily. “It looks quite lovely, Louis. Don’t listen to him. And that coat is superb. Of course, you need much more for the Season we’re about to embark upon, but you look delightful as always.”
Lord Mendes shook his head. “The two of you are quite a pair. The ton is really going to be set on its ear this Season.”
“I still don’t see what’s wrong with the way Louis looks,” Niall bristled. “Stand up and do a turn, Louis. Let me see if I can find anything wrong.”
“Don’t ring a peal over me, love.” Lord Mendes raised his hands in surrender. “There’s absolutely nothing amiss with Mr. Tomlinson’s appearance. I was implying quite the opposite in fact. Your Mr. Tomlinson is quite a beauty as you both well know, and I shan’t comment on anything else to do with his attractions to an alpha as it wouldn’t be polite. Suffice it to say, I believe we’ll be beating the suitors off with my husband’s vast collection of parasols. We do have the sticky topic of his dowry to discuss though. I apologise for my bluntness, but I think we ought to address it.”
Louis sighed and slumped back in the armchair. His dowry. It was currently being held by his great uncle who could choose to withhold it and most likely would based on the fact that he’d thrown them out of the manor at the first opportunity. Someday, when one of his sisters or brother presented as an alpha, the money would be his, or rather his and his alpha or beta mate’s if he had one.
“This is where the molding of the truth comes in,” Niall announced. “We shall spin a tale of your handsome dowry to all the right ears. As soon as it makes the rounds, no one will go poking about looking to see if it’s true. I’m presuming your great uncle won’t be about to say any differently.”
Louis shook his head. “No, I don’t believe he has any intention of coming to London. He’s not been in good health as far as I can ascertain.”
“Well, if he’d just keel over, so much the better.”
Lord Mendes coughed at Niall’s words.
Niall sniffed. “Oh, please. Don’t pretend I suffer from delicacy.”
Lord Mendes smiled and nodded, one eyebrow tilted in recognition of his husband’s temperament.
“What happens when it comes time to marry he or she asks after the dowry?”
The only sound in the room was that of the Earl and his husband uncomfortably shifting in their seats.
Niall cleared his throat. “Well, he or she shall be desperately in love with you by then and not care a fig about your dowry or lack thereof.”
“So now it’s to be a love match as well?”
“Yes,” Niall answered firmly. “Well--at least on his part. And since you’re making a love match, I shall concentrate on the gentlemen of the ton.”
Louis stared down at his hands clasped in his lap. “So the plan is to capture the heart of the most eligible alpha or beta gentleman of the Season so thoroughly that he doesn’t care that he must also support my five sisters and brother as well as do without my dowry for the foreseeable future. And I’m to do this by lying through my teeth.”
“Not lying. Molding--”
“Molding the truth, yes, sorry.” Louis looked up from his hands. Niall sat expectantly on the edge of his seat whilst Lord Mendes watched him with sympathy in his eyes. “I don’t see as how I have any other choices off hand, so--”
“Wonderful! I have appointments for you all over Bond Street.” Niall clapped his hands together as though the problem was already solved. “And please don’t fret, Lou. The ton are constantly cutting a sham.”
Niall had not been teasing when he said they had appointments all over Bond Street. In fact, he’d been setting them appointments not merely on Bond Street, but Oxford Street for beauty aids, Piccadilly and St. James’s for boots, and Conduit for cloaks.
Louis spent his first fortnight in London whirling through a series of appointments and fittings. Louis had not a feather to fly with, but Lord Mendes insisted on paying for every bit of it. Niall waved off any arguments over the costs by claiming it all to be but a drop in the bucket for him, and of course, it was all a means to an end.
As one of the preeminent families in his neighbourhood, he had had a relatively extensive wardrobe. However, it was all at least a Season out of style as he’d spent the last year in mourning for his parents, and Niall insisted every piece must be updated. He had to admit though, he loved to shop. And shopping with Niall was quite the experience in decadence.
At the milliners they chose feathers and ribbons and spangles and lace trimmings. At Hoby’s they purchased highly polished hessians with colourful tassels, half-boots in a variety of colours and fabrics, and low-cut pumps for evening wear. Niall added to his parasol collection and insisted on Louis buying at least three silk ones to match particular cloaks. They selected gloves and fans and muffs, and they spent quite a bit of time choosing cravats for his daywear. An odd shiver ran through him at the knowledge that his neck would be bare in the evenings. He could hardly imagine a glittering ballroom with male omegas on display in such a way.
As he walked arm in arm with Niall down Bond Street on their way to the tailor’s for a fitting, he allowed himself to weave a fantasy about what it might be like to attend balls and routs and the opera and theatre parties and whatever other entertainments that Niall found for them to attend. His head whirled in a most pleasant way, and he smiled softly to himself. It had been a long while since he’d felt like smiling.
“Just the next shop over, Lou,” Niall directed him.
A movement of bottle green caught his eye as he looked up at Niall’s words. The blur of green had stopped short and upon further inspection turned out to be a well cut coat covering broad shoulders. Louis’ gaze traveled upwards to a chiseled, handsome face, fashionable waves of hair, and sharp eyes to match the coat.
The eyes pierced him straight through like an arrow shot from a hunter’s bow.
It was a most unnerving look, one that made his stomach flip over in his belly. There was no mistaking this man was an alpha. It was there in the way he stood on the busy street casually with a hint of arrogance about his lips, if not just the way he filled out his coat.
The man seemed to be standing directly in front of the shop they were headed towards, and Louis startled when he heard Niall’s voice address him. “Lord Styles, how lovely to see you. I suppose Parliament is keeping you as busy as my husband.”
Lord Styles bowed with a cursory smile. He looked ready to speak a response of some sort, but Niall quickly continued.
“Yes, yes, I’m busy as ever myself. Surely, we shall see you soon. Lady St. John I believe is holding a ball quite soon if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps we shall see you there. Come, Mr. Tomlinson, we have so many appointments--”
Niall trailed off as he tugged Louis into the shop, leaving Lord Styles on the bustling street outside. Louis wasn’t quite sure if their sudden departure seemed a bit hasty and perhaps even rude.
“Who was that man?”
“Who?” Niall asked distracted as he waited for the propiater impatiently.
“Niall, you just spoke to him.”
“Oh, him . That’s just Lord Styles. He speaks so slowly and nonsensically, we’d have been late had we stayed to chat. Not that it matters when there’s no one here to greet us,” Niall pronounced quite loudly.
The shopkeeper scurried forth from the back with profuse apologies for keeping them waiting. Whilst propriety was a bit more lax in the country, it was clear to Louis that here in London everyone who waited on them in every shop must be a beta.
Niall suddenly turned narrowed eyes upon him. “Hmmm.”
“Yes?” Louis asked as Madame Juliette went to gather the garments that were ready to be fitted.
“Why did you ask me about Lord Styles? Should I move him up your list?”
“What? No! I mean--what list?”
“Mmhmm. I see. Yes, yes he’d be quite the catch. He was on my list last Season as well, but he didn’t seem entirely interested in a mate and as I said before, my eyes would quite glaze over when he spoke.” Niall tapped his finger to his chin. “He’s a viscount. Very wealthy. His sister is married to one of the Duke of Dorset’s nephews. Very well connected. Interesting choice, Louis.”
“I didn’t--I never--”
Louis’ spluttering was interrupted by Madame Juliette’s return with an armful of sumptuous fabrics formed into jackets and waistcoats along with the more serviceable linens and cottons for shirts. The plain-fronted white shirts for day were packaged up along with their ruffled counterparts for evening. The collars were ready to stand tall to accommodate his cravat during the day and to hint at a peek of his neck for the more formal engagements after dark.
Louis was most excited by how lovely the waistcoats had turned out. The satins and Valencias and marcellas were beautifully coloured and patterned with spots and stripes and flowers. The coats he found cut so close as to need help putting them on, but Louis could see how well they showed his figure with the waist cut short. Both the superfine and kerseymere fabrics sat well on his body and had a beautifully elegant finish to them. They had chosen a variety of colours for Louis’ coats, but all of them spoke of his omega status. Whilst the alphas would be a sea of darker colours, Louis would be outfitted in palest lavenders and foamy greens and a soft aqua blue that nearly matched his eyes.
His breeches and trousers were another way that would set him apart. The more formal satin and velvets slid along his curves in an eyecatching manner and even the trousers for less formal occasions were shaped to his leg and left little room for the imagination.
As Louis tried on each garment, Niall’s enthusiasm seemed to heighten to greater and greater heights. His eyes glittered and his smile widened. “I believe my husband was quite correct now that I’ve taken a real look at you, Louis.”
Louis glanced at him from beneath Madame Juliette’s handful of pins, but didn’t respond.
Niall continued. “I don’t believe finding you a mate shall be any trouble at all.”
He found Niall in the drawing room sat perched at a small table overflowing with correspondence and invitations. His eyebrows were drawn together in a most serious manner as he scribbled away in a small book.
Niall let out a brief yelp and then a sigh as he pressed his hand to his chest. “You have always been a sneaky thing, haven’t you?”
Louis shrugged and sat down on a nearby couch. He rested his feet atop a footstool and watched Niall continue scribbling for a moment before letting his eyes wander the room. It was quite an interesting room, filled to the brim with the accoutrements of wealth and comfort. A large circular table stood at the center surrounded by a pianoforte, a few smaller tables, a multitude of chairs and small couches as well as a few comfortable chairs next to the fireplace. Paintings crowded the walls, both portraits and landscapes, as well as a few tapestries. Two lovely crystal chandeliers of a smaller variety than the much larger one in the ballroom hung from the ceiling whilst soft carpets lay under their feet. Other small pieces of art sat atop the mantle and tables.
When his eyes traveled back to Niall, he found him watching him with one finger pressed to his lips in thought. Louis pulled a face at him.
“I was just thinking--” Niall began.
Louis clucked his tongue. “Dangerous that.”
“What sort of mate are we looking for?”
Louis’ rather good mood twisted into something a bit more tense. “Have we not been through it? An alpha or a beta, one wealthy enough to--”
Niall waved his hand in the air impatiently. “Yes, yes, I know that much. I mean what sort of mate might make you happy, Lou. An intellectual? A sportsman? Someone gentle? Or someone who can give as good as he gets? One who loves the city? Or one who prefers the country?”
“Niall, you know I--” Louis cleared his throat as it felt as though something were stuck there all of a sudden. His voice returned but nearly at a whisper. “You know I can not afford to think like that. I need to be practical. Please, I need you to not--”
“What? Place some importance on your happiness?”
“Give me false hopes.”
Niall frowned. “Please humour me. If you had a choice, what type of mate would you prefer?”
Louis stared down at his hands that he rubbed together as though they were cold in the warm room. “Perhaps someone--if I had the chance to choose--I would like someone who was kind, especially to my family. Someone who smiled when Ernest plays his silly games and is patient with Daisy when she goes on and on about whatever her latest fascination is. Someone to be generous with Charlotte when she is being too hard on herself.”
“What about you though, Lou? What kind of mate would be ideal for you ?”
Louis’ eyes jumped to Niall.
“Maybe--perhaps--someone loyal,” he said into the quiet of the room.
“Hmmm, yes.” Niall smiled and nodded to himself. “I shall see what I can do. I believe I know who shall top the list then.”
Niall turned back to the invitations and motioned Louis over to the table. “Shall we decide which entertainments to attend?”
Louis skin prickled with nerves. His mission all felt less real before yesterday and his come out in the Queen’s drawing rooms. Niall, of course, had accompanied him to his presentation and spent most of the event whispering in his ear about how he was clearly the most beautiful omega in attendance. It hadn’t eased his fears. Niall was biased after all.
His restlessness this afternoon led him to the pianoforte, which is where Niall eventually found him, playing a tune and singing softly.
“You have a lovely voice, Louis,” Niall remarked. “You are truly a paragon of omega virtues, are you not? You sing, you play, your embroidery and watercolours are quite good even if you do not enjoy them, and you’re a beauty. What more could a mate want of his chosen omega?”
“I suppose.” Niall smiled ruefully and sat down next to him on the bench. “I know it’s impolite to discuss what I am about to say, but I doubt I could say anything that would shock you.”
Louis let out a laugh. “I would say I know you all too well, Niall. Go ahead and say it.”
“Well, I have it from a reliable alpha source that you smell quite lovely. I think that’s quite an asset as well.”
Louis felt his cheeks go pink. “Niall!”
“What? You said to say it!”
“Is your source your husband?”
Niall shrugged. “Maybe. He assured me he quite liked my own scent better, but he was not immune to yours apparently.”
“I can not believe we’re talking about this.” Louis hid his face in his hands.
“Get used to it. The ton are a scandalous lot. You shall hear much worse than this, I assure you. And I am sure there are rakes aplenty who will be ready to openly proposition you whenever they get the chance. You shall need to be on your guard for them.”
“Right.” Louis let his fingers return to the keys.
Niall sat quietly for a moment before he finally said, “Nearly time to dress for tonight.”
Louis’ fingers stilled on the keys. “I know.”
Niall nudged him gently with his shoulder. “Everything is going to be all right. You know that, don’t you?”
Louis nodded, but in his heart he was less convinced of it. He gave Niall a smile though and made his way upstairs to his bedroom, where his omega’s maid was waiting for him. She seemed a bit nervous herself as she carefully helped him dress for tonight’s round of balls.
His nerves danced along his skin as she helped him into a white linen shirt, the collar starched and standing nearly to his chin, and then, laced up his drawers in the back. She helped him slide silk stockings up his legs and then into high-waisted, form fitting, satin breeches, which would set him quite apart from the alphas and betas in the room, who would all be wearing long trousers. The soft colours of his coat and waistcoat would also mark him as unmistakably omega not to mention his neck kept bare. His stomach twisted a bit at the thought of being so fully on display.
He decided to seek out Charlotte then to see how his siblings fared and found her playing checkers with Daisy whilst Phoebe and Felicite sorted through hair ribbons. Everyone paused and stared.
“Why Lou you look absolutely divine!” Charlotte exclaimed.
Louis smiled at them. His heart full and determined to provide for them the life they deserved. One that would mimic what they’d once had in Yorkshire and what they now had here.
“And where are the little twins? With the nursemaid?”
“Yes, they’re nearby and well. Don’t fret.” Charlotte did know him quite well. “Good luck, Lou. And please allow yourself to have a bit of fun.”
Louis nodded, but he was unsure how much fun would play a part in his night.
Louis was thankful that Niall had allowed time for them to dine at home rather than with one of the many invitations they could have accepted. The sheer number of invitations that graced Niall’s tables in the drawing room made it quite clear just how very popular Niall was amongst the hostesses of the ton.
It wasn’t until they were in the carriage carrying them across Mayfair to the first of the balls for the evening that Louis realised how obvious his nerves had become. He was fairly vibrating with them, his knee shaking until he felt Niall’s gloved hand slip into his own. He clutched at this small lifeline and let Niall’s calming presence settle him. He looked up at Lord Mendes sat across them, and he offered Louis his own soothing smile. Louis did his best to return it.
The first few stops were but a whirl, and Louis was quite sure he wouldn’t remember a thing from them. Niall whisked them in and out in record time, meeting many other just out omegas as well as being very thoroughly looked over by the alphas and betas in the room as well as some of their marriage minded mothers.
They were back in the carriage and headed to the St. John’s ball when Louis noticed Niall fiddling with his gloves. “You would not by chance be--”
“I am not nervous!” Niall declared.
“I did not say you were.”
“Good because I am not. Everyone is going to love you, and I shall bend just the right ears tonight about your background.” Niall took a deep breath. “Just be yourself, Lou, and everything shall be splendid.”
The ball was in full swing by the time they arrived. Louis was sure Niall had planned it this way in order to have the absolute maximum impact. As they waited to be announced, Louis felt the butterflies in his stomach threatening to spill out. He heard his name announced along with Niall and Lord Mendes’ as if underwater, muffled amidst the music and the crowds.
They stood at the top of a grand staircase that led down to a magnificent ballroom. The noise that had previously been loud enough to partially drown out the butler’s voice had come nearly to a halt as most of those assembled watched Niall and his husband as they descended the stairs. Louis felt their gazes upon him as surely as a physical touch as he followed them down the stairs. The hum in the air at this new arrival in their midst set his nerves on edge.
The crush of people moved in a wave that threatened to crash over them at the edge of the dance floor, startling Louis at their persistence to gain favour with Lord Mendes and his popular husband as well as to be introduced to this new omega that was apparently a particular friend of theirs.
Louis understood within the first few minutes of the ball just how important it was that he had this connection to Niall. Niall seemed to understand Louis must be feeling a bit overwhelmed because he quickly took over the barrage of introductions and questions with practiced ease. The dance card that had been pressed into his hand earlier now showed a variety of names, both alphas and betas of various levels of acceptability according to the whispers in his ear.
Baron Winston. Mr. Murray, the younger son of the Earl of Carnarvon. Lord St James, a viscount. Mr. Evans, a duke’s nephew. Lord Grimshaw, an heir to a marquessate.
Louis had trouble remembering each thing Niall said about them.
“Do not over trouble yourself remembering every little thing about these men, Lou,” Niall said with a wave of his hand as he was sent off to dance a quadrille with a Mr. Hemsworth whom he thought he remembered was the grandson of the Marquess of Huntley. “We shall discuss it all in the morning.”
As Niall held court in one corner, no doubt spreading falsehoods about Louis’ dowry and familial connections, Louis danced every dance until his feet in his evening slippers began to ache. After he finished a waltz with Mr. Murray, who held him entirely too close and complimented him entirely too familiarly, he tried to make his excuses to find the lemonade. Unfortunately, Mr. Murray insisted on escorting him there.
It was there that he saw him.
As he took a sip from his cup, his eyes traveled over the crush of people until they caught on a lone alpha dressed in green amidst a sea of blues and blacks. The dark colour of his coat and his cravat immediately marked him as either an alpha or beta, but there was no mistaking the way he held himself even from this distance. Power seemed to fairly emanate from him. No, he was most definitely an alpha, and he was most definitely staring at Louis. The unnerving look was one he’d received before from this alpha.
Outside the tailors. Lord Styles. Niall had seemed to imply Lord Styles was not looking for a mate, and yet his eyes told a different story when they held Louis’ gaze so formidably each time he saw him. Louis held the look steadily. It had felt as though a gauntlet had been thrown without a word being spoken between them. Louis tried to swallow down the visceral reaction he seemed to have for this alpha. What was it about him that seemed to cut straight through? It was absurd to even be thinking about this man. They had not ever spoken or been introduced properly.
The spell was broken as Mr. Murray stepped in front of him. “Mr. Tomlinson, have I yet said how--divinely you wear those breeches. They are quite fetching as is everything about you.”
“Mr. Murray. I would thank you, but as you well know that was quite an inappropriate compliment.” Louis’ cheeks heated with a blush at the thought of Mr. Murray examining his tightly fitted breeches. He was quite sure Niall’s notes tomorrow would include what a rake Mr. Murray was, but he tried to refocus on him anyway as it was only polite.
Mr. Murray merely grinned, raising an eyebrow. He truly was a very handsome man, sandy blonde hair and slanted blue eyes and a practiced smirk, and how well he seemed to know this. He moved a few inches to Louis’ left, and Louis could not stop himself from glancing over his shoulder to search for Lord Styles.
It did not take long to locate him as he suddenly appeared at Mr. Murray’s side.
“Hello.” Lord Styles’ voice was deep and rough hewn, and it sent a shiver through Louis’ body that he did his best to hide. “Mr. Murray, I do not mean to interrupt--”
Louis sensed the falseness of his statement. It seemed that Lord Styles most certainly did mean to interrupt.
“--But shall I see you at the Four Horse Club soon?”
Mr. Murray’s entire demeanor changed instantaneously from bold sensuality to one of an eager child. “Lord Styles! I gladly accept your invitation! Do you think I have hope of being admitted one day?”
Although he spoke casually to Mr. Murray, his eyes never seemed to stray from Louis’ own. “You look to have a fine handle on your team, Mr. Murray. I shall put in a good word if you like.”
Louis broke the gaze between them and tried to steady himself by looking back at Mr. Murray. Mr. Murray’s eyes lit up in a way that Louis had not seen all evening, almost giddy with delight at the thought of Lord Styles sponsoring him. He then seemed to read something in the way that Lord Styles tilted his head ever so slightly in Louis’ direction.
“Oh.” Mr. Murray’s eyes grew wide, and then he seemed to gather himself. “Lord Styles, have you met this enchanting creature as of yet? He goes by the name of Mr. Tomlinson though I have it on strictest confidence that he is in fact part wood nymph, which would explain his charming dancing abilities.”
Lord Styles bowed low. He slowly stood back upright and as he did so let his gaze sweep up Louis’ body until he reached his eyes. Louis stared back quite shocked at the burning look he gave him from beneath hooded eyes.
“Are you engaged--” Lord Styles began to say as he stepped forward a pace effectively blocking Mr. Murray from both sight and mind. Louis gut twisted at the deepening velvet of his voice, one that he surely was using to his advantage just now. “--For this dance?”
The only gentleman he’d been close enough to smell a scent from tonight was Mr. Murray, and he’d been quite clearly a beta with no discernable scent to him at all. It had actually put Louis a bit more at ease with the rakish charm of the man, which was probably one of Mr. Murray’s regular ploys with omegas. But now, Louis’ head swam in the oddest way that quite put him off balance.
Lord Styles’ desire was no secret, and it was the first time Louis had ever experienced a wash of scent that caused such a reaction in him. Spanish leather, mint, and a musk he could not quite define permeated the air so strongly that Louis felt almost dizzy with it. Lord Styles’ nostrils flared, and Louis wondered if he could possibly be having a similar reaction to his scent. Surely not. He must be quite immune by now to the scents of newly out omegas.
Louis must have made some type of motion with his hand that Lord Styles took to mean an acquiescence to his request to dance, and he made to catch Louis’ hand to write his name on the dance card wound round his wrist. It was as though he wasn’t wearing gloves at all. The touch lit a spark that flowed through his veins, and he nearly snatched his hand back.
Lord Styles’ face darkened as he looked at Louis’ card, which he suddenly remembered was completely filled. He bowed over Louis’ hand and held it just a few moments too long. “Well, Mr. Tomlinson, perhaps you can save me a waltz at the Duke of Wolverhampton’s ball, although I should not presume to see you there. However, the duke’s friendship with Lord Mendes and his husband is well known.”
“I--of course, my lord. I am sure we shall be in attendance.” Louis had no idea if they were attending.
Lord Styles nodded at both he and Mr. Murray a bit stiffly and then took his leave.
Louis did not see him the rest of the evening. He had vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
Niall ordered breakfast be brought up to Louis in the morning, presumably so he could rest after his first eventful night as an omega in the ton, but Louis quickly ate and dressed and then went to find Niall.
He found him in the drawing room, which it had become quite clear was Niall’s domain. Niall looked up from his correspondence with a bright smile.
“Louis! You’ve arisen far earlier than I expected. Come sit, and we can chat about Lady St. John’s ball.” Niall patted the chair beside him.
Louis took his seat and met Niall’s eyes. He wasn’t entirely sure what to say.
“Was a bit overwhelming, I am sure,” Niall said, sympathy plain in his tone.
Louis let out a long breath. “Yes. It was.”
“Well, I didn’t want to put too many expectations on you the first night. I wanted you to have at least one ball free of that.” Niall sighed. “Although maybe it was impossible for you not to be thinking about the implications with every man you danced with.”
“Ehm--perhaps there were a few moments where I forgot and just--enjoyed myself.”
Niall smiled. “Good, good. I don’t wish to pressure you endlessly, but I also know what you think you need out of the Season. And I am prepared to see that you have it.”
“I can not possibly continue to burden you and Lord Mendes with our presence past this Season, Niall.” He held up his hand to halt Niall’s protest. “I shall also do my best to find a proper place for us through my marriage. It’s not so very different than everyone else on the marriage mart, is it?”
Niall pursed his lips together, but then, said, “No. It’s not so very different than what I myself strove for last Season.”
Louis slumped back in the chair inelegantly. “A lot fewer secrets to hide though for you.”
“Pssshh. You think I behaved like myself straight out the gate? Of course not! Let everyone think I was the demure, ideal omega for a bit. It became so insufferably boring though that I ended up just being myself after a while. Strangely enough that just made me more popular. Hypocrites, the lot of them.”
Louis smiled at the thought of Niall pretending to be demure. “I’m so happy for you at how well it all worked out. I quite approve of your earl.”
“Yes, well, it wasn’t easy convincing him to fall in love with me. Had to try and outshine all the trollops vying for his attentions.”
“That’s not at all how he tells the story, you know.”
“Oh, I know,” Niall scoffed. “He likes to pretend that he fought off all my suitors with his fists, but the boot was quite on the other leg. But enough about my story, did you take a fancy to any of the gentlemen you danced with last night?”
“To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I kept very good track of who was who. Everyone was quite polite--well, for the most part.”
“Who behaved poorly?” Niall narrowed his eyes. “Was it Mr. Murray? He can be a bit of a scoundrel. What did he say? No, never mind. I likely don’t wish to know.”
“He really wasn’t so very terrible,” Louis protested. “His compliments were a bit--specific, but all in all he danced quite well and kindly escorted me to the lemonade. He seemed much more interested in everything Lord Styles had to say about the Four Horse Club than anything I mentioned though.”
“Lord Styles?” Niall exclaimed. “Why I didn’t see him at all! I’m surprised he even attended. When I mentioned it outside the shop the other day, I thought I was merely making small talk when I said we’d see him there.”
“Oh. Well, I only saw him for a short time actually. He seemed to appear just as I was dancing with Mr. Murray, and then he seemed to disappear after speaking with him a bit and asking me for a dance.”
“HE ASKED YOU FOR A--” Niall cleared his throat. “He asked you to dance?”
“Yes, but my card was already filled, so he asked to be saved a waltz at the Duke of Wolverhampton’s ball. By the by are we attending--”
“HE ASKED TO BE SAVED A--ahem, excuse me. He asked to be saved a waltz did he?”
“Yes?” Louis was a bit perplexed by Niall’s shock. Was this Lord Styles that far out of his league? “Is that so hard to believe?”
“Lord yes! I’ve only ever seen the man dance with his sister! Generally spends all his time at the card tables if he deigns to even attend a ball. This is quite the feather in your cap, Lou. Other alphas will be falling all over themselves if his interest in you continues. My goodness, do you suppose he only attending because he knew you’d be there?”
“Surely not. We had not even spoken until last night.” This information lodged itself in Louis’ mind. Perhaps Lord Styles had felt the same odd, heady feelings that Louis had in his presence.
Niall snorted. “Believe me, alphas let themselves be led around by their--well--never mind.”
“It’s not for your delicate ears, Louis.”
Louis rolled his eyes, but he let it pass. “Are we then attending the Duke’s ball?”
“Of course! It shall probably be the highlight of the Season. Everyone is aflutter speculating that this means the Duke is finally ready to choose a mate. I happen to know that the rumours are in fact quite true.”
“How do you know?”
“I asked him, and he told me.” Niall shrugged a shoulder and sealed shut one of his letters with wax before looking up at Louis’ face, still showing signs of surprise at Niall’s boldness. “The man quite dotes on Lord Mendes and I. Between you and me, I think he simply wants to be out from under his mother’s thumb. She’s quite the harriden. She’ll be sent off to the dowager’s house when he takes a mate, of course.”
“Of course,” Louis echoed, still turning over all this information in his mind.
“His grace is obviously at the top of my list for you, but I shall probably have to rearrange some of the other rankings now that Lord Styles has shown interest,” Niall said, looking pensive.
Louis coughed. “You truly have a rank ordered list? I thought perhaps you were only funning. And you’ve put a duke at the top?”
“Yes. Don’t look so surprised. You deserve a duke, Louis. You deserve everything and anything I can manage to wrangle for you. In any case, this isn’t just any duke. He’s my friend, and he’s lovely.”
“I don’t know that I’m--”
“I warn you not to question your worth in my presence.” Niall’s face turned thunderous. “As the Season progresses the rankings will of course change. I just think we should be as organised as possible.”
Louis did not dare answer with his thoughts. Instead, he simply nodded and stood up from the chair. “I shall leave you to your correspondence. I should check in with the governess on the girls’ lessons.”
late March 1816
The day of the Duke of Wolverhampton’s ball dawned with bright spring sunlight streaming through Louis’ windows. Clearly, the maid had opened the drapes at some point at Niall’s request, which meant Niall did not intend for him to sleep the day away. Through the cobwebs of sleep, Louis vaguely recalled that Niall wanted him to be ready for any callers that might appear today.
Niall had been quite sure that Louis’ admirers would show themselves this morning in order to gain favour with him before the event of the Season. Niall was always annoyingly correct about most things, so Louis called for his omega’s maid to ready himself for the day. For some reason the spring green coat and cream waistcoat embroidered with delicate green ivy leaves called to him most particularly.
He checked in with his youngest sister and brother’s nursemaid and then with the older girls’ governess before making his way to the drawing room. Before long, a trickle of callers turned to a downpour as the room began to fill with eligible alphas and betas. The first to arrive seemed reluctant to leave with so many rivals present, and it was quite distracting to be engaged by so many conversations at once.
“--You should have seen me lead that team of horses, Mr. Tomlinson--”
“--I find that I can hardly abide any snuff save for Prinny’s blend--”
“--Only shop at Lock’s for hats. Should get a riding hat made there for yourself, Mr. Tomlinson--”
“--Haven’t seen you on Rotten Row yet--”
“--Purchased a prime bit of blood last week at Tattersall’s--”
“--Mr. Tomlinson, my curricle was quite the talk at White’s yesterday--”
Louis felt his head begin to throb at the endless and meaningless chatter and the swirl of scents mixing in the air. Niall seemed in his element though, sparring gaily with anyone who dared say anything he felt was silly. How he remembered if Baron Winston had a new horse or if it was Mr. Hemsworth was beyond Louis. It seemed as though every man who had asked him to dance at Lady St. John’s ball was now in Niall’s drawing room vying for attention. All but one really. There was no sign of Lord Styles.
Louis found himself wondering why he hadn’t come. Perhaps the connection he’d sensed between them was rather one sided. He felt slightly embarrassed by his own reactions to the man, an alpha he barely knew and with whom he had never had a real conversation. He really needed to speak with Niall about it all. Was the pull he felt normal? A trick of his own biology? His mind wandered again through the incessant noise of the voices around him, and he couldn’t help but wonder if Lord Styles would bother to appear at the Duke of Wolverhampton’s ball tonight to claim his waltz.
Wolverhampton House dominated its square. If Louis had thought Lord Mendes’ home was quite large, this was at least thrice as big. A classical, Palladian mansion stood behind a walled entrance with gilded gates keeping it well back from the street. It made an intimidating impression of the wealth and power of its owner.
As they walked into the entrance hall, Louis stretched his neck back to view the two storeyed, vaulted ceilings. What he could see of the interiors was resplendent as he was whisked away to be announced at the top of a double tiered grand staircase that led from both sides down to a marvelously splendid ballroom. Grand paintings hung on the walls, large extravagantly carved archways towered over the guests, and the decorated ceilings with large crystal chandeliers hinted that every inch of the residence was lavishly appointed.
The owner of this monstrosity--a duke no less--was to be the top of Niall’s list of possible mates for him? It was preposterous. Did the man share the appearance of a toad? Even if he did, he was sure many would overlook it for all this. In the back of his mind, he wondered where Lord Styles lived. He obviously fit Louis’ criteria as well, or Niall would not have him on his organised list.
By the time they reached the bottom of the quite long staircase, a crowd had already formed near the bottom. Louis nearly rolled his eyes at their eagerness. What kind of dowry and connections had Niall spread rumours of? It made him uneasy to think of it, so he plastered on a demure smile and let Lord St. James write his name on his dance card.
He was quite a tall, handsome man and seemingly very polite, and as he recalled, Niall had him on the list somewhere in the middle. When he glanced up, there seemed to be a parting of the seas as an absurdly handsome man strode towards them. His demeanor was clearly that of an alpha, walking through the crush and expecting everyone to leap aside, and yet his mouth opened wide into a toothy smile and his eyes lit up like large brown saucers. Delight radiated from him as he made his way towards Niall and Lord Mendes.
“Your Grace, you have outdone yourself!” Niall proclaimed. “Your ball will most certainly be the event of the Season.”
The Duke of Wolverhampton just laughed. “Congratulate my mother if you will. You know very well I had nothing to do with any of this.”
Niall turned to Louis. “Your Grace, this is my dearest friend, Mr. Tomlinson. He has just made his come out.”
“Ah, Mr. Tomlinson! Lord Mendes has proclaimed you to be top of the trees! May I be so bold as to request a dance this evening?”
Louis swallowed the lump in his throat. “I’d be honoured, your Grace.”
This was the duke? He was quite astonished at how--friendly he seemed. He held out his wrist, and his Grace gently took his hand in his own as he wrote his name on the dance card dangling from his wrist. His Grace gave him a sunny smile before he was off to greet more of his guests.
If Louis had thought there had been a crowd surrounding him before, it was nothing compared to the surging masses that came towards him after his Grace had singled him out so particularly. His dance card was filled immediately. He took the card in his hand and looked at the name written first, Lord St. James. He blushed as he looked down the names and found the one written in his own hand, Lord Styles . Was it presumptuous to have written him in? Was it all just empty flattery that he’d asked to be saved a dance? He hadn’t even yet set eyes on the man tonight.
Although, Lord Styles had said he’d be in attendance. Louis craned his neck to try to scan the crowd only to be met with a wall in the form of a chest. The incredibly tall Lord St. James had come to claim his dance. Louis’ face reddened as he saw Lord St. James glancing at his outstretched, bare neck. He quickly dropped his head and then smiled politely and let him lead them out onto the dance floor for a quadrille.
As he let himself be spun past the onlookers, a dark gaze met his across the crowded ballroom. Lord Styles. He nearly gasped, but just managed to contain his reaction and instead focus on Lord St. James as he walked him through the other couples in the dance. He tried his best to tamp down his desire to search the crowd for him.
He needn’t have worried about seeking out Lord Styles.
As Lord St. James led him off the dancefloor, he suddenly appeared. “Ah, St. James. Just the man I wanted to see. The Tories seem hell bent on blocking our latest reforms. Wanted to be sure you were firmly behind us.”
Lord St. James seemed quite pleased to be personally addressed and was effusive in his desire to discuss politics with Lord Styles. Did Lord Styles know the weakness of every man in the ton? Louis suspected as much.
Lord Styles slightly turned to him. “Mr. Tomlinson, please say I am not too late to claim a dance this time?”
Lord St. James whipped around as though he just now remembered Louis’ presence.
Louis looked at his card as if he didn’t know the answer. “Well--as it turns out I have a waltz.”
Lord Styles raised an eyebrow. “How fortunate. I was afraid the swarm of bees buzzing about you meant I was out of luck once again.”
“Ehm--” Louis began as Lord Styles took his hand to gain access to his dance card. Louis saw the moment that he discovered his name already present on the card. He did not speak but rather a small, smug smile crossed his face, one that spoke more than words ever could. Louis felt his face flame with embarrassment. He felt caught out by Lord Styles’ reaction as though Louis hadn’t written him on his card purely out of politeness to his earlier request for a dance.
Lord Styles was still bent over his hand, and Louis was glad for the gloves separating their skin from one another as he was sure he would not have been able to suppress his quite unnerving reaction to Lord Styles presence otherwise. He glanced up into his face. and his eyes gleamed with something Louis could not yet put a name to.
He shook his head slightly as if to shake away the strange thought that Lord Styles would already feel a claim to him. He heard Lord Styles suck in a sharp breath.
“I shall find you for our waltz then, Mr. Tomlinson.” Lord Styles deep voice sent a thrill through him and the scent of Spanish leather and mint seemed to envelop him for one short moment and then he was gone.
Baron Winston stepped into the place where Lord Styles once stood, and it was frankly a disappointing substitute. Although the baron was quite polite and had a pleasing look to the eye, Louis didn’t care for his rough hold on his hand as he led them out ot the dance floor for the next dance. His smile, although wide, did not seem sincere. He then spent the rest of the dance relaying his accomplishments as though Louis would like to hear how wonderful the baron thought himself.
Louis could hardly wait for the dance to end. He’d be sure to tell Niall that Baron Winston was insufferable and to please cross him off the list, although he wasn’t entirely sure that he was even on Niall’s list. It was clear that he endeavored to add himself to it, however.
After a reprieve of a cup of lemonade, he danced the next set with Lord Grimshaw whom he knew Niall had quite far up the list. While not a duke, he was the heir to a marquessate, and he was said to be seeking a mate this Season if the rumour mills were to be believed. Louis quite enjoyed his little quips as they moved through the dance. It seemed he knew a piece of gossip about every person in the room.
As the dance came to an end and Lord Grimshaw escorted him back to Niall’s side, Louis took a glance at his dance card even though he knew what it would show. Butterflies danced in his stomach as he waited for Lord Styles to appear as he always seemed to do as if out of thin air.
Suddenly, a low voice spoke into his ear. “Mr. Tomlinson, I believe this dance is mine.”
Louis accepted Lord Styles arm, a bit dazed by his nearness. There was certainly something about this alpha that drew him in. The feel of Lord Styles hand at his waist and his other atop his own hand was enough to cause a slight shiver to run through him as he led him down the floor and then back holding his hand in a most intimate manner.
Louis knew it was just the dance, the intimacy of a waltz, but it felt like something more. Lord Styles pulled him in closely, his scent nearly overpowering in such close proximity, and Louis wondered if he heard or felt the gasp that spilled from his mouth. His hand was placed at Lord Styles firm back, and he could feel the muscles contract as they moved through the stages of the dance. Why was dancing with Lord Styles so different than every other man in the room?
Lord Styles was a very competent dancer, which surprised Louis quite a lot as Niall had said he didn’t seem to spend much time in the ballroom. In fact, this was the only dance all evening that he’d spied Lord Styles out in the open. As they took a turn, their hands clasped above their heads, drawing Louis into him even further. He hoped Lord Styles could not feel the rabbiting leap of his heart. They began the dance in silence as though words might somehow break the spell between them.
“Mr. Tomlinson, I have been remiss,” Lord Styles said. “I meant to say earlier how lovely you looked tonight.”
Louis frowned. This sounded like the flippant kind of comment that anyone could make, and he petulantly longed for something more.
But Lord Styles continued. “Your hair both looks and smells like a caramel sweet.”
Louis nearly choked at the presumption he could be speaking about Louis’ scent. Surely, that wasn’t what he’d meant.
“Your eyes are quite beautiful, clear and blue as the sea. I assume you’ve chosen the colours you’re wearing tonight to complement them. I can assure you they’ve made quite an impression.”
Louis swayed a bit in his arms. The gentle touch of Lord Styles’ breath on his face was intoxicating. It was difficult to refrain from leaning in more closely, but luckily, the dance required him to part from him for a brief moment.
“An impression on you?” He asked. The second the words left his mouth, he wished to take them back. He did not want Lord Styles to think him bold.
Lord Styles twirled him across the dance floor. “On everyone here tonight, Mr. Tomlinson. Probably even those who weren’t here and will be informed tomorrow morning by their dear friends that Mr. Tomlinson quite stole everyone’s notice with his beauty.”
Louis could feel the blush creeping up his neck. “I highly doubt that, Lord Styles.”
“Have I made you uncomfortable?” A crease formed between his eyes. “I’m sorry if I have. Perhaps I am out of practice speaking with just out omegas.”
“Had a lot of practice at one point, did you?” Louis again cursed his loose tongue for the oddly jealous tone he’d just struck, and he was quite sure bantering was not what most alphas were looking for in a mate.
However, Lord Styles looked as though he might laugh. He seemed to be holding back a smile. “No, in truth I have not had much practice. I have tended to absent myself from gatherings such as this. But at one time, my sister made her come out, and I was required to escort her from ball to ball. I suppose at that time I had a bit more practice with being pleasing to an omega.”
“Is that what you’re trying to do now? Please omegas?” Louis could not help but ask as they promenaded back and forth through the last movements of the dance.
Lord Styles stopped holding back his smile just as he pulled Louis to his side and their arms reached high above their heads to clasp hands in the last moment of the waltz. Louis was taken aback by how lovely his true smile was. Deep dimples creased his cheeks as though pressed there by an angel. “Perhaps just one omega.”
They stood there in the middle of the ballroom for one long moment amidst a sea of onlookers and simply stared as though they were both stunned by what he’d said. And then suddenly the moment had vanished as though it had never come, and Louis found himself in the arms of a duke, dancing with every eye upon them.
Every pair of eyes but one.
Lord Styles seemed to have disappeared out of sight again, leaving Louis to wonder how much of the encounter was real and how much a product of an intimate dance in a very public setting.
Louis had apparently been allowed a lie in. The brocade curtains had kept out most of the morning sun, but from the looks of it, the sun was well risen in the sky.
“Ah good you’re awake. I think it’s time we peruse the list and see if we want to switch any rankings,” Niall said upon Louis entering the drawing room. “I wouldn’t expect too many callers today. Most alphas wait a day before calling on whomever they’re intending to court.”
“Oh.” A small hope had formed in his heart that he’d be seeing Lord Styles today.
Niall inspected him closely, leaning in to peer at his face. “Hmmm. I see.”
“You’ve already chosen. How quick you are, Louis! It took me ages in comparison to decide on Lord Mendes.”
“I haven’t--what--no--I mean--”
“So who is the lucky gentleman then? I’ll tell you truthfully if I think him worthy.”
“I haven’t chosen, Niall. In any case, I did not really think it was up to me to decide.”
Niall waved his hand dismissively. “It is up to us to decide and then let them believe they are the ones who decided. Have you learned nothing about how I caught Lord Mendes?”
Louis smiled. It was clear he was merely along for the ride with Niall’s meddling. He just hoped it would all turn out a fraction as happily as Niall’s marriage had. He caught that thought and tamped it down as soon as it had appeared in his mind. His own marital happiness needed to be built on something other than what Niall’s had been built. He needed someone firstmost who could financially take care of his family, and everything else needed to come second. This was survival. He needed to remember that.
Niall flipped open a small book. “Is there anyone you wish to cross off the list entirely after last night?”
“Ehm--well, if you think it would be all right, I’d perhaps like to take Baron Winston off the list. It’s nothing he’s done in particular, but there was just something about him that did not sit well with me.”
“Done,” Niall said as he zipped the quill across Baron Winston’s name on the page. “He was near the bottom of the list anyway. I only added him at all because he showed immediate interest in you. I don’t actually know that much about him, truth be told. He seems to just show up amid our circles though and is generally an acceptable person to fill out a dinner party and such. Anyone else? Anyone bore you to tears?”
“No,” Louis answered. Niall raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Truly. Everyone was quite lovely.”
Niall sighed. “Well, we need to begin narrowing down our focus. Shall we keep his Grace at the top of the list? Or do you want to move someone else into that spot?”
Louis shrugged helplessly as the memory of a green gaze and dimples flashed through his mind. “I don’t know.”
“Mhmm. Well, as of now we have Lord Grimshaw next. Purely for status and monetary reasons. Shall we keep him there or was there another who drew your interest more?”
Niall pursed his lips together. “I know you want to put someone else instead of him. It’s written all over your delightful face.”
Louis twisted his face into a silly look that he always used when they were children.
“Even whilst making that face you can not hide your beauty.”
Louis rolled his eyes.
“Lou, just say the name. You know I shan’t give up until I have it out of you.”
Louis knew this to be true, so with a sigh he said, “I liked Lord Grimshaw quite well, and if he’s a proper suitor, I did find him to be quite entertaining.”
“I sense a ‘however’ in that statement, Lou.”
Louis cleared his throat. “There was something very compelling about--Lord Styles.”
“Oh, ho, ho! Now we have it!” Niall fairly chortled.
“I quite liked others as well!” Louis protested. “Lord St. James seemed kind. Mr. Hemsworth was very polite. Mr. Evans was an excellent dancer. Mr. Murray was entirely acceptable.”
“Acceptable? Ah yes, just what I was hoping you’d find, a man who is merely acceptable.” Niall made a rude noise as he crossed out Mr. Murray’s name. He also crossed out a Lord O’Loughlin and a Mr. Alexander as well as a Lord Stevens.
“Wait, why are you crossing off all these names? I don’t even recall a Lord Stevens!”
“Do not trouble yourself over them. If they weren’t memorable, they don’t belong on the list.” Niall shut the book closed with a snap. “If we somehow go through all the ones on this first tier list, we shall dig out the second tier as needed.”
Louis nodded, and although he was hesitant to dismiss anyone at this point, he did implicitly trust Niall.
Niall pulled a large pile of invitations and notes towards them. “Now to go through this entire stack and decide which entertainments we should attend. We shall give preference to every event we think might be attended by his Grace and Lord Grimshaw and Lord St. James as well as Mr. Hemsworth and Mr. Evans. Do not fret. I did not accidentally leave off Lord Styles. He simply never goes anywhere unless he must. It’s quite surprising to have seen him at two balls already so early in the Season. Very curious really. Unless of course he means to take a mate this Season, in which case, perhaps we shall see him everywhere.”
Louis sat up in his chair, ready to help Niall make decisions.
“By the by, we shall be riding in Hyde Park this afternoon. Just in case we have forgotten anyone for our list. If there is anyone else worth being on it, they’ll be on Rotten Row.” Niall opened the first invitation. “Ah, Lord St. James’ sister has invited us to sit with her in her box at the Lyceum. Not surprising seeing as how her brother is fairly falling at your feet.”
Louis coloured and changed the subject a bit. “What other entertainments do people attend in the ton?”
Niall’s eyes sparkled. “Oh, we shall have such fun, Lou! We shall visit every park and have picnics, and attend the theatre to watch Edmund Kean command a stage at Drury Lane, talk Lord Mendes into escorting us to Covent Gardens to watch ballets and operas, see the horse-riding display at Astley’s Amphitheatre, gorge ourselves on ices at Gunter’s sweet shop, and have elegant dinner parties, and dance at fetes and balls and Almack’s! We shall attend every exhibition if you like! I would go so far as to say that Carlton House is on the table if you play your cards right with his Grace. There are of course entertainments we aren’t allowed. If only we were alphas, we should be off in gaming hells and clubs and gamble outrageously, but alas--”
“Niall!” Louis exclaimed, shocked at his pronouncements. It would not be prudent to have servants or anyone else overhearing him.
Niall laughed off his shock. “It’s too late, Lou. Everyone is already used to my wild talk. As I’ve told you before, hypocrites the lot of them. It only makes them like me all the more.”
Niall had indeed been correct that Louis’ suitors would descend en masse on his drawing room one day after the Duke of Wolverhampton’s ball. It seemed that every man Louis had ever spoken a word to had come to call. Some stayed just long enough to press invitations into Niall’s hand and to heap compliments upon him about the colour of his eyes or his choice in waistcoat or the tone of his voice.
Louis smiled politely through it all, but most of the men coming to be singled out for attention by him seemed quite silly for the most part. The more serious suitors made themselves known as they stayed longer than the rest. Lord St. James and Lord Grimshaw sat near the hearth chatting, seemingly assured that they would at least be considered by Louis and therefore need not pester him endlessly.
He was thankful for that because he had enough to deal with listening to Baron Winston and Lord Stevens prattle on about blends of snuff and whether Prinny’s blend was quite superior or not as the case may be. Louis didn’t give a fig about snuff or Baron Winston’s absurd carved snuff box embedded with opals.
Mr. Evans and Mr. Hemsworth occasionally saved him from complete boredom by drawing the conversation round to topics of more interest to him, namely ton gossip and fashion and ideas for the various pursuits London had to offer. However, all talk (and most of the hopes of the gentlemen in the room) came to a halt when his Grace’s presence was announced.
The Duke of Wolverhampton entered the room as sunny as ever, commanding the room without any effort at all. He took a chair next to Niall, directly across from Louis, and it was as if the rest of the men in the room suddenly realised it was the best seat the room had to offer. Rather than trying to gather round Louis’ side, his Grace was now looking directly at the omega he wished to see.
No one would have dared to interrupt, and so his Grace had a lovely conversation with Niall and Louis about their plans for the evening and what entertainments Louis was most looking forward to.
“Oh, I’m quite excited for anything really,” Louis said. “Astley’s sounded interesting, and Lord St. James’ sister has invited us to her private box at the theatre soon.”
His Grace shot a look at Lord St. James who merely smiled and gave a one shouldered shrug at the mention of his name. His Grace eyed the rest of the men in the room anew. It appeared to Louis he was assessing his rivals, although perhaps that was a bit vain of him to suppose this. Louis caught Niall’s eye who then winked and smiled at him as though he’d done something just right. Louis wasn’t sure what he’d even done, but he was content for now to be glad he’d done something right.
“Well, if Astley’s is what you’d like, I shall immediately arrange an outing for us all to attend,” His Grace insisted.
Louis was almost tempted to mention his brother and sisters so that they might attend as well, but he let the moment slip away. It would not do to invite questions about his circumstances.
Just when Louis had decided he must stop wishing for Lord Styles to make an appearance as he should be concentrating on the gentlemen currently present, Niall’s footman announced his arrival. Louis whipped around quickly towards the door as Lord Styles strode into the room.
His eyes fairly gleamed with intent as he kept Louis’ gaze frozen on him as he came to extend his greetings to he and Niall, the contact only broken when Lord Styles faced Niall to greet him. Louis tried to tamp down on this immediate reaction he seemed always to have to Lord Styles. He hoped no one else had noticed.
Unfortunately, when he glanced up, he found his Grace watching him intently. It appeared he had noticed. Damn. Louis offered him a small smile that was returned with a bright one, and all seemed well for the moment there.
“Lord Mendes.” Lord Styles bowed. “I see you have drawn quite a crowd of callers.”
Niall snorted. “Yes, I’m sure all these eligible gentlemen are here to see me stich this sampler. Although to be fair, Mr. Tomlinson and I are quite accomplished on the pianoforte if I might say so myself. Perhaps we shall entertain you all with our playing should any of you come to call again.”
A round of chatter buzzed through the drawing room, imploring them to play. Louis was barely able to keep from pulling a face at Niall. They were quite good though as Niall said, and their voices harmonised well after years of playing and singing together.
“Mr. Tomlinson.” Lord Styles spoke his name in such a different manner than he had to Niall, softer and less formal. The deep tones of it caused a slight tremble in Louis’ fingers as he greeted him in return. “You look lovely today. You have an affinity for fashion, I take it?”
“A bit.” It was true that he and Niall quite enjoyed pouring over pocket books.
Mr. Evans took his leave, and Louis found himself sitting quite near Lord Styles. As the others prattled on about their own affairs, Louis’ attentions became singular.
Lord Styles leaned in to speak only for his ears, but the conversation was innocuous. “I assume you’ve known Lord Mendes for many years. Your comfort with one another betrays a close friendship that only time can account for.”
“Indeed. We’ve known each other since birth, having grown up together on nearly neighbouring estates in Yorkshire. Our families have always been quite close.”
“Ah, I’m from the north as well. We northerners are a staunch lot, I’ve found.”
Louis considered this for a moment and found he agreed. “Yes, loyalty is quite important to me, and I suppose there is commitment if there’s true loyalty.”
“That’s quite profound,” His Grace said as he approached his chair. Louis had not even realised he’d left his seat.. “I agree wholeheartedly, although not hailing from as far north as either of you, I cannot claim it’s due to northern roots.”
“However you came by the traits of being loyal and committed and valuing it in others, it should still be praised,” Louis said.
“My thanks.” His Grace nodded as he lay his hand to rest on the soft back of Louis’ chair. . “I did not say it for praise’s sake, I hope you know. I was just struck by how much I agreed with the sentiment.”
“Something we have in common then, your Grace.”
“Indeed.” His Grace smiled happily as though it pleased him they thought similarly on the subject.
“What part of the north did you say you were from, Lord Styles?” Louis asked as he turned back towards him to keep him involved in the conversation, which is when Louis noticed that Lord Styles looked as though to burn a hole through his Grace’s gloved hand still resting on Louis’ chair. Louis was suddenly hit with the scent of Lord Styles’ emotions, a dark note to the usual aroma of leather and now a sharpness to the mint.
Lord Styles tore his gaze from his Grace’s hand and back at Louis, seemingly struggling to regain his composure. He cleared his throat and took a breath. “My family hails from Cheshire. Selley Hall is our family seat. It’s quite charming, really. Much more comfortable and warm than most country manors.”
“That sounds lovely,” Louis said wistfully. “It’s wonderful to have a home that feels like a home.”
“Tell me about your home in Yorkshire, Mr. Tomlinson.”
Lord Styles looked truly interested to hear more about from whence he’d come, but the thought of speaking about the very place he was sure he was not supposed to made his nerves rise to the surface. He looked to Niall, who luckily had overheard and interrupted quickly.
“Your Grace, please do let me know if you’d like to escort us to Astley’s. Lord Mendes will be quite pleased not to have to attend.”
“Of course,” His Grace answered quickly. His gaze shot to Louis. “I must take my leave, but I shall see you quite soon as it turns out. I’m sure you’ll quite enjoy Astley’s.”
“I’m sure I shall.”
Lord Styles looked at him questioningly as though he’d understood he’d been thwarted in his question, but then, he stood as well as soon as his Grace had exited. “I suppose I should be leaving as well. I should quite like to go see the Royal Academy’s art exhibition . Would you and Lord Mendes care to attend with me? Perhaps even tomorrow as I’m quite keen to have a look.”
Louis’ eyes flew to Niall who nodded almost imperceptibly.
Louis could not help the wide smile that came over his face at the thought of spending time with Lord Styles and perusing art. “We’d love to.”
Hundreds of works of art hung from the walls of the exhibition hall. Louis fairly gaped at the sheer number of paintings fit into the space between the chair rail and the ceiling as though someone had created an enormous, spectacular jigsaw puzzle. The canvases near the top, some of them five tiers overhead, tilted forward, and Louis assumed they were hung thus in order to better see them from their position on the floor.
He found himself craning his neck higher and higher until his eyes reached the huge, skylit windows that made up the ceiling of the space. He turned to Lord Styles to comment on this, when he realised that Lord Styles seemed to be looking at him rather than the art. He found himself left rather foolish with his lips open but no longer with words to speak.
Lord Styles cleared his throat and swung his gaze back to the paintings before them. “I apologise if I was--ehm--well--”
“Staring?” Louis answered before he could think better of it.
Lord Styles let out a bark of laughter that he quickly stifled. “Yes, I suppose I was. You look quite fetching in green.”
Louis ducked his head and smiled. When he glanced back up, Niall and Lord Mendes had begun to circulate through the space to admire the artwork. Most likely, Niall had wanted to give him a bit of time to speak with Lord Styles without an audience.
“Do you enjoy art, Lord Styles?”
“I do,” he said. “I would not call myself an expert by any means, but I find immense pleasure in other’s artistry and their creations. I’m afraid my homes are quite overrun with art.”
Louis raised his eyebrows. “Are you here to buy the art then?”
Lord Styles smiled. Louis found it hard to resist reaching out to touch the dimples that carved a small press into his cheeks. “Perhaps. However, I am mostly here to escort a lovely omega and speak with him for more time than a waltz permits.”
It seemed that everything Lord Styles spoke made Louis flush with pleasure, but he tried to steer the conversation back to the art as it seemed a safe topic. “Well, since you are quite a collector, please do not hesitate to note which pieces you might like to purchase. For instance, what do you make of this piece?”
Lord Styles turned to the painting in question.
“Ah, a Crome. I own a few of his landscapes. This one in particular seems to be an homage to a Rembandt. If you notice the subject is a mill, which I would hazard a guess as to be similar to Rembrandt’s The Mill. The contrast of light and shadow also, I think, lends credence to my theory.” A thoughtful look crossed his striking face as he peered at the painting. “But beyond all that, what I most like about it is that it seems to have an eerie feel to it. To my eye, he appears to have been trying to capture the light of an early evening just as the sun has begun to sink from the sky.”
Louis took a second look at the painting and found that while he had quite liked the painting before Lord Styles spoke, he admired it even more now. “It does look quite eerie, doesn’t it? Perhaps a bit stormy with all the clouds over the river. The way he painted the fading light on the water is quite romantic.”
Louis looked back at Lord Styles and found him grinning from ear to ear. He was taken aback by the striking differences between Lord Styles in a ballroom and Lord Styles in a drawing room and now with him in a setting he obviously found enjoyable. “Mr. Tomlinson, I did not know you had a particular interest in art as well. Do you paint?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t say I have any particular talent for it, but yes, I paint watercolours, as any respectable omega learns to do.” Louis winced as he realised how bitter the statement sounded as it left his lips.
Lord Styles raised his eyebrows. “You do not enjoy it then?”
“Not particularly,” Louis admitted. “Lord Mendes thinks me quite good, but then, he’s a friend. Friends’ opinions are always biased. I think my talents are more musical in nature.”
“Ah, another interesting virtue,” Lord Styles said as he led Louis away from the landscapes and towards some portraits at the other end of the exhibition hall. “I quite like to listen to music, but I’m afraid I have never learned to play. I find, I should dearly like to hear you play.”
Louis nodded his acceptance of this and turned towards a large portrait of a girl hanging near eye level. “I feel drawn to this one for some reason.”
As soon as he took more than a cursory glance at the painting it occurred to him why he was drawn to it. The young omega girl in the portrait quite reminded him of one of his sisters. It struck him immediately as a poor subject to continue with Lord Styles and also as a reminder as to why he was currently trying to land a wealthy husband, but it was too late.
Lord Styles peered curiously at the painting. “Why yes, this is quite charming. Much more than just a portrait. It looks to be signed by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The girl is obviously an aristocratic omega with her cape and mittens to protect her complexion. A bit unusual to have a painting of an omega child. She must be a favourite of someone’s. Her pose is quite simple, wouldn’t you say, knelt down on the ground?”
“Yes, simple, and at first glance I thought she was plucking a rosebud from a bush, but the flowers are actually in an urn.” Louis studied the painting more closely. “She’s very young to have presented.”
“Yes, I wonder if the urn is in reference to her youth. The flowers are a bit more explanatory. Roses alluding to Venus and to the promise of her future beauty and grace as an adult.”
“Quite a lot is expected of her when she is so young,” Louis said quietly, eyes cast down to the floor.
“Yes,” Lord Styles agreed. Louis could feel his gaze upon him. “Perhaps when she is grown, she will find an alpha to care for her, and she will gain her freedom.”
“Freedom?” Louis asked, startled by the thought enough to meet his eyes. “Tied for life to a mate is her freedom? And perhaps she will come of age and find a beta as her mate.”
Lord Styles ignored the last part of this statement.
“Perhaps not the freedom of an alpha, but yes, she would then have as much freedom as an omega can have. She would have protection and someone to champion her. Forgive me for assuming an alpha mate for her. I find marriage is on my mind as of late.”
“That is a very optimistic view, Lord Styles. I hope that is what she finds.”
Louis ignored the last part of Lord Styles’ statement.
“Is it so very optimistic? Is it not what we all hope for in marriage? Someone to share a life with and support one another?”
Louis wondered if he had purposely left out love from his idea of a perfect marriage. Not that it should matter to Louis who could not afford to marry for love. Louis knew he’d gone far off track from what a proper omega should have said. He inwardly sighed and knew how Niall must have felt last Season, trying to pretend to be the ideal omega.
“You are correct of course, Lord Styles.”
Louis began to walk away from both the painting and the conversation, but Lord Styles caught his wrist. Louis gasped as he held it firmly, and he felt the call of his nature to submit. He could not stop his body from betraying him, swaying towards Lord Styles as though drawn to him by a magnetic force. The touch was inappropriate and should anyone have seen it would cause gossip about them to spread through the ton like wildfire, though it was unlikely anyone had seen what with the hall so crowded with people.
Lord Styles dropped his wrist from his grip. Louis’ eyes flew up to meet the curious look in his eyes.
“I apologise. I only wished to continue with our conversation.” Lord Styles kept his tone light, but there was tension rolling off his body in waves.
The sharp scent of bitter mint filled Louis’ nose, and he wondered if it was the remnants of Lord Styles’ own reaction to touching him. Louis didn’t like to think what he might be learning in return from his own reaction.
Lord Styles raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t wish for an omega to tell me what they think I want to hear. I find I have much preferred your honesty.”
Louis pursed his lips together and then let out a sigh. “Lord Mendes warned me that it was quite hard pretending to be an ideal omega. He says he only lasted a few weeks.”
Lord Styles snorted. “Lord Mendes lasted a week at best before his true nature showed through.”
Louis smiled at this revelation. “I’m glad for it. Everyone should be pleased with the real version of Lord Mendes as he’s the most exceptional person in the world.”
“You can rest assured that everyone was well pleased. You see it now, I’m sure. They grovel at his feet.” Lord Styles grinned. “I’m afraid I bore the man to tears. Although I admit to doing it purposely.”
Louis gaped at him. “He did tell me once that you would ramble on and on until he fairly had to run away!”
Lord Styles shrugged, a sly look on his face. “I wasn’t interested in unmated omegas last Season.”
But was he this Season, Louis wondered. The look on his face certainly implied as much.
“I hope this is not too bold to say, but I would like to clarify some of what I said earlier about marriage between an alpha and omega. I truly do believe in all of what I said, but in the interest of not sounding like the bore Lord Mendes accuses me of being, I’m perhaps not the typical alpha suitor. I don’t necessarily wish to start a family right away and would welcome a bit of travel with my mate. I think I’d quite enjoy spoiling a spouse. Be able to focus all my attention on them.”
Louis felt as though he’d been doused with a bucket of cold water. The end to Lord Styles’ list of traits he desired in a marriage had no place in Louis’ life. There could be no romantic traveling for Louis with so many little ones at home. There could be no ultimate focus on just he and his alpha or beta mate. No, there would always be little ones underfoot. Throughout the day, Louis had been letting Lord Styles inch his way into his good graces, and now he felt as though he must slam the door shut or carry on with a courtship that may lead to a marriage not of Lord Styles’ wishes.
The Duke of Wolverhampton’s chaise rumbled across London towards Astley’s Amphitheatre, and Louis could not help but admire the luxurious interior of it and the well bred horses pulling it. It seemed that everything his Grace had and did, was gilded with elegance and wealth, and yet his Grace himself seemed at least this far into their acquaintance to be quite unfazed by his own grandeur.
His grace kept up a light chatter with he and Lord Mendes until they arrived at the amphitheatre where they were immediately whisked away to a private box overlooking the circular stage in the center of the theatre. Almost immediately upon being seated, Louis noticed that those in nearby boxes as well as some from the seats on the floor were craning their necks in order to gape at his Grace and his companions.
His Grace roundly ignored all the stares, but it was quite hard for Louis to feel comfortable with so many eyes upon him in this setting. It was one thing to be admired in a ballroom and another thing altogether to feel as though you are the show on display.
“How can you stand this?” Louis finally asked, interrupting Niall’s monologue about the latest curricle Lord Mendes had purchased.
“Louis!” Niall hissed.
“I’m sorry, but I am unable to hold my tongue any longer. How can any person stand to be gawked at like an animal in a menagerie?”
“No, no, Lord Mendes. It’s quite all right,” His Grace said as Niall tried to offer apologies. “It is quite tiresome to have everyone staring, but in some ways I am used to it by now. It is after all the price one must pay to be in my position.”
“A position not of your own choosing,” Louis noted. “It’s not as though you chose this for yourself.”
“Oh, in a way I have though, Mr. Tomlinson,” His Grace corrected. “I could spend all my time in Wolverhampton and neglect my position in the House of Lords. I could refuse to take my place in society and reject my responsibilities, but that is not what I have chosen, have I? And whilst it does bother me from time to time, I also find that my plight is nothing in comparison to those who have little. Forgive me for saying this, but I also find that I mind it all even less when in the company of an omega with the most startling and lovely blue eyes.”
The compliment took Louis by surprise and his eyes dropped to his hands in his lap.
“Even your eyelashes are extraordinary, Mr. Tomlinson. I believe the breeze generated from their flutter has quite bowled me over.”
Louis laughed aloud at his ridiculous statement, and His Grace smiled back, looking delighted to have made him laugh. With everyone still watching them, Louis was sure their every movement would be dissected amongst the ton, but he found he didn’t care as His Grace really was an entertaining person with whom to have a conversation.
The show began, which gave them a reprieve from some prying eyes, though not all, and Louis enjoyed the dramatic horsemanship shown by the equestrians as well as the acrobatic riding. With a pang, he truly wished for his siblings to have enjoyed such a spectacle and vowed silently to one day bring them here to see it all.
He glanced towards His Grace and wondered if perhaps a marriage between them would one day be the means to make that happen.
The next weeks were filled with the delights of the Season--as well as the furthering courtships between Louis and his suitors.
“Lord Mendes bids me give you a message, Mr. Tomlinson,” Louis’ omega’s maid said as she helped him into his waistcoat.
Louis sighed. He’d slept in a bit late this morning.
“He said to tell you the throngs have arrived to lay at your feet.”
Louis snorted. At least he knew that the excitement over him hadn’t yet worn off if throngs of alphas and betas were currently in Niall’s drawing room.
“Are you enjoying Edmund Kean’s performance, Mr. Tomlinson?” Lord St. James asked as his sister prattled on about parasols with Niall at Louis’ side. Lord St. James leaned in to speak as one had to be quite loud to be heard at the theatre.
“I very much am. He’s quite a talented actor,” Louis declared over the chatter of people in the nearby boxes.
Louis peered down into the pit and noticed quite a few pairs of eyes looking back at him instead of the stage. He sighed and sat back again. He was beginning to grow weary of always being on display. It would be better when he was mated and had a husband.
“I’m very happy you’re enjoying yourself, Mr. Tomlinson,” Lord St. James said, a lovely smile on his face as though Louis’ happiness was giving him great pleasure.
Louis mentally slid Lord St. James’ name up Niall’s list.
The arrack-punch had gone to Louis’ head. He and Lord Grimshaw had both dipped too deep and laughed uproariously at each other’s jokes in a supper-box at Vauxhall.
“I shall order you both a great deal of chicken and ham with salad,” Niall called out to them as Lord Grimshaw slapped his knee in delight over Louis’ imitation of Edmund Kean attempting a farce. “You’re foxed beyond measure, the both of you.”
“I’m not foxed,” Louis said, a hand pressed to his lips as though to stem the tide of laughter. “Are you foxed?”
“Not at all.” Lord Grimshaw shook his head. “Perhaps our chapterone is a bit fuddled himself. How dare you accuse your dearest friend and a future marquess or being bosky.”
Lord Grimshaw quite ruined the effect by hiccuping loudly, which only sent them both into a further fit of giggles.
Niall sighed. “Let’s hope none of Almack’s patronesses find out about this or we shall all be banned for life.”
Niall’s personal attention to Louis’ attire this evening was making him particularly nervous.
“Almack’s is making me more nervous than my presentation to the Queen,” Louis admitted as Niall rejected yet another coat of his and sent his maid for another from his own closet.
Niall sighed and sank into a chair. “Frankly it should. Lady Castlereagh is quite formidable, and if the rest of the patronesses didn’t think me quite grand, Mrs. Drummond-Burrell would probably have me thrown out for not conforming to her standards. Do not fret, all shall be well.”
“Was this speech supposed to uplift my spirits? Because I must tell you, you have failed spectacularly.”
“I hear you were quite the talk of Almack’s,” Baron Winston declared as he escorted Louis off the ballroom floor and towards the refreshments. His face was quite flushed and Louis wondered if it was from the exertion of the dancing or if he had partaken too much of the punch this evening. “Yes, you are making a grand name for yourself, Mr. Tomlinson. Your beauty is obviously legendary and your connections impeccable.”
Louis heard the unsaid words, and of course your sizable dowry. His non-existent one. He frowned down at his cup.
Baron Winston took another deep gulp of punch as Louis sipped on lemonade. He found he was becoming more uneasy in the baron’s presence as of late. His eyes searched the room for any hope of escape.
As quickly as he had thought to wish for help, it appeared. His skin prickled in anticipation as though he could feel Lord Styles’ gaze upon him before he could even find the man himself amidst the crush of people.
Lord Styles gave only a cursory glance towards Baron Winston before offering his arm in Louis’ direction. “Mr. Tomlinson, would you care to take a turn about the room before our waltz?”
Louis turned a brilliant smile upon him, and he tried not to be smug about the way Lord Styles’ eyes glowed at the attention. He did indeed take him briefly through the ballroom and then suddenly he had ushered him through the house and out into Lady Sefton’s gardens.
Louis’ heart pounded at the sudden intimacy of a darkened garden, although other couples strolled through the lantern lit pathway.
“I hope I was not interrupting you in the ballroom.”
Lord Styles’ voice sent a shiver through him that Louis could never quite control whilst in his presence. “No, you did not, and I thank you for coming to my aid.”
“Ah, I sensed you were in need of it,” he said simply as he offered Louis a sly smile. It seemed they were both in agreement on Baron Winston. The music of a waltz floated through the air, and Lord Styles hesitated on the stone path. “Shall we return for our dance?”
“If you’d like to,” Louis said, though a bit reluctant to leave this small oasis from the heated ballroom and if he were honest with himself, reluctant to sever this small moment of privacy with Lord Styles.
“I would rather walk and speak of nearly any topic rather than return to the ball,” Lord Styles declared.
“Is that right?” Louis ducked his head to hide his smile at Lord Styles’ honesty. He quite liked that he seemed always so forthright.
“Yes, and I’d dearly like to spend my time elsewhere.”
“Why don’t you?” Louis asked boldly as he looked back up at Lord Styles’ handsome profile, almost sure of the answer.
Lord Styles’ lips pursed a bit and he made a funny twitch of his nose as though to prevent a grin from spreading across his face.
“I think you know why,” he whispered into the darkness.
Louis slept restlessly, turning over the possibilities for his future mate in his mind. If he was being honest with himself, there was one above the others that made his heart skip a beat whenever he was near, but he knew he could not allow his heart to have the say in this matter.
He awoke much earlier than usual and lay abed until his nerves could no longer stand it. He hurried through his tea and toast and bid his maid to hurry through his dressing. He was fairly bursting by the time he made it to Niall’s side as he sorted through his correspondence in the drawing room.
He sat down silently. Niall glanced up and then set aside his letters with a smile. “Just figured it out did you?”
“That you’ll need to make a decision soon.”
Niall pushed aside the letters further down the table and took up his needlepoint. “The alphas are an impatient lot, and so the betas have learned they must be as well. I’m surprised you haven’t received at least one proposal already. I suppose no one is quite sure who you favour.”
“I don’t know who I favour! Of course, they don’t know!”
“As if I didn’t know who your favourite was,” Niall scoffed. “But please, let us pretend. I don’t even need my list to tell you that you’re only truly considering four of the men on my list.”
Louis sighed and sat back in the chair. “Please continue.”
“I’d say that Lord St. John is most likely number four. Lord Grimshaw at third. Ah, but your true favourite is a mystery to all but you and I.”
Louis could feel his cheeks heat in embarrassment that he might be so obvious if only to Niall.
Niall continued, “His Grace and Lord Styles of course. Engaged in a mill over your hand.”
“They are not fighting over me.”
“Aren’t they?” Niall laughed. “They are the only true contenders here, but the rest still believe they’re in contention. I suppose it’s more of a brawl with many combatants.”
“That is far too dramatic an image for my situation.”
“I’m afraid it’s not as simple as you’d like to believe,” Niall said, leaning towards him as though to gage his reaction more closely. “Louis, his Grace and Lord Styles I am sure know they are the true rivals here. The others may still have hope that something will go amiss with one or the other, or may hope to somehow capture your heart. I just warn you that you should have a sure answer for the first man to propose. Do you intend to accept anyone but Lord Styles? My only concern is that he come up to scratch in the end.”`
Louis’ heart flipped over. “Who said I was accepting Lord Styles?”
Niall snorted. “You haven’t gulled me , Lou. Did you expect I didn’t know? Or are you saying you didn’t know yourself?”
“It’s not that simple,” Louis fiddled with his hair until Niall captured it in his own hand.
“Isn’t it? You clearly prefer him over any of the others. There’s something almost magnetic about the two of you when you’re together. And yet, I see you encouraging his Grace nearly as much. I admit to being slightly confused by that. Do you suppose Lord Styles is not going to propose by the end of the Season?”
Louis let out a long breath. “Niall, you know that I can’t let my own preferences dictate whom I marry. His Grace would make me a fine mate. But--”
“I feel--guilty. Trapping any of them into marriage, but perhaps most of all Lord Styles,” Louis finished speaking in so soft a tone that Niall could scarcely have heard him.
‘You’re not trapping them,” Niall said firmly. “So they don’t know every single thing about you. None of them will care. It will all be fine, Louis.”
Louis nodded and tried to pick up his own needlepoint. Niall might be right about most of his suitors, but he can not help but recall what Lord Styles’ hopes for marriage were and how they did not match his own.
“Do you suppose this is really a very good idea?” Louis asked as Niall confirmed all the dinner party plans with his housekeeper and cook.
“You know that I do, Lou. It shall give you another chance to compare and contrast.”
“You make it sound very cold and impersonal.”
“Isn’t that what you have been claiming to want?” Niall asked. “A very rational, level-headed decision? Well, my little party shall be your chance.”
“Did you have to be so obvious in your invitations?” Louis muttered.
“Yes. Now, please let me discuss place settings.”
As Niall’s butler introduced each new group to the party, Louis’ nerves grew more and more taut. Lord Grimshaw and his cousin, Lady Elliott. his Grace and his mother. Lord St. James and his sister, all among the guests. They milled about conversing in Niall’s drawing room and complementing each other on their good taste in any number of things--cravats, horses, parasols.
And then, the butler appeared once more to announce Lord Styles. He came alone, and Louis was not sure if that was the reason why he stood out so much or if that was just his natural reaction to the man, but either way, Louis’ skin prickled with anticipation.
Lord Styles stood just inside the entryway and glanced around the room, his face becoming more thunderous with every eligible alpha and beta in the room he noticed. And then his gaze landed on Louis, and it felt as though his very breath had been knocked out of him. Lord Styles stared directly into his eyes and would not release him from their hold. They blazed green flames of something Louis was unsure of. Jealousy? Possession? It was unnerving and entirely inappropriate, and Louis blushed under the look. He wondered briefly if Lord Styles was perhaps close to his rut, but that was of course not something Louis could speak aloud to anyone.
After dinner, Louis, Niall, and the other omegas--Lady Elliott, Her Grace, and Miss St. James among them retired to the drawing room. Louis tried his best to be cordial and speak with their guests, but he constantly found himself taking a turn about the room and gazing unseeing at the art on the walls or picking up sculptures and examining things he’d seen a hundred times.
Finally, the alphas and betas, in this case all gentlemen, returned to the drawing room after their drinks. Louis’ eyes immediately found Lord Styles, but he forced himself to turn away when Lord Mendes beckoned him towards the pianoforte.
The instrument was unlocked, and everyone was prepared to be charmed. He and Niall played song after song that Niall had brought with him from home. They had played and sung these songs together for many years, which was probably apparent. They were highly applauded with loud admiration at the end of every song from all present--except for one. Lord Styles stood across the room, listening and watching. He offered no raptures about their performance, but instead gave them a different kind of compliment--that of his complete attention. And Louis found that he preferred his rapt attention over a heap of flattery.
Louis knew he was supposed to be making decisions and weighing his possibilities, but he found it difficult to focus on anyone. He dutifully made his rounds though as soon as he and Niall left off their musical portion of the evening. If it hadn’t been made clear before tonight, the gentlemen here knew they were the frontrunners for his hand. According to Niall and his sources, it had not appeared that any of them had been courting anyone other than Louis.
Louis had to admit it had become obvious that he would need to make a choice between his suitors soon, and whilst Niall seemed to believe it all to be cut and dried that he should make a choice based purely on his preference for Lord Styles, Louis knew it wasn’t that simple. He must make his choice not with his instincts and attraction or even his heart, but instead with his responsibilities like so many omegas before him. And whilst marrying Lord Styles did fulfil his requirements on the surface, he found he did not wish to tie him to a mate that was so unlike what he’d imagined for himself.
Most aristocratic alphas would be happy to tie Louis to them immediately with a marriage and a child and feel no need to travel with their mate. And whilst none of the gentlemen in the room would be pleased to find out the rumours of his dowry were false and that marrying Louis came with a parcel of dependents, he found that he could not bear for Lord Styles, the man who’d once praised his honesty, to find himself married to an omega who had as good as lied to him and could not give him the life he desired for himself.
The other alphas and betas in the room seemed so much less apt to care about Louis’ circumstances. Lord St. James seemed very sympathetic. Lord Grimshaw, rather understanding. And his Grace, so kind. He felt he could bear their disappointment much better than to see it in Lord Styles’ eyes, who seemed to want more from him than any of the rest.
He spoke casually with Lord St. James about riding in Hyde Park. He told Lord Grimshaw about the nearest lending library. He watched the sparkle in his Grace’s eyes as he talked about his many nieces and nephews, and then apologised for talking about them too much. When he reached Lord Styles, he sensed his frustration as though it were a physical touch. It was a bit alarming how acutely he seemed to feel Lord Styles’ moods as though they were already mates. A silly thought that he at once banished.
“I hope you are enjoying yourself, Lord Styles.”
Lord Styles uncrossed his arms. “I enjoyed listening to you play. You are quite accomplished.”
“Lord Mendes and I have always quite enjoyed music, and we’ve spent most of our childhoods together practicing one thing or another when it came to music.”
“I find I should dearly like to have more music in my own life, Mr. Tomlinson.”
Swirls of omegas’ pastel coloured dresses and clothing intertwined with alphas’ and betas’ darker gowns and long-tailed coats. The colours blurred before Louis’ eyes as his admirers hovered nearby, waiting for their chance to fill his dance card.
Lord Petersham’s ballroom glittered with an ostentation befitting his status as a member of the dandy set. Large chandeliers cast a sparkling glow enhanced by the jewels being worn by so many of those dancing. Louis felt a bit in a daze, and not for the first time did his nerves cause his fingers to tremble at his side.
Lord Styles was currently dancing with Niall, having swept him out onto the floor as soon as they arrived, and Louis found that both odd and frightening. He’d never done so before. What was it he was saying to Niall? After the dance, he anticipated Lord Styles would immediately seek him out.
He was wrong.
Instead, he watched as Niall led him towards his husband and the three of them spoke just far enough outside Louis’ line of vision that he had to subtly pretend to be interested in a boxing match Baron Winston had attended recently in order to peer in that direction. Louis felt as though his lungs could not fill properly with air. He had a terrible suspicion as to what they might be speaking of.
Louis was clearly under the protection of Lord Mendes. If someone wanted to become betrothed to him, it would clearly be he that they would need permission from. But surely, it would be a more formal proposition than would take place at the edge of a ballroom. He tried to let that thought calm him until he glanced at his dance card and realised the next dance belonged to Lord Styles.
By the time he looked back up, Lord Styles was bowing over his hand. “I believe this waltz is mine.”
Louis’ heart thumped harder in his chest as Lord Styles led him around the back of the ballroom. He already suspected they were not going to dance this waltz, and he felt his resolve for the decisions he had made in the darkness of his bedroom last night weakening.
“Would you mind walking with me in the garden instead?” Lord Styles asked, already steering them away from the crowded ballroom. Louis did not speak. He felt as though his mouth was stuck closed with molasses. He let himself be led out into a lit path through ornamental hedges and the eyes of only a few out strolling the Mayfair evening.
Louis felt panic rise in his throat at the thought of what was perhaps about to happen.
“Mr. Tomlinson. I would ask permission to call you by your given name if you would allow it,” Lord Styles said, his voice hoarse.
Louis didn’t think he managed to nod in agreement, but Lord Styles continued as though he had. “Louis--”
The sound of his given name on Lord Styles’ lips jolted him, and if he were in control of his own movements, he would probably have fled as fast as his legs would carry him. Lord Styles took his gloved hands in his own, and Louis stared into the determined gleam in his eyes.
“Louis, you look so very lovely tonight as you always do. You are a paragon of so many virtues, which is evidenced by everyone being so taken with you. As am I. I have spoken with Lord Mendes and his husband and have their permission to ask for your hand in marriage. I am to call on them tomorrow to discuss the details of our betrothment.”
Louis’ head spun. He spoke as though Louis had already accepted. “Lord Styles, I--”
“Harry. Please call me Harry.”
“Lord Styles, I’m very flattered you think so highly of me, but--”
“Louis, do you truly not see yourself clearly? You are all I could ever ask for in a mate. Beautiful and kind and honest. Someone to be at my side in all matters. Someone to dote on and have dote upon me. The war is over, and now we may travel together and see what the world has to offer us. Newlyweds without a care and nothing to bind us to--”
“Lord Styles, please.” Louis tugged his hands free. “Please stop.”
Lord Styles-- Harry --stilled for a moment before straightening to his full height. “Are my wishes so unconventional then? That you would throw me over because of them? Have I been so mistaken that you might hold me in some regard?”
Louis wrung his hands. He had thought through what this moment would be like, but it was a thousand times worse to live through the real thing. “No, it’s nothing to do with your wishes in a mate. It’s that I can not be what you want. You do not know everything there is to know about me.”
“Of course, I do not know all there is to know about you, but we would learn more about one another throughout the weeks of our betrothal.”
Louis shook his head and stared at the tips of his dancing slippers, too afraid to continue looking at Lord Styles. “I am sorry, but I can not accept your proposal.”
“I see,” Harry said quietly. “Can nothing change your mind then? Is it too soon? Have I been too rash in my pursuit?”
Lord Styles began to pace in front of him, and Louis had no idea what else to do or say. He was rejecting his first proposal from a man who could provide everything he needed, and yet, he could not bear to see the light that shone from Harry’s eyes dim when he looked at him. He simply could not be the cause of Harry’s disappointment in a mate.
“Perhaps I would not have asked so much of you so quickly, but I found I did not care for others pursuing you when you should be mine. I feel it so strongly, Louis. Do you not feel this?” Harry captured his hands again and pressed them to his chest. Louis could feel the strong beat of Harry’s heart, seeming to thrum in time with his own. “It beats for you, Louis. In a way I have never felt before. Can you tell me you do not feel the same?”
He wished on a thousand unseen stars that he could tell him the truth, but he could not risk his family. He could not know what Harry would think of his duplicity, but he could not afford to take the chance. It was perilous enough that Louis was turning down his proposal in order to protect Harry’s future happiness.
With his hands still clasped to Harry’s heart, he whispered, “I am sorry.”
Harry stepped back and released his hands. “No, I am sorry for mistaking what I thought was between us. It appears to have been rather one sided. I will not bother you again.”
Louis would rather he had said something cutting and awful, anything to discount whatever these feelings were he had for this alpha. Harry escorted him silently back to the ballroom with a parting glance, and when Louis turned around, he had disappeared.
early May 1816
A fortnight after rejecting Lord Styles’ proposal, Louis sat in his bedroom, dressed and styled for the concert he was to attend with Niall and Lord Mendes as well as His Grace and his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Wolverhampton. He stepped in front of the looking glass and stared at his reflection as he relived the nightmarish moment of his first proposal for the hundredth time.
If he lived to be one hundred, he did not think he would ever forget the sound of his name on Lord Styles’ lips or the look on his face when he said he could not marry him. He had not looked angry or aggrieved. Louis felt he would have preferred a response that was deserved of scorn. No, Lord Styles’ eyes had looked upon him with the grey-green of a storm at sea. His parting glance spoke of regret and the disappointed hopes of an imagined future that would never be.
Louis had immediately confessed all to Niall, of course, who had let him cry a bit on his shoulder over it. But then, he was forced to get on with it. He did not have the luxury of wallowing in self-pity now just because he could not be with the man he would have chosen had his own circumstances been different. He had done the right thing by Lord Styles. He must continue on with the Season and find a mate.
He had heard murmurs about Lord Styles yesterday evening at Almack’s that he tried to ignore. His complete disappearance from Society had most definitely been noted, and most everyone had turned their eye on Louis as the reason for it.
Every titter behind a gloved hand made his stomach twist at the thought that the ton knew he had turned down his offer. It made him even more nervous about the rumours that now circulated concerning his Grace being due to make his own offer to Louis any day now.
It seemed obvious to the ton that his Grace was now the frontrunner for his affections, which only made sense to them. Of course, Louis had thrown over a viscount for a duke. It burned in Louis’ gut that this was the prevailing thought, and yet, were they so very far off in their assessment? If not his Grace, than who did he intend to accept?
With a sigh, he stood and began to make his way to the drawing room to wait for Niall and Lord Mendes to take him to the concert in which he would be meeting the others in a private box. As he neared the room, he could hear the muffled sounds of Lord Mendes and Niall speaking, and he was fairly certain he had heard the name ‘Lord Styles’ or perhaps his ears were playing tricks on him as he could not seem to stop thinking about him.
“Well, don’t mention him to Louis.” He heard Niall hiss.
“I shan’t. I was just saying the man looks terrible. He clearly isn’t handling the rejection well.”
“Have you only seen him in Parliament then?” Niall queried.
“Yes, word is that he only leaves the house to attend sessions. Hasn’t been at any of the clubs or out in society at all. Even hasn’t shown up for any of the Four Horse Club gatherings,” Lord Mendes said quietly.
“What do you mean by terrible ?”
He heard a thump. Perhaps, Lord Mendes or Niall had been standing and then sat down. “I mean, the man never cracked a smile. He’s generally in quite a good mood, tells a few absurd jokes now and again--”
“He tells jokes?” Niall asked, surprise colouring his voice.
“He teases quite a lot. You know, you do not know him as others do. He behaves differently amongst different sets of people. But these were men whom he has always let his guard down a bit with. Except lately that is. Sat stony faced and talked to absolutely no one in any session.”
Louis could listen to no more. He made his entrance into the room and whilst he longed to know more about Harry, he knew it would not help him to know more.
His mind, however, continued to turn over thoughts of Lord Styles. He sat through the concert in a haze, his mind fogged with regrets he had no right to feel. He tried his best to give the proper attention to the music and to his Grace, but he was sure he was failing.
Towards the end of the concert, his Grace turned towards him. “Mr. Tomlinson?”
“Are you enjoying yourself?”
“Of course,” Louis replied quickly. “I quite love music as you know.”
“Yes, that’s why I invited you to our box this evening. I intend to gain a greater fondness for music in the future. I find you a bit distracted this evening--” His Grace put up a hand to stop Louis’ false protests. “I do not mind it. But I ask to have your full attention tomorrow. I have an appointment with Lord Mendes in the morning, and then I should like to take you on a walk. With your maid present, of course.”
Louis sat up straighter in his seat and cleared his throat. “You shall have my full attention tomorrow, your Grace.”
Louis paced the drawing room in a seemingly endless route.
“You’re going to wear a hole into my carpets,” Niall said, eying him from his place near the hearth, his embroidery laying forgotten in his lap.
Louis sighed and turned at the sound of Niall’s voice. “How long must they meet? What are they discussing that is taking so long?”
His gaze settled on the direction of Lord Mendes’ study, which was currently occupied by the Duke of Wolverhampton and Lord Mendes.
“I have no idea,” Niall replied. “Although my husband is most likely writing absurdly progressive ideas into the marriage agreement, and they’re probably having a brandy to celebrate.”
Louis squirmed at the words. It sounded so settled, so final. A familiar panic welled up in his throat. “Niall?”
Niall narrowed his eyes. He could probably sense the tone of unease. “Yes?”
“I can not marry his Grace without telling him the truth.”
Niall signed and threw his head back dramatically. “Louis, are you going to accept no one then? Don’t answer that.”
Niall set aside his embroidery, stood, and crossed the room to him, laying his hands on his shoulders and searching his eyes. “What Lord Mendes and I have told you from the start still holds true. You may stay with us indefinitely. If you are not ready this Season, wait until next. Or wait forever rather than be unhappy with your choice.”
Louis let out a long breath. “I can not continue to be a burden to you. And I did not say that I would not accept his Grace, just that I could not accept without him knowing the truth.”
Niall narrowed his eyes. “Why did you not then tell Lord Styles? Am I so mistaken that he was your preference?”
Louis collapsed into the nearest chair with a thump and put his head in his hands. “I am so confused. I do not know what I’m doing. I have the opportunity to give my family the life they deserve and I am mucking everything up.”
“You aren’t. Accept his Grace or don’t. Or perhaps, you just need a little time.” Niall looked thoughtful for a moment. “It certainly seems that these alphas are determined to march you in front of a clergyman as quickly as possible.”
Before any more could be said, his Grace appeared with Lord Mendes. With a bright smile on his handsome face, he said, “Would you care to take a turn about the park with me, Mr. Tomlinson?”
Louis nodded, his voice stuck in his throat, and Niall sent for his maid.
The weather was quite lovely, a gentle breeze and a bit of sun shone from behind the clouds. Louis listened politely to his Grace’s small talk whilst inside his misery grew. Should he be this miserable when accepting the proposal of a handsome, kind, and wealthy duke? Was it that he would be starting their betrothal with a lie? He could remedy this by telling the truth. Or maybe Niall was right; he needed more time.
“Your Grace?” Louis interrupted.
His Grace looked surprised to be cut off as he waxed on about the flowers this time of year, but he paused to answer. “Yes?”
“I believe I must tell you something about myself and my family before we go any further.”
“Any further on our walk?” His Grace said with a smile. “Perhaps, I should not tease you about this. We both know why we are out taking the air today. If there is something you wish to confess before I ask for your hand, please feel free to do so. However, whatever you have to say, I can assure you I most likely already know.”
A kind smile crossed his face, and Louis looked at him with some astonishment. “You know?”
“About your large family? Six siblings was it? About the alpha without honour who sits in your family seat in Yorkshire as we speak? About your lack of a dowry until one of your siblings presents as an alpha?”
Louis felt his mouth drop open and his feet stop on the path. “You know.”
“Yes, Mr. Tomlinson. I know,” he answered simply. And then with a smile and in a loud whisper said, “I don’t know if you realise, but I’m quite a powerful man. A proper duke of the realm so they tell me. Information comes to me quite easily.”
Louis offered him a weak smile as his mind turned over this surprising news. His Grace already knew and still wanted to marry him. He suspected a man like his Grace would not mind so much, and he was glad to be proven correct on the matter. Shouldn’t he be happier about this news though?
His Grace took his hand and smiled. “Mr. Tomlinson, I can see the confusion in your face. Perhaps this is no longer the proper moment to propose a marriage between us, but I find I want you to know that I think we would make a fine pair. I have some pretty words prepared if you would like to hear them, but if you would rather wait, I understand.”
Louis’ shoulders dropped in relief. “Thank you, your Grace. You do me so much honour with your understanding. I shall have an answer for you as soon as I am able.”
His Grace patted his hand before releasing it. “I look forward to it.”
Louis found he could not keep his mind from the turmoil of his actions. He knew that his Grace’s offer, although not quite formal yet, was the one he should accept. His Grace knew all and seemed quite happy to accept Louis and his family as his own.
And yet, Louis now found himself dressed in his evening wear in Niall’s garden. Twilight hovered at the edges of the day as Louis looked to the sky for answers. He knew he had at least a few days to consider the duke’s offer as Lord Mendes had received a note that his Grace had been called back to Wolverhampton over an estate issue.
A small reprieve in which to make a decision. He dearly wished to be back in Yorkshire and able to roam about the Tomlinson family estate as he always had when he needed a good think. He decided a turn about the house would not be so awful. It was not as if he were going for a walk outside the gates without a chaperone.
He took a few turns until it felt as though he might be dizzy from walking around such a small area. His thoughts all led in a never ending path as well; they all led back to the idea that he must accept his Grace’s proposal. It was all he had hoped for since he began the Season. It was the absolute best scenario of his and Niall’s plan. When his Grace returned from the country, he would accept. There was nothing left to decide. He glanced once more at the night sky before he sighed and turned back towards the house.
He turned back towards the gate and saw Baron Winston standing just on the other side of it. His barouche perched just beyond him. Louis walked nearer to open the gate. Odd but he hadn’t remembered Niall mentioning Baron Winston joining them. “Hello, I was just out getting some air--”
When Baron Winston reached for him, the overpowering scent of brandy filled Louis’ nostrils. The man was clearly in his cups. He seized Louis by the arm and leered. “I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.”
Louis tried to tug his arm back but the Baron only clung harder and grabbed hold of Louis’ coat. “Unhand me!”
Baron Winston turned him roughly in his arms, one glove covering Louis’ mouth. Louis bit the finger closest to his mouth as he struggled to free himself from his hold.
“Ouch,” Baron Winston muttered, but he kept hold of him as he began dragging him through the gate and towards his barouche. Louis kicked and bit and hit every inch that he could, his heart pounding, panic flooding his veins. But Baron Winston was undeterred. His drunken state must have been numbing him to much of the pain he might otherwise feel.
Baron Winston lifted him clumsily into the barouche and shut the hood before Louis could escape. By the time he sat upright and tried the latch on the hood, Baron Winston had already begun careening down the street. He looked forward and saw his coachman turned to look at him with great concern on his face. Baron Winston had taken over the driving, leaving his coachman to sit beside him.
“Don’t worry, John. Now, I shall be able to pay your wages,” Baron Winston said to his coachman with a chuckle.
Louis had no idea what that could possibly mean, but it was clear he’d been spirited away from his protectors for some reason, and whatever reason that was could not be good. He had always had an odd feeling about Baron Winston, and apparently, his instincts about the man had been warranted. Louis tried to keep his wits about him and tried to keep track of what streets he appeared to be on, but it was quite easy to lose track of where he was in the dim light.
They pulled up to a fairly nondescript residence and seemed to be stopping. Louis readied himself to jump from the barouche.
“Now get down, John. I shall take it the rest of the way myself to Gretna Green.”
“Scotland?” Louis exclaimed. John, the coachman, jumped down from the barouche. He stood looking at them in shock as though he was not sure what to do now that his master seemed to have taken leave of his senses.
“Yes, Scotland, my sweet,” Baron Winston answered as he jerked the reigns and the barouche rumbled down the street once more, jolting Louis forward onto the floor. “Where we shall be married and my finances will once again be in order.”
Louis cursed himself for not jumping out of the barouche within the few seconds it had stopped, but his surprise about the Baron’s plans had ruined that chance. He hoisted himself back up onto the bench seat with a groan. He would have bruises from this, he knew.
“I’m afraid you shall be very disappointed when you find out that I have no dowry to speak of,” Louis said, his voice haughty with disdain.
Baron Winston snorted. “As if I would believe such a clanker. You’ve had all of London at your feet this Season. Lord Mendes has implied your dowry is the most anyone has seen in many years.”
Louis sighed. It appeared that Niall’s boasts had been quite extensive and now their perfidy had come back to haunt them.
“I do not think you’ve thought this through properly, Baron Winston,” Louis spoke again. “How in the blazes do you expect to take this barouche all the way to Scotland?”
Baron Winston was quiet for a time. “I shall figure it out. We shall change horses--at some point.”
“Do you even know how far Gretna Green is, My Lord?”
“It’s--north. We shall just head north.”
Louis sat back with a huff. What a mutton-headed idiot. “Gretna Green is at least a few days by coach, My Lord.” This information was met with only a loud grunt. How utterly stupid this man was. It was clear that his rescue was only a matter of time. The only problem was if his reputation would survive this pathetic attempt at a kidnapping. He had no idea if they’d been seen by any but the Baron’s coachman.
Nerves stirred in his stomach at the thought that Niall and Lord Mendes would not be able to figure out what had happened to him. Now was not the time to question Niall’s sharp intelligence. As the night progressed the horses grew slower and more tired, and Baron Winston became more and more sober.
Whilst at first he had boasted about their elopement and how he had captured him right out from under the noses of the most powerful men in England, he now lapsed into long minutes of silence. Louis wondered if he was thinking about what those powerful men might do to him if he were not to make it to Scotland with Louis before they could catch up with them. He knew they were not on a direct route to Gretna Green as some of the landscape had begun to look familiar. They were clearly on a route that would take them through Yorkshire. He hoped that would not interfere with his rescue that his kidnapper was not on the correct road to his destination.
It was also somewhat humorous that the man was nearly taking him home. Louis imagined driving past the Horan estate and hopping out to greet one of their tenant farmers. However, it did not appear that they would ever make it as far as Yorkshire anyway.
Daylight broke over lavender fields in the distance and the horses could barely keep up a trot of any sort. Louis could leap from the barouche at this point without causing much injury to himself, but he decided to wait until they were near a town of some sort. Baron Winston glanced back at Louis and mumbled, “Will have to stop to change horses soon.”
Louis did not point out that it did not look as if they would happen upon anywhere to change horses anytime soon. The day stretched longer without coming upon more than a few estates of farmland. They could not even be a quarter of the way to Scotland at this rate.
Louis recognised the town they began to near as Leicester came into view. Any excitement Baron Winston might have felt at the prospect of changing horses died as soon as he saw Lord Styles on horseback in the middle of the road facing them.
Baron Winston drew the horses to a stop, not that they were going much quicker than that in the first place. The look on Lord Styles’ face would have frightened the bravest man, and Baron Winston was far from the bravest man. He’s sure the Baron would have made a run for it, but if he were as bloody exhausted as Louis was, he probably hadn’t the stamina.
“Climb down from your barouche,” Lord Styles commanded. Louis shivered at the alpha tone of his voice.
With a grunt, Baron Winston clambered off the barouche as Lord Styles dismounted from his horse. The Baron turned back to Louis and sighed. “Would have at least liked to have had a taste of you before our little adventure ended.”
When the Baron turned back to face the consequences, his face met with Lord Styles’ fist. The crunch of his nose was sure to draw his cork, and Louis watched wide-eyed as blood spurted from Baron Winston’s now surely broken nose. He dropped to his knees, clutching his nose.
“My nose!” Baron Winston said in a muffled, nasal voice. “You’ve broken it!”
“I’m going to speak now and you’re going to listen, you pathetic bloody fool, and if you interrupt I’ll plant you another facer.”
The Baron stayed quiet from his place on the ground. It was the first intelligent thing Louis had seen him do since this whole debacle began.
“You’re going to take whatever meager coins you have and leave for the continent. Let me never hear of you returning. Because if you do, I promise a broken nose will be the least of your worries. You have dishonoured your title and more importantly you have attempted to kidnap my future mate.”
Louis heard a muffled, “I will,” come from the general direction of Baron Winston laid out in the dirt.
Lord Styles used his booted foot to push him over onto his back. Baron Winston’s blood stained the front of his rumpled shirt and coat as he continued to hold his hand over his nose. “I could not hear you clearly. Your life will be spared if you leave for the continent immediately. Is that understood?”
“Yes,” Baron Winston said more clearly. “I will leave as soon as the blood stops pouring from my nose, and I am able to put my affairs in order.”
“I would advise not waiting any longer than necessary,” Lord Styles growled. “If I see or hear of you, you’ll meet worse than my fist.”
Lord Styles turned his back on Baron Winston and slowly approached Louis. His face softened considerably, and he seemed to be cautiously approaching as though Louis might be skittish after the ordeal of the past day and a half.
“Mr. Tomlinson, are you well?”
Louis felt tears well up in his eyes. In all the ways he thought this might come to an end, he hadn’t expected Lord Styles to rescue him. “I am. Thank you for coming for me.”
Being in such close proximity to him again had Louis’ heart flipping over in his chest.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to ride double with me. I shall inquire as to a coach in town.”
Louis nodded and followed Lord Styles to his horse. Lord Styles stepped closer to him and Louis breathed in the scent of Spanish leather and mint and found it calmed the quick beats of his heart into a softer rhythm. Large, firm hands closed about his waist and hoisted him easily onto the back of Lord Styles thoroughbred.
Louis stayed quiet as they rode into Leicester. He tried to keep his hands clutched lightly around Lord Styles, but soon found his cheek pressed to Lord Styles’ broad back as he tried to piece together what had just transpired.
They reached their destination quickly, and a coach was hired. Lord Styles helped him into the clean enclosed space and realised he had no idea what the plan was.
“Thank you for lying to Baron Winston and insisting he leave for the continent.”
“Yes. About me being your future husband.”
A hard look crossed Lord Styles’ face. “That was not a lie, Mr. Tomlinson. I was speaking the truth. You can not be without a mate any longer. By the time we can arrive home, you will have been unaccompanied with me for far too long to not cause irreparable harm to your reputation without a marriage between us, not to mention the unchaperoned time you have had to spend with that cowardly scoundrel back there.”
“We shall have to be married no matter how much you loathe the idea, I’m afraid.” Lord Styles turned away and closed the small door of the coach. “I shall ride alongside.”
Louis watched as the man who claimed he would be his husband mounted his horse, his eyebrows furrowed and lips pressed together. Louis sighed and rested back against the cushions of the seats. A thought suddenly occurred to him, and he opened the door. “Where are we going?”
Louis stared out the window of the coach though he could barely keep his eyes open. There was much on his mind that he did not yet have answers for. He had drifted in and out of an uneasy sleep throughout the journey, but the slowness of the coach had alerted him that they perhaps approached their destination. As they drove over a small stone bridge, he saw the house in the distance.
He recalled Lord Styles once telling him his home was warm and charming. What he saw was a beautifully landscaped park, to his right a large copse of trees, and enormous gardens laid out in front of a large manor of intricately patterned brickwork and carved stone. It quite took Louis’ breath away with its grandeur. He would never have gone with warm or charming as descriptors for Selley Hall.
The coach came to a halt at an entrance to the grand hall. Over the entry stood a huge stone archway with large carved columns. Louis nervously eyed the footmen who emerged and wondered what would be thought of him, an unmated, unmarried omega entering their master’s home unchaperoned.
Lord Styles dismounted and came to wait beside the coach as Louis was helped down. He was keenly aware of how disheveled he must appear after so little sleep and all the stress of the last few days of traveling. Lord Styles took his arm in his own and led him up the few stone steps himself as his butler greeted them in the entry.
“Carson, Mr. Tomlinson needs shown to his guest room immediately. Please call for a maid to help him.”
As Carson went to do his bidding, Lord Styles spoke quietly. “Do not fret about the opinions of my staff. I have already sent word that they are to be preparing for my future mate and that we are to be married tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Louis’ head swam. He was dead on his feet, and his mind truly could not handle much more.
“Yes, the Lords Mendes shall be here at some point tomorrow and then we shall be married by special license.” Lord Styles explained. “I have already set many things in motion before we ever arrived. Perhaps, I did not explain yet that your friends as well as I and a few other, very discreet persons each took separate roads headed north from London to keep watch for you. You were missed almost immediately and one of the footmen thought he’d recognised Baron Winston speaking to you in the front garden. His coachman was very forthcoming once we got to him. We had no way of knowing which road Baron Winston would take north. We had to cover as many as we could.”
Lord Styles snorted. “I knew that bumbling idiot would fail to take the most direct route to Gretna Green.”
Louis’ exhausted state did not allow for much thought over this new information, and he swayed a bit on his feet. A maid appeared, and Louis only vaguely heard Lord Styles bark a few instructions as to his comfort. He was led to a beautifully appointed suite with a bed that had never looked so inviting in his life. He wished to crawl beneath the bedding and wake up to find this had all been a terrible nightmare.
He stood at a dressing table as the maid helped him undress and don a night shift. Another maid entered bringing a small tray of tea, cold meats, cheese, and bread, and Louis realised how very hungry he was. They left him in privacy to his small meal, which he ate at the secretaire that stood next to a small daybed near the window.
At first, he ate ravenously, but as he ate, he began to think more about the situation in which he now found himself. Clearly, he must speak at length with Lord Styles before Niall and Lord Mendes arrived. The very thought turned the bread to ash in his mouth. He rang for the maid to take the tray and then put out the oil lamp and climbed into bed.
He was afraid sleep would not find him, but he needn’t have worried. It seemed that the happenings of the past few days had finally caught up to him. His body overtook any protests his mind might have made, and he drifted off quickly into a deep slumber.
When he awoke the next morning, it was to the sound of quiet movements. He opened his eyes to find a maid laying out the clothing he had been wearing when he arrived. He sat up, startling her a bit, but she quickly recovered and informed him she would bring him up breakfast momentarily.
It appeared the past few days had indeed not been a figment of his overactive imagination, but instead had rather regrettably actually occurred. After he’d eaten and dressed, he nervously allowed the housekeeper to show him around the house before he was to be taken to Lord Styles’ study.
He had not noticed much about the house yesterday as he’d been in no state to observe, but now having had a few meals and a long rest, his mind seemed to be in better working order. The walls of the hall were a veritable gallery of artwork; Lord Styles was indeed quite a collector. And yet, Louis was indeed struck by the character of the house, which had the intimate atmosphere of a well-loved family home rather than just a grand showpiece of the estate.
Intricate stained glass, elaborately decorated ceilings, and oak panelling adorned much of the rooms. The vast library contained walls of bookcases and an extensive collection of books as well as an interesting chimney piece. The sitting room had an assortment of longcase clocks. The drawing room seemed to be an excuse to hang a large number of portraits on the walls, although a part of him thrilled at the sight of a pianoforte. A small dining room featured a barrel-shaped ceiling with warm panelling and a door to the garden; a larger dining room contained the largest table Louis had ever seen. All led back to the grand oak staircase Louis had descended this morning. Perhaps, warm and charming did rather describe this house.
Everything his eye caught on begged for a closer examination, and Louis had the fleeting thought that he might one day belong to this house as well. He stopped the thought before it had time to flourish in his mind. As the housekeeper led him to Lord Styles, he reminded himself that he was going to enter that room and explain very firmly why he could not marry him.
As soon as he entered the study, he could almost taste the strong emotions already in the room, and his good intentions fled. He could only focus on the alpha before him. He tried desperately to think of what to say. Lord Styles said nothing, only stared at him from across the room.
“Good morning,” Lord Styles finally managed.
“Hello,” Louis said hoarsely.
“Were you able to rest well?”
“I did. Yes. Thank you,” Louis replied. His stomach churned a bit, and a wave of unease swept over him.
Their stilted conversation did nothing to lessen the nerves Louis felt creeping along his skin.
“Your friends should arrive today. Perhaps as early as this afternoon. I assume we should--speak about what will happen when they arrive.” Lord Styles eyed him warily, apparently assuming Louis might still be about to offer resistance to the plan.
“Yes, I would like to have this sorted out by the time they arrive,” Louis said slowly, trying desperately to gather his thoughts. “I realise you feel honour bound to offer me the protection of your name, but I release you from this notion.”
Lord Styles’ expression hardened. Louis watched his jaw clench and had the absurd notion of crossing the room to smooth his fingertips over the lines on Lord Styles’ face.
“If you do not marry me, the scandal that would arise would be the talk of the ton.”
“I did not think you cared much about scandal.”
Lord Styles pinned him in place with a stormy green gaze. “I am not concerned about how my own reputation would fare in this tale.”
“Ah, well, I shall--brazen it out, even if His Grace rescinds his offer.” Louis tried to keep his voice from breaking even as he trembled at the thought of what this would do to his chances of making any kind of match at all.
Harry’s fingers clenched around the edge of a chair, his knuckles turning white. “You’ve accepted his offer then?”
“No, I haven’t.” Louis took a breath and felt his body seem to deflate at the exhale. “I asked for a bit of time to consider his offer.”
“Then, you are not obligated to him,” Lord Styles said quickly.
Louis closed his eyes and tried to focus on his breathing. “That is not the obstacle here.”
“What exactly is the obstacle then, Mr. Tomlinson?” Lord Styles bit out. “Is it your attachment to the Duke of Wolverhampton then?”
Your happiness , Louis thought with a sigh.
Lord Styles continued, “I fail to see what your other options are here. We are either married immediately or you will be ruined.”
Louis pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. Was there truly no other option? Would His Grace still want him after this? Did it matter? If he followed the guidelines of propriety, he should accept his new fate as the husband of Lord Styles.
“Too many people have been alerted to your disappearance for you to pretend nothing has happened. I understand your reluctance, but--”
“That is not the issue, I--” Louis felt another wave of unease and sank into a chair.
Lord Styles immediately crossed the room to his side. “Are you unwell? Shall I send for a doctor?”
“No, no. I shall be fine. Just a twinge of a headache, I suppose.” Louis took a deep breath and felt a measure better. It seemed that just Lord Styles’ proximity calmed him a bit. “I should like to have a walk about the grounds if that would be acceptable.”
“They shall soon be your--” Lord Styles paused. “Of course. We can continue this conversation when you return to the house.”
He fled the room as quickly as possible and was out amidst a walled garden before another thought could cross his mind. Louis meandered through the extensive formal gardens. Each different area seemed to have its own distinctive character. He then walked along a woodland path. He walked and walked and walked, at turns thinking about nothing but the numerous plants and flowers and other times thinking about how his many choices seemed now to be narrowed to a singular one. The irony of course being that one singular choice would have been the one he would have chosen had there been no secrets to keep.
The cool breeze on his face calmed the warmth of his skin. He should return soon to the house and at the very least tell His Lordship that there would be no dowry should he choose to marry him. At least that secret should be revealed. He was not aware of how long he wandered until suddenly the sound of an approaching coach broke through his thoughts.
And then, all he could think about was seeing his friends’ faces for the first time since he had been snatched away from their care. Louis began running as fast as his legs would carry him with no care to what kind of hoyden he should appear to be to anyone watching. He made it to the coach just as Niall was being helped from the steps down to the ground.
Louis threw himself into Niall’s outstretched arms and felt a hot tear slide down his cheek. Another followed, and he could not stop the outpouring of emotion at once again being held by his friend.
Lord Mendes stood beside them, and Louis could do nothing but offer him a watery smile. Lord Mendes looked quite thunderous and said only, “I am glad you are safe now,” before storming into the house unannounced.
Louis tried to calm himself as Niall wrapped a protective arm around him as they walked into the house in time to see Lord Mendes close the study door behind him. Niall and Louis took one look at each other and quietly made their way to the door, pressing their ears against the wood.
It was clear an argument had begun. At first it was difficult to pick out what was being said. Dowry, reputations, His Grace. They repositioned themselves, sprawling across the floor to listen at the small gap between the marble floors and the door. The sound was a bit muffled, but they could hear the voices more clearly.
“He has resigned himself to the marriage now, I’m sure.” They heard Lord Styles say.
“He was weeping into my husband’s arms as soon as we arrived!” They heard Lord Mendes retort.
“It’s been an emotional time for him, I expect. Being stolen away and now having to marry a man he’d once refused. It is the only way to save him now. You know this.”
“He still has choices. He has no dowry, but I could give him one. We do not yet know what His Grace would do if he were to know what has happened. He can choose no one and stay under our protection.”
The voices raised in volume.
“Yes, that worked so well before.”
“Are you insinuating I can not protect my own?”
Niall jumped up. “Time to intervene before they decide pugilism is the way to determine the winner of this argument.”
Having seen Lord Styles punch someone in the nose already once, Louis had to agree. It was time. He was out of choices no matter what Lord Mendes said. Niall opened the door.
Both of the keyed up alphas turned to face them.
“I am ready,” Louis said as steadily as he could. “I shall marry you, Lord Styles, if you still wish it.”
“I do,” Lord Styles replied stiffly.
“I have brought a trunk of your clothing with us,” Niall said. “Let us go and ready you. At what time shall we arrive in the chapel?”
“I have the special license. I shall send for the clergymen at once.” Lord Styles’ voice softened a bit. “Whenever you are ready, I shall also be.”
Louis William Tomlinson of Yorkshire married Lord Harry Edward Styles, Viscount Selley of Cheshire on a late spring afternoon at Selley Hall, accompanied by his dearest friends in the world. Simple vows were spoken and then, it was done.
A lovely three course dinner was presented in the large formal dining room directly afterwards. Niall and Lord Mendes kept up a lively conversation as if nothing at all were amiss to which Louis was grateful for. He was not sure if his exhaustion and heated skin were just the result of his nerves and the past few days, but he did his best to eat the food before him. He needed to make a good impression on Lord Styles’ staff--his staff now as well.
As soon as he could speak to Lord Styles in private he would need to tell him the few secrets he had left. He felt muddled that he had not yet done so. When he finally found himself alone in the lovely suite of rooms he had first been given, did he finally realise what was happening.
His heat was not yet due for many weeks, and yet, there could be no other explanation for how he was feeling. The exhaustion, the fever, his emotional state. Why he was going into heat so early he was not sure, but perhaps it had something to do with the proximity to an alpha like Lord Styles. Harry . His husband.
He began to pace the room, his fingers working the filmy fabric of his nightshift between his fingers. A knock sounded softly at the door, and Louis whirled around towards the sound. For a moment he thought he’d imagined it, but then he heard Harry’s voice.
“Yes,” he answered quickly. “Come in.”
Harry entered the room slowly. He was still fully dressed in the fine coat and waistcoat and trousers he’d worn for their wedding hours earlier. As his eyes met Louis’, Harry stopped in his tracks, staring.
Harry cleared his throat. “Please do not fret. I am not here to force myself upon you. I know that I was not your choice and--”
Louis’ eyes welled up with tears, his emotions so close to the surface with his heat so near to beginning. He felt absolutely awful that Harry still thought he did not want him, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Harry moved as if to come to his aid, but stopped stricken in his tracks. “Please do not be distressed. Would you like me to send for Niall? Are you unwell? A doctor--”
“No. Please. Come sit with me, Harry,” Louis begged. He sat on the bed and waited for him.
Harry looked hesitant, but he quickly crossed the room to sit beside Louis on the bed. He was quiet for a moment, and then said with a small smile, “I quite liked hearing you say my name.”
Louis smiled at the thought of Harry enjoying such a small intimacy. He wiped away the remnants of his tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. He wished desperately for more time to explain his own thoughts, but he knew the time was short before his heat began in earnest. “I am sorry to be so emotional tonight.”
“Please, never be sorry for anything that has happened. None of it, absolutely none of what has happened was your fault. You have every right to be emotional when you have been forced to wed someone you had already decided against. You could have had your own choice if Baron Winston had not stolen it from you. And I do know my own part in all of it, but know I did not see any other viable option for you. I can only hope that one day you can forgive me for it.”
Louis could feel his remorse as clearly as his own. It grew like a weed, tangling through his own thoughts. The smell of an alpha, his alpha, calmed him enough to keep his mind clear enough to speak. “There is nothing to forgive. You came when I needed you, Harry. I need you still.”
Louis reached out a hand to him, and Harry took his smaller hand within his own. He looked up into Louis’ face then, searching for something. Harry took a deep shuddering breath before bringing his other hand to Louis’ forehead. “You’re feverish.”
“Are you--Christ--” Harry jumped up from the bed and strode across the room from him. Louis’ instincts wailed at the loss of his alpha’s touch. Harry stood facing the wall, his hands planted against it and his head bowed as he breathed great gasps of breath. “What do you need? I shall go and have omega’s maids bring you any provisions you will need for your heat. Do you know how many days I should expect it to last?”
“I want you to stay.”
Harry whirled around, the intensity of his gaze singeing him. “You do not know what you say. It has already begun.”
“It has not. I have a few hours yet of lucidity. I’m asking you to stay because I need you. You are my alpha. Please,” Louis begged.
Harry’s hands gripped his own hair as though he must grip something or lose control. “I have never helped an omega through their heat. What do you need from me before you can no longer tell me?”
“Food and tea. Something to drink. Every few hours would be lovely. Extra bedding.” Louis blushed.”
“Done. I shall go and see to it immediately.”
“Please ring for someone, Harry. Do not leave me. More than anything else, you are what I need.”
Harry opened the secretaire and took out a piece of paper and quickly scrawled a note before sending for a maid. “We shall require food and drink every few hours and should absolutely not be disturbed for any reason barring an extreme emergency. Please deliver this note to Lord Mendes immediately.”
The maid’s eyes widened as she took in his words. She clearly understood and quickly darted from the room to complete her orders.
Harry then turned to face him. “If at any time you wish for me to go, I shall do as you ask.”
“Harry, I can not discuss this when you can still blame my heat for what I say, but I shall not ask for you to go. I ask for you to please stay.” Louis beckoned him forward with a hand. “Please, can you not sit again with me?”
Harry walked back to his side and then sank onto the bed. His long fingers pressed against his muscular thighs. Louis had to tear his gaze away and gather the last bit of courage and coherency he had left to him. “Harry?”
“Will you kiss me, please? Before it starts? I would like to remember it clearly.”
Louis watched Harry’s eyes as they turned from determined control to hooded desire and back again. He did not speak, but instead nodded and leaned forward. Louis had never seen Harry’s eyes quite this closely before. The amber and gold flecks within the green shone with something so powerful, it fairly took his breath away.
Harry’s fingers gently touched his cheek, and Louis felt their trembling. He stared wide eyed as Harry leaned in even closer. Just as Harry’s lips met his, his eyes closed at last, heavy with his want for his alpha. Harry’s lips brushed lightly against his and then drew back. Back and forth, back and forth, and Louis rocked forward, his body asking for more. Harry understood and pressed forward, their breath mingling just as Louis let his mouth open to accommodate Harry. He tasted Harry’s scent now, a delicious taste that he could not have enough of, sweet and mint. He must have seconds, thirds, fourths. Still not enough. He felt Harry’s deliberate control in the kiss. A whinge began in his throat. He wanted more.
Harry pulled away then, his breath as ragged as Louis’ in the quiet of the room. “Perhaps you should rest whilst you still can.”
Louis nodded and lay back onto the bed. “Will you stay?”
“Yes, I will.”
Louis awoke with a moan. He sluggishly opened his eyes to find Lord Styles standing before him looking magnificently delicious. What a wonderful heat dream this was.
“Delicious? Interesting thought, love.”
How did this dream Lord Styles know what he’d been thinking?
“It is not a dream, Lou. I’m really here with you. Do you need something?”
“Thirsty,” he croaked.
A cup of tea appeared, and he sipped at it until his thirst receded. Lord Styles took the cup away and went to set it across the room, and Louis whimpered at the loss of his delicious scent. He began to focus on another problem, the restless feeling deep within him.
Lord Styles was back, and he breathed him in. His scent was addictive, and it seemed as though it held a promise to assuage this restless feeling. He climbed into Lord Styles lap, straddling him, his night shift hiked up around his hips.
Lord Styles held him firmly, but he needed to be closer to the scent. He nuzzled his face into the crook of Lord Styles’ neck and breathed deeply. He felt the resounding growl that came from Lord Styles, vibrating against his cheek. Lord Styles was truly magnificent.
“I liked it better when you called me Harry. Although I quite like the magnificent part.”
Harry. Lord Styles was Harry. Louis thought he remembered marrying someone called Harry.
Lord Styles chuckled, and Louis felt that against his face as well.
“Yes, love. I am both Harry and Lord Styles and your husband all in one.”
“It is rather convenient, I suppose.”
Louis squirmed a bit in Harry’s lap. He needed something. Generally, his heats left him so very unsatisfied, rutting against his bedding, never getting what he really wanted. Slick began to seep from him, and heat rolled off him in waves. He knew this time would be different though. This time he had an alpha.
“Lou, tell me what you want.”
Louis began pressing fervent kisses across Harry’s skin.
Harry pulled the night shift up and over Louis’ head. It felt so much better to have that fabric off of his skin. Louis lay back against the bed watching as Harry tore at his own clothing, unable to get them off his own body quickly enough.
Help me, Harry.
“I’ll take care of you, love. I will.”
Cool fingertips brushed against his skin so reverently. Louis liked the way they touched him, so he arched his back into the touch. The fingers found their way to the place Louis most wanted them to find. They entered him slowly. He was so wet that they slid in easily. He loved the sensation of being full like this, full of his alpha, but somehow he knew he wanted more.
And then suddenly, he felt wet warmth wrap around his hard cock. He bucked up into the sensation of Harry’s tongue and mouth enveloping him in their heat and then back against the fingers keeping him full. He rocked back and forth seeking something more.
Want you inside me.
The heat of Harry’s mouth left him and began to press kisses up his belly and chest until reaching his neck where they stayed. He felt the press of Harry’s teeth against him briefly and then his tongue as he licked a path from his neck to his ear.
“You taste just how you smell, Lou. Like spun sugar and caramel. So sweet.”
The lovely fingers left him then, too, and Louis whinged a protest. It didn’t take long for Harry to reposition them on the bed so that Louis was tucked into his arms, his back pressed to Harry’s front. He could feel Harry’s hardness against his back, and he pressed his arse back against him. Slick ran down his thighs as Harry parted them slightly, seeking entrance.
Louis opened his mouth on a silent scream as he felt Harry slowly enter him. His own cock pressed hard against his belly as Harry slowly pushed in and out of him. Louis clung to him as best he could, his hand pressed backwards clutching at Harry’s shoulder. Harry kept his own hand pressed to Louis’ chest and his lips and tongue explored Louis’ neck as his thrusts grew deeper and deeper until finally the pressure within him built up into his release.
Just as Louis came, Harry pushed in one last time, and Louis felt his knot begin to form within him. He gasped at the sensation. This. This was it. This is what he’d always been craving as he lay panting through his heats. This utterly full feeling allowed him to relax for the first time since his heat began. A reprieve that he sensed would not last, but a reprieve nonetheless.
Harry held him closely, whispering words Louis would not remember.
Three days after Louis’ heat began on his wedding night, he found himself in a coach headed towards London as his husband rode alongside on his horse. He wished Harry was here inside with him. He longed to be near his alpha, close enough to touch.
He remembered bits and pieces of the three days of his heat that he spent with Harry. He vaguely remembered how lovely and kind he’d been, how well he’d taken care of him. Louis had never had a heat last such a short time. Of course, this heat had come early, and he’d been knotted, which obviously helped matters.
He had not spoken to Harry about any of this however because as soon as he became completely lucid, Harry had announced they must return to London as soon as possible. Parliament, of course.
The lovely, caring alpha he’d experienced during his heat seemed to now be in hiding, replaced by one who watched him cautiously and kept a polite distance. He still had not confessed all to Harry yet and would apparently not be able to do so until they reached the inn where they were stopping for the night. Surely then, he would have time to speak to him.
But upon arrival at the inn, he was shown to a private bedroom along with his maid and a tray of cold dinner. Apparently, Louis would be waiting until London to speak more than a few words with his husband. The further they traveled away from Selley Hall and towards London, the less real the past days had felt.
Harry had helped him through his heat and now behaved as though nothing had passed between them. It was quite confusing and highly disappointing as he’d felt so connected with him even if he did not remember every detail. By the time they reached London, Louis was quite worked up. His emotions were still close to the surface it seemed.
As the coach drove into Mayfair it traveled directly past Niall’s front door, and Louis found he could not stand another second without some emotional support.
“Driver? Driver! Stop the coach!”
The coach pulled to an immediate stop. Louis did not look to see what Lord Styles had done. He did not even wait for anyone to open the door or help him descend. He flung open the door, hopped down, and opened the gate. He bolted up the stairs and to the door and rapped smartly at it until the door opened and then squeezed past the butler and into the house.
“Niall? Niall!” He called as soon he was inside the house. His instinct was to head for the drawing room, but Niall was out of the room and in front of him before he got very far.
“Louis? What are you doing here?”
Louis heard the butler opening the door, presumably for Harry, and he just felt so desperate for a face that looked upon him with care. He smiled at Niall as he blinked back a few tears.
Lord Mendes marched out of his study. He did not meet Louis’ eyes, instead choosing to glare at the space behind him. Louis turned to see Harry looking greatly confused in the foyer. And then he heard more bright voices and turned to see his siblings begin to descend en masse down the curved staircase.
Phoebe and Daisy in the lead with Doris and Ernest not far behind clumped down the stairs. Charlotte and Felicite at least attempted to keep their manners in check.
“Louis!” Doris screamed as she threw herself into Louis’ arms.
“Lou!” Ernest yelled as he clung to his leg.
“We’ve missed you!” Phoebe exclaimed.
“Are you really married? Is this your husband?” Daisy queried.
Felicite stood before him, but she eyed Harry as she spoke. “Are you Lord Styles then?”
“Yes,” Harry answered. “I am.”
Doris squirmed out of Louis’ arms and approached Harry. “Hullo, I’m Doris.”
“Hello, Doris. I’m Lord Styles, but you can call me Harry as I’m Louis’ husband.” Harry smiled.
“You are?” Doris asked.
Harry crouched down to meet her eye. “I am. Did you know that now Louis is also called Lord Styles as well?”
Doris’ eyes widened. “He may be, but he was still my brother first.”
Harry laughed a bright, loud bark of laughter. “That he is, Doris. He shall always have been your brother first.”
Harry glanced around at the faces before him. “Well, this was an expected stop, but not an unpleasant one. I dare say you should all run along and begin packing your trunks as you’ll now be living at Selley House with me and your brother.”
The younger ones immediately ran for the staircase, calling out at each other as Charlotte and Felicite hurried after them. Harry stepped forward a few paces to stand beside him, but directed his words to Lord Mendes and Niall.
“May I have a moment alone with my husband?”
Niall waved them towards the drawing room, and Louis felt a bit grateful to be in a place of great familiarity whilst having this long overdue conversation.
“I see we have uncovered another of your secrets. This is what you and Niall felt should be kept from the ton?”
“We thought it best in order for me to make a match that could provide for them all. They are the only reason I came to London at all. They are the reason I had to make a good match.”
“I see. Is there anything else worth knowing that has heretofore been kept under wraps?”
“Well, you know I have no dowry, but that isn’t precisely true. It’s just that my great uncle is currently in control of it as well as the estate until such time that one of my siblings presents as an alpha of course. So you see, one day you shall actually receive the dowry.”
“Is this all?”
“You realise that had you accepted my first offer, I would have provided all that you say you wanted--” Harry cut himself off and ran his hand through his hair. “Was I really so repugnant to you that you would not accept me?”
“Harry, no! That isn’t it at all!” Louis insisted. He could scarcely believe Harry could have got it this wrong. “It’s that you deserved more than what I could give you. You deserved the person you wanted. The one who could dote on you and travel with you and be the perfect mate to you that you’d dreamed of and be all that you said you wanted. I could not take that from you. I did it for you--that you might someday have your ideal. I refused your offer for your sake.”
“This is why you refused me?” Harry looked stunned and strode across the few paces that separated them. “How many more family members do you have? I would support them all, Louis. I always hoped to have a large family one day to dote on. I care so little about any of your secrets. You are what I wanted, since the moment I laid eyes on you and more and more each day since I began to know you. Louis--I love you.”
Louis threw himself into Harry’s arms and kissed him. Harry murmured against his lips, “Do you think that someday you shall love me in return?”
Louis slid back out of his grasp. “If I had loved you less, I would have accepted your offer the first time. Now, kiss me. Why must I always beg for your kisses?”
“I vow you shall never want for kisses, Louis. Though I do quite like to hear you beg for them.” Lord Styles smirked absurdly.
The pitter patter of many small feet could then be heard just outside the door before it was flung open, and they were surrounded by the chatter and excitement of the children.
Harry’s eyes gleamed brightly. “Shall we go home?”
Chapter 10: Epilogue
Thank you to everyone who read this fic and sent me lovely messages and comments and encouragement! I hope you enjoy the epilogue! <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
One month later...
“Are you ready, love?” Harry asked as he peeked his head into Louis’ sitting room.
Louis’ omega’s maid did not bother to glance his way as she smoothed the lovely, sapphire coloured coat over the stark white ruffles of Louis’ shirt. Whilst he enjoyed all the soft colours Louis once wore as an unmarried omega, he thought he prefered these jewel tones that brought out the bright sparkle in his eyes.
Louis turned slightly to see him out of the corner of his eye. “Nearly.”
He moved further into the room until he faced Louis. He never lost a chance to stare at his husband’s unique beauty. “You are so exquisitely beautiful.”
Louis blushed prettily, and his maid skittered out of the room. It had been only one month since they had been married, and although Louis had married him under duress, so far their marriage had been filled with love and family and happiness. He never tired of telling Louis how enchanting he found him, and he loved to see Louis’ cheeks flush with pleasure over his words.
It was sometimes quite difficult to truly believe Louis was finally his. He had nearly lost him more than once, and he expected it might take some time before he felt more secure in Louis’ permanence in his life. Whilst he knew there was one thing that would make him feel more sure of Louis, he felt deeply reluctant to address it just yet.
Louis’ eyes gleamed with a hint of mischief in them as he moved towards him, closing the space between them. Louis’ hands reached up to rest on his shoulders lightly and then his fingers crept to the back of his neck until they had begun to thread into the curls they sought. Harry’s heart pounded harder in his chest.
“We could be late,” Louis whispered against his skin, nuzzling his nose into his neck.
Harry moaned as Louis moved slightly to offer up his lips for a kiss. He was a hard omega to whom to say no. To be fair he was not sure he had met someone who knew how to say no to Louis. He tried his best not to give in even whilst the sweet smell of Louis’ desire made his nose twitch.
“Love, we would be late for Niall’s ball, and I am not sure Lord Mendes would ever forgive me. I have no wish to offend the very friends who have so generously offered us the gift of their time and protection over the children so that we might go on a wedding trip.”
With a sigh, Louis stepped back, releasing his hands from him. Harry already regretted the loss of physical contact. “Very well. I know you are right. I do not see how you have such self control though.”
Louis turned and sauntered towards the looking glass to check on his appearance as Harry clenched his fists at his side in an attempt to keep from bending Louis over the nearest chair. He took several deep breaths that did nothing to calm his cock from pressing against the tight fabric of his breeches. Deep breaths in a room filled with the scent of his omega was not his smartest idea.
He would leave the room, but he found that his boots seemed leaden and unwilling to move. Instead, he took note of the fit of Louis’ coat, showing the lovely dip of his waist, he admired the glow of Louis’ skin at his throat, and the curves of Louis’ arse in his breeches made him want to bare his teeth. He stared so long and quietly that he caught Louis’ gaze in the glass. Louis turned to look at him curiously.
“Oh.” Louis’ eyes flicked down his body to his growing problem, and then a breathtaking smile crossed his striking face. “Maybe you do not have as much self control as you pretend.”
“When it comes to you, I find I have very little,” he admitted as he pressed a hand to the front of his breeches in an effort to alleviate some of his problem. “I shall have to find some immediately though as I would rather Lord Mendes does not scowl at me if we were to arrive late to his husband’s ball. It makes my hackles rise, and I act out of instinct.”
Louis laughed, a lovely, loud sound that he found he can never hear enough of. Most omegas giggled, but his husband had the best full out laughter he’d ever heard. “Yes, well, we should be off then. Heaven forbid you and Lord Mendes come to blows over your husbands’ feelings. I should not like to hear Niall scolding me either, I suppose. I do owe him everything after all.”
Harry crossed the room to take his husband’s arm and escorted him out of the room and down the hallway to the grand staircase of their Mayfair mansion. “Surely, I deserve some of the credit for your happiness.”
Louis smirked. “Of course, my Lord. He cannot take all the credit. After all, you were certainly not at the top of Niall’s list of suitors for me.”
He found he could not stop the tightening of his grip on Louis’ arm at the mention of his legions of past suitors. He wondered how many of them would be there tonight at Niall’s ball. Probably all but one as Baron Winston had not been seen or heard of in the last month. The thought of Louis’ suitors certainly took care of his earlier problem as nothing made him more queasy and anxious than the thought of Louis with another man. Unfortunately, it also filled him with a bitter rage that was sometimes hard to control.
“Oh, calm down,” Louis admonished as a footman helped him into the barouche. When they were alone inside, he added, “Later, I shall do that thing with my tongue you like if you do not bark at anyone tonight.”
Harry felt a spark down his spine at the thought, but he reined it in and simply grinned. “I accept your offer.”
Louis eyed him carefully. “You know, perhaps I should try to help you a bit with my offer.”
“And what do you mean by that?” He asked, an eyebrow raised in question.
Louis leaned in closely. “I mean, perhaps you should scent me before we arrive.”
There was nothing that could have stopped the growl that erupted from his throat. He did not hesitate for a moment to lay a bit more claim to Louis before he must be confronted with all his husband’s previous suitors off of Niall’s bloody list.
He moved closer until their thighs met on the carriage seat, and Louis’ fingers trembled as he drew aside the tall collar of his shirt to reveal the lovely skin of his neck. Harry could feel his blood pump harder through his veins as he drew Louis onto his lap, seeming to startle him a bit, but Louis clung to him harder and Harry embraced him more tightly.
He sought the delicate skin with his nose and inhaled sharply. The delicious scent of spun sugar and caramel filled his senses, and he could not repress his desire to try to taste the scent as well. He pressed his lips against the sweet skin, and Louis’ moan spurred him on further. His tongue darted out for more and more, and the joining of their scents filled the small space.
Louis gasped and went limp in his arms, and it brought him slightly out of the spell his husband had cast upon him. He called out to the driver to drive back around the next few streets to give them time to cool their desire, and Louis slipped back off his lap. At least now, he would fairly reek of him.
He smiled to himself.
“You look quite pleased with yourself,” Louis noted, his gloved hands pressed to his cheeks as though to cool them.
Harry’s smile broadened at the sight of his husband’s ardour. “I believe I am.”
When they finally arrived at Niall’s, it was to find the ball in full swing. Whilst they certainly were not late by the ton’s standards, it seemed that London society had not wanted to miss a moment of what was surely to be one of the great routs of the Season.
As they descended into the ballroom after being announced, it was to as large a crowd as ever gathering to whisk Louis away from him. He tried not to let his husband’s popularity bother him, but he never enjoyed watching the way other alphas and betas, and to be quite frank some of the omegas as well, admired his--assets.
“You’ll eventually become more accustomed to it.”
Lord Mendes appeared at his side with a knowing, sympathetic look upon his face.
He glanced across the ballroom to see Niall surrounded by his own great circle of admirers. “I shall try to believe you. If anyone could possibly know my feelings at the moment, it is you.”
“Indeed. Just remember when he dances with others, he shall only be leaving the ball with you.” A rueful look of remembrance crossed Lord Mendes’ face. “That one took some difficulty for me to become accustomed to. I give you this advice in order to keep you from having a public row over it.”
“I take it this advice comes from experience.”
Lord Mendes nodded. “It does. Niall was angry with me for a fortnight over it. Definitely not worth the loss of respect and--ehm, intimacy such a row causes either.”
Harry let out a loud burst of laughter that caused heads to turn in their direction. He quickly attempted to stifle it. He had a certain image to protect after all as a titled, responsible alpha. Louis would roll his eyes if he ever heard him speak of it, but he did try to keep a composed demeanor in public.
“Perhaps I should request a dance now before my husband leaves me off his dance card.”
“Ah,” Lord Mendes agreed. “A foolish mistake. I am always sure to write my name in immediately before anyone else has the chance.”
Harry grimaced at the thought of having not even one dance with his husband all night. Parliament kept him quite busy, and evenings were all the time he had to spend with Louis. Their lives were quite full what with his responsibilities and Louis’ large family. Whilst he quite liked how things had worked out for he and Louis, he found himself longing for the Season to end and to be able to whisk Louis and their family away to the country where there were slightly less distractions. Their upcoming wedding trip would put his mind at ease for a while, he supposed.
He made his way as best he could across the room until he reached Louis’ side, stopping to briefly acknowledge his fellow members of the House of Lords and other friends and acquaintances. He had not thought Louis had seen him cutting through the crowds to reach him, but perhaps he had, as he turned instantly towards him as though drawn to his presence by a magnetic force.
“I have been receiving advice from Lord Mendes, and he believes I may be too late to secure a dance with my husband.” Harry tried his best to keep his voice as calm and detached as possible. He was not sure he succeed based on the sly look Louis now gave him.
“Ah, you are too late--”
“--or you would have been had I not taken the liberty of writing you down for the first waltz.”
They both shared a smile and a knowing look. Louis had once before taken this liberty. “Well, I am glad that I am allowed at least one dance with you then.”
He felt he was doing a markedly superb job at being polite and not, as Louis had been afraid , barking at people. He wished he thought to grab hold of Louis’ dance card to begin with and marked himself down for every waltz. He would have to remember this for next time. A fool’s mistake.
His mood dampened a bit when he noticed exactly who was in this circle of admirers that had formed around his husband. He did not mind Lady Elliott with whom he knew Louis was friendly, but he did quite frankly mind Lady Elliot’s cousin, Lord Grimshaw, hovering nearby. A quick glance around the circle did nothing to help his mood. Lord St. James and his sister were among the group. Yet another of Louis’ old suitors.
He could not help but remember the dinner party held the night before he proposed marriage to Louis the first time. Both of these alphas had been in attendance along with the Duke of Wolverhampton, and it had been clear that it was a test of some kind, a final chance to win Louis’ hand. A test he had failed. He grimaced at the thought of Louis’ initial rejection of him.
No matter how many times he reminded himself of Louis’ reasons for his rejection, it still stung to think about how devastated he had been that dreadful night in Lord Petersham’s garden. To be truthful, he was devastated for much longer than that night. After their marriage, he was not at all happy to feel he had married Louis nearly against his will. Even after Louis’ unexpected heat had brought them the closeness and intimacy that he had longed for, it was still not enough. No, he had wanted all of Louis, but most especially his heart.
As he watched his husband dance a quadrille with Mr. Evans, he told himself that Louis’ heart did indeed belong to him now. He tried to banish the doubts that crept into his head late at night as he felt Louis’ breath on his shoulder, but the doubts were why he had not yet asked Louis to mate with him.
He had hoped Louis would have said something by now, but he had not yet breathed a word about being his mate. He wanted to give Louis time to settle into their marriage and the new life they were building together. However, his impatience had been growing relentlessly, and in times such as these where he has to watch him dance with others, he wished they had a bond that was even more permanent than marriage.
He decided to stop watching Louis from the group of his admirers. It was not doing his peace of mind any service to stay in their company. Instead, he searched out Niall and asked him to dance.
“Well, I’m afraid my dance card is full,” Niall said regretfully. Then, his blue eyes sparkled dangerously. Harry had seen a similar sparkle in Louis’ eyes on numerous occasions. Menaces, the both of them. “But you can have my husband’s dance. I’m sure he won’t mind. In fact, it’s the next one.”
Lord Mendes suddenly appeared at his side as if on cue.
“You do not mind if Lord Styles steals your dance do you?” Niall asked, his eyelashes aflutter. “Oh good, I knew you would not. Come, come, Lord Styles. Do not mind his ridiculous posturing.”
Lord Mendes scowled at them as Harry shrugged and gave him an apologetic look. “You know Lord Mendes spoke to me earlier claiming that I would become accustomed to sharing my husband’s attention at balls such as these, but I’m beginning to think he may be fooling himself.”
Niall snorted. “He makes a cake of himself at nearly every ball of the season. His concern for me had a bit of a respite whilst he had marrying off Louis to take some of his focus.”
Harry smiled as they took their turn down the center of the group of dancers. “Are you implying that I am destined to prowl the edges of the dance floor, glaring at my husband’s dance partners for the rest of my life?”
“I’m afraid so.” Niall grinned as he looked across the room pointedly. “Louis looks to be the kind to age gracefully.”
Harry dared to steal a glance across the room as well in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Louis, but was immediately caught by Niall. “I shall aim to be at least as subtle as your husband.”
Niall pulled a face. “Then we are all in the suds then, aren’t we? Subtlety is not either of your virtues, I am afraid.”
The dance ended, and he watched in a dudgeon as the Duke of Wolverhampton made his way towards his husband. He could feel his temper burning beneath his skin. There was no one he disliked dancing with his husband more than his Grace. He gritted his teeth and tried to look away, but he found it impossible to do so. The man did propose to his husband after all. Surely that was cause to keep the man in his black books forever, no matter how much he had previously admired him.
He stood at the edge of the dance floor and glowered at the picture they made. They looked quite handsome together, the Duke and his husband. There was a brief smile between the pair that made Harry fairly gnash his teeth.
It was quite unusual that he could be stood in one place so long without someone coming to speak with him, but apparently the look on his face sent a clear enough message not to bother him. As soon as the last note played, he barreled through the dancers out onto the floor to claim his husband’s hand for the waltz.
“Harry,” Louis hissed in warning as Harry drew himself to his full height, which was happily a few inches taller than his Grace.
“Good evening, Lord Styles,” his Grace said amiably. “Thank you for sharing your husband’s dancing talents with us.”
He clenched his fists at his side. He didn’t like the implication that he was sharing Louis with anyone. He didn’t share his husband. He especially didn’t share his husband with the Duke of Wolverhampton. “My husband is free to dance with whomever he chooses as I know he shall be leaving the ball with me.”
He thought he’d done fairly well right there. He was right pleased with remembering Lord Mendes’ words in the heat of the moment.
Louis rolled his eyes. “It was lovely dancing with you, your Grace.”
The Duke smiled and nodded politely. Harry took Louis’ hand and led him into position for the waltz that had just begun. He could now fully see the knowing look on his face. “I can tell that you wish to say something to me.”
Louis just snorted.
He continued. “I realise my behavior could be construed as--”
“Ridiculous? Possessive? Jealous?”
He placed his hand upon Louis’ trim waist and his other atop his hand. He relished the sensation that traveled down his spine as he led him down the dance floor and back, holding the hand of the omega he was so completely enchanted by. He remembered the very first time he held Louis like this, and he wondered if Louis remembered the same intimacy that he had always felt between them.
There had always been something more about the way he felt holding Louis in his arms. He pulled him in closely and let his sweet smell overpower him in the closeness of the dance. The blending of their scents was still present from their scenting encounter in the carriage. He was quite pleased that every other alpha that moved close to his husband this evening would have smelled it as well.
“You look so absurdly self-satisfied, my Lord.”
“Perhaps because I am,” he said as he felt his husband’s hand at his back as they moved through the stages of the dance.
“Whilst you did not bark at anyone thus far this evening, I do not know that you have truly fulfilled your end of our bargain.”
Harry leaned in and let his breath whisper against Louis’ skin. He watched him shiver as he spoke. “I recall that during our first waltz, you were the one who was jealous.”
“I believe you asked me if I had a lot of practice speaking with unmarried omegas,” he teased.
Louis’ lips pursed, and he longed to kiss him thoroughly. “A bit rude to bring it up now.”
“I speak the truth though,” Harry laughed. “I shall make it up you, love. Tonight.”
Louis raised an eyebrow. “Is that right? But shouldn’t we get a full night of rest before we set out on our journey tomorrow?”
“You can sleep on the way,” he said as he twirled him across the dance floor. “I shall stop whenever you’d like to rest. It will take quite some time to arrive in Paris.”
A wistful look crossed Louis’ face as the dance ended. “I’m sorry we can not go further. Perhaps one day when the children are older we can make it to Italy--”
Harry’s heart panged at the thought that Louis ever felt Harry might miss out because of his family. He cared not one whit that he was at the edge of the Mendes’ ballroom as he took Louis’ hands in his own and stared into the startling blue of his eyes. “I have not spent one second of one minute being sorry I married you, Louis. I am only sorry that you still believe I could be.”
Louis’ eyes closed, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks, and Harry already longed for their return to him. He wondered how Louis could ever doubt his devotion and realised now was the time, however indelicate it was to mention it in a crowded ballroom.
“I should like to take you home now,” he said, his voice gruff just thinking about what he was going to propose.
Louis’ eyes darted to his. “This early? But Niall--”
“Shall forgive us. I should very much like to show you how very committed I am to you. I wished to give you time to come to me on your own about it, but now I see my mistake.” He ran an impatient hand through his hair. “Perhaps it has led you to mistake my intentions.”
Louis flushed a deep scarlet. “Harry, I--”
“Come, love. Come home with me. Please.”
Louis’ eyes opened widely as he nodded, his teeth pressing into his bottom lip. Harry liked the thought that he was perhaps speechless at his request although he had been careful not to use the alpha in his voice.
They swiftly made their departure with barely a farewell to Niall and Lord Mendes who both looked at them knowingly, causing Louis to flush an even deeper shade of red if that was possible. As they made their way out of the ballroom, he caught a glimpse of his Grace leading a strikingly beautiful man out onto the dance floor. He had a brief curiosity about who the man was before the thought vanished and focused instead on what tonight might mark for his relationship.
The short journey in the carriage was nearly intolerable as Harry could not help but inhale the heady mix of Louis sweet scent with his own. He did not touch him, knowing he could not quite trust himself to not scandalise his coachman.
They entered the dark house quietly. Harry had dismissed the servants upon their putting the children to bed as he had known he would like to be alone with Louis on their return. He was quite glad he had done so as he had had no notion that tonight would be the night.
He tried to control himself as he took Louis’ hand as they ascended the staircase silently. Now that he had decided to at least speak the words aloud, his body was reacting as though he should pin Louis against the wall immediately and press his teeth to his neck. He was fairly panting with the effort to keep walking towards their bedroom.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Louis’ arms snaked around his neck as his lips sought his own. “Wait, please. I need to know that you are willing. That this is what you want--”
Louis shook his head with a look of impatience on his face. “I have waited ages for you to mate us. Please do not make me wait any longer.”
Anticipation lodged itself in Harry’s throat. “I only wished to wait for you to be ready.”
Louis stepped back and began to untie his cravat. “Does this help to ease your mind about my readiness?”
He nearly choked as Louis’ deft fingers began to work at the buttons of his waistcoat. “Ehm--yes it--”
“Shhh, I’m seducing you,” Louis whispered as he untucked his shirt from his breeches.
“Consider me seduced, love,” he answered as he helped whip the shirt up and over his head. “You’re a bit overdressed though for a proper seduction.”
He reached towards Louis and began to undress him as well. Their fingers fumbled at each other’s clothing as they hastily threw various articles to the floor. The smell of their scents was nearly overpowering him. He placed one hand possessively at Louis’ hip and gazed into Louis’ eyes darkening with lust and something more, and suddenly whatever reserve of self-control he had seemed to possess up until now evaporated in an instant.
Louis shrieked as Harry picked him up and hauled him up into his arms. “Harry!”
“You were right, Lou. I’ve waited too long to make you mine, and I, yours.” He toppled them onto the bed, and the blood rushed in his ears so loudly he almost did not make out the sound of Louis’ happy laughter.
“You are such an alpha.”
“Your alpha?” He asked as his cock stood proudly, thickening at the base just at the thought of mating Louis.
Louis reached for him. “Of course.”
Harry caged him in, palms on either side of Louis’ body, and he could not have stopped the growl that came from low in his throat. Louis’ hand wrapped around his cock, and he moaned as he thrust into Louis’ fist once, twice, before stopping.
He moved to position himself so that his lower body slid between Louis’ thighs and then hitched one of Louis’ legs up his waist. He could see and smell and feel the slick between Louis’ legs, and it was all he could do not to shove himself into his husband immediately. He let his hand slide around to squeeze a handful off Louis’ arse for a moment before he reached for his cock and teased at Louis’ entrance.
“Why must you always make me wait?” Louis complained.
“Sorry, love,” he said with a grin as he eased himself slowly into Louis. He stared into his eyes and kept still until he heard Louis make small, disgruntled noises.
“Harry, please. Move.”
“Yes, love. I will.” He began to move within Louis’ body, pumping into him as he lay atop him, kissing and licking and nipping at Louis’ shoulder and neck.
“Yes, Harry, yes. Please. More. Knot me. Mate me.”
Harry growled as he thrust faster and more deeply. He felt his knot begin to form at the base, larger and larger as Louis met him at every thrust as his knot swelled within him.
“I love you, Harry. Please, love, please,” Louis begged. “I want to be yours, do you not want to be mine?”
He could feel the frantic beating of both their hearts. He gasped as his cock began to pulse inside of Louis, and he leaned in as Louis presented his neck to him. He licked one long stripe against his husband’s mating spot and then let his teeth graze over the site as Louis wildly called out his name beneath him.
The moment had finally arrived. Tears of emotion swam in his eyes as he pressed his teeth into Louis’ precious skin and heard the loud gasp of pain, hopefully combined with pleasure. Harry felt the flame erupt within him as pure happiness and love and fulfillment flooded his body. As his tongue soothed the mark of his teeth at his neck, he felt Louis’ release between them.
He had known he loved Louis almost from the first, but this joining of their lives and minds and hearts was almost more than he could understand. He had never been happier in his life than to be mated to his love. His omega. His Louis.
They both fell almost immediately to sleep and awoke in the dim light of morning. Harry watched as Louis’ eyes fluttered open. “We’re mated,” Louis said, a groggy sound to his voice.
“We are,” Harry replied with a soft smile reserved just for his mate. He looked closely at the mark at Louis’ neck and kissed it gently.
Louis sucked in a breath, and Harry’s tongue moved over the small wound.
“Did I hurt you?” He asked.
“A bit, but there was so much more than pain to our mating. I feel so close to you now. Closer than I ever thought possible, and I am so deliriously happy.”
Harry beamed. “I intend to keep it that way. Forever.”
A beautiful smile blossomed across Louis’ lovely face. “Forever.”
A big thank you to the lf gc! I really wasn't sure where to go with this epilogue and your help in deciding to show them mating was a good idea! haha ;) And of course, thank you taggiecb for all your encouragement and hand holding. <3