The ride back to Queen Charlton tired the Honorable Cedric’s bays not a whit. Sir Richard took a moderately slower pace, accounting for the noonday heat that traced a line of sweat around the collar of Pen’s cravat—rumpled in a most dastardly fashion by his own impassioned hand—as well as, of course, the distraction of Pen’s chittering voice and radiant face. In all of Sir Richard’s years of life, he’d never acquaintanced someone who could smile so guilelessly and speak so plainly—some would say rudely, but Sir Richard had always admired those rare noble folk who bucked the mantle of convention—and capture his attention for hours, hours. Pen wasn’t simply beautiful; he was enchanting. He would rival any member of the fae court, Sir Richard was certain. For beauty as well as mischief.
“I want to drive the buggy,” Pen declared halfway down their path. Sir Richard laughed and clutched the reins a little closer.
“Absolutely not. You would drive it into the ground, and then what would I tell Mr. Brandon about his horses?”
Pen’s quartz eyes flashed. His finger-tousled curls bobbed in the wind like sugar-heavy crabapples on an April tree. Sir Richard couldn’t find it within himself to regret Pen’s dishevelment. “Let him make a wedding present of them. He was so insistent that you repair my honor with your hand, after all.”
Sir Richard returned his wayward gaze from his betrothed to watch the sunny road ahead. “So dilapidated a monument not even Hephaestus’s hand could repair, I should think.” He fought a smile at Pen’s offended scoff.
“Perhaps!” Pen crossed his arms and slumped back into his seat in a facetious fit of pique. “If my dear fiancé’s opinion is that my honor has degraded to match my ingenuity, who am I to say otherwise?”
“So you do listen to me on occasion,” Sir Richard quipped.
“But—” and here Pen raised a slender, objecting finger that Sir Richard eyed with suspicion, “—one needs neither honor nor ingenuity to drive a buggy.”
“One needs both to avoid crashing a buggy, brat.”
The tiff continued all the way to Queen Charlton and outside the inn, where Cedric awaited them with gloved hands on his many-coated hips and a reluctant gleam in his eye.
“Well, ain’t that a sight! You turtledoves returning borrowed goods instead of running off with them.” He seemed not to mind or notice the in turns intrigued and leery faces of the inn’s staff and patrons, who recognized Sir Richard and his distant cousin as a bizarre pair, indeed, and responsible for much hubbub in town. Cedric stepped forward to magnanimously relieve Sir Richard of the burden of the bays’ reins. The Corinthian acquiesced with some reluctance.
“Thanks are in order, my friend, since it was only due to my intervention that young Pen here,” Sir Richard nudged him with an avuncular elbow, “failed to make off with your bays.”
Pen pouted in a way that suggested both a spoiled miss and a foiled youth. Sir Richard bit back a laugh. Cedric didn’t; he chortled loudly enough to shake the window panes.
“Quite the, er, charge you’ve won yourself, Ricky. Assuming that he has been won?” Cedric leaned into the buggy to raise a good-humored eyebrow at Pen.
“Yes,” declared Pen. “Richard has dedicated himself to charity forevermore: he intends to swat his rider’s crop on his poor student’s hide until we are old and gray.”
“Not to charity,” Sir Richard repudiated with a half-serious tone of reproach, “but to intrigue and pleasure.”
Pen turned to him with a teasingly outraged expression. “And taming!”
Sir Richard relented, “Yes, taming too,” and the Honorable Cedric guffawed and clapped his friend on the shoulder.
“Curious, curious. I must say, you look well together on my buggy. Mighty strange, but well.”
Sir Richard absorbed Pen’s bright, sun-spotted, red-cheeked face and hummed in thought. He turned to Cedric and asked, “Do you remember our bargain earlier this morning?”
“What, to make me a present of your grays?” Incredulity replaced humor on Cedric’s face. “You didn’t lame one of my horses, did you?”
Sir Richard shook his head and lent Cedric a mollifying smile. “They’re in perfect health. And I want them. Would you consider parting with them permanently, if I offered you ownership of my grays? If so, I could write you a letter of transferal to bring to my staff.”
Mr. Cedric Brandon’s Honorable eyes bugged out of his skull. He clutched his cravat and nearly destroyed its impeccable shape before remembering himself at the last moment. “Ricky! Willing to give up his grays! Love has changed you, it really has.”
“For the better?” Pen queried in a voice that carried no hint of fragility; but Sir Richard heard it regardless. He laid a warm hand on Pen’s knee.
Cedric’s hard, thoughtful expression melted once more into levity. “Aye, I think so. Alright, Ricky, if you’re determined to drive our bargain as hard as you will my bays, I’ll take that letter.”
Pen neglected, or more likely refused, to hide his excitement. He threw his arms around Sir Richard’s neck and plunged his fair face into his betrothed’s well-cushioned chest.
“Thank you!” the youth enthused. Sir Richard pressed a kiss into Pen’s Windswept Curls, ignoring the nosy butler who lingered before the inn’s window with a coffee carafe and a dropped chin.
“A fair wedding gift, from your dear brother Cedric,” Cedric boasted. Pride ballooned his chest to such a volume he looked ready to burst. “Or, almost-brother. All that’s left is to turn your, er, young man into a blushing bride.”
His jovial voice sliced through Pen’s euphoria and left it halved on the floor of his heart. Happiness leeched from him in steady drops. He disembarked from the buggy, followed Sir Richard and Cedric into the inn, watched the exchange of wax-sealed letter for horse reins, and rode with his guardian-cum-companion to Crome Hall in a trance of centipede-slow thoughts.
Of course their playacting would soon come to an end. Hadn’t Pen prepared for that, steeled against Sir Richard’s dutiful professions of love? Hadn’t he envisioned himself back in Aunt Almeria’s London manor, mere neighborhoods away from Sir Richard’s own abode? Trapped in his room until his marriage to a man who, fish-faced cousin or not, could never match Sir Richard’s laughter or beauty or—or sense of adventure? Trapped in his room as well as, surely, imprisoned in a polite, pretty dress with biting stays and pinching shoes, being addressed as Miss Creed or Missus Something or, worse, Penelope?
Yes, he’d thought himself braced for that eventuality. He hadn’t realized that when Sir Richard had rescued him from that dour future, Pen had also thought himself spared the troth-plight of gowns and veils and embroidered flowers as small as his pinkie nail, thousands of them, swallowing him from toe to throat—
“Pen,” Sir Richard interrupted, “are you alright? Where have you gone?”
They were on the buggy again, be-ivied Crome Hall just in sight down the drive, between two verdant groves. He slid a soothing arm around Pen’s shoulders and the youth’s worries dissolved like sugar in tea. “Nowhere, Richard,” he murmured, drained of energy and slumping into Sir Richard’s warmth. “I’ve been right here.”
“Now, little one,” Sir Richard chided, “you’ve never been able to lie to me, not for a second.”
Not even when Pen had dropped into his arms in a boys’ disguise. Pen wondered what would have happened if Sir Richard had tumbled so far down the bottle that he’d neglected to notice Pen’s slight frame and sweet face. Would he still have insisted on accompanying Pen? Would he have treated Pen like a boy, truly, instead of pretending in the presence of others? Would he still have fallen in love in three wild days’ time?
“There you’ve gone again.” Sir Richard gently shook Pen’s shoulders and pulled up to Crome Hall. He disregarded the servants in favor of catching Pen’s chin and tilting it up. “Surely you won’t do me the insult of believing I don’t care to learn your troubles. Do you…” Here, Sir Richard was struck by a rare bolt of uncertainty. Pen ached to see it. “Do you not wish to marry me?”
Pen struggled for words and found his head empty. “No! That is, I do want to marry you!” His head whipped between Sir Richard’s worried countenance and the waiting staffs’ stupefaction, which in Pen’s anxious state he read as revulsion. “We’ll discuss it after supper.”
Sir Richard studied him closely, hardly reassured.
“Richard, please,” Pen begged. After a moment’s thought, Sir Richard nodded and snapped into action. He finally deigned to acknowledge the servants, allowing them to take his bag and board his new horses. They did so with utmost professionalism, if one discounted some of the younger maids shooting side-aways glances at Pen. After Sir Richard released Pen, he felt besieged by an unseasonable chill.
Lady Luttrell greeted them in her grand foyer, the seat of her throne, a great and dignified monarch who only scarcely reminded Pen of his aunt. She met Pen with a genuine smile and a warm buss on the cheek, and expressed to Sir Richard her delight that the young couple had decided to marry after all.
So accommodating was she, in fact, that after supper Pen found on his temporary bed—in a separate room from Sir Richard’s, as propriety dictated—a bundle of dresses that would’ve sent Lydia into a fit of jealousy. Taffeta, tulle, smooth linen, whalebone, intricate brocade, most precious silk, and, of course, many, many miniscule cloth flowers. Obviously, Lady Luttrell expected them to marry in Queen Charlton, in front of a priest and several witnesses. Pen thought, why not invite the entire town to see Sir Richard’s strange relative resplendent in a gown, his flax hair miraculously grown to his back in the night, carrying a bundle of baby’s breath and innocence-pale roses? Why not peel back his disguise piece by piece in the village square?
Pen battled a tidal wave of tears as he shucked his trousers and waistcoat. The cravat he removed delicately, but with trembling hands. Refusing to think beyond the crevasse of emotion that threatened to open beneath his feet, he argued with a gown until it won and the whole contraption, slip and petticoat and half-laced stays and all, devoured him. Is this how Richard wanted him? Trussed up like a pig? Only one way to discover the truth.
Pen, mindful of their hostess and her conditional kindness, crept across the hall to Sir Richard’s room in just his socks. Stupid, frilled socks. He didn’t risk a knock; the knob turned easily beneath his hand. Pen supposed that Sir Richard anticipated a visit like this.
Indeed, shock didn’t rattle Sir Richard until after his young fiancé had slipped into his chamber and paused with his back flush with the door. Pen stared at him with half-crazed eyes and a wrought-iron jaw, seeming for all the world like a hare caught under a hound’s paw, its throbbing throat a second from the dog’s great slicing claws. Worry for Pen subsumed Sir Richard so utterly that he almost dismissed as a trick of the candlelight that Pen was wearing, surreally, a dress.
“Pen? Is something wrong?” Sir Richard stood from the writing desk, at which he had been writing a letter to his family explaining that yes, he’d gotten married and no, he would not be back home for quite some time.
Pen shivered against the unforgiving wood. His throat bobbed with ferociously repressed tears, like a child tossing up and catching a river stone. “Yes!” he barked. “Yes, something is very wrong!”
Sir Richard crept closer, his hands outstretched and twitching, possessed by the impulse to gather Pen into his arms. Caution restrained him. “Can I help? I beg you, tell me.”
Pen trembled away from his love’s warmth. What if he only had Richard’s love for this morning, and forevermore he would be alone, abandoned, despondent in his London room? “I—I want to marry you.”
Sir Richard’s noble brow creased. He took another step forward. “I know. I also—”
“I don’t!” Pen’s voice cracked open on the floor. Bugs skittered out of it as from a fox’s corpse. “I don’t want—I don’t want to marry you in a dress!”
“Is that why you attired yourself so? Pen—”
Sir Richard’s fragile veneer of calm shattered Pen’s composure. Tears licked down his cheeks like fire up a wick. He bit out, “Would you still marry me if I were a boy? A real boy?” Before Sir Richard could scarcely comprehend the question, Pen rambled on: “Because, these past three days, I have never felt like a girl in boys’ clothing. But now—now, Lady Luttrell wishes me to marry you in this dress, and I feel—”
A sob scraped its way out of Pen’s raw throat. Sir Richard’s self-control crumbled like a pillar of salt; he enveloped Pen in his arms, a hand on his soft nape to push his steadily reddening face into Sir Richard’s broad chest, divested of its cravat and many coats hours hence. He shushed Pen in affectionate murmurs, tracing open-palm circles across his back with his other hand. Pen wept and wept like the child everyone thought he was.
“Now, now,” Sir Richard cooed. “Is that what all this is about? You don’t wish to be married in a dress?”
Pen hiccupped. “I don’t… want to wear another dress ever again, as long as I live.”
Sir Richard nodded and hummed in understanding. “And would I be remiss to suppose that you don’t wish to become my wife, either?” Pen froze, petrified by heart-hammering anxiety. His betrothed continued: “Would you rather become my husband?”
“I…” Pen swallowed his heart and raised his boulder of a head to meet Sir Richard’s eyes. There was no mocking within them, no veiled disgust; simply love. “I would.”
Sir Richard smiled beatifically down at his little charge. “Then, to answer your previous query, if you were a ‘real boy,’ I would still marry you. Indeed, I proposed to you as a boy. I fell in love with you as a boy. Why shouldn’t I like to marry you as one?”
Pen gasped and choked as tears overwhelmed him anew—these ones, strangely sweet. “Oh, you can’t mean that! You don’t!”
“Brat.” Sir Richard pulled on Pen’s curls gently in reproach and then kissed his forehead. “When will you cease questioning everything I say? You must realize, darling boy, that I have never once entertained genuine affection for a woman throughout the course of my life.”
“Never?” Pen’s voice wavered from equal hope and doubt.
“Never. And I don’t intend to start now.”
That wrestled a miraculous laugh from Pen, whose chest felt lighter every passing moment. To think that after tonight, he would never again feel the pinch of stays or the smothering heat of layered skirts. Sir Richard really had freed him. “God in Heaven above, you really mean it.”
Sir Richard maneuvered his grip on Pen’s curls to tilt up his lovely head and gave him an open-mouthed kiss. When the men parted, Sir Richard was gratified to watch comfort and adoration wash across Pen’s face like cool brookwater. “I do. You cannot lie to me, and I cannot lie to you.”
Pen chuckled and tucked his head under Sir Richard’s chin. “Will you say that during our vows? While I am in trousers and a cravat, a dedicated liar, before Lady Luttrell and Queen Charlton and God?”
Sir Richard frowned into Pen’s feather-soft hair. “You are not a liar. Merely a mischievous brat.” He pulled Pen even closer, brimming with protectiveness for his husband-to-be. The idea of subjecting him to such a public wedding sat uneasily in his gut. “Although, perhaps elopement is not only for foolish children like Mr. and Mrs. Luttrell.”
Pen’s mischievous lips breathed a kiss onto Sir Richard’s exposed throat. Even for all the riding he did, out in the sun, his throat was so well-shielded by his cravat that his skin was as supple as Pen’s. He chuckled at the thought of standing next to Sir Richard in a little stone kirk somewhere in Scotland, in front of a scandalized but money-beleaguered priest. “We could circumvent the church entirely and marry like clandestine lovers used to, in a handfasting ceremony.”
“That we could! We could do that tonight, on Mr. Brandon’s buggy.”
Sir Richard’s voice was full of mirth, but carried a tenor of gravity that prompted Pen to pull back and meet his betrothed’s gaze. He raised a questioning brow at Sir Richard, who only responded with a wolfish smirk and a sharp tug on Pen’s unraveling stays.
“Go, my little love. Remove this costume and come to me in your marriage-clothes. We’ll be wed before the sun rises.”
Pen had never been so grateful to have met someone, or to have tumbled into love just as he’d tumbled out of his bedroom window. He gripped Sir Richard’s stately face with both hands and kissed him soundly, as ruthlessly as he’d been kissed just hours ago. This time they had no audience to scandalize, but Pen loved it just the same.
“I love you, you old dandy.”
Sir Richard smiled and pecked Pen’s cheek. “Corinthian, if you please.”
“Oh, it’s all the same.” Pen’s façade of pique was undermined by that moon-bright, guileless smile that Sir Richard would happily elicit for the rest of his days. Pen slowly extricated himself from Sir Richard’s arms and opened the door. He was halfway in the hallway when he paused and threw a playful glance over his shoulder.
“Once we marry, dear husband of mine,” said Pen, “I shall drive our buggy to our next adventure.”
Sir Richard opened his mouth to protest, but Pen had already shut the door and slipped into the dark.