Mr Brandy was nervous. This, in and of itself, was not entirely unusual; Mr Brandy had something of a reputation for being nervous, both with and without cause, and frequently at dinner parties. If asked, he would have said it was something to do with the cravat, it being worn rather close to the chin and not permitting much room to breathe, but of course, it would not be polite to ask, and so he was seldom asked. He was slightly disheartened by this, having worked rather hard on the cravat excuse, and being rather keen to trot it out.
It was perhaps somewhat unusual, then, given the aforementioned case of nerves, that Mr Brandy should also be the reigning Smooch Champion in all of Bath. Yet he was, and the silver trophy stood at the forefront of his escritoire to prove it.
(It should be noted here that his housekeeper, Mrs Denholme, had had something of a fit when Mr Brandy insisted upon keeping his trophy on the escritoire, it being far more appropriate to display it in some sort of glass-fronted cabinet or, if he would insist on it being out and gathering dust, possibly on a mantelpiece. However, Mr Brandy was master of his own home, and so on the escritoire it remained.)
He could not have said how it had happened. He had never been considered a dandy, a rogue, or a rake. In his spare time, Mr Brandy was fond of taking tea in his study, a book in hand, or taking a stroll around to the vicarage, where he could always be assured of a few good slices of cake. He was not, as his habit, fond of canoodling with people he did not intend to wed - and Mr Brandy was not of the wedding type, as his mother put it, being rather more enamoured with the world of books and tea than with heiresses and lords - and yet it had happened, and now it was expected to happen again.
When he entered the Smooch Emporium, the room was full, half spectators and half competitors, demarcated by the red sashes they wore. All around him, couples were engaged in bouts of smooching. He could see several competitors he recognised from last year - there was Miss Hart, who had been the favourite to win last year, before her competitor loudly announced that she had chewed tobacco that morning, and she was currently smooching Mrs Teddington, who was not, in Mr Brandy’s humble opinion, a particularly talented kisser, but did at least have gusto.
He was about to ask the nearest free competitor where to sign up when the adjudicator approached him, carrying a notebook, looking somewhat harried.
“Mr Brandy!” she greeted him, sounding pleased. “I’m glad you made it. It’s been awfully lacklustre so far, truth be told. You know, Mr Piggins tried to enter?”
Mr Brandy gasped. “Mr Piggins? But he’s a vicar!”
“Quite,” said the adjudicator. “Most unsavoury.” She shook her head, and gestured at a tall, dark-haired man in the far corner who, Mr Brandy was dismayed to notice, he recognised rather well. “You’ve been seeded first, of course, what with you being the reigning champion, and you’ll be smooching Mr Mason,” she explained. Closing her book, she leaned in conspiratorially, and Mr Brandy resisted the urge to flee. “Apparently, he’s been practising.”
Mr Brandy could well believe it.
For all that Mr Brandy was not a dandy, a rogue, or a rake, Mr Mason was. Mr Mason was the sort of man, Mr Brandy thought, who might turn up for tea and expect a whisky. The sort of chap who would call upon a lady in all his finery, and spend all his time speaking of poetry - Romantic poetry! - with her brother. The sort of gentleman who, Mr Brandy was somewhat perplexed to note, looked rather good in a cravat, as though it did not make him feel nervous at all.
It had been a tough match last year, all things told. Mr Brandy had won in the end, of course, but it had been finely fought on both sides. Mr Mason had, at the first blow of the adjudicator’s whistle, decided to employ a move that Mr Brandy liked to think of as teasing the seam of Mr Brandy’s lips with his tongue; it had been rather pleasant, all things considered, and the wandering hands that gently cupped the back of Mr Brandy’s head and come to rest in the curls there had been rather lovely, too. Mr Brandy had responded in the correct manner, pressing gentle kisses to Mr Mason’s closed mouth, occasionally nipping Mr Mason’s bottom lip with his teeth, hinting at the rest of what may be expected from the match. He had even settled his hands on Mr Mason’s hips, drawing him slightly closer, so as to make the next part of the contest slightly easier.
Only then Mr Mason seemed to get quite ahead of himself, and before Mr Brandy could even press his own hands to the curve of Mr Mason’s famously rugged jawline, Mr Mason had been pushing apart Mr Brandy’s lips with his tongue, plundering it in a way that Mr Brandy could only describe as ruthless, a little as though he were attempting to invade Mr Brandy’s mouth and colonise his teeth. It had not been entirely unpleasant, Mr Brandy supposed, but it was certainly impolite, and Mr Brandy had won on a technicality.
He could not imagine that Mr Mason would allow the same thing to happen again. He had been practising, after all. Mr Brandy had not kissed anyone since his victory over Mr Mason, and that was a year ago. His heart sank; he had been foolish, prideful. He should have been kissing someone this whole past year. He did so like his silver trophy; it would not look so nice in Mr Mason’s home, he knew, which was done up in the French style, according to local gossip, and looked rather ghastly, all jewel tones and gold. A silver trophy would look most improper.
Mr Brandy took a deep breath in, despite the restricting nature of his cravat, and stepped over to Mr Mason, who had been eyeing him for the past few moments, not unlike a fox might eye a badger. Mr Brandy had never seen a fox eye a badger, but the analogy did not seem inaccurate.
“I see we are to be matched first,” he said, extending his hand for Mr Mason to shake.
Mr Mason took his hand. His skin was dry, and showed no signs of the damp nervousness that Mr Brandy felt. Mr Mason’s handshake was firm and steady, and Mr Brandy, quite despite himself, remembered the weight of Mr Mason’s hands, the length of his fingers as they had run through Mr Brandy’s hair, held the back of his head with a tenderness that might have won him the whole contest, had he not thrown it so spectacularly.
“We are,” he replied, and if Mr Brandy was surprised at the cautious tone of his voice, he affected not to show it.
All around them, Mr Brandy could hear the wet sound of lips. It made him feel slightly on edge.
“It’s a lovely day,” he said, desperate to cover the sound with his own voice.
“Yes,” agreed Mr Mason, nodding slowly. “A lovely day to be smooched to within an inch of one’s life, I suppose.”
“As is the nature of the contest,” said Mr Brandy.
Mr Mason smiled. “Quite.”
“I do hope you haven’t been chewing tobacco this morning,” said Mr Brandy.
“On the contrary,” replied Mr Mason, and Mr Brandy fancied he sounded somewhat smug. “I have been drinking peppermint tea. I knew we would be seeded together, and did not wish you to find me unpleasant.” He paused. “For the sake of the competition, of course.”
Curses. Mr Brandy had not even considered drinking peppermint tea. He thought back to his own breakfast, coffee and toast and honey. He was woefully unprepared.
“May the best kisser win,” said Mr Brandy, hoping he sounded sportsmanly.
“I do say, Mr Brandy,” said Mr Mason, his lip quirking. “You shouldn’t declare me successful before the contest begins.”
“I was talking about me,” said Mr Brandy, somewhat crossly.
Mr Mason smirked and folded his arms. “Indeed,” he said, and Mr Brandy clenched his hands into fists.
He felt something that he supposed was anger flare in his gut. Mr Mason tended to have that effect on him; he always did, such as when Mr Brandy had been taking his usual stroll to the vicarage and had dropped his coin purse, and Mr Mason, who happened to be taking his usual stroll to the coffee house, which, for some reason, always corresponded with Mr Brandy’s, despite the coffee house being quite a way from the vicarage, had picked it up, presented it to Mr Brandy with a ludicrously theatrical bow, and kissed his hand.
Or the time Mr Brandy had been out at the theatre, and he had found himself seated next to Mr Mason, who had, as it happened, seen that particular play some three times before, and spent the whole performance making quips about the script, which Mr Brandy had to admit were much funnier than the play itself, and had looked absolutely delighted every time Mr Brandy laughed.
And, of course, the time that Mr Mason had thrown the smooching competition by thoroughly plundering Mr Brandy’s mouth in a way that Mr Brandy often thought about before bed.
He was about to say something incredibly witty in retort - there was nothing on his tongue, but he hoped it might come naturally, although it never had before - when the adjudicator tapped him on the shoulder.
“You’re up, gentlemen,” she said. “If you’ll follow me to the Smooching Ring.”
They did as she asked, and she led them to the centre of the room, which had been ringed off with velvet rope. They stepped inside, Mr Mason holding the rope open for Mr Brandy (which did not fill Mr Brandy with any feeling other than irritation, not at all), and stood facing each other. Mr Brandy looked at Mr Mason, at his lips, which were well-formed, he supposed, and full, and his jawline, which was infuriatingly square, and his cheekbones, which were high and suited his face rather well. Mr Brandy looked at him for quite a few moments, considering his approach - should he go straight for the lips? Pepper Mr Mason’s jaw with a few light kisses first? - and then the adjudicator blew her whistle, and he no longer had time to consider much of anything at all.
And so they began. Rather gamely, Mr Brandy thought, Mr Mason allowed him the first move; and Mr Brandy leaned forwards, touched his lips rather chastely to Mr Mason’s, the mere suggestion of a kiss. The consummate professional - his practice had indeed been paying off, Mr Brandy was somewhat irked to note - Mr Mason responded in kind, a featherlight touch of his lips to Mr Brandy’s, his hands resting gently on Mr Brandy’s forearms. Well. If that was how he was going to play it, Mr Brandy supposed, then he would have to continue the volley himself. He settled his hands on Mr Mason’s hips, pressed their lips together a little more firmly; Mr Mason made a pleased sound at the back of his throat that was not, Mr Brandy supposed, technically against the rules, but did have the effect of sending a jolt down Mr Brandy’s spine, which was quite unfair. He thought cold thoughts of tapioca pudding and pressed on.
Mr Mason’s next move, which Mr Brandy could have predicted, was to capture Mr Brandy’s lips in a deeper kiss, one that made Mr Brandy’s knees feel slightly wobbly. This would not do. Mr Mason would not get the upper hand. Mr Brandy could not countenance that silver trophy in a room with gold accents. In return, he moved one hand to the small of Mr Mason’s back and the other to his jaw - which, he was irritated to feel, was just as rugged as rumoured - pulled him in closer, used the leverage to claim the kiss as his own. He knew he had won the first round when Mr Mason’s lips opened of their own accord beneath his, and he slipped his tongue into Mr Mason’s mouth, slowly at first, then more firmly, and he felt rather than heard Mr Mason’s satisfied sigh. One point to me, thought Mr Brandy, and he felt Mr Mason’s hands move up his shoulders, up towards his jaw, and rest there, holding him firm. Mr Mason’s hands, he noticed, had started to tremble. Perhaps his cravat was too tight. Mr Brandy fancied his own might be, too; it was becoming slightly harder to breathe.
Only then, he could feel Mr Mason’s tongue plunder his mouth, exploring him voraciously, Mr Mason’s hands cradling his jaw, his fingers softly stroking Mr Brandy’s skin as he thoroughly smooched him to within an inch of his life, and Mr Brandy realised, with a sinking feeling, that he was suddenly being kissed rather than kissing. How had he let that happen? Resolved to push on, he pushed his tongue more forcefully into Mr Mason’s mouth, kissed him harder, both hands at the back of Mr Mason’s neck. His lips captured Mr Mason’s; Mr Mason’s tongue claimed Mr Brandy’s. He felt Mr Mason pull away slightly, then push back, and Mr Brandy clutched at Mr Mason’s hair, pulled a little, felt the responding sound of pleasure.
“Erm,” said a voice from nearby. The adjudicator. “Gentlemen?”
Mr Mason pulled away. His mouth was red, his eyes wide, hair dishevelled. I did that, thought Mr Brandy. And then: how must I look, if he looks like that? Mr Mason looked at him, then looked away, pulled off his cravat as though it were stifling him. It probably was, thought Mr Brandy. He did look rather flushed.
“I, erm, think we might have to call it a draw,” said the adjudicator, looking between the two of them uncertainly. “Only, everyone else has gone home, you see, and I have an art class to attend this evening, and… well, you both put on a jolly good show, and I can’t quite see either of you winning. Or losing, more accurately. You both win.”
“We both win,” echoed Mr Mason, and when he spoke, his voice was kiss-rough. Mr Brandy felt rather proud of that.
“Yes,” said the adjudicator. “It was. Um. Quite a performance. I’m not sure how I can be expected to pick.”
“That’s quite all right,” said Mr Brandy, astonishing even himself. Mr Mason eyed him strangely, and Mr Brandy put a hand on Mr Mason’s arm to reassure him. It did not seem to have the desired effect; he could feel Mr Mason’s heartbeat jump beneath his hand. Why had he said that? He had no wish to share that trophy.
The adjudicator smiled at them both gratefully. “Well, I pronounce you both the reigning champion,” she said, and feigned a little curtsey. “I’ll write it up this evening. Good evening to you both.”
“Good evening,” said Mr Brandy.
“Good evening,” said Mr Mason, sounding rather dazed.
They watched the adjudicator pick up her shawl, flash them one last smile, and leave.
Around them, the room suddenly seemed awfully still. Mr Brandy loosened his cravat.
“Well,” said Mr Brandy.
“Well,” said Mr Mason.
“The trophy is on my escritoire at home,” said Mr Brandy, “if you’d like to see it. Perhaps you could take it home with you, see if there’s anywhere you’d like to put it during your allotted time with it.”
“Why is it on your escritoire?” asked Mr Mason. “I would have thought it would look best in a glass-fronted cabinet, or possibly on a mantelpiece.”
“Oh,” said Mr Brandy. “I just like to annoy my housekeeper, that’s all. I have very few hobbies.”
“I can think of one you might like to pick up,” said Mr Mason.
“What’s that?” asked Mr Brandy, thinking that perhaps Mr Mason had been a keen gardener the entire time.
“Well,” said Mr Mason, and he looked down at the floor. “It’s just that - we’re both the reigning champion now, aren’t we?”
“We are,” agreed Mr Brandy. “Damn well fought, too.”
“Quite,” said Mr Mason, and when he looked up at Mr Brandy, he was smiling softly. Mr Brandy’s stomach did a quaint little flip. “I wonder if perhaps we ought to practice? For next year, you know. We could try for the Doubles title.”
Mr Brandy stared.
“Only if you, you know, want to,” added Mr Mason, flushing quite attractively.
Mr Brandy put his hand on Mr Mason’s forearm, and watched the bob of Mr Mason’s throat as he swallowed. That was the secret, thought Mr Brandy; not to wear a cravat after all. Or perhaps the secret was to be more like Mr Mason. Although Mr Mason seemed to like Mr Brandy just fine. And wasn’t that something?
“My dear,” said Mr Brandy, touching Mr Mason’s jaw. “A Doubles title sounds marvellous.”