Baron Ethan Chaplain was the dark, severe older brother of Kendel's older brother's betrothed. Nigh ten years Kendel's senior, he stood well over a head taller than Kendel's shorter-than-average frame. He was well built, broad of shoulder, his face and frame composed of hard lines, and had just a hint of muscle showing through the multiple layers of his traveling clothes. Ink black hair with just the faintest traces of gold glinted in the candlelight, and shadows cast by the same light made his eyes shine like twin pieces of obsidian.
They called him Gargoyle.
According to Byron, the name had first been applied during the King's Ball two Seasons earlier. One of the ladies newly introduced into society that year had made the comment that he had the bearing of one of the gargoyles perched along the palace roofs, with the disposition to match. It was a display of anger over not having her affections returned, but those in company had taken it as a clever bit of witticism, and the name had stuck.
He was in obvious contrast to his light, blonde sister, and Byron said he was a dour personage, given to brooding and dark silences. Which might have been true. He had not spoken a word since voicing his name upon his entrance, and had since stood stoically and silently by the fire place in the drawing room while his sister, Lady Eleanor, chattered away about the trip and the weather and lord only know what else—Kendel had stopped listening, his attention completely focused on Baron Chaplain.
That could also account a bit towards his naming as a gargoyle. The way he towered well over everyone else, a sort of looming figure that was hard to ignore, even if he was not the center of attention. He had a very dominating presence. Kendel could not fathom how the others could so easily talk around him, focus on their conversation at all with such a force in their midst.
And yet… it was not intimidation that he felt. Nor apprehension. It was simply that, he could not take his eyes away. There was something there that drew his gaze and disrupted his focus on all else around him.
At least until his mother tugged at his ear.
Kendel snapped back to the present, shaking his head to clear out the fog that seemed to have drifted over his thoughts, and turned to address his mother, but stopped just short when he found himself the focus of an intent, obsidian gaze. And he was lost again, the fog resettling in his mind.
There was another, sharper tug, and Kendel almost literally tore his eyes away from the much darker ones to face his mother.
She just scowled at him, eyebrows raised in that way that meant she was not yet beyond finding amusement in the situation. "Now that I have your attention." She smiled and promptly turned away, to Baron Chaplain, inclining her head regally. "Baron, I'm certain you must be very tired after your long journey and must have a desire to settle in and rest."
Chaplain pulled away from the mantel beside which he had been reclining for much of the conversation and delivered an elegant, graceful bow. "If it would not offend, your Grace."
"Not at all, Baron." She rested her hand lightly on Kendel's shoulder, "Kendel will show you to your rooms," and gave it a good, firm squeeze. "Kendel, would you please?"
He wanted to protest, but he could already see her eyes shifting to that position that meant there was no more humor to be found, so he only nodded. "Yes, Mama." He leaned in to give her cheek a light peck and stood, offering his own half-bow to Chaplain. "My lord, if you'll please follow me."
His mother smiled again, admonishing glare gently retreating from her face to make her once again appear the ever-gracious hostess, the queenly Duchess Desdemona Blake. "I have had the silver room prepared for the Baron, dear." Kendel nodded in acknowledgement and stepped from the room, trusting that Chaplain would follow with him.
The journey was a silent one, the Baron, as before, seeming to have little desire to converse. Yet, oddly, Kendel felt no compulsion to fill the silence with his own words. In fact, he felt his words were not needed; it was a comfortable silence, and Kendel felt more at ease with it—with him, he might even dare to say—than he would have had he stayed on in the sitting room listening to Lady Eleanor continue on.
She was a sweet girl, and certainly, Bryon could do no better for a wife, but she was one of those who required a lot of care and attention. Who was not pleased unless at least half the room was enamored of her, while the other half writhed in envy at her success over the first half.
Baron Chaplain could capture a room with great ease, Kendel had little doubt, but Kendel also doubted that was of major concern to him. Granted, he had not known the Baron for more than the bare hour he had been a guest in his parents' home, but Kendel thought he could be certain of that at least. Chaplain was not a man given to flamboyance, nor was he a man easily swayed by it.
A polar opposite to his sister in every aspect.
He paused before a thick mahogany door, turning the latch and stepping inside to then usher Chaplain in after him. "Your rooms, my Lord." Kendel affected another half-bow. "I hope you find they suit your needs." He would do best to behave accordingly; his mother had footmen all about ready and willing to report any ill tidings he might presume upon their guest. Sneaky witch.
Chaplain still did not speak, but he inclined his head, dark eyes sweeping over Kendel so that for a moment, he forgot his words, where he was. But he recovered quickly, shaking his head at his own absurdity, "Then I shall bid you good eve. Should you need anything, you have only to pull that cord beside the mantel."
Kendel ducked swiftly from the room, shutting the door with as much force as etiquette would allow, and almost missing the "Good night, Master Blake" that followed him out.
Chaplain was in the morning room when Kendel came down to breakfast the following morning. It was far stranger to find himself eating amongst company than it was to find the Baron was an early riser—in fact, Kendel likely would have been more surprised to learn that he was not. The others were much more in tune with the hours of the Season. His mother and father would not rouse themselves for a couple hours yet, and Byron likely not until closer to midday.
Though with the Lady Eleanor now in residence, his brother might yet find the energy to wake earlier. It all depended on the fair lady's own hours, Kendel supposed.
"Good morning, my Lord," Kendel inclined his head in the semblance of a bow and stepped into the room, headed towards the sidebar to prepare a plate. Chaplain nodded his acknowledgement and turned back to the papers he had been perusing when Kendel arrived.
"Can I trust that your rooms are satisfactory?" He glanced back at the table as he buttered a piece of toast. Chaplain peered at him from over his papers, the slightest tilt of his lips the only proof of his amusement; Kendel smiled wryly. "Forgive me, my Lord, it is not my intent to disturb your reading. Only my mother would be most cross if I did not at least feign cordiality." He cast a glance towards the footmen holding post just inside the entryway. "And she would be sure to find out if I did not."
At that, the Baron really did smile, flashing even white teeth and revealing two deep dimples in each cheek. "I find my rooms to be in perfect accord, Master Blake. So, too your hospitality."
"Very good, my Lord." He smiled and returned to his preparations, allowing the Baron to resume his reading once more. His hospitality was as rotten as his manners most days, but he was not inclined to argue the point—his mother would blister his ears to hear of his contradicting a guest, especially over such a trivial matter.
Besides, just let the footmen report the Baron's compliment. The duchess might just be inspired to let him off the hook for any other errors he would make that day. He made a face as he poured cream into his tea. Implacable wench.
Kendel approached the table, choosing a seat immediately opposite the Baron and setting down a plate heaped with fresh berries, cold slices of melon, and wedges of crispy red apple. Beside this he had also a small bowl of steaming meal over which had been drizzled a generous dose of molasses. He sighed, breathing in the fresh smells; he did so love his fruits.
His eyes strayed to the Baron as soon as he sat down, and it was with great effort that Kendel forced them away before he could be caught. It was becoming a bad habit, the way he stopped and stared and forgot all else. He tipped most of the berries into the hot cereal, stirring them in and watching as the juices stained it in a swirl of red and blue, making a pointed effort to keep his eyes focused there and not on the man across from him.
It was a much harder task than he would have believed.
In search of a distraction, Kendel forced his thoughts to those things he had to accomplish that day, listing them in his head according to their priority. Though his mother had taken on most of the preparations for the coming wedding herself, there were still a number of tasks that she had specifically assigned to Kendel to oversee. He had not already attended to them because they were not chores that needed immediate attention, and time had been on his side.
The arrival of Baron Chaplain and Lady Eleanor, however, meant that he should now see to them. They might only be two guests, but give it to the end of a fortnight and the number would be near fifty times that—not including the extra servants his mother was hiring on for the affair.
Byron and Eleanor's wedding was set to take place at the end of the following month. Before that, though, their parents had a whole schedule of events planned to pass the time and entertain the huddled masses.
Baron Chaplain and Lady Eleanor were the first to arrive. There would be one more week of blessed peace and quiet, and then the others would come. Kendel feared for his sanity. Though it was a relatively short event by society's standards, so far as Kendel's went, it was plenty long enough. He wondered if even the library would be a safe recourse, then.
Kendel shuddered to think that his one haven might be breached.
The scrape of a chair and the thud of heavy boots brought Kendel's head up. Chaplain was standing, papers folded neatly and tucked securely under one arm. And Kendel was staring again, though his eyes did not seem quite capable of deciding what they wanted to stare at.
He was dressed for riding, shoulders incased in a rich, charcoal grey wool riding coat. It was form fitting, tapering in at the waist, then flaring out in tails that fell to mid-thigh. The sleeves, too, flared just the slightest at the wrists. Beneath the coat was a crisp, pressed white shirt, made more glaringly so by the contrast of the Chaplain's dark features. His legs were sealed in tight, tight black breeches and leather riding boots polished to mirror shine that came to just under his knees.
Shaking his head, clearing his mind of the fog that had once again settled in, Kendel forced his eyes back up to Chaplain's face. "Enjoy your ride, my Lord." He spared at glance towards one of the windows in the room, "The weather appears quite amenable this morning." Thought it could have been raining for all that he had actually noticed.
Chaplain gave him that tilted smile again and inclined his head. "I thank you for your company, Master Blake." The smile changed, an odd glint passing through those dark eyes. "Perhaps I may have the pleasure of it again at midday."
It was not exactly a request, more a demand, really, but Kendel felt inclined to answer nonetheless. "Of course, my Lord."
"Then I shall see you then." Chaplain nodded, satisfied. "Enjoy your meal, Master Blake." And he strode from the room, passing one of the footmen the folded papers as he exited.
Over the following two weeks, they had settled into a routine. Kendel would sit down to breakfast and inquire as to the condition of a particular aspect of Baron Chaplain's accommodations. Chaplain would then, as always, respond that he found whatever it was to be "in perfect accord, Master Blake," and then they would both resume their meal in companionable silence.
Unless one or another of the other guests happened to be about at that hour as well, in which case Kendel was required to play the charming host and attend their idle conversations, a task for which he had little liking and even less patience. Though the devil take him should his mother ever learn of these sentiments. Nagging shrew.
Fortunately, that was an occurrence that had happened but thrice so far, and it was not one that occurred that morning. What did happen, however, was that upon asking after the Baron's satisfaction with the view of the gardens, Chaplain did not give his standard reply. Instead, he folded his papers as he usually did before leaving, set them neatly to one side of his plate, and lifted his eyes to look directly at Kendel. "Do you ride, Master Blake?"
"My Lord?" Kendel blinked, lost in obsidian eyes and briefly thrown by the change in their routine, and it was some seconds before his thoughts cleared long enough for him to manage a decent understanding of the question posed to him. "I've not yet fallen from my saddle, Baron."
His answer earned him a wry smile. "Then perhaps you would care to accompany me this morning?"
"If it pleases you, my Lord. I would like that very much." He stood, just managing to avoid tripping over his chair in his haste, and sketched a quick bow. "Only allow me a few moments so that I may change into more appropriate attire."
Chaplain stood as well. "Of course. I shall await you in the main hall."
"Then if you will excuse me." Kendel spun on his heel, dashing to his rooms as quickly as he dared—as he was allowed without his mother hearing word of it.
It took little more than a quarter hour for Kendel to change and return below stairs to meet Chaplain. His suit did not fit him near so well as the Baron's did him. The snug dove grey breeches only seemed to emphasize his smaller, thinner stature, and the deep burgundy coat showed clearly that no matter how much he worked at it, he would never achieve the build the Baron had.
But all that seemed of little consequence when the Baron's gaze swept over him like that, eyes taking on that strange glint, and an even odder smile just curving the corners of his mouth. Kendel could not know quite what it meant, but thought he could deduce at least that Chaplain was pleased.
"I fear I have delayed your ride long enough, Baron." He swept his arm to indicate that Chaplain should precede him through the door that even now a footman was rushing to open. "Shall we depart?"
"Ethan." Kendel tilted his head quizzically, one eyebrow lifting in a manner that very much resembled his mother—though he did not delight in that knowledge. "I must insist you call me, Ethan," Chaplain clarified. "We are in each other's company enough, I think we may dispense with the formalities."
Kendel smiled brightly. "Very well, my Lord. Ethan," he sounded calm, but inside his heart beat an erratic rhythm—he like the feel of the Baron's—Ethan's—name on his lips. "Then you must also call me Kendel."
"It will be with great pleasure, Kendel." And Ethan stepped through the door, headed towards the stables. Kendel blinked after him for a brief, confused second before moving, stumbling through his first few steps before at last catching up with the Baron—Ethan.
Against his greatest fears, the library had been mostly left alone, with only the occasional tea or constitutional or whatever they called them anymore taking place inside its walls. This all suited Kendel just fine, as it was where he had chosen to ensconce himself that day. Ensconce and hide. Perched as he was at the highest point of the ladder that scaled to the very top of the lower level, under the shadows cast by the floor of the level above, it was a feat easily achieved.
One arm was hooked around a rung for balance as he more or less lounged at his great height and made quick work of the book in his hands and enjoyed the peace that came with solitude. It was quiet, with naught but the shuffling of a turned page and the breeze drifting through a partially opened window as his companions. He was far enough away from the goings on outside that the sounds of laughter and games only just reached his ears, and then only if the wind carried them right.
Kendel shuddered. He simply did not like all this fuss and could only be grateful that, as he was not the heir, such a grand affair would not be required for him anyway. Heaven forbid, he was eloping just to be safe.
The day's social requirement was some garden party, picnic, outing thing for which a hedge maze had been erected in the south lawn almost a year in advance (the price of which had been the uprooting of Kendel's favorite oak, but such was how it went). Also wherein his mother would foist upon him every genteel maiden she could ensnare in her wicked claws in the hopes of inspiring his better nature to take an interest and pursue his own bride. Scheming harridan.
Such were her thoughts, but he had little interest in anything of the sort. Even less in the prospects thrust before him. Especially now, when all he could think about were obsidian eyes.
Rolling his eyes at such wayward thoughts, Kendel forced his mind to find some other focus. The book he currently held might be a good place to start. This strange obsession was ridiculous.
Distantly, he heard the click of the latch as the door was opened and then shut again, followed by the muffled sound of boots on carpet, and Kendel tensed, wondering who it was disturbing his peace, and hoping it was not his mother, hell-bent on dragging him out to be social. "Kendel?" Oh, Ethan.
Kendel turned away from the book, glancing down to find Ethan standing directly below, watching him intently. "Ethan." He closed the book, slipping it back in its space on the shelf, and started to climb down. His breath caught the slightest fraction when, as he neared the bottom, one large hand curved under his elbow while the other settled at the small of his back, helping down the last few steps. "Thank you." The hand on his back disappeared, but the one at his elbow only slid lower to encircle his wrist. "What brings you to my hiding place?"
Ethan smiled, thumb starting to trace small circles in the soft flesh just below Kendel's palm. "I missed you at supper."
Though a small part of him thrilled that Ethan had missed him—missed him enough to come find him—the other, larger part could not help but be confused. "Supper?" Kendel blink, eyebrows furrowing, and stretched on his toes to peer out the window beyond Ethan's shoulder. It was dark, the last rays of light just fading beyond the hills that overlooked the pond in the northwest corner. "Oh…" He smiled sheepishly at Ethan. "I got distracted." He did that sometimes. All the time.
As was his habit, he had come to the library intent on one book in particular, but the search for it had unearthed several others that had captured his interest first. His goal still was not reached, but given another hour, he might yet. He sighed. Though he had quite obviously already spent more than enough time with his books. Lord his mother would have his skin for a coat now.
"Come," Ethan's grip changed again, this time sliding lower to twine his fingers with Kendel's. He tugged gently, pulling Kendel into step beside him. "I've asked that a light meal be prepared for us in the blue room."
"Oh. That would be… I would enjoy that."
Ethan gave him a slanted look, eyes shining anew with that light, and the grip on his hand tightened minutely. "As would I, Kendel."
They crested a hill somewhere in the northern section of his father's land, topping out at the rise and coming to a stop. It was a splendid view, offering an unimpeded look at most of the land both in and around his family's borders. The pond that curled around the foot of the hills and disappeared partway into the trees. The start of the forest that swallowed up most of the eastern boundary and extended farther beyond that. Even the monstrous hedge maze was easily seen from here.
This was a stop they had made most mornings. The last stop before they returned home to give the horses a rest and join the others for the midday meal. Their last stop…
Kendel felt his heart give a lurch, and he studiously avoided looking at Ethan. Even as they stood there, Ethan's trunks were being packed, his carriage being made ready for the journey back to his own residence.
The wedding had gone off without a hitch two days previously, Eleanor looking radiant and elegant in her powder puff of a dress, and Byron as respectable and dashing as Kendel supposed it was possible to make him—there was only so much rascal that could really be beaten out of a man, after all, despite what his mother insisted to the contrary. They were both happily on their way to Paris or wherever. The continent, in any case.
Many of the other guests had also already departed, more than half within hours of the conclusion of the wedding. All those who still remained would be gone by late that night or early the next morning. The Duchess liked her guests, but she liked them more when they did not overstay their welcome.
Kendel, too, was certainly glad to see an end to this whole affair and a return to his peace and solitude—or as much as could be had under his mother's roof. Mostly anyway.
Now that Bryon was good and married and the title on its way to being secured for another generation, Kendel supposed it was his turn to be his mother's pet. No doubt she would drag him out of the country this Season and force him to take part in at least some of the parties. She would need a new victim to parade about and show off, and since he no longer had any expectations of marriage, she would be free to do so until she finally grew bored with it. Incorrigible harpy.
Though he had to admit, he looked forward to Ethan's departure even less. He enjoyed their quiet breakfasts in the morning, looked forward to the long rides they would take afterwards. He liked the silences they shared, how they could say not a word to each other when they were together, and yet still have it feel as if they had conversed the whole time. He even like that odd glint Ethan would sometimes get in his eyes when he looked at Kendel. In truth, he liked everything.
Hell, he was fond of the man. Maybe a bit more than fond. Maybe a lot more. He would miss Ethan terribly.
"Kendel." Warm knuckles grazed his cheek, and Kendel snapped his head around, surprised to find that only bare inches stood between them; that they were so close their thighs just brushed against each other's. He wondered how Ethan could have gotten so close without his noticing.
Ethan tilted his head, eyes watching him closely, searching for something—or so it seemed. "I hope you will not think me too forward…" He ran his knuckles over Kendel's cheek again, fingers opening to splay and tangle in his hair. And then he leaned in, face looming ever closer, that odd glint shining like fire in his obsidian eyes, and then that fog settled over Kendel's mind as Ethan's lips pressed against his own.
This? Answered every question he had not even yet dared ask himself. And it seemed to Kendel that Ethan was not being nearly forward enough.
He opened hungrily to the kiss, greedily accepting what Ethan gave him and willingly giving all that he had. When they broke, they were panting heavily, and Kendel was somewhere between mostly off his horse and practically in Ethan's lap, but Kendel could not be bothered to mind. Not at the moment, anyway.
Besides, Ethan seemed perfectly content to hold him and pet him, nibbling at his lips and the tender skin behind his ears. Their silence fell around them as their breathing slowed, saying more than any words ever could, and it was long minutes before Ethan pulled back, curling long fingers under Kendel's chin and forcing him to look up. "Come with me."
Kendel did not even think about it; he did not have to. "Yes." And he reached up, linking his fingers behind Ethan's neck, and leaned in, meeting Ethan halfway as their lips for another kiss.
Anything to avoid being his mother's dress-up doll.
Everything to be with his Gargoyle.