I just couldn't leave these guys alone. So, one last shot of fan service just because I can!
Epilogue: A Visit to Green Glen
"I can see Green River!" Evan said excitedly.
"It's not terribly dignified to stick your head out the window like that," Dahl replied calmly.
Evan pulled his head in and stuck out his tongue at Dahl. "I haven't been home in almost three years. I have a right to be excited."
Dahl grinned at him. "I know. I'm happy to see you so excited."
Evan moved closer to him on the seat and took his hand. "Are you nervous?"
"I don't know. How likely is it your mother will strangle me on the spot?"
"She invited us, remember?"
"But it might just be a trap," Dahl chuckled.
Evan punched his arm. "My mother wouldn't do that. She's been mentioning in her letters since last summer that she wanted us to visit. But I've been so busy with my classes, I couldn't make the time."
"That's undoubtedly why she wrote to me instead," Dahl said. "She said she thought you were making excuses."
"I know." Dahl squeezed his hand. "But I think you are still more nervous than I am." He kissed Evan's cheek. "Aren't you?"
Evan flushed. "Well, yes." He looked back out the window. The stands of cottonwoods that lined the banks of Green River reminded him of home. Nostalgia washed over him. "The palace is my home now, but this place holds so many memories for me. When I thought I would never be able to come here again, I felt so lost. Now…" He smiled softly. "I feel like I have two homes."
Dahl slipped an arm around his shoulders. "I hope the one with me is the most important one."
Evan leaned against him. "You know it is." He lifted his face and was rewarded with a kiss. "Umm… I'll never get tired of that."
They rolled through the town of Green River Crossing and rumbled across the stone bridge leading to Green Glen.
"I hope we have time to visit town," Dahl said. "I've never actually been in Green River Crossing before."
The road to Green Glen wound through tilled fields, pastures and stands of broadleaf trees. Peasants could be seen tending the fields, the bright colors of their country clothing standing out against the more somber colors of the crops. A goose girl in a frilly blue skirt and a bleached blouse covered in elaborate embroidery stopped to wave at them as they rolled by, her charges milling around her feet and honking in annoyance at the carriage. Evan and Dahl both waved back.
"Is she one of your tenants?" Dahl asked.
"I don't recognize her, but she might be," Evan answered. "See that stone?" He pointed at a knee-high chuck of engraved gray stone sitting beside the road as they rolled by. "That marks the beginning of our estate." His eyes sparkled. "We're almost there." They passed a turnoff leading left to a cluster of farmhouses with neat gardens beside them. "That's where many of our tenants live. In my great-grandfather's time, the tenants mostly lived in huts in back of the manor, but my grandfather wanted to move them closer to the fields they tended, so he built these houses for them. My father built a second set of houses farther west that are closer to our orchards. We mainly grow wheat in these fields."
"My estate is too rocky to grow crops," Dahl said. "My tenants mostly raise sheep and goats."
"Do you ever go there?"
"No, but I should. At the very least, I should make sure they're not suffering any hardships." Dahl sighed. "I never had to think about that before. I always assumed I would die before it mattered."
Evan hugged him. "Well, you promised me you wouldn't die, so now you'll have to step up to your responsibilities."
"You mean I have to do something other than spend all my time making you happy?" He lifted Evan's chin and kissed him again.
Evan moaned. "You need to stop doing that."
"Am I getting you excited?"
Evan pushed away from him. "I think we will not discuss that right now."
Dahl grinned but he stopped trying to kiss him.
Evan looked out the window again. "There it is! Green Glen Manor!" He moved closer to the window, but he did not stick his head out. If Dahl thought it was undignified, his father surely would. As the carriage rolled into the driveway before the front steps, all the members of his family came spilling out onto the landing.
Dahl paled. "How many people are in your family?"
"I told you," Evan said, a happy smile on his face, "I have three brothers and three sisters, four of whom are married. And Berrian is engaged now, so her fiancé is probably here, too." The carriage rolled to a stop and a waiting footman immediately opened the door. Evan did not waste any time getting out. He dashed up the steps two at a time and plunged into the human mass that was his family.
"Welcome home, Evan!" Horwin Tark said, managing to sound grave and happy at the same time. "It is good to see you again."
Evan managed to extricate a hand and reached out to clasp his father's extended hand. "Thank you, Father. I am very happy to be here."
"Oh, enough of all this formality!" Eloise Tark exclaimed. She shouldered Horwin aside and clasped Evan in a tight embrace, dislodging other family members in the process. "I've missed you, dear! I'm so glad you're home!"
Evan returned her embrace happily. "I missed you, too, Mother."
"Lord Shelby," Horwin said, "Welcome to Green Glen."
"Thank you, Lord Tark."
At the sound of Dahl's voice, Evan guiltily pulled back from his mother's embrace. "I'm sorry, Dahl. I've forgotten my manners."
Dahl smiled. "I don't think anyone will blame you. It's been a long time."
Evan wanted to take his hand, but instead, he grasped Dahl's elbow. "Mother, may I introduce Lord Dahl Shelby, formerly the Lord High General?"
Eloise held out her hand. "Lord Shelby, I am pleased to meet you at last."
Dahl took her hand and bowed over it, his lips just brushing the back of her knuckles. "Lady Tark, thank you very much for inviting me to your home." He straightened. "I am very glad to be here. If nothing else, it gives me the chance to learn even more about the person who is most important in my life."
Eloise raised an eyebrow. "Indeed? Allow me to introduce you to the rest of the family." As she spoke, everyone shifted around and lined themselves up. "This is Eric and his wife Colette." She patted the head of a cute little girl who was clinging to Colette's skirt. "This is their daughter Suzanne. She just turned three last winter."
Evan smiled down at the little girl with delight. "She was just a baby when I left! She's gotten so big!"
"See!" Eloise said pointedly. "You should have come home for a visit sooner." She moved on to a couple who were holding a little boy and an infant. "This is Arnan and his wife Joelle. Their son Andrew just turned two and baby Nita is three months old." At Evan's stunned look, Eloise just smiled. "This is Eleanor and her husband James Fallwell. Their son Laurence is five." When she stepped to the next couple, she put her hand affectionately on the swollen belly of the young woman. "As you can see, Radan and his wife Lucy are expecting a baby soon."
"You only just told me that Radan and Lucy were married!" Evan exclaimed.
"Hardly," Eloise admonished him. "I wrote you about that last year. It's perfectly normal for a couple to be expecting after a year or so. I also told you at that time that Berrian and Paul Carter," she indicated the next couple, "had gotten engaged. Their wedding is next month. I fully expect you to attend."
"We'll be here, Lady Tark," Dahl said smoothly.
"And finally, this is Analise, whom you've already met."
Dahl smiled and inclined his head. "It's good to see you again, Analise. Lasha was quite jealous when I told him I would be visiting Green Glen."
Analise blushed. "I get a letter from him every week," she admitted. "He promised me he would attend Berrian's wedding."
"Lasha's a fine young man," Eloise said. "Very well mannered. We were quite pleased when Analise brought him home for a visit."
"Lasha is one of the best men I know," Dahl agreed. "His service at the front was invaluable to me."
"Why don't we go inside?" Horwin suggested. "I imagine you're tired from the journey. Might I offer you a glass of cider to wash the dust away?"
"Thank you, Lord Tark," Dahl said. "That would be very nice."
Eloise looped her arm through Dahl's and led the way inside. Horwin followed her beside Evan, and the rest of the family filed after in age order. In the front parlor, Eloise guided Dahl to their best couch. "Sit here, Lord Shelby." She sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. "I want you to be completely at home during your visit. You are as much a part of this family as anyone here."
"Thank you, Lady Tark." Dahl inclined his head briefly. "I have little family of my own, so becoming a member of such a large one," he glanced around the room, "is a bit of a shock. But a pleasant one," he added with a smile.
Eloise chuckled. "Nevertheless, we are glad to include you. There is one thing…" She paused and Dahl watched her face expectantly. "I have to admit, I am a little dismayed to have one of my children living in an intimate relationship outside the bonds of matrimony."
Evan swallowed. His mother's strict moral standards were the one thing he had always feared.
Dahl nodded. "I understand, my lady. But I have to tell you that it is my firm belief that Evan and I belong together."
"I have no doubt of that," Eloise responded. "You gave him your name, and there can be no greater proof of commitment, in my mind."
"But having said that, the present state of your relationship still bothers me."
"What would you have me do, my lady?" Dahl asked the question calmly, but Evan's heart was pounding.
"I think you should get married."
Evan's mouth fell open.
Dahl handled the statement with greater aplomb. "But Lady Tark, our church does not permit one man to marry another."
"You might think that," Eloise replied, "but I asked our local pastor to check and he informed me that there are no statutes specifically against it in the tenets of the faith. It's just simply never been done." She patted his hand. "So there is no reason why you can't, if that is your inclination."
Dahl blinked at her. Then he stood up, walked to Evan, and knelt down at his feet. "Evan Shelby, would you do me the honor of granting me your hand in marriage?"
Evan stared at him, utterly dumbfounded. He looked around the room and every member of his family was staring at him expectantly, their eyes alight with excitement and joy. His mother was watching him with a look of smug satisfaction on her face. He looked back down at Dahl. Dahl was looking up at him, his face expressionless, but his green eyes were filled with love. Evan opened his mouth to speak, but no sound came out. He cleared his throat and tried again.
"Dahl," he rasped, "I cannot say no to anything that binds me more closely to you." He held out his hand and Dahl took it.
Then Dahl stood up and kissed him deeply, right there in front of everyone. Applause broke out around them.
Analise was the first to grasp his arm when Dahl released him. She kissed his cheek. "I'm so happy for you, Evan, even if it means you'll be married before I am."
Then Eric clasped his hand and shook it gravely. "Congratulations, little brother."
"Thank you." Feeling stunned, Evan accepted the congratulations from the rest of his family; handshakes from his brothers and brothers-in-law; kisses from his sisters and sisters-in-law.
Finally, his father approached and held out his hand. "Congratulations, Evan," Horwin said gravely. "When we first learned of your relationship with Lord Shelby, we were as much dismayed by the fact of it as we were by the knowledge that you lied to hide it from us. It is much better to have it in the open, where we can understand and appreciate the honest affection you share."
"Thank you, Father."
Eloise stepped up beside her husband and caught his and Dahl's hands. "Now that the formality is taken care of, it's time to get ready for the ceremony."
"Everything is prepared," she said with a wide smile. "We've been planning this ever since you said you would visit. It will just be family, I'm afraid. With Berrian's wedding already planned for next month, we can't expect our neighbors to attend too many social events with the harvest approaching."
"So, tomorrow, the in-laws should begin arriving around midday, and the ceremony will be held in the afternoon. We have quite a lavish dinner planned for the evening, followed by dancing and cards." She wrinkled her nose. "It's a little pedestrian for a wedding, I know, but since you two already share a name and accommodations, I thought it more appropriate."
"You've been planning our wedding for a month?!" Evan exclaimed weakly. He staggered to the couch and sank down. "And you invited the in-laws?"
Eloise sat down next to him and patted his knee. "I thought you would prefer a more intimate affair. There should only be about fifty guests."
"Fifty?" Evan echoed faintly.
"I just hope no one is offended at not being invited." She grinned suddenly. "But of course, that's why I planned a small get together later this week for our friends and neighbors so they could meet Lord Shelby. We've never had a member of the royal family visit Green Glen before."
"Of course," Evan said, his voice still faint.
Dahl sat down on Eloise's other side. "Quite honestly, I'm looking forward to this." His eyes were sparkling. "Who knows? Maybe we'll give other couples the courage to admit to the depth of their affection."
Evan met his eyes and thought about his friend Joss. Joss was now living with Alonzo Arentaria, the Lord High Chamberlain, and neither one seemed inclined to end their relationship. "Perhaps," he murmured.
"Ah!" Horwin exclaimed. "Here's our cider. It's not hard, since it's the middle of the afternoon."
"Of course," Dahl said. He took a cup of cider from the tray being passed around by a servant and sipped it. "That's quite good! Do you make this locally?"
"From our own fruit trees," Horwin said proudly. "We make some of the finest cider in the kingdom here in Green Glen. We'll have mulled hard cider with dinner tonight. I think you'll find it quite exceptional."
Dahl smiled. "I can't wait."
"This is a special occasion, Father," Arnan spoke up. "My baby brother just got engaged. I think we should toast his happiness with a cup of the good stuff."
Horwin frowned, but Eric and Radan immediately seconded the suggestion. "Oh, very well," he relented. He turned to the servant. "Cups of mulled cider all around, please."
"At once, my lord."
Horwin took a seat in what was obviously his overstuffed chair, angled comfortably between the fireplace and the couch.
Eloise stood up. "I have work to do. Although we've been making plans already, the final preparations hinged on you two agreeing. So, Eleanor, I could use your help. You too, Berrian."
The three women left and Analise slipped into the vacated space between Dahl and Evan. "Mother really caught you by surprise, didn't she?"
"I'll say," Evan replied. He shook his head. "I would never have imagined this."
"You should have," Radan said with a laugh. "It's been Mother's goal for years to get us all married off. Did you think something as small as you being in love with another man was going to deter her?"
Evan hung his head. "You're right. I should have guessed. But I would never have thought she could get Pastor Morton to agree."
"Pastor Morton prefers that people in intimate relationships be married," Radan said. "He frowns on wantonness."
"I've never been wanton," Evan said quickly.
Dahl bit his lip and looked away. Evan blushed and everyone laughed.
"I suspect there is a well of passion lurking within our little brother," Eric whispered loudly to Arnan.
"Don't tease him!" Analise scolded.
"You're right," Eric laughed. "I apologize, Evan. But you've surpassed me in your career, and as the eldest brother, I must grasp at something."
"I still have a lot to learn before I'll be comfortable calling myself a doctor," Evan replied, still blushing.
Radan smacked a fist into his palm. "It just occurred to me! When Evan and Lord Shelby get married…"
"Please call me Dahl," Dahl interjected.
"He'll be a member of the royal family," Radan concluded. "This means we'll be related to the royal family."
Collette and Joelle exchanged a look. "I think we will have to go to Bandahar to buy the latest fashions," Collette said. "We can't go about dressing like country bumpkins if we're related to royalty."
"What?!" Arnan exclaimed. "New dresses?!" He exchanged a horrified look with Eric. "Mother never mentioned this dreadful possibility."
"No doubt to keep Father from realizing it was likely before she started updating her wardrobe," Radan said. He grinned at his expectant wife. "Sadly, my dear, you will have to wait for your new dresses until after the little one emerges."
Lucy smiled down at her plump belly and rubbed it contentedly. "I confess the prospect of giving birth excites me far more at the moment than a few new outfits." She moved to a chair and sat down. "I think my feet get bigger every day, along with my belly." Radan smiled affectionately and put a footstool under her feet.
"I'm sure your interest in fashion will re-emerge once you have your figure back," Joelle said.
"If I get it back!" Lucy complained. "I'm so round!"
"At least that's one fate Evan will be spared in his marriage," Eric snickered. "His belly should stay nice and flat until the rich court food fattens him up."
"Eric!" Collette exclaimed. She smacked his arm. "You mind your tongue."
Horwin chuckled. "You see, Evan? Now that your brothers have wives, I no longer need to discipline them for every transgression." He put his feet up on his footstool. "I rather like it. I feel like I'm almost retired. Maybe Eloise and I will come to court for a few months next summer. Will you be able to get us accommodations?"
"Of course. In fact, I can probably get you a suite in the family wing of the palace. That's where I live."
Horwin raised an eyebrow. "Nothing too fancy, mind you. We are simple folk."
Evan grinned. "I'm sure I can get you something appropriate. I'm friends with the Lord High Chamberlain and the king."
Arnan laughed aloud. "It sounds so odd to hear my little brother say that, and then I remember that he's a High Lord, too. Of course he'll be friends with all the prominent people. If no one's writing your history, Evan, you'll have to let me do it. This really needs to go into our family archives." He raised his eyebrows. "But you'll have to spare no details. Our descendents will want to know everything."
Evan felt his cheeks coloring again and he glared at Arnan. "I will be happy to discuss how I came to be the Lord High Surgeon, but that's all."
"I can fill in the other details later," Dahl said.
Evan turned his glare on Dahl. "Don't you dare!"
Eric laughed. "Now I want to know what he's hiding."
"I'm not hiding anything!"
The servant re-entered the room with another tray of cups.
"Ah!" Arnan exclaimed. He snagged a cup. "Perfect timing."
All of the men exchanged their empty cider cups for cups of the mulled hard cider, but the ladies declined. Collette and Joelle took seats near Lucy and regarded their husbands sternly.
"Someone has to keep a clear head," Collette said, favoring Eric with a long look. Eric saluted her with his cup and sipped his cider.
Dahl took a sip and grinned broadly. "Oh, my! That's really quite good." He took another sip. "I think I'll need you to start shipping barrels of this stuff to court. It's exquisite."
Horwin smiled. "I'm sure that can be arranged. We normally don't press all the apples we grow, so there's room to increase production."
"I'm very glad to hear that." Dahl finished his cider and stared mournfully into the cup. But fortunately for him, the Tark household staff were very well trained. The same servant who had brought the tray returned with a pitcher. He refilled Dahl's cup without a word. "Thank you," Dahl murmured.
"Evan, I hope you will make time during your visit to call on some of the tenants," Horwin said. "The young men you wrote letters for spoke very highly of you on their return." He glanced at Dahl. "They also spoke quite well of you, Lord Shelby. They said you were an inspiring leader. At least one young man attributed his survival to you personally."
Dahl smiled deprecatingly. "Keeping men alive was always my goal, Lord Tark." He put his hand on Evan's. "But it was Evan who made me realize the only way to truly achieve that was to end the war."
"And you did it," Radan said. "Everyone in Mikor owes you for that." He raised his cup. "To Lord Shelby!"
"To Lord Shelby!" the others echoed and everyone saluted with their cups before taking a drink.
"Lady Tark has diligently read us each of your letters, Evan," Collette said, "but I would love to hear more about the queen. She sounds like a lovely person."
Evan smiled. "Queen Anisia is a lovely person. I probably shouldn't mention it, because it hasn't been announced yet, but she is expecting her first child."
"How wonderful!" Collette exclaimed. "King Vardon must be very excited."
"My cousin," Dahl laughed, "is so stunned he's still trying to figure out how it happened."
"I know that feeling," Radan chuckled and smiled fondly at his rotund wife.
"In fact, there has been a surge of births since the war ended," Evan said. "I think all those soldiers came home and spent the first six months becoming reacquainted with their wives. In a few years, the palace is going to be teeming with toddlers. Lord Alonzo will have to allocate space for nurseries, and some of the atriums will have to be converted to playgrounds."
"I'm looking forward to it," Dahl said. "I like children, even though I've had little opportunity to enjoy them."
Evan blinked at him. "You never told me that," he said uncertainly.
"It's not like I expect you to give me any," Dahl replied with a smile.
Eloise returned with Eleanor and Berrian. "Everything is ready," she announced, rubbing her hands together with a contented smile. "By sunset tomorrow, I will have no unmarried sons. This is most satisfactory."
"I have to agree," Horwin said from the comfort of his chair. "How soon until dinner?"
"Dinner will be served at the usual time one hour after sundown," Eloise exclaimed in exasperation. She shook a finger at her husband. "This is what happens when you drink liquor in the middle of the day. You get hungry. Well, you can just wait." Horwin made a face and drained his cup. The servant with the pitcher silently refilled it. Eloise rolled her eyes. She turned to Evan and Dahl. "Your things have been taken up to your room. Would you like to rest and freshen up before dinner?"
"Yes, I would," Dahl replied. He set his cup down and stood up, and Evan did the same.
Eloise escorted them to the room that had been Evan's growing up. "I thought this would suit you." Her cheeks colored slightly. "I admit I came quite close to putting Lord Shelby in one of the guest rooms, but Analise berated me quite sternly. And as you are now engaged…"
Evan kissed her cheek. "Thank you, Mother. I am still a little astonished by all this, though."
"Well…" Eloise returned his kiss. "I thought for a long time about what truly mattered, and I decided that my son's love was far more important to me." She kissed Dahl's cheek. "And his happiness. I'll call for you in an hour." She closed the door, leaving them alone.
"An hour doesn't give us much time," Dahl said.
Evan stared. "We are not having sex before dinner!"
Dahl lifted an eyebrow. "No?"
"No!" He glared at Dahl for a moment, and then his face softened into a smile. "Besides, we're getting married tomorrow. I think I want to save myself for my wedding night."
"Um…" Dahl said. "I think it's a little late to start hoarding your favors."
"Oh?" Evan gave Dahl his most sultry gaze. "You mean having to wait to have me won't make you want me more?"
Dahl swallowed. "You're going to make me wait until tomorrow night?"
"Won't that make it more special?" Evan walked slowly to the bed and sat down. He leaned back on his hands and licked his lips. "The first time we make love in this bed could be as a married couple."
Dahl walked over and put his hands on Evan's shoulders. "Is it important to you?"
"Then we'll wait." He leaned over and kissed Evan on the mouth. "I love you very much, Evan Shelby."
"I love you, too."
Dinner that night was rather boisterous, undoubtedly because the gentlemen had been drinking hard cider all afternoon and were rather inebriated. But the conversation centered on court life, with the women asking most of the questions. Evan surprised himself by knowing a good deal more about current fashion than he realized. When Eloise finally shooed everyone off to bed because tomorrow was going to be a busy day, Dahl teased him.
"I didn't know you had such a keen eye for fabrics," Dahl whispered in his ear as they returned to their room.
"I'm the Court Surgeon," Evan replied archly. "I see dozens of ladies every day. I can't help it if I notice what they're wearing."
"I see ladies all the time, too," Dahl said, "but I couldn't possibly tell you what their dresses were made of."
Evan glared at him. "Maybe it was a mistake to agree to marry you," he muttered.
"I'm sorry!" Dahl said quickly, but he pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. "Don't be angry!"
Inside their room, Dahl slipped his arms around Evan's waist from behind. "You aren't really angry with me, are you?"
"No." But Evan smacked his hand anyway.
"Ouch!" Dahl released him, rubbing the back of his hand. "It would serve you right if I kept my hands to myself."
Evan arched his eyebrows. "You already said you wouldn't touch me until tomorrow night."
"Maybe I won't even then."
"Oh, really? I bet I can make you give in."
"You think so?"
"I've got a kinghead that says I can hold out longer than you can." Evan pulled the gold coin from his pocket and waved it in front of Dahl's face.
"I can match that," Dahl said, "but there have to be ground rules. No touching."
"And no nakedness."
Evan grinned. "Not a problem."
Dahl looked worried. "What are you planning?" he demanded suspiciously.
"You'll find out tomorrow." Evan patted his cheek. "Time for bed."
They awoke in the morning to a beautiful day. The sound of birds, and the occasional lowing of cattle, could be heard outside the window. Evan popped out of bed and threw open the curtains.
"It's so good to be home!" he exclaimed happily. "I'd forgotten how bright the morning sun is in this room."
Dahl sat up on one elbow, his head resting on his hand. The sunlight streamed in around Evan, making him a silhouette. "So this is how you became a morning person," he said.
Evan turned around and grinned at him. "How can you not love the morning?"
"Maybe it's a personality flaw." Dahl sat all the way up. "But it does look like a good day to get married."
Evan skipped back to the bed and leaned on his hands. "I'm really excited about this. Since I took your name, I've always thought of us as married, but I never thought we really would be." He planted a firm kiss on Dahl's lips. "Get up. We should bathe." He bounced to the door and stuck his head out into the hall. "Mother! Is the hot water ready? We want to take baths."
"It's on its way, dear!" Eloise's voice floated in from the hall.
Dahl watched Evan strip out of his night clothes and put on his dressing gown. As usual, the sight of Evan's slender body aroused him. "Hey, I thought we promised no nakedness."
Evan grinned at him. "How are we supposed to bathe without being naked?" he asked with amusement. "Anyway, that promise only applies to after the wedding. Hurry up! They'll be filling the tubs by now."
Dahl just smiled as he slid out of bed. He was only wearing the bottom half of his nightclothes, since he tended to get hot, so he put his dressing gown on before stripping out of them.
The Tark household had a single large bathing chamber with several tubs, separated from each other by movable cloth screens. Eloise met them at the door. "The gentlemen will be bathing first," she said, "so no dallying in the tub. The ladies will be bathing next and we need to bathe the children after that."
"It was simpler organizing a military campaign," Dahl remarked.
Eloise wrinkled her nose at him. "I'll have your clothes laid out for you when you're finished."
She bustled away and Evan led the way into the bathing chamber. Mindful of Eloise's instructions, they washed quickly and went right back upstairs. Dahl eyed the suits laid out side by side on the bed.
"We didn't bring those."
"I daresay that's what Mother and my sisters were doing yesterday," Evan replied. He picked up the smaller of the two suits. "They look like they should fit."
They dressed, combed their hair, and fixed each other's ties.
"Well," Evan said. "I guess we're ready."
"I'm waiting until the guests arrive," Evan answered with a chuckle. "Then I'll faint."
They went downstairs into a maelstrom of activity. Servants were setting up tables and chairs out on the lawn, and delicious smells wafted from the kitchen.
"Dahl! Evan! You both look so handsome!" Analise hurried up them, her pretty face brightened by an even prettier smile. "This is so exciting! You must be so happy!"
"We are," Evan assured her. He looped his arm through Dahl's. "Do you know when the guests are supposed to start arriving?"
"In an hour or so, I think." She took Dahl's other arm. "Come to the dining room. Mother has scones and tea ready. She said that's all we get until after the wedding, so we'd better go have some."
"I could have used your mother's skills on the battlefield," Dahl murmured. "A quartermaster and a general all rolled into one."
Analise chuckled. "Father says something similar, but never where Mother can hear him."
All of the adult males in Evan's family were collected in the dining room, munching on scones. Analise was the only woman yet present, and her brothers greeted her affectionately.
"You look lovely, Analise," Radan said with a teasing smile. "One would think it was your wedding."
"In a saffron dress?!" Analise exclaimed, feigning a scandalized expression. "Never!"
Eric clapped a hand on Evan's shoulder. "Well, little brother, you've only a few more hours as an unmarried man. Any last regrets?"
Evan grinned, his cheeks flushing. "Only that it didn't occur to me to do this months ago."
"Well said!" Arnan toasted Evan with his teacup. "And what about you, soon-to-be brother-in-law?" he said to Dahl.
Dahl put his arm around Evan's waist. "I have no regrets at all. Evan is the love of my life."
Evan's blush deepened, but he smiled delightedly.
Berrian, Eleanor and Laurence came in, with Laurence holding his mother's hand. "The other ladies should be down momentarily," Berrian said. "They're getting the other youngsters dressed. Laurence was such a good boy he got dressed all by himself." She smiled sweetly at the youth. Laurence beamed at the praise.
"You had better get something to eat," Analise advised. "Once Mother comes down, I don't think any of us will get a moment to breath."
"Good advice," Eleanor said. She took Laurence to the sideboard and gave him a scone. "Try not to get crumbs on your clothes, dear."
They were not quite finished with their scones when Eloise bustled in, baby Nita tucked neatly into the crook of her arm. Collette, Joelle and Lucy were on her heels with Suzanne and Andrew in their mothers' arms.
"Have you all eaten?" Eloise asked. "Good," she continued without waiting for affirmative responses. "This is how it will go today. Lord Tark and I will greet the guests at the bottom of the front steps and direct them out to the lawn. Eric, Arnan, Radan, James and Paul will each occupy strategic locations along the path to make sure no one goes astray. The ladies will wait on the lawn to entertain the guests. Lucy," she smiled affectionately at her expectant daughter-in-law, "has offered to play the harp, which also gives her an excuse to remain seated throughout. When the last guests arrive, Lord Tark and I will accompany them to the lawn and collect the gentlemen along the way. At this time, the gentlemen will begin seating the guests. The servants will collect up the very young children and take them into the parlor. After all the guests are seated, the gentlemen will seat the ladies, except for Analise and Lucy. The gentlemen will then take their seats, except for Eric. Once everyone is seated, Pastor Morton will take his place under the canopy. Then Lord Tark and I will enter and take our seats. Once we are seated, Eric and Analise will enter together, proceed under the canopy and step to either side, where you will stand up for the wedding couple. And finally," Eloise beamed at Dahl and Evan, "the wedding couple will enter together." She leaned toward them. "Since you're already living together, it didn't seem right to have you enter separately." She looked around the room. "Does everyone know what they are to do?"
"Yes, Mother." The obedient response echoed from every throat, even from those who were not, technically, Eloise's offspring.
"Very good." She waved a hand toward the sideboard. "Finish eating, then. I don't want anyone fainting from hunger later. I'm going to look for Pastor Morton before he gets into the hard cider." She bustled out of the room, still carrying baby Nita.
Everyone crowded around the sideboard to finish off the scones and tea.
There was actually a little time to relax before the first guests arrived, but once a servant reported that a carriage was sighted coming down the drive, Eloise marshaled them all into action with a clap of her hands. "Everyone to your places! It's time!"
For Dahl and Evan, their place was the rear parlor, since Eloise did not want anyone to see them until the ceremony.
"Are you starting to get nervous?" Dahl asked Evan.
"A little. What about you?"
"I've felt more relaxed entering a battle. Maybe your mother should have written out vows for us to say."
"We won't have to say much more than 'I do'," Evan said with a smile. "The custom of having the wedding couple say long embarrassing vows is a city practice. Out here in the country, we like to keep things focused."
"Oh?" Dahl raised an eyebrow. "On getting the happy couple to the consummation as soon as possible, I hope?"
"No," Evan shook his head, laughing. "On getting the guests into the buffet line as soon as possible. We country people like to eat."
"Indeed," Dahl looked up and down Evan's slender form. "Then how did you stay so slim?"
Evan tipped his head to one side. "Oh, I was getting fat before I met you. But all the sex keeps me from gaining weight now, no matter how much I eat."
Dahl laughed. "That's a rather shameless thing to say."
"I'm planning to behave quite shamelessly later," Evan replied, his voice dropping to a sultry purr.
Dahl swallowed. "When were you planning to do that?"
Evan patted his cheek. "At a time when there is nothing you can do about it but drool."
"Oh lord!" Dahl groaned. "You're planning to torture me."
"Without nakedness and without touching, as promised."
Dahl hung his head. "I never should have made that bet. Can I just give you the kinghead now?"
Evan slowly shook his head, a malicious grin on his face. "Oh, no, Lord Shelby. I plan to earn that kinghead."
It was close to midday when a maid stepped into the rear parlor and curtsied. "Lady Tark says you are to come out to the lawn now, sirs."
They followed the maid to the sitting room, where wide patio doors gave access to the lawn.
Evan's steps faltered. "That's more than fifty people," he whispered.
"I'm sure it only looks like it," Dahl said.
"I can count, dammit!"
They stepped out onto the lawn, where Eloise, Horwin, Eric and Analise waited for them.
"All ready, my dears?" Eloise asked. Her eyes were sparkling.
Dahl smiled. "I've waited all my life for this."
Eloise kissed his cheek. "You're such a dear," she murmured. Then she turned and slipped her arm through her husband's. She waved a hand at Lucy and the young woman shifted naturally into a new melody. Lord and Lady Tark proceeded down the aisle and took their seats at the front. Eric and Analise followed, walking arm-in-arm down the aisle and under the canopy, where they separated and moved to either side. Everyone turned in their seats to stare.
Evan swallowed and took Dahl's arm.
"Try not to faint," Dahl murmured, and he moved out.
Thankfully, Evan was right about the ceremony. It was brief and to the point, punctuated only by pauses for each of them to agree that they were getting married by choice. Dahl suspected Pastor Morton had re-written the ceremony to account for the fact that there was no bride standing in front of him, but once he got to the end and declared them "irrevocably bound in holy matrimony", Dahl stopped thinking about such details. He also barely noticed the resounding applause. All he could see was Evan.
Evan was not flushed, but his pupils were so enlarged, the color around them was almost gone. He met Dahl's eyes without blinking and his lips moved. His words were inaudible under the applause, but Dahl could tell what he said anyway. "Now you truly are mine." Dahl kissed him and the applause got even louder. When he pulled away, Evan's cheeks had turned red. "That's the last one you get until tonight," he whispered. Evan turned to face the guests before Dahl could kiss him again.
They led the recession down the aisle, followed by the members of the Tark family and then the guests. Once they were clear of the chairs, they were surrounded by eager well-wishers, except Dahl noticed that a number of people headed straight for the buffet tables. But Dahl had to concede that Evan was also right about there being more than fifty guests. He met so many people in the next hour that he quickly lost track of their names. No one seemed to mind, however. Everyone was quite delighted to meet him, judging by the way the gentlemen pumped his hand and clapped him on the back, and all kisses the ladies planted on his cheeks.
He quickly got separated from Evan in the throng, but whenever their eyes met, Evan would give him a look of such unabashed desire that Dahl would frequently lose the train of whatever conversation he was having at the time. When he had to apologize and ask someone to repeat something for what felt like the hundredth time, he finally turned to Arnan in dismay.
"I'll never survive this," Dahl told him privately. "Evan is driving me crazy."
Arnan looked across the crowd at his brother. "From way over there?"
"I foolishly made a bet with him that I could hold out longer than he could after the wedding. I don't know what I was thinking. I haven't been able to resist him since the day we met."
"All he's doing is looking at you."
"I know!" Dahl groaned. "Hasn't your wife ever looked at you in that particular way, where you just knew she was thinking about…" he lowered his voice, "being intimate?"
Arnan raised his eyebrows. "Ah… So he's flaunting his sensuality at you." He chuckled. "I didn't know he had it in him. He was always such a proper young man when he lived at home. It must be living at court." He patted Dahl on the back. "I think you should just give in and take him upstairs."
"The sun's still up."
"So?" Arnan shrugged. "Make sure you change clothes before you come back down. You can use that as the excuse for why you left."
"No one will believe that."
"Of course they will!" Arnan grinned. "At least they'll pretend to, rather than admit that they know you went upstairs to consummate your marriage." He planted a hand on Dahl's shoulder and shoved him in Evan's direction. "So take him to bed and reward him for winning the bet."
Dahl let the impetus of Arnan's shove carry him all the way to Evan's side. "Excuse me, please," he murmured to the people engaging Evan in conversation. "Evan, may I have a word alone with you for a moment?"
"Of course, Dahl." Evan excused himself and let Dahl lead him away. He said nothing until Dahl led him in through the patio doors, and then he smiled. "So do I win?"
"Yes, dammit! Arnan said I should just take you to bed, so I am."
Evan said nothing else until their bedroom door was bolted behind them. Then he turned to Dahl with a wide smile. "Since I won the bet, that means my body is yours tonight." He began unbuttoning his jacket. "You can have me as many times as you want. I'll do whatever you say."
"You're killing me!" Dahl moaned. "Undress faster!"
Evan grinned. "As you command, beloved husband." He stripped out of his clothes fairly quickly and crawled onto the bed. Some attentive maid had already turned the bed down, so Evan just pushed the bedclothes out of the way so he could stretch out on the sheet on his back. He raised his arms above his head. "How do you want me?"
"Naked is good," Dahl rasped. He dropped his last article of clothing on the floor and crawled onto the bed, straddling Evan. Evan looked up at him with slightly parted lips, a flush of arousal already spreading down his chest and turning his nipples rosy. "You are so handsome," Dahl whispered. "How did I ever get so lucky as to win your heart?"
Evan wet his lips with the tip of his tongue. "I was just thinking the same thing," he whispered back. "I love you, Dahl Shelby."
Dahl lowered himself onto Evan and slipped his arms under Evan's shoulders. "I love you, too, Evan Shelby." He kissed Evan deeply, his tongue reaching into Evan's mouth, and Evan embraced him. His tongue stroked against Dahl's and his body lifted up to press against him. Already aching with arousal, Dahl's need became desperate. He lifted his lips from Evan's. "I really need to take you now. Do you mind not waiting?"
Evan looked into his eyes. "I said I would do anything you asked." He shifted his weight, slipping his legs out from under Dahl and bending his knees. He put his lips next to Dahl's ear. "I put oil in while I was bathing this morning. It still feels wet."
Dahl gasped. Just the thought that Evan had spent the entire day with that wet, uncomfortable feeling in his backside just so Dahl would not have to wait later put him over the edge. He moved his hips and thrust into Evan without hesitation. Evan arched his back with a cry of joy and took Dahl in without any resistance.
"Yes!" Evan gasped. "Don't stop!"
Dahl moved in him with desperate urgency, driving himself in deeper and deeper with each thrust. Evan moved with him, crying aloud with joy. Climax claimed Evan first, but Dahl was only a heartbeat behind him. They held each other close, shaking with ecstasy. When it was over, Dahl kissed Evan gently on the cheek, the forehead and then the mouth. "We're not just married in name, now," he said.
Evan nodded. "That's right. We can do this all we want without any trace of shame."
"I was never ashamed of loving you."
"You still don't get to fondle me in public."
"Drat!" Dahl kissed him again. "Arnan said we should change clothes before we go back down and everyone will pretend we were not up here doing what we just did."
"Country people are very proper." Evan returned his kiss. "But we don't have to go back down right away. I want to have you again."
Dahl grinned. "You call that proper?"
Evan arched his eyebrows. "We just got married. I don't think only one time is the proper number of couplings for the first time together after the wedding."
Dahl laughed out loud. "I see! How many couplings is considered proper?"
"At least three." Evan kissed him soundly. "Maybe four." He squeezed Dahl with his internal muscles. "So quit neglecting your spouse, who is, I might remind you, completely naked and at your disposal."
Dahl hugged him tightly. "You are the most wonderful person in the world, Evan. I cannot tell you how happy I am right now."
Evan laughed softly in his ear. "I can tell you how happy you are," he whispered. "You're as happy as I am."
-o- The End, Once More -o-