For the Wedding Night Challenge, I had the deep misfortune to write the same scene Maggiehoneybite details beautifully in her story, Watch One Hour with Me, which is so perfect it reads as if Renault herself wrote it.

Many thanks to Oleander9999 for beta-reading services above and beyond the call of duty. The story is much improved thanks to her insight into the characters and very helpful suggestions, some of which I am now passing off as my own writing when she should probably be listed as co-author.

Further thanks to Baranduin for general (and generous) encouragement, and to Trianne for help with the English language (American undershirt = British vest/singlet).

I've taken some liberties with book-canon here, assuming that when Laurie later recalls conversation with Ralph, he's not giving a word-for-word account.


Ralph lay quiet with the image he had created, the beloved and desired, for whom nothing was good enough, of whom nothing was demanded but to trust and receive.


The Beloved

by Laura Mason

The divan mattress was on the floor before the fire, just as Laurie had arranged it on childhood nights. Even then it had meant he was breaking the rules, by allowing Gyp to sleep with him. That trespass seemed very innocent now.

"Are you done there, Spud?" Ralph crossed the room, his coat and tie gone and two glasses carefully held in his good hand. Laurie looked up from the fire he'd started and smiled, nervous but still very happy Ralph had come to him. "Let's have some champagne, then."

Ralph set down the glasses and matter-of-factly helped Laurie to his feet before moving to wrestle the cork from the bottle and pour. Laurie watched him work, watched the extra steps necessary because of his hand, and thought about Andrew. If it weren't impossible, if Andrew knew and wanted to give him this, would Laurie be able to forget he was a cripple? Could he possibly be as calmly accepting with someone whole and unscarred as he was tonight, with Ralph?

Ralph handed Laurie his drink first, then picked up his own, and it seemed perfectly natural to smile and lightly touch the glasses together in a salute of sorts before drinking. Their eyes met, then stayed locked together, and Laurie shook off a shiver. He was all nerves; the peace he'd felt at the reception hall seemed distant as his childhood memories.

Ralph smiled again, a bit mischievously, breaking the tension. He tugged on Laurie's sleeve. "Come sit down." He sat on the sofa and patted the cushion beside him. "Relax, enjoy your bubbly. And try not to worry so much."

"I'll try," Laurie agreed, carefully putting down his glass, then sitting beside him. Ralph didn't move closer, which Laurie had half expected, but he did reach out and pull him over, so Laurie found himself half-reclined with his head resting on Ralph's shoulder. He thought it should feel awkward, but it was oddly comfortable. Ralph smelled good, and despite the hours they'd endured to reach this peaceful oasis, the cotton of his shirt was still crisp and clean under Laurie's cheek.

"Long day," Laurie said, feeling inane.

"You did her proud, Spud." Ralph's hand was moving, a slow, soothing motion on Laurie's left arm. Laurie felt that Ralph must be able to hear his heartbeat racing. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to calm himself, and felt something brush the top of his head.

Laurie turned his face up, then, full of questions -- and need. Ralph's face was totally open, his protective smile gone. There was just fierce desire, overlaid with so much love Laurie felt the impact like a physical blow.

No words were necessary. They both moved, Laurie twisting up, Ralph bending to him, Laurie's eyes closing as their lips met in the softest brush, sweet and so reminiscent of that long-ago afternoon that Laurie smiled. Then Ralph moaned and his mouth was back for a longer caress, firmer and lingering.

Ralph wouldn't demand anything; Laurie should have known that before this moment, but somehow he'd forgotten. Ralph's kisses made it clear, as he nipped and explored and worshiped Laurie's mouth without moving his hands off Laurie's arms. Unless Laurie encouraged it, Ralph wouldn't let go of that hunger burning in his eyes, pull Laurie closer and devour him.

But Laurie was going to encourage him. He loved to kiss; that had been one pleasant lesson from his time with Charles, the study of long, breathless kisses. So Laurie wrapped his arms around Ralph and opened his mouth, thrilled to feel a shudder run through the older man, and flicked his tongue across Ralph's lower lip.

That was all it took for Ralph's restraint to vanish. One endless, champagne-tinged kiss later, Laurie found himself sprawled atop Ralph, who was flat on the sofa with one hand firmly on Laurie's arse and the other buried in his hair. Ralph looked mussed -- it tickled Laurie to see what he'd only imagined before. Ralph's mouth was red and swollen-looking, there was a fine flush across his cheekbones, and his eyes were glowing with a happiness that made Laurie turn away to stare at the fire.

Ralph kissed his shoulder then, and his hands moved until they reached the safety of Laurie's lower back. But no matter how casual Ralph tried to make it seem, Laurie felt every movement of those hands on him as the tenderest of caresses. It was frightening as well as arousing. He knew, pressed together as they were, that Ralph could feel his reaction even through their trousers.

"Spuddy, are you worrying again?" Ralph's voice seemed huskier than usual as he moved them both, carefully shifting until they were squeezed side-by-side on the old sofa with Laurie's head pillowed on Ralph's left arm. Then Ralph's right hand moved to the open collar of his shirt. "You can tell me to stop."

Laurie shook his head, watching as the buttons were slowly opened, one on Ralph's shirt, then one on his own. He kissed Ralph's hand just once, before Ralph undid the last of his own buttons, then opened the final closure on Laurie's. While they kissed, Laurie used both his hands to push apart the edges of Ralph's shirt, helping him twist out of it. Then it was Laurie's turn, and he managed a smile as he maneuvered himself up and out of the fabric.

They were still separated by the thin cotton of their vests, yet Laurie felt too exposed. Ralph must have sensed his discomfort, for he went back to kisses and gentle touches, a long exploration of Laurie's left ear, and then, when he finally pulled away and sat up, he took off his shoes and socks rather than his vest. With a smile he knelt to remove Laurie's shoes.

Laurie memorized the proud lines of him. Even on his knees, doing this service, Ralph exuded that regal air he'd had as a boy. The socks came off, Ralph rubbed Laurie's feet and he sighed happily. When Ralph looked up at him, his face half-hidden in shadow, Laurie felt victorious, as if Ralph were bestowing a conqueror's garland. All Laurie had to do was graciously accept.

Ralph turned, reached, and handed up his glass. Laurie took a few sips while Ralph set their shoes aside, but when Ralph picked up his own glass he didn't come back to the sofa. Instead, he stood looking at the mattress. The bedding was piled with the extra pillows Laurie had brought from the other rooms.

Ralph finally turned and extended a hand, Laurie took it, rose, and moved with him to stand beside the bed. Their bed, for this one night.

Ralph pulled off his vest, then reached for Laurie. But instead of removing that protective layer, Ralph merely pulled him closer for another long, lovely kiss, his hands gradually pulling the fabric loose and slowly creeping up and under to reverently touch Laurie's bare skin, giving him goose flesh. When Laurie was gasping, almost lightheaded from pleasure and lack of air, Ralph gently pulled off the shirt, then even more gently helped Laurie down on to the mattress. For a moment Ralph leaned over him, staring at his face.

"You're very beautiful, Spud," he said, one hand moving to cradle the side of his face and prevent him from turning away in embarrassment. "Inside and out." Ralph quickly kissed him, then knelt back and removed first his belt, then Laurie's, before finally easing down to recline beside him. Laurie turned to face him and a mutual exploration began.

Ralph had strong arms, the muscles clearly defined despite his slender build. The hair on his chest wasn't as sun-bleached as that on his head and arms, but it was still pale against his skin. Laurie's hands roamed, feeling the texture of the dip between his collar bones, the smoothness from ear to chin-- He stopped, surprised.

"You've shaved."

Ralph smiled. "My beard comes in heavy, remember? I didn't want to give you a rash."

Laurie shook his head, amused, and returned to his exploration of the fine, springy hair that guided him to hardened nipples, rosy-dark on tanned flesh. Ralph was touching him just as slowly. When Laurie realized he was using both hands, no glove in sight, he again felt fiercely proud. Ralph's courage was as heartening as his thoughtfulness.

They kissed, and it was like a dance. Ralph led, Laurie followed, and their mouths separated and met again to report back and mingle, comparing the taste of an ear, the softness of an eyebrow, the salt from inside an elbow, or the scent where neck met chest.

When Laurie finally fell onto his back, he was panting with arousal -- and Ralph looked nearly as wild as he felt. Laurie was hard, almost uncomfortable now from their extended foreplay.

"Spud--" Ralph pleaded, and Laurie turned back to see those cool eyes aflame, and Ralph's hands on his trouser buttons.

"Please," he answered, and had to tear his gaze away from the fierce joy on Ralph's face, instead watching as he removed the rest of his clothing. Laurie had seen Charles nude and aroused, just that once; he'd found it equally disturbing and erotic. It was simpler, somehow, with Ralph. Laurie felt no shame, only a wonderful sense of power. His kisses and touches had brought Ralph to this flushed, hungry state.

And when Ralph moved closer to him, and reached for his waistband with trembling hands, it was nothing like Charles' frantic assaults which had embarrassingly caused Laurie to lose interest. Instead, Ralph seemed to be doing exactly what Laurie wished to do for himself when he carefully freed Laurie's arousal from the confining cloth. Ralph kissed Laurie's stomach as he gently and slowly peeled off his trousers, not touching that hard ache, but sending warm breath over it that made Laurie twist with pleasure.

Ralph moved down with the fabric, running a finger over Laurie's hip bone, sliding the hand down his right leg, and kissing his ankle as it was freed from the trouser-leg. Then, on his way back up, he kissed and licked all the way up the horrible scar, and he didn't even stop when he reached the landscape of the shattered knee. Instead, he seemed to redouble his gentle worship, doing nothing that hurt or strained the leg, but lavishing so much tender attention on it that Laurie knew every part of him, even that ugliness, was beloved.

He had to look away, then, to control the tears that wanted to come. That was enough to stop Ralph, who moved up to spoon behind him, their bodies touching and one hand resting on his arm.

Laurie gratefully turned his head back and kissed him, and they stayed curled together for a time, watching the fire, both still aroused but no longer feeling such urgency.

"This morning I knew my life was changing. But I didn't realize how much," Laurie said, knowing he wasn't making much sense.

"Spud." It was said reassuringly, followed by a kiss on the back of his neck.

"I've often felt that there's nowhere I really belong."

Ralph's arm tightened around him. "You belong here, in this house. But now, you belong with me, too. As long as we're both alive, this will always be your place," Ralph said, pausing again to kiss his shoulder. "That's a promise."

He sounded so matter-of-fact that the meaning of the words didn't register. How could they when there was the overwhelming sensation of Ralph nuzzling his neck before nibbling at his ear, and those strong hands were on the move again, too, tracing a tickling line down his side and over his hip, grazing lightly over the thick curls at his groin.

Laurie moaned and turned his whole body, his own hands finding places to hold on while Ralph once again worshiped him with hands and mouth. This time there was no slow, mutual exploration. Instead, Ralph used all his skill and knowledge to bring Laurie to new heights of arousal, every inch of skin crying for more sensation. Ralph seemed to have more than two hands, and that hot, wet mouth was everywhere, sucking and kissing and blowing warmth on pebbled flesh.

Just as Laurie was ready to beg for mercy, Ralph's mouth finally descended on his cock. His half-formed pleas became moans and cries of ecstasy. He'd never imagined such complete bliss. His fumblings with Charles and that horrible night with Stel were nothing... oh!

It seemed impossible, but somehow the pleasure still built, Ralph's tongue moving in a way that made Laurie throb, while his hands caressed up Laurie's torso and down his legs, and even between them to lightly rake the sensitive inner thigh. When Laurie bucked in response, Ralph took him deep, deeper in his throat than seemed possible, and hummed as he sucked.

Laurie cried out again, his whole body arching as his release poured out, and Ralph's mouth stayed there, still sucking and licking, the sensations almost agonizingly sharp.

There was a long, boneless, unthinking time. When Laurie recovered enough to pay attention, Ralph was lying beside him, raised on one elbow to drink more of his champagne. When he lowered the glass, he smiled at Laurie and leaned in for a quick kiss. "Thank you, Spud."

"Shouldn't I .. you? That was..." He had no words, nothing profound enough to describe how he felt.

"That was just the beginning, my dear." Ralph set down his glass and kissed him again, once more settling down with their bodies aligned and embracing him. "Rest now."

"But..." Laurie wasn't experienced, but that didn't mean he was selfish. He tried to reach for Ralph, to do something for him, but Ralph caught his hand and held it.

"Not now. In a bit, there's more we can do, if you'd like." Ralph kissed Laurie's hand, then his neck, then just burrowed close to him. "Anything you want, Spud," he mumbled directly into Laurie's skin. "Tonight and always."

They dozed then, too closely entwined for really restful sleep. Whenever he woke, Laurie found he was stroking Ralph, just as he was being touched in return. Ralph's hands brushed so lightly over his skin, as Laurie imagined one who'd been blinded might touch to memorize the outline and shape of something.

Laurie's own caresses were bolder, now that the barrier of their first time had been crossed. He'd finally accepted that this was what he'd wanted when he called Ralph, and perhaps even when he sought him out at Alec's party. Laurie explored, smiling when Ralph gasped at a knuckle brushing his nipple, or when he sighed and submissively opened his mouth to be mapped by Laurie's questing tongue.

Laurie didn't realize how much he'd moved, or the way he'd been bucking against Ralph's body, until Ralph stilled beneath him. Then Laurie, too, froze and tried to pull back. But Ralph held him there, meeting his eyes as he very deliberately opened his legs.

"You can, if you'd like."

"No," Laurie automatically began, but he couldn't deny how his heart pounded at the thought of it. "Ralph," he said, burying his face on his chest, and knowing Ralph heard 'yes' in his name.

"We'd need something. Petroleum jelly?"

"Are you sure?" Ralph nodded and Laurie was quickly on his feet, seeking the jar from the cupboard.

When Laurie came back to the room, Ralph looked very serious -- and quite irresistible, too. The flickering firelight was just bright enough to highlight his long muscles, the one raised leg and the line of the arm thrown over his face. Then Ralph heard Laurie and moved, flashing him a smile.

"All ready? Come back down here and kiss me, Spud."

Laurie obeyed enthusiastically, his ardor not cooled one bit by the brief delay. He wasn't too absorbed in devouring kisses and enthusiastic groping to notice that Ralph was tense, but he soon relaxed into the pleasure, his moans broken up by soft exclamations of passion.

Before long, Laurie was once again atop him, but now he moved back and said "Turn over, won't you?"

Ralph did, pillowing his head on his folded arms. "Are you straight on what you need to do, Spud? Use your fingers, first one, then add another with the gunk to open me."

Laurie thought Ralph sounded nervous, and found it touching. Of course that was ridiculous; Ralph was obviously experienced. But somehow Laurie wanted to believe this was different, special -- unlike the others. Naive as he'd been, Laurie had never believed Stella's pretense of modesty, nor any of Charles' declarations of love.

Laurie carefully coated a finger and did as Ralph had said, amazed at the heat and smoothness inside Ralph's body. He moved the finger slowly, circling, and was pleased to see Ralph take a deep breath and some of the tension leave his shoulders. "Does that feel all right?" he had to ask, and Ralph nodded. "Good. I'm going to make you feel marvelous, I promise." Laurie leaned to kiss the center of his back, then pulled out his hand for more lubrication. Two fingers then, and Ralph moaned when Laurie moved them around. His legs spread further, too, and Laurie suddenly realized he couldn't do what he'd been thinking. Not with his knee.

"Ralph? If you turn to your side, will that work?" He removed his fingers, and Ralph sighed softly.

"That's a good position. Is it best for you with the knee on top?"

"Bottom, I think," Laurie admitted, and he moved into position, then pulled Ralph over to spoon in front of him. He tried to imagine the motion that would be required, and changed his mind. "No, of course you're right."

"Stay put, I'll move," Ralph offered, but the mattress wasn't large enough for that. With some laughter and a few sweet kisses, they resettled themselves.

"So much for romance," Laurie joked, but Ralph looked back at him quite seriously.

"What have between us is better than romance, Spud." Laurie kissed him, too uplifted to be so serious, and then he moved closer, finding the right angle and arrangement of legs. He was almost surprised that Ralph wasn't more helpful about it, but then he was pushing into that tight heat, and all rational thought left him.

There was only the rhythm between them, push and pull, friction and flame, and Laurie was lost in the exquisite sensation. He was holding Ralph, a hand on his hip and an arm under him and around his chest. He knew he was saying things, nonsense, really. Ralph's name, curses and moans. His mouth tore at Ralph's neck and his hips pistoned, and Ralph responded with cries and gasps, his left hand scrabbling at Laurie's thigh and hip while his right braced them in place.

Too soon it was over, Laurie triumphantly pouring himself inside Ralph. Even as he froze there, panting, part of his mind was marveling that this had really happened. This time, despite his exhaustion as he carefully pulled away, Laurie wouldn't be denied the pleasure of watching Ralph fall apart.

Laurie pulled Ralph to his back, then gave both hands and his attention to the half-hard cock so long neglected. Laurie kissed it, and Ralph mumbled "You don't have to..."

"Just take it, Lanyon," he cheekily replied, putting his hands to good use and smiling when Ralph moaned. Enthusiasm took care of the problem of inexperience, and soon Ralph was bucking into his hand. A swipe of the tongue pushed him over the precipice, and Laurie laughed at the deep groan that escaped Ralph then. His face contorted, all his muscles tensing, and those intense eyes closed at last.

There was only one more thing Laurie had promised himself. He lifted Ralph's maimed hand to his face.

"Spud, no--" But Laurie ignored him once again and kissed it, licking the discolored flesh, lightly sucking on the stump. Ralph moaned and fell back, watching -- but Laurie couldn't meet his eyes, not with all those emotions swimming so close to the surface.

He kissed the hand once more, then moved up where he could again bury his face on Ralph, smelling sweat and musk. Ralph's hand came up to hold him and gently stroke his hair. "Thank you, Spuddy," he whispered, and Laurie shook his head, unwilling to speak. "That... I wouldn't have offered that to anyone else."

Ralph was shivering, no doubt from the cold, so Laurie pulled a blanket over them both. They were silent then, staring at the dying fire.

Laurie felt no desire to sleep; somehow Ralph's words had set off disturbing thoughts that wouldn't be silenced. His imagination taunted him with a vision of all the men Ralph had been with in the years between their parting and this night: Alec, Bunny, and uncounted others. Laurie would never know how many of them Ralph had once called special, too.

His bitterness was surprising after Ralph's generous response to his call. It seemed still more unfair when Laurie remembered that Ralph had given so much knowing he was sharing Laurie's heart with Andrew. No matter how much he wished to deny it, Laurie had recognized the emotion in Ralph's eyes, a piercing joy neither of them had called by its true name. Still, Laurie couldn't be content.

He tossed and turned, the hot spike of jealousy so strong that eventually he rolled away from Ralph and settled on his stomach, facing into the room.

But Ralph didn't notice. Laurie looked back and saw he was already asleep, an arm stretched toward Laurie and his face serious, brows drawn together as if puzzling out some mystery. He looked younger and somehow vulnerable.

Laurie moved back against Ralph and closed his eyes.



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