Lord Anthony Banning, Earl of Kenmare, shifted uncomfortably as his body involuntarily responded to the scent of a man he hadn’t laid eyes upon in nearly a decade. He conveniently dropped the newspaper he held onto his lap, hiding his discomfiture. His gaze traveled up the length of long, muscular legs clad in black trousers, cut specifically to fit those limbs.
“Hello, Anthony. How are you?”
The man’s dulcet tones held humor and intelligence, something Anthony knew he had in abundance. “Jack. It’s good to see you,” he replied smoothly, thankful for the newspaper that covered his reaction to his former lover and best friend.
Jonathan Starrington, aka Jack Starr, dropped into the red leather club chair at right angles to his own. An amused smile tilted the corner of Jack’s lush mouth and Anthony suddenly recalled the spicy taste of that mouth on his own. He shifted in his seat, the newspaper rustling. Jack’s smile widened as if he knew what the paper hid.
“Is it really? Good to see me, that is?”
Anthony cocked one brow up. Jack had always been a master at playing games. However, Anthony was a dozen years older than the young man who’d eagerly followed Jack into whatever game he had going. These days, Anthony lived his life with a full measure of caution.
“Of course, it’s good to see you. Where have you been the last decade?”
At Anthony’s cool tone and non-committal words, Jack openly grinned. “You’ve gotten more cautious,” he observed with a nod. “It suits you.”
Anthony allowed his gaze to peruse Jack’s hard body, clothed in a simple dark coat, trousers, and a spotless white shirt with a neckcloth tied haphazardly about his throat. “You’ve gotten a lot less flamboyant. And I’m not sure whether it suits you,” he said in a wry tone.
Jack laughed out loud, his fingers lightly holding the arms of the chair, completely relaxed and in control. Anthony hated his composure. He clearly remembered that Jack had always been more poised and had never once had a problem containing his emotions as Anthony had.
“Why are you here? You’ve managed to avoid me for nearly a decade. To what do to I owe the honor of your remembrance?”
A tsk came from Jack as he shook his brown head sadly. “I’m sorry you’re still angry with me, Anthony, although I find it hard to believe that you are. It’s not as if our break up broke either of our hearts.”
No longer needing the newspaper, Anthony picked it up and tossed it aside on the small oak table between them. “Don’t presume to know me, Jack. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge. You didn’t break my heart by leaving school and taking off for the islands. However, you did bruise my feelings.”
Jack made a face. “A little bruising wouldn’t stop you, Anthony. Your ego can take the hit.”
A flicker of real anger sparked to life inside Anthony. He studiously kept his expression from revealing that Jack had, once again, gotten to him despite all the years since they’d last spoken. “And once again you assume you know me well enough to make such a pronouncement. It only goes to show that you never knew me at all, Jack,” he said in a low voice. “You hurt my feelings rather deeply. However, it was a dozen years ago and I am long over it. Now, are you going to tell me why you’re here? In London, in the club you always professed to despise, in the chair next to mine.”
Jack’s handsome face showed a trace of emotion, a shadow of unhappiness chasing itself from his glittering blue eyes down over the sculpted cheekbones to his mobile mouth. And in that split second of unguardedness, Anthony also saw the shadow of fear. He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on his knees, gaze locking with Jack’s.
“What’s wrong? I know you’re deep into the spy game now so I’m positive you did not just show me that expression without a very calculated reason for doing so.”
For a long moment, Jack sat silent. Anthony waited. As he waited, he recalled the feel of Jack’s long fingers stroking his back, his hips, his thighs and between. He suppressed a shiver. Jack had been a marvelous lover, full of fun, and one Anthony would never forget. Still, there was not enough gold in the Imperial Bank to make him take Jack back into his bed. Besides, he had other fish to fry.
“I need your help to find my partner.”
The words were spoken so softly, Anthony barely heard them. Startled, his gaze met Jack’s and for a split second, he saw true anguish in those deep blue depths.
“Your partner?” Anthony ached to ask what kind of partner, a business partner or something more? He didn’t ask though because after that fleeting glimpse of Jack’s eyes, he knew the answer.
“Captain Nash Sutherland.”
Laughing grey eyes and curly chestnut hair flashed though Anthony’s memory. His heart clenched for a moment, but then he let out a long breath. Surprisingly, he wasn’t as attached to Jack as he thought he was. The notion of Jack being enamored of the sky commander actually tickled his funny bone a bit. Fate had a wonderful way of evening Life’s scores if one lived long enough.
Anthony smiled. “At least I don’t need to ask if you’re seeing anyone.” When Jack growled, Anthony smiled wider. After a dozen years, he’d finally managed to free himself completely of the attraction Jack Starrington had held for him since the age of sixteen. When Jack dipped his head, running his hand over his close cropped brown hair, Anthony could make out the beginnings of the strange tattoo on Jack’s nape. A native on an island of cannibals had tattooed Jack only a year after they’d broken up. Jack had been so excited about the tattoo that he’d showed it off when he gone to Anthony’s to retrieve the last of his belongings from the Banning townhouse.
“I never thought I’d see the day the great Jack Starr fell in love.”
Anger simmered in Jack’s seemingly casual pose. “This isn’t about how I hurt you, Anthony. This is about how we’ve been friends since childhood. I need your help.”
With a sigh, Anthony gave up his minor thoughts of revenge. “Our friendship has outlasted nearly everything else in both our lives, hasn’t it? What is it that you think I can do to help you find the illustrious sky pirate and former Imperial Airship Commander?”
“Introduce me to your sister’s new husband.”
* * *
Jack had always thought that seeing Anthony again would pull nothing but pleasant boyhood memories from him, memories of their friendship not their lust. Unfortunately, despite the current state of his heart, Jack felt a tugging deep within himself as he stared at Anthony’s handsome aristocratic face. He hadn’t been any more experienced than Anthony had been all those years ago when they’d first become lovers. Oh, he knew Anthony thought he was experienced, but he hadn’t been. What he had been was in lust with the beautiful Anthony Banning.
He liked to tell himself that he’d been in control the whole four years they’d been together. However, the truth of the matter was that he’d been just as in love as Anthony had been. But where Anthony saw their relationship through rose colored glasses, growing old together, Jack had always known that one day they would go their separate ways. For all he’d loved Anthony with every beat of his young heart, he’d had a clear vision of their future.
He and Anthony were chalk and cheese. They wanted different things out of life. Jack craved the excitement and adrenaline rush of his work. He had always craved those feelings and it had driven him to take risks and enter into adventures that other boys wouldn’t even contemplate. Anthony had loyally followed him into whatever scheme he concocted. At sixteen, it hadn’t been anything too dangerous, but at thirty it was beyond dangerous. And Jack knew enough about himself and Anthony to know that his proclivity for chasing danger would one day turn turn his lover from him.
For all that Anthony proclaimed himself an adventurer, he was the steadfast, loyal type who kept the home fires burning, not the type to swing from jungle vines in pursuit of a criminal. Jack had always known that his lust for danger would one day separate him from Anthony. And so, when the opportunity had arisen to work for the Empire, Jack had taken it and ruthlessly cut Anthony from his life, thinking that a swift, brutal end to their relationship would be easiest for them both.
He’d decided that Anthony would be angry and hurt, but he would heal and go on. To his surprise, Jack’s own pain lingered, but his work kept him focused and his mind off of thoughts of Anthony’s hard body pressed to his, as words of love and commitment filled his ears. Commitment was the one thing Jack couldn’t afford in his life which meant he couldn’t afford a relationship with Anthony.
Now, a decade after he’d walked away from his first love, he felt a stirring of those old emotions. Briefly, he wondered what would have happened if he’d come back and explained everything to Anthony. He wondered what would change if he explained it all now. Staring into the taut planes of his former lover’s face, Anthony’s golden eyes practically glaring at him, he knew it would change nothing. He’d hurt Anthony beyond the pale. They could never go back.
With a twinge of sadness for what they’d lost, Jack focused on the present. Despite the remnants of his feelings for Anthony still clinging to him, his heart now belonged to Nash, who unlike Anthony, enjoyed living a life of heart-stopping danger. Jack knew that he and Nash fit together like two puzzle pieces in a way he never had with Anthony.
“What do you think the Imperial Sky Admiral can do for you?” Anthony asked now, his voice cool and tinged with an edge of bitterness.
“I have questions about Nash’s court martial. I think your sister’s husband the admiral can answer them,” Jack replied easily. He leaned forward a bit, lowering his voice even more. “I think there is a correlation between Nash being framed and his disappearance. Not only do I need to find him for my own personal reasons, but the Empire too would like to know why he’s disappeared.”
Anthony opened his mouth to answer but the clearing of a throat had them both looking up at the stern visage of the club’s steward, Savage Beare. Beare held a decanter of port in his hand.
“Shall I top up your glasses, gentlemen?” Always correct, always ostensibly respectful, Beare managed to make the word “gentlemen” sound like a mild insult.
Jack knew damned good and well that Beare’s staff usually walked around refilling glasses. The steward rarely did so himself and he wondered if this time it was because of Anthony or because of him that Beare had approached with the wine. As Beare refilled Anthony’s glass and whipped out a glass to pour Jack a drink, the steward cocked a bushy brow at them.
“It’s been awhile since you’ve graced us with your presence, Mr. Starrington. However, it was not so long ago that your particular friend, Mr. Sutherland was here,” Beare said softly. “In fact, I do believe he went missing the following day.”
Jack already knew Nash had disappeared after a visit to the Lords of Aether Club. That bit of information and the fact that he knew he’d find Anthony there comprised the reasons for his own visit. The fact that Beare personally mentioned Nash’s attendance at the club the night before his disappearance was significant. And suspicious. As was the fact that Beare knew he and Nash were lovers.
“Do you recall who Mr. Sutherland spoke with whilst he was here?” Jack asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral.
Beare smiled, if you could call the twitching of his lips for a brief moment a smile. “I do indeed, sir. I believe he had supper with Lord Bridgewater who has just returned from Africa. In fact, they spoke at length about the wild nature of the Republic of Africa and about his lordship’s newest firearms inventions.”
With that pronouncement, Beare left them and Jack found Anthony eyeing him thoughtfully.
“Beare never offers information unless it’s important,” Anthony murmured as he sipped his port.
Jack grunted. He knew that. And he wondered why the steward had waited to tell him that until he’d sat down with Anthony. He’d been in the club a good two hours waiting for Anthony to show up. Beare could have told him about Nash at any time prior to Anthony’s arrival. The fact that he’d not spoken to Jack until Anthony showed up sent a frisson of annoyance down Jack’s spine.
With a sigh, Anthony set his glass on the side table. “My sister is having a ball tomorrow night. If you’d like to speak with her husband and Lord Bridgewater, both will be there. I’ll let Cassandra know you’re coming.”
Rising gracefully to his feet, Anthony gazed down at Jack with enigmatic golden eyes. Again, Jack felt that twinge of old emotion in his breast. For a moment they stared at one another and Jack felt the weight of their history between them. Then Anthony sighed again.
“It’s good to see you, Jack. I wish it were under other circumstances. I wish you’d thought to renew our friendship sooner rather than wait until your lover went missing to speak to me.” Anthony’s voice held regret, more than a hint of sadness, and a growing anger. “I thought what we’d shared in the past had given us a bond that wouldn’t have kept you from speaking to me for nearly ten years. I thought I’d meant more to you than simply a convenience. But I can see that I was wrong. It was convenient for you to fuck me all those years ago. It was convenient for you to walk away when something more exciting came along. It was convenient for you to ignore me and our friendship for ten years. And now, it’s convenient for you to renew that friendship and trade upon it.”
Shocked at Anthony’s harsh words, Jack stared up at his stiff posture and the mixed emotions in his golden eyes. His boyhood friend and lover had changed far more than Jack had realized.
“Well, Jonathan Starrington, I will prove to be the best friend you’ve ever had because I shall ignore that I have become a convenience for you. What I felt for you then was real and in honor of the fact that I honestly loved you with every iota of my soul, I shall assist you as much as I can,” Anthony said in a grim, haughty tone. “But don’t you dare expect me to give you another damned piece of me, because I just don’t have it to give. Not to you ever again, Jack.”
And to Jack’s immense surprise, Anthony drew himself up, glared at Jack from wounded, angry eyes, then turned on his heel, striding toward the door where Beare held his overcoat for him. While Jack still sat stupefied, Anthony left the club, the door thudding closed with a sound that seemed remarkably like a death knell.