Posts Tagged Alexi Silsbury

Appearances

3 May 2013
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What on earth, or above it, in this case, had Alexi gotten himself into? He’d known the invitation to the ball had never been just an invitation to a ball, of course. It had seemed like a grand adventure. A way to get out from under Leo’s scrutiny for a few days, maybe make his friend aware how much he’d miss Alexi’s company when he suddenly didn’t have it. Hopefully miss it enough for Leo to open that locked door just a fraction and see beyond to the greater possibilities lurking on the other side of friendship.

There had been no mention of murder attempts or bodies in the fine gold script on the summons from what he’d seen as it was passed around the room that day in the club. But then again, summoned by foreign politicos, in the company of spies, pirates and courtesans, what could one expect?

He twitched the sleeve of his robe and frowned at the staid line of gold braid stitched around the hem. Very…masculine. He made a face and dropped his arm to his side. When he had packed for the trip, he hadn’t quite anticipated the extent of Nash’s hedonistic side. He’d imagined a far rougher vessel and one less welcoming to the hem of a long skirt or the fine lace of a delicate glove. Unfortunate. He did miss his finery.

He wished he could send for a crate of it now, but admittedly, he hadn’t thought the whole thing through in terms of practicality. The bare minimum of tools and materials and clothing he’d brought was proving problematic and on more levels than just his offended sense of style.

After Montgomery’s near miss, Alexi had been quick to rig a few fail safes in his and Caleb’s room. If anyone attempted to surprise them in the night, they would be in for a painful little surprise or two. Nothing deadly. He didn’t want to murder anyone, just make it danm difficult for them to hide the fact they’d tried entering Jacob Silbury’s room uninvited. But the endeavour, coupled with Jack’s commission, had left him seriously short on some necessary materials to continue his studies into the workings of the aether and that was annoying.

Without his studies, he had very little to do, for one thing. And for another, without his equipment, there were fewer ways to figure out why the body had smelled of aether, what had been done to it, exactly, and how. It gave him no small measure of satisfaction to have felt the startled gazes of the other Lords at his comment earlier. How the peculiar scent could have escaped them, he didn’t know but it was a nice little coupe to have been the one to ring it t their attention.

It was less exciting to realize what the smell implied. That someone on board had access to both the knowledge and the delicate equipment necessary pointed to one of two possibilities. Either Nash had trusted someone too much with the inner workings of his vessel, or someone was keeping secrets on board that needed discovering. Nash Sutherland did not strike Alexi as a man who played loose with his trust. That meant there was someone on board very good at keeping secrets from some of the most suspicious lords of the realm. No easy feat.

It did make him doubly glad he had taken precautions, though. He’d learned well the importance of guarding his secrets. He’d have to be sure to let Nash know their rooms were off limits to valets and stewards. He wasn’t interested in maiming the help. He’d tell Caleb when next he saw him, as well.

Not that Caleb had come back to the room last night, or this morning. Alexi wasn’t a fool. He’d seen the looks and known it as only a matter of time. He just hoped, for his new friend’s sake, Montgomery was at least gentleman enough to let poor Caleb down easy when he tired of him.

On the other hand, Caleb was a grown man. He’d get over it. And in the meantime, Alexi had the privacy to do as he pleased. His little morning jaunt had carried him on softly slippered feet to a corner of the deck away from the body and it’s circle of nobles. A few crew members sat on crates lashed to the surface. One hummed softly as Alexi approached. He appeared to be sewing a tear in a fine jacket and the others were  mending ropes and canvas. They didn’t speak or pay much attention to him, and he repaid the favour in kind as he leaned on the brass-covered railing to look out over the fog-shrouded land.

After a few moments, the crew’s conversation picked back up as though he wasn’t there.

Someone mentioned a name, Peter something, and they joked about the head steward’s reaction to this Peter’s not showing up for his shift that morning. The hummer did a fair impression of the elderly gentleman’s cracked voice issuing predictions of doom over his absentee employee. Too bad for Peter. If those were the old man’s dire words, they seemed to be accurate in this case.

The crew member went on, at some urging from his fellows, to imitate a few more of the staff, the ship’s first mate and even a Lord or two, which amused Alexi. He was remarkably accurate with those impersonations of men Alexi knew, almost as though he could slip into their skin as easily as Alexi slipped into his women’s clothing and persona.

“Do the new guy!” someone called.

The young impressionist turned quiet and bent over his needle and thread. “I can’t,” he said. “He’s a tough one.”

“Aw, c’mon! You haven’t even tried!”

“Takes time,” The man said. “I’ll have him down by the end of the trip. Just have to figure out what it is that makes him.”

There was a short pause before someone asked “Makes him what?”

“Makes him. You know, makes him him.” He went back to humming with a shrug.

Alexi studied him. As himself, the young man was fairly non-descript with his light brown hair, even, not-quite-pale complexion and soft brown eyes. The hair was, upon Alexi’s not so inexperienced observation of such matters, very artfully arranged to look rough cut and shaggy. A comb and a silk tie would line it into a nice queue down between his shoulder blades. A touch of powder on his cheeks, the addition of a nicely tailored waistcoat and proper shoes, and he would blend into a Lord’s ball as easily as he did an airship crew.  He disappeared into the background unless he chose not to.

As Alexi watched nimble fingers manipulate needle and thread, he had to smile slightly. The man’s talent was utterly wasted on rope mending and Alexi wondered if Nash was aware he had brought such a consummate chameleon on board.

Footsteps approaching behind him alerted Alexi to company an instant before the object of his observation glanced up and past his shoulder. His expression remained neutral. His eyes flicked over Alexi and the newcomer and went back to his work. He didn’t give the appearance of it, be he was alert to everything going on around him. Alexi doubted much got past those quick, intelligent-looking eyes.

“See something you like?” A rough voice crawled over Alexi, leaving the little hairs on his neck on end. He turned to face a rather tall man, his face level with the man’s chest. Black hair escaped a braid and danced about his sun- and wind-kissed face face in the breeze. Wisps of  black hair peeked from the loose ties of his shirt and freckles dusted the backs of his hands. The girl in Alexi swooned just a little bit and he didn’t have to bother faking the appreciation in his tone.

“I do now.”

That got him a wide, unabashed grin. Clearly, this man was not unaccustomed to dealing with men of greater standing.

“You’re the first mate,” Alexi said, placing the sun-warmed features with a name. “Ivar.”

Ivar nodded.  “At your service, my lord.”

“Ha!” Alexi returned his big smile. “Please. Call me Jacob.” There was a time to play the lord of the manor, and a time to just, well, not. Ivar didn’t strike him as a man who needed titles to tell him another man’s worth so much as he preferred to decide that for himself. It was a trait Alexi had come to admire in Leo, Caleb and even most of the Lords he was getting to know on board the ship. He appreciated it now.

“Seems rather informal,” Ivar replied, turning to lean over the rail. His height meant he had to bend nearly double to lay his forearms on the cool railing and Jacob smiled at the view that offered.

“It does, rather, doesn’t it?” he murmured.

Ivar glanced over his shoulder at Alexi and laughed out loud at being leered at.

“So  Sutherland does indeed surround himself with the like-minded,” Alexi observed, moving to the rail next to Ivar.

“Some of us don’t have the means to access a safe haven like the Lords of Aether club,” Ivar pointed out. “Do you blame us for accepting the relative freedom of working for an employer who will keep our council?”

“Hmm. Good point.” He smiled at Ivar. “And perhaps my own good fortune, it would seem.”

“Does it seem that way to you?” Ivar asked.

“The trip does hold some promise I had overlooked just a short hour ago,” Alexi admitted with another sidelong look.

“You’re just a wee mite of a thing.” Ivar looked him over critically. “I may be top dog in Mr. Sutherland’s crew, but I am still crew, my lord.” The undertone of the title led away from the mundane running of an airship and towards other, more interesting ideas. “If I wanted to be captain, I would be captain.” He faced back out over the railing and watched as clouds scudded past below them. “That isn’t a position I care to be in.”

Serenity smoothed his features and darkened blue eyes held a sense of his own place in the world he did not question.

Alexi nodded. “So I see.”

“Do you?” He threw a slanted look over at Alexi. “In my experience, young men of your…stature…are often looking for something I regrettably do not have to give.”

Alexi managed not to laugh out loud with sheer delight. The thought of the huge man being as pliant in bed as the humble worker he presented himself as made Alexi positively giddy with the possibilities. He gathered himself and his robe and turned towards his rooms. “Size, my dear man, has not a thing to do with it.”

He could feel the startled gaze on his back as he walked away and he stopped a few feet from the corner to look back. Even from the distance, he could sense the sudden hunger in the other man. “You know where my rooms are,” he called cheerfully. “If, of course, you are ever off duty.”

He didn’t wait for a response. In his experience, telling a man to come to his rooms would either bring the man to him, or not. If not, he probably wouldn’t have been interested in anything the man had to offer anyway. He very much liked when he issued orders and they were followed.

Which did not explain in the least why he could not let the idea of Leo in his bed go. He let out a sigh. No matter. At least the trip didn’t have to be boring. He picked up his pace as he left Ivar behind and headed for his room and proper clothing for the day.

The tight knot of English nobility had dispersed. The body was gone. Alexi shivered as he passed the rumple of canvas with its small stain, almost black in the morning light. It could have been left over from a paper cut, there was so little. Death should never be so tidy.

The aether smell had gone with the body.

He walked on, keeping his head high and his gaze drifting out past the railing. It wouldn’t do for the others to see weakness in him. They already thought him a vapid fool and it galled even if he pretended it didn’t.  If they were to think that of him, best he play the part and maintain the shell of impersonal near-royalty his imperious father had perfected and everyone assumed he had been born with.

He passed Montgomery on his way to the cabins and barely spared him a glance. The game hunter was fully dressed now, and resting against the railing where, Alexi noted, he had only to turn his head for a nice view of the gathering of workers he had earlier been watching himself.

“Flirting with the help?” Emmet asked as he passed. A sneer curled his lips.

Alexi smiled his coldest Lord of the Manor smile at him. “At least I have the courage to bait a bear and not maim fawns from under cover of a sweet smile.”

“Maim?” Montgomery’s face took on an interesting shade of red.

“Come, Montgomery, we all know you never shoot for the heart. You don’t go for the kill. You just want them to remember they crossed your path. You leave a little, tiny scar so they know they’ve been tagged by the great white hunter.” He tossed a small, unfriendly smile over his shoulder as he headed for his cabin.

“At least I have the courage to take the shot!” Montgomery shouted after him.

Down the corridor, the door to Montgomery’s cabin opened and Caleb’s head popped out. “Emmett?”

He looked dishevelled. Not just sleep tousled, either, and Alexi had an irrational stab of jealousy. Not that he wanted Caleb at all. Just that it was obvious his friend had been distracted away from their cozy workshop and he didn’t relish the idea of the remainder of the flight or the stay in Italy without a single ally.

“So shoot away,” Alexi said, turning to face Emmett. “The group of airmen you were eyeing seem likely. Especially the one mending your coat. A right chameleon he looks. I’m sure he can be whatever you’d like him to be in your bed.”

The door at the end of the hall slammed and Alexi sighed. He didn’t like hurting Caleb, but better the man knew now how temporary his status as Montgomery’s bed-warmer was likely to be than to find out later.

“Silsbury!” Montgomery roared his name but he didn’t flinch. He quietly closed his door and locked it. There came a single thump that shook the wood in its frame, then Montgomery’s voice, cajoling, sweetly enticing from down the hall.

“Caleb. Cal, please. Open the door.”

Alexi’s triumphant little smile lasted only an instant. Leo would berate him for that show of vindictiveness. Or more likely, Leo would have stopped him showing it at all, then berated him for it. God, but he missed the man. And how ridiculous to miss being yelled at by him, but there was no denying Leo kept him on an even keel.

“So then, why not focus on what I can control?” he muttered, throwing off the boring robe and rooting through his trunk for something a bit more his style. He might not have any decent skirts to done, but he damn sure had enough frill in there to settle his nerves and himself into a role he played very well. Besides it would be interesting to see how Ivar Delaney felt about Alexi’s other half. A favourable reaction could lead to all the control Alexi needed. If he’d read the man right so far. Either way, he needed the comfort of his own clothes, at least.

 

 

 

 

 

Reinventing

17 August 2012

Watching from a vantage point on the bridge that gave him clear sight to the gangplank, Alexi observed the new arrivals. He didn’t know any of the men boarding the ship other than by name and appearance. Shelly Jefferson he knew as much by reputation as anything else, and it was this man’s appearance that most caught his eye. The consort was stunning. There was no denying fact. Nothing he wore could be considered feminine, yet it was far from the manly attire favored in fashionable circles. And yet he remained, in appearance, every inch a man on the very cutting edge of fashion he left behind the wake of his elegance.

“So how does he manage it?” Not that Alexi wanted to emulate him. His own penchant for feminine attire was different. He admired Jefferson’s flair, but liked passing himself off as a woman. It amused him that he could, and oddly, gave him confidence in situations when he rather felt out of his depth. There were situations he could approach under the guise of a woman that he would not dare broach as a man.

“Like Leo.” Growling, Alexi pushed away from the railing and headed back to the workroom annoyed that he found he was talking to myself. Something that only happened these days when he was feeling unsettled. He would rather ensconce himself safely away with the tools and gadgets of his trade until the dinner bell forced him into the company of strangers. He was not in the mood for niceties and small talk.

When he arrived, he found Caleb already deeply involved in an intricate machining sequence. Careful not to disturb his friend’s precision work, he cleared himself an area of the work surface and unrolled his tool pouch.

“Another commission for Jack?” Caleb asked without looking up.

“No.” Alexi heard the growl in his voice and attempted to mitigate his tone. “Though I do appreciate your generosity in sharing your space and materials.”

A slight smile passed over Caleb’s face. “Generosity had nothing to do with it.  Mr. Starr offered me a tidy sum, considering you will be doing all the work. I almost feel like I am robbing you.”

“Nonsense.” Alexi settled onto a high stool next to the cleared spot on the table. “A fair price for the materials and space. I can make my own arrangements with him for my time.” He spread out the jacket Jack had given him to modify, and examined the liner of the right sleeve. “Fine workmanship, this. He has an excellent tailor.”

Caleb glanced up from his work, and Alexi caught the curious look in his eye. “I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid. The same sweet old woman has been fashioning my clothing since I was barely in long pants. She does a passable job. I suppose you would know more about fine tailoring than I would.”

A rush of nerves flooded through Alexi and he set the jacket down, smoothing his hands over the fine, supple leather. “You have something you’d like to ask?”

“It really is none of my business.” Caleb’s cheeks flushed pink and he dropped his head, focusing back on his task.

“If we are to be friends, we really ought to be able to trust one another. I don’t know what is behind this summons, or that it really has anything to do with us, but we are here now, and perhaps it is good to know who we have at our back, yes?”

Caleb nodded thoughtfully. “Yes. Though for the life of me, I cannot fathom why you are being so nice to someone you barely know. Someone you met while he tried to thieve from you.”

Alexi selected a tiny, sharp pair of snips and began carefully clipping the liner of Jack’s sleeve away from the leather, speaking as he worked. “When you snuck into my rooms that day, and I saw the way you looked to Beare, it reminded me very much of the way I felt the first time he caught a certain…lady slipping into my rooms.” He glanced up to ascertain if his confession would meet with shock, disgust or outrage.

Caleb was watching him thoughtfully. “So it is true.”

Alexi shrugged. “Many things are true. Many are false. To which might you be referring?”

“That the lovely young woman often seen on Leonard’s arm is not your kinswoman at all, but someone far closer to you.”

Alexi smiled. “Hmmm. I suppose one could say that, yes.”

“Does he know?”

“Leo?” Alexi frowned. “Oh, yes. He knows. He knows all about it. He just doesn’t understand.”

“I am sorry,” Caleb said softly.

“Whatever for?” Alexi shook himself in an attempt to clear away his rapidly fouling mood.

Caleb sighed. “That your very good friend doesn’t find himself able to be happy for you. You’ve found joy, and he can’t share it, and that can’t be easy.” He sighed again. “It can drive a wedge between even the closest of people. Take my brother. He tries, but he hardly understands my love of all this.” Caleb waved his hand around the small workroom. “Or much else about me, in fact. If I could ever get him to be still and quiet long enough to explain, it might be different. But he isn’t really a talker. Or a listener. He much prefers action. I’m afraid he will never understand my lack of action when it comes to finding a wife.”

Alexi had to wonder if Caleb understood that particular procrastination himself.

Caleb shrugged. “With any luck, this venture will help him see I’m not wasting my time.”

Alexi nodded. “I see your point. Yes.” Suddenly thoughtful, he set aside Jack’s coat and reached instead for the spring mechanism he would use to release the hidden blade. “A captive audience could possibly be made to listen. Do you have anything similar to this, but a little bit heavier?”

“I might.” Caleb took the mechanism from him and studied it as he wheeled across the short distance to a tray filled with odds and ends. “Ah, here we are. I though perhaps I had left it behind. He pulled out something that looked like the rounded back end of one of his fanciful clockwork beasts. “It was bound to be a rabbit, but the commission changed at the last minute, when the client found out he had fathered twin boys and not the girls he had hoped for.”

“Who ever hopes for twin girls?” Alexi asked.

“I dare say a man with an eye to buying his way into one of the wealthiest, most paternally gifted of families in the Empire.” Caleb snorted when Alexi gazed at him blankly.

“Do tell,” Caleb said, “how many boys does your brother have now?”

Alexi flushed. “Six, I believe.”

“And your sister?”

“Has just birthed her third.”

“My advice to you, Jacob, whether you fancy the burden of being lord of the manor or not, find yourself a wife and settle down before that vast fortune of yours is split and scattered to the four winds.”

“I hardly need my father’s money to make my way in the world,” Alexi muttered, as he examined the half of a rabbit and reimagined a much more useful life for the half cylinders of copper making up the beast’s body.

“But it would keep one in frocks, I dare say.”

Alexi’s head snapped up. “Pardon me?”

Caleb’s expression remained impassive, his attention on his own work. “Any woman would be more than pleased with the chance to get at your very fine tailors, Jacob.” He glanced up with a smile. “You would be surprised what a woman will forgo for a wardrobe filled with pretty things.”

“Of course.” Alexi almost sagged with relief that his secret still appeared to be safe. “If I were so inclined, I could by any number of lovely things out of my own pocket, without recourse to my father’s fortune.”

Caleb looked up and caught his eye. “Take some advice from a friend, Jacob. You don’t even realize half of the advantages your privilege of wealth gives you. I didn’t until it was gone. You do not want to be left to the teeth of this world without your father’s money. It shields you from much more than you even know.”

“I have seen the underbelly of our society,” Alexi protested, thinking of Alana and the Dodges, who kept his inventions safe from prying eyes. He pried at the copper parts in his hands, failing to see how they had been attached so he could get them apart.

“From above, Jacob. Always from above. I assure you, the view is very different when you are the one looking up.” Caleb rose and took the half-built contraption from him. “Like this,” he offered, turning the device over in his palm and pointing to a tiny lever on the inside curve. “Press this and voila.” The parts fell apart in his hands. “For a baby, it is merely a whimsical toy rabbit. As the child gets older, if they are clever enough, it becomes a puzzle. Easy to take apart when you know how. And here is the spring mechanism you were after.” He held up the bit between thumb and forefinger. “Though of course, you’re welcome to the entire lot, if you can find a use for it.”

“Less simple to reassemble, I wager.” Alexi accepted the pieces back. “That is brilliant.”

Caleb grinned. “It is, rather, isn’t it?”

Alexi picked up a piece of the rabbit’s disassembled body and fitted it around his wrist. It encased his own thin limb easily by half. “May I?” he motioned to Caleb’s wrist. “I fear I’m an ill fit for most things.”

Caleb offered his arm, and Alexi fit he half cylinder around his wrist. It was a snug fit. “Much better.”

Caleb rotated his wrist. “Rather sharp edges. A man could be seriously hurt like this.”

Alexi glanced at the leather of Jack’s jacket. “Easily enough remedied, I think.” He retrieved the section with the trigger and turned it over in his hands. “A lock without a key.” Alexi studied the mechanism. “Unless you know the secret.”

“Or the person who knows it.” Caleb sat back at his spot. “Why do I get the feeling these locks you envision aren’t for your enemies?”

“A captive audience,” Alexi said with a wicked grin. “Sometimes, a man requires some assistance in seeing what is right in front of him. Oddly enough, I have to credit Jack Starr himself with that lesson.” He fitted two of the half circles together to form a whole and looked at Caleb through it. “Perhaps it is the same with friendship as with privilege. We take much for granted until the moment we see it about to be taken away. Well.” He knew his smile had probably turned a little bit feral. “My eyes have definitely been opened. Whatever is in store for us on this trip, Caleb, when I return home, there will be a reckoning.”

Thwarted

6 July 2012

Emmett paced, restless as an animal in a cage.  Usually his quarters on the Lucky Penny were more than adequate.  Comfortable.  Had to be.  Even by airship, traipsing back from and forth between Africa didn’t happen overnight and Nash had always provided acceptable quarters.

He paused by the sideboard and fingered the bottle of wine.  With a sigh, he opened it and poured a glass.  In the dimly lit cabin, the liquid looked almost black.  Glancing at the arm chair, he considered sitting, but he was too agitated to relax.  There was nothing to do until dinner, and even then he wasn’t sure he’d be a fit companion.  He’d made a fool of himself several times over and felt poised to do it again and again.

How was he supposed to keep focused on the reason for this trip when half the passengers made him want to throttle something.  He paused again to gulp back half the full-bodied liquid, savoring it completely beyond him.

Behind him, the empty bed lurked.  Taunting him.  Mute reproach that he wasn’t going to have the company he’d anticipated.  His decision to include Caleb had been impulsive but he’d been looking forward to having Caleb as a bed partner for the trip.  After he’d coaxed Caleb out of his bad mood, that was.  He rarely went back for seconds but he suspected once wouldn’t be enough with Caleb.

Drinking himself into a stupor before dinner wasn’t the answer.  The answer was to forget about Caleb.  For a short while.  He drained the last of his wine and set the glass beside the open bottle.

The crew wouldn’t be busy, yet.  Nash ran a tight ship and they’d be ready to leave as soon as Nash gave the order.  After departure, they’d have more duties they’d have to concentrate on, but for now, he might find a welcome diversion.  He certainly had before.

Bypassing the crew quarters, Emmett headed straight for the engine room.  Not only was the inner workings of the airship fascinating, but even while docked there was plenty of noise to cover the sounds of the occasional interlude.  Also plenty of shadowy corners to indulge.  Inspecting the engine and finding a personal pipe polisher should distract him until dinner time.

“Good afternoon,” Emmett greeted the guard at the entry to the engine room.  “I’m just going to pop in for a look around.”

“I’m sorry, milord, but the captain has declared the engine room off limits.”

“I’m Bridgewater.  I’ve been here lots of times.  I’m sure Nash didn’t mean me.”  Emmett moved to brush past, but the guard, larger and more muscular than he, extended his arm, blocking the entrance.

Emmett lifted his brows.

“I’m sorry, milord.  The captain was very specific.  No passengers allowed.”  The guard had a pained look on his face.  Emmett didn’t blame him; Nash had put the poor man in a hell of a position.

Was it their mission or destination that had Nash in a tizzy?  Nevertheless, he wasn’t the type to force his own will on a fellow doing his duty.  The majority of his peers disagreed and would use their position to force their way in, but Emmett had too much respect for men earning a living.  Didn’t change the fact that he still wanted to strangle Nash.  He could do that later, after dinner, when he found out exactly why he wasn’t getting run of the ship like usual.

But the engine room wasn’t going to provide the distraction he’d hoped for.  He only wanted one man, anyway, as devilishly odd as that was.  With a frown, he stalked back toward his cabin.

Lost in his thoughts, he nearly knocked over one of the galley workers standing outside his cabin.

“Your wine, milord.  Compliments of the captain.”

Another bottle?  How much of a drunkard did Nash think he was?

“Just put it beside the other one.”  The one he had yet to finish.  Then again, banished from the engine room, banished from the work room by Caleb, what else was he going to do, besides drink?  He waved the man in before him.

Wait.  Compliments of the Nash?  Banned from free access to the ship?  Lies.  Fucking lies.  Nash and his “simmering pot” nonsense.  It was bloody obvious.  Nash was clearing the field for him and Jack to accost Cal.

“Shall I open it for you?”

Was the man stupid?  He hardly needed two open bottles of wine.  “No, thank you.  I’ll drink it later.”

Banished from the workroom?  Not a chance.  He was going to find Caleb.  He wasn’t letting Nash and Jack profit from such an underhanded move.

“Close the door when you leave,” he called out before he strode toward the workroom.

The closer he got, the angrier he became.  Been a while since he’d brawled with anyone, but he didn’t know what he’d do if he saw Jack pawing at Caleb again.  Or Nash.  Or even Silsbury.

The door slammed inward under the force of his ire.  Brass fittings clattered on the floor as Caleb flew back from the table.  Emmett glared at all corners of the workroom, ready to charge any other man hiding there.

“Montgomery, what… what’s wrong?”

He heaved in a breath.  Caleb didn’t look freshly fucked or disheveled.  The table was high enough no one could be hiding beneath.

Caleb’s cheeks pinkened.  It could have been anger or arousal.  Or both, the same as him.  Emmett had enough experience to coax them both into the more enjoyable emotion.  If Caleb was going to simmer for anyone, it would be him.

“Are you alone here?”

“Of course.  Why?”

Emmett didn’t answer, just rounded the table, ever closer to his goal.  Mere steps away, Caleb finally understood he was prey and stumbled away from his chair, backing up against the wall.  He had nowhere to retreat.

In seconds, Emmett pressed his body against Caleb’s, hands on Caleb’s face.  Touching Caleb, being alone with Caleb gave him an unbelievable sense of relief.

“Montgomery?”

“Call me Emmett.”  He didn’t give Caleb a chance to comply before he plundered those soft pink lips.  The lips he’d noticed that very first day.  Caleb gasped into his mouth, and relaxed, molding his firm, lithe form against Emmett’s.

When Caleb’s arms tightened around him, Emmett’s let his hands rove down, wrapping around Caleb’s waist, fingers resting lightly on the muscular swell of a set of enticing buttocks.  Buttocks he had every intention of baring to his gaze, licking and biting, before another hour had passed.

He shifted his lips to Caleb’s ear.  “Come back to my cabin.  Please.”

“Alexi?”

Jealousy, fierce and hot, swept through him.  How could Caleb possibly mix them up?  He reared back in time to hear Silsbury speak behind him.

“Caleb?  Are you okay?”

Emmett stepped away, but used his body to keep Silsbury from viewing their very obvious arousals.

“Caleb is just fine.”  Emmett was hard pressed to keep from growling.  Caleb wasn’t Silsbury’s to protect.

Caleb pushed at his shoulder.  “I thought I told you I didn’t want in the workroom today.”  His voice didn’t have the same venom it had earlier and Emmett turned his head to gaze into Caleb’s eyes.

“I needed to see you.  I couldn’t stay away that long.”  Emmett didn’t know where those words came from, but they were the complete and utter truth.

Caleb’s eyes softened and he leaned back into Emmett.  With a smile, Emmett wrapped arms around Caleb again.  “Caleb’s fine,” he repeated.  Caleb smiled back and Emmett knew this trip was going to be even better than he’d hoped.

 

Cat and Mouse

23 June 2012

Jacob accepted the parcel delivered to him with a healthy dose of suspicion. He hadn’t ordered anything. He’d chosen his wardrobe carefully and brought along any tools he anticipated having the remotest chance of needing. The label on the valise only caused more confusion. It came from the small, exclusive dress shop onSt.   Albans Street. Who, besides Leo, even knew that Alexi might have the slightest interest in the wholly feminine garments that could be purchased there?

That thought sent a thrill through him. Perhaps Leo had sent the package as a peace offering. A going away present of sorts.

Opening the case, he lifted the tissue away to reveal perhaps the ugliest skirt he’d ever seen. If it was a gift from his friend, it was no peace offering. Leo knew his tastes. He would never send something so hideous unless he was making a statement. One clearly telling Alexi he was still angry.

“Which I have done nothing to deserve,” he muttered, shoving the garment aside. He rose and found the tumbler he had set down when the delivery had arrived, drained and refilled it, then drained it again. As he filled it for the third time, he hesitated, decanter resting on the lip of the glass. No one stayed his hand or suggested he might want to go easy on the imbibing this early in the day.

Because Leo was off someplace else, enjoying the attentions of straight-laced, simpering Dr. Spencer. Straight and stuffy the both of them. They deserved each other.

Alexi filled his glass and took a healthy swallow. If Leo wanted him to drink less, he should be here to tell him so. Just the idea that he was the one in the wrong boiled his blood. Leo had been the party to bring an uninvited guest into Alexi’s private space. And not just anyone, but a man very obviously interested in Leo in ways Alexi found infuriating.

No one had the right to put Leo on the spot like that, offering attentions he did not want. Everyone who knew the man at all knew he had a membership at the club only in deference to Alexi. He wasn’t like the rest of them.

Another fact that made Alexi want to hit something. Because underneath the stiff collars and occasional liaisons with pretty maids, Alexi knew Leo. He could see what his friend refused to. The man just needed a little push.

“From me!” Alexi snarled as he imagined, once again, that scene in the street of Spencer pawing at his Leo. Tossing back the last of his drink, he rose and sorted through the rest of the package.

He had to admit, as he fingered the remaining garments, they weren’t all as hideous as the skirt. Some of it, he might actually wear, with some modifications. None of it, though, had Leo’s particular touch of refined, elegant taste. He hadn’t had a hand in this.

Which meant someone other than Leo and the professor knew of his proclivity, and that was, indeed, a sobering thought. That information, in the wrong hands, would get him killed, and that was the best, least painful scenario.

Leo would never tell a soul. Beare would keep a confidence, even as he looked down his nose on Alexi for it. That left the professor as the most likely to give away his secret. Or perhaps his own indiscretion. He had to admit, around the club, he was less than circumspect. Perhaps he had grown too comfortable there.

With a heavy sigh, he tossed the packages off to the side and contemplated the half empty decanter. It was probably not a good idea to pour another on an empty stomach. With that in mind, he left his rooms, headed to the mess, and almost got run over by a very disturbed Caleb. The man didn’t even bat an eye when Alexi called after him. He had to try a number of times before he got his friend’s attention.

“Caleb!”

“What?”

Alexi blinked. “What’s happened?”

“Nothing.” He hesitated. “Jack.” He shook his head and snarled. “Emmett.” His shoulders slumped. “I don’t know.” After another pause during which he studied Alexi carefully, he sighed. “Jack Starr fancies he sees everything. He thinks you’re safe.”

“Safe? Safe from what?”

Caleb smiled. “Not from. For. He thinks I am safe in your company. He sees a flighty, skinny little boy in you, Alexi. I wonder if he knows how clever you really are?”

Alexi ground his teeth. Jack Starr would not be the first to observe his outward appearance and mistake it for inward substance. “What else did he say?”

The question only brought the cloud of anger and something deeper to Caleb’s face. “Nothing important.” He turned on his heel and stalked off down the corridor.

Alexi was about to follow, but a soft clearing of a throat behind him stopped him.

“Did you enjoy your delivery?”

Alexi whirled. “You?”

Jack shrugged and leaned against the bulkhead casually. “A small token. To let you know you’re amongst friends.”

“Is that so?” Alexi narrowed his eyes. “Just what did you say toColchester?”

Jack smiled enigmatically, his gaze flicking past Alexi, then back. “What he needed to hear, I dare say.”

“And you think you know what your guests need?”

“The man is a ticking time bomb. I felt it prudent to contain the damage, perhaps control the fireworks when he does explode.”

“You keep playing with people like that, Jack, sooner or later, the game will turn dire.”

“What makes you think it hasn’t already? There’s a reason we’re going toVeniceyou know.” His smile widened into a grin as Alexi fumed. “Oh, do calm down, Silsbury. I merely nudged him along in the direction he was already headed.”

“TowardsMontgomery?”

Jack shrugged but his grin remained in place.

“You dangle a mouse before a lion, expect to lose a few fingers.”

“I’m not worried about Emmett.” Jack tilted his head, pushed off the wall and ran a finger down the side of Alexi’s face. “But perhaps the house cat is miffed at losing his meal?”

“As anyone might be if someone, even a friend, tried to take from him what belonged to him,” Alexi replied, batting the hand away. He deftly straightened a cuff, the motion distracting the spy from Alexi’s agile flick of fingers against the leather jacket sleeve. The spy didn’t see the tiny blade until it was pressed against his throat.

“So.” Jack’s gaze met Alexi without wavering. Without fear. “The kitten has teeth after all.”

“You’d be surprised what the most unassuming package can conceal. The fanciest valise can hide the ugliest outfit, sometimes, Starr. You can never be too sure what you’re looking at.”

“So it seems.” One dark brow rose above brilliant sapphire eyes as Jack’s body leaned into Alexi’s for a moment, long enough for Alexi to feel the unforgiving press of a gun barrel against his ribs through both their jackets.

He took a step back, carefully re-seated his deadly little blade in its holster in his sleeve, and reset the trigger release hidden in the zipper pull. He knew Jack watched him carefully even though the spy made a show of pulling his own hand free of his jacket pocket where the pistol lay.

“Next time you want to bribe me, send your messenger to the little shop onWhites   Street. Next to the apothecary. Have him ask for Mistress Margaret. She, at least, has taste, and knows my measurements.”

Humor lit those sapphire eyes and Jack laughed. “Duly noted.” He paused, his expression turning thoughtful. “About that device,” he pointed to Alexi’s sleeve. “Your own design?”

Alexi held up his innocent looking sleeve. “Yes.”

Stretching his arm up, Jack ran a hand down the worn leather of his own coat. “Is it adaptable?”

It was Alexi’s turn to grin. “Anything is adaptable.”

“Then you have something worthwhile to distract you for the flight. I’d like to commission one for myself, and one for Nash.”

Alexi considered the offer. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have something to do. But he’d agreed to come and help Caleb with his own commission. He certainly wasn’t going to renege on that. “I’ll have to borrow Caleb’s workroom,” he mused, “some of his tools and materials.”

This not only gave him something to do, but another excuse to help his friend and be close enough to offer a shoulder or an ear, should this fiasco with Emmett Montgomery go any further. “Once I tell him what I need, you can negotiate a price with him.”

“Do you think the way to his heart is through his pocketbook, Silsbury?”

Alexi shot Jack a look every bit as sharp as the blade he’d put away. “At least you understand it is his heart I have a care for. He is my friend, Jack. IfMontgomeryhurts him, just watch how deadly this kitten can be.”

Jack nodded. “Also duly noted. I’m glad we had this talk.”

“As am I.” Alexi gave him a curt nod and turned in the direction Caleb had gone, assuming he would be able to find the inventor ensconced safely in his workshop. He stopped after only a few steps, though and said, “For what it’s worth, I happen to agree with you about them. Just because it’s what they both want doesn’t mean it’s good for either of them, though.”

Jack’s voice held a note of suppressed amusement. “Are we still talking about Montgomery and Clochester, I wonder? Or perhaps a certain textile merchant and a young inventor with more money and ideas than circumspection?”

Alexi snorted. “Touché.” He began walking again. “See you at dinner.”

Maybe, he reflected, Jack was as observant as the infuriating spy actually thought himself. That was a disturbing thought.

 

 

An Unwelcome Shipmate

25 May 2012

Caleb tucked himself further into his corner until Nash and Jack straightened their clothes and strode past, their closeness telegraphing both their recent intimacy and their feelings for each other.  If Caleb had been able to avoid observing their passionate encounter, he would have.  But he’d been stunned by how quickly the two men became entwined, and he didn’t want to draw any attention to himself.  Quite frankly, he wasn’t entirely certain he was allowed to be in this section of the ship anyway.  Not if the captain and Jack felt comfortable enough to fuck right out in the open.

He waited several breaths after they’d left, the scent of male completion hanging heavy in the air.  His groin throbbed, and he prayed his excitement wasn’t obvious.  They’d moved so beautifully together, and the obvious care they had for each other was exciting and beautiful and arousing.  And made him painfully jealous.  Caleb wanted that for himself, but he saw no possibility for that in his future.

Entering the dining room, most everyone paid attention to their luncheon, and Caleb moved stealthily to the open place beside Alexi.

“See, we aren’t the last ones here,” Jack said to Nash.  Caleb didn’t know if he meant to be as loud as he was, but everyone turned their gazes upon him.  Heat flooded his cheeks, and unfortunately, his arousal still hadn’t subsided entirely.  Montgomery noticed right off, because that was where he looked first.  The cad.  But his gaze traveled quickly to his face, becoming a scowl.

Caleb ignored everyone as he slid into the chair.  Montgomery’s scowl remained on him, but Alexi patted his arm soothingly.

“Feel more like eating now?”

He didn’t, not really, although he was ravenous for something else entirely, and  it was all Montgomery’s fault.  Ever since he’d met Montgomery, he’d spent more than his fair share of playing the voyeur.  By all rights, he shouldn’t blame Montgomery, but he was a viable target.  Nevertheless, he didn’t need any more undue attention.

“Yes, thank you.”  Caleb picked at the food on the plate that appeared before him, letting the conversation flow around him.

“What happened?”Alexi asked in an undertone.  The man was far too perceptive for his own good.

“Nothing.  Just got distracted by the workings of the ship.”  The explanation was sound, and perfectly reasonable, but his face flamed with the memory of Jack working Nash over.

Montgomery’s eyes narrowed and Alexi coughed.  Caleb drank a huge gulp of wine just for something to do.

The meal passed with excruciating slowness, Montgomery’s censorious eyes upon him the entire time while Alexi did his best to deflect attention from him.  He succeeded in making engaging small talk with everyone except the one who most ruffled his composure.  Montgomery’s regard didn’t waver and he either ignored or brusquely answered any conversational volley Alexi launched.  Later, he’d have to be sure to thank Alexi, but it looked like he was going to have to get used to the discomfort the auburn-haired hunter engendered.

As soon as it was polite to leave, Alexi hauled him out of his chair and they left, Alexi making their excuses about getting back to work.  Which was also a joke.  Montgomery hadn’t told them what they were working on, and at the beginning stages, it probably wasn’t necessary.  The clamps and gears and pistons were not yet ready to be assembled, so it didn’t matter what the end result was to be.

Out in the corridor leading to the room Montgomery had set up as a workroom, Caleb reached out a hand to halt Alexi’s progress.

“Thank you.  I appreciate what you tried to do in there.”

“Any time.  We’re friends now.  But that man is interested in you.”

Caleb shrugged.  He had no intention of becoming one of Montgomery’s quickly discarded, nameless receptacles of lust.  No matter how attractive he was, nor how completely he commanded any room he was in.

“What happened?  Before luncheon, I mean.  You were completely flustered.”

Who else could he share with?  “I got trapped.  I was exploring, wandering.  I found a secluded area of the ship, thought it might make a decent refuge when I needed a rest, but discovered that the captain makes use of it.  He and Jack were…”

“No.  Out in the open?”

“Mostly, yes.  Not out in the open enough for just anyone to stumble over them, but yes.”

A tiny giggle escaped before Alexi laughed.  “No wonder you looked absolutely mortified.”

Caleb couldn’t help but laugh, the tension of luncheon fading.  “Mortified, yes, among other things.”

Alexi gave him a knowing look.  “Did they see you?”

“I don’t believe so.”

Alexi laughed again and squeezed Caleb’s arm.

“A moment of your time, Cal.”  The familiar voice boomed behind him, and he stiffened.

“Don’t worry.  I’ll stay with you,” Alexi whispered.

Caleb turned as though facing a ravening beast.  Perhaps that description was not far off.  Montgomery resembled an auburn lion, bearing down.

Close to them, Montgomery loomed over them both.  “Alone, Cal.”

“Anything you have to say to Cal, you can say to me.  We’re working on your project together.”  Alexi glared at Montgomery and took a step in front of Caleb.

Montgomery looked over Alexi’s head to stare intently at Caleb.  “This doesn’t involve your boy.”

Caleb gasped at Montgomery’s dismissive tone and words.  Alexi did not take it well.  His shoulders drew back and he poked Montgomery in the chest.

“I’m not his boy.”

“Enough.”  Montgomery focused his blue eyes fully on Alexi.  “I let you come along, boy, as a concession to Cal.  You’re pretty and rich enough that you’re used to getting your own way, but that won’t help you here.  If you get in my way, I will toss you over the side of this ship.”

The menace emanating from the man was palpable enough to make him shiver.  He didn’t know how serious the man was, and Alexi bristled in indignation, apparently uncaring of the threat, but he wasn’t willing to risk his new friend.

“Go.  I’ll catch up.”

Alexi looked at him and he nodded.  He’d be fine.  After all, help was only a shout away.  Sky pirate or not, surely Nash wouldn’t approve of tossing anyone over the side of his ship without his say.

“Well, looks like you won’t be lonely this trip.”

“What does that even mean?”  His discomfort burned away under the anger at Montgomery’s high-handed tactics.

Montgomery herded him against the side of the passageway, the heat of his body almost scorching Caleb.

“I mean, I saw the looks you gave Nash and Jack.  I didn’t make any objections to you bringing Alexi.  He’s a diversion, a boy.  Not a man.  But getting involved with those two?  They’ll eat you up and spit you out when they’re done.”

“And you won’t?”  Did this man make any connections with people that weren’t related to his cock?  “You forget I’ve seen you.  Seen how cavalierly you treat… I can’t even call them bed partners, can I?  Not when you get your pleasure on a terrace.  Besides, you’ve got your very own whore on the ship.  What difference does it make what I do?”

Fire lit Montgomery’s eyes and his breath heaved.  “Shelley is not a whore, nor is he mine.  Shelley interacts only with those whom he deems worthy.”

“Based on the worth of their accounts?” Caleb lifted a brow.  He endeavored to hide the nervousness that twisted his belly as he stood firm against the huffing lion.

“This isn’t about Shelley.  This is about you spreading yourself amongst the men on this ship, without giving me a turn.”

“What the devil is the matter with you?” Caleb shoved ineffectually at Montgomery’s shoulders.

Montgomery didn’t answer, but merely fitted their groins together and lowered his lips.  As erotic as this encounter could have been, the man had made several erroneous assumptions, called his character into question and threatened his friend.  If he thought Caleb was going to just tumble into his bed, he was sorely mistaken.

With strength he didn’t know he had, Caleb shoved Montgomery away and twisted out from the press of his body.

“No.  How dare you?  Insulting me and threatening Alexi doesn’t incite my lust, Lord Bridgewater.  And unlike your unfounded assumptions, I have seen you fornicating with my own eyes.  I know I’d be treated better in a ménage with Jack and Nash, than in bed with you.”

Montgomery reared back as though Caleb had slapped him, the anger in his eyes quickly replaced by shock and confusion.

“I don’t want to see you in the workroom.  Not today at least.”

Caleb didn’t wait around to see Montgomery’s reaction, but turned his back and strode unhurriedly away, not matter how much his brain screamed at him to run.  Despite his anger, despite Montgomery’s despicable behavior, the man was undeniably compelling.  More fool, he.

A Simple Complication

12 May 2012

It turned out Spence was nothing like the chatter box Jacob was, and the companionable quiet came as a relief to Leo. And the relief itself, as a surprise. He’d never consciously disliked Jacob’s company, or the younger man’s constant nattering. Walking towards the wharf with Spence, he found he was enjoying the occasional and quiet conversation, as well as the spaces of contemplation between.

“You don’t talk much,” Spence observed as they neared the warehouses at the opposite end of the harbor street housing Jacob’s workspace.

“No, I suppose that is true,” Leo replied. “To be honest, keeping company with Jacob, one rarely has to talk. Just listen.”

Spence smiled. “He does go on, I’ve noticed. Especially when he talks about his great submarine. Have you seen it?” His voice betrayed a kind of child-like curiosity and eagerness that made Leo glance over at him.

“I have. I confess, though, I have no head for the gadgetry he finds so fascinating.”

“Oh.” Spence sounded almost disappointed and Leo cocked his head. He didn’t have a chance to explain before Spence moved on, however.

“Then why do you keep such close company with him?”

As Leo watched, a pink tinge crept up into Spence’s cheeks, and here was another thing that set this man apart from Leo’s usual company. Alexi never blushed like that.

“I-if you don’t mind my asking.” Spence sighed. “I rather think that was an inappropriate question. Do forgi—“

“Nothing to forgive, Spence,” Leo interjected, clapping him lightly on the shoulder. “Nothing at all. Jacob and I, we’ve known one another our whole lives. I suppose, in part, our association is simple habit.”  A frown crowded over his face as he thought more deeply on his answer. “Really, I suppose we have nothing in common except one another.” He couldn’t decide if that fact was new or just one he had long since accepted and put aside as unimportant.

“And yet you remain with him,” Spence observed.

“Out of obligation, I suppose.” The response was true. To an extent. No one had ever prompted him to examine his friendship with Alexi. Like eating, sleeping, breathing, the relationship was just another unquestioned, unquestionable facet of his being.

While the former three rewarded him with life, however, Alexi’s companionship gave so much more. Leo glanced over to the quiet doctor at his side. And at the same time, required so much more. Here beside him was a simple man, Leo thought. A sad one, maybe, but simple. Easy to be around in a very uncomplicated, refreshing way.

“You have rooms at the club, then,” Leo asked, wishing to steer the conversation away from the knotty issue of his best friend.

Spence nodded. “It’s easier. I tend to get…lost in research, at times. Having rooms there saves me from too many questions at home.”

“Home being…?” Leo asked, curious.

“My father’s townhouse.”  Spence shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. “My parents can be stifling, but I understand their over-protectiveness. After all, I was hurt very badly when I was younger and for a long time, I shied away from people. But I want to overcome my past so for now, I prefer the freedom of the club.”

Leo nodded, familiar with the feeling. “Being a doctor, I’m sure your days are quite full.”

A smile flashed across Spence’s face. “If I opened my own practice they would be. Not that I don’t wish to use my skills to help the sick and injured, but at the moment, I have…other interests.” A light kindled in his eyes as he spoke, and Leo only then realized just how striking the young doctor was.

As completely unlike Alexi as Spence was, in so many ways—including the depth of his dark eyes and his brightly colored hair—still that light of keen intellect and interest was oh-so-familiar. It drew Leo and he found he could not look away from it. He wasn’t an inventor or researcher. He was much too simple a man for those pursuits, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t appreciate the quality in others.

There was a softness about Spence that Alexi had lost years ago. An eagerness, backed by the wary distrust forced on him by his experiences. Leo’s protective instincts flared, sending a slithering spiral of something unidentifiable through Leo’s gut.

“But you didn’t accompany me to hear me prattle on about my own rather dull research.” Spence turned to him. “And here we are in any case. There are a number of vessels I’d love to have a look at. Shall we?”

“Um.” Leo found he had lost the thread of the conversation somewhere in the glint of Spence’s nearly violet eyes.

“Leo?”

The doctor took a step closer and before Leo was aware what he was doing, he had a hand on the other man’s arm, the other lifted, to what purpose, he had no idea. He froze, bewildered at the sudden urge to touch a near stranger.

“You’re quite pale, Leo. Are you all right?” Spence gripped Leo’s elbow and the touch snapped Leo out of his strange preoccupation.

“Yes!” Leo snatched his hand back, smoothed his palms over his lapels and took an unsteady step back. “Yes, of course.”

A pair of business men hurried past them, tossing them a dark look.

“Dizzy, I think,” Leo muttered, feeling hot embarrassment flush up into his face.

“Perhaps you’d better sit for a moment.” Spence led him to a stack of crates beside a warehouse, away from prying eyes and casual observation.

“I am sorry, Spence, I don’t know what came over me!” Leo was mortified. Not all of Alexi’s bantering had prepared him for that rush of emotion that had overtaken him.

Spence’s smile was kind. Soft. “Not at all, Leo. Though rather bold for broad daylight and a busy street. I think perhaps we should go back.”

“No!” Leo nearly choked to get the protest out, horrified at what he suspected the doctor might be thinking. “No,” he tried again more calmly. “You said there were things you wanted to see. I’ve spent countless hours wandering down here, waiting for Jacob to finish his work. Tell me what you’d like to look at, and I’ll show you around.”

For the next hour, the two men wandered the docks while Spence studied the more technologically endowed vessels moored there. Leo confessed his own ignorance on the subject, even as he silently admitted to himself nothing lashed to the old planks and pillars in the harbour came close to the spectacular vision Alexi had brought into being. Given the admiration Spence showed at the vessels he did see, Leo couldn’t help but imagine the look of wonder that would light him up at the sight of Alexi’s invention. Or the sudden and undeniable urge to see it flush the good doctor’s cheeks and imbed that sparkle in his eyes.

“Come with me,” he said, suddenly invigorated. “I want to show you something spectacular.”

He hurried Spence down a side street and past a long row of warehouses towards the largest at the end.

“Where are we going?”

“To see something that makes the rest of these look like children’s toys and row boats. You’ll see.”

“Wait!” Spence hauled him back just at the corner before the huge warehouse. “Slow down!” His laughter sent an unexpected thrill through Leo and stopped him in his tracks. “You don’t want to arrive wherever we’re going disheveled and flushed,” Spencer admonished.

They both glanced around their shabby surroundings and laughed. The sound echoed off the tall, blank walls, bouncing the easy mirth back at them, and Leo did flush.

Spence’s eyes glittered as he moved a step closer. “Your hair is all askew,” he said, his voice breathless with the haste and lusty humour. He raked his fingers through the hair over Leo’s temple, and that flash of intense light and energy hit Leo again, leaving him holding his breath.

“Thank you,” he managed at last, still mesmerized by the incredible color of Spence’s eyes and the light in them.

Spence smiled happily at him and gave him a jaunty bow. “At your service, of course.” He waved a hand down the street. “Lead on.”

When they reached the warehouse, true to form, Alexi’s twin behemoths, Eli and Adam, stood guard, blocking the door from Leo and Spence.

“Is he here?” Leo asked.

“He is, Master Stokes.”

“Well then can you let us in, please.”

“You I can, but there’s rules, see.” The big man who spoke leveled a dark look at Spence. “Not him.”

“He’s a good friend,” Leo protested, ready to plead Spence’s case, when the door behind the big man opened.

“What’s going on, Eli?” Alexi’s tight, annoyed voice drew all their attention, and Leo looked past the man to his friend.

“Jacob—“

Alexi’s eyes narrowed at sight of the doctor. “Leo,” he said, voice flat. “What’s going on?” He flicked a look up the wall of the warehouse to the high windows. “I saw you in the street.”

A weak wave of unease lapped at Leo. “Oh. Well.” He moved to one side and indicated his companion. “This is Doctor Spencer. You remember him from the Club?”

“Of course.” Alexi’s expression didn’t change, and Leo heard the uncomfortable shuffle of Spence’s feet on the cobbles behind him. “Why are you here?”

“He’s interested in the boats,” Leo said, uncertain, suddenly that this was the good idea it had seemed just a few moments ago. Unease radiated from Spence standing behind him. “I thought he would enjoy see your work.”

“Am I a public spectacle, then?” Alexi asked, voice short.

“What?” The sharpness caught Leo off guard. This was not a side of his friend he’d seen before.

“Leo, perhaps we should just go.”

“No, Spence, really. Jacob, what harm can it do to let him look at your boat?”

Alexi’s eyes went wide and his cheeks flushed. “Boat?” His gaze shifted from Leo to Spence and back again. “You told him it was a boat?”

“I—”

“It most certainly is not a boat.” Alexi snapped before Leo had a chance to explain he hadn’t told Spence what it was at all.

“Come here.” Alexi reached past Leo and grabbed Spence by the wrist, hauling him inside.

Leo glanced at Eli, still standing, cross-armed and stern, a look of deep disgust on his face when he looked at Leo. His eyes narrowed. “There’s rules,” he growled. “He breaks the rules, we break his legs, see?”

Blood drained to Leo’s toes. “You wouldn’t hurt him.” What kind of men did Alexi have working for him?

“Not unless he hurts Master Silsbury.” Again, his eyes narrowed, leaving only dark slits in his freckled, swarthy face. “Rules is rules, and Master Silsbury makes them, not you.”

Leo swallowed.

“See?” Eli said, fists clenched.

“Yes,” Leo rasped. He cleared his throat and nodded. “Yes. I see. Thank you.”

Eli nodded and moved to let him pass.

Gingerly, Leo slipped into the warehouse and the door snicked softly shut behind him. Alana and her companion looked up, their faces smoothed of any emotion, but something rather like suspicion in their eyes. He wasn’t sure what he had done to warrant it. They said nothing as he hurried through their work room to the catwalk beyond.

There, he found Alexi standing, arms crossed, a satisfied look on his face, every inch the Lord he was, as he watched Spence gawk in wonder at the ship below.

Not a boat,” Alexi said, voice slightly vindictive as Leo joined them.

“I never said it was,” Leo muttered.

He looked down on the machine and watched as Alexi’s uncle gripped a rope, tied in a complicated harness under his thighs and around his waist and chest, and kicked off the side of the huge vessel with both bare feet. He swung a good twenty feet around the polished brass sides, feet skipping him along like a monkey, and came to rest near a hanging platform covered in what must be tools and equipment. It was hard to see from this distance. He selected something and danced his way back to where he had been working.

“It’s beautiful, Jacob.” Spence whispered. “I had no idea you were so far along.”

“You knew about this?” Leo asked, inexplicably affronted that someone else knew Alexi’s secrets, even though he had been the one to bring Spence here without so much as a thought to how Alexi might react.

Spence spared him only a very quick glance. “Not really. Just a few late-night conversations here and there.”

Alexi smiled at Leo, and it wasn’t a pleasant expression. “The Club can be a lonely place when everyone has gone home,” he pointed out.

He could have been thrusting a knife into Leo’s gut, judging by the very physical pang those words created.

Leo said nothing, but turned to watch the workers below, a maelstrom of confusion roiling through him. Beside him, Alexi and Spence talked about the machine, Alexi’s voice clipped and his answers short, even while Spence’s was full of admiration and excitement. The slight apparent in Alexi’s manner burned away Leo’s confusion and he turned to them.

“Is there a problem, Jacob?” he asked, fixing his old friend with a look that visibly tightened the lines around Alexi’s mouth.

“Of course not. It’s been a long night.” Alexi turned away from him to stare out over the vessel. “I’m tired.”

“And here we are invading your work space without invitation,” Spence said, finally reading the dire signals in the hard lines of Alexi’s posture. “Perhaps we should go.”

“Yes.” Leo sighed. “My apologies, Jacob.”

He turned to follow Spence out, but Alexi stopped him. “A word, Leo?”

When both men stopped, Alexi’s lip twisted slightly, though he quickly schooled his expression. “In private, if it’s not too much trouble?”

“Of course,” Spence answered for him. “I have much to do anyway.” He smiled at Leo. “It’s been a pleasure, Leo. We’ll do this again sometime.”

Once again, Leo was caught by the light in Spence’s gaze, and he was nodding before he thought better of it. “The pleasure has been mine, I look forward to it, Spence.”

Spence’s smile widened, and Leo got the distinct impression it wasn’t the impressive array of technology lighting his new friend’s gaze this time. The doctor was turning and hurrying back to the workroom.

Leo spun on Alexi. “What was that about? Do you know your man threatened harm to him? He’s done nothing. And your demeanor, Alexi. Shameful to treat a guest—“

“Whom I didn’t invite into my private space,” Alexi pointed out.

“Nevertheless—”

“Nevertheless.” Alexi shut the conversation down by turning his back and leaning on the handrail, staring down at his workers.

“Alexi, what’s wrong?”

***

Alexi pursed his lips tight. Most of his fury was directed at himself, for showing such pique, but a good portion was aimed at the good doctor, as well. He admitted he liked the fellow well enough, but to show such interest in his Leo…

Shaking himself, Alexi hauled his ire back under control. “Nothing is wrong, Leo. I told you. It’s been a long night.”

“You’ve had long nights before. I’ve never seen you show such little regard for propriety.” He tried a small grin, but it only pierced through Alexi’s fragile calm and he had to turn away before the anger spewed out again.

“Well,” Leo continued, “except towards me, but that’s another issue altogether.”

“Indeed.”

“Is there something wrong with your boat, then?” Leo asked.

Alexi glared. Perhaps it had been an attempt at levity. He didn’t find it amusing. “No,” he snapped. “Of course not. Don’t be absurd.”

Leo blinked at him owlish and pale, suddenly, as thought he’d been punched. “What then?”

“Nothing, Leo.”

He turned from the railing to face his friend, mind made up on a matter only a half hour before, he had almost determined to abandon. “Please stay away from the warehouse for the next while. I won’t be here, and I would hate for anything to happen. The Dodges take their work very seriously.”

Leo felt an unease stir in his gut. “Why won’t you be here?”

Alexi straightened, squaring his shoulders and dredging up a stiff smile. “A friend has asked me to accompany him on a journey.”

“A journey.” The open confusion on Leo’s face was painful to see. “A…friend?”

Alexi opened his mouth to respond, to explain about Caleb’s attempted theft and dire straights, and his obvious infatuation with a certain big game hunter and trophy collector, but then, from the workroom, Spence’s laughter rang out and a snarl of inexplicable anger tangled in Alexi’s response.

“A friend, yes. I’ll be accompanying him to Italy. On an airship.”

“Well.” Leo’s voice was clogged with something dark. “Obviously you cannot turn down such an invitation. An airship of all things.”

“Obviously.” Alexi glanced towards the door of the workroom. “And company to converse with, share ideas. Someone who understands the intricacies of what I do.”

Leo’s eyes widened. “Of course,” he said stiffly. “And I do hope he enjoys the intricacies of who you are.”

Too late, Alexi knew he’d pushed too far.

“Do make the most of your adventure, Jacob. Look me up when you get back.” He bowed slightly. “Good day.”

“Leo!”

There was no stopping his friend’s heavy-gated inflexible retreat. Leo didn’t even look back as he opened the door of the warehouse and guided Spence outside, a solicitous hand at his back.

Alexi watched the door close as he fingered the lace of his grubby shirtsleeves.

The intricacies of who you are.

Only Leo had ever truly understood that.

“Master Silsbury?” A gentle voice behind Alexi drew his attention from the pain in his chest that made it increasingly difficult to breathe.

“Yes, Alana?” He tempered the curtness in his voice and turned. “What is it?”

“Come and see what Dr. Spencer has coaxed the aether to do, Sir. It is truly remarkable.”

“Of course it is,” Alexi muttered, but he approached the workbench and Alana’s experiment, and in seconds, his ire was forgotten in the face of the sight that met his eyes.

In the space of three minutes, Dr. Peregrine Spencer had resolved years worth of work, invaded Alexi’s personal affairs, and imploded his well-ordered universe. And all with an innocent smile on his face.

A Tempting Invitation

6 April 2012

Caleb sat stiffly, doing his best to avoid any contact with Montgomery, who’d seen fit to sit down next to him on the sofa.  He recognized a number of the men, but seeing them all in a group was unexpected.  He also had no idea why Montgomery had dragged him in.  Accepting a commission hardly seemed reason enough.  He didn’t belong in the company of such powerful men.

“It doesn’t matter.” Caleb didn’t know the identity of the speaker, but he was certain he’d seen him at the DeHaviland ball. “We know who he must be. Atterby.”

Atterby?  Caleb leaned forward, the discussion drawing attention from his inner turmoil.  Between his uncle’s rapid descent into debt and then the suspicious circumstances surrounding his uncle’s death, he’d long believed Atterby was behind his currently straitened circumstances, but he had no way to prove it.

The conversation quickly moved on from Atterby and sedition, to a trip to Italy.  Imagine having the option to go to Italy, on a whim.  His uncle had had many such stories about the continent, but Caleb had never left England.

“Been a while since I’ve been to Italy.  And it has to be warmer than bloody damp London.”  Emmett gave an exaggerated shudder and Caleb glared at him.  As much as Caleb wanted to learn more about what these men knew about Atterby, he still didn’t know why he was here.  Could he slip out unnoticed?  Not when Montgomery sat close enough to warm him with the heat of his body.

Montgomery turned to him.  “You’ll come along, won’t you?”

All gazes turned to him, both questioning, expectant, and in Montgomery’s case, lascivious.  The cad likely didn’t have any other expression.  Caleb steeled himself against the temptation to cringe but he could only lean back so far before the sofa back halted his involuntary retreat.  He flinched upright as soon as Montgomery’s warm fingertips touched his nape.

“To… uh… Italy?”  On an airship?  Admitting his finances wouldn’t allow it would destroy his brother’s chances for marriage, but he didn’t have the funds to pay the butcher, never mind the expenses associated with traveling.  Which was humiliating all on its own.  But he’d dreamed of flying by airship.  He’d dreamed of visiting foreign lands.  He’d just never dreamed of doing either as a pauper.  Finding out more about Atterby would be an unexpected bonus.

“Of course.  I’d rather not postpone our work.”

“Oh, well, certainly.”  What else could he say?  He couldn’t afford to refuse Montgomery’s commission.  Caleb bit his lower lip, to keep in a shout of frustration.  “When would we leave?”

Montgomery turned his attention back to the group.  Nash, who’d been kidnapped, of all things, grimaced slightly.  “Best if we leave as soon as possible.  No more than two days.  That should be long enough to replenish supplies.”

Two days!

The men made a few more plans, but Caleb was too lightheaded to pay attention until they were all standing to leave.  Montgomery moved close to an attractive man who Caleb had deduced to be Nash’s brother, and placed a hand in the small of his back, edging rather too low for propriety’s sake.  The familiar gesture had Caleb frowning.

“I had a wonderful time this evening, as always.  Thank you.”  Montgomery’s voice was low, but Caleb heard every damning word.  Anger burned away the confusion and helplessness as he realized this was the very same man Montgomery had been with earlier.  And a courtesan, no less.  Caleb was getting on that airship, somehow.

Caleb slipped out of the room, as inconsequential as a ghost.

***

At the top of the stairs, he watched the men leave the club.  Time was already running out.

A couple of older men struggled drunkenly up the stairs, groping each other.  Caleb sniffed and moved out of their way.  Not difficult to see Montgomery acting the same way in twenty years.

“Did you see that cravat pin Silsbury was wearing?”  The portlier one put a hand to his throat in remembrance.

The skinnier man emitted a sound that could only be described as a cackle.  “Who does he think he is?  The Queen?  I heard he’s got a different one for each day and an extra for Sunday.”

“Makes you wonder why he lives here, doesn’t it?”

“Not at all.  Not when there’s easy access to… companionship.”  A resounding slap on the plump arse made both him and Caleb jump.

The couple stumbled down the hallway, but their risqué banter faded as a wild idea hit Caleb.

***

“My Lord, may I enquire what you are doing in here?”

The weight of Beare’s disapproving tone sent a chill through Caleb strong enough to take his breath and freeze him in place.

He flicked a glance at the doorway, but was unable to open his fingers, to drop the damning evidence in his hand.  Bad enough to be found in someone else’s rooms, but holding a cravat pin worth more than his yearly expenses was… damning at best.

“You are aware that these are not your rooms?”  Beare’s tone became more censorious.  “And that such an transgression is grounds for immediate expulsion from the club?”

Fear curdled in his belly.  Losing his haven and gaining a scandal at the same time was unthinkable.  His pulse rate sped up and a tremor shook his body.  He’d been lightheaded earlier, but nothing like this.  What had he been thinking?  As much as he’d like to blame this situation on alcohol, he couldn’t.  No matter.  Such an excuse wouldn’t mollify Beare.

“What’s going on?”  A sweet-faced young man peered around Beare’s shoulder, gaze darting from Beare to Caleb.  There was no doubt in Caleb’s mind that the newcomer had assessed the situation in seconds, but he managed to surprise Caleb with a sudden expression of sympathy.  For some reason, he didn’t look anything like the self-indulgent, ostentatious dandy he’d crossed paths with at the DeHaviland ball.

“I was wondering where’d you’d got to.  I don’t need that old thing anymore.  I found this one,” the young man said while patting a shiny pin with an enormous sapphire – twin to the ruby one Caleb held.  “Good evening, Beare.”

If Beare could be said to be perturbed, then he was now, although Caleb had to look the most confused.

“Master Silsbury, you know this man?  You… sent him here?  To fetch a cravat pin?”

“Oh yes, absolutely.”  The slender man darted around Beare and wrapped an arm around Caleb’s shoulders.

One of Beare’s brows lifted, giving voice to more derision and disbelief than a member of parliament could in an hour of oration, but he didn’t verbally dispute the claim that Caleb had every right to be where he was, holding a valuable jewel that wasn’t his.

“Very well.”  Beare turned on his heel and departed. The door to the suite didn’t slam behind him, but certainly gave the impression of being closed with more force than normal.

“Here now, sit down.  You’re white as a ghost and trembling.”  Silsbury gently plucked the cravat pin from Caleb’s fingers and led him to a chair.

“I’m sorry.”  Finally able to get his vocal cords to work now that the spectre of prison and scandal had lifted, Caleb took a good look at his saviour.  Choosing to hate Silsbury because he’d been one of the other recipients of Lord Bridgewater’s salacious groping was unreasonable.  Not only was it not his fault, but given Lord Bridewater’s tendencies, he’d have to hate half the men in London.

“I’m Alexander Silsbury.  Remember me?  You can call me Alexi.”

Caleb nodded.  “I’m Caleb.  Or Cal.  Oh.  I’m also Baron Colchester.  And I’m so sorry.”  The ice that had frozen in his veins a few moments earlier now seemed determined to exit as tears, and he clenched his fists, hoping to stave off any further humiliation.

“Now, now.  Let me ring for a pot of tea first.”

Alexi chatted aimlessly about his evening until a waiter arrived and poured.  Once they each had a cup of tea, Alexi focused his regard on Caleb.  “Better now?  Care to tell me about it?”

The delicate china cup in his hand shook as the fear and distress he thought he’d suppressed made a sudden return.  Carefully, he placed the cup back down, and the entire story spilled out.

“Ooh.  I’ve seen your clockwork animals.  You’ve got a great hand with fine motor works.  You have to make one for me.  In fact, I’ve got a big project I’m working on, and I could also use some help with it.”

Caleb frowned.  He been caught stealing from the man, and here he was offering a compliment along with legitimate commissions?

Alexi laughed at his expression, and Caleb couldn’t help but laugh along with him.  He picked up his now-cold tea and drank, but he needed something wet to soothe his throat after all his talking.

“Wait.  You said you met Nash?  Nash Sutherland?”

Caleb shrugged.  “They only called him Nash.”

Alexi stood, and paced.  “It must be him.  You have to go to Italy with them.  An airship with a sky pirate?  A chance to find out if Atterby killed your uncle?  It’s a once in a life time opportunity.  I’ll give you an advance on your commission.”

This couldn’t be happening.  Nothing good had happened to him since his uncle died.

Alexi turned and smiled.  “It will be fine.”

The excitement in Alexi’s voice and the compassion he’d displayed spurred Caleb to yet another impulsive decision. Was his title cursed or was he just more like his uncle than he’d known?  His behaviour had been nothing short of reckless since he’d become Baron Colchester.  “Come with me.”

“What?”

“Please.  Come with me.  I can say I need your help to work on Bridgewater’s project.  Please.  I need…” his voice faltered.  “I need a friendly face.”

Caleb drained the last of his tea, waiting for Alexi to say something.  As soon as he realized what his situation entailed, he’d closed himself off, hadn’t confided in anyone but his brother.  How long had it been since he’d had a true friend?  Somehow, he thought Alexi could fill that role.

“I’ll do it.  Leo’s going to kill me, but I’ll do it.”

“Leo?”  Caleb couldn’t interpret the expressions that flitted across Alexi’s face.

“He’s a friend.”  Caleb didn’t quite believe him, but he was in no position to judge.  There would be plenty of time on the trip to Italy to return the favour of a sympathetic listener.

 

 

 

 

Incorrigible

10 February 2012

It was positively obscene, the thrill Leo’s close proximity shot through Alexi. As was the happy cloud that seemed to surround him as the evening progressed and that nearness remained, like Leo was tethered to him by an invisible cord that stretched no more than a few feet at any given time.

“Where did you get this Waistcoat, Leo?” Alexi asked at one point. The library had emptied out, as it did on occasion when some of the less bold men deemed it necessary to show their wives some attention and devotion, and others retired to the card room. Alexi had no such thing as a card face, so he didn’t play, but he enjoyed watching the others bet and lose fortunes. He was standing now, leaning on the back of Leo’s chair where they could observe without being obtrusive.

“Where do you think?” Leo didn’t look at him as he replied. His gaze was once again fixed on the man Alexi had been talking to earlier, his mind, no doubt, on the elegant stranger who had manhandled Alexi. His scowl was just as deep as it had been when Leo had witnessed the incident.

“I think you had an epiphany, my dear friend,” Alexi replied. He gave the collar of Leo’s dinner jacket a sharp tug to get his attention.

“An epiphany?” Finally, Leo glanced up at him. “Of what sort, pray tell?”

Alexi smiled his best, Masterful, seductive smile. “The sort that prompted you to come here tonight in a waistcoat matching my own that silently declares your true intentions. I think, my dear Leo, that you want people to look at us and know you are spoken for. My man, as it were.”

“Your—“ Leo huffed. “Your man?” He rose and strode quickly toward the library and the doors leading to the garden, but stopped half way through the door to the other room and turned. “Your man?” He said again. “Just what do you mean by that?”

“Alexi.” A gruff, rather slovenly voice interrupted them before Alexi could clarify, forcing his attention away.

“Professor.” Shock at seeing the older man standing before him momentarily had Alexi reeling. He had not imagined the rebuff earlier. But then a quick assessment of the professor now was enough to tell him the man was well into his cups. He had always been a rather sloppy, if amorous, drunk. Straightening, squaring his shoulders, Alexi faced him fully. “To what do I owe the pleasure,Jordan?”

A crooked leer crossed the professor’s face. “It could be a pleasure, indeed. Shall we step outside? I have a proposal I’d like to discuss—“

A gasp rippled through the card room and all three men turned to the far door where two men stood sharing a kiss with such passion even Leo seemed affected by it, if his parted lips and the flush riding his cheeks was anything to go by. Alexi recognized only one of the men as Anthony…somebody-or-other. The second man he couldn’t see well enough to identify, but he felt sure anyone with that kind of presence was someone he would remember if he’d ever encountered him before.

Beside him, Professor McKaskill blanched, muttered something and hurried away. No doubt the blatant display had him in a tizzy. The man was excruciatingly discreet in his predilections, at least when he was sober. That had been Alexi’s reasoning for finally deciding to expose his own secret, imagining the professor would be more inclined to accept the relationship if everyone on the outside could clearly see he was courting a woman. And Alexi could pass for a very charming young woman when it suited his purposes.

The kiss ended. The room stilled. For a moment balanced before the chaos every face in the room reflected varying degrees of shock or amusement. Some looked downright horrified. The man Alexi didn’t recognize disappeared back through the door he had arrived at, and his paramour quickly turned to follow. The hush was broken by the sound of shattering glass then Jack­­­­­­ Starrington bolted from his chair and went after them.

“Well.” Alexi turned to Leo, about to comment on the refreshing change from stuffy to titillating, but Leo was gone. Alexi caught only a brief glimpse of his friend’s form through a crack in the curtains as the door to the library snicked shut. Ignoring the rapidly rising volume of the room behind him, Alexi hurried after Leo.

It was chilly outside, and not as brightly lit as it could have been. Alexi followed the shadowy silhouette Leo made against the wavering light and lacy shadows of the garden toward the centre.

“Leo!”

“Go back to the party, Alexander,” Leo said without turning. “It is cold out here, and you without your coat.”

“You without yours, as well. What is it, Leo? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong. I came to see you how you fared. Perhaps spare you the agony of the courting ritual to find a wife, and I find you the object of attention of strangers and old lovers both. Obviously, you don’t need my help.” He still hadn’t slowed his pace. “And I don’t need your innuendoes, either. I’m going home.”

“Wait.” Alexi stopped walking. “What is going on here? You came here dressed like that, and I’m not supposed to read anything into it?”

Leo stopped and flung his arms out. They came to rest against his thighs again with a soft slap. “But that is you all over, isn’t it, Alexander?” He turned. “I make one small gesture to show my solidarity, and you would have me admit it means something more. I’m sorry I went to the trouble.”

“What does it mean, then?” Alexi asked, desperate not to acknowledge the sliding sludge of emotion that made Leo’s words feel more like rejection than anything Professor McKaskill had ever done or said. “If it doesn’t cement in the heads of all who might have noticed that you are my man, like you have been my man all our lives, then what does it mean?”

“Like I’ve been all our lives?” Leo tipped his head to one side. “Is that really what you were going to say in there, Alexander?” He finally turned around to face Alexi. “Really?”

No. Of course not.

But if it stopped Leo turning and walking in the other direction, then: “Yes, of course.” He managed a smile that fooled neither of them. “Whatever else would I have meant, Leonard?”

 

 

Leo was not fooled. But he could let himself be. He could let Alexi’s half-truth stand because neither of them wanted to throw away a lifetime of friendship and trust over a piece of clothing. Over a misunderstanding. Mostly, he could accept it because if he did not force Alexi to say what he really meant out loud, he wouldn’t have to deny anything, and his reasons could remain there in that space between them where truth was ambiguous and nothing need be spoken.

“You are right, of course.” He managed his own fake smile and made his way back toward the house and Alexi. “I read into your words what I was sure that boor was thinking when he groped you.”

Alexi grinned. “He did have strong hands. And a not unpleasant face.”

“Alexander, please.” Leo pursed his lips.

“What?” Alexi looped his arm lightly through Leo’s as he came abreast of his shorter friend, and they walked down the path together. “I refuse to believe you have never in your life groped a maid because you thought she had a pretty face.” He beamed up at Leo. “Even you, ensconced as you are in your frustratingly narrow world cannot deny my face is appealing. Pretty even.” He bumped his hip lightly into Leo’s. “And my arse gropable. I do not take any less care showing off my attributes when I dress as a man than I do when I dress as a woman, Leo. Surely you must have noticed.”

He had. How could he not? Alexi might not be promiscuous, but he did not shy away from showing off what he had at his disposal. “I’m sure I would have, had I occasion to look, Master Alexander.”

Alexi laughed and it lifted Leo’s heart to know his fit of pique hadn’t angered his friend overly much. “Ah, I knew I would hear you call me that again one day.” Alexi twinkled up at him. “Sarcastic or not. It does sound different now we are no longer boys, though.”

Leo gazed down at the imp. It felt different to say it, left him feeling slightly breathless because it was so very close to places he dared not tread. “You are incorrigible.”

Alexi smiled at him, the imp gone, replaced by nothing but honest happiness, as far as Leo could tell. “I don’t need correction, because I am already correct.”

They had arrived back full circle to the library door and Alexi stopped and rested his head briefly on Leo’s shoulder. He’d made the gesture thousands of times when they strolled down the street, Lexi on his arm in all her finery. Leo could not remember this kind of closeness when he didn’t have the comfort of the skirts to hide behind.

“’Lexi?” His voice came through gruff, almost a whisper.

“This party is tiresome, suddenly.” It was something Alexander would have said in his whiniest, most grating voice. Lexi just said it, matter of fact and calm.

Leo had the sudden urge to turn, face Lexi, run his fingers down one smooth, pale cheek and agree to anything this whimsical creature dreamed up and asked of him. The idea sent a shiver through him, a frission of confusion tinged with desperation.

“Shall I escort you back to your rooms?” He didn’t look down. If he focused on their reflected faces in the glass of the library door, it was just he and Lexi and he could say whatever he wanted.

Alexander turned him so they were face to face. In the near-darkness it was hard to see his features clearly, by Leo thought he looked almost sad. Certainly thoughtful.

“No, Leo, I have a better idea.” He forced a small smile onto his face and gazed up, his eyes dark, his lips slightly parted with an expectant breath.

He should kiss those lips.

He should step back and clear his head and realize this was his best friend. His childhood charge, and it was his responsibility to keep Alexi safe, not take advantage.

Indecision froze Leo into inaction.

“Yes.” Alexander nodded once, decisive. “I definitely have a better idea. You should call your carriage around. I will give your driver directions. Come on.” He moved, quick and sure, flinging open the garden door and striding inside, leaving Leo standing in the chill garden alone and baffled.

“Wait!” by the time he caught up, Alexi was in the front hall waiting on the houseboy who had gone to fetch their overcoats. “Alexander! What about your carriage?”

Alexi gave him an exasperated look. “I hired a steam carriage, of course, and sent it back to the city. Extravagant enough to have arrived in style, I think, and not hauled at the end of a prancing manure factory.” The houseboy arrived back with their outerwear and Alexi handed Leo’s over. “I made my point. Paying to have the vehicle remain here would have been ostentatious.” He beamed at Leo. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Incorrigible,” Leo muttered, hauling on his coat. Though he had to admit, albeit silently and only to himself, that Alexi was doing better at maintaining a more modest spending habit. If hiring the steam carriage in the first place could even remotely be called modest. In the past, Alexi would have thought nothing of paying the driver to remain all night and never given heed to the cost. Not that his vast fortune would run out any time soon. Probably not even in his lifetime, but nothing in life was guaranteed, and Alexi had a bad habit of going off on inexplicable sprees on occasion that could make even the fattest of pocket books groan with the strain.

“Well.” Alexi feigned petulance and did a passing fair job at it, but for the twinkle in his dark eyes. “And here I thought you would be proud of me for exercising moderation.”

“Moderation?” Leo snorted. “A steam carriage is moderation?” He pulled on his gloves as another houseboy announced that his carriage had pulled ‘round. “Then I fear your excesses, Alexi. I truly do.”

It wasn’t until they were safely ensconced in the carriage under layers of furs and blankets for the long ride back into the city proper that Leo realized they had fled the party without a word of thanks or farewell to their hosts. That would surely cost them a rung on the social ladder. He snuck a glance at his companion. Alexi rode in silence, a contended grin on his face, his gaze soft as he watched out the window, and Leo couldn’t bring himself to care about social niceties.

 

The sun had topped the horizon by the time they arrived back in the city centre and Alexi perked up considerably. Rather than taking the main road and delivering them at the foot of the Lords of Aether club, however, their driver turned early and headed down towards the docks and warehouses.

“Alexi?” Leo eyed him. “Now what?”

“Relax.” Alexi pointed to a building rather larger and better kept than its neighbours. It had rows of high, small windows, one very outsized main door in front and a smaller door leading inside from a narrow alley. Two hefty men stood outside the bigger door and another lounged at the head of the alley. They all watched the carriage roll up, guarded looks on their faces and hands twitching.

“Relax, fellows.” Alexi stepped out of the carriage first and waved the big men down. “It’s just me. And I bring a friend. Leo?” He turned as Leo stepped down. “Meet the Dodge brothers. Peter, Eli and Adam. Boys, this is Leo. He is to be afforded the same regard you afford me, yes?”

The men were all older than either Leo or Alexi. Peter looked to be the eldest, and he nodded, sending a shock of vibrant red hair into a wild dance across his forehead. “Of course, Master Silsbury.”

Leo’s brows shot up. “Master Silsbury?” he muttered under his breath so only Alexi could hear.

Alexi ignored him. “The others are inside?”

Again, Peter nodded. “Had the lamps burning all night, didn’t they, Master Silsbury. They’ll be ready.”

“Good. Leo, you can send your man home. We will have no further need of him today.”

“Um, Alexander…”

Alexi waved a hand over his shoulder. “Come on. You’ll like this. Send him home and come inside.”

A strange quiver of excitement shot through Leo. He so rarely got to see this side of his Alexi. Usually he was faced with the satiny strength of the femme willing to let him be the man, or the bumbling but endearing absentmindedness that convinced him Alexi needed him close. This take charge, commanding presence only rarely surfaced and Leo took notice.

He dismissed his driver and hurried into the warehouse through the small door in the alley where Alexi had disappeared.

The inside was smaller than he expected. A room not much bigger than Alexi’s rooms at the Club, it was occupied by two people who’s attention was all on whatever lay across their work table. They didn’t even look up at the sound of Alexi’s voice announcing his arrival.

The room was surprisingly well-lit, and it took Leo a moment to realize the illumination was coming from a series of glass globes strung along the wall and attached together by tubes and wires. He ran his fingers over the surface of one. Inside, wisps of energy sparkled and zapped and he yanked his hand back just as Alexi slapped the back of his hand sharply.

The sting made him gasp.

“What was that for?”

“Alana? Darling, come here, please.” Alexi called a young woman over and she sprang to his request. Alexi took her face in slender fingers and turned it so Leo could see the other side. A fine network of scars marred her alabaster skin, plucking her lips up into a slight, permanent half smile and puckering the skin over her cheekbone. They stopped a mere hair’s breadth from her left eye. She blinked at Leo, completely unashamed at the marks or the way Alexi showed them to a complete stranger.

“They can explode at the slightest mishandling, Leo. You see?”

“Yes, I see…”

“Good.” Alexi released her. “As you were, darling.”

She gave a quick curtsy and hurried back to whatever task she had been doing.

“If you don’t know what it is, or how it works, best to not touch, agreed?” Alexi peered up at Leo, clearly expecting a prompt response.

“Uh, yes.” Leo nodded, nonplussed by the frank, confident look in Alexi’s gaze. “Agreed. Of course.”

“Good.” Alexi smiled, and it was like the sweetest reward for good behaviour, or a right answer in class from a stern teacher, and Leo breathed out a sigh of relief.

“I would hate for anything to happen to you, Leo. So stay close and try not to let curiosity get you into trouble.”

The role reversal was abrupt and complete. Suddenly, Leo was no longer the one in charge. No longer the one who knew what came next. It was more than a little disconcerting. He wasn’t sure he liked the role very much.

He didn’t have time to think about it right then, though. Alexi led him to another small door and through, and the sight that met his eyes struck him speechless. Alexi stood at his side, all but bursting with pride, waiting for him to take it all in.

This was the warehouse proper. They had entered at street level, and now stood on a high catwalk circling the entire building. The inside had been dug out to bring the floor level down to that of the water of the river. The river itself flowed right into the building. Clearly, the construction of the place had been purposeful and carefully planned. The far wall was built on pylons out in the water, and beneath the placid flow, Leo could just make out forms, shadowy under the dark water, but visible through a slight phosphorescence that seemed to emanate from their skin.

Below them, resting on a huge platform was the strangest boat Leo had ever seen. At it’s centre, it was a bubble of steel and copper and glass, but surrounding the bubble, decking of cured teak spread out like the wings of a sea bird gliding on the wind. The top of the bubble was covered in glass, thick, supported by strong steel frames, and beyond the glass, Leo could make out a space that looked remarkably like a sitting room. Below the decking was more glass, what had to be the pilot’s station at the front, and the final section of bubble hidden from view by sectioned steel shutters arranged like long scales.

“What…?” Leo didn’t know where to start. What to ask.

Alexi grinned at him, obviously over the moon with his speechlessness. “It’s ready, Leo. Can you believe it?” He turned to face the odd contraption and clapped his hands together, a little kid with a favourite toy. “Home. It’s done. We’ve done it.”

A wide fling of his arms took in the two men working below, the entire building, and presumably, those outside and in the workroom who had helped Alexi create this…whatever this was.

“The decking furls up. That’s what Sasha is doing now. Watch.”

Even as he spoke, the wide swaths of decking began to move, each plack dropping and the entire thing folding in like the slats of a fan, tight against the sides of the ship. It took only a few minutes and when it was done, there were only narrow strips along each side.

“Makes it much more manoeuvrable underwater,” Alexi explained. “Just enough of a fin to keep her stable, but not so much as to get caught on anything. Also allows for more visibility. From the dining area, there,” he pointed to the upper level inside the glass confines, “you can enjoy your tea and watch the fishes. It really is amazing.”

“Have your tea?” Leo shuffled a step forward to get a better look, hands tightening on the thin pipe serving as railing before him. “Underwater, Alexi?” he was having a hard time wrapping his mind around the idea Alexi had built a house that could float. Even more astounding, a house he could sink at will.

“We’ve had it in the water a few times already. Taken her below twice now, and not a single leak. It’s perfect, Leo. Only takes ten minutes to get to depth, and I’ve redesign the entire steam system to constantly build and store power in a plasma field so that she can stay under for hours.”

“Below?” Leo glanced at his friend. “Below what?” He knew the answer but dreaded the confirmation. The thought of his Alexi inside that thing, below the surface of the water protected only by a few flimsy inches of glass and steel made his knees a little weak and his gut flip.

“The water! Don’t be daft. You know this is what I’ve been working towards!”

“In theory, yes, but—“

“But what?” Alexi turned to him. “You thought theory was all it would ever be? That I couldn’t figure out how to do it? How to make it work? How to improve on the bungling of the past?”

“No! I never thought that.” In fact, Leo hadn’t though much about it at all. Alexi liked his books and his physics, and was fascinated by the water. Leo had always known that. He’d just never really thought all the talk of building a boat that could go beneath the waves was actually a possibility Alexi took seriously.

And yet, apparently, here it was.

Alexi strode to the railing of the catwalk and shouted down to the men below. “Uncle Jasper! Fire her up!” he turned to face Leo, a hard light in his eye. “I’m not what you think, Leo. Come down and see. Or go home. The choice is yours.”

He wheeled away and took the steps down two at a time, swinging his weight between the railings as he went. Below, the machine gave a bellow of a sigh and everything Leo thought he knew about his Alexi went up in a thick blast of steam from the submersible’s stack.

Party Talk

30 December 2011

Alexi’s entrance to the ball went relatively unremarked, and he was perfectly happy with that. He didn’t have a lot of use for fanfare or have that need so many of his peers seemed to have to be doted on. Not being the centre of attention gave him freedom from the politics his father was so enamoured of, as well. This way, his time and effort were all his own and he spent the majority of the party observing.

Most of his observations were the boring stuff of socialite chatter and positioning. He well knew there were young ladies in attendance with an eye to snagging the next Lord Silsbury, and his fortunes, for their own. News of his father’s ill health was hardly a secret at this point. The old man had not attended a soiree like this one in months, and people noticed. People asked questions, and already, he could feel the eyes of prospective fathers-in-law studying him. It made his skin crawl.

This was exactly the reason he had wished Leonard to accompany him. If he had Leonard to distract him, he could not be cornered by money-grubbing men with simpering daughters, or patronizing mothers pretending to dote on the poor, lone young bachelor who surely needed the love of a good woman to set him to rights in the face of his poor father’s decline.

This was the line being fed him at the moment by Lady…in fact, he couldn’t remember the woman’s name, let alone that of the girl at her side. He glanced at the child, for child she was, no more than seventeen, surely, and stifled a sigh. They had cornered him next to the mantle, his drink empty and the heat from the roaring fire soaking past the brocade and lace until sweat trickled uncomfortably down his spine.

Times like this, he desperately needed Leonard. Leonard, who kept him from blurting things like “I like to suck other men’s pricks and wear dresses. You don’t want me.” Because he surely did not want this slip of a thing, and pretending he did would only lead to ill feelings and a morass of social disaster he’d never dig himself out of.

Coming out and saying he was not interested was no good, either. Leonard always seemed to have the right excuse to extricate him from these situations, but a quick, fruitless glance around the parlour only reinforced that he was on his own. He had precious few allies as long as he avoided the marriage trap and thus remained on the outside of his father’s politics. It had been a mistake coming here.

That was the precise moment his gaze fell on a familiar profile, and even the droning platitudes of the pair who had maneuvered him practically into the fire were drowned out by the roar of his own blood in his ears. Jordan.

As the professor’s head turned and their gazes met, Alexi couldn’t have looked away if his life had depended on it. He gripped his glass in a suddenly clammy hand, fearful of it slipping and shattering on the hearth stones. This could be his chance to make things right with Jordan, to apologize. He knew Leonard would call him a fool for it, but he hoped anyway. His mind, always sluggish when it came to social niceties, groped for an excuse to leave the women and go to his professor.

Then Jordan’s face closed, his gaze shifted over Alexi, like he was part of the woodwork, and the moment was past.

So much for social niceties. Alexi set his glass down on the mantle with a shaking hand, ducked his head and mumbled a “beg your pardon” as he slipped out of the conversation and all but scurried toward the library.

He aimed for the garden beyond, for the bracing cold outside to calm his nerves, but found the way blocked by two men headed in the same direction, clearly bent on a single purpose if the glance they shared meant anything. Alexi stopped in his tracks, the reminder he probably didn’t want to wander out there on his own right now snapping him from his panic.

He turned abruptly, found an empty chair and made for it, only to be thwarted by a surly looking man with dark hair and a darker expression. The man pivoted from peering out a window to flop into the chair before him.

“Well,” Alexi blurted, though he had no follow-up for it.

The man looked up at him. “Well?” His gaze shot past Alexi to the closed garden door and a scowl swept across his face.

“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Alexi said, trying to cover his blunder. “Alexander Silsbury.”

The man stared blankly up at him. “Your father is ill,” he said at last.

What did one say to that? “Yes.” Alexi rearranged a bit of lace at his cuff, searching for something else to say. A footman approached with a tray of champagne glasses and Alexi gratefully snagged one and sipped. The man in chair declined, indicating the still-full glass in his hand. He shifted in his seat and straightened his overcoat.

“I had forgotten,” the man said after the footman had passed, his voice slightly bored, slightly cutting, “how dreary these things could be.” His gaze came back to Alexi from where he’d been watching the men at one of the card tables. He flicked a look up and down Alexi’s body though his expression did not change. “And decadent, at the same time.”

Alexi couldn’t decide if he meant that in an intrigued way or a disgusted one. When his gaze once more flitted to the garden door and his sour expression deepened, Alexi decided his companion was decidedly not amused.

“Yes, I suppose that is true,” Alexi conceded. Once more, he fiddled with a bit of lace, taking a small amount of wicked pleasure in the fact the man could actually frown more deeply than he had already. “Some will take any excuse to mock tradition.” He smiled, a small, humourless expression and sipped his drink. “Shameful, really, and yet…” he shrugged. “Where would we be if tradition was all we had? Firmly entrenched in the dark ages, I think. No progress. No technology.” His companion’s expression lightened, ever so slightly and Alexi straightened inwardly. Everyone had a catch, and he had found this sour man’s hidden trigger. “Really, tradition is just another way to say control. Without progress, innovation,” he gave a delicate flick of his wrist and almost grinned at the way the man fought to control his expression, “we would be lost, would we not? I say sometimes, it’s better to accept the march of progress.” Enjoying himself, now, he turned slightly to glance toward the garden before leaning slightly toward his companion. “Embrace what makes us unique and to hell with following all of the rules all of the time. Where is the fun in that? So much can be accomplished when one decides to take that step beyond and try something new, yes?”

His companion said nothing for a moment, just looked at him, a new, less dour look in his eyes. Which, Alexi finally noticed, were a fascinating shade of blue.

“Excuse me.” A soft, sultry voice grabbed Alexi’s attention at the same time a firm grip grabbed his bottom.

He barely had time to react before the speaker had passed and was glancing back at him.

“Aren’t you a pretty little thing?”

Alexi blinked at this interloper, unsure if he was insulted or pleased with the comment. He didn’t get to decide, because at that moment, beyond the chair and the rest of the milling men, there was Leonard, standing in the library doorway glaring at the brash newcomer.

“Excuse me,” Alexi said, already moving off. Neither man paid him any heed as he slipped away from them.

“Leonard.” A pleased smile crept onto his face. “I thought you weren’t coming.”

“I said I could not attend on your arm, Alexi.” Leonard took him by the elbow and drew him to the far end of the room. “I had business to attend to. What trouble have you been getting yourself into?” He looked back to where the two men were conversing, a strange, fraught tension between them.

Alexi laughed, overwhelmed by the relief that Leonard was here. “None, I assure you, Leo.” He took stock of his friend’s stiff body language and hard glare, still fixed on the man who had fondled Alexi’s bottom. “You’ve been shopping again,” he said, his voice going soft as he touched his fingers to the brocade of Leonard’s waist coat.

Finally, Leonard’s attention came back to him. He took Alexi’s hand in his, removing it from his person and pushing it gently to Alexi’s side. “I have. Do you think it suits?”

“I think it’s quite daring, Leo. People’s tongues will wag.”

Leonard smiled down at him. “Aren’t you the one always preaching a departure from tradition, ‘Lexi? You like breaking rules, after all, and maybe, sometimes I tire of being the one to keep you in line.”

That set Alexi’s blood boiling. So many ways to interpret it. The night suddenly looked very different than it had a half hour ago, and Alexi smiled.

Dressing Up

16 December 2011

 

Undecided, Jacob Alexander Silsbury glared at the pile of trunks in the corner of his rooms. He had vowed he’d be out of these rooms by spring. One year after he’d finished school, he was still here, spring was upon him, and he wondered if he should at least dig through for his notebooks to refresh himself on some of the research he had been doing before the move. He was no closer to finding a solution to his difficulties than he had been when he’d moved in, a wet-behind-the-ears youth, just out of university. He’d hoped by now to be living on his own on the submersible house boat he’d built. It still sat in dry dock, finished, mostly. It floated and he could even make it dive, but not to the depths he needed to do the studies he wanted to do, and now he had no idea how to get the help he needed to find a solution. Worse, he had lost his advantage. He had lost his professor.

Taking a swig of the drink in his hand, he made a face at the taste scotch and memory left in his mouth. Jordan McKaskill had promised to introduce him to people who could help him make the machine work. Of course, McKaskill had also said he loved Alexi.

“And because I’m an idiot, I believed him.”

Smoothing a hand down his front, Alexi glanced at the plush velvety material covering his chest, fingered the froth of lace poking from the lapel of his robe. It crumpled under his fingers and he fought the urge to yank it away, tearing the fabric free of the garment. That was a childish reaction. So what if Jordanhated the clothes? Hated the man Alexi was. That was his problem.

Alexi turned his back on the crates and travel chests full of his books and tools, packed uselessly in the corner of the sitting room. He couldn’t as easily turn his back on the pain the professor had left behind. Foolish, schoolboy pain. He should have known better.

A knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts and he glanced at himself in the mirror. It was the middle of the day and he was still in his night clothes and dressing gown. He debated opening the door. Alone in his rooms, he’d indulged in his keen desire to put on a woman’s attire and there was no mistaking the frills and lace in the night clothes he hadn’t changed out of.

“Alexi?” His best friend’s voice filtered through the door and he sighed.

“Coming, Leonard.” The one person in the world he knew wouldn’t say a word about the lace and trim on his gown was his best friend. He stood to one side as he opened the door. “Come in.”

“Oh, Jacob.” Leonard stepped into the room and closed the door behind him, glancing at the drink in Alexi’s hand. “Again?”

Alexi glared at his friend. “Jacob is not in, Leo.”

 

* * *

 

Leo sighed. “All right.”

He studied his best friend closely. Never a robust man, Alexi was looking particularly sallow lately, and Leo wished he could ascribe the paleness to the long, wet season finally drawing to an end. Or to the equally long hours Alexi spent either in his laboratory trying to coerce the aether into doing what he needed it to do, or at the dry docks overseeing the creation of his latest steam powered commission. He knew the sadness had far more to do with a broken heart than with the challenge of intellectual puzzles his friend would, eventually solve.

“Alexi, then,” Leonard conceded. “Beare mentioned you hadn’t been down to break your fast yet today.” He glanced at the table beside Alexi’s favourite chair. “Though I see you’ve been free with the libations.”

“I am not drunk.” Alexi curled his fingers tight around the back of the chair he was standing behind.

“Of course not.” He picked up the mostly empty decanter and poured himself the last glass, which he gulped down in one sip. “Get dressed, then. We are going out.”

“Where?”

Leonard shrugged and pried Alexi’s glass free of his hand. “Wherever you want. For a bite to eat. Shopping. Anything you want. You are not staying in these rooms moping for another minute. Go put something nice on.”

He watched Alexi’s face as his words sank past the alcohol haze.

“Something nice,” Alexi murmured. He looked up at Leonard. “Shopping?”

“I shall be your escort today, Alexi. Beare has arranged for the usual discrete egress of your…lady friend, so if you please?” He motioned to Alexi’s dressing room. “Don’t take all day, or the shops will be closed.”

For another heartbeat, Alexi just stared at him, wide-eyed and frozen.

“Hurry up.” He kept his tone playful, light, and finally, Alexi spurred into motion, dashing over to plant a kiss on his cheek and darting away into the other room.

Leo smiled. The things he did for his best friend. He sank into Jacob’s chair to await the emergence of Alexi in all her feminine glory. No matter how many times he’d seen the transformation, he never completely got used to the breath-stealing effect it had on him.

He touched his cheek, as if he could feel the impression Alexi’s lips had made there. It left him wondering just how far he would go for the other man.

 

* * *

Leonard glanced out the window of the tiny dress shop and hurriedly backed into a darker corner. “I cannot believe I talked myself into this, Jacob.”

Jacob Alexander glanced at his friend through the mirror and made a face. “Don’t call me that. That is my father’s name, and it really does not suit me in the least. Soon enough, you’ll be calling me Lord Silsbury.”

“It is your name. You don’t expect me to call you Alexi, do you, now you really could be lord of the Manor soon enough.”

“Jordan does.” Alexi smiled to himself, but the smile as quickly faded. “Did.”

Leonard managed not to heave a sigh as he moved forward again and adjusted the tail of the overcoat Alexi was trying on. “Jordan.” He snorted. “Professor McKaskill threw you over, remember?” He brushed his hands over his friend’s shoulders, smoothing out the fine woolen garment.

“Wonderful. The reminder is most timely. Thank you, Leonard.”

“Seems you need reminding about every other minute, ‘Lexi,” Leonard said softly. He turned Alexi to face him. “Forget him. He doesn’t deserve this mournful expression. He was vile to you.”

“He was angry. And rightly so.” Alexi focused his attention on the buttons of his new coat and forced his fingers not to tremble as he pushed the tiny pearls through their corresponding loops. “I lied to him.”

“A small fib.”

“To get into his bed.” Memories of Professor Jordan McKaskill’s bed flooded his mind, followed closely by misery. “No, that isn’t precisely true. I lied in hopes he’d introduce me to the Browns. Which he never actually did. I used him, and he had every right to be angry.” Once again, he turned to the mirror, though his head remained bowed, and any joy he might have found in this latest purchase vanished under the morass of guilt and sorrow at losing something that had grown too precious to be replaced by even the most splendid new attire.

“Alexi, listen to me.” Leonard’s hands on his shoulders were still gentle, his long fingers curved, conforming to the almost girl-like curve of Alexi’s frame. “Jordan McKaskill does not deserve as fine a man as you. If he can’t see one youthful folly for the mistake it was and forgive you, then I say good riddance. Find yourself someone who appreciates you for more than your body.”

Alexi blew out a breath that puffed up his cheeks and turned just enough to show off the cut of his new coat, but not dislodge Leonard’s comforting touch. “What do you think of this coat, Leonard? Really?”

He studied the other man’s face in the mirror, prepared for Leonard’s habitual sneer to twist his plump lips.

“Really?” Miraculously, his friend’s expression remained placid. “You cut a fine figure, Alexi. The coat suits you better than it does my sister. The buttons are a nice touch.” He touched the one just over Alexi’s breast bone with one finger.

Alexi’s gaze dropped to the pearls. “Not too….”

“Not too anything,” Leonard confirmed. “Just exactly you. Now–”

“Oh!” Alexi spotted a familiar figure through the window. The very object of their earlier discussion was hurrying out of a shop across the street and Alexi snapped an expletive over his friend’s reassurances. He watched his professor peer in one direction, then the other, before turning aside from the doorway Alexi had spotted him exiting to shuffle furtively down the street. Dashing for the door of the small dress shop, Alexi wrenched it open, bent on calling out to his former lover.

“Jacob!” Leonard grabbed his hand, still on the door pull, and stopped him rushing into the street. “Calm down! Alexi!” He gave his friend a little shake. “Stop. Do you want him to think you’re dogging him? Don’t do this. Don’t be the lost puppy and give him another chance to kick you.”

“What was he doing in there?” Alexi asked, staring down the street at the professor’s retreating back. He spared a glance for the apothecary the older man had just exited.

“Maybe he needs a cure for a case of the vapours,” Leonard said with a vicious twist to his voice.

“Don’t be a harpy, Leonard.”

“For all you might like to don a skirt now and then, Alexi, that man is more simpering and prone to hysterics than you will ever be. Just let him go about whatever sordid business it is he’s up to and you come back in here. Try on the rest of your outfit for tonight. I’m dying to see what you’ve picked out to scandalize people with next.”

“No one frequents that establishment for legitimate cures, Leonard.” He couldn’t quite bring his attention back to the shop and the reason he was there. “Look. He’s turned down the lane. The back door to the club is down that way, at the far end of the street. He must be headed for the labs, but what would he be working on that he needs ingredients from White’s Apothecary?”

“Let him go, Alexi.” Leonard took his hand again, prying it from the door pull and turning him back to face the inside of the shop. He gave him a small shove into the centre of the sumptuous racks of women’s dresses, shelves of velvet and satin, and rolls of lace. “Show me what you bought for the ball.”

Alexi pouted, but he did model the rest of his outfit; a long, brocade vest in rose-colored satins, a shirt with probably too many frills to ever pass as manly, and narrowly-fitting trousers that showed off the long, slim lines of his legs.

“Well?” he asked, fingers dancing over the fine brocade.

“You’ll be the belle of the ball, no matter how many pretty girls in curls and jewels and perfume show up.”

“Tell me again why you aren’t coming with me?”

“You know why, Jacob.”

And there was an effective end to that conversation. Support and acceptance Leonard might have in abundance, but if he had any desire for Alexi, he would never admit it. Any time they came near the possible mention of such a thing, Alexi once again became Jacob, childhood friend and confident. Asexual. To be kept at arm’s length and innocent as they were as boys no matter how many times either of them kissed and told.

He kept any evidence of disappointment off his face. Not that he wanted his oldest and best of friends as a lover. He knew Leonard just didn’t want to imagine that kind of relationship. But having this staunch support at his side when he entered that ball room tonight,  even as a friend, would go a long way to both healing the rift in his heart Jordan had left behind, and to securing his social standing as heir to a house he didn’t really want.

That only made him think, yet again, of his ailing father, ill with some disease no doctor could name or cure. Not that he would necessarily mourn the man’s passing very much. They had never been that close. Lord Silsbury believed whole-heartedly in formal education, and both his sons spent most of their young lives with nannies, tutors and then away at boarding schools. Thankfully, his absent parents had allowed for the friend he now had in Leonard, but Alexi barely knew the man he stood to inherit his vast fortune from.

“Do not give me that kicked puppy expression, please,” Leonard complained.

So he hadn’t schooled his expression as well as he’d hoped. “I am not giving you anything, Leonard. But he will be there, and walking in on my own…”

“Stop it. There is no shame in having the strength to show him you don’t need him. Walk in there, with your head up, looking as good as you do now, and every one of your precious Aether Lords will wish they could whirl you ’round the dance floor. Let him eat his cold, dead heart out over that.”

“Why do you have to be so mean?”

Leonard let out a heavy, frustration-filled sigh. “Because someone has to be, my dear. You are entirely too soft-hearted.” He ruffled Alexi’s hair affectionately. “Soft-headed, where this professor of yours is concerned. If you won’t be sensible enough to be angry at him, I shall have to be harsh enough for us both.”

“I don’t like you calling him names or wishing him ill.”

“And I don’t like him breaking your heart, or having this hold over you still, when you would have long walked away from any other lover who treated you as he has. No, ‘Lexi, I’m sorry, but in this case, you do not get to dictate how I feel about this man. He has hurt you, and there is no rule in any universe that says I have to forgive him for it.” Leonard fiddled with the lace at Alexi’s throat, his movements quick and irritated. “You were mine first, since you could barely walk. I have prior claim to your wellbeing, always. From now on, any man who thinks he has a claim on your foolish heart must go through me. Any man who doesn’t care for the idea can just keep walking.”

Alexi blinked at his friend for a moment, then laughed. “Oh, Leo. My knight protector. As if I needed one.” He gently pushed Leonard’s hands from his clothing, but held them a moment longer before releasing them and taking one small but decisive step back. “I think perhaps I may never understand you, Leo, but I do appreciate you. I’m going to get changed. Will you wait?”

“Of course. And I will walk with you, if only to assure myself you don’t go haring off after that man.”

 

* * *

 

And walk him Leonard did, as soon as Alexi arranged to have the new clothing and the skirts he’d arrived in delivered to his rooms.

They strolled down the street fronting the alley the professor had lately taken, Alexi now dressed impeccably, if slightly fancily, as the lean, petit man he was. Alexi’s glimpse down that alley didn’t escape Leonard’s notice.  Some days it was hard to think of Alexi as anything other than the foolhardy boy he’d been sent to tutor. If what he had done all these years could even remotely be called that. He was only five years Alexi’s senior : seven when he’d arrived at the Silsbury residence. Hardly of an age to teach anyone anything, he had been tutor in name only. In reality, he’d been a lonely child thrust into a strange home to help an aging nanny care for the Silsbury’s eldest child. Alexi literally had been his charge since the boy could barely walk. Not that he was a boy any longer.

That fact had not escaped Leonard’s notice, either. Very little concerning Jacob Alexander Silsbury got past Leonard’s keen eye. Not his inexplicable interest in women’s clothing or his even more inexplicable interest in Professor Jordan McKaskill. This first intrigued Leonard, brought out his protective instincts, and, oddly enough, fuelled something in him he wasn’t sure he cared to explore. The latter just infuriated him. McKaskill was a shifty, pompous ass. If the split between his friend and the professor hadn’t done so much damage to Alexi’s self-esteem and broken his heart, Leonard would have been glad of it. As it was, he was not sorry the older man was out of his friend’s life. Not in the least.

Now if he could just get the bastard out of his friend’s heart, he would be happy.

And that was partly why he was not going to the ball with Alexi. If he did show up on the young Master Silsbury’s arm, there was little hope Alexi would chance mingling, and even, God forbid, meet someone who might actually appreciate him. Some things, Leonard couldn’t give Alexi. The least he could do was stay out of the way.

I suppose,” Alexi was saying, “I could have ordered a carriage.”

“That is what gentlemen of standing do, I’m told,” Leonard said, keeping his tone dry. “Far be it from Young Master to do what is expected.”

Alexi cuffed his arm. “Call me that again, and I just might exercise some of my Lordling privileges and have you flogged.” He glanced up at Leonard. “Can I do that?”

Leonard blinked at him, momentarily taken speechless. “You—I—“

Alexi laughed; the sound bright and bouncing in the morning bustle of the street. “I—“ he teased, mimicking Leonard’s flustered stumbling. “You—“ He tucked a hand in Leonard’s elbow and giggled. “If I didn’t know better, Leonard, I might think a flogging something that you wouldn’t necessarily say no to. Perhaps if administered by the right doxy?”

“Uh—“ Leonard felt the heat creep up his neck.

“Well.” Alexi leaned into him slightly, jostling him with his shoulder and dropping his voice to a husky whisper. “Now I know something about you, my dear friend, I did not know when I woke up today. You truly never cease to amaze me.” He stopped abruptly and turned toward the building they stood beside, so he was almost chest to chest with Leonard. “And I shan’t judge you for it any more harshly than you judge me for my skirts.”

“It isn’t—I don’t—“

“Never mind.” He patted Leonard lightly on the chest. “No need to spell it out.” He stepped away. “This is me.” He pointed to the building. “Thank you for the escort.”

“Wait!” Leonard fumbled for his arm. “Wait, ‘Lexi, I just…I’m not…” He lowered his voice and moved close again. “I am no deviant, ‘Lexi. Is this what was going on with that professor? Did he do something? I’ll kill him—“

Alexi snarled and yanked his arm free of Leonard’s grip. “A deviant? Really, Leo. There was never anything between Jordan and I that you need to get your knickers in a twist over. I’m a grown man.” He tilted his head. “Something I’ve long forgiven you for not noticing. Now if you’ll excuse me—“

“But if he did something, ‘Lexi—“

“For your information—“ Alexi’s voice had risen, but he straightened his shoulders and lowered his chin, glaring up at Leonard with fire in his eyes. His voice, when he spoke again, was low and angry. “For your information, should anyone in my bed wish it, I would be the one wielding the flogger. I am not a child any more, Leo, and while I thank you for it, I do not actually need your protection. If you’ll excuse me. I have things to do.”

“Jacob!”

But Alexi was already walking away, one hand held up to forestall anything Leonard might say, though he didn’t bother to turn and look back.

“Isn’t it about time you moved out of these rooms, Jacob?” Leonard called, in a last ditch effort to get his friend to turn and look at him.

Alexi took the steps to the building two at a time and turned at the top, just in front of the doors to the Lords of Aether club. “Soon, Leo. Soon.” Then he turned on his heel and disappeared inside.

Lenard chewed on his bottom lip, watching the door swing shut, frustrated and annoyed that Alexi had so easily flustered him and, once again, defended the professor. No doubt, the younger man was inside now drilling the club’s steward about what the professor was up to. For a man as smart as he was, Alexi could be blind to the faults of the men in his bed, or the ones he wanted there. Just one of the reasons Leonard tried very hard to remain off that short list. He wanted—needed—his relationship with Alexi to remain equal. Honest. There was no other way to keep his vow to make sure the Silsbury house stayed strong. A strong house with a good, solid financial base was the best insurance Alexi had against any eventualities, like the ugliness that could happen should he flaunt his idiosyncrasies a little too publically.

“You’ll be the death of me, ‘Lexi,” he muttered to himself as he crossed the street to the café on the other side and sat down to wait.

He ordered a coffee and sipped it as long as he deemed necessary to give Alexi time to ask his questions, gather his mail and head to his rooms. When he thought it was safe, he paid his tab, re-crossed the street to the club and mounted the steps himself.

Inside, it was like the busy bustle of the mid-morning commerce did not exist. The foyer was immaculate, as always, and a page solicitously took his overcoat from him as he stopped to hand it over.

“Polish your shoes, sir?” the boy asked, motioning to the high chairs against the wall.

“Not today, thank you.” He hurried past, making his way straight to the bar where Beare was already setting out a hot coffee and splashing whiskey into the cup.

“So?” Leonard asked as he took the first sip.

Beare said nothing, just lifted an eyebrow at him.

Leonard fought back the urge to snarl at the man. “What did he ask you?”

“I’m sure the weather came up,” Beare replied.

“Did he ask about the professor?” Leonard asked, enunciating each word as though the steward were a simpleton.

“Doesn’t he always? And don’t I always give the same answer?”

“I’m sure you do.” Leonard set his cup down. “What is our dear professor working on, Beare?”

“You don’t honestly think he tells me?”

Leonard met his eye without flinching. “I don’t honestly think anyone has to tell you anything. And yet, somehow, you always know.”

“Do I?”

If Leonard didn’t know he would lose a few fingers trying, he would have reached across the counter and strangled the man. “If the professor were engaged in something…dangerous…”

“I would tell you why?”

“Because Master Silsbury would end up in the thick of it through his own foolish, wishful heart, and I would not have that happen, Beare.”

“If he is a fool, then so are you for caring.”

“Perhaps.”

“You know my own priority is this club. Should anything…come up, I shall ring the fool.” Beare turned his back then, and Leonard downed the rest of his drink in a swallow as he stood to go.

“Mr. Stokes.” Beare’s call stopped Leonard at the threshold and he turned. “At your age, perhaps it is time to dispense with calling him Master?”

Leonard’s lips curled into a soft sneer. “I suspect whatever else changes, Beare, that is one thing he will always be.” He turned away. “In one way or another,” he muttered under his breath as he made his way to the entrance and collected his coat.

How much would he have to pay, he wondered, to have the owner of that little dress shop whip him up a waist coat to match Alexi’s in time for the festivities?