Posts Tagged Shelley Jefferson

Smoke and Aether

26 April 2013
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Revelation – Part 2, by KC Burn

Emmett had been bashed on the noggin before and it hadn’t stunned him as much as Caleb’s revelation. After exchanging quizzical glances with Jack and Nash, he hustled Caleb back to his rooms and shut the door. He stared at the man he’d spent the night with… spent a wondrous, incomparable night with, but the sweet innocent in his sights did not conform to a man who committed burglary.  Even the abashed glances and fiery blush didn’t speak of a felonious man.

“Pardon me? Did you say that you had broken into my house?”

Caleb’s cheeks reddened further and he nodded.

“Were you… why would you… what…” Emmett blinked. He’d never been at such a loss for words. Last year he’d attended a mesmerist’s show and had seen several men act rather out of character, but he’d never heard of such a thing happening elsewhere.

“I’m really sorry.”

Emmett shook his head, still unable to process what Caleb had told him.  He paced the length of the room, taking deep gulping breaths.

“Emmett, please.”

He shrugged off Caleb’s hand and strode out into the sitting room. The stained carpet caught his eye, menacing and malignant.

“Emmett.”

Caleb had followed him out of the bedroom, a pleading expression on his face.

As suddenly as the previous night when he’d taken a swing at Nash, anger billowed up, hot and choking.  But that wasn’t anything next to the pain like his soul had been flayed open and doused in acid.

“Was this you? Was the break-in connected to this… this…” Emmett stabbed a finger at the ruined carpet, infused with the weapon meant to kill him.

No matter how early it was in the morning, he needed a drink. But now that Caleb had spent the night, could he trust anything in his rooms? How had he so monumentally misjudged a man who seemed more innocent and sweet than anyone he’d ever allowed this close.

Caleb paled and his eyes widened. “What?  Emmett, no. Please.” His fingers fluttered, as though he wanted to reach out and touch, but Emmett was glad he didn’t try.  Emmett wouldn’t have trusted himself not to flinch away.

With effort, he steadied his breathing and spoke, cold and low and even. “Then explain. Now.”

Wrapping his arms around himself,  as if seeking comfort, Caleb’s lip trembled and for a few moments the only sound in the room was the rhythmic cadence of their breathing.

“Please believe me. I had nothing to do with that.” Caleb waved his hand in the direction of the wine stain.

“So you said.”

Emmett couldn’t afford to crack. He’d interrogated spies in battle, fought against unimaginable odds, and he’d never once come so close to caving in to softer emotions. But Caleb brought out the best and worst in him and until he had an explanation, everyone on this ship could be at risk. He couldn’t let his growing feelings for Caleb blind him to the possibility of a traitor in their midst.

Caleb’s voice wasn’t steady, at all. “My uncle… he left enormous crushing debts when he died. Debts we didn’t know about and debts we were expected to repay.  My mother and brother look to me to support them, but I’m only a crafter of clockwork animals. It’s the only income I have. The only way out was marriage to an heiress. My brother knew how unbearable it would be for me to have to marry a woman, and offered to be the sacrificial lamb, but debts don’t attract heiresses. Being involved in a trade doesn’t attract heiresses. Forget the tailor, sometimes we didn’t have the funds for the fishmonger.”

Pausing, Caleb drew in a shaky breath, reaching out for a crystal tumbler and the decanter half-full of whisky. Emmett heart twisted, realizing how dire Caleb’s straits were.  Caleb had already poured out half a glass and raised it to his lips before the danger of what he was doing communicated itself to Emmett’s mind.

He leapt the feet separating them and knocked the tumbler out of Caleb’s fingers, amber liquid sloshing on the already ruined carpet.

“What the hell is the matter with you? Don’t you know that anything on this ship could be suspect?”

Caleb’s eyes widened and his whole body stiffened and shook. His already pale skin went almost transparent as the blood drained away. He stumbled back and fell on the settee, his mouth a white, compressed line.

In that second, Emmett realized his original instincts about Caleb weren’t wrong. He’d survived so much because of his sharply honed instincts and no matter what explanation Caleb had for his break-in, there was no way Caleb was a murderer. No way he could lie without his face giving everything away.

His conclusion was confirmed when he sat down and wrapped an arm around Caleb, who curled into his embrace and shook. When a couple of sobs made themselves heard, Emmett just held him tighter and waited. There was still some explanation required, but he was a hardy soul. Aside from Caleb trying to kill him or his friends, Emmett could handle anything.

A few minutes later, Caleb lifted his face from its hiding place in the crook of Emmett’s neck. His eyes were reddened and puffy but the tears were done for now.

“Thank you. I… I wasn’t thinking. You saved my life.” Caleb’s voice hitched and he swallowed heavily.

Emmett snorted. “Or I spilled some expensive whisky. I don’t imagine everything is poisoned, but something besides the bottle of wine last night might be.”

A quick glance at the carpet revealed nothing alarming, not like the acidic scorching of the poisoned wine.

“Still. Thank you.”

Emmett nodded but didn’t say anything else. He wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget. Not when Caleb hadn’t finished his tale.

A flash of tempting pink tongue moistening Caleb’s lips almost distracted Emmett from the matter at hand.

“Anyway, when I met you that night at the ball, you reminded me so much of my uncle. Arrogant, entitled, and only interested in your own pleasure, no matter if it had unintended consequences for someone else.  And… and…” Embarrassment burnished Caleb’s cheeks yet again.

“And?” Emmett prompted after Caleb’s gaze started darting around the room.

“And I hated you.”

The words sliced through Emmett like a cutlass, but Caleb’s fingers stroked along his jawline, softening the blow.

“Don’t misunderstand. I wanted you. And I realized later it wasn’t you I hated, but the way you reminded me of my uncle.  Anyway, I thought that someone with so much maybe wouldn’t miss a little something, and I could appease the hate I felt.”

“Then my dogs scared you off.”

Caleb let out a watery chuckle. “Well, partly. But I’d broken into your workroom. I couldn’t steal from a fellow crafter.”

“That didn’t make you any warmer the next time I saw you.”

“I didn’t want to like you. But I was growing to.”

“I thought someone was after my invention.” Emmett frowned. He was certainly glad to know this had nothing to do with the eyes he’d felt following him periodically since his return. His Caleb didn’t have the ability or the cunning to hide as their foe had.

He took a deep breath. “So you don’t hate me any more?” He wasn’t sure he could bear the pain if that were still true.

“No, oh, no. I lo…. I mean… I like you very well.”

Emmett kissed him soundly. He was fairly certain he knew what Caleb had been going to say, but this wasn’t the time to press. If he was going to hear that from someone he felt as strongly for, it wasn’t going to be here, in the midst of all this chaos.

“I like you very well, too, my Cal. When we get back, we’ll see what we can do about those debts of yours.”

Caleb shook his head frantically. “No. That’s my problem to solve. I’m not with you for that.”

Emmett smiled. Somehow, Caleb hadn’t yet figured out how determined he could be, even after his single-minded pursuit of the man.

A yawn split Caleb’s face, and Emmett’s smile got wider. “Energetic night, wasn’t it?”

Caleb blushed again, but nodded. For some, it tired them right out, but bedroom athletics with a willing and active partner, as Caleb had been, energized Emmett.

“Why don’t you go back to bed? It’s quite early still.”

“What about you?” Caleb asked around another yawn.

“I’ll go for a walk on the deck. Perhaps have a smoke. Consider our next steps. Figure out how to explain this to Jack and Nash.” If only they hadn’t been present for Caleb’s confession. Perhaps they’d think he’d been hoodwinked by a clever bottom boy, but Emmett was more than willing to trust his own instincts over any one else’s.

“If you’re sure.”

Emmett dropped another kiss on his lips. “I’ll wake you later. Make sure you’re naked.”

Caleb shivered, this time in a good way, and he smiled at Emmett before trotting back to the bedroom.

In Flight by Lex Valentine

The motion of the airship during the night had kept Anthony from a deep sleep. He’d tempered his restlessness by keeping Shelley snugged close to his body. Having his lover close for an entire night was an extravagance Anthony rarely indulged in. In the past, back in the days when he took for granted the exchange of money for passion, it had seemed wrong to spend the entire night with Shelley. Lately, since he’d begun to question not only the money but his relationship with his lover, he’d also developed a deep seated yearning not to leave Shelley’s bed, not to leave Shelley.

Every time he’d stayed the entire night, Shelley seemed to relish it, wrapping his lithe frame around Anthony’s larger one as they slept. Despite the general soppiness of such behavior, Anthony actually enjoyed cuddling with Shelley. He’d always felt that the affection in such actions was something both he and Shelley had had little enough of in their lives. And who the hell could go their entire life without affection? Humans craved closeness with other humans. Anthony knew that to be a scientific fact. He also knew that deep inside, he craved being with Shelley. Not just for sex but for companionship.  Anthony honestly didn’t trust many people and after their recent razor play, he realized that he trusted Shelley more than any other person he knew.

With a soft snort, Shelley flung himself onto his back, arms and legs spread wide, a small smile curling his mouth as he slept. Anthony grinned. His lover’s abandoned pose spoke of Shelley’s own trust, a notion that sent heat and pleasure spiraling through Anthony.

Since Shelley now took up the lion’s share of the bed, Anthony decided to get up and use the water closet and perhaps grab a breath of pre-dawn air. He slipped from between the silk sheets and padded silently into the bathroom. It was small but luxuriously appointed. Fig had checked it out when they arrived and played with the water taps for a few moments, apparently astonished at the hot water that poured from the spout. Anthony had enjoyed watching the young man’s surprise at finding such luxuries aboard an airship.

Once he’d relieved his bladder, washed his hands and face and brushed his teeth, Anthony emerged from the bathroom and pulled on trousers, covering his chest with a rich brocade robe that Shelley had bestowed on him for his last birthday. Walking softly in his leather slippers, Anthony moved to the door, glancing over his shoulder at Shelley sprawled in hedonistic abandon in the center of the bed and Calfiglio curled into a plush blanket on the chaise in the corner. Even though there was another bedroom, Fig refused to sleep away from his master and Anthony couldn’t blame him. With a smile, he slipped from the room

The salon had been cleared of their dinner dishes and glasses, the carpet swept and the tables returned to their highly polished finish by a silent steward of Nash’s. Anthony turned the polished brass handle of the door and pulled it open, stepping into the quiet corridor. He glanced at the other three doors. Behind one slept Jacob Silsbury and his friend. Behind another lay Emmett Montgomery and behind the last door slept Jack and Nash.

Frowning, Anthony turned away from the interior of the ship and headed out to the rail to watch the sun rise. He didn’t want to think about what might be happening behind any of the other bedroom suite doors on the airship. It was none of his business anyway.

He leaned on the rail and watched thick clouds of fog drift past. A lot had happened recently giving him the sense that the world was changing more than in just his small corner of it. Yes, Jack had returned to his life, but not as his lover. Yes, he’d finally made a conquest of Spence, but it hadn’t really gone as expected. Taking the near virginal doctor hadn’t left him feeling triumphant. It had left him with a gut full of guilt and regrets. His jealousy over Emmett’s assignation with Shelley had shocked him to the core. If Emmett hadn’t been with Shelley, if Anthony hadn’t been eaten alive with jealousy over it, he admitted to himself that he probably wouldn’t have taken Spence up on his offer.

The personal upheaval in his life married to the facts of Nash’s kidnapping and a poisoned bottle of wine being delivered to Emmett, told Anthony quite clearly that something wasn’t right in his world. Being summoned to Venice by Italy’s Finance Minister for a masquerade, even though said minister was his lover’s father, seemed out of the ordinary as well. Everything that had gone on recently seemed extraordinary and as such, fraught with tension.

Anthony didn’t like feeling unsettled. He didn’t like the darkness that he sensed awaited them in Venice, the very city where he’d met Shelley. A trickle of apprehension slipped down his spine. What would this trip bring them? Danger? More questions? Or finally, some answers?

The scent of a cigar reached his nostrils just as the sound of a throat clearing pierced the early morning fog shrouding the airship. He turned to find Emmett leaning against the rail behind him.

“Good morning,” the earl said, his voice gravely from sleep.

Anthony nodded a greeting. “Good morning. Did you sleep well after the poisoned wine incident? Jack stopped in for a moment during dinner to tell us what happened. Have they found the culprit?”

“Eh, no and no.” Emmett smiled. “I didn’t sleep well because I was busy. And no, they’ve not found who poisoned the wine or the steward who delivered it. He must be on board though. Where would he go?”

“Where indeed.” Anthony eyed the other man cautiously. “You were busy last night?”

Emmett’s smile became that of a cat that had eaten the cream. “Yes. With Caleb.”

Anthony felt his eyes widen. “So the big game hunter has taken down his quarry?”

Now, Emmett’s smile disappeared, to be replaced with a fierce frown. “That’s no way to speak of the boy. He’s not prey.”

“No?” Anthony couldn’t help himself. He raised his brows as he gazed at the big game hunter. Baiting a man like Emmett wasn’t a good idea. Besides, Emmett was Nash’s friend and Shelley’s client. Anthony couldn’t say what had gotten into him, but clearly, the events of the past days had pushed him into walking a dangerous path that morning. And he just couldn’t find it in himself to curb his tongue and behave.

“C’mon, Emmett,” he murmured. “You know you originally thought of him as prey. I’ve seen you work the crowd at balls and at the club. I know how you operate.”

Fury lit Emmett’s eyes and Anthony didn’t blame the man one bit for his anger. In fact, he braced himself to feel the sting of it on his chin. Whether Emmett actually took a swing at him or not was entirely up to the earl. They stared at each other, tension stretching out between them uncomfortably as Anthony waited for the blow.

Smoke and Aether, by KC Burn & Lex Valentine

“Are you hoping if I blacken your eye, too, you’ll get some tender loving care from Shelley – for free?”  Emmett grinned at Anthony’s suddenly clenched fists, the cigar dropping to the deck. It was a low blow, to be sure, but well worth the turnabout.

This time, it wasn’t Emmett swinging first. He blocked Anthony’s blow and swung them around. He was in too good a mood and it was too damn early in the morning for a scuffle.

“Oh, calm down. We’ve got business to discuss. Jack and Nash are already awake and talking to the crew. We should probably join them.”

Tight-lipped, Anthony nodded.  “For the record,” he growled, “money has nothing do with my relationship with Shelley.”

Emmett shot him a cynical, disbelieving glance, and then looked down at the cigar rolling around on the deck. “Let’s have another smoke and stroll along the deck. We’ll start fresh.”

Like the calm before the storm, they strode along the deck, smoking and making small talk – steering clear of their lovers’ attributes, of course.

A pile of canvas – presumably for repairing the dirigible’s envelope – lay haphazardly in a corner.

“I’ll have to tell Nash he needs to keep his ship in better order.” Anthony kicked at a stray fold of fabric that extruded out into their path.

Emmett gasped and choked on a tendril of cigar smoke. “I’m not sure it’s Nash’s fault.”

He pointed at the hairy leg that had been revealed.

“Well, he’ll need to reprimand his crew for getting too foxed to find their quarters.”

Sniffing the air, Emmett realized more than cigar smoke scented the area. He was all too familiar with the smell of death.

“He’s not passed out. He’s dead.” He sent the stump of his cigar over the railing.

Anthony’s eyes rounded and he also flicked his cigar over the side.  “Help me with this canvas.”

The two of them folded back the canvas, revealing one of Nash’s crewmen. A dagger with a narrow handle had been plunged to the hilt in the man’s chest, a small patch of blood, dried to a dark ochre, framed the entry wound. Likely a stiletto of some sort, as they were designed not to attract attention as great gouts of blood were likely to do.

Then Emmett got a good look at the dead man’s face. “Good heavens. That’s the man who brought me the poisoned wine!”

He glanced at Anthony. There wasn’t only one traitor aboard – there must be another. Obviously, the man who had poisoned the wine had killed the steward so that under questioning, he could not divulge who’d given it to him to deliver. Emmett would swear on his mother’s grave that it wasn’t Caleb or one of the other Lords of Aether who’d killed the steward, which meant Nash’s vaunted crew was a point of liability. He bent over the body and tested the temperature of the flesh at the dead man’s wrist.

“I wouldn’t be half surprised if he was killed right after he brought me the wine.”

“Anthony, there you are. Nash has been looking for you. You know I hate to have my sleep disturbed.”

They both turned at the sound of Shelley’s voice.

Artfully disheveled and dressed in an extravagant velvet robe over loose, flowing silk trousers, the courtesan’s gaze went from each man to the dead man. “Oh, my, gentlemen, what have you done?”

“Nothing, as you well know.” Anthony reached out to draw Shelley near, but he dodged the earl’s outstretched hand to bend over the body.

“We have a serious problem.”

“What do you mean?” Anthony slid up behind Shelley, who pointed at the hilt.

“See that engraving?”

Emmett stooped to view the symbol better.  “Looks like a Freemason symbol, although it’s quite faint.”

Shelley shook his head. “Not Freemason. Carbonari.”

“The Carbonari?” Emmett had heard the name, but couldn’t recall any information about them.

“An Italian secret society. Assassins and revolutionaries, for the most part, but they were supposedly eradicated over fifty years ago.” The thoughtful expression on Shelley’s face didn’t deceive Emmett and he doubted it had fooled Anthony either. Something about the symbol on the blade worried Shelley. “If the Carbonari are truly behind this, poisoned wine is the least of our worries.”

Anthony stood. “Is it coincidence that this particular man was killed by an Italian knife, just as you were summoned to Italy?”

The three of them just stared at one another in silence. How was it possible there was any connection to their mission? The odds against it being a coincidence were monumental, but not entirely impossible. There was no real answer to that question just yet, but the murder was an additional reminder that they weren’t on a pleasure trip.

With a brief smile for Emmett and an exchange of speaking glances with Anthony, Shelley left to find Jack and Nash, leaving Emmett and Anthony with the body.

“This isn’t how I envisioned this flight would go,” Anthony said on a sigh, nudging the dead man’s foot with the toe of his slipper.

Emmett didn’t bother to comment. He didn’t know tuppence about Nash and Shelley’s relationship with their father but obviously they would have to decide whether to inform him of the murder. Informing the Italian authorities was probably a completely separate concern. Doing so might create undue delays with suspicion leveled on them without cause, especially if an Italian secret society was involved.

He and Anthony stared down the gangway Shelley had taken. Apparently, they both wished for Nash’s speedy arrival. The level of danger surrounding them could not be dismissed casually. Once the body had been dealt with, Emmett wasn’t leaving Caleb’s side. The man didn’t have nearly his wealth of experience in fending off attackers and there was no way he was allowing anyone to damage his Caleb. Not even if it meant murder.

Nash burst out onto the gangway with Jack only a half step behind him. They stopped beside the body and Nash jerked the canvas away from the nude form. He cursed in Italian.

Jack rubbed his chin in a typical English gesture. “Now, love, don’t get so wound up.”

“Fuck you, Jack.” Nash’s fury flashed from his eyes.

A smile curled the lips of the Imperial spy. He looked at Anthony and then stared at Emmett. “I gather he served you the poisoned wine?”

Emmett nodded briefly, anger surging to the surface again. Jack cocked his head to one side and pursed his lips.

“Well, I don’t know about the rest of you lot, but why this man’s dead isn’t nearly as interesting to me as why the devil the poor fool’s stark bullocks naked.”

A sniff came from behind them. “Aether.”

As one, they all turned to find Jacob Silsbury standing there blinking in the newly risen sun, as placid as if he saw cadavers every day before breakfast.

“I love the smell of aether in the morning.” He smiled at them angelically then wandered back down the gangway into the airship.

“Took the wind out of your sails,” Emmett muttered to Jack, somewhat pleased that someone had. “Now, can we decide what to do with the body so I can go back to bed?”

On the Catwalk

14 September 2012

“The greatest weapon in an espionage agent’s arsenal is his observation abilities.”

The metal catwalk beneath Jack’s boots vibrated with the movement of the airship as it left smoky London behind. He stood firm, swaying slightly as needed to keep his balance on the narrow catwalk.

“And what is it that you think you’ve seen thus far?”

Nash’s voice held a note of amusement that told Jack his lover was humoring him. Nash had been filled with an electric vibrancy ever since the two of them had conspired to make Montgomery jealous. That extra spark had gone incandescent when Anthony and Shelley boarded and the Lucky Penny had cast off. Jack knew from experience that nothing made Nash happier than to be in the air, on his ship, headed into God knew what dangers. He empathized with his lover completely. Nothing made him feel like the rush of doing his job.

“I give Montgomery another twenty-four hours to bag his quarry,” he murmured. “The man is literally shaking with his lust. I admit, I can’t quite believe Colchester could bring such an experienced man to such a pass, but there is no rhyme or reason to attraction, is there?”

“No, obviously not if you and I are together instead of you and Banning.” Nash nudged Jack with an elbow.

Jack leaned over and brushed a kiss to Nash’s stubbled cheek. “Don’t you have a ship to fly?” he asked.

“Don’t like me to talk about Banning, eh? You did see him board with my brother, didn’t you?”

Nash’s casually phrased digging didn’t anger Jack. He just wondered why his lover seemed so intent on making him talk about Anthony.

“No, I don’t mind talking about Anthony and yes, I did see them board.” He leaned against the catwalk’s railing. “Why do want me to talk about them?”

One of Nash’s brows rose. “Why don’t you want to talk about them?”

Jack chuckled. No one had ever put him on the spot the way Nash did. He supposed it was one reason he loved the man so very much. Nash never let him get away with anything.

“I feel a bit of remorse for hurting Anthony. The whole thing was poorly done of me. I was an utter bastard to the man even though I loved him dearly.” He shot Nash a speaking look. “I still love him. He’s always been my closest and dearest friend.”

If Nash felt any jealousy at Jack’s words, he hid it well. His expression showed only compassion. “What did your powers of observation tell you about him and my brother?”

“I’d wager a monkey my former lover has fallen for your sibling. There’s something about the way he watches your brother that reeks of possessiveness.”

‘That’s a good thing for Shelley, isn’t it?” Nash asked.

“If Shelley wants to belong only to Anthony, then yes.” Jack made a face at Nash. “If your brother prefers to continue his amorous liaisons with men like Montgomery, he’ll eventually lose Anthony. I don’t think Anthony wants to share any longer. I also don’t think he’s fully aware of his own feelings, which is probably my fault. Anthony obviously doesn’t trust his instincts when it comes to love now.”

“My brother is in an odd mood. I’m not sure why but I think perhaps it has something to do with Anthony and Venice.” Nash rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “This trip is going to have some repercussions.”

“I wouldn’t worry about your brother. If he and Anthony are in love, it will sort itself out.”

“I’m sure you’re right. Now, tell me why we interfered with Montgomery and Colchester but we’re leaving Anthony and Shelley to sort themselves out on their own?”

Nash’s pointed question made Jack wince. His lover never pulled his punches. “I don’t think my interference would be wise when it comes to Anthony’s love life. I want him to be happy so I’d best keep my nose out of things.” He eyed Nash with an arch expression. “However, I’m sure you’ll make up for my lack of action in this instance.”

Nash laughed softly. “I can never hide anything from you, can I?”

“I know you too well,” Jack conceded. “As for Montgomery, weren’t we agreed we’d help his situation along solely to avoid more strife on the journey?”

“Yes, but I sense there was more behind your actions than a smooth flight.”

Jack shrugged. “Perhaps. You know, I rather wish I were a fly on the wall when Montgomery finally takes Colchester. There’s something very primal between them and I admit I find the thought of them together quite arousing.”

Silence fell between them for a moment and then Nash’s hand stroked over the curve of Jack’s ass, sending a shiver of lust through Jack’s body.

“Who said you couldn’t observe? The Lucky Penny is a very well equipped ship, Jack. There is a lot more to her than you know.”

Nash’s soft, amused voiced sent spirals of arousal through Jack. Of course, the thought of watching the oh, so masculine Montgomery bugger the beautiful Baron Colchester also had something to do with the erection that began to tent his trousers. He took Nash by the elbow and steered him from the catwalk toward their cabin.

“I wish to know more about the ship’s charms, Nash. You will share, won’t you?”

The two shared a smug smile and Jack realized it was going to be a very, very good flight.

 

 

The Rialto Bridge

24 August 2012

They had been greeted at the top of the gangway by Nash who shared a smile and a wink with his brother. No sign of Jack. Or Emmett. The tension within Anthony eased. Nash steered them along a corridor lined in luxurious teak with brass fitted lamps. At a set of double doors midway down, he stopped and pushed the doors open, ushering them inside. The richly appointed salon could have been in any London townhouse.

“There are four of these suites on board, two on each side of the corridor. Mine is across from this one. Montgomery is farther long next to my suite. Colchester and Silsbury are directly across from him.” Nash flashed a white toothed grin. “The washrooms are a bit on the small side but I doubt you’ll have any complaints about the beds or the food.”

Shelley made a small sound that Anthony couldn’t make out. When he raised a brow at his lover, Shelley turned away with Fig in tow, disappearing into one of the two bedrooms. Nash chuckled and clapped Anthony on the shoulder.

“Don’t envy you at all, Banning. My brother has a soft spot for home. I’m sure the trip will stir all sorts of emotions within him. You’ll be lucky to if he lets you out of this cabin during the flight, let alone out of bed,” Nash teased.

He strode around the cabin boys who were carrying in wave after wave of Shelley’s vermilion colored cases and then he was gone. Anthony sank into a comfortable leather chair and a cabin boy appeared at his side, offering a cut crystal tumbler of whiskey on a silver salver.

Anthony took the drink and crossed his legs, his mind retreating from the bustle of their arrival. Instead of the sounds of Nash’s crew bringing in their luggage, he heard the sounds of the marketplace on the Rialto Bridge…

Five Years Earlier

Anthony hadn’t been in Venice more than twelve hours when he realized it was a city for lovers if not love. It might not have been so noticeable had he come there with a lover or to be with one. But he hadn’t.

Reeling from the death of his last surviving parent and far too much emotional baggage, and in a desperate attempt to leave his melancholy state of mind behind and find some fun, he’d run away from home and his responsibilities, embarking on a trip to Italy in the hope that he could finally forget Jack and all his other losses. Unfortunately, on his own, and unhappily thwarted in love as he was, Anthony seemed to see lovers wherever he went from the moment the white cliffs of Dover had disappeared from view. To his annoyance, his frustration and unhappiness had grown instead of lessened.

Arriving in Venice, he’d looked forward to seeing all the things he’d read so much about but his poor emotional mood colored everything. He found his hotel comfortable but confining so he set out to stretch his long legs after traveling for so many days on his yacht. He’d preferred the ocean voyage over the land trip over the Alps, but once he’d left the yacht, he felt a bit off balance, trying to recover his land legs.

He walked and walked, his gaze noting the colorful Italians who, to his dismay, all seemed to be in pairs. He didn’t know how he ended up on the stone bridge lined with shops. His feet had carried him there in an attempt to get away from all the strolling couples that pricked at his loneliness. He noted in disgust that his feet had chosen a very poor destination if easing his unhappiness had been the goal. The walkways of the bridge were crowded with outdoor vendors and the whole place seemed like a circus, alive with sights and sounds very alien to a quiet man from English Empire. And there were even more romantic couples on the bridge than any place else he’d gone that morning.

He supposed seeing all the couples had been the reason thoughts of Jack plagued him during his stroll through the marketplace. Jack had always found places where they could openly show affection. Being quite a bit more reserved than his best friend and lover, Anthony had spent most of his time with Jack in public sporting a red hot blush. Still, he’d loved Jack’s attentions. Loved being with Jack. Loved Jack. More than he’d thought was possible. His broken heart showed signs of not wanting to mend but Anthony really wanted to be over Jack. Perhaps being beset with lovers was just what he needed in order to deal with his unpleasant emotional baggage.

Everywhere he looked people were kissing and groping one another. Men with women. Men with men and even some women with women. That had given him pause for a moment when he’d seen the first pair. Curiosity overcame him and he’d briefly stared, wondering how women were together. But then he dismissed the thought because he’d never been interested in women so the mere thought of two them together made him shudder just a little.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, a rich ruby cape captured his attention. A great breadth of shoulder covered by the luxurious fabric. The man wearing the cape turned and the material slid. Anthony’s eyes were drawn to the taut line of the man’s perfect buttocks and long, leanly muscled legs. His breath caught in his throat. And then he was gone. Ruby cape and fawn trousers…poof. Nowhere to be seen.

Anthony turned in a circle, his eyes scanning for the beautiful man, but he didn’t see him. Disappointment set in instantly and he heaved a sigh, his morose thoughts about being broken hearted in a city of love returning to drag him into a well of depression.

He started to head for the stone steps of the bridge, intent upon returning to his hotel when an urchin ran in front of him, then behind him. Anthony stumbled and the urchin lurched into him then darted away, leaving him teetering on his not yet steady land legs. A hand grasped his elbow just before he would have crashed into a cart full of blood oranges. Heat prickled where the hand touched him.

When Anthony looked up to thank his rescuer, he found himself unable to speak, unable to breathe and unable to string two coherent thoughts together as the man in the ruby cape smiled at him. His heart stopped. When it restarted, slamming forcefully into his ribs, he discovered that passion and lust had replaced his melancholy for before him stood the most beautiful man he’d ever been privileged to behold.

An elegant hand held a leather wallet out to him.

“Yours, I believe.”

The mellifluous bedroom voice made Anthony’s cock hard as stone. His mouth dried. He blinked in stunned silence at waves of wheat colored hair and eyes as gray as a dove’s wing. He tried to swallow but his tongue felt as swollen as his cock. And then his whole world changed as the beautiful man smiled at him seductively.

“I’m Shelley.”

 

 

Leaving London

20 July 2012
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Anthony stood in the marble foyer of his London townhouse, pulling on leather gloves as his butler, William James, supervised the loading of the motorcar. He’d packed extravagently for the trip, filling his handmade Louis Vuitton steamer trunk, three hat cases, four suitcases and valise. He supposed he might be taking a bit more clothing than he would need for a quick jaunt to Venice, but experience had taught him not to be caught on the continent with less than he might require.

Once the luggage was situated to James’s satisfaction, the butler offered his good wishes for a safe trip and Anthony descended the marble steps to the street, buttoning his Burberry driving coat as he went.

His driver, James’s eldest son Percy, already sat behind the wheel, goggles on, ready to depart. Anthony climbed up beside him and put on his own goggles, settling back in the seat.

“Let’s be off, Percy. I’m so late I daresay Mr. Jefferson is waiting for us by now. That will be the day, eh?”

Percy smiled and eased the car through Belgrave Square toward Hyde Park Corner. They turned onto Piccadilly, driving past Devonshire House to St. James’s Street.  Percy pulled up at the curb in front of the Lords of Aether Club, it’s white façade looking very much like it’s counterpart, White’s, which stood only a few buildings away.

Anthony climbed down and the doorman ushered him inside with a low voiced greeting. Pulling off his goggles, Anthony looked around for Shelley, expecting to see him descend the stairs in his usual regal manner. Instead, his legs were assaulted by a small tornado. He gazed down into the wide eyes of Calfiglio.

“Fig, where is your master?” Anthony asked. “We’re late.”

Fig’s mouth quirked into a grin and he rolled his eyes. Anthony chuckled. The boy delighted him, had from the moment he’d picked his pocket in Venice. The moment he’d first met Shelley.

Traveling to Venice seemed to spark Anthony’s memories of meeting Shelley for the first time. His mind had been filled with reminisces of their time together, five years before.

Shelley had captured his attention then and still held it now.

“Where is he?” Anthony repeated, his gaze on the stairs.

“I believe Mister Jefferson will be only another few moments,” Beare said from behind him. Damn, how did such a big man sneak up on him like that? “There was a small…altercation…with a trunk …but I believe that has been settled now.”

Anthony thought he heard amusement in Beare’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure because Beare was just so…Beare. Unflappable and meticulously serene in the face of any sort of brouhaha. A thump on the stairs turned out to be two footmen carrying trunks. Behind them several more footmen appeared, each bearing a trunk or suitcase. They were all Vuitton, as were Anthony’s, but these were custom designed in brilliant vermillion rather than the typical brown.

“As Mister Jefferson prefers to be prepared for all eventualities while traveling, I’ve arranged for a lorry to take his personal things to the airship, my lord.”

Anthony bit back a laugh. Beare’s tone bordered on censure while not crossing the line, something he did very well. Anthony was already acquainted with Shelley’s tendency to overpack. No one traveled with more trunks and luggage than Shelley.

Then the man himself appeared, stealing Anthony’s breath.

Dressed in a full length fur coat with an outrageous confection of a hat on his head, a strip of silk mask covering his face from forehead to mouth, Shelley twirled a pair of jewel-encrusted goggles around his finger. Even with all his affectations, he managed to look more masculine than a pugilist.

Anthony’s heart thundered. Hardly aware he was moving, he crossed the room to meet Shelley at the foot of the stairs.

“You are the most ravishing thing I’ve seen all day.” Anthony smiled as he took Shelley’s leather gloved hand in his.

“I’d better be,” Shelley replied with lift of his brows.

Anthony brushed a brief kiss to Shelley’s lips, a tingle going through him as their flesh touched. “So, is this mountain of luggage going on the ship? Do you think your brother has room for it all?”

“Don’t be tiresome, Anthony. You know perfectly well he does.”

Shelley’s tone was haughty but Anthony caught the gleam of amusement in his eyes. He stared, mesmerized as always by Shelley’s uncommon beauty, but was interrupted when Fig tugged at his trouser leg.

Anthony looked down and the boy pointed to the last of the luggage making its way out the door of the club on the shoulder of a sturdy footman.

“Time to leave!” Anthony noted Fig’s excited little wriggle.

The boy darted out the door, his violin case in hand.

Anthony turned his gaze back to Shelley. “This is the first time we’ve been to Venice together since we met.”

The expression on Shelley’s face softened. “I wonder if it will feel the same after all these years.”

Anthony stepped closer and pressed his hips against Shelley’s. “It does. Only I think perhaps it’s bigger and harder than it was back then.”

Something flashed in Shelley’s eyes before his lips curved in a broad grin. “You’re in a mood, aren’t you?”

Anthony kissed him again. “I’m excited about going to Venice with you even if the circumstances aren’t ideal. After all, this isn’t a pleasure trip — much as I might wish it to be.”

“With me, it’s always a pleasure trip.” Shelley moved toward the door.

Beare’s staff handed them up into the motorcar and Percy started the engine. Shelley secured Fig so he wouldn’t fall out of the car in his excitement and they put on their goggles. Percy neatly pulled out onto the street and they were off.

The trip to the Lucky Penny’s mooring on the Thames didn’t take long. In anticipation of their arrival, the airship didn’t float high above the Thames but instead hovered but a few feet off the ground with a heavily guarded gangway bridging the space between the ground and the entrance to the ship. The crew advanced on the motorcar and began to unload Anthony’s luggage, carting it aboard.

Stepping down, Anthony pulled off his goggles and pocketed them, turning to bid farewell to Percy. When he turned back around a truck pulled up with Shelley’s luggage. He walked over to Shelley, noting that his lover was deep in conversation with Calfiglio. Or rather, Shelley spoke rapidly in Italian and Fig replied with frantic hand gestures and dips of his head. Anthony could see fear in the taut lines of Fig’s body. For all the child loved motorcars, apparently the airship frightened him.

“Does he not wish to ride on the airship?” he asked Shelley.

His lover let out a sigh. “He’s afraid it will fall from the sky.”

“Ah, Fig. It’s perfectly acceptable to be afraid of things we do not know.” Anthony dug in the pocket of his Burberry for an orange. “The true test of a man is overcoming fear or learning to do things that must be done in spite of being afraid. You don’t think Shelley or I would allow something to happen to you, do you?”

Fig glanced at the orange then he turned to the airship again. His face contorted and he shrank behind Shelley, who jumped with surprise when Fig got a grip on his trouser leg.

“If it were anyone but Fig, I’d be worrying about the state of my trousers.”

Anthony tossed the orange into the air and caught it. “Well, if my bribes aren’t working I’m afraid you’ll have to do the convincing.”

Shelley sighed and peered at Fig’s frightened face. His expression softening, he knelt beside the boy, whispering Italian words in his most soothing voice. Anthony couldn’t make out the meaning, but the lush sound reminded him of nights spent in Shelley’s arms when they’d first met. He took a few steps toward the gangway, lost in memories.

What he and Shelley’d had in those first few days had been fraught with a desire so intense, Anthony knew he’d never experience the like again. Certainly, he’d never experienced it with another man — not even Jack during the heyday of their first explorations of each other.

Other less happy memories came to the fore. He acknowledged that he’d been a bit out of sorts since he’d fucked Spence. Actually, since before he’d fucked Spence. He’d been jealous of Emmett’s relationship with Shelley — which was incomprehensible, and now — trapped on the ship with both of them — he’d have to be nice to the man despite wanting to bloody his nose.

Not that he was any better than the predatory Montgomery. He’d blatantly seduced Spence. Yes, the man had invited him to his room, but Spence had been innocent and Anthony exploited that for his own ends, something he didn’t feel very good about.

Watching Shelley with Fig, he realized he didn’t feel very good about his relationship with Shelley either. Memories of their first meeting were stirring up emotions inside him he couldn’t name or understand. For the first time in all the time he’d known Shelley, he felt insecure. He couldn’t say if his insecurities stemmed from Jack’s re-entry to his life or the knowledge that he’d been furiously jealous of Emmett. Maybe it had been both.

The more Anthony looked at his problem, the more certain he became. He was just as frightened as Fig. But what Anthony feared had nothing to do with the mechanics of the airship failing and everything to do with the flamboyant, outrageous, seductively beautiful man before him. The very fact of his fear fueled his jealousy and other insecurities to the point where anger simmered within him all the time.

Anthony longed to wipe away Emmett’s relationship with Shelley instead of having to face it almost every moment of their trip. He wished he could wipe away his own mistakes, starting with the seduction of Spence.

Shelley finally calmed Fig and they started up the gangway. God, just the sight of them made Anthony’s heart swell.

Anthony acknowledged something was brewing inside him, something he’d have to analyze soon before it drove him to the brink of madness. His emotions were a mess to the point where he felt out of control, which boded ill for their trip.

Yet still, his memories crowded in on him, refusing to be disbursed.

Anthony stepped onto the gangway. The trip to Venice wasn’t a long one. They wouldn’t be on the Lucky Penny more than a few days. Perhaps he could stem the tide of his emotions until they were on the ground once more.

Venice would be easy. The close quarters of the ship would not be. As he passed into the belly of the ship, Anthony prayed he wouldn’t fall victim to his lack of control.

Despite what he’d said to Fig about fear, he dreaded what must be done.

Fear held Anthony in its steely grip. He knew from experience it would not let go until he fully understood his emotions. However, experience and instinct told him those emotions weren’t something he was ready to face.

Summons

30 March 2012
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Jack hated being wrong. He hated being ineffectual. He hated admitting he couldn’t do something. He hated admitting he needed help. And he knew Anthony was fully cognizant of his failings too.  It had gone against the grain for him to ask Anthony for help to find Nash. In part because of his failings and in part because he knew Anthony knew it irritated him to have to ask.

He’d studiously avoided Anthony for longer than he should have. Everything about how he’d treated his former lover had been wrong. He’d known it when he did it, but it didn’t stop him from being an arsehole in how he’d treated the man he’d once loved. He’d been young and impulsive and he hadn’t thought his actions through. He’d gotten older and realized he’d been wrong but by then, he’d fallen into a pattern of dealing with the situation by ignoring it and Anthony.

Ignoring the situation came easy to Jack because one of his other failings was that he had difficulty apologizing. So when it came to dealing with an older, enigmatic and suave Anthony Banning, Jack had made a mess of everything. He didn’t want Anthony to be angry with him. He didn’t want Anthony to hate him. And he certainly didn’t want Anthony to have the upper hand because he’d been able to do something Jack hadn’t…get information about Nash’s disappearance. Jack was already in a precarious position when it came to anything that involved Anthony and giving him the upper hand wouldn’t be wise. Not that Jack had ever been wise when it came to his former lover.

Anthony’s little surprise at the DeHaviland ball had been exactly the right move. Jack acknowledged that to himself even while hating that Anthony had known what to do when he’d been at a loss. He’d hated Anthony’s display and how it had made him feel. He’d been nearly out of control with rage. He’d jumped Anthony because not only had it enraged him to think of Nash with Anthony, but it had angered him to see Anthony’s blatant sexuality on display and to think that Anthony wanted Nash but not him. Which was completely illogical in any number of ways.

Even later, when he knew that Anthony had been with Nash’s brother Shelley and not Nash himself, irritation flickered beneath his skin like a burr beneath a saddle blanket. Shelley was a patently sexual creature, Jack could see that quite plainly. He had the kind of sexuality no one could ignore. He was very different from his brother, who was outgoing and fun and whose sexuality stemmed directly from his zest for life. Shelley’s sexuality was his life and he wanted Anthony in a way that Jack knew his former lover was not aware of.

The fact that Anthony was overly possessive and protective of Shelley wasn’t lost on Jack. Anthony probably loved the man, even if he didn’t realize it. Jack could see why Anthony would. He’d also seen Anthony’s jealousy in action. Lord Bridgewater had availed himself of the delectable Shelley’s services and Anthony hated that. Jack almost felt compelled to take Anthony’s side and not like Bridgewater, but he couldn’t. He knew for a fact that Nash and Emmett Montgomery were good friends and Nash didn’t have friends who weren’t worthy of the trust he placed in them.

And that was how Jack ended up pacing the width of the Gladstone room at the Lords of Aether Club while Anthony sat beside Shelley on a settee with Nash across from them in a wingback chair. When Emmett entered with the new Baron Colchester in tow, Beare closed the door and stood before it, his impassive face somehow managing to convey some sort of fierce emotion. Jack rather thought it was loyalty. He stood silently by as Bridgewater introduced the baron to the room’s occupants before turning to Nash.

“It’s good to see you, Nash. I was wondering if I’d have to come looking for you myself,” Bridgewater joked as he nudged Colchester onto a sofa and sat beside him, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he smiled at Nash. “I gather you are none the worse for your adventure in incarceration?”

Nash stood, and holding his arms out wide, he turned slowly. “As you see. Fit as a fiddle, in part due to the little vial you gave me which created a loud flash, bang and an opportunity to escape my captors.”

Genuine delight suffused Emmett’s face. “I’m glad it was helpful. I’d wondered how well it would work if employed in close quarters or a situation where time was of the essence.”

“I wasn’t in close quarters, but it worked a treat, I can tell you.” Nash returned to his seat and sipped his port. “I shall want more of these to store on my ship.”

Emmett nodded absently, his head half turned to observe the stiff features of Baron Colchester. Jack didn’t know much about the baron, other than his given name of Caleb Sutton and the fact that the man appeared to be of the same nature as rest of them. Jack hid a smile. He had difficulty believing the pokered up Caleb Sutton was a sodomite, but if he was a member of the club then he certainly preferred men over women, regardless of the puritanical cloak of propriety he wrapped around himself. Besides, if Emmett Montgomery wanted him, and Jack would bet his last farthing that Emmett did, then Caleb Sutton wouldn’t stay pure very long.

The earl dropped his long arm along the back of the sofa, his jacket brushing against the baron’s shoulders. Jack noted the imperceptible shudder that went through Caleb and hid a smile. He had always been good at discerning the emotions and motivations of others which is what made him so good at his job. At the moment, he could tell that Emmett had scented Caleb’s weakness and would no doubt exploit that weakness to his own benefit later.

Unfortunately, Jack also could discern that Anthony was well pleased at having the upper hand with him. At some point soon, he would have to have a private discussion with Anthony and air out their differences. It really wouldn’t do for them to be at odds when he still thought of Anthony as his best friend. And maybe, just maybe, he might be able to assist Anthony with the beautiful Shelley. Something was going on behind all their casual, comfortable smiles. Something a lot deeper than what they both showed the public. Jack just didn’t know what that deeper thing was yet. But he’d find out.

“So what do you know about your captors, Nash?” Anthony asked as he raised his wineglass to his lips.

“The red headed devil hates sodomites. The whispering man…” Nash shrugged. “I’ve no idea who he is. I was hoping to discover his identity but their decision to move me precipitated my escape. I couldn’t risk them finding my means of freeing myself thereby rendering me completely under their control.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Jack said. “We know who he must be. Atterby.”

Nash’s brows rose in surprise. “You don’t say! No wonder I was being held at the Prime Minister’s home. Atterby is closer to the PM than his own mistress. Is the Prime Minister in on this then?”

Anthony shook his head. “We don’t know.”

“But it all smells remarkably like a seditionist’s plot is hatching,” Emmett added.

“I don’t understand. If they are seditionists, why did they kidnap me? What the bloody blazes did they want with me?”  Nash replied with a frown.

A knock sounded on the door and Beare stepped to one side to open it. A servant in garishly ornate livery looked past Beare into the room then held out two missives to the steward. Beare took them and the servant left. He crossed the room and handed one embossed envelope to Nash and one to Shelley.

Jack strode over to Nash as his lover opened the envelope and read the card within. His brows rose in surprise as he peered over Nash’s shoulder at the words on the card.

“His Excellency the Finance Minister of Italy, Conte diViola, requests your presence in Venice? What’s the meaning of this?” Jack asked Nash.

Nash tossed the card on the table before him. He stared at Shelley who had handed his card to Anthony. The earl shrugged and tossed Shelley’s card onto the table as well.

“Shelley’s says the same,” Anthony said in a flat tone.

The courtesan flicked at the lace on his shirt cuffs, his demeanor slightly bored. “Our father has commanded our presence at the family pile in Venice. He has done so before, but perhaps not with this much formality and certainly never Nash and I simultaneously.” He glanced at his half-brother. “Do you agree that our sire probably has something important to impart to us?”

Nash laughed. “Either that or he wants something from us.” He rose to his feet. “I’ll prepare my ship to depart. You’re all welcome to accompany my brother and I on this little jaunt. It should be a rather interesting journey and while we’re traveling we can ponder the notion that seditionists have infiltrated our Empire. What do you say, gentlemen?”

Jack looked at the faces of the men around him and knew, without a doubt, that the next few days would be very interesting indeed regardless of the fact that they would be flying to Venice aboard a pirate’s airship.

 

Revealed

17 February 2012

Jack’s eyes glinted appreciatively when the motor car pulled up to the curb in front of the DeHaviland townhouse, but he didn’t speak. Grudgingly grateful for his ex-lover’s silence, Anthony got in the car and Jack slid in beside him. Additional gratitude rose in him for the shortness of the ride to the Lords of Aether club. Acutely aware of Jack’s thigh pressing against his, Anthony wished he could be as insouciant as Jack about their shared past.  But no, he had to let the man get beneath his skin repeatedly over something that had occurred years in the past.

Anthony turned his thoughts to Shelley, a much easier subject for him to focus on than Jack. He wondered how Shelley had gotten out of the house. He wasn’t precisely worried because he knew Shelley to be possessed of an extraordinary skill set, not all of which could be considered above the law. Still, Anthony had dragged Shelley into Jack’s world and he felt responsible for keeping him safe amidst the deceptions and subterfuge.

When the car pulled up in front of the club’s elegant white façade, Anthony and Jack got out. Beare stood at the door, his usually impassive face flickering with pleasure as he eyed the gleaming motorcar. Anthony bit back a grin. He knew his driver had given Beare a tour of the car’s features when he’d first purchased it, but he hadn’t realized how much Beare admired the vehicle until now.  So much technology was discussed and displayed at the club that Anthony assumed Beare to be fairly well-versed in the topic, yet still with an appreciation for the rituals of a less modern time.

“Good evening, milord, sir.”

Beare’s greeting to Anthony and Jack was low-key, as if he somehow knew something unusual had occurred at the ball. Anthony figured someone had reported back to Beare about Shelley’s impersonation. News tended to travel quickly within social circles and the club was most definitely social.

Striding through the wood paneled corridors behind Beare’s upright figure, Anthony noted several men who had been in attendance at the DeHaviland ball. One of them, or all of them, were sure to have told the tale of his cock grinding scene in the card room. Not that it mattered. All of the club members had a predilection for men. It was a commonality that kept their ranks fairly elite.

Beare opened the door to a private salon and Anthony swept in with Jack on his coat tails. Shelley sat in a leather wing back chair beside the fire, his hair still possessed of chestnut colored hair dye and his palm filled with a brandy snifter. Anthony sensed rather than felt Jack tense beside him. Ignoring the spy, he crossed the room to take the chair beside Shelley, knowing all the while that the courtesan was putting on a show for Jack. Shelley wasn’t much to sip brandy from a snifter although he regularly poured one for Anthony. His current pose was meant to emulate his brother, thereby setting Jack on edge.

Anthony hid a smile. Shelley’s deviousness happened to be one of the things Anthony admired about the man. His machinations amused Anthony and God knew, not much else in life brought him amusement. Shelley truly was a prize and as such, Anthony would not let Jack use him. Shelley’s part in Jack’s search for Nash was done.

“Who are you?”

The tone of Jack’s voice set Anthony’s teeth on edge. He reached out and took the snifter from Shelley, transferred it to his other hand and then threaded his fingers through the courtesan’s. For a brief moment, surprise flickered in Shelley’s silvery eyes, then he smiled.

“Just a man. A bastard really.”

Jack’s eyes narrowed suspiciously and Anthony could barely keep the grin from his face. Coming closer, Jack took the chair opposite and leaned forward, elbows on knees, so he could study Shelley’s face.

“By God, you are the image of Nash,” he breathed.

Abruptly, he rose from his chair and leaned over Shelley. The courtesan gazed up at him, a half-smile curling the edges of his mouth. Anthony’s fingers tightened on Shelley’s. Before he could ask Jack what the hell he thought he was doing, the spy leaned closer and sniffed at Shelley. Anthony went rigid.

“You go too far, Jack,” he growled, half rising in his chair.

Shelley caressed Anthony’s hand, pulling him back down. As Anthony subsided in his chair, Shelley shot him a private smile. “He means no offense,” he murmured.

Jack drew in another deep breath before returning to his own chair. Beare slipped into the room and placed a tray of sandwiches on the nearby table. He cleared his throat and when Anthony glanced up said, “I believe Lord Bridgewater wanted a word, milord. However, he said it would keep if you were busy.”

Anthony nodded and Beare left. A sharp smile lit Jack’s face and Anthony knew his former lover had begun to puzzle out exactly who Shelley might be. With an inward sigh, Anthony let go of Shelley’s hand. The courtesan looked from Anthony to Jack and back again.

“He doesn’t smell at all like Nash, you know.”

Jack’s smug words pricked Anthony’s annoyance. “Was he supposed to? He’s not Nash.”

“I know that. Now.” A hint of pique colored Jack’s voice. “He must be related to him though. Are you English?” he asked Shelley.

The courtesan’s smile held all the hauteur of a European prince. “Hardly. I’m American by birth but I was raised in Italy.”

“On the DiViola estates, I assume.” Jack’s smirk made Anthony want to hit him. “You’re Nash’s brother.”

Shelley shrugged as if his relationship to Nash meant nothing. “The Conte DiViola has a number of children on both sides of the blanket. Nash and I were lucky enough to have once spent an entire year together running wild on our father’s estate in Tuscany. I have enough of a connection to him to be somewhat curious about his disappearance.”

Jack opened his mouth to reply, but in an instant, Shelley’s demeanor shifted from languid to menacing, the chilling glitter in his silvery eyes seeming to drop the temperature in the room. “Whoever has him is either a fool or very dangerous. To steal the son of a powerful European financier who has the blood of assassins in his veins is to dance with death. That our father is unaware of Nash’s disappearance is a clue in and of itself.”

Jack stared at Anthony, his expression almost accusatory. “You wanted a reaction tonight. What did you get?” he asked roughly, his body taut.

Anthony sipped the brandy, eyeing Jack over the rim of the glass. “The Italian attaché scurried from the room with a scowl so I imagine it won’t be long before the conte is aware that his son is missing.”

Shelley arched one brow, but said nothing. Jack’s face darkened with impatience. Anthony thought about stringing Jack along for another few minutes, but decided against it. He really had no more desire for revenge. He just wanted Jack to go. He didn’t like the way Jack looked at Shelley and he didn’t like Shelley giving Jack information the spy might one day use for his own ends. He wasn’t comfortable having Jack know anything at all about Shelley.

“Besides the attaché, only one man had an unusual reaction to Shelley’s appearance. Pure disbelief followed by a rage so great he visibly shook from it,” Anthony revealed. “And since the man is connected to the Prime Minister, he’s the last person I would have suspected as being involved in Nash’s disappearance.”

He paused and Jack leaned forward, his blue eyes dark with emotion. Beside him, Shelley raised one hand to stroke his earlobe and fleetingly Anthony thought of the jeweled earring he’d bought his lover and of the sweet caress of Shelley’s mouth upon his cock, showing his delight in the gift. His cock surged within his drawers and he wanted Jack gone so he could sink into Shelley’s arms and experience the nirvana only the courtesan could give him.

Unfortunately, Shelley’s masquerade had unveiled a dangerous man and whatever plot had necessitated Nash’s kidnapping needed to be discovered and foiled. Anthony understood his duty even while he chafed at it. After all, his pleasure really shouldn’t be second to a man’s life.

“The man who knows about Nash’s disappearance is…”

A deep, sardonic voice cut Anthony off in mid-sentence. “Nelson Woolley, Viscount Atterby.”

They all turned to find the Earl of Bridgewater standing in the doorway.  Anthony noted that Jack’s face showed signs of excitement at the revelation. However, it was Shelley’s reaction to Emmett Montgomery that drew his attention more fully. The courtesan’s eyes glinted familiarly as he gazed at the earl. And to Anthony’s intense fury, Emmett’s eyes held a note of carnal awareness as well.

Anthony’s jaw tightened as Emmett came into the room and closed the door. He could barely keep his hands from fisting as the earl took the chair beside Jack, his gaze still upon Shelley. Every muscle in his body screamed with the urge to mark Shelley as his and warn off the handsome, athletic earl.

Jack faded into the background as jealousy burned like acid beneath his skin. The realization that Emmett had fucked Shelley gripped Anthony in a vise of raw rage. Every primal gene in his body screamed for action, yet he sat as if turned to stone while deep in his chest a small ache began to throb with every leaden beat of his heart.

“Atterby!” Jack exclaimed, rushing to his feet to pace the room. “Why? Why would the Prime Minister’s closest confidant kidnap Nash?”

“I think that is something we need to discover,” Emmett replied, finally looking away from Shelley. “This isn’t a simple kidnapping and Atterby isn’t the mastermind. He’s not the type. But I do believe this is a dangerous game of possible sedition.”

“Plots within plots,” Shelley murmured thoughtfully. “Atterby likes to dominate and inflict pain. His usual prey are young men, but of late, he’s been seen with men of power like the Prime Minister and various Home Office ministers.”

“Trust you to know the sexual peccadilloes of the men of the ton.” Emmett chuckled as he gazed at Shelley warmly.

Anthony thought he would explode. Until this moment, he’d always liked Emmett Montgomery. Now, he wanted to rend him limb from limb. He heard the conversation about Atterby but couldn’t concentrate on it. All he could think of was that the handsome earl had touched Shelley’s magnificent body and that the exquisite mouth that gave him so much pleasure had sucked the earl’s cock too.

“Anthony!” Jack’s exasperated tone, brought Anthony back to the discussion. His former lover stood with hands on hips in a pose of vexation. “I asked you a question!”

Slowly, Anthony dragged his gaze from Shelley who repeated helpfully, “Where do you suppose Atterby would stash Nash?”

The possibilities were endless, but Anthony knew instantly where he would put Nash if he had Atterby’s connections. “The Prime Minister has an estate just outside of London. A very old stone castle purported to have actual medieval dungeons beneath it. If I were Atterby, that’s where I would put Nash.”

“An odd place to stash someone if you’re a seditionist,” Emmett observed.

“Which makes it damned perfect.” Jack’s voice held a note of triumph and he turned toward the door. “I must be off.”

Anthony rose to his feet and gripped Jack’s arm. “I wouldn’t. Atterby is likely to have gone there direct from the ball to see if Nash is still there. We need to wait a few hours and see what information we can dig up about the house in the interim.”

“We?” Jack’s brows rose as he stared at Anthony.

Shooting a glance at Emmett, Anthony noted his interested expression, the earl’s interest in hunting replacing any caution he might otherwise have had. He nodded at Emmett and the earl’s mouth curved into a smile.

“Yes, we. I think you need us, Jack. You’re emotionally too close to this.” Anthony shoved Jack toward a chair. “Sit. Let’s eat and plan how to spring Nash from Atterby’s clutches.”

Emmett rubbed his hands together. “Hunting always requires careful planning,” he murmured.

Anthony’s rage subsided as Emmett’s attention shifted from Shelley to the love of his life, the hunt. He didn’t know quite how to go about rescuing Nash but he figured between them, they’d come up with something viable. All he needed to do now was keep himself under control, a feat of monumental proportions considering his ex-lover and his current lover were in the same room with a man who’d also been with his lover. Emotion twisted into knots within Anthony, something he’d have to analyze at a later time. For now, he had a rescue to plan.

Masquerade

6 January 2012

Cassandra de Haviland knew how to give a party. Anthony had always enjoyed his sister’s soirees in the past, but tonight’s event promised to be one he might never forget. The small thoughts of revenge he’d entertained momentarily when Jack had sat down beside him at the club the night before had grown to immense proportions while he’d been with Shelley. Tonight’s deception had been all his idea despite the fact that the courtesan had the most devious mind Anthony had ever been privy to. That he also had a body made for the most sinful of acts only made his appeal that much greater to Anthony.

Over the past five years, no one had ever satisfied him as Shelley did and no one had been a better friend. Someone who knew Anthony during his years at university might think he’d acquired another Jack, someone both friend and lover. However, Anthony knew differently. He trusted Shelley far more than he trusted Jack. Even during the days of his blind devotion to Jack, he knew better than to trust that Jack would not lead him into something he would regret. Anthony knew Shelley would never lead him astray. He sometimes had the fleeting sense that Shelley would rather die than do anything that Anthony wouldn’t like.

And that was how, on the night of his sister’s ball, Anthony came to open the doors that led from his brother-in-law’s private study into the garden. Shelley slipped into the room, silent as death, his movements filled with a grace that fired Anthony’s libido. He let his gaze slide over the courtesan, taking in the perfectly tailored dinner jacket, the pristine white shirt and the neckcloth tied in an intricate but sporting knot. His trousers emphasized his leanly muscled thighs and his shoes shone like a mirror.

Shelley’s wheat blond waves had been dyed the color of Nash Sutherland’s, a rich chestnut. To most casual observers, Shelley looked like Nash, the most highly decorated and youngest Imperial Sky Commander the Empire had ever employed.  Anthony had no doubt that from across the room Jack would think he was looking at his lover.

A fierce sense of satisfaction raced through Anthony. Shelley’s deception would kill two birds with a single stone. Not only would his appearance as Nash startle and perhaps frighten the people responsible for taking Nash, but Jack’s surprise and shock would be wholly unfeigned to even the most casual of observers.  And Anthony would derive no small pleasure in enacting that small revenge upon his former lover. He even had a screw to turn if he so desired. And at the moment, he was primed to turn it.

“Are we ready?”

Shelley’s low murmur drew Anthony’s gaze to his lover’s supple lips. Shelley smiled as if he knew exactly what Anthony was thinking. He reached out one long forefinger and flicked at the underside of Anthony’s jaw. When Anthony lifted his head, Shelley leaned in and kissed him, hard and swift. Anthony’s breath caught in his throat. By the time he could draw another breath, Shelley had moved away toward the door, tossing Anthony an insouciant smile over his shoulder.

“Time for Cinderella to crash the ball.”

They slipped out of the study and Anthony led the way toward the ballroom. They strolled along the edge of the room and it took a minute before heads began to turn and gazes began to follow them. Anthony glanced over at Shelley and found him smiling enigmatically, much the same as Nash did. The resemblance was uncanny enough that it even gave Anthony a bit of a shiver.

At the far end of the ballroom, they stepped into a corridor and followed the sound of laughter and the scent of cigar smoke. Anthony tensed as he reached the arched double doorway of the card room. Shelley laid a hand on his shoulder as if to soothe him and Anthony shot him a grateful smile.

“Good luck,” he whispered.

Shelley returned his smile. “I don’t need luck. I’ve got you, darling,” the courtesan replied in a seductive voice and for a brief moment Anthony could have sworn he saw a flicker of emotion in Shelley’s cool gray eyes.

They stepped into the room together, pausing not far inside. Several card tables filled the space and a bar took up one end of the rectangular shaped room. Shelley stopped a passing footman and took a flute of champagne from the servant’s tray. He held it out to Anthony and took another glass for himself. They stood shoulder to shoulder, silently surveying the card tables. When Anthony’s gaze landed on Jack, sitting at a table with his brother-in-law and host, Westerfield de Haviland, he stiffened. Shelley turned slightly toward him.

“Jack Starrington, I presume,” he murmured in Anthony’s ear.

Anthony nodded and at that precise moment, Jack looked up, directly at them. His blue eyes widened in shock, his fingers tightening on the stem of his champagne flute.   Shelley smiled broadly at Jack, winked and then deliberately caught Anthony’s free hand. Pulling Anthony’s hand against his body, rubbing it over his groin, he continued to smile at Jack, raising his champagne flute in a silent salute.

Biting back a gasp of arousal, Anthony held himself motionless as Shelley ground his half erect cock against Anthony’s now tingling palm, all before the horrified and rage filled gaze of Jack Starrington. Then Shelley bent to Anthony’s ear.

“Time to find my pumpkin.”

He turned to face Anthony, pressed another swift, hard kiss to his lips and then slipped out the door. Across the room, there was a loud audible snap as the stem of Jack’s glass broke and champagne spilled onto the green baize of the card table. Footmen rushed forward with towels and Anthony used the distraction to quickly peruse the faces of the men present before slipping out of the card room too. He had no idea where Shelley had gone. Swiftly, he strode through his sister’s house toward the study. When he got there, he found the doors to the garden closed and locked from the inside. Where the hell was Shelley?

Hearing a footstep behind him, he spun on the balls of his feet, expecting Shelley. Instead, a hard body slammed into him, shoving him against the wood paneled wall. A hard forearm pressed against his throat, cutting off his air. For a moment, he struggled, but when his gaze met Jack’s angry one, he relaxed.

“Where the fuck is he? And why the fuck was he with you? Touching you?” Jack’s ragged breathing matched his angry expression.

For a moment, to Anthony’s surprise, a crazed set of emotions chased each other across Jack’s face. Then he rasped in a tortured voice, “For God’s sake, Anthony! Did I hurt you so badly that you had to do this to me?”

Instantly, Anthony regretted his and Shelley’s deception. Then, in the next second, he realized that regardless of what lay between him and Jack and between Jack and Nash, the deception had still been necessary to flush out those who had kidnapped Nash. The expressions he’d seen in the card room told him their deception had paid off in spades.

With a swift movement, he broke Jack’s hold. Startled, Jack stepped back. Anthony straightened his jacket and neckcloth. Fleetingly, he again wondered where Shelley had gone. But Jack stood before him, chest heaving, anger and pain flashing in his blue eyes and Anthony could hardly ignore his former lover’s fury. He bit back a sigh.  “Things are not what they seem, Jack.”

“Obviously, if you know how to break a choke hold and have no qualms kissing a man in public,” Jack retorted, a tick working in his tightly clenched jaw.

“There’s more to me than our mutual history, Mr. Imperial Spy.”

Anthony knew he sounded waspish, but he didn’t care.  Jack had a lot of nerve to have approached him after ten years of silence in order to help him find his lover. Anthony had discovered he wasn’t quite as well-mannered and forgiving as most people thought. He was perfectly willing to help Jack, but he also needed his pound of flesh and the look on Jack’s face in the card room, the broken glass, the way he looked at Anthony now with a combination of fear, anger, frustration and pain more than made up for what Anthony had suffered.  When Pierre Choderlos de Laclos wrote that revenge was a dish best served cold, he had been entirely correct.  However, now that Anthony had enjoyed Jack’s discomfiture, it was time to get down to business.

Jack jerked away from Anthony and ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Anthony. I’ve treated you rather cavalierly and that was wrong of me.”

Jack’s gruff tones didn’t soften Anthony one bit. The spy deserved what he had gotten tonight.  Still, it was done now and they needed to move on to another subject.

“It was poorly done of you, Jack,” he agreed. “However, my little revenge aside, you surely know what happened here.”

Turning back toward Anthony, Jack’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What are you talking about, Anthony?”

“Your lover hasn’t betrayed you, Jack,” Anthony said with a grimace. “Surely, you aren’t such a poor judge of character that you would fall in love with a man who would betray you?”

A martial light began to glow in Jack’s eyes. “That wasn’t Nash,” he murmured, his voice a bare thread of sound.

“Obviously,” Anthony replied, repeating Jack’s earlier phrase but with a decidedly sarcastic tone. “However, this isn’t the place to discuss it. Would you care to repair to the club?”

Jack’s brows rose. “You feel safe discussing Nash’s disappearance at the club?”

Anthony shrugged. “You had no qualms discussing it there last evening and there are places there where we won’t be disturbed. Besides, I’m not taking you home with me, Jack.”

“Ahh, the lookalike won’t like that, eh?” Jack’s normal good humor returned in the blink of an eye and Anthony fought not to grit his teeth.

He strode toward the door, after one last glance at the doors to the garden. “My amours are none of your business.”

“Then you admit the man is your lover.”

Now, Anthony did grind his teeth. “I admit nothing of the kind.”

Jack snorted. “You’d never let a strange man rub your hand over his cock. He’s your lover.”

With a glare, Anthony hissed, “What he is, is a rare commodity and one that I refuse to let you exploit. You’d best get it into your skull now, Jonathan Starrington, you’re no longer running the show. You asked for my help and I’ve agreed to give it, but only if we play by my rules. Not yours.”

He walked out of the study and down the stairs to the entrance, not bothering to glance back to see if Jack followed. He knew Jack did, just as surely as he had no idea where Shelley had gotten to.  But he did know where he’d find Shelley eventually. The club.

A Chilly Reception

23 December 2011

“Brrr.”  Emmett shook off his greatcoat and handed it and his hat over to the footman.  “Devilish cold out there, tonight.”

“Yes, sir,” the footman agreed and swept away.  The freckle-faced lad was likely humoring him, but then, the boy had not spent two months in the searing heat of equatorial Africa.  There were excellent reasons to spend time in London, but the moldering damp of early spring wasn’t one of them.

Emmett straightened his damned waistcoat and headed toward one of the wingback chairs closest to the fireplace.

Within seconds, a waiter approached, starched white cloth draped over one arm.  “Your usual, sir?”

“No, not this evening.  Whisky, please.”  He needed something a bit stronger to warm him up than the Stellenbosch wines he customarily drank, and that the club stocked at his request.

“Very good, sir.”  The waiter slipped away.

Cigar-scented leather creaked as he relaxed back into the chair, letting the fire’s warmth chase away the chill.

“Good evening, Lord Bridgewater.”  Beare, the club’s steward stood at his elbow, as though he’d materialized out of thin air.  “I trust you are well after your extended absence.”

“Yes, thank you.”

“Will you be expecting a companion for your evening’s entertainment?”

Emmett bit back a chuckle at the overly delicate phrasing.  Beare was so damned prim sometimes.  Unfortunately, even Emmett’s considerable assets had been unable to create an opening in the celebrated courtesan’s schedule.

“Not this evening.  Shelley’s dance card was regrettably too full to accommodate my early return.”  He could dress up his words as well as Beare could.  From the faint hint of a scowl, Beare hadn’t missed Emmett’s mocking tone.

“Very good, milord.”

Emmett assumed Beare didn’t approve of how Emmett treated Shelley any more than anyone else did.  Stupid and shortsighted of them all.  If his time in deepest Africa had taught him anything… money and status didn’t necessarily equal good or right or even interesting.

Shelley was an intelligent and entertaining companion, aside from his considerable skill between the sheets.  For the price he paid, Emmett was determined to wring every bit of enjoyment out of his appointments, no matter who thought he was a fool besotted with a whore. They didn’t realize he wasn’t besotted, but merely appreciating one of the finer things in life.

Sex could be had in almost any alcove or alley, dock or ballroom, regardless of society’s disapproval.  Anyone who ignored Shelley’s other skills… they were the fools, not Emmett.

The waiter returned with Emmett’s glass.  Beare nodded at him and made as though to depart.

“Hold up, Beare.”  The man knew just about everyone.  If anyone could help with his thorny problem, it would be the steward.

“Yes, milord?”

Emmett took a sip of his whisky first.  “Do you know anyone who’s good with metalwork… tubing and gears and whatnot?  Fine, delicate work.  You see, I’m—”

“Working on another weapon?”

Damned man knew everything, although Emmett was trying to keep this one a secret until he was sure he could get it to work.  He’d not been able to scale down his design enough to make it feasible.  “Do you know anyone?  I can do it, but I don’t enjoy it.  I’d much rather commission someone else to do it.”

“Were you still planning to attend the Admiral’s ball?”  Beare raised a supercilious brow, as though to indicate Emmett had no business cluttering up the club.  Not that the club was overly crowded tonight.  Must be balls aplenty — ha! — to entice the men out into society this evening.

“I had planned to.  Just fortifying myself first.  And giving the young bucks a chance to get properly foxed.  Much easier to hunt them down.”  Emmett lifted his glass in a toast and winked.

Beare’s lips compressed for a fraction of a second.  Pah.  Half the time it was impossible to tell if Beare was even listening, much less if he disapproved.  Emmett ought to save his bait for the ball.  Scandalizing his peers was half the fun of attending society’s functions.  Getting a proper toff or two to drop their drawers or drop to their knees in a darkened garden was the other half.  Almost made wearing the restrictive eveningwear worthwhile.

“I daresay, milord, you are still considered a young buck.”

“Ah, Beare, kind of you to say so.”  His active lifestyle kept his thirty-six year old body as fit as any stripling fresh out of the schoolroom, although his build and face hardly resembled one.  The vicious Boer and Zulu wars hardened a man, aged his soul.

Beare inclined his head slightly.  “There are at least two young men who may be able to assist you.  Both have become members during your absence.  Jacob Silsbury or Baron Colchester.  Both were invited to the Admiral’s ball this evening, although I do not know if they will be in attendance.”

“What?  There’s something the all-knowing Beare doesn’t know?”  Beare’s nostrils flared, the only outward signal that Emmett had finally managed to annoy the man.  With some effort he held in a smirk, and swallowed the last of his whisky.

Wait… “Colchester?  When I had dinner with Nash the other night, he told me the poor bastard died in a fire.”

Dammit.  Emmett’s satisfaction couldn’t hold up to Beare’s smug certainty that Emmett wanted to be armed with the knowledge before he went badgering strangers at a ball.

“He did indeed, milord.”  No servant had ever been so unfailing polite and so blatently condescending at the same time.  “The title passed to a nephew — Caleb Sutton — who likely has the skills you require.”

“And he’s also a member of the club?”  Emmett much preferred to keep his business in the family, so to speak.

“Yes, milord.  Although Colchester’s estate was nearly bankrupt, the new Baron saw fit to maintain the club membership Colchester bequeathed him.”

Interesting.  Did that little tidbit mean Colchester would be more amenable to a commission?

“And Silsbury’s wealth?”  Not many could get away with such a blunt question, but Emmett frequently traded on both his wealth and status to speak his mind.  What good were either of those things if society strangled the life from you?

“I’m given to understand his estate rivals your own.”  Beare’s words confirmed his suspicions.  Silsbury only if Colchester turned him down.

“Thank you, Beare.”  It wasn’t like the steward to give up that much information so easily, but Emmett would take what he could get.

Emmett checked his pocket watch.  Time to go.  The evening marched on, and there was a fine line between foxed enough to have sex in the garden and too foxed to participate.  Giving his cock free reign was the primary reason to attend these functions, and he wasn’t going to miss that.  If he tweaked a few noses and gained an introduction to either man, fine.

***

After greeting his hostess, Emmett grabbed a glass of champagne from one of the many footmen circulating with trays.  Emmett moved through the ballroom, neatly dodging the simpering misses who hoped to marry into an earldom.  Wasn’t going to happen, but he nodded politely and continued on.  A number of attractive men were present, but he’d be more likely to find his prey in the library.

“Lord Bridgewater, how nice to see you this evening.”  Thomas fell into step beside him.

“Thomas.”  If Emmett had ever known Thomas’s other names, he’d since forgotten them.

“Heading for the library?”

“No, not tonight, dear boy.”  Emmett pulled open the door to the library and strode in.  Thomas followed him — unfortunately — laughing nervously at the blatant lie.

Emmett found a chair with an ideal vantage point where he could see, and be seen, by most of the men in the room.  Many of them were there to escape the pressures of polite conversation and obligatory dances, but enough were looking for the same thing Emmett was.

Thomas sat in a nearby chair, smiling.  Emmett eyed him.  The man was one of the most gorgeous men Emmett had ever seen, the classic English rose morphed into masculine perfection.  But he didn’t know his way around a cock — at all.  Thomas had so poorly mishandled Emmett’s at the ball prior to his departure for Africa, Emmett had begun to wonder if he’d ever touched one at all, even his own.

“Can I get you another drink?”

Emmett’s gaze roved around the room, seeking the buck he’d cut out of the herd this evening.  Contrary to his statement to Beare, they didn’t have to be young, merely attractive and willing.  He glanced back at Thomas.  He fit all three criteria, but Emmett had no intention of revisiting that fiasco.

“No, thank you.”  Although he might need more than one if Thomas intended to chat with him for long.

“How was your trip to Africa?  Bag a lot of animals?”

A man quite nearly as attractive as Thomas stood against the wall between two terrace doors, a glass clutched tightly in one hand.  His dark hair fell over his eyes, making him look younger than he probably was.  His nose was a trifle large, but his lips were full and dark pink.  Emmett wasn’t certain, but he thought he’d caught the man’s attention, even though he’d not made eye contact.

“Yes, I did.  Very successful trip.  I took down a couple of dozen heads, including some fantastic lions.”

The dark-haired man made eye contact then.  Emmett inclined his head toward the terrace doors leading to the garden.  It was a chilly night to bare his skin, but with those lips dancing over his cock, Emmett was bound to be plenty distracted.  The pursed lips and affronted expression surprised him, but he shrugged.  He rarely made a mistake in judging when a man wasn’t interested in the fairer sex, but clearly this time he had.

“Lions?  Aren’t they dangerous?”  The words filtered into Emmett’s mind like the annoyance of a buzzing bee.  He didn’t want to hurt the man’s feelings, but he had no interest in furthering their connection.

“Very dangerous.  One must use extreme caution when taking down a lion.”  Emmett polished off the last of his champagne as he made eye contact with another, rather foxed, young man — an inferior rendering of the man he’d hoped to coax into the shadows, but passably attractive nonetheless.  Another tilt of the head towards the garden got a more favorable response.

“I heard you were working on a fantastic new firearm that would let you take down beasts even larger than lions.  Quicker, too.”

That last sentence brought Emmett’s attention back to Thomas.  He wasn’t guarding plans for his latest invention as though it were the crown jewels or anything, but he hadn’t gone out of his way to mention it to many people.  He’d discussed it with Nash over dinner and Beare earlier, but that was about it.

Emmett shrugged, but didn’t bother to clarify.  It wasn’t anyone’s business but his own if he modified his firearms to take down live prey, not to kill it.  “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got someone waiting for me.”  He didn’t want his tipsy buck getting lost, or worse, getting snared by another hunter.

Thomas would soon understand.  Emmett rarely drank from the same well twice.  Aside from a few excellent partners, variety in fucking was the spice of life.  Especially if the companion was clingy.

As Emmett stood, he caught the malevolent glare of his first choice for the evening.  Scowling merely made the man’s lips plump out just a little more, made them even more tempting.  Such a shame he disapproved of Emmett, but luck was a fickle lady.  He waved a hand toward the door — couldn’t hurt to try again — but the man’s cheeks reddened and he turned his glare to the glass in his hand.  Emmett shrugged and strode out to the terrace.

The dim light of the torches softened the young man’s features and Emmet could almost pretend his first choice had joined him instead.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Albert.”

“Albert, you may call me Montgomery.”  While he rarely stood on ceremony, his first name was far too intimate for a little garden fraternization.  Not when he’d had past conquests use it sober and in brightly lit drawing rooms, presuming a far greater acquaintance than Emmett had ever intended.  He wanted the bucks trading on his title even less.

“Mmm, Montgomery.”  Albert sidled up next to Emmett, hips shifting restlessly, pressing his erection into Emmett’s thigh.

“Eager, aren’t you?”  Emmett stroked at the hard length distorting the fine tailored lines of Albert’s trousers.  Splendid.

A flicker of drapery at one of the library windows dragged Emmett from the heady sensation of a young man in his arms, nuzzling the sensitive spot below his ear.

“Come, sweet, let’s get out of the light before we’re ostracized from polite society.”  Society turned a blind eye to most of Emmett’s antics due to his wealth and status, but he’d rather not completely ruin young Albert for a few moments of pleasure.

Albert lifted his head and smiled blearily, allowing Emmett to lead him deeper into the garden.  He really must compliment Lady de Haviland on her garden design.  Plenty of dark nooks to catch a little slap and tickle.  A number of guests were taking advantage, judging from the breathy giggles and lustful gasps.

Around the corner of a box hedge, Emmett drew Albert close and placed a hand over his groin.  The search for a secluded area hadn’t diminished the sizable erection in the least.  He stroked and squeezed, enjoying the young man’s groan.  Once Albert’s hips started rocking, Emmett coaxed him to his knees.

Albert fumbled to open his own trousers while Emmett extricated his own hard prick.

“Open up, sweet,” Emmet murmured, nudging the slick head along Albert’s lips.

Albert’s tongue slipped out to lap at Emmett’s engorged tip before dropping his mouth open to accept Emmett’s cock.

“Oh, that’s it.  You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”  Emmett didn’t expect a response to his whispered words, since his cock was enveloped root to tip by Albert’s hot, wet mouth.  He cupped the back of Albert’s dark head and thrust gently in and out.  Albert stroked his own cock to the same rhythm.

Emmett widened his stance a bit, ensuring his shoes were out of the firing range of Albert’s prick.  Benny, his valet, had taken him to task more than once for getting semen on his shoes.

When Albert’s arm movement sped up, he moaned around Emmett’s dick, sending the most delightful sensation along his length.  Emmett sped his own thrusts up to match Albert, because the young man was fixing to go off and Emmett wasn’t going to be left behind. Sensing he could be a little more forceful with this one, Emmett used both hands to pull Albert’s mouth tight against his pubes.  The muffled whimper as Albert came pushed Emmett over the edge.  While he did his damnedest not to call out, Albert swallowed furiously around Emmett’s jerking cock, missing not a bit of seed.

Albert pulled back, licked Emmett clean and reached up to help stuff Emmett back into his pants, but the faint moonlight picked out a wet glint on his fingers.  Like lightning, he wrapped his fingers around Albert’s wrist to keep him from touching his pants.  If Benny hated semen on Emmett’s shoes, he was an absolute terror about it on fabric.

Retrieving a handkerchief from his coat pocket, Emmett handed it to Albert, who wiped his hand while Emmett took care of putting himself to rights.

“Thank you, my sweet.  Are you all right to get back into the house?”

“Mmm.  Yes.  Are you sure you don’t want another go, Montgomery?”

“Not just now.  You should return to your friends.”

Albert smiled and tottered back the way they’d come.  If Emmett were interested in another go, he’d find someone else.

Emmett walked a few steps farther into the garden and sat on a bench before lighting a cigar.

Smoke curled up around his nostrils.  Albert’s oral skills had been vastly superior to Thomas’s, but the orgasm hadn’t left him as relaxed as it should have.  Between the odd incident in Kenya a fortnight before his departure and the sensation of being watched since he’d returned to England, he’d not been able to let his guard down.  Probably no more than an overactive imagination, but the excitement of a hunt — of any description — was usually enough to clear his mind and get his blood pumping.  Not this time.

He stubbed out his half-smoked cigar.  Not much point in scouting out another conquest.  He should just return to his townhouse.  Or the club.  Had the hunt truly gone stale?

 

Opening the door to the library, he immediately noticed the dark head of his first choice for the evening seated in the self same chair Emmett had occupied earlier.  His heart thumped a little faster and his vision narrowed.  Something about this man screamed “quarry”.    Perhaps he’d been too hasty in his decision to leave the ball.

A slender man, back turned, stood between Emmett and his new target.

“Excuse me.”  Emmett grabbed a handful of pert, rounded bottom under the pretense of making his way past the young man.  The lad jumped and Emmett glanced over his shoulder.

“Aren’t you a pretty little thing?”  Emmett smiled.  The thrill of the chase wasn’t entirely gone.

The shorter man stared at him, lashes fluttering, as though he couldn’t quite comprehend Emmett’s actions.  Happened a lot, and maybe if tall dark and sour hadn’t filled his vision first, he’d attempt to explain… in greater detail, out in the garden.

Movement out of the corner of his eye had Emmett facing forward again.  Blue eyes narrowed in a vicious glare, divided between him and the pretty man with the gorgeous bum.  Those dark pink lips pursed even tighter, drawing Emmett in like a honey-baited trap.

This was a big distraction, and a welcome one.  He slid into the chair opposite.

His plan to find someone to introduce him to Silsbury or Lord Colchester had fizzled away in the face of this challenge.  A delay of another day or two wouldn’t matter.

“Montgomery, at your service.”  He signaled a footman for another drink.

“Not at my service.”

“Your name?”

“Cal.”

“Cal.”  Emmett liked it.  And he liked the prickly, standoffish man sitting across from him.  He didn’t know why.

“Have you no sense of decorum?”

“Was that you watching at the window?”  Emmett dropped his voice and leaned a little closer.  “You should have followed us out into the garden.  You would have seen a better show.”

Cal’s nostrils flared and pink washed up his throat into his cheeks.  His fingers tightened around the glass stem, and Emmett wondered if it was the same one he’d been holding twenty minutes ago, with yet a sip to be taken.

Emmett chuckled.  He wasn’t going to lure this buck in tonight, but soon. “I must take my leave, Cal.  I’m to meet someone, shortly.”  He waggled his brows, and the affront on Cal’s face was well worth the lie.  He rose to his feet, content he’d laid the foundation for a long, stealthy hunt.

“Have you no shame?”

Emmett laughed.  “Not a drop.  But you have more than enough for me.”

Cal’s legs shifted, revealing something Emmett doubted he’d intended.

After a quick glance to ensure no one was paying them any mind, Emmett leaned down, pushed his mouth close to Cal’s ear, and squeezed the erection bulging in Cal’s lap.

“And that’s not all you have for me.  I’ll see you around, Cal.”

Emmett released his grip, and with more pleasure than he’d had all evening, he sauntered away.

 

 

Trust

12 December 2011

As Anthony’s spent cock slipped from the heated fist of Shelley’s ass, he collapsed atop the courtesan’s hard body, feeling the sticky wetness of the other man’s semen glue their torsos together. Shelley’s hard thighs slipped from around Anthony’s hips to land with a muted thud on the mattress. Nuzzling Shelley’s throat, Anthony breathed in the scent of the man. Cloves, citrus, and a spicy myrrh sort of scent rose from Shelley’s skin. He always smelled exotic to Anthony, exotic and decadent. It went well with his sometimes aloof demeanor. When those gray eyes went vague, Anthony always had the urge to call Shelley back to him. And he always itched to know where his lover’s thoughts had gone.

A sigh of contentment escaped Shelley now and Anthony caressed him in the aftermath of their orgasms, their first and second respectively. Touching Shelley gave him pleasure. He didn’t even have to kiss him or suck him or penetrate him to find pleasure in being with him. He’d found that ten minutes of sharing a pot of tea with Shelley could brighten his entire day. That and the shaving scene earlier brought Anthony’s thoughts around to the person who had rent the fabric of his carefully constructed adult life.

Jack Starrington.

Why the hell couldn’t the man have just stayed away another ten years? Why did he have to come around shoving Anthony’s past – their shared history – into his face and reminding him of the biggest folly of his life?

Anthony rubbed himself against Shelley, the sensation of skin on skin underscored with hard as stone male muscle bumping up against the same helped ease the discomfort of his thoughts. Shelley’s arms came up around him and contentment washed over Anthony.

“I’m not too heavy?” he asked softly and Shelley murmured a sleepy dissent, his long arms tightening around Anthony.

Closing his eyes, his nostrils filled with the scent of sex, semen and Shelley, Anthony let his body delight in the feel of the only man he’d been with in a twelvemonth. Since Jack, Anthony had been with any number of men. Probably not as many as Jack, but Anthony was choosy and suffered from a broken heart for years, neither condition being conducive to a life of carefree and short term liaisons. When he’d met Shelley, his life of sporadic celibacy ended.

No matter what happened in his life these days, he could never resist Shelley. Several years back they had begun their liaison as most relationships of that sort began. Attraction. Negotiation. Regular meetings. The exchange of money and the occasional gift. From Anthony to Shelley, never the reverse. However, a couple of years into their association, Anthony realized how very much he actually liked Shelley and their relationship had begun to subtly change until they reached their current status. After five years, Anthony had become very comfortable with Shelley. He thought of him as a friend even though he did still leave the man a bank draft when he left Shelley’s bed.

He frowned, brushing his mouth over the hard ridge of Shelley’s collarbone. Over the past couple of years, the thought of paying Shelley had begun to leave an uneasy sensation in his belly. Yet, he had no idea how to broach the subject when they both went to such pains to maintain the façade of employer and employee. At least, Anthony thought it was a façade. Or maybe a habit would be a better term. They’d fallen into a habit of behavior with each other and until tonight, nothing had changed.

However, after his encounter with Jack this night, Anthony realized just how much of a sham these rituals with Shelley were. The truth of the matter was that he’d spoken from the heart when he’d said he trusted Shelley with his life. No one shaved Anthony Banning. Not any servant or valet. When he’d been at university, a friend of his father’s had had his throat slit by a lover who’d been performing those very ablutions Shelley had just completed for him. Anthony had never let anyone near him with a razor again. Until now.

Still, Shelley kept his counsel about most things and Anthony often felt off kilter around him, especially when emotion assailed him. That he had feelings for Shelley was something he now recognized. What those feelings were exactly, Anthony couldn’t say. In his heart, he thought of Shelley as a friend and lover and he trusted the man implicitly, more than he trusted anyone else.

Cautiously, he turned onto his side on the bed, his arm coming up around Shelley’s lean waist. The contact had his cock on the rise once more, a miracle after all it had been through that night, but he ignored it. There were more important things in life than being a slave to one’s prick although, around Shelley, Anthony could often think of little else than that wayward organ.

“There nothing about you, Shelley Jefferson, that fits the word ‘merely,’” he said gruffly, referring to their earlier conversation before Shelley had enticed him to bed with a wriggle of his taut naked arse. “I fully understand the honor you have accorded me over the years. I know that no one else has been allowed to be your patron as long as I have been.”

Shelley feigned sleep but Anthony could feel the uneven thud of the other man’s heart against his chest. Behind the ornate screen, Fig played the second movement of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3. Many people preferred technology and used a gramophone to play music, but Shelley’s old-fashioned idiosyncrasies were one of the things Anthony liked best about the man. And he enjoyed Fig’s playing, preferring it to the scratchy sounding gramophone. The strains of the violin soothed Anthony’s turmoil as did the caress of Shelley’s hand down his spine. He held back a shudder of pleasure, pulling his wits about him. He needed to ask Shelley to do something dangerous. Something he didn’t wish to ask his lover, but Life being the twisted circumstance that it was, he had no choice.

“Seeing Jack tonight made me realize a number of things, Shel,” he began. “I came to the realization that the reason I’ve stayed so angry and fixated on Jack is because he left with no real explanation. He didn’t trust me enough to tell me that he loved me, but he needed to take the job, that he needed more than me to be happy. He broke the bond of trust we’d had as lovers and friends.”

Anthony licked Shelley’s throat as his lover arched his neck, giving him full access to his body. “I do not give my trust, my loyalty or my friendship easily,” he whispered against Shelley’s skin and felt the man stiffen for a moment before melting against him. He wondered what thoughts had gone through Shelley’s head, what secrets the courtesan withheld from him. The notion that Shelley had secrets tightened Anthony’s gut in an unpleasant manner even though he knew it shouldn’t. He had no claim on Shelley beyond what the bank draft purchased and what Shelley allowed. His gut twisted harder.

“Seeing Jack tonight set me free, Shel,” he admitted. “Jack loves your brother, but he is also deep into something he has not revealed to me. He’s still my friend and he will always be my first lover. I can’t change those things. But he no longer holds a part of my heart. I’m free and Jack belongs to Nash. The only thing wrong is that Nash is missing and Jack wants my help to find him, the bloody bastard. It’s not in my nature to turn my back on friends, much as I might wish to now.”

“Admirable of you, my lord,” Shelley murmured, his voice husky with lust and the edge of slumber.

“Yes, it is admirable of me considering how Jack treated me. But I was young and wide-eyed then. I’m more jaded now,” he teased, pressing a kiss to Shelley’s raspberry lips. “What lies between Jack and I is history and a leap of faith. It must have galled him to have to ask for my help. And I’ve decided to give it to him in part because in the giving, I shall find some small recompense for the pain he caused me. And you, my darling Shel, are my revenge.”

Shelley went very still and his brows rose. It dawned on Anthony that his lover had been uncharacteristically quiet after their fucking. Maybe Shelley felt their association changing just as much as Anthony felt it. Of course, it could also be sleep or ennui. Anthony never stood on very sure footing when it came to Shelley’s emotions and thoughts. Sometimes he thought that when it came to emotion, Shelley had far more experience than he had although, of the two of them, he was the elder.

Anthony trailed light kisses along Shelley’s jaw. “My sister is giving a ball tomorrow night. Jack wishes to meet her husband, the Imperial Sky Admiral. I wish to have you appear at the ball in the guise of your brother. If the world thinks they see Nash Sutherland, whoever actually has Nash will be shocked at your appearance. It should not take much to make you look exactly like him and I’m sure such a subterfuge is not beyond your capabilities.”

When Shelley opened his mouth to speak, Anthony pressed a hard kiss to his lips, cutting him off. “Before you repeat that your brother is a bloody hero who is nothing like you, let me remind you we are not speaking of anything other than physical appearance. If we were to contemplate anything else, I would have to remind you that the man is a sky pirate and wanted by more governments than this one. His disappearance may mean nothing more than the fact that some bounty hunter has managed to collect his reward.”

Drawing a deep breath, Anthony revealed the part he disliked most about his plan. “But then again, Nash’s disappearance could mean something far more sinister, which means that your appearance will stir a hornet’s nest amongst those who arranged his disappearance. And that my darling, Shel, could put you in danger.”

Finally, Shelley moved. He wrapped himself sinuously around Anthony and purred in his ear, “I can take care of myself, Anthony. It’s not as if I’ve never faced danger. I am no delicate flower, much as I adore it when you treat me so. Of course, I will do whatever you wish, my lord. Impersonating my brother requires only some hair dye and a way in and out of your sister’s house. Neither of which are difficult to obtain.”

Shelley smiled languorously and Anthony felt his body respond. “Besides, Nash is my brother and the few times we were together we got along rather well to our father’s astonishment. I should hate to have him turn up…dead.” A delicate shudder went through him. “At least, not if I can prevent it.”

Slipping his hands around Shelley’s taut buttocks, Anthony’s lips nuzzled one soft earlobe. “Then we’ll cancel the piercing and I shall find a more suitable gift for you.”

Shelley chuckled, the sound completely without artifice. “Do not dare. That earring is mine.

“You like it, then?”

“I love it.”

Anthony smiled with pleasure, his heart feeling suddenly light. “It’s like you, you know. That’s why I chose it,” he murmured, his fingertips tracing the classic line of Shelley’s cheekbone. “I saw it and instantly thought of you. Exotic, beautiful and priceless beyond compare.”

Shelley sucked in a breath, his gaze slightly stunned. Anthony’s grin widened, pleased to have caught his lover off guard. “Now, come and love me, Shel. Fuck me and make my body sing only for you.” He slipped a hand between them and rubbed Shelley’s cock. “As I shall make yours sing for me.”

Hands swept over heated skin as their mouths met in a fierce kiss. Anthony closed his eyes on a wave of pleasure so great he could have sobbed. He held Shelley tighter, reveling in the sensations that came from his lover’s touch. He thought of the razor at his throat, Shelley’s hands competently shaving him just as competently as he touched him now.

Fuck Jack, he thought. This is my truth now, even if I’m not sure what exactly it means.

Later, as dawn crept across the sky, Anthony set the small velvet sack of sovereigns on the silk covered pillow beside Shelley’s pale head. The coins were naught but a gesture, one of the many little rituals they observed in their relationship. Also inside the bag was a hefty bank draft. Sometimes, Anthony settled his unease about paying Shelley by telling himself that the money kept Shelley safe. He had only a vague notion of Shelley’s personal worth, but he’d gotten the distinct impression that his lover’s American railroad heiress mother was worth more than his Italian count father. Still, his parents’ personal wealth was their own and without any assurances that Shelley was well-heeled, Anthony could at least feel that he was caring for his lover by leaving the money.

Anthony let his gaze roam Shelley’s face, relaxed and beautiful in satiated slumber. The urge to lean down and kiss his lover goodbye assaulted him but, confused by the overabundance of emotion he’d experienced that night, he turned away from the bed without touching Shelley.

At the door, he looked back over his shoulder, his gaze caressing the muscular chest and arms of his lover. His tired, sore cock responded weakly at the sight of the beautiful man. Resolutely, he turned back to the door but stopped when his gaze caught on the sight of Fig curled into a nest of blankets behind the screen, his mouth sticky with blood orange juice. Anthony stepped closer and bent to pull a duvet over the boy. Shelley loved the child so it wouldn’t do if he caught a chill. With a little smile, he slipped from the room, closing the door softly.

Downstairs, at the main entrance of the club, Beare appeared, silent and impeccably dressed for the late hour. He held the door for Anthony, something he rarely did, since the club employed men specifically for that job.

“Send Mr. Jefferson breakfast at ten, Beare,” he murmured. “Put it on my bill.”

The steward inclined his head regally. “As you wish, your lordship.”

The notion that he could ask Beare who Shelley’s other clients were struck Anthony like a lightning bolt. Pain exploded in his chest and his breath caught in his throat. Then he realized that Beare wasn’t likely to tell him and that he had no business asking. Where his thought had come from, he’d no idea, but now it lodged in his throat like a stuck chicken bone. Jealousy licked at him. Fucking Jack. His arrival had turned Anthony’s emotions on end. Now, he was filled with a thousand impossible notions.

Beare cleared his throat. “Dr. Spencer asked after you late in the evening. However, you’d retired.”

Anthony froze. Peregrine had been looking for him? Spence had been looking for him? Lust flickered inside him. A different sort of lust than what he shared with Shelley.

“Did he say why?” he asked, his gaze raking Beare’s impassive face.

“No, your lordship. Only that he would seek you out another time.”

Stepping through the door, Anthony headed to his motorcar. His driver held the door and Anthony stepped in, settling himself against the leather seat. All the way home, he sat with his head whirling. Jack Starrington. Shelley Jefferson. And Peregrine Spencer…Dr. Spencer. Young, lithe, winsome and just starting to discover the pleasures to be had between men. Anthony’s mouth watered. Life might have handed him a bitter pill in Jack, but it had also handed him the delectable morsel known as Shelley and the innocent tidbit that was Dr. Spencer. It was up to Anthony how he managed to deal with them all. Luckily, he had ideas. Quite a lot of them.

Anthony’s Plan

9 December 2011

The carriage lurched and threw Shelley back against the squabs. He barely felt it. The compartment was lush, of course, and he was bundled into evening clothes and a cape. The mute Calfiglio sat across from him, cradling his violin in his arms like a baby.

“Anthony tonight,” Shelley informed him. “Kenmare.”

Calfiglio’s brows lifted and he grinned his silly grin.

“Yes. He will probably bring you a treat. He usually does, you shameless cabbage.”

Calfiglio huffed a voiceless laugh as the carriage lurched to a stop in front of the club. They waited while the footman prepared the steps and opened the door. Once he did, Shelley whispered, “Showtime.”

Calfiglio descended first, and once  on the ground, he set his bow and started to play. When Shelley emerged, Fig was already skipping ahead, making obeisance to passers-by, and scrubbing out a romantic Gypsy ballad, something dramatic, but a little heavy handed just to remind Shelley he was privy to the real man and not merely the public persona. Cheeky urchin.

The doorman opened the club’s huge, heavy portal with a flourish, bowing low, allowing Shelley to enter the establishment with all the ceremony of a Mogul prince.

At one point he’d considered employing little girls to dress as fairies and toss blossoms in his path. Little fairy girls would be perfectly safe with this lot — but there were clients with whom they might not be. Not that Shelley would see them twice.

He squinted through his lace mask and found his way past the foyer, past the library and the card room. His little procession caused only a small flutter of excitement. He was, after all, a known quantity here and these men weren’t bumpkins, to be awed by his rich evening clothes or for that matter, his purpose. The newest members of the club might risk a curious glance, but most would studiously ignore Shelley Jefferson striding through the hallways — even masked in lace and attended by a Gypsy violinist.

Everyone knew what he was there for — the sexual gratification of one of the members — but no one would bat an eye at a tryst between men.

A graceful glide up the stairs and a discreet knock on the door of one of the private rooms would be all they’d see anyway, as Shelley’s patron was particularly private, unwilling to advertise his good fortune in having Europe’s most celebrated, most notorious courtesan in his bed for the evening.

This was an oddity considering an appointment with Shelley could be considered a tremendous coup — the ultimate sign one had achieved some pinnacle of good fortune. However, Shelley required discretion from his clients.

Occasionally that didn’t stop some brash young fool or thoughtless continental from dropping the thinly veiled hint. Since Shelley’s cachet thrived on a delicate balance of discretion and notoriety, those who were indiscreet might find themselves the recipient of a quiet word from Beare, and if that didn’t suffice, perhaps they’d receive a more strongly worded missive along with a box of poisonous spiders.

Or they’d experience a near miss with a speeding carriage and catch a glimpse of the mute Calfiglio next to the driver.

If one crossed the line with Shelley himself, if one abused the privilege, or god forbid, the person, one would find himself attended by his seconds and then his surgeons.

Or facing his Maker.

“Ah, Shel. You are a marvel of the grand entrance. Only the royals do it better.” Anthony’s voice was rich and warm, laced with familiarity and humor.

Shelley’s full lips lifted into a grin.

“And Fig.” The ninth Earl of Kenmare held out a small sack. “I’ve brought you a treat.”

Calfiglio glanced around and found a place to put his instrument. He took the proffered gift and shook the contents out into the palm of his hand. Sugared nuts and sultanas.

“Riches indeed,” Shelley remarked. “Thank Lord Kenmare.” Fig bowed, grinning madly.

“Pssst.” Anthony hissed as he produced an orange. “One more thing.”

Calfiglio’s eyes widened comically. This, Shelley knew, was entirely genuine. No one loved an orange more than Fig, especially the sweet Italian blood oranges Anthony sometimes brought for him.

“Now,” Anthony turned to Shelley and produced a velvet bag with a drawstring. “As for you…”

Fig took his customary place behind a painted silk folding screen and tuned up softly while Shelley opened his gift.

“Anthony,” he whispered, when a hoop earring with gemstones and a creamy white pearl as large as his thumbnail dropped into his hand. “It’s magnificent.”

“It will look very fetching on you.” Anthony took it from him and moved him toward the mirror above the washstand. Without removing Shelley’s lace mask, Anthony held it to his ear. “But alas, your ear isn’t pierced.”

“You may pierce it if you like.”

“May I?” Anthony’s lips curved into his most wicked grin. “What an enticing notion.”

“Of course. Shall I ring for someone to bring…?” Shelley frowned. “What should we use?”

“At least a crossbow arrow, don’t you think?” Anthony’s laughter rumbled at Shelley’s back.

“You may pierce me with anything you like,” Shelley tilted his head to bare his neck for the earl’s kisses. “And well you know it.”

“All right.”

“Beare will send up a cold supper at midnight, and we can ask for something sharp. I have every blade imaginable, but nothing resembling a pick. Now that I think of it, a tiny pick might be useful for slipping right into the base of someone’s skull while they’re sleeping.”

“My god, how bloodthirsty you are.”

“In my line it pays to be prepared for emergencies.” Shelley’s bland expression belied how serious he was.

More than once Shelley had been subject to someone’s darker, more brutal appetites and he’d vowed never again. One such man had met his end with a knife in his ribs on the Pont Neuf in Paris, but it was a messy affair that required much hand wringing and a great deal of bribery. How much easier to dispatch–

“Come back to me, Shel.” Anthony caught Shelley’s hand and pulled him from his thoughts. Fig played the first strains of a plaintive gypsy love song. “Call for one of the kitchen lads, I’d have you shave me.”

“Shave you?”

Anthony pressed Shelley’s fingers to his bristly face. “Unless you want to be rubbed raw by my thoughtlessness. At any rate, I have a problem and you might be the only one who can help me.”

“All right.” Shelley’s hand trembled when he rang for a servant, wondering what Anthony could want. He seemed somewhat out of sorts; his words fell on Shelley like a heavy cloak. Of course Shelley would do whatever he could. Whatever Anthony needed.

Shelley opened the door and told the boy who answered his summons what they needed. He sent him off for shaving supplies and an awl, much to both Anthony’s and the boy’s surprise.

“Are you really going to let me pierce your ear?” Anthony reached up and fingered the lace of Shelley’s mask, pulling the silken strip of fabric off and then unknotting it, letting it glide through his fingers and whisper against Shelley’s skin.

“Of course.” Shelley murmured, “If the act will please you.”

“It’s ingenious, making your patrons unwrap you like a gift. You keep your face a mystery to the world at large while we few who have the privilege are forbidden to discuss our arrangements.”

“It’s merely good business.” Shelley kept his arms to his sides while Anthony unbuttoned his waistcoat and slid it along with his coat, from his shoulders.

“It’s bloody brilliant.”

“I have to do something to remain desirable if I wish to be prized by the world’s most jaded men.”

A flicker of hurt crossed the earl’s face — solidifying Shelley’s fear that something about Anthony’s behavior was off. “Do you truly see me as one of the world’s most jaded men, Shel?”

“I see you as a man who enjoys pleasure.”

Anthony cocked his dark head to one side. “I shall let you in on a secret. I am far less jaded than most men believe and yet more than those close to me know.” Anthony followed his enigmatic statement with a smile of seduction that seemed too bright juxtaposed with his dark mood. “I hope you know that while I go along with these silly”  –he tossed Shelley’s scarf and coat aside — “affectations of yours, I would be just as happy to dispense with them and get right to the good bits.”

Anthony took Shelley’s mouth in a passionate kiss that stole his breath. He wrapped his arms around Anthony’s neck and held on tightly, opening like a flower under Kenmare’s tender assault.

At times like this, Shelley could think of nowhere he’d rather be. Anthony’s seductions were always thorough and skillful. He was intelligent, articulate, entertaining in the extreme and — Shelley sighed — currently completely infatuated, with the young doctor, Peregrine Spencer.

Anthony broke off the kiss and looked Shelley over, no doubt enjoying the effect he had — which was total devastation. Shelley shivered all over, weak with desire.

Shelley lowered his gaze. “What’s your pleasure, my lord?”

“On your knees,” Anthony whispered.

Shelley sank to the floor. God’s truth, that was his favorite place to be, on his knees before Anthony.

If Shelley put just a little more of his heart into the act in Kenmare’s case, what did it matter? He’d only be accused of executing his job with all the dedication to his craft for which he was famous.  But as he reached for the fastenings on Anthony’s breeches he was already drowning in anticipation. Nothing aroused Shelley like Anthony did.

Shelley leaned toward Anthony’s straining flesh and breathed in the scent of him. Anthony was made for him, for his pleasure, Shelley was prepared to swear to it. To the casual observer, Anthony smelled like his favorite things: books and leather and brandy and cigars. But when Shelley had intimate access — his nose to Anthony’s groin — the scent, the secret fragrance that was Anthony’s alone was all male, clean sweat and tangy musk, sharp and peppery with earthier undertones — rich and complex and slightly metallic.

Anthony’s scent called to Shelley like no man’s ever had. It made Shelley’s head swim and his jaw go slack. Dizzy with desire, Shelley lifted his chin and opened his mouth, allowing Anthony to press the head of his cock between his lips, allowing the earl to tangle his fingers in Shelley’s hair, to squeeze his scalp and grip the skull beneath it.

Shelley let himself be used for Kenmare’s pleasure, playing at seduction and sex, accepting anything…everything, all the while resisting the siren’s song of hope that this time Anthony would see his devotion and return it.

Shelley opened to him. Shelley worshipped him. He sucked Anthony’s cock like he’d been given a sacred trust. With every thrust and push and pull, Shelley’s resistance drained away. With every sound, he gave more of himself than he planned.

Servicing Anthony was heaven and hell — each sip of the cup between them hinted at the bliss they could find together as true lovers and each draught held the bitter aftertaste of despair because Anthony wouldn’t ask for more and Shelley could not.

Yet…at his core, Shelley was a pragmatic man; he would take what he could get and be grateful, even when Anthony left a purse on his pillow and departed to pursue his other — possibly romantic — interests with men who stood far above Shelley Jefferson in station. Men he deemed worthy of more.

It was a cruel lesson for Shelley to relearn with every parting: Be content with what life offers. What he had with Anthony was better than nothing.

Nothing was…nothing.

Shelley redoubled his efforts, pressing forward with such an advance of lips, tongue and fingers — with nips and caresses and suction — that soon Anthony’s thighs trembled under the onslaught. Shelley felt sharp quakes of passion beneath Anthony’s skin as he took Anthony’s cock to the back of his throat and caressed it there, halting his breath — suspending his very life — for his lover’s pleasure while he milked the last drop of passion from Anthony’s body. Shelley wrapped his arms around Anthony’s hips when the man’s knees threatened to buckle.

“Christ, Shel.” Shelley held him through his extremity. “Christ.”

Anthony reached between them to reposition his softening cock behind the fabric of his small clothes and fastened up his trousers. Shelley knelt there, cheek pressed against Anthony’s groin, content to be petted like a cat.

While they remained like that for a brief interlude, getting their equilibrium back, a timid knock sounded on the door.

Shelley regained his feet and went to answer it, aware that Anthony’s eyes followed his progress closely and Fig had stopped playing at some point. He opened the door for the servant, a boy of about fifteen, who placed his burden — a large tray containing a kettle of water, a bowl, shaving soap and a strop and razor — on a wooden folding table.

“Mr. Beare says to bring your supper around midnight, sir, unless you’ve changed your plans?”

“Thank you, midnight is fine,” Shelly dismissed the boy, who melted back through the door without speaking further.

Shelley splashed hot water from the kettle into the bowl and soaked a towel in it. He eschewed the razor on the tray, rummaging through his satchel to find his own.

Anthony shrugged off his coat, his tie, and his collar. He opened his shirt and rolled up his sleeves. The bed springs creaked under his august person as he sat, holding his booted foot out to Shelley, asking for assistance as only the true aristocracy could — under the assumption he’d receive it.

“Do you mind?”

Shelley stopped what he was doing to help him. “Not at all.”

After Shelley removed one boot at the cost of no small effort, Anthony immediately held up the other. “And this one.”

“Never satisfied, are we?”

Shelley tossed the boots aside and went back to stropping his blade until it gleamed wickedly, bright and sharp in the firelight. He then took up the shaving mug and brush to make a thick foam.

Before he addressed Anthony’s facial hair, he called to the boy behind the screen. “Fig, when you’ve finished your orange I’d like you to resume playing something for me. Perhaps some Mozart?”

A clatter sounded and Fig’s face poked out from behind the screen to reveal a blood orange smile. He nodded and slipped back to his place.

An odd silence continued until Anthony broke it. “I’m rarely satisfied, Shel.”

While Anthony’s mood alarmed him, Shelley chose to ignore it. Instead, he hoped to lighten it with humor. “You’ll be satisified with this. You’re lucky this is one of the services I provide, although to be honest, those who wish me to shave them get more out of having their nether regions shaved than their faces.”

“You jest.”

“I do not. For many men, having my blade at their balls is an unparalleled thrill — particularly if I follow up with my mouth.” He waved the towel about until the temperature was exactly right, and wrapped it around Anthony’s entire face, excluding his mouth and nose.

“Yo’ ver’ skilled,” Anthony said from beneath the towel.

“I’m utterly deadly with throwing knives but I’m handy with a razor too, never fear.” Shelley placed what he needed on the nightstand and climbed up behind Anthony against the headboard, cradling him between his legs and pulling Anthony’s head to rest against his chest. He pulled the towel free and lathered Anthony’s face, hesitating before he laid the blade against’ the man’s skin. “You trust me with this, my darling Lord Kenmare?”

“There is no other man I’d allow so near me with a blade.” Something indefinable passed between them. Kenmare’s eyes glittered, causing Shelley to exhale a shuddering breath. It wasn’t Shelley’s imagination — something was wrong and it had shaken Anthony badly.

Shelley’s heart quickened. “Whatever it is you need, it’s yours. You have only to ask.”

Anthony tilted his head back. “I trust you with my life.”

Shelley swallowed hard. He trusts me with his life. Ah, God. If he would only entrust me with his heart.

“You should,” was all Shelley said.

I’d sooner cut my own throat than harm you. God’s bollocks, you know that, or you wouldn’t be here like this, baring your throat to my blade.

Shelley’s stomach fluttered as he began skillfully removing the hair from Anthony’s cheeks and chin, scraping along the familiar well-loved features, going carefully around nose and lips, near delicate ears. His mouth was dry, the act a chance for him to prove his devotion. One small slip…

“I–”

Shelley froze. “Hold still, my Lord.”

I need your help.” Shelley lifted the razor half a second before Anthony’s adam’s apple bobbed. “Your brother is missing.”

What?” As quick as that, Shelley wiped the blade and closed it for safe-keeping while he listened.

“Jack has asked me to help find Nash Sutherland. He’s worried Nash has been kidnapped, or met with some sort of foul play.”

“Jack Starrington?” Shelley’s brows lifted. “The man who broke your heart? Jack Starr is worried about my brother?”

Anthony shrugged. “The games Jack plays are deep. Who knows what he’s worried about?”

I haven’t seen Nash in years.” Shelley searched his memory for the last time he’d seen his half brother. “Mind, we don’t exactly travel in the same circles. He’s a great bloody hero and I’m–”

You bear him a startling resemblance” — Anthony pointed out — “and I’ve thought of a way you could help flush out anyone who knows more than they should about where he might have gone and give Jack Starr a bit of a shock in the process.”

Shelley was silent for a minute. Of course he’d do it. It was way too late to imagine his heart would give him a choice in the matter.

“In that case, unless Nash has developed a penchant for earrings, I think you should postpone giving me this.” Shelley glanced at the pretty bauble sadly.

Anthony cupped his face and drew him in for a kiss. “Thank you, my dear. I will make this up to you, I’ll buy you a hundred pretty earrings.”

Shelley’s face remained impassive while his heart sank. A thousand pretty earrings wouldn’t make up the difference between what he had and what he really wanted.

But by all that was holy, to have Anthony say he trusted him with his life in one breath and my dear him in the next stung. Did Anthony truly believe his loyalty, his friendship could be purchased by pretty words and earrings? Surely not.

“I’m sorry.” Anthony suddenly turned his head. His gaze met Shelley’s without flinching at the pain he must have read there. “That was poorly done. I–”

“You would never speak thus to a friend.”

Anthony’s voice was barely a whisper. “I’m so sorry Shel.”

“I am your friend, Anthony. Even though I’m merely a whore.”