“Faolan! Put me down this instant!” Keeley said angrily. His face was heated with begrudging arousal and embarrassment as the other man carried him up the stairs toward his room.
“Keep your voice down. You’ll wake the whole house.”
“Please…Faolan!” Keeley protested, his voice quieter, pleading.
Reaching the top of the stairs, Faolan walked past Rian and Larkin, who had come out onto the landing to see what the commotion was all about. Faolan whisked past them without a word and Keeley looked away, mortified at what a sight they must look- him being carried along like a petulant child over Faolan’s shoulder. Rian and Larkin blinked at them in surprise and exchanged knowing, amused glances as they watched Faolan take Keeley to his room and shut the door behind them with a resounding slam.
“About time, isn’t it?” Rian said with a smile, glancing up at Larkin. The blonde cocked an eyebrow at him and the two men went off to pursue their own agenda of pleasure.
Once alone in Faolan’s room, Keeley found himself deposited none too gently on his bed.
“You can’t bully me into being with you!” Keeley shouted defiantly.
Faolan stared down at him with a look that made the young man shut his mouth. “That’s not what this is about and you know it,” Faolan said. “You’re letting fear rule your life.” As he spoke, Faolan began tugging at the cravat about his neck and unbuttoning his waistcoat.
Keeley’s eyes flashed to the door, wondering if Faolan had locked it and if he could make it to his room on the other side of the hall before the man caught him.
“Don’t even think about it,” the earl said, noticing his line of sight. “I’m faster than you are.”
Realizing there was no escape, Keeley’s heart began to pound wildly. He was certain that Faolan would take him and that it would pain him terribly. So why did his heart flutter at the sight of Faolan undressing himself at the edge of the bed? Why did he feel a yearning to touch him and yield to this man’s demands?
Faolan saw the emotions shift over Keeley’s face, from fear to anticipation and back again. Shrugging off his jacket, the earl tried to calm himself. He needed to be firm with the dark-haired boy, but he couldn’t be too forceful. Once Faolan had pulled his shirt over his head, he settled himself on the bed and slipped off Keeley’s shoes.
He allowed it, but shrank back when Faolan crawled up the bed to hover above him. Keeley felt enveloped by the other man’s presence. Faolan’s perfectly sculpted arms trapped him on either side, and Faolan’s unique scent invaded his nostrils. Staring at that firm, muscular chest, Keeley wondered what it would feel like beneath his fingers. Then he remembered he was supposed to be resisting and moved back another inch or two. It did him little good—he’d backed himself against the headboard and had no more room to move.
Faolan’s impossibly deep green eyes stared down at him before he dipped his head and nuzzled the curve of Keeley’s neck.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” Faolan whispered against his ear.
“Faolan…” Keeley said, in a voice choked with conflict.
“Hush now, love.”
He slowly worked Keeley’s clothing loose and his lips blessed every new inch of skin that revealed itself. Beneath his mouth, Keeley’s chest rose and fell rapidly, unable to catch his breath. When Faolan’s hot tongue darted across his nipple, he yelped in surprise. Keeley had been unaware that this particular part of his anatomy was so sensitive.
Pleased with his reaction, Faolan clamped his lips about the small nub and sucked, occasionally flicking him with his tongue.
Keeley shuddered and yanked at Faolan’s fiery locks. “Wait!” he gasped. With every touch, his defenses crumbled a little bit more. Faolan ran a hand up and down the length of Keeley’s, soothing him. His mouth made a wet trail back up Keeley’s chest and clamped down over his neck.
Though Faolan could feel Keeley’s body responding to him, his will was still stubbornly clinging to his restraint. Faolan noted that Keeley’s breathing remained erratic. His body shivered and his fingers clung to Faolan’s arms in desperation.
“Trust me, Keeley,” Faolan told him, touching his fingers gently to Keeley’s face. Wavering blue eyes pierced Faolan with their fear and uncertainty. A sudden, sweet ache filled Faolan’s heart and he closed his mouth over Keeley’s, searing his lips with a kiss.
Keeley whimpered and responded instinctively, opening his mouth and inviting deeper exploration. Feeling the tension slowly draining from the young man’s body, Faolan worked Keeley with his lips until his arms wrapped themselves about his neck and pulled him closer.
All at once, Keeley remembered how much he had loved being near this man. It seemed like forever since he’d been in Faolan’s arms, since he’d felt that exquisite mouth eating away at his own. A deep warmth began to spread through Keeley’s body and he sighed contentedly.
For several minutes, Faolan continued to kiss him, gently and insistently, but the walls between them had not been completely dissolved just yet.
His passions flaring, Faolan moved his hands down Keeley’s body and hooked his thumbs into the waist of Keeley’s pants, tugging gently. Immediately, Keeley stilled. Faolan tugged again and Keeley broke his mouth away.
“Wait, Faolan! I’m not ready!” Keeley said, his voice laced with panic.
“No, I will not. It’s time. I’ll take care of you, I promise.” With strong hands, Faolan stripped him bare even as Keeley squirmed and fought against him. When Faolan then divested himself of his own breeches, Keeley’s anxiety soared. He tried to scramble from the bed, but Faolan had him pinned in seconds.
Faolan held Keeley down with his body and waited for him to stop struggling.
“Why do you want to hurt me?” Keeley pleaded, breathing hard.
“I won’t hurt you, Keeley. I promise, I’ll be gentle with you,” Faolan told him, kissing along the line of his chin, “and by the end you’ll be begging me for more.”
Keeley’s arms broke free and pushed against him, but he was trembling and had no strength. “Liar,” he whispered.
Faolan realized his words were useless. If Keeley would not listen to him, he would simply have to show him the truth of his words. Slowly, Faolan slid a hand between their bodies until he reached the small patch of coarse, black hair near the apex of Keeley’s thighs. Faolan heard his breath hitch. Keeley was swollen and hard despite his protests.
Keeley’s words were cut off as Faolan closed his lips over Keeley’s mouth once more and began to stroke his stiff erection. Faolan’s skillful touch coaxed Keeley’s body into a state of anguished need. When Faolan nipped at the sensitive column of his throat, Keeley cried out in a raspy voice that betrayed his desire. He found himself unable to fight the overwhelming wave of passion that crashed about him. Keeley was just too inexperienced to process the adrenaline and euphoria that rushed through him and was forced to simply hang on and ride the tide.
Faolan pumped him to the brink of orgasm, then abruptly slowed his pace. Keeley groaned in frustration. He felt Faolan shift his weight and briefly wondered what he was reaching for under the bed. Keeley used the moment to try and regain his composure, holding a hand over his eyes and taking in a long breath. Why did this feel so different than before? Shouldn’t he be scared? But he wasn’t. When Faolan settled over him once more, he felt a warm, firm pressure pushed up against his portal.
The sensation flooded Keeley’s mind with images of the Bishop and the memory of the tearing, ripping pain that had invaded him when the horrible man had impaled him. “Ahh! Stop!” Keeley cried. He shoved and pushed with all his strength. Faolan wound his fingers about Keeley’s wrists, trying to sooth and still him.
“Hush, Keeley. I’ve got you,” Faolan urged. His patience was strained by Keeley’s wildly fluctuating emotions, not that he could blame him. Faolan managed to keep his voice smooth and calming, but Keeley still could not erase the feelings of helplessness and humiliation that welled inside him. He continued to squirm even though it was quite apparent that his efforts were useless. Faolan held him fast, though he advanced no further.
As the two men remained poised for coitus, yet incomplete, Keeley calmed enough to sense another part of himself that was struggling to be heard. Deep within him, past his fear and doubt, there was a subtle thrill building in his bones as he felt the figure above him press between his thighs. Part of him secretly yearned to discover what lay in store for him if he gave into Faolan’s demanding persuasions.
Slowly, Keeley opened his eyes and dared a glance at Faolan above him. His breath caught in his throat. Faolan’s forehead was beaded with sweat and his face was strained with the effort of holding back when his whole body screamed for him to plunge inside Keeley’s tight channel.
In that moment, he realized he was the one with the power. Faolan could be pushy as hell, but he was no tyrant; he would not take Keeley’s choice from him. The last of Keeley’s resistance melted. Faolan wanted him and, if Keeley was honest with himself, he knew he wanted Faolan, too. Yet he had let his fear control him. He’d allowed Rudwig’s cruelty to scar not only his body, but his emotions- his heart. Faolan had been good to him, but Keeley had punished him for the Bishop’s sins. Tears pricked the corners of Keeley’s eyes. He slipped a hand from Faolan’s grasp and reached up to touch his face.
Faolan felt the touch of Keeley’s fingers on his cheek with surprise. His emerald depths locked with Keeley’s crystal blue eyes, and he saw that Keeley’s face was no longer clouded with apprehension and anxiety. He felt Keeley’s thighs open and his body yield to him as Keeley whispered, “I trust you.”
A smile slipped over Faolan’s lips and he licked at Keeley’s tears. It gave him untold pleasure to hear those few words. Then, with all the patience Faolan could muster, he slowly inched into Keeley’s body. Keeley noticed a slick sensation that eased the man’s passage and realized Faolan had been oiling himself when he had pulled away from him earlier.
Faolan gritted his teeth and somehow managed not to rush his progress, letting Keeley’s body gradually adjust to his considerable girth. He let out a sigh of relief when he was finally, blissfully buried to the hilt.
Beneath him, Keeley did his best to remain relaxed and was amazed when the pain he feared did not come. Although Faolan’s arousal felt odd inside him and stretched him uncomfortably, it was nothing at all like what he had experienced before. Though he couldn’t go so far as to say he enjoyed it, the invasion didn’t hurt him.
“Hold on tight,” Faolan whispered.
Faolan had begun to move and, in that instant, everything changed. Keeley’s eyes went wide as a new, unbelievable ecstasy suddenly burst inside him. Faolan’s cock brushed something deep within his body that sent a spark of electric pleasure running up his spine. He’d never felt anything like it.
“Oh, God,” Keeley moaned. What was that?
Withdrawing slightly, Faolan then plunged into him again- and again Keeley found himself awash in a delirium of pleasure. He never would have imagined the same act that had hurt him so terribly could elicit such brilliant ecstasy.
Faolan drank in each sigh from Keeley’s sweet, panting lips, peppering his face with kisses. His arms moved down to hold him tightly as he slipped in and out of Keeley’s body. Faolan moved with slow, powerful thrusts and wondered at how perfect Keeley felt beneath him. All of his previous conquests seemed shallow and incomplete compared to the feeling of joining his body with Keeley’s own. His composure started to slip as he lost himself in the feeling of making love to the young man clinging to him so urgently.
Thrusting now with more force, Faolan was rewarded with a series of ever-increasing moans from his new lover. When Keeley willingly wrapped his legs about his waist and started to sway to his rhythm, the last shreds of Faolan’s self-control fell away. Faolan gave himself over completely to the desire that had been straining to break free since the moment he’d seen the young man walk into his ballroom on All Hallow’s Eve.
With a groan, Faolan proceeded to take Keeley with a furious, unrelenting passion. Both men were overcome by the intensity of their coupling, realizing only then the extent to which they both had been holding back their feelings. Faolan had never been so consumed by his desire. He wanted to slow down and take his time loving the young man in his arms, but his need was too raw and too strong now that it had been unleashed- and Keeley seemed equally enthralled.
As Faolan’s climax stole over him, he felt as if it had come too quickly and at the same time, as if he had been waiting breathlessly his entire life for this release. He crushed Keeley to him and poured forth into his hot channel, calling Keeley’s name as he came. The sensation of filling Keeley with the essence of his lust somehow made Faolan feel that he had marked him as his own and he enjoyed the feeling of possession.
When Faolan’s mind cleared from the haze of passion that had surrounded him, he realized to his regret that he had come before bringing his partner to release. He shifted and, to his surprise, felt a warm stickiness over his belly. Glancing down, Faolan saw that Keeley had managed to come without his assistance. The friction of their bodies and Keeley’s overwhelming rapture had been enough to send him over the edge.
Looking into Keeley’s face, Faolan saw that he had shut his eyes. His lips were parted and he was breathing hard. Faolan felt his chest swell with warmth and worry as he gazed into Keeley’s face. He brushed aside sweaty tendrils of raven-black hair that stuck stubbornly to Keeley’s pale cheeks.
“Keeley,” Faolan said softly, placing a light kiss over his lips, “are you all right?”
“Mmm…” he murmured. “Can we do it again?”
After their intimate encounter, Keeley and Faolan came to an understanding. Despite the disquieting feeling of watchfulness that continued around the estate, the days of winter were spent in relative peace. Faolan and Keeley’s relationship bloomed in the frigid world, even as everything over the land withered and slept until spring. Later, both men would look back on those days as being some of the most peaceful they had ever spent together and would long for the simplicity of those times. For now, they were still ignorant about the true nature of the presence that watched them.
During those winter months, Keeley explored the pleasures of sex and willingly encouraged the earl’s advances. Faolan was thrilled that the young man was relaxing into their relationship and enjoyed exploiting his openness. Keeley was so wonderfully responsive. Every touch and caress opened a new realm of previously unknown ecstasy.
Keeley never knew he could feel this way—had never even imagined that such rapture could be elicited from within his body. Moreover, he thrilled at feeling Faolan’s masterful, reassuring hands caressing him and the man’s solid body pressing him down into the mattress. Months ago he would have thought he’d feel terrified, but Keeley’s trust in Faolan had grown deep. His helplessness simply pushed his ecstasy higher. He knew Faolan would see to his pleasure, and that he could abandon his body to him completely. He even enjoyed when the man was slightly rough with him, and finally began to understand the relationship between Rian and Larkin.
As they lounged in bed together, Keeley kissed Faolan, the man’s lips tasting sweet against his own. Keeley remembered what it had been like when he first came to live with the other man, when he had been so lost and Faolan’s kisses so soothing and intoxicating. Things had gotten so complicated after that, and so many things had happened. Keeley was grateful that he’d been able to come out of his struggles whole and he owed most of his well-being to Faolan.
His lust ignited by Keeley’s kiss, Faolan tumbled the boy down into the sheets. What little clothing they had worn to bed, Faolan quickly disposed of. His hands swept over Keeley’s naked body, and the young man moaned. Knowing that Keeley had already been warmed up by their earlier session of lovemaking, Faolan felt no need to hold back.
Impatient for his conquest, the earl flipped Keeley onto his stomach and held him down with strong hands. Keeley was utterly incapacitated. He lay flat on the mattress as Faolan straddled his body, the man’s knees pushing Keeley’s thighs together. Faolan pressed his hard cock between the inviting cheeks of his lover’s ass. His shaft was already slick from oil and he slipped against the tight bud of Keeley’s entrance teasingly. Keeley gasped, trembling with need.
“Please, Faolan!” he begged.
“Please, what, love?”
Keeley whimpered, but Faolan held back, wanting to hear the words.
“Please …” Keeley groaned softly, face flushing, “I want you inside me!”
Finally giving in, Faolan pushed forward, burying himself inside the young man’s tight body. When he started to move, Keeley tore at the sheets with desperate hands. It was the only movement his body was allowed as Faolan trapped his legs and began to slip in and out of his body.
A lightening-hot, searing pleasure crashed over Keeley every time Faolan plunged inside him, but it was not enough. The position didn’t allow deep enough penetration to satisfy him, and he reached back to push against the man until Faolan leaned back and gave him room to adjust himself. Faolan felt the breath catch in his throat as Keeley lifted himself to his knees, presenting his ass high in the air and arching his back invitingly. Within seconds Faolan had his hands in a vise-like grip around his hips and was ramming into him with all his strength, causing Keeley to nearly scream in pleasure. Even then, Keeley was rocking his pelvis and slamming back to meet the Faolan’s thrusts, unable to ever feel him deep enough.
When Faolan reached around to grip Keeley’s rigid erection, it took only a few pumps before Keeley’s orgasm hit him—hard and violently.
Faolan allowed himself release then, thrusting into Keeley’s body until his own exquisite climax enveloped him. Once he had pulled out of the young man’s body, Faolan collapsed onto the bed in a heap of glowing, sleepy satisfaction. Faolan looked down at him with a smile. Keeley’s tousled raven locks had fallen across his face, as they so often seemed to do, and he reached out to gently brush them aside. Keeley’s sleeping face was a study in peace and contentment. Curling up around the warm, lithe body, Faolan knew he’d fallen hopelessly for the young man. Absentmindedly, he grazed his fingertips over Keeley’s milky-pale skin until eventually, Faolan fell asleep at his side.
Keeley woke in the early hours of the morning. He pulled the sheets about his body as he sat up, looking out the window at the newly risen sun. The sight was lovely, but his mind was restless.
Winter’s hold on the land melted away, bringing the promise of spring, but Keeley had begun to feel a slight nagging in the back of his mind. He wanted the carefree days he was spending with Faolan to last forever, but he could feel a shift in the air with the coming of spring. The world seemed to be moving again, as if everything had been held still in the cold of winter—except for him and Faolan.
Now the world was waking again and with it, some of Keeley’s worries came back to him. He wondered when the Society would receive its next assignment. He wondered why he was still uneasy about the broken locket tucked away in his desk, but more than anything, he wondered about Faolan’s secrets. In the bliss of discovering the joys of intimacy and sex, he’d forgotten how little the earl spoke about himself, and now unanswered questions surrounding the handsome man resurfaced.
A knock suddenly sounded at the door. Keeley wondered if Rian had heard them and anticipated an early breakfast, as he had done occasionally before.
“Faolan, are you awake?” a voice asked through the door.
It was Larkin, which could only mean that it was a pressing matter. He disliked rising early.
“Let him in, Keeley,” Faolan replied, suddenly wide awake.
Keeley nodded and, wrapping a sheet tighter about his naked body, stepped across the room to open the door.
“A letter came this morning,” Larkin said, stepping into the room without preliminaries. “I think you’d better take a look. I sent Rian off to start preparations for breakfast. It will be ready soon. Will you come down?”
“Of course,” Faolan said. “We’ll be down in a few moments.”
Larkin nodded and turned to leave, almost bumping into Keeley, who he hadn’t noticed in his rush. Keeley nearly lost his hold on the sheet and blushed furiously as the other man looked him over and gave him a wink before slipping out the door.
Faolan watched the exchange and chuckled, but his humor was short-lived. His dreams had been confusing, and Larkin’s unusual anxiousness did not bode well.
Breakfast was strained. Faolan would not turn to the letter until they had all had a proper meal and were fully awake and aware. Larkin sat impatiently until—finally—the plates had been cleared away and Faolan said, “Hand me the letter.”
Larkin did so, then sat back and waited for his friend’s reaction. Faolan’s eyes read the envelope and narrowed.
Rian, who had been asked to join them at the table, noted the subtle signs of unease in his master’s eyes.
“What does it say?” Keeley asked, unable to restrain himself in the heavy silence.
“It is addressed to ‘The Society of the Scarlet Butterfly.’”
Keeley noted Rian’s surprise at the pronouncement and saw the grave look in the other men’s eyes. “Is that bad?” he asked, perplexed by their solemn attitudes.
Faolan did not reply, but slowly, and with great care, broke the seal on the envelope and drew out the letter within. His eyes scanned it quickly, before he read aloud. “To all members of The Society, His Lordship, Sir McKenna requests your presence this evening at Donegal Manor, on an important matter requiring your assistance. Sincerely, your humble servant, Kane McKenna.”
Faolan stopped. “That’s all.”
“Well, that’s rather vague, isn’t it?” Larkin said, sounding irritated.
“Yes,” Faolan replied thoughtfully. “It is.”
“May I see the letter?” Larkin asked. Faolan passed it to him across the table, and when the paper touched the blond’s hand, he shivered.
The writing was strange and the paper had an odd luminescence, but that was not what disturbed him. The letter itself had an evil aura about it and it reminded Larkin of something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“Can I see it too?” Keeley asked, curious as to the other men’s reaction to what seemed to be a simple, innocuous piece of paper.
Larkin quickly glanced at Faolan, who nodded, before handing the invitation to him.
Rian took everything in, but said nothing. He might not have had the extrasensory skills of Larkin and his master, but he knew them well enough to know they were unsettled.
Glancing over the words and finding nothing unusual, Keeley shrugged. “So we have a new mission, I suppose?”
“Possibly,” Faolan replied, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands before him.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s more in the letter than is being said.”
“Isn’t it just someone seeking the Society’s help?” Keeley asked, wondering at the solemn faces around him.
“That is doubtful.”
“I don’t understand. Why?”
Faolan explained, “For a start, no one outside the circle knows our name. We choose our cases. They do not choose us.”
“But what if someone did find out, and they do need help?” Keeley persisted.
Faolan suppressed a smile. Despite his misgivings about the invitation, he was happy to see that Keeley’s (albeit naïve) trust in people had been restored. The boy had been so cynical after the incident with Rudwig.
“I wish it were so simple, Keeley,” Faolan told his young lover. “However, to openly address the letter to our Society sends us a specific message: I know who you are. I know your secrets. Which means this man can share those secrets with whomever he pleases, if we decide not to comply with his ‘request.’”
Keeley frowned. He felt the earl was being too suspicious.
“Also,” Larkin interjected, “it’s addressed to ‘all members of the Society.’ A curious way to phrase it, wouldn’t you say?”
“That sounds a little paranoid to me,” Keeley said.
“One can never be too careful in this business,” Faolan told him.
With a sigh of frustration, Keeley sat back and made no other reply.
“Donegal Manor,” Larkin said after a moment. “Didn’t it burn down several years ago? I hadn’t heard that anyone had purchased the property.”
“Nor I,” Faolan replied.
“This doesn’t bode well.”
“What will you do, master?” Rian asked, speaking for the first time.
Faolan seemed to consider this and sat silent for several moments. “Larkin, you will stay here with Keeley. Rian, you and I will visit this Sir McKenna.”
“Very well,” Larkin replied. However, as Faolan and Rian prepared to depart later that day, the blond came to his friend and spoke with him alone.
“There is something wrong with this whole situation,” he said. “You can feel it too, can’t you?”
“Yes,” Faolan said simply.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
Faolan shook his head. “No. It’s better not to have us all gathered in one place, and someone needs to stay and protect Keeley, should anything happen while we’re away.”
Immediately, Larkin thought of the awful day of the young man’s abduction. “Yes, of course.”
“Good, I’m counting on you.”
“There was something in particular about the invitation that disturbed me, though,” Larkin said after a moment, “and I have finally realized what it was. Faolan, the letter—its aura reeks of the presence that’s been hovering over us for so long.”
“Does it?” Faolan asked, looking concerned.
“Surely you sense it?”
“The closer we get to that power, my friend, the more my foresight fails me. I suspect that this Sir McKenna may be the one who is hindering me. If he is, he may know something about my … arrangement with Her Majesty.”
“Why do you say that?” Larkin asked.
“Because the only way for someone to be capable of blocking my intuition is if they somehow knew the source of my power.”
“That would mean a link with the Faerie realm,” Larkin deduced. “Then, you guess this person may not be human?”
Larkin paused, then shook his head. “I don’t like this, Faolan. The more you tell me, the more my instincts warn me that things are slowly raveling out of our control.”
“We’ve known that for quite some time, haven’t we?”
The earl gave his friend a bitter smile and squeezed his shoulder before exiting the room. Larkin watched him go, his mind in turmoil.
* * *
Reining in his horse, Faolan pointed to the stone, castle-like structure sitting high on the moor ahead and turned to Rian. “There it is. Not very inviting, wouldn’t you say?”
Rian chuckled, “No, Sir.”
To call the view uninviting was an understatement. The land surrounding the manor had grown wild and untamed during the years it lay abandoned, and the current resident seemed little concerned about clearing the overgrowth. The manor itself showed no more promise. As the two men drew closer, Rian could see where the stone on the upper stories had worn and cracked. The building still looked scorched and black from the fire that had swept through years before, and only a faint, eerie glow emanated from the ground floor windows.
A valet greeted them as they pulled their horses up to the front gates. The man looked as worn as the castle behind him.
“My master is expecting you,” the wizened figure told them. “You may see yourself to the door.” The man turned his back and led the horses away. His manner was abrupt and both men found it strange that there seemed to be no sign of other servants to greet them.
As they made their way up the broad stone steps to the tall front door, the men exchanged looks. The expression in Faolan’s eyes warned his young valet to be on alert.
Seeing no bell, Faolan rapped the wooden door with his knuckles and heard the sound echo on the other side.
After a long moment, the huge door opened, grinding on its hinges with an unpleasant squeal of protest.
“Welcome, gentlemen,” said a voice within, though the light inside was so dim they could not discern the face of the man greeting them. “Do come in.”
Though Rian felt uneasy, his master stepped inside with such surety and confidence that it bolstered his own courage. He followed.
Rian was rarely rattled. He’d seen many strange things in his time with the earl, but when he stepped inside the stone building, he had the unsettling sensation that he was walking into a tomb.
The door shut behind him with a loud clang and they were left in darkness, despite the daylight outside. A candelabra suddenly flared to life and a man appeared before them. His handsome face grinned at them and, through some trick of the light, the man’s keen eyes seemed to flicker with an inner glow that rivaled the candle’s flames.
“I am the man who summoned you, Kane McKenna,” the man said, bowing gracefully. The candelabra remained completely still in his hand as he did so. “I’m very pleased to see you have accepted my invitation, Earl O’Callaghan.”
“I am honored,” Faolan replied, bowing in turn.
“Please forgive the inhospitable atmosphere of my home. I’ve only recently acquired the manor and haven’t enough help. It will take some time to restore it to its former glory.” Glancing behind the earl, Kane caught Rian’s eye. “I was expecting four of you.”
So he even knows our number, Faolan thought with some unease.
“No matter. Let us retire to the main hall. I have a fire started there. It may be spring, but the air is still chilly.”
Indeed, the air within the stone building seemed uncommonly cold. Rian shivered.
As they were led down a short passageway, Faolan studied the man from behind. He had a slender, willowy frame that belied the power Faolan could feel emanating from him.
The hallway ended and they entered a large hall with a high, arched ceiling. A fire burned brightly on the wide hearth. Several high-backed velvet chairs were set close to the fire, and the floor was covered in ornate rugs.
Setting the candelabra on the low table in the middle of the room, Kane motioned the other men to sit. Faolan watched the man as he situated himself in one of the chairs, the firelight framing him from behind.
Light came in from the high windows that lined the room on either side, but the glass was murky, and the sun filtering through them was weak. Still, it offered better lighting than the entranceway, and Faolan took the opportunity to study the man before him.
Though Kane also had red hair, it was a different shade than Faolan’s. The other man’s locks shone with a golden-red glimmer that almost seemed alive with its brilliance. As the earl examined him, he realized the shade was somehow familiar.
Suddenly, he recalled the fiery lock of hair that had been enclosed within Keeley’s locket. There was no doubt. It was exactly the same. Faolan calmed the rush of questions that abruptly flooded his mind, and focused on the present.
“Would you care for some wine?” Kane asked, his voice sugar-coated in civility, but Faolan could hear the arrogance beneath it.
Rian shook his head and Faolan similarly refused. With a shrug, Kane helped himself to a glass and sipped at it leisurely, deliberately making his guests wait.
“Did you have a good journey?” he asked.
“Why don’t we dispense with the pleasantries and get to the real reason you asked us here?”
Kane chuckled. “No polite pretenses, then. I like that. I prefer a direct approach, myself.
“I brought you here only to give you a choice. You see, I have been searching for someone for quite some time, and I believe him to now be in your keeping.”
“Is that so?” Faolan asked casually, though he was feeling far from calm.
“Yes. Now,” the man said, setting down his wine and leaning his chin on his neatly folded hands, “the choice before you is this: you can hand Keeley over to me willingly, or, you can make things rather difficult for yourself—and I will take him anyway.”
“Why even offer the choice then?” Faolan retorted. “Why not just try to take the boy by force in the first place?”
Kane appeared amused by these questions. He grinned at Faolan like a man humoring a child.
“I’m a patient man, Faolan,” Kane replied, picking up his wineglass again and holding it up. The liquid blazed a deep blood red in the firelight. “Everything has its time. Wine, for instance, requires the right set of circumstances and the right amount of time for it to ripen into a truly great vintage. I too have bided my time, until the right conditions presented themselves.”
Faolan disliked this inscrutable answer, and it disturbed him.
“I’d consider your decision very carefully, if I were you,” said Kane. The man leveled his dark eyes at Faolan challengingly and the earl saw an uncanny golden glow flicker in the cold depths. “If you cross me, I can’t be held accountable for what may happen to you.” With a flick of his wrist, Kane summoned a flame from the fire, and it curled obediently into his hand.
Faolan sucked in his breath, nearly inaudibly, but he knew the other man had caught his reaction, for he smiled.
So that was the answer to this man’s mystery, Faolan thought. He was an elemental, and a fire elemental at that. No wonder power seemed to radiate from him. But why would this man want to show me what he was? The earl wondered silently.
“I’m not asking you to make your choice now,” Kane said, his onyx eyes still fixed on Faolan as he smothered the flame in his palm. “You can give me your answer when I arrive at your estate. I will come for him…on the eve of Beltane.”
There was a lengthy pause, the silence stretching into the room. Although Kane’s command of fire was startling, Rian was more surprised by the alarm he had seen in the earl’s eyes at this last pronouncement.
“Come, Rian. We’re leaving,” Faolan said, standing abruptly. The young man stood quickly, then waited as his master paused.
“One question,” Faolan said, looking down on the fiery-haired man sitting so at ease before him. “Why do you want Keeley? What claim do you have on the boy?”
Rian had been sure Faolan would ask who (or what) the man really was, but the answer was the same, in any case.
Framed in the firelight, his golden-red hair shining, Kane McKenna grinned. The flames dancing about the man gave him a decidedly sinister glow.
“It’s simple,” he replied. “I’m his father.”
The quiet shades of night had fallen over the land by the time Faolan and Rian returned. The earl hadn’t spoken since they had left Kane, and Rian knew his master’s silence was a sign that he was troubled. They entered the estate quietly. Larkin made his way down the hall to meet them, immediately sensing the tension surrounding the two men.
As Faolan handed Rian his coat, he told him, “Check on Keeley and try to keep him occupied while I discuss matters with Larkin.”
Rian nodded and turned to leave, but Faolan called to him again. “Rian,” he said, lowering his voice, “not a word to Keeley.”
“Yes, Master. Of course,” Rian answered before leaving him.
Larkin wondered at the exchange. “What happened?” he asked as they walked together to Faolan’s private study.
Once the door had shut behind them, Larkin looked his friend in the eye. “Now give me a real answer.” He watched Faolan head for the decanter and knew something was wrong. The man rarely drank to soothe his nerves.
“I hardly know where to begin,” Faolan said. Larkin tried to be patient as Faolan shot back the whiskey before sitting down across from him.
“McKenna is after Keeley,” Faolan announced.
Faolan’s deep green eyes were grave as he spoke. “Apparently, the man is Keeley’s real father and, what’s more, he’s an elemental—a fire elemental.”
For a moment, Larkin merely stared at his friend in silent surprise. “Are you certain?” he finally asked.
“Unfortunately, yes. It was clearly his hair that was hidden in the locket Keeley’s mother gave to him and once you consider the possibility, everything else falls into place. As for the man’s abilities, there can be little doubt.”
Larkin looked troubled and unhappy. “This does not bode well for us. It’s no wonder our fortunes have been so ill lately, if he has been watching us and dogging our steps.”
“Indeed,” Faolan replied grimly. “It also explains Keeley’s ability to see soul-spirits.”
“It explains much more than that,” Larkin replied. “Kane probably set the fire at Donegal himself, just so he could set himself up at a location near to us.”
“Yes, but more importantly…” Faolan paused. When he spoke again, his voice was low and uneasy. “Do you recall how Keeley’s family was killed?”
Larkin thought for a moment, then his eyes widened. “Dear Lord…by fire!”
Faolan nodded. “My guess is that Keeley’s mother had an ill-fated affair with Kane and hid her pregnancy from him. The locket would have bound his powers and blinded him to the boy’s existence. Somehow, though, Kane must have regained his magics and learned the truth. When he did, he took revenge on the mortal woman who wronged him and her family, but somehow he failed to find Keeley—until now.”
“But what will he do with Keeley? What use could a mortal boy be to him, even if Keeley had a certain amount of power?”
“Most likely Keeley has more power than he realizes. Kane may be hoping to exploit it. With his strength, he could manipulate the boy easily enough. It would be a fun toy to have I suppose. But more than that, I think Kane simply feels that it is his right to have him and whatever he does with Keeley is his own business.”
“If Keeley does have latent powers, we could train him. He might be able to defend himself against this man.”
Faolan shook his head. “For Keeley to truly realize his power and cultivate it, he would need to be told everything, Larkin: everything. Do you really want to tell the boy that his mother betrayed his father with another, and that the same man murdered the rest of his beloved family?” Faolan sighed heavily. “I won’t hurt him with that information.”
“He’ll find out, Faolan. It would be better if he heard it from you.”
Shifting uncomfortably, Faolan replied, “Perhaps when this is all over. Right now, it would take Keeley too much time to process such information—and we don’t have that time.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kane is determined to have Keeley, by force if necessary, and he’s coming for him…on the eve of Beltane.”
Larkin’s eyes went wide. The man was aware that this evening held special significance for the earl and that Faolan had never, never missed his appointment with the Queen on this night.
“So, he’s hoping to just take him when he knows you won’t be around?”
“Or…well, you know I can’t explain my situation with Her Majesty, but, let me just say that, whether I stay or leave, Kane will win in one respect or another. But one thing is certain: if I leave Keeley alone on that night, Kane will have him. And once he does, he could easily take him into a realm where we won’t be able to enter.”
“He won’t exactly be alone, Faolan. He’ll have Rian and I—and we still have time to secure the estate with any number of wards and protective spells. I’m sure—”
Faolan was shaking his head. “You’ve never fought an elemental, Lark. They are…different. Their power lives in the very foundations of the earth.”
“Then take Keeley with you.”
“It’s forbidden,” Faolan said sharply. The man steadied himself with a deep breath and softened his voice as he continued. “I can’t bring ‘guests’ with me when I visit her Highness.”
Larkin saw his friend’s distress and wished there was more he could do. “Could you not at least go to her before Beltane and plead for her to intercede? You are in her favor. She helped you with Far Dorocha after all.”
His expression sad, Faolan once again shook his head. “That was different,” he explained. “Far Dorocha is the Queen’s servant. When he attacked Keeley, he did so without her consent. Kane, however, is his own entity. Moreover, he has blood ties to Keeley. The Queen might even side with him.”
“I find that unlikely, but I will trust your judgment.”
The two friends sat in silence, gazing at the fire until Larkin broke the stillness. “I hate the feeling that our hands are tied.”
Sipping his drink, Faolan nodded in agreement. “Somehow, though, we will have to make the best of it. Whatever we face, I will never hand Keeley over to anyone.”
Larkin watched the firelight reflected in his friend’s brilliant green eyes and was surprised by the conviction in the man’s voice. He knew Faolan cared for Keeley, but he was beginning to see just how deep Faolan’s feelings for the boy truly were. It was clear to him that Faolan had made his decision to forgo his meeting with the Queen, and that there was nothing he could say to dissuade him. Still, a feeling of foreboding crept over him and Larkin could not shake it.
* * *
Keeley waited restlessly in his room. Rian had brought him tea after arriving back at the estate, but Keeley could get no information from him about the meeting with McKenna, and the servant wouldn’t let him leave to ask Faolan himself.
“He’s discussing matters with Larkin right now,” Rian had told him.
“Aren’t we all in the Society? Why is Faolan being so secretive?”
“I’m sure the earl has his reasons,” Rian replied, pouring the other boy a cup of tea. “Here, drink this. It will calm your nerves.”
“No, thank you,” Keeley said in a sharp voice, his temper growing. It frustrated him to no end that Rian appeared to be so content with being left out of the discussion taking place in Faolan’s study. But then again, Rian had been with the earl at Donegal Manor. He probably already knew all there was to know about the situation with McKenna. It was only Keeley it seemed, who was being purposefully excluded. Though his anger cloaked it, Keeley was actually worried. The sudden secretiveness gave him the feeling that something was most definitely wrong.
Rian stayed with him for a while, but when it was clear that Keeley would not talk with him unless the young man gave him information about the visit to McKenna’s, Rian removed himself and finally left Keeley alone.
Not long after, Faolan finally appeared at his door. Though the man tried to look unconcerned, Keeley could see the lines of worry along his brow.
“Tell me what happened,” Keeley said the moment Faolan stepped inside.
“Don’t I even get a kiss before my interrogation?” Faolan asked with a laugh.
Crossing his arms, Keeley stared at him defiantly. “I want to know what’s going on. If you had to speak with Larkin alone, then it means there’s something you want to hide from me.”
Faolan sighed inwardly. He did not want to have to deal with Keeley’s temper tonight; there were too many things on his mind. It didn’t help matters that what the boy said was true.
His teasing smiling fading, the earl stepped close to Keeley and cupped his pale cheek with one hand. “There are certain things I can’t tell to anyone, Keeley.”
“Not even to me? Not even when…” Keeley’s face went an adorable shade of pink. “When we share so many other things?”
“Even lovers keep certain secrets,” Faolan replied, much to Keeley’s displeasure.
“But you can talk with Larkin, isn’t that right?” the young man retorted hotly, pushing away Faolan’s hand.
“Larkin is an aura-reader. He has unique abilities and I needed his opinion.” It was close to the truth.
Keeley looked skeptical.
“The situation with Kane is complicated,” Faolan continued. “He’s extremely powerful. We have to be very careful how we proceed,” he explained cautiously.
Faolan put a finger to Keeley’s lips. “Hush,” he said in a sultry voice that made Keeley’s bones quiver. “We can talk more in the morning. Right now there are other, more pressing matters to attend to.” He illustrated his point by pulling Keeley against him so he could feel the evidence of his need.
“But…nnuhh!” Keeley whimpered, his resolve and anger crumpling as the other man rubbed his hips against his groin. Keeley clung to him, his body crying out for more even as his brain protested that Faolan was merely trying to distract him—and it was working.
Tilting Keeley’s chin, Faolan lowered his mouth to claim his soft, rosy lips. Keeley moaned. No matter how many times he kissed Faolan, he was always amazed at the ripple of excitement that rushed down his spine. With Faolan’s tongue exploring him, Keeley gave up all attempt at protest and simply gave into what his body burned for. Slipping his arms around Faolan’s neck, he pulled the man closer, encouraging the movement of his hips.
Soon, Faolan was sliding his tongue down Keeley’s throat and nipping at the racing pulse beneath his skin. Keeley felt a fire consuming him and he longed to be out of his clothes so Faolan could touch his naked skin. Pulling back, he began tugging at the buttons on his shirt, but Faolan stayed his hand.
“Not so hasty,” Faolan said with a grin. He sat down on the edge of the bed and positioned Keeley between his legs before him. Keeley gazed into his eyes with a hungry, glassy look full of wanting. “Let me undress you, slowly,” Faolan said softly.
Keeley watched as his lover peeled off each layer of clothing with deft hands and excruciatingly slow movements. Faolan let his fingertips drag across Keeley’s skin, teasing his nerves until Keeley was painfully aroused by even the slightest touch. There was something different in Faolan’s manners that night: a new, tender passion that made Keeley light-headed with desire.
“I want you,” Keeley said plaintively. Faolan had stripped him completely bare but simply sat gazing at him, making no move. His plea was sweet and completely without design or pretense, and it drove right through to Faolan’s heart and pierced it. Suddenly, Keeley was being pulled into Faolan’s lap, Faolan’s hands caressing him everywhere at once, then the touchof a hot, pulsing erection beneath him as Faolan freed himself. A heady moan escaped Keeley at the thought that he had the power to arouse his lover to such a degree. Wriggling against Faolan’s cock, Keeley whimpered with need.
“You’re intoxicating, my love,” Faolan said in a voice as secret and sensuous as the midnight black outside. He nuzzled Keeley’s neck as he spoke and the young man shivered, clinging to Faolan desperately.
“Take me,” Keeley whispered, flushing red at his own boldness. Though he was no longer an innocent in the matters of sex, Keeley was still frequently torn between the brazen lover he wanted to be and the shy, newly deflowered virgin he still was.
“Indeed, I will,” Faolan replied, oiling his shaft and positioning himself for penetration. Then, with one thrust, he drove deep within Keeley body, causing the boy to cry out in the sweet pleasure and pain of being so swiftly violated.
“Relax, love,” Faolan instructed brushing his fingers through Keeley’s hair and holding him against his chest. Though Keeley was often eager for Faolan to impale him, he was frequently overwhelmed by the experience and unknowingly tensed his muscles. Faolan found Keeley’s excitable nature endearing, but it was difficult to hold himself back once the young man’s tight passage was clamped around him so exquisitely.
Keeley took a deep, shuddering breath and his body relented. With a groan of satisfaction, Faolan began his conquest, thrusting his hips upward even as Keeley rocked his hips to meet him.
“Lord, yess!” Faolan hissed, his head falling back as he held Keeley’s slim waist captive. When he looked back at him, he saw Keeley watching him intently, a mixture of awe and heated desire in his sky blue eyes. Faolan impaled him again and Keeley’s eyes shut, his face contorted in consuming rapture.
“Look at me,” Faolan commanded as he took hold of Keeley’s erection and began to stroke him.
His face flushed, Keeley obeyed, but he could not hold his gaze for long, for each time Faolan rammed into his body, he was overcome with pleasure. Faolan’s lips closed over his own and he moaned into the man’s mouth as their tongues danced together.
“Now look at me,” Faolan said again, “and this time, don’t turn away. I want to see every wave of pleasure reflected in your eyes.”
Keeley mewled his passion and embarrassment as Faolan’s intense green eyes held him. He felt completely lost, suspended in a delirious world of ecstasy that held him captive until he was pushed beyond the boundaries and came in a shattering, blissful climax. His pearly-white essence spilled over Faolan’s hand and dripped down his belly.
As his orgasm flooded him, Keeley’s expression was so gorgeous and so filled with unbridled passion that Faolan found himself tumbling over the edge before he meant to—his ascent catching him off guard with its sudden, irresistible intensity.
When Keeley had collected himself, he was surprised to realize that Faolan had already spent himself inside him. The man’s sticky fluid slipped down Keeley’s thighs as he withdrew. Keeley looked at Faolan with a shy, knowing smile. “You’re finished already?” he teased.
A wicked, playful grin spread across Faolan’s lips. “Don’t worry,” he said, placing a heated kiss over Keeley’s lips, “I’m resilient.”
They commenced another round of lovemaking until they both were spent and content. Keeley fell asleep soon after, but Faolan found it difficult to rest. He cleaned his young lover’s body with a warm cloth and settled in next to him. Questions and uncertainties plagued him with unusual intensity, but his will remained resolute. Keeley was his—would always be his—but come Beltane’s Eve things were about to change…one way or another.
“Has he come out yet?” Larkin asked, as Rian walked up to him in the hallway. Rian shook his head.
“Not since Faolan spoke with him this morning.” Rian paused and looked back down the hall in the direction of Keeley’s room. “It must be hard for him to deal with—finding out about Kane.”
“Yes,” Larkin agreed, “But I’m glad Faolan told him, just the same.”
After the loving intimacy that Faolan had shared with Keeley the evening before, he felt he could no longer keep the truth from the young man. As he lay with Keeley in his arms, Faolan decided he would let him know the truth—or at least as much of it as he could safely reveal—once morning came. Once his choice was made, Faolan was finally able to drift off into a peaceful sleep.
After the two men had eaten breakfast in the morning, Faolan led Keeley back to his room and sat down across from him on the bed.
“There is something you have to know about Kane…”
Keeley had remained wide-eyed and silent as his lover revealed Kane’s identity. Faolan did not tell him about his father being an elemental, or the suspicions about Kane’s involvement in the death of Keeley’s family. One burden at a time, Faolan thought. It will be enough of a shock to know this man is his father and that he may have to fight against him. That was Faolan’s chief worry: that Keeley would underestimate the danger Kane posed and hesitate to refuse the man when Kane arrive to take him. It was understandable that Keeley might want to know more about the man who was his real father, but Faolan impressed upon him the danger of trusting the other man.
“He’s dangerous. If your mother saw fit to hide your existence from him—to the point of binding his power—we must assume it is unwise for you to be near him. She wanted to keep you safe, and so do I.”
Keeley had nodded at this, and Faolan had finally left to give him time to come to terms with this new, unsettling information. Keeley remained in his room, contemplating the meaning of this discovery. Faolan left on an errand and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that Keeley emerged, thoughtful and pensive, from his chambers. Faolan returned a few hours later.
During the evening meal the two men did not speak, but Keeley’s silence wasn’t hostile. He simply didn’t know how to convey his inner turmoil, and so stayed mute until he could make sense of everything he’d been told.
Keeley was torn between so many confusing questions. What had happened to cause his mother to go to such lengths to conceal his existence from his true father? He never knew his mother had harbored such secrets, and it pained him. He both blamed her for hiding the truth from him, and felt a heart-wrenching sympathy for her at having to keep so much inside her heart for so many years. With a sigh, Keeley excused himself from the table.
As the sun set on the unhappy household, Larkin and Rian felt oppressed by the brooding atmosphere and decided to distract themselves. After finishing his evening duties, Rian slipped outside to a dark corner of the courtyard at the back of the house, where Larkin would soon meet him. To pass the time, Rian leaned against the garden wall and stroked himself through his trousers. By the time Larkin arrived, Rian had already exposed himself and was pumping his engorged shaft happily. His blonde lover grinned, a salacious plan forming in his mind.
“Well, well,” Larkin said loudly, taking on the air of a stern authoritarian. “I come to check on my servant and find him not only blatantly ignoring his duties, but putting on an obscene performance as well!”
Rian immediately picked up on Larkin’s game and suppressed a grin. “I—I’m sorry, M—Master!” he stuttered innocently, trying to cover himself in feigned shock and modesty.
“Sorry indeed!” Larkin bellowed, fully in character. The tall man trapped Rian’s body against the wall. “Your first concern should always be to see to your master’s needs above your own! Instead I find you here, flaunting yourself!” he chastised in mock anger. “I will show you what happens to disobedient servants in my household!” With a swift hand, Larkin tore open Rian’s shirt, making him gasp in secret delight.
“Please! Don’t be angry with me, Master!” Rian pleaded in a wispy, subservient tone as he cringed against the wall. “You frighten me! You are so strong and powerful, Master…” he said, giving his a lover seductive pout.
Larkin smiled to himself at Rian’s superb role-play. “You should be afraid, little one,” he said in a low, husky tone. Reaching out, he ran a hand along Rian’s exposed torso.
“What are you going to do to me?” Rian asked, eyes wide in playful innocence.
“I shall have to punish you for your disobedience,” Larkin replied, yanking Rian’s shirt down his arms. “Perhaps I should whip you?” he teased. But at the word ‘whip,’ Rian’s eyes darkened with an old, haunted look. “Or spank you,” Larkin quickly added, sensing he’d pushed the game too far.
“Oh, my,” Rian whispered, his eyelashes fluttering as his playful mood returned.
“You must learn to submit fully to me. Turn around.”
Quick to obey, Rian positioned himself vulnerably before his ‘master,’ ass in the air. Larkin pulled down Rian’s trousers and planted several hard, stinging slaps to that perfectly round ass. The sight made him lightheaded with desire.
“Turn back around,” Larkin ordered sternly. “On your knees.”
“Yes, Master. Like this?” Rian asked meekly, even as his eyes gleamed with mischief.
“Indeed. Now, I am going to use you and you will obey. Understand?”
“Yes, Master,” Rian said so sweetly that Larkin swelled to even greater proportions. Hastily, he unfastened his breeches and released his pulsing organ into the night air.
“Would you like me to open my mouth, Master?” Rian offered, running his tongue over his lips. Rian was eager to move things forward; his own arousal was hard and demanding between his thighs.
“Not yet, love,” Larkin whispered, momentarily losing character in the midst of his overpowering lust. “I want to feel my cock pressed against your face.”
Rian’s eyes were glassy with need as Larkin took hold of his hot shaft and rubbed it over his cheeks and lips. When Rian nuzzled affectionately against his cock, Larkin let a heady moan escape his throat.
Rian knew just what his lover preferred and, without waiting for instructions, began to lick the man’s erection with an eager tongue, like an overzealous puppy.
It was too much for Larkin, who knew he wouldn’t last another minute if Rian continued—and tonight he wanted to feel his tight embrace around his cock before he let loose his seed.
“Stand up and put your hands on the wall. Bend over,” Larkin commanded, his voice ragged with need.
The cool night air drifted across Rian’s genitals and he groaned aloud at the delicious feeling of exposure that ran through him as he assumed the position. Rian waited for Larkin’s shaft to invade him, and gasped in shocked ecstasy when his lover’s tongue suddenly caressed his tight little bud instead.
“Ah, my shameless boy. You like this don’t you?”
“Yes, Master!” Rian cried.
Larkin kissed and licked the pink ring of muscle until Rian was squirming. “Please, I need more, Master!”
A sharp smack to his rear reminded him who was in charge. Rian smiled. He was eager for more ‘punishment.’ “Please!” he begged again, earning another solid slap.
“I almost think you enjoy your punishment, little one,” Larkin whispered over his shoulder.
Glancing back at his lover man, Rian gave him a sly, naughty smile. “You may be right, Master.”
As if experimenting with his ‘servant’s’ admission, Larkin smacked him again, this time letting his fingers linger over the heated, abused flesh. Rian moaned.
“Such a deviant.”
“Oh, yes, Master! I am. A terrible deviant,” Rian replied, slipping a hint of feigned guilt into his voice.
“Then I will have to be quite severe with you, won’t I?” Larkin said seductively. With that, he stood over Rian prostrate form and slid the head of his cock inside his warm sanctum. Rian gasped with such intensity that, if Larkin hadn’t known better, he would have thought him in pain.
Finally sheathed within Rian’s hot channel, Larkin could no longer hold back. He immediately began a brutal plundering of Rian’s tight depths, pounding again and again into the young man’s body even as he wrapped a hand about Rian’s erection and worked his weeping shaft.
It didn’t take long. Inflamed by Rian’s playful submissions and the tantalizing thrill of taking him outdoors, Larkin soon succumbed to the stirring in his groin and burst forth. His over-enthusiastic sex-cry echoed past the courtyard and rolled out over the nearby fields.
Both men were panting as Larkin turned Rian to face him once again, taking him in his arms. Only then did Larkin give in to his longing to kiss the young man. Larkin’s attitude was now tender and sweet, betraying the true depth of his feelings.
“Ah, my Rian,” he whispered, holding him close. “What would I do without you?”
“Be terribly bored?” the witty young man teased.
“Quite true,” Larkin replied, grinning. He glanced down between their bodies. With is love pressed intimately against him, he realized Rian hadn’t reached his release.
“My, you’re still swollen, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Master,” Rian said with a wink.
“Shall I take pity on you and let you come in my mouth, since I punished you so harshly?”
Rian couldn’t help but giggle at his lover’s demeanor, but in truth he was aching for release. He watched as Larkin fastened his trousers and prepared to service him. “I have such a considerate master,” Rian quipped.
“What a charming scene,” came a voice like liquid silk behind them. “Can anyone play this game, or is it meant only for two?”
Larkin spun around, his alarm triggered by the thought that he had not sensed the stranger’s approach. Although, he admitted, he had been rather deliciously distracted.
Out of the shadows stepped a tall figure. The man moved with an amazingly fluid grace. When Larkin caught sight of the man’s dark chocolate hair, he relaxed slightly. For a moment he’d been worried that Kane had come to pay them a visit. Though Larkin felt no sense of threat from the man, he was wary after having been taken off-guard.
As he moved closer, the light from the upper windows fell on the stranger’s face, revealing the bluest pair of eyes either man had ever seen. Looking into those brilliant cerulean orbs was like gazing out over a vast ocean, and the light refracted in the man’s irises like the sun glittering upon the waves.
“Don’t let me interrupt you. From what I’ve heard, you enjoy an audience.”
“Might I have your name, friend?” Larkin asked, moving in front of Rian protectively. The servant tucked his arousal nonchalantly back into his breeches as he peered around Larkin at the stranger, curious as to the man’s business at the estate. Being exposed in front of men he did not know was nothing new for the previous brothel worker.
The stranger, with his arrogant, seductive voice and gorgeous looks, irritated Larkin. Perhaps he was not dangerous, but that didn’t mean he was trustworthy. Moreover, the man had interrupted Larkin’s lovely session with his young lover. “And what are you are doing here?” he added.
The crystal-eyed stranger smiled, but before he could answer a familiar voice called, “Ah, there you are!”
The company turned to see Faolan walking towards them, with Keeley close behind. “Have you gotten a thorough survey of the area?” Faolan asked the man with the impossibly blue eyes.
“Yes. Quite thorough,” the stranger answered with a knowing glance at Larkin.
The man nodded. “I think I can help, and I am willing to take the challenge. It will make life interesting.”
“Might I ask what this is all about, Faolan?” Larkin asked, looking annoyed.
Taking in the scene, Faolan smiled. “If you take your antics outdoors, you should be willing to accept the risk of being caught,” he told his friend with a chuckle.
Larkin crossed his arms and sulked. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Suppressing his merriment, Faolan motioned to the stranger. “This is Aigéan Conmara. I have recruited him to help deal with our…dilemma concerning Keeley and Sir McKenna,” he explained tactfully.
“However,” Aigéan said smoothly, “we haven’t yet discussed the matter of payment.” He reached past the earl to take Keeley’s chin between his thumb and forefinger, examining the young man with an open, hungry gaze.
Faolan expected Keeley’s temper to flare at the man’s presumption, but he just blushed a deep scarlet and hung his head. Given everything Keeley had been through with the Bishop, Faolan had assumed he would be skittish or defensive at the touch of a stranger. Faolan found he was both amused and surprisingly jealous that Keeley wasn’t immune to the man’s charm. Gently nudging Aigéan’s hand away, he asked, “You’re still sailing under Captain Muirios, if I’m correct?”
The tall man nodded and Faolan grinned.
“I will finance your own vessel.”
Aigéan’s eyebrows lifted in amazement. “A generous offer,” he remarked, “especially considering I would be content with a far less financially burdensome arrangement.” The man glanced meaningfully at the raven-haired young man at Faolan’s side. “However, I can’t very well turn down your offer.”
“Splendid,” Faolan replied, subtly stepping between Aigéan and Keeley. “I will speak with you about the details later.”
“Till then,” Aigéan replied, bowing elegantly. He winked at Keeley, then vanished back into the misty shadows.
“Well,” Larkin said, after the man had departed. “You do enjoy your surprises.”
Faolan gave his friend a crooked grin. “Come, Keeley. We’ll let these two get back to their… entertainments,” he said, chortling to himself as he made his way back inside.
Just inside the doorway, Faolan felt Keeley tug at his arm. “I haven’t gotten a chance to tell you this since we spoke this morning but… I’m sorry I was so angry last night. I doubted you, even after all you’ve done for me. I shouldn’t have.”
Turning to face his young lover, Faolan brushed his fingers tenderly along Keeley’s smooth, pale neck. “It’s understandable,” he conceded. “I’ve been overprotective.”
Looking into Faolan’s deep emerald eyes with passionate resolve, Keeley said, “I’m glad you told me the truth about Kane. Part of me wants to speak with him, to find out more about what happened between him and my mother, but if you say he’s dangerous, I’ll believe you. And if he tries to attack this place just to get to me, as you warned, then I’ll fight him. Just… Please, let me help you. I don’t want to sit aside while everyone is working to protect me. Let me help too.”
Faolan gazed at him thoughtfully. “All right. But Keeley…” He paused.
Faolan looked at him questioningly.
Keeley’s pale blue eyes grew sober. “I know that you haven’t told me everything.”
“Do you?” Faolan asked in a barely audible whisper.
The young man nodded, and Faolan could see the new maturity that had grown in his lover’s eyes.
“Yes, but I suppose it’s no good trusting someone halfway.” He stopped and gazed intently up at Faolan. “I love you, Faolan. I believe that you will tell me when you can.”
“Keeley,” Faolan said softly, crushing him to his chest. “Thank you.”
Keeley nodded. Part of him had hoped Faolan would immediately reciprocate his feelings, but he had not expected it. He had learned—and was beginning to accept—that Faolan did things in his own time.
It had not been easy for Keeley be so accepting, but he’d spent the last few days reflecting on what his own mother must have gone through—the heartache she must have endured in protecting him all her life. Keeley had decided the only way to convince Faolan to be more open with him was to show the man that he was an adult who could accept the harsh truths in life and move onward. He couldn’t deny that a small part of him was embittered by the feeling that so many people he loved chose to keep secrets from him, but he could either let the anger consume him, or move past it.
“Just promise me,” Keeley began after a moment, looking up from the circle of Faolan’s arms, “when the time is right, you will tell me everything.”
Faolan knew Keeley’s plea had a double meaning. More than just the truth, Keeley wanted to hear the same words of love from him.
“Yes, I promise you.”
The household was restless. Everyone sensed the storm that was coming, but there was little to be done but wait. Faolan and Larkin had many close talks as they discussed different tactics they might use against Kane. Keeley and Rian were included in these talks as often as possible.
The day before Beltane, Faolan lured Keeley back to bed after breakfast, keeping the young man pleasantly distracted from the uncertainties that lay ahead. Keeley knew Faolan was only trying to keep his mind off the danger they would face, but he had no complaints. They made love until the sun began to head into the West.
As the last rays of the sun sank under the hills behind them, the light through the windows caught in Faolan’s fiery hair, creating a glow about his face. Almost it appeared to Keeley that a power radiated from the man as he gazed at him, but when the light vanished, Faolan’s colors faded. Keeley shivered as the world fell into shadow. Was it just his imagination or had something more than the light vanished in the sunset? Searching his lover’s eyes, Keeley thought Faolan somehow looked changed, though he couldn’t say how.
“Come,” Faolan said, “we need to get moving. It’s time.”
The eve of Beltane was upon them.
Kane pulled up to the gates of Faolan’s estate in a large carriage, sleek black horses pulling it along. Stepping down from his ornate coach, Kane was greeted by Rian who, to his surprise, was leading two horses behind him.
“My master wishes for you to meet him in the fields,” the servant said simply, handing the man the reins to a tall chestnut gelding. Though Kane looked curious at the odd arrangement, he followed without comment as Rian mounted and led him away to the Western fields.
“Well, my dear earl,” Kane said once he had pulled his horse up in front of the man, “this is quite an odd meeting place, wouldn’t you say?”
Faolan greeted him with a quiet nod and watched him dismount. Rian took his horse and tied both steeds to a nearby tree as the proceedings began. The young man stayed off to the side of his master, as Faolan and Larkin stood before the dangerous visitor. Keeley waited behind them.
“Sparks have a way of finding kindling,” Faolan said smoothly. “I’d prefer my home to be a safe distance away while we discuss matters.”
Kane smiled. “You don’t trust me.”
“Should I?” Faolan replied plainly.
The other man laughed. “That all depends on whether or not you choose to be reasonable. Will you hand the boy over willingly?”
“Keeley,” Faolan called, and the young man stepped up to face the man he now knew to be his father.
Bowing graciously, Keeley then straightened to look Kane in the eye. “Regretfully, I cannot go with you,” he said with cool, polite civility. Then he added, “If you truly respect me as your son, you will leave us.”
“Is that so?” Kane replied with amusement. “It seems that both you and your master don’t realize your position. You will be coming with me. In time you’ll understand it was for the best.”
Keeley’s eyes grew cold. “I doubt that.” He did not like this man. Could Kane really be his father? This red-haired, smug figure who reeked of hidden menace? No, Keeley thought, the man who was truly his father was the one who raised him, the one who had held him when he was sick, the one who had made his mother smile and taught his sister to sing… the one who had died, along with the rest of his family, not two years earlier.
The person who stood before him now was a stranger. The moment Kane had set foot on the ground before him, Keeley had known Faolan was right: the man was dangerous. How was it that Kane and his mother had come together? He now wondered. Had the man forced her? Bewitched her? Keeley shook his mind free of these thoughts. He needed to concentrate; they could not afford for the plan to go wrong. They might only have one chance.
“How is it that you plan to stop me, I’d like to know?” Kane asked.
“We have our ways,” Larkin interjected hotly, snapping his fingers. Suddenly the field burst into flame. Larkin smiled as he saw Kane wince, but the triumph was short-lived.
With a wave of his hand, the elemental extinguished the flames. When he opened his palm, they saw that he had harnessed the fire, and it rolled in his hand like a live ball of glowing embers. “Trying to fight fire with fire?” he said with a soft snicker. “I expected better.”
Left behind, among the curling smoke, was a pattern singed into the grasses. Kane glanced about, assessing the design. “Marking this spell in the field must have taken quite some time,” he mused. “A binding invocation, by the look of it. Too bad I could sense it the moment I set foot on the ground. It’s quite useless now.”
Faolan made no show of surprise or agitation, but Larkin gritted his teeth. Nearby, Rian hushed the horses, who were spooked and agitated.
Keeley stood blinking dumbly. Though Faolan had warned him that the man wielded considerable powers, even manipulating fire, it was quite another thing to see such an impressive demonstration of it. He recalled an odd light in Faolan’s eye when he had told him this. Now Keeley remembered it and something nagged at him in the back of his mind.
“Don’t tell me that was the best you could do?” Kane inquired with mocking laughter.
Watching Kane slowly draw nearer, Keeley felt the man’s presence go before him like a cloud. He knew this presence, had felt it somewhere before. Then, like a blow, it came to him. The last time he had felt this aura, it had been fainter, lingering in the singed air of his old home. It had pressed against him as surely as the sick smell of death, as he’d stepped over the broken threshold of his home and beheld the bodies of his family, dead on the floor.
Keeley stood stock-still. Everything was falling into place. His family had been killed in a fire, though no one could figure out how it had begun. Now, Keeley believed he knew. Kane was vengeful and powerful, it would not be such a hard thing to imagine him a murderer.
Could it be true? Could this be the man who had killed his family?
“Keeley?” Faolan asked quietly, his voice concerned. When Keeley met his eyes, he saw the confusion and conflict swirling in their blue depths. Keeley must have suspected the truth already, but Faolan had not expected him to make the connection so quickly. This could prove disastrous. Keeley played a central role in their plan. They couldn’t afford for him to be distracted.
Faolan cursed himself. He should have told Keeley his suspicions beforehand. Well, they would have to make the best of it now.
“Are you all right?” he asked, urgently.
As if called out of a dream, Keeley nodded.
“Keeley,” Kane said abruptly. He looked at his son commandingly and held out his hand. “This is your final chance to save your friends from their folly. Come.”
All was still for a moment. Everyone’s eyes rested on Keeley—who hesitated. Faolan grew anxious. They had more in store for Kane, but they needed Keeley’s signal to begin. Why did he wait?
“Did you love my mother?” Keeley asked unexpectedly, taking a step forward.
Faolan and Larkin exchanged looks. This had not been what they had discussed. Keeley’s position was compromising the plan.
Keeley was aware of this, but he wanted more time--needed more time—to see if his suspicions were true.
“I knew her for only one evening,” Kane told him. “She’d stumbled into the faerie realm on a festival night when the veil between worlds was thin. I happened upon her—dazed and aglow with the magics that filled the air. They drug the mortal senses like a fine wine.” At Keeley’s hard glare, he lifted an eyebrow knowingly. “I didn’t force her, if that’s what’s behind your question. I admit I used seduction, but I did not lower myself to use force. She should have felt blessed by the union—few mortals have ever had such an opportunity—but the foolish woman immediately regretted it, babbling on about some mortal nobody who she had pledged herself to. If I had known she was carrying my child, I never would have returned her, no matter how she begged me, until after you were born. It is rare for an elemental’s seed to bear fruit within a mortal. Your mother must have had some faerie blood in her ancestry.”
Keeley listened with distaste and his face showed it. The man spoke of his mother like a breeder about cattle. His anger was underlined by the heartache that swelled inside him as he realized how very human his mother had been. It was something every child must learn after crossing the threshold into adulthood, and the lesson was bittersweet. Keeley envisioned the young, adventurous girl she must have been, and thought of the burden she’d had to bear after one night’s folly. Yet Keeley remembered well her laughter and her smile. If he could shoulder his mistakes half as well, he would consider himself a man.
Kane continued on, his voice edged with anger and pompous indignation. “She hid you like a thief! Just as I am sure she hid my existence from the man you called your father. She was like all women—deceitful, manipulative.”
“You lie!” Keeley spat back.
Faolan saw his temper flare—a bad sign. This situation could get out of hand at any moment. Keeley was letting his emotions take over. He was forgetting himself, and their objective. Moreover, Faolan had the disquieting feeling that Kane was baiting him, though he couldn’t imagine why.
“A liar, am I?” Kane retorted. “She is the one who lied to you since the day you were born! She had no right to keep you—living among mortals—among peasants! I imagine how she must have mocked me, knowing she’d fooled someone as powerful as I, but she couldn’t hide you forever—and when I found her, she paid the price! And the rest of your useless family went down with her.”
Keeley went rigid. Silent wrath emanated from him in waves. For years he had consoled himself with the idea that his family’s death had been an act of God, a tragedy no one was to blame for and no one could have foreseen.
Now, he knew the truth. They had all died because of one man’s grudge. This man. Within Keeley a fury began to rise such as he’d never known.
Watching the scene intently, Faolan saw Keeley fidget with something in his sleeve, and he suddenly realized what he was about to do.
“Keeley, no!” Faolan yelled, a second before the young man dashed off. He reached out to grab him, but Keeley escaped him. Giving a loud cry—echoing with hatred and vengeance—Keeley rushed at Kane.
With a smug grin, Kane caught Keeley’s fist as it swung toward his face, but in the next moment, Kane’s face crumbled. The man hadn’t noticed the dagger in the young man’s left hand until it had pierced his side.
“Clever boy,” he said, “but it won’t do you much good.” The wound had not hurt him; his essence was spirit not flesh.
Looking into his father’s face, Keeley saw him sneer, and a cold chill swept through his bones. Yanking the dagger free, he turned to run, realizing too late that Kane had deliberately enraged him—and he did not want to wait to find out why.
It was too late. Kane’s arm dashed out and seized him round the neck. Though Keeley struggled, he was no match for the other man’s strength. A strange, cryptic language began to flow from Kane’s lips and Keeley felt a powerful energy start to fill him. It seared his senses, and he cried out in agony.
His friends looked on in horror. It had all happened so fast, they barely had time to react. Faolan, however, had not lost himself. In the few moments it had taken for the tide to turn against them, he had weighed their options and chosen the course that seemed best. He had almost opened his mouth to order the new plan of action, when he saw Keeley’s dagger, now slick with blood, slip from the his hand.
The weapon had been made partially from the silver melted down from Keeley’s broken locket, and still held some magical properties. Keeley had been entrusted to it, and it had been his duty to drive it into the ground, igniting the true spell against Kane at the opportune moment. By chance or fate, the blade fell straight as an arrow and its tip sunk into the ground, finally releasing the spell.
A blinding flash of azure flame set the field ablaze. A mandala of glowing blue appeared, Kane anchored at its center. The man screeched in pain and let Keeley fall at his feet. He had not seen that the binding spell had been a decoy to cover a more powerful form of sorcery hidden beneath it.
“Aigéan!” Faolan shouted. The man instantly materialized at his side. “Get him out of there!” In a flash, Aigéan swept into the dazzling ring of light and rescued Keeley from where he lay. With Keeley safely outside the circle, the spell could begin in earnest.
Faolan called to Rian and Larkin. The two men were already in place—one at the westernmost point of the circle, one at the easternmost. Faolan remained in the south and Aigéan situated himself in the north—the place of power. Kane twisted around to face the newcomer. The two men locked eyes, recognition passing between them—not of who they were, but what they were.
For the first time, Kane realized he’d underestimated his opponents. In a voice wavering and dim, he ground out, “Using a water elemental to fight me. Very tricky…”
Aigéan’s handsome face smirked at him and he began the incantation. The rest of the company, having learned the verses beforehand, recited along, and emptied out small vials they had prepared of hallowed seawater at their feet.
Kane raged, but he was caught like an insect in a net. A mist grew about him and, slowly, his body was encased in a watery blue light. His voice, spewing curses, faded into muteness and, as they watched, his body vanished before their eyes. All that was left behind was a sputtering ball of flames that quickly disappeared into the ground. The magic azure circle faded then, and the men were left in the dim, mundane shades of evening.
Kane’s corporal form had been vanquished, but he was not dead. He was an elemental. His power came from the raging fire of the earth. There were few ways to ensure an elemental never took form again, and they had had neither the time nor the means to implement any of them. However, Faolan hoped that Keeley would be safe from Kane for years to come. If they were lucky, it would be longer than that. If they were not so lucky… Well, they would cross that bridge when they came to it. For now, it was enough.
As soon as the spell ended, Faolan rushed to where Keeley lay on the grass. The young man began to stir, but any relief Faolan felt suddenly turned to dread when Keeley fixed his gaze on him.
His eyes were terrible: yellow and fey. A wild light was in them, burning from within.
“Dear, God,” Faolan whispered, aghast. “What has he done to you?”
It was no use. Keeley couldn’t concentrate. He had been attempting to unpack his things for the past hour, but his mind kept wandering. With a sigh he sat down on the edge of his bed and shook his head.
As soon as they had arrived back at the estate, Keeley had been sent to his quarters and Larkin had asked Faolan to discuss ‘important matters’ that had come up while they had been away.
Keeley wasn’t sure why it had irritated him, but it had. After all, they had not been back for five minutes when he had been dismissed and sent away. As Rian carried Keeley’s baggage and walked the young man back to his room, he sensed Keeley's displeasure.
“How was your journey, sir?” Rian asked, laying the bags down.
“Will you be needing anything, sir?”
“No,” Keeley replied. Despite his curt responses, he noted that Rian was smiling. What was he so happy about? The young servant was practically glowing.
“It seems you’ve enjoyed yourself in your master’s absence.”
“Yes, sir,” Rian replied brightly.
Something about the way the brunette smiled made Keeley suspect that Rian and Larkin had been entertaining themselves in a rather explicit and intimate fashion for the past several days.
He decided not to inquire any further.
“Did your mission end successfully?” Rian asked, standing near the door.
“You don’t seem pleased.”
“I… it’s not that. It’s just… a lot happened,” Keeley said, and left it at that.
Rian left him to his thoughts and Keeley pondered his relationship with Faolan as he attempted to unpack. In truth, the young man couldn’t say why he suddenly felt so unsettled. When he lay with his head resting in Faolan’s lap during the carriage ride home, he had been so content. Faolan had caressed his cheek and then, slowly, with almost imperceivable movements, drew his hand lower and began stroking the young man’s body with a far more intimate touch. The earl had moved beneath Keeley’s arm and flexed his fingers about his ribs. The change in Keeley’s breathing gave away the fact that he was awake and aware, but he make no protest and the man’s strong hands had soothed him and caressed him for the rest of the trip. It had given Keeley a deep sense of warmth and security. However, now that they had returned to the earl’s residence, Keeley knew the man’s attentions would be divided, and his mind filled with uncertainties.
Faolan himself appeared not long after Keeley had finally given up his efforts to unpack and the man wondered why Keeley's bags were still strewn over the bed.
“I have some news,” the earl said, stepping into the room. “It seems we will be having a guest in a few weeks.”
Although Keeley was interested in this turn of events, he feigned indifference. “Is that so?” was all he replied.
“He’s coming from overseas and asked me to help him with some business he needs to attend to. Since it does not concern you, you can take that week to visit the McAllisters, if you wish.”
‘It does not concern you.’
Keeley did not like the sound of that. Why did Faolan suddenly want him to leave and why was he being so vague about the identity of his guest?
“I’ll stay, thank you,” he replied, his words clipped. He didn’t want to admit that he disliked the idea of being sent away—even to the McAllisters—when he didn’t know the nature of this ‘guest’.
Faolan looked at him closely. He was surprised that Keely didn’t take his offer. He had assumed the boy missed his foster family and that he’d jump at the chance to have more time with them. The young man had been incensed when Faolan had forced him to depart from their house not long ago.
“If you stay, then I’m afraid you’ll have to move to the servant’s quarters for that week. You are not to come in contact with him under any circumstances.”
“What? Why? Tell me first or I won’t agree to anything!” Keeley demanded, his voice rising. He hated the idea that Faolan was keeping secrets from him, and his jealousy fueled his temper.
“This is not a matter open for discussion Keeley,” Faolan said sharply. “I had hoped you would be happy to spend some time with the McAllisters, but since you seem too stubborn to accept my offer, you will do as I say.”
Keeley’s blue eyes frosted over and glared at him.
“And if I don’t?” he retorted defiantly.
Faolan rubbed the back of his neck. “Why must you balk at every order I give you?”
“Why must you pretend to be my lover and then order me around?!”
At these words Faolan's emerald eyes went wide. Crossing over to stand before the young man, he took hold of his chin and forced Keeley to face him. “Because I am your master. We have not yet taken the crucial step necessary to become lovers, but when we do, I will still be your lord and master.”
Keeley’s breath hitched slightly when he heard Faolan announce without doubt that they would be lovers: it was not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’. He couldn’t stop his pulse from racing just a little faster, but he was still sullen and angry. Keeley couldn’t help but feel that Faolan was toying with him. One moment the man was his seducer and the next his demanding employer.
Why did it have to be so complicated between them?
Faolan watched the emotions shift across the young man’s face. The corners of Keeley’s blue eyes suddenly filled with tears of hurt and frustration, as well as a new vulnerability. Slowly, layer by layer, Keeley was revealing himself to him. Faolan’s own irritation subsided.
“Are you worried about who this guest is? What my relationship is with him?”
Keeleyn refused to answer. He looked away and tried blink back his tears.
“There is no cause to be jealous, Keeley. I am not trying to hide this man from you, I am trying to hide you from him.”
Keeley looked back at him in confusion.
“This man is not pleasant and he yields a great deal of power. He is coming here in secret to see to a few things in this part of the country and I do not wish for word of his identity to spread.”
“I would never-"
“No, I trust that you would keep the secret, but I do not want you entangled in his business. Do you understand?”
Keeley sniffled and nodded begrudgingly.
“He is quite dangerous, Keeley. I am convinced that no good can come of your meeting,” the earl explained. Bending down, he kissed away a stray tear. “I am trying to keep you safe.”
Faolan’s mollifying words eased away Keeley’s anger, but he was left feeling foolish and exposed. The deeper their relationship became, the more precarious Keeley felt about his position in the earl’s life. If he could never truly be Faolan’s equal, where did that leave him? Was he to become a glorified servant who was occasionally taken to his master’s bed?
Keeley sighed. He was too weary to think of such things.
“Rest, love. There’s nothing that has to be done today,” Faolan reassured him.
Suddenly Keeley felt as if he hadn’t slept in days. All the extreme emotions he had been put through during the mission at O’Reilly’s had drained him, and the ride back to the estate had taken nearly all day. The light outside was fading and so was Keeley’s energy. Faolan cleared the bed and covered the young man in blankets as he lay down.
“I’ll have a small supper brought to you, in case you wake up later and feel hungry,” the man said with a smile.
Keeley nodded, and drifted off to sleep.
“You spoil him,” Larkin chided.
Faolan shrugged indifferently and sipped his tea.
“Why not have Keeley help with a few chores? The boy seems restless.”
The earl’s deep green eyes surveyed his friend and he cocked one eyebrow knowingly. “And this would have nothing to do with the fact that you would have more time with Rian if his workload was split with Keeley?”
Larkin pouted. “So what if it does? It’s still a good idea.”
But Faolan shook his head. “I have told both you and Keeley that my plans for him are specific. It’s not necessary for him to help with the regular work.”
“You’re making him soft,” Larkin warned, a sulk in his voice.
“Hardly. He’s been out on horseback nearly every day. Moreover, he’s gotten into the habit of reading extensively. It’s his mind I want sharp, not his skills at turning down a bed or sweeping a fireplace.”
Larkin continued to brood, but he said nothing further.
It had been two weeks since Faolan had returned from O'Reilly's estate and the time had passed in relative ease and peace—but Larkin could not shake the feeling that something was waiting and watching for its opportunity to disrupt them. He’d shared all his misgivings with his friend, but Faolan remained as cool and unmoved as ever. There was little they could do at the moment and worrying was useless, Faolan had reminded him. Still, Larkin was sensitive to the unfriendly energy circling the estate and could not relax.
“How are you and Keeley getting on?” Larkin asked, trying to distract himself from his unease.
“I’m taking my time with him,” the earl replied.
“Meaning he is still unsure of himself. He thinks he wants space to figure out his mind, but he’ll learn soon enough what he truly craves.”
“So you’re making him sweat it out, eh? Sadist,” Larkin replied with a grin.
Faolan smiled in return and gave a chuckle. “Or a masochist perhaps. The wait has not been particularly easy for myself either.”
“If I were you, I would have just taken him already and been done with it,” the blond said flippantly.
“Yes, I know. It’s lucky for you that Rian is as insatiable as you are.”
“That’s why we fit so well together,” Larkin said with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Keeley riffled through the shelves and debated which book to choose next. Though he knew his letters well enough, he had never been much of a reader—he’d never had the time. However, without duties to occupy his time, the young man had turned his attention to the myriad of books in the earl’s possession.
There were several small studies in addition to the main library in the earl’s home, and Keeley had gravitated to one room in particular. It was a cozy study situated on a corner of the building, so it commanded a wide view from its many windows. Of course, this also meant the room was little insulated and drafty, but Keeley simply inched himself closer to the fire.
Without realizing it, he'd had fallen into a daily routine. Every morning, despite the oncoming winter chill, he took a ride across the hilly country on the black steed that he was so fond of. He returned by lunch and afterwards retired to the study for hours of reading and occasional napping until dinner. Faolan usually joined him and when he did, Keeley accomplished far less reading.
Since they had returned, Faolan had made no overtures towards him beyond an absentminded touch here and there and a chaste kiss on his cheek each night. For a while Keeley wondered if he had done something to lose the man’s interest, but as they sat together in the study, he often felt the force of the earl’s eyes upon him. He knew Faolan still wanted him, yet the man had distanced himself. Keeley had the sense that the earl wanted to give him some time and space to consider his own feelings, but Keeley found himself yearning helplessly for the man’s touch. Even the slightest brush of Faolan’s fingertips now sent a shiver of longing and desire racing through him. Several times he had almost dropped his tea as the earl’s hand touched him in passing.
Each day Keeley vowed that he would end his torment and take the initiative with the other man, but each night he went to bed unfulfilled.
Today was no different. Keeley was building up his courage as he attempted to read a book on the history of Celtic folklore when Faolan entered. As soon as Keeley took in the sight of his master, and the fluid, elegant movement of his body as he sat near him, his resolution fled. Silently, he cursed himself. His head burrowed deeper into the pages.
A silence fell between them and Keeley found himself fidgeting. A few minutes went by, and just as the silence was becoming unbearable, Keeley was saved by Rian’s entrance with their tea.
“Thank you, Rian. You do anticipate all of my needs,” Faolan said as the servant set down the tray. The servant had become aware of their routine and arrived with tea each day without the earl ever having to request it.
Rian smiled, glanced between them and departed. Larkin had kept him updated on the couple’s progress and the servant wondered how long it would be until Faolan gave in, since Keeley did not appear to have the courage to made any advances himself. It was entertaining for Rian to watch the tide of their relationship as it ebbed and flowed each day.
When Rian had left them, Keeley took advantage of the interruption to ask, “Will there be another mission scheduled soon?”
Faolan cocked his head. “No, do you wish there to be? I would have thought you’d be enjoying a bit of rest after everything that happened with O’Reilly.”
The boy hesitated. “It’s not that I mind exactly, but… I feel as if I’m not earning my keep.”
The earl gave a soft laugh. “Life does not always have to be a constant strain. There will be more work in the future, for now it is best to simply recuperate and enjoy yourself.”
“I have not done much to help the Brotherhood either,” Keeley pointed out.
“You saved O’Reilly’s daughter, which means he is once again be acting as a proper landlord and not draining his tenants for useless doctor fees. He’s already met with his workers to discuss improving their living conditions. So, you may not have helped the Brotherhood directly, but you have aided many working Catholics on O’Rielly’s lands—and you have sent much needed funds to the McAllisters. I would say you have been doing quite well for yourself.”
Keeley conceded that the man had a point—yet he couldn’t help feeling restless. He was used to life on a farm, a life working the land every day, sun up to sun down. Such long hours of leisure time were odd to him and left him uneasy.
“I know you’re right,” Keeley said, “but I still feel useless sitting around merely reading all day.”
“Then think of yourself as a student,” Faolan said. “It will serve you well to read as much as possible about the occult so you will be better prepared in the future. Consider that part of your job as well.”
Keeley’s features softened, but he still was not entirely convinced. A student? The young man had often daydreamed about having the means to study, even go to university, but when faced with the opportunity to better himself through an education, he felt suddenly frivolous. Then again, he was helping his old community in his own small way. Yet, there was something satisfying to work with one’s own, even when it was something as small as weeding a garden.
He groaned inwardly, realizing he was driving himself to distraction by drifting between arguments. Keeley shook his head. He would get nowhere moping like this. If he was being given an opportunity, he had to grab it. He had chosen a new path for himself and he had to make the most of it.
Faolan watched the resolve firm in the young man’s eyes and smiled. Keeley seemed to be a master at adapting to his circumstances.
“What are you reading about now?” Faolan asked. The man moved closer to Keeley on the sofa, presumably to get a better look at the book in the boy’s hands.
“It’s on folklore,” Keeley answered, avoiding the earl’s intense green eyes.
“Ah! You’re reading about Lianhan Shee. She is a personal favorite of mine, though I don’t suppose I’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting her.”
“Why on earth would you want to meet her?” Keeley said with some distress. “I know some faeries can be helpful, but it says here that she makes men fall in love with her and then curses them to death.”
Faolan frowned. “Does it really? I didn’t think any works in my collection were so inaccurate.”
The redheaded man was now leaning in even closer in order to read the page for himself. Keeley could feel his breath across his neck. He closed his eyes and prayed for composure.
“See here, you’ve misinterpreted the text. The men fall in love with her willingly, because they cannot help themselves. She is the source of their passion and inspiration and it is their overwhelming desire that leads them to death.”
“That doesn’t sound very different to me,” Keeley replied dryly.
“You must understand. Lianhan Shee is desire incarnate.” Faolan explained with seductive flair. “She bestows untold inspiration on those who adore her, shaping them into legendary lovers and artists. It is her elusive nature that drives them on and the more she eludes them, the stronger their need for her grows. Slowly, they are drawn deeper and deeper into the realm of Tir-na-n-Og, until they are trapped in the underworld and are one with her forever.”
Keeley felt a chill run through him. “They still end up dead.”
The earl tilted his head. “So do we all. Lianhan Shee may take them when they are young, but she grants them immortality through their art.”
“I think I’d rather stay alive and safe in the mortal world.”
“But you are not a painter or a poet. To understand, you must imagine what you desire the most, what enflames you,” as he spoke, Faolan caught Keeley’s blue gaze and held it. “Think of what you want most in this world. What heats the blood in your veins?” The rich velvet tones of the earl’s voice lured the young man closer to his lips. “Ask how much you would give for it, to feel that passion every day to its zenith, then maybe you will understand.”
Faolan’s lips hovered above Keeley’s, but the man did not close the space between them, not yet. He let the promise of his kiss hover between them, filling Keeley with a sharp, aching need that was the sweetest torture he could ever remember.
“Do you want to feel my mouth over yours?”
“The warmth of my tongue slipping past your lips?”
As Keeley’s mouth remained poised and ready for the kiss, the earl reached a finger up to trace his parted lips.
“You feel it now, don’t you?” he asked in hushed tones. “The spell that desire casts over us all.”
“Please,” Keeley begged, unused to teasing games between lovers.
Faolan grinned at the flushed, eager face below him and wavered. He was just on the border of giving in when a soft, ringing chime echoed through the house: the dinner bell.
To Keeley’s amazement, he saw the other man pull away.
“Looks like dinner’s ready. Shall we?” As he spoke, the earl stood and made his way to the door. Keeley blinked up at him like someone awakened out of a dream.
“I- I’ll be down in a minute,” he said when he found his voice.
“Very well,” Faolan said, “And Keeley-”
“We’ll continue our lesson on desire sometime soon,” the earl informed him with a wink.
All the young man could do was nod. His head was still in a daze. He could not believe Faolan was leaving so abruptly.
As he sat in the fading light of the fire, Keeley thought about Lianhan Shee and the doomed love that the Faerie brought to her lovers. He was reminded of Mary’s fiancé. Whelan had been too bent on desire as well. The man had become too possessive, wanting the other so much that he was willing to send both Mary and himself into the arms of death if need be. Was all love so fraught with tragedy?
Keeley wondered if his own feelings for Faolan were very different. There was a danger that surrounded the earl, a threat that the raven-haired young man would lose himself completely if he gave in to his longing. He felt inexplicably drawn towards the earl and was increasingly comfortable with him, but perhaps he was like a moth blinded by the warmth of a flame: close to burning alive without even knowing it.
That night Keeley found it difficult to sleep. His body was feverish with unresolved yearning. Throughout dinner he had stayed quiet, his mind occupied with questions. When he excused himself to retire for the evening, he half-expected Faolan to follow him, but the man simply bade him a good evening and a good night’s rest. Keeley was disappointed, but he wasn’t brave enough to invite the earl to his bedroom.
After tossing and turning in a vain attempt to rest, Keeley gave up and decided to wander into one of the larger studies. Maybe he could get a small fire going and do some midnight reading to occupy his wayward mind.
The halls were dark and chilly, but Keeley didn’t mind. The cold air calmed the racing heat in his blood and cleared his head. As he made his way to the main wing of the house, Keeley saw a light flickering in one of the doorways. Someone else must have been restless as well. The warm rays of the already-strong fire were a welcome sight as he stepped closer, but the scene that greeted him was not what he expected. Immediately, he hid himself in the shadows of the hallway.
Inside the room, in a large chair framed by the firelight, sat Larkin and Rian—bodies tangled together in the midst of their lovemaking.
“Ah! Larkin! More…”
Keeley bit on his lip and tried to slow his breathing so he would not be heard. It was a miracle they had not seen him.
“You’re very eager tonight, my love.”
Rian replied with a gasp that sent Keeley’s heart pounding. The young man recalled the first time he had accidentally stumbled upon the lovers—the way Larkin had been so forceful with Rian, the way the blond had struck his bare buttocks over and over as the servant begged for more. Keeley had fled before things went much further, but now he seemed to have picked up where he left off.
The men’s moans and the rustle of their sensual movements filled Keeley’s ears as he stood listening outside the room. He reached down and pressed his hand to the sudden, hard bulge in his trousers. Keeley’s passions had been simmering unsatisfied all day long and hearing the sounds of sex only a short distance away was having a predictable affect on his body. He knew he should leave now, before he was discovered, but his feet were rooted in place and would not obey him.
“Harder… Please!” Rian whimpered.
“You like being filled to the hilt, don’t you?” Larkin whispered. “You can’t get enough.”
Keeley shut his eyes and tried to collect himself, but it did little good. His hand moved inside his breeches seemingly of its own volition. He needed release so badly.
“Say how much you want me,” Larkin’s silky voice commanded.
“I want you… all of you, all the time!” Rian exclaimed. “Filling me, fucking me—yes!”
The servant’s words made Keeley blush and he suddenly wondered just how sex was accomplished between two men. Actually, he barely knew what was involved in intercourse between a man and a woman. He knew couples usually stripped themselves naked and pressed their bodies together, but what was all this about “filling”? Surely he couldn’t mean…
As Keeley’s desire and curiosity continued to build, he grew bolder—or perhaps he simply ceased to care about repercussions. He couldn’t bear the tightness of his breeches and quickly unlaced them so he could take a firm hold on his straining erection. Then, slowly, he peered around the frame of the door.
He bit back a gasp and his blue eyes went wide.
Larkin sat lounging in the wide chair, his legs spread before him. Straddling his hips, with his head thrown back in rapture, was Rian. The servant was completely naked and his pale skin glowed in the firelight. The young man’s nakedness was accentuated by the fact that Larkin remained clothed but for his unlaced trousers.
Both men were moving with sensual purpose, in an erotic rhythm that Keeley felt stir him deep in his bones. His hand unconsciously kept pace with their bodies. In an attempt to remain quiet, he only allowed himself shallow breaths and soon became lightheaded.
He wouldn’t last long. Rian and Larkin had quickened their pace and Keeley could not take much more. He tilted his head to try and get a better view of their bodies. If Keeley was seriously considering becoming Faolan’s lover, this might be his only chance to discover the secrets of lovemaking before the actual event. What was it that defined ‘sex’? What had Faolan meant when he said he would ‘take him’?
Rian reached out and clutched his hands over Larkin’s shoulders as he bounced in his lap. Then, abruptly, the blond man scooted to the very edge of the chair and grabbed the brunette’s hips to hold him as he thrust upward.
In that one movement, everything was revealed. Keeley was given a clear view and saw plainly the intimate joining of the men’s bodies. He watched as Larkin’s hard length penetrated within Rian’s body and saw the servant quiver as his portal was stretched taut around the blond’s cock.
Keeley had not been prepared for this revelation. His mouth opened to cry out in surprise and alarm when suddenly a firm hand clamped over his mouth. An arm darted around his body as he tried to break from the hold.
“Hushhhhhh,” came a familiar voice, “you wouldn’t want them to see you like this, would you?”
At first Keeley thought his captor was referring to the fact that he had been spying, but he realized with shock that his trousers had fallen to his knees and he was standing there exposed. Immediately, he tried to grab his pants and cover himself, but he was pressed too tightly against the body behind him and he could not bend down.
Keeley whimpered behind the man’s hand and glanced back at Faolan entreatingly. All hope that the earl would let him escape and recover his dignity was lost when he saw a satisfied, wicked grin spread across the redhead’s face.
“I knew we would continue our lesson, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon. I’m delighted,” he purred.
More disturbed than ever, Keeley shook his head in protest and tried to break away, but Faolan held him firm.
Rian and Larkin continued their pursuits, seemingly oblivious to the struggle outside their door.
“Why fight what we both know you want?” Faolan asked, his voice reverberating in the young man’s ear. “Here, let me assist you.”
Keeley watched helplessly as the earl reached down and took hold of his swollen shaft. A jolt ran through Keeley’s body at the other man’s touch and he grabbed Faolan’s wrist, trying to cease his movements. Oh God, he wasn’t really going to do this, was he?
But the earl had no intention of releasing him. He was enjoying the young man’s squirming as he began to stroke his rigid erection.
“Why close your eyes? You seemed to enjoy watching just a moment ago, isn’t that so?” Faolan asked in a low whisper.
Keeley couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so mortified. He tugged at Faolan’s hands, but the man’s grip was relentless. There was nothing Keeley could do but try and fight the rising tide of ecstasy swelling inside him. He twisted and writhed as he struggled against the wishes of his body. Though he desperately wanted to yield, his pride (what was left of it) and deep sense of humiliation would not let him.
Rian and Larkin’s voices had become louder and more insistent as they edged toward their climax. Keeley tried to shut them out, but their lusty voices sank into his consciousness and triggered an aching, needy response in his loins.
“That’s it,” Faolan urged when he felt Keeley tremble with need. The young man’s control was slipping.
The earl’s fingers worked him over with exquisite skill. One moment he was caressing the tender flesh of Keeley’s shaft, the next moving up the silky contours to swipe a fingertip over the throbbing head. Despite Keeley’s best efforts, his cock was already weeping and Faolan smoothed the slick precum down along his skin. If the man’s hand had not been covering his mouth, they would most certainly be discovered, for Keeley could no longer hold back his groans of pleasure.
His breathing became ragged and his body flushed with heat as Faolan began to pump him in earnest. Suddenly, Rian’s voice cried out in rapture and instinctively Keeley opened his eyes. Larkin and Rian were locked together and the brunette’s body went rigid as his orgasm overtook him. Larkin followed, a strangled, heady growl announcing his release before he collapsed back in the chair, his lover atop him.
The erotic sight sent Keeley reeling and when Faolan’s mouth bent down to suck at the sensitive column of his neck, his senses overloaded. His back arched and his knees nearly buckled beneath him as the earl forced him to climax, milking the young man’s cock for all it was worth. For a second, Keeley’s vision went white, his rapture and his shame colliding in an orgasm so intense he thought he might pass out.
When he came back to his senses, Keeley found he was trembling. Looking down, he saw his trousers soiled with his own semen and shut his eyes again. He was too humiliated for words.
Behind him, Faolan held him gently and soothed his shaking limbs with his strong hands. His lips kissed and nipped along the line of his chin and nuzzled against one ear. Turning in his arms, Keeley looked up at him with large, doe eyes, the deep blue orbs troubled. Then he promptly buried his face in the man’s chest. Faolan leaned down and helped him tie his breeches.
“I didn’t know,” came Keeley’s muffled voice. Faolan cupped his chin and forced him to look up. “I didn’t know,” he repeated softly. “Is that really what you want to do to me… what Larkin did to Rian?”
“Yes,” Faolan replied without hesitation. It was useless to hedge the issue.
Keeley visibly trembled.
“I promise,” Faolan said with a seductive grin, “you’ll enjoy it.”
The young man in his arms didn’t reply. He did not appear convinced.
“In any case, you needn’t worry about anything tonight,” the earl said reassuringly. “Go back to bed, get some sleep. Today’s lesson is over,” he added with a lopsided smile.
Keeley nodded, but he doubted he would get any sleep that night.
Faolan gave the raven-haired young man a sweet, lingering kiss and sent him on his way.
The sound of muffled giggling filled the air as soon as Keeley was out of sight.
“You two seemed to enjoy yourselves,” Faolan said, turning and walking into the room. “You always do relish an audience.”
“How true,” Larkin replied, grinning. Rian was still naked and curled happily in the man’s lap.
“I hope we didn’t scare him,” Rian chuckled, unaffected by the fact he was nude in front of his employer.
“He’s really such an innocent, Faolan. Those adorable blue eyes. He looked quite appalled when I gave him a good eyeful of what we were doing,” said Larkin.
Rian pouted. “Adorable? Since when do you like the virginal type?”
“Don’t be jealous, my love. You know I need someone just as deviant as myself or it wouldn’t be any fun.”
Mollified, Rian snuggled close once more.
“And what about you?” Larkin asked, tilting his head toward Faolan. “You didn’t get release. Shall Rian and I go another round for your benefit?”
His friend gave him a smirk. “How gallant of you, but no. I think I will leave you two to yourselves.”
“Very well. Sweet dreams,” Larkin replied.
When Faolan had departed, Rian looked thoughtful. “It’s difficult for them, isn’t it?”
Larkin stroked his lover’s slender back and looked down at him with a warm smile. “I suppose it is.”
Rian slipped his arms about Larkin’s waist and squeezed. “I’m glad I have you,” he whispered.
Faolan tossed and turned. Though he usually slept well, his nights had been disturbed for some time now. His restlessness did not bode well. The earl was certain that it was an ill omen. But unlike usual, he could not pin down the reasons underlying his agitation.
As he struggled for sleep, his door slowly creaked open.
“Who’s there?” he asked sharply.
Two cool blues eyes studied him from the doorway. “It’s me.”
“Keeley?” Faolan asked groggily. The boy’s voice sounded strange.
The young man stepped inside the room and shut the door behind him. Without another word, he proceeded to slip out of his thin white nightgown and stood before Faolan completely naked. His pale skin shone a golden, bronze color in the firelight.
“Keeley, what are you-?”
“It’s no good, you know,” the young man said, in a voice that was not his own.
Faolan’s emerald eyes surveyed him with alarm as he stepped up to the bed. Keeley’s eyes were glowing with an unnatural, fiery light.
“Keeley’s body will be mine… soon,” the cold voice said, running his palm down the length of Keeley’s torso suggestively.
“What are you?” Faolan hissed.
He watched as the young man jumped onto the bed and straddled him. Faolan made to push him off, but found the body above him as cold and unmovable as steel.
“I told you, there is nothing you can do,” the figure said, leaning over the earl. He bent low and sank his teeth into the man’s shoulder. “You love him, don’t you?” the evil voice whispered with a snicker.
Through clenched teeth, Faolan called out in a commanding tone, “Keeley, come back!”
Abruptly, the young man pulled back and the earl was looking again at the Keeley’s sky blue eyes, but they were filled with distress.
“Faolan—help me! Help me!” the boy cried.
And then Keeley was falling, falling into darkness and Faolan could not reach him.
The earl sat up in bed with a start.
The dreams were growing worse, and still he could not interpret them. It had never been like this before. Faolan had always been able to evaluate the messages of his intuition with a clear, detached mind, but when it came to Keeley his judgment was compromised. He didn’t know what was truth and what was simply anxiety created from his own concerns over the boy.
Although it galled him, Faolan would have to wait, biding his time before he could discern where the real danger was coming from. Shoving off his blankets, he decided to get an early start on the day. The first cold grey light of morning was opening over the fields outside his window and he would get no more sleep in any case.
In his own room, Keeley was waking reluctantly as well. The nights had not been kind to him. Winter’s cold grip was settling over the land and the evenings were becoming increasingly chill. More than ever the young man longed to be snuggled close to Faolan’s side when he dozed off to sleep. Yet his shock over discovering the secrets of sex had caused him to keep his distance from the earl over the past few weeks. He was jumpy and easily startled whenever Faolan was near him. He couldn’t get the images of Larkin and Rian together out his mind and his anxiety grew. Could he really allow Faolan to do such a thing to him? He could hardly believe that he’d enjoy it, although Rian had seemed to like it well enough. Keeley couldn’t seem to make up his mind.
Rather than displaying irritation at his indecisive behavior, Faolan seemed amused, though in truth the man’s patience was wearing. He didn’t want to rush Keeley and he enjoyed the way the young man flushed a brilliant scarlet red whenever he teased him, but he had his limits. If it hadn’t been for the unpleasant guest arriving any day, the red-haired man might have broken down and seduced Keeley, but preparations needed to be made and his mind was distracted for the time being. Moreover, a growing unease regarding Keeley’s safety was building within him with each passing day. Since Faolan’s insight was blinded by his feelings for Keeley, he knew he had to be particularly cautious.
The earl tried to hide his restlessness from the young man, but the night before their guest arrived, Keeley overheard a heated conversation between Faolan and Larkin that unsettled him.
Keeley had been moving some of his things to his temporary room in the servant’s wing when he passed the large study. He caught the sound of raised voices and stopped just outside the door. He was making a bad habit of eavesdropping, the young man reflected ruefully as he stood in the shadows near the door.
“Why should Bishop Rudwig want to come here? I still don’t understand,” came Larkin’s voice from inside the room.
“I am one of the wealthiest landowners in the area. It’s not that strange he’d request to stay here on his way through Ireland,” Faolan answered.
“It wouldn’t be strange, except that you know rumors have circulated that you’re a sympathizer for the Catholics—and they’ve only increased since you took in Keeley. Rudwig wants to spy on your activities, and you’re going to let him walk right through your front door!”
There was a pause and Keeley knew Faolan was angered. “You have already voiced your opinion on this issue, have you not? How would it have looked if I refused and he had to come here on ‘official’ business to evaluate my loyalties to the Church? Would that have been better?”
Larkin did not reply.
“In any case,” Faolan said, his voice more collected, “he’ll be arriving soon and there is little we could do now to change plans now. I suggest we do our best to be hospitable.”
“Faolan,” Larkin said after a moment, his voice low, “You know something is watching us. It’s drawing calamity to us, especially to Keeley. Are you planning to do nothing about it?”
“I am doing all I can. If you wish for someone like Her Ladyship to get involved, I suggest you ask her yourself. I will request nothing more from her.”
Keeley heard the earl’s footsteps making for the door and quickly made his exit. For a long time afterwards he sat in his room, pondering what he had just overheard.
His head spun with questions. A Bishop was coming to visit?
When Faolan had first told him about this guest, Keeley had assumed the man was someone the earl was close with, even if he was dangerous. After all, the man seemed to know many questionable characters, if his relations with Far Dorocha, the Dark Man, were anything to go by. Faolan had been able to handle that situation and Keeley assumed he would be confident in his dealings with this guest as well, even if the Bishop was as dangerous as he warned. It had not occurred to Keeley that Faolan might actually be in a very precarious position.
It seemed extreme that the Protestant church would send someone to investigate the earl when the man was so popular and charismatic within his community. Keeley had always thought Faolan could charm his way out of anything. Then again, if what Larkin said was true, Keeley was more to blame for Faolan’s predicament than anyone else. Somehow word must have gotten out that Faolan had taken a member of the Brotherhood into his household and it had enflamed the rumors of the earl’s disloyalty. Of course, Keeley’s association with the secret organization of Catholic activists wasn’t terribly strong; he hadn’t been with them long and he didn’t speak to them often now. Yet it would be enough if someone was looking for a reason to question the earl’s loyalty to the Church.
Keeley felt sick. After all his complaints about the nature of Faolan’s guest and the man’s reasons for shutting him up in the servants’ quarters, Keeley was actually the one to blame for the unfortunate circumstances. Faolan had only been working to protect them both, just as he had said.
But that still did not answer all of Keeley’s questions. What was watching them? And who was ‘Her Ladyship’? The young man knew he should let things be, that he should trust Faolan and stop meddling in his affairs, but now that he knew this much, he knew he would not be satisfied until he found out all the answers.
With his questions burning in his mind, Keeley made his way back to the study. To his relief, he found Larkin alone and stepped inside. Keeley wasn’t sure he wanted to demand answers directly from Faolan. Perhaps he would have better luck asking his friend for information.
“Good evening, Keeley.”
“Good evening,” the young man replied softly. Now that he was here, Keeley had no idea how to begin. He couldn’t very well admit he had been listening at the door.
“Shall I call Rian for some tea?” the blond man asked, reaching for the bell.
“No. I mean… I was hoping we could talk alone.”
Larkin cocked an eyebrow. “Indeed?” the man replied, setting down the book in his hands. “And just what did you need to talk about?”
There was no smooth way to transition into the topic; Larkin would see through any such attempts. Therefore, Keeley made no pretenses, and spoke plainly. “Is Faolan in some kind of trouble? With this guest, I mean?”
Larkin smiled. “Faolan can take care of himself, you’ve no need to worry.”
Keeley hung his head. “But it’s my fault somehow, isn’t it?”
Ah, so the boy had heard them after all, Larkin thought. His powers of perception had been weakened lately. With the constant sense of watchfulness hovering about them, Larkin’s ability to read the energies around him had been muddled and confused. Although the man had thought he caught Keeley’s presence outside the door, he had not been certain until now.
“No, Keeley, it’s not your fault. Everyone makes their own choices, for good or ill. Faolan knows what he’s doing.”
The young man was quiet for a time, then said slowly, “But he never tells me anything. Doesn’t he trust me?”
Larkin’s conscious tugged at him as he watched the sorrowful lines of Keeley’s face, the pleading light in his eyes.
“It’s not that simple.”
“But if you’d only explain things to me—”
“That’s not my place, Keeley.”
Frustrated, the boy’s temper began to kick in. His expression changed and his blue orbs turned icy. “You and Faolan enjoy keeping your secrets, don’t you?”
Larkin man was startled by the boy’s swift change in demeanor. He’d seen Keeley angry many times, but he had never borne the brunt of it himself.
“Calm down,” Larkin warned him.
In his anger, Keeley lost his caution—and his patience. “What is Faolan hiding from me? And who’s ‘Her Ladyship’? Damn it, I’m tired of being shut out!”
Larkin’s eyes narrowed on him, but he remained seated impassively in his chair as Keeley stood and glared at him.
“Shouldn’t you be asking your lover these things?” the blond asked coolly.
“He’s not my lover!”
Shrugging, Larkin replied, “Faolan reveals what he wants to reveal. I don’t have your answers.” He rose. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Keeley watched the man leave and was left feeling like a fool. He stood in the middle of the room, fists clenched at his sides as he fought his angry tears.
The closer he became to Faolan, the more he began to realize how little he actually knew about the man. Keeley recalled the earl telling him that there would be certain things he would have to keep hidden from him. At the time, he had been able to accept it, but now Keeley began to wonder how he could long so badly for someone he barely knew.
The next morning dawned grey and cold. The Bishop was expected to arrive that afternoon. Keeley sat on his small cot, feeling miserable. He berated himself for getting so used to the comfort and luxury of his old room. Had he grown so soft that facing one week in a regular servant’s room would seem so impossibly bleak?
His dreary thoughts were pushed from his head at the sound of horses coming up toward the estate. Rushing to the window, the young man saw an unbelievably lavish carriage lead by four midnight-black steeds, pull up through the front gate.
So the Bishop was early. Faolan would be annoyed, Keeley thought. He couldn’t help grinning at the thought. Everything always seemed to go just as the earl planned, it was amusing to know that not everything and everyone was at the man’s beck and call.
When he saw the Bishop emerge from his ornate coach, however, Keeley’s smile faded. Even at a distance he could tell the man was every bit as dangerous as Faolan had warned.
As the Bishop stepped down from the carriage, the man’s shoulder-length dark hair blew slightly in the breeze and his shapely mouth grinned at Faolan as the earl bowed in greeting. Keeley would have considered the man handsome, had it not been for Rudwig’s cold grey eyes and the arrogance that hung over him like a cloak. He moved with an oiled, unsettling kind of grace. The man resembled a snake that had only recently clothed itself in human form and still moved as if in its former, slick body. Keeley felt the figure standing before Faolan quite capable of unhinging his jaw and eating the other man alive.
All in all, Rudwig hardly looked like a man of the cloth.
The Bishop held out his hand and Faolan kissed his jeweled fingers with obvious displeasure. Keeley could see the gems glittering in the morning light. For a holy man, Rudwig certainly had no qualms about living a decadent lifestyle.
The earl led Rudwig into the house and Keeley lost sight of them.
“Ah, I see you have Benedict’s Practica Rerum Criminalium,/i>,” Rudwig said with a smile as he glanced at the shelves in Faolan’s parlor.
“Yes,” was all Faolan replied. He refrained from mentioning that he only owned the book as a curiosity on misguided ethics and paranoia. The Practica was a Protestant guide on the detection of witchcraft, possession, and sorcery. Its contents were used to justify many of the more recent witch-hunts that had taken place in mainland Europe. “A great work. I’ve spoken with judge Carpzow on several occasions. A brilliant man, but misunderstood by many.”
Faolan did not reply. Judge Benedict Carpzow was the man responsible for the uprising of witch burnings in Poland. Although the witch-hunting frenzy had died out years before in almost every other European country, Benedict had revived the practice with relish and no small number of innocent men and women had died on his account. Rudwig was even more dangerous than Faolan had anticipated. Anyone who held Benedict in esteem had to be slightly cracked himself.
Though the Bishop tried Faolan’s patience and forced him to constantly be on alert, the week went along without mishap. Until, that is, the second to last day of Rudwig’s visit. Faolan received word that two of his tenets had gotten into a heated dispute and had come to blows. The issue had escalated over the past several days until both men’s families were pulled in and there was serious threat of bloodshed. Being the overseer, the earl was called in to quell the dispute before matters spiraled further out of hand.
Faolan gave a heavy sigh when he received the report. With the Bishop so close to departure, he hated to leave and take the chance that something might happen, but he had little choice. The feuding men would most likely refuse anyone’s verdict on the matter except for the earl himself, and Faolan couldn’t take the chance that the dispute would elevate into a more severe conflict while the Bishop was around to hear word of it. If Faolan couldn’t control his own tenants, it would reflect poorly on him and might give the abominable man an opening to accuse him of mismanaging his lands.
Therefore, with great reluctance, the earl prepared to depart. If he left early, he could be back by late afternoon. Surely nothing could happen in so short a time? But Faolan was uneasy. He knew better than to assume that time alone would save him. If fate was against him, disaster might strike quickly and he would be unable to intercede. He left after speaking with Larkin and imparting upon his friend the responsibility of the household.
“Don’t worry,” his friend reassured him, “I won’t let Rudwig out of my sight.”
Faolan nodded; there was nothing more he could do. He gave the Bishop his regrets and left.
Unfortunately, the squabble between the two men took hours to iron out. Faolan’s anxiety grew with each passing hour and his impatience with the feud heightened until he finally had to threaten to throw both of them off their land unless they signed an agreement.
On the way home, Faolan ordered the coachman to double his pace and hasten back to the estate.
As they pulled up to the gate, Faolan knew immediately that something was wrong. The tall door to the entrance of the house was gaping wide open. Not waiting for the carriage to come to a stop, he jumped out and ran up the steps and inside. The rug in the reception hall was buckled, as if someone had dragged something heavy across it or there had been a struggle.
The house answered him with only silence. Filled with a panic he had never known, Faolan ran up the steps and searched the rooms frantically for Keeley, heedless of the fact that he might also stumble upon his guest in the process. But there was no sign of Keeley or the Bishop.
He made his way back to the front door to search the grounds, but stopped as he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the steps. In the next moment Larkin appeared in the doorway, carrying Rian on his back.
“What happened?” Faolan asked, full of concern. One of Rian shoes had been pulled off and his exposed ankle looked purple and swollen.
“Just a little mishap,” Larkin replied.
“I’ll have someone fetch a doctor immediately,” the earl replied, ringing the bell to the servant’s quarters. “Where is Keeley? Is he with you?”
The men looked at each other and shook their heads. “He’s not here?” Larkin asked.
“Neither he nor the Cardinal are inside the house. I was just going to search the grounds.”
Larkin shook his head. “You won’t find them there, we just came over the fields ourselves, we would have seen them.”
Now Faolan’s panic turned to anger. “And what we you two doing out there? Joy riding? I gave you strict orders never to leave Keeley alone with that man!”
Larkin gave him a sharp look. “I cannot be everywhere at once!” he snapped. “The Bishop wanted to take a stroll around the grounds, so we escorted him. We had not gone long when he said he had forgotten something and needed to turn back. We were going to follow but Rian had the bad luck to stumble over a hidden bramble on the side of the path. He nearly tumbled down the ravine, but I caught him. His foot, however, was caught and twisted. It took us some time to free his ankle without damaging it further and the Bishop did not wait for us.”
The explanation eased Faolan’s wrath, but his worry increased.
The earl’s brooding silence only irritated Larkin. “Would you have preferred if I left Rian there in the ditch?” he demanded.
Faolan passed a hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry, Larkin. No, I suppose there was nothing you could have done. I’m afraid whatever power has been working against us lately has just scored a victory in its favor, though.”
Larkin looked at Faolan and the uncharacteristically tense aura about his friend’s body unsettled him. A sinking feeling hit his stomach. Something terrible was about to happen.
Keeley was sitting in the kitchens when the summons came. The young man had spent most of the week there, helping out where he could and enjoying a few stray delicacies slipped to him by the cooks. The women who worked in the kitchens knew that Keeley’s relationship with the earl was unusual, but they did not begrudge him the special treatment Faolan showed him. After all, their master treated them well and it would have been difficult to hold anything against the young man, with his handsome features and vibrant temperament. Moreover, most of the staff had heard about the tragic way Keeley had been orphaned and their hearts went out to him. There was something about the blue-eyed, raven-haired young man that made one want to protect him from any further misfortune.
As Keeley began kneading a new batch of dough for the lunch rolls, the bell for the upper-floor study rang. He paid it no heed. Rian would see that tea was brought up, as usual—or so Keeley assumed.
However, time passed and the severant did not appear. Where was Rian? Keeley wondered. It wasn’t like him to let a guest wait; Rian was usually quite prompt with fetching the afternoon tea.
When the bell rang once again, one of the older servants, Mr. Cohan, came rushing into the kitchens.
“What are you doing sitting around?” the man huffed, eying Keeley. “Don’t you hear the bell?”
“But, I thought Rian always—” he stumbled.
“Well, Rian is out at the moment and Sir Rudwig is waiting!”
Keeley was irritated with Cohan’s commanding tone. “Why can’t you do it?” he asked to the older servant.
The man looked back at him with a sharp glance. Cohan had nothing against Keeley and had as much empathy for the boy’s past misfortunes as anyone, but the morning had brought one trouble after another and the man was worn and stressed.
“Do I look like I’m appropriately attired to serve his Lordship?” Cohan retorted. “I’ve just come from killing the chickens for supper and there’s more to do besides.”
Keeley bit his lip and regretted snapping at the other man.
“Keeley, see here,” the man said in a gentler voice, “I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t myself, if I had a free moment. I know you’re situation with the earl is--special, but we’re in a bind. You’re the only free hand left. Surely you can take care of this?”
If the man had yelled and riled at him, Keeley might have been able to refuse, but Cohan’s genuine request made Keeley horribly conflicted. He worried that Cohan would think he was making excuses if he said that he wasn’t allowed to go into the main wing of the house.
The bell rang again and Keeley bit his lip.
Wouldn’t it be bad for Faolan if the Bishop complained that he’d been neglected during his stay? And surely it wouldn’t cause any problems if he simply dropped the tea off and left? After all, the Bishop wouldn’t even know who he was.
Keeley was tired of feeling useless the entire week. Running this errand was a small thing, but he would be helping out in his own way and the other servants would appreciate it. He hated looking like a spoiled child that was constantly pampered by the earl and never earned his keep. Therefore, he took a deep breath and accepted the task.
“That’s a good lad,” Cohan said, with a pat on the back.
The bell rang again, impatiently, and Keeley scurried to assemble the tray, then made his way as quickly as he could to the study.
“About time,” Rudwig said, in a quiet tone of annoyance.
“Sorry, your Grace.”
The teacups rattled in the dishes as Keeley set the tray down on the low table. Rudwig’s eyes were focused on him with predatory intensity. Rudwig read the boy’s nerves easily enough—and it pleased him.
Ignoring the disconcerting gaze, Keeley bowed and turned to flee the room as quickly as possible when he felt a cold hand grip his wrist.
“Stay a bit,” the Bishop said.
“You require something else, your Grace?”
“Just a few moments of your time. That is all I ask.”
Keeley couldn’t think of a reasonable way to refuse him. He nodded.
For a moment, Rudwig said nothing, but simply sat back and assessed him. Keeley shifted uneasily. He felt horribly on display and hopeless to do anything about it.
Finally, the Bishop asked, “You’re the earl’s little Catholic boy, aren’t you?” Rudwig grinned at the startled look on the young man’s face and went on without waiting for an answer. “I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Struggling to force down his shock and dismay, Keeley tried to keep his voice level as he replied, “Your Grace, I think it would be best to wait for Fa—the earl to return before we discuss anything.”
“Why?” the man asked smoothly, dark gaze pinning him. “Are you trying to hide something? Is he?”
“N-no!” Keeley answered too quickly. “I mean…” he stopped, swallowing hard. What a mess he was making of things. He was going to be in hot water when Faolan discovered he had broken his promise, at the very least he wanted to refrain from saying anything he shouldn’t.
“I just—” he stopped. The Bishop had taken a hold of his hand and Keeley shuttered at the unpleasant touch.
“You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your master, would you?”
“No,” the young man replied, looking distressed.
“Then you’ll do as I say, is that clear?”
As he watched the emotions shift across Keeley’s face, Rudwig had to do his best to hide his increasing glee. This boy was going to fit his purposes perfectly.
All week he had been biding his time and waiting for just the right opportunity. All Rudwig needed was one servant from inside the earl’s home to confess that the man was plotting against the Church and he could finally bring forth formal charges against him. At first, the Bishop had thought Faolan’s other young servant, Rian, would do nicely, but the young man had proved surprisingly resourceful.
The first time he had been alone with Rian, things had looked promising, but they had quickly soured.
“So, you are the earl’s valet?” Rudwig had asked the young servant earlier.
“Yes, your Grace.”
“You’re quite young. Have you been in his service long?” the Bishop had asked, though he already knew the answer. He’d done his research.
“A couple of years, your Grace.”
“He acquired you from a brothel, isn’t that right, Rian?”
The young servant’s reaction had not been what he had expected or hoped for. Rudwig had been anticipating a look of shock and horror over the brunette’s lovely features, but the boy remained unmoved. In fact, he smiled.
“Why, yes,” he replied. “Perhaps you’d care to know the location. I’ve heard you enjoy such entertainments yourself.”
The Bishop had dismissed him then. There was no need for further discussion, he would not get what he wanted from the valet. So the earl’s household was not without its own sources of information, he mused. Touché.
However, Rudwig now had his second chance and he was not about to let it slip away. Unlike Rian, this boy did not appear to have any knowledge to use against him. More importantly, however, Keeley seemed to lack the surety and confidence the other servant possessed. Surely he could bend this one to his will—or break him, which would be far more amusing.
“Come with me, boy,” the Bishop commanded, taking a firm hold on the young man’s arm. “Unless you want to see your master fall into shame and ruin.”
Keeley’s heart pounded as he was pulled along the hallways and down the stairs toward the front door. His thoughts were spinning as he tried desperately to find a way out the situation. Of course he didn’t want to cause Faolan any more trouble than he had, but how much was he willing to sacrifice on his behalf? Moreover, Rudwig did not seem the type of man who would keep his word. Keeley hesitated and yanked against at the Bishop’s grip.
“If you know what’s best for you and your master, you’ll follow me,” he said darkly.
It was no good. Keeley’s instincts were screaming and he refused to take another step. The young man felt with a certainty deep in his bones that if he followed the Bishop now, he might never come back.
“Let me go,” Keeley said suddenly in a firm, steady voice. Now that his mind was made up, his will was resolute.
Rudwig looked at him with a scowl and then, more disturbingly, a smirk. The boy had a backbone after all it seemed. He’d enjoy beating that stubbornness out of him.
“I gave you the choice to come willingly. You’re only going to make things harder for yourself, you know.”
Keeley was not daunted. “I said let me GO!” he shouted the last word and gave the Bishop a hard, swift kick.
Unfortunately, this was not enough to break the man’s steely grip.
“You’ll pay for that!” Rudwig hissed, all attempt at civility abandoned.
Keeley swung his arm back to strike out at his captor, but the Bishop was quicker. He caught his fist and twisted the boy’s arm behind his back.
Gasping in pain, Keeley felt the man’s other hand smother his mouth and Rudwig’s unpleasant breath caressed his cheek. “You’ve got some fire in you, boy. In this case, though, I’m afraid it won’t help you much.”
To his alarm, Keeley found the man’s words to be true. No matter how much he fought, the young man was no match for the Bishop and soon found himself overpowered. Keeley was dragged unceremoniously down the front hall and when he continued to squirm, he heard Rudwig curse.
“You’ve brought this on yourself,” came the man’s sinister whisper.
A sharp pain exploded against the side of Keeley’s forehead and everything went black.
Keeley blinked his eyes open and groaned. His head pounded with a throbbing, painful ache and his body was leaning back against cold, unforgiving stone. The young man’s vision was momentarily blurred and he couldn’t see where he was. His groggy brain tried to recall what had happened. The last thing he remembered was struggling with the Bishop and then everything had gone black. He reached a hand up to examine his aching skull, but discovered his action was inhibited by a chain binding his wrist. The realization forced him fully awake and looking around, he saw to his alarm that he was shackled to the wall of what appeared to be a prison cell. His arms were hanging above him on chains that hung down from hooks embedded higher up on the wall behind him.
“Ah, you’ve finally come around,” came a familiar voice from the shadows.
Keeley saw the hateful Bishop Rudwig reveal himself and his blood boiled at the sight of him. “You bastard.”
“Such language,” the man replied with a snicker. “Considering the position you’re in, it’s not very diplomatic to be so rude.”
“What is it you want?” Keeley demanded, his eyes narrowed in contempt.
“Your master has told you nothing, I see.”
Keeley continued to stare daggers at him and did not reply.
“I came to visit your master to gather information on him, or rather to confirm the information I already had that he was a sympathizer for the Catholic cause and a traitor to the Church. I’m sure he knew as much and he’s been on his best behavior all this week. However-” the Bishop paused and kneeled down before his captive. “All I need to bring him down is someone to testify against him… and you are going to do it.”
Keeley actually laughed. “Like hell I will.”
In response, the Bishop smiled. “You think you’re brave, don’t you? You won’t feel that way in a few minutes when you’re begging me for mercy.”
The young man’s blue eyes grew hard and serious at these words. “You’ll never get that kind of satisfaction from me. Never.”
“Won’t I?” Rudwig replied, running a finger down Keeley’s cheek. He jerked his head away defiantly.
The Bishop smirked, but said nothing and stood.
“I’m originally from Poland. Did you know that?” he asked, waving a couple of his men into the cell. “We have been besieged by the devil there for years. People there questioned my tactics, but I knew there were still witches to be burned and I saw to it. This little country of yours hasn’t seen many burnings. Maybe that’s why I feel the presence of the devil so strongly here.”
“If there is any devil here, it’s you!” Keeley spat.
“You heathens need taming!” Rudwig retorted, his anger flaring. “You call yourselves Christians, but you still keep up your pagan rituals! This country needs shaking up and I’ve come here to instill the fear of God in you!”
The Bishop leaned over him and brought his face close to Keeley’s own. The man’s dark eyes looked him over with an intensity that was most disconcerting. Despite Rudwig’s dark, striking looks, Keeley was repulsed by his nearness. He fought the urge to turn away. He would not cower before him.
“I can feel the hatred in your stare, boy. You’d be wise to save your defiance for another time. It won’t do you much good here.”
Rudwig righted himself. “Now, are you going to tell me what I want to hear, or do I need to beat it out of you? I assure you I have no qualms about using whatever means necessary to break you. And I’ll quite enjoy it.”
“You’re sick,” Keeley threw back at him. “Do your worst. I’ll never betray Faolan.”
“Hmph. Such devotion to your master,” Rudwig sneered.
As he held out his hand, one of the servants from behind him stepped forward and set a long, painful-looking whip in the man’s hands. “You’re really only hurting yourself, you know,” the Bishop warned him. “I plan to break you one way or another. Faolan is a blight on the church’s reputation and I will take him down—with the information you provide me.”
At Rudwig’s command, his two servants walked over and yanked the boy to his feet. Keeley struggled against them, more to show his defiance than anything else. He knew he could not escape. While one of the men pushed him into the wall to hold him still, the other grabbed his shirt and ripped it up the back to reveal the pale, soft skin of Keeley’s back.
To his disgust, he felt the Bishop’s fingers graze his back.
“Lovely,” the man murmured. “It’s a shame to mar such flawless white skin. Are you sure you won’t reconsider?”
“Go to hell!”
“Defiant to the last, I see.”
Keeley heard the Bishop shift behind him and knew he was readying the whip. Gritting his teeth, the young man gathered his courage and prepared for the first strike.
The whip hissed in the air and came down across Keeley’s back with a loud crack. His eyes went wide in shock. His head fell back, but he did not cry out. His scream was caught in his throat and strangled by his surprise. Keeley had never been whipped before and he had not imagined such pain was possible.
What he did not know was that the Bishop’s whip was a design of the man’s own cruel invention. The leather used for the tail of the whip had been studded with fine, needle-like barbs that tore and ripped the skin.
Knowing nothing of this, Keeley felt himself flooded with shame as he cried out when the whip licked his back a second time. He had not even lasted through the second stroke. His eyes filled with angry tears and by the fourth strike he was shaking uncontrollably.
The Bishop’s smooth steps came up behind him and the man’s face suddenly appeared at Keely’s side. Rudwig leered at him with a gratified smile.
“Ready to confess your master’s betrayal?”
In too much agony to speak, Keeley leveled his eyes at the man and gave him such a look of loathing and detest that his answer was made clear without being vocalized.
The Bishop’s ensuing laughter sent a chill down Keeley’s spine. “No need to hurry, we can keep this up for hours.” His voice lowered to a sinister whisper, “No one will ever find you here.”
The earl reined in his horse and paused.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Larkin asked, pulling up to his side. They had been riding for hours, chasing down the trail of the Bishop’s coach, but a fine rain had begun to pour, erasing the tracks and leaving them at a loss.
Faolan clutched the side of his head as if he were in pain. Keeley, I hear you! I’m coming! “This way!” he said suddenly. The earl’s horse sprung forward and Larkin followed his lead.
As the next strike of the whip fell across Keeley’s bloody back, he almost thought he heard Faolan’s voice, from far away, calling to him. It gave him hope. The man had never failed to save him before. Surely he wouldn’t fail now.
Rudwig’s arm was growing tired from the whipping. The boy’s stubbornness surprised him, but it would make breaking him that much more satisfying. Moreover, Keeley’s gasps and choked whimpers of pain were starting to inflame the Bishop’s lusts. The man found himself growing hard as he watched Keeley’s body tremble in anguish, and a fierce urge to make the boy submit in every way filled him.
“Turn him around,” Rudwig suddenly commanded. He stepped in front of Keeley and took the young man’s chin in his hands, lifting his head. Keeley looked dazed with pain, but the rebellious light had not faded from his eyes. He looked particularly enticing, as he stood there, trembling, helpless and yet defiant.
“You tempt me, boy. I sense the devil in you.”
Keeley spat at him.
The Bishop wiped his robes and his eyes smoldered. “You long for punishment. You want me to lose control. I’ll show you the price for setting your lustful thoughts inside my flesh!” The man began to disrobe and Keeley’s blue eyes filled with sudden horror.
“No…” he whispered.
“It’s too late to plead for mercy,” Rudwig said, handing his outer robe to one of the servants. “Your soul is black. I’ve seen it.”
“You’re mad!” Keeley shouted, finding his voice. “Don’t you dare touch me!”
The Bishop ignored him and unlaced his breeches, revealing his engorged member.
Keeley shook his head wildly, “No, no, NO!”
“Turn him back around,” Rudwig commanded.
The dark-haired boy kicked and screamed, but he soon found himself pinned to the stone wall with the Bishop’s body pressing in behind him.
His heart was beating madly. This couldn’t be happening. Any moment Faolan would arrive and save him. He had to.
“Give me a cloth to wipe the blood off his back. It’ll stain my clothes,” Rudwig said impatiently. The wet rag felt like sandpaper against Keeley’s torn skin and he cried out in agony.
A hand closed over his mouth. His trousers were shoved down his thighs.
“You’ve brought this on yourself.”
In the next moment, Keeley felt his body forcibly invaded by the Bishop’s hard shaft. Fresh tears sprang to his eyes. Faolan… where are you?
The boy’s tortured cries were muffled behind Rudwig’s hand as the man’s cock stretched him wide.
Rudwig grunted behind him as he sank his full length deep into the boy’s channel. Then, he began to move. Keeley’s virgin portal protested, but there was little he could do but endure his punishment. Each thrust was more painful, and they only increased in force and frequency the longer Rudwig tormented him. The man couldn’t help himself, the boy was unbelievably tight, and he fucked him with relish.
Why? Keeley thought. Why is this happening?
The Bishop was overwhelmed by the young man’s tight grip and his vulnerable state and soon he was spilling forth into the boy’s body. Keeley wanted to retch when he felt Rudwig’s semen slip down his legs as he withdrew.
His lust sated, the Bishop slipped back into his robes and surveyed the young man before him. Keeley’s legs had given out and he had collapsed into a heap on the floor. The young man’s mind was spinning in pain and humiliation. More powerful than either of these, however, was Keeley’s despair. The Bishop had kidnapped and raped him… and Faolan had not come.
“Let that be a lesson to you, my boy,” Rudwig said. “I’ll be back tonight, for your testimony against the earl. I hope you will be in a more cooperative mood by then.” Saying this, the Bishop motioned for his servants to follow him out. The cell door locked with a loud, hollow clang.
Keeley was left, bloody and bruised on the cold stone. The acuteness of his torment plunged his soul into a despair he had never known. Tears flowed forth unchecked down his cheeks and his mind drifted into unconsciousness.
“Here,” the earl said, pulling his horse up at what looked to be an abandoned, crumbling prison.
“Are you sure?” Larkin asked. When he dismounted, however, the blond man saw evidence of recent traffic in the mud leading to the building.
Faolan did not bother to answer. He was already running full-speed through the gaping front door. Though the earl’s horse was one of the fastest in the county, the mare could not fly fast enough to suit him. His mind had been tormented for hours with the echo of Keeley’s cries. It had galled the man that he could not even send a safety spell to protect the dark-haired boy. Without knowing Keeley’s exact location, there was little he could do. The earl had been forced to follow the boy’s cries until his intuition had caused him to halt at the old prison. Faolan could only hope that he wasn’t too late.
Larkin ran after his friend and followed the man’s footsteps as he heard him descend a staircase at the back of the building. In his rush, the blond nearly rammed into Faolan’s back. The redhead had stopped dead in his tracks when he reached the last step.
“Faolan, what is-?” Larkin stopped short as his eyes feel on a lone figure slumped in the back of the cell at the bottom of the stairs. They had found Keeley.
The young man lay unconscious, his hands hanging above him, wrists raw from pulling against the chains, the back of his shirt was torn and soaked red with blood. This alone would have been enough to root Faolan to the spot with horror, but it was not the worst of it. Keeley’s trousers bunched under his knees and his bruised backside was exposed for all to see. Someone had obviously had his way with him.
“Merciful God…” Larkin whispered, aghast.
When the blond’s eyes looked back at Faolan, he saw that the earl was quaking with suppressed rage. Faolan sprang forward, practically ripping the rusty cell door off its hinges as he ran into the cell and fell to his knees before the prostrate young man. He spoke a commanding word and the metal cuffs about Keeley’s wrists cracked, releasing him. Faolan took the young man’s limp form carefully into his arms and draped his own coat about him.
Larkin waited patiently near the stairs. When Faolan stood, cradling Keeley in his arms, he followed them wordlessly up the stairs.
The two men made their way hastily back to the earl’s estate, but Faolan was careful not to ride too roughly, least he cause further injury to Keeley’s already battered body. Larkin tried in vain to suppress his sensitivity to auras and energies, since Faolan was radiating a wrath that seeped into his brain and dizzied him with its intensity.
When they pulled up to the house, Rian came limping out to meet them.
“Did you find him? Is Keeley all right?” he asked anxiously. The servant gasped when he saw the limp form sheltered within the earl’s arms. “Keeley, is he…?”
“He’s been badly beaten,” Larkin answered as Faolan carefully dismounted. “Help get his room ready, Rian, and bring hot water and bandages.”
The young man nodded and went as quickly as he could with his crutch back into the house.
Larkin trailed behind Faolan and his charge. His fair face was shadowed with worry as he watched his friend walk through the door. Faolan’s rage had not lessened. The man’s seething, quiet anger disturbed him. Since the moment they’d entered the old prison, the earl had not spoken a word.
Servants rushed in and out of the room as Faolan settled Keeley into the bed and stripped the boy of his blood-soaked clothing. The earl’s emerald eyes were veiled as he examined and cleaned Keeley’s body, his emotions held in check, but barely. Rian anticipated his every need, handing the earl clean washcloths as he discarded the soiled ones. The servant’s grey eyes were filled with concern. He knew more than most the pain a whip could inflict and the shame of being violated. His heart ached for the other young man and he vowed to be especially attentive to Keeley as he recovered.
After Faolan had dressed Keeley’s wounds, he stood.
“Larkin,” the earl said, breaking his silence as he made his way to the door, “watch over him. See what you can do to encourage his healing. I’ll be back.”
“Faolan,” the blond called. The earl stopped. “Don’t kill him,” Larkin warned. “He’s still a Bishop. It would cause more trouble than it’s worth—for you and for Keeley—if you went too far.”
“I’m not going to kill him. That would make things too easy for him.”
With that, the earl left.
“Do you think it’ll be all right?” Rian asked, watching Faolan leave the room like a brooding black cloud.
“I think so,” Larkin replied, “I don’t think he’ll do anything too rash, once his head clears. In any case, he wouldn’t do anything that would end up endangering Keeley.”
Both men looked at the boy lying sprawled on his stomach on the bed. Rian sat down next to him and tenderly brushed the young man’s dark locks from his face. “I hope so,” Rian whispered.
When Faolan was back on his horse, with the cold wind in his face, his volatile rage settled into a more steely, resolute anger. His boiling blood calmed and he realized that he would need to formulate a plan before confronting the Bishop. However, he couldn’t take too much time or he risked Rudwig returning to the prison ahead of him. If Rudwig discovered he’d been found out, he’d flee before the earl could stop him.
Quickly calculating the swiftest course of action, Faolan spurred his horse forward. He would make certain that Rudwig was never able to harm another soul ever again.
Several hours later, the Bishop descended the steps of the decaying old prison, his mind filled with all the new ways he planned to violate the lovely creature chained up in the cell below. His men had gone before him, to check on the boy and make sure he was awake and ready when Rudwig arrived. The man could barely contain himself as he made his way down.
The sight that greeted him was not what he was expecting. His men were bound and gagged in a corner of the cell, and a stale puddle of blood was all the evidence left that Keeley had ever been there.
Running to free the mouth of one of his men, Rudwig shouted at him, “What the devil is going on? What have you let happen here! Useless pigs!” His delightful plans had been ruined, and Rudwig’s anger escalated as he realized someone had discovered him. He needed to know what damage had been done—and quickly. “Don’t just sit there gaping, you fool!”
“I—your Grace…” but the man’s words faded as he looked past the Bishop.
Sensing the presence of someone behind him, Rudwig stood abruptly and spun around, only to freeze in shock at the figure before him.
Faolan stood in the doorway of the cell, looking him over with the most chilling grin he’d ever seen.
“You look surprised to see me, your Lordship,” the earl said, with a condescending sneer.
Rudwig was speechless. How in Hell’s name had the man found him? But Rudwig did not remain cowed for long. He was far too used to the comfort and protection his title brought him; he didn’t yet know his peril.
“Whatever you think you know, you are mistaken,” the Bishop replied, finding his tongue.
“Is that so?” Faolan replied softly, the icy edge of his voice sending shivers down Rudwig’s spine despite his attempts to remain unaffected. The earl stepped into the cell, his green eyes filled with vengeance. More than anything, the man now resembled a wolf stalking its prey, and a wild bloodlust filled his emerald eyes. “Look what I’ve found,” Faolan said, revealing Rudwig’s own whip from behind his back. The other man swallowed hard. “I found it, along with all kinds of other interesting toys, in the back of the neighboring cell.”
Determined not to show his growing fear, the Bishop straightened his back and met Faolan’s eyes. “You can’t do anything to me. I’m protected by the Church. Your word would never be accepted over mine.”
The earl looked unfazed. He examined the beds of his fingernails as if conversing with someone at a dull noontime tea party. “That is why our business will never reach the ears of the Church.” Nodding behind him, two other men stepped from the shadows and advanced on the Bishop. “That’s enough talk for now, don’t you think?”
“W-what are you doing!” Rudwig bellowed as the men shackled him to the wall. His struggling did not help him. The man soon found himself with his arms stretched painfully above him. His face was pressed into the cold stone and he could not turn to see Faolan stride up behind him. “You can’t do this!” Rudwig yelled in a last-ditch attempt to escape from the situation, “I’ll have you stripped of your land and title if you lay so much as a finger on me!”
For a moment, there was silence and Rudwig strained his ears to try and discern what Faolan was doing.
“You disappoint me. I thought you’d be more eager to go under the whip,” Faolan said with a smirk. “You can’t tell me you’ve never been curious to see what it feels like to endure the torture you dole out so exuberantly?” Faolan asked, his chilly voice suddenly close to the other man’s ear. “Surely you’ve secretly longed to experience it. I am granting your wish. Aren’t you happy?”
“Bastard,” the Bishop spat, seething.
“Hmph,” Faolan murmured, backing away. “Prepare him,” he said sternly. The Bishop felt his robes torn and shredded, until his back was completely exposed.
“Tell me, Rudwig,” the earl said, “who knows you in Ireland, outside of high society and the clergy of Dublin?”
“What are you talking about?”
Faolan ignored him and eyed the man’s squirming with approval.
“What I mean,” he said, his voice dropping lower, “is that no one knows you are here, do they?”
“My superiors knew I was coming to see you,” the Bishop retorted. “If something happens to me, the Church will come down on you with the wrath of God!”
The Bishop meant for his words to sound filled with threat and power, but he lacked conviction. Faolan laughed coldly behind him.
“My dear Bishop,” the earl said, leaning over him, “who’s to say you ever even arrived at my home? My entire household will attest that you never did, and there is not a single soul who can vouch for your whereabouts. I’ve taken care of your men and no one else knows you in this part of the country.
“You see, in your eagerness to bring me down, you neglected to consider your own position.”
“If you plan on killing me, you can be sure someone will discover the blood on your hands!” Rudwig shouted.
“I am not going to sully myself by killing you.” The earl moved in close and whispered into the man’s ear, “But where you are going, none of your high society friends will ever come looking for you.”
Rudwig was sweating now. His body was beginning to ache and he wished Faolan would do whatever he was planning and get it over with. The wait was taking its toll.
“In a way, however, your old self will die,” the earl explained. “From now on, you will be known by the name of Simon Lowell, a criminal convicted of rape and child molestation. The whip marks on your back will attest to the punishment you received for this heinous crime.”
Then, without further warning, the earl let the whip fly.
Rudwig screamed. “Y-you can’t do this to me!” he grunted through clenched teeth.
Grabbing the man by the hair, Faolan yanked his head back. “You should thank me for sparing your life!”
The whip cracked and Rudwig cried out once more.
Faolan proceeded with a thorough whipping. His brow beaded with sweat before he finished. Though his wrath called out for more, Faolan stayed his hand. He wanted to ship Rudwig off that very night and he needed him in decent condition to do so—and he wanted Rudwig cognizant of every excruciating minute, in just enough pain to make his world miserable without it being enough to pass out.
Handing the whip to one of his men, Faolan ordered that the ex-Bishop’s wounds be cleaned and dressed, and his new clothes given to him. Stepping up the stairs to breathe in the fresh air, Faolan walked toward his waiting carriage. A second coach was parked behind him.
“He’s all yours,” the earl called to the dark figure inside the other coach.
When Faolan was finally settled back in his carriage and safely on his way, he breathed a deep sigh. He was glad to have the matter of the Bishop behind him. It had taken intense negotiations to have the paperwork for Rudwig’s new identity written up and notarized so quickly, and it had not been easy. However, Faolan had many connections—in many worlds—and he’d managed it well enough. Rudwig would be transported to a jail several hours to the south. Faolan did not anticipate hearing from the man any time soon.
Though he was satisfied that Rudwig was sufficiently ruined, the earl did not feel as much satisfaction as he had anticipated. Now that his anger had abated, his agitation and grief increased. No matter what he did to the Bishop, it would never erase what the man had done to Keeley. It would never free Faolan of the guilt that ate at him every time he recalled that horrible scene of finding the young man lying unconscious and bloody on the cell floor.
The earl had no way of knowing how Keeley would handle the trauma of his capture and rape. Faolan found himself in the difficult position of being able to offer little else but comfort and support. There were no spells or incantations that could put things right. He would simply have to wait and see. At least he could finally turn his full attention to Keeley’s recovery.
“How is he?” Faolan asked when he returned, rushing to Keeley’s side.
“Still unconscious,” Larkin informed him, “though that’s probably for the best. It’ll be easier for him to bear the pain and easier for us to tend to him, especially considering the nature of some of his injuries.”
Faolan nodded, his eyes never leaving Keeley.
“The doctor has been here and gone. He didn’t say much that we didn’t already know. I think we’d do better with an herb-wife. He did bind Rian’s ankle with a splint, however, and assured me nothing was broken, so it was not a waste of time.”
“Ah! Rian’s ankle,” Faolan said, “I’m sorry Larkin, I’d forgotten about it.” The earl rubbed his forehead, further aggravated with himself.
Larkin placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. After finding Keeley in such a state, it’s understandable. Hell, I forgot for a while, too. Rian is very good at disguising his pain. I’m sure he just didn’t want us to worry.”
“Still…” Faolan sighed. “Is he resting now?”
“Yes, though he wanted to stay and attend to Keeley.”
“I’ll go visit him later on.”
Faolan sat in a chair by Keeley’s bed and bowed his head. It was rare for him to feel such strain, but at that moment, it was as if the world and all the realms of Heaven weighed him down. He could hardly believe that so much had occurred in a single day. What had happened? Why had things gone so horribly awry?
He looked down at Keeley and wiped the boy’s brow. Keeley’s body was soaked with sweat and his breathing was heavy. Faolan glanced at Larkin, who now stood at his side.
“Have you tried to help him heal? Is Keeley’s body responding?” Faolan asked.
“Yes, his body accepts the energies well enough. His fever should break by morning, but he’s weak. It will still take some time for his body to recover even with the healing energies. It would go more quickly if he wasn’t so emotionally bruised.”
Faolan hung his head and brought Keeley’s hand to his forehead. “I could hear him calling for me,” he said, “but I couldn’t get to him fast enough.”
“It’s not your fault, Faolan,” Larkin said softly. He hated seeing his friend so anguished.
They sat in silence until something on the bed caught Faolan’s eye. Reaching out, he saw that Keeley still wore his locket, though the hairline fracture in the silver had finally cracked open completely. From within the locket, a strange red-golden light shimmered: a small lock of brilliant red hair, even brighter than Faolan’s own, poked through the crack.
Looking over his shoulder, Larkin examined the jewelry. “What do you make of that?”
The earl shook his head. “I’m not sure. Did you ever sense anything from the locket?” Faolan asked, curious if his friend had gotten the same strange aura from the small piece of silver.
Larkin did not respond right away. “Not at first, but more recently there was no mistaking the strong energy coming from it. Whatever spell was upon it has now broken. Did Keeley tell you anything about it?”
Leaning back into his chair, Faolan replied, “He said his mother gave it to him as some kind of protective talisman, though I suspect the locket was the source of a binding spell. Against what, I can’t say.”
“It unsettles me,” Larkin confessed.
Faolan nodded in agreement. “I wish I knew more about Keeley’s mother. If she crafted the spell, she must have been accomplished. When Keeley is well, I’ll have to ask him more about his family.” Faolan paused to look down at the dark-haired boy sleeping on the bed, and his brow knotted in concern.
“I’ll see if I can find out anything about the design on the silver in the meantime,” Larkin offered.
The door opened, and Rian tentatively peered inside. “May I come in?”
“I thought I told you to stay in bed?” Larkin said severely.
“You may come in, Rian,” Faolan said, his voice fatigued.
Larkin scowled at his friend for contradicting him, but Rian obeyed his master and stepped inside.
“Is there something I can do, Master Faolan? Anything?” the servant asked.
Faolan looked up at him and saw the concerned expression on the young man’s face. It was understandable that Rian would worry over Keeley. After all, Rian had been in very similar circumstances when the earl had taken him from the brothel.
“Yes, Rian, you can come and sit down and get off of that ankle of yours,” Faolan replied, surprising the young servant.
“I only twisted it a bit. It’s fine, really.”
“You’re limping. Now sit.”
The boy settled himself at the foot of the bed and Larkin walked over to him, tweaking his ear.
Larkin grinned down at him. “That’s what you get for disobeying me.”
“Is that all I get?” Rian teased suggestively. “Your punishments aren’t what they used to be, then.”
Leaning down Larkin whispered. “We’ll discuss the true extent of your punishment when we’re alone.”
For two days, Keeley remained mostly unconscious. He woke in fits and starts, often crying out for Faolan, but he was still delirious. After what the he’d endured, his mind was swimming in a murky world of twilight.
The other men worried and waited.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, Keeley blinked his eyes open to see the earl asleep in a chair at his bedside, the man’s hand holding his own.
“Faolan…” Keeley whispered in a weak voice. “What… happened?”
The other man was immediately awake. “Keeley!” he said, his voice filled with relief. The young man’s pale blue eyes looked back at him, lucid once more. Faolan was overjoyed. He wanted to wrap the boy in his arms, but his injuries prevented it. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” he whispered softly, caressing his hands through the Keeley’s dark hair.
“How are you feeling? Can I get you something?” the earl asked.
“Just stay with me,” he replied, giving Faolan’s hand a faint squeeze.
In a few minutes, Keeley had fallen back to sleep, but Faolan knew the young man was finally out of danger.
Or so he thought.
Although Keeley’s body recovered quickly over the next few days, the memory of his torture slowly sank him into depression. He lay in bed, his blue eyes cold and blank. His emotions were frozen, unable to process what had happened to him… and that Faolan had not been able to save him.
Larkin and Rian watched the young man anxiously. They were saddened by Keeley’s continued despondency, but it was equally disturbing to see how heavily the boy’s despair weighed on Faolan.
“Rian, perhaps you should talk to Keeley,” Larkin suggested. “Perhaps you could help relate to him.”
The servant shook his head. “He’s not ready. He’s still holding everything inside,” Rian replied. “Besides, I’m not the one he needs to talk to.”
Larkin knew he was right, but it pained him to see the way Keeley had shut down and how hard Faolan was taking the young man’s continued silence.
Keeley himself was torn. He wanted so badly to reach out to Faolan, but he could not bring himself to do so. His mind went back and forth. He blamed himself for breaking his word to Faolan and letting the Bishop get to him. He blamed Faolan for failing to rescue him, then reprimanded himself for being unreasonable.
Yet ever since Keeley had met Faolan, the man had been able to protect him from whatever crossed his path. Why hadn’t the earl been able to save him this time? The thought would not leave him. The young man had had such faith in the other man. Logically, Keeley knew the earl must have tried his best to find him, but his heart would not accept such rationalizations. He could not cope with his feelings of disappointment, even betrayal. Keeley knew he was being unfair and yet he could not stop himself. Nothing made sense anymore and so he sealed his feelings away, unable to deal with them.
As the days went by, he continued to grope for answers, but found none.
One night, when Faolan was collecting Keeley’s relatively untouched dinner plate, Keeley asked one of the questions pressing on his mind.
“What was possessing him?” Keeley asked abruptly.
Faolan set the tray onto one of the side tables and sat down. The earl was caught somewhat off-guard by the abrupt question, but relieved and pleased to hear Keeley’s voice. “What do you mean?”
The young man paused. “To be able to do such a thing to me… surely the Bishop was possessed by some sort of demon?”
Faolan’s heart felt as if it was being squeezed in a vise. Even though Keeley had been through so much in his life, even though he had lost his family at such a young age, he was still a child in many ways. Faolan was amazed that Keeley could remain so innocent after all he’d been put through, but Faolan sensed that the incident with Rudwig would be the final blow that stripped the boy of his childlike naiveté. The lesson was far too cruel.
“I’m afraid that was simply the man’s character, Keeley. People are often brutal and malicious without the help of evil spirits.”
It was a truth Keeley knew, but he still could not comprehend such a deep level of human cruelty. He could not imagine willfully inflicting such pain on others. It was too far from his own nature… and it frightened him. Keeley was suddenly filled with guilt at the thought that his own ordeal had somehow shaken him deeper than his own family member’s deaths. That loss would ache in his heart for the rest of his life, but their deaths had been an act of God, something he simply had to learn to live with. Keeley could still keep his parents and his sister alive in his heart. Their memory was not tainted. His world might have lost its color with their passing, but it was a world that had still made sense to him.
Now, however, all that had changed. He had been exposed to a side of humanity he had never wanted to face—it was dark and sinister and did not seem to adhere to the rules of the world that Keeley had built for himself. His foundations had been shaken. How was he ever to feel safe again?
He’d been able to accept his family’s deaths as God’s will. (It was the only way he could accept them all.) But Rudwig, what the man had done to him—certainly God did not intend for that to happen? And if God had not intended it, did that mean Keeley was at the Devil’s mercy? That there was no one and nothing to shield him?
The earl watched the emotions shift across Keeley’s face. He saw the despair in his eyes, the confusion. Bitterness seeped into the young man’s features and his expression grew stony.
“Maybe God simply does not love me anymore,” Keeley whispered.
Despite his best intentions to remain calm for Keeley’s sake, Faolan felt his eyes sting with tears of sympathy.
“If He loved me, He could not let such a thing happen to me…”
Taking in a deep breath to steady himself, Faolan reached out to stroke Keeley’s dark hair. “You’re forgetting your Bible,” he said, “Job was put through many trials as well.”
“Then perhaps He did not love Job either. Perhaps He does not love any of us,” Keeley replied. His voice was strained and rigid.
Faolan heard the bitterness lacing the boy’s words. What could he tell him? How could he assure him of God’s love? It was not an easy question, and the earl knew there was nothing he could say to help Keeley reach an answer. The boy would have to find it for himself.
Turning Keeley’s chin up so he could look into those hollow blue eyes, Faolan told him, “Even if God abandons us, I will protect you.”
Keeley’s blank despair did not leave him. “But even you could not save me.”
The earl flinched as if he’d been physically struck. He could not form a reply and Keeley turned from him.
Faolan left the room shortly after, feeling unsettled. When Larkin and Rian saw the earl later that night, they exchanged looks of concern.
“Are you all right, Faolan? You look tired,” Larkin offered, signaling Rian to refill the earl’s tea.
Slumped in his chair, Faolan pressed his hand over his face and sighed. “I’m afraid Keeley is losing his faith: faith in me, faith in God… he just won’t let me in.”
“Perhaps—” Larkin began, but Faolan waved his hand.
“No, let’s not discuss it,” Faolan replied. “I think I’ll retire early this evening, if you don’t mind.”
Larkin let him go, wondering when—if ever—things would return to normal
When the earl departed, Rian discreetly followed behind. Just as Faolan was about to slip into his chamber, the servant called to him.
“Master Faolan, may I speak with you?”
The man turned to him, surprised to hear his voice. In his melancholy, Faolan had not even noticed him.
“Yes, Rian. What is it?”
The servant appeared contemplative as he spoke. “I know a little about what Keeley is going through and I think,” he paused. “I think you need to push him a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Faolan asked, curious.
Rian looked up at him with an expression so solemn in his grey eyes that it belied his years, making him look far older than he was. “He’s shutting down, Sir, cutting himself off from his emotions. If he keeps doing it, his heart will numb completely. He’ll become like a hollow shell.”
Faolan was moved by Rian’s sincerity, but troubled by his words. “Go on.”
“You have to force him to feel again. You have to break the hold on his emotions,” Rian said firmly, though his eyes were full of compassion. “It’ll overwhelm him at first, like water from a broken dam, but it’ll be better in the end.”
“Just how do you suggest I do that, Rian?”
The young man gazed at him steadily. “You’d know that better than I, Master.”
Bidding the earl good evening, Rian left him. Faolan had considerable trouble sleeping that night, despite his fatigue. He could not ignore Rian’s advice, but he wasn’t sure how to act on it, either. Near morning, he finally drifted to sleep, his mind exhausted.
Although Keeley’s wounds had healed considerably, he was still confined to bed rest. He could not put any pressure on his back and it was difficult to find any position that did not trouble him in some way. Irritated, he shifted and turned in bed, trying to get comfortable, but only succeeded in tiring himself. He hadn’t seen Faolan all day and he wondered what the man was doing, but mostly Keeley tried not to think about him.
In the late afternoon, when the sun was beginning to wane, the earl finally appeared.
“How are you feeling today?” the man asked, sitting gently on the bed.
“Fine,” Keeley replied blankly.
“I’d like to check your wounds again. I’m going to visit an herb-wife for you later and I’ll need to discuss the degree of your injuries.”
Keeley nodded, making no other reply as he lay out on his belly over the sheets.
Faolan kneeled on the bed next to him carefully and lifted the young man’s shirt. As he pulled back the bandages, he examined the lash markings without comment. Keeley let his mind wander. He was used to his daily check-ups, but he didn’t relish them.
When Faolan reached to pull his trousers down his hips, the young man jumped.
“What are you doing?” Keeley shouted, yanking his clothing back in place.
“I want to see how you are healing,” Faolan said calmly.
Keeley’s mask of indifference had vanished and he looked up at the earl with tremulous eyes. “I’m fine!” he protested. “Rian… has checked me.” Keeley looked horribly embarrassed. He preferred that no one acknowledge the injuries inflicted on him during the rape, but if anyone had to check him, at least Rian was close to his own age and familiar with such things. He didn’t feel quite as self-conscious with the other servant, but Faolan… No, he did not want the man looking at him—or even mentioning the incident.
“I want to see for myself,” Faolan said sternly.
But when the earl tugged at Keeley’s pants once more, the boy balked. “No!” he cried, instinctively lashing out. His hand landed squarely across Faolan’s face.
Looking down at the dark-haired boy, Faolan saw him breathing hard, his face alarmed—at both the earl and himself.
“I—I’m sorry,” Keeley said quickly. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Faolan sat back and shook his head. “No, I deserve it.”
“What?” Keeley asked, bewildered.
“All this happened because I could not save you,” he said. “I failed you. It’s all right to be angry with me.”
“Don’t say such things,” Keeley told him in a small voice. “I don’t want to be angry with you.” But you are! his mind screamed.
The earl moved to sit on a chair next to the bed. He rested his head on his hands and folded his fingers in front of him. “You should be angry with me.”
Keeley shut his eyes tight, willing his emotions to calm before they came tumbling out, making him say things he shouldn’t. “No, don’t say that.” Please… I don’t want to feel this…
“Why not? It’s true.”
Faolan saw Keeley’s defenses breaking down; the boy’s lip began to tremble.
“I left you. I abandoned you. I couldn’t save you. That’s what you really want to say, isn’t it?” the earl pressed.
“No!” Keeley protested. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes and he balled his fists in the sheets before him, trembling. He was losing control. “Stop it! Why are you saying these things? Why!”
Faolan leveled his deep green gaze at him. “Because it is how you really feel,” he replied, his voice deep and unyielding.
“NO!” Keeley screamed, bursting into tears. He crumpled in on himself, pressing his face into the sheets, and knowing it was true. “No…” he sobbed.
Moving to the bed, Faolan pulled the boy into his arms and held him, but Keeley raged against him. All his sadness and anger and confusion started to drown him.
“Let me go!” Keeley yelled, shoving against the man. “Just leave me alone!”
“Hush,” Faolan said softly, cradling him. “It’s all right to feel this way. No one would blame you for it, Keeley.”
“I don’t…want to feel this,” he protested between sobs. “It hurts!”
Faolan swallowed deep, quelling his own emotions. He had to be strong for Keeley, but his heart was breaking over the boy.
“Why?” Keeley suddenly demanded, gripping angrily at the fabric of Faolan’s shirt. “Why… didn’t you come?” he asked softly, then repeated with more force, “Why didn’t you come for me!”
Tears ran down the Keeley’s face as he beat his fists into Faolan’s chest, but the man held him firm, like a rock standing against a storming sea.
“Why…? That man he… what he did to me…” Keeley whimpered. He was feeling too much at once. It was tearing him apart. “I hate him, Faolan! I HATE HIM!” he screamed.
Faolan held Keeley as tightly as he dared and rocked back and forth soothingly. Rian had been right. Faolan couldn’t imagine how on earth Keeley had been holding all this inside him for days on end.
When the young man’s rage was spent, he finally collapsed in Faolan’s embrace and wept until the earl’s shirt was soaked with his tears. Finally exhausted, he fell asleep in the circle of Faolan’s arms.
The earl breathed deeply with relief when he felt the boy’s body relax against him. Keeley’s face was flushed red from the force of his tears, but his expression was peaceful as he slept. Some of the young man’s demons, at least, had been released.
But would Keeley awaken to hope? Faolan prayed that he would.
“Sir, Keeley,” Rian said, stepping into the young man’s room, “I’ve brought you tea and some breakfast.”
“Thank you, Rian, but you needn’t have bothered. I’m not very hungry,” Keeley said as he sat near the desk in his room.
Rian frowned. “Sir, you need to keep your strength up.”
Turning to the young servant, Keeley gave him a small smile. “I’m quite healed, Rian. Don’t worry about me.”
Your body might have healed, Rian thought, but your heart is still broken. However, he knew better than to argue with the stubborn young man. “Is there anything else I might do for you, sir?”
Rian waited as Keeley sat silent in thought, his eyes on the floor ahead of him.
Just as the servant was about to take his leave, Keeley finally said, in a quiet voice, “There is one thing I would like to ask of you, but…”
“Yes, Sir?” Rian said, encouragingly.
Lifting his intense blue eyes, Keeley asked, “May I see your back?”
Rian gave him a quizzical look.
“Your scars,” Keeley clarified. “Can I see them?”
With a sympathetic, knowing look, Rian slipped off his jacket. Without any hesitation, he unbuttoned his shirt and turned around to bare his pale back to the other boy.
Keeley winced as he viewed the wicked crosshatching of scars that marked the Rian’s back. He’d only recently recalled the story Larkin had told him about the servant being whipped when Faolan discovered him in the brothel. Although Keeley had gotten a glimpse of Rian’snaked back before, it had been in very low firelight and he had been rather… distracted at the time. He was grateful that Rian didn’t seem to mind showing him the evidence of his abuse, but wasn’t sure what to say to him.
“Thank you,” Keeley said quietly.
Although Rian sensed that Keeley wanted to say more, he remained silent. Buttoning his shirt, the servant prepared to leave, but paused on his way to the door, wanting to say something to Keeley. Unable to think of anything that would soothe him, though, he finally departed.
Rian let out a heavy breath when he closed the door to Keeley’s room and leaned for a moment against the wall. He knew Keeley needed someone to talk with, someone who understood what he’d been through, but Rian found it difficult to lend his ear. It wasn’t just that he disliked the idea of delving into his past traumas. There were other reasons holding him back as well. Rian’s emotions were worn from the recent ordeals with the Bishop and Faolan’s extreme reaction to Keeley’s torture.
The entire household had been anxious about Keeley’s condition, including Rian. However, within his concern for Keeley, he felt a conflict that disturbed him. The young servant found he was envious of the way Faolan fretted over Keeley. Though Rian didn’t begrudge Keeley such consideration after all that the young man had been through, he felt a nagging in his chest that troubled him all the same.
Rian remembered clearly the day when Faolan had rescued him from the brothel. It had not been the first time he’d been whipped or forced into coitus against his will. Faolan had certainly been angered by the treatment Rian underwent there, but it could not compare to the seething wrath that the earl had expressed when he returned with Keeley in a similar condition. Part of Rian was saddened that Faolan had not been equally enraged on his own behalf.
Even if Rian’s feelings toward Faolan were different from the love he felt towards Larkin, he still yearned for the man’s attention. Rian had never had a father and his mother had died when he was still a child. He’d never known the warmth and security of a real home—until Faolan took him in. For the first several months Rian was with the earl, Faolan was everything to him. No servant could have been more loyal to his king or captain. Even after he’d had met Larkin, his devotion could not be shaken.
Now Rian saw the way Keeley had captured Faolan’s heart, and he began to wonder if his place in the man’s household had become obsolete. He had been Faolan’s personal valet and his most trusted servant, but what was he now? Faolan had not even taken him along when he visited O’Reilly’s estate.
Was he becoming just another servant? Were his services so easily dismissed?
Nothing could replace the overwhelming sense of gratitude and loyalty that welled inside of Rian whenever he recalled the way his master had freed him from his life of bondage. And much as he loved Larkin, he did not want to be taken from Faolan’s side.
“What are you doing standing there?”
Rian jumped, so lost in his thoughts that he had failed to hear Larkin as he came walking down the hallway.
“Nothing,” he said, quickly composing himself.
Larkin studied him. “You think I can’t tell when you’re upset? Don’t try to hide things from me, Rian,” he said firmly.
“It’s nothing worth mentioning.”
As he tried to move past him, Larkin blocked his way.
Rian looked up at his lover, unusually irritated. “Can’t I keep anything to myself?”
Narrowing his eyes, Larkin replied, “This has something to do with Faolan.”
Rain frowned. Sometimes Larkin was a little too sharp.
“What if it does?” Rian snapped back, defensively. He was embarrassed by his feelings toward Faolan and he didn’t wish to discuss them, especially not with Larkin.
However, the other man was in no mood to be put off.
“Come with me,” Larkin said, gripping Rian by the arm and pulling him down the hall to the guest room the man stayed in.
Rian yanked against him, annoyed, but knew he wasn’t getting away.
“Now,” Larkin said once he and Rian were alone and the door shut securely behind them, “what is this all about?”
“I don’t have to tell you that,” the young man retorted, sulking as he leaned against the wall, crossing his arms.
“Let me guess,” Larkin man said, eying him closely, “you’re jealous of the way Faolan is coddling Keeley.”
“That’s not… exactly it,” Rian said, scowling. “I’m not jealous.”
“I know the way you feel about Faolan,” Larkin said, stepping close and leaning over him. Rian shifted uncomfortably.
“Then you know I’m not jealous,” the servant retorted.
Larkin shook his head. “It’s a different kind of jealousy. Like the way children feel when a parent plays favorites.”
Rian remained silent, unable to articulate his feelings on the subject. They both knew the relationship between Rian and Faolan wasn’t that simple.
“You’ve been through worse than Keeley, but you never received the kind of attention he is now. It must be frustrating for you,” Larkin said, tenderly tucking a lock of chestnut hair behind the young man’s ear.
“I… don’t mind it, but…” Rian kept his deep grey eyes averted as he went on. “Once Keeley is well, is the earl really going to need me?”
“Ah, so that’s it.” Larkin gave a small chuckle, which made Rian indignant.
“Is this funny to you?” the young man spat, hurt by his lover’s seemingly careless attitude.
Larkin continued to smile at him. “My dear Rian, I happen to know that Faolan has no intentions of dismissing you. The fact you would even think such a thing makes me wonder if you are more fatigued than I realized.”
Making no reply, Rian waited for the man to continue.
“When Faolan first brought Keeley here,” Larkin explained, “I asked him again if he wouldn’t be willing to part with you, but he refused to let you go.”
“He did?” Rian asked, perking up.
“Yes. A master has just as much a claim on his servant as the servant has responsibility to his master,” Larkin replied. “Faolan will never let you go.”
Rian let out a sigh of relief and Larkin studied him thoughtfully. “If only I’d been the one to rescue you,” he said, voicing his thoughts aloud. “I’d be your master and you’d be all mine.”
His security restored, Rian smiled and caressed the blond’s defined chin with his fingertips. “But you still have my heart.”
Larkin slipped his arms about Rian’s waist, pleased that matters had been resolved. “For now,” the blond teased, “but I’m older than you are. Perhaps you’ll tire of me and wander off to find greener pastures.”
Rian gave a soft laugh. “Not likely.”
Larkin’s heart was squeezed with emotion as he gazed down at his lover’s sweet, inviting eyes. As lighthearted as his words sounded, Larkin often regretted that he would never have sole claim on the boy in his arms.
Seeing the serious gleam in his partner’s eye, Rian wrapped his arms about Larkin’s neck and pressed in tightly against him. “Besides,” Rian said in a husky voice, “if I ever try to wander off, you can always just tie me up and punish me for my disobedience.”
“Hmm,” the older man purred, biting gently at the young man’s neck. “Maybe I should tie you up now, just to make certain you don’t run away.”
Their bodies were swaying against one another, a swift need mounting between them. “I’d be quite helpless then,” Rian replied, his voice filled with heat.
“Rian,” Larkin whispered. Desperate to feel the boy beneath him, he commanded, “Get on the bed.”
Flashing him a brilliant grin, Rian replied, “Yes, Master.”
* * *
After Rian had left him, Keeley remained seated at his desk, his murky thoughts weighing heavily upon him.
Every day the young man asked himself the same question: why? Why had he been chained and raped? Why hadn’t someone been able to save him? There were no answers, but he could not cease his thoughts. He had imagined Faolan to be his protector, his safe haven, but this was no longer true. The man had not been able to keep him from harm. Keeley had been so taken with the handsome earl that he had been blinded to reality.
A disturbing thought crept into his mind. God had abandoned him, and now he wondered if his lust for the Faolan wasn’t at fault. After all, didn’t the Bible condemn such unions? Keeley had conveniently chosen to ignore this after he had met Faolan. Being with the other man had always felt so safe and secure that Keeley was certain it couldn’t be morally wrong to desire him. But what if he had been wrong--dreadfully wrong? What if he had brought this horrible incident on himself?
While wrapped in these disturbing considerations, Keeley heard a knock at his door.
Faolan entered, finding the young man sitting solemnly at the desk. Keeley’s anger had faded, but the earl could see that his soul still ached with the pain of what he had endured.
“I have something to return to you,” the earl said, drawing up a chair next to Keeley.
“Yes?” the young man said, more out of politeness than enthusiasm.
The earl drew something from his pocket and took Keeley’s hand, dropping something smooth and cool into his palm. The boy flinched slightly when Faolan touched him, and Faolan hid his displeasure at this reaction. Recently, Keeley had been on edge around him and avoided his touch whenever possible. Faolan knew Keeley was still working through his trauma, but the young man’s withdrawal disturbed him.
Looking down, Keeley saw his old locket in his hand, but the graceful oval was broken and he felt a sharp pang of loss. To think that the locket his mother had so lovingly bestowed upon him was now cracked beyond repair saddened him more than he could say. He had carried the small silver pendant next to his heart for so many years, and always felt its protective power enveloping him. Now even this small comfort had been taken from him. No one could protect him: not Faolan, not his mother… he was alone.
Faolan watched as Keeley’s face crumpled, his eyes filling with tears. The young man clutched the broken locket to his chest and bent over in agony.
Reaching out a hand, Faolan gently caressed Keeley’s back, hoping to calm him. At first, Keeley seemed to yield to his touch and his weeping lessened. However, Keeley drew away from him the next moment, wiping his tears and turning from the other man.
“I thought the locket was lost. Why didn’t you give it to me sooner?” Keeley asked.
“I’m sorry. Larkin took it to research the filigree pattern.”
“Why?” Keeley asked, his voice edged with aggravation.
“We believe there is something unusual about the locket. We just want to look into it, that’s all.”
Keeley gazed down at the broken piece of jewelry and tilted his head curiously, eying the brilliant red lock of hair folded within it. The young man had always wondered what his mother had sealed inside, but discovering the hair only served to confuse him.
“Is it your mother’s hair?” Faolan asked, noting the perplexed look on the boy’s face.
Keeley should his head. “No. No one in my family had red hair.”
The information was not unexpected, but it unsettled Faolan nonetheless. He’d been hoping that there was a simple explanation for the strange aura the locket had held. Now he was almost certain that Keeley’s mother had some secret she’d been protecting from her son all these years.
“Perhaps…” Keeley began, searching for answers, “she cut the lock of hair from some faerie or sprite that had powers of protection?”
Faolan nodded, but he knew from his sense of intuition that this was not the case. However, if it put Keeley’s mind at ease, he would indulge him.
“I have something else for you as well,” Faolan offered, after a long pause. He held out a small, round jar and opened the lid.
A pungent—though not unpleasant—smell emanated from the container.
“What is it?” Keeley asked, a spark of genuine curiosity in his eyes as he glanced at the muddy-looking mixture within the container.
The earl smiled. “It’s an herbal medicine I had made for you.”
Keeley’s interest dissipated. He did not want to be reminded of his old injuries. “I’m already healed,” he grumbled.
“This will help your scarring,” Faolan explained, “and the fragrance will lift your spirits.”
Keeley did not look convinced.
“Come, at least try it,” the earl urged.
“Good. Take off your shirt and lay down.”
At this request, Keeley shifted uneasily. “Why don’t you just give it to me? I can put it on myself.”
“You know it will be hard for you reach your back. Besides, I want to see how you’re healing.”
Knowing that Faolan would have his way, Keeley frowned, but complied. To distract himself from the sensation of Faolan’s skilled fingers caressing his back, Keeley turned his mind to other matters.
“Why didn’t you do this for Rian? His scars are terrible.”
“I did what I could when I took him in, but many of his scars were old by then.”
“Oh,” Keeley muttered, feeling foolish and falling silent.
“There,” Faolan said after a moment. “That should take away the last evidence of the scarring, but we will have to apply it every day for at least a week.”
Keeley nodded, feeling unsteady. He’d resolved to keep his distance with the handsome man, but now that Faolan was near him all Keeley wanted to do was bury himself in his arms.
For a moment, the earl thought Keeley was going to turn to him. He sensed the boy’s loneliness and need, but then Keeley stepped away from him, heading back to his desk. “Thank you. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Faolan debated whether he should pursue the matter of Keeley’s aloofness, but the time did not seem right. Keeley’s body and emotions had healed, but for some reason his mind was still fighting their connection. Whatever had gotten into the boy’s head, Faolan would deal with it soon enough.
He could understand that Keeley would be hesitant to move forward in their relationship after what he had been through at the Bishop’s hands, but unless Faolan pushed him and showed him how different sex could be between true lovers, Keeley would shut himself away forever.
Just a little more time, the earl said to himself as he walked away.
For weeks, Keeley continued to shy away from Faolan. The young man was buried in conflict. He could not deny his attraction to the handsome man, but did he dare risk Heaven’s wrath in order to explore it? One part of Keeley’s mind admitted that his religious concerns masked more elemental fears brooding inside him, such as the frightening prospect of ever being penetrated again. His experience with the Bishop had not only shaken his faith, it had left him terrified of exploring his sexuality. The rape had been so violent and painful that Keeley couldn’t imagine sex ever being remotely pleasant, even between lovers. In the back of his mind, Keeley wondered how Faolan could possibly want to subject him to such an ordeal.
Keeley recalled the earl’s promise to take him with vivid clarity. At the time it had been frightening, yet thrilling. Now, Keeley’s feelings for Faolan were torn by his indecision about giving himself to the man—and Faolan’s determination to take him no matter his protests.
Faolan, in his turn, had done his best to give Keeley time, but the longer he waited, the more convinced he became that Keeley would never willingly give himself over to him. Several nights in a row, the two men had been left alone in one of the large studies at the end of the evening. The deepening winter chill beat against the windows as they read by the firelight. Each evening Faolan had ventured closer to the young man, and he could feel Keeley’s growing need, yet Keeley held back. Always he held back. Faolan was loath to push him too quickly, but the strained sexual tension building between them had to be addressed.
When Keeley went riding late one afternoon and still had not returned after the light had faded, Faolan went to look for him. He didn’t have to go far. As soon as the earl stepped into the stables to prepare his mount, he discovered Keeley within, tending to his own black steed, Ancalagon.
The young man seemed to be delaying his return, taking slow care to slip the saddle from the horse and brush him down. Faolan could see that Keeley was shaking from the cold, yet he continued to dawdle and delay going back to the estate.
“You look chilled,” Faolan said, striding over and startling the young man. They were alone. The earl’s other servants had long since left for the evening.
“I-I’m fine. I’ll be inside in a minute anyway.”
“I won’t have you coming down with an illness in the middle of winter,” the earl said firmly, wrapping his arms about him from behind. “Now, isn’t this better?”
“Faolan…” Keeley whispered, his voice quiet and laced with tension.
“Hush,” the man said softly, moving to nuzzle against the young man’s neck.
Turning Keeley to face toward him, Faolan closed the space between their lips. In an instant, an electric heat flooded both their bodies. Keeley whimpered, overcome by the experience. How long had it been since the earl had pressed his lips against his own? It was so lovely, so intoxicating, that at any moment Keeley would lose all will of his own. He longed so desperately to yield, yet couldn’t let himself do so. He called upon his stubborn nature and pushed the other man away.
“No, I won’t!”
Faolan’s emerald eyes scrutinized the young man with an intensity Keeley could feel in his bones. “Why, Keeley? Why do you continue to turn away from me?”
“These feelings…” Keeley began slowly, “they’re wrong. God has already punished me enough for them…”
“What are you talking about?”
Keeley hesitated. He stood rigid, breathing heavily, his emotions raging against each other. “They are blasphemous,” he replied quietly. “Maybe that is why God didn’t protect me.”
“Look at me, Keeley,” Faolan commanded, his voice an unyielding as steel.
When the young man refused to comply, Faolan caught Keeley’s chin between his fingers and forced his eyes to meet him.
“Love is not a sin, Keeley,” the earl said firmly. “And turning away from it will not allow you to escape the evil in this world. Evil strikes the righteous as much as the wicked. That’s the nature of life, yet we choose to live in this world and do the best we can. Love, in whatever form it chooses to manifest itself, is one of the few things that can strengthen us and see us through our struggles.
“I won’t have you harboring such destructive thoughts about how or why you were put through such painful hardships. You must stop looking back, Keeley, and start facing life. Do you understand?”
The young man stared at him, taken aback by Faolan’s sudden, grave attitude. Keeley nodded, but stepped back, feeling a bit intimidated by Faolan’s serious demeanor. Although the earl’s words rang true, Keeley couldn’t dismiss his fears all at once, and he knew being close to the man would melt his restraint.
Seeing Keeley’s emotions waver, Faolan felt his patience ebb.
“You hear my words, but you don’t feel them. You don’t let them in,” he stated. Faolan realized that the time for words had passed. Action was needed. “It looks like I’ll just have to persuade you then, won’t I?”
Faolan’s fiery, determined eyes left Keeley no question as to his intentions. For a moment, Keeley was at a loss for words. Deep inside, he knew the truth: he did want Faolan—he wanted to be taken and possessed by him. His body trembled.
“No…I don’t want this,” Keeley lied, a last ditch effort to deny his feelings and somehow escape the situation.
“I doubt that,” the earl replied, grabbing hold of him and pulling the young man against him. Faolan smothered his mouth in a kiss so demanding and untamed it stole Keeley’s breath away. By the time the earl drew back, Keeley was lightheaded.
With one arm holding the boy tightly, Faolan slipped a hand between their bodies and cupped Keeley intimately.
“See, your body knows what it wants,” Faolan said with a smile.
Keeley gasped and struggled.
“Still the untamable colt, I see.” With that, the earl picked him off his feet and slung Keeley effortlessly over his shoulder.
“We’ve put this off too long, Keeley. Tonight you will belong to me.”
Despite his reservations, it wasn’t long before Keeley’s restlessness coaxed him out of hiding. He crept down the halls of the estate with an exaggerated air of caution; he had no desire to speak with anyone else in the household at the moment. Keeley opted to venture into the west wing of the house this time, out of fear of trespassing upon another secret tryst between Rian and Larkin. Disappointingly, the western wing was mostly filled with stuffy reception halls and formal parlors used to entertain guests. There were also many guest bedrooms and several studies, none of which looked particularly interesting to the young man.
Finally tired from his rambling, Keeley stopped to investigate what appeared to be a small library. Though many of the rural farmers lacked literacy skills, Keeley’s father had been an avid reader during his rare leisure hours. The man had also been determined to teach his only son his letters. Plucking a book off one of the high shelves, Keeley ran a finger along the spine and let his thoughts wander into the past. Even now, he could see his father hunched over a book in the waning light of his lamp, the man’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he squinted to see in the dim rays given off by the flame.
Glancing up at the multitude of titles before him, Keeley decided it would be a good time for him to brush up on his own reading. Perhaps it would stave off his boredom. Pulling down a few volumes at random, he settled himself into one of the spacious sofas and began flipping through the books to make his selection. It quickly became evident, however, that these works were far from the literature he was familiar with. Rather than novels, the tomes were largely nonfiction with forbidding and cryptic titles such as, <i>Studies in the Occult; A Brief History of Demonology; Talismans, Charms, & Enchantments</i>. These texts were hardly the benign literature one would expect from a well-respected Protestant gentleman like Earl Faolan.
Keeley had refused to face Larkin and Rian for the noon meal, and he was both frustrated and growing increasingly moody from his empty stomach. He rose from the sofa to replace the offending volumes, shoving them roughly into place as if the books were to blame for his troubles. He was so preoccupied with this venture that he didn’t hear anyone else enter the room until they were nearly upon him.
“Careful, you’ll damage the spine if you force it in like that.”
Alarmed, Keeley spun around, dropping one of the books in his surprise. He watched the blond-haired man before him stoop to retrieve it.
Larkin glanced at the title and gave Keeley a grin. “A little light reading to fill your afternoon?”
Keeley scowled and said nothing. Hastily, he grabbed the book from him and slipped it back onto the shelf, doing his best to avoid eye contact. The image of the tall man leaning over Rian in the pantry refused to fade from Keeley’s mind, and he wanted nothing more than to escape this unbearably disconcerting situation.
“Won’t you join me for tea?” Larkin asked just as Keeley made a hasty retreat for the door.
Although he could think of few other activities he would like to participate in less, Keeley could think of no way to refuse the offer without seeming rude. With a reluctant nod, he accepted the invitation.
Larkin rang the bell before reclining upon one of the chaise lounges, motioning for Keeley to sit near him. The raven-haired boy sat with a casual air that belied his trepidation. As loathe as he was to sit and chat with this man after what he’d witnessed earlier that day, Keeley was also determined not to appear as uncomfortable as he felt. His stubborn nature simply wouldn’t allow it.
Larkin watched him and hid a smile. He knew perfectly well that Keeley had seen his little tryst with Rian and admired how calm and collected he seemed under the circumstances. Whatever other ideas he had about the country boy, Larkin saw that Keeley had guts. He felt this boded well for the boy’s future within the Society.
“You didn’t come to lunch. Are you not feeling well?”
Though Keeley’s countenance didn’t change, he shifted uneasily in his chair, realizing only now that he had failed to consider an excuse for his absence.
“Yes, I apologize for that. I was a bit fatigued and took a nap I had not intended.”
“I thought as much,” Larkin replied, offering a smile. “I was concerned, though, and came to check on you only to find you missing from your room.”
“Ah, I am sorry if I caused you any inconvenience. I awoke a bit restless and decided to have a look around,” Keeley replied without hesitance.
Larkin was impressed that the young man did not crack under pressure. He did think though, that perhaps he should warn Faolan that Keeley was a good liar. Not that it mattered much, considering that the Earl’s intuitive powers made him exceptionally gifted at sifting out truth from lies.
Before Larkin could get in another question, Rian appeared in the doorway carrying a small tray set with tea for two. It briefly crossed Keeley’s mind that the servant had arrived prepared with refreshments without first coming to the room to ask why he had been summoned. Was Rian simply skilled at anticipating the needs of the household or did he have some special power of insight as well?
No, not intuition. Keeley vaguely recalled Faolan mentioning something about Rian being, “an excellent valet and footman,” but without the “talents” the rest of them held. More likely than not, Larkin had espied him in the library and notified Rian beforehand that he would soon be needing tea service.
Whatever the case, Keeley found that he was grateful to have the steaming liquid to warm his chilled body. Though dusk was just beginning to fall, without a fire in the room, the temperature was cool enough to send a shiver through his slim frame. No matter how many nights he’d spent warding off the cold, damp Irish air, he never seemed to get used to it.
Sipping his tea and watching over the rim of his cup, Keeley observed the interaction between the two lovers before him. Larkin gave Rian a short “thank you” and the servant bowed, leaving without a word. What remained unsaid spoke volumes. Keeley marveled at how the two men were able to convey so much just in the way they looked at each other, and the subtle nuances that communicated thoughts without the need for vocalization.
After Rian had left them alone once more, Keeley ventured to ask a question that had been growing in his mind all day. “Larkin, sir, I hope you don’t find me presumptuous, but may I ask why it is that Rian is a member of Faolan’s household when he so clearly belongs to you?”
For the briefest of moments, Keeley saw the other man pause with surprise and he knew he’d finally gotten the upper hand in the conversation with this audacious question.
Larkin was definitely impressed. The boy had deliberately tried to throw him off his game and he had almost managed it—<i>almost</i>. Larkin had to admit, he never expected Keeley to speak so boldly about his relations with Rian when the very idea was so clearly discomforting to the young man.
Clearing his throat, Larkin explained. “I may have his heart, but Rian’s loyalties lie with Faolan.”
“Is that because of what the Earl did for him? How he saved him?”
Keeley was close to overplaying his hand now, since he really didn’t know anything about this, except Rian’s brief statement during the carriage ride. Still, he was enjoying putting the smug blond on the defensive for once.
The two men gauged one other, and Larkin considered his answer. He doubted Keeley knew much. Rian was far too close-lipped to have given him much information, so Larkin decided to call his bluff.
“So Rian has told you then?”
“He mentioned it,” was Keeley’s vague reply.
“It was a terrible incident. I’ve always wondered what Faolan was doing in that brothel anyway.”
As Larkin spoke, Keeley attempted to sip nonchalantly from his tea, but upon hearing the word ‘brothel’ he sputtered.
His typical grin falling into place, Larkin asked, “Perhaps Rian neglected to mention that part?”
Disgruntled at having been so easily startled, Keeley only nodded, a sour expression taking over his features.
The other man did not press him further, but simply proceeded. “You see, when Rian and Faolan first met, it was in a brothel just north of here, in one of the port cities. I forget which one. The poor boy had been born to one of the women in the house and after his mother died, the burden of her debts fell upon his shoulders. Rian was forced to cater to clients who were of a certain <i>persuasion</i>, if you understand me.”
“I see,” Keeley whispered softly, finding himself at a loss. He never would have guessed Rian came from such a sordid background.
“Several years ago Faolan happened upon him, and bought him on the spot.”
Larkin paused to better witness Keeley’s reaction to this news, and was rewarded with a slight scowl of jealousy that the young man couldn’t mask. Faolan would be happy to know that his attraction to the pretty young thing was mutual, Larkin mused.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Larkin informed him, watching Keeley’s head pop back up from where it had dropped. “Rian was being abused by some of his clients when Faolan met him. Two men had him tied naked, spread-eagle to a four-bolster bed and were punishing him with a horsewhip on some sadistic whim.”
“Dear Lord…” Keeley breathed, barely able to comprehend such cruelty.
“Faolan paid the brothel owner about three times what the whole establishment was worth to take him away then and there… and Rian has been fiercely loyal to him ever since.”
“I can certainly understand why.”
There was a moment of silence between them, then Larkin looked towards the door, as if hearing or sensing something on the other side.
“But the question still remains—why was Faolan in the brothel in the first place?” Keeley wondered aloud, unable to contain his irritation on this point.
Larkin subdued a smile of smug satisfaction. He knew quite well that the Earl had only visited the brothel because his intuitive skills had guided him there, but he decided to withhold this information and have a little fun with Keeley. It would also pay the boy back for trying to get a rise out of him earlier.
“Ah, Faolan, there you are!” Larkin said brightly.
Keeley’s eyes shot to the doorway. He hadn’t even heard the man’s approach, but there he was, looking somewhat tired and worn. Keeley wasn’t sure how to feel about his sudden appearance. Part of him was immensely glad to see him, not only because it meant he didn’t have to be alone with Larkin, but also because he was simply happy to see the man again. However, Keeley couldn’t shake the hurtful feelings that had crept into his heart when Faolan had neglected to welcome him when he first arrived. Moreover, his blood was now heated with the sting of jealousy. Keeley’s mind kept flashing images of the Earl swaggering around to various city brothels in his spare time. For all Keeley knew, he might have come from one just now!
Of course, it didn’t matter that this was a rather irrational thought, or that the Earl had saved his life the night before. Keeley’s emotions were too torn and his head too dazed from hunger to consider such matters. Irritated and hurt, the boy defaulted to his anger and let his temper take hold. Crossing his arms, he leaned back into the sofa and deliberately ignored the Earl’s greeting.
“It is common courtesy to greet the <i>master</i> of the house when he returns, Keeley,” Faolan informed him. The sharp tone in the man’s voice should have warned him that the Earl was in a volatile mood.
“And I thought it would be common courtesy for the master of the house to greet his new employee, but it seems you felt that was unnecessary!”
Keeley’s tone was extraordinarily spiteful and Faolan, having just arrived from an errand on the boy’s behalf, was not at all pleased with his attitude. Leaning over him, Faolan placed a hand on either side of Keeley’s shoulders, effectively trapping him. His look was dark as he locked his eyes with Keeley’s.
“I won’t have you speaking to me in that tone,” Faolan said with quiet intensity. “Is that understood?”
“Fine,” Keeley replied, taken aback by the chastisement. However, his s obstinate nature could not be so easily cowed. He waited until Faolan had stood once more, then added in a low voice, “You could at least tell me where you were, though.”
“It’s nothing you need concern yourself with,” Faolan said in a clipped voice, the last of his patience wearing thin.
“But I want to know!” Keeley shouted back. He was beginning to see that the Earl was in a foul mood, but at this point he didn’t much care.
Faolan, worn from his errand and not feeling particularly tolerant of Keeley’s unruly temper, gave him a severe look. “I’ll have you remember that you are now in my service and as such, you are expected to obey my orders. I have no intention of explaining all my actions to you. Remember your place!”
Larkin’s eyes went wide at this last statement. Faolan was always extremely fair and egalitarian with everyone in his household. The Earl expected loyalty and obedience from his workers in return for fair treatment, but Faolan rarely reminded his servants of their lower station and Larkin certainly did not expect him to be so strict when it came to Keeley. Hearing him command the boy to ‘stay in his place,’ as it were, was quite uncharacteristic of him. Larkin could only imagine that the Earl’s day was far more wretched than he had anticipated, and that it concerned matters that Faolan needed to keep hidden from Keeley.
If Faolan had meant to bring the argument to a close with his authoritative stance, he had underestimated Keeley’s raw emotional state and ensuing temper. The raven-haired boy was furious with Faolan’s words and jumped to his feet in defiance. Even when the Earl had given him orders previously, they had never been so biting. In the short time they had known each other, Keeley had felt a connection with this man and it had done wonders to heal his scarred heart. With all the confusion going on in his life, Faolan’s presence had been the one anchor for Keeley to rely on. But now the man seemed to have erected a strict wall between them, denoting master and servant and it pained Keeley more than he wished to admit.
“So that’s how you want it? You just want me to be another servant who’ll cater to your every whim like Rian! Well, you didn’t save me from some terrible fate, so don’t expect me to grovel at your feet!”
Without another word, Keeley fled from the room, his rage and his tears vying for dominance.
“You’re in a rotten mood,” Larkin muttered after the boy had left, slamming the door behind him.
Faolan had almost forgotten he was there. Moving to a small liquor cabinet nestled along one of the walls, he poured himself a generous glass of whiskey.
“It’s been a long day.”
“You went to see Her Majesty about Far Dorocha, I take it?”
Faolan nodded, leaning against the wall as he sipped the amber liquor.
“How did it go?” Larkin asked, when his friend remained quiet.
“As well as could be expected, I suppose.”
“You really shouldn’t have taken it out on Keeley.”
“When it comes to the Queen, I can’t have him prying into my business. For his sake as well as for my own.”
“And yelling at the boy seems highly effective, does it?” Larkin mused sarcastically.
“Don’t start with me, Larkin. I’m quite aware that I handled the situation poorly, but I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one who contributed to Keeley’s anger. Just what did you tell him about Rian?”
Larkin shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “I might have explained how Rian came to be under your employment.”
“Why would you bring up my history with Rian to Keeley? Must you stir up trouble at every opportunity?” Faolan asked. He rubbed his aching forehead with his free hand.
“Perhaps we can learn something from this experience.”
The Earl eyed his friend warily. “Such as?”
“Well, you could avoid any future conflicts between Keeley and Rian if you let me take Rian off your hands.”
“We’ve been through this, Larkin,” Faolan said with a sigh.
“It’s different now that you have Keeley. Take him on as your new valet.”
“I did not hire Keeley as a valet. He has a very different role to play.”
“What? As your lover? He can do both,” Larkin said pragmatically.
“Have you even spoken to Rian about your wishes? I assure you, he serves me of his own free will.”
Larkin leaned forward in his chair, his voice taking on a beseeching tone. “But he does so because he thinks he owes you something for freeing him! If you told him he’s under no obligation—”
“You honestly think Rian would leave if I said he owed me nothing? Perhaps you don’t understand him as well as I thought you did.”
Larkin fell into a brooding silence. He knew Faolan was right. As dedicated as Rian was to him, Rian’s bond with the Earl was something that could never be broken. It frustrated the hell out of him.
“Everyone has his own part to play,” Faolan informed him. “You should accept that.”
Larkin disliked when Faolan talked this way, when his ‘intuition’ was influencing him. The blond hated the idea that forces beyond his control were guiding his life.
“And Keeley,” he asked, “what role does he play?”
“We shall see.”
* * *
Keeley was berating himself for letting his temper get the best of him. Now he was shut up in his room, frustrated and feeling increasingly light-headed from lack of nourishment. Why hadn’t he welcomed the Earl when he saw him? Why had he let his anger overcome him when he’d been so happy to see him? If he’d just greeted him in return, their whole argument might have been avoided. However, Keeley still felt that Faolan had been out of line to yell at him so harshly… despite having been provoked.
As he stood gazing out the window and contemplating his sorry situation, Keeley heard the door behind him slowly open. Faolan’s steady footfalls made their way over to him.
Though his feelings wavered, his stubborn streak won out and Keeley kept his back turned. He couldn’t help it; for so long Keeley’s stubbornness and strength of will was all he’d had to support him.
“I apologize for raising my voice to you, Keeley.” The words were spoken close to his ear in that damnable silky voice.
Placated by the apology, but still feeling hurt, Keeley frowned. “Is that really how you think of me? Am I just another servant?”
The pain in the boy’s voice made Faolan wince with deep regret. Instinctively, his arms came up to hold him from behind. “I didn’t mean it that way, Keeley. I’m very sorry if I hurt you. You are very special to me, but there are parts of my life that I have to keep secret. You must understand that—for your own safety.”
Keeley seemed to consider this, and was quiet for several moments.
“So, you can’t tell me anything?” he finally ventured.
Faolan realized he would have to give some semblance of an explanation for the boy to be satisfied. He thought for a moment, and said, “I had business to attend to, to ensure that we’d have no further trouble with Far Dorocha.”
This information caused a rush of ambiguous feelings to flood through Keeley. He was pleased that Faolan’s absence had been on his behalf, but he felt guilty now for being so rude to him upon his arrival. Moreover, he wondered what the Earl had done to secure his safety. An image of Faolan grabbing the Dark Man’s hair and smothering his lips flashed briefly into his mind.
“I was alone here all day,” he pouted.
Faolan smiled at Keeley’s quiet, sulky tone. He was pleased that Keeley’s anger had dissipated and that he made no further attempts to pry into his affairs. Moreover, he felt Keeley relax in his arms and lean back into his chest. At this small action, the Earl knew he’d been forgiven for his heated words.
“What about Larkin and Rian? Surely they were about?”
He watched as Keeley blushed an amusing shade of red. “I—I didn’t see them.”
Faolan wondered about this flustered reaction and guessed that Keeley had probably stumbled upon one of the lovers’ more intimate moments. Larkin and Rian had a tendency toward salacious public displays about the house. Faolan would have to warn them to be more cautious now that Keeley was living in the estate.
“I… missed you,” Keeley offered softly, slowly turning in Faolan’s arms so he could face him.
The short but heartfelt statement sent a warm thrill through the Earl.
“I’m sorry,” Faolan whispered, pulling him closer. When Keeley’s eyes fluttered shut, Faolan reached up to caress the exposed length of the boy’s neck with his long fingers.
The delicate touch caused Keeley to shiver with an unnamable desire. Without thinking, he titled his head up in unspoken invitation. Perhaps it was wrong to crave such intimacy with another man, but such social prohibitions seemed to have little place in the Earl’s household and Keeley would just as soon forget them as well.
Faolan held the boy lightly in his arms, as if afraid to break the tender spell that had fallen about them. His heart ached at the sight of Keeley so open and yearning before him, his lips mere inches away. All at once, Keeley appeared as a small flower just beginning to bloom in the sun after years of being neglected in the shadows. Faolan knew he had to treat him with care, and a sweet ache in his chest spread through him when he finally took the boy’s lips with his own.
Already, Keeley no longer felt the hesitancy he had only days before, when the Earl had last kissed him. It had been years since he’d felt this alive and he moaned in pleasure as Faolan pressed past his lips and began to explore him with his tongue. He’d been numb for so long that he wanted to embrace everything at once and take everything Faolan wished to give him.
But Faolan knew that Keeley’s compliance did not necessarily mean he was ready to move forward into a physical relationship with him. No matter how tempting the idea was or how willing Keeley appeared, Faolan knew he must hold his lust in check.
However, he was also curious to test the enticing young man’s boundaries—and thereby estimate how long he would have to wait before taking Keeley to his bed. As Keeley pressed more insistently against him, Faolan shifted. He moved him up against the windowpane and parted his legs with one strong thigh. The movement allowed the Earl to bring his hands down to squeeze Keeley’s waist even as he pressed his growing arousal against his hip.
Keeley’s reaction was just what Faolan had expected. Taken off-guard by this new onslaught to his senses, the boy gasped for air, reluctantly tearing his lips away. The Earl looked down into his flushed face and locked his emerald gaze on Keeley’s blue eyes, waiting for him to compose himself. Keeley was grateful that the man didn’t push his attentions upon him, even though he had been eager for more just moments before. It was Faolan’s unmistakably hard, prominent erection pressing into him that had shaken him. It was a clear and direct communication of the man’s intentions toward him and Keeley suddenly understood that this was no innocent game they were playing. If he chose to continue down this path, he would have to do so in earnest. The thought gave him pause; he hadn’t really considered where all this would lead. Frankly, Keeley’s knowledge of sexual matters was dim at best.
“Perhaps we should stop?” Faolan asked, easing his weight off the boy.
Keeley immediately regretted the loss of the Earl’s presence against him. “I… I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. If he wasn’t ready to give himself to Faolan completely, did that mean they had to stop altogether? “Can’t we just keep kissing?” he asked. Ironically, the innocent request only served to increase Faolan’s already dangerously high libido.
“We could,” Faolan replied, “but I would soon want more. I can be a patient man, Keeley, but if we continue in this manner, you should know that sooner or later I will take you.”
Keeley felt his cheeks grow red at the Earl’s frank words and unrelenting emerald gaze. Even though he wasn’t quite sure what Faolan had meant, the mere implications were enough to make him take heed.
When Keeley remained silent, Faolan changed the subject in hopes of discharging the heavy mood.
“Why don’t you tell me how I can make up to you for my behavior earlier today?”
It was the perfect offer to distract Keeley’s mind. He immediately knew his answer: “I haven’t gotten a tour around the grounds yet.”
“Is that all?” Faolan asked, surprised at the simple request.
Keeley smiled. “Yes. I especially want to see the stables!” He could barely contain his excitement. He’d heard that the Earl kept a select stock of finely bred horses, and Keeley had been looking forward to seeing if the rumor was true. He had a passion for equines and he’d not had the chance to ride since he was forced to hand over his favorite bay mare to pay off his family’s debts.
“Very well,” Faolan replied, happy to see that Keeley’s mood had so drastically improved since he’d first entered the room. “Tomorrow I will personally escort you around the estate, but for now I have a few things to attend to before dinner.”
The Earl made his way to the door, then paused. “I almost forgot,” he said, turning around once more. “You might be interested to know that you will start on your first mission for the Society the day after tomorrow.”
“Really? What is it?” Keeley asked, both excited and cautious.
“You’ll receive the details when you need them,” Faolan replied. “All I will say for now is that you may get your chance to help your fellows in the Brotherhood. Good day.”
And with that Faolan made his exit, leaving Keeley to ponder what lay ahead in the days to come.
Keeley burrowed deeper into his overcoat in a vain attempt to escape the torrential downpour that had been soaking through to his skin for nearly an hour. Had the weather been less chill, he might not have minded, but the wind was howling and the sun had refused to show herself the entire day. Keeley had been riding behind Faolan’s carriage since early that morning, and he was beginning to regret his insistence on riding horseback. It had seemed like a good idea the day before, when the sky had been blue and inviting and Faolan was showing him around the estate.
The tour more than made up for Faolan’s neglect of him when he had first arrived. Not only had Keeley been pleased to finally familiarize himself with his new residence, he had been secretly thrilled to have Faolan all to himself for the day. Despite the intensity of the moments they had shared, he and the Earl had spent relatively little time together, and Keeley found himself craving the man’s attentions like a child waiting for recognition from an older sibling. Though, of course, Keeley’s feelings were not exactly platonic. The young man wasn’t sure what to make of the unexpected and undeniably strong attraction he now openly acknowledged toward the tall, red-haired man. In any case, Keeley was for now content to ignore the deeper implications of his attachment and simply enjoy Faolan’s company. He smiled through the cold as he recalled the day before and his interactions with Faolan.
“Ah, here we are,” the earl had said as they walked up to a long, low building. “You had wanted to see the stables, isn’t that right?”
“Yes!” Keeley had replied, eyes sparkling as they stepped through the large, open doors. “I used to ride every chance I got… but it’s been a long time since my last ride.”
Faolan had watched the conflicting emotions flicker across the boy’s features, and an uncanny desire to protect him from all future pain welled up deep in his heart.
As they continued on past numerous stalls, Keeley’s pale blue eyes had widened with delight as the Earl allowed him to view the many prize stallions and mares housed in the well-kept stables. Faolan watched the boy’s interaction with each horse with a keen interest as he secretly assessed which equine he would entrust to Keeley.
He needn’t have bothered. Keeley, true to his willful nature, knew just the horse he wanted when he saw him (though he never would have demanded possession of him).
The two of men had made their way outside the other end of the building and into the training ring, and Keeley’s eyes settled on a huge midnight-black stallion that was thrashing and bucking under his handlers’ care. Three men were rallying around the beast in an attempt to subdue the creature as it stood on its hind legs, beating the air with its powerful hooves.
A frown had fallen across the Earl’s face then. When he had acquired the wild, unruly stallion, he knew he was taking a chance that the trainers would be unable to tame him. His handlers were experts at breaking in new horses, but on occasion they encountered a beast over which they simply had no control and this stallion had been greatly mistreated by his former masters, making him especially skittish. Faolan had high hopes for the animal, but he didn’t want his trainers getting hurt over one untamed stallion.
The Earl was about to call out to his men, when Keeley had suddenly rushed forward into the fray.
“Keeley!” Faolan called after him, furious that the boy would even attempt to step into such a dangerous situation.
But Keeley hadn’t heeded him, instead running headlong into the chaos of jostling bodies and beating hooves. One of the trainers was struck on the shoulder by a powerful kick of the horse’s hind leg and went sprawling to the ground. Without hesitation, Keeley grabbed the rope the man had let fall and clung to it with all his strength. The slender young man was half the size of any of the handlers and looked ill-equipped to struggle with the large animal. As Faolan stomped his way towards the boy, he imagined several unpleasant ways of punishing Keeley for jumping into harm’s way without any regard for his safety.
However, to the earl’s shock and amazement, Keeley managed to get his hands on the horse’s reins without being trampled. And what was more, the stallion seemed to calm under his touch. Before Faolan had taken three strides, the wild horse was nuzzling against Keeley’s hand. Though the creature still appeared agitated, it was willing to allow the boy to lead it back towards the stables. The handlers were equally in awe of the Keeley’s uncanny power over the beast.
Unaware of Faolan’s anxiety, Keeley walked up to him with a grin, the horse following in tow as if it was the most docile creature in the world.
“That was extremely foolish of you, Keeley,” the earl reprimanded.
“I thought you would be pleased,” the young man replied, his bright features now deflating.
“You didn’t think at all,” Faolan retorted. He didn’t like ruining the boy’s cheerful mood, but he also had to let Keeley know that such willful behavior was dangerous.
“I knew what I was doing!” he snapped, his temper kicking in.
“You could have been hurt,” Faolan replied softly.
Keeley had been ready for an argument and the other man’s gentle reply caught him off-guard, dispelling his anger.
“I’m sorry,” Keeley admitted, looking contrite. “But I had to do <i>something</i>, I could feel his fear,” he said, glancing at the horse behind him.
“I understand,” the earl told him, “but perhaps you could give me at least a moment’s warning before you go rushing off like that. Agreed?”
Nodding, Keeley’s smile reappeared and Faolan knew the crisis had been averted.
Together they had walked the stallion back to his stall, Keeley whispering softly into the horse’s ear the entire time.
“It’s nearly time for supper. We should be getting back,” Faolan urged, seeing the boy’s reluctance to leave the horse behind.
“Can I stay with him for just a few moments longer?” Keeley had asked, stroking the tall stallion on his proud, arched neck. “He’s still so afraid. His last owners… they hurt him.”
So, it was as the earl suspected, Keeley’s communication with spirits extended to those of animals as well. He looked at the slight young man and smiled at the idea that Keeley seemed to think of this imposing animal, who dwarfed him in size, as a fragile creature that needed his coddling. Though Keeley had been through many trying times himself, Faolan began to notice more and more the deep inner strength he carried with him.
“Very well. Come to dinner within a half hour, though,” he had warned him. “I don’t want to have to come looking for you.”
Keeley nodded his assent and Faolan left him. The man knew why Keeley had reached out to the creature. He could see quite well that Keeley recognized in the stallion something of himself—something hurt, and lost, and lashing out. He hoped that in time, both their wounds would heal.
Later at dinner (to which Keeley arrived several minutes late, despite his best efforts), the raven-haired boy finally asked the question that had been burning in his mind since the night before: “Faolan, what is this ‘mission’ that I will be starting tomorrow?”
Keeley had expected the man to remain evasive, but was happily surprised when he explained. “We will be visiting Mr. O’Reilly at his estate in the next county over.”
“And what will we be doing there?” Keeley had pressed.
“His daughter has fallen ill and he has asked for my assistance.”
“Why wouldn’t he just call a proper doctor?”
“It’s not that kind of illness.”
“Oh… I see,” Keeley said, his curiosity aroused.
“We must retire early tonight. It is a full day's ride to his residence, though we will take the coach, so the travel should be easier.”
Keeley looked distraught at this news. “Can’t I ride horseback?” he pleaded.
Faolan was slightly disappointed at this request. He’d been looking forward to traveling with the young man in the small, intimate space of the carriage, but the bright, eager gleam in Keeley’s eye wasn’t something he could refuse. “Very well.”
He beamed up at the earl with a brilliant, “Thank you!”
Keeley had thought that Faolan would argue with him on this point, and was very pleased to have ‘won’ with so little resistance. He had wanted the air, the space, and the small sense of freedom the ride would give him. However, when the weather turned unexpectedly chill, he had wavered.
The wind whipped with a freezing rain that reached into his bones and wrenched out all the remaining warmth. However, it had been his decision to ride instead of accepting the Earl’s offer of the carriage, and he would not go back on it now.
No matter how miserable he was.
At least he had a good mount. Keeley was riding the very same black horse he’d broken in the day before, a stallion he had decided to name Ancalagon.
Although Faolan hadn’t been thrilled with his choice of horse, he acquiesced, since he knew Keeley had his heart set on it and he didn’t sense any immediate danger in letting him do so. Personally however, the earl wished Keeley had chosen a less unpredictable animal.
Faolan glanced outside the carriage again to see how Keeley was faring in the downpour and frowned as he saw the boy struggling to keep the rain from seeping into his clothing. He looked chilled and worn and extremely pale, but he knew Keeley not be gainsaid. If Keeley said he was going to ride the whole day, then he would do just that. The earl began to wish he had brought Rian with him. At least then he would have someone else to look after Keeley as he rode. But Larkin had wanted time alone with his lover, and Faolan wanted Keeley to himself as well. He sensed the boy’s deep need for a closer connection between them and felt it would be good for the two of them to take a trip by themselves, without the prying eyes of the other members of his household.
The deeper shadows of evening were coming on now and the temperature would be dropping, but thankfully they did not have much further to go. Faolan was just about to insist that Keeley come into the carriage—whether he liked it or not—when his friend’s estate became visible in the distance. With a sigh he decided to let Keeley finish his ride.
In the meantime, Keeley tried to flex his stiff hands, which had long since become numb from the cold. His mind began drifting away to thoughts of warm blankets and hot, glowing fires. The rain continued to beat against him in merciless rivets that snaked and slithered into every crevice they could find, until there was not an inch of him left that was not wet and frozen to the bone.
He trudged along, wretched but determined. He shook his head, fighting the weariness that was creeping over him. When he finally saw the O’Reilly estate through the heavy mists, Keeley thought he would feel a great sense of relief, but the large manor looked dreary and foreboding in the rain. Its walls were made from a dull, grey stone and the whole structure seemed lifeless as it loomed up in the distance.
Gripped by a sudden, fierce chill, Keeley’s body shook violently. At the same moment, a streak of movement flashed along the borders of his vision. Whipping his head around, he caught sight of a small, feral cat with odd-colored eyes. Its coat was a smoky grey so well matched to the mists surrounding it that the animal appeared insubstantial, as if it had been conjured out of the fog itself. The creature stared at him, and Keeley had the unnerving sensation that he was being thoroughly assessed by the glowing green and gold eyes. The light in those depths seemed far too alert and intelligent for a typical wild housecat and Keeley wondered if his tired eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. He took a moment to rub the fatigue from his eyes and when he looked back up, the animal had disappeared.
<i>Must be the cold and exhaustion getting to me</i>, he thought, though his uneasiness refused to leave him.
It didn’t take long after this to reach the manor’s front gates, but in that short time that night had come on with a vengeance. Keeley dismounted with difficulty. His joints were frozen. Although the young man was an accomplished horseman, it had been a long time since he had ridden at length and his muscles, unaccustomed to the demands of riding and constricted into knots from the constant chill, were cramping badly. Keeley was forced to cling to Ancalagon to steady himself as his body threatened to collapse beneath him.
As soon as the coach came to a halt, Faolan was at his side.
“I’m fine,” Keeley managed to say, though his teeth clattered as he spoke.
“We need to get you inside,” the earl said sternly, pulling Keeley to his side so he could help him up the wide stone stairs to the door. Behind him, the carriage driver came shuffling along with his master’s bags.
When O’Reilly’s servants opened the tall, elaborate front doors, the earl’s party was a sorry sight. They were freezing, worn, and completely soaked.
“Please, come in, come in!” said the head servant, an older woman with a robust build and warm smile. “We’ve been expecting you, Earl O’Callaghan.”
Several other servants bustled about them, taking their dripping coats and hats.
“Master O’Reilly has already retired for the evening and regrets that he cannot greet you personally, but he looks forward to receiving you at breakfast,” the woman informed them. “Your room is waiting for you, with a good fire already started.”
The butler came around to take their bags and the driver left to move the carriage.
The maidservant glanced at the pale young man attached to Faolan’s side and gave him a quizzical look. She was used to seeing Rian with the earl and wasn’t sure what to make of his new boy.
“Shall I show your valet to the servant’s quarters?” she asked.
Keeley looked up at Faolan. Though he didn’t wish to admit it, he was reluctant to leave the man’s warm and reassuring presence.
“No, he’ll stay with me. Have a small cot brought to my room for him,” the earl instructed. As an afterthought he added, “And see that a tub and hot water is brought up as soon as possible.”
“Very good, sir.”
When they arrived at their room, the two men were greeted with a lovely rush of warmth from the large fire burning away happily in hearth. Keeley nearly cried with joy at the welcoming sight. After hours of dreaming about heat, he sat himself greedily in front of the fireplace, soaking in its heat and light.
“Keeley, move back a bit. You’re practically sitting in that fire,” Faolan chided him, “and get out of those wet clothes.”
Looking over his shoulder, Keeley saw that the earl had already begun removing his own damp clothing.
“But…” the boy hesitated, unsure of where things would lead with both of them undressed. “I have nothing else to wear,” he said nervously.
“Here.” The earl tossed him a soft robe that had been left on the bed for his use and slipped out of his shirt. The earl was now naked from the waist up, except for a thin undershirt, which failed to cover much of his body since it hung open down his chest and clung to his wet, sticky skin to reveal his tawny nipples and the well-formed muscles of his abdomen.
Picking up the robe, Keeley ran it through his fingers, but he made no move to undress. The wet weight of his clothing was biting into him like icy claws, but he was powerfully aware of the earl’s proximity and the intimate setting of the bedroom. He stood for a moment, shivering while his mind considered his situation.
Impatient with the boy’s indecision, Faolan walked over to him, his tall form blocking out the firelight.
“If you wait too long, I may be tempted to strip you naked myself,” he said in a husky tone. He heard the breath hitch in Keeley’s throat at this proposition and leaned in closer, slipping his fingers into the hair at the base of the boy’s neck. “Or maybe that’s exactly what you’re waiting for…”
The servants chose that time to come knocking at the door with the tub and cot in tow.
Was Keeley relieved or disappointed? He couldn’t decide.
“Thank you. Set up the bath in front of the fire,” the earl told them.
Several servant girls brought the cot into the corner of the room and lifted the tub in place and began to load it with steaming pails full of hot water. Keeley looked at the tub wistfully, wanting nothing more than to sink into the generous warmth of the water and disappear.
It took several minutes for the girls to fill the copper tub, during which the tall red-haired man seemed not to notice how their eyes drifted over his enticing physique. Keeley, however, saw their cheeks flush pink and knew it had nothing to do with the steam brushing their faces. His jealousy flared to life, and his determination solidified.
As soon as the door clicked shut, he began peeling away his clothing until he stood in nothing but his thin undergarments.
“Take <i>everything</i> off, Keeley,” Faolan said authoritatively, stripping off his own pants.
“I thought you’d want to do that for me.”
Cocking an eyebrow at Keeley’s bold request, Faolan’s lips spread into a delighted and wolfish grin. “Did you?”
He stepped near him and, placing his hands on the Keeley’s slender shoulders, turned Keeley to face towards the fire, away from him. Keeley’s heart raced in his chest, his body warming as the blood pumped through his veins. He wanted the earl’s attentions, and yet, he was unsure of where they would take him.
Quite familiar with the art of seduction, Faolan recognized the young man’s ambivalence and moved slowly. Sliding his hands under Keeley’s arms, he pressed against him from behind and began unfastening one button at a time on the boy’s garment. He was disturbed to feel how chilled Keeley’s flesh felt beneath his touch. Though he wanted to savor every moment, Faolan knew he had to get him into the heat of the water—and soon.
Even so, once every button had been released, the earl could not resist hooking his fingers under the neck of the boy’s undershirt and tugging it slowly down his pale arms. The heat from the man’s fingertips left tantalizing trails of warmth along Keeley’s cold skin. When Faolan reached the waist of his breeches, Keeley swallowed in trepidation, but the determined fingers did not stop until his clothing lay in wet circles about his feet.
Then Faolan walked around to face him. “Perhaps you would like to help me disrobe as well?”
Taking Keeley’s wrist, he brought the young man’s trembling hand to the edge of his breeches and waited to see what he would do.
“I… I think I will let you do that,” Keeley replied, feeling chagrined. He berated himself for losing his nerve, but for some reason he could not name, he found the idea of undressing Faolan much more intimidating than letting the man strip him.
Faolan gave him a lopsided, knowing smile and said, “Then I shall let you watch.” And with that he pulled off his remaining clothing with lustful vigor so that he was left standing with the firelight framing his glorious, nude form.
Faolan stood just long enough for Keeley to soak in the arousing vision before dipping his feet into the bath.
“Ahh!” the earl sighed with a deep, genuine gratitude for the heat infusing itself into his toes. Releasing his hair from its bonds, he lowered himself fully into the steamy water.
It was the first time Keeley had seen Faolan with his hair loosened and seeing the fiery locks falling softly over his strong shoulders somehow made the man look younger, or perhaps less intimidating. Keeley felt as if he were looking at a side of the earl most people were never privileged enough to set eyes on—a side that was for him alone.
“What are you waiting for? Get in!”
Despite the cold, Keeley said, “I don’t think there’s enough room for the two of us. Maybe I’ll wait until you’re finished.” The idea of sitting together in the small tub, their slick, naked limbs intertwined, stimulated Keeley to such a degree that he feared he would be completely overcome. His hands came up to discreetly cover the evidence of his arousal.
“The water will be tepid by then,” Faolan told him in irritation. However, the man was secretly amused with Keeley’s hesitation. He was enjoying the game that played out between them: Keeley’s attempts to be assertive mixed with his sudden shyness. Faolan knew if their relationship was ever to progress, he would eventually have to force past that apprehension. He knew the day would come when he would grow tired of the game and simply take him.
And he was greatly looking forward to it.
Now though, he watched Keeley squirming beside the tub. “Are you afraid?” Faolan asked him quietly.
“Then, come,” the earl said, offering his hand. The man spread his legs inside of the copper tub and sat up to make room for the boy.
Try as he might Keeley couldn’t control his racing heart. He gazed at Faolan and was stuck by his beauty in the firelight, the way the soft amber glow of the flames accentuated the man’s bright auburn locks. Keeley didn’t know if it was the soft look in Faolan’s emerald eyes or the irresistible temptation of the inviting heat of the bath, but he gave in.
As soon as his skin touched the water, he exhaled with a joy born of hours in the unrelenting cold. He sank in deep, unable to fully articulate the immense level of relief he felt in the water’s warm embrace.
“Better?” Faolan asked with a smile.
The boy’s grin in return was childlike and brilliant.
As Keeley let his head fall back against the rim of the tub, something around his neck caught the firelight. Faolan saw a curious locket resting against his chest.
“What is that you are wearing?” he asked.
Keeley glanced down. He was so used to wearing the pendant that he often forgot it was even there.
“It’s a talisman my mother gave me when I was born,” he explained with a sad, nostalgic look in his eyes. “She told me it would always protect me and never to be caught without it.” His delicate fingers closed about it and he closed his eyes, breathing in the memory. “I’ve never taken it off for as long as I can remember.”
“May I take a closer look?”
At first Keeley thought this was the earl’s way of bringing them closer together and beginning a new seduction, but he saw that the man’s face was unexpectedly serious. He leaned forward so Faolan could examine the small locket.
It was made of silver with a complicated Celtic knot design embossed in delicate filigree, the like of which the earl had never seen. The design looked familiar, and yet it was definitely unique. Faolan’s eyes narrowed. There was something about it that unsettled him. A power emanated from between its seams—harnessed, but waiting to break free.
“I don’t know, actually,” Keeley confessed. “It’s sealed shut very tight. Mother said it would break if I tried to force it open and that I should never try it. She told me to keep it safe and close to my heart. I assumed it was probably something small and secret that she wanted me to have.”
“It’s cracked,” Faolan said, seeing the thin fracture in the otherwise pristine silver locket.
“Yes… it happened around the time of the fire. When I lost my family,” Keeley replied softly.
Faolan framed the boy’s melancholy face in his hands.
“I’m sorry to have brought up such painful memories.”
“It’s okay,” Keeley said, shaking off the heavy mood. “I’m just happy to be warm again!” he said cheerfully.
He sank back down into the water, submerging as much of his body as possible. As he stretched out, Keeley accidentally bumped into Faolan with his foot. Instinctively he drew back, but the man caught him between his fingers and the young man jolted upright at the touch, as tense as he was relaxed just moment before.
“Relax,” Faolan whispered, slipping his fingers along the sole of the boy’s foot and rubbing away his tension.
After a long day of riding, the earl’s ministrations to his tired feet were absolute heaven. Keeley was sure he would melt right into the water. Without realizing it, he started to vocalize his pleasure and openly moaned with every touch of Faolan’s fingertips.
With the young man so open and unresisting, Faolan found himself unable to hold back and moved in toward him. The sudden movement startled Keeley at first, but with the mixture of warmth and relaxation and Faolan’s heady presence, he couldn’t move away. Slowly, Faolan brought his lips down over Keeley’s own. The earl moved his mouth languidly, taking leisurely pleasure in the feel and texture of the young man’s lips.
Keeley now felt a new heat radiating through his being and it was as if he had dissolved into the water, become one with it, and every molecule burned with an inexorable warmth.
When Faolan pulled away and Keeley came back to himself, he felt dizzy with desire. The kiss left him breathing heavily, his eyes dilated with longing and totally entranced by Faolan’s beauty. Faolan kissed his neck, knowing it was a weak point for the young man. He was trying not to lose himself, but it was a struggle, especially with Keeley responding so deliciously to his advances.
The feel of the man’s mouth moving across his bare shoulders caused Keeley to arch his back and gasp aloud. Yielding to his driving passion, Faolan pulled him forward in order to feel his wet body against him, their prominent arousals caressing one another. Keeley immediately cried out in surprise, shocked by the electric power of the intimate touch, and yet didn’t struggle against it—at least not until Faolan reached between them to grip their mutual erections and stroke them together.
“Faolan” Keeley choked out in a trembling voice revealing his fear. His plea had an affect opposite of what he’d intended, the little voice only heightening the earl’s rushing libido.
However, the pleasant moment was abruptly curtailed by an uncanny chill that gripped them both. It was not a draft, but something more sinister. Instinctively, Keeley’s eyes darted to the window, where he found a set of glowing eyes watching them—two stories above the ground.
Keeley gasped in dismay and felt Faolan’s firm, reassuring hand on his shoulder.
In the next instant, the eyes flashed and went out, but the damage was done. Keeley was terrified.
“I know those eyes,” he said, surprising Faolan.
“What do you mean?”
“On the road here, I saw a cat in the fog with those same eyes,” Keeley said, totally unnerved. With an anxious look in the pale blue depths of his own eyes, he asked, “What is it? What does it mean?”
“I don’t know yet. That’s what we’re here to figure out.”
Keeley didn’t much care for this vague reply, but a swift wave of drowsiness distracted him from his irritation and anxieties. Now that his body was warm again, his fatigue stole over him like a heavy cloak, subduing his senses, and he gave a wide yawn. It had been a long day for Keeley and a long, hard ride. Even the fright at witnessing those eerie, glowing eyes could not keep sleep from encircling his mind and wrapping him in its inviting embrace.
“We should get you into bed,” Faolan said, seeing the boy’s weariness. “It seems we are going to have our hands full here and tomorrow we must wake early to meet O’Reilly,” he said, standing as he spoke.
Keeley blushed and looked away from the earl’s naked, dripping body.
Grabbing one of the towel cloths laid out for him, Faolan began to dry himself. He lifted an eyebrow at Keeley, who had let his eyes wander over the man’s glistening nude physique. The young man flushed a deep scarlet, looked away, and sunk lower in the water in embarrassment.
“Come now,” Faolan said once he was dry, “you can’t stay in there all night.” Holding out his hand, he said, “I’ll dry you off.”
The offer did not help; the young man refused to budge.
“I’ll get out in a minute,” Keeley offered, squirming. He silently pleaded for Faolan to give him more time. If he came out now, Keeley would be unable to hide his arousal and the man would see the evidence of his affect over him.
The earl’s brows drew together like storm clouds. “Keeley, I expect your obedience on such matters. This is not a request. We are not on a holiday—the display we just saw in the window should be evidence enough of that. I want you rested for tomorrow. Now, <i>stand</i>.”
Keeley complied, albeit begrudgingly. Though he covered himself as best he could, Faolan was instantly aware of the young man’s predicament. He smiled and stepped behind him.
The earl had just thought of the perfect way to send Keeley off to slumber.
With deliberate slowness, Faolan dragged the cloth down the young man’s smooth skin and felt him shudder beneath his touch. He began with Keeley’s shoulders, ran down his back, then gripped his small, inviting buttocks, eliciting a little yelp of surprise from the young man.
Faolan couldn’t help but grin and even with Keeley’s back to him, the boy could feel the other man’s satisfaction at his discomfort.
The earl continued on, determined to map every inch of Keeley’s wet skin. He bent low to stroke down each leg and had to bite his lip to keep himself from sinking his teeth into the ivory flesh of one round ass cheek. <i>All in good time</i>, he told himself.
When Faolan reached for one of the young man’s arms, Keeley resisted. Lifting his arms meant exposing himself.
Merciless in his seduction, the earl leaned his head down and whispered his heated words into Keeley’s ear, “You must move for me to dry you, love. You’ll catch a chill again standing here completely wet and naked.”
Keeley blushed. Having Faolan describe his state of undress somehow made him much more self-conscious of it. Hesitantly, he allowed the man to lift his arms and dry the rest of his body, but he shut his eyes, as if this would invoke a kind of sympathetic magic that would blind Faolan’s eyes from his nakedness.
Keeley was certain that earl him would take advantage of him at any moment. Any time now he would feel him moving the cloth down between his legs, gently stroking his now-aching member. The mere thought of it flooded Keeley with both fear and quivering anticipation.
But Faolan did not touch him. Instead of moving his hands down, he brought them up and gently rubbed the wetness from his midnight-black locks. The tender action calmed Keeley and as he relaxed he gave another wide yawn.
The earl watched the emotions flitter across Keeley’s face and prayed for restraint. He knew that he couldn’t push things too far and he wanted to draw out every tantalizing moment. However, Keeley’s sleepy, defenseless innocence spiked Faolan’s urge to exploit the inviting vision of youthful beauty set so enticingly before him and he was hard pressed to deny himself.
“There,” Faolan said finally, tossing the wet cloth beside the rest of their damp garments near the fire. “Now to bed.”
Keeley immediately ran for the safety of the cot. He was eager to have even the thin, worn blanket between himself and the earl, who he had decided was in far too dangerous and affecting a mood to trust that evening.
“I said <i>‘bed</i>’, Keeley,” Faolan noted sternly, as he pulled back the warm, fluffy blankets on the large master bed. “You’ll catch your death on that mean little cot without your clothes to keep you warm.”
As the earl expected, Keeley hesitated, but the boy’s desire for warmth won out and he quickly dashed off the cot and scrambled under the deep layers of blankets. No sooner had he snuggled into that downy comfort than the young man felt his companion’s presence over his shoulder.
“Let me warm you.”
Before Keeley had a chance to protest, Faolan’s powerful, hot body was pressing into him from behind. Two strong arms encircled his waist and Keeley sucked in his breath, too torn to accept or deny this advance. He trembled with an unnamable desire that frightened him. The earl’s words echoed in his ears: <i>‘…sooner or later I will take you.’</i>
“What are you feeling, Keeley? Tell me.”
“I’m scared,” he admitted.
Keeley’s breath hitched. He didn’t want to say it. <i>Oh, please,</i> he begged, <i>don’t make me say it!</i>
Faolan’s firm body swayed against him, just slightly, but enough to spark a brilliant fire low in Keeley’s belly—a fire that cried out to be touched and teased into a blazing, consuming inferno.
Without even realizing he was doing so, Keeley responded to the earl’s rhythm and began nudging his hips into the mattress to ease the heated longing rising between his thighs.
The earl felt him move and grinned in greedy, self-satisfied delight. Keeley was playing into his hands beautifully.
“What <i>else?</i>” Faolan repeated, punctuating his question with a sharp thrust of his pelvis.
Keeley trembled in the man’s embrace and gasped, “I—I feel… on fire!”
The breathy cry almost undid Faolan. He nipped at the tender flesh of Keeley’s shoulders and restrained himself just in time to keep from flipping the boy over and giving him his first, hard fucking.
How he resisted the temptation, he had no idea. Perhaps it was the way Keeley quaked in his arms. The boy was overcome—and extremely fatigued. If he took him now, Faolan doubted Keeley would be able to truly enjoy it.
However, that did not rule out other pleasurable pursuits.
“Shall I quell that fire for you?” Faolan asked, pushing Keeley down so his back was pressed into the bed and he could dart his tongue across the flat expanse of the young man’s chest.
Keeley didn’t know what to say. He could barely form a coherent thought in his sleep-deprived, passion-addled mind. On instinct, he demanded, “Kiss me.”
Faolan swiftly crushed his lips against Keeley’s, sweeping his tongue into his mouth aggressively. Beneath him, the young man whimpered, helpless with desire.
“Don’t worry, love,” the earl said softly as he slowly licked his way down Keeley’s torso. “I’ll be gentle with you tonight.”
With a hunger that surprised even him, Faolan lowered his head and suddenly sucked Keeley’s pulsing sex into his wet, warm mouth.
Keeley cried out at the unbelievably exquisite sensation and dug his teeth into the palm of his hand to stifle his moaning. His head jerked back with every languid stroke of Faolan’s tongue over his sensitive flesh and his body writhed wildly until the red-haired man finally had to pin down his hips with his strong, firm hands.
With the young man at his mercy, Faolan slowed his pace in order to fully explore Keeley’s twitching, aching cock. He trailed the tip of his tongue down the sides of the heated organ, kissed the weeping slit, and enveloped him over and over until the young man was beside himself with need.
Faolan drank in every sweet cry and frenzied movement from the narrow slits of his glinting green eyes. It would not be long now. He knew the signs. Keeley was bucking against him, his fists pounding in a steady rhythm against the sheets as his release swelled inside him. With a heady groan, Keeley’s back arched almost violently off the bed and his knees bent to give him more leverage to thrust into Faolan’s waiting mouth as his climax broke over him.
Faolan relaxed his throat and drank down Keeley’s pearly essence, savoring the taste of him on his tongue. When he looked up, the earl found Keeley gazing at him with heavy-lidded eyes. The boy’s slender fingers reached out to caress the loose tendrils of Faolan’s unique brand of crimson-red hair and Keeley smiled. He looked on the verge of saying something, but suddenly his pale blue eyes glazed over with sleep and his eyelids fluttered shut.
Faolan remained lying between the young man’s legs for some time, stroking his sides with gentle fingertips and watching him drift deeper into sleep. The way Keeley’s soft fingers twined so affectionately into his auburn locks affected him more than it should have. The tender caress went straight to Faolan’s heart where it spread through his chest in a warm, enchanting glow.
Soon the fire was flickering low and Faolan grew drowsy. Crawling up the bed, he pulled the Keeley into his arms. Within minutes, he was fast asleep.
* * *
Keeley had slept well and deep and he woke in the morning only reluctantly. He was pulled from his peaceful dreams by a soft, lonely voice that lamented its fate in sorrowful soprano tones. However, when he opened his eyes the heartrending voice disappeared. In its wake, the voice left an inexplicable longing within Keeley’s chest. Despite the fact that Keeley knew the pain was not his own, the acuteness of the misery enveloping him alarmed him. Somewhere nearby was a languishing soul-spirit, but it eluded him, hovering just out of sight.
It was a disquieting and unpleasant way to greet the morning, though the dismal grey day outside did not deserve much cheer. Keeley forced himself to sit up and saw that Faolan was already up and dressed and standing by the window, contemplating the dreary weather, as was his habit on early mornings.
“You felt it, didn’t you?” the man asked.
Keeley did not need him to elaborate. “Yes,” he answered.
“We had best get a move on. We will be summoned to breakfast shortly.”
“But what was that? What’s going on?” Keeley asked, feeling flustered and a bit awkward talking with Faolan while he sat naked in bed. He wondered at the man’s detached manner after the heated exchange the night before and frowned. The earl was back to his infuriating, authoritative mode.
“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Faolan insisted.
Scowling, Keeley left the warm shelter of the blankets and hurriedly dressed himself in his dry, but stiff garments. In his irritation at the earl’s dismissive attitude, the young man made quite a fuss, stomping about the room as he readied himself. He had just finished tying his cravat when a knock came at the door.
“The master requests your presence at the breakfast table,” the maidservant said with a polite curtsy.
“Tell him we will be down momentarily.”
“Very good, sir.”
After she had left, Keeley started, “Faolan, what about—”
“No time for questions. I don’t wish to be late.”
Sensing the earl’s unusually tense mood, Keeley bit back his retort.
His curiosity now gnawing at him, Keeley followed Faolan obediently down the large, curved staircase. As they made their way down, the earl turned to him and said in a low voice, “I want you to keep your senses on sharp alert to everything around you while we are here, but hold back from making any judgments.”
“But why! I don’t understand any of this and you refuse to tell me anything about the voice this morning or those disturbing eyes!” Keeley spat. He was aggravated beyond reason at the earl’s cool attitude regarding these strange and disturbing events, and wanted more from him than vague hints and guesses.
Faolan gave him a quizzical look. “What makes you think <i>I</i> have the answers? I told you before, we are here to investigate.”
“What about your damned <i>‘intuition’?</i>” Keeley hissed, losing his patience as they reached the bottom step.
“It only guides the way,” the earl said with a smile, ignoring his companion’s anger. “It does not illuminate it.”
“Must you always talk in riddles?”
If Faolan had a response to this, he had no chance to give it. At that moment a portly, middle-aged man—the master of the house apparently—strode up to them and boomed in greeting, “Faolan! My dearest earl! I heard you had a terrible time of it last evening. I’m very sorry to have troubled you so. How can I ever thank you for coming!”
“No need, Jacob. Wait until we see if I can be of service, and perhaps you can thank me later.”
“Ah, always the gentleman! Come, come, let us eat.” O’Reilly paused, his small, round eyes just then noticing the willowy young man standing impatiently at the earl’s side.
“Oh! Dear me! I almost missed you, boy! And who might this be?” he asked, turning to Faolan.
The earl knew it would rankle Keeley that he was not addressed directly and took a perverse delight in the boy’s flush of anger. It reminded him of the lovely blush that crept over Keeley’s cheeks when he was aroused.
“This is Keeley Finnegan, a new employee of mine. I believe he will be of great help to us.”
Keeley gave Faolan a sidelong glance. <i>How can I be of help when I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do?</i> He thought bitterly.
“Hmm, I see. Very good,” O’Reilly replied, but Keeley didn’t think his voice held much confidence.
The three men made their way to the long dining table and Keeley’s spirits improved considerably when his eyes took in the formidable spread: candied ham, boiled potatoes, pickled beets, and scrambled eggs. His stomach growled loudly just looking at it. The previous day’s ride had left him little time to eat, but his fatigue had won out over his hunger the night before. Now that he was awake and rested, however, he was ravenous.
“Dig in, Mr. Finnegan!” O’Reilly said, witnessing the boy’s shining eyes. “We won’t wait for you!”
The man’s threat hardly sounded serious, but Keeley dove into the food quickly and with rapturous delight. When he had finally finished (after three helpings), he pushed his plate back with a satisfied sigh. A brief pang of guilt stabbed him when he thought about how poorly his Catholic brothers must have been eating that morning, but he rationalized his gluttony on the basis that he needed sustenance if he was going to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding O’Reilly’s residence.
Faolan had told him little about how this mission would help the Brotherhood (or anything else for that matter). Keeley decided that if the earl refused to explain things to him, he’d would call upon his stubborn nature and uncover the truth for himself. He was through begging for help from Faolan and getting only ambiguous answers.
Completely revived from his ordeals the day before, Keeley now took in his surroundings with a keen eye. O’Reilly was chatting with Faolan about some mundane affairs of state, and Keeley was able to assess the corpulent man at his leisure.
Until that morning, Keeley had known the rotund landowner only by reputation. For a long while O’Reilly had been a fair, if not generous, landowner, but recently he had begun to ignore the pleas of his tenants and squander the land’s revenues for himself. Keeley had expected to meet a pompous, greedy sort of man, but O’Reilly surprised him. The man, despite his round size and heavy double chin, lacked the self-satisfied glow of overindulgence that characterized so many in the ruling class. Nor was he dripping with the gold trinkets and ornate fabrics that men with his wealth tended to wear. Rather, Keeley noted, his clothing was quite plain and his complexion appeared somewhat sallow. There were dark circles under his eyes, too. He had the look of a man who had not slept well for many nights, and Keeley had a hard time fitting this image with that of the selfish, hoarding landlord of rumor.
Suddenly, Keeley became aware that he was being addressed and glanced over at Faolan questioningly.
“Are you quite finished?” the earl repeated.
For a moment, Keeley thought Faolan was referring to his open assessment of their host and flushed in embarrassment before he realized the earl was pointing to his plate.
“Oh! Yes, quite finished. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, young man,” O’Reilly said warmly, but the man’s face fell. “My Mary always had a good appetite,” he said with a sad sigh. “Now, she’s just wasting away.”
“If you don’t mind,” Faolan said, interrupting the man’s melancholy, “could we see your daughter now?”
“Yes, of course. That’s why you’re here after all!” O’Reilly said, but Keeley could sense his hesitation. It must be difficult for him to share his grief, he thought.
As they walked down the long chilly halls, Keeley’s unease, which had been briefly relieved by the quality of the meal, slowly returned with renewed potency. Although he could not hear the cry of the soul-spirit, he could sense it just as strongly as he had earlier that morning. With each step he took down the hall, it increased in power, until Keeley’s head was swimming and his chest ached.
When they finally stopped before a large wooden door, the young man could bear it no longer and clutched at Faolan’s sleeve for support as he swayed.
“Keeley, are you all right?” Faolan asked, slipping an arm about his shoulders to steady him. In a quieter voice, for his ears only, the earl whispered, “Just a little further. Please endure it for a bit longer.”
Although he wasn’t sure how much more he could take, Keeley nodded. He wasn’t about to faint like some maiden. This was his first mission, and he had his pride.
O’Reilly watched the young man’s distress without comment, keeping whatever thoughts he had to himself.
“This way,” O’Reilly said, opening the door and stepping inside.
With Faolan’s help, Keeley staggered into a large room, richly furnished with a polished, dark wood bedroom set and dripping with antique lace from the curtains to the bedspread. It would have been lovely, were it not for the solemn mood that hung heavily in the still air and the motionless body on the bed.
A thin layer of dust coated every object in the room and dulled its color; heavy curtains shut out most of the light. All in all, the space resembled a tomb more than a private bedchamber. It gave Keeley a violent chill down his spine and the loneliness that had slowly been creeping about him now smothered him completely.
But he did not turn away. Pushing away from Faolan, he walked with unsteady feet to the wide bed, where the figure of a young girl—only a year or two older than himself—lay in cold, unresponsive repose.
“How long has she been like this?” Keeley asked, his voice tight, as if it took him a great effort to speak.
“Almost two months,” O’Reilly said, giving the boy a worried glance.
The young man looked pale and seemed to be in genuine pain. Was this what his daughter was feeling? Was the boy with the cool blue eyes channeling her pain? O’Reilly hoped not. He couldn’t bear the thought of her in such agony.
After the death of his wife several years before, O’Reilly had given all his love and affection to his daughter. She was his only living relative now, and he loved her more dearly than his own life. He would have done anything to keep her from harm, but he was helpless under the circumstances. He’d spent a small fortune on doctors, and every one of them had shrugged and failed to make a diagnosis. Perhaps this strange young man would be able to reach her.
“Jacob, may we have a moment alone with her?” Faolan asked.
“I… Well, yes. I suppose so,” O’Reilly replied.
“Thank you,” the earl said warmly, escorting him out. “We will only be a minute, no need to worry.”
Once the door was shut, Keeley dropped to his knees. “Two months!” he cried.
“Calm yourself,” Faolan said softly, walking up behind him.
“I don’t know how! Her sorrow is stinging me down into my bones!”
Two strong hands came to rest on his shoulders. “You have to learn to separate yourself, Keeley.”
“How do I do that?” he asked through clenched teeth.
Keeley had often been assailed by the overpowering grief of various soul-spirits that reached out to him, but nothing ever reached inside him and wrenched at his gut the way this girl’s spirit did. He could tell immediately that her soul wasn’t just lost. It had been ejected, forced from her body against her will. It was something Keeley had never encountered before and never wished to deal with again.
“Breathe, Keeley,” the earl instructed in a steady, reassuring tone. “Look inside yourself. This is not your pain.”
“But it’s pushing into me! I can’t stop it!”
“Listen to me! You must face this force, recognize that it is not your own, and let it go.”
Keeley trembled as he concentrated his entire mind on this task. Though his anguish lessened, he could not stop it completely. A sweat broke out over his brow and he squeezed the delicate coverlet until his knuckles shone white. He could not block out the pain and it had rooted him to the spot.
“Please, help me Faolan!” he cried.
Keeley’s strained, raspy breaths were the only noise in the stuffy, still room until Faolan finally leaned down over the young man and covered his eyes. The earl spoke a series of hushed chants with words Keeley couldn’t quite catch, but the acute agony gradually left him.
For several minutes afterward, Keeley continued to kneel next to the bed. The morning chill crept into his sweat-soaked clothes and he shivered.
“That will help you for now,” Faolan said, “but you must learn not to be overwhelmed by her pain. We need to find her soul-spirit—and soon. Our time is limited. The longer she is separated from her soul, the weaker her life force becomes.”
“What will happen?” Keeley asked, his head bowed. He knew the answer, but he chose to deny it.
“If it returns in the next few days, she may only lose some of her memories. Any longer, and her life force will ebb out completely and she will die.”
Keeley’s eyes shot up to meet Faolan’s gaze. The boy looked stricken.
“This is in the realm of <i>your</i> power Keeley. You have a far stronger connection to soul-spirits than I, and you are far more powerful than you realize. There is so much you can do if only you hone your skills. Do you understand?”
Hesitantly, Keeley nodded.
“You are the only one who can save this girl.”
Keeley’s first reaction to this pronouncement was intimidation. It was difficult for him to track down a soul-spirit unless it came to him willingly. His attempts to draw wayward spirits to him were not always successful. The longer a spirit was severed from the body, the harder it was to pin down. This girl’s soul had been wandering for months. Moreover, even though Keeley could sense that her soul-spirit was near, it seemed determined to keep itself hidden. What if he failed? This young girl’s life was at stake.
Still, he knew Faolan wouldn’t lie to him about his abilities, and slowly a new feeling welled up inside him. A new confidence and determination was born as he looked into Faolan’s steady green gaze.
Isn’t this what he had been longing for? To be needed, to be necessary?
Yes, he would do this. He would save this girl and he would somehow become strong, so he was no longer the one who needed support, but one who supported others. Keeley slowly stood with renewed conviction, a fiery glint shining in his blue eyes.
“Tell me what I need to do.”
Faolan smiled. It was a small shift in demeanor, but he recognized that a larger change was brewing in the young man. He hoped the boy’s strength would grow swiftly… Keeley was going to need it in the days ahead.
“What are you doing over there? Come back to bed,” Rian said with a pout, looking up at his lover from the disarray of the bed.
Larkin stood gazing out the window, much in the manner of Faolan when something was concerning him. The blond-haired man didn’t recognize that he and his friend shared many of the same characteristics, but Rian did. He smiled thinking of them both.
There was a time when he’d wanted nothing more than to be taken to Faolan’s bed, but that was before he met Larkin. Although Rian would always feel indebted and dedicated to the earl for freeing him from the brothel he had grown up in, it was the tall, blond man standing before him who had been the one to show him what love could truly be.
And Larkin had spent the last few days reminding him. Though both lovers enjoyed the thrill of making love when they knew others were around to catch them, it had been nice to have some time alone as well. Rian in particular enjoyed having the freedom to attend to no one other than Larkin for days on end.
Tugging at the blond’s sleeve, Rian begged silently for attention. It was odd for Larkin to be so distracted; a concerned expression shaded the man’s handsome features. Rian recognized that Larkin must be ‘sensing’ something around them; that was the only time he got that particular look in his eyes. Although he was used to his lover’s talent for reading energies, Rian did not always enjoy it. He had no such abilities and often felt distanced from Larkin at times such as these.
“What is it?” Rian asked, knowing the matter would nag the other man unless he was able to discuss it.
“There is an unfriendly energy surrounding the entire mansion,” Larkin said, frowning. “It began shortly after Keeley arrived and I expected it to follow him when he left,” he paused, “but it has stayed, wafting in the air on the hills—waiting for him, biding its time until he returns.”
Rian was unmoved by this information. Something unusual was always happening when it came to the earl and his estate. If Faolan hadn’t been concerned enough to mention it before his departure, Rian saw no need to concern himself with it now. When it came to such matters, the young man had absolute confidence in his master to resolve them. His faith in Faolan’s abilities was so complete that it sometimes rankled his lover, whom Rian respected, but did not follow with such unflinching conviction.
“Why let it bother you? If something is after Keeley, Faolan will protect him.”
“Whatever is after him may come after <i>us</i> as well, Rian. We would be useful tools for getting to the boy.”
Rian groaned and rolled over onto his back in exasperation. “Why would anything come after us now, when Keeley and Master Faolan aren’t even <i>here?</i>” he said with a little whine. When his theatrics failed to get the attention of his lover, he became more subtle. Reaching out, he laced his fingers with Larkin’s and purred, “But <i>I’m</i> here now… why don’t we concentrate on us?”
Finally turning his deep hazel eyes away from the window, Larkin considered his lover, lying naked and sprawled on top of the disorderly bed sheets. Rian’s curly chestnut locks were tousled from their earlier lovemaking. The young man looked deliciously used and sinfully eager for more.
“How could I possibly refuse such a request?” Larkin asked, a familiar, roguish grin spreading across his lips.
Rian’s smile was pure brilliance as his lover knelt next to him on the bed. His grey eyes ignited with a secret flame as Larkin discarded the thin undergarments he had been wearing and settled his weight over Rian’s waiting body. The breath hitched in Rian’s throat as he felt Larkin’s naked, heated skin press into him. No matter how many times the man took him, Rian was always desperate for more. With a hungry moan, the young man spread his thighs to bring Larkin closer to him and wrapped his legs about his waist.
Larkin’s smile broadened. Rian was as ravenous as always. The young valet’s impatient lust never failed to ignite his own passion, even after Larkin had spent himself only minutes before.
“So eager to be fucked again, already?” Larkin whispered, grazing his mouth lightly, teasingly over Rian’s own.
The young man whimpered wordlessly, too deep in need to articulate his desire.
“You’re such a wanton boy,” Larkin chided, pushing his hips against his sweet young lover as he grazed one fair shoulder with his teeth.
“Larkin,” Rian said softly, plaintively, grey eyes shining like molten silver. Placing his arms above his head, he crossed his wrists one over the other in silent invitation for Larkin to bind him.
His lover needed no other encouragement. Lowering his head, Larkin invaded Rian’s gaping mouth. Their tongues twined together in erotic delight as the blond reached under the mattress to grab the leather straps hidden there. With one cord he wrapped Rian’s wrists together, and with a second he connected them to the headboard, so that Rian’s arms were stretched taut above him.
The young man reveled in his sense of surrender, arching his back against his lover and moaning his name. Larkin’s eyes fluttered shut as he soaked in the youth’s submissions and a surge of heady domination drugged his senses. With one firm hand, he flattened his palm against the Rian’s heaving chest and pressed him down insistently into the bed, staying his writhing undulations.
Rian bit his lip, his movements were increasingly limited, thereby making him progressively helpless. But he had not lost the game yet. By lifting his knees, Rian managed to give his body leverage enough to pull Larkin closer to him with his legs and he gave the man a naughty smile as he did so.
“It seems you need to be further restrained,” Larkin told him, tilting his head, a smirk of satisfaction on his face. The man sat up, breaking the grip of Rian’s legs, then swiftly bound each ankle and attached the ends of the cords to the bottom legs of the bed, leaving the young man before him completely exposed, spread-eagled on the mattress before him. Larkin sat back on his heels to admire his handiwork.
Rian’s entire body was flushed with arousal; his breath coming in deep pants as his lover openly assessed him. When their eyes met, the brunette shivered with barely contained anticipation. Slowly, Larkin crawled over his body and Rian waited, every inch of his skin crying out to be touched. A whimper escaped his lips as his lover hovered above him, so close, yet depriving him of the contact he so desperately longed for.
When Larkin inched one hand towards Rian’s body, the young man beneath him held his breath, not even daring to breathe least his lover stop his movement. Finally, Larkin’s fingertips touched him and passed over the expanse of Rian’s belly. The young man trembled down to the tips of his toes in glorious rapture at the touch. His immobility heightened every sensation and racked him with pleasure. Each touch that Larkin bestowed upon him was a gift of pure mercy to his hot, needy body.
Just as the shudders running through Rian’s frame began to subside, Larkin changed tactics and his teasing caresses became rough and demanding. His fingertips pinched the young man’s nipples into hard, rosy nubs before his fingernails scraped down his ribs and pinned his hips to the bed as Rian struggled in vain against him. Rian’s body was on sensory overload; his nerves had been heightened to painful sensitivity through Larkin’s earlier forced deprivation. Now the blond’s onslaught drove him into a frenzy of lust.
Larkin bent to kiss Rian, but his hand had slipped between the boy’s legs and Rian was tossing his head from side to side, unable to contain the overwhelming, torturous pleasure he was feeling as Larkin started to pump his rigid member. There was nothing quite as heady as seeing Rian in the throes of delirious passion, and Larkin was determined to claim that gorgeous, gasping mouth.
To still the young man’s thrashing, Larkin slipped one large hand up to Rian’s throat, encircling it with his fingers. He pressed down gently but firmly and was careful to avoid the boy’s windpipe. Rian immediately stopped moving and sighed in ecstasy. Being held down in this particular fashion was a favorite of his. It required great trust from each partner and somehow made Rian feel even closer to Larkin.
When Larkin smothered his mouth, Rian parted his lips and plunged his tongue into the other man’s mouth. They ate at one another’s mouths with unrestrained, frantic need. The blond pulled away briefly to recover his breath and Rian looked up at him entreatingly, his sea-grey eyes pleading for the fulfillment only Larkin could give him.
The open, helpless look in those eyes struck Larkin deep in his chest. Even with Rian bound and his movements curtailed completely, the young man was still able to wield enormous power over him.
“Rian,” Larkin said softly, brushing his thumb across the boy’s lips, swollen from his kisses.
“Please,” Rian begged.
As he spoke, Larkin felt the young man’s hard cock twitch in his grip. The tip was already weeping, the pearly white droplets collecting around Larkin’s fingers.
With incredible skill, Larkin began to work his lover towards completion. He would tease him no further. Rian was already teetering on the edge of release and within a few strokes, he burst forth—his climax slamming through his body in wave after wave of ecstatic bliss.
Larkin watched, mesmerized as Rian’s hot seed shot across his chest then pooled low on the young man’s belly. When Rian recovered from his exceptional orgasm, he met Larkin’s rich hazel gaze with heavy-lidded eyes and smiled, his face glowing with satisfaction.
“That was to your liking, I take it?” Larkin murmured, nipping along Rian’s tender neck.
“Mmm-hmm,” he replied, too content to say much else.
“Look at the mess you’ve made,” Larkin reprimanded softly, slipping his fingertips through the warm fluid scattered over Rian’s torso. Larkin lifted his fingers to his lover’s perfect pink lips and Rian opened his mouth to willingly accept them. He sucked on the digits and tasted the saltiness of Larkin’s skin mingled with the tang of his own sex and moaned.
The sight was too erotic for words. Larkin was suddenly and keening aware that he was still in need of release and pressed his throbbing erection into Rian’s groin.
“I can help you with that,” Rian said with a knowing smile. “Let me take you in my mouth. Let me pleasure you.”
Larkin felt himself grow harder just hearing Rian’s offer. As he settled himself over the young man’s face, thighs straddling Rian’s chest, he was worried about losing himself too quickly in that hot, tantalizing mouth. As he slid between Rian’s lips, he groaned.
Oh god, he’d forgotten how good Rian was at this! The young man’s lips and tongue toyed with his shaft then took his cock deep, deep into his throat. Instinctively, Larkin began to thrust into the warm wetness and though he worried about gagging him, Rian made no noise of protest. The young man’s submissive, restrained position beneath him was wickedly erotic, and after only a short while Larkin knew he was dangerously close to climax.
Pulling his aching cock from the boy’s mouth, he told him, “Rian, I need you, love. <i>Now</i>.”
Rian gazed up at him, his eyes again filled with smoldering heat and Larkin thanked heaven for the boy’s insatiable, youthful lust.
“Take me from behind, <i>please</i>,” Rian begged.
With unbelievable speed, Rian found himself freed from his bonds and flipped roughly onto his stomach. He barely had time to catch his breath before Larkin was pushing the head of his shaft past his quivering portal. Though he was no longer tied down, Larkin continued to dominate him, shoving his hips up and back and holding his chest down with a strong hand pressing down between his shoulder blades.
Rian welcomed his advances, pressing back to take his lover deeper into his body.
Ever since the first time Larkin had taken the pretty young brunette, he had been amazed at the way Rian’s body accepted his exceptionally large arousal. Larkin had always been forced to go to great lengths to prepare his lovers before pressing his way inside, but Rian opened for him beautifully. Larkin savored the fact that he could plunder the young man at will, though he chose to ignore the implications this revealed about the boy’s past.
Larkin hooked his fingers into Rian’s hips to get a good grip on him and then rammed into him without mercy. Beneath him Rian cried out in ecstasy, and Larkin pulled back only to plunge back in with renewed vigor. Again and again he pounded into the young man’s slender frame and again and again Rian absorbed the force of his thrusts and asked for more.
Though he tried to hold back, Larkin’s ascent was imminent. As he felt the familiar stirrings in his groin, he reached a hand down to grasp onto Rian’s shoulder, using the hold for better leverage. The grip was stronger than he intended and unknowingly, his fingers dug into the sensitive hollow behind the boy’s collarbone. Rian cried out, but his lover misinterpreted the gasp and tightened his hold, thrusting harder.
“Lark, wait!” Rian called out, his voice filled with panic and pain—more, indeed, than there should have been for the small discomfort the hold had given him.
The other man didn’t hear him. Larkin’s ears were filled with the rushing of his own blood as his orgasm crashed over him. Just as he spilled forth, however, he felt a hand shove him away and his sticky release burst in copious arches across the bed.
Breathing heavily, his mind confused about what had just happened, Larkin tried to collect himself. He looked over at his lover and saw that Rian had retreated to the other side of the bed. He was kneeling with his weight on his hands, his eyes staring ahead blankly, a haunted look in their stormy grey depths.
“Rian,” Larkin said gently. The blond cursed himself for losing all sense of control and tried to review in his mind what might have gone wrong. What had set him off this time?
“Rian,” he called again, drawing closer to him.
The young man continued to ignore his presence, almost as if he didn’t see him, as if he were in another time and place.
Gently, patiently, Larkin cupped Rian’s cheek. In a calm, reassuring voice he urged him, “Come back to me, love. You’re safe. It’s al lright.”
Rian’s stony features finally crumpled and his lip began to tremble. “It’s not all right. I’ll never be able to forget, will I?”
Larkin’s heart ached to see his lover’s eyes suddenly filled with angry tears. He planted sweet kisses over his lips and cheeks and felt the edge of Rian’s buried pain and rage slowly lessen within him.
“What was it, Rian? Tell me,” Larkin coaxed. “Let me carry some of your burden. It will help you.”
The young man looked away, his brow creased and for a moment Larkin thought that he was determined to keep this secret of his past locked away, but eventually he relented.
“It was just… the way you grasped my shoulder, the way your fingertips pressed in here,” Rian said, rubbing the hollow above his collarbone. He paused, shutting his eyes against the memory. “It was the same way that one of the regular clients—an older man—would hold me… when he fucked me.” The last words were spat from Rian’s mouth with visible abhorrence. “I <i>hated</i> it there,” he added vehemently.
As a rule, Larkin never took much of anything seriously, but when it came to Rian and the boy’s troubled past, he was always attentive and genuinely concerned. He deeply wished to shield him from the miseries of the world. Unfortunately, Rian had already had a good dose of them.
Leaning back into the comfort of the downy pillows, Larkin held his arms out to his young lover. “Come here, Rian.”
Like a sulking puppy, the boy scooted up into Larkin’s arms, his curly, chestnut-brown hair falling across Larkin’s chest as he pillowed his head against him. As Larkin held him in his arms, he felt Rian’s tension gradually ease out of him. He grazed his fingers through the young man’s unruly locks and reflected on just how young his lover was, and how much he had been through. In the midst of his passion, it was easy to forget that Rian had only recently turned sixteen. Moreover, Faolan had only rescued him from the brothel a year before. Ever since the tender age of nine, when his mother had died and left him all her debts, he had been forced to take up her role in the brothel and service clients. Because Rian had seen so much of life, he carried himself with a maturity beyond his years. However, his experiences had also left behind deeply rooted scars that only time would truly heal. Rian still had quite a bit of growing up to do.
“The past can’t control you, Rian,” Larkin explained. “The memories may always be there, but their power will fade.”
Larkin felt the boy’s fingertips tracing circles aimlessly over his belly. “But I don’t understand why Master Faolan won’t just let me perform a spell to erase them—at least the worst ones.”
“We are who we are because of our pasts. They shape us, for better or for worse.” Larkin looked down as he spoke and Rian, sensing his gaze, lifted his head. Their eyes locked. “I happen to like you just as you are, love.”
Rian did not appear entirely convinced, but he didn’t press the matter.
“Lark,” Rian said after several moments of silence.
“Do you love me?”
There was a brief pause and Rian felt his heart race with anxious worry.
“Yes, Rian. I love you,” Larkin replied, his voice deep and intense, the emotion so potent that the young man in his arms could feel it reverberate through his entire being. Larkin had told him this before, of course, but Rian needed reassurance every so often. He’d been through too much in his short life to feel sure of anything.
However, as he drifted off to sleep within the circle of Larkin’s arms, the rest of the world fell away and he allowed his lover’s warmth and security to bathe him in the soft glow of unwavering love.
“Are you ready?” Faolan asked.
Keeley nodded and followed the earl out the door and down the hallway, back towards Mary’s room where she remained in her cold sleep.
It had been two days and Keeley had made no progress. If something didn’t happen soon, O’Reilly’s daughter was going to die. The dark-haired boy shook his head to clear his mind from the sleep that was slowly creeping into his skull. Tonight, he had vowed he would stay by Mary’s side. Keeley was convinced that her condition grew worse at night. The mystery of her illness had deepened while he stayed at O’Reilly’s residence, but of one thing he was sure: whatever fey illness afflicted the girl, it had to be tied to a real person. His own experiences with the supernatural had taught him that. He was keeping a close eye on everyone who lived or worked within the residence, and his suspicion was focused on one person in particular, a servant named Hamish.
After Keeley’s first visit to see Mary had affected him so strongly, he stayed away from her room—indeed the entire wing where her room was located—for the rest of the day. He went back to his own room to regain his strength and tried to focus his mind so that he would be prepared to deal with the young lady’s overpowering sorrow when he finally decided to face her soul’s anguish once again.
Faolan guided him, helped him focus his mind, and taught him several chants that would help ward off the insistent soul-spirit’s melancholy without disconnecting him from the spirit realm. The earl had arranged to have a small snack brought to them and begged Mr. O’Reilly’s apology for missing the noon meal. It was crucial for Keeley to train his mind and spirit for his task, and they did not have much time.
By the time evening fell, the raven-haired youth was famished and worn, but he was pleased with himself. He felt far more confident about his mission. Once food was set in front of him however, all thought of his duties were shoved to the back of his brain and the only thing he could think of was his empty stomach. The food was excellent, though he had to admit that it was not quite as good as the dishes he’d eaten at the earl’s residence. Not that it mattered to him. He still ate as if it had been days since his last meal.
With his mind distracted by the many delicacies set before him, Keeley barely took notice of the conversation around him. O’Reilly kept the conversation light, skirting the issue of his daughter. Perhaps it was too painful and serious a topic for the dinner table, Keeley thought, before taking a second helping of the mashed potatoes.
“Jacob,” Faolan said as they meal was nearing its end, “I’m afraid I have a problem that needs attending to. I’d forgotten after the day’s events, but I must address it now.”
Keeley perked up his ears at this and wondered if the earl was going to make a request to seal the grounds with a ward spell or something equally outlandish, but his question was nothing so extraordinary.
“Our bags never made it to our room last night. Could you have one of your servants check on them please?”
“Oh my! Yes, certainly!” O’Reilly turned to the door and bellowed, “Kate! Where are you?”
The older woman who had greeted them at the door the night before rushed into the dining room. “Yes, sir?”
“What happened to our guests’ luggage? Who was supposed to deliver it?”
“That would have been Hamish, sir,” the woman replied.
“Fetch him at once,” O’Reilly said loudly, but Keeley did not think he sounded particularly fearsome. He guessed that O’Reilly was the type of employer who tended to shout often, but doled out very little actual punishment.
Keeley turned his attention back to the meal and barely noticed the servant’s entrance until he felt a sudden uneasy shiver run through him. Looking up, the raven-haired boy noticed he was being stared at by a pair of odd-colored eyes that looked disturbingly familiar. He dropped his fork with a loud clatter and gaped at the man in surprise.
“Keeley, is there something wrong?” Faolan asked.
The young man looked over at him and he could see the warning written on the other man’s face.
“You look pale, my boy,” O’Reilly said with concern.
“I-it’s nothing,” Keeley replied apologetically.
However, the servant’s eyes fixed on him, and they did not look friendly.
“Hamish,” the landlord said, addressing the servant sternly, “why did the Earl’s baggage not arrive in his room last evening?”
The tall man with the odd eyes looked unruffled. “I apologize, my Lord. The bags were wet from the rain and I had them brought down to the kitchens so they could be warmed by the fire. I should have let you know. Again, you have my apologies.”
O’Reilly seemed to mull over this information for a moment, tilting his head thoughtfully. “Well,” he said at length, “I suppose I can overlook it, since you had the interests of our guests in mind. But you had better notify me of these things in the future.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Hamish replied, lowering his eyes.
The servant appeared to be honest and respectful, but Keeley had a keen eye and he could see that the man was holding something back. The tension in his posture revealed it. Keeley said nothing and kept his suspicions to himself throughout dinner, but once he was back in the room with Faolan, he could hold back no longer.
“I think it is very likely that he’s behind Mary’s illness,” he told the earl. “His eyes are the same as that cat that has been watching us since we rode here. The man is obviously involved in some sort of black magic. Either he’s a shape-shifter or—.”
“We have no direct evidence that he’s to blame or any real reason to suspect him. I agree that there is a connection between Hamish and Mary, but of what nature, it is too soon to say.”
“Speak for yourself! Did you see the way he looked at us? I could feel his enmity the same as if he’d struck me!”
But Faolan was not convinced and would take no stance against the man—at least not yet. “It’s too soon. What did I tell you before? You should wait to pass judgments.”
The situation grew even more complicated with the arrival of another young man the following day: Mary’s fianc, Whelan. He arrived drenched and weary during the late afternoon, his ruddy brown hair dripping with rain. He looked uncommonly pale after his journey, with deep circles under his otherwise attractive dark eyes. His pallor grew even greyer when O’Reilly informed him of the Mary’s condition. Whelan had been away on business in Dublin and had been out of contact for weeks on end. The stricken look on his face when he heard the news made Keeley more determined than ever to restore the young lady’s soul.
Now, as the raven-haired youth followed resolutely behind Faolan, he calmed his mind and prepared himself for the trial ahead.
When Keeley and the earl drew close to Mary’s door, they heard shouting coming from the other side and the earl rushed forward. Upon throwing open the door, the two of them found Whelan, O’Reilly, and Hamish, standing at odds near Mary’s bedside.
“Well, Hamish?” O’Reilly said angrily, “Are you going to explain yourself?”
The young man with the odd-colored eyes looked drawn and angered, the look of a man in desperation.
“That is what I have been trying to do! Don’t you see? Mary’s growing worse! Let me try and help,” he pleaded. Keeley scoffed at the statement and his suspicions grew. It was plain to see that Mary actually looked better this evening than she had for days. Did this man really think they were that gullible?
“And just what kind of ‘help’ were you giving her just now?” Whelan interjected, scowling. “You were stooping over her on the bed and entered her room without permission! Your behavior is inexcusable!” he yelled, fists clenched. Whelan was a good head taller than Hamish and glared down at him threateningly, but the smaller man gave no ground. He seemed intimidated by nothing.
Turning away from Whelan to look O’Reilly in the eye, he said, “I apologize for coming here without your consent, but… I heard her calling. So I rushed in at once. Please, sir” he stepped toward the man entreatingly, “I’ve always been your loyal servant. Please, believe me.”
O’Reilly looked as if he were wavering and Keeley jumped in, exasperated. “I for one would send him packing, my Lord—if you’ll pardon my interruption.”
“Keeley, restrain yourself,” Faolan said in a low tone of warning, setting a firm hand over his shoulder. The boy bit his lip and held his tongue, despite his feelings. Heard her calling indeed! She’d been unconscious for weeks!
But Hamish persisted in his story. “I did hear her. What reason would I have to lie?”
“Sir, I would never presume to tell you your business,” Whelan said, “but this story is preposterous! If I were you I would not trust this man.”
Hamish and Whelan stared at one another, their eyes locked in conflict and the animosity rose in the air like a physical presence between them.
“Let me stay with her tonight. Let me help,” Hamish begged, turning entreatingly towards his master.
O’Reilly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Hamish. I can’t take any chances. You will have to leave.”
For a moment, the young man stood wrestling with himself, his fists clenched. Keeley was certain that he would lash out, but after a strained moment, Hamish bowed tersely and left. As the man passed Keeley, the boy sent a dark look at his odd-eyes. He would not let anything get in his way tonight. It could be his last chance to save Mary.
After Hamish had made his exit, O’Reilly looked over at Faolan. “I’m sorry you had to see that. I really can’t understand that young man. He used to be such a good-natured servant, even if he was a little stubborn. I just don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“I feel I should apologize as well. I’m sorry for losing my temper in front of you both,” Whelan said with a graceful bow.
“No need,” Faolan replied to Whelan. Keeley thought he sounded a bit cool and wondered at his tone.
“Anyway, let’s see to Mary, shall we?” the earl said. “We will need to be alone with her, I’m afraid,” he added.
“Oh, yes. Whatever you need,” O’Reilly said politely, though Keeley knew he was anxious to stay near his beloved daughter.
“Would it be alright if I stayed? For just a short time?” Whelan asked, glancing between O’Reilly and Faolan.
“It’s up to you, my friend,” O’Reilly said, looking at Faolan.
“Let him stay, Faolan…” Keeley said, interrupting, “I mean, Sir O’Callaghan.” Although the earl had requested that Keeley call him by his first name only, the young man still felt it was inappropriate to address him so casually in front of those outside his household.
Faolan did not seem pleased with the young man’s request, but the boy couldn’t figure out why. Keeley felt that if anyone could protect the girl from Hamish’s wicked designs, it would be the man who loved her.
“I suppose… for a short while,” the red-haired man finally said.
With the matter settled, the three men sat themselves in chairs about Mary’s bed. Faolan explained to Whelan that they suspected that Mary’s illness had more to do with her spirit than her health, and that their efforts to ‘cure’ her might seem strange to him.
Whelan took the information in stride. “I have always believed in spirits, Sir. It doesn’t matter to me what is causing Mary to suffer, I just want to try to help her.” Faolan nodded and said nothing.
Keeley took a deep breath and put Mary’s slender hand in his own. Shutting his eyes, he focused all his will and energy into calling out for her spirit to return. The dark-haired young man chanted to himself to ward off the biting sorrow of Mary’s wayward soul-spirit. It was difficult and trying work. If he lost his concentration for even a moment, it began to invade his mind, but he kept on.
What he did not understand was the confusion that Mary’s spirit seemed to be in. He could feel her soul hovering just out of reach, wanting desperately to yield, but quaking with an unknown fear.
Slowly, cautiously, Keeley let his own soul drift deeper and deeper into the spirit realm, calling after her. So many times she nearly relented, but her fear would hold her back.
Damn it, what was terrifying her so?
Keeley tried to convey to her that she was safe, that no one was going to harm her, yet she refused. His strength began to ebb. He withdrew.
Opening his eyes, he found the earl by his side, wiping his brow.
“I don’t understand her, Faolan. I’m trying so hard.”
His voice was weak and weary and the redhead looked into his blue depths. “Don’t let yourself get frustrated. An opening will present itself, but you must keep trying.”
The earl’s voice was calm, steady, reassuring. It renewed him and gave him strength.
“I’m sorry,” the dark-haired boy said glancing over to Whelan, “I’ll keep t—”
Keeley blinked and shook his head. What was the matter with his vision?
“Is something wrong?” the fianc asked, titling his head questioningly.
“N-no. I… must be more fatigued than I thought,” he replied, wondering what on earth he had just seen.
“Yes, you look quite pale. Perhaps you should retire for the evening and rest,” Whelan said.
“No, really,” Keeley said more firmly, “I can’t leave her. Not yet.”
Whelan looked a bit cross at the young man’s stubbornness, but he yielded, much to Keeley’s relief. The boy had spoken with far more confidence than he felt. In truth he was rather shaken. For a moment when Keeley had looked at Whelan, the man had been surrounded by a black aura and his face and body had seemed wasted away, eyes sunken in hollow sockets, skin green with decay… it had not been pleasant. In light of this unsettling vision, Keeley began to reassess his initial impression of the man before him. Could the disquieting sight possibly have been true, or was his mind playing tricks on him?
In any case, something sinister was brewing in the room Keeley was certain that Mary had precious little time left before her soul was lost completely. Shutting his eyes, the young man prepared himself to delve once more into the spirit realm, but Whelan interrupted him.
“You really don’t look well, Keeley. I wish you would take my advice and get some rest. After all,” he said, his voice growing increasingly intense, “Mary is in good hands.” As he spoke, Whelan gave the girl’s hand a squeeze and Keeley noticed that his grip was rather harsh. Whelan tightened his fingers about Mary’s wrist with such force that his knuckles shone white. Keeley winced involuntarily.
“You’re going to leave a bruise,” came Faolan’s voice, deep and low. Turning, Keeley saw the earl sitting in his chair behind him and eying Whelan with displeasure.
“You don’t understand,” Whelan said, hanging his head. “Mary is everything to me, her condition is a great strain on me.” Lifting his head, he looked at the earl plaintively. “Can’t you give me a few moments alone with her? They may be our last moments together…”
“I think that would be very dangerous,” Faolan said sternly, rising to make his way to the other side of the bed and stand before the fianc.
Whelan waved a hand at him, “I’ll be fine, I assure you. I’m not afraid of whatever spirits have taken hold of her. Just give me a moment.”
“It is not your safety that concerns me. It is only Mary’s safety that I am worried about, should you be left alone.”
Upon hearing these words, Whelan’s face clouded. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”
Faolan gave him a bitter, knowing smile. “Oh, I think you do.”
The fianc suddenly jumped up, knocking his chair over and leveling the earl with a seething look. “I love Mary! I’d do anything for her! To be with her!”
“Even sell your soul?”
Whelan’s face contorted in anger and the nasty green hue began to creep across his features. “If it came to that,” he spat back, “YES!”
“You have no idea what you have done,” Faolan said, almost sadly.
As he stood quivering with rage, Whelan’s faade crumpled, revealing the hideous face Keeley had glimpsed earlier, only now the horror before him was displayed in all its gruesome detail. It nearly made the boy retch. What was even worse, was the overpowering sense of hatred and desperation that suddenly spewed forth from Whelan’s decrepit form. It seemed to drain the energy straight from his bones and leave behind nothing but a naked fear. Slowly, Keeley stood and backed away, inching towards Faolan. “I don’t understand,” he said in a trembling voice.
Whelan’s now phosphorescent eyes darted over to him and pinned him with their horrific glow. “Of course you don’t understand!” the man hissed, “How could you? You’re a child! You couldn’t possibly understand my pain! The betrayal… O’Reilly promised me Mary’s hand, but she refused to give me her heart.” For a brief instant, Whelan’s features returned to normal, but it did not last. “She loved another,” he said with quite vehemence. “A servant of all people! It was humiliating!”
Keeley’s eyes widened. He was finally beginning to understand. “Hamish…” he whispered.
“Yes,” said Whelan. “She even went so far as to talk of canceling our engagement! I couldn’t bear it.” With every word, the man’s voice filled with more and more venom, “so I swore that I would have her. I called out to the darkness, even bargaining my soul… all so I could be with her!”
Slowly, Keeley’s fear was replaced with anger on Mary’s behalf. “You monster,” he said in a heated whisper, shaking in anger at the injustice this man had committed in the name of his so-called love. The young man’s resolve firmed and he faced the ghastly sight before him, meeting Whelan’s dreadful eyes. “You won’t take her!”
A terrible laughter escaped the pale slit of Whelan’s mouth, but his chilling mirth was cut short as the shutters suddenly burst open, the window frames slamming violently against the wall and cracking the glass.
Whelan’s eyes shot to the windowsill and there in the midst of a pouring rain stood the very same grey cat that had been following Keeley and Faolan since they arrived. It stared into the room with its keen, intelligent eyes. Then the creature leaped down from the sill, but its feet never hit the ground. In mid-air its body disappeared like a pillar of smoke in the breeze and in its place stood Hamish, soaked to the bone, but looking fierce and determined as ever.
His odd-colored eyes met Whelan’s and their gazes locked.
“I see you’ve finally shown your true face, you filth!” Hamish said.
“She’s mine! You’ll never have her!” the dark figure roared. In one swift movement of his hand, Whelan shot a surging wave of potent, dark energy towards his opponent.
Hamish braced himself for the blow, but it never came. Looking up, he saw Faolan standing before him, forearms crossed in front of his face and legs planted firmly, warding off the energy.
How the man managed this, Hamish did not have time to ponder, for the red-haired man glanced over his shoulder and yelled, “Get to Mary’s side damn you! I’ll hold him back.”
“This is not your fight!” the servant shouted. “I will avenge Mary!”
“Do that now and Mary will die,” Faolan said fiercely. “You can’t kill him until the bond between him and Mary is broken and unless you help Keeley call her soul back, she’ll be lost to you forever, you fool!” As the earl spoke, his concentration was divided, and his feet slipped back several inches along the floor, Whelan’s energy forcing him backward. “Hurry!”
Hamish wavered, but obeyed. Up until that moment he had been skeptical of this man and his servant. He never knew who was in league with Whelan, and so remained suspicious of everyone. However, it seemed he might have been wrong about the earl.
With few alternatives left, Hamish ran over to join Keeley, who had knelt beside Mary’s bed. Each man took one of her hands and began working feverishly to call her soul-spirit back before it was too late.
“Mary,” Hamish called, leaning over the young woman. “Mary I’m here. Come back to me! Please!”
Keeley’s brow dripped with sweat. There was too much happening and he couldn’t concentrate. Mary’s spirit was skittish and scattered. Vaguely he heard Hamish calling for her and as he did so, Mary’s spirit suddenly calmed. Keeley reached out to her, desperately trying to communicate with her, to tell her that her love was here, ready to welcome her back. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite reach her and though the girl’s soul seemed to sense that Hamish was nearby, his presence felt weak and it was not enough to draw her back. The dark-haired boy’s mind began to work frantically—what could he do? How could he convince Mary that Hamish was right here, waiting for her?
“Keeley! Hurry!” Faolan commanded.
On a whim born of pure intuition, Keeley reached out and grabbed Hamish’s wrist. With one hand he held on to Mary and the other to Hamish and he opened himself to be a conduit between them.
“Call to her,” Keeley said, his voice tight. He was forcing his will to its limits as his spirit was stretched thin. He flung his soul deep into the nether realm and reached with all his might towards Mary’s soul.
At first Hamish didn’t know what the strange, intense boy next to him meant—he’d already been calling her. However, within a matter of seconds the man felt his conscious tugged into the spiritual world and immediately he called out with all his being to Mary.
As soon as the girl’s soul heard her love’s voice calling, she rushed towards him, her spirit speeding back to the light.
Mary’s soul-spirit entered her body so quickly, in fact, that Keeley was almost left behind and the young man was forced to yank his spirit back violently so that his own soul wouldn’t end up severed from the corporeal world.
When he came back to himself, Keeley’s groggy eyes searched for Faolan, who was still struggling with the specter that was once Mary’s fianc.
“She’s back,” Keeley said hoarsely.
Needing no further prompting, Faolan flashed Whelan a grin and the tide of the fight abruptly changed. Like magnetic poles suddenly switching polarity, Whelan’s negative energy was tossed back at him and he was thrown up against the far wall. Keeley could barely see what was happening through the fog covering his mind. Hamish, however, watched with wide, startled eyes as Faolan raised one hand and, his mouth moving in a silent incantation, sent a flood of brilliant, white energy cutting through the air towards the crumpled form of Whelan. The figure opened its mouth and a shrill, awful scream tore from its throat, but soon the entire body was scattered like ash and disappeared.
“Hamish…” a timid voice spoke, barely above a whisper. The servant swung his head back to the young woman on the bed watching him. The servant’s eyes filled with tears as his love’s eyes—a shade of deep green like the hills of Ireland itself—looked up at him for the first time in two months. “I heard you,” she said.
The young man above her lifted her hand and kissed it. “I’ll always be here, waiting for you,” Hamish said.
Mary smiled at him—a pure, sweet smile full of love, then her eyes fluttered shut. Her spirit was weak. It would take quite some time fore her to recover. “I’ll be here,” he repeated, kissing her brow.
“Shape shifting is a dangerous art. You ought to be careful.” Hamish suddenly saw Faolan next to him, his look serious.
“I’m aware,” he servant replied, equally serious. “It’s this one you should be watching out for,” Hamish said, nodding to the dark-haired boy slumped beside the bed.
The earl had not realized the battle had taken such a toll on the young man until he knelt down beside him. Keeley looked pale and drawn and Faolan wondered if he had miscalculated and demanded too much of the boy.
“Keeley, are you alright?” he asked anxiously.
The young man’s eyes blinked open. He looked dazed, but whole.
“Did I do good?” Keeley asked, his voice thin.
Keeley smiled, and promptly passed out.
* * * * * ** * * * * *
The coach rocked back and forth as Keeley and Faolan rode together back to the earl’s estate.
Keeley still felt worn and didn’t have the strength to refuse when the earl insisted he join him in the carriage during the ride home. Moreover, the young man wanted some answers.
“I still don’t understand what happened yesterday,” he said, rubbing his tired eyes. “How did you know Hamish was innocent, or that Mary’s fianc was actually behind it all?”
Faolan gave him a quizzical look. “I didn’t. Not completely anyway, but I held back my judgments, as you should have. Hamish seemed angry and confrontational, yes, but his spirit did not feel evil. Whelan I was unsure of, but there was something about him that disturbed me.”
Looking frustrated, Keeley said, “I’m usually good at picking up on these things—on spirits and energy, but I didn’t feel anything when it came to Whelan.”
“That’s just what made me uneasy. It wasn’t an immediate feeling of enmity or evil, but a lack of any aura about him at all. A complete absence.” Seeing Keeley’s dark brows draw together, Faolan knew the boy was discouraged and angry with himself. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Keeley. Most people cannot sense spirits at all. Your talent is quite rare. I wouldn’t expect you to be able to recognize a being such as Whelan if you had never encountered one. Such creatures are hollow of any soul. They leave no impression on the mind or in the heart. It is the same with vampires. There is nothing within them, they are only vessels.”
Keeley shivered. He had always thought of vampires as a myth and he did not like the idea that they were wandering about, especially if they were difficult to detect. He shifted uneasy in his seat.
“But what exactly was Whelan?”
“A kind of wraith, I suppose you could say. There is no term I know that encompasses what he had become. These things are often unique to each individual. A human makes some deal or another with a deceitful spirit, and slowly their souls are stolen away. After that all they can do is seek a fulfillment they will never find. So they steal from the living in an endless, futile struggle to regain a sense of wholeness, a sense of self.”
“You make it sound rather tragic.”
“I think it is.”
Keeley paused. “What do you think will happen with Hamish and Mary?” he asked softly. It had been on his mind all afternoon. “When she woke this morning, nearly all her memories had vanished. I wonder if she will eventually be able to remember Hamish—or if O’Reilly will give his consent for their marriage if she does.”
“Jacob is a very understanding man, but I doubt he would ever give his daughter to a servant. No, I believe he will arrange another marriage for Mary, and even if she regains her memories, the girl will likely follow her father’s wishes. And Hamish will continue to watch over her, as he has always done.”
Keeley scowled. “But Whelan said that Mary was going to break their engagement to be with Hamish. Don’t you think she’d choose him again if given the chance?”
“What people say and what they do are two entirely different things,” Faolan replied, unmoved.
The carriage fell into silence and the only sound heard was the dull echo of the wheels over the ground and the falling of the horse’s hooves along over the soft earth. Looking over, Faolan saw Keeley looking pensive.
“Is there really nothing else that can be done for them?” he asked mournfully.
Faolan smiled sadly at him. Ah, he’s an idealist, the earl thought. To which a corner of his mind replied, that is why you must protect him.
“Come, Keeley. You look tired, lean against me and sleep,” urged the earl.
Keeley hesitated, but he was fatigued from the unsettling talk, so he gave in. As soon as he nestled his head against the man’s shoulder, the boy was filled with a sense of security and relief, an experience that was becoming more and more frequent in Faolan’s presence.
“I’m glad we’re going home,” Keeley said with a sigh.
A tender smile tugged at the earl’s mouth when he heard these words. It gave him an uncanny, warm glow to know that the boy was beginning to think of his estate as home. The familiar feeling of protectiveness swelled inside him and he thought back on the previous night’s incident. Though Keeley had certainly proven himself, Faolan was nevertheless concerned for him. He had refrained from speaking to the boy about it, but while Keeley had been at Mary’s bedside, seeking her spirit, the pendant about his neck had begun to give off a faint light. Even after the struggle, the crack in his locket glowed a disquieting, reddish hue.
Keeley had told him it was a charm from his mother, something to protect him, but Faolan’s intuition told him it was far more that. There was a binding spell on the locket, he was sure of it. What would the boy’s mother need to seal away from her child? Binding spells were complicated, delicate pieces of work. Keeley’s mother would have needed exceptional skill to have performed one. Moreover, despite Keeley’s extrasensory perception, he could not sense the nature of the pendant, which meant even more complex magics somehow surrounded the locket in order to blind him.
Faolan could have let the matter rest, at least for the time being, but something else troubled him. Keeley mentioned that the pendant had been cracked in the fire that killed his family and it was obvious to the earl that this crack in the silver weakened the binding spell. Whatever power was bound was now slowly leaking out. It explained why so many supernatural forces seemed to gravitate towards the boy, such as Far Dorocha and the recent over-abundance of soul-spirits. It also meant Keeley was an easy target for malevolent souls and demons, a disconcerting thought. Whatever tragedy had befallen the boy’s family in that fire, the locket was somehow tied to it, of that he was certain. It was no mere family heirloom and it was not the innocuous charm Keeley believed it to be.
Why had the locket cracked? What had Keeley’s mother been hiding from him?
Such unpleasant mysteries rankled the earl. Usually, he simply followed his hunches and was content to learn the truth as it revealed itself. But Keeley’s safety made him anxious.
As Faolan sat immersed in his tangle of thoughts, Keeley dozed on his shoulder, shifting as he tried to get comfortable. Eventually, the boy’s squirming brought Faolan back to the present.
“Here, Keeley. You’ll never get rest that way. Lay down,” he said, gently pulling the young man down so that his head lay pillowed on his thighs.
The raven-haired boy blushed, but he felt warm and comforted by the man’s presence and didn’t really want to protest as the earl draped an arm over his waist.
“Maybe just for a little while,” he murmured, nudging his body closer.
Faolan grinned. “Yes, rest now. We’ll be home soon.”
The night seethed with secrets, as if conspiring against the lone young man that walked along the quiet dirt road. Even as the sky darkened to black, a light fog seeped out from the ground and curled about his feet, blanketing the glow of his small gourd lantern so that even the ground a few steps ahead was obscured from sight. He felt a bit like ‘Jack,’ the boy from the fireside tales, who had walked through the valley of the dead with only his small light to guide the way.
Keeley tried to shake the disquieting feeling that was slowly enveloping him, but it was impossible to do so in the growing gloom. The thick fog made even the closest objects look vague and indistinct and he wondered for the thousandth time if he really should be out at all. It wasn’t the mist, however, that sent a chill down his spine, but the softly luminous white butterflies dancing in and out of his vision—the evidence of departed souls drifting on the air. He touched the locket around his neck, an absentminded gesture that always seemed to comfort him.
It was All Hallows Eve, a night the raven-haired young man faithfully attempted to avoid at all cost. The veil between worlds was so thin this night that hundreds of languishing souls slipped into the mortal plane and, sensing Keeley’s awareness of their presence, swarmed about him in droves. As he continued on, the air about him grew chill enough to crystallize his breath and form icy dew over his wool coat. Behind him the faint glow of the annual Samhain bonfire had faded into the distance.
When he was a child he had enjoyed the annual fire in the center of the village, but it held no warmth for him any longer. The other boys his age were busy playing pranks on one another and chasing after the local girls, but Keeley took no part in these festivities. He had matured quickly after losing his parents and younger sister three years prior at the tender age of thirteen. The unfortunate event had also reduced him to a dire financial situation, and he been thrown out of his home.
Fate had intervened, however, when a friend’s family allowed him to join their already overcrowded house. Since then he had been working hard for the rights of fellow Catholic peasants. The local farmers had secretly formed an underground group they called the ‘Brotherhood’ to try and counter the increasing pressure they felt from their Protestant overseers. Similar organizations had sprung up all over the Irish countryside in protest of the people’s exploitation by the small, elite class that ruled them. It had taken Keeley months to convince the men who ran the Brotherhood to let him join, since he was so young. His dedication, however, could not be doubted.
That was why his appointment tonight was particularly important.
The Earl Faolan O’Callaghan had discreetly sent him an invite to his annual masquerade party held on this evening each year. Faolan, like most landowners, was a Protestant, but there was a widely spread rumor that he was sympathetic to the plight of the land-working Catholics. Unlike most landholders, he actually lived near the farms he owned and spoke to his tenants personally. He was known to make arrangements if tenants were delinquent on payments, whereas most overseers simply would have evicted them.
Perhaps the man wanted to take the opportunity to speak with him about forming an alliance with the Brotherhood. The masquerade would be a perfect place for them to talk without having to worry about others knowing who he was, or even caring for that matter. Most guests became rather intoxicated throughout the evening’s festivities
Despite the daunting walk through the cold countryside to the Earl’s chateau, Keeley knew this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. If he could form a pact with the powerful man, it could take the Brotherhood far. Having a landowning Protestant on their side would give them considerable momentum.
But there was another reason Keeley was so eager to meet Faolan. He was curious as to how and why this man of wealth and status had specifically chosen him for this meeting. There were other, older men more prominently placed in the local Catholic community, so why did the Earl summon <i>him?</i>
The mists parted as Keeley stepped over the ridge of the last hill and saw the Earl’s residence appear. It glowed with an ethereal light in the murky darkness. Although he had seen it before, the dark-haired boy was taken aback by the regal presence of the building. He would need to blend into that aristocratic atmosphere, as all the other guests would be wealthy Protestants. Suddenly, his heart was thumping hard and he wondered if he was going to be able to pull this off. It also occurred to him that he had no plan for getting the Earl alone. He didn’t even know what the man looked like except through gossip, which held that he was undeniably handsome, with a distinctive mane of striking red hair.
At his back, the road wound dark into the mist. He couldn’t turn around, not now. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the mask he had brought with him and covered his eyes.
With a last deep breath of the chilled night air, he steadied himself to enter the lion’s den.
* * *
“I think you’re going to lose that bet. He isn’t here yet,” a tall man with dark blond hair said to the man beside him. The blond wore cream and ivory with adeep green waistcoat. Hazel eyes danced behind his gold mask as he smirked as his friend.
The Earl merely smiled. “He’ll be here, Larkin,” he replied, straightening his ebony mask.
“What did Rian report after he gave the boy the invitation?”
Faolan shrugged, “Nothing much, but the young man said he didn’t want the services of the carriage.”
“Which means he didn’t want anyone knowing he was coming,” Larkin noted. “I wonder why.”
“Does it really surprise you?” Faolan asked with a raised brow. “He’s young and hoping to make a name for himself among the local workers—he wouldn’t want to tell them about the meeting in case it didn’t pan out.”
“It’s dangerous to walk alone on a night like this, though.”
“I could send Rian out to fetch him on horseback.”
As the Earl spoke, he saw Larkin search the room for Faolan’s valet, who was now serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres to the bustling crowd. The blond’s gaze took on a hungry gleam as Larkin surveyed the young servant. Rian was dressed in dark blue, with accents of pale grey. He looked as enticing as ever. Catching Larkin’s eye, Rian gave him a knowing smile behind his silver mask.
“Keep Rian here. I think I might be in need of his services later this evening,” Larkin said, shifting to hide the sudden bulge in his trousers.
“I see,” Faolan replied, glancing at the source of his friend’s discomfiture. “Just make sure he’s not too fatigued to perform his usual duties tomorrow morning.”
“Don’t I always?”
“In point of fact, no,” Faolan said frankly, giving him a look over his wine glass as he sipped.
Larkin chuckled. “Touché.”
At that moment, Rian appeared next to them, offering to replenish their drinks.
“Thank you for your attentiveness, Rian,” the Earl said with a smile to his valet. Larkin gave him a more personal gesture of gratitude by slyly slipping a hand down the young man’s thigh.
“You’re quite welcome,” Rian replied, flipping aside a stray lock of his rich chestnut hair.
“Rian,” Faolan said in an exasperated tone, “I have told you before to cut those unruly locks of yours! I don’t know why you insist on keeping them.”
Larkin clicked his tongue at the Earl and affectionately tucked another escaped strand behind the boy’s ear. “Faolan, you’re incorrigible! He’s perfect just the way he is!”
This elicited a beaming smile from Rian, who looked as if he was ready to nestle into Larkin’s arms right then and there.
Distracted, the pair didn’t notice a dark-haired young man step into the room, his willowy body slipping discreetly between the crowds as his eyes searched the room.
“Don’t get too comfortable, Larkin. It seems a new guest has just lately arrived.”
The blond gentleman paused from ogling the Earl’s servant in order to glance about the room. “I don’t believe it!”
“I told you he’d come,” the Earl said smugly, but his friend’s face had grown serious.
“Something’s wrong,” he said simply.
Faolan smile immediately faded. “What is it? What do you sense?”
Larkin shook his head, “I’m not sure, but <i>something</i> is following him, or watching him.”
Keeley himself had, for sometime, felt certain that he was being followed, but he couldn’t say if it was simply the awareness of being flocked by so many soul-spirits, or something more sinister. Certainly he knew he was being scrutinized now by every eye in the room. He’d been so anxious about blending in that he hadn’t taken into account that he would stand out not because he looked out of place, but because his thin eye mask couldn’t hide his obviously handsome face. Nor his slender, alluring body for that matter.
He quickly found himself in the center of a giddy group of curious women. A mysterious, unknown bachelor drew them like bees to honey. Keeley had no idea what to say to them. He had never spoken to anyone of their station before and he was dazzled by the ladies’ brilliant jewelry and attire. Just one of their brooches would have fed his entire household for a year. When he was peppered with questions for which he had no answers—questions about his family, his property, his background—he glanced about for an escape.
Across the room his crystal blue eyes locked with those of a man clothed all in black. Even his hair shone deep ebony. And his eyes; Keeley could not begin to fathom them. So midnight black did they appear that the irises seemed to be a hole opening out onto a starless night. They were cruel and pitiless, yet Keeley was inexplicably drawn to them.
Politely excusing himself from his admirers, he made his way through the room. Yet even as he drew near to the man in black, the figure slipped away, turning his back and walking into a dimly lit hallway. Keeley, unable to resist, followed after him.
In his dazed state, he failed to notice his redheaded host anxiously attempting to trail him.
Although Faolan normally loved the attention his looks provoked, he was quickly losing sight of his quarry in the midst of his many adoring guests. He cursed under his breath and tried to figure out where the boy had gone.
His guest seemed to have disappeared, and an uncommon sense of dread washed over the Earl. What he couldn’t see at that moment was that Keeley had wandered into the private wing of the residence, hazily pursuing the dark figure for no other reason than an overwhelming and irrational compulsion to do so.
At the end of the corridor the man in black turned, opening a door at his side and glancing at Keeley with a look of such unveiled and perverse pleasure it sent a chill along the boy’s spine. For a brief moment Keeley’s mind cleared and it screamed in alarm that to follow this man into the darkened room beyond would seal a most disagreeable fate. Nevertheless, his feet led him to the door and he stepped within.
Even as he did so, the door creaked shut behind him and his eyes fought to see in the nearly pitch black surroundings. Then, inexplicably, a butterfly fluttered into his vision, shimmering a brilliant red, unlike any soul-spirit he had ever seen. He had the sensation of falling, but realized he was still walking forward. None of it seemed to make sense to his coherent mind and he couldn’t discern whether he was dreaming or awake as he drifted along after the glowing apparition. But with each step he took nearer, the fluttering wings receded just out of his reach.
From somewhere above him a voice begged him to stop, to turn back, but another more husky tone, black as velvet, urged seductively, <i>‘just a little further’</i>. Keeley paused, torn between the two forces until a new sensation rippled through his body. Ahead of him the red butterfly grew dimmer, but he was unable now to follow. His knees had gone weak, a sudden and keen desire building within him. It felt as if skilled hands were running along his naked skin, stoking a flame of passion that was quickly spreading over every inch of him.
Suddenly, his pleasure became more focused and insistent, and his wayward spirit was yanked back into his body. Keeley had failed to recognize how far his soul had drifted from his corporeal self under the dark stranger’s spell. Now, fully realigned with his physical body, he arched his back in rapture as the first waves of a mind-shattering orgasm crashed over him. His mouth gaped and a strangled cry of ecstasy was ripped from his throat. Spent, he collapsed and discovered satin sheets under his fingers and knew his body must have fallen sprawled onto a bed in the room shortly after he entered. But what had transpired since, he was far too foggy-headed to construe at the moment.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” came a calm and sultry voice from above him in the darkness. His eyes flew open and Keeley found himself staring up, not at the man in black who had led him there, but at a startlingly handsome man with deep auburn locks and a pair of intense green eyes glimmering at him mischievously in the half-light. Dear Lord, this couldn’t be the Earl himself, could it? But the man hovering above him fit the description perfectly. Oh god, what had just happened?
His fear and confusion kept Keeley at a loss for words and when a cold draft passed over him, he looked down to see himself half naked on the bed. But more disconcerting by far was the sight of his spent manhood still gripped by the Earl’s elegant fingers, his hot seed dripping down the man’s hand.
Flushing a violent shade of red, Keeley attempted to pull away and cover himself, only to discover he was too weak to do so. His voice was faint as he pleaded, “Please, can you… dress me?”
The man gave a disarming smile and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe them both clean. As the Earl fastened the boy’s breeches, Keeley couldn’t ever remember feeling so vulnerable. And yet for reasons he couldn’t explain, he felt safe with the man, as if he had just been saved from some terrible danger. Strangely, although he was extremely embarrassed by his predicament, he did not feel the heat of humiliation he would have expected with being found in such a compromising situation with another man. At this revelation, his initial calmness gave way to a rather unnerved feeling.
“What happened?” he asked, trying to sit up.
Gentle but insistent hands lowered him back down to the bed and Faolan warned him, “You’re weak. You need to rest—I can explain everything later.”
But Keeley was not so easily dissuaded. “NO! What I need is to know what the bloody hell is going on!” Though he didn’t look it, Keeley had a stubborn streak a mile wide and his normally placid blue eyes were sparking with irritation. He had to know what it was that led him into such a strange situation.
Faolan sighed and looked at him with a twinge of impatience, as if Keeley were a child throwing a tantrum who wouldn’t be gainsaid.
“In short, your spirit was being pulled into the realm of the spirits. Thankfully I found you in time to pull you back. You were lucky.” Then he added with a wolfish grin, “Although, I suppose you may not have approved of my methods of drawing you back into consciousness.”
Keeley flushed at the man’s suggestive gaze and wondered if he was telling him the truth. It made sense with what he had been feeling, but…
“Wasn’t there no other way?”
“It had to be something very strong, something visceral. I did try to slap you out of it at first, but it had absolutely no affect.”
As much as he wanted to argue, Keeley was growing increasingly groggy. “Why… am I… so sleepy?”
His heavy eyes slid shut, and a gentle hand wove itself into his hair with a surprisingly soothing touch.
“Your soul was nearly wrenched from your body. It will take time to recuperate.”
“But… we have other things… to discuss…”
It was no good; his mind was slipping.
In his ear a silky voice whispered, “All in good time, love.”
“So, how is the patient?” Larkin asked the Earl as Rian laid out the breakfast table. Sitting across from him, his host looked distracted, and rightly so, after all that had happened the previous evening. “Recovered yet?”
Faolan shook his head as he stared absentmindedly out one of the tall dining room windows. The countryside was blanketed in thick fog, obscuring the morning sun.
“Keeley’s still sleeping.”
“You look a bit worn yourself this morning,” The blond helped himself to the platters before him—piles of steaming eggs, mushrooms, sausages, and roasted tomatoes—and eyed his friend closely.
“His Lordship was by the young man’s bedside all last night after the guests left,” Rian notified Larkin in a low yet audible whisper.
“Was he now?” Larkin gave the Earl a smirk. “I thought you wanted the boy to rest? Just what were you up to all evening?”
Faolan shot his valet a warning look. “That will be all Rian, you are dismissed. Go find something more productive to do with your time than gossiping in front of me to your lover.”
Rian pouted, but left with a smile after Larkin had given him a playful smack on his bottom as he retreated.
“Why are you so cross this early in the day?” Larkin asked once they were alone.
Faolan shrugged, pushing his food around on the plate. “This incident last night has put me on edge. I wish Keeley would wake up so that we could find out exactly what happened.”
“Are you that concerned for him?” Larkin asked with a knowing smile. “He’s not your usual type, but I can see the appeal.”
“I would think you would be concerned as well, after all, it was <i>your</i> warding spell that failed last night, wasn’t it?”
The other man waved a hand dismissively. “It just means it was something unusual that breached the barrier. A spell like that can’t allow for all particularities.”
“You had assured me it would keep all my guests safe,” Faolan’s tone was dark, his eyes narrowed, and Larkin studied him with some surprise. It was very unlike the Earl to be so serious, and he wondered just what had transpired between him and this peasant boy to elicit such a strong reaction.
“Nothing is foolproof Faolan,” he retorted in a sober tone. “Now, are you going to continue to gripe about who’s to blame all day, or are we going to try to figure out what happened?”
Nodding, the Earl conceded the point. “Yes, you’re quite right.”
But for the rest of the meal, the room fell into an uneasy silence until Rian came to clear the table.
“Rian, perhaps you should bring a tray of food to Keeley’s room, in case he wakes up and is hungry.”
Larkin raised an eyebrow. “My, my, you <i>are</i> taken with this boy to fret over him so,” he teased.
This seemed to rankle Faolan even further. “It’s simply a polite thing to do,” then added softly, “The boy’s far too thin.”
“All the farmers are too thin,” Larkin said, very matter-of-factly.
“Yes, which reminds me of the other reason I called Keeley here last night—so that I could talk with him about the situation the land workers are facing right now.”
“Are you really going to come out in support of the Catholics?” the blond asked lightly, leaning back to gingerly sip his tea. The gentleman seldom troubled himself with such affairs.
Standing and striding over to the window, Faolan contemplated the grey sky. “I can’t support them openly,” he said and then turned to his friend with a sudden intensity in his green eyes, “but there are other ways.”
* * *
Keeley blinked weakly and slowly turned his head to the side to see the Earl’s servant opening the curtains in his room.
“Oh, my apologies, sir. I didn’t mean to wake you,” the young man told him, walking to Keeley’s bedside. “I’ve brought you breakfast, I’ll leave it on the end table for you.”
“Thank you,” Keeley replied meekly. It was odd to be addressed as ‘sir’ so formally, and it made him feel a bit awkward.
“If you need anything else, just ring for me. My name is Rian.” With a polite bow, the servant turned and left.
Keeley kept his face toward the open window, welcoming the sunlight, thin though it was. He had no desire for food just yet. His head felt leaden and his brain was as murky as the sky outside. He didn’t even hear when the door swung open a few minutes later.
“Well, it’s good to see you awake. How are you feeling?”
Even before he turned his head, Keeley knew the smooth, husky voice must be that of the Earl. It had been ringing in his ears as he slept. In the light he could see Faolan’s features clearly and the man’s beauty struck him anew. It had been so dim the evening before, both in the room and in his own mind, that Keeley hadn’t remembered him very well, but now he knew full well why the Earl was reputed to be so charismatic and attractive. The flowing red hair and the deep green eyes mesmerized him, and he looked away in embarrassment when he realized he was staring.
“I—I’m fine, your Lordship, just a bit weak. I’m sorry to cause you such trouble.”
“No trouble at all” The Earl settled onto the bed next to him and leaning close, insisted, “Please, call me Faolan.”
Keeley blushed as he spoke, feeling the omission of the man’s title was inappropriate and that it implied a level of intimacy between them that he was uncomfortable with.
Watching the boy’s pale cheeks bloom into pink, the Earl couldn’t help but smile, delighting in Keeley’s innocence.
“And I feel it is I who should apologize for the events of yesterday evening.”
As the memory of their intimate encounter flooded back into his mind, Keeley’s face turned an even deeper shade of red.
“I had been led to believe that the estate was warded against any malevolent spirits, but I was evidently mistaken.”
“It’s all right, I’m fine,” Keeley managed, though the other man’s proximity was unnerving him.
“Glad to hear it.”
Glancing up, the boy saw Faolan’s brilliant smile and the heat in his body rose several degrees.
“Are you well enough then, to answer a few questions for me?”
He nodded, but felt uneasy.
“How is it that you came to this wing of the building, Keeley?”
It took him a moment to answer, thrown off-guard by the sudden and familiar use of his name. “There was a man all in black, I followed him here.”
“A man in black?” the Earl’s brow furrowed.
“Yes, he was dressed in black, with jet black hair and eyes so dark…” Keeley groped for the right words, “I can’t even explain it, it was like looking into an abyss.”
“Why did you follow him?”
Keeley shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t seem to help myself.”
Emerald eyes surveyed him closely. “And then what?”
“Well, he went into the room and when I stepped inside he disappeared, so I kept walking, on and on… until you pulled me back.” These last words were spoken in a shy, hushed tone that Faolan thought unbelievably charming.
Still, he had to keep his mind on the task at hand. “Nothing else?” he asked sternly. He needed all the information he could get; the appearance of a dark figure on All Hallow’s Eve was a grim omen. Faolan was beginning to worry that some specter of death had entered his home and the idea was unsettling, to say the least.
“Oh yes!” Keeley said after a minute or two. “A red butterfly. I saw it once I entered the room and I walked on trying to catch it… how could I have forgotten?”
The Earl was silent and as much as Keeley didn’t wish to interrupt the man’s thoughts, he was eager for answers. “Do you have any idea what happened to me?”
It felt strange to ask him this, for although Keeley had been acutely aware of the spirit world all his life, he had never met anyone else who’d had similar experiences. Yet here he was, a guest of one of the wealthiest Earl’s in the region, discussing apparitions as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do!
“As a matter of fact,” Faolan said slowly, his face brightening, “I think I do.”
But without explaining anything, the man stood. “We have much to discuss young Mr. Finnegan! When you feel up to it, and after you’ve eaten of course, find me in the study—the last room down the hall on your right.”
Keeley was left in the room wondering what had caused this sudden change in Faolan’s mood; he had been so grave just moments before. Still, his curiosity would have to wait. His body was too fatigued to hop out of bed and immediately follow the Earl, so he settled the breakfast tray on his lap and dove into one of the best meals he could ever remember eating. It went a long way towards calming his nerves, but somehow he couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere, someone was watching him.
When Keeley had finished breakfast, he succumbed to a short nap. Upon awakening, he finally got out of bed and readied himself to meet the Earl. He didn’t realize until he slipped out from under the sheets that he had been undressed during the night. He blushed as he realized the Earl himself must have stripped him and then berated himself for the reaction. Why should he be so self-conscious around the man? It was true they had shared a very intimate exchange the night before, but that didn’t mean Keeley needed to feel weak-kneed when he thought of him. After all, he had to remember why he had come here in the first place. He had important negotiations to see through once all this supernatural business had been laid to rest.
Checking his figure in the large standing mirror—an elaborately decorated piece that must have been worth a small fortune—Keeley adjusted his waistcoat and firmed his resolve. If he was going to speak with authority, he couldn’t let himself be intimidated by the odd events of the previous evening or his opulent surroundings.
No matter how much he coached himself, however, the young man felt his pulse quicken at the sight of Faolan lounging in a spacious, velvet-draped sofa within his study. The fire was blazing in the small hearth, keeping the day’s grey, damp chill from slipping inside the inviting room.
“Your Lordship,” the young man said with a slight bow, forgetting his promise to address the man informally. Glancing up, he suddenly realized they were not alone. “Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt…”
“Not at all. This is a good friend of mine, Larkin Kane,” Faolan said, standing and introducing him to the other man, who remained sitting lazily in his plush chair, looking at the boy with a smile that Keeley thought was a little <i>too</i> friendly.
“Larkin, this is Keeley Finnegan.”
“A pleasure, sir,” Keeley said with polite formality.
“I’ve been curious to meet you all day, Mr. Finnegan.”
Something in the blond man’s tone made Keeley feel self-conscious. The man had a knowing glint in his eye and Keeley wondered if he knew what had happened between him and the Earl the previous evening. He certainly hoped not.
“I’m sorry if I caused you to wait overly long, I’m afraid I have imposed upon the Earl’s hospitality too much today,” Keeley replied, unsure of exactly what to say. The rules of etiquette didn’t really cover such odd situations.
“No need to apologize. I’m sure Faolan was more than happy to lend a hand.” Larkin’s grin was wicked, making the young man before him fidget uncomfortably. Keeley was now certain Larkin knew what had occurred and was toying with him.
“Larkin, behave yourself,” Faolan said, shooting his friend a look of warning before turning his attentions back to Keeley. “Won’t you sit? We’ve much to discuss and already the day is getting on.”
Nodding, Keeley surveyed the room for an open seat, but the only place available was the small space next to the Earl on the velvet sofa.
Larkin had to hold back a chuckle as the boy sat down, squeezing himself into the cushions awkwardly so that his body didn’t touch Faolan’s.
“Shall we summon Rian for our little meeting?”
Faolan nodded and rang for the boy with the long bell rope hanging against one wall.
“Meeting?” Keeley asked quietly.
“Yes. This concerns him too,” Faolan replied.
Keeley wasn’t sure why there needed to be so many other people involved in this affair. As uneasy as it made him though, he didn’t think it was his place to gainsay the Earl.
Plucking up his courage, Keeley asked, “Your Lordship, there were other matters that I wished to discuss with you besides the incident that occurred last night. Will there be time to speak with you privately after this is matter is settled?”
“I told you, Keeley, please call me Faolan.”
The boy was flustered and a bit annoyed that the entire reason for his visit was constantly being put on hold. “Yes, Faolan, what I mean is—”
The Earl placed a warm hand over his. “That matter concerns my friends as well. Don’t worry,” Faolan continued when Keeley’s face fell into a look of frustration, “everything will be fine.”
To Keeley’s relief, Rian soon arrived, carrying a silver tray of tea and biscuits.
“Rian, you really do anticipate my every need, thank you,” Faolan told his servant as the young man set the tray down on the low table before him.
“I see Mr. Finnegan is feeling better now, I’m glad to see you up and about, sir.”
Keeley simply nodded quietly, caught off guard once again at the unexpected ‘sir.’
“Take a seat Rian, we were just about to discuss the events of yesterday evening and how Keeley might fit into our unique mystical society.”
Keeley found this last phrase cryptic. And unsettling.
Faolan turned to him, “Keeley, would you mind repeating what you remember about the man you saw last night?”
“Well, he was all in black, with dark hair and eyes, and after I followed him, I sort of lost myself in some kind of trance. All I recall after a while was that it was no longer a man I was following, but a bright red butterfly.”
Not liking being put on the spot, Keeley made his reiteration as short and concise as possible.
“Ah, I see,” Larkin said, though Keeley couldn’t imagine how this brief description could be illuminating. Before the blond man could explain himself, however, Rian had settled himself on the arm of Larkin’s chair and the man cocked an eyebrow up at him.
“Rian, love, your head is higher than mine.”
“Oh, how presumptuous of me!” the servant replied, immediately kneeling on the floor at the other man’s feet.
Keeley watched this exchange with rising anger and his stubborn temper flared. “Is it because Rian is a servant, or maybe because he’s a Catholic, that you force him to be so subservient? Or are you just so vain that you have to subjugate everyone of lesser rank in front of others?”
Faolan’s laugh startled him and Keeley turned red when he realized how incredibly rude he had been, even if he had meant what he said.
“I told you he had a strong will!” the Earl said, glancing at the two other men.
“What do you think, Rian?” Larkin asked, smiling down affectionately at the young man and tucking a finger beneath the servant’s chin to tilt his head back, “Do I treat you unfairly?”
To his surprise, Keeley saw Rian’s eyes sparkle mischievously and he gave a soft laugh as he answered, “Only when you tease me.”
Keeley was dumbfounded and felt an odd heat drift into his body as he watched the two men gazing at each other.
“You see,” Faolan said quietly in his ear, “subjugation is merely a part of Larkin and Rian’s relationship. It has less to do with politics and more to do with pleasure.”
Wide-eyed and hoping he had somehow heard him wrong, Keeley made a silent vow to keep his mouth shut the next time he presumed to know what the hell was going on in the Earl’s household.
“Now,” Faolan said louder, “perhaps we can return to the matter at hand?” The redheaded man turned to Keeley once more. “Yesterday Larkin put a ward around the house to protect all the guests from any spirits or apparitions during All Hallows Eve; however, if one was invited, it was allowed entrance.”
“Invited?” Keeley asked, dubiously.
“Yes,” Larkin answered, “You see the ‘man in black,’ as you called him, was actually a guest here last night.”
“A guest? I thought he was some sort of ghost…”
“Keeley, you see soul-spirits, isn’t that right?” Faolan interjected, as if he was asking whether or not he wanted honey with his tea. The boy gaped at him.
“What do they look like to you?” the Earl pressed, ignoring his shock.
Still too rattled to ask how on earth Faolan knew this information, Keeley replied, “They look like small white butterflies, floating on the air.”
“Those are mortal souls, but the souls from the Faerie realm take on a different hue—<i>red</i>.”
“Then, that man, he was a spirit from the Faerie world?” Keeley found this difficult to believe, although so many inexplicable events had happened since he stepped foot in the Earl’s house that he didn’t know why this should come as a surprise.
“Yes, he is known as Far Dorocha, ‘The Dark Man,’” Faolan explained.
An icy shiver ran up Keeley’s spine at the mention of this name. “He’s the one who is said to hunt mortals down to drag them off to the land of Faerie, is he not?”
Such dreadful rumors about Far Dorocha were often whispered at the fireside during dark and stormy nights; Keeley had only half-believed them and he never imagined he would ever come face-to-face with such a being.
Faolan smiled at Keeley description, “He’s more subtle than rumor makes him out to be. He often persuades people to follow him, as he did with you, rather than kidnapping them on dark roads.”
“He was your <i>guest?</i>” Keeley asked, spreading his hands before him. He was astonished more and more with each passing moment at the strange and powerful Earl Faolan.
Larkin interjected, “Don’t try to pry open Faolan’s secrets about his ties to the Faerie realm. I’ve been at it for years, and he’s as tight-lipped as ever.”
“My friend, you are far too dramatic,” Faolan retorted before turning back to Keeley.
“I happen to have some acquaintances who reside within the Faerie land. Most people don’t even have the talent to see them, so inviting them usually causes little harm. <i>You</i>, however, did see him and you must have sparked Far Dorocha’s interest. It is very unlike him to try to seduce one of my guests—and not very polite at that. I shall have to speak with him.”
Keeley blushed deeply at the use of the term ‘seduce’ and thought the Earl far guiltier of this particular sin than the Dark Man, but he kept this thought to himself.
“Is that all that is necessary? You simply have to talk with him and he won’t come after me again?”
There was the briefest of pauses before Faolan replied, and it unnerved Keeley that the man would hesitate on this crucial point.
“It should be enough, but I don’t know <i>when</i> I’ll get a chance to speak with him, which means you could be in danger until then. And <i>that</i> brings us to our larger discussion.”
“And what would that be, exactly?” Keeley asked, looking at the redheaded man shrewdly. He would not leave without discussing the issue of the Catholic tenants, no matter what other plans Faolan had.
“Ah, here it comes,” Larkin whispered in Rian’s ear as he let his fingers slip through the valet’s unruly chestnut locks.
Ignoring his friend, the Earl focused his attention on Keeley. “When I had Rian slip you an invitation for the masquerade, I did want to talk to you about how I could aid the Catholic workers, which I’m sure you had anticipated. I confess though, that I had other reasons for calling you here as well.”
“If you don’t mind, Earl Faolan, could you please come to the point?” Keeley was growing increasingly impatient and feeling slightly used at this point in the proceedings.
Faolan smiled indulgently, “As you wish. Keeley, I wanted to bring you here to work for me.” The boy was about to ask why, but Faolan raised a hand to stop him. “Asking questions will only hinder my explanation. My offer is twofold. First, by keeping you here, you can be a direct link between your fellow compatriots and myself, which will make it that much easier for me to lend my aid. Secondly, you have a talent, Keeley—a spiritual talent if you will—and I think you could be very useful to me on that account. Also, if you like, you now have a third reason for coming to live and work here. It will provide protection from Far Dorocha or any other spiritual pursuers.”
“Why should my ‘spiritual talents’ be of any value to you?”
Faolan smiled like a cat eyeing a canary. “Because all of us you see here are part of a little organization we like to call The Society of the Scarlet Butterfly.”
Keeley scoffed, “Sounds like a ladies’ sewing circle.”
This elicited a snort of laughter from Larkin, but Faolan remained unmoved. Keeley began to feel uncomfortable under his stare, the nearness of their bodies troubling as the Earl focused all his attention on him.
“It might sound unusual, but then again, we are all rather unusual people.”
“Do you mind telling me what this ‘Society’ is about?”
“Sometimes I wonder that myself,” Larkin piped up, smiling over his tea.
Faolan sent him a scathing look in return.
“You already know now what the ‘scarlet butterfly’ refers to. The organization itself simply deals with various disturbances in the spiritual and supernatural realm, matters that those without such insight as ourselves are helpless against.”
“Such as?” Keeley asked, still skeptical of the Earl’s motives.
“Maladies or injuries caused by vengeful spirits, possessions, etc.” Faolan’s eyes surveyed the him intently, green depths sparkling with hidden knowledge. “I think you have had some of your own experiences along those lines. Am I right?”
Keeley’s eyes widened, wondering again how the Earl seemed to know so much about him.
“Perhaps,” Keeley muttered. He remained silent for a few moments and Faolan allowed the time to let his offer sink in before asking, “So, what do you say? Are you willing to join us here?”
“You haven’t mentioned what my work would be yet.”
“All I would ask is your participation in the Society.”
This surprised Keeley, and he shifted in his seat uneasily, his eyes flickering over to Rian. Somehow it felt wrong for Faolan to offer him a place in his household and not demand the same amount of work as he did from his other servants.
“I would want to pull my own weight. I’m not asking for any favors.”
“I am not offering any.”
The Earl was not oblivious to Keeley’s glances in Rian’s direction. “I would expect a lot from you in regards to the Society. If you’re worried that you would not be working as hard as others in my service, you needn’t be. Each person in my household works according to their ability and talent. Rian, for instance, is an excellent valet and footman, but he does not have the supernatural talents that the rest of us possess. And as for Larkin, well, he is a friend.” Faolan eyed the blond man. “And a free-loader,” he added with a smirk.
Keeley looked over at the other two men, curious as to the details of their involvement in the Society. “Would it be ill-mannered of me to ask exactly what service Larkin provides the Society then?”
“Not at all,” Larkin replied, “though it is difficult to describe to others. You could say I am an aura-reader.”
“Aura-reader?” Keeley said shaking his head.
“I can see the energy around people. Around all living things in fact, and determine if something is amiss.”
“I see,” though he wasn’t sure he did.
“Any other questions or have you made your decision?” Faolan asked, leaning in slightly towards Keeley and making the boy feel as if he was using his charms to influence his choice.
And Keeley had to admit that it was an enticing proposition. Anything was better than slaving in the fields, though he felt a pang of guilt that he would be leaving behind the family that had so generously taken him in. But the Earl would certainly pay more than that stingy overseer did and Keeley could always share it with them. The only real problem he had with the arrangement was that the details of his work were extremely vague, and he wasn’t sure he would be safe living under the same roof as Faolan … and his <i>unique</i> household. The thought of being around the attractive Earl all the time was both exciting and terrifying all at once.
“All right,” Keeley answered finally. “I accept your offer.”
A slow smile spread over the Earl’s lips as he heard these words. It was as if he had received news that was long expected, but in which he took secret delight.
“I am glad to hear it. I will send for your things in the morning, and Rian will arrange your room for you.” The man stood and began giving his servant instructions.
“Wait! I didn’t say I was starting this second!”
The Earl turned to him, “Is there a problem?”
Faolan’s nonchalance and presumption irritated Keeley to no end. “I have to go back and explain all this to my friends and settle matters with my current landlord. You can’t expect me to just drop everything! I need at least a month to arrange it all!”
“That will not suffice. Far Dorocha is still after you now. You need my protection. You can return by coach in the coming weeks and let anyone who might be concerned know of your change in residence. I don’t see the need for you to put yourself in danger just to settle a few matters that I can easily take care of for you.”
“But I don’t <i>want</i> you taking care of them!” Keeley yelled, his ire rising. “The people who took me in after my family died deserve more consideration than that! I will need to speak with them about all this, I don’t want them hearing it secondhand!”
With an exasperated sigh, Faolan replied, “Fine, I will give you some time to handle matters personally, but not more than a week, Keeley.”
“No excuses!” the Earl retorted firmly. “You are under my employment now, and although I am not beneath compromise, I will not have you putting yourself in needless danger. If Far Dorocha is after you, others might be as well.”
Walking over to the boy, Faolan placed his hands on Keeley’s shoulders, speaking to him in a softer tone. “Trust me. I have an intuition about these sorts of things, and the sooner you are under my roof, the better.”
“Very well,” Keeley replied bitterly.
“At the end of this week I will send a carriage for you, so be ready. Also, do not, under any circumstances, venture out alone at night while you are away. Do you understand?”
Pursing his lips in frustration, Keeley held back his biting retort, saying instead, “Yes, I understand.”
“Good. I’ll arrange for a coach back to your current residence first thing in the morning.”
“What? Why can’t I go home now?”
Faolan shot him a look of warning. “I just told you that you are not to travel at night when it is unnecessary and the day is already growing dark. And in any case, you are still recovering. You should rest.”
Although Keeley looked on the verge of saying something scathing, he held his tongue and exited the study without further discussion, stomping back to his room.
“Quite the firecracker, that one. Have fun breaking him in,” Larkin said with a smile, obviously enjoying the confrontation.
Faolan sat down with a heavy sigh and leaned back into the plush, velvet sofa. Keeley was even more bull-headed than he had anticipated.
When Keeley returned to the room he was staying in, he slammed the door shut behind him and cursed under his breath. A fine mess he had gotten himself into. How was he ever going to tolerate living with that man—or working for him, for that matter? What was equally as troublesome to him was the fact that he had forgotten to ask about the Earl’s ‘talent.’ Faolan was the most mysterious man of the bunch, and Keeley had failed to gain any knowledge about him.
His stomach growled and Keeley realized he had not taken advantage of the proffered biscuits in the study. He had no idea how long it would be until dinner, or if he would even feel like attending after the way he had left the Earl. To ignore his hunger, he tried to nap on the bed, but had to settle for lying there, brooding in silence.
The day wore on and finally he heard a knock at the door.
“Mr. Finnegan, sir, dinner is ready,” Rian said as he opened the door. “Shall I show you to the dining room?”
Biting his lip, Keeley weighed the consequences of refusing to attend against his growing hunger. His characteristic stubbornness won out.
“Thank you, but I won’t be attending.”
“Very well, sir.”
Keeley turned away and heard the door shut behind Rian, surprised that the servant made no attempt to persuade him to come to dinner. He almost wished he had.
A few minutes later, he heard the door reopen and the familiar sound of platters jingling on a silver tray. So Rian had brought the food to him, so much the better. But when Keeley looked toward the door, he did not see the servant carrying the tray, but Faolan himself.
Keeley was sure the Earl would be angered by his refusal to join the evening meal, but the man didn’t look in the least bit put-out.
“I was worried that you were still feeling ill when you didn’t turn up for dinner, so I thought I’d bring the meal to you.”
“Thank you,” Keeley said softly, feeling somewhat foolish and childish now that Faolon was being so kind to him. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and allowed the man to set the tray across his knees.
In reality, Faolan had not been at all pleased upon hearing that the boy had refused to leave his room, but he knew being angry with him would only cause Keeley to become even more obstinate than he already was, so he’d opted to handle him gently.
As Keeley breathed in the heavenly aroma wafting up from the food, his remaining anger ebbed away and he dug into the meal with relish, trying to keep himself from eating so fast that it would seem boorish or impolite.
“The meal is to your liking, I see.”
Keeley smiled sheepishly up at him, his mouth too full to speak. “I’m sorry I lost my temper,” he said once he’d swallowed. “I don’t always deal well with sudden changes.”
From the mournful look in his eyes, Faolan guessed he was thinking of the loss of his family. He doubted the boy had had any real stability in his life since that unfortunate event and he could understand better now why Keeley bucked against being given orders.
“It’s all right,” he replied softly.
The smooth notes of the man’s voice seemed to float over Keeley’s skin, giving him goosebumps. What was it about the redheaded Earl that had such an effect on him? Finishing the dinner, Keeley set the tray on the bedside table in silence, feeling awkward as Faolan’s emerald eyes watched him.
Sensing the boy’s unease, Faolan offered him a warm smile. “I remember the first time I saw you, several months ago.”
At this Keeley suddenly perked up, attentive.
“I was riding in the countryside and decided to go a little ways into the woods. I don’t do so normally, but something told me that I should that day, so I followed the river as it turned into the forest. It wasn’t long before the river dipped into a ravine and I could hear someone calling out from down below. Then I saw you, skidding down the side of the steep embankment, heedless of your own safety. You saved a little girl’s life that day, didn’t you?”
“Yes…” Keeley replied in a hushed voice. The memory of that day was strong in his mind. A neighbor had come to ask him for help in finding his daughter, who had disappeared the previous evening. Such things had happened before, people seeking his aid when someone was lost or when someone felt they needed to communicate with a loved one who had recently passed on. Everyone in the surrounding area knew that the boy with the raven hair and ice-blue eyes had a way of reaching people on the other side. If he had to, Keeley could usually concentrate and draw a certain soul-spirit to him, but not always. On the occasion at the ravine, the little girl had lost consciousness and her wayward spirit had reached out to him, fluttering before his eyes and leading him to where her body lay. Keeley had been terrified that they had arrived too late, that she had already crossed over. As he held her, he watched, mesmerized as the little white soul-spirit merged into her body and she weakly opened her eyes.
And the whole time, Faolan had been watching.
“That is the kind of thing we do in our Society, Keeley. It is a good fight. You’ve done right to choose it.”
The boy felt suddenly weary. Remembering the frail, pale body of the lost child had reminded him of finding his own sister’s body years before. The heartache returned with a vehemence he hadn’t known for quite some time. In an attempt to distract himself from the pain, he comforted himself with the idea that he might be able to help more people by becoming part of the Society.
“What is that pendant you’re fingering?”
Keeley startled out of his thoughts. He hadn’t even realized he was touching it. “It’s a locket. It was my mothers,” he explained in a soft voice. Taking a deep breath, Keeley thought about everything he had endured. “It will feel good to have a purpose again,” he whispered.
To his surprise, the Earl knelt before him so that their eyes were level, and Keeley could read a profound compassion there. He expected him to say something and when no words came, Keeley began to feel undone by that empathy. No one had stopped to look at him—really look at him—in ages. It ripped at the composure he had worked so hard to build over the past three years and he felt the unwanted sting of tears behind his eyes. His gaze dropped down to his hands resting on his lap.
Through his blurry vision, he saw another hand close over his own; it was larger, stronger. With his other hand Faolan’s fingertips gently caressed one prominent cheekbone and Keeley shut his eyes against the swell of unexpected emotion. How long had it been since he’d been touched with such tenderness? Not for years it seemed, not since his family had been taken from him and the life he had known was shattered.
More than anything, he wanted to lean into that touch, to lose himself in its warmth. But something held him back. He was so unsure of everything around him that Faolan’s attentions toward him confused his already overloaded mind. For a few moments he simply sat there, rooted in indecision.
Faolan, sensing his ambiguity, reached out to frame the handsome boy’s face with his hands, brushing away Keeley’s tears slowly with his smooth fingers. It surprised him that this simple gesture would plunge Keeley into such a state of uncertainty. And what was more, rapture, from the look of it. Through the touch, the Earl could feel the heat rise to the young man’s face, feel his pulse quicken beneath the fingers that grazed the column of his neck, and he knew it must have been a long time since anyone had stopped to nurture this boy’s waning spirit. The sight of Keeley responding with such pure feeling, mixed with his hesitant inexperience, tugged at Faolan with an unmistakable power and triggered his lust to an almost painful degree. Slowly, so as not to break the spell between them, Faolan closed the space between them and he felt Keeley give an audible gasp when their lips finally met.
At this first touch, Keeley felt an electric thrill slam him low in his belly, the languid movements of Faolan’s mouth unspeakably seductive. Without realizing it, he responded willingly to all the Earl’s demands, allowing his lips to be coerced apart so the man was free to explore him with his tongue.
The youth’s responsiveness sorely tested Faolan’s restraint. His mind was immediately filled with visions of pressing Keeley’s pliant body into the bed and stripping him bare before plunging deep into his hidden depths, his virgin channel so exquisitely tight. He also knew he had to resist. He needed Keeley to trust him and that would take time. Regretfully, he released him.
Keeley blinked at him, looking weak and dazed.
“Rest. Your body is still recovering. I’ll wake you in the morning.”
Barely hearing Faolan’s voice as he was tucked under the soft, down blankets, Keeley was asleep in minutes, his body and mind overtaxed from the events of the last two days. His dreams were strewn with images of dark corridors and dim figures walking from door to door. Only the vague impression of warm lips and comforting hands soothed him until he eventually fell into a blank sleep.
* * *
Though he hadn’t anticipated it, Keeley found that it was difficult to say good-bye to the Earl and his household. So much had occurred in so short a time that he had developed a strong connection with the people and place. Then there was Faolan himself. Even as Keeley pulled away in the coach, he could feel those startlingly green eyes upon him as the Earl stood watching him from the front steps of the mansion.
The overcast weather had broken up and blue peeped out from between the grey clouds, scattering sunlight over the cold ground and intensifying Keeley’s feeling that he was somehow waking from a dream. Within a week he would be returning, though. He couldn’t decide if that idea was comforting or disturbing, so he opted to ignore it and deal with more immediate matters.
The McAllisters, the family that had so graciously taken him in after his family’s death, welcomed him back with concerned and happy faces. Although Keeley had let them know he would be out on All Hallows Eve, they had been afraid something dreadful had happened to him when he failed to return the next day.
Mother McAllister laughed as she hugged the boy to her breast. “Father thought you’d been spirited away or some such nonsense!” Keeley smiled and laughed along with her, struck by the irony that this was not far from the truth. “I told him you were just a young lad and sometimes boys need their space. ‘Give him a day or two, let him have his secrets!’ I said. But now that you’re back, you must tell us where you were!” she teased with a wink. She sat him at the table and set a full plate before him.
The jovial older woman was smiling, but Keeley knew she must have been fretting over his whereabouts. A pang of guilt struck his chest that he had been the cause of her worry. Mrs. McAllister had always been good to him, even when some of her own children grumbled about having another body in the small house and another mouth to feed. He smiled back at her and glanced at her crown of vibrant red hair. It was bright enough to challenge Faolan’s locks any day.
“I apologize for being a bother. I didn’t mean to be gone so long, but it became unavoidable. May I eat first? Then I’ll explain everything to you.”
Before Keeley had left the Earl’s home, he had been given a splendid breakfast, but he needed some time to think of how he was going to break the news to his foster family that he was leaving. It was only now that it occurred to him that he would have to lie about what had happened at the Earl’s residence and about the details of his new employment in the prestigious man’s household.
As he ate, some of the McAllister children roamed in and out of the cottage, already busy with their morning duties.
“Perhaps I should see to my chores before we get into a discussion. After all, I have been neglectful of my duties since I’ve been gone.”
Keeley stood to leave, but his evasion was of little use. Mother McAllister placed a firm hand on his shoulder and pressed him back into his chair. The woman was strong from years of working on a farm and raising several children, and Keeley knew that determined look in her eye. There was no getting out of an immediate explanation, he thought wryly.
“No you don’t! You can at least let this old woman know what kept you so long,” she continued to smile as she spoke, but there was a shrewd glint in her eye. Keeley swallowed. He couldn’t fool her with some fabricated story, he would have to keep things as close to the truth as possible or she would never believe him. Not that she would believe the truth either…
“Well, I didn’t want to say anything before, but I was actually invited the other evening by Earl O’Callaghan to visit his estate.”
“For the ball?” the woman asked, astonished.
“Not exactly. He had a position open that he wished to fill and asked me over to speak with him about it. I suppose he requested my presence on the night of the masquerade merely to let me get a taste of the festivities. He’s a generous man, the Earl, very open in his ideas about the classes.”
“A position? But how on earth did you come to be acquainted with him?”
“I’m not quite sure. I believe his footman kept a lookout for potential employees and somehow my name came up. I was just as surprised as you are.” The last statement was true at least.
Mother McAllister cocked her head, sensing the boy’s unease and the fact that he was not telling her the entire story. “What is this position?”
“He didn’t give me the details, I assume I am to be a general servant in his household.”
The woman was quiet for a long moment and Keeley scraped at the remains of the food on his plate, avoiding her eyes.
“Well, whatever the position, it is a wonderful opportunity for you!” she said finally, patting his shoulder. “But do take care of yourself and don’t let yourself get into any trouble, will you?”
Her blue eyes gazed at him intently. Keeley knew it was her way of telling him that she knew there were things about this ‘position’ he had left unsaid, but she would support him even so. His smile in return was radiant with warmth and gratitude.
“I will,” he reassured her. “I promise.”
His news quickly spread through the entire family and was met with varying reactions, some kind and some not so much. The older boys of the family were slightly resentful when it appeared that Keeley was being rewarded even though he had never been able to pull his weight on the farm. But most of the family was happy for his good fortune and Keeley insisted that he would share his wages with them.
“Nonsense!” Mother insisted with a dramatic wave of her hand. “You save your money so you can settle down with a good wife when the time comes!”
Keeley made no reply to this. All the villagers ever seemed to think about was marriage, and the young man had never paid much heed to it. Unbidden, images of the Earl leaning in to claim his lips tumbled into his head, and for a moment he felt as if his acceptance of Faolan’s proposal of employment had also bound him to an unspoken romantic contract. Keeley had the uncomfortable notion that he was, in an odd sense, somehow becoming a wife.
“Boy, you need to become a bit tougher if just the thought of a wife makes you blush!” Mr. McAllister bellowed with a deep chuckle. Keeley laughed along with him to cover his embarrassment.
To celebrate his new position, the man insisted on taking Keeley out to the local pub every day that week, but by the second night Keeley wasn’t sure he would survive another five. He was not a heavy drinker and it showed, which egged on the other men at the bar to make him drink even more.
The only enjoyment Keeley found in the trips to the pub was the idea that he was pushing the limits of Faolan’s damnable rules for him. The Earl had not wanted him out at night… alone. So if he was with Mr. McAllister and his sons, then technically he wasn’t breaking any promises. But he was about to.
On his third night out, just as it was approaching midnight, Keeley reached into his pocket for a few more coins and found that someone had slipped him a small note, which read:
It is urgent that I speak with you. Meet me at the end of the lane as soon as you are able.
Immediately, Keeley associated the ‘F’ with Faolan. But why would he be here? And why wouldn’t he simply send Rian in to fetch him? Then again, maybe it was Rian who had somehow placed the note in his pocket without him knowing.
Keeley shifted in his stool, chewing his lip with indecision as he tried to clear his inebriated mind and focus. He could just ignore the summons and act as if it had fallen onto the floor without him ever having seen it. Sipping his drink, he tried to put the note out of his mind. After all, he didn’t officially begin employment until the end of the week. He wasn’t at Faolan’s beck and call.
But something nagged at him deep in his belly, a feeling he’d worked hard to ignore the past few days, albeit unsuccessfully. He missed Faolan. How this could be possible when Keeley barely even knew the man, he couldn’t fathom. Yet it was there, a sweet ache that touched his heart whenever he thought of the Earl… and he thought of him often.
What if Faolan really did need to talk with him? What if it was important? And here he was, sitting around drinking and pretending it didn’t matter!
Setting down his glass with a sharp thunk, Keeley told his companions he’d had more than was good for him and needed some fresh air. Already thoroughly intoxicated themselves, the McAllister boys simply laughed and waved him off. Once outside, Keeley wrapped his arms about himself to fight off the chilly night air. It was colder than he remembered.
His footsteps were none too steady from the alcohol in his system and he stumbled on his way down the lane, stopping as he reached the last house, which sat across the street from the cemetery. There was no sign of anyone on the street or nearby and Keeley’s mind started filling with anxiety. Could he have missed him already? Had something happened?
If he had been thinking more clearly, things might have gone differently, but the fog that curled about his feet as he wandered was as heavy as the haze in his mind. Before he knew it he was in the middle of the graveyard, searching across the grounds for any sign of the Earl he could find. Suddenly, a shadow fell across his path and a familiar icy shiver ran over his skin in warning.
“I’m so pleased you chose to join me,” came a velvety, haunting voice from behind.
Spinning around, Keeley saw a dark figure striding towards him. The man’s gait was so smooth that he appeared to drift over the ground rather than step down upon it. The moon’s weak light shown over the figure’s face and Keeley suddenly realized his danger.
“Far Dorocha,” he whispered.
Of course! The ‘F’ stood for Far Dorocha. How could he have been so stupid?
With bitter reflection, Keeley saw that his eagerness to see Faolan had caused him to rush headlong into a potentially hazardous situation. Instinctively, he tried to run, but with a flick of Far Doracha’s wrist, the boy’s feet were rooted to where he stood, immobile. Helplessly, Keeley watched as the Dark Man drew closer, studying the boy’s fearful reaction with satisfaction.
“You should feel honored, dear one, I don’t usually collect men for myself. I am the Faerie Queen’s servant. It is my duty to bring her those mortals she desires, but on rare occasion, I encounter someone I must have for myself.”
Discovering that he was still free to speak, Keeley asked in a desperate tone, “But why me?”
Far Dorocha lifted the boy’s chin to meet his inexplicably black eyes, and the touch of his fingers seemed to freeze the blood in Keeley’s veins.
“Can’t you guess?”
Keeley stared back at the man with confusion in his otherwise clear blue eyes. There was more to this simple question than was being said. The Dark Man’s expression was smug with secret knowledge.
When the boy remained silent, Far Dorocha told him, “You’re special.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will,” came the man’s barely audible whisper as his mouth claimed Keeley’s own. The mysterious man’s lips burned him with an icy intensity that demanded response, even as Keeley fought against it. His mind screamed in protest, but his body refused to comply, still under the Dark Man’s thrall even as the man’s hands began to rove freely over his body.
This can’t be happening! Keeley thought. In desperation, his mind reached out to the man who had saved him before, to Faolan. But surely he was alone now—out in the countryside, surrounded by the silent, cold gravestones. In terror, Keeley felt his grip on consciousness slipping, his spirit pulling away from his corporal form and he knew that soon, he would belong to the same space as those cold bodies buried in the frozen ground beneath his feet.
Please, he begged silently, Faolan… please come to me!
In the blankness of Keeley’s mind, one clear voice cut through like a diamond on glass: “My, my! What a scene to come across! Two people embracing at midnight in the middle of a graveyard. That’s how rumors start, Far Dorocha.”
His lips momentarily released, Keeley murmured weakly, “Faolan.” With the Dark Man’s attention diverted, his spirit settled back into his body, but he found he could barely stand. He felt a pair of arms wrap around him, but it was no longer the chilling embrace of death found in Far Dorocha’s arms. Gazing upward, the boy saw an unbearably beautiful face framed by flaming red hair.
“I knew you’d come.”
“Did you now? How good of you to have such faith in me when we’ve only known each other for less than a week!” the Earl teased with a gentle smile.
“You were late, though,” Keeley retorted, trying to smile but lacking the strength.
Faolan’s warm breath caressed his cheek as he held him and chided in return, “And you disobeyed me.”
Keeley nodded, too tired to argue or explain.
“Faolan, would you mind terribly letting me know why you’ve interrupted my little courtship--again?” The husky voice made Keeley shiver at the mere sound of it.
“I wouldn’t have, but you decided to lavish your attentions upon a rather important acquaintance of mine, one that I’ve recently taken under my protection. Though I must admit, your actions surprised me as well. You know better than to go around seducing people at my residence, especially during my lovely party.”
Shrugging, the Dark Man replied simply, “I couldn’t help myself.”
“But you will have to now, as he’s one of my men,” Faolan said in a stern tone.
“How will you compensate me?”
Although Far Dorocha’s tone was light and teasing, there was a subtle undercurrent of strong displeasure running beneath. Keeley felt his weight shifted, and Rian appeared at his side to support him as the Earl left to walk over to the brooding man in black. Wide-eyed, Keeley watched Faolan draw close to the Dark Man and run a finger along his neck.
“I would never presume to take without giving you something in return,” Faolan said in a husky voice. “And I do know how you love the taste of energy.”
To Keeley’s shock and dismay, Faolan grabbed hold of Dorocha’s long, raven hair and forcibly kissed him with such a display of brutal passion Keeley had to grit his teeth against the unexpected jealousy that flared in his chest at the sight. As the Dark Man growled with lustful delight and pulled Faolan closer, grabbing a firm hold on the redhead’s ass, Keeley had to look away.
A few more moments of moans and groping, and the scene was finally over. When Keeley looked up again, Far Dorocha had disappeared as silently as he had come. Faolan turned back to them and his eyes narrowed on Keeley, his mood grown abruptly serious and severe.
“What was the one thing I asked of you?” he said sharply.
“But, I thought you had asked me here,” Keeley retorted, finding the note and handing it to Faolan as Rian continued to hold him steady.
Scanning it quickly, the Earl tossed the paper to the ground. “Absurd,” he muttered. “If you hadn’t been drunk, you would have realized it wasn’t from me.”
Though he scowled at this remark, Keeley remained silent. Slowly, Rian helped him follow the Earl out to the cemetery entrance, where he saw Faolan’s coach waiting in the moonlight.
“Rian, see him home. Keeley, another carriage will arrive for you both at sunup tomorrow. Be ready with your things.”
“But I have another four days!”
“It is apparent that you cannot be trusted to look after yourself. You’re lucky I don’t take you back right here and now!”
The man’s tone was so authoritative and his emerald eyes so dark and threatening, that Keeley thought better of disputing the matter and merely cursed under his breath in anger.
Without another word, the Earl signaled his driver and the coach set off like a gale down the lane.
* * *
Keeley squinted against the sunlight and watched the land go by as he sat in the small coach the Earl had sent for him. Usually, he enjoyed the sun’s warm rays, but this morning they failed to bring him any comfort. His head was still murky from the combination of alcohol and the Dark Man’s attentions toward him, and he had a nagging feeling of guilt after leaving the McAllisters so abruptly.
When he’d come staggering home with Rian at his side, Mother McAllister had been frightfully worried. The other men had been home long before and already gone to bed, but Mother stayed up, waiting for him. Rian helped her lower Keeley into one of the empty chairs and Keeley had been forced to explain to the woman that he was quite all right, but would have to leave immediately the following morning.
“I’m sorry to have worried you. I was sharing a drink with Rian—Earl Faolan’s valet. It seems the Earl needs me sooner than expected…” His voice trailed off, his entire being exhausted from Far Dorocha nearly stealing his spirit yet again.
But Mrs. McAllister was no fool, she knew there was more wrong with him than just one too many drinks and that the Earl’s early summons was somehow tied to it. As a wife and mother, however, she knew when not to ask questions.
“We won’t be able to have the farewell party. I’m sorry,” Keeley said in a weary voice.
“Hush boy! All that matters is that you’re all right.”
“Thank you,” Keeley replied. It was a deeply heartfelt sentiment, those few words. He realized the woman was not going to badger him with questions about what had happened to him, or why the Earl requested his presence so suddenly—questions for which he had no answers. And he was immensely grateful to her for that.
She would also not let him go blindly into a bad situation. Certain things needed to be said before he left.
“Keeley,” she began softly, leaning towards him to place a warm hand on his shoulder, “I know we’ve never been able to replace your family, but I want you to know that I’ve come to care for you like one of my own children. You are always welcome here.”
Keeley smiled, but made no reply. For him, the comments were bitterly double-edged. Though the family had always shown him kindness and accepted him openly, they had never been able to fill the void left behind by the deaths of his own family. He’d always kept a small distance between himself and the McAllisters, and even though he was constantly aware of this fact, it gave him no small amount of guilt to know that the family was equally aware of it.
“You’ve been so good to me. I wish I had a way to repay your kindness.”
“Just be happy, that will be enough.”
The woman’s warmth and gentleness brought tears unbidden to Keeley’s pale eyes.
“I will only ask you one thing before you leave,” Mother McAllister said, holding his gaze, “Will you be happy working for the Earl? I know it is a good offer, but don’t let the money alone persuade you. Tell me, is this what you want?”
Immediately, Keeley’s eyes looked over to Rian as he stood by the window. He didn’t want to say anything rude that might get back to Faolan.
As if reading his thoughts, Mrs. McAllister brought his attention back to her. “Don’t worry about anyone else. Tell me honestly and I won’t say another word. Is this what you want?”
The older woman’s shrewd eyes looked him over as he pondered her question. Keeley knew her well enough to know that she sensed there was more to his employment with the Earl than was being said. But she would never come out and say it, never pry into his life or decisions. Keeley had always appreciated the privacy that the woman gave him. All she needed to know was that he was still making his own choices, and that he was not somehow being pressured to join the Earl’s household. For a moment, Keeley wondered if he was being coerced into the position through Faolan’s charm and persuasions, as well as the odd circumstances of the past several days. Now he took the time to wonder not if he should be taking the Earl’s offer, but if he wanted to take it.
“Yes, I think so,” he said, surprised to hear himself say it, and even more so to find that it was true. To be honest, he hadn’t been positive that he had made the right choice before. It had just seemed like the inevitable decision. It still seemed that way to a degree, but Keeley was glad to know that it was a path he was choosing, not merely the only one open to him.
“Yes, it’s what I want,” he said with more determination.
“Good,” Mrs. McAllister said with a bright smile. “I’m glad to hear it. Now, get to bed before you pass out!”
Keeley complied and fell sound asleep before he even had time to wonder where Rian would be resting that night. When he awoke, the other man was sitting in a chair near the window, calmly surveying the land outside. The young servant looked as if he had been doing so the entire night. Which could be the truth as far as Keeley knew.
After a round of rushed farewells, Keeley was stepping up into the coach with Rian following after. Somehow, Keeley felt this parting should have saddened him more than it did, and the familiar twinge of guilt from the evening before returned. He could not have asked for a more amiable or supportive family to take him in after the tragedy that befell his own family, but the McAllister house had never become his home.
A melancholy mood clung to him as Keeley rode down the lane towards the Earl’s estate. Perhaps he would never again find a place he could truly call home. If he’d known the McAllisters his entire life and they had not been able to provide him with that sense of warmth and welcome, it was unlikely the Earl’s strange household would be able to do so. Yet even as the sorrow crept over him, he rejected it. Feeling sorry for himself would get him nowhere.
To keep his mind from wandering, Keeley turned from the scenery and glanced at his traveling companion. Rian sat across from him quietly, his eyes watchful. Keeley wondered what the servant thought about this new arrangement, but didn’t quite have the courage to ask. Although they appeared to be of a similar age, Keeley felt years behind the other boy, who seemed to take everything in stride and without much surprise. Something about Rian’s carriage spoke of experience and self-assurance. Keeley was amazed by the young man’s unyielding dedication to the Earl and the way he followed Faolan’s orders without an instant’s hesitation. The more Keeley considered this, the stranger their relationship seemed. Considering the bond Rian and Larkin shared, Keeley wondered why the servant didn’t belong to the handsome blond. With an ironic smile, Keeley mused that at the very least, he would never be bored in the Earl’s house, since there appeared to be no end of mysteries to unravel. Though at the present moment, his lack of knowledge about the household annoyed more an intrigued him.
The two young men had not exchanged words since they entered the coach and although this didn’t seem to bother Rian, Keeley felt the short ride stretch out interminably in the growing silence. He needed some semblance of conversation to steer his mind from the multitude of uncertainties laid out before him.
Unable to bear it any longer, Keeley ventured a question. “The Earl, is he a good master? Fair, I mean?”
Rian turned to consider him, as if he was only now remembering Keeley’s presence.
“Yes, quite fair.”
The answer was short and complete, offering no other opening for conversation, but Keeley felt it necessary to press on. “You’re very dedicated to him, aren’t you?”
Rian’s detached attitude gave way to a quiet smile that made the other boy squirm uneasily, as if Rian had innumerable secrets concealed behind those curled lips.
“He saved my life.”
“Oh, I see,” was all Keeley replied. The servant’s statement only raised more questions, for the Earl had saved Keeley’s life as well, yet Faolan had not demanded the same kind of service from him. Faolan had only asked his participation in the ‘Society’—whatever that meant.
Looking up, Keeley caught Rian grinning at him and he fidgeted, quickly averting his eyes. He did not appreciate the way everyone in the Earl’s household seemed to smirk at him as if they were all in on a hidden joke of which he was ignorant. It made him feel ill at ease and terribly naïve.
Mercifully, they arrived at the Earl’s estate shortly after this exchange and Rian was obliged to exit and retrieve Keeley’s bags from the driver. As he stepped down from the vehicle, Keeley was irritated to discover that Faolan was not there to greet him. Was he not even worth this small consideration?
With a scowl over his features, Keeley allowed Rian to lead him into the house and down the winding hallways to his own quarters.
“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Keeley ventured when he realized they were heading down the main wing. “Shouldn’t we be headed toward the servant’s quarters?”
Rian shook his head and smiled, guiding him to a large, ornate room just across the hall from Faolan’s own chambers. The young man set his bags on the bed and asked, “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“N-no. Thank you, Rian,” he replied, feeling somewhat silly for having to be so formal, as if he was playacting at being royalty. Now that they were both under the Earl’s employment, Keeley had not expected Rian to continue to address him as a superior. It momentarily unsettled him and his mind suddenly flooded with questions about what was expected of him in his new role and what his limits were as a member of the household.
“Wait,” he called as Rian turned to leave. As the boy looked back at him through the tangle of chestnut waves, Keeley didn’t know which question to ask first, or what would be inappropriate to ask, and he lost some of his nerve. “Umm… where is the Earl? Could I see him?”
“I believe he is out for the day, or he would have been waiting for us at the door. I would imagine he will not be gone for more than a day or two, though.”
“Oh.” Though he had a million other questions floating in his mind, Keeley restrained himself, not wanting to seem rude or impatient.
“Good day then, sir. Ring the bell if you need anything. Lunch is served at noon in the central dining hall, which we passed on the way up the stairs.”
“Yes, thank you.”
The door shut and Keeley sat down on the high bed with a huff, evaluating his new surroundings. Everything was gorgeous, and the room itself was as large as half the McAllister’s cottage, but it did little to cheer him. As splendid as the ornamental bedroom was, it lacked a certain kind of personal warmth. Keeley thought he would be overjoyed to have a space that was entirely his own after the crowded, over-stuffed cottage he’d previously lived in, but without people bustling about, the Earl’s mansion seemed cold and impersonal. What on earth would Keeley do with himself in such a huge place?
Suddenly, he felt horribly misplaced. He wasn’t a gentleman. He was a worker, and being dropped into luxury wasn’t going to miraculously change that fact. He reflected on his earlier idea that he would never be bored in the estate with irony. Without anyone to talk to, and no chores or duties, he was at a loss. Already, Keeley could feel an uneasy restlessness began to seep into his bones.
Rian had not offered to show him around the house or grounds, and Keeley wondered if it would be inappropriate for him to explore on his own. His stubborn temper flared as he thought of how rude the Earl was in neglecting to greet him when he arrived. Keeley stood up with an air of resolution.
He would not have his movements dictated to him by such a man! If Faolan could wander off without giving him any consideration, Keeley would do the same. It hurt him more than he wanted to admit though, that he appeared to be of such little consequence to the man. The weight of his emotions swung like a pendulum from anger to dejection and back again.
Firming his will, he opened the door and glanced down the corridor to either side before slowly making his way down the hall. Having finally made a decision, Keeley felt emboldened. He took a little pleasure in the idea that he was taking actions the Earl might find disagreeable.
The mansion was more expansive than he ever would have imagined, and Keeley had to take some care not to get turned around as he crept through the many winding passages. He had walked around for quite some time without hearing the sound of any other persons stirring, until he made his way toward the back of the house where the servant’s quarters were located. No one appeared to take any notice of him as he passed the doorways of the kitchens and washing rooms. As he crossed one darkened pantry, however, he caught the sound of familiar voices.
“I’m curious to see how he’ll adapt.”
“He looked rather bewildered on the ride here.”
The second voice was most certainly Rian’s and Keeley frowned at the description of himself. Bewildered indeed! The first voice was most likely Larkin. It had that smooth, careless quality that Keeley remembered of the blond man. He settled himself in a niche just to the side of the doorway so he could listen without fear of being seen. As he eavesdropped, the young man kept one ear out for anyone else passing by, but they seemed to be in a less-frequented corner of the estate.
“I wonder what use Faolan plans to make of him,” came Larkin’s lilting tone.
There was a long pause, and Keeley heard the unmistakable rustling of clothing.
“Larkin, no!” Rian chided, but his voice was breathless, without real force behind his words.
In his hiding place, Keeley began to blush as he realized he was overhearing an increasingly intimate exchange between the two men. His mind shouted at him to leave now, before things went any further, but Keeley’s curiosity gained the upper hand.
“Put that down, Rian. I have more important needs for you to attend to.”
This statement was followed by a soft fall of laughter and then a sudden gasp that made Keeley’s breath quicken. Pulled by a compulsion greater than his caution, he peeked around the doorway to see what was happening. His eyes went wide as he spied Larkin pressing himself into Rian, pinning the young man against a low table strewn with various vegetables and sundries. The taller blond man had slipped one firm thigh between the servant’s legs and Rian’s head hung back, his chest rising and falling in swift succession.
“That’s it,” Larkin purred, lowering his lips to Rian’s neck. “Give yourself to me.”
A wave of lust hit Keeley low in his belly as the words met his ears. He’d never seen anyone in the midst of their lovemaking and even though he knew it was wrong— especially when the participants were of the same sex—he could not look away.
“No!” Rian protested vehemently, shoving at his partner with surprising force. “I have my duties to attend to!”
The servant turned his back on Larkin. Keeley watched, fascinated as Larkin’s face darkened in anger and he grabbed hold of Rian’s wrist to twist his body back around against his will.
“When Faolan is gone, I am your master!” Larkin snapped with such heated fury it made Keeley jump. The tall man had been so laid-back, so nonchalant in his presence. It was alarming to see him so suddenly wrathful—and over such a small matter. His hands tightened on Rian’s arms with such force his knuckles shone white.
“Do you understand?” Larkin asked with quiet, frightening intensity.
“Yes… Master,” Rian replied. Keeley felt a shiver run along his spine as he listened. This wasn’t the terrified, hurt response Keeley would have made if he had been in the same situation. No, this was altogether different. There was submission in the reply, to be sure, but something else as well, an underlying sensuality, almost an unspoken invitation.
In the back of his mind, Keeley recalled Faolan’s words to him: “…subjugation is merely a part of Larkin and Rian’s relationship.
He heard Rian whisper in a lusty, subservient voice, “Are you going to punish me, Master?”
Keeley’s brows drew together in puzzlement. It almost sounded as if the servant wanted to be punished. Larkin grinned in obvious satisfaction and swung Rian around to pin him to the table while he yanked down the boy’s trousers with his free hand.
“Is that what you want?” the blond hissed in his ear as he held Rian down and grazed his exposed buttocks with the palm of one hand. “Tell me.”
Rian whimpered in what could have been pain or pleasure. Keeley could not tell the difference. His own mind was trying desperately to make sense of his reaction to the sight before him. Where he should have felt only shame, Keeley began to feel a provocative excitement.
He continued to stare in shocked silence as Larkin pulled the servant’s arms back to grasp both wrists with one hand and used the other to fondle the helpless boy. From where he stood, Keeley couldn’t quite see what Larkin was doing, but Rian cried out abruptly, “Yes, punish me!”
“Who are you addressing boy?!” Larkin yelled.
“Punish me, Master!”
Larkin’s ensuing grin was pure wickedness. To Keeley’s dismay, he found himself continuing to gaze, fixated, as the man pulled back his free hand and brought it down with a sharp crack on Rian’s ass. Rather than protesting, however, Rian moaned, wriggling his behind as if begging for more.
The thrill of being dominated or overpowered by one’s lover was completely alien to the Keeley, and the unfolding scene only served to disturb him even as it awakened his arousal. He couldn’t fathom how such violence could possibly fuel his lust, but there it was, his erection growing painfully as Larkin doled out his judgment. Keeley realized he was shaking as he watched the towering blond man swing his powerful arm back and bring his hand down again and again with increasing ferocity over the servant’s reddening ass. With each cruel stroke, Rian gasped, writhing beneath Larkin’s grip.
Keeley’s breath seemed stolen away as he took in every movement before his eyes. The brutal spanking seemed to stretch on forever, until Larkin finally let his hand fall and released Rian from his merciless grip. Before Keeley had a chance to exhale, the imposing blond began to untie his breeches, whispering with husky intent into the smaller man’s ear, “Spread your legs for me, boy. I’m not through with you yet!”
Choking back a gasp, Keeley turned from the sight of Larkin plunging into Rian’s prostrate body and fled down the corridor, just in time to hear the servant’s scream echo past him. His heart was pounding with such force and rapidity he was positive it would soon leap from his chest. Keeley doubted he had ever run faster in his life. He was terrified that he would bump into someone else and they would realize where he had come from. It was an irrational fear, but his mind was racing, his thoughts jumbled into a messy heap of conflicting emotions. Finally locating his room once more, he locked the door behind him and vowed not to take a step outside for the rest of the day… or maybe his life.