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.”