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.