It was no use. Keeley couldn’t concentrate. He had been attempting to unpack his things for the past hour, but his mind kept wandering. With a sigh he sat down on the edge of his bed and shook his head.
As soon as they had arrived back at the estate, Keeley had been sent to his quarters and Larkin had asked Faolan to discuss ‘important matters’ that had come up while they had been away.
Keeley wasn’t sure why it had irritated him, but it had. After all, they had not been back for five minutes when he had been dismissed and sent away. As Rian carried Keeley’s baggage and walked the young man back to his room, he sensed Keeley's displeasure.
“How was your journey, sir?” Rian asked, laying the bags down.
“Will you be needing anything, sir?”
“No,” Keeley replied. Despite his curt responses, he noted that Rian was smiling. What was he so happy about? The young servant was practically glowing.
“It seems you’ve enjoyed yourself in your master’s absence.”
“Yes, sir,” Rian replied brightly.
Something about the way the brunette smiled made Keeley suspect that Rian and Larkin had been entertaining themselves in a rather explicit and intimate fashion for the past several days.
He decided not to inquire any further.
“Did your mission end successfully?” Rian asked, standing near the door.
“You don’t seem pleased.”
“I… it’s not that. It’s just… a lot happened,” Keeley said, and left it at that.
Rian left him to his thoughts and Keeley pondered his relationship with Faolan as he attempted to unpack. In truth, the young man couldn’t say why he suddenly felt so unsettled. When he lay with his head resting in Faolan’s lap during the carriage ride home, he had been so content. Faolan had caressed his cheek and then, slowly, with almost imperceivable movements, drew his hand lower and began stroking the young man’s body with a far more intimate touch. The earl had moved beneath Keeley’s arm and flexed his fingers about his ribs. The change in Keeley’s breathing gave away the fact that he was awake and aware, but he make no protest and the man’s strong hands had soothed him and caressed him for the rest of the trip. It had given Keeley a deep sense of warmth and security. However, now that they had returned to the earl’s residence, Keeley knew the man’s attentions would be divided, and his mind filled with uncertainties.
Faolan himself appeared not long after Keeley had finally given up his efforts to unpack and the man wondered why Keeley's bags were still strewn over the bed.
“I have some news,” the earl said, stepping into the room. “It seems we will be having a guest in a few weeks.”
Although Keeley was interested in this turn of events, he feigned indifference. “Is that so?” was all he replied.
“He’s coming from overseas and asked me to help him with some business he needs to attend to. Since it does not concern you, you can take that week to visit the McAllisters, if you wish.”
‘It does not concern you.’
Keeley did not like the sound of that. Why did Faolan suddenly want him to leave and why was he being so vague about the identity of his guest?
“I’ll stay, thank you,” he replied, his words clipped. He didn’t want to admit that he disliked the idea of being sent away—even to the McAllisters—when he didn’t know the nature of this ‘guest’.
Faolan looked at him closely. He was surprised that Keely didn’t take his offer. He had assumed the boy missed his foster family and that he’d jump at the chance to have more time with them. The young man had been incensed when Faolan had forced him to depart from their house not long ago.
“If you stay, then I’m afraid you’ll have to move to the servant’s quarters for that week. You are not to come in contact with him under any circumstances.”
“What? Why? Tell me first or I won’t agree to anything!” Keeley demanded, his voice rising. He hated the idea that Faolan was keeping secrets from him, and his jealousy fueled his temper.
“This is not a matter open for discussion Keeley,” Faolan said sharply. “I had hoped you would be happy to spend some time with the McAllisters, but since you seem too stubborn to accept my offer, you will do as I say.”
Keeley’s blue eyes frosted over and glared at him.
“And if I don’t?” he retorted defiantly.
Faolan rubbed the back of his neck. “Why must you balk at every order I give you?”
“Why must you pretend to be my lover and then order me around?!”
At these words Faolan's emerald eyes went wide. Crossing over to stand before the young man, he took hold of his chin and forced Keeley to face him. “Because I am your master. We have not yet taken the crucial step necessary to become lovers, but when we do, I will still be your lord and master.”
Keeley’s breath hitched slightly when he heard Faolan announce without doubt that they would be lovers: it was not a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’. He couldn’t stop his pulse from racing just a little faster, but he was still sullen and angry. Keeley couldn’t help but feel that Faolan was toying with him. One moment the man was his seducer and the next his demanding employer.
Why did it have to be so complicated between them?
Faolan watched the emotions shift across the young man’s face. The corners of Keeley’s blue eyes suddenly filled with tears of hurt and frustration, as well as a new vulnerability. Slowly, layer by layer, Keeley was revealing himself to him. Faolan’s own irritation subsided.
“Are you worried about who this guest is? What my relationship is with him?”
Keeleyn refused to answer. He looked away and tried blink back his tears.
“There is no cause to be jealous, Keeley. I am not trying to hide this man from you, I am trying to hide you from him.”
Keeley looked back at him in confusion.
“This man is not pleasant and he yields a great deal of power. He is coming here in secret to see to a few things in this part of the country and I do not wish for word of his identity to spread.”
“I would never-"
“No, I trust that you would keep the secret, but I do not want you entangled in his business. Do you understand?”
Keeley sniffled and nodded begrudgingly.
“He is quite dangerous, Keeley. I am convinced that no good can come of your meeting,” the earl explained. Bending down, he kissed away a stray tear. “I am trying to keep you safe.”
Faolan’s mollifying words eased away Keeley’s anger, but he was left feeling foolish and exposed. The deeper their relationship became, the more precarious Keeley felt about his position in the earl’s life. If he could never truly be Faolan’s equal, where did that leave him? Was he to become a glorified servant who was occasionally taken to his master’s bed?
Keeley sighed. He was too weary to think of such things.
“Rest, love. There’s nothing that has to be done today,” Faolan reassured him.
Suddenly Keeley felt as if he hadn’t slept in days. All the extreme emotions he had been put through during the mission at O’Reilly’s had drained him, and the ride back to the estate had taken nearly all day. The light outside was fading and so was Keeley’s energy. Faolan cleared the bed and covered the young man in blankets as he lay down.
“I’ll have a small supper brought to you, in case you wake up later and feel hungry,” the man said with a smile.
Keeley nodded, and drifted off to sleep.
“You spoil him,” Larkin chided.
Faolan shrugged indifferently and sipped his tea.
“Why not have Keeley help with a few chores? The boy seems restless.”
The earl’s deep green eyes surveyed his friend and he cocked one eyebrow knowingly. “And this would have nothing to do with the fact that you would have more time with Rian if his workload was split with Keeley?”
Larkin pouted. “So what if it does? It’s still a good idea.”
But Faolan shook his head. “I have told both you and Keeley that my plans for him are specific. It’s not necessary for him to help with the regular work.”
“You’re making him soft,” Larkin warned, a sulk in his voice.
“Hardly. He’s been out on horseback nearly every day. Moreover, he’s gotten into the habit of reading extensively. It’s his mind I want sharp, not his skills at turning down a bed or sweeping a fireplace.”
Larkin continued to brood, but he said nothing further.
It had been two weeks since Faolan had returned from O'Reilly's estate and the time had passed in relative ease and peace—but Larkin could not shake the feeling that something was waiting and watching for its opportunity to disrupt them. He’d shared all his misgivings with his friend, but Faolan remained as cool and unmoved as ever. There was little they could do at the moment and worrying was useless, Faolan had reminded him. Still, Larkin was sensitive to the unfriendly energy circling the estate and could not relax.
“How are you and Keeley getting on?” Larkin asked, trying to distract himself from his unease.
“I’m taking my time with him,” the earl replied.
“Meaning he is still unsure of himself. He thinks he wants space to figure out his mind, but he’ll learn soon enough what he truly craves.”
“So you’re making him sweat it out, eh? Sadist,” Larkin replied with a grin.
Faolan smiled in return and gave a chuckle. “Or a masochist perhaps. The wait has not been particularly easy for myself either.”
“If I were you, I would have just taken him already and been done with it,” the blond said flippantly.
“Yes, I know. It’s lucky for you that Rian is as insatiable as you are.”
“That’s why we fit so well together,” Larkin said with a wicked gleam in his eye.
Keeley riffled through the shelves and debated which book to choose next. Though he knew his letters well enough, he had never been much of a reader—he’d never had the time. However, without duties to occupy his time, the young man had turned his attention to the myriad of books in the earl’s possession.
There were several small studies in addition to the main library in the earl’s home, and Keeley had gravitated to one room in particular. It was a cozy study situated on a corner of the building, so it commanded a wide view from its many windows. Of course, this also meant the room was little insulated and drafty, but Keeley simply inched himself closer to the fire.
Without realizing it, he'd had fallen into a daily routine. Every morning, despite the oncoming winter chill, he took a ride across the hilly country on the black steed that he was so fond of. He returned by lunch and afterwards retired to the study for hours of reading and occasional napping until dinner. Faolan usually joined him and when he did, Keeley accomplished far less reading.
Since they had returned, Faolan had made no overtures towards him beyond an absentminded touch here and there and a chaste kiss on his cheek each night. For a while Keeley wondered if he had done something to lose the man’s interest, but as they sat together in the study, he often felt the force of the earl’s eyes upon him. He knew Faolan still wanted him, yet the man had distanced himself. Keeley had the sense that the earl wanted to give him some time and space to consider his own feelings, but Keeley found himself yearning helplessly for the man’s touch. Even the slightest brush of Faolan’s fingertips now sent a shiver of longing and desire racing through him. Several times he had almost dropped his tea as the earl’s hand touched him in passing.
Each day Keeley vowed that he would end his torment and take the initiative with the other man, but each night he went to bed unfulfilled.
Today was no different. Keeley was building up his courage as he attempted to read a book on the history of Celtic folklore when Faolan entered. As soon as Keeley took in the sight of his master, and the fluid, elegant movement of his body as he sat near him, his resolution fled. Silently, he cursed himself. His head burrowed deeper into the pages.
A silence fell between them and Keeley found himself fidgeting. A few minutes went by, and just as the silence was becoming unbearable, Keeley was saved by Rian’s entrance with their tea.
“Thank you, Rian. You do anticipate all of my needs,” Faolan said as the servant set down the tray. The servant had become aware of their routine and arrived with tea each day without the earl ever having to request it.
Rian smiled, glanced between them and departed. Larkin had kept him updated on the couple’s progress and the servant wondered how long it would be until Faolan gave in, since Keeley did not appear to have the courage to made any advances himself. It was entertaining for Rian to watch the tide of their relationship as it ebbed and flowed each day.
When Rian had left them, Keeley took advantage of the interruption to ask, “Will there be another mission scheduled soon?”
Faolan cocked his head. “No, do you wish there to be? I would have thought you’d be enjoying a bit of rest after everything that happened with O’Reilly.”
The boy hesitated. “It’s not that I mind exactly, but… I feel as if I’m not earning my keep.”
The earl gave a soft laugh. “Life does not always have to be a constant strain. There will be more work in the future, for now it is best to simply recuperate and enjoy yourself.”
“I have not done much to help the Brotherhood either,” Keeley pointed out.
“You saved O’Reilly’s daughter, which means he is once again be acting as a proper landlord and not draining his tenants for useless doctor fees. He’s already met with his workers to discuss improving their living conditions. So, you may not have helped the Brotherhood directly, but you have aided many working Catholics on O’Rielly’s lands—and you have sent much needed funds to the McAllisters. I would say you have been doing quite well for yourself.”
Keeley conceded that the man had a point—yet he couldn’t help feeling restless. He was used to life on a farm, a life working the land every day, sun up to sun down. Such long hours of leisure time were odd to him and left him uneasy.
“I know you’re right,” Keeley said, “but I still feel useless sitting around merely reading all day.”
“Then think of yourself as a student,” Faolan said. “It will serve you well to read as much as possible about the occult so you will be better prepared in the future. Consider that part of your job as well.”
Keeley’s features softened, but he still was not entirely convinced. A student? The young man had often daydreamed about having the means to study, even go to university, but when faced with the opportunity to better himself through an education, he felt suddenly frivolous. Then again, he was helping his old community in his own small way. Yet, there was something satisfying to work with one’s own, even when it was something as small as weeding a garden.
He groaned inwardly, realizing he was driving himself to distraction by drifting between arguments. Keeley shook his head. He would get nowhere moping like this. If he was being given an opportunity, he had to grab it. He had chosen a new path for himself and he had to make the most of it.
Faolan watched the resolve firm in the young man’s eyes and smiled. Keeley seemed to be a master at adapting to his circumstances.
“What are you reading about now?” Faolan asked. The man moved closer to Keeley on the sofa, presumably to get a better look at the book in the boy’s hands.
“It’s on folklore,” Keeley answered, avoiding the earl’s intense green eyes.
“Ah! You’re reading about Lianhan Shee. She is a personal favorite of mine, though I don’t suppose I’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting her.”
“Why on earth would you want to meet her?” Keeley said with some distress. “I know some faeries can be helpful, but it says here that she makes men fall in love with her and then curses them to death.”
Faolan frowned. “Does it really? I didn’t think any works in my collection were so inaccurate.”
The redheaded man was now leaning in even closer in order to read the page for himself. Keeley could feel his breath across his neck. He closed his eyes and prayed for composure.
“See here, you’ve misinterpreted the text. The men fall in love with her willingly, because they cannot help themselves. She is the source of their passion and inspiration and it is their overwhelming desire that leads them to death.”
“That doesn’t sound very different to me,” Keeley replied dryly.
“You must understand. Lianhan Shee is desire incarnate.” Faolan explained with seductive flair. “She bestows untold inspiration on those who adore her, shaping them into legendary lovers and artists. It is her elusive nature that drives them on and the more she eludes them, the stronger their need for her grows. Slowly, they are drawn deeper and deeper into the realm of Tir-na-n-Og, until they are trapped in the underworld and are one with her forever.”
Keeley felt a chill run through him. “They still end up dead.”
The earl tilted his head. “So do we all. Lianhan Shee may take them when they are young, but she grants them immortality through their art.”
“I think I’d rather stay alive and safe in the mortal world.”
“But you are not a painter or a poet. To understand, you must imagine what you desire the most, what enflames you,” as he spoke, Faolan caught Keeley’s blue gaze and held it. “Think of what you want most in this world. What heats the blood in your veins?” The rich velvet tones of the earl’s voice lured the young man closer to his lips. “Ask how much you would give for it, to feel that passion every day to its zenith, then maybe you will understand.”
Faolan’s lips hovered above Keeley’s, but the man did not close the space between them, not yet. He let the promise of his kiss hover between them, filling Keeley with a sharp, aching need that was the sweetest torture he could ever remember.
“Do you want to feel my mouth over yours?”
“The warmth of my tongue slipping past your lips?”
As Keeley’s mouth remained poised and ready for the kiss, the earl reached a finger up to trace his parted lips.
“You feel it now, don’t you?” he asked in hushed tones. “The spell that desire casts over us all.”
“Please,” Keeley begged, unused to teasing games between lovers.
Faolan grinned at the flushed, eager face below him and wavered. He was just on the border of giving in when a soft, ringing chime echoed through the house: the dinner bell.
To Keeley’s amazement, he saw the other man pull away.
“Looks like dinner’s ready. Shall we?” As he spoke, the earl stood and made his way to the door. Keeley blinked up at him like someone awakened out of a dream.
“I- I’ll be down in a minute,” he said when he found his voice.
“Very well,” Faolan said, “And Keeley-”
“We’ll continue our lesson on desire sometime soon,” the earl informed him with a wink.
All the young man could do was nod. His head was still in a daze. He could not believe Faolan was leaving so abruptly.
As he sat in the fading light of the fire, Keeley thought about Lianhan Shee and the doomed love that the Faerie brought to her lovers. He was reminded of Mary’s fiancé. Whelan had been too bent on desire as well. The man had become too possessive, wanting the other so much that he was willing to send both Mary and himself into the arms of death if need be. Was all love so fraught with tragedy?
Keeley wondered if his own feelings for Faolan were very different. There was a danger that surrounded the earl, a threat that the raven-haired young man would lose himself completely if he gave in to his longing. He felt inexplicably drawn towards the earl and was increasingly comfortable with him, but perhaps he was like a moth blinded by the warmth of a flame: close to burning alive without even knowing it.
That night Keeley found it difficult to sleep. His body was feverish with unresolved yearning. Throughout dinner he had stayed quiet, his mind occupied with questions. When he excused himself to retire for the evening, he half-expected Faolan to follow him, but the man simply bade him a good evening and a good night’s rest. Keeley was disappointed, but he wasn’t brave enough to invite the earl to his bedroom.
After tossing and turning in a vain attempt to rest, Keeley gave up and decided to wander into one of the larger studies. Maybe he could get a small fire going and do some midnight reading to occupy his wayward mind.
The halls were dark and chilly, but Keeley didn’t mind. The cold air calmed the racing heat in his blood and cleared his head. As he made his way to the main wing of the house, Keeley saw a light flickering in one of the doorways. Someone else must have been restless as well. The warm rays of the already-strong fire were a welcome sight as he stepped closer, but the scene that greeted him was not what he expected. Immediately, he hid himself in the shadows of the hallway.
Inside the room, in a large chair framed by the firelight, sat Larkin and Rian—bodies tangled together in the midst of their lovemaking.
“Ah! Larkin! More…”
Keeley bit on his lip and tried to slow his breathing so he would not be heard. It was a miracle they had not seen him.
“You’re very eager tonight, my love.”
Rian replied with a gasp that sent Keeley’s heart pounding. The young man recalled the first time he had accidentally stumbled upon the lovers—the way Larkin had been so forceful with Rian, the way the blond had struck his bare buttocks over and over as the servant begged for more. Keeley had fled before things went much further, but now he seemed to have picked up where he left off.
The men’s moans and the rustle of their sensual movements filled Keeley’s ears as he stood listening outside the room. He reached down and pressed his hand to the sudden, hard bulge in his trousers. Keeley’s passions had been simmering unsatisfied all day long and hearing the sounds of sex only a short distance away was having a predictable affect on his body. He knew he should leave now, before he was discovered, but his feet were rooted in place and would not obey him.
“Harder… Please!” Rian whimpered.
“You like being filled to the hilt, don’t you?” Larkin whispered. “You can’t get enough.”
Keeley shut his eyes and tried to collect himself, but it did little good. His hand moved inside his breeches seemingly of its own volition. He needed release so badly.
“Say how much you want me,” Larkin’s silky voice commanded.
“I want you… all of you, all the time!” Rian exclaimed. “Filling me, fucking me—yes!”
The servant’s words made Keeley blush and he suddenly wondered just how sex was accomplished between two men. Actually, he barely knew what was involved in intercourse between a man and a woman. He knew couples usually stripped themselves naked and pressed their bodies together, but what was all this about “filling”? Surely he couldn’t mean…
As Keeley’s desire and curiosity continued to build, he grew bolder—or perhaps he simply ceased to care about repercussions. He couldn’t bear the tightness of his breeches and quickly unlaced them so he could take a firm hold on his straining erection. Then, slowly, he peered around the frame of the door.
He bit back a gasp and his blue eyes went wide.
Larkin sat lounging in the wide chair, his legs spread before him. Straddling his hips, with his head thrown back in rapture, was Rian. The servant was completely naked and his pale skin glowed in the firelight. The young man’s nakedness was accentuated by the fact that Larkin remained clothed but for his unlaced trousers.
Both men were moving with sensual purpose, in an erotic rhythm that Keeley felt stir him deep in his bones. His hand unconsciously kept pace with their bodies. In an attempt to remain quiet, he only allowed himself shallow breaths and soon became lightheaded.
He wouldn’t last long. Rian and Larkin had quickened their pace and Keeley could not take much more. He tilted his head to try and get a better view of their bodies. If Keeley was seriously considering becoming Faolan’s lover, this might be his only chance to discover the secrets of lovemaking before the actual event. What was it that defined ‘sex’? What had Faolan meant when he said he would ‘take him’?
Rian reached out and clutched his hands over Larkin’s shoulders as he bounced in his lap. Then, abruptly, the blond man scooted to the very edge of the chair and grabbed the brunette’s hips to hold him as he thrust upward.
In that one movement, everything was revealed. Keeley was given a clear view and saw plainly the intimate joining of the men’s bodies. He watched as Larkin’s hard length penetrated within Rian’s body and saw the servant quiver as his portal was stretched taut around the blond’s cock.
Keeley had not been prepared for this revelation. His mouth opened to cry out in surprise and alarm when suddenly a firm hand clamped over his mouth. An arm darted around his body as he tried to break from the hold.
“Hushhhhhh,” came a familiar voice, “you wouldn’t want them to see you like this, would you?”
At first Keeley thought his captor was referring to the fact that he had been spying, but he realized with shock that his trousers had fallen to his knees and he was standing there exposed. Immediately, he tried to grab his pants and cover himself, but he was pressed too tightly against the body behind him and he could not bend down.
Keeley whimpered behind the man’s hand and glanced back at Faolan entreatingly. All hope that the earl would let him escape and recover his dignity was lost when he saw a satisfied, wicked grin spread across the redhead’s face.
“I knew we would continue our lesson, but I didn’t expect it to be quite so soon. I’m delighted,” he purred.
More disturbed than ever, Keeley shook his head in protest and tried to break away, but Faolan held him firm.
Rian and Larkin continued their pursuits, seemingly oblivious to the struggle outside their door.
“Why fight what we both know you want?” Faolan asked, his voice reverberating in the young man’s ear. “Here, let me assist you.”
Keeley watched helplessly as the earl reached down and took hold of his swollen shaft. A jolt ran through Keeley’s body at the other man’s touch and he grabbed Faolan’s wrist, trying to cease his movements. Oh God, he wasn’t really going to do this, was he?
But the earl had no intention of releasing him. He was enjoying the young man’s squirming as he began to stroke his rigid erection.
“Why close your eyes? You seemed to enjoy watching just a moment ago, isn’t that so?” Faolan asked in a low whisper.
Keeley couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so mortified. He tugged at Faolan’s hands, but the man’s grip was relentless. There was nothing Keeley could do but try and fight the rising tide of ecstasy swelling inside him. He twisted and writhed as he struggled against the wishes of his body. Though he desperately wanted to yield, his pride (what was left of it) and deep sense of humiliation would not let him.
Rian and Larkin’s voices had become louder and more insistent as they edged toward their climax. Keeley tried to shut them out, but their lusty voices sank into his consciousness and triggered an aching, needy response in his loins.
“That’s it,” Faolan urged when he felt Keeley tremble with need. The young man’s control was slipping.
The earl’s fingers worked him over with exquisite skill. One moment he was caressing the tender flesh of Keeley’s shaft, the next moving up the silky contours to swipe a fingertip over the throbbing head. Despite Keeley’s best efforts, his cock was already weeping and Faolan smoothed the slick precum down along his skin. If the man’s hand had not been covering his mouth, they would most certainly be discovered, for Keeley could no longer hold back his groans of pleasure.
His breathing became ragged and his body flushed with heat as Faolan began to pump him in earnest. Suddenly, Rian’s voice cried out in rapture and instinctively Keeley opened his eyes. Larkin and Rian were locked together and the brunette’s body went rigid as his orgasm overtook him. Larkin followed, a strangled, heady growl announcing his release before he collapsed back in the chair, his lover atop him.
The erotic sight sent Keeley reeling and when Faolan’s mouth bent down to suck at the sensitive column of his neck, his senses overloaded. His back arched and his knees nearly buckled beneath him as the earl forced him to climax, milking the young man’s cock for all it was worth. For a second, Keeley’s vision went white, his rapture and his shame colliding in an orgasm so intense he thought he might pass out.
When he came back to his senses, Keeley found he was trembling. Looking down, he saw his trousers soiled with his own semen and shut his eyes again. He was too humiliated for words.
Behind him, Faolan held him gently and soothed his shaking limbs with his strong hands. His lips kissed and nipped along the line of his chin and nuzzled against one ear. Turning in his arms, Keeley looked up at him with large, doe eyes, the deep blue orbs troubled. Then he promptly buried his face in the man’s chest. Faolan leaned down and helped him tie his breeches.
“I didn’t know,” came Keeley’s muffled voice. Faolan cupped his chin and forced him to look up. “I didn’t know,” he repeated softly. “Is that really what you want to do to me… what Larkin did to Rian?”
“Yes,” Faolan replied without hesitation. It was useless to hedge the issue.
Keeley visibly trembled.
“I promise,” Faolan said with a seductive grin, “you’ll enjoy it.”
The young man in his arms didn’t reply. He did not appear convinced.
“In any case, you needn’t worry about anything tonight,” the earl said reassuringly. “Go back to bed, get some sleep. Today’s lesson is over,” he added with a lopsided smile.
Keeley nodded, but he doubted he would get any sleep that night.
Faolan gave the raven-haired young man a sweet, lingering kiss and sent him on his way.
The sound of muffled giggling filled the air as soon as Keeley was out of sight.
“You two seemed to enjoy yourselves,” Faolan said, turning and walking into the room. “You always do relish an audience.”
“How true,” Larkin replied, grinning. Rian was still naked and curled happily in the man’s lap.
“I hope we didn’t scare him,” Rian chuckled, unaffected by the fact he was nude in front of his employer.
“He’s really such an innocent, Faolan. Those adorable blue eyes. He looked quite appalled when I gave him a good eyeful of what we were doing,” said Larkin.
Rian pouted. “Adorable? Since when do you like the virginal type?”
“Don’t be jealous, my love. You know I need someone just as deviant as myself or it wouldn’t be any fun.”
Mollified, Rian snuggled close once more.
“And what about you?” Larkin asked, tilting his head toward Faolan. “You didn’t get release. Shall Rian and I go another round for your benefit?”
His friend gave him a smirk. “How gallant of you, but no. I think I will leave you two to yourselves.”
“Very well. Sweet dreams,” Larkin replied.
When Faolan had departed, Rian looked thoughtful. “It’s difficult for them, isn’t it?”
Larkin stroked his lover’s slender back and looked down at him with a warm smile. “I suppose it is.”
Rian slipped his arms about Larkin’s waist and squeezed. “I’m glad I have you,” he whispered.
Faolan tossed and turned. Though he usually slept well, his nights had been disturbed for some time now. His restlessness did not bode well. The earl was certain that it was an ill omen. But unlike usual, he could not pin down the reasons underlying his agitation.
As he struggled for sleep, his door slowly creaked open.
“Who’s there?” he asked sharply.
Two cool blues eyes studied him from the doorway. “It’s me.”
“Keeley?” Faolan asked groggily. The boy’s voice sounded strange.
The young man stepped inside the room and shut the door behind him. Without another word, he proceeded to slip out of his thin white nightgown and stood before Faolan completely naked. His pale skin shone a golden, bronze color in the firelight.
“Keeley, what are you-?”
“It’s no good, you know,” the young man said, in a voice that was not his own.
Faolan’s emerald eyes surveyed him with alarm as he stepped up to the bed. Keeley’s eyes were glowing with an unnatural, fiery light.
“Keeley’s body will be mine… soon,” the cold voice said, running his palm down the length of Keeley’s torso suggestively.
“What are you?” Faolan hissed.
He watched as the young man jumped onto the bed and straddled him. Faolan made to push him off, but found the body above him as cold and unmovable as steel.
“I told you, there is nothing you can do,” the figure said, leaning over the earl. He bent low and sank his teeth into the man’s shoulder. “You love him, don’t you?” the evil voice whispered with a snicker.
Through clenched teeth, Faolan called out in a commanding tone, “Keeley, come back!”
Abruptly, the young man pulled back and the earl was looking again at the Keeley’s sky blue eyes, but they were filled with distress.
“Faolan—help me! Help me!” the boy cried.
And then Keeley was falling, falling into darkness and Faolan could not reach him.
The earl sat up in bed with a start.
The dreams were growing worse, and still he could not interpret them. It had never been like this before. Faolan had always been able to evaluate the messages of his intuition with a clear, detached mind, but when it came to Keeley his judgment was compromised. He didn’t know what was truth and what was simply anxiety created from his own concerns over the boy.
Although it galled him, Faolan would have to wait, biding his time before he could discern where the real danger was coming from. Shoving off his blankets, he decided to get an early start on the day. The first cold grey light of morning was opening over the fields outside his window and he would get no more sleep in any case.
In his own room, Keeley was waking reluctantly as well. The nights had not been kind to him. Winter’s cold grip was settling over the land and the evenings were becoming increasingly chill. More than ever the young man longed to be snuggled close to Faolan’s side when he dozed off to sleep. Yet his shock over discovering the secrets of sex had caused him to keep his distance from the earl over the past few weeks. He was jumpy and easily startled whenever Faolan was near him. He couldn’t get the images of Larkin and Rian together out his mind and his anxiety grew. Could he really allow Faolan to do such a thing to him? He could hardly believe that he’d enjoy it, although Rian had seemed to like it well enough. Keeley couldn’t seem to make up his mind.
Rather than displaying irritation at his indecisive behavior, Faolan seemed amused, though in truth the man’s patience was wearing. He didn’t want to rush Keeley and he enjoyed the way the young man flushed a brilliant scarlet red whenever he teased him, but he had his limits. If it hadn’t been for the unpleasant guest arriving any day, the red-haired man might have broken down and seduced Keeley, but preparations needed to be made and his mind was distracted for the time being. Moreover, a growing unease regarding Keeley’s safety was building within him with each passing day. Since Faolan’s insight was blinded by his feelings for Keeley, he knew he had to be particularly cautious.
The earl tried to hide his restlessness from the young man, but the night before their guest arrived, Keeley overheard a heated conversation between Faolan and Larkin that unsettled him.
Keeley had been moving some of his things to his temporary room in the servant’s wing when he passed the large study. He caught the sound of raised voices and stopped just outside the door. He was making a bad habit of eavesdropping, the young man reflected ruefully as he stood in the shadows near the door.
“Why should Bishop Rudwig want to come here? I still don’t understand,” came Larkin’s voice from inside the room.
“I am one of the wealthiest landowners in the area. It’s not that strange he’d request to stay here on his way through Ireland,” Faolan answered.
“It wouldn’t be strange, except that you know rumors have circulated that you’re a sympathizer for the Catholics—and they’ve only increased since you took in Keeley. Rudwig wants to spy on your activities, and you’re going to let him walk right through your front door!”
There was a pause and Keeley knew Faolan was angered. “You have already voiced your opinion on this issue, have you not? How would it have looked if I refused and he had to come here on ‘official’ business to evaluate my loyalties to the Church? Would that have been better?”
Larkin did not reply.
“In any case,” Faolan said, his voice more collected, “he’ll be arriving soon and there is little we could do now to change plans now. I suggest we do our best to be hospitable.”
“Faolan,” Larkin said after a moment, his voice low, “You know something is watching us. It’s drawing calamity to us, especially to Keeley. Are you planning to do nothing about it?”
“I am doing all I can. If you wish for someone like Her Ladyship to get involved, I suggest you ask her yourself. I will request nothing more from her.”
Keeley heard the earl’s footsteps making for the door and quickly made his exit. For a long time afterwards he sat in his room, pondering what he had just overheard.
His head spun with questions. A Bishop was coming to visit?
When Faolan had first told him about this guest, Keeley had assumed the man was someone the earl was close with, even if he was dangerous. After all, the man seemed to know many questionable characters, if his relations with Far Dorocha, the Dark Man, were anything to go by. Faolan had been able to handle that situation and Keeley assumed he would be confident in his dealings with this guest as well, even if the Bishop was as dangerous as he warned. It had not occurred to Keeley that Faolan might actually be in a very precarious position.
It seemed extreme that the Protestant church would send someone to investigate the earl when the man was so popular and charismatic within his community. Keeley had always thought Faolan could charm his way out of anything. Then again, if what Larkin said was true, Keeley was more to blame for Faolan’s predicament than anyone else. Somehow word must have gotten out that Faolan had taken a member of the Brotherhood into his household and it had enflamed the rumors of the earl’s disloyalty. Of course, Keeley’s association with the secret organization of Catholic activists wasn’t terribly strong; he hadn’t been with them long and he didn’t speak to them often now. Yet it would be enough if someone was looking for a reason to question the earl’s loyalty to the Church.
Keeley felt sick. After all his complaints about the nature of Faolan’s guest and the man’s reasons for shutting him up in the servants’ quarters, Keeley was actually the one to blame for the unfortunate circumstances. Faolan had only been working to protect them both, just as he had said.
But that still did not answer all of Keeley’s questions. What was watching them? And who was ‘Her Ladyship’? The young man knew he should let things be, that he should trust Faolan and stop meddling in his affairs, but now that he knew this much, he knew he would not be satisfied until he found out all the answers.
With his questions burning in his mind, Keeley made his way back to the study. To his relief, he found Larkin alone and stepped inside. Keeley wasn’t sure he wanted to demand answers directly from Faolan. Perhaps he would have better luck asking his friend for information.
“Good evening, Keeley.”
“Good evening,” the young man replied softly. Now that he was here, Keeley had no idea how to begin. He couldn’t very well admit he had been listening at the door.
“Shall I call Rian for some tea?” the blond man asked, reaching for the bell.
“No. I mean… I was hoping we could talk alone.”
Larkin cocked an eyebrow. “Indeed?” the man replied, setting down the book in his hands. “And just what did you need to talk about?”
There was no smooth way to transition into the topic; Larkin would see through any such attempts. Therefore, Keeley made no pretenses, and spoke plainly. “Is Faolan in some kind of trouble? With this guest, I mean?”
Larkin smiled. “Faolan can take care of himself, you’ve no need to worry.”
Keeley hung his head. “But it’s my fault somehow, isn’t it?”
Ah, so the boy had heard them after all, Larkin thought. His powers of perception had been weakened lately. With the constant sense of watchfulness hovering about them, Larkin’s ability to read the energies around him had been muddled and confused. Although the man had thought he caught Keeley’s presence outside the door, he had not been certain until now.
“No, Keeley, it’s not your fault. Everyone makes their own choices, for good or ill. Faolan knows what he’s doing.”
The young man was quiet for a time, then said slowly, “But he never tells me anything. Doesn’t he trust me?”
Larkin’s conscious tugged at him as he watched the sorrowful lines of Keeley’s face, the pleading light in his eyes.
“It’s not that simple.”
“But if you’d only explain things to me—”
“That’s not my place, Keeley.”
Frustrated, the boy’s temper began to kick in. His expression changed and his blue orbs turned icy. “You and Faolan enjoy keeping your secrets, don’t you?”
Larkin man was startled by the boy’s swift change in demeanor. He’d seen Keeley angry many times, but he had never borne the brunt of it himself.
“Calm down,” Larkin warned him.
In his anger, Keeley lost his caution—and his patience. “What is Faolan hiding from me? And who’s ‘Her Ladyship’? Damn it, I’m tired of being shut out!”
Larkin’s eyes narrowed on him, but he remained seated impassively in his chair as Keeley stood and glared at him.
“Shouldn’t you be asking your lover these things?” the blond asked coolly.
“He’s not my lover!”
Shrugging, Larkin replied, “Faolan reveals what he wants to reveal. I don’t have your answers.” He rose. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Keeley watched the man leave and was left feeling like a fool. He stood in the middle of the room, fists clenched at his sides as he fought his angry tears.
The closer he became to Faolan, the more he began to realize how little he actually knew about the man. Keeley recalled the earl telling him that there would be certain things he would have to keep hidden from him. At the time, he had been able to accept it, but now Keeley began to wonder how he could long so badly for someone he barely knew.
The next morning dawned grey and cold. The Bishop was expected to arrive that afternoon. Keeley sat on his small cot, feeling miserable. He berated himself for getting so used to the comfort and luxury of his old room. Had he grown so soft that facing one week in a regular servant’s room would seem so impossibly bleak?
His dreary thoughts were pushed from his head at the sound of horses coming up toward the estate. Rushing to the window, the young man saw an unbelievably lavish carriage lead by four midnight-black steeds, pull up through the front gate.
So the Bishop was early. Faolan would be annoyed, Keeley thought. He couldn’t help grinning at the thought. Everything always seemed to go just as the earl planned, it was amusing to know that not everything and everyone was at the man’s beck and call.
When he saw the Bishop emerge from his ornate coach, however, Keeley’s smile faded. Even at a distance he could tell the man was every bit as dangerous as Faolan had warned.
As the Bishop stepped down from the carriage, the man’s shoulder-length dark hair blew slightly in the breeze and his shapely mouth grinned at Faolan as the earl bowed in greeting. Keeley would have considered the man handsome, had it not been for Rudwig’s cold grey eyes and the arrogance that hung over him like a cloak. He moved with an oiled, unsettling kind of grace. The man resembled a snake that had only recently clothed itself in human form and still moved as if in its former, slick body. Keeley felt the figure standing before Faolan quite capable of unhinging his jaw and eating the other man alive.
All in all, Rudwig hardly looked like a man of the cloth.
The Bishop held out his hand and Faolan kissed his jeweled fingers with obvious displeasure. Keeley could see the gems glittering in the morning light. For a holy man, Rudwig certainly had no qualms about living a decadent lifestyle.
The earl led Rudwig into the house and Keeley lost sight of them.
“Ah, I see you have Benedict’s Practica Rerum Criminalium,/i>,” Rudwig said with a smile as he glanced at the shelves in Faolan’s parlor.
“Yes,” was all Faolan replied. He refrained from mentioning that he only owned the book as a curiosity on misguided ethics and paranoia. The Practica was a Protestant guide on the detection of witchcraft, possession, and sorcery. Its contents were used to justify many of the more recent witch-hunts that had taken place in mainland Europe. “A great work. I’ve spoken with judge Carpzow on several occasions. A brilliant man, but misunderstood by many.”
Faolan did not reply. Judge Benedict Carpzow was the man responsible for the uprising of witch burnings in Poland. Although the witch-hunting frenzy had died out years before in almost every other European country, Benedict had revived the practice with relish and no small number of innocent men and women had died on his account. Rudwig was even more dangerous than Faolan had anticipated. Anyone who held Benedict in esteem had to be slightly cracked himself.
Though the Bishop tried Faolan’s patience and forced him to constantly be on alert, the week went along without mishap. Until, that is, the second to last day of Rudwig’s visit. Faolan received word that two of his tenets had gotten into a heated dispute and had come to blows. The issue had escalated over the past several days until both men’s families were pulled in and there was serious threat of bloodshed. Being the overseer, the earl was called in to quell the dispute before matters spiraled further out of hand.
Faolan gave a heavy sigh when he received the report. With the Bishop so close to departure, he hated to leave and take the chance that something might happen, but he had little choice. The feuding men would most likely refuse anyone’s verdict on the matter except for the earl himself, and Faolan couldn’t take the chance that the dispute would elevate into a more severe conflict while the Bishop was around to hear word of it. If Faolan couldn’t control his own tenants, it would reflect poorly on him and might give the abominable man an opening to accuse him of mismanaging his lands.
Therefore, with great reluctance, the earl prepared to depart. If he left early, he could be back by late afternoon. Surely nothing could happen in so short a time? But Faolan was uneasy. He knew better than to assume that time alone would save him. If fate was against him, disaster might strike quickly and he would be unable to intercede. He left after speaking with Larkin and imparting upon his friend the responsibility of the household.
“Don’t worry,” his friend reassured him, “I won’t let Rudwig out of my sight.”
Faolan nodded; there was nothing more he could do. He gave the Bishop his regrets and left.
Unfortunately, the squabble between the two men took hours to iron out. Faolan’s anxiety grew with each passing hour and his impatience with the feud heightened until he finally had to threaten to throw both of them off their land unless they signed an agreement.
On the way home, Faolan ordered the coachman to double his pace and hasten back to the estate.
As they pulled up to the gate, Faolan knew immediately that something was wrong. The tall door to the entrance of the house was gaping wide open. Not waiting for the carriage to come to a stop, he jumped out and ran up the steps and inside. The rug in the reception hall was buckled, as if someone had dragged something heavy across it or there had been a struggle.
The house answered him with only silence. Filled with a panic he had never known, Faolan ran up the steps and searched the rooms frantically for Keeley, heedless of the fact that he might also stumble upon his guest in the process. But there was no sign of Keeley or the Bishop.
He made his way back to the front door to search the grounds, but stopped as he heard the sound of footsteps coming up the steps. In the next moment Larkin appeared in the doorway, carrying Rian on his back.
“What happened?” Faolan asked, full of concern. One of Rian shoes had been pulled off and his exposed ankle looked purple and swollen.
“Just a little mishap,” Larkin replied.
“I’ll have someone fetch a doctor immediately,” the earl replied, ringing the bell to the servant’s quarters. “Where is Keeley? Is he with you?”
The men looked at each other and shook their heads. “He’s not here?” Larkin asked.
“Neither he nor the Cardinal are inside the house. I was just going to search the grounds.”
Larkin shook his head. “You won’t find them there, we just came over the fields ourselves, we would have seen them.”
Now Faolan’s panic turned to anger. “And what we you two doing out there? Joy riding? I gave you strict orders never to leave Keeley alone with that man!”
Larkin gave him a sharp look. “I cannot be everywhere at once!” he snapped. “The Bishop wanted to take a stroll around the grounds, so we escorted him. We had not gone long when he said he had forgotten something and needed to turn back. We were going to follow but Rian had the bad luck to stumble over a hidden bramble on the side of the path. He nearly tumbled down the ravine, but I caught him. His foot, however, was caught and twisted. It took us some time to free his ankle without damaging it further and the Bishop did not wait for us.”
The explanation eased Faolan’s wrath, but his worry increased.
The earl’s brooding silence only irritated Larkin. “Would you have preferred if I left Rian there in the ditch?” he demanded.
Faolan passed a hand over his eyes. “I’m sorry, Larkin. No, I suppose there was nothing you could have done. I’m afraid whatever power has been working against us lately has just scored a victory in its favor, though.”
Larkin looked at Faolan and the uncharacteristically tense aura about his friend’s body unsettled him. A sinking feeling hit his stomach. Something terrible was about to happen.
Keeley was sitting in the kitchens when the summons came. The young man had spent most of the week there, helping out where he could and enjoying a few stray delicacies slipped to him by the cooks. The women who worked in the kitchens knew that Keeley’s relationship with the earl was unusual, but they did not begrudge him the special treatment Faolan showed him. After all, their master treated them well and it would have been difficult to hold anything against the young man, with his handsome features and vibrant temperament. Moreover, most of the staff had heard about the tragic way Keeley had been orphaned and their hearts went out to him. There was something about the blue-eyed, raven-haired young man that made one want to protect him from any further misfortune.
As Keeley began kneading a new batch of dough for the lunch rolls, the bell for the upper-floor study rang. He paid it no heed. Rian would see that tea was brought up, as usual—or so Keeley assumed.
However, time passed and the severant did not appear. Where was Rian? Keeley wondered. It wasn’t like him to let a guest wait; Rian was usually quite prompt with fetching the afternoon tea.
When the bell rang once again, one of the older servants, Mr. Cohan, came rushing into the kitchens.
“What are you doing sitting around?” the man huffed, eying Keeley. “Don’t you hear the bell?”
“But, I thought Rian always—” he stumbled.
“Well, Rian is out at the moment and Sir Rudwig is waiting!”
Keeley was irritated with Cohan’s commanding tone. “Why can’t you do it?” he asked to the older servant.
The man looked back at him with a sharp glance. Cohan had nothing against Keeley and had as much empathy for the boy’s past misfortunes as anyone, but the morning had brought one trouble after another and the man was worn and stressed.
“Do I look like I’m appropriately attired to serve his Lordship?” Cohan retorted. “I’ve just come from killing the chickens for supper and there’s more to do besides.”
Keeley bit his lip and regretted snapping at the other man.
“Keeley, see here,” the man said in a gentler voice, “I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t myself, if I had a free moment. I know you’re situation with the earl is--special, but we’re in a bind. You’re the only free hand left. Surely you can take care of this?”
If the man had yelled and riled at him, Keeley might have been able to refuse, but Cohan’s genuine request made Keeley horribly conflicted. He worried that Cohan would think he was making excuses if he said that he wasn’t allowed to go into the main wing of the house.
The bell rang again and Keeley bit his lip.
Wouldn’t it be bad for Faolan if the Bishop complained that he’d been neglected during his stay? And surely it wouldn’t cause any problems if he simply dropped the tea off and left? After all, the Bishop wouldn’t even know who he was.
Keeley was tired of feeling useless the entire week. Running this errand was a small thing, but he would be helping out in his own way and the other servants would appreciate it. He hated looking like a spoiled child that was constantly pampered by the earl and never earned his keep. Therefore, he took a deep breath and accepted the task.
“That’s a good lad,” Cohan said, with a pat on the back.
The bell rang again, impatiently, and Keeley scurried to assemble the tray, then made his way as quickly as he could to the study.
“About time,” Rudwig said, in a quiet tone of annoyance.
“Sorry, your Grace.”
The teacups rattled in the dishes as Keeley set the tray down on the low table. Rudwig’s eyes were focused on him with predatory intensity. Rudwig read the boy’s nerves easily enough—and it pleased him.
Ignoring the disconcerting gaze, Keeley bowed and turned to flee the room as quickly as possible when he felt a cold hand grip his wrist.
“Stay a bit,” the Bishop said.
“You require something else, your Grace?”
“Just a few moments of your time. That is all I ask.”
Keeley couldn’t think of a reasonable way to refuse him. He nodded.
For a moment, Rudwig said nothing, but simply sat back and assessed him. Keeley shifted uneasily. He felt horribly on display and hopeless to do anything about it.
Finally, the Bishop asked, “You’re the earl’s little Catholic boy, aren’t you?” Rudwig grinned at the startled look on the young man’s face and went on without waiting for an answer. “I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Struggling to force down his shock and dismay, Keeley tried to keep his voice level as he replied, “Your Grace, I think it would be best to wait for Fa—the earl to return before we discuss anything.”
“Why?” the man asked smoothly, dark gaze pinning him. “Are you trying to hide something? Is he?”
“N-no!” Keeley answered too quickly. “I mean…” he stopped, swallowing hard. What a mess he was making of things. He was going to be in hot water when Faolan discovered he had broken his promise, at the very least he wanted to refrain from saying anything he shouldn’t.
“I just—” he stopped. The Bishop had taken a hold of his hand and Keeley shuttered at the unpleasant touch.
“You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your master, would you?”
“No,” the young man replied, looking distressed.
“Then you’ll do as I say, is that clear?”
As he watched the emotions shift across Keeley’s face, Rudwig had to do his best to hide his increasing glee. This boy was going to fit his purposes perfectly.
All week he had been biding his time and waiting for just the right opportunity. All Rudwig needed was one servant from inside the earl’s home to confess that the man was plotting against the Church and he could finally bring forth formal charges against him. At first, the Bishop had thought Faolan’s other young servant, Rian, would do nicely, but the young man had proved surprisingly resourceful.
The first time he had been alone with Rian, things had looked promising, but they had quickly soured.
“So, you are the earl’s valet?” Rudwig had asked the young servant earlier.
“Yes, your Grace.”
“You’re quite young. Have you been in his service long?” the Bishop had asked, though he already knew the answer. He’d done his research.
“A couple of years, your Grace.”
“He acquired you from a brothel, isn’t that right, Rian?”
The young servant’s reaction had not been what he had expected or hoped for. Rudwig had been anticipating a look of shock and horror over the brunette’s lovely features, but the boy remained unmoved. In fact, he smiled.
“Why, yes,” he replied. “Perhaps you’d care to know the location. I’ve heard you enjoy such entertainments yourself.”
The Bishop had dismissed him then. There was no need for further discussion, he would not get what he wanted from the valet. So the earl’s household was not without its own sources of information, he mused. Touché.
However, Rudwig now had his second chance and he was not about to let it slip away. Unlike Rian, this boy did not appear to have any knowledge to use against him. More importantly, however, Keeley seemed to lack the surety and confidence the other servant possessed. Surely he could bend this one to his will—or break him, which would be far more amusing.
“Come with me, boy,” the Bishop commanded, taking a firm hold on the young man’s arm. “Unless you want to see your master fall into shame and ruin.”
Keeley’s heart pounded as he was pulled along the hallways and down the stairs toward the front door. His thoughts were spinning as he tried desperately to find a way out the situation. Of course he didn’t want to cause Faolan any more trouble than he had, but how much was he willing to sacrifice on his behalf? Moreover, Rudwig did not seem the type of man who would keep his word. Keeley hesitated and yanked against at the Bishop’s grip.
“If you know what’s best for you and your master, you’ll follow me,” he said darkly.
It was no good. Keeley’s instincts were screaming and he refused to take another step. The young man felt with a certainty deep in his bones that if he followed the Bishop now, he might never come back.
“Let me go,” Keeley said suddenly in a firm, steady voice. Now that his mind was made up, his will was resolute.
Rudwig looked at him with a scowl and then, more disturbingly, a smirk. The boy had a backbone after all it seemed. He’d enjoy beating that stubbornness out of him.
“I gave you the choice to come willingly. You’re only going to make things harder for yourself, you know.”
Keeley was not daunted. “I said let me GO!” he shouted the last word and gave the Bishop a hard, swift kick.
Unfortunately, this was not enough to break the man’s steely grip.
“You’ll pay for that!” Rudwig hissed, all attempt at civility abandoned.
Keeley swung his arm back to strike out at his captor, but the Bishop was quicker. He caught his fist and twisted the boy’s arm behind his back.
Gasping in pain, Keeley felt the man’s other hand smother his mouth and Rudwig’s unpleasant breath caressed his cheek. “You’ve got some fire in you, boy. In this case, though, I’m afraid it won’t help you much.”
To his alarm, Keeley found the man’s words to be true. No matter how much he fought, the young man was no match for the Bishop and soon found himself overpowered. Keeley was dragged unceremoniously down the front hall and when he continued to squirm, he heard Rudwig curse.
“You’ve brought this on yourself,” came the man’s sinister whisper.
A sharp pain exploded against the side of Keeley’s forehead and everything went black.
Keeley blinked his eyes open and groaned. His head pounded with a throbbing, painful ache and his body was leaning back against cold, unforgiving stone. The young man’s vision was momentarily blurred and he couldn’t see where he was. His groggy brain tried to recall what had happened. The last thing he remembered was struggling with the Bishop and then everything had gone black. He reached a hand up to examine his aching skull, but discovered his action was inhibited by a chain binding his wrist. The realization forced him fully awake and looking around, he saw to his alarm that he was shackled to the wall of what appeared to be a prison cell. His arms were hanging above him on chains that hung down from hooks embedded higher up on the wall behind him.
“Ah, you’ve finally come around,” came a familiar voice from the shadows.
Keeley saw the hateful Bishop Rudwig reveal himself and his blood boiled at the sight of him. “You bastard.”
“Such language,” the man replied with a snicker. “Considering the position you’re in, it’s not very diplomatic to be so rude.”
“What is it you want?” Keeley demanded, his eyes narrowed in contempt.
“Your master has told you nothing, I see.”
Keeley continued to stare daggers at him and did not reply.
“I came to visit your master to gather information on him, or rather to confirm the information I already had that he was a sympathizer for the Catholic cause and a traitor to the Church. I’m sure he knew as much and he’s been on his best behavior all this week. However-” the Bishop paused and kneeled down before his captive. “All I need to bring him down is someone to testify against him… and you are going to do it.”
Keeley actually laughed. “Like hell I will.”
In response, the Bishop smiled. “You think you’re brave, don’t you? You won’t feel that way in a few minutes when you’re begging me for mercy.”
The young man’s blue eyes grew hard and serious at these words. “You’ll never get that kind of satisfaction from me. Never.”
“Won’t I?” Rudwig replied, running a finger down Keeley’s cheek. He jerked his head away defiantly.
The Bishop smirked, but said nothing and stood.
“I’m originally from Poland. Did you know that?” he asked, waving a couple of his men into the cell. “We have been besieged by the devil there for years. People there questioned my tactics, but I knew there were still witches to be burned and I saw to it. This little country of yours hasn’t seen many burnings. Maybe that’s why I feel the presence of the devil so strongly here.”
“If there is any devil here, it’s you!” Keeley spat.
“You heathens need taming!” Rudwig retorted, his anger flaring. “You call yourselves Christians, but you still keep up your pagan rituals! This country needs shaking up and I’ve come here to instill the fear of God in you!”
The Bishop leaned over him and brought his face close to Keeley’s own. The man’s dark eyes looked him over with an intensity that was most disconcerting. Despite Rudwig’s dark, striking looks, Keeley was repulsed by his nearness. He fought the urge to turn away. He would not cower before him.
“I can feel the hatred in your stare, boy. You’d be wise to save your defiance for another time. It won’t do you much good here.”
Rudwig righted himself. “Now, are you going to tell me what I want to hear, or do I need to beat it out of you? I assure you I have no qualms about using whatever means necessary to break you. And I’ll quite enjoy it.”
“You’re sick,” Keeley threw back at him. “Do your worst. I’ll never betray Faolan.”
“Hmph. Such devotion to your master,” Rudwig sneered.
As he held out his hand, one of the servants from behind him stepped forward and set a long, painful-looking whip in the man’s hands. “You’re really only hurting yourself, you know,” the Bishop warned him. “I plan to break you one way or another. Faolan is a blight on the church’s reputation and I will take him down—with the information you provide me.”
At Rudwig’s command, his two servants walked over and yanked the boy to his feet. Keeley struggled against them, more to show his defiance than anything else. He knew he could not escape. While one of the men pushed him into the wall to hold him still, the other grabbed his shirt and ripped it up the back to reveal the pale, soft skin of Keeley’s back.
To his disgust, he felt the Bishop’s fingers graze his back.
“Lovely,” the man murmured. “It’s a shame to mar such flawless white skin. Are you sure you won’t reconsider?”
“Go to hell!”
“Defiant to the last, I see.”
Keeley heard the Bishop shift behind him and knew he was readying the whip. Gritting his teeth, the young man gathered his courage and prepared for the first strike.
The whip hissed in the air and came down across Keeley’s back with a loud crack. His eyes went wide in shock. His head fell back, but he did not cry out. His scream was caught in his throat and strangled by his surprise. Keeley had never been whipped before and he had not imagined such pain was possible.
What he did not know was that the Bishop’s whip was a design of the man’s own cruel invention. The leather used for the tail of the whip had been studded with fine, needle-like barbs that tore and ripped the skin.
Knowing nothing of this, Keeley felt himself flooded with shame as he cried out when the whip licked his back a second time. He had not even lasted through the second stroke. His eyes filled with angry tears and by the fourth strike he was shaking uncontrollably.
The Bishop’s smooth steps came up behind him and the man’s face suddenly appeared at Keely’s side. Rudwig leered at him with a gratified smile.
“Ready to confess your master’s betrayal?”
In too much agony to speak, Keeley leveled his eyes at the man and gave him such a look of loathing and detest that his answer was made clear without being vocalized.
The Bishop’s ensuing laughter sent a chill down Keeley’s spine. “No need to hurry, we can keep this up for hours.” His voice lowered to a sinister whisper, “No one will ever find you here.”
The earl reined in his horse and paused.
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Larkin asked, pulling up to his side. They had been riding for hours, chasing down the trail of the Bishop’s coach, but a fine rain had begun to pour, erasing the tracks and leaving them at a loss.
Faolan clutched the side of his head as if he were in pain. Keeley, I hear you! I’m coming! “This way!” he said suddenly. The earl’s horse sprung forward and Larkin followed his lead.
As the next strike of the whip fell across Keeley’s bloody back, he almost thought he heard Faolan’s voice, from far away, calling to him. It gave him hope. The man had never failed to save him before. Surely he wouldn’t fail now.
Rudwig’s arm was growing tired from the whipping. The boy’s stubbornness surprised him, but it would make breaking him that much more satisfying. Moreover, Keeley’s gasps and choked whimpers of pain were starting to inflame the Bishop’s lusts. The man found himself growing hard as he watched Keeley’s body tremble in anguish, and a fierce urge to make the boy submit in every way filled him.
“Turn him around,” Rudwig suddenly commanded. He stepped in front of Keeley and took the young man’s chin in his hands, lifting his head. Keeley looked dazed with pain, but the rebellious light had not faded from his eyes. He looked particularly enticing, as he stood there, trembling, helpless and yet defiant.
“You tempt me, boy. I sense the devil in you.”
Keeley spat at him.
The Bishop wiped his robes and his eyes smoldered. “You long for punishment. You want me to lose control. I’ll show you the price for setting your lustful thoughts inside my flesh!” The man began to disrobe and Keeley’s blue eyes filled with sudden horror.
“No…” he whispered.
“It’s too late to plead for mercy,” Rudwig said, handing his outer robe to one of the servants. “Your soul is black. I’ve seen it.”
“You’re mad!” Keeley shouted, finding his voice. “Don’t you dare touch me!”
The Bishop ignored him and unlaced his breeches, revealing his engorged member.
Keeley shook his head wildly, “No, no, NO!”
“Turn him back around,” Rudwig commanded.
The dark-haired boy kicked and screamed, but he soon found himself pinned to the stone wall with the Bishop’s body pressing in behind him.
His heart was beating madly. This couldn’t be happening. Any moment Faolan would arrive and save him. He had to.
“Give me a cloth to wipe the blood off his back. It’ll stain my clothes,” Rudwig said impatiently. The wet rag felt like sandpaper against Keeley’s torn skin and he cried out in agony.
A hand closed over his mouth. His trousers were shoved down his thighs.
“You’ve brought this on yourself.”
In the next moment, Keeley felt his body forcibly invaded by the Bishop’s hard shaft. Fresh tears sprang to his eyes. Faolan… where are you?
The boy’s tortured cries were muffled behind Rudwig’s hand as the man’s cock stretched him wide.
Rudwig grunted behind him as he sank his full length deep into the boy’s channel. Then, he began to move. Keeley’s virgin portal protested, but there was little he could do but endure his punishment. Each thrust was more painful, and they only increased in force and frequency the longer Rudwig tormented him. The man couldn’t help himself, the boy was unbelievably tight, and he fucked him with relish.
Why? Keeley thought. Why is this happening?
The Bishop was overwhelmed by the young man’s tight grip and his vulnerable state and soon he was spilling forth into the boy’s body. Keeley wanted to retch when he felt Rudwig’s semen slip down his legs as he withdrew.
His lust sated, the Bishop slipped back into his robes and surveyed the young man before him. Keeley’s legs had given out and he had collapsed into a heap on the floor. The young man’s mind was spinning in pain and humiliation. More powerful than either of these, however, was Keeley’s despair. The Bishop had kidnapped and raped him… and Faolan had not come.
“Let that be a lesson to you, my boy,” Rudwig said. “I’ll be back tonight, for your testimony against the earl. I hope you will be in a more cooperative mood by then.” Saying this, the Bishop motioned for his servants to follow him out. The cell door locked with a loud, hollow clang.
Keeley was left, bloody and bruised on the cold stone. The acuteness of his torment plunged his soul into a despair he had never known. Tears flowed forth unchecked down his cheeks and his mind drifted into unconsciousness.
“Here,” the earl said, pulling his horse up at what looked to be an abandoned, crumbling prison.
“Are you sure?” Larkin asked. When he dismounted, however, the blond man saw evidence of recent traffic in the mud leading to the building.
Faolan did not bother to answer. He was already running full-speed through the gaping front door. Though the earl’s horse was one of the fastest in the county, the mare could not fly fast enough to suit him. His mind had been tormented for hours with the echo of Keeley’s cries. It had galled the man that he could not even send a safety spell to protect the dark-haired boy. Without knowing Keeley’s exact location, there was little he could do. The earl had been forced to follow the boy’s cries until his intuition had caused him to halt at the old prison. Faolan could only hope that he wasn’t too late.
Larkin ran after his friend and followed the man’s footsteps as he heard him descend a staircase at the back of the building. In his rush, the blond nearly rammed into Faolan’s back. The redhead had stopped dead in his tracks when he reached the last step.
“Faolan, what is-?” Larkin stopped short as his eyes feel on a lone figure slumped in the back of the cell at the bottom of the stairs. They had found Keeley.
The young man lay unconscious, his hands hanging above him, wrists raw from pulling against the chains, the back of his shirt was torn and soaked red with blood. This alone would have been enough to root Faolan to the spot with horror, but it was not the worst of it. Keeley’s trousers bunched under his knees and his bruised backside was exposed for all to see. Someone had obviously had his way with him.
“Merciful God…” Larkin whispered, aghast.
When the blond’s eyes looked back at Faolan, he saw that the earl was quaking with suppressed rage. Faolan sprang forward, practically ripping the rusty cell door off its hinges as he ran into the cell and fell to his knees before the prostrate young man. He spoke a commanding word and the metal cuffs about Keeley’s wrists cracked, releasing him. Faolan took the young man’s limp form carefully into his arms and draped his own coat about him.
Larkin waited patiently near the stairs. When Faolan stood, cradling Keeley in his arms, he followed them wordlessly up the stairs.
The two men made their way hastily back to the earl’s estate, but Faolan was careful not to ride too roughly, least he cause further injury to Keeley’s already battered body. Larkin tried in vain to suppress his sensitivity to auras and energies, since Faolan was radiating a wrath that seeped into his brain and dizzied him with its intensity.
When they pulled up to the house, Rian came limping out to meet them.
“Did you find him? Is Keeley all right?” he asked anxiously. The servant gasped when he saw the limp form sheltered within the earl’s arms. “Keeley, is he…?”
“He’s been badly beaten,” Larkin answered as Faolan carefully dismounted. “Help get his room ready, Rian, and bring hot water and bandages.”
The young man nodded and went as quickly as he could with his crutch back into the house.
Larkin trailed behind Faolan and his charge. His fair face was shadowed with worry as he watched his friend walk through the door. Faolan’s rage had not lessened. The man’s seething, quiet anger disturbed him. Since the moment they’d entered the old prison, the earl had not spoken a word.
Servants rushed in and out of the room as Faolan settled Keeley into the bed and stripped the boy of his blood-soaked clothing. The earl’s emerald eyes were veiled as he examined and cleaned Keeley’s body, his emotions held in check, but barely. Rian anticipated his every need, handing the earl clean washcloths as he discarded the soiled ones. The servant’s grey eyes were filled with concern. He knew more than most the pain a whip could inflict and the shame of being violated. His heart ached for the other young man and he vowed to be especially attentive to Keeley as he recovered.
After Faolan had dressed Keeley’s wounds, he stood.
“Larkin,” the earl said, breaking his silence as he made his way to the door, “watch over him. See what you can do to encourage his healing. I’ll be back.”
“Faolan,” the blond called. The earl stopped. “Don’t kill him,” Larkin warned. “He’s still a Bishop. It would cause more trouble than it’s worth—for you and for Keeley—if you went too far.”
“I’m not going to kill him. That would make things too easy for him.”
With that, the earl left.
“Do you think it’ll be all right?” Rian asked, watching Faolan leave the room like a brooding black cloud.
“I think so,” Larkin replied, “I don’t think he’ll do anything too rash, once his head clears. In any case, he wouldn’t do anything that would end up endangering Keeley.”
Both men looked at the boy lying sprawled on his stomach on the bed. Rian sat down next to him and tenderly brushed the young man’s dark locks from his face. “I hope so,” Rian whispered.
When Faolan was back on his horse, with the cold wind in his face, his volatile rage settled into a more steely, resolute anger. His boiling blood calmed and he realized that he would need to formulate a plan before confronting the Bishop. However, he couldn’t take too much time or he risked Rudwig returning to the prison ahead of him. If Rudwig discovered he’d been found out, he’d flee before the earl could stop him.
Quickly calculating the swiftest course of action, Faolan spurred his horse forward. He would make certain that Rudwig was never able to harm another soul ever again.
Several hours later, the Bishop descended the steps of the decaying old prison, his mind filled with all the new ways he planned to violate the lovely creature chained up in the cell below. His men had gone before him, to check on the boy and make sure he was awake and ready when Rudwig arrived. The man could barely contain himself as he made his way down.
The sight that greeted him was not what he was expecting. His men were bound and gagged in a corner of the cell, and a stale puddle of blood was all the evidence left that Keeley had ever been there.
Running to free the mouth of one of his men, Rudwig shouted at him, “What the devil is going on? What have you let happen here! Useless pigs!” His delightful plans had been ruined, and Rudwig’s anger escalated as he realized someone had discovered him. He needed to know what damage had been done—and quickly. “Don’t just sit there gaping, you fool!”
“I—your Grace…” but the man’s words faded as he looked past the Bishop.
Sensing the presence of someone behind him, Rudwig stood abruptly and spun around, only to freeze in shock at the figure before him.
Faolan stood in the doorway of the cell, looking him over with the most chilling grin he’d ever seen.
“You look surprised to see me, your Lordship,” the earl said, with a condescending sneer.
Rudwig was speechless. How in Hell’s name had the man found him? But Rudwig did not remain cowed for long. He was far too used to the comfort and protection his title brought him; he didn’t yet know his peril.
“Whatever you think you know, you are mistaken,” the Bishop replied, finding his tongue.
“Is that so?” Faolan replied softly, the icy edge of his voice sending shivers down Rudwig’s spine despite his attempts to remain unaffected. The earl stepped into the cell, his green eyes filled with vengeance. More than anything, the man now resembled a wolf stalking its prey, and a wild bloodlust filled his emerald eyes. “Look what I’ve found,” Faolan said, revealing Rudwig’s own whip from behind his back. The other man swallowed hard. “I found it, along with all kinds of other interesting toys, in the back of the neighboring cell.”
Determined not to show his growing fear, the Bishop straightened his back and met Faolan’s eyes. “You can’t do anything to me. I’m protected by the Church. Your word would never be accepted over mine.”
The earl looked unfazed. He examined the beds of his fingernails as if conversing with someone at a dull noontime tea party. “That is why our business will never reach the ears of the Church.” Nodding behind him, two other men stepped from the shadows and advanced on the Bishop. “That’s enough talk for now, don’t you think?”
“W-what are you doing!” Rudwig bellowed as the men shackled him to the wall. His struggling did not help him. The man soon found himself with his arms stretched painfully above him. His face was pressed into the cold stone and he could not turn to see Faolan stride up behind him. “You can’t do this!” Rudwig yelled in a last-ditch attempt to escape from the situation, “I’ll have you stripped of your land and title if you lay so much as a finger on me!”
For a moment, there was silence and Rudwig strained his ears to try and discern what Faolan was doing.
“You disappoint me. I thought you’d be more eager to go under the whip,” Faolan said with a smirk. “You can’t tell me you’ve never been curious to see what it feels like to endure the torture you dole out so exuberantly?” Faolan asked, his chilly voice suddenly close to the other man’s ear. “Surely you’ve secretly longed to experience it. I am granting your wish. Aren’t you happy?”
“Bastard,” the Bishop spat, seething.
“Hmph,” Faolan murmured, backing away. “Prepare him,” he said sternly. The Bishop felt his robes torn and shredded, until his back was completely exposed.
“Tell me, Rudwig,” the earl said, “who knows you in Ireland, outside of high society and the clergy of Dublin?”
“What are you talking about?”
Faolan ignored him and eyed the man’s squirming with approval.
“What I mean,” he said, his voice dropping lower, “is that no one knows you are here, do they?”
“My superiors knew I was coming to see you,” the Bishop retorted. “If something happens to me, the Church will come down on you with the wrath of God!”
The Bishop meant for his words to sound filled with threat and power, but he lacked conviction. Faolan laughed coldly behind him.
“My dear Bishop,” the earl said, leaning over him, “who’s to say you ever even arrived at my home? My entire household will attest that you never did, and there is not a single soul who can vouch for your whereabouts. I’ve taken care of your men and no one else knows you in this part of the country.
“You see, in your eagerness to bring me down, you neglected to consider your own position.”
“If you plan on killing me, you can be sure someone will discover the blood on your hands!” Rudwig shouted.
“I am not going to sully myself by killing you.” The earl moved in close and whispered into the man’s ear, “But where you are going, none of your high society friends will ever come looking for you.”
Rudwig was sweating now. His body was beginning to ache and he wished Faolan would do whatever he was planning and get it over with. The wait was taking its toll.
“In a way, however, your old self will die,” the earl explained. “From now on, you will be known by the name of Simon Lowell, a criminal convicted of rape and child molestation. The whip marks on your back will attest to the punishment you received for this heinous crime.”
Then, without further warning, the earl let the whip fly.
Rudwig screamed. “Y-you can’t do this to me!” he grunted through clenched teeth.
Grabbing the man by the hair, Faolan yanked his head back. “You should thank me for sparing your life!”
The whip cracked and Rudwig cried out once more.
Faolan proceeded with a thorough whipping. His brow beaded with sweat before he finished. Though his wrath called out for more, Faolan stayed his hand. He wanted to ship Rudwig off that very night and he needed him in decent condition to do so—and he wanted Rudwig cognizant of every excruciating minute, in just enough pain to make his world miserable without it being enough to pass out.
Handing the whip to one of his men, Faolan ordered that the ex-Bishop’s wounds be cleaned and dressed, and his new clothes given to him. Stepping up the stairs to breathe in the fresh air, Faolan walked toward his waiting carriage. A second coach was parked behind him.
“He’s all yours,” the earl called to the dark figure inside the other coach.
When Faolan was finally settled back in his carriage and safely on his way, he breathed a deep sigh. He was glad to have the matter of the Bishop behind him. It had taken intense negotiations to have the paperwork for Rudwig’s new identity written up and notarized so quickly, and it had not been easy. However, Faolan had many connections—in many worlds—and he’d managed it well enough. Rudwig would be transported to a jail several hours to the south. Faolan did not anticipate hearing from the man any time soon.
Though he was satisfied that Rudwig was sufficiently ruined, the earl did not feel as much satisfaction as he had anticipated. Now that his anger had abated, his agitation and grief increased. No matter what he did to the Bishop, it would never erase what the man had done to Keeley. It would never free Faolan of the guilt that ate at him every time he recalled that horrible scene of finding the young man lying unconscious and bloody on the cell floor.
The earl had no way of knowing how Keeley would handle the trauma of his capture and rape. Faolan found himself in the difficult position of being able to offer little else but comfort and support. There were no spells or incantations that could put things right. He would simply have to wait and see. At least he could finally turn his full attention to Keeley’s recovery.
“How is he?” Faolan asked when he returned, rushing to Keeley’s side.
“Still unconscious,” Larkin informed him, “though that’s probably for the best. It’ll be easier for him to bear the pain and easier for us to tend to him, especially considering the nature of some of his injuries.”
Faolan nodded, his eyes never leaving Keeley.
“The doctor has been here and gone. He didn’t say much that we didn’t already know. I think we’d do better with an herb-wife. He did bind Rian’s ankle with a splint, however, and assured me nothing was broken, so it was not a waste of time.”
“Ah! Rian’s ankle,” Faolan said, “I’m sorry Larkin, I’d forgotten about it.” The earl rubbed his forehead, further aggravated with himself.
Larkin placed a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. After finding Keeley in such a state, it’s understandable. Hell, I forgot for a while, too. Rian is very good at disguising his pain. I’m sure he just didn’t want us to worry.”
“Still…” Faolan sighed. “Is he resting now?”
“Yes, though he wanted to stay and attend to Keeley.”
“I’ll go visit him later on.”
Faolan sat in a chair by Keeley’s bed and bowed his head. It was rare for him to feel such strain, but at that moment, it was as if the world and all the realms of Heaven weighed him down. He could hardly believe that so much had occurred in a single day. What had happened? Why had things gone so horribly awry?
He looked down at Keeley and wiped the boy’s brow. Keeley’s body was soaked with sweat and his breathing was heavy. Faolan glanced at Larkin, who now stood at his side.
“Have you tried to help him heal? Is Keeley’s body responding?” Faolan asked.
“Yes, his body accepts the energies well enough. His fever should break by morning, but he’s weak. It will still take some time for his body to recover even with the healing energies. It would go more quickly if he wasn’t so emotionally bruised.”
Faolan hung his head and brought Keeley’s hand to his forehead. “I could hear him calling for me,” he said, “but I couldn’t get to him fast enough.”
“It’s not your fault, Faolan,” Larkin said softly. He hated seeing his friend so anguished.
They sat in silence until something on the bed caught Faolan’s eye. Reaching out, he saw that Keeley still wore his locket, though the hairline fracture in the silver had finally cracked open completely. From within the locket, a strange red-golden light shimmered: a small lock of brilliant red hair, even brighter than Faolan’s own, poked through the crack.
Looking over his shoulder, Larkin examined the jewelry. “What do you make of that?”
The earl shook his head. “I’m not sure. Did you ever sense anything from the locket?” Faolan asked, curious if his friend had gotten the same strange aura from the small piece of silver.
Larkin did not respond right away. “Not at first, but more recently there was no mistaking the strong energy coming from it. Whatever spell was upon it has now broken. Did Keeley tell you anything about it?”
Leaning back into his chair, Faolan replied, “He said his mother gave it to him as some kind of protective talisman, though I suspect the locket was the source of a binding spell. Against what, I can’t say.”
“It unsettles me,” Larkin confessed.
Faolan nodded in agreement. “I wish I knew more about Keeley’s mother. If she crafted the spell, she must have been accomplished. When Keeley is well, I’ll have to ask him more about his family.” Faolan paused to look down at the dark-haired boy sleeping on the bed, and his brow knotted in concern.
“I’ll see if I can find out anything about the design on the silver in the meantime,” Larkin offered.
The door opened, and Rian tentatively peered inside. “May I come in?”
“I thought I told you to stay in bed?” Larkin said severely.
“You may come in, Rian,” Faolan said, his voice fatigued.
Larkin scowled at his friend for contradicting him, but Rian obeyed his master and stepped inside.
“Is there something I can do, Master Faolan? Anything?” the servant asked.
Faolan looked up at him and saw the concerned expression on the young man’s face. It was understandable that Rian would worry over Keeley. After all, Rian had been in very similar circumstances when the earl had taken him from the brothel.
“Yes, Rian, you can come and sit down and get off of that ankle of yours,” Faolan replied, surprising the young servant.
“I only twisted it a bit. It’s fine, really.”
“You’re limping. Now sit.”
The boy settled himself at the foot of the bed and Larkin walked over to him, tweaking his ear.
Larkin grinned down at him. “That’s what you get for disobeying me.”
“Is that all I get?” Rian teased suggestively. “Your punishments aren’t what they used to be, then.”
Leaning down Larkin whispered. “We’ll discuss the true extent of your punishment when we’re alone.”
For two days, Keeley remained mostly unconscious. He woke in fits and starts, often crying out for Faolan, but he was still delirious. After what the he’d endured, his mind was swimming in a murky world of twilight.
The other men worried and waited.
Finally, on the morning of the third day, Keeley blinked his eyes open to see the earl asleep in a chair at his bedside, the man’s hand holding his own.
“Faolan…” Keeley whispered in a weak voice. “What… happened?”
The other man was immediately awake. “Keeley!” he said, his voice filled with relief. The young man’s pale blue eyes looked back at him, lucid once more. Faolan was overjoyed. He wanted to wrap the boy in his arms, but his injuries prevented it. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now,” he whispered softly, caressing his hands through the Keeley’s dark hair.
“How are you feeling? Can I get you something?” the earl asked.
“Just stay with me,” he replied, giving Faolan’s hand a faint squeeze.
In a few minutes, Keeley had fallen back to sleep, but Faolan knew the young man was finally out of danger.
Or so he thought.
Although Keeley’s body recovered quickly over the next few days, the memory of his torture slowly sank him into depression. He lay in bed, his blue eyes cold and blank. His emotions were frozen, unable to process what had happened to him… and that Faolan had not been able to save him.
Larkin and Rian watched the young man anxiously. They were saddened by Keeley’s continued despondency, but it was equally disturbing to see how heavily the boy’s despair weighed on Faolan.
“Rian, perhaps you should talk to Keeley,” Larkin suggested. “Perhaps you could help relate to him.”
The servant shook his head. “He’s not ready. He’s still holding everything inside,” Rian replied. “Besides, I’m not the one he needs to talk to.”
Larkin knew he was right, but it pained him to see the way Keeley had shut down and how hard Faolan was taking the young man’s continued silence.
Keeley himself was torn. He wanted so badly to reach out to Faolan, but he could not bring himself to do so. His mind went back and forth. He blamed himself for breaking his word to Faolan and letting the Bishop get to him. He blamed Faolan for failing to rescue him, then reprimanded himself for being unreasonable.
Yet ever since Keeley had met Faolan, the man had been able to protect him from whatever crossed his path. Why hadn’t the earl been able to save him this time? The thought would not leave him. The young man had had such faith in the other man. Logically, Keeley knew the earl must have tried his best to find him, but his heart would not accept such rationalizations. He could not cope with his feelings of disappointment, even betrayal. Keeley knew he was being unfair and yet he could not stop himself. Nothing made sense anymore and so he sealed his feelings away, unable to deal with them.
As the days went by, he continued to grope for answers, but found none.
One night, when Faolan was collecting Keeley’s relatively untouched dinner plate, Keeley asked one of the questions pressing on his mind.
“What was possessing him?” Keeley asked abruptly.
Faolan set the tray onto one of the side tables and sat down. The earl was caught somewhat off-guard by the abrupt question, but relieved and pleased to hear Keeley’s voice. “What do you mean?”
The young man paused. “To be able to do such a thing to me… surely the Bishop was possessed by some sort of demon?”
Faolan’s heart felt as if it was being squeezed in a vise. Even though Keeley had been through so much in his life, even though he had lost his family at such a young age, he was still a child in many ways. Faolan was amazed that Keeley could remain so innocent after all he’d been put through, but Faolan sensed that the incident with Rudwig would be the final blow that stripped the boy of his childlike naiveté. The lesson was far too cruel.
“I’m afraid that was simply the man’s character, Keeley. People are often brutal and malicious without the help of evil spirits.”
It was a truth Keeley knew, but he still could not comprehend such a deep level of human cruelty. He could not imagine willfully inflicting such pain on others. It was too far from his own nature… and it frightened him. Keeley was suddenly filled with guilt at the thought that his own ordeal had somehow shaken him deeper than his own family member’s deaths. That loss would ache in his heart for the rest of his life, but their deaths had been an act of God, something he simply had to learn to live with. Keeley could still keep his parents and his sister alive in his heart. Their memory was not tainted. His world might have lost its color with their passing, but it was a world that had still made sense to him.
Now, however, all that had changed. He had been exposed to a side of humanity he had never wanted to face—it was dark and sinister and did not seem to adhere to the rules of the world that Keeley had built for himself. His foundations had been shaken. How was he ever to feel safe again?
He’d been able to accept his family’s deaths as God’s will. (It was the only way he could accept them all.) But Rudwig, what the man had done to him—certainly God did not intend for that to happen? And if God had not intended it, did that mean Keeley was at the Devil’s mercy? That there was no one and nothing to shield him?
The earl watched the emotions shift across Keeley’s face. He saw the despair in his eyes, the confusion. Bitterness seeped into the young man’s features and his expression grew stony.
“Maybe God simply does not love me anymore,” Keeley whispered.
Despite his best intentions to remain calm for Keeley’s sake, Faolan felt his eyes sting with tears of sympathy.
“If He loved me, He could not let such a thing happen to me…”
Taking in a deep breath to steady himself, Faolan reached out to stroke Keeley’s dark hair. “You’re forgetting your Bible,” he said, “Job was put through many trials as well.”
“Then perhaps He did not love Job either. Perhaps He does not love any of us,” Keeley replied. His voice was strained and rigid.
Faolan heard the bitterness lacing the boy’s words. What could he tell him? How could he assure him of God’s love? It was not an easy question, and the earl knew there was nothing he could say to help Keeley reach an answer. The boy would have to find it for himself.
Turning Keeley’s chin up so he could look into those hollow blue eyes, Faolan told him, “Even if God abandons us, I will protect you.”
Keeley’s blank despair did not leave him. “But even you could not save me.”
The earl flinched as if he’d been physically struck. He could not form a reply and Keeley turned from him.
Faolan left the room shortly after, feeling unsettled. When Larkin and Rian saw the earl later that night, they exchanged looks of concern.
“Are you all right, Faolan? You look tired,” Larkin offered, signaling Rian to refill the earl’s tea.
Slumped in his chair, Faolan pressed his hand over his face and sighed. “I’m afraid Keeley is losing his faith: faith in me, faith in God… he just won’t let me in.”
“Perhaps—” Larkin began, but Faolan waved his hand.
“No, let’s not discuss it,” Faolan replied. “I think I’ll retire early this evening, if you don’t mind.”
Larkin let him go, wondering when—if ever—things would return to normal
When the earl departed, Rian discreetly followed behind. Just as Faolan was about to slip into his chamber, the servant called to him.
“Master Faolan, may I speak with you?”
The man turned to him, surprised to hear his voice. In his melancholy, Faolan had not even noticed him.
“Yes, Rian. What is it?”
The servant appeared contemplative as he spoke. “I know a little about what Keeley is going through and I think,” he paused. “I think you need to push him a bit.”
“What do you mean?” Faolan asked, curious.
Rian looked up at him with an expression so solemn in his grey eyes that it belied his years, making him look far older than he was. “He’s shutting down, Sir, cutting himself off from his emotions. If he keeps doing it, his heart will numb completely. He’ll become like a hollow shell.”
Faolan was moved by Rian’s sincerity, but troubled by his words. “Go on.”
“You have to force him to feel again. You have to break the hold on his emotions,” Rian said firmly, though his eyes were full of compassion. “It’ll overwhelm him at first, like water from a broken dam, but it’ll be better in the end.”
“Just how do you suggest I do that, Rian?”
The young man gazed at him steadily. “You’d know that better than I, Master.”
Bidding the earl good evening, Rian left him. Faolan had considerable trouble sleeping that night, despite his fatigue. He could not ignore Rian’s advice, but he wasn’t sure how to act on it, either. Near morning, he finally drifted to sleep, his mind exhausted.
Although Keeley’s wounds had healed considerably, he was still confined to bed rest. He could not put any pressure on his back and it was difficult to find any position that did not trouble him in some way. Irritated, he shifted and turned in bed, trying to get comfortable, but only succeeded in tiring himself. He hadn’t seen Faolan all day and he wondered what the man was doing, but mostly Keeley tried not to think about him.
In the late afternoon, when the sun was beginning to wane, the earl finally appeared.
“How are you feeling today?” the man asked, sitting gently on the bed.
“Fine,” Keeley replied blankly.
“I’d like to check your wounds again. I’m going to visit an herb-wife for you later and I’ll need to discuss the degree of your injuries.”
Keeley nodded, making no other reply as he lay out on his belly over the sheets.
Faolan kneeled on the bed next to him carefully and lifted the young man’s shirt. As he pulled back the bandages, he examined the lash markings without comment. Keeley let his mind wander. He was used to his daily check-ups, but he didn’t relish them.
When Faolan reached to pull his trousers down his hips, the young man jumped.
“What are you doing?” Keeley shouted, yanking his clothing back in place.
“I want to see how you are healing,” Faolan said calmly.
Keeley’s mask of indifference had vanished and he looked up at the earl with tremulous eyes. “I’m fine!” he protested. “Rian… has checked me.” Keeley looked horribly embarrassed. He preferred that no one acknowledge the injuries inflicted on him during the rape, but if anyone had to check him, at least Rian was close to his own age and familiar with such things. He didn’t feel quite as self-conscious with the other servant, but Faolan… No, he did not want the man looking at him—or even mentioning the incident.
“I want to see for myself,” Faolan said sternly.
But when the earl tugged at Keeley’s pants once more, the boy balked. “No!” he cried, instinctively lashing out. His hand landed squarely across Faolan’s face.
Looking down at the dark-haired boy, Faolan saw him breathing hard, his face alarmed—at both the earl and himself.
“I—I’m sorry,” Keeley said quickly. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Faolan sat back and shook his head. “No, I deserve it.”
“What?” Keeley asked, bewildered.
“All this happened because I could not save you,” he said. “I failed you. It’s all right to be angry with me.”
“Don’t say such things,” Keeley told him in a small voice. “I don’t want to be angry with you.” But you are! his mind screamed.
The earl moved to sit on a chair next to the bed. He rested his head on his hands and folded his fingers in front of him. “You should be angry with me.”
Keeley shut his eyes tight, willing his emotions to calm before they came tumbling out, making him say things he shouldn’t. “No, don’t say that.” Please… I don’t want to feel this…
“Why not? It’s true.”
Faolan saw Keeley’s defenses breaking down; the boy’s lip began to tremble.
“I left you. I abandoned you. I couldn’t save you. That’s what you really want to say, isn’t it?” the earl pressed.
“No!” Keeley protested. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes and he balled his fists in the sheets before him, trembling. He was losing control. “Stop it! Why are you saying these things? Why!”
Faolan leveled his deep green gaze at him. “Because it is how you really feel,” he replied, his voice deep and unyielding.
“NO!” Keeley screamed, bursting into tears. He crumpled in on himself, pressing his face into the sheets, and knowing it was true. “No…” he sobbed.
Moving to the bed, Faolan pulled the boy into his arms and held him, but Keeley raged against him. All his sadness and anger and confusion started to drown him.
“Let me go!” Keeley yelled, shoving against the man. “Just leave me alone!”
“Hush,” Faolan said softly, cradling him. “It’s all right to feel this way. No one would blame you for it, Keeley.”
“I don’t…want to feel this,” he protested between sobs. “It hurts!”
Faolan swallowed deep, quelling his own emotions. He had to be strong for Keeley, but his heart was breaking over the boy.
“Why?” Keeley suddenly demanded, gripping angrily at the fabric of Faolan’s shirt. “Why… didn’t you come?” he asked softly, then repeated with more force, “Why didn’t you come for me!”
Tears ran down the Keeley’s face as he beat his fists into Faolan’s chest, but the man held him firm, like a rock standing against a storming sea.
“Why…? That man he… what he did to me…” Keeley whimpered. He was feeling too much at once. It was tearing him apart. “I hate him, Faolan! I HATE HIM!” he screamed.
Faolan held Keeley as tightly as he dared and rocked back and forth soothingly. Rian had been right. Faolan couldn’t imagine how on earth Keeley had been holding all this inside him for days on end.
When the young man’s rage was spent, he finally collapsed in Faolan’s embrace and wept until the earl’s shirt was soaked with his tears. Finally exhausted, he fell asleep in the circle of Faolan’s arms.
The earl breathed deeply with relief when he felt the boy’s body relax against him. Keeley’s face was flushed red from the force of his tears, but his expression was peaceful as he slept. Some of the young man’s demons, at least, had been released.
But would Keeley awaken to hope? Faolan prayed that he would.
“Sir, Keeley,” Rian said, stepping into the young man’s room, “I’ve brought you tea and some breakfast.”
“Thank you, Rian, but you needn’t have bothered. I’m not very hungry,” Keeley said as he sat near the desk in his room.
Rian frowned. “Sir, you need to keep your strength up.”
Turning to the young servant, Keeley gave him a small smile. “I’m quite healed, Rian. Don’t worry about me.”
Your body might have healed, Rian thought, but your heart is still broken. However, he knew better than to argue with the stubborn young man. “Is there anything else I might do for you, sir?”
Rian waited as Keeley sat silent in thought, his eyes on the floor ahead of him.
Just as the servant was about to take his leave, Keeley finally said, in a quiet voice, “There is one thing I would like to ask of you, but…”
“Yes, Sir?” Rian said, encouragingly.
Lifting his intense blue eyes, Keeley asked, “May I see your back?”
Rian gave him a quizzical look.
“Your scars,” Keeley clarified. “Can I see them?”
With a sympathetic, knowing look, Rian slipped off his jacket. Without any hesitation, he unbuttoned his shirt and turned around to bare his pale back to the other boy.
Keeley winced as he viewed the wicked crosshatching of scars that marked the Rian’s back. He’d only recently recalled the story Larkin had told him about the servant being whipped when Faolan discovered him in the brothel. Although Keeley had gotten a glimpse of Rian’snaked back before, it had been in very low firelight and he had been rather… distracted at the time. He was grateful that Rian didn’t seem to mind showing him the evidence of his abuse, but wasn’t sure what to say to him.
“Thank you,” Keeley said quietly.
Although Rian sensed that Keeley wanted to say more, he remained silent. Buttoning his shirt, the servant prepared to leave, but paused on his way to the door, wanting to say something to Keeley. Unable to think of anything that would soothe him, though, he finally departed.
Rian let out a heavy breath when he closed the door to Keeley’s room and leaned for a moment against the wall. He knew Keeley needed someone to talk with, someone who understood what he’d been through, but Rian found it difficult to lend his ear. It wasn’t just that he disliked the idea of delving into his past traumas. There were other reasons holding him back as well. Rian’s emotions were worn from the recent ordeals with the Bishop and Faolan’s extreme reaction to Keeley’s torture.
The entire household had been anxious about Keeley’s condition, including Rian. However, within his concern for Keeley, he felt a conflict that disturbed him. The young servant found he was envious of the way Faolan fretted over Keeley. Though Rian didn’t begrudge Keeley such consideration after all that the young man had been through, he felt a nagging in his chest that troubled him all the same.
Rian remembered clearly the day when Faolan had rescued him from the brothel. It had not been the first time he’d been whipped or forced into coitus against his will. Faolan had certainly been angered by the treatment Rian underwent there, but it could not compare to the seething wrath that the earl had expressed when he returned with Keeley in a similar condition. Part of Rian was saddened that Faolan had not been equally enraged on his own behalf.
Even if Rian’s feelings toward Faolan were different from the love he felt towards Larkin, he still yearned for the man’s attention. Rian had never had a father and his mother had died when he was still a child. He’d never known the warmth and security of a real home—until Faolan took him in. For the first several months Rian was with the earl, Faolan was everything to him. No servant could have been more loyal to his king or captain. Even after he’d had met Larkin, his devotion could not be shaken.
Now Rian saw the way Keeley had captured Faolan’s heart, and he began to wonder if his place in the man’s household had become obsolete. He had been Faolan’s personal valet and his most trusted servant, but what was he now? Faolan had not even taken him along when he visited O’Reilly’s estate.
Was he becoming just another servant? Were his services so easily dismissed?
Nothing could replace the overwhelming sense of gratitude and loyalty that welled inside of Rian whenever he recalled the way his master had freed him from his life of bondage. And much as he loved Larkin, he did not want to be taken from Faolan’s side.
“What are you doing standing there?”
Rian jumped, so lost in his thoughts that he had failed to hear Larkin as he came walking down the hallway.
“Nothing,” he said, quickly composing himself.
Larkin studied him. “You think I can’t tell when you’re upset? Don’t try to hide things from me, Rian,” he said firmly.
“It’s nothing worth mentioning.”
As he tried to move past him, Larkin blocked his way.
Rian looked up at his lover, unusually irritated. “Can’t I keep anything to myself?”
Narrowing his eyes, Larkin replied, “This has something to do with Faolan.”
Rain frowned. Sometimes Larkin was a little too sharp.
“What if it does?” Rian snapped back, defensively. He was embarrassed by his feelings toward Faolan and he didn’t wish to discuss them, especially not with Larkin.
However, the other man was in no mood to be put off.
“Come with me,” Larkin said, gripping Rian by the arm and pulling him down the hall to the guest room the man stayed in.
Rian yanked against him, annoyed, but knew he wasn’t getting away.
“Now,” Larkin said once he and Rian were alone and the door shut securely behind them, “what is this all about?”
“I don’t have to tell you that,” the young man retorted, sulking as he leaned against the wall, crossing his arms.
“Let me guess,” Larkin man said, eying him closely, “you’re jealous of the way Faolan is coddling Keeley.”
“That’s not… exactly it,” Rian said, scowling. “I’m not jealous.”
“I know the way you feel about Faolan,” Larkin said, stepping close and leaning over him. Rian shifted uncomfortably.
“Then you know I’m not jealous,” the servant retorted.
Larkin shook his head. “It’s a different kind of jealousy. Like the way children feel when a parent plays favorites.”
Rian remained silent, unable to articulate his feelings on the subject. They both knew the relationship between Rian and Faolan wasn’t that simple.
“You’ve been through worse than Keeley, but you never received the kind of attention he is now. It must be frustrating for you,” Larkin said, tenderly tucking a lock of chestnut hair behind the young man’s ear.
“I… don’t mind it, but…” Rian kept his deep grey eyes averted as he went on. “Once Keeley is well, is the earl really going to need me?”
“Ah, so that’s it.” Larkin gave a small chuckle, which made Rian indignant.
“Is this funny to you?” the young man spat, hurt by his lover’s seemingly careless attitude.
Larkin continued to smile at him. “My dear Rian, I happen to know that Faolan has no intentions of dismissing you. The fact you would even think such a thing makes me wonder if you are more fatigued than I realized.”
Making no reply, Rian waited for the man to continue.
“When Faolan first brought Keeley here,” Larkin explained, “I asked him again if he wouldn’t be willing to part with you, but he refused to let you go.”
“He did?” Rian asked, perking up.
“Yes. A master has just as much a claim on his servant as the servant has responsibility to his master,” Larkin replied. “Faolan will never let you go.”
Rian let out a sigh of relief and Larkin studied him thoughtfully. “If only I’d been the one to rescue you,” he said, voicing his thoughts aloud. “I’d be your master and you’d be all mine.”
His security restored, Rian smiled and caressed the blond’s defined chin with his fingertips. “But you still have my heart.”
Larkin slipped his arms about Rian’s waist, pleased that matters had been resolved. “For now,” the blond teased, “but I’m older than you are. Perhaps you’ll tire of me and wander off to find greener pastures.”
Rian gave a soft laugh. “Not likely.”
Larkin’s heart was squeezed with emotion as he gazed down at his lover’s sweet, inviting eyes. As lighthearted as his words sounded, Larkin often regretted that he would never have sole claim on the boy in his arms.
Seeing the serious gleam in his partner’s eye, Rian wrapped his arms about Larkin’s neck and pressed in tightly against him. “Besides,” Rian said in a husky voice, “if I ever try to wander off, you can always just tie me up and punish me for my disobedience.”
“Hmm,” the older man purred, biting gently at the young man’s neck. “Maybe I should tie you up now, just to make certain you don’t run away.”
Their bodies were swaying against one another, a swift need mounting between them. “I’d be quite helpless then,” Rian replied, his voice filled with heat.
“Rian,” Larkin whispered. Desperate to feel the boy beneath him, he commanded, “Get on the bed.”
Flashing him a brilliant grin, Rian replied, “Yes, Master.”
* * *
After Rian had left him, Keeley remained seated at his desk, his murky thoughts weighing heavily upon him.
Every day the young man asked himself the same question: why? Why had he been chained and raped? Why hadn’t someone been able to save him? There were no answers, but he could not cease his thoughts. He had imagined Faolan to be his protector, his safe haven, but this was no longer true. The man had not been able to keep him from harm. Keeley had been so taken with the handsome earl that he had been blinded to reality.
A disturbing thought crept into his mind. God had abandoned him, and now he wondered if his lust for the Faolan wasn’t at fault. After all, didn’t the Bible condemn such unions? Keeley had conveniently chosen to ignore this after he had met Faolan. Being with the other man had always felt so safe and secure that Keeley was certain it couldn’t be morally wrong to desire him. But what if he had been wrong--dreadfully wrong? What if he had brought this horrible incident on himself?
While wrapped in these disturbing considerations, Keeley heard a knock at his door.
Faolan entered, finding the young man sitting solemnly at the desk. Keeley’s anger had faded, but the earl could see that his soul still ached with the pain of what he had endured.
“I have something to return to you,” the earl said, drawing up a chair next to Keeley.
“Yes?” the young man said, more out of politeness than enthusiasm.
The earl drew something from his pocket and took Keeley’s hand, dropping something smooth and cool into his palm. The boy flinched slightly when Faolan touched him, and Faolan hid his displeasure at this reaction. Recently, Keeley had been on edge around him and avoided his touch whenever possible. Faolan knew Keeley was still working through his trauma, but the young man’s withdrawal disturbed him.
Looking down, Keeley saw his old locket in his hand, but the graceful oval was broken and he felt a sharp pang of loss. To think that the locket his mother had so lovingly bestowed upon him was now cracked beyond repair saddened him more than he could say. He had carried the small silver pendant next to his heart for so many years, and always felt its protective power enveloping him. Now even this small comfort had been taken from him. No one could protect him: not Faolan, not his mother… he was alone.
Faolan watched as Keeley’s face crumpled, his eyes filling with tears. The young man clutched the broken locket to his chest and bent over in agony.
Reaching out a hand, Faolan gently caressed Keeley’s back, hoping to calm him. At first, Keeley seemed to yield to his touch and his weeping lessened. However, Keeley drew away from him the next moment, wiping his tears and turning from the other man.
“I thought the locket was lost. Why didn’t you give it to me sooner?” Keeley asked.
“I’m sorry. Larkin took it to research the filigree pattern.”
“Why?” Keeley asked, his voice edged with aggravation.
“We believe there is something unusual about the locket. We just want to look into it, that’s all.”
Keeley gazed down at the broken piece of jewelry and tilted his head curiously, eying the brilliant red lock of hair folded within it. The young man had always wondered what his mother had sealed inside, but discovering the hair only served to confuse him.
“Is it your mother’s hair?” Faolan asked, noting the perplexed look on the boy’s face.
Keeley should his head. “No. No one in my family had red hair.”
The information was not unexpected, but it unsettled Faolan nonetheless. He’d been hoping that there was a simple explanation for the strange aura the locket had held. Now he was almost certain that Keeley’s mother had some secret she’d been protecting from her son all these years.
“Perhaps…” Keeley began, searching for answers, “she cut the lock of hair from some faerie or sprite that had powers of protection?”
Faolan nodded, but he knew from his sense of intuition that this was not the case. However, if it put Keeley’s mind at ease, he would indulge him.
“I have something else for you as well,” Faolan offered, after a long pause. He held out a small, round jar and opened the lid.
A pungent—though not unpleasant—smell emanated from the container.
“What is it?” Keeley asked, a spark of genuine curiosity in his eyes as he glanced at the muddy-looking mixture within the container.
The earl smiled. “It’s an herbal medicine I had made for you.”
Keeley’s interest dissipated. He did not want to be reminded of his old injuries. “I’m already healed,” he grumbled.
“This will help your scarring,” Faolan explained, “and the fragrance will lift your spirits.”
Keeley did not look convinced.
“Come, at least try it,” the earl urged.
“Good. Take off your shirt and lay down.”
At this request, Keeley shifted uneasily. “Why don’t you just give it to me? I can put it on myself.”
“You know it will be hard for you reach your back. Besides, I want to see how you’re healing.”
Knowing that Faolan would have his way, Keeley frowned, but complied. To distract himself from the sensation of Faolan’s skilled fingers caressing his back, Keeley turned his mind to other matters.
“Why didn’t you do this for Rian? His scars are terrible.”
“I did what I could when I took him in, but many of his scars were old by then.”
“Oh,” Keeley muttered, feeling foolish and falling silent.
“There,” Faolan said after a moment. “That should take away the last evidence of the scarring, but we will have to apply it every day for at least a week.”
Keeley nodded, feeling unsteady. He’d resolved to keep his distance with the handsome man, but now that Faolan was near him all Keeley wanted to do was bury himself in his arms.
For a moment, the earl thought Keeley was going to turn to him. He sensed the boy’s loneliness and need, but then Keeley stepped away from him, heading back to his desk. “Thank you. I’ll see you at dinner.”
Faolan debated whether he should pursue the matter of Keeley’s aloofness, but the time did not seem right. Keeley’s body and emotions had healed, but for some reason his mind was still fighting their connection. Whatever had gotten into the boy’s head, Faolan would deal with it soon enough.
He could understand that Keeley would be hesitant to move forward in their relationship after what he had been through at the Bishop’s hands, but unless Faolan pushed him and showed him how different sex could be between true lovers, Keeley would shut himself away forever.
Just a little more time, the earl said to himself as he walked away.
For weeks, Keeley continued to shy away from Faolan. The young man was buried in conflict. He could not deny his attraction to the handsome man, but did he dare risk Heaven’s wrath in order to explore it? One part of Keeley’s mind admitted that his religious concerns masked more elemental fears brooding inside him, such as the frightening prospect of ever being penetrated again. His experience with the Bishop had not only shaken his faith, it had left him terrified of exploring his sexuality. The rape had been so violent and painful that Keeley couldn’t imagine sex ever being remotely pleasant, even between lovers. In the back of his mind, Keeley wondered how Faolan could possibly want to subject him to such an ordeal.
Keeley recalled the earl’s promise to take him with vivid clarity. At the time it had been frightening, yet thrilling. Now, Keeley’s feelings for Faolan were torn by his indecision about giving himself to the man—and Faolan’s determination to take him no matter his protests.
Faolan, in his turn, had done his best to give Keeley time, but the longer he waited, the more convinced he became that Keeley would never willingly give himself over to him. Several nights in a row, the two men had been left alone in one of the large studies at the end of the evening. The deepening winter chill beat against the windows as they read by the firelight. Each evening Faolan had ventured closer to the young man, and he could feel Keeley’s growing need, yet Keeley held back. Always he held back. Faolan was loath to push him too quickly, but the strained sexual tension building between them had to be addressed.
When Keeley went riding late one afternoon and still had not returned after the light had faded, Faolan went to look for him. He didn’t have to go far. As soon as the earl stepped into the stables to prepare his mount, he discovered Keeley within, tending to his own black steed, Ancalagon.
The young man seemed to be delaying his return, taking slow care to slip the saddle from the horse and brush him down. Faolan could see that Keeley was shaking from the cold, yet he continued to dawdle and delay going back to the estate.
“You look chilled,” Faolan said, striding over and startling the young man. They were alone. The earl’s other servants had long since left for the evening.
“I-I’m fine. I’ll be inside in a minute anyway.”
“I won’t have you coming down with an illness in the middle of winter,” the earl said firmly, wrapping his arms about him from behind. “Now, isn’t this better?”
“Faolan…” Keeley whispered, his voice quiet and laced with tension.
“Hush,” the man said softly, moving to nuzzle against the young man’s neck.
Turning Keeley to face toward him, Faolan closed the space between their lips. In an instant, an electric heat flooded both their bodies. Keeley whimpered, overcome by the experience. How long had it been since the earl had pressed his lips against his own? It was so lovely, so intoxicating, that at any moment Keeley would lose all will of his own. He longed so desperately to yield, yet couldn’t let himself do so. He called upon his stubborn nature and pushed the other man away.
“No, I won’t!”
Faolan’s emerald eyes scrutinized the young man with an intensity Keeley could feel in his bones. “Why, Keeley? Why do you continue to turn away from me?”
“These feelings…” Keeley began slowly, “they’re wrong. God has already punished me enough for them…”
“What are you talking about?”
Keeley hesitated. He stood rigid, breathing heavily, his emotions raging against each other. “They are blasphemous,” he replied quietly. “Maybe that is why God didn’t protect me.”
“Look at me, Keeley,” Faolan commanded, his voice an unyielding as steel.
When the young man refused to comply, Faolan caught Keeley’s chin between his fingers and forced his eyes to meet him.
“Love is not a sin, Keeley,” the earl said firmly. “And turning away from it will not allow you to escape the evil in this world. Evil strikes the righteous as much as the wicked. That’s the nature of life, yet we choose to live in this world and do the best we can. Love, in whatever form it chooses to manifest itself, is one of the few things that can strengthen us and see us through our struggles.
“I won’t have you harboring such destructive thoughts about how or why you were put through such painful hardships. You must stop looking back, Keeley, and start facing life. Do you understand?”
The young man stared at him, taken aback by Faolan’s sudden, grave attitude. Keeley nodded, but stepped back, feeling a bit intimidated by Faolan’s serious demeanor. Although the earl’s words rang true, Keeley couldn’t dismiss his fears all at once, and he knew being close to the man would melt his restraint.
Seeing Keeley’s emotions waver, Faolan felt his patience ebb.
“You hear my words, but you don’t feel them. You don’t let them in,” he stated. Faolan realized that the time for words had passed. Action was needed. “It looks like I’ll just have to persuade you then, won’t I?”
Faolan’s fiery, determined eyes left Keeley no question as to his intentions. For a moment, Keeley was at a loss for words. Deep inside, he knew the truth: he did want Faolan—he wanted to be taken and possessed by him. His body trembled.
“No…I don’t want this,” Keeley lied, a last ditch effort to deny his feelings and somehow escape the situation.
“I doubt that,” the earl replied, grabbing hold of him and pulling the young man against him. Faolan smothered his mouth in a kiss so demanding and untamed it stole Keeley’s breath away. By the time the earl drew back, Keeley was lightheaded.
With one arm holding the boy tightly, Faolan slipped a hand between their bodies and cupped Keeley intimately.
“See, your body knows what it wants,” Faolan said with a smile.
Keeley gasped and struggled.
“Still the untamable colt, I see.” With that, the earl picked him off his feet and slung Keeley effortlessly over his shoulder.
“We’ve put this off too long, Keeley. Tonight you will belong to me.”