Rian poured a round of whiskeys, but Faolan waved him off. “I think I’ll have to skip the drink,” Faolan said, excusing himself.
Larkin watched his friend depart, and saw the way Keeley’s eyes followed the man so eagerly. It wasn’t right for Faolan to continue to punish the boy this way and Larkin intended to tell him so. It was almost a relief to have something to talk to Faolan about—other than his own situation—and he knew Faolan would want to discuss it. Standing, he took Rian’s proffered whiskey and shot it back down his throat.
“Ah,” he commented, “a lovely burn.” He smiled down at Rian. “Thank you for staying so calm with Clair—even though she doesn’t deserve it.”
“You’re terrible,” Rian said, shaking his head, but he smiled.
Larkin knew he was one of the luckiest men alive to have the pretty brunette at his side. Why couldn’t everyone else see that? Why couldn’t the world just accept love when and where it bloomed? He gave a sad sigh, leaning down to place a chaste kiss over Rian’s forehead, the boy’s unruly hair tickling his nose as he did so.
“I’m going to speak with Faolan.”
“You’ll go, won’t you?” Rian asked, looking concerned. “To visit your father, I mean.”
“Yes, I suppose I will have to,” Larkin replied, brushing his fingertips along the young man’s chin. In many ways, Rian was more mature than he was—he never shrank from his duties as Larkin did, even if it meant sacrifice.
If Larkin left, they both knew quite well that Rian would not come with him. Yet Rian was still concerned that Larkin do the right thing and made amends with his family, despite the way they treated him. “We’ll talk later, love,” Larkin said as he turned and followed Faolan up the stairs.
As the man departed, Rian turned to Keeley, offering him a drink as well. The young man was pressed into a corner of the sofa, looking uncomfortable after the tender display between the two other men. He took the whiskey, attempting to swallow it swiftly as Larkin had, and sputtered badly as it went down the wrong pipe.
Rian patted his back, then went to pour his own drink. Keeley looked mildly surprised when the servant helped himself.
“Would you like another?” Rian asked.
Keeley shook his head and watched as Rian downed the whiskey without a blink. It felt odd to be alone with him when they so rarely were. Keeley realized that he hadn’t had any close friends his own age since his family’s passing; he found himself drawn to the other young man—particularly since Rian seemed more approachable than usual.
“How can you be so nice to Clair when she’s so terrible to you?” Keeley found himself asking. He hadn’t meant to ask, but somehow it had come out.
Rian shrugged. “She and Larkin look so much alike, I can’t seem to dislike her. And…well, I respect her in my own way.” His expression turned wistful as he added, “It would be nice to have the approval of at least one member of Larkin’s family, so…I can’t help trying.”
Though his words were mature, Rian’s face looked very young as he spoke. Keeley could see in his eyes the yearning for acceptance that he so often kept hidden. He felt as if he was finally beginning to understand him.
Venturing another question, Keeley asked, “Why is it that Larkin is so against accepting his inheritance? If he was master of the house, he could have you with him whether or not his family approved.”
Twisting the small shot glass in his hand, Rian explained. “But I would not go with him if he lived at his family’s estate, and he knows it.”
“But…why not?” Keeley asked with surprise.
Rian gave him an odd smile. “Because I pledged my loyalties first and foremost to Earl O’Callaghan. He was the one who saved me from my…former life. I owe everything to him.”
“Even so, I’m sure Faolan would want you to be happy—I don’t think he would hold you to an old pledge,” Keeley offered, his voice slightly distressed.
“I’m sure he wouldn’t, but I will not break my word,” Rian insisted. “Faolan is my master, nothing will change that, even though my heart belongs to Larkin.”
“But…” Keeley began. His words fell away as he thought, that’s so sad.
“Don’t look so distressed, young sir,” Rian offered, his usual humor coming back to him. “It isn’t as if I would never see Larkin if he went back to his family. Besides,” he said with a crooked grin, “if I know Larkin, he has no desire to be an overseer in the first place. I doubt he’ll settle there—although it may take some effort to arrange that.”
Keeley didn’t look entirely convinced, but he nodded, handing his glass back to Rian.
“Now, I must make sure the meal preparations are underway,” Rian said, and they exited the room together.
While Keeley and Rian talked, Larkin searched out Faolan, finding the man in one of the studies that Keeley used to frequent. Larkin wondered if his friend was consciously aware of the fact he’d gotten into the habit of visiting so many of Keeley’s favorite spots while the boy had been missing. he apologized to Faolan for causing such a scene with his sister and planned to move the conversation to Faolan’s own behavior toward Keeley. Unfortunately, Larkin found his friend pensive and edgy and decided it was best not to open another discussion that would descend into an argument.
However, when they all gathered for the next meal, the atmosphere of the room was subdued and dismal. Although Faolan didn’t display any more anger toward Keeley, he spoke to him as if he were just another member of the household. It was as if they had never been lovers, as if Keeley had not been missing for the past several months and Faolan had not been torn up over it for just as long. Larkin and Rian exchanged looks, wondering at Faolan’s apparent attitude of indifference.
Still, neither of them made a move to intervene, assuming that Faolan’s cool demeanor would gradually ease away, but the next day was much the same. In fact, Faolan seemed even more distant toward the young man who had once been his lover. Keeley did not take the treatment well. His initial pain and sadness quickly turned into anger and frustration.
“Something has got to be done about those two,” Larkin told Rian after the other two men had left the table. “I can’t leave with things like this.”
Rian put a hand on his hip from where he stood clearing the dishes from the table. “Don’t start giving me excuses about how you can’t leave, just so you can avoid working out matters with your family.”
“No, no. That’s not what I meant,” Larkin replied, shaking his head and lending a hand. “I won’t put off my visit, but something must be done, which means it must be done soon.”
Rian’s hand dropped, his attitude softening. “Perhaps,” he replied, adding, “I admit that the two of them don’t seem to be making much progress on their own.” He brushed Larkin’s hand aside when the man reached for another plate. “I’ll take care of this,” he told him. “Go talk to Master Faolan. You may as well get some practice at negotiating compromises—you’ll no doubt need the skill when you return home,” Rian quipped.
Larkin grinned at him, dropping a kiss over Rian’s lips and whispering his thanks before leaving the room.
“Come in,” Faolan replied after Larkin knocked on his bedroom door. Larkin hesitated a moment. His friend’s voice sounded anything but inviting. “Ah, it’s you,” he said upon seeing Larkin step inside.
Settling himself in a chair opposite the other man, Larkin lit the pipe Faolan so graciously offered him. However, the man’s politeness didn’t distract him from his purpose or make him curb the bluntness of his words as Larkin commented, “I never thought I would be the one to have to warn you of acting immature—but bloody hell Faolan, how long do you think you can go on dismissing Keeley? Stop punishing him—and yourself for that matter.”
“I’m not trying to punish anyone,” Faolan insisted, standing and leaning restlessly against the mantle of the fireplace. “Not anymore at least. My anger has passed.”
“Well, you’re managing to do a grand job of it just the same.”
Faolan sighed, his brows coming together and his eyes looking troubled and unhappy. “Larkin,” he began, “the first moment I laid eyes on Keeley, I wanted him. I saw something special within him and I felt the dark forces gathering around him, yet I may have acted too rashly. If Keeley’s safety had been my chief concern, there were others with whom I could have entrusted him. Instead, I took him into my service—for my own selfish desires…and Keeley has paid the price for it.”
Larkin watched him, mulling over this twist in his friend’s thinking. He’d assumed Faolan was simply still hurt from discovering the reasons behind Keeley’s disappearance. But evidently Faolan had already buried his anger and was now using his caring as an excuse to build a wall in his heart against the boy. Larkin almost would have preferred the anger.
“Keeley’s suffering wasn’t your doing. Kane was the one pulling the strings from behind—if you hadn’t been there, Keeley would already be in his clutches—or dead,” Larkin said with conviction.
“I am not so sure,” Faolan said thoughtfully. “I also encouraged Keeley to cultivate and awaken the powers inside him. That may also have led to the breaking of the locket that had protected him for so many years.”
“I doubt that. In any case, what is done is done. Kane has been dealt with and now Keeley’s powers—for good or ill—are very much awake. He needs someone to help him learn to control them. You can’t just bury your head in the sand when he needs you most!”
Despite Larkin’s words, Faolan remained stubborn. “Others could train him—you for one. I’m not sure it’s wise for me to take on the task. When it comes to Keeley, my sight seems to fail me. And if I can’t be a help to him, it’s best I let him go.”
This unconvincing speech irritated Larkin to no end. Faolan was a fool if he honestly believed he could simply give Keeley up, and Larkin knew it. However, he refrained from voicing his thoughts aloud. Faolan was obviously not listening to him, so Larkin would give up on trying to convince him with words. It was time for action.
That evening after dinner, Larkin crawled into bed, Rian slipping in next to him. “Did you have any luck with Faolan?” Rian asked as he pressed himself up to the man’s side. He sighed in contentment at the feel of their warm, bare bodies against one another.
“None,” Larkin answered dryly. “He and Keeley are too alike—they’re both stubborn to a fault.” Shifting, he rearranged his arm so that Rian could cradle his head on his shoulder as they lay together.
“What’s to be done, then?” Rian asked.
With a self-satisfied grin, Larkin told him, “I’ve got a plan.”
Rian chuckled at his lover’s typical confidence, granting him a lopsided smile in return. “Is that so?”
“Well,” he explained, “Faolan may be able to fool himself, but I know him too well. He just has to be reminded of how much he needs Keeley and all this nonsense will be over.”
Shaking his head, Rian said, “You always make everything sound so simple.”
“Most people make life more complicated than it has to be.”
Rian was quiet for a moment before replying, “But sometimes it can’t be helped. This situation with your family definitely isn’t simple.”
Looking down into Rian’s grey eyes, Larkin traced the young man’s chin. He could see the concern in those depths, and it reminded him of all the reasons he cared for him. Rian always put his own needs last, rarely even acknowledging them.
To most people, the young servant appeared mature and collected, but Larkin knew his history and he could see the chinks in Rian’s armor. It wasn’t often that he let his weaknesses show, even with Larkin. But when he did, Larkin knew he had to handle Rian with care—and he cherished those moments when Rian chose to open up to him.
“You needn’t worry about that, I’ll take care of it. I would never let anything keep me from you for long, love.”
Rian glanced away. “But you have more responsibility toward your family than you have to me.”
Larkin sat up then, pulling his lover into his lap and tilting his chin up so Rian would have to look at him directly in the eye. “My loyalties are right here—with you. I was born into my family, but I chose you for myself.”
Two sea-grey eyes looked back at Larkin, distressed. “But I can’t give you the same loyalties, can I? I am causing you to choose sides, but you’ve never forced me to do the same.”
“Have I ever complained?” Larkin asked.
“No, and you have never made any demands on me, even when you wanted to. Even now.” He paused, seeing Rian’s head drop again. Larkin slipped his arms about him and nestled the boy close in his arms. “I know that you don’t want me to leave—especially when it could be for months. I know you’d rather keep me all to yourself, but you won’t say it.”
“What good would it do? This visit is something that must be done,” Rian said, his forehead resting on Larkin’s shoulder.
“Even if this trip can’t be helped, you should never hold back from telling me how you feel.” As he spoke, Larkin felt one of Rian’s hands come up and rest over his heart.
“It would be selfish of me to want to keep you all to myself.”
Larkin caught Rian’s face in his hands and bent down to kiss him. “Everyone is entitled to be a little selfish with the one they love,” he said. “You and Faolan should learn that.”
Rian’s stormy eyes began to brim with tears, his suppressed emotions coming to the surface and overflowing at last. “Lark,” he whispered.
“Love isn’t always easy to find,” Larkin said, kissing at Rian’s tears. “No one will blame you for wanting to hold onto it tightly, for wanting to be a little possessive.” As he spoke, he stroked Rian’s back, smoothing his fingers over the scars that crisscrossed the pale skin. “You can be as selfish with me as you like. Let me spoil you,” he whispered into his ear as he felt the wetness of Rian’s tears fall onto his chest.
Rian’s arms wrapped around him and squeezed tightly. He looked up—his face tear-stained and chestnut locks disheveled—yet Larkin had never thought him more beautiful than in these moments of vulnerability.
“I love you, Larkin.”
“I know, and I love you. So trust me.”
Closing the space between them once more, Larkin smothered Rian’s mouth as he held him captive. Rian felt his hands brush the sides of his face, then drift down his throat and shoulders—and he gave himself over completely.
Larkin felt the younger man’s silent submission and lowered him back, trapping him beneath his body. Rian’s knees were pushed up to his chest and he moaned into Larkin’s mouth. Knowing his lover’s preferences, he took Rian’s wrists in one hand and explored him with the other. He knew the thrill and the odd sense of security Rian took in being held down by him, by having Larkin take charge so he could surrender himself without hesitation.
Although Larkin had planned to take his time, to coax the young man into a fevered frenzy, the desire between them escalated too quickly and before he knew it, he was burying himself in Rian’s sweet, yielding depths. Releasing his wrists, Rian clung to him openly, whimpering in desperate pleasure as Larkin slammed home.
Their lovemaking was fast and deep, pushing them both over the edge before they were prepared. But the night was young, and they would spend the rest of it reminding each other of the passion and love that bound them together and radiated through their hearts. Distance or no, that connection would never fade.
Keeley sat, trying to concentrate on his reading while Larkin and Faolan showed Clair out from the study. They had been discussing Larkin’s plans to return home. In one short week, the man would be riding off with Clair, and no one really knew how long it would be before his return.
With a seemingly nonchalant glance, Keeley watched Rian clear the tea and cakes from the table and gather them onto a tray. Although it wasn’t obvious, Keeley saw the small signs that marked the servant’s uncharacteristic nerves. It must be difficult for him, Keeley thought.
A few minutes later, Larkin and Faolan returned to the study, sitting down and reviewing the travel details. Larkin gave Rian a wink and a grin as he passed him, and he smiled back. Keeley had spied Larkin giving many of these small reassurances to his lover since his plan to leave had been finalized. If only Keeley’s own lover would give him some sign of affection, he thought dejectedly. Although Faolan had not been curt with him lately, Faolan’s behavior was hardly that of a lover, and Keeley felt a painful emptiness fill him whenever he looked at the man.
“So everything is in place now,” Keeley heard Larkin say. He couldn’t tell if the man was pleased or disappointed.
“Yes,” Faolan replied. “At least, almost everything.”
Although Keeley tried not to notice, he saw the meaningful look that passed between the two men. Larkin seemed to nod and then he stood, making some excuse or another to depart. Since Rian had already left for the kitchens, it left Keeley and Faolan alone.
Keeley squirmed a bit, suddenly feeling self-conscious as the other man stood and walked over to him. Lately, Keeley always felt as if his emotions were straining at the seams. He’d never had much patience, and he longed to look Faolan straight in the eye and demand the handsome man stop treating him with such disregard—but something always held him back. Maybe it was the fear that Faolan would look at him right back and tell him that he didn’t love him, that the months apart had cooled his affections. Keeley’s instincts told him that couldn’t be true, but his fear still kept him in check.
“Keeley,” Faolan said as he seated himself in a chair next to him. “There is something I wanted to discuss with you.”
“Yes?” Keeley replied, attempting to sound casual, though his heart was pounding at Faolan’s nearness.
“I have something to ask you, and I want you to hear me out before you give me your reply.”
It was not a promising start, but Keeley nodded, trying to remain calm.
Faolan paused before he spoke again, as if he was assessing the young man and trying to gauge exactly how to phrase his words. “You know that this journey will be difficult for Larkin.”
“Yes, of course.”
“He could use some support, but as you know, Rian will be staying here.”
Get to the point! Keeley said to himself.
“I have been considering an arrangement that I believe would benefit not just Larkin, but you as well.” Faolan paused. “I would like you to accompany Larkin on his trip, and stay with him as his valet while he is away.”
Wide blue eyes blinked up at Faolan in confusion, a myriad of emotions stirring in the azure depths. “You want me…to leave?” he asked, incredulous. Of all the things he could’ve said, Keeley had not expected this. Faolan wanted to send him away?
“Larkin will need all the help he can get while he is sorting out his family affairs. You could be a great help to him.”
This is wrong! Keeley wanted to shout. All wrong!
Faolan continued as Keeley stared at him in silent bewilderment. “And I believe it would be good for you as well. You’ve much to learn about your powers. Larkin can help you with that. It will also give you some time to…think.”
“What do you mean?” Keeley asked suspiciously. As he collected himself, his surprise was fading and slowly being replaced with anger.
Faolan seemed to sense the change in Keeley’s demeanor and spoke carefully but firmly as he said, “It will give you some space, to consider what it is you really want. There is a wide world outside these walls, Keeley. I want you to choose your own path.”
Keeley’s eyes narrowed, his temper simmering now that he realized what Faolan was driving at. “You make it all sound very magnanimous, but why don’t you come out and say the truth? What you really want is to get rid of me!”
Seeing that the young man was going to be stubborn, Faolan’s expression turned guarded and stern. “Think what you will, but this arrangement would be for the best, Keeley.”
Faolan’s rigid manner only served to throw fuel on the fire of Keeley’s already volatile temper. “Like hell! You can say what you like, but I’m not going!” Another thought struck him, “Besides, I don’t think Larkin would agree to it either!”
“He already has. I spoke with him yesterday.”
This news came as a blow to Keeley, who had thought he’d had an ally in Larkin. In the past few days, Larkin had tried to reassure him that Faolan would come to his senses. He had even said that he’d help encourage Faolan to mend his ways. That Larkin would agree to take Keeley along—and without even telling him about it—was quite unexpected.
Faolan had also been surprised at his friend’s ready compliance with his plan. So much so that it had even made him suspicious of the man’s motives, but he couldn’t exactly argue with Larkin for agreeing with him.
“I don’t care!” Keeley shouted. “I won’t let you send me away!”
Faolan saw the familiar expression of hurt and defiance over his former lover’s face and his head dropped. He’d known this would be hard, but it cut into him to see the pain behind Keeley’s eyes.
“Do you remember why you first came to see me?” Faolan asked.
The soft tone of the man’s voice caught Keeley off guard. He blinked. It seemed ages ago when he first stepped through the door to Faolan’s mansion on that auspicious All Hallows Eve.
“It was because you wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” Faolan continued. “You wanted to do more for the Brotherhood, for your Catholic community, but there has been little opportunity for that with everything that had happened since you arrived here.”
“I also became part of the Society,” Keeley reminded him. “I pledged myself to you.” The boy was seething. “Or have you forgotten?”
“I’m trying to do right by both of us Keeley,” Faolan told him. “I’m offering a way for you to refocus on those original goals. The Brotherhood is strong near Larkin’s estate; you would have more opportunities there. Give yourself time to think it over.”
Keeley stood, fists clenched at his sides, fuming—and anguished. “I don’t need time to think it over, damn it!” he snapped, rushing passed Faolan and out the door.
From down the hall, Faolan heard Keeley slam his door shut, and he put a hand to his face, sinking down deeper into his chair. He didn’t feel much better than Keeley at that moment. His heart felt as if it were slowly being torn from his chest.
As firm as he had been with Keeley, Faolan still wasn’t sure he could actually do this. Could he really send Keeley away—send him out of his life? Deep inside, he knew he was wavering, and it would take only a nudge to break his resolve. Faolan cursed aloud. How had things come to this? Perhaps it was wrong to rush such a decision. At the very least, he needed to speak with Keeley about their situation in a more calm, collected manner. He waited a few moments to clear his head, then ventured down the hall to Keeley’s room.
Unbeknownst to the other men, Larkin had been eavesdropping from just outside the study lounge, listening to the progression (or deterioration) of the conversation within. Faolan had been right to have his suspicions about Larkin’s motives. In actuality, he had no intention of taking Keeley along with him, but it had served his purposes to accept without argument. Let Faolan have his way, he thought. The man will see soon enough how foolish the decision is.
As Keeley had swept out the door, Larkin had slipped inside one of the nearby rooms and watched as the young man stalked passed. The pain in Keeley’s face had been obvious and unmistakable. Larkin shook his head. What a mess Faolan was making of things—and it was so uncharacteristic of him.
Larkin reflected then on the tenure of their friendship. They had met when they were quite young, just children really, and had struck up an instant rapport. As young men they had gotten into every kind of mischief together, and Larkin couldn’t deny that on occasion they had flirted (and more) together as teenagers. But when they entered adulthood, it had always been Faolan who had kept a steady head, and faced his responsibilities. He’d taken Larkin in whenever he had a row with his father, and had given him direction and drive when he’d formed the Society. Thinking on it now, Larkin owed him quite a lot.
Yet he had never seen Faolan act the way he was now—petulant, selfish, and stubborn. Love does funny things to people, Larkin mused. He thought about how he was finally being called to face responsibility—toward his family and, in a way, toward Faolan as well. A lopsided grin spread over Larkin’s mouth. Rian, though younger, had probably been the influence that opened his eyes to the fact he could no longer turn away from his duties. He hoped this time apart wouldn’t be too hard on the boy, though.
Shaking his head, Larkin focused again on the task at hand: sorting out this mess between Keeley and Faolan. It would take a bit of pushing, but Larkin knew that his plan was necessary to force his friend to face the truth of his feelings. And Faolan’s harshness towards his would-be lover was going to make it that much easier for Larkin to put his plan in motion.
Stepping quietly down the hall, he made his way to Keeley’s door. Without even pressing his ear to the wood, Larkin could hear the young man’s angry shuffling within, and the telltale sniffling. He knocked softly.
“Leave me the hell alone!” Keeley shouted, but Larkin opened the door regardless, relieved that Keeley had forgotten to lock it.
“I said—” Keeley began, but stopped mid-sentence when he saw who it is. “Oh,” he said, sulky and embarrassed, “it’s you.”
Larkin smiled despite the cool welcome. “How are you?” he ventured.
Keeley’s temper flashed in his eyes, anger alighting the blue depths. “How do you think I am!” he snapped.
“It was just a question,” Larkin replied amiably.
The man’s calm demeanor seemed to deflate some of Keeley’s fire, but he began to pace, restless in heart and mind after the discussion with Faolan. Then he suddenly turned to Larkin, as if he had just remembered something.
“Why did you agree to take me as your valet?” he asked in a low, brooding tone. “Why?”
Larkin gave a sigh. “Stop pacing and come sit down,” he said gently, sitting down on the young man’s bed and patting the space next to him. He was glad to see that even though Keeley was irritated with him, he seemed to be saving the brunt of his anger for Faolan.
Although Keeley threw Larkin a glare, he did finally sit down, crossing his arms and looking defensive.
“Now,” Larkin said, “let me explain.”
“Fine,” Keeley snipped impatiently.
“The reason I accepted was because I thought you might want some time away—time to travel a bit, time to consider everything that has happened recently.”
“Like I told Faolan, I don’t need time!”
Staying composed, Larkin replied, “I was trying to be considerate, Keeley. Please don’t yell.”
Looking slightly chastised, the young man glanced at him and muttered, “Sorry.”
“And I’m not ordering you to accompany me.” This seemed to placate Keeley, and Larkin went on, “I just thought, maybe we would be able to help each other.”
“What do you mean?”
Larkin smiled then, a warm, inviting grin. “It’s going to be difficult for me without Rian. It would be nice to have a familiar face around.”
“Maybe I could convince Rian to go with you.”
“We both know that’s not likely,” he said. “Would it be so bad, to come with me?” Larkin asked.
Keeley felt flustered by the man’s reasonable arguments when he’d been so determined to remain furious. “That’s…not really the point. Faolan doesn’t want to deal with me, so he’s just trying to conveniently send me off somewhere.” Keeley couldn’t hide the pain that was slowly creeping into his voice. “He doesn’t want me here.”
With a sympathetic sigh, Larkin put a hand on his shoulder. “He’s been hurt, Keeley. It’s not uncommon for people to withdraw or try to protect themselves when that happens.”
“Don’t you think I know that!” Keeley yelled, but his voice was quivering with pain now as much as rage. “I-I’ve been hurt too!” he added in a quieter voice, laced with anguish. “It was Faolan who helped me heal before. So…why can’t I reach him to do the same? Why has everything gone so wrong when all I’ve tried to do is help?” Keeley’s gaze fell to the floor as he spoke, and Larkin could see the young man was struggling with himself, trying to hold back his tears.
“Doesn’t he love me?” Keeley asked finally.
Larkin watched as Keeley’s face crumbled, and instinctively he gathered him in his arms, patting his back and offering what comfort he could. Larkin became aware of a presence then, just outside the open door, but he ignored it.
“Keeley, look at me,” Larkin said. The young man obliged and Larkin stared at blue eyes reddened from the sting of tears, cheeks flushed from emotion, and his heart went out to him. Brushing the wetness from his cheeks, he told him, “A man’s heart is a complicated thing.” Then, without any other preamble, Larkin’s lips came down over Keeley’s.
Blinking in surprise and confusion, Keeley felt frozen by his shock. Only Larkin would think that something like this was an appropriate way to ‘comfort’ someone! He should push him away, Keeley thought, but then he hesitated. To the part of him that was dejected and aching, it felt good to at least feel wanted. And another part of him—one which he was not particularly proud of—wanted to kiss Larkin back out of spite for the way Faolan had treated him.
The moment Keeley leaned into the kiss, there was a rush of movement, and the next thing he knew, Larkin was being shoved up against the wall by a bristling, enraged Faolan.
The earl’s emerald eyes glowed fiercely as he held Larkin by the collar and said with a voice like a steel vise, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it matter to you?” Larkin asked, appearing not at all alarmed or putout by the fact that his closest friend looked about ready to slam him right through the wall. “I thought you’d given the boy up?” he asked with a knowing look.
Faolan knew the other man well, and he saw now that the scene he’d witnessed had been orchestrated for his benefit. Larkin had no doubt felt his presence in the hallway and deliberately baited him with the kiss. Faolan’s eyes glared, but he gave a smirk.
“Well played,” he said. Then added, “Now get out!” He proceeded to help his friend with the task by tossing Larkin out the door and locking it soundly behind him.
When Faolan rounded on Keeley, the boy’s big blue eyes widened in alarm. Faolan looked livid, and before Keeley could decide how to react to this turn of events, he was swept up in the man’s arms. When Faolan spoke, Keeley could hardly believe his ears.
“I’m sorry,” came Faolan’s voice, his breath stirring Keeley’s hair. “I’m so sorry, Keeley.”
An overwhelming emotion crashed over the young man at these words. Had Faolan finally come to his senses? Had all it taken was one kiss to stir the man’s jealousy and make him realize the futility of running from his feelings?
Somehow, Keeley knew the answer wasn’t that simple. Despite Faolan’s aloof attitude towards him, Keeley now recognized that he must have been fighting against himself since the moment they had been reunited. Maybe he had been scared, just as Keeley had been scared after his experiences with Rudwig. Although the reasons behind their fear might have been different, the emotion was not so foreign that he couldn’t understand what his lover might have gone through—and forgive him for it. He would also have to forgive Larkin for his behavior, for Keeley knew now he’d only acted to force Faolan into accepting the truth the man was trying so hard to deny.
Two arms came up to embrace Faolan’s waist. Keeley breathed in the comfort and warmth of Faolan’s touch.
“I can’t give you up,” Faolan told him. “I can’t let anyone else have you.”
Keeley’s grip tightened as another swell of emotion brought fresh tears to his eyes.
“Faolan,” he whispered.
Upon hearing the young man’s breathy voice, Faolan pulled back, holding Keeley’s face in his hands. “I’m going to do now what I should’ve done the moment I saw you in that field.” Faolan crushed his body into his own and smothered his lips with a searing, demanding kiss that forced Keeley’s submission.
Keeley soon found himself looking up at Faolan from his back on the bed. Everything was happening so fast it was difficult to process, but he didn’t want to stop. It felt as if it had been forever since Faolan had touched him. A hunger that had been steadily building within him now rose to the surface with a sharp pang. “I missed this,” Keeley said softly.
Faolan looked down at him, and his deep green eyes shone with a sadness so keen it almost made Keeley wince at the sight of it. “By God, Keeley, I missed you so much.” The young man saw now all that Faolan had been wanting to hide: all the pain and vulnerability that had eaten away at him for months while Keeley had been missing. “It was hell with you gone,” Faolan confessed in a hushed voice.
It was Keeley’s turn to take the other man’s face between his palms, so that Faolan met his eyes. “I’m here now,” Keeley said, and lifting his lips, he placed a sweet kiss over his lover’s mouth. “Touch me.”
At those words, it was as if all the last tethers hindering Faolan’s stunted emotions were released, and he kissed Keeley with such pent-up passion Keeley thought he would pass out from the heat of it.
Clothing was torn and scattered as the two men—so long deprived of one another—tried to make up for every minute they had lost. Frantic hands searched for and explored every inch of bare skin as it was exposed. Lips mapped fiery paths down secret curves and hidden valleys.
Their ecstatic moans mingled and echoed out into the hall, where Larkin and Rian stood, listening by the door and grinning at one another.
“I’d say your plan was successful,” Rian remarked. An Oh, God, Faolan! drifted out to their ears and Larkin nodded with a soft chuckle. “Yes, I’d say it was.”
Rian reached out a greedy hand, grabbing the front of Larkin’s trousers and pulling him forward until they were pressed intimately together. “Now that they are taken care of…” he said, letting his words dangle as he raised an eyebrow. Larkin gave a wicked, playful smile in return and promptly pushed his lover up against the wall, pinning him.
The young man’s eyes glowed and he sighed rapturously as his wrists were held above his head. Larkin planted teasing kisses over Rian’s panting lips before slipping lower, nipping and sucking down the line of his graceful throat. When he discarded Rian’s cravat and bit down into the juncture of his shoulder and neck, Rian gasped loudly.
“Tsk,” Larkin clicked his tongue in rebuke. “Someone might hear you,” he teased. “We’re not the performers today,” he said with a wink as a loud cry erupted from the room behind them. Grasping both Rian’s wrists in one hand, he ran a hand down his side and watched with riveted eyes as Rian visibly shuddered. A heady moan escaped his rose-petal lips and Larkin shook his head in mock-reprimand.
“Looks like you might need help keeping quiet,” Larkin said with a grin. Pulling out a handkerchief, he gagged the handsome young man.
Rian’s face was flushed with excitement and anticipation as he stared up at his lover. Larkin wasted no time in yanking off Rian’s pants so he could settle more comfortably between the boy’s naked thighs. And it wasn’t long before Rian was wrapping his legs about his waist in encouragement. Larkin used Rian’s cravat to bind his hands and then moved Rian’s arms around his neck.
With Larkin’s body pinning Rian firm up against the wall, he was able to use his free hands to unfasten the servant’s waistcoat and shirt beneath. Rian whimpered helplessly against his gag as Larkin began exploring him. Strong hands slid up and down his sides, squeezing the young man’s hips as Larkin swayed into him suggestively. Rian’s eyes shut, his need coming off his body in waves.
Larkin toyed with him a little longer—teasing with him with tongue, and teeth. All the while, the sounds of Keeley and Faolan wafted around them, heightening the aura of arousal.
Leaning in to nibble Rian’s earlobe, Larkin whispered, “You look as if you need a thorough and proper fucking.” Rian groaned, panting against the cloth in his mouth as he nodded vigorously. It was all the encouragement Larkin needed.
Shimmying Rian’s legs higher on his waist, Larkin was able to unfasten his breeches and free his now-pulsing cock. He pulled the gag from Rian’s mouth just long enough to plunge his fingers past Rian’s lips, silently commanding him to wet them with his tongue. Rian complied eagerly, and soon Larkin’s digits were slick enough to provide the necessary lubrication to his waiting erection.
“Hold on tight, love,” Larkin said as he gripped his lover’s hips and glided himself inside. Once he was buried and Rian had adjusted to his girth, Larkin felt free to set loose his full agenda on the boy and rammed into his body with abandon. Neither cared that the rhythmic thuds from their lovemaking would be heard from inside the room. In fact, they rather hoped they would be.
Within Keeley’s chamber, however, the other couple was, for the time being, oblivious to anything outside the circle of one another’s arms. Keeley was writhing naked beneath Faolan, who was engaged in a vigorous session of fellatio. Faolan breathed in the scent of the young man’s arousal, tasted the precum on his tongue, and groaned at the sheer delight of it all. It had been far too long, and now Faolan was torn between a desire to simply ram inside and pillage Keeley without preamble, and a need to delay their pleasure until they were both delirious for completion. He dragged his tongue along the velvety skin of Keeley’s cock and watched the young man arch his back as he gasped. Moving the angle of his head, Faolan swallowed his lover’s entire rigid length and Keeley cried out, “Ah! F-Faolan, wait! I’m gonna—”
“Go ahead,” Faolan coaxed. “I want to taste you.”
The words, in combination with Faolan’s renewed lingual pursuits, had Keeley spasming in unfettered sensual bliss as his climax tore over him. He had forgotten the heights to which his lover could bring him with his amorous talents.
When he caught he breath again, Keeley held his arms out. “I want to feel you over me.”
Faolan obliged, gladly settling his weight atop him. He touched Keeley’s cheek with his fingertips and rained kisses over his upturned face, but Keeley wanted more. Beneath him, Faolan felt the young man’s legs fall open, inviting him in. As Faolan looked into his face, he saw an uncertainty there. Even now, Keeley was waiting for reassurance. Even now, the boy felt Faolan might somehow pull away and leave him. Faolan realized then how much they both needed to renew their connection with one another. And he knew just the way to do it.
Faolan only paused to lick his hand and coat his hard arousal before pressing forward into Keeley’s body. The young man froze in silent rapture as Faolan inched inside. They both felt overwhelmed by the sensation of coming together once more. Faolan thought he might weep at the beauty of it. Dear Lord, but Keeley was just as tight and hot as he remembered. Keeley’s grip squeezed him without mercy and when Faolan looked down at his little lover under him, he saw the same amazement and ecstasy reflected in the glassy gleam of Keeley’s blue eyes.
Faolan remained still a moment when he was completely inside Keeley’s hot channel, and when he pulled his hips back to drive home again with a quick thrust, they both keened with pleasure. After that, Faolan could not stop himself. There was no holding back. As Keeley’s small hands dug into his shoulders, he man impaled him again and again, pausing every now and then to slow his pace just for the delicious agony of it.
“Faolan!” Keeley whimpered. “I love you!” He was lost, drifting on a sea of love and pleasure that crashed over him in a rhythm that seemed to match the beating of his heart.
“Keeley,” Faolan whispered as he held the young man like a precious jewel. “I love you too.”
They were the words that for so long Keeley had desperately wanted to hear, and now they acted as the catalyst to push him violently over the edge. The world fell away, and for a few magical seconds, Keeley was suspended in the midst of his orgasmic bliss. When reality came back to him, he was not disappointed. He was still in Faolan’s arms, and he gazed at his older lover as the man came, his face beautiful in his rapture.
For a long while, they lay together, content, not to mention amused. Larkin and Rian’s thumping could still be heard outside. They didn’t talk but simply enjoyed the feel of being naked and warm next to one another. Talk would have to wait until the next day. Both men knew there was much they still needed to work through, but it was no longer a daunting prospect. The world outside was filled with the unknown, and there was no doubt they would face trials in the future.
Keeley put his hand in Faolan’s and smiled. No matter what lay in wait, of one thing he was certain, and beyond that nothing else mattered.
He was home and he was loved.
“Is there anything else you need, Master Faolan?” Rian asked, as he helped the other servants prepare the dinner table. He poured Faolan his usual glass of _ and returned the decanter to the sideboard.
“No, Rian. Come sit down.”
“I’m…not very hungry.”
The look Faolan gave him brooked no argument, and Rian took a seat next to Keeley.
Larkin had been gone nearly three weeks now and the atmosphere within the house had become increasingly gloomy—not least of all because of Rian’s declining mood. He’d gone from stoic to lethargic to depressed. Keeley had never seen him this way. It was all the more disheartening because things had begun so well.
Keeley swore that Rian and Larkin had spent the entire night before Larkin’s departure trysting. In the morning, Keeley had expected Rian to be downcast, but even though he must’ve been dead tired, Rian glowed with satisfaction and confidence.
It was definitely not how Keeley would’ve felt had he been in his shoes—he would have felt abandoned—but Rian was obviously secure in Larkin’s affections and need not be concerned over his departure.
Unfortunately, Rian’s surety ebbed as the weeks went by. It was difficult to watch.
“Faolan and I were thinking of taking a ride out to _ tomorrow, would you like to join us?” Keeley asked lightly, helping himself to the steaming roast pork before him. If nothing else, maybe he could get Rian’s mind off of waiting for his absent lover.
“Thank you, no. If word arrives from Larkin, I’d like to be here.”
Keeley looked visibly deflated. Faolan frowned.
“If a letter comes,” Faolan said, “you can read it just as well in the evening as you can in the morning.”
“I…” Rian began, looking ready to argue. Then he let a breath out. “Yes. I…I’ll think about it.”
Faolan nodded, spooning potatoes and butter-sautéed carrots onto his plate and they began to eat in silence. Unfortunately, such instances had become common over the last few days—as did the conversation which followed the awkwardly quiet dinner.
“Have you thought over my request, Master Faolan?” Rian asked, once the dishes had been cleared away.
Faolan gave a heavy sigh. “It hasn’t even been a month, Rian. It’s too soon to rush out to Larkin’s estate—especially uninvited. Let him deal with his family alone. He’ll let us know if we’re needed.” He paused before adding, “You knew this was how it was going to be.”
“I would be satisfied waiting—if he were writing me as he said he would. But one letter in three weeks! Even you must admit that is unusual.”
Keeley watched this exchange with uneasiness. He’d never seen Rian so worked up, and so blatantly arguing with Faolan. Rian was always so mellow.
“We all knew it was going to take some time,” Faolan replied patiently. “It only feels like forever because you’ve never been apart. Trust me, I can sympathize.”
Rian refrained from replying and continuing to bicker, but he grit his teeth in frustration. He has his own suspicions about Larkin’s silence—whether or not Faolan acknowledged him. If only Faolan’s intuition was sparking--then he’d do something about this! Rian was convinced something was blocking it—or maybe his powers hadn’t fully returned since the Queen had restored them. Rian didn’t know. What he <i>did</i> know was that something was <i>wrong</i>. Larkin wouldn’t go this long without writing him.
“If you’ll excuse me,” Rian said. Tossing his napkin down, he pushed his chair back and left the room.
Faolan gave a long sigh after the door had shut behind him. The rest of the meal was rather gloomy, and they finished the meal in silence—each man occupied with his own thoughts. When they finally retired to Faolan’s study, Keeley noted that Faolan opted not to ring for tea, instead heading straight for his favorite chair.
Keeley settled into the sofa. Tentatively he asked, “Do you think Rian is alright?”
Faolan shrugged and stood to help himself to the whiskey on his desk. Tossing back a generous portion of the amber liquor, he shook his head. “I didn’t think Rian would react this poorly to Larkin’s absence; he’s always quite level-headed about things. Although, it <i>is</i> uncharacteristic behavior from Larkin.”
Keeley frowned. “Are you sure Larkin is safe? Your intuition hasn’t been nagging you at all? Rian seems so concerned… I’m worried for them both.”
“Worry about your training, if you’re going to worry over something,” Faolan grumbled.
“It’s not going <i>that</i> badly!”
“No, it isn’t, but it could also be going far better than it is. You need to concentrate.”
Keeley gave a long, frustrated sigh. “I <i>do</i> concentrate,” he said sullenly. “You just want me to be thinking about it <i>all</i> the time!”
“Yes. Because your powers need to become so natural you have control over them as easily as you do breathing. They need to be a <i>part</i> of you.”
“So you’ve said,” Keeley grit under his breath.
After they’d finally pulled the walls down between them and Keeley had allowed Faolan to take him, Keeley thought they’d spend their days trysting and lounging in one another’s company. After all, his father had been dealt with and there didn’t seem any reason not to enjoy themselves.
Faolan had quickly doused that idea. He’d insisted Keeley begin training so he’d be able to harness the latent powers within him. At first, this idea was exciting—how could Keeley <i>not</i> want to learn to be more powerful, and therefore more helpful to Faolan and the Society? But training repetitive and boring. For weeks of work, he had very little to show for it.
“Don’t pout, Keeley,” came Faolan’s voice.
“I’m not <i>pouting!</i>” he protested, glaring across the room.
Faolan looked at him, tilting his head and a slow smile crept across his face that could only mean trouble.
“Perhaps you need a bit of an <i>incentive</i> to work harder in your training.”
“Perhaps you need to stop being such a bloody <i>ass</i> about it!” Keeley snapped. He would swear that every time he thought they were finally going to be lovers on equal footing, Faolan found an excuse to instill his authority. The man was bossy to the point of obnoxious during the training sessions—pressing Keeley into a vigorous exercise routine to build his stamina while at other times forcing him to sit still for hours ‘focusing’ his energy. And Faolan was always there, pushing and riding him to try harder.
While Keeley glared at him, Faolan merely smirked, a heat building in his eyes that Keeley knew well. When he moved towards him, walking with seduction and purpose, Keeley glared. “Don’t think you can distract me with sex.”
“No? I’m just trying to reward you for your efforts, love.”
Keeley swallowed. Whenever Faolan’s voice took on that silky tone it made his body quiver. It made it far too easy for Faolan to get away with being difficult.
“You’re just trying to get on my good side so I’ll behave when you order me around,” Keeley protested, though his voice wavered as Faolan knelt before him.
“Am I such a stern taskmaster?” Faolan purred, hands slipping up the outside of Keeley’s thighs.
“Y-yes…” But Keeley’s voice faltered and ended in a gasp when Faolan dipped his head to nuzzle the bulge now tenting his pants.
“However will I make it up to you?”
Biting his lip and, willing himself to be assertive, Keeley unfastened his trousers and pulled out his cock. “You can start by putting your mouth on me,” he said, his cheek flushing at his own boldness.
Faolan grinned. It was absolutely delicious to see his young lover growing more aggressive in their bedroom play—especially when it wasn’t confined to the bedroom per se. Clasping Keeley’s hips, he kissed the tip of his erection, the salty tang of pre-cum lingering on his lips.
“More,” Keeley moaned. His fingers twitched, wanting so badly to yank at Faolan’s hair and force him down onto his cock.
One red eyebrow arched in amusement—Keeley’s need was quite transparent. Leaning back slightly, Faolan told him, “Take your cock and guide it into my mouth, my love. Shove it in the way you are obviously dying to do. Hold me still and fuck my face until you burst down my throat.”
For a long moment Keeley stared at him, mouth agape as his arousal fought against his inhibitions. His eyes glittered and his skin flushed pink as hung between them. Then, an adorable look of determination stealing over his face, Keeley gripped his cock with one hand and slipped the other over back of Faolan’s head, nudging him forward until his entire length had disappeared into his mouth.
“Yesss,” Keeley hissed, burying his hands in Faolan’s long red locks. He spread his thighs and scooted down for a better angle, then began pistoning his cock between Faolan’s lips.
Falan would have smiled, had he been able to with his lips stretched around Keeley’s cock. He adored the sight of Keeley giving himself up to his desires. And it was a pleasant change of pace to have the hard length shoved in and out of his mouth—the scent of Keeley’s sweat and sex filling his senses.
Once Keeley began, he couldn’t stop. The warm, wet heat of Faolan’s mouth was amazing. Though the man had tasted him before, this was the first time Keeley had such control over him—and Faolan took all he could give him, emboldening Keeley further. Everything else fell away as Keeley lost himself in the moment. He thrust with unbridled need, and Faolan accepted it all.
“Yes,” Keeley groaned, “take it!” With that his body was seized by an orgasm so intense it stole his breath away. His back arched as his hands clasped Faolan’s head tightly, holding him there as Keeley loosed his seed in thick spurts down his lover’s throat. And Faolan swallowed it all, sucking at his cock until Keeley was utterly spent and slumped onto the sofa with a sigh.
Faolan wiped his lips and smiled at the pretty young man before him. Keeley was the picture of contentment—eyes glazed with post-orgasmic bliss, lips parted and panting. It made Faolan’s already hard cock twitch at the sight of him.
“Shall we remove to the bedroom, love?”
“I…Yes,” Keeley answered, breathless. As amazing as it had felt to force his cock down Faolan’s throat and play the aggressor, Keeley had to admit he still preferred Faolan to take charge, and the inviting, hungry glitter in the man’s eye was about the only thing capable of making Keeley move at that moment.
Taking Faolan’s hand, he stood and fumbled as he retied his breeches—made considerably harder when the candlelight abruptly sputtered out.
“Oh, my,” Faolan said, his surprise utterly disingenuous. “Now how did that happen. Care to light the candles for us, Keeley?”
“<i>Faolan</i>,” Keeley growled. “You did that on purpose!”
“The candles,” Faolan repeated more sternly.
His hands fisting in annoyance, Keeley nevertheless tried to force past his irritation and focus. Deep within him he could feel his latent powers stir to life, like embers stoked in a fire. It curled upward; Keeley could feel the warm glow move from his belly to his chest. Then, picturing the candles in his mind, he sent the energy out. When he opened his eyes, the candles in the room were once again burning brightly.
“Well done,” Faolan said with a soft smile.
It was a small thing, but Keeley was still pleased. The last time he’d tried that trick he’d accidently set a chair on fire.
“You can show me how satisfied you are with my progress once we have a bed beneath us.”
Faolan chuckled, placing a sweet kiss upon Keeley’s lips before leading them toward their rooms.
* * *
Rian heard Faolan and Keeley as they made their way down the hall. He had decided to stay in Larkin’s room while the man was gone. It made him feel less lonesome. Though at the moment, nothing could allay his fears. Rian could not remember being this unsettled since he had been taken from the brothel.
Despite all the dangerous situations the Society had found themselves in, and all the challenges Rian had faced, he had always had faith that Faolan or Larkin would set things to right. He believed in them. Rian hadn’t anticipated this situation being any different.
So why was it proving so hard?
But the answer was obvious: Larkin had always been by his side. Rian hadn’t known how unsettled he would be merely being separated from the man. It wasn’t only the miles though. That he could’ve dealt with. It was the silence, the lack of any correspondence. It nagged at Rian and slipped under his skin like a burr and wouldn’t let his mind rest. And, he had to admit, he was angered that Faolan did not take his concerns more seriously.
Faolan should know Rian wouldn’t bother him with anything unless it was imperative. After all, there was nothing Rian wouldn’t do for Faolan. The man had saved him in ways Rian could never repay. He would always be grateful to him. And because of that he never asked for anything—until now. Why could Faolan not understand what this meant to him? Why couldn’t he see that there was likely more to Larkin’s silence than he liked to admit?
Swallowing his frustration, Rian considered his options. He could wait, see if Faolan would come to his senses. Or…he could take action on his own. The thought of waiting left lead in Rian’s belly.
No, something had to be done.
Rian’s eyes glanced to a corner of the floor and his will wavered. Before he knew it, he was kneeling to pull up the loose floorboard. Gingerly, he lifted out a small leather-bound book. It appeared innocuous enough, but a shiver went through Rian has his hands touched the black leather binding. It was old—<i>very</i> old—and in good condition for its age. And Rian knew why: clearly Faolan had never touched it. He wouldn’t need to. The spells inside were for those without natural magical abilities, and therefore considered more dangerous. Having no actual magical talent, it meant the spell-caster had to borrow the energy from somewhere else. And borrowing never came without a price. Rian guessed Faolan obtained it more to keep it out of the wrong hands than for anything else.
After all that Keeley had been through with his debacle with the Faerie Queen, Rian knew that meddling in magics beyond one’s abilities was asking for disaster. He should put the book back before Faolan noticed it missing, and put this idea far behind him.
Rian slipped the board back into place and stood, telling himself to go straight out the door and return the volume at once. The book weighed surprisingly heavy in his hands as he gazed down at it. Technically, he had already taken part in spells before during various adventures with the Society, but he had never made the attempt on his own. He shouldn’t now…
But he’d already gone so far as to read through several of the spells in the book, and they had seemed straight forward enough. And he had a way around borrowing the magical energies, which was the trickiest part. Just once, he thought. Just to see if Larkin is alright… And if he wasn’t, well, Faolan would be mad at him for casting, but surely when he’d forgive him when realized Larkin was truly in danger?
Rian felt his heart pound as he sat down at the vanity and placed the book before him. He carefully flipped through the pages until he found the spell he was looking for.
One spell, he told himself. How dangerous could it be?
CHAPTER 29: Interlude: Larkin & Rian
Rian slipped his coat over his shoulders with a wince. His back still burned and he wondered if the whip marks would ever heal. Shuddering at a memory that was too fresh for his comfort, he reminded himself that he would never again have to endure such things. He was with Master Faolan now.
The first beams of the sun spilled through his window and Rian nodded in approval at his appearance in the mirror before hurrying off to the kitchens. It had been several months since Faolan took him into his service, and Rian had worked hard to not only be useful, but to be a paragon of dutifulness and diligence. He didn’t know if anyone in the household was aware of his background—surely Faolan would be discreet, but such things had a way of getting around—and Rian was going to give no one an excuse to question Faolan’s decision to take him in.
“Early again today!” beamed the head cook, a portly older woman with red cheeks and a jovial disposition—though Rian had learned early on she had a sharp eye and an even sharper tongue. But she was fair and skilled at keeping everyone in line and working smoothly together. Rian rather liked her.
“Everyday, Mrs. Collins,” Rian told her, busying himself with gathering the china for morning tea service.
The work helped steady him, gave him a routine and kept his mind from wandering too much into a past he would just as soon forget. It felt good to be able to do honest work and to flop into bed exhausted and tired. He’d slept better than he could remember.
After all the twists and turns his life had given him, he was quite content with the predictability of this daily routine in Faolan’s home. Today the earl grumbled as Rian opened his curtains and placed his breakfast tray next to his bed, as Faolan always did. While Faolan awakened and readied himself for the day, Rian had some free time to read, before returning to collect the tray and empty dishes.
Though Mrs. Collins had insisted he need not help in lunch preparations, Rian usually did—unless Faolan had letters or packages for him to deliver. When he brought lunch to Faolan, if the man was free, he would request Rian to join him and ask his new valet how he was getting on. If there wasn’t time for this, Faolan would always insist Rian join him for dinner.
It was a pleasant routine—or it had been, before Faolan’s latest visitor had arrived.
That day Rian found Faolan in his private library when he requested lunch. Rian set the stew and bread on Faolan’s desk, but hesitated before leaving him.
“Is there anything else you require, Master?”
Faolan, deep in thought as he gazed out the window and picked up his tea, did not answer. Rian grinned.
“Perhaps Master would like some… service with his tea?” Rian purred, sidling up to Faolan, gaze intent and blatantly flirtatious. Rian had no sense of shame—the brothel had cured him of such things.
Faolan merely gave a friendly smile and shook his head, walking around his desk to take a seat. “Why don’t you take today to yourself?” he suggested. “Go for a ride, whatever you like. You so rarely take advantage of your freedom here.”
Rian’s demeanor shifted, eyes pained and hard. If there was one thing that troubled him in his new life, it was Faolan’s rebuffs at his advances. “Because there are other things I would prefer to take advantage of right here, Master.” When Faolan shook his head in frustration, Rian frowned and stepped closer.
“Faolan, there you are!”
Silently cursing, Rian moved away from Faolan as the bane of his existence swept into the room.
“Good morning, Mr. O’Carroll,” Rian said, not even bothering to hide his annoyance. “I’m surprised to see you up and about before noon. To what do we owe this honor?”
“Pleasant as always, are we?”
“Larkin, let him be.”
Rian and Larkin exchanged scathing looks before Rian bowed and excused himself.
“What’s the matter with our little mouse?” Larkin asked, falling into the settee near the window. “Is it my imagination, or is he more cross than usual?”
Faolan shook his head. “I wish you wouldn’t bait him. He’s perfectly cordial to everyone else.”
Crossing his arms, Larkin groused, “He’s the one who started it!”
“You are pouting like a child, Lark,” Faolan admonished.
“You coddle him like a child!” he retorted.
Faolan leaned back in his chair with a huff. “I am not going to argue with you. If you have nothing better to do than sit there and sulk, take yourself off and find something useful to do.”
“Why is everyone in such a foul mood today!” Larkin said, standing to help himself to one of Faolan’s biscuits.
“Rian is likely tired—he runs himself ragged. By now I would have hoped he’d understand that I am not going to simply toss him out on the street if he doesn’t work hard enough.” Faolan snatched a biscuit from Larkin’s hand. “Heaven knows I’ve never thrown you out, and you do little more than lounge about the place.”
“What a thing to say! You like having me around and you know it. Besides, I thought I was to help you with this ridiculous ‘Society’…” he waved his hand about, “thing of yours.”
Faolan rolled his eyes. “I’m so glad you’re taking it so seriously,” he replied.
“I am! I rushed over here just to tell you that I had a lead for a case.”
“There’s rumors of a Hell Hound on the moors,” Larkin announced with excitement.
Faolan sighed. “Oh, that. That’s near the O’Dell’s land—their sons were raising a Scottish Deerhound, unbeknownst to their parents. The beast got loose and the boys came up with the Hound rumor to cover for them. No doubt their parents will discover the truth soon.”
“And just how did you know that?”
“Rian overheard the stable-hand chuckling about it—he’s a cousin to the O’Dell’s.”
Larkin’s shoulder’s slumped. “Well, that is…disappointing.”
A chuckle reached his ears and he turned to see Rian as stepped into the room. The smug look on his face left no doubt that he’d overheard the entire discussion.
“These letters arrived for you, Master,” Rian said, handing them over and sending Larkin a smirk as he walked past.
[“So you’re a detective now?” Larkin said, sauntering up next to Rian.
Rian looked at him warily. “I help where I can.”
Thinking that he might catch more flies with honey than vinegar, Larkin gave him a pat on the back. “Good work.”
Rian’s entire body stiffened. Larkin heard a sharp intake of breath from him a moment before a hard slap landed across his face.
He looked down to find Rian blinking up at him, as if he only realized belatedly what he’d done.
“I-I apologize!” Rian said, looked pleadingly at Faolan. “Master, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to strike him! Please—”
Faolan waved him off. “Don’t trouble yourself, Rian. Larkin hardly needs to be fretted over so.”
“Well now!” Larkin said, feigning indigence.
But Rian stood there anxiously, worried he was going to be punished for the transgression.
“Why don’t you check to see if Mrs. Collin needs any help at the market today, Rian?” Faolan suggested.
“Yes, Master!” Rian said, rushing out the door.
“He’s a skittish one, isn’t he?” Larkin said, eyes troubled as he watched Rian flee.
“Don’t touch his back.”
Larkin raised an eyebrow. “A tad possessive of the young lad, are we—‘Master’?”
Faolan rolled his eyes. “I have told him he does not need to address me so. The boy doesn’t listen. He’s rather willful.”
“I like willful,” Larkin said with a leer.
“I am only teasing!” Larkin chuckled. “The chances of my seducing our little mouse are about as likely as me volunteering to be gelded.” He paused. “Still, he’s intriguing. What is his story?”
“That is Rian’s to tell. Maybe if you stopped bickering with him he would actually share it with you.”
“Unlikely,” Larkin replied with a snort.
Faolan shrugged. “Just respect his need for space.” He went back to his paperwork and Larkin took the seat before his desk, frowning at him.
“Why is it you can tell all of our secrets to Rian, yet I am not allowed to be privy to any of his?”
“What are you talking about?” Faolan asked absentmindedly as he broke open his letters.
“Rian has been with you for a matter of weeks and yet you have already told him of our abilities and the Society. You barely know the boy and yet you trust him with such information when I, your old friend, get nothing but vague hints about Rian’s background!”
“Must you whine?” Faolan said, sending him an exasperated look.
“You are so unfair,” Larkin mumbled.
Rian tightened the saddlebags, now laden with the next several day’s foodstuffs, and tried to tamp down his frustration. His reaction to Larkin’s touch had been pure instinct, and he was both disappointed and ashamed by it. He was safe now—why could he not move beyond his past? Need it haunt him even now?
And damn that man!
Rian got on with every other soul in the Earl’s household. Why on earth did Larkin have to push his buttons? Even when the man didn’t mean to—which Rian was certain he hadn’t when he laid his hand across his shoulders.
Gritting his teeth, Rian forced down the unpleasant sensations that roiled through him just thinking about. Why was it Larkin who was able to always get under his skin? The man was unbearable! Snotty, lazy, privileged—everything Rian found distasteful.
But Faolan trusted him.
With steadying breaths, Rian calmed himself. He hopped up onto his chestnut mount and headed back to the estate, but his mind raced almost as quickly as the hooves beneath him. It really was a shame Larkin was so disagreeable. His looks were quite striking. Rian wouldn’t have minded looking at him everyday—if he kept his mouth shut. Not that Rian was interested in anyone but Faolan.
He would always remember the day Faolan rescued him, the way he had stomped into the brothel room and demanded his release. The way the other men had coward and slunk away. Faolan’s gentle hands untying his bonds, his strong arms wrapping him in blankets and carrying him away.
Even after they had arrived at Faolan’s home, he had not handed him over to anyone else, but cared for Rian himself. He’d bathed him, bandaged him, watched over him…
After Rian’s mother had died, he had despaired that anyone else would ever touch him with such gentle affection again. Yet even his mother had not always been there for him. The brothel owner, Jenkins, had made sure to chain her to him, dosing her with drugs until she craved them and the hunger consumed her life.
Rian couldn’t blame her. She had come from nothing and done her best. If she faltered, well, she had only been human, and she had loved him. That he had known and that had been enough.
He frowned as he thought back on those days. It hadn’t been truly bad until he’d gotten older and Jenkins had sent more unsavory types his way. When his mother was alive, she had seen that he learned his letters; one of her regular clients had tutored him in exchange for her services. It all sounded maudlin and disdainful now, but Rian had dealt with it in stride.
After all, it had been all he’d known—until now. And he was determined to secure his life with Faolan—and make Faolan his own.
The Earl was beautiful, intelligent, and kind; and the depth of Rian’s gratitude towards him went into his bones, it was written on his soul. All he wanted was to give all of himself to him. And he’d been so certain that Faolan would come around. Until Larkin had shown up.
Rian had not known what to make of him at first, and now he just wished he would depart as suddenly as he’d appeared. Something about the man rankled him.
Entering the gates of the grounds, Rian pulled up his mount and slowed to a jot as he made his way to the back kitchen. He put his troubling thoughts out of his mind and focused on his duties.
A half hour later found him back in Faolan’s study, giving him the list of foods he’d purchased at the market and Mrs. Collin’s requests for the next week.
“Thank you, Rian,” Faolan said, nodding and making notes in his ledgers.
“I-” Rian hesitated, “I am truly sorry for what happened with Mr. O’Carroll. I did not mean…” He faltered, but Faolan shook his head.
“I told you not to think on it. I hope you know Larkin meant no harm, however.”
Pausing in his work, Faolan steepled his hands—his eyes curious. “Why does he trouble you so?”
Rian bit his lip. “I’m sorry, Master, but I don’t like him. I don’t understand why he has to stay here.”
Faolan sighed. “His living situation is… difficult, with his family.”
“If I may speak frankly, Master…?”
“You know you can, Rian. What is it?”
“It’s just… I know he is your friend, and it is kind of you to look after him, but…” He frowned. “Shouldn’t he be tending to his own problems rather than hiding from them here?”
Faolan smiled at him, and Rian bristled at the humoring tone the man used as he answered, “It is a complicated matter. He has tried, and it is not entirely his fault that he is not welcomed in his home.”
“I suppose it is not my place to question such matters, in any case.”
“Perhaps not in a typical household, but we are hardly typical.” Faolan assured him. “If something bothers you, I would have you tell me.”
Rian nodded. “Yes, Master.”
“Very good. Oh, and I almost forgot. I would like you to join me for dinner this evening.”
“Yes, Master,” Rian repeated, brightening.
When he arrived at the table however, Rian’s anticipation floundered. Larkin was already at the table and the only empty seat was next to him. Keeping his features carefully schooled, Rian joined them.
“Ah, Rian! Come join us,” Faolan said.
Rian didn’t bother to hide his frown as he settled into his chair.
“I’m glad you are both here. There is something we all need to discuss.”
“Will I need a drink for this?” Larkin asked, only half in jest.
Faolan ignored him. “I have a good opportunity to meet with one of the Brotherhood in a neighboring county. I just received word from my contact today giving me the location of a meeting place that will be safe and secret. Unfortunately, the journey will take several days to arrive there.”
“The Catholic Brotherhood?” Larkin asked. “Faolan, you know I support you in this, but you have to be extremely careful. If the Church gets word of this, even you will have trouble defending yourself.”
“I am taking precautions.”
Larkin did not look pleased, and Rian had to admit he agreed with him in this. But if Faolan was determined, what could he say?
“I will make preparations for our journey,” he said.
“I will be going alone.”
“Alone?!” Larkin and Rian said together.
“Yes. It is best I go across the countryside as a simple traveler. Taking a carriage and escort would only draw attention.”
“I don’t like this idea one bit.”
“I am afraid I must agree with Mr. O’Carroll. Master, please, at least take me with you,” Rian pleaded.
“My decision has already been made. Larkin, I would appreciate if you would look over the letters my contact has sent and let me know if you sense anything from the energies left by the writer, just to be certain the man’s intentions are sincere.”
“Other than that, there is only one thing I ask of you both while I am gone.”
Faolan looked at them both and paused as the servants bustled into the room and loaded the table with beef loin, potatoes, and turnips. Not until they had each been served and they were alone again did Faolan continue.
“I want you--both of you—to make an effort to get along.”
Larkin and Rian glanced at one another, neither of them looking particularly thrilled at this request.
“I honestly don’t see why it should be so difficult,” Faolan said, slicing his meat. “You have much in common.”
Larkin arched a skeptical brow. “Such as?”
Faolan shifted in his seat. “You both are accomplished horsemen. Rian, you often ride the chestnut stallion, do you not?”
“Larkin was the one to help train him.”
Rian nodded politely, “I see.”
The moment stretched into awkward silence. Faolan stifled a sigh. This was going to be harder than he thought.
“Also, you both have similar tastes in literature,” he offered. “Rian has been reading much of Locke’s work and Dáibhí Ó Bruadair’s poetry.”
“Have you?” Larkin asked, genuine curiosity in his voice.
“Occasionally,” Rian said uncomfortably. “Though I find Dáibhí Ó Bruadair’s work somewhat pretentious.” He frowned at Faolan. “How do you know what I’ve been reading?”
“I keep a close eye on my library,” he answered with a grin. “Mind you, I was happy to learn that you make use of it. Perhaps you two can debate the merits of Locke versus Berkeley?”
Rian scratched the back of his neck nervously as Larkin eyed him with bemusement.
“Perhaps,” Rian finally said.
Well, it’s not much, Faolan conceded, but it’s a start.
Larkin was bored. Since Faolan had left several days before, Larkin had barely seen Rian. He guessed it was Rian’s attempt at ‘getting along’. He was willing to let things be—for a time. But Larkin’s impatience was starting to gnaw at him; he wanted to at least <i>try</i> to resolve matters. Simply avoiding each other in order to get along felt like… cheating.
Besides, Larkin wasn’t about to make it that easy for Rian. At least, he wouldn’t if he could track the young man down. Rian was proving to be quite elusive. Even when Faolan rang the bell to make a request, Rian was in an out, all brisk efficiency.
Larkin frowned. There had to be a way to corner him, a way to get him to talk so they could move past this wall between them. They both owed Faolan that much effort at least. After all, Larkin’s only issue with Rian was Rian’s dislike of <i>him</i>. He’d actually found the servant quite fetching upon first meeting him. He recalled that first conversation with Faolan regarding his new valet with a grin…
<i>“You do pick them pretty, Faolan.”
“Don’t set your sights on him, Lark.”
“Why not?” Larkin pouted. “Massey was a lovely diversion, but he’s becoming dull. I need a new playmate. And I like the look of this one—he holds himself with more grace and surety than I would expect of someone his age. And his backside is just calling for someone to squeeze it.”
“He’s not to be anyone’s ‘playmate’, but you are right that his is young.”
“But he’s of age?”
“That’s beside the point.”
“Since when are you a champion of chastity?”
“I’m serious,” Faolan insisted, taking Larkin off-guard with the severity of his tone. “Rian has been through hell and he’s still healing.”
“And I am such an ogre, am I? You sound as if I’m out to abuse him.”
“You know I trust you more than that,” Faolan said, “but I also know that you never take lovers for long, and Rian is fragile enough as it—he needs someone who can love him and care for him.”
“And are</i> you <i>that man?” Larkin teased.
“You know that is not what I am implying. I cannot be his lover, but I will still do my duty as his guardian to see that he doesn’t fall into any frivolous dalliances.”
“It is quite amusing to hear you speak this way,” Larkin smirked. “I believe you are a fan of ‘frivolous dalliances’ yourself.”
“Rian is different.”
Larkin shrugged. “Pity,” he muttered.</i>
While he reminisced, Larkin decided to try and track Rian down. He made his way down the hallway that led to the service quarters of Faolan’s home, listening for Rian’s voice. Perhaps Rian wasn’t here, but out in the garden? Then he heard his voice drift out from the kitchens. With a grin, Larkin pressed against the wall near the entrance. He didn’t know why, but it pleased him to listen to Rian’s voice… and he wasn’t above eavesdropping.
“I’ve finished with the dishes,” Larkin heard him say. “What else do you need, Mrs. Collins?”
“Done already? You should take a break, dear. The Earl said he’d be gone at least a fortnight—no need to rush to get ahead when there’s so much time.”
Larkin thought he heard Rian give a begrudging sigh.
“There now,” Mrs. Collins said, setting down a large pot of something by the sound of it. “The soup’s on for dinner. Why don’t we sit down and have some of those apples Sarah brought from the market today?”
“Come on, child. What’s troubling you? Missing Lord Faolan that much already?”
“I know you’re fond of him lad, but this is what he does. He goes off on jaunts like this quite often.”
“If I was truly his valet, he would allow me to join him,” came Rian’s stubborn voice.
“Now, now. Sir O’Carroll is still here, we must look after him.”
Rian’s sigh was telling. Larkin scowled. He wasn’t <i>that</i> bad!
“You don’t like O’Carroll, do you?” the older woman asked.
Mrs. Collins chuckled. “He’s a very handsome man. I certainly don’t mind having him around. But I suppose that doesn’t help you much.”
“I think he’s putting unnecessary pressure on Master Faolan by being here. He doesn’t <i>do</i> anything.”
“You haven’t been here that long, Rian. Sir O’Carroll can be a very good influence of our Master. He takes things in stride; I think Lord Faolan sometimes needs that.”
Larkin heard someone else call from the outside door and Mrs. Collins went to see to whatever was needed. Larkin wasn’t really interested in whatever duties she had to attend to—he was much more intrigued with the idea of catching Rian alone.
With a Chesire grin, he pushed away from the wall and sauntered into the kitchens.
“So this is where you are hiding,” he said, amused when Rian jumped at the sound of his voice.
Rian’s surprise was quickly cloaked, a blank mask falling swiftly into place. “Did you require something, Sir? I did not hear the bell ring.”
“I didn’t pull it.” As he spoke, he looked around—he’d never really explored the kitchens before. The room was massive, with two sets of ovens and stoves and numerous countertops covered with pots, pans, bowls and utensils in varying degrees of use. The far wall had windows facing the gardens and washtubs lining the floor. It was functional, but not unwelcoming. Larkin smelled a heavenly aroma emanating from the stove and glanced into the pot he guessed held the dinner soup Mrs. Collins was making.
“What do you want?” came Rian’s voice.
Turning, Larkin saw him sitting stiffly at one of the large wooden countertops. His tone wasn’t impolite, but Larkin could see the unfriendly light in Rian’s grey eyes.
“I was curious,” Larkin said, walking over to sit next to him. “I’ve never been in this wing of the manor.”
Rian gave an indelicate snort. “Why would you have been? Unless you were snogging one of the help,” he said, giving Larkin a smirk.
Larkin gave a chuckle. He was right of course. Larkin had to admit he liked such directness, along it came at his expense. It was unfortunate that Rian was most straightforward when it came to his dislike of Larkin.
“I believe it is close to tea time,” Larkin said. He winced inwardly at the sad attempt at conversation, but Rian was being even more taciturn than usual.
“I will bring your tea up to you,” Rian said, standing and moving to a row of cabinets along the right wall. “No need for you to wait here.”
“It’s no bother, I can take it here, with you.”
Rian paused in his motions, his back to Larkin. “That’s… It’s not proper.”
Larkin smirked. He found it amusing that Rian stood more on form and propriety than himself. “Does the impropriety bother you? Or just being alone with me?”
Rian turned with a glare, then began preparing the tea for them both, as if in defiance of Larkin’s presumptions. Larkin watched him put the kettle on to boil and set the cups and pot before him. He didn’t know why, but it filled him quiet delight to watch his movements.
Rather than sit to wait for the water to boil, Rian stood before it with crossed arms.
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you a watched pot never boils?” Larkin teased.
Rian didn’t reply. He grabbed a cloth and covered the metal handle to move the kettle off the heat as it began to sing. The silence stretched on as Rian filled the pot and they waited for it to steep.
Larkin silently prayed for inspiration; he could think of nothing to say. He knew next to nothing about the young man before him, and he sensed that any personal questions would not be taken well.
When Rian lifted the pot to fill their cups, Larkin lifted his cup, hoping to help—but Rian misjudged the movement and sent the scalding hot tea spilling over Larkin’s hand.
Larkin hissed in pain, the tea cup shattering on the kitchen tiles as it fell from his hand.
Rian quickly rushed for a rag and ran it beneath the tap to press it to Larkin’s hand. Larkin shook his head with a chuckle. “First a slap to the face, now this—you are intent on abusing me,” he teased.
Flushing with shame, Rian replied stiffly, “I didn’t mean to…”
Larkin moved his other hand over Rian’s. “I know,” he said sincerely. But he could see Rian was shaken—and as troublesome as the young man could be, it distressed Larkin to see him so.
With a frown, Larkin noted, “You’re trembling.”
“I—” Rain faltered.
“Are you afraid of me?”
“What? No!” Rian’s voice was sincere and Larkin was left at a loss.
Rian withdrew. “Please don’t touch me.”
His breathing was unsteady. Whatever trauma Rian had endured, Larkin saw he was still battling it.
“I don’t want to be touched by <i>anyone</i>…”
“Except Faolan,” Larkin supplied gently. “And he will not.”
For a moment, the truth of Larkin’s words struck Rian like a blade to his chest. The vision of this stubborn, willful, beautiful young man suddenly broken tore at Larkin’s heart like hooks through his skin.
Then, swifter than Larkin would’ve thought possible, Rian collected himself to look up and give him a fierce glare.
“It is none of your affair, even if that is true!” Rian snapped. “I do not want the pity of a loafer and scrounger. I do not understand why you are here,” Rian told him. “Master Faolan has mentioned you are somewhat estranged from your family, but that is hardly is fault. Has he not put up with you long enough? You have no reason to be here!”
To Rian’s utter bemusement, Larkin broke into a laugh.
“Now that’s better!”
Rian blinked, then looked at him as if he were daft.
“You’re <i>happy</i> I yelled at you?”
“You make no sense at all!” Rian riled.
“I am glad to see you getting out what is concerning you. I know you’re not overly fond of me, but I would rather you came out and confront me about it then let it fester—arguments are healthy in a relationship.”
“We are not in a ‘relationship’,” Rian said sourly.
“I am well aware of that,” Larkin chuckled. “Though we do have to live together, and Faolan would prefer we are not always at one another’s throats. Surely I am not so bad as all that? I have some redeeming qualities, you know.”
“Yes, I know! And that is what makes you so irksome.”
“I know,” Rian went on, “that beneath all your carelessness you are more than you appear. If you only would try and actually hone your abilities, you could be a good man. A capable man. Someone Master Faolan could fall in for… and I would have no chance against.”
“Rian… is that what this is about? You think I am after Faolan?”
With a scowl, Rian replied, “I didn’t say that! But… you have known one another a long time.” He shrugged. “If something hasn’t happened between you already, it will.”
Larkin rolled his eyes. “When we were young and bored, yes. There was never anything between us but friendship, though—and perhaps a bit of curiosity.”
“That doesn’t mean you still won’t try to bed him,” Rian insisted. “I met many rakes in my time—men like you care little about whom you tumble into bed with as long as it leads to pleasure.”
The words bit deeper than Larkin thought they could. They weren’t exactly true, but they weren’t far from it. “Be that as it may, I respect Faolan and my friendship with him. I would not risk it for a quick fuck.”
They stood staring at one another, eyes narrowed.
Finally, Rian yielded. “Truly?”
Rian released a sigh and his shoulders lost much of their tension; Larkin was more relieved than he had a mind to be that Rian believed him. “You are still irksome,” he said.
“And how is that?”
Rian’s eyes looked him over in such a thorough, critical manner it nearly made him squirm. “You are still not as you choose to seem.”
“You act lazy and indulgent, but it is merely a façade to fool others. I don’t know why you’re afraid of your own potential, but it’s obvious you are capable of more.”
Larkin shut his gaping mouth and tried to think of something to say. No one had ever read him so easily. “I do believe only Faolan would say such a thing—and he has known me most of my life. Where does this sudden insight stem from?”
Rian clicked his tongue and folded his arms. “I know enough of men to be able to see through most people’s tricks.” He paused, eying Larkin as if he was assessing him. Finally he said, “In my old profession, it was a liability if you couldn’t assess someone’s character upon immediately seeing him. You always had to know what kind of person they were to avoid <i>unpleasantness</i>.” He shrugged. “With some, unpleasantness was what they wanted…they were the most dangerous.”
Though his eyes had dropped to the floor, Larkin could still see those beautiful depths dancing with old fears. He had a guess now as to what Rian had done before joining the Earl’s household, and where Faolan had found him. It answered as many questions as it raised.
He shook his head. Rian was a bundle of contradictions: so fearful he might make a mistake that would cause Faolan to turn him out, yet filled with a will of steel and a wisdom so far beyond his years.
Larkin noticed, only belatedly, that he was quite fascinated with him.
“Well,” he said after a lengthy, but not uncomfortable, silence. “I will endeavor to live up to my potential, if you will be kind enough to grant me the benefit of the doubt on occasion.”
“You need a governess—or perhaps a gaoler.”
Larkin burst into amused laughter. “In the absence of proper authority, will you take it upon yourself to chide me into action?”
“Is that possible?”
“Only time will tell,” Larkin said with a grin.
The next few days passed in relative peace and harmony, with Larkin finally attending to some of the work he had been shrugging off, and Rian humoring his indulgences.
“Rian, will you be an angel and fetch some more of those biscuits?” Larkin asked several days after their encounter in the kitchens. He pushed aside the ink well and quill and leaned back with a sigh as he sat in the chair behind Faolan’s writing desk.
“Did you finish up all your letters?”
Larkin flourishd the sealed envelopes as he stood from the desk and placed them in Rian’s hand. “See? I’ve been a good boy. Now do I get a treat?”
Though he rolled his eyes, Rian gave a smile as he asked, “What will it be today?”
“Go riding with me?”
Larkin suppressed a sigh. He’d been trying hard to get Rian away from the estate and have a some real <i>fun</i>, but thus far his attempts had been thwarted.
“Just the shortbread biscuits then.”
Rian nodded and left him, returning in short order with a tray of tea and biscuits.
“Will there be anything else?” Rian asked.
“Yes,” Larkin said as he moves to the settee, “come sit with me and take a moment to actually <i>enjoy</i> the day.”
With a sigh, Rian told him, “You may not have much else to do, but I have responsibilities.”
“The oven needs a good cleaning.”
“At this very moment?”
Rian wrinkled his nose, but gave no reply.
“If I spend too much time lolling about, you spent too much on work. Besides, you promised to indulge me if I behave. Sit down.”
Though he grumbled, Rian did as requested. They sat together in silence, nibbling at the biscuits and sipping the dark tea. Rian knew just how Larkin liked it.
“Ahh, the shortbread is wonderful!”
Rian looked at him with an expression Larkin could not read. “Why are such small trivialities so important to you?” Rian asked.
Larkin gave a very disarming grin. “What is life for if not to appreciate the little luxuries?”
Rian’s eyes went heavenward. “Spoken like a true noble.”
“One doesn’t have to be upper class to feel the small pleasures in life are the ones worth reveling in.”
“I suppose not.”
Larkin eyed him closely and to Rian’s discomfiture, he realized the man’s gaze affected him, though he couldn’t say why.
“Surely there is <i>something</i>—some small indulgence—which you covet?”
Rian frowned and Larkin did not expect him to answer. Why was it that Rian was so forthcoming about certain things, yet tight-lipped on such small, seemingly meaningless matters?
Rian didn’t look at him as he repeated. “Hot chocolate is one thing that is special to me, frivolous as it is.”
“Why should that be so frivolous?”
Rian merely shrugged.
“When was the last time you indulged?”
There was a long pause, and Larkin could feel Rian squirm even though he sat perfectly still.
“Almost four years now.”
“Surely we can remedy that,” Larkin said with a gentle smile.
“No need, Sir.” Rian quickly drank his tea and stood. “If you’ll excuse me, I really should get back to my duties.”
“Why do you stand so much on propriety?” Larkin could not help asking Rian’s retreating back.
Turning to face him, Rian retorted. “Why do you <i>not</i>? You are the nobility here.”
“So you keep reminding me.”
“You act as if your pedigree is a burden. You take for granted the privileges it grants you.”
Larkin shrugged listlessly. “I cannot really deny that—but it <i>does</i> come at a price.”
“You mean the expectation that you actually do what is expected of you? That is the same for everyone.”
“Some expectations are more…stifling than others,” Larkin said, eyes falling to gaze at his hands.
“Such as?” Rian challenged.
“You have no idea the expectation a nobleman has of his son.”
Rian crossed his arms. “Enlighten me.”
Larkin looked up at him. “I will share my past if you will tell me of yours.”
“I don’t make bargains.”
“I suppose not.” Larkin shifted in hi seat, looking uncomfortable. “Fine, I will explain in the hopes that it might earn some of your trust.” He motion to a chair across from the settee. “Will you sit again?”
With a nod, Rian complied.
“My father,” Larkin began slowly, “never wanted a son like me. He might’ve forgiven my sexual preferences if I had at least agreed to marry and father a son—I still consider it. Who knows, it may yet happen. But my proclivities are second to something else he takes issue with: my use of ‘magic’. He does not understand my abilities and he does not approve of them.” Larkin ran a hand through his hand and eyed Rian. “You have dealt quite well with my and Faolan’s abilities—surprisingly so for someone who, might I assume, has never encountered such things before?”
“No, I have not,” Rian replied. “But after the life I have led, few things shock me.”
Larkin did not probe further, but simply nodded and continued. “My mother was quite a talented practitioner. I don’t know if my father never really knew the extent of her abilities until later, or if it didn’t bother him early on. I do know that as a child, our family was quite happy together.” He shook his head. “Then, when I was about ten, my mother fell ill. Her sickness made my father frantic. I’m sure he felt helpless. He prayed, attending church services and telling my mother she must renounce her magic before it consumed her soul.
“I didn’t understand it all then. By that time my mother knew I shared her talent, and she begged me to suppress it and turn to the Church before I fell ill as well.” He gave a ragged sigh. “It did her little good. She died when I was thirteen, and matters between my father and I grew increasingly worse. I think I remind him of her—except I will not give in to his demands—and it angers him.”
Larkin spread his hands. “He keeps pushing me to be something I am not. There is little for it unless I cave to his wishes—which will only make me as bitter a man as he is.”
Meeting Rian’s eyes once more, Larkin shrugged. “It all sounds very maudlin, doesn’t it? In any case, it has all led me to believe that it is much easier to simply flow with life than against it. Whatever comes will come.” He smiled, but it did not reach his eyes.
Rian was quiet for a time. Larkin had always been able to get under his skin; Rian had never wanted to examine why. Now, with this new side to him, the man’s presence only managed to burrow deeper. Rian could see where the similarities in their lives overlapped. Both of them had struggled against their circumstances, and they had both lost their mothers at a young age. It was… odd to share such kinship with the man before him.
“I am sorry for that,” he replied. “My mother… wasn’t always what I could have wished for, but I knew she loved and accepted me, and that somehow made everything easier to bear.”
“Thank you,” Larkin said.
Rian looked at him, slumped in his chair—hazel eyes haunted—and felt he was seeing him for the first time. He felt privileged that Larkin would allow himself to show such vulnerability in his presence. It softened Rian’s attitude toward him and made him aware of another emotion he’d felt for Larkin upon meeting him, one he had shoved quickly aside: attraction.
* * *
Faolan leaned over his desk, sorting through paperwork as he and Larkin discussed Faolan’s discoveries on his trip. Faolan had to admit he had been surprised when he didn’t have to cajole Larkin into helping him sort through everything. He didn’t pout or sulk or sigh. It left Faolan wondering just what had transpired while he was away.
“Here is you lunch, milords,” Rian said, carrying a tray laden with apples, bread, and cold meats.
“Thank you, Rian. Set it there on the table near the settee.”
“Will you be needing anything else?”
Before Faolan could answer, Larkin turned to Rian and said, “Did you bring that lovely strawberry jam?”
“I’m working so hard right now, it would simply make my day if you would bring that heavenly jam, and serve it to me.”
Faolan waited for Rian’s stinging retort to Larkin’s childish demand. Instead, Rian simply rolled his eyes and told Larkin, “When you are <i>finished</i> with your work, <i>then</i> I’ll serve you, Sir.”
Faolan tried to pick his mouth off the floor as Rian winked and walked away, leaving them alone.
“What in the bloody hell was <i>that</i>?”
Larkin chuckled. “We came to an arrangement, while you were gone.”
“To alter your personalities?”
Scoffing at him, Larkin said, “Come now, it’s not that dramatic.”
Faolan narrowed his eyes. “You will tell me what this ‘arrangement’ entails right this instant.”
“Don’t fret over your beloved valet, it’s nothing sinister,” Larkin said with amusement. “He called me out for being lazy and I agreed to work harder—if he was sweeter to me and indulged me from time to time.”
“Have you become his cat then?” Faolan smirked.
“I doubt he would view it that way, but I certainly wouldn’t mind being pet by him day after day.”
“What? You wanted us to get along, and we are now,” Larkin protested.
“I’ve also warned you about toying with him.”
“Rian is hardy so helpless, Faolan. I believe it would be more likely to be the other way around.”
Faolan grunted but said nothing, turning back to their work.
Larkin took secret glee in watching the confusion over his friend’s features. He was also considerably happy that Rian’s temperament towards him had continued to soften. As much as he hadn’t wanted to air his family’s dirty laundry, Larkin saw how much Rian appreciated his openness. Now if Rian would only return it in kind.
But Larkin was willing to let that go…for now.
Only one thing nagged at him, and that was how fond he was going of Rian. It was one thing to enjoy the pretty sight of him, it was another to have feelings rising within him that had never been woken before. It was idiotic—and pointless. Rian was nothing if not hopelessly enamored of Faolan.
He shook his head and tried to concentrate, pushing aside thoughts of Rian.
* * *
Rian looked up from his book as a knock came on the door. He stood with a sigh and the hope that there wasn’t anything pressing he had to deal with. It had been a long day. The pasture gate had broken and several horses had run off. Rian, the stable boys, and—to Rian’s surprise—Larkin, had spent the better part of the day running after them to get them back into the field. At first Rian had doubted Larkin was going to be of any use, but his uncanny ability to sense energies actually made tracking down the wayward animals far easier. But Rian’s normal duties still had to be tended to after the horses were stabled, and he was exhausted. All he wanted was to ignore the world for a short while in the privacy of his own room.
He opened his door begrudgingly.
Rian blinked. The last person he expected to see at his door was Larkin. He opened his mouth to ask if something was amiss when he spotted the tray in Larkin’s hands.
“I know things have been hectic today. So I thought I would bring you something <i>special</i>. May I come in?”
“Why?” Rian asked, adding, “I mean, why would you bring me anything?”
Larkin shook his head. “You worked hard today, why shouldn’t you be rewarded?”
That sounded very much in keeping with Larkin’s philosophy. Rian stepped aside.
Moving Rian’s book carefully aside, Larkin set the tray onto his desk and glanced around. “You should request a larger room.”
“This one is adequate.”
Larkin chuckled and began filling two cups from the large teapot.
Only it wasn’t tea.
Rian felt his heart catch as the scent of chocolate filled the room.
“There, I told you I’d brought something spe—What’s wrong?”
Turning away, Rian tried to collect himself, but he sank into the chair beside his bed as tears stung his eyes. Why did this ridiculous bastard have to bring this to him today, of all days?
Larkin was kneeling before him now, face fused with concern. “What have I done wrong?”
His sincerity made it that much harder. If he was being glib, Rian could’ve thrown him out. Now he was left before him, face streaked with tears. He felt naked in his vulnerability, and yet he was certain Larkin would never judge him for it. No, he actually felt <i>safe</i> as Larkin pushed his hair away from his face as pleaded gently, “Tell me, Rian. Please.”
Pawing at his tears, Rian shook his head, emotion choking his throat. “My… my mother… used to make hot chocolate for me. Once a year…on my birthday.”
Larkin’s eyes searched his. “Does it make you sad to think of her?”
“No, you idiot. But…why did you…” Rian took a deep breath. “Why did you have to…bring this to me today?”
Eyes wide, Larkin said, “Today is your birthday.” It was statement rather than question, but Rian nodded anyway.
“Then I was just in time.” Larkin smiled, brushing at Rian’s tears.
“Why do you have to be so bloody sweet sometimes?”
Larkin chuckled. “You were rather I were despicable?”
“It would make things easier,” Rian quipped. He took Larkin’s handkerchief and wiped his nose. “You being nice just… complicates things.”
Larkin was leaning in close now, and Rian felt his heartbeat quicken.
“Anger is…more simple.”
“It is also terribly unpleasant.”
Rian couldn’t argue that. He sat, transfixed, as Larkin slipped a hand beneath his chin. He could have protested. But he held still, until Larkin’s lips pressed to his. Heat flooded his belly. Without thinking, he parted his lips, inviting the kiss deeper. A moan reverberated from Larkin’s mouth to his own, and he felt his wrist encircled in Larkin’s free hand. Fingers clasped about him, a possessive gesture that sent a jolt of desire through Rian so strong it jolted him. Fear at the suddenness of it all drove through Rian. He panic. Larkin’s grip tightened.
Then Larkin was crouching on the floor, hands to his groin.
“Did you…just… kick me? In the…testicles?!” Larkin gasped, doubled over in agony.
Above him, Rian panted, his cheeks flushed. “I-I apologize. I…didn’t think I would enjoy it so much.”
Larkin gave him an incredulous look, taking several steadying breaths. Then he broke into choked laughter. I don’t think…anyone…has ever reacted so…strongly to my kisses.”
Rian moved to kneel next to him, awkwardly patting his back. “I am sorry. And…thank you for the chocolate.” He shook his head.
“What?” Larkin asked, his pain ebbing enough now that he could think again.
“You are not what I expected.”
Larkin gave a wry chuckle. “I believe I can say the same of you.” Slowly, he sat up.
“The kiss took me off-guard,” Rian told him. “I’m not often taken unawares. I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. You are a curiosity.”
“Faolan was right,” Larkin chortled, “you do seem to think of me as a cat.”
Rian gave him a lopsided grin and leaned back against the wall, rubbing his head with a sigh.
“I’m sorry,” Larkin said. “I shouldn’t have taken liberties.”
A snort came from Rian. “I do believe that’s the first time anyone’s apologized for ‘taking liberties’ with me.”
Breathing easier not, Larkin sat along the wall next to Rian. “Don’t worry, I won’t be trying it again.”
Rian glanced at him, biting his lip. “I… wouldn’t say that.”
Larkin eyebrows rose.
Spreading his hands, Rian told him, “As I said, it was <i>unexpected</i>, but not disagreeable. I wouldn’t mind trying it again…sometime.”
With a bark of laughter, Larkin shook his head, “And you say <i>I</i> do not act as expected.”
A slow smirk spread across Rian’s pink lips. “We make quite a pair.”
Larkin grinned in return. “That we do.”
Rian clasped his fingers around the small worry stone in his hand, then slipped it into his pocket as he left his room and headed down to breakfast. He could feel the stone grow warm even through the fabric of his trousers. It had been Larkin’s second birthday present to him—a fae stone. Rian couldn’t sense his powers the way the other Society members could, but he knew it contained powers of protection, and it had been a lovely gesture.
He couldn’t help but smile as he thought back to that last birthday. He and Larkin had already been lovers by then. So strange to think about how they had started out, and what they had eventually become.
Sighing, Rian’s thoughts shifted like clouds gathering for rain. Larkin had become more dear to Rian than he ever thought possible, and now matters were changing yet again. Larkin was gone and had sent no word. Rian’s mind was spinning with worry, whipping up ghosts in his mind. He never would’ve believed that Larkin would choose duty or desire, but it appeared to be what was happening.
But Rian could be wrong. He hoped he was wrong. Taking a breath to steady himself, he made his way to the kitchens, eating breakfast before preparing a tray of food and tea for Faolan and Keeley. He had a feeling they would be wanting breakfast brought to Faolan’s room again. Sure enough, a ring came from the bell of Faolan’s bed chamber just moments after Keeley had filled the teapot.
He smiled when he opened the door to find his master in a robe and Keeley sound asleep and half-naked on the bed behind him.
“Thank you, Rian. That was quick,” Faolan said with a grin, sitting himself before a side table near his windows as Rian set the tray before him.
“Do you need anything else, Master Faolan?”
“Not right now—but stay for a moment, would you?”
Rian paused and waited before him.
“I know things haven’t been easy for you,” Faolan began. “I know you’re concerned for Larkin, and I want you to know I am looking into what’s going on with him. We just have to be patient.”
Rian nodded, but made no other reply. Unless they left at that very moment for Larkin’s family estate, it would not be quick enough for his liking.
Reading his expression, Faolan sighed. “I wish you would trust me as you used to.” His emerald gaze pinned Rian and he shifted uneasily beneath Faolan’s scrutiny. “I hope you will tell me what’s on your mind, if you need to.”
What good would it do? Rian thought to himself. He’d been trying for weeks to get Faolan to listen to him, but Faolan was convinced nothing was amiss. What else was there to say?
A groan emanated from the bed as Keeley sat up, rubbing at his sleepy eyes.
“I will let you two eat your breakfast,” Rian said, bowing and slipping away.
Faolan watched him go with a sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Keeley asked, pulling on his own robe as he joined Faolan at the breakfast table.
“Nothing. Just… I worry for Rian. It’s been well over a month now, and Larkin hasn’t sent any word.”
“Shouldn’t you be worried about Larkin then?” Keeley asked, reaching for a plump sausage. He was concerned over matters himself, but he was also starving. Between all his training—and sex—Keeley was ravenous at every meal.
“I don’t sense anything sinister impeding Larkin. Though, lately, I do wonder…” He shrugged. “I am not entirely against going to his family’s estate to see how matters are progressing, but if Rian goes it will make it that much more difficult.”
“Why? He’s your valet,” Keeley said between bites.
“He’s also Larkin’s lover, and the reason he will likely never inherit.”
“If his father is ill, such matters will have to be dealt with though. Sooner or later he and his family will have to come to terms somehow.”
“Yes, and that is exactly what I am trying to give them time to do on their own. But Rian may be right, Larkin may need our help to persuade them.”
“Then why aren’t we already on our way?”
Faolan frowned down at the food on his plate. “Because something else is also happening here. Someone is casting spells who should not be. I can’t leave until that is dealt with.”
Keeley blinked. “Who would dare cast spells in your home?”
Faolan glanced to the door and shook his head. “I have my suspicions. I just hope I am wrong.”
Meanwhile, Rian returned to the servant’s area of the manor to see to his chores. He welcomed the busyness—prepping lunch, weeding the gardening, it didn’t matter what it was as long as it kept his mind from thinking of other things. Unfortunately, by late afternoon there was little left to do and Mrs. Collins sent him off to ‘enjoy’ some free time.
Faolan and Keeley had gone off riding, and Rian found himself back in his room. He glanced at the large book on his desk, grimacing. He really shouldn’t give in again. He should take the time back to Faolan’s study before he it was discovered missing…
His fingers slipped over the book’s leather binding—then he flipped it open. He couldn’t seem to help himself. Stepping up to the gilded mirror over his vanity, he took a deep breath.
One last time, he told himself.
He opened a drawer and took out a piece of white chalk. With care and precision, he copied the runes from the book, two on the wall beside the mirror, one at each corner of the vanity’s wooden tabletop. Later he would have to clean it scrupulously. If Faolan ever found out he was casting incantations… Rian didn’t even want to think about it. He’d been able to convince himself before that it would be alright as long as the spell gave him proof that Larkin was in danger. But after the first spell, Rian knew he couldn’t justify his actions. He was doing this for himself. And with no magical abilities, what he was doing was incredibly risky. Even Larkin—easy-going as he was—would scold him badly for doing something so reckless.
Yet even as these thoughts raced in his head, Rian still drew our the small dagger and pierced the tip of his thumb, marking the mirror with the final rune in his own blood. Bringing his palms together and shutting his eyes, he whispered, “Permissum mihi animadverto. Let the way open, let the path be cleared, that I may see the one I hold dear.”
Opening his eyes, Rian watched his reflection fade as the surface of the mirror dissolved into mist. Then his image appeared.
Rian’s heart ached, wanting more than anything to reach our to him—to sooth Larkin’s strained shoulders as he hunched over the paperwork at his desk, to kiss those frowning lips and settle over his lap to hive him a real distraction from whatever was troubling him.
Why was Rian doing this to himself?
Seeing Larkin only made him miss the man that much more. And there was nothing he could do for him. Maybe that was why Rian did it—if nothing else he could watch over his beloved.
He looked on as Larkin raked a hand through his hair and pushed back his chair, scrubbing his face. “There has to be a better way,” Rian heard him mutter. Then Larkin scratched the back of his neck and looked around, as if he could sense the eyes upon him.
I’m here, Larkin, he longed to say.
Emotion welled up inside him and his concentration wavered. It was only the breath of a moment, but it was enough to shake the tentative spell. Larkin’s image began to fade.
“No!” Rian cried. Not yet! It had lasted much longer the time before! But Rian’s energies were slipping away.
The mirror went black, and Rian’s vision followed. For a terrified moment, he stared into nothing but darkness, then consciousness fled and he collapsed to the floor.
Larkin stretched out his limbs and wondered how on earth anyone dealt with paperwork. It seemed like such a simple task, but it was more exhausting than anything Larkin could think of. He would take on the supernatural realm any day of the week over this slow tedium.
Speaking of which, why did he feel as if another set of eyes had been watching lately? It didn’t feel malevolent, but he didn’t like it either. God only knew larkin had enough on his mind lately.
Getting up from his father’s desk, Larkin moved to the window and threw it open, welcoming the brisk, fresh air. Everything about his family’s home felt stifling. He sighed, trying to push down the ache of loneliness that threatened to steal over him. He was missing Rian’s birthday. Rian might not show it, but Larkin knew how vulnerable he could be, and worried about him—especially since he hadn’t received a single reply to any of his letters, not even for the gift he’d send which should have arrived in plenty of time.
He sighed to himself. Maybe Rian was impatient for word of his return. Larkin had been able to convey very little in his letters, and emphasized that it would be some time before he could come back to him. He’d also told Faolan to make certain to give him time to sort things out himself; he didn’t want Faolan, or Rian getting entangled in his family’s business. Clair would have a fit. He didn’t need anything else making the situation more complicated than it already was. Although…
Larkin shook his head and shut the window before leaving the study. Making his way through the drafty halls, he finally found himself outside his father’s bedchambers. Clair was just stepping outside. Larkin could feel her distress.
“Is he worse?”
Clair shrugged, looking as exhausted as Larkin felt. “The same I suppose, which is bad enough.”
Larkin nodded and reached for the door handle. Pausing, he took a breath and squared his shoulders. His father might’ve been physically weak, but the man’s spirit was still a force to be reckoned with.
Opening the door, Larkin stepped inside.
“How are you, Father?”
The man grunted and waved him in.
Walking over, Larkin took the seat next to his bed, looking him over. Even with his eyes shut, his father’s face looked severe. Larkin had his blond hair and the same nose and cheekbones, but his father’s jaw was more square and his physique was more muscular and robust than Larkin’s own.
Growing up, the man had been so intimidating. Larkin would not have been able to imagine then that any sickness would get the better of him.
He had wanted so badly to believe that his malady was magical in origin, but as soon as he’d arrived, he could sense there was nothing supernatural about it. He moved to sit beside his father’s bed. No matter how many times he came to see him, Larkin could not get used to seeing the strong man who was his father laying listless and sallow-skinned beneath the sheets. Larkin and Clair had called in several different physicians, but none of them had been able to pinpoint the cause of his father’s failing health.
Taking his father’s hand, Larkin gave it a squeeze. The man opened his eyes, blinking up at him.
“How are you feeling, father?”
“I’ve been better,” he replied with a weak smile. “Larkin… have you thought about what we talked about last time?”
Larkin held in sigh. It had been weeks and he and his father were no closer to reaching an accord than they were on the first day of his arrival.
“Yes, Father. But…”
“But?” the man said sharply.
“Making me marry won’t change anything, Father.”
“They hell it won’t!”
Larkin rubbed his head. Why was his father always at his strongest when they argued?
“If you’d only let Clair—”
“She is not my son!”
“Honestly, I do not want to argue with you.”
“Then respect my wishes. Until then, I don’t wish to see you.”
Even after so many years of antagonism between them, it still hurt when Larkin’s father rejected him, and on such petty matters! Did the man’s impending death clarify nothing to him of the importance of tolerance and togetherness?
Shaking his head, Larkin stood and bowed. “As you wish.”
Once outside, he leaned against the closed door, letting out a heavy breath.
“I can see you were no more successful than I.”
He opened his eyes to see Clair standing before him, arms crossed. “Come, let’s have some tea.”
Larkin followed her downstairs into one of the receiving parlors and sat as she rang for tea.
Clair waited until they had settled in and began sipping their tea before she began their discussion.
“You’ve been here long enough now to see how things are going, Larkin,” she said without preamble. “We both have to face that Father will have his way. We have to accept it.”
Larkin stared down into his tea, stirring it restlessly. “I won’t believe that until the end.”
“You always were stubborn.”
A smile tugged at Larkin’s mouth. “Yes, it runs in the family.” Setting his teaspoon aside and meeting Clair’s eyes, Larkin told her, “We still have some time, though. The banshee hasn’t yet begun to weep.”
Clair rolled her eyes, a deep-seeded exasperation radiating from her. “Please don’t bring up these ridiculous notions of yours, Larkin.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Larkin said, voice stony. “Mother had the gift, and so do I. Father only rejected her talents because—”
“Because she was losing her mind!” Clair snapped. “She was going mad, Larkin. At least Father was able to calm her. Once he convinced her that the Church could ‘help’ her, she was able to accept her illness and die in peace.”
Larkin gaped at her. “What? Is that what he told you?” Clair had been so young when their Mother died that Larkin knew she never understood matters as clearly as he did, but this was something else entirely.
“Yes,” Clair said. “We wouldn’t explain matters to me when I was a child, obviously, but I finally was able to draw the truth from him when I was older.”
“You can’t honestly believe that Mother was mad?”
“Oh on? Should I believe your explanation, that she had some sort of ‘mystical’ power she past on to you?”
“So I just made it all up, is that it?”
Clair shrugged. “Father said it was how you coped with her death.”
Larkin was at a loss. Of course it sounded more believable. And it wasn’t as if he’d ever spent much time with Clair growing up; by the time Larkin was a teenager, he spent most of his time away. Clair had always expressed distain when he brought up matters of the Faerie Realm, but he’d taken for granted that she at least understood it was real.
The room fell into silence as Larkin grappled with how to deal with this realization. Clair had the decency to look chagrined.
“I know I put things too bluntly sometimes,” she said. “But it’s time for you to set aside these childhood notions. Sooner or later you will have to take on the responsibilities that you left behind.”
“It isn’t about responsibility, Clair,” Larkin said, eyes narrowing. He was growing irritated with her condescending attitude. “It’s about being forced into a life that will break me!”
“Don’t be dramatic! Running a household will hardly break you—and you can keep that little catamite of yours somewhere in the house. We will just have to find you a wife who will be willing to put up with it.”
“Damn Clair! I will not have you speak of him that way! You have no idea what marriage would do to him, and me.”
“You’re very good at finding excuses and justifications for your lifestyle, aren’t you?”
“I’m only asking you to be reasonable! There’s no reason I should have to make myself and those I love miserable. And you and I both know I would never do as good a job running the estate as you would.” Larkin tried to calm himself. He needed Clair on his side. “I want to respect Father’s wishes as much as you do, but if they are unreasonable… I don’t see why we can’t find ways around them. Even if we can’t convince him to name you as heir, it doesn’t mean our lives have to change, Clair.”
“Oh, yes. How generous of you to allow me to continue to do all the work without credit!”
“I am trying to make the best of things! And what do you do? You imply I’m half-mad and insult my lover. Do you enjoy making things difficult? What is it you want me to do?!”
Setting her cup down, Clair gave a heavy sigh. “I don’t know. I’m sorry, Lark. I knew this day would come, but… I suppose I hoped matters would be worked out before it did. I’m not handling it very well.”
Larkin nodded. At least she’d apologized. They were both feeling the pressure of the future looming. And he couldn’t really blame her for misunderstanding him when he’d never made an effort to be around, to help, to explain his side of matters.
Looking at his sister, her shoulders slumped beneath a weight she should have been able to hold up proudly—had she only been born a man. “What a shame we were not born to the opposite sex?” Larkin said with a half-hearted chuckle.
Clair gave an indelicate snort. “Indeed.” Sitting up, she finished her tea and stood. “Well, for now I am going to simply return to my work and see that father’s dinner is ready.”
Larkin nodded and let her go. For himself, Larkin couldn’t face returning to the paperwork Clair had given him. He would, he had promised. But not just yet. He needed some air first.
Making his way down to the gardens, Larkin stepped out onto the gravel path and gazed around the well-manicured grounds with a frown. Trimmed bushes and well-ordered flower trestles surrounded him. It was nothing like Faolan’s flower garden, which was well-tended, but more wild. Flowers had been planted and allowed to grow as they would—and they had flourished. But this garden… Larkin shook his head. It seemed a shame to force nature into such, well, unnatural organization. But that was his father, wasn’t it? Always forcing things to be what they were not.
Abandoning the ordered rows and hedges, Larkin headed further afield, until he reached the woods that bordered his father’s property. He breathed deep, letting the fresh, rich air of the woods fill him. It had rained the day before and he could smell the damp bark of the wood, the wet earth. It calmed him, as did the energy of the forest itself. Plants and living things had a pure, unfiltered kind of energy. People were so much more complicated.
Why could his father see reason? And how dare he lie to Clair about their mother? It was hard to feel sympathy for a man who so willingly caused so much strife. Larkin shook his head as he thought on his last words to Clair. He smirked, imagining her as a man. She would’ve been the son their father always wanted: pragmatic, straight-forward, determined. Larkin didn’t fancy being a woman, but his desire for men would certainly be more appropriate in if he were. He wished things could be solved so simply, but such was not the case. Somehow, they had to make the best of it.
Larkin took another breath to clear his mind—and sensed something move within the woods. There was another energy there, so akin to the trees around him that he didn’t feel it at first. A creature of the faerie realm was near.
Dusk was coming on and the soft, fading light made it difficult to see through the trees, but he thought he caught a darker shape moving through the growing shadows. Larkin took a step deeper beneath the boughs and suddenly he was staring into two shining golden eyes.
His mouth fell agape.
You shall have your wish.
It was all Larkin managed before the world spun around him. He felt as if his spirit was ripped from his body then abruptly shoved back in. Nauseous and panting, Larkin blinked open his eyes.
And found himself slumped over his sister’s desk.
He felt… strange. Looking down at his hands, he started.
What on earth?
A scream echoed from across the estate grounds—a cry that sounded very much like his own voice.
The feminine lilt to his voice solidified his suspicions, but he reached for the small vanity mirror in one of the drawers of the desk, to confirm them.
If his sister didn’t believe in the ‘mystical’, she was about to.