Darkness swirled before Rian’s eyes. Panic flooded him as he tried to remember where he was, what had happened. The details escaped him, though he knew he’d done something he never should have.
With a gasp his eyes flew open and light re-entered his world. The familiar sight of his ceiling sent a wave of relief washing over him. Glancing to window, he saw the bold red rays of the sun beginning to set behind the hills. The light fell across where he lay in bed, dying the plain ecru of his bedclothes brilliant gold. How long had be been asleep? Letting out a long sigh, he thanked Heaven that he was alive and well. So many things could’ve gone wrong.
He moved to sit up and fell back as the world tilted dangerously. “I am such a bloody idiot!”
“Now that is one thing we can agree on.”
With an ungraceful yelp, Rian jumped at the unexpected voice—and fell off the bed.
He groaned and held his aching head as he righted himself and gazed over the bed at Faolan, who sat crossed-legged sipping his tea. For all that Faolan’s posture appeared calm, Rian could see the way his green eyes narrowed, burning like gems set into a fire.
The Earl was always at his most terrifying when his anger smoldered this way. It was liable to explode at any moment. Faolan knew what he’d done. How could he not? Rian thought, glancing at the mirror and seeing his marks still there.
The swift and immediate regret of his actions bored down on him.
Rian watched as his master set his teacup down, the faint clink of saucer meeting cup belying Faolan’s white-knuckled grip on the delicate china. It was a wonder the poor thing didn’t crack under the pressure.
“Yes,” Faolan said in a quiet, seething tone, “you would be… now that your stupidity has been discovered.”
Faolan’s eyes pinned Rian in place, and Rian was very glad the bed was between them.
“I could recite all the ways in which you endangered yourself. About how reckless mirror magic is. But you know all that already, don’t you? You bloody well already know what a head-strong, foolish sot you’ve been!” His last words were clipped with anger, and Rian envisioned him grinding the last syllables between his teeth.
“In fact,” Faolan went on, “you really aren’t stupid at all, are you? No, if you were an idiot, I could forgive such misguided actions. But you knew exactly what you were getting yourself into and you still went through with it!” Faolan slammed his hand onto the side table, rattling the china and sloshing tea over the side.
Rian slumped where he sat. He had no excuses.
In the silence that followed, he heard the steady beat of footfalls come down the hallway. Keeley opened the door a moment later.
“Did I hear voices? Oh, Rian! You’re awake!”
Keeley’s beaming face lifted Rian’s spirits, but it couldn’t erase the shame weighing him down.
“What happened?” Keeley asked, crossing over to help him up. “Did you fall?” His head snapped to Faolan. “You better not have pushed him!”
Rian gave a shaky laugh as Keeley settled him back into bed and Faolan crossed his arms with an offended ‘huff’.
“I’m not a barbarian!” Faolan growled.
“He’s been unlivable the last two days,” Keeley said, ignoring Faolan’s glare. “You gave us quite a scare.”
“Two days?” Rian echoed. His face paled. Good god, he’d come closer to being lost than he’d realized. No wonder Faolan was livid.
“Yes!” Faolan said. “You nearly damned yourself! You—”
“Stop snapping at him!” Keeley said, seating himself between Rian and Faolan. “If you’re so concerned for him, you could let him rest instead of riling at him!”
“He’s right, Sir,” Rian said, patting Keeley’s hand. “It was my own fault.”
“Don’t side with him!” Keeley said, rolling his eyes. “You’ll make him even more impossible to live with!”
Rian had to hide his smile. It was good to have him there.
“Faolan, why don’t you go see how dinner is coming along? You can grab something there and bring it for Rian—he’s got to be starving.”
“I am speaking with Rian right now!” Faolan retorted. “Ring for a servant if you want food! I—”
“Faolan. Your own loyal servant has just revived after days of unconsciousness. Whether it was his fall or not, I know you’re relieved he’s better. So go show your appreciation to the fates by making sure Rian has some nourishment after his ordeal.”
To Rian’s astonishment, Faolan stood and, though grumbling all the while, left them.
Rian shook his head. His master had definitely changed since meeting Keeley.
“Now,” Keeley said, giving Rian a stern look, “tell me what exactly happened. Faolan’s been too angry too explain and I want to hear your side.”
“I appreciate your impartiality, Sir, but I was being truthful before. Master Faolan is right. I willfully put myself in danger.”
With a sigh, Rian told him, “To look in on Larkin.” He stared down at the sheets twisted in his hands. “I’ve never felt I had anything to lose before. I just dealt with life as it came. But Larkin going off like this, and not even sending a single letter…” He shook his head. “Even with everything I’ve been though, I’ve never felt so helpless. So… I took one of the books from Master Faolan’s study. One he keeps hidden for the specific purpose of keeping it away from prying eyes.”
“But that’s understandable! You were worried about the person you love,” Keeley said.
“No, it’s… Keeley, people like me—those without any magic—it’s dangerous for us to try and harness it. I had to use energy that Larkin had passed to me in order to do the spell. You have no idea how unpredictable spells can be when it’s not even your own power you’re using.” He took a heavy breath and squeezed his eyes shut, feeling dizzy.
“It’s ok, Rian. Just rest for now.”
“I’ve been unconscious for two days. I think I’ve rested enough.”
Keeley’s glower said otherwise.
“I’ll see what’s taking Faolan so long and bring you back some dinner myself if I have to.” With that he left, flicking his wrist absentmindedly and igniting the candles in the room before stepping out. Rian wondered if Keeley even realized he’d done so. Rian shook his head in wonder.
Settling himself back into the pillows, Rian grew anxious about letting himself slip back into that blackness—but by the time his head hit the pillow, sleep had claimed him.
Keeley shut the door and quietly padded down the hall toward the kitchens. The weight that had been burdening him since they’d found Rian sprawled on his floor was finally lifted, but he knew it would take Faolan some time before he forgave Rian for it.
He wondered where Faolan had wandered off to, but when he entered the kitchen he found him there—helping to stir the soup of all things! Keeley wisely kept his snickering to himself.
“It’s not done yet,” Faolan said with a frown when he saw Keeley walking over.
“You’re helping,” Keeley observed.
Faolan scowled. “I’m not incapable, you know.”
“Of course, of course,” Keeley said. Turning to Mrs. Collins, he asked, “How long do you think it will be?”
“Just another fifteen minutes or so, Sir,” she said. “But the tea is done if you’d like that now.”
“Thank you. I’ll take the tray.” With the tea in hand, Keeley led Faolan to one of the small parlors. They were seldom used since the Earl didn’t really entertain, but it was kept spotless nonetheless. Keeley set the tray down and helped himself. Faolan went to the sideboard and poured himself a whiskey.
“What did Rian have to say for himself?” Faolan asked. His eyes gazed unseeingly out the window. Dusk was settling over the land.
“He was just trying to se Larkin and find out if he was all right.”
“I could’ve guessed as much.” Faolan sipped the amber liquor and joined Keeley at the table. “I know why. The question is how.”
“But, we both saw how he’d drawn the symbols for the spell.”
Faolan shook his head. “He’d need an energy source. He has no magics. People have made horrible bargains to be imbued with supernatural energy. I don’t think even Rian would ever be that desperate, but somehow he managed it.”
Faolan caught the hint of hesitation in Keeley’s voice. His eyes narrowed. “What do you know?”
“Nothing! Just… Rian might’ve mentioned that Larkin gave him some of his energy before.” Keeley felt guilty for relaying what Rian had told him, but Faolan would find out one way or another.
“What?!” He downed the rest of his whiskey in one swallow and slammed the glass down. “I’m going to wring their necks!”
“Would you mind explaining things to me before you commit murder?” Keeley asked dryly.
“The energy transfer could’ve happened accidentally, but knowing those idiots I’m guessing it was planned—for whatever asinine reason! In itself it wouldn’t cause harm, but people without magic can sometimes grow addicted to it once they’ve had a taste. And it also meant Rian could perform a spell or to on his own—and he obviously took advantage of it!”
“But the mirror spell seems so simple and harmless.”
With a snort, Faolan said, “That’s what far too many people think, but mirror magic is anything but! It’s unpredictable to try to gaze into the other side of the looking glass. It can lure one into other realms; twist facts to mislead the viewer. It’s turned some people mad!”
“Rian seems perfectly sane to me…” Rian muttered.
“When one performs mirror magic, they are opening themselves to prying eyes!” Faolan insisted. “Not just on Rian’s end of the mirror, either. And heaven knows Larkin has enough to deal with at home without some mischievous sprite or fae suddenly finding him intriguing and deciding to cause trouble.”
“Still,” Keeley said, setting aside his tea, “I doubt Rian did more than just the one spell. I’m sure everything’s fine.”
Keeley hated Faolan’s need to make so much out of incident. Yes, it had been awful to see Rian lying pale in bed for two days, but Faolan had known from the start he could draw him back. Rian had just been drained. And now he was awake and well. Just for once couldn’t they assume the best?
The rest of the evening passed quietly. Rian woke briefly to eat and Keeley stayed with him, talking of trivial house gossip that he’d missed while he was recovering. Faolan sat brooding in his study. Keeley found him there later in the evening—snoring with a book tumbled into his lap.
The fire had buried low and Keeley stoked the flames. He considered trying to use his skills to ignite the fire, but thought better of it. With the mood Faolan was in, if something went wrong Keeley would end up getting a lecture that would last all night. Staying up into the night was fine by him, but he had much more pleasant diversions in mind.
With the fire burning merrily, Keeley walked over to stand by Faolan’s chair. He looked beautiful in the firelight. His auburn hair framed his face like a silky crown of fire all it’s own. Keeley reached out to stroke his fingers through the long locks.
When Faolan began to stir, Keeley plucked the book from his lap and settled himself across Faolan’s thighs. He groaned. Oh, yes. After days of worry, this was absolutely what he needed. Keeley rolled his hips forward, earning a spine-tingling groan from Faolan as his eyes blinked open.
Keeley expected him to smirk or tease him for his antics. Instead, Faolan’s heavy-lidded eyes raked over his body, intense and hungry. His hands claimed Keeley’s waist and pulled him closer, grinding their bodies together.
“Ahh, yes…!” Keeley hissed, swaying into the slow, hard rhythm Faolan had begun.
Surely it had been longer than two days since Faolan had been inside him! His body ached as if it had been a year. Keeley’s hands came up to yank at his clothing, but Faolan stilled his movements. With slow deliberation, Faolan caught Keeley’s wrists behind his back, holding them with one strong hand while the other cupped his backside.
Bending over him, Faolan pressed his mouth to one hard nipple, tonguing it through the fabric of Keeley’s shirt. The rub from the material made the friction that much more stimulating. With a sigh, Keeley arched his back, a silent signal for more.
Faolan’s mouth opened wider, his hot breath seeping through Keeley’s thin shirt, the wet moisture of his tongue toying with the sensitive little nub hidden his sight.
Keeley panted with need. His erection protested the restrictions of his trousers and he heat rush through him at being trapped and at Faolan’s mercy. With a whimper and a roll of his hips, he begged Faolan to free him. And, with a grin as satisfied as any predator toying with his prey, Faolan used his free hand to loosen Keeley’s pants and draw out his hard arousal.
“Mmph!” Keeley bit his lip to keep from crying aloud at the surge of joy that filled him with the touch of Faolan’s hand on his cock. The ache in his arms intensified, the feeling of possession pouring off Faolan, all served to heighten every sensation that rippled over Keeley’s body.
And Faolan had only begun. “Stand,” he commanded, releasing him.
A sharp loss shot through Keeley as Faolan’s hands left him, but he complied. He knew more pleasure was to come.
“Turn around and get those trousers off. That’s good.” Faolan’s hands grazed over Keeley’s naked ass. The touch was light—just enough to send little jolts of ecstasy racing over Keeley’s skin. Enough to whet their appetites, but not enough to satisfy.
“Now,” Faolan purred, “bend over and spread yourself. Let me see what you have to offer.”
A gasp left Keeley’s lips at the demand. If Keeley had gotten more assertive of late with Faolan outside the bedroom, he had also learned how very much he enjoyed yielding when they were alone.
Slowly, knowing Faolan’s eyes were soaking in every movement, Keeley let his chest drop, then reached back to spread his cheeks wide. Though he couldn’t see Faolan, he heard his breath hitch at the sight of him exposed. It ignited a thrill inside him that has his cock weeping in anticipation of what would come next.
And Faolan did not disappoint.
Warm kisses cascaded down the crack of his ass. A skilled tongue darted out to sample his dangling testicles. Then Faolan’s mouth moved back up, nuzzling that most tender of places, sampling Keeley’s sweet bud until Keeley ‘s body began to tremble with need.
Only then did Faolan press deeper, thrusting his tongue into Keeley’s quivering hole.
It was heaven! But the blood was rushing to Keeley’s head, and in his euphoria he began to feel faint. “Faolan… I—”
Arms wrapped about him, pulling him back so he was sitting with his back to Faolan’s chest, Keeley’s head resting on shoulder as he caught his breath.
“I mustn’t let you get overexcited, hmm?” Faolan murmured into his ear. “After all, if you lose your energy now, what will happen when I want to take out my prick and sink it into your wet, wonderful ass?”
Keeley groaned, feeling flushed down to his toes.
“We forgot to replace the bottle of oil in here, didn’t we?” Faolan continued. “I suppose that means you’ll have to make my cock nice and slick with your mouth.”
“I suppose…so,” Keeley said between panting breaths. His mouth was already watering at the idea of taking Faolan’s hot erection into his mouth—the masculine scent of Faolan’s body enveloping his sense. He turned and knelt before Faolan could even ask.
Keeley matched his grin as Faolan reached for the fastenings of his trousers…
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Keeley turned his head to glare daggers at the door.
“We are indisposed!” Faolan growled.
“Yes, I…” the hesitant voice of the footman began on the other side of the door. “But, an urgent letter has arrive by private messenger… from the O’Carroll estate.”
“Oh, bloody hell!” Faolan snapped. Without bothering to right his clothing, Faolan stood and stomped to the door. Keeley had just enough time to grab his trousers and scurry behind the chair before the Faolan yanked open the door.
“H-here you are Milord. I apologize most sincerely. But you did say to tell you right away if there was any word—”
“Yes, yes. Give it here. Thank you.” Taking the letter, Faolan sighed and shut the door.
Keeley’s hopes that he might simply set the letter aside and ignore it until they were through were dazed when he saw Faolan’s features tighten with worry as he looked down at the letter. Slipping his pants back on, Keeley moved to stand next to him.
“Is something wrong?” Keeley asked.
“Not necessarily,” Faolan said. “But I’m not getting a very good feeling.”
If just looking at the letter gave Faolan a sense of foreboding, it definitely wasn’t going to be good news. “Open it.”
With a nod, Faolan grabbed a letter opener from his desk and cut open the letter in one long sweep. Keeley watched his face and tried to be patient as he read.
I hope this letter finds you far better than I find myself at the moment. I’m afraid I must request your presence as soon as possible at my family’s estate.
I am well aware that the last time we spoke I had requested that you give me time alone to deal with family matters, and to keep Rian well away. Circumstances with my father remain the same. However matters related to the Society have occurred, such that I believe your presence will be greatly appreciated. And as I know you could not keep Rian away (short of drugging the poor lad), you may as well bring him and Keeley along. Fates willing, this unfortunate turn of events will be dealt with swiftly.
As always, life keeps us from boredom! Tada gan iarracht.
P.S. Should you need to send a reply, please address it to Clair! I shall explain later.
P.P.S. I think a pooka may be at the center of this problem.
Faolan frowned. Tada gan iarracht. Nothing without effort. Indeed. At least a pooka was not too serious of a problem—most of the time. Still…
He let out a growl of frustration.
“What?” Keeley asked.
Thrusting the letter at him, Faolan shook his head, expression dark. “I knew trouble was brewing!”
Quickly reading over the letter, Keeley spread his hands. “But this could have nothing to do with what Rian did.”
“I don’t like the timing. It’s too much of a coincidence.” He flopped back down into the leather chair they’d been enjoying just moments before. Now every inch of the man was filled with tension.
Keeley crossed his arms and sauntered over to him. He’d grown much more accustomed to Faolan’s moods, and how to deal with him in general, in the time Larkin had been gone.
Though he still had far to go in the way of his training, it had helped Keeley understand who he was better; he was more comfortable in his own skin. And because of that his confidence had grown. Knowing himself better had somehow made it easier to know Faolan as well. It was a good thing too, because with Larkin gone and Rian sulking, the rhythm of the household had been thrown off-kilter. At least initially, Keeley reflected.
He stood before Faolan and slipped back over his lap, tossing the letter aside.
“I’m sorry, Keeley, but I must think this over,” Faolan said, reaching for the letter where it had fallen.
Keeley snatched his wrist and brought Faolan’s hand to his lips.
“I mean i—!” Faolan’s his words broke off in a choked gasp as Keeley sucked a finger into his mouth.
Oh yes. He had a much better handle on Faolan these days. He’d been observing and quietly helping both the Earl and his household since Larkin had been away. But the last two days that Rian had been unconscious, Keeley had stepped up even more. A potential that he must have always had had come to assert itself.
He wriggled in Faolan’s lap and tried not to think about the fact that he was basically putting himself into the role Faolan’s wife would traditionally have taken. Had it been an option, Keeley wouldn’t have minded the idea of being Faolan’s spouse. But he was still a man, and the label of ‘wife’ didn’t settle well with him.
Maybe there was a compromise to be made. And who even knew what the future was going to bring between them? He was getting ahead of himself.
So instead of thinking on it further, he let Faolan unfasten his trousers once more and gave himself over to a night of pleasure.
The ride to Larkin’s family estate seemed interminably long, but at least they were on the move. Rian having to wait until he’d recovered from his ill-judged attempts at magic in order for them to leave had been the most acute punishment he ever could’ve conceived of. He’d never been so impatient in his life. Even when Rian had been forced to endure deplorable men and unsavory conditions in the brothel he’d been raised in, he’d had more tolerance. But this wasn’t about him; it was about Larkin. And that made all the difference.
The air was crisp and cool as they finally pulled up to O’Carroll manor and stepped from the carriage. Rian lifted his eyes to the imposing home. It was his first time seeing it with his own eyes; Larkin visits there had been rare and short, and they’d both known better than to have Rain accompany him.
As Rian looked up at its dull stone walls and many narrow windows, the building seemed to frown down upon him. Narrow turrets rose on each side like silent sentinels, windows dim in the cloudy afternoon light.
Several servants, looking nearly as grey as the building, came out to greet them.
“Earl O’Callaghan,” said one of the footman, bowing before Faolan. “Right this way.”
They followed behind as other servants saw to their bags and took away the carriage. And though everyone was polite, no one seemed especially friendly. In fact, they all appeared rather—how should he put it?—displeased, or perhaps ill at ease. Rian told himself that this was only natural considering their master had been ill for so long. Yet, if that were the case, he would’ve expected their demeanor to be more somber and less on edge. Unless the man’s condition had worsened?
Feeling a growing sense of tension around him, Rian followed Keeley and Faolan inside, where the butler greeted them a cursory bow. “Welcome to O’Carroll manor. Samuel,” he said, nodding to the footman, “will see your things brought up to your rooms. If you’ll follow me, I’ll show you to the parlor.”
Faolan nodded and they made their way behind the taciturn butler down the hallway, the Earl’s eyes silently taking everything in. Rian could feel his tension. Though he might not have any magical gifts, Rian could sense that something was…off about the household. He spied some of the house servants coming and going as they passed halls and doorways, their hushed chatter falling away whenever they neared. And always Rian could feel them giving the Earl and his ‘valets’ furtive glances after they passed. They all looked flustered, as if someone had come in and upturned their anthill.
It was enough to make one paranoid. Rian found himself fidgeting and clenched his hands to stop himself. Anywhere else, he might have been more level-headed and subjective about the odd behavior. But this was the home of Larkin’s family—the family that disapproved of his lifestyle with Larkin so ardently. Did even the servants know? He wondered. Larkin was never one to be discreet and they could have overheard him talking about Rian and the nature of their relationship. He also wouldn’t have put it past Clair to notify the servants that Faolan’s chestnut-haired valet had ‘unsavory’ appetites (as she had once phrased it).
Giving himself a mental shake, Rian told himself to stop fretting. The butler opened a door on the left to a back parlor and they filed inside.
“Lady Clair will be with you shortly,” he said. Then he shut the door and they were alone.
“Something isn’t right,” Faolan said, his eyes narrowing on the door, as if looking through it.
“What do you mean? Isn’t that why we’re here?” Keeley asked. He looked around the small parlor room and sat himself down on a chair opposite the door. Rian followed suit and took the settee near the window.
“Yes, but…” Faolan shook his head and turned around to face them. “I just don’t like the energy here. It feels…odd in a way I can’t pin down.”
Keeley was cut off as the door flew open and Clair swept inside. “You’re here! Thank god!” she said, sagging with relief against the door as it shut behind her.
Faolan and Rian exchanged glances. This was not Clair’s usual reaction to their presence. Just what was going on?
Before Faolan could ask, the door pushed open, tripping Clair forward.
“Bloody hell, be careful!” she snapped, as Larkin appeared, a tray balanced on his hip.
“What are you doing hovering behind the door?” Larkin said with a scowl as he pushed inside. He set the tray of tea and biscuits on the side table near the window and huffed. “You should’ve been the one fetching the tea, you know!”
“As if I could be bothered with something that trivial when help has finally arrived!” Clair replied, folding her arms and crossing the room to sit next to Rian on the settee. Rian’s eyes went wide, despite his attempt to mask his surprise.
Larkin glared at her, not even glancing at Rian. This was not the greeting he’d waited weeks for. What the bloody hell was going on?
“It’s good to see you,” came Clair’s voice beside him. Rian pulled his eyes from Larkin and saw Clair smiling—actually smiling—at him.
Rian blinked. He looked at Clair with her sly smile, then Larkin, who was standing against the table and looking anywhere but at them, a deep scowl on his face as he flicked his hair over his shoulder.
“Oh my god…” Rian whispered. It wasn’t possible.
“Larkin, if you could bring yourself out of your snit, perhaps you’d care to explain what the hell has been happening here,” Faolan said impatiently.
“You’re too slow on the uptake,” Clair said, eyes never leaving Rian. “Rian already has it figured out.”
Rian swallowed. “They switched bodies. How?”
“What?” Keeley and Faolan both said, gaping at Rian.
“You’re as sharp as ever, my love,” Clair—or, no, Faolan—said, giving him a hopeless grin. “I’m sorry to drag you all into this, but I didn’t know what else to do. We needed reinforcements.”
Rian could only stare at Larkin’s expressions on Claire’s face. It was bewildering, to say the least. Bloody hell, what were they going to do? How was he even supposed to think of him—her? No, he told himself, even if Larkin was in Clair’s body, he was still, well, him. He just looked different. Like Clair. Like a woman.
“We have got to fix this,” Rian said, looking to Faolan as panic flooded his system. “Quickly.” Over two months without his lover and now that Larkin was right before him they were still miles apart!
Faolan was shaking his head. He sank down into a chair. “When did this happen?”
“The night of the 10th. I wrote you straight away,” Larkin said in his new feminine voice. Clair’s voice—yet with Larkin’s intonation and manner of speech, it really didn’t sound like her at all. It wasn’t her. Yet it was still disorientating to see Faolan’s personality behind Clair’s face. However rationally Rian explained it to himself, it was still making his head ache.
“What happened?” Faolan asked, looking between Larkin and Clair.
“It’s all this idiot’s fault!” Clair spat, glaring at Larkin.
“It wasn’t my doing!” he said defensively. “Not intentionally anyway. It was the pooka,” he explained, spreading his slender hands. “He heard my ‘wish’.”
“Your wish?” Faolan asked, brow furrowed.
Larkin took a deep breath and slowly let it out. “Father has been pushing and pushing at me to stay here, to marry, to take over his position as head of the household. It doesn’t seem to matter to him that Clair is the responsible one, the one with a head for business, the one who wants the bloody title. All he sees is that I am the son, and she is a woman, and that is that. So… I may have been thinking that it would’ve been easier for everyone if we’d been born in opposite roles.” He grimaced. “I was feeling so desperate. The pooka must’ve heard my ‘wish’ and, well, granted it.”
Faolan rolled his eyes. “Oh bloody hell! Now we have to track down the damn pooka? They’re the trickiest damn fae in the world!”
“I’m more than aware of that,” Larkin said dryly.
Faolan let out a long sigh. “What a mess.” The room fell into thoughtful silence.
“Umm,” Keeley said tentatively, “what exactly is a pooka?”
“You’ve never heard of it before?” Faolan asked with surprise.
“Just rumors. They are wicked and wait until dark to cause mayhem and strife to those who are unaware. Usually in the form of a black horse or bull.” He spread his hands.
“That’s half true,” Faolan replied. “They can be benevolent or cruel, but typically they are simply mischievous and do whatever pleases their humor, not really considering the consequences of their actions. They can take other forms as well.”
As they spoke, Larkin turned to Rian. “I’m sorry about this,” he said, taking Rian’s hand. “I’ve hated being apart from you and now…” He sighed and shrugged.
Rian patted his hand and closed his eyes as Larkin kissed his cheek. At least he could imagine things were the way they were supposed to be.
A sound of disgust came from across the room, cutting off other conversation. “Is that all you ever think about?” Clair asked, words clipped.
Rian couldn’t help but smirk at hearing those words spoken in Larkin’s voice.
“I love him, Clair. It’s only natural that I want to be with him.”
“There is nothing natural about it!”
Larkin started to protest, but Rian lifted his hand to stop him. “Clair,” he said, “would you allow me to show you something?”
Rian stood and moved to stand before her; Clair’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Show me what?” she demanded.
“That Larkin, like everyone, doesn’t choose who he loves—or who he’s attracted to.” Rian looked up into her face, a face he knew so well. He couldn’t help the pull of attraction he still felt for Larkin’s body. He remembered too vividly the way those hands could caress him, the pleasure they could stir, and it affected him. And the irony of their current situation left a bitter taste in his mouth.
Rian stepped closer, until he was nearly flush with the body before him.
“W-what are you doing?” Clair said, trying unsuccessfully to back away—but she was now pinned between the table behind her and Rian’s body.
Rian put a hand over Clair’s shoulder and pushed up on the balls of his feet so he could whisper in her ear, “Men are driven by desire, Clair. It’s as natural for us as breathing. And who and what we desire isn’t determined up here,” he said, tapping Clair’s temple, “but here.” He thrust his hips forward, just slightly, just enough to graze the bulge that Rian knew was already growing in Clair’s breeches.
Rian stepped back and grinned with satisfaction at Clair’s flushed face. She blinked and looked down, finally noticing the erection tenting her pants.
“Oh god!” she sputtered, hands covering her groin. In a rush, she sat down in the nearest chair and hunched over, knees pulled together in a posture the other men found vastly amusing.
Rian sat back down next to Larkin, who shook his head and snorted. “You know how to play my body even when I’m not in it.” Then he added sourly, “Don’t make a habit of it.”
“This infernal, perverse male body,” Claire muttered.
“Now what were you saying about my urges being ‘unnatural?” Larkin sneered.
A throat cleared and they all turned to Faolan. “If you are quite finished, we still have to decide where to go from here. Larkin, tell me everything that happened.”
Larkin nodded and launched into a detailed account of the evening when he had encountered the pooka. Sadly, there wasn’t all that much to say. He knew where in the forest he’d been, but pookas didn’t tend to stick to just one territory. There was no telling where the fae might be now.
“Isn’t there anything that we could use to lure the pooka out?” Keeley asked. “Are they known for having certain weaknesses for something?”
Faolan shrugged. “Depends on the pooka.”
“Maybe I should go out to the forest again. Wander around a bit. The pooka noticed me once, maybe he’d come back around,” Larkin offered.
“Perhaps I should try to contact Her Majesty about this,” Faolan said, “if we can’t track the pooka down.”
“That seems extreme,” Larkin said.
“I’d rather not, but how long do you honestly think you can handle this situation?”
Clair, who had been quite during this entire talk, finally spoke up. “What if we can’t find it? What if we can’t switch back?”
“Let’s not be fatalistic just yet,” Larkin told her.
“It’s something we have to consider,” she insisted. “I mean, maybe we should just make the best of it?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Just think about it for a damn second! It does solve a lot of our problems.”
“And creates a shit ton of new ones!” Larkin snapped.
“Don’t use that kind of language with me! And I don’t know why you’re so against even thinking about it—if you’re so determined to be with your bed boy, staying the way we are could be better for you. You could marry him and never have to worry about your inheritance ever again.”
“How magnanimous of you. And I don’t suppose this would have anything to do with the fact that if you remained in my body you’d get the inheritance and title and have everything you damn well pleased!”
“You think I want to stay in your perverse, disgusting body? Despite everything, I like being a woman. I want to have children someday! But I’m trying to be practical about this. We have to explore every option.”
“Oh?” Larkin said, his sneer curling his petite female features. “You want to be practical, huh? Well, while you’re busy being lord of the manor, what about me? You won’t mind whatever I decide to do with your body, hmm?”
Clair shrugged, large shoulders rising with feminine grace. “It wouldn’t be my body anymore.”
“Is that right? So,” Larkin said, reaching for the buttons of his dress, “you don’t care if I go gallivanting over the countryside? Out drinking and brawling? Flaunting my feminine wiles? Why don’t I show my friends here what your body has to offer?” He said as he began to unfasten the front of the dress.
A loud crack echoed through the room as Clair smacked Larkin soundly across the face. She looked down at her hand. “I-I’m sorry. Your body is… stronger than I realized.”
Larkin snorted. “See? You can’t let go so easily.”
“Doing what you like as a ‘woman’ is one thing. Besmirching the good name of our family is another!”
“Especially when it is your name in particular,” he spat.
“Can we try to speak civilly to one another?” Rian said, putting his head in his hands.
“As if Larkin has ever behaved civilly!” She glared at him fiercely. “I bet this is just your absurd way of getting back me for dismissing your ‘magic’ all these years! You just had to prove it, didn’t you?”
“Oh yes!” Larkin spat sarcastically. “I decided to derail my entire life while father’s life hangs in the balance—and drag my friends into it—just for some petty revenge!”
Keeley leaned over his chair to ask Rian in a low voice, “How long are they going to keep this up?”
Rian rolled his eyes heavenward and shrugged.
“You blame all this on me,” Larkin said, “but you’re the one suggesting we stay this way. As if that would ever work! We’re both attracted to men, you know. What would you do, dear sister, if you took up the role of dutiful son and were expected to marry? When you find yourself alone with another woman’s ripe breasts naked before you? And—”
“Shut your trap!” Her face flushed a deeper red.
“That’s enough! Both of you!” Faolan said firmly. “Despite Larkin’s crudeness,” he interjected, “Larkin is correct. Pulling this off would be far more difficult than you realize—and it is not a true solution to your problems.”
“What are we supposed to do then?” Clair asked.
“We will track down this infernal pooka and have it switch you back. Whatever it takes,” Faolan said.
“Sounds good to me,” Larkin said. “Where do we start?”
“First thing’s first. Larkin, you are going to have to teach Clair how to harness your powers, because we are going to need them.”
“I’ve tried!” he said, gritting his teeth. “She doesn’t listen.”
“You make no sense!”
“Magic doesn’t ‘make sense’! It’s something you feel inside your gut.”
“Oh, that’s helpful,” Clair snorted.
Faolan pressed a hand to his head. “God grant me patience…” he muttered.
Chapter 34: Defenseless
Rian deposited a tea tray on the table in the middle of the large study where Faolan sat talking with Keeley, then walked out again without a word. It was Rian's ubiquitous task; always seeing to the small needs of others. Keeley didn't know where he found the patience. If it had been him in the same situation, he'd never have handled matters so calmly.
Shaking his head, Keeley asked Faolan, "Isn't there anything we can do?"
Faolan poured both their teas and raised his eyebrows as he handed Keeley his cup. "Such as?"
"I don't know," Keeley said, sitting next to him on the sofa. "I just feel restless."
Faolan slipped a hand over his waist. "We have to wait for the right timing to deal with the pooka, and that won't be for three days yet. Which is best, since we still need to plan."
"I suppose. But what about Larkin's father? Isn't there anything to be done? Healing spells? Anything?"
Faolan smiled fondly down at him. "I know you want to help, but magic doesn't have all the answers." His smile slipped. "His father's illness is genuine. The most we can do is hope for the best."
"Everyone is so tense, you can feel it like a draft through the house. I wish Clair would see reason, and she and Larkin would talk things out."
"He's just as stubborn as she is, you know."
"I've gotten that impression. Poor Rian."
"Sometimes there's nothing to be done but take matters in stride."
Keeley sighed and took a long sip.
"Unless…you'd like a distraction?" Faolan offered, leaning close.
Faolan's grin was answer enough.
"It doesn't seem right…" Keeley said, dodging Faolan's kisses.
"It's what Larkin and Rian would do if our positions were reversed."
Keeley shook his head with a chuckle. It was true enough. Faolan kissed along the column of his neck and Keeley set his tea down.
"Right now," he said, snuggling his back against Faolan's chest. "Can we just sit like this?"
Behind him, Faolan smiled. "Of course."
Rian made his way back to the kitchens, ignoring most of the staff. Most of them didn't hold with him being there. He understood well enough. Their master was ill; any other upheaval during such a stressful time wouldn't be welcome. But it made being there that much more difficult.
Though, in truth, even among the gloom and tension within the household, Rian still preferred it to being miles away in Master Faolan's manor. Simply being able to be near Larkin—despite his 'condition'—was better than the distance between them.
If that was what Larkin truly wanted, Rian would acquiesce. But he knew better than anyone that his presence made a difference to Larkin's mood. More than ever he needed to be by his side. And if Larkin were keeping his daily routine (which meant keeping up appearances of Clair's daily routine), he'd be… ah, yes, the small office adjoining their father's library and study.
Rian knocked softly, waiting for Larkin's, "Come in" before opening the door.
There was Clair's body, with Larkin's scowl, hunched over paperwork. He looked up and grinned. "Rian, thank god! I needed a break."
Picking up a sheaf of papers, Larkin shook it as if it were a living thing he wished to throttle. "I have to sort through and sign all these bloody papers!"
Rian gave him a lopsided grin. "You mean you have to do what Clair does everyday?"
"At least she knows what she's doing! I don't know why she can't still go through all this. It would be good for the household to see 'Larkin' doing some work as well. But, no! Instead she's off doing… something!"
Coming around the desk, Rian leaned against the chair and rubbed Larkin's slender shoulders. "You're both hurting. You have to be patient with one another."
Larkin arched an eyebrow, his gaze shrewd. "Patient, hmm? I believe I'm not the only one short in that virtue of late." He sighed. "Faolan explained what happened to me, you know."
"What happened?" Rian replied, feigning innocence in the hopes of keeping the conversation light.
"Mirror magic is unstable and dangerous. You could have been seriously hurt, Rian, my love."
Rian shook his head, even days later, he was still jarred at hearing Clair's voice deliver such tender words.
"Look at me."
Slowly, Rian lifted his eyes, staring at Larkin's soul through Clair's eyes. A hand came up to caress his cheek.
"Promise me you'll never do anything so foolish again."
"So only you get to do foolish things?"
"Don't make light of this."
Rian frowned. This was unfamiliar territory for him, in so many ways. "I'm sorry. I should have been patient but… I may not have powers like yours, but I knew something was wrong. You'd sent no word. You… forgot my birthday," his voice caught in his throat.
It wasn't like Rian to feel so… needy. Then again, Larkin had rarely disappointed him before. And he couldn't blame him for forgetting; the situation Larkin was in now was demanding and draining, even before the pooka had made it all more complicated. Rian needed to be understanding. But it hurt nonetheless.
"Rian," Larkin whispered. He pulled him into his arms, and though it felt strange to have breasts press against his chest, Rian knew it was still Larkin and took what comfort he could.
"You've been through more than anyone should have to endure," Larkin said. "I'm sorry to have caused you more pain."
Rian buried his face in the crook of Larkin's neck, clinging to him. Until then, he hadn't wanted to admit how much the situation had unsettled him. No matter the tides thrashing him about, Rian stayed afloat. But this…this had gotten beneath his skin. His eyes burned, his body aching to feel the strong, corded muscle of Larkin's arms about him. The soft body beneath his hands would never convey the kind of security and sanctuary of Larkin's true embrace. Rian had reassured himself that once they were reunited, he would be able to feel that strength, the warmth and connection of skin meeting skin. That loss, atop the weeks of separation he had tried in vain to endure without bitterness, tore at him.
Letting go, just this once, Rian allowed the tears to spill, soaking into Clair's dress.
For his part, Larkin was relieved that Rian was finally releasing his hurt and frustration. Rian might be mature beyond his years, but everyone had their limits. Early on, Rian had learned to accept difficulties in stride, but it would do him good to let himself go more, let himself feel more. Larkin only wished that he could do more to reassure him at the moment. This business with the pooka would be tricky, however, and he still wasn't sure what would happen with his father, the estate… or Clair.
One thing at a time, he reminded himself, stroking Rian's back.
When Clair entered the office twenty minutes later, Rian sat besides Larkin in a small chair pulled up next to the desk, helping him organize the paperwork into various piles.
Clair watched them joke and tease before they noticed her in the doorway, eyes watchful. She shut the door behind her.
"Oh, Clair! There you are. I think I'm making some headway—thanks to Rian."
Crossing her arms, Clair nodded, eyes staring at the floor. "Father wants to see you."
"He does?" Larkin asked, perking up like a dog called to play.
Clair's eyes stormed with emotions she was obviously working hard to force down. "Yes. He wants to see 'Clair'."
The brightness in Larkin's face dimmed. "Oh, yes, of course." As he stood, Rian reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. His eyes watched him with a heavy heart.
"I wish there was more I could do," Rian said, standing and straightening the papers.
Clair frowned, moving to the desk and swatting his hands away. "I'll take care of this."
A smile tugged at Rian's lips, though he tried to hide it. Clair was as transparent as her brother. Rian had grown up around people putting on faces, living among lies; it was refreshing to be around anyone whose emotions were so open, despite Clair's surly attitude. She didn't put on airs for anyone.
He ran his fingers along the edge of the old oak desk and Clair glanced through the piles of papers, and shook his head. "I admire you, Ms. O’Callaghan."
Clair froze. "Excuse me?"
Rian noted the suspicion in her eyes. Of course, she would think he was simply trying to win her over, but he meant it. "Larkin doesn't realize what it takes to run a household the way I do. So I know how much work you must have been putting into running the manor these years he's been away."
Clair's eyes narrowed. "You don't know the half of it."
"No, I'm certain I don't. But you've made it work and never compromised your principles."
Clair put down the papers and straightened her back. "If you are a woman in this world, you learn very quickly not to show any weaknesses, and to stand by what you believe. Otherwise, people will take advantage of you at every turn."
"You may not believe me, but I know that better than most men."
Folding her arms, Clair gave an indelicate snort. "Is that so?"
Rian gave a shrug. "You don't have to believe me. It's true all the same."
"You're right. I don't have to believe you."
Rian gave her a grin. "You are always straight-forward as well—something else I respect."
Clair huffed, but didn't reply.
"You know, Larkin is trying to do the right thing."
"About time," Clair muttered.
Rian took a step around the desk toward her. "We're not your enemy, Clair."
"I never said that!"
"But you think it sometimes, don't you, Clair?"
"I didn't give you leave to address me so informally!"
"I apologize. I will leave you, if you wish to be alone. There is one thing I would like to ask of you though."
"What? Go easier on my dear brother?"
Rian paused. His eyes flickered away, hesitant for the first time in her presence. When he met her eyes, he said, "Let Larkin's arms hold me—for just a few moments."
Blinking, Clair's brow furrowed. "What are you talking about?"
Closing the space further between them, Rian looked up into that face that was so familiar. "I have always found Larkin's embrace comforting. Frankly, I miss it. And I think you may find comfort in it as well. It feels good to hold and be held."
"This is absurd."
Rian caught her hand when she turned to leave. He said nothing, simply locked his eyes on her own, laying his need bare before her.
"Why should I?"
"It's not a question of 'should'. There's no reason for you to. It would just be a…kindness."
Clair stared at him as if she didn't know what to make of him. Her eyes were searching, and Rian could feel her assessing him. He didn't try to hide his emotion, his vulnerability, and he saw when she recognized it. They were alike in some ways—they had learned to play their cards close to their chests. That he was letting her see him like this was no small thing.
Moving into her space, Rian felt her intake of breath before putting his arms about her. And she allowed it. He inhaled Larkin's scent, felt those long arms come around him. Illusion or not, Rian would take it. He needed to feel that solid chest against his, the heat of Larkin's body.
Rian couldn't say why, but just being physically near Larkin always calmed him. He soaked in the familiar feel of Larkin's body for as long as he could, but eventually he felt Clair shifting in his arms. Pulling back, he gave her a nod.
"Thank you. I—"
"No need to mention it any further." She cleared her throat, looking anywhere but at him. Rian saw the blush across her cheeks and noted the way her hands had fallen over the slight bulge in her breeches.
Under other circumstances, he might have teased. Not now. Giving her a respectful nod, he turned and let himself out, shutting the door behind him.
* * *
Larkin noted the odd look one of the maids gave him as he made his way down the hall. He quickly brought his hands in from where they had been swinging at his sides and shortened his gait. It felt unnatural, but he was supposed to be Clair, not himself.
It had taken Larkin days to learn how to walk and comport himself as a lady. He most definitely had a greater appreciation of what the fairer sex went through now. It was ridiculous the lengths to which women were expected to care for the needs of others without complaint—and the clothes! He would never complain about how confining cravats were ever again.
Thank goodness Clair was not a demure young lady and the household staff expected a certain amount of brashness and nonconformity, or Larkin would have been lost. He still didn't think the illusion would hold up to scrutiny. It was one of many worries weighing on him as he found himself outside his father's sick room.
Until then, he'd made his visits as brief as possible, helping to bring in food, seeing he was comfortable for the night, checking in here and there. To be summoned like this, however, would be different. Somehow he had to keep up appearances, no matter what.
And wasn't it the irony of the century that it was only within Clair's body that he would be able to spend any amount of time with his own father? The man wanted little to do with 'Larkin'—unless he accepted moving back permanently to the manor and agreeing to marry.
The entire situation was so…wrong, and incredibly unfair to everyone involved. But there was little alternative—explaining the situation to their father now would only cause the man undo stress—but it was wrong all the same.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, he reached for the doorknob and let himself inside.
"It's me Father. You asked for me?"
"Clair, yes! Please, come here." The old man patted the bed next to him.
Larkin made his way over, slowly. He'd made a habit of avoiding looking too closely at his father during his brief visits. Now, as he sat beside him, he was struck by how pale and worn he looked. His father had always been a vision of strength and fortitude. As much as they clashed, Larkin respected him and—if he was honest—longed for his approval. It was a shock to see that soft, defeated look in his eyes.
"You've been busy lately," his father said.
"I'm sorry, Father."
He patted her hand. "I know you take on a lot, more than you should." He sighed. "I thought I might finally be able to get through to your brother." His eyes closed, as if even the thought of Larkin drained him. What could Larkin reply to that?
"Maybe we will have to let him be," Larkin finally replied.
His father opened his eyes and smiled at her. "So he is no longer a lazy, useless wastrel in need of a wife and a good thrashing?"
Larkin blinked, trying to keep his face impassive. Clair didn't mince her words, did she? Little chit.
"Perhaps I was being harsh," Larkin replied.
His father snorted, nearly causing a coughing fit. "Don't back down when things get difficult, Clair. I raised you better."
For a moment he simply laid there, hand over his eyes, staring ahead as if he was gathering his thoughts.
"I wish matters with your brother had gone differently. I did my best with him, but…" he shook his head. "I have my regrets."
Is this how he spoke with Clair? This open? Larkin was given nothing but criticism. He thought it was the same with Clair. It was what she seemed to always imply. But perhaps things had only changed when their father grew ill.
"I may have been hard on you both, but what neither of you seem to understand is that—whatever you may think," he paused to take a breath, "everything I have done has been out of love." He squeezed Larkin's hand. "You'll understand when you have children."
No, Larkin wouldn't understand. Love? He wanted to rile and protest against those words. What about choosing to love people for who they are? Larkin kept his words locked behind his teeth.
"Don't make such a face. I know you say you don't want to marry, but you will need a good husband. You are too independent. Everyone should have someone in their life they can rely on, share life with."
This, Larkin could actually agree with. Clair was so rigid and self-contained. Man or woman, having a partner in life made everything more tolerable. Being with Rian challenged him and made him a better person. If only his father could see that.
"I'll think about it, Father."
He eyed Larkin, and for a second his heart lurched, thinking he'd given himself away, but his father shook his head with a smirk. "Don't say things just to humor an old man."
Larkin couldn't help but smile. His father knew Clair too well.
Then the levity faded. His father's face grew somber. "There is something I need to tell you—while I still am able."
"Don't talk that way."
He gave a mirthless laugh. "It's true, my dear. Accept it or not. I know my time is limited. There are certain things I have to get off my chest. It's the privilege of the dying to unburden themselves."
Larkin felt a chill pass through him. No, he didn't want to be here for this. He wasn't ready for it and he wasn't the one meant for these confessions.
"Shall I call a priest?"
His father glowered at him. "No, this is only for your ears."
"You have time, Father. Please. Not yet."
But the man shook his head, his gaze adamant.
"No. This is something you must know. After I'm gone, it will only be you and your brother. I know you don't get along, and I'm partially responsible for that." He stopped, taking deep breaths. "There are things you have to understand about the past to understand Larkin. I think it will help you. But you must never share what I am about to tell you. Swear to me."
No, no. no! Don't ask this of me, he wanted to beg, But how could he not give his father this? Yet he was betraying him by agreeing to it.
"Please, swear it."
Between clenched teeth, Larkin gritted out, "Yes, Father. I swear it." His heart clenched with guilt, but what else could he do?
"Thank you, Clair. I promise, it is for the best." His father cleared his throat. "Now, you are too young to remember much of this, and I admit I have kept it from you…but your mother, she had a gift."
He went on. "Some would call it 'magic'. She had a knack for knowing people, for feeling when something wasn't right. Quite frankly, it frightened me. But she was your mother, and I loved her."
He stopped to quell a fit of coughing. "Where was I? Oh, yes. That was before she grew ill. My own illness now doesn't compare—I've lived my life. Your mother, she was so young. Neither of us could accept it. We visited every doctor we could find, consulted healers." He shook his head, eyes briefly shutting as he winced at the memory. "Nothing helped. The sicker she grew, the more desperate we became. Eventually, she turned to the Church. It didn't heal her, but she took solace there. She’d grown to distrust magic and made me promise I would do all I could to keep Larkin from it.” He shook his head. “I’ve failed her.”
Larkin’s world spun—astonished and heartbroken at such a confession. All the times he'd felt the back of his father's hand after displaying or speaking of his magic—and all the resentment he'd harbored against his father for it—had been the result of this? He felt as if the floor had opened at his feet and he was tumbling headfirst into a cold stream. It had been his mother's doing?
For several moments, he couldn't speak. When he finally managed, he asked in a choked voice, “Why did you never tell m—him this?”
“I gave my word. And you must not breath a syllable of it, my dear!” His eyes were so filled with sorrow it was like a fist to the gut. “Larkin loved her so. I couldn’t bare to tarnish that memory.”
What a fool you are father! If only I’d known!
"Why tell me now?" Larkin pleaded, eyes tight against tears as he clutched his father's hand.
"Because I do not want you to hold any bitterness towards your brother for whatever bad blood might lie between him and myself. I want you to try and understand him, the way I never could. I wanted to honor your mother's wishes, but I was hard on Larkin. I should have found another way, a better way. Maybe then things would be different now. Maybe he wouldn't have turned away if I'd done better by him."
This was too cruel, to be told this now, when he couldn't even make a reply on his own behalf. He choked on emotion and tried to breathe through it. "Please, Father," he choked out, "please tell this to Larkin. It would be for the best, I swear it to you!"
But his father shook his head. "I gave my word to your mother. It's the least I can do for her to keep this from him." He touched Larkin's face, wiping at the tears there. "But I see I was wise to tell you. I've never seen you cry for your brother before. Keep that compassion in your heart, my dear. You both need to soften a bit and understand one another."
With a nod, the man leaned back into his pillows, eyes closing. As Larkin sat there, immovable, his father's breathing evened out into the deep, full breaths of sleep. Finally letting go of his hand, Larkin stood. He wiped his eyes, squared his shoulders, and decided he and Clair needed to have a talk that was long overdue.
It didn't take long for Larkin to find his sister. She was waiting in the hall outside their father's room. Her posture was even more tense than usual.
“How is he?” Clair asked—and it really was jarring to watch his own features pinched with Clair's fretful expression.
Larkin opened his mouth, but the words stuck in his throat. He didn't know where to start. “Can we… talk somewhere more private?” he asked. Rian had let him know how the help gossiped.
Clair led the way to a back staircase and up to the attic. It was a tight space, dusty and little used, but it brought back pleasant memories as Clair pulled a blanket from one of the trunks and laid it down on the floor near one of the stain-glass windows. It was the same spot they'd come to as children when they both wanted to escape tutors and parental demands. He and Clair had been so close then.
“Come here and sit. Tell me what happened.”
Larkin nodded and settled himself down with a long exhalation. He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to collect himself. “Father is hanging on but…” Larkin shook his head, “he's talking as if he doesn't have much time.”
“He's been doing that for some time now.”
Larkin didn't doubt it, but this had felt unnerving. “He's…confessing things, Clair.”
“Things meant for your ears.” Larkin took a deep breath in. His father had wanted her to hear everything, but Larkin felt reluctant now to divulge it.
“What did he say, Lark?” Clair sat, eyes locked to his, tone adamant.
Slowly, Larkin told her of their father's regrets—and the revelations that came along with them. Clair had been young when their mother died, she had never seen evidence of her magics and had never but half-believed Larkin when he spoke of them as they grew older. Until, of course, the pooka had come along.
Larkin watched her as she took it all in. In some ways, he knew this was harder to accept than even the powerful magics that had switched their bodies. It hit home, so to speak, and he saw the emotions flicker across her face before she managed to get a hold of herself.
“Why do people keep so many secrets from one another?” she finally asked.
“Maybe they feel they are keeping others safe by doing so.”
Clair's eyes narrowed. “You don't believe that.”
“No, but honesty hasn't yielded better results between us, has it?”
Clair turned away from him.
“Don't make that face,” Larkin told her, “you know it's true.”
Clair’s hands tightened over her knees as she pulled them up to her chest. “You’ve never made it easy you know! Anyone would find all your talk of magic and love of-of boys hard to swallow!”
Larkin sighed and Clair pushed on. “Besides, when have you taken me seriously? My needs? My life here?”
A long, heavy silence filled the wake of her words, settling between them like dust over the attic floor.
Clair’s head snapped up.
Larkin went on. “I have been self-absorbed. I have done what I liked. I knew you were a better choice to run the manor, so I left you to it. You seemed to thrive on the responsibility, unlike myself. I should have been here, but… I will admit I would do it again. To be with Rian.”
They were at an impasse, they both knew it. As if by mutual accord, they veered away from the topic.
Clair rubbed the edge of her sleeve. “Father… he didn’t ask for me? I mean, you?”
Clair slumped against the wall. “I don’t know what to do about this. He can be endlessly frustrating, but I’ve still been there for him all this time. To be cut off now…”
“I spoke with Faolan. There is a new moon tomorrow night. It should be the perfect time to draw out the pooka so we can switch back.”
“If< we can switch back.”
“Faolan’s dealt with worse than pooka, Clair. He’ll see that it happens. But he’ll need your help. My abilities have always been an asset. You don’t have much time left to get used to them, but—”
Clair was shaking her head. “I should stay here. I’ll be useless—and Father needs looking after if you’re all away.” She gave a start as Larkin put his hand over hers.
“Father will want to see your face, not mine.”
“Yes, that’s—Oh, I see. Of course.” Clair bit her lip. “You know, even if this works, it doesn’t solve all the other problems we need to deal with.”
Larkin gave her hand a squeeze. “One thing at a time, Clair.”
“Where is Larkin?”
Rian shrugged at Faolan and turned to shut the door behind him and made his way into the sitting room. “I’m sure he’ll be along soon.”
Faolan nodded, sipping his whiskey and looking thoughtful. Keeley was settled next to him, glancing about the room with a wrinkle of concentration knitting his brow.
“We’ll wait for him. How have you been getting on, Rian?”
“Well, for the most part.”
Faolan arched an eyebrow and Rian sighed as he took a seat across from him. “I will admit, it has been challenging.”
“You had best let us know if you feel the itch to use magic again.”
“I won’t. I wouldn’t even have a reason to.”
“Let’s hope not.”
Rian looked at the windows, noting the fading light as the evening came on. “Shall I light the candles for us?” He moved to rise and started when the candles all burst into flame at once. He found himself staring at Keeley, who was looking pleased with himself.
“You’re improving,” Faolan said to Keeley, giving him a grin that was really more of a leer. Keeley rolled his eyes, replying, “It’s just candles!”
Rian felt himself relax. If Faolan was still this at ease, he couldn’t have sensed anything too dangerous surrounding the pooka—though the situation still made Rian nervous. He was just beginning to worry that the meeting would have to be postponed until after the evening meal when Larkin arrived.
“Sorry,” Larkin said, nudging Rian over on the chaise lounge to sit beside him, “I was talking with Clair.”
“’Talking’? Not arguing?” Faolan asked.
“For once, yes.”
Rian took Larkin’s hand and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t look too happy yet,” Larkin told him, though he was smiling, “We have a long way to go.”
“It’s a start.”
“Yes. For now, however,” Larkin said, turning to Faolan, “what is our plan for this damnable pooka?”
Leaning forward, Faolan gave a sigh. “First, we stop referring to it as ‘the damnable pooka.”
“I’m serious, Larkin. Pookas enjoy mischief and amusement, and they don’t find such attitudes attractive. We need to lure it out. So we will have to show it our appreciation.”
With a shrug, Faolan said, “Show it that we can laugh at ourselves, enjoy a good joke.”
“With all that is happening,” Larkin hissed, “you want me to thank this creature for making my life even more difficult?”
“No, we agreed you’ll be staying here, remember? Clair will have to give her thanks.”
Larkin threw up his hands. “We’re as good as sunk! Good luck getting her to do that!”
“It might not be as hard as you think,” Rian interjected.
Larkin narrowed his eyes. “How is that?”
“Think back. Initially, Clair suggested staying as you were. I think part of her has genuinely taken a liking to living as a man.”
“Getting her to admit that might be difficult,” Larkin told him. He pushed a hand threw his hair. “And if she truly feels that way… what if she deliberately sabotages our efforts to switch back?”
“I don’t think, if push came to shove, Clair would honestly do that. The concept of remaining a man and the long term reality of it are two very different things,” said Faolan. “But you should talk with her tonight after dinner.
“She also needs more instruction on being aware of her magics. Perhaps tomorrow you could work with her, Faolan.”
“There isn’t much time, but every little bit helps, I suppose.”
“But what happens after we lure the pooka out?” Keeley asked.
Setting down his drink, Faolan folded his hands together. “Then we—mostly Clair—have to make our intentions known. If the pooka is in good spirits, it could be fairly easy to convince it to reverse the spell. However, pookas are tricky creatures; we have to be quite clear what it is we want, and that the pooka will get no further amusement from the situation as it is.”
“How do we do that?” Keeley asked.
“Wouldn’t we have to entice it with another wish that would bring more enjoyment?” Larkin added.
“Not necessarily.” Faolan leaned back into the sofa. “Much depends on the pooka. Each has his or her favorite games they play.”
“You’re not getting an impression one way or another?” Larkin asked.
“I—” Faolan paused as Larkin fidgeted with the edging of his dress over his breasts. “This bloody dress!” Larkin muttered. “How do women wear these day after day? I would lose my mind!”
A chuckle drifted through the room and Larkin turned to glare at Rian. “It’s not in the least amusing.”
“Of course not,” Rain said, covering his mouth.
“You’re as bad as the damn pooka!” He stopped fussing and looked pleadingly at Faolan. “This has to work. Isn’t there anything else we can do? Some way to ensure the pooka will switch us back?”
“I can’t make any guarantees. I’ll prepare a gift of appreciation for Clair to bring with tomorrow night—something to entice and flatter. Pookas are fickle beings. I don’t believe it will be too hard to convince it to change its mind about the spell. We’ll do our best.”
Looking at the deep blue of twilight outside, Rian said, “Dinner will be served soon. Is there anything else we need to cover this evening?”
“No,” Faolan replied. “I’ll speak with Clair at dinner about a training session tomorrow.”
Larkin nodded and stood. “I think I’ll change before dinner.” He gave Rian a wistful look, then took his hand to place a kiss across his knuckles before leaving.
“Well,” said Rian, “that is that. I will go check on the kitchens.”
Keeley nestled against Faolan’s side once the door was shut. Larkin and Rian’s dilemma made him appreciate his time with Faolan more than ever. Next to him, Faolan retrieved his drink and slipped his other arm about Keeley’s shoulders.
“I can almost hear you thinking,” Faolan said after a moment. “What is on your mind?”
“You didn’t answer Larkin. Have you gotten any impressions as to how matters will go with the pooka?”
Faolan took a long swallow of his drink. “Some.” He sighed. “I don’t believe the situation will resolve itself smoothly. However, whatever is to happen must be allowed to play out. Of that I am almost certain.”
“What does that mean?”
Patting his arm, Faolan told him, “It means you should prepare yourself for possible unpleasantness.”
Faolan tossed back the rest of his drink and gave Keeley a poke. “What is it?”
“I…” Keeley hesitated. “I don’t know. It feels as if it is always one thing after another.”
Faolan gave a short laugh. “That is usually how life works, Keeley.”
“I suppose.” He looked up at Faolan. “Do you how long will we stay here? There is still so much Larkin will have to see to, even if he and Clair are returned to normal. What will happen? I mean…”
“Hush, love. Yes, Larkin and Clair still have to work out things between them, and their father’s outlook isn’t promising. They will deal with that as it comes, and so will we.”
Keeley dropped his eyes, tracing his fingers over Faolan’s hand where it rested over his shoulder. “When all this is over…can we go somewhere?”
“What do you mean?”
“Away somewhere,” Keeley waved his hand. “Can we take a respite from, well, from the Society’s duties and household duties and just…be alone for a little while?”
Faolan drew him closer and kissed the top of his head. “We will see, love. We will see.”
“This is the gift for the pooka?” Clair frowned at the contents of the basket Faolan held out to her.
“Pookas usually take on a horse form, you know. What were you expecting?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
Clair shrugged and took the basket. “Not this,” she muttered, eying the fruits that had been carved into the shape of flowers with skepticism.
Keeley and Rian exchanged amused glances as they walked behind. It was twilight, a pookas’ favorite time of day, and they were setting off toward the woods. Larkin had stayed behind as planned, to keep watch over the household. It had not been easy for Clair to leave, and she continued to look back at the house as they made their way across the grounds.
“Are you sure this won’t take long?” she asked.
“It shouldn’t, but I can make no guarantees. It is the most promising phase of the moon and time of night. That, along with the apples, should lure the pooka out. But if it’s feeling skittish, we may have to wait until later in the night.”
“I don’t like being gone.” Keeley watched her as she fidgeted and gazed at the ground. Even in Larkin’s body, she walked with a more lady-like air about her. He very much hoped this worked, because he didn’t think Clair or Larkin would be able to keep up the pretense of appearances under scrutiny. Not that anyone in the household would suspect the truth of their odd behavior, but it would likely cause problems nonetheless.
“We’ll be as quick as possible,” Faolan said. “When the pooka comes, leave the talking to me.”
Clair nodded, but her tension didn’t ease.
“How was Larkin when you left?” Keeley asked Rian in a quiet voice as they walked.
“He looked about as nervous as Clair” Rian replied, “but I think that has more to do with worries over his father than about the pooka.”
“Has his father’s health deteriorated that badly already?”
“I don’t think it’s changed much in the past few days, but Larkin’s never had to deal with him completely alone. Clair has been caring for him since he fell ill and has always been there to rely on.”
Keeley nodded, stepping more carefully now that the light was failing. “Hopefully nothing will happen while we’re gone.” He blinked as he felt a hand drop to his shoulder. Rian was smiling at him.
“You’re a very compassionate person, Keeley. It’s sweet of you to worry so much for them. Faolan was lucky to find you.”
“I—Thank you,” he stammered. It was unlike Rian to speak so openly to him. He wasn’t sure what to say.
Rian patted his arm and turned away, seeming to understand. Somehow, that only made Keeley feel more inept.
“Larkin is lucky to have you too!” Keeley said in a rush.
Pausing to turn back to him, Rian grinned. “Thank you.”
They fell in step with Faolan and Clair and the group moved along in silence until they had reached of the woods that bordered the property.
“Now what?” Clair asked in a low voice.
Faolan raised a hand for quiet. Setting the basket down beneath the eaves of two _ trees, he stepped back and bowed. “We bring this gift to the pooka who graced our friends with a spell several days ago. We would speak with you, if you would be so kind as to join us.”
“What if the pooka isn’t anywhere near here?” Clair asked.
“Hush!” Keeley hissed. He was watching the space between the trees intently. His skin prickled with the uncanny something that always accompanied encounters with the faerie realm. Only now that he’d been honing his powers, he could feel it more keenly. Though he could see nothing through the foggy veil, he sensed someone or something’s intense interest. It peaked, then began to fade.
The light from the stars was thin, but Keeley could see Faolan’s face. He didn’t look concerned. What was happening?
“Hmm,” Faolan murmured. “I suppose if no one is interested in these apples, we will just have to finish them ourselves.” With that he picked up the basket, hooking it into the crook of his arm and began to walk away.
“We’re just going to leave?” Clair said, eyes wide with uncertainty.
Faolan spread his hands, “This pooka must not want what we have to offer. Perhaps it doesn’t want to have any fun with us. There is a lake nearby, isn’t there? Perhaps there is a kelpie there that would appreciate such succulent apples.”
But Clair response was cut when a dark figure—like a large horse with a shadowy, flowing mane—rushed past them and then back beneath the trees. Keeley’s mouth dropped as he noticed the basket was gone. The sound of chomping could be heard and the group turned as one to see a pair of golden, luminescent eyes staring at them from the darkness of the trees. The fog had cleared completely.
The true form of the pooka could not be discerned, and Keeley had no idea how it did so, but it’s voice echoed out over them like a whisper in their minds.
“A kelpie! Hah! As if such a creature would appreciate anything other than muck!” The pooka snorted and continued to eat. Its golden-yellow eyes watched them with unsettling focus, but Keeley didn’t sense any malice behind them.
“What a delightful ‘bouquet’ you’ve brought me!” the pooka tittered.
“You brought us your spell first,” Faolan said with a smile.
“You have enjoyed it, then?” The creature paused in it’s eating, as if waiting in anticipation of their answer.
“Of course!” Faolan said. He paused before adding, “Though it has caused a few…complications, as it were.”
The pooka appeared to cock its shadowy head to the side. “Indeed? Were they amusing?”
“At times. If we are truthful, however, it would be best if the spell were lifted.”
Keeley sensed the pooka’s hesitance and, if he was reading it correctly, confusion.
“I see,” the pooka replied. “What a pity.”
“Will you lift the spell, then?” Keeley asked. He felt Faolan’s hand on his arm and put a hand to his mouth. He hadn’t meant to ask aloud.
“Perhaps. If both parties weren’t having any fun and agreed to it.”
“I assure you, that is the case,” Faolan said, looking to Clair, who nodded vigorously.
The pooka shook its mane and stamped its hooves. “But it is not true.”
Clair stepped forward. “My brother was not able to be here, but he most certainly agreed to—”
“I am not so dim-witted that I cannot sense those under my spell—no matter how far! I know his wishes. The one I speak of is right before me.”
They stared at Clair, who blushed. “M-me?”
“You do not truly wish for the spell to be lifted, so why should I do it?”
“That’s… It’s not true!”
“I can sense your mind, little human. There is no need to lie.”
Clair stared ahead, mouth agape and speechless.
“I have never understood that about humans,” the pooka went on, “Your emotions are so transparent. Even your companions, without my senses, have guessed at this truth.”
“But, I—” She stumbled to a stop as Rian came up to her. She immediately glared, defensive, but Rian took her hand and looked at her with soft eyes.
“It’s all right,” he told her. “It’s understandable that you would feel that way.”
“You say that, but what would you do if Larkin and I stayed this way? You’d hate me for it! Don’t pretend otherwise.”
“I won’t say I wouldn’t find it difficult. And yes, I might come to resent you for it, since I know it would be against Larkin’s wishes. If it were truly what both you and Larkin wanted, however, I would learn to come to terms with it.”
“I don’t know if I believe you.” Clair said, trying to tug away her hand.
“Believe that I care for you and Larkin. I want the best for you both—but I don’t believe staying this way will accomplish that.”
“Care about me?” Clair gave a mirthless laugh. “The pooka said not to bother lying.”
Rian gave her a sad smile. “Larkin is my only family. As his sister, that makes you family too. Of course I care.”
Clair blinked down at him.
“I know Larkin hasn’t always been there for you,” Rian told her, “and you could easily refuse to lift the spell now and get the inheritance you’ve wanted… and I don’t have the right to ask anything of you, but,” he squeezed her hand, eyes locked on hers. “I love him. I once thought I would never be allowed to feel love, that it was an illusion or something people used to fool themselves.” He paused. “And I suppose I didn’t believe I deserved it.” Shaking his head he went on, “But Larkin has taught me differently, and I owe him a great debt for that. So, I ask you—no, I beg you—to please allow the spell to be lifted.” He sank to his knees before her, head bowed.
Silence drifted through the night air, even the pooka appeared to wait in rapt attention for Clair’s answer.
“You’re right,” she finally said, “I don’t owe you or Larkin anything. He’s always done just what he wanted, regardless of where it left me.” Her face wrinkled in consternation as he gazed down at Rian’s bowed head. “But I also owe it to myself to gain what I deserve through my own means, and not through a spell or any other such nonsense.”
Lifting her eyes, she nodded to the pooka. “Lift the spell. I’m ready.”
Tossing its mane, the pooka snorted, “So impatient now that you’ve made your choice.”
“Yes,” Clair stated simply.
For a moment, Keeley wondered if the pooka would take offense and abandon them, but the creature gave an amused laugh, pawing at the ground with its hooves. I swift wind blew with sudden rage through the trees, and Rian found himself catching Larkin’s limp body as it collapsed.
When the wind subsided, the pooka was gone.
“It’s about time!”
Larkin clutched his head and winced at Rian’s voice. “Whatever it’s time for, can you keep your voice down, please?” He was trying in vein to remember what he’d done to deserve such a headache. Had he been drinking?
Blinking up at the ceiling, Larkin tried to place where he was. Then shot bolt upright in bed. “Bloody hell!” It all came back in a rush. The others had set out to see the pooka and he’d been left to deal with the house. Father had been sleeping and he set himself outside his door, hoping to be there if he woke—it had the bonus of the staff leaving him be if he was attending his Father as well.
But then what? He’d been sitting there, but he remembered nothing else til now…
“How are you feeling?” Rian asked, squeezing his hand as he sat at the bedside.
“I—” Larkin blinked. His hand! He let out a gasp of relief. He was in his own body again! Thank the lord!
He turned to see Rian’s worried, worn face gazing up at him and Larkin beamed. “It worked!” Larkin beamed, the ache in his head fading as his body rushed with joy.
Rian chuckled. “Yes, it worked. But you’ve been unconscious since last night when it happened.” Rian gave him a pout. “It’s past midday now. You made me worry, you ass!”
Larkin grinned at him and wrapped his arms about him. “My apologies.”
Rian slipped his arms about his waist and buried his face against his chest. His sudden change in mood triggered Larkin’s concern.
“What’s wrong, love? Did something happen? Is Father all right?”
“He’s fine—that is, he’s no worse or better than he has been.”
“Then…?” Larkin’s voice failed as he felt Rian tremble in his arms.
“Rian, please. What is it?”
Suddenly, Larkin was pushed back as Rian climbed atop him and straddled his hips. “What—?” Larkin wasn't sure what to say as Rian buried his face against his neck, still shaking.
“I didn’t let myself worry before,” came Rian’s muffled voice. “I would love you no matter who you were, but…” he shook his head and lifted his head to look at Larkin with tear-streaked cheeks, “I missed you. I missed your body. I’m just…so relieved!”
Larkin stroked his back as Rian clutched him close again. “It’s nothing to cry over.”
“It’s selfish of me.” The words were spoken so softly Larkin barely heard them.
“Why? Because you missed me? You think I wasn’t going mad not being able to touch you?”
“There are other things you have to concern yourself with.”
“Rian, sit up. Listen to me.” Larkin cupped his cheek, gently brushing away his tears. “Loving someone’s body as much as their soul doesn’t make you selfish. It’s a part of who they are and who you love.”
Rian wiped his face, breathing in to collect himself. “But if it hadn’t worked…”
“If it hadn’t worked, I could’ve had your baby,” Larkin said with a wide, teasing grin. “Think of that!”
The absurdity of such a thing broke Rian’s somber mood and he nearly choked on his laughter. “That would’ve been quite a spectacle!”
“See? There is a bright side to anything!” Larkin chuckled. He sank his fingers into Rian’s hair and pulled his down for a tender kiss. It was light and sweet and soothing.
And interrupted by the door swinging open.
“Rian, I heard voices. Is—?”
Larkin looked past Rian to see Keeley standing in the doorway, mouth gaping and cheeks swiftly turning red. But he collected himself quickly. Biting his lip and grinning, even as he blushed, Keeley said, “I suppose that answers my question. Good to see you awake, Larkin.”
“It’s good to see you through my own eyes again. Now, if you don’t mind, Rian and I are in the middle of our reunion. Of course,” Larkin added, slipping his hands over Rian’s buttocks and giving them a squeeze, “you are welcome to stay and watch if you like.”
Keeley cleared his throat and gave a little laugh. “Umm, no thank you. Good to see you feeling…well. I’ll go tell Faolan,” he said, quickly shutting the door behind him.
Rian and Larkin looked at one another and smiled. “What a tease you are,” Rian muttered, before bringing his mouth down over Larkin’s. “I love you,” he whispered when they parted.
Larkin looked up at him, brushing the hair from Rian’s face and tracing the temping fullness of his lips. “And I you.” He brought his hands back to Rian’s firm ass and ground their bodies together. “Now show me how much.”
Keeley shut the door and discreetly adjusted his trousers, relieved the hallway was empty. He headed straight back to Faolan’s room. The moment Keeley opened the door and met his eyes, Faolan smiled, saying, “He’s awake then?”
“H-how did you know?”
“Your face is flushed,” Faolan said with a crooked grin. “Where they already making up for lost time?”
Keeley coughed. “Not quite yet, thankfully.”
“Good for them.” Faolan smiled and pulled Keeley to him. “Shall we use them as an example?”
With a laugh, Keeley poked Faolan’s side. “As if you ever needed an excuse to bed me.”
“Does that mean I have permission to take you to bed any time I choose?”
“I didn’t say that!” But Keeley was smiling. It was a deep relief to know that Clair and Larkin had been returned to their bodies. However, there were still matters with their father.
“Now why are you frowning?” Faolan asked, tilting Keeley’s chin up.
“I’m just thinking of Clair and Larkin and—”
Faolan cut him off with a kiss. “Stop thinking.”
“I suppose you have a way to help me with that?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
Keeley wrapped his arms about Faolan’s neck and allowed himself to be distracted.
“Is that everything?”
Rian gave Faolan a nod and hopped down from the top of the carriage, after checking the straps over the luggage one last time. Keeley stood with Larkin and Clair waiting nearby.
“You should be all set, Master Faolan” Rian said. “There’s a small bag of food with bread, cheese, and dried fruit if you get hungry. The driver knows his way and the weather should hold.”
“We’ll be fine, Rian.”
“At least you have Master Keeley to look after you, but…I’m still you’re valet. Larkin and I will be back. It just may take a while.”
“Of course.” Faolan pulled him into a hug and they stepped over to the others.
“We should depart soon,” Faolan said to Keeley, “so we can make our journey home in the day light.”
Keeley nodded, but shifted his weight and made no move toward the carriage. Looking to Clair, he said, “I’m sorry again for your loss.”
“Thank you, Mr. Finnegan.”
“It may take several weeks—or months—to sort matters out,” Larkin said to Faolan. They’d spoken of the arrangement before, but parting was difficult and Larkin was reluctant to see his friends leave. “But once legal matters are settled and it is clear that Clair’s word speaks for my own to the tenants and staff, Rian and I will be back.”
“Of course. I’m glad you were able to find a plan that suited both of you,” Faolan said nodding to Clair. He knew that it had taken many long nights after their father’s death for Larkin and Clair to come to an agreement—and they had needed to request Rian’s presence to work out the details amicably.
Their father hadn’t budged on matters of inheritance, but he had at least allowed Larkin to attend him before his death, and Larkin and Clair had both been able to make peace with the man’s passing. Now they would work together to smooth the transition to Larkin as the master of the household. It was agreed that he would return to the house twice a year, around the time taxes for the tenants were due, to help oversee the process. And in return Clair agreed, not to marry, but to be open to considering any suitors that might seek her favor.
“I’ll expect letters regularly,” Larkin said, embracing Faolan as the group moved toward the carriage.
They all exchanged farewells, and Clair even embraced Faolan and Keeley in parting. Since the evening she and Larkin had returned to their bodies, Clair’s attitude had softened. She had even asked that Rian help her with some of her duties. It was a promising start to the new household.
“Please take care until we see you again!” Keeley said, trying unsuccessfully to hold in his emotions as he stepped into the carriage. Faolan patted his arm as he joined him.
“Farewell!” Larkin called as they pulled away. “May the wind be at your back!” he said.
Faolan smiled at the old blessing and waved farewell until the carriage dipped deeper into the valley and the manor was lost from sight. He watched Keeley try to discreetly wipe his eyes and grabbed the young man to pull him into his lap.
“You do not need to hide your tears from me.”
“It’s absurd! I’m been longing to be home and Larkin and Rian won’t be away forever… I don’t know why it is so difficult.”
“Because you care for them. And you are a compassionate, extraordinary young man. I have known from the first night I saw you.”
Keeley huffed and shook his head, but a smile crept over his face. His life had certainly taken an unexpected turn that night. So many things had happened—exciting and frightening and uncanny—and he didn’t regret any of it.
He settled in across Faolan’s lap as he was held close. “Do you think things will be peaceful now for a time?”
“I think we will have many adventures to come, my love.”
Keeley grinned and watched the scenery slip by. No matter what came next, he was content.
CHAPTER 37: Halloween Bonus
Ten years later…
“Have you heard of the Irish Volunteers up north in Belfast? They’re organizing to back Grattan to abolish the tariffs on Irish goods to England and grant us legislative independence!”
“I had,” Keeley replied with a nod. “It sounds quite promising.” He stood in a small circle of young men, the group oblivious to the masquerade festivities happening around them in the large ballroom.
“It’s about time!” continued another young man. “To think, the English parliament says they legislate on behalf of Ireland! Rubbish!”
“True enough, Deven.”
Keeley enjoyed the discussion—the debates and plans for liberation—but he had other matters on his mind that night. It was, after all, the ten-year anniversary of his first encounter with Faolan and the Society of the Scarlet Butterfly. All Hallow’s Eve.
Sensing his mood, Keeley’s friends made an early departure. Not that they would have stayed long anyway. Like Keeley, they were more concerned with the state of the world than the state of their eveningwear.
Keeley watched them depart and wished he could follow. They were probably off to a pub to continue the political discussion. He sighed.
“On All Hallow’s Eve you’re standing around talking politics!”
Larkin grinned as he walked up to him with Faolan just behind. They were both dressed exquisitely… An Earl and a Lord. It was easy to forget that, but tonight they looked every inch the aristocracy that they were.
Larkin snagged a drink from a passing server and shook his head. “Where did we go wrong with him, Faolan?”
Keeley rolled his eyes. “It’s your bloody masquerade ball—aren’t I allowed to make the best of it?”
“As if it’s a chore to be here!” Larkin scoffed.
“It is when you make me dress up.” Keeley drowned his sulky words with a thumbful of whiskey, trying to avoid looking down at his costume. They had done him up in dark green and brown brocade this year.
“But you look so pretty when we dress you up.” Faolan’s wicked grin only made Keeley roll his eyes.
“Why is our little dragon always so serious?” Larkin said, throwing an arm over Keeley’s shoulder—which he instantly removed after Keeley puffed out a scalding breath across his fingers. “Touchy,” Larkin chuckled.
“You know I hate it when you call me that.”
“That’s why he says it,” Faolan smirked.
“You both are insufferable.”
They grinned at him before drifting back into the crowd. It was their night to network, to strengthen alliances, and listen to gossip. Keeley watched Faolan disappear into the wall of colorful costumes with a sense of wistfulness.
Faolan’s annual masquerade had only resumed in the last few years. They had been too busy with cases or recuperating from them those first years together. When Faolan did revive the event, he’d stayed by Keeley side through most of it—making sure he was properly introduced and comfortable with their guests. But more recently Faolan had taken to leaving Keeley to fend for himself. In a way, it spoke of Faolan’s faith in Keeley—he’d even let Keeley handle a couple Society matters by himself. But Keeley couldn’t help but feel that distance had grown between them lately.
“No, thank you,” Keeley replied without looking at the waiter.
A sharp whisper spoke in his ear, “You’re starting to look mulish, Keeley.”
He turned to Rian and shrugged. “You know how I feel about these events.”
Rian smiled. “You won’t have to endure much longer. It won’t go overly long this year. Faolan promised.”
“Thank the heavens for small miracles.”
With a laugh, Rian sauntered off. Keeley watched him go, admiring the breadth of his shoulders, the narrowness of his waist. Over the years, Rian had grown to match Larkin’s height, and was almost as broad chested. Keeley had grown as well, but he remained lithe and thin even now, and Faolan still beat his height by an inch or two. Keeley enjoyed the feeling of Faolan having to lean down to kiss him, of hanging his arms from Faolan’s neck as he was pulled close. But Keeley’s slight build always had people assuming he was still a teen—someone who needn’t be taken seriously. They usually figured out fairly quickly that was not the case. His strength was not in brawn, but in magic—and in that, at least, he commanded superiority.
Left to his own devices, Keeley did his best to blend into the background. He might not relish participating in these events, but he often found observing them amusing. Everyone else had imbibed a considerable amount of alcohol by then and it showed. Ladies flirted and men vied for their attention; others joked and teased along the sidelines of the dance floor. It was surprisingly banal, considering the people there were anything but. Witches, clairvoyants, fae, and other half-breeds like him mingled and danced.
Keeley wandered through the crowd, always keeping toward the walls, so as not to get swept up in conversations he’d rather not have. He should have felt comforted being among ‘his own kind’, as it were. But despite the fact this night was one of the few occasions Keeley could openly display any powers, he did not feel as if he belonged in this crowd. He was still a commoner—living with Faolan didn’t change that fact. Looking at the colors and costumes swirling around him, Keeley wondered for the hundredth time why the aristocracy needed such events to flaunt themselves? The clothes, the jewels, the fancy dances, the expensive wines. He shook his head. It was one of the aspects about Faolan and Larkin that Keeley could never get used to. Alone, they seemed like a family—one that thought little about matters of class and station. But at times like these…
He watched Rian serving hors d'oeuvres and stifled a sigh. One might’ve thought Rian would have just as much discomfort as Keeley, but Rian had been a consort to many members of the aristocracy in his former career, and he was familiar with their ways and with the need for luxury they seemed to have. Maybe if Faolan had understood Keeley’s feelings better, he wouldn’t feel so awkward, but it was an area where they could never meet eye-to-eye, no matter how much time went by.
“Pardon me,” he stammered after bumping into one of the young ladies as she and her partner made their way to the dance floor. Though he sometimes enjoyed dancing with a partner or two at the ball just to raise Faolan’s ire, he wasn’t in the mood this evening. Faolan, as the host, would be expected to dance with many of them, but Keeley had long ago grown to trust him enough that such things failed to trouble him.
The dancing itself was genuinely entertaining to watch. Keeley secretly wished he knew more of the steps. Though he’d prefer dancing at a less crowded party. And with Faolan leading. He recalled some of his dance ‘lessons’ with a smile—then nearly jumped as an unseen hand drifted across his cheek.
He frowned. Was there a draft? No windows were open. He wasn’t near a door. Perhaps he had imagined it.
When the next song began, Keeley extricated himself from the wall long enough for a dance with Lady Greenwood, whom had assisted the Society in one of their escapades that spring. Keeley found her quite amiable and the dance was a simple one, and fun. Or it would have been had an uneasy feeling that someone was watching him not persisted as he tried to recall the steps.
His skin prickled along his spine, as if a phantom presence were dancing along beside him.
“Something wrong?” Lady Greenwood asked, as he spun her.
“No, nothing, milady,” he said, swinging her into the next turn. The music and dancing went on uninterrupted, but with each step, Keeley felt more keenly an unseen presence following his movements. He tried to keep up with the Lady’s conversation, but it was a relief when the song ended.
“I hope to see you again soon,” Lady Greenwood said with a curtsy.
“Myself as well.” Keeley gave her a smile and bowed politely, making his way off the floor.
What was going on? He tried to focus; he let his consciousness reach out into the room, feeling for anything uncanny. His brow wrinkled. Something was there, just out of reach, skirting the edges of his awareness.
As if the presence could sense his attention and decided to taunt him, every candle in the ballroom suddenly winked out. A hum of startled voices filled the room in the seconds before Keeley flicked his fingers and relit the tapers.
The guests laughed and tittered, evidentially considering it a prank—and a sign of the evening’s end, as many of them opted to say their farewell. A closer group of friends and associates stayed for a last song, and Keeley’s face paled as he watched them, his heart knocking his ribs. The dancers’ figures cast deep shadows across the parquet floor, but they were moving independently—paper silhouettes jerking like puppets from an unseen hand.
He looked to his sides, scanned across the room for his friends. Everyone was in conversation or tapping to the music. No one even so much as blinked at the ghostly visions performing over the floor. How was that possible? These were not mortals. Some of them were even from the Faerie Realm. How was it no one noticed?
That fact unnerved Keeley more than anything else. It could be a sign that whomever—or what ever—was doing this, was focusing its power solely on Keeley. It was not a comfortable thought. He still vividly remembered that first All Hallows Eve when he had met Faolan, and how Far Dorocha had nearly coaxed him into an early grave. He had more experience now with such matters, but that didn’t mean he wanted a repeat performance of that evening. Not that there should be any chance of such a thing, since Far Dorocha had been a guest at the ball that year, which had allowed him to pass the wards. Since that year Faolan had been more selective of his guests, and put new wards in place as insurance. How the hell was this thing circumnavigating them? It would have to be a ghost that already lived within the house for it to manifest this way, and how would such an entity existed within the manor for decades, with Faolan living there, and not have been noticed? It was impossible.
But Keeley was no expert on wards. Could Faolan and Larkin have done something different this year? Could something have slipped passed them?
Carefully keeping to the walls, Keeley made his way to the far side of the ballroom, where Faolan stood conversing with some lord of another he’d been introduced to and promptly forgotten.
“And then the kelpie,” the man said, “dripping from head to toe in kelp, insisted he had been the one to rescue the lovely maiden! You can imagine the looks!”
Faolan tossed his head back and laughed. Keeley caught his sleeve. “Faolan,” he said in a low, serious tone.
“Hmm? Oh, yes my dear, what is it?”
Pulling him aside, he shushed in his ear, “Have you taken a look at the dance floor?”
Faolan frowned. “Should I have?”
“Look” Keeley pointed at the dancers’ feet.
“Look at what?”
Keeley grit his teeth. Everything appeared entirely normal now. “Never mind.”
But he didn’t. Something was toying with him. Targeting him. He might as well let his friends enjoy what was left of the evening while he investigated. Making his way about the ballroom, Keeley kept a shrewd lookout for anything uncanny. The dancer’s shadows were out of sync, he realized, but thankfully they were not moving on their own. That would require far greater effort on the part of whomever was behind such tricks, and also imply a higher level supernatural being. Maybe fae. Keeley hoped not; he’d had his fill of fae and their antics a long time ago.
Not that the other possibilities would be much better. Something moved in his peripheral vision and Keeley turned in time to see a ghostly face vanish from one of the large mirrors gracing the room’s high walls. It hadn’t stayed long enough for him to discern its features or anything else meaningful about it. Again and again it happened as the dancers continued, oblivious, on the floor next to him. Disembodied faces appearing and disappearing along the windows and mirrors of the hall—not speaking, not moving, but simply staring with blank vague features for a split second before fading.
As the last dance concluded and the guests filed out, Keeley realized he had gained very little—if any—useful information. He needed to speak with Faolan.
He took one step forward and darkness dropped again. Keeley didn’t bother trying to illuminate the tapers—this darkness was far more complete and had nothing to do with doused candles. The very air seemed thick and heavy—even sound was muffled beneath its curtain. The skin on the back of Keeley’s neck tickled with the knowledge that there were eyes watching him—with amusement rather than malice he sensed, but that was little relief.
Keeley chaffed at having the magical cloak over his senses, limiting his vision to what the spell caster allowed. He could try to break through, but whoever—whatever—was doing this had a purpose and a plan. And Keeley felt compelled to find out what it was. So he would humor the caster—for now.
Another wispy caress touched his cheek and he turned to see a mist permeating the darkness. It drifted and curled like smoke, beckoning him forward. With a wary mind and his senses on high alert, he followed.
With each step he felt the air grow increasingly chill, and the caster’s presence grew stronger. Yet each time he felt close to deciphering who it might be, the presence slipped just out of reach—like a familiar voice whispering on the edge of hearing and then going silent.
Voices… There were voices. Too hushed to make out their words, or perhaps speaking in a language Keeley didn’t understand. His skin prickled with nerves. He’d studied other worldly languages extensively in the last ten years, but this sounded completely foreign.
An unseen hand brushed his thigh and he scowled, cursing as he moved away from the touch. It came again, immediately, at his other hip. Keeley flexed his fingers. He would wither this spell like paper in a flame if this ridiculous groping persisted.
When a stroke moved across his backside, he snapped his fingers. A spark flew from them, sizzling the air but doing little else. A deep, rumbling laughter rippled the air around him.
“Bastard,” Keeley muttered. So the caster was stronger than he thought. Why couldn’t he get a reading on him, though? Feeling for someone’s magic was like sniffing the air for perfume—everyone had a distinctive signature. But the energy around him felt muffled and confused, as if the caster wasn’t sure who he was.
It had been a long time since Keeley had been up against a real mystery. If he was willing to admit it, part of him relished such a challenge.
The mist around him thickened and the spectral laughter began anew. The growing fog parted, and Keeley cautious moved forward, waiting for the caster’s next move. He felt as if he was being let through a maze—but what would he find at the center?
His excitement and nerves grew in equal measure with every step he took. More phantom faces teased him with leering grins, but it was going to take more than these tricks to unsettle him. The caster might be powerful, but Keeley had spent years honing his skills. And frankly, he had grown to enjoy games such as this. Because that is what it came down to with most supernatural beings: they liked to play games—but some were more dangerous than others.
Suddenly the fog about him closed in, halting his progress. The voices around him redoubled. He swallowed and narrowed his eyes, recognizing that he was finally right where the caster wanted him. That was fine with him. All he had to do was wait for them to show their hand and--
A flare of color caught his eye and Keeley blinked. A brilliant glowing butterfly danced before him.
All tension left his body and he rolled his eyes. Opening his palms, he shot a short, powerful spout of flame before him.
Darkness and mist transformed into a brightly lit room and shouts of “Surprise!” greeted Keeley’s ears. He laughed as his nervous excitement fell away. Then he shook his head at his friends’ smiling faces—and tried not to smirk as he watched Larkin douse the flames on his sleeve with a glass of water.
Rian chuckled and stepped forward to hug him.
“What on earth were you idiots up to?” Keeley asked, grinning.
“It’s your ten year anniversary. You didn’t think we’d let that pass, surely?” Faolan said as he came up from behind Keeley and kissed his cheek.
“There were probably easier ways to surprise me.”
“And where would be the fun in that?” Larkin asked, ignoring his singed sleeve and he embraced Keeley and patted him roughly on the back.
Keeley had to laugh at them all—it was a ridiculous thing to do, but it warmed him that they had gone through so much trouble. He was also incredibly grateful that they knew him well enough not to throw his party as part of the masquerade, but as a small, private gathering in one of the larger receiving rooms. Besides the Society members, Clair and her betrothed were there, along with Aigean and a couple other good friends. Keeley was pleased to see Aigean, who had been something of a mentor to Keeley when he was first dealing with his abilities as an elemental. They had grown close over the years.
Aigean nodded at him with a smile and moved to greet him—but was cut off as Clair beat him to it.
“Happy ten years!” she said cheerfully.
Keeley laughed and returned her embrace. As she stepped away, the tall, handsome man at her side shook Keeley’s hand with a smile.
“Good to see you here, Thomas.”
“I was happy to be invited.”
At that, Clair kicked Thomas’ shin. “Be nice.”
“I’m always nice.”
She rolled her eyes. “You act as if being invited was a privilege—of course you’d be invited!” Keeley suppressed a grin as he watched them. Meeting Thomas had changed Clair’s life in so many ways.
Clair nudged Thomas arm. “Bring me a drink.”
“Yes, my love,” he replied with a wink.
They were good together; despite the fact Larkin still occasionally acted suspicious of him. Larkin reluctantly moved from the sideboard as Thomas poured Clair’s whiskey—Larkin’s eyes narrowing as he watched his sister’s betrothed.
Keeley grinned. It had been amusing to no end to see Larkin suddenly protective of Clair after she’d taken up with the half-faerie. But then, the circumstances under which they met were anything but auspicious. Thomas had been causing a myriad of mishaps around the O’Carroll estate, so that he could come to Clair’s rescue by ‘solving’ them. Larkin had returned home when he heard of Clair’s troubles and immediately realized what game Thomas was playing. It was understandable he’d be suspicious after that, but Thomas had long ago proven himself.
Keeley and Clair shared a smile as Thomas and Larkin shook hands. Her face always softened when she watched Thomas. Falling for someone like Thomas had finally given her a tolerance and understanding of the supernatural realm—and of the fact that one did not choose who one falls in love with. That had been over three years ago, and it was now hard to remember how vehemently opposed to magic and to her brother she used to be. Her and Rian even got along well now—though she had begun to thaw towards him after the incident with the pooka.
“Have you set a date yet?” Keeley asked.
“We’re still deciding. There’s a few legal matters we have to deal with—like Larkin bequeathing the estate to Thomas.” She arched a brow at Keeley. “You can imagine that is taken some coaxing.”
“Indeed,” Keeley said with a laugh.
It was pleasant to speak with Clair and the others, to just relax and visit with everyone. It felt as if it had been forever since he’d had time like this—when he wasn’t running around doing errands for The Brotherhood or on a mission for the Society.
Not that Keeley was complaining. In general he was content with life. Almost everything was going well. His eyes fell on Faolan across the room and he frowned.
He felt someone pat his shoulder and saw Rian giving him a thoughtful smile.
“Pleased with your surprise?”
Keeley smiled. “Of course.”
Rian lifted his eyebrows.
Rian’s answer was to cross his arms and give him that ‘you’re-not-getting-out-of-this’ look.
Before answering, Keeley looked around. Everyone was engaged in conversation.
He said, “You know Faolan’s been avoiding me.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“He’s been avoiding intimate moments with me,” Keeley replied in a low voice.
“Ah,” Rian said, “I’d wondered.”
“Ever since that incident with the damn pixie.”
“Faolan couldn’t have taken that seriously. He knows pixies are trouble-makers and deal in half-truths.”
Keeley’s eyes were on Faolan as he said, “She didn’t lie.”
Rian’s eyes narrowed. “She was a little bitch and trying to mess with your head.”
“I do feel less human as I get older, Rian. Maybe it is dangerous for Faolan to get too close.”
“But Keeley, you are still human. Your mother was human. Don’t forget that. You have as much of her in you as your father.”
“But…” Keeley flexed his hand, sparks shooting between his fingers. “It’s hard to remember that. And I…”
Rian looked as if he knew what Keeley was about to say, but he allowed him to say it.
“…am my father’s son. I could become like him, if I’m not careful.”
“You are not him, and an increase in your power does not mean you’re losing control—it means you’re gaining it.”
Keeley sat staring at the flame alight in his hands, then closed his fist about it.
“I suppose so.”
“And what are you two discussing cloistered in this corner here?”
Keeley jumped at the sound of Faolan’s voice so close. He looked up, his cheeks flushing.
“We’re discussing secrets of seduction, of course.”
“I’ll leave Keeley to practice what we discussed,” Rian said with a wink as he left them.
Keeley was torn between wanting to wring his neck and thanking him.
“Have you enjoyed the party?” Faolan asked, sipping a brandy.
“I have. Though you could have chosen a less dramatic way of luring me here.” Keeley shook his head.
“Your own intuition is getting too developed. We had to find a way of planning the event and surprising you without you discovering it beforehand.”
“Why did you need to surprise me at all?”
Faolan grinned. “But that’s what made it fun.”
“For you maybe. I thought something was seriously wrong.” Keeley snagged Faolan’s drink from his hand and took a swig.
Faolan chuckled. “You enjoyed it. You love a good puzzle.”
Keeley felt a hand settle at his waist. “And the night isn’t over yet.”
“No?” Keeley quirked a brow at him. “Does that mean I won’t be going to bed alone again?”
It was subtle, but Keeley saw him wince.
“I should apologize for my behavior of late.”
“Yes, you should.”
Frowning, Faolan replied, “Don’t be difficult.”
“Then don’t act like an ass.”
Faolan actually laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. His hand tightened at Keeley’s waist. “Will you allow me to make it up to you?”
“What did you have in mind?” Keeley asked indifferently. At least, he hoped he sounded indifferent. When it came to Faolan, he was anything but—and they both knew it.
Leaning to brush his words against Keeley’s ear, Faolan explained his plan in such naked terms it made Keeley blush. He took Faolan’s drink and finished it.
“That sounds acceptable,” Keeley replied, after clearing his throat.
Faolan grinned and kissed his neck. He took Keeley’s hand, but Keeley held back.
“Faolan.” He paused. “Does it… Does my lineage truly worry you?”
Brow creased, Faolan took Keeley’s chin in hand. “I won’t say I’m not concerned for you, but it’s not for the reasons you probably think.”
“Keeley, you’re a brilliant, mature young man—”
“I’m twenty-six, I’m not a ‘young’ man anymore.”
Faolan pursed his lips and wisely refrained from replying to this declaration. He went on, “I adore you—as much now as ever.”
Keeley frowned. “But?”
“There’s no ‘but’. I simply worry that…” He let out a deep exhalation and his eyes slipped away. “I worry you may outgrow me.”
“What? What does that even mean?”
“Keeley, you are powerful in your own right. You hardly need me by your side in that capacity any longer.”
“You’re being absurd! Maybe I needed your protection in the beginning, but our relationship hasn’t been about that for a long time.” Keeley realized he was raising his voice when Rian caught his gaze from across the room and arched his brows.
Pulling Faolan closer, Keeley said in a calmer tone, “That can’t be what’s truly troubling you.”
“You were quite young when I took you in. You went through more than anyone should have. It’s not completely unreasonable of me to worry that you might have second thoughts now that you have the ability to be more, well, independent.” He grimaced. “Especially when I know we haven’t seen eye to eye on certain matters as you’ve gotten older.”
So Faolan had realized how much the class divide had troubled him. Though worrying about it as he was only made Faolan push them further apart. Keeley shook his head in frustration, “That damn pixie must have had words for you too.”
“It wasn’t anything I was not already thinking.”
Scowling, Keeley yanked at Faolan’s hand, jerking him forward so Keeley could plant a firm, deep kiss over his mouth. He heard Faolan grunt before strong arms wrapped about him.
“I’ll never get tired of you, you hopeless ass.” Keeley said when they came up for air—ignoring the round of applause their audience was giving them.
Faolan smiled and smothered his lips again.
“Come on,” Keeley said several moments later, “let’s celebrate our anniversary privately.”
As Keeley pulled Faolan from the room, he looked back to see his friends smiling at them. It had been a good ten years, Keeley reflected. And the next ten promised to be even better.
Thank you all for reading! I am aiming to get this story whipped into publishing shape for this year's halloween! Let me know if you enjoyed it! :)