Despite his reservations, it wasn’t long before Keeley’s restlessness coaxed him out of hiding. He crept down the halls of the estate with an exaggerated air of caution; he had no desire to speak with anyone else in the household at the moment. Keeley opted to venture into the west wing of the house this time, out of fear of trespassing upon another secret tryst between Rian and Larkin. Disappointingly, the western wing was mostly filled with stuffy reception halls and formal parlors used to entertain guests. There were also many guest bedrooms and several studies, none of which looked particularly interesting to the young man.
Finally tired from his rambling, Keeley stopped to investigate what appeared to be a small library. Though many of the rural farmers lacked literacy skills, Keeley’s father had been an avid reader during his rare leisure hours. The man had also been determined to teach his only son his letters. Plucking a book off one of the high shelves, Keeley ran a finger along the spine and let his thoughts wander into the past. Even now, he could see his father hunched over a book in the waning light of his lamp, the man’s eyes wrinkled at the corners as he squinted to see in the dim rays given off by the flame.
Glancing up at the multitude of titles before him, Keeley decided it would be a good time for him to brush up on his own reading. Perhaps it would stave off his boredom. Pulling down a few volumes at random, he settled himself into one of the spacious sofas and began flipping through the books to make his selection. It quickly became evident, however, that these works were far from the literature he was familiar with. Rather than novels, the tomes were largely nonfiction with forbidding and cryptic titles such as, <i>Studies in the Occult; A Brief History of Demonology; Talismans, Charms, & Enchantments</i>. These texts were hardly the benign literature one would expect from a well-respected Protestant gentleman like Earl Faolan.
Keeley had refused to face Larkin and Rian for the noon meal, and he was both frustrated and growing increasingly moody from his empty stomach. He rose from the sofa to replace the offending volumes, shoving them roughly into place as if the books were to blame for his troubles. He was so preoccupied with this venture that he didn’t hear anyone else enter the room until they were nearly upon him.
“Careful, you’ll damage the spine if you force it in like that.”
Alarmed, Keeley spun around, dropping one of the books in his surprise. He watched the blond-haired man before him stoop to retrieve it.
Larkin glanced at the title and gave Keeley a grin. “A little light reading to fill your afternoon?”
Keeley scowled and said nothing. Hastily, he grabbed the book from him and slipped it back onto the shelf, doing his best to avoid eye contact. The image of the tall man leaning over Rian in the pantry refused to fade from Keeley’s mind, and he wanted nothing more than to escape this unbearably disconcerting situation.
“Won’t you join me for tea?” Larkin asked just as Keeley made a hasty retreat for the door.
Although he could think of few other activities he would like to participate in less, Keeley could think of no way to refuse the offer without seeming rude. With a reluctant nod, he accepted the invitation.
Larkin rang the bell before reclining upon one of the chaise lounges, motioning for Keeley to sit near him. The raven-haired boy sat with a casual air that belied his trepidation. As loathe as he was to sit and chat with this man after what he’d witnessed earlier that day, Keeley was also determined not to appear as uncomfortable as he felt. His stubborn nature simply wouldn’t allow it.
Larkin watched him and hid a smile. He knew perfectly well that Keeley had seen his little tryst with Rian and admired how calm and collected he seemed under the circumstances. Whatever other ideas he had about the country boy, Larkin saw that Keeley had guts. He felt this boded well for the boy’s future within the Society.
“You didn’t come to lunch. Are you not feeling well?”
Though Keeley’s countenance didn’t change, he shifted uneasily in his chair, realizing only now that he had failed to consider an excuse for his absence.
“Yes, I apologize for that. I was a bit fatigued and took a nap I had not intended.”
“I thought as much,” Larkin replied, offering a smile. “I was concerned, though, and came to check on you only to find you missing from your room.”
“Ah, I am sorry if I caused you any inconvenience. I awoke a bit restless and decided to have a look around,” Keeley replied without hesitance.
Larkin was impressed that the young man did not crack under pressure. He did think though, that perhaps he should warn Faolan that Keeley was a good liar. Not that it mattered much, considering that the Earl’s intuitive powers made him exceptionally gifted at sifting out truth from lies.
Before Larkin could get in another question, Rian appeared in the doorway carrying a small tray set with tea for two. It briefly crossed Keeley’s mind that the servant had arrived prepared with refreshments without first coming to the room to ask why he had been summoned. Was Rian simply skilled at anticipating the needs of the household or did he have some special power of insight as well?
No, not intuition. Keeley vaguely recalled Faolan mentioning something about Rian being, “an excellent valet and footman,” but without the “talents” the rest of them held. More likely than not, Larkin had espied him in the library and notified Rian beforehand that he would soon be needing tea service.
Whatever the case, Keeley found that he was grateful to have the steaming liquid to warm his chilled body. Though dusk was just beginning to fall, without a fire in the room, the temperature was cool enough to send a shiver through his slim frame. No matter how many nights he’d spent warding off the cold, damp Irish air, he never seemed to get used to it.
Sipping his tea and watching over the rim of his cup, Keeley observed the interaction between the two lovers before him. Larkin gave Rian a short “thank you” and the servant bowed, leaving without a word. What remained unsaid spoke volumes. Keeley marveled at how the two men were able to convey so much just in the way they looked at each other, and the subtle nuances that communicated thoughts without the need for vocalization.
After Rian had left them alone once more, Keeley ventured to ask a question that had been growing in his mind all day. “Larkin, sir, I hope you don’t find me presumptuous, but may I ask why it is that Rian is a member of Faolan’s household when he so clearly belongs to you?”
For the briefest of moments, Keeley saw the other man pause with surprise and he knew he’d finally gotten the upper hand in the conversation with this audacious question.
Larkin was definitely impressed. The boy had deliberately tried to throw him off his game and he had almost managed it—<i>almost</i>. Larkin had to admit, he never expected Keeley to speak so boldly about his relations with Rian when the very idea was so clearly discomforting to the young man.
Clearing his throat, Larkin explained. “I may have his heart, but Rian’s loyalties lie with Faolan.”
“Is that because of what the Earl did for him? How he saved him?”
Keeley was close to overplaying his hand now, since he really didn’t know anything about this, except Rian’s brief statement during the carriage ride. Still, he was enjoying putting the smug blond on the defensive for once.
The two men gauged one other, and Larkin considered his answer. He doubted Keeley knew much. Rian was far too close-lipped to have given him much information, so Larkin decided to call his bluff.
“So Rian has told you then?”
“He mentioned it,” was Keeley’s vague reply.
“It was a terrible incident. I’ve always wondered what Faolan was doing in that brothel anyway.”
As Larkin spoke, Keeley attempted to sip nonchalantly from his tea, but upon hearing the word ‘brothel’ he sputtered.
His typical grin falling into place, Larkin asked, “Perhaps Rian neglected to mention that part?”
Disgruntled at having been so easily startled, Keeley only nodded, a sour expression taking over his features.
The other man did not press him further, but simply proceeded. “You see, when Rian and Faolan first met, it was in a brothel just north of here, in one of the port cities. I forget which one. The poor boy had been born to one of the women in the house and after his mother died, the burden of her debts fell upon his shoulders. Rian was forced to cater to clients who were of a certain <i>persuasion</i>, if you understand me.”
“I see,” Keeley whispered softly, finding himself at a loss. He never would have guessed Rian came from such a sordid background.
“Several years ago Faolan happened upon him, and bought him on the spot.”
Larkin paused to better witness Keeley’s reaction to this news, and was rewarded with a slight scowl of jealousy that the young man couldn’t mask. Faolan would be happy to know that his attraction to the pretty young thing was mutual, Larkin mused.
“It’s not what you’re thinking,” Larkin informed him, watching Keeley’s head pop back up from where it had dropped. “Rian was being abused by some of his clients when Faolan met him. Two men had him tied naked, spread-eagle to a four-bolster bed and were punishing him with a horsewhip on some sadistic whim.”
“Dear Lord…” Keeley breathed, barely able to comprehend such cruelty.
“Faolan paid the brothel owner about three times what the whole establishment was worth to take him away then and there… and Rian has been fiercely loyal to him ever since.”
“I can certainly understand why.”
There was a moment of silence between them, then Larkin looked towards the door, as if hearing or sensing something on the other side.
“But the question still remains—why was Faolan in the brothel in the first place?” Keeley wondered aloud, unable to contain his irritation on this point.
Larkin subdued a smile of smug satisfaction. He knew quite well that the Earl had only visited the brothel because his intuitive skills had guided him there, but he decided to withhold this information and have a little fun with Keeley. It would also pay the boy back for trying to get a rise out of him earlier.
“Ah, Faolan, there you are!” Larkin said brightly.
Keeley’s eyes shot to the doorway. He hadn’t even heard the man’s approach, but there he was, looking somewhat tired and worn. Keeley wasn’t sure how to feel about his sudden appearance. Part of him was immensely glad to see him, not only because it meant he didn’t have to be alone with Larkin, but also because he was simply happy to see the man again. However, Keeley couldn’t shake the hurtful feelings that had crept into his heart when Faolan had neglected to welcome him when he first arrived. Moreover, his blood was now heated with the sting of jealousy. Keeley’s mind kept flashing images of the Earl swaggering around to various city brothels in his spare time. For all Keeley knew, he might have come from one just now!
Of course, it didn’t matter that this was a rather irrational thought, or that the Earl had saved his life the night before. Keeley’s emotions were too torn and his head too dazed from hunger to consider such matters. Irritated and hurt, the boy defaulted to his anger and let his temper take hold. Crossing his arms, he leaned back into the sofa and deliberately ignored the Earl’s greeting.
“It is common courtesy to greet the <i>master</i> of the house when he returns, Keeley,” Faolan informed him. The sharp tone in the man’s voice should have warned him that the Earl was in a volatile mood.
“And I thought it would be common courtesy for the master of the house to greet his new employee, but it seems you felt that was unnecessary!”
Keeley’s tone was extraordinarily spiteful and Faolan, having just arrived from an errand on the boy’s behalf, was not at all pleased with his attitude. Leaning over him, Faolan placed a hand on either side of Keeley’s shoulders, effectively trapping him. His look was dark as he locked his eyes with Keeley’s.
“I won’t have you speaking to me in that tone,” Faolan said with quiet intensity. “Is that understood?”
“Fine,” Keeley replied, taken aback by the chastisement. However, his s obstinate nature could not be so easily cowed. He waited until Faolan had stood once more, then added in a low voice, “You could at least tell me where you were, though.”
“It’s nothing you need concern yourself with,” Faolan said in a clipped voice, the last of his patience wearing thin.
“But I want to know!” Keeley shouted back. He was beginning to see that the Earl was in a foul mood, but at this point he didn’t much care.
Faolan, worn from his errand and not feeling particularly tolerant of Keeley’s unruly temper, gave him a severe look. “I’ll have you remember that you are now in my service and as such, you are expected to obey my orders. I have no intention of explaining all my actions to you. Remember your place!”
Larkin’s eyes went wide at this last statement. Faolan was always extremely fair and egalitarian with everyone in his household. The Earl expected loyalty and obedience from his workers in return for fair treatment, but Faolan rarely reminded his servants of their lower station and Larkin certainly did not expect him to be so strict when it came to Keeley. Hearing him command the boy to ‘stay in his place,’ as it were, was quite uncharacteristic of him. Larkin could only imagine that the Earl’s day was far more wretched than he had anticipated, and that it concerned matters that Faolan needed to keep hidden from Keeley.
If Faolan had meant to bring the argument to a close with his authoritative stance, he had underestimated Keeley’s raw emotional state and ensuing temper. The raven-haired boy was furious with Faolan’s words and jumped to his feet in defiance. Even when the Earl had given him orders previously, they had never been so biting. In the short time they had known each other, Keeley had felt a connection with this man and it had done wonders to heal his scarred heart. With all the confusion going on in his life, Faolan’s presence had been the one anchor for Keeley to rely on. But now the man seemed to have erected a strict wall between them, denoting master and servant and it pained Keeley more than he wished to admit.
“So that’s how you want it? You just want me to be another servant who’ll cater to your every whim like Rian! Well, you didn’t save me from some terrible fate, so don’t expect me to grovel at your feet!”
Without another word, Keeley fled from the room, his rage and his tears vying for dominance.
“You’re in a rotten mood,” Larkin muttered after the boy had left, slamming the door behind him.
Faolan had almost forgotten he was there. Moving to a small liquor cabinet nestled along one of the walls, he poured himself a generous glass of whiskey.
“It’s been a long day.”
“You went to see Her Majesty about Far Dorocha, I take it?”
Faolan nodded, leaning against the wall as he sipped the amber liquor.
“How did it go?” Larkin asked, when his friend remained quiet.
“As well as could be expected, I suppose.”
“You really shouldn’t have taken it out on Keeley.”
“When it comes to the Queen, I can’t have him prying into my business. For his sake as well as for my own.”
“And yelling at the boy seems highly effective, does it?” Larkin mused sarcastically.
“Don’t start with me, Larkin. I’m quite aware that I handled the situation poorly, but I have a feeling I wasn’t the only one who contributed to Keeley’s anger. Just what did you tell him about Rian?”
Larkin shrugged, avoiding eye contact. “I might have explained how Rian came to be under your employment.”
“Why would you bring up my history with Rian to Keeley? Must you stir up trouble at every opportunity?” Faolan asked. He rubbed his aching forehead with his free hand.
“Perhaps we can learn something from this experience.”
The Earl eyed his friend warily. “Such as?”
“Well, you could avoid any future conflicts between Keeley and Rian if you let me take Rian off your hands.”
“We’ve been through this, Larkin,” Faolan said with a sigh.
“It’s different now that you have Keeley. Take him on as your new valet.”
“I did not hire Keeley as a valet. He has a very different role to play.”
“What? As your lover? He can do both,” Larkin said pragmatically.
“Have you even spoken to Rian about your wishes? I assure you, he serves me of his own free will.”
Larkin leaned forward in his chair, his voice taking on a beseeching tone. “But he does so because he thinks he owes you something for freeing him! If you told him he’s under no obligation—”
“You honestly think Rian would leave if I said he owed me nothing? Perhaps you don’t understand him as well as I thought you did.”
Larkin fell into a brooding silence. He knew Faolan was right. As dedicated as Rian was to him, Rian’s bond with the Earl was something that could never be broken. It frustrated the hell out of him.
“Everyone has his own part to play,” Faolan informed him. “You should accept that.”
Larkin disliked when Faolan talked this way, when his ‘intuition’ was influencing him. The blond hated the idea that forces beyond his control were guiding his life.
“And Keeley,” he asked, “what role does he play?”
“We shall see.”
* * *
Keeley was berating himself for letting his temper get the best of him. Now he was shut up in his room, frustrated and feeling increasingly light-headed from lack of nourishment. Why hadn’t he welcomed the Earl when he saw him? Why had he let his anger overcome him when he’d been so happy to see him? If he’d just greeted him in return, their whole argument might have been avoided. However, Keeley still felt that Faolan had been out of line to yell at him so harshly… despite having been provoked.
As he stood gazing out the window and contemplating his sorry situation, Keeley heard the door behind him slowly open. Faolan’s steady footfalls made their way over to him.
Though his feelings wavered, his stubborn streak won out and Keeley kept his back turned. He couldn’t help it; for so long Keeley’s stubbornness and strength of will was all he’d had to support him.
“I apologize for raising my voice to you, Keeley.” The words were spoken close to his ear in that damnable silky voice.
Placated by the apology, but still feeling hurt, Keeley frowned. “Is that really how you think of me? Am I just another servant?”
The pain in the boy’s voice made Faolan wince with deep regret. Instinctively, his arms came up to hold him from behind. “I didn’t mean it that way, Keeley. I’m very sorry if I hurt you. You are very special to me, but there are parts of my life that I have to keep secret. You must understand that—for your own safety.”
Keeley seemed to consider this, and was quiet for several moments.
“So, you can’t tell me anything?” he finally ventured.
Faolan realized he would have to give some semblance of an explanation for the boy to be satisfied. He thought for a moment, and said, “I had business to attend to, to ensure that we’d have no further trouble with Far Dorocha.”
This information caused a rush of ambiguous feelings to flood through Keeley. He was pleased that Faolan’s absence had been on his behalf, but he felt guilty now for being so rude to him upon his arrival. Moreover, he wondered what the Earl had done to secure his safety. An image of Faolan grabbing the Dark Man’s hair and smothering his lips flashed briefly into his mind.
“I was alone here all day,” he pouted.
Faolan smiled at Keeley’s quiet, sulky tone. He was pleased that Keeley’s anger had dissipated and that he made no further attempts to pry into his affairs. Moreover, he felt Keeley relax in his arms and lean back into his chest. At this small action, the Earl knew he’d been forgiven for his heated words.
“What about Larkin and Rian? Surely they were about?”
He watched as Keeley blushed an amusing shade of red. “I—I didn’t see them.”
Faolan wondered about this flustered reaction and guessed that Keeley had probably stumbled upon one of the lovers’ more intimate moments. Larkin and Rian had a tendency toward salacious public displays about the house. Faolan would have to warn them to be more cautious now that Keeley was living in the estate.
“I… missed you,” Keeley offered softly, slowly turning in Faolan’s arms so he could face him.
The short but heartfelt statement sent a warm thrill through the Earl.
“I’m sorry,” Faolan whispered, pulling him closer. When Keeley’s eyes fluttered shut, Faolan reached up to caress the exposed length of the boy’s neck with his long fingers.
The delicate touch caused Keeley to shiver with an unnamable desire. Without thinking, he titled his head up in unspoken invitation. Perhaps it was wrong to crave such intimacy with another man, but such social prohibitions seemed to have little place in the Earl’s household and Keeley would just as soon forget them as well.
Faolan held the boy lightly in his arms, as if afraid to break the tender spell that had fallen about them. His heart ached at the sight of Keeley so open and yearning before him, his lips mere inches away. All at once, Keeley appeared as a small flower just beginning to bloom in the sun after years of being neglected in the shadows. Faolan knew he had to treat him with care, and a sweet ache in his chest spread through him when he finally took the boy’s lips with his own.
Already, Keeley no longer felt the hesitancy he had only days before, when the Earl had last kissed him. It had been years since he’d felt this alive and he moaned in pleasure as Faolan pressed past his lips and began to explore him with his tongue. He’d been numb for so long that he wanted to embrace everything at once and take everything Faolan wished to give him.
But Faolan knew that Keeley’s compliance did not necessarily mean he was ready to move forward into a physical relationship with him. No matter how tempting the idea was or how willing Keeley appeared, Faolan knew he must hold his lust in check.
However, he was also curious to test the enticing young man’s boundaries—and thereby estimate how long he would have to wait before taking Keeley to his bed. As Keeley pressed more insistently against him, Faolan shifted. He moved him up against the windowpane and parted his legs with one strong thigh. The movement allowed the Earl to bring his hands down to squeeze Keeley’s waist even as he pressed his growing arousal against his hip.
Keeley’s reaction was just what Faolan had expected. Taken off-guard by this new onslaught to his senses, the boy gasped for air, reluctantly tearing his lips away. The Earl looked down into his flushed face and locked his emerald gaze on Keeley’s blue eyes, waiting for him to compose himself. Keeley was grateful that the man didn’t push his attentions upon him, even though he had been eager for more just moments before. It was Faolan’s unmistakably hard, prominent erection pressing into him that had shaken him. It was a clear and direct communication of the man’s intentions toward him and Keeley suddenly understood that this was no innocent game they were playing. If he chose to continue down this path, he would have to do so in earnest. The thought gave him pause; he hadn’t really considered where all this would lead. Frankly, Keeley’s knowledge of sexual matters was dim at best.
“Perhaps we should stop?” Faolan asked, easing his weight off the boy.
Keeley immediately regretted the loss of the Earl’s presence against him. “I… I don’t know,” he answered truthfully. If he wasn’t ready to give himself to Faolan completely, did that mean they had to stop altogether? “Can’t we just keep kissing?” he asked. Ironically, the innocent request only served to increase Faolan’s already dangerously high libido.
“We could,” Faolan replied, “but I would soon want more. I can be a patient man, Keeley, but if we continue in this manner, you should know that sooner or later I will take you.”
Keeley felt his cheeks grow red at the Earl’s frank words and unrelenting emerald gaze. Even though he wasn’t quite sure what Faolan had meant, the mere implications were enough to make him take heed.
When Keeley remained silent, Faolan changed the subject in hopes of discharging the heavy mood.
“Why don’t you tell me how I can make up to you for my behavior earlier today?”
It was the perfect offer to distract Keeley’s mind. He immediately knew his answer: “I haven’t gotten a tour around the grounds yet.”
“Is that all?” Faolan asked, surprised at the simple request.
Keeley smiled. “Yes. I especially want to see the stables!” He could barely contain his excitement. He’d heard that the Earl kept a select stock of finely bred horses, and Keeley had been looking forward to seeing if the rumor was true. He had a passion for equines and he’d not had the chance to ride since he was forced to hand over his favorite bay mare to pay off his family’s debts.
“Very well,” Faolan replied, happy to see that Keeley’s mood had so drastically improved since he’d first entered the room. “Tomorrow I will personally escort you around the estate, but for now I have a few things to attend to before dinner.”
The Earl made his way to the door, then paused. “I almost forgot,” he said, turning around once more. “You might be interested to know that you will start on your first mission for the Society the day after tomorrow.”
“Really? What is it?” Keeley asked, both excited and cautious.
“You’ll receive the details when you need them,” Faolan replied. “All I will say for now is that you may get your chance to help your fellows in the Brotherhood. Good day.”
And with that Faolan made his exit, leaving Keeley to ponder what lay ahead in the days to come.
Keeley burrowed deeper into his overcoat in a vain attempt to escape the torrential downpour that had been soaking through to his skin for nearly an hour. Had the weather been less chill, he might not have minded, but the wind was howling and the sun had refused to show herself the entire day. Keeley had been riding behind Faolan’s carriage since early that morning, and he was beginning to regret his insistence on riding horseback. It had seemed like a good idea the day before, when the sky had been blue and inviting and Faolan was showing him around the estate.
The tour more than made up for Faolan’s neglect of him when he had first arrived. Not only had Keeley been pleased to finally familiarize himself with his new residence, he had been secretly thrilled to have Faolan all to himself for the day. Despite the intensity of the moments they had shared, he and the Earl had spent relatively little time together, and Keeley found himself craving the man’s attentions like a child waiting for recognition from an older sibling. Though, of course, Keeley’s feelings were not exactly platonic. The young man wasn’t sure what to make of the unexpected and undeniably strong attraction he now openly acknowledged toward the tall, red-haired man. In any case, Keeley was for now content to ignore the deeper implications of his attachment and simply enjoy Faolan’s company. He smiled through the cold as he recalled the day before and his interactions with Faolan.
“Ah, here we are,” the earl had said as they walked up to a long, low building. “You had wanted to see the stables, isn’t that right?”
“Yes!” Keeley had replied, eyes sparkling as they stepped through the large, open doors. “I used to ride every chance I got… but it’s been a long time since my last ride.”
Faolan had watched the conflicting emotions flicker across the boy’s features, and an uncanny desire to protect him from all future pain welled up deep in his heart.
As they continued on past numerous stalls, Keeley’s pale blue eyes had widened with delight as the Earl allowed him to view the many prize stallions and mares housed in the well-kept stables. Faolan watched the boy’s interaction with each horse with a keen interest as he secretly assessed which equine he would entrust to Keeley.
He needn’t have bothered. Keeley, true to his willful nature, knew just the horse he wanted when he saw him (though he never would have demanded possession of him).
The two of men had made their way outside the other end of the building and into the training ring, and Keeley’s eyes settled on a huge midnight-black stallion that was thrashing and bucking under his handlers’ care. Three men were rallying around the beast in an attempt to subdue the creature as it stood on its hind legs, beating the air with its powerful hooves.
A frown had fallen across the Earl’s face then. When he had acquired the wild, unruly stallion, he knew he was taking a chance that the trainers would be unable to tame him. His handlers were experts at breaking in new horses, but on occasion they encountered a beast over which they simply had no control and this stallion had been greatly mistreated by his former masters, making him especially skittish. Faolan had high hopes for the animal, but he didn’t want his trainers getting hurt over one untamed stallion.
The Earl was about to call out to his men, when Keeley had suddenly rushed forward into the fray.
“Keeley!” Faolan called after him, furious that the boy would even attempt to step into such a dangerous situation.
But Keeley hadn’t heeded him, instead running headlong into the chaos of jostling bodies and beating hooves. One of the trainers was struck on the shoulder by a powerful kick of the horse’s hind leg and went sprawling to the ground. Without hesitation, Keeley grabbed the rope the man had let fall and clung to it with all his strength. The slender young man was half the size of any of the handlers and looked ill-equipped to struggle with the large animal. As Faolan stomped his way towards the boy, he imagined several unpleasant ways of punishing Keeley for jumping into harm’s way without any regard for his safety.
However, to the earl’s shock and amazement, Keeley managed to get his hands on the horse’s reins without being trampled. And what was more, the stallion seemed to calm under his touch. Before Faolan had taken three strides, the wild horse was nuzzling against Keeley’s hand. Though the creature still appeared agitated, it was willing to allow the boy to lead it back towards the stables. The handlers were equally in awe of the Keeley’s uncanny power over the beast.
Unaware of Faolan’s anxiety, Keeley walked up to him with a grin, the horse following in tow as if it was the most docile creature in the world.
“That was extremely foolish of you, Keeley,” the earl reprimanded.
“I thought you would be pleased,” the young man replied, his bright features now deflating.
“You didn’t think at all,” Faolan retorted. He didn’t like ruining the boy’s cheerful mood, but he also had to let Keeley know that such willful behavior was dangerous.
“I knew what I was doing!” he snapped, his temper kicking in.
“You could have been hurt,” Faolan replied softly.
Keeley had been ready for an argument and the other man’s gentle reply caught him off-guard, dispelling his anger.
“I’m sorry,” Keeley admitted, looking contrite. “But I had to do <i>something</i>, I could feel his fear,” he said, glancing at the horse behind him.
“I understand,” the earl told him, “but perhaps you could give me at least a moment’s warning before you go rushing off like that. Agreed?”
Nodding, Keeley’s smile reappeared and Faolan knew the crisis had been averted.
Together they had walked the stallion back to his stall, Keeley whispering softly into the horse’s ear the entire time.
“It’s nearly time for supper. We should be getting back,” Faolan urged, seeing the boy’s reluctance to leave the horse behind.
“Can I stay with him for just a few moments longer?” Keeley had asked, stroking the tall stallion on his proud, arched neck. “He’s still so afraid. His last owners… they hurt him.”
So, it was as the earl suspected, Keeley’s communication with spirits extended to those of animals as well. He looked at the slight young man and smiled at the idea that Keeley seemed to think of this imposing animal, who dwarfed him in size, as a fragile creature that needed his coddling. Though Keeley had been through many trying times himself, Faolan began to notice more and more the deep inner strength he carried with him.
“Very well. Come to dinner within a half hour, though,” he had warned him. “I don’t want to have to come looking for you.”
Keeley nodded his assent and Faolan left him. The man knew why Keeley had reached out to the creature. He could see quite well that Keeley recognized in the stallion something of himself—something hurt, and lost, and lashing out. He hoped that in time, both their wounds would heal.
Later at dinner (to which Keeley arrived several minutes late, despite his best efforts), the raven-haired boy finally asked the question that had been burning in his mind since the night before: “Faolan, what is this ‘mission’ that I will be starting tomorrow?”
Keeley had expected the man to remain evasive, but was happily surprised when he explained. “We will be visiting Mr. O’Reilly at his estate in the next county over.”
“And what will we be doing there?” Keeley had pressed.
“His daughter has fallen ill and he has asked for my assistance.”
“Why wouldn’t he just call a proper doctor?”
“It’s not that kind of illness.”
“Oh… I see,” Keeley said, his curiosity aroused.
“We must retire early tonight. It is a full day's ride to his residence, though we will take the coach, so the travel should be easier.”
Keeley looked distraught at this news. “Can’t I ride horseback?” he pleaded.
Faolan was slightly disappointed at this request. He’d been looking forward to traveling with the young man in the small, intimate space of the carriage, but the bright, eager gleam in Keeley’s eye wasn’t something he could refuse. “Very well.”
He beamed up at the earl with a brilliant, “Thank you!”
Keeley had thought that Faolan would argue with him on this point, and was very pleased to have ‘won’ with so little resistance. He had wanted the air, the space, and the small sense of freedom the ride would give him. However, when the weather turned unexpectedly chill, he had wavered.
The wind whipped with a freezing rain that reached into his bones and wrenched out all the remaining warmth. However, it had been his decision to ride instead of accepting the Earl’s offer of the carriage, and he would not go back on it now.
No matter how miserable he was.
At least he had a good mount. Keeley was riding the very same black horse he’d broken in the day before, a stallion he had decided to name Ancalagon.
Although Faolan hadn’t been thrilled with his choice of horse, he acquiesced, since he knew Keeley had his heart set on it and he didn’t sense any immediate danger in letting him do so. Personally however, the earl wished Keeley had chosen a less unpredictable animal.
Faolan glanced outside the carriage again to see how Keeley was faring in the downpour and frowned as he saw the boy struggling to keep the rain from seeping into his clothing. He looked chilled and worn and extremely pale, but he knew Keeley not be gainsaid. If Keeley said he was going to ride the whole day, then he would do just that. The earl began to wish he had brought Rian with him. At least then he would have someone else to look after Keeley as he rode. But Larkin had wanted time alone with his lover, and Faolan wanted Keeley to himself as well. He sensed the boy’s deep need for a closer connection between them and felt it would be good for the two of them to take a trip by themselves, without the prying eyes of the other members of his household.
The deeper shadows of evening were coming on now and the temperature would be dropping, but thankfully they did not have much further to go. Faolan was just about to insist that Keeley come into the carriage—whether he liked it or not—when his friend’s estate became visible in the distance. With a sigh he decided to let Keeley finish his ride.
In the meantime, Keeley tried to flex his stiff hands, which had long since become numb from the cold. His mind began drifting away to thoughts of warm blankets and hot, glowing fires. The rain continued to beat against him in merciless rivets that snaked and slithered into every crevice they could find, until there was not an inch of him left that was not wet and frozen to the bone.
He trudged along, wretched but determined. He shook his head, fighting the weariness that was creeping over him. When he finally saw the O’Reilly estate through the heavy mists, Keeley thought he would feel a great sense of relief, but the large manor looked dreary and foreboding in the rain. Its walls were made from a dull, grey stone and the whole structure seemed lifeless as it loomed up in the distance.
Gripped by a sudden, fierce chill, Keeley’s body shook violently. At the same moment, a streak of movement flashed along the borders of his vision. Whipping his head around, he caught sight of a small, feral cat with odd-colored eyes. Its coat was a smoky grey so well matched to the mists surrounding it that the animal appeared insubstantial, as if it had been conjured out of the fog itself. The creature stared at him, and Keeley had the unnerving sensation that he was being thoroughly assessed by the glowing green and gold eyes. The light in those depths seemed far too alert and intelligent for a typical wild housecat and Keeley wondered if his tired eyes weren’t playing tricks on him. He took a moment to rub the fatigue from his eyes and when he looked back up, the animal had disappeared.
<i>Must be the cold and exhaustion getting to me</i>, he thought, though his uneasiness refused to leave him.
It didn’t take long after this to reach the manor’s front gates, but in that short time that night had come on with a vengeance. Keeley dismounted with difficulty. His joints were frozen. Although the young man was an accomplished horseman, it had been a long time since he had ridden at length and his muscles, unaccustomed to the demands of riding and constricted into knots from the constant chill, were cramping badly. Keeley was forced to cling to Ancalagon to steady himself as his body threatened to collapse beneath him.
As soon as the coach came to a halt, Faolan was at his side.
“I’m fine,” Keeley managed to say, though his teeth clattered as he spoke.
“We need to get you inside,” the earl said sternly, pulling Keeley to his side so he could help him up the wide stone stairs to the door. Behind him, the carriage driver came shuffling along with his master’s bags.
When O’Reilly’s servants opened the tall, elaborate front doors, the earl’s party was a sorry sight. They were freezing, worn, and completely soaked.
“Please, come in, come in!” said the head servant, an older woman with a robust build and warm smile. “We’ve been expecting you, Earl O’Callaghan.”
Several other servants bustled about them, taking their dripping coats and hats.
“Master O’Reilly has already retired for the evening and regrets that he cannot greet you personally, but he looks forward to receiving you at breakfast,” the woman informed them. “Your room is waiting for you, with a good fire already started.”
The butler came around to take their bags and the driver left to move the carriage.
The maidservant glanced at the pale young man attached to Faolan’s side and gave him a quizzical look. She was used to seeing Rian with the earl and wasn’t sure what to make of his new boy.
“Shall I show your valet to the servant’s quarters?” she asked.
Keeley looked up at Faolan. Though he didn’t wish to admit it, he was reluctant to leave the man’s warm and reassuring presence.
“No, he’ll stay with me. Have a small cot brought to my room for him,” the earl instructed. As an afterthought he added, “And see that a tub and hot water is brought up as soon as possible.”
“Very good, sir.”
When they arrived at their room, the two men were greeted with a lovely rush of warmth from the large fire burning away happily in hearth. Keeley nearly cried with joy at the welcoming sight. After hours of dreaming about heat, he sat himself greedily in front of the fireplace, soaking in its heat and light.
“Keeley, move back a bit. You’re practically sitting in that fire,” Faolan chided him, “and get out of those wet clothes.”
Looking over his shoulder, Keeley saw that the earl had already begun removing his own damp clothing.
“But…” the boy hesitated, unsure of where things would lead with both of them undressed. “I have nothing else to wear,” he said nervously.
“Here.” The earl tossed him a soft robe that had been left on the bed for his use and slipped out of his shirt. The earl was now naked from the waist up, except for a thin undershirt, which failed to cover much of his body since it hung open down his chest and clung to his wet, sticky skin to reveal his tawny nipples and the well-formed muscles of his abdomen.
Picking up the robe, Keeley ran it through his fingers, but he made no move to undress. The wet weight of his clothing was biting into him like icy claws, but he was powerfully aware of the earl’s proximity and the intimate setting of the bedroom. He stood for a moment, shivering while his mind considered his situation.
Impatient with the boy’s indecision, Faolan walked over to him, his tall form blocking out the firelight.
“If you wait too long, I may be tempted to strip you naked myself,” he said in a husky tone. He heard the breath hitch in Keeley’s throat at this proposition and leaned in closer, slipping his fingers into the hair at the base of the boy’s neck. “Or maybe that’s exactly what you’re waiting for…”
The servants chose that time to come knocking at the door with the tub and cot in tow.
Was Keeley relieved or disappointed? He couldn’t decide.
“Thank you. Set up the bath in front of the fire,” the earl told them.
Several servant girls brought the cot into the corner of the room and lifted the tub in place and began to load it with steaming pails full of hot water. Keeley looked at the tub wistfully, wanting nothing more than to sink into the generous warmth of the water and disappear.
It took several minutes for the girls to fill the copper tub, during which the tall red-haired man seemed not to notice how their eyes drifted over his enticing physique. Keeley, however, saw their cheeks flush pink and knew it had nothing to do with the steam brushing their faces. His jealousy flared to life, and his determination solidified.
As soon as the door clicked shut, he began peeling away his clothing until he stood in nothing but his thin undergarments.
“Take <i>everything</i> off, Keeley,” Faolan said authoritatively, stripping off his own pants.
“I thought you’d want to do that for me.”
Cocking an eyebrow at Keeley’s bold request, Faolan’s lips spread into a delighted and wolfish grin. “Did you?”
He stepped near him and, placing his hands on the Keeley’s slender shoulders, turned Keeley to face towards the fire, away from him. Keeley’s heart raced in his chest, his body warming as the blood pumped through his veins. He wanted the earl’s attentions, and yet, he was unsure of where they would take him.
Quite familiar with the art of seduction, Faolan recognized the young man’s ambivalence and moved slowly. Sliding his hands under Keeley’s arms, he pressed against him from behind and began unfastening one button at a time on the boy’s garment. He was disturbed to feel how chilled Keeley’s flesh felt beneath his touch. Though he wanted to savor every moment, Faolan knew he had to get him into the heat of the water—and soon.
Even so, once every button had been released, the earl could not resist hooking his fingers under the neck of the boy’s undershirt and tugging it slowly down his pale arms. The heat from the man’s fingertips left tantalizing trails of warmth along Keeley’s cold skin. When Faolan reached the waist of his breeches, Keeley swallowed in trepidation, but the determined fingers did not stop until his clothing lay in wet circles about his feet.
Then Faolan walked around to face him. “Perhaps you would like to help me disrobe as well?”
Taking Keeley’s wrist, he brought the young man’s trembling hand to the edge of his breeches and waited to see what he would do.
“I… I think I will let you do that,” Keeley replied, feeling chagrined. He berated himself for losing his nerve, but for some reason he could not name, he found the idea of undressing Faolan much more intimidating than letting the man strip him.
Faolan gave him a lopsided, knowing smile and said, “Then I shall let you watch.” And with that he pulled off his remaining clothing with lustful vigor so that he was left standing with the firelight framing his glorious, nude form.
Faolan stood just long enough for Keeley to soak in the arousing vision before dipping his feet into the bath.
“Ahh!” the earl sighed with a deep, genuine gratitude for the heat infusing itself into his toes. Releasing his hair from its bonds, he lowered himself fully into the steamy water.
It was the first time Keeley had seen Faolan with his hair loosened and seeing the fiery locks falling softly over his strong shoulders somehow made the man look younger, or perhaps less intimidating. Keeley felt as if he were looking at a side of the earl most people were never privileged enough to set eyes on—a side that was for him alone.
“What are you waiting for? Get in!”
Despite the cold, Keeley said, “I don’t think there’s enough room for the two of us. Maybe I’ll wait until you’re finished.” The idea of sitting together in the small tub, their slick, naked limbs intertwined, stimulated Keeley to such a degree that he feared he would be completely overcome. His hands came up to discreetly cover the evidence of his arousal.
“The water will be tepid by then,” Faolan told him in irritation. However, the man was secretly amused with Keeley’s hesitation. He was enjoying the game that played out between them: Keeley’s attempts to be assertive mixed with his sudden shyness. Faolan knew if their relationship was ever to progress, he would eventually have to force past that apprehension. He knew the day would come when he would grow tired of the game and simply take him.
And he was greatly looking forward to it.
Now though, he watched Keeley squirming beside the tub. “Are you afraid?” Faolan asked him quietly.
“Then, come,” the earl said, offering his hand. The man spread his legs inside of the copper tub and sat up to make room for the boy.
Try as he might Keeley couldn’t control his racing heart. He gazed at Faolan and was stuck by his beauty in the firelight, the way the soft amber glow of the flames accentuated the man’s bright auburn locks. Keeley didn’t know if it was the soft look in Faolan’s emerald eyes or the irresistible temptation of the inviting heat of the bath, but he gave in.
As soon as his skin touched the water, he exhaled with a joy born of hours in the unrelenting cold. He sank in deep, unable to fully articulate the immense level of relief he felt in the water’s warm embrace.
“Better?” Faolan asked with a smile.
The boy’s grin in return was childlike and brilliant.
As Keeley let his head fall back against the rim of the tub, something around his neck caught the firelight. Faolan saw a curious locket resting against his chest.
“What is that you are wearing?” he asked.
Keeley glanced down. He was so used to wearing the pendant that he often forgot it was even there.
“It’s a talisman my mother gave me when I was born,” he explained with a sad, nostalgic look in his eyes. “She told me it would always protect me and never to be caught without it.” His delicate fingers closed about it and he closed his eyes, breathing in the memory. “I’ve never taken it off for as long as I can remember.”
“May I take a closer look?”
At first Keeley thought this was the earl’s way of bringing them closer together and beginning a new seduction, but he saw that the man’s face was unexpectedly serious. He leaned forward so Faolan could examine the small locket.
It was made of silver with a complicated Celtic knot design embossed in delicate filigree, the like of which the earl had never seen. The design looked familiar, and yet it was definitely unique. Faolan’s eyes narrowed. There was something about it that unsettled him. A power emanated from between its seams—harnessed, but waiting to break free.
“I don’t know, actually,” Keeley confessed. “It’s sealed shut very tight. Mother said it would break if I tried to force it open and that I should never try it. She told me to keep it safe and close to my heart. I assumed it was probably something small and secret that she wanted me to have.”
“It’s cracked,” Faolan said, seeing the thin fracture in the otherwise pristine silver locket.
“Yes… it happened around the time of the fire. When I lost my family,” Keeley replied softly.
Faolan framed the boy’s melancholy face in his hands.
“I’m sorry to have brought up such painful memories.”
“It’s okay,” Keeley said, shaking off the heavy mood. “I’m just happy to be warm again!” he said cheerfully.
He sank back down into the water, submerging as much of his body as possible. As he stretched out, Keeley accidentally bumped into Faolan with his foot. Instinctively he drew back, but the man caught him between his fingers and the young man jolted upright at the touch, as tense as he was relaxed just moment before.
“Relax,” Faolan whispered, slipping his fingers along the sole of the boy’s foot and rubbing away his tension.
After a long day of riding, the earl’s ministrations to his tired feet were absolute heaven. Keeley was sure he would melt right into the water. Without realizing it, he started to vocalize his pleasure and openly moaned with every touch of Faolan’s fingertips.
With the young man so open and unresisting, Faolan found himself unable to hold back and moved in toward him. The sudden movement startled Keeley at first, but with the mixture of warmth and relaxation and Faolan’s heady presence, he couldn’t move away. Slowly, Faolan brought his lips down over Keeley’s own. The earl moved his mouth languidly, taking leisurely pleasure in the feel and texture of the young man’s lips.
Keeley now felt a new heat radiating through his being and it was as if he had dissolved into the water, become one with it, and every molecule burned with an inexorable warmth.
When Faolan pulled away and Keeley came back to himself, he felt dizzy with desire. The kiss left him breathing heavily, his eyes dilated with longing and totally entranced by Faolan’s beauty. Faolan kissed his neck, knowing it was a weak point for the young man. He was trying not to lose himself, but it was a struggle, especially with Keeley responding so deliciously to his advances.
The feel of the man’s mouth moving across his bare shoulders caused Keeley to arch his back and gasp aloud. Yielding to his driving passion, Faolan pulled him forward in order to feel his wet body against him, their prominent arousals caressing one another. Keeley immediately cried out in surprise, shocked by the electric power of the intimate touch, and yet didn’t struggle against it—at least not until Faolan reached between them to grip their mutual erections and stroke them together.
“Faolan” Keeley choked out in a trembling voice revealing his fear. His plea had an affect opposite of what he’d intended, the little voice only heightening the earl’s rushing libido.
However, the pleasant moment was abruptly curtailed by an uncanny chill that gripped them both. It was not a draft, but something more sinister. Instinctively, Keeley’s eyes darted to the window, where he found a set of glowing eyes watching them—two stories above the ground.
Keeley gasped in dismay and felt Faolan’s firm, reassuring hand on his shoulder.
In the next instant, the eyes flashed and went out, but the damage was done. Keeley was terrified.
“I know those eyes,” he said, surprising Faolan.
“What do you mean?”
“On the road here, I saw a cat in the fog with those same eyes,” Keeley said, totally unnerved. With an anxious look in the pale blue depths of his own eyes, he asked, “What is it? What does it mean?”
“I don’t know yet. That’s what we’re here to figure out.”
Keeley didn’t much care for this vague reply, but a swift wave of drowsiness distracted him from his irritation and anxieties. Now that his body was warm again, his fatigue stole over him like a heavy cloak, subduing his senses, and he gave a wide yawn. It had been a long day for Keeley and a long, hard ride. Even the fright at witnessing those eerie, glowing eyes could not keep sleep from encircling his mind and wrapping him in its inviting embrace.
“We should get you into bed,” Faolan said, seeing the boy’s weariness. “It seems we are going to have our hands full here and tomorrow we must wake early to meet O’Reilly,” he said, standing as he spoke.
Keeley blushed and looked away from the earl’s naked, dripping body.
Grabbing one of the towel cloths laid out for him, Faolan began to dry himself. He lifted an eyebrow at Keeley, who had let his eyes wander over the man’s glistening nude physique. The young man flushed a deep scarlet, looked away, and sunk lower in the water in embarrassment.
“Come now,” Faolan said once he was dry, “you can’t stay in there all night.” Holding out his hand, he said, “I’ll dry you off.”
The offer did not help; the young man refused to budge.
“I’ll get out in a minute,” Keeley offered, squirming. He silently pleaded for Faolan to give him more time. If he came out now, Keeley would be unable to hide his arousal and the man would see the evidence of his affect over him.
The earl’s brows drew together like storm clouds. “Keeley, I expect your obedience on such matters. This is not a request. We are not on a holiday—the display we just saw in the window should be evidence enough of that. I want you rested for tomorrow. Now, <i>stand</i>.”
Keeley complied, albeit begrudgingly. Though he covered himself as best he could, Faolan was instantly aware of the young man’s predicament. He smiled and stepped behind him.
The earl had just thought of the perfect way to send Keeley off to slumber.
With deliberate slowness, Faolan dragged the cloth down the young man’s smooth skin and felt him shudder beneath his touch. He began with Keeley’s shoulders, ran down his back, then gripped his small, inviting buttocks, eliciting a little yelp of surprise from the young man.
Faolan couldn’t help but grin and even with Keeley’s back to him, the boy could feel the other man’s satisfaction at his discomfort.
The earl continued on, determined to map every inch of Keeley’s wet skin. He bent low to stroke down each leg and had to bite his lip to keep himself from sinking his teeth into the ivory flesh of one round ass cheek. <i>All in good time</i>, he told himself.
When Faolan reached for one of the young man’s arms, Keeley resisted. Lifting his arms meant exposing himself.
Merciless in his seduction, the earl leaned his head down and whispered his heated words into Keeley’s ear, “You must move for me to dry you, love. You’ll catch a chill again standing here completely wet and naked.”
Keeley blushed. Having Faolan describe his state of undress somehow made him much more self-conscious of it. Hesitantly, he allowed the man to lift his arms and dry the rest of his body, but he shut his eyes, as if this would invoke a kind of sympathetic magic that would blind Faolan’s eyes from his nakedness.
Keeley was certain that earl him would take advantage of him at any moment. Any time now he would feel him moving the cloth down between his legs, gently stroking his now-aching member. The mere thought of it flooded Keeley with both fear and quivering anticipation.
But Faolan did not touch him. Instead of moving his hands down, he brought them up and gently rubbed the wetness from his midnight-black locks. The tender action calmed Keeley and as he relaxed he gave another wide yawn.
The earl watched the emotions flitter across Keeley’s face and prayed for restraint. He knew that he couldn’t push things too far and he wanted to draw out every tantalizing moment. However, Keeley’s sleepy, defenseless innocence spiked Faolan’s urge to exploit the inviting vision of youthful beauty set so enticingly before him and he was hard pressed to deny himself.
“There,” Faolan said finally, tossing the wet cloth beside the rest of their damp garments near the fire. “Now to bed.”
Keeley immediately ran for the safety of the cot. He was eager to have even the thin, worn blanket between himself and the earl, who he had decided was in far too dangerous and affecting a mood to trust that evening.
“I said <i>‘bed</i>’, Keeley,” Faolan noted sternly, as he pulled back the warm, fluffy blankets on the large master bed. “You’ll catch your death on that mean little cot without your clothes to keep you warm.”
As the earl expected, Keeley hesitated, but the boy’s desire for warmth won out and he quickly dashed off the cot and scrambled under the deep layers of blankets. No sooner had he snuggled into that downy comfort than the young man felt his companion’s presence over his shoulder.
“Let me warm you.”
Before Keeley had a chance to protest, Faolan’s powerful, hot body was pressing into him from behind. Two strong arms encircled his waist and Keeley sucked in his breath, too torn to accept or deny this advance. He trembled with an unnamable desire that frightened him. The earl’s words echoed in his ears: <i>‘…sooner or later I will take you.’</i>
“What are you feeling, Keeley? Tell me.”
“I’m scared,” he admitted.
Keeley’s breath hitched. He didn’t want to say it. <i>Oh, please,</i> he begged, <i>don’t make me say it!</i>
Faolan’s firm body swayed against him, just slightly, but enough to spark a brilliant fire low in Keeley’s belly—a fire that cried out to be touched and teased into a blazing, consuming inferno.
Without even realizing he was doing so, Keeley responded to the earl’s rhythm and began nudging his hips into the mattress to ease the heated longing rising between his thighs.
The earl felt him move and grinned in greedy, self-satisfied delight. Keeley was playing into his hands beautifully.
“What <i>else?</i>” Faolan repeated, punctuating his question with a sharp thrust of his pelvis.
Keeley trembled in the man’s embrace and gasped, “I—I feel… on fire!”
The breathy cry almost undid Faolan. He nipped at the tender flesh of Keeley’s shoulders and restrained himself just in time to keep from flipping the boy over and giving him his first, hard fucking.
How he resisted the temptation, he had no idea. Perhaps it was the way Keeley quaked in his arms. The boy was overcome—and extremely fatigued. If he took him now, Faolan doubted Keeley would be able to truly enjoy it.
However, that did not rule out other pleasurable pursuits.
“Shall I quell that fire for you?” Faolan asked, pushing Keeley down so his back was pressed into the bed and he could dart his tongue across the flat expanse of the young man’s chest.
Keeley didn’t know what to say. He could barely form a coherent thought in his sleep-deprived, passion-addled mind. On instinct, he demanded, “Kiss me.”
Faolan swiftly crushed his lips against Keeley’s, sweeping his tongue into his mouth aggressively. Beneath him, the young man whimpered, helpless with desire.
“Don’t worry, love,” the earl said softly as he slowly licked his way down Keeley’s torso. “I’ll be gentle with you tonight.”
With a hunger that surprised even him, Faolan lowered his head and suddenly sucked Keeley’s pulsing sex into his wet, warm mouth.
Keeley cried out at the unbelievably exquisite sensation and dug his teeth into the palm of his hand to stifle his moaning. His head jerked back with every languid stroke of Faolan’s tongue over his sensitive flesh and his body writhed wildly until the red-haired man finally had to pin down his hips with his strong, firm hands.
With the young man at his mercy, Faolan slowed his pace in order to fully explore Keeley’s twitching, aching cock. He trailed the tip of his tongue down the sides of the heated organ, kissed the weeping slit, and enveloped him over and over until the young man was beside himself with need.
Faolan drank in every sweet cry and frenzied movement from the narrow slits of his glinting green eyes. It would not be long now. He knew the signs. Keeley was bucking against him, his fists pounding in a steady rhythm against the sheets as his release swelled inside him. With a heady groan, Keeley’s back arched almost violently off the bed and his knees bent to give him more leverage to thrust into Faolan’s waiting mouth as his climax broke over him.
Faolan relaxed his throat and drank down Keeley’s pearly essence, savoring the taste of him on his tongue. When he looked up, the earl found Keeley gazing at him with heavy-lidded eyes. The boy’s slender fingers reached out to caress the loose tendrils of Faolan’s unique brand of crimson-red hair and Keeley smiled. He looked on the verge of saying something, but suddenly his pale blue eyes glazed over with sleep and his eyelids fluttered shut.
Faolan remained lying between the young man’s legs for some time, stroking his sides with gentle fingertips and watching him drift deeper into sleep. The way Keeley’s soft fingers twined so affectionately into his auburn locks affected him more than it should have. The tender caress went straight to Faolan’s heart where it spread through his chest in a warm, enchanting glow.
Soon the fire was flickering low and Faolan grew drowsy. Crawling up the bed, he pulled the Keeley into his arms. Within minutes, he was fast asleep.
* * *
Keeley had slept well and deep and he woke in the morning only reluctantly. He was pulled from his peaceful dreams by a soft, lonely voice that lamented its fate in sorrowful soprano tones. However, when he opened his eyes the heartrending voice disappeared. In its wake, the voice left an inexplicable longing within Keeley’s chest. Despite the fact that Keeley knew the pain was not his own, the acuteness of the misery enveloping him alarmed him. Somewhere nearby was a languishing soul-spirit, but it eluded him, hovering just out of sight.
It was a disquieting and unpleasant way to greet the morning, though the dismal grey day outside did not deserve much cheer. Keeley forced himself to sit up and saw that Faolan was already up and dressed and standing by the window, contemplating the dreary weather, as was his habit on early mornings.
“You felt it, didn’t you?” the man asked.
Keeley did not need him to elaborate. “Yes,” he answered.
“We had best get a move on. We will be summoned to breakfast shortly.”
“But what was that? What’s going on?” Keeley asked, feeling flustered and a bit awkward talking with Faolan while he sat naked in bed. He wondered at the man’s detached manner after the heated exchange the night before and frowned. The earl was back to his infuriating, authoritative mode.
“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Faolan insisted.
Scowling, Keeley left the warm shelter of the blankets and hurriedly dressed himself in his dry, but stiff garments. In his irritation at the earl’s dismissive attitude, the young man made quite a fuss, stomping about the room as he readied himself. He had just finished tying his cravat when a knock came at the door.
“The master requests your presence at the breakfast table,” the maidservant said with a polite curtsy.
“Tell him we will be down momentarily.”
“Very good, sir.”
After she had left, Keeley started, “Faolan, what about—”
“No time for questions. I don’t wish to be late.”
Sensing the earl’s unusually tense mood, Keeley bit back his retort.
His curiosity now gnawing at him, Keeley followed Faolan obediently down the large, curved staircase. As they made their way down, the earl turned to him and said in a low voice, “I want you to keep your senses on sharp alert to everything around you while we are here, but hold back from making any judgments.”
“But why! I don’t understand any of this and you refuse to tell me anything about the voice this morning or those disturbing eyes!” Keeley spat. He was aggravated beyond reason at the earl’s cool attitude regarding these strange and disturbing events, and wanted more from him than vague hints and guesses.
Faolan gave him a quizzical look. “What makes you think <i>I</i> have the answers? I told you before, we are here to investigate.”
“What about your damned <i>‘intuition’?</i>” Keeley hissed, losing his patience as they reached the bottom step.
“It only guides the way,” the earl said with a smile, ignoring his companion’s anger. “It does not illuminate it.”
“Must you always talk in riddles?”
If Faolan had a response to this, he had no chance to give it. At that moment a portly, middle-aged man—the master of the house apparently—strode up to them and boomed in greeting, “Faolan! My dearest earl! I heard you had a terrible time of it last evening. I’m very sorry to have troubled you so. How can I ever thank you for coming!”
“No need, Jacob. Wait until we see if I can be of service, and perhaps you can thank me later.”
“Ah, always the gentleman! Come, come, let us eat.” O’Reilly paused, his small, round eyes just then noticing the willowy young man standing impatiently at the earl’s side.
“Oh! Dear me! I almost missed you, boy! And who might this be?” he asked, turning to Faolan.
The earl knew it would rankle Keeley that he was not addressed directly and took a perverse delight in the boy’s flush of anger. It reminded him of the lovely blush that crept over Keeley’s cheeks when he was aroused.
“This is Keeley Finnegan, a new employee of mine. I believe he will be of great help to us.”
Keeley gave Faolan a sidelong glance. <i>How can I be of help when I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do?</i> He thought bitterly.
“Hmm, I see. Very good,” O’Reilly replied, but Keeley didn’t think his voice held much confidence.
The three men made their way to the long dining table and Keeley’s spirits improved considerably when his eyes took in the formidable spread: candied ham, boiled potatoes, pickled beets, and scrambled eggs. His stomach growled loudly just looking at it. The previous day’s ride had left him little time to eat, but his fatigue had won out over his hunger the night before. Now that he was awake and rested, however, he was ravenous.
“Dig in, Mr. Finnegan!” O’Reilly said, witnessing the boy’s shining eyes. “We won’t wait for you!”
The man’s threat hardly sounded serious, but Keeley dove into the food quickly and with rapturous delight. When he had finally finished (after three helpings), he pushed his plate back with a satisfied sigh. A brief pang of guilt stabbed him when he thought about how poorly his Catholic brothers must have been eating that morning, but he rationalized his gluttony on the basis that he needed sustenance if he was going to get to the bottom of the mysteries surrounding O’Reilly’s residence.
Faolan had told him little about how this mission would help the Brotherhood (or anything else for that matter). Keeley decided that if the earl refused to explain things to him, he’d would call upon his stubborn nature and uncover the truth for himself. He was through begging for help from Faolan and getting only ambiguous answers.
Completely revived from his ordeals the day before, Keeley now took in his surroundings with a keen eye. O’Reilly was chatting with Faolan about some mundane affairs of state, and Keeley was able to assess the corpulent man at his leisure.
Until that morning, Keeley had known the rotund landowner only by reputation. For a long while O’Reilly had been a fair, if not generous, landowner, but recently he had begun to ignore the pleas of his tenants and squander the land’s revenues for himself. Keeley had expected to meet a pompous, greedy sort of man, but O’Reilly surprised him. The man, despite his round size and heavy double chin, lacked the self-satisfied glow of overindulgence that characterized so many in the ruling class. Nor was he dripping with the gold trinkets and ornate fabrics that men with his wealth tended to wear. Rather, Keeley noted, his clothing was quite plain and his complexion appeared somewhat sallow. There were dark circles under his eyes, too. He had the look of a man who had not slept well for many nights, and Keeley had a hard time fitting this image with that of the selfish, hoarding landlord of rumor.
Suddenly, Keeley became aware that he was being addressed and glanced over at Faolan questioningly.
“Are you quite finished?” the earl repeated.
For a moment, Keeley thought Faolan was referring to his open assessment of their host and flushed in embarrassment before he realized the earl was pointing to his plate.
“Oh! Yes, quite finished. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome, young man,” O’Reilly said warmly, but the man’s face fell. “My Mary always had a good appetite,” he said with a sad sigh. “Now, she’s just wasting away.”
“If you don’t mind,” Faolan said, interrupting the man’s melancholy, “could we see your daughter now?”
“Yes, of course. That’s why you’re here after all!” O’Reilly said, but Keeley could sense his hesitation. It must be difficult for him to share his grief, he thought.
As they walked down the long chilly halls, Keeley’s unease, which had been briefly relieved by the quality of the meal, slowly returned with renewed potency. Although he could not hear the cry of the soul-spirit, he could sense it just as strongly as he had earlier that morning. With each step he took down the hall, it increased in power, until Keeley’s head was swimming and his chest ached.
When they finally stopped before a large wooden door, the young man could bear it no longer and clutched at Faolan’s sleeve for support as he swayed.
“Keeley, are you all right?” Faolan asked, slipping an arm about his shoulders to steady him. In a quieter voice, for his ears only, the earl whispered, “Just a little further. Please endure it for a bit longer.”
Although he wasn’t sure how much more he could take, Keeley nodded. He wasn’t about to faint like some maiden. This was his first mission, and he had his pride.
O’Reilly watched the young man’s distress without comment, keeping whatever thoughts he had to himself.
“This way,” O’Reilly said, opening the door and stepping inside.
With Faolan’s help, Keeley staggered into a large room, richly furnished with a polished, dark wood bedroom set and dripping with antique lace from the curtains to the bedspread. It would have been lovely, were it not for the solemn mood that hung heavily in the still air and the motionless body on the bed.
A thin layer of dust coated every object in the room and dulled its color; heavy curtains shut out most of the light. All in all, the space resembled a tomb more than a private bedchamber. It gave Keeley a violent chill down his spine and the loneliness that had slowly been creeping about him now smothered him completely.
But he did not turn away. Pushing away from Faolan, he walked with unsteady feet to the wide bed, where the figure of a young girl—only a year or two older than himself—lay in cold, unresponsive repose.
“How long has she been like this?” Keeley asked, his voice tight, as if it took him a great effort to speak.
“Almost two months,” O’Reilly said, giving the boy a worried glance.
The young man looked pale and seemed to be in genuine pain. Was this what his daughter was feeling? Was the boy with the cool blue eyes channeling her pain? O’Reilly hoped not. He couldn’t bear the thought of her in such agony.
After the death of his wife several years before, O’Reilly had given all his love and affection to his daughter. She was his only living relative now, and he loved her more dearly than his own life. He would have done anything to keep her from harm, but he was helpless under the circumstances. He’d spent a small fortune on doctors, and every one of them had shrugged and failed to make a diagnosis. Perhaps this strange young man would be able to reach her.
“Jacob, may we have a moment alone with her?” Faolan asked.
“I… Well, yes. I suppose so,” O’Reilly replied.
“Thank you,” the earl said warmly, escorting him out. “We will only be a minute, no need to worry.”
Once the door was shut, Keeley dropped to his knees. “Two months!” he cried.
“Calm yourself,” Faolan said softly, walking up behind him.
“I don’t know how! Her sorrow is stinging me down into my bones!”
Two strong hands came to rest on his shoulders. “You have to learn to separate yourself, Keeley.”
“How do I do that?” he asked through clenched teeth.
Keeley had often been assailed by the overpowering grief of various soul-spirits that reached out to him, but nothing ever reached inside him and wrenched at his gut the way this girl’s spirit did. He could tell immediately that her soul wasn’t just lost. It had been ejected, forced from her body against her will. It was something Keeley had never encountered before and never wished to deal with again.
“Breathe, Keeley,” the earl instructed in a steady, reassuring tone. “Look inside yourself. This is not your pain.”
“But it’s pushing into me! I can’t stop it!”
“Listen to me! You must face this force, recognize that it is not your own, and let it go.”
Keeley trembled as he concentrated his entire mind on this task. Though his anguish lessened, he could not stop it completely. A sweat broke out over his brow and he squeezed the delicate coverlet until his knuckles shone white. He could not block out the pain and it had rooted him to the spot.
“Please, help me Faolan!” he cried.
Keeley’s strained, raspy breaths were the only noise in the stuffy, still room until Faolan finally leaned down over the young man and covered his eyes. The earl spoke a series of hushed chants with words Keeley couldn’t quite catch, but the acute agony gradually left him.
For several minutes afterward, Keeley continued to kneel next to the bed. The morning chill crept into his sweat-soaked clothes and he shivered.
“That will help you for now,” Faolan said, “but you must learn not to be overwhelmed by her pain. We need to find her soul-spirit—and soon. Our time is limited. The longer she is separated from her soul, the weaker her life force becomes.”
“What will happen?” Keeley asked, his head bowed. He knew the answer, but he chose to deny it.
“If it returns in the next few days, she may only lose some of her memories. Any longer, and her life force will ebb out completely and she will die.”
Keeley’s eyes shot up to meet Faolan’s gaze. The boy looked stricken.
“This is in the realm of <i>your</i> power Keeley. You have a far stronger connection to soul-spirits than I, and you are far more powerful than you realize. There is so much you can do if only you hone your skills. Do you understand?”
Hesitantly, Keeley nodded.
“You are the only one who can save this girl.”
Keeley’s first reaction to this pronouncement was intimidation. It was difficult for him to track down a soul-spirit unless it came to him willingly. His attempts to draw wayward spirits to him were not always successful. The longer a spirit was severed from the body, the harder it was to pin down. This girl’s soul had been wandering for months. Moreover, even though Keeley could sense that her soul-spirit was near, it seemed determined to keep itself hidden. What if he failed? This young girl’s life was at stake.
Still, he knew Faolan wouldn’t lie to him about his abilities, and slowly a new feeling welled up inside him. A new confidence and determination was born as he looked into Faolan’s steady green gaze.
Isn’t this what he had been longing for? To be needed, to be necessary?
Yes, he would do this. He would save this girl and he would somehow become strong, so he was no longer the one who needed support, but one who supported others. Keeley slowly stood with renewed conviction, a fiery glint shining in his blue eyes.
“Tell me what I need to do.”
Faolan smiled. It was a small shift in demeanor, but he recognized that a larger change was brewing in the young man. He hoped the boy’s strength would grow swiftly… Keeley was going to need it in the days ahead.
“What are you doing over there? Come back to bed,” Rian said with a pout, looking up at his lover from the disarray of the bed.
Larkin stood gazing out the window, much in the manner of Faolan when something was concerning him. The blond-haired man didn’t recognize that he and his friend shared many of the same characteristics, but Rian did. He smiled thinking of them both.
There was a time when he’d wanted nothing more than to be taken to Faolan’s bed, but that was before he met Larkin. Although Rian would always feel indebted and dedicated to the earl for freeing him from the brothel he had grown up in, it was the tall, blond man standing before him who had been the one to show him what love could truly be.
And Larkin had spent the last few days reminding him. Though both lovers enjoyed the thrill of making love when they knew others were around to catch them, it had been nice to have some time alone as well. Rian in particular enjoyed having the freedom to attend to no one other than Larkin for days on end.
Tugging at the blond’s sleeve, Rian begged silently for attention. It was odd for Larkin to be so distracted; a concerned expression shaded the man’s handsome features. Rian recognized that Larkin must be ‘sensing’ something around them; that was the only time he got that particular look in his eyes. Although he was used to his lover’s talent for reading energies, Rian did not always enjoy it. He had no such abilities and often felt distanced from Larkin at times such as these.
“What is it?” Rian asked, knowing the matter would nag the other man unless he was able to discuss it.
“There is an unfriendly energy surrounding the entire mansion,” Larkin said, frowning. “It began shortly after Keeley arrived and I expected it to follow him when he left,” he paused, “but it has stayed, wafting in the air on the hills—waiting for him, biding its time until he returns.”
Rian was unmoved by this information. Something unusual was always happening when it came to the earl and his estate. If Faolan hadn’t been concerned enough to mention it before his departure, Rian saw no need to concern himself with it now. When it came to such matters, the young man had absolute confidence in his master to resolve them. His faith in Faolan’s abilities was so complete that it sometimes rankled his lover, whom Rian respected, but did not follow with such unflinching conviction.
“Why let it bother you? If something is after Keeley, Faolan will protect him.”
“Whatever is after him may come after <i>us</i> as well, Rian. We would be useful tools for getting to the boy.”
Rian groaned and rolled over onto his back in exasperation. “Why would anything come after us now, when Keeley and Master Faolan aren’t even <i>here?</i>” he said with a little whine. When his theatrics failed to get the attention of his lover, he became more subtle. Reaching out, he laced his fingers with Larkin’s and purred, “But <i>I’m</i> here now… why don’t we concentrate on us?”
Finally turning his deep hazel eyes away from the window, Larkin considered his lover, lying naked and sprawled on top of the disorderly bed sheets. Rian’s curly chestnut locks were tousled from their earlier lovemaking. The young man looked deliciously used and sinfully eager for more.
“How could I possibly refuse such a request?” Larkin asked, a familiar, roguish grin spreading across his lips.
Rian’s smile was pure brilliance as his lover knelt next to him on the bed. His grey eyes ignited with a secret flame as Larkin discarded the thin undergarments he had been wearing and settled his weight over Rian’s waiting body. The breath hitched in Rian’s throat as he felt Larkin’s naked, heated skin press into him. No matter how many times the man took him, Rian was always desperate for more. With a hungry moan, the young man spread his thighs to bring Larkin closer to him and wrapped his legs about his waist.
Larkin’s smile broadened. Rian was as ravenous as always. The young valet’s impatient lust never failed to ignite his own passion, even after Larkin had spent himself only minutes before.
“So eager to be fucked again, already?” Larkin whispered, grazing his mouth lightly, teasingly over Rian’s own.
The young man whimpered wordlessly, too deep in need to articulate his desire.
“You’re such a wanton boy,” Larkin chided, pushing his hips against his sweet young lover as he grazed one fair shoulder with his teeth.
“Larkin,” Rian said softly, plaintively, grey eyes shining like molten silver. Placing his arms above his head, he crossed his wrists one over the other in silent invitation for Larkin to bind him.
His lover needed no other encouragement. Lowering his head, Larkin invaded Rian’s gaping mouth. Their tongues twined together in erotic delight as the blond reached under the mattress to grab the leather straps hidden there. With one cord he wrapped Rian’s wrists together, and with a second he connected them to the headboard, so that Rian’s arms were stretched taut above him.
The young man reveled in his sense of surrender, arching his back against his lover and moaning his name. Larkin’s eyes fluttered shut as he soaked in the youth’s submissions and a surge of heady domination drugged his senses. With one firm hand, he flattened his palm against the Rian’s heaving chest and pressed him down insistently into the bed, staying his writhing undulations.
Rian bit his lip, his movements were increasingly limited, thereby making him progressively helpless. But he had not lost the game yet. By lifting his knees, Rian managed to give his body leverage enough to pull Larkin closer to him with his legs and he gave the man a naughty smile as he did so.
“It seems you need to be further restrained,” Larkin told him, tilting his head, a smirk of satisfaction on his face. The man sat up, breaking the grip of Rian’s legs, then swiftly bound each ankle and attached the ends of the cords to the bottom legs of the bed, leaving the young man before him completely exposed, spread-eagled on the mattress before him. Larkin sat back on his heels to admire his handiwork.
Rian’s entire body was flushed with arousal; his breath coming in deep pants as his lover openly assessed him. When their eyes met, the brunette shivered with barely contained anticipation. Slowly, Larkin crawled over his body and Rian waited, every inch of his skin crying out to be touched. A whimper escaped his lips as his lover hovered above him, so close, yet depriving him of the contact he so desperately longed for.
When Larkin inched one hand towards Rian’s body, the young man beneath him held his breath, not even daring to breathe least his lover stop his movement. Finally, Larkin’s fingertips touched him and passed over the expanse of Rian’s belly. The young man trembled down to the tips of his toes in glorious rapture at the touch. His immobility heightened every sensation and racked him with pleasure. Each touch that Larkin bestowed upon him was a gift of pure mercy to his hot, needy body.
Just as the shudders running through Rian’s frame began to subside, Larkin changed tactics and his teasing caresses became rough and demanding. His fingertips pinched the young man’s nipples into hard, rosy nubs before his fingernails scraped down his ribs and pinned his hips to the bed as Rian struggled in vain against him. Rian’s body was on sensory overload; his nerves had been heightened to painful sensitivity through Larkin’s earlier forced deprivation. Now the blond’s onslaught drove him into a frenzy of lust.
Larkin bent to kiss Rian, but his hand had slipped between the boy’s legs and Rian was tossing his head from side to side, unable to contain the overwhelming, torturous pleasure he was feeling as Larkin started to pump his rigid member. There was nothing quite as heady as seeing Rian in the throes of delirious passion, and Larkin was determined to claim that gorgeous, gasping mouth.
To still the young man’s thrashing, Larkin slipped one large hand up to Rian’s throat, encircling it with his fingers. He pressed down gently but firmly and was careful to avoid the boy’s windpipe. Rian immediately stopped moving and sighed in ecstasy. Being held down in this particular fashion was a favorite of his. It required great trust from each partner and somehow made Rian feel even closer to Larkin.
When Larkin smothered his mouth, Rian parted his lips and plunged his tongue into the other man’s mouth. They ate at one another’s mouths with unrestrained, frantic need. The blond pulled away briefly to recover his breath and Rian looked up at him entreatingly, his sea-grey eyes pleading for the fulfillment only Larkin could give him.
The open, helpless look in those eyes struck Larkin deep in his chest. Even with Rian bound and his movements curtailed completely, the young man was still able to wield enormous power over him.
“Rian,” Larkin said softly, brushing his thumb across the boy’s lips, swollen from his kisses.
“Please,” Rian begged.
As he spoke, Larkin felt the young man’s hard cock twitch in his grip. The tip was already weeping, the pearly white droplets collecting around Larkin’s fingers.
With incredible skill, Larkin began to work his lover towards completion. He would tease him no further. Rian was already teetering on the edge of release and within a few strokes, he burst forth—his climax slamming through his body in wave after wave of ecstatic bliss.
Larkin watched, mesmerized as Rian’s hot seed shot across his chest then pooled low on the young man’s belly. When Rian recovered from his exceptional orgasm, he met Larkin’s rich hazel gaze with heavy-lidded eyes and smiled, his face glowing with satisfaction.
“That was to your liking, I take it?” Larkin murmured, nipping along Rian’s tender neck.
“Mmm-hmm,” he replied, too content to say much else.
“Look at the mess you’ve made,” Larkin reprimanded softly, slipping his fingertips through the warm fluid scattered over Rian’s torso. Larkin lifted his fingers to his lover’s perfect pink lips and Rian opened his mouth to willingly accept them. He sucked on the digits and tasted the saltiness of Larkin’s skin mingled with the tang of his own sex and moaned.
The sight was too erotic for words. Larkin was suddenly and keening aware that he was still in need of release and pressed his throbbing erection into Rian’s groin.
“I can help you with that,” Rian said with a knowing smile. “Let me take you in my mouth. Let me pleasure you.”
Larkin felt himself grow harder just hearing Rian’s offer. As he settled himself over the young man’s face, thighs straddling Rian’s chest, he was worried about losing himself too quickly in that hot, tantalizing mouth. As he slid between Rian’s lips, he groaned.
Oh god, he’d forgotten how good Rian was at this! The young man’s lips and tongue toyed with his shaft then took his cock deep, deep into his throat. Instinctively, Larkin began to thrust into the warm wetness and though he worried about gagging him, Rian made no noise of protest. The young man’s submissive, restrained position beneath him was wickedly erotic, and after only a short while Larkin knew he was dangerously close to climax.
Pulling his aching cock from the boy’s mouth, he told him, “Rian, I need you, love. <i>Now</i>.”
Rian gazed up at him, his eyes again filled with smoldering heat and Larkin thanked heaven for the boy’s insatiable, youthful lust.
“Take me from behind, <i>please</i>,” Rian begged.
With unbelievable speed, Rian found himself freed from his bonds and flipped roughly onto his stomach. He barely had time to catch his breath before Larkin was pushing the head of his shaft past his quivering portal. Though he was no longer tied down, Larkin continued to dominate him, shoving his hips up and back and holding his chest down with a strong hand pressing down between his shoulder blades.
Rian welcomed his advances, pressing back to take his lover deeper into his body.
Ever since the first time Larkin had taken the pretty young brunette, he had been amazed at the way Rian’s body accepted his exceptionally large arousal. Larkin had always been forced to go to great lengths to prepare his lovers before pressing his way inside, but Rian opened for him beautifully. Larkin savored the fact that he could plunder the young man at will, though he chose to ignore the implications this revealed about the boy’s past.
Larkin hooked his fingers into Rian’s hips to get a good grip on him and then rammed into him without mercy. Beneath him Rian cried out in ecstasy, and Larkin pulled back only to plunge back in with renewed vigor. Again and again he pounded into the young man’s slender frame and again and again Rian absorbed the force of his thrusts and asked for more.
Though he tried to hold back, Larkin’s ascent was imminent. As he felt the familiar stirrings in his groin, he reached a hand down to grasp onto Rian’s shoulder, using the hold for better leverage. The grip was stronger than he intended and unknowingly, his fingers dug into the sensitive hollow behind the boy’s collarbone. Rian cried out, but his lover misinterpreted the gasp and tightened his hold, thrusting harder.
“Lark, wait!” Rian called out, his voice filled with panic and pain—more, indeed, than there should have been for the small discomfort the hold had given him.
The other man didn’t hear him. Larkin’s ears were filled with the rushing of his own blood as his orgasm crashed over him. Just as he spilled forth, however, he felt a hand shove him away and his sticky release burst in copious arches across the bed.
Breathing heavily, his mind confused about what had just happened, Larkin tried to collect himself. He looked over at his lover and saw that Rian had retreated to the other side of the bed. He was kneeling with his weight on his hands, his eyes staring ahead blankly, a haunted look in their stormy grey depths.
“Rian,” Larkin said gently. The blond cursed himself for losing all sense of control and tried to review in his mind what might have gone wrong. What had set him off this time?
“Rian,” he called again, drawing closer to him.
The young man continued to ignore his presence, almost as if he didn’t see him, as if he were in another time and place.
Gently, patiently, Larkin cupped Rian’s cheek. In a calm, reassuring voice he urged him, “Come back to me, love. You’re safe. It’s al lright.”
Rian’s stony features finally crumpled and his lip began to tremble. “It’s not all right. I’ll never be able to forget, will I?”
Larkin’s heart ached to see his lover’s eyes suddenly filled with angry tears. He planted sweet kisses over his lips and cheeks and felt the edge of Rian’s buried pain and rage slowly lessen within him.
“What was it, Rian? Tell me,” Larkin coaxed. “Let me carry some of your burden. It will help you.”
The young man looked away, his brow creased and for a moment Larkin thought that he was determined to keep this secret of his past locked away, but eventually he relented.
“It was just… the way you grasped my shoulder, the way your fingertips pressed in here,” Rian said, rubbing the hollow above his collarbone. He paused, shutting his eyes against the memory. “It was the same way that one of the regular clients—an older man—would hold me… when he fucked me.” The last words were spat from Rian’s mouth with visible abhorrence. “I <i>hated</i> it there,” he added vehemently.
As a rule, Larkin never took much of anything seriously, but when it came to Rian and the boy’s troubled past, he was always attentive and genuinely concerned. He deeply wished to shield him from the miseries of the world. Unfortunately, Rian had already had a good dose of them.
Leaning back into the comfort of the downy pillows, Larkin held his arms out to his young lover. “Come here, Rian.”
Like a sulking puppy, the boy scooted up into Larkin’s arms, his curly, chestnut-brown hair falling across Larkin’s chest as he pillowed his head against him. As Larkin held him in his arms, he felt Rian’s tension gradually ease out of him. He grazed his fingers through the young man’s unruly locks and reflected on just how young his lover was, and how much he had been through. In the midst of his passion, it was easy to forget that Rian had only recently turned sixteen. Moreover, Faolan had only rescued him from the brothel a year before. Ever since the tender age of nine, when his mother had died and left him all her debts, he had been forced to take up her role in the brothel and service clients. Because Rian had seen so much of life, he carried himself with a maturity beyond his years. However, his experiences had also left behind deeply rooted scars that only time would truly heal. Rian still had quite a bit of growing up to do.
“The past can’t control you, Rian,” Larkin explained. “The memories may always be there, but their power will fade.”
Larkin felt the boy’s fingertips tracing circles aimlessly over his belly. “But I don’t understand why Master Faolan won’t just let me perform a spell to erase them—at least the worst ones.”
“We are who we are because of our pasts. They shape us, for better or for worse.” Larkin looked down as he spoke and Rian, sensing his gaze, lifted his head. Their eyes locked. “I happen to like you just as you are, love.”
Rian did not appear entirely convinced, but he didn’t press the matter.
“Lark,” Rian said after several moments of silence.
“Do you love me?”
There was a brief pause and Rian felt his heart race with anxious worry.
“Yes, Rian. I love you,” Larkin replied, his voice deep and intense, the emotion so potent that the young man in his arms could feel it reverberate through his entire being. Larkin had told him this before, of course, but Rian needed reassurance every so often. He’d been through too much in his short life to feel sure of anything.
However, as he drifted off to sleep within the circle of Larkin’s arms, the rest of the world fell away and he allowed his lover’s warmth and security to bathe him in the soft glow of unwavering love.
“Are you ready?” Faolan asked.
Keeley nodded and followed the earl out the door and down the hallway, back towards Mary’s room where she remained in her cold sleep.
It had been two days and Keeley had made no progress. If something didn’t happen soon, O’Reilly’s daughter was going to die. The dark-haired boy shook his head to clear his mind from the sleep that was slowly creeping into his skull. Tonight, he had vowed he would stay by Mary’s side. Keeley was convinced that her condition grew worse at night. The mystery of her illness had deepened while he stayed at O’Reilly’s residence, but of one thing he was sure: whatever fey illness afflicted the girl, it had to be tied to a real person. His own experiences with the supernatural had taught him that. He was keeping a close eye on everyone who lived or worked within the residence, and his suspicion was focused on one person in particular, a servant named Hamish.
After Keeley’s first visit to see Mary had affected him so strongly, he stayed away from her room—indeed the entire wing where her room was located—for the rest of the day. He went back to his own room to regain his strength and tried to focus his mind so that he would be prepared to deal with the young lady’s overpowering sorrow when he finally decided to face her soul’s anguish once again.
Faolan guided him, helped him focus his mind, and taught him several chants that would help ward off the insistent soul-spirit’s melancholy without disconnecting him from the spirit realm. The earl had arranged to have a small snack brought to them and begged Mr. O’Reilly’s apology for missing the noon meal. It was crucial for Keeley to train his mind and spirit for his task, and they did not have much time.
By the time evening fell, the raven-haired youth was famished and worn, but he was pleased with himself. He felt far more confident about his mission. Once food was set in front of him however, all thought of his duties were shoved to the back of his brain and the only thing he could think of was his empty stomach. The food was excellent, though he had to admit that it was not quite as good as the dishes he’d eaten at the earl’s residence. Not that it mattered to him. He still ate as if it had been days since his last meal.
With his mind distracted by the many delicacies set before him, Keeley barely took notice of the conversation around him. O’Reilly kept the conversation light, skirting the issue of his daughter. Perhaps it was too painful and serious a topic for the dinner table, Keeley thought, before taking a second helping of the mashed potatoes.
“Jacob,” Faolan said as they meal was nearing its end, “I’m afraid I have a problem that needs attending to. I’d forgotten after the day’s events, but I must address it now.”
Keeley perked up his ears at this and wondered if the earl was going to make a request to seal the grounds with a ward spell or something equally outlandish, but his question was nothing so extraordinary.
“Our bags never made it to our room last night. Could you have one of your servants check on them please?”
“Oh my! Yes, certainly!” O’Reilly turned to the door and bellowed, “Kate! Where are you?”
The older woman who had greeted them at the door the night before rushed into the dining room. “Yes, sir?”
“What happened to our guests’ luggage? Who was supposed to deliver it?”
“That would have been Hamish, sir,” the woman replied.
“Fetch him at once,” O’Reilly said loudly, but Keeley did not think he sounded particularly fearsome. He guessed that O’Reilly was the type of employer who tended to shout often, but doled out very little actual punishment.
Keeley turned his attention back to the meal and barely noticed the servant’s entrance until he felt a sudden uneasy shiver run through him. Looking up, the raven-haired boy noticed he was being stared at by a pair of odd-colored eyes that looked disturbingly familiar. He dropped his fork with a loud clatter and gaped at the man in surprise.
“Keeley, is there something wrong?” Faolan asked.
The young man looked over at him and he could see the warning written on the other man’s face.
“You look pale, my boy,” O’Reilly said with concern.
“I-it’s nothing,” Keeley replied apologetically.
However, the servant’s eyes fixed on him, and they did not look friendly.
“Hamish,” the landlord said, addressing the servant sternly, “why did the Earl’s baggage not arrive in his room last evening?”
The tall man with the odd eyes looked unruffled. “I apologize, my Lord. The bags were wet from the rain and I had them brought down to the kitchens so they could be warmed by the fire. I should have let you know. Again, you have my apologies.”
O’Reilly seemed to mull over this information for a moment, tilting his head thoughtfully. “Well,” he said at length, “I suppose I can overlook it, since you had the interests of our guests in mind. But you had better notify me of these things in the future.”
“Yes, my Lord,” Hamish replied, lowering his eyes.
The servant appeared to be honest and respectful, but Keeley had a keen eye and he could see that the man was holding something back. The tension in his posture revealed it. Keeley said nothing and kept his suspicions to himself throughout dinner, but once he was back in the room with Faolan, he could hold back no longer.
“I think it is very likely that he’s behind Mary’s illness,” he told the earl. “His eyes are the same as that cat that has been watching us since we rode here. The man is obviously involved in some sort of black magic. Either he’s a shape-shifter or—.”
“We have no direct evidence that he’s to blame or any real reason to suspect him. I agree that there is a connection between Hamish and Mary, but of what nature, it is too soon to say.”
“Speak for yourself! Did you see the way he looked at us? I could feel his enmity the same as if he’d struck me!”
But Faolan was not convinced and would take no stance against the man—at least not yet. “It’s too soon. What did I tell you before? You should wait to pass judgments.”
The situation grew even more complicated with the arrival of another young man the following day: Mary’s fianc, Whelan. He arrived drenched and weary during the late afternoon, his ruddy brown hair dripping with rain. He looked uncommonly pale after his journey, with deep circles under his otherwise attractive dark eyes. His pallor grew even greyer when O’Reilly informed him of the Mary’s condition. Whelan had been away on business in Dublin and had been out of contact for weeks on end. The stricken look on his face when he heard the news made Keeley more determined than ever to restore the young lady’s soul.
Now, as the raven-haired youth followed resolutely behind Faolan, he calmed his mind and prepared himself for the trial ahead.
When Keeley and the earl drew close to Mary’s door, they heard shouting coming from the other side and the earl rushed forward. Upon throwing open the door, the two of them found Whelan, O’Reilly, and Hamish, standing at odds near Mary’s bedside.
“Well, Hamish?” O’Reilly said angrily, “Are you going to explain yourself?”
The young man with the odd-colored eyes looked drawn and angered, the look of a man in desperation.
“That is what I have been trying to do! Don’t you see? Mary’s growing worse! Let me try and help,” he pleaded. Keeley scoffed at the statement and his suspicions grew. It was plain to see that Mary actually looked better this evening than she had for days. Did this man really think they were that gullible?
“And just what kind of ‘help’ were you giving her just now?” Whelan interjected, scowling. “You were stooping over her on the bed and entered her room without permission! Your behavior is inexcusable!” he yelled, fists clenched. Whelan was a good head taller than Hamish and glared down at him threateningly, but the smaller man gave no ground. He seemed intimidated by nothing.
Turning away from Whelan to look O’Reilly in the eye, he said, “I apologize for coming here without your consent, but… I heard her calling. So I rushed in at once. Please, sir” he stepped toward the man entreatingly, “I’ve always been your loyal servant. Please, believe me.”
O’Reilly looked as if he were wavering and Keeley jumped in, exasperated. “I for one would send him packing, my Lord—if you’ll pardon my interruption.”
“Keeley, restrain yourself,” Faolan said in a low tone of warning, setting a firm hand over his shoulder. The boy bit his lip and held his tongue, despite his feelings. Heard her calling indeed! She’d been unconscious for weeks!
But Hamish persisted in his story. “I did hear her. What reason would I have to lie?”
“Sir, I would never presume to tell you your business,” Whelan said, “but this story is preposterous! If I were you I would not trust this man.”
Hamish and Whelan stared at one another, their eyes locked in conflict and the animosity rose in the air like a physical presence between them.
“Let me stay with her tonight. Let me help,” Hamish begged, turning entreatingly towards his master.
O’Reilly shook his head. “I’m sorry, Hamish. I can’t take any chances. You will have to leave.”
For a moment, the young man stood wrestling with himself, his fists clenched. Keeley was certain that he would lash out, but after a strained moment, Hamish bowed tersely and left. As the man passed Keeley, the boy sent a dark look at his odd-eyes. He would not let anything get in his way tonight. It could be his last chance to save Mary.
After Hamish had made his exit, O’Reilly looked over at Faolan. “I’m sorry you had to see that. I really can’t understand that young man. He used to be such a good-natured servant, even if he was a little stubborn. I just don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“I feel I should apologize as well. I’m sorry for losing my temper in front of you both,” Whelan said with a graceful bow.
“No need,” Faolan replied to Whelan. Keeley thought he sounded a bit cool and wondered at his tone.
“Anyway, let’s see to Mary, shall we?” the earl said. “We will need to be alone with her, I’m afraid,” he added.
“Oh, yes. Whatever you need,” O’Reilly said politely, though Keeley knew he was anxious to stay near his beloved daughter.
“Would it be alright if I stayed? For just a short time?” Whelan asked, glancing between O’Reilly and Faolan.
“It’s up to you, my friend,” O’Reilly said, looking at Faolan.
“Let him stay, Faolan…” Keeley said, interrupting, “I mean, Sir O’Callaghan.” Although the earl had requested that Keeley call him by his first name only, the young man still felt it was inappropriate to address him so casually in front of those outside his household.
Faolan did not seem pleased with the young man’s request, but the boy couldn’t figure out why. Keeley felt that if anyone could protect the girl from Hamish’s wicked designs, it would be the man who loved her.
“I suppose… for a short while,” the red-haired man finally said.
With the matter settled, the three men sat themselves in chairs about Mary’s bed. Faolan explained to Whelan that they suspected that Mary’s illness had more to do with her spirit than her health, and that their efforts to ‘cure’ her might seem strange to him.
Whelan took the information in stride. “I have always believed in spirits, Sir. It doesn’t matter to me what is causing Mary to suffer, I just want to try to help her.” Faolan nodded and said nothing.
Keeley took a deep breath and put Mary’s slender hand in his own. Shutting his eyes, he focused all his will and energy into calling out for her spirit to return. The dark-haired young man chanted to himself to ward off the biting sorrow of Mary’s wayward soul-spirit. It was difficult and trying work. If he lost his concentration for even a moment, it began to invade his mind, but he kept on.
What he did not understand was the confusion that Mary’s spirit seemed to be in. He could feel her soul hovering just out of reach, wanting desperately to yield, but quaking with an unknown fear.
Slowly, cautiously, Keeley let his own soul drift deeper and deeper into the spirit realm, calling after her. So many times she nearly relented, but her fear would hold her back.
Damn it, what was terrifying her so?
Keeley tried to convey to her that she was safe, that no one was going to harm her, yet she refused. His strength began to ebb. He withdrew.
Opening his eyes, he found the earl by his side, wiping his brow.
“I don’t understand her, Faolan. I’m trying so hard.”
His voice was weak and weary and the redhead looked into his blue depths. “Don’t let yourself get frustrated. An opening will present itself, but you must keep trying.”
The earl’s voice was calm, steady, reassuring. It renewed him and gave him strength.
“I’m sorry,” the dark-haired boy said glancing over to Whelan, “I’ll keep t—”
Keeley blinked and shook his head. What was the matter with his vision?
“Is something wrong?” the fianc asked, titling his head questioningly.
“N-no. I… must be more fatigued than I thought,” he replied, wondering what on earth he had just seen.
“Yes, you look quite pale. Perhaps you should retire for the evening and rest,” Whelan said.
“No, really,” Keeley said more firmly, “I can’t leave her. Not yet.”
Whelan looked a bit cross at the young man’s stubbornness, but he yielded, much to Keeley’s relief. The boy had spoken with far more confidence than he felt. In truth he was rather shaken. For a moment when Keeley had looked at Whelan, the man had been surrounded by a black aura and his face and body had seemed wasted away, eyes sunken in hollow sockets, skin green with decay… it had not been pleasant. In light of this unsettling vision, Keeley began to reassess his initial impression of the man before him. Could the disquieting sight possibly have been true, or was his mind playing tricks on him?
In any case, something sinister was brewing in the room Keeley was certain that Mary had precious little time left before her soul was lost completely. Shutting his eyes, the young man prepared himself to delve once more into the spirit realm, but Whelan interrupted him.
“You really don’t look well, Keeley. I wish you would take my advice and get some rest. After all,” he said, his voice growing increasingly intense, “Mary is in good hands.” As he spoke, Whelan gave the girl’s hand a squeeze and Keeley noticed that his grip was rather harsh. Whelan tightened his fingers about Mary’s wrist with such force that his knuckles shone white. Keeley winced involuntarily.
“You’re going to leave a bruise,” came Faolan’s voice, deep and low. Turning, Keeley saw the earl sitting in his chair behind him and eying Whelan with displeasure.
“You don’t understand,” Whelan said, hanging his head. “Mary is everything to me, her condition is a great strain on me.” Lifting his head, he looked at the earl plaintively. “Can’t you give me a few moments alone with her? They may be our last moments together…”
“I think that would be very dangerous,” Faolan said sternly, rising to make his way to the other side of the bed and stand before the fianc.
Whelan waved a hand at him, “I’ll be fine, I assure you. I’m not afraid of whatever spirits have taken hold of her. Just give me a moment.”
“It is not your safety that concerns me. It is only Mary’s safety that I am worried about, should you be left alone.”
Upon hearing these words, Whelan’s face clouded. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”
Faolan gave him a bitter, knowing smile. “Oh, I think you do.”
The fianc suddenly jumped up, knocking his chair over and leveling the earl with a seething look. “I love Mary! I’d do anything for her! To be with her!”
“Even sell your soul?”
Whelan’s face contorted in anger and the nasty green hue began to creep across his features. “If it came to that,” he spat back, “YES!”
“You have no idea what you have done,” Faolan said, almost sadly.
As he stood quivering with rage, Whelan’s faade crumpled, revealing the hideous face Keeley had glimpsed earlier, only now the horror before him was displayed in all its gruesome detail. It nearly made the boy retch. What was even worse, was the overpowering sense of hatred and desperation that suddenly spewed forth from Whelan’s decrepit form. It seemed to drain the energy straight from his bones and leave behind nothing but a naked fear. Slowly, Keeley stood and backed away, inching towards Faolan. “I don’t understand,” he said in a trembling voice.
Whelan’s now phosphorescent eyes darted over to him and pinned him with their horrific glow. “Of course you don’t understand!” the man hissed, “How could you? You’re a child! You couldn’t possibly understand my pain! The betrayal… O’Reilly promised me Mary’s hand, but she refused to give me her heart.” For a brief instant, Whelan’s features returned to normal, but it did not last. “She loved another,” he said with quite vehemence. “A servant of all people! It was humiliating!”
Keeley’s eyes widened. He was finally beginning to understand. “Hamish…” he whispered.
“Yes,” said Whelan. “She even went so far as to talk of canceling our engagement! I couldn’t bear it.” With every word, the man’s voice filled with more and more venom, “so I swore that I would have her. I called out to the darkness, even bargaining my soul… all so I could be with her!”
Slowly, Keeley’s fear was replaced with anger on Mary’s behalf. “You monster,” he said in a heated whisper, shaking in anger at the injustice this man had committed in the name of his so-called love. The young man’s resolve firmed and he faced the ghastly sight before him, meeting Whelan’s dreadful eyes. “You won’t take her!”
A terrible laughter escaped the pale slit of Whelan’s mouth, but his chilling mirth was cut short as the shutters suddenly burst open, the window frames slamming violently against the wall and cracking the glass.
Whelan’s eyes shot to the windowsill and there in the midst of a pouring rain stood the very same grey cat that had been following Keeley and Faolan since they arrived. It stared into the room with its keen, intelligent eyes. Then the creature leaped down from the sill, but its feet never hit the ground. In mid-air its body disappeared like a pillar of smoke in the breeze and in its place stood Hamish, soaked to the bone, but looking fierce and determined as ever.
His odd-colored eyes met Whelan’s and their gazes locked.
“I see you’ve finally shown your true face, you filth!” Hamish said.
“She’s mine! You’ll never have her!” the dark figure roared. In one swift movement of his hand, Whelan shot a surging wave of potent, dark energy towards his opponent.
Hamish braced himself for the blow, but it never came. Looking up, he saw Faolan standing before him, forearms crossed in front of his face and legs planted firmly, warding off the energy.
How the man managed this, Hamish did not have time to ponder, for the red-haired man glanced over his shoulder and yelled, “Get to Mary’s side damn you! I’ll hold him back.”
“This is not your fight!” the servant shouted. “I will avenge Mary!”
“Do that now and Mary will die,” Faolan said fiercely. “You can’t kill him until the bond between him and Mary is broken and unless you help Keeley call her soul back, she’ll be lost to you forever, you fool!” As the earl spoke, his concentration was divided, and his feet slipped back several inches along the floor, Whelan’s energy forcing him backward. “Hurry!”
Hamish wavered, but obeyed. Up until that moment he had been skeptical of this man and his servant. He never knew who was in league with Whelan, and so remained suspicious of everyone. However, it seemed he might have been wrong about the earl.
With few alternatives left, Hamish ran over to join Keeley, who had knelt beside Mary’s bed. Each man took one of her hands and began working feverishly to call her soul-spirit back before it was too late.
“Mary,” Hamish called, leaning over the young woman. “Mary I’m here. Come back to me! Please!”
Keeley’s brow dripped with sweat. There was too much happening and he couldn’t concentrate. Mary’s spirit was skittish and scattered. Vaguely he heard Hamish calling for her and as he did so, Mary’s spirit suddenly calmed. Keeley reached out to her, desperately trying to communicate with her, to tell her that her love was here, ready to welcome her back. Try as he might, he couldn’t quite reach her and though the girl’s soul seemed to sense that Hamish was nearby, his presence felt weak and it was not enough to draw her back. The dark-haired boy’s mind began to work frantically—what could he do? How could he convince Mary that Hamish was right here, waiting for her?
“Keeley! Hurry!” Faolan commanded.
On a whim born of pure intuition, Keeley reached out and grabbed Hamish’s wrist. With one hand he held on to Mary and the other to Hamish and he opened himself to be a conduit between them.
“Call to her,” Keeley said, his voice tight. He was forcing his will to its limits as his spirit was stretched thin. He flung his soul deep into the nether realm and reached with all his might towards Mary’s soul.
At first Hamish didn’t know what the strange, intense boy next to him meant—he’d already been calling her. However, within a matter of seconds the man felt his conscious tugged into the spiritual world and immediately he called out with all his being to Mary.
As soon as the girl’s soul heard her love’s voice calling, she rushed towards him, her spirit speeding back to the light.
Mary’s soul-spirit entered her body so quickly, in fact, that Keeley was almost left behind and the young man was forced to yank his spirit back violently so that his own soul wouldn’t end up severed from the corporeal world.
When he came back to himself, Keeley’s groggy eyes searched for Faolan, who was still struggling with the specter that was once Mary’s fianc.
“She’s back,” Keeley said hoarsely.
Needing no further prompting, Faolan flashed Whelan a grin and the tide of the fight abruptly changed. Like magnetic poles suddenly switching polarity, Whelan’s negative energy was tossed back at him and he was thrown up against the far wall. Keeley could barely see what was happening through the fog covering his mind. Hamish, however, watched with wide, startled eyes as Faolan raised one hand and, his mouth moving in a silent incantation, sent a flood of brilliant, white energy cutting through the air towards the crumpled form of Whelan. The figure opened its mouth and a shrill, awful scream tore from its throat, but soon the entire body was scattered like ash and disappeared.
“Hamish…” a timid voice spoke, barely above a whisper. The servant swung his head back to the young woman on the bed watching him. The servant’s eyes filled with tears as his love’s eyes—a shade of deep green like the hills of Ireland itself—looked up at him for the first time in two months. “I heard you,” she said.
The young man above her lifted her hand and kissed it. “I’ll always be here, waiting for you,” Hamish said.
Mary smiled at him—a pure, sweet smile full of love, then her eyes fluttered shut. Her spirit was weak. It would take quite some time fore her to recover. “I’ll be here,” he repeated, kissing her brow.
“Shape shifting is a dangerous art. You ought to be careful.” Hamish suddenly saw Faolan next to him, his look serious.
“I’m aware,” he servant replied, equally serious. “It’s this one you should be watching out for,” Hamish said, nodding to the dark-haired boy slumped beside the bed.
The earl had not realized the battle had taken such a toll on the young man until he knelt down beside him. Keeley looked pale and drawn and Faolan wondered if he had miscalculated and demanded too much of the boy.
“Keeley, are you alright?” he asked anxiously.
The young man’s eyes blinked open. He looked dazed, but whole.
“Did I do good?” Keeley asked, his voice thin.
Keeley smiled, and promptly passed out.
* * * * * ** * * * * *
The coach rocked back and forth as Keeley and Faolan rode together back to the earl’s estate.
Keeley still felt worn and didn’t have the strength to refuse when the earl insisted he join him in the carriage during the ride home. Moreover, the young man wanted some answers.
“I still don’t understand what happened yesterday,” he said, rubbing his tired eyes. “How did you know Hamish was innocent, or that Mary’s fianc was actually behind it all?”
Faolan gave him a quizzical look. “I didn’t. Not completely anyway, but I held back my judgments, as you should have. Hamish seemed angry and confrontational, yes, but his spirit did not feel evil. Whelan I was unsure of, but there was something about him that disturbed me.”
Looking frustrated, Keeley said, “I’m usually good at picking up on these things—on spirits and energy, but I didn’t feel anything when it came to Whelan.”
“That’s just what made me uneasy. It wasn’t an immediate feeling of enmity or evil, but a lack of any aura about him at all. A complete absence.” Seeing Keeley’s dark brows draw together, Faolan knew the boy was discouraged and angry with himself. “Don’t be too hard on yourself, Keeley. Most people cannot sense spirits at all. Your talent is quite rare. I wouldn’t expect you to be able to recognize a being such as Whelan if you had never encountered one. Such creatures are hollow of any soul. They leave no impression on the mind or in the heart. It is the same with vampires. There is nothing within them, they are only vessels.”
Keeley shivered. He had always thought of vampires as a myth and he did not like the idea that they were wandering about, especially if they were difficult to detect. He shifted uneasy in his seat.
“But what exactly was Whelan?”
“A kind of wraith, I suppose you could say. There is no term I know that encompasses what he had become. These things are often unique to each individual. A human makes some deal or another with a deceitful spirit, and slowly their souls are stolen away. After that all they can do is seek a fulfillment they will never find. So they steal from the living in an endless, futile struggle to regain a sense of wholeness, a sense of self.”
“You make it sound rather tragic.”
“I think it is.”
Keeley paused. “What do you think will happen with Hamish and Mary?” he asked softly. It had been on his mind all afternoon. “When she woke this morning, nearly all her memories had vanished. I wonder if she will eventually be able to remember Hamish—or if O’Reilly will give his consent for their marriage if she does.”
“Jacob is a very understanding man, but I doubt he would ever give his daughter to a servant. No, I believe he will arrange another marriage for Mary, and even if she regains her memories, the girl will likely follow her father’s wishes. And Hamish will continue to watch over her, as he has always done.”
Keeley scowled. “But Whelan said that Mary was going to break their engagement to be with Hamish. Don’t you think she’d choose him again if given the chance?”
“What people say and what they do are two entirely different things,” Faolan replied, unmoved.
The carriage fell into silence and the only sound heard was the dull echo of the wheels over the ground and the falling of the horse’s hooves along over the soft earth. Looking over, Faolan saw Keeley looking pensive.
“Is there really nothing else that can be done for them?” he asked mournfully.
Faolan smiled sadly at him. Ah, he’s an idealist, the earl thought. To which a corner of his mind replied, that is why you must protect him.
“Come, Keeley. You look tired, lean against me and sleep,” urged the earl.
Keeley hesitated, but he was fatigued from the unsettling talk, so he gave in. As soon as he nestled his head against the man’s shoulder, the boy was filled with a sense of security and relief, an experience that was becoming more and more frequent in Faolan’s presence.
“I’m glad we’re going home,” Keeley said with a sigh.
A tender smile tugged at the earl’s mouth when he heard these words. It gave him an uncanny, warm glow to know that the boy was beginning to think of his estate as home. The familiar feeling of protectiveness swelled inside him and he thought back on the previous night’s incident. Though Keeley had certainly proven himself, Faolan was nevertheless concerned for him. He had refrained from speaking to the boy about it, but while Keeley had been at Mary’s bedside, seeking her spirit, the pendant about his neck had begun to give off a faint light. Even after the struggle, the crack in his locket glowed a disquieting, reddish hue.
Keeley had told him it was a charm from his mother, something to protect him, but Faolan’s intuition told him it was far more that. There was a binding spell on the locket, he was sure of it. What would the boy’s mother need to seal away from her child? Binding spells were complicated, delicate pieces of work. Keeley’s mother would have needed exceptional skill to have performed one. Moreover, despite Keeley’s extrasensory perception, he could not sense the nature of the pendant, which meant even more complex magics somehow surrounded the locket in order to blind him.
Faolan could have let the matter rest, at least for the time being, but something else troubled him. Keeley mentioned that the pendant had been cracked in the fire that killed his family and it was obvious to the earl that this crack in the silver weakened the binding spell. Whatever power was bound was now slowly leaking out. It explained why so many supernatural forces seemed to gravitate towards the boy, such as Far Dorocha and the recent over-abundance of soul-spirits. It also meant Keeley was an easy target for malevolent souls and demons, a disconcerting thought. Whatever tragedy had befallen the boy’s family in that fire, the locket was somehow tied to it, of that he was certain. It was no mere family heirloom and it was not the innocuous charm Keeley believed it to be.
Why had the locket cracked? What had Keeley’s mother been hiding from him?
Such unpleasant mysteries rankled the earl. Usually, he simply followed his hunches and was content to learn the truth as it revealed itself. But Keeley’s safety made him anxious.
As Faolan sat immersed in his tangle of thoughts, Keeley dozed on his shoulder, shifting as he tried to get comfortable. Eventually, the boy’s squirming brought Faolan back to the present.
“Here, Keeley. You’ll never get rest that way. Lay down,” he said, gently pulling the young man down so that his head lay pillowed on his thighs.
The raven-haired boy blushed, but he felt warm and comforted by the man’s presence and didn’t really want to protest as the earl draped an arm over his waist.
“Maybe just for a little while,” he murmured, nudging his body closer.
Faolan grinned. “Yes, rest now. We’ll be home soon.”