The large drawing room was filled with the fragrance of roses. The exquisite perfume of night flowering jasmine wafted in from the garden through the partially ajar French windows hung with heavy, red velvet curtains and gave access to the stone patio and garden beyond. Gas mantles flickered and gutted in their ornate glass shades on the walls and lamps stood on the tables filling the room with soft, but adequate lighting. The floor was covered with rich Persian rugs and the theme was carried on in the jeweled colors of the large cushions on the long, low chaises that littered the room along with round tables, wing backed tapestry chairs, leather chairs and heavy sideboards decorated with crystal glassware and decanters. The flocked walls were hung with large paintings of country scenes and the obligatory potted plants and pianoforte stood in the corners and there was of course, the large Adam fire place.
In the center of the room, clamped to a large, upright easel, stood the three quarter portrait of a striking young man with blond hair and extraordinary personal beauty. Two men gazed at it quite closely.One was it's creator the Irish artist Liam O'Donnell whose disappearance with a handsome young stable boy and subsequent sudden reappearance some two years later, minus the stable boy had given rise to some gossip and conjecture and his Patron Lord Wesley Wyndam-Pryce.
Lord Pryce a lean man in his late thirties, ruggedly handsome with short, dark hair and twinkling blue eyes and heavy side whiskers leaned forward and peered at the painting. "Extraordinary work Liam. By far the best portrait you've ever painted." His voice was laced with undiluted admiration and praise.
"Thank you Wesley, I put great effort and much of myself into it's creation. Too much perhaps."
"Too much you say?" Wesley elevated his eyebrows. "Can an artist ever put too much of himself into his work? This painting, " he continued, "will make you one of the most celebrated artists of your generation."
As the painter looked at his creation he was struck with the gracious and comely form he had attempted to capture and he preened. It was by far the best thing he had ever produced. A smile of pure pleasure graced his lips and seemed to linger a moment and then he pressed two fingers against his closed eyelids as if trying to compose himself. "Thank you Wesley, I had an extraordinary subject."
"Indeed." Lord Pryce straightened. "It will be the toast of the Academy's exhibition next Spring." He studied the painting still."Such a handsome young Adonis, he looks like he is made out of ivory and rose petals..... You say you found him at the fights in Whitechapel?"
"Extraordinary." His brow knitted. "But he is a gentleman you say?"
"I believe so from his dress, manner and bearing. I don't know a great deal about him." Liam replied, not entirely comfortable talking about William with his Patron, he knew the reason for his reluctance.When he liked someone, really liked them he found it hard to talk of them to others, it was like he was giving bit of them away and he really liked William. From the first moment he'd seen him in the pub when looking at him had sent an inexplicable chill through him and created a nameless longing that lingered still.............
"Such a man I would have remembered encountering, " Wesley pursed his lips, "perhaps he is newly arrived from abroad and has not yet made his presence known in society? What does he do?"
Liam raised a sardonic eyebrow. "He speaks without accent and I am sure there are a few young men in society you do not know Wesley. As for his occupation, I don't think he has one, he's certainly never spoken of it, but he doesn't seem to lack for finances."
Wesley cast him a look that clearly indicated that it was a virtual impossibility for him NOT to know a handsome young man of society.. He turned to Liam. "Curiouser and curiouser, old money most like. I would meet him." He stated flatly.
"And so you shall. I have taken the liberty of asking William to meet us here this evening. In fact," Liam pulled out his pocket watch and consulted it, " he should be here quite soon."
"Capital," Wesley rubbed his hands it delight, " we shall see what he thinks of your work and perhaps learn a little of his provenance." He narrowed his eyes shrewdly.
Liam busied himself shrouding the painting with a sheet as he had promised William he would be the first to view it.
The doorbell tinkled and both men turned expectantly toward the entrance to the room. The butler appeared and inclined is head.
"A Mr William Pratt to see you M' Lord."
Wesley nodded. "Show him in Buxton, show him in."
Moments past and Buxton reappeared,William trailing him. Liam strode across the room to the door. Buxton stepped aside and William neatly stepped around him and the butler took his hat, gloves and cane. Liam reached him and extended his hand with a warm smile of greeting. "William," he breathed and grasped his hand ignoring the cool touch of his soft skin that seemed so at odds with the strength of his grip. He drew his thumb back and forth over William's knuckles in a caress.
William allowed a smile to turn up the corners of his mouth. "Liam, it's good to see you."
"Come in, come in." Liam drew him further into the room toward Wesley, releasing his hand with reluctance. "May I present my Patron, Lord Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, Lord Pryce may I present my friend and subject of the painting we unveil here tonight, Mr William Pratt."
"My dear fellow," Wesley stepped forward and extended his hand, "I am delighted to make the acquaintance of the man who has kept Liam so occupied these past weeks and so enthusiastic about his work."
William inclined his head and smiled lightly as he took the man's offered hand. His eyes swept the room and in moments catalogued every particular of his surroundings just as any predator might and registered the room's other two occupants. They posed no threat to him.
As soon as their hands touched Wesley registered the cool skin and a shiver shimmied through him. "Gracious me man, but you're freezing."
William pulled back his hand with an apologetic smile. "Poor circulation is at fault I'm afraid. But you know what they say, cold hands, warm heart."
There was an awkward ripple of laugher. Wesley nodded, "Quite so an old adage but true I'm sure - Would either of you care for refreshment?"
William's eyes darted to the shrouded easel and an unaccustomed frisson of excitement moved through him."Forgive me, perhaps later. I confess that I am anxious to see my portrait unveiled. I have posed it seems for an eternity and this Irish rogue." he gestured toward Liam with his chin, " forbade me the merest glimpse."
"William!" Liam chuckled. "I told you, a true master never reveals his work before it is complete."
William noted the pleasure in the bigger man at his friendly banter.
"Then you shall wait no longer," Wesley's voice held a note of amusement, "there will be time enough later for refreshment and friendly discourse." He moved aside a step to allow William to position himself in front of the easel and Liam moved to the easel and fisted the sheet in one hand.
"I hope you like it William," he murmured as he pulled the sheet away with one fluid movement and the painting was revealed.
Lord Pryce and Liam stole glances at each other.
A look of pure joy filled his eyes as he recognized himself for the first time. He stood in motionless wonder and admired himself. Every line, every stroke.The creamy skin, the vivid blue eyes, the damask rose hue to the lips and cheeks, the compact, tightly muscled body, the blade sharp cheekbones and finely chiseled face and blond hair. He looked ethereal, other worldly. He was dimly aware of Liam and Wesley talking to him but not catching the meaning of their words. The sense of his own beauty stole over him and it was a revelation. He had never known what it was like to be admired, envied. He had never believed Liam's compliments, dismissing them as exaggerations, laughing and tossing them aside as he did his aspirations to be his lover. But if the painting was a true rendition of his likeness..............
"It's by far the best thing Liam's done," Wesley commented, "you'll be the talk of the town, both of you."
William stood gazing in silence at the shadow of his own beauty.
"Speak up old chap or you'll hurt his feelings," Wesley prompted.
"Is that really how I look?" He whispered his eyes never straying from the painting. "It's just so," he paused and searched for what to say, "lifelike."
"Better than life," Wesley commented with an odd inflection, "it will never change it captures your youth and beauty forever." He moved and stood closer to the canvas and studied it. "You'll always look like that, " frozen in time. " He cast a sideways glance at William."You on the other hand William, will not."
William's elegant eyebrow rose.
" Mother Nature demands her pound of flesh." Wesley continued. "It comes to us all with the inevitability of time and old age. You will age, wrinkle, wither, your youth and beauty but a memory. The painting will endure." He strode back to Liam. "Is that not so Liam?"
He gazed at William, distressed by his Patron's blunt words. "Some things are made all the more priceless because they do not endure."
"Poppycock!" Wesley snapped. "We wither and scar because the gods are cruel and enjoy the jest of it."
Liam watched William give a mysterious smile. The truth of it of course was that he would NOT grow old, he would not age, he was as eternal as his portrait. Indeed the portrait would age, deteriorate with time not he, thanks to a chance meeting in an alley. He stepped closer and raised his hand to the canvas and trailed two fingers down his own cheek. "But this is how I look, my exact likeness?"
Liam frowned. "I have told you that it is."
William turned his head toward him. "I mean no doubt to your words. Liam but it is the artists job to flatter his subject, this you told me yourself."
"I had no need to embellish perfection," the Irishman replied with quiet emphasis.
"Perhaps then I should nail my soul to the Devil's altar? Sell my soul to the Devil that the painting might show the passing of time and the evil that I might acquire."
"Capital idea dear fellow!" Wesley jested. "Let us blood a chicken and perform hocus pocus!"
"Stop! Stop I beg of you." Liam interjected anxiously. "It is not a matter of jest."
William gave him a mysterious smile and turned back to the canvas. "It is too late for me, my friend," he murmured to himself.
A figure appeared in the doorway, a boy no more than ten years old. Wesley raised his head. "What is it Alexander?"
Liam and William both turned as the boy took a step into the room.
"I beg your pardon sir, I came to ask that I might borrow a book from the library."
Wesley smiled. "Of course, you know that you have no need to ask."
William's eyes were riveted to the boy every bit as intensely as they had been to the painting. He was well dressed and grown, though slender. Shaggy almost black hair, large, deep brown eyes, fringed with lush, dark lashes and a cupid's bow mouth. There was something about him, something that went beyond his appealing face and form. It made William's fangs ache, the magnetism between them almost palpable. The boy smelt sinfully good, sweetness, purity and innocence a heady cocktail that caressed and intoxicated William's senses and almost made him drool, made him hard.
"Come in Alexander and display your good manners. Greet our guests." Wesley coaxed.
The boy walked into the room and as he moved to stand in front of Wesley, William tracked him with hungry eyes and it was all he could do not to whimper out loud as he brushed by him.
The boy stood with his back to Wesley and Wesley rest one hand on each of his shoulders. "Mr O'Donnell you know." Pryce gestured with is chin toward the bigger man.
The boy nodded his dark head and smiled at the artist. "Good evening Mr O'Donnell, it is good to see you again."
Liam gave a warm smile. "Good evening Alex, it's good to see you again also. Home for the holidays?"
"And this," Wesley gestured as Alex faced William," is a new friend of ours. Mr William Pratt. William, this is Alexander."
The boy held out his hand. "Very pleased to make your acquaintance sir."
William was enchanted and for a moment the boy's eyes held his and then lowered in submission that was beautiful to behold. He took his hand and Alex neither flinched nor commented at it's coldness as their skin touched. William tightened his grip and an electric tingle sparked up his arm and took him by surprise. He was drawn to the boy on a dark visceral level, as if a rope joined them and he was being slowly inexorably pulled in. The pad of his thumb drew back and forth across the boy's knuckles much the same as Liam's had drawn across his. "I am delighted to meet you Alexander, I am sure we will become good friends you and I." After a moment he reluctantly let the boy's hand slip from his own.
Wesley patted the boy's shoulder."Run along now Alex and get your book."
"Wait." William caught Alexander's arm lightly. "If I may Lord Pryce, I have a favor to ask of young Alex."
Wesley glanced at Liam and then nodded. "Yes of course," curious to know William's purpose.
William bobbed down so that he looked Alexander in the eyes. "Mr O'Donnell has painted a wonderful portrait of me. "See it there up on the easel?"
He pointed and Alexander's gaze followed. "Yes sir, I see it." The boy confirmed.
"They would have me believe it is my exact likeness." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, "between you and me I think it flatters me somewhat and I would have your honest opinion on it."
Alex's eyes widened."Me, Sir?"
"Yes indeed, I believe I can rely on you to give an honest judgement."
Wesley chuckled and Liam rolled his eyes and folded his arms across his chest.
"Will you do it for me Alex?" William cajoled.
Alex looked at the assembled men in turn and then nodded. "Yes sir."
"Good boy." William ruffled his hair then gracefully straightened.
Alexander stood before the painting and studied it with a sober expression. He tilted his head first one way and then the other, stepped both closer and back, squinted and peered. He looked at William and then back at the painting and then his eyes flicked between the two.
"Well Alex?" William prompted.
"Mr O'Donnell is a very good artist sir."Alex began, "I find that the painting does not falsely flatter you sir, rather it catalogs your appearance in every particular."
William studied the boy, there was no fear or falsehood about him. "That is how I look to you?" He asked.
"Yes sir, save that your dress is somewhat different."
William's face split into a satisfied smile.
"Out of the mouths of babes.......eh?" Wesley chuckled.
"Perhaps now you'll take my word," Liam sulked and unfurled his arms.
William clapped a hand to his shoulder.
"Say good evening and run along now, Alexander." Wesley prompted.
Alexander nodded."Goodnight Mr O'Donnell, goodnight Mr Pratt, I hope we shall meet again."
William nodded and smiled."You may rely on it Alex, rely on it." It took all his self-control and considerable will-power not just to snatch and keep the boy.
Alex left the three men alone in the drawing room.
William gazed at the doorway through which he left. "You have a delightful son Lord Pryce."
"Damn me man, call me Wesley," he answered good naturedly, "and Alexander is not my son, I am far too crotchety and mean spirited to ever father one with such a sweet nature as the boy."
William studied him with an elegant eyebrow raised in expectation.
"He is my sister's boy," Wesley continued, "and my ward." He gestured for them all to sit and he and William took the chaise and Liam a wing backed leather chair. "Jessica," he continued, "was a sweet natured creature and perished giving him life." He gave a long, tired exhalation of breath ."It is a circumstance which I believe the boy feels keenly and made worse by his wretch of a father. Anthony refused to acknowledge the child, blamed him entirely for the loss of his wife."
William's face hardened, his mouth a grim, straight line.
"I am firmly of the belief that he would have delivered the infant to the poor house had I not intervened. I'm not married and ill equipped to care for a child, but my Housekeeper Miss Burkle, is a mothering sort and took to the infant at once. She was, and is a mother to the boy. His father left these shores some six month after his birth bound for South America. The courts hearing his sad case were prompted to make him my ward and not a word was heard from his father, not a line of enquiry in all of seven years. And then message came that Anthony Harris died of Cholera in Argentina. It fell to me to tell the boy, but he barely acknowledged it."
"Why should he?" Liam huffed angrily,"He had never acknowledged his son in life, why should his son acknowledge his father in death?"
"Indeed," William agreed. "Alexander must be a great source of joy to you?"
"What little I see of him. I am not a family orientated man, " Wesley explained, "I have never wished for the comfort of a wife and family. Alexander attends boarding school and when here is most often found in the company of Miss Burkle or the servants. He is here at present because he is on holiday from school, he returns the week after next I believe."
"You send him away?" William's voice held a note of accusation.
Wesley looked bemused. "Yes of course, he must be educated and it is a convenience all round." He looked from William to Liam and back. "It's an excellent school, I vetted it myself and Winnifred, Miss Burkle visits regularly to check on his health, comfort and happiness. He seems happy there and is doing well with his studies."
William suppressed a growl at the thought of his boy being sent away. "If he were my ward I should not like to be parted from him, have you considered a private tutor for the lad?"
"I have," Wesley nodded, "but the truth is he'll be better educated at school. Don't misunderstand me William, I'm very fond of Alexander and named him my heir. Everything I own will in due course be his, provided I do not marry and have a family which it is not my plan to do. Even then I would see him provided for."
William sensed that he was coming across too concerned with the boy, but they had a connection and as far as he was concerned he would make him his."Forgive me Wesley, he seems such a sweet natured child and hearing his circumstances I cannot help but concern myself with his welfare."
Liam smiled."You have a tender heart William."
"Yes, I suppose that's what it must be....." William responded...........