London, 1823, early summer
"For God's sake, St. James," Noah Puckerman said, slamming his glass down. "You whine enough to make my ears bleed."
Viscount St. James drew himself up, puffing out his chest, no doubt to say something regrettable, but Finnegan Hudson held up his hand.
"Please, Noah, let's listen."
Noah rolled his eyes, but allowed his best friend's peace-making efforts to rule. He concentrated on the amber liquid in his glass instead of on St. James' annoying face.
The nobleman huffed in disdain, but continued his story. "It's absurd that the dragoons cannot keep the roads safe. That sword was a family heirloom. Not to mention the purse."
"How many were in the gang?" Hudson asked.
"I have no idea," St. James said. "Eight to ten at the very least."
"So many?" Noah asked.
"I was overpowered," St. James answered, shifting in his seat. "It seemed so. One of those cowards struck my head and I missed most of the altercation. When I came to, my belongings were gone."
"I still have a knot on my head," St. James explained defensively.
Noah shook his head, but refrained from expressing his true opinions only by Finn's warning hand on his arm.
"They simply disappeared. Like ghosts. These brigands are impossible to catch. Even when the dragoons visit the site of the attacks . . . no sign of them."
"I don't believe in ghosts," Noah said derisively.
St. James glared and then turned to Finn. "I don't know why you persist in your friendship with him. You know his people aren't acceptable."
"He's my friend," Finn said mildly, but his fingers tightened on his glass.
"Why do you inflict him on decent Christians?"
Finn took a few deep breaths, in an attempt to control his temper. The big man didn't like being pushed so hard, being afraid that he might damage smaller people if he were to lose control. Noah glowered at St. James, both for his insults and for his attempts to rile Finn. He was well aware of St. James' opinions of his 'people' as well as Noah himself. If it weren't for all the sterling that Noah had to his name, he doubted that even Finn's intercession could gain him admittance to places like the club. Luckily, Finn wasn't of such a narrow-minded persuasion. Perhaps his Irishness had something to do with his favor of other outcasts, despite the small castle that awaited him on the other island.
His voice was terse with anger, which Noah wasn't opposed to demonstrating, although he attempted to keep the contempt out of it. "If these mysterious highwaymen took your goods, then they can't be ghosts."
"Yes, that's true. Spirits would have no need for earthly possessions," Finn put in.
"Then how do you explain their mysterious disappearances?" St. James asked.
"I don't know at the moment," Noah said. "But I'm sure the mystery could be easily solved by a determined man."
"You're so sure?" St. James lifted an incredulous eyebrow.
"Puck, no," Finn warned, reverting to Noah's childhood nickname in his distress.
Noah ignored his friend. "Any man with half a brain."
Giving a dangerous smile, Noah leaned back casually. "Of course."
"Care for a small wager?" St. James suggested.
Finn groaned and dropped his head in his hands. Noah clapped his friend on the shoulder reassuringly, knowing that Finn thought he'd walked into St. James' trap when it was quite the other way around. Tales of the ghostly brigands had been trickling through society and Noah's curiosity was roused. He was barely tolerated and only then because of his wealth. The upper echelons of society wouldn't allow his interference in a matter that had stumped their brightest, but a wager with a viscount gave him the perfect excuse to investigate.
"What did you have in mind, St. James?"
"A hundred guineas say you can't hunt them down and rescue my property."
Noah considered. If the highwaymen had already disposed of St. James' goods, then Noah would play hell getting it back. On the other hand, if anything like an heirloom sword had been offered on the market, he would have heard about it. The thieves would have to melt down their more recognizable plunder and that would take time.
"Done," he said finally. "If I return your sword to you, I win."
"Agreed." St. James held his hand out and Noah shook it. "You bear our witness, Hudson."
Finn sighed. "Very well."
The night concluded soon after and the two friends made their way back to Noah's townhouse.
"What the hell, Puck?" Finn exclaimed.
Noah smiled. "Don't you have faith in my abilities to catch these phantom marauders?"
Finn sputtered for a moment. "Yes, well . . . knowing you . . . you already have a plan, don't you?"
"Certainly. And you will help."
"I will? What will I be doing?"
"The same as I . . . providing bait."
Noah pushed open his front door, laying his gloves on the side table and loosening his cravat. He led Finn into his study, and then handed Finn a new glass of Scotch. He sprawled back in a comfortable chair and kicked his booted feet up on a low stool as Finn settled himself in a deep chair and took a bracing sip of his liquor.
"Bait?" Finn inquired, a pained expression on his face.
Noah smiled fondly at his friend, who was the very soul of kindness and compassion. He came from some sort of Irish nobility that was slowly decaying into genteel poverty. The slide would be much faster if Noah didn't run interference between Finn and the worst of the people trying to take advantage of him, although one of his attempts to save Finn had nearly sacrificed their friendship years before. But even the worst of rogues had a healthy apprehension of Noah's short temper and hard fists, not to mention his vast financial resources. They might spit upon his faith, but they never mocked him to his face. That fear and respect extended to Puckerman's best friend.
In return, Finn gave him an unswerving loyalty and an entry into places that would normally be off-limits to one such as him. Like exclusive gentlemen's clubs in the heart of London.
"Yes, bait," he confirmed, picking up the thread of the conversation. "We know they work the north Yorkshire Moors and accost travelers on the road between York and Whitby. We'll present ourselves as a picture of drunken and foolish noblemen with saddlebags full of gold. We'll make no secret of our route and cross the moors."
"Won't they be suspicious of such easy prey?"
Noah waved his hand, shooing away Finn's objections. "Criminals are stupid, else they wouldn't be criminals."
Finn sighed. "Then what?"
"St. James said he was knocked out. We'll let them appear to do it."
"By being prepared and ensuring that they don't hit us where they expect to," Noah replied. "We let them take our goods and then follow them to their hideout. We retrieve St. James' sword, run these blighters through with it, and return to collect our winnings." He shrugged. "Simple."
"You plan to execute them?" Finn squawked.
"The death I deal them would be preferable to Newgate and the noose."
"I suppose. Why do I get the feeling this won't be so simple?"
Finn was clearly reluctant to go along with the most logical course of action. Noah resolved to make the brigands' deaths appear to be self-defense to prevent Finn's conscience from bothering him. Otherwise he would no doubt weary Noah with his guilt.
Later that week, Noah visited one of the many pawnshops that he owned. This one was close to the river and attracted a wide variety of goods. He picked out two elaborately gilded saddles complete with finely embroidered saddlecloths. He rooted through a selection of jewels – gaudy rings, elaborate necklaces, and ornate pins. Nothing of any real value but shiny enough to attract a pack of magpies.
Noah made a few alterations to his wardrobe, including a few secret pockets and he added extra padding to the wigs they would be wearing. He and Finn rode to York in their assumed finery.
"I don't understand why we have to dress like a pair of worthless fops," Finn complained as they approached the gates of York. They'd been on the road for two days and Finn had gotten tired. "And if we are, we should have hordes of servants."
Knowing that Finn wasn't entirely serious, but partially nervous, Noah forced himself not to snap at his friend. "You know we're to appear foolish. We can't do that with lots of sharp-eyed retainers."
"All right," Finn grumbled. "I feel like a damned idiot in this gear."
Noah hid a smile. Finn was plain spoken and plainly attired most of the time, never wishing to seem to be more than he was, although he was entitled to a coat of arms. Deception was unknown to the man, which made him valuable as an ally, but not as a co-conspirator.
"Just let me do the talking. Remember . . . all you have to do is pretend to be a drunken sot."
"We've plenty of experience with that," Finn mumbled.
"Yes, we do, my friend."
When they reached York, although it was not long after noon, they made a point to stop in every likely tavern in the city – places where the rich and foolish were likely to gather. They appeared to consume copious quantities of a variety of spirits, although Noah made sure that not much of the liquor actually went down their throats.
"Curses!" Noah said loudly at one point, drawing the attention of every person in the common room. He raised his glass. "A pox on demanding mothers."
Finn nodded sloppily, picking up his drink and missing his mouth with it as he attempted to toss it down his throat. "A pox!" he slurred.
"Your mother?" the bartender asked doubtfully. "That's asking for bad luck."
"Ha!" Noah exclaimed. "Show's what you know. My mother has demanded my presence in Whitby. Whitby, I ask you! Surely the dullest of dull places."
Most of the patrons were ignoring himself and Finn, but Noah was certain that the right pair of ears was marking his tale. He frowned woefully. "She says I've become too much of a rakehell and is threatening the purse strings. I must attend her in Whitby for the month."
"Ah, a difficult thing for a young gentleman."
Finn had slumped entirely against Noah, forcing him to bear his friend's gigantic frame. Noah considered stamping on his foot in revenge, but decided it was best not to interfere with Finn's performance. He was doing well so far.
"Yes, well," Noah said, careful to slur his words. "We're heading through the moors as soon as may be."
"Have a care," the man warned. "Many travelers have gone astray in those moors."
"I'm sure we'll be fine," Noah answered, carelessly leaving a pile of coins on the bar, far more than was necessary to pay for the drinks. He grabbed Finn by the lapel and pretended to drag his stumbling friend outside. Noah couldn't say exactly what it was, but he felt as though they were being closely observed, although he could see no one other than a few ladies promenading through the streets of the market city and enjoying the fine evening.
He and Finn spent the night in a previously arranged room and then set off on the road through the moors in the mid-morning. Noah had taken a few precautions with their gear, which included concealing weapons where casual thieves in a hurry would be unlikely to find them, and also padding underneath their wigs. Noah had no intentions of acquiring a lump similar to St. James' from their venture.
A rattle of pebbles as they crossed the mouth of a small valley was the only warning they had. A weight thumped into Noah's back, and then something hard and heavy hit his head. He barely had time to turn enough to deflect the blow, but he slumped over his saddlebow in pretense of unconsciousness. His horse jumped around, not happy with the circumstances. Noah didn't dare look to see how Finn was faring, but could only hope that his friend had followed their plan.
The brigands pulled the horses to a stop, low voices whispering to the beasts to calm them. The one on Noah's horse slid down and tugged on Noah's wrists, dragging him out of the saddle. Someone picked up one foot and then another person picked up the other.
Noah forced himself to stay limp and relaxed as their attackers dragged him off the road by his boots. He nearly winced a couple of times when they bounced his head off the small rocks in a less than gentle fashion, but the padding he'd put under his wig to shield himself from the initial blow he'd been anticipating stood up to the battering and he didn't lose consciousness. After several minutes, they dropped his feet, leaving him lying awkwardly. Noah stayed in place, not knowing where Finn was and not willing to make any moves until he had a better idea of his position.
A few moments later, they dumped Finn in an ungainly heap beside him. Noah slitted his eyes, trying to assess Finn's condition, but his friend seemed genuinely unconscious and thus would be of no help.
The marauders began to go through their pockets, pulling out trinkets and coins. Their voices as they exclaimed over their finds told him that there were only two of them. Noah used every bit of his willpower to keep his body relaxed as he listened to those light and high voices. There could be no mistake the feminine tones of the speakers – they were women.
"Hurry up and change," one of them said, her voice sounding like clear bells. "The York market is nearly closed. I'll do your hair."
Now Noah understood how they could be 'ghosts'. They attacked travelers in men's clothing, never giving their victims a chance to discern their true sex. Then when the objects of their crimes were incapacitated, they donned their gowns and mixed in with the market crowds. Noah held still, listening carefully to the familiar rustling sounds of feminine wardrobe.
When he guess that they had finished and were in an advantageous position, he leaped up, his fist crashing into the jaw of the nearest girl, sending her tumbling to the ground. He spun on his near foot, lashing out with a brutal kick to catch the other one on the temple, dropping her to the ground without a noise.
Working quickly, he ripped the hems from their petticoats, binding their hands and feet. He propped them up back to back with their heads lolling. Upon further consideration, he fashioned gags out of more cloth and stuffed it in their mouths. Both of them were thin and ill nourished, with dark circles under their eyes. Noah sighed, knowing he couldn't kill them as he'd planned. For one thing, Finn would never forgive him and for another, his damnable curiosity was poking at him for answers to this mystery, which had suddenly gotten deeper.
Noah turned to his friend, still lying insensible on the ground. He frowned; worried that Finn had been truly damaged. Noah slapped him lightly on the cheek.
"Finn . . . wake up."
Nothing. He decided that the bitches would pay if Finn were hurt. Noah hit him a little harder. "Finnegan!"
Finn stirred. "What?"
"Get up. We have a problem."
Finn pulled his long limbs in towards his body and struggled to a sitting position. "Ow," he said, rubbing the back of his head. "What happened?"
"We caught the ghosts."
"So what is the problem?"
Noah sighed, having a feeling that this was going to lead to nothing good. "They turned out to be a couple of underfed girls."
Noah spent the next few minutes ignoring Finn's slightly hysterical expostulations.
"Stop it," he finally growled.
"What are we going to do?"
"Find St. James' sword and turn these chits over to the watch."
"We can't do that!" Finn exclaimed.
Noah shook his head, suspecting that Finnegan's tender heart was about to lead him into no end of trouble. He picked up the canteen strapped to his waist and dumped the contents over his captives' heads. They sputtered and coughed, two pairs of eyes going wide as they realized their position.
"Good afternoon, ladies," Noah smirked at them. "Lovely day for a ride."
Two sets of eyes glowered at him, one pair a lovely deep brown and the other an intriguing blue-grey.
Noah laughed at their outrage. "I'm looking for a sword that you pinched from one of my friends a few weeks ago. A fancy useless thing with three rubies in the hilt. Have you seen it?"
He pulled the gag out of Blue-Grey's mouth to give her a chance to answer him.
"What kind of dimwitted oaf are you?" she screeched. "No true gentleman would ever lay violent hands on a woman!"
Noah put the gag back in her mouth. "Luckily for us, I'm no gentleman."
He turned to the other girl, ignoring the muffled shrieking from the first one. "Are you going to be polite?"
She nodded and he pulled the cloth away from her mouth.
"What are you going to do with us?" she asked.
"What every good citizen would . . . turn you over to His Majesty's justice."
Her eyes widened with fear, but Finn stepped into the discussion at that point. "Noah, wait. Perhaps we should hear their story first."
Noah seriously doubted that their 'story' would strike anywhere close to the truth, but he knew better than to argue with Finn when the big idiot's compassionate heart had gotten involved. Hadn't Finn's compassion started their friendship all those years ago? He sighed.
Finn smiled at the girl and her eyes grew a little dazed, an expression that Noah was also familiar with. He hid his grin, knowing that Finn's irresistible charm was about to convert another hapless victim.
"What is your name?" Finn asked pleasantly.
"Rachel?" Noah exclaimed. "Are you well?," he said in the ancient Hebrew language.
"I am," she answered in the same tongue.
Finn looked at him questioningly.
"Yes," Noah answered the unspoken query. "She's one of my race."
He turned away, refusing to let her brown eyes sway him from his clear duty.
Finn kept his voice gentle. "I am Finnegan Hudson and my cranky friend is Noah Puckerman. Who is your companion?"
Rachel hesitated, and then answered, "Her name is Katrina."
"How did two such lovely ladies come to such straits?"
The first one, Katrina, shook her head and struggled against her bonds, clearly objecting to the idea of sharing any information with men whom she considered such rogues. Her exertions were amusing under the circumstances and Noah winked at her. Her blue eyes darkened to chips of ice.
Rachel looked down. "My father died some years ago. My mother left for London to settle his accounts and never came back. She left me with . . . Katrina and her father. Her mother died in childbirth, but her father was a gentleman who had fallen on hard times and taken up trade. He died some months past. We had no where to turn when the solicitor refused to allow Katrina access to her father's accounts."
"So you set your hands to robbery and mayhem?" Noah snorted. "You're clearly well-bred. Why not find employment as governesses or some such?"
Two sets of angry eyes glared at him, but then Rachel reined in her temper with obvious effort. "It isn't so easy for two such as we, without sponsors or patrons."
"There are other professions open to pretty women," Noah leered.
"Noah! Enough!" Finn interjected with a worried glance at the first girl, who writhed in her bonds, her mouth working against the gag. No doubt she would blister the air with abusive language if she could. If not for her fair skin and fine boned face, Noah would doubt her claim to gentility.
"We need to find some solution to their predicament," Finn continued.
"It's simple," Noah said. "We retrieve St. James' sword and turn them over to the watch."
"No!" Rachel gasped.
"We can't do that," Finn concurred.
"Why ever not? They're criminals."
"They're lades fallen on misfortune. We're honor-bound to help them."
That earned him starry-eyed looks from both girls this time.
"Oh, for . . ." Noah exclaimed, throwing up his hands. "I might have known."
"I might remember the sword you described," Rachel said. "If we agree to give it to you, you must promise to let us go."
Noah had to respect her attempt at bargaining when her position was so weak. He though it was probably a fair deal . . . they retrieved the sword without much effort and he could win the wager with St. James. The girls could carry on with their illegal activities what would probably get them killed sooner rather than later. He didn't care very much about their eventual fate or the inevitable robbery of useless fops that would occur in the meantime.
He was about to agree when Finn shook his head. "I'm afraid we can't let you go," he said.
"What?" Noah yelled, not wanting to give up the chance of beating St. James so easily.
"We can't just abandon them to the winds of chance," Finn said.
Both girls gave Finn an adoring gaze and Noah felt vaguely sick with fear of whatever idea Finn had in his head.
"I just want to win this wager!" he protested.
"We caught them; now we're responsible for them," Finn insisted.
"Yes, we're responsible for turning them in!"
"No," Finn said stubbornly.
"Are you suggesting that your mother find places for them as nursemaids?"
To demonstrate the futility of that idea, Noah pulled the gag out of Katrina's mouth. She didn't disappoint him.
"If you think for one moment I'm going to sully my hands with the leavings of a pack of snot-nosed, filthy-bottomed offspring of some feeble-minded aristocrat . . ."
Noah put the gag back in, enjoying her struggles to speak as well as Finn's slightly stunned expression.
"No, not that," the Irishman said hurriedly. "I was suggesting we offer them our protection."
"You can't be serious," Noah said with a shudder. "I hardly think these ladies would agree to such an arrangement and I'm frankly shocked that you'd suggest it."
"No, no," Finn said, sounding horrified and turning a rosy red. "I meant the protection of marriage."
Rachel gasped and even Katrina stopped struggling. Noah stared at his best friend in shock, finally realizing his mistake. He'd been too annoyed by the looks the girls were giving Finn to see that Finn was looking back.
Finn pulled Katrina's gag out. "We're honorable men . . ." he started.
"Have you lost what little sense the Creator graced you with?" Katrina shrieked.
Finn hurriedly shoved the gag back in before she could get any further. "Uh, Noah, you can have the spitfire . . . I'll take Rachel."
Noah curled his hands into fists and pulled Finn off to the side, growling under his breath, "I swore I'd never wed. You know this and you know my reasons."
He couldn't believe that Finn would ever suggest such a thing. Noah grappled with his feelings of betrayal. Finn knew his deepest secrets and he'd claimed that none of that mattered. But yet as soon as Finn saw his chance with some girl, he acted as if Noah's concerns had become irrelevant.
"I know," Finn said, his voice gentle, a tone that Noah had never heard directed at himself. "Let this be a marriage of convenience if you like." He gestured to Katrina. "You have power over her, knowing her secret. Let her be your shield against the world for yours."
Noah had never expected his rather simple friend to make such a sensible suggestion. His anger drained away as he considered the idea. A wife would provide him with a veneer of class that his money alone couldn't and would stop any imprudent rumors. Both girls had proven themselves to be daring and resourceful, so it was true that either of them would see the sense of bargaining with him. Katrina might accept the security of marriage in exchange for leaving him relatively free to pursue his true interests.
Finn stared sappily at Rachel and Noah sighed. It made more sense for him to wed the woman of his own faith, but Finn seemed already besotted. And Noah wasn't such an ass that he would abandon his easy-going friend to the sharp-tongued vixen that was Katrina. That would be a disaster just waiting to happen. His anger stirred to life again, this time directed at the girl that was forcing him to break his most solemn vow to himself. He walked back to the girls, staring down at Katrina who glared back at him with unremitting hatred. Part of Noah relished the challenge of breaking her will and bending her to his.
"I suppose their ill-gotten gains could serve as a dowry," he said finally.
"Yes, exactly! A fat dowry could go far to explain away their lack of family connections and our sudden desire to wed."
"Not that I wish to impede you plan in any way," Rachel put in, "but Katrina cannot . . ."
Noah flicked his fingers at her. "Katrina is no longer your concern."
Rachel looked frightened, but didn't argue, so Noah considered the subject closed. He didn't bother asking Katrina her opinion of the subject, guessing that she'd prefer to live. Not that he planned to give her any choice in the matter. He could certainly afford to pay a magistrate to ignore a protesting bride.
"Now, lead us to your cache," Noah demanded.
"How do you know we haven't already sold everything?" Rachel asked curiously.
"I would have heard about it."
Noah sliced the cloth holding the girls together and then freed their feet. Putting a hand under each girl's armpit, he hauled them to their feet. He slid a long knife out of his boot and pressed the tip of it to Katrina's neck. He didn't bother untying her hands.
"Lead the way," he ordered.
She turned around and gave him a look of such heated malice that would have burned him where he stood if she'd been able. Noah laughed at her defiance, already plotting how to rid her of it. She shook her head angrily, but started walking, leading the way around the rocks and further into the hidden reaches of the small valley.
"Such dissension is perhaps not the best way to begin a marriage," Finn said quietly.
"You tend to your own wife," Noah snarled.
Katrina and Rachel finally stopped at a low cave partially hidden by boulders.
"It's here," Rachel said.
Noah ducked his head and stepped into the cave. There were several purses of coin, but most of the plunder was jewelry and other such items. He ran his expert eye over the hoard, guessing that there was around a thousand pounds worth of loot lying about. He gave a brief thought to the people whose goods he was about to steal, if only by second hand. Noah rubbed his hand over the short-cropped hair on his head, unable to believe that his sweetly naïve best friend had talked him into larceny on such a grand scale – all for the sake of a woman.
He crept out of the cave and turned to Finn. "Here's the problem," he explained. "We can't simply turn up with these goods. They'd prompt questions with which I'd rather not deal."
"What do we do?"
"I have a few . . . connections, shall we say, among the more adventurous merchants."
He didn't elaborate further, hoping Finn would let the matter rest. He had no intentions of discussing his more unsavory acquaintances in front of the two girls who had no reason to wish him well.
"Go on," Finn said.
"We can send the sword back to St. James by post with instructions for him to send my winnings to my estate manager in Northamptonshire."
Finn nodded, evidently willing to trust Noah with the enterprise. "And the rest?"
"We'll take it to my acquaintances in Hull in return for a letter of credit."
The port was the perfect place to get the stolen items out of the country. The sooner they turned the stolen plunder into respectable cash, the better Noah would like it.
"What about the weddings?"
"We can't leave these two on their own, not if you're intent on protecting them from their own foolishness."
Katrina growled something behind her gag, but Finn nodded again. "I am determined."
"Very well," Noah said. "They come with us, but there's no way to pass them off as respectable ladies without proper companions. They'll have to don their boyish garb again. When we finish our business, we can retreat to my estate to arrange the nuptials."
And get their stories straight, he thought privately to himself. If Katrina refused to cooperate, then she would end her days at his estate where his loyal people could keep an eye on her. It would be easier to control what happened if they were at Bon Chance. His people were well paid and they would prevent any mischief from these two reluctant brides. His retainers adored Finn and Noah was aware that they would do many things for his friend.
"Agreed," Finn said, no doubt perceiving the advantages of Noah's estate versus London.
"Now, ladies," Noah said, pulling his pistol from his belt and making a show of cocking it. "I'll give you ten minutes of privacy to change. Don't consider running off."
He pointed the gun at Katrina. "I expect you to be gagged again when you return."
He assumed that they would discuss the situation while they changed, but he had no plans to be exposed to the harsh side of Katrina's tongue again. Rachel gasped, but the look Katrina gave him was poisonous. Noah laughed, thinking that if he must be saddled with a wife, it might as well be one as amusing as this wildcat.
Finn untied them and the girls scurried into the cave, already whispering frantically. Noah smirked at their retreating backs, and pulled out his timepiece. He had no plans to let them have any more time together to conspire.
"We'll take separate lodgings at the port," he told Finn. "I don't care how you do it, but you must have that girl sweet and biddable by the time we reach Bon Chance."
"Share rooms?" Finn asked, his eyes looking a bit wild. "Before marriage?"
Noah refrained from smacking his old friend. "She will be dressed as a boy, so any impropriety will be between the two of you."
"What about you?"
"How I tame my shrew is none of your concern," Noah answered. "Keep yours sweet however you like."
He didn't add that he assumed that any training would work the other way around. He expected Rachel to have Finn well in hand by the time the nuptials came around.
Glancing at his pocket watch, Noah called out, "Two minutes, ladies."
The girls came out of the cave, with Katrina's gag back in place, but now her furious gaze encompassed Rachel as well as Noah.
He studied them carefully, trying to find any weaknesses in their disguises. Noah could see why they were believable as men – while both girls had their own sort of beauty, neither fell into the conventional standards for feminine attractiveness. Rachel's mouth was too wide, as was her nose, and her complexion was slightly darker than acceptable. Katrina's skin was milky-pale, but her nose was also large and her mouth crooked in its setting with her pointed chin. Her body was tall and gawky compared to Rachel's curves, which were hidden by her clothing. They had pulled their hair back into neat clubs tied at their necks, and they presented the appearance on modest young gentlemen.
"You'll do," Noah said.
Finn seemed stunned by the transformation, but Noah ignored him. Instead, he picked up the bindings and pulled Katrina's arms behind her back, tying her wrists tightly together. She struggled against the treatment, but Noah used his superior size and strength to subdue her. He ruthlessly kicked her feet out from under her, landing her on her pert little bottom. He bound her ankles before she could get a chance to kick him.
Finn was still staring at Rachel.
"Finnegan!" Noah barked.
"Women should not be allowed to dress so," Finn responded, his fair skin turning red. "Such garments give a man unruly thoughts."
Secretly amused by his friend's besotted behavior, Noah growled, "Get the horses, Finn."
Finn shook himself and took off down the path to the head of the valley.
"Is this necessary?" Rachel asked, gesturing to the bound Katrina.
Noah rounded on her, his eyes blazing. "I've told you that she's no longer your concern."
Rachel put her chin up, defiance in her eyes. "She's my friend."
"And Finn's mine. If not for his tenderheartedness, I'd run you both through. Two shallow graves would solve the problem most efficiently."
She put her hands over he mouth, eyes wide and frightened by his viciousness.
"See that you take care of his heart," Noah warned. "Or I may rethink this solution."
Rachel said nothing else, merely slid to the ground beside Katrina. She put her arm around the bound girl's shoulders and they leaned their heads together. Noah ignored the touching picture of despair that they made, not trusting either their defeated postures or their apparent surrender.
They made no moves however, and Finn soon returned with the horses. Noah cast a discriminating eye over the hoard, quickly picking out the most valuable and the most portable. He and Finn loaded their saddlebags. They rigged some additional sacks for the goods and the girls' dresses. Noah carefully slid St. James' sword through his saddle flaps.
Finn offered his hand to Rachel, pulling her to her feet gently. Then he helped her into the saddle. Both parties seemed to be a bit out of breath from the maneuver. Noah wondered if they would be able to wait for their vows before enjoying each other.
He turned to his prospective 'bride', gripping her by her upper arms and hoisting her onto her feet. Then he bent at the waist and slung her over his shoulder. She was more solid than he had anticipated, but he moved easily with her weight. Her body was oddly angular in places he didn't expect, even given the presumed binding of her breasts. Noah frowned in puzzlement as he unceremoniously threw her over his saddle. She gave a muffled grunt, but gave no other sign of the discomfort she must have been feeling. Noah had no doubt that her eyes would be full of angry fire.
Finn grabbed his arm urgently, pulling him aside. "What that necessary?"
"Treating her so roughly. She's done nothing to deserve it."
Noah barked bitter laughter. "Nothing? She's a thief, fit for nothing but the gibbet crows. And yet, I'm forced to grant her the one thing I swore I never would, thanks to your overly gentle heart."
"If you're mad at me, don't punish her."
Red rage covered Noah's vision for a moment, and he admitted that he was indeed furious. Finn knew his reasons for his vow never to wed, better than anyone, and still he put Noah in this position. He shook his anger away. There was too much between them.
"You're my friend," Noah said simply.
"And also strong enough to bear your anger," Finn said softly. "Hit me."
"You always do better with a concrete enemy, Puck. Hit me."
He reared back and sank his fist into Finn's gut, although he pulled his blow and they both knew it. They stared at each other for a moment, neither caring what the girls thought of them.
"Better?" Finn asked.
Noah laughed again, freely this time. "You're ridiculous."
Finn joined him in mirth. "Yes," he agreed.
They turned to the horses. Noah pulled himself into the saddle, and then reached for Katrina, setting her upright. Her face was flushed from hanging upside down and her head lolled dizzily. Noah settled her across his lap, again confused by the contours of her body. With one hand on the reins, he dropped his other hand to her thigh. She flinched at the contact, but settled down as Noah nudged the horse into an easy gait.
As the horse began the descent of the valley, the girl flexed her muscles in an attempt to maintain her balance without the use of her hands or her feet. As she did so, Noah's vague suspicions blossomed into certainty. He'd known many women who were physically strong, but none like this – with lean, hard muscles that rippled under his hand as their owner struggled to maintain his balance.
Finding himself decidedly more intrigued than annoyed now that he was presented with another mystery, Noah whispered in his captive's ear, "Be easy. I won't let you fall."
It suited his perversity that, thanks to Finn, he was engaged to a hellion who wasn't even female. Noah wanted to laugh out loud at the trick he'd unwittingly played on Fate. He found himself looking forward to their upcoming stay in Hull, plotting how he could teach the rapscallion in his arms a harsh lesson for both his thievery and his duplicity.
They reached Hull in good time and Noah made contact with one of the merchants of his acquaintance, leaving Finn outside the shop with the captives. The man was interested in the goods and not particular about their provenance. Noah dickered with him until they reached a mutually satisfactory price. They arranged for the transfer to occur the next day, after the merchant had procured two letters of credit from his banker.
Noah felt extraordinarily pleased with himself and he led the small party to a well-appointed inn where he could carry out his plans for the little renegade.
They handed the horses off to the ostlers, not before Noah elbowed Finn to remind him not to treat Rachel like a lady and instead leave her to get down from her horse the way any man would. For his part, Noah slung his intended 'bride' over his shoulder again, giving him a brisk swat on his bottom and laughing to himself when the boy jerked in outrage. Noah grabbed his feet before the youth could think about kicking him in the groin.
Noah stood by while Finn arranged for two rooms. The innkeeper stared at the form draped over Noah's shoulder, but didn't say anything.
"I'm afraid our friend is a bit worse for drink," Noah explained unnecessarily, taking delight in the boy's precarious position.
"I see," the innkeeper responded, ignoring the boy's bound hands and feet.
"He's a complete lightweight," Noah added gleefully. "Worse than a girl."
"Puck!" Finn protested, while Rachel looked horrified.
Noah merely smiled and took the offered key. "Pleasant dreams," he said to Finn, and then climbed the stairs to his room.
All thoughts of anything else fled his mind as he dumped his captive on the bed. The boy had been remarkably docile, but Noah had no illusions that state would continue once the boy got the blood out of his head from dangling. To forestall any bad behavior, Noah pounced on him immediately.
"Now . . ." he purred, "lets see what my good friend Finn has brought me for a wife."
Noah leaned his full weight on the boy, keeping him in place while his fingers swiftly worked the buttons of his frock coat. Once he opened the garment, he slid it off the youth's shoulders and down his arms, adding to the binding around them. He was certain the pressure of their combined weight must have been putting nearly unbearable strain on the boy's shoulders, judging by the suddenly increasing struggles on the part of his captive.
Glancing at the boy's face, Noah was surprised, but amused to find an expression of complete and utter terror in the boy's eyes. Noah smirked as his fingers plucked at the neatly tied cravat, watching as the fear increased. Clearly, the boy hadn't considered that his masquerade as a girl might actually get him treated like a girl. Noah slowed down, pulling the cravat away from the collar as deliberately as possible. The boy thrashed against his bindings and Noah's weight, shaking his head and trying to protest behind his gag.
Noah grinned, keeping up the illusion that he was unaware of the boy's true gender. "Little girls who play with fire get burned. Didn't you think I'd sample your wares before I gave you my name?"
If anything, the boy looked even more frightened. Noah moved his fingers to the fastenings of the shirt, slowly slipping the buttons free, and laughing outright at the terror he was evoking in his captive. Evidently, sexual assault by another man was the very worst thing the youth could imagine.
"Calm yourself . . . you might enjoy it."
Although Noah was certain that the boy wouldn't like it at all. He pulled the edges of the shirt open even as the boy stiffened completely and turned his head away as if expecting a blow.
Noah looked at the treasures he'd revealed. The boy was slender, but his muscles were nicely defined. His chest was firm with small pink nipples set with a few strands of light hair. There was another patch of fine hair at the waist of his pants, but his chest was essentially hairless. His skin was pale and fair, as smooth as any gentle lady's. Noah could easily see why the deception worked so well.
Panting through a wave of desire that ripped through him, Noah drank in the sight of the lithe body that he was about to defile. He'd teach the boy that he could either submit to Noah's attentions or face the noose. Noah looked forward to breaking him.
"Perfect," he smirked, watching his captive carefully to see his fear increase in the face of Noah's lust.
However, the body under him relaxed fractionally and most of the fear left his eyes. Noah puzzled over the strange reaction as he lowered his head to one of the tantalizing nipples. He worked the tiny bud, laving it and nipping it until it stood in a stiff peak before moving on to the other one. He gave it the same treatment, mouth working as he took in the flavor of the young man.
He leaned up, giving the boy a brutal kiss, using his teeth and making no attempt to be gentle, biting at the lips trapped and forced open by the gag. When he pulled away, the fear was back on his captive's face and Noah felt a wave of vicious satisfaction.
When he returned his mouth to the boy's torso, however, he kept his caresses gentle to keep the little thief off balance. He took care to lick and suckle every inch of the beautiful pale skin as his head moved lower. The boy's struggles had gotten weaker, as if he was slowly surrendering to what was about to happen to him.
Noah nuzzled his nose through the sparse patch of light hair that surrounded the boy's naval, inhaling the intoxicating scent he found there. He put his hand out to balance himself and was surprised that his fingers brushed up against an unmistakable hardness. Noah raised his head and worked the boy's trousers open, his breath hitching as he parted the material to reveal the evidence of his prisoner's arousal. A wicked grin creased his face. Better and better. He was starting to think that Finn was truly brilliant – finding a mate for him whose tastes evidently matched Noah's own.
He sat up and quickly divested the younger man of his pants, pulling them to his ankles and pressing the boy's knees open. The youth turned his head to the side refusing to look at Noah.
With a sharp laugh, Noah settled between his knees and then commenced to explore the long pale legs leading to a very nice cock, stiff and hard in its nest of wiry hair. He touched the back of his knees, the crease were thigh met torso, the lean muscles that bunched his thighs as the youth desperately tried to close his legs against the violation. Noah watched the boy, carefully noting the places where he reacted involuntarily to the caresses. He'd break him with pleasure instead of pain.
When he'd leaned the boy's secrets, he sat back, allowing his prisoner to close his knees. Noah grabbed his bound feet instead, pushing them up and forcing the boy to bend his legs, thus exposing his secret entrance to Noah's gaze. The rosebud was pink and tightly furled, but Noah panted at the idea of forcing it to bloom and open for him.
"Look at me," he ordered, putting a finger in his mouth to wet it in preparation for breaching that virgin orifice.
The boy turned to Noah, his eyes miserable – full of a mixture of shame and arousal and stark terror. His gaze landed on Noah's mouth and Noah saw the moment when the boy understood what was about to happen to him. The smaller man gave a harsh sob that was clear even through his gag and then closed his eyes. He made no other sound, but as Noah watched, tears leaked from behind his closed lids and tickled down the side of his face.
Revulsion and anger swept through Noah then, and he couldn't believe what he had almost done. He'd never had to resort to rape in his entire life, with either men or women. He set the boy's feet down carefully. He had the urge to flee when the boy opened his eyes, the blue-grey fearful and puzzled. Noah was deeply ashamed of himself, but he wouldn't let that shame prevent him from doing the honorable thing for his captive.
He reached up and untied the gag that had been stopping the boy's mouth for hours at that point.
"Do you wish me to cease?" he asked.
The boy nodded and then answered him, "Yes."
The voice was the one he had heard back in the valley, the one that he had thought sounded like bells. Before Noah had taken him prisoner and the boy had resorted to screeching in an attempt to defend himself and his friend. Noah wondered if there was anything deeper than friendship between him and Rachel, but he doubted it. Not if his reactions to Noah's touches were anything to go by.
Noah pulled the cloth completely away from the boy's head. "What's your name?"
"Kurt . . . Hummel."
Placing his hand over his heart and bowing his head, Noah said, "And I'm Noah Puckerman. Delighted to make your acquaintance."
Kurt looked a bit bemused at this second introduction. Noah pulled him into a sitting position and untied his hands, pushing his clothes off his arms. He turned and untied Kurt's feet, also divesting him of the remainder of his pants and undergarments until the younger man was completely naked. The fear returned to his face, and he tensed.
"It's all right," Noah reassured him. "I won't touch you carnally again. Not unless you request it of me."
No sense in closing that door completely, since Noah found himself more than mildly attracted to the young man whom he'd abducted.
He gave Kurt a small smile. "I know you have no reason to trust me, but you have my solemn word that I won't."
Kurt relaxed slightly and Noah really hoped he wasn't going to be treated to another tirade. His ears were still burning from earlier in the day, although he had to credit the boy for creative diatribes.
"My clothes?" Kurt asked.
Noah let his smile grow. "Well, there's still the matter of ensuring that you show up for the wedding and I wish to get some sleep tonight without wondering if you'll escape. In fact . . ."
He picked up the bindings and tied Kurt's hands together again, but this time in front of him so he would be more comfortable. Noah found all of his earlier anger at 'Katrina' completely gone. He had no wish to hurt Kurt and in truth of fact, wanted to win him over. He still desired the boy in his bed, but Noah found that he was no longer willing to break the younger man's spirit to get what he wanted.
Kurt gaped at him, not resisting, not even when Noah tied the other end of the rope to the bedpost. "Wedding? You can't be serious!" he finally blurted.
"Why not?" Noah asked, puzzled.
"Now that you know . . ." he trailed off, studying Noah carefully. "You knew. You weren't surprised when you opened my shirt."
Noah shrugged, "Yes."
Kurt flopped back on the bed, apparently forgetting entirely that he was naked. "Merciful heavens. I was so frightened that you would be angry and try to murder me when you discovered you were intent on ravishing a man! But you knew!"
"As soon as I picked you up," Noah added.
"But you still . . ." the boy flushed prettily. "You touched me anyway."
"I prefer to bed men," Noah explained, keeping his voice calm. He had no doubt that if Kurt were anything like he had been, the boy had struggled against his natural urges for many years. He wanted to reassure the young man that he was hardly the only one in the world who felt such things. "And you are lovely. A lovely man."
Kurt's pale cheeks turned a deeper shade of pink and Noah knew he was becoming far too enthralled with the boy. He had to remind himself of Kurt's temper and sharp tongue.
"Thank you," Kurt said. "But you can't marry me. It's . . . blasphemy. I'm sure of it."
Noah rubbed a hand over his head, trying to think of a way to persuade the boy. He was no longer willing to wed Kurt without his consent.
"If you had been Katrina in truth, we would be having this conversation about the boundaries of our marriage and how I wished to be free to pursue my own paramours. In exchange for her freedom and safety. How is that a different slap at the sanctity of marriage than what I'm proposing for us now?"
"You want me to be . . . what? Your wife of convenience?" Kurt asked, clearly bewildered.
"You play the girl all too well," Noah answered. "Be my bride for the magistrate, and then live your life in peace and security. Surely that would be better than risking prison?"
"And you wouldn't assert your rights as my husband and you'd go about, chasing other lovers?" Kurt's eyes narrowed and his posture bespoke outrage.
Noah carefully hid his amusement at Kurt's ire. The boy was already feeling possessive, a good sign.
"I wouldn't come to your bed, unless you wanted me there," he answered.
In truth, he had no intention of keeping a cold and celibate marriage bed. He planned on seducing Kurt into consummating their union. And he gave no thoughts to Kurt's protests of blasphemy – they couldn't help the way their urges directed them and God was surely responsible for that.
Kurt's fair skin showed every one of his feelings and his face turned nearly scarlet at Noah's last offer. He collected himself, however, displaying the courage that Noah had admired when he thought his name was Katrina.
"Must I call you Mr. Puckerman?" Kurt asked plaintively.
Noah laughed, glad that he had stopped himself from raping this child, for he was finding the young man to be amusing and fascinating company.
"No, call me Noah."
"Your friend, Mr. Hudson, referred to you as Puck."
"A childhood nickname, the result of more mischievous times. He calls me that when he isn't thinking."
Noah stood up, unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it off, shaking the wrinkles out before he draped it over the end of the bed. He sat down and pried off his boots. He slipped his breeches off, leaving himself clad in only his small clothes. Kurt was staring again, seeming to realize his naked state, for he folded his legs up to cover his groin. Noah wondered idly if the boy was also concealing evidence of arousal, but he didn't press their newfound accord.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting ready for bed," Noah answered.
He pulled the blankets back and slid into the cool sheets. He wrapped an arm around Kurt's waist and pulled him close, arranging him until he was tucked under Noah's chin and Noah had his leg thrown over the boy's thigh. Kurt's back was pressed against Noah's chest and Noah pushed his nose into the smaller man's fragrant hair, giving a sigh of contentment.
"You said you wouldn't touch me again," Kurt said, a frightened quaver evident in his voice.
"I said I wouldn't touch you sexually," Noah corrected. "We're merely sharing warmth."
He would wait for Kurt to come to him, but he had no plans to play fair. Kurt desired him, there could be no doubt. He had only to wait until Kurt overcame his fear, but Noah would make sure that Kurt was aware of what he would be gaining by flaunting his considerable assets around the boy whenever possible.
In the morning, Noah woke up first, luckily, for he found himself pressing his morning hardness against the sleek contours of Kurt's backside. The boy would never trust him if he woke up to that feeling. Noah pulled himself out of the bed regretfully. He looked forward to the day when Kurt asked to share a bed for their mutual pleasure. This ploy was too important to ruin by hasty action and much as Noah wanted to push Kurt to respond to him the way they both wanted, he had a larger goal in mind.
His vow against marriage was in tatters, but Noah consoled himself that at the time, he had meant that he'd never marry a woman. However, Kurt was no woman . . . therefore, Noah had broken no vows.
He pulled back the drapery and watched the sun slowly lighting the water of the river and the distant sea. Noah found himself in an unusually pensive mood. Normally he gave no thought to his life – he had more money that he'd ever need and the looks that could lure both men and women into his bed. He had a loyal and devoted friend in Finn. He'd been well satisfied with his life, but now he realized that his existence had been lacking a certain . . . challenge, maybe. He wanted to take Kurt very badly, but he also wanted more from the boy than just a mere tumble – he wanted a partner to share his life, and he was almost positive that Kurt could make his life interesting and entertaining again.
The only problem was winning Kurt over to this thinking.
After he dressed quietly, he untied Kurt's hands, trusting that the youth would see the sense of continuing the deception that they'd discussed the previous night. Noah took the time to admire the boy's slim body, before he shook his shoulder to waken him.
Noah made no attempt to hide his admiration as Kurt stood up and reached for his clothes.
Kurt blushed, and said tartly, "It's not polite to stare."
Noah raised his eyebrow. "I'm about to become your husband."
"In name only."
"I said I wouldn't bed you," Noah said. "I don't recall saying that I wouldn't look."
"Why do your promises always have such narrow definitions?" Kurt complained, turning his back to Noah in order draw his trousers up his legs. Noah didn't bother telling him that the back view was just as nice as the front view, but enjoyed the sight without making any further comments.
They met Finn and Rachel at the bottom of the stairs, with Rachel donning her boy's clothes again. Noah realized that both of the renegades kept their hair at an indeterminate length that could pass for male, but could be put up into the curled styles currently favored by fashionable women. Once more, their ingenuity amazed him.
"You've reached a peaceful settlement?" Finn asked, pointing to Kurt's unbound hands.
"Katrina has been persuaded of the sense in falling in with our plans," Noah answered, reminding himself that Finn didn't know the truth, although Rachel surely did.
Rachel kept her head down, not meeting his eyes, and for once, Kurt had nothing to say.
Finn nodded, clearly unaware of the undercurrents of secrets plaguing his companions. "Good."
The party concluded their business with the merchant, and Noah carefully tucked away his letter of credit, pleased that he was currently richer by some six hundred guineas . . . a very fair price for a bride.
"We need to hire a coach," he said, directing his horse towards the center of the city. Kurt rode behind him, slender arms wrapped around Noah's waist, his head turned so that his cheek rested against Noah's back. Noah couldn't help wishing that the boy was still helpless in his arms, but he supposed that in the long run, giving Kurt some of his independence back would further his goals.
Noah dickered exuberantly with the carter, and soon he'd added a small, closed carriage and a matched pair to his possessions. It was a suitable conveyance for a respectable woman in any case, and he'd need it if he were going to take a bride.
Finn climbed into the driver's seat after tying his horse to the rear of the carriage. Noah would ride beside it while the two 'brides' rode inside.
He opened the door for the girls, thrusting the bag with their dresses in after them. "When we stop for tea, I expect two young ladies to accompany us."
"We understand," Kurt answered, his voice slightly higher than his natural tone, but still able to send a shiver down Noah's back.
He slammed the door shut and turned the latch, mounting his horse grumpily. The wait to get Kurt into bed was going to be a frustrating one, he decided, even if Kurt acquiesced to him that very night, a happy thought that was nevertheless highly unlikely. However, Noah was used to winning the things he attempted and he counseled himself to patience.
The door to the carriage slammed with more force than was necessary and Kurt jumped, wondering what had angered his strange captor. Noah had seemed to be in a good mood. Kurt shivered. Noah Puckerman was a dangerous man, and Kurt didn't want to get on his wrong side. But that glimpse of tenderness he'd seen the night before made him want to try to look under the surface and find out more about the peculiar man who'd invaded his life.
He turned to the bag with the dresses, hoping that the fine fabric hadn't been crushed too badly by the savage treatment. Those men were indeed uncivilized oafs. He opened the bag carefully, trying to control the tremor in his hands at the remnant of overwhelming fear.
"Are you all right?" Rachel asked.
Kurt would tell her some of what had gone on, not all, obviously, but he wasn't quite ready to divulge the news that his deception had been uncovered. He needed to assess their situation more thoroughly.
"I am well," he said. "Tell me . . . how was your night?" He leered at her, although he had no suspicions that she and Mr. Hudson had indulged themselves in any carnal delights.
Rachel smiled dreamily. "He is everything I ever wished for myself. He's so . . . tall."
"You naughty girl!" Kurt squealed. "You gave yourself to him."
"I never did," she answered, bristling. "I meant that he is kind and gentle, although not overly blessed with intelligence. He is the perfect type of man that I can mold into the husband that I desire."
For a brief instant, Kurt longed for the uncomplicated connection that relations with Finnegan Hudson would bring him. He thought it monumentally unfair that Rachel had managed to win the more congenial one of the pair of rogues, while he had the dark and angry one foisted upon him. He sighed. Mr. Hudson was most likely not as open-minded about sexual congress as his friend seemed to be. He would likely have run in fright upon discovering that his intended was male, instead of . . .
Kurt stopped his thoughts there as another shiver overtook his body, this one not created by fear, but rather from the feel of rough hands discovering his most sensitive places. He couldn't allow himself to give in to the ridiculous desire that Noah had awakened in him.
"I see," he said to Rachel, gathering his thoughts. "And I suppose that his tallness is a matter of public record."
She laughed. "It is indeed."
"You must have talked. What else did you learn?"
"We should change. Mr. Puckerman does not seem to be a man who appreciates being thwarted."
Kurt could not argue with that assessment, so he said, "Indeed not."
He picked up his dress, running his hands over it in an attempt to smooth out the wrinkles. Standing was difficult in the swaying carriage, but he managed to keep his feet long enough to pull his trousers off and step into his skirts. He had no compunctions about stripping off in front of Rachel, having known her all of his life. She understood his nature and that her body held no interest for him.
Still fussing with his skirts, he sat down on the narrow bench so she could lace up the back of his bodice. He sucked in a breath, accustomed to the tight fit of feminine garments across his upper chest. When she finished, Rachel slipped off her own costume and Kurt helped her into her dress.
Her nimble fingers pulled at his hair, getting it into the elaborate curled style that they had developed to take advantage of his silky yet thick hair.
As she worked, she continued the tale of her discoveries the previous night. "The two men have been friends since childhood. Mr. Hudson is an Irish nobleman but his family can barely afford the taxes on their estate, which is why he spends most of his time in England."
"Yes, Mr. Puckerman briefly mentioned that they were acquaintances as children," Kurt confirmed.
"Well," Rachel said, "it turns out that your Mr. Puckerman is quite wealthy, although he is of my faith, and thus is not welcome in many drawing rooms. However, Mr. Hudson insists that his friend accompany him everywhere, and hence Mr. Puckerman is well known in society. Isn't that terribly brave of Mr. Hudson?"
"Terribly," Kurt said dryly. He now had reason to suspect Noah of charity towards is old friend and that did not sit with his impression of the other man was a vicious and immoral rogue. This whole adventure had become confusing to the extreme.
"He's Roman Catholic, of course, so our children must be also, I suppose," she added wistfully.
"So you intend that your be marriage be one in truth?" Kurt asked, mildly surprised.
"It is our bargain for our freedom," she snapped. "I'll spread my legs for him and do it gladly."
He was shocked by her crude language and gaped at her.
She raised her chin haughtily. "I had no hopes of making such a fortuitous match and I'll do everything in my power to keep him."
He pulled her into his arms, knowing that her temper was merely her way of disguising her sorrow. Their lives had been in turmoil ever since his father had died and his solicitor had declared that Kurt was unfit to manage his own inheritance.
"You've done well," Kurt soothed.
Rachel pulled back, looking at him searchingly. "What about you? How will you keep your bargain when Mr. Puckerman finds out the truth?"
Kurt sighed, feeling the beginnings of a headache. "He knows."
"What?" she screeched. "Did he debauch you already? Is that why you've been so quiet? I knew something was ailing you!"
"No, no that," Kurt assured her hurriedly, although he could feel his face flaming scarlet at the memory of how close she had come to the truth. "He knew before we ever reached Hull."
"But . . . how?"
"He is perceptive," Kurt answered uncomfortably.
"And . . . what does he propose to do?" she faltered.
Kurt couldn't stop his laughter, remembering Noah's outrageous pronouncement the previous night. "He proposes to marry me anyway."
"Surely he's joking!"
"No, I think not." He looked at her. "Does your faith countenance . . . ?"
"Of course not," she answered. "Not that I mean anything against you, Kurt, you know that I love you dearly, but some things just cannot be done."
"And yet he means to do them."
She shook her head and lapsed into silence. Kurt looked out the window of the carriage, catching a glimpse of Noah astride his big horse, the man cocky and arrogant in the saddle, controlling the animal with ease and grace. Kurt swallowed as fierce desire washed through him, desire of both his body and his heart. He wanted what Noah offered him, very badly. If Rachel never thought to make a good marriage, Kurt had never thought to find a partner in life at all and he'd resigned himself to a dull existence of loneliness long before his father died. Even if he never went to Noah's bed, the dark man was someone who understood and accepted him. That alone made him valuable to Kurt.
"Please don't say anything to Mr. Hudson. The matter is between Mr. Puckerman and myself. If anyone should tell this to his friend, it should be him."
She nodded tiredly. "I am wary of the idea of secrets between he and I, but I think that this is none of my affair. Be careful though, Kurt."
He turned to gaze out the window again, trying to catch sight of Noah. Kurt had been fighting to keep them alive and well for so long, and he was weary of it. He'd defied Puckerman when they'd been captured and he'd nearly paid a very steep price for his rebellion. A tremor of fear spiked through him again at the memory of it. But when Noah had calmed down . . . he had been an entirely different person and Kurt sensed that the man was strong enough to deal with their problems without buckling. Kurt hated to admit defeat, but he allowed himself the thought that perhaps he could use some help with this business of life. Noah Puckerman seemed to be the only person who was in a position to aid them. Kurt just wanted nothing more than to rest and to surrender his difficulties to someone else.
They stopped for tea in Grantham. Rachel and Finn couldn't take their eyes off each other, and Kurt supposed that the old adages about love at first sight might actually be true. His father had claimed to feel such things for his mother, but Kurt had dismissed the stories as mere fancy and grief on his father's part. The sight of the other couple caused him to re-evaluate his theory.
Noah's hand pressed the small of Kurt's back as he played the doting fiancé, leading Kurt into the small inn. Kurt tried to relax, but he was still chary of the other man.
They seated themselves in a cosy nook towards the rear of the common room, Kurt crowding next to Rachel on the settle, while the men sat opposite them. Kurt found that he was famished and greedily bit into his sandwich of thinly sliced beef with horseradish. He remembered to eat as daintily as possible, but still found Noah regarding him with amusement.
"What?" Kurt asked, finding his temper returning and stifling it with difficulty.
"I'm happy to see a woman with a healthy appetite, is all," Noah replied. "I'm glad to see you aren't given to the vapors."
"I would hardly have to turned to highway robbery if I was," Kurt replied tartly.
Rachel hid her face behind her teacup, concealing her laughter no doubt, but Finn looked confused by the conversation.
Noah leaned forward, lowering his voice. "We'll push on to my country estate. I apologize to you ladies for keeping you out so late."
"I'm quite sure we'll survive," Kurt replied.
Kurt marveled at Noah's smooth performance. The other man gave no sign at all that he knew the truth of Kurt's identity. Kurt found that he enjoyed trading jibes with the dark man, and he was gradually losing his fear of sparking the man's brutality again. Noah seemed entirely satisfied with the situation against which he previously railed to the point of punching his friend.
Noah smirked at him, but there was no anger in his expression.
"Just a few things," Noah continued. "I will get a magistrate to wed us as soon as possible, but my mother may insist on having a ceremony with a rabbi. That will take more time. What would you like, Rachel?"
Vaguely surprised that they were being consulted on anything, given the fact that their consent to marriage had been extorted under threat to their lives and freedom, Kurt turned to his friend, curious about her answer. She had her head down again.
"I would be happy with a judge," she answered finally. "But if we could have a rabbi, that would be lovely."
She looked at Finn, seeking his opinion, clearly, as though they were already united. Again, Kurt was struck by how quickly they had turned from antagonists to partners. For his part, he was grateful merely to have a truce and no violence between him and his proposed husband.
Finn reached forward, wrapping her small hand in his. "I am perfectly happy to do which ever you like."
Kurt restrained himself from rolling his eyes, wondering just what exactly Rachel had done to the man the night before. He believed her claim that they hadn't indulged in the lusts of their bodies. After consideration, he decided that was probably the reason for Mr. Hudson's magnanimity . . . the man was no doubt eager to take to his marriage bed. Rachel had a very devious mind.
He looked over at Noah, who seemed to be waiting for Kurt's answer. He deliberating pitched his voice into his higher register. "Do I have any choice?"
Noah's smirk grew broader, "Not particularly."
Kurt shrugged indifferently. In truth, he didn't really care how they wed, and certainly didn't wish to have a false ceremony in front of a reverend of his own faith. Their marriage would be a travesty and the less he had to do with the planning of it, the better he liked it. He still refused to believe that Noah was serious about the two of them trying to make a life together.
"Very well then," Noah said, standing up and holding out his hand to assist Kurt, who complied although the glee on Noah's face as he did so made him want to punch it.
The carriage rattled on as the night drew around them. Kurt could no longer see Noah and his horse escorting them. Rachel leaned drowsily against him, her body lax as she slept. Finally, the coach slowed and lights flared outside the windows. Kurt stirred, shaking Rachel gently. His fingers flew to his hair, checking to make sure that he was tidy.
Nerves roiled his stomach. Whatever part he was meant to play with Mr. Puckerman, his life would change that night, and Kurt wasn't quite sure if he was ready for it. He could only hope that both he and Rachel had landed themselves in a respectable situation, and he could cease worrying about her. Responsibility for her was the only legacy he'd inherited from his father that he'd been allowed to keep.
The door opened and a footman stood by, ready to help them out. Rachel looked at him. "It will be well," she said fiercely.
"Yes," he agreed.
The footmen handed them down, placing Rachel next to Mr. Hudson and Kurt beside Noah. Several servants lined up on the steps, presenting themselves to the master of the house, in spite of his late night arrival. None of them seemed upset about the situation.
Noah clasped Kurt's hand and wrapped his other arm around Kurt's waist. "I'd like to present Miss Katrina Hummel. My intended bride."
Kurt kept his face deliberately pleasant. There was no backing down now, not with that announcement.
A pleasant-faced man with curly hair stepped forward, a broad smile adorning his face. "Congratulations, sir."
"Miss Hummel, this is my estate manager, Mr. Schuester," Noah said.
"Pleased to meet you," Kurt murmured delicately.
A tall imposing woman stepped forward, her mouth twisted in a grimace that was a parody of a smile. She was dressed entirely in black with her silvery blond hair wrapped into a tight bun.
"Mrs. Sylvester, my housekeeper," Noah introduced them.
A shiver of fear trickled down Kurt's spine. This woman intimidated him, and he sensed ruthlessness in her. No doubt, she would be loathe to surrender her position to another woman and wouldn't be happy to see Mr. Puckerman take a bride.
He gave her his shyest smile. "I'm sure I'll guided by your experience."
Her face didn't soften. "As you should."
Deciding that he was too tired to deal with yet another complication in his life, Kurt remained silent.
Noah turned to Mr. Hudson and Rachel. "Mr. Hudson has found a bride as well. Miss Rachel Berry. We will be hosting their nuptials also."
"Quite," Mrs. Sylvester said. "I'll put them in Sarah's rooms until we can ready suites for them."
Noah grinned at her implied complaint. She sniffed, "If we had been told, we would have prepared."
"You have my utmost faith," Noah said.
"Come with me," she ordered, turning and striding into the house.
Noah and Mr. Hudson moved forward, following her with their brides. Rachel gave Kurt a frightened look, and he wished he could reassure her, but he was sure that she would have an easier time in this household than he would.
At the moment, however, he couldn't contemplate his future any further. Ever since Noah Puckerman had captured them, Kurt had the uncomfortable feeling that his life was essentially over. It was certainly out of his control. All he could do was hope that the man currently having all the power over his life would be careful with it.
Mrs. Sylvester opened a door to a dainty room. "I'll send a maid to attend you," she said.
"Oh, surely that isn't necessary," Kurt interjected, panicked. "The hour is late and we wanted nothing more than to sleep."
Noah's hand around his waist tightened momentarily. "Miss Hummel makes a good point. We'll see to assigning maids in the morning."
"As you wish," she said, turning and leaving them, her back ramrod straight.
"Good night, ladies," Noah said, pulling Kurt's hand to his lips. He hesitated for a long moment, warm breath ghosting over Kurt's skin and invoking a shiver in response. His lips descended finally, pressing a firm kiss to the delicate skin on the back of Kurt's hand. Kurt couldn't decide whether he wanted to pull his hand away in outrage or to step forward into Noah's arms.
Noah stepped back, giving a slight tilt to his head by way of a bow, and then left them. Mr. Hudson looked as though he would like to linger, but Kurt went to the door and shut it quite firmly. He was too weary to deal with the inevitable sappy looks between Rachel and her groom.
He looked around the room, nodding with approval. The furniture was lightly stained and the carvings were spare and elegant rather than ornate. The fabrics weren't dripping with flowers yet still managed to convey a rather feminine sprightliness. Not how he would do his rooms if he ever got the chance, but perfectly acceptable on the whole. Rachel looked enthralled.
"Turn around," he ordered softly, and mercifully, she complied without speaking. Kurt didn't think he could hold a sensible conversation with anyone at the moment, and he most certainly wasn't prepared for any more discussions about his masquerade and marriage.
He pulled the pins out of her hair so it fell in dark waves around her face, and then loosened her laces and helped her out of her gown. He turned around and let her do the same for him. They'd been assisting each other with their dress for years at that point and neither felt any modesty about it. Kurt had a brief thought that Mr. Hudson might object to his wife sleeping with a man, however harmless to her virtue he might be. Kurt could only hope that Mr. Puckerman was capable of maintaining control over his friend if the subject ever came up.
Rachel crawled into the bed without a word, and Kurt doused the candles before joining her. Sleep eluded him at first, because it had been so very long since either of them had been in such a comfortable bed. Gradually he was able to convince his tired and racing mind that he was safe.
In the morning, two maids appeared with a loaded breakfast tray, which included an array of breads, fresh fruit and pitcher of tea under a cosy. Kurt poured a cup of the hot beverage, smiling as the fragrant scent reached his nose and the warm liquid poured down his throat, sending peace to every corner of his body. Rachel sipped daintily at her cup.
"Mrs. Sylvester told us to ask if you need our help in dressing," one of the maids said with a curtsy.
Kurt and Rachel exchanged glances. They had no other garments than those with which they'd arrived the night before. Kurt had no idea how Puckerman planned to justify their lack of luggage or servants.
"We thank her for her kindness, but our cases were stolen and thus we won't be needing any aid this morning," Rachel explained.
"Indeed, miss," the maid replied. "Mr. Puckerman has sent for the dressmaker already."
The girls left in a swirl of skirts. Kurt ate his breakfast, determined not to worry about the dressmaker and Mr. Puckerman's plans for him. It had been a long time since they had eaten so well and he intended to enjoy the meal before the events of the day swept him up.
"The ladies maids will be a problem," Rachel observed. "What will you do?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," Kurt answered around a bite of peach. "I think I'll leave the solution to Mr. Puckerman. This was his idea in the first place."
"Actually, it was Mr. Hudson's," she corrected.
"Now you're just bragging," Kurt snipped. "About the man who wanted you so badly that he resorted to extortion."
"He did, didn't he?" Rachel smiled smugly.
"As for Mr. Puckerman . . . this is his house, those are his people, and he's the one who insists on keeping me. He can deal with the details."
They heard a brisk knock at the door, and they barely had time to answer it before Noah himself walked in, followed by an imposing woman who was clearly of African descent.
"This is Mrs. Jones," Noah pronounced. "She's the finest dressmaker in the Midlands. The misses Hummel and Berry."
"We're very pleased to meet you," Kurt said, pushing the breakfast tray away and standing up.
"I'll leave you to it then," Noah said. He picked up the dressmaker's hand and pressed a lingering kiss to it. "My dear Mrs. Jones, you are the only person I trust to properly attire my beloved Katrina."
Kurt was shocked at the flare of jealousy he felt when Noah placed his lips on someone else's skin, and he realized that his rivals could include the female sex as well as the male sex. Noah had said that he preferred men, but he hadn't said that he didn't like women.
"You rascal," she said, affection clear in her voice. "I can't believe someone finally tripped you up."
Noah departed and Mrs. Jones looked them both over carefully, and then pulled tape and pins out of her bag.
"A gawky one and a tiny one," she said. "Well, down to your chemises . . . let's see what I have to work with."
"K . . . Katrina," Rachel protested. "You can't."
"No," he replied. "We must assume he knows what he's doing."
The woman looked puzzled by that exchange and Kurt's fingers trembled as he opened the ties to his dress. Noah wouldn't expose him like this – he had to believe that this woman would keep his confidences, that Noah had chosen her for this purpose. He pushed the sleeves off his arms and stood with his shoulders back.
Mrs. Jones' eyes widened with shock. "I'm charging him double," she grumbled. "You certainly need my help."
Kurt exhaled a long sigh of relief. "Thank you."
"Do you two know what you've gotten yourselves into?" Mrs. Jones asked.
Rachel said stiffly, "I'm marrying the man of my dreams."
Not really knowing how to explain what he was doing, Kurt just stared at the woman, who was clearly just as powerful as Mrs. Sylvester, but not nearly as frightening.
"No," he answered simply.
"Thought not," she snorted. "What is your story?"
He and Rachel exchanged another glance. They hadn't thought of an explanation yet, and clearly the truth wouldn't do. However, they couldn't say anything until they knew what their grooms had planned.
"Never mind," the dressmaker said. "Let's just get you some pretty clothing, all right?"
"These dresses are all we have," Rachel said, her face coloring.
The woman shrugged. "I have a few pre-made things I can send over this afternoon."
She stretched out the tape in her hands, commencing to take their dimensions.
"How well do you know Mr. Puckerman?" Kurt asked, admitting to himself that his jealousy was still bothering him, but also, he was genuinely curious. Mrs. Jones seemed to like him and she seemed extremely sensible, so Noah's mercurial personality must have good qualities buried under the sarcasm and bad temper.
Mrs. Jones wrapped the tape around his chest and made a note on a sheet of paper. "Oh no, you're the one marrying him. If you want to know him, find out for yourself."
"Mrs. Jones, you're not even shocked, are you?" he realized. "By me, I mean."
"Shocked that Noah Puckerman would do something to flout every rule society ever created?" She laughed. "No, I'm not."
She looked at Rachel. "You, on the other hand, are exactly what Mr. Hudson needs."
Rachel preened at that and Kurt decided that he really did like Mrs. Jones. Rachel needed affirmation that she was special and important, and Mrs. Jones had been kind enough to provide it, even if she didn't know Rachel well enough to realize what she'd done.
"I can add some padding and some ruching to the bodice of your dress to add fullness to your bosom," Mrs. Jones said. "Luckily your height can explain your lack of endowments."
Kurt sighed, seeing the sense of what she said, although he couldn't say he was happy about it. He was afraid that his position would lock him into playing a girl for the rest of his life and, much as he enjoyed the intrigue of wearing female clothing when it suited his purposes, he didn't really like doing it all the time. Suddenly, he longed for the life that he and Rachel had lost, the freedom to do what they pleased whenever they liked. The life was dangerous and tenuous but it had been theirs.
"Now, my ladies, shall we discuss wedding gowns?" Mrs. Jones asked.
"Lace!" Rachel exclaimed excitedly. "Billows of lace. And ruffles! Something absolutely impractical."
Mrs. Jones laughed. "I understand completely. What about you?" she asked Kurt.
"As simple as possible, please, without looking . . . plain. Something befitting the wife of Mr. Puckerman."
Kurt didn't want to be dressed like an overdone doll, but yet he didn't want to look like he had no sense of style. Also, he didn't want to be embarrassed in front of his groom, who would no doubt look magnificent in tight breeches that showcased his muscular legs . . .
He wrenched his thoughts away from those paths when he became aware of the women staring at him. He flushed, and then turned even redder, knowing that he couldn't hide his discomfort, not with his fair skin.
Mrs. Jones smiled and shook her head. "He's going to have his hands full with you, isn't he?"
Kurt assumed she meant Noah, but she couldn't possibly think that Kurt was the difficult one in the relationship. He wasn't the one with a short temper who was given to brutality when faced with a perplexing situation. He was sure he still had bruises from the various examples of rough treatment Noah had subjected him to since the very instant that Noah had kicked him in the head on their first acquaintance. Although it was true that he had leaped out and knocked Puckerman off his horse first; he had to admit to be honest about the matter. His blush deepened.
"Could we have some plain day dresses though?" Rachel asked.
"What do you mean?"
Rachel floundered, a confused look on her face. "Things we can go about in without looking fine and rich. Because we're not," she said earnestly, apparently having decided to trust this woman without even consulting Kurt.
"You must understand, we have our dowries, but we have never been able to touch that money. We were raised without airs and servants and such. This place is . . . overwhelming," she attempted to explain.
"I see," Mrs. Jones nodded. "A pair of innocents, you are. It's a lucky thing then that two such gentlemen as Mr. Hudson and Mr. Puckerman scooped you up."
Kurt wanted to protest that gentleman was stretching the truth quite a bit when it came to Noah, especially as the man himself had claimed he wasn't, but the dressmaker clearly liked and admired the man. Kurt wasn't willing to alienate her as a potential collaborator though, especially when she knew his secret and yet didn't seem bothered by it.
Instead he smiled prettily at her and agreed, "Lucky indeed."
Mrs. Jones left soon after with the promise that she would deliver their day dresses after luncheon. They pulled their traveled stained dresses back on and hoped for more clothes quickly. Soon after one of the maids returned with an unwieldy sack.
"Mr. Puckerman instructed us to present his compliments and give this to you. He'd be obliged if you to do whatever you please with it," she said, plopping the bag on the floor.
"Thank you . . . ," Rachel started. "What was your name?"
"Thank you, Mary."
The girl left and Kurt knelt to see what Noah had sent. The bag contained their boys' clothes, neatly pressed and folded. He looked up at Rachel and was happy to see the same light of mischief in her eyes.
"I think we should explore our new home," he said.
"I agree, most heartily," she laughed.
They changed quickly and slipped out of the house by way of the main staircase. They guessed that the back stairs would be to busy with the comings and goings of the servants. The front door wasn't locked and they turned sharply, avoiding the large windows that lined the front of the house and ducked into the gardens. They followed the cart lane that led to the back entrance of the house and walked away from the estate.
Soon they came upon a small village with tiny cottages lining the high street and several workshops clustered at the one end. The road continued on, presumably to bigger towns and out into the countryside. A crossroad wandered over the hills from somewhere and then disappeared into a thickly wooded area. They could have traveled the track the night before and never known it in the dark, but Kurt had the impression of a much smoother road leading up to the drive of the house.
They didn't linger very long, but Kurt's nose led him to the scent of freshly shaved wood and he stopped at the doorway to the cabinetmaker's shop. He didn't go in, but he inhaled the familiar sounds of woodworking and missed his father unbearably. Rachel watched him silently, sympathy and answering sadness in her eyes. She had loved Kurt's father too.
"It's nearly lunch time," she said finally.
"Yes," Kurt said, turning away reluctantly.
They retraced their path, skirting the shrubbery until they could find a clear path to the door. They made it back to their rooms without being seen, and changed back into the dresses. Kurt shook off his sadness, feeling the sense of adventure at their escapade rising in him. Maybe they hadn't traded their freedom for chains after all. Noah's message by way of Mary seemed to make it clear that he anticipated them using the male clothing. That evidence of understanding shook Kurt – if it was true then Mr. Puckerman understood him better than he had expected. On the other hand, it could have been meant only as an overture towards their truce.
A knock sounded on the door to their suite and Rachel opened it to find Noah and Finn on the other side. Her face brightened immediately.
"We're here to escort you to lunch," Noah said, offering his arm to Kurt.
Kurt accepted and wrapped his fingers delicately around Noah's sturdy forearm. The man was wearing a fine lawn shirt without a jacket, which probably wasn't strictly proper, but Kurt appreciated the feel of warm skin and firm muscles under his hand. He had good reason to know how strong Noah was and the memory made his breath catch a little. Noah made no sign that he was aware of Kurt's distraction.
After settling themselves in a pleasant room with sunlight streaming in, Noah said, "Finn and I have been busy this morning."
"Oh?" Kurt said.
"Three weeks," Finn said.
Noah laughed. "My eager friend here means that we talked to the magistrate in Northampton this morning and he will be able to perform the marriage ceremony for both couples in three weeks time."
Rachel gave a happy squeal, but Kurt froze, looking at Noah carefully. The man seemed pleased with himself, and not at all apprehensive about the upcoming deception. Kurt didn't understand how Noah thought they would manage to continue to fool everyone. Finn in particular seemed in a good position to discover the secret – it would take only one of them a moment of forgetfulness.
"Is that all right?" Noah asked softly, his dark eyes intent on Kurt's face.
Kurt didn't want any sensitivity from the man; he wished to continue to think of him as a vicious, violent brute. However, Noah seemed intent on making amends for that night in Hull, and was being extraordinarily careful and considerate with Kurt. For his part, Kurt worried that it was some sort of ambush, and that Noah would revert to his natural personality once Kurt was married to him and had entrapped him in their lies. Finn gave him an odd look, and Kurt remembered that 'Katrina' was supposed to be happy, or at least, satisfied by the arrangements.
Swallowing his unease, Kurt murmured, "Yes, that will be fine."
"We have cleared a suite for your use in the east wing," Noah stated. "As for the maid conundrum, I have told the staff that the two of you were raised as sisters and will serve as maids for each other until the weddings."
Kurt breathed easier in the knowledge that he wouldn't have to dodge maids in his own rooms. No doubt Mr. Puckerman would find some other solution once the nuptials had been concluded. He wondered if Mr. Hudson had his own house or if he inhabited Mr. Puckerman's estate at all times. He would be glad to keep Rachel's company, especially in the face of his more than likely confusing marriage.
"We are entirely at your disposal this afternoon," Noah said. "Is there anything in particular you'd like to do?"
"Perhaps a turn in the garden?" Rachel said hopefully, looking at Finn, who immediately turned red.
Kurt sighed to himself. Walking in the garden was a perfectly acceptable activity for a courting couple. Rachel would no doubt take the opportunity to wind her groom more tightly around her fingers, but Kurt had no aspirations to take part in any romantic activities with Noah.
"I'd be delighted," Finn finally answered when he'd regained his composure.
"And you, Katrina?" Noah asked. "What would you like to do?"
"Not the garden," Kurt said decisively.
Noah raised an eyebrow and Kurt suspected that he was exactly aware of Kurt's objections to the garden.
"Perhaps . . ." Kurt faltered. "There's a cabinetmaker in the village. My father was a cabinetmaker. Perhaps you could introduce us."
Noah frowned, and Kurt desperately hoped he hadn't made himself more vulnerable by revealing that personal bit of information. But if Noah gave both of them permission, Kurt had in mind to visit the shop, just to comfort himself with memories of his life before everything had been ruined. He needed his father rather badly at that moment . . . needed the man's unconditional love and the support that he had given to his decidedly unusual son. Kurt had tried to protect Rachel and himself, and although it seemed that Rachel was ensured a life of happiness, he wasn't sure that he would have the same.
"If you like," Noah answered.
"I do," Kurt said, standing up with an imperious swish of his skirts.
Noah laughed and joined him. They followed that path that he and Rachel had taken that morning.
"Tell me about your father," Noah requested. "And the mislaid legacy that Rachel mentioned."
Noah Puckerman was the last person to whom Kurt would wish to unburden his heart and disclose his loneliness.
"Why would you care?"
"Why do you reject simple kindness?" Noah replied.
"Because I sincerely doubt the reasons for any kindness coming from you," Kurt couldn't stop himself from saying, although he could think of several instances of such behavior on Noah's part in the past day. He wanted to kick himself, fearful of instigating more violence from his perplexing suitor.
"Then consider this," Noah hissed. "As your prospective bridegroom, I'm entitled to manage your affairs. If there is some money due me as your husband, I demand my rights to it."
Pain ripped through Kurt's heart and he breathed deeply to regain control of his emotions. He'd cried once in front of this heartless man and he was damned if he'd do it again. Kurt remembered that he'd thought Noah strong enough to shoulder some of his burdens and help them. Perhaps this was the time to give over one of those problems. When he was calm enough to speak, he kept his voice as emotionless as possible.
"My father was a cabinetmaker. As Rachel said, we took her in when her mother disappeared. My father died at the turn of year from the influenza. He didn't have much wealth, but he had several jobs that were complete and not yet paid, and some other assets. I am of age, but his solicitor decided that I wasn't capable of controlling my father's estate and took it on himself, selling our home and the shop inventory. He refused to grant me any kind of allowance, and would do nothing for Rachel, despite my father treating her as he would his own daughter."
"How did he justify his violation of your father's trust to the court?"
Holding his head up high and refusing to submit to the pain at the memory of the probate hearing, Kurt said coldly, "Not all of us can conceal our base natures as easily as you appear to, Noah. I've always seemed delicate and girlish to strangers. The solicitor made a motion before the court to conduct an examination of me for either incompetence or criminal behavior; you know as well as I that the law does not look kindly upon 'unnaturalness'. Rachel and I chose to depart before he could carry out his heinous plans."
Breaking off his narrative as anger washed through him at the despicable way they had been treated, Kurt gritted his teeth against the urge to scream his frustration.
"Go on," Noah said softly.
Kurt realized that Noah had wrapped Kurt's hand in his, and his long fingers were making soothing circles in Kurt's palm. He stopped, looking up into Noah's eyes. They weren't brown as he first thought, but flecked with green and gold. There was no more anger lingering in his gaze, just concern.
"There isn't much left to the tale that you don't already know," Kurt said. "My father entrusted me with Rachel's safety. I did the best I could," he added, feeling defensive.
"And now you have us, myself and Mr. Hudson."
Kurt didn't know what to say to that. He didn't like feeling like he had failed his father, but yet, he had to admit that marriage to a good man like Finnegan Hudson was probably the very best thing for Rachel. And that wasn't something that he could have ever arranged on his own. He fiddled with a flounce on his skirt.
"She's alive, healthy and undamaged," Noah continued. "All to your credit."
"Rachel's a clever girl," Kurt corrected.
Noah didn't argue, but instead asked, "What is the name of that solicitor?"
"As I've said, your affairs have become my business."
The assertion made no sense to Kurt, unless it was a mere matter of pride. His father's small estate was nothing compared to the scale of wealth that Mr. Puckerman clearly maintained. He wondered if he would ever understand Noah's mind.
"A Mr. Bernard Higgins. In Suffolk."
"Was that so hard?" Noah asked, his voice gently teasing.
Kurt glared at him, wondering how he could possibly ask why Kurt had difficulties trusting him considering the events that lay between them. He had to look away almost immediately because amusement had transformed Noah's face from merely handsome to breathtakingly attractive. Kurt hated the feeling that he was off balance around the insufferably smug villain all the time.
They came upon the small village then, and Noah said, "The cabinetmaker is called Mr. Webber."
At the door of the shop, Noah rapped upon the sill and then stepped inside.
"Mr. Puckerman," the owner said, coming forward. "This is a surprise."
Noah clasped Kurt's hand and drew him forward. "This is my fiancée, Miss Katrina Hummel. She has a family interest in cabinetry and wished to meet you."
The cabinetmaker frowned in puzzlement. "Hummel? I knew a Hummel once. From where to you hail, miss?"
"Ipswich," Kurt answered, his brain working furiously. He didn't ever remember meeting this man, but he might have. Surely his feminine garb would confuse his identity too much for him to be recognized?
"Burt Hummel of Ipswich!" Mr. Webber pronounced. "Were you close kin?"
Kurt counseled himself to be calm, and responded, "Yes, he was my father."
"I met Mr. Hummel a few years past. We in the guild were saddened to hear of his passing. You have all of my condolences."
Kurt nodded, his throat tight again. Angry with himself for his excess of emotion when his bereavement had occurred months before, he coughed slightly to find his voice. "Thank you."
"Peculiar thing," Mr. Webber continued. "I remember that he had a son, but I don't remember the daughter."
Inwardly cursing himself as a sentimental fool for visiting this shop, Kurt replied, "My brother and I were twins and our mother died of our birth. My father was very protective of me and kept me sheltered. Sadly, my brother died of the same scourge that carried away our father."
"I'm very sorry," Mr. Webber said.
Kurt felt ashamed for lying to such an honest and caring man. He looked at Noah for help and found his future groom looking amused once more. Kurt narrowed his eyes, feeling his temper rising again.
"I think Miss Hummel would enjoy visiting a place that evokes such happy memories for her," Noah said.
"Of course, Mr. Puckerman."
Noah held out his arm, and Kurt took it obediently, allowing Noah to lead him out of the shop and back towards the manor house.
Leaning down to speak directly into Kurt's ear, Noah murmured, "Rachel isn't the only clever one."
Kurt shivered as heat washed over his ear. It had nothing to do with the melodious tones of Noah's voice.
"Have I your permission to return to the shop?" Kurt asked, dismayed as his voice broke on the last syllable. He was a welter of conflicting emotions – remembrance of his grief, annoyance that he was no longer free to do as he pleased, and no small amount of fascination with his companion. All of it was bewildering and overwhelming. He hoped that Noah hadn't noted his lapse.
"I have no objection," Noah said easily. "Bring a maid with you, however. Or Rachel. We wouldn't want to have any appearance of impropriety."
Kurt rolled his eyes, reminded again of their highly unconventional arrangement. "Heaven forefend."
Noah walked him all the way to his new rooms. Kurt turned to go inside, but Noah tugged on his hand, pulling him back.
"What?" Kurt asked. He felt tired and wondered if anyone would be vexed if he asked for a tray in his room instead of going through the exhausting farce of pretending to be Katrina for the benefit of Mr. Hudson and the staff.
Noah traced Kurt's cheekbone with his long fingers, a gentle gesture that left the ghost of his touch after it had moved on. "I promise I'll take care of you . . . if you let me."
He spoke with his voice in the lower registers, provoking a helpless response in Kurt's body that he didn't know how to combat. No one in his life had ever looked at him with desire, but the care that Noah seemed to be demonstrating was even worse, reminding him as it did of better days. For one horrid instant, Kurt wished that Noah had completed the rape that he had started, for Kurt was sure that was the one thing for which he could never forgive Noah Puckerman. And then he wouldn't be in any danger of surrendering to the rake.
Kurt looked up at him, speechless and feeling more than a little lost. Noah's eyes fastened on Kurt's mouth and he angled his head as though he planned to meet Kurt's lips. Kurt felt his breath coming more quickly in anticipation of being kissed. His first experience with kissing had clearly been more for punishment than seduction, and Kurt couldn't help but wonder how it would feel to be kissed with passion.
But Noah straightened up and gave him a small rigid bow. Kurt pretended that he wasn't disappointed.
"Might I have a tray in the rooms?" he asked, a small concession towards Noah's request to be allowed to help him.
It seemed the correct thing to do, for Noah smiled, and said, "Of course. Any specific delicacies to tempt you?"
"No, I have no particular dietary foibles," Kurt responded. "This has been a long and confusing day, and I merely wish to retire for the evening, if it pleases you."
"I understand. Then I will bid you good night and pleasant dreams. I will see you in the morning."
Kurt closed the door, leaning against it while he banished the idea of Noah joining him in bed and making his dreams very pleasant indeed.
In the morning, an exploration of the wardrobe proved that Mrs. Jones had been as good as her word. Several modest gowns hung inside, along with an array of specially constructed underclothes. Kurt knocked on the door that led to Rachel's adjoining suite and found that she had made a similar discovery.
Neither of their prospective grooms appeared at breakfast, much to Rachel's obvious dismay. Kurt scolded himself severely for even considering that he might miss the company of the irascible Noah Puckerman. After eating, they wandered through the vast house, discovering its many rooms and halls. There was no ancestral portrait gallery or indications of long habitation by Noah's family at Bon Chance to be found, leading Kurt to wonder how recently Noah had come into his wealth. But upon further reflection, he decided that the Puckermans could have been rich since the dawn of time for all the service this latest scion of the family would pay to such notions.
They learned from Mary that the mysterious 'Sarah' whose rooms they had inhabited was Noah's much younger sister, away in London with their mother. Rachel cooed with delight when they found the sewing room, but Kurt couldn't bear to extend his masquerade to an activity that he ordinarily loathed. He left her there designing some cloth or other to commemorate her upcoming marriage.
Wandering further, he discovered a music room with a small pianoforte set in the center and other instruments hanging from the walls. The pianoforte was immaculately clean, which he attributed to the diligence of the maids, but when he sat down and ran his fingers over the keys, he found that it was perfectly in tune. Another perplexing riddle in this most unusual household, but Kurt assumed it was kept up for the benefit of the absent Sarah.
He trifled a little on the keys, exercising his hands and his musical memory that had withered with the long months he and Rachel had spent living as outlaws. Gradually his skills returned and he wandered into 'Weep You No More Sad Fountains', losing himself in the creation of lovely music, but never forgetting to keep his voice in the alto range of a woman with his speaking voice.
Deciding that the tune was too melancholy for his mood, Kurt plucked out a more joyous melody, smiling as he sang. But then he recalled his precarious situation and the man who was currently responsible for his difficulties. He changed his chords, slowing the melody down more than was common, and sang softly,
Come all ye fair and tender ladies
Take warning how you court young men
Kurt's mouth twisted as he mocked himself with his song. If only he could resolve his puzzlement as to whether he wished Noah to court him or not. The writer of the song had an easy time of it, not being wrapped in the web of duplicities in which Kurt currently found himself.
Then away they'll go and court some other
And leave you there in grief to dwell
His hands banged a discordant note and Kurt stopped playing against the wash of anger. Noah had implied that he would leave Kurt untouched, his virginity intact, but that he would consummate his pleasures with other bedfellows. No words existed that could describe how much Kurt despised the idea. He had his pride after all, and he knew how wives with rake hellish husbands were treated. He had no intentions of allowing himself to become the object of such scorn and ridicule.
He slumped, fingers moving slowly over the keys as he finished the song.
But I am not a little sparrow, I have no wings, nor can I fly
"There's only one possible solution," Kurt said to the empty room, staring out of the windows at the fall of the lawn leading away to the road. "Bed him myself."
Memories of the night in Hull came back to him, the sure touch of calloused hands on his skin, a hot mouth on his chest, the hungry look in Noah's eyes when he'd first uncovered Kurt's body. A delighted shiver passed through Kurt's flesh. Bedding Noah would not be a chore for no doubt the man would make sure that the activity had a mutually pleasurable outcome. Kurt decided he was perfectly justified in surrendering to his lust for the infuriating man, if only for the sake of his pride and a harmonious marriage.
Smiling now that he'd made his decision, Kurt plucked out a livelier tune. He looked up as someone entered the room. Seeing it was Rachel, he changed the song to the 'Turban'd Turk', laughing at her blush.
But she soon overcame her embarrassment and joined him, their voices rising and harmonizing perfectly.
Yet let them ask as they cross the street
Of any young virgin they happen to meet
And I know she'll say, from behind her Fan
That there's none can love like an Irishman
Like an Irishman
They were both chortling as the final notes died away.
"And how does your Irishman love, dearie?" Kurt asked, pushing his voice to its very highest tones.
"Quite well," she answered. "And what of yours?"
"I have no Irishman."
She smacked him smartly on the arm. "You know what I mean. He seems intent on wooing you. Are you wooed?"
Kurt knew he had to unburden himself, not with the full tale and the reasons for his wariness of Noah, but the gist of their arrangement. "He has said that he won't seek his pleasure in my body unless I ask it of him."
"Does he remain chaste then?"
Flashing her an annoyed look for getting to the heart of the problem so boldly, Kurt answered, "I doubt it, considering his nature."
"What of your own wishes?"
"I have no intent to be played the fool," Kurt sniffed.
"But do you want him?" she pressed.
He nodded slowly, fearful of saying the words that he had but recently just disclosed to his own conscience.
"Then what is the obstacle to your happiness?" she asked. "Other than the obvious social stigma of your preferences and the outright criminality of such urges. And not to mention the fraud perpetuated on honest society by the deception that you and Mr. Puckerman have agreed to pursue."
"Thank you, Rachel, I hadn't considered any of that." Kurt didn't bother hiding his bitterness. Then he sighed. "I fear him, I fear to surrender myself to him. He is a force of nature and I have no way to prevent myself from becoming swept away."
She grinned at him. "I find myself eagerly anticipating such."
"A highly unacceptable notion, Miss Berry! Don't you know that respectable women find those ideas unappetizing?"
"Luckily we're not respectable," she answered and he was certain that she was deliberately echoing Noah's words on nearly the same subject.
His mood lifted. "Come with me to the cabinetmaker's after lunch," he begged. "Bring your sewing if you must."
She patted his hand. "All right."
"Greetings, Miss Hummel," the cabinetmaker said.
"Miss Berry, may I have the honor of introducing Mr. Webber?" Kurt said. He turned to the cabinetmaker. "She was my father's ward and is currently engaged to Mr. Finnegan Hudson."
Mr. Webber bowed, "A pleasure, Miss."
"Please, don't let us distract your work," Kurt said. "As Mr. Puckerman indicated, I find myself comforted by the reminders of my father that I find here."
"Thank you, Miss Hummel," the man said. "Please make yourself free in my shop."
The cabinetmaker returned to his careful carving of a piece of oak, apparently working on a bas-relief in celebration of a hunt if the pheasant feather he was currently making was any indication. Kurt wondered what the commission was. Rachel settled in the sunny doorway with the marriage cloth she had started that morning. Peace settled over the small shop, with the slight rasp of tools on wood the only sound as the man worked.
Kurt wandered, touching an awl here, running his fingers lightly over the teeth of a saw there, a fond smile creasing his face as his memories of his father wrapping his childish fingers around tools and explaining their use.
In the back of the workshop, he found the cabinetmaker's inventory of wood planks, some of them already bearing drawings to show their uses. One of the corners held a small slab of British walnut, clearly from some noble and ancient tree. Kurt crouched down to attempt to count the rings, but lost his place somewhere after a hundred. One end was neatly squared off, but the other terminated in an intricate burl. He touched the wood, tracing the contours of the burl, feeling the wood warm under his hand. He sighed happily.
"That was an old giant from up Doncaster way," Mr. Webber said, coming over to stand beside Kurt.
"It's lovely," Kurt breathed.
"Did your father ever tutor you in his art?"
Wary of some trap, Kurt replied, "A little. Not as much as my brother. Enough that I wouldn't injure myself with his tools."
"I've no more use for that piece; it's too small for any of my commissions and in any case, the burl would interfere," the cabinetmaker said. "But I can't bear to burn it. In the memory of Burt Hummel and in honor of your wedding, I would give it to you, to do as you like with it."
"You would let me . . . work it?" Kurt breathed hopefully.
"See that you don't harm yourself," the man said gruffly. "Mr. Puckerman is a pure terror when he's riled."
Kurt gasped, "Thank you, Mr. Webber! You have no idea what this means to me."
The cabinetmaker nodded, seeming uncomfortable with Kurt's effusiveness and turned back to his carving. Kurt settled on the ground in front of his new acquisition and studied it carefully, not sure what he might do with it but determined to create some beautiful thing from it, if only to honor his father's memory and to put his grief to rest at last.
They returned to the house as the sun veered slowly to the west. Kurt had no inkling of what he would do with his present, but Rachel was entirely happy with the progress of her wedding piece.
"It is a tradition," she explained. "To have a representation of the contract between the parties decorate the home. I have no contract with Mr. Hudson, but we have an accord that I can elaborate."
"I am glad that you've settled into such cordial relations with your intended," Kurt told her.
"Yours will come too, I'm sure of it."
The men had not returned by teatime, and when Rachel found the courage to inquire of their whereabouts to Mrs. Sylvester, the woman replied, "They have gone east on some errand."
"Did they leave us no messages?" Rachel exclaimed.
"They said I was to inform you that they would return in three days," the housekeeper replied. "And now I have."
Kurt said nothing; his suspicions that the woman did not appreciate their presence were reinforced by that exchange. Rachel pouted throughout the meal and afterwards Kurt tugged her along until they found the library. He soothed her mood by dramatic readings from the plays of Mr. Shakespeare until her spirits lifted.
"How can I long for his presence so much when I have known him but a few days?" she asked.
The matters of the heart being entirely mysterious to him, Kurt had no answer for her.
The morning brought the return of Mrs. Jones and Kurt found himself delighted to meet with the no-nonsense woman again. She was refreshingly direct and one of the small number of people with whom he could act as his true self.
"These are a few of the things that you and Mr. Puckerman commissioned," she said as she directed the maids to hang the gowns properly.
When the maid left, Mrs. Jones opened one last bag. "Mr. Puckerman requested these especially."
The bag revealed several sets of gentleman's garments, made with rich materials and fine fabrics, all exquisitely cut and fitted perfectly to Kurt's form when he donned them.
"Those colors are just the thing with your complexion," she said with satisfaction.
"Mr. Puckerman ordered these?" Kurt asked, unable to believe that Noah could possibly understand his feelings about always playing the girl.
"He did," she confirmed.
Kurt stared at himself in the mirror. He hadn't seen himself so well attired in over a year. He felt like had been given back a part of himself that had gone unaccountably missing. Suddenly, he knew what he would do with the beautiful piece of walnut, which Mr. Webber had gifted him. Noah deserved something as marvelous as the things that he had done for Kurt. Rachel's question lingered in his mind – how could a mere handful of days entwine two lives so completely? He suddenly longed for Noah's rude sarcasm and crude remarks.
"Thank you, Mrs. Jones," he said finally. "I find myself quite overwhelmed."
"He may not let others see it very often," Mrs. Jones observed, "but there is a good man lurking under that coarse exterior."
"I think you are right," Kurt replied.
She left soon after, and Kurt persuaded Rachel to accompany him to the cabinetmaker's workshop again, so eager was he to put his idea into motion. He sat down in front of his walnut and taking up a piece of charcoal, made some rough sketches on the surface of the slab, getting a rough idea of what he had to work with. A small table, an occasional piece with a drawer in the center, would work well with the remnants of the walnut. The wood was dark and would go well with Noah's coloring. Kurt faltered in his planning, realizing that he had no idea what Noah's rooms looked like.
He gripped the charcoal with renewed determination to make their relationship that of true partners when Noah returned from his mysterious errand. The piece was heavy, but Kurt managed to lift it to the table that held the band saw. Working the treadle, Kurt set the flywheel spinning and the saw moving. Carefully manipulating the walnut, he cut the slab into the pieces he'd marked.
When he finished, he looked up to find Mr. Webber staring at him. The man got up and walked over, touching the rough portions that Kurt had cut.
"Are you making a table?" he asked.
"Yes, a small side piece."
"It will be very small once you cut off that burl," Mr. Webber said doubtfully.
"I intend to leave it," Kurt answered. "It is a flaw, but it will be a beautiful one once I smooth it and polish it."
The man studied him carefully, but made no further comment, turning away to continue his work. Kurt was well pleased with the start he had made and mentally tallied the time he had until the day he was set to marry Noah Puckerman. He was certain that he had enough time to present Noah with two wedding gifts.
However, on the way back to his rooms that evening, Mrs. Sylvester accosted him.
"I know," she said without bothering to greet him first.
"Know what?" Kurt blustered, keeping his voice high.
"You think that Susan Sylvester does not know what occurs in her own domain?"
"No . . ." Kurt answered, not sure anymore in what direction this distressing exchange was proceeding. She could be referring to his gender, or his lack of suitable connections, or even his previous profession as a brigand. Her enigmatic statement gave no hint as to what sin she might be accusing him.
"Just remember that I am watching you," she said. "See that you toe the line."
Kurt had no concept of what he was supposed to do about that, and what boundary he was to be wary of. Or whether she was trying to warn him against hurting Noah, as if the rogue had a heart in the first place.
Noah and Mr. Hudson returned the next day, much to Rachel's unconcealed delight. She and Finn retreated to a corner of the parlor, murmuring what were no doubt nauseating endearments to each other. Kurt watched their performance without envy, happy that Rachel was so clearly appreciated by her bridegroom.
He looked up to find Noah watching him with a twist to his mouth. Noah stood up, smoothing his trousers. "Katrina, come with me if you please."
Kurt followed, dismayed by the formal tone of Noah's voice. He had thought to tell the man of his decision regarding their marriage as soon as he returned, but he found his courage deserting him.
Noah led them to the study, where he discarded his coat, tossing it to the side with a carelessness that made Kurt wince. His attention was quickly diverted from the abuse of the fine brocade by the sight of the skintight breeches that were revealed. Noah turned to pour himself something from the decanter and Kurt used the opportunity to study the heavily muscular legs, remembering again the strength of that body.
Unfortunately, Noah turned around before Kurt could fix his eyes on a more acceptable part of his intended groom. His mouth went dry at the sight of the contours of flesh that the breeches did nothing to hide. Noah's unpleasant mood seemed to evaporate instantly.
"It's not polite to stare," he smirked. He held two glasses in his hands, and he gave one of them to Kurt.
Annoyed at being caught in such uncouth behavior, Kurt took a large sip of the whiskey, wondering why he had longed for this scoundrel and his wicked humor to return. He raised his chin haughtily, "I was merely contemplating the quality of fabric that makes up your attire. And wondering if Mrs. Jones always plays the tailor in addition to the dressmaker."
Noah grinned at him, the smug look on his face telling Kurt that he didn't believe Kurt's excuse.
However, he merely asked, "You received the garments then?"
Kurt found his ire dissipating. "Yes . . . Noah, I must thank you. Those were a thoughtful gift."
"You are most welcome."
Choosing his words carefully, Kurt said, "I confess that I do not quite understand their purpose however. If I'm to become Katrina in this household, then Kurt has no place here."
Looking surprised, Noah asked, "Is that what you want? To always be Katrina?"
"No, not at all," Kurt answered, grief welling inside him at the thought of losing that part of him.
"You must understand," Noah said. "My people are loyal to me. You are safe here and are free to the man you wish. Once we are wed, they will protect your secret as fiercely as they would protect anything else that belongs to me."
"Even in the face of something that so unmistakably violates the mores of society?" He had no doubt that the amiable estate manager and many of the maids would cooperate, but he had reservations about the housekeeper – she surely hated him and would revel in his downfall.
"They are well paid and in any case, they know that I would do the same for them. If we have guests, then clearly you must be my wife, not my husband. Or when we occasionally return to London."
Kurt had never considered that he would be allowed to dress and act as his true self after he had made the bargain to save his life. He was overwhelmed and sank into the chair that Noah indicated without a word.
Noah handed over a document to him. Kurt looked at it, but it made no sense to him.
"What is this?"
"Mr. Hudson and I took some time in Suffolk these past few days." Noah leaned back, propping his booted feet up on the edge of his desk, a satisfied grin on his face. "We happened to play a few card games with a Mr. Bernard Higgins, a solicitor with a bit of a reputation for sharp dealings."
Kurt saw that he was holding a letter of credit made out to Noah Puckerman by Bernard Higgins.
"Tragically, however," Noah continued, "Mr. Bernard Higgins greatly overestimates his abilities at cards."
"You won my inheritance back in a card game?"
"The your father's workshop and contents were no longer Mr. Higgins' to dispose of, I am sorry to say, else I would get you the deed to that as well. I'll sign that note over to you and arrange for you to have money on account."
Kurt couldn't help himself. He set the paper on the desk and then buried his face in his hands while his shoulders shook with gales of mirth.
"Kurt?" Noah said in puzzlement.
"Higgins is a blackguard and a coward. I imagine he nearly pissed himself when he started losing to you, and then you take only this paltry sum."
"Finn and I estimated the value of your father's legacy and won precisely that amount. The sum is accurate."
"No, no, that's not what I'm implying." Kurt stopped to breathe. "The circumstances in which I find myself amused me. You have a dowry for me, which is actually the product of my attempts at highway robbery, but then you procure my inheritance for me in a card game. Once I was a respectable and unruffled young man, with nothing to disturb the placid surface of my life."
"Ah, I see," Noah said. He relaxed, picking up his drink and taking a long sip. "I am told that a pair of song birds have come to roost in my home. Perhaps you'll sing for us some evening."
"Perhaps," Kurt agreed, wondering again who played the pianoforte. Staring at the long graceful fingers holding the crystal glass, Kurt surmised that Noah might be the one to play. He certainly had the hands for it.
He raised his eyes to find Noah watching him with amusement again. With a sniff, Kurt decided that he would refrain from informing Noah of his decision regarding their marriage bed in revenge for the man's laughter at Kurt's expense. However, now that he had resolved to give his body over to Noah, Kurt found his curiosity running away with him as he tried to imagine what it would be like to surrender his virginity.
Feeling unaccountably flustered, Kurt stood up, remembering to give Noah a small curtsey instead of a bow. "I should collect Rachel to make sure she properly follows her toilette before bedtime."
They both knew he was running away, but Noah didn't say anything about it, merely murmured, "Good night, Kurt."
The morning of the wedding found Noah relaxing in his rooms, clad in only his dressing robe after his bath. He was optimistic about the success of his courtship of his reluctant 'bride.' He'd been treating Kurt with a mixture of formal politeness and veiled innuendo, making sure that he wore as few clothes as he could get away with and still remain decent. More than once, he had caught Kurt gazing at his form with a dazed sort of rapture. Noah was sure that the boy wouldn't be able to resist the desires of his body much longer.
At least he hoped Kurt would succumb soon. Noah had spent more time than he cared to recall taking care of his frustrations by himself. He had never before denied himself the pleasures of a willing body to slake his lusts with, but he was wary of doing any else that might drive Kurt away. Thus Noah had resorted to dealing with the problem on his own.
Kurt had reacted well to the kindness and thoughtfulness that Noah had shown him. The younger man was much more relaxed and confident, his blue-grey eyes shone with mirth more often than not. Noah enjoyed seeing him in a light-hearted mood, and while he had never exerted himself so much on behalf of another person, he found that he delighted in making Kurt happy.
Someone knocked on his door, and Noah barked, "Come in."
The door opened to reveal two footmen carrying a cloth-draped bundle, followed by Kurt himself. The younger man was wearing a plain morning dress and his hair up in an untidy coif.
"Isn't there some superstition regarding a groom seeing his bride on their wedding day?" Noah asked for the benefit of the footmen.
The men set down their burden and exited the room, pulling the door shut behind them. Noah took the opportunity to spread his legs a little wider so that his dressing gown gaped open.
"We've already overturned nearly every convention in existence," Kurt replied, carefully not looking at Noah. "Why not another?"
He twisted his hands and fiddled with his hair while Noah waited to see what had brought the other man to his rooms.
"I have a gift for you," Kurt said finally. "A wedding present. You've done so much for me . . . it's nothing special, a mere trifle."
Wondering why Kurt seemed so nervous about his gift, Noah pulled the robe closed, trying for once not to play his game of seduction with the youth.
"I'm honored to accept any thing that you would deem fit to bestow on me."
Kurt plucked at the cloth with shaking fingers, drawing it away to reveal a small occasional table. It was wrought of dark wood, polished and smooth to reveal the variations in the grain. Tapering legs held it up and a small drawer of simple design was set in the center of the apron. The most astounding thing was the top – it was partially distorted by an intricate burl, its whorls and curves creating a dizzying pattern. Noah had never imagined that a piece of furniture could also be a work of art. Noah left his chair and touched the smooth surface, running his fingers over the bumps of the burl.
"I must confess I've never seen anything like it," he said. "Beautiful."
"You like it?" Kurt asked, a flush of delight covering his cheeks. "The cabinetmaker thought it was useless because of the burl."
"But the burl is the best part of it," Noah argued. "An imperfection that makes it all the more interesting."
"Indeed," Kurt breathed, the happy light back in his eyes.
Noah clenched his fists in an effort to prevent himself from touching the boy. He ached to have Kurt in his arms, willing and pleased to be there.
"You made this?" he asked when he was certain that he could speak without growling at the boy.
"It is a lovely gift and I'm flattered that you thought to give me something that is the result of your talents. Thank you."
He stood up, pulling the dressing gown tightly around him to conceal the evidence of his desire for the man he would soon wed. His alluring 'bride' was indeed fraying his control of his urges. As soon as he was alone again, he would take steps to take the edge off his desires so that he could remain a gentleman around the boy. And if he did not, his trousers for his wedding costume would fit improperly.
"You are welcome," Kurt said, but he made no move to leave.
Noah reined in his passion with effort, knowing that the younger man couldn't understand how much of an enticement he was.
"I have something else for you," Kurt stated. "Another gift. Perhaps, perhaps not."
"How mysterious," Noah smirked. "Something that is and is not a gift?"
"It remains to be seen how you will view it," Kurt answered, his voice clipped with annoyance.
"Then perhaps you will enlighten me," Noah suggested.
Kurt looked at him intently and Noah was surprised to see nervousness on the boy's face. Wondering what could be so serious, Noah hoped Kurt wasn't planning to abandon his promise to go through with the wedding.
Clearing his throat, Kurt said, "I recall that we had an agreement between us . . . that you would not . . . touch me unless I requested it."
Attentive now, Noah answered, "That is my recollection also."
He desperately wanted to press further and inquire as to whether the time had come for Kurt to invite him into his bed, but Noah knew that he couldn't do it . . . that it must come entirely from Kurt's desires, for there was no other way that Noah could redeem his actions in Hull.
"Then my final gift to you . . ." Kurt said in a voice that was shaking, "is to surrender my body to you and ask if you would make this night our wedding night in truth. Will you?"
"Fool," Noah murmured, stepping forward and pulling Kurt into his arms. "How could you doubt my answer?"
The smaller man curled close, fitting perfectly against Noah. "I had to be sure," he replied.
Noah's hand was gentle this time as he tipped Kurt's chin up. He waited, watching the younger man to see if there was any hint of fear left over from their previous encounter. Seeming to match his impatience, Kurt put his arms around Noah's neck and pulled his head down. Noah allowed Kurt to control the kiss, entranced by the youth's tentative explorations, but he wrapped his arms around Kurt's waist, melding their bodies more closely. Kurt sighed into his mouth at the contact, and Noah already tenuous control snapped and he growled, hands tightening and lips growing more demanding. Kurt acquiesced so sweetly, surrendering to Noah so that the man wondered how he would ever make it until they could decently slip away that evening.
He pulled back finally, watching as Kurt slowly opened his eyes, which were wide and hazy. His lips were swollen and his pale skin couldn't hide the flush of arousal. Noah very much wanted to explore that expanse of skin to find out how Kurt responded to every thing Noah wished to do to him.
"The hours before I can make you mine will be long and tiresome," Noah breathed.
"I eagerly anticipate that claiming," Kurt murmured in response, stepping away.
Noah groaned, but Kurt's disentanglement was timely, for swiftly knocking came on his door, which proved to be Finn and several footmen.
"Until then," Kurt promised, turning with a swirl of skirts. "Good morning, Mr. Hudson," Kurt said to Finn as he exited the room.
"Mrs. Sylvester instructed us to bring along Miss Hummel's garments," one of the footmen said.
Noah pulled his scattered thoughts together to concentrate on the matter at hand. "Find space wherever you can. I'm sure Miss Hummel will arrange things later to her satisfaction."
He turned to Finn who was staring at the racks of clothing with puzzlement. "My rooms are busier than the village tavern. What do you need, Finn?"
Noah stepped into his dressing room to pull on some breeches, not waiting for Finn's answer. Evidently, he wouldn't have an opportunity to relieve the tension that Kurt had created. Not with so many people intent on taking up his time. He smiled to himself. Perhaps that was for the best – he and Kurt would come together with both of them drowning on the verge of desperation. Noah suspected that Kurt would not have much of an occasion to pleasure himself, not sharing a room with Rachel as he was.
Finn was looking oddly at the footmen when Noah returned, working the cuffs of his shirt. Finn had the look of someone struck by some startling idea and Noah sighed impatiently, not in the mood to deal with anyone else at the moment, not when he was treading the fine edge of frustrated longing.
"What is it, man?"
"Katrina," Finn answered.
"What about her?" Noah demanded, on alert all of a sudden.
But Finn said no more until the servants had departed. "I just realized," he continued when they were alone. "Her mouth was bruised when she left. Swollen. As though she had been ravished."
Noah smirked. "I make no denials."
Shaking his head, Finn argued, "But you do not like women. You might kiss her for courtesy, when circumstances require you to play the diligent husband, but you would never treat her so of your own accord. And never with such passion to leave her in that state."
Going to the door and locking it against further interruptions of what was proving to be a difficult conversation, Noah said, "She amuses me."
"No, I don't believe it. And those clothes. There were male garments in those stacks of dresses. She has no need for further masquerades. No need to play the boy." Finn laughed harshly. "But she is a boy, isn't she?"
"Don't be ridiculous."
"No, you're the ridiculous one. I may not be as quick-witted as you, but I can see how you've been since we brought them here. Not merely accepting the situation I forced on you. You've been happy. You knew it all along, didn't you?"
Seeing that Finn had finally deduced the truth, Noah gave up the pretense. "Not from the very first. But since Hull. His name is Kurt, by the way."
"And this boy . . . Kurt. He's agreed to go along with this mockery of a wedding ceremony?"
"Yes! You were there. You insisted that he and Rachel wed us or forfeit their freedom."
"You've seduced him, haven't you?" Finn accused.
"Not yet," Noah snarled. "I intend to make myself free of his body once we are wed."
"You can't go through with this, Puck! Don't you see that this is an affront to both God and man!"
"Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments," Noah quoted.
"I don't think that was quite what was meant by that poem," Finn retorted.
"Then you haven't read with an eye open for deeper meanings."
Finn ignored Noah's efforts to deflect his tirade. "I know you care little for the rules of society and comply only with those that you must. But this rebellion is going entirely too far and can only end in disaster."
"You think I'm doing this strictly as a matter of mutiny against the culture that barely tolerates me in first place?"
"I . . . I don't know," Finn answered uneasily. "I know you feel nothing but contempt for most of them."
Noah paced the length of the room. "Yes, I'll grant you, when I discovered his secret, my first thought was the great trick that I would play on all of the priggish fops who look down on me. But then I learned to know him better, and you said yourself, I've been happy."
"Do you love him?"
Considering the question carefully, Noah answered, "No, not yet, perhaps. But I think in time that I could. Let me have this chance to find contentment with my chosen mate."
"You are as close to me as a brother," Finn said. "And I have grieved for you, watching you lock your heart away for all these years. I feared that you would never surrender your bitterness."
"Kurt is both sweet and fiery. I think he can burn any bitterness out of my soul."
Finn exhaled a long sigh. "Then for that alone I will give you and he my support in any way that I can."
Noah nodded, having never truly doubted the greatness of Finn's heart to encompass whatever Noah needed to make himself happy. "Thank you, my friend," he said.
"So that ploy with the inheritance . . . you weren't trying to add to your already obscene amount of wealth, were you? I was wondering why you would even take the time over it."
Noah laughed. "No, I signed it over to him when we returned."
Finn gazed at him in wordless wonder for a long moment, and then shook his head. "He is a good influence on you. I haven't seen you like this, ever."
Not wanting to recall things best left alone, Noah changed the subject. "Is that your attire? I think your lady would have some unkind words if so."
"No," Finn blanched. "She has chosen what I'm to wear already."
"Then go make yourself irresistible for her. The day will be long but the night will cover us and our lovers."
They met the magistrate on the back terrace overlooking the gardens at the appointed hour. Noah had left the arrangements to the brides, but now he regretted that he hadn't insisted on a morning ceremony so that he could lock himself and Kurt away until the next morning. Never had he imagined that he would be eagerly awaiting his wedding night.
They had invited no guests, and would serve as witnesses for each other, but of course, the entire household of Bon Chance and the village had turned out to see its master wed. Neither he nor Finn had sent any messages to their mothers, preferring to have the deed complete before facing the potential for parental disapproval of their marriages to girls of low birth and no connections.
The maids had been busy making festoons of flowers to decorate the terrace, and the servants were present wearing their Sunday finery. Even Mrs. Sylvester had unbent enough to discard her customary high-neck black gowns for something looser and more feminine. She was a predator without the camouflage so no prey was ever easy in her presence, but Noah trusted her completely to look out for his interests.
His friend Mercedes arrived, looking magnificent in a deep red silk, shot through with strands of gold. The gown showcased her magnificent bosom, being cut quite low with a high waist that made her endowments all the more obvious. Noah stared blatantly, letting her catch him at it. She rolled her eyes, but blew him a kiss.
"I must thank you, Mrs. Jones," he said, stepping beside her.
"For what, Mr. Puckerman?"
"You did a marvelous job garbing my bride. She is quite happy."
"An artist's true pleasure is in her work," Mercedes answered. "And in the hefty fee she receives in recompense."
Noah laughed, but then Mr. Schuester opened the doors from the house and announced, "The misses Hummel and Berry."
Rachel was in a frothy confection with ruffles and lace spilling over everywhere, nearly hiding her figure. Noah looked aghast at Mercedes, who shrugged. He supposed that a determined enough bride could sway even Mrs. Jones' fierce sense of fashion.
On the other hand, Noah thought as he took his place beside Finn and the magistrate, Kurt looked perfect. His dress a slender column of fine silk without ornamentation, but the jacket over it continued the plain lines, but the material was a rich brocade, the threads glowing in the afternoon light. Mercedes had somehow managed to make his slim chest look as though he had cleavage and Noah silently applauded her abilities as a seamstress.
The words that would bind them together flowed over him, but Noah couldn't take his eyes off of Kurt. He repeated the things that he was supposed to, mildly surprised that he was eagerly anticipating his future as a married man, a situation that he had never thought would occur. Kurt answered with his clear voice, high and ringing like bells.
Somehow, Noah managed to make sensible conversation during the ensuing meal and the toasting. He wasn't sure exactly how he managed it, when all he could think about was the upcoming night, and Kurt's pale skin and slender limbs.
When night fell at last, Noah wrapped his fingers around Kurt's delicate wrist and tugged. The boy looked at him wide-eyed, but made no protests while Noah mouthed the correct polite dismissals. When his chamber door was shut between them and the outside world, Noah breathed a sigh of relief.
Carefully looking at the man he had wed against all the normal conventions of society, Noah noticed that Kurt was betraying his nerves, with shaking fingers that plucked at his gown. He no longer looked as happy as he had in the morning, but there was a kind of misery in his eyes that Noah never wanted to see again.
"Change your clothes," Noah demanded softly.
Noah reached out and removed a pin from the twist that kept Kurt's hair pinned up and held it out to Kurt, who took it with a puzzled look.
"Not that the dress isn't lovely and elegant, and exactly what I would have expected from you, but I didn't marry Katrina, I married Kurt."
Evidently, it was exactly the right thing to say, because Kurt's expression cleared immediately and the glowing face from earlier in the day returned. His step was light as he pranced into the dressing room. Noah pulled his jacket off while he waited, and then poured out a tumbler of whiskey, keeping his back to the door. He would give Kurt the opportunity to surprise him with whatever garb he chose for their night.
Turning around, Noah found himself in the room with a young gentleman, his clothing immaculate and his shoulders held proudly. Tight breeches clung to his lean thighs, and the cut of his coat emphasized his strong shoulders and slender waist. His hair was sleeked back and bound at the nape of his neck. His milky skin was flushed and his eyes were slightly anxious.
"Beautiful," Noah breathed, pulling Kurt against him.
He wasted no time pressing their lips together, wanting to have that taste that he had but just barely sipped in the morning. Kurt yielded to the invasion of his mouth without complaint and with no little amount of eagerness. His hands clenched Noah's shoulders when the Noah slid his thigh between Kurt's slim legs.
Wanting to see what Kurt's body was like, as well as feel the boy's reaction to him, Noah dropped his hands. "Let me, please."
Kurt clearly had no concept of what Noah wanted, but he stood still. Noah carefully worked the intricate knot of the cravat and slipped it free of the collar. He briefly considered taking it and tying Kurt to the bed, stretching him out so Noah could freely pleasure his body, but decided against such experiences for the boy's first time. He threw the cravat on the floor, before his fingers returned to remove Kurt's collar. He smiled at the subtle changes in the boy's breathing.
Noah watched Kurt's eyes as he slid his hands under the jacket, slowly pushing it off his shoulders and down his arms until it fell away. Kurt made a move as though he would pick it up and brush it off, but Noah entwined their fingers together, holding his hands still.
He stepped back, extending Kurt's arms until he could see the lithe form in the tight breeches with his chest still covered by his waistcoat. Kurt was still smiling, but his eyes had become puzzled, even as Noah dropped his hand and paced around him, taking in the view from all angles.
"I'm enthralled with your form," he told the young man.
As he anticipated, a flush poured over his cheeks, but the boy raised his head, a glimmer of mischief entering his eyes. Kurt mimicked Noah's actions, undoing his cravat and collar. His fingers barely trembled as he worked the buttons of Noah's waistcoat and then carefully pushed it open while his hands pressed firmly on Noah's chest. Noah stood still, allowing the boy his explorations, and admitting to himself that he was charmed by Kurt's attempts to reciprocate the seduction. Noah didn't mention that he was already well seduced.
Kurt passed behind him and Noah opened his mouth in shock at the unmistakable feel of a hand trailing over his backside. Before he could comment, Kurt had pulled the waistcoat entirely off and stood in front of him again. He deliberately raked his gaze from the top of Noah's shaved head to his feet, lingering long at his groin. Noah sucked in a breath, astonished to be the object of such blatant perusal. He'd feared that Kurt would be shy about the whole business, but this bold yet innocent behavior was inflaming him.
"I too must admit to enchantment," Kurt said finally.
Deciding to give his lover more of what he so clearly appreciated, Noah stood back, opening his shirt and tossing it away. Kurt gulped when Noah opened his breeches and slid them down his legs. Casting his undergarments away, Noah stood straight, not bothering to try to hide his cock, which pointed directly towards his intended target. Kurt finally dragged his eyes away to look into Noah's face again. Noah grinned, clearly challenging the boy.
Kurt responded, hands going to his own attire, but the trembling made his disrobing considerably less graceful than Noah's. When he was finally nude, he copied Noah's posture, with his head up and shoulders back. He made no effort of concealment and Noah drank in the sight of his body for the second time, appreciating his form all the more this time now that he was relaxed and happy in his nudity.
"May I touch you?" he asked politely.
Looking bewildered, Kurt answered, "Of course. But why must you ask?"
"Because once I get my hands on your lovely body, I'm afraid that I won't be able to stop until I've fully claimed every last shred of your innocence." Noah's voice was rough and hoarse, and he feared that he'd spooked the younger man.
Instead, Kurt smiled and stepped forward, winding his arms around Noah's waist. Their bare cocks nudged each other and with a growl, Noah cupped the rounded buttocks, pulling him even closer.
"Well?" Kurt challenged.
Searching Kurt's face for any sign of fear or hesitation, Noah found nothing but joy and no small amount of lust. The hard lump that had been caught in his chest since Hull dissolved. Laughing, Noah pulled them backwards until they landed on the bed. He took his time then, covering every inch of Kurt's skin with his mouth and fingers, rediscovering all the places that made him moan and squirm. He showed the boy how to pleasure him – showed him the spots that made Noah pant with ragged control. He taught Kurt that there was no shame in anything that he wanted.
When they both couldn't stand it any longer, Noah laid Kurt out on the bed, spreading him open with tender care. Kurt kept a tight grip on his arm while Noah's fingers plundered his furled entrance, his eyes wide with wonder as his body yielded to Noah.
After he had convinced himself that Kurt would feel no pain from their joining, Noah knelt between Kurt's legs, putting the boy's knees over his arms and pushing his legs back. Nudging Kurt's entrance, he pushed in with one long slow thrust, not stopping until he was completely sheathed in the young man.
Noah rode them both to completion, but they slept little that night, enjoying each other's bodies many times.
Even though the autumn air had a distinct chill to it, Noah was sweating due to his unseemly run back to the house. Taking the stairs two at a time, Noah hurried to their rooms, knowing that he'd lingered too long with Finn and they were likely to be late for Lady Ashton's hunt party. They had dispensed with lady's maids in order to keep secret the truth of their union, and Kurt would need his help to dress. He hoped that Kurt wasn't in too much of a bad humor, but in truth, he enjoyed his mate's blistering tongue and incendiary temper.
He steeled himself to composure and quieted his breath, knowing it was best to appear as if he'd done nothing wrong. When he was certain that he presented a picture of calm, he opened the doors to their suite quietly.
What he saw inside took his breath away, and immediately drove out any concerns about being tardy to the party.
Kurt was trying to do up his corset by himself, his body contorted oddly as he tried to pull the laces tight enough to give himself more of a girlish figure. In the days since he'd come to Bon Chance, he'd filled out with good food and security. Noah enjoyed the more solid version of his lover, but it made his masquerade as a girl more difficult.
His lower half was completely naked, the curves of the corset outlining the sleekly rounded backside. A wave of lust swept through Noah at the sigh of that delicious bottom just waiting to be plundered. Kurt was bracing himself against on of the posters of the bed. Noah cleared his throat.
Kurt looked up, annoyance plain on his face. "Noah. You're late. Get over here and help me before I strain something."
Noah smirked to himself as he did as Kurt had ordered. However, he stopped by the bed and pulled the sash from the dressing gown that Kurt had discarded there. Kurt looked at him, wide-eyed and startled. By this time, though, Noah knew that Kurt was willing to engage in any bedroom adventures that might occur to Noah. He had rarely met anyone who was so sweetly responsive and compliant with his desires; someone who matched him in lust and passion. Truly the only problem usually, was persuading Kurt to abandon his will to Noah's.
Noah pressed himself against Kurt's back, pulling the smaller man towards him until every contour of Kurt's body conformed to the contours of his.
"I would be devastated if you were to be injured in any way due to my tardiness," he growled into Kurt's pale ear. The boy shivered in his grasp. Noah wrapped one end of the sash around his slender wrist, tying it securely but ensuring that the knot wouldn't be tight enough to cut off his circulation or tighten further than Noah wished it.
He put the sash around the bedpost several times and then pulled slowly on the free end, so that Kurt's bound wrist was raised over his head. Noah liked keeping things slow so that Kurt had every chance to understand what was going to happen. He slid his hands to Kurt's other wrist and lifted it until he could wrap the free end of the sash around it, securing him against the post with his hands up.
"Let me help you dress," he said.
"Noah," Kurt breathed, his earlier grouchy attitude disappearing. Noah suspected that he had no thoughts of the party either.
He tightened the strings of the corset, slipping his fingers under the boning to check the fit. Kurt's hindquarters seemed to be even more attractive with the tightness of the garment displaying them. Noah turned to the stockings that were laid out at the ready on the bed.
He knelt behind Kurt and circled the young man's ankles with his fingers, pulling the foot off the floor. Slowly and torturously, he slid the silk up Kurt's strong leg. Noah made sure that his fingers scraped across the sensitive spots on Kurt's cheeks as he tied the fragile silk to the bottom of the corset. He gave the other leg the same treatment and then stepped back to admire his work. Kurt's crevice was framed and emphasized by the silk. Noah yielded to temptation and pressed an open mouthed kiss to the shadowy cleft, flicking his tongue out. Kurt gasped and squirmed.
Noah rested his hand on the swell of muscle, letting his fingers drift into the divide between his buttocks. Kurt had made no complaint about the treatment, but now he shifted, pushing back appealingly against Noah's hand.
But Noah wasn't quite finished with his little termagant. He picked up the lacing to the corset and ordered, "Breathe out."
Kurt complied, and Noah pulled on the laces, tightening the embrace of the whalebone.
When Kurt did as he asked, Noah pulled the strings even tighter. Kurt struggled to breathe, keeping his respirations short and careful against the constriction around his chest.
"Third time pays all," Noah murmured, his voice gentle yet firm.
With a whimper, Kurt pushed his air out again and Noah pulled the laces even harder, closing the gap of the garment. Kurt was trembling at his time.
Noah stepped back, enthralled by the picture he made, his backside set off and accentuated by the silk, his hands helpless, and his air partially cut off. Kurt whimpered low in his throat, twisting his hands as though he would escape. Noah knew from experience that if Kurt truly objected to their play, then he wouldn't hesitate to show Noah the rough side of his tongue.
He leaned against his lover's back again. "I am going to enjoy your body, to leave my seed deep within you. And you are going to attend the party this way, with no other undergarments, only the feel of whom you belong to steadily dripping out of you. When the party is concluded, we'll return and I'll put more of my seed into you, to mix with this offering."
Kurt's entire body flushed at the promise, but his other response was to open his legs further, giving Noah better access the best he could with his arms imprisoned.
"I am the luckiest of men," Noah said.
He reached for the pot of unguent that they kept convenient for their needs, and worked Kurt open carefully. The boy made a few impatient noises, earning an amused chuckle from Noah. His lover was the most demanding of men when he was in search of pleasure, although he submitted easily to whatever Noah required of him.
Noah slid inside, savoring the moment when his rigid shaft was enclosed by the heat of Kurt's delicate inner tissues. He waited for the moment when Kurt would lose all patience with his gentleness and try to screw himself on the prick invading him. Noah delighted in the evidence of Kurt's desire for him.
"Controlling bastard," Kurt muttered, his voice tight with the effort to talk with his limited air, as he was well aware of Noah's manipulations, but his hips flexed nevertheless. And then he was silent, and Noah put his hand on Kurt's chest, feeling as the smaller man struggled to breathe around the pressure on his lungs.
Noah took over from there, long swift strokes that lifted Kurt onto his toes with every thrust. He held Kurt's hips in place to ensure that he got the best possible angle for the boy's pleasure. Kurt cried out and squirmed in his bindings. Noah guessed that he wanted to touch himself, so he indulged the boy, wrapping his fingers around Kurt's weeping erection. Kurt pressed his cock anxiously into Noah's hand and they reached their climax together.
Kurt sagged in his bonds, his eyes blank and his head lolling. Noah quickly loosened the strings of the corset and untied Kurt's hands. Kurt sagged in his arms, and though Noah was briefly worried that he had taken the game to far, but Kurt gave him a dazed smile.
"Utterly marvelous," Kurt breathed.
At the party, Noah kept Kurt's hand resting on his arm. He found that he couldn't take his eyes off the enchanting creature that he escorted. He was aware that most of his acquaintances were amazed that he'd finally been tamed.
"You make quite the agreeable couple, Mr. and Mrs. Puckerman," Mrs. Lloyd-Young.
"I think so," Noah replied.
"And we can but hope that your family will soon be blessed by a darling addition," she suggested.
Beside him, Kurt stiffened, but Noah refused to release his hand. "If the Lord wills it," Noah said. "If you'll excuse us, I think they're calling for dinner."
Kurt was uncharacteristically silent the remainder of the night. Noah knew that the local society had become entranced with his 'wife', both for Kurt's witty conversation as well as his clear voice, which he indulged them with songs on occasion when he and Noah went to parties. The other diners discretely avoided mentioned he odd glum visage.
When they returned to Bon Chance late in the night, Noah no longer had any thought to make good on his promise from earlier in the day. He had not seen such sadness in Kurt's eyes since the day that they'd pledged themselves to each other.
"Ignore those tabbies," Noah said as he loosened the ties to Kurt's gown, helping him out of it and then opening the corset. "They know nothing of how it is between us."
Kurt's hair was still pinned up in an elaborate style and his stocking hadn't fallen off yet, although the ribbons no longer held them in place. He looked young and vulnerable, an incongruous sight of feminine decoration on a clearly male body. Kurt dropped his head into his hands.
Noah stripped off his own attire, dropping the clothes on the floor to be dealt with later. He wanted to enjoy Kurt's body again as he'd promised, but he wanted to resolve the younger man's heartache before they touched. He wasn't used to this silent Kurt, because he'd never hesitated to express his opinions on anything from the moment they had met.
"Tell me what it is," Noah demanded finally, ready to assert his rights as a husband if necessary.
"You deserve children," Kurt said, looking up at him and for once ignoring Noah's naked body.
"What?" Noah asked, not understanding what Kurt meant
"I'm not truly a girl!" Kurt shouted, clearly losing his patience with Noah's obtuseness.
"I know," Noah said, puzzled by the outburst.
He bowed his head again. "I can't give you the family you should have. You would make an excellent father."
Finally understanding what had contributed to Kurt's distress, Noah considered how to explain to his lover that he had no need for the trappings of a conventional family. He liked their alliance as it was, and had no intention of altering it. An idea occurred to him then, a way to give Kurt back some of what he seemed to lack having been forced into their masquerade.
Noah went and lay down on the bed. "Have me," he said. He rolled to his stomach, spreading his legs and pushing his rear up slightly.
Noah looked over his shoulder, a smirk spreading over his face. "Show me you're not a girl."
He ground his hips into the bedclothes, rubbing himself sensuously against the silk, knowing that he presented a picture of wanton maleness. As he watched, Kurt's face cleared and determination replaced sorrow. He put his hands up and pulled the pins out of his hair so that it fell around his face. He ripped the silk stockings off his legs and then crawled on the bed between Noah's outspread thighs. Noah turned his head to the pillow, supremely confident that Kurt would wring every spare ounce of pleasure out of his body that he could. He trusted that Kurt would take care of him.
Trembling fingers skittered down his spine. Kurt's breath rasped in his ear, and then Kurt pressed an open-mouthed kiss to the nape of his neck. Noah pulled the pillows under his chest, getting himself comfortable, completely prepared to let Kurt lead the way in their encounter.
As Noah expected, Kurt was careful with him, fingers delicately pressing inside, working his body until Noah was beyond caring. He kept quiet though, indicating his approval of Kurt's action with moans and whimpers. He wouldn't let his begging push Kurt into doing something he didn't want to.
Kurt entered him in a smooth stroke, Noah's body so well prepared and open that there was no pain. Noah sighed happily as warmth invaded him along with Kurt's member. At first, Kurt thrust carefully, controlled strokes aimed at Noah's prostate, but gradually Kurt lost control, riding Noah hard and rough, plowing into him without regard to his pleasure. Noah groaned, working a hand beneath himself and giving his cock the extra stimulation he needed to achieve his climax.
"Kurt!" he shouted as his body clenched, slamming down around the shaft that invaded him.
Kurt gave a whimper as Noah's body enclosed him in an iron grip and then soon followed him into ecstasy.
After their bodies calmed, Kurt pulled out carefully and turned Noah over. His eyes were wide with an odd mixture of anxiety and pride.
"Did I . . . hurt you?"
Noah stretched luxuriously, rippling his muscles, and giving Kurt a blissful smile. "Not in the slightest. That was sublime."
Kurt answered his smile, relief in his eyes. "Good."
Arranging the pillows behind his back, Noah sat up and pulled Kurt against him, holding the younger man close. He eased his fingers through Kurt's hair, soothing them both with the contact.
"I have a daughter," he said finally.
Kurt nuzzled him, but did not say anything, perhaps understanding that this tale was the crux of Noah's previous behavior, the source of his anger and resentment. For his part, Noah was surprised that he was able to tell his history to anyone but Finn, who already knew it.
"When we were quite young, still in school actually, Finn and I met a girl who had just had her first season. She was quite taken with both of us, or so we thought. We competed for her affections and it delighted her pride to have both of us panting for her."
Noah shifted, wanting to run away from the remembered pain, but Kurt tightened his grasp on his shoulders.
"I was naïve in the belief that she could actually accept me in spite of the contempt which she regarded my faith. It turned out that what she desired was Finn's name and my wealth. Unfortunately for her, Finn's mother is most shrewd and forbade the match."
He pressed his face into Kurt's hair, glad for once that he had let go of the hurt of his younger days and was able to share his life with the sweet boy in his arms.
"She lay with him in an attempt to conceive, and trap him in to marriage, knowing that I would never abandon him. When it failed, she did the same to me and my seed fell on fertile ground. She told Finn that the child was his and when he came to me with the news, I disputed the account and claimed the child as mine. She got back at me by asserting that I had raped her."
Kurt raised his head. "I have good reason to know you aren't capable of that."
Noah nodded. "She declared that I was jealous and had assaulted her out of envy for what Finn possessed. And she told me that Finn was my friend merely out of pity. She sought to make us hate each other, and yet she failed. Lady Hudson would not relent and when Lady Fabray discovered her daughter's indiscretion, she exiled the girl from her home. Finn and I had long painful talks and eventually mended our friendship. For her treachery, I turned my face away from relationships with women and sought only men in my bed."
"And the babe?"
"When she was born, Lord Fabray took custody of her. I settled a large sum on her when I reached majority and obtained control of my wealth. I have an agent who reports her condition to me."
Kurt smiled. "What is her name?"
"Elizabeth." Noah gripped Kurt's chin, pulling him up for a kiss. "As you see, I have no need for another child. I am content and indeed blissful with my life with you. Don't ever think that you aren't everything I desire in a mate."
Cuddling closer, Kurt could not hide the rosy tint the swept over his pale skin. "Thank you."
Noah hopped over a puddle, cursing as icy water soaked his boots. He despised London in the winter, but business kept him there. He tried to avoid St. James as much as possible, but the viscount was damnably curious about their adventure the previous summer and their brides. 'Shallow grave' was Noah's response to questions about brigands, and 'met in York' was his answer to questions about their brides.
St. James bothered him for some reason that he couldn't put his finger on. Kurt didn't like him much and tended to absent himself whenever the man was in their home, playing the dutiful wife and leaving the gentlemen to their pursuits. Visiting his home was a new turn of events – in past years, St. James had disdained Noah's company and refused it unless it was something that involved Finn as well. Nowadays, Noah had a suspicion that St. James was more interested in Kurt than was decent and seemly. Kurt had said nothing about any improper behavior, but Noah wasn't blind.
When they had first returned to London and made St. James' acquaintance, his attention had been focused on Rachel. She, being supremely confident in her place in Finn's bed and heart, had remained indifferent to the viscount. When he then turned his attentions to Kurt, for no other reason than to annoy him, Noah was certain, Kurt had become flustered. St. James had misinterpreted Kurt's fear of discovery as shameful interest in him, and had pushed the line even further. Noah did not know how to divert his interest away from Kurt.
He had spent the morning at the docks with Finn in attendance, dealing with the most recent arrivals of shipments from India. He was weary of haggling and wanted to spend the afternoon enjoying Kurt's presence.
The brougham stopped before his townhouse, discharging him and Finn. The door burst open, and one of the footmen dashed out.
"What is it?"
The man turned frantically towards the interior of the house. Fear churned inside Noah as shouting came from within. Before he could make a move, St. James exited, followed by two constables holding a struggling Kurt. His morning gown was ripped down the front, revealing his flat and muscular chest. His eyes were wide and terrified, full of a fear that Noah hadn't seen in months.
"Noah!" he shouted.
"You should thank me, Mr. Puckerman," St. James said, pulling on his gloves. "I've exposed the conspiracy in your household."
Noah lunged for him, but Finn unexpectedly wrapped his arms around Noah, preventing him from moving.
"Noah, please!" Kurt shouted.
"He's to be charged for a variety of crimes," the viscount said and then turned away.
Noah struggled to get out of Finn's hold, but the bigger man dug in his heels and refused to release him.
The constables shackled Kurt's arms indifferently as the boy sobbed. Noah's heart seemed to be breaking.
"Let me go to him," he growled at Finn.
"No, you cannot," Finn disagreed.
"Puck, no. You cannot know anything about this. If you make a declaration, you will be arrested as well, and then you won't be in a position to save his life."
Noah stiffened, understanding finally what Finn was saying. With one last look at Kurt's distraught face, he turned away.
"No!" Kurt screamed.
"St. James," Noah snarled.
The viscount turned around. "You wish to thank me no doubt."
"No, I wish to call you out for touching what's mine."
"Your wife turns out to be a fabrication. Thus I did no harm."
"But you did not know that before you laid hands on her."
St. James sighed theatrically. "Puckerman, surely you know better. You are no gentleman."
"But I am," Finn said. "Meet me, if you dare."
"We'll see," the viscount said, waving a handkerchief as his carriage arrived and he climbed inside.
Noah sagged in Finn's arms, grief sliding through him like a sword thrust to his gut. "Explain yourself, Finnegan," he demanded.
"Rachel instructed me," Finn said. "We have long discussed what might happen if Kurt's masquerade were discovered."
"You are a friend above price," Noah said. "What must we do?"
He couldn't think what action to take next. His brain was no longer capable of formulating any sort of a plan.
"We go and consult with my overly clever wife. Don't worry, Puck. We'll save him."
Weeks in Newgate had taken their toll. When Kurt was finally summoned to have his case heard, his legs shook as he followed the guard to the courthouse adjacent to the prison. The ever-present chains had chafed sores into his wrists and ankles. He had lost weight from the atrocious food, and he weighed less than he ever had, even as a highwayman. Although, that reminded him that thus far, he hadn't been charged with that particular crime.
The very worst part of all of it was the knowledge that he had been abandoned by the one person he had trusted above all others. Noah's desertion hurt more than his fractured skin or his shrunken belly. However, he noted that he was treated slightly better than the most wretched prisoners, and given the turnkey's habits of extortion, he supposed that someone must be paying for him. He presumed that Rachel hadn't forgotten him and was diverting as much of her household allowance as she was able.
Thoughts of Rachel were the only thing that lightened his spirit during his incarceration. She had told him her happy news the day before Viscount St. James had appeared and torn Kurt's life into shreds. She was the one thing he had succeeded at in his life – he had kept her safe until Finn had appeared and fallen for her. He was glad to know that she would prosper, even if he did not.
He wanted to blame his father's solicitor for forcing him down the path that had eventually led to his liaison with Noah, but he knew that he wouldn't trade the time he had spent at Bon Chance for respite from his current predicament. Despite his bitterness over the loss of that love, Kurt couldn't help but remember those months that they had spent together with fondness. He was certain that he wouldn't live long enough to become bitter over the frailty of love.
The courtroom was crowded and disorganized. Kurt trembled as he was shackled into the dock. He kept his head down, not willing to see Viscount St. James ever again. The man was slimier than the stones of the prison and Kurt had never trusted him. He had been certain that Noah shared his distaste, although they had never discussed it. But now he was certain of nothing, only that his instinct had been right – Noah Puckerman had ended his life.
"Rex versus Hummel," the bailiff called.
"The charges are gross indecency and sodomy, fraudulent inducement to marriage, theft by fraud, sexual abuse, causing a breach of the peace, and theft of services."
"I presume we can proceed to sentencing," the magistrate said.
"Begging your pardon, m'lord," a man said, whom Kurt guessed was the prosecutor. "But we have witnesses."
"It was my understanding that the accused has offered no defense," the judge said.
Kurt paid no attention as the constables described the events in the townhouse and the disgrace that he brought upon the Puckerman household. He had no argument to make – many people had witnessed his claim to be Noah's wife, and there could be no argument that he was male. His hope was that Rachel could be kept away from prison. All his struggles would be for naught if she were also indicted for any sort of crime.
"The court calls Lord Finnegan Hudson."
"Swear him in."
Kurt could barely stand to look at Finn, but he noted that the big man looked sound, happy and prosperous. Kurt assumed that all must be well with Rachel and her babe.
"I have a statement to make on behalf of my wife, as is my right. My wife is with child and has no wish to be involved in these proceedings."
"Proceed, Lord Hudson."
Finn unfolded a paper, and read, "My wife disclaims any knowledge of any deception perpetuated by the accused, Kurt Hummel."
"The prosecution has no wish to dispute the statement of Lord Hudson."
"Very well," the magistrate said. "May we conclude?"
Kurt's relief that Rachel would be kept out of the mess was short-lived. He listened in horror as the prosecutor called the next witness.
"The court calls Mr. Noah Puckerman."
Kurt's heart froze and then shattered as he looked at Noah, who looked handsome and fit and well groomed and everything that Kurt wasn't.
"Mr. Puckerman is represented by counsel, Mr. Hyde-White," the prosecutor continued, "and will testify with regards to sentencing."
"Very well, Mr. Hyde-White, proceed."
The barrister stood up and stated, "Mr. Puckerman would also like to petition this court to declare that the fraudulent marriage between himself and Kurt Hummel to be null and void."
"This court isn't the proper place for such matters," the magistrate protested.
"We agree. However, there can be no doubt that the marriage was never valid, given the circumstances. Mr. Puckerman would like a declaration just to clear the way for any future alliances."
Clenching his fists around the rail of the dock and hoping that the cuffs around his wrists would support him if his legs failed, Kurt wondered if he really cared any longer whether they executed him or not, while he listened to the words as Noah repudiated him. He forced himself to look at the man he'd married, but Noah never met his eyes, concentrating on the barrister.
"Continue," the judge ordered.
"Very well. Mr. Puckerman, were you aware that the woman you had married was in fact a man?"
"No. She was very modest and shy. I never saw her unclothed."
"Was the marriage consummated? Surely you had some suspicion during your intimate relations."
Kurt watched Noah narrowly, seeing that he looked distinctly like Finn at that moment, with his eyes wide and befuddled.
"My wife was a very proper lady and not overly given to the exercise of passion. Very infrequently, as a matter of note. Not being entirely familiar with females and presuming that the amount of skirts she wore to bed were natural, I thought the marriage had been consummated, but I couldn't say with any certainty now."
So Noah denied his very nature, sitting on the stand looking like a wounded innocent. Kurt supposed he could expect nothing less, although his testimony appeared to clear Kurt of the crime of sodomy as well. Perhaps his fellow convicts wouldn't assault him when he went back into the prison to await his hanging.
"As to the matter of the charge of theft by fraud, could you explain to the court the amount of monetary damages you sustained in the course of supporting the person whom you presumed was your legal spouse."
Now Noah looked like a slack jawed idiot and Kurt almost wanted to laugh. "Well, I spent somewhere in the nature of fifty pounds buying her . . . I mean him, new clothes. And possibly in the area of ten pounds feeding him in the course of our relationship. He's not very big really."
"So you estimate that you incurred sixty pounds in expenses for the maintenance of this criminal. Were there any offsets?"
"Oh, well, my wife brought a dowry of six hundred pounds, so I actually came out a little bit ahead."
"Excuse me," the magistrate said. "Is it your testimony that you suffered no overall loss in this enterprise, Mr. Puckerman?"
Looking confused again, Noah answered, "I suppose you have the right of it, your Honor."
"The charge of theft by fraud will be dismissed," the judge said to the prosecutor.
"Very good, your Honor," the man replied.
Kurt was a little shocked at the speed of the transaction. The theft charge had been the most worrying one, as it was still considered a capital offense. He found that his legs were working a little better and also that life didn't seem so unendurable anymore.
"Now, Mr. Puckerman, as to the charge of theft of services," Mr. Hyde-White continued. "Could you explain to the court how you were denied the company of a wife for the duration of your fraudulent marriage."
"Mrs. Puckerman . . . I mean, Katrina, uh, I mean Mr. Hummel, kept my house running quite efficiently. He made sure that Cook produced my favorite meals and got along very well with my housekeeper. She, uh, . . . he has a lovely voice and kept me entertained with his sweet singing. At parties, he made graceful conversation and was polite to all of my acquaintance."
Kurt could see that the magistrate was looking at Noah with a fair amount of resignation.
"Mr. Puckerman, you appear to be describing a very satisfactory marriage," the magistrate interjected.
A look of puzzlement spread over Noah's face that was so patently manufactured that Kurt nearly laughed aloud. "I believe you are right, your Honor. I hadn't seen it that way."
"Aside from the lack of sexual congress with your lawful wife and thus the heir that would be expected from such relations, it appears you've suffered no damages from this marriage."
"That does seem to be the way of it," Noah agreed.
Kurt forgave him a little for his desertion, and couldn't help the small thrill of satisfaction to hear Noah claim himself happy in their marriage.
"I have heard enough," the magistrate said. "You may step down, Mr. Puckerman."
Noah appeared to want to say more, but Kurt saw Mr. Hyde-White shake his head ever so slightly.
The magistrate continued when Noah was seated in the audience. "As for the charges of gross indecency and sodomy, sexual abuse, and theft of services, I find no grounds for them and am dismissing them, along with the previously dismissed theft by fraud."
The prosecutor murmured his agreement, and Kurt sagged a little with relief, realizing that they were the most serious of charges.
"In the matter of the charges of fraudulent inducement into marriage and causing a breach of the peace, I find the defendant, Kurt Hummel, guilty."
Kurt stood up straight, ready to hear his fate, resigned to it even.
"Given the testimony of mitigating factors provided by Mr. Puckerman, who is in fact the most grievously injured party in this matter, my ruling is that Kurt Hummel will not be given the convict brand, but he is an undesirable member of this society. He will be indentured for a period of seven years and transported to the colony of Australia without delay. His indenture will be sold upon his arrival in Botany Bay."
Refusing to cry, Kurt looked straight ahead, although his heart was beating frantically at the mere thought of any brand being set into his skin, particularly the 'C' of a convict. He consoled himself that seven years wasn't a lifetime and he would still be a relatively young man when his sentence was concluded. He grieved that he would never see Rachel again, but he hoped that Australia wasn't as barbaric as rumor had it.
"As for the matter of the petition of annulment, this court declares that there never was any marriage between Noah Puckerman and Kurt Hummel, and that Mr. Puckerman is legally and morally free to seek a legitimate wife."
He had known that their marriage no longer existed from the moment that Noah turned his back on him, but hearing the words spoken by a stranger seemed to make the whole thing so much more final. Kurt kept his posture absolutely perfect, refusing to let anyone see how profoundly the words hurt him. He sensed Noah's eyes on him, but he would not turn around.
"This court is adjourned," the magistrate said, standing and pulling his robes around him as he exited the court.
The guards soon unlocked Kurt's fetters so that he could be returned to Newgate. As the door on the outside world was about to close on him, Kurt couldn't resist the temptation to look back. Noah was watching him with guarded eyes, and Finn stood behind him, his big hand on Noah's shoulder as if in support of his friend.
Kurt locked that memory in his heart as deeply as he could, knowing that it would be all he had to console himself with for the long weary years ahead of him.
Back in Newgate, he was put in with the rest of the convicts awaiting transport. Kurt knew that he should make acquaintances among them, but he had never been very good at making friends. He knew his manner would make him seem as a weakling to be preyed upon, and thus he judged that he would be better served by silence.
The food was poor and the stench of human filth nearly overpowered him at times, but Kurt found a new resolve within himself. The strength that he'd tapped when he'd taken himself and Rachel away from an unsupportable situation was still within him. He would not allow Noah Puckerman to break him.
Some endless time later, which he had no way of knowing how many days had passed, because in the depths of the prison it was always night, the group of convicts were finally taken to the docks. Kurt was shackled in a line of miserable humanity, shuffling along in their weakened state, while the free citizens of London jeered and threw things at them. Kurt shivered at the chilly mixture of garbage and water that had been dumped over his head.
He took deep breaths of the open air and consoled himself that at least he wouldn't die in the noxious darkness of Newgate. Their progress was slow but they eventually reached the docks where the reek of the Thames assailed Kurt's nostrils. They formed a ragged line at the bottom of a gangplank where two guards from the prison seemed to be checking names of a list. The line moved slowly.
"Hummel, Kurt!" someone shouted and Kurt looked up in shock to the face of Mrs. Sylvester who was dressed like one of the female wardens from Newgate. Her face was hard and mean, and she wore the uniform as if it was her everyday garb. He couldn't imagine what she was doing on the docks, but her presence was in no way reassuring.
He cleared his throat. "I'm here."
She pulled a ring of keys from her belt giving no sign that she recognized him. Unlocking his shackles from the chain and tugging him away, she set a brisk pace down the quay.
"What's happening?" he gasped.
"Quiet, filth!" she snarled.
Feeling his hope that somehow he was going to be freed evaporate from her manner, Kurt said nothing else. Eventually, they reached another ship and stood waiting while cargo was loaded.
Mrs. Sylvester said finally, "Your indenture has been purchased already. You won't be going to Australia."
The captain saw them at that point and strode over before Kurt could ask any more questions.
"Is this my passenger?" the man asked.
"Indeed, Captain Harkness. Here are his documents." She gave several papers to the man.
"And the key to his shackles?"
"Have his purchaser strike them off when you arrive."
"I'm not a slaver," the captain growled. "Is he charged with a crime of violence?"
"Of course not," she answered.
"Then release him. He's more use on board ship if his hands are free."
She did not argue, merely picked up Kurt's wrists and unlocked his shackles. Kurt rubbed the sore places on his arms, not knowing what he should do next.
"If you have no more requirements," Mrs. Sylvester said, "then I must return to my employer."
The captain gave her an odd look, but said nothing else. Kurt supposed that she must mean Noah, not the prison, but the whole morning was distressing and confusing, and he refused to think about what any of it might mean. He shied away from the thought that Noah had anything to do with the current situation.
"Come aboard," Captain Harkness said, gesturing up the gangway.
Kurt followed him without speaking, still trying to make sense of all that had happened to him.
"This isn't a passenger ship," the captain said, "so I have no quarters for you unfortunately. I've been well paid for your passage, but my crew would no doubt appreciate it if you could help us in any way you saw fit."
"Of course," Kurt murmured. "Might I ask a question?"
"You just did," the captain answered, and then said, "sorry, a poor jest. What is it?"
"Where are we going?"
"The Port of Montreal," the man replied. "Canada."
The voyage was a trial for Kurt, although he had a surprisingly strong stomach and was not prone to seasickness. The crew made derisive comments about him, but he had faced worse in his life and was able to ignore them. He was filthy though and had only his prison uniform as a garment, and was unable to bathe given the scarcity of water on board ship. He supposed that it was better than the voyage to Australia, given that this trip was so much shorter. His beard had come in while he was in prison, and it was scraggly and uneven, and it itched unbearably.
He had no skills that were useful on board ship, so the duties he could perform involved mostly cleaning things. His skin cracked and chapped from the soap and the glacial winds that blew on them unprotected from the poles as they swung north in their transit across the Atlantic.
The captain gave him a few looks that Kurt had no trouble interpreting, but he pointedly ignored the suggestion. He had no doubt that he could be clean and well dressed if the captain were to take him to bed, but he found that his body still longed for Noah and his heart had not quite reconciled itself to the loss of its mate. He was sure that Captain Harkness wouldn't particularly care about his emotional state, but Kurt wasn't quite at the place where he could whore himself in exchange for comfort. However, he tried to accept that at some point in the future, he would have to give himself to someone else, no matter how distasteful the idea was at the moment.
One morning, he awoke to find that the scenery had changed from endless billows of grey-green water to small islands covered by trees wearing a riot of colors that he had never imagined existed. The ship was tacking carefully among the bits of land and Kurt forgot his duties as the ship finally entered a broad waterway.
"This is the Saint Lawrence River," the captain said, coming to stand by Kurt at the rail.
Kurt had never imagined a river of such vast size. Forested banks slid by them, a dense tangle of vegetation that stretched for miles. Only a few habitations broke the unending lines of trees. The chill of autumn bit the air and Kurt shivered in his thin garments. He had a hard time grasping the differences between this savage land and the placid cultivation that was England.
As he scrubbed the deck, he couldn't help but raise his head frequently to watch the banks of the river, which gradually narrowed as they went upstream. One day they passed a town, which he understood from the other sailors was Quebec. Finally, the harbormaster met them and piloted them into the harbor at Montreal and Kurt supposed that his long journey was at an end. The crew wrapped the hawsers around the stanchions and the ship was berthed.
"I'm still responsible for you," Captain Harkness said. "I must find your employer and transfer your papers. Don't try to run off."
"I won't," Kurt murmured, wondering what his new situation would be like. A little seed of hope was growing inside him, as he wondered if Noah might have arranged this. He prayed that the person who had such control of his life would be kind.
It was several hours before the captain returned, and Kurt passed the time sitting at the rail and humming to himself.
"Lets go," Captain Harkness said.
At the bottom of the gangway was a well-dressed man in a chair. Behind him stood another man, dressed in much plainer clothes and with the attitude of a servant. Thick spectacles distorted the first man's eyes, but they did nothing to disguise the sharply intelligent glance that he gave Kurt.
"Mr. Arthur Abrams," the captain said, handing the man several papers. "Your new servant, as contracted."
"Thank you, captain," Mr. Abrams said. "Does he have any belongings?"
"Only what you see."
"Very good. Walk beside me, please, Hummel."
Kurt hurriedly rushed to keep pace with the chair as it became apparent the device was on wheels. The servant pushed Mr. Abrams, carefully avoiding rough patches in the wooden planking of the docks.
"You need a wash first," Mr. Abrams said. "I don't know if I can tolerate your presence in my coach."
"Yes," Kurt agreed, embarrassed by his grubby appearance.
Mr. Abrams gave instructions and they proceeded to one of the many bathhouses along the way that catered to sailors freshly disembarked from the ships. With instructions to be quick, Kurt nevertheless made sure he enjoyed every moment of the decadent feeling of being clean and warm again. When he stood up from the wooden tub, he discovered that the prison rags he had discarded had been replaced with a pair of plain trousers and a simple shirt, along with a thick woolen cloak. He had no comb for his tangled hair so he smoothed his fingers through it as best he could and ripped a small section from the shirt's hem to tie it back. He wished for a razor to clean up his face but supposed that would be impossible for the time being.
"Much better," Mr. Abrams said when Kurt returned to him. "You look more human."
"I feel more human," Kurt said, and then wondered if he'd been presumptuous.
Mr. Abrams smiled. "We must travel overland to my home. The river becomes impassible after Montreal."
"Where do you live?" Kurt asked, encouraged by the man's friendly demeanor.
"It is called York, although I prefer the ancient tribal name for it, Toronto."
"York?" Kurt almost wanted to laugh, for it had been in York that he first spied Noah, and thought him no more than a drunken fool with far too much gold for his own good.
"Yes, not terribly original," Mr. Abrams said. "Hence my preference for the Iroquois name."
"I shall call it so then," Kurt said.
They reached a well-appointed coach and the manservant carefully helped Mr. Abrams out of the chair and into the coach. Kurt watched the procedure carefully, determined to make himself useful to his new employer. The chair was put up top in the baggage rack and the manservant seated himself and picked up the reins.
"In here with me, Hummel."
Kurt got into the carriage, seated opposite Mr. Abrams. He wanted to ask any of the thousands of questions brimming inside his throat, but he didn't want to anger the man and counseled himself to patience.
"You must be curious about any number of things," Mr. Abrams said, breaking in on his thoughts.
"Yes, but I don't want to appear improper."
"I will tell you a few things and then if you have more questions, you are welcome to inquire."
"I will not set you free before your period of indenture ends, but if you come to me and ask that you be sold to a particular new master, I will allow it if I think it is the best thing for you."
Kurt furled his brow at that most perplexing declaration, but said nothing other than, "Thank you."
"I am sure your are wondering how you came to be in my employ when you expected to be going to Australia."
"Indeed, I grant that I was most mystified when my berth was changed," Kurt responded.
"My grandfather was from England, Levi Abrams. He left behind his closest friend when he emigrated – David Puckerman."
Kurt's eyes went round with shock.
"Yes. The families stayed in touch. His grandson, Noah Puckerman, sent me a letter as soon as you were arrested, asking for my aid if it became necessary."
Kurt refused to let a single tear spill from his eyes. He'd learned to be strong, he'd protected his foster sister until she found a good man, and he'd learned how to give his heart to someone else. And for a while he had believed that his trust was misplaced, he had discovered that was not the case. All of Noah's actions suddenly made sense – he'd been trying to help Kurt to a better state of affairs the whole time and hadn't abandoned him. Quite the contrary. Kurt was suddenly ashamed of his lack of faith in Noah's promises, although he told himself than anyone in his position would have thought the same thing.
"He promised he'd always take care of me," he whispered, one tear leaking out before he could stop it.
Arthur nodded in confirmation, "He still is and I don't believe he will ever stop."
"I won't let him down," Kurt vowed. "Nor you."
His employer smiled at him. "I believe that you will have many opportunities for future happiness. This is the New World, after all."
Kurt didn't argue with him, although he was certain that he would never again find the same bliss that he had in the brief time he had spent with Noah. His body and his heart were irrevocably given, and could not be retrieved, though he might find other companionship in this strange land. His first love would always be a bittersweet memory locked in his heart for comfort in the lonely nights.
He turned his face towards his new life, determined to make the best of it.
"What will you name him?" Noah asked.
Rachel spoke up. "If it is a boy, he will be Isaac, and a girl we will name Katrina."
Sorrow and delight warred for mastery inside him, but Noah pushed the grief away with an effort. Now was not the time for regrets.
Finn leaned over Rachel's tiny form, his large hands cupping her swollen belly. "Never would I have guessed that St. James' idiotic bet would lead us here."
Noah smiled, catching Rachel's eye. No doubt she appreciated her husband's sentimentality, but they both understood that Finn's exuberance ignored the other results of that wager. However, Finn was so cheerful and neither of them could fault the man for forgetting what St. James had cost Noah.
He was glad that Finn had found his happiness with her, but part of him regretted that, despite the name, her child would be lost to his race.
"Isaac is a good name," was all he said of his concerns.
However, she said softly in their ancient tongue, "It will be well."
He nodded in understanding. He trusted Finn in her hands, knowing that she would keep a sharp eye on his affairs. And in return, his friend would indulge her whims with regards to the education of their child.
"I came to tell you that I am leaving. I have sold all my estates and goods."
All his possessions were gone, with a very few small exceptions and one of those included a delicate walnut table. He had cut all his ties with his native land and would find what he needed in his life across the ocean. He had no doubts that he would succeed, as he had complete faith in Kurt's strength and ability to keep himself thriving.
Finn's face fell, as he suddenly realized that while his contentment was complete, Noah's had been ripped away from him. "Must you leave, Puck?" he asked.
"This land has become too confining."
Rachel put a hand on his arm. "Are you going to Australia?"
Noah shook his head, a bubble of anticipation growing in his chest. "No, I am taking a ship from Southampton tomorrow . . . bound for the Port of Montreal."
Finn looked uncertain. "But I thought . . . I was sure that you would . . ." He shook his head. "Your heart won't be broken forever."
Noah couldn't hide his smile, knowing that he was confusing his old friend, but some details were best kept to himself. "My heart was never broken."
He bowed, ready to take his leave, his heart already skimming across the miles of waves, eager for his mate. Noah repeated Rachel's words.
It will be well.