Rodney had only been tutoring David Sheppard’s children for two months, and every day he felt like he desperately needed a break. Given that the Sheppard estate was a brief oasis of green, manicured gardens and a sprawling house in the middle of otherwise dangerous wild frontier land, Rodney wasn’t able to go far, and he certainly wasn’t allowed to get lost, not like he had before, back home, in bookshops and dark gentleman’s clubs, in warm firm bodies and -
No. There was a reason Rodney was out here, and not back in Toronto. He’d almost been found out. Jeannie had warned him, given him time to flee before their father became too suspicious about Rodney’s constant rebuffing of courtship overtures from eligible young women (and their suitable families). Home was no longer safe.
The wilds beyond the Virginian green gardens, maintained by an army of staff, weren’t safe either.
The only safe place to go was the lake on the edge of the estate. Aiden, the head groundsman, accompanied Rodney on horseback along the path to the lake the first time, and after that, Rodney was allowed to take a gentle, plodding mare on his own. Sleeping under the stars and eating over a fire was barbaric, but at least Rodney was free from piping children’s voices and Mrs. Sheppard’s constant bustling and the sensation that he was a stranger in his own skin.
Under the stars, reading by firelight, poetry and whispers of prose that Rodney didn’t dare even open to the light of day back at the house, meant Rodney could feel alive. He spent the entire weekend by the lake, letting Molly graze and drink from the lake as she chose, reading and writing and sometimes just staring at the sky, imagining the wider universe and all its possibilities. Entropy. Energy. Matter. The building blocks of reality.
He lingered longer and longer each journey - and turned up some scribbled piano compositions to show for his time alone - and so had to scramble to get back to the estate in time. He was just leading Molly into the stables in the bare light of dawn, trying to be quiet so as not to disturb Aiden or Bates or Stevens or any of the other groundsmen, when he rounded the corner to the stalls -
And nearly swallowed his own tongue.
A nearly-naked man was standing in the middle of Molly’s stall. He had a shock of dark hair, miles of golden skin wrapped around lean muscles, a dusting of dark hair down his chest and belly to where his denim trousers were open.
“I do apologize,” Rodney stammered. He should turn away, give the man some privacy. He knew Aiden and the rest were barbarians of the lowest order, thugs uncaring of things like decency and manners, and the rest of the groundsmen and horse wranglers were the same, but just because they were uncivilized didn’t mean Rodney had to stoop to their level. But Rodney couldn’t tear his gaze away from the tantalizing dark curls -
The man arched an eyebrow at Rodney, unmoving. Then he smirked and fastened up his trousers, reached back and scooped up a flannel shirt, tugged it on and began buttoning it. He tucked it into his trousers and fastened on a belt. The scrap of red cloth over his shoulder he fastened about his neck, a bandanna, a mask.
He was some kind of outlaw.
Rodney backed up, stumbled into Molly, hands raised in a gesture of surrender. The man strapped a pistol to his right thigh, another to his left hip, and shrugged on a heavy jacket.
“Please don’t hurt me.”
“Not gonna hurt you,” the man drawled, and then pressed a finger to his lips in the universal gesture for silence. He tugged a wide-brimmed cowboy hat over his unruly hair, then stepped out of the stall and to a massive, dark stallion in the opposite stall. He caught the horse’s reins and smoothed a hand over its nose, the gesture fond and familiar.
With a click of his tongue, the horse surged forward and followed the man out of the stables, past Molly.
Rodney could only watch him go, horrified.
The man tipped his hat at Rodney and winked, then swung himself up into the saddle with easy confidence. He spurred the horse forward with a kick of his heels, and Rodney could only watch as horse and rider vanished into the morning mist.
The man had been bunking in the stables. On the run from the law? Or perhaps some vagabond trying to stave off the night chill? Maybe Mrs. Sheppard had offered the man some christian charity on the Sabbath.
Rodney shook his head, pushing the mad thoughts aside. So long as nothing had been stolen from the house, he wouldn’t say anything.
Couldn’t say anything. Every time he thought of the man, he saw his half-naked body, all that lovely flesh.
He might even be a stable boy or something. Not boy. Man. Rodney didn’t know most of the staff beyond the house. He unsaddled Molly, hanging up her tack and gear carefully, and combed her down, filled her feedbag. He would need to return to the house and bathe.
He had enough time to join the family for breakfast, if he went quickly. Lorne, the cook and household manager - alongside Miss Teldy - was kind to Rodney, would help him find hot water to wash away the dust of the road.
Rodney patted Molly farewell, gathered up his pack of books, paper, pens, candles, and a trail mess kit (also provided by Lorne), and started for the house.
Mr. Sheppard came storming out the the front door, still in his nightshirt, boots and coat on.
“Where is he? I know he was here.”
Lorne and Teldy hurried after him.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir,” Teldy said. “I spoke to Mr. Ford and the rest of the groundsmen, and the estate has been undisturbed all night.”
“And everything in the pantries is accounted for,” Lorne added.
Rodney thought of the strange man who’d been hiding in the stables. Should he hide? Should he say who he’d seen?
Rodney didn’t dare. He dusted himself off as best as he could. “Is everything all right, Mr. Sheppard?”
“You didn’t happen to see a scoundrel as you returned from your weekend sojourn, did you?” Mr. Sheppard’s dark hair and blue eyes were wild.
“A scoundrel?” Rodney thought of the stranger’s smirk, his wink.
“A large man, half-native,” Lorne said. “Wearing leathers? Armed with a war-bow.”
“No,” Rodney said. “Definitely not.” He shuddered. He’d have been terrified of encountering such a man.
“Not him,” Mr. Sheppard snapped, and Lorne’s eyes went wide in surprise.
“Who do you mean, then?” Rodney asked.
And Mr. Sheppard seemed to really register Rodney’s presence for the first time. “Never you mind, Mr. McKay. Go, wash up. Julianne and the children will expect you at breakfast. Speaking of breakfast, Lorne -”
“Of course.” Lorne nodded at Rodney. “I’ll start warming water for your bath. Aiden will bring it up.”
“Thank you,” Rodney said. He hurried into the house and up the servant stairs to his quarters in the attic.
Sheppard Junior was a miniature version of his father, dark-haired and blue-eyed and unwaveringly sure of his place in the world, of his worth. Miss Sheppard was a miniature version of her mother, golden-haired and also blue-eyed, quiet and prim and proper and silently disapproving of anything that didn’t reflect the latest fashions in the weeks-old periodicals that arrived in the mail once a fortnight.
Every day they began with recitation of multiplication tables, historical facts, scientific facts. Rodney figured out that the best way to get any decent performance out of the two children was to pit them against each other, and then they would drive each other toward academic excellence. Miss Agnes Sheppard was gifted at arithmetic. David Sheppard Junior was skilled in, of all things, music.
Once recitation was finished, Rodney would sit at the pianoforte and play simple tunes so they could practice their dancing, manners, and deportment. Allowing them on their feet to move around helped them concentrate better than if he made them sit or stand for hours on end, as his own tutors had done.
Then there was arithmetic, and then standing beside the piano and singing, and then learning more poetry, and then a break for play. There was history, and of course science, and then lunch.
After lunch, Mrs. Sheppard educated Miss Sheppard in the ways of embroidery and other things Rodney wasn’t qualified to teach, and Mr. Sheppard educated Sheppard Junior in the ways of breeding horses. That was the Sheppard family’s business, the only part that had survived the War of the States. Rodney attended supper with the family, and after supper his services as pianist or orator were required, playing songs for Mrs. Sheppard to serenade her family, or providing readings from classic works.
Rodney tumbled into bed at the end of each day, exhausted from hunching his shoulders against Mrs. and Miss Sheppard’s judging stares, from lifting his chin in the wake of Mr. Sheppard and Sheppard Junior’s sardonically lifted brows. Most teachers these days were women. Rodney was an accomplished physicist, could have been conducting research with the likes of James Clerk Maxwell. What he was doing teaching on the frontier for a disgraced plantation owner? Obviously Rodney had suffered a disgrace of his own, even though no one would breathe a word of it. (There were no words to breathe.) Rodney had to endure their continued disdain to ensure his own continued safety and security.
The only things that kept him alive were Lorne’s food (the man was a chef of astounding caliber), his weekends away, and his physics texts.
And now, dreams of the beautiful stranger from the stables.
Rodney survived to the weekend, and Friday after supper he fled for the stables, pack in hand.
“Be careful,” Lorne said. He handed Rodney a little leather pouch full of hard trail rations. “It’s dark. Yes, the moon is full, but the Wraith might be out.”
The Wraith, a gang of horse thieves who were after the expensive horses the Sheppards bred.
“Or that giant half-Native man, I suppose.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Lorne said, a knowing gleam in his eyes. “See you early Monday morning?”
“Monday morning.” Rodney nodded and headed into the stables.
A hand clamped down on his shoulder.
Rodney started to cry out, but another hand closed over his mouth. He was dragged into the shadows of the stall opposite Molly’s. His captor spun him around, and Rodney found himself pressed up against that stranger.
“Quiet,” the man whispered. He cocked his head, listening. As Rodney’s eyes adjusted to the dimness, he could see the stranger’s fine horse in the stall with Molly.
Rodney’s heart was pounding in his ears, and he couldn’t hear anything. The stranger smoothed a hand over the nape of Rodney’s neck, the gesture absently affectionate, comforting.
But then Rodney heard Lorne speaking to Teldy, chatting about plans for the meals over the weekend.
“In fact,” Lorne said, “I’m trying out this new orange sauce. You should come taste it for me.”
“The weekend’s our only chance to try it - because Mr. McKay is allergic to citrus.”
“Oooh - does this mean crepes?” Teldy sounded more light-hearted and eager than Rodney had ever heard her.
“With lemons and sugar,” Lorne assured her. “Please, do me the honor?”
“Always so formal, Evan.”
“I may only be a lowly cook now, but my mother raised me to be polite.”
Two sets of footsteps faded, and then the man released Rodney.
“Thanks,” he said, “for helping me stay undetected.”
“Who are you?” Rodney asked.
“You can call me John.”
“What are you doing here, John?”
“I’m just a down-on-his-luck soldier scraping by on the kindness of strangers.” John moved to step around Rodney, then paused. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Rodney, it’s always a pleasure to see you.” John tipped his hat at Rodney. “Fare thee well.” He headed for Molly’s stall.
“A pleasure,” Rodney echoed, and swallowed hard at the way his voice wavered.
John paused again. He turned to Rodney, his eyes gleaming in the shadows. “How much of a pleasure?”
“I have no idea what you mean,” Rodney said indignantly. “If you take your beast and go on your way, I’ll take Molly and be on my way -”
“First of all,” John said, “Jumper is descended from the Arabian mares who raced across the desert sands during the Crusades and the destriers who bore the knights of the great Kings of Europe. He’s a fine horse, not a beast. And second of all, I think you know exactly what I mean.” He stepped closer to Rodney, close enough that Rodney could feel the heat of him.
Rodney stepped back, but John stepped in again.
“I don’t know anything,” Rodney insisted. John was warm and, Rodney remembered from their brief, delicious press, very firm. Strong. Rodney closed his eyes, swallowed hard. Flashed back to that first encounter, John half-naked, trousers unfastened -
“Are you sure?” John’s cool breath scrolled across Rodney’s ear.
“Perfectly.” Rodney squeezed his eyes shut.
“Well, you do sound pretty sure.” John’s voice was low, amused. “But if you change your mind, let me know.” His lips brushed the edge of Rodney’s jaw, and a shiver traveled through Rodney’s entire body.
Rodney opened his eyes just as John swayed back from him. He was still so close, close enough that if Rodney swayed forward, he and John could kiss.
But then John was gone, taking his delicious warmth with him, swinging into his horse’s saddle and vanishing into the night.
Rodney stared after him, galled and aroused and confused. Molly was munching contentedly, her nose in her feed bag. She barely acknowledged him, and she didn’t seem to mind either Jumper or John. That was a sign, wasn’t it? That John wasn’t a bad person. Horses, like dogs, could sense a person’s character, couldn’t they? Rodney fetched her saddle.
“Come on, Molly. It’s time to go.”
Rodney hit the trail riding hard, saddlebags jostling behind him. He could see the trail easily in the moonlight. He’d make it to the lake in a couple of hours, and then he could hitch Molly to her favorite tree and both of them could sleep.
If Rodney could sleep, remembering the gleam of John’s eyes and the ghost of his lips on Rodney’s skin.
Well, it was his. The words were just for him, the words that brought him to life.
Most scientists thought poetry was the stuff of silliness, of women and fops of men, but to Rodney, poetry was beauty. Knowing how the stars moved was one kind of beauty. Being able to give voice to how the motions of the stars made him feel was another.
Rodney’s other cohorts at the gentleman’s club (he’d been a member of two, one dedicated to science, another dedicated to rather more carnal pursuits) had thought his plans to hie for the frontier, down in America no less, was nothing short of madness. He’d be alone. He’d have nothing to do, nothing to be.
Rodney liked the quiet, the stillness, because where it was still, then he could be, free of distraction and temptation and noise.
Not that there was never noise - those bleating children - and distraction - the problem of Maxwell’s Demon - and temptation - John - but Rodney could sense himself, was aware of himself because he wasn’t constantly trying to keep up with everyone and everything else. Molly was tethered to her favorite tree, and Rodney had appropriated her saddle to use as a pillow. He was sprawled beside his crackling fire, gazing up at the stars. He knew how they moved, how they pushed and pulled each other, how they burned and burned and burned.
One of his most precious keepsakes was a tiny piece of a fallen star, that Jeannie had found for him. Would that he could give a piece of a star to another.
“No specious splendor of this stone
Endears it to my memory ever;
With lustre only once it shone,
And blushes modest as the giver.
Some, who can sneer at friendship’s ties,
Have, for my weakness, oft reprov’d me;
Yet still the simple gift I prize,
For I am sure, the giver lov’d me.”
Rodney yelped and scrambled to his feet, fumbling for the knife Lorne always pressed upon him for self-defense.
John and his massive stallion stood at the edge of the firelight.
“What would you know about it?” Rodney snapped, defensive, even though the most logical response would have been, What are you doing here? You scared the wits out of me!
Not that John inspired much logic in Rodney.
John said, “He offer’d it with downcast look,
As fearful that I might refuse it;
I told him, when the gift I took,
My only fear should be, to lose it.”
Rodney straightened up. “You know Byron.”
“That I do. What are you doing out here all alone?”
“This is my time alone. My duties at the house are done and I can spend my time however I wish.” Rodney crossed his arms over his chest. “I would like to continue my time alone, so if you and your Jumper move along, I would very much appreciate it.”
John stepped into the light so Rodney could see him fully. He was wearing a dark waistcoat over his shirtsleeves and dark leather chaps. He still wore two pistols, one on his thigh, the other on his hip. Beneath the brim of his hat, his mouth was curved up in amusement. In the firelight he looked touched with gold.
“So you come out to the lake and recite poetry to yourself?”
“And what if I do? This from the man who knows the same poems by heart.” Rodney edged closer to the fire, but his heart was racing, and he felt too warm.
John shrugged carelessly. “You have interesting taste in poetry.”
Rodney hadn’t realized a person could be beautiful and irritating at the same time. “You can hardly judge. You have the same taste in poetry.”
Again with that amused curving of those red, red lips. “Yes, the very same taste.” John dropped Jumper’s rein and moved even closer to Rodney. “Has someone given you a carnelian, then?”
“No,” Rodney said, rolling his eyes. “It’s just a poem.”
John slid even closer, his footsteps perfectly silent beneath the pounding of Rodney’s heart. “A poem that’s something of an acquired taste, don’t you think?” There was innuendo there.
Rodney caught it, where so many others would not have. “Not acquired,” he said, “but nature-given.”
John tilted his head, and Rodney could look into his eyes. In the dimness of the stable they’d looked dark, but in the firelight they were - bright. Golden. Gray. Hazel. Brown. Green. Blue. Long-lashed. “Are you a scientist or a poet?” He reached out, brushed the back of Rodney’s hand with his fingertips.
Rodney’s body responded quite scientifically, with a surge of adrenaline, his body temperature and pulse climbing. John was more than attractive - he was intoxicating. But his mind responded with poetry.
“Whoever you are holding me now in hand,
Without one thing all will be useless,
I give you fair warning before you attempt me further,
I am not what you supposed, but far different.”
John grinned. “Whitman. So you are a poet.”
“So are you, and yet you said you were a soldier.” They were speaking softly, voices low, barely audible over the crackle of flame and the lapping of the lake water on the shore.
John curled his fingers through Rodney’s, palm to palm, and Shakespeare of all things flittered through Rodney’s mind, holy palmers’ kiss.
John’s answer was poetry.
“We have shared our blankets and tents together,
And have marched and fought in all kinds of weather,
And hungry and full we have been;
Had days of battle and days of rest,
But this memory I cling to and love the best - ”
Rodney surged forward and silenced him with a kiss.
For two seconds, it was perfect. Heaven. Stars. Celestial light. John’s lips were warm and soft, his body against Rodney’s hot and firm. John’s hand on Rodney’s tightened, and Rodney was on fire, was complete, was alive.
A shrill whinny shattered the perfection.
John wrenched himself backward with a gasp. “I have to go. Stay here, Rodney, and you’ll be safe. I’ll lead them the other way.” He ran and leaped onto Jumper’s saddle, yanked the reins and wheeled him around, galloped away into the night.
Molly whickered, stamped her hooves, and Rodney hurried over to her, smoothing a hand along her neck to try to soothe her. He didn’t know why he was trying to soothe her, because his heart was racing; he was frantic.
But then piercing whoops sounded on the other side of the lake, followed by the thundering of hooves. Rodney pictured the giant half-Native man Lorne had described, or perhaps the Wraith, those pale-faced monsters who came out of the mist, primitive weapons raised, and slew any in their path, took their horses. He clung to Molly, and she nickered softly, nuzzled him with her velvety nose. The hoofbeats faded into the distance, but it seemed forever after that before Rodney’s heartbeat finally returned to normal.
He untied Molly from the tree and guided her close to the fire, urged her to lie down. He pushed the saddle close to her and curled up beside her, but there was no way he’d be able to fall asleep, not knowing those outlaws were running amok in the darkness, not knowing John was out there.
John, who Rodney had kissed.
Rodney finally fell asleep on the hundredth remembrance of that kiss, tumbling into dreams of soft lips and warm skin and John.
Rodney was allowed to lunch away from the family, and usually he ate in his room, taking what brief respite he could from the chaos of the household, but today he’d accepted Lorne’s invitation to eat in the kitchens with Lorne, Aiden, and some of the rest of the staff. Miss Teldy tended to eat on the servant’s stairs, in earshot of the family while they lunched, should they need anything.
“The fresh air is invigorating,” Rodney offered. He couldn’t explain that he needed time alone to be himself, to set free the parts of himself that weren’t welcome anywhere but the shadows and side-streets of home. At least out here, his true self could be open to the stars.
“That it is,” Aiden agreed. “It’s why I like bunking on the roof of the stables better than bunking in the barracks with the rest of the men.”
“You sayin’ you don’t like us?” Stevens asked. He was older than Aiden, but for whatever reason Aiden had seniority among the horse wranglers.
“I do like you,” Aiden said easily. “I just like fresh air better.”
Stevens laughed good-naturedly.
“Tell me,” Rodney said, “what did you do before you worked for Mr. Sheppard?”
“Was a soldier,” Lorne said, the corners of his mouth quirking downward for just a second.
Aiden and Stevens and Markham and Stackhouse and all the other men in the room nodded as well. Rodney wasn’t going to ask which side they’d fought for.
Instead he asked, “And before that?”
“A painter,” Lorne said.
“As in...painting houses?” Rodney asked.
“As in Titian, El Greco, Da Vinci, Michelangelo.” Lorne served Aiden another helping of potatoes and gravy. Aiden was like a bottomless pit.
Rodney raised his eyebrows. “Really?”
Stevens nodded. “He’s exceptionally talented. Sometimes the local sheriff asks him for help with Wanted posters.”
“Well, I hope I’m never wanted, then,” Rodney said. “Whatever likeness you made of me would be too accurate.”
Aiden laughed. “It’s true. No one escapes Lorne’s pen.”
Rodney cut his glazed carrots into small, neat pieces. “What about the rest of you? Before you were soldiers.”
“Worked the Sheppard plantations,” Aiden said. “Like my grandma before me.”
The other colored men nodded, their gazes downcast for a moment. Rodney winced internally. Surely his father would have simply believed Rodney was one endless social faux pas, and that was why women who extended overtures of courting to him always failed.
“So tell me more about the Wraith,” Rodney offered. “I keep hearing about them, how they’re pale and frightening. And how they have that giant half-Native man fighting for them.”
Lorne slewed him a dark-eyed look. “Who told you that?”
“Master David, I suspect. He’s always going on about them.” Rodney shrugged.
“The Wraith aren’t Natives,” Aiden said, “and if they had even a half-Native working with them, it wouldn’t be willingly.”
“Oh. Then who are the Wraith?”
“Outlaws,” Stevens said. “They paint themselves pale, because they want everyone to be afraid.”
“Of pale skin?”
Stevens glanced at Aiden, and both of them shrugged.
“And stealing horses is scary?” Rodney pressed.
“Stealing horses is profitable,” Mr. Sheppard said, and Lorne and Aiden and the rest were immediately on their feet, as respectfully as they could muster on such short notice. “The killing is for fear - and for fun.”
“Mr. Sheppard.” Rodney was the last to rise, but he inclined his head politely all the same.
“I have come to inform you that I will be keeping Junior with me, while we oversee the latest horse trades,” Mr. Sheppard said. “Mrs. Sheppard will be keeping Agnes.”
“As you please.”
“Enjoy your afternoon.” Mr. Sheppard spun on his heel and vanished.
No one in the kitchen relaxed until his footsteps faded and Miss Teldy appeared, bearing lunch dishes. She lifted her chin at Markham, and he scrambled up the servant stairs to help finish clearing the table.
Rodney automatically moved to help clear the dishes off the table he and the other men had been eating at. His parents would have been galled, to see him acting like a servant, but out on the frontier everyone had to pitch in, or so Jeannie had told him in one of her earliest letters, when he’d complained about the draughty attic and rough wool blankets and the indignity of an outhouse.
Lorne rolled up his sleeves, tossed a dishtowel over one shoulder, and signaled for Aiden to fetch some water from the pump. He scraped what scraps remained into a bucket for Stackhouse to give to Mr. Sheppard’s hunting hounds. Both beasts looked like they were part-wolf, and they ate almost as well as their human master.
Aiden returned with cold water, and Rodney had to take a deep breath before he plunged his hands into the dish tub to help scrub.
“Is every man on this estate a former soldier?” Rodney asked in a low voice.
“Save yourself and Mr. Sheppard,” Evan said.
John had called himself a down-on-his-luck soldier. Rodney asked, “Do you ever have old comrades coming by to visit?”
Evan shook his head. “One man’s old comrades are another man’s old enemies.”
“And yet you all work together.”
“We do what we must.” Evan shrugged. He scrubbed quickly and efficiently, two dishes to every one of Rodney’s, but he never criticized.
“If an old soldier - any old soldier - asked for help, would you give it?”
“Charity is always within a man’s means,” Evan said, “so of course I would.”
“Even if you didn’t know how him?”
Evan’s gaze turned dark, inward. “If he is an old soldier, I know him better than his own mother does.” Then he shook himself out, cast Rodney a lighter, more curious look. “Do you plan to take a sojourn this afternoon? So long as you’re back by supper, you’re free to take Molly for a brief trot.”
“That’s an excellent notion, Lorne. I do believe I shall take Molly to the lake.”
Lorne nodded, nudged him. “Then go. I’ve got the rest of the dishes.”
Rodney eyed the stack of dirty dishes waiting to be scrubbed. “Are you sure?”
“Go,” Lorne said firmly. He handed Rodney his dishtowel so he could dry his hands.
Rodney thanked him, rolled down his sleeves, ran up to his quarters to fetch his riding jacket and boots, and then he was out in the stables, saddling Molly for a ride.
He usually took the route to the lake late in the afternoon - he was excused from Friday supper, if he so chose - or early in the morning, when it was still dark, and he’d never appreciated just how isolated the Sheppard estate really was. In the warm golden of the afternoon sunlight, he could see for miles around, the flatness of the plains stretching out all around the single, severe cultivation of green lawns and hedges, red brick buildings, and the neat whitewashed fences for the horse corrals.
In daylight the journey to the lake seemed much shorter than usual, and Rodney wondered if anyone on the estate could see him at his campfire in the night, could hear him. He was quite sure he couldn’t make out any of the lights from the house when he was on his own, on account of the stand of trees between the lake and the house, but what if someone could see?
Rodney remained astride Molly as she meandered down to the water to drink, and he twisted in the saddle, looking all around. Ever wary of wildfires, he always made sure to put his campfire out completely, and he couldn’t even see the remnants of it, having kicked the coals away from each other to be safe. Had he even truly encountered John in the darkness? Had that kiss been real? Or was Rodney so pathetically desperate for another man’s company that he’d dreamed up the whole thing?
“Who is he that would become my follower?
Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?”
Who but a man who shared Rodney’s affections would know Whitman, would know that verse of Byron’s? John had kissed Rodney back, he was sure of it, hadn’t hurled epithets or accusations at Rodney, hadn’t reacted with violence.
Rodney finally dismounted from Molly, kept a hand on her bridle as he walked along the lakeshore in search of his old campsite.
“Was he real, Molly? Is Jumper real?”
She gazed at him with her solemn dark eyes.
Rodney sighed. “Of course you’re not going to answer. You’re a horse.” He pulled himself back up into her saddle. “Let’s go back to the house. Don’t want to be late for supper.” He nudged her with his heels, tugging on the reins, and she turned about obediently, began her placid plod back to the house.
Books and magazines and newspapers described cowboys and life on the frontier as rugged, harsh, but defining. A man learned what he was made of out here, tackling adversity and making a place for himself, blazing new trails and trying new things. Rodney was pretty sure that was all lies. Out on the frontier, life was a certain kind of very controlled madness. What would Rodney have to do to keep himself sane?
When Rodney departed from the house with Molly on Friday evening, Lorne handed him a full pack of food, with soft rolls and cheese in addition to hardtack and jerky. Aiden handed him a loaded pistol and a bag of extra bullets, and Stevens gave him a very large hunting knife.
“To keep yourself safe,” Stevens said, when Rodney stared at the knife with wide eyes.
Lorne clapped Rodney on the shoulder. “Go. Be free.”
“Be free,” Aiden echoed.
Rodney nodded, climbed into Molly’s saddle, and guided her out of the stable. He was free for the weekend, to be himself, to think for himself, to do and say as he pleased. He would finally be able to relax.
But he didn’t relax all weekend. Instead he paced along the lakeshore, keeping an ear out for hoofbeats from outlaws and their wild steeds (and keeping the pistol and knife close at hand). He lay awake, staring at the sky and poring over the memories of his encounters with John over and over again. Each encounter had been quite brief, the most recent perhaps lasting only a few minutes before it had been interrupted.
Had the most recent encounter even really happened? What madness was two men, speaking poetry to each other in the dead of night, in the forsaken wilderness, before a kiss so brief it might have been an attempt at best?
Poetry was romantic, though, wasn’t it? Men and women were always speaking poetry to each other, in novels and in romantic plays. Why should not two men romancing also speak poetry to each other, as men and women did? But was what had happened between Rodney and John romance, or simple lust? Rodney recalled that first moment when he’d seen John in the dimness of the early morning stables. John had been completely unashamed of his half-nudity. And why should he have been ashamed, as beautiful as he was? The Greeks had celebrated the nude male form as an object of beauty separate from eroticism. Although the way John had paused in dressing himself, in the fastening of his denim trousers, the fly open and revealing those dark curls, had been quite erotic indeed.
(After that line of thought, Rodney had taken Molly for a brisk trot around the lake, which she hadn’t much appreciated in the middle of the night.)
For all that Lorne had given Rodney better food and Aiden and Stevens had given Rodney better weapons, for all their concern for his safety and wellbeing, Rodney’s weekend wasn’t relaxing and restoring at all.
It was still dark when he gave up on sleeping altogether and he packed up his camp, saddled Molly, and started back on the path to the house. He knew it was foolhardy, abandoning the security of his campfire to journey in the darkness, but at this point he welcomed conflict with the Wraith. Perhaps combat and violence would rid him of the tension buzzing under his skin. To combat the tedium of the journey - because Molly would not be moved to anything faster than a monotonous, funereal plod - Rodney murmured to himself about the movements of the stars and the planets and plotted to teach the children something more useful than the simple facts of the weather.
Rodney dismounted from Molly outside the stables and caught her reins, went to lead her into her regular stall. And saw that there was another horse already in her stall.
“What devilry is this?” he hissed, throwing open the stall door. “Molly is an old and tired horse and has earned her own stall. What great brute do you think you are, to be taking up her warm bed of hay?”
And then he recognized the horse. It was Jumper.
“Come now, Rodney,” John said, and he appeared in the stall opposite Molly and Jumper’s. “Jumper is also a fine horse and has earned a warm, comfortable bed of hay. He and Molly don’t mind sharing, do you, girl?” He extended a hand, and Molly nuzzled him affectionately.
Rodney narrowed his eyes. “Are you one of Mr. Sheppard’s horse wranglers?” It made perfect sense. Rodney didn’t know everyone on the ranch staff, though by now he was quite sure he could recognize them all even if he could not recall their names. If John was some kind of horse wrangler who traveled much for his work, Rodney wouldn’t see him often. The horses were familiar with him.
But John had said he was a former soldier.
John laughed softly. “Me, work for David Sheppard? Never. But you’re the tutor for Sheppard Junior and Miss Sheppard, aren’t you?”
Rodney guided Molly into the stall beside Jumper and set about unloading her. It gave him an excuse to keep a hand on the knife Stevens had lent him. “Who told you that?”
John shrugged. “I know things.” He wore a dusty flannel shirt but no waistcoat and no chaps either, just a pair of those sturdy denim trousers.
Was he wearing anything under them?
“I am their tutor,” Rodney said. “But if you’re some kind of outlaw intending to kidnap me for profit, I’ll tell you now not to bother. Neither the Sheppards nor my own family would ransom me back.”
John stepped closer, leaned on the low stall door. “What if I didn’t want money? What if I just wanted to keep you?”
Rodney almost dropped Molly’s saddle. “What?”
John pressed a finger to his lips. “Keep your voice down! You don’t want to bring the entire estate down on our heads, do you?” But he looked more amused than upset. He vaulted over the stall door with enviable ease and moved to help Rodney with Molly.
He did seem to know his way around the stables, knew where her tack and saddle should be hung up, knew where the curry brushes were. Rodney kept a careful distance from him, but he could feel John’s warmth when they reached for a brush at the same time, and he could smell John, the clean scent of his sweat and hay and something else that made his skin prickle with gooseflesh. Rodney kept his grip on Stevens’s knife, because his heart was pounding and he was very, very nervous.
And then John spotted the knife. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Hey now, what’s that for? I have been nothing but friendly since the day we met.”
“Friendly? Is that what you’re calling it?”
John recited carefully, “The way is suspicious, the result uncertain, perhaps destructive.”
Again with the poetry. But Rodney knew the poet and the poem and what it meant, the meaning that the small-minded and close-minded and afraid never read. He swallowed hard, set the knife aside, and recited in return, “Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you.”
“Do you really?” John asked, stepping closer.
“Really what?” Rodney breathed, his heart pounding in his ears. Maybe he shouldn’t have let go of the knife -
“Permit me to kiss you?”
John reached up, curled one hand tentatively along Rodney’s jaw, and kissed him. It was soft and still, just a gentle press of warm lips, but Rodney’s pulse exploded, and he reached up, tangled his hands in John’s hair and held him close, kissed him back.
John parted his lips, deepened the kiss so Rodney could taste him. He slid his hand down the side of Rodney’s neck, down his chest and caught his hip, dragged him close and crushed their bodies together.
Rodney moaned into John’s mouth. His entire body was on fire. He wanted to touch John everywhere, wanted to peel him out of his clothes and kiss every inch of his skin, wanted -
John moved forward, and Rodney stumbled backward, but John pressed a hand to the small of Rodney’s back, steadying him even as he guided him backward. Rodney hit the wall at the back of the stall and then John was pressed against him from shoulder to hip to thigh, still kissing him intently, nibbling on his bottom lip and tasting his mouth with delicate flicks of his tongue. Rodney parted his legs and shoved his hands into John’s back pockets, brought them together intimately, and he could feel the heat and hardness of John’s arousal.
John groaned in pleasure and ducked his head, his teeth grazing the side of Rodney’s throat in a blaze of heat, and Rodney whimpered.
And then Lorne’s voice drifted through the open stable doors.
“I don’t know. When Markham and Stackhouse came back from their midnight ride, they said Rodney was still at his camp. You didn’t see him anywhere on the road?”
John and Rodney froze.
The man who answered a deep, rumbling, unfamiliar voice. “No sign of him. No sign of Wraith either.”
“Maybe he came home early. I’ll send Aiden up to his rooms to check on him.” Lorne sighed fretfully. “You’d better go, though.”
“See you, Evan.”
Evan. Was that Lorne’s first name?
Rodney heard footsteps. John ducked, crouching low beneath the level of the stall door, pressed against Rodney’s knees. Lorne rounded the corner into the stables a moment later.
He came up short. “Rodney! There you are. I’ve been worried about you.”
“I’m back in time for breakfast,” Rodney said cautiously.
“Indeed you are. I just - have you been here long? Looks like you’ve already taken care of Molly.”
“I set out a bit early,” Rodney said. “Wanted to get back. Big plans for the children’s science lessons. Is everything all right?”
Lorne nodded earnestly. “Just - none of the patrols saw you this morning, so I was concerned for your safety.”
Rodney’s pulse roared in his ears. “Patrols?” he echoed. Lorne was standing just on the other side of the stall door. One stray look and he’d see John kneeling at Rodney’s feet. Did Rodney look like he’d just been amorous with another person? Could Lorne tell that sort of thing?
“Yes, Aiden and the rest of the men ride regular patrols on the estate, even as far out as the lake,” Lorne said. “For the security of the estate, of course. None of them invade your privacy, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Rodney said faintly.
“Well, I’m glad to see you well. Shall I have Aiden draw you water for a bath?”
Lorne smiled. “Excellent. I’ll see you for breakfast.” And he left the stables.
Rodney counted to ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty before he dare move.
John rose soundlessly, dusted himself off. “I’ve overstayed my welcome. I’d best go, before I’m discovered.”
“Why?” Rodney asked. “Why do you have to go?” He moved closer to John, caught his wrist. “You’re fine with Jumper, fine with Molly. I’m sure we could find you a place as a wrangler or -”
“I can never work for David Sheppard,” John said flatly. “I must go.” He started saddling Jumper.
Rodney’s throat tightened. “That’s it, then? You take your pleasure and cast me aside?” He swallowed hard and added, “Therefore release me and depart on your way.”
John paused. “No, Rodney. I can’t stay here, but I promise, I will see you again.”
“Will you? By the lake?” Rodney couldn’t help the hope that swelled in his chest.
John said, “Or else by stealth in some wood for trial, Or back of a rock in open air.”
Rodney swayed forward and kissed him, one brief press of lips. “Again,” he whispered, and then dashed out of the stables, clutching his pack to his chest like a shield so no one would see how his hands shook, how his breaths trembled.
The truth was, Rodney missed Jeannie fiercely. He’d sit in his quarters during luncheon with his shutters thrown wide so he could read her letters in the bright noonday sun and trace his fingers over the loops and whorls of her letters and hear her voice in her head reciting the words to him, and he’d miss her. She was the only reason he’d made it to adulthood, he was sure, for she’d been his confidante and his partner in crime, the only person who’d made his childhood bearable, beneath his mother’s constant belittling and his father’s equally constant absence.
Jeannie was, Rodney would never admit aloud, at least as brilliant as him, if not more so, and she had taken advantage of certain social trends to step outside the traditional boundaries of her sex and been educated in science and mathematics as well as music, literature, and art. (Rodney, in return, had learned extra literature and music to balance things out for their tutors.) Jeannie had been the only person in his household who appreciated his thought experiments, his questions and theories and hypotheses.
And then she’d had to go and marry Kaleb Miller, one of Father’s clerks, the very definition of a plain-faced dullard. Fortunately for Jeannie, the McKay blood had won out, and Jeannie’s daughter Madison was as lovely and brilliant as her mother. Jeannie included little drawings and poems Madison had created just for her uncle, and Rodney kept them pressed in the back pages of his leather-bound journal, the one where he kept his theories, his musical compositions, and his poetry.
I miss you, Meredith, Jeanne had written in her most recent missive (she insisted on using his given name, which he despised). I worry you are not well, that the isolation of the household is boring you, or that the wildness of the Frontier is overwhelming you. Will you come and visit soon?
Rodney was quite sure the first occasion when he had enough money saved to pay for the coach and train fares to Toronto and back would be Christmas, and he didn’t think Mr. Sheppard would begrudge him spending Christmas with Jeannie.
It was a week after Rodney’s last - shiveringly heated - encounter with John in the stables and he was sitting in the stables with Molly, reading Jeannie’s latest letter and also hiding from Dr. Beckett, the family physician who was making a house call. Carson was a Scot, a well-meaning fellow, and seemed to know every eligible young lady in a fifty mile radius, and he was of the firm belief that every single one of them might be interested in Rodney.
Rodney began to mentally compose a reply as he read.
Dearest Jeannie, life at the Sheppard estate is calm. There is little excitement, but I find fulfillment in my comrades among the staff, including Mr. Lorne the cook and Mr. Ford the chief groundsman, and Mr. Bates the chief horse wrangler.
Even though Jeannie knew about Rodney’s ways, his preferences and his affections, there was no way he could explain John, who was beautiful and fleeting, wild and brilliant and more than a little maddening, with his tendency to appear and disappear without warning or explanation. And Rodney didn’t dare commit a word about John to paper.
“Letter from your lady love?”
Rodney nearly fell off the hay bale he’d been perched on.
John was standing in the shadows of Molly’s stall. Jumper was nowhere to be seen.
“No,” Rodney snapped. “Don’t be intolerable. Jeannie is my sister.” And then his pulse ceased climbing, began to settle, and Rodney truly registered John’s presence. He folded the letter and tucked it into his pocket, rose to stand in front of John. He cleared his throat. “What are you doing here?”
John tilted his head, plucked off his hat. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” He stepped closer, into a pool of sunlight filtering through the overhead rafters.
If John was mesmerizing by moonlight and starlight and shadows, in the golden sun of midday he was intoxicating.
For the first time Rodney could see the colors of John’s eyes - blue and gray and hazel and green and gold. John was of an age with Rodney, perhaps only a couple of years younger, though there was something boyish in his high cheekbones and the elfin line of his ears.
“I’ve never seen you in daylight before,” Rodney said quietly. “Does this mean you’re real?”
John closed the distance between them, grasping Rodney’s hips and pulling Rodney flush against him. “Do I feel real?”
Rodney gazed up into John’s eyes. He felt two warring heartbeats - his own, and John’s through the worn fabric of his red flannel shirt. “Yes,” he breathed. “Am I real? Is this moment real?”
John smoothed a hand up Rodney’s ribs, curled it against his heart. “You’re the most real thing I’ve ever touched.”
“I’m not a thing,” Rodney said reflexively, and then he realized how much of a nag he sounded, but John just laughed softly and leaned in, brushed his lips over Rodney’s.
There was a shout, and Rodney and John sprang apart. Rodney’s pulse thundered. They’d been caught. They’d be whipped and driven out or -
A black-clad figure with a pale face and the snakelike hair of the Vikings of old came tearing through the stables. He had strange markings painted on his cheeks and forehead -
And he had a pistol.
“Wraith,” John snarled. He yanked Rodney behind him with a swift tug, drew one of his pistols, and aimed it at the man crashing through the stables.
More cries rose up, and Markham and Stackhouse came sprinting through the stables in hot pursuit of the man who was an honest-to-goodness Wraith. No. They’d see John. Rodney looped an arm around John’s waist and hauled him backwards.
“Rodney! What the devil -” John started.
“I can’t let them see you,” Rodney hissed.
John struggled free of Rodney’s grip, and then, to Rodney’s horror, Lorne came dashing through the stables, pistol in hand, rifle slung across his shoulder. He came up short when he saw Rodney.
“What are you doing in here?”
Rodney’s throat worked. How could he explain -?
But Lorne looked right at John and said, “Sir, protect him. He’s no soldier.” And then Lorne ran on.
Rodney’s heart hammered in his chest. Maybe Lorne hadn’t recognized John, assumed he was some other ranch hand. John unholstered one of his pistols, gave it to Rodney, and dragged him into the stall opposite Molly’s.
“Stay here, and stay down,” he said. Then he knelt beside the pack in the corner of the empty stall and came up with a rifle and a pouch of ammunition. His pack. He’d been bunking in the stables again.
Before Rodney could lodge a protest, because John was going out into the open, John dashed out of the stables with his rifle in hand.
Rodney pressed himself into the corner, terrified. He could hear shouting, gunshots, oaths and curses. And he heard a woman scream. Mrs. Sheppard? Miss Teldy? Heaven forbid it was Agnes -
A shotgun blast went off right above Rodney’s head, and he couldn’t hear anymore after that. Saw sunlight pouring into the stall from the massive hole blown in the wall. Molly reared up, mouth open wide. Rodney knew she was screaming.
In a fit of equine athleticism Rodney had thought impossible, Molly leapt over her stall door and went charging for the stable doors at the far end, the ones that led to the exercise paddocks. Freedom.
No. There were Wraith out there. They would take her. They would hurt her.
Rodney didn’t think. He grabbed John’s pistol, found a lasso, and tore after her. He reached her just before she made it outside, and he jumped. Landed across her back with a painful jolt to his ribs. She tossed her head and screamed again, but he didn’t let go of her. He scrambled upright, threw the loop over her head, and jumped off of her, tightening the loop. He was hurting her, he could see her struggling, but he had to save her.
“Dammit, Molly, come on!”
She whinnied shrilly, and Rodney’s hearing was coming back. More shouting. More gunshots. He flung himself at her, tackling her to the wall, and pinned her there with all his might. Pressed against her, buried his face in her neck.
And then he saw John and Aiden and Lorne, kneeling behind hastily-constructed barricades of barrels and crates, defending the paddocks where someone had rounded up all the horses. They worked in perfect wordless tandem, all hand signals and glances, rifles shouldered.
Rodney could see, down the lane, another barricade made of an overturned hay cart, and several pale heads bobbing up and down, several rifles poking around it.
Bates and Walker were defending the house, Walker crouched on the front step, Bates pressed to a pillar on the upper balcony, both armed with rifles. Where were Miss Teldy and the women and children?
Molly panted and heaved, but she remained pressed against the wall, and Rodney stayed with her. Where should he go? What should he do?
Someone shouted, “Sir, no!”
There was another flurry of cursing, and then David Sheppard, in his perfectly turned-out suit, came spilling into the lane, waving a rifle like a madman. Walker lunged after him, but Stevens got there first. He caught Mr. Sheppard by the jacket and started to haul him backward, toward the house.
“Sir, you have to stay inside,” Stevens said, and then Walker shouted,
A single gunshot rang out, and Stevens staggered. Fell to his knees. Mr. Sheppard backed away in horror.
Rodney saw a single Wraith standing behind the overturned haycart, rifle shouldered. He was a nightmarish apparition, black-clad but deathly pale, and grinning like a fiend. He had sharp teeth like a wolf or a fox.
And then he jerked backward, his head exploding in a spray of blood.
John was on his feet, pistol in hand.
Mr. Sheppard saw him and roared. “You!”
But Walker caught him and dragged him back toward the house. There was another thunderstorm of gunfire, and Rodney pressed his face to Molly’s neck, unable to witness further.
Only there was a shrill whistle, and the thundering of hooves, and Rodney lifted his head in time to see Jumper galloping past. Jumper cleared the paddock fence with ease, headed straight for John, who leaped onto Jumper’s back and shouldered his rifle, kept on firing. The Wraith were on horseback, galloping away from the house, John giving chase. Had they stolen the horses or were those their own nightmare steeds?
Rodney’s heart pounded in his ears long after the thundering of horse hooves had faded away. He did the only thing he could think to do, which was lead Molly back to her stall, tuck her in, and feed her a dried apple.
Then, footsteps leaden, he walked out into the lane.
Stevens and Walker lay side by side in the dirt, their hands clasped over their hearts (but not concealing the bloodstains spreading on their shirts), their eyes closed. They looked unnaturally peaceful. Lorne stood over them, leaning on his rifle and looking grim.
Mr. Sheppard stood beside him. “What’s the damage, Lorne?”
“They didn’t manage to get any of the horses, sir,” Lorne said. “Just two of my men.”
Mr. Sheppard nodded.
“Mrs. Sheppard and the children?” Lorne asked.
“The women and children are safe, thanks to Miss Teldy’s bravery,” Mr. Sheppard said. Miss Teldy stepped out of the house.
Her face was pale but she held her chin up, and she had a white-knuckled grip on a pistol.
Rodney still had one of John’s pistols. His heart seized. Would John need it, against the Wraith? There had been so many of them and only one of him -
“Mrs. Sheppard and the children want to see you, sir,” Miss Teldy said.
Mr. Sheppard nodded. “Of course. I trust you’ll handle things, Lorne?”
“Of course, sir.” Lorne lifted his chin at Aiden, Bates, Stackhouse, and Markham. “Let’s prepare the bodies. I’ll write letters to their mothers. You know where their mothers live, Bates?”
Bates nodded, but Aiden said, “Their mothers don’t know how to read.”
Lorne frowned. “But both of them know how to read.”
“Because you taught them, sir,” Aiden said quietly.
Lorne closed his eyes, took a deep breath. “Then when things have settled down, will you deliver a message to their mothers?”
Aiden nodded, but Bates shook his head. “We’re short-handed.”
Lorne slewed him a look. “I’ll take care of it. Now come on - these men died like heroes.”
Someone tugged on Rodney’s shoulder. He spun around, raised his pistol.
Miss Teldy snatched it from him. “Give me that. You’ll do yourself a harm. Where did you get that thing? Mrs. Sheppard wants you inside, playing lullabies for the children.”
Rodney nodded woodenly and stumbled into the house after her.
That night, he bunked in the stable with Molly, curled up beside her in her stall. He had a little oil lamp at his side so he could pen a reply to Jeannie.
My Dearest Jeannie, he wrote, pleased when his penmanship was steady, life at the Sheppard estate is calm.
When he was finished writing the letter, filled with trivial gossip about the things Lorne cooked and the lessons the children were learning, Rodney folded the letter, put it in his pack, turned off the lamp, and tucked closer to Molly and prayed John was all right.
Without lessons to teach, Rodney was at loose ends, so he ended up in the kitchens helping Lorne or in the stables helping Stackhouse with the horses.
“You’re pretty good at this,” Lorne said one evening, while Rodney helped him slice potatoes.
“Pianist. Steady hands.” Rodney shrugged.
Ever since Lorne had presided over the memorial services for Stevens (Isaac) and Walker (Peter), he’d been quiet and solemn, without his usual humor or smiles. Once he’d taken on three new ranch hands - Toriel, Dorsey, Kennedy - he’d dispatched Aiden to bring messages to Stevens’s and Walker’s families far away.
“Is it harder?” Rodney asked. “Feeding all the extra men.”
While Lorne had only replaced three ranch hands specifically, men with the necessary skills to make sure the Sheppards’ fine stock of horses was kept healthy and well, Mr. Sheppard had insisted that they hire extra security for the estate. They were local men - meaning men from the nearest municipality big enough to warrant its own town hall - and they guarded the stables and grounds at night, and Lorne was obligated to make sure they had some sort of midnight meal.
Rodney knew with all this added security there was no way he would be able to see John, and it made something in him ache. He had barely anything to distract him from the memories that crept out of nowhere when his mind was idle for too long. A shadow out of the corner of his eye was a Wraith charging at him, armed and baring his fangs. Miss Teldy dropping a saucepan was an explosion of gunfire. Miss Porter leaving something on the stove for too long was the scent of gunpowder. Each tendril of memory set Rodney’s heart to racing, sent him scrambling for a corner to hide.
Lorne hadn’t been wrong - Rodney was no soldier. Lorne and the rest of the men looked grim from the loss of their friends, but none of them seemed afraid of their own shadows. At least when Rodney was around Molly and the horses, he felt calmer. Currying the horses was soothing. These days, Rodney didn’t even mind the smell.
“Being awake in the middle of the night necessitates my sleeping in the middle of the day, which is difficult,” Lorne said. “But it’s unkind, to burden the rest of the kitchen staff in the night. It’s my responsibility to ensure the household is safe, so I will keep our new security staff fed.” He had his sleeves rolled up while he worked mixing a pot of thick stew.
Rodney admired the play of muscle in his forearms. Lorne was a handsome man. But he wasn’t John.
“If only,” Lorne said, “this place felt like it was safe instead of a prison.”
“A prison?” Rodney asked. Had Lorne been in a prison before?
“Not as bad as Belle Isle,” Lorne murmured, as if to himself. “But close enough.”
Rodney didn’t pry, just kept chopping vegetables. But when he was out in the stables later, with Stackhouse, he asked, “What was the prison at Belle Isle?”
“Prisoner of war camp,” Stackhouse said. “Where the Rebels kept us.”
Us. “All of you?” Rodney kept his voice low, cautious.
“Who fought for the Union.” Stackhouse cast him a look. “Why?”
“Lorne mentioned it. Said he felt like, with all the extra security, this place feels like a prison. Not as bad as Belle Isle, he said.”
Stackhouse nodded knowingly. “He’s not wrong.” He patted Rodney on the shoulder tentatively. “But we’ll be safe. Lorne will make sure of it.”
“Why so much faith in Lorne? He’s a cook who used to be a painter.”
“Major Evan Lorne is one of the finest officers I know. We only lost two men when the Wraith attacked because of his fine leadership.” Stackhouse said it quietly, matter-of-factly, as if his declaration was without question.
Stackhouse said is, like Lorne was still a soldier. Like they were all still soldiers.
“Do you think you could teach me?” Rodney asked. “To - if not be a soldier, to be able to protect myself.” He still had the hunting knife Stevens had given him - and John’s pistol.
Stackhouse regarded Rodney sadly. “You don’t want to be a soldier, Rodney. And you shouldn’t have to be one.”
His words haunted Rodney for the rest of the day, the rest of the week. Friday after supper, the Sheppard family retired to their private rooms, and Rodney headed out to the stables to saddle up Molly. Lorne had packed him a veritable feast - soft rolls, dried fruit, cheese, and a delectable bit of shortcake packed into a wrapped bowl. Rodney was carrying with him Stevens’s knife and John’s pistol, and he had also packed along several volumes of poetry.
Rodney had never much credited the notion that horses were sensitive to the emotions of humans, but all of the horses, including Molly, had been quiet, still, lackluster as they plodded around the paddock and corrals. Molly moved slowly, and for the first time Rodney realized that she really was quite old. It made her fence-jumping feat from two weeks ago even more impressive.
As they headed along the path to the lake, Rodney was very aware of the fact that the path was being watched, if not by Lorne’s men, then by the new security team brought in to secure the estate at night. Why they were securing the estate at night when the Wraith were brazen enough to attack during the day made no sense, but Rodney was neither soldier nor businessman, and Mr. Sheppard seemed tense enough as it was without Rodney offering unsolicited advice about the running of the estate.
It seemed forever before Rodney reached the lake, and rather than make camp straight away, he rode Molly all around the lake, a slow and cautious perimeter check. He didn’t make out any signs of security or Wraith lurking in the trees, so he returned to his usual spot and set up camp - built a fire, tethered Molly close, laid out his bedroll and the saddle to use as a pillow, and curled up to read.
He didn’t dare read aloud, just tilted the pages toward the fire and let the words fill him until he fell asleep.
Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile - the winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah - the Sea!
Might I but moor - tonight -
John, Rodney thought, his eyes slipping closed. Were I with thee.
Rodney opened his eyes, blinked. He’d been dreaming again, of John’s sweet kisses.
And then he realized - he was awake. The fire had burned low, but he was warm. So warm.
Because he wasn’t alone.
John knelt beside him, one hand on his shoulder, shaking him gently.
“Yes. I’m here.”
Rodney sat bolt upright, clutched at John’s shoulders. “What happened? Are you all right? Did the Wraith follow you?”
“Slipped them,” John said. “And the security thugs too.” He snorted, amused. “David Sheppard, trying too hard yet again. The Wraith won’t be coming any time soon. Thank heavens, too, because I don’t think I could take a second round of that.”
Rodney rubbed his eyes, pushed himself up into a sitting position. “Take a second round of what?” He got a good look at John, saw the scrape on his cheekbone, how he had one arm curved protectively around his middle. “Sweet Newton, what happened to you? Let me look at you.” Rodney surged upward on his knees and grabbed John’s shirt, tugging it free from his trousers and pushing it up so he could see.
John huffed in amusement and moved his arm aside so Rodney had easier access, and Rodney saw the bandage wrapped rightly around John’s ribs.
“Was it the Wraith? Do you need a physician? Carson’s a quack, but he’s better than nothing.”
“Yes, it was the Wraith,” John said. “And no, I don’t need a physician. You should see the other man.” He grinned, reckless with bravado, eyes gleaming in the firelight.
Rodney reached out, pressed a hand to the bandage tentatively, and John hissed, flinched, and Rodney slid his hand higher, away from the bandage. “Sorry, sorry. What are you doing here?”
“Now that the Wraith are off my back for a little bit, I thought I’d come to see you.”
John smiled at him.
“Come see me?” Rodney echoed. He wet his lips. “What for?”
John glanced down pointedly to where Rodney’s hand was up his shirt and ducked his head, murmured, “Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip.”
Rodney was starkly aware that his hand was resting on John’s bare flesh, above the rough linen of the bandage, and he slid his hand higher cautiously, so his hand was resting above John’s heart. He could feel the flutter of it beneath his palm, or maybe that was just his imagination, or him feeling his own fluttering pulse thrumming through his entire body.
John’s skin was soft, dusted with hair, and his muscles were firm. Rodney petted his skin tentatively, and John closed his eyes, sucked in a breath between his teeth.
“Did I hurt you again?” Rodney went to draw his hand away, carefully, but John arched into his palm, and Rodney felt it, the little warm nub of flesh that he’d rubbed with his palm, only instead of being silky and soft it was stiff and warm.
Rodney brushed his palm over it tentatively, and John’s head fell back, his eyes slipping closed, and Rodney realized he wasn’t hurting John - he was pleasuring John.
As a pianist, Rodney did indeed have steady hands, but he also had dexterous hands, clever fingers, and he let them dance across John’s skin, tracing the lines of his muscles, reading every hitch of his chest, his uneven breaths as pleasure. Rodney rose up on his knees, shuffling closer to John, and eased his other hand up under the soft, worn fabric of John’s shirt, let his thumb graze John’s other nipple, and John came alive under his hands. He caught Rodney’s hips and hung on, torso undulating as he arched into Rodney’s hands as Rodney played with his nipples, stroking, experimenting, teasing.
Rodney’s breath was coming faster, and he was getting a little unsteady on his knees. When he glanced down to shift his stance, give himself a more solid base, he saw the bulge in the front of John’s trousers. Rodney remembered how those trousers looked unfastened, the mysterious dark curls and the dark golden skin, and he slid one hand lower, careful to avoid the bandage, stroking over John’s soft belly, tracing the line of dark hair from trail to waistband.
“Rodney,” John breathed, “please.”
“Please what?” Rodney had been to the club, had heard the whispers, seen men kissing each other in dark corners, but he’d never dared to try himself, never accepted invitations that had been carefully offered.
John caught Rodney’s jaw in his hand and leaned in, covered Rodney’s mouth with his, and bucked his hips so his denim-covered hardness was under Rodney’s palm.
John whined in the back of his throat, and Rodney stroked him tentatively. John buried his face against Rodney’s throat, panting harshly, and Rodney played his flesh like a piano, hands working expertly, one stroking the sensitive flesh on his chest, the other stroking the sensitive bulge between his legs. John thrust his hips and chest up into Rodney’s hands, clinging tightly to him, and he was practically sobbing with pleasure before he went rigid, and Rodney felt warm dampness spread beneath his hand.
Before Rodney knew what was what, John pushed him down to the blanket, rucked up his shirt with a single tug, and then John closed his lips over Rodney’s nipple, tongue fluttering. Rodney bit back a cry, arching helplessly, and John pressed against his side, licking one nipple and teasing the other other with his fingers. All his life, and how had Rodney not known the pleasure to be had in his own body?
Rodney writhed and squirmed, blood pooling heavily between his legs. He needed friction, but he couldn’t speak, petting John’s soft hair frantically with one hand, clutching his shoulder with the other, and then John slid his hand lower, away from Rodney’s chest and down his belly, cupped it over Rodney’s own trouser-covered hardness. Rodney moaned and bucked his hips upwards, and John answered with perfect pressure, the heel of his palm digging in just so, and then John flicked his tongue, reminding Rodney of the pleasure in both halves of his body. Rodney couldn’t help it, thrusting mindlessly against John’s hand and mouth while John stroked and licked and sucked and groped. John’s tongue fluttered against Rodney’s flesh, and his hand sped up, and lightning gathered at the base of Rodney’s spine.
John grazed Rodney’s skin with his teeth, and the lightning exploded into Rodney’s every limb. His world went and fuzzy, and his head spun, and he couldn’t see or breathe or think, only feel -
And then John was tucked beside him, one arm flung over him, his face pressed into Rodney’s neck, humming happily.
Rodney made a wordless sound, questioning.
John brushed his lips across Rodney’s pulse point and murmured, “Thank you.”
Rodney made another sound.
John kissed him on the cheek. “’S all right. You’re safe. Sleep.”
And Rodney did.
When he opened his eyes again, it was still dark. The fire had died down to glowing embers, and he could see, out in the shallows of the lake, Molly and Jumper having a late-night drink. Rodney had awakened because John had shifted. His breathing had changed.
He was awake.
John stroked a hand up Rodney’s side, the gesture unconsciously affectionate.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he whispered.
“But I can’t stay.”
“Someone has to keep the Wraith away from this place.” John’s voice was soft, barely more than a breath.
“So you would take your pleasure with me and cast me aside?”
John’s arm around Rodney’s waist tightened. “No. Not just pleasure, and never cast you aside. I may leave, but I will always return.”
“How can you say such things? You barely know me.”
“I know the color of moonlight in your hair, and starlight in your eyes. I know your voice when you sing, and your voice when you read. I know you know the movements of the planets and your vision of the universe is greater than anyone else in that house realizes.”
Rodney’s eyes went wide. He rolled over so he was almost nose-to-nose with John. “How do you know that?”
“You’re not the only person who frequents this lake.”
“I’ve never seen you here.” And then Rodney realized. “The security men. They watch this lake. They -”
John pressed a finger to his lips. “No, not right now. I’m watching this lake, and watching you.”
“Then you do work for Mr. Sheppard.”
“No, I don’t. And I never will.”
“You can hardly be watching this lake or me while you sleep,” Rodney said tartly.
John pressed a kiss to his lips. “What makes you think I slept?”
“That’s a disturbing notion.”
“I wanted to just be, with you,” John murmured, and Rodney could understand that, leaned in and kissed John again.
“It’s still dark,” John said. “You need rest.”
I need you, Rodney thought, but then John began to hum softly, and Rodney slipped back into dreams, lulled by the gentleness of his voice.
For once, the brightness of day didn’t diminish Rodney’s memories of John, if only because he had an unpleasantly sticky reminder in his drawers, but it gave him an excuse to strip off and take a swim in the lake. After the swim, he fixed himself a quick breakfast, but he was actually feeling awake, invigorated, so he packed up his camp and saddled Molly for an early return.
John’s words had inspired him to take on the problem of Maxwell’s Demon once more, and if Rodney wanted to take a proper run at the problem, he’d need some of the books from his personal library.
“Rodney!” Lorne was in the stables, dispensing food to Markham and Stackhouse and Bates. “You’re back early. Is everything all right?”
Rodney smiled. “Quite fine. I had a sudden inspiration to consider a scientific problem, and I wished to work on it in my own quarters.”
Lorne blinked. He wasn’t much for science, but he nodded. “I’m glad to find you well. Feel free to join us for supper if you so choose.”
Rodney patted his pack. “I still have the provisions you gave me, but thank you. Waste not, want not.”
“I’ll take care of Molly.” Markham rose up, reached for her reins. “Go.”
“Are you sure?” Rodney asked. He didn’t mind taking care of Molly at all.
Markham nodded. “You might be the next Newton, after all.”
Rodney blinked, surprised that Markham even knew who Newton was, but Molly nudged Rodney with her nose, causing him to stumble.
Stackhouse laughed. “That’s a sign.”
Rodney joined in with his laughter. “Yes, well, they say horses are sensitive to the moods of humans, so I shall go. Thank you, gentlemen.” He hurried into the house through the servant door that led to the kitchen, and he headed up the servant stair toward his quarters. He changed into clothes better suited to the house than to camping, and then he tore through his books. He selected the volumes he needed, but one was missing.
Rodney spun in a circle, scanning his humble quarters - bed, nightstand, wash basin, trunks, bookcase - but the book was nowhere to be seen. And then he remembered - he had let Miss Sheppard borrow the book, because she liked the pictures of the planets. It was likely in the family library. Rodney smoothed down his clothes hastily, then hurried down the stairs.
No one was in the library, not that the family tutor was unwelcome in the place, but it was the weekend, and Rodney and the family had an unspoken agreement to avoid each other. Relief filtered through Rodney when he located the volume easily. He scooped it up, turned and headed for the door - and saw Mrs. Sheppard, standing in the doorway.
“Mr. McKay,” she said.
He inclined his head politely. “Mrs. Sheppard.”
“How unusual, to see you here on a Saturday.”
Rodney hefted the book. “I returned to the house in pursuit of science. Please, don’t let me stand in the way of your weekend recreation.”
Mrs. Sheppard smiled, and Rodney realized she was no longer wearing black. “Science, of course. I don’t know if Mr. Sheppard informed you, but we are hosting a party in a month’s time, and we will be inviting many honorable and respected guests from all the surrounding counties.”
“I was unaware,” Rodney said, and he remembered this song and dance, “but of course I will occupy myself on the evening in question.”
Mrs. Sheppard raised her eyebrows, as if Rodney attending the party hadn’t even crossed her mind. “I was hoping you would teach Junior and Agnes some songs to sing, for the guests, and perhaps prepare some piano pieces for them to perform as well.”
Rodney’s mind raced. What songs were suitable for children to sing that weren’t utterly childish?
“Of course, Mrs. Sheppard. I would be glad to.”
“Thank you, Mr. McKay.” Mrs. Sheppard inclined her head and then swept away, skirts rustling, an obvious dismissal.
Party. Singing. Dancing. Rodney knew the basic of party etiquette, having attended his parents’ tiresome parties. He could help the children prepare.
Until then, however, science.
And when he was too hungry for science, the food Lorne had given him.
And when he was too tired for science, sleep. And dreams of John.
“Mr. McKay?” Miss Sheppard clasped her hands demurely behind her back. “Will you teach us the dances that will be danced at the party?”
Sheppard Junior made a face. “I don’t want to dance.”
“Dancing is required for polite society and proper courtship,” Rodney said, standing up and moving to the center of the drawing room they used as a schoolroom, as it was the only room in the house with a piano.
Sheppard Junior continued making a face.
“If you keep making a face like that, it’ll become fixed that way,” Miss Sheppard said primly.
“Also,” Rodney said, “dancing is an important skill for a man to have. Lightness of foot on the dancefloor is vital to lightness of foot in combat.”
Sheppard Junior eyed Rodney skeptically. “Really?”
“Yes, really.” Rodney had heard that before, but he had no idea if it was true. “Just as steady hands are vital to top marksmanship.”
“Perhaps,” Miss Sheppard said to her brother, her imperious tone a perfect match of her mother’s, “you should take up embroidery.”
“I am learning to play music,” Sheppard Junior said. “I’ll have plenty steady hands, like Mr. McKay.”
“So, with that in mind, let us practice some popular dances of the day, shall we? Should one or both of you be called upon to stand up with a lonely guest.” While Rodney had been educated in the polka, redowa, schottische, varsouvienne, and mazurka, he knew that most parties were less about dancing these days and more about card games and chatter and entertainment, like singing and instrumental recitals, but the waltz and the two-step were popular enough that both children ought to be conversant in them.
Rodney had never appreciated how difficult it was to dance backwards, or rather, the woman’s part, but he had to, to show Sheppard Junior the steps. Also the basic hazard of being led by someone shorter than him had never occurred to him.
If he danced with John, John would have to lead. He was definitely taller.
Miss Sheppard could play the right hand of a simple waltz, so she provided them accompaniment while Rodney showed Sheppard Junior the man’s part. Sheppard Junior really was the superior musician, and he managed a simple fairy waltz with both hands while Rodney showed Miss Sheppard her part.
The dance lesson ran much longer than it usually did, but both children were smiling and giggling, trying to maintain adult miens of seriousness, and they weren’t fidgeting or getting distracted, having so much fun waltzing around the drawing room that Rodney couldn’t bear to make them stop.
They finally did stop, when they were tired, and Miss Teldy brought them iced tea to refresh them.
“What next?” Miss Sheppard asked. “Science and the stars?”
Sheppard Junior made a face again, but Rodney couldn’t completely abandon their formal education.
“Yes,” he said, “science, once we finish this tea, but Mrs. Sheppard also wants the both of you to perform at the party, so you need to select songs to learn and play.”
At that, Sheppard Junior perked up, and something in Rodney loosened up. His own tutors had been harsh taskmasters, and between their external discipline and his own personal discipline, he was a scientist nonpareil, so he’d been very confused when the Sheppard children didn’t respond nearly as well to similar disciplinary methods.
If he rewarded them with the things they wanted to do, they would be willing to do the things they needed to do in furtherance of their education.
So they talked about the planets, and how certain properties of planets - circumference, diameter, orbital period (year) and rotational period (day) - could be converted into musical notes using complex mathematics, and so the entire solar system was one grand symphony.
The children listened attentively, eyes wide and curious, while Rodney spoke to them. He wasn’t lecturing them, he was speaking to them, the way he would to Lorne or John, and they were listening, and it was - pleasant. The children were pleasant to him as well, and when it came time to look for songs to sing or play, the children researched quietly, consulting the stacks of music and songbooks from Rodney’s personal library and the family library.
As things French were always fashionable and Rodney spoke French, being Canadian and all, both children settled on French songs to sing, À La Claire Fontaine for Miss Sheppard, Frere Jacques for Sheppard Junior. A simple Bach minuet would be fine for Miss Sheppard, but Sheppard Junior wanted a more lively musette, and he spent a very long time poring over Rodney’s music books and asking him to play samples before he settled on a Musette in D.
Rodney would have to be on hand at the party to provide accompaniment for the children’s singing numbers and be page-turner for their piano numbers, and maybe even play some songs for people to dance to, but he wouldn’t be expected to mingle with the guests, and he was quite all right with that.
Miss Sheppard was very punctilious about her French pronunciation, but Sheppard Junior had a superior voice.
Rodney was moved by his sweet soprano singing the chorus, Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, J’amais je ne t’oublierai.
“Do you think Mama will like it?” Sheppard Junior asked, and it was the first time Rodney had ever seen him vulnerable or nervous, the first time he looked like himself rather than a miniature version of his father.
“I think your mother will like it very much,” Rodney said honestly, and Sheppard Junior smiled, and something in his smile reminded Rodney painfully of John.
The entire family, Rodney noted, did give off the scent of cedarwood that Miss Teldy and the maids used to stave off the destructive moths.
After breakfast but before lessons, Rodney ventured out to the stables to check on Molly, and Bates was out there, hollering at the security troops before they left.
“Get blankets on them. All of them!”
“We’re here to protect the estate, not -” one of the men began to protest.
Bates fixed him with a withering glare. “You’re here to protect the estate from the Wraith, and the Wraith are horse thieves. Your job is to protect the horses. So cover them with blankets now.”
The man drew himself up to his full height. “I won’t be taking orders from a mulatto.”
Bates’s hand dropped to the pistol at his hip.
Rodney stepped between them, reached out to greet Molly. She nuzzled his hand, and he stepped into her stall to fetch a horse blanket. “Is there anything further the horses need?” he inquired of Bates.
Bates didn’t move his hand away from his pistol, but he said, “Yes. Socks as well as blankets.”
Rodney blinked. “Horses can have socks?”
Bates rolled his eyes and handed Rodney a handful of knitted fabric - which turned out to be wool tubes that could be fitted over a horse’s hooves and, indeed, act like socks. Rodney made sure Molly was kitted out for the weather, and then he gave her a dried apple as a treat.
“Anything else? Before I go to educate the children.”
The security troops were wide-eyed at Rodney, dressed in his gentleman’s finery - he always dressed properly to teach - helping with the horses. They nudged each other, and finally the one insolent gave in, went to help.
“Nothing further, Mr. McKay,” Bates said, his gaze never leaving the security troops. “Thank you for your assistance.”
Rodney shrugged. “Just doing my part. We all need to do our part for Mr. Sheppard, for he is very generous with us.”
Bates nodded his agreement. “We’d all do well to remember that.”
Rodney patted Molly one more time and then returned to the house, where the children were waiting eagerly. All day, Rodney hoped the weather would take a turn for the sunnier, the brighter, but to his horror it began to snow. He did his best to distract the children with singing and dancing, but they quickly tired of being cooped up, and Rodney was eventually forced to resort to desperate measures - asking Miss Teldy for hot cocoa.
The three of them sat around the fire in the drawing room, sipping their hot cocoa, and Rodney told them stories - Greek mythology, so they would know where the names of the planets and moons came from (though he left out the violent and licentious bits whenever he could). Roman mythology, to make up the rest.
He lunched with the family just because he wanted to stay warm. After lunch, Mrs. Sheppard asked that the children be excused from lessons so she could sit with them - and the three of them huddled on the sofa together, Sheppard Junior reading while Mrs. Sheppard and Miss Sheppard practiced their embroidery.
Rodney retreated to his quarters, which were frightfully cold. He piled all the books he could carry beside the bed and then climbed under the covers, fully dressed but for his shoes and cravat, to stay warm, and he read. He read and he wrote and he hummed and he sang.
Lorne, bless his soul, had Miss Porter bring Rodney a plate of his own for supper so he wouldn’t have to leave his warm, cozy nest.
After supper, Rodney continued reading and writing, but no matter how many blankets and coats he piled onto himself on the bed, he was still frightfully cold. He couldn’t remember the last time it was this cold. He’d started with the family in March and it hadn’t been this cold.
Eventually he drifted off to sleep, shivering beneath his pile of blankets and coats. His last thought was for John, who hopefully had somewhere warm to stay the night.
He woke when his bed shifted under someone else’s weight. He blinked muzzily, reached out. “Who is it?”
Rodney came wide awake. “John!” He clawed aside his mass of blankets and coats and sat up. “In the house? Are you mad?”
John was sitting on the edge of Rodney’s bed, his cowboy hat nowhere to be seen, all gleaming eyes and wild hair and his beautiful mouth curved into a wicked grin. “Cowboy practicality, Rodney. It’s cold outside. I knew you wouldn’t be at the lake, and there was no way I was bunking in the stable with Jumper and Molly and Bates and the rest of the men tucked in with the horses, so I came up here. Shared body heat is a very practical way to stay warm when caught in inclement weather out on a cattle drive. Plus I get to see you.”
“Practicality? That’s what we’re calling it?” Rodney asked. John was keeping his voice low, so Rodney kept his low too. Up in the attic, his quarters were quite removed from everyone else’s, from the family’s on the second floor and the servants on the first floor.
John nodded. “Absolutely. So, are you willing to share warmth with an old friend? Lest he die of exposure.”
Rodney remembered how John had been bandaged and bruised last time they were out by the lake, and he reached for John’s shirt, to tug his shirttails free of those soft-worn denim trousers, but John stayed his hand.
“I think it’s my turn to go first this time,” he whispered.
“You can go first next time. It’s only fair that we take turns. As two frontiersmen, egalitarianism is our watchword, isn’t it?” John unfastened his belt with careful hands, and Rodney was riveted by the motions of them. His lamp was still burning, not so low as to alert anyone to his wakefulness but bright enough to read by, and in its soft glow John’s entire being was burnished with gold.
“There will be a next time?” Rodney asked.
John set his belt aside, and then he insinuated himself beneath Rodney’s careful arrangement of blankets and coats until he was pressed against Rodney’s side. “There will always be a next time.”
Rodney eyed him. “You speak such pretty words, but how do I know you’ve not charmed a dozen boys from here to Omaha?”
“Mayhaps once upon a time I did,” John said, “but a dozen boys don’t hold a candle to a man like you.” He reached out, curled his hand tentatively over Rodney’s heart.
Rodney caught his gaze and held it. He whispered, “You would have to give up all else, I alone would expect to be your sole and exclusive standard, Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting, The whole past theory of your life and all conformity to the lives around you would have to be abandon’d.”
John smiled and unfastened the first button on Rodney’s waistcoat. “I look forward to long and exhausting.” He unfastened the second button.
Rodney raised an eyebrow. “You think you can manage long?”
John unfastened the third button and parted the fabric, then tugged Rodney’s shirt free of his trousers and drew it up, up, up so Rodney’s chest was exposed to the cold night air.
“You shall soon find out for yourself,” John murmured, and then he draped himself over Rodney, perfect warmth, solid and real, and kissed him.
Rodney buried his hands in John’s hair and kissed him back, tongues twining, slow and languid kisses that seemed to go on forever as heat built between them. John kissed his way down Rodney’s throat, nibbled that spot behind his jaw and the junction where neck met shoulder.
When John ducked his head down further, Rodney knew what was coming, but the sensation of John’s lips and tongue suckling at his nipple made him moan and thrash. John smoothed a hand down his side, whispered,
“We have to be very quiet.”
Rodney nodded frantically, opened his mouth to answer, but then John was licking his other nipple, fingers playing with the one that was already wet, and Rodney bit back a moan. Rodney remembered how John had writhed under Rodney’s similar ministrations on him with hands alone and was determined to this time use his mouth when it was his turn. John kissed his way down Rodney’s sternum, and Rodney’s wet-slick flesh was so cool in the bare air, but John’s lips were soft and warm. He’d reach up and flick at Rodney’s nipples between kisses, sending fire jolting through Rodney’s nerves, and he closed his eyes, surrendered himself to the sensations with a happy sigh. John traced kisses down Rodney’s ribs, pressed a kiss to his hipbone, and then traced the line of hair from navel to trousers with his tongue.
Rodney’s cock throbbed in his trousers, and he let out a little whimper when John stroked him through the fabric.
“Shh,” John cautioned.
Rodney tilted his head up enough to see John grinning wickedly - and then he unfastened Rodney’s trousers, fingers clever on the buttons. Rodney’s breath caught in his chest. He didn’t know what was coming next, had heard all manner of delightfully filthy possibilities. John made short work of the buttons on the fly of Rodney’s drawers, and Rodney’s heart pounded as he watched John curve his fingers around Rodney’s bare, heated flesh.
Rodney closed his eyes and tipped his head back, trying not to squirm as John’s fingers quested over his flesh, stroking and tracing and learning. He’d taken himself in hand, knew the pleasure of that sensation, and when John finally closed a fist around him and began to work him, relief mingled with lust spread through him. Rodney bit his lip to forestall a cry, John stroking him faster.
And then Rodney’s cock was engulfed in hot-wet-slick, and his eyes flew open. He tilted his head up and saw -
John, his eyes closed, his lips wrapped obscenely around the girth of Rodney’s cock, head bobbing up and down. Rodney could only watch, wide-eyed, as his cock slid in and out of John’s mouth, but then John flicked his tongue against that spot just beneath the head of Rodney’s cock, and Rodney’s eyes rolled back in his head.
He squeezed his eyes shut and bit down on his lip hard. He’d heard of this act, but he’d never imagined - never thought -
John’s hand was curled around the shaft of Rodney’s cock while John sucked and licked at the head, and John began to stroke, up and down, thumb brushing that perfect spot beneath the head, and Rodney’s heart was pounding, his pulse rising and rising -
Rodney came, suddenly and blindingly, every nerve in his body sparking and on fire, and John, John swallowed it down.
When Rodney came back to lucidity, John was resting beside him, propped up on one elbow, his lips red and plump and shiny.
“Was it all right?” John asked, and he looked - hesitant. Shy.
“All right?” Rodney hissed, incredulous. “It was amazing. It was -” He yanked John in for a kiss, desperate to plunder his mouth in a whole new way.
John groaned into the kiss, grinding his hips against Rodney’s thigh, and Rodney realized John was still hard. Rodney didn’t think, let his hands do the work, unfastened John’s trousers and reached in. He found a perfect length of warm, hard flesh, like silk over steel, and he began to stroke. John groaned into Rodney’s mouth, sucking on Rodney’s tongue like he had his cock, and began to thrust. Rodney tightened his fist, let John thrust into it. At the apex of each thrust, Rodney swept his thumb over the head, and he felt John began to tremble in his arms.
And then Rodney remembered his previous resolve. With an almighty heave, he flipped them both over so he was on top.
“Rodney, what -?”
Rodney pawed John’s shirt aside and leaned down, licked one of John’s nipples, and stroked his cock again. John bucked sharply, and suddenly all of those comparisons between sex and riding a horse made sense, because it was like John was a wild stallion, and Rodney was trying to keep astride him, maintain the perfect tandem of lips and tongue and hands.
John grabbed Rodney and hauled him upward into a kiss, and Rodney got both hands on John’s cock, stroking and squeezing and touching, and then John was coming, hot and wet all over Rodney’s hands while Rodney swallowed his cries.
Afterwards, they used one of Rodney’s handkerchiefs to clean up, and then they bundled together under the covers, half-naked and the warmer for it.
“It seems so counterintuitive, that we are warmer when we are less clothed,” Rodney said.
“Well, we’re warmer alone when we are more clothed, but when we’re together, we’re heating just each other instead of our clothes as well,” John murmured, his lips soft against Rodney’s ear. “Energy is transferred from person to person and less is lost to entropy through the layers of clothes.”
Rodney blinked sleepily. “What kind of cowboy soldier are you, talking about entropy?”
“The kind of cowboy soldier,” John whispered, “who adores you.”
Rodney drifted off to sleep with a smile on his lips, warm and safe in John’s arms. If John was gone the next morning, no matter, because Rodney knew he’d see John again.
As it turned out, though, poker and blackjack were less about bluffing and more about calculating probabilities, assuming the dealer wasn’t cheating (and of course Lorne was the dealer, as he was the most trustworthy of the bunch). Rodney was very good at calculating - well, anything, so he was winning very handily. The others said it was beginner’s luck, but Rodney knew better.
Stackhouse, Markham, Bates, Toriel, and Dorsey were all seated in an empty stall in a circle, with coins stacked in front of them.
“Why?” Lorne asked.
Rodney raised his eyebrows. “It’s the middle of the day, I’m sitting in just my shirtsleeves and trousers, I’m gambling, and drinking. Everything is wrong with that sentence.”
Bates clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re among comrades, even if you’re not a soldier. No womanly interference with our fun here.”
“And that’s why you don’t have a wife,” Lorne said without missing a beat.
“You’d have a wife,” Stackhouse said to him, “if you gave Miss Teldy the time of day.”
“Really?” Rodney thought back to all the times he’d watched Lorne and Miss Teldy interact.
Lorne huffed. “Ann? No.”
“You call her by her christian name?” Markham waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
“We’re coworkers,” Lorne said. “It’s why I call Rodney Rodney and not Mr. McKay.”
He intoned Rodney’s name just the way Mr. Sheppard did, and the other men snorted in amusement.
“Why not Miss Teldy? She seems a fine lady,” Rodney hedged.
Lorne flicked a glance at Rodney that he couldn’t read. “She is a fine lady, and I will be the first to admit that I’m not nearly man enough to match her unbridled spirit and strength of character.”
Bates guffawed. “If not you, then no man on God’s green earth.”
“Be that as it may,” Lorne said mildly, “Rodney, your bet.”
Rodney considered his cards, the ones he’d put down and the ones he’d picked up, and slid two pennies into the center. “Two.”
Lorne turned to Toriel. “And you?”
“Call.” Toriel added his two cents.
Across the circle, Dorsey was eyeing Rodney with frightening intensity, and then a cry rose up from outside.
It was Kennedy, one of the new security boys.
The other men were on their feet and armed with pistols in an instant, sprinting out of the stables at full speed, leaving Rodney coughing in their dust. He stumbled upright and into Molly’s stall, where he kept Stevens’s knife and John’s pistol in his saddlebags, and he armed himself, then ventured to the far doors and peered out, heart pounding.
There were men stationed all around the house, up on the roof, and at regular intervals behind neatly-constructed barricades all around the paddock and corral. They were armed, with rifles shouldered. They looked like an army. Rodney wasn’t sure if he should feel safe or feel terrified.
Cries echoed up and down the line.
“Where is he?” “Did you see him?” “He was over by the stables!” “He was on foot.” “He was unarmed!” “He had a horse.”
Rodney’s throat closed. John. They’d spotted John. John wasn’t safe. He wasn’t one of the security men, didn’t work for Mr. Sheppard, and they would hurt him, possibly kill him.
“Major Lorne,” Bates said, “what are our orders?”
Lorne, guarding the front door of the house, wore a pale, grim expression. “Mr. Sheppard’s orders are shoot to kill.”
“That Injun’s damn difficult to kill,” Toriel grumbled.
“Half-breed,” Dorsey corrected. “If he dresses like a white man, he can pass for a white man.”
“Apparently he didn’t dress like a white man if we spotted him,” Toriel said.
Not John. Relief flooded Rodney’s limbs, and he relaxed his grip on his pistol. And then there was a scream. Miss Porter.
Lorne went pelting in the direction of her voice with a cry of, “Alice!”
Alice. Three months on this estate, and Rodney had never heard Miss Porter’s first name before.
Lorne shouted, “Someone call Doc Beckett right away!”
“Is it the Injun?” Toriel asked. “Did you get him?”
There was a flurry of curses, and whispers traveled down the line to Bates, who breathed, “Heaven above, it’s Ford.”
Aiden. He was back? He was hurt, if Lorne wanted Carson.
Toriel and Dorsey scrambled onto horses and went thundering toward the treeline, in the direction of the town where Carson lived. Rodney straightened up, heart pounding, and saw half a dozen men bearing an unconscious Aiden on their shoulders, like pallbearers, Lorne at their head.
He was issuing instructions to Miss Teldy and Miss Porter - hot water, clean towels and linens, honey from the pantry, silk thread and candles, needles. Rodney put up the gun and the knife and hurried into the house after them.
“What can I do to help?” he asked.
Lorne flicked at glance at Miss Teldy and Miss Porter, then said, “Can you be my go-between? To preserve Aiden’s and the ladies’ modesty.”
Rodney nodded. “Yes. Of course. Anything you need, I’m your man.”
Miss Teldy and Miss Porter ducked out of the room, headed to the kitchen. Rodney took up post in the doorway, ready for instructions. He dashed back and forth, bringing supplies to Lorne, who was doing his best to clean and bind and stitch Aiden’s wounds. Aiden was almost unrecognizable beneath the blood and bruises.
“Was it the half-breed?” Rodney asked. “Did he do this to Aiden?”
“No,” Lorne said fiercely. “It was the Wraith.”
“Will Aiden live?”
“Only Doc Beckett can say for sure.” Lorne mopped Aiden’s brow gently with a damp cloth, murmured something low and soothing.
Rodney sensed he was no longer needed, and he returned to the kitchen. Miss Porter was sitting at the table, hands in her lap, pale and drawn. Miss Teldy was pacing back and forth in front of the stove, brewing tea.
“How is he?” Miss Teldy asked when she saw Rodney.
“Stable, I think. We’re waiting for -”
“Dr. Beckett.” Miss Porter sprang to her feet when Carson came through the door.
“Where is he?” Carson barely had his hat off.
Rodney led him to Lorne’s room.
“How is he, Evan?” Carson asked, setting down his black medical bag.
“I did what I could, but I’m not you.” Lorne beckoned him over.
Rodney knew he was no longer needed, and he drifted through the kitchen, toward the stairs. He stood in the middle of his quarters, dazed from the panic and adrenaline. John was safe, but Aiden had been injured, either by the Wraith or the mysterious half-breed who Mr. Sheppard had ordered killed on sight.
Rodney had stood with Lorne and held a man’s life in his hands.
The papers always made gunfights sound heroic and glorious. Life on the frontier was supposed to be rugged and adventurous. Mostly it was terrifying.
That weekend, Rodney didn’t take Molly out to the lake. Where before the night sky had seemed liberating, now it seemed dangerous, oppressive, as if savagery and the most feral facets of nature were pressing in on all sides, and only the thinnest veneer of bricks and mortar kept them out.
Rodney took turns with Lorne and the rest keeping vigil beside Aiden. Bates, Markham, and Stackhouse played a half-hearted card game with him. Lorne took his report, that he’d made contact with both the Walker and Stevens clans and given them what little pensions Lorne had managed to scrounge up for them. Rodney’s contribution was to read poetry to Aiden, and stories, and essays.
When Rodney wasn’t with Aiden, he was in his quarters, reading and studying and writing feverish letters to Jeannie, about how he missed Toronto and home and the bustling of the city and how the trappings of civilized society, while arbitrary, at least drew the line between humans and beasts. Rodney had seen the bite marks on Aiden’s flesh, heard him cry out in the night about not wanting to be eaten, and he was afraid.
Afraid for himself and everyone in the house, and especially afraid for John.
Aiden was slowly healing up, between Lorne’s mothering tendencies (not that Rodney was going to complain about generous helpings of chicken stew), frequent visits from Carson, and Bates and the rest of the men making sure Aiden never wanted for company, no matter how busy the day. Rumor had it that Carson had taken a shine to Miss Porter, but they were never anything but perfectly proper whenever Rodney saw them together.
Of course, Rodney knew how proper a person could seem during daylight, and how wild he could be at night. He dreamed often of John, and missed John. With all this added security, there was no way for them to see each other, and Rodney would have to wait for Mr. Sheppard’s fears to ease or find some excuse to go out to the lake.
Although John had made it into the house and up to the attic before. He was clever, a former soldier. Perhaps he’d find a way. But maybe he was in greater danger, with the Wraith being as brazen as they had been with Aiden, to torture him so and then dump his body on the edge of the estate, a message and a warning.
Someone has to keep the Wraith away from this place, John had said.
Rodney hoped that if John was far away, it meant the Wraith were too.
Mrs. Sheppard, in contrast to her husband’s brooding presence in the studies and libraries of the house, was preparing for the upcoming party. Mr. Sheppard was still amenable to the idea of a party only because the honored guests - judges and lawyers and politicians - would be bringing their own security as well, to add to what forces were already being employed.
Sheppard Junior and Miss Sheppard were very excited indeed. They’d perfected their dances, their piano pieces, and their songs, and in a fit of ambition were also learning poems for recitation.
The day before the party, Rodney released them from lessons because they were so wound up with energy. Mr. Sheppard took Sheppard Junior riding around the estate, showing him the security preparations. Mrs. Sheppard and Miss Sheppard were putting the finishing touches on their dresses for the occasion, having planned to embroider their own embellishments on their dresses.
Lorne needed all the help he could get in the kitchens, so Rodney stepped in to help while Miss Teldy led Miss Porter and the rest of the maids on a cleaning spree through the house. They polished the silverware and the candlesticks, polished the furniture, swept the floors, beat the rugs, ironed the linens.
Lorne had designed a complex menu of petit-fours, hors d’oeuvres, salads, cooked meats, cooked vegetables, sauces, puddings, and candied fruits. He could do all the baking a day in advance, so he and Rodney were making dinner rolls, loaves of bread, cakes and biscuits and pies. Lorne pre-made the sauces as well, and several kinds of meat were also marinating. Rodney obeyed his orders without question and thought that Lorne must have been an efficient Army officer indeed. He always knew what needed to be done, and he always knew who was where and doing what, and no one was idle, and no one was doubling up on work unnecessarily.
At the end of the day, Rodney was exhausted and covered in flour. He’d escaped from the madness in the kitchen by taking lunch with Aiden, promising to report back about any lovely ladies he saw at the party. Rodney had supper in the pantry, sitting on the scullery maid’s stool and nibbling on bread and cheese. The kitchen was sweltering hot now that summer had arrived on the plains, and Rodney wanted to crawl into a bucket of ice and never, ever move.
Once Lorne was satisfied that all the preparations were in place for the party tomorrow, he banned everyone from the kitchen except himself, Miss Teldy, and Rodney.
“What are we going to do about feeding the men tonight?” Rodney asked.
“All the food is prepared.” Lorne yawned. “I’ll serve it.”
Rodney shook his head. “No, let me.”
“What? No. It’s my job -”
“I can afford to sleep in tomorrow. You didn’t get to sleep today, as you usually do, and you’ll be needed for breakfast and lunch, as will Miss Teldy. If I’m up late tonight, well, my services won’t be needed until the party is underway. I’ll have time to recover,” Rodney said.
Lorne studied him for a long moment. He opened his mouth to protest and yawned instead.
“Your body makes my argument for me.” Rodney pushed Lorne toward the servants’ hall. “Go.”
“Thank you, Rodney. The rolls and meat for the men are -”
“I know where they are. Good night, Miss Teldy.”
She was wiser than her male counterpart, didn’t protest the offer of assistance, and headed straight for bed.
Rodney could let himself doze in the kitchen. He’d wakened himself in the middle of the night before, to make celestial observations with a telescope. He was confident he could wake himself in the middle of the night to feed the security men, and if he overslept, one of the rascals would wake him when they were hungry enough.
He fetched Maxwell’s Matter and Motion and a lamp and sat at the kitchen table and read for a bit, and then he dimmed his lamp and dozed.
Woke, when he heard someone creep into the kitchen.
“Is it time for your midnight meal?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“I wasn’t expecting one, but I wouldn’t say no to sharing one with you,” John said.
Rodney rose, alarmed. “Should you be here? In the house like this? What if someone sees you?”
John shrugged. “No one saw me entering, and no one will see me leaving. No one ever does.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Quite,” John said firmly.
Rodney nodded, tried to get himself to relax. He tried on a smile. “We have to stop meeting like this. I’m starting to think you find me ugly, given how we’re always in the dark.” He knew the household was asleep, but the servants were in earshot of the kitchen, and he knew to be careful.
“You walk in beauty, like the night,” John offered, eyes glinting with amusement.
Rodney wanted to reach for him, pull him into a kiss, but he didn’t dare. John seemed to understand his hesitation, for he patted Rodney on the shoulder the way the men did all the time, one comrade to another.
“You flatterer. But I didn’t mean a meal for us specifically. I told Lorne I’d supervise feeding the security guards tonight, so he can rest. Big day tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” John asked.
“Mr. Sheppard is hosting a party. Very important. Bankers and judges and lawyers, senators and congressmen.” Rodney cast about for the giant basket Lorne used to take the food out to the barn.
“Sounds like you’ll be in fine company.” John followed him. “Anything I can to do help?”
“You’d best hide yourself - in the pantry,” Rodney said. “I suspect if the guards see you, they’ll chase you off. And no, I won’t be attending the party. Supervising the children for their performances, and perhaps playing the pianoforte to accompany some dances, but I won’t be a guest, and I don’t care to be one.”
“I wouldn’t either,” John murmured.
Rodney located the basket. “Wait here. This shouldn’t take long, as I’m sure the men are very hungry by now, but hide yourself just in case.”
“In your room?” John asked.
“Have you had any food recently?” Rodney asked.
John’s rumbling stomach betrayed him.
“I thought as much. Then the pantry. Don’t touch anything, though - if you take something intended for the party, Lorne might go mad.” Rodney scooped up the basket and headed out to the barn, where a group of security men were already assembled.
“Sleeping,” Rodney said. The men lined up in an orderly fashion, took their share of bread, meat, and cheese with little fuss.
“So he sent you in his stead?”
“I volunteered, so that he may rest,” Rodney said.
The men eyed him but didn’t make much attempt at conversation after that. Rodney ended up staying out there for a long time. The men couldn’t leave the estate unguarded while they ate, so one group of men ate quickly, then went to relieve another group of men. They had a complicated arrangement of shifts for food and relief watch, eight in all, and by the time it was done Rodney was exhausted and very hungry himself.
He carried the empty basket back into the house and set it where he’d found it, and then he went to the pantry.
John was sitting on the scullery maid’s stool, peeling an apple with a knife - he’d managed to peel the skin away in a single, unbroken red coil - when Rodney found him again.
“Come on,” Rodney said, “let’s get the food, and then we can go up to my room.”
John nodded, and they loaded up a plate with fruit, cheese, and cured meat that wouldn’t really be missed, started for the stairs.
Mr. Sheppard, wearing his nightshirt, dressing gown, and slippers, appeared on the stairs.
“Mr. McKay, what’s all the commotion?”
Rodney shifted so he was standing in front of John. “Apologies, Mr. Sheppard. I was feeding the guards in lieu of Mr. Lorne. I apologize for my clumsiness. I didn’t mean to wake you. I don’t know the kitchens as well as Mr. Lorne does -”
Mr. Sheppard’s eyes went wide. “You!” He shoved Rodney aside and caught John by the collar, hauled him forward.
Fury blazed in John’s eyes, and he cocked a fist to punch.
Rodney abandoned the plate of food and leaped between them, separating them.
“Please, Mr. Sheppard, John means no harm. He’s just a down-on-his-luck soldier, and sometimes I give him food and let him sleep in the stables, as - as christian charity.”
Mr. Sheppard fixed Rodney with an incredulous look. “Is that what he’s told you, that he’s an impoverished former soldier?”
“Well, in not so many words. I promise he wasn’t intending to do mischief to the household,” Rodney said quickly. This could cost him his job, Mr. Sheppard would turn Rodney out on his ear, how would he get back to Toronto -?
“You know I’ve been looking for you,” Mr. Sheppard said to John. “Your behavior is unacceptable.”
Rodney blinked. Unacceptable? Mr. Sheppard was admonishing John as he would a child.
“Your place is here, with this family, helping with the family business,” Mr. Sheppard said, and Rodney was very confused.
And then he looked at John, and he looked at Mr. Sheppard, and he remembered that moment, when Sheppard Junior’s smile had reminded him of John’s.
“I’ve been helping,” John said, “by keeping the Wraith away from the horses.”
“It is unseemly, John,” Mr. Sheppard hissed. “You’re the oldest son. You should be married and settled with children of your own, not gallivanting about like a cowboy, fighting and shooting. From the first day you joined up to they day you defected to the Union, you’ve been a disgrace to the Sheppard name, a name our father fought long and hard to defend. Now that he’s gone the least you could do is show our name some respect.”
Rodney stared at John in disbelief. “Your name is John Sheppard?”
“Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard,” Mr. Sheppard said grimly. “Ran away and joined the Army as soon as war was declared. A perfectly fine slave could have gone in his place, but -”
“Mitch was only a boy,” John snapped.
“I see you’ve been preying on the kindness and naivete of the family tutor,” Mr. Sheppard continued, “no doubt dazzling him with stories of your bravery during the war and on horseback, convincing him you were just some kind drifter.”
Rodney’s head spun. Suddenly it all made sense - how Lorne had called him sir during that shootout with the Wraith, how John had known about Rodney’s position in the household, the way John insisted he wasn’t working and would never work for Mr. Sheppard. John was the oldest son. John was the one who should have been in control of the estate.
But Rodney knew what John tasted like, knew intimately the scent and touch of his skin, and he understood why John wasn’t married and settled, could never be married and settled, not if it meant living a lie, a lie greater than the truth of his name.
Because John had been honest since they day they’d met, honest about his attraction to and affection for Rodney. Rodney had fled Toronto for the frontier so he could better be who he really was. How could he begrudge John the same?
What would happen to them now that Mr. Sheppard had found him?
“Now that you are here,” Mr. Sheppard said, “you will stay here, and you will do your duty to your family. Is that understood?”
“As you so rightly pointed out,” John drawled, “I am the oldest son. I may come and go as I please. When father died, the estate passed to me. You and everyone else who lives here only does so at my sufferance, and if I choose to leave, I shall, and you cannot stop me.”
“Perhaps this estate belongs to you on paper,” Mr. Sheppard said, “but in your glaring absence I have been paterfamilias, and this household belongs to me. Mr. Lorne?”
Rodney spun around.
Lorne, pale and tired and grim, stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Mr. Sheppard?”
“Make sure my brother is comfortable, and that he will be prepared to attend the party tomorrow,” Mr. Sheppard said.
John looked ready to protest, but Markham, Stackhouse, and Bates appeared behind Lorne.
Lorne nodded. “Of course, Mr. Sheppard. Colonel Sheppard, if you’ll come with me?”
“Major Lorne, so good to see you again.” John nodded at Lorne, and then he cast Rodney an unreadable look.
Mr. Sheppard spun on his heel and headed back up the stairs, no doubt to the family’s quarters.
“Thank you for feeding the guards, Rodney,” Lorne said. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Marks, Stacks, can you clean that up? And fix a plate of food for Colonel Sheppard. I’m sure he’s very hungry.”
Rodney stumbled up to the attic in a daze.
It took him forever to fall asleep, because the name tumbled through his mind over and over again.
He washed, dressed, and shaved like it was any other day, and then he headed down the servant stairs to the kitchen. Lorne, looking pale and exhausted, was overseeing operations in the kitchen, preparing for the party while Lindsay the scullery maid helped Reed, the assistant cook, handle the family’s meals.
“Is there room for me at breakfast?” Rodney asked.
Reed stared at Rodney, confused.
“Because Mr. John Sheppard is in residence,” Rodney clarified. John’s full name stuck in his throat for a moment, and he cleared it.
Lorne, who was wrist-deep in a bowl of marinated pork, glanced over his shoulder. “I thought you were sleeping in.”
“Couldn’t sleep, after the commotion last night.” Rodney shrugged, feeling a little defensive. Obviously Lorne had known who John was all along. What, if anything, had Lorne known about Rodney’s contact with John?
“What commotion?” Lindsay asked and then hiccupped.
“Never you mind,” Miss Teldy said peevishly. She also looked very tired.
“Yes, there’s room for you at breakfast,” Lorne said. “Go. Mrs. Sheppard had me set a place for you, in case you did decide to join the family.”
“Thanks.” Rodney started for the dining room and came up short in the doorway. Mr. Sheppard sat, as he always did, at the head of the table, but today instead of Mrs. Sheppard, John sat at his right hand. Mrs. Sheppard sat at the foot of the table, with Miss Sheppard on her right hand and Sheppard Junior at her left, which also put him beside John. The only space left for Rodney was at Mr. Sheppard’s left hand.
John was dressed as a gentleman in a fine white button-down shirt with a starched collar and fashionable cravat, a silk waistcoat with a chain for a pocket watch, and a morning jacket. His hair was as wild as ever, but he looked - respectable. Clean and sleek and handsome and not like John at all.
Rodney swallowed hard. “Apologies for my tardiness,” he said. The food had already been served.
“Apology accepted,” Mr. Sheppard said tightly. “Mr. Lorne explained how you have gone above and beyond in helping the household prepare for the onslaught of guests this evening. I can only imagine how tiring it is.”
Rodney inclined his head politely and slid into his seat as soundlessly as possible.
Mrs. Sheppard smiled at Rodney. “Mr. McKay, forgive my husband’s manners - I know he is much burdened by the concerns with the horses. This is Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, Mr. Sheppard’s elder brother.”
“How do you do,” Rodney murmured.
“Not a soldier anymore,” John drawled. “Nice to meet you Mr. McKay. Julianne tells me you’ve been helping Junior and Agnes prepare a recital for the party.”
“That’s correct - singing, pianoforte, and poetry.” Rodney served himself some toast and slathered jam on it.
“You play the pianoforte?” John inquired politely.
“He plays very well,” Mrs. Sheppard said. “He is often kind enough to play for us in the evening.”
Rodney cleared his throat. “Master David has demonstrated quite an aptitude for the pianoforte himself. I am fortunate to have such talented and hardworking students.”
“Uncle John plays the guitar,” Sheppard Junior offered.
Mr. Sheppard cast him a quelling look. Sheppard Junior ducked his head, chastened, though he looked confused and hurt. Mr. Sheppard drained his cup of coffee in a single gulp, dabbed delicately at his mouth with a linen napkin, and rose. “Excuse me, everyone. John and I have business to attend to. John, with me.” It was an order, not a request.
For a second, Rodney was sure that John would refuse, but then he noticed Markham and Stackhouse in the corners of the room, standing at attention, and Rodney couldn’t believe it. Mr. Sheppard had set guards on his own brother.
Did Lorne know about John’s preferences? Was that why he was going along with this ridiculous behavior? No man should be a prisoner in his own home, least of all John, who’d committed no crime against the family.
Rodney didn’t have long to ponder the question, though. Mrs. Sheppard finished her breakfast and left the table, calling for Miss Teldy and Miss Porter as she went, leaving Rodney and the children.
“We’re not having lessons today,” Rodney began, because he was quite sure he wouldn’t be able to concentrate on, well, anything.
“I know,” said Miss Sheppard. “I must work on my embroidery.”
“And I must work on my song.” Sheppard Junior bolted down the last of his bacon and eggs and scurried away from the table.
Rodney watched him go, speechless. Miss Sheppard finished her breakfast more neatly, but she too was soon gone. Rodney finished his breakfast slowly. He had barely any appetite even though he was exhausted. He wasn’t needed today, not until the evening. He wanted to crawl back into his bed and shut out the world.
Then he thought of how tired Lorne looked, and he finished his food, shuffled upstairs, and changed into work clothes. He didn’t want to think. The best way not to think was to be busy, and the busiest place today, hands down, would be the kitchen.
Rodney had never appreciated just how much work it took to prepare for a party. He thought of all the times as a child he’d been particularly obnoxious in an attempt to be sent to bed naughty before he had to present himself at a party and felt awful. He’d have to write letters to all the staff back home and apologize. Old Mrs. Fitzgerald would probably die of shock, but at least Rodney could sympathize with the help a little more.
At first Lindsay and Reed were a little reluctant to have Rodney in their midst, but once they observed Lorne ordering him around as if he were any other servant, they seemed content to treat him as one of their own, which was just fine. Rodney understood that this was their job, and that they, like he, preferred doing their jobs unimpeded. He didn’t think he’d ever be the sort of householder to attempt to do a domestic servant’s work for her, but he’d at least be the sort of householder who would comport himself with a mind to how difficult the jobs really were for those who lived belowstairs.
Rodney didn’t have to think, he just had to do. Chop. Mince. Mix. Slice. Stir. Toss. Lift this. Bring me that. Be careful - the pan is hot! Set that over here. Put that one over there. Out of the way, quick, quick, before it collapses! Taste this, does it taste right? You don’t think it needs a dash more turmeric? All right. Scrub those up - we’ll need them in a few minutes for the roast beef.
Upstairs, while the family was assembling in the ballroom to receive guests, the servants downstairs were engaged in one last mad scramble. Buffet table laid out. Glasses polished and on trays, ready to be brought forth at a moment’s notice. Bottles of wine lined up to be opened and let to breathe before being served. Mr. Sheppard’s whiskey and cigars refilled in his study, for when the men wished to socialize alone. The piano given one final polish after the children had pounded on it all day with their sticky little hands.
Miss Teldy swept into the kitchen with her army of maids. Their cleaning was done for the evening, other than in the event of a spectacular spill. They had all changed into their nicest black-and-white uniforms as they now had the task of receiving guests, hanging coats in the massive coat closet, and announcing guests as they arrived.
Rodney was helping Lorne ice a cake. Between the two of them, they had the steadiest hands, and this cake was the piece de resistance. It had to be perfect. Mrs. Sheppard had commanded it, and in domestic affairs, she was the General of Lorne and Miss Teldy’s household army.
“Mr. McKay,” Miss Teldy said, “you must dress for the party.”
“We’re almost done,” Rodney murmured.
“Guests will be arriving at any moment, and you are to stand with the children,” Miss Teldy said.
Lorne plucked the icing bag from Rodney’s fingers. “Go, clean up.”
“I can handle this,” Lorne said. “I really do appreciate all your help. You’ve been amazing. But I promise, I know what I’m doing. And you - you have somewhere else you need to be.”
Rodney wasn’t sure he could be in the same room as John, not with a hundred other people there as well, including his employers and the children he taught.
But he nodded and stepped back. Reed handed him a dishtowel so he could wipe off his hands, and then he headed up to his room. He washed, changed into his finest clothes - clothes that had been perfectly fashionable, thanks to Jeannie, before he left Toronto - and then headed back down the stairs, heart pounding, to the drawing room.
The Sheppards looked like the perfect family, Mr. Sheppard solemn and dignified in an impeccable suit, Mrs. Sheppard dressed in the height of fashions, their two children tiny, perfect versions of them, and John, rakish and handsome in a finely-cut suit, his smile small and enigmatic and amused. There were many young women in attendance, and they were all looking at him.
Rodney slid into place beside the children, and he listened as Miss Porter announced all manner of impressive guests - judges, lawmakers, bankers, some local sheriffs, and even Carson and some other respected doctors and scientists.
Mrs. Sheppard received each guest graciously, made introductions. She was careful not to point out that John was the elder of the Sheppard men, simply introducing him as David’s brother, John, retired from the Army.
Once all the guests had arrived and been announced, it was time to eat. At a look from Mrs. Sheppard, Rodney herded the children into a corner, and then hung back while the women went through the buffet line first. Rodney realized he hadn’t sat down for a proper meal since breakfast, and he was very hungry.
One woman, however, had made a beeline for John as soon as the food was declared ready, and she was still chatting to him. Rodney’s gut twisted at how close she stood, at how she put a hand on his arm, the gesture familiar and intimate, how she smiled up at him. John smiled back, but Rodney had seen John’s real smiles (hadn’t he?) and John was just being polite.
And then one of the other women, dark-haired and stately, put a hand on her arm.
“Nancy,” she said, “come along, lest the men start devouring each other for hunger.”
Nancy laughed softly. “I do apologize, John. It’s so good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” John stepped back, gestured for Nancy to precede him in the buffet line.
Rodney barely dared to look at John, didn’t want to know if John was looking at him or completely ignoring him. He had a job to do, which was to ensure that the children were well-behaved while they were on display for the party. He remembered being such a child and how much he’d hated being on display, even though he and Jeannie had always put forth good performances.
Rodney waited till the most important of the gentlemen had gone - the last of whom was Mr. Sheppard himself, as a gracious host never served himself first - before he stepped into the line to fetch food for the children and himself. He ended up next to Carson.
“What’s John doing here?” Carson asked in a low voice.
“Mr. Sheppard’s brother? I believe he arrived last night,” Rodney said carefully, though he also kept his voice low.
“Arrived?” Carson echoed.
“The family had not mentioned him previously,” Rodney said, which was the truth. “I had not realized Mr. Sheppard even had a brother, but here he is.”
Carson shook his head. “John hates parties. I’m surprised he hasn’t jumped out a window to escape the inanity of it all.”
“You know him well?” Rodney asked.
“Aye.” Carson’s expression turned solemn. “I was the surgeon assigned to John’s regiment, during the War.”
“His regiment?” Rodney echoed. He’d assumed John was a lowly foot soldier, though he didn’t know why.
“Aye. John Sheppard joined the Rebel Army when the call came out for men. It was common practice, for landowners to send slaves in place of their own sons, but John wouldn’t have it. He defected to the Union about a year in - no one knows why, although his commanding officer was killed in a skirmish. Once General O’Neill was satisfied that John wasn’t a spy, he was assigned to my regiment, with Lorne as his second-in-command.”
Rodney remembered what Lorne had said, how every man on the estate - before the guards arrived - had fought in the War. “Did everyone here serve with John?”
“He was their commanding officer,” Carson said. “After the War, John made sure all of his men had good, honest work to come home to, if there was none to be had in their home towns.”
Rodney thought of the way Lorne had asked John to protect Rodney, during the Wraith attack, confident and sure that John could and would do precisely that. Rodney had assumed Lorne’s brevity in the exchange was distraction, but it had been something else - unfettered trust and loyalty.
“And after the War?”
Carson pressed his lips into a thin line. “He protects the estate from the Wraith.”
“He’s a brave man.”
That wasn’t brave, it was foolhardy. Rodney scanned the room. He wanted to give John a piece of his mind. But he couldn’t. As far as everyone else in the room was concerned, Rodney and John were strangers, and a servant - even a respectable one like a tutor - had no place, confronting a member of the family like that.
“I wish I’d known sooner,” Rodney said softly.
“Sheppard men are all the same. Keep it close to the vest,” Carson said wisely. He helped Rodney juggle all the plates he needed, to bring food to the children and also have some for himself.
Once Rodney had the children situated, Carson went to mingle, and Rodney kept his head down, avoiding looking at anyone, certainly not John, who was tall and handsome and engaged in earnest conversation with that same woman, Nancy.
Several people, mostly women, came to greet the children and exchange pleasantries with Rodney. They inquired after the children’s studies and winked knowingly about the upcoming performance. Rodney kept himself small and unobtrusive, nibbling on the food and occasionally issuing gentle reminders about manners.
Rodney was startled out of his quiet, panicked daze when John, Mrs. Sheppard, and Nancy stopped by.
“You aren’t being a bother for Mr. McKay, are you?” Mrs. Sheppard asked.
“No, mother,” each child promised, and greeted their mother with kisses.
“Uncle,” Sheppard Junior said tentatively, “Mr. McKay says a good dancer is also a good soldier. Is it true?”
“The finest officers I knew were also the best dancers,” John said. He was smiling, polite, looked perfectly content.
Mrs. Sheppard smiled and patted him on the arm. “Your uncle is, of a truth, a very fine dancer.”
“Can you waltz, Uncle?” Miss Sheppard asked.
Nancy put her hand on John’s arm, offering the children condescending smiles. “He waltzes very well.”
Mrs. Sheppard looked delighted at the way Nancy was simpering at John, and she said, “Mr. McKay, you are very gifted at the pianoforte. Perhaps you would favor us with a waltz? So we can enjoy some dancing.”
Nancy also looked delighted, but John said, “Perhaps we ought to let Mr. McKay and the other guests finish their food before we begin something so spirited as dancing, Julianne.”
“Yes, of course. Finish up, Mr. McKay, and favor us with a waltz or two.”
Rodney nodded, already dredging up a couple of well-known waltzes from memory - Blue Danube, the waltz from Swan Lake. He avoided John’s gaze as he led Nancy and Mrs. Sheppard away, and then he bolted down his food.
“Mr. McKay,” Miss Sheppard said, “do you think Papa will permit us to dance?”
“Stay near the pianoforte,” Rodney said. “Don’t want the guests to be falling over you.” He winced at how like his own mother he sounded and said, “Just for the first waltz. If you do well, you may join the dance floor for the second.”
“Thank you, Mr. McKay.” Miss Sheppard leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.
Rodney was startled for a moment, but then Miss Sheppard was signalling imperiously to one of the maids for her to take away their used plates, and then people were starting to gather around the edges of the dance floor.
Rodney perched on the piano bench and lifted the cover back from the keys, took a deep breath.
“As you please, Mr. McKay,” Mrs. Sheppard said.
Rodney glanced toward Mr. Sheppard for confirmation and saw John in the middle of the dance floor, Nancy in his arms. Nancy gazed up at John adoringly. John was smiling at her as well.
Rodney tore his gaze away, took a deep breath, and started into the opening notes of the Swan Lake waltz. It was a fairly energetic waltz, and it required an athletic couple to dance it. Of course John and his lovely lady companion could keep the tempo.
As could Miss Sheppard and Junior Sheppard, who obediently stayed near the piano, waltzing a neat circle around it. Unfortunately for Sheppard Junior, Miss Sheppard was the taller of them, and so even though Sheppard Junior was ostensibly leading, Miss Sheppard was careful to steer them on turns so they didn’t run into the piano or the dance floor.
After John and Nancy had one turn about the entire dance floor, Mr. Sheppard and Mrs. Sheppard joined in, and halfway through the song, all of the guests who had partners were also dancing. Rodney could still make out John’s unruly head of hair among the crowd of dancers. He could hear Nancy laughing delightedly, see John grinning at her as he twirled her around the floor, her skirts flaring beautifully.
Rodney kept his head down and kept playing, and then he pounded out the final notes and the dancers took their bows and applauded politely.
Rodney accepted a glass of watered-down wine from Miss Porter, who offered him a sympathetic smile as well. And then Miss Sheppard was standing beside him, fairly buzzing with excitement.
“Well, Mr. McKay?”
“You did well,” he told her, much to Sheppard Junior’s disappointment. “Make sure to always follow the line of dance.”
Miss Sheppard nodded and towed her brother onto the dancefloor, and Rodney flexed his hands. Then he started into the slower, more sedate notes of Blue Danube.
Many of the couples had changed partners, in an air of friendship and socializing. Mrs. Sheppard had deigned to dance with a portly, white-haired fellow Rodney thought was a judge, and Mr. Sheppard was dancing with a woman Rodney suspected was the judge’s wife, for how similar they looked to each other. John and Nancy, however, were still dancing together.
After the second waltz was finished, Mrs. Sheppard cast Rodney a significant look, then summoned Miss Porter and the maids for a round of refreshment. While the adults drank, Rodney marshaled Miss Sheppard and Sheppard Junior for performances.
Once all the drinks had been distributed and everyone had found seats - Mr. and Mrs. Sheppard front and center, John and Nancy to their right, arms linked, everyone else scattered about and sipping from wine glasses - Rodney realized that he and the children would be the center of attention.
Miss Sheppard was practically preening under the attention, but Sheppard Junior looked terrified.
Miss Sheppard went first, reciting Blake’s Songs of Innocence. She had a good speaking voice, and she remembered well, though she tended to do her recitation in a very childish, sing-song sort of way (which was to be expected, her being a child and all). She curtseyed when she was finished, to the polite applause of the guests.
Sheppard Junior looked ready to swoon, he was breathing so heavily, so Rodney nudged him toward the piano.
“Don’t look at them,” Rodney said quietly, opening the music book. “Read the music. I’ll turn the pages for you.” He was sat on the piano bench between Sheppard Junior and the audience, and that seemed to help the boy calm down some. Sheppard Junior had worked very hard to learn Bach’s Musette in D.
“Remember, deep breaths, good posture, wrists up, light on the keys,” Rodney murmured.
Sheppard Junior nodded frantically, took a deep breath, and began to play. His hands were trembling, and the first few notes were soft, and he fumbled the staccato, but Rodney made a low, wordless sound of encouragement, and the next few notes were more confident. With each measure, he grew in confidence, and by the end of the song, he was playing better than he ever had, even in practice.
The audience exploded into applause when Sheppard Junior lifted his hands away from the keys, and the boy blinked, startled, as if finally remembering he had an audience. Rodney nudged him to his feet to take his bows, and then he took over the piano, to play for Miss Sheppard while she sang.
Sheppard Junior recited Blake’s The Evening Star with a bit more finesse than his sister, understanding the poem to be spoken the way a song is sung, flowing but keeping with the rhythm of the meter and caesura. Miss Sheppard played her minuet, and then it was Sheppard Junior’s turn to sing.
Rodney kept an eye on the boy as he played, should the poor child swoon in fright. He’d gained some measure of confidence after the piano piece and poem went well, but Rodney could see how tense his shoulders were. John, Rodney noticed, was watching Sheppard Junior very closely. Did he understand French, or did he, like most of the audience, just hear a familiar lullaby melody?
The song ended, and Sheppard Junior took his bows, and then Mrs. Sheppard rose, swept across the ballroom to pull both children into tight embraces. She had them take their final bows, and Rodney knew that was his cue. While Mr. Sheppard called for more drinks from Miss Teldy, it was Rodney who escorted the children from the ballroom and into Miss Porter’s waiting arms. She would make sure they went to bed.
And now Rodney was free, to flee the party and the societal trappings he had left behind - and the vision of John, leaning over to whisper in Nancy’s ear while Sheppard Junior sang.
Maybe it was uncivilized, maybe it was uncouth, maybe it was pathetic; Rodney didn’t care. He changed out of his party finery into his camping clothes, bundled a couple of books and a lamp down to the stables, and bunked down with Molly. By now she was used to him sleeping beside her, and she didn’t protest his use of her blanket, so they hunkered down in the hay, and Rodney read while Molly snored, and eventually the two of them slept.
Rodney opened his eyes.
John, wearing just his shirtsleeves and trousers, was leaning on the stall door.
Rodney reached for his lamp, but John said, “Leave it.” He opened the stall door and stepped into the stall, knelt down beside Rodney.
Rodney shifted himself into a sitting position, careful not to jostle Molly, who was snoring contentedly. “So, Lieutenant Colonel John Sheppard, oldest son of Patrick Sheppard, lord and master of all as far as the eye can see.”
John winced. “No, it’s not like that. I mean, yes, legally it is -”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s not who I am. I’m not - this.” John tugged at his own fine linen shirt. “I’m - you know who I am.”
“I thought I did.”
John reached out, covered Rodney’s hand with his tentatively. “Nothing between us needs to change.”
“If you’re taking up the mantle you should have always borne,” Rodney said, pulling his hand away, “you’ll be marrying Nancy and having children, and I will tutor them as I tutored the others, and -”
“I will give up all else, you alone will be my sole and exclusive standard, my novitiate will be long and exhausting, the whole past theory of my life and all conformity to the lives around me will be abandoned,” John whispered. “I’m not staying here. Dave thinks he can keep me prisoner, make me bend to his will, our dead father’s will, but he’s wrong.”
Rodney searched John’s gaze. “Do you promise?”
John’s answer was a kiss.
Rodney pulled back. “What about Nancy?”
“What about her?”
“You were flirting with her all night.” Rodney had been to the club. He knew about gentlemen who married women, who fulfilled their onerous family duties despite who they really loved.
“I’ve known Nancy since we were children,” John said. “My father had hoped to make a match of us, but then everything happened with Sumner.”
“She’s in love with you.”
“I’m not in love with her.” John curled his fingers through Rodney’s, squeezed.
Rodney leaned in for another kiss. It was soft at first, slow, tentative, like a first kiss, but John parted his lips and deepened the kiss. Rodney wound his arms around John’s neck and pulled him close, pulled him down so they were pressed against each other.
“Are you mad?” John whispered, laughing against Rodney’s mouth. “We’ll scandalize Molly and Jumper.”
“Then perhaps we’d best retire to my room,” Rodney said, but he pulled John in for another kiss. John obliged him, arching his hips into Rodney’s for delicious friction, and Rodney hummed happily into their kiss, arching back. Soon they were rocking together, in the same rhythm of lovemaking, and Rodney kissed John frantically, lest he cry out.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Light blazed over them, and they broke apart. Rodney’s heart hammered in his chest.
Mr. Sheppard stood in the stables, lamp held high, flanked my Lorne and Stackhouse and Markham and Bates and even Aiden and young Kennedy and seemingly the entire night guard.
Disgust crossed Mr. Sheppard’s face. “I should have known,” he spat. “When they told me why you’d deserted, for philosophical differences, I didn’t want to believe it.” He was talking to John.
Rodney straightened his clothes with shaking hands, darting his gaze from Lorne to Aiden to Kennedy and back again. Kennedy and Aiden were wide-eyed, horrified. Lorne’s expression was dangerously blank.
Mr. Sheppard continued. “You must have carried on with your perversion among the Union soldiers, and you carry on even now, under our father’s roof.”
“Our father’s dead,” John spat. He rose, tugged Rodney to his feet, placed himself between Rodney and Mr. Sheppard.
“And you.” Mr. Sheppard cast Rodney a venomous look. “No wonder you mounted such a spirited defense of my monster of a brother. How could I have been so blind? A weak, soft man like you, taking a woman’s job. I let you near my children.”
“I never hurt your children,” Rodney snapped.
Mr. Sheppard sneered at him. “You’re dismissed, effectively immediately. Go.”
“I’ll send for my belongings,” Rodney said, because that was the only thing he could think of.
“You’ll go with the clothes on your back and be glad I don’t have you flogged like a horse.”
“No,” John said. “You’ll let him leave properly, because he has done nothing to harm you and your family.”
“This is none of your concern, John,” Mr. Sheppard said dismissively. “You’ve brought enough shame on this family as it is. I will handle my employees on my own.”
“You’ll have to go through me.” John drew a hunting knife. Was he always armed?
“As you wish.” Mr. Sheppard lifted his head imperiously. “Mr. Lorne, if you would.”
But Lorne didn’t move.
Mr. Sheppard turned, startled. “Mr. Lorne?”
Lorne shook his head, looking torn. “I’m sorry, sir, but Colonel Sheppard -”
Mr. Sheppard tossed his head. “I’ll deal with you later. Bates, Ford?”
They shook their heads as well, looking uncertainly at Lorne.
Mr. Sheppard growled. “Fine. Mr. Kennedy, restrain my brother while I deal with Mr. McKay.”
Kennedy nodded and stepped forward. Rodney had never realized just how terribly young he was. Kennedy reached toward John. John slashed at him. Kennedy yelped and scrambled backward, and then half of the night guard piled themselves on top of John in a flurry of limbs and yells.
Rodney cried out, went to help him, but Lorne caught his arm and dragged him back.
“No,” he hissed, low and fierce.
Rodney struggled in his grip. “Dammit, Lorne, let me go, I need to help him!”
Lorne’s grip was utterly implacable. “Don’t make it worse for yourselves.”
Molly had come awake at the sound of Mr. Sheppard’s voice, and she was on her feet, stamping nervously. Jumper came alert at John’s shouts, and Bates, Markham, and Stackhouse had to scramble to restrain the horses while the brawl ensued.
Rodney could only watch, horrified, as the night guard carried an unconscious John into the house. Mr. Sheppard went to follow them, but he paused, glanced over his shoulder at Rodney and said,
“I’ll see to it,” Lorne said, and Rodney was furious and betrayed, thrashed in Lorne’s grip, but Lorne held him, impossibly strong and immovable.
Mr. Sheppard spun on his heel and strode into the house.
“Bates, Stackhouse, Markham, go with them,” Lorne said. “Make sure -”
They nodded and headed into the house.
“Aiden,” Lorne said. “Go, into the pantry, fetch the bag, you know the one I mean.”
Aiden nodded, cast Rodney a wide-eyed look, and scurried away.
Lorne turned to Rodney. “I can’t let you take Molly, but I won’t let you come to harm.”
“What will they do to John?” Rodney asked.
“He’ll be fine. He’s gotten himself out of worse.” Lorne’s tone was infuriatingly calm. “Listen to me very carefully.”
Rodney shook his head. “How could you do this, betray him, betray me?”
Lorne grabbed Rodney’s shoulders and shook him roughly. “Listen to me, dammit!”
The profanity caught Rodney by surprise. Lorne never swore.
“You have to be as far from here as possible before the sun rises,” Lorne said. “Once Dave is done with John, he’ll turn his attention back to you. John has the small advantage of being family. You don’t - you’re neither American nor a Southerner. If you want to survive the next few days, you have to listen to me, all right?”
Rodney latched onto the word survive. “All right.”
Aiden reappeared with a bulging leather pack. He handed it to Rodney.
“There’s a week’s trail rations, a canteen, and a change of clothes,” Lorne said. “Take Stevens’s knife and Colonel Sheppard’s spare pistol. The most important things in there, however, are the map and compass. You take that map and that compass and you follow them to the letter. Understand?”
“Map, compass, food, water, knife, pistol - how do you know I have John’s spare pistol?” Rodney asked, settling the strap of the pack across his chest. He narrowed his eyes. “Have you known this entire time, about me and John?”
“I know everything that happens on this estate,” Lorne said calmly. “Aiden will take you as far as the edge of the estate on horseback, but you’re on your own for the rest.”
Rodney nodded. He ran to Molly’s stall to fetch his two weapons, and then he was hauling himself up onto Aiden’s favorite horse behind Aiden, who still looked a little dazed.
The ride to the edge of the estate passed in a blur, and then Rodney was sliding off the horse, saying farewell to Aiden and walking in the direction of the low hills Aiden had pointed to.
Rodney walked for a full fifteen minutes before he remembered the map and compass, and he paused, rooted through his pack till he came up with a folded, worn map and a rusty old compass. He stared at the map, but it was the barest outline of lakes and rivers and landmarks, with little x’s marking towns and cities and settlements. When he turned the map over, there were directions, compass bearings and approximate distances and landmarks, but no named destination.
Rodney then stared at the compass and realized he had no idea how to even use the thing. And then he realized what had just happened. He’d lost John and Molly and Lorne and everyone and everything he’d ever known. Everything he’d been afraid of having happen in Toronto, everything he’d run to the frontier from, had just happened. Word would spread. Rodney would never find work or a safe place to live, his family would be disgraced, his friends disgraced, his work dismissed.
Rodney had nothing.
He stumbled to his knees and retched violently. Then he hauled himself to his feet, dragging his pack with him, and made for a stand of trees. Those would offer him shade. He could sleep there.
No. He remembered Lorne’s warning. He had to keep walking. Toward those hills. His head swam, and his vision was blurring. Rodney scrubbed a hand over his face roughly. He wouldn’t cry, didn’t dare. Had to keep a calm head.
He walked and walked and walked, till he thought his legs would give out, but the hills never seemed to come any closer. He had no pocket watch, no sense of time. Surely the sun would rise soon. John had come to him in the middle of the night, after the party had ended, which should have been around eleven o’clock. The sky was dark overhead, menacing, a thousand glittering stars like a thousand spying eyes.
Rodney’s legs ached, and then he stopped feeling them, and then they finally did give out, and he tumbled into the dirt and grass.
No, he didn’t dare stay there. Had to move, find safety. He managed to crawl toward a large bush, one he could hide under for shade as the sun rose, that would hopefully conceal him from predators or a search party on horseback. Rodney found a coat in the pack and used it to cover his head, used the pack as a pillow, and drifted into an exhausted and troubled sleep.
He wasn’t asleep for long before he heard it. Rustling in the grass, soft footsteps. Sniffing and snuffling. And the chilling howl of a coyote. Two coyotes. Close by. Rodney eased himself up into a crouch, reached into the pack for the gun or the knife or something.
And then he heard it, a low growl, right beside his ear. Hot, sticky breath on the back of his neck.
His hand closed around the pistol, and he aimed behind. Fired.
There was a pained yelp.
Rodney took off running, at a dead sprint, away from the sound and the smell. Something snarled and snapped at his heels. And then he heard an unfamiliar zip, and something flew past his head, and there was another pained yelp.
Rodney didn’t dare look back, kept on running, heart pounding, icy terror clawing through his veins. He crashed into something massive and solid and warm.
A bear. Oh no.
He cried out again and was answered by a whinny. A horse. Rodney blinked. A horse?
A horse with a rider. A giant of a man with wild long hair, dressed in all leathers, wielding a bow.
Rodney didn’t even have a chance to cry out before the man swooped down on him, and everything went dark.
“’S no use,” he slurred, his tongue thick in his parched mouth. “No one’ll pay ransom.”
“You can’t read a map or use a compass, can you?”
Rodney blinked. That deep, rumbling voice was familiar. When had he heard it before? Rodney twisted as best as he could and saw the broad expanse of a solid back beneath a heavy leather coat.
The half-breed. He’d captured Rodney. He’d scalp Rodney and collect money from Mr. Sheppard. Rodney was done for. He ought to give up now.
“What do you know about my map and compass?”
“You shot a coyote. It bled all over your supplies. Lucky shot, in the dark.”
Why did Rodney recognize his voice? “What do you plan to do with me?” The more the man spoke, the better chance Rodney had of recalling how they were acquainted.
“Taking you to town.”
“So David Sheppard’s ugly truths about me will give entire towns cause to shun and shame me?”
“Not this town.”
Rodney peered at the man again. “Who are you?”
“Specialist Ronon Dex.”
Specialist. That was a military rank. “Let me guess, you served with John Sheppard?”
“Why am I tied up?”
“So you don’t run away.”
“If you’re a friend of John’s, I wouldn’t run away.”
“Figured it’d take you a second to trust me.” Ronon made a soft clicking sound with his tongue, and his horse halted. He slid off the horse, and then he lifted Rodney off the horse. Rodney couldn’t help but flinch when Ronon drew a massive knife from inside his coat, a knife that made Stevens’s look like a toothpick, but all Ronon did was cut the rope binding Rodney’s wrists.
“You need a break?” Ronon asked.
Up close, he was young, maybe a little older than Aiden, and handsome, with a strong brow, golden skin, and soft mouth.
Rodney shook out his limbs. “Thanks.”
“Don’t linger too long. This is still Wraith territory.” Ronon rolled his shoulders, tilted his head from side to side, shook out his legs. He was long-limbed and tall and so very strong.
And finally Rodney remembered. “You know Lorne. You sneaked around the estate sometimes.”
“Guarded it,” Ronon corrected. “Me and Sheppard. Now come on, back on the horse.”
Rodney wasn’t sure if he should be insulted or feel protected, that Ronon had him sit in front, like a child or a girl, but Ronon was warm and solid against his back, and Rodney was allowed to have control of the reins. Ronon kept one hand on the grip of the pistol at his hip, scanning their surroundings.
Rodney had no idea where they were, had no idea how long he’d been asleep. When his stomach growled, Ronon gave him a handful of jerky but didn’t say a word, still watching the horizon.
“So you fought with John? In the War?”
Ronon grunted an affirmative.
“How well do you know John?”
“Well enough,” Ronon said.
Rodney glanced back at him. He was a large and strong man. He could break Rodney with one hand, and it would be foolhardy to antagonize him into violence. If he didn’t know about John and Rodney’s romance, if he held David Sheppard’s same opinions, Rodney wasn’t going to press the issue.
“Where are we going again?” Rodney asked instead.
“Town doesn’t have a name. Next to Atlantis Ranch.” Ronon shrugged. He added, “John said you talk a lot.”
Ronon thought this stilted conversation was a lot?
Rodney shrugged and fell silent, began counting the Fibonacci sequence in his head.
They rode till sundown, and then they made a camp. Ronon let Rodney start the fire. Ronon distributed some trail rations, curled up beside his horse, inhaled his share of the rations, and fell asleep seemingly between two breaths.
Rodney ate more slowly, staring at the flames and wondering where he was going, if John was all right.
“We need to go back. We need to go back to the house now and rescue John.”
Ronon came awake with a roar and bared teeth and his huge knife, and Rodney fell back with a cry, and they stared at each other for a moment, Rodney flat on his back but his hands raised in surrender, Ronon on top of him and a hair’s breadth from cutting his throat.
“What?” Ronon demanded.
“You’re a big guy. Strong. A fighter, right? A soldier. I have a gun and a knife, too. I could distract the guards while you get John. You could do that, right?”
Ronon huffed and pushed Rodney away, sat back and sheathed his knife. “No.”
“Why not? David Sheppard is apparently terrified of you. Most of the guards are terrified of you. I heard them talk -”
“Sheppard gave me orders. Get you to the town. Wait there.”
“You’re not a soldier anymore. We’re not at war anymore!”
Ronon bared his teeth again. “Shut up and go back to sleep.” He rolled over, buried his face in his coat, and started to snore.
Rodney stared at him in disbelief. Then he curled up under his own coat and tried to fall asleep. He dreamed of riding to a heroic rescue, guns blazing, Ronon shrieking war cries, both of them painted for battle.
Rodney hoped it would never come to battle, but he would make men bleed for John. He could, and he would.
A dark-skinned woman emerged from one of the houses, bouncing an infant on her hip.
“Ronon,” she said, smiling warmly. His wife, perhaps? She looked colored more than Native, but Rodney couldn’t quite tell.
“Found him. He doesn’t know how to use a compass and a map.” Ronon nudged Rodney toward the woman and led his horse toward one of the tents.
“Hello, Rodney. I am Teyla Emmagan. We’ve been expecting you.” Teyla turned her warm smile on Rodney. “Please, this way.” She led him past the cluster of tents and to the shacks. She ducked into one of them. Rodney saw that it had a narrow bed, a card table, a wash basin and jug, a scrap of mirror, and a clothes line strung across it. After a moment, Rodney recognized the red flannel shirt and matching red bandana. They were John’s.
“I’m afraid it’s quite humble,” Teyla said, “but out here we live simply.” She bounced her child more.
The dark-haired, dark-skinned creature gazed at Rodney with equally dark, opaque eyes, sucking on its little fist.
“Thank you,” Rodney said faintly, sinking down on the bed.
“This is my son, Torren,” Teyla continued.
“Hello, Torren.” Rodney waved at the child, who just blinked at him. “Is this where John lives?”
“Yes, this is his home,” Teyla said. “He isn’t here often, combating the Wraith as he does. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask. The well is up on the ranch, but it is not too difficult a walk.” She pointed to a bucket in the corner of the dank shack.
Rodney rose up, threw open the shutters of the single window. There was no door, just a cloth strung across a rectangular opening. “Thank you, Teyla. I - what shall I do, for food?”
“Evan has some supplies set aside for you and John. Do you have anything left in your pack?”
“I think so. Lorne said he gave me a week’s rations.” Rodney blinked dazedly. “You know Lorne? You call him Evan.”
“Yes, I know Evan Lorne.” Teyla reached out, pressed the back of her hand to Rodney’s forehead. “You are very tired. Rest, Rodney. Someone will bring you your pack and some water.”
“All I’ve done is sleep,” Rodney protested. Once Ronon’s horse had settled into a steady gait, Rodney had dozed for most of the ride, only stirring for breaks or to make camp or have food at water.
“You need not sleep,” Teyla said, “but you ought to rest. Lie back.” She fluffed the one pillow one-handed, put a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and urged him back.
Rodney submitted to her, head spinning. He was sun-blind and tired from constantly being jolted. “What’s happening to John? Will we go rescue him?”
“Do not worry about John.” Teyla’s voice was gentle and soothing. “You will see him soon.” And she began to sing.
À la claire fontaine
M’en allant promener
J’ai trouvé l’eau si belle
Que je m’y suis baignée
Il y a longtemps que je t’aime
Jamais je ne t’oublierai
Rodney drifted in and out, heard piping children’s voices - Chloe, Jinto, put Mister Rodney’s pack over there - and Teyla singing and other murmured conversations - any word? Not yet. He sensed the passage of time, but he drifted in and out of lucidity. He had visions of David Sheppard torturing John, having him beaten and whipped. He imagined what horrors had been told to the children, and after he had finally learned to care for them. He imagined he was still captive, flung across the back of Ronon’s horse, destined for death at the hands of the Wraith, to be cut and burned and eaten alive.
Thundering horse hooves drummed Rodney into full wakefulness. He sat up. It was late, the sun low in the sky. He wasn’t alone. A small woman with red-gold hair was sitting on a chair in the corner, knitting.
“Good evening, Mr. McKay,” she said. “Miss Katherine Brown, at your service.”
“Good evening, Miss Brown.” Rodney cast about, spotted his pack in the corner. “I find I’m not in need of service at the moment. News about Colonel Sheppard, however, wouldn’t be amiss.” He flipped open the pack, found the little wrapped package of trail rations. Hardtack and jerky were in order. Indeed, someone had brought him water, so he refilled his canteen out of the bucket in the corner. Someone had draped a cloth over it, to keep it from getting dusty.
“I haven’t heard anything,” Miss Brown said. She averted her gaze and hunched her shoulders, diffident.
Rodney bit back further comment. Did she know about him and John? Did she also think him a monster?
Ronon’s voice was loud outside. “Evan!”
Rodney abandoned his food and stumbled out of the shack, saw Lorne sliding down off of one of the Sheppard horses.
“Where is John?” Teyla asked.
Lorne was pale but sunburnt around the edges. “He was maybe two or three hours behind me. It is done.”
“All of it?” Ronon asked.
Lorne nodded. Ronon dragged him close - and into a kiss.
Rodney stared. Lorne clung to Ronon desperately, kissing him passionately, his hands confident on Ronon’s body, like they were long-time lovers. Rodney darted glances around - at Teyla, and the children, and Miss Brown, and other men and women he didn’t recognize, but none of them looked disgusted or afraid.
Just - relieved. Because Lorne was safe.
“Don’t ever leave me again,” Ronon growled when they parted for air.
Lorne smiled. “My time at the Sheppard estate is finished.” Then he noticed Rodney, wove through the crowd to pull Rodney into one of those rough embraces that the men on the estate had shared, the former comrades-in-arms. “You’re safe. You made it.”
“Only because Ronon found him,” Teyla said, her tone chastening. “Rodney knows neither compass nor map.”
“I can read a map,” Rodney protested. “I’ve just never used a compass before.”
Lorne looked chagrined. “I’m so sorry. I had to get you away from the estate as soon as possible. I thought for sure you knew how.” He clapped Rodney on the shoulder. “But you’re here now, and John should be here soon.”
“Did you know?” Rodney asked. “All along? About me and John.”
“John told me,” Lorne said. “It was why I helped him sneak onto the estate proper more than he ever did before, and why I made sure his men were the ones guarding the lake on the weekend.”
“Will we be safe here?” Rodney asked.
“As safe as you can be, on the frontier.” Lorne glanced over his shoulder at Ronon. “You and John will be safe together.”
Rodney nodded. “What about the children? Are they -?”
“Mr. Sheppard and Mrs. Sheppard will be sending Master David to boarding school in Paris and Agnes to finishing school in New York,” Lorne said. “They’re fine. They miss you. And they don’t know about you and John. They think you were kidnapped by the Wraith.”
“It’s best if they go on thinking that.” Rodney swallowed hard. “What about my family? What have they been told?”
“They’ve been told,” Lorne said, “that you found a new position as schoolmaster for a small ranching town.”
Realization dawned. “This town.”
Lorne nodded, smiled. “Now come on - let’s get supper started, make sure we have something warm when John and the others arrive.”
“The others?” Rodney echoed.
“You’ll see. Come on.” Lorne beckoned, and Rodney followed him.
There was a central cooking fire, ringed with stones and outfitted with a tripod and a large cooking pot. Lorne had quiescent assistants in the local children, who fetched and carried for him while the women helped him chop and mix and stir. Rodney rolled up his sleeves and waded in to help, and the rhythm was familiar, the same as in the Sheppard kitchens. Ronon also pitched in to help, mostly by producing a slain deer and gutting and cleaning it.
While Rodney worked, he was introduced to the rest of the denizens of the town - Elizabeth Weir, the proprietor of Atlantis Ranch, and a widow. Teyla’s husband Kanaan, and her uncle Halling. David Parrish, Katie Brown’s half-brother, who cultivated the town’s vegetable patch. Jinto and Wex, Cleo and Casta, Harmony, Cassandra, Skaara, Merrin, and Sharif, the children. Rodney wasn’t quite sure who their parents were, because they answered to any adult and every adult was affectionate with them.
Lorne had just declared the food ready when Rodney spotted a dust cloud in the distance.
“Dust devil?” he asked. “Do we need to bunk down?”
“Horses,” Ronon said, and sure enough, Rodney could hear it, hoofbeats.
Rodney pushed through the crowd around the cooking fire, shaded his eyes in the dimness of the sunset. His heart leapt in his chest when Jumper burst out of the dust cloud, John spurring him faster and faster.
As soon as John saw Rodney, he reined Jumper to a halt, slid to the ground, and stumbled into Rodney’s arms. Rodney held him tightly for a moment, then pulled back, looked him over.
“Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”
“Not much. Once I gave Dave what he wanted, he let me go.”
“What was it he wanted?”
“Control of the estate. I signed it over to him.”
“That was all? You could have done it forever ago.”
“I know, I know. I was trying to protect the horses from the Wraith, knew I could do better than the greenhorn boys Dave hired.” John kissed Rodney, quick and firm. “But now I have what I want.”
“Which is what?”
“You,” John said. He threw a grin over his shoulder. “And all the best horses. Bring ‘em in, boys!”
Rodney peered over John’s shoulder and saw Bates, Aiden, Stackhouse, Markham, Dorsey, Toriel, Reed, and even Miss Teldy, Miss Porter and Lindsay, all astride horses, all bringing them to halt beside Jumper.
“Not just boys,” Miss Teldy said peevishly, dismounting with practiced skill. “Where do you want the horses?”
“I’ll make sure they have places in my stables,” said Elizabeth. “Welcome to Atlantis. Please, join us for supper. Mr. Lorne did the cooking.”
It was Miss Teldy who arranged people in a line, so the children could eat first, and then the hungry riders were fed next. Once everyone was served, people sat around the fire, talking and laughing and telling stories. Aiden was recounting their flight from the Sheppard estate.
“You should have seen the look on his face. I thought his head would explode.”
“My brother always did look like our father when he became upset,” John drawled, and there was laughter all around. He reached out, curled his hand through Rodney’s and squeezed, and for the rest of the night, he didn’t let it go.
Life in Atlantis progresses apace. Now that we have plenty more hands to see to the town as well as the horses on the ranch, we have a raising once a week - the school-church, the general store, proper houses for everyone. No bank, because we rarely have need for money; we share our skills and barter the fruits of our labors, and everyone has what they need. You would love it here - the wide open skies, the quiet outdoors, and the pleasant and intelligent people.
You should visit us at Christmastime. We’ve a sturdy wagon that can make the journey to Omaha and bring you to us at the end of the train ride. There are children for Madison to play with, and we could put you up in our spare room. We are already working on winter-proofing the cabin, and Miss Brown has provided us with many warm afghans to keep us comfortable in the night. If you tell her your favorite colors, she can make you a lovely set of matching scarf and gloves.
Life here is not always calm. The Wraith come sometimes, and Sheppard’s men too, but we are well, and for all its imperfections, life here is perfect.
I am happy. We are happy.
Yours with affection,