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Thief of My Heart

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The highwayman patted his horse, calming the animal as it sensed and reacted to his own nervous energy. Breaking the law, risking his life to steal coins and jewelry, had not been an easy decision. Limited options dictated this choice. His uneasiness was transmitted to the sensitive animal.

Only the glow of the moon and the stars disturbed the darkness of the night. A chill breeze rippled through the forest as a barn owl hooted inquisitively. Straining his eyes, he saw the shine of lamps hanging from a carriage appear from the distance and heard the clopping sound of horses' hooves, muted by the dampness of the dirt path.

Waiting until the vehicle approached his location, he pulled one pistol from the holster, firing a shot in the air. The driver hastily yanked on the reins, slowing the horses as the other pistol was thrust into his face. "Stand down," came the emphatic command.

"Out of the coach. I want your valuables," the highwayman directed to the carriage's interior.

The door swung open and a figure emerged. By the blue satin of his jacket and breeches, the stark white of his cravat and silk socks, and the diamond pin on his lapel, he might have been any member of the aristocracy, ready to cower when threatened with violence disturbing his sheltered life. Only the unconventional hair, hanging straight to his shoulders, and the deadliness in his azure eyes, revealed that this man was not a pampered dandy.

The highwayman had little time to notice those details, to register his mistake in selecting this coach, before the aristocrat raised the pistol in his hand and swiftly fired a shot. The horses whinnied and reared. The driver held the reins tight, reassuring and soothing the startled carriage horses. With painful fire spreading through his body, the highwayman lost control of his own horse, hitting the ground solidly as the animal panicked and fled.

"Well, milord, guess you've taken care of that problem." From the uncultured accent, the highwayman registered the speaker must be one of the servants.

"I hope not. I want an example for the Sheriff to hang. I won't tolerate thieves and outlaws in my county." The aristocrat, a man accustomed to power and authority, spoke with a faint burr ruffling the elegant tones of the upper class.

A hand pulled at the scarf covering the highwayman's face to reveal the features of an angel, surrounded by curling red-gold hair. More than mere physical beauty, he radiated the emotional sweetness of youth and innocence, an unexpected combination for an outlaw. As he noted the pain and defiance in the highwayman's blue-gray eyes, the aristocrat's expression subtly changed, becoming softer, as the impact of that exquisiteness affected his senses and rapidly changed his plans. Yanking off his cravat, he used the silk to staunch the flow of the blood.

"Help me get him into the carriage. Halston, take one of the horses and get the surgeon. Bring him to the manor."

"To the manor, sir? Wouldn't it be better to take him to the sheriff?"

"No. No one tells the sheriff of this incident." Those words demanded instant obedience and silence. They were the last words heard by the highwayman as pain from the wound numbed his mind. He barely registered the strong arms lifting him onto the vehicle's leather covered seat.

************************
The highwayman floated in and out of consciousness for several days, weak from his wound. The exceptional care he received piqued his curiosity. He hadn’t been carted off to a miserable jail; the bedroom wasn't even a shabby hole on the third floor, but a spacious guestroom. The bed was enormous, with detailed carving on the bedposts matching the handwork on the armoire. The sheets beneath his body were fine cotton, the pillow plush with downy feathers. The rich mauve hangings around the bed coordinated with the colors in the pattern of the oriental rug on the floor.

Servants appeared with regular frequency, bathing his brow and swiftly changing sweat-moistened sheets. Many times, the aristocrat himself spooned broth down his mouth, cradling the highwayman's body against his own.

"My lord."

"I see you've finally decided to talk." The aristocrat's careless words concealed his relief. The surgeon had been summoned and swiftly removed the bullet, but many died from fever while recovering from less significant wounds. Immediate care was no guarantee of a successful return to health.

"May I know the name of my jailer?" The biting tone in the highwayman's question hid his own confusion at the uncharacteristic actions of this man. In his understanding, attempted thieves were tossed into prisons. The nobility left the unpleasant chores of life to their servants and did not even assist at the sick beds of their own family. To see an aristocrat tend a criminal stranger was more astonishing than if the sun suddenly turned green.

"I am Quinton St. John. And your name?"

"Benjamin Larson." The highwayman responded without attempting to disguise his identity. His name would not mean anything to anyone, unlike his captor's name, which was instantly recognizable. So famous that he didn't even need to proclaim his title. Not just any aristocrat, but one of the most powerful Dukes in the nation, held him captive. "Why are you taking care of me?"

"You can't guess," he stated the question flatly. The Duke wondered if the innocence could be that true.

"It would have been kinder to hang me immediately. Is it so essential that I be healthy and conscious while my neck is broken?"

One large hand rested on the arch of Ben's throat. "Nothing and no one will harm you." The Duke leaned down, shutting his eyes. His lips touched Ben's but didn't invade. Instead, they nuzzled, accustoming the youth to the sensation. A tongue flicked out, licked along their outline, slipping between to run along the pearly teeth. A shocked gasp allowed complete penetration, the Duke's tongue exploring the warm cavern of Ben's mouth, savoring the intoxicating contact.

Ben didn't resist, too surprised by a behavior outside his experience. At first, the kiss was persuasive, beguiling. As it deepened, the tongue delving, hot and seeking, Ben felt the response heat his body, beginning in his groin and spreading slowly until every extremity tingled with sensation. The Duke's body, laying against his, was hard and strangely comforting, smelling of horses and fresh air. Stunned by the pleasure, he pushed against the broad shoulders, forcing the Duke to sit back.

Coolly, Quinton picked up the bowl of broth, slipping a spoon into the open mouth. Only his ragged breathing betrayed his outward calm. Ben's eyes searched his for answers. "You must get well. Drink." His calmness forbade any further conversation. Ben drank the broth, his mind puzzling over both the Duke's kiss and his devastating reaction.

Several days passed as Ben recovered. He noted both the respect and admiration with which the servants regarded the Duke. A firm, decisive man, but obviously one who treated his people with a measure of consideration. Initially, the servants were less fond of Ben. While they ministered to his every need, their glances reflected a suspicious distrust. His kindness and obvious appreciation, as well as his own apparent bewilderment with the Duke's attitude, won them over.

Since the servants saw little need to announce their presence to a man too weak to do anything more strenuous than lie in bed, Ben didn't flinch when a rap sounded and the door was immediately flung open. He was astonished when one of the footmen carried in a large tub, closely followed by several more footmen and maids carrying buckets of steaming hot water. The tub was placed by the window and rapidly filled, the steam rising over the top. Ben struggled out of bed, delighted to relish this incredible luxury after an interminable number of days restricted to being wiped off by a towel.

"We'll leave these last buckets for rinsing yourself, sir." The rosy-cheeked maid giggled when Ben smiled at her.

"Thank you, Molly. I appreciate this."

"His Lordship commanded it, sir. You must thank him." That giggle sounded again as Molly consideringly glanced between Ben and the tub. The image of a naked, bathing Ben was quite pleasant in her mind.

"But you and the others have done the work and I do thank you."

Making a quick curtsy, she hurried out. Rapidly stripping off the nightshirt, Ben sank into the decadence of steamy liquid bliss. Closing his eyes, he leaned against the side as the warmth seeped into the very marrow of his bones. Suddenly he felt aware of a presence in the room. Opening his eyes, he saw the Duke staring down at him. Ben flushed but refused to hide his body like a frightened maiden. His words were defensive rather than suggestive. "Did you need something, my Lord?"

"I thought you might need these," Quinton replied, holding a washcloth and bar of scented soap. The sleeves of his fine lawn shirt were rolled up to his elbows. Kneeling down, he wetted the cloth and soap, working up a lather in his hands.

"I believe I am capable of bathing myself, my Lord. I am recovering." Ben held his hand out for the cloth and soap, but was ignored. Instead, Quinton began lathering his arm, briskly working his way to Ben's shoulders and down the other arm before returning to his chest. His face was impassive, his touch studiously impersonal.

Ben wanted to protest but feared to argue with this man who controlled his life. With one command, the Duke could send a servant to fetch the Sheriff. Ben could die at the end of rope. He allowed the odd seduction as Quinton worked his way down the firm torso. His touch gentled as the wound was washed with care. The cleaning was becoming less impersonal, more caressing and Ben's body was reacting, his member stiffening. The Duke skipped Ben's loins, washing one leg and back up the other.

Quinton positioned himself behind Ben, cradling him, his chest pressing against Ben's wet back, the lower portion of their bodies separated by the tub. His free hand brushed Ben's nipples as the washcloth was wrapped around Ben's erection.

"I have heard of men, men who enjoy other men. Is this what I am to be - a toy for your pleasure?" Ben wished his voice was more cutting and less agitated, but he was losing control of his breathing. The excitement of Quinton's love-making was ensnaring him despite his struggle to remain calm.

Quinton's only response was warm breath and a soft tongue tracing the curves of his ear before suckling on the sensitive lobe. The speed and force of his movements increased as he discarded the washcloth, letting it float away. His fingers were calloused from working with horses and their rough texture slid slickly over Ben's soft flesh.

The highwayman's previous sexual encounters had been hurried, furtive affairs. The lavishness of a warm bath and a skilled touch was excitingly foreign. As sensitive fingers caressed his erection and a tongue was buried in his mouth, Ben surrendered to the exquisite pleasure of an experienced man playing with his body. Water splashed on the floor as he uncontrollably arched into Quinton's touch. His hands reflexively clenched on the sides of the tub as his seed spilled into the water, waves of ecstasy washing through his body.

Quinton held Ben as aftershocks rippled through the lithe body, stroking him soothingly, helping the intense feelings to ease. He poured part of a bucket of water over the long hair, soaping the strands thoroughly before rinsing them. As he collected the washcloth and soap, he finally responded to the verbal accusation. "I believe you have gained all the benefit from this afternoon. I have received no pleasure from you."

Unwilling to concede that the experience had been pleasurable, Ben glared defiance at that statement. "I can't stop you from playing with me, but I won't service you. Not willingly."

His head was forced back and a hard, brutal kiss pressed upon his lips. "Don't challenge me, my little highwayman. I always accept a challenge."

The Duke abruptly departed, leaving Ben wallowing in cooling water and his own tempestuous thoughts. The Duke was dangerously attractive, an intelligent, commanding presence. Ben reluctantly admitted to himself that he had enjoyed both their earlier kiss and this strange encounter. He would have to escape soon and resume his life before he was trapped in an entrancing prison.

*********************
I have received no pleasure from you. The false words echoed in his mind. A lie, damnable lie. Even without achieving his own satisfaction, Quinton received more pleasure watching Ben's slim body quiver in ecstasy than he received from a dozen different encounters. Fifty. One hundred. He'd never counted. Certainly he felt more joy giving Ben excitement than from any sexual experience with his late wife.

He tossed back a snifter of brandy, letting the burning fluid warm the back of his throat and heat a trail to his stomach. He'd loved his wife in a vague way. He wasn't a callow youth when they married but he was still too young to effectively protest or rebel against society's dictates. As a Duke, he needed heirs. Elizabeth was lovely, gracious, possessed of a moderate dowry and the daughter of a count. Society deemed him a lucky man despite the cold-hearted practicality of the match.

Luck hadn't extended to the bedroom. Elizabeth politely tolerated his advances, bound by her own awareness of society's requirements and desire to cement her position as Duchess. She was obviously disgusted by the act and found her husband too large and intimidating. Her death during the birth of their second child was an unexpected tragedy. Quinton mourned her loss but was secretly, guiltily relieved that he would no longer live in a travesty of nuptial bliss. Two healthy sons were security enough that the ducal line would survive to the next generation.

He made himself sip the second snifter, staring moodily into the dancing orange-gold flames of the fireplace. As long as he appropriately cultivated and obeyed the King, kept the love of his people and wealth, he could live his own life as he wished. He could have Ben. Discretion would be required, but have him he would. Something unidentifiable about the young thief - perhaps his beauty, his innocence, the sweetness of his personality he attempted to hide while spitting defiance - called to every emotion in Quinton's neglected heart, shattering a lifetime of restrictions and leaving only burning need.

Halston silently glided into the room in response to Quinton's pull on the bell rope. "Take his measurements," Quinton ordered abruptly. "Send them to my tailor and bootmaker. He needs a complete wardrobe appropriate to his new station as my companion."

"Yes, my Lord." Halston's voice contained that subdued condemning air which always indicated his unhappiness with his orders. During his two decades of service to Quinton, he had learned to master his vocal inflection. He never raised his voice or protested one of the Duke's decisions, but his displeasure was evident.

"Say it, Halston." Quinton believed in hearing Halston's complaints, if for no other reason than to marshal his arguments and prepare to defeat objections. The servant had an uncanny talent for judging both the reactions of the servants and the nobility.

"How will we be explaining the young Master's presence, my Lord? I presume we will no longer be referring to him as the captured highwayman."

"He's the son of an old school friend. I think the younger son of a younger son would be best. Minor gentry but no title. Less likelihood anyone will inquire further into his family connections. He's been in the military, bravely fighting for our country, and needs a quiet place to recuperate."

"Yes, my Lord."

The inflection wasn't happy yet. "What else, Halston?"

"And how long will the young Master need to recover?" Quinton's tight expression answered that question. "I see, my Lord. And when a sufficient time has passed for his recuperation and he doesn't leave, my Lord? Young men are generally expected to have a profession."

"I'll be training him to look after an estate. He has the brains and ability to make a good estate manager." At least, Quinton hoped he did. A modicum of intelligence would make the masquerade easier. From Ben's precise accent, Quinton assumed the highwayman may indeed be a younger son driven to desperate measures but perhaps he only aped his betters. Determining Ben's educational level would be tomorrow's chore. Quinton could teach him anything he needed to know to blend with society.

"Yes, my Lord." Halston sounded mildly appeased, but Quinton realized he would have to work further on excuses for Ben's presence. Recuperation and training would only grant him six months, maybe a year, before the whispers began behind his back. Halston probably assumed his infatuation would burn out before that period had ended, but Quinton realized the rest of his life wouldn't be enough time with Ben. He could ignore furtive disapproval, but he had a responsibility to his sons to protect the Dukedom.

"And Halston - inform the tailor I want him in deep, rich colors. Emerald green, sapphire blue, ruby, some black. Velvet, silk, the best fabrics. And inform the servants that he will have no outside contact without my approval. He stays on the grounds. If necessary, you can imply he has a fragile constitution which needs pampering and protection while he recuperates."

"Yes, my Lord." The reproving note reappeared but Quinton could handle Halston's disapproval. He would tolerate anything for Ben. He had found the other half of his soul. Now the only dilemma was how to persuade Ben to share his heart and his life.

********************
"My Lord."

Quinton suppressed the flare of delight at those words. He had been called "my lord" all his life, but somehow the title differed when spoken in Ben's rich voice. Some day, those words would be moaned in passion, he promised. "Yes, Ben?" he responded heedlessly while looking up from his book, as if he hadn't been aware the very second the younger man entered his presence.

Ben remained in the doorway, apparently poised to flee. His new clothes hadn't arrived from London, so he was dressed in rough brown wool breeches and a white shirt borrowed from one of the footman. "My Lord, I would like an explanation of what you mean to do with me."

"Enter," Quinton directed, gesturing to the other armchair. The door shut silently as Ben obeyed, sitting tensely. "What shall I do with a thief who has been terrorizing all the gentry in my county?"

His response bitterly spoke of his own frustration. "You were my first victim, my Lord. If you've been having problems with a highwayman, you still will."

"You made a bad first choice, little thief."

"I have realized that, my Lord. You can't imprison me here as a play toy. Not indefinitely."

Quinton countered the rebellious declaration with a question. "Tell me what drove you to such measures. You appear to be healthy and educated. Couldn't you find a job? As a clerk or in the military? Give me honesty and perhaps I will release you."

"I am illegitimate, my Lord. I assume my father had money and a title to protect. I was given to a vicar who raised and educated me and received payment for my care. I have knowledge of Greek, Latin, history, mathematics, and the sciences, but there were no provisions made for my living. The vicar died suddenly without leaving instructions on how to contact my benefactor or even if I should. Since that time, I tried a variety of professions. I was in the military but without money to purchase a commission to be an officer, the military life lacks amenities."

The Duke stared at Ben broodingly. "So you decided to try the easy life? Rob and steal?"

"Why not, my Lord? I would hardly be the first."

"You're not a criminal. Something drove you to thievery. You're hiding something. No honesty, no release for you." He rose abruptly and crossed to kneel down by Ben, one hand rising to cup his cheek, a blunt thumb resting in the cleft on Ben's chin. "I'll make a bargain with you, little thief."

"What sort of bargain, my Lord?" The blue-gray eyes reflected obstinate resentment.

The Duke leaned closer, his free arm laying on the back of the chair. Ben felt surrounded by his male power and stubbornly fought against being intimidated. "You were right yesterday. I do want you for pleasure. I want to love you and have you make love to me." The shock in those beautiful orbs satisfied Quinton's sense of possessiveness. "You don't even understand what two men can do together, do you?"

"The Church teaches that two men together is sinful. Love is for procreation. I heard things about it in the army…it sounded vile."

Lowering his voice to a seductive whisper, the Duke asked, "Did yesterday feel sinful?"

Ben's breath deserted his body in a rush as the Duke nipped at his earlobe. "Yes, my Lord, very sinful. Wicked."

Strong teeth nipped down his jawline, alternating with a mustache brushing against the soft skin. "Vile?" Lips met in a fierce kiss before Quinton allowed Ben to respond.

"No, my Lord. It felt good. Very good." He closed his eyes to hide the truth and shame in that admission. "I am surprised your lands are so far from the ocean."

A crack of laughter disturbed the seduction. "Do you think the title was given to my ancestor by a King grateful for his piracy?"

"It would seem appropriate, my Lord."

"I'm not an unreasonable pirate, Ben. Give me three months, that's all I ask. Let me take care of you while you recover. I won't rush you, I won't demand more than you find comfortable. Think of how my hands felt on you. Imagine what my mouth can do." The Duke laughed as Ben's eyes flew open in shock. "Yes, my mouth, little thief. Think of learning how to do the same to me. Imagine the power of driving me to ecstasy. Picture our bodies entwined, how good it will feel, naked on silk sheets in my huge bed as I enter your body. As you enter mine. Three months. If you can walk away, I'll open the door and the Sheriff will never know."

"I have to leave. I can't live off you forever." Those eyes truly revealed all of Ben's thoughts. Despite his protests, Quinton could see the growing speculation as Ben was intrigued by a world of sensual discovery he'd never imagined.

"Three months and we'll see what the future holds at that time. Say yes. You know you want to." Another tempting kiss caused Ben to moan plaintively as his mouth was released. "Say yes," Quinton whispered, his lips coaxing the word from Ben.

"Yesss."

His gleeful shout was smothered by another tempestuous kiss as Ben's arms wrapped around his body, hands kneading the firm muscles of his back. Quinton began to rise, intending to guide Ben to the chaise lounge, but a knock on the door interrupted. "What?"

Halston's calm voice penetrated Quinton's passion-fogged mind. "My Lord, there is a difficulty with one of your horses. You wished to be called."

"Damn." Quinton stared intently into Ben's face, mesmerized by his dazed features. If the youth was that responsive to just a kiss… "You should rest, anyway. You're still weak."

Ben gathered his composure, telling himself the reprieve was fortunate. "May I stay here in the library? I would like to select a book to read."

"You are free to go anywhere, use anything you would like in my house. It is your house for the next three months. Do you play chess?" At Ben's nod, Quinton continued, "Good. We'll have a match after dinner."

With a flurry of controlled movement, Quinton abandoned Ben and strode from the room. The highwayman could only collapse in the chair, overwhelmed by what had occurred and what he had promised. Three months would save his life, but at what cost to his soul and heart? While he was excited by what Quinton promised to teach him, he feared whether he would be able to leave after discovering the overpowering pleasure of loving this man. Leave he must. Another depended on him, another who could be trapped by the Duke’s apparent ruthlessness. His roaming gaze fell upon the writing table and he walked across the room swiftly, taking up pen and dipping it into the ink well. At least he had this unexpected opportunity to draft a letter of reassurance while awaiting a method of deliverance.

*****************
Quinton paused outside the room, slowing his breath, quieting his racing heart. The grooms didn't need to see him in this condition. Halston raised one mocking eyebrow, eyeing the obvious bulge in Quinton's breeches. "I thought the young Master's visit was intended to relieve such difficulties."

"He's barely recovered," Quinton growled. "Be fortunate I allow you such latitude, Halston."

"Yes, my Lord." The words were civil but a slight smirk escaped. "If I overstep my boundaries, you must tell me to find a whip for my punishment. Or would you prefer it for the young Master?”

The mocking look was dismissed with a glare. “Have a groom ready to ride tomorrow morning and prepare a guest room for Lady Agatha. I’ll draft a letter tonight for him to take to her.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Halston realized Quinton’s temper was in danger of fraying and wisely kept his tongue from further comment as the Duke headed for the stables.

********************
Hooves pounded as the Duke and the highwayman raced across the lush green meadow. Their speed sent divots of grass flying into the air. The early morning sun caressed their backs as they leaned over their horses' heads, Ben's red-gold and Quinton's dark hair blowing loose in the breeze. Ben reached the line of trees first, abruptly halting his horse and crowing, "My win, my Lord!"

"Yes, Ben, your win." Quinton smiled in delight as Ben laughed his triumph. His new clothes had arrived from London, and the black riding jacket, breeches, and boots blended into the horse's ebony skin until the two were a perfect inseparable union of man and beast. With his wound almost fully healed, Ben was a vision of good health and vigor. "You are an excellent rider. Probably the best horseman I've ever seen."

"Why thank you, my Lord." While sitting on the horse, Ben bowed in playful humor at the compliment. "And may I say you have an excellent seat, yourself."

"You may say anything you like about my body, Ben." In the cool country air, the heat suddenly sparked between the two as Quinton's voice grew husky.

"My Lord…" To cover his confusion, Ben rapidly dismounted, patting his horse, calming it. "We should let the horses rest. I do believe you have the best stable in the country."

Quinton copied his actions, stroking his own stallion, amused at the redirected compliment. "Thank you. My horses are my pride and joy. You were in the military, but not an officer?"

"Yes, my Lord, merely a common foot soldier. Why do you ask?" Ben kept his attention firmly on his beast.

"Maybe I should buy you a commission. I would like to see you in the red and gold of an officer's uniform. You would look - superb." With darkened eyes and lowered voice, Quinton deliberately escalated the tension. Ben had not resisted his kisses and caresses over the last several days. He’d even allowed Quinton to kneel before him and drive him to climax with a skilled mouth, sobbing aloud with the glory of the emotions coursing through his body. So far, the youth steadily fought reciprocating, hastily disengaging himself. Time was passing quickly, and Quinton was determined to impact Ben's heart and soul enough that he would agree to stay. He wanted Ben to feel like more than a play toy and intrigued enough to experience the joy of shared pleasure.

Ben failed to comment. Dropping his reins, Quinton stalked to stand next to the younger man, ensuring that his powerful presence couldn't be ignored. "Do you know what I want to do now?"

Glancing away from the horse's rough hair, Ben's eyes met Quinton's for only a second before fixing his gaze on the saddle. "You want to." He gulped an unsteady breath. "Fuck me."

Long strong arms wrapped around the highwayman's body, large hands linking together and resting on one shoulder. Quinton whispered in his ear, "There is a difference between fucking and making love. Sometimes I want to make love to you. So slowly and gently. For hours and hours. But yes, right now, I want to fuck you. I want to toss you down on this fragrant grass and have you until our bodies are united forever and we can no longer determine where one of us ends and the other begins."

Springing out of his arms and onto his horse, Ben said, "I'll race you back to the manor, my Lord."

Quinton caught the bridle, stopping Ben from dashing away. "You can only run so long, little thief."

Shaking his head in denial, Ben replied, "I only have to run for two more months. Then I'm free. You promised." He dug his heels in the horse's sides and it sprang away, racing back across the meadow. Quinton stared after the departing figure, disheartened and wondering if he could be noble enough to fulfill that promise when the dreaded time arrived.

*******************
Pacing outside the study door, Ben gathered his poise. A visitor had arrived from London, though Ben didn't know who. The world had centered around himself and Quinton, with only Halston and the other servants appearing on the fringes. This would be his first meeting with one of Quinton's friends, another member of the nobility. Maybe the person was even family. He knew Quinton had been married, but siblings or cousins or other relations were never mentioned. He wished he knew how Quinton had explained his presence.

Ben chided himself for being nervous. He lived all his life as a bastard, educated by a caring vicar and tolerated by the society of a small town. If anyone was going to feel embarrassed in front of London aristocracy, it was Quinton for flaunting a young lover. He rapped briskly before entering.

An elderly woman was seated next to Quinton on the couch, drinking a cup of tea. She was wearing a travelling gown of heavy dark green wool, the pearl brooch and earrings signifying her wealth. Her silver hair swirled around her head and her beauty shone through the wrinkles lining her face. "And this must be the young man you wanted me to meet." Her voice was fragile but her strength of personality evident.

"Lady Agatha, allow me to introduce Benjamin Larson. Ben, Lady Agatha Winter. One of my dearest friends."

"Oldest too. Might as well say it. It's the truth."

Ben bowed respectfully, taking the extended frail hand and pressing a light kiss to the back. "A pleasure to meet you, ma'am. One of his most beautiful friends, I have no doubt."

"Hmph. Nice manners, at least. Nicer than many of the young bucks. Sit." She patted the chair next to her, smile diffusing the command. "Tell me about yourself."

"Yes, ma'am." Ben glance at Quinton for guidance earned him a half smile. He repeated the brief story of his life as Agatha poured him a cup of tea.

"Odd effort to educate you but abandon you without a career. Felt a bit of a fish out of the water, haven't you?"

The sudden rush of feeling at Lady Agatha's understanding and sympathy surprised Ben. "Yes, ma'am. It's been difficult. I wasn't well liked in the military. Too well-educated to be accepted by the other foot soldiers and disliked by the officers for the same reason."

"This vicar - what was his name?"

"George Kendricks. He was vicar of Longston."

"Kendricks. Of course. I should've known." One frail hand touched Ben's chin, guiding him to raise and move his face for her examination. "That cleft. Those lovely eyes. You look so like your father."

A hope Ben never realized existed surged in his heart. Someone could identify him, could lead him to a father, a mother, perhaps other relatives. "You know my father?"

The look of regret in Lady Agatha's eyes dimmed his enthusiasm. "I knew him, poor boy. The third son of the Maquis of Kenobi. Got himself killed in the war. There were rumors that he'd fathered a son, scandalous tales of a seduced maiden. Maybe he meant to marry her when he returned, but it was said she killed herself when she heard the tragic news, leaving behind an orphaned son. The truth was hushed up. Kendricks is a distant cousin of the family."

"Distant enough to take charge of an unwanted child," Ben said bitterly. "To let the family fulfill their responsibilities and hide the bastard away."

She patted his hand. "Your grandfather probably arranged for Kendricks to take you. He passed away a few years ago. Doubt that your uncle, the current Maquis…well…"

Struggling to keep his voice from breaking, Ben replied, "I can accept the truth, my Lady."

"He's a selfish, thoughtless creature," she sniffed. "He may not know you exist. Doubt he cares, if he does. No sense of family responsibility."

"Thank you, my lady," he said softly. "I am glad to know the truth, however unpalatable."

Ben felt both melancholic and oddly relieved. Never having depended on finding or being welcomed by his family, he thought he had no hopes to dash. He found himself surprisingly sad. While he had never pinned much hope on meeting his parents, he now had to accept the bitter truth that he never would. He would never learn if they would have loved him. At least he could believe they would have married and raised him lovingly, if they had lived. No one and no truth could contradict his rosy fantasy of a blissful childhood that might have been.

His gaze caught the mute sympathy in Quinton's eyes and he realized that the past was simply that - the past, gone and forgotten. Time to turn away from the past and deal with the reality of the present and the future, the reality of this complex man who had shot him, healed him, helped him find the truth, and wanted to love him.

**************
After a visit of several days, Lady Agatha had finally rolled away in her carriage. For such an elderly lady, her energy was boundless, requiring both the Duke and Ben to dote on her and entertain her. In return, she amused them with colorful tales about English society, updating Quinton of the current escapades of his peers.

Ben cherished the peace of the afternoon although his mind was anything but calm. He was ensconced in a plush armchair, booted feet propped on the windowsill as the sun weakly streamed through the glass and onto his book, but he was only scanning the lines. Without Agatha's distractions, his thoughts turned to his own situation. The emotions and concerns swirling through his brain prohibited concentration on the escapades of fictional characters.

A discreet knock sounded at the door. "Your presence is requested by his Lordship, Master Ben. In the den, sir."

He raised his voice to be heard through the thick wood. "Yes, Molly, thank you." The book was dropped negligently on the nightstand. The last several pages had made no sense. He'd have to start at the beginning. Wondering what Quinton wanted, he strolled downstairs and entered the den.

Seated at his desk, the Duke barely acknowledged Ben's presence, intently studying something on the polished surface. Ben hesitantly approached and sat on the opposing chair. The tenseness in the Duke's face projected a definite air of displeasure.

When Quinton spoke, the brogue inherited from his Irish mother strongly resonated, a sign Ben interpreted as signifying stress and unhappiness. "Mrs. Sharon Atherton, Fairfield House, London." He tapped the envelope containing the letter drafted by Ob-Wan close to a month ago. "You should learn, Ben, that your alluring personality and a few coins are insufficient to bribe a truly faithful servant. And all of Lady Agatha's servants are loyal."

Ben cursed to himself. He had thought his plan so clever, persuading the servant to deliver the letter when they reached London. She must have reported him promptly to Lady Agatha, who undoubtedly passed the letter to Quinton before her carriage departed this morning. He said tonelessly, "Yes, my Lord."

His failure to justify or defend his act earned him a sharp look. "Who is she, Ben?"

"No one of importance, my Lord. A childhood friend."

"Important enough that you attempted to conceal her existence. Important enough that you refused to ask me to have this letter delivered. Important enough that you snuck behind my back."

A faint blush highlighted Ben's cheeks at the undeniable accusations. He'd felt disloyal and shameful, charming Lady Agatha's young maid to accept the missive. Only his desperate need to inform Sharon of his well-being and safety persuaded him to make the attempt. He bit his tongue, fearing that no answer could justify his action.

Silence was an insufficient response to Quinton. He stood and strode around the desk, yanking Ben out his chair, fingers digging brutally into the younger man's biceps. "Is this my competition? Is she why you barely tolerate my touch? Answer me! Who is she?"

"My lord!" Ben was legitimately shocked at Quinton's interpretation.

The Duke shook his prisoner fiercely. "Are you dreaming of her when I love you? Are you sneaking around with a married woman?"

"No, my Lord! No! She's my sister! Please! Only my sister!"

In surprise, the Duke released his hands and Ben fell limply back to his chair. "You claim to be a bastard with no knowledge of your parents. How can you have a sister? Don't play with me, Ben."

"Please, my Lord, let me explain all." The Duke paced back to the desk, flinging himself into his chair, his calm face indicating his willingness to listen to Ben's tale. "As I have told you, I was left with George Kendricks and his wife Mary to raise. I neglected to mention that they had a daughter, Sharon. They were very kind to me and treated me as Sharon's brother. Mrs. Kendricks died of influenza when I was 10. Sharon was merely 13, but she became my second mother.

"When she was 18, she married a young man in our village, Harold Atherton. He was killed in a horrible carriage accident with the Vicar. We were left with few resources. Sharon accepted a position as a governess and I tried a variety of employment." The Duke nodded, listening, but not interrupting.

"Sharon is the reason I took to the life of a highwayman, my Lord. She may be a widow, but she is still young and beautiful. She has had - difficulties with the fathers of her young charges. The mothers found reasons to dismiss her. This is her third job and she has become wary of some suggestive remarks made by her employer. If she loses this position, it may be impossible for her to find another."

"So you thought - what? You would steal enough money to keep your sister safe from lecherous advances?"

His voice low, Ben answered the Duke's taunt. "Perhaps I was naïve, my Lord, but yes, that is what I hoped. A small stake to settle ourselves in a country town with a reasonably respectable profession. Perhaps run a small store. A foot soldier's pay would provide basic sustenance but she deserves better, for the sacrifices she made for a frightened young boy. We have no grand pretensions. I only wanted to protect her and see that she receives a few minor niceties of life."

The Duke considered Ben, as if divining the truth. "But you view her as a sister?"

"Yes, my Lord. A sister, a second mother, my family. No more, no less."

"The family who employs her? What are they like? A noble family?"

"Reasonably well-connected, my Lord, but not aristocracy. They have pretensions to society, but will never mingle with the highest echelons."

"I hoped you would describe them so," the Duke said cryptically. He pulled a piece of stationery from his desk. Dipping the pen in the inkwell, he wrote with a speedy flourish as Ben watched. Silently, he blew on the letter to encourage the fresh ink to dry before handing it to Ben.

Taking the letter gingerly, Ben read aloud. "Dear Madam, I understand you have the fortune to employ the young daughter of an old friend of mine, the Vicar of Longston. I have only recently learned of the untimely death of the Vicar and his son-in-law. I thank you for your assistance to Mrs. Atherton and beg that you will allow me to call upon the two of you when I visit London next. Sincerely, Quinton St. John." Ben smiled with relief as the importance of the words sunk into his consciousness.

"They'll treat her as a precious gem. The chance that a Duke may come to call - it's a social coup for them. It will be discussed at tea for weeks." He bit his lip and gave the Duke a careful glance. "Thank you for this letter, my Lord. It will allow me additional time to make plans for us."

The Duke's nod was curt. "A letter is a small enough gesture to make. I have no patience for those who would abuse innocents." His face flushed, as if condemning himself with his own words.

"No, my Lord," said Ben, rising and crossing to kneel at the Duke's feet, alert to the reason behind the unhappiness in the Duke's cobalt eyes. "Do not compare yourself to men who would inflict themselves upon Sharon."

Tangling his fingers in Ben's red-gold hair, the Duke asked sadly, "Have I not used my power to control you? Has this not been as flagrant abuse of my position?"

Turning his head into the Duke's hand, Ben kissed his palm. "I harmed you first, my Lord. I attempted robbery and would have been quite happy to succeed. Besides," he caught the stroking hand and gently licked from the wrist to the tip of his middle finger, "you have always ensured that I enjoy our encounters. I would like to repay the thoughtfulness."

The Duke groaned as Ben's other hand came to rest on his breeches. He was so acutely sensitized to his highwayman's touch that the combination of licking tongue and warm hand on his groin brought him to full erection within a heartbeat. "I don't require repayment for helping your sister, Ben. I have found such enjoyment, watching your beautiful face as you climax. You should have been a model for a Renaissance painting of an angel. Michelangelo might manage to do justice to you."

"You flatter me." Hands slipped to the waistband of the Duke's breeches, sliding the fine material down his hips. "Please, my Lord. This is not quid pro quo. I would not do this act for my sister's honor. I have tried to deny the truth, but you have brought me to ecstasy so shocking and unbelievable that you have torn apart my soul and knitted it together again. I wish to do the same for you." The confession was difficult to force past his lips, but Ben had wearied of hiding the truth from his own heart. The Duke's hands and mouth had taken him to a state of bliss he'd never imagined could exist, much less dreamed of attaining.

"Who am I to forbid the wishes of an angel?"

Ben bent to his task with acute diligence, determined to use each technique he'd learned from the Duke. His touch was initially shy and hesitant, as if fearful of harming his lover. A swipe of warm, wet tongue over the tip of the Duke's erection. A finger stroking down the underside of the rigid length and along the top. A gentle fondling of the heavy balls. The Duke's amazed groans were encouraging, verifying that greater pressure could be applied. Ben boldly increased the vigor of his efforts, pumping hard and rolling the balls in his hand. Finally, his mouth encased the velvety shaft, sucking strongly, his cheeks distorting with the force.

The Duke was awash with both humble reverence and carnal desire as the worshipful intensity of Ben's exploration progressed rapidly to skilled caresses. Quinton squirmed as he began to throb, attempting to shove Ben away and free his shaft from its warm prison. Ben's hands clasped his hips tightly, preventing success. As the Duke emptied himself into Ben's mouth, his loud, harsh groans died to plaintive whimpers and he felt throat muscles swallowing his seed, massaging his softening length.

The Duke twisted a strand of Ben's fine hair in his fingers as the younger man courteously restored his breeches. "Thank you, Ben. Thank you." He wished to say more, to speak of how serious his feelings had grown from the moment he viewed Ben's beauty, but feared such words might be rejected. For now, he would cherish this bliss, Ben kneeling at his feet, his head settled on Quinton's muscled thigh. Almost two months remained to him. He would gradually introduce the topic and make Ben a permanent fixture in his life before that time elapsed.

***********
Ben leaned against Quinton as the carriage gently swayed. Dinner at the Squire's had been an entertaining meal. The Squire was happy to share his knowledge on estate management with the Duke's protégé, while his wife insisted on filling Ben's belly and his daughter charmingly flirted with him. To receive such automatic admiration merely because of the company he kept was a new, but gratifying, experience for Ben.

His happiness was pierced by a shot and a rough voice calling, "Stand down!" For a second, Ben was tempted to laugh, disconcerted at the reenactment of their first encounter. His humor was instantly dashed as he felt Quinton tense and reach across for the pistol in the carriage's side pocket. Quinton had finally found the highwayman he truly sought.

The highwayman's voice originated from outside Ben's side of the carriage. The young man scrambled out, ignoring Quinton's attempt to exit around him and the hissed, "Stay!"

Confronting the cloaked figure on a black stallion, Ben stood as tall as possible, presenting an easy target. "Well, if it isn't a ill-mannered ruffian," he drawled, being deliberately provocative.

The highwayman snarled as Quinton followed Ben's prediction, almost deafening Ben when the pistol was raised next to his head and a shot fired. In an uncanny duplication of events, the cloaked figure jerked, then slumped, falling from his horse as the beast fled. This time, Quinton's shot struck true, and the villain was dead.

************
Quinton appeared outwardly normal, giving each servant a polite nod or "good night" as they walked into the manor and up the wide staircase. Ben could sense the leashed rage inside the Duke. He was wound as tight as a spring in a gold pocket watch.

The anger was freed as the Duke marched after Ben into the bedroom. He almost slammed the younger man against the tall bedpost, his hands on Ben's upper arms, shaking him. "What did you think you were doing?"

Limp in Quinton's hold, Ben responded, "You were in danger."

"And you weren't? Your flesh is as vulnerable as mine. You could have been killed."

Ben placed his hands on Quinton's arms, running his palms lightly over the velvet jacket. "As vulnerable, yes, but not as valuable. Your death would be a great loss for this county. Mine would distress only Sharon."

"And me, Ben, and me," was the heartfelt response, as Quinton gathered his lover into his arms, kissing him with longing and passion. Quinton eventually separated their lips, but remained leaning against Ben, his back bent to let their foreheads touch. "I cannot bear to live without you, Ben. Please, stay with me. Love me, Ben."

Shocked surprise was evident in Ben's expression. Quinton's earlier indications that he wanted Ben to remain had been passionate, but had never demonstrated this intensity of feeling and need. "My Lord…?"

Quinton kissed him again, kissed him until both were breathless, until Ben was arching up as Quinton pressed down, their bodies rubbing together. "I will dower your sister, buy her a school to run, whatever you want to ensure her future. I don't want to live my life without you."

"My Lord…" Ben's hands ran caressingly over Quinton's broad frame. "Make love to me. As completely as you have wished. I need to feel you inside me, to know the ultimate act."

"Stay with me, Ben, stay." The words were a plea for eternity.

"As your paramour? Your kept lover? Your…Master?" Ben's brilliant eyes were sad. The thought that they might be together forever was a beverage too intoxicating, a dream too perfect. "Can you imagine what people would say?"

"They will never dare to say anything in our presence," Quinton vowed. Considerations of family obligations and position were crumpling to dust as Quinton fought to convince his love. What good was a Dukedom, if his life remained lonely and alone?

"That won't stop the gossip." Ben stroked Quinton's lips with a finger. "Shhh…don't talk. Just love me. Love me tonight."

Groaning, Quinton surrendered, plucking at Ben's clothes. The youth reciprocated, and a flurry of silk and velvet fell to collect at their feet as the two kissed eagerly. Turning away, Ben tossed the covers back before hesitating. "I don't know - ."

"We shall learn this together, Ben." The Duke glanced around, seeking an object he didn't find, finally yanking his breeches back on his body. "Wait for me."

Ben crawled into the bed as Quinton left the room, returning within minutes with a bottle of oil. Naked again, Quinton settled on top of Ben, their hands exploring firm, hand flesh, searching for those sensitive areas that would make the other gasp in wonder.

"On your hands and knees, love, please."

Following the instruction, Ben positioned himself, attempting to keep his muscles loose and relaxed. Kisses scattered up and down his back and he flinched with delight at teasing licks and quick bites. His body reacted to the erotic feel of Quinton looming over him, his hard penis pressing against the soft skin of Ben's inner thigh.

Coated with oil, one of Quinton's long fingers slid into Ben's body. Ben had seen fireworks once at a faire, the tiny explosions of color and sound delighting the spectators. Those fireworks ignited within his body as the Duke cleverly touched a sensitive spot.

The Duke was patient as Ben arched and moaned. He had heard of this act and dreamed of performing it with Ben, but was supremely conscious that haste or too much force could damage his lover. Three fingers found a safe haven in Ben's body before the Duke was satisfied with the preparation.

For the Duke, sliding his large cock into Ben's nubile body was the most perfect moment in time in his life, like coming home to the garden of Eden. He was enraptured by the tight warmth clinging to his cock, by Ben's shivers as small moans emerged from both of their throats. Slowly, he edged forward until he was buried completely. "Am I hurting you?" he breathed, seeking reassurance that the sounds were borne of pleasure, not pain.

The "No!" was sharp and quick, rapidly followed by a low, "please…more!"

Withdrawing from that warm sheath was agony; thrusting back was sheer heaven. Slow at first, then faster and faster as Ben quivered and pleaded for more. The pleasure shimmered through Quinton's senses, transporting him to a blissful paradise he had never believed could exist.

As the fireworks rocketed through every fiber of his body, Ben frantically kneaded the pillow, needing some physical action beyond the rocking motion of his legs and hips to release the building tension. He screamed as a majestic giant pinwheel of blue and green and gold exploded behind his eyelids. Every muscle clenched in one last spasm. His hands gripped the pillow until the stitching broke, white feathers forcibly expelled out of the pillowcase.

They collapsed together, both too dazed to think. Quinton rolled over, resting his head on the other pillow and pulling Ben's limp body against him. Downy bits of white fluttered in the air before landing to cover them. "Fireworks and feathers. I never knew anyone could make me see fireworks and feathers," Ben mumbled.

Quinton simply gave an interrogatory rumble, too exhausted to speak but not understanding Ben's comment.

"That was perfection," Ben said more clearly. He wrapped himself around Quinton, one arm crossing the Duke's broad chest, their legs entwined together.

Agreeing with a heartfelt groan, Quinton reached up to pull the tie that held back the heavy drapes around the bed. With a soft sound, they slid into place, enclosing the lovers within a sheltered bower, blocking out the light of the candle still glowing on the nightstand.

***********
The house was haunted by Ben’s presence. Every place he looked, Quinton could see that slender form, encased in elegant silks and velvets, leaning against the balustrade, sitting on the divan, snuggled under the sheets in Quinton's bed. His scent lingered in the air, obscuring the smell of burning tallow drifting from the candles.

The worst was the image of Ben standing in the foyer dressed in travelling clothes of plain brown cotton breeches and jacket, black boots, and white shirt. Quinton had lost the final fight when Ben stubbornly insisted on being his own man, holding the Duke to the promise to release him when the time was finished. The youth's eyes had been sad but determined. Pulling him close, Quinton had stolen a last, lingering farewell kiss from soft, willing lips before striding away, unable to watch Ben walk out the door.

Remaining in an empty house was intolerable. “I’m going to take a trip.”

“A trip, my Lord? May I inquire your destination?”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll visit my sons before I leave the country, then travel to Italy maybe. France. I’ll send you word of my itinerary as I create it.” Surely somewhere, someplace, he could find something to diminish the pain.

“Yes, my Lord.” The sympathetic kindness in Halston’s eyes was unbearable to the Duke's pride. “May I inquire how long you will be gone?”

“As long as I need to, Halston.”

“Yes, my Lord. I shall endeavor to fulfill your responsibilities in your absence.”

“Halston?”

“Yes, my Lord?”

“The servants…understood about Ben.”

“Yes, my Lord. We were very pleased to see you happy. You have been alone for a long time.”

The concern in Halston’s voice almost undid Quinton. “If Ben should contact you…” It was hard to admit that hope still lingered in his breast, pleaded that Ben would return to him. “Give him anything he wants. Anything. And send word to me.”

“Yes, my Lord.” A shutter obscured Halston’s eyes, masking the pity.

*****
Six months later…six months of travelling the world, of drowning memories in new experiences, visiting with the aristocracy of other countries, stopping for brief stays in quaint peasant towns. Wild gambling, frequent drunkenness, an occasional illegal duel, nothing had dimmed the loss of Ben. Quinton was finally persuaded by the unpleasant repercussions of bad hangovers and sluggish limbs that his only success was making himself a fool. Receipt of Halston's letter the next day, requesting his return, sealed the decision.

Home was pleasantly reassuring. Throwing his energy into his neglected estates provided the Duke with a reason for living and helped dim the ghostly memories of Ben. Halston was a capable manager, but the vast diversity of Quinton's business interests and needs of his tenants required his personal touch.

The Squire insisted on throwing a large party to welcome the Duke back. Leaning against the wall, he watched the swirl of dancers, the young women in a multitude of ruffles and pale colors, the young men attired in black evening clothes. He sipped the weak lemonade and mused that he must accept living his life to satisfy the demands of his position. His heart would be lonely, but he would find all necessary comfort in being a good neighbor and landowner. All would be as it had been before the fateful night Ben entered his life. Bleak and empty, but meaningful.

A new addition graced the dance floor, a young woman with jet black hair and sparkling eyes. She must be the new Vicar's sister. Halston had mentioned that the two had settled into the rectory a few weeks ago. She danced well, with a light step and a fluid curtsey. The Duke made a mental note to himself to ask for a place on her dance card. He always requested one dance, and only one dance, with any new member of the county's society, preventing gossip that he was either enamored of or disliked any unmarried female.

Her partner was escorting her off the dance floor as the Squire approached the Duke and began mumbling in his ear. He wondered if he should go plead for that dance now, giving him an excuse to escape the Squire's complaints of ungrateful tenants and bad weather. The woman was smiling at her hand was passed to another young man. Through a gap in the crowd, Quinton could see the sheen of red-gold hair, neatly tied back. His heart ached at seeing the color of hair, identical to Ben's.

"Ah, looking at our new Vicar, are you? Good man. Good of you to recommend him. Thought he was supposed to be an estate manager. Oh well. Wife always tells me I get everything wrong."

"Recommend him?" Quinton responded to the Squire's comment, barely registering the words.

"Didn't you recommend him? You brought him to dinner when you were last home. Assumed you'd arranged for the position. Younger son of an old friend, wasn't it?"

The young woman and her new escort were stepping onto the dance floor. Ben. Yes, now that Quinton could see him, it was Ben, just as the Squire's words indicated. He was exquisite, in tight satin breeches and white silk socks revealing well-proportioned legs, the ruffles of his elegant cravat cascading over the front of the black satin jacket. Clothes Quinton purchased for him and insisted he take, despite Ben's protestations. Joy was unleashed within his soul, springing madly in delight. Ben had returned to him. Or had he?

**********
“He left early. I didn't even see him.” Ben was disconsolate as the carriage rattled to their new home. Their conveyance was much cheaper and less comfortable than the Duke’s, demonstrated as the wheels found every rock in the road.

Patting his hand comfortingly, Sharon replied, “Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well. He’s only been home a few days.”

“Not Quinton. It would require more than hard travel to tire him. I was convinced he loved me. The way he looked when I left…” Ben’s lips firmed. “He does love me. Emotion of that intensity doesn’t fade in six months. Not for a man like Quinton. He feels very strongly.”

“Ben, I’ve been wanting to talk to you, about being loved by a man.”

Ben turned his head to look at his sister. The light from the lanterns hanging outside the coach did not penetrate inside, and he tried vainly to see her expression in the darkness. “I thought you accepted how I felt.”

“I do accept, Ben, and I want you to be happy. I don't understand what two men do - "

Cognizant of his sister's intense curiosity, Ben interrupted sharply, "And you're not going to, Sharon. You shouldn't even know such things happen. I only informed you because I do not want to hide the truth from my only family." The subject had been difficult to broach, and both had blushed furiously before the conversation ended. If he and Quinton were to be together, the two lovers would have to practice discretion in society, but Ben's nature demanded honesty with his sibling.

Waspishly, Sharon responded, "I have been married. I can imagine some things you might do." At Ben's exuberant laugh, Sharon added, "I don't understand what you find amusing."

Yanking her into a rough hug, Ben answered, "I missed you. I missed having my sister to try to keep me in line. And you will make a superb housekeeper for a vicar. I can rely on you to keep me informed of all my parishioners' activities and secrets."

A loud noise violently disturbed their conversation. The carriage ground to a halt, almost tumbling them from their seats. A voice called out, "Stand and deliver!"

"Ben!" Sharon clenched at her brother's jacket in fear, but Ben smiled. No attempt was made to modify the voice, a voice he knew well in a multitude of different intonations.

"Relax, Sharon, all will be fine," he soothed before scrambling out of the carriage. Perched on a magnificent horse, a man dressed entirely in black was blocking the path. He wore a mask over his face but had not hidden the shoulder-length hair. Ben sauntered toward the highwayman, standing by his horse's head. "You would dare to rob the vicar of your county? Are you not afraid for your soul?"

The highwayman swung himself off the horse, moving so his body was only inches away from Ben. "I have come to steal a particular item, in retaliation for what was stolen from me."

"Stolen from you? What has a thief taken from you?"

"My heart. He has captured my heart and I find I must have his to live." Yanking off his mask, Quinton pulled Ben into his arms and the younger man melted into the embrace, answering the demanding kiss with his own unwavering passion.

Their desire and need could not be sated with one kiss. Reluctantly, Quinton released Ben to make a courtly bow to Sharon. "Mrs. Atherton."

"Your lordship." Her words were faint, overwhelmed by both the intensity of their clinch and the happiness shining on Ben's face.

"I must steal your brother away."

"Yes, my lord." Her voice grew stronger. "I believe privacy would be wise." Despite forewarning and her fondness for her brother, Sharon was frankly shocked. Even married couples did not reveal such reckless ardor in public.

The Duke reached for her hand, pressing a polite kiss upon the back of her hand. "I shall make him happy," he promised.

"We shall make each other happy," Ben corrected.

"Timmy, ensure Mrs. Atherton arrives home safely."

"Aye, my Lord." The groom touched his cap at the Duke's command as Ben swung onto the horse. Ben scooted forward on the saddle, freeing his feet from the stirrups so the Duke could mount behind him.

Taking the reins, Ben asked, "Where to, my Lord?"

"I believe, from a certain cryptic comment made by Halston, that we will find fresh sheets and a cold collation at the Dower House."

"Yes, my Lord." Leaning back against the Duke's powerful frame, Ben encouraged the horse into a brisk walk.

The Duke's hands were nimbly exploring, searching under evening clothes, revealing Ben's chest to the cold night air. A mild gasp escaped Ben as the frigid chill hit him. The gasp lengthened to a moan as blunt fingers deftly plucked at his nipples, hard and peaked from the cold and the sensual stimulation.

Rapacious in his need, the Duke's hand delved into Ben's breeches, closing over his solid member, pumping eagerly. Ben's hands shook as they held the reins and the horse whinnied, confused.

"Stop the horse."

Ben blindly obeyed the Duke's command. The strength of Quinton's thighs controlled the animal, keeping him motionless, as Ben frantically rocked back against his lover in tune with the forceful strokes on his shaft. Even more than the physical gratification, Ben was shattered to the core by the Duke's words, by his open acknowledgement that Ben held his heart. He abandoned himself completely to the Duke's powerful touch, yielding his heart, love and soul. His cries were wild and almost pained as he stiffened and with a last thrust into the warm fist, staring up at the stars shining in the velvet of the dark, feeling them explode behind his eyes as he climaxed.

The Duke casually lifted the reins from Ben's loose fingers, using a clicking sound and the pressure of his knees to start the animal moving.

"My Lord," Ben's words were drowsy and slurred with his pleasure. "I was a fool to leave you."

"You came back. That's all that matters."

"I had to. I couldn't live in the misery of endlessly yearning for your touch. I threw myself on Lady Agatha's mercy, explained everything. Not that she hadn't realized most herself. Within a few weeks, she arranged for the old Vicar to retire and for me to have his position. She said she expected you to stake her to a night of gambling for her brilliant solution. Whist is her current addiction."

"I shall stake her to a lifetime of gambling," Quinton promised.

"She did call us both silly fools for not thinking of a logical way for us to be together."

"And probably made several statements about the intelligence of men in general, if I know Agatha."

Ben smiled as he squirmed slightly, pressing his body as tightly against Quinton's as their clothes and position on the horse allowed. "Yes, my Lord."

A groom was waiting as they reached the Dower House, hunched into his coat in the cold night air, a lantern placed beside him on the stairs. Quinton and Ben dismounted. Giving a respectful tug on his cap, the groom swung onto their horse and cantered off. Ben leaned into the warmth of Quinton's body as they walked into the deserted manor, Quinton carrying the lantern to illuminate their path. A fire was burning in the parlor, banishing the chill, and a repast of meat, cheese, fruit and bread was spread on the table. Ben casually nibbled on a piece of cheese as Quinton moved around the room, lighting several candles.

Quinton settled on the couch, booted feet propped on a small stool. Ben immediately sat next to him, leaning close, conforming his position to Quinton's larger frame, his head resting on Quinton's shoulder. "You left the party early."

"I didn't want our reunion in front of a crowd." Quinton began tugging at the intricate folds to Ben's cravat, unraveling the fine arrangement.

"Were you afraid you might shock your neighbors by ravishing me in public?" Ben teased, unbuttoning Quinton's waistcoat.

"Scamp," Quinton accused affectionately before turning serious for a moment, catching and holding Ben's busy fingers. "Our being together will not always be easy."

A level gaze answered his concern. "I realize that, my Lord. Sharon accepts the situation, but your neighbors might not be so tolerant. I wish to be successful, and help the people as much as you help them. I will be discreet in public, out of respect for both our positions. But being without you…was intolerable. If I have stolen your heart, it was only to replace the one you took from me."

"So you weren't just yearning for my touch?"

At the vulnerability he sensed in Quinton's words, Ben shifted to sit on his lap, knees on each side of his lover’s thighs. He had been reticent to discuss his feelings and sought now to reassure the Duke of the depth of his love. He released Quinton's hair from its tie, running his hands through the dark strands. "I was yearning for your touch, for the way you make me feel, but also for your sense of responsibility, your courage, your concern and caring…for you, love. For you."

“As I longed for you, your concern and caring, your courage, your beauty, your humor…you complete me.”

They kissed, lips expressing their ardor, until Quinton broke away, tracing Ben's features with one finger. "You have stolen my heart, my love, but with your return, you have saved my soul."

~ the end ~