Sherlock heard him of course, hard not to the man was so bullish, but still he didn’t look up from the hat he was brushing. It dangled from his fingers, almost falling until another fingertip came into the round and brought it expertly back up. He crouched over it from his perch on the wooden bench; the meticulous back and forth of the little hairbrush whispered at him as he brought up the nap of the felt; just so, just so, just so. Still he didn’t answer. He lifted the hat to eye-level, straightened his cracking spine, aligned the brim, and made sure it was even. He felt Anderson’s glare and sighed, finally deigning to break the silence he had managed to eke out for a good three hours.
He placed slight emphasis on the sibilance in the title, drew out the last syllable of the surname just a fraction. The drawl was almost unintentional; if pushed, he could say it was a speech impediment but frankly, he liked to annoy Anderson and that was one of the most efficient ways to do it. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Anderson bristle, making fists and clenching his jaw, and this made him smile. He’d have called him other names, had done in the past, but even though Mrs. Turner was not around, Sherlock bowed to convention. He could do without another talking to tonight when he had a special treat waiting, hidden under the loose floorboard in his room. As first footman Anderson was technically Sherlock’s superior, but everyone knew that Sherlock was better at his duties as well as being far more handsome.
He arranged his features into the impassive countenance he used when he knew something degrading was about to be asked of him. “Yes?” he asked, bent over again and went back to brushing the hat as if nothing Anderson could say made the least bit of difference to him.
“You have valet duties tonight.”
The brush stilled. Sherlock looked up at the other footman. He thought he’d been prepared for whatever he was going to be asked to do, but this was so much more… interesting. Most of the guests who came for the weekend had their own valets. Why was this guest without one?
“For whom?” The hat dangled precariously from his finger tips, almost forgotten.
Anderson pulled a piece of paper from his breast pocket. Sherlock scoffed. A true butler, the breed to which Anderson could only aspire, would have all the names of the weekend’s guests engraved on his brain.
“Watson. John Watson. A doctor, apparently.”
Sherlock sat back and mentally ran through all the family names he’d memorized after his arrival at Carleton Hall.
“There are a lot of Watsons,” he frowned. “Which branch?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” Anderson replied, tugging on his waistcoat, “he isn’t from any of them.”
The motorcar’s wheels crunched the gravel as it came up the sweeping driveway. From the corner of his eye, Sherlock could see the junior footman Dimmock shuffling nervously next to him, fiddling with his collar, shining the front of his left shoe on the back of his trouser leg, and he let a smug grin tinge the corner of his mouth. He himself was immaculate and he stood with the poise of someone who knew it; hands at his sides, head high, breath clouding in little puffs. Sherlock recognized the first person who got out of the motorcar, Francis Malvern, fiancé of Lord Lestrade’s second daughter. He did not recognize the second.
Dr. Watson was nothing like Sherlock had imagined him to be. As he alighted from the motorcar, he took in the imposing façade of Carleton Hall with a nod and a quick lick of his lips. They were expressive lips that came to rest in an almost imperceptible smile set in a surprisingly open face for a doctor. Easy to read, unlike the guarded expressions of others in the profession that Sherlock had met. He was impressed with the house and when he turned his gaze to the line of staff waiting for him, he was equally impressed with them. Sherlock allowed a second of eye contact, using his peripheral vision to note that the doctor’s eyes lingered on him for a fraction of a second more than the others.
Doctor John Watson, late of His Majesty’s Army, wondered why he needed to be here at all, but some sort of distant family relationship had required his presence and his mother had insisted, so here he was. As he stepped from the car, he saw the family and staff gathered on the gravel driveway in the chill air as if for parade ground inspection. Despite his egalitarian soul, it was hard not to be impressed by the imposing beauty of the housemanor reallyand the discipline of the staff.
John wasn’t an expert in architecture, but he guessed that the building dated from the Elizabethan era, though parts of it might have been built earlier. The late afternoon sun set off the red brick and cast long shadows from the sculpted bushes.
But really, the whole thing was ridiculous. If he was reading the signs correctly, change was coming soon, and this kind of ostentatious living would be seen for the folly it was. Change was coming that would leave bloodshed and grief in its wake, and he’d seen far too much of that already.
John had liked what he’d seen of Lord Lestrade when they’d met in town; an open, friendly and intelligent man. The one thing that he was looking forward to on this taxing weekend was the chance to speak with the man about the growing problems in Europe. What he was absolutely not looking for or expecting was the heat that he felt when he saw the tall, slim servant standing nearly at attention in the lineup. They were all impeccably dressed and turned out, of course, in their striped waistcoats and tails—the butler at a house like this would never tolerate anything less—but this man would have stood out in any crowd. He was startlingly beautiful, with high cheekbones tapering down to a narrow but strong chin. Thin, but with a wiry tension in his limbs that showed his slimness was due to activity rather than illness. He was a good five or six inches taller than John, with a head of dark curls that were only just being kept under control with a little Brilliantine. John shivered with the thought of how that hair would feel in his hands as he tugged that proud head back to expose pale throat.
Stop it, he chided himself. It was no good thinking things like that. Things that one did in foreign countries were one thing, but here, on good English soil? In the home of a man he hoped to call friend? No, it was foolish even to let himself notice a too handsome face.
But had the younger man’s eyes flicked to his under his gaze? He knew enough of social decorum to know that that was not supposed to happen, but also knew enough of human nature to know that it was impossible to squelch curiosity in an active mind.
Then Lord Lestrade was making introductions and whisking them into the drawing room for drinks before the fire because, “It’s a bit brisk this time of year, isn’t it?” and John tried to clear those inappropriate thoughts from his mind.
Sherlock busied himself finding Dr. Watson’s luggage, snapping at the houseboy, and haranguing the driver about his inability to go more than a few hours without a nip from the flask he had secreted in his boot, before going up to Dr. Watson’s bedroom to unpack his things.
Sherlock already knew the Oriental Bedroom was spotless with its elegant Delftware ornaments dusted and arranged just so. He drew the curtains against the dying November light, stirred the fire and then checked it over one more time as he put away Dr. Watson’s clothes. They weren’t the finest that he’d ever seen, or the most up-to-date, but they were clean and well maintained. He doubted Watson had his own valet, so a butler who knew what he was doing was probably responsible. Sherlock nodded approvingly at the sharply ironed shirts and well-kept jackets. Soft materials, soft colours, muted tones, seemingly matching what he had seen of the doctor so far. Ink stains on the left sleeves of the shirts indicated the hand he wrote with; the heels of his shoes told he had once walked with a limp, although there had been no sign of one when he stepped from the car. He was inspecting the left shoe, sole up, when the door behind him opened.
Sherlock almost dropped the shoe. He grasped for composure, struggling to school his features.
“Sir, I apologi—“
John smiled and held up his hand. “I’m sure they’re very interesting shoes, Mr. Holmes.”
Sherlock wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t used to being called ‘mister’ by anyone but the other servants. This Dr. Watson was going to be even more interesting than he had originally thought.
For John, finding the young man inspecting his shoes when he walked into the room he’d been given was a surprise, one that was exciting and frightening at the same time. Apparently he was ‘Holmes,’ the footman that had been assigned as his valet. To have such unattainable beauty so close was going to make the weekend difficult to endure.
The young man continued, “I’ve laid out your evening clothes, sir.”
Holmes’ voice was low, smooth and rich. The accent sounded posher than John’s own, no doubt cultivated to put his employers at ease. John smiled tightly and started to remove his jacket. The room felt much too hot all of a sudden.
But he had underestimated the other man’s speed. Holmes was there in an instant to remove the jacket for him. He should have remembered that this was the man’s job, to make sure that John wanted for nothing.
“Allow me, Dr. Watson.”
John shut his eyes tightly, willing himself to give nothing away as those slender fingers brushed against the back of his neck. The man smelled of starch, bootblack and other household cleaners, but just beneath it was a slightly musky, heated smell.
“It that what you do? Help me dress?”
“I’m here to dress you, sir, to take care of everything you need.”
You have no idea what I need, what I want, thought John. What I’m imagining. If you did you’d be out of this room and off to your master in seconds, and I’d be on the next train home if not in jail. But then he remembered that Holmes was a servant. John could do anything he wanted and his word would be believed. It reminded him of the way that some of the other officers had behaved in India and it sickened him. It was imperative that he keep control of himself and not put the young man in an awkward position.
The doctor brought his hands up to the lapels of his brown travelling suit and with a start, Sherlock realized he meant to remove his own jacket, necessitating a swift stride across the room. Their hands brushed as Sherlock took over pulling the jacket from the other man’s shoulders.
Of course, stupid, stupid! Military man, recently returned from duty, he didn’t have a valet or even a butler. He took care of everything himself, meticulously and religiously.
A slight shock ran through him as his fingers brushed against the fine blond hairs at the nape of the doctor’s neck and felt the warmth radiating from that skin that bore the burnish of a foreign sun. Sherlock was surprised at his visceral response. From the safety of his position behind the other man, he frowned at his own reaction. Doctor Watson was attractive—sandy blonde, blue-eyed and sturdy—a type that Sherlock liked, but it could be very dangerous if the doctor realized that Sherlock was attracted to him.
He moved to face Dr. Watson and started to remove the other man’s tie. The doctor cleared his throat and Sherlock felt the vibrations through his knuckles as he loosened the tie, slipping a long finger into the knot and gently pulling the end free. The other man’s pulse was hammering so hard at his neck that Sherlock could actually see it and he wondered—rather madly—what the good doctor would do if he were just to bend his head down and ghost his lips over it, nip ever so softly with his teeth before soothing it with his tongue. There was a slight flush rising from underneath the stiff collar and the doctor’s eyes were so dilated as to be almost black. So, Dr. Watson was clearly attracted to him as well but still might not welcome an advance. What to do to test the hypothesis?
Sherlock pulled the tie free and laid it over his arm to finish unfastening the doctor’s collar.
Generally, this was all that a valet would do, then receive the clothes as the gentleman removed them, perhaps offering a helping hand with cuffs or a steadying one while the man pulled on his trousers. He wondered how far he could take it.
“I’m fairly sure, Mr. Holmes, that I can…” the doctor cleared his throat, “undress myself.” His breathing had deepened, the last word was almost a whisper, and he had trouble looking Sherlock directly in the eye.
“Not at all, sir,” Sherlock smiled. “It’s what I’m here for.”
Neither of them spoke as Sherlock pushed John’s braces down and flicked open the top button of the white cotton shirt that covered slightly tanned skin. He’d been stationed abroad, the sub-continent probably; no one got a tan like that in the north of England in autumn. The demarcation line where his collar had come up was still visible between the exposed neck and the paler chest that emerged with each slowly undone button. Watson’s hitched breathing was the only sound other than the crackle of the fire; a sharp intake as each little disc of mother-of-pearl left its mooring and was cast adrift. Sherlock was taking his time and he licked his lips as he reached the last one, his gaze drawn beyond the waistband to the cloth drawn taut at the front of Doctor Watson’s trousers.
Sherlock caught the other man’s eye and made sure that he was looking as Sherlock licked his lips and flicked his eyes to the doctor’s mouth before moving around to pull the shirt from Dr. Watson’s shoulders. As he began to remove it, Dr. Watson grabbed his wrist and shook his head.
“I have a…scar.” He swallowed, embarrassed. “It’s not something I…”
“Sir,” Sherlock pitched his voice low, soothing. “I assure you, you have no reason to be embarrassed.” He paused then went on in a near whisper, “About anything, Doctor Watson…”
The grip loosened and the doctor nodded almost imperceptibly. “Fine. Carry on.”
Sherlock nodded, smiling inwardly, and gently removed the shirt to reveal a mass of knotted flesh on the left shoulder. It had healed, but not cleanly. Evidence of an infection had marred the area surrounding a clear bullet hole. Almost involuntarily he ran his finger over it, examining it, feeling its rough texture. Doctor Watson shuddered and let out an audible sigh.
Had that been a tantalizing little smirk, a knowing and sexual twist to that mouth with its perfect Cupid ’s bow lips, John thought, or was he projecting his own desperation? Looking for a sign of invitation that would justify his own actions? Because it was taking every ounce of control to not grab the man and thrust against those narrow hips while he crushed that erotic mouth with his own.
The lips, the smile, it was too much. John knew that he was lost. It was too similar to Mazouq. John thought back, remembering Mazouq that last time, looking at him with those same strange-colored eyes, heavy-lidded from sex, as he lay on John’s bunk, all languorous limbs and a heart-shaped arse. The two young men were too similar; rich and artificially cultured voices, mimicking the upper classes better than the upper classes themselves; sloe-eyed and exotically boned with plush, mischievous mouths. Wicked, wicked mouths. The only difference being that one had been the colour of milky tea and the other was the colour of pure cream.
John felt like he might spend in his trousers at the thought of that skin, his semen blending into its whiteness. There had been nothing since he’d returned from India. He was too cautious. The Wilde scandal was a part of his youth, and his family would never survive the disgrace. He had Harriet’s marriage prospects to consider, lowered as they already were by her age and her radical ideas. But God, the man was perfection. He couldn’t be imagining it when those hands lingered, brushed him teasingly, could he?
Holmes led John over to the full-length mirror and slipped the crisp linen shirt off the hanger. He stood behind John, helped him into the sleeves and reached around to fasten the buttons. John was quite certain that this wasn’t the proper way of doing things, but when Holmes pressed himself against John’s back, John could feel the other man’s arousal.
They looked at one another in the mirror.
“I hope you don’t think me too forward, sir…” Holmes rumbled, the vibration moving right through John’s chest.
John licked his lips and pressed back against the other man. “Is this what valets do?”
“Only the good ones, sir,” Holmes chuckled silently, his reflection smirking back. John giggled, an almost girlish giggle that had always embarrassed him, but Holmes’ smile became sweetly genuine at the sound.
John turned to face the tall valet, their chests pressing together, both breathing heavily, hearts pounding. Eyes flickered between lips and eyes. A lean forward of Holmes’ head and a tilt back of John’s brought their lips so close together they were tasting each other’s breath, the cheese and pickle sandwich John had eaten on the train and the boiled sweet he’d had after, and the strong tea that was all that the taller man had had for lunch.
“Your name,” John whispered. “I need to know your name. I don’t want to call you Holmes anymore.”
He was surprised by the thoughtful look on the other man’s face. “My name is Sherlock. You may hear me referred to as Robert, though.”
“Why, is it your middle name?”
Sherlock paused. He wasn’t sure why was telling this near stranger his real name. A weekend dalliance was one thing, but his name, his real name, was another. “No. But a servant is not supposed to have a name that might be challenging for the masters. My mother had ideas above her station.”
“So they took away your name…”
“No, they can’t take anything from me that I don’t give them, and I don’t choose to give them that power.” His eyes clouded and he flicked them away from the doctor’s penetrating gaze.
“John, please call me John.”
Still looking away, Sherlock said, “We should really get you dressed for dinner, sir Doctor John.”
He knelt to take off John’s shoes as John unfastened his trousers.
Now that they both knew that they wanted the same thing, they became oddly shy. John turned his back to hide his erection and Sherlock took the offered trousers and handed over the dress pair in silence.
Done up, John turned back and let Sherlock help him into his braces and button on his dickey.
John tilted his head forward to let Sherlock put in his collar stud. “Thank you. I don’t want to be late for dinner. I’m not used to places like this.”
“No, I shouldn’t imagine in the army there was any time to spare. Were you in Africa or the sub-continent?” Sherlock moved smoothly now. He helped John into his black waistcoat and expertly tied the black bow tie around John’s neck.
“Oh, did they tell you that I was an army doctor?”
“You told me.”
“I was told you were a doctor. Your bearing said military. The tan told me that it was in a more southern climate, therefore it must be the colonies in Africa or India.”
John looked at Sherlock sharply, “That’s brilliant. It’s obvious now that you’ve pointed it out, but I doubt that I’d have noticed those things.
“Can you do that all the time? For everyone?”
“Most people are very easy to read if you observe carefully. It’s written in everything they do, everything they say. How long did you have a limp?”
“Is that what you were doing? When I came in? Studying my shoes for wear?”
“Yes. I find…it’s easier to do my job if I know as much as possible about the people I serve. They aren’t going to tell me, but they like it when I know what they need before they ask.”
“Yes, I had a limp for six months after I came back, but it eased up after I took up walking again in the park.
“What else do you know about me?”
“I knew you were attracted to me.”
John smiled, “That was a bit obvious, wasn’t it. Go on.”
“You have a sister and your father is dead. That one is too easy.”
“Picture in my case. I’m not used to having someone else unpack my things. I had a batman briefly, but then he was promoted and I never asked for another.”
“Your practice is in London, but it’s just starting out. I recognize the London mud and if you were more prosperous or looking for richer clientele, you would have purchased a new suit.
“Your sister is unmarried even though she must be in her late twenties, possibly because she’s had no offers, unlikely as she is not unattractive, but more likely because she’s a radical. Obvious from her clothes.”
“Good Lord! That’s amazing.”
“You think so?”
“Extraordinary, simply extraordinary.”
Sherlock smiled. It was a genuine smile that he didn’t often have occasion to use. “That’s not what most people say.” He felt a slight blush spreading over his cheeks. It flustered him to feel this sincerely flattered and the feeling made him uncomfortable.
“What do they say?”
“That it’s a trick. That I’ve learned things about them and am making it up to draw attention to myself.”
“Well, then they are idiots.”
During the conversation Sherlock moved around the room, removing the collar from John’s discarded shirt, folding his travel-dusty trousers over the butler stand, and laying out John’s toiletries on the dressing table.
But for all his careful determination to be prepared for any eventuality, he was startled when John slipped up behind him and embraced him. His body thrummed at the feel of John’s arms around his waist.
“Where do we go from here?” John whispered into his ear.
“Ah, John, Doctor Watson. I…the evening bell is about to ring and I need to change and get ready to serve at table. Let me just put you in your evening jacket and then I’ll be going. Feel free to join the other guests in the drawing room whenever you like.”
He moved to fetch the dinner jacket from where it hung on the wardrobe door. But John stopped him.
John licked his lips nervously, “Will you…will you come back tonight?”
“It’s my duty to undress you, prepare your clothes for the morning, and make sure that you are settled for the night.”
“Oh, of course, your duty.” John released him and moved away.
“But, if sir means will I come to his bed after those duties are done, then the answer is a most willing yes. After all, sir might need something in the night and being unfamiliar with the house, be unable to find me…in a timely fashion,” and there was that smile again, that made John ache. He wanted to finish the kiss they’d come so close to having, but he knew Sherlock needed to go, and he knew he didn’t want to stop with just one kiss.