Seated at a Faro table, upon which he was enjoying a string of devilishly good luck, Mr. Hugh Davenant briefly closed his eyes and told himself he had not just heard the panicked voice of one Rupert Alistair.
"Davenant, devil take it man, answer me!"
Yes, that was definitely Rupert's voice, as indiscreet as ever. Hugh lifted his eyes skywards briefly and sent a simple hope that whatever had lit a fire in the younger man's breeches could be handled with a quick word and perhaps a few coins.
"I'm right here, as you can plainly see, Rupert." Davenant responded, if only to keep the lad from continuing to bellow his way through the gaming hell.
"Oh thank God. Pray tell me that Justin is not about," the young man, not yet out of his late teens peered nervously around the dark room, seeking the imposing form of his elder brother, the Duke of Avon.
"Your brother took his leave about an hour ago, Rupert after running quite the streak of luck, a streak he appears to have passed on to me, so if there is a point, I would beg you get to it so I can get back to these cards."
The youngster practically threw himself down on his knees at the side of the older man's chair, hands on the arm as he looked up at him pleadingly.
"Hugh, you have to help me. I'm in a devil of a fix and if Justin finds out …"
Forcing back a cringe at Rupert's dramatic display, Davenant folded his cards –and they were good cards!- tossed them into the middle of the table and discreetly caught Rupert's elbow, urging him back to his feet before the boy did something that would definitely not amuse his elder brother.
"Gentlemen, I'm afraid I must beg your indulgence and cry quits for the evening," Davenant said regretfully, waving off the protests that he owed the lords at the table the right to recover some of the money they had lost.
Gathering up a modest sum, nothing compared to what Avon had walked away with earlier but enough to make the next couple of months quite comfortable, Hugh stood up and gave Rupert's elbow a tug, drawing him away from eager ears.
"Rupert, I would beg you exercise more discretion next time but I fear this display was simply the manifestation of your own brand of the infamous Alistair peculiarities," Hugh said, not unkindly as he leaned against a sheltered alcove.
Rupert gave him a blank look and Hugh realized he'd probably spoken too much like Justin for the lad and waved a hand.
"Try not to shout your business for everyone to wag their jaw about later," he explained.
The youngest Alistair made an 'oh' with his mouth, nodded and then comically looked about behind a potted plant as if someone might have been hiding there. Then he scooted closer to Hugh and lowered his voice to a whisper the older man had to strain to hear.
"I'm in trouble, Hugh. The cards were running in my favor, I got bold but then the luck changed, I kept thinking it would swing back, I mean I had been on a devil of a streak."
Familiar, not only with Rupert's gambling habits but also Justin's, Hugh felt his stomach begin to sink.
"How much are you in for," he asked, thinking over his own winnings and wondering if they would cover.
"That's not the problem," Rupert hedged, shifting anxiously on his feet. "I … I had the hand, Davenant, *the* hand, I was going to make it all back but I had to put something up."
Hand over his mouth, Hugh arched his eyebrows, his sense of foreboding increasing. Rupert swallowed repeatedly, looking around again and then leaned closer before he whispered.
"Shshhhhsshh," Rupert's hands flailed in a way that reminded Hugh of his sister Fanny in a state and his eyes darted about, as if afraid his older brother would suddenly appear over his shoulder in a puff of fire and brimstone.
Grabbing the lad by both shoulders, Hugh's brown eyes flashed with anger as he shook Rupert sharply.
"What were you thinking, boy?"
Technically, as the current heir to a dukedom, Rupert's station was well above Davenant's own but this didn't matter at the moment. Hugh could have cheerfully wrung the lad's neck.
"I had the hand!" Rupert repeated pugnaciously, a flash of Alistair stubbornness in his eyes.
"Obviously you didn't," Hugh pointed out sharply, forcing himself to let Rupert go before they drew too much more attention.
"It could only have been beaten by one set, just my luck that set was in Lord Bradley's hand."
And Bradley was no fan of Avon's. Not that Justin could count his fans on more than one hand, Hugh thought to himself. Bradley was probably even now crowing about his coup at the misfortune of the Duke's younger sibling to a wide crowd.
Avon was going to be furious.
"There's more," Rupert continued miserably. "I accused Bradley of fixing the cards. His good friend, Keswick took exception and … took up for him."
"Keswick," Hugh said in a confused tone, looking at Rupert's crestfallen expression. "So, not only did you lose Justin's prized gray, you're called out for a duel?"
"With Keswick," Rupert emphasized but as Hugh continued to look blank, he motioned with his hands and spoke in a low tone. "Fanny's, Keswick."
It still took a moment as Hugh had very little to do with the younger Alistair siblings and as headstrong as Rupert could be at least he wasn't as flighty a creature as his sister Fanny. It took a moment for a glimmer of a conversation with Justin to come back to Hugh, something about Fanny enjoying a flock of suitors and in particular…
"Keswick," Hugh breathed, looking down at his highly polished boots and then back up to Rupert. "So, you lost Justin's gray and have a dawn appointment with your sister's favored suitor."
Rupert gave the matter some thought and then nodded mutely.
"I swear, you Alistairs are a self-destructive lot and I can not for the life of me recall why I keep your company."
"Well, technically, you keep Justin's company," Rupert hedged. "I am sorry to come to you with all this but I don't know how to even approach him about this tangle."
"You won't you damn fool," Hugh hissed, hands on his trim hips as he pondered the problem. "He's still paying off your last escapade."
Rupert looked miserable and stood with his head slightly bowed.
Fingering the coin in his purse, Hugh sighed and gave up thoughts of a new pair of boots as well as comfortable lodgings for the next few months.
"Come on," he said, tapping Rupert's shoulder. "Let's get this straightened out."
"How?" Rupert asked.
"I'm not entirely certain but I have a thought," Davenant said tightly as they wove through the gaming hell's thinning crowd and headed to retrieve Davenant's greatcoat. "It's as harebrained a scheme as you'd ask for but with a bit of the devil's luck, it might keep you alive."
Because if Keswick didn't do the job, Fanny and Justin would be ready to take up where that lord left off!
Six hours later, Hugh Davenant let himself into his rented rooms and fell back against the door with an explosive sigh. Resting there for a moment, he covered a yawn with the back of his hand and strode over to the deep armchair that sat by the small fire burning in the grate. It had started to snow and his boots were muddy, which would no doubt cost him coin to get them clean again but it would have to be done.
Grabbing the jack that set by the fire, he pried them away from feet that ached from the cold and then lay back with his toes pushed towards the flames in the grate. Steam rose off his stockings and he smiled lopsidedly as he wriggled his toes experimentally. Well, at least they all seemed to be attached and functioning, just devilishly cold.
Reaching into the inner pocket of his coat, he withdrew a folded letter and carefully opened it, studying the words written on the paper.
"Who knew such a pithy comment could cost a whole night's winnings," he said regretfully, before leaning forward and reaching to drop the paper on the fire.
A long fingered, elegant hand intercepted his own in a grip that, while not cruel, was stronger than Hugh wished to challenge.
"A whole night's winnings, my beloved? Why, such words should be immortalized," a rich voice drawled from just behind Hugh's left shoulder as the paper was effortlessly plucked from his hand.
Closing his eyes, Hugh's lips moved in a curse word that he would never give voice, then he sat forward and twisted in his chair, looking back upon the tall, powerful figure of the Duke of Avon.
Justin had stripped himself of his outer coat and looked like a man who had been making himself quite at home for at least the past hour. As dawn was just starting to break, Hugh had to figure that Justin had come straight to his rooms from wherever he'd ghosted off too that past evening, however the Duke might have just arrived so neat was his attire. Never a hair out of place, his Avon, despite the lateness of the hour.
For the moment, the Duke was reading the note with an air of nearly bored disinterest, twirling a looking glass -his latest affectation- though he had no need of it. Slowly Justin's hazel eyes shifted towards a hue of gray that spoke of annoyance and Hugh immediately sat up a bit straighter and began to scramble for words to explain.
"It was a little misunderstanding, Justin and in all probability, the cards were rigged against him so," Hugh motioned towards the paper. "That just neatly took care of the issue and all's well."
With a languid flick of his index finger, Avon folded down the corner of the paper so he could fix that eerily keen gaze on the man in the chair.
"All is well," he drawled in a tone that suggested Hugh might be mistaken in this read of the situation.
"Right as can be," Hugh babbled, realizing the moment the words left his mouth that Avon had not exactly been soliciting his opinion the first or second time around.
This realization bore out when the duke moved away from the chair and crossed towards the mantle, still studying the paper, though Hugh was certain Justin had memorized it by now.
"A forgery like this costs," Avon mentioned lazily, turning the paper this way and that as if utterly fascinated by it. "One wonders were my dear brother found the coin to produce such … art."
Hugh stared for a long moment and then exhaled and fell back in his chair, frowning.
"Stop it, Justin," he snapped irritably. "You know damn well I procured it for him."
Avon half smiled, it was not a warm expression, not when his eyes were still that stormy shade of gray.
"As I knew he'd gone too deep with my gray and entangled himself with Fanny's favored suitor, Kelmick … Keswent…"
"Keswick," Hugh interjected glumly.
"Ah, yes my dear Hugh you are correct. Keswick. I almost wish is was Kelmick, I honestly do not want to have to send Keswick scuttling off with a box to his ear but he absolutely will not suit for Fanny," Justin said this as if the subject were of intense interest for him, going so far as to stand with a thoughtful expression on his handsome face.
Hugh glared. Justin was being deliberately infuriating, playing at the loving brother, though Hugh knew the man would only have to lift his eyebrow and Fanny's fickle attentions would seamlessly turn elsewhere. Hugh hated it when Justin played his games, especially with Hugh himself but had learned that the more one pushed the duke to reveal his hand, the cagier Alistair became.
Eventually, Justin's eyes turned back to Hugh and the man's smile widened slightly in an expression that was almost approval, if patronizing approval.
"So, he came to you to bail him out. The Alistair family White Knight to the rescue."
Pushing himself to his feet, Davenant snorted and waved a hand back at Justin.
"You're impossible," he exclaimed walking towards his bedroom and the bath beyond. Where hopefully the tub of hot water he'd ordered would now be waiting.
"Often, beloved, it is something you adore about me," Justin drawled, laughter threading through his tone as he made himself at home in the chair Hugh had just vacated.
The Duke was still in the chair almost an hour later when, freshly bathed and shaved, Davenant padded back out of his bedroom, wrapped in a robe and feeling slightly more human, if achingly exhausted.
"I do wish you had not done this, Hugh." Justin began without preamble, waving the letter for emphasis. "It was a risky toss."
Making his way over to the hassock that sat at the duke's feet, Hugh settled upon it and braced his elbows on his knees.
"You'd have rather I let you lose your gray and possibly get the boy shot and killed by his sister's favored suitor?"
Justin seemed to give this some thought.
"It would have been a good lesson for the lad."
"He can't learn if he's dead," Hugh snorted, looking down.
There was a soft rustle as paper was set aside and a whisper of fabric when the duke sat forward and those strong fingers closed around Hugh's cheek, lifting the other man's face up towards the duke's.
"There was no danger of that," Justin said softly. "While I admire your desire to protect me and mine, beloved I beg to remind you that though you have done an admirable job in the past, I have my own ways now and it would do us all good if you did not interfere in them."
It stung; Justin's words and Hugh knew that showed in his expression because he was never good at keeping even the slightest hurt from the duke. Justin smiled the small but genuine expression that rarely graced his lips.
"I need you to be my angel, Hugh or else the devil or what is it they are calling me now, oh yes! Or else Satanas will be completely without redemption," Justin's voice was low, almost tenderly soft and Hugh sighed when the older man's thumb began to brush along the line of his jaw.
"It's a stupid moniker," he muttered and despite his annoyance at the man, Hugh found himself resting into the touch of those deceptively strong fingers. "I wish you would put a stop to it's circulation."
"Ahhh but I find it amusing," the duke's voice was still soft, yet there was a dangerous undercurrent to it and something flashed behind eyes that had shifted back to warmer tones of brown. "And useful, for the time being."
"Hush," Justin murmured, punctuating his command with the softest touch of his lips to Davenant's mouth.
Hugh felt a shiver race along his spine, a combination of fear and yet a complete inability to turn away from Avon's magnetic appeal. It was utter insanity, the physical side of their relationship, courting utter ruin for both of them with death most likely for Hugh at the hangman's noose and complete exile for Justin. Yet Hugh could not bring himself to push Avon away.
He had no idea how long it would amuse Avon to keep him as a lover. It had surprised him the first night Justin had taken him to bed because their relationship had been established, tested and found deeper and much more nuanced than that of physical carnality. Though Hugh embraced his friend as a lover for now, he knew it was only fleeting. After all, eventually Avon would have to take a wife, produce an heir and Hugh had no desire to exile himself from his beloved friend's company over something as petty as jealousy.
Reaching up, he rested a hand on Avon's shoulder, broader that the foppish cut of his coat would have one believe, Hugh often wondered why it amused Justin to wear current fashions that hid the strength of fine lines of his body. But then, Hugh reminded himself that it amused Justin to look other than he was. It was one of Avon's ruling passions, to be underestimated and misunderstood, a mind set Hugh himself could not understand but he supposed Justin had uses for that as well.
For now, however, it seemed that Avon's use for him ran to a more base nature and Hugh found it, as ever, impossible to deny him. Despite the long night they had both had. Justin's lips were warm as they moved over his own, speaking in a language that was surprisingly more honest than any of the words that came out of Avon's mouth. Perhaps that was why the duke had taken him to his bed, it was the one form of expression where Justin could be as raw and honest as possible without doing a disservice to the facade he so carefully wove around himself.
Moaning softly, Hugh leaned up into the kiss reaching for Justin's dark hair and glad the man had forsaken his usual powdered wig. He felt the duke smile against his lips and in short order they were both on their feet, propelled there by Avon's desires. Justin knew Davenant's rooms as well as his own and it was nothing for the duke to move them, still tangled in the kiss back towards the sanctum of the bedroom.
At some point in the journey, Hugh felt his robe being slipped from his body but he felt no shame in his nudity. Justin could see through to his soul no matter what he wore and the loss of the physical barrier between his own flesh and the older man's skillful hands was a relief. When he felt the back of his knees hit the bed, Hugh made a soft noise as Justin's mouth moved away from his own and began to track down the strong column of his throat.
"My coats, Hugh and do be quick about it," Justin's words were arrogant and any one else in Hugh's station would have taken offense at being made into a valet but Hugh himself merely laughed as he reached for the coats in question.
"Impossible," he whispered against the duke's ear, nibbling on it even as his fingers worked at buttons and clasps to neatly unwrap his friend's clothing.
"Utterly. It's a wonder you put up with me," Avon responded languidly, his words utterly unloverlike but his hands, oh his hands.
Justin's hands were dancing across Hugh's flesh as if the younger man was made of glass, stroking him with a tender worshipfulness that caused Davenant to wonder just how angelic his friend genuinely found him. Regardless, the care Justin showed in his caress was it's own language and Hugh willingly ignored the sharp, dismissive words in favor of the unspoken loyalty and love.
"A wonder indeed," he teased back, setting aside the coats and running his hands across Justin's broad chest. "Do come to bed and remind me?"
It was audacious. Unheard of for anyone to command the Duke of Avon, yet the words left Hugh's lips, wrapped in soft laughter and the gentle kindness they secretly shared. Many light o' loves would have been left sitting cold on their beds had they been so bold, yet for Hugh, there was only a soft chuckle and strong arms wrapped around him, drawing their naked chests together.
"As you wish, Mr. Davenant," Avon's eyes were warm now, a rare shade of brown with the gray tones muted in favor of a lover's fiery heat.
Emboldened, Davenant reached around to cup the back of Avon's head and pulled their lips together as the bed gave way to their combined weight. The loving was slow, sensual and very, very complete. Despite the exhaustion of both men, they did not hurry, instead taking their time and enjoying the moment, each aware that circumstances might make it their last.
As ever, Avon, a man who had a reputation as a heartless bastard who cared for no one's comfort but his own, was a surprisingly tender and attentive lover with Hugh. Davenant, who counted himself honored to see this side of Justin, took exception to those who made the assumptions as he knew truth and found himself furious with those narrow minded individuals who refused to look beyond what was spoon fed to them. However, it amused Avon to be seen the bastard and Davenant was learning to keep his anger on his friend's behalf to himself, for often the duke had use for such assumptions, even if Hugh found them intolerable.
Pleasure was found together in a rich variety of ways and when sated exhaustion finally claimed them both, Hugh felt himself being collected closely in his friend's arms. On the verge of sleep he smiled, even as he knew that when he woke he would be alone as that was Avon's way and there was nothing to be done to change him.
Not that Hugh Davenant wished to change the Duke of Avon. No, not by one single hair. He loved him as he was and at times like this, he knew Justin could see the truth of that loyalty and love.
Avon's breath ruffled his hair as the older man caught his breath and rested against Hugh's back. There was a yawn in his voice when he spoke.
"You will come to my London house," Avon murmured. "See to your belongings, will you Hugh."
"Justin," Hugh began to argue in a sleepy voice.
"Don't be tiresome," the duke's deep voice was starting to slur a little. "It's that or ask that oaf of a brother of yours for a loan and I'll not have that."
Hugh wrestled with himself but then chuckled and threaded his fingers through the strong hand that encircled his abdomen.
"I should take exception to you calling Frederick an oaf," he pointed out.
"Oh please do," Justin rumbled agreeably.
"Swords at dawn?" Hugh suggested, too tired to curb his cheekiness.
"Insatiable angel," Avon sighed, tugging Hugh closer and then settling himself right into sleep.
"Impossible Satanas," Davenant replied tenderly before following him into a shared slumber.