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Folly

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1705

London, England

 

‘It truly is a shame that Elizabeth, so gifted on the harpsichord, has such an unfortunate soprano,’ Thomas had said, standing before the mirror to adjust his neck cloth.

‘If she’s as bad as all that, the fortune, or lack thereof, will lie with us,’ James had replied.

Miranda, being helped on with her cloak by one of her many servants, glanced at James and smiled, but said nothing.

‘Don’t think for a minute our hostess’s poor singing ability will get you out of this.” Thomas glanced at James in the mirror. ‘You and I are done for the day; you’re coming with us.’

‘I won’t know anyone.’

‘You’ll know us.’

‘Thomas—’

‘James, my mind is made up. You’re coming with us.’

That was what Thomas had said, and as James listened to Lady Pierson attempt the first high note and miss, he wished he’d tried harder at an excuse. The calculations he was working on for the transportation of the livestock, a bad stomach, a bad tooth—anything to avoid this. It was painful; Lady Pierson’s recitation of Dido’s Lament was actually painful. Purcell, if still alive and in attendance, would have either fled the room or shoved Lady Pierson off the bench to finish the aria himself.

The performance wasn’t helped by the fact that Pierson’s new manor was stifling from the heat of the hundreds of candles and the closed windows. Lady Pierson had a fear of fresh air. She was sure, she’d told James as they were taking a turn around the room, that the foul stench from the Thames was infecting her home with disease and illness.

He hadn’t bothered reminding her that her house was miles away from the Thames and upwind at that. He’d gotten her measure the minute they’d met. A young beauty that had married old money, Elizabeth Pierson was vain, foolish, and somewhat indiscreet.

So as not to give the gossips any fuel, he’d arrived alone via a hired hack. He’d walked into the room, scrutinized his surroundings to get his bearings and was pounced on by Lady Pierson. She’d said she was a dear friend of Miranda’s and had been dying to meet him. Locking her arm in his, she had insisted he view the new Chinese hangings she’d just purchased while in Venice for, ‘My own Grand Tour, if you please.’ The hangings were, she’d said, ‘Divine and mysterious what with that sweet little Oriental fellow doing whatever it is he is doing.’

Unable to do anything but nod politely to the other guests, he’d been tugged down the long room. They had ended up in front of the hangings and though James silently agreed they were interesting, he was more concerned with extricating himself from Lady Pierson’s tight grip. She was surprisingly strong for someone who only came up to his shoulders.

At one point, while she was describing her guide and his funny way of speaking, he’d made the mistake of looking to the left. Thomas was conversing with the Lords Philpot, Sutton and Willoughby. He was holding a glass of wine and saying something that made Sutton laugh.

Thomas was wearing a new evening suit made of a blue silk that matched his eyes and reflected the light. Knowing he should stop, but unable to force his eyes to behave, James stared until Thomas looked over.

It was of a moment, that glance, but it set James’s heart racing and he’d turned away, smiling in response. Regrettably, Lady Pierson caught the last of the smile, the result of which she hadn’t left him alone all evening.

He’d finally found his chance to be rid of her when she’d announced the musical portion of the evening. He had given her some nonsense about desiring the full effect of her voice from afar and pulled free. He’d escaped into the crowd, finding a place in the shadows with the other stragglers.

She had started off with La Calisto and that was bad enough, but then she changed folios and began, When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create. No trouble, no trouble in, in thy breast…

It wasn’t possible to listen to this. Dido and Aeneas was one of his favorites and he’d be damned if he’d stand by while this child butchered it simply because she had a trapped audience. He looked around and spied Lord Philpot coming in from a side door. Taking another chance, he casually made his way to the same door and, feeling as if all eyes were on him, slipped through.

The door let out onto a meeting point of three halls, all empty of servants and guests. At a loss, he stood there for a moment, trying to decide which route to take when a door opened down the corridor to the right. It was Thomas. He stood there a moment and then turned and went down the hall to a room at the end.

James followed. Keeping his steps easy when all he wanted to do was run, he passed paintings and hangings and busts on tall pedestals until he got to the door. He pushed it open carefully, telling himself that Thomas wouldn’t be waiting behind it, nonetheless surprised to find the room empty. He frowned and looked around, only then seeing that the ugly brocade curtains were moving slightly.

Heart in his throat, he was through the draperies and the French doors in a flash and out on a large terrace that overlooked the gardens. The cool air was a relief from the heat and he sighed as he walked to the head of the steps.

The terrace was unlit by anything other than the light from the house and the waxing moon. Lady Pierson had droned on about the gardens and their unfinished state, citing the lack of follow-through from the architects and the laborers. She seemed to think they’d be able to work through any weather, even the light snow from the week before.

James was no architect but it seemed to him that they had managed quite a lot considering it was still February and the house had been opened in late December. The area surrounding the terrace was landscaped with the usual bushes and trees. Paths stretched down the center and to either side; at the end of the main path was a white pavilion that was larger than the house he’d been born in. Several tall crates rested near the pavilion; one had been opened. Inside stood a tall white figure; it was holding something to its breast and one arm was raised. At its feet spilled straw that had blown here and there and he wondered what Lady Pierson would say to that, not really giving a damn because where the hell was Thomas?

Movement drew his eye and yes, there he was on the portside path, near the first in a line of young trees. It was too dark to see more than his pale grey figure, but all the same James knew that Thomas smiled before he turned and disappeared behind the trees.

He followed once more. By the time he reached the line of trees, his eyes had adjusted and he easily found Thomas standing under an elaborate flat-topped arch made of some dark stone. Unlike the other times, Thomas waited for him, palm resting on the side of the arch.

“What is this place?” he whispered. They were standing at the foot of yet another path that continued on through the arch and ended at an iron gate some fifty feet beyond. Behind the gates was a second pavilion, only much larger and much darker.

“Frederick decided that the rear gardens are to be his Oriental fantasy.” Thomas led him to the gate and pushed; it gave without complaint. “He’s planning a wilderness of cherry trees and ornamental bushes. This is the summerhouse.”

“It doesn’t look like a summerhouse.”

“Nevertheless, that’s what it is.”

“When did Lord Pierson go to China?”

“Never,” Thomas said with a grin. “He found out that Versailles once had a pagoda made out of porcelain and decided he must have one.”

“Do the Chinese even have summerhouses?” he asked doubtfully, looking up. The pavilion wasn’t as big as it had seemed from the distance but it was easily as impressive. It floated above as if on a cloud, its tiered roofs rising and rising. The only thing that spoke of prosaic reality was the flight of common white marble steps that led to the door.

“I imagine everyone who lives in hot climates has summerhouses,” Thomas answered. “Frederick is waiting on the furnishings but the rest is complete.”

Thomas started up the steps but James didn’t move. “Are you sure we should?”

“Frederick told me I needed to see it and so I shall.”

“It’s too dark to see anything.”

Thomas took something out of his pocket and held it up. It was an ornate silver tinderbox and a snub of a candle. “Thanks to Elizabeth and her obsession with candles, I’ve come prepared.”

James recognized the tinderbox—the servants had used something like to refresh the candles during the musical performance. “She’ll be done soon. They’ll look for us.”

“It’s not yet seven-thirty. She usually ends at nine. Besides, I told Miranda I was leaving. If anyone remarks upon our absence, she’ll give them a story; she’s good at that.”

That didn’t make him happy. “Thomas, I—”

Thomas stopped and turned. He came back down until he was one step above James. “It’s been four days,” he said quietly. “Every time I get close to you, you shy away.”

“Your house is full of servants.”

“You didn’t object at dinner the other night though you could have.”

He tightened his lips because yes, he could have stopped Thomas just as he could stop him now. A simple, I was confused; now, I’m not, would do the trick.“Have you thought of what will happen if someone finds out?”

“James,” Thomas murmured with a little laugh that held no hint of humor, “I can say whole-heartedly I’ve thought of nothing else but you over the course of the last ninety-six hours.” He put the candle and tinderbox back in his pocket.

“That wasn’t an answer.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

This was a dangerous game they were playing, made more so by their circumstances, their unequal status. They both had much to lose; position, name, and in his case, an occupation he couldn’t afford to ruin by acting precipitously—it was all on the table should they be discovered.

It wasn’t too late to nip it in the bud, however. They hadn’t gone beyond the few kisses and an accidental touch while reaching for the same ledger, a fleeting pressure that James had felt all day. Now would be the logical time to end it, out here in the open, clear of the hothouse environment of Thomas’s home where anything seemed possible. He’d give it a few weeks, avoid the house until he was confident he’d be able to face Thomas without seeing the mirror of his own desire in Thomas’s eyes and smile. He could do it because he’d done it before, because his heart was always subservient to his head. Always.

But then Thomas moved, just a simple gesture of reaching for his ring, an action that James had noticed from early on, done only when Thomas was amused or, conversely, under great stress.

“I understand your doubts,” Thomas said, “and I won’t try to coerce or convince you. I’ll only ask one question.”

“And that is?”

“If this is so abhorrent to you, if I am not what you want, then why are you here?”

It was a good question, the only question, and one he apparently couldn’t answer because he tried. He opened his mouth to say something, anything, but all that came to him was the memory that he’d been pushing away for four days now; the careful way Thomas had approached, coming near as if to a wild thing but also with upfront honesty, silently announcing his desire before asking an equally silent, ‘Please.’

It was impossible to not want that again, impossible to hurt Thomas in that fashion and he closed his mind’s eye to everything but Thomas, watching him too tentatively. “You’re anything but abhorrent to me, and yes, I do want you.”

Thomas stopped fidgeting with his ring and reached for James’s hand instead. “Then, come.”

***

While Thomas busied himself with the candle, lighting it and securing it on the end of the bench with its own wax, James examined the room.

He’d never been in a pagoda. He was fairly sure Pierson hadn’t either, because the structure was nothing more that a big room with a long black marble bench sitting in the middle. Maybe the furnishings Pierson was waiting on would complete the Oriental motif. Maybe the man was as big a fool as his wife and the architects had led him astray.

Everything was black, from the latticed windows to the walls and ceiling. Only not truly, James realized as he glanced up, seeing that the ceiling was decorated with red and gold dragons. They flickered in the low light, seeming to jump and crawl, their mouths open to reveal long tongues and sharp teeth.

“Unbelievable,” he muttered, head still craned. “Is this what pagodas truly look like?” When he got no answer, he tore his gaze from the ceiling and looked around. Done with the candle, Thomas was sitting in the middle of the bench. He’d removed his wig and once again was watching James silently, seriously.

Feeling as if he were stepping into a particularly beautiful span of water that might hide all manner of dangers, he went over to stand before Thomas. He reached out slowly and touched Thomas’s damp hair, lightly ordering the gilt strands with his fingers.

“James,” Thomas breathed, neck arched in pleasure. “This is just you and I, yes?”

Thomas’s neck cloth was still very much in place, but he imagined it gone, imagined bending low to kiss Thomas’s bare throat. “Yes. Just you and I.”

“Good.”

He stepped closer, his knees just touching Thomas’s. He cupped the back of Thomas’s head and bent down. Thomas met his kiss with a sigh and then another when he tipped Thomas’s head to get a better angle and this was how it had been—shock and then a furious wave of desire that had stunned his senses. He muffled a moan and pressed harder, asking for admittance.

Thomas opened sweetly to him, leaning back to take more.

If they had all the time in the world, he’d do just this, just kiss Thomas all night, but time was in short supply so he pulled back. He stroked Thomas’s temple with his thumb. “What do you want?”

Thomas answered by not answering. He put his hands on James’s hips and gently pushed him back, then stood. He turned James until his legs were against the bench and pushed.

Perhaps desire had muddled his brain, perhaps he was still thinking in terms of lord and commoner, but it wasn’t until he was sitting on the bench and Thomas was lowering to one knee that he realized what was happening. “Jesus,” he whispered because yes, though it was the last thing he’d expected, he wanted Thomas’s beautiful mouth on him. Just the notion made his heart pound and his cock jump.

But still, it wasn’t quite appropriate and he fumbled for his coat, stopping Thomas with a harsh, “Wait.”

Thomas frowned and then didn’t when James removed his coat and shook it out to lay it on the floor.

“So you’re comfortable,” James said, as if his action needed explaining.

Thomas gave him an odd, intense look, but said nothing. Without releasing James’s gaze, he removed his own coat and then dropped to his knees. He put his hands on James’s thighs and moved closer, spreading his legs apart.

Heart once again in his throat, unable to speak, James caressed Thomas’s head as he leaned in, nuzzling his waistcoat, rooting at buttons and wool. Not hesitating but still moving slow, Thomas stroked James’s thighs, up and up until his thumb were a bare inch from James’s cock. He looked up.

Swallowing, he took Thomas’s hand and pressed it against his cock, hard.

They both groaned, twin noises sounding startling loud in this empty place.

“James,” Thomas whispered again, his voice rasping, needy, as he fumbled for James’s flies. “Help me.”

He pushed Thomas’s hands out of the way and unbuttoned his flies, making quick work of it. Thomas, seemingly unable not to help, busied himself with the lower buttons of James’s waistcoat and then his shirt and smallclothes. In a moment, he was free to the cool air and Thomas’s gaze.

“Lift up,” Thomas ordered softly.

He obeyed and Thomas pulled his breeches and smallclothes down to his thighs. The black stone was cold and he shivered, then again when Thomas smiled and bent low to kiss his thigh. “Thomas?” He reached back to grip the edge of the bench.

Thomas smiled and tipped his head, brushing his chin against James’s cock, his mouth everywhere but where James wanted him.

He growled helplessly, then took his cock and pressed it against Thomas’s cheek. “Thomas.”

“I’m sorry,” Thomas said on a smile. “I’ll stop teasing. I’ll—” He covered James’s hand with his own and kissed the crown.

“God,” James whispered brokenly, breath now ragged and strained. He pulled free, transferring his grip to Thomas’s shoulder. “Please. I want your mouth, I want—”

Thomas took him in one smooth bob of his head, eyes half closed.

“Oh,” he whispered, watching, the sight almost as heady as the feeling. The few times a whore had given him this service, it had always been a methodical experience, done with a handkerchief at the ready. Not Thomas. He actually seemed to enjoy it and Christ, James had to look away, afraid it was all going to be over before it had begun.

He tipped his head to the ceiling, absently observing as the dragons writhed, holding on tight to the bench and Thomas’s shoulder.

It didn’t help, the distraction. Thomas made some move, a subtle press of his tongue and James stifled a moan and thrust up and then again and it was done—he gave in and gave way, bowing as the dark wave turned bright white, smashing through his senses, leaving him blind and deaf.

When he returned to himself, he was curled over Thomas, both fists in his shirt, panting softly.

Thomas moved, a slight push; James let go and straightened up.

They watched each other for a time and then Thomas reached up and touched James’s jaw, his eyes shining. “That was lovely. You are lovely.”

He could think of nothing to say. He was unused to complements of that sort, especially from men. Especially when they came after a quick fumble, always in a hold or the dark side of an alley. Never one for love-talk after, he’d always buttoned his breeches and smoothed his hair, then found the nearest route of escape.

He imagined it: getting up, putting himself to rights and leaving Thomas to fend for himself. He could do it, and something in his chest ached that he had it in him to be that cruel.

“What is it?” Thomas asked.

A smear of fluid had gathered in the corner of Thomas’s mouth. Hesitantly, he leaned down and kissed it away, first with lips and then tongue. Thomas hummed under his breath, opening his mouth easily when James urged and this was new, too, the taste of himself on another’s lips.

“Nothing,” he murmured, and then on the same breath, “What do you want?” He reached down, skating his hand lightly over Thomas’s waistcoat to his breeches. “This?”

He waited for Thomas to call him out on his prevarication but after a moment, he just murmured, “Payment in kind?”

“Then, come…” He urged Thomas up, kicking his coat out of the way. When Thomas moved to exchange places with him, he shook his head. “No. Here where I can get at you.” It didn’t escape him that he’d chosen a position by which he wouldn’t have to kneel; he hoped Thomas hadn’t realized the same.

“Yes, please.”

He ignored the way it made him feel, the small lie, just as he ignored the niceties as he quickly unfastened Thomas’s flies and a few waistcoat buttons. He pushed Thomas’s shirt up and his underclothes down to find his goal waiting for him. A match to his height and elegance, Thomas’s cock was gratifyingly hard. He curled his hand around Thomas’s thigh and licked his lips. He paused.

He wasn’t a virgin by any means. His relations with women while not extensive, had always been of the pedestrian kind, Miranda being the exception. His encounters with men, however—

“You’ve never done this before,” Thomas murmured.

He said nothing; he wasn’t ashamed. He wasn’t.

Thomas took a step back. “We will find some other way,” he said quietly, “or I can take care of myself if you would prefer to return to the house.”

“No,” came his immediate response, suddenly embarrassed at his vacillation. “No,” he whispered again, pulling Thomas in.

He took a breath and, following Thomas’s example, he gently pressed his lips to the head and opened his mouth.

“James.”

It was an odd sensation, one not entirely agreeable. He did his best, though, remembering what had always pleased him, what made him want to sigh and moan. Thomas seemed to appreciate his attempt if his soft groans and greedy hands were anything to go by; when his release came, it was quick, unexpected. James took the fluid, trying not to choke, doing so anyway.

“Here,” Thomas whispered, holding something out.

It was a handkerchief; James took it and spit, then again.

Thomas stroked his hair. “James.”

He wiped his lips, angry for no reason.

Thomas let go and pulled up his breeches, then knelt. He tipped James’s head up with one finger. “James,” he said again.

“What?”

“Look at me.”

He raised his head and it shouldn’t have been that hard to meet Thomas’s gaze.

Thomas was watching him carefully, kindly, as if attempting to see beyond flesh and bone to his very soul. “Have you ever read Mediations?”

He frowned, confused by the non sequitur. “Yes, of course.”

Thomas rested his hands on his thighs. “Then you might remember: Nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear.”

He balled the handkerchief up. “Are you saying I’ll get used to this?” He almost rolled his eyes, he was that angry. “I didn’t dislike it that much, Thomas. I just—”

Thomas stopped him with a squeeze. “I meant that a man must be true to his own nature. I meant that I appreciate your need for perfection in all things but perhaps this is one act you have no need to master. We just need to find something you’re more comfortable with.” He hesitated. “That is, if there will be something beyond this one night.”

Here was his second chance, given with grace and understanding. All he’d have to say was, ‘I think it would be for the best if we left this alone,’ and it would be done. Thomas would never mention it again, would act as he always had—with respect and attention, showing no hint of reproach because he was that kind of man.

He opened his mouth to say just that, shocked when instead he said, “I wouldn’t be here if that were the case.”

Thomas smiled and his shoulders dropped. He leaned in and kissed James, murmuring, “Where would you be?”

An odd, intoxicating relief had hold of him, setting his tongue and heart loose. He answered sweetly, taking another step along this new path, “With Lady Pierson.”

Thomas bit his lip.

“Ow,” he breathed, though it hadn’t hurt at all.

“You deserved it.”

“I did.” Any anxiety he’d been feeling had melted away under the heat of Thomas’s mouth; he couldn’t think of what had come over him. Maybe it was this dark, ugly place with its dragons that were really monsters. “And, as much as I’d like to stay, we need to return.”

Thomas sighed and drew back. “You’re right. Let me help you.” He reached out but James shook his head.

“I’m fine.” He stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket, then stood and put himself to rights while Thomas did the same. He was smoothing his breeches when he came across a small tear. “Damnation,” he swore softly.

“What is it?” Thomas said as straightened his neck cloth.

“Lord Frederick Pierson’s fucking bench,” he said. Somehow, the edge of the bench had cut an inch-long slice through the side of his breeches. “Damn it,” he cursed again; these were his best pair.

“Let me see.”

James twisted and pulled the fabric tight.

Thomas bent close. He touched the narrow gap. “It’s not that bad; it won’t show beneath your coat.”

“That’s not the point,” he muttered, unaccountably irritated at Thomas’s lack of concern. “I can’t be running about in breeches that are torn. Hennessey will have my head.”

“I’ll buy you a new pair.”

He sighed. “No, you won’t.”

“Why not? I’ll get my man to take your measurements; they’ll be ready in a few days.”

“Thomas, I can’t have you buying me things.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can and if you would just listen to reason, you’d see that I’m right and—”

“Thomas!” He didn’t shout but the word echoed as if he had. “I can’t have you buying me things and if you need me to explain why, then you’re not half as brilliant as I thought you were.”

After a moment, Thomas nodded and then, unexpectedly, he grinned.

James frowned. “What is that for?”

“We just had our first argument.”

He pressed his lips tight against the foolish smile that wanted to come and picked up his coat. “It was not.” He shook it out and held it to the faint light; it seemed without dust or boot prints, but he couldn’t quite tell. “We have had many such disagreements.”

“You know what I mean.”

He did and it did make a difference and he conceded the point by saying, “I appreciate the offer, Thomas, but I’ll mend them myself.”

“At least let me be your valet and fix your queue.”

He paused and reached back. His ribbon had completely come undone and was half way down his back. He glanced up at Thomas, giving him a wry look.

Thomas shrugged, clearly unrepentant. “Don’t blame me if you are far better with your mouth than you thought.”

Unexpectedly, his cheeks burned and he glanced to the side, grateful the candle was almost out.

“Here,” Thomas said gently as if he saw anyway, taking James by the shoulders and turning him around.

And that was unexpected, too, the shocking intimacy of Thomas’s hands in his hair, his cool fingers against the nape of his neck.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Thomas murmured, using his fingers as a comb. “I understand we’re scheduled to meet on Thursday but are you available tomorrow?”

He cleared his throat. Thomas’s light touch had set his blood pumping slow and thick and it was hard to think. “I’ve drills from six to noon, then mess, then a meeting with Lord Kensington from two to three.”

Thomas gathered his hair up. “And after?”

“Reviewing the results of the drills and then mess again after which I’ll read until bed time.” He felt a slight tug as Thomas re-tied the ribbon and straightened it.

“James?”

“Yes?”

“I can’t wait until Thursday.” Thomas put his hands on his shoulders. “Can you?”

His heart jerked, then steadied. “You’ve never been to my room.”

Thomas leaned in to press his cheek against James’s. “I haven’t.”

“I’ll give you directions.”

“No need. I know where you live.”

“I’ll be home by half past.”

“Three-thirty, then.”

He wanted to turn and take Thomas in his arms but if he did, he’d never let go. Gently, he pulled free. He took a few steps to give himself space, then pulled on his coat and made sure all his buttons were fastened and that everything was tidy.

He turned.

Thomas had put on his coat as well as his wig and they stood there, five feet of distance between them, once again lord and commoner.

Only, not truly, and he crooked his elbow invitingly. Thomas snuffed out the candle, pried it free, and then took his arm.

Under the hesitant moon, they strolled through the unfinished gardens, arm in arm, hand in hand. When they got to the turn in the path, James squeezed Thomas’s hand, then regretfully let him go.

***

He didn’t get home until after midnight.

He trudged up the stairs and unlocked the door. The room was cold. Earlier, he’d been in a hurry after having rushed back to change into clean breeches and shirt. He’d apparently been so distracted that he’d left the window open a crack. He shut it tight, and then lit a candle.

He undressed slowly, mind awash with memories of the evening and the people he’d met.

Forestalling Lady Pierson, Miranda had commandeered him after his return to the drawing room and had introduced him to people she said would help in his career. He’d gone about with her, feeling as if the candles were brighter, the colors more vivid.

At one point, Lord Ashe had come up and suggested they get some fresh air. He led James to a small room with its own balcony. They chatted about Thomas’s plan and arranged to meet the following week. He wasn’t quite sure about Ashe; Thomas liked him well enough. Perhaps his hesitation was simply because Ashe was the kind of peer he was used to dealing with—sure of his own place in society, equally sure of everyone else’s.

Thinking on that, he pulled off his boots and was unfastening his breeches when he felt a lump in his pocket and remembered. He pulled out the handkerchief and sat on the bed.

The handkerchief was still damp and he should find it disgusting, repulsive, but he didn’t. He smoothed it out of his knees.

There was nothing fancy about it; he had several just like. Of course, his weren’t hemmed with such even stitches and didn’t have his initials embroidered in the corner. Nor was the linen so fine as to be almost transparent. He held it up to light, not surprised when he could almost see the shape of his hand through it.

He sighed. He had to be up in five hours; he didn’t have time to moon about like a young girl after receiving her first kiss. He rose and went to the washstand and quickly rinsed it out. He hung it over the back of the chair by the fireplace, then finished undressing.

Normally, he liked to read before bed but was too tired. He blew out the candle and climbed between the cold sheets, then turned on his side.

Two bells rang. It had to be the Royal Sovereign, come in that morning from the West Indies. He hadn’t spoken to any of the men, but he’d heard they’d run into trouble and had to vacate quickly. Probably due to the pirates because it was always the pirates.

He needed to speak to Hennessey about the plan. He hadn’t yet broached the subject, but maybe it was time. Hennessey would, of course, insist on a more thorough report than the vague suggestions put forth in Thomas’s initial summation. The Sovereign was due to set sail for Harbor Island in a month—he could enlist Hume’s help and ask him to examine the situation.

Better yet, he could go to Nassau himself in July when the Norfolk was finished with her refit. It would be a three-month voyage but when he returned, he’d have valuable firsthand knowledge that he could use to Thomas’s advantage. Being prepared was always the best way to handle Hennessey and this would be the best way to achieve that goal.

Decision made, he closed his eyes.

But he couldn’t sleep and soon he opened his eyes again to stare at the handkerchief. It glowed in the faint light, the white of it almost too white.

He got up and retrieved it. Telling himself he was just ensuring the fabric would be dry in the morning, he tucked it under his pillow and got back in bed. When Thomas visited, he’d return it to him. Or—he thought as he slipped his hand under the pillow, fingers just touching the linen, thinking he could feel the tiny TH—perhaps he’d keep it. Thomas probably had dozens of the same. He wouldn’t miss this one.

He’d hold on to it and if Thomas asked for it, he’d return it; if not, he’d keep it as a spare.

Smiling, he closed his eyes and fell right into sleep.

 

 

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