Arthur shaded his eyes with a hand as he stepped out onto the platform of the Santa Fe Depot, his luggage stacked neatly behind him in the shade of the tiny station. For its size the depot was bustling, men rushing about to load cargo from the train onto carts that would deliver to any of the ranches that sprawled over the San Gabriel Valley. Squinting to see through the steam and clouds of dust kicked up by the horses and wagon wheels, Arthur looked for a passenger carriage but saw none. He pulled his watch from his pocket and checked the time against the Station’s clock, and sighed to himself. He wondered how long he would be left to wait at the station before his grandfather remembered to send for him.
Arthur was growing increasingly impatient by the time a small cart pulled up in front of the station, harnessed to a single mule and with a boy at the reins. Arthur licked his dust dry lips as the boy, who looked to be about sixteen or seventeen at the most, jumped nimbly from the bench and hopped onto the platform.
“Mister Stocker?” The boy questioned in a soft, lilting accent, and deftly pulled a worn, wide billed hat from his head.
There was a clean line across his face where the hat’s brim had protected his eyes from the dust but not the lower half of his head. His lips and jaw were brown with dirt, but that could not keep Arthur from noticing how particularly soft and full both were.
“And if I am?” Arthur raised a questioning brow.
“Lucky’s sent me to fetch you and your things. Said he would have come himself, but the horses needed tending.” The boy’s posture was stiff, but there was a hesitance in his eyes. Arthur assumed the boy worked for his grandfather and had to wonder if the boy had heard stories from the other ranch hands.
It had been both markedly easier and substantially more difficult to hide his inclinations on the East Coast where the cities were smaller and packed tightly with people. There were more willing men for him to choose from but fewer places to hide. Fortunately, his grandfather’s reputation was known even on the other side of the country and people were inclined to believe that Arthur was most likely a lecherous womanizer as well. That suited him just fine.
“He spared no expense for my homecoming, I see.” The boy opened his mouth to speak but Arthur waved him off. He could agree that horses often made much better company than family. And the horses were what had brought him back to California in the first place. Grandfather wanted to build his own horse racing track on the ranch and he had no qualms about summoning his eldest daughter’s youngest son to help him. Lucky Baldwin had made his fortune by getting others to gamble theirs away and knowing his grandson had a quick head for figures, he had paid for the schooling that had honed Arthur’s already high intelligence, effectively trapping Arthur in his grandfather’s debt.
He was only twenty four, but it was still a shock to his system returning to the southern half of California where the air was dry and the skies clear and rainfall was something that could never be guaranteed. After seven years on the humid East Coast, attending school in Massachusetts and then living in New York and Chicago for the last few years, coming back to California was like discovering the west all over again. There was nothing but trees and dirt and purple mountains for as far as the eye could see, but Arthur knew better than to trust first impressions. Because Pasadena was less than an hour’s ride away from the station, and Arthur had learned in letters and from the newspapers what a fine little city it had grown into since he’d been gone. People came from all over the nation to attend the university - the California Institute of Technology- that had been only a few years opened when Arthur left.
Only a few more hours’ ride from Pasadena was Los Angeles, the jewel in the center of Southern California’s crown. He had seen it go past from the train’s windows and it too had grown since he’d been gone. Once, Los Angeles had been no more than a pueblo with adobe houses and a town square. That wasn’t the case any longer. There was a part of Arthur that felt nostalgic for the way his home had changed while he’d been gone, but a stronger sense of adventure residing within him reassured him that going east had been the right thing to do. He was home now and, looking at the boy as he strained to lift and carry Arthur’s trunks, he decided he was just in time.
“What’s your name, boy?” Arthur called to him, raising his voice above the din of other men shouting and the blow of the train’s whistle. The boy faltered and turned a decidedly sour look on Arthur.
“No first name?”
“None that I care to tell you. Mister Stocker.” The boy added with a glower after a beat.
Arthur smiled. A womanizer he was not, but persistence he had inherited from his grandfather. The boy’s eyes sparked; no doubt he believed Arthur was mocking him. Arthur
knew he was handsome, of average height with a lean physique. He’d been told once that he was a tailor’s dream, but though he wore clothes well, he was not ashamed of how he looked out of them either. Perhaps the East Coast may have paled him a bit and his years of study may have softened some of his edges, but a few weeks back at the Rancho Santa Anita would harden him again no doubt, and his skin would be as golden as this boy’s in only a few days. There was no shortage of work to be done on the ranch, Arthur was sure, though he had made an instant decision that the heart of his work lay in seducing his grandfather’s lovely ranch hand.
The boy shot furtive and suspicious glances at Arthur the entire time he worked to load Arthur’s luggage into the cart and tie it down. Arthur watched, amused, only stepping in to criticize Eames’s knots and earn himself a petulant scowl. He stood unnecessarily close to the boy as Eames undid the ropes and retied them with Arthur watching intently over his shoulder. Eames had already been tense, but Arthur’s proximity clearly made him uncomfortable judging by the way he leaned away, as far as the cart would allow.
Arthur chuckled and dropped a hand on Eames’s shoulder, angling his head so that his lips were only a breath away from the shell of Eames’s ear.
“That is much better, Mr. Eames, thank you,” Arthur said low, laughing at Eames’s flinch. The boy shook Arthur’s hand from his shoulder as if he’d been burned and all but leapt onto the bench to grab the reins. Arthur thought for an instant he might find himself standing in the dust watching as his belongings headed to the Rancho without him, but Eames hesitated with an unhappy glare before snapping the reins, giving Arthur enough time to vault over the edge of the cart and settle amongst his things. He grinned at the back of the boy’s head as he sprawled against his luggage and tipped his face back against the California sun.
“How long have you worked for my grandfather?” Arthur asked after minutes of silence broken only by the clap of the mule’s hooves against the road and the creak of the cart.
Eames glanced at him quickly over his shoulder before hunching his back and returning his gaze to the road. Arthur appreciated the boy’s sullen attitude for the challenge it posed, but he was tired from traveling and curious to know what information the boy could provide him of the Rancho that his family’s letters had not. His world did not revolve around where he could next stick his cock, though he did hope it would be between Eames’s cheeks, contrary to the belief of many of his peers.
Grandfather had more or less summoned him back to California, but for a reason Arthur could certainly appreciate. Gambling was not something his grandfather and he shared an interest in, and Arthur knew it would be a battle against the emerging progressive movement to get the track up and running at all, but Lucky Baldwin had passed one important thing on to his youngest grandson and that was a love for horses. Arthur had been breaking horses at his grandfather’s side since he was a boy and watching the Indians in his grandfather’s employ do it for even longer than that. The men had winked at him from the center of the iron-barred arena, stripped down to their trousers, copper skin shining in the sun as they practically whispered the unruly horses into submission. Arthur had no doubt it was then that he began to realize where his inclinations lay.
“I work at an establishment in town,” Eames finally said with a shrug. “Coming to get you was a favor from my boss to Lucky.”
“He didn’t have any men to spare of his own?”
“No,” said Eames. “You’ll see why.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes at that, but the excitement was beginning to build in his chest. He’d been to the Derby in Kentucky and gone with Grandfather to Washington Park in ’94 when Grandfather’s horse, Rey el Santa Anita, had won there. He had even entertained notions of jockeying once, but he was too tall and he knew he could do better off the
track. Apparently, Grandfather did as well.
“What type of establishment is it that you work at, Mr. Eames?” Arthur asked, purposefully drawing out the word. The boy flushed noticeably even with his skin already pink from the sun and Arthur perked up.
“The kind you don’t talk about in polite company,” Eames muttered.
“A brothel? Really? In Pasadena? Is that how my grandfather earned this favor then? A valued customer, I’m sure.”
“I’m not a whore,” Eames growled, hunching in his seat.
Arthur tilted his head, taken aback. “I never said you were.”
“Doesn’t mean you weren’t thinking it,” Eames growled and Arthur almost wanted to chuckle, but he could sense he had already somehow accidentally stepped over a line.
“I suppose that’s a logical assumption,” Arthur mused, crossing his arms and enjoying the stretch of the boy’s thin cotton shirt over his shoulders as he slouched. “You never
even said it was a brothel though. And I am a gentleman. I would never have voiced such an assumption of your character aloud even had I thought it. Which I didn’t.”
Eames snorted, shooting a glance back at Arthur out of the corner of his eye. The look dripped with disdain, but Arthur thought he saw the tiniest flicker of curiosity. That was more than enough incentive for him.
“You’re not very well-mannered,” he chastised, and this time his words drew a smirk from his driver, those lovely full lips twisting to the side in a way that had Arthur paying full attention.
“Don’t mistake your money for manners, Mister Stocker,” Eames said after a moment of thought, probably debating whether speaking the words would be worth the consequences.
Arthur grinned even as Eames cowered, probably expecting to be hit. He leaned forward and clapped his hand on Eames’s shoulder and laughed, then laughed harder at the look of confusion on the boy’s face.
“My name is Arthur,” he said before leaning back, still chuckling. Eames glanced at him shyly and his shoulders seemed to lose some of their tension.
Arthur would have liked to continue the intriguing banter they’d stumbled onto but then they had come upon the lake, sparkling in the afternoon sun, geese and ducks floating peacefully on its surface. The spires of the cottage Grandfather had built for his newest wife - who had been no older than Eames and hadn’t lasted long anyway - peeked up over the trees on the other side. The cottage was beautiful, done in the style that had been popular during the reign of England’s Queen Anne, painted white with cherry red trim. There was a matching carriage house that was in constant use, though no one lived in the cottage. Arthur couldn’t be sure how long it had been since anyone had even set foot inside of it.
Eames stopped the cart outside of the adobe longhouse that was the actual domicile of the Baldwins. It was one-storied but sprawled out over the earth, long and wide, with enough space for several rooms and a larger common one for entertaining. Eames hopped down from the bench and Arthur watched him move for a moment. He was a slim thing, but Arthur could see hints of how his body would probably expand in the future. His shoulders were broad, his hips compact. His arms and legs were long, though he was not spectacularly tall. He was shorter than Arthur by several inches but there was still time for him to catch up. There was a large potential for power in the ill-fit of Eames’s limbs and the idea of it thrilled Arthur. If Eames continued to work the ranch he would bulk up quickly, and Arthur knew he would be lost to it then. It wasn’t safe to make anything solid out of a clandestine affair, but Arthur could already be certain that one taste of Eames would never be enough for him.
Though Arthur would have liked to watch Eames unload his trunks and bags, to see if the sight was as enjoyable as watching him load them had been, propriety dictated he find his family. He had returned since leaving as a youth, but he still hadn’t seen them in at least a year. He found them in the main room, Grandfather looking perturbed to be in the house at all, fidgeting at the large table with a glass of whiskey in front him.
“Ah, finally. Here is my prodigal grandson. Let’s get the greetings out of the way. I have projects to oversee.”
“Papa sit,” Arthur’s aunt Anita commanded as the older man began to rise.
Lucky Baldwin huffed out a grand sigh and plopped back into his chair so hard that it creaked. He was not a particularly large man, but he wasn’t frail either and he could seem very imposing when he wanted to. He favored one side slightly where he had been shot by the brother of a girl he had promised to marry. Anita had written to Arthur that even she could not recall when her father had wooed the girl as the list of women he had misled was already so long. But aside from that one tell, Grandfather seemed as healthy as ever and eager to get back to the building of his racetrack.
“Arthur,” Anita said warmly, rising from her own chair to embrace him. She was only a few years older than him, being his mother’s half-sister, and they had gotten along well when they were younger. Anita was bright and Grandfather had seen to it that all of his children and grandchildren were educated.
“Where are mother and father?” He asked once his aunt had regained her seat, curious but not really offended that they were not there. His mother had been married as many times as her father had and Arthur had three half siblings. As a child he had often gotten lost amongst the bustle, but that had left him open to be taken under his grandfather’s wing and he had more than a suspicion that he was Lucky’s favorite.
Anita shrugged. “Clara and Albert are away. Kentucky, I believe? To see the Derby. Papa has perhaps everyone he’s ever met attached to this project of his.”
Lucky frowned at his daughter before downing the last of his whiskey. “Anita believes my ambitions are whimsy,” he grumbled. “But you’ll see, boy. Get changed into something you can work in. You can see for yourself what a whimsy of Lucky Baldwin’s looks like.”
Arthur grinned, excitement already brewing in his belly. He had no doubt this whimsy of his grandfather’s would be something grand, and he was entrusting the running of it to Arthur. Arthur was determined to see it a success.
Eames grumbled to himself as he hauled the last of Arthur Stocker’s trunks into the room Lucky had indicated would be his grandson’s. Eames admired Lucky and appreciated his somewhat brusque and absent-minded personality. He knew it was an act, that Lucky Baldwin was a genius. He was rich as sin and Eames fully believed this new venture of his would make him even richer. Yes, he liked women a little more than he should, but Eames saw through that even. Most people called him a lecher, but Eames had watched him for a while and he knew better. Lucky Baldwin was a romantic. He was a man who was in love with life and he couldn’t help it if some of that love bled into his interactions. Girls were drawn to him because of his wealth, but more than a few of them fell truly in love with him. It was impossible not to. Lucky Baldwin was a force of nature and he was generous and he laughed with everything he had, all the way from his belly.
Eames didn’t see any of that in Lucky’s grandson. Arthur Stocker had a pretty smile, but Eames could see his thoughts behind it. Arthur was the kind of man who was always thinking, always planning. He had a reputation as a bit of a playboy - Eames had heard plenty of stories since he’d been in the San Gabriel Valley - but Eames already thought that at least half of that reputation was just a cover. Eames was good at reading people and he’d read Arthur Stocker right away.
Arthur wanted him and wasn’t afraid to show his interest, but he wouldn’t have been so brave had anyone been paying attention to them, Eames knew. Arthur was obviously smart, Lucky talked all the time about how bright his youngest grandson was, how much the boy took after himself. So, comfortable with the knowledge that no one was watching, Arthur had made his inclinations clear. He was obviously quite full of himself as well, to have believed he could have Eames bent over the cart before they’d even pulled away from the train station. He was handsome, yes, but he was also rich and his grandfather was very powerful. Eames had neither of those things and he knew better at sixteen than Arthur Stocker probably ever would that he couldn’t make mistakes. It would never be Arthur Baldwin Stocker’s head people would clamor for if they were caught. Lies could be told and bribes could be made and the rich were often forgiven their sins without proper repentance, but Eames, who was poor and without family, would not be afforded the same chances.
He hadn’t wanted to fetch Arthur in the first place, having heard whispers at the brothel and in the saloons that Arthur was a deviant. It didn’t mean much when the words came from ranch hands and delivery boys, whose opinions were worth about as much as Eames’s own. But once and only once, it had come from two young men of Arthur’s age, respectable young men. They had come to the brothel early in the afternoon while Eames was fixing a loose shutter on the side of the house. He had stripped to his breeches, too hot with the sun high and beating down on him though it was September.
The men had been whispering fervently to one another, hats pulled low over their eyes as if that would hide their identities from anyone who might catch sight of them. They were less interested in the brothel’s services than the fact that the brothel was there at all, in their small city. They seemed amazed that the house didn’t look obviously like a whorehouse from the outside; that it in fact looked like any other house recently been built within the city limits, just below Colorado Boulevard.
“Boy,” one of the men had called, dismounting from his horse and leading it over to Eames.
Eames stopped what he was doing immediately, smoothing a hand over his hair, wet with sweat and held away from his face with a leather thong. “Yes sir.”
The man was an inch or so taller than Eames, his companion even taller, and they were both very handsome once they’d removed their hats, though the one who’d spoken had the friendlier look about him. He was blue-eyed and baby-faced, bright blond hair slicked back with pomade. The silent man seemed cold, but his furtive looks and the way he bit the inside of his lip told Eames he was more likely shy. He finally looked at Eames after he’d taken in the entire house and all of its grounds and his eyes, already large, widened noticeably.
“Do you work here?” The first man asked, eyeing Eames up and down but not with the same appreciation as his friend. He seemed more worried that if he handed Eames the reins to his horse he might never see the animal again.
“Well, good. Very good. Take care of our horses then and, ah, alert your employer of our presence.”
Eames smirked, taking the reins even as the first man still seemed reluctant to let them go. “Oh, he’ll already know you’re here, sir.”
Both men seemed startled by that even as Yusuf appeared on the wraparound porch without any notice.
“Hello, gentlemen,” he said, playing up his accent to add to the allure. Yusuf was raised in British occupied India and his words were normally just as clipped and clean as Eames’s, who had been born and orphaned in South Africa. But Yusuf said that the men of California were a wild sort and he could make more money by exaggerating the taste of the Orient he was offering them when they came to his establishment. “Welcome to my home.”
Eames didn’t hear the entirety of the conversation that took place then, because the side eye Yusuf gave him had him hurrying with the horses to the stables. He had no reason to go back inside for several hours after that, but he caught one comment before Yusuf ushered the men through the front door.
The second man was still looking at him and, though his voice was soft, Eames heard him ask, “Do you have boys here too?”
It wasn’t out of interest, like Eames might have expected. The man sounded almost surprised and maybe genuinely curious.
“Ah no, my friend. I wish I could serve the interests of all, Yusuf does not judge, but it is hard enough to keep my business going with so many listening to that man Saito, calling for an end to all vices. What is wrong with a little indulgence, I say, but you understand, yes? Or you would not be on my doorstep.”
The first man laughed heartily, almost falsely, but Eames heard the other one muse, “That’s too bad. Arthur would have loved him.”
He heard nothing after that, focusing instead on the sound of the horses’ hooves on the gravel and the blood rushing in his ears. He wasn’t a virgin, he’d given that up for a coin on another continent, but America was supposed to be his second chance. He’d come to California for a reason and it wasn’t to be a rent boy. The men he’d sold himself to before, they were the kind who’d pretend that it didn’t matter where they stuck their dicks as long as they were the ones doing the sticking. Society tended to side with that notion when it was a member of the upper class caught red-handed. It was the man on the bottom who was the sodomite and the deviant. It was a harsh punishment waiting for that man and usually a slap on the wrist for the other.
Eames didn’t want that to be his life here, but he couldn’t say no to Lucky when he’d found Eames watching the work being done on the track and asked him to fetch his grandson from the train station, even though he’d recognized the name. Yusuf would have had his head for refusing his best costumer anything. Lucky had gone on to grumble about Eames even working at the brothel if he was going to spend all of his time at the Santa Anita. Eames would have loved to work at the Santa Anita with Lucky’s horses, getting paid to watch the track get built, but he owed Yusuf more than he could ever hope to repay. The man had gotten him to California, kept him alive and kept his secrets. So Eames had tried to calm his pounding heart as he pulled up to the train station to pick up Arthur Stocker, only to have his worst fears realized with one appraising look from the man’s large brown eyes. Arthur was going to be a problem for him, of that much he could be certain.
He finished lugging Arthur’s baggage into his room and walked out into the main room, frowning. Lucky looked antsy, probably eager to show his grandson the track. Arthur was chatting amiably with his aunt, a woman of thirty who was always cordial to Eames. She lived in a house at the edge of the Rancho, closer to the foothills, that her father had built her, and remained stubbornly and happily unmarried despite her father’s grumblings. Eames learned a lot by quietly observing and the Baldwins had been a favorite of his to watch since he’d arrived.
“Ah, good. Boy, Eames, come along. Shouldn’t have sent you to get my good for nothing grandson after all if he was just plannin’ to sit here flappin’ his gums.”
Eames looked to Arthur to see if he would take offense to his grandfather’s statement, but he realized immediately that he should have known better than to expect the man to be easily wounded. Arthur laughed loud and full, a belly laugh just like his grandfather’s, and in that moment Eames saw a shade of the older man in the younger one.
“Papa, Arthur has been traveling for two weeks! Let him have a rest!”
Arthur placed a hand on his aunt’s shoulder, still smiling widely. Eames adamantly did not think of how that hand had felt on his own shoulder, heavy and warm and inviting.
“What I’ve been doing is sitting for the last two weeks, Anita. I could do with a chance to stretch my legs.”
“That’s good because I got you a horse and she needs riding,” Lucky said, pointing at Arthur, whose amused grin had morphed into a genuine smile. It softened his features and made him look almost boyish, dimples creasing his cheeks. “Boy’s always loved the beasts,” Lucky mentioned to Eames offhand as he pushed past everyone and out the door.
Apparently there was at least one thing that Eames had in common with Arthur Stocker.
Arthur helped his grandfather climb into the back of the cart, impatience visibly thrumming beneath his skin at the old man’s slow movements, before he hopped onto the bench, not leaving quite enough room for Eames but not taking the reins either.
“What are you doing?” Eames asked, genuinely confused. He had assumed Lucky meant for him to take them to the construction site and the larger stables that had been erected near it.
Arthur smiled at him, not the angelic and boyish smile of before, this was entirely feigned innocence. Eames was beginning to see that Arthur was a man who believed any line he encountered should be crossed.
“Why, I’m going to see the track my grandfather is building on his property. The entire reason I’m here actually.” His tone was mocking and Eames bristled, but before he could speak rashly, Lucky was grumbling and snapping for him to get his lazy bones onto the bench.
Arthur refused to give over even an inch, forcing them to be pressed against each other for the entire ride. It was thankfully short, but Eames was aware of the way Arthur’s thigh jostled against his with every bump and the bereft feeling he was left with once Arthur had jumped out of the cart and taken his heat with him.
The track was visible from the stables, though it was hardly more than raked dirt at the moment. Once completed it might even be visible from the train station. The stables were beautiful, painted a dark green that stood out against the dirt, warm and dark inside. The stables were where Lucky found him most often, when he wasn’t at the brothel. He knew which horse was Arthur’s – a dappled gray filly with a blonde mane that hadn’t been broken. She was hardly wild, but Lucky had told him that whoever was going to ride her would break her and she’d be loyal to that man for the rest of her life.
Arthur’s mouth dropped with awe when Eames led her out, her coat shimmering almost silver in the sunlight. “She’s beautiful.”
“And she’s yours,” Lucky said gruffly. “But she’s your responsibility. I expect to see you out here every day working that girl until she knows to come at the sound of your footsteps.”
“Grandfather, I’m not a child,” Arthur almost whined, looking petulant. A narrowed eye from Lucky snapped him out of it though and he was back to smiling immediately. “I mean thank you, Grandfather. She is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given. What is her name?”
“Up to you. She’s your horse.” Lucky seemed bored already with the presentation and he wandered off in the direction of the track to oversee the men at work, but Arthur remained transfixed by his horse.
“She seems awfully comfortable around you,” Arthur mused, looking at Eames who blushed for no good reason. “I thought you said you didn’t work for my grandfather.”
“I don’t. I just like the horses is all. He lets me work with them sometimes.”
“Well, my grandfather wouldn’t be the type to turn down free labor. No business sense in that. Obviously you’ve spent some time with her. What do you call her?”
“What? I – I don’t…”
“Come on. There’s an unbroken filly standing behind you as peacefully as a statue. She’s nosing your shoulder, Eames. Don’t tell me you haven’t given her a name.”
“But she’s your horse,” Eames protested, trying to push the animal’s snout away from where she was indeed sniffing him for treats.
“Yes and I’ll name her what I like. After you tell me what it is that you call her.”
“Forgery,” Eames said softly. “I call her Forgery.”
Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “That’s curious. Any reason behind it?”
“No, none,” Eames insisted too quickly.
Arthur’s face relaxed though his eyes didn’t lose any of their curiosity. “Well, we’ll have to see about that, won’t we? But, in the meantime, I think I actually quite like the name. A
curious name for a magnificent creature.” He smiled then, right at Eames, looking straight into his eyes.
Eames’s heart fluttered and he cursed himself inwardly when Arthur reached out a hand and he didn’t move. Eames held his breath as Arthur got closer, his fingertips reaching toward Eames’s face. He thought Arthur might actually try to cup his cheek or his chin and his damned traitorous limbs wouldn’t obey him and get out of the way, but then Arthur stroked his fingers along the horse’s snout, following the grain of the hair and Eames let out a breath and finally tore his gaze away from Arthur’s. He stomped off into the stables to get Forgery’s padding and saddle or a brush or oats or curl into a corner and pout, he didn’t actually know. He just knew he had to get away from Arthur before he made a mistake and let himself believe the promise he’d thought he’d seen in those soft brown eyes that he could still feel burning into his back as he stomped away.
“I’m glad you could make your grand return coincide with the event of my wedding, Arthur,” Dom said as they walked their horses up the long gravel drive to the Fischer Mansion. The drive was lined by trees and completely shaded, which was nice after having ridden from his own home to Cobb’s Ranch and now to the Fischers’. Arthur was sweating beneath his vest and jacket and beginning to regret his interest in seeing the brothel.
“Please, don’t sound so sincere, Dom,” Arthur muttered, pulling his collar away from where it had stuck to the skin of his neck. The East Coast was humid and had made him sweat even on overcast days, but he felt like the sun was actually bigger in California with the way it seemed to bake the Earth and him with it. All of the fancy clothes he’d brought back with him from New York were becoming nothing but a burden here.
“I am sincere!” Dom protested, grinning, and Arthur scoffed. Dom had been his best friend since childhood, mostly because Cobb’s Ranch bordered the Santa Anita and they both had a knack for mischief and a desire for adventure.
Arthur had only been back for a week, but he already felt as if he were falling back into his old ways, like he had never actually left. The dry heat of fall and the hot Santa Ana winds, though unwelcome, were familiar. He remembered to watch the ground for rattlers and he did not miss the changing colors of the East Coat’s deciduous trees as much as he thought he might. California was green and brown and orange when the marigolds bloomed like wildfire across the hillsides and it felt like home.
“You didn’t miss me at all, don’t lie,” he sniffed.
“Well, you understand I was busy. It was hard to miss you when I had Mal laid out in the orange grove, peeling fruit for her and pressing the juicy bits to her lips with my fingers. I don’t think she would have appreciated it were I thinking about you when I was kissing her and hiking her skirts up to her waist and pushing into her...”
“Alright, Dom! I don’t think she would like it to know that your tongue is so loose when recounting your premarital trysts either!”
Dom only laughed, blue eyes glittering above rounded cheeks. “I love her truly, I do, Arthur. I am glad to have you back and so is she! She said her cousin spoke highly of you in her letters.”
“What is there to speak lowly of?” Arthur grinned and gestured to himself, allowing his horse to dance and take him in a circle around Dom.
“Exactly. Though it wasn’t just your mind or your false courtesy that had her impressed.”
“What do you mean by that?” Arthur asked, bringing his horse even to Dom’s, a tight squeeze on the thin drive.
“Oh, I think you know what I mean, Arthur. You’re supposed to be the smart one. The educated man. She was enamored of you. Of your alabaster skin and your thick,
chestnut hair, just full enough for her to run her fingers through it sans gloves.” Dom burst out laughing and leaned so far out of the way when Arthur made to backhand him across the shoulder that he almost lost purchase on his horse.
“Ariadne is a lovely girl and you are a cad, sir.”
“So, you love the girl in return? And when shall the wedding be?” Dom laughed all the harder.
“I did not say that,” Arthur protested to maintain the gaiety, but he felt guilt at the potential truth in Dom’s words.
He did not have time to dwell on it though, as they came into view of the Fischer mansion, Robert already storming through the front doors with a glower. His tie was untied and his jacket unbuttoned and his hair fell in soft waves around his face. He shouted at a servant to bring his horse around but did not look as if he had any intention to wait, walking determinedly down the drive with long steps.
“Robert! Ho! Are you planning to walk all the way or shall we wait for your mount?” Dom called wheeling his horse around to watch Robert disappear down the drive.
“I am planning to walk until I am out of sight of that house and that man and my life!” Robert shouted, not stopping or turning to even look at them.
The servant came around with Robert’s horse and Arthur took it from the man, who was breathing hard, as he had clearly rushed to get the beast saddled and bridled. Arthur clutched his own reins in one hand and the reins of Robert’s horse in the other and he and Dom began down the drive toward their fuming friend.
“He took my inheritance from me and then he has the gall to think he can actually act as my father and leave me out of business matters at that! I am a grown man and I was a grown man when my father died! Peter is nothing but a false uncle who believes his marriage to my mother gives him place to dictate how I accord myself in public. As if I am the embarrassment to this family. My father’s body was barely cold before Uncle Peter married my mother. Barely cold!”
Robert was so angry he was shaking, his long fingers tangling together as he tried to knot his tie without the aid of a mirror.
“Robert, wait!” Arthur called, handing the reins of both horses to Dom before gracefully dismounting. Robert didn’t stop at first, but finally he fell still with a huff, crossing his arms over his chest like a petulant child even though he was older than Arthur.
“He told me to go play with my plants when I tried to offer my opinion on the issue of the port. Like I am a child, like it isn’t my name everyone knows,” Robert said softly as Arthur knotted his tie for him.
There was probably more to it, Arthur was sure. Peter Browning had been Robert’s beloved godfather until his father had died not four years past, at which point he had become Robert’s stepfather and stolen his inheritance right out from under him before the appropriate period of mourning had even passed. It was a definite scandal, one talked about all over the country. Arthur had read about it in the paper in Chicago, an article that had paraphrased one published in the Examiner most definitely at the behest of Saito. The blood had been bad between Saito, who practically owned Los Angeles, and Maurice Fischer who owned everything else, and though Robert was entirely innocent in all of it, he had suffered greatly for the bad publicity.
“Botany is a legitimate hobby,” Robert said, uncrossing his arms with a sigh.
“It is and your gardens are beautiful, Robert,” Arthur reassured him with a pat to his lapel.
Robert had always been a shy and emotional boy. He’d been sickly as a babe and then an only child so his mother had doted on him fretfully, and when his father had been drinking he’d made it clear he didn’t think his son was much of a man. It was unfortunate because Robert was brilliant as long he was interested and handsome as well. Arthur had been half in love with him for years before he finally left California, but Robert had never returned Arthur’s affections in that way. Robert was an understanding soul though, having been shunned by his father for most of his life, and had not reacted to Arthur negatively. He was a good friend and his gardens really were magnificent, full of exotic plants and native cacti that Robert had painstakingly and lovingly cultivated since he was young. Even though he no longer held any romantic inclinations toward the man, Arthur could never condescend to Robert the way he often did to Dom.
“I do apologize to interrupt this lovely moment, friends, but shall we go? I care very little for what Peter Browning thinks of how I accord myself in public and we all know Arthur cares not at all.”
Arthur glared up at Dom but it had little effect. It wasn’t as if Dom had any intention of partaking of the brothel’s services once they arrived, he’d had eyes only for his fiancé ever since they were children, but he’d promised Arthur that this was no ordinary flesh trade, and he’d been eager for Arthur to see for days. Despite being his closest friend, Arthur had never confided his preferences to Dom. He suspected the man knew, but Dom never confronted Arthur about it and never treated him differently. Dragging him to this brothel and the comments about Arthur’s relationship with Mal’s cousin was behavior out of the ordinary between them, though Arthur had brought up the brothel in the first place and had wanted to see it. He just hadn’t expected Dom to become so excited by the idea.
Dom wouldn’t tell him what was so fascinating. A brothel was a brothel. Arthur had been to many, though there had never been such an establishment in Pasadena before. There had always been prostitutes lining Colorado Boulevard, it made sense someone should give them a place to congregate. His curiosity had grown exponentially with Dom’s obvious excitement, and though he wanted to comfort Robert, he did wish to be off as well. The plan was only to have a drink in the parlor, because Dom had declared at twelve years old that he would never lay with any woman but Mallorie Durant. Robert appreciated beauty but had never seemed particularly inclined to do anything about his appreciation, though Arthur knew that Robert had hired prostitutes before just as Robert knew his secrets.
Robert and Arthur mounted their horses, Robert’s face growing warmer the further away from his house they rode, until they were passing the university and entering the city where the houses were still large but closer together, where one might actually see their neighbors on a daily basis. The large Victorian they were looking for was hidden amongst the oaks a fair distance away from the Boulevard, painted a sage green that blended with the basin shaped leaves. It was nothing magnificent but impressive nonetheless. Every bit as fine a house as his grandfather’s Queen Anne that no one lived in.
Arthur’s heartbeat quickened with nerves he would not acknowledge as he looked around the property, hoping to see Eames. Of course that had been the primary reason why he had wanted to visit the brothel. He had seen the boy only once more since his arrival and it had been fleeting. Arthur had come to the stables in the morning to take Forgery out before he spent his afternoon poring over his grandfather’s books and sorting his expenses, and there Eames had been, his face pressed against Forgery’s nose as he stroked her neck. Arthur had tried to stay to the shadows to watch the quiet moment, but Forgery noticed him and began to shake her head knowing there was a treat for her in Arthur’s pocket.
Eames had startled and looked at Arthur like he’d been caught stealing. He looked like he would run, but Arthur was across the stable in a few long strides, pressing into Eames’s space so close he could smell the curious scent of lavender on Eames’s skin. Eames backed into a wall, but his frightened look fled in favor of defiance as he tilted his chin up and threw his shoulders back, trying his best to become of height with Arthur. Arthur had never wanted any one man this badly, perhaps because he had never had such trouble getting what he wanted. Robert had been his one misstep and he’d been lucky then and he knew better than to press his luck with men who were not interested, but Eames was different. Eames was interested, Arthur made certain of that when he pressed the heel of his hand against Eames’s cock that day in the stables and found it as hard as his own. But Eames still rebuffed him, throwing him off and running without a backward glance. If he had returned to the Santa Anita since that morning, he had made sure it wasn’t ever when Arthur might find him.
Unfortunately, Eames didn’t seem to be at the brothel either, or he wasn’t the boy who came to take away their horses at least. Arthur was disappointed, but he didn’t dare speak of it and tried to content himself with anticipation of whatever it was Dom was so keen that he see. Robert’s mood had lifted considerably once they were away from his stepfather and he led the pack of them onto the porch calling for a man named Yusuf.
They were ushered through the door and foyer and into a large and ornately decorated parlor. They were offered chairs upholstered in rich velvet and aged brandy in crystal glasses. Girls of every type lounged in the parlor beside them, not vying for their attention but expecting it. There were other men, some that Arthur knew and some he didn’t. They made the basic pleasantries while averting their eyes. There would be no speaking of this encounter in the morning if they saw each other in the daylight.
“Saito would have the port built in Santa Monica,” Robert was saying to Dom and a group of other men, a lovely oriental girl curled onto his lap. Arthur half listened. Saito’s Progressives were a threat to his livelihood as well, but he was so fascinated by his surroundings he couldn’t quite bring himself to care. “My uncle Peter would have it that way just to placate Saito and get his name out of Saito’s paper, but it is San Pedro that would be best for business and for the people. Think of the good it will do the people of Los Angeles to have actual access to their own port. Saito would control everything incoming to the valleys with an iron fist! Though it’s my trains and tracks he needs to transport those goods.”
The men nodded along with whatever Robert said and Arthur found himself impressed. Robert had never bothered to talk about business with his friends, only complaining of his father and his uncle turned stepfather leaving him out of things, but he clearly had strong opinions that others agreed with. It wasn’t hard to get the support of local men when it was for something that made Saito’s life difficult though. The Progressive movement was well and good for the idealists, but Arthur firmly believed some of the things they wanted would cripple California. He supported women’s suffrage but was against the movement to outlaw gambling and alcohol, if only out of loyalty to his own family. There was a specific reason the world called Elias Jackson Baldwin “Lucky”. It wasn’t that Arthur was worried his family would lose their finances should gambling be outlawed, his grandfather was not a fool with his money, but gambling was where it had come from and gambling was where it would continue to come from if the track should be seen to completion. And Arthur wanted to see it finished, wanted to see something he had lovingly put time into become something notable.
He was lost in thought, half-listening to Robert rant about Saito and the Progressives and the Unions, only looking up to wave away the attentions of any prostitutes that took interest in him, when he saw her. He wasn’t certain what it was about her that caught his eye at first. Perhaps the dying sun through the windows had caught her hair and made it like a halo about her face. But once his eyes were on her, he was transfixed. When she looked at him, she seemed almost startled by the intensity of his gaze, but she recovered immediately, offering him a close-lipped smile. She did not look like the other girls, not dainty nor soft, though she was still very beautiful. She was handsome, Arthur decided, her jaw just a little too wide and sharp, her shoulders just slightly too broad, and she was just a little too tall, but the sight of her was like a punch to Arthur’s gut. It was something he had never felt looking upon a woman before. She started to cross the room and the sounds of the parlor died away from Arthur’s ears with every step she took. The petal pink of her silk dress was the only color Arthur could see besides the golden of her hair. He was mesmerized and it came as a rude shock when she stopped and turned away from him, focusing her attention on someone else. He was dragged roughly from his reverie by the sound of his own name immediately after.
“I see you’ve taken an interest in our dear Ada, Mr. Arthur,” Yusuf was saying with an impish smile on his face when Arthur was finally able to focus. “Would you like to see what it is that makes my establishment so special?”
Broken from his trance, Arthur did not want to sleep with any woman in Yusuf’s brothel, but his eyes were continually drawn back to the woman in question and he caught Dom nodding enthusiastically out of the corner of his eye.
“Alright,” he said warily. He could pay for a moment of the prostitute’s time even if he didn’t choose to sleep with her. She kept her face angled away from him as he stood and approached, and she led the way up the stairs to her rooms, keeping Yusuf between them. Arthur thought it awfully coy of a whore.
“There are no diseases in my business,” Yusuf said to him as they climbed. “My girls are all of clean health but the men that come into my home, I can’t trust them. I can’t have them giving my girls anything. I would make no money with sick girls.”
“And how do you prevent that? Do you have your own doctor in house?”
“Ah, no, no. I have something even better than a doctor.” There was a twinkle in his eye when Yusuf turned to look at Arthur once they’d reached the landing, and Arthur noticed that his accent had become markedly crisper and more refined as they climbed. “This way, Mr. Stocker. If you would.”
Ada stopped at a room just off the landing and pushed open a heavy wooden door, entering first. Yusuf gestured Arthur inside, still smiling. It was not an overly impressive room, well-decorated but not large. It was clearly a bedroom, but it was less feminine than Arthur had expected. There was a vanity on one wall, covered in a mess of powders and perfumes, and there were hats and silks draped over chairs and the chaise lounge that was pushed up against the opposite wall. Aside from the mess of items that proved a woman inhabited the room though, Arthur felt as if he could be at home in it. The bedding was a deep blue, the chaise a forest green. The two chairs – one at the vanity and another at a roll top desk pushed into a corner, were both upholstered in dark chocolate leather and all of the wood was polished oak.
Ada went straight for the bed, laying down in a ladylike sprawl that openly invited Arthur to join her. She smiled at him with one corner of her mouth and her eyes seemed to sparkle in the low light. She was still beautiful to him, but this close she began to look vaguely familiar.
“Have I met you before?” He asked, making his way toward the bed.
“No?” She looked surprised, a little taken aback, but she regained her composure in seconds. “I’m certain I’d remember meeting you.” Her voice was soft, making it seem like she was all but purring at him. Her accent was distinctly British and it came to Arthur in an instant why she seemed so familiar to him. Before he could ask, Yusuf grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him away, gesturing to a large and complicated machine that had been hidden beneath the roll top.
“This, my friend, is why there is no disease in this house.”
“What on Earth is that?” The girl was momentarily forgotten as Arthur bent at the waist to get a better look at Yusuf’s contraption.
It was a mess of metal and wires, electricity snapping between two antennae. It emitted a low whirring noise and lights lit up in sequence across it. It was fantastic.
“It is called a Pasiv. One of Nicola Tesla’s lesser known inventions. It has been used by medical doctors and psychologists all over the world to study the human mind, but I have found another use for it.”
“What does it do?”
“There are these headpieces, you see,” Yusuf said, holding up two metal crowns attached by wires to the machine. “All participants must place one of these on their head and then they are given a sedative to put them to sleep. That is when the magic begins. The machine allows two or more people to interact in a shared lucid dream.”
Arthur turned his head to stare incredulously at Yusuf. “That’s impossible.”
“It is entirely possible, I assure you. Improbable yes, but impossible, no.”
Arthur straightened and looked at the girl on the bed. She raised one arm above her head invitingly, gloved fingers idly twisting a blonde curl. She smirked at him, eyes sparkling mischievously, and curled the fingers of her free hand, beckoning him to the bed.
“Are you interested?” Yusuf asked, smiling like he already knew the answer.
“Yes,” Arthur nodded, already climbing onto the bed next to Ada.
He opened his eyes in the same room. He remembered Yusuf placing the crown on his head and he remembered drinking a not unpleasant milky liquid before closing his eyes. The room hadn’t changed and looking at himself, he could be certain that neither had he. He wondered if he had missed the dream altogether and he scowled. There was nothing impressive at all about paying for something he couldn’t remember.
“Don’t look like that, sir. You’re too handsome to wear such an impressive frown.”
Arthur startled when a slender finger stroked down his cheek, tracing the contours of his face. He rolled onto his side, pushing himself up with one arm, and found himself looming over the girl. She had changed. The gloves and the petal pink dress were gone and in their place the girl’s arms were bare, her wrists dainty and thin, and she wore nothing but a corset and an ivory silk shift that was so thin Arthur could see the outline of her legs beneath it. Her breasts threatened to spill over the cloth, and her waist was cinched in tightly by the whalebone. Her hair fell in soft ringlets over her sloping shoulders and the width of her jaw that Arthur had so admired was gone, shaved into something softer and smaller and entirely unappealing to Arthur. He appreciated a beautiful woman like he appreciated a beautiful horse, he admired the lines and the grace but he didn’t want to fuck either.
Arthur pushed himself from the bed, backing toward the door. The girl looked surprised for a moment, but then a look of understanding crossed her features.
“You don’t like me?”
“I liked you better before,” Arthur admitted. The girl crawled to the end of the bed, exposing her cleavage to him as she moved. Now that the similarities were missing, Arthur was certain what it was about her that had drawn his eye. “Ada, correct?”
“Yes,” she said, tilting her head. “We’ve a limited amount of time, sir. I suggest you get your money’s worth.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “How old are you?”
“I'm - I'm twenty,” she responded, looking impatient. “You can tell me if this isn’t what you want, sir. I can be anything you want me to be. It’s why I’m the most expensive.”
Arthur started. “Anything?”
“Or anyone. Perhaps someone like this is more to your liking?” She shivered on the bed before him. Arthur blinked once and then found himself looking at Eames on his knees, watching Arthur with an open and wistful gaze. “Is this what you want, Mister Stocker?”
Arthur gasped, his back thudding against the door hard when he tried to get away. The image before him was perfect down to the timbre of Eames’s voice and Arthur suddenly felt sick.
“What in Hell?”
The similarities were on full display – the fullness of the lips and the shape of the jaw and the silvery gray of the eyes. Ada had softened herself in the dream, but there was no doubt now that the Ada of reality and Eames were related. That didn’t explain what she was doing pretending to be him in this dream though.
“You insult me,” he growled, trying to regain some semblance of composure. Eames pouted, looking honestly contrite.
“I’m sorry, Arthur. I just want to make you happy.”
“Now that’s a lie,” Arthur laughed. “He hates me.” He pointed at Eames’s chest and his hand shook.
“Maybe,” the dream Eames conceded. “But I don’t.”
Ada began to undo the buttons of the loose cotton shirt Eames was wearing, fake fingers impressively ringed in detailed calluses. Beneath the cloth, Eames was lean and his skin shone with a golden sheen like Ada’s hair. There was the hint of muscle to be built that Arthur had been promised by the way Eames’s back worked beneath his shirt, and the outline of abdominal muscles already strong. Arthur was tempted to tumble him right then, trickery be damned, but he reminded himself that this wasn’t Eames. This was a woman in a whorehouse pretending to be the man Arthur wanted.
“How did you know?” He demanded, mouth dry from watching this fake Eames strip. It was no use to pretend he didn’t like what he was seeing, though he’d prefer the real thing.
“Gossip is the bread and butter of brothels. He talks about you. About Lucky’s terrible grandson that fondled him in the stables and wants to fuck him desperately. Well, now you can.” Ada shrugged with Eames’s shoulders and began to unlace his pants. “It will be our little secret.”
Arthur thought he was a strong man most of the time, and he thought this might be Eames’s sister that he was paying to bed under false pretenses, but she looked like Eames and when she used Eames’s hands to push his trousers down past his hips, it was a glorious and uncut cock that sprang forth and bobbed up and down, hard between his hipbones. It turned out Arthur wasn’t strong enough to resist wrapping his fingers around that flesh to feel the heat of it in the palm of his hand.
He expected Ada to toss him a false and flamboyant moan for his troubles, but the Eames before him whimpered, a small and true thing that had the heat in Arthur’s belly flaring. His eyes were huge and liquid like pools of mercury and there was something in them, some emotion Arthur couldn’t put a finger on. He seemed far too happy to be at the mercy of Arthur’s ministrations and Arthur supposed that’s where Ada’s falsity shone through. It didn’t stop him from pinning the boy to the bed and pretending it was Eames’s plush and hot mouth he was plundering with his tongue and Eames’s hole he eventually pushed his cock into after reducing the boy to a writhing mess with just his fingers. Nothing stopped him from pretending it was Eames crying out Arthur’s name as he came hot and wet against the sheets as Arthur spilled into him, even though he knew when he opened his eyes it would be Ada he lay next to.
“I missed you the other night.”
Eames looked up from his book, startled, and nearly dropped it into the dirt when he saw that it was Arthur looming over his hiding place in the house’s shadows. He closed the book and quickly shoved it into the waistband of his trousers at the small of his back, flushing at being caught unaware and especially by Arthur, whom he’d managed to avoid for days.
Arthur smiled at him and it seemed less mocking than his previous smiles, but Eames wasn’t about to allow wishful thinking to cloud his mind, so he looked away quickly before he could think too much of it.
“Yusuf taught me how,” Eames said, shrugging. He wanted to be insulted by Arthur’s assumption that he would be illiterate, but it was surprising that a for-hire ranch hand, an orphan with no money, would be able to read or write a word.
“Eames, I am impressed.”
Eames squared his shoulders and shot Arthur a dirty look. He had a habit of reminding Eames of their very different stations in life without so many words.
“Your condescension is much appreciated, as always, Arthur. Thank you,” Eames grumbled, shooting daggers at the older man before he made to turn and stalk away. He ignored the look of true surprise on Arthur’s face. Eames normally liked to use small words and poor diction around other people, to make them think him simple. People largely ignored the slow, sad, orphan boy in the stables.
“Wait! Eames!” Arthur called after him. Eames tried to speed up and pretend he hadn’t heard Arthur, but that was being childish, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to get away without breaking into a run and then where would he go? So he slowed to a stop and stared at the ground until he felt Arthur’s hand on his shoulder.
Arthur had a curious look on his face, like Eames was a puzzle he couldn’t put together but that he wanted to, very badly. The look made Eames’s heart beat a little faster and Eames thought Arthur might push him against the wall again and half-wanted him to, but Eames was prepared to run if he did. Instead, Arthur offered him a weak smile that did nothing to cover the look in his eyes and offered Eames an orange from his pocket. Eames stared at it, not lifting a hand to take it until Arthur all but tossed it to him and he was forced to catch it or let it fall.
“This isn’t the middle ages, Arthur. I’m not about to bend over because you gave me a bit of fruit.”
Arthur laughed and Eames frowned. He wasn’t trying to be funny, but he should have realized by now that Arthur wouldn’t ever take him seriously.
“I have no ulterior motive for giving you an orange, Eames. It’s just a gesture, you can take it as you will. I was at the Durants’ above the Arroyo this morning for tea and I thought of you while I was walking through the orchards and well… there you are. That’s all.”
It wasn’t all. Eames could tell there was something Arthur was holding back, that there absolutely was an ulterior motive behind the orange, even if it was a small one, but what right did Eames have to demand Arthur tell him the truth? They weren’t lovers by Eames’s choice, and even if he had given in to Arthur already, they would never be equals. Most likely, if Eames had given Arthur what he wanted, they would not even be speaking now. Arthur was attracted to him, that much was obvious, but it would be folly to let himself believe that Arthur might ever care.
Still, the look on Arthur’s face as Eames inspected the orange in his hand was almost pained, so Eames dug a thumbnail into the peel and pulled it away from the sweet flesh inside. The first bite was delicious, as he’d known it would be, but the look of relief and actual joy on Arthur’s handsome face was better.
“Arthur, my friend, what brings you to my home? Did you enjoy your previous visit so much that you have come back again? It is a bit early, I am afraid. Ada is still abed.” Yusuf walked toward them from the front of the house with his arms wide and welcoming and a jovial smile on his face, but his eyes were on Eames and they were hard. Eames looked away guiltily and tried to hide the orange behind his back.
“Ah, while I do intend to make use of your services again and soon,” Arthur said with a false laugh while Eames bristled with jealousy despite himself, “I am here about Eames, actually.”
“I apologize, but that is not the type of business I run. Were that I could. As I once told your friend, Yusuf does not judge, but I am taking a gamble enough selling women with the Progressives gaining ground. If I was caught selling boys, and as a foreigner, it might mean my head.”
Arthur stiffened, his smile fading into something forced. Eames’s heart was beating hard beneath his ribcage. He hadn’t thought Arthur would actually stoop to trying to buy him. He was immensely grateful that Yusuf didn’t seem inclined to sell him despite the amount of money Arthur could probably offer, and even knowing Eames’s background. Yusuf could be callous when it came to money, but he had always been good to Eames and Eames had faith.
“That is… not quite the proposition I had in mind,” Arthur said slowly, not embarrassed exactly but clearly unhappy.
“Oh? Well, you’ll forgive me for assuming.”
Arthur’s lips thinned. “I would like to hire Eames. To tend my horse… Forgery.” Arthur said that last watching Eames out of the corner of his eye. Eames truly hadn’t expected him to keep the name since it would make no sense to him, and Eames had no way to explain it without giving up too many of his secrets to someone he was attempting to despise.
Yusuf’s eyes narrowed and he glanced to Eames again before looking back at Arthur. “You wish to hire my best employee out from under me?” He asked, still sounding jovial.
“He can hardly be your best employee. Not with the amount of time he spends at my grandfather’s ranch during the day and he was nowhere to be seen the other night. I’m only offering to pay him for doing what he will anyway.”
Eames flushed furiously. What Arthur said was true, but he hardly knew the reasons for where Eames might be at any given time. He didn’t know Eames. But it would mean some extra pocket money that Eames didn’t have now and a legitimate reason to waste time in Lucky’s stables even if he had to be near Arthur to do it.
“She doesn’t respond to me the way she did to Eames when I was first presented with her. She’s temperamental and sometimes violent with anyone but the boy. She’s such a magnificent beauty, I would so hate to have to put her down.”
“No! You can’t shoot Forgery!” Eames perked up, eyes burning when he looked at Arthur. Both men seemed startled by his sudden and passionate outburst, but there was something sly about Arthur’s quick smile, as if it was the reaction he had expected after all.
“You see? I need him,” Arthur said solemnly, but there was a glint of mischief in his eyes.
“Alright then,” Yusuf said slowly. “He is yours in the mornings, but I must have him back in the afternoons and at night.”
“Brilliant! We have an agreement then,” Arthur said with a grin. “Mr. Eames, I shall see you tomorrow. Yusuf, I think I may see you again tonight.”
Eames watched Arthur walk away, his lips parted in astonishment. Eames had known Arthur was educated, but he had assumed Arthur’s posh and padded lifestyle had prevented him from developing any actual cunning. He had just been proven very wrong.
“Adam,” Yusuf said sternly. Eames looked at him, surprise still etched onto his face. “I could not exactly say no to him without arousing his suspicion, but I expect you to be careful. The Baldwins are very rich and very powerful.”
“I know that!” Eames squeezed the orange still clutched in his hand until the juice ran sticky down his arm. “He’s poncy and spoiled and I hate him!”
Yusuf eyed him thoughtfully, shrewd mind working quickly behind an openly friendly face. He clearly didn’t believe a word of Eames’s outburst. “Just be careful, you’re young and the youth are prone to hope and folly. Now, upstairs with you. Make certain Ada is ready. Arthur will be back and I’m sure he’ll be asking for her.”
Eames glowered at that, knowing it was ridiculous to claim he hated Arthur with one breath and proclaim jealousy when the man laid his attentions elsewhere with the next. But he couldn’t help it. True, he had been through more in sixteen years than Arthur Stocker would probably ever endure, but he was still just sixteen, angry half the time and aroused the rest, and Arthur seemed hell bent on taking advantage of his warring emotions.
Arthur did find himself returned to the brothel once the sun had been down several hours. It was one thing to visit the establishment as a laugh with his friends, but Dom and Robert weren’t with him now. He’d also made sure that Grandfather was still at the ranch before he departed, not wanting to suffer an awkward family reunion at the local place of ill repute. It wasn’t that he was any more interested in Ada’s services than he had been that first time; she was mesmerizing in reality, but in the dream she was soft and dainty and had those been the qualities he wanted, he would easily be married already.
This time he only wished to speak with her, to find answers for the questions haunting the back of his mind. He had made a mistake letting her imitate Eames in their shared dream. True, he wanted Eames more than he’d ever wanted another man, and he was by no means inexperienced, but he wanted more than the boy’s body and that knowledge made him nervous. He wanted to make the sullen stable boy smile. He wanted to see Eames’s face light up at the sight of him, rather than close off immediately. He wanted to wake up in the morning with Eames’s naked body in his bed and he wanted to trace the contours of his ribcage in the muted light of sunrise.
It had begun because Eames refused him, seemed even to dislike him, and that made him a challenge, but Arthur wasn’t a masochist. Robert had refused him too when they were younger and Arthur had let that particular infatuation go with only a few weeks of silent pining. Of course, leaving for Boston had helped him to get over his first love, and by the time he was in New York, Robert had been returned to a dear friend in his mind. Eames was different, though. He should have been easy to bed, especially considering he was at least attracted to Arthur sexually, but Arthur was still met with rejection at every turn.
All Arthur wanted was information and he wasn’t above going behind Eames’s back to get it. There were several lessons Grandfather had instilled into Arthur’s brain since he was a boy, and one of the most important was to never underestimate anyone. He had seen the roll top desk in Ada’s room. It would make no sense to waste such a lovely piece of furniture on an illiterate woman. So Arthur had to assume she could at least read and write, especially since he had already caught Eames with a book in hand and he had his suspicions they were related. He wanted to know why an educated woman would become a whore. His aunt Anita was better educated than most women even on the East Coast and she ran a school for girls out of Anoakia, the home Grandfather had built for her on the edge of the ranch. Of course, Arthur knew better than to lead with such a blunt and rude inquiry and there were other things he wanted to know more, like how Ada was related to Eames and why she was so willing to replicate him in the dream.
Arthur entered the brothel, shucking his gloves and handing them over to the first girl to approach him. He wore no coat as fall was only beginning and the nights were still warm. The volume of the conversation in the parlor dipped as the other men took stock of him, but once they recognized him the speeches resumed. Lucky Baldwin’s grandson warranted no suspicion in a place like this. He looked to Yusuf, who nodded at him just once with a reserved look in his eye. Arthur didn’t take any time to wonder what that meant. He was ascending the stairs to the second floor before anyone could engage him in their conversation, going straight for Ada’s door.
He knocked once, a quick rap of his knuckles against the wood, and pushed the door open the second he heard her voice from the other side. She was arranged in the center of the bed, her gown spread about her legs in a perfect spill of silk. He was reminded again of how attractive he found her. Arthur had always appreciated fine things. New York was a dream for him with their French fashions and food. He didn’t love ladies, but he loved their clothes and their hairstyles and the tinkle of their laughter when they found him amusing. And he could appreciate that in Ada now. Her gown was a butter-yellow, contrasting masterfully with the deep blue of the bedding and reflecting the golden sheen of her hair. Again, he was struck with her handsomeness. Probably, had he been any later, she would be up here with another man. Perhaps another of her patrons had only just left and Arthur had just missed passing the man on the stairs. But Ada wasn’t rumpled thanks to her dream machine, and she looked fresh as morning dew as she watched Arthur approach with a close lipped smile.
“I missed you,” she said, eyes twinkling.
“You lie,” Arthur responded, his knees hitting the edge of the mattress.
“You offend me, sir.”
Arthur smiled, feeling rakish, and by the amusement on Ada’s face he could tell he looked the part.
“You know I’m not here for you, anyway.”
“I do. It would be enough to break my heart if I had one.” Ada feigned a full body sigh, twisting her full lips into an impressive pout. “What does that stable boy have that I don’t? Besides a hard cock?”
Arthur pounced, bracketing Ada’s chest between his arms and bracing his weight on his elbows and knees so that he hovered over her, close enough for her to feel the heat of his body. He breathed in deeply, inhaling the scent of lavender that surrounded her.
“Were that I didn’t love a hard cock so, I would carry you away from this life this very night and make a wife of you.”
Ada smirked. “And who says I’m a damsel in distress? How are you so certain I’d want you for a husband?”
She placed her palm against his shoulder, wrapping gloved fingers around the curve of his muscle and shoved, pushing him away. He went easily, collapsing on his back in a splay of limbs on the bed, one arm hanging off.
“I’d make a wonderful husband. I’m rich and passably handsome and well-connected.”
Ada laughed and it wasn’t the tinkling click of china laughter that women usually affected in his presence. Ada’s laughter was deep and throaty and honest. It made Arthur smile wide in turn.
“Maybe I don’t want to get married? Did you know, in Ancient Athens prostitutes had more freedoms than married women?”
Arthur turned his head so that he could watch Ada without moving. She was smiling, completely unaware of what she had just given away.
“Is that how you see it then? You’re a pretty bird and marriage is a cage?”
“I’m a prostitute, Arthur, and that is all you know about me. It’s unwise to go around offering your hand to women you have no intention of marrying. Or didn’t your grandfather getting shot teach you anything?” Ada was smiling, teasing not chastising, but Arthur cringed anyway. She had no idea how on target her admonishment really was.
“I’d like to know more,” he said, to mask his shame before she could catch on that she had hit a nerve. She narrowed her eyes at him and when he looked into them, he noticed they were the same silvery gray as Eames’s.
“That isn’t what you’re paying for. Wouldn’t you rather we get to that?” She shifted away to retrieve the machine but Arthur grabbed her wrist, tugging her back to him.
“I paid for your company. There was no stipulation on how I enjoy it.”
Ada scowled, brows furrowing. Arthur could see the temper building behind her lovely eyes and that had him thinking of Eames again, a pang of longing sharp in his gut.
“Is he your brother?” He asked quickly, before she could open her mouth to berate him. It had the desired effect of surprising her. Her features went slack and her lips parted in a small ‘O’.
“Eames. You know, the boy you… you,” he waved his hand around trying to come up with something to describe what Ada had done in the dream. “The boy you… masqueraded as in the dream.”
“I forged him. You know what that means, Arthur? To create a replica of something, a false imposter of a perfect original. I think I did quite well.”
“A forgery ?” Arthur thought aloud and Ada gasped, eyes widening in something almost like fear. Arthur hardened and pushed up onto his elbows. “I know he’s related to you.
You look too much alike and I believe I just learned something about the name of my own horse, so thank you for that. Is he your brother? Is that why you were so easily able to forge him?”
Ada visibly deflated, looking far more relieved than she had a right to. “Yes, my younger brother. I was only giving you what you wanted, Arthur. I thought he was it. I could play someone else for you. That lovely young man with the chestnut hair and the very blue eyes?”
There was something almost sad in her voice but Arthur ignored it. He didn’t want Robert anymore. He wanted Eames and the real Eames wouldn’t have him. “Ready your machine. I’ll have Eames again.”
“We could talk more?” Ada hedged, her voice small and wary. She looked as if she knew she had broken something inside of him and Arthur sighed, grateful.
“You really are a lovely creature,” he said, letting his elbows go out from under him so he was on his back on the bed again.
“But lovely isn’t what you want, is it?”
“It doesn’t matter what I want. Where are you from?” He asked, changing the subject.
“South Africa. Eames was six when we were orphaned. We scraped up enough money for passage over and met Yusuf. And now we’re here.”
“Why does he go by his surname? What is his given name?”
Ada paused, chewing her lip. “Nobody has ever cared what his given name was. I suppose he’s forgotten it by now.”
Arthur squinted at her, feeling like he was pulling teeth to get answers out of her.
“Clearly you don’t like to talk about your past,” Arthur mused.
“Why do you say that?” Ada asked him, one eyebrow raised sardonically.
“Oh, your curt answers might have been a clue. Don’t fret. I won’t ask you any more. Ah well. It is good you refused my marriage proposal. I’m going to make a terrible husband.”
“Perhaps not. You are wealthy, as you said, and well-connected.”
“And passably handsome.”
“Oh, definitely more than passably, I’m sure.” At that she smiled and brushed a gloved finger over his cheekbone, just below his eye that was crinkling from the force of his grin.
“Have you any questions for me?”
“What is there to ask that town gossip won’t have already given me? I know who your family is and that your grandfather has a wandering eye that you’ve inherited, though I can speak from first-hand experience that you tend to overlook the fairer sex.”
Arthur sat up again, frowning. It was one thing for him to wish to portray the incorrigible lecher, to make people forget any ideas they might cultivate about his deviancy, but it was another to have someone accuse him of it outright. It was exactly what he wanted the gossips to think, but he found himself not wanting Ada to think of him that way, if only because he associated her so closely with Eames.
“It isn’t exactly a choice for me, is it? I can’t marry the men I have dalliances with.”
Ada cocked an eyebrow at him, unimpressed. “And would you? If you could? Is there a man out there with a broken heart because society won’t allow you to be together?”
She was mocking him and it hurt more than Arthur usually allowed words to. He wasn’t cold or truly callous. He wanted to love and be loved and it wasn’t entirely society’s fault that he had yet to experience it.
“I loved a man once, but he didn’t love me in return. Since then I’ve never bothered with anyone who had feelings for me and I didn’t develop feelings for anyone in turn. I’m not a cad. I’ve never broken anyone’s heart.” Arthur hunched his shoulders, glaring at his hands in his lap. He didn’t know how much longer he could say that with honesty, though he hadn’t meant to get himself into this situation.
When he looked up again, Ada was watching him intently, like she had actually discovered something about him she hadn’t known. She thought he had no secrets but she was wrong. Arthur was far from an open book.
“The other one I offered to play. The beautiful one.”
“Robert. I don’t know why you say it like that though, like Eames is not beautiful. He may even be more beautiful than Robert.”
“Do you really believe that?” Ada leaned toward him, eyes wide and earnest. Arthur didn’t understand why she would care so much what a john thought of her brother’s attractiveness, but he nodded because it was true. Ada shook her head slightly, golden curls bouncing. “You are not what I expected. Shall I forge him for you now?”
She made to leave the bed, to fetch the Pasiv, watching Arthur for his nod of agreement. He gave it to her wearily. He felt guilty for allowing Ada to do this, for fucking a fake Eames by night and still actively pursuing the real thing by day. He was a weaker man than he had always believed, but he didn’t stop her from retrieving the machine and he didn’t stop her when he opened his eyes in the dream to see Eames hovering over him, a soft smile on his young face.
It was nearly a week of early mornings at the Santa Anita before Eames noticed any attempt on Arthur’s part to get close to him again. The man was downright proper at first, staying several feet away from Eames at all times and not eyeing him inappropriately. Eames had expected the leers and jests to begin immediately, but the surprise of Arthur’s behavior was oddly unpleasant. Eames was happy to see that Arthur hadn’t been lying about Forgery, that she did respond better to him than anyone else, but he didn’t know how to behave around an Arthur that wasn’t constantly poking at him. He bristled for no reason and kept his eye on Arthur always, expecting an attack to come when he wasn’t looking. But Arthur remained steadfastly polite for the first day.
Perhaps he had even realized the awkwardness of it though, because as the mornings came and went, Arthur seemed less rigid and, though he still didn’t do anything inappropriate, the air around them seemed to thin. Arthur joked with him and grew more playful with him, touching him lightly in ways that encouraged Eames to touch back. But it was pleasant, even enjoyable. Eames began to resent Arthur less and like him more. And when Arthur wasn’t teasing him, it seemed as if he genuinely cared for Eames, and Eames started to believe that, perhaps, there was something there after all, that maybe giving in to Arthur wouldn’t be the worst thing.
After a month of work Forgery was still a bit wild, not quite ready to be ridden, but Arthur insisted.
“Do you find me dashing, Mr. Eames? Would you let me be your white knight?” Arthur laughed loudly as he cantered Forgery around the track, one hand holding the reins and the other held out for balance. Eames tried not to stare, tried to focus on shoveling fresh dirt onto the track, but Arthur looked so graceful in the saddle, his hair blowing in the wind. He was impossibly lovely and Eames was mesmerized by him. Arthur looked over, a smile absolutely splitting his face, and Eames couldn’t help but smile back. It was a shyer thing than Arthur’s, but it was true and it felt almost foreign on his face. He hadn’t smiled because of someone else in a very long time.
“I’m far from a damsel!” He called back, heart suddenly thumping hard as Arthur’s face morphed into an expression of shock. Eames held his breath for an instant, but then Arthur’s shock became fear and he was opening his mouth to shout. Eames couldn’t hear what he was saying as Arthur’s body rose higher in the air and tilted backward, and then realization dawned on him.
Forgery was rearing, her frightened whinny drowning out Arthur’s shout. Eames ran for the other side of the track, shovel still clutched in his hand. Arthur was a good rider and he stayed in the saddle as long as he could, but Forgery reared again and when she began to tip, Arthur let go rather than bring her over on top of him. He landed hard on his back in the dirt and Eames felt as if his heart had stopped when Arthur didn’t move to get up immediately.
“Arthur!” Eames shouted for him, but he wasn’t sure he could be heard over the horse’s frightened cries. “Arthur! Arthur, are you alright?” Forgery was still dancing nervously as he neared, backing away from something on the track. Eames clutched the shovel in both hands and brought the edge down on the hissing rattle snake coiled in the dirt. He scooped the body up and tossed it onto the grass, out of the horse's sight. “Arthur?”
Eames fell to his knees beside Arthur’s body; he was curled onto his side and shaking. Eames clutched frantically at his shoulder, trying to see if he was injured or even conscious.
“Are you hurt? Are you alright? Arthur?”
Arthur groaned and rolled onto his back. He was dirty and scraped a bit, but nothing seemed to be broken based on his embarrassed smile.
“Eames,” he gasped, wheezing slightly, “I thought you didn’t care.”
“Oh, you bastard.”
Arthur chuckled; it came out pained and he started to curl back in on himself, but when Eames got to his feet intending to stalk away in a huff, Arthur grabbed his wrist and pulled him back. Arthur surged up as he tugged Eames down and caught him in a kiss. Eames gasped against Arthur’s lips but he didn’t pull away. Arthur’s lips were soft and warm. He didn’t push for more, just a closed-mouth kiss and it was over before Eames had a chance to react. He stared, wide-eyed, when Arthur moved away and let his head fall back against the ground. There was a soft, pleased smile on Arthur’s face, as if that one kiss was all he really wanted and he would now be able to die happily. Eames’s heart skipped a beat behind his ribcage.
“You’re terrible,” he muttered, but he couldn’t hide his own small smile and he knew Arthur could tell. “Come on, up with you.”
Eames draped Arthur’s arm over his shoulders and helped him to stand. Arthur was warm against him and relying on him far more heavily than he needed to, but Eames said nothing about it. Forgery had calmed and came immediately when Eames clicked his tongue at her.
“She throws me to the ground, but for you she is gentle as a kitten,” Arthur muttered, but he draped his body even more over Eames’s as he spoke.
“She has good taste,” Eames said and was rewarded with a silent chuckle.
“The horse and I have something in common.”
Eames inhaled sharply, chancing a glance at Arthur’s face. His expression was soft and fond and honest.
They reached the stable and Eames settled Arthur onto a bale of hay while he put away Forgery’s tack and brushed her down. Once she was safely in her stall, he knew he’d have to face Arthur again, but he hesitated, instead speaking softly to the horse as he filled a feed bag with oats.
He took a deep breath and turned, hands fisting at his sides. Arthur held out his hand, saying nothing, just expecting Eames to come to him, and he did, step by tortuous step. He entwined his fingers with Arthur’s and his heart pounded when Arthur tugged him close, the look on his face something joyous. Eames let himself be pulled until he was straddling Arthur’s lap and Arthur’s fingers were in his hair, mussing it and dislodging the leather thong he used to keep it back.
Arthur kissed him again, this time deeper than the one before. He pushed Eames’s lips apart with his tongue, delving into Eames’s mouth, tasting him. Eames had been kissed before by johns but never like this. Arthur kissed him like he would never stop, like Eames was water and he was a man dying of thirst. Arthur’s fingers twisted in Eames’s hair and his arms bracketed Eames’s back, holding him steady and close. The men who had kissed him before had done it as a prelude to the final act. They had always turned him over and never kissed him again, but it felt as if Arthur would be content to kiss him forever. And Eames could be content with that too.
They finally broke apart for breath, both of them panting, and Eames began to squirm, assuming where this was heading. If Arthur kissed him again, he’d be lost. He’d bend over in an instant and doom himself to pining when Arthur no longer showed any interest in him. But Arthur wasn’t inclined to let him go. He untwined his fingers from Eames’s hair and wrapped his arms around Eames’s waist instead, pulling him even closer until Eames could feel the way Arthur’s trousers were tented. Arthur moved his mouth from Eames’s lips to his chin to the soft skin of his neck just below his jawline. Eames tilted his head back, offering more of his neck for Arthur to kiss, unbelieving.
“You’re beautiful. So incredible,” Arthur was whispering into his skin, like he was in a state of disbelief as well. Arthur’s fingers clutched at his back, pulling at his shirt. Eames had wrapped his own arms around Arthur’s shoulders but he pulled away, scrambling to get his fingers on his own buttons so that Arthur could pull the cotton away and leave him bare from the waist up. It offered more skin for Arthur to kiss and he wasted no time pressing his lips to Eames’s collar bone and his sternum and his nipples, tonguing each one until they stood at attention. Eames shivered and Arthur tried to pull him closer until Eames returned the favor, pulling at Arthur’s shirt until his chest was exposed and they were skin to skin.
Arthur was leanly muscled and Eames blushed looking at him, feeling scrawny and inferior, but Arthur’s eyes were wide and adoring whenever he looked at Eames’s face and his hands were grasping at every inch of Eames’s torso, squeezing his sides and petting his ribcage, holding his hips where his trousers were riding dangerously low. He encouraged Eames to buck his hips, grinding his ass against Arthur’s erection and his own against Arthur’s belly.
“God, Eames,” Arthur gasped when Eames took over undulating. It was dark in the stables and cooler than outside, but there was sweat collecting on their bodies as they pressed tight together. “You have no idea, Eames. No Idea.”
“I do. I do.” Eames's voice was rough and his movements were getting shaky. It had been so long since he’d allowed himself to touch someone or to be touched, there was no way he would last. He didn’t even recognize the words he was mumbling into Arthur’s skin, just kept talking as the crescendo inside of him built. “Arthur I – Arthur, Arthur!”
“Damn, damn hold on,” Arthur said urgently, pushing Eames away before he could come in his pants. It was a horrible feeling at first and he let out an embarrassing whine, but then Arthur was pulling at the laces to his trousers and pulling him out. Arthur wrapped fine fingers around his flesh and Eames keened as Arthur began to tug at him.
Eames wanted to say that he would turn over, that he would get on his hands and knees for Arthur now. Arthur had won, had worn him down, but he couldn’t get his lips to form the words. Instead he slapped Arthur’s hand out of the way and worked frantically on Arthur’s own trousers until they were both exposed and Arthur could wrap those long fingers around them both. He’d never had it this way, where the passion was so strong that it was enough just to rut against each other.
He couldn’t hear anything over the roaring in his ears as he came, collapsing against Arthur’s chest and panting against his collar bone. He trembled as Arthur continued to stroke, working the last of Eames’s orgasm out of him until Arthur was coming too, spilling warmth onto Eames’s belly and cock. Arthur pressed his lips to Eames’s forehead and his hair, murmuring nonsense as they slowly came down together.
It took a while for them to regain awareness of their surroundings. They were both reluctant to break away from each other, sweat had begun cooling on Eames’s skin and Arthur was warm against him. He mewled petulantly when Arthur tried to push him away, refusing to go. It took barely a moment for him to realize how pathetic he must look - clinging to Arthur like a barnacle - but Arthur chuckled and kissed him again, tenderly carding fingers through his sweat drenched hair.
“I mean it all,” Arthur said softly, looking at Eames with something akin to awe, like he couldn’t believe what they had just done any more than Eames could.
“I don’t know that you were speaking proper English at moments, Arthur,” Eames responded over the pounding of his heart. He felt weak but in the best way, like he felt after a whole day working with the horses, like he’d never properly felt when he was working the streets and the johns had expected more of him than he’d just given to Arthur.
Arthur stroked a hand up and down Eames’s back, grinning widely. “I mean it that you are beautiful, that you have no idea how beautiful you are to me.
Eames opened his mouth to respond, but could only laugh when Arthur nuzzled at his neck to hide a blush. They didn’t hear the shouting at first, almost until it was too late.
“Arthur! Arthur, you worthless sod, where are you?”
“Damnit, that’s Dom,” Arthur hissed and Eames scrambled from his lap, desperately attempting to yank closed the ties on his trousers before they could be caught half-dressed and too close.
Women’s laughter carried to them over the sounds of their clothes rustling. Arthur looked at Eames in a panic as he did up the buttons on his shirt. Eames understood Arthur’s unspoken plea and ducked into Forgery’s tall so the group wouldn’t see him as they appeared at the entrance to the stables. Arthur’s shirt was wrinkled and un-tucked and his hair was a loose mess of soft curls, but Eames thought he had never seen the man look so handsome. He watched through a crack in the wood as the blond man from the brothel walked into the stable ahead of two women, his mouth turned down and his eyes narrowed. He and Arthur shared a long look that Eames couldn’t translate, and his heart nearly stopped when the blond man seemed to look right at the stall door he was hidden behind.
The women hesitated at the stable entrance, wrinkling their noses at the smell. The man, Dom, held his hand out to the taller and more beautiful of the women. She took it with a brilliant smile, lifting her skirts so they didn’t drag in the dirt and straw. Dom looked pointedly at Arthur, but Arthur made no move toward the other woman. She was comely enough, though not nearly as striking at the first, and looked younger. She seemed hesitant to come forth with Arthur making no movement toward her, leaving the scene awkwardly silent. Finally, Arthur cleared his throat and tried futilely to smooth out his shirt.
“Miss Mallorie, Miss Ariadne. Dominic. I was not expecting visitors.”
“Your grandfather told us you would be out here,” the girl Arthur had addressed as Ariadne spoke up. “He said you’d been gifted a filly?”
Eames held his breath. If they came to inspect Forgery, the situation would be beyond salvaging. How would Arthur explain Eames half nude and hiding?
“Yes. Yes, I did and I would show you,” Arthur said, finally beginning to get over his shock and sliding into the smooth and composed demeanor that Eames was used to from him. “But you see, there was a bit of a mishap this morning.” He gestured at himself with an abashed smile, explaining away his messy presentation.
“Do tell, Arthur. What happened?” Dom was smiling slyly, one hand planted on his hip and the other wrapped around Mallorie’s waist. He didn’t look like he believed Arthur’s story at all and like he was enjoying forcing his friend to lie. Eames seethed inwardly at him, thinking he should have gone ahead and taken his horse when he’d very first come to the brothel.
Arthur kept his calm though, glaring at Dom for only a moment before smiling at the women again with his patented charm. “There was a rattler on the track and I was thrown. The filly was terribly spooked and I fear she isn’t fit to handle too much attention at the moment.”
“Oh dear! Thank the lord you were not hurt!” Mallorie covered her cupid’s bow mouth with one gloved hand, her large eyes filled with genuine concern and a hint of amusement. There was concern in Ariadne’s eyes as well, though she didn’t make nearly the show of it that Mallorie did. She seemed uncomfortable, in fact, and kept sneaking glances at Arthur who had still not moved any nearer to her.
“I was thinking we might treat our ladies to a picnic on the lake, Arthur, what do you say?” Dom said with an overly wide smile.
Arthur stiffened and Ariadne looked at the ground. Eames felt sick, but he clutched at his own thigh to keep from making a noise.
“Right, shall I just change then? I’ll have something light prepared for us. I’ll even filch one of Grandfather’s better vintages from the cellar,” Arthur said with a wink and a smile and statue stiff shoulders. He still made no move to offer Ariadne his arm, even as he ushered his friends out of the stables and into the sun. He looked over his shoulder just once as he stepped into the light, his mask softening into something honest and happy when Eames tentatively poked his head above the stall door, and then he was gone and Eames was alone with the horses and the dark.
Arthur changed quickly, grumbling to himself about Dom’s bad timing. He splashed lukewarm water onto his stomach and scrubbed at the mess there until the worst of it was gone and he smiled as he caught Eames’s scent on his shirt – dust and sweat and lavender. He’d had a taste of Eames in the stables, but it was as he had imagined - not nearly enough. He wanted all of Eames, everything. Every smile, every laugh, every glower, every sour word that Arthur couldn’t take seriously, knowing how eager and sweet the boy really was.
He was just doing up the last button on a fresh white shirt, crisply ironed and cleaned, when Dom began to impatiently pound on the door.
“If you don’t hurry it up, we’ll be taking a moonlight row!”
“If you’d given me any warning, I might have been prepared to entertain!” Arthur sniped back, feeling uncharitable.
Dom had interrupted possibly the greatest moment Arthur had experienced since his return to California. He’d had Eames in his lap willingly, and Dom had ruined it all. Arthur couldn’t care less at the moment if all of Dom’s romantic plans were dashed. And Arthur did not appreciate Dom’s sudden insistence that he spend time with Ariadne, Mal’s cousin. She was a lovely girl, no doubt, but based on Dom’s behavior and his comments that day at Robert's, Arthur was beginning to think Dom had a plan that Arthur wasn’t privy to and he didn’t want to be privy to it. He didn’t want it to exist.
He took extra care dressing just so that he could take pleasure in making Dom wait. He didn’t mind Ariadne, had spent six months with her family in Chicago at Mal’s behest, but he didn’t want to marry her. He wasn’t certain how he had managed to make everyone expect that he would. He’d always been so careful to hide his indiscretions, he hadn’t thought much about the process of earning a woman’s hand, and apparently he’d done it by mistake. He would have been happy to put the rumors to rest, but Dom was being impossible with his pushing and Arthur didn’t want to hurt the girl. She was wonderful company, bright and educated with none of the false modesty that so many women put on. Arthur liked her quite a lot, but he had no desire to go to bed with her and that posed a problem.
Arthur glared at Dom when he finally pushed open the door, knotting his cravat with practiced fingers. Dom ignored Arthur’s ire completely, huffing about Arthur being more of a woman than the women and shouting for the food to be brought out and a cart to be readied. It wasn’t far from the longhouse to the lake, which glittered in the early afternoon sun and could be nearly blinding as it neared dusk. There were ducks and geese floating on the water, still early enough in the autumn that they had not yet flown. Weeping willows lined the shore, their tangled branches drifting listlessly. The Queen Anne reigned from beside the dock, her shadow spilling out over the water. It was a lovely sight, the perfect place to woo someone. Grandfather brought girls to the lake often and his many proposals were usually accepted, but Arthur had no intention of proposing and Dom already had, so the beauty was a bit lost on him.
They popped the wine and the men helped the women into the rowboats. If Arthur had to suffer the afternoon away from the only person whose company he actually wanted, he would not do it sober. He rolled up his sleeves and rowed his boat toward the center of the lake, looking anywhere but at Ariadne who sat across from him in the boat, a parasol held over her shoulder keeping her shaded. He knew she was trying to catch his attention but was too polite to outwardly demand it. He settled for glaring at Dom and Mal, who were too absorbed in each other to notice the awkwardness in the other boat.
“Have you heard that California might give women the vote?” Ariadne finally ventured. She sounded tentative but also impatient.
“Yes,” Arthur responded, still not looking at her.
“And what do you think of that, Arthur?” Ariadne’s voice hardened and she leaned forward slightly, eyes boring into the side of Arthur’s face.
“I think I know many women that have better heads on their shoulders than my own good friends,” Arthur said loudly, smirking when Dom interrupted his attempts to see into Mal’s soul through her eyes in order to shoot a scathing look Arthur’s way. “I say why not let women have the vote. There is no reason they should be relegated to a second class of citizen.”
He finally looked at Ariadne in time to see her eyes go wide and dewy and immediately regretted it.
“And what do you think, Dominic?” Mal asked, her voice light and teasing. Arthur smiled. It was a good feeling to have put Dom on the spot.
“Well, I agree, of course. In fact, I have no problem with the Progressives. It’s not my livelihood they threaten. My family raises horses, we don’t race them.”
Arthur scowled and slapped his oar into the water, sending a spray at Dom’s boat. He shouted and Mal shrieked, but it turned into laughter as Dom flailed and nearly went over. He might have been angrier at Arthur if Mal hadn’t leaned over the seats to press a calming kiss to Dom’s brow. She murmured a few words to him in French and he slumped back against the edge of the boat. They spent the afternoon like that, floating freely on the lake, discussing politics and business and eventually Dom and Mal’s impending wedding. Arthur tuned in and out of the conversation, his mind occupied elsewhere.
He imagined what it would be like if it were Eames seated across from him instead of Ariadne, sipping wine, perhaps shirtless so that the sun could kiss his skin. They could float for hours until their stomachs began to rumble with hunger or the alcohol went to their heads, making them feel light and heavy at the same time. They would dock the rowboat and scramble laughing to the shore, reaching for each other and tumbling to the grass, their skin warm and their lips wet. All Arthur wanted was to kiss Eames in the shade of a willow, hidden from sight by a curtain of green. They could rut against each other again, that had been fine, because, though Arthur would not say no if Eames offered himself up, he no longer wanted to take. He wanted what Eames would give him willingly. He wanted Eames, all of him.
Arthur could tell that Ariadne was aware of his distance and that it bothered her, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He paid enough attention to contribute to the conversation, so that Dom, who was himself distracted, would not think Arthur’s behavior too odd, but he couldn’t try hard enough to fool Ariadne. He didn’t want to lead her on any longer than he already had anyway. He had left Chicago without looking back, completely unaware that he had been leaving anything or anyone behind.
They docked the boats and spread a blanket on the ground, opened another bottle of wine and unpacked the food. Mal pressed grapes into Dom’s mouth with her fingertips, one by one, and Arthur spread soft cheese onto a piece of bread for Ariadne but didn’t feed it to her. He ate his fill and drank even more and his resentment grew. He was happy for Dom, truly, but he was jealous and he forced himself to admit it. It had never mattered before because he’d always assumed he’d remain an unrepentant bachelor; that Robert was the one time he was going to make the mistake of falling in love and from then on he’d live a life of sin and freedom.
But now, he wasn’t entirely sure he’d even been in love with Robert. That had been infatuation most likely, a youthful fancy but nothing real. It had been too easy to let go of the ideal, to accept that Robert would never see him in that way and to move on. Eames though, Eames was entirely different. If Eames were to reject Arthur, truly reject him, well, he didn’t think he would recover from that.
Arthur wanted to sit on this blanket on the lakeshore with Eames’s head in his lap and feed him grapes one by one and suck sticky orange pulp from his fingers. Perhaps if he had not met Eames, Arthur would have been able to do such things with Ariadne, to pretend to love her and keep up appearances. Perhaps once he could have married Ariadne and they could have been marginally happy. They did get along and Arthur did enjoy her company. They could have had a functional marriage, if not a deliriously happy one, but it was far too late for that now. Perhaps Arthur had inherited more of his grandfather’s romantic heart than he’d once believed, because he was sure as the sunrise there would never be anyone for him but a certain stable hand who acted like giving Arthur the time of day was as painful as breaking a bone.
He could see the dejection on Ariadne’s face, though she worked just as hard as he did to keep up the façade of an enjoyable afternoon. The lovebirds were too consumed with each other to notice their companions were not having nearly as good a time and eventually the day waned into late afternoon and the sky began to darken to russet. They strolled back to the longhouse and Arthur held his arm out for Ariadne, because he was a gentleman even if he was a deviant and a bit of a rake, and she took it with suspicion and a bit of sadness in her eyes but said nothing of his behavior. Arthur comforted himself with the notion that no one could force a proposal from him. He’d done nothing to compromise Ariadne, so he was free to do as he pleased, and it pleased him to get through Dom and Mal’s wedding and see Ariadne back to Chicago, because his heart was taken and would never be his to give to anyone else again.
Once the women and Dom were out of sight, he all but ran to the stables, his head still buzzing pleasurably from the wine. He hadn’t expected Eames to be there still, but the alcohol had made him hopeful enough that he thought he could maybe make it to the brothel in time to catch him before he disappeared to wherever he went at night. Arthur didn’t plan to keep him, but he would be damned if he went to bed without one more taste of Eames’s plump lips or without reassuring the boy of the power he held over Arthur, in case he had forgotten since that morning.
Eames waited in Forgery’s stall until he could be certain the group had gone. His heart had sunk with every footstep Arthur took away from the stables. He was being foolish, both by allowing Arthur to touch him and by expecting it to mean something. Of course, Arthur would eventually court someone, despite what he had told Ada and the hungry way he looked at Eames. Arthur was young and handsome, not to mention wealthy. Yes, his family was a bit eccentric but they had money enough to counter it. Arthur would make a fine husband for any woman as long as she didn’t expect to bedded often and he would forget the boy he touched with only horses as witness in no time. Eames could recognize infatuation and he knew that Arthur felt at least that for him, but Arthur didn’t love him. Arthur wouldn’t give up his life for an orphan stable boy and Eames had been foolish to even entertain hope of such a thing.
He’d made a mistake that morning and there was no taking it back, but that didn’t mean it had to happen again. Eames would resign himself to quietly loving Arthur from afar and if Yusuf left California, then Eames would go with him as if there was nothing tying him to this place, because that was the truth of it. He kicked at a pile of hay angrily as he stepped out of the stall, wondering how his resolutions had failed him so that he had actually fallen for Arthur when he had been so determined to hate him.
“And what did the hay do to you, boy?”
Eames looked up, startled, and his cheeks reddened. “Mister Baldwin.”
The old man knocked his boots against the wall, loosening dirt from the track that had caked on the soles. “Eames,” he said around the fat end of an unlit cigar. “Thought I said the filly was my grandson’s responsibility.”
Eames cleared his throat and swallowed. “He’s been working to break her, sir. I’m just helping, is all.”
“Because you love the horse,” Lucky prompted, wrapping his index finger around the cigar and plucking it from between his lips.
“Yes,” Eames said automatically, his heart thundering in his chest. He had always felt comfortable around Lucky, but the man was regarding him with shrewd eyes now and Eames couldn’t tell what he was thinking.
“She’s more docile round you than anyone else, I’ll give you that. You have a way with the animals, boy. I’d hire you full time if you weren’t so loyal to that Indian.”
Eames stayed silent. What he wouldn’t give to be allowed to live on the Santa Anita, but that would mean facing Arthur every day, and his new wife when it came to it. He had too many secrets, too many webs woven to hide what he was, who he was. He couldn’t change anything now without unraveling the entire thing and leaving a gaping hole where his cover had once been. The only thing left was to leave and he couldn’t leave without Yusuf. He wasn’t sure he could survive on his own without reverting to the means he had used to get by when he was still living in South Africa. He couldn’t be honest about himself, but he could still be happy enough here, happier than most boys like him ever were.
“Still, he should be here. She’s gonna do him no good if she only responds to you. He knows better.”
“He has been,” Eames protested, not liking Lucky disparaging Arthur. He wasn’t sure if it was because of his own feelings or because he was so accustomed to the subtle pride the old man had always tried to cover when speaking of his grandson.
Lucky eyed him, one eyebrow raised, as he strolled over to pat Forgery on her snout. “He was moving rather stiff when he came back to the house this morning with the Cobb boy, and he was covered in dirt from head to toe.”
“There might have been an accident, but it was an honest one. Forgery got startled by a rattler and Arthur slipped from the saddle rather than take her down with him.” Eames didn’t mean to sound defiant but thinking of that morning, of the way Arthur had kissed him, made him feel protective. It had felt as if his heart had really stopped when Arthur hit the ground.
Lucky chewed the end of his cigar, eyeing Eames over Forgery’s head. “He’s either not got the horse used to him or he was distracted, if he had the instinct to leave the saddle but not to roll when he hit the ground. He’s usually got more grace than that.”
Eames couldn’t tell if Lucky was fishing for something or just musing. He was a gruff man and cunning, so smart he made other men uncomfortable, Eames not excluded. He admired Lucky, wanted to be like him and wanted to gain his admiration, but he loved Arthur and he wouldn’t let anything slip that might turn Arthur’s grandfather’s affections against him.
“Maybe he was thinking of the girl,” Eames hedged. Lucky raised a brow, obviously surprised.
“Yes? The one from Illinois. The Durant cousin.”
“Mm. He did spend some time there, didn’t he? But that seems unlike Arthur. “
Lucky moved on to another horse, smiling at the way the animal butted its head up into his palm. He was calm around the horses and they responded in kind.
“Seem unlikely for my grandson to pay more attention to a woman than his horse? Yes, it does. I always assumed he’d take after his aunt, stay a bachelor forever. What does it concern me? I’ve got other grandchildren thanks to Clara and her four husbands. It’s not up to Arthur to continue the family name. I had a son, you know.”
But Eames didn’t know, so he stayed quiet.
“Didn’t live a year,” Lucky mused, not sad but distant. “S’probably why I’ve spent so much time spoiling Arthur. Clara didn’t think she’d have any more kids and she was happy enough to be done with ‘em, but then she’s pregnant somehow, with the rest of her brood already half-grown. My girl was a good mother, mind you, but Arthur was unplanned. He ended up here while his parents traveled, and I got a second chance at raising a son. So I can be forgiven for giving him whatever he wanted.”
“He’s a good man,” Eames spoke up, half-placating Lucky and half because he suddenly believed it.
Lucky turned back to him with a wry smile and one eyebrow raised. “He is. A little confused but inherently good. What do you think of this Durant girl, then?”
“I don’t know her,” Eames responded, his heart hammering in his chest.
“But you seem to know more about her relationship with my grandson than I do.”
Eames shrugged, fervently wishing he hadn’t brought Ariadne up at all. It had seemed like a good idea since she’d been at the house and Arthur was no doubt with her now, but he regretted it wholeheartedly.
“She’s come into town for the wedding, I suppose, and Arthur’s taken her out on the lake now. That’s all I know. He doesn’t speak of his personal affairs to me.”
“Well, you shouldn’t feel too bad about that, boy. Arthur doesn’t speak of his personal affairs to anyone, as far as I know. He hasn’t told me anything of his life since he was a child and had aspirations of becoming an outlaw. He was twelve and he believed his intimate knowledge of the Fischers would give him a unique ability to rob their trains. Never mind the boy had never wanted for anything in his life. He was born with a taste for adventure, though I’m not sure where he got that from.” The smile on Lucky’s face told Eames exactly where the old man thought Arthur had gotten his ideas.
“Well, if he wants to get married, that’s his own decision, but he better not think he’s going back to Chicago with that girl. I didn’t pay all that money for his schooling for him to waste it on the other side of the country. If my family had their way, they’d forget who gave them everything and leave me to wither away in the desert with Anita. Ungrateful bastards.” Lucky started to walk off, muttering under his breath, but he turned back once he reached the stable doors, pointing a finger at Eames. “You tell him when you see him, he isn’t going back to Chicago. He can marry as many girls as he wants, but the Baldwin home is in California.”
Eames swallowed and nodded, heart thumping. His kept his posture rigid until Lucky was out of sight, still muttering around his unlit cigar. Once he was gone, Eames slumped and exhaled heavily. The thought of Arthur getting married was bad enough, but it hadn’t even crossed Eames’s mind that Arthur would go back to Chicago with Ariadne. The idea should have been a relief, not having to watch Arthur build a family without him should have been a calming thought, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want Arthur to leave. He didn’t think he could stand it.
Eames was sulking by the time he reached the brothel. He let his head hang, hair loose and in his face, as he scuffed at the ground with the toes of his boots. He stole up to his room only long enough to fetch his book and found solace in the shade of the great oak that stood next to the house. He didn’t want to be bothered and he hoped Yusuf wouldn’t pester him to ready Ada until much later. He wasn’t feeling up to her just then, with her silks and her soft voice. He wanted to lose himself in someone else’s life for just a little while.
He ignored the clap of horse hooves on the ground at first, hoping one of the other boys would tend to whoever was visiting at this early hour. If they wanted Ada they would have to wait. But then the horse’s legs came into view and human legs next, as the rider dismounted right in front of him. Eames continued to ignore it at first, but the dismount was a tad clumsy and the rider stumbled. Eames had to push himself from the ground and catch the man or else be the unwilling cushion for the man’s fall.
“I was worried I would miss you,” the rider said, smiling brightly as he leaned heavily on Eames.
“Arthur? Are you drunk?” Eames was too shocked at Arthur’s appearance to move for a moment, letting his mouth hang open as Arthur continued to loll against him.
“Only mostly,” Arthur replied, his breath hot against Eames’s cheek.
“What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here? What? Why to see you, of course!” Arthur finally seemed to steady enough that Eames felt almost confident in letting him stand on his own. Arthur made a valiant effort at straightening himself, trying to school his features into something more somber than absolutely delighted.
“You would have seen me in the morn.”
Arthur pursed his lips. “It would not have been soon enough.”
Eames could not stop his heart from warming, though he tried to chastise it mentally. Arthur looked adorably earnest standing there with Forgery’s reins clutched tightly in his hand.
“You rode Forgery here?”
“I wanted to compare the mottled silver of her coat to the color of your eyes in the light. Now I see she is only nearly as lovely as you.”
Eames couldn’t help but laugh and since it made Arthur smile so deeply that dimples showed, it had been the right thing to do. Arthur took his hand and rubbed his thumb over Eames’s knuckles. It was uncomfortably intimate even after what they had done in the stables, mostly because Eames wanted so badly to believe that Arthur cared for him as more than just a tumble in the hay.
“I have just spent the entire day in the company of three upstanding members of society, and I have drunk far too much in order to tolerate them. The entire time I could think only of how unbearable it would be to have to wait until the morning to do this one thing,” Arthur said, eyes soft and almost hopeful. He tightened his grip on Eames’s hand and tugged him forward so he could wrap an arm around Eames’s shoulders and kiss him firmly.
Eames gasped into it, surprised at first and then ecstatic. His limbs felt warm all over and his lungs were full to bursting. Arthur licked at his parted lips but went no further, keeping the kiss mostly chaste. It was enough to melt Eames entirely. He sagged against Arthur, reversing their earlier positions, and eagerly gave in to the kiss, forgetting as his head buzzed that they were in the open and that he had promised he wouldn’t do this with Arthur again.
Arthur pulled away from him before Eames could completely lose his head, holding him up with a steady grip. His answering smile to Eames’s reciprocation was wide and lopsided and made Eames’s heart flutter.
“That is all I wanted. Thank you, Mr. Eames, I shall sleep soundly tonight.” He stepped away from Eames, turning back to Forgery.
“I shall see you in the morning, yes?” Eames asked, confused.
“Yes, of course. I just simply couldn’t wait that long to kiss you.”
Eames was stunned, elated, and suspicious all at once. He could not fully divest himself of the belief that he was nothing more than a game to Arthur, he the fox and Arthur the hound, but Arthur was making it more and more difficult for him not to believe.
“And you won’t see Ada tonight?” he asked, still tentative. He just couldn’t accept that Arthur had come all the way to the brothel just for a kiss.
“Ah, does she miss my company already?” Arthur was joking, or at least Eames hoped.
“Perhaps,” he hedged, just to see what Arthur would do.
Arthur hesitated before raising his foot to the stirrup and swinging himself into the saddle. The look he bestowed on Eames was sloppy with fondness. “Not tonight. I have fallen from my horse, rowed around a lake, and ridden hard for the better part of an hour all today. I ache in every part of my body, but I shall have sweet dreams tonight.”
Arthur grinned at Eames, who could only stand and watch him turn Forgery about and spur her on, full of disbelief and insecurity. He didn’t know what it meant that Arthur didn’t want to see Ada. He tried to set a lid on his inner turmoil, to close in all his secrets that were itching to spill from his lips. He ached to tell Arthur the truth, to tell him everything, but Arthur was already just a shade in the distance and tomorrow his resolve would more than likely be gone.
Eames turned abruptly, heart hammering. Yusuf was watching him with a disapproving frown, arms crossed over his chest.
“I have let you live beneath my roof without judgment. I have kept your secrets. I have been naught but good to you, yes?”
Eames swallowed. “Of course.”
Yusuf took a step closer and Eames realized he looked more concerned than angry.
“I fear I was correct to worry that your employment with Arthur Stocker was a mistake.”
“It’s not – he’s courting a woman. He’ll forget me. It will be fine.”
“But will you be fine? He visits Ada at night and lusts after you by day and he’s planning to marry? This is not a good path you are letting yourself wander down, Adam.”
“He doesn’t love Ariadne or Ada,” Eames said hotly, feeling like a child being reprimanded.
“Does he love you?” Yusuf seemed skeptical, and Eames felt tears pricking hotly behind his eyelids. He fisted his hands at his sides and stared resolutely at his feet. “You should stop this, Adam, before you find yourself caught in trouble that I cannot save you from. You shouldn’t see Arthur Stocker anymore. And neither should Ada.”
Eames gritted his teeth and nodded shortly. He would still go to the Santa Anita in the mornings for Forgery, Yusuf wouldn’t stop him from that, but he would have to stay away from Arthur and once Forgery was fully broken, he wouldn’t go back. He stalked back to the house, leaving his book forgotten, and took the stairs two at a time, only letting the tears spill over his cheeks once he was safely in his room and could bury his face in the bedding.
“He does love me,” he whispered to himself, not quite believing it.
The wedding was lovely, Arthur had expected no less. He stood stoically beside Dom at the altar, avoiding Ariadne’s gaze from across the aisle. Mal looked transcendent in a pearl white dress, as had become the trend since the wedding of Queen Victoria. For a moment, as Mal walked the aisle, Arthur could see what it was that had drawn Dom to her when they were still so young. She looked angelic and pure, two things Arthur knew well she was not, and she was perhaps the most beautiful woman Arthur had ever seen. He thought of Ada and her non-traditional beauty that had caught his eye and kept it, but as Mal smiled beatifically at Dom, tears welling in her eyes as she approached her future husband and the Catholic priest she had insisted oversee their vows, Arthur thought of Eames.
The vows were said, and Dom choked once on his emotions as he tried to promise Mal that he would love her forever. Arthur’s chest ached throughout, for the wedding he would not have and the vows he would not say. Even if he did relent and marry Ariadne, he would never love her the way Dom loved Mal. It had never bothered him much before, knowing he would be technically a bachelor for life. His aunt Anita had made very clear to the family that she had no intention of marrying and she was happy. Arthur had never really thought he would ever know true love, which was fine; he liked his freedom, being able to do as he pleased without incurring questions from anyone else. But now, he felt a pang of jealousy at Dom and Mal’s happiness.
He was uncomfortable at the reception, pretending to grin and fielding questions about when it would be him at the end of the aisle. He avoided Ariadne and bristled at Robert’s sympathetic looks. He could not leave Robert to the mercy of his godfather though, so he stayed at the party by the sides of his two best friends and pretended he wasn’t miserable. He had no idea where Eames was that night and he tried not to dwell on imagining. They’d had a few stolen moments in the mornings since he’d fallen from Forgery and each touch of Eames’s skin felt more electric than the last. Arthur felt drunk on Eames every time they parted, like they would never have enough time together. Every one of their trysts was hurried and fumbling, rushed along with the fear of being caught out. Arthur knew the feel of Eames’s naked chest against his own and the warmth of Eames’s uncut cock in his hand, but he didn’t know the bliss of being buried inside of Eames or of mapping the scars and freckles on the boy’s body with his tongue. He knew it was a mistake to get so caught up in someone else, but it was impossible to stop. He’d fallen too far and he could not climb back up.
The one time that Ariadne was able to corner him, he feigned the necessary niceties and pretended he didn’t notice her shrewd look and downturned mouth. She was a smart girl, most like she already knew well that Arthur wasn’t going to ask for her hand, but she didn’t know what else to do but try. Arthur didn’t believe that Ariadne felt any stronger affection for him than he did for her, but they had enjoyed each other’s company when he stayed with her family and perhaps she was imagining that could grow into something stronger over time.
She was a young and educated woman and society expected her to marry and soon, though Arthur thought she would do fine on her own. He had liked her so because she reminded him of his aunt, whose company he had always enjoyed above all other women. He could imagine Ariadne marching with the women for suffrage, demanding to be treated as a man’s equal. If he did think about marrying her, it would only be so that another man less deserving wouldn’t be able to silence and suppress her. But Arthur knew that Ariadne would not stand to be wed out of pity. She had a fire inside of her and she deserved someone who could truly appreciate it.
Thankfully, Robert could sense his distress and saw fit to repay Arthur for acting as buffer between him and his family by insinuating himself into Arthur and Ariadne’s conversation, gradually taking it over until Arthur could slip away. Robert smiled at him briefly as he fled, but his attention was drawn back to Ariadne before Arthur could offer a grateful smile in return. Robert seemed to bloom as he spoke to Ariadne, his face brightening and opening. He touched her briefly and hesitantly, a brush of his fingers at her elbow and stroke of his thumb across the soft skin exposed above her glove. Arthur watched them for a while - Ariadne hadn’t even seemed to notice his disappearance - and felt relief. He didn’t want to be responsible for breaking anyone’s heart, least of all his own.
Arthur thought he might leave the party altogether at that point. Mal and Dom were already gone, off to Paris - where Mal’s family still owned property, for their honeymoon. He silently wished them well, wandering the edges of the party until he had looped it once and not seen anyone he wished to talk to. No one could hold his interest like Eames did. There were still so many things about Eames that Arthur hadn’t discovered. He knew that Eames was far brighter than he liked to let on, but he didn’t know how smart. Eames was amazing with the horses, but Arthur hadn’t ever seen him ride. Arthur could imagine the way Eames would look on a horse, strong thighs straining to lift his body out of the saddle, back straight and proud as his hips rolled with the motion of the horse’s run. He had already scoured his personal library for books he thought Eames might like to read, and he yearned to discuss them with him, to see what insights Eames might have that Arthur had not thought of. He wanted Eames’s mind along with his body, but he wasn’t sure that Eames would give him both.
Arthur had become so lost in his thoughts he didn’t notice how he’d wandered away from the main party. The wedding had taken place at St. Andrew’s Church, but the reception had moved everyone to the heart of the Fischers’ land. The guests had reveled amongst Robert’s gardens, the flora lending a fairytale feel to the night. Robert took painstaking care of his plants, ordering flowers and trees from all over the world to be planted with special soil on the grounds. They were grouped together by the lands they had come from, each section of the gardens transporting a wandering soul to another country. It really was a beautiful sight and easy to lose oneself in.
Arthur didn’t know how far he’d wandered before he came upon a group that had separated themselves from the party. He was walking slowly, meandering really, and could still see the glow of the wedding tent over a small hill, so he knew he could return at any moment, though he didn’t have any desire to. He heard the sounds of the second group before he saw them. There were only a few candles lit over here, throwing shadows on the nearby cacti. They were loud and obviously drunk and Arthur heard more feminine gasps and giggles than he should have. No society woman would dare to venture this far away from the wedding tent, so Arthur could safely assume he had stumbled upon a more illicit party.
His suspicions were confirmed when he heard angry whispering much closer to where he stood than the rest of the group. He slipped into the shadows as two dark figures came walking up the path, the larger one in the lead and dragging the slighter figure behind by the wrist. A man and a woman, the man clearly intoxicated and the woman trying to hold the man back. The man stopped, frustrated with the woman’s protests, and swung about, pulling her close, gripping her so hard she whimpered. Arthur felt his heart in his throat when he recognized them. Robert’s godfather had Ada by her hair and was snarling into her face, trying to kiss her and missing when she turned her face away.
He jerked her roughly, spitting at her when she resisted. Peter was drunk and his movements were sloppy, his words slurred, but Arthur could see his intentions clearly. He called Ada a whore, called her worthless, asked her what made her think she could say no when she made fucking a profession. He pawed at her bodice and she struggled and fought him, but she didn’t beg, didn’t even speak. Arthur didn’t hesitate long enough to wonder why she didn’t cry out. He stepped from the shadows and on to the path, intent on stopping Peter even if he had to fight him.
“Mr. Browning,” he said to get Peter’s attention. Peter was startled and stopped struggling with Ada for a moment to look over his shoulder in surprise. Enough of his attention was transferred to Arthur that Ada was able to pull away before Arthur could raise a hand, and suddenly Peter was on the ground in front of him, unconscious.
Arthur stared at the crumpled form of Peter for an instant, mouth wide open in confusion, before tearing his gaze away to look incredulously at Ada. Her lips were pursed as she shook her hand, eyebrows furrowed in discomfort. She pulled the glove from her right hand and tried to inspect her knuckles in the dark. Arthur moved forward immediately, still unbelieving, and took her hand into his without asking. He held on when she tried to pull away and she winced, letting him keep it. Her skin was rougher than he’d expected, callused, but warm. He moved her fingers and she grimaced, but her hand didn’t seem to be broken.
“It’ll swell,” he said, breaking the silence between them.
“But it will heal,” she said with finality, taking her hand back from him. “I apologize for ruining your rescue, Arthur.” It was an attempt at a tease, but Arthur didn’t respond to her levity.
“Obviously you didn’t need it,” he returned flatly, inspecting her appearance. Her hair was mussed, curls falling messily into her face. But there was something else off, darker hair sticking out amongst the golden curls, hard to see in the dark, but Arthur knew Ada’s face, knew when something was out of place.
“Well, you didn’t think I’d always had such a cushioned place at Yusuf’s side, did you? A girl like me must learn to fend for herself.” Ada’s tone was supposed to be flippant, but Arthur could hear the shake beneath it. She was frightened even if she hid it well and Arthur wanted to take her into his arms, but he didn’t know if she would appreciate that. So instead, he let his arms fall to his sides and he looked at Peter at his feet, just beginning to stir.
“You should go home. I’ll speak with him when he comes to.” Arthur could see the worry on her face then. She knew no one would care that she was only protecting herself. She was a prostitute and all anyone would see was that she had attacked a man of society. No one would kill her for it, but they would send her to prison most certainly, unless she left the county first.
“He won’t say a word,” Arthur reassured her firmly. “He’s caused enough scandal recently. Saito is still publishing articles using his actions after Maurice Fischer’s death to malign the entire Fischer-Morrow Empire. He would be an absolute fool to admit to anyone that he was beat by a girl, even if he left out the fact that he was trying to rape her.”
“Will you hurt him?” Ada asked, hesitating. Arthur couldn’t tell if she wanted him to or was worried about what would happen if he did.
“Probably not. I’ll let everyone believe I did though, for your sake and Robert’s. Peter was drunk and belligerent and something had to be done to stop him from making a scene. It will look better for him if he goes along with my story.”
“You won’t be in trouble?”
Arthur smiled at her, willing her to return it. She did, but it was the one she always offered him, close-lipped and secretive. Perhaps she was not willing to lay all of her cards on the table for Arthur to see, but he was growing tired of the secrecy. He reached out impulsively and pulled her close, taking advantage of her astonishment to kiss her quickly, light and chaste.
“I would willingly face all the trouble in the world for you,” he said softly so she wouldn’t rip herself from his grip and run. He had gotten exactly the answer from that kiss that he was seeking. He knew the feel of those lips beneath his own already, craved that touch regularly.
Ada narrowed her eyes at him for only a moment before she walked away with purpose, her steps stilted as if she wanted to run but refused to as long as Arthur could still see her. When she was out of sight, Arthur smiled to himself and looked down, nudging Peter with his toe and delighting in the groan of pain Peter emitted. Robert was going to be so pleased.
Eames spent the morning after the wedding mucking out the stalls at the Santa Anita alone. Weddings out here were a party for everyone – first and second class alike. Almost all of Pasadena and the neighboring ranches had attended the party at the Fischer mansion, and they were all suffering for their vices the next day. It was better this way, easier. He had made a promise to himself that he would put distance between himself and Arthur and he had broken it twice over. Every time Arthur looked at him too long, with heat in his eyes, Eames melted and went to him. He felt badly afterward, foolish, but every encounter left him feeling more convinced of Arthur’s affections. Arthur touched him with what felt like reverence and looked at him with adoration, and Eames wanted to believe in him so badly that he forgot his promises. It wasn’t until after he’d left Arthur’s company that he remembered his dignity.
So, for a while, it was nice to work in peace, speaking nonsense to Forgery, kissing her nose every so often just to hear her happy whinny. He would miss her when Arthur didn’t need him anymore. He needed the space to think, so he was content to work the day away alone, no longer looking over his shoulder for Arthur as the morning waned into afternoon. It was good too, that there was no one to make him explain away the bruised and swollen state of his right hand. He’d worn gloves to cover the visible damage, but his grip was still noticeably weak and his work was slow going. It gave him plenty of time to come to a decision about Arthur.
After what had occurred between Arthur and Ada the night before, Eames knew Yusuf was right, he had to give up on Arthur or risk losing everything he’d managed to scrape together since coming to California. Arthur was too close and too smart. Liking men was dangerous enough, but if anyone figured out the rest, hanging was the best Eames could hope for.
Eames made his way to the longhouse once he’d finished with the horses, intent on turning Arthur away for good. He slowed his gait as he came upon the actual building, dreading seeing Arthur now that he was here. He didn’t have long to mull over his decision though, as Arthur stepped out of the house, shirt un-tucked and half unbuttoned, when Eames was only ten feet away. Arthur looked up at the sound of Eames’s footsteps and his face lit up with surprise and something else that Eames didn’t understand, something guarded and suspicious. But Arthur’s smile was wide and made Eames’s heart flutter dangerously.
“I was worried I had slept the day away,” Arthur said, coming toward Eames who had stopped still. “I thought I would miss you.”
“You most likely would have, if I had not come here.”
Arthur’s smile faded at Eames’s clipped tone. He wasn’t trying to be curt but his body ached to fall into Arthur and embrace him even as he knew he couldn’t.
“Shall we go somewhere more private?” Arthur asked with a hint of his old lascivious self, but his tone was far from playful. Eames nodded and Arthur beamed which dampened Eames’s spirits even further.
Arthur kept a safe distance from him as they walked, though every so often his hand would twitch in an aborted move to rest at the small of Eames’s back. Eames wanted Arthur to touch, but he was grateful that Arthur didn’t at the same time. Arthur led him to the lake, to a shadowed swampy area across from the Queen Anne. The mud was thick and would stick to their boots, but they were blocked from sight by the flowing branches of a weeping willow. Eames nearly sighed with relief when Arthur gave in to his urge to touch and wrapped wide palms and long fingers around Eames’s hips. Arthur pulled him close and kissed him thoroughly, and Eames, like a fool, gave himself up to it completely.
Eames heard himself whimper when Arthur pulled away and he couldn’t look Arthur in the face immediately, knowing his cheeks were flushed and his lips swollen. When he did look, Arthur’s expression was pensive and his eyes were narrowed.
“You missed the party last night, Eames.”
“I wasn’t invited,” Eames protested, knowing fully well it was a weak excuse.
Arthur regarded him for a moment, tilting his head like a curious dog. They were still so close that Eames could feel the heat of Arthur’s body bleeding into his own and Arthur’s hands still resting on his hips.
“Your sister was there,” Arthur said. “But I’m sure you knew that. You two are so very close. I’m envious. I hardly know my own siblings.”
“She told me what happened with Browning. It was good of you to be there,” Eames said evenly, looking hard into Arthur’s eyes. Arthur’s smile then was a wry thing, like Eames was a puzzle he was still agonizing over even all this time later when anyone else would have given the game up.
“Of course. I care about her.” Eames couldn’t read Arthur’s expression anymore. It was smooth and stoic, not a flicker of the fond amusement that he usually directed at Eames, and his eyes were searching, locked on to Eames’s. Arthur was trying desperately to figure something out and he seemed to be getting ever closer to the answer the longer they stood there.
Arthur leaned in suddenly, startling Eames so that he didn’t notice at first when Arthur’s hand came off his hip. Eames shouted in pain when Arthur’s fingers closed over his bruised knuckles. He was still wearing the gloves from his earlier work, but Arthur’s grip was tight and Eames could feel the shocking pain even through the leather.
“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked, voice dripping with false concern that didn’t match the glitter in his eyes.
“Nothing,” Eames hissed, wrenching his hand out of Arthur’s grasp. “You startled me is all.”
“Let me see it,” Arthur insisted, taking a step forward for every hesitant step back Eames took.
“It’s alright,” Eames insisted, cradling his hand to his chest. He knew he couldn’t afford to be stupid any longer. Arthur was a smart man and Eames had given him too many clues. “I have to go. I have to go and I won’t be coming back. So – so goodbye, Arthur.”
“Eames,” Arthur said harshly, reaching out for him, but Eames jerked away and nearly stumbled over a fallen branch.
“I don’t wish to see you anymore, Mister Stocker. And neither does Ada.” Eames’s heart hammered against his ribcage but he managed to keep his voice mostly steady. Arthur looked stricken and stopped approaching, standing still in the muck with his arm outstretched and reaching for nothing. Eames turned before he could change his mind and ran.
Arthur didn’t wait once he’d lost sight of Eames. He knew Eames had to be heading for the brothel, and even if he wasn’t, he had to go back there eventually. It would barely take Arthur forty five minutes to get there on horseback, thirty if he kept the horse running the whole way. He would get there long before Eames who would be making the trek on foot. He was tired of this game, tired of trying to figure Eames out. The trickery and the pretending were done.
“Arthur,” Yusuf greeted him at the brothel's door, blocking the entrance with his shoulders squared and arms folded over his chest.
“I’m afraid Ada is indisposed today.”
“Last night was quite eventful, I’m sure,” Arthur said with an understanding nod, though he didn’t even try to look sincere. “I only need a word.”
Yusuf smirked, arms coming to rest at his sides, though he didn’t move out of the way. “I don’t believe Ada wants to see you, Arthur.” His voice wasn’t cold, almost regretful instead.
“I don’t need long. Please.”
Yusuf eyed him shrewdly, clearly trying to decide if he would grant Arthur permission to come in or not, then stepped out onto the porch, letting the door close softly behind him. Arthur stepped back and crossed his own arms rather than bolt through the empty doorway like he desperately wanted.
“What do you want with him?”
Arthur didn’t have to ask Yusuf whom he meant, just squared his shoulders and looked down at the tips of his boots.
“Is that really any of your business?”
“It is if you'd like entrance to my house.”
Arthur sighed and looked Yusuf in the eye. “I imagine you have little respect for the men who come to your door. I don’t imagine you have any respect for me or my family. I know I have a certain reputation, one I’ve cultivated quite carefully, and if you believe it then I’m no better than anyone else who pays for Ada’s time. Unless Ada tells you every detail of her night, you don’t know what goes on in her mind or mine. But clearly you have an idea if you’re asking about Eames and not Ada.”
“I know more than you’d like, Arthur. Perhaps not everything, but enough. Do you know how old Eames was when I found him? Thirteen. He’s been in my care three years and he’s healthier and safer than he ever was before. I won’t see him harmed.”
“And I don’t plan to do him any harm.” Arthur gritted his teeth lest he say something he regretted in a fit of impatience. He could see that Yusuf was only protecting Eames and he understood why the man would feel he had to. Arthur didn’t know Eames’s entire history, but he couldn’t imagine anything would change the way he felt about the boy, not after what he’d already figured out. “I just want to speak with him.”
“He isn’t here, Arthur.”
“I know. I’ll wait. For either of them.”
Yusuf’s eyes widened in surprise and his stance loosened. Arthur had him and he would find out now whether he would get his answers tonight, or if he would be forced to bang Yusuf’s door down every night until the man relented and let him in. Either way he wouldn’t give up.
“I told him you were a mistake,” Yusuf said, but he sounded resigned. There was a sadness about him, a silent accusation that Arthur felt compelled to dispute.
“I’m not going to hurt him. I would never.”
Yusuf shook his head but he gestured at the door, granting Arthur entrance. “You already have.”
Arthur wanted to argue, but the door was opened to him now and he wasn’t going to risk baiting Yusuf into closing it again. He ground out a quiet “thank you” instead and walked briskly through the foyer and into the parlor. If any of the other patrons or employees looked at him sideways, he didn’t notice. He took a seat where he could watch the stairs and accepted a glass of wine from a girl whose face he couldn’t be bothered to remember and settled in to wait.
It was more than two hours before he caught a glimpse of Eames at the top of the stairs, having snuck up through the servants’ entrance. Eames didn’t bother to scan the parlor before slipping into Ada’s room or else he would have seen Arthur and perhaps he wouldn’t have given himself away. Arthur waited long enough to finish a final glass of wine before he stood up and made for the stairs, the alcohol warm in his veins and determination hot in his heart. He climbed the stairs with heavy footsteps and pushed the door open without knocking, startling the occupant inside.
Ada was seated cross-legged on the bed, her nose buried in a book – the same book Arthur had seen Eames reading days before – and Eames was nowhere to be seen. Her face radiated shock at first, but it quickly morphed into outright indignation at the sight of him.
“What in Hell do you think you are doing?” She threw the book to the bed and made to get up, whether to fight him or to throw him out or to go past him out the door, Arthur didn’t know.
He went to her before she could get off the bed and kneeled on the mattress, bringing his hands up to frame her face. Her eyes were wide and he could see the flecks of silver in them even in the dim candlelight. She was stiff against him and her eyebrows were furrowed with anger and something else like fear, but she didn’t try to get away, so he took his chance and kissed her. It was the second time he had done so, but he had kissed these lips a hundred times and a thousand more than that in his dreams.
He took one hand from her face to wrap his arm around her waist and pull her close and received a punch in the shoulder for it. She shoved him away and tried to slide off the bed, but Arthur reached out and caught her wrist in his hand. He couldn’t feel the heat of her skin beneath the thin silk glove but he could feel her pulse beating rapidly beneath his fingertips.
“What are you doing, Arthur?” She demanded, trying to tug her arm free of his grasp. He held tight and pulled her to him and she slapped him. He let her go then, bringing his palm up to feel the heat of his cheek where she’d made contact. She’d hit him hard, just like she’d hit Peter Browning.
“Why do you change yourself in the dream, Ada?” Arthur asked, watching the rapid rise and fall of her chest out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t move to get off the bed and she didn’t move to come closer, but she didn’t move to leave either. “You’re beautiful as you are, yet in the dream you change.”
“I become whoever the john wants.”
“But even before that. Before you forge. You’re softer in the dream, smaller. Why do you do that?”
“You’re drunk. I don’t have to listen to this, Arthur. Get out.”
But Arthur didn’t move. He looked her dead in the eye and he could see she was getting nervous, but he didn’t stop.
“You’re always so covered up in reality too. The girls downstairs wear half the clothing you do and none of them wear gloves.”
“Get out, Arthur.”
“Lay with me awake, Ada. I’ll pay you twice as much as your normal fare, three times.”
Ada had backed herself against the door and she curled her fingers against the wood, making a fist with her left hand, the right one, Arthur knew, was most definitely still hurting her.
“You’d never be able to keep it up. You don’t like women.”
“Try me,” he tested, crawling to the end of the bed, eyes never leaving hers. “I like you.” He reached for her again, but she darted out of his way, lips curling into a snarl.
“I don’t want your flattery or your hollow proposals. As rich as even you are, Arthur, you can’t buy everyone.”
“I don’t want everyone. I don’t know what happened this morning to make you act the way you did, but I only want you.”
“What did you say?”
Arthur slid from the bed, crowding Ada against the wall. She was too shocked to move away from him, her breath coming in shallow pants.
“You heard me, Eames.”
The color drained from Ada’s face and she slid down the wall as her legs nearly gave out. Arthur caught her before she could give up entirely and hit the floor. She seemed to regain her senses once Arthur’s arms were around her though, and her face flooded with color.
“Leave,” she whispered and Arthur ignored her. She shoved at him and struggled in his grip. He finally gave in and stepped away when she pulled her arm back as if she intended to hit him again. “LEAVE!”
Her shout was loud enough to be heard downstairs and deep enough that Arthur knew he wasn’t wrong. He went to the door but stopped before turning the handle. “Whatever your reasons are for doing this… I promise I will do my best to understand them and I will never tell anyone. Goodnight, Eames.”
Eames smoothed his gloved hands over the pale blue folds of Ada’s silk dress before bunching the fabric with his fists. He was confused and he was tired. He was angry at Arthur for presuming he could just waltz into Eames’s life and take whatever he wanted, but he was grateful for Arthur as well, because Arthur loved him and nobody but Yusuf ever had before. He had to decide how to proceed from the point he was at, whether to confront Arthur or pretend nothing had changed. He wasn’t sure how the first option would play out, but he knew the second would only hurt them both.
Eames got off the bed with shaky determination and turned to the vanity. He pulled at the fingertips of his gloves, loosening them from his hands, and dropped them on the tabletop. He then moved onto the buttons of Ada’s dress, slipping them from their holes so that he could slide the silk from his shoulders. Next came the corset that enabled him to have an hourglass figure but also restricted his breathing and dug into his flesh. With the corset unlaced and carelessly forgotten on the floor, he was Adam again. He dropped his underthings on top of the corset and dress and sat naked at the vanity.
There were circles under his eyes from long nights and stress. Perhaps this would be the last evening of Ada’s existence and those circles would fade as he relearned how to sleep without aid and anyone entering his dreams. Eames tried not to worry about what would happen once he confronted Arthur as he pulled the pins from his hair, loosening Ada’s golden curls from his own tawny locks. He splashed his face with water and dressed in loose trousers and a thin shirt once all remnants of Ada were removed, and braced himself as best he could.
The nights were still warm and Eames was worried he’d already begun to sweat through his shirt by the time he’d snuck away from the house and gotten a bridle on a horse. He didn’t bother with a saddle, using a fence to leverage himself onto the horse’s back. He knew he could run right then. He could go back up to his room and pack his things and run anywhere. He could be a street whore again, or he could steal the Pasiv and be Ada forever. But he didn’t want to do either of those things. He didn’t want to leave Yusuf with no goodbye, or Arthur, and he didn’t want to leave the San Gabriel Valley at all.
He wasn’t sure if Arthur would have waited up for him, and if he had, whether he’d be at the stables or elsewhere hoping for Eames to find him. He went to the lake first only because it was closer, but he knew it was the right decision upon seeing the faint glow of a lantern from the far shore. Arthur was waiting for him beneath the same weeping willow, reclined on a blanket with his head resting against a fallen tree branch and his hands folded on top of his stomach. His feet were bare and his eyes were closed as if he had been sleeping, but there was no way Arthur hadn’t heard the hoof beats heralding Eames’s arrival. Eames took his time dismounting and tethering the horse to a nearby tree, steeling his resolve.
“What do you want from me, Arthur?” He asked as he approached, boots sinking into the soft sand.
Arthur opened his eyes lazily, staring out over the dark water for a moment before flicking them upward to look at Eames. Eames should have had the upper hand in this situation, looming over Arthur’s prone form on the ground, but Arthur had never allowed him that. Even now, Arthur’s ease and carefree attitude only served to frustrate Eames, to make him feel young and impotent.
Arthur unfolded his hands and gestured at the space next to him, silently asking Eames to sit. He still didn’t speak, but his eyes were beseeching without a hint of guile. Eames crossed his legs and hunched his back against the tree branch, curling in on himself. He left an inch of space between them and tensed when Arthur moved his arm to lay his hand back on his stomach.
“I shouldn’t have kissed you. At the wedding or earlier. I apologize.” Arthur’s tone was rigid but honest and Eames tensed further.
“Why not? Because I was dressed like a woman?”
“Because you didn’t want it.” Arthur wasn’t looking at him, but Eames could see his profile in the moonlight. Arthur’s face was hard, a frown turning his mouth down. “Forcing myself on you is no way to make you believe I love you.”
“You don’t know me, Arthur. I’ve been pretending this entire time, playing with your head and your feelings…”
Arthur chuckled, a gasp of a breathless laugh, and curled toward Eames, laying his head on Eames’s thigh. “You have played me for a fool, Mr. Eames, and yet I cannot bear for the game to end. You asked me what I want from you? Everything. Every part of you. You’ve been Ada this whole time, you know that I only felt I could love her because she reminded me so of you. You wanted nothing to do with me, but she gave me the chance to have you. You are all I’ve ever wanted, Eames. Just you.”
Eames tentatively rested a hand on Arthur’s head, digging his fingertips into Arthur’s hair and releasing it from its pomaded shell. The black tendrils curled against Eames’s skin as they came free from their style. Arthur smiled and tilted his head, butting against Eames’s palm.
“It doesn’t bother you that I’ve been pretending to be a woman this entire time?”
Arthur shrugged against Eames’s leg. “You make a very handsome woman.”
“But I lied to you,” Eames insisted, pulling at Arthur’s hair. Arthur jumped and sat up, bracing himself on his hands and looking directly into Eames’s eyes.
“If your guilt is so heavy, then tell me why.”
“Why, Eames. Why Ada? Why did you strive to seduce me twice?”
“I didn’t. Not with purpose. I didn’t even like you! You were rude and cocky and spoiled!” Eames hesitated to catch his breath, watching Arthur’s eyes for any hint of anger. His frown grew deeper and his gaze remained intense, locked on Eames’s eyes, but it seemed as if he was only waiting for something, searching for the answers he wanted in Eames’s eyes.
“Such a flatterer,” Arthur admonished softly, his frown curling up at the edges just slightly.
That broke Eames’s hesitance and he laughed lightly, little gasps of breath against Arthur’s cheek. He didn’t know how to explain it, how to make Arthur understand. There was no one reason why he created Ada, no simple answer to give Arthur. Ada was a way for him to live, a way for him to feel free. There were so many restrictions placed on him by society, on whom he could love and touch. Ada allowed him to live closer to the way he wanted to. He could sleep with other men without fear. He’d never minded that he had to pretend to be someone else to do it, and Ada didn’t feel like someone else. She was a part of him, she was him. He’d been hiding for so long, suppressing himself for so long; he hardly knew how to be himself.
“She’s a part of me,” he finally said, voice barely above a whisper. He didn’t know how to put it into words but he wanted Arthur to understand.
“Tell me. I want to know you.” Arthur leaned in earnestly and Eames wanted to kiss him. He always wanted to kiss Arthur. He had only been able to push Arthur away when he was Ada out of jealousy. He didn’t want Arthur to love Ada, to want her, not when Arthur believed them to be two different people.
“I’ve been alone my whole life I – She’s a way to save myself, Arthur, she’s the parts of me I have to hide otherwise. She’s – “
“She’s beautiful. You’re beautiful. “ Arthur leaned in slowly, giving Eames the chance to move away if he wanted. Arthur was asking him silent permission this time and Eames granted it, meeting Arthur’s lips.
Arthur slipped his hand around Eames’s neck, curling his fingers in Eames’s hair. Eames hadn’t wasted time tying it back and it hung well below his ears. Arthur carded his fingers through it, pulling Eames’s head closer, pressing their mouths firmly together. Arthur tasted like wine and sun and a hint of dust ingrained permanently in his skin.
Eames wrapped his arms around Arthur’s shoulders and held on tightly as Arthur slipped his free hand beneath Eames’s thighs and lifted him, maneuvering them into lying down on the blanket. Arthur loomed over Eames, reminiscent of the way he’d once held himself over Ada. But the difference this time was that Arthur was not playing a game of dominance. He brought his lips to Eames’s once more, kissing him softly and with no rush, relishing the taste and feel of him.
“You’re truly not angry?” Eames whispered the question against Arthur’s cheek as Arthur slid his lips across Eames’s jaw to take an earlobe between his teeth.
“And what good would it do me?” Arthur asked softly against Eames’s ear. “I could shun you or expose you, and then I would be alone. I suppose I’m too selfish at heart to be angry with you. Of course, I wish you had felt you could be honest with me,” he continued, mouthing his way along Eames’s neck, working the buttons of Eames’s shirt open with his fingers.
“I thought it was suicide,” Eames gasped when Arthur spread his shirt tails open wide and closed his mouth around a nipple.
“I fear you’re too smart for your own good,” Arthur admonished against Eames’s skin, laying his tongue flat against the nub until it peaked. Eames arched his back against the ground and curled his fingers in Arthur’s shirt, scratching at his back through the soft cotton.
“How could I have known you were honest, Arthur? You play the lecher and get upset when everyone believes it of you,” Eames whined, bringing his legs up to wrap around Arthur’s thighs, his heels resting in the crook of Arthur’s knees. Arthur responded by rolling his hips against Eames’s and nipping at Eames’s sternum.
“I am honest, Eames. If you’ll believe nothing else of me, believe that. Please.” Arthur kneeled above him, wrenching out of his shirt as Eames lay panting with his back against the ground.
The lantern light made Arthur’s skin glow orange in the dark, his torso rippling with shadows as he moved, soot colored curls falling into his eyes as he stared down at Eames. Arthur’s expression was the most honest Eames had seen from him, something dark and intense hiding at the edges.
Arthur was dangerous, the key to unraveling everything Eames had so carefully crafted. To believe Arthur would be akin to jumping off a cliff and hoping the water below wouldn’t break his bones when it broke his fall – a leap of faith. Eames’s heart clenched in his chest and his breath caught in his throat as he nodded, not sure Arthur could even see the movement in the dark. But the moon was shining bright and glanced off Eames’s jaw as it shook and Arthur’s responding smile was brilliant. He was back upon Eames instantly, kissing promises against his lips as he pulled at the fastening to Eames’s trousers with eager fingers.
“I love you,” Arthur promised in hurried, husky whispers. “I’ll give you everything, Eames. Everything.”
“And what would you have in return?” Eames breathed, lifting his hips so Arthur could tug his pants down his thighs.
“You. All of you. Whoever you are. But you.” Arthur kissed him again, then pushed up, knocking Eames’s legs away so he could sit on his haunches.
Eames reached for him, leaning up so he could run his hands over Arthur’s bare chest and sides, callused fingers catching on Arthur’s nipples and making him shiver. Arthur worked at undoing his own pant fastenings with more grace than he had with Eames’s. He pulled something from a pocket and then kicked out of them without concern for where they landed. He paused just long enough to allow Eames to run his eyes over Arthur’s body and take in the long lines and lean muscle.
“Arthur,” he murmured, as Arthur pressed the object into his hands and rolled off of him, baring himself to the trees and the birds and whatever else made its home in the night sky. “What is this?” He asked as he turned the object over in his hands and realized it was a small vial of saddle oil. His heart thumped hard beneath his ribs and he held his breath, fingertips trembling against the glass.
Arthur responded by turning over, planting his hands and knees on the blanket and looking over his shoulder at Eames, a small smile on his lips. “Come on.”
“You don’t – you don’t want me to…”
“Eames.” There was a wealth of unspoken intent in Arthur’s eyes, illuminated by the flickering lantern light. A rosy flush spread over his skin and the moon bathed his back in silver. Eames wanted nothing more than to touch him and he had all the permission Arthur could give him at his fingertips, so touch he did.
He gripped the vial tight in one hand and kicked awkwardly out of his boots and pants, smiling at Arthur’s amused chuckle. Arthur trembled beneath his hands, not out of fear but anticipation. The difference was almost imperceptible, but Eames could see it in the way Arthur responded to his touch, arching his back to get closer, bending his knees to present himself further.
Eames coated his fingers with oil and traced them tentatively around Arthur’s hole at first, only sliding one in slowly when Arthur began to beg. He didn’t know what he was doing, had never been on the giving end when it came to sex. Some of his johns had taken the time to prepare him with care, but with most it had been a quick stretch with their fingers and not much else warning. He wouldn’t do that to Arthur. Arthur’s previous experiences would not have been like Eames’s. Arthur chose his partners. He didn’t have to bend over for whoever would pay him just to survive. Arthur would never let someone treat him unfairly or hurt him. Arthur was doing this for Eames, putting himself at the mercy of an unpracticed hand to prove that he trusted Eames and that he deserved to be trusted in return.
Eames felt so full of love for Arthur at that moment that it hurt. He all but collapsed under the weight of it, draping himself over Arthur’s back and breathing soft sobs against the skin between Arthur’s shoulder blades. He pressed in as slowly as he could, terrified he had not stretched Arthur enough and that it would hurt him, that Arthur would change his mind. But Arthur only pushed back against him on a hitched breath until Eames was inside of him, their hips resting flush.
“Eames,” Arthur breathed when Eames tested a short roll of his hips, only barely pulling out before he pushed back in. Arthur fell to his forearms with a whine and Eames curled his fingers around Arthur’s hips and began to move with jerky and nervous spurts. It didn’t last long. Eames was too full of youth and adrenaline to hold out and he came inside Arthur with a grunt and a sob. He pulled out fearfully, worrying that Arthur had not enjoyed it at all, only to find the man with a rough hand on his own cock, working it furiously until he too was coming hard against his own stomach and the blanket beneath him.
Arthur laughed breathlessly when he noticed Eames watching and reached for him, pulling him close and curling around him, uncaring of Eames’s seed leaking down his thighs or his own sticky on his skin. The night air was cool against their sweat-slicked skin, but they were warm wrapped around each other, blissful in the moment.
“What will we do now?” Eames asked, once his breath had come back under control, his hand laid over Arthur’s heart so he could feel it beat.
“Whatever we want,” Arthur assured him, nuzzling at the pulse point in his neck.
“What of Ada?”
“I would buy you all the gowns in Paris if I thought it would make you happy,” Arthur said intently, rolling onto his shoulder so that he could look Eames directly in the eye. “I love you, Eames. All of you. I wouldn’t dare to change you.”
“I don’t know if I’ll need to be her anymore now.”
“I won’t stop you if you do,” Arthur promised, kissing Eames to seal it.
There would be a lot of changes in his future, despite Arthur's professions, but Eames wasn’t afraid. He would need to leave Yusuf’s employ, because he couldn’t bear the idea of sleeping with a man who wasn’t Arthur even in his dreams, and he knew Yusuf wouldn’t approve. There would be a place at the Santa Anita though, if it came to that. But it wasn’t the time for trying to plan an uncertain future, Eames decided. Instead he burrowed deeper into Arthur’s embrace and felt completely content for the first time in his entire life.