Marcus had learned at a very young age that one must be careful what they wish for. And yet, he hadn’t thought twice when, as he ground his teeth against the searing, white-hot pain in his leg after the explosion, he’d wished that just once, some bit of good luck would come his way.
Many months later, his uncle came to him and said, beaming, “Marcus, a gentleman is here to enquire about your horses.”
Marcus nearly slammed his hand into the steel clamp on which he was working. He scrambled to his feet, making a futile attempt to wipe the grease and grime from his hands. “Is this a joke, Uncle?”
Uncle Aquila shook his head. “Not at all, dear boy. He’s willing to pay handsomely, as well.”
“What is your definition of ‘handsomely’?”
He quoted a number to Marcus that was close to obscene. Marcus had never seen that much money in his life. It was more than plenty to pay his doctors and keep his business alive. “So he is an aristocrat?”
“I believe so. He’s waiting to speak with you—I said you needed a moment. Shall I escort him in?”
“I…” Marcus looked helplessly around his dingy workshop. It was hardly the place for a lord. He rubbed the back of his hand over his cheek, realising belatedly that he’d left a smear of black behind. He sighed. “Yes, show him in.”
He wasn’t sure what to expect; Marcus wasn’t in the habit of hosting gentleman in his workshop. He’d been introduced to perhaps one or two landed gentry in his time, but it was mostly in passing. He pictured, fleetingly, a tall, rather portly, pompous fellow with reddened cheeks and slicked, dark hair, someone who would not think twice to proffer a small fortune for material goods.
The man who walked into Marcus’s workshop was neither portly nor tall, but he certainly had a pompous air about him. He was small in stature, wiry and slim, his hair a dirty blond. His jacket and breeches were impeccably tailored, and the bronzed buckles of his leather riding boots were buffed to a bright shine. He surveyed the workshop with a mild distaste, his mouth not quite forming a frown.
Marcus cleared his throat. “My lord, it’s a pleasure—”
“I’m not a lord,” the man said in a bored tone. “And I’ve been told you can build a horse. Is this true?”
He resisted the urge to clench his fist. “My...father tried. Once. I’ve yet to be able to replicate his work.”
The man folded his arms across his chest, his fingers elegantly curved against the midnight blue of his jacket. “But you still have the schematics?”
“Then I fail to see the problem.”
Marcus huffed and mimicked the man’s stance. He didn’t normally like to use his height to intimidate others, especially a potentially paying client, but the man’s utter gall made Marcus defensive. “The problem, sir, is that my father died before he could complete them. He never made a working prototype. Whether the schematics were completed or not is irrelevant. The horses were a flight of fancy.”
“Or they simply have not fallen into the proper, funded hands yet.” The man tipped his chin up, one haughty eyebrow raised. “I’m sure your uncle told you what I’m willing pay for your services. For the right price, anything can be accomplished.”
Marcus immediately decided he did not like this man in the least. “Forgive me, sir, but my uncle did not give me your name.”
“Esca MacCunoval.” He took slow, assessing steps around one of Marcus’s work tables. He also did not ask for Marcus’s name in return.
“Well, then, Mister MacCunoval, I must be frank with you—all the money in the world will not build a true, steam-propelled horse.”
MaCunoval turned narrowed, storm-grey eyes upon Marcus. For a moment he looked quite ruthless, and Marcus almost—almost—regretted being so forward. “Your uncle told me you’re a far better mechanic than he or your father ever were.”
“You don’t even know my name.”
“It’s Marcus Aquila,” MacCunoval replied, as if it were obvious. “Everyone knows about your father and his horses.”
Those horses put him in an early grave, Marcus thought bitterly. “If I were to somehow miraculously produce this for you, what exactly are your intentions?”
MacCunoval buffed his pristine nails against the lapel of his jacket. “I’m not paying you to ask questions, Aquila. You have three months to assemble a working prototype. Whatever materials you need, you’ll have them. Do we have a deal?”
Three months was no time at all. Marcus had spent the better part of five years trying to recreate his father’s work, all to no avail. It was a worthless endeavor funded by a haughty man who barely stood taller than Marcus’s chest.
But Marcus was broke, so broke his uncle had started making murmurs about seeking employment of his own. Marcus couldn’t bear that, nor could he bear the humiliation of being thrown out into the streets after fighting so hard to reopen his workshop after the accident.
He desperately, painfully needed the money MacCunoval was offering.
“Very well, we have a deal,” he said with a heaviness settling upon his shoulders. He reached his hand out.
MacCunoval had a surprisingly firm grip. “I’d have you sign a contract, but...you do know how to read, yes?”
Marcus jerked his hand away and stormed out of the workshop without showing MacCunoval out.
Bloody pompous aristocrats and their damned money ruining everything.
Marcus had grown up watching his father build things. His earliest memories were of sitting on the edge of one of his father’s work tables and peering at him through a pair of protective goggles too large for his face, learning the ins and outs of mechanical engineering. His father always had grease beneath his fingernails and soot smudges on his cheeks, the tips of his hair occasionally singed. He would say things such as, “Look, Marcus, this is called a pressure gauge,” or, “What we need here is a threaded floor flange.” Other times he would simply hand the thing over to Marcus and simply say, “What are your thoughts on this coupling link, Marcus?”
Soon becoming a mechanic was everything Marcus dreamed of. It didn’t matter that their neighbours tended to think Mr. Flavius Aquila a poor father for keeping his son home instead of allowing him to attend proper schooling like other boys his age. Marcus’s mother passed away when he was a boy from the black lung; while Marcus did not remember her, his father always grew quite solemn and quiet whenever Marcus would ask about her. “You have her eyes,” he’d reply, and then immediately insist on showing Marcus a new way to install a lamp socket.
His father’s obsession with building a steam-powered, free-standing horse team came about some years later. Marcus returned to the shop one day to find his father reading a letter and looking quite distraught.
“This cannot be, this simply cannot be,” his father had repeated over and over, until Marcus asked what was troubling him.
Another mechanic, who had once been a close friend of Marcus’s father, had recently presented a new invention at a symposium in London.
“A steam printing press,” his father had said, devastated. “Only those were my notes he stole. I showed them to him one evening in a pub four years ago and told him I did not yet have the financial backing to complete the prototype.”
“Did you leave the notes with him?” Marcus asked.
His father had visibly deflated. “I did, yes, only because Sampson told me he knew of a few fellows who might be interested in funding. When I did not hear from him again for several months I assumed the answer had been no. I had no idea he would…” He looked back down at the letter in his hands and shook his head, as if the words to describe his betrayal simply wouldn’t come.
News of Arthur Sampson’s “ingenious” creation spread quickly through the papers. Not a single mention was made of Marcus’s father.
It was then, after a handful of weeks, that his father’s drinking began in earnest, which accompanied long, sleepless nights in his workshop. Marcus would frequently find him buried in notes and spare parts, muttering equations to himself as he finished off another bottle of whiskey.
Marcus heard the word horses several times, but did not inquire until the business side of things began to suffer. Jobs for paying customers were not being completed, and said customers began threatening to take their business elsewhere. Marcus did his best to make amends, until his father erupted in a drunken rage at one client, “Take your bloody money! I’ll be rich soon enough!”
“Father, what the devil are you going on about?” Marcus had asked once the furious man had stormed out.
“The future of transportation,” his father had said. “Why pay to breed horses when you can simply pay to have one created that will last for decades?” He’d then thrust the schematics into Marcus’s hands.
They were nearly incoherent, equations layered over diagrams over notes. If it had not been his father’s handwriting, Marcus would have sworn they were the ramblings of a mad man.
“This is what you’ve been working on late at night?” Marcus asked.
His father had nodded proudly as he’d opened a new bottle. “Sampson’s name may be on everyone’s tongue today, but mine will go into the history books. Just you wait, son. I’ll make you proud.”
Eight years later, his father was dead, his reputation was in ruins, and his coveted horses were still nothing more than a drunken obsession.
Marcus did not see MacCunoval for two weeks. It was fortunate, for Marcus had spent the majority of the time angrily poring over his father’s notes, which still made little sense.
“You’ll figure it out, dear boy,” his uncle said encouragingly. “The hydraulics need a bit of research, but Flavius did always love his little details.”
Marcus highly doubted the looming problem was hydraulics, but he smiled and squeezed his uncle’s shoulder, saying, “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“Mr. MacCunoval seems like a generous man. I’m sure he’ll understand that these things take time.”
“Of course.” Marcus felt slightly sick. His uncle did not know about the three month deadline. It was not his burden. MacCunoval had paid them a small retainer, and that alone had eased their financial distress by many months. Uncle Aquila had not smiled so frequently in many months; Marcus would not take that from him.
There were very few vices in Marcus’s life; he drank very rarely and had never partaken in the popular opiates that had made the circuits of late. No, Marcus kept his focus on his work and his uncle and any other frivolous pleasures were kept for another time.
He had learned of Calleva from a customer named Ferguson, who had run into a bit of financial trouble and could not pay Marcus’s full fee for his services once Marcus had completed a set of mechanical chimney sweeps. Marcus had refused to turn them over to him until the fellow had said, “I have something I think you may find of interest,” and had given Marcus an address within walking distance from his shop.
“What does this place have to do with me?” Marcus asked.
Ferguson flushed and cleared his throat. “I...assumed you, like all men, would enjoy a bit of...recreational activities.”
Marcus froze to the spot. Ferguson couldn’t know, surely, only Uncle Aquila had ever dared to ask—
“The women at Calleva are quite exceptional,” Ferguson added with a wink and a sly smile.
The world righted itself once more. Marcus’s heart slowly dislodged itself from his throat. “It’s a...club?”
“A secret club, catering to one’s special desires. It all comes at a price, but I’m willing to vouch for you to the owner. He won’t question it.” He lowered his voice and added, “Believe me, they understand the importance of discretion. I’ve been a member for years.”
Marcus had never frequented such an establishment before, and he could hardly fathom what to do if he did. Yet the idea sunk its seductive, yearning claws into Marcus’s mind. He could not remember the last time he had felt someone’s heated skin, or heard a catch of breath following a deep kiss. He had grown touch-starved since his accident, though he was loathe to admit such a thing.
In the end, he agreed to Ferguson’s payment, and three days later found himself standing before a nondescript door off a deserted alley. It was late, and the streets were empty.
Marcus knocked softly twice, and a well-dressed man answered, smiling politely. “Good evening, sir. May I help you?”
“Yes,” Marcus replied. “A glass of sherry would be nice.” He repeated the pass phrase verbatim with only a slight tremble in his voice.
The well-dressed man bowed and held the door open for Marcus. “Very well, sir. Right this way.”
It was not the dark, mysterious den of debauchery that Marcus had pictured in his mind. Rather, the place had the look and feel of an elegant, yet aged boarding house with its slightly moth-eaten rugs lining the creaking floor boards and the dusty framed portraits of nameless faces scattered across the walls. The sitting room had exactly three worn leather chairs and a small buffet table, on which sat a glass decanter and several crystal glasses.
The well-dressed man asked, “Which type of services will you be requiring this evening, Mister…?”
“Aquila,” Marcus said without thinking. He winced. “And I’m...not sure I gather your meaning?”
The man smiled as if Marcus were a slow-minded child. “Do you prefer feminine or masculine company?” he asked gently.
Marcus’s heart nearly choked him. “I, ah—that is, I, um…I didn’t—”
“It’s all right, Mister Aquila. I’m sure I’ll find just the right fit for you.” The man extended his hand. “My name is Liathan. I’ll show you to your room.”
Marcus shook his hand, wishing the whole thing didn’t feel so proper. It wasn’t, not at all. He should not be made to feel that what he was engaging in was normal.
Liathan lead him to a sparsely decorated room at the end of a long hallway. There was a large four poster bed made of dark wood and an end table with a gas lamp and mechanical alarm clock, but no other furniture to speak of. On the bed was a single blue quilt.
“You shouldn’t have wait long,” Liathan said. “In the meantime, would you care for some brandy?”
“No,” Marcus said, swallowing heavily. “Thank you.”
Liathan bowed again and shut the door.
True to his word, Marcus did not wait long. After pacing for almost ten minutes, Marcus heard a soft knock on the door. He froze, hands clutched to his chest, then shook himself and straightened his shoulders. “Yes, come in,” he called.
The man who appeared was quite lovely: shorter than Marcus, but broad, stocky, as if he worked hard for a living. His hair was a bronzed gold that curled at the ends, and his eyes were kind.
Marcus forced a smile. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello.” The man smiled shyly. “You’re very tall. Liathan did not mention this.”
“Is this a problem?” Marcus hated the blush he felt blooming in his cheeks.
“No! Not at all! I’m just, er, surprised. Most men who come to Calleva are not as strikingly handsome as you.” He laughed softly and ducked his head. “I’m sorry, I should not be so forward.”
“It’s all right. I’m Marcus.” Strikingly handsome. It was not a phrase Marcus was used to hearing. He took a step closer and held out his hand.
The man’s smile grew until tiny dimples appeared in his cheeks. Marcus felt the first stirrings of interest deep in his belly.
“My name is Christopher,” he said, wrapping his hand around Marcus’s. He did not immediately let go. “Is this your first time at Calleva?”
“Well, then, Marcus, I suppose it falls on me to make your night memorable.” He slipped a finger under Marcus’s collar, pulling at the knot of his tie. “What would you like?”
Marcus could not remember the last time he had been asked such a question. His mouth felt very dry. “I...am easy to please,” he whispered.
Christopher laughed, low and silky. “I’m delighted to hear it,” he said, and pulled Marcus toward the bed.
MacCunoval arrived at Marcus’s workshop looking bored and irritated. “You’ve not made much progress, I see.”
Marcus clench his jaw. “Actually, I have.” He held up a raw prototype of a hydraulic front leg. “A few more configurations and this should be—”
“A leg? That’s all you have? It’s been two weeks.” MacCunoval frowned. “I expected more progress.”
“I’m working as quickly as possible,” Marcus said tightly. Though the man insisted he was not a lord, he had all the pompous, privileged air of one who was used to getting his way. “If the leg works, then I shall have accurate calculations for assembling the rest.”
“Fine, then.” MacCunoval glanced around the workshop. His eyes landed on Marcus’s bed in the far corner, surrounded by stacks of mechanics manuals. “Do you sleep here, Aquila?”
“Sometimes. The bed was my father’s. Insomnia runs in our family.” Marcus flipped his goggles back down. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“If you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not producing an optimal product for your paying customer.”
“My sleep is none of your concern,” Marcus said without looking up from the gasket in his hands. His mind, however, could not help but drift back to the night before and the delicious clench of Christopher’s tight hole around Marcus’s cock. Marcus had fallen asleep the instant he’d come, only to wake up an hour later to an empty bed.
Four months of weekly visits to Calleva and Marcus had never fallen asleep. Thank goodness it had been with Christopher, who knew Marcus well enough to not judge him too terribly. Then again, had it been one of the others, like Silas, Marcus would’ve been too sore from the rope burns to really fall asleep.
The gasket clanked to floor. Marcus swore under his breath.
MacCunoval leaned against the table beside him, one eyebrow raised. “Insomnia in your profession is not ideal, wouldn’t you say?”
This close Marcus could see the faint smattered of dirty stubble along MacCunoval’s proud, jutting jawline. His mouth, which always seemed to be in a perpetual downturn, twitched at one side, as if on the verge of a smile. His lips were very pink.
Marcus blinked hard behind his goggles and frowned. “No, it’s not, but neither are a lot of things.” He must be more exhausted than he originally thought.
MacCunoval made a faint humming sound, his long fingers tapping absently at his neck tie. “Yes, well. With the money I’m paying you, I’d wager you can afford a few more hours of sleep.”
But that would hinder your precious progress, Marcus wanted to retort. “I shall endeavor to find those hours in the future.”
He did not intend for his words to be humorous, but MacCunoval smiled nonetheless. It did odd things to his face; he suddenly looked much younger, softer, a strange sweetness in his eyes.
Marcus’s frown deepened.
“Get back to work, Aquila,” MacCunoval said, and left without another word.
Some nights later at Calleva, Marcus was with Jackson, a flinty-eyed, red-headed man who was lithe and wiry and loved sucking cock. He was currently on his knees doing exactly that, moaning with obscene pleasure each time Marcus hit the back of his throat. Marcus threaded his fingers through the soft mop of Jackson’s hair and tugged, and Jackson looked up at him through his eyelashes and smiled, his mouth still full of Marcus’s prick.
A thought hit Marcus like a punch to the jaw. He smiles like MacCunoval.
Marcus gasped and came.
When it was all over, he mumbled, “Thank you, that will be all,” to Jackson, who tilted his head to one side.
“Is something the matter?”
“I’m fine,” Marcus said, though he decidedly was not.
“I must say, Aquila, you are not a complete waste of my money.” MacCunoval circled the bare-bones prototype and tapped his chin thoughtfully.
Marcus resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Is that a compliment?”
“Perhaps. Is it in working condition yet?”
He almost made a flippant comment about how only living animals would work for MacCunoval. Marcus reached behind the horse’s left ear and turned a small switch. A loud whirring noise purred through the metal body, and after a moment the horse’s head slowly bowed. Its front hoof took one step forward.
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten,” Marcus said. His heart was beating furiously; the pure joy at having cracked his father’s indecipherable schematics still thrumming in his veins. He’d built something new and innovative, something his father had struggled for years to accomplish. It hardly mattered that the man standing before him would never fully appreciate it.
But MacCunoval grew quiet for several long seconds as he gazed at the mechanical horse with wide eyes.
“It’s...well.” MacCunoval cleared his throat. He blinked quickly and the boyish fascination disappeared. “Quite impressive. I’m sure you’ll want to celebrate this evening.”
Marcus paused. “Celebrate? What for?”
“You’ve been killing yourself for weeks to get this far into my good graces. Surely that calls for a drink.”
“I have no desire to be in your graces, good or otherwise,” Marcus said stiffly. “And I don’t drink.”
MacCunoval snorted. “Every man drinks at some point.”
“I never developed a taste for it.”
“Let me introduce you to a fifteen-year-old scotch and you shall change your tune.”
“I’d rather not, thank you.” For one brief, fleeting moment, Marcus wondered if MacCunoval was actually inviting him out for a drink. It hardly seemed possible; the man barely tolerated being around Marcus in his own workshop. Surely he’d have no wish to spend time with Marcus in public.
MacCunoval shrugged. “Suit yourself.” He ran elegant fingers over the plates of the horse’s rump. They skittered over the uneven divots like dragonfly wings, graceful and lithe. The cuff of his jacket pulled back just enough to show a flash of pale, smooth skin, a small scar running down the inside of his wrist, a pink line of vulnerability.
Marcus bit the inside of his lip. Christ, what the devil was wrong with him? He’d all but ceased his visits to Calleva due to his sudden unfortunate habit of picturing his temporary employer’s face during his most private moments. Now, it seemed, he’d moved on to waxing poetic about MacCunoval’s damned skin.
“You really should get out more, Aquila. Your scowl is becoming quite unappealing.” MacCunoval leaned against the horse’s bronzed flank and folded his arms across his chest. The gesture pulled his jacket tight over his shoulders—broad, straight shoulders, solidly built like the rest of him, no doubt—
“I have another appointment,” Marcus muttered, shoving away from his work table with shaking hands. “You’ve seen enough?”
MacCunoval raised an eyebrow. “Are you throwing me out?”
“It’s my workshop.”
“It’s my prototype.”
“Until I have it fully completed, it’s still my prototype.” Marcus loomed over MacCunoval, hoping to intimidate him enough to leave.
Instead, MacCunoval laughed. It was a bright, playful sound, so at odds with his perpetual frown. “Have it your way, Aquila. Although for the record, you couldn’t scare a duckling, I don’t care how strapping you are.” He patted Marcus’s chest. “Enjoy your prototype for now. Eventually the thing will need a name.”
“I don’t name my machines,” Marcus said, deeply wishing MacCunoval had not touched him. The center of his chest felt very warm.
“First time for everything,” MacCunoval said over his shoulder as he breezed out of the workshop.
Marcus went back to Calleva the following night, though he knew in his bones he should not. He told himself it was only one time, no more. He simply could not think in the current state he was in.
Christopher arrived at his room with a broad smile. “I wondered if you would come back,” he said, reaching out to splay his hand over Marcus’s heart.
Marcus caught his hand. “I know I do not ask this often, but...would you mind terribly if I let—if you were to—”
“Oh, darling, you know I don’t mind,” Christopher said with a gentle laugh. He pulled his hand free of Marcus’s hold and ran his fingers over the swell of Marcus’s arse. “Any excuse I am given to fuck such a gorgeous man is fine by me.”
Marcus thought, Yes, good. I will not have to look him in the eyes. Besides, MacCunoval would never even think to—
He growled low in his throat in frustration. Christopher took it to mean Marcus was eager to begin. “Shall I fetch the oil?”
“Please do,” Marcus said, hating the way his cock suddenly felt full to bursting. As if he were an innocent lad of sixteen. Goddamn it all, he should not feel this way, not about such a pompous, irritating, obnoxiously scruffy-haired, fair-skinned, hard-muscled man such as MacCunoval with his pink mouth and sharp tongue and—
Marcus had to bite the side of wrist to keep himself from screaming the moment Christopher entered him. Helplessly, he wondered if MacCunoval’s prick was as broad as his damned shoulders.
He came within a handful of minutes. Distantly, he felt himself whimper a name, and Marcus prayed all prayers in the book that it was not Esca.
“Why do you have a limp?”
Marcus startled enough to drop his wrench. “It’s none of your business,” he said. In the eighteen months since the accident, no one had been so forward as to ask him such a thing. Then again, Marcus purposely did not venture out into public to keep such questions from occurring.
MacCunoval narrowed his grey eyes. “It’s not very pronounced,” he said, as if Marcus had not replied. “I only notice when you seem to put more weight on your left leg. Were you sickly as a child?”
“I said it is none of your—”
“A fall, then. The bones never mended quite right?”
Marcus scooped the wrench from the floor and pointed it at MacCunoval. “You shouldn’t even be here. I told you the last set of hydraulics wouldn’t be installed until tomorrow.”
He shrugged. “I like to stay abreast of your progress. Watching you work is a pleasant distraction.”
“Distraction from what, your life of leisure?”
MacCunoval’s mouth twitched. If Marcus did not know better, he’d say it was a wince. “I suppose you could say that.”
“It’s been nearly ten weeks now, and I still haven’t the slightest idea what you even do with your time.” Marcus nearly winced himself. He didn’t mean to sound interested in MacCunoval’s life, because he wasn’t. It was the last thing in the world he cared about.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” MacCunoval said, rounding Marcus’s work table to lean beside him, his elbow just shy of brushing against Marcus’s arm. “If I tell you what I do most days, you’ll tell me how you came about your limp.”
Marcus did not want to agree. It was pointless. MacCunoval was simply trying to find a way to mock him. Nevertheless, he found himself replying, “There was an explosion last year in the workshop. Nearly destroyed everything. I managed to pull through, but my uncle had to pay every last coin to his name to my doctors. I’m lucky to still have my leg.”
MacCunoval’s expression was strangely neutral. “Were you out of work for long?”
“A few months. My father kept a secondary supply of tools that allowed me to reopen a smaller workshop, which is where you stand now.” Marcus swallowed against the familiar stab of guilt. “The accident was my fault; I knew better than to have an open flame around those chemicals. I wasn’t thinking.”
“You probably weren’t sleeping,” MacCunoval said softly.
Marcus barked a sharp, sardonic laugh. “Insomnia cannot take all the blame, unfortunately.” He cleared his throat, suddenly far too uncomfortable at how much he had just laid bare. “So, there you have it. I’m sure you’re captivated.”
MacCunoval did not smirk like Marcus expected; rather, he stared at Marcus for what felt like an inappropriately long time, almost as if he were gazing upon Marcus for the first time. “No man is infallible,” he said, inexplicably.
“True, but some of us carry more faults than others,” Marcus said. He did not know why MacCunoval was speaking so carefully.
“Do you also blame yourself for your father’s death?”
“I—” Marcus swallowed and looked away. “Of course not.” Lying to MacCunoval was more difficult than he expected. “Stop trying to deflect the conversation. You owe me an explanation of your daily schedule.”
MacCunoval spread his arms. “Where do you believe I spend my days?”
Marcus snorted. “Galavanting about town, expensive pubs, tea with ladies who wear flowers in their hair—need I go on?”
“You seem very assured of these assumptions.”
“I know how rich men such as yourself spend their time. It’s not a mystery. I doubt you retire to your bed before dawn most nights.”
MacCunoval gave him a strange smile. “Well, you’re not completely wrong there.”
“What the devil does that mean?”
“I did not inherit my money, Aquila. I worked for it. I still do.”
Marcus eyed his elegantly pressed navy jacket and camel-coloured trousers. His leather gloves were the height of trendy fashion, complete with bronzed studs along the cuffs, matching the bronzed buckles of his boots perfectly. An outfit such as his was worth a small fortune. They were not a working man’s clothes. “Forgive me if I find that hard to believe.”
“You’ve nearly created a mobile mechanical horse—why should my employment be so unfathomable?”
“Because...because you aren’t like…” You aren’t like me was on the tip of Marcus’s tongue.
The familiar downward turn of MacCunoval’s mouth returned. “If you have me all figured out, why even bother to ask?”
Marcus hated the flush he felt crawl into his cheeks. Why was MacCunoval being so bloody defensive? “It scarcely matters what I think. I’m a crippled mechanic with debts and an elderly uncle to attend to. I’m nothing in the scheme of your privileged, spoiled universe.” The words tumbled from him fast and furious; he realised belatedly that his hands were gripping the corner of his work table too tightly, his knuckles a slight shade of white.
MacCunoval stood very still, barely blinking. Slowly, he tipped his chin up and squared his shoulders, taking on the haughty, aristocratic stance he’d had the day they’d met. His lips curled into a sneer. “Quite,” he replied softly. Then he swept his hand out toward the prototype. “Get back to work. I’m not paying you to talk about your bloody feelings.”
As he stormed away, Marcus abruptly discovered that rather than struggling to keep himself from yelling something petty, what he really want to say was I’m sorry.
He closed his eyes and dropped his head into his hands.
Nothing made sense anymore.
“Good evening, Mr. Aquila,” Liathan said, serene as always.
“Good evening.” Marcus knew he was weak, but he was thankful Liathan never said a word about it. Not that he would—Marcus’s weakness was Liathan’s salary.
“Your usual room this evening?”
Marcus nodded, wishing his hands didn’t smell of grease and copper. “Is there, by chance...that is, have you had anyone, eh, new lately?”
Liathan’s head tilted to one side. “New?”
“Ah, surely Christopher and Jackson have...evenings off now and again?” Marcus forced a smile.
“Christopher does not work on Thursdays, and Jackson is away on a short hiatus visiting family.” Liathan did not smile in return, but the look in his eyes said he understood what Marcus was wretchedly trying to ask. “We do have others who take their place from time to time.”
“Well. I realise it is not Thursday, but if someone...different were to...entertain this evening...I would not be opposed.”
“Of course, sir. I will do my best to accommodate you.” He showed Marcus to his usual room with the four poster bed. As much as Marcus hated himself for being unable to stay away, there was a strange sense of calm he always felt knowing the room never changed.
He sat down on the bed and splayed his hand over the soft blue quilt. The bed was comfortable, far more than his own bed back in his workshop. He wondered how long it would take Liathan to bring someone “new”; rarely was Marcus alone for more than twenty minutes.
Marcus was simply...tired. The prototype horse was nearly complete, and he’d spent the last few days getting the last few adjustments just right, with very little sleep along the way. Not that he was worried about what MacCunoval would think of the final result; the man had made himself scarce in the last week, hardly setting foot in Marcus’s shop since their argument.
Argument...that wasn’t the right word. Such things were between friends, and he and MacCunoval were certainly not friends. Or anything else, for that matter. Yet why couldn’t Marcus stop thinking about the flash of hurt in the confounded man’s eyes? Why couldn’t he stop feeling sorry for the man who had everything Marcus did not?
There was a soft knock on the door. Marcus laid back on the bed and slung an arm over his eyes. He murmured, “Come in.”
A beat went by, and then the door opened with a soft creak. Marcus waited for the new arrival to introduce himself; the men at Calleva were always very polite with impeccable manners. But whoever it was simply shut the door and walked quietly toward the bed. Marcus could hear the faint sounds of their footsteps.
“Forgive my rudeness,” Marcus said, eyes still hidden. “I’ve had a long day and needed a moment’s rest.”
The man still said nothing. Marcus frowned, wondering if they were so new they needed direct instructions from Marcus. He lifted his arm. “You needn’t ask my preferences for this evening, I’m perfectly willing to allow you—”
He froze the moment he glanced toward the end of the bed.
There stood MacCunoval.
Marcus nearly swallowed his tongue. He blinked several times. “What?” he asked, dumbly, before shaking his head and trying again. “What are you doing here?”
He was dressed as perfectly as always, though tonight he did not wear a jacket, only a plain white shirt with the collar open and his camel-coloured trousers and leather boots. His jaw was set in a very intense line, as if he were physically restraining himself from...something.
Finally, he replied, “I own this establishment.”
Marcus stood up. “I beg your pardon?!”
“You heard me quite clearly.”
“I—that’s not—how could—” Marcus shoved a hand through his hair, his heart seizing in his chest. MacCunoval knew about Marcus’s weakness. He knew them all, and yet he allowed Marcus to carry on as if his secrets were his own.
Marcus wanted to pummel the man with his fists. He also wanted to flee, and cry, and possibly vomit. “All this time—were you planning on blackmailing me once the horse was complete?” His voice sounded too high and frantic.
MacCunoval rolled his eyes. “If I had any plans to blackmail you, I would have done it ages ago.”
“Was it all a farce to you? Watch me fumble about with my father’s schematics during the day and then mock me behind closed doors at night?” He let his anger take over, propelling him toward MacCunoval with his height and breadth. MacCunoval simply tipped his chin up and held Marcus’s eyes, unintimidated and unmoving.
“It was never a farce, Marcus,” he said, quiet. “And I owed you an explanation. I told you I worked for my wealth.”
“By running a brothel.”
MacCunoval’s mouth twitched. “A brothel you are quite fond of, I might add.”
Marcus’s ears went up in flames. “Do you—do you service your clients, as well?”
“I did, once upon a time. I won Calleva in a card game, and after that I fashioned myself into a business man. No one takes a retired whore seriously if they don’t dress the part.” He quirked an eyebrow at Marcus, and in the dim light the line of his neck was very pale and smooth. The open neck of his shirt revealed the shadowed valleys of his collarbones.
“I don’t understand,” Marcus bit out as he clenched his hand into a fist. “What does a man like you want with a mechanical horse? Why hire me at all?” He would not think about touching MacCunoval’s skin, he would not.
MacCunoval swallowed, drawing Marcus’s gaze to his throat. “Ferguson,” he said.
“Ferguson? What of him?”
“He came to me several months ago and said he’d more or less traded his membership as payment to a mechanic who was quite talented, the son of an infamous mechanic who claimed he would build the world’s first steam-powered horse. I...wanted to know more.” He glanced away. “So I read everything there was to know about Flavius Aquila and his son Marcus, and when you arrived at Calleva I made sure you...had the best I could offer.”
Marcus felt dizzy. He sat down hard on the edge of the bed. “But—the horses—”
MacCunoval shook his head. “You have your vices, I have mine, and apparently they are named Marcus Aquila.” His sharp gaze came to Marcus, and there was so much feeling in those lovely grey eyes that Marcus felt the air abruptly squeezed from his lungs.
“You wanted me,” Marcus whispered.
“There is no past tense,” MacCunoval—Esca—whispered back.
“That doesn’t explain your appalling behavior toward me in the beginning.”
Esca’s mouth tilted into a genuine smile. “Ah, well, what would you have done if a strange man walked into your place of business and announced he desperately wanted to fuck you?”
Simply hearing the word fuck come from Esca’s soft, pink mouth made Marcus grow to full, almost painful hardness. Christ, this could not be happening. Esca MacCunoval could be standing there, offering delicious, filthy things to Marcus when he’d spent weeks making Marcus’s life hell. Surely Marcus was dreaming. “You sent Christopher to me.”
“Yes. And Silas, and Jackson. They are not afraid of...improvisation.”
Marcus was so aroused he was nearly shaking. He gripped his knee tightly. “I was not going to return here again.”
“I noticed your absence.” Esca moved closer to the bed; his left hand pulled at the buttons of his shirt.
“I...could not…” Marcus lost his train of thought as more and more pale skin was revealed to him. Esca’s chest was exactly as Marcus had imagined: smooth, compact, with small dusky nipples set atop hard pectorals. “I could not be with the others without...thinking of you.”
“You thought of me as you fucked Christopher?” Esca’s hand paused as he pulled his shirttails from his trousers. He sounded pleased.
Marcus shook his head. “I thought of you as he fucked me,” he breathed.
Esca’s eyes turned very, very dark. “Well. I’m flattered. Christopher is quite alluring.”
“And you are quite insufferable,” Marcus growled before giving in completely and tugging Esca between his spread legs. Their mouths came together in a crush of wet heat and tongues as Marcus fell back onto the bed. Esca shed his shirt and crawled up Marcus’s body until he was straddling Marcus’s waist, his hard prick snug up against Esca’s tight arse. Esca rolled his hips, causing Marcus to moan and bite at Esca’s mouth.
“I’ve pictured you just like this,” Esca gasped into Marcus’s neck. “Shivering and needy, begging for me to take you.”
“Yes,” Marcus said, fisting his hands in Esca’s hair. He had never felt this way with the others: desperate with desire, but also thrilled by it, breathless in anticipation.
Esca stripped away their clothes with a practiced ease that caused a uncomfortable fluttering to stir deep in Marcus’s belly, a fluttering that felt not unlike jealousy. A retired whore, he thought.
“You’re thinking too hard,” Esca murmured, nipping at Marcus’s ear. “Must you have the weight of the world on you at all times?” He slid his hand over Marcus’s cock and squeezed once, hard, and Marcus arched his back against the bed.
“I can’t help wondering if...Liathan said you have others stand in for Christopher...”
“I do not service clients at Calleva, if that is what you’re asking.” He kissed Marcus languidly as he continued to toy with Marcus’s cock.
“No. My life is ledgers and accounting these days.” Esca paused and gave Marcus what could only be described as a sweetly sheepish smile. “And you must know—my intention was not to bed you that day I came into your workshop. I merely wanted to...see who you really were.”
“And pay me an exorbitant amount of money for something you were not even sure I could produce?” Marcus could not help the answering smile of his own.
“I admit, my plan was faulty. Part of me believed you would simply tell me off and that would be the end of it.”
“Would it? You’re very persistent.”
The sheepish grin bled into something much more erotic and filthy. “Perhaps not. If I am persistent, you are in insatiable,” he said as his fingers slipped over the wetness gathering at the tip of Marcus’s prick, and Marcus lost his capacity for banter.
“Please,” he whispered, fucking his cock up into Esca’s fist.
Esca gasped, “Yes, quite insatiable,” and reached for the oil.
It was not like his other encounters at Calleva. Esca fucked him as if he both knew Marcus’s body and was only just discovering it; his touches were gentle yet tinged with urgency, and he seemed immensely pleased whenever Marcus moaned and asked for more, harder. As Marcus had deduced weeks earlier, Esca was all wiry, solid muscle, not a bit of him wasted, and he used his economical build and strength to give Marcus exactly what he wanted.
Exactly what he needed.
“Damn, you’re a sight,” Esca breathed. He snapped his hips in time with Marcus’s gasps.
Marcus pulled Esca down into a messy, graceless kiss. “I need to come,” he said into Esca’s mouth.
“Then go ahead, come on my cock. Let me feel you.”
For the first time in ages, Marcus felt a sense of pure freedom at being given permission to let go.
In the aftermath, Esca curled into Marcus’s side, heedless of the come coating Marcus’s stomach. The only sounds in the room were the sporadic beats of their laboured breathing.
“I won’t be back to Calleva,” Marcus said, barely above a whisper.
Esca lifted his head off Marcus’s chest. “I won’t allow you back.”
He huffed a laugh, tracing a finger over the soft stubble scattered over Esca’s cheeks. “Your horse is almost complete. I’m not sure it is everything you imagined, but—”
“No, it’s brilliant.” Esca butted his nose against Marcus’s palm. “Your father would be proud.”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
“I had not thought that far ahead. If anything, I shall have to commission more from you so that I’ll continue to have excuses to visit your workshop.”
“A stable full of mechanical horses, eh?” Marcus’s heart felt very full. “That is ambitious.”
“I’m an ambitious man.”
“Among other things.” Marcus thumbed at Esca’s lower lip.
“Watching you work is...soothing.”
“And here I thought you did not trust me to give you progress.”
Esca made a soft humming sound. “I like watching you build things. The look you have in your eyes is…” He tucked his face into Marcus’s neck.
Marcus rolled them over until Esca was pinned beneath him. “You do realise that my bed in the workshop is not nearly as comfortable.”
“Such a shame. You’ll have to spend your evenings at my flat. My bed is twice this size.”
“I also recall something about a fifteen-year-old scotch.”
Esca blinked, then burst into throaty laughter that made Marcus’s spent cock begin to twitch in interest. “Indeed. I really do have much to show you.” He slid his bare foot up the back of Marcus’s thigh.
Marcus kissed him, sighing deeply when Esca pushed him back onto the sheets.
Esca named the horse Flavius, and had the name engraved upon its flank. It walked in jerky, uneven steps, creaking loudly, and within minutes its metal body would grow hot from the steam and be unfit for riding of any kind. It was by no means a lovely creature to look upon; in many cases, people on the street would stop and stare, asking Esca in hushed voices what on earth he was doing with such a contraption.
The following day, Esca asked Marcus to build him another. “Flavius needs a mate,” he said.
Marcus got right to work.