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Spoken from the Heart

Chapter Text

Chapter One

"So Galliero passed?" The barkeep set a brimming jug of Reckton Red on the table in front of Julian, and put a wooden cup beside it. A generous man—or a barkeep who didn't realize the court dandies had decided with the capriciousness of the bored that the rough, peppery wine only peasants drank was fashionable.

Julian would've wagered a month's wages if he returned to the Saddle and Stirrup in a few weeks, the jug would've become a single glass, not over-full, and the price triple what he was paying today.

He touched the black feather thrust through the first button hole on his waistcoat and nodded. "He died at midnight, or so I was told. I hear his last words were borrowed from his favorite play, but I'm not inclined to credit it. What man goes to his death with a smile on his face?"

The barkeep snorted. "I say he did quote from Mischief and Mayhem. The man was born to make people laugh; why not Death himself?"

Julian chuckled and poured himself some wine. "True enough." He raised his cup, regretting his choice of an outside table had doomed him to drink from wood, not glass. The sunlight catching the crimson liquid and making it glow like a ruby would've been most effective. "Well, the theaters are closed in his memory, so I have the day in which to get drunk—also in his memory."

And regret the loan of twenty silver a month ago. Little chance of Galliero's sister repaying him, even if Julian was at his most charming with the acid-tongued shrew.

The barkeep opened his mouth to speak, but a group of laborers came into view. Their faces were sweat-dappled, their green jerkins emblazoned with the Duke's sigil, the stylized hawk dark against the cloth.

"They look thirsty."

"Aye, and they'll be in a hurry to get back to work. If you'll excuse me, sir." A hand was extended, respectfully but firmly.

Wooden cups and payment demanded after each drink. Next time, he would sit inside, even if the wood smoke made his throat close up and roughen his voice. Julian took the necessary coppers from the pouch at his belt and handed them over with a nod he made a shade less friendly than normal.

He had yet to reach Galliero's stature in the theater, but he was Julian Melville, after all, and his portrayal of Dracor's death in A Man's Honor had reduced the duke's daughter, Lady Helena, to tears, her quiet sobs the only sound in the hushed theater. The crowd had risen to its feet, applauding him as he lay bloodied and broken, that damn sword digging into his hip, only professionalism keeping him from shifting it an inch to the left.

The barkeep cleared his throat apologetically. "That'll be another six pennies, sir. We've had quite a run on the Reckton this week. Seems it's popular all of a sudden."

Julian twisted his lips into an aloof smile—damn—and tossed a silver piece on the table. "Keep the change and buy yourself a glass of it, since you were such an admirer of my late, esteemed colleague."

"Thank you, sir." The barkeep touched a finger to the lank hair falling across his broad forehead and left Julian to drink alone, an unusual state of affairs for him.

His pouch seemed considerably lighter. He had to remember grand gestures were only satisfying in the moment. And the Reckton was sour on the tongue and would most likely make his gut tie itself in knots. He should be setting fashion, not following it, but what were the chances of that when even an inn keeper was unimpressed by him?

Well, considerably better now the Pinnacle Theater had lost its star actor.

Guilt shamed him into taking an unwisely large gulp of wine in penance for his uncharitable thoughts. Galliero hadn't been a friend, exactly—unless friendship was signified by the man's readiness to borrow money and ask favors from Julian—but he'd been carelessly kind in those first years when parts had been thin and applause a bored, polite patter.

Galliero had taught him how to beware of being upstaged, warned him of actors who would subtly alter the final word of a speech so that Julian's cue was missed, his response fumbled. Had spent an afternoon coaching Julian until his voice could fill the vast space between floor and balcony with a deep, resonant thunder, not a scared, thin squeak.

And had introduced him to Lord Marcus as an up-and-coming new talent in need of a sponsor with a wink and a nod Julian had never quite been sure was meant for him. Marcus' gold had kept Julian from starving and put velvet and silk on his back. If his ass had been left raw from too vigorous a use more than once, at least Marcus was careful with his prick when it was in Julian's mouth. An actor's throat and voice were precious, after all.

Galliero's forte had been comedy, but he'd kept some juicy dramatic roles clutched to that increasingly wide chest of his that might fall to Julian if he approached Master Sampton, the owner of the Pinnacle Theater, with the proper mix of confidence and respect. They were to begin rehearsing Silence Falls soon. King Henry's mad scene—what he could do with that! Galliero had wrung every ounce of pathos from the part the last time he'd played it, but completely missed the driving greed for power that still burned bright in the ruined mind. Julian had been cast as the king's childhood friend, powerless to arrest his monarch's ambition, endangering himself with each unwise word. A good role, to be sure, and one he'd been more than happy with, but now…perhaps…

His thoughts occupied by the pitch he'd need to make, the warmth of the early summer afternoon soporific, Julian allowed himself to drift into daydreams. The bustle of the square dimmed to a faint buzz, and he smelled not the heat rising off the cobbles or the rank stink of cabbages from the vegetable stall close by, but the dry, dusty air of the theater and the familiar, oily scent of the cosmetics his dresser applied so deftly to his face. The raucous voices of the stallholders bargaining with their customers, the endless rain of the fountain at the center of the square, its water clean and pure these days, thanks to the duke's orders—all was muted, distant.

His star was rising, his time was here. He would be feted, adored, successful enough, perhaps, to be able to introduce Marcus to a new protégé, like, hmm, young Selwyn, perhaps. That mop of yellow hair, those bright, knowing blue eyes that could feign innocence so well… Marcus would enjoy the conquest and never see the calculation behind Selwyn's winning charm.

"You misbegotten son of a flea-bitten whore!"

Julian automatically tried to place the line—Season's Turn? Lady Whimsy's Wish?—before realizing it had been said with genuine anger thickening each syllable. Jolted from his reverie, he turned his head, lazily interested in whatever had prompted the outburst.

The justice stocks, discreetly tucked away in a corner a hundred paces or so from Julian's table, were occupied, and by the sound of it, one of justice's helpers wasn't happy.

Julian grinned. Some of the duke's innovations were decidedly on the eccentric side. Offering petty criminals their choice of punishment had caused an uproar amongst the citizens even before word had leaked out about the nature of some of the options.

With the idle curiosity of a man with nothing better to do, he swallowed down what remained of his wine, then refilled the wooden cup from the jug. Wine in hand, he sauntered over to the stocks, approving the relative cleanliness of the cobbles these days. His boots were new, their glossy black leather soft to the touch, the buff-colored cuffs as deep as the current mode demanded. Soiling them with mud or refuse would have been a pity.

The young man kneeling in the stocks, his head a perfect height for the action required to be released from them, was flushed with indignation. Julian gave the prisoner a swift glance, the watchful guard another, then turned his attention to the man tucking his prick away inside his breeches, his mouth still spouting abuse. Julian summed him up at a glance. Tall, burly, with cold gray eyes and the tang of the ocean about him. A sailor, his skin burned dark by the southern sun, gold rings hanging heavy from his ears.

"You'll not count this against what he owes!" the sailor told the guard, whose lack of interest was palpable. "The thieving piece of shit bit me."

"You got what you wanted." The guard looked pointedly at the snail's trail of white on the man's breeches. "Move on. There're others waiting. He's ready for you, citizen."

"Oh, I'm not waiting." Julian sipped his wine and gave the two men standing a sunny smile. "I'm observing."

"If you don't want to use him, you can move on." The guard didn't trouble to rest his hand on his sword. The duke's men rarely needed to draw steel within the city after the Night of Blades a decade earlier. He glanced down at the prisoner and scuffed his hand through the lad's thick, curling hair in a friendly way. "One more to service and you can go home to your mother and tell her what a busy day you had. Or lie. If you want my advice, I'd choose to lie."

The sailor snorted, wiped his hand down his breeches, and slapped it, wet with come, against the prisoner's cheek. "I hope you choke on what he spills down your throat, you little—"

"Citizen. Move on." The words stung like bees, sharp and swift.

The sailor drew himself up and walked away, his gait unsteady, as if a deck still heaved beneath his feet, not the solid, unmoving earth. Julian watched the sailor go, letting the details of the man's walk soak into his mind. He couldn't recall a decent sailor's role, but who knew when it might come in handy to know how a man fresh from a voyage put one foot in front of another? An actor could learn a lot from simply using his eyes and ears.

The guard cleared his throat. "If you've need of release, use him, otherwise…"

"Move on. I know." Julian sipped his wine again and gave the prisoner a considering look. The youngster's head was lowered now, but the mop of silky, auburn curls and the slender wrists and strong, tanned hands were somewhat intriguing. He wasn't surprised the guard had tousled that hair. It drew the eye. Julian let himself wonder what it would be like to plunge both hands into it and hold the lad steady before fucking his mouth in slow, luxurious strokes, but it was no more than a passing thought. Julian Melville didn't rut in public, and his partners were willing—and clean. And usually older. The lad's jerkin was a grubby brown, his leather breeches patched and stained. Julian put his age around nineteen, if that.

"What did he do?"

"Stole food from a stall. Caught with it before he'd gone a few paces."

"I was hungry." The words were directed at the cobblestones, filled with a weary defiance. "I didn't know—at home, no one would've minded—"

"You're in the city now, boy. Everything has a price, even kindness." The guard jerked his head at Julian. "If you please, citizen."

Something about the bewildered hurt in the lad's voice caught at Julian. He hesitated, pity replacing his amused lack of sympathy. The penalty was a kinder one than the loss of a finger, after all, which would've been the lad's fate under the old duke.

"Can I buy his freedom? A whore would charge, what, ten coppers a time? I could give you fifteen?" He could afford that, and the glow of magnanimity would be pleasant. Even if the boy would most likely steal again if his belly was empty—and though Julian was hazy on the exact wording of the law, he had a feeling the penalty for a second offense wouldn't be as light. The duke was eccentric, not stupid.

The guard shook his head. "'One Law for Rich and Poor'," he quoted. "Peasant or prince, he chose this, and he stays here until he's done, and I with him to see justice." With a rougher touch than before, the guard grabbed a handful of hair and brought the prisoner's head back, exposing his face and the pure lines of his throat, the fair skin tanned by the sun. "He's pretty enough to pass as a girl if that's more your fancy."

"I am not!"

The guard shook the prisoner's head by way of rebuke, his grip tight enough now to bring tears to the green eyes. "And making him hold his tongue would be a kindness. It's sharp enough that three likely prospects walked on by after hearing him."

Julian laughed uneasily. Those eyes, blazing with indignation, and a swollen, lush mouth had his cock hardening, but he had some standards, damn it.

"You sound like a man who wishes his task to be over."

The guard grimaced and lowered his voice, though no one was in earshot. "I feel like the owner of an ease-house. Look, citizen, time's passing. I'd take it as a personal favor if you'd—"

"What's the rush?" There was a mouthful of wine swilling around in the bottom of the cup. Julian crouched and held it to the lad's lips. "Here. Wash out the taste of the last one."

Eyebrows two shades darker than the lad's hair snapped together in a frown and his lips became a stubborn, tight line.

"Go ahead," the guard encouraged him. "Nothing to say you can't drink something beside a mouthful of white."

Slowly, the lad parted his lips, suspicion darkening his eyes. Julian wondered what he'd looked like when he'd first arrived in the city, eager for adventure and trusting everyone. Younger? Happier? He tilted the cup and let the wine trickle into the waiting mouth. A swipe of a tongue to catch the last drop, and the boy's mouth was closed again, hiding sharp teeth. One eyetooth was a fraction crooked, and the lad's breath was sour behind the taste of wine, but yes, he was pretty, if one's taste ran to that.

Julian straightened. "Why the rush?" he asked again.

The guard shrugged. "My time's worth something, though you wouldn't think it. I can't stand here forever. He gets two hours to work off his sentence or he takes the rest in lashes. Some go for the lashes from the start, but by the third, I'm guessing they wish they'd chosen differently, and by the seventh, well, they're usually past caring."

A single lash didn't sound unbearable unless a man had seen the heavy, barbed whip used on criminals. Julian had. It sliced skin open and left scars. The pain and the blood loss weren't fatal, but the infection that followed sometimes was.

"How long does he have left?"

The guard glanced up at the clock tower two squares over. "Put it this way, he needs someone quick off the mark. A quarter-hour. Less."

"Oh, darkness take it—" With a swift glance around to make sure no one was watching, Julian undid the placket of his breeches and eased out his prick. Embarrassment wasn't a failing of his, but the fearlessness an actor required to perform didn't extend to a situation like this. Sweat prickled hot and cold over his body, and he had to close his eyes for a moment and think himself into character. A man with arrogance to spare, or nowhere to fall in people's eyes, would do this without thought. He'd been told he had the arrogance often enough.

Bending down again, he took the lad's chin in his hand and felt the bone beneath the flesh. No stubble to speak of, but a the scatter of freckles—sun-kisses, his nurse had called them—across the lad's nose. "What's your name?"

Teeth snapped shut in answer.

"Fine." Julian glanced up at the guard. "What did he steal?"

"An apple."

"Should have been a sausage." That got a chuckle from the guard and a hissed-out protest from the prisoner.

Julian returned his attention to the man whose skin was warm against his fingers. "Some ground rules, my little country pippin. I'm doing this because I'm in a sentimental mood for reasons that don't concern you. You bite me, and I'll bite you back. I'm clean, and I bathed this morning. I'm not so well-endowed that I'll choke you, but I'm above average, so I won't be offended if you don't take me all. No need to get fancy."

"You don't pay your whores by the hour, do you?" the guard inquired. "Because if this is how you do business, it must cost you a week's wages to get your itch scratched."

Julian stood and worked himself hard enough to be sucked, the action familiar enough to override his qualms. "My apologies for being tedious, but I'm not in the mood to have my prick chewed."

"Some men pay extra for a little pain."

Julian shuddered, his hand slackening. He wasn't averse to a certain amount of experimentation, but pain, well, pain hurt. The warm air on his cock, the mouth waiting for it, sullen, sulky, stubborn and so damned appealing—his arousal built quickly, and he moved closer.

"Suck me, Pippin. I'll make it quick."

"His back will thank you if you do." The guard's remarks, delivered with a heavy jocularity, irritated Julian, but he kept that to himself. He suspected the guard was genuinely reluctant to hand Pippin, or whatever the lad's name was, over to be flogged.

Pippin closed his eyes, a wave of scarlet sweeping up from his neck to his ears. Julian ignored the evident shame the boy felt. If he went to the whipping post, he'd be naked, with the crowd jeering him until the expectant, avid silence fell. This was better.

He ran his thumb over lips the wind and sun had chapped, and pushed it inside, not ungently. "Open for me."

With a choked sound that could've been a tear or pure fury, Pippin obeyed, and Julian slid his cock home, the sweet tingle of danger and delight making his balls tighten. He didn't expect anything in the way of technique, confining his hope to the sincere wish Pippin kept his teeth out of all-too-tender flesh. After a few shallow, slow thrusts to measure the depth, he relaxed enough to get some measure of enjoyment out of an experience that bordered on the surreal.

He, Julian Melville, was getting his cock sucked dry by a country boy, in broad daylight, in Sandrin Square.

Friends and rivals alike might accept it'd happened should he ever be foolish enough to share the story, but no one would believe his motives were pure.

The guard turned his head away, giving an illusion of privacy. The pressure of the passing moments lay heavily on Julian, but it had been so long since he'd felt the sweet slickness of a warm mouth around his prick that rushing seemed a sinful waste. Marcus had never, would never, lower himself so far as to offer this, though Julian had often suspected he was tempted by a change in role. Dignity had always trumped desire.

He needed to end this. His eyes slid closed, blocking out the scene before him, allowing him to recreate a better one. His bedroom, the candles burning with a fitful, flickering illumination, pouring out golden light against Pippin's fair skin. Pippin wouldn't be kneeling, bound, but crouched between his legs, eagerly taking him deep, choking himself so that Julian would reach out and smooth back the auburn hair, slowing down time, making Pippin see there was no rush, no need to do anything but let the pleasure build between them—

"The clock will strike soon."

"Oh, in the name of the Lady—" Julian glared down at Pippin, his fantasy in ruins. "Your tongue. Use it. You've licked a sugar cane, yes?"

Pippin swallowed, the action itself almost enough, almost, and flicked his tongue, a liquid swirl that undid Julian completely. He had sense enough to keep his strangled moan mostly inside his throat, but it cost him.

The clock struck the turn as he pulled free, his prick shiny and a pearl of white gleaming at its slit.

"Justice done." With a brisk efficiency that Julian, weak-kneed and breathless, found distinctly jarring, the guard unlocked the stocks, freeing Pippin. Julian fumbled his breeches closed and swept his hand over his hair, trusting any disorder of his dark brown locks looked windswept, not messy. There wasn't a breath of air, but the tousled look was fashionable. It took a while to create, but appearances mattered, and he didn't grudge the time spent in front of his mirror, a wet comb in his hand.

Pippin stood, swaying as if giddy. Julian supposed a few hours kneeling would do that to a man. He wasn't sure what to say, something of a novel experience for him. No perfectly crafted line from a play came to mind to help him out. If Pippin had offered him thanks, he would've been able to respond using the words of the masters, deftly tweaked, of course, but Pippin was staring at the cobbles, his head down.

"You're free to go, lad." The guard pushed Pippin's shoulder, making him stumble. "Be off with you."

It occurred to Julian another reason for Pippin's unsteadiness might be hunger. One of his father's favorite sayings, delivered in a flat voice that brooked no dissent, had been that a job half-done wasn't done at all. The guard walked away without a backward glance, his job done, and Julian sighed inwardly and stepped forward, supporting Pippin with a hand under his elbow. Pippin was three inches taller than he, with broad shoulders and a rangy frame he hadn't quite grown into yet.

"Pippin—"

"That's not my name."

"It's the only one I've got," Julian pointed out with some asperity. He drew a breath. "I find myself with an appetite, and we're no more than a short walk from the best meat and potato pie in the city. I hate to eat alone, so if you'd be my guest, I'd count it as a favor."

Pippin shook free of Julian's grip. "Back on the farm, I used to shovel shit. It wasn't so long ago that I don't recognize the smell."

"It's possible the favor would be mostly on my side," Julian allowed, "but pride won't fill your belly. Did I mention the pepper gravy? Trust me, you can't come to the city and not taste Mistress Lindy's pepper gravy."

Pippin was milk-pale beneath the tan, the dirt, and the freckles. "I have no money."

"Old news."

"I will not—I will not do that again to pay for my meal."

"It might be hard to credit, but you're not my usual choice of bedmate. Men, yes, innocents, never. Your company for the time it takes to feed us both is all I ask."

"Why?" The question was a faint whisper, but Julian had been trained to hear the hiss of a prompter twenty feet away.

He bent to pick up the wooden cup from the ground. "There are a hundred young men like you arriving in the city today, Pippin. More. Young girls too, fresh from the country and disillusioned at best before the sun sets. I would have gone through my day without giving them a thought, but you were thrust under my nose and I can't turn my back on you and sleep easy tonight." He tapped Pippin's shoulder. "I have no wish for word of this to get out. My reputation for being a heartless frivol is dear to me. Do we understand each other?"

"I don't understand most of what you say, but I'll go with you if you'll feed me, I suppose." Pippin's broad shoulders drooped. "I've been hungry before, but not like this."

Julian had known hunger and remembered how desperate he'd been to ease the cramped emptiness in his belly. He slipped his hand under Pippin's arm again, as he would've done with a friend, and guided Pippin away from the stocks.

When they passed the inn, he tossed the wooden cup at a server, who caught it deftly and snatched the copper Julian threw next with a matching dexterity.

Neatly done.

 

Chapter Two

Mistress Lindy's was one of Julian's favorite places to eat when he was hungry. He patronized expensive restaurants to show off a new cloak, fur-trimmed and fastened at the throat with an intricate pin worked in gold, or to ply his charm on a director or a fellow actor over a small plate of over-priced tidbits. Sometimes, he was there playing the role of Marcus' friend in such a way that no one could accuse him of being more, but everyone who looked knew what he was. At times such as that, the food was the least important part of the event.

At Mistress Lindy's, the food was everything.

He found them a table tucked away at the back of the room, close enough to the kitchens that a man could eat on the smell alone. The irregularly shaped room, its rough walls whitewashed annually, though the framed playbills covering the walls made that effort pointless, was as quiet as it ever got. Lindy's was open around the clock, but those seeking a midday meal had come and gone, leaving spaces at the long table running down the center of the room, as well as free tables in odd corners. Julian saw some familiar faces, but deliberately caught no one's eye. He knew how to make an entrance, but he was capable of entering a room discreetly too.

The people who ate here usually had some connection to the theater or hoped to form one. It was perfectly positioned, a short walk from two of the major theaters in the city, the Pinnacle and its rival, The Garrick. Mistress Lindy herself had once been a costume designer of note at the Pinnacle, but when her eyesight dimmed after taking a million precise stitches, she'd retired to open the eating house and her second career had proved as successful as her first.

Pippin sat as if his legs would no longer hold him and shot Julian a look so full of shamed pleading that Julian averted his eyes. He was well known here, and within moments a server was at his side, a tall, lugubrious man with dark eyes, creased at the corners. Joe had been a comedian in a troupe touring the Realm. He harbored an abiding devotion to Lindy that, as far as Julian knew, had never become more than that, and when she'd left the theater life, so had he. In a nod to the past, a black feather had been tucked into the apron around his waist. Like Julian, Joe was showing his respects to a fellow actor.

"Joe." Julian touched the feather he wore. "A sad day."

Joe nodded, the movement of his head the jerky bob that'd once been his trademark, guaranteed to have an audience roaring with anticipatory laughter as they waited for the punch line. A lock of black hair fell forward over his face. "He'll be missed."

They shared a moment of silence, then Julian gestured at Pippin. "He's not eaten for a while. Maybe a bowl of soup to start with?"

Joe studied Pippin with an experienced eye. "Milk and bread first. If he keeps that down, he can have the soup."

"I'm not a babe to be fed sops," Pippin muttered.

Generosity only went so far. "No, you're an ungrateful brat who'll eat what he's given."

Joe snorted, not unkindly, as Pippin blushed hotly, and turned to Julian. "And you? The usual?"

It would've been cruel to eat pie when Pippin was eating mush. Julian sighed. "Soup."

Not a huge sacrifice. He'd stumbled in here once, with dawn still some hours away, his throat near closed after a grueling twelve hours of rehearsal with a perfectionist director. Mistress Lindy herself had slid a fragrant, steaming bowl of broth onto the table with a roll of bread so fresh from the oven that breaking it open had released a cloud of warm, yeasty air. The pat of butter had slid over the flaky surface and melted as it went, leaving the roll rich and soft.

He'd fallen asleep and woken with the imprint of his spoon on his cheek a few hours later.

Joe returned with a cup of milk and a slice of nutty brown bread spread with butter and cut into fingers before the silence between Julian and his guest grew awkward. Julian tried hard to hold back his grin at the neat slices of bread, but failed. The smile faded when he saw how Pippin's hand shook as he reached for the milk.

"Use both hands," he advised, keeping his voice low.

Pippin's teeth dug into his lip, but he raised the cup without spilling and drank from it with a painstaking lack of haste that must've cost him dearly. A slice of bread came next, and again Julian watched with pity and admiration as Pippin bit neatly at the thin finger of bread and chewed it before swallowing.

The taste broke Pippin's control. He moaned, the sound uncomfortably close to ones Julian had heard—and made—during lovemaking, and crammed the rest of the bread finger into his mouth, washing it down with a gulp of milk. The plate and cup were empty soon after, leaving a glossy shine of butter on Pippin's generous mouth and long fingers.

"Feel better?"

"I've never tasted anything half so good," Pippin replied, with a simplicity that rang of sincerity.

"Hunger's the best spice, so they say." Julian settled back in his chair. "Don't rush yourself, though. If you've not eaten for a while—how long has it been, anyway?"

"I had a mouthful of apple. They threw the rest away when they caught me. Not that I was running, because I didn't think I'd done anything wrong."

"Of course not."

Pippin glared at him. "I'm not a fool! I know markets are for selling goods, not giving them away, but this apple was bruised and on the floor. I didn't think it mattered. It'd been trodden on!"

The unfairness clearly stung, and Julian, adjusting his ideas in the light of the new information, decided Pippin was right to feel aggrieved.

"And before the apple was yesterday when a woman gave me some bread and cheese for digging a new hole for her privy." Pippin's chin came up. "I'm no beggar. I'll work for my keep."

"Admirable. How long have you been in the city?"

Caution darkened Pippin's eyes. "A while. Weeks."

"You're lying, but I won't press you. It doesn't matter to me, after all."

Julian's ready acceptance of Pippin's reluctance to share his story seemed to leave Pippin more suspicious, not less, but that was no bad thing. Country boys weren't necessarily naïve and innocent, but they were often easily overwhelmed by the scale of the city. Julian had been born here and he knew its ways instinctively, but he never underestimated its dangers.

"Ah," Julian said, with an appreciative sniff. "Soup."

His bowl was filled with a thick, meaty stew, tangy with peppers and onions. He'd need to chew mint for an hour to leave his breath fresh enough for Marcus' liking. Pippin's held chicken broth, light and nourishing, shreds of meat giving it some body. It was hot enough that Pippin was forced to drink it slowly, and by the time he had, his face had lost its pallor.

"I'm in your debt, sir." Pippin set his spoon down and made a pass at a bow. It wasn't entirely successful from a seated position with a table in the way. "You must tell me how I can repay you. Is there a task I could perform? Do you need—"

"A privy dug? No, I thank you."

"There must be some way I can repay you." Pippin’s persistence was charming, with the potential to become irritating.

Julian waved in dismissal. "'An act of kindness brightens the dullest hour.’" He raised his eyebrows. "Sir Cyril? From Mountains and Molehills? Not familiar with it? It’s one of Werskin’s wittiest comedies, in my opinion."

"It’s a play?" Pippin sounded doubtful enough to have Julian’s mouth hanging ajar until he collected himself. Showing surprise was uncouth. Showing one’s back teeth to the audience, unforgivable.

"Why, yes, it’s a play. Where you’re from, do they not have a theater close by? Or do you make do with the traveling troupes?"

He supposed the smaller villages and hamlets would be too remote to make a trip to a playhouse feasible, but few places were too small not to be on a troupe’s route.

"I’ve never seen a play or a troupe." Pippin shrugged indifferently. "Why would I wish to see liars prance about spinning falsehoods?"

Julian cleared his throat. "Ah. You’re from the Westerlings."

Pippin’s lips set mutinously. "You say that like it marks me as a provincial lout with straw for brains. Yes, I am, but I’m here, aren’t I? I left."

"So you did, but it seems you’ve brought some baggage with you."

"Plays aren’t real," Pippin explained kindly. "They’re stories at best, and the wise man deals in facts."

"Yes, well, I’m an actor," Julian told him with some asperity, "and if I act, I eat, it’s as simple as that. I entertain folk. I put a smile on their face, a tear in their eyes, and a thought in their hollow, empty heads. Not my words, no, but I breathe life into ink on paper, I make characters who exist only in a playwright’s mind live and stride the stage, if only for a few hours."

He paused and realized midway through his impassioned speech he’d stood and raised his voice, declaiming, not speaking. A patter of applause from the tables around him had him bowing in polite acknowledgement before he sank gracefully into his chair.

Pippin was silenced, his eyes wide, the ready color rising in his face once more.

"I’m sorry for overwhelming you with my eloquence."

Pippin shook his head. "I’ve never met anyone like you before. You’re an actor? That’s all you do?"

The incredulity in his voice was enough to make Julian cast up his eyes. "Yes, I’m an actor. Currently with the Pinnacle Theater, and we’re about to start rehearsals for Silence Falls. You don't know it? No matter. It’s a tragedy. Epic. The stage can’t stand empty while we rehearse, of course, so we’re also performing a comedy. I have a role in that, a trifling one to allow me time to learn my lines for the tragedy. I work long hours, I sweat, I labor—"

"I wager not as much as I did taking in the wheat harvest last year with a storm approaching. I didn't see my bed for two nights."

"You'd be surprised." Julian studied Pippin. "You seem to have a glimmer of intelligence. Please don't make me label you as stupid. We come from different worlds, but if I promise not to make any of the Westerlings jokes I'm sure you're bored to tears of hearing—"

"They joke about us?" Green eyes went wide and shocked.

Julian cursed himself, but even as he scrambled for a way to retrieve the situation, he saw the amusement in those green eyes and narrowed his. "Neatly done. Was any of your outrage and ignorance real?"

Pippin shrugged. "It's true I've never seen a play, but my words belonged to my father, not me. I have nothing against actors. How can I when I've never met one until now?"

"I'm not used to being someone's first." The mild innuendo seemed to pass over Pippin's head. He smiled, a frank, friendly grin that kindled an answering warmth in Julian.

"Still hungry?"

Pippin patted his flat stomach. "Yes, but I'll not impose further on your generosity."

"I think I could stretch my generosity sufficiently to buy you a pie to take with you." There was something intoxicating about being the benefactor. Maybe this was how Marcus felt—no. His largesse came with a price attached. Julian wanted nothing but the comfortable assurance Pippin was well-fed, for today at least.

Pippin lowered his gaze to the table. "I wish…"

"What?"

"I want to do something to thank you."

"Some might say you already did." Pippin looked puzzled. Julian sighed and tapped his mouth meaningfully.

"Oh!" Pippin shook his head, the tousled locks of hair falling into his eyes. Washed, his hair would be the color of a copper penny. Cut by scissors, not hacked off by a knife, and it would frame his face beautifully. "I didn't choose that, and you didn't want to do it. I could tell. You were being gracious. It doesn't count."

"I wish I could think all my friends would see it in that light."

"You wouldn't get into trouble?"

"For helping justice? No. For using your mouth as if I was desperate for release—for that, I'd get teased. Mercilessly. If you wish to repay me, wipe what happened between us from your memory."

"I'm sorry." Pippin's voice was a stifled mutter. "I didn't realize how—what an awkward—I'm so sorry, sir."

"It's done. Forget it. Please." Julian rose. "I'll leave the price of a pie with Joe. He'll give it to you when you leave, but for now, stay, rest a while. It's not too busy, and they won't rush you out of the door."

"You're leaving?" Pippin swallowed and made a valiant attempt to smile. "May fortune smile upon you."

"And you." Julian paused. "One thing. Your name. What is it?"

For a moment, he thought Pippin would refuse or lie, but when he got his answer, it rang true. "Alex Martin." Pippin glanced up at him. "I like 'Pippin' better."

Julian shook his head. "Let Pippin disappear," he advised. "Welcome to the city, Alex Martin. May your time here be happy and profitable."

He knew an exit line when he delivered it. Without a backward glance, he made his way to the entrance, leaving sufficient coin with Joe to ensure Pippin—Alex—could put food in his belly for a few more days when the pie was a distant memory.

Joe weighed the coppers in his hand. "He seems a likely lad, but he's not meant for the city."

"I can't drag him to the gates and send him home to his mother," Julian said. "For all I know, what waits for him back there is worse than what he'll meet here."

"The Westerlings are narrow-minded folk, but they're not unkind." Joe pursed thin lips. "Of course, sometimes a slap is easier to bear than being prayed over. They honor the Lady to the letter there."

"You recognized his accent?"

"Hard to miss." Joe raised his eyebrows. "Your theater needs a handyman to help build the new sets. Duncan was in here earlier and mentioned it. Does the lad know how to use a hammer and a saw?"

"How should I know?" Julian curbed the snap in his voice, unsure of its cause. Joe was being kind, and it was ridiculous to feel fettered, as if invisible ties were binding him to Alex. What he'd done had been a passing kindness. To have it extended, to see the lad every day, the blaze of hair catching the eye, would be difficult. "Mention it to him, if you wish."

"Me?" Joe's eyebrows rose in a nicely calculated show of surprise. "I could, but if you were to take him along there tomorrow and introduce him to Duncan, well, you're someone who is someone. He'd get the job sure as snow in winter."

"Not if he doesn't know what he's doing. And save the flattery for someone more gullible than I. What did you call my Lucius? Unconvincing and thin?"

"You were younger then," Joe told him. "It's a role for an older man. In a decade, you'll play him again and I'll weep at your death. For now, there's a boy in there with his mother's milk still wet on his cheek and he reminds me too much of my sister's son to let him walk out of here alone."

Julian glanced back into the dining room. Alex was standing now, a serving maid fluttering around him, a puzzled, pleased smile on his face as he tried to answer her sallies. He was tall, handsome, and he wouldn't stay out of trouble for an hour.

With a sigh, he caught Alex's eye and beckoned to him. Alex made a clumsy bow to the serving maid, which had her giggling, then made his way to Julian.

"I have a question for you," Julian said, without preamble. "A hammer, wood, nails—you're familiar with them?"

"Well, yes. On a farm there are fences to build, barns, sheds, furniture to make. You wish me to build you something? Gladly, sir." Alex looked eager to begin. Julian hadn't realized how heavy a burden gratitude was that Alex wished to shed it so quickly.

"Not I." The eagerness disappeared, snuffed like a candle. Feeling like a brute, Julian added hurriedly, "The carpenter at the theater has need of an assistant. If you have the necessary skills, I will take you there tomorrow and introduce you to him. Duncan's a good man, though his tongue's as sharp as his tools at times. Well?"

Again the bow. "I'm grateful for your kindness." Alex sounded subdued, not elated.

"As to that, you have Joe here to thank. It was his suggestion, not mine."

"Oh." Alex gave Joe a smile as wide as his mouth could stretch. "I thank you, sir."

"No need," Joe said. "Something tells me you're not afraid of hard work, and it's a shame not to give you the chance to prove it."

A family entered, the children clamoring to be fed, their parents looking harassed, and Julian tucked his hand under Alex's elbow and steered him back out onto the street with a farewell nod to Joe.

"This has been the strangest day," Alex said. "Will you tell me what time I should meet with you, sir? And if you could furnish me with directions to the theater, it would be a kindness."

Julian smiled at him, a wry smile. "It might, but leaving you to your own devices would most assuredly not be. You can come home with me. If Duncan takes you on, we'll find you lodgings, but until then, I prefer to keep you where I can see you." He remembered Marcus would be calling for him later and temporized, "Or at least in a safe place. Come. We can go there now."

Alex pulled free of Julian's loose grip. "Sir, I've no wish to seem ungrateful, but—"

"I have a lover," Julian told him, guessing the root cause of Alex's hesitation. "I've no interest in repeating our earlier encounter, trust me."

"Oh." For a moment, he fancied he saw a puzzling flash of disappointment in Alex's eyes, but it passed. "Then once again, I'm—"

"If the words 'kind', 'grateful' or 'in your debt' pass your lips again, I will demonstrate Alicia's scream of anguish from A Rake and a Rogue. When done properly, it's said to crack glass. I can't reach that high a note, but I wager I could leave you with a headache."

Alex bit his lip. "I don't know why you're being so, so…"

"If it helps, neither do I. We can set the puzzle aside for now, hmm?" Julian gave Alex's face a careless pat and gestured down the street. "Come. It's not too far a walk. I could afford a better neighborhood these days, but I spend so much time at the theater that it suits me to be close to it."

And here he was among friends. Known, respected, liked. Unlike Alex, Julian was content to stay with the familiar.

 

Chapter Three

Alex matched his steps to Julian's, sometimes forced by the crowds to fall behind, but never losing sight of Julian's dark head of hair. He was desperately tired, his head pounding and his mouth bruised, but the food had given him sufficient strength to make the walk less of an ordeal than it would have been an hour earlier.

The city was around him, its sights and smells assaulting him, its noise overwhelming, but when he was close to Julian it went away, giving him a moment's respite as he stared into that handsome face, the expressions chasing over it like cloud shadows on a field, the well-formed mouth so quick to smile or twist in a grimace. Julian was all light and movement, his dark blue eyes alive with interest in everything around him. He dwarfed the city, reducing it to no more than a background for him, a piece of scenery to pose against.

Alex had often pictured the city, lying on his back in the hay, chewing a juicy apple, tired from a day's work, but content enough. It had glittered in his mind's eye, the buildings white and tall, the streets smooth underfoot. He'd dressed the people in rich, bright colors, made their faces smiling ones, their voices low and pleasant.

He'd been a fool.

The people here were like the ones back home. Some were good-hearted, with time to spare for others, some were wrapped up in worry, or indifferent, hard.

And though the buildings rose high, they were wood and brick, not gleaming marble, and the city smelled. It smelled worse than anything Alex's nose had encountered, a thick miasma of too many lives lived too close. The gutters were littered with refuse, the alley walls stained with piss. He'd heard people talk of the new duke cleaning the place up in the years since he'd succeeded his father, but on the evidence Alex had seen, the duke had a mountain to shift with a teaspoon.

Still, it was impressive. He'd wandered past fountains, water flying high into the air, rainbows dancing around the jets, seen windows, glass windows, wide and clear, and behind them a treasure trove of goods for the buying. In Dellin, there was a store where a man could trade for bolts of cloth or groceries, maybe a pretty piece of china or a pair of fancy shoes for his lady. Alex had been there once as a child and stood in front of the display of candy, his mouth sagging open as he'd turned his single penny in his pocket.

He'd thought that store as fine a place as the Realm had to offer and here it would be relegated to a side street.

Here, horses drawing carriages swept by, the horses fine-boned, their coats glossy, the carriages light as soap bubbles. He'd seen one tricked out in silver, burning his eyes in the sunlight, a lady inside it, her pretty, petulant face bored. She'd fanned herself slowly as she waited for the street to clear for her, diamonds glittering in her ears and around her neck. Her skin had been as pale as moonbeams, her hair a careless tumble of dusky curls piled high on her dainty head.

She'd been the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen, though it wasn't because she was as remote as the stars that he didn't feel even a small prick of desire, only the same admiration he'd have given a perfect white rose, sweetly scented, its petals like white velvet.

Julian led him away from the clamor and down a quiet street, wide enough for a carriage. Evidence horses had been here lay in steaming heaps here and there, but Julian took care to cross the street where it was clear, frowning when he reached the other side and saw a straw stuck to his boot.

"Damn those cleaners," he muttered, removing the straw and tossing it aside. "They're supposed to tend to the street twice a day, but they pocket their wages and leave the filth to mount."

The street didn't look that neglected to Alex, and a boy with a bucket and spade toiled away at the far end, but he wisely kept his mouth closed. He'd heard his mother grumble like that, her hands busy, and she'd never wanted comforting or correcting.

"Here." Julian gestured at a narrow slip of a house, the bricks a dark red, the door painted glossy black. "I'm so rarely at home that I don't require a mansion. This suffices."

"It's finer than any place I've seen," Alex said diplomatically. In truth, his father's farmhouse was much larger, but that was made of wood, with tiny windows, the glass thick and close to opaque.

"Really?" Julian affected a casual unconcern, but Alex could tell he was pleased. "Well, come in."

Alex stepped over the threshold, assailed by nervousness again. He'd heard tales of the city and the wickedness to be found there. It was ironic that so far, the wickedest person in it seemed to be him. One apple, and they'd been willing to cut—His thoughts shuddered away from the penalty he'd avoided and the one he'd endured. Julian had helped him and Alex's instincts told him Julian was to be trusted, though there was a gulf between them when it came to understanding each other.

The house smelled comfortingly of bacon and bread, though it was stuffy, as if the windows and doors rarely stood open. A formal room lay to the right of the entrance, full of couches upholstered in deep blue brocade and low, wide tables of redwood patterned in some way, intricate lines of black swirling over them, but Julian led Alex through a doorway to the left, into a shabbier, infinitely more comfortable parlor. Here, the chairs and couch were a mismatched collection and the fireplace was gray with ash, invitation cards and letters littering the mantelpiece above. A bottle that had once held wine lay on its side on a table cluttered with goblets and playing cards, tossed down as if the game had ended abruptly.

"I had some friends over," Julian explained, following Alex's gaze. "Though I can't blame them for the disorder. It probably looked worse before they came."

"I like it," Alex said, with more sincerity than before. His mother had kept the farmhouse rigidly neat, and the relaxed, homely clutter Julian lived in would have shocked her. Alex found himself envying the freedom it represented.

"Well, let me show you around."

The tour was necessarily brief because the house was small, but Alex still found himself marveling at the pump in the kitchen—no buckets to carry!—and fascinated by the fitted chamber pot in a small room under the stairs, a little cramped, but fresh-smelling enough.

"I had heard of them, but never quite—where does it all go?"

Julian shrugged. "Down a pipe into the sewers, and from there, Lady only knows! Why would you care? I do know the bath water is directed down the same pipe to keep it fresh. Speaking of which, a bath wouldn't come amiss for you."

Baths were taken in the stream when it was warm enough, dunking down as the water rushed by, shivering as he raced back to the house, his balls shrunk tight. In winter, he did without, settling for a skimped wash of the places that showed until his mother took issue with him. Then he had to drag in the wooden tub late at night and set it before the kitchen fire to be filled with buckets of cold water and a single kettle of boiling water to take the chill off. It was a laborious task, and he always ended up chilled to the bone and with a splinter or two in his behind, the strong-smelling soap leaving his skin itchy.

"I thank you, but I bathed not a week ago." If falling into a stream counted, and in Alex's mind it most certainly did. He'd twisted his ankle on that treacherously mossy stone too.

"So polite. So grubby," Julian mocked. "You'll be between my spare room sheets tonight, and I trust you'll sleep soundly, but not until you've scrubbed the stink of the streets off you. I'll see about getting you something to wear too. Your clothing marks you as a country boy, and that's not the impression you wish to give."

"It's what I am." Alex knew he sounded sullen, but though he'd quickly realized his clothes were outmoded and made people stare, they were all he had left of home. Considering he'd left it without a backward glance, it was astonishing how protective of it he felt now.

"It's what you were," Julian corrected him. "See, the bath is through here."

Alex put his head around the door and blinked in surprise. A metal tub, big enough to lie down in, the sides smooth, was so much more than he'd expected that he became resigned to the idea of bathing.

"The hot water comes from here." Julian indicated a large covered pot with a pump handle over it, set on top of a small stove. "See? You open the tap at the bottom and it runs through this pipe and into the bath. Make sure to refill it and replace the cover."

The simplicity and ease of the arrangement was appealing, but the thrifty side of Alex was shocked at the idea of wasting wood or coal to keep water constantly hot. It was true; people in the city did have money to burn.

"I'll leave you to bathe and see if I've got anything clean you can wear." Julian eyed him appraisingly. "Yes, you're far wider in the shoulders and taller, but I'm sure I have something that will do until we can go to a tailor."

"A tailor?" Alex shook his head. "Sir—Julian—I can't allow you to—"

"You can repay me from your wages," Julian told him. He chucked Alex under the chin, a careless, friendly caress. "I don't do things by half. It's not in my nature. If I'm sponsoring you, why, you need to be a credit to me. Which means you need to be clean, not dressed in rags, and we must see about a haircut."

"My hair is fine." Alex put his hand up to make sure it was still on his head. Julian was so quick to act he half expected it to have been shorn when he wasn't looking.

"It will be."

Julian left before Alex could voice his objections, and with nothing but an empty room to listen to him, words spoken aloud seemed pointless. He turned to the bath and, after cautiously experimenting with the tap, stood watching it fill. When the hot water was used up, he pumped in cold, letting it gush into the bath to temper the heat. Steam rose, pale fronds of it curling through the air, and he sniffed the damp air, finding it to be spiced with perfume, a pleasant, vaguely masculine scent of bergamot. He traced the scent to an amber-colored piece of soap in a dish, a soft cloth beside it, and ran his finger over the slick surface of the soap before bringing it to his nose. Beside the faint smell of oranges, it reminded him of Julian. Alex bit his lip, remembering the feel and taste of Julian in his mouth, the clean musk of Julian's skin, the supple hardness of his cock.

Slowly, not allowing himself to lose the memories, he undressed, letting his clothes fall to the stone flags of the floor, and stepped into the bath.

The heat of the water made his skin flush and prickle, the novelty of the sensation overwhelming. He lay back, stretched out his legs and moaned aloud, the sensuous surge and lap of the water like a light caress. His cock stood swollen, urgent, and he traced its length with a fingertip, absently aware of his lust, but more occupied with the events of the day. His weariness was bone-deep, his stomach still growling, but he was conscious of a deep indignation at the treatment he'd received. Fear had choked him when he'd realized what penalty he could face. To lose a finger…he couldn't imagine the pain, but he kept trying to. His hands curled into fists and he struck the surface of the water, a sob rising in his throat.

The humiliation of his ordeal was too fresh to contemplate without shying away from it. Men, foul-smelling, rough, using his mouth with so much contemptuous amusement, not seeing the joke, if there was one, was pointed at them. Julian had seen that the shame was to be shared equally and had still bared his flesh and lowered himself to the same level as the street-filth. Gratitude, profound enough to make tears come to his eyes, had Alex vowing to repay the man as soon as possible in whatever way Julian wished.

Even if—but Julian had said he had no interest in Alex as a bedmate.

Alex took a deep breath and shook himself free of his sour thoughts. He was safe, he'd eaten, and he was wasting this marvelous experience. He sank back under the water until his ears were full of echoes, and then emerged from it, spluttering, and picked up the soap. It lathered at once, leaving the cloth foaming and his skin tingling after he'd scrubbed it clean. He even rubbed some through his hair, his fingers finding dense tangles his mother would have attacked ruthlessly with a wooden comb.

He was experimenting with the feel of a soapy hand around his cock, still hard, indifferent to his woes and only concerned because it'd been days since he'd had privacy enough to tend to its needs, when Julian walked in, holding a towel.

"Here, this one's clean."

Alex squeaked, his hand flying away, then returning as he tried to cover the evidence of his activities. It didn't work, not even when he used both hands and the cloth.

Julian chuckled. "I'm sorry to have interrupted you."

"You shouldn't—you should go!"

"Why? Because you're naked or because you're hard?"

"Both!"

"Such a sweet innocent." Julian tossed the towel onto the floor by the bath. "You've seen me, after all, and I didn't blush. It's skin. Actors tend not to worry about it too much. Why, in Ballad of a Jester, I had six changes in one act and had to strip bare in the wings, with no time to return to my dressing room. No one cared." He crouched by the bath and put his hand on Alex's face, turning it so Alex had no choice but to meet Julian's blue eyes. "You have nothing to fear from me, I swear it. Believe that and do not insult me by flinching and hiding." His gaze dropped, a grin appearing. "Not that you're having much success. You're too well-endowed for a washcloth to be effective."

Alex set his teeth, willing his blush to subside. "I'm not—I know that I'm—" He cast up his eyes and moved his hands away, baring himself. "If you wish to look, as I did at you, then look."

Julian shook his head and rose to his feet. "I've never liked staring through glass at what I cannot afford, and I think you'd cost me dearly. Finish what you started. I've left you some clothing outside the door."

He left before Alex could find the words to keep him, but finishing what he'd begun was out of the question.

Dressed in a forest-green jerkin and black breeches, his feet bare, Alex sought Julian out after his bath. He found his host in the main room, reading a note, a frown creasing his forehead.

Julian turned to Alex. "This was delivered a moment ago and it seems my company is required elsewhere tonight."

"Oh. Then you'll want me to leave. Do you know of a place where I would be permitted to sleep? A park, maybe, or the side of the river?" Alex quelled his panic at being left alone. It was foolish. He'd slept outside on his journey to the city, rolled up in a blanket, the night around him potentially filled with all manner of dangers and never given them a thought. The irritating jab of a stone of twig, the threat of rain, and his empty stomach—those had seemed far more important.

Everyone knew wolves didn't come this far south, anyway.

"Why would you do that? I said you may use my spare room." Julian chuckled. "Oh, you're wondering how I could be so carelessly trusting as to leave a stranger here to ransack my belongings and steal whatever he can carry away."

"I would never—" Alex took a deep breath. "You know I wouldn't do that, but, yes, it does seem…"

"Sweetheart, I've nothing worth stealing and five minutes searching would show you that. The furniture is too heavy for you to carry off, my clothes don't fit you well—though black and green are delightfully dramatic on you, I must say—and I'll be gone only a few hours." Julian shrugged. "Besides, I'm under the protection of Lord Marcus and everyone around here knows that. He's not a cruel man, but he's possessive of his belongings. If anyone was to steal from me or injure me, he'd take steps to make them regret it."

"Oh," Alex repeated. "Is he your, uh, your…"

Julian gave him a cheerful grin. "He's sponsored my career and in exchange I smile up at the box where he sits, unless his wife is with him, though she's not fond of the theater or me, so that's rare. I also make sure my mouth and ass are available, along with my company, when Marcus is in the mood to be rebellious."

The arrangement shocked Alex, but he took care not to let his disapproval show. "She knows about you and she doesn't mind?"

"She's not interested in bedsport these days. Not with Marcus, at least. They have three sons and a daughter—or the other way around, I care not—so the succession to the title is safe. Lady Rose, it's said, breathed a sigh of relief after delivering her last babe, and locked her bedchamber door. If she opens it to the occasional handsome footman, she does it discreetly, and I'm only an actor, after all. If Marcus was dallying with one of her friends, she'd care, but me? No. I prove what dreadful taste Marcus has and how impossible he is to live with. I'm useful to them both."

"I can't imagine anything so... " Alex ran out of words, but rallied. "Should you be telling me this?"

"Well, it's common knowledge among—" Julian paused and gave Alex a charmingly rueful smile. "No. No, I should not. Ignore me. Actors aren't known for their discretion, and I'll talk myself into trouble one of these days. Lord Marcus is a happily married patron of the arts who's kindly extended his interest in general to include my career in particular. 'Let that stand as the truth and let falsehood and rumor sit where they may.'"

Alex was learning when to spot the moments when Julian borrowed words. His voice became resonant and his body slipped gracefully into a dramatic pose. "Is that from a play as well?"

Julian nodded. "Treacherous Night. It could be due for a revival, but the public lost interest in political dramas. With the new duke, though, hmm... Maybe."

"I've heard about the duke," Alex said, determined not to seem completely ignorant, though the duke's power didn't extend as far as the Westerlings, so the news he was the new ruler of Sorrent had been greeted with a shrug or a grunt for the most part. "Is it true he made his guard dress in black for a week when his cat died?"

"Indeed it is. Dear little Stripes. The brute scratched Marcus once, and he had to smile through his teeth and pet the creature." Julian flung his arm around Alex's shoulders. "We've hours to pass before I need to dress and leave you. Why don't we get a drink and you can tell me all about yourself. Every detail."

Flattered, if uneasily aware there was little to tell, Alex accepted a tankard filled with cider strong enough to make his head swim. His mother made apple juice, but never allowed it to ferment. The smell and taste were familiar enough, but the mellow happiness that followed was new.

He found himself babbling, his hand on Julian's arm, as he tried to spin his story into something worth hearing. After a while, smiling to himself, Julian left the room and returned with a plate of cheese sandwiches, the bread lacking the nutty taste Alex was used to, but fresh enough, the cheese sharp and strong. Somehow, the cider in his glass became water, cool enough to be refreshing, and the room steadied.

"Am I drunk?"

"You were getting that way," Julian replied. "I forgot your belly was still mostly empty. Forgive me. So, your father wanted you to marry?"

"Yes, but he knew it wasn't likely I would. Father was willing to let me work a field and keep the profits, though the land wouldn't have belonged to me, of course."

No one split up a farm. Land was precious and went to the firstborn, in this case Alex's sister, Larissa. Alex would only get land if he married a firstborn, and they were so sought-after that even the plainest, most foul-tempered had their choice of partner.

"It sounds dull but safe. No one caught your eye?"

Alex shrugged. "Not really. And to live and die within a stone's throw of my father's farm…no. I could not. So I took my leave of them and set off for the city."

"With no coin? No belongings?"

Alex smiled sourly. "I had both when I set out, but the road is hard on the trusting. My money was stolen one night as I slept in the common room of an inn, my pack taken from me by a river I crossed when it was too high. I was lucky it took only my spare clothing, not my life. That was some ten days ago. I've lived on rabbits and berries ever since, until I reached the city, that is."

"It's a month's journey to the Westerlings on foot," Julian mused. It was longer than that to Alex's home, but Alex didn't correct him. People never seemed to realize how big the Westerlings were. "You've come a long way."

Alex yawned, sleepiness overtaking him like a wave. Outside, the sky had darkened and he was used to going to bed early to save on candles. Julian had lamps, not candles, giving off a blaze of light, steady and golden. "Mmm. Long way. Don't want to go back. Might go south. S'warm down there."

"Your skin would fry and the sun would burn out your eyes." Julian stroked Alex's hair, his fingers gentle. "It's an inhospitable land. This city is by far the best place to live in the Realm."

"Have you traveled far yourself?"

Julian laughed, pushing back his dark hair with an impatient thrust when it fell into his eyes. "Lady, yes! From one end of the Realm to the other when I was a journeyman actor in a troupe. I've sweated in the south, with the sand of the desert in my teeth, the stage gritted over with it, and in your own land, with the faces in the audience suspicious and applause scarce as smiles. I've performed before nobility and peasants, forgotten my lines and been beaten soundly for it, gone on stage with my head pounding from fever or my gut boiling from eating spoiled meat. I've been rich, I've been poor, and my head's crammed full of words."

"It sounds exciting." Alex yawned again, wider than before, his jaw cracking. He gave Julian an apologetic look. "I'm sorry. I'm so tired."

"Of course you are. I'll be leaving soon, so why not take yourself to bed and I'll see you in the morning."

Julian made everything so simple. Alex used the chamber, drank another cup of water to take care of his dry throat, and followed Julian up the staircase to the two bedrooms, a lamp swinging in his hand.

His room was small, the sloping ceiling by the window making him duck, though it was inches higher than his head, but the bed was wider than he was used to, the covers clean and soft. He folded his borrowed clothing carefully and set it atop a chest at the foot of the bed, then turned out the lamp.

His bed greeted him like a friend, and the cider made his passage into dreams a swift one.

When he woke some hours later, it was to confusion and terror. He'd dreamed of the square, the men surrounding him, all clamoring for his mouth and more, the guard smiling and stepping aside. Rough hands had grabbed and mauled his flesh, and he'd experienced the pain of being entered, split open, broken. He gave a strangled gasp, his heart pounding, his skin wet.

He fought free of the hot, damp sheets and sat up, glancing around him wildly in search of something familiar before he remembered where he was.

With Julian. He sighed, the tension leaving him, and passed a trembling hand across his sweat-wet brow.

He was with Julian. Safe.

The house was quiet, but outside Alex's window, the city was still awake. Close by, a dog barked a warning at a crowd of people passing by, their voices overly loud and rough with drink, and beyond that was the hum of the city itself, a ceaseless buzz, a hive of people, restlessly, aimlessly moving. Exhaustion—and the cider—had helped Alex fall asleep, but he wondered if he'd ever get used to the noise outside. It filled his head, pushing out thought.

He went over to the small window, opening it and breathing in the warm night air. It stank, the whole city did, but it was fresher than the air in his room, ripe with his fear. He breathed in deeply, a stray breeze playing over his bare skin, cooling it. The moon had risen, the Lady riding the skies, silver-white, serene, illuminating his view with a soft, pearly light. A line or two of a children's verse ran through his head. Ladylight, soft and bright, shine down on me tonight. Bring me wishes, bring me smiles, light my steps along the miles.

The Lady had lit his journey, but he'd clung to the shadows. They'd felt safer.

His room looked out onto a small garden that was overgrown with weeds from the little he'd seen of it, backed by an alleyway leading behind the houses. On the other side of the alleyway, the pattern was repeated; another row of gardens, another row of houses. He smelled cut grass and compost, the homely scents leaving him melancholy. Someone nearby clearly took better care of their garden than Julian. Alex had left the farm vowing never to turn another shovel of earth, pick an apple, or weed a field, but in that moment he wanted to plunge his hands deep into the living soil and let it dirty his hands in an honest way, dirt he could scrub away under a pump.

The bath had left his skin clean, but he couldn't scour away the taint of being used. He put his fingers to his lips, bile rising as he remembered the second man, whose cock had been dark with grime, a louse crawling out of the thick thatch of reddish hair surrounding it. The guard had grabbed his hair and forced him to open his mouth, and the revulsion he'd shown had made the man before him laugh, a snickering, jeering chuckle.

He stuck his head out of the window, desperate to avoid throwing up, and shuddered his way through a paroxysm as his body attempted to void itself of memories as well as the contents of his stomach.

When it ended, he sank to the floor, leaning back against the smooth, cool plaster, and brushed impatiently at the tears trickling down his face. Baby tears. He was a grown man, too old to find refuge in crying or whining.

He bit his lip, wondering if he was still alone in the house. He needed to piss again, but he didn't want to disturb Julian. With no way to relight the lamp, he couldn’t search for a chamber pot under the bed by anything but touch, and his groping fingers encountered nothing but dust and the light, clinging brush of cobwebs.

Julian's housekeeping left something to be desired, but Alex was in no mind to be critical of the man.

As noiselessly as possible, he opened the bedroom door and peered out. Silence greeted him, silence and darkness. The door to Julian's room stood ajar.

Not troubling to dress, Alex scampered down the stairs, heading first to the kitchen for water to rinse his mouth of the foul taste clinging to it. It felt odd to drink when his need to piss was gaining intensity, but he gulped the water down until it was all he could taste, and then relieved his more pressing need in the room under the stairs.

He was tired, but the garden drew him more than his bed. He walked through the kitchen into the tiny passageway Julian used to store all manner of oddments and slid back the bolt on the door leading outside. He hesitated, aware of his lack of clothing. Something soft brushed his arm, and he jumped and then smiled at his fears. A cloak hanging from a peg on the wall, no more than that, a sign, surely, that the Lady wanted him outside where she could see him. He wrapped the cloak around him, marveling at the quality of the finely woven cloth, light, yet warm, and stepped out into the walled garden.

He was as ignorant of cultivated flowers as Julian probably was, but herbs were useful and his mother's kitchen garden had been full of them—wandering tendrils of leafy green mint, rosemary growing in tall spikes, a dozen others that she'd used to flavor and preserve their food. He smelled mint now and guessed at some point the tangle of green on either side of the narrow brick path had been a cultivated garden, producing vegetables for the household. He walked a few yards down the path, the bricks uneven under his feet, moss furring the cracks, and bent down to investigate what looked like…yes, it was! Rhubarb stalks, the giant leaves floppy, the stalks rising stiffly, full of sour, mouth-puckering juice. In daylight, their mottled red and green stalks would please the eye, but for now he let his fingers trace the smooth covering, his mouth watering.

Not his to pick, even if he suspected Julian would leave the rhubarb to soften and droop, then rot into the soil. He'd learned his lesson.

Maybe he could ask Julian's permission to harvest it and try his hand at a pie. He'd never made one before, but he'd watched his mother deftly roll and cut dough and it didn't look difficult.

The garden was some twenty strides long, no more than that, a tiny patch of land, but his optimism returned from touching something living. It was a timely reminder that even in the city the earth could thrust up strong green fingers, breaking apart the stone.

A bench stood under a cherry tree to the right of the path. Alex sat on it, after brushing aside a few pink and white blossoms that clung to its surface. Spring had turned to summer. He'd left the farm at the busiest time, something that had put a dour, angry frown on his father's face, but there had been no attempt made to stop him.

It wasn't the Westerling way to hold someone against their will, but Alex wished there'd been a single tear shed, a word or two of regret. He'd tried to be a good son. It wasn't his fault that he was weak when it came to the lure of a book, turning the pages eagerly when there was—always—something better he could have been doing.

"You waste precious hours and candlelight," his father had told him, striking the poetry book from Alex's hands and sending it tumbling to the floor, the pages crushed and the spine broken. "Have done with such foolishness. If you've a mind to be a scholar, help me with the accounts. Your writing's neat enough and you're good at sums."

Alex had gathered the book in his hands, loose pages slipping through his fingers, his anger hot as the fire that had illuminated the pages. He'd answered meekly enough—he was a man grown, but his father would not hesitate to drive his point home with the sharp smack of his belt across Alex's back if provoked—but it was then he'd decided to leave.

Better to risk the unknown than stifle under the deadly boredom of the certain.

He leaned back against the tree trunk and jumped for the second time when a cat appeared from under a currant bush, winding its way between his legs, as black as the sky above, one ear torn. He reached down and let it sniff his fingers, then tried to stroke it. A hiss and the flash of a paw, claws unsheathed, warned him not to take liberties.

Alex liked cats, always had. The barns at home were full of them, existing on scraps and mice, tolerated as useful. His mother picked out a likely mouser from a litter and kept it inside until it grew too old to hunt, but even the house cat wasn't given a lap to sit on. He'd petted them in secret, loving the ecstatic rumble of their purr, so uncomplicatedly happy. He coaxed the cat closer with soft words and, when it was used to him, picked a long blade of grass to tease it with, both enjoying the game.

Eventually, he was permitted to stroke the rounded head and tickle it under its chin. He didn't try to pick it up. Likely it had fleas, for one thing, and if the cloak fell apart, he didn't care for the idea of those claws digging into his cock or balls.

A jaw-breaking yawn reminded him he needed sleep. He stood, bowed gravely to the cat, and went back inside. Halfway up the stairs, he became aware he was no longer alone in the house, and froze. Low voices, interrupted by warm laughter, came from Julian's bedroom. He should be able to return to his room unremarked if he was careful, but there were squeaking floorboards to negotiate and closing his door would require a steady hand.

Swallowing his nervousness, he tiptoed to the top of the stairs and glanced at Julian's door. It was closed, light spilling out underneath it. Alex's bedroom door had swung shut, and Julian would've assumed Alex was inside, fast asleep, when he walked past with his lover.

With sweat pearling his brow, Alex eased open the door to his room and slipped through, closing it with a click that sounded like a hammer blow to his ears. He lost his nerve and scrambled between the sheets, choosing speed over silence.

He was sure the murmur from the room beside him would break off, but no voice called out a question, no knock came on the wall.

His heart calmed, his body relaxing, muscles loose with relief. Safely in bed, he could think about sleep again and the opportunities the next day would bring. A theater! To go inside one, to become part of Julian's world…

He smiled drowsily and sighed a long breath into the softest pillow his head had ever lain on.

A moan, long, anguished, had him sitting bolt-upright, the sheets clutched in his hands. He wasn't naïve. He'd walked into the barn a few years before and seen his brother grunting, red-faced and ridiculous, his pale backside rising and falling as he fucked one of the Seldon twins. Alex hadn't tried to find out which one, but the sounds she'd made were like the ones coming out of Julian's bedroom and it'd been obvious she was enjoying Niall's attentions.

He lay down again, but sleep was impossible. Each moan, each muttered curse, reached his ears through the thin wall as plainly as if he was in the bed with them—and picturing that did nothing to cool his heated blood.

"You're so hot for me tonight, love," Julian said, his voice husky. "Let me finish undressing at least before you enter me."

"No. I need you—" There was a pause, then a rueful laugh. "Very well. You know when you pout at me, I can't resist you. Lady forbid your fine feathers are creased, my peacock."

Alex frowned. Julian surely didn't pout like a child. The idea of it offended him. And Marcus sounded insufferably conceited, a typical noble, full of importance.

"This jerkin is new," Julian said. "It was delivered a full week ago, but I waited to wear it until I saw you."

"It sets off your blue eyes." Alex rolled his. "I agree, though, the view without it is even better."

"As is the view I have." There was a soft, insinuating purr to Julian's voice. "How would you like me, my lord?"

Alex squeezed his eyes shut and put his head under the pillow. He couldn't listen to Julian, his hero, his savior, acting the whore in this way. If Marcus was his lover, why wasn't it a meeting of equals? Julian sounded so anxious to please, as if a word out of place would cost him dearly.

Even with the pillow blanketing the sounds from the next room, Alex heard the unmistakable creak and thump of the bed as the two men moved from speech to action.

Julian would be lying on his back, legs spread like a frog's, pinned and pierced. Or on his hands and knees, maybe, offering his backside up, his head lowered submissively.

Alex clenched his teeth and skimmed his hand down his body to slap and maul his cock, stiff again, Lady take it. He punished it with his hand, squeezing his balls roughly, the pain deserved. His unruly cock wouldn't soften and retreat. Alex panted harshly against the sheet and rolled to his back, letting the pillow slide to the floor. Ignoring Julian's pleas for Marcus to take him, use him, have him, Alex settled his hands at the crux of his problem and gentled their touch a little, though the strokes he administered were ruthless enough and the palm cupping his balls was tight against warm flesh.

He took himself over, fueling his climax with safe, well-thumbed memories that owed nothing to the day's events or the scene playing out next door. His friend swimming with him, pressing his cool, naked body against Alex's playfully, his arms wrapped around Alex's chest. A kiss between two men hired to help with the harvest one year when the crop had been bountiful. One tall, his skin burned dark by the sun, the other a stocky redhead with a cheerful grin. They'd been talking quietly in a corner of the barn, their work done, their bodies close. Alex had been sent to tell them that supper was ready, but the words had stuck in his throat as he watched them move closer still and kiss, two tired men leaning against each other, the kiss slow, easy.

The men had to know there was neither the time nor the privacy to use each other right then, but they'd kissed anyway and taken pleasure from it. Seeing it had left Alex empty, aching to be filled, to be loved in that way.

He'd known then what he wanted, even if he dreaded sharing his knowledge with his parents. It wouldn't have mattered too much, not when he wasn't a firstborn, but the Westerlings thought highly of men and women who made strong, healthy babies. Those whose tastes lay elsewhere were tolerated, even grudgingly accepted, but they were rarely held in high regard. They were transients, leaving no legacy, contributing nothing to the community but their own brief span of years.

Children were workers for the future, a safeguard for the community. It was everyone's duty to create them, care for them, and train them.

At the end, his belly was painted with white, his body shivering with pleasure. He shaped his mouth as if it still held Julian's cock and his cock pulsed once more, a final spurt leaving him.

Drained, panting, he lay on the creased sheets and wished for a cloth with which to clean himself. Eventually, he got out of bed and found the heap of clothing destined to be washed, the clothes he'd been wearing when he'd met Julian. His undershirt served well enough as a rag, though his stomach was left sticky.

The encounter next door was over, and the two men were talking. Alex sighed with frustration, fatigue dragging at his temper as he got back into bed. He wanted to sleep, and he wished Marcus would take himself home to his wife.

"I have news for you." Marcus sounded uncertain now, less the noble, more the man. "I don't think you will be happy to hear it."

"Marcus? What's wrong, sweetheart?" Julian's voice had changed, too. It was more natural, as if, the encounter over, both men felt free to leave their assumed roles behind them and be themselves. It should have pleased Alex to hear Julian address Marcus with genuine concern, not an assumed servility, but perversely he resented the undeniable intimacy he was witness to.

"The duke has ordered me away." Marcus sighed. "I'm to lead the diplomatic mission to Serengine, and if all goes well, and there's no reason to doubt it, I'll remain there for a year to smooth over any issues. It's a great honor, of course, and Rose is delighted, already spending a small fortune on gowns, but…"

"You'll be gone for years." Julian's voice was flat. "If you sail, it's a month's voyage, by land, two. Once the winter snows fall, the mountains are impassable and the seas too rough to risk it."

"It's—yes. I will be."

"I see." Julian's voice was gentler now. There was a pause, filled perhaps with a soft kiss or a sigh, and then Julian said, "I release you, Marcus. All ties that bind, all promises spoken."

The silence that followed seemed endless, but Alex held his breath throughout it, caught up in the drama of the formal renunciation.

"I accept and release you likewise," Marcus said finally, his voice heavy with regret. "I wish it hadn't come to this."

"I suppose it was inevitable. You're far too good at politics to be wasted here in the city where everyone knows your skill and takes it into account. Let Serengine be your new hunting ground. I'll wager it's conquered by your charm inside a month, as I was."

"It took that long for me to charm you?"

Julian snorted with laughter, and Alex heard the bed squeak. "It took one look and well you know it. So was that our final tryst or do you have a farewell gift for me? Mm, let me see, I think I've found something that would suit the purpose excellently well…"

Alex sighed, retrieved the pillow from the floor, and put it back over his head.

 

Chapter Four

Julian woke to the enticing smell of bacon and a less welcome beam of sunlight striking him full in the face. He rolled to the side to escape it and felt the echo of every urgent caress Marcus had bestowed on him. He'd been used to the point of pain the night before, willingly, yes, but the aftereffects were less pleasant than the cause.

Marcus' cock had been like iron inside him, the thin film of oil coating it making each thrust drive deep. He'd welcomed it, abandoned to a lust that was spiced with loss, admitting finally to himself that Marcus had come to mean more than a source of gold and the route to even bigger roles to play.

He wouldn't pine away, lost to melancholy, garbing himself in somber hues, but he would miss the man.

With a care he would only permit himself when he was alone, he got out of bed and dressed in a robe. He needed to bathe, both to cleanse his body and ease the many aches his flesh held, but he was starving.

As he walked down the stairs, it occurred to him to wonder how much Alex had heard. Truth be told, he'd all but forgotten the lad was there. Most likely, Alex had been asleep, exhausted by his adventures. They hadn't been that loud, after all…

One look at Alex's averted face, the tip of a scarlet ear peeping through the red curls, and Julian abandoned wishful thinking.

"Good morning, Pippin."

"I—I wish you good day," Alex murmured. "I hope you do not mind that I—the bacon seemed close to spoiling, and I swear I have not—this is for you, not me—"

Julian crossed the kitchen and put his hand on Alex's shoulder, swinging him around. "You're my guest," he said, talking to the lad as he would a nervous child. "What I have is yours, and you're right, the bacon needs eating, but there's far too much for one. Eat with me, and if you were to let some eggs join the bacon and maybe a slice or two of bread as well…"

Alex smiled, his flush fading. "I can do that."

"I'll brew us tea. I have a blend of leaves from Delcinte that's said to be the duke's favorite, though as to that, I can't say. It's pleasant enough."

"Delcinte tea? Really? I've heard of it, but never tried it."

Julian tried not to let his surprise show. Tea was no longer the luxury item it'd been in his grandfather's time. Trade treaties had brought the quantity imported up, with a corresponding reduction in price. "Never?"

Alex turned back to the frying pan, deftly flipping a sizzling strip of bacon with a fork. "In the Westerlings, we use only what we have within our borders. We don't like to rely on outside crops or merchants to provide what we need. We tried to grow tea, but it needs a hot, damp climate, and for us, when it's hot, it's dry. We do steep herbs and dried flowers to make country tea, of course."

Julian grimaced. He'd tasted country tea on his travels with the troupe, and no matter how much each seller had sworn by his recipe, it'd always tasted like wet grass smelled.

"Well, I can't start my day without a cup of tea—real tea—and if you make the food, I'll brew us a pot. Here, let me get you the eggs."

They were at the stage where their plates were close to empty and the teapot down to its dregs when Julian broached the subject of the night before, choosing bluntness over tactful evasions.

"Did we disturb your sleep?"

"What? No, of course not." Too late, Alex added, "That is—you brought someone back with you?"

Julian rolled his eyes indulgently. Alex was so transparent. "I shall have to teach you to dissemble with grace. Yes, Lord Marcus returned with me for a while. It's unlikely you'll ever meet him, though. He leaves the city within a week or so on a diplomatic mission and will be gone for a considerable amount of time. Last night we said farewell."

He was aware he'd pitched his voice to sound desolate, lost, a fitting tone for a man who'd bid his lover good-bye, but in the small kitchen, at a table covered with crumbs from the fried bread Alex had burned, it seemed excessively dramatic. The one role an actor could not play well—himself, natural, unaffected.

"You'll miss him?"

  

"Actually, I will." Julian abandoned the pose of a bereft man. "He was charming, a skilled enough lover, and generous when it came to supporting me. The rent on this house has been paid to the end of the year, and he's left some money with his banker for me in case I have need of it. Not many men would be so thoughtful at the end of a relationship."

He noticed the sour look on Alex's face and raised his eyebrows. "What? You don't know the man, so why the disapproving scowl?"

"Last night—I heard you, yes. I tried not to, but I couldn’t block out the sounds. He—the way you were with him…. You were like a stranger." Alex must've realized how ridiculous that sounded, given how short his acquaintance with Julian was, because he sighed. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't presume."

"I suppose with Marcus I do—did—play to his need to be the hero," Julian admitted readily enough. Like many actors, he adored talking about himself. "He never let it show, but he was conscious that I'm an actor and he's a nobleman, and even between the sheets, he wouldn't have cared for me forgetting that." He eyed Alex, not offended but intrigued. "You think you know me well enough after a few hours to tell when I'm not myself? How do you know it wasn't with you that I played a part?"

Alex shrugged, the gesture drawing Julian's attention to his wide shoulders. Julian wasn't attracted to brute strength and bulging muscles, but Alex's body was built on finer lines, his recent adventures and his youth lending a deceptive air of fragility to his tall, strong frame. It was appealing. "I'm nobody, and you never expected to see me again. Why would you trouble to impress me?"

Julian grinned. "I'm an actor. My audience is before me for only a handful of hours, but I still work to make them love me—or hate and fear me. I'm not sure who the real Julian Melville is. I'm a wall covered in posters, some torn and faded, some fresh and new."

Alex ran his thumb over the edge of the table, a slow back and forth movement, his forehead furrowed in thought. After a moment, he looked up and met Julian's gaze. "You're a kind man," he said, with devastating simplicity. "I know that much. If there's ever anything I can do to repay you, then it's yours for the asking, but I hope you'll allow me to show how grateful I am."

Julian, his cock tender, his hole raw and throbbing, wasn't in the mood to even think about lovemaking, but he doubted Alex was offering the use of his body in any case. The lad had been clear on that point the day before, and Julian couldn't blame him.

"You don't need to do anything but keep your lips sealed about how we met and be a credit to me if you end up working at the theater."

"I need to do more than that." Alex held up his hands, his palms uppermost. "There must be balance."

True enough. Julian didn't believe a man's life ended when perfect balance had been achieved, as some did, nor did he feel that happiness had to be paid for with sadness, but still, balance was desirable when it came to obligation, most certainly. "What did you have in mind?"

Alex turned his head to the side, not by much, but Julian was trained to notice the smallest shift in expression, the slightest of inflections. Something was making Alex feel nervous. "I walked in your garden last night. It's in need of some weeding."

"It's in need of a scythe or a bonfire setting." Julian shrugged. "I don't go out there much."

"You should!" Alex straightened, his eyes bright with enthusiasm now his small trespass had been confessed. "It's small, yes, but there's room for you to plant some vegetables, and you have herbs growing and roses."

Julian laughed, taken aback by the emergence of a confident, chatty Alex and unreasonably charmed by the change. "Sweetheart, you can do anything you like to it, but don't expect me to do more than admire it." He held up his hands, well-shaped, carefully tended. "These hands don't mix well with dirt."

"Soil isn't dirty."

"A nice distinction. Now finish your food. It's ridiculously early, and I had planned to take a bath, but let's get you over to the theater and see if Duncan still has need of you. We'll stop at the barber I use on the way."

Alex's mouth drooped, a worried frown replacing his animated smile. "And if he doesn't need me? No." He shook his head. "It's my problem, not yours."

"True enough," Julian said, wondering why it didn't feel that way, "but we'll find something for you to do. And I could always pay you to tame my garden."

Alex's frown deepened. "Not when tending it is my way of repaying you," he objected. "I'd be more in your debt, not less. And I wish you would present me with an accounting for how much you've spent so far."

Julian felt a decade older than his twenty-eight years. When had doing a kindness become so difficult? He'd acted in a score of plays where mysterious benefactors rescued starving orphans and the like. He didn't recall a single one where the orphan turned around and demanded an itemized bill.

"We can settle up later. For now, allow me the pleasure of showing you around the best theater in the city, and tonight, if you like, you can watch the play from the audience. I have a small role in it, as I told you, so I can't join you, but afterward, we can go out for supper and I'll introduce you to some of my friends."

Alex's eyes widened, clear bewilderment vying with pleasure. "It all sounds wonderful, but, sir, you can't want me to meet your friends."

"Some actors have enough conceit they think the earth sings a chorus of praise when their shadow falls on it, but I'm not one of them. My friends aren't all actors, though most of them are connected to the theater in some way. Duncan, the man I hope you'll be working for, is most definitely one of them." He held up his hands and let them fall gracefully. "We stick together. I know when I walk out on that stage that I wouldn't be there if not for the men and women who built the sets, made my costume, wrote the lines, and sold tickets to the audience. You take my meaning?"

After a short pause, Alex nodded. "I'll wash the dishes."

"Leave them to soak," Julian said. "We have better things to do."

"We do?"

"Well, of course. There's always something better to do than clean dishes," Julian said, and watched a half-guilty smile blossom on Alex's face.

Lady, the boy was attractive when he smiled! With a sense of trouble to come when people other than him noticed that, Julian stood and brushed a few crumbs off his robe.

"To the Pinnacle," he said, as grandly as if he was on stage. "After I dress, anyway," he added.

***

"Well, I need another set of hands, to be sure, but…" Duncan rubbed his hand over his bearded chin and gave Alex a doubtful look. To spare Alex's feelings, Julian had sent him over to gawk at the view from the stage, and Alex was peering out at the rows of seats, cushioned in deep green velvet, and the boxes high up, seemingly suspended in space, ornate with gold and pale cream paint, curtains ready to be drawn discreetly tight in the intervals. His haircut had made him even more attractive, judging by the looks Alex had gathered as they'd walked to the theater, but he still lacked polish.

"He's young, but he's a hard worker, and he tells me he's used a hammer and nails. He's from the Westerlings, and say what you like about them, no one ever accused them of laziness."

"True enough." Duncan was a tall man, broad-shouldered, his arms as thick as many a man's thighs. Brown hair, cropped short, and dark gray eyes were ordinary enough, but nothing about Duncan made him fade into the backgrounds he built. The closest he'd come was after the death of his wife some seven years before. Mary had been a slender, smiling woman, so much shorter than her husband that when he kissed her, he needed to put his hands around her waist and lift her. She'd been the head seamstress, and even now, costumes she'd designed and sewed were still in use. Julian felt a pang of loss every time he wore one and he'd known her only for a year or two. He couldn't imagine how poignant it was for Duncan, but the theater offered a refuge as well as a reminder, and Duncan had never looked elsewhere for work.

Mary and the child she'd carried had both died. Tragic, but not uncommon, and most people had expected Duncan to remarry. Julian doubted it would happen. Now and then, overcome by melancholy, Duncan would get drunk and sometimes, to his shame and grief the next day, end the night in the arms of a nightworker, usually buxom, experienced, and, Julian imagined, chosen for her complete lack of resemblance to Mary.

Julian had been Duncan's companion in both tavern and nighthouse on several occasions, never attempting to dissuade Duncan from his path because the man needed the physical release, if nothing else. If Duncan's tastes weren't firmly set on women, Julian would've willingly taken Duncan to his bed, but maybe it was better this way. Their friendship was dear to him, and he knew only too well that fucking complicated matters.

"Boy!" Duncan called, bringing Alex back to them at a run. "You'll find wood and tools in my workroom. Take a piece as big as my hand and show me what you can do with it. You've got an hour."

Alex nodded and gave Julian a reassuring smile and Duncan a small, respectful bow, before darting off the stage.

"Eager," Duncan said, his voice a deep rumble. "Well, we'll see." He tilted his head. "Isn't that your jerkin on his back?"

Trust Duncan to notice that when in all the years they'd been friends he'd never commented on anything Julian was wearing. "Mm. It's too faded for me to wear, but it suits him well enough and his clothes marked him as a country bird far too plainly."

"If I ask how you met him, will you tell me the truth or spin me a tale?"

"He's a new friend, nothing more, if that's what you wish to know. Staying with me for the moment, yes, but he has his own room."

"Does your other friend know?"

Duncan never had cared much for Julian's arrangement with Marcus. He valued the marriage bond too highly to approve of the casual way the nobles broke it.

"Marcus? Oh, he doesn't know and never will." Julian smiled, bright and hard, a glitter of a smile. "He released me last night. He's off to see the world and won't be returning for years."

Duncan absorbed that exaggerated version of events in silence, then grunted and turned back to his contemplation of the set. It was a garden as seen through the windows of a ballroom, the garden full of tall trees with improbable gold and purple leaves that, lit by lamplight, would seem to glow, ethereal, enchanting, enticing the lovers of the play to become entangled in a plot improbable enough that Julian often wondered why it was such an audience favorite.

No matter. Ardent Hearts was popular and his small role was one he could play without much thought, leaving him free to learn his part in the somber, emotionally draining tragedy that would replace it.

Silence Falls would make him, if he could carry it off. If he could persuade Sampton to give him Galliero's role of the king…

Shaking free of his doubts, he gestured at the set. "What's wrong with it? You've been staring at it as if it owes you coin."

"Last performance, that young idiot Selwyn put the end of his sword through it and left the canvas flapping in the wind from his flatulent ass."

"He did?" Julian peered at the canvas. "I can't tell."

"That's because I've fixed it," Duncan growled, and stalked away as if he'd been mortally offended, not praised.

Julian grinned and went in search of Master Sampton.

***

"No," Sampton said with finality. He folded his hands over his ample belly and glared up at Julian from the depths of his chair. It was brown leather, thickly padded once, but the stuffing had worn thin over the years. For anyone but Sampton, it was probably uncomfortable as a bag of nails, because the seat conformed so perfectly to the shape of his backside. Not that anyone but the man himself would dare sit in it. "You're perfect as Lord Lenton. Too young to play the king."

"He's not some doddering white beard! That's the point of it. He's tall, strong, at the height of his powers, magnificent, adored, but there's a worm of madness eating away at him, destroying from within—" Julian realized his pacing walk was limited to three steps in either direction—the room was large enough, but cluttered to the point where not an inch of wall was visible—and stood still. "I could do so much with it."

"In five years, maybe six, you might," Sampton agreed. "Not now. Now you play the friend, and Galliero's understudy gets his chance."

Julian threw back his head and clenched his jaw, a trick he'd picked up playing Dittant, a brainless courtier with a quick temper. "Patrick? Patrick Rathes? Patrick's capable of many things, Master Sampton, but King Henry? No! A thousand times no!"

"Let's hope you're wrong about that."

Julian whirled around, his hand narrowly missing a stack of plays piled on a small table too rickety to be used on stage. "Patrick, I mean no disrespect—"

Patrick waved dismissively. He was tall and good-looking, with steady gray eyes and a shock of dark hair, glossless and thick. Here, his face seemed to say, is a man worthy of trust. Julian wouldn't have trusted Patrick with the air he'd exhaled. "You're hungry for the part. I understand. I forgive you." A grin, charming and dismissive all at once, was aimed at him, and Julian submitted to having his cheek patted with seeming fondness.

It stung.

"It's true I feel I could do it justice," he said, choosing his words with care.

"Too young," Patrick said flatly, for once showing no artifice. Julian liked him the better for it, though the judgment stung more than the pat to his face.

"That's what I was telling him," Sampton said. He scratched at his jaw through the neat, pointed beard he'd worn for as long as anyone could remember. There was gray in it now, but Sampton had lost none of his vigor. When he rose from his chair to oversee the production of a play himself, as he did from time to time, the theater crackled with energy, every actor discovering they could surpass their limitations. Julian respected him, liked him for the most part too. Even if at the moment he was displaying the most annoying stubbornness. "Though when he does play it, he'll do it better than you, Patrick, and that's all the coddling you'll get from me, Julian, so be off with you. Galliero's passing, Lady rest him, has left me with more to do than you can imagine. I've not seen my bed, my stomach's emptier than the theater was last night, and Mistress Sampton is fussing over me as if I'm a sickly child, not a grown man."

Julian found that hard to believe. Mistress Sampton was a placid, genial woman. She'd stayed unruffled and smiling when the roof of the Pinnacle caught fire one summer during a storm, pointing out the rain that followed the lightning strike would quench the flames, but it wouldn't hurt if someone were to climb a ladder and throw a few buckets of water on the blaze in the meantime.

While Sampton had raged at fate, called on the Lady, and waved his hands, she'd organized a line of people, from Galliero himself down to the small boy who swept the stage, and set them to work passing full buckets up to the roof and bringing the empty ones down. There had been a gaping hole in the roof for a day or two, a few feet square, but no worse damage than that.

"At least let me read for the part." Julian knew he was begging, but this was too important for him to stand on his dignity.

Patrick made an impatient noise. "Oh, for Lady's sake, Julian. We all know you could make a passable job of it, that's not in question. I'm sure the Garrick would be delighted to have you in the role."

Julian drew an outraged breath. "The Garrick—"

"But for the Pinnacle," Patrick continued, his voice cream-smooth as he bowed to Sampton with a hint of irony, "only the best will do, is that not correct, Master Sampton?"

Sampton's eyes, a curiously light blue, like the clearest of oceans, narrowed in thought. His gaze went from Julian to Patrick, assessing them. Julian felt pierced by that gaze, but he held firm, confident in his abilities, projecting that confidence at Sampton, a small smile on his lips.

"Melville, you can understudy him," Sampton said abruptly, jerking his head at Patrick, "and young Selwyn can understudy you, though he's not ready for it, not really. But no slipping soap into Patrick's food or buttering the stairs when he's about to walk down them, you hear me?"

It wasn't enough, but there was an inflexible set to Sampton's mouth now that told Julian he'd gotten all the concessions he would, for today at least.

With a bow to each man—the one to Patrick was carefully judged to be a shade too brief—Julian left in silence, letting it speak for him.

It was a good exit. He let that comfort him.

 

Chapter Five

Alex smoothed his thumb over the surface of his carving, testing it, judging it objectively, the way he'd been taught. He thought he could feel the slightest roughness, too slight to use the knife on. A dab of grit paste and some assiduous polishing took care of it, and he set the piece of wood down with a sigh, the breath leaving him as if he'd been holding onto it as he worked.

"You're finished?"

Alex turned and saw Duncan filling the doorway, his face impassive. "Yes, sir, I believe so."

Duncan walked across the workroom, his boots scuffing through a layer of sawdust, soft and bright as gold. Alex had planned to sweep it up, but he'd run out of time. The workroom was neat enough, the tools well cared for, the ones he'd used old enough to be comforting in Alex's hand, but the floor was in need of a broom's attentions.

Duncan followed Alex's gaze to the floor with his eyes. "You can see I need someone to keep the place how I like it." He raised his eyebrows. "Or is sweeping up beneath you, boy?"

"No honest work is beneath any man, woman, or child." How many times had his parents said that? Finding himself repeating it gave Alex a flash of homesickness, but he quelled it.

"True enough." Duncan came to stand by Alex, close enough that Alex could smell him, a nose-twitching mixture of paint and linseed oil, though under that, Duncan's scent was pleasant enough, his skin freshly washed.

People in the city seemed to set cleanliness high. Remembering the sensual pleasure of his first hot bath, Alex wasn't inclined to disagree.

Without a word, Duncan held out his hand. Swallowing his nerves—he'd done good work, his best—Alex picked up what he'd carved and dropped it into Duncan's cupped palm.

"A ball," Duncan said reflectively, turning it over in his hand. "Interesting."

Alex held still, his gaze fixed on Duncan's face, his hands behind his back where their trembling could not be seen.

He needed this job. Needed the coin it would bring him so he could repay Julian and keep his belly full. More than that, though, he needed to belong in this new, exciting, enticing world.

Julian's world.

The theater, dim, enclosed, private, its grandeur muted by day—he wanted to see it at night, lit up, alive, the vast stage filled, and the seats before it occupied by an expectant crowd.

And a play! He wanted to see a play so much, but though Julian's generosity had ensured he would do that very thing tonight, he wanted to be allowed behind the stage as well as in the audience.

Anxiously still, mindful of his father's frequent admonitions not to fidget, he waited for Duncan to speak.

Duncan ran his fingers, scarred from work, but deft and strong, over the surface of the ball, much as Alex had.

"This is good work," Duncan said finally. "But let's see if it can roll in a straight line, hmm?"

He sent the ball across the floor, a smooth flick of his wrist making its path true. The ball rolled silently, trundling across the dusty floor and leaving the mark of its passage behind it.

It reached the door and a booted foot halted its progress. Alex's breath caught in his throat. Julian. Tall, handsome, a merry smile on his lips, his dull red jerkin, embroidered in black, giving him an elegant air.

"If we're playing games, can't it be cards?" Julian asked plaintively. "I'm good at cards."

"We're not playing, lad." Duncan jerked his thumb at Alex. "Your boot's on his task piece."

"This?" Julian bent and straightened a moment later, the wooden ball in his hand. "Oh."

"You don't like it?" Alex flushed even as he spoke, keenly aware of how obvious he'd made his need for Julian's approval.

"Oh, I do, I do! I expected you to carve something else. An animal, maybe, or a, well, a…" Julian shrugged and tossed the ball up, catching it neatly. "Something else."

"That's because you're a fool who doesn't know a fine piece of carving when he sees it." Duncan's frown was fierce, but not directed at Alex. "Do you have any idea how difficult it is to make a perfect sphere? How the balance has to be exact, the surface smooth as silk? No, of course not, you thumb-fingered dolt. Give the boy his ball back and leave us be while I show him around. He can start properly tomorrow." Duncan turned and scuffed his hand across Alex's head in a rough, good-humored fashion. The guard had done that to him the day before, but he repressed the memory with no more than an inward shudder. He would not think of that. This was a new beginning. "And he can sweep my floor today."

"Gladly, sir!" Alex beamed at Duncan and then at Julian, delight filling him. To be praised was sweet, but to have work to do was sweeter yet.

Julian tossed the ball up in the air again, his answering grin and swift wink broad enough that Alex suspected some trick had been played on Duncan. He recalled his father telling him some animals could never be driven, only led.

"Take back your ball and behave yourself, Pippin. When Duncan releases you, come and find me. I have a rehearsal, though, so I can't promise that I'll be free for some time. And do not, for the sake of your skin and mine, interrupt if we're on stage."

The ball flew through the air and Alex caught it without thinking, his hands recognizing what he'd made, even after so short an acquaintance.

"He'll be fine," Duncan said. "Now go before Cranston comes looking for you."

"A fate to be feared. See me quake. Duncan. Alex." A bow that encompassed them both and Julian was gone, leaving the room duller for his absence.

"Who is Master Cranston?" Alex asked Duncan tentatively.

"Roger Cranston? He's the director for Silence Falls."

"I thought a Master Sampton—"

Duncan shook his head, no trace of impatience with Alex's ignorance showing. "No, he owns the theater. He oversees the plays sometimes, but mostly he deals with the running of the place. I'll take you to him later and have your name entered on the wage bill."

"Thank you." Alex realized he hadn't thanked Duncan for his job. He opened his mouth to do so, but Duncan interrupted him before he'd stumbled through his first words.

"I want work from you, lad, not thanks. Sweep the place clean, and I'll show you the set plans for Silence. They'll take some skill to fashion, but between us we'll manage. The old sets for it are no good. Mice have nibbled them and the damp spoiled the paint. Besides, I can do better." Duncan grinned. "I helped to make them, and I've improved somewhat since then."

Alex smiled back shyly, but Duncan had already moved away. A broom in his hand, the scent of sawdust and paint thick in his throat, Alex set to work, humming tunelessly under his breath.

***

Alex sank down into his seat, his face burning. He'd tripped over three pairs of legs on his way along the row, but that wasn't the cause of his embarrassment. He craned his neck and took another look at the woman who'd shown him to his seat, all smiles because she was a friend of Julian's and seemed to have taken a fancy to Alex too, judging by the soft squeeze his hand had gotten. She was talking to another patron, her pretty face animated, her golden hair gleaming in the soft light.

And her legs exposed up to her—

Well, customs differed. At home, women and men dressed simply, with an eye to comfort, economy, and practicality. Women's dresses fell in straight, clean lines to below the knee in summer, and in winter, when the snows came, they added a pair of thick, warm stockings. The younger girls, looking to attract a husband, would wear a woven belt, subtly drawing the eye to a neat waist or the gentle swell of their breasts, or lower the scooped neckline an inch or two. The older women would tut and shake their heads, but with an indulgent air.

The usher—Polly—was in what looked to be a uniform of sorts, a black silk dress, the skirt wide and falling to within a bare inch of the floor. White facings on the bodice enlivened the dark color and were repeated on the wide cuffs of the sleeves. To Alex's eyes, the dress was fine enough for any lady, but for the hem, which swooped up at the front, exposing Polly's legs to mid-thigh. The front of the skirt was, to all intents and purposes, missing and Alex could only picture his mother's reaction were she to see it.

Reminding himself that only the ignorant condemned without reason and only a child was permitted to stare open-mouthed with wonder, he gripped the arms of his chair and gazed fixedly at the stage.

His lips parted on a sigh. The deep blue velvet of the curtain was like a door waiting to be opened and beyond it lay, he was sure, a land of enchantment. Transfixed by the prospect—and the chance to see Julian in his element—Alex let his excitement show, a delighted smile curving his mouth.

"Young man, might I trouble you to retrieve my spectacle case?"

Alex turned to his left and found himself being addressed by his neighbor, one of the people whose feet he hadn't trampled, a slight, elderly gentleman, stick-thin and dressed in formal wear so antique in design even Alex realized its age. The man smelled of camphor, but a few moth holes still showed here and there on his black velvet jacket and the lace foaming at his throat was yellowed, though crisp and clean.

A thin leather case had fallen to the floor between them, and Alex, with a friendly smile, bent to pick it up, returning it to its owner with a bob of his head.

"Thank you. If I'd attempted that, it would have been the end of the second act before I straightened."

The man's voice was dry and thin, but clear and assured enough to remind Alex of the teacher who'd taught him his letters. Silver hair was drawn back neatly and confined with a black bow, and the gray eyes peering at Alex were lively.

"My mother used to make my father drink ginger tea when his back stiffened," Alex offered.

"Really! And did it prove efficacious?"

Alex laughed. "He went back to work to avoid drinking more, so I suppose it did." Sobering, he added, "But, yes, I do believe it helped. My mother is known for being a healer, and she would not have wasted time on a remedy that didn't work."

"I will instruct my cook to prepare some tomorrow, and we will see if I too benefit from her undoubted wisdom."

The formality of the gentleman's language made Alex want to respond in kind, not from any desire to impress, but simply because the old man deserved a matching courtesy. Shyness bound his tongue after his initial words, and he turned his head to glance again at the stage, uneasy that he'd been too free with his advice to a stranger.

His worries vanished when the gentleman addressed him again. "You are fond of this play?"

"Why, I don't know." Alex shook his head at the ineptness of his reply. "Forgive me. I'm not usually so scatter-brained. To tell you the truth, this is the first play I've attended, and all I know of this one is that it's a comedy. A friend of mine has a part in it, and he arranged—so kind!—for me to have this seat."

"Kind indeed." The man seemed lost in thought for a moment, a frown adding creases to an already lined forehead. "I'm familiar with this play. Would it interest you to know a little about it?"

"It would indeed." Alex bit his lip. "But not, perhaps, the ending? Ju—my friend said I'd be surprised, and it would be ungracious of me to make him a liar."

The man chuckled. "Well said, sir! And no, I would not spoil the pleasure of seeing this play for the first time. I would merely sketch its elements for you."

"I'd be honored." Alex hesitated, unsure of the etiquette of introducing himself. With an inward shrug, he risked giving offense and said simply, "My name is Alex Martin."

"Is it indeed?" The man didn't extend his hand, something Alex was glad of, since the man's fingers were twisted and bent, so even the gentlest of touches would have been painful. Instead, he touched his hand to his chest. "Marmaduke Stellforth, at your service, as you were at mine."

Alex wanted to stand and bow, as custom demanded, but the theater was filling around them and he had no wish to be conspicuous. He settled for as deep an inclination of his head as he could manage.

"And now the play. Ardent Hearts was written when Mistress Julia Spencer was at the height of her fame—and her beauty." A wistful look passed over the thin face. "I danced with her at a Lady's Eve ball once. It was like being partnered with thistledown. She had the merriest eyes. To think she's been dead these last thirty years…"

Alex was sorry for the lady's passing, but unable to summon much grief over a death that had occurred long before his birth. He made a sympathetic sound and waited for Master Stellforth to continue.

"The play is about lovers. What comedy is not? Love is the ultimate joke the Lady plays on us and the perfect subject for both comedy and drama."

"I suppose it is," Alex agreed. His brothers had certainly turned into idiots when their hearts had been captured, but their love not returned, jealous, quick to anger, and prone to extravagant gestures.

"In the play, we meet three sets of lovers, all of whom are in love with the wrong person. We see it here in the audience, but the lovers, ah, they are blind. A young girl comes to their small town, beautiful, assured, the gloss of the city on her. Wiser than they, but with a mischievous spirit, Annette tells them if they are truly meant to be with each other, it can be proved simply enough. They scoff at her; what need of proof when their love shines so brightly!" Marmaduke raised thin eyebrows. "But secretly, they begin to wonder."

Alex let out the breath he'd been holding. "It sounds most exciting."

Marmaduke nodded. "She proposes a masked party, where each of the six will arrive alone, forbidden to reveal their identity."

Alex frowned. "I would know a friend even beneath a mask," he objected. "I would recognize their voice, the way they moved, the color of their eyes."

"This is the theater," he was told, a note of severity entering Marmaduke's voice. "One accepts the delicious unreality as perfectly plausible. If you saw a child blowing soap bubbles would you poke the bubbles and make them vanish or enjoy their swift flight, the gleam of a rainbow caught in their surface?"

"I beg your pardon," Alex said, with all due humility. "So, they don't know who is who?"

"No, they do not—and there are more than the six at the party, of course. There is a spurned suitor for Clarissa, a shy youth, richer than any of his friends know, but determined to be loved for himself. There's a host of townsfolk, too, but we need not consider them. They provide a background for the main characters, no more than that."

Hoping his question seemed casual, no more than that, Alex said, "My friend plays the role of Allan, he tells me. Is he—when does that character appear?"

"Allan! Ah, a small role, but important." Again, Alex was conscious of his new friend's attention straying somewhat. He waited patiently enough, though there were signs the play would soon begin. Nearly every seat was taken and the lamps were being lowered, some turned out completely.

"Allan is an older man than the six, who are young enough to be foolish. Not that it's a quality restricted to youth, of course, no not by any means. He's deeply in love with Thomas, who is Clarissa's intended." Marmaduke shook his head. "Some were shocked by Mistress Julia's daring. It was a different time, you understand. Not like today when such affairs are accepted. She stood by her play, though, declaring the story of Allan and Thomas was the most poignant of all of them and prevented the play from being no more than sugar-sweet froth—but I will say no more. The play is about to begin and I have given you a glimpse of its shape, I hope."

"Oh, indeed you have. Thank you, sir." Alex sank back into his seat, his mind awhirl. He had expected to see Julian in the smallest of roles, a few lines at best, but this sounded far more than that. He had known Julian for a scant handful of hours, when all was said and done, but he had the measure of the man. It would be disconcerting to see Julian as someone else, more so if Julian was successful in his portrayal. He would not be Julian for the time he walked the stage; he would be Allan, a man who'd never heard of Alex, a man in love with another, his love ignored or rejected, perhaps.

It was no wonder his parents frowned on plays. They confused the mind terribly.

A bell sounded, the high, sweet note ringing out, stilling the buzz of the audience. The lights were extinguished, plunging the theater into darkness, and before Alex could do more than gasp, the curtain swept up, revealing a drawing room with a young woman reclining on a couch, eating candy from a beribboned box and reading a novel.

Alex gripped his hands together, fascinated by the way the bare boards he'd trodden earlier that day had been transformed into a room by the use of wood, canvas, and paint. He would help Duncan build another such world soon and the idea thrilled him.

The play began, drawing him inside to the point where he was unaware of anything around him except in a vague fashion. People were laughing or making sounds of sympathy as the characters revealed their feelings, were shifting in their seats or talking to their companions in a sibilant whisper, but the stage was the reality, the bright spot.

Some of the words were delivered quickly, in a drawl, city-fashion, and he had to strain to catch their meaning, but the play was easy enough to follow. Alex suspected he was missing some of the jokes; beside him, Master Stellforth was chuckling helplessly at lines that weren't funny at all to him, but the age of the play made that inevitable.

Allan's entrance, unannounced, had Alex leaning forward, jolted for a moment out of his absorption with the play. Julian wore a short beard, and it changed his face completely. His voice was his, but subtly different, too, the rhythm of the words Allan's.

Julian was Allan, without artifice or guile, not portraying him, but being him in a way that left Alex admiring, proud, and yet oddly desolate, as if, for the space of time the play ran, Julian had ceased to exist.

Thomas came across the room to talk to the man who loved him, and Alex drove his teeth into his lower lip when Allan's eyes lit up, his pleasure evident to all but Thomas. And yet Thomas stayed by his side, even when Clarissa smiled at him over the flutter of her fan, stood close, touched Allan's arm and forgot to take back his hand for the longest while.

The play ran with one break in the middle. The lights rose at the interval, and Alex jerked as if he'd been doused in cold water. The loss of the world behind the curtain, his reemergence into this opulent, crowded space, already abuzz with chatter—it was disorienting.

Marmaduke smiled, a look of such perfect understanding on his face that Alex could not hide his reaction under a bored mask.

"Oh, sir, that was—"

"Room, if you please," a man demanded.

The seat on Alex's right was empty, one of the few unoccupied seats, but there were plenty of other people in his row and all of them seemed intent on leaving, in search of refreshment, perhaps, or a chance to relieve themselves. He'd seen the long bar in the room beyond the entrance hall, wine bottles and glasses filling the shelves behind it, casks of beer and cider off to the side.

"People don't have time to drink much, but it brings in the coin," Julian had told him. "Over-priced, but don't say I said so. I'll give—no, don't look like that—I'll loan you some coin, though, in case you're thirsty."

With an apologetic look, Alex shifted his legs to make room for a burly man, a meek drab of a woman trailing behind him. By the time the row had emptied, he was better able to frame his response.

"It was wonderfully well done. I have nothing to compare it to, though."

"Ah! An excellent point. I see your problem, but the solution is simple enough; go to more plays."

Alex laughed. "I start work here tomorrow, helping to build the sets for the next one." He remembered what Duncan had called it and corrected himself. "The next production, that is. So I daresay I'll see bits of it, but if I can save enough coin, I will buy myself a ticket."

"You sound excited about the idea of working here."

"Oh, I am!" Belatedly, Alex realized Master Stellforth might be in need of refreshment himself. Some people had stayed in their seats, but not many. "Do you wish to stretch your legs, sir?"

Marmaduke shook his head. "No, but if you have need, do not feel obliged to keep me company."

"I'd sooner stay here." Alex grimaced. "I'm still getting used to so many people all in one place."

"You're new to the city, then?"

"I arrived…" Alex thought back over the days, counting them silently in his head. "Eight days ago."

"And already you have two friends and a job. Fortunate indeed."

Alex took Marmaduke's meaning and smiled at him. "If you mean I am to count you as a friend, why, you're too kind. I'm honored."

"It's not often I encounter someone with some enthusiasm, or such good manners. I'm not sure if our paths will cross frequently, but if you ever have need of some advice, my offices are in Addison Street."

"Your offices?"

"I'm a lawyer," Marmaduke explained. "Close to retiring, but there always seems something only I can handle… I'm attached to the duke's court. Even a duke cannot change everything. The Realm has certain laws that must never be broken."

"Ladylaw."

"Indeed. Within that framework, though, the new duke—ah, we must stop calling him that, must we not?—can do as he pleases, unless an edict from the Queen forbids it." Marmaduke shook his head. "And you do not wish to be lectured when you're still captured by the magic of the play."

"No, I'm most interested," Alex said, with more politeness than truth. His gut churned as he thought of where one of the new laws had placed him, but it wasn't a subject he cared to discuss, even if his promise to Julian hadn't sealed his lips.

"Well, I'm more interested in what you thought of your friend's performance. Melville is wasted in the lighter roles, but there's enough meat to the role of Allan to allow him to make something of the part."

"It was so strange to see him as someone else." Alex glanced down, rubbing at a non-existent spot on his breeches. "I met him only yesterday, but even so."

"You have an enviable gift for making friends quickly then."

Alex thought of the stall-keeper's face, dark with anger, and the vindictive smile he'd given Alex when the guard had dragged him away. "Not always."

A silence fell between them, not uncomfortable, but peaceful. Alex had a dozen questions about the play, but Julian could answer them if needed. The interval ended and the theater filled again, the curtain rising on the second act.

Alex found himself able to watch with more objectivity now. He even found himself able to criticize a clumsily delivered line from one of the actors, frowning at the way it ruined the moment.

Julian's performance, though, seemed flawless. Alex watched, an ache in his heart, as Allan declared his love to a startled Thomas, who fled, torn between awakening desire and his waning attraction to Clarissa. Sat enthralled as the tangled threads of the various couples were slowly unwound and rewoven into order. He'd expected a neatly happy ending to the play, but in the end some of the characters were left alone, hopeful of finding their love in time, to be sure, but realizing what they'd thought of as love was a mere fancy.

When Thomas walked up to Allan and slowly, tentatively placed his hand on Allan's face, Alex found a sob rising in his throat, and he wasn't alone. Allan—he could not think of him as Julian in that moment—smiled back at Thomas, the depth of his emotion evident, and covered Thomas' hand with his.

It was their ending, and it left Alex satisfied.

The curtain fell for the final time, and he turned to Marmaduke, his palms smarting from clapping, only to discover his new friend had left during the tumult of applause.

Alex rose to his feet, ignoring the hissed disapproval from the people behind him, but Marmaduke had vanished into the crowd.

 

Chapter Six

Julian looked down the table at Alex experiencing a warm glow of approval. Alex was behaving beautifully, neither pushing himself forward in a way Julian's friends would resent, nor being stupidly shy and shrinking. He spoke when addressed, answering freely without talking too long, and now and then asked a question and listened attentively to the answer.

It helped that he'd been full of praise for every actor at the table, his enjoyment of the play evident enough that it made his compliments clearly sincere.

Julian was curious about Alex's opinion of his first play, but in the tumult backstage it was impossible for Alex to do more than murmur something disjointed, his eyes full of a worshipful admiration. Once the group had reached the Groat and Goat, the tavern they frequented most often, they had been separated, with the actresses who played Clarissa and Anette converging on Alex with gleaming eyes.

Julian had contemplated a rescue, but in the end had shrugged. Alex was old enough to require some grounding in the art of flirtation, and Melissa and Claire wouldn't break his heart.

It occurred to him, watching Alex try not to stare at Claire's cleavage with the fascination it deserved, that he still didn't know where Alex's tastes lay when it came to a bedmate. The flicker of Alex's tongue against his prick had suggested some experience with men, but Alex was responding to the overtures the two young women were making as if he was truly delighted to be seduced.

Well, no matter. Julian didn't intend to cross that line, no matter how much Alex's freshness appealed. It was that innocence that put Alex out of reach. Julian had seen the stricken hurt in Alex's eyes as he knelt and the flash of anger that had sustained Alex through his ordeal. Julian wished to see neither again.

No matter that Julian harbored a wish to make love to Alex and show him some tenderness, give him pleasure and watch that responsive face tighten and twist with it, Alex's hands gripping him, urging him on…

"Julian, get your mind out of the clouds and tell me what you wish to drink, man."

Julian turned his head to smile at Damon, his love in the play, though never in life. Damon had married early and was already the father of twin girls. Damon adored them, but they were teething and he'd cravenly taken refuge in the tavern, leaving Sarah to deal with their fretful, broken sleep.

"Ale, my friend, nut-brown ale."

"That's not your usual," Damon objected. "You wouldn't care for a glass of Reckton Red?"

Julian shuddered. "I would not. I'd sooner drink vinegar."

Damon took a sip from his glass. "It's not that bad."

"It's swill," Julian said, as if he hadn't drank it himself the day before. "Listen to what your mouth tells you."

"I like it," Damon said cheerfully, and tossed the contents of his glass down his throat.

Julian opened his mouth to argue the point when a chance lull in the conversation around the table allowed him to hear what Melissa was saying to Alex, her voice creamy smooth.

"So tell me, sweetling, how did you meet Julian?"

Too late, he realized that beyond forbidding Alex to reveal how they'd met, he hadn't dreamed up a story that would satisfy an idle questioner—which Melissa most certainly was. If it didn't affect her directly, she patted her blonde curls, lowered extravagantly darkened lashes over her deep blue eyes, and ignored it. That she was troubling herself to ask Alex anything meant only that she was interested in bedding him.

Julian strained his ears to follow the conversation, wishing he was sitting closer so he could join it, but unable to do so without giving the question too much weight. Now that, Melissa most certainly would notice.

"Why, we found ourselves sharing a table at Mistress Lindy's," Alex replied, and Julian relaxed. Alex wasn't lying, but he was shaping the truth in a way that came close. The casual use of the restaurant's name as if he'd been there often, the indifferent shrug as he recounted a dull story…perfect if unexpected. "As we talked, he mentioned an opening at the theater, and I was most happy to hear that. I'm new to the city and needed to find work. "

He leaned closer and lowered his voice. Julian couldn't catch Alex's words, but from the way Melissa bridled, a coy smile appearing, it was unlikely the topic under discussion was still how he and Alex had met.

Long before he would usually have turned his steps toward home, Julian was ready to leave. He had an early rehearsal and Duncan would be expecting Alex not long after sun-up. He paid his bill and discreetly arranged for anything Alex ordered to be added to his account in case Alex chose to linger. After saying his farewells, he made his way to Alex, who was propping up a wall in a dark corner with Melissa clinging to his arm. Claire seemed to have lost interest in Alex, which didn't surprise Julian overmuch. She tended to prefer men with deep pockets, and Alex was a little green for her tastes.

"Time to go."

"Julian, you can't possibly be tearing Alex away from me—from us—so soon." Melissa pouted sweetly, but there was an annoyed glint in her eyes that spoke of frustration.

Well, even if Alex intended to succumb to her charms, it would do him no disservice in Melissa's eyes to appear difficult to capture, even if his reluctance was an illusion. It might, unless he was clumsy, even get him a second chance to warm her sheets.

"Sadly, we must be awake at an unheard of early hour. What did Spicer say? 'Dreams interrupted by the shriek of a rooster, sleep split asunder by the clamor of a clock'?"

"I neither know nor care," she snapped, before turning a melting look upon Alex. "Dear boy. Such a delight to see a new face. One grows so tired of those who seem forever underfoot, like naughty puppies."

Amused, Julian held back his impulse to yap at her and caught Alex's eye, seeing nothing but relief in the young man's expression. Alex's eyelids were drooping, a yawn ready to split his mouth wide. Time to go indeed.

With a bow to Melissa, he swept Alex out into the warm night, the street outside seeming quiet and empty after the hubbub of the tavern, though there were still plenty of people about.

Ale heaved a sigh and fell into step beside Julian. "My head is splitting from the noise. Do you think I'll ever get used to it? So many people!"

"It was a slow night," Julian told him, tossing a copper to a beggar crouched down against the entrance to an alley, his rags cocooned around him. "Why, we had seats. I've been there with the place so crowded that the only way out was through the windows."

"I could not bear that." Alex shook his head. "I'm sorry. I sound like an ungrateful brat and that wasn't my intention. Thank you for taking me there and introducing me to your friends. I truly did enjoy that."

"Even if some of them were a little too friendly?" Julian teased.

"What? Oh! Mistress Melissa, you mean?" Alex scratched the side of his face, looking more bemused than embarrassed. "She—I think she wanted me to—well. I must have misunderstood her friendliness. We've only recently met, after all."

"If you thought she wanted to take you home and drain every drop of white from your balls, you didn't misunderstand at all." Julian chuckled. "Lady, if you'd gone with her, Duncan would've been whistling for you in the morning. Melissa's bed is like a spider's web; easy to enter, difficult to leave."

"But—" Alex came to a halt, his face illuminated by one of the gas lamps the duke intended to place on every street, though as yet they were confined mostly to the richer areas and the squares. "She does not know me."

"She knows what you look like, and that's enough." Julian let his gaze wander over Alex. "You're new, pretty, with muscles she'd love to squeeze and coo over, and you're young enough that your prick will stand for her many times in a night. She really doesn't require much else in a bedmate, but she gets bored easily, so if you go to her bed, don't expect to find yourself welcome there a month from now."

"I have no wish to—none!" Alex looked adorably agitated, but the lad needed to adapt quickly to his new life or be forever blushing.

"Then avoid her. Or confide in someone that you have a mysterious rash that itches like fire and she'll do the avoiding."

Alex gave him a pained look. "Now you make me want to scratch my balls, curse you."

Julian grinned. "That's better." He clapped Alex on the shoulder. "There will be many women eager to taste you. You don't have to say yes to all of them, but by all means say yes to one or two. Why not?"

He turned, intent on reaching home and easing his aching feet—the shoes he wore on stage were a full size too small, Lady take them—and almost missed Alex's quietly spoken words.

"Because I prefer men?"

Julian spun around, telling himself he'd been a fool not to know.

"There's no sin in that, Pippin, and the same applies to any man who chases you."

Alex gestured with his hand as if he was pushing something away. "I do not wish to play the part of a prude, but I cannot couple with someone so thoughtlessly. I desire the act itself—why wouldn't I?—and I'm not entirely untried—there was someone once—but I cannot—" His voice faltered, and he gave Julian a beseeching look. "Don't mark me down as a fool not to take what's offered so readily."

"I don't," Julian assured him. "The only problem I have with your scruples is that they will make you ten times as enticing. Everyone will wish to be the one who holds the key to unlock your heart."

"But they'll be interested only in undoing my breeches?" Alex asked, with a welcome touch of humor.

"I'm afraid so, but there are worse fates than to be desired."

"What about you?" If Alex was blushing now, Julian couldn't see it. Alex's chin was up, his gaze direct. "Do you desire me?"

Julian was too good an actor to let any emotion show on his face without his express approval. He placed an amused smile on his lips and ignored the way his breath had quickened. "As a friend, most certainly, and as a roommate until you find somewhere better. As for the rest, you're a little young for me, and you know how recently my heart was engaged. It would be seen as disrespectful to Lord Marcus if I replaced him too quickly."

Alex stared at him in silence and then smiled. "Of course. Did I tell you I had the good fortune to be seated beside a man who also asked me to consider him a friend? He was most knowledgeable about the theater."

Jealousy was not an emotion Julian had ever considered himself ruled by, but hearing that roused a storm of it, forcing him to choose his next words carefully. "Is that so? I'm glad he was able to enlighten you. Did he give you his name perhaps? Arrange to call on you?"

"He gave me his name, yes, and told me where he can be found if ever I had need of him. I liked him so much, Julian. I would be sorry to think that we never met again."

A weight of responsibility settled down on Julian. He'd never harbored the slightest desire to father children, or even own a puppy, but he imagined fathers felt this way when their sons were rushing heedlessly along a path leading to something dangerous. A cliff, perhaps, or a swamp.

"Alex, sweetheart, promise me you won't meet with anyone strange to you in a private location. The slavers have been outlawed for years, but it doesn't mean they don't exist, and even if this man is simply interested in you as a lover, it's not wise to—why are you laughing?"

"Master Stellforth is ancient," Alex explained, between giggles. "Truly, I'm not as green as you think. Slavers don't come into the Westerlings because when we find any, we hang them, but I'm no fool."

"'Master Stellforth'? Marmaduke Stellforth?" Julian asked, his mind blank with astonishment.

"Why yes. Do you know of him? He's a lawyer for the duke himself, or at least that's what he told me."

"He was also my father's best friend," Julian said, asperity replacing his shock. Marmaduke and Alex did not belong together and to think of them seated beside each other made his gut churn. "I lost a milk tooth biting his finger and I was supposed to marry his eldest daughter, though she had the good sense to choose someone else."

Alex's face was a study in surprise, his jaw dropped, his eyes wide. On stage, anyone watching would have deemed it over-acting. He gathered his wits enough to close his mouth at least, and Julian took his arm, urging him back into motion. Getting home was a matter of another ten minutes' walk, and Julian found himself in a hurry.

They moved through the streets in silence, each lost in thought. By the time Julian slid the key into the door, his head ached with the press of questions building up.

He led Alex inside and faced him. "Does Stellforth know who you are? Your name, your connection to me?"

Alex nodded, his shadowed eyes miserable. "I didn't tell him how we met or that I'm staying with you for the moment. Only that we were friends and you'd given me the ticket. I'm so sorry, sir. I didn't mean to be indiscreet, but truly, he was so kind to me, explaining the play and—"

"Stellforth encouraged my father to close his doors to me when I said I wanted to be an actor," Julian interrupted Alex, his voice cold. "Said the theater was no place for a gentleman. Oh, he loves to go there, to be sure, but he considers actors beneath him socially. When my father fell ill, his housekeeper sent for me—she always liked me—and we reconciled before he died, but I spent years without him in my life and I know who was to blame for that. My mother died when I was a child. My father was the only family I had."

Julian could still hear the rasp of his father's labored breath as he lay dying in his huge bed, propped up on pillows; feel the feeble clasp of a once-strong hand fall away as the last breath left the wasted body.

The pity in Alex's eyes was more than Julian could bear. With a muttered curse, he walked away swiftly, his boots noisy on the floor, aware he was being unjust to Alex, who had been ignorant of his history with Stellforth. By the time he reached his bedroom, guilt had quenched his anger. With a sigh, he turned around and went back down the stairs.

Alex was where Julian left him, a lost, stricken look on his face. "I will leave," he said, but Julian shook his head.

"Forgive me," he said simply, using his words for once, because this mattered too much to borrow them. "You didn't know. And for many years, he was as dear to me as family. I counted him a friend. I can see why you'd be drawn to him."

Alex crossed the room in a rush and threw his arms around Julian in a hug as comforting as it was unexpected. "He's no friend of mine. Not now. Though…"

"What is it?" Julian gave into temptation and stroked Alex's hair, pushing a few stray strands of it away when they brushed his face.

"He knew I was to start work at the theater and his manner didn't alter. And when I spoke of you, he seemed thoughtful, but not, well, not dismissive or scornful. He praised your acting."

Julian frowned and stepped back, out of the warm circle of Alex's arms. "That seems unlikely."

Alex raised his hands helplessly. "He said…" He closed his eyes for a moment, as if to summon a more exact memory. "He said you were wasted in the lighter roles, but Allan had enough meat on it to make it worthwhile." He gave Julian a hopeful smile. "That doesn't sound disapproving. Maybe his opinions have altered with time and he regrets—"

"It doesn't matter." Julian didn't soften the snap in his voice. "He took my father away from me. My inheritance was reduced to the bare minimum required by Ladylaw and the rest went to Stellforth, I believe. Some nonsense about a gentleman's agreement between them. Even after we reconciled, my father didn't change his will back to make me his heir. I know who to thank for that."

Alex rubbed his finger over the bridge of his nose. "Master Stellforth had so much influence over him?"

"They were best friends."

"Even so."

"What are you trying to say?" Julian tilted his head, his chin thrust out. "That my banishment was my father's choice, uninfluenced by the whispers of Stellforth?"

"Friend or not, you were his son. Forgive me if I speak out of turn, but—"

"You do! Blood and shit, you do!" Julian shook his head in disbelief. "One day. One day we've known each other, and you feel you can offer your unasked for views on my private life."

"I did not mean—I'm sorry if I overstepped—" Alex was pale, his voice shaking, but Julian did not have it in him to forgive a second time.

He drew himself up, all offended dignity. "I will not ask you to leave when I know you have nowhere to go, but I will ask that for the short time you're under my roof that you refrain from—"

He knew he sounded unbearably pompous—like his father, which worried him on one level, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. Alex did it for him.

"Thinking? Speaking?" The temper Julian had seen glimpses of had stiffened Alex's backbone, it seemed. He stood straight, tears glittering in his eyes, his voice still unsteady but no note of apology softening it. "Yes, we're strangers, but sometimes that distance, that unfamiliarity lends a clearer view. He was your father! The choices he made were his, and from what you tell me, they were cruel ones, but it's unfair to blame another for his actions. How do you know Master Stellforth poisoned him against you? Why would he do such a thing when he loved you both and wished for you to marry his…oh."

Julian raised his eyebrows. "Oh, some glimmer of understanding has arrived, has it? My father was wealthy enough that an alliance with him would have been advantageous, though I'll grant you old Stellforth's never lacked for coin himself. For his part, my father wished to gain entry to the court, and even back then, Stellforth had influence there. When I rejected Susanna in favor of joining a troupe, I put an end to their plans. A fool could see how one thing leads to another."

Alex's lower lip jutted out stubbornly. "Not necessarily. And even if it were so, you forgave your father and to my mind he committed the worst offense. Why can you not see your way to reconciling with Master Stellforth?"

"Why do you even care?" Julian asked, his voice rising. "What business is it of yours?"

"I care because I've hurt you!" Alex shouted. "Through no fault of my own, true, but I've upset you and spoiled what was such a—such a—" He swallowed, his throat working. "The play was the most wonderful experience of my life, and you—why, you were him, completely, totally, Allan. I hadn't understood how that could be until I saw it, but you were not Julian, you were speaking, moving, thinking as another. It was incredible. And I wanted to tell you that in the tavern, but I couldn't speak to you alone and now you don't wish to hear it."

With every word, his voice went lower, until by the end it was a bare whisper.

There was a pause, awkward, filled with the ragged edges of their argument that once again had been shredded to bits by Alex's sincerity.

"You should be an actor yourself," Julian told him wryly. "We have a fondness for drama in our personal lives, as well as on the stage, and you're good at stealing another's thunder, by Lady."

"Do you want me to apologize for that too?"

Julian tilted Alex's chin up with his hand so they were staring at each other. Alex's green eyes were washed clear by tears, not reddened, and the sweet, tremulous mouth begged for a kiss.

"Suppose we accept that tonight has been a little too exciting and go to bed? I'll most likely wake peevish and grumble at you, because I'm a surly creature at times and there's more in my life than you that's causing me to feel that way. Ignore me, and I'll soon be smiling at you again. It's hard to see how I could hold out against your eyes, Pippin. They're so eloquent." With a careless kiss to Alex's cheek that cost him to keep light, he stepped back. "There. We've kissed and we're friends again. You can sleep easy, hmm?"

Alex seemed more composed now, but though he nodded obediently, he didn't walk away.

"What is it?"

"You said we'd kissed and made up. That's not true. You kissed me; I didn't kiss you."

Julian smiled. "Not an actor, but a lawyer or maybe a philosopher? Kiss me then, and after that, I'm going to my bed no matter what. My feet are aching, thanks to those bloody boots the costumer put me in."

"They looked most elegant." Alex stepped closer and slid his hands over Julian's shoulders and up to cup Julian's face. Large hands. Warm and rough. "You looked…" He cut himself off, bringing his lips to met Julian's. The kiss was soft without being tentative, and Julian all but tasted Alex's desire to make it a lover's kiss, not the light brush custom called for. He yielded, leaning in, his lips parting.

It would be so easy. One kiss, another, Alex's breath quickening, his mouth becoming so flatteringly greedy, his hands clutching at Julian…

I could have him in my bed begging for my prick in less time than it would take me to give the prologue from Scandal and Schemers. And he'd enjoy it too. He's so hot for me he's burning with it, but what kind of a man would I be—

"Friends," Julian said firmly, and stepped back, away, his prick half-hard, arousal making his voice husky. "Sleep well. I have no need to be at the Pinnacle quite as early as you, so you'd best make your own way there. Eat a hearty breakfast in case Duncan makes you work through the noon hour, and I'm sure our paths will cross during the day. Have you coin for a meal if by chance he does release you?"

"I have plenty." Alex bit his lip as if he wanted to say more, but Julian kept his expression calm and friendly, and after a moment, Alex nodded and left the room.

Julian busied himself with some mundane tasks, stacking dishes to be washed and refilling the kettle with fresh water for the morning pot of tea, until he was sure Alex was safely in bed.

Then, with weariness pulling at him like beggars' hands, he went to his bed.

 

Chapter Seven

Alex plunged the sharp trowel into the packed earth to loosen it, drawing a dandelion out and leaving no root behind. The leaves were edible, if bitter, and the flowers themselves could be made into wine, but Julian's garden was home to only enough of the plants to be a nuisance, so out they came.

In the three weeks he'd been tending the garden, Alex had cleared the weeds from a quarter of it. It was shamefully slow progress, but he had so little time during the day, and though the nights were short, darkness had usually fallen by the time he'd prepared supper and eaten his share if Julian was still working.

He'd not tried hard to find somewhere else to live, though he knew he was obliged to do so. This was Julian's home, not his, and he was imposing. When his fierce determination to find somewhere as soon as possible became a deep reluctance to leave, he wasn't sure. He told himself until the garden was weeded and pruned, with herbs, vegetable, flowers, and trees flourishing, he needed to stay, but it was an evasion and he knew it.

The truth was simple, even if he couldn't bring himself to face it. He was falling in love with Julian and wanted to spend as much time with him as possible. Even if, at the moment, that time consisted of a bleary eyed good morning and an equally sleepy grunt in the evening. Julian, deep into rehearsals that went on all day and often resumed after the evening performance of Ardent Hearts had ended, was fine-drawn and pale.

Alex's hours were long and arduous, but at least they ended when the sun was still in the sky, even if it was sinking fast. If he and Duncan had reached a point where wet paint meant no more progress could be made, sometimes Alex was released early. Ladyday was always left free for both of them, but on the last one, Julian had slept until noon, then gone around to Patrick's much larger house to practice a scene, returning with a frustrated scowl and a sullen mood for Alex to endure patiently.

Well, he'd tried.

Remembering how they'd squabbled that evening had Alex stabbing his trowel into the ground and jarring his wrist when the tip of the trowel struck a stone. With a yelp, he dropped the tool and cradled his hand to his chest, rubbing the ache away and working his fingers.

"What's wrong, Pippin?"

Alex turned, surprised to see Julian in the garden, picking his way along the uneven stone path as daintily as the cat who sometimes sat, unblinking, and watched Alex sweat. He was dressed in the dark blue jerkin and gray breeches he wore when he expected to spend the day and night at the theater, but to Alex's mind they suited him as well as any of his finery. The breeches clung to long, elegant legs in a most distracting way and the cloth of the jerkin was soft to the touch, as he'd discovered when Julian had given him a careless hug one night while wearing it.

His head bare, the ruddy light of the setting sun making his dark hair gleam, Alex wanted to rise and greet him with a kiss. Julian had made it plain he didn't want that intimacy between them, but Alex couldn't remove the feelings he had as easily as he could uproot a dandelion. No matter how he tried—and he wasn't trying hard—a smile from Julian, or the use of the nickname Julian had bestowed on him, and he was once again a smitten fool, helplessly drowning in a flood of longing and arousal.

He knew Julian would dismiss his love as an infatuation born of gratitude, something that would fade, and he accepted the partial truth of that. He did hero-worship Julian to the point where an overheard word of disparagement at the theater would bring his head up, indignation flaring as he identified the source of the insult. Living with Julian had rubbed off the glitter of the theater to a certain extent. Alex had quickly discovered that in common with many of his fellow actors, Julian was temperamental, careless with money, and convinced he was destined for fame. When he was crossed, he flew into a rage as quickly as a thwarted child, though there was no real heat behind his tirades.

Worse had been the day when Julian was low-spirited and morose, drinking wine like water and descending into a depression none of Alex's reassurances could shift. He had no way of knowing how often such moods occurred, but he'd been left worried and tense. Julian, once restored to good humor, had been charmingly penitent, but he'd shrugged off Alex's questions.

"It happens, sweetheart. I can't say when it will happen again, but it's the price I pay for my gift, I suppose."

"There's no need to make being in a foul temper sound like something you're proud of," Alex had told him tartly, bringing a rueful grin to Julian's face.

Alex let go of his injured hand and rose. He couldn't kiss Julian, but he could smile at him. "I jarred my wrist. It's nothing. You're home early tonight. I haven't started supper yet. The day is so fine, I wanted to work outside."

"You don't need to cook every night, and you don't need to apologize." Julian's forehead creased in a frown. "You're not my servant, you know."

"I do know." Alex hesitated, then blurted out, "Do you want me to leave? I've been here so long, and you won't take money for my room."

He'd managed to make Julian accept some coin from him, but not much. Julian truly didn't seem to consider money important. If he had none, he stayed home, and if his pocket was plump with his wages, he spent it or lent it to his friends with a cheerful generosity. Alex had been taught that one penny of every two should be saved and it was better yet if both were set aside against a time of need. He had no trust of banks, but he was saving as much of his wages as he could, though with only three payments so far, the pile of coins in the box under his bed was a small one. Money melted away so quickly here! He had spent some on clothes, thriftily purchased secondhand, not new, and a pair of boots, those as expensive as he could afford, because they needed to last. A hat he'd deemed a frippery, but Julian had insisted no gentleman went out without one, or a cloak, and so, feeling foolish, Alex had added a plain black hat, the brim modest, and a warm cloak for chilly or wet days to his wardrobe.

His weakness was books. The discovery of a bookshop a short walk from the theater had rendered him speechless with pleasure. A shop that sold nothing but books was beyond anything he'd ever dreamed of. Julian, quickly bored once he'd finished browsing the shelves of plays, had all but dragged Alex out of the shop bodily, promising Alex could return alone another day. Which he had. New books filled the bow window enticingly, their bound covers bright, but the true treasure, as far as Alex was concerned, lay in the back of the shop. There, lines of narrow shelves, crammed closely together, were crowded with used books, some costing mere pennies. He'd staggered home, his fingers cramped, a stack of books in his arms, the dust from them making him sneeze at intervals, causing the stack to wobble alarmingly.

Julian had pursed his lips, giving him an odd resemblance to Alex's mother for a moment, and made Alex dust them down before permitting them in the house. Given how thick the dust had lain over the house before Alex had taken a cloth to it, that seemed most unfair.

"'Leave'?" Julian repeated, as if the word was new to him. "Do you wish to leave, Pippin? Am I so foul-tempered a beast you can't endure another moment close to me?"

Alex gave him an exasperated scowl, no longer impressed or fooled by Julian's habit of exaggeration. "You know it's not that. I wish you'd be serious. You offered me a bed for the night and then I was to find new lodgings once I had a job."

"And Master Sampton is paying you as little as he can get away with, and even the cheapest lodging house is beyond your means," Julian said. "Oh, you could find a room in some noisome, squalid place down by the docks, maybe, but what little you owned would be stolen by the end of the first day—you don't inspire fear and trembling, my pet—and you'd be sharing your bed with a multitude of bugs, at best, and a randy sailor with a taste for fresh meat if the Lady had truly turned her head." He shrugged. "I loathe the smell of fish, and it would cling to you the way Melissa clings to your arm."

"She doesn't, or if she does, I hadn't noticed." Alex brushed Melissa aside with a gesture and took a deep breath. "Sir—Julian—if I'm to stay longer, then I must insist I pay rent."

"Certainly," Julian said agreeably. "And if you stay and continue to cook, clean, tend the garden, and polish my boots, I must insist I pay you wages. Suppose we allow them to cancel each other out? So much simpler."

Alex stared at Julian, helpless to convey how little that idea pleased him. Julian, always quick to read his expression, raised an eyebrow in inquiry. It was a trick of his that Alex had tried to master, succeeding only in giving himself a headache as he fought to keep one eyebrow down as the other rose.

"If I pay for my room, I'll feel I have a right to be here." He moved closer to Julian, too close not to wish he was closer still. "Please. Allow me some dignity, I beg of you."

"'On your knees and you seek dignity? You lost it on the battlefield, not my rug.'" Julian cleared his throat. "Bleak Dawn. Not one of my favorites. It tried to mate comedy with tragedy and they make poor lovers."

Alex fixed a pleading—and yes, dignified—look on his face and stared at Julian in silence.

"Oh, very well." Julian sounded petulant, but there was an indulgent note underneath. "When you get your pittance each week, you may give me a silver for your room and board. Well? Are we to haggle over it, or can we go inside and toast to our new relationship with a glass of wine?"

Alex beamed at him. "Of course!" He glanced down at the small amount of cleared ground he'd achieved and grimaced. "At least when I've finished this bit."

"Now!" Julian declared. "I've scarcely seen you for days. I want to hear all about how you're getting on."

Alex might not be able to raise one eyebrow, but he was perfectly capable of lifting both. "Don't you mean you want to tell me all the gossip and complain about Master Rathes' reading of King Henry?"

"You," Julian said, with conviction and a cuff to Alex's head that was more of a caress, "are a pert child, and I shall teach you better manners when I have a moment free."

Alex watched Julian saunter back into the house, despair rising with the words he could only think, not speak aloud.

I'm not a child. Don't make me one in your eyes so I become untouchable, of no interest to you. Let me show you what you mean to me. Let me try to win your heart—at least let me try.

He clenched his hands into fists, ignoring the stab of pain from his injured wrist, and cursed himself for being too much of a coward to speak up and too caught in love to do the honorable thing and leave.

 

Chapter Eight

By the time they'd eaten a chicken stew, washed down with a white wine from the south, bone-dry and cool from being stored in a pot filled with water, Alex's natural optimism had been restored. He'd made Julian laugh until tears shone in his eyes with a vivid recounting of the theater cat's encounter with not one but two mice. Unable to decide which one to chase, Max had darted first one way then the other, before spinning in wild circles, hissing and yowling as he chased the long plume of his tail, allowing the mice to scamper to safety.

"He came on stage once during a performance," Julian told him. "Jumped onto the daybed where Sarah—Mistress Perrin; she's no longer with the company—was groaning through her death scene after taking poison. Her lover had played her false and given her inability to speak a line without sighing three times, it's no wonder."

Alex could only imagine the scene. He chuckled. "Did people laugh?"

"Did they!" Julian winced. "She was so unprofessional. Would you believe it, when Max jumped onto her lap, she sat up and tossed him to the floor, though she'd taken her last breath the line before and was supposed to be dead?" Julian was lounging on the couch in the parlor Alex found far preferable to the formal room, with Alex on the floor beside the couch leaning back against it, his legs stretched out. Alex had a cushion, but he preferred to keep that in his lap rather than under his backside. His cock could prove traitorously revealing when the lamps burned low and Julian's voice, powerful, melodious, as he recited speeches from memory, raised goose bumps on Alex's arms.

Alex snorted, overcome with amusement as he pictured it. "What happened?"

"The stage manager dropped the curtain early, blessings be upon his head. And now, Max is kept in Sampton's office during the performance. He yowls, but he's too far away from the stage to be heard. Do not, if you value your job, take pity on him and let him out."

"I won't," Alex promised, still giggling. "I swear."

The conversation drifted on as easily as a leaf floating down a river, leaving Alex dreamily content. He was about to suggest an early night would do them good when Julian said lazily, "I've talked myself hoarse. Entertain me, Pippin. Tell me about yourself. I know where you're from, and I can guess why you left—but I can't picture you there, somehow. If you were there, right now, what would you be doing?"

Alex gave the question some thought. "Is it a good day or a bad day?"

"I don't understand."

"If it's a good day, what I'm doing will be different than if it was a day when I didn't give my best."

Julian's breath hissed out, but when he spoke, his voice was casual. "Oh, a good day, to be sure. Who wants to remember any other kind? Save the drama for the stage, where it belongs."

"Well then. It's easy enough. I'd be in bed."

He turned his head and saw Julian roll his eyes in exasperation. "That's cheating."

"It is not! It's long past sundown and candles aren't made to be wasted. It's summer, so the days are longer, but that means I have to be up early too, so yes, I'd be in my bed, dreaming of…"

"Dreaming of what? A dazzling future? A lover? Strawberry pie on the table the next day? What?"

"Something different." Alex sighed. "Every day was the same. Winter or summer, the tasks were different, but they felt the same. Endless. I'd paint the barn and the next year it would need painting again. I'd weed and within a handful of days more weeds would spring up. There's pride to be taken in producing good food from the earth and having a fertile, well-kept farm, to be sure, but it wasn't my farm, and it never would be."

"I would die of boredom within the week," Julian said with conviction. "No, a day."

Alex smiled, but shook his head. "I miss it a little. The air is fresher there, the sky bigger. I miss seeing the wheat blow in the wind, rippling like water. I miss walking for miles and seeing only people who know me. I miss my family too, though I felt like a cuckoo in the nest most of the time."

"You could write to them," Julian suggested. "Tell them you're safe and have work."

"They wouldn't think it counted as work."

"They'd be wrong." Julian rested his hand on Alex's shoulder, a warm clasp, over too soon. "I've seen you working more often than you realize. Walked by the workroom and watched you laboring over some tiny detail probably no one in the audience will ever see, but which makes the prop feel real to the actor. We don't need them—we once lost all our sets and costumes in a flash flood on the road and completed the tour without them—but it helps immensely when they're good quality."

Julian's praise left Alex feeling a curious mix of gratification and embarrassment. Good work was rarely commented on in the Westerlings because it was expected—and a job done poorly would receive a terse reprimand, a sharp word. The most approval Alex had ever received from his father had been ten years before after drawning a foal out of its mother when his father's larger hand had proved a hindrance not a help. Alex's hand had been dark with bruises the next day, cut by a small, sharp hoof, crushed by the fierce contractions of the mare's womb as he tried to turn the foal. He'd still been expected to do his chores, but help had been given, quietly offered with a fleeting smile.

"Will you write?" Julian asked, when Alex didn't answer him.

"Maybe. Not yet. When I have something to tell them."

As if sensing he'd made Alex uncomfortable, Julian nudged Alex's shoulder with his knee and changed the subject. "So, did you leave any broken-hearted lads behind? You said you weren't completely inexperienced."

Alex was shy about discussing it, but it occurred to him if he did, Julian might see him in a different light. He was nearly twenty and for Julian to treat him with the indulgence a man would show toward a winsome child was infuriating. "There was a man I lay with, yes. He worked for my uncle, who breeds horses. I doubt he remembers my name, though, let alone pines after me. He was five or six years older than me and he had a reputation for being ready to drop his breeches at a smile. If he wasn't so good at his job, I think he'd have been asked to leave. Last summer, at the end of harvest dance, we slipped away and found a quiet place." Alex's body heated at the memory, but it was the memory of what they'd done, not the man himself, that quickened his breath. Such a brief taste when he was starving.

"Go on," Julian said, his interest evident, though there was no salaciousness to sour it. "Tell me."

"What? I did. We went off, he took me, and then we went back to the dance. I was sore the next day—he said oil would've helped, but where would we have found that out in the field?—but it was worth it, I suppose." Alex shrugged. "I wish we could have done it again, but my uncle's farm was two hours away on foot and the chances were if I'd gone there Micah would have been busy or not interested. I probably wasn't good at it. He said I pleased him, but I think he was being kind, because a few hours later, he left again, but with another man, and he was away for much longer with him, half an hour or more."

"Sweet Lady, that's what you call kind?" Julian whistled, a sharp, discordant sound that brought Alex's head around. "He takes you with as much care and thought as a dog mounts a bitch and then flaunts another man in front of you? You deserved better."

"He didn't mean to hurt me." Alex turned, resting his folded arms on the couch and staring up at Julian whose face was flushed, his expression indignant. "He gave me what I'd asked for. It's not his fault I was too green to know what to do, how to move, how to open up for him."

"You asked to be his quick tumble, to be fucked dry and left raw? I doubt it."

Julian's concern, couched as it was in criticism of what Alex had done, brought Alex surging to his feet. "I was nineteen and I'd never lain with anyone. Do you know how it feels to be so hot you can't sleep at night, your cock's hard with need? I shared a room with my brother and he'd tell me stories about what he'd done with the Seldon twins and I didn't care for women and I didn't believe half of them, but I couldn't help getting hard and there was nothing and nobody for me but my hand and it wasn't enough." He gulped in a breath, aware his voice was shaking.

Julian rose from the couch, his lips parting to speak, but Alex had heard enough. He stretched out his hand. "Don't say anything more. For all the faults you find in Micah, he, at least, didn't treat me like a child and he wanted me. Not for long and not much, but it was better than what I had, which was nothing." He stepped back. "What I still have."

"You're a spoiled brat," Julian said with asperity. "I won't take what you're offering because I care too much to use you that way, and so you sulk and pout and droop like a wilted flower? I know of two men at the theater who'd give you what you're aching for, and I can personally attest to one of them being skilled and inventive, but you told me you wanted more than a fuck. Now I find you weren't so particular in the past. Well, what's it to be? If your prick needs blunting, I can tell you their names or take you to a nighthouse I know. My treat if it'll take the scowl off your face."

"You—" Hampered by an upbringing where cursing was met with a soapy finger rubbed briskly over his tongue, Alex could only stand and sputter. Julian's insults, his offer—Alex wasn't sure where to begin when it came to rejecting them and making Julian see how far he'd strayed from basic courtesy and respect. "I have no need, none, of your kindness, sir. I can arrange such matters myself and I'm perfectly well aware of who you mean at the theater."

"Really? Name them."

Alex drew himself up. "Master Selwyn and Anthony, the man who helps Mistress Sarah with the costumes."

"Anthony? Really?" Julian pursed his lips. "Hmm, if you say so, but I had another in mind. No matter, it's clear you have no lack of opportunities, so have at it with my blessing."

"I will," Alex said, and knew his voice was still annoyingly shaky. "Forgive me thinking, even for a moment, that the great Julian Melville would be interested in a stagehand—no. No." He shook his head, shocked by the flash of hurt he'd seen in Julian's eyes. "That was unfair. You've been nothing but kind to me, and you're right, I'm being a brat. You made it clear you're not interested in me as a lover, and I should respect that." He met Julian's eyes, pleading wordlessly for Julian to understand what lay at the root of his behavior. "How could I not fall in love with you after what you did, after I've come to know you? How could I not want you to be the one I share a bed with, not men I barely know and don't much care for?"

Julian sighed, looking older than his years. "You don't love me, Pippin, and you don't know me, not yet. Gratitude isn't love, and once the novelty of the city wears off, you'll see I'm not the catch you think me. I was born of good family, but I'm an actor now. We entertain the nobles and some of the great ones, like Galliero, why, yes, they're welcomed at court when they're in fashion, but even so, we have no power, no status. Duncan's a registered carpenter, bonded and accredited at the highest level. He chooses to work at the Pinnacle, but if he was to set up in business, he'd be my social superior, so let me hear no more of how you're beneath me. It's not true."

"I'm sorry," Alex muttered, and hung his head. When would he learn to curb his tongue?

"You're sorry, but you still don't understand why I won't sleep with you," Julian said. "Sometimes when you smile at me, I don't either, if that helps. I find you more than appealing, I swear. I can't forget how we met and what you had to do to free yourself. I look at you and remember that scared young man kneeling at my feet and I—"

Really, sometimes Julian was impossibly fond of complicating matters. Alex dropped to his knees before Julian and tilted his head back. "Do I look scared to you now?"

Julian breathed in sharply, but didn't reply. Alex put his hand on Julian's thigh, feeling the muscles flex against his hand. "Or now?" He slid his hand over to cup the swell of Julian's prick, noting with satisfaction that it was growing larger with every passing moment. "Last time I did this, I had no choice. Tonight I do. I want to suck you, Julian. Take you in my mouth and feel you harden for me, learn what pleases you and do it again and again until you're weak with the pleasure of it. I want to do this, not because I owe you anything, but because I can still remember how you taste and how well you filled my mouth. I want—"

"Oh, stop talking," Julian said, his voice soft, husky with need and baffled exasperation. "Take what you want then if you won't have it any other way."

His resolve faltered, and Alex bit his lip, sitting back on his heels. "If you don't wish it—"

Julian rolled his eyes. "I'd have to be a Lady-sealed monk not to want it, you fool. Don't see this as a declaration of love, because it's not. It's the desperate act of a man being nagged to death by a brat."

"I won't," Alex promised him. "And I'm sorry about the nagging."

"Be sorry about it later," Julian said, and unbuttoned his breeches far enough to allow his hand to slide inside.

Alex watched Julian's wrist move with the narrow-eyed absorption of a cat eying a bird, waiting for the moment when he could pounce. Julian chuckled. "So patient." With the careless attitude to undressing that no longer shocked Alex—much—Julian pushed his breeches down and kicked his bare feet free of them, leaving him naked from the waist down, the hem of his shirt hiding what Alex so desperately wanted to see, touch, taste. "Let me sit, and put something under your knees. There's no need for you to bruise them."

The sight of Julian leaning back on the couch, his knees spread, his cock stiff and hard, left Alex breathless with lust. With an appreciative moan, he shifted position so he was between Julian's legs, the cushion stuffed hastily under his knees. It made him wobble a little, but it was softer than the wooden floor.

"Slowly," Julian cautioned him when he leaned in, eager to fill his mouth. "There's no rush. Undo your own breeches or take them off. And if you spill white over the couch, you'll be scrubbing it off, I promise you."

Alex had never been so fumble-fingered before, but after what seemed like long minutes, not seconds, the three buttons holding his breeches together were undone and his breeches in a heap beside Julian's. The warm air of the room was like a caress on his prick, the skin there stretched taut and thin. He ran his hand over it, unable to keep from touching himself, and saw desire leap like a flame in Julian's eyes.

"The Lady was feeling generous when she blessed you and no mistake. I'm tempted to be the one kneeling."

Alex shivered with longing, the thought almost enough to bring his pleasure to an untimely end. "Any time you wish that, I'm yours, but this time let it be me, please?"

"Since you ask so nicely." Julian slid his hand into Alex's hair, playing with it without using it to jerk Alex's head down as some of the men—no. He wouldn't think about them. Not now, when he was so close to making what he'd dreamed of happen. Julian tucked his shirt up, baring a flat stomach, furred over with hair, silky and dark. Alex put out his hand, wanting to see if it felt as soft as it looked, but he hesitated, his gaze going to Julian's for permission.

Julian smiled at Alex and took his shirt off with a flourish, leaving him naked. "Is that better?"

"Oh, Lady, yes!" Without thinking about it, he put his hand on Julian's thigh, caressing it absently as he stared blatantly at Julian. Julian was sturdy enough, muscles honed by the demands of his craft. He'd spoken of fencing lessons, dance instruction, a voice tutor, astonishing Alex who'd thought acting a matter of standing and speaking. Julian, acting at night and rehearsing in the day, was often so tired he'd be all but asleep as he ate his supper. Ardent Hearts wasn't physically demanding, but Silence Falls required Julian to engage in two sword fights and do a lot of athletic leaping around the sets Alex was helping to create. The strong, compact body he was gazing at was marred with bruises and cuts from the wooden practice swords and collisions with the scenery. They troubled him, though he wasn't sure why. Julian was no delicate flower, after all. Still, Alex didn't like to see them.

Rising and leaning over, Alex kissed each mark he could see, pressing his mouth against each patch of reddened skin, each slash of purple bruise. Julian exhaled, his hands by his side, allowing Alex to do as he pleased.

One scar, an old one, paler than the skin surrounding it, lay an inch above Julian's right nipple, ending a finger's width from it.

"That's too old to be healed with a kiss." Julian sounded sleepy, but his nipples were as stiff as his prick, the soft skin around them puckered up. Daringly, Alex flicked out his tongue, lapping at the small point, too shallow to allow him to suck at it easily. Julian made an encouraging sound, but the head of his cock dug into Alex's belly, reminding Alex of his original objective.

He raised his head, close enough that Julian's breath fanned his cheek. He wanted to kiss that clever, beautiful mouth, but was that an intimacy Julian would permit?

"Never play cards for money, Pippin," Julian said solemnly, and brought his mouth to Alex's for a light kiss.

The kiss was guarded enough that Alex didn't do as his instincts demanded and open his mouth to take Julian's tongue. Instead, he echoed the small movements of Julian's mouth, choking back his need for more.

When the kiss ended, he exchanged one heated glance with Julian and then ducked his head down. Alex couldn't wait a moment longer, and from the way Julian thrust up eagerly into Alex's mouth, neither could he. That first thrust made Alex rear back, startled, but Julian murmured a contrite apology and settled back.

"I won't do that again until you're ready, but your mouth…so inviting."

Alex nodded, unsure of what to say in reply. With his hand wrapped around the base of Julian's prick, he was more confident and he set about rediscovering its taste and the way it felt against his tongue.

The difference in textures fascinated him, from the ribbed shaft, so unyielding, to the skin sheathing the deep red head, skin that folded back so neatly. He traced the folds with the tip of his tongue and then the deep cleft in the head. Smell and taste were mixing together as if they were one sense, not two. Musky, salty, bitter, acrid—he breathed deeply and ran his tongue over the roof of his mouth, unbearably aroused, but too caught up in his exploration of Julian's body to give much thought to himself.

"Tell me what to do," he said a moment later. "Do I take it all? Do I suck, or lick, or—"

"Have you never—no, I suppose not." Julian ran his finger around Alex's mouth and then startled Alex by pushing it inside. "Try this."

Feeling ridiculous, Alex obediently sucked at Julian's finger as it slid slowly in and out of his mouth. Julian's eyes were hooded, intent, watching the wet glide of his finger as if it aroused him to see it enter Alex's mouth. Desire tugged at Alex, and he hummed around the slender finger, sucking at it strongly, his embarrassment forgotten. It was easy to flicker his tongue, to lap and even, daringly, to bite, when it was a finger, not a cock he was playing with. The touch of his teeth made Julian hiss, but it was with pleasure, not disapproval.

"That's good, yes, I like that, but go carefully."

After a while, Julian tugged his finger free and gave Alex a look half inquiring, half challenging, his unspoken, 'Well?' clear enough.

Alex grinned at Julian, his earlier fears forgotten. With a confident air, he gave the head of Julian's prick a swipe with his tongue and opened his mouth, intending to take the full length and do to it as he'd done to Julian's finger.

Julian sat obligingly still, not raising his hips at all, so Alex had no one to blame but himself for striking the back of his throat with the head of Julian's cock, prompting his body to go into a spasm of coughing, saliva flooding his mouth.

Through watering eyes, he sneaked a look at Julian, expecting to see amusement, getting only understanding. "Everyone does that at first." Julian shrugged. "Even when you think you're good at the act, it can still happen. There's no need to take me that deep." He wiped away a tear trickling down Alex's face. "Would it be easier if I showed you?"

Alex bit on his lip, quelling the panic rising within him. He wanted to do this well and he was failing miserably. He was relieved, though, that the memories of his time in the stocks were manageable. He'd feared they would surface and leave him floundering, lost in remembered distress, but he felt safe in this house, this comfortable, untidy room. Julian wasn't part of the bad memories; he was the dawn, not the night. He'd brought release that day, and now perhaps they could both find a different form of it.

"I want to do this for you."

"Do it with me," Julian suggested. When Alex gave him a puzzled look, Julian rose, kicking aside his breeches unceremoniously. "Upstairs. For this, we'll need a bed."

Alex held his ground, not unwilling, but curious. His father had always stressed the importance of examining a hole before jumping into it. "Why?"

"Because we need to lie down, and the floor's none too comfortable." Julian took Alex's hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the knuckles with a graceful flourish of his free hand. "Trust me, you'll like this and so will I." He gave Alex's prick an appreciative look, and heat mounted in Alex's face. He wasn't that large, surely? He'd seen others as well-endowed.

He trailed upstairs in Julian's wake, watching the pale ass in front of him, the long legs with their smattering of dark hair.

Julian's room was as untidy as the room they'd left, the lamp, once lit, producing some useful shadows. Clothes Alex had laundered lay in heaps around the room, not put away, much to Alex's secret indignation, and the bed was unmade.

Julian shook out the quilt, smoothing it out over the rumpled sheets. It was made up of red and black triangles in silk and velvet and stuffed with down. The bed looked inviting and terrifying. Marcus had lain on it with Julian and made him cry out, hoarse and sharp, an overheard note of yearning that had left Alex tense with desire. Taking his place seemed impossible.

Mute, imploring, Alex gazed at Julian, who moved closer. "So serious, Pippin," he said lightly. "What we do here is for pleasure. It's meant to be enjoyed, not agonized over."

Alex swallowed. "I want to do this right."

"It's difficult to know how you could do it any other way," Julian said. "Your body knows better than you. Let it guide you."

He sat on the bed and drew Alex down beside him, his hands gentle, but firm. Alex lay back, feeling something momentous was about to occur, then blinked as Julian turned so his feet were by Alex's nose.

Alex sat up and glared at Julian, who was reclining on his side, completely at ease. "Are you making fun of me?"

Julian looked startled for a moment, his eyes widening, then he chuckled. "You think like this our options are limited? Let me show you how wrong you are, sweetheart. Lie back and turn on your side, yes, like that."

Julian curved his body, bringing his head close to Alex's groin. Julian's warm tongue passed over his cock, softened somewhat by his uncertainty, and Alex gasped as it regained its earlier condition. "Oh!"

Julian raised his head, his hands resting on Alex's thigh and stomach. "Now do you see?"

Alex didn't bother to reply. It was so much simpler to shift on the bed, the quilt cushioning his body, and curl around, as Julian had, to reach his prize.

He began by echoing whatever was done to him, but as his confidence grew, he took the initiative, nuzzling into the soft jiggle of Julian's balls and feeling the hair around them tickle his nose, and stroking the smooth, firm curve of Julian's ass. Alex quickly learned that Julian loved the tip of his cock being sucked hard, but not for long, and that Julian would stop to stare, his eyes lust-glazed, when Alex rubbed the spit-slick head of Julian's cock against his closed lips and cheek.

Alex felt powerful, daring. Julian's cock was rigid, swollen with need, an emphatic sign of approval, and Julian was clearly enjoying himself. His tongue was never still, a heated flicker against a prick that had never been so hard. It was difficult to split his attention between what he was doing and what was being done to him, but gradually they became one and the same. The liquid sounds of a prick entering and withdrawing from a warmly welcoming mouth, the luxurious sighs and moans, the hush of hands caressing bare flesh…it ceased to matter who made them.

Alex rocked his hips, seeking to get deeper, and sucked the cock shaping his lips into a circle, the rhythm so easy, so seductive. He was climbing without knowing what he sought to reach, his heart pounding. He knew what it was like to spend, but he sensed even that familiar act would be different. He wanted to experience it with his next breath: he wanted this ecstasy to never end.

Suddenly, with no warning but a strangled cry, his teeth grazing the side of Alex's shaft, Julian went still, the world seeming to hold its breath. Guessing what was to come, his cock throbbing in sympathy, Alex swallowed quickly to clear his mouth of spit. His tongue lay against the underside of Julian's cock, and he felt the slow, remorseless pulse as Julian's seed left him in a warm gush.

It tasted strong, like his first sip of brandy, and with his mouth already full, there seemed no room for it, even when he swallowed, his throat muscles working. The taste brought back that afternoon in the square and he felt a desolate pang, wondering if it would always be this way, if he could even find his finish now that his stomach was rebelling.

Julian saved him, unwittingly this time, drawing free and allowing Alex space to breathe.

"Give me a moment," Julian said hoarsely. "Oh, Pippin, you're entirely too good at this. I meant for you to finish first."

"It doesn't matter."

Julian made a sound that could've meant anything and worked Alex's cock with his hand, using his tongue now and then. Within a short time, Alex was on his back, panting harshly, his hands gripping the quilt as tightly as they could, Julian crouched between his legs.

"I need—oh Lady, please!" He was babbling, words pouring out of him, any reserve, any dignity lost. The onslaught to Alex's senses was erasing anything that wasn't this room, this bed, the man over him, so intent on his task. He stared down at Julian, the sight of his cock half-buried in Julian's mouth driving his need higher, a fire stoked by dry kindling, burning fierce and clean and hot.

With a wail he'd blush later to recall, his seed left him, his body locked in ecstasy's grip, his mouth shaping Julian's name as he closed his eyes and rode out the storm.

 

Chapter Nine

"'My loyalty is to my king, and I do not see him before me'," Julian said, curling his lip at Patrick, who grimaced back, falling out of character entirely, as Julian was pleased to note.

Really, the man was so unprofessional.

"Patrick, you need to make that a quelling look, not one that makes me think you've bitten a wormy apple," Cranston called from his seat in the stalls. "You're a king and your best friend has crossed a line. Your dignity's stung."

"I know all that," Patrick snapped, with a toss of his head, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Wooden, for now, though soon they'd begin to work with metal ones, carefully crafted to look sharp and yet be incapable of cutting a pat of sun-warmed butter. "It's a trifle difficult when I'm playing opposite a grimacing monkey." He turned to Julian. "Must you look like that when you say the line?"

Julian tapped his mouth with his finger, wondering absently why Patrick was so quick to anger this morning. His brow had been clouded before Julian had begun to annoy him.

"Disdainful? Scornful? Disappointed in your performance—King Henry's, I mean, of course? Why, yes, I do believe I must."

"Enough!" Cranston called. "Lady save me, if you two don't behave, you can take your place as courtiers with no lines. I can get two men off the street to take your place and the play will be the better for it."

Julian swung around to give Cranston an incredulous stare, his action and expression mirrored by Patrick. At least in this they'd found common ground. "Replace us? I think not." With a low bow to Patrick, he said sweetly, "Shall we, dear sir? From the top?"

Patrick returned his bow. "Certainly, old friend." He took a deep breath—a habit of his that Julian deplored—and declaimed, "'See how I stand before you in my glory and tell me you do not see a man born to rule more than this small stretch of land, a man destined to see his kingdom spread from ocean to ocean, encompassing every inch that the fiery sun and silver moon doth shine upon.'"

Julian gave his reply, too well-versed in his lines—and Patrick's—to need to give all of his attention to speaking them. As they had quite often this day, his thoughts went to Alex, who'd retreated to his bed after what Julian had to admit had been a most enjoyable interlude, and had been all shy blushes and smiles this morning.

It was adorable, and Julian was more than willing to engage in such activities with Alex again, but a quiver of unease disturbed his pleasant memories. Alex's declaration of love was not to be taken seriously, of course. Flattering, perhaps inevitable, but nothing that would endure. Even so, had it been wise to give way to the lad's demands? Probably not, but when had a man's prick ever been wise? Julian had been three weeks without a lover, and his resolve had faltered.

Admit you wanted him as much as he desired you. That your blood heats when he smiles, that you will not rest until you feel him split you wide with his prick. Lady, so long, so thick, white as marble and as hard…

He spoke his lines, strode the stage, hitting his marks perfectly, and all the while, he waited for a glimpse of red hair, a sight of Alex.

At noon he'd take the lad to Lindy's, he decided. An hour with Alex would soothe this restless itch and he could apply himself properly to the business at hand.

And tonight…

"Master Melville! If you cannot remember your lines with the opening less than two weeks hence—"

Julian stared bewildered at Cranston and then sighed as he realized he'd spoken a line that fell later in the scene. "I crave pardon," he said. "My mind wandered."

"Then I suggest you bring it home." Cranston stood, a small figure, his jerkin faded, his graying hair standing on end where he'd grabbed at it. Even so, he commanded attention and respect. Julian always enjoyed working with him, even when Cranston pushed him to his limits—or perhaps because Cranston pushed him. "Enough. I need to piss—or throw up after enduring this leaden display of ineptitude—and you two clearly need to gather your wits about you." He turned to his assistant, a quiet young man, studious and efficient, who shadowed Cranston and did his bidding. "Gather the actors for the murder of Ballantyne scene. The one that doesn't have these two in it."

Julian exchanged a rueful smile with Patrick as they left the stage, suitably chastened.

"I'm sorry about the misread line," Julian said, generously offering Patrick the opportunity to criticize him because he knew full well he deserved it. "My carelessness ruined the scene."

Patrick waved Julian's apology away with a magnanimous gesture. "Not at all. It was creaking already. I fear my wits, like yours, were elsewhere. It's been a troublesome week for me."

Julian stifled a yawn. He really didn't wish to hear one of Patrick's rambling stories about a lover's dispute or a pair of breeches made too tight. The man could make the most exciting event dull as mud. "I'm sorry to hear that. What troubles you? Is there anything I can do to lift your burdens?"

"Too kind, but, no." Patrick hesitated, losing some of his affectations. "It's my little sister," he said. "She's ill with a fever and she isn't recovering as one would expect. Lara is dear to me. So bright and lively and to see her lie there, her face flushed hot, her eyes seeing nothing, her words nonsense…it's hard."

"Patrick, I'm so sorry." Moved to real sympathy, Julian took Patrick's arm. "The poor child. I remember her well. We met at the first night party for Cursed to Live. Dark hair and the most charming laugh. A delightful child. A fever, you say?"

"Yes." Patrick bit his lip, his voice flat and hard. "It's not only her. She was at a birthday party a week ago. There was a gift—a caged bird from Delcinte. It flew around the room, feeding from their hands, brightly colored with a sweet song. The bird is dead and four of the children are sick now. I cannot help but feel the bird brought the fever with it and I—the physician is not without hope, but—" He covered his eyes with his hand. It was a gesture he made in the play, but Julian didn't judge him for that.

"She will recover," Julian assured Patrick, filling his words with conviction. "A strong, healthy child, well cared for and lovingly nursed? I will expect to see her at our opening night and if you will permit me to send her some small token, a book to be read to her when she's on the mend, some raspberries, picked fresh—"

"It is kind of you, but she would not—you have not seen her, Julian! She is raving, tossing in her bed, the covers soaked through with sweat, her hands never still, her voice never silent." Patrick rubbed at his eyes, shadowed with weariness, Julian noticed for the first time with a twinge of guilt. "I must go. If I hurry, I can return home and see how she fares. If I'm needed, tell Cranston where I am to be found."

He pressed Julian's hand in farewell and hurried away, seeming diminished by his fears, leaving Julian to stare after him, their rivalry for the moment not as important as it once was.

***

"This pie is all you said it would be." Alex's words were somewhat indistinct, but his meaning was clear enough. "I came here with Duncan last week, but they'd sold out. I was beginning to think I'd never taste one."

Julian smiled, still distracted by Patrick's tale. The man's eyes had held such dread, as if little Lara might be lost to him already, even though her body still breathed, her heart still beat. It had been like that with his father, a sense that he had already slipped away, moving onward in some indefinable way, leaving a shell behind, a semblance of himself.

"You're not hungry?"

Julian glanced down at his plate, where his pie lay congealing as it cooled. He'd taken two or three mouthfuls, no more. "My appetite left me. It doesn't matter." He roused himself. "How did your work go this morning? You said you were designing the tower room, yes?"

Alex nodded. "Master Cranston wants the walls to resemble stone, but a simple painting on canvas will not suffice. Duncan was at his wit's end to devise a way to make walls that weren't too heavy to be moved, when we chanced upon a solution. It's most ingenious. You see—"

"I discovered today that Patrick's little sister lies ill, close to death," Julian said abruptly, and hated himself for wiping the animated look from Alex's face. "I'm sorry. It's no affair of yours, after all, or of mine, for that matter."

"Well, but of course it is!" Alex said hotly. "Poor child. What ails her?"

Julian frowned. "A fever, possibly carried by a bird from Delcinte. Some of her friends have taken ill, too."

Alex set his fork down, eying what remained on his plate with sudden disfavor. "That's terrible. Should he be at the theater? Isn't he needed at home?"

"As to that, he's gone home to see if there's anything he can do, but I imagine the nurse has everything under control. He lives with his mother and sister, or rather, they moved in with him when his father passed. There's money enough to have the best physician in the city, and I'm sure he's drawing a bleaker picture than is the case because he'd so worried. 'Fear makes cowards of the bravest'." He didn't add the title of the play, as was his wont. It had momentarily slipped from his mind, but the words he'd quoted ran around his head, chasing themselves until they became gibberish, lacking meaning or sense. "Besides, he's needed at the Pinnacle. We open in two weeks."

Alex gaped at him. "But he's needed more at home!"

Julian reminded himself that for all he worked in one, Alex wasn't theater to his bones. Not yet, maybe never. "No actor would think so. The play, the performance, the audience going home satisfied—that is what counts. It's all that counts. You'll learn that, you'll live and breathe the truth of it, or you'll never fit in."

Alex's eyes were filled with disillusionment and disgust. "That's nonsense, Julian. People matter, people, not words spoken on a stage for the sake of those watching. I love the theater and the play I saw was wonderful, but it doesn't matter as much as a dying sister. Where is your compassion?"

Julian had no answer that would satisfy Alex, whose flushed, indignant face was darkening with anger. He shrugged and shoved back his chair, only to strike the leg of a man passing behind him.

"Have a care, sir!"

"My apologies." Julian rose from the table wondering how many times he'd said those words today. "I hope that you're not—" He broke off when he recognized the man grinning at him. "Sly! Where in the name of the light did you come from?"

"It's Captain Foxe to you, my little landworm, and if you forget it, I'll have you scrubbing my deck, boy." The wink that followed had Julian rolling his eyes, his depression momentarily forgotten as he smiled at Foxe. Tall, broad of shoulder, his brown hair bleached by sun and salt water, James Foxe was a man to draw the eye. He seemed too large for the room, his voice deep and carrying. Julian had slept with him several times over the years and emerged from Foxe's bed breathless, as if he'd been buffeted by a gale, but surprisingly content. They'd met when Foxe had been in the business of ferrying passengers and had taken the troupe by sea to begin a tour of the southern lands, striking up an unlikely rapport on the long voyage. Foxe was never in port long enough for Julian to tire of his heartiness, and he counted the man as a friend of sorts, even though it had been over a year since their paths had crossed.

"Captain Foxe—is that formal enough for a man who stinks of tar and fish and eats weevils from choice?—I'd like you to meet my friend. Alex, this is—"

Foxe frowned at Alex, who looked, Julian realized, like a man about to lose what lay in his belly. "Don't I know you, boy?"

"He's new to the city and you've been gone a year or more." Julian would have said more, but Foxe waved him to silence.

"I've been kicking my heels here for a month, waiting for the Rosa Clara to be refitted. We ran afoul of a storm off Salistere and limped into port half-starved with a rag for a sail. Luckily I saved the cargo. I brought in tea and silks from Delcinte, and furs from the northern shores. Any profit will go to repairing the ship, but I should break even on the voyage at least." Foxe pointed a thick finger, twisted from a poorly healed break, at Alex. "Ho! Now I know you, lad. You serviced one of my men from the justice stocks. I'd half a mind to use you myself, but I was called back to the ship." He drew his hand across his chin, scratching at the stubble. Foxe always shaved off his beard when he reached port, then grew it back again when he was about to sail. "He said even free you weren't worth it."

At that moment, if Julian had been holding a razor, he'd have cut more than a few hairs from Foxe's head. He'd grabbed Foxe's arm as soon as he grasped what the man was saying, urgently bidding him to cease talking, but Foxe was as impossible to halt as a runaway carriage. His voice boomed out, attracting the attention of half the room, and Alex cringed, his face bone-white.

Julian put himself between Foxe and Alex and rammed his finger into Foxe's barrel of a chest. "Shut your mouth and listen, if the seagulls haven't filled your ears with bird shit. This is my friend and I can vouch for his character and innocence. You are mistaken."

"Never forget a face." Foxe's mouth set in a stubborn line. "And that hair's hard to forget. No, this is the lad."

"You are mistaken," Julian said coldly, and drew himself up, meeting Foxe's gaze squarely. "Or do you call me a liar, sir?"

"What's all this?" Foxe looked bewildered now. "Julian, we've been friends for too many years to quarrel over a nightboy."

"He is not a nightboy." Julian's temper was rising to the point where he longed to plant his fist squarely into Foxe's face. He was interrupted by the clatter of a chair hitting the ground. He spun around and saw Alex heading toward the door, stumbling in his haste to escape an intolerable situation, leaving startled faces and voices raised in question behind him.

"Blood and shit!" Julian glared at Foxe. "If you repeat what you said, you and I will cease to be friends, Foxe. Alex is under my protection, working at the theater. He is not and never has been a nightboy, and you—oh to the dark with you!"

He tossed coins down onto the table to pay for their meal, not caring that some bounced off to roll on the floor. He'd left more than was needed anyway. With one last fulminating glare at a bewildered, expostulating Foxe, he left, moving as quickly as Alex but with more grace.

Alex hadn't gone far. Julian turned in the direction of the theater and found him in the first alleyway, throwing up against a wall, his body shaken by sobs. As Julian approached him, Alex beat his fist against the wall, cursing in a broken voice, the words barely coherent.

Julian approached him, eyeing the noisome pool at their feet with mild distaste, more concerned with the blood smeared across Alex's knuckles. Alex's hands, deft, skilled, so gentle when they'd touched him the night before, deserved better than to be slammed against brick. Julian touched Alex's shoulder, saying his name. Alex jerked himself free and turned to face the wall, his arms up, hiding his face.

"Go away!" The words were muttered against Alex's sleeve, but they were clear enough.

"Happily, if you'll leave with me."

"I don't want to go anywhere with you or your filthy friend."

"He's not here, and if he ever speaks so of you again, he'll never have cause to call me his friend again."

Alex turned his head and spat, either to clear his mouth or as an expression of his opinion of Foxe. Julian didn't care. Foxe was a loudmouthed, blundering idiot, but to do him justice, other than his assumption Alex was a nightboy, he'd spoken nothing but the truth, unpalatable though it was to hear.

Not that Julian intended to point that out to Alex. Unlike Foxe, he knew when to keep his mouth closed on words that could only wound.

Alex finally straightened and moved to face Julian. His eyes were watering, his mouth awry with tears, and anger radiated from him like the heat from the sun. "He had no right! None. And he—in there—people heard him—"

"Some did, but had you stayed, they would've thought it a mistake. Your departure didn't help." Harsh words, perhaps, but something told Julian sympathy wasn't the best tactic.

"How could I stay when he—when he—"

"I know," Julian said, and kept his voice calm. It was more of an effort than it should have been. His gut was as twisted as Alex's, turbulent emotions seething through him as he watched the distress on Alex's face turn to bitterness.

"I will never be free of what happened." Alex shook his head, his eyes dry of tears now, as if the heat of his anger had made them evaporate. "One apple that my father would've fed to a pig or left to rot. One apple and I'm branded as a thief and worse."

Julian ached to pull Alex to him, comfort him with words and his body, but Alex was clearly in no mood to be touched. His eyes flint-hard, he pushed past Julian without a word and walked over to a woman selling small cups of watered fruit juice. Julian stood by as Alex purchased two, using one to rinse out his mouth and drinking the second, his expression forbidding enough that the woman's friendly smile faded as she gave him back his change.

Julian eyed Alex critically. His jerkin was clean, fortunately, and his color returning. By the time they reached the theater, Alex would draw no inquiring glances if he could paste a less murderous look on his face.

"We can't talk about this here, but tonight—"

"I don't wish to talk about it at all." Alex squared his shoulders and gave Julian a stiffly formal bow. "Your servant."

He turned to walk away, but Julian strode after him, grabbing him by the arm. "Don't freeze me out, Pip—Alex. I won't allow it."

"You have no hold over me, none."

"Except that of someone who cares for you," Julian said, his voice soft. "You know I do. I suffered with you, for you—"

"What play is that from?" Alex snapped.

Julian opened his mouth to deny the words came from anywhere but his heart, when he realized they were from Wits Gone A'Begging. He cleared his throat, but Alex had noted his hesitation and gave a scornful laugh.

"Your speech is made up of bits and pieces of other's thoughts. Do you even have a voice of your own?"

"Yes!" Julian snapped, stung. "And I've raised it on your behalf often enough, or have you forgotten that in your tantrum?" He captured Alex's hurt hand in his and examined the damaged knuckles. "Young fool. Well, Duncan's seen worse. Go to him and ask him to doctor it. He'll ask no questions." He released Alex's hand, steeling himself not to react to the way it had trembled in his, and made a bow. "I'll relieve you of my company for now, but if you have any notion of making a grand gesture like moving out, dismiss it."

Alex's lip jutted out mutinously. "Why? What possible reason is there for me to stay? You care for me, but you don't love me and I bring you nothing but shame and upset. That man, my meeting with Master Stellforth…"

Julian stepped close, ignoring the curious stares from people passing by. "If you're willing to share my bed tonight, I'll show you one reason to stay. It isn't the best one, it isn't the only one, but you're in no mood to hear them right now."

"And you think I'm in the mood to spread my legs for you?"

Julian smiled, hearing the longing under the sarcasm. "You can spread mine if you'd sooner, but this isn't the place to discuss it further. We save this discussion until tonight. Agreed?"

Alex bit his lip and nodded jerkily.

Julian patted his face. "Sweet boy. Go back to the theater."

"You won't walk there with me?"

"I have an errand to run," Julian said casually.

He had to return to Mistress Lindy's and stamp out the rumors that were probably already flourishing like weeds.

And if Foxe was still there and still talking, Julian would take great pleasure in stamping on him too.

 

Chapter Ten

Alex returned to Julian's house late, drunk, and defiant. He'd done poor work that day, ruining a detailed carving that had taken him hours to make with a single misplaced blow from his hammer against his chisel and brought Duncan's wrath down upon his head when he'd ripped a freshly painted canvas.

Going to a tavern and drinking as much ale as he could stomach—not much, but enough to make him feel cushioned from his woes—had seemed the manly course of action.

He'd considered not going home. He could easily have flirted his way into someone's bed, but that betrayal held no appeal, though he was still angry with Julian. He wasn't entirely sure why now, but he clung to the fact as he'd clung to the bar until it stopped rocking. He'd thrown up again an hour before and been given a cup of tea by a brusquely sympathetic barmaid. It'd settled his stomach and sobered him a little, as had the fresh air and the walk home.

He'd passed by the justice stocks on his way back and stood staring at them for a while before taking out his cock and pissing all over them, an act of defiance that the rain, falling steadily like tears, washed away, leaving him frustrated.

Dripping wet, his hair plastered to his head, he opened the door and promptly tripped over Julian's boots. "Darkness take you," he muttered, and kicked them aside, not caring that they struck the wall, making enough noise to wake the dead.

Julian appeared at the top of the stairs, a dark blue silk robe around him, hanging open to reveal his naked body. He drew it closed and fastened the belt with sharp, angry tugs that spoke of his mood.

"If you must come back late and reeking of ale, could you at least have the courtesy to do it quietly?"

"Sorry." Alex slammed the door behind him, hard. He shrugged. "Sorry again."

"You misbegotten brat."

"No. My parents were married when they had me. Not misbegotten. Not a brat, either."

"You most certainly are." Julian sighed loudly enough for Alex to hear him and walked down the stairs. "How drunk are you?"

"Not enough." Alex slid down the wall he found himself leaning against, his legs suddenly incapable of supporting him. "Tired. And sad. And angry with you," he added.

It struck him that being angry with his best friend, the man he loved, was the most tragic thing in the world. Alex tilted his head back and found Julian looking down at him, his expression one of fond exasperation. Alex didn't want to see that. It smacked too much of being treated like a child.

He struggled to his feet, ignoring Julian's outstretched hand, and waited for the dizziness to recede. "I'm not drunk. I was, but then I was sick and now I'm—"

"Wet." Julian's raised eyebrow spoke volumes. "And sad, was it? I see. I, on the other hand, am perfectly dry and wondering at how quickly my relief at hearing you return has become annoyance. Why don't we replay the scene? Good evening, Alex."

He inclined his head, politely offering Alex the chance to redeem himself by replying with an equally meaningless courtesy.

Alex shook his head. "No. I can't do that. I'm too upset." He waved his hand to show the breadth and depth of his emotions, and struck Julian on the nose.

Julian's hand flew to cover his nose, a pained yelp popping out of his mouth. It was the first unstudied response Alex had seen from Julian, and it made him grin, an unwise move, perhaps.

Julian lowered his hand and glared at him. "Enough. Strip down and get yourself to bed. We'll discuss this—all of it—when you're sober, and Lady help you if my nose is twice the size and my voice ruined tomorrow."

He turned on his heel and made for the stairs, but Alex, contrition rising, went after him, catching him by the shoulder. Alex was shivering now, the clammy weight of his clothes a burden, and his head aching.

"Julian, please. I didn't mean to strike you, and I'm—"

"Sorry?" Julian inquired. "Apologies count for little when the offense is repeated almost immediately." He took in Alex's bedraggled and woebegone state and cat up his eyes. "I'll run you a bath. You're shivering. Soak in it until you feel warm again and then get yourself to bed. I'll bring you in some ginger tea. You'll pay for every pint you drank tomorrow, but the tea is said to be good for hangovers."

Alex remembered telling Master Stellforth it was good for stiff backs, too, but that only made him recall how distressed Julian had been over his meeting with the lawyer. He settled for a nod followed by a sniff as his nose ran.

Julian's expression softened. "Oh, Pippin. You're a difficult man to stay angry with."

Alex met his eyes. "So are you."

"I think you're alone in that opinion, but never mind. Bath. Bed." Julian touched his nose carefully. "Is it swelling?" he asked plaintively.

 

***

Alex woke with dawn still some hours away, the sheets he'd kicked off as he fought with dreams lying on the floor. He felt better in that his stomach was calm and his headache gone, but he was freezing and really needed to piss. The latter need was easily taken care of with a trip downstairs, but returning to his chilly bed held no appeal.

With the weight of his dreams dragging at his spirits, dreams filled with rough hands and jeering voices, he found himself walking into Julian's room as if his feet knew in which direction comfort was to be found.

Julian lay sleeping, the sheets pushed down to his waist, the exposed lines of his body indistinct in the dark room, lit only by the faint glow of the moon, the Lady's light muted by clouds. Alex felt a throb of yearning. Julian had been so understanding with his inexperience without belittling him, so exciting a lover. To have pushed Julian away with angry words because he'd fled craven and cowering from his true target was unforgivable. He shuddered, his teeth chattering, and turned away. Julian had earned his sleep, and Alex, why he'd earned his cold and unwelcoming bed.

"Get in bed with me or sigh more quietly," Julian said sleepily.

"I didn't mean to wake you," Alex said in a whisper.

"Theater folk sleep light, and you make enough noise for three. Get in."

Alex scampered across the floor and slid between the sheets, sighing with pleasure at the warmth of Julian's body.

"Lady save us, but you're freezing. Come here." Grumbling under his breath about feet like ice, Julian settled Alex against him, generously draping himself over Alex. Snug against a strong, warm body, Alex's dreams receded.

"Couldn't sleep?" Julian asked.

"I had bad dreams."

"I can guess." Julian kissed the top of Alex's head. "Poor Pippin. If it helps, I found Foxe and told him I'd burn his ship to ashes if he ever dared to repeat what he'd said to another soul."

Alex smiled unseen. He wished he could've seen that confrontation. Julian would have been magnificent. "Wasn't he angry?"

"Well, he knew I couldn't do it, but I think the threat made him see how serious I was. He won't bother you again and it's doubtful your paths will cross. He sails at week's end."

"He didn't say anything that wasn't true." And wasn't that what hurt the most?

"You're no nightboy." Julian pinched his backside, making Alex jerk with surprise, then chuckle. "Though if you were, Lady, I'd spend every penny I had on you."

The mere thought of it had Alex drawing back, affronted. "Is that supposed to be a compliment?"

"I meant it as one. What, would you prefer to be so clumsy and ill-favored that no one wanted you?"

"No! I mean… You confuse me," Alex complained, settling back close to Julian again.

"You're desirable, good-hearted, and worthy of respect," Julian said. "Even if you're possessed of a dreadful temper. Thank the Lady, you're not an actor. You'd be a demon to work with, forever flying off the handle and raising a storm."

"I would not!"

"You would." Julian pressed his lips against Alex's forehead and kissed it, before moving down to kiss the tip of his nose, each cheek, his chin. "My dear Pippin, you assuredly would."

Distracted by the kisses, silenced though they never touched his lips, Alex surrendered to the joy of being forgiven so sweetly. He went to his back and allowed Julian to caress him as he pleased, the darkness surrounding them giving him license to show his feelings on his face. He sighed, the delicious assault leaving him melting, weak, and let his hands rove the body pressed against his.

The hair on Julian's chest, crisp and silky, tickled his bare skin. He could feel every breath Julian took, feel the beat of Julian's heart. Daringly, he ran his hands down Julian's back to the firm, perfect curves of his ass, scratching lightly as he went. Julian moaned his approval, twisting to get Alex's hands where he wanted them, with Alex obliging, making the journey a slow, sensuous one.

Hands cupping Julian's ass, he paused, unsure of what to do. His cock was hard, a dreamy arousal filling him that his body was responding to faithfully, and it was impossible to miss Julian's matching ardor. Even so, what next?

Julian traced a path around Alex's nipple with his tongue. Alex gasped at the sensation as the air struck the wet skin and cooled it. The gasp was followed by a whimper when Julian bit at the small point of flesh, making it peak and harden.

"Do you like that?" Julian murmured. "Some men do not, or they feel nothing."

"I—I like it," Alex managed to say, and was rewarded by having his left nipple treated to the same exploration, Julian's fingers pinching the neglected one with a twist that sent a flash of desire arrowing down to Alex's cock. "Oh, do that again!"

Julian chuckled and repeated the gesture, his mouth as busy as his fingers. "You're such an unashamed sensualist."

"You make me feel as if I'm about to explode. My skin is tight, and I need—I don't know what it is I need."

He was moving restlessly now, Julian propping himself up on his elbows to allow it, seeking the touches that would bring the fire blazing higher, even if it consumed him utterly. Julian shifted lower, nipping at the point of Alex's hip, nuzzling his belly low down where the hair sprang up. Alex whined and spread his legs wider, pleading wordlessly for Julian's mouth to engulf the source of his need.

Maddeningly, as he'd avoided kissing Alex's mouth, so did Julian avoid even the slightest brush of his lips or fingers against Alex's prick.

"Touch me," Alex said, not knowing if he was pleading or demanding. "Take me in your mouth again."

"Not tonight. I have other plans for you."

"Are you punishing me for my temper? I know I deserve it."

"Maybe, but I think you'll find it a merciful one. I won't deny you release. That would be beyond cruel. I wish, selfish of me, I know, to find what this feels like buried deep inside me." As he spoke, Julian's hand finally closed around the shaft of Alex's prick, squeezing it firmly and drawing a cry from Alex that tore at his throat.

"Please—anything. Oh, sweet light, anything!"

"Some men don't care for this activity," Julian said, leaving the bed and making Alex twist his head to track Julian's movements, bewilderment filling him. "I can see their point. It can be painful and, if you'll forgive my frankness, sometimes the passage is lacking in cleanliness, which can be distasteful."

Alex had shoveled shit and dug outhouse pits for too many years to be anything but matter-of-fact about bodily functions. He shrugged, the brief respite allowing him to gather his composure. The desperation that had tinged his arousal faded somewhat, though his prick remained hard as stone. "I dare say. What are you doing?"

Julian lit a candle, the flame of it dazzling Alex's eyes for a moment, then returned to the bed, a small bottle in hand.

"Oil," he explained, easing the stopper out. "As you discovered yourself, a dry fuck is painful—for both concerned, though mostly for the one being taken. There's no need to mix pain with pleasure." He grinned and pinched one of Alex's nipples. "Well, not if it's the wrong kind of pain, anyway." He nodded down at Alex's prick. "You're too big for me to take without something to ease the way."

"Are you sure you wish this? I've never—I might hurt you."

"You might," Julian replied, and poured some of the oil into his palm. "Which is why I'll stay on top, if that suits you, and you'll allow me to direct you until such time as we're beyond speech."

"I'll do anything you say." Alex swallowed. "Kiss me first? Please?" For all that Julian had welcomed Alex into his bed without hesitation, there was something brisk about his manner. Alex didn't want the slight coolness between them to deepen to indifference.

Julian hesitated, confirming Alex's suspicions Julian would make love without caring too much if he was at outs with his partner—he had to have done so from time to time with Marcus—but that a kiss was less easily given. After a searching look Alex met fearlessly, letting Julian see how much he needed the proof of Julian's continued regard, Julian sighed as if in surrender and gave Alex his kiss.

It was no token brush of lips. Julian was not a man to give grudgingly, and his forgiveness was shown to be complete, his mouth warm and hard against Alex's for long enough that when the kiss ended, Alex's senses swam, his lips tingling. He had the taste of Julian in his mouth, the memory of the soft flicker of Julian's tongue caressing his and the satisfaction of knowing the kiss had shaken Julian too. There was something startled in Julian's eyes as he pulled back to stare down at Alex, his tongue passing over his lips as if to capture the echo of the kiss.

Without a word, Julian straightened, straddling Alex's thighs. He poured some oil into his palm and reached behind, his face twisting in a grimace Alex wasn't fool enough to mistake for discomfort. The way Julian's mouth fell open on a gasp told him the sensation was pleasurable. Alex had never pushed a finger inside his hole, but he vowed to try it next time he bathed.

Next, the oil was applied to his cock, stiff and eager. The oil changed the familiar touch of a hand on his prick to a caress that came close to bringing him to completion. Julian's fingers and palm gripped and slid, spreading the warm oil from root to tip, rivulets of it trickling down to coat his balls. Julian saw them and smiled, shifting his attentions lower.

"Does that feel good?" he asked, massaging first one then the other of Alex's balls, rolling them in his hand and letting them slide free as they wished, recapturing them with lazy ease.

"You must know it does," Alex replied, with as much spirit as he could manage given he was fighting to hold back his finish.

"And this?" Julian pushed his hand between Alex's thighs, not to slide a finger inside Alex's hole, as he'd half-expected, but to caress the smooth strip of skin behind his balls. The firm press of a finger against it sent a jolt of arousal though Alex, strong enough to make him murmur Julian's name almost in protest. He'd never known a touch there could bring such pleasure, but Julian clearly had. To have Julian so knowledgeable about Alex's body…he didn't resent it exactly, but it made him wonder at himself and how timid he'd been in learning his body.

He wet his lips and reached out his hand waveringly to cup Julian's face. "How do you know what to do to me? How can you make me feel so undone so easily?"

Julian turned his head to kiss Alex's hand. "Truthfully, I'm not doing anything to you that's out of the ordinary, sweetheart. You've never been with a lover who cared about your pleasure as well as his. Foolish, because both involved gain when delight is experienced equally. But don't think of me as something special. I hope I'm a satisfactory lover with some small skill, but you could throw a stone in a crowd and be sure of striking someone as capable of making your toes curl as I."

"They are curling," Alex said with a grin. "How did you know?"

Julian narrowed his eyes and, aided by the oil coating his fingers, breached Alex's hole with a smooth stab, wiping the smile from Alex's face as he writhed like a hooked fish. "Oh Lady! Julian!"

"Mm-hmm." Julian sounded indecently pleased with himself as he worked his finger in and out, slow, shallow strokes that had Alex whimpering as he tried to get Julian to push in deeper. "You'll like it when I fuck you. I'll be so gentle with you, Pippin, so slow. You'll curse me, bite and scratch at me, begging for me to take you hard and fast, but I won't."

Alex set his jaw. "Maybe you will, but tonight it will be me fucking you, Master Melville, and for all that you're on top, it could be that you'll do some begging of your own." With a defiant tilt of his chin, he wrapped his hand around his cock, noting with some pride it was indeed considerably thicker than Julian's and an inch or two longer. Foolish to feel proud over something that, like his green eyes, had been gifted by the Lady, but he doubted he was the only man to feel that way.

He kept his touch light, feigning the act rather than performing it, but even that was enough to make him catch his breath on a groan.

"That," Julian said, knocking Alex's hand away with a swift smack, "is for me. Leave it alone."

"If it's yours, why, take it," Alex taunted him, feeling mischievous and conscious of a wellspring of happiness bubbling up, quite distinct from his lust. It was in that moment he realized that he liked Julian and that he truly loved him. Buoyed by his conviction, the events of the day before—for it was close to dawn—ceased to hold as much importance. It had been dreadful to sit there with that booming voice branding him as a criminal and worse, but Julian had not cared, beyond his concern for Alex, and that was all that mattered.

"Trust me, I plan to do that very thing." Julian eyed it, reminding Alex of a small boy he'd seen holding a slice of pie too big for his mouth. "Do not, I beg of you, thrust up. You'll split me wide enough as it is, and I have no wish to be hobbling around, unable to sit comfortably tomorrow."

"I promise."

Julian moved, poised himself so the head of Alex's cock was nudging his hole, and bore down. His cry blended with Alex's, and they stared at each other, all merriment lost in the surge of desire.

"Lady, yes," Julian muttered and lowered himself, gaining an inch and then ceding it back. Alex gritted his teeth and reminded himself of his promise. He could see now why Julian had asked it of him; the urge to fuck was too basic to be denied. He wanted to be the one thrusting, then withdrawing; he craved the delicious friction and the sense of control.

Sweat pearled Julian's brow, his face tight. Silent but for the harsh rasp of his breath, he was a glorious sight in Alex's eyes, the strong body concentrating on one goal, his face flushed, his nipples peaked. His prick was darkly red, the exposed head shining, clear fluid smeared across it, a single drop welling up as Alex watched. Tired of his passivity, he ran his finger over the crown and gathered the drop, wringing a moan from Julian in the process.

"Don't…touch me," Julian panted. "Ah, blood and darkness—"

Alex sucked his finger clean, no intent to tease behind the action, only sheer curiosity. The flavor was too faint to make much impression, certainly not as intense as that of Julian's seed. Julian closed his eyes and sank still deeper.

The hot clench of Julian's body was a fist around Alex's shaft. Julian finally sheathed Alex's cock fully, letting out a long groan, his head thrown back, and for the first time in his life, Alex felt truly joined to another. Foolish, inconsequential thoughts chased through his head. He wondered what he would see if his prick had eyes, then reflected it would surely be dark and wanted to giggle. He felt the loss of the sight of his prick, buried deep as it was, as if it was no longer attached to him. Chiding himself, he brought his hands to Julian's hips, caressing as much as holding them. Julian's eyes were still closed, his breath rapid and shallow. Alex raised himself up on one elbow and, with his increased reach, slid his hand over Julian's ass and down to where they were joined. He explored the taut, stretched skin of Julian's hole, slick with oil, and when Julian hissed through his teeth, Alex snatched his hand away, his dreamy detachment vanishing as suddenly as a popped soap bubble.

His prick was inside Julian. Inside. Lady save him, but it felt incredible. He didn't even need Julian to move. Julian's passage clenching and releasing around him, producing a delightful rippling effect, and the wramth was like nothing he could have imagined.

Moving seemed inevitable, though, and when Julian rose and sank, gathering speed, Alex changed his mind about the benefits of immobility. This was better. This was better by far. Cautiously, watching Julian's face for any sigh of disapproval, he met Julian's descent with the smallest lift of his ass. He waited anxiously, but Julian only moaned his name, Encouraged, he did it again, more enthusiastically this time. Julian grimaced and shot him a glare that softened when he ground down.

"You can move, but have a care."

Alex nodded and strove to meet, not anticipate, each downward plunge. They soon found a rhythm, and he discovered that now and then he could make Julian cry out sharply, such longing in the sound that Alex wished it was he who was being fucked, though what he was experiencing was clouding his senses with ecstasy.

Julian reached for Alex's hand, fumbling to grasp it, and drew it to his prick. More than happy to be allowed to touch what he'd been staring at, entranced, Alex applied himself to his task, striving for a delicacy of touch to spin out what they were enjoying. Too late, he realized the heat and hardness against his palm, coupled with the raw, musky scent of their aroused, sweating bodies was enough to spur him to finish.

His hand clenched around Julian's cock, working it with uneven, erratic strokes as his balls emptied and his cock throbbed wildly. He wanted to watch Julian's face, but his eyes squeezed shut despite himself and he surrendered to the moment, dizzy with lust and love.

Warm wetness struck his stomach, and he forced his eyes open in time to see another milk-white spurt spill out. Julian's channel was close to painfully tight around Alex's prick now, but he had no wish to withdraw, even if it had been possible with Julian's weight on him.

Panting, trembling, Julian collapsed onto Alex, nuzzling into his neck, murmuring soft words that spoke of nothing but exhausted contentment. Alex embraced him tenderly, kissing what he could of Julian's face. He was light and empty, ready to sleep again, but this shared moment was too precious to wish over.

"I love you," he whispered into the dark hair so close to his lips. Surely, after this, Julian would return his love?"

"Sweet Pippin," Julian said, after a pause. "You were everything I'd hoped you would be. I hope you found an equal pleasure in what we did."

"I—yes, of course."

"Excellent." Julian eased himself off Alex's softening prick with a luxurious groan. "If you don't mind, I'll make use of the bathroom first. I'll be quick, I promise. I dare say you're longing to get to sleep."

A chill of disappointment went through Alex as Julian left the room without more than a single quick kiss, delivered to the tip of his nose.

When Alex came back upstairs after wiping the dried white off his stomach at the kitchen sink, he found Julian's bedroom door closed, the message clear.

 

Chapter Eleven

"By the dark side, I'll not have it!"

Master Sampton's bellow was loud enough to reach Duncan's workroom, but Julian, perched on a table, munching a juicy pear and watching Alex work, didn't turn his head. Sampton lost his temper now and then, but it was rarely for long.

Alex's pallor and disconsolate air concerned him more. Julian had, he freely admitted, crushed the young man's spirits by refusing to murmur back the words Alex had so longed to hear and making it clear he had no wish to share his bed for more than lovemaking. He'd hated the necessity, but he told himself he'd made it plain to Alex that love was out of the question and therefore need feel no guilt.

He was fond of Alex, yes. The lad was as engaging as a basket of kittens, showing flashes of a dry humor that Julian appreciated. As a companion and lodger he was ideal, and as a bedmate he was desirable to the point that Julian had eyes for no one else. Alex's relative innocence was coupled with a body—and a prick—that promised untold delights, and like any man his age, he was possessed of a close to insatiable appetite. Julian had no doubt if he'd left his bedroom door invitingly ajar the night before, he would have found himself cajoled into more bedsport.

Really, he was suffering here quite as much as Alex. Julian wanted nothing more than to walk over to Alex and kiss him, tasting the sweet fire of his lips and feeling Alex's prick harden at the slightest brush of his fingers. The theater had many dark corners where a couple could, if they were quiet and swift, steal a shared moment. He wanted to introduce Alex to them all.

He would spoil, coddle, and fuck Alex as much as the lad desired, but he would not lie and profess a love he didn't feel. His years pandering to Marcus had left his heart numb and even Alex's warmth could not thaw it, he feared.

"What ails him?" Duncan said with a grunt, busy mixing some foul-smelling glue over a small stove in the corner.

"Who knows?" Julian finished his pear and tossed the core into the stove, getting a scowl from Duncan as it spat and sizzled. He licked the juice from his fingers and tried not to eye the tempting curve of Alex's ass too openly. He wanted to fuck that ass and soon, but if Alex was still pouting that might prove difficult. Julian had no intention of cajoling or begging Alex into stripping off his clothes and bending over. He wanted a willing, eager partner or none at all.

With an odd feeling of distaste at the mere thought of it, he wondered if he should take another to his bed to make Alex accept the unpalatable truth. No, that would be cruel indeed, and he had no wish, none, to hurt his Pippin more than he was compelled to.

"He received a letter from the duke's secretary ten minutes ago," Alex offered, his voice subdued but not overly so. "I was passing his office when the messenger came by and overheard him announce himself."

"He did?" Julian considered that nugget of information, but couldn't decide what act of the duke's had left Sampton in such a passion. It wasn't likely the duke had decided to close all the theaters as the third duke of Sorrent had in a fit of misplaced piety and zeal. That had been a century ago, but the memory was a dark one. The current duke held views tolerant enough to please Julian, even if there was a worrying quirkiness to them. One never knew quite what the duke would do next and where his fleeting enthusiasms would lead his steps.

His curiosity was soon satisfied. A boy put his head around the door, an impish grin on his face. Young Tom was Sampton's grandson, learning the business from the ground up. Julian found him insufferably conceited, but with weary cynicism let none of his dislike show. "Master Sampton's compliments, gentlemen. He wants everyone on the stage. He's got an announcement to make."

Duncan grunted. "This glue will set like stone if I leave it." With a sigh, he pushed the pot off the stove and covered it with a cloth. "Come, boy," he told Alex. "Everyone means you too."

Alex moved obediently toward the door, gifting Julian with a single glance from under long lashes and a hesitant smile that Julian returned with a sensation of relief. As they made their way to the stage, he took advantage of the stir and bustle around them to say quietly, "Last night—forgive me if I seemed distant. I was exhausted, most pleasantly, to be sure, but I could scarcely keep my eyes open."

Alex hunched his shoulder. "You need not coddle me. I know why you acted the way you did. I promise I'll not say that again if it disturbs you so to hear that you're loved."

Alex's frankness left Julian with nothing to say. He fell a step behind, watching Alex walk onto the stage with his head high and his dignity intact. Gathering himself, he moved to the front of the small crowd, as befitted his status, and took his place beside Patrick.

"What news of your sister?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

Patrick shook his head, his eyes dull with fatigue. "No change for the better. She hasn't eaten for days, though from time to time she takes a swallow of broth or water. Her struggle can't last much longer, I fear."

Julian had no easy words of sympathy. With a speaking glance, he patted Patrick's arm. "May the Lady watch over her," he said awkwardly.

It was with considerable relief that he greeted Sampton's approach. The man strode to the front of the stage and gave the assembled company a baleful look.

"Those of you with sawdust for brains will be glad to hear that the duke, in his infinite wisdom, has decided his daughter's birthday party would be incomplete with a short performance by his favorite actors, namely, those of the Pinnacle." A satisfied gleam in his eyes told Julian that for all his bluster, Sampton was beyond gratified at the compliment. "The party is in three days—yes, I know—and it seems Lady Helena has expressed the desire to see the picnic scene from A Rake and a Rogue."

Julian grinned. That scene was pure flirtatious froth and romance. He'd once made Lady Helena sob; he would welcome the chance to make her sigh and flutter her lashes at him, were he chosen in the role of the Rake. And who would play the Rogue, sweet Selina, the ward of Lady Alicia, whose dimples, giggles, and golden locks concealed her fierce longing for adventure?

"Master Melville. The part of the Rake is yours." Julian bowed deeply, imperfectly concealing a grin. "The Rogue will be played by Mistress Claire."

Behind him, Julian heard a hiss of disappointment and a stifled shriek. He didn't need to turn to know Melissa had received a reproving pinch from her more successful friend.

He listened, his attention elsewhere, as Sampton assigned the other roles needed for the scene, but he was jarred out of a mildly lecherous daydream featuring Alex when the man's name was spoken.

"You can go with Duncan to help set the scene."

"Me? At court? Oh, sir, I could not—" Alex stammered, clearly in an agony of shyness.

"You'll do as you told while I'm paying your wages, boy! And mind you behave yourself and wear a clean jerkin." Sampton drew in a deep breath. "We'll rehearse the scene tonight after the evening performance. I'll direct. Pick up a copy of the script at my office and study it. I'll expect you to be off book by tomorrow."

Julian rubbed his temple ruefully. He was word-perfect in his current role, of course, and as confident in his part in Silence Falls, but learning more lines at such short notice was far from ideal. Luckily, he'd been the understudy for the Rogue, Master Lovelace, a few years before, so it was more a case of refreshing his memory than anything else.

Claire appeared at his shoulder, cooing with delight. "To play at court! What an honor! Oh, I cannot believe it! And for such a party. Why, they say Lady Helena's gown has taken four seamstresses nigh on a month to sew. It's made of cloth of silver and the neckline and hem are sprinkled with black pearls."

"You will outshine every court beauty there," Julian said gallantly, and kissed her hand as she blushed and bridled prettily. "I look forward to rehearsing with you, my dear."

"And I you." Her eyes sharpened. "I have played the role before, and I felt my Lovelace was… let us say he lost sight that it's Selina who is the focus of the scene and Lovelace her foil, don't you agree?"

Julian widened his eyes. Attention-grabbing little hussy. "But of course! Initially, at least. As the scene progresses and he becomes aware of her secrets, though, don't you feel the audience's interest is in his discovery?"

"As to that—" Claire breathed in deeply, her eyes glittering as she accepted his challenge. "Well, we shall see how Master Sampton chooses to direct it."

He bowed, she curtseyed, and a moment later, Julian was left with nothing but the overpowering scent of her perfume. He wrinkled his nose, the cloying sweetness of roses and honeysuckle not to his taste.

"Julian, I cannot—you must see how impossible this is!" Julian turned to find an agitated Alex at his elbow.

"I confess, I don't. You won't be seen. You'll set up a makeshift stage in some room, and then you'll go with Duncan and the rest of the people behind the scenes to the kitchen to drink ale and eat the party food the cook has kept back. After we've performed, you'll take down what you put up and load it into the wagon. It'll be a long night, but the duke will pay handsomely and you'll receive a bonus this week. Master Sampton is a generous man, even when he is put out, which he most certainly is." Julian shook his head. "Three days to prepare when we're rushed off our feet as it is! Ah, well, we'll manage. We always do."

"He put me in the stocks." Alex's face was paper-white. "I cannot—no."

"He didn't; that miserly stall owner and the guard did," Julian pointed out, reasonably enough, he thought. "The duke doesn't know of you, will not recognize you if, by a thousand to one chance your paths cross, and is more concerned with making his daughter's coming of age party go well. The Lady Helena is a beauty, and it's said she has a sweet nature, too." He cleared his throat. "Did I ever tell you of how I made her weep with my performance of—"

"Three times," Alex said curtly, and turned on his heel.

Well! Julian drew in an outraged breath, but released it with a forgiving sigh. Alex would be there or be out of a job. Sampton was in too chancy a mood to be indulgent of the lad's misgivings. Since it was out of the question that Alex be thrown out of the theater, he would have to use all his persuasive charm to make the man see reason.

So far, he'd been singularly unsuccessful in that, but he had by no means given up.

***

Julian had visited the duke's castle as a child, when the current duke's father had kept it a place of somber grandeur. He recalled clinging to his father's hand and being told sharply to take his thumb out of his mouth. He forgot the occasion, but it had been some sop to the merchants of the city, allowing them a few hours to stare at their surroundings, puffed up with pride at their invitation. The duke had appeared for a scant few minutes, smiling with his mouth, not his eyes, and Julian had left with his jaw aching from the yawns he'd suppressed.

Nothing could enliven the stone walls, but flowers, white and yellow, Lady Helena's favorite colors, festooned the gates. It was a valiant effort to soften a barrier men had bled to defend and hold in the past, but Julian felt if stone could blush, the walls would be a rosy-pink.

The theater's finest two wagons rolled through the gates after a cursory examination by the guards on duty, and Julian cast a look at Alex. The lad had been quiet all morning, as if resigned to his fate. Julian was still not sure what words of his had cracked the stubborn shell around Alex, but he only cared that Alex had, eventually, seen reason and agreed to go to the castle.

Julian lent a hand with unloading the wagons. It wasn't his job, but it was important that all be done with dispatch and efficiency. They were only part of the entertainment and, though no one had dared say so to Master Sampton, obviously a last-minute addition. An event like this should have been planned for weeks. They most likely owed their appearance to a sudden whim of Lady Helena's and were probably viewed as a dreadful nuisance by a harried, busy set of servants.

They set up a simplified stage and backdrop in a room that had clearly been cleared of its usual furniture to allow for rows of small, elegant chairs. They looked fiendishly uncomfortable. In the front row, three chairs stood out as being larger and cushioned. The duke, Lady Helena, and the duke's son, Roland, would sit there, Julian assumed, and rise without numb behinds or cramped legs. Roland, a merry imp of a boy, not noticeably affected by the loss of his mother some two years before, was rarely called by his title of Lord Northridge, but was known affectionately to courtiers and the populace alike as Lord Rollo. Julian expected him to be bored to death by the play, but for all his sunny charm, the boy had been well-trained and wouldn't show his boredom. Julian had never been allowed to, and he wasn't noble.

Alex worked with his usual diligence, but Julian saw how often Alex glanced around, his eyes shadowed, and how he jumped when Duncan tapped his shoulder. Torn between impatience and concern, Julian could only be relieved when the work was complete and they were sent to wait in a small room where their costumes had been laid out on a long table. Smaller tables held wooden boxes containing greasepaint, small sponges, fine brushes, and gum for attaching false hair. Julian was grateful his role did not demand he don a moustache or a beard. The things tickled and itched and removing them was a painful process that left his skin red and dotted with scraps of gum.

A meal had been laid out for them, pitchers of ale and watered wine, sliced chicken and ham, with fresh-baked bread and baskets of apples, red as the bowls of cherries beside them. Julian guessed even the lowliest castle servant ate better, but the food, if simple, was plentiful and tasty. He took Alex a plate and bullied him into eating at least half of what was on it.

"You think me foolish." Alex spat a cherrystone into his palm and dropped it onto his plate beside a crumbled slice of bread.

"In some ways," Julian admitted. The windows were open, bringing a warm breeze into the room. If the breeze smelled a little too strongly of the nearby river, low after a dry spring, it was still refreshing. "Under the old duke, your back would be scarred, not your pride. Have you ever seen a public whipping? They're enough to turn your stomach."

"In the Westerlings, we don't deal out punishments like that. They're wasteful. Why leave someone unable to work?"

"What do you do to those who steal or kill?"

Alex gave him a level stare. "We send them out of our lands to the cities."

For a moment, Julian believed him, then he saw the glint in Alex's eyes. "How cruel of you."

"Isn't it?" Alex shook his head. "We don't tolerate evil in any form. Those who endanger our community are dealt with. Sometimes they're executed by poison—I've seen two men die that way—sometimes they're sent to the coal mines. For other offenses, they're fined or have their status revoked or reduced. Some can choose to be branded and cast out, never to return. If a branded person is found within the borders, they're sent to the mines."

Julian absorbed that and decided it was no harsher than the penalties dealt out in the rest of the Realm.

"So don't expect me to be grateful," Alex added, his face flushed with indignation now. "The penalty for what I did at home—well, nothing would've happened to me, because there I'd committed no crime."

Julian shrugged. "You're here now," he pointed out. "We do things differently."

"But not better!"

Julian held onto his temper, helped because he agreed with Alex that the penalty meted out to him had been absurdly harsh. "Perhaps not, but I wouldn't suggest you tell the duke that if he asks your opinion of Sorrent's laws."

Alex stood and walked away without a word, leaving Julian to chew moodily at a crust of bread and wish he could have first met Alex three hours sooner, when all that ailed him was an empty stomach.

 

Chapter Twelve

Alex hesitated, uncomfortably aware he was not only lost, but somewhere he most certainly should not be, namely wandering hallways so richly furnished with tapestries, carpets, and gilt-encrusted tables and chairs that his eyes ached from the splendor.

It had seemed so simple a journey from the room where the play was being staged to the room where he'd spent the late afternoon and early evening, yet somehow he'd taken the wrong turn. That wasn't his worst mistake. Following the directions of a page who'd solemnly reeled off a list of instructions that Alex realized too late were designed to mislead and confuse—now, that qualified.

Panic filled him. If he was found, he'd be accused of looking for something to steal. If his previous offense was discovered, he would be in trouble so deep no one would be able to save him, not even Julian. He quelled the urge to run, fearing he would collide with a table and knock it over, and took a deep breath. A window. If he could find one and look out of it, at least he'd know which side of the castle he was in. North was where the entrance gate lay, and the theater was in the eastern wing.

With fresh purpose, he walked quickly down the corridor and rounded the corner, only to bump into a lady who gasped, her hands rising to ward him off.

"My apologies!" Alex stepped back, his heart pounding so much he could scarcely breathe. "I intended no harm, I swear." He bowed low and stayed down there, sweat damp on his back.

A rich chuckle brought his head up, and he straightened, getting his first look at the lady. Dark hair piled high in intricate, glossy waves, pearls braided through it, midnight-dark eyes and red lips. It was the lady who'd driven past him in her carriage, as exquisitely beautiful a foot away as she had been seen from the street.

"You're a bold one to be sure." Her voice was a sweet lilt. "Deep inside the duke's own wing, charging around like a fly-maddened bull. If you weren't so delightfully tall and muscular, one might be tempted to call for the guards."

"Please." Alex swallowed. "I was lost—a page—he misled me on purpose, I fear. I wish only to find my way to where the play is being held for Lady Helena."

"Why? It's not for the likes of you."

"No, of course not." He tried to smile, but his lips went awry. "I'm supposed to help take down the set when the play is over."

"It finished some time ago. I think you've been lost for longer than you think."

"Oh, Lady save me!" Julian would be looking for him, worried.

"Are you talking to me or the Lady above?" The woman moved closer, the curves of her breasts paler than the white silk of her gown. "Without wishing to be thought lacking in respect to Her, it seems I could be of more immediate help. I know the way out of this maze, you see. Why don't you pray to me? Or am I not fair enough in your eyes?"

Alex couldn't help smiling at that idea, even panicked as he was. "I saw you once before. You drove past me in a silver carriage and I thought—"

A slender ebony eyebrow rose. "Hmm? You thought?"

"That you were the most beautiful lady I'd ever seen. You were like a white rose in the moonlight." Alex shook his head impatiently. "Forgive me. That doesn't come close to doing you justice."

She laughed, an edge to it, a hint of satisfaction peeping through the sweetness. "It's a start," she said. "Do you always pray standing?"

Alex met her eyes for a moment and saw no mercy there. He went to his knees and bowed his head, sick with shame. To kneel to another was unheard of in the Westerlings. All were equal in the essential sense. Higher status didn't force a matching subservience on others, but gave the bearer additional responsibilities. He'd never humbled himself like this before. "Please, my lady," he whispered. "Take pity on my plight, I beg you."

A pearl-white satin slipper, pointed of toe, high of heel, was thrust out from under her silk skirts. "Show me how penitent you are."

He could not do that. He would not. Though the slipper was bright with diamond chips and silver thread, it was still a slipper. The unfairness of her demands made him choke with fury. This city, these people. They had no sense of decency, no heart.

Like a cool hand on his brow, he thought of Julian, and after Julian, his friends at the theater. Very well, he'd been unjust. There were plenty here he was proud to count as friends, but that didn't mean he was prepared to grovel to this woman.

Lady, save me, he thought, and his prayer was directed at the true Lady, not the woman before him.

Salvation came so promptly he was left with his mouth hanging open in shock.

"Playing with your food again, Lady Stacia?"

Marmaduke Stellforth walked up to them, his clothing as outmoded as it had been at the theater, and yet somehow not out of place. A thin smile curved his lips, but Alex saw the disdain in his eyes.

Lady Stacia recovered quickly. "Exacting tribute, perhaps."

Master Stellforth inclined his head. "No more than your due, I'm sure." His gaze passed over Alex with a chilly indifference that warned Alex to silence. "Is he bothering you? I'll call a guard. I believe one's close by."

Despair closed Alex's throat, stifling him. A choked moan rose, loud in his head, but no more than a sigh to his ears.

"A guard? No. He's a simpleton who lost his way because he was foolish enough to trust a page's lying tongue—and I'll swear I know which one."

"So he says." The scorn in Stellforth's voice was brittle, like ice. "Really, my dear, I do think he should be taught a lesson for his presumption."

She drew in a swift breath, anger bringing color to her cheeks. "I believe I recognize presumption when I see it, Master Stellforth. He's done no harm, and he's quite the poet." She nudged Alex's thigh with her foot. "Tell me, boy, did you speak truthfully when you said I was like—ah, what was it now? A white rose, yes, that was it."

Alex composed himself. Flattery would taste foul given his feelings toward the lady, but he'd swallow the dose down, along with his pride, if it kept his skin whole—though his self-respect was in tatters.

"Forgive me, my lady, but I believe now I was mistaken."

"Oh?" Her voice was sharp with anger tinged with embarrassment "How so?"

He looked up at her, putting every ounce of charm he possessed into his smile. Julian had told him it was irresistible, and he hoped his friend had spoken the truth. "If you were to hold a white rose to your face, the petals would droop with envy. A moonbeam, sea-foam, the pearls in your hair—it would be wrong of me to liken you to any of them. Your beauty is incomparable."

She gave a crow of laughter and clapped her hands together. "Not a poet, but a courtier! Oh, you most certainly do belong here, my boy, but I think, yes, I think it's best you leave."

Alex bowed his head again. "My lady."

Stellforth cleared his throat. "I'll see the boy is sent back where he belongs, Lady Stacia. I am charged with a message from the duke. He desires your presence in the ballroom. The dancing will begin shortly, and he knows how much you enjoy it."

"My brother is so thoughtful, always," she murmured. "Very well."

A handkerchief, snow-white with a silver "S" embroidered on it, fell to the floor in front of Alex. "A token," Lady Stacia said. "Should any challenge you, it will tell them you are under my protection."

If they don't assume I stole it and arrest me before I can explain, Alex thought dourly, but he picked it up and gave her a dazzled, reverent smile of thanks.

She left with a rustle of silk, her heels tapping softly against the carpet, and Alex exhaled, close to throwing up from nervousness.

"You," Stellforth said slowly, "are either the luckiest of men or the most unfortunate. I cannot decide which. That encounter could have cost you dearly."

Alex got to his feet and swayed, dizzy with relief. "Trust me, sir, I'm aware of the danger I was in. You said once I could call on you for help. I pray you—tell me how to get to safety. I'm supposed to be helping to take down the stage set."

"The players have left. I saw the wagons go through the gate."

Alex moaned. "Oh, Lady save me, I'm in such trouble."

"Come, follow me," Stellforth ordered.

They hurried back the way that Alex had come until they reached a door, half-hidden in a corner. Stellforth opened it, revealing a narrow stairway. "This is the way the servants move around the castle without being seen by the nobles. The tunnels and stairways are even more of a maze than the main corridors, but this leads directly to the kitchens. I will see you home in my carriage. I'm not one for dancing and I've already taken my leave of the Lady Helena."

***

"You're so kind," Alex said some thirty minutes later, huddled into a corner of the most antiquated carriage he'd ever seen, perched high above the ground, its wheels enormous. His heart had slowed to normal, but his mouth tasted of metal and his clothes clung to him, damp with sweat. "I'm in your debt and I do not know how I can ever repay you, but I promise I will try."

"As to that, I'd have done the same for any poor wretch at Lady Stacia's mercy. She's not known for her kindness, though she's capable of great generosity at times. An interesting woman, but she's skirted scandal too often for the duke's liking. She's a widow. Her husband died in rather strange—ah, yes. Well. Never mind that." Stellforth coughed and glanced out of the window. "I don't think she would have handed you over to the guards, but telling her I thought she should was a guarantee of that. She can't abide being told what to do."

Alex sighed. "I was so frightened," he confessed. "If I'd been arrested—"

"Yes, yes," Stellforth said hastily. "No need to dwell on that, either."

"No, sir," Alex said obediently, wishing for the comfort of Julian's presence. He hoped Julian would be at home. The evening performance of Ardent Hearts had gone on as usual, featuring understudies where needed, but Julian might have returned to the theater in search of him.

He wondered if he still had a job. It would be ironic if in going to the castle under threat of losing it, he'd forfeited it anyway.

"The address you gave my coachman means you're still living with Master Melville, I take it?"

The elaborate unconcern in Stellforth's voice sharpened Alex's wits. He hadn't told Stellforth he was staying with Julian when they'd met at the theater. Stellforth had to have made inquiries about him to know that.

"I rent a room from him, yes."

The sudden reserve in his voice didn't escape Stellforth, who gave him a measuring glance. "We're almost at our destination, young man, so I'll be astonishingly brief for a lawyer. You say you wish to repay me. Do so by persuading Julian to admit me and listen to what I have to say. No, don't play the puzzled innocent with me. You must know he and I have been estranged for many years. Your face is too easy to read for you to make a good liar." He blinked reflectively. "I think that, more than anything else, saved you tonight, though I confess to being surprised you found the lady beautiful when your interests lie elsewhere."

Alex floundered for a moment, then answered the final part of Stellforth's speech first. "I don't desire her, or any woman, for that matter, but I'm not blind. She is beautiful. As to Julian—yes, I know how matters stand between you. I'm not sure about the rest. He was not pleased when I told him of our meeting, and I cannot find it in me to blame him." Alex leaned forward, searching Stellforth's face for the truth, though the carriage, lit by the glow of the lamps swinging from the roof outside, was full of shadows. "Did you set his father against him and cause their separation? Did you really do that, sir?"

Stellforth passed his hand over his eyes. "Such reproach, such righteous indignation!" he murmured. "Things are rarely simple, young Alex. Did I share my belief the stage was no place for a gentleman? Yes. I believe it still. Did I encourage John to cut Julian off in the hope it would bring him to his senses? Again, yes. But in all I did, John agreed with me. He felt as strongly as I, he was as angry as I. He lost the heir to his business and a match between our families that we'd planned for years came to nothing."

"Your plans!" Alex retorted. "What of his?"

"Until he came down with the acting fever, he was as much in favor of them as we were." Stellforth pursed his lips. "Well, perhaps not of marrying my daughter, but that's a separate issue. For that, no blame attached. When he realized his nature fully, he was frank about it, as a gentleman should be, and I thought none the worse of him for that."

"I will not lend you my support to get you through his door," Alex said. "I'm not sure I could even if I tried. I have a deep regard for him, but he sees me only as a new friend, no more than that. My persuasions would carry no great weight."

"I ask only that you try. I would consider your debt to me repaid if you did."

Alex struck his thigh with his fist, frustration boiling up. "You put me in an impossible situation, sir! I want to repay you, but my first loyalty is to him. I'm torn. You're unfair."

"I'm an old man, with few years left and many regrets. That Julian and I are at outs when he's all I have to remind me of my dearest friend troubles me. I would make this right."

The carriage rocked its way over the cobblestones, swaying from side to side, the springs creaking. Alex was sick from worry and doubt, his thoughts darting this way and that, like a minnow in the water. He liked Stellforth, though the man was playing a deep game, and he believed Julian had heaped blame too generously upon the man's shoulders. Even so, by Stellforth's own admission, he'd fostered the breach between father and son.

Finally, his voice low and troubled, he said reluctantly, "I will ask him if he will receive you. I will urge him to give you the chance to explain yourself. If he refuses, I will not push your cause further. Don't ask it of me."

"Thank you," Stellforth said simply. "If you do that, I will consider matters between us settled."

Without answering, Alex slumped back against seats cushioned in red velvet that had long since lost its nap and had faded to a pinkish-gray. The day had been horrible from start to finish, and he would wish it over were it not that the morning would bring even more troubles upon him.

A pang of homesickness stabbed him, and he closed his eyes, picturing the fields of home, wheat soughing in the evening breeze, an owl hooting mournfully from the woods he knew so well. In that moment, he regretted leaving more than he ever had, but when the carriage pulled up outside Julian's narrow, red-brick house, he felt that here was truly home.

It was most confusing.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Hearing the carriage come to a halt outside his house sent Julian flying to the door, hope vying with worry. He'd been forced to leave the castle with the rest of the players and hadn't dared make too much fuss about Alex's absence. The guards didn't need to know a young man was wandering around the castle. They'd hunt him down, not seek him out. Duncan had been grim-faced and tight-lipped when Alex hadn't shown up to help with the sets, but Julian had taken his place and placated Duncan to a certain extent. If it was enough to save Alex's job, he didn't know. Sampton had been too busy fretting over perceived shortcomings in the scene to seem to notice he was missing a member of the company, but Sampton noticed everything.

Seeing Alex get out of the carriage, his skin whole, a tentative smile on his face, wiped out relief and left Julian prey to pardonable irritation.

"Where in the name of the Lady have you been, you thoughtless, scatterbrained—" He broke off his tirade when he saw the small, slight figure behind Alex, shock silencing him for a moment before outrage restored his voice. "No. No, sir, you are not welcome here."

"He helped me," Alex said, in a tired, flat voice. "Please, Julian. Let him come in. Let him speak to you. Without his help, I'd be in a dungeon now, waiting for them to decide when to strip the flesh from my back or worse."

Addressing Stellforth, not Alex, Julian said coldly, "To use gratitude as a lever—I would once have thought that beneath you. Now, it doesn't surprise me at all."

Stellforth walked forward, his face older than Julian remembered, though of course it had been many years since Julian had seen him. "I rescued him because I have a liking for him, but I'd be a fool not to turn a favor owed to my advantage."

"He owes you, not I."

"Julian." Alex put his hand on Julian's arm. "I told him I wouldn't persuade you, but I think you need to at least hear him out."

"Do you?" He shook his arm, dislodging Alex's hand as if it was a spider crawling on him. To have Alex range himself beside Stellforth! After the hours Julian had spent fretting over him too. "I disagree, I'm afraid."

Alex gave him a stricken look, but Julian was past caring about who he hurt when his heart was beating unevenly, his mouth dry with remembered bitterness and regret.

"You must do as you see fit," Alex said, his voice subdued. "Am I still welcome here, or should I collect what I own and leave you?"

"Oh, get inside, you young fool," Julian snapped, and dragged Alex through the door bodily. He gave Stellforth a fulminating glance. "You've cost me dearly in the past. I'll not allow you to come between Alex and me."

"That is not my intention." Stellforth inclined his head, his hat in his hand. "The boy is loyal to you. You're to be congratulated on inspiring such devotion."

"I saved him, as you apparently did too, no more than that. He's green as spring grass and falls into trouble and love with equal ease."

"Yes, I think had I not chanced upon him when I did, Lady Stacia would have taken great delight in exploiting his rather charming innocence."

Julian gaped at him, then turned to stare at Alex, who was standing, irresolute, at the foot of the stairs. "Lady Stacia? Blood and shit, are you mad? What possessed you to—never mind. You can tell me later." He rounded on Stellforth, fuming at the obligation he was under. It was no legal tie, but Alex, well, Alex was his, and as Julian would've revenged a slight to him, or honored a debt, so too was he forced to acknowledge gratitude toward a man he loathed. "Very well. You may enter and state your business, but I warn you, my patience is close to its end." He cast a scowl at Alex. "It has been a night I wish to forget in many ways."

Not the least, being upstaged twice by Claire, the attention-seeking little minx. She'd ruined Julian's best speech by flirting shamelessly with a nobleman in the audience, pouting prettily at him over her fan and tossing her head with a blush when he applauded her—in the middle of Julian's monologue!

Alex might have been in trouble, but Claire was in disgrace.

Julian allowed Stellforth to come in and took him into the little-used formal parlor, not out of deference to his rank or age, but because he didn't wish to taint the air of the room he preferred. With chill courtesy, he gestured to the best seat, though he could not bring himself to offer the refreshment custom demanded.

Stellforth sat, a wince telling Julian the act was painful. He didn't allow himself to feel even a morsel of sympathy for old bones.

"I've often wished for the opportunity to make things right between us, but you returned my letters unopened, and I feared should I come to your door, I would be met with its closing."

"You would have been correct had you not furnished yourself with a key."

Alex had retreated upstairs, giving them privacy. Julian was glad of it. It meant he had no need to curb his tongue. He remained standing, leaning against the mantelpiece in a casual pose, at his ease on the surface.

"I owe you an apology." The simplicity of the words was unexpected coming from Stellforth, who had a lawyer's knack for complication. "I didn't trust you to know what was best for you, and I encouraged your father when I could have used my influence with him to mellow his views. That I did not was because I—we—both felt your desire to be an actor was a young man's whim, foolish, rebellious, if natural given your age. I was wrong and so was he, but you have accepted an apology only from one of us. Why is that, Julian? We were always such good friends, you and I."

The quiet voice shook a little on the final words, and Julian fancied he saw the gleam of tears in the faded gray eyes.

"To be betrayed by a friend cuts deep."

Stellforth nodded slowly. "True."

"And my father—so many years estranged! You persuaded him to cut me out of his life—and his will, not that I care about that. You know you did."

"I thought—we both did—it would bring you to your senses. It was never intended to be a lasting severance of relations. Then we heard you'd left the city with a touring company and it was many months before you returned."

"I had to feed myself, and my wages were, well, they were sufficient to do that, at least. I learned my craft in those months—and how to fend for myself without the shelter of my father's money and influence."

"It did you good. I salute you. Yet when you returned, if you had been more amenable to your father's advances—"

"I was in no mood to beg for what should never have been taken from me—his love, his regard—" Julian swallowed, compelling his voice not to shake. "You cannot make it right. Too much was said or left unsaid. It's over. He's dead, and I thank the Lady we reconciled before the end, but between you and I there can be no—"

"Would you come if I was on my deathbed and forgive me then?" Stellforth snapped, rising to his feet.

Taken aback, Julian shrugged. "Why, I suppose it might happen."

"Yes, of course you would! Approaching death softens the hardest heart and much good it would do either of us then. I seek your forgiveness now, you silly young pup. Mistakes were made, aye, but you're all have I left of him. I won't go to the Lady and meet him with no more to say than, 'Well, John, I tried, but your son was too stubborn for me.' Tchah. He'd laugh in my face."

Despite himself, a reluctant smile found its way onto Julian's lips. He'd missed Marmaduke's trenchant humor. "He always said you never gave up, no matter what the odds against you."

"And it's as much a failing as anything, but it's who I am. Now, I won't rush you, my boy, but I'm getting no younger and neither are you. Think on what I've said and believe I never intended it to go as it did. I was wrong. There! Not many hear that from me. You're a good actor, and given time, you'll be a great one. Galliero has left a space you're more than capable of filling if you could but curb your habit of taking roles that amuse you instead of ones that challenge you."

"I do not! Why, I was all but on my knees to Master Sampton begging to be allowed to play King Henry in Silence Falls," Julian protested, before he could remember he loathed Marmaduke.

"Too young."

"I am not—" Julian shook his head, the urge to tear at his hair battling with the most absurd need to laugh as if a weight had been lifted. "We will agree to differ, sir. And now I think I must bid you good evening. I have matters to discuss with Alex that will not keep."

"I'm sure you do." There was an amused, knowing glint in Marmaduke's eyes. "Will you take my hand?"

Julian sighed and succumbed to the charm of a man he'd adored as a child. "Oh, very well." Somehow, the hand clasp became an embrace, quick and awkward, but promising a better understanding soon.

"And you'll forgive the boy for his part in bringing me here?" Marmaduke said, after Julian had helped him into his carriage.

Julian glanced at the house where Alex was no doubt waiting for judgment to fall. "He has done so much that needs forgiving tonight, this small matter will be a leaf lost in a forest," he said, a little grimly. He bowed. "Your servant, sir."

"Dear boy," Marmaduke said with a sigh. "We must talk again soon. I have more to say to you, but this is not the time. No rush, no rush, not now." He banged on the door with his fist. "Driver! Home!"

Julian watched the carriage sway and lumber out of sight, puzzling over what else Marmaduke could have to say to him, then shrugged and walked back inside his house.

Time for a reckoning.

Alex was perched on the edge of his bed, his hands linked in his lap, his head down, the picture of contrition. Julian had sat that way waiting for his sentence from an annoyed parent on many an occasion, and for the second time in as many minutes, he gave a reluctant smile. He took care to wipe it from his face when Alex glanced up and let the silence between them grow until the air between them was thick with tension. Alex had partially undressed. His feet were bare, his shirt a pale splash on the floor

When Alex was visibly fidgeting, clearly wanting to speak, but unsure of what to say, Julian judged it time to begin. "Lady Stacia, hmm? I didn't realize you were one of those who like to kneel and beg for pain. My apologies if you've found our lovemaking to be somewhat lacking in spice."

Heat flamed in Alex's cheeks. "You know perfectly well I don't."

"That wouldn't matter to her. Your arousal wouldn't be necessary to her enjoyment."

Alex frowned and gestured down at his groin. "But if I wasn't hard—and my balls were drawn up as tight as if I'd been swimming in ice water, let me tell you—then how could we fuck?"

Julian shook his head. "You're so innocent. Leave it, Pippin, and tell me what in the name of the darkest night you were doing wandering off like that!"

His voice rose to a bellow, his control snapping as his imagination painted a vivid picture in blood-red and bruise-blue. Stacia would have tied those strong wrists and ankles with pretty silken cords, then taken Alex apart stroke by stroke with a whip, playing with him, smiling over every scream. Some men liked her games, though Julian had never fathomed why. He was too sophisticated not to be aware pleasure could be reached from many directions, but Stacia's path was too narrow for any but her to walk it. His easy acceptance of those who desired the sweet fire of a well-spanked ass before being fucked—or enjoyed dealing one out—didn't extend to Stacia's perversions. She tortured and gloried in it. The thought of Alex at her mercy chilled him, sickened him.

"I was lost. A page sent me astray," Alex said wearily, as if he was tired of saying it. "I found myself in the duke's wing, and then I bumped into the lady." The heat drained from his face. "She made me kneel. Made me beg. I had reached my limit when Master Stellforth arrived. I don't know how it was that she took pity on me, but I think she liked me. Or what I said." He met Julian's eyes. "I would not have done what she wished. I was about to tell her. I don't think she would've liked to hear that."

Julian exhaled, his knees weak. "Oh, Lady. If you'd said that you'd have disappeared. She has guards who would have flayed you for her while she watched, sipping wine and smiling. I would have lost you."

"I'm sorry—" Alex shook his head, interrupting himself. "No. I won't apologize. I did nothing wrong."

"You never do," Julian said with a groan. "I want to pack you back to the Westerlings and tell your parents to keep you there until you grow up."

"Excuse me?" Alex rose to his feet, his brows together in a frown. "It was not my fault!"

"Tell that to Sampton, if he'll hold still and listen! You may well have lost your job, you idiot, and if you escaped from Lady Nightshade, don't think you'll be as lucky with him."

"'Lady Nightshade?'" Alex grimaced. "Is that how she's known? I called her a white rose."

Julian rolled his eyes at that. A rose with thorns dipped in poison, maybe. "Honey-tongued, aren't you?"

Alex tilted up his chin, all defiance now. Julian suspected both of them were suffering from a reaction to the stress of the day. For him, it was manifesting with a jittery energy, swift-burning and hot. For Alex, well, judging by the belligerent stance, Alex wanted to punch someone, to fight back as he'd been unable to do with Lady Stacia. Julian didn't intend to volunteer as his target. He could think of better ways for both of them to calm down. Like getting naked together.

"Kiss me and find out," Alex said, the words a challenge.

Julian smiled as Alex echoed what he'd been thinking arousal building within him. He planned to do a lot more than kiss Alex, and he wasn't in the mood to be gentle. If Alex wouldn't apologize for what he'd put Julian through, let him whimper and mewl instead as he was fucked. It would sound as sweet.

"A kiss?" he asked, advancing on Alex and trapping him by the bed. "Is that all you want?" Alex's lips parted as if in invitation, his green eyes challenging Julian as his words had done. "Very well."

Julian touched his lips to Alex's and let his tongue flick lightly, contemptuously, into the warmth of Alex's mouth. He'd planned the kiss as a rebuke, but he'd reckoned without the way the taste of Alex made him crave more, a wild yearning that drove him to crush their lips together.

He thrust his tongue deeper, seeking more of the intoxicating, arousing taste, and was shocked when his tongue was bitten, hard.

"Brat," he murmured, and leaned in to do it again, willing to risk the scrape of Alex's sharp teeth if it got him more of what he wanted.

This time, Alex jerked his head away, averting it so his mouth was out of reach. For a moment, Julian was concerned. Was Alex unwilling then, too upset about the events of the night to want to find respite this way? He stepped back, wiping an unsteady hand over his mouth.

"If I've offended you—" He paused. The angled head was offering him a smooth neck to kiss or bite in place of Alex's mouth, and Alex wasn't moving away, even though he could easily have darted past Julian or scrambled over the bed.

Ah. He'd played these games with Marcus. They weren't entirely to his taste, but he knew the rules. Doubtful Alex did, though. The lad was operating on pure instinct. It was foolish of him when he could have asked for what he needed, but a hard prick—and Alex's was like iron—was a stranger to common sense.

Leaving his sentence incomplete, Julian took a handful of Alex's hair—so silky, so thick, the color vivid enough it felt as though his hand should be left burned—and used his grip to drag that mouth back to where it could be kissed. "You asked for this," he reminded Alex, their lips so close that each exhaled breath from Alex warmed Julian's face. "Bite me again, and I'll return the favor."

Alex achieved a creditable sneer. "You think I'll let you do anything to me. Use me, take me—"

The last words sounded more like instructions than a complaint.

"I think it's time you found out what it's like to enjoy having a cock inside your ass." Julian grinned at him. "I'll enjoy putting it there."

He kissed Alex hard, bruising the soft mouth. Alex melted against him in surrender for a split second. A moment later, Alex was twisting away, his doubled-up fist delivering a stinging punch to Julian's ribs.

"You think I'll roll over for you with a smile, beg for your prick? I won't!"

"You'll beg for more than that, Pippin."

"Don't call me that!"

"Why?" Julian advanced on him, purposely driving him toward the door. He wanted Alex in his bedroom, with the larger bed and the bottle of oil at hand to ease the way. Alex was too untried to be taken dry. "It brings back memories of you on your knees, your mouth sweet and hot around my prick."

That was a cruel blow to strike, but Alex needed justification for the damage his fists inflicted as he flew at Julian, arms windmilling wildly. He was young and strong, but woefully unused to fighting. Julian, who'd learned how to end a fight swiftly, the lesson taught in several taverns and alleys, could have had Alex on the ground puking or gasping for breath within a minute. He chose instead to dodge the blows, returning them when he could do so without inflicting more than a momentary flash of pain.

They fought their way out into the hallway and into Julian's room, the journey enlivened by a steady stream of cursing from Alex, whose vocabulary had increased considerably during his time working at the theater.

"Foul-mouthed brat," Julian remarked dispassionately, and shoved Alex onto the bed. "To think I let that dirty mouth suck my prick."

Alex tried to struggle up, but Julian was on him by then, using every trick he knew to subdue the wildcat under him.

"No! You can't make me do it!" Alex's eyes were glazed over, seeing someone who wasn't there. "I will not do it."

Julian slapped his face, lightly enough that not even a flush rose to the thin cheek, hard enough to have Alex blinking up at him, his focus finally on Julian.

"Sweetheart, what we do here will always be what you want." He didn't let go of the wrist he held in his other hand—not yet, not quite yet—but he gentled his grip. "Always."

With a sob, Alex raised his head, seeking a kiss Julian was only too happy to give him.

They rolled to their sides, Alex clinging to him, their kisses filled with passion of a different sort now, as strong and clear as swiftly running water. Julian felt it cleanse him, rinse away the residual anger and the agony of the time he'd spent picturing Alex taken by the guards. Alex settled down, his shivers quieting until he was pressed up against Julian as close as he could get.

"If it's as you say, if I can ask for what I want…"

"Always," Julian vowed recklessly.

"Then take me." There was no hesitation in Alex's expression or voice. "I want to know what it feels like when it doesn't hurt."

"It might still—" Julian broke off. If it took him an hour to get his prick inside Alex, he'd spend that time willingly. He stroked Alex's face, tenderness filling him. "When I saw you arrive with Stellforth, I was so angry with you," he murmured. "I can't stay that way for long. You soften me."

Alex pushed his hand between them, boldly cupping the thrust of Julian's prick through his breeches. "I hope not."

Surprised into a laugh, Julian swatted Alex's ass. "Brat. Get undressed, then, and we'll see if we can't make this day end well at least."

It didn't take an hour to ease inside Alex and reduce him to a sighed breath and a whimper, but it did take half that time for Julian to realize a single finger was all Alex could take, even with a small lake of oil to ease the way. Alex's lips assured him it was what he wanted, but his body was locked tight.

Julian worked his finger in eventually, with Alex urging him on through gritted teeth, his eyes screwed shut with frustration, then bent over to take Alex's cock into his mouth. Like his, it was a limp curl of exhausted flesh by then, but he coaxed it hard and let his finger pump slowly in and out of the smooth, heated channel.

"I can't. I want to, but I can't. I'm sorry that I've spoiled everything."

Julian raised his head and sent Alex a glare, then let Alex's cock slip free. "That you can still talk is an insult to my technique. I'll overlook it this once. Lie back, enjoy what I'm doing, and leave the regrets and repining not for what you could not do but for what you did not try."

"Is that a quotation?"

"It is, but send me to the dark if I remember where from." Julian bit the point of Alex's hipbone reprovingly. "Well? May I continue, or do you have more apologies with which to bore me?"

Alex smiled at him, a real smile now, not a brave grimace. "'Sir, if you stop, my heart will be broken. Pray continue and let—um, and let—'"

"'Let fortune favor your endeavors as much as they deserve.'" Julian finished the line from Ardent Hearts and returned to a task he enjoyed, refusing to entertain a single fear Alex would never be able to take his prick deep inside him. It would happen, and if it did not, why, it wasn't important.

There was so much else they could do, after all.

 

Chapter Fourteen

"So you're here to plead for the boy too, are you?" Sampton laced his fingers over his belly and gave Julian a sour look. "I've already had Duncan in here, sharpening his tongue on me because I wouldn't see the idle good-for-naught."

"I am, yes, but if you'd see him, then I'm sure he could—"

"Not interested in talking to him or hearing his excuses."

"By the Lady!" Julian cried, allowing his artistic temperament free rein. "It comes to something when a man is given no chance to explain his actions!"

Unmoved by Julian's raised voice and the stamp of his foot, Sampton brought his hands together in politely ironic applause. "Your delivery is, as ever, impeccable. Your cause, however, is lost from the start. Go to rehearsal, Master Melville. That is what I pay you for, is it not? Acting? I didn't hire you as a lawyer? No?"

"Alex is a friend of mine—"

"I've heard." Sampton raised his eyebrows. "Not your usual choice of prick-warmer, but I suppose the lad has a fresh-faced appeal if your tastes run that way."

Julian was on the verge of snapping back an angry reply when caution bound his tongue. Sampton was not one of those to sneer at a man or woman for their choice of partner, and until now, he'd seemed to like Alex well enough. Alex's offense might rank high in Sampton's eyes—Julian's too—but not so high as to obliterate his short but excellent work record.

"He's a friend," he repeated calmly. "I like him, and yesterday he fell victim to an unfortunate set of circumstances that prevented him from doing his job. I agree no excuse is good enough. He wasn't at his post when he was needed. I'm simply saying he deserves a second chance."

"Why?" Sampton shrugged, his wide shoulders rolling under a shabby navy brocade jerkin that had seen better days. "I could walk outside, throw a stone, and hit a lad with his skills."

"He's good at what he does. The sets for Silence Falls are being built quickly and well. Duncan swears by the lad."

"I know."

"He's worked long hours without complaining—"

"I should hope so. Blood and shit, it comes to something when a worker expects short hours and nothing to fill them but idling." Sampton smirked at him. "Go on, Master Melville. You're doing a splendid job."

"Oh you—" Julian flung himself into a chair and glared at Sampton. "I'll pay his wages for a month if you keep him on."

"Interesting." Sampton pursed his lips. "Tell me, did you speak to Duncan before you came in here breathing fire and fury?"

"Why, no. I heard from Patrick you would not see the boy, and I decided to try my hand at convincing you to be lenient."

Patrick had been ghost-pale, his voice hoarse—from reading to his sister, he'd said—but there had been enough concern in his voice to tell Julian that Alex had made another friend. The boy picked them up as easily as a longhaired cat collected burrs.

"I see." There was a suspicion of laughter in Sampton's voice, and it made Julian frown at him, suspicion flaring. "It so happens the reason I wouldn't see young Alex was that there was no need. I never had any intention of losing him when we're so close to opening night. Mind, when I think he's stewed long enough, I'll bring him in and let him know what I think of apprentices who wander off when there's work to be done and get themselves lost, but that's between me and him."

"You—and you let me—" Indignation made Julian splutter before he shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. "You're a devious man, Master Sampton."

"Aye, I am." Sampton smiled, all complacence. "A month's wages, hmm?"

"What? No, not now I know…" Julian's voice trailed off as Sampton raised his eyebrows. "A month," he said, with resignation.

"And he doesn't get paid at all for yesterday."

"Oh, very well."

Julian stood and swept his cloak around him. He'd been too concerned with what Patrick had told him to take it off. It did allow for a nicely dramatic exit.

"The castle's in some disarray this morning," Sampton said, when Julian's hand was on the door.

Julian paused and glanced back. "Really? Why?"

"A page went missing. Well, they found his body in the river at dawn, and then they missed him, I suppose. Those pages never sleep in their own beds, randy little brats."

"That's sad," Julian said, without giving it much thought. The river in Sorrent was wide where it met the ocean, and tidal forces made parts of it treacherous. Fishermen died in its waters every year, and children were warned not to swim in certain places. Not that they listened. Where was the fun in safety? As a lad, Julian himself had jumped off the small cliff—it had seemed higher then—that overlooked a swirling froth of water called Dead Man's Folly. It had been a rite of passage, and he leaped out with exhilaration filling him, certain he'd be safe because he was young enough to think himself immortal. The vicious drag of the water, cold and weed-filled, had taught him a lesson in caution. His father's belt, applied vigorously to his ass later that day when he found out what Julian had done, had underlined it.

"They think he was meeting a sweetheart," Sampton continued. "He had a white rose in his jerkin, or what was left of one, anyway. Pity."

A dead page. A white rose. Julian's mind went curiously still for a moment, and he was sure his face echoed its blankness. He was an actor, though, trained to react only as the script demanded. He'd played a death scene with his face dripping scarlet from an over-ripe tomato, hurled at him with distressing accuracy from the audience and, the next day in a different village, had been forced to keep his face straight when a man, tall, drunk, smiling vaguely, had pissed into the elaborately plumed hat of the mayor, placed carefully on the chair beside him.

"It is. Poor boy."

"Well, as to that, he was a page." Sampton shrugged. "Little demons, most of them, ripe for mischief, and if they're pretty enough, corrupted by every lord or lady at court. Still, the duke's seemingly most put out about it."

"He feels a great responsibility to those in his care," Julian said smoothly. "I saw you speak with him after the play; tell me, did he remark upon my performance at all?"

In truth, he cared not if the duke had fallen asleep during the play, but judging by the amused smile on Sampton's face, he'd distracted the man from thoughts of drowned pages by behaving exactly as Sampton would expect.

Blank horror wasn't usual; self-centeredness was.

"He was most kind about all the players, and I believe he was mightily taken with Mistress Claire."

"Did you see her shameless flirting?" Julian asked hotly. "I swear, had we not been guests at the castle, I would have taken her to task as soon as the curtain fell."

Sampton chuckled, showing a surprising indulgence. "Minx. She let the occasion go to her head, that's all. I'll speak to her if it happens again."

"Indeed. Then by your leave, sir." Julian bowed and swept out of the room, his head spinning, his skin clammy with sweat.

One thought shone clear. Alex must not find out about this. He would blame himself as sure as sunrise. If the word was already out, the chance of keeping it from him was remote, but Julian would do his best. It was a small story, with no breath of scandal, and would die as quickly as the unfortunate page, but the theater folk would discuss it because they'd been at the castle the day he died. They'd wonder if they'd seen him, shiver over his fate, weave theories about his lover, and sentimentalize the rose he'd been carrying.

Blood and shit, he had no way of keeping Alex ignorant, none at all.

He hurried to the workroom and found Alex, disconsolate and subdued, his face burning hotly as Duncan berated him.

As Julian walked over to them, Duncan ended his scolding with a clap to Alex's shoulder. "There, lad, take the blue out of your eyes. I spoke only for your own good, but what's done is done and I'm not a man to harp on a mistake. Get back to work. We're behind with all that jauntering off to rub shoulders with the nobles."

"Yes, sir." Alex brightened up immediately, giving Julian a sunny smile. "Julian! Did you hear? I'm not to lose my job!"

"I heard from the man himself after I'd spent a full ten minutes trying to persuade him to be merciful."

"You did? And he'd already…oh, that's too bad of him." There was a suspicion of a twitch to Alex's lips that made Julian think the lad was holding back a grin.

"Brat," he said fondly, and cuffed Alex's head. "You heard Duncan. Get back to work."

If Alex kept his head down, as no doubt he would, driven by gratitude and guilt, and if Julian swept him home as soon as possible…

"Duncan! Did you hear the news?" Selwyn strode into the workroom, flashing a smile at Julian and Alex. "They found—"

"Selwyn, aren't you wanted on stage?" Julian interrupted.

"What? Why would I be? You are, though. Best hurry." Selwyn opened his mouth again. "They've found—"

"No, I feel sure they needed you." Desperation clogged his usually ready tongue. Julian couldn't slap his hand over Selwyn's mouth to silence his babbling, but he ardently wished he could.

Selwyn gave Julian an exasperated look, his pink mouth pouting. "Julian, have done! I need to tell Duncan this message about the paint he ordered."

"The cinnabar came in?" Duncan flung up his hands. "Finally! Alex, lad, you haven't worked with it before. I'll show you how to make the most intense of reds from the powder once we grind it."

Alex looked all attentive interest, and Julian exhaled, relief filling him. Perhaps it was safe for him to leave now.

When he came across Alex puking up his guts a few hours later, his face whey-pale, his eyes glazed with shock and horror, he knew it had not.

An arm around Alex's shoulders, Julian drew him away from the bucket he'd been using and to a chair. They were in a dressing room so small it was rarely used, the plaster marked with damp and the chair Alex was using rickety to the point of being dangerous.

"I was told you'd been seen heading this way." Julian rubbed soothing circles over Alex's back. "I would take you out for a pie, but Lindy would ban us both if you did this after eating one."

"How can you joke?" Alex wiped the back of his mouth on his sleeve and shuddered. "You know, don't you?"

"Sampton told me this morning," Julian admitted. "He doesn't know more than the bare bones of it, though—no one does. You need to keep it that way, do you hear me? Tell me you've told no one of your connection to this."

Julian held his breath, but Alex shook his head. "No. I was too ashamed. I said all that was proper, though it nearly killed me to do so, then I came here. I had to be alone."

"You must not blame yourself. The person who ordered this—do not use names—is solely responsible. Not you. Never you."

"If you thought that was so, you wouldn't have been at such pains to shield me," Alex said, with a logic that failed to gain Julian's approval.

"I knew it would upset you. Darkness take it, it upset me! But you're not the one who arranged for him to be drowned."

"The rose he carried—how could she do that?" Alex whispered. "It was a message to me—or a warning. Oh, Lady save me, I don't want to die, Julian!"

"The person clearly feels a certain fondness for you," Julian said, picking his words carefully. "They revenged what they saw as a slight, no, worse, a malicious attempt to get you into serious trouble. I don't think you're in any danger." He hesitated and lowered his voice still more, whispering urgently, persuasively into Alex's ear. "If it will ease your mind, the word is that the person has been ordered to her country estates by the duke. No one is making any connection between her banishment and the death, and I doubt the duke knows what she did, so there is none. It's a juicy piece of court gossip. Most think it's because of her affair with the Master of Stables. They were found last week in a most compromising position. He's been stripped of his post and whipped, and she, well, this is her punishment, most think. The duke let her stay for the party because he wanted nothing to mar Lady Helena's day. She will be gone soon, and when she returns, you'll have slipped from her mind, I promise."

"I can't lie and say I'm not relieved, but to know my thoughtless words caused his death near kills me. He was unkind to do what he did, but he didn't deserve to die for a prank. If I'd met up with him again, I would've told him what I thought of him and happily punched his smirking face, but death? For that?" Alex shuddered again. "How could she? And what of the duke's rule of one law for rich and poor?"

"It sounds good, but I've yet to see a noble in the justice stocks," Julian said cynically. "There is no possibility of his sister being punished, not when there's no evidence pointing her way. A page would never be to her taste as a lover and no one would connect her with him unless she told them and she's far too fond of her skin to confess."

Alex drew a deep breath. "Everything you say is true, but I can't help thinking the duke does know and is angry."

"Well, that's the lady's problem, not yours," Julian pointed out. The bucket made the room stink. He smoothed Alex's rumpled hair. "Come. Let's clean up and go out for some fresh air. Maybe it'll bring the color back to your cheeks and restore your appetite."

Alex bit his lip, then nodded. The shock had left his eyes, but they were still brimful of regret and it was to be many days before it faded.