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A Civil Contract

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John Leopold Fitzhugh Sheppard, the new Lord Lymond, was in a foul mood when he went down to the stables. The early spring skies over West Sussex were leaden and spoke of more rain, but he didn’t care; it wasn’t raining now. He called for his horse to be saddled and brought round. He’d been closeted with Woolsey, his late father’s man of business, for the last three days. His finances were every bit as bad as he’d feared. He needed to get out of the house and gallop across the Downs, where the fresh air could clear away his dark thoughts.

The stable boy led the black stallion up to the mounting block with a look of wary caution clouding his eyes that spoke of the horse’s tendency to show his heels at the drop of a hat. The horse bit as well. Rumor had it that the beast had latched on to the shoulder of a groom at his last stable and shook the man like a terrier shaking a rat. How much of the stallion’s history was hearsay and how much was real, John didn’t know. The horse’s story certainly seemed to grow more outrageous with every telling. John’s father had been able to buy him for a pittance as a result.

John climbed the mounting block stiffly, trying not to resent its necessity now. The stable lad held the horse steady for him, the boy’s eyes wide and worried, but for once, the stallion stood like a gentleman. John placed a hand on the pommel and put his foot in the stirrup, taking hold of some mane as he swung his bad leg across. He felt like a raw infantryman when he mounted that way, graceless and inept, but it couldn’t be helped. Taking the reins from the stable lad, he had turned the horse out toward the main yard when Jim Banks appeared at the entranceway.

Jim had been head groom on the Lantea estate since John was a small boy. He’d put John up on his first pony, and had made sure John was safe over fences before allowing him out with the hunt. There was nothing Jim didn’t know when it came to horses, and John trusted his judgment implicitly. Much of the success of the stud at Lantea was due to Jim Banks. In many ways, Jim had been more of a father than the sixth Viscount had ever been, and John respected him immensely.

The one thing they didn’t see eye-to-eye on was Diablo.

“Why are you taking that one out? The brute hasn’t been worked in days, seeing as you’re the only one that can ride him. He’ll be hard enough to handle without the sloppy footing and more rain on the way. The glass is still falling.” He added in a gruff voice, as almost an afterthought, “My lord.”

Diablo, almost as though he understood Jim’s words, pinned his ears and sidestepped as if to push past Jim where he stood blocking the aisle. John closed his thighs and checked the stallion with the bit, reminding him who was in charge.

“Precisely why I need to get him out and blow the stink off him while I can.” John kept his voice light as the horse continued to fidget.

“I don’t like him. He’s dangerous.” Jim continued to admonish. “He’s all sleek and polite one minute and strikes like a snake the next. He killed Sumner, of that I’m sure. Can’t think why you want him here. Your father never should have bought him, my lord.”

It was an argument they’d had before. Jim knew horses, John couldn’t deny, but there was something about this horse. John didn’t love him, as he had other horses before, nor did he trust him. They weren’t partners, but they were, after a fashion, comrades in arms.

“No one knew what happened to Sumner.” The Master of the Westover Hunt had been found lifeless at the base of a tree, the stallion calmly grazing nearby. “This horse has a canter you can sit to all day long and he can jump the moon. He’ll make a fine addition to the breeding program here. No doubt my father was anxious to replace Ruthless.” It had nearly killed John when he’d discovered that Ruthless, the foundational stallion for the Lantea stables, had been lost by his father in a stupid wager. The new owner was set to pick up Ruthless, the pride of the Lantea stud, within the fortnight. He patted the neck of the restive horse beneath him. “Todd here will do just fine.”

Jim snorted, unconvinced. “Not if he passes on that wicked disposition of his. That’s a good nickname for him, ‘Tod’. There’s something sly and fox-like about him.”

John laughed, even as the tension in the horse beneath him mounted. It felt as though he was sitting on a powder keg and the fuse was burning steadily closer. “That’s not why I call him Todd. He reminds me of a boy I knew in school.” He didn’t add that changing the horse’s name made him less intimidating in John’s mind. The stallion tossed his head and pawed furiously, impatient to be gone.

“Be off with you then.” Jim sniffed, looking none too happy. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you’re not back by tea time, I’ll be sending out a search party. My lord.” Which didn’t sound reverent so much as mocking. Well, Jim had known him since he was a lad in leading strings. The transition from Master John to Lord Lymond wasn’t going to be easy for either of them.

John gave a mock salute, which made Jim smile sourly. He was in the process of turning away when John halted him with a single word. “Jim.” The solemnity of John’s voice made Jim look up sharply. “Between you and me, I’d prefer it if you didn’t keep ‘my lording’ me.”

Jim raised his eyebrows in surprise. “It wouldn’t be right for me to do anything less, my lord.”

“Humor me.”

“As you wish, my...sir.”

John closed his lower leg on the stallion, the horse leapt forward as though he’d been shot from a cannon. He held the stallion down to a rapid trot until they’d left the stableyard, splashing mud as they went. Though he knew better than to let the horse dictate the pace on soft ground, he also knew that until Todd was no longer fresh, it was best to move quickly, lest the horse begin to buck and rear. Once they were off the muddy track out of the yard, Todd fought him, trying to take the bit in his teeth and gallop unrestrained, but John kept him to a controlled canter. The rolling gait ate up the countryside as they moved together. It was as though he and the stallion were one.

The air that met his face was cold and damp, and John took in a deep breath, feeling suddenly free. He was filled with a vicious kind of glee, a sense of power and invincibility that he never felt anywhere else. Once they were out of sight of the mansion, John gave into temptation, leaning forward and whispering to the horse, “So you want to run, eh? Well, off you go. As fast as you like.”

On being given his head, the horse accelerated over the open ground. Foxholes and ditches were avoided with ease. They raced across the fields toward the woods on the far side of the estate, handily jumping the stone wall that separated the pastureland from the rest of Lantea grounds. The wind in John’s face stung his eyes and made them water, even as he felt the heat of wind burn rush into his cheeks. Moving in synchrony with the galloping horse, a wild exhilaration rose in him. This. He couldn’t lose this.

For a time they simply moved across the land, without conscious thought. No longer fighting him, the stallion tolerated John’s presence. His strength flowed through John’s body. They seemed to understand one another, the black stallion and the former soldier. John had never known a faster horse, nor one who could jump as high or as fearlessly. The seeds of a mad plan entered John’s mind and found fertile ground. It was insane. Unfettered gambling had brought John’s family to its current impoverished state. But maybe it would take one more insane risk to set things right.

Todd slipped rounding a turn, thrashing his tail in annoyance, and John reluctantly pulled him down to a more reasoned pace. The exultation faded, leaving behind the cold reality of his circumstances. The weight of the last few days crowded back in on him, and John wondered what it would take to numb his mind entirely. Probably more fine brandy than his father’s cellars currently held, more’s the pity. Getting foxed wouldn’t solve his current problems anyway.

Woolsey had been painfully honest as he tried to explain the complete loss of the family fortune. “Your father, my lord, was reckless when it came to gaming, and his cronies were as rash and heedless as he, egging each other on to make wilder and wilder wagers,” he’d said in that cautiously polite manner of his. “He lost heavily betting at cards and at the races. Many of the properties were mortgaged to meet these debts.”

John had been shocked on his return from the Peninsula to find things in such a shabby state on the estate. Building projects started before he’d bought his colors were still unfinished, and only a small number of staff remained at Lantea. In those first few days, he could scarcely wrap his head around the notion that his father was dead. Gradually, John realized that pieces of art no longer hung in the main hall, and that no one could account for the whereabouts of his mother’s jewels. Then the bills started coming in. He’d muddled along as best he could, trying to sort out his father’s books, but rents were way down for some reason, and he’d been stunned when he’d contacted his estate manager and discovered that several of the farms that had been in John’s family for generations no longer belonged to the estate.

The visit from Mr. Woolsey laid bare the whole sordid mess. His father had gambled away the family fortune, selling or mortgaging everything he could lay his hands on to continue to gamble. The fact that he often won back significant sums must have tempted him into betting for higher and higher stakes. The hunting lodge in Scotland was gone. So, too, was Lymond House in Town. Well, it wasn’t like he used either of those places much, but it had been a shock to discover so much of the family property simply gone or promised to someone else. The income from these properties went with them. Bad enough that his father lost huge sums on games of chance; how his father came to be making stupid decisions about horseflesh was harder to understand. He might not have been the horseman the fifth Viscount had been, but he understood them. How had he come to wager so recklessly? To lose almost everything he owned? Worse, it wasn’t entirely clear who held all of his father’s vowels.

Woolsey had merely shaken his head sadly. “Your father, of course, left numerous debts all over Town. But what concerns me most are these so-called debts-of-honor.” He’d sniffed his disapproval as he spoke.

A fashionable man of the ton believed that it was not only socially acceptable but well within his rights to owe his tailor or watchmaker scads of money while continuing to lose money at the races and at cards. John, however, could not accept this. He’d ordered Woolsey to pay those outstanding bills to tradesmen as soon as funds could be liquidated to do so.

“That is a mere, as they say, drop in the bucket compared to the notes your father left outstanding. What I find disturbing, however, is that many of the gentlemen to whom your father owed money now state that their debts have been paid in full.”

“Someone is buying up my father’s notes.” John had quietly taken in this information and the implications, even as the news had felt like a punch to the gut.

Woolsey had confirmed John’s fears. “Yes. It would appear so. Should the holder of these notes decide to redeem them all at once, well, you would be forced to sell those properties not already mortgaged to meet that claim.” He’d coughed, and straightened his papers unnecessarily. “It would seem the purchaser of your father’s debts is a man by the name of Count Acastus Kolya. Do you know him?”

John had shaken his head in the negative. “Russian?”

Woolsey’s lip had curled. “So he claims. Given the previous unrest with Bonaparte, it has been impressed upon me that we should hold our Russian friends in the highest esteem. He seems to have ingratiated himself with men of the highest standing, as well. He is in particular favor with the Regent himself just now.”

Which meant that no one would likely challenge this Count Kolya should he lay claim to the rest of the Lymond properties in payment for the previous Lord Lymond’s debts. Even if it meant losing Lantea itself.

John wasn’t about to let that happen. He just didn’t know how to stop it.

Woolsey’s single suggestion of a possible solution had been downright appalling, however.

“You want me to what?” John had exclaimed. He’d been standing at the window of the library, staring out the window. The rain-streaked glass panes had given the impression that they were under the sea. Woolsey’s proposal had startled him into facing the spare, balding man of business and taking a hard look at him for the first time. “Marry some chit for her father’s money? I can’t do that.”

“I don’t see why not, sir. You aren’t the first member of the nobility to find yourself with an empty title and burdensome debt. And yet that title is worth much to the right party. You also need an heir.” Woolsey had been at his most prim when he spoke.

John rather thought he’d let David provide all the heirs the estate would need. Still, he’d heard Woolsey out.“I take it you have someone in mind.” John had given full rein to his sarcasm then, but Woolsey had pretended not to notice.

“Miss Jennifer Keller. She’s considered quite the Beauty. A diamond of the first water, or so I’m told. Her father is a banker in the City. To say he is fairly flush in the pocket is a bit of an understatement.” Woolsey would never do anything so crass as to rub his hands together with glee, but Miss Keller’s dowry must be substantial. Woolsey was practically purring, indicating just how magnanimous were the terms of Miss Keller’s marriage portion. “He would like to see his daughter married well, and titled, too. He would not question paying what it would take to meet his goals, providing, of course, he thought you could make her happy. He is somewhat sentimental in that regard, as his wife died when the girl was quite young.”

John had snorted then. “Then pray tell, why hasn’t someone snapped up this Paragon already?”

The look of distaste on Woolsey’s face would have been amusing, had John hadn’t just been advised to “sell” himself as a solution to his straightened finances. “She’s a bit of a bluestocking, it would seem. She is quite taken with the ideas of Miss Mary Wollstonecraft.” Woolsey had paused there to see how John took that piece of disturbing news. Seeing nothing to indicate John found this unwomanly position an irreconcilable impediment to marriage, he’d cleared his throat and continued. “It seems she has a strong interest in the medical arts, along with decided opinions on social reform. Her choice of dinner table conversation has been known to make some young ladies swoon. Rumor has it that she is quite keen on the less appetizing aspects of field medicine and sanitation.”

John had laughed then; his first real laugh since he’d found out that his father was dead and he himself was pockets to let. Woolsey had looked affronted, and John had been forced to apologize. He wasn’t laughing now, though. Damned if he was going to sell himself off to the highest bidder, though, even if Woolsey seemed to think that he was Lantea’s chief asset at the moment. Well, that and the bloodstock. What horses John’s father hadn’t already wagered away, that is. It sickened him to know that the foundation stallion was now in the hands of the ham-fisted Lord Carruthers, who wouldn’t know a bone-setter from a prime-goer. Ah well, what was done was done. If only John could hold on to the stud itself, he’d count himself lucky.

John strongly suspected, however, that the stud was exactly what Count Kolya was after. John’s father would never have put Lantea itself on the line to pay his debts, but the estate was so perilously close to the rocks now that John could see no way to protect it. At least...his crazy plan, still only half-formulated, teased his mind. He was good at cards. He had a gift for numbers and could probably see his way to winning back some of his father’s losses if he stayed away from the games that were strictly chance. Faro and hazard were out, and whist relied too much on one’s partner, but he was damned good at piquet and nearly impossible to beat at vingt-en-un. A few nights at White’s or some other gambling hell and he might well be able to recoup the family fortune, if he was fortunate to be playing against members with deep pockets. He had to have a stake though, and he had precious little left to lose. But there was that steeplechase next month and he had his father’s black book detailing all his gambling debts. John could approach some of the men his father had gambled with in the past and propose a wager irresistible to their tastes—and he might well be able to raise the kind of money he needed to enter into the high stakes card games that could net him the rest. If only Kolya would wait before claiming his father’s vowels, that is. Well, that was another good thing about being in mourning. It likely Kolya would wait until the end of that period before making his move.

John cast a knowing glance toward the sky. The wind was still coming in from the sea, and the ache in his leg told him of more weather to come. The wise course of action would be to head back to the house before the rain returned but he wasn’t ready yet. He felt trapped by the estate that he loved and crushed by his responsibilities to the people who lived on it, including his younger brother, David. At least there was no question of David returning to Oxford. He’d made no bones about being bored out of his mind at the university. David’s half-joking solution to the problem at hand was to arrange a Brilliant Match for himself, not unlike what Woolsey had proposed for John. However, John knew that David was quite fond of the Northcote girl, and likely would have offered his hand in marriage this summer, if they hadn’t been in Dun territory. Northcote, however, while extending his sympathies to John on his return to Lantea, had made it quite clear that David’s offer would be refused if the financial rumors proved to be true. David had tried to hide his dejection, but his moping had gotten on John’s nerves and he’d been relieved when David had received an invitation for a prolonged stay in Scotland with friends.

Snorting in annoyance, John wheeled Todd around and headed for the path back to the stables through the woods. Todd, sensing his anger again, picked up a hard canter.

Was John really desperate enough to marry some young woman, take her family’s money, and ask her to turn a blind eye to his proclivities? Life had been simpler in the Army. Yes, he’d had to follow orders, and some of them had been pretty stupid, but there’d been a live and let live philosophy among his fellow soldiers. Much of the time, he’d been far enough out from the chain of command that he’d essentially been in charge, which helped mitigate effect of the stupidest orders, at least. And when things got to be too much for the men... well, fighting, drinking, gambling, whoring were all time-honored ways for letting off steam. As for blind eyes, there had been camp followers of both sexes in the Army, and a discreet man could find solace where he liked it best.

He had no such outlet in polite society. While everyone had been courteous and polite, welcoming the new Lord Lymond into Society while yet honoring his state of mourning, he frequently had to watch his mouth, reel in his thoughts before speaking, and remind himself that those of his class seldom had any real knowledge of action on the Peninsula, or the threat Bonaparte had actually posed to their way of life. His peers spoke with authority on subjects they knew nothing about and more than once he’d had to bite his tongue in order to avoid starting a quarrel with some pompous idiot whose hardest decision he’d made all day was deciding in what style to tie his cravat.

Worse was the mealy-mouthed exchange of words that passed for conversation in drawing rooms and the dining rooms. He wasn’t sure what was more excruciating, sitting through hours of amateur pianists and soloists, being asked to admire their anemic talents, or retiring for a glass of port to listen to the nonsense that passed as seasoned judgment on the part of the men. Just once he’d like to meet someone in civilian life who spoke with the blunt honesty he’d been accustomed to hearing in the military.

Either way, life outside the Army was mind-numbingly boring. At least he could be excused from dances by virtue of the fact that he was in mourning, restricting his social activities to small, private gatherings. Never had he found such a convention so convenient, if only as a protection against Woolsey’s urging that he accept invitations to the sort of tepid teas and assemblies that would put him in the way of meeting suitably wealthy young women. Of course, Woolsey hadn’t phrased it like that. With a judicious steepling of his fingers and some delicate wording, he’d managed to convey the urgency of John’s securing an excellent match before too much longer, whilst still conforming to society’s rules on mourning. If not Miss Keller, then someone else with suitably deep pockets and a parental eye for a title for their daughter.

John hoped he’d have better luck in the card rooms. Of course, he’d have to wait until he was out of mourning to go to the clubs or he damn himself in the eyes of the ton. But there cards were played almost everywhere one went. The trick would be to get invited to the right gathering.

As they approached the wood, John sat up in the saddle and checked Todd back into a more sedate gait. The horse objected once more, tucking his chin in an effort to avoid the bit like the clever bastard he was.

“Oh ho!” John exclaimed, half-admiringly. “You’re a wily one.”

Without warning, Todd suddenly changed direction, throwing John off-balance in the saddle. Ahead of them was a large tree, and Todd aimed straight for it. John attempted to pull him up, regaining his seat and thrusting his legs forward so he could lean back and haul on the reins. At the last second, Todd swerved. Had John not been sitting back in the saddle, the sudden change of direction would have pitched him forward over Todd’s shoulder and headfirst into the tree. As it was, they came at the tree on John’s weaker side, and he couldn’t make the horse shift over enough to avoid scraping his leg along the trunk, breaking off pieces of bark and scuffing his boot.

Cursing, John winced at the pressure on his leg, and hauled heavily on the horse’s mouth to get him to move over. The stallion did so as if surprised that John was making the request, an air of innocence about his movement as he returned to the bridlepath.

“Someone knew what they were about when they named you Diablo.” The stallion, having unsuccessfully tried to kill John, stepped into a purposeful but quiet walk, as though he was the gentlest of hacks, fit for a lady to ride. John snorted. “You are a handsome devil, though.”

Todd flicked his ears back at the sound of John’s voice, the temporary truce between them in play once more.

On the other side of the wood, the estate opened up into rolling green hills again. In the distance was the Folly, a solitary tower standing like some bizarre phallic symbol in the middle of nowhere, having been built by the fourth Viscount, as a love nest for his many mistresses. John decided to ride to it and back before heading home. The sky behind it was looking threatening again, with dark clouds massing in the certainty of returning rain, the freshening wind ruffling his hair, but he thought he could ride out and back before he got soaked.

Beyond the Folly lay the Downs. The horizon was smudged with purple and gray clouds, the hills shrouded in mist. This was his home. He loved every blade of grass on this land. He could not remember a time when spring hadn’t included the sound of larks singing their hearts out on the Downs, or the smell of wet mud underfoot. This was what he’d fought for. What he’d ordered men to die to protect—and for which he had nearly died himself. It made him sick to think it may well be all for naught, and that someday soon, someone else might ride this ridge and survey this land as their own.

There was nothing he could do about it now. A few drops of rain pelted down with surprising hardness, and he knew he should turn around. The Folly was just up ahead, however, it seemed a shame to turn back before reaching it. Prudence suggested he turn back. Don’t be a fool. You’ve ridden far enough today

Prudence be damned. He’d circle the Folly and then return home, back to his duties and responsibilities. Major Sheppard was dead; long live Lord Lymond. He could feel the noose that Society would have him wear tighten around his neck like an elegantly-tied cravat.

But not just yet. He urged the black horse into a canter again, this time a gentle rocking gait as they rode up the hill to the base of the Folly.

The Folly was a ridiculous feature, a Normanesque tower pretending to be part of some ancient castle, rising out of the landscape with nary a purpose save that of decoration. Except for its remote location, there was nothing that lent itself to being a place for romantic assignations. Its very isolation made it a stupid place for a rendezvous, as far as John was concerned. Certainly anyone within the Folly would be certain of the approach of anyone else for miles around, but there was nowhere to hide if someone else did come.

Which was why he slowed Diablo to a prancing trot when he saw a horse and gig standing just behind the curve of the stone tower. Who the hell had travelled all the way out to the Folly here today? It was hardly picnic weather. The nag between the shafts of gig was not the kind of animal a member of Society would own, either. And yet it was unthinkable that any of the locals would come out to the Folly for any other purpose than to take lunch and enjoy the view, as isolated as it was. It was certainly a puzzle.

Todd minced his way around the cart, wringing his tail and tossing his head. The homely chestnut with the narrow white blaze looked up with interest as John and Todd approached; the whites of his eyes showing in a manner that made him look vaguely surprised and wary at the same time. One of the livery horses from town, John was sure of it. But who would hire such screw to pull a gig and what was that person doing at the Folly? John supposed the Folly might represent a mere destination for a day’s jaunt, but for the uncooperative weather.

The door to the Folly was open. John turned Todd on his hindquarters to face the tower, the better to call out to whoever was within. Before he could complete the turn, however, something burst forth from a narrow upper window with a whine like that of a dozen angry hornets. A black shape about the size of a hawk made a beeline toward them, shrieking and billowing smoke all the while.

John had to hand it to Todd. The stallion had every right to spook and bolt. The bird-like object diving toward them was enough to make a seasoned warhorse take to the hills. Todd, however, was made of sterner stuff. As the smoking, noisy object streaked toward them, the stallion leapt sideways, then snaked his head around, clacking his teeth at the alien construct as it passed them.

Because that’s what it was. In the split second John could clearly see the object before it whizzed past, it was not a natural thing. It rolled and bucked in the air, belching smoke as it swooped and rose up again, some sort of strange mechanical device that was attempting to fly. It had a series of sails to catch the wind, but also had a centralized source of power, if the noise it made was anything to go by. It reeled and sputtered and threatened to fail at nearly every turn.

It was quite possibly the most entrancing thing John had ever seen.

It was all he could do, however, to keep Todd from chasing after it with the intent to destroy it. The device took a sudden nosedive and plunged into the ground. Todd lunged forward to attack it.

John probably would have retained control, had not Mother Nature decided to enter the arena. A pale face appeared at the tower window briefly before a bolt of lightning cracked down from the heavens, striking the tower. The air around them sparked with energy, causing the stallion to squeal and buck in earnest. Not the annoyed crowhops he’d done in the past in protest against something John had asked him to do, but serious contortions aimed at ridding himself of his rider. The crash of thunder came so quickly behind the lightning strike that John knew the storm was upon them—and the pelting rain that followed did nothing to help him control the furious horse. When Todd’s head disappeared between his forelegs as he leapt into the air, John knew there was no way he would stay on. Each time the horse leapt, John was thrown up out of the saddle, and each time John made contact with it again, he was closer to coming off entirely. Deciding it was best to part company with Todd before the horse threw him, he kicked his feet out of the stirrups just as Todd corkscrewed into the air again. Lightning lit the sky as John came off the horse, not entirely sure it was of his own choosing. He had just enough time to bring his arms up to protect his head before he hit the ground. There was an ominous crack as he landed, followed by a nauseating pain that shot through his right arm all the way up to his neck. The shock of hitting the ground stunned him for a moment, taking his breath away.

He lay face down on the damp soil, trying to catch his breath against the shock of meeting the ground and the accompanying bolt of pain. To add insult to injury, the skies suddenly opened. Rain fell like shards of glass, bouncing off the ground with the force of it. He groaned and rolled carefully onto his side. His arm had to be broken. The pain of it caused yellow spots before his eyes, and he closed them as the rain pelted down. What an impossible disaster. The thought of another prolonged bout of healing, only to end up with another less than functional limb, turned his stomach. He’d have been better off if he’d broken his neck outright.

“You there! Man on the ground. Are you all right?”

The voice calling out made John open his eyes. The man who came running up to him wore an enormous greatcoat and shielded his head from the driving rain with a packet of papers. “That looked like a nasty fall. I have to say, I’m impressed you stayed on as long as you did, however. Whatever possessed you to take such a wicked beast out on a day like today? Are you suicidal or just monumentally stupid?”

A red mist seemed to come over John’s eyes. “My horse was perfectly fine until your infernal flying machine came out of nowhere and spooked it!” He struggled to get to his feet, keeping his injured arm tucked in close to his side.

“My machine didn’t spook your horse! That nasty devil attacked it. I’ll have you know it took me almost a year to design and build that device and your stupid brute demolished it in a matter of seconds!” The man yelled to be heard over the rain, turning on his heel to stomp over toward the smoking machine where it lay crumpled on the ground. He scooped it up, turning it over carefully. A large section of wing fell off, and the man’s shoulders rose and fell theatrically. He bent over to pick up the tattered wing and stalked back toward John to wave it in his face, no longer caring that the rain plastered his hair to his skull. “You see this? Ruined. You owe me restitution, sir!”

Todd was nowhere in sight. The damned beast had probably taken off for home. It would serve him right if Jim shot him on sight when he returned to the yard riderless.

“That horse is worth a fortune!” Technically, John wasn’t lying. Technically. “If anything happens to him, you owe me!”

“This will make horses superfluous!” The man sneered as he held up his broken device, holding it as though it was a prize trophy. Lightning flashed again, and he flinched, pulling his head into his shoulders like a turtle ducking into its shell. He peered up at the sky with concern.

“You broke my arm!” John yelled in fury, before wincing and bending over his arm in pain.

The man looked startled at that. “Are you sure? Perhaps it’s only strained.”

“Trust me, it’s broken,” John snarled.

“The ground is so soft I find it hard to believe your fall could have broken it. Besides, I didn’t break your arm, you did. I saw you bail off that horse when you knew you couldn’t stay on any longer.” Even with the rain soaking them both, the man still managed to sound irritatingly lofty.

“Broken.” John said through gritted teeth as he straightened.

The man stared at him a long moment before tightening his mouth in a thin line. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, we can’t stand out here in the rain arguing about it. Come inside.” He turned without waiting to see if John was following and hurried back toward the Folly, his coat flapping in the wind as he moved.

It was a relief to come in out of the cold rain. John was conscious of his wet clothing clinging to his skin, and thought longingly of a hot bath and a pot of tea. He glanced about in some confusion at the piles of papers and half-opened crates, many of which contained odd pieces of equipment. There was a large trunk as well, along with several personal items. The entire set-up had the feel of a military campsite.

“Are you living here?”

“What?” The man looked back over his shoulder, obviously confused. “This? No, I’ve got rooms in the village. It’s just that it’s a long way to go back and forth every day and I have much work to complete before a very important meeting. No time to waste.” He set the device down on one of the crates with a dispirited air. “Not that it matters now. I have nothing to show Major Sheppard now. Not unless I can fix the mess your horse made of my sailship.” The look he shot John was rife with malevolence.

John was in the process of ruffling a hand through his hair to shake out the worst of the water when the man’s words sank in. “What did you say?”

“It’s a ship with sails. Sailship. What is so hard to understand about that?” He stood with his fists on his hips, flipping his coat back to reveal a wine-colored jacket over a white, patterned waistcoat. His cravat was neatly tied, if a trifle businesslike. Not a man of fashion then, but a gentleman, nonetheless. Except for the fact that he just rolled his eyes at John.

They were nice eyes. The color of the Atlantic on a sunny day. His hair was unfashionably short and thinning a bit in the front, but it suited the sharp angles of his face.

“Not about the, um, whatever you called it. The flying machine. The other part. About Major Sheppard.”

The man looked less hostile and more interested now. “Do you know the major? Well, of course you do, you’re a local man, right? Yes, well, I’ve come here to show the major my invention.” He puffed his chest out a little, like a pouter pigeon.

“You have a meeting with Major Sheppard?” Perhaps the fall had addled his wits. He couldn’t recall getting any such request.

“Well, not officially. Before your horse destroyed it, however, I was going to show him my invention. It will revolutionize battlefield command.”

“And you had a meeting with the major about it.” He was still trying to wrap his head around that concept. The dull ache in his arm wasn’t helping, nor the deepening chill into his bones.

“Have you read any of his papers? His insights into battleground tactics are amazing. I especially enjoyed his paper on Unpredictable Behavior Leading to Favorable Outcomes in Combat. Really, his assessment of Bonaparte’s success on the battlefield are nothing short of brilliant.” He pointed to his device. “My sailship is going to make it possible to get messages to field units in advance of the enemy’s intelligence.”

“Your sailship, as you call it, didn’t make it twenty feet without crashing. You know the major was forced to retire due to an injury, right?”

“I have a few technical problems to solve, I admit. But this prototype had promise. Besides, if the man is no longer actively being shot at, then he has time to consider my proposals. A word in the right ear, and my sailships could be part of the next major engagement. ”

“It won’t work. A sharpshooter would take it down before it made it to its destination, always provided you could direct it where you wanted it to go. Besides, the mechanical elements are too heavy for it to have sufficient loft.”

“What do you know? I know your type. You, you, Corinthian, you! You’re probably a member of the Four-in-Hand club and spend your nights frequenting gaming hells.” He was practically sputtering with rage. “Look at you. With your black togs, and your neck-or-nothing riding, and your oh-so-romantically tumbled black hair. You’re like whatisname, that Lord Byron fellow. I bet you write poetry in your spare time.” He snapped his fingers repeatedly as he searched his memory for the name and managed to make ‘poetry’ sound like an insult.

John felt his face close down. Surely this man was only referring to his looks and not any resemblance to Lord Byron’s extravagant and dangerous lifestyle. It was only blind luck that his verbal arrows about horses and gambling had struck rather close to the target. Or maybe he’d meant to be deliberately insulting.

“Lord Lymond, at your service.” John tilted his head stiffly, holding his injured arm against his chest. “As for the black clothing, I’m in mourning.”

“Oh!” The man blinked several times, a hint of embarrassment in his expression. “Lucky for you. I mean, not lucky that you’re in mourning but that black suits you. Your coloring, that is. It looks good on you. I mean, no, no, never mind.” His faced turned bright red and he coughed. “I’m Doctor Rodney McKay.”

“Not a medical doctor, I presume.” John’s dry tone provoked a slight wince from McKay.

“No, I study natural philosophy.” McKay had the grace to cast a worried glance at John’s arm. “More physics than physician.”

“Pity. Well, Doctor McKay, I require your assistance in getting back to the main house. My ride seems to have disappeared.”

McKay didn’t look happy. He sighed and began stuffing papers into a travel bag. “Yes, well, I need to take a few things with me. This won’t take long, will it? I don’t suppose you’d be willing to introduce me to Major Sheppard sometime, would you?”

John’s desire to laugh was smothered by a wave of pain. He leaned against the wall as he watched McKay gather his belongings. “I’m sure that can be arranged.”

****

The ride back in the gig had been decidedly unpleasant. The thunderstorm had settled down to a driving rain, and the gig was on open on the sides. At one point, McKay took off his greatcoat, and John, shivering where he sat, thought the other man was going to generously offer it to him. Instead, McKay had used it to cover up his bits of broken machinery, tucking it in as carefully as a baby in a crib. By the time they’d jounced their way back to the manse, John’s teeth were chattering with cold and pain.

Jim came running up to the gig with several of the lads, relief obvious on his face when he saw that John was within.

“Come on now, my lord, let’s get you into the house.”

“Not again, too, Jim.” John allowed himself to be helped out of the gig. His bad leg had gotten stiff from the fall, and he leaned heavily on Jim as they mounted the stairs into the main hall. McKay, John noted, followed them inside, carrying one of his many bags. “I thought I told you not to ‘my lord’ me.”

“And I thought I told you not to ride that black devil this afternoon.”

“You see,” McKay chimed in. “I’m not the only one that thought you were being an idiot.”

Halling, the butler, met them at the door. Together, they ushered John into the one of the small sitting rooms, onto the couch there.

“Well, don’t just stand there, man! Why isn’t there a fire in here? And lamps. We need light in here.” McKay stood rubbing his hands together briskly, before making shooing motions behind Halling.

“Sir?” Halling looked at John in some confusion.

“Do as he says, man.” Jim was abrupt. “Bring some blankets and some brandy, too. Your master is half-frozen to death.”

John hissed in pain as Jim moved his arm. Halling hesitated a moment longer and then left the room.

“What have we here, then?” Jim made tsking sounds as he examined John’s arm. John could see that his wrist was starting to swell under the ruffled cuff of his sleeve. “We’re going to have to cut this jacket off, I think.”

“We most certainly will not. I had this made for my father’s mourning. I can’t afford to carve up this jacket because of a little pain. Help me out of it.”

It proved easier said than done. A rivulet of sweat ran down the side of John’s face as he struggled out of the snuggly fitted coat with Jim’s help. McKay stepped forward to collect the coat, which he then passed off to a wide-eyed parlor maid. She held it out in front of her like a dead squirrel as she left the room.

Halling reappeared with a snifter of brandy and the remainder of the bottle on a tray, followed by a young footman carrying several blankets. McKay dropped a blanket around John’s shoulders and handed him a brandy. “Well?” he asked, indicating the hearth. Halling looked affronted, and directed the footman to bring in coal and start the fire.

Without a word, Jim straddled one of John’s legs and began working off his boot.

John started to protest, but his teeth clattered on the rim of his glass. The brandy burned the whole way down, filling him with a pleasantly warm sensation. The boots had to come off, and John was in too much pain to worry that his valet would take offense at the groom doing what was properly the valet’s job. John groaned and tried to brace himself against the couch as Jim eased off the second boot, the one on his bad leg.

“Now, then,” Jim said, “Let’s have a look at that arm.”

John realized that Jim had delayed so as to let the brandy have a chance to have an effect, for which he was grateful. He watched as Jim rolled up his sleeve. There was much bruising and the distortion of the bones of his forearm made him nauseous to see.

“We’ll have to have the doctor, then,” Jim said, as though announcing a death in the family.

“What? No, I don’t hold with those leeches.” McKay was emphatic. “They always want to bleed a man over the slightest little thing, and I’m sorry but if God had wanted a man to bleed so often, He wouldn’t have put the blood on the inside. Come now, you’re a horseman. What would you do with a beast with such an injury?”

Jim gave McKay an assessing look before rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Well, if this was a horse, I’d shoot it.”

A helpless yelp of laughter escaped John then. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t wish to be put out of my misery,” he said. “You’ll have to put some traction on the bones to straighten them, then bandage it. I heard some of the battlefield surgeons were having success with stiffening the bandaging material with egg whites. The rigid bandage made for better healing of the fracture, or so I was told.” He took large swig of brandy. This was going to hurt like hell.

The tip of McKay’s tongue appeared between his lips and his eyes narrowed. “I’ve got a better idea. I see that your home is undergoing some restoration. Have you any gypsum powder? You know, Plaster of Paris?”

“I don’t know. The work has been...delayed for some time. Halling?”

“I will ascertain if there is any plaster available on the premises, my lord.” The cadaverous butler swept out of the room, taking the footman with him.

“Plaster?” John looked askance at McKay, who was rubbing his palms together delightedly. It made John feel rather like a science experiment, which wasn’t a comforting thought.

“Yes, yes. It will be much stronger than the egg white and starch mixture. I read about that, too, by the way. Major Sheppard had a very enlightening paper on the Use of Rigid Fixation of Injuries in the Aid of Healing. Are you sure you didn’t read it as well? He cited the work of Louis Seutin, a field surgeon during the war. I’m sure the plaster will be an improvement. We’ll soak the bandaging material in the plaster mixture while it is wet, and mold it to the shape of your arm. Once it dries, it will be sufficiently hard to protect the fracture while it heals. I strongly suspect it will be far superior than lying in bed for weeks in traction. In simple terms of physics, it just makes sense.” He beamed at John, his smile ridiculously attractive as he explained his idea.

“My lord, if you would prefer me to fetch the doctor, I’ll send one of the lads after him.” Jim, having made his offer, looked like he wanted to take it back. With a quick glance at McKay, he looked at John as though it was only the two of them in the room. “It has always been my belief that your father got much worse after being cupped. The fever that carried him off set in shortly after the last attendance of the doctor. I can’t hold with being bled as the cure for every known problem.” Having said his piece, he pressed his lips shut and nodded firmly.

“You have to admit, it works pretty well in foundered horses.”

“You are not a foundered horse, my lord.”

John took another drink from his glass, and was surprised to find it empty. McKay stepped forward with the decanter and filled it again.

“Plaster, huh?” He was grateful for the second glass. At least the violent shivering had stopped.

“We’ll make a good job of it.” McKay’s words were a promise. “Of course, straightening the bones where they overlap a bit...that’s going to be bad.”

“Hence the reason you are trying to see me jug-bitten this afternoon.”

McKay’s crooked smile was both conspiratorial and a bit rueful, too. “I’d prefer it if you were knocked out cold, but slightly disguised is the best we can hope for.”

John nodded, and thought he saw a look of approval in McKay’s bright eyes. “Let’s do this, then.”

Jim scratched the side of his head. “Hold on, now. Plaster, eh? Once that sets, it will be as hard as a rock. Mind telling me how you plan to get it off later?”

McKay shed his coat and draped it across one of the chairs near the fire, rolling up his sleeves as he came back to the couch. The man had broad shoulders and nice forearms, John decided. Perhaps, on reflection, he’d already had enough brandy.

McKay snapped his fingers several times rapidly and pointed at Jim, acknowledging his concern. Moving swiftly over to his bag, he rummaged around within. “Good point, good point.” His nose was practically buried in his bag. He pawed through it, lifting items for examination and discarding them a moment later. “Ah!” He held up a spool of wire triumphantly. “We’ll embed the wire in the plaster cast, you see? And when it is time to remove it, we’ll work the wire to the surface, splitting the plaster in two.”

“When will that be?” Jim looked back and forth at the two men for an answer.

John shrugged. “I don’t know. Months.” The impossibly bad timing of his injury weighed on him. There was no way he could compete Todd in a dangerous and physically exacting horse race next month. All his plans rested on winning that horse race. Perhaps he would be forced to marry after all. The irony of how much Miss Keller would likely enjoy this current conversation wasn’t lost on him.

It suddenly occurred to John that he didn’t even know if the horse had safely returned to the stable. “Todd!” he exclaimed, sitting up abruptly. The movement jolted down his arm and he bit his lip to keep from crying out.

“Never you mind about that horse. When he came home without you, I thought about killing him, but there’s nary a scratch on the devil.”

John let his head fall back to the couch in relief.

“I don’t think it will take as long to heal if we do the plaster. The very immobility of the bandaging will allow the bones to set more quickly. So, then.” McKay addressed Jim directly. “We’ll plaster him up tonight and then in a couple of months, you can remove the plaster. It should be well on its way to healing by then, and regular bandaging should do after that. You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”

“No.” Jim was stern. “This is my master we’re talking about here, and you want to try something that no one’s ever done before. Begging your pardon, sir, but I’ve seen many a new-fangled idea that didn’t amount to more than a bag of moonshine. We’ll plaster Lord Lymond up tonight and in a couple of months from now, you will remove the plaster. You can’t just cake Plaster of Paris on the master and ride off. You’re going to see to it we can get this cast of yours off again when the time comes.” He folded his arms across his chest and raised an eyebrow at McKay.

McKay’s mouth opened and closed several times, like one of the giant koi in the fish pond in the garden. “But I have places to be—things to do! I have a paper to present in London in a few months! I can’t just hang around here!”

John didn’t want the irritating man at Lantea any more than McKay wanted to stay, but he needed his arm to heal quickly. McKay’s idea of a hard cast seemed to be the best answer. “You say you have rooms in town, is that right? And you need to repair your mechanical device. You can work here undisturbed better than you can in the village. Lantea has the best horses in the county. When the time comes, we’ll get you to London, with no additional expense to you. I will introduce you to Major Sheppard as well.”

Jim tilted his head in John’s direction, his eyebrow shooting up again.

McKay’s mouth twisted to one side as he frowned. “Oh, very well,” he said at last. “But only until the plaster comes off. I’m a very busy man, you know.”

****

John was seated at the dining room table thumbing though mountains of correspondence when McKay came blasting into the room like the wind whistling through an open window. He stopped cold at the sight of John at the head of the table, calmly eating toast as he looked over the post.

“What are you doing out of bed? I say, after the day you had yesterday, you should be in bed resting. Did you hit your head as well? Or are you just naturally reckless?”

By dint of a combination of brandy and laudanum, for which he was now paying with a beastly headache, John had finally been able to sleep. The experience of having his arm set wasn’t one he ever wanted to relive. Jim had held him down as McKay had taken him by the hand and pulled. There wasn’t enough brandy in the world to dull that pain, though he’d certainly tried to find the right amount after McKay had plastered his arm. He wasn’t about to admit that to McKay, however. He indicated the white plaster cast with a nod of his head, wiggling his thumb. “Your handiwork here has rendered me surprisingly mobile.”

Some of his old shirts had sleeves loose enough to go on over the cast, but he’d been unable to find a single jacket that would fit without splitting the sleeve. He’d been forced to come downstairs in a rather resplendent dressing gown, a black and red affair in silk damask that made him feel astonishingly decadent. McKay shot a rather goggling glance as on his way to the sideboard, where the breakfast foods were laid out in chafing dishes. John wasn’t entirely sure what to make of that. Perhaps McKay stunned by his sartorial splendor in defiance of his state of mourning.

McKay carried a heavily laden plate back to the table, taking a seat near John rather than at the end of the table. His reasoning became evident when he leaned over and rapped the cast lightly with his knuckles. Staring intently at John’s arm, he followed that action by pressing his thumb into the material, leaving an impression in the gypsum-soaked bandages.

“Hmmm.” He was thoughtful as he wiped his fingers on his napkin. Using a rasher of bacon to point, he said, “That’s going to take a few days to dry completely, I suspect. Don’t get too carried away with your mobility in the meantime. Stay indoors where it is dry, preferably by the fire. Speaking of which, your library, which is outstanding in many respects, is in utterly deplorable condition. I ordered fires to be lit and kept going around the clock. You have mold.” He took a hearty bite out of his bacon.

“You did what?” John asked quietly. Anyone who knew him would know it was a bad sign. McKay, however, appeared oblivious.

“Mold. Outrageous, I know. Someone has been to great pains to amass a truly impressive body of work, only to let it rot on the shelves. Must dry them out, don’tcha know.” Using his spoon, McKay rapped sharply on his egg within its cup, and peeled back the shell.

John sighed. Well, McKay was right. The library was an investment that needed proper care. Still, McKay’s presumption needled him.

“Your drains are a disaster as well. Most unsanitary.”

This time, McKay’s nosy interference struck John as funny. He smiled over his tea cup and picked up his letters. “You don’t by any chance know a Miss Keller, do you? I’m told she is quite taken with the discussion of matters of sanitation during meals.”

McKay had a kipper speared on a fork, which he held up as he pondered the question. “No, should I?”

John shook his head, amused despite the headache, at the way McKay seemed to have made himself entirely at home in Lantea.

McKay merely nodded, continuing to eat. “By the way, I believe your housekeeper is quite upset with me at the moment.”

“Why?” John laid down the letter he’d been reading.

McKay flushed ever so slightly, but kept his eyes on his food. “It’s possible that she might have taken offense to some of my observations regarding the library and the drains. But really, if she’d been doing her job, I wouldn’t have had to say anything.”

“McKay,” John began dangerously.

McKay held up a hand, nodding as he did so. “I know, I know. You’ll thank me later.”

The idea that he’d be thanking McKay for upsetting his household staff tickled John’s sense of humor again, and he found it hard to be angry with him.

“What are your plans for the day?” McKay continued to eat as though he was a starving street waif.

McKay didn’t strike John as the kind to make idle talk at the breakfast table, at least, not by the way he tackled the food on his plate. John raised an eyebrow, but answered politely.

“I have some letters to write this morning, provided I can manage.” John’s first attempt at writing hadn’t worked out that well, the cast blurring and smearing his words before the ink had dried. He found it difficult to grip the pen given the configuration of the plaster McKay had used to encircle his thumb, all with the intention of preventing the cast from slipping, or so McKay had said last evening. Attempting to write left-handed was even worse.

“Don’t you have a secretary or someone you can dictate your letters to?”

It pained John to say he did not. “My inheritance is a recent one. I’ve... been abroad. I do not as yet have a secretary.” Nor could he afford one.

McKay nodded as though he expected that answer. “Yes, well, I have a passably decent hand, or so I’m told. If you wish help with your letters, let me know.”

“Thank you. I believe I will take you up on that offer. And you?”

McKay’s plans for the day revolved around taking the gig back for his equipment at the Folly, and to send for his belongings in the village. John was tempted to suggest that he go with McKay—anything to get out of the house for a few hours. However, McKay didn’t seem inclined to the company, and as it was still damp outside and his arm ached abominably, John decided not to mention it.

As soon as breakfast was done, they repaired to the library. As they walked along the gloomy corridor, John noticed the industrious labor of several of the maids, oiling and polishing wood that had long been neglected. What on earth had McKay said to the housekeeper?

It was pleasant to sit in the library. The fire was delightfully cozy on a raw March day, and to John’s surprise, Halling brought in a tray with several cups and a steaming pot. The odor of the brew was deliciously pungent.

“Coffee,” McKay announced, as though introducing manna from heaven. He breathed a contented sigh over his cup. “I never travel without it.”

“I know what coffee is, McKay. I just happen not to care for it.”

“Obviously you’ve never had good coffee.” McKay sniffed with all the hauteur of a true connoisseur.

John took a sip, found it more robust and mellow than any he’d ever had before, and oddly bracing as well. A bit like McKay.

They settled themselves in their respective chairs, with John taking a wingback near the fire and McKay seating himself behind the massive oak desk. McKay wrinkled his forehead as John dictated the first letter to one of his father’s gambling cronies. By the second letter, he was scowling, and when John began to dictate the third, McKay threw down his quill in disgust. “I might have known you’d be a fiend for gambling. Your sort usually is. I must say, if your letters are going to prove to be all of the same, I must bow out of being your Boswell. My time is too valuable to waste on such frivolities.”

Nettled, John replied sharply. “My sort?”

“Yes, yes.” McKay circled a hand in John’s general direction. “You with the hair, and the horses, and nothing better to do with your time than to make wagers on races. My time is more valuable than that.”

“What does my hair have to do with the matter?”

“It is decidedly rakish. Therefore, I rest my case.”

“I assure you, Doctor McKay, these letters are matters of great importance, whether or not their purpose is clear to you.”

McKay sat back in his chair and considered John thoughtfully. “Well, on second thoughts, I suppose they are. No, no, the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. The incomplete construction here on the estate, the shameful state that the library is in, the fact that you are in mourning and yet you are pinching the pennies—don’t think I didn’t notice how loathe you were to let your groom split the seams of your coat—but you’re sending out letters inviting gentlemen to place exorbitant wagers against you to win a steeplechase next month... You haven’t a sixpence to scratch with, have you?”

John bit his lip briefly as he considered his answer. He decided to go with honesty. “No. My father lost heavily at the card table and used family property as collateral. I’m faced with winning it back or conceding it all.”

McKay blew a low, drawn-out whistle. “I assume you have a plan?”

John told him. It was simple, really. He made it known to a select few of his father’s friends that he had entered Diablo, the horse with the incredibly bad reputation, in the local steeplechase next month. Despite the fact that he had a broken arm, he intended to ride the stallion, as no one else could. Though John Sheppard was a renowned horseman, he thought that the combination of the horse’s deadly history and his own injury would prove too tempting for his father’s high flying gambling buddies to resist laying a private wager against John.

“Once I win these sums—not large enough to scare anyone off, but sufficient enough for my purposes—I will visit some of the clubs in London. Once I’m out of mourning, that is. What my father lost at cards I can win back, provided I have a reasonable stake.”

McKay was not impressed. “That’s insane.”

“No, it’s not.”

“You are proposing to do that which your father could not. Seems to me you’re throwing the remainder of your blunt away.”

“I’m not going to make the same mistakes as my father.”

“No, your mistakes will be bigger and more likely to be fatal. You can’t go gallivanting off cross country on that dangerous animal with a broken arm! Besides, even if you do win the horse race, of which there is no guarantee because hello, horses, it doesn’t follow that you’ll win back your father’s losses. For pity’s sake, man, quit while you still have a roof over your head.”

John picked up the paperweight in the shape of a flying Pegasus from his father’s desk. “You see this? The horses here at Lantea are known far and wide for their ability to jump and race. ‘A Lantea horse is not just another prime-goer, it’s a Pegasus.’ That’s what people say about them. They are all that I have left out of everything my father owned. Truthfully, this place is all that matters to me. I will not lose this land or these horses, no matter the cost.”

“Ah.” McKay’s features lightened as comprehension dawned. “So that’s why your third wager isn’t about money but about putting your horse, this Diablo, up against the stallion named Ruthless. A horse for a horse. You want to try and win your old stallion back.” McKay shook his head sadly. “Look, I don’t think you realize what it takes to play so deep. You have no idea what you’re getting into.”

John put on his most charming smile. “Is that a challenge?”

McKay stroked his chin, an evil glint in his blue eyes. “I have much to attend to today, but yes, if you desire, I will play you at cards this evening. Perhaps you will see the error of your ways.”

“Or you, yours.”

The day passed with interminable slowness. John spent most of the afternoon in the library. Despite the degree to which his arm pained him, he found himself dozing at one point. Startling himself awake mid-snore, when he took out his pocket watch, he saw that only a half hour had ticked by. How slowly time crawled this day! To say that he was looking forward to his match with McKay that evening was an understatement. Obviously, he enjoyed the man’s company more than he’d previously thought possible. McKay was such delightfully arrogant man, with occasional moments of keen perceptiveness, and yet completely lacking in the social graces. John would find him irritating and annoying were it not for the fact that he also found McKay amusing. If nothing else, John thought the next few weeks would be entertaining.

At tea-time, Halling entered the library with a tray. After depositing the tray within easy reach, Halling cleared his throat and stood with rigid attention, looking somewhere above John’s shoulder. “Begging your lordship’s pardon, but Doctor McKay has requested that he have a place to store his...things...when he returns. I have been given the impression, however, that mere storage space is insufficient to his needs.”

John pondered this a moment. “Why don’t you make space in the muniment room? There is good light in there, and nothing too breakable.” John had visions of McKay’s experiments somehow escaping from their crates and wreaking havoc.

“Very good, my lord.” Halling sniffed.

It was well after tea-time when the bustle and commotion of footmen carrying in crates and trunks let John know that McKay had returned. It had rained again that afternoon, and McKay looked a bit like a half-drowned rat as he directed the disbursement of his equipment.

John took one look at McKay and sent him up to his rooms for a hot bath. “I’ll have someone bring you a tray. No sense in coming down for tea when you’re cold and wet.”

John could tell McKay was thinking about protesting, that he wanted to see his equipment safely stowed, but the misery of being soaked two days in a row made him give in. With a short nod, he climbed the stairs, practically pulling himself up the banister with weariness.

Disappointment was an unexpected and unwelcome emotion, but John decided to be a good host and sent word via Halling that if McKay was too tired to dress for dinner, he was certainly welcome to partake of his evening meal in his room. John would be happy to reschedule their card match for another night.

It wasn’t long before Halling was back in the library. “Doctor McKay wishes me to convey to you that he is by no means too indisposed to attend dinner and that he isn’t going to let you cry off from your game, unless of course, you are concerned that you will be unable to defeat his superior intellect. He suggests that you be prepared to lose heavily. I am quoting, my lord.”

John snorted. “You may tell the good doctor he is welcome to try his best to beat me.”

“Very good, my lord.” It might have been John’s imagination but he thought he saw a hint of a smile on Halling’s face. If so, it would be a first.

McKay was only slightly late for dinner, his skin suffused with color, presumably from the heated bath and sitting in front of the fire. His hair sported the fluffiness of a newly hatched chick, and once again he was wearing the maroon frock coat that suited his coloring so well, along with dark trousers that fit him closely, showing off the perfection of his derriere as he took his seat at the table.

John had taken some pains with his toilette prior to dinner. Though he’d decided against having his man shave him again, for that was unlikely to go without notice for an informal dinner, he’d chosen to put on a pair of Inexpressibles that had never before been worn. Their snug fit left little to the imagination, and he doubted they would be very comfortable, but his need to put on plumage before McKay was oddly strong. He’d selected a shirt with long sleeves and ruffled cuffs that would easily fit over the cast. Dampening his hair, he’d enticed it into rakish curls that tumbled low over his forehead. He had little choice but to put back on the dressing gown he’d worn all day. His valet had taken several of his older frock coats and was altering the sleeves, so he would have some choices on the morrow, but tonight it was the dressing gown or nothing. As he viewed his reflection in the mirror before heading down for dinner, it occurred to him that perhaps having to wear peacock feathers wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The black silk shimmered when he moved, and the bright red accents were eye-catching. Both contrasted nicely with the cream colored Inexpressibles. John wasn’t a vain man, but he knew he was looking his best this evening, broken arm notwithstanding.

Certainly the glance McKay shot his way as he took his seat at the table suggested that John had made an impression.

Conversation over the meal consisted of an account of McKay’s activities of the day. John listened with half an ear to the descriptions of McKay’s efforts to safely transport his equipment, and the changes he was making to his designs. It was far more entertaining to watch McKay as he spoke: the way his hands swooped and dived with his speech, like swallows flashing in and out of the stable, or the way his eyes brightened when the topic turned to his scientific achievements. John slipped on his ‘drawling nobleman’ persona, taking care to keep his real battlefield observations to himself, just to make McKay sputter with rage. All in all, it was a delightful meal.

When dinner was over, after a brief discussion, they retired to the library for their game of cards. No sooner had they made themselves comfortable in front of the fire, than Halling arrived bearing a tray with bottle of claret and some wine glasses, as well as a pack of playing cards. The footman behind him carried a small table, which he set between the two men in front of the hearth.

“Pre-war Bordeaux?” John raised an eyebrow at Halling.

“It was either that, my lord, or the Madeira. I took the liberty of assuming the claret would be more to Doctor McKay’s taste.”

“That was a crack at me, I’m sure of it.” McKay craned his head around the wing of the chair to make sure Halling had left the room. “Don’t you think that was a crack at me?”

John offered him a cigar from the humidor. “Nonsense, McKay. You’re being far too sensitive here. Although, the Madeira is a far sweeter wine.”

McKay waved off the cigar, fumbling around in his pockets instead. “Now you’re doing it, too. Never mind. Cut the cards, will you?”

“I’m surprised you trust me to do so. You seem to think I’m a regular Captain Sharp.” As he watched McKay pat his pockets, he added, “Perhaps you would prefer snuff?” John supposed there was a snuff box around here somewhere.

McKay paused in the search of his pockets, eyebrows raised and mouth open in a look that was truly appalled. “Snuff? No, thank you! I suppose that damns me as a commoner in your eyes, but why in heavens name would anyone voluntarily snort something up their nostrils to make them sneeze violently?” He fished a battered pipe out of his pocket and began filling it with tobacco from a pouch he’d retrieved from another. “I’m surprised you don’t partake of snuff yourself. Everyone else seems to have that vile habit. Makes me sneeze just thinking about it.”

“I prefer cigars.” John thought of the cheroots he and his men had routinely smoked in Spain. “A habit I picked up on the Peninsula.”

McKay squinted at him. “I didn’t know you had spent any time in the Peninsula.”

Ooops. He wasn’t certain why it was important to him to keep his identity as Major Sheppard from McKay, but for some reason, it was. If for no other reason than to tease McKay into one of his outraged rants.

“As little as possible.”John had lit his cigar with a taper from the fire, rotating the thick cigar in his mouth as he held the flame steady, taking small puffs to get it going. When he turned away from the hearth, he found McKay’s gaze upon him, his mouth hanging open slightly. John felt that small lift in his cock that acknowledged possible admiration on the part of another man, but he wasn’t sure about McKay just yet. He had to be patient, as he would be in trying out a new horse, or enticing one of his father’s cronies to sit down to a game of cards. Admiring glances aside, McKay might be one of those men who didn’t know what he wanted. Selecting another taper, John lit it and offered it to McKay.

McKay busied himself with lighting his pipe, puffing like a chimney and studiously not looking up at John as he was standing beside McKay’s chair. Although, perhaps he did spare a quick glance at John’s Inexpressibles. It would be a little difficult for McKay not to notice the impression of John’s cock pressing against the fabric, considering it was practically at eye level.

Satisfied for the moment with the reaction he was getting, John took his seat and picked up the cards. Cutting the deck, he allowed McKay to select one before taking a card himself. He wound up with the high card, which delighted McKay.

“Hah! You’re the Younger!” McKay was obviously pleased at having the point advantage granted to the non-dealer. His childlike ruthlessness made John smile.

John dealt both hands with less than his usual flare, hampered somewhat by the cast. He placed the remaining cards facedown to create the talon from which to draw replacement cards for their hand.

“The game has just started,” John said, as McKay made his exchange and examined his new cards. “You may have the early advantage, but we’ve got a long way to go to reach one hundred points.”

En garde, then.” McKay’s crooked smile was both challenging and engaging.

And so the play began. The room filled with the deeply satisfying and decidedly masculine scent of tobacco smoke, and the level in the bottle of claret went steadily down as declarations were made and contested, and tricks were taken and lost. For a time the conversation was solely about the cards, consisting of abrupt phrases as they made their bids and announced their play. Determining which player had the better hand was all part of the strategy, and at first both men concentrated on getting a feel for how the other played. McKay reached his ‘cent’ first after six hands and crowed like a schoolboy.

“I trust you see now how ridiculous your plan is to win back your family fortunes.”

“Why, McKay,” John drawled. “I’m just warming up. Why don’t we make this next round more interesting?”

McKay’s eyes narrowed as John reached for the bottle to fill his glass again. Pouring left-handed was tricky, and McKay snatched the bottle from him. “Give me that. What do you mean, more interesting?” McKay topped off both their glasses.

“We raise the stakes.” John smiled as he sipped the wine, the reflected firelight glowing within its ruby-red depths.

“I told you I wasn’t going to be drawn into deep play. You already owe me two shillings as it is. What if we were playing for serious money? Not that I have any intention of taking your money. On second thoughts, perhaps I should, if nothing else than to teach you a lesson before you embark on this mad scheme of yours for real.”

“Two shillings. That’s nothing. The price of a cravat.” To demonstrate, John set the glass down with a thump, loosened said article of clothing, and dropped it on the floor beside his chair.

“What are you doing?” McKay blinked at him several times.

“You won’t take my money. Therefore, I give you my cravat. Now we’re even. If I lose the next round, I will remove something else of equal value. Likewise, if you should lose—”

“I won’t.”

“Yes, but if you do, well, then you will follow suit. Agreed?”

McKay rested his chin in his hands, tapping his nose with his index finger. “Fine. Perhaps the embarrassment will be a bigger lesson for you than taking your last farthing. Have you learned nothing from your father’s mistakes? You are risking all that you have left if you persist in this idiotic plan of yours.”

They cut the cards again and McKay winced as he was made dealer. With a dexterity surprising for the size of his hands, McKay quickly dealt the cards, and play resumed.

“Sometimes, it is necessary to risk everything in order to keep what you have. You must be prepared to go all-in so as to stay in the game.”John sorted his hand, deciding which cards to discard in the first round.

McKay just shook his head. “That is the kind of thinking that led your father to play too deep, it seems to me.”

“Yes, but my father played for the wrong reasons. He played to save face, to retain honor, because he wanted to be seen as a man of fashion and to move within certain circles. My motivation is different. To keep this estate intact. To protect the land, the people, and the horses.”

McKay looked up from the cards in his hand. “You’re saying you’ll have better judgment over when to bet and when keep your piece? Because you care naught for your standing in society but rather that your goals are more lofty? It seems to me the higher stakes are likely to make you take even more foolish risks.”

“Everything in life is a gamble, McKay. Every decision that you make. Do you drain the lower pasture in hopes of growing better crops? Should you take that green horse out for his first hunt? Risk declaring your interest in someone that takes your fancy? Everything is a roll of the dice.”

Maybe it was the wine, or the heat of the fire, but John thought that McKay’s cheekbones flushed even rosier than they already were before.

“What will you do if you lose, then? If you risk it all and lose everything?” McKay glanced around the room as though the library encompassed the whole of John’s life. He brought his gaze back around to lock it firmly on John.

“Well, I know one thing.” John took three cards out of his hand and placed them face down on the table. He took three from the talon, schooling his face to non-reaction when they were not what he’d hoped for. Instead, he gave McKay a smile over his hand. “I certainly won’t eat my pistol.”

McKay’s eyebrows reached for his hairline in a manner so theatrical it would have been funny had the topic been anything else. “I heard in the village that the sixth Viscount was killed in a hunting accident.”

“That is certainly consistent with how he was found. However, I know my father. ‘Accident’ was his way of saving face. The last gesture he could make while staring down at total ruin. Besides, had he made it obvious he was taking his own life, his properties would be forfeit to the Crown.” Never had John’s drawl sounded so dry.

“I’m sorry.”

McKay’s quiet words made John take another look at him. Such an expressive face. Just now his brow was furrowed, and the light in his eyes was diminished as the corners of his mouth turned down.

John shrugged. “Save your sympathy. You will need it for yourself when I divest you of that handsome jacket you’re wearing.”

McKay lifted an eyebrow, twisting his mouth as though he’d bitten into something sour. “Oh, really? Perhaps you should save your boasting for when it is warranted.” He sorted the cards in his hand and made a declaration.

Hours later, there was more clothing on the floor than there was on either man. John was down to his shirt and Inexpressibles, acknowledging that it would be impossible to get them off without help. The idea of McKay being the one to help him out of the tight breeches fed his passions and interfered with his ability to concentrate on his play, almost costing him his shirt. McKay sat in his small clothes, and John had been pleased to discover that the breadth of the man’s shoulders was not due to any padding of his jacket. McKay had been wearing a ridiculous number of layers, and it had taken every bit of John’s skill to force the shedding of them. However, when it became apparent that John was winning consistently, McKay had become balky and almost threatened to bolt. John had let him win a few hands just to keep him in the game.

McKay picked up his glass to take a sip, only to stare at it when he discovered it was empty. When he held the bottle over his glass, only a single drop of fluid came out. He shook the bottle several times in disbelief. Frowning, he replaced it on the tray. “We seem to be out of wine.”

“I can ring for Halling again.”

“What? No!” McKay waved his hands protectively over his body, uncertain as to what to cover up, as though he were a respectable maiden caught in only her shift. “I mean, won’t it raise questions if he should see us in this state?”

“Everyone knows we of the ton are a ramshackle lot. Particularly where betting is concerned. Halling would say nothing, but fear not, he will not enter this room unless I call for him.”

The fire in the grate was dying down, and there was something very like banked embers in McKay’s eyes as he stared at John. He suddenly gave a little hoot of laughter, rubbing a palm over his mouth and scratching his chin. “I believe I’m a trifle foxed, Lymond. This is all your fault.”

“Surely, not mine! Blame it instead on the French for making such fine wine.”

“I didn’t ring for the second bottle. You know, I don’t understand you. After the first couple of hands, I could tell that clearly you are a superior player—really, your capacity to remember the cards and strategize for maximum points collected is nothing short of astonishing—and yet you lost quite a number of hands you should have won. Why did you forfeit your wins?” McKay sat back in his chair, completely oblivious now to his half-dressed state, his attention completely on John.

“Well,” John said slowly. “As practice for the real thing, I had to seem incompetent at times, yes? Whenever you seemed ready to quit the game, I had to tempt you back into play. I was willing to shed a few clothes for that.”

McKay snorted with laughter, his face turning red again. “Yes, well, I can see your point. Well done, then. Perhaps this isn’t such a terrible plan of yours after all.”

“And perhaps I just wanted to see how you stripped down.” John smirked as he spoke, his heart suddenly galloping within his chest. Everything is a roll of the dice. Even so, he left the door open for McKay to accept his comment as teasing banter should he choose.

McKay gaped at him as though John had slapped him in the face. “Surely, you jest.”

John shrugged. “If it suits you to think I jest, then by all means, consider me a man of odd humor. If you prefer to think of me completely bosky, well, that’s your choice, too.”

“I mean, look at you!” McKay pronounced his words in the careful manner of one aware he has had a lot to drink and is trying not to show it. “You’re a regular Beau... Beau... um, dash it all, what’s his name? Ah! Beau Brummell!”

“Please. I’m not such a pompous clotheshorse as that, am I?” The fire was dying in the grate, and John was suddenly aware of the fug of stale cigar smoke and the chill setting in the room. Perhaps he’d been play-acting the role of the nobleman a bit too much. That certainly wasn’t the impression he’d been trying to make on McKay. He felt suddenly tired, weary beyond all measure. His arm ached, and he wondered if he’d be able to sleep at all this evening. Between his pain, and his money worries, and the demons of war still haunting him, sleep was a fickle thing, flirting with him one minute and giving him the cut direct the next.

“No, I didn’t mean that. Not in the sense that you’d waste a fortune on the right jacket or spend hours on your toilette each morning. Just you. You know, with the hair thing, and the charm thing, and the gentleman-boxer thing.” McKay’s hands punctuated his speech, fingers fluttering over his head as he referred to John’s hair, and then swirling in the general direction of John as he finished his sentence.

John winced as he stretched his bad leg out in front of him. Wearing the Inexpressibles had been a fine idea at the time, but he was going to have the devil of a time getting them off, even with the help of his valet. “Not so much of the gentleman-boxer thing these days.”

“How did you injure it?” McKay indicated the leg.

John drew it back alongside the other. “What else? I fell off a horse.” Well, that was technically true. That he’d been shot first was not necessary for McKay to know.

McKay nodded slowly, blinking several times again. “Yes, well, do you think that makes you damaged goods? That no woman would want you?”

Damn. John hadn’t intended for the conversation to move so quickly in this direction. He didn’t want to overplay his hand; he had merely wanted to check out McKay’s level of interest. Leave it to McKay to get directly to the point.

“No. I’m not ashamed of my injury.” That much was true. It pained him, and was damned inconvenient at times, but he was not ashamed of it. The idea that McKay somehow thought John was ‘settling’ for men when he could have any woman he wanted was disturbing, and he didn’t want to leave McKay with that impression. “And contrary to your assumption that I might be considered, ah, damaged goods, I have it on good authority that my looks, charm, and title make me quite the catch, pockets to let or no.”

“Well, then, why not get leg-shackled, then?”

“I think it would be grossly unfair to the lady to marry for the convenience of picking her purse. And besides...” John had no idea how to broach what he wanted to say. A smile crossed his face when the answer suddenly came to him. “Some people like tea. Other people prefer coffee. I’m told that coffee is an acquired taste. That once you enjoy the pleasures of a good cup, you’ll never go back.”

McKay squinted at him, as though he couldn’t make sense of John’s words. Well, that’s what he got for not being clear, John supposed.

“I thought you said this morning you didn’t like coffee.”

John refrained from putting his forehead in his hands. “We’re not really talking about coffee, McKay. It’s a metaphor. About preferences. Although, I confess, I did like the coffee we had in the library this morning.” As soon as he spoke, he realized that he was only adding to the confusion by actually discussing real coffee in the same sentence as the hypothetical one.

“You like coffee.” McKay was frowning hard now.

John sighed. “I think we should call it a night. Thank you for a good game, McKay.” He stood up, glanced around the chair, and picked up his dressing gown. The rest of the clothing would be attended to by the staff.

McKay stood as well, but began darting around collecting his things. He came to a sudden halt, scrabbling to catch his clothing as one of his boots threatened to spill out of his hands onto the floor. “Wait, wait, you like coffee?”

John was losing track of the conversation himself, but the way McKay’s eyebrows had shot up and his delightfully crooked smile made a bright appearance gave John hope. “Um, yes.”

My coffee?” McKay was back to squinting again, tilting his head to one side as he spoke.

“Yes.” Damn it, that was about as open as he was willing to be. McKay was going to have to decide for himself how to act on the information. John crossed over to the desk and lit a candle, so as to see both of them to their rooms through the dark corridors.

“My coffee.” A bright red flush spread over McKay’s cheeks. “Yes, well, um, I’m a coffee-drinker, too.”

“Literally or metaphorically?”

McKay hesitated before he spoke. “Both.”

Somehow they were walking toward the door together, without any discussion as to whether they should leave the room. “Though I must say, have you noticed the trend with young people today to use the word ‘literally’ when they mean ‘figuratively’? It’s positively maddening. It makes me want to slap someone every time I hear that.”

John laughed, nearly guttering his candle. A companionable silence fell between them as they left the library and headed for the stairs. The house was cold, and John thought longingly of a warm bed. He thought even more longingly of a warm body beside him, and his cock, which had given up the thought of any action during the long night of play, began to get hopeful again.

When they reached McKay’s rooms, McKay paused on the threshold. “I, um, you...that is, would you care to come in?”

“There is nothing I’d like more.”

The relief spreading over McKay’s face caused a sense of warmth to pool in John’s groin. They were doing this. They were really doing this. Except for one small thing...

“However, my man is no doubt waiting up for me to pull my boots. Let me dismiss him, and I will join you here.”

“Yes, yes, that makes sense. Here. I’ll wait for you here.” McKay nodded several times, then entered his room, turning back to give John a shy smile over his shoulder before he closed the door. John promptly heard the sound of someone tripping over something in the dark, and McKay’s muffled curse.

Snickering to himself, he hurried to his rooms, the candle flame bending backward and nearly going out with his haste. As he expected, he found his valet waiting patiently for him. Had he merely had the forethought not to wear his tall boots or the tight breeches this evening in an attempt to show off in front of McKay, he could have dismissed the man for the night and he’d be in McKay’s bed right now. Of course, the valet would no doubt have wondered how John expected to get out of his clothes, and John would have had to ring for him had his guess about McKay’s interest proven wrong. Oh well, it was better this way.

Once he dismissed the valet, John got back into his dressing gown, blew out the candle, and waited. When all sounds of movement within the house ceased, John eased himself back out into the hall. He knew these halls like the back of his hand and it was a simple matter to return to McKay’s rooms in the dark. He tapped at the door lightly, but got no answer. Turning the handle, he entered the room.

The drapes over the window had been pulled back, and moonlight streamed through the glass, bathing the room in a stark, white light. McKay was sprawled out on the bed, looking particularly inviting as the moonlight gleamed off his pale skin. John caught his breath with the beauty of it; all that creamy skin laid out just for him, as a one-man buffet. This would be the first time John had ever lain with a man in such sybaritic comfort. It would be the first time he wouldn’t be rushed, that he could see his partner completely naked. The thought of taking his time with McKay, of parting the cheeks of that luscious ass and teasing McKay’s innermost self until he begged for John to enter him, stirred John’s cock as nothing before had ever done. It tented the front of his gown, seeking the gift McKay was so plainly offering. John was in the act of taking off his dressing gown when the first rumbling snore emanated from the bed.

“McKay?”

The snoring continued. It was quite impressive, really. On inhalation, there was a bubbling, burbling gurgle of sound that erupted in a low whistle when McKay finally exhaled. It was no use trying to wake him. McKay was dead to the world. Disappointment warred with amusement, but in the end, amusement won. John thought about joining him in bed for about two seconds before the stupendous nature of the snoring sunk in and he retreated back to his own room. So great was his arousal, however, that once he got into bed, he took himself in hand, clumsily but determined to bring himself release. He pictured himself jacking off over a sleepily sated McKay, marking him in a manner that only the two of them would know, that McKay was his. Only his. The mere thought of laying white stripes of come across McKay’s belly, cock, and thighs caused him to shudder into his hand before he’d scarcely begun stroking. The emptiness of his actions overtook him a moment later. It should be McKay that embraced him now, instead of only sleep.

In the morning, McKay was decidedly fragile when he finally came down for breakfast, wincing as he rubbed one temple. He refused most of the food, turning green about the gills when John mentioned that there were kippers again. All he wanted was plain toast with butter.

“No coffee?”

John’s question hung between them for an awkward moment, and he could see McKay processing the answer, trying to recall what was said and done...and not done...the night before.

“Um, yes. Coffee. I need coffee. But no more staying up until the wee hours drinking and playing cards with you, Lymond. I think you’re a bad influence on me.” McKay gave him a wan smile. John’s smile in return was equally as small and tight.

Sometimes, a soldier had to know when to beat a strategic retreat.

****

The days passed in a kind of curious contentment. March stretched toward April, and the grass slowly turned emerald green. Within Lantea itself, surfaces were kept free from dust, and pieces of furniture, once in danger of splintering due to drying out, now gleamed with polish. The meals, which had consisted largely of vegetables boiled into a limp mass with a bit of rabbit now and then, had become fit for a king. And, to McKay’s delight, coffee now made a regular appearance on the table.

John developed a taste for the strong, bitter drink and looked forward to having his first cup with breakfast. Nothing more was said about coffee’s other meanings, however, and John regretfully came to the conclusion that McKay in his cups was more bold than McKay completely sober. John, too, for that matter.

He looked forward to more than just his morning coffee, though. In many ways, McKay was just as stimulating as the drink that John had adopted. John enjoyed their morning debates over politics and world events. After breakfast, McKay would disappear into his makeshift laboratory, and in the evenings, he and John would review what McKay had been working on that day and what he was going to do on the morrow. They walked the park when the weather was nice, and though John could not persuade McKay to go riding with him (“Riding is not something you do for fun, Lymond. You do it because you need to get somewhere.”), McKay did tour the stables with John and made appreciative noises in the right places.

McKay tended to rub the staff the wrong way, and in general treated everyone with a familiar contempt, but John soon realized that this was no different from how McKay treated John. It was simply his way. Initially, this had resulted in much household upset, until Jim had quickly pointed out that it didn’t matter if you were a footman or a king, Rodney McKay was going to treat you the same. Oddly enough, the staff seemed to respect McKay, and John had to confess, the service was better than it had been since he’d returned home. It was interesting, this lack of distinction between class, this bestowing of equal disdain on anyone who did not match his intellectual weight. Which was practically everyone, although at times, John knew he surprised McKay with his ability to grasp scientific concepts.

“You’re not as stupid as you look,” McKay had said one morning, as they were walking the grounds. John knew him well enough by now to know that wasn’t an insult.

He’d pretended to be insulted anyway.

“Oh, you know what I mean,” McKay had groused. “You look as though your head is as empty as a debutante at Almack’s. That you have nothing more important on your mind than the latest cockfight or one of those brutal boxing matches. But there’s a brain in there. Why you hide it, I’ll never fathom. Say, when is Major Sheppard due back in town?”

That ‘Major Sheppard’ was out of the country was one of the fictions John had established early on. Seeing as he was still in mourning and had few visitors, it was a ruse he’d been able to maintain.

“Soon,” he’d lied. It had been an unpleasant moment when he’d realized he wasn’t looking forward to the day his cast would come off. He’d gotten used to having McKay around.

“Well, I’ve solved the problem with the stabilizers on the sailship. It will now fly in a straight line in the direction it is pointed.”

“Which would be excellent, were it possible for trees to move.”

McKay had curled his lip in an expression that on a small dog would have bared teeth. “I’m still working on the ability to change direction. The problem is that I have no means of changing the settings on flaps and rudders once the ship is launched.”

“A sailing vessel needs the presence of deck hands to alter the set of the sails and take advantage of the winds. Your vessel needs a captain. You need to make it bigger.”

“Bigger.” McKay had stopped suddenly, as though bellows to mend with John’s observation. “You want me to put a man inside it.”

“I think that’s the only way you’re going to be able to solve the steering issues.”

“A man inside a sailship.” McKay had snapped his fingers together rapidly and pointed at John. “You know, you might be on to something there.” His eyes had become unfocused, and John had known that McKay’s attention had turned inward to the complex workings of his extraordinary mind. John had been half-joking, but he could see McKay had been thinking seriously about how to make this suggestion work.

“Why don’t you show me the new prototype?” John had suggested, and the two of them had spent the rest of the afternoon in a heated but happy debate about the possibility of a man ever flying above the ground.

The evenings were the best. After dinner, they would retire to the library, where a fire blazed in the hearth. Fortified with brandy, John would enjoy a cigar, while McKay preferred his noxious pipe. They played cards, though the subject of coffee did not arise again. McKay spoke of how politics and natural resistance made the Royal Academy of Science a useless organization, and John made useful suggestions on the redesign of the flying machine. And if, in the flickering firelight, John found his new friend to be exceptionally attractive, especially when bending over the grate to poke at the fire, well, he kept that to himself.

When they were both deep enough in their cups, they sometimes would speak of past conquests. McKay would talk of former lovers in that bluff, hearty way that made something inside John curl up into a little ball and shove fingers in its ears. For his part, he changed the genders in his stories, and the subject when it became unbearable.

Sometimes when he’d retired for the evening to his cold bedroom, John thought about the bright intellect in McKay’s eyes, and the way his hands moved excitedly when he was expounding upon an idea. He imagined what it would be like to have all of that focus turned toward him, and what it would feel like to have those clever, clever hands on his skin. More than once, his thoughts roused his cock and he pleasured himself while still wondering how much better it would be if McKay were with him.

He said nothing, however. He was enjoying himself more than he could have ever thought possible since leaving the military. The days ahead, days in which McKay was no longer a guest in his home, loomed dark and depressing, like days of endless rain. He would do nothing to change what he had now. It was only his for a little while longer.

McKay had gradually come to appreciate Lantea itself.

“I can see why you place such value on the stud. You have some fine cattle here.” McKay had been thoughtful as he’d spoken. The two of them had been standing at the rail of a paddock, watching the latest addition to the stable take its first few wobbly steps. A bay colt that looked much like his sire, Ruthless. If nothing else, perhaps he would one day take the place of the foundation stallion in the breeding program. “Nice colt. What will you call him?”

“Phoenix.”

“Rising from the ashes, eh? I like it. Ah, how I love a man with a good classical education.”

John had let his gaze rest on McKay’s profile for just a bit longer than customary. McKay had seemed intent on watching the colt, but his cheekbones reddened. John hadn’t pushed, however. Though he’d recalled how eager McKay had seemed the night of that first card game, McKay had been careful to steer the conversation far away from the preferences of coffee over tea ever since.

A fortnight after McKay’s arrival, Lord Carruthers’s men appeared to claim Ruthless. Carruthers had sent word they would be arriving around midday, and John picked at his luncheon, leaving McKay in mid-sentence to go down to the stables when they arrived.

“Where are you going? You’ve scarcely taken a bite of your meal!”

“I must attend to this. Please, continue eating without me.”

He’d walked out during McKay’s protests.

Down in the stableyard, John’s grooms had done Ruthless proud. The bay stallion had been brushed and oiled until his coat shone like polished wood. There was the faintest hint of dapples to the vibrant red-brown hide, blatant evidence of his perfect health. His mane flowed freely without snarls, a glossy black in the sun. The excitement of new horses on the premises made the stallion float into the yard with a springy gait as one of the lads led him up to Carruthers’s head groom. The rest of Carruthers’s men sat mounted on quiet geldings, waiting for the signal to ride back along the road to Carruthers’s estate.

It was wrong, this moment in the sun, with the light highlighting the beauty of everything around John. The sun bled through the young leaves just unfurling on the trees, making them incandescent from within, a pale green light heralding spring. Flowers nodded in their beds around the stable entrance as the light breeze ruffled their petals. Ruthless himself was a work of art, a living statue carved out of mahogany, blowing and snorting his excitement as he pranced toward Carruthers’s groom. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and all wrong, but there was nothing John could do to stop it.

Jim was watching from the sidelines as the transfer took place. John joined him as the lad gave Ruthless a gentle pat on the side of his neck and handed the rope to Carruthers’s groom. The pleasure on the other man’s face at taking charge of such a fine animal was plain to see, and the groom tipped his hat to Jim and John where they stood before concentrating on keeping the stallion under control once more.

“This shouldn’t be happening.”

McKay’s voice startled John and he was surprised that he hadn’t seen or heard McKay approach. John spared him but a glance before he went back to watching Ruthless’s progression out of the yard.

“Can’t you stop this? He belongs here.”

“Stop it how, McKay? I told you. Carruthers won him fair and square. I don’t have the funds with which to buy him back. He’s Lord Carruthers’s horse now.”

“But...but...” McKay looked back and forth from Jim to John. “Look,” he said hurriedly, pitching his voice low, so as not to be overheard. “I’m not without the ready. I could, I don’t know, float you a loan or something until your mad scheme has a chance to work.”

“What mad scheme?” Jim asked, frowning.

“I already offered to buy the horse back once.” John’s voiced lashed like a whip, making McKay flinch, but John didn’t care. “Carruthers informed me that his price had doubled. Believe me, I would have done almost anything to keep him here, but there was nothing I could do.” Not to mention, if his plans didn’t work, the stock would all have to be sold anyway. Without Lantea, the horses had no place to stay.

“Lord Lymond is planning to ride Diablo in that steeplechase next month. He’s hoping to win the blunt to allow him to play in some high stakes card games.” McKay gave Jim a speaking look, as though Jim could stop John from risking his neck.

“I’ll thank you not to share my business with everyone, McKay.” John let every ounce of cold disdain he possessed pour into his words.

“He’s not everyone, he’s Jim.” McKay pointed at Jim with a look of confusion on his face.

“What made you decide to do such a hare-brained thing as that? Are you daft? That horse isn’t safe even when you are in top form, which you ain’t.” Jim was angrier than John had ever seen him before, clearly forgetting the bounds of master and servant.

“If I win the steeplechase on Diablo, Lord Carruthers will send Ruthless back. We made a bet.” John’s tone indicated the discussion was over.

McKay opened his mouth to protest, but the argument was interrupted when Ruthless leaned back hard on his halter, pulling away from the groom leading him. The man attempted to hold him down, but the stallion reared and twisted, half-dragging the groom along behind him. The other grooms moved their mounts in alongside the bay in an effort to keep him from spinning and bolting back to the stable. Ruthless continued to fight, tossing his head and kicking out as the other horses crowded him. He let out a furious, ear-piercing whinny, and looked back over his shoulder, even as the men tried to pull his head around, as if to ask for John’s help. The other horses in the stable began calling out as well, and the mare with the young colt ran the fence line, squealing her distress. When the head groom smacked him across the haunches with a crop to make him go forward, Ruthless rounded his back and threw his hindquarters in the air, narrowly missing the groom’s head with his heels as he kicked out behind.

John limped forward with determination into the swirling crush of men and horses.

“Lymond!” McKay called out.

“Let him go.” John heard Jim say to McKay, and glanced behind to see that Jim had taken McKay by the arm and was holding him back.

“Whoa, now, steady now,” John said in a sing-song voice as he approached the horses. The grooms on their mounts moved to make room for him. John held out a hand to keep Ruthless off of him as the stallion turned and bumped into him, trembling with the need to run. “Whoa, now, old man.”

The horse snorted and blew, but stood under John’s soothing direction, still quivering, his sides now dark with sweat. John took him by the halter. “Come here, you.”

The horse turned his nose in toward John, his nostrils flaring with each breath, the insides as bright as a red rose. “Come here,” John said again, and the horse curled his body around John, bringing his nose into John’s hands and his ear at the level of John’s mouth. John took hold of the ear with one hand, cupping it as he whispered to the horse, words for only the two of them. When he was done, Ruthless lifted his head, calmer now.

John handed the lead rope back to the groom. “There’s no need to hit him. He’ll go with you, now.” His voice sounded gritty, and he wasn’t completely sure it wouldn’t break.

The groom accepted the lead, murmuring something John didn’t hear. It didn’t matter. John walked away from the horse without a second glance.

By the time he rejoined McKay and Jim, the group of horses and men were moving at a steady pace out of the yard. Ruthless called out again for the herd, for the home he was leaving behind, and several of the horses answered. But he went with his new masters out of the yard.

“What did you say to him?” McKay’s voice held a kind of quiet awe.

“I told him that he had to go with them, but that I would come back for him. I promised him I would come back for him. I keep my promises.”

Jim blew his nose loudly into a grubby handkerchief and went back inside the stables.

John had seen grown men cry before. Men who’d lost comrades in the war. Men who’d wept over the death of a beloved horse, men who’d been so weary and weak from illness and battle that the tears had simply flowed, like their sweat and blood, out of them. Never had he seen anyone who appeared to be on the verge of crying on his behalf, however. The look of profound empathy on McKay’s face, the way his expression fairly melted as he stared at John in sorrow, nearly undid John. He turned on his heel and headed back toward the house, feeling lamer than ever.

McKay followed alongside, like a persistently yappy little dog.

“I meant what I said. I’m not without funds. I can help you.”

John came to an abrupt halt, his hands balled into fists. “You don’t get it, to you? Yes, you could loan me the money to get Ruthless back, though it would be far more than you realize. But that’s just a drop in the bucket. I owe so much that unless a miracle happens, I’m going to lose everything. There is no point bringing Ruthless back until I know for certain he has a place to come back to.”

Always provided Ruthless handled the transition without injury or colic, as well. For all his value, he was an older horse, and in someone else’s hands, he might not stay as healthy as he was now.

“There has to be something—

“I’ve done everything I can. This ‘mad scheme’ of mine is the only recourse I have left.” He sighed, rubbing his forehead with a grimace. “I just wish I didn’t feel like a complete failure.”

“It’s not your fault you’re so purse-pinched. Have you heard back from your father’s gambling cronies?”

John felt some of the tension ooze out of him as the two men walked together back to the house. “I have, indeed. In fact, one of my father’s friends seems to be making side bets that I will break my neck, and he is so delighted by the sport that the day will bring he’s planning to come down to see the race himself. Making a house party of it, I understand.”

“I don’t understand why any of this is necessary. Look, there is no need for you risk your neck entering that stupid steeplechase with a broken arm and a killer horse. I can back you for the stake you need to try your hand in the gaming hells.” McKay stopped him by laying a hand on his cast. “Seriously. I can do this.”

John looked down at the hand on his arm and then back up at McKay’s earnest face. “McKay, I can’t take your money. What if I lose it all?”

“You won’t, as long as you refrain from running your hand through your hair when you are discombobulated like you are now,” McKay said pointedly, catching John in the act of lifting his hand to his hair. “As tells go, that’s your worst one. You’re a good card player, as I have reason to know. Once you’re out of mourning, you can head to London and give it your best shot. There’s no need to enter the race.”

John scarcely knew what to say. Part of him desperately wanted to take McKay up on his offer, but he couldn’t. It wasn’t fair to the man. He couldn’t risk someone else’s blunt like that. “My taking your money would be no different than my marrying some wealthy young woman and claiming her money as my own. I can’t do that with any honor, McKay.”

Not to mention, he preferred coffee.

“Oh for heaven’s sake.” John got the impression McKay would have used stronger language but he was trying to restrain himself. “All this nonsense about honor is how your father got himself –and you—into this mess in the first place.”

“I appreciate the offer, I really do.” John started walking again, making sure that McKay was following. “But look at it this way. By taking racing Todd while injured, I’m making it known I’m a high-flyer, someone who will take extraordinary risks. It will make it far more likely that others will enter into large wagers with me on my reputation for sport alone.”

“Your reputation for being a lunatic, you mean?”

“Yes.”

McKay grumbled under his breath all the way back to the house.

****

“What’s going on?” McKay met John in the hallway, holding a small oil lantern aloft. The glow from the lantern cast a soft, warm spotlight around McKay where he stood in his nightshirt, his feet hastily shoved into short boots.

John had snatched up a decidedly ratty dressing gown on hearing the noise from the stables, throwing it on over his favorite, most comfortable pair of buckskins without waiting for the valet to help him dress. “I don’t know. It sounded like it came from the stables.”

Normally the house was far enough away from the stables that sound shouldn’t have carried; whatever was going on in the middle of the night was a crisis indeed. Both John and McKay’s rooms faced the stable. It was likely they were the only members of the household to be awakened. They hurried to the stairs, heading down them as fast as John’s leg would allow.

“Where’d you get that lantern?” John asked, as they reached the main floor.

“Oh, sometimes I can’t sleep at night, so I read. I’ve been tinkering with the design for a while now. This one seems to work the best.”

Momentarily distracted, John glanced again at the useful little lamp. The metal base was a small, pot-bellied reservoir for the oil, and had a ring through which you could hold it steady with a thumb. The glass globe was wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, and housed in a metal cage to make it less fragile. It threw a surprising amount of light in a comforting glow around them. It really was an ingenious design. “You made that yourself? Pity you don’t have more of them.”

“Is that a pistol?” McKay asked, his voice sharp as broken glass.

“Yes. Thought it might come in handy. Shall we go see what all the fuss is about?”

The moon was no longer full, as it had been the evening of that first card game. Though he’d been tempted at first to tell McKay to put out the lantern so they could regain their night vision, in truth, they made it to the stable much quicker for the lantern lighting the path in front of them. There was much shouting as they approached the still-dark stables, and inside John heard the terrible shrieking that had woken him.

“Is that a horse?” McKay asked, his voice trembling slightly.

“Diablo.”

It was an inhuman sound, rending the night was a piercing whinny that made the very hair on the back of one’s neck stand at attention. John was certain that earlier, there had been a man screaming in fear and pain, as well.

Inside the barn, the furious battle cry of the stallion was punctuation with the crack of splintering wood.

“Come on, McKay, he’s kicking the walls down!”

They rushed toward the dark rectangle that was the open stable door. As they reached it, however, someone shouldered past them, knocking into McKay and spinning him backward. The light from the lantern swung crazily, but McKay managed to hang on without dropping it. He turned and held it aloft, trying to see who went past them, but to no avail. The crunch running footsteps on the gravel was audible, but John knew there was no way he could catch the man, not with his bad leg. He wished, not for the first time, that he had a dog.

“Are you unhurt?” John asked, reaching out to steady McKay.

“Yes. Who was that?”

“I don’t know.” John pulled McKay behind him as he entered the stable. Inside, there was chaotic confusion as the lads called out to each other, voices high and tight with alarm. John was relieved when he heard Jim’s voice above the others, shouting at the lads to be still and account for themselves.

“What’s going on down here?” John asked.

“There seems to have been an intruder, my lord.” Jim was livid. He sounded as if he’d take a horsewhip to the scoundrel if he caught him.

The lads were lining up of their own accord around McKay’s lantern. It was easy to see they were as spooky as a herd of young horses, milling about nervously.

“Has anything been taken?” McKay asked. “Someone came barreling past us a moment ago. Too smoky by half, if you ask me.”

“Bring your light over here, McKay.” John peered into the stall where Todd was housed. The light from McKay’s lantern caught the white of Todd’s eye as he rolled it at John, and the horse spun within the stall, kicking out with his hind feet. The boards behind him resonated with the impact. John spied something else, too. Something gleaming and wet on the horse’s shoulder.

“Good Gad!” McKay exclaimed. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Blood.” John agreed. A lot of it. But where was the source?

As McKay pressed in behind John with the lantern, Todd pinned his ears and swung his head toward them, baring his teeth. The lamplight revealed they were stained with blood. McKay drew back with a hiss. John could sympathize. In the flicking light, the horse looked more demonic than natural.

He felt McKay’s fingers dig into his arm.

“John,” he whispered. “In the stall. There on the floor.”

McKay raised his light higher and then John saw it, too. The body lying half-buried in the straw.

It took some doing to remove the dead man from the stall with the half-crazed stallion lunging at them at every turn. In the end, John held the horse at bay with the business end of a pitchfork while the lads dragged the body out from the stall. The clothing suggested someone from town, though much patched and worn. One of the boots had a hole in it and had been lined with paper.

When McKay rolled the body over, the face had been bashed in.

“Hoofprints,” McKay announced. “All over, but particularly on the face. The horse must have struck him several times. I take it you don’t recognize him? Well, not even his mother would know him now.” Grimacing as though he might cast up his accounts at any moment, McKay checked the dead man’s pockets. “Oh, ho! What have we here?”

He held up a small sharp knife, the kind that the fishmongers used to trim their wares. The end had been stuck into a cork to keep it from stabbing its owner. In another pocket, McKay found a guinea, the gold coin burnished bright by the lamplight, gleaming as he turned it over in his fingers. “Look here. That’s a handsome purse for such a shabby man to be carrying.”

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking, McKay?”

“Certainly, Lymond. Someone thought they’d nobble your horse before the race next month.”

Jim spat on the ground in disgust. “We’ll keep a round-the-clock watch on him from now on, my lord. Let’s get him out and see if he’s been injured.”

That attempt proved hazardous to everyone’s health, however, and it was decided to wait until daylight. If Todd was seriously injured, he’d have to get much sicker before he’d allow anyone to look him over, at least until his murderous fury had subsided. The body was carried down to the icehouse for the time being. Yawning prodigiously, McKay followed John back to the house when things were finally settled for the night at the stables.

Halling met them at the door with a candelabrum and several footmen. John explained what had happened, and arranged for someone to send a note to the justice of the peace in the morning. Plans were made to patrol the grounds on a regular in the hopes of prevention further mischief.

“Someone could set fire to the stables next,” McKay warned.

“I doubt it.” John was drily grim. “The bloodstock is worth a fortune. Destroying my chances in the steeplechase is one thing, but my guess is that whoever’s behind this wants the stables intact. Word’s probably gotten out about the wagers on the race. Someone might have thought with Diablo out of the running, I’d be forced to sell.”

“Maybe, or perhaps there’s a larger design at work here. Either way, that doesn’t preclude an attack on your person. You will have to be vigilant from now on. Double check your girth before you mount, don’t walk in open fields alone, that sort of thing.”

“My, don’t you have a suspicious mind, McKay?”

“We haven’t seen the end of this. Mark my words. There’s still a second man out there somewhere, and no one knows who’s behind this, either.”

Halling seemed to be in agreement, vowing that no one would get past the staff into the house, at least.

It was well into the wee hours of the morning before everyone headed back to bed. As John made to part company with McKay at his door, McKay stopped him. “I’m serious about my offer. You don’t need to win the race in order to get the money you need to enter the high stakes games. I can frank you.”

“I appreciate that, I really do.” John sighed, and rubbed the center of his forehead before looking up with a small smile. “But that wouldn’t bring Ruthless home. I’m just so sick and tired of losing things I care about.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” McKay sounded fierce.

John laughed shortly. “I can’t expect you to stay forever, McKay. You’ve often told me what a busy man you are. Once your obligation here is met, I know you will head back to London. It won’t be too much longer until you can leave.” He’d die before admitting how much he’d miss McKay’s company.

“Leave? Why would I leave? Oh, you mean when the cast comes off. How is the arm doing, anyway?”

John pushed the sleeve of his dressing gown back, rotating the cast for McKay to inspect. “Very well, I believe. In fact, I suspect it will not be long before we can remove it.”

“Not before the race.” McKay was firm. “Even if the arm is completely healed, and I’m far from convinced on that matter—my estimate was at least eight weeks—it would be weakened and susceptible to re-injury once the cast is removed. Far better to leave the cast on until after the steeplechase, if you are so determined as to risk your neck.”

“I made a promise.”

“To a horse. I would remind you, I doubt he knows or cares where he resides as long as he has mares to breed and grain in his bucket.”

“I’d know.”

“Which is why you are an exasperatingly stubborn man.” McKay lifted the lamp so as to shine it in John’s face.

If John didn’t know better, he’d have thought McKay’s actions had been deliberately slow. The lamplight flickered slowly over John’s body as McKay lifted his hand, as though he was checking John out in passing. McKay reached out, fingers splayed, as though to touch John’s chest where the gown had parted, only to stop abruptly and pull his hand back again. John was acutely aware he was wearing nothing but the old robe and the buckskins.

John remained perfectly still, fixing his gaze on McKay where he’d suddenly frozen, apparently transfixed by John’s state of undress.

John had just grabbed whatever clothing was at hand and they’d just come back from examining a body, but the heat of McKay’s fascinated stare caused a corresponding flare within him. Irrationally, he was reminded of something McKay had told him about electricity being conducted along wires, and he thought surely there must be some such connection between the two of them. One that went straight from McKay’s reactions to John’s cock.

The tip of McKay’s tongue passed over his lips. John doubted he was even aware of his actions. Slowly, McKay opened the door to his room and stepped inside, leaving the door ajar as he set the lamp down on his bedside table. He sat down on the edge of the mattress, facing John.

Warily, as though this could somehow be a trap, John crossed the threshold.

“I like coffee.” McKay met John’s gaze squarely. “I like it a lot.”

“You seem to, ah, prefer tea.” John felt lout of his depth, grasping at the metaphor closest to hand.

“Tea is nice. Tea is safe. You can talk about tea among your colleagues and no one will think you odd or worse, depraved.” McKay licked his lips again. “No one has ever gone to prison or been killed because they like tea.”

“Not true. Duels have been fought, especially when tea has been, ah, ruined.”

“Such an asinine way of looking at things. Seriously, how can you ruin a person? Sex is a natural physical act. There is no ruining involved.”

“According to some people, liking coffee isn’t natural.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I think most people are stupid.”

John snorted at that. He shut the door behind him and leaned against it. “But you like coffee, too.”

“I like coffee, too.” A certain satisfaction simmered in the back of McKay’s voice. “I just wasn’t sure you did. After all, those stories you told...”

John took a couple of steps into the room as though pulled in by one of those magnet-things that McKay was always talking about. “I...prefer coffee.”

The clock on the writing desk ticked loudly in the silence that followed. John held his breath while he waited for McKay’s response, his heart thudding in his chest so strongly he could hear feel his pulse thrumming in his ears.

McKay stood up and crossed to meet him. “Good. Because I’ve been thinking about all the things I’d like to do to you. Do with you. Ask you to do to me. Beg you to do to—”

John cut him off because, lawks, the man was a gabster. “Show me,” he said, invoking McKay’s favorite words.

McKay didn’t hesitate. He moved in with all the forcefulness he displayed when he was utterly certain something he was doing was correct and he had no intention of letting anyone stand in his way. To John’s surprise he felt McKay’s lips on his jaw, and inhaled sharply through his nose as McKay worked his way roughly up to John’s mouth. As kisses went, McKay was just as brash and pushy as John would have expected, and their mouths clashed at first, the roughness of stubble dragging at skin as the two of them sought each other just outside the pool of light.

John never expected this. Never before had kissing been a part of his experiences with other men. When McKay’s lips touched his, McKay moaned with the satisfaction of a man hitting his target. The sound went straight to John’s cock as though his dick was wired to respond to that small noise. On finding John’s lips, McKay’s onslaught softened, his mouth opening unexpectedly. All the heat that John felt between them was centered right there in that mouth, unfolding before him and inviting him in. When McKay’s tongue slid alongside his own, John produced a groan of his own. It was shockingly intimate act to be called a kiss. It was nothing like John had ever experienced before.

McKay broke off the kiss to drag John into the glow of the lantern. “I want to see you. I want to see this. Us.”

Having positioned John where he wanted him, McKay held up a single finger in a silent order for John to stay put, and hastily peeled off his trousers. John took him in hand as McKay worked on the fastenings to John’s buckskins, slightly awed by the girth of McKay’s cock. Encumbered by the cast, his injured arm tired quickly, so he shifted his grip to the other hand. McKay broke off unfastening John’s breeches to run his hands up and down underneath the dressing gown, his fingers warm against John’s skin. It was as though John had never known how cold he was until the heat of McKay’s hands made him shudder. McKay explored his body with that single-minded concentration he gave to one of his projects until McKay growled suddenly and went back to undoing the buckskins. He pulled them down John’s hips with a small satisfied sound when John's cock leapt up from the confines of his breeches.

With his usual look of intense focus, McKay took a vial from the table and unstoppered it. The oil gleamed on his hands in the light from the lamp. The touch of McKay’s hand on his dick sent a jolt of sensation through John, making him curl his toes in order to remain standing. This was good, this thing McKay did with the fisting of John’s cock, twisting and rotating his hand to coat John’s dick with oil. When McKay pushed back the foreskin to touch the cockhead itself, John had to grip McKay by the shoulder.

“Have you ever done this? Like this?” McKay rubbed their dicks together now, smearing oil on his own cock as well. Their members bobbed against each other but it wasn’t enough. John tried to reach between them and take hold of his own cock, but McKay stopped him. “No, let me. Like this.”

John pressed his head against McKay’s to watch his hands work their cocks together. It took him a moment to realize what McKay was doing, and a long groan was pulled from within him when McKay pushed John’s foreskin back once more and fed John’s dick up inside his cockhood. The sensation of being enclosed by warmth while feeling the hard, hot length of McKay’s rod alongside him made John roll his hips uncontrollably. McKay simply closed his marvelous hand around the two of them together and stroked.

“Come here, you.” McKay pulled John in by the back of the head and attacked his mouth again, this time his tongue thrusting alongside John’s in the same rhythm he maintained working his hand over their joined cocks. John wanted to be a part of it, wanted to reach between them and touch the marvel of their connected bodies, but all he could do was dig his fingers into McKay’s shoulders and go along for the ride.

He had to pull back from the kissing as his breath grew short, his entire body rocking now with the pumping rhythm of McKay’s hand. Short, little gasps escaped his open mouth as the need to thrust took over. McKay was clinging to him as well, damp sweat underneath John’s hands. The tension mounted in John’s body, an uncontrollable trembling started in his thighs. He ached with the clenching of his ass. Just as he was certain he could not bear another moment of this exquisite torture, McKay nipped his ear. The jab of pain zipped straight down to his dick, which erupted with a series of intense pulses unlike anything John had ever felt before. He slumped against McKay as the shudders died down, only to have McKay increase the rhythm of his hand. The jerking of McKay’s cock alongside his own carried him on a fresh wave of sensation as his dick was enveloped by warm fluid.

John pressed his forehead against McKay’s, both of them breathing hard.

A moment later, he found himself laughing breathlessly.

“Something funny?” McKay was abrupt, and John knew instantly his feelings were hurt.

“No, no. I can’t explain. That was just... amazing. The best. Like nothing I’ve ever done before. I was just wondering what other ideas you might have.”

“Oh.” McKay became flustered for a moment, then smiled and snorted softly. “Yes, well, you know me. I have all kinds of brilliant ideas. I’m a genius, you know.”

“I can’t wait for you to show them to me.” John took McKay by the hand and led him to the bed.

****

The Inquest into the death of the stranger in the stables came back with a verdict of Accidental Death.

“The scoundrel was up to no good anyhow,” Sir Henry Crabbetree, the Justice of the Peace, stated after the verdict was read. No one seemed concerned in the slightest that the man was never identified and went into a pauper’s grave. Jim ordered a round-the-clock watch on the stables of no less than three lads at all times, and insisted John have an escort everywhere he travelled.

One week after the attack on Todd, John and McKay were in the library, enjoying a pot of coffee while they made plans for the day, when Halling entered the room.

“Pardon me, my lord, but there is a Count Kolya who wishes to see you.” Halling presented the card on a small silver tray.

“You don’t seem surprised.” McKay said, after John sent Halling to escort Kolya to the library.

“I’m not,” John said. “I suspected something like this might happen once we made it impossible for anyone to get to Todd.”

“This is the man who holds your father’s vowels, isn’t he?”

“Yes.” John rested his good arm against the window frame above his head, crossing his feet at the ankles in the manner of a man without a care in the world as he looked out on the beauty of an April morning in the country. “I was hoping he’d wait a bit longer, but of course, once I made my opening bid to win back the family fortune, he was bound to contest it.”

“Count Acastus Kolya, my lord.”

John held the pose a moment longer before turning from the window to greet his visitor.

The man behind Halling had a hard face. His dark hair was swept back from his forehead, held in place with a greasy pomade. His skin was pockmarked, and a dueling scar bisected his right eyebrow. A fearsome-looking man, who was dressed in the finest jacket Weston could make, his entire outfit was top-of-the-nines, including the gold tassels on his Hessians. John wondered if he was compensating for his scars by his Corinthian turnout.

Or maybe he just wanted everyone to know how rich he was.

“Lord Lymond.” Kolya made a slight bow. The Count’s voice held a suggestion of a sneer, belying the display of fine manners, though perhaps that could be blamed on the clipped, Russian accent. “My condolences on the death of your father. He was a good friend and a fine man. A real sportsman. He will be greatly missed in Society.” As he spoke, Kolya removed his riding gloves with a casual arrogance that made the hair on the back of John’s neck rise. He exchanged a glance with Rodney and was surprised to find McKay’s nostrils flaring like a bull being goaded beyond all tolerance.

“It’s good of you to journey all this way to pay your respects, Count Kolya. May I offer you some refreshment?” John nodded at Halling, who left to bring in some sherry. It grated to have to adhere to the niceties when what John really wanted to do was walk off twenty paces, turn, and fire his pistol at the man. “Allow me to introduce my friend and colleague, Doctor Rodney McKay.”

Kolya barely acknowledged McKay, giving him only a short nod. “Thank you, but refreshments are not necessary. I do not mean to trespass on your hospitality during a time of mourning, especially since you’ve been injured.” Kolya indicated John’s cast with the riding gloves. “There is just a small business matter to attend to. Perhaps we can adjourn to someplace where we may hold a private discussion?”

McKay shifted in his seat with the air of someone firmly wedging himself in place rather than making to leave. A smile twitched at John’s mouth as he spoke to Kolya. “There is nothing that you cannot discuss in front of McKay here.”

Kolya opened his mouth as if to protest, but John opened the humidor to display the cigars within.

“Cigar?” From the flicker of interest he saw in Kolya’s flat, black eyes, John knew that he was tempted, yet determined to hold the upper hand in this confrontation. Kolya caught John’s gaze upon him, and the two men locked eyes, each sizing up the other. When Kolya smiled and took one of the cigars, John recognized it as the response to his opening move, and knew that Kolya was going to be much harder to rumble than the rest of his father’s former gambling cronies.

The two men went through the process of trimming and lighting their cigars, while McKay filled his pipe, making a mess with the loose tobacco. Slowly, the rich odor or fine tobacco filled the room.

“What brings you to the area, Count Koyla?”

“Ah.” Koyla took a long drag, blowing it out theatrically and rotating the cigar in his hand much like a maiden might admire a ring. “Very nice. Your father had excellent taste. Yes, well, speaking of your father, I’m afraid that I have a rather unpleasant charge here today. I’m sure you’re aware that your father was quite fond of a wager.”

“Quite.” John drawled.

The flicker of amusement in Kolya’s eyes was downright nasty as he smiled. “As it so happens, I hold a number of his vowels.”

“That must have cost you a pretty penny.” McKay’s addition to the conversation was decidedly sour. He clamped his lips shut when John scowled at him and shook his head ever so slightly.

“Yes, well, Doctor, I prefer to look upon it as a business investment. Whereas the sixth Viscount owed large sums to a variety of people, thus diluting the potential gain to any one individual, I have consolidated all his debts. I’m sure you can see the logic of that. It required a terrific outlay on my part, but the gains are equally as great. I’ve long desired to live in the country, though finding the right lands, as you know, can prove difficult. So many of the best estates are entailed. Lantea, however, is not. I’m here to collect on my investment, now.” Kolya took another puff from his cigar, forcing smoke through his mouth so that it formed a perfect ring, floating up into the air. His smile was like that of a tiger and John was the goat tied to the stake.

“I’m afraid I’m not in a position to pay you just now. To do so would require the sale of properties and holdings, all of which takes time.”

“Yes, I thought you might say something like that. You realize, Lymond, that debts of honor are taken seriously among the ton. Failure to pay them would see you ruined.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t pay. I said I couldn’t pay you now. Perhaps if you would allow me six months, I could—”

“Sadly, I am in need of my invested funds right away.”

“It will take time to find buyers for the properties in question.”

“If you mean Lantea, then I propose you turn the estate over to me in lieu of payment of the debts. I am willing to concede the difference of what is owed in your favor. I can take possession immediately, and you will be relieved of this terrible obligation.”

“Oh, very magnanimous of you, I’m sure.” McKay’s sarcasm had a decided edge to it. John wanted to say, ‘Down, boy,’ but he suspected that wouldn’t go over well with either man.

John took a puff of his cigar with studied negligence, resting his elbow on the casted arm. Releasing the smoke into the room, he smiled. “I have an alternative proposal.”

McKay sat up alertly in his chair, a small frown furrowing his brow. Kolya, on the other hand, merely raised an eyebrow.

“Do go on,” Kolya said.

“I understand that you, too, are fond of a wager, Count Kolya. Perhaps you’ve heard that there is to be a steeplechase here in a fortnight.”

“I’m afraid I don’t keep up with local events in this area.”

“Pity. I’ve entered my replacement stallion, Diablo, in this race. Though I am considered the underdog, as I am currently winged.” John indicated his cast. “However, I have several bets on the outcome of this race. I propose that if I win, you will give me the six months I need to raise the money to pay my father’s vowels. If I lose, you can take your pick of six of the horses within the stud as collateral against the future payment.”

“John, no!”

John waved McKay to silence.

“Not interested.” Koyla shrugged. “I will get the bloodstock regardless, when you turn the estate over to me, as you would have to sell them to raise the funds to meet the debts either way. You tempt me, however, to consider entering the race myself. My mare, Sora, could give your stallion a run for your money.”

Shit. That was the last thing John expected. It was the last thing he needed, too, especially if Kolya was any sort of horseman.

“Oh, then let’s make this really interesting.” McKay rubbed his hands together with devilish glee. “You, Kolya, against J—Lymond. The winner takes Lantea.”

“Now wait a minute, McKay...” John began.

Kolya, however, laughed. “How very enterprising of you to wager Lymond’s estate without his permission, Doctor. However, I’d like to point out that I don’t have to do anything so arduous as to enter a horse race. The estate will be mine, one way or another.”

“Yes, but I am willing to make a side wager with you. Fifty thousand pounds on Lymond to win. What say you?”

“McKay,” John growled a warning but it was McKay’s turn to cut him off.

“’Pon my word, you’re not the only one who enjoys a friendly wager, Lymond. This is between the Count and myself.” The wicked gleam in McKay’s eyes said trust me. Were it not for the presence of Kolya, John would have argued vehemently against McKay’s proposal, but he didn’t want the two of them to appear divided in front of Koyla.

Instead, he held his breath and waited.

“Lymond has to win the race, not just beat my mare.” Koyla said at last. “But I think I will take you up on that wager, Doctor.”

“And if Lymond wins, you will sign over all his father’s vowels to him?”

Kolya raked John with his gaze, the earlier implied sneer out of hiding now. Obviously, he thought this wasn’t going to be an issue. “Yes.”

“Then let’s shake hands on it.” McKay leapt to his feet and held out his hand. When Kolya took it, he pumped it eagerly.

“Until race day, then. I’ll see myself out.” The little smile that Koyla gave John was coolly confident of his chances. He clicked his heels together with a short bow, and took his leave.

John took a long drag on his cigar before speaking. “What the hell were you thinking, Rodney?”

“What? Weren’t you the one that said everything’s a risk? A roll of the dice?”

“There’s a big difference between wagering a sum of money and wagering an estate, McKay!” John started out in a low, even tone, his voice rising by the time he got to the end of his sentence.

“Hey, you were counting on winning this race as a means of redeeming the family fortune anyway. The stakes just got higher, that’s all.”

“By putting the entire estate on the line?” John snapped.

“And fifty thousand pounds. Which represents the bulk of my fortune.”

“And fifty thousand pounds. Rodney, I can’t—what if I lose all your money?”

“You’d best not. But if you do, we’ll go off somewhere together and start all over again. My brains and your charm? We’ll be fine.” McKay crossed over to John, placing a hand on his arm. “We’ll be fine,” he repeated.

What could John do but kiss the man within an inch of his life?

“You called me Rodney.” McKay was shyly pleased when their lips parted.

“Well, that’s the least I could do for a man who just gambled away my inheritance.”

McKay’s mouth went round in protest, but John stopped him with an eyebrow. “I’m counting on you to make it up to me, you know.”

“Oh, really?” McKay’s voice turned speculative. “How do you mean?”

John leaned in close to his ear. “You know. You could do that thing.”

“No, I don’t know.” McKay sounded maddeningly complacent. “What thing?”

“That thing with the finger. The thing that turns me inside out.”

McKay had proven to be the most inventive of lovers, demonstrating actions John had never even heard of and didn’t know were possible between two men. The other evening, McKay had stroked something inside of John that jolted though him like the experiment McKay had told him about involving muscles and electricity. Normally quiet in bed, McKay’s touch had made him howl in pleasure. It was a pity that they had to be discreet, even within John’s own household. He longed for a time when the two of them could be together, open and unrestrained in their affection for one another.

“Oh, you liked that, did you? Funny, I couldn’t tell.”

“You’re lucky the look of smugness becomes you, because you wear it so often.”

Outside in the corridor, Halling seemed to be making an excessive amount of noise. After a moment of jangling glasses and fumbling with the handle, the door opened and he entered, bearing a tray. “Your sherry, my lord.”

****

The day of the steeplechase dawned with great anticipation in the village, and nearly everyone had turned out to watch the race. The weather couldn’t have been better. It was sunny and warm, but with a bit of a breeze that would keep it from being too hot. John had tested the ground with a booted toe, and found the turf to be perfect, with exactly the right amount of give to it. A surge of confidence welled up in him as he surveyed the crowd of spectators. It had turned into quite the festive occasion, with everyone dressed in their finest for the purpose of seeing the best horseflesh in the area compete. He knew, too, that word of some of his various wagers had gotten out. The inquest had made Todd’s reputation even more formidable than before. Everyone knew that John was riding the most dangerous horse in the county while healing from a broken arm. He was willing to bet before the day was out significant sums of money would change hands among his friends and neighbors.

Evidently, the village had decided to make a day of it. Many of the ladies of the parish were present as well, looking very much like spring flowers in their finest clothes on the green landscape. Phaetons and dogcarts crowded the churchyard. No doubt after the race began, many would head to Banbury by way of the road and wait for the contestants at the finish, unpacking picnic luncheons and refreshments as they waited for the first sight of the steeplechasers.

“I say, Lord Lymond,” one of David’s friends called out as he bounced past on a nag with a short, choppy trot. “Best of luck to you! David will be sick to know he has missed this race!”

John nodded and touched his hat with his crop. Beneath him, Todd moved restlessly, excited by the noisy crowd and the growing numbers of horses gathering at the starting point. Most of the Lantea staff was there. John had given everyone the day off. He scanned the crowd for Rodney, but to no avail. He couldn’t help but be a little bit hurt by McKay’s absence, and wondered if perhaps Rodney had gone on to the finish line instead. He hoped that was the case, and that Rodney hadn’t gotten cold feet over the magnitude of the bet he’d made with Kolya. Surely, Rodney would have mentioned his intentions at breakfast, though? The notion that at the end of the race he might no longer be the master at Lantea clutched at John’s heart, causing it to pound heavily with the rush of adrenaline. Catching sight of Jim seated on one of Lantea’s old hunters steadied him, especially when Jim touched the brim of his old cap and smiled.

Everything is a roll of the dice.

John took note of his competition. For the most part, none of the locals had horses that could hold a candle to Todd. Villagers and farmers on their hunters, out for a good run and the pleasure of saying they’d competed. There were a couple of gentlemen on horses they’d bought from Lantea, horses good enough to make it a decent race. There was a lean youth on a heavyset cob with a four white socks that might have the staying power to give John a run for his money. Squire Bellamy had decided to enter his fancy new gelding as well, a nice rangy blood bay with a white blaze. As Rodney had pointed out with distressing frequency, anything could happen in a horse race. It seemed as though there were more horses and riders than John would expect from such an event. A couple of riders waiting at the edge of the starting line-up were mounted on better-than-average horses, despite their rough-hewn garments.

A murmur of noise among the crowd made John look back over his shoulder to see Kolya riding up on his gray mare.

She was on the small side for such a big man, but the slope of her shoulder was perfect for jumping and her legs were straight and clean, without knocks or swellings. A nicely balanced mare, one John wouldn’t mind having at Lantea. She moved with an easy spring to her stride, excited by the crowd and her part in it. John winced when he saw the long shanked bit in her mouth, however. A ham-fisted rider could make a sweet-goer like this one stop dead in her tracks, ruining her spirit and her will to jump, and John wondered why Koyla felt the need to ride with such hardware.

Koyla deliberately rode up to John. “So this is the famous Diablo. Flashy.”

John kept his smile silky. “You’ll find he’s more than just flash.”

Sora, Kolya’s mare, squealed in anger and pinned her ears when Todd turned his head in her direction. She humped her hindquarters and kicked out when someone took their horse too close behind, and Kolya called out a stern warning to the riders lining up around them.

“Where’s your friend, the good doctor? I don’t seem to see him anywhere. I hope he has not abandoned you.”

For a split second, Kolya’s words felt like a warning, and a sliver of dread pierced John’s heart. Surely, Kolya wasn’t behind Rodney’s absence. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that Rodney might be at risk of attack in the run-up to the race. No sooner did the thought occur than did John reject it. Kolya had nothing to gain and everything to lose if Rodney wasn’t around to pay out on his wager. No, only if Kolya recognized Rodney’s importance to John would Rodney possibly be in danger.

That thought was even more unsettling than the one before.

“I believe he’s chosen to position himself at the end of the race, the better to see me win.”

Koyla laughed at that, loud and overly hearty. “You keep telling yourself that, Lymond. Lantea will be mine by the end of today.”

The young man on the cob turned his head sharply at Kolya’s words.

Sir Henry raised his hands and stepped forward in front of the cluster of horsemen. The crowd fell silent as he spoke, save for the barking of an overly excited dog. “Gentlemen!” he announced. “You will ride from the churchyard here at St. Stephen’s to the church at Banbury, a distance of roughly four and a half miles. The course will take you across Lord Lymond’s lands, round the Folly, and across the Downs, taking obstacles as you come to them. The first horse to enter the churchyard at Banbury will be declared the winner. May the best man win!”

There had been a spattering of applause at the mention of John’s name, and some enthusiastic cheering at the end of Sir Henry’s speech. Highly strung horses wheeled and spun as their riders tried to hold them in some semblance of a line. It was like trying to contain lightning in a glass bottle. John hoped Sir Henry would start them off soon before someone got hurt. Gathering Todd’s reins in his hands, he steeled himself to contain the stallion when the field of horses took off. Fortunately, last evening he’d convinced Rodney to at least remove the bit of plaster that encircled his thumb, else he’d been incapable of wearing gloves today. He needed every bit of leverage he could get to control Todd without changing bits on him at the last moment.

“Gentlemen!” Sir Henry announced, raising a pistol and pointing it toward the sky. “Begin!” He fired the pistol.

As expected, the gunfire and the cheering caused a good bit of the field to break with an enthusiastic and uncontrolled gallop out of the churchyard. John held Todd back with the remainder of the pack. It was a long race. No sense burning up his horse at the very beginning. It was difficult to resist the urge to join in with the yelling, laughing young horsemen, however, as they pounded across the church grounds.

The first obstacle they met was the low stone wall that separated the church property from the rest of the lands. An easy first fence, but unforgiving if taken wrong. No one came to grief, however, despite the mad crush of horses racing toward it. John put Todd into an easy canter and pointed him at the wall. Todd jumped it neatly, with no extraneous effort, unlike some of the green horses who leapt it as though it was four feet high.

Landing on the far side of the wall, Todd cantered on in an effortless ground-eating pace that John knew he could do all day. In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever seen the stallion winded or tired. He laughed and patted Todd on the neck. The stallion shook his head in annoyance as they raced on.

John laughed again. His relationship with Todd was more adversarial than that of partners, but it would do. It would do.

“Can’t believe you have the nerve to ride that wicked brute! He is a beauty, though!” Sir Bellamy came alongside; his flashy bay already showing damp patches of sweat along his neck, though more from overwrought nerves than from exertion. He shouted, so as to be heard over the hoofbeats on the grass.

“He keeps me on my toes!” John called to Sir Bellamy with a grin, watching carefully Todd’s reaction as the bay matched his pace.

“Heard he killed another man. In your stable, no less. Wouldn’t have him!”

“You’ll change your mind by the end of the race.”

“Oh?” Sir Bellamy grinned. “Wager on that?”

The laughter bubbled up once more. Why not? “Fifty pounds says I’ll win.”

“You’re on, my lord! I think you may have over-faced yourself this time!” Sir Bellamy touched the brim of his hat and urged his gelding on, passing John.

You don’t know the half of it.

John let them pull away. Todd resisted being left behind, and fought John’s control of his mouth. Grudgingly, he settled back into his former pace. Had Rodney not removed that bit of plaster, John doubted he would have been able to close his fingers properly around the reins with the strength to hold the stallion back. As it was, he felt the beginnings of the ache in his arm. He was tempted to shift the crop to the other hand, but he needed it to reinforce the commands of leg and hand on his weaker side.

The group in front was entering the copse of trees on the far side of the field. Bellamy’s bay wasn’t far behind. The young man on the cob was slightly behind to John’s left, maintaining a steady pace as well. Kolya’s gray mare was somewhere to John’s right. He could sense his main adversary as though Kolya radiated some sort of heat. Something itched behind John’s shoulder and he felt the presence of the man moving up alongside him. Kolya passed him, tipping his hat sardonically, and laying his crop firmly against his mare’s haunches with a sharp crack. She pinned her ears and surged forward, leaving John and the others behind. Sora galloped on, running flat-out in a bid to catch the leaders. John wondered what Kolya’s reasoning was, making such a bold move so early in the race.

He shrugged it off, however. It was an utterly glorious day. The sun beamed down on the gleaming coats of the galloping horses, their riders dressed as though for the hunt in hats and fine jackets. The fields were brilliant in their blankets of soft green grass. The sky was a deep, rich blue, with fluffy white clouds that dappled the countryside with their shadows in passing. Moving to the rhythm of his horse, the sound of thudding of hooves on the soft turf, the sweet call of the larks in the fields... John knew with complete certainty that he would never forget this perfect moment as they cantered down to the woods. Regardless of the outcome of the steeplechase, this moment in time was his.

Ahead, the dark tunnel of trees indicated the path into the woods. Entering it was like coming into a cathedral from the bright sun outside. The sun came down through the trees in great broad beams of light, much as it would stream through the church windows on a Sunday morning. John could admit to himself here that this was his preferred Church, his place of worship. He felt closer to God on the back of a horse cantering through a stand of trees than he ever felt sitting in a church pew.

The path coursed through the woods, running downhill to the banks of the large creek that ran through the copse and on down to the village. The slope into the water was slick with the splash created by horses that had already gone through it, and Todd minced his way carefully down to the water before picking his way across. On the opposite bank, a very wet rider clambered out of the way, his horse nowhere to be seen. He nodded to John in passing before disgustedly wiping his muddy gloves on his soaked breeches.

Todd lurched up the far side of the back, slipping slightly in the mud as they burst out into the sunlight again.

The woods were bordered by a split rail fence which Todd took handily. The rest of the pack was nearby, but they were starting to catch up with the leaders now, as their horses began to tire, or their riders sensibly reined them in. Kolya was nowhere in sight, however. Sir Bellamy’s gelding had slowed, showing patches of white foam between his hind legs as he cantered ahead of John. Pity. The bay wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t fit enough for this sort of event. John hoped Bellamy didn’t ruin him over this.

The pounding of hoofbeats coming up behind him heralded the decision on someone’s part to try and pass him. John shortened his reins in preparation of letting the rider pass without Todd taking up the challenge of matching the newcomer’s pace. He checked the stallion back slightly as he sensed the rider coming alongside. Something felt off. The other rider seemed terribly close. John glanced to his right just in time to see the rider lean far over in his saddle and reach for John’s booted calf. He flipped John’s foot out of the stirrup before John could even shout in protest.

Of course, it would be his weak leg. He’d spent enough years riding without stirrups under Jim’s tutelage not to be at a complete loss without the aid of the iron under his foot, but the muscles in that leg weren’t as strong as they had been, and he lost his synchronicity with Todd. He twisted in the saddle, grabbing mane to maintain his balance, even as the other rider tried to push him over the side.

The other rider hadn’t counted on Todd. The stallion snaked his head around to the right and took a chunk out of the neck of the other horse. Squealing in dismay, the horse veered off, nearly unseating his rider as it bucked and kicked out.

“What the hell?” John shouted after the man, but his horse was running in a blind panic, and the rider was unable—or unwilling—to bring it back under control.

Fishing unsuccessfully for the bouncing stirrup iron with the toe of his boot, John was about to give up and pull Todd to a halt to regain his iron when someone else came up on his right. This time John was prepared. When he felt the press of another horse’s body bump up against his leg and a rough hand on his shoulder, he swung down with the riding crop with all his might. Man and horse both cried out in protest, and the distance between them widened once more, but this rider came back quickly for another try. John was aware of someone galloping up hard from behind, coming up on his left, but he couldn’t look to see who it was without lowering his defense on his right. He continued to lash at the man trying to unhorse him but his mobility was definitely hampered by the cast. The rider, determined to get at him at all costs, struck at John with his own whip. For once, the cast came in handy as it absorbed the worst of the blow.

His attacker, a man John had never seen before, bared his teeth and hauled his horse hard into Todd’s side, sending a wave of pain shooting up John’s leg and straight into his lower back as the two horses bounced off each other. Todd threatened the second horse with his teeth, but its rider forced it in again, this time shoving John hard to the left with a hand to his shoulder.

John would have been unhorsed, had not the rider on his left closed the distance and caught John by his jacket before he came out of the saddle.

It was the youth on the cob.

“Outrun him, my lord!” The boy shouted. “Let him go! Let him run!”

The lad was right. John gave Todd his head and squeezed his calves around the barrel of Todd’s body. The horse needed no other urging. He leapt forward as though fired from one of Boney’s cannons. Todd easily pulled ahead of the snarl of horses behind him, but it would be insane to try and maintain this pace, especially with only one stirrup. He glanced back over his shoulder to see the rest of the field close in on John’s attacker, and one of the other riders grabbed the stranger by the back of his collar and hauled him backward off his horse.

John pulled Todd back to a more reasonable canter, and luckily caught the iron with his foot. He allowed the rest of the pack to catch up with him.

“’Pon my word!” one of the other riders shouted when he was within range. “I’ve never seen such unsportsmanlike behavior in my entire life! Ride with us, my lord, and we’ll see you come to know harm.”

“Much obliged!” John shouted back. “Though you do realize at some point I must take my leave and win this race?”

There was general laughter. “I daresay you’ll catch the leaders when the time is right, my lord! I saw that black devil run just now!”

The pack reformed around John, keeping him in the center. Todd wasn’t pleased, but he bowed to John’s pressure on the reins in obedience. Another few fences and then they were on Lantea lands. John knew he would have to make his move before they reached the Folly if he had any hope of catching Kolya now. Obviously, Kolya had planned this all along and had made himself scarce before the attack began. They began to catch up on stragglers, however, one of which was Bellamy and his blowing, sweating horse. He joined their group, stunned at the news of the attack.

They galloped on, some of John’s defense guard falling by the wayside as they were unable to keep up the pace. The cob, galloping alongside John on his left, suddenly stumbled and pulled up lame. John pulled Todd to a halt but the boy waved him on. “Ride on, sir! He’s done for.”

John was loathe to press on. Todd disliked being pulled up, but John made him stand long enough for him to call out to the boy. “You’re a good man on a horse. If you’re looking for work, come by the stables. I can use a man like you.”

“Thank you, sir!” The boy grinned brilliantly, and then turned his attention to his horse. He was in the process of feeling his horse’s tendon for swelling when one of the other riders shouted and pulled up abruptly, also with a lame horse. John hauled back on the reins, stopping Todd until he could determine what had happened.

“Caltrops. The bastard threw down caltrops.” The youth picked up the ugly triangular piece of metal designed to injure the bottom of a horse’s foot and held it up for all to see.

Bellamy, who had fallen behind, now caught up with them again, reining his horse to a halt as well. “I think we’re done, too, my lord. I’ll see that the boy and his horse get back. I’ll also see to it that Sir Henry is made aware of such vile behavior. You take care, Lymond. I doubt the villain behind this is done.”

“Go on, sir, win the race,” the other man with the lamed horse urged. “We’ll sort this out.”

John nodded. Kolya must be stopped. He could not be allowed to win this race or the wager. A man who would deliberately put down caltrops in a horserace was a cruel, vindictive person. John would never let such a man have Lantea.

He turned Todd back toward the course, cutting a wide circuit around the path most likely to be seeded with the caltrops. Once they had jumped the large tree trunk into the next field, John got up out of the saddle, balancing himself on his knees over Todd’s shoulders, and loosened the reins. “Have at it, you devil.”

They lit across the field like a streak of black lightning. They passed several of the other former leaders, now walking or trotting their spent horses. They came upon another lame horse, but John could not spare the time to find out if it was a deliberate wounding or merely bad luck. A riderless horse came tearing back at them along the path, swerving to miss Todd, and then spinning to join them briefly before running back along the way they’d come, neighing constantly. They rode past the hapless, horseless rider limping back along the way home.

To John’s count, that was everyone that had been ahead of them. Everyone except Kolya.

Todd showed no signs of tiring, but John checked him back on the reins as they entered the last section of wood before the open fields to the Folly. If Kolya had something up his sleeve, the ambush would probably be launched here. They coursed the forest without incident, however, and burst out into the open field. The Folly was up ahead. John just had to ride around the tower and head out across the Downs toward Banbury. From the Folly, he’d be able to see the steeple of the Banbury church. He was almost in the homestretch of the race. Where was Kolya?

He found out as he raced up the slope to the tower. As he and Todd approached the tower, John heard the twang of a steel wire being released. He had just a split second to identify the sound as a crossbow being fired before Todd ploughed face-first into the soft ground. John had just enough time to swing his feet out of the stirrups and push himself off as Todd tumbled onto his side, legs flailing. John rolled to his feet to see some sort of strange rope and ball device entangling Todd’s forefeet. He scrambled forward with the intent of freeing Todd’s legs, only the sound of hoofbeats behind him made him spin around to face the sound.

Kolya rode up on his mare, holding the weapon he’d used on Todd. “You’re proving to be a hard man to defeat, Lymond. While this has been entertaining, up to a point, I really must insist that you forfeit, now.”

“Shooting a bola from a crossbow? Very clever. But you were in the lead. Had you kept going instead of lying in wait for me, you would have won by now. You didn’t need to cheat.”

Kolya’s face darkened at John’s words. “With you riding that son of Satan? I doubt it. As it was, you came upon us much faster than I supposed. It ends here, though.”

“It will do you no good, Kolya. Word of your infamy has gone back to the Justice of the Peace. Even if I concede the race, you will not be declared the winner. And I will not give Lantea over to a cheat and a scoundrel such as you.”

“You have no proof I was behind any of this. And with you dead, your young brother will have no choice but to turn everything over to me. I confess, I would have enjoyed taking your lands and your monies regardless, but you’ve proven to be troublesome enough that I prefer to deal with you permanently.”

“I think murder will be a little hard to explain, even for you.”

“Anything can be made to look like an accident. Ask your father. Oh yes, I was there that day, too.”

John sucked in his breath sharply. “You can hardly expect anyone to believe I would commit suicide during the middle of a horse race.”

“No, but your horse’s reputation is quite well-known. When they find your dead body covered in hoof-marks, no one will think anything other than poor Lymond’s beast got the better of him.”

John glanced over at Todd, who lay on his side, winded. The horse had stopped struggling to get up. He rolled the whites of his eyes in John’s direction, nostrils flaring as he breathed heavily.

A slight movement at the Folly caught his attention. Someone was at one of the upper windows.

“My horse is hardly in a position to stomp on me,” John drawled, keeping Kolya’s attention focused on him.

“Your horse is not the only one who kills men.” Kolya gave a short laugh, tossing the crossbow affair aside. He brought his crop down sharply on Sora’s haunches and she surged forward, bit in her teeth, as she ran toward John.

The shrieking whine of Rodney’s sailship burst forth from the upper window of the Folly and headed straight toward Kolya’s mount. The mare tossed her head up in confusion, and rocked back on her hindlegs as the device bore down with a noisy descent. Smoke billowed out the back of it, more than John remembered from the last time Rodney had demonstrated its workings, and the sight was truly alarming to the uninitiated.

Especially if the uninitiated was a horse.

Mouth open despite the powerful bit, Sora put her nose in the air and began backing up. Kolya cursed and kicked, smacking her sides with the crop and hauling back on the reins, which only made things worse. As the device buzzed over her head, the mare reared, pawing the air with her forelegs. Kolya snatched at the reins for balance, and the sharp bit cut into the mare’s flesh, causing her to go over backward. She landed heavily on her back, pinning Kolya beneath her as her legs clawed toward the sky. She rolled off of him, and got to her feet, running over his prone body as she galloped away. The sailship headed into the woods, were it struck a tree and burst into flames. It went down as a smoldering, smoking ruin.

Rodney came barreling out of the Folly huffing and puffing like one of his engines. “John! Are you unhurt? Tell me you are unhurt!”

“I’m well, McKay. I’m afraid the Count has been gravely injured.” John stood looking down at Kolya.

Kolya’s face was grey, and a trickle of blood came out the corner of his mouth and nose. He opened and closed his mouth several times, but no words came out.

Rodney came to stand beside John. “He’s not going to make it, is he?”

John shook his head. “No. Not with that color. Probably crushed his chest. Collapsed lung.”

Rodney’s fair skin paled. He looked as though he might cry, his brow furrowing and his mouth hanging open as he stared with wide eyes at the dying man at their feet. “I didn’t mean... I wasn’t trying to... I only wanted to keep him from hurting you!”

John touched his arm. “I know. It’s as much his fault as anyone’s.” If Kolya had only let go of Sora’s mouth, she probably wouldn’t have flipped over on him.

“Right. Yes. Well, then. Right.” Rodney stared down at Kolya, who was struggling to get air into a chest that could no longer expand.

John pulled him away, dragging Rodney by the arm toward Todd. “What are you doing here?”

“If I was going to plan a bit of mischief, this is where I’d do it. I’m sorry I didn’t see him sooner. He was hiding in the trees.”

“A ‘bit of mischief’? That’s doing it brown. How’d you get here? Don’t tell me you rode a horse, McKay?” John crossed over to where Todd lay on his side on the ground.

“Well, why ever not? Me, ride, that is. I told you. Riding was for when you needed to get somewhere. I needed to get here. I have my mount tied in the woods over there.” Rodney pointed at the clump of trees leading toward the Downs.

“Do you have a knife with you, by any chance?”

“A knife? Well, yes. Yes, somewhere, I do.” A search of Rodney’s pockets revealed a small penknife.

John took it and knelt behind Todd’s forelegs. “Stand back, McKay. I don’t know how he’ll react.” He touched Todd on the shoulder. The horse tried to heave himself to his feet, but John spoke quietly to him and stilled his movement again. “I know you killed the last man who approached you with a knife, but you have to trust me if you want to be free.”

The horse flicked an ear but otherwise did not move as John sawed through the hobbles on his legs with the knife.

“Hurry, hurry.” Rodney pointed at the tree line behind them where riders were emerging. “The rest of the field is coming.”

The rope parted and the horse scrabbled to his feet, giving his whole body a shake.

“Well?” Rodney asked impatiently.

“I’m not riding if he’s injured.”

Todd, however, lifted his head alertly at the sight of the horses coming up the hill and bugled in defense of his territory. He tried to drag John back onto the path ahead of the other runners, but John tugged sharply on the reins.

“Go on! The horse is going to go with or without you. I’ll handle things here. Go win that race, man!”

John collected the reins and put them over Todd’s head. Taking hold of the saddle in order to pull himself up, he turned to Rodney. “I’ll need a leg up.”

“Here! Hurry! You can still win this!”

John rather thought not. Oh sure, he could probably win the race, but Kolya dying would probably make things worse. More than likely, the debts would be inherited by Kolya’s heir, whoever that might be. Still there was the wager to win back Ruthless, and the other bets he’d made as well. Rodney had interlocked his fingers and was waiting, so John put his knee in Rodney’s hands. “Count of three,” John said.

As Rodney counted, John bounced up and down slightly on the ball of his other foot so that on the count of three, when Rodney lifted him up, he sprang as best he could into the saddle. Todd danced sideways as he landed heavily in the saddle, but Rodney hung on to the bridle until John got his stirrups. John turned Todd so that the horse’s body blocked the view of the riders coming up the hill toward them and leaned off the side to kiss Rodney.

“Yes, yes. That’s all fine and well, but go, damn you! Ride, Major Sheppard! Ride!” Rodney smacked Todd on the shoulder and backed away as the horse turned his head to look at him.

Laughing, John spun Todd on his haunches and squeezed hard, clucking to him at the same time. Todd blasted off, picking up speed as he galloped away. Leaning down low over Todd’s neck, John’s shoulders and arms pumped in rhythm with the galloping horse as they tore their way across the Downs. Ahead, in the small village of Banbury, the church steeple gleamed like a white signpost in the sun.

****

Jim had been waiting for him at the finish line. He’d taken Todd off John’s hands, tsked at the description of how Kolya had brought Todd down, and inspected the horse for injury, declaring him sound before leading him away to be cooled off. He’d taken one look at John and had informed him that a long rubdown with some liniment and a hot bath were in his future, if he wanted to be able to move on the morrow.

John had thought he knew just the man to administer that rubdown.

Sir Henry had met him as he was shaking hands with Lord Carruthers, who had assured him that his men would bring Ruthless back to Lantea in the morning.

“Bad business, this. A very bad business, what?” Sir Henry had been visibly disturbed.

John had explained that he and the Count had what John had thought to be a friendly wager on the outcome of the race, but that it would appear that Kolya had taken the matter far more seriously than John had ever imagined.

“Bad show. Bad show. Still, there’s no accounting for these foreign nationals. Hot-tempered, all of them.”

As riders had trailed in behind John, word of the perfidy that had taken place during the race became known. Sir Henry had assured John that though another inquest would be held, there was no doubt that Kolya’s own rash actions had resulted in his severe injury and subsequent death.

For Kolya had been dead indeed when the doctor had taken his cart out to the Folly to attend him.

Jim had taken a look at the young man’s cob and pronounced the injury not serious, as it didn’t penetrate the frog of the foot. The young man, whose name was Bob, had been relieved. He had been given leave to start working at the stables the following week.

Sora had been waiting for them in the stableyard when they returned back to Lantea, her mouth bloody, her reins in pieces where she’d stepped on them, her sides dark with sweat. John had ordered her stripped of her tack, rubbed down, and put in one of the paddocks. If someone from Kolya’s estate wanted her, they could come and get her. Until then, she would be cared for and fed.

He almost fell asleep in the tub. Keeping the cast out of the water had proved challenging, and it was starting to itch down inside. He hoped that it would come off soon, but then what excuse would Rodney give to stay on at Lantea? Would there even be a place for Rodney to stay in a few months? These were but a few of the thoughts that nipped at his heels as he soaked in the tub, but the events of the day took their toll and the heated, scented water made him drowsy. As the water cooled, he rang for his valet to assist him in getting out of the deep copper bath, and then dismissed the man as he toweled himself dry and put on his dressing gown.

A knock at the door made him lift his head from where he was leaning over the hearth, toweling his hair.

“Come in.”

The door opened, and he smiled when Rodney entered the room bearing a tray.

“Hello. I intercepted Halling on his way up with something for you to eat. I come bearing gifts, as well.”

John walked carefully back to his chair in front of the fire, easing himself into it with caution. “Gifts?”

Rodney set the tray down on the small table by the fire, and dragged a chair for himself closer to John. He poured John a steaming cup of coffee from the pot on the tray and picked up a piece of bread. “Shall I toast it for you?”

“Please.” John couldn’t think of anything that smelled finer than that of toasted bread and butter, along with the rich aroma of coffee. Unless, or course, it was Rodney himself. Or a rasher of bacon. Yes. Some bacon would be heavenly, right about now.

Rodney busied himself hacking a large piece of bread off the loaf and impaled it on the toasting fork, holding down close to the glowing embers of the fire. “Yes, gifts. Jim sends his love by way of a bottle of evil-smelling liniment. I’m supposed to rub it on your limbs, like you were one of his precious horses. I think this is supposed to be a great compliment, but I’m not sure I want to sleep with someone smelling of horse.” He inspected the bread, and returned it to the heat of the hearth.

“Ah.” No doubt, it was Jim’s patented own recipe. Like Rodney said, it probably smelled to high heaven.

“I have a gift for you, too.”

John knew Rodney well-enough by now to know that it wasn’t just his proximity to the fire that was making his face turn red. Rodney continued to fiddle with the toast with his clever, clever hands, rotating the bread for even browning on the fork.

“You don’t need to give me anything, McKay. Hell, Rodney, you saved my life today. And you put your entire wealth on the line for me, too. You don’t owe me anything.” John sank back into the depths of his chair, content to watch Rodney through half-closed eyes, stretching his legs out toward the warmth of the fire. There was a time when he’d thought all he needed was a horse and an open field over which to ride. Now he knew better. He needed this. He needed Rodney in his life, fussing over him, making him toast, showing John his outlandish experiments and making him laugh. He was going to miss this when Rodney left, as surely he must in time.

“Don’t refuse it until you’ve opened it. That wouldn’t be polite.” Rodney cast a sideways glance at him, both eyebrows raised in impish delight. He took the toast off the fork and lavishly spread butter on it, tearing off a piece to pop into his mouth. “Ah. Perfect.” He smacked his lips and closed his eyes with a little moan of pleasure. The sound was so visceral, so familiar, that John’s cock stirred sleepily underneath his gown.

“I thought you were making toast for me.”

“I am, I am. I’m just testing the first piece.” Rodney sucked the butter off his fingers and handed the bread to John. He set about making another for himself.

John ate his toast and took a sip from his coffee cup before he noticed the leather packet lying on the tray. “What’s this?” He picked up the thin doeskin sheaf.

Rodney merely smiled, moving his head and shoulders from side to side as though dancing to some unheard melody. “Open it.” His glee was as plain as the sharp nose on his face.

John undid the tapes holding the packet closed and opened it to reveal his father’s I.O.U.s. Every last outstanding debt that Kolya had been holding over him.

“What did... how did you manage...?” John looked up helplessly at Rodney, who was beaming at him like St. Nicholas on his feast day, about to hand out presents.

“He had the papers on him. I don’t know what he planned to do with them. Perhaps force you to turn over Lantea in front of the entire village? I don’t know. But he certainly didn’t have any further use for them.” Rodney clamped his mouth shut suddenly. “I didn’t mean for anyone to die, today, John...”

John set down the papers and pushed himself up out of the chair, crossing over to Rodney’s side. “He as good as confessed to murdering my father, Rodney. Don’t let his death weigh on your conscience another moment.”

“Really?” The sudden wave of relief that poured over Rodney’s features was swept away in a rush of anger. “That bastard! I’m sorry I only killed him once, then.”

John chuckled and then carefully straddled Rodney’s legs, letting his dressing gown part along his spread thighs. Rodney put down the toasting fork, the bread forgotten as they kissed. Those marvelous hands found something else to occupy them, and John groaned into Rodney’s mouth while trying to undo the buttons on his waistcoat.

“How long have you known I was Major Sheppard?” John asked, teasing the outer edge of Rodney’s ear with his lips.

“Oh, that. Weeks. I mean, you were far too well-versed in military matters to be the mere fop you were pretending to be. Of course, it seemed to give you some perverse sort of pleasure to wind me up, so I allowed the deception to continue.” Rodney yelped suddenly, his hips jerking upward against John as John nipped his earlobe. “Very well, then. Days. Or rather, today. I figured it out this morning.”

John just looked at him, slowly drawing Rodney’s cravat off his collar and tossing it to the floor behind them.

“Oh, if you must insist, I tumbled to it when Jim accidentally referred to you as The Major’ this morning in the stables. As soon as you rode out for the race, I asked him to give me a mount so I could ride out to the Folly.” Rodney sounded sulky, so John kissed away his pouting.

“Why did you change your mind about...coffee?”

“What?” Rodney looked up at him with a slightly dazed expression, lips swollen and red from the thorough kissing they’d just received. “Change my mind?”

“Yes.” John nuzzled his cheek, reveling in the coarse bristle of Rodney’s jaw line against his skin. “The night of the intruder. One minute you were loudly professing your preference for tea, and the next you were... enthusiastically sampling my coffee.”

“Oh, that.” Rodney was silent a moment. He brushed a finger over John’s collar bone until he reached the center of John’s chest. “Well. There you were. Waving a pistol and being all heroic. In that ratty old dressing gown and those buckskins that fit you like a glove. Really indecent, they were. You’d forgotten to put on your shirt. And there was this dark trail of hair pointing straight down to here.” He dragged the point of his finger slowly down John’s chest, riding out the ripples of movement as John’s muscles contracted, only to end up with his hand on John’s cock. Rodney palmed John with all the concentration he gave one of his devices. “That was the real you. Not the dressed up you. Not the drawling you, or the dandified you. I couldn’t help myself. I had to know what you tasted like.”

John arched back slightly and closed his eyes, suddenly catching his breath in a gasp.

“What is it?” Rodney was alarmed.

“Back spasm,” John said through gritted teeth. “I suspect I’ve sat astride enough for one day.”

Rodney helped him to his feet and over to his bed.

“You should rest,” Rodney said, once he’d gotten John settled on the mattress. “I have a little proposal for you to think about.”

“Yes?” Now it was John’s turn to pout. Because if Rodney thought he could just wind John up like that and walk away...

“Yes. It occurs to me that there is no longer an impediment to your brother marrying the chit he’s been dangling after, am I right?”

John thought about it for a moment. “Yes, I don’t see why Northcoate would object to David marrying his daughter now.”

“So.” Rodney eased himself on the mattress beside John, one leg hanging off the edge to rest on the floor. “David will most likely set up his own establishment. Which means, ah, there really isn’t any reason for me to go away, now is there? I mean, it’s not like you won’t have room here for me. Should I choose to stay, that is.”

John’s smile must have split his face. He quickly schooled his features into one of nonchalance.“No, scads of room. Really. We could wander about the halls for days without running into each other.”

“Exactly so!” Rodney brightened. “Of course, I’ll need to go to London for a few weeks. I have my paper to present, and there’s a little man who’s giving lectures at the Academy that I want to hear, and I need to pick up some more supplies.”

“I probably need to go to London for a few weeks, myself.” John tapped his lips as though in thought. “Take up my seat in the House of Lords, and all that.”

“Quite so. Quite so.” Rodney slapped his thighs briskly. “So, then. You. Me. Some time in London. Some time in the country. Me with my experiments, and you with your horses. Quite a civil arrangement, eh?”

“Quite.” John was dry. He waited a heartbeat, then motioned Rodney closer with a curling of his index finger. When Rodney leaned in, John let his breath brush Rodney’s ear. “You know, McKay. Given the events of today, there’s not a soul alive who would think it strange if I walked oddly for the next few days.”

The way Rodney’s pupils dilated and his mouth curved into a smile told John all he needed to know.

~fin