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A Duke's Desire

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Gloucestershire, May, 1818

 

As Rose Hall looms into view through the carriage window, Duke Aegir feels the old twinge in his knee return. Three years on, he’s learned to trust it as a portent of rain, ill tidings, or quite often, both. Much as he’s eager to see his old friend, the Count of Gloucester, he can’t help but suspect this visit can only end in disaster.

“What’s that heavy sigh for, Aegir?” Countess Varley asks from beside him, giving him a gentle nudge at the side of his green brocaded waistcoat. “It’s far too early in the day for gloomy ruminations.”

“I’m not gloomy,” Ferdinand protests. “Or ruminating.”

Countess Varley and her companion, the esteemed opera singer Dorothea Arnault, exchange a knowing look.

“Fine. But I assure you, I am not ruminating on anything in particular.” He glances out the carriage window. “General ruminations are permitted on a lengthy carriage ride.”

Bernadetta smiles at that. Her bright hair is set in violet ringlets that frame her face, and he is heartened to see what a lovely young woman she has become in the past few years, even as her confidence grew. As all their confidence grew, really, once the gloomy spectre of scandal had passed them by. “Fair enough,” she says. “But I hope you’ll cheer up once we arrive. It should be a lively crowd gathered tonight—Count Gloucester has excellent taste in friends.”

“I hear he’s invited an Ottoman prince,” Dorothea says.

Bernadetta fans herself with a delicate white lace fan. “And that Hanover princess—the one everyone was making a fuss over last season? When her betrothed quite abruptly passed away.”

Ferdinand whistles, low. “Ah, yes, I recall that scandal. I shall have to watch my wine glass carefully.”

Bernadetta and Dorothea both giggle at that. “They say,” Bernadetta continues, “that she is member of a secret society, in league with other Hanovers, French, and more. One set against the crown. But I am sure it is just more gossip.”

Ferdinand frowns. “That would be very dangerous gossip, if true.” As Bernadetta well should know.

“Well, she may prove a useful ally to our little circle, all the same.”

They descend into uneasy silence, and Ferdinand stretches his right leg out and works his thumb against the knotted muscle just north of his knee. Three years, and he’s gotten no better at easing the tension in it. Not the way he used to, steady gloved hands somehow melting the pain away as that cold gaze turned impossibly soft. Impossible to resist. As if the duke’s officer’s tent had been its own little world, far away from blood and strife and prying eyes, and so long as they were together, nothing else could intrude.

But reality had intruded, and all too soon. By the time Ferdinand’s cavalry unit was preparing to advance on Waterloo, the dark-haired spymaster had evaporated, like the shadow he was, and Ferdinand had been left with nothing but the reminder of the world they really inhabited.

A world he and his companions are devoted to changing, but progress is excruciatingly slow.

“Ferdie?” Bernadetta asks softly, thankfully interrupting his thoughts as the carriage comes to a stop. “Would you like help getting down?”

It’s humiliating, he thinks, his late father’s voice intrusive and sour. A true lord, a decorated war hero no less, should never need rely on anyone else—and certainly not a woman. But as Ferdinand’s nerves fire in agony as he bends his leg back into place, he takes respite in the knowledge his traitorous father is gone—and with him, the old way of things.

“Please.”

She smiles, and climbs out the other side with Dorothea, then circles round to help steady Ferdinand as he steps out of the cab and steadies himself on his walking cane. The spring day is bright and merry around them as he takes in the grounds of Rose Hall—nary a cloud in sight. Surely his leg must be mistaken.

No servants file out to greet them, but that’s no surprise. Like Ferdinand himself, Count Gloucester did away with much of his household staff upon his father’s death, retaining only those he could pay a living wage and, crucially, could trust for their discretion. Since the wicked crimes of their forebears were exposed, they have all of them been stumbling their way toward self-sufficiency even as they do their best to bring about a new order in the House of Lords. For all their idiosyncrasies, Ferdinand is grateful to have found allies like Bernadetta and Lorenz.

It's quite a full life they have made for themselves, all things considered. And if the sting of loneliness finds its way into Ferdinand’s heart in the chill of night, then perhaps it’s only a small price to pay.

They enter Rose Hall, a bright, open country estate, at least compared to many of its peers, and make their way toward the parlor, where Lorenz’s guests are assembled across numerous seating clusters. A pale-haired woman Ferdinand doesn’t recognize plays a progression of watery chords on the fortepiano, while Lorenz lounges on the divan, his arm slung dangerously close to his conversation partner, a dark-haired, olive-skinned man in an opulent suit of rough silk. At their entrance, though, Lorenz bounds to his feet and clasps his hands together.

“Oh, splendid!” he exclaims, in his usual curlicue tone. “We are all assembled at last. Your journey was comfortable, I trust?”

“Pleasant enough,” Dorothea says, and drops into a curtsey before him. “Dorothea Arnault. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Count Gloucester.”

“Charmed, my lady. I am so glad you could join us for this more intimate evening, in advance of tomorrow night’s ball.” With a polite bow, he turns toward Ferdinand, and his smile breaks wide. “Ferdie. My dearest friend.”

Before Ferdinand can protest, Lorenz has wrapped him in a hearty embrace, and Ferdinand’s knee buckles in protest; his cane is knocked aside. “Lorenz—” he cries, and makes an undignified claw for his friend’s waistcoat to keep himself upright.

Lorenz steps back, but keeps a firm grip on Ferdinand’s forearms to hold him upright. “Oh, Ferdie. I’m so terribly sorry—I didn’t think—”

In a blur, Lorenz and Bernadetta both are ushering Ferdinand to a chaise longue, and stretching his bad leg out quite against his fervent protests. “Better?” Bernadetta asks, and Ferdinand nods—mostly to get them to leave him alone. But instead they insist on staying crowded around them, pecking like mother hens.

“Now, you just sit, and I’ll introduce you to everyone,” Lorenz is saying, as Ferdinand grits his teeth against the pain. “This is Prince Claude, on an extended sabbatical from Ottoman—and you know Countess Ordelia—this is the Hanover Princess Edelgard von Hresvelg, we are quite delighted to make her infamous acquaintance at last—and, oh, blast, where did he go—”

“He needs space to breathe,” a cool voice says, prying through the chaos around Ferdinand like an oyster knife. “Salve. Ice from the icebox, if you have one.”

Ferdinand’s head clears, and a singular, throbbing pain drowns out all the rest as he looks up toward the speaker. Pale skin pearlescent against a dark waistcoat and jacket; raven hair cascading over one side of his face so that only one vicious, peridot eye is exposed. The smile perched on elegant lips trembles with barely suppressed contempt.

But it’s a face Ferdinand knows too well. For in the depths of their drive toward Waterloo, he spent countless nights memorizing it: with his eyes, with his fingertips, with his mouth. More than he cares to admit—with his heart. Until he vanished completely without so much as a farewell.

“Ah, yes, there you are. The Princess von Hresvelg’s guest. Marquis Vestra, is it not?” Lorenz asks.

And the intelligence officer Ferdinand knew only as Hubert cuts his eyes away with a huff before offering a curt bow.

“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” Vestra says.


Belgium, June, 1815

 

Ferdinand looks from the urgent missive he’d received by military courier from the Duke of Wellington that morning to the letter of introduction the mystery man has just handed him. Grudgingly, he must concede they are a match. “’An officer conducting matters of the utmost urgency on behalf of the Crown,’” he quotes, then stares at the dour-faced man standing before him. “That is quite a lot of words to convey very little information.”

The man takes the letter of introduction back from Ferdinand, and his glove-clad hand vanishes it into an unseen pocket. “Yes, General, that would rather be the idea.”

Around them, General Aegir’s cavalry unit slogs through the rain and mud, struggling to erect tents and makeshift stables in the rapidly deteriorating Belgian field. He should be out there with his men, and not cowering in his tent, but if he doesn’t let his knee heal up, he won’t be of any use to them where it matters. He laces his hands before himself and regards the man coolly. He is handsome, Ferdinand must admit, but with sharp edges of smugness that he suspects would make him quite a challenge to handle. Not that Ferdinand’s ever backed down from a challenge before.

—S’blood, if that isn’t the last thing he needs to be considering right now. “Well, I trust that whatever shadowy business you must attend to, you can do so without distracting my troops.”

“And what of you, General?” the man asks, his tone silky yet venomous. “I would hate to distract you, but you do not appear to be occupied at present.” He glances over his shoulder. “Unlike the rest of your men.”

Ferdinand’s fist tightens on the desk before him. “I am recovering from an injury sustained in our skirmish outside Ligny. I assure you, no one is more frustrated by my indolence than I am.”

The man’s shoulders ease somewhat at that, but that suspicious look remains. “My condolences.” He folds his hands behind his back. “Very well. If my paperwork is in order, then I shall leave you to your—ah, recuperating—”

“Join me for supper,” Ferdinand blurts, before he himself is aware of what he is doing. Yet the look of genuine shock on the man’s face is reward in itself—he’s managed to catch him off-guard after all. “I . . . I like to take the measure of the men in my unit. Even if this is only a temporary embed.”

“And the idleness really is going to your head, I imagine,” he says, smirking. “Very well, General, if that is your wish.”

He starts to turn, then spins back. One black leather-gloved palm presses onto the desk, dangerously close to Ferdinand’s own, and he leans forward, harsh eyes all but glowing in the poor light. “Or do you prefer Duke, now?”

Ferdinand swallows, but refuses to lean away.

“Ferdinand Aegir. Eldest of the late duke, one of the seven lords found guilty of high treason and conspiracy against the crown, executed at the Tower just last month. How fortunate for you, considering there had been some discussion between you and your father of late as to whether or not he would allow you to inherit his duke’s coronet.”

“That is not—”

“He was quite disdainful of your habit of rejecting his attempts to arrange your marriage to any number of suitable young ladies, I understand. And yet here you are. The duke. Unwed. Commanding your own cavalry unit. And none questioning your loyalty to the crown, or the traditions it upholds.”

Ferdinand is breathless, as if he’s just run several miles; he knows there is some manner of threat in the man’s words, but he can’t yet find the goal behind it. The matter of his father’s treason is well-known, but it has never been a secret that their relationship was fraught. As for the matter of his bachelorhood—it is less unusual given the ongoing campaigns for many years to stem Napoleon’s tide. It is only after the war, God willing that there is such a time, that he will have to find a more permanent excuse. But if this is the man’s way of letting Ferdinand know that he sees him for who and what he is—

“Some of us,” Ferdinand says, “would rather effect change through cooperation rather than opposition. In any case—I fail to see how any of that is your concern.”

The man’s smile widens, calling to mind a Tower raven stretching its wings. He pushes off of the desk and straightens back up. “You wished to take my measure, did you not?” he asks. “I thought it only fair to let you know that I have taken yours.”

Ferdinand’s pulse is a wardrum in his ears. “And what did you find?” he asks.

The man pauses, already at the mouth of Ferdinand’s tent; his gloved hand caresses the tied-up flap. Finally, he looks back over his shoulder.

“That I should like to join you for supper.”


1818

 

“And how is it,” Count Gloucester asks, waving a fork skewered with steak, “that a Hanover princess came to be allied with the Marquis Vestra? You’ll forgive me, Marquis, but I scarcely remember hearing a word out of Vestra lands. Your family is curiously absent from so much of the Ton.”

“We have always concerned ourselves with more serious matters,” Vestra says, diagonal from Ferdinand at the dining table. As he clutches a glass of wine without sipping it, his gaze finds Ferdinand, but Ferdinand quickly looks away. “Our fathers were close associates before the late marquis’s untimely demise.”

The Ottoman prince barks with laughter. “Are any of you Brits’ fathers alive? Honestly, now.”

An uneasy silence settles across the table as they all exchange looks, which only seems to add to Claude’s amusement. Finally, Bernadetta sits up straight.

“Our fathers,” she says with a slight quaver, “and a few others, were known as the Traitorous Seven. They conspired with Napoleon’s forces to cut off the prince regent’s access to the crown. And were executed for it.”

Claude whistles under his breath. “This sounds like one of your Shakespeare’s plays.”

“We have a long history of treachery in the empire,” Vestra says wryly.

Ferdinand frowns, however. “We know the names of the Seven—and the late Vestra was not one of them.”

“Indeed. The Vestras have always operated in the background, serving the crown, or so we are told.” He sips his wine at last. “We do whatever is required of us to protect our sworn interests, else we pay the price. As my father learned.”

He’d known on meeting him that Hubert had to have been some kind of intelligence officer; there was no other reason for the extreme secrecy around his attachment to Ferdinand’s regiment, or his own refusal to speak about himself. But to imagine it as a lifelong service, forever placing such a duty before his own wants—

Well. It changed nothing. He extricated himself from Ferdinand’s life like an arrowhead, wrenched free without a thought for the damage he wrought in his wake. There was no honor or virtue in a man like that, no matter his reasons.

So Ferdinand averts his gaze, and has nothing more to say.

“Well! I think that’s enough dire talk for one night!” Miss Arnault exclaims. “Princess Edelgard. I understand you’re quite accomplished as a pianist.”

“Please. Just Edelgard will do.” Edelgard, the white-haired Hanover princess, smiles at Dorothea. “And you’re a singer?”

“Oh, of a sort.”

“Do not let her modesty fool you. Dorothea is an accomplished opera soprano.” Ferdinand is on far more comfortable terrain speaking boastfully about his friends. “She performed in the chorus at the London premiere of Rossini’s Barber of Seville.”

Edelgard’s cheeks turn rosy. “Then would you perhaps indulge a hobbyist like me?”

Dorothea clasps Edelgard’s arm in hers. “It would be a pleasure.”


In the parlor, they are family at last—not one borne of blood and titles, but closeness, common ground. The way Dorothea looks at Edelgard as they try out a Haydn duet; the lattice of Bernadetta and Lysithea’s fingers as they flip through the Gloucesters’ collection of tomes. The quick laughter between Lorenz and Claude as Lorenz teaches him Whist, and Claude teaches him something called 400. Tomorrow, they will open Rose Hall to the county, and slip back into their roles, but tonight—they are free.

It should be enough for Ferdinand, as he sips his sherry and flips through a poetry book without really reading it. It should be enough to know that he survived his father’s treachery, that he fought for this, that he might have a hand in shaping a new Britain. That his friends have found their own kind of love, and that they’ve all found each other, and that he is in control of his destiny and his title and his lands, and need never fear the condemnation of his father again.

He should not want for more—certainly not in the form of a grim-faced marquis who will always choose his duty over Ferdinand himself. And even that, he supposes, could have only been a convenient excuse.

Ferdinand closes the poetry book with a sigh. Said marquis is nowhere to be found now, anyway; he had been lurking in the corner like a cobweb, writing in some infernal journal, but he must have slipped away without bidding them all goodnight. Ferdinand makes his rounds, offering a quiet kiss on the crown of the head to Bernadetta and Lysithea and a sturdy pat of the shoulder to Lorenz, before excusing himself on account of his wound.

As he makes his way down the dark corridor toward the guest rooms, the bank of windows along one side revealing the craggy lowlands around them, he sees a black silhouette set against the moonlight, more void than form.

“Duke Aegir,” Hubert—Marquis Vestra, Ferdinand scolds himself—says quietly.

Moonlight sets him in silver as he turns from the window, his expression as serious as ever. He is thick with shadow. Yet it is still not enough to stop the needy tug in Ferdinand’s gut.

“Vestra.” Ferdinand stops only long enough to nod to him in acknowledgment. “I bid you good night.”

“—Ferdinand, wait.”

Ferdinand stops a few steps past him and stares at the ceiling to stop the rush of tears toward his eyes. He waits; exhales and inhales slowly; then turns back to Vestra.

“I . . . wanted to thank you, earlier,” Vestra says at last. “For not exposing the details of my work.”

Is that all he wants? Ferdinand wants to kick himself. And maybe Vestra too. “I would have to actually know what your work is to expose it.”

Vestra’s shoulders draw up at that. “You’re an intelligent man. I am certain you have your guesses.”

Assassination, espionage, subterfuge and sabotage—Ferdinand can imagine it all, and has. In darker moments, he’s told himself that Hubert abandoning him without a word was what paved the way for their victory at Waterloo. In very dark moments, he wished he hadn’t even then.

“And . . .” Vestra bows his head now. “I also wished to apologize.”

Ferdinand’s throat constricts. Against his will, his feet move him forward; close enough he can see Vestra’s strong nose and jaw in the moonlight now, and the gleam of it against that flop of dark hair that all but covers one eye.

“For?” Ferdinand asks carefully.

“That I . . . had to leave your regiment without a word.” Vestra’s gaze gleams in the darkness as he looks up at Ferdinand. His waistcoat puffs as he draws a deep breath—“That I had to leave you.”

Ferdinand transfers his walking cane to his left hand, and reaches out with his right. White cotton gloved fingertips brush at Vestra’s cheek, and Vestra tilts his head into them, eyes lidding. He makes a sound, then, barely perceptible, that nonetheless threatens to split Ferdinand in two: the soft sigh of someone who’s known no physical contact in three long years, and is afraid to allow themselves to enjoy it now.

Ferdinand knows, because he feels it, too.

“Do you regret doing it?” Ferdinand asks.

Vestra’s lips part, his mouth a dark well. “I regret any hurt it may have caused you.”

Ferdinand’s hand quivers, ready to fall. “That is not the same.”

Vestra’s breath curls around Ferdinand’s bare wrist above the cuff of his glove as he exhales. He takes a step closer—they are nearly chest to chest now, and Ferdinand is buzzing from the nearness, so foreign and familiar at once. “What would you have had me do?”

“You might have trusted me.” Ferdinand shakes his head.

“I barely knew you,” Vestra says. With a bitter laugh, he shakes his head. “My work was too vital to entrust—”

Ferdinand’s hand slides back to cup his skull, thumb at his cheek, heart pounding. It would take nothing at all to tilt up onto the balls of his feet and meet Vestra’s lips with his own.

But that was a battle line they never crossed—and one he never will.

“If you do not know how fiercely I protect those I love, and their interests,” Ferdinand says, forcing himself to step back—to remove his hand from that lovely dark hair—“then you do not know me at all.”

Returning his cane to the proper hand, he makes his way to his rooms, and ignores the sharp twinge in his chest that matches the one in his thigh.


1815

 

The roasted pheasant and potatoes have long since been decimated, and they’ve just opened the second bottle of port, Ferdinand regaling the strange man—Hubert, he insists on being called—with a tale of rescuing his lieutenant from a brothel he mistakenly entered when the pain hits. “I—forgive me,” Ferdinand says, face flushed from more than just the port. “It is still fresh, and I—must stretch it out.”

“Do you require assistance?” Hubert asks, setting aside his glass.

Ferdinand’s instinct is to wave him off—A proper man must always be self-sufficient, his father’s toxic voice chides—but there is true concern in the furrow of Hubert’s brow. How nice it might be, Ferdinand thinks selfishly, to be fussed over for once. Especially by this unknowable man whose wry smiles and cutting remarks nonetheless hint at much darker and deeper waters, a wellspring of emotion that Ferdinand finds himself wishing to tap.

But that is likely the port talking, and talking entirely too much at that. “Just enough to help me over to my cot.”

Hubert is under his arm in an instant, steadying him; dressed down to his waistcoat, he is impossibly slender and lithe, but there is surprising strength in him as he bolsters Ferdinand’s bulkier cavalier form. Once Ferdinand is seated, settled against a wall of pillows to keep him upright, Hubert then slides Ferdinand’s right leg over the edge of the mattress and straightens it out with just enough firmness to do the job without too much pain.

Ferdinand watches his black gloved hands do so, and wonders, for the thousandth time that evening, just what sort of man this “Hubert” really is, to have so much darkness and tenderness all tangled up in one wiry form.

“I apologize for cutting our evening short,” Ferdinand says with a sigh. “I was quite enjoying your company.”

Hubert arches one thin eyebrow. “You were sitting in a chair, and now you are sitting on your bed. I hardly see the difference.” He is perched on the lip of the cot, hand mere inches from Ferdinand’s leg he’d just touched. “If you wish to rest, however . . .”

Ferdinand swallows; looks him in the eye. “Stay.” Hastily, he adds—“If it pleases you.”

Hubert’s lips coil into something that sparks terribly wicked thoughts in Ferdinand like a match striking. “I hope it is not excessive flattery to tell you that your company is indeed preferable to that of my sleeping sack and the mud.”

 Ferdinand laughs shyly at that. In his youth and at school, he was often accused of being too loud, too much, too boastful and too kind all at once. But the war and his father’s treachery have stripped away much of his softness, he fears. It was all just padding around brittle, vulnerable bones, and now they are far too exposed.

“We’ll see if you still feel that way after I’ve polished off this bottle.”

Hubert regards him with that singular visible eye, yet its intensity is more than enough. Rather than piercing him, however, as it did earlier, Ferdinand feels simply—beheld. As if Hubert might see all of him, and not only one of the faces his dons as general, duke, or son.

“Your wound.” Hubert’s attention abruptly turns to Ferdinand’s right knee and thigh, and his fingers ghost over the thick padding of wound dressing beneath Ferdinand’s breeches. “Tell me about it.”

“I had turned in the saddle to reach behind me to thrust my lance at an assailant,” Ferdinand says. His tone softens. “In doing so, it exposed the inside of my right thigh, and it was enough for a spearman’s jab to rake across the inside of my knee and up my thigh just so.” He tightens a fist at his side. “My horse—Persephone—she saved my life. Hauled me immediately away from the melee without being commanded. I should have scolded her for that, but . . . I am grateful, I suppose, to have survived.”

“There is no shame in living to fight another day,” Hubert says. His thumb runs the line of the wound dressing over Ferdinand’s breeches, stopping halfway up his thigh. “An inch higher, though—”

“Yes, the surgeon said as much. I’d have bled out long before reaching his tent.” Ferdinand’s thigh muscle twitches. “The sutures are healing up nicely, though, and there is no sign of infection, thank God—”

“It isn’t the wound itself that pains you, though.” His thumb runs back down the line of Ferdinand’s quadricep at the inside of his thigh. “It’s the nerve damage. Something I’m sure our field surgeons lack the patience or finesse to treat.”

Ferdinand realizes he has been holding his breath; he lets it out with a slow nod. “It is not constant. It would almost be better if it were. But no, I cannot seem to predict when I will feel that shooting pain, or for how long—”

Hubert’s thumb pushes into the meat of his muscle, and Ferdinand forgets what more he was going to say, and quite probably his own name. “May I?” Hubert asks.

Ferdinand can do nothing but nod. “—Please.”

He begins to knead Ferdinand’s thigh, scooting closer so that he is seated on the mattress between the outstretched right leg and Ferdinand’s left, which is partially dangling off the cot’s edge. Brow furrowed in concentration, it feels as though he is splitting apart the very fibers of Ferdinand’s muscle, picking free an old knot. There is a sharp crackle of nerve pain—and then an unexpected wave of bliss.

“Oh,” Ferdinand breathes. “That is—much better.”

They fall into a comfortable silence as Hubert’s hands continue their work, Hubert glancing up at him periodically as if for approval, which Ferdinand offers in spades with a peaceful smile. Gradually, however, that wry, sinful twist returns to Hubert’s lips, and he laughs to himself.

“What is it?” Ferdinand asks.

“I, ah.” Scarlet rises on Hubert’s cheeks. “I had not been properly forewarned as to how very striking the cavalry general would be, is all.”

In other circumstances, Ferdinand might have been instantly suspicious. Given this man and his miasma of secrecy, he should be suspicious still. But something about him makes Ferdinand want to be bold.

He makes Ferdinand want things for himself.

He regards Hubert for a moment as the movement of his hands slows. Finding a new rhythm. He can’t put a name to the look that passes between them; only the way it makes him feel molten inside. “Are you disappointed?”

Hubert ducks his head. “No, General, that is not the word I would use.”

Another long pause. Hubert had insinuated before he knew the truth about Ferdinand and where his interests lay. And the long stretches in their earlier conversation—the gentle bickering, flowing as easily as the wine. But he cannot trust that for certain.

“You seem to carry a certain impression of me,” Ferdinand says finally. Hopes Hubert catches his meaning.

“Perhaps it’s wishful thinking.” Hubert’s dark expression settles on him again. “Or perhaps it’s that terribly enticing cockstand of yours.”

Ferdinand winces; he’d rather hoped he wouldn’t notice. “Anyone would, when you are working that black magic with your hands as you are.”

Hubert lowers his head; his mouth rounds on the top of Ferdinand’s thigh, just by his hand. “Wouldn’t you like to know what magic I can work with my mouth?”

It takes every bit of Ferdinand’s willpower not to grab him by his collar and wrench that saucy mouth right up to his own.

“That sounds dangerously as though you are trying to entrap me,” Ferdinand says, voice husky. “If you have been sent to—suss me out, or—”

“If I wished to do that, I’d be trying to persuade you to suck my cock instead.” Hubert’s gloved hand runs further up Ferdinand’s thigh. “But given that look of bliss you donned when all I did was soothe your wound . . . I’m far more interested in seeing just what face you’ll make when I close my throat around what looks to be a most enticing cock.”

Ferdinand pauses. Taking in the dark sparkle to those celadon eyes. The pink sweep of that elegant lower lip. And the empty pocket of yearning inside him that has widened, cavernous, since the moment this arrogant, alluring man walked into his camp.

He reaches out; threads bare fingers through the dark flop of bangs that conceal one side of Hubert’s face and slowly tightens them in his grip. The noise it pulls out of Hubert—somehow both feral and pleading—goes straight into his blood.

“Such pretty words from that mouth,” Ferdinand says. “Almost a shame to silence it.”

“Almost?” Hubert asks, inching closer.

Ferdinand nods; swallows. “But not quite.”

And then this near-stranger is unbuttoning his placket; easing Ferdinand’s cock free. Rubbing his cheek against it, reverential, caressing. He is lips and tongue and a steady grip, slow and methodical, so slow Ferdinand has to bite down on his own forearm to quiet his tortured cries.

And that sound Hubert makes when Ferdinand pulls at his hair is even better with his mouth closed around Ferdinand’s cock, rumbling through him, tearing him apart. The way he finally picks up speed only when Ferdinand can bear it no more, when his body is twisted too tight and his toes curl inside his boots and his thighs squeeze at that raven-haired head—

Ferdinand cries out into his forearm, teeth digging in, fingers yanking Hubert’s hair. But Hubert is looking up at him, unblinking, as he swallows him down. Even as a dribble of cum leaks from the side of his lips, he never stops, making certain Ferdinand can see the very deliberate bob of his long throat.

“Fuck,” Ferdinand breathes.

Hubert laughs to himself; slowly slides his mouth off of Ferdinand’s softening cock and laps up what he spilled. His lips are scarlet now, and glistening, and despite Ferdinand’s dizzying haze, he wants very badly to taste those lips; he reaches for Hubert’s arm to pull him up toward him—

But Hubert resists; sits back on the far end of the cot. “Even more delectable than I’d hoped.”

Ferdinand leans forward, fingers brushing the insides of Hubert’s thigh, straining for the obvious bulge in his own breeches. “Please,” Ferdinand murmurs, “allow me—”

But Hubert’s hand closes over his and guides it back to Ferdinand’s own thigh. “Not tonight, I think. Regrettably, I still have work to do.”

And Ferdinand hates the pleading in his voice when he asks—“You won’t stay?”

Hubert closes his eyes with an exhale, then looks to the other end of the tent. “There’s always tomorrow night, General.”

And, God, how Ferdinand hates how badly he wants to kiss him, even if it’s meaningless, just to know how he tastes. But Hubert stands, far enough away that all he can do is trail his fingers on Ferdinand’s thigh. “Besides. I think you’d better rest that leg.”

And then he slips away, just a shadow in the night.