December 23, 1809
Fanny White had been the proprietress of The Olde Boote Inn since the death of her husband twenty years prior. While she may not have been an educated woman, she did know that a sudden snowstorm on the London road meant profit. Lots of profit. She could charge what she liked for her rooms and stranded travellers would pay double, even triple, for hot stew and fresh bread. For Fanny, the heavy snow falling outside might as well have been farthings falling from the sky.
Which is why she had to suppress a groan when the nobleman walked into her inn.
Most of Fanny’s customers that night were merchant men, traders, metalsmiths and skilled craftsmen heading to London to sell to the holiday crowds. They could afford to pay Fanny’s storm prices, and they didn’t complain about the small rooms or watered-down stew. But noblemen were a different kettle of fish. The gentry, in Fanny’s humble opinion, were more of a hindrance than a boon for a businesswoman like herself. They demanded the earth, ran her staff ragged to meet their lofty expectations, and all the while they had scarcely two coins to rub together. They’d haggle endlessly over the price of a room, if they even bothered to pay their bill. Worse, noblemen were arrogant, haughty creatures who acted as if Fanny should be falling all over herself to thank them for their patronage. No, Fanny preferred the merchants and simple tradesmen.
The young specimen of nobility before her was far from an intimidating example of the upper crust. He was short for a gentleman, thin and compact, and looked to be barely out of the schoolroom. His clothing was of the finest quality, but it was several years out of date and hung badly on his small frame. His unfashionably long dark hair flopped in his eyes, making him look even younger. He was also white with exhaustion, the thin skin under his eyes bruised from lack of sleep and far too much worry for such a young man.
If he hadn’t been a nobleman, Fanny might have pitied him.
“A room, if you please,” he said, and Fanny raised an eyebrow. He’d spoken softly, and without the harsh tone of command she associated with the gentry. Still, Fanny would have to disappoint him.
“Sorry m’lord, we’re full up. Sold out our last room this afternoon when the storm turned bad, and even then folks’ve had to double up. I couldn’t bed down a mouse right now.” Fanny stressed this last idea, hoping to avoid the inevitable suggestion that perhaps she might evict one of her paying merchants in favour of a gentleman who’d want the room on credit. She could hear it now. But surely something can be arranged. As if Fanny could wave a magic wand and an extra room would be miraculously tacked on to the Boote’s upper floor.
The gentleman raised his head, and the look of disappointment in his startlingly blue eyes, along with his wet, sorry state, made Fanny feel as though she’d just kicked a puppy. The lad looked impossibly young, standing there dripping in his ancient coat.
“I see,” he said, despondency creeping into his cultured voice. But it sounded as if the young man actually did see, as though he were accustomed to disappointment and didn’t take it as a personal offence.
“Well,” Fanny said, deciding that some Christian charity wouldn’t go amiss, “you’re welcome to try and squeeze in with the lot down here.” She tried and failed to picture the thin, delicate-looking young nobleman rubbing elbows with the raucous crowd of farmers and day labourers in the pub’s common room. The noise there was almost deafening, with the incessant sound of clinking ale mugs and the chatter of men snowed in for the night and surrounded by strangers who hadn’t yet heard their best stories.
“That’s very kind,” the young man murmured, trying to sound enthusiastic and failing miserably. Not that Fanny could blame him; the prospect of a night spent sitting upright in wet clothes amidst a crowd of noisy ruffians would put anyone off, and the lad looked done-in. He needed a change of clothes, rest, and a good hot meal. Several meals, by the look of him.
“Wait a bit,” Fanny sighed, surrendering to her conscience. “I might have a spot in the sitting room. There’s a…gentleman there already. A foreign gentleman. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind sharing the space.”
The man’s hopeless expression cleared and he broke into a wide smile that Fanny couldn’t help but return. This one was a charmer, that was plain to see. She’d been a widow much longer than she’d ever been a wife, but Fanny could appreciate beauty when she saw it. And the smiling young man was a sight to see.
It wasn’t until she’d left him to go ask the other gentleman if he wouldn’t mind sharing his parlor that Fanny realized what she’d done. The gentleman in question had asked for privacy, and paid handsomely for it. She could hardly blame him for wanting to avoid the prying eyes in the common room.
Still, nothing to be done for it, and the man could always say no. She squared her shoulders, rapped sharply on the door, and marched inside.
She emerged a moment later, paler than before and a little shaken. When the young man caught sight of her rushed to her side.
“Are you well, Madame?” he asked, and she nodded.
“’Course I am. Got a bit of a dressing-down, but the gentleman said you could use the parlor as long as you didn’t try to keep him up all night with chatter.”
Actually the gentleman had said much more than that, and in far harsher terms, but Fanny wasn’t going to let that keep her from coin.
“It’ll be two shillings, m’lord. Three, if you’d like stew and bread.”
“Thank you,” the young man said, fumbling for his billfold in the satchel slung over his arm. He produced two shillings and a single farthing. “Err.” He looking up at her with an embarrassed chuckle. “No meal, please. Just the room.”
Fanny nodded, trying not to roll her eyes. Noblemen were all the same. This one might have pretty manners and a pleasant face, but he was as poor as a church mouse. In fact, she’d realized some time ago that the higher-born the nobleman, the less often they carried money or bothered to settle their accounts with tradespeople like herself. At least this one had enough ready coin to cover the room.
“As you wish, sir,” Fanny said, plucking the coins out of the young man’s hand with practiced skill. “This way.”
Charles was so bloody tired of surprises.
He leaned against the doorway and allowed himself a few moments of precious rest. The journey from Cadiz had been a nightmare. He should never have attempted the crossing so late in the season. The Channel waters had been bad enough, but impassible roads, poorly-sprung carriages, terrible food and close proximity to strangers—themselves often ill or dangerous—had resulted in endless delays, an alarmingly rapid diminishing of his already limited funds, a lingering cough, and several challenges to his honour.
Not that he had much of that to begin with.
Charles sighed and pushed himself away from the door, squaring his shoulders. He forced his face to relax into an open, friendly expression, and knocked softly on the door. In response came a commanding, “Come!” that made him scurry inside.
The parlor was very dark. Every candle had been extinguished, and when Charles closed the door the only source of illumination came from the hearth. A roaring fire had been laid there, sending flickering light and welcome warmth into the room. Charles wanted to rush over and warm his aching hands, but he forced himself to first look for his host and apologize for his intrusion.
The room’s sole occupant was leaning against the mantle, elegantly at ease. The man’s head was in profile, the left side blending into the shadows; the right side of his face was backlit by the fire and stood out from the sombre colours of the room, sharp as the profile on a Roman coin.
The purity of the man’s silhouette made Charles catch his breath. He’d never before associated the word beautiful with any masculine visage. He was an admirer of men, yes, but Charles had never seen anyone more striking than this mysterious gentleman.
The man’s tall, lean body was perfectly suited to the current fashion. He wore skin-tight breeches, a long coat, and a snow-white cravat tied high in an intricate pattern of knots. Though it was very late in the day, he still looked as if he’d just stepped from his valet. A small part of Charles envied the wealth his ensemble represented, as well as the commanding ease with which he wore it.
“Good evening,” Charles said. The gentleman was staring so intently into the fire that Charles doubted he even knew Charles was in the room. He didn’t acknowledge Charles’ greeting; instead he put his boot up on the fender, one long muscled leg on display, and sipped at his drink.
Several seconds ticked by, during which Charles went from merely confused to irritated. He was used to being ignored or overlooked in a crowded room, but not when he spoke to someone directly.
“I said good evening, Sir,” he repeated. This time the man did glance his way, but he quickly returned his gaze to the fire.
The question caught Charles by surprise. In the silence the wind gave a particularly fierce howl, which seemed to underscore the man’s point.
“No,” Charles said. “I don’t suppose it is.”
The man nodded into the fire. “Your name?” he asked, tossing back another sip of his amber-coloured drink.
He should have been prepared for the accent. Charles had been told the gentleman was foreign, but his English, tinged as it was with a slight German inflection, caught Charles off guard. As had his very masculine beauty.
“Charles,” he said, struggling to find his equilibrium. He sketched out a rough bow. When the man made no move to speak, Charles was forced to prompt him for a return of the social nicety. “And you are—?”
The man hesitated, but finally said, “Mr. Lehnsherr will do.” He set his empty tumbler down on the mantle and picked up the fire poker, giving the logs in the hearth a stir. “You understand that I paid for privacy. And quiet. The proprietress assured me I’d have both. Yet here you are.”
“Here I am,” Charles agreed, feeling stupid. He wished now that he’d taken up the proprietress’ offer to sit in that dreadful common room. Better that than to be trapped with someone who resented his very presence. Even if that someone was handsome, intriguing, and carried an air of danger.
“You’re Bavarian? Or Hanoverian?”
Lehnsherr frowned and straightened away from the fire, though he didn’t look at Charles. “Prussian, actually.”
“Oh.” Charles winced. He sounded like a dunce. What was the matter with him? He wasn’t often a man at a loss for words, and certainly not because of the shape of another man’s nose, the spare line of his cheekbone, or the strong angle of his chin.
“So what the hell are you doing in my parlor?”
Enjoying the scenery, Charles almost said. He fought to conquer whatever fantasies those perfect features were inspiring. He’d long thought he’d long banished his particular attraction to brooding Byronic heroes. Charles had ruthlessly gutted any dreams revolving around the presence of such a man in his own life. And finding the epitome of those dreams standing before him in this remote inn didn’t mean he could begin again to believe there was anything to gain by indulging in such romantic nonsense.
“Obviously I’ve been stranded by the storm,” he said breezily. “You know, I’ve spent a little time in Berlin. It’s a lovely city.” It was a bland statement, but at least it was more coherent than, ‘Oh.’
By the tense set of the man’s shoulders, Charles could tell he’d said something wrong. The mention of Berlin? Perhaps Mr. Lehnsherr had unhappy associations with that city.
“I would’t call it lovely,” he said, his tone dark now, and absent the bemused annoyance it had held earlier. “And you? Where is home?”
The man’s question made Charles’ heart twist. What could he possibly say? He’d been ripped from his seat at Eton three years ago, when his mother died. The family seat in Westchester was boarded up and closed, and with Raven away at school in Switzerland, there was no place he would actually call a home. Just that wretched London townhouse where his stepfather and stepbrother lived, and Charles had no intention of ever darkening that particular door again, once he’d fulfilled his stepfather’s orders.
“Oh, here and there,” Charles said vaguely, deciding that now would be a good moment to shed his coat and perhaps avail himself of whatever strong spirit the man had been sipping at.
He shrugged out of his greatcoat, embarrassed by the rumpled, travel-stained condition of his outdated clothing but almost too tired to care.
The gentleman had still had not turned to face Charles. Charles found himself wondering about the colour of his eyes. Brown, no doubt, with that auburn hair. In his imagination the man of his dreams had always had clear green eyes.
After folding his coat over the back of a settee, Charles located the bar and poured himself a healthy finger of brandy. He threw that one back and poured one more.
“Want another?” Charles asked, offering the bottle. He turned to find Lehnsherr watching him. His face was still in profile to Charles, but something in his expression made Charles shiver. He was so intent, so focused, as though Charles were the only object of interest in the world. It was almost unnerving.
When Charles raised his glass the man blinked and snatched his own tumbler off the mantle. Charles carried the bottle of brandy over to him, willing to play barkeep to keep the peace. He expected Mr. Lehnsherr to hand over the empty glass, but instead the man turned to him and held it out, waiting for him to pour. Charles looked up to the man’s face, and nearly dropped the bottle of brandy.
The firelight fell on the side of Mr. Lehnsherr’s face that hadn’t been visible before. As the flickering light revealed his full face, Charles was stunned to silence. The left side of Lehnsherr’s face was mottled and scarred by what could only have been very old, very severe burns. Even the corner of those beautiful lips was slightly twisted by the damage. His arrogant nose was untouched, its perfection almost a mockery in that ruined face, as was the contrast of the beauty of his undamaged side.
His left eye was hidden by an eyepatch and Charles found himself wondering what lay beneath that piece of velvet, considering the damage to the skin around it. He could only guess what could fire do to the delicate tissue of the human eye.
Charles met Lehnsherr’s right eye, which was an extraordinary colour, silvery-grey and depthless in the low light. There was a soul-deep pain there, but before Charles could tease it out, Lehnsherr’s single eye flicked away.
“Did you expect an intimate candlelight dinner?” Lehnsherr asked mockingly. “Was that your intent? Or perhaps you now prefer the dark?”
Lehnsherr was angry, but for once the threat of another man’s anger didn’t shock Charles into a reaction. Instead he felt unable to look away, unable to even meet the assumed mockery of Mr. Lehnsherr’s gaze. He was still tracing the disfigurement when his vision blurred with unshed tears. Charles blinked them back, and the spell that had seemed to hold him motionless was broken.
“They tell me that, in time, one can grow accustomed to my face,” Mr. Lehnsherr said quietly, that anger threading through his voice like a silken red string. “Perhaps, in exchange for the warmth and hospitality of my parlor, you can put that observation to the test?”
“I thought…” Charles whispered, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. Mr. Lehnsherr must think him a fool, standing here with tears welling. “I thought…I thought you were so beautiful,” Charles said, trying to explain what he’d felt before. Wanting to explain why he was crying. His fantasy lover had finally taken flesh, but in the place of the hero he’d always imagined was this caustic, snarling stranger who had been hurt so brutally.
Of all the things Charles might have said, it was perhaps the worst. He saw the impact on Mr. Lehnsherr’s face before he answered with a twisted smile.
“And now you’ve discovered you were wrong,” he said, unable to completely mask the bitterness. “Perhaps some other time.”
Charles’ puzzlement must have shown in his eyes, because Lehnsherr spoke to clarify what he’d meant.
“Some other time for our candlelit supper. Some other occasion.”
With a shock, Charles realized what he’d done. He must not allow Mr. Lehnsherr to think he’d been so affected merely by the scars. It was only because he’d been what Charles had dreamed. Or, at least, he had been at one time.
“You don’t understand,” Charles said, knowing that excuse wasn’t enough.
“Believe me,” Lehnsherr said, “I understand. Better than you can imagine.”
“No,” Charles insisted stubbornly. “You don’t understand. It’s not the scars.”
Lehnsherr laughed suddenly, and Charles thought he’d never heard any laughter that contained less amusement.
“Of course,” Lehnsherr said softly. “It’s the cut of my coat. My accent, perhaps. Maybe you just don’t like Jews.”
“It’s not…” Charles tried, distracted by that admission. He wouldn’t have guessed Mr. Lehnsherr was Jewish. Not that he’d had much experience with any adherents of that faith, confined as they so often were to their remote villages and their ghettos in the large cities of Europe. But the sight of Mr. Lehnsherr’s unmoving, scarred mouth made Charles lose the thread of whatever he’d been trying to articulate.
“Are you going to pour?”
Charles considered the glass Mr. Lehnsherr held out to him. He didn’t want to offer any further offence, and it would be more polite for him to take his leave. But everything within him cried out to stay. He had to repair the damage he’d done with his unthinking reaction.
Charles slid his fingers around the Lehnsherr’s to stabilize the tumbler as he poured. They both watched the amber liquid splash into the glass and Charles felt a faint tremble run through Lehnsherr’s fingers, which were warm, strong and solid beneath his.
“Enough?” Charles asked. Lehnsherr was staring at Charles’ mouth, and Charles felt hot desire, strange and unfamiliar, begin to pound in his veins.
He released the glass and stepped back, holding the bottle of brandy clutched tight against his chest. The warm sensation of the man’s fingers lingered. This was dangerous. Very dangerous.
Mr. Lehnsherr seemed to think so too. He cleared his throat and turned back to the fire.
Neither of them spoke, but before the silence could become too uncomfortable there was a smart rap at the door.
“Yes?” Lehnsherr said, and this time his voice shook a little.
“Your meal, sir.” It was a serving girl. She was already elbowing the door open, a heavy tray balanced on one arm. A hot bowl of stew steamed there, along with a hunk of fresh bread, thick slices of cheese, and a ceramic mug of ale. Charles’ stomach grumbled, but thankfully the sound was covered by the noise of the serving girl setting the tray down on a low table by the fire.
“Anything else, sir?” she asked. Lehnsherr shook his head, digging in his pocket for a coin which he tossed to the girl. She caught it with a grin, oblivious to the tension in the room, and curtseyed, shutting the door behind her.
Mr. Lehnsherr was looking at Charles again, his gaze assessing. Charles wasn’t sure if he ought to be worried or relieved. Lehnsherr seemed calmer now, curious instead of irate. As to whatever he was thinking…well, men had been looking at Charles, in one way or another, his entire life. When he was younger, he’d often wondered if he were marked with some invisible sign. Boys and men had always seemed to know what he was, and much sooner than Charles himself had realized it.
But none of them had ever looked at Charles like Lehnsherr did, as though he were a puzzle to be figured out. Instead, they’d looked at him like an object to be claimed.
“What brings you to London?”
Mr. Lehnsherr’s question caught Charles off-guard. He had time to recover as Lehnsherr crossed the room to sit on a divan near the table with the tray. There was a problem with his stride. Though he was clearly athletic and moved with an admirable confidence and leonine grace, his steps were uneven. There was a hitch to his stride that Charles had seen before, though only in older men or the cripples who littered the streets of London. And wounded soldiers, of course. There had been a surfeit of those in recent years, after the wars with Napoleon.
A soldier. He wondered why he hadn’t seen it before. As Lehnsherr sat and gracefully unfolded a napkin across his lap, Charles realized why the innkeeper had had such a hard time placing Mr. Lehnsherr’s social position. He wasn’t nobility. He was an officer, likely injured in battle, which explained the scars, the missing eye and his limp. Prussian, he’d said. Prussia had been at war with France for several years now, and Charles waged that Mr. Lehnsherr had fought against Napoleon. His proud stature, military bearing, and gentlemanly manners all fit, and Charles understood now why he’d sensed that aura of danger around the man.
“Is something wrong?” Mr. Lehnsherr was watching him sternly, his single silver eye sharp and bright in the darkness of the room. “I thought you were going to take your leave.”
Charles shook himself, realizing that he’d been caught staring again.
“No, no,” he said quickly, wanting to assure Lehnsherr that he wasn’t troubled by the scars or his missing eye. “I just ought to have guessed that you were an officer.”
This caught Lehnsherr by surprise. He’d picked up a knife to cut the hunk of bread but had paused, one aristocratic eyebrow arched in confusion. “Pardon me?”
“The…eye. It was a battlefield injury, wasn’t it?”
Lehnsherr set the knife down, breathing deeply. “No,” he said, and then rose. “Help yourself to the meal. I find I’ve lost my appetite.”
He went to the window and pulled back the curtain, staring out at the blizzard outside. Charles swallowed past the sick feeling in his stomach. He’d offended the man grievously with his unthinking remarks.
“I don’t want your food,” he said to Lehnsherr’s back. “I’m not hungry anyway.”
Mr. Lehnsherr sighed. “When did you last eat?”
Charles didn’t bother to answer honestly. “Not so long ago. It’s…kind of you to offer, but you must be hungry yourself. Please.”
Lehnsherr clenched his fist, obviously praying for calm. He turned, however, and made his slow way back to the table. Because Charles was watching his face and not his leg, he saw how Lehnsherr grimaced slightly in pain with each step. Perhaps the injury had been recent, or the leg hadn’t been set right.
Lehnsherr resumed his seat on the divan and waved Charles over to the settee. “Pull that closer,” he ordered, and began to saw the hunk of bread in two. He slathered butter over one half, and handed it to Charles. “Eat.”
Charles accepted the hunk of bread with some misgiving. What would Lehnsherr expect in exchange? But the ache in his belly was more pressing and he tore the slice of bread apart into smaller chunks, eating them one by one. Each bite of fresh bread and butter was heavenly. He hadn’t eaten in three days, and while it embarrassed him to abandon his manners so thoroughly, Charles was beyond caring about social niceties. It was such a relief to eat.
When he’d finally finished his half of the loaf he licked at his fingers, trying to chase down the last hints of creamy butter. He was so absorbed in what he was doing that he failed to consider how he looked. When Charles raised his head, he caught Lehnsherr staring at him, his face unreadable.
Mr. Lehnsherr cleared his throat and Charles lowered his eyes guiltily. His cheeks flamed in embarrassment.
“Here,” Lehnsherr said gruffly, and Charles was forced to look up. He was holding out the remaining half of the loaf.
Charles shook his head. “It’s yours,” he said but Lehnsherr only smiled, a slight upward quirk of the edges of his mouth.
“And you need it more,” he said. “I can order another meal.” He went to the door to do so while Charles gobbled down the rest of the bread, barely listening to the man’s murmured exchange with the serving maid.
“How old are you?” he asked when he returned. Charles had been dreading the question. He knew he looked much younger than his years—his height was partially to blame, as was his slender build and large blue eyes—but he’d been hoping Mr. Lehnsherr might not ask. He hadn’t wanted the man to be thinking about his age. He’d wanted…well, if he was honest with himself, Charles wanted to replay that moment before the fire, his fingers brushing against Lehnsherr’s, and feel once more that unfamiliar tingle of desire.
“I’m 17,” he said, adding in his head, And I’ve seen much more than you might think.
Lehnsherr frowned, pushing the laden tray towards Charles. “So young,” he said, voice low and soft.
Charles tried to shrug nonchalantly. He picked up the spoon to start on the hot, fragrant stew. “Not as young as some.” That much, at least, was true.
He wondered how Lehnsherr might react if he told him the truth. That Charles was, in point of fact, a whore.
Charles swallowed the troubling thought with another mouthful of stew. “How old are you?”
This surprised a laugh from Lehnsherr, and Charles watched, transfixed, as his face crinkled in amusement. His smile was damaged on one side, yes, but it was wide and full of teeth—a rather alarming amount of them, in fact, though Charles found it oddly endearing—and he liked the way Lehnsherr’s face changed as he smiled, years of worry and suffering dropping away.
“Too old for the likes of you,” he said. He sighed, his amusement fading. “Much too old, I’m afraid.”
Charles sucked on his spoon thoughtfully. “I’ve been with older men.”
Immediately he wanted to claw the words back. How could he be so foolish? Not only had he admitted to being a catamite, but he’d implied that he wanted to be with Mr. Lehnsherr. And despite that moment of hot desire he’d felt earlier, and the way the man before him so closely matched his adolescent fantasies, Charles wasn’t sure he wanted to have sex with anyone. Let alone a stranger. He’d never found the act to be pleasurable beyond a few rare, fleeting moments, and many times it had been humiliating, painful, and degrading.
His stepfather had chosen such poor companions for him.
Though he’d eaten only half the stew, Charles pushed the tray away. Mr. Lehnsherr was radiating discomfort and so Charles stood, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the other man as he could. He went to the window as Mr. Lehnsherr had done earlier, and stared at the desolate wintry landscape outside.
“I’m sorry,” Lehnsherr said, still seated on the settee. “That wasn’t what I meant.”
Charles shrugged. So he’d misjudged him. Here was yet more evidence that he was a stupid fool, fit only for sucking cock and writhing around like a dockside whore. His stepfather had been right: he didn’t belong at Eton, or in polite society. He was tainted. Compromised. He ought to hurry to London and rendezvous with the next man his stepfather had selected for him, and stop this desperate longing for something more.
“My apologies,” Charles bit out, leaning his forehead against the cool glass. His fever was starting up again, or perhaps it was the warmth of the parlor. “You must want your room back. I’ll go.”
The thought of wading back out into the high wind and heavy snow, this time on foot instead of in a coach, sent a flood of exhaustion through Charles’ already overtaxed body. But he’d manage somehow. It wasn’t as though he was unaccustomed to deprivation, and he’d be in London soon enough. Then he only had to endure an audience with his stepfather, and travel north to the residence of this Scottish lord, MacTaggert, the one his stepfather had named in the letter. Once he’d done so he would have food and shelter.
What he had to do for it wouldn’t be pleasant, but he could endure.
“You don’t have to go.” Charles closed his eyes, the glass cool against his hot cheek.
“No, but I should,” he said, pushing himself away from the window. “I took your parlor, ate your food, and then I offended you. I ought to go before I do anything worse.”
“Such as?” Lehnsherr asked, a hint of amusement in his grey-silver eye. “I doubt you’d be able to drown me in here. And I wasn’t offended, Charles. Just…surprised.”
Charles dropped his eyes to the floor, unaccountably comforted by the man’s words. He ought to have thrown Charles out on his ear. And while he seemed dangerous, hostile and reserved, Mr. Lehnsherr evidently had a kind nature. He wasn’t going to toss Charles out, or have him arrested, or even subject him to a sermon on the immoralities of his lifestyle.
“Finish your stew, Charles. And after that, how would you feel about a game of chess?”
Yes, perhaps they had a little in common after all.
He was even willing to forgive Charles’ reaction to his scars, now that Erik had calmed down a little. He watched as Charles finished eating, trying and failing to see the young man as some sort of wanton catamite. It was impossible. Charles came off more as a distracted student or an eccentric young professor, not a whore. Erik had known plenty of prostitutes, both male and female, young and old, and Charles didn’t seem the type. He was well-spoken and dressed like a gentleman, albeit a rather unfashionable one, and so far he’d made no real attempt to seduce Erik or offer his body as payment for the room.
And he didn’t have that look of defeat, that world-weariness that Erik associated with those who sold themselves. His mother had worn that look constantly in the last part of her life, and Erik had seen it on the faces of everyone he’d known back in Berlin.
So while Charles looked exhausted, overwrought, and was clearly very hungry, Erik didn’t think the young man had experienced true deprivation. As someone who had, Erik knew the signs. If Charles wasn’t forced into prostitution, why then had he admitted to sleeping with older men?
Not that any of it mattered to Erik. He was in England for a reason, and it had nothing to do with sussing out the motivations of some lost young gentleman. Better he focus on his mission. After tonight, he’d forget that he’d ever met Charles, ever shared a room and a meal with him. Better that, than befriend someone he couldn’t help.
Charles, still seemingly embarrassed by his unintended confession, had set about clearing the dinner trays—Erik’s had arrived and he’d left it half-eaten in favour of more brandy—and then he began to set up the chessboard.
Erik hadn’t expected Charles to take him up on his offer. He’d meant the suggestion of a game as a distraction, a way to keep Charles from wading back out into the storm or, worse, risk a crying jag if he looked at Erik’s face for too long. But he could see, by the gleam of expectation in Charles’ eye, that chess was a passion of his. Just as it was for Erik.
He sat across from Charles, black to Charles’ white, and watched as Charles made the first move. He countered, and after only a few minutes of play he could see that Charles was a gifted strategist who favoured a strong defense and subtle advance over more aggressive tactics. Erik preferred bold strategy and dramatic execution, and so their styles complimented each other well enough to make the game far more interesting than any he’d played with more experienced opponents.
Still, he was able to defeat Charles in twenty moves. The boy actually seemed amused by his loss, and chuckled over the board.
“What do you call that?” he asked, and Erik shook his head, not understanding. “The strategy you employed right near the endgame. It must have a name.”
Erik thought for a while. There was no word for it in English. “Zugzwang,” he said. “It means something like “compulsion to move.” You are forced, time and again, to make a bad decision. You must move. All the options are terrible, but still you must choose. So you pick the least terrible option. It keeps you alive, but it weakens you to the point where I can take all of your pieces, and finally your King.” He tapped a finger on Charles’ ivory king, which lay tipped over on the board in defeat. “It’s a ruthless strategy.”
“But it’s brilliant,” Charles said, eyes shining with amusement and a hint of admiration. “I’ll use it next time. Thank you.”
Erik nodded, oddly touched by the young man’s gratitude. He wasn’t any sort of teacher—was, in fact, the furthest thing from it—but it had felt good, to show someone something, and have them understand it.
He stood and began to mechanically reset the pieces. “Charles, are you in trouble?”
Charles shook his head, the joy of the game fading from his eyes. “No,” he said. “I’m just…” he sighed. “It’s been a very long year. One in a series. I keep hoping something will change, but—” Charles broke off in a sigh.
“I know the feeling.” And Erik did. Those years in Berlin had nearly broken him. And after, in the Pale of Settlement, time seemed to move too fast, until it came to a crashing halt. Then the long, lonely years had marched on and on, hopeless and unchanging. Even now, in a new country with a new mission and fresh resolve, Erik felt as though nothing good would ever happen to him.
It grieved him that Charles, this bright-eyed young man of such promise and beauty, felt as defeated as Erik.
He sighed, weighed the risk, and reached out to grasp Charles’ hand.
The young man’s skin was warm and smooth. He’d guessed right: no one with hands that unmarred could have known true deprivation. Erik’s hands were covered in burn scars and callouses, while Charles’ were soft and supple. He rubbed his thumb along the skin of Charles’ wrist, intending to offer only comfort. He’s 17, Erik reminded himself. Barely a man. And he’s been through enough.
Still, he couldn’t help the ember of desire that began to glow inside him. It sickened him, but it didn’t surprise him. He was a monster. He’d known it for a long, long time. The notion of taking Charles, of sliding into that warm, tight body, of fucking him senseless on the parlor's settee, was only a measure of Erik’s own depravity. He wouldn’t act on the impulse, but that wasn’t the point. He’d had the thought. However fleeting.
He was no better than a rapist. No better than Schmidt.
And yet he still couldn’t bring himself to pull away from Charles’ touch.
“If you’re in trouble, I could help,” he said, the words spilling out before he could think better of them. “If you need money, or—”
“Thank you,” Charles said. His face was glowing, and he was looking up at Erik as if Erik was a champion, some knight in shining armor. But Erik was the dragon, the monster to be slain. Charles was just too naïve to realize it.
“No,” Charles said, rising. He was a full head and a half shorter than Erik, his body far thinner and more delicate, but when he went around the table he stood before Erik like he was the larger man. “You don’t understand. It’s enough that you offered.”
Then, before Erik could say a word or move away, Charles bent down and kissed him.
Charles’ mouth was warm and pliant. He shaped his kiss to Erik’s, soft and hesitant at first, and then bolder as Erik relaxed. When he felt Charles’ tongue against his lips, Erik groaned, hating himself but not quite strong enough to pull away. He opened his lips, and allowed Charles’ tongue to sweep inside his mouth. Erik cupped Charles’ face gently, holding him in place as he returned Charles’ kiss, trying to temper Charles’ passion with soft, slow movements.
It had been years since anyone had kissed him, and never with such apparent ardor. What Charles lacked in skill he made up for in confidence, and it was that confidence which finally made Erik pull back.
Charles was certain that his offer would be accepted. Which meant he’d done this before, had offered himself like this before. Erik couldn’t stand the thought.
He let go of Charles’ face and reached back to pry Charles’ arms from around his neck, breaking the kiss. It required far too much resolve, but Erik was determined. So, apparently, was Charles. He clung to Erik, resisting Erik’s attempts to separate them.
“What is it?” Charles asked. He sounded small, bewildered. His red mouth was swollen, his cheeks flushed, and Erik had to turn away with a groan or start begging Charles to kiss him again and never stop.
“You can’t want this,” Erik said, making his voice as cold and remote as possible. As certain as possible. “Not…not given the way I look. And you’re far too young. You don’t know me.”
“I do,” Charles insisted. “ I do know you. I know that you’re a kind man, and that you’re lonely. So am I. What’s the harm—”
“What’s the harm?” Erik repeated, astonished and suddenly angrier than he’d been in years. “This,” and he waved at the space between them, “is illegal, in case that’s slipped your mind. If we were discovered…”
“We wouldn’t be,” Charles said, far too assured for Erik’s liking. “And it’s not as if it matters to anyone here. I don’t think that innkeeper would even care. Not if you paid her off.”
Erik ran a hand through his hair, pulling at the roots until the sharp pain outweighed his frustration. “You’re still too young,” he said. “And…how can you be sure that this is something you truly want? Just because you’ve been with men in the past doesn’t mean that you, that you’re…a certain way.”
“But I am,” Charles said, angry now. Two spots of red appeared on his cheeks and his eyes glittered dangerously. “I’ve always been so. Everyone knows it. My first professor at Eton saw it. I was only nine, but he knew, and he…” Charles, unable to finish that thought, recovered and spoke again. “And my stepfather. He’s known since I was 11. That’s why he—” Charles bit off the words, pressing his red rosebud of a mouth firmly closed.
“Why he what?” Erik asked, furious. He felt such rage. Rage he’d thought he could only feel for Schmidt, for the bastard who’d ruined his life and killed his mother. But this was worse. Charles’ stepfather had done something. Erik only had a few pieces, but it was enough to finish a tiny portion of the puzzle.
Charles deflated then, shoulders sagging, a defeated cast to his face that Erik wanted, desperately, to wipe away. “Nothing,” he whispered. “He just…sent me away. That’s it.”
Erik could see Charles wasn’t telling the whole truth, but he didn’t know how to force it from him. At a loss, Erik could only stare at Charles’ pale, luminous face.
“I’ve always been this way,” Charles said again, blue eyes shining with hot, defiant tears. “Aren’t I allowed to have something that I want, too?”
Erik staggered back, momentarily losing his balance enough to stumble. He barely noticed. Something that I want.
No. It was time Erik firmly established who and what he was.
“You don’t know me,” Erik said, moving closer until he was towering over Charles. He leaned close until he was only a hairsbreadth from Charles’ face, projecting a cold, deadly fury with every breath. Erik had used this technique before, on subordinates and rivals, and given his appearance and the almost tangible quality of his rage, men twice the size of Charles had cowed before him.
When Charles finally tried to move away, Erik gripped his upper arms tightly—Charles was so thin, through that shabby coat—and drew him closer until they were almost nose-to-nose.
“You don’t know me,” he said again. “I’ve killed people before. Lots of them. I’ve left men broken and shattered. I’ve orphaned children, left poor widows to fend for themselves. I’ve done so many, many terrible things, Charles. Things you can’t imagine. So what makes you think I’d give a damn about you and what you want? In ten seconds I could have you over the table, fuck you until you bled, and nothing you could do or say would stop me.”
Charles was finally crying now, silent tears streaking down his cheeks to drip off his chin. The sight made Erik go cold, and he nurtured the feeling, encouraging the ice to cover his lungs, his stomach. His heart.
“I’m a monster, Charles. You wouldn’t want to know me,” he finished.
To firmly and indelibly make his point, Erik dragged Charles up to his mouth and kissed him again. This time he was savage. He ground their mouths together, using his tongue to push inside Charles’ mouth, forcing his tongue down Charles’ throat until he felt the young man start to choke and gag. He drew back, biting Charles’ lip sharply, and then shoved him away. He watched, unfeeling, as Charles stumbled back and fell to the floor.
He started up at Erik in shock, and pressed the back of his hand to his mouth. Erik laughed, the sound harsh and cruel. Charles was actually trying to wipe away the sensation of Erik’s mouth. But his hand came away bloody; Erik could see the slick blackness of blood in the firelight. And he tasted Charles’ blood on his lips.
“Enjoy the parlour, Charles. And don’t be so eager to offer yourself in the future,” Erik said, yanking his cloak off the peg by the door. He slammed the door behind him, and stalked off into the night.
A large part of Charles wanted to run out into the darkness after Lehnsherr, to beg him to come back, to play another game of chess. It was Charles’ fault, and he should be the one marching out into the wind and snow. He’d pushed. He always pushed too much, wanted too much. And now he was alone.
Instead of giving in to his impulse to race out after Mr. Lehnsherr, Charles went over to the fireplace and tried to rub some warmth back into his aching arms. A glint of crystal caught his eye, and he reached for the tumbler that rested there the mantle. Lehnsherr had abandoned it when they’d started their chess game, and for a moment Charles imagined he could still feel the lingering heat of Lehnsherr’s lips on the cold glass.
He retrieved the bottle of brandy from the sideboard, and poured himself a full measure. He turned the tumbler until he could put his lips exactly where Lehnsherr had put his, and drank deeply.
Charles poured himself another drink. And another, and another, and another, until he couldn’t feel anything at all.