Somerset, 19th Century
Merlin made a poor stable boy. Elena knew it, but she liked him, and Lord Godwyn indulged her, knowing no other way to favour his lonely, motherless child.
Clumsy Merlin, oafish Merlin, grumbled the family Master of Horse. Merlin would only grin, lifting thin sparrow shoulders, and Elena would collar him and help him haul tack and comb out manes and heft a too-large pitchfork for mucking until a servant inevitably caught her and sent her, glowering, to Grunhilda.
Merlin snuck into her rooms those nights. They would sit together on her floor, ignoring the slow creasing of her fine gowns. Sometimes Elena decorated him in her lace and pearls until they were both overcome with helpless giggles.
Merlin caught Elena’s reins when she swept into the stables trailed by a retinue of inky thunderheads.
“Where’s your escort, then?” he wondered aloud, his eyes sly.
“Oh,” she said, twisting in her saddle. “Wasn’t he just behind me?”
“Long behind you, I should think,” Merlin grinned.
Even after he’d grown, Merlin wasn’t much of a stable hand. He was well liked. He’d matured from an ungainly, irreverent child into an ungainly, irreverent man. Elena felt a deep kinship with him, as she possessed similar qualities.
Qualities which made reconciling the keen sense of envy she also felt for him...difficult.
Merlin regularly fumbled his traces, tripped into dung, tore his trousers at the knee and scuffed his palms. It didn’t matter that the same from Elena earned her scoldings from her tutors and her father’s quiet disappointment.
At what point did she and Merlin differ enough that he could pick himself off the floor laughing, when she’d only ever learned how to cringe?
“Sir Dagonet offers his respects to the house of Godwyn, but wishes to withdraw his suit.”
“Does he say why?” Lord Godwyn asked, eyes on the rat’s nest of Elena’s windswept hair.
“His Lordship was out of sorts, but remarked if he wanted a wife to whip him at the races he’d marry a jockey,” the steward said, mild. He’d delivered similar compliments before.
Lord Godwyn sighed. Elena occupied herself looking out the sitting-room window.
Rain pelted the grounds into a swamp of mud; through the gray haze Merlin was visible wrestling a stubborn mule into the barn.
He came to her rooms that night, wet but clean.
“Here,” she said, promptly throwing a fur stole around his shoulders and a hideously feathered hat on his head. “And these.” A pair of fingerless lace gloves joined the lot.
Merlin’s eyes crinkled as he gently wiggled his fingers into the frothy fabric. It pulled snug over his hands, lovely black filigree embroidering the ivory of his skin.
Elena tried to reclaim the amusement of their youth, seeing him make himself absurd for her pleasure. But all she could picture was the way her hands in lace looked like cured meat in casing.
“Elena,” Merlin said, stricken, thumbing a tear from her cheek.
“Take it off,” she ordered, firming her chin, knuckling angrily at her eyes.
He doffed the hat and stole, and then, after a pause, skimmed off his threadbare shirt. In the lamplight his chest was a long, lean taper. Elena saw him as if through double vision, her impish childhood friend wearing the shape of a man. The two sides should be at war — Elena knew that much of contradiction — but Merlin was a poky bundle of grace, all laughter, all light, as if every contrary measure within him was privy to the joke.
It made the back of her throat burn — she couldn’t breathe — watching him peel her glove from his hand with exquisite care, revealing tendons and the valleys between his elegant knuckles like a sculptor shedding marble. Then the other glove, slower than the first, all the time with his eyes on her, observing the way her flush burned away her tears.
No sooner had the thought formed in her mind than he had his hands on her, lifting her mouth to his, touch me, touch me, touch me a resonating chorus snapping like static from her skin.
She pushed him flat to her bed, climbed into the saddle of his hips, gritting through it when his prick pushed past her maidenhead.
Heels down, seat firm, ride girl, ride, ride, ride—