The cacophony of sounds filling Julian’s head was unbearable. Had the tavern turned into a concert hall for drunken cats attempting to perform an opera, or was the floor about to crumble beneath his feet and send him all the way down to the depths of hell? He squeezed his eyes shut and hid his face in his sleeve when the door burst open, letting in the morning cold, and—worse yet—light to assault his senses.
And just when the noise turned into a dull yet pleasant silence that made Julian hope for a bit more time with his head comfortably resting atop the sticky wooden table, a tubal voice drilled its way into his ears.
“I knew I’d find you here, you wastrel,” hissed Julian’s father, and as the heavy click of his heels approached, Julian wished that hell had taken mercy on him after all. He’d take eternal flames over what was to come.
A sudden tug on the back of his coat pulled him up, and for a moment, Julian had no idea where the floor was anymore. The world spun around him as if he had become a spoke in the wheel of Satan’s carriage. Nausea rose in his throat, and he hummed his displeasure, pressing his eyelids tightly shut. Why today? Why did Father seek him out so early? His skull was an empty shell, rattling only with echoing noise.
“Let’s make haste, Father. We wasted enough time trying to find the damned drunk.” So Horace, Julian’s oldest brother, was here too? What in God’s name could have possessed them to interfere with Julian’s morning routine?
But he didn’t have any time left for pondering as two pairs of strong arms hauled him up from the bench, causing upset to his stomach and mind yet again.
“Damnation! What is it that the two of you want from me?” he uttered, scowling at how hoarse he sounded.
“I see wine washed away all your memories of last night’s conversation. Or was it gin that you drank with those mongrels you idle about with?” Horace said in a biting tone. Every word came out of his mouth accompanied by a squelch of his permanently moist lips, thundering through Julian’s poor head like bugle calls. Julian already knew all the beats in Horace’s repertoire.
Julian wanted to parry the blow, he really did, but with his mind still muddled by yesterday’s gin, all he could think of was clean, lovely water to soothe his raw throat. “Yesterday?” he rasped.
“We spoke of your prospective engagement to Miss White. You promised me not to leave the house before the journey, and yet you fled like a rat. I cannot comprehend how you accomplished that with the footman guarding the doors,” yelled Father into Julian’s ears as he and Horace hauled Julian’s poor body over the threshold and into the bright light of day.
Julian twisted in disgust and shook his head, feeling his feet drag through the expanse of mud outside. “Window.”
“Ha. You damned clown,” growled Horace, his damp lips slapping together so close to Julian’s face, the tiny droplets of saliva misted his cheek. “About to marry into a title, and he’s running as if you demanded he kisses a pig’s arse.”
“You must understand, Father. All I saw of this girl you intend for me is a damn miniature portrait, and you won’t even let me say good-bye to my bachelorhood in the company of old friends?” Julian asked, forcing words through the thick leathery sole that was his tongue. When he managed to open his eyelids enough to see what was coming, the sight of a loaded carriage with Hunt, their driver, already waiting in the box seat, made him instinctively dig his heels into the mud, balking against this rape on his personal freedom. Hunt instantly looked away, as if Julian was to be ignored. He would not be ignored. He had a bright future ahead of him, one that his father and family intended to thwart, extinguish before Julian’s talent could truly bear fruit.
“What do you see in that puddle, Hunt? Are the mud nymphs calling out to you?”
Hunt’s jaw tightened, and he kept his eyes carefully turned away from Julian in such a blatant display of disrespect it burned the last threads of Julian’s self-control.
Horace opened the door, and its dim insides started already sucking Julian in like the whirlpool that had taken Julian’s cousin to the bottom of the river nine summers past. That was it, the marriage would not put him into a cold grave just yet, but it would be the death of Julian’s ambitions and dreams, and those he needed to defend at all costs.
He put his hands on both sides of the door and recoiled, determined not to let himself be manhandled like a common thief, or worse yet—a silly girl who didn’t know better—but with his powers so weakened, Horace and Father pushed him past the door after an embarrassingly short struggle.
“Don’t make a further spectacle of yourself,” hissed Father, looking inside the carriage with the flew-like skin around his mouth lifting to reveal several missing teeth—the result of overconsumption of sugar. A mistake Julian was wary not to repeat.
Julian moaned and shook his head, rolling back on the seat from the impact of the movement. “Father. I know the alliance has been made, but wouldn’t the girl appreciate a longer courtship? I could stay in London and get to kno—”
“And lose all your funds on gambling and whores even quicker than you’re doing at present? Out of the question. I want to be congratulated on your engagement by the end of this month at the latest,” shouted Father. “You could do at least that for this family if you have neither the mind nor the work ethic to support the family enterprise in any other way than with your loins,” Father growled like a bulldog and shut the door with a bang that sent Julian all the way to the floor between the padded benches. He let out a low groan and held on to the smooth leather of his valise, which one of the servants must have taken from his room. Maybe he could still stop Hunt once they reached the outskirts of town? Direct him somewhere else perhaps? Surely, there was a way out of this imprisonment.
His mind stalled when the other door of the carriage, the one he was facing now, opened and Horace carefully pushed his bulk inside. Julian could hear his plans spill into the gutter.
“And for God’s sake, stop looking like a ruffian and wear your wig!” yelled Father before shutting the door.
The carriage rolled forward.
The sun was high up in the sky by the time the desynchronized orchestra left Julian’s skull. There wasn’t enough space to properly lie down anywhere in the carriage, but he managed to obtain a comfortable position by resting his legs up the wooden wall while his upper body occupied one of the benches. He still felt like the filling of an enormous rattle as the carriage bent in all possible directions on the uneven road leading away from the coast.
Horace didn’t even make an attempt to hold back his disapproval, but after delivering several biting comments and a lengthy speech about duty, he at last leaned against the side of the carriage in the seat across from Julian and closed his eyes. It was difficult to say whether he was truly in need of a nap or if it was Julian’s face that he didn’t wish to look at.
With his headache out of the way yet not quite well enough to read, Julian opened the curtains in hope of amusing himself with the views, but so far, he merely got to see the side of a narrow gully—all dirt and grass.
He couldn’t understand why Father was being so implacable about having his youngest son marry a title. Couldn’t it wait a fortnight so that Julian could finish that new novel he came up with last night? This one could truly be the breakthrough Julian had been waiting for, the one that would make the Reece family known for more than fabric trade.
Inspiration was a moment in time when Julian’s friend Martin emerged from the darkness of an alley behind the tavern. In that very second he had not resembled himself but a man made of bronze, dreamlike and yet of substance, with strong hands that could crush Julian if they wanted. The novel would start with a similar encounter somewhere in the narrow back alleys, just off the Colosseum. Haunted by the ghost of an ancient gladiator, the protagonist would be believed to be slowly descending into madness, when in reality his awareness of the supernatural would become a vehicle for truth.
Julian was not yet certain of the exact message he wished to convey, but the events would be presented from several points of view, through letters written by the protagonist, his friends, and an official of some sort who’d represent the stale world order.
He’d already had several beautifully evocative ideas for metaphors describing the gladiator himself, but they became somewhat blurry after a night of cards and drink.
Oh, if only he could travel to Rome to let the atmosphere of the city soak him all the way to the bone—without a wife fighting for his attention and pulling him away from work because of feminine fancies.
He looked out of the window with growing disdain. Who in their right mind traveled on Sunday, and so early at that? Julian would have much preferred listening to a sermon at church to spending the day in what was effectively a hearse carrying one of the brightest literary talents just waiting to be discovered.
Now that Julian was feeling better, he was upset with himself about not asking for a day’s delay on religious grounds. He’d never been as devout about prayer as he was about his art, but if the Christian faith could postpone his commitment to a woman he never met, he would gladly kneel and pray. And Miss White wasn’t even a woman but a girl of fifteen, quite pretty in the portrait Julian had been shown, and a viscount’s only daughter at that, but surely as hungry for her intended’s attention as the bawdy house wench who’d become sweet on Julian some years ago.
Back then, he still visited Madame Canard’s establishment to do what everyone else did when they visited a school of Venus. These days, Julian had neither the overwhelming desire nor patience to handle a cunt, no matter how lovely the lady it was attached to. He still enjoyed having a drink with the harlots, and no card table within twenty miles was as lively as the one at Madame Canard’s, but at twenty-five he’d much rather handle needs of the flesh in solitude.
Sweet perfume made his nose itch, the act itself made him unpleasantly sticky—with his sweat and hers—and while he would not dare to ask, it was his suspicion that the friends who usually accompanied him to the brothel were only whoring so much because of pride and bravado. It was a sign of status to be able to afford women and decent wine daily, and so fucking and gambling was the thing you did as a social activity.
Julian’s eyes darted to Horace, who slept with his head thrown back and leaning against the side of the carriage. His wide-open mouth was asking for a distasteful prank, but Julian was far too upset to think of amusing himself at Horace’s expense. So far, the day’s joke was on him.
In the years past, he’d been mocked by his father and siblings over not taking on a profession that they deemed worthy of a gentleman, but with the family being very prosperous, Julian saw no reason to divert his focus from his one true calling.
Despite frequent threats, he’d hoped that Father—having four willing sons and three daughters—wouldn’t push Julian into marriage, but it seemed a lost cause. Soon it would be a wife nagging Julian to stop wasting his time following intellectual pursuits and instead turn his attention to practical matters. As the head of his own family, maybe he’d even be pushed to join the family trade, one step farther from traveling abroad to meet the great artists of the continent.
The carriage started a steep climb up a hill, and Julian cursed, pushing the soles of his boots against the wall to keep his body from rolling off the narrow bench. How long would it take for them to reach London at this pace? It was over two hundred miles away, so a week perhaps? The last time Julian had made the journey, he was so intoxicated most days that he couldn’t properly count them.
But out of nowhere, as the slope of the hill became gentler, the ugly dirt and grass that had been Julian’s only source of entertainment for the last half an hour were replaced by lush greenery of tree tops. He grinned and glanced at Horace, but the fat sod was too busy snoring to notice the change in scenery.
A wicked plan was starting to take shape in Julian’s head, and he quietly removed his feet from the side of the carriage and lowered them to the floor. Pulling himself upright was easy enough after that, and he stalled, eyes transfixed on the permanently flushed face of his brother that was an unappetizing contrast with the white wig he wore, and made him look like a man many years his senior. Julian might be less inclined to business, less sedate than his siblings, but at the very least he had good taste and flair most of Julian’s family lacked, buried deep in the stern world of pretense and money.
Horace didn’t even stir. The old pig was fast asleep, and if that wasn’t Julian’s chance to save his life, he didn’t know what was. Careful not to make any sound, Julian gathered his valise and the coat he’d earlier taken off because of the heat, stilling when the carriage came to a halt. His eyes immediately darted to Horace, but his brother only smacked his lips in his sleep. Hunt could have stopped to relieve himself. What an opportunity this was!
Julian could feel his heartbeat in his throat when he softly pressed on the door handle. Still distinctly aware of his brother being close enough for their knees to touch, were Julian not careful enough. He opened the carriage and left it in a soft stride before closing the door with care.
A warm breeze combed through his hair, wiping away the unpleasant wetness of sweat, and his lungs filled with fresh air, but he didn’t get to enjoy it.
The shining muzzle of a pistol was grinning at him from inches away.
Despite the warm weather, Julian’s whole body was shaken by a chill when his gaze met a pair of eyes so dark they might as well have been lacquered coals. The man had a tricorn hat pulled low over his forehead, and a black scarf obscuring the lower half of his face.
This can’t be happening.
“Don’t try to scream, or I will blow your brains out.” The man squinted and lowered his gun to Julian’s pupil. “Through the eye.”
Julian opened his mouth as his throat closed, robbing him of breath. He wanted to look back, suddenly wishing Horace weren’t such an easy sleeper, but Hunt was nowhere to be seen either. Heat washed over Julian’s body, making him stiffen as if he were made of clay. Had this man hurt their coachman? If so, where was the body?
“What do you want?” Julian whispered, resting his hand on the door handle when his knees softened.
“These.” A hand in a leather glove gripped Julian’s sweaty fingers and slipped off his rings. “And all your other valuables.” The man didn’t even blink, his voice dark as if dragged through tar.
Julian stared, and his mind finally came up with the answer for what this was. “You’re a highwayman…”
“And you’re cork-brained to travel on a Sunday when the roads are empty.” The man’s gaze drifted away to Horace for a split second, but he must have judged him as no threat, and when Horace snored from inside the carriage, the highwayman chuckled quietly.
Julian’s lungs emptied, and a silly grin emerged on his face, encouraged by the highwayman’s amusement. “Ah, I should have gone to church after all.”
The smile died on his lips when the robber poked Julian’s temple with his gun.
“Your valuables,” he urged.
Julian clenched his teeth when they threatened to clatter. He needed to keep calm. His father believed his friends to be villains, so he could handle one. “I’ve been taken out of the tavern this morning with nothing but the clothes on my back. I lost everything at the tables. You should try my older brother. He’s Father’s heir. He should have a healthy sum on him.”
The highwayman gripped the front of Julian’s waistcoat and pulled him forward so hard Julian stumbled straight into the man’s arms. He was much taller than Julian, with wide shoulders that were so strong their size couldn’t be just padding. His clothes smelled of leather and horse sweat, and Julian found himself staring into the eyes above the black scarf.
Before he could say a word, the man turned him around, and pressed the gun to the side of his head.
“Go on, wake up your brother.”
Julian breathed in and out, stiff with discomfort at the warm body pressed against his back as if the highwayman was seeking warmth. The gun provided some relief against heated skin. Its presence made Julian’s blood speed through his veins. It wouldn’t go off. Murder wasn’t in the robber’s interest, but if that was the case, then where the hell was Hunt?
Then an idea illuminated Julian’s mind. “I have a proposition, Mister—”
The highwayman stilled. He’d be lying. Of course. “Noir,” he said in the end. “What kind of proposition can you have, pretty boy? With no money in your pockets.”
Something about Noir’s tone sent a hot shiver through Julian’s ribcage, but he ignored the condescending words and slowly looked back into the blackest eyes he’d ever seen. “I don’t have much on me, but you must know my father. He’s William Reece, the cloth merchant. You could take me and ask for ransom. We could split it between us like two gentlemen,” he whispered and gave Noir a polite nod. Appealing to the highwayman’s self-importance should do the trick. His kind were known for a love of opulence and status they didn’t deserve.
He must have managed to surprise the thief, because Noir’s grip on him faltered. “How much could I ask for a son who hates his father?”
Julian exhaled in relief when he felt Noir’s aggression turn away from him. “A lot. He needs me. I’m worth more than you can imagine,” he said with a small smile.
Noir stole another glance at Horace sleeping in the back of the carriage, and his gloved hand slid to Julian’s neck, squeezing around his nape in a way that had Julian rising to his toes. “You better be. You scream, or try to run, and I will kill you.”
Julian swallowed against the warm, soft leather. It felt surprisingly expensive. Might have been snatched from a gentleman. “I don’t doubt that,” he lied. “However, we share a common goal, friend.”
“Call me ‘friend’ once this is all over.” Noir shook his head and pushed Julian behind the carriage, where a gloriously jet-black stallion awaited its rider, and watched Julian with eyes as dark as Noir’s.
“I hope you haven’t hurt our driver. He’s a good fellow,” said Julian, smiling at the huge beast in front of him.
“He’ll live. Your brother will find him once he wakes up.”
Julian was sure there had to be a hint of a smile under that black scarf. When Noir put the gun inside his coat, Julian tried to assess the man more thoroughly.
The black leather riding coat was worn but of good quality. Could have been stolen too, but the clothes underneath, as black as everything the man wore, were clean, suggesting the highwayman wasn’t sleeping rough somewhere. Unless he dressed up for robbery.
Julian opened his mouth to comment on the beauty of the horse, but Noir spun Julian around and pulled back his hands.
“Good heavens. We’re partners,” Julian whispered with distaste. Hot and cold sweats were hitting him in rapid waves, and he couldn’t tell whether he was scared or excited about this new development. Once he got out of this, he could write a novel about the peril of travellers attacked by rogues while driving through a dark, rainy forest, and with a bit of poetic license, call it a true story.
“I haven’t decided on that yet,” said Noir, and a cold shiver went down Julian’s back at the proficiency with which the man tied his hands. A former sailor perhaps? That wouldn’t bode well, as those types rarely possessed the intellectual capability for complicated schemes. His speech was also far too refined to have been only recently acquired. Damnation!
“Mr. Noir. I’d much rather ride with my hands free. You see, I’ve been incapacitated by gin just this morning, and I don’t feel secure enough without my hands to assist me yet. I assure you, I am harmless.”
Once Noir had tied Julian’s hands, he turned him around. “Now you are. Up.” And just as Julian was wondering how exactly he was supposed to climb atop the tall beast, the scoundrel grabbed his legs and picked him up. Julian barely refrained from screaming. It was no way to handle a gentleman, and yet he couldn’t help but be amazed by Noir’s physical prowess.
Definitely a sailor. A naval officer, perhaps.
Julian’s face flushed with heat when he imagined his bottom sticking out like a whore’s ass at a party. Good grief, what had he gotten himself into? What was next? Being kidnapped by pirates?
His foot found the stirrup, and he exhaled with relief, pushing his other leg over the horse’s hindquarters until he straddled its back. “I see no reason for this kind of treatment, considering it was I who came up with a most lucrative opportunity for you.”
“Keep that up, and I will gag you.” Noir was quick to get on the horse himself as soon as he’d attached Julian’s coat and valise to the saddle. Julian felt completely overwhelmed when the man reached for the reins, all but embracing him.
Julian shuddered and curled his shoulders to not be in the way, though no matter what he did, the shape of the saddle brought them close together. “You’re a scoundrel. Another man in your profession would have treated me right.”
Noir laughed darkly. “You are correct, sir. How could I have forgotten.” Even though the mockery had him exaggerate the polite accent, Julian was becoming certain that Noir’s natural speech was not that of someone uneducated.
Before Julian understood what was happening, Noir pulled a burlap sack over his head.
“I will scream,” whispered Julian, staring through the dots of light in the smelly thing. He squeezed his hands into fists and pushed them hard against Noir’s stomach. His mind was rattling again, as if the drunkenness returned with full force.
“No one will hear you where we’re going.”
“Julian?” came a sleepy voice from the carriage.
Noir’s thighs tensed, and he must have urged his mount to rush, as it went almost straight into gallop.
Julian screamed at the top of his lungs. “Horace!”
The stallion flew forward, and without the aid of his hands, Julian was forced to hang on to it with his legs alone, shaken like a rattle. The rapid gait moved him back and forth over the front of the saddle, making Julian stiffen and push back against the firm chest behind him. Without seeing where they were going, Julian tried to hold on to anything he had on hand, and as it happened, it was probably Noir’s waistcoat. If the horse tripped, at least they would stumble and break their bones together. Or maybe the villain would cushion Julian’s fall in a well-meaning act of God.
It was Sunday.
Evan sat on the cold floor, with his back against the heavy wooden door to the tiny room that used to house the most precious porcelain owned by his family but was now merely a shell with empty cupboards.
“Is anyone there?” Julian yelled out again from the porcelain room, his clear voice insistently drumming against Evan’s ears. “It’s very chilly in here…”
Evan put his face in his hands and let his fingernails cut into his forehead. What had he done? Did he really take a prisoner into the house that had been the pride of his ancestors for the last three hundred years? The highway robbery was supposed to be a clean crime that would leave no trace for the lawmen, a desperate measure to obtain the money he needed to pay his servants and purchase necessities. A one-time dip into lawlessness that was never to be repeated.
The faint light coming through the window was painting dusky green on the tiny pebbles underneath Evan’s feet. He watched them for a moment to occupy his mind until yet another wail entered his ears. He was used to the house being completely silent at night, yet now he couldn’t bring himself to walk away from this door and the noise his unexpected guest was making over and over.
No matter the circumstances, Evan was still Julian’s host, and the complaints coming from beyond the door were becoming unnerving. He had covered his guest with blankets, but it was early spring. The room was not heated, and those old walls could become cold at night, even in the midst of summer. Evan knew of no man who’d die from spending a night on the floor, but then again, Julian did not seem like a man used to inconvenience. Would the lamentation go on all night?
Evan wished he could somehow reverse the flow of time and make a different choice than he had. It must have been the sheer bravado of his captive that made Evan go through with this ridiculous abduction idea instead of scavenging what precious items and money had been hidden away in the carriage. He had not considered details such as remaining anonymous when accepting the ransom money, as he should have done. After all, nothing good ever came from following the advice of a boy with pretty eyes.
Evan had tried to assert his position by tying Julian up, but now that he’d carried his captive away from the highway and his blood cooled down, he didn’t even know where to start on the venture. He was still baffled that Julian wanted to be captured by a man he could only have seen as a common criminal, so he was either daft or desperate. But Evan wouldn’t know until he talked to the young man and established what the issue with his family was.
A task he was not looking forward to.
What he was looking forward to though was pulling the sack off the man’s face and having a better look at his harmonious features. Despite his reckless actions, he was clearly not a boy anymore, although Evan had difficulty placing an age on Julian’s angular, genteel features. Dressed in a fine green suit embroidered with flowers, he was not something Evan was used to seeing around when living in a place as secluded as Tredele. This must have been what confused him and pulled him into this contorted plan in the first place.
Evan groaned and got up, feeling chilly himself. He opened the door loudly, to make himself known, and Julian, who was cooped up in the corner beyond rows of dusty shelves, stirred, pushing even deeper into the corner, as if he expected a strike. The burlap sack tied around his neck to obscure his eyes was an insult to the handsome features.
“Mr. Noir?” he asked breathlessly, the sound almost like a lover’s whisper in Evan’s ear. It could have been arousing if it wasn’t the name of his horse.
He had to bite his lip to stifle the groan pushing its way out, because having this kind of power over a man was awakening demons that should be kept in their crypt.
“I heard you complain about your lodgings?”
Julian slowly rose, and the blanket fell off his shoulders. He exhaled. “All things considered, I expected fair treatment,” he said in the end. “You could have gone away with a few pounds and rings at best, but you will be given much more in a few days because of my proposition. Don’t I deserve a bed and some warm soup at least?”
The vision of Julian in his bed struck Evan’s mind like an arrow shot straight from Julian’s elegant hands. “I couldn’t sleep with all your racket, so yes, you will sleep in a bed.” Nothing wrong with putting Julian in his own. They were both men after all. Evan’s bedroom was the only one being heated, and the bed itself was massive. Could even fit three men if necessary.
Julian’s breath trembled, and he wiggled underneath the blanket, tied up like a pig for slaughter. “Thank you, Mr. Noir. I knew you’d be kinder in the end. My apologies if I cost you loss of sleep,” he said, even though it was clear he was lying through his teeth. Men like Julian were not the least sorry about inconveniencing others.
Evan gripped Julian’s arm and pulled him up in a movement that seemed abrupt even to him, but it was too late to amend that. He wasn’t used to touching others.
“Let us go,” Evan said in a voice he hoped sounded less threatening than before.
Julian’s arm was thicker than he’d originally thought, pleasantly hard to the touch, and when his head turned toward Evan’s voice, it was excruciatingly difficult not to stare at where the bright eyes should be underneath the sack. The rough cloth moved with each of Julian’s breaths, sucked closer to his lips, only to be pushed away when he exhaled.
“Maybe you should reconsider this item on my head after all, Mr. Noir? It’s so itchy against my skin. A few more hours, and I will look as if you’ve thrown me into an ant nest.” Julian laughed without amusement.
Evan sighed as he led Julian up the stairs. The body next to him was stiff as a wooden plank, so he put one arm around Julian’s shoulders and held on to his elbow with the other hand to steady him. Julian was wary of each step he took, carefully sliding his toes up each stair, and he must have gotten into a rhythm, because the moment they reached the second floor, he almost stumbled forward when his foot met the expanse of the wooden floor.
Evan held him up, enjoying the warmth of the other body molding to him in search for stability. Having intimate knowledge of every corner of this house, he didn’t even need to carry a lamp with him to reach his bedroom, which now served multiple purposes and was cluttered with all the furniture Evan hadn’t yet decided to part with. It was a place for sleeping, a library, a sitting room, and a dining room all in one. He hadn’t been able to afford to heat the whole house for a while now, and so far, it hadn’t mattered all that much that he lived like a barbarian, since no guests ever visited him, and those who came were sent away.
“It will come off.” A part of him itched to apologize upfront for the living conditions that Julian would encounter, but he would not bow to conventionality. This was his home, and he would do as he pleased. Julian’s presence had not been expected, and so he’d have to bear with whatever he was offered.
“That is good news indeed,” babbled Julian, suddenly stumbling over the elevated threshold. Evan yanked at his arm and pulled him back to his feet, cursing beneath his breath as the other man pushed his body against Evan’s side, moving his head about as if he were expecting the wall to charge at him next. “Shall we have that out of the way already?” he asked with hope clear in his melodic voice. “It really is most inconvenient.”
Evan glanced at the steep stairs ahead and cringed at the accusatory glare of his grandfather, who stared him down from the portrait at the landing. He was just as Evan remembered him from his younger years—clad in stiff blacks and strong as an ox despite his advanced years. Grandfather wouldn’t have approved of Evan’s actions, even if it was desperation that put him in this position. He’d tell him that the mansion wouldn’t have been in this state in the first place if Evan had managed it better. Or married well in these dire circumstances.
“No. We need to reach the room first.” He slid his arm around Julian’s waist, holding him even closer and telling himself that he only did so to save the man from breaking his neck, but lying to oneself was tricky when one knew he was being lied to.
Julian’s body was of such a fine shape, exaggerated by the well-cut green coat he was wearing. If the quality of clothes on Julian’s back was anything to go by, his family had deep pockets indeed. Fine wool and linen that was stained but of excellent thread. If Evan pressed down hard enough, he could easily sense the shape of the seductive valley between the shoulder blades, which he used to appreciate so much.
“Where have you taken me, Mr. Noir?” asked Julian, keeping his steps careful enough to slow Evan down. “A church, perhaps?”
“My lair,” Evan said but frowned, scolding himself for the joke. This was no laughing matter. The man had been abducted, and Evan was his captor.
“Your lair?” asked Julian. “Sounds dangerous. Are your friends here, or are we alone?”
“You don’t think I will spill all my secrets so easily, now do you?”
And there it was, the welcoming warmth of his ‘lair’—because it certainly wasn’t a bedroom. Cluttered with furniture and with little space for walking left, it was a shadow of the room Evan remembered from the happier times when his father was still alive, and the family-owned mines prospered. Evan refused to give up on this house, determined to restore Tredele to its former glory, even if he did it one room at a time.
Julian shuddered and took a deep breath of warm wood-scented air when Evan pushed him inside. “I suggest no such thing. It’s merely curiosity about the man I call partner. I never met a highwayman before, and I dare suspect the stories about your lot aren’t always true to the bone.”
“What have you heard then?” Evan walked Julian over to the bed, which took up a good part of the space, and his body ached for him not to when he let go of the man. But candles needed to be lit, and he had to put on a mask if the sack was to be taken off Julian’s head.
For now, the heat coming from the fireplace had to be enough to soothe Julian’s bones, so Evan pushed him into an old armchair, which Julian sunk into with a surprised gasp.
“Forgive me if I am presumptuous, but are you new to the county? We have not heard of any highway robberies recently, and this chair is heavenly. Like it’s been upholstered not that long ago,” Julian said, shifting like an irritated squirrel.
Evan picked up the mask his brother had purchased in Venice years ago. Yet another trinket Evan wasn’t willing to let go despite the misery his brother—may he Not Rest In Peace—had brought upon their family. The thing was simple enough to serve its purpose. Black, and wider at the bottom to hide his face.
And despite all the time he’d spent in Julian’s company during the ride back home, he hadn’t thought of a good story to tell him, too distracted with the youthful body in front of him. He decided on silence and leaned down to take the sack off Julian’s head.
The thread tied around that graceful neck didn’t come loose right away, and Evan almost let go when Julian’s Adam’s apple rubbed against his fingers, scratching him with afternoon stubble. Neither of them spoke, and as time stretched, Julian’s breathing got louder, as if out of need to fill the silence with something. He’d been talkative so far.
“Cat got your tongue?” Evan grumbled in the end once he pulled off the sack and looked into those bright, wide eyes.
Julian blinked, his blond hair dishevelled, with many fine reddish threads defying gravity as he looked up from above that razor-sharp nose. He’d lied about the irritation to his skin, as the only imperfection there was on his cheeks was a faint spray of pale freckles that gave his handsome face a dose of roguish charm.
“Ah, is that from the continent?” Julian asked after a moment of silence. His mouth stretched into a wary smile, but the moment it happened, a slight dip in the middle of his lower lip beckoned all of Evan’s attention.
Evan needed to get rid of Julian and his pretty face as fast as possible.
But he would not be doing so before he received the promised ransom money, no matter how long it would take.
“It’s from Venice. Better tell me about your family. And don’t lie, it won’t do you any good if I find out you deceived me.”
Julian sat back, and Evan could already see those sly, attentive eyes following the length of the tapestries covering the entire walls, all the way to the library of books at the mezzanine. Damnation. If Julian had told Evan the truth about his father, they were not far away from his home. Just a few hours of riding, and so he should have knowledge of Tredele, even if he’d never seen it. Evan should have taken him somewhere more inconspicuous than his own bedroom, or better yet—kept the man in the dark. In the stables maybe? No, that would have triggered too many memories.
“My family are the Reeces, Mr. Noir. Surely, my father needs no introduction if you live so close.”
Evan waved his hand and settled on crossing his arms on his chest. “I’m not well acquainted with who is who.” A lie. Of course he knew that if Julian hadn’t lied about his identity, there was a lot of money at stake. “But if your father is a wealthy merchant, why are you running?”
Julian’s chest fell, and the gloriously green waistcoat, just a shade lighter than the embroidered coat, clung to his body. “I am forced to be married, and I will not be degrading myself like this. Bachelorhood suits me just fine,” said Julian with a small smile as he glanced Evan’s way.
Evan paused when the story he’d made up in his head about Julian didn’t line up with reality. Unless Julian was lying. “You’d rather spend time whoring and gambling than start a family. Up.” Evan couldn’t help that it gave him a thrill to tell the man what to do without the pleasantries necessary in any other situation.
Julian flexed the muscles of his thighs, outlined to perfection by his tight breeches, as he stood up. “I do enjoy card tables, just like any other man, but there is more to life than that. Do you enjoy whoring, Mr. Noir?” he asked, as if they were talking about the weather.
“I’m not fond of it, no. Neither am I of gambling. It’s brought all too many men to ruin.” Instead of asking, he just made Julian turn around, and worked on untying his hands. The man didn’t seem like much of a threat, but most of all… if he were to change into a nightshirt soon, tied hands would prove to be a nuisance.
Even the back of Julian’s head was pleasant to watch, with warm-hued curls tied into a tail that was now messy, the black ribbon halfway off.
Julian stiffened his shoulders but didn’t protest and kept on talking. “I wholeheartedly agree. Gambling is not a sport for the weak. There’s temptation, but playing safely enough to not be led into ruin requires strong will. I make sure never to stake higher than I’ve decided at the start of the night. Do you know of Madame Canard’s establishment?” he asked and looked at Evan from over his shoulder. Just seeing him do that sparked long-forgotten memories in Evan’s mind. He definitely needed to get rid of that beautiful, stupid creature. The sooner, the better.
“I don’t believe I do. Though judging by the name, I can imagine what it is.” While Evan untied Julian’s hands, he couldn’t help but notice how soft his fingers seemed and imagined what they would feel like to the touch. “Is this favorite bawdy house of yours the reason why you don’t want to marry?”
Julian’s eyes twinkled, as if this was a more agreeable topic of conversation. “It is true that I enjoy the company of whores more than that of honest women. The stories they have to tell! You can talk to one as you would to a man. The woman my father decided I should marry… she is just a child. I don’t wish to settle down and look after my own household,” said Julian, swiftly turning around, sandwiched between Evan and the chair. His knees brushed against Evan’s as he looked up with a wicked smile. “But truth be told, I only visit Madame Canard’s to gamble and dispute with friends. My life shall have a higher purpose than siring children or making women happy with my prick.”
Evan took half a step back, overwhelmed by the closeness, and by how pleasant Julian’s smell was even after the ordeal he’d been through today.
“Oh, is that so?” he mumbled, daring to meet Julian’s gaze. “What higher purpose is that?”
Julian raised his chin, keeping his gaze steady. “I am a writer.”
Evan squinted at him. “And what do you write about, Mr. Reece?” He reached out to Julian’s vest, but stopped himself midway and turned around to a cupboard by the bed. “Take your clothes off.”
Julian went completely silent, then, “I beg you pardon?”
Evan turned around, glad that his smirk wouldn’t be showing. “Well, you will not be sleeping in your day clothes, now will you?”
Julian gave a bland laugh. “I’d think you want to see me naked, Mr. Noir. Surely, I can undress while you’re back at your own lodgings.”
Evan approached him with a spare nightshirt in hand. “I’m not letting you out of my sight.”
For the first time since they arrived, there was honest confusion in Julian’s eyes. He cleared his throat. “There is only one door. You don’t need to watch me like a hawk.”
“There is more than one door, and in fact, I do need to watch you if I want my reward. You seem confused. You start with the coat.”
Julian’s jaw set, and he frowned, stretching his slender yet solid form. “I’d need a valet. Are you up for playing that role, Mr. Noir?”
Evan’s grip on the nightshirt tightened. Oh, what he’d now give for being a valet not a baronet. “Since when does a merchant’s son need a valet?” he asked, already imagining unbuttoning the embroidered buttons of the vest, and leaning in for—
“Since he can afford one,” said Julian coolly and stretched his throat, approaching the fire. “I am your guest, and yet so far I’ve been only offered discourtesy. Or do you not know that you are being rude?”
Julian was a spoiled idler, but it was himself that Evan despised most right now, because with all his attitude, and the outlandish idea to strip his own father of money, Julian was still the most beautiful creature that had graced this house in years. Standing there by the fire, the rich green color of his outfit complemented the flames as if he’d gotten dressed today, knowing he’d be here in the evening.
Evan lost patience. For Julian, for himself, for the whole situation dragging out and testing him.
He walked past the armchair, and approached Julian without a word. He pushed him at the warm wall by the fireplace, and his fingers went straight for the buttons of Julian’s waistcoat.
A sharp gasp left Julian’s lips, and he remained frozen, slim, graceful fingers trailing along the faded tapestry depicting the battle of Troy. He stopped resisting, as if Evan’s impudence left him weaponless. He stared at the wall, possibly frightened but unresisting.
So Evan carried on. Pulled off the coat. Unbuttoned the waistcoat. When the shape of a stiffened nipple appeared where the shirt clung to Julian’s body, Evan was ready to eat Julian alive. But he would not. He’d stay calm and move past all this.
Julian’s breath wheezed, and he clawed his fingers into the tapestry, his body hot like nothing else Evan had touched in years. Even the fire burning so close couldn’t compare to the warmth streaming from underneath the fine linens.
“How am I doing?” Evan asked when the tension became too much. He pulled on the silk of Julian’s cravat, untying it from around his neck, and his heart was speeding up at the sight of the throat underneath the thin fabric.
“Dreadfully,” said Julian through his teeth and still refused to look at Evan. “I wouldn’t let you near me with a razor, but maybe you’d like to blacken my boots once you’re done.”
Evan backed away half a step and pulled on Julian’s shirt. “Do you want to borrow my nightshirt, or would you rather sleep naked?”
The flush on Julian’s cheeks darkened, and his nostrils flared as he finally met Evan’s gaze with a fiery passion. “What was your profession before you chose this walk of life? Certainly not service.” He frowned, glancing at Evan from head to toe. “The black… a rogue clergyman perhaps?”
Evan shook his head, proceeding to pull off the shirt. “Wrong, Mr. Reece. I am a sinner.”
Julian didn’t resist anymore and pulled up the stained shirt. When the fine fabric stretched over his face, the pale, flawless chest came into view. There was a pleasant definition to Julian’s muscles, but his body was doubtlessly one that had never been forced to do physical labor, and had instead gained the harmonious shape through sports and other leisure activities. The short bristle of hair on his chest was a reminder that Julian wasn’t a boy anymore, and as he stretched to finally untangle himself out of the shirt, his abdomen became a bundle of the most delicious muscle. Evan barely suppressed a moan.
“Sin is but a man’s invention to keep the masses from straying off the path they’re meant for, Mr. Noir,” Julian said, bright red. He spun around and reached back his hand. “The shirt, please.”
Evan took his time watching every inch of skin on show, but passed the garment to Julian. “Not in need of my services anymore, I presume?” He would not mind pulling off Julian’s breeches as well and getting to see what a fine ass hid underneath, but that would have been a stretch for his patience.
“You’re a worse valet than I’d ever be.” Julian promptly pulled the linen over his head, obscuring his fair skin and shape, and only then did he begin unfastening his breeches.
Evan kept silent, anticipating the faint shape he’d get to see underneath the shirt, courtesy of the fireplace behind Julian. This sudden infatuation felt childish, yet he still couldn’t resist the butterfly that got caught in his net instead of a grasshopper.
Julian pulled off his stockings, breeches, linen drawers, and there it was, the shadow of his graceful ass peeking through the nightshirt. Evan chewed on his lip, watching Julian storm through the room and climb into bed without a word.
Evan’s heart thudded with bloodlust, as if he were a wolf following a deer. At this moment, he didn’t even regret his robbery being a failure, because he hadn’t felt this alive in years.
He took the bundle of rope from the stack of books on the way and approached the bed.
Julian turned his back to him, covering himself so tightly, only his mop of hair remained visible against the white pillows. He was motionless. A young animal knowing it would be apprehended by the hunter and without a way out. Evan could bet Julian’s heart beat as fast as that of a rabbit.
He undid his cravat, and quickly pulled his shirt off as well, only now realizing that Julian’s snotty retorts had ended.
The outline of Julian’s body was slowly growing and shrinking as he breathed, silent as if this didn’t affect him at all.
“How will we go about with the ransom?” Evan asked and pulled his boots off, pretending he was casual about the situation. That this wasn’t his first robbery, and maybe even not his first abduction.
Julian curled up even tighter and pulled the top blanket closer to his neck. “We wait for my father’s actions first. He will be searching for me soon. Maybe there will even be a reward for bringing me home safe.”
“Maybe I should bring you home then.” Evan shook his head at the idea. “Say I found you naked, without a penny to your soul, and tied to a tree?” He glanced at the tiny bit of Julian’s hair still visible, and unfastened the front of his breeches.
Julian’s head moved slightly, and just as Evan noticed the glint of his eye, he quickly returned to the previous position. So shy.
“Naked? Absolutely not. I would not support this.”
“I would not bring you naked to your father. I’d give you… a sheet to cover yourself.” Evan smiled under the mask and pulled off his breeches, already reaching for his nightshirt.
“Curse you. I never met a man so insolent in my entire life,” grumbled Julian. He suddenly spun around, keeping his eyes firmly on Evan’s face. “You should remember that this whole stunt depends on my compliance.”
“Does it now?” Evan got up and pulled off his drawers, increasingly entertained by pushing Julian for a reaction. “Are you not my captive? Can I not demand ransom?”
Julian bit his bottom lip, and that tiny groove was begging for Evan’s tongue. It was hard to focus on anything else.
“I came here of my own will. If you cross me, I will find you and have you brought to justice!”
Evan pulled on the nightshirt and looked into the angry blue eyes. “You don’t even know where you are. I could kill you and bury you under the nearest tree. No one would ever find you.” He wouldn’t do that, but if he wanted to keep Julian under his thumb, threats were a necessity.
He kneeled on the bed and grabbed the rope he’d earlier left on the floor.
Julian’s breath rasped. “No,” he said firmly. “This is my final warning.”
“You didn’t think I would sleep next to you and just believe to find you there in the morning, did you?” Evan inched closer, taking a deep breath to fight his excitement over tying up an almost naked man in his bed. If it made him deviant, then so be it. Julian didn’t need to know his most private thoughts, and Evan did have a legitimate reason to tie Julian’s hands.
“Stay back,” whispered Julian, slowly emerging from the covers, his body tightening like a dog’s waiting for its master to strike it.
The words only felt like a challenge, teasing Evan’s senses and urging him to pounce on his prey. He unwound the rope.
Julian hunched his shoulders, staring straight into his eyes, pushing him away and drawing him closer at the same time. There was a fire pit burning in Evan’s chest, and as the heat of it warmed the joints of his fingers around the rope, he inched closer, close enough to smell the remainder of spirit on Julian’s skin.
Julian moved with savage speed, and Evan leaned forward to push him down on the bed when sudden pain made him see red. Julian cried out and shoved Evan, trying to rush for the door.
He looked at the rattling metal flask on the floor, unable to comprehend that all while pretending to be frightened, Julian must have stolen the weapon-to-be from Evan’s drawer.
Evan threw his arm forward with a growl and grabbed the hem of Julian’s nightshirt. The linen ripped at the collar with the impact of the pull, but it was enough for Evan to yank Julian back to the bed.
“You rotten cockmongrel!”
The tug was like a carpet pulled from underneath Julian. He slid to the floor with a bang that would have made Evan wince if he weren’t so furious. The bloody rat wouldn’t flee this time.
Julian tried to crawl back to his feet, but once Evan’s much sturdier body was atop his, it was a lost cause. He was still struggling, his firm ass pushing between Evan’s spread thighs as he straddled the cocky beast, this time intent on taming it without playing nice.
“Help,” Julian cried out in a high-pitched shriek. “Somebody!”
“Shut up!” Evan grabbed his cravat from the chair where he’d left it, and pushed it into Julian’s wide-open mouth when the bastard was about to scream again. What did Evan do to deserve this unbearable suffering?
Blood trickled from under his mask and fell on the back of Julian’s nightshirt. Somehow, the contrast of the bright red against white gave him a rush of strength, and he pulled on Julian’s head with the cloth, as if he were really taming a horse with a bridle.
Julian moaned something that could be let me go, or pretty much anything else, but this time Evan would not show him mercy. He tied the cloth around Julian’s head, only to force his hands back so hard Julian cried out and stiffened under him, finally motionless.
“Will you be a good boy now, or should I carry on handling you as if you were a maiden?” hissed Evan straight into Julian’s ear, and once again, Julian stayed still.
Evan huffed, half-surprised the struggle finally ended, but every single hair on his body bristled at the sudden rattle at the door. He froze, and instinctively pushed Julian’s head down, flattening his cheek against the floor, but finally realized they were still alone, and no servant of his would enter without permission.
It was bound to be Frederick, always eager to anticipate Evan’s needs even when told that his services would not be needed for the rest of the day.
“Sir?” called Frederick from beyond the door. “Is something the matter? I overheard someone shouting.”
Julian moaned but immediately quieted down when Evan pushed on his head hard.
Evan took a deep breath, and peeked out from behind the bed so that his voice would carry better. “Everything in order. I just had a nightmare and tumbled out of bed. Truly, Frederick, you should rest.” Couldn’t the man just give himself peace when asked to do so? Frederick’s sense of duty would be the death of Evan one day.
“Very well, sir. Have a good night,” Frederick said in the same polite voice Evan remembered him use since Evan was still a very young child. If there was a constant in his life, it was his old butler and his never-ending loyalty.
Silence stretched, and Evan slowly became aware of how shapely were the buttocks he was now mounting. The torn shirt on Julian’s back showed a shallow dip where the parting between them should be. It would have been so easy and so wrong all at once to pull up the shirt, slip some oil in there, and ram his cock in hard and fast. Fuck, what he’d give to tame this frisky colt like that.
Evan needed to act fast, because he knew all too well what the spike of excitement in his veins would lead to, and his cock was too close to Julian to allow himself to express his arousal in any way. He shouldn’t even be aroused by Julian. Period.
“Aren’t you a naughty buck?” Evan whispered and pushed Julian’s arms over his head to tie them.
Julian wasn’t resisting anymore and let himself be led back to the bed, which he obediently climbed with the help of the movable steps. It was clear to Evan that his captive was finally resigned to his fate, and the ripped fabric on his back was the sole reminder of the struggle. Julian lay down without a word and looked away when Evan leaned over him to fasten the cords to the bed.
Evan pushed the covers away to crawl underneath and let his gaze settle on the exquisitely spread out body before him.
“Will you scream again?”
Julian pressed his eyes tightly shut but slowly shook his head.
“Good, because I don’t want you to accidentally choke at night. I still need you, as we’ve established. Your dead body won’t do.” He pulled the cravat out of Julian’s mouth, and promptly pushed it up, fastening it over Julian’s eyes instead.
Julian opened his lips wide, gasping for breath. He slid his tongue along his lips, and it was almost as if he were inviting Evan for a kiss.
Evan took his time shamelessly ogling Julian now that the man couldn’t see it. He took a glass of water from the side table and gently pushed it up to Julian’s lips.
“Next time you hit me, I will strike you back.”
Julian stayed quiet and arched off the bed, greedily sipping from the cup. As soon as he was done, he slumped to the pillows and turned his head away.
Evan sighed and rotated the glass so that when he drank the rest of the water, his lips touched the same place Julian’s had. The glass was still slightly warm against his mouth.
This would have to do for kissing.
They were all too close already.