All right, here we are, people: the Final Chapter:D Bet you thought this monster would never end, huh? I really hope you all like the ending
Nicholas let himself drift to the shores of consciousness, rolled over onto his back, dragged his eyes open, and blinked. The familiar sight of the master bedroom's ceiling greeted him, and when he looked to the right, his lord's hair was lit by the glow of early morning sunshine behind him, the man's face calm with sleep. It was the new year.
The air was chill as he slipped out of bed, but he didn't stoke up the fire in case it woke his lord, instead he simply made a hurried change into warm clothes, and braved the razor blades without any hot water to ease the way. Once he was dressed, he tiptoed out of the bedroom and crossed the hall, then moved down to the kitchen. The clock struck seven as he passed it, making him jump out of his skin. He gave the clock a stare of dislike and opened the door.
Inside the kitchen were Annie and Joan, as ever, preparing breakfast. They glanced up as he entered and gave him the appropriate salutations for the new year, and he grinned in return, put some water over the fire to boil and stuck his hands out to the blaze in an effort to warm them up. He spent a lazy five minutes there, chatting with the women before the water started to simmer and he moved around the kitchen gathering the coffee paraphernalia A perusal of a familiar shelf made him frown. "Joan? Where's the sugar gone?"
"Here, love." The cook pushed the jar towards him and he filled the small sugar pot up afresh.
"Thanks, Joan." He put all the things he needed on a tray and paused, watching her work for a moment. Finally, he spoke. "Joan? Annie? The coach from Lynton to Exeter leaves most mornings, doesn't it?"
Annie looked up, surprised. "Well, yes love. I'm not sure the exact time, but it usually leaves on a Monday and Thursday, just after noon…Mr. Briggs could probably tell you better than me. Why do you want to know?"
He hesitated and gave a casual shrug. "Oh, no real reason…might have an old friend down from London sometime…just thinking about it."
"Oh." Annie's consideration of him was a little more perceptive than he would have liked, he was forced to turn away to the fire to conceal the wash of red creeping up his neck. It was so frustrating, even Jayden and Toby could see right through him when he was lying, trying to be sneaky always seemed to wind up making him feel like an idiot. He hefted the large pan up, poured the boiling water into the coffee pot and the rest into a vase for his lord's shave.
"Will you be down for breakfast, love, or will you be eating with his lordship?"
"Um..." He shrugged. Ever since he'd been injured, they'd often eaten meals together in the master bedroom, but sometimes he still joined his fellow servants in the kitchen, depending on how things panned out. Now that his bandages were off, he tended to eat in the kitchen, but sometimes his lord requested him to stay for a cozy breakfast in bed for two. But until things were settled between them decisively, he didn't want to assume anything. In the end, he just smiled. "Probably down here, I guess. It depends on his lordship." Annie's understanding nod made him pause as he picked up the tray. "Annie, If I said I wanted his Morgan to love me, do you think I'm being stupid?"
The two women looked at each other with wry smiles, and Annie fixed him with a dry look. "Yes, love." At Nicholas's sudden tenseness, she gestured. "Well, really, dear, what's the point in wanting something you already have?" She chuckled at his foolish, relieved grin. "And I'll say this, though you won't hear me say it again, I couldn't wish for his lordship to have any better. Now you go up and give his lordship his coffee before it grows cold."
"Yes, Annie." Nicholas grinned, touched, balanced the tray in his arms and moved back up the stairs. At the top, he was about to turn towards the master bedroom, when a thought struck him. He eased the tray down onto a nearby flat surface, nipped over to Jack's room, opened the door and peeped his head through. The bed was empty. He chuckled, closed the door and picked up his tray again. How he envied his friend. Sure Jack had had to wait a long time for it, but when Nicholas thought back to his first time, there really hadn't been any emotion lost over it; two bodies joining for the excitement of sex, not love, nor any real desire for each other, for that matter. It surely hadn't been half as dazzling as Jack's night of passion must have been. Nicholas chuckled again as he balanced the tray in his arms and fumbled to open the door. What a way to be initiated.
When he moved inside, he found that his lord was still asleep. He'd moved sometime, shifting to lie on his side, hugging the blankets to his body. How could he not smile at that? The tray went down on the side table, and he sat down on the side of the bed and enjoyed himself by drinking in the man's features. Asleep, he lost part of the attraction that animation gave him, but the very tempering of his facial beauty stirred him because he knew the wealth of personality that lay behind it. With all his heart he wanted to be a part of every facet of his lord's being, both the good and the bad. And if he had to share Morgan with a memory, well, he could do that. He reached over and stroked the man's shoulder. He must have been on the verge of waking, for he stirred and his eyelashes fluttered, then his eyelids dragged up and those falcon eyes opened. Morgan blinked a little and took in a huge breath that was part yawn, stretched under the covers and pushed himself up into a sitting position against the pillows. "Hhhmm…morning."
"Good morning, milord. I have your coffee."
"Mmmm…coffee. Give it to me now."
The huskiness of the man's voice made him grin. He poured with his usual competence, then turned the cup around handle first towards his lord. The man made a show of picking the china up with finicky, dainty movements and sipped at the beverage as Nicholas grinned and moved the tray out of the way. "How are you feeling, sir?"
"Oh…" Morgan stretched like a cat. "Mm…muscles feel like liquid…coffee in my hands…my backside aches quite nicely. I think it's safe to say I'm in a pretty good mood."
Nicholas laughed, and on impulse, climbed onto the bed and shuffled his way over to his lord, then straddled the man's legs and braced his hands on the headboard on either side of his head. He watched his lord's face grow bemused, not scared, but his breath quickened a little. He settled down on his haunches and leaned forward to nuzzle his lips at the side of Morgan's face, at his jaw line below his ear. He felt Morgan suck his breath in sharp, felt the subtle rise and fall of his lord's chest. His skimmed his lips across his jaw, and exalted at the shivery breathing that resulted. He kissed his lord's cheek, his chin, skimmed his lips up to one high cheekbone and kissed him there, too. Morgan was breathing very fast, now. Nerves? Excitement? Possibly a bit of both. He wasn't protesting. Yet. Nicholas gathered his courage to press his lips down his lord's cheek and then across to the corner of Morgan's mouth. The cheek beneath him tensed and shivered a little, and he drew back slightly, waited, and then kissed the corner of Morgan's mouth again. There was a shaky sigh. He drew back just enough for Morgan to face him, placing their lips in direct alignment. He drew back to find Morgan spellbound, frozen, with fear, indecision, who could tell? Would he be allowed the final step? He leaned over to kiss the other corner of Morgan's mouth and then, with infinite patience, moved his lips over back to a direct meeting. Shaking, he started to press forward but his lord sucked in a fast breath and he found himself kissing his lord's cheek.
Nicholas sighed a little, but he pulled back, not too disappointed with the outcome. The very license he'd been allowed, and the length of time it had taken for Morgan to call a halt was encouraging. It seemed his lord hadn't been at all positive he'd wanted to say no. He drew back further to take in his lord's expression. Morgan was staring at him, his lips parted, breathing jagged. There was no anger, and he felt a relief from worry he hadn't realized he'd had. The man looked a little shaken. He tried for a meek smile and moved back entirely, off his lord's lap and over to the side of the bed. Morgan continued his jagged, laboured breathing, looking away to stare up at the ceiling, his arms fisting and releasing the blankets on either side of his body. Finally, his lord spoke.
"Nicholas…if you could ask Jack to saddle up Marmalade for me..." His lord attempted a shaky smile. "The sun is quite bright today, don't you think? Maybe it's not too cold…I might go for a ride."
Nicholas took a few steps back and bowed as Morgan shuffled over to the side of the bed, swung his legs around and stood. He didn't make the mistake of asking to join him on that ride.
"Um…There's nothing more I need here." His lord was not looking at him now. At the bed, at the dresser, the cupboard, everywhere but him. "Just…just go ask Jack about that horse, will you please? Take the day off, stay warm, do what you like…"
The man was babbling. Well, there was nothing more to be done but make polite noises and wait to see what happened. He bowed and moved to leave the room. When he flicked a glance behind him, Morgan was by the closet, hands on either doorknob, head hung and staring into space. A slight chill of foreboding washed down his spine. There was always the risk that the guilt would prove too strong and he'd be shut out in a panic. He sucked in a breath and made an effort to square his shoulders. If that happens, I'll just back away and keep on trying until he gives in. But he hoped very much it wouldn't be necessary.
The corridor was chilly, he wrapped his robe tighter around his body and stuck his hands in his pockets. Halfway down the corridor, a door opened and Louis came out, yawning. The younger valet nodded sleepily as they passed each other.
"I think I noticed pastries down there." Nicholas inclined his head in the vague direction of the kitchen. "Get in quick before Drew does."
"Hm? Pastries? Oh, thanks for the warning. That great ox never thinks of saving some for anyone else, greedy pig." Louis yawned again. "I was about to fetch my lord some coffee, I'll ask Joan to set some aside for me."
Nicholas chuckled. "You might have to get used to brining up two cups, in the future."
"Hm?" Louis stared at him blankly for a second, then the light dawned. "Oh! Oh really? Then they've…?"
"I think so."
"Oh." The other valet considered this for a moment. Then he nodded. "Oh well, good. Maybe I won't have Jayden under my feet when I'm trying to do the ironing anymore."
Nicholas laughed and they parted with a friendly nod. He started whistling under his breath as he headed towards Lord Macmillan's quarters. What would he open the door onto? How he was looking forward to embarrassing Jack by catching him in bed with Lord Macmillan.
Warm. Soft. Content. Jack drifted out of sleep and lay for a timeless moment, awake, but aware of nothing but the state of his body. Gentle aching in his muscles, a strange sense of fulfilment, soft sheets. His nose wrinkled. Something not right. Then it came to him; he was naked, and there was another naked body pressed up against his back. And then he remembered. Rafael.
His body jerked in shock and Rafael's arms tightened around him in automatic response, he realized he'd woken the man up, but then the grip softened. Jack turned around to find Rafael blinking, struggling to contain a yawn, his jaw covered in faint stubble, staring at him warily. For a second Jack felt a pang of doubt, of offence, of worry, and then he realized Rafael half expected him to be struggling out of the bed sheets and getting the hell out of there. So he stuck his tongue out at him.
Rafael's shoulders shook. "I knew I'd picked a keeper," he murmured.
Jack smirked. He did have a few nagging, wispy tendrils of insecurity, and fear of the future, it was true he felt a little strange, after the momentous events of the night before. But he didn't want to leave. He'd promised Rafael he wouldn't run out on him, and in a way, his promise released him from his fear. Even if he wanted to run, his sense of honour wouldn't allow it, and there was freedom in that. Whatever happened, it was out of his control, all he needed to do was relax, keep his promise and stay with his lord.
"How are you feeling?" Rafael reached up a hand and stroked his cheek. Although it was sappy, he couldn't resist giving his answer by turning his face around and kissing the man's fingers. He was rewarded with a sigh of amazed relief. "I'm sorry Jack, but…I have to confess, I'm a little surprise to see the wolf so tame."
Impossible to take offence, especially if his lord was going to liken him to that kind of creature. He grinned a little. "Breedin' season." And who was to say he wasn't in the grip of an ancient instinct stirring inside him? He sure wasn't using any common sense. "Enjoy it while it lasts. And good, sir." He shifted experimentally under the blankets. "A little sore and my muscles all ache, but…good."
And his lord grinned back. "I'm glad." He drew him into a close embrace, then dipped his head down for a kiss. Jack complied, still fascinated with the feel of it, and let his mouth open at the lord's gentle probing. Rafael's tongue slid in, he fumbled to meet and entwine, the man's hand slid across the back of his head, helping him to find a good angle and their kiss smoothed out and became sweet pleasure. Rafael drew back for a moment to allow him to get his bearings, made an endearing crooning noise and moved back in for a second kiss, and this one was perfectly matched the moment their lips touched. Then Jack found himself being drawn into a warm hug, and they relaxed together in momentary silence. His lover broke the silence first.
"Jack, you know I want you to come and live with me, don't you."
He blinked and shrugged. "Well…yeah. I promised I wouldn't run out on ya, so I guess that means I'll be comin' along. With Lord Harrington's say-so, I guess."
"Good." Rafael sighed. "To be honest, I'm thinking of leaving a little early, I'd like to have you to myself for a while."
"I don't think I mind, sir."
Rafael grasped his fingers and started a slow massage. "Jack, I need a reason to have you there. I have a gardener and a stable hand already, so I'm thinking of having you as an assistant, just at first." Jack opened his mouth on an instinctive protest, but the lord placed a two fingers on his lips. "Wait a minute, hear me out. My estate isn't quite like this one, Jack." He made an all-encompassing gesture. "It's closer to Bath, which means it has a higher population, the society is more extensive, and my servants, fine people though they may be, are nothing like Annie and Joan, you understand?"
Jack nodded, sombre, then shrugged. "I understand. I don't mind bein' your servant…but assistant?" He pulled a face. "I'd hate bein' told what to do by other servants! It would drive me bloody mad."
Rafael laughed. "Oh, I see. I'll try thinking of something where you don't have to take orders from anyone, then. Well…you like Drew, right? I think I'll decide to have two stable hands, you two can work together, that way you won't take orders from anyone but me. I was thinking of buying a few more horses anyway."
Jack breathed out a contented sigh. "Perfect. Me and Drew are mates."
"Good, that's what we'll do, then. Basically, I just need an excuse to explain why you're suddenly around. Drew and Louis are the only two I really trust with all aspects of my personality, that's why those two are always the ones who travel with me. We're going to have to be very careful, the last thing I want is to stir up controversy that could hurt Jayden." He gave a wry smile. "And I'm not too keen on seeing you beaten to death and being forced myself to flee the continent either."
"Fair enough," Jack managed, his voice faint.
"Morgan and I have been talking, Jack." Rafael grabbed his hands and continued the massage. "He's finally grown restless at being alone here, and he said this place needs to have more people to fill up the rooms; his way of saying he wants our continued company. We've been tossing up the idea of having me spend summers here at Waterford Park on a regular basis; half the year here, the other half back at my place." He chuckled. "We're thinking of setting up bits of muslin each somewhere around nearby, pay them to enjoy themselves how they want but to keep their mouths shut, it should put any hounds of suspicion off the scent." The man's voice turned anxious and he found his arms gripped. "The women would only be for show, to keep us all safe."
Jack grinned at the thought of Rafael thinking him jealous over a girl. "Sensible." The man appeared so relieved at his response, it made him want to laugh. "What, you think I'd be so unreasonable I'd start screechin' and clawin' at ya like a girl?"
Rafael stared at him, the corner of his lip twitching. "…Somehow, I think I'm offended that you're not jealous."
"Good thing I'm not being difficult," he retorted. "But if I saw you sniffing around another man, sir…" He let his voice trail off ominously.
Rafael's expression turned tender. "Now that's more like it…Jack? Do something for me?"
Jack let his head sink down onto his lover's shoulder. "Anything." He paused. "…Within reason."
His lord chuckled again. "Figures…Don't call me "sir" anymore. You're not my servant, not here when we're alone together."
"No "milord", either!"
"As you wish, your lordship."
Jack hung his head. "I'm sorry, Highness."
The lord fixed his innocent-looking lover a baleful glare. "You want a royal spanking?"
"Yes please, Master."
Rafael purred out a chuckle. "Oh, actually, I like that one. You can call me that." The lord was interrupted at this point by a knock on the door. He raised his head. "Come in."
"But sir! Rafael! No..!" came his lover's strangled whisper.
"Oh buck up, Jack. Everyone knows about us anyway."
"Well yeah, but…!"
The door opened, in walked his best friend, and the blazing grin that washed over Nicholas's face when he saw him snuggled all warm and cozy in the arms of the lord he had struggled against for so long had him groaning and covering his face with his hands. Nicholas raised innocent eyebrows, his face bursting with suppressed hilarity. "Excuse me, sir, but I was asked to ask Jack if he would please saddle Marmalade as soon as possible." Nicholas turned eyes brimming with laughter to his friend. "That is… if he can walk?"
"Ha, ha, retard," Jack growled.
Nicholas turned back to the lord with the innocence of an angel. "Does your lordship wish me to get you anything? Coffee? Tea? A medical kit? Scratches and bites can get inflamed, sir."
"I'm warning you, Nicky…" Jack fixed his friend with concentrated threat. Trouble was, it was hard to look threatening when you were tucked up like a puppy in someone's embrace, and you were both obviously naked under the blankets. He attempted a snarl anyway. His friend merely grinned.
"Thank you, Nicholas, but knowing Louis, he's already on his way with the coffee." Jack flushed as Rafael's arms came around in an affectionate cuddle. "And you, you'd better get that horse saddled for Morgan."
Nicholas bowed and winked at his friend. "Very good, sir. I forgot, Louis is preparing coffee for you."
Rafael let his lover loose with a gentle pat on his backside. "Then you'd better hurry get dressed. Come back when you're finished, I'll have Louis bring up breakfast for two here."
Jack burned with embarrassment and a flash of warmth. That little pat stirred up certain sensations. His friend bowed and left with a smirk as he started to struggle out from under the covers, shivering. He hurried into his pyjamas, threw his warm wrap around his body and turned to his new lover, who lay in bed on his side, watching him with a smile that couldn't be restrained. The man grinned. "I'm so lucky."
Jack offered a shy grin in return. "I'll see you later, sir…Rafael." He gave a quick nod and crept out of the room, hurried down the corridor to his own room and found his friend there, lighting a fire for him. Predictable. An obvious excuse to be around him and pump for details. For revenge, he simply whistled and searched for clothes in his closet as Nicholas tried to poke at the little blaze and look at him at the same time.
"Well?" his friend finally demanded.
"Damn you, Jack, don't be difficult. What happened?"
Jack slung his outfit for the day over the bed and arranged a spare vase of water he hadn't used the night before closer to the fire in preparation for a shave. He raised innocent eyes. "What happened when?"
Nicholas's eyes narrowed. "You may be stronger than me, but I'm a lot bigger and if you don't tell me exactly what happened I'm going to smash your face in."
Jack snorted and moved over to his washstand. "Oooh, threats! You don't scare me at all, you weakling." He set out his shaving gear and smiled in satisfaction as Nicholas followed him, his face set in wheedling lines.
"Say sorry for tryin' to embarrass me first."
His friend looked pained and stalled. "But Jack…"
Nicholas hesitated, and after a moment of deep thought, perhaps weighing up his curiosity and his dislike of apologizing, he let out a defeated sigh. "I'm sorry for embarrassing you. Now tell!"
Jack affected a look of modesty and turned slightly away. "Well…"
"Oh damn this!"
Jack squawked as he found himself dragged over to the bed. Nicholas collapsed down on it, and so he did too. They both faced each other, both laughing. Nicholas poked him. "So how was it?"
"Bloody wonderful," Jack finally admitted. "It was wonderful."
His friend laughed, and fixed him with a teasing smile. "Did you tell him..?"
"Oh I bet he almost had an orgasm just hearing that. Did he..?" Nicholas made thrusting motions with his finger and fist.
For a second, Nicholas's smiled slipped, then it grew stronger again, more wry. "Actually…I envy you that. Was it…nice? Did it hurt?"
"Hell yeah. It only hurt a little."
"…Oh. So how do you feel?"
"I don't know!" Jack cried out. "I…I just don't know. It's like…there's so much inside me…I don't now how to say it." Jack clenched his fists over his heart. "So much in here, I feel like I could go runnin' around this place, screamin' and screamin' until I burst into flight, I could fly around the whole world and it wouldn't be nearly enough to let loose this…this…"
"Happiness?" Nicholas questioned softly.
"I don't know!" Jack started to laugh. Dry, hiccuping laughter. "I don't know what it is. I know I should feel happy but this doesn't feel like happiness. It hurts too much, it's so sweet, I want to…I just..." Jack let a rough shout rip from his throat. "I want to release it. It's too much joy, it's too much emotion, it's too much everything." He sighed. "It's kinda scary."
"Well, take heart. Ten years from now it will be just boring, everyday happiness. You'll live, and it won't be scary anymore."
"Borin', everyday happiness." Jack's laughter became richer, almost delirious. "Borin', everyday happiness…that could never be borin' to me."
"No, not boring." Nicholas smiled, then played with a button on his waistcoat and continued. "Jack, I'm going to try leaving this afternoon."
"This afternoon?" Jack turned to him sharply. "This soon?"
"Yes." The valet nodded and laughed a little. "I've got to do it before I chicken out. Besides, I'm tired of this stalemate. I want things sorted out now." He turned to his friend and found Jack staring at him, his face concerned.
"Nicholas…I'm sorry, but…what if he doesn't chase after you?"
"I know." He turned back to contemplate his waistcoat button. "I know he might not. In that case, I'll go back to lord Trelawny, since the bastard wants me after all." He shrugged. "I just can't stand this anymore. I love Morgan. I want his everything. If I can't have that, I don't think I have the patience to just go back to being his useful bed mate." He smiled. "I think he loves me, but I just don't think he'll admit to it unless he's given a nudge."
"Well good on you, then. Give him a kick up the arse."
Nicholas laughed a little and then sat up. "Jack, the horse!"
When his lord had left to go out riding, Nicholas packed his bags. He glanced at his watch; it was ten o'clock. Plenty of time. He wasted half an hour rearranging the clothes in his valise and growing annoyed with the lack of space before he wondered why he was bothering to care. With luck and careful planning he wouldn't get any further than half way to Parracombe anyway. In the end, those of his belongings that wouldn't fit into his valise and bandbox, he hid under the bed. As long as the room looked abandoned, that was enough. Nicholas shivered as he looked at the room. The year had wrought great change to the bedroom. At first, it had been enough to remove as much of the frills and lace as he could, and then little by little, the white, dainty furniture had been consigned to the attic, more masculine, slightly old-fashioned wooden pieces left waiting there had taken their place. There had been signs of his ownership around, his hairbrush lying on the plain wooden vanity, one or two favourite books on a shelf, his sketchpad and pencils he occasionally amused himself with. All packed away now. Nicholas considered the effect, rubbing his chin, and on inspiration, moved over to the cupboard and opened the doors. Bare. When he moved back to the door, he nodded. Gave just the perfect touch of abandonment.
The next step was to enlist support. Although he could have easily ridden down to the village and awaited the next stagecoach by himself, he suspected that would not be wise. He'd need to tell someone where he was heading so that his lordship would know exactly where to go to fetch him back, and he needed to do it in a way that didn't appear too contrived. He was afraid that if he made it clear where he was heading in the farewell letter, it would seem too much like an instruction to fetch him back. No, make the letter romantic, and keep the practicalities separate.
Nicholas moved into the master bedroom and put the letter down on the centre of the bed. The envelope was of cream, and contrasted well with the rich, deep dark red velvet of the bed covers. Of course, the writing itself was an appalling scrawl, if his lord understood one word in ten it would amaze him. He smiled a little. As long as his lord understood the words "must leave" and "I love you", the rest wasn't necessary anyway.
He left the room, closed the door behind him, then moved over to tap on Drew's room. No response, he stuck his head in just to make sure, but the room was empty. Unsurprising, really. After a hunt around, the redhead was finally run to earth in the room the male servants all seemed to use as their common room, just nearby the ladies' own sitting room. Jack's half-finished boxes still lay in the middle of utensils on the protective sheet on the floor, Drew was curled up on a sofa with a magazine. He turned as he walked in and acknowledged him with a nod of good nature.
"Drew, I've been looking for you."
The man raised a brow and sat up a little. "Hm? Don't ask me to get up," he begged, "I want to finish this article!"
"Well, yes, but not quite yet." Nicholas grinned. "I was wondering if you'd take me over to Lynton? In about an hour?"
"Um, sure…if you want." The redhead looked surprised. "But why don't you do it yourself? Oh, your arms." Drew answered himself. "Too much strain, hm?"
"Well, sort of." Nicholas ducked his head in embarrassment. "It's kind of….um…well…I'll explain on the way, okay?"
"Sure." Drew shrugged and smiled, and Nicholas sent him a returning grin.
"Thanks. I'll be down in an hour." He left the room again and moved back upstairs. There was always that book to read as he waited. The longer the wait the better, the stagecoach didn't arrive at Lynton until the afternoon, and he didn't particularly want to wait for long at the inn there. Although most of the villagers patronized the Restful Spirit, he knew that sometimes his friends, such as Evans or Smith, visited Lynton for business reasons. If they saw him there, they'd be bound to ask a lot of questions about what he was doing there with all his luggage, and why he was going to the city. They didn't know about Morgan and him, and as good as they were, it was better they never found out. Questions would be awkward. On the other hand, if he didn't get going reasonably soon, Morgan would arrive back from his ride, and although the packed luggage and letter was all that was needed to make his point, he wanted to drive it home by being on his way already when Morgan found out.
On his way to his room, he ran into Lord Macmillan, who looked like he was on his way back to his apartment. The man was still in his pyjamas and bedroom robe, his hair was not brushed and he had not yet shaved, on top of this, his walk was languid, with sensual satisfaction gushing from every lazy pore. Nicholas had to bite down on a big grin. No need to guess what he'd been doing all morning. The moment that horse had been saddled for Morgan, Jack had practically sprinted back upstairs and when Nicholas had teasingly begged for his company for breakfast, he'd received no more than a derisive snort.
The lord saw him and raised his brows in a smile. "Nicholas. How are your fingers? Come with me, I'd like to see how they're going."
He nodded and followed the lord into his bedroom, looking around with interest. Sunlight streamed through the windows, the fire danced in the hearth, and in the middle of the man's bed laid Jack, curled up amongst the blankets and fast asleep. His friend looked so peaceful, so happy. What a sight. His eyes rested with approval on the lord, who caught the look and was smart enough to interpret it accurately.
"I have your permission? As his parents are dead, the burden of giving Jack's hand to another lies on you. And perhaps Annie."
He chuckled. "You have my permission."
Rafael smiled and sat on the sofa nearest to the fire, encouraging him to sit beside him. "Let me look at your hands."
Nicholas held out his hands, and Rafael took them in his, massaging them, exploring the tension in the knuckles.
"Not much. Only a little bit."
"Try making fists for me. Have you been trying to play the piano at all?"
Nicholas nodded, flexing his fingers, trying to curl them as much as possible. "Yes, just a little."
"Does it help?"
"Um, sort of. It helps them become a little looser, I think." He sighed as he strained to make fists. Both hand were stuck halfway, he could go no further. Unable to play piano properly. Unable to tie a cravat properly, to shave his lord.
But they were able to poor coffee, able to iron clothes, to polish boots, to serve dinner. Able to eat with, to write with maybe, given time and practice. Able to touch someone he loved with. He raised his eyes to the blonde, who grasped his hands and started to massage the fingers with a firm, almost painful grind. "Sir, can I ask you something?"
"Of course." Rafael continued to manipulate his fingers, bending and stretching them.
"You'll be leaving back to your own estate soon, won't you?"
"Yes, for now." Rafael coughed. "Since your friend and I…ah…sorted things out between us, I've decided to return home soon…kind of a honeymoon, as it were." He laughed a little self consciously, and Nicholas grinned.
"I bet Jack will enjoy seeing your estate, sir."
"Yeah, well…he won't see much more than the bedroom for a while…" The lord smirked and lowered his voice. "Between you and me, though, Morgan and I have been talking of having me move back here for the summer months. Morgan wants the company."
At this point, there was a tap at the door. Rafael straightened, still massaging Nicholas's fingers. "Come in."
The door opened, and it was Drew. He bowed to his lord and did a double take when he saw Jack. A big grin plastered on his face, and Nicholas caught his eye and winked. The redhead hid his mouth behind his hand, lowering his voice so as to not wake Jack. "Sir, I'll be going to the village soon, and I was wondering if you had any commissions for me?"
The lord raised his brow and shrugged. "No, nothing I can think of, but thank you, Drew."
The redhead then turned to him. "Nicholas? You ready to go soon? I'll put your luggage into the trap, if you want."
Nicholas flushed self-consciously and flicked a glance to Lord Macmillan, who was staring at him in surprise. He turned back to the stable hand, trying not to sound too embarrassed. "Okay, thanks Drew, I'll be there soon."
The man shrugged and inclined his head in good nature. "I'll wait in the common room for you, then." He bowed to his lord and left. Nicholas fell silent for a moment, Rafael pressed on his fingers.
He cleared his throat. "Well…sort of, sir."
"Sort of? Luggage being packed sounds pretty definite. You're not going back to Lord Trelawny, are you?"
"Well for god's sake, please explain! I thought you…well, I thought you loved Morgan. Surely you're not abandoning him? Not after everything that's happened?" The lord's voice coloured with reproof. "I never expected you to do this, Nicholas."
Nicholas ducked his head. "No, not abandoning him. I just…I need him to show me he loves me back."
"Yes…I know. Oh, but Nicholas I'm sure he loves you too, please don't give up on him, I beg you to give him a little more time, I'm sure he'll come around..!"
"Oh, no, sir. It's not like that," he interrupted hastily. "I don't want to leave him at all, that's the whole point." He found himself under thoughtful regard.
"Oh…I see. Yes, I see." Rafael chuckled. "Good on you, Nicholas. Let's give him a kick up the arse, the little idiot."
Nicholas smiled, remembering his best friend's previous comments. "I hope it will work."
"Me too. You can count on me to help if I can."
"Thanks, I might need it." Nicholas smiled a little ruefully. "If he thinks I don't want stay here, please inform him of what his role is in all this, sir."
"I will. Trust me, I will."
Nicholas nodded and stood, glancing over to his best friend, who was still oblivious to everything, under the covers. He turned back to Rafael. "It's funny, but I keep thinking I've got to say goodbye to everyone, and that I might never see this place again, everything seems so sad, and then I remember if all goes well I'll be back here before nightfall anyway." A sad kind of smile twisted his lips for a moment. "Then I remember that if things don't go well, it really will be the last time I see this place. I don't know whether I should be saying good bye or not."
Rafael shook his head. "I'm sure he'll fetch you back. If only to yell at you for running out on him without saying goodbye!" He turned more sombre. "I can't guarantee he'll admit to loving you, but he won't just let you disappear, I'm sure." Both men were silent, and Nicholas wondered if Rafael really believed what he was saying or was simply trying to cheer him up. There was always the chance Morgan would feel it best to let him leave if he was feeling guilty enough.
"In any case," the lord continued, "don't go to that idiot Trelawny, you'll always have a place in my household." The lord struck a simpering pose. "I'm such a dandy Louis sometimes has a hard time keeping up with me." Then his expression turned more serious. "I could keep Morgan informed about you and tell him a few lords have their greedy eyes on you. Morgan might be feeling guilty, but holy hell is he a royal terror when he's jealous. You haven't really seen what he can be like, yet, but trust me, it's incredible." The man grinned. "You'd be back here bent over Morgan's knees before you could draw in a breath."
Nicholas shivered a little in delight.
The lord grinned at him. "Which doubtless you would enjoy very much."
"Oh yes sir," he replied, then rose to his feet. "Well…I guess I'll get going now, then. My lord should be returning from his ride soon enough."
"Do you want me to tell him you've left the moment he gets back?"
"No thank you, sir." Nicholas smiled anyway. "I've left him a letter on his bed, and Drew can tell him where I've gone. It will seem less contrived that way." He flushed. "Of course, it is contrived. I feel a little guilty."
"Well, he'll never hear the truth about it from me. It's his own stupid fault after all." Rafael rose as the servant did. "Good luck, wrap up warm, and I'll see you back here very soon."
Nicholas nodded. "Thank you for your understanding, sir."
"Not at all. Morgan's, and your, happiness is very important to me. You can't imagine."
Nicholas bowed, left, picked up his luggage, then went downstairs to the common room where Drew was waiting. The redhead threw down his magazine when he saw him and rose from the sofa. "Okay, you're ready?"
The stablehand nodded. "I made the mistake of asking Joan whether she wanted anything." He held up a list as long as his arm. "Bad mistake. How long do you need to wait for the coach?"
"Long enough to help you." Nicholas clapped the man on the shoulder as they left the estate together.
The day, although cold, was not windy and the sky showed hints of blue, the faint call of birds could be heard and he would have found the ride almost pleasant, if only he hadn't been wrapped up in thoughts of his own. Drew tooled the trap down the path that led to the main road, and when they turned onto it, he spoke up.
"Now then, why are you going to the village, and why do you have all your luggage with you?"
Nicholas laughed and explained briefly with a bit of embarrassment, finishing, "I kind of need you to inform Lord Harrington of where I've gone. I'm hoping he'll come after us before I leave for London, but if he comes too late, you could perhaps tell him which coach I'm on and where I'm going, that would be great."
He grinned at the redhead. "Try to sound innocent, will you? I don't want him to realize this is all a set up."
"No, no. I'll do my best." Drew looked uncomfortable. "I'm not much of an actor, though."
"Never mind. Just do what you can."
The wind picked up a little half way to the village, the trees on either side of the road forming a tunnel to direct it. Nicholas shivered on the seat, pulling his coat around his body tighter and feeling very grateful for the warm gloves on his fingers. Almost he regretted planning the whole thing, it was really too cold for intrigue. And yet, the start of the new year deserved a change to go along with it, there was no way he wanted to turn back now.
After what seemed like hours, they passed through the village and onwards towards Lynton. Every so often, he glanced behind, wishing to hear the thunder of hooves and see his lord coming after him with a look of terrified fury on his face, and although he told himself it was still to early, it was still disappointing to hear the continued silence of only themselves, broken by the odd fellow traveller. By the time they reached Lynton, he kept wondering what was happening back at the estate. Was Morgan perhaps just this moment riding into the stables? Dismounting, caring for his horse? How long did that take, anyway? In his mind, he saw his lord give himself a brisk shake at the door, put his outdoor jacket on the hat stand just inside the back entrance, perhaps go back upstairs and then he'd want to have a wash as usual, surely. He'd see the note, pick it up…how would he react? What would he do? Stare at it in shocked disbelief? Then he'd re-read it, choke a little with tears, his eyes would shine with determination and resolution, he'd turn and run down the stairs, out the door, into the stables and he'd throw himself on the nearest horse without even hesitating to grab a coat or a saddle, and he'd go crashing down the pathway, his heart bursting with fear of losing his valet, combined with recognized and accepted love. Nicholas smiled in quiet satisfaction.
Then another scenario interrupted; that of Morgan reading the letter, his face frowning, reading, furious, angry, and he left the room, yet it was merely to find Jack and demand he go to fetch his valet back, before turning to Rafael with a diatribe on the insolence and ingratitude of the lower classes. Nicholas still smiled a little, but it was with amused contempt. That would never be his lover's way.
A third possibility seeped into his mind. Morgan read the letter, his face pained, re-read it, and slowly, his expression turned considering, he bit his lip, sank onto the bed and stared into the fire for a while, and then suddenly Rafael was in the room. "It's all for the best." Morgan said sadly to him.
Nicholas shook his head violently. No, no, a thousand times no! It wasn't going to happen like that. It couldn't!
The trap lurched right, down into the main road of Lynton where the inn resided. The sidewalks were crowded with people, afternoon shopping on their arms, children and dogs dashing under feet, a few couples strolling arm in arm. The heady scent of the bakery wafted under his nose, and it smelt very good, easing the sharp pain of breathing in cold air. He remembered his and Jack's arrival at this very place almost a year ago. It seemed so incredibly far away, and yet, like yesterday, too. It was good to see the place again, to remind himself of how far he'd come, and yet, he wished he was waiting at Plumley. He'd grown fond of the village; Evans, Smith, Reeves…even old Mr. Eyles that had so intimidated him when he'd first arrived, had grown to be friends. How many times had he played cards with them, talked, laughed over beer? It was something he'd never had in London, with all the stuffy, superior domestics he'd previously mixed with, this feeling of easy camaraderie, of good-natured friendship and laughs, the unwavering support automatically received when life turned bad. How could he leave it all for the sterile life he'd had before? Never. Nicholas nodded to a few he knew by sight and hoped no one would notice his luggage. Drew swung near the stables with the ease of years of practice, and they both set to work unhitching the horses, settling them into the stables with food and water, and then walked out together, studying the list.
"Geez, this is going to take forever." Nicholas stared at the list. "She wants more sugar? But didn't you get that last time?"
"Yeah, but here it is. More sugar. Oh well, let's get started," Drew remarked glumly.
Morgan spent two hours out riding on his estate. Normally he'd use it as a way to release his problems and let exhilaration rush in to replace it, but sometimes, like this moment, he felt the need to release his physical tension so he could think clearly. He left the mills and started the journey back towards the mansion. Around him spread fields for grazing, sheep milling in tight woolly packs together, almost invisible against the snow. A few gazed with curiosity as he rode by, most conveyed disdain by presenting their backs. He let his horse gallop past, over the empty fields, feeling the wind rush past his face, making every breath slightly painful. Marmalade's muscles tensed and released under him as it churned up snow, he couldn't stop thinking about Nicholas's naked body under him as he shamelessly rode the young man, sweat slipping down the sides of his face, the way the valet would smile in exhaustion at the end. He wanted to kiss me.
Had it even been a shock? No, somehow, it had seemed inevitable. Yet, there was a sense of shock. Morgan continued over the fields, around the outskirts of his estate, through the snow, through the trees, circling his land before he finally admitted why. I wanted to kiss him.
It had felt so right, to press their lips together. That sign of deep affection which he'd only ever shared with Olivier, now he wanted to share it with Nicholas, more than that, he felt he needed to. He felt guilty for turning away at the last moment, and he felt guilty for acknowledging the rightness of the kiss, and his mind spun in fruitless circles.
There was no stability now, no comfortable state in which to live. His feelings for Nicholas kept him tense and unsettled, like a screw becoming tighter and yet tighter, and with all his heart he craved release. His heart kept tugging at him to admit to what he felt, his memories revolted at his betrayal. It couldn't go on, and yet he couldn't reach a conclusion either.
Morgan turned his mount around and headed for home. Marmalade negotiated the quickest way back to the stables with all the grace and economy of a superlative horse, neither stumbling nor balking at the log across the path, he sailed over as if with wings. Morgan let the horse have its head until he neared the stables, he then reigned in until the horse settled into a trot, then a walk. When they were near the door, he swung out of the saddle, slid down to the ground, brushed the horse down and saw him stabled with plenty of fresh hay and water, but he was too preoccupied to offer an apple as he often did. Instead he went straight into the mansion.
To his relief, the place was quiet, he ran into no one. At this time in the afternoon, Annie and Joan were without doubt busy in the kitchen, Drew and Jack involved in household chores, his valet with Louis, getting through the ironing, perhaps. It made him feel guilty, but he hoped he wouldn't run into his lover. He needed time to talk with Rafael first. Where to find him?
He checked on the ground floor first, ducking his head into the salon, the music room, the billiards room, but all were cold and empty, so he hurried up the steps and checked his study and the library. He raised his brow. He knew the man hadn't gone out, but still in bed perhaps…? Unusual.
He hurried down to the mahogany doors that guarded Rafael's domain, threw the doors open and strode in without ceremony. Maybe he shouldn't have. His friend was there, yes, but he was naked, and while Morgan had most definitely seen his best friend naked before, this time he wasn't alone. He was lying above Jack, who was also naked, he could see the shorter blonde's shoulders and chest pressed tight to his friend's, his legs spreading the blankets wide. They had been wrapped up in each other's arms, kissing, only to break apart, startled, and Morgan froze.
"Oh lord, sorry." He took a step back and averted his eyes, unsettled. He hoped like hell that kissing was all he was interrupting. Why hadn't Rafael told him about the change in his situation? A tiny worm of jealousy slithered inside him. Lucky Rafe, who was free to accept a lover without doubts or guilt. His best friend relieved him by saying mildly enough, "Close the door, Morgan, you're letting the cold air in."
He did just that, taking his time to allow the two, and himself, time to regain self possession. When he faced them again, the two had moved apart, Rafael's sang-froid was reassuring, and although Jack's face was red, it wasn't washed over with the pained frustration of the denied. He shuffled for a moment, undecided, but his confusion was too strong for a polite retreat. He flicked a glance of apology towards Jack. "Rafe, can I talk to you? Alone?"
His friend gazed at him, searching his face. "Now?"
"Yes, if you don't mind." He glanced again at Jack. "I'm sorry, Jack, do you mind…?"
The manservant shook his head and Morgan watched him shuffle to the edge of the bed under the covers until a meaningful look from his friend had him flushing and turning his face away. He gave Jack a few minutes to hurry into warm clothing and once the man was dressed, he turned back. "Thank you, Jack."
Jack inclined his head. "Of course, sir." He turned back to his lover. "I'll um…I'll be in my room." Rafael smiled in a manner that made Morgan grin and then Jack was gone in a whirl of embarrassment. Morgan watched him leave and turned back to his friend, for the moment distracted from his confusion. "I assume this miracle occurred last night?"
Rafael rose out of the bed with no shyness and moved over to the cupboard, picking out clothes at random and dressing without delay. "You assume correctly."
"…And?" Morgan moved over and poked him. "Was it everything you imagined?"
"Lord yes, better than imagination. Jack has his own unique way of not conforming to expectation."
"I just bet." Morgan's smile turned wistful. "And are you happy?"
"Oh yes. Very." Rafael shrugged into a warm coat and folded it across his body. "The moral of the story is obvious, is it not? One must persist."
"Nag." Morgan put in.
Rafael adopted a haughty pose. "I never do anything so ill-bred as to "nag"." He lost the attitude and practically purred in pleasure. "Jack being the most delicious of purebreds, breaking him to bridle involved a delicate balance of persistence, tact, firm handling and exceptional love making." The smile became deeper, more voluptuous and sensual. "And it was worth it. Before, a nervous, wild, unbroken colt, and now…" His eyes turned dreamy. "…Still a little nervous, but his eyes are soft, he submits to his mounting with lush sensuality, and oh, the feel of those muscles tensing and releasing under me as we ride together…" Rafael groaned shamelessly and Morgan felt himself go warm and red. His friend smiled. "I'd better stop before you burst in your breeches."
Morgan flushed, which gathered a knowing smile.
"Intriguing, the thought of your lover eating out of your hand, submitting to you, isn't it?"
He cleared his throat. "Yes. Rafael? Can I talk to you?"
Rafael glanced over, his face tense with expectation. "Of course you can. You don't need to ask."
Morgan wandered over to the sofa and sat down. "Thank you." He patted to the space next to him, and his friend sat down beside him. Morgan stared down at his hands, hesitated for a moment, then spoke.
"Rafael…Say you loved someone. Really loved this person. And they died suddenly. And you blamed yourself, you wanted to hurt yourself, you felt you should be punished for continuing to live when the one you love died…" He flashed his friend a sardonic glance. "The friend of a friend, of course."
"I was sure you would understand. Okay. So you're still deeply in love even though this person's gone. You long for his presence, to hear his voice, to see him smile, to be touched by him one more time. You're so sure you'll never love anyone else ever again. And then one day this young man comes into your life. You feel sorry for him so you let him stay, he works hard for you and you think he's rather an enjoyable novelty." Morgan's eyes went soft. "He brings you coffee in the morning frowning in concentration so he won't spill a drop, and you think he's just so cute…You notice him looking at you and you smile because he thinks he's being discrete, you watch him try and hide his crooked teeth when he laughs and find yourself wishing he wouldn't because they're just so damned endearing. You also notice that he's got a simply beautiful body, but you remind yourself that you're immune to all that now." Morgan's voice was darkly humorous.
"He needs a job badly and he thinks you're going to turf him out, and you're feeling that need to be punished growing stronger and stronger, so you…" He choked off, squeezing his eyes shut for a moment, then opening again, "…You manipulate a sweet young man into giving you what you need. You know he doesn't like doing it, but you don't care, you just need the pain. But he's got a normal libido and wants sex too, so you think you're giving something back, right? And so time passes, and without even really realizing it's happening you get to know this man, you find out how sweet and affectionate he is, you get used to him being around, and gradually you realize that you genuinely like him, I mean really like him because he's him, and all the beatings and knives seem less important than the actual sex, all you can think about is the lovely, luscious body in your arms, giving all of himself to you, and you realize you don't think of your dead lover as much as you used to…so you feel guilty and the need to be punished grows again…" Morgan stopped for a moment and sucked in air.
"But you just can't help yourself. You spend more and more time in his company, teaching him how to play piano…admiring his honesty, his steadfast nature, his loyal generosity, admiring how goddamned brave he is, you watch his confidence in himself grow. He's this pure angel beside you, always caring for you, and you're feeling content and happy when you can care for him in turn, simply because he's there, calling you "sir" all submissively when you know damned well he doesn't feel the least bit submissive. And eventually it dawns on you that he's become your friend, your companion, your lover, he means the world to you and you don't want pain, you don't feel the need to be punished anymore, you don't even want only pure, physical sex, you just want to make love with him, care for him, be with him always, because you realize one day that…you love him with all your heart."
Morgan paused and his voice came out jerky and tight.
"And say this person is now wondering if it's possible to love two people at once, or whether he really loved his first lover at all. And…" Morgan let out a shaky sigh. "…And he's feeling really guilty because he feels like he's betraying his first lover. What would you say if you met a guy like that?"
Rafael closed his eyes. Finally. "If I met a man like that, I would tell him that sometimes we'd want to be left in the past, in nothing more than a loving memory."
Morgan bit his lip hard in pain and bent his head so his hair covered his face as he balanced his face on his palms, elbows to knees. "So…so you're saying his first lover would want to be forgotten? Just like that? That he should just forget about his first lover?"
Rafael sighed. "No, you clod. He doesn't want to be forgotten, and you don't need to. What I'm saying is that Olivier loved you, he loved you so very dearly, and he was never, ever selfish. If he can have your love and your dearest memories, he'd gladly see you love another. All he ever wanted, all he wants even now, is for you to be happy. You can love both, Morgan, and somewhere, Olivier is smiling. I promise."
Morgan swallowed hard, buried his face in his hands and shuddered, Rafael leaned over and hugged his friend tightly, brushing his fingers through his friend's hair with a teasing smile.
"Knowing him, he got so fed up with you he sent Nicholas along himself. He's probably thinking you've been a damned idiot."
Morgan buried his face in his friend's shoulder, and let out a shuddering sigh.
"Well, that's the lot." Drew hefted the last crate into the trap, and Nicholas removed his belongings before his companion stretched a rough sheet over the purchases and secured it down. "I guess I should get back soon, I'm not sure how soon Joan wants the foodstuffs. What time did you say the stage coach would be here?"
"Oh, it should be here in about fifteen minutes, actually." Nicholas checked his watch and sighed. Where is he? "No need to stay around for my sake, I can wait here alone."
The tall redhead shuffled around, his face awkward. "I don't know…I don't like the idea of leaving you here, what if the coach doesn't come or you change your mind? How will you get home?"
"If it comes to that, I've got plenty of blunt, I can hire out a room for the night easily. I'll just drink a lot." Nicholas forced a smile. "One thing about living here, I always got paid a decent wage and never had much to spend it on."
Drew chuckled. "Oh well, then. As long as you're sure…?"
"Oh yes." Nicholas shifted his luggage to a quiet corner where they could be picked up easily. "In fact, if my lord does come, it might be best if...um…you weren't here. No offence."
"None taken." Drew laid a hand on his shoulder on his way back to the trap. "Good luck, Nick."
"Thanks." Nicholas shivered and wrapped his coat around himself tighter. He grinned at his companion. "It feels like I'm leaving for good, doesn't it?"
"Yeah." The redhead laughed. "And I bet you'll be back at the mansion in under an hour anyway. I don't know why I felt all emotional." He gave Nicholas another clap on the shoulder and moved back to the trap, heaving himself up onto the driver's spot and guiding the horses out and onto the street. "See you later, Nick."
"Yes, see you." Nicholas waved the man away, sighed and looked around, wondering where to go to wait out the remaining minutes. The inn was so tempting, beckoning all inside with the promise of a warm fire, warm food and cold beer to ease the misery of the cold winter wind that rushed around him, and yet, what if someone he knew was there? In any case, he wanted to make it easy for Morgan to see him if…when he arrived, and he wanted to keep an ear and eye open for the familiar and beloved figure coming up from the road. So far, however, the only traffic going past the inn were local people, middle class women visiting the local milliner's, dress maker's or the confectionery shop with young girls in tow, customers at the bakery or examining vegetables on display, all out and about on business of their own, hurrying from one shop to the next to escape the cold. Morgan, where are you?
When the stagecoach drew up in front of the inn in a flurry of snow, Nicholas was so cold he was almost glad it had arrived. The coach was led by four hacks, looking weary. The driver was a large man, seemingly more wide than tall, dressed in plain brown clothing, none too clean. A flask lay between his thighs, and from the way stagecoach came to a sloppy stop, Nicholas suspected that the flask was more than half empty. Morgan…hurry up. Journeying to London with this man at the reigns was not something to look forward to. And yet, there was no falcon lord, wrath blazing from his eyes, picking him up and carrying him off back to the mansion gasping words of love. He heaved a sigh, scooped up his luggage and struggled over to the coach.
It seemed he was the only one from this village to either get on or depart from the coach. As he approached, the driver squinted down at him.
"Hurry up there, lad. Want to make Exmoor before dinner. How much luggage? Good, toss it onto the rack, there's a good lad."
Nicholas inquired the price of a London journey, and on being told the price, handed the money over without demur. Expensive, yes, but hardly a dent in his savings. Not for a moment did he resent paying for what he hoped would be a cancelled journey. Once he'd put his money away, he did as he was bid, stowing his luggage in a corner of the rack on top of the coach. There were only a few other pieces of luggage beside his own, that pleased him, with any luck the coach wouldn't be too crowded. The memory of his and Jack's journey to this village just under a year ago made him shudder. Never again.
When he hopped down from his perch to enter the carriage, he found only three other people inside, all men, all in some kind of trade, from their clothing and manner. One dried up specimen with glasses and a suitcase Nicholas had no troubles classifying as a devoted scion of the economy or possibly law, undoubtedly he'd ignore them all unless it was to insist on quiet. The two others were harder to place, their clothes suitable but plain, but they too had the look of men, while polite, were uninterested in social chat and ready to consider the comfort of their fellow passengers. Perfect. He himself got stared at a little, for a second he wondered why, and then he remembered the scars. However all three appeared too polite to stare for long or betray disgust. One looked uncomfortable, but they all resumed their vacant gaze out the window and he was left to his own devices. Nicholas settled himself down into the coach and pulled the door shut. At least if he had to make this journey, it might not be made unendurable by irritating companions. Morgan, please come.
He looked out the door, and saw Smith and Reeves just leaving the Inn, both huddled in their coats and hats, mouths moving in a conversation he couldn't hear. He pressed himself back against the seat and peered outside with care, not wishing to be seen, but he smiled. Both appeared to have been lavish with treating each other, possibly to inure themselves to the cold. Ten to one that one of them would cast up their accounts before they reached their homes and both would be thoroughly scolded by their wives. Next weekend, I promise if I'm still here, I'll organize a card party there at the inn. Ever since the bandages had come off, he'd been down at the inn with Jack, Louis and Drew on occasion, and had endured delighted teasing by the men on the improvement of his looks, all informing him that he now looked like "a real man". He'd rubbished them, of course, but secretly it had felt good, to have friends laugh at him and laugh at in turn. I can't go back to that sterile existence at Lord Trelawney's. Funny, to think he'd once thought freezing politeness and being…well, alone in a household of fellow servants was just the way things were. He felt sorry for his former colleagues, now. They didn't know what they were missing. Morgan, where are you?
There was a call over head, the snap of the whip, and then the coach jerked forward. Nicholas let out a loud, slow sigh and leaned against the side, staring out the window. Unfortunately he was sitting with his back to the direction of travel, he wondered how long he'd manage to last before he started feeling queasy. His lord hadn't come. Not yet, anyway, and now he was forced to travel away from the Lynton. Possibly he'd reach Parracombe, maybe further, but he hoped he wouldn't make it all the way to London without being stopped. In London it might take days before his lord would find him again, and as little as his scars bothered him at the estate and Plumley, he suspected they might remain a little more on mind in London. He sighed again and settled back. There was nothing for it now but to be patient and obtain whatever interest there was to be had in the scenery. There wasn't much, the coach passed by shop after shop, then houses, the odd path snowed over that led to farms, then there were trees and then open fields of white. The coach rattled over the roads, jarring every bone in his body, making him wince. How easily one forgot what public coaches felt like, when one had became used to his lord's well-sprung carriage. Morgan, won't you come? Please?
Rafael sat by Morgan quietly, waiting until the harsh breathing and obvious struggle for control faded away into stillness. Morgan finally pulled away, cheeks flushed. "Oh god, what a revolting spectacle I've made of myself. How embarrassing. Rafael…sorry about that…and thanks."
"Don't apologize, you cretin." Rafael stood, and helped him stand up too. "What else am I here for, besides to dazzle the world with my beauty? Now go fetch your wonderful valet and tell him how you feel. He's been waiting so patiently for you to finally sort yourself out. "
Morgan smiled, sniffed and nodded. "Yes. I've…I've treated him so badly in many ways."
"No you haven't. He accepted you the way you were, you've just learned to love him better, that's all."
Morgan choked up. "I do love him, Rafe, I do, I…!"
"Now, now, let's not get all emotional," Rafael teased, "you just go fetch, fuck and be happy."
Morgan couldn't help laughing as his friend steered him over to the door and down the corridor. "Rafe! That wasn't sympathetic."
"Yes it was; I was being sympathetic to me. Now you get on with you."
At the end of the corridor, near his room, Morgan stopped and turned to his blonde friend. "Well…I guess I can manage from here. You go back to your little colt and continue taming him."
Rafael showed an enigmatic smile. "Good idea." He strolled back down the corridor, and presently Morgan saw him knock on Jack's door. He took a deep breath in and knocked on his own valet's door.
No reply. Frowning, he glanced inside and froze.
A horrible chill of foreboding washed down his spine. He rubbed at his eyes and opened them again. Everything was gone. Cupboards, dressing tables…everything empty. Empty. Empty? Gripped in ice, he ran over to his bedroom. The first thing he saw was the letter on the bed, thrusting into his attention, making his heart burst into his mouth. He ran over, snatched it up, tore it open and began to read, his gaze feverish.
The writing was a terrible scrawl, he could barely make any words out, making him want to weep with vexation.
…Been with you…slowly falling in love…waiting for you…must leave…can't stand…
The ending sentence he could understand easily.
…I love you, Morgan…
"Damn it all to hell!" Morgan thrust the letter into his coat pocket and ripped himself away from the bed and out of the room. Jack's bedroom opened, and Rafael came out, biting into an apple.
"Morgan, whatever is the matter? I heard you shouting…"
"Nicholas!" Morgan flashed him a wild-eyed stare as he ran for the corridor that led to the stairs. "He's left me! Left me!" He didn't wait to hear any replies, but belted down the stairs, taking them two at a time. He landed badly half way down and almost twisted his ankle, but saved himself just in time and continued to hurry down, albeit with a little more care. At the bottom of the steps he didn't hesitate, but ran for the back door, pausing only long enough to grab his pistol from the small gun room and his heavy coat from the stand. Footsteps thundered behind him, he turned around to find Rafael and Jack close on his heels, panting. Rafael raised his brows. "Good heavens, Morgan! What are you going to do?"
Morgan was too frantic to notice the rehearsed manner of his friend's question and the way Jack didn't meet his eyes. "I'm going to go straight to the village and drag him back by the hair!" he flung as he struggled into his coat. "Then I'm going to spank him until he'll never walk again! How dare he leave me? How dare he…? Damnation!" He tore out of the house into the cold wind, leaving Rafael and Jack to look at each other and grin. Rafael wrapped an arm around his lover's shoulders and guided him inside, closing the back door behind them. "Come on, gorgeous. Let's go find the brats for some indoor tennis in the ballroom. Neither Morgan nor Nicholas are going to want anyone else's company for the next…say…two weeks at least."
"Mm." Jack inclined his head sagely.
After two hours of travelling, Nicholas was heartily wishing he'd thought of another way to prod his lord into action. It had certainly seemed perfect at the time, to flee the mansion with such quiet drama and board a stage coach for London, nursing a broken heart, but surely he could have arranged things in a manner which did not require that he have his bones both frozen and rattled with every mile as he clutched at his stomach, which roiled ominously at every lurch. Despite his efforts to hide his affliction, his companions were edging away from him, which did little to endear them to him. Predictably, the rattling woke up another need inside him, his head was starting to ache, and to top it off, the inharmonious cacophony of noise above their driver fondly imagined was singing made him long to strangle the man.
A stab of pain jabbed him above his right eye and the carriage jolted and lurched to the side, Nicholas clenched all his lower muscles, held on hand over his mouth, one over his forehead and used his elbows to brace himself as the carriage righted itself. Only by strength of will did he manage not to disgrace himself. Oh god, why am I even doing this? It's not even necessary. I could have left a note and walked to the village, and he would have overtaken me before I'd even made it to the main road. His fellow companions were also looking worse for wear, Mr. Spectacles in particular looked most nauseous. The driver paused in his caterwauling to call down, his voice disgustingly cheerful. "Oopsadaisy! Sorry 'bout that, folks!"
Nicholas was glad to note he was not the only one to glare in the driver's general direction with loathing. Perhaps he should get off the coach at Parracombe? Give up? Go home? And yet, skulking back to Waterford Park with his tail between his legs, trying to explain what he'd done as Morgan glared at him was far too lame to be endured. He could never live there happily with that hanging over his head. There was nothing for it but to endure. It was no worse than those first few days waking up after the thrashing when he'd been in a lot of pain. He glanced at his watch. He'd been gone for three hours; they'd reach Parracombe soon. How long was his lord going to go riding for anyway? Normally he'd spend no more than two hours at a time riding, given that he liked to ride hard and was concerned that he should never exhaust his mount. Did the man have to choose today of all days to wander longer?
Worse, what if he hadn't stayed out long, and had gone straight up into his library with a good book, coffee and cake in front of the fire, not having seen his valet's empty room or the note left behind? But no, surely by now Rafael and Jack would have dropped a few blatant questions about his own whereabouts to point his lord in the right direction, always assuming the pair would break lips and loins apart long enough to give him a helping hand. Morgan, please…please just come and save me from this, and you can yell as much as you like, I promise. The worst case he didn't even want to consider. Morgan would care. And he would come for him.
He sighed, sat back and then a deafening report had them all startled, the coach lurched, he flung his hands out to brace on the sides of the coach, one of them got skinned on a sharp edge and he gasped in pain, he could hear the horses crying out, they were jolted further down the road, his stomach heaved and he swallowed hard, there was another report, the coach lurched again, and he was thrown forward onto the lap of one of the men, he muttered an apology as the man was struggling to sit up after being thrown sideways, he forced himself to stagger back into his own seat and just managed to sit down when the carriage came to a stop. Shaken, he thrust the side of his hand into his mouth and sucked on it, tasting blood. His head was pounding and he really needed to throw up and piss. The driver was swearing and Nicholas felt his heart beat harder. Morgan? Or just thieves? He sat himself down and stayed silent as the other three men burst into vociferous complaints and questions. Mr. Spectacles jabbed on the ceiling of the coach with his briefcase, demanding answers and making threats, the other two trying to drown him out with their own complaints, he couldn't hear anything that was happening outside. He rounded on them.
"Will you all just shut up! How can I hear what's happening with you lot screaming at the top of your lungs?" They ignored him, he huffed and was about to open the door when it was wrenched open from the outside, a very familiar, and very welcome face appeared and glared at him. He was so thankful he wanted to throw his arms around the man in relief, who cared if he was angry?
"Well, well. If it isn't my valet, all tucked up in here nice and cozy." Lord Harrington gestured with his fingers. "Get out, now."
Nicholas did as he was told, stumbling down from the coach, saying nothing, his demeanour meek. Oh, the relief.
The lord turned back to the driver, still brandishing his pistol. The driver was on his perch, his hands above his head, looking very ill-used. He shrugged. "Yes, I have what I came for. You may go now."
The man's eyes bulged out from his head, he gasped and appeared entirely incapable of speech for all of ten seconds, then a torrent came out. "I may go now! Just like that! As cool as you please, just as if you hadn't held me up…! You quality-like are going too far, you mark my words, there should be a law against this! The quality thinking they're above common decency…this will be my job, this will…! But much you care about it, thundering down the road and holding me up at gun point like a thief, how do I know you're who you say you are, you won't get away with this, I'll…!"
"Yes, that will do." Morgan spoke with cool authority, his voice cut through the man's complaints like a knife through water. He reached into his vest pocket and drew out a wad of notes, tossed it up to the driver, who caught it deftly, fell silent with surprise, and Morgan led his horse away back from the coach. "I believe this will reimburse you adequately for the fright your horses had and any delay you experience. I shall write to your superiors and inform them of the circumstances that necessarily detained you. I hope this will ease your mind." He waved the man on. "Now go."
The driver liked being peremptorily ordered as little as the next man, but the wad of notes in his hand was thick, his head for numbers was never stronger than when counting the ready, and he realized his best interests lay in doing exactly as the lord requested. He reached back to toss Nicholas's luggage off the rack, flicked the reigns and the carriage lurched down the road with no further complaints.
Morgan turned to his valet, his eyes blazing, hands on hips. "Well?" he demanded. "What have you got to say for yourself?"
Nicholas merely stared at him with haunted eyes and staggered over towards the small copse of trees to the right of the road, disappearing behind them. Morgan stared after him, utterly astounded, and then he heard the unmistakable sounds of his valet being very sick. His eyes softened and he smiled with sympathy and amusement as led his horse off the road, tied the reigns to a branch and went to join his valet. The atmosphere inside the copse was darker than out on the road, but there was no wind, no snow underfoot, and plenty of privacy. He found Nicholas a short distance away, leaning with one hand against a tree, retching and gasping, but he looked like he was over the worst of it. He walked over and placed a hand on his valet's shoulder. "Nicky?"
"Wait! Sir…! Give me a moment…!" Nicholas threw his lord's hand off his shoulder, stumbled over behind the next tree, wrestled with his breeches and let loose with relief. The nausea rolled up again and when he was finished, he threw up once more, wincing when he felt his lord's hands smoothing back his hair, stroking his back. There wasn't much to void, and after that he felt a lot better. He straightened up with a sigh, hunting around for a handkerchief. He swore, frustrated, as he searched in vain. Then he remembered he'd shoved it into a corner of the coach and it was now gone. Curses!
"Wait a minute, Nicky." His lord jogged away, presumably to where the horse was waiting, and Nicholas heaved in a big sigh, trying to clean himself up as he moved far away from the site of his torment. Talk about humiliating. Curses, curses, CURSES! This wasn't at all the way all this was supposed to be happening. Where was the smooth unfolding of drama? The dignified demand for acceptance? The strong, yet moving declarations of love? Oh god. Nicholas slapped his palm to his forehead and held it there, utterly disgusted. This is a total washout.
His lord jogged back, holding a large handkerchief and a flask of something that Nicholas sincerely hoped was poison. He accepted the handkerchief and the flask that Morgan thrust towards him. "Try some of this, should make you feel better."
Nicholas sighed and did what he was told. Alas, it was only whisky. He tipped it down regardless, until his lord eased it away from him.
"For god's sake, Nicky...! You'll be sick again if you have too much."
Nicholas merely heaved a sigh and relaxed a little as liquid warmth washed through his belly. He used the handkerchief to good effect, wishing he had a mirror to observe the damage, then sank down to sit on the grass, not bothering to speak. There was no point in even trying to remember the magnificent speech he'd rehearsed for this moment.
"Well…" His lord squatted down next to him, surveyed him and smiled. "This isn't exactly how I imagined this happening."
"Me neither." Nicholas admitted, wiping his mouth.
"Yes, I'm sure the cosmos intended this to be a most stirring reunion scene, complete with dramatic accusations, emotional dialogue and heart-rending violins in the background, but…" He gestured to the world with a helpless shrug.
"I made a hash of it," Nicholas sighed.
"We made a hash of it," Morgan corrected, touching his shoulder. "That was the third stage coach I've held up today." He grimaced. "Bloody embarrassing."
Nicholas pictured his lord gun aloft, shouting threats, only to find little old women inside the coach and snickered.
"Yes, it's all very well for you to laugh," Morgan rejoined tartly, "but I assure you it was absolutely humiliating. The first coach I tried to hold up gave me the go by…left me gazing after it, covered in snow churned up from the wheels like the biggest fool imaginable, they must have been screaming with laughter, and the next coach held a modest little family with three children, I felt like a monster."
Nicholas shook with helpless laughter, and his lord grinned despite himself. He watched his valet struggle to control himself, his eyes grew tender and bit his lip, and when Nicholas finally gazed up, he found his lord's eyes sad.
"Nicholas…" Morgan's voice was full of reproach. "You were trying to leave me…!" He swallowed and held his face with his hand for a second. "…How could you try to leave me?"
Nicholas's throat was so clamed up and tight with sudden tears he couldn't speak, even when he tried. Morgan took him into his arms and hugged him tightly, burying his face into his neck. Nicholas could feel his lord's body shaking as they held each other amongst the trees. He sighed. "I didn't want to go, but I couldn't bear it any more."
"Nicky, my dearest Nicky…don't leave me. Please don't leave me. I couldn't bear it."
Morgan placed a hand on is mouth, silencing him. They stared at each other for a long moment, then the lord sucked in a deep breath and let it out on a sigh. "I haven't treated you well, Nicky."
Nicholas gasped, stunned and utterly incredulous. "What? But sir! You've been absolutely wonderful! I can't imagine a better lord, or…" He flushed and continued on. "Or a better man."
"No, Nicky…" Morgan bit his lip with shame. "Let me finish. I used you. You know that."
"I know." He smiled and shrugged. "But you never lied to me. You were always honest about it. You never forced me."
"I manipulated your natural fear of being tossed out." Morgan's voice was low and hard. "I knew you didn't want to leave, and I deliberately took advantage of that."
"That was a long time ago, sir. And you never hurt me, you were always so funny, so playful and teasing…" Nicholas reached out to caress his lord's cheek, and Morgan leaned into it, his eyes closed. "Every day you made my life delightful."
Morgan's eyes remained closed. "Thank you, Nicky…but it's not good enough. I knew you didn't like what I wanted you to do to me in bed. I didn't even care."
"I understand, sir."
"And that's what shames me the most." Morgan bowed his head even further. "I used you as a substitute for someone else, and I was blatant about it, shameless! I didn't have the grace to even try to conceal it from you, I didn't once think that it might hurt you. I convinced myself that you wouldn't care as long as you got sex out of it."
"And you were so right," Nicholas teased.
Morgan was betrayed into a laugh, but he shook his head. "Don't make it easy on me, you're too kind for my own good. The point is, I started this affair between us for purely selfish reasons. I liked you a lot, don't get me wrong, but it was always about me, what I wanted, and I never even thought about what you wanted. Not back then. Somehow you were just always there, giving me everything."
"But it was my pleasure. Giving you what you want is what makes me happy."
"No, Nicky! You're so sweet you're missing the point." Morgan sighed. "The point is, I got used to you being around. I took you for granted."
"Well, I wanted that, too."
"Nicholas!" Morgan moved forward, and then startled him by kneeling above him, pushing his legs out and settled between them, hovering over him with one arm on either side of his shoulders. It was such a blatant gesture of domination, excitement sizzled throughout his body, he'd wanted it for so long. His eyes went wide and his breath came shorter.
"Nicky, I think I got so used to you being around, I started to automatically look forward to your presence when I woke up in the morning, I grew to enjoy your company, I found myself wanting to teach you things, give you things, and I wanted to care for you, especially after you were hurt…You seeped into my heart so gradually I didn't even realize how much you'd grown to mean to me until you were almost taken away. I know it's a cliché, but so it was."
Nicholas grinned and his lord sighed and brushed his hair back, staring down into his eyes.
"I'll always love Olivier. You know that. And for a long time, I thought it was wrong and contemptible to ever fall in love with someone else, but I did it anyway. I didn't mean to, but I did, and I felt so guilty."
Nicholas started to laugh. He was so happy, he couldn't help it. "Like the boys when they broke the window."
"Yes, like…no! No, not like that! Damn you, Nicholas, I'm trying to be serious here. I'm trying to explain!" But Morgan laughed with him, and Nicholas finally managed to calm down.
"I love you, Morgan." He gave a lopsided smile. "And I don't mind that you still love Olivier. I'd never expect you to forget him."
Morgan hid his face for a moment, then raised his eyes to meet those of his valet. "…Hm, have you been talking about me with Rafe?" He smiled wryly and sank down to rest his body on top of Nicholas's. "You know, maybe if I had the sense to get to the point, we could go back home and get warm and comfortable." He sighed. "Nicholas, you are the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I love you, too. I love you with all my heart."
Nicholas felt his face burst into a grin, a grin so wide his face ached, but he couldn't do anything else. Morgan was also grinning, biting his lip, looking so sheepish it made his heart turn over. Then the lord placed his hands around his head, and kissed his jaw line. He sucked in a breath, and made a soft noise of hope and excitement as Morgan trailed his lips over to his chin, kissing him, then up to his cheekbone, planting another soft kiss. No surprise when Morgan's lips trailed down to the corner of his mouth and kissed him. He turned his face to the other side a little and felt Morgan smile against his cheek, and then felt those lips kiss the other corner. He murmured his pleasure and encouragement, and then Morgan's lips grazed his lightly and sighed in pleasure as he was kissed for the first time. His lord's lips were cool from the weather but soft and they felt wonderful. He sighed again as a soft tongue tentatively pushed in and caress his, and he wrapped his arms and legs around Morgan as he kissed back passionately. They kissed and kissed until Nicholas's lip started bleeding and Morgan pulled away, staring down into his eyes. Nicholas grinned. "…Can we go home now, sir?"
Morgan laughed. "That is one bloody great idea." Morgan rose to his feet and helped his valet to do likewise. "Oh and Nicky? Don't call me "sir" at Waterford Park any more. To you, I'm always Morgan." The dimples appeared. "Unless we're in bed."
"And you don't have to automatically conform to my requests, you know." Morgan grinned. "Henceforth, you are no longer my valet." He made a grand gesture. "Be free!"
Nicholas eyed him, aghast. "But sir…Morgan! Don't be silly. You need a valet!"
"But…Nicholas!" Morgan stared at him, exasperated. "Surely you don't want to be my servant any more, for god's sake, you're my lover! My friend!"
"Yes, well, I can still be that and help you bathe, can't I?" Nicholas placed his hands on his hips. "Fetch your coffee? Iron your clothes? You don't for one minute think I'm going to allow another man to come in and look after you, do you?"
"But…but Nicky," Morgan protested feebly, "I kind of thought I'd just…well…I don't know, I mean…shave myself…have coffee downstairs instead like I used to…" His voice turned tart. "There was a time when I managed to scrape by without you, you know."
"Yes, and what a botched job that was!" Nicholas folded his arms. "You are hopelessly incompetent when it comes to looking after yourself. You need me."
Morgan smiled, took his valet's hand, and led him towards the horse. "I need you, my submissive valet. Right now I need you cuddled up under the covers with me, so let's go home."
Nicholas grinned and leaned down to kiss his lord. "Home. Sounds wonderful."
There we have it, folks. I hope you enjoyed it! Thanks heaps to everyone who actually made it this far along, and to the few, we few, we happy few, we band of bro...AHEM those who have been consistant in reviewing and letting me know what they thought. (and hey - if you've read this far, and haven't left me a review, why not do so now? I mean, you read 250 000 ish words of this thing, there must have been something you liked about it, and there's got to be something that you thought didn't seem right - so tell me! I really would love feedback on what worked, and what didn't work. It feels weird to have people silently hovering, but without saying anything...) Er...PIMP OUT! I have another story to post soon, it's about the same size as this, actually ;; but it's sci fi, so if you're interested, look out for it some time in the future.